The Neon Demon (2016): Slow and Weird (Review)

Elle Fanning The Neon Demon

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon is, beneath its slow weirdness, a cautionary tale and a horror film that creeps up on the viewer. At just under two hours the film seems much longer and it seems to be almost a love letter to Italian maestro Dario Argento’s Suspiria

The action in this tale of a young talentless beauty “I got looks (sic) and that’s worth money” who attempts to break into the modeling business in Hollywood, is a 180 degree twist to the Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone vehicle “La La Land.”

Unfortunately the film moves at a snail’s pace and Refn tends to drag out his visuals that bit too long.  The director specializes in scenes that take forever to get through, sometimes with minimal dialogue, and while it works on some films, like “Drive” and Only God Forgives it only serves to frustrate and bore in The Neon Demon.

The acting, which is spot on by Elle Fanning as the new kid in town, along with Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks (in a blink and you’ll miss her cameo) is a bit hit and miss.  The only other performer who raises the bar is Jena Malone (The RuinsSucker Punch). Desmond Harrington (Wrong Turn, Ghost Ship) looks ill and the two other models are wooden in every sense of the word. 

Reeves is particularly good as the douche motel manager “214 has got to be seen” who seems too impressed by the 13 year old “Lolita” who just checked in.

Fanning, who is starting to steadily outshine her sister Dakota, is brilliant as the slightly vapid teen who wants to become famous and rich on the virtue of her looks alone. As the character tells her male friend, she cannot act, sing or write, so it is her natural beauty that must pave the way to her fortune.

Unfortunately, there is an all too familiar sense of doom to the youngster who seems to be heading on the right track. Everyone she meets is weird or at the very least damaged and we can feel that this will not end well for anyone.

Refn has pulled out all stops here. There is a taste of lesbian necrophilia, some cannibalism and scene that seems to suggest that female models are not better than dogs. (Think of canines and their disgusting habit of eating regurgitated “food.”)

The entire film has a “bad dream” quality to it that is in keeping with Refn’s near somnambulistic delivery, started with Ryan Gosling’s almost narcoleptic performance as the driver in “Drive” and continued with his later role in “Only God Forgives.”

Fanning’s character is, like Gosling’s, almost silent when it comes to everyday conversation. The young thing clearly is not thinking deep thoughts and if she were, could not explain them anyway. Jesse (Fanning) is slow on the uptake which makes her “end” not too surprising.

If there were any message at all with Refn’s latest effort it is clearly that “beautiful” people are not, as a rule, the sharpest tool in the shed. Ambition needs some smarts to back it up and Jesse lacks the knowledge to really survive.

The ending is shocking, to a degree, but somewhat anti-climatic. The film is worth watching, especially if one is a Refn fan, and is available on Amazon Prime, if you are a member, or can be streamed/rented, if you are not.

The Neon Demon may not give you nightmares but the 3.5 star film will make the viewer think. On a sidenote, Keanu Reeves plays an unpleasant character very, very well: “Wider…”

20th Century Women (2016): Birth of a New World (Review)

20th Century Women, Abbie, Dorothea, Julie and Jamie

Written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker) and starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Brian Cruddup and Lucas Jade Zumann, 20th Century Women tells of the birth of a new world. This new beginning is seen through the eyes of Jamie, Dorothea’s 15 year old son.

The year is 1979 and the place is Santa Barbara, California. Feminism is on the rise and single mother Dorothea (Bening) raises her son and harbors a house full of free spirits.

Punk is on its way out but Abbie (Gerwig) introduces Jamie (Zumann) to the music scene while giving her landlady a hand raising her only son. Dorothea also asks Julie (Fanning) and William (Cruddup) to help round out Jamie’s development as a young man.

Culturally, 20th Century Women is a wonderful trip down memory lane as we follow Jamie’s journey.   Whether it is bashing one another in the mosh pit to the latest punk sensation or reading all about how a real man can pleasure a woman, the only thing really missing is a tattered volume of “The Joys of Sex” circa 1972.

Mills gives us a snapshot of the dying ‘70’s. In this semi-autobiographical (which is the bookend, of sorts, to his other biopic Beginners) we are given a brief glimpse into a woman who was not a cookie cutter version of her peers. Dorothea, the woman in question, waltzes to the beat of her own personal rhythm.

We have a slice of ‘70’s Americana that includes commune living, something that William relates to Dorothea one night, and in many ways Jamie’s mother has created a type of commune of her own. The huge house that is being renovated throughout most of the film has that same sort of feeling.

Mill’s takes his time with this labor of love. 20th Century Women may be a celebration of the director’s mother but in many ways, especially at the beginning, the film tries too hard and comes across as a Wes Anderson wannabe.

This annoyance does not last long but it does take up the first third of the film. Once past that point, there is more focus on the times. The film, through its story, introduces works of literature and even includes President Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech in 1979.

20th Century Women recalls a time when the family, even an extended one like Dorothea’s, would sit down and watch a presidential speech together. The film is over an interesting time of change for America.

The Vietnam War was over by 1979 and the United States was going through some massive changes. The film hints at this through the auspices of the feminist books that Jamie is given to read by Abbie.

15 year old Jamie is given an education by the young women in his life with wide ranging results. In one instance he gets beaten up after suggesting that a skateboarding chum’s girlfriend faked her orgasms.

The film is a dramedy, it has a fair amount of serious events combined with some amusing moments and a few laugh out loud moments. One problem is the film’s overall length. At just under two hours it drags somewhat in the middle and could have lost at least 15 to 20 minutes easily.

Bening is brilliant as the mid-50’s single mother who is a free spirit. She struggles to understand her 15 year old son and gets bogged down when Abbie gives Jamie too much too soon. Zumann as Jamie is just spot on.

Cruddup, as usual, gives an honest performance and Elle Fanning captivates whenever she is on the screen. (Keep an eye out for the “therapist” scene between Fanning and Bening.)

20th Century Women is a solid 4 star film. It loses a full star for being that bit too low key and too long. It is still worth a look but may entertain those over 50 that bit more than those who did not live through 1979.

Trumbo: A Review

Trumbo, a recreation of the most shameful period of American history to date and the force that was Dalton Trumbo who defied the blacklist could and should win best picture this year. Starring Bryan Cranston, who should already be making space for an Oscar, Diane Lane and John Goodman, directed by Jay Roach, this docudrama/biopic is a film that is nigh on impossible to not love.

Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper and Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

Trumbo, a recreation of the most shameful period of American history to date and a depiction of the force that was Dalton Trumbo who defied the blacklist could and should win Best Picture for 2015.  Starring Bryan Cranston, who should already be making space for an Oscar, Diane Lane and John Goodman and directed by Jay Roach, this docudrama/biopic is a film that is impossible not to love.

Entertaining, funny, heartbreaking and thought provoking, Trumbo gets so  much right and this compensates for the few items that could be seen as wrong. The film looks sumptuous, rich and full of detail, from Dalton’s library to the tools of his trade, everything  looks spot on and beautiful. The things that do not work as well irk  but some things cannot be faithfully recreated.

A perfect example  of this is in the area of casting.  As the main  “protagonist”  Cranston’s casting of Dalton Trumbo is serendipity in its purest form, the man is Trumbo.  All of the actors chosen to play the “main roles”  fit their characters like tailored kid-gloves.  Diane Lane, for example,  who can play any part with a skill that many hope for and spend a lifetime trying to achieve but fall that bit short, becomes Cleo Trumbo almost effortlessly.

Elle Fanning, little sis to Dakota, as Trumbo’s teen daughter is perfect. Fanning is well on the path to outshining  her wunderkind older sister and her performance in this film proves that the Fanning girls definitely got more than their fair share of the talent gene.

Helen Mirren, drops the accent to portray Hedda Harper as a vicious and malicious shrew.  Best actress should be hers automatically.  Sadly, Lane and Fanning are also up for the gong and this three way race will definitely end in tears for someone.

John Goodman, along side Stephen Root who plays Hymie, portrays the outspoken ‘B’ filmmaker Frank King. Goodman’s King may just have the best comic line in the entire film. When chasing out a representative of the “opposition” Frank states that he makes films “for the p*ssy and the money, both of which are falling out of the trees,” One of those moments that if this was not what Frank really said, it should have been.

The true star of this film, however, is Cranston. He brings the legend that was Dalton Trumbo to life. Whether sitting in his bathtub telling Nikki off for disturbing him or attempting to survive in prison, the actor lends a realism to the Oscar winning writer who was blacklisted by a combination of well meaning patriots and vicious politicians with hidden agendas.  Although Hedda Hopper cannot be said to be either.  This vitriolic and strident gossip columnist could well be the template that some modern  writers strive to follow. (Ann Coulter for instance?)

The music, sets, cinematography and costumes in this film all combine to bring a breath of truth to the proceedings. Just as the mix of news reel footage of the time takes the viewer back to a most shameful time in the land  of the free so too do all these other elements bring the audience back to a different world.

There are things that have been “altered” or that annoy.  These few moments take nothing away from the film.  Part of the problem has to do with that ever present curse of biopic features that  deal with stars of yesteryear. Granted, finding a modern actor who could convincingly portray “Duke” Wayne, who had a life long love affair with America, would be difficult and it was.

The unenviable task fell to David James ElliottMichael Stuhlbarg was left to bring Edward G. Robinson to life, Dean O’Gorman was Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger was played by Christian Berkel. All the actors carried off their roles with varying degrees of success if one forgave that only O’Gorman came close to looking like the real performers the were meant to portray.

Cranston, as Trumbo, carries off the look and the sound of the legend and more importantly, the spirit of the man.  This film is a testament to the drive and tenacity of Trumbo as well as his overwhelming talent.

Director Jay Roach takes the John McNamara screenplay, adapted from Bruce Cook’s novel and breaths life into a time that many in the audience have only read about, if even that.  The communist witch hunts, lead later by McCarthy, got their start here in the land of dreams.

The stage was set by world events, as stated in the film’s introductory titles, making this, perhaps, an inevitability.  Roach captures the time and the feelings of a bygone era to great effect and come award time, Trumbo should sweep the gongs on offer.

This is easily the best film to come out this year, in the area of biopic/docudrama and features actors who all are well known for delivering first class performances. John Goodman, Alan Tudyk and Louis C.K. all give first rate portrayals. While Goodman is up for Best Supporting actor, he may be pipped at the post by Schulman’s vulnerable and touching performance as Edward G. Robinson, whom the committee forced to crawl and beg his way back to work. 

This is easily this critic’s favorite film, despite the bits that “do not fit exactly.”  Any biopic, especially one so long after the fact, will fictionalize, or alter certain time periods and facts, in order to make the story more entertaining and palatable.  Film, by the very nature of the medium, fictionalizes any “true story” or event. Trumbo is not exception, but it does not do so frivolously or senselessly, it alters for the over all good of the story.

Trumbo should be seen by all who have heard of Dalton Trumbo, the blacklist, Spartacus. Roman Holiday, Hedda Hopper or the Un-American Committee.  The film should also be seen by anyone who loves a hero, an intelligent and talented writer of creative works and Bryan Cranston.

This is a 5 star film and one that, thus far, falls into the category of favorite film of 2015. If you watch nothing else, watch this one and then when it garners praise at the award’s ceremonies later, you will not be surprised.

The Boxtrolls: American Attempt at British Humor (Review/Trailer)

The Boxtrolls: American Attempt at British Humor (Review/Trailer)

Going in to see The Boxtrolls, it is quite easy to get excited about the pedigree brought to the film by certain performers who are voicing main characters, but the film does not work, it is an American attempt at British Humor that just does not make it. The film loses its way very quickly at the beginning and never recovers from its directionless meandering. At the start of the movie screening attended by this reviewer a number of the audience were laughing or chuckling at events on screen. However, after the initial 15 minutes of the film’s open passed, the amusement dried up and younger members of the audience lost interest in whatever was happening in the stop-motion film.