Playing Catch-Up: The Neon Demon (dir by Nicholas Winding Refn)


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What to say about The Neon Demon?

See, this is a film that you have to be careful about discussing.  From the moment that it premiered at Cannes last year, The Neon Demon was the love-it-or-hate-it film of 2016.

Those of us that loved The Neon Demon really, really loved it.

And those that hated it — well, let’s just say that they really, really hated it.  They complained that The Neon Demon was exploitive.  They found the subject matter to be sordid.  They accused the movie of being both pretentious and ultimately pointless.  The plot made no sense, they complained.  The film was overlong and featured about a handful of false endings.  It almost seemed as if Nicholas Winding Refn was taunting anyone who expected him to make a typical melodrama about life in Hollywood.

All of that is true but, honestly, what were these people expecting?  As a result of the success of Drive, many people have made the mistake of thinking that Nicholas Winding Refn is a mainstream director.  He’s not.  Refn is a provocateur.  He is a director who often dares his audience to walk away.  In The Neon Demon, each false ending challenges the audience’s assumption about how a story — any story — should end.  Some people, I’m sure, would complain that Refn is all style and no substance.  However, The Neon Demon is about a world where one’s worth is determined by their style.  Style is substance.  The world of The Neon Demon may be empty but the film is not.

For all the debate about the film’s deeper themes (or lack of them), The Neon Demon‘s story is a fairly simple and deliberately familiar one.  A teenage runaway comes to Hollywood, finds some success as a model, and discovers that the world of show business is not as romantic as she may have initially believed.  When we first see Jesse (Elle Fanning), she’s posing for her boyfriend and she’s pretending to be dead.  Death, beauty, and sex go hand-in-hand in The Neon Demon.

Jesse’s an interesting character, one who constantly challenges our assumptions.  At first, Jesse seems like a typical innocent.  She’s a virgin who is so introverted that she can barely carry on a conversation.  She lives in a cheap apartment, under the menacing gaze of her sleazy landlord (Keanu Reeves, having fun playing his skeezy character).  She has a boyfriend and on their dates, she tells him about how she’s always dreamed of being a star.  It’s only as the film progresses that you start to realize how little you actually know about Jesse.  That she’s a runway is implied early on.  We never learn what led to her running away.  In fact, we learn next to nothing about who she was before she appeared in Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, Jesse is everything that the fashion industry values.  She’s beautiful and, even more importantly, she’s young.  We watch as Jesse goes to a casting call and we’re struck by the blank-look on her face.  We wonder if there’s anything going on underneath the surface.  Jesse has hallucinations, seeing a shining triangle and kissing her own reflection.  Someone asks her what it’s like to be desired.  She replies, “It’s everything.”

Jesse befriends Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who lives in a gigantic mansion, overlooking an empty swimming pool.  When Ruby isn’t working in the fashion industry, she works at a morgue, applying makeup to corpses and occasionally engaging in necrophilia.  She makes the dead beautiful so that they can be buried looking their best.  Again, beauty and death are intertwined throughout The Neon Demon.

Ruby has two other friends, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).  They’re both models, struggling to maintain their careers even as younger models, like Jesse, continue to flood into Los Angeles.  Gigi has had so much cosmetic surgery that none of her original features remain.  Gigi is neurotic and fearful.  Sarah, on the other hand, is confident and sarcastic.  When asked what she did the last time another model screwed her out of a job, Sarah calmly replies, “I ate her.”

Sarah isn’t necessarily joking either.  Without giving too much away, The Neon Demon features, among other things, a character eating an eyeball that another character has just thrown up.  Not surprisingly for a Refn film, there’s a lot of blood in The Neon Demon.  It’s a film that opens with fake blood and ends with very real blood.

Combining the visual sense of Dario Argento with the thematic concerns of Jean Rollin, The Neon Demon is a triumph of pure style.  The visuals are so strong that it’s impossible to look away, even when the film’s themes are deliberately obscure.  The Neon Demon is a surreal journey into the dark side of Hollywood, a mixture of ennui, alienation, decadence, and sacrifice.  It may not always make sense but it’s always fascinating to watch.

Personally, I think The Neon Demon would make a great double feature with La La Land.  Two triumphs of style, two very different views of Los Angeles.

Shattered Politics #93: American Hustle (dir by David O. Russell)


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“Some of this actually happened.”

— Opening Title of American Hustle (2013)

I have always been surprised by how much some people hate the 2013 best picture nominee, American Hustle.  Even two years after the film was first released, you’ll still find people whining that the film felt like David O. Russell’s attempt to remake Goodfellas (yes, I have actually seen more than a few people online making this idiotic claim) or claiming that the movie was overrated or that there wasn’t anyone in the film that they could root for.  While every film has its detractors, I’m always a little bit taken aback by just how passionately some people dislike this film.

Some of it, of course, is because the film that beat American Hustle for best picture was the universally acclaimed 12 Years A Slave.  As hard as it may seem to believe now, there were a lot of people who thought that American Hustle might actually beat 12 Years A Slave.  Strangely enough, a lot of online film bloggers tend to take a Manichaen approach to the Oscars, viewing each year’s race in terms of good and evil. The film that they want to win represents good and, therefore, every competing film must represent evil.  It’s a pretty stupid and immature way of looking at things but, then again, the stupid and immature approach has worked pretty well for Sasha Stone and Ryan Adams over at AwardsDaily.com so who am I to criticize?

Of course, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the majority of American Hustle‘s most strident online critics have been male.  I imagine that they watched the film and, in Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, they saw every unresolved crush of their adolescence.  When Amy Adams successfully fooled Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper, these critics saw themselves being fooled.  When Jennifer Lawrence called Bale a “sick son of a bitch,” these critics felt that they were being called a sick son of a bitch.  American Hustle is a film about men who don’t know how to talk to women and that probably struck a little too close to home for a lot of those online critics.

(I imagine that the majority of online American Hustle haters probably preferred Rooney Mara’s version of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Noomi Rapace’s.)

Of course, the truth of the matter is that American Hustle was one of the best films of a very good year.  Of all the films nominated for best picture of 2013, American Hustle was my personal favorite.

Based, very loosely, on true story, American Hustle is a period piece.  It takes place in the late 70s, which of course means that we get a lot of great music, a scene in a disco, and clothes that are both somehow ludicrous and to die for at the same time.  It’s a glamorous film about glamorous people doing glamorous and not-so-glamorous things and how can you not love that?

Irving (Christian Bale, giving a brave performance) is a generally nice guy who also happens to be a con artist.  His unlikely partner is Sydney (Amy Adams), a former stripper turned Cosmo intern.  When Sydney is working with Irving, she takes on a totally different identity and tells people that she’s Lady Edith Greensly, a British aristocrat who has international banking connections.  When Sydney plays Edith, she speaks in a posh British accent and what’s interesting is that her accent is often (deliberately) inconsistent.  However, as Irving points out, it doesn’t matter whether her accent is a 100% convincing or not.  What’s important is that people want her to be Lady Edith Greensly and people will make excuses for almost anything as long as it confirms what they want to believe.

Eventually, Irving and Sydney are arrested by ambitious and highly strung FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  Richie, who spends a good deal of the film with curlers in his hair, lives with his mother and has a boring fiancée who he doesn’t seem to like very much.  (Richie is also briefly seen sniffing coke, which might explain a lot of his more extreme behavior.)  Richie wants to make a name for himself and he views Irving and Sydney as his way to do so.  He blackmails them into helping him set up and arrest crooked politicians and businessmen.  Richie also finds himself growing obsessed with Sydney, who he believes to be English even after she tells him that she isn’t.

All of this eventually leads to Irving and Richie setting up the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).  Polito, who may be corrupt but who also seems to sincerely care about helping the citizens of his town, wants to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City.  Irving and Richie introduce him to FBI agent Paco Hernandez (Michael Pena), who is disguised as Sheik Abdullah and who they claim is interested in investing in Carmine’s plans.  This, of course, leads to a meeting both with a local Mafia don (Robert De Niro) and with several politicians who agree to help out the Sheik out in exchange for money.

(And no, the film did not lie.  This is based on a true story, believe it or not.)

Complicating things is the fact that Irving himself comes to truly like the generous and big-hearted Carmine and how can you not?  When the film was first released, Jeremy Renner was a bit overshadowed by Bale, Cooper, Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence.  However, Renner gives the best performance in the film, playing Carmine with a disarming mix of innocence and shrewdness.  He’s the type of guy who is smart enough to walk out on the first meeting with the fake sheik’s associates but who is still naive enough that he can be charmed by Irving.  When the fake sheik gives Carmine an equally fake knife as a gift, the look of genuine honor on Carmine’s face is heart-breaking.

The other big complication is Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).  Rosalyn is jealous, unstable, unpredictable, and, in her own way, one of the smarter people in the film.  She’s also a bit of pyromaniac and, when she accidentally blows up a new microwave, you’re really not surprised.  (And, when Rosalyn starts to obsessively clean the house while singing Live and Let Die at the top of her lungs, I felt like I was watching a blonde version of myself.)  When Rosalyn starts to have an affair of her own, it leads to American Hustle‘s satisfying and twisty conclusion.

(Again, a lot of the same online toadsuckers who irrationally hate American Hustle seem to hold a particular contempt to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in this film, as if to acknowledge that Lawrence — as always — kicks ass would somehow be a betrayal of Lupita Nyong’o’s award-winning performance in 12 Years A Slave.)

Don’t listen to the haters.  American Hustle is a great film, a stylish and frequently funny look at politics, corruption, and the ways that people con themselves into believing what they want and need to be true.

Film Review: Devil’s Knot (dir by Atom Egoyan)


After having spent close to a year hearing only negative things about it, I finally watched Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot last night.  On the basis of what a lot of critics had said about the film, I have to admit that I was mostly watching it to see if I needed to include it on my upcoming list of the 16 worst films of 2014.

But you know what?

Devil’s Knot really isn’t a bad film.  It’s just an extremely unnecessary one.

Devil’s Knot opens with a title card that reads, “Based on a true story.”  Honestly, the title card could have just as easily read, “Based on a true story and if you doubt it, there’s four other movies you can watch.”  The trial, conviction, and subsequent imprisonment of the West Memphis Three is perhaps the most famous miscarriage of justice in recent history precisely because so many documentaries have been made about it.  Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost Part Three are two of the most disturbing true crime documentaries ever made.

(As for Paradise Last Part Two, it displays a stunning lack of self-awareness as it attempts to prove the guilt of John Mark Byers by using many of the same techniques that were used to convict the West Memphis Three.  The less said about it, the better.)

The story is so well-known that I almost feel like retelling it would be like taking the time to inform you that George Washington was our first president.  But here goes — in 1993, 3 eight year-old boys were murdered in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas.  Three teenagers were arrested for the crime and, on the flimsiest of evidence, were convicted.  As is seen in the documentaries, their conviction had more to do with community hysteria and paranoia than anything else.  The supposed leader of the West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, was accused of being a Satanist.  Why?  Mostly because he wore black clothing.

Eventually — and largely as a result of the documentaries made about the case — the West Memphis Three would be freed from prison.  (However, their convictions would still legally stand, meaning that their exoneration would be limited to the court of public opinion.)  Devil’s Knot, however, doesn’t deal with any of that, beyond a lengthy scroll of “this is what happened after the movie” information that rolls up the screen after the final scene.  Instead, Devil’s Knot deals with the first trial of the West Memphis Three and the small town atmosphere of fear and hysteria that led to them being convicted in the first place.

And — though the film is surprisingly conventional when you consider the reputation of director Atom Egoyan — it’s all fairly well-done.  As a former resident of and frequent visitor to Arkansas, I was happy to see that Egoyan didn’t indulge in as many stereotypes as I feared he would.  (One need only watch the self-important Northern activists in Paradise Lost Two to see the attitude that I feared Egoyan would bring to the project.)  Reese Witherspoon is perfectly cast as the mother of one of the murdered boys.  Kevin Durand is properly intimidating at John Mark Byers.  Even Colin Firth manages to make for a convincing Arkansan.

But, ultimately, Devil’s Knot just feels so unnecessary.  It doesn’t bring anything new to the story and there’s ultimately nothing here that you couldn’t have learned from the original Paradise Lost.

Probably the best thing that I can say about Devil’s Knot is that it’s better than Paradise Lost Part Two.

Embracing the Melodrama #45: Inventing the Abbotts (dir by Pat O’Connor)


First released in 1997, Inventing the Abbotts is a small town, romantic melodrama about two families in the 1950s.  One family is poor.  One family is rich.  As you can probably guess, each is fated to determine the destiny of the other.

Decades ago, Lloyd Abbott (Will Patton) and Holt were business partners.  However, after Lloyd had an affair with Holt’s wife (Kathy Baker), their friendship ended.  Lloyd eventually becomes the richest man in town and has three beautiful daughters: dutiful Alice (Joanna Going), wild Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly), and virginal Pam (Liv Tyler).  Holt is long since dead and his two sons, Jacey (Billy Crudup) and Doug (Joaquin Phoenix) live next door to the Abbotts.  While the bitter Jacey is obsessed with the Abbott family and ends up pursuing both Eleanor and the married Alice, Doug claims not to care about the Abbotts.  However, despite his claimed indifference, Doug soon finds himself falling in love with Pam.  Will Doug and Pam be together or will Lloyd succeed in keeping them apart?

To be honest, Inventing the Abbotts is not a particularly good film.  It moves way too slowly, Doug and Jacey frequently swtich personalities whenever the plot demands it, the story is way too predictable, the voice over narration is way too obvious, and Jennifer Connelly’s character leaves the film way too early.  This is one of those films that is determined to make sue that you never forget that it’s taking place in the 50s and you can be sure that every cliché that you associate with that decade will pop up at least once.  There are a few scenes that could have been easily been replaced with a picture of Joaquin Phoenix holding a sign reading, “It’s the 50s,” without causing us to miss out on any important information.

And yet, I still liked Inventing the Abbotts.  I think it really comes down to the fact that I’m the youngest of four sisters and therefore, I have a weakness for movies about sisters.  And the sisters in Inventing the Abbotts are all perfectly cast and believable as siblings so, for me, the movie was redeemed because of the number of scenes to which anyone who is a sister or who has a sister will be able to relate.

As such, despite its flaws, Inventing the Abbotts is definitely a guilty pleasure for me.

Your results may vary.

Inventing the Abbotts