Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Neon Demon: Blonde Ambition

As I watched Nicolas Winding Refn's (Drive, Only God Forgives, Bronson) latest, I was mesmerized by how visually and aurally stunning it is (the music by Cliff Martinez and cinematography by Natasha Braier are absolutely jaw-dropping).  Refn has a true gift for mise en scène--the guy really knows how to direct.  His is a style that he has branded--literally--the film opens with "NWR," eschewing the conventional "A film by...."  I haven't seen Bronson, but it seems that Refn is increasingly more interested in sensual provocation than he is in satisfying storytelling.  As stylish as Drive is, it seems quaintly conventional compared to The Neon Demon.

The Neon Demon doesn't pretend to be a work of realism--from the outset it's very much in David Lynch territory, being specifically reminiscent of Mulholland Drive, also set in Los Angeles and focusing on an ingenue, this time an aspiring model (apparently orphaned, from some flyover state) named Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, who was 17 when this was shot.

Add to that a number of striking, ominous shots of creepy corridors and hallways (fantastic locations/art direction in this movie, especially an old Spanish mansion in the hills), as well as static scenes that echo, respectively, Kubrick's The Shining and Barry Lyndon, as well as Hitchcockian elements (the two leading competing models are also blonde, evoking Vertigo and Psycho), and you have a film that's infused with dread and with characters who are and aren't who they seem, who are alternately persona and shadow. (Bergman's Persona also comes to mind--the film is dedicated to "Liv"--Refn's wife's name, but it also made me wonder if the writer-director might also be referencing Liv Ullmann).

I haven't seen Refn's film Bronson, but based on the others, his brand is a highly stylized immersive experience (if you see this new film, it absolutely must be on a big screen) that arouses sensation.  Now, this is different from David Lynch, who in my experience engages the unconscious, or Kubrick, who gets us to tap into complex emotions (I recall taking to my bed in a fetal position and weeping after seeing Eyes Wide Shut the first time).  Refn is more of an amygdala guy--he activates/engages the the most primitive part of the brain--which seemed to really appeal to the fanboys in the audience of the screening I attended.  You're fascinated and repelled at the same time.

In the first act, Jesse asserts, "I'm not as helpless as I look."  Oh God, we hope so, but the fact that she needs to state this is a defensive red flag. Heroes are supposed to be initially reluctant, right?  Or so the screenwriting gurus tell us....

Refn wrote this with two women, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, and the film almost seems to be a feminist cautionary tale, at least initially.  And then a story of Jesse's innocence becoming corrupted by experience, which we hope she will not be helpless to overcome.  But the film is ultimately an exercise in horror, as the third act devolves into major camp. It's stunning, meticulously executed, triumphantly shocking camp, to be sure.  You'll laugh, but it will be a nervous chuckle, filled with dread.

Kudos to Fanning's co-stars Jena Malone as a non-blonde make up artist with an unconventional sexual fetish, and models Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee (memorable as one of the wives in Mad Max:  Fury Road), who function as Jesse's Furies here.  There's also a sinister cameo from Keanu Reeves as Jesse's motel manager.

You'll need a stiff drink after--or even better, during--this film:

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Grieving and Gleaning

'I will close with what Meadow once told me about being an artist.  It is partly a confidence game.  And partly magic.  But to make something you also need to be a gleaner.  What is a gleaner?  Well, it is a nice word for a thief, except you take what no one wants.  Not just unusual ideas or things.  You look closely at the familiar to discover what everyone else overlooks or ignores or discards."  From Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta

Two recent films I saw have their roots in grief:  Demolition (above; director Jean Marc Vallée and writer Bryan Sipe, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts; and director Karyn Kusama's The Invitation (below), 

a combination grief drama/paranoid thriller/horror film written by Phil Hay (Kusama's husband) and his writing partner Matt Manfredi, with a diverse ensemble cast led by the riveting "paranoid," Logan Marshall-Green (below).  

Ironically--or coincidentally--Spiotta's novel centers around two characters who are close friends and filmmakers.  One, Carrie (quoted above) is a mainstream director; the other, Meadow, is a obsessive, boundary-pushing documentarian.

I'm only about 70% through the novel, but when I read the passage above today, it made me think about these two films, Kusama's 

in particular.  She and her writers glean from the horror genre and expand upon it, rooting it in what is real and true:  a divorced couple still reeling with grief years after the loss of a lost child (and a lost marriage).  Add to that the paranoid thriller element, and you have a contained horror film that's a hybrid and a very effective elevated genre film.

Demolition deals with grief more straightforwardly--perhaps a tad too literally. Jake Gyllenhaal's character, who has, at the top of the film, lost his wife in an auto accident, expels his anger at a malfunctioning vending machine in a hospital by writing a letter of complaint to their customer service rep (Naomi Watts), but it comes out long and confessional, and you can guess the rest.  What I liked about the letter, though, was its psychological plausibility.  Jake's character also befriends Watts's character's son, whom he enlists to literally demolish the starkly modern house the grieving husband shared with his late wife.  It's a bit too schematic that he takes this to the extremes he does in order to "rebuild" his life, and there's a reveal about the deceased wife towards the end that's a cheap way to make it okay for Gyllenhaal to commit to Watts so quickly, but I nevertheless appreciated that there were many ways in which the film presented an accurate depiction of grief, despite how outlandish it seemed.  By which I mean that there is no "normal" way to grieve.  And needless to say, Gyllenhaal's performance was largely responsible for making this film work as well as it does (in a Q & A with the writer and director, they revealed that every other actor they approached passed on the project, even though the script had made The Blacklist--an annual list of the best unproduced screenplays that development execs have read that year).

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross even disavowed her theory of the stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  Not everyone goes through every stage; not everyone grieves in the same way; there is no "normal" or "typical" timeline for grief (in fact, it may never end; our losses become part of who we are).

This week I also began treating a new patient presenting with grief over his father's death.  And then Prince died (more on Prince and Bowie in another post).  And so it is the grieving time.  It is always the gleaning time--for all of us.

Here are the trailers for the films:

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Saturday, March 12, 2016


Warning:  Complete spoilers!  See the movie first.

Dear 10 Cloverfield Lane Filmmakers:

I was so excited by the reviews of this film, which I knew nothing about but assumed I wouldn't be interested in if it were a sequel to Cloverfield, which I didn't even want to see. Don't get me wrong:  I love a good horror film.  There are just so few that are scary or fresh. The reviews of your film were great.  I got my ticket for the Dome in Hollywood on opening night.  The audience largely loved it, judging by their applause.  I was sorely disappointed.

I know your movie will make a ton of money and spawn a sequel.  But I was deflated because it was painfully obvious that the movie could not only have been a box office smash; it could have been a genre classic.  Instead, I saw a mashup of true classics, beginning with Psycho (heroine packs bag, goes on the run, with dire results) to Room (abducted and imprisoned woman) to Alien (Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle not only resembling Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, but dealing with a derivative alien that looks like a low-budget giant penis).  I held hope until that third act, but as soon as the penis/alien ship arrived, I had no choice but to abandon all hope and jump spaceship, so to speak.

Not that you care, but here are my notes on what could have made the film a real contender:

1.  Michelle-in-captivity.  Our heroine takes manic flight, apparently from her boyfriend after a fight (in retrospect it's supposed to seem that perhaps she might have known about some impending doomsday event, but that doesn't really fly because why wouldn't she have taken Ben's phone calls if it didn't have to do only with him, and why is she surprised when Howard first speaks of it?).  She has a horrific auto accident, then awakens chained in a bunker with an IV, a scary-stained-old-timey brace around her knee, but luckily just a couple of small lacerations (hair and make-up remarkably intact)--amazing considering that her car landed down a hillside on its roof.  Now, just the bunker situation would be pretty darned disorienting and majorly traumatic.  Undaunted upon consciousness, however, our heroine goes into immediate McGyver mode.  I know what you're thinking:  we wanted to show a strong, smart female heroine, not just a victim.  How wonderfully PC.  But come on, guys, how about just a tad more psychological realism?  See below regarding Samantha Eggar's character (pictured with co-star Terence Stamp) in The Collector--she's about as strong and resourceful as they come, and that was way back in 1965 before most of you were born!

2.   Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.).  Oh boy.  I felt for Gallagher.  First, that godawful pubic beard.  But I think I understand what you were going for.  Can Michelle trust him?  

Is he nuts like her captor Howard (John Goodman)?  Is Emmett another prisoner or is he there willingly?  Does he have borderline intellectual functioning?  Regardless, Michelle is more than borderline stupid to  a) trust him with the reveal of the earring and the photo of her predecessor; b) openly collaborate with (i.e., not manipulate) him regarding a plan to escape.  If it were too hard to figure out how to make Michelle psychologically play him, it would have at least been interesting for her, in desperation, to try to enlist him, only to have him betray her.  Upping the stakes even more!

3.  What is the deal with Howard? 
Killer, survivalist, or both--as a friend asked--I guess both.  It's pretty well established that he probably raped and killed the previous female captive Meghan, but what's his plan for Michelle?  Are we really supposed to think that his predatory instincts were held in check by the presence of Emmett?  As for the means of disposal, I have three words:  over the top.

4. The third act.  Come on!  It's not even Kim Jong Un and a nuclear attack but rather a goofy alien that looks like the retarded spawn of its predecessor in Alien (it can't even destroy a shed and can be vanquished by a makeshift molotov cocktail, as aforementioned friend pointed out)?  BTW, that unopened bottle of Scotch that Michelle took with her (do you think it's realistic that someone her age actually drinks Scotch?) was an awfully convenient plant--and wasn't it a lucky break for her that the bottle didn't break in the crash and that Howard left it in his truck?

5.  Backwards plot planting.  Talk about convenience:  luckily for Michelle, she's an aspiring clothing designer, so she can sew!  Hence she's not only able to stitch Howard's split forehead, but she can fashion a hazmat suit from a shower curtain, a water bottle, and duct tape with just a few tips from a teenzine!  Shame on thee, writers of Whiplash.  I expected better of you--because this enterprise wasn't apparently undertaken with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.  I also expected that you wouldn't have contempt for your audience.

Guys, this movie has the sensibility of an adolescent boy.  Which of course will do fine for box office, but not for film history.  I would have suggested you watch William Wyler's 1965 film The Collector, adapted by John Fowles from his novel, with co-scriptors Stanley Mann and Terry Southern, to help ground you in some psychological realism.  And to have reconsidered that ridiculous third act, which, despite Howard's assertions, seems to come out of left field.  The cornfield may have worked for Field of Dreams but it tanked in Interstellar, remember?  More importantly, I never bought that Michelle bought that the outside world was contaminated, never mind that aliens had invaded.  She would have had to have been more psychologically broken down, Stockholm syndrome and such, to have acquiesced and embraced those family nights with board games.

Oh, well.  Perhaps in the inevitable sequel Michelle will run into Ben in Houston--if you can get Bradley Cooper for a cameo--so we can get their backstory and a little rekindled love interest, which I'm sure you'd agree is nice for the date night audience.  Cooper's a lot older than Winstead, so maybe the bottle of Scotch was for him.  Goodness knows, they'll both be in need of another bottle.

Director:  Dan Trachtenberg.  Screenwriters:  Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, Damien Chazelle.  Producer:  J. J. Abrams.

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