Sunday, June 26, 2016

Review: "The Neon Demon"

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Runtime: 117 minutes

When we throw around the term "popcorn movie," we tend to refer to larger than life spectacle that's harmless and entertaining. Maybe it's a high-level popcorn movie (Captain America 2), or something that borders on guilty pleasure territory (the Fast and Furious franchise). But the term is almost exclusively used to refer to larger than life spectacle. Yet the arthouse/international scene is equally capable of producing these types of movies, though they're often more divisive than what usually passes for popcorn moviemaking. If what you're looking for at the movies is an empty pleasure that eschews blockbuster theatrics (explosions, lasers, superheroes, aliens, etc...), then The Neon Demon is what you've been waiting for, even if you despise it. The latest from Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) is the fried chicken of arthouse thrillers. You're left simultaneously satisfied and disgusted, knowing that you've just indulged in a treat that is absolutely horrendous for your health. Touch it, and your fingers become sickeningly shiny. But, as the saying goes...everything in moderation...

Returning to the glistening underbelly of L.A. has paid off for Refn, making a much needed rebound from 2013's insufferable Only God Forgives. That said, if you're expecting another Drive, you might be in for a bit of a shock. That film took a threadbare plot and turned it into a moody, soulful drama punctuated with flashes of exploitation-flick violence. The Neon Demon, rather than flirt with exploitation, fully embraces it with a sloppy tongue kiss. It is the unholy offspring of Suspiria, Eyes Wide Shut, and Black Swan: a delirious, sensory experience that either hooks you from the opening title cards or sends you into a defeated stupor. 

The film's opening tableau, featuring aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) bloodied and sprawled out on a fainting couch, captures the whole endeavor perfectly. It's exquisitely stylized, but eventually revealed to be a fake. At one point, Jesse disappears from the couch, not because she's become invisible or ascended, but merely because she's finished with photoshoot and needs to remove her make up. Everything and everyone in The Neon Demon's vision of L.A. is consumed only with youth and beauty. Most of the characters who appear on screen are young, pretty, and white (and the film's oldest actor, 51 year-old Keanu Reeves, hardly looks a day over 40). These people, even the less affluent, live in a bizarre sort of bubble. Despite occupying space in the 2nd largest city in the country, Fanning and co. seem to be living in a virtual wasteland. 

Yet these aesthetic choices are hardly indicative of a film that possesses meaningful depth. It's a shallow movie about shallow people, carefully tiptoeing along the line that divides winking satire and indulgence. But that doesn't stop Refn from tipping his hat to areas the film might have explored had wanted to make something with more thematic weight. If The Neon Demon has a point, it's that L.A.'s fashion industry is populated entirely by a hierarchy of predators. These hunters come in different forms, from fellow models (Bella Heathcote and Mad Max: Fury Road's Abbey Lee), to landlords (Keanu Reeves), to photographers (Desmond Harrington). And, just to make sure you don't miss this message, Refn even includes a scene involving a lost mountain lion who breaks into Jesse's hotel room.

Refn's command over the film's look and soundscape is so intoxicating that it comes as a bit of a letdown that the performers tend to lack consistency. Fanning and co. seem to be in on the sick joke of it all in some scenes, and then minutes later become completely wooden. The only exceptions are Christina Hendricks (in a too-short cameo as Jesse's agent) and Jena Malone (as a make-up artist who befriends Jesse early on). Even through the inconsistency, though, there are moments campy magic that pop up, particularly from Fanning and Lee. 

But, seeing as this is a film about models, it seems fitting that the actors are largely there to be manipulated. Everyone poses spectacularly, and the whole film looks magnificent thanks to Natasha Braier's neon-drenched photography. Cliff Martinez's pulsating electronic score is equally magnetizing, turning some of the protracted, pretentious sequences into hypnotic stretches of gorgeous nothingness. Knives are drawn, blood is spilled, and there are hints of something supernatural going on. Or maybe it's just a brush with magical realism. But whether or not even a second of The Neon Demon makes sense to the head is completely secondary when compared to whether it makes sense to the eyes and ears. 

Grade: B

Review: "Love & Friendship"

Director: Whit Stillman
Runtime: 95 minutes

Frilly period romances have faded on the American arthouse circuit in recent years, but if you've really been missing them, fear not: Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship is exactly what you need. And if you've never taken a liking to adaptations of Jane Austen (or similar work) but find yourself dragged along to Love & Friendship, you don't have anything to worry about either. Indie darling Stillman has crafted an Austen adaptation for just about everyone. Mining the author's feather-light English wit without ever softening any edges, Stillman's film has broad appeal without watering anything down. 

Taken from a lesser known Austen work (the novella "Lady Susan"), Stillman's comedy of manners is, above all else, a stellar showcase for actress Kate Beckinsdale. Beckinsdale is part of a group of actors who approached the studio A-list without ever finding the right role to keep them up there (see also: Colin Farrell). After a while, it was hard to know if Beckinsdale had any significant acting capability, or was simply trapped by poor material. Liberated from the studio system and gifted with Stillman's wonderfully tart script, Beckinsdale delivers the sort of star-making performance that makes you realize how badly Hollywood failed her.

The role of Lady Susan Vernon is instantly recognizable as an Austen heroine, but with an extra kick. She has the wit of Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse (and the latter's penchant for meddling), but with the delightful benefit of being a purely comedic character. Her manipulations are self-serving, but they aren't evil, and so her relatively easy journey doesn't force the viewer to empathize with an outright villain. It's a fabulously juicy, smart role, and Beckinsdale is a thrill to watch as she inhabits the character and silkily delivers dialogue with a rapidity that would leave Aaron Sorkin flummoxed. 

As is common in good Austen adaptations, it's not the particulars of the plot that matter so much as the handling of tone and line delivery. All the more reason why Stillman, whose films rely heavily on informative and intelligent dialogue, is such a perfect fit for his several roles behind the camera (director, writer, producer). While the film's early scenes are a touch flat (simultaneously setting things up while also trying to rev the comedic engine), it picks up considerably once Beckinsdale first gets to cut loose as she describes her relationship to her valet (they're friends, so paying her would be obscene, you see).

The other faces that fill out the cast are often left playing straight men to Beckinsdale's imposing tower of brown curls, but they are reliably appealing. Some of them fall for Susan, and others, like her sister-in-law (Emma Greenwell, of Hulu's The Path) remain friendly while not buying into her act. American ex-pat Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) comes closest to an audience surrogate, admiring and tacitly endorsing Susan's shenanigans from a distance. 

There is one member of the supporting cast who truly stands out, and he is a scene-stealer in every sense of the word. As Sir James Martin, daffy would-be suitor to Susan's daughter, Tom Bennett owns every moment he appears on screen. Martin represents the film's comedy at its broadest, but it works in perfect sync with the more high-minded verbal sparring. His first appearance, during which he discusses his difficulty in finding the home of Susan's in-laws, is one of the funniest character introductions in recent memory. He's a cheerfully ignorant flaming disaster of human being, so stunningly oblivious that he could be a VEEP character sent back in time. The only thing wrong with Bennett/Martin is that he doesn't appear nearly enough. 

Then again, he's not the main draw here. That, of course, is Beckinsdale, who carries this airy, sharp-tongued delight without missing a beat. Love & Friendship has the trappings of an empty period rom-com, but Stillman refuses to give into the temptation to fetishize the time period. There are a few striking gowns, but they're never given priority over what's going on with his characters. The social satire is not extreme, and Stillman never knocks his privileged characters off of their pedestal. Instead, with quick wit and a light tone, he subtly, stealthily nudges them toward the edge. 

Grade: A-

Review: "A Bigger Splash"

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Runtime: 120 minutes

Watching wealthy, powerful people behave badly is one of the great pastimes of mankind. There's a whole subset of Greek myths that dedicated to Olympians using lesser beings to toy with each other (and that's just Zeus). The habit has only intensified in the modern age. Whether we're watching characters on Empire and House of Cards or enjoying an evening with some of the Real Housewives and some cheap Chardonnay, the bad behavior of the elite (and presumed elite) continues to fascinate just as much as it repels. People from all walks of life can be vicious and petty, but dress it up just enough and it can become a glorified guilty pleasure or even prestige entertainment. 

Director Luca Guadagnino taps into this tendency of ours, albeit with reined in high art Euro gloss, deliciously in his new film A Bigger Splash. Set amid the sun-soaked, volcanic Italian island of Pantelleria, this loose remake of Jacques Deray's La Piscine (1969) is, for most of its two hours, a luxuriant treat for film lovers who like their melodramas with a bit of semi-serious restraint. Arriving stateside six years after Guadagnino's previous film, the labored, hermetically sealed I am Love, Splash marks a welcome change of course for the man behind the camera. 

Early on, we learn that rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is hiding out and recovering from vocal chord surgery. As such, Swinton's performance is largely silent. While it seems criminal to purposefully craft a role that robs our Lady of Elfin Cheekbones of the gift of language, her silence becomes a vital part of the juicy dynamic that drives the story.

Or, more specifically, drives the set up of the story. After a brief opening that finds Marianne and her new lover Paul (Belgian hunk Matthias Schoenaerts, of Bullhead and Rust and Bone), they receive a rude and very loud awakening: Marianne's old flame and record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes) has rolled into town with his laid back vixen of a daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). They exchange hugs, kisses, and a few awkward intros, and it's not long until they're all sharing living quarters. And from that point on, not much happens. They talk. They reminisce. They drink. They explore. They indulge in tastefully framed and edited sex. Never change, Europe.

Somehow the very aimlessness of it all works in Guadagnino's favor. Personalities click and clash, with the game central quartet treating the material with the right amount of seriousness. For all of the lush photography and snazzy editing, there are moments of subtlety that peek through, and add a veneer of depth to what it often a pretty vacuous exercise. Unlike I am Love, which featured a blink-and-you-miss-it flashback into the heroine's past, Splash builds its trips to the past into the narrative structure. The characters, especially Marianne and Harry, achieve greater complexity thanks to the juxtapositions of who they were and who they've become (or have pretended to become). "You're pretty domesticated for a rock star," says Penelope to Marianne. That sort of literalization could have easily been either a cop out of character development. Instead, it fits seamlessly into the drinking, sunbathing, and music that have all been poured into the film's storytelling cocktail. 

And for a film that spends a lot of time gazing at beautiful, youthful bodies (along with food), it's the two older actors who really invigorate the proceedings. Swinton, even in her silent reservation, is given so much to work with that her gestures and facial movements make perfectly acceptable substitutes for actual words. On the other end of the spectrum is Fiennes, who is gloriously unhinged and profane. Watching him strut and dance around, shirt fully open, to a Rolling Stones song is one of the film's most purely enjoyable scenes. When Fiennes and Swinton are left alone with each other, wandering through seaside communities, A Bigger Splash resembles a fashion-conscious Before Sunrise. There is a rich history between these two that the two actors flesh out in ways that could have easily been glossed over on page. Guadagnino is a cinematic aesthete and understands the power of images, but it's Fiennes and Swinton who make those images worth being seduced by.

This is why it's such a disappointment when the film has to actually have a plot following its climactic moment. As A Bigger Splash winds towards its final frames, the script struggles to create a coherent point out of its boilerplate narrative wrap-ups. Ideas emerge, specifically those revolving around the bubble of privilege these people exist in, but the ending has an aftertaste of half-baked irony. Background details involving Europe's refugee crisis sporadically appear, but the script fails to develop the angle enough to drive the film's point(s) home. The sumptuously photographed frivolity of it all is basically the point of the film as is, and Guadagnino's attempts to make a statement come across as a lazy sketch rather than a fully realized concept. Fiennes' wild man puts it best: "Everyone's obscene...that's the whole point." No more, no less.

Grade: B+

Review: "Midnight Special"

Director: Jeff Nichols
Runtime: 120 minutes

Fire may rain from the sky in a critical scene of Midnight Special, but make no mistake: this is no showboating blockbuster. Arkansas-born director Jeff Nichols' (Take Shelter) fourth feature certainly has brushes with the epic and the supernatural. Yet the heart of Midnight Special is a delicate, somber study of parents protecting children against the unknown. 

In the case of Midnight Special, however, it might be the adults who need protection. 8 year-old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) may be frail looking, but his otherworldly abilities suggest that he has capabilities far beyond any weapon. And yet, as we learn from various characters, Alton's abilities may not do much good against the ominous date of March 6th (deciphered from the boy's fits of speaking in tongues and code). 

When it comes to obvious answers, however, Nichols mostly withholds. Despite its lack of overt thrills, Midnight Special's plot is more or less a chase film, with Alton being taken somewhere by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and family friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). On their tale are two wildly different groups: the US government, who believe Alton may have somehow tapped into classified intelligence, and the cult where the boy was raised.

As in Take Shelter and Mud, the plot hardly rushes by, with momentary bursts of violence cropping a handful of times over 110 minutes. Still quite early in his career, Nichols' weakness as a director comes down to occasionally letting his slow-burn pace become plodding. Thankfully, Midnight Special represents a step in the right direction after the bloated meandering of Mud, even though it does drag out some scenes in the final act (a few too many reaction shots of people staring just a little too long).

But even when Nichols stumbles, he at least has the benefit of working with a much stronger foundation than his previous film. There's a lack of theatricality to the performances from the ensemble (which includes Adam Driver and Kirsten Dunst), but the main roles all blossom as the story progresses. Shannon previously played a distressed parent for Nichols in Take Shelter, but the roles are quite different. Shannon's Roy is tough, grounded, and compassionate, even when his devotion to Alton leads to questionable decisions (exhibit A: telling Lucas to shoot a state trooper because they can't afford to be slowed down). Edgerton's character begins as something of a convenience, but gradually reveals his own layers. 

Dunst, who doesn't arrive until much later, is similarly excellent as Alton's mother. Though she left the cult early, Dunst's Sarah dresses and styles herself like one of its members, suggesting the group's lasting impact. You get the feeling that Sarah could slip back into her old ways (whatever those may have been; the cult's practices and rituals are left vague). It's an odd balancing act, especially given the lack of exposition to answer big questions, but Dunst (coming off a revelatory performance on TV's Fargo) plays it perfectly. Lieberher, despite mostly existing in the frame as a prop, does quite well when his character is called upon. 

Yet so much of Midnight Special is quiet, brooding set up (aided by David Wingo's excellent music) that the climactic revelation can't help but come off as a bit of a let down. After teasing the audience (and the characters) with what might happen on March 6, Nichols overcorrects when it's time to finally pull back the curtain. It's hardly a disastrous narrative choice, but suffice it to say the journey, and not the destination, is what makes Special, well...special.

Grade: B+