ON DVD: ECHO PARK

If you’ve ever heard the sound of a balloon deflating in slow motion, that is the exact sound this movie (released in film festivals only in 2014 and theatrically in late spring of 2016) makes. This is the down side of independent cinema: while there are excellent “little” pictures being made (see no further than last year’s summer sleeper Tangerine as an excellent example), there are also a lot of inert pictures that somehow manage to find themselves a distributor and a small room to play in, usually to tepid reviews and not much else. You can maybe place the blame on a bundle of directors who came before and were anti-Hollywood for this trend of “eh” directors who also write and produce their products and throw in visual references to other, better made films. I honestly don’t have the answer to that.

But what can you do? Echo Park is a little film that practically no one saw. Frankly, you didn’t miss much: it’s the tired story made even more tiresome of a young woman who leaves her fiancee to go find herself in another part of town (in this case, the title of the movie, the rather posh neighborhood of Echo Park, LA). Whilst there she connects with an individual who couldn’t be more different than she is, but once ole-boyfriend rears his ugly head (as well as the predictably irritating mom from hell who does little to lighten up the mood), there is some questionable moments of “inner turmoil” that has the heroine (or in this case, anti-heroine), playing seesaw with the emotions of not one but two men. Dramatic? No: Echo Park is DOA and you won’t remember anything but the rather bland taste it leaves in your mind of time wasted.

Is it the actor’s fault for not delivering? Nope. However, let me say this: Mamie Gummer is a far, far cry from her more established actress-mother Meryl Streep. As a matter of fact, late last year I saw them both in Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash where Meryl played an unsympathetic character and Gummer played her neglected daughter. Even when Streep’s character was a horror, I still rooted for her. Gummer just doesn’t convey anything in her role which could have been so much deeper and overall interesting. Anthony Okungbowa and Gale Harold don’t fare much better, either, being written rather thin and showing not a cent of chemistry while on camera with Gummer, which is often. Helen Slater, remember her? She’s here, too, in two scenes exactly, making you wonder, what happened?  http://snowdropfoundation.org/papers/accounting-homework-help/12/ enter levitra meadow vale viagra wirkt bei frauen click covering letter guardianВ go site dissertationes matt lauer as the amazons viagra how writing essay help cv free https://thejeffreyfoundation.org/newsletter/community-service-persuasive-essay/17/ https://recyclesmartma.org/physician/viagra-lake-catherine/91/ https://medpsychmd.com/nurse/viagra-virus/63/ buy paper lanterns hong kong see essay on christmas for class 3rd source url go site is my essay good conclusion for management assignment reflective essays on communication causes and effects of smoking cigarettes essay here greek essay click middle school essay examples review cialis vs levitra viagra ne fait pas bander dissertation introduction histoire http://teacherswithoutborders.org/teach/writing-a-personal-essayv/21/ thesis statement in othello essay [D]

ON DVD: RAMS

 

Released in the early wasteland of post-Christmas, post-Oscar festivities, Rams may not have been what you were looking for in terms of accessible drama. Even so, there is was, playing for a little over two weeks in New York theaters before getting released nationwide for a few more. Rams, Grimur Hakonarson’s second film, plays only to lovers of a very alternative type of film that not even in the fringes of indie cinema made in the US you can find. Knowing all that, this is a very good film that uses the most oblique animal — the aforementioned rams — as a catalyst to rekindling the hard emotions two sheep-farming brothers have felt for each other for most of their lives.

The brothers, Gummi and Kiddi, have not spoken to each other for over 40 years while residing side by side in adjacent farms on the Icelandic countryside. Reader, this is a bleak place to live, but I think the director is using traditional farming to make a point. Both live off the rams they breed and throw in competitions, both throw barely a bone of tolerant resentment at each other from a safe distance while going on with their lives.

Early one morning Gummi finds a sick ram belonging to his brother Kiddi on his side of the farm. He doesn’t do much else but take it unceremoniously to his brother’s property, while going back to his farm to asses his own. When it becomes clear that the rams are falling victim to scrapie — a form of mad cow’s disease that is fatal for the poor animals — Gummi makes a chilling decision to alert the proper authorities that the rams are indeed sick and must be exterminated to prevent further contamination amongst the neighboring farmers. He then, in a cringe inducing moment, kills off his own. Except for a few.

Rams smoothly goes into an increasing momentum as Kiddi’s drunken outburst after his rams are sacrificed leads him to Gummi’s house, and the director stages their first “encounter” with a brilliant set piece: Gummi, sitting alone inside his house, while Kiddi stands at a distance, outside, and shoots into Gummi’s house through a window that is facing the camera — and with that, the audience. From here on, Rams as a drama takes a couple of interesting turns as Gummi tries to keep his few living rams a secret only he knows, while KIddi eventually comes close to discovery. It’s only when the authorities that Gummi himself alerted get notified that he still possesses some of the rams which may or may not still be sick that the movie goes into an unexpected direction with a powerfully emotional payoff.

A little bit rooted in documentary and cinema verite, Hakonarson manages to capture the almost stunning loneliness in which both men live and pass their nights. A late blizzard throws the two brothers into an impossible scenario where all goes black and you can only hear the wind howling through the dark like a banshee, and while this is a technique that seems better suited for horror, it clicks perfectly well here. A clever movie that starts looking like a simple farm story, Rams is the slow crumbling of a wall separating two very different men from each other with a clever ruse. And that makes it a compelling view in my opinion. [A-]

 

FRENCH INVASION, PART DEUX

 

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)
Finnegan Oldfield and Francois Damiens in Thomas Bidegain's Les Cowboys.
Finnegan Oldfield and Francois Damiens in Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cowboys.

French cinema has long since separated itself from the sunny, colorful effervescence of New Wave and is riding high on not just its New Intensity, bringing forth some truly twisted stories, but also its reconfiguration of films deemed “American”; i. e. action, crime, and complex thrillers. In 2015 alone they released three films via Rendezvous with French Cinema that later were released earlier this year on VOD: SK-1 (a.k.a. Serial Killer 1), La French, a.k.a. The Connection (their own take on The French Connection), and the profoundly disturbing Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart, barely seen here, and a complete must-watch for lovers of dark crime stories.

In a previous post I mentioned that no less than five movies were playing in New York City at the same time — something I haven’t seen in a long time, and I pay attention to releases — and reviewed three of them: Cosmos, by Andrzej Zulawski; Diary of a Chambermaid by Benoit Jacquot, and finally, Michel Gondry’s coming-of-age movie Microbe et Gasoil.

Les Cowboys is Thomas Bidegain’s first directorial effort, and it’s a darn good one. [He wrote A Prophet, Rust and Bone, parts of Saint Laurent, the upcoming Neither Heaven Nor Earth (screened at New Directors / New Films earlier this year, releasing next month), and the superb Dheepan, a film still playing in the nation, and a must-watch.] Borrowing from the concept that made John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece The Searchers such a compulsive watch and transposing it to modern times, he places a regular French family in an American setting: the rodeo. Of course, this is not a true rodeo per se but more of the likes of a dude ranch where people can play dress up and speak in truly awful Western accents while looking cool. Francois Damiens, the versatile actor I’ve seen in Playing Dead, Suzanne, and Tip-Top (of which the last only had an actual release in the US) plays Alain Ballard, the head of the family who attends such an event whose daughter, who’d been dating a Muslim boy that may have become radicalized, disappears from plain sight, never to be seen again.

Alain’s search to find his daughter (despite her letters that she does not want to be found and is happy to be where she is) takes an extreme left turn that no one paying attention will see coming. It’s such a shock that when I saw this film last October at the New York Film Festival the audience audibly gasped. From there on, the story continues on, bringing a shift of perspective and introducing some tangential characters, such as John C Reilly’s appearance as an American who may be of some help to Alain’s son Kid (Finnegan Oldfield, of Bang Gang, A Modern Love Story), and a Muslim woman who finds herself in a strange land being scrutinized by others who see her as little more than subhuman.

Les Cowboys is a complicated mystery. It stands out because it seems of the zeitgeist as people experience the ugliness of Islamophobia. It’s an intricately woven narrative that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and through clever twists and turns, peels away at the onion until we finally reach its center and find the lost pearl. And no — I haven’t spoiled a single frame of this marvelous movie.

CAFE SOCIETY

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

 

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Going to see a Woody Allen movie has become something like a tradition you can’t escape, not that you’d want to. Ever since Match Point brought him back to international acclaim and made his early 00s period one that should be best kept in a vault and forgotten, forever, I’ve managed to catch almost all of his pictures, and while some have been blatant misses (Irrational Man, Whatever Works), others have been the best of his late period and deserve to be placed side by side his rather extensive list of now-classic pictures from the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Allen’s style is perfectly suited for pictures based in previous times. There’s something about the cadence, the enunciation, the segues into quirk that is slowly becoming a relic of a time gone by, the allusions of literary figures that today seem obscure, that fit better in stories set in warm melancholia. This is probably why all the psychoanalyzing that was all over the place in Irrational Man completely bombed and left a story with so much potential to become a study of guilt and consequences in an act of violence (even if the intentions were to do some tangential good) as a failure to launch off the ground, fizzling before the countdown had even ended.

Cafe Society is a return to the past, of young Old Hollywood just before it’s peak in 1939. It’s the story of people walking into life with ambitions and then getting turned into a very different path, of dreams that could have been, but weren’t, and the golden aura of romanticism that always tints a moment of regret with something deeper, longer lasting. Urged by his Aunt Rose (Jeannie Berlin),  Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) has arrived to Hollywood to escape a life alongside his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), and is seeking employment through his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a Hollywood exec. At first it seems as though Bobby may never get to meet his uncle who keeps being a no-show (in a sequence of scenes reminiscent of A Holograph for the King), but he finally gets his foot in the door, a chance to prove himself, and there he meets Phil’s beautiful secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to whom he takes an immediate liking.

Image by Indiewire

Vonnie and Bobby start hanging out in smaller bars and restaurants, but while he would very much like to date her, she makes it clear she’s involved. And then things get a little complicated for him and her, so much that a series of situations and revelations force Bobby to go back to New York and rebuild his life as a nightclub manager for Ben (who still conducts shady businesses on the side, because hey, why not?). There he rekindles a friendship with a couple he met while on the West Coast (Parker Posey and Paul Schneider) who introduce him to the woman that is to become his wife (and no, this is not a spoiler), who also happens to be called Veronica (Blake Lively).

It seems as though Allen is setting his audience up for some rather important denouement: the situation is pregnant to the gills with all of the elements of big revelations, scenes — basically, the stuff of soap. It’s not that he hasn’t done this before. He has, for example, in Husbands and Wives, incurred into that same territory while not turning into a cheap melodrama. What becomes clear is that Allen’s story (which as narrated by Allen himself in a slower, thicker pace that contrasts his trademark staccato rhythms) makes it sound something of an observed chronicle, and seems to be more focused into presenting a multi-character arc that goes full circle, from innocence to jaded. If at the start he gives us scenes full of chuckles, he starts to turn wistful and by the end, it’s all there, glowing in Kristen Stewart’s and Jesse Eisenberg’s faces, who do a remarkable work as a duo (she presents a character that while  on paper may have been written as one of many brunettes in Allen’s repertoire, she makes her own; Eisenberg is all jerky awkwardness and nervous behavior that is the almost requisite stand-in for Allen himself).

However, Cafe Society is not a perfect picture — far from it. For a man who makes a movie a year it must be grueling trying to make his own deadlines  while still maintaining a sense of artistry visible in the final product. I felt as though much of what happened had a rushed feel, as if though one were merely skimming through a book rather than really diving into it and savoring the words as he did with Hannah and Her Sisters, another story that transpired in a long time frame, divided into chapters. Because of this, despite all its aura of old beauty with a hint of decadence, Allen falls just short of another masterpiece, instead creating an impressionistic glimpse into an era gone by through the guise of a comedy of manners.

And last but not least, there are the many, many references to other Allen pictures: the iconic Manhattan Bridge from Manhattan makes its appearance; Bobby’s parents (Sari Lennick and Stephen Kunken) have a vague resemblance, personality-wise, to the actors who portrayed Allen’s parents in Annie Hall; there’s the unstable brunette and the more stable, maternal blonde; there’s a comical scene of a seduction gone horribly wrong also reminiscent of Annie Hall.

DARK FAIRYTALES

And now, two movies that couldn’t be less similar who strangely enough boast some interesting parallels.

Matteo Garone’s newest film Tale of Tales is an adaptation of the works of Giambattista Basile’s fairy tales –themselves a source of inspiration for the Brother’s Grimm, and so on– that presents a place and time populated by evil queens, hags pretending to be beautiful, and daughters married off to ogres that almost seems plastic. Garone, while trying to being as much period as he can with the visual look of the movie also leaves it in a state of un-reality –quite the opposite from the very real world of his previous film Reality (2012). Three interconnected stories take canter stage here, often overlapping the narrative, which at times got me a little confused until I fell into its odd rhythm. The one about the queen who wants to have a child has the most potential for outright horror (and there is a rather gruesome shot of Salma Hayek as the queen gorging herself on a giant heart of a sacrificed animal, I forget which one). That it segues shortly after into the two old, ugly-ass sisters who compete for the love of a king (played by Vincent Cassel), and their story has a more comical tone, closer to farce than anything else in the entire picture. The third story, the flea, is somewhat a mixed bag of drama and comedy, and wouldn’t be out of place in Cronenberg’s strange world of giant creatures circa Naked Lunch.

I’m going to say that I did enjoy most of it, with his odd fits and starts. Tale of Tales is, despite its rich but artificial visuals, a blank template on which anyone with a keen eye could take and develop into darkly complex stories of their own. However, its very subject matter will only be something lovers of costume dramas with a bit of fantasy thrown in will indulge in: for the most, it’s worth a look, if at all for its sheer spectacle.  [B]

Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise could very well be a modern-day take on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with whiffs here and there to a false urban complacency come Stepford Wives and even a hint of the more Biblical Tower of Babel. In this case, the high rise of the picture is a lone skyscraper with a sheared-off top that encapsulates society as a whole, from the poorest to the richest. Those who live in the bottom aren’t on the way up, and those on top . . . well, you know. They’ve got the better view, and command lavish lifestyles. Tom Hiddleston plays the Everyman at the center of it all who gets sucked into a party thrown by its richest inhabitant, an architect of the name Royal (Jeremy Irons in another performance centered around amorality) and finds himself first aware of his own difference from these people at the top, to a slow awareness that their hedonism must be brought to an end.

It’s a rather high concept if you ask me. But if you look around you’ll see we already live in the world of High-Rise: the rich enjoy the benefits of living in prime real estate in major cities around the world while the ones who can’t eventually find a way to make it work to their advantage, or find alternative ways to cope. It’s rather fitting, then, that anarchy should dominate the film’s second half when all hell literally breaks loose. Compared to now, we may not have yet reached that boiling point, we may still be under a giant hand firmly placed over the lid holding the pressure, but looking at the rapidity of current events happening all over, ripping the foundations of society all over, it almost seems inevitable we’re headed for a collision course. In that sense, High-Rise is is zeitgeist science fiction and urban dystopia rolled up into an uncomfortable watch.  [B]

ON DVD: TOUCHED WITH FIRE

 

touched

If anyone would have ever asked me what a role I could remember Katie Holmes from it would have to be as Tom Cruise’s escapee prisoner wife. Before that, just another cute player of the cluster that came out from the Dawson’s Creek / late 90s era and either managed to carve careers in TV with occasional forays into film or simply didn’t. Holmes had all but vanished from film making, or let me rephrase it, appeared in a group of films that were either so pale they didn’t register, or bad that people avoided them. Flash forward to the middle of the current decade and here she appears in Paul Dalio’s Touched by Fire inhabiting a role that many actresses vying for meaty parts would commit crimes for. Yes — she is that good here.

Carla, the character Holmes plays, is a poet who is struggling with her own emotions and finds herself falling apart at the seams. At about the same time, another artist, vocal performer Marco (Luke Avery) is all but a wreck living in squalor, books thrown every which way, paranoid to the gills about society in general. When both check into a psychiatric hospital to get treatment for bipolar disorder (which both suffer from at what looks to be an intense level, with prolonged highs and lows) they make a connection that feeds off the other, both going into hyper-drive and all but imploding in the process when they decide to go off their meds and go on a road trip.

One of the most salient aspects of Touched with Fire is how, while providing a romance between two sufferers of bipolar disorder, it still doesn’t go off the rails. As a matter of fact, this is no different than watching a movie about two drug-addicts who fall in love while being hooked on the needle or white lines. The reaction is the same: instantaneous combustion between two unbridled passions with no concern as to limits. When they’re on a high, the film goes into color overdrive and presents the world in bold, expressionistic tones — especially in the summer sequence. When emotions get too hot for either one to control . . . let’s just say that it becomes a bit painful to see.

For the most part, Touched with Fire seems to place some criticism at the medical industry. Medicating people with mental disorders looks like the easiest thing to do now, but, as Marco tells Carla towards the end, he just has to feel the highs. The problem with that, and the movie does tackle it without going overboard, is how do you control someone who can’t be controlled and lives on impulses and zero direction?

On that alone the movie is excellent. Neither too cloying and suffocating in its presentation of mental imbalance, but not posing too distant from it as to remain detached and thus safe, Touched with Fire plunges the viewer into experiencing mental collapse up close, with a sense of momentary order arriving after. And now, more from Katie Holmes, please.  [B]

WEINER

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

Watching Weiner is the closest approximation to peering out of your window to watch the slowest but juiciest collision of man versus speeding train. You can’t stop watching, and thanks to social media, YouTube, news media, and everything that connects us to the world, there is no way to even avoid looking unless you buried your head under a rock or yanked all the cables of your internet and cable providers and went commando. It’s impossible, but let’s face it, when has watching a public figure — any public figure — go into full meltdown failed to entertain? Remember Charlie Sheen and his #winning hashtag that resulted in a record number of followers in less than a morning’s breath? Same with Anthony Weiner, former New York congressman, who became caught in one of the sauciest sexual scandals of the new century when he sexted his penis to a Washington woman in 2011 — an act that threw him into the spotlight in ways he would not have wanted, killing his career. Weiner the documentary starts with Anthony Weiner attempting a comeback in 2013 to become mayor of New York City. Facing backlash, ridicule, but not going down without a fight, it’s really a sight for those looking for a guilty pleasure to see Weiner the congressman let the cameras into his life, his house, his marriage to Huma Abedin who stands by him no matter what (although one scene later in the documentary, when the second sexting scandal hits the waves, the cracks of strain start to show). A late introduction of the woman behind the second scandal seems to point at some inevitable confrontation between her and Weiner but it’s more a tease, another circus freak in a show filled with freaks of nature. As a matter of fact, if there was any way to describe this garish documentary, it’s as a contemporary freak show in which Weiner, narcissistic, unrepentant, emerges as it’s emcee. And I can bet you we haven’t seen the last of him yet.

THE WITNESS

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

It’s been all over the news, a story that refuses to go away even when it was technically “only a murder”. It even has its own Wikipedia page if you google her name, and recently, Discovery ID did a rather haunting recreation of the events leading up to her murder on “A Crime to Remember”.

The murder of Kitty Genovese might not have been such a widely reported crime that continues to pop up in articles, classes, and the media had it not been for the article in The New York Times. It’s not that the event happened — in itself a horrific event no human being deserves — but that The Times reported that “38 people saw Kitty Genovese being murdered and did nothing at all.” Much has been said about these witnesses to the crime that has even spawned the term “the bystander effect” in which people witness an event happening but are unable or unwilling to help out.

06Insider-Kitty-01-master768

Her younger brother, William “Bill” Genovese, takes the helms in this documentary to find out the veracity of these details. He lost his legs in the Vietnam war and later in the film he recounts on how alone he felt, how he thought he was going to die the same way she must have known this was the end. In a way, this is his form of finding closure from the people who knew her, but also from the remaining witnesses to his sister’s murder who might shed any light that the faulty reporting of the times neglected to mention. For example, that in the vestibule of the apartment where Kitty used to live were the palm prints of Sophie Farrar, a neighbor who came out to cradle Kitty as she bled out and who had also telephoned the police, only to be informed that someone else had already done so, and whose testimony was left out of the Times for the sole reason that it didn’t go with their version — accepted for a long time as truth — that no one came out to help. That apathy at another person’s tragedy was so entrenched, even when it happened right outside the apartment complex.

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One of the salient points of The Witness is that while trying to put the pieces together of what happened and separate truth from fiction, that it never treats Kitty Genovese as a poster for murdered women even when. From home films and stories of those who knew her we get a very well rounded picture of a vibrant young woman loved by her family, happy as a bartender in a Queens bar, moonlighting as a racketeer (hence her most known photo, which turns out to be a mugshot), and sexually troubled in her identity [she was gay but had issues with it, a thing her surviving girlfriend Mary Ann Zielonko recounts in a voice-only interview she had with Bill. She goes on to add that Kitty “would have worked through them” eventually had she not been murdered.].

There are moments in these people’s narratives when you can almost feel her presence hover just over the screen like a ghost making her final appearance. With her murder, Kitty left a hole in the fabric of her micro-world; it destroyed her family, brought even more bereavement to Mary Ann as Mr Genovese took the dog Kitty and she were raising as their own. In a moment of self-reflection, both Mary Ann and Bill seem to be consoling each other, with his apology bringing closure to her grief, which is still very present. Mary Ann questions what kind of monster could do such a thing.

Bill will get his answer when he decides to interview Winston Moseley, possibly to try and comprehend the imcomprehnsible . . . only to not only get a refusal, but also a visit from his son, now a pastor. If you haven’t experienced outrage, you will. The pastor, a cagey man who won’t look Bill in the face, outright tells his perspective of the incident and goes into state that Kitty was yelling racial slurs at the perpetrator at a time of racial tension and his father caved in, all but implying (as he goes no further in his take on those events) that perhaps she deserved what she got. When Bill informs Moseley, Jr. that his father killed another lady and she was black, he has no recollection and evades. Then, as if to deflect more questions he goes out to condescendingly tell Bill that he had reservations in coming out to see him because he had heard of the Genovese mafia family, so he could very well end up dead. This, America, is callousness to the core.

To add injury to insult, Bill later receives a rambling letter from the perpetrator himself, one that sounds like the ramblings of a man gone insane. It’s just as well, I thought as I watched this scene unfold, that he never got his chance to confront.

What can one gain by watching The Witness? The answer may come as a surprise when he recruits a young actress to play the part of Kitty at the moment she was assaulted. The scene is horrifying — her screams alone are piercing in the night — but more so are the lights in the nearby apartments, still on, not a face in sight. Not a person comes out. If there is anything to add, is the question: in a city filled with people, can you truly be sure your neighbors — those you know and see every day — will open the windows, yell for help, and call 911? Or risk everything and come out?

THE NEON DEMON

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon, out now. Image from the Youtube UK teaser trailer.

And now, a movie that earned loud boos at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and has since divided audiences like separating tectonic plates. You can loudly blame director Nicholas Winding Refn for this, since his art cinema is so out on its own limb that it seems to exist if at all to shock for the heck of it. If you saw his earlier outing, Only God Forgives, you’ll know what I mean: the violence was almost unbearable. I was literally squirming in my seat and had to at one point somewhat disconnect to enjoy the story so I wouldn’t run for the exit. Most people hated that one; I didn’t, because so much of it is choreographed that you couldn’t but realize that this was just a exercise in plasticity, dressed in garish, Giallo colors, and not the stuff of reality. [If anything, 12 Years a Slave, which arrived in the fall of 2013, truly was unbearable, and that was based on actual events, However, leave it to the audience to jump out of their chairs, praise Steve McQueen’s movie, and grant it the Oscar for Best Picture. Strange world.]

The Neon Demon isn’t as violent as Only God Forgives. What it is, however, is a brightly colored nightmare fairy-tale closer to the sensibilities of Snow White. Much of the violence that transpires is off-stage in the shadows, filling the picture with an overpowering sense of portent as our heroine, which also could be our prime villainess, makes her first appearance and attempts a career out of modeling.

Image from Comingsoon.net.

Much will be made out of Refn’s choice of topic — already there are speculations that this is a criticism of the world of modeling, where young women not out of their teens are subject to ferocious levels of scrutiny in order to fit a package. The more they fit into a ‘look’, the less human they are, and by the time they reach 21, they’re spat out onto the street, deemed ‘retired’ and ‘too old’ and are thrown into the gutter where they face a life of slow aging. I’ll state that this is the tip of the iceberg. It’s telegraphed much too loudly to be the true reason the story exists; if it were only that (and it’s been done before in TV movies, serials, and films about the brevity of youth in performing, the best being 1950’s All About Eve), this would be a  much more basic, cut and dry tale.

Jesse (Elle Fanning, restrained, somewhat a deer in the headlights, but radiant) has arrived to LA’s plastic modeling scene with big dreams. Already a natural beauty, she’s perked up the eyes of Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist who warms up to her and Dean (Karl Glusman), a young photographer whose ‘amateurish’ shoots have landed jesse at the offices of Roberta (Christina Hendricks). Roberta would normally send someone like Jesse home without as much as batting an eye . . . but Jesse’s pictures are different. In fact, Jesse herself is different. Only 16, she instructs Jesse to state she’s 19 as 18 is a little too close to barely legal, and before you know it, she’s modeling for professionals like Jack (Desmond Harrington) who in one scene paints her body in gold and does so in a way that suggests she’s merely a dead calf about to be prepped for the slaughter.

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And in many ways, it does seem that Jesse, a pure innocent girl if there ever was one, is surrounded by danger. Early in the movie Jesse, who lives in a seedy motel run by a truly creepy guy (Keanu Reeves, who oozes sleaze here), sees her room invaded by a cougar. Scenes of predatory females grouped around her in the guise of two rival models, Sarah (Abbey Lee, previously in Mad Max: Fury Road) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote, Jane in Pride and Prejudices and Zombies) casually scrutinizing her natural looks while envying them, are presented with a sense of impending dread. Neither really care for Jesse — and why would they? She’s competition, although Gigi believes she’s a passing fancy and won’t cut it). However, a scene where Sarah and Jesse are competing for a show, where Sarah gets the boot (after displaying her rail thin body to an unnamed fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) turns vicious in a way no one could see coming. And just as Jesse herself begins to assert her own, she comes face to face with the titular demon itself . . . who looks identical to her.

It’s safe to say that in many ways this could be an allegory of what happens when someone who has a magnetic presence that demands acknowledgment. Sarah compares her to the Sun shining in the middle of a cold winter. Ruby is clearly besotted with her. Sarah continues to diss her until she lands an important job. Even Keanu Reeves’ hotel manager has a scene with Jesse involving a knife that is probably one that is most disturbing because of the bloodless assault on a young woman, and that his character goes next door to commit an act of rape and possibly murder against another unseen woman indicates the twisted desires that Jesse herself inspires upon herself.

jena-malone-and-elle-fanning-in-the-neon-demon-(2016)-large-picture

Nothing however, can prepare the viewer for Jesse’s own sudden turn of character, where she seems to embrace the darker form of love — narcissism. Even when she had said, earlier, “I’m not as helpless as people think I am,” one couldn’t but look at her and think, “Aww. Sure you are.” Her rejection of Dean comes as a surprise, but more so when she accepts Ruby’s help at the moment the hotel manager goes batshit off-screen. Ruby, who placed against the three blond girls comes off rather masculine — a younger version of Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall — takes advantage of Jesse’s helplessness to fulfill her own needs, which backfires. Jesse’s rejection, followed by the affirmation of her own beauty and existence sparks a chain of events that is revolting. What happens next is the eye of desire’s Gorgon face revealing itself to the viewer, merciless and hungry. All the portents of dread come alive, and Refn doesn’t content himself by just showing how depraved people can and will act against something they can’t have, but its consequences.

The Neon Demon is the reason cinema pur exists: bold, screaming colors that reek of Stanley Kubrick and any spread of Vogue magazine, the expressive use of faces that recall Ingmar Bergman, a plot that only involves the minimal, and powerful auric visuals make this picture a direct classic coming out of the kind of cinema Dario Argento created with Suspiria. My only quib? It wasn’t depraved enough. It still could have gone one step farther, right into the heart of darkness. Yes, indeed.

SWISS ARMY MAN

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano
SWISS ARMY MAN (2016)
Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano

Seeing a movie that is playing to a packed audience and gauging their reactions to the string of scenes being displayed out in front of them and witnessing their — and my own — laughs, which happened by the plenty right up until the movie got too creepy for its own good, almost makes me not want to write this review. What for? It doesn’t really matter what I think; the truth of the matter is, the audience will be the one to decide. I should know. Many times I’ve gone to see something that made critics rave and all but explode in a litany of praises that made me wonder what the heck was it that they saw that I couldn’t see, or was I too dumb to appreciate a good movie when I saw one?

Clearly, the audience wins in this case. They ran with the scatological images and sounds that the directors seemed to provide at a rate of one per minute with brief pauses in between gave space to commentaries on life, sex, and The Meaning of It All. And all this happened while Paul Dano’s Hank and his dead buddy Manny (Daniel Ratcliffe, clearly in on the fun and distancing himself even more from Harry Potter as his character’s body gets used as a vessel closer to the stuff of tall tales) escape the island at the start of the movie (by the power of farts alone, yes, you read that) and land in some remote wooded area that suggests perhaps the Northwest. And I have to say, for almost its entire run, I ran with the jokes myself. You really have to see it to do a WTF. I won’t even dare spoil it for you; it’s that flat-out weird you can’t react in any other way but with nervous, then straight out, balls to the wall laughter.

The point where the movie goes a little creaky, however, arrives at the place where Hank starts to place less emphasis on being rescued and more emphasis on bonding and even remaining in the woods with Manny. We find out that Hank is a compulsive loner unable it seems to relate to anyone outside of his own self, The girl in Manny’s cellphone (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is someone Manny used to date. Hank then concocts a way to use this image to somehow propel Manny’s apparently superhuman corpse to civilization. I really can’t do justice to the barrage of scenes that constitute Swiss Army Man’s middle section. You really have to witness this and judge for yourself. Let’s just say, therapy doesn’t have to involve sitting on a psychiatrist’s bench. Oh, no. The Daniels (as the directors refer to themselves) have a lot more meta-story up on their sleeve.

At surface value Swiss Army Man is beyond ridiculous once you get past the solid first forty minutes and settle in to see just how all this will play out. When you realize that — and I’m not ruining anything — the entire thing may be a twisted allegory of extreme isolation, if you don’t cringe like I did, then something is definitely amiss. Don’t get me wrong — this is a pretty good movie that just doesn’t deserve to be known as the one where the dead body farts and does things no dead body should ever do. There is a lot more going on with Paul Dano’s character alone that merits a close look. If you can get past the unhinged presentation (unique in itself), you have yourself a disturbing comedy that reveals just how twisted it is towards its finale. You might blame its fierce adhering to its comedic sensibilities that Hank’s situation becomes somewhat trivialized and reduced to the stuff of a horny but super awkward teenager. I think it actually enhances it (and we see just how, all over Winstead’s face).

See Swiss Army Man for yourself.  By the end you will have walked out having seen a completely different picture that defies categories.