Jul 25, 2016

The Neon Demon [18]

Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
16 year old Jesse (Elle Fanning) has come to LA to be a model. She finds that her career takes off quickly.  She is recruited for a test shoot by a famous photographer (Desmond Harrington) and asked to close a show for a well known designer (Alessandro Nivola). Moving in new circles, she becomes friends with make up artist Ruby (Jena Malone). However, Jesse's personality seems to begin to chnage as she becomes aware of her effect on people, and this quality, along with her success, breeds jealousy, especially in fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).

The Neon Demon feels very much of a piece with Drive and Only God Forgives, the two films that helped launch Nicolas Winding Refn, previously more of a cult figure, into mainstream conciousness. This being the case, I wasn't particularly anticipating it. I had liked Drive on my first viewing, but on revisiting it found it an empty husk of a movie; a great soundtrack and stylishly mounted, but with nothing that emotionally engaged me. I didn't need the revisit with Only God Forgives. I was concerned that this film would see Refn deliver more of the same, but ultimately I think, this time, it's deceptive; style not over but AS substance.

Style drips from this film like the fake blood that drips from Elle Fanning's neck in the opening photoshoot, the themes of which set the larger themes that Refn and his co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham will be exploring here. Most notable among these is the idea of consumption; that Jesse's personality is consumed by her success, that Ruby is consumed by attraction, that Gigi and Sarah are consumed by jealousy and that only an act of consumption can quell these feelings. Vampirism and cannibalism are ideas seeded early, in a striking scene when, after a casting that has gone well for Jesse but badly for her, Sarah seizes Jesse's cut hand and desperately drinks the blood from it, perhaps trying to ingest some of whatever youthful magic Jesse now holds over her.

Consumption is also what the Neon Demon of the title does. That demon for me, though there are other valid readings, is clearly the fashion industry itself; a relentless monster, attracting young girls (and boys) with the promise of glittering treasures which then, almost without exception, chews them up and spits them out in short order. This is hardly a groundbreaking hot take on the fashion industry, in fact it's what almost every film I've seen about that industry is about at some level, but Refn and his cast deliver this idea with style, verve and no small measure of wit.

If Refn reuses some established ideas here, he's also unafraid of showing his hand when it comes to the influences on the film's style. The film is soaked in giallo style imagery, with a particularly heavy debt owed the similarly colourful and surreal worlds of Argento's Suspiria and Inferno. In both theme and in the cold, body obsessed, imagery of certain scenes (particularly the striking morgue sex scene), Refn also owes more than a tip of the hat to David (and Brandon) Cronenberg. There are more influences on display too, but to Refn's credit he is not merely a homage artist, rather The Neon Demon takes its influences and remixes them into something that creates its own rules, its own look, its own world. 

This combination of elements is perhaps best seen in the sequence in which Jesse closes her first catwalk show. We don't see her walk as it would be seen by the audience, instead we see her slip into a surreal neon lit world (perhaps into the jaws of the Neon Demon itself). This is where we see her personality take a bigger shift. Images of Jesse kissing her reflection in two mirrors suggest not only a growing narcissism, but the possibility that when she emerges from this moment we are perhaps seeing not Jesse, but a reflection of her instead. The sequence is dazzling to look at, with the images and Cliff Martinez' synth score combining to suck us into a new space, but it, like so much of the film, is also powered by a stunning performance.

Over the past few years, we have seen Elle Fanning grow up on screen. She has always struck me as remarkable; capable of performances that suggest a wisdom beyond her years, but without feeling actorly. Refn has said that if she couldn't or wouldn't do this film then it would not have been made. His instincts serve him well here. Fanning is perfectly cast and gives her best performance to date. Refn uses our perception of his actress to great effect. While Fanning has played characters older than her before, there is still something unsettling, transgressive feeling, about seeing her sexualised as she is here, especially as the film cuts between the Ruby's desperate sex scene in the morgue and her fantasies of Jesse. This isn't subtle commentary on the way the entertainment industry views and treats young women, but it's effective in the discomfort it provokes.

Outside of what her casting alone says, Fanning gives a typically mature and layered performance. There is always a sense that Jesse is aware that her beauty is a powerful commodity, but in the film's first act there is a sense that the model version of Jesse is a persona that the naive 16 year old from Georgia puts on. Fanning slowly shifts this, hardening Jesse with every scene as she is ever more taken in by the 'demon'. Soon it begins to feel like the young girl who, early on, goes on a date with Karl Glusman's photographer is the mask, that the previous mask has become the real Jesse. This is an impression we get ever more powerfully with each passing scene and it's that, as much as her sexualisation, that makes Fanning's performance so unsettling.

Women are at the forefront of this film, and it's notable that all the film's best acting work is from its female cast. Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee are excellent as the older models, envious of Jesse's youth, the power of her beauty and her success. For the most part, these are performances defined by small moments. Several stand out, but few more so than Heathcote's reaction when Jesse's date, asked to evaluate Gigi's cosmetically enhanced looks, says "she's fine" and Lee's darkly hilarious moment in the film's final scene, a tiny twitch of the lip. As Ruby, Jena Malone has her best and most substantial role for some time. Initially she seems like the one unambiguously friendly face that comes to Jesse, but like the other characters she too is, to some degree, wearing a mask and when her ulterior motives are clear the film shifts gears.

The performances from the male cast are more of a mixed bag. A cadaverous Desmond Harrington (who explored similar thematic territory in the underseen Love Object) and a camp Alessandro Nivola are both great value, if as one note as the film's other male figures. On the other side of the coin, Keanu Reeves overplays and feels somewhat miscast as a sleazy motel manager, while Karl Glusman is a rather bland and anonymous presence as Jesse's maybe boyfriend.

Technically, The Neon Demon is a marvel. It looks as crisp and perfect as the world it is set in demands, at least until we are taken back to the 'real world' of Jesse's motel room. While Only God Forgives was like watching silent outlines of characters move through treacle until they met and tried to kill each other, The Neon Demon has more developed characters and is better paced; it slows down to experience important moments that might feel drawn out to Jesse (the photo shoot, the catwalk fantasy), but moves through story and character beats without feeling like Refn is straining to make a running time. This pacing, the rhythm Refn imposes on the film, is also felt in the sharp editing, and in the way the cutting fits with Cliff Martinez' atmospheric score, which will surely end up as one of 2016's best.

More than most films this year, The Neon Demon has stayed in my head. Images, music, cutting, the way Refn focuses on eyes and the particular significance he places on Jesse's, all these things and more remain swirling around for me. Yes, I have my quibbles and reservations, but with a second viewing under my belt and more to come, they are feeling less and less important in terms of the overall feeling and atmosphere of the film. I'm not quite ready to put an extra star to the grade below, but ask me again at the end of the year and that may have changed.

Jun 1, 2016

The Month in Movies: May 2016

Best Film(s)
Mustang / Grave of the Fireflies / Ivan's Childhood

Worst Film
Ender's Game

Best Actor: Nikolay Burlyaev: Ivan's Childhood / Géza Röhrig: Son of Saul
Best Actress: Günes Sensoy: Mustang / Angela Pleasence: Symptoms
Best Director: Andrei Tarkovsky: Ivan's Childhood / Andrei Rublev
Best Visuals: Ivan's Childhood
Best Use of Music: Everybody Wants Some / Green Room / Sing Street
Best Scene:  The 12 Commandments: Love and Friendship
Best Scene: [In a movie I didn't love]: Spider-Man scenes in Captain America: Civil War / Nightclub shootout in John Wick
Biggest Disappointment: John Wick
Most Fucked Up Movie: Son of Saul
I'm Pretty Sure No One Else Has Seen This: The Lacemaker
Movie I Finally Got to See: The Lacemaker
Coolest Title: The Pit and the Pendulum

May 9, 2016

Captain America: Civil War [12A] [2D]

Dir: Joe and Anthony Russo
Marvel's cinematic universe has, over the past eight years, reshaped the landscape of American cinema. Forget the long endangered idea of the standalone film, the standalone franchise is now a species on the watchlist. That's all down to the success of Marvel's interlocking superhero megafranchise, but what started out as a groundbreaking idea has now begun, for me at least, to devolve into predictable formula. That said, the third in the Captain America series always had my interest piqued, because the two previous films focused on Steve Rogers are easily the best the MCU has had to offer so far, and I only became more intrigued when my favourite superhero of all, Spider-Man, was added to the roster, thanks to a deal with Sony.

The film adapts the comic miniseries of the same title, keeping the same central idea, but changing the specifics of the central conflict, from a fight over superhero registration and the preservation of secret identities to a disagreement over a UN resolution to control Avengers interventions. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) find themselves leading teams on opposite sides of this issue and fighting over that and over Steve's friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), whose Winter Soldier persona may have been awakened again.

The strengths of the Captain America series so far largely continue with this instalment. Chief among them is Chris Evans, who continues to lend solid presence and bring a measure of inner life to a character who could be played as little more than a square jaw and a circular shield. This film sees Steve much more adjusted to the 21st century, but the script ties back his motivations to a moral code that comes from when the character grew up. The connection of this to a funeral, early in the film, is a little on the nose, but Evans makes it work. Evans also continues to have chemistry with his co-stars, bouncing off Anthony Mackie's Falcon, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Emily VanCamp's Sharon Carter especially well.

The series also continues to deal in a more complex set of morals than many superhero films, tying the legislation that sets the Avengers against each other to the unanticipated results of their actions grounds what is an outlandish set of characters and events in some sort of recognisable world - the debate being framed here being one that, in other forms, is very live on the world stage. However, while these issues are serious, the script and the actors manage to find a tone that allows the film to acknowledge them while still remaining fun, a circle that, by all accounts, DC has yet to square.

A blockbuster shouldn't live or die on its set pieces, but it certainly helps if they're strong, and Civil War has a couple of standouts. The opening action scene, which feels, in Indiana Jones tradition, like the ending of a movie you missed, gets things off to en exciting start. Frank Grillo is great value as Crossbones and while the action is over cut at times Joe and Anthony Russo do manage to keep a degree of sense in the geography of a scene involving a lot of characters and some scattered pockets of action. It's also a good showcaes for the action style, which again hits a sweet spot between comic book physics and something that looks genuine enough to not feel like you're watching a computer game.

The film truly hits high gear with its central set piece, which delivers on the hype of two groups of heroes facing off against each other. It's extremely well shot and edited, with the cutting rhythm slowing down for these twenty minutes, allowing us to get more caught up in the conflict. Best of all, this doesn't feel like the film breaking for a fight, the Russos and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely never lose sight of the conflict between and personalities of their characters. The stakes feel high because they feel personal, but that also informs the way the fight is staged, with characters often clearly holding back. It's another way that Civil War acknowledges its themes.

With such a large cast of characters, it's fortunate that most of the ensemble is on form. There are still some characterisation issues; Hawkeye, in particular, still lacks definition and the quippy dialogue could perhaps be restricted, as when most of the characters hit that register it sounds less like a character beat and more like Marvel's house style asserting itself. That said, there is much more good work here than bad. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, as Scarlet Witch and The Vision, have some strong scenes together and an interesting relationship. 

Of the new characters, Chadwick Boseman makes a strong impression as Black Panther, there's a rage simmering in the character that could make his solo film interesting. Daniel Bruhl is a fine actor, but until the closing scenes he's not given much to work with as Zemo, but those closing scenes do present an interesting take on villainy and are overall more interesting than another city destroying smackdown. The standout, however, is Tom Holland's take on Spider-Man. After the calamitously awful Amazing Spider-Man franchise, Marvel's most famous character was in desperate need of a(nother) reboot and, in the roughly ten minutes of screentime he has here, he's not only got that but what is potentially the defining cinematic take on the character. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield occasionally got the wit of Spidey down, occasionally captured his intellect, occasionally gave us his nerdy personality. Holland and the Russos nail all this, and more besides, from the first instant we see Peter. As a lifelong Spidey fan, every second he's on screen here is a joy. I can't wait for Spider-Man: Homecoming next year.

All this said, Civil War is not entirely, perhaps not even mostly, a triumph. In some ways it's not the fault of this film, but of the series it is a part of. This doesn't feel like a standalone Captain America film. One of the great strengths of the first two films in this franchise within a franchise was that you could watch them independently of the rest of the MCU. More than that, each of them plugged the character into a genre that felt like something other than a standard superhero film; first a second world war men on a mission movie, then a 70's paranoid spy thriller. This is the first time in the series that Captain America has felt like just another superhero film. A fun one, one with a few ideas, sure, but it has much more of an assembly line feel. This feeling is only added to by the overwhelming sense that, rather than Captain America 3, this is Avengers 2.5, Black Panther 0 and Spider-Man 0, all rolled into one. This episodic structure and the constant trailering of things yet to come is making the MCU, for me, feel extremely televisual, despite its scale.

Civil War is also a long film, at 144 minutes it's only 8 minutes longer than The Winter Soldier, but it feels like more than that. After the opening action scene in Nigeria there is a lot of exposition to get through and it can be slow going. To my surprise, I found this particularly true thanks to the large role that Robert Downey Jr plays here. Downey has now been playing Tony Stark for the best part of a decade, and there are more than a handful of moments here where I felt like I could tell, like he seemed less engaged than usual. He's still not bad, and when he's playing off Tom Holland's Peter Parker and in the film's very personal final fight he's great, but for the first hour I thought he, like me, was finding the process of setting the pieces a bit drawn out.

While the bigger set pieces are great, some of the other action is less engaging. Smaller action beats seem to work on a much faster cutting pattern and sometimes I found myself disengaged, wanting a better and longer view of the film's many punch ups. It's not as if the Russos have suddenly turned into Paul Greengrass, but just a little pulling back on the pace of some of the action would have made a world of difference for me.

Ultimately, fun as it often is and much as there is, at times, to recommend here, Civil War is the weakest of the Captain America series. For me that's mainly because it exists more in service of the MCU than of the Captain America films within it. I kept feeling I was missing things here, having not seen Avengers: Age of Ultron and I suspect that, while bits of the MCU continue to interest me, that's something that will only become more acute and more to the series' detriment, as Phases 3 and 4 run on.