Darke Reviews | The Neon Demon (2016)

I have been looking forward to this for some time, since the first trailer was released. I have limited experience with Nicolas Winding Refn’s (NWR) work, with having watched Drive and only partially watching Valhalla Rising. I know there are many who find his movies and his directorial style to be a near master craft in filmmaking, but that isn’t what attracted me to the film – at least not the name alone. The visuals presented in the trailer were incredible with perfectly beating music and starring someone I rather enjoy in film.

I had a feeling I was going to watch a Modeling industry version of Showgirls…but is that what I got?

I mentioned before that NWR’s work is pretty universally lauded from a critical point of view. So the newer trailers tell me with dozens of outlets reporting how impressive it is. I consider even how Every Frame a Painting talked about one of his major films Drive. Check the link later, it is absolutely worth the watch. Because of this I was looking for his usage of the camera in the movie and found that he was doing many of these same techniques through the film now that I knew to look for them. While I usually talk technicals later, it’s important here as the director is defined by his technical skill. Image and sound are as one through the movie. Every beat of the music is as important as every frame of the film. Unlike many current directors NWR brings the medium of film to bear  with all it can bring.

He stages.
He blocks.
He lights.
He uses sound.
He uses the music.
He moves…or doesn’t move the camera.
He goes wide when others go in.
He goes in when others go wide.

I am not suggesting that we need more directors like him, not fully anyway. I think we need directors who really look at the craft work of the film. The movie is as much a work of art as it is an hour and fifty minutes of entertainment. I found many of the images presented me in the movie provocative and informing of a story not told. Light and Dark and how that is used run from opening credit to final. It was truly impressive as a piece of art. Now, this is not to say that art is going to be equally appreciated. There were a handful of scenes that were audibly or visually uncomfortable, if not disturbing to some, for what is inferred or otherwise portrayed. Others, I may not have fully appreciated for everything that happened there.

Let’s talk story. Refn is director, story credit, and screenplay credit. Refn had work on the screenplay with the hands of Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, who are largely unknown with little to no work behind them. In and of itself the story is a simple one. There is little meat to it from a complexity or arc point of view, some of the subtext is a little too on the nose and more just text. There are plenty of depths to the characters however, but most falls on the actors and director to bring those out. The dialogue, and again, story are relatively straight forward.

Acting wise? Holy hell. Elle Fanning (Super 8, Maleficent, Twixt) delivers and incredibly complex performance as the young ingénue Jesse. The film must be carried by the 18 year old actress and she does so beautifully.  There is a lot of maturity to her acting that many her age, and face it many older, do not deliver. This isn’t to say the rest of the actors don’t show up, because they all do. Jena Malone (Hunger Games, Sucker Punch) as Ruby must deliver an equally complex part and does so. She’s hard to tear your eyes away from on screen in any work she is in and that doesn’t change here. The other two main actors; Abbey Lee (Fury Road’s The Dag), as Sarah, and Bella Heathcote (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dark Shadows) as Gigi have to bring their A game for this movie and do so. At first glance the performance seems easy, but there’s nuance to it that is worth watching for. Supporting actors, such as Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, and Alessandro Nivola turn up and show up, but have little to do.

Now…let’s be clear here. The acting is superb. The story is ok. Cliff Martinez soundtrack is inspired. The technical aspects are really well done for those who look; but the movie does have flaws. Much as I found with Drive it plods at an uneven pace and lacks something in it’s execution. For a word – bite. I think I wanted, or expected, something to happen that didn’t. In retrospect I shouldn’t have considering the past body of work, but I did anyway. Additionally there is a problematic aspect to the film that I can only put in a spoiler box at the bottom. I know that this problematic aspect was intentional, or I believe it was; with that intent to create the discomfort and realize…well. Yeah. Still problematic.

TL:DR?

The Neon Demon is everything that was promised in the trailer if you are a fan of Refn’s work. If you are unfamiliar with his movies, I might suggest Drive, Only God Forgives, or Valhalla Rising to understand what you are getting into. The acting is amazing, the artistry in each frame is evident. I was thinking about two of my long distance friends the entire film wondering what they would think of it having modeled before and knowing they will appreciate the film. Rather hoping they comment on the Facebook side of things after they see it.

The pacing and overall arc of the plot however, I think we’re less than what I needed from the movie.

 

Should you see it?

If you like Refn. Yes. If you are someone in the modeling industry, I am really curious to your take. Artistic film lover – must see. Film student or future director? Yes. Otherwise, you can wait for the comfort of your home and enjoy just as much.

EDIT: Friday 7:55 AM – In thinking more on this – this movie is what I did need. BUT it benefits from discussion and thought. So if you do see it, prepare to discuss! It’s worth it.

Will I buy it?

Unsure. It’s a solid low maybe. Bargain bin blu-ray perhaps? Yes! There are visuals worth watching and dissecting. I think I need to see it again.

 

SPOILER SECTION

Rollover to Read

Ok, one of the major themes of the film is the predatory nature of LA, Hollywood, and overall competition between people in a small field. No issues there. The issue, that is problematic, the 18 year old Fanning is playing 16 year old Jesse. At 18 she’s not the issue, the character is and how she is sexualized by the camera, and some of the characters. There are going to be people out there who don’t care, or know, the actress is 18. They will enjoy all too much the idea of the 16 year old being put up as a sexual thing. This is not a matter of the empowerment of the character Jesse, or her own choices to be what she is, but how that is film and what is filmed.

I could be way off base and am open to education here, but it was uncomfortable. Intentionally so, I know. The point is to show the fact how sexualized models can be, regardless of age. The point is to show that “the Industry ” doesn’t care either. I get it. I don’t know that there is another way to illustrate that right now, but I feel strongly enough that I need to write it as a potential trigger warning.

Darke Reviews | Maleficent (2014)

Probably one of Disney’s most anticipated films for some time in the live action genre. While some of their movies have been financially successful, critically they’ve been all but universally panned. Last years Lone Ranger was an abomination that cost them over a hundred million dollars (before marketing costs!!). Before that Prince of Persia, John Carter, three of the last four Pirates movies, I can go on. Some were good, some were garbage. Most of them cost Disney more money than they will ever see from them. Can the Mistress of Evil break the curse?

I don’t rightly know. Disney thinks it can with an aggressive marketing effort that doesn’t try to sell it on previous film “successes” and instead focuses on Angelina Jolie and her embrace of the titular character. Before we get into this too much, I want to point out that two of the people I saw this with have serious issues with the movie, far more than I did. They also had problems with Godzilla. Problems I did not have and appreciated from a film makers design decision. These reviews are my opinion and from my lens and my own tastes.

Where does that leave us for Maleficent?

Angelina is fantastic. Every moment on screen she has is spent acting her heart out.  She covers an excellent range of emotion and delivers a stunningly deep performance that develops her character into something more than is on the page or ever was on the page. She through the majority of the film dominates every single moment she on screen and makes it look effortless. Every choice she makes brings her character to life in a way that might annoy some who want her to be the monster from the original animated, but instead we have a fully realized post modernist Maleficent.

The rest of the cast cannot completely compete. Elle Fanning (Super 8, Twixt), little sister to Dakota, plays the sixteen year old Aurora. She doesn’t get a lot to work with, nature of the character I suppose, but she does sell it when on screen with Angelina. They surprisingly have a bit of chemistry and it makes it work. More on the surprisingly in a bit. Sharlto Copley (District 9, A Team) plays Stefan and was clearly hired for his ability to go dark in the blink of an eye and have some cultivated insanity. Everyone else is wasted in two dimensional undeveloped stereotypes. Some more annoying than others.

Ok, one exception. Newcomer Sam Riley as Diaval is the audiences eyes and window into the world. He’s everything he should be. When he stands in the shadow of Jolie he at least has a shape to himself and that is impressive.

That comes down to directing and story. Story first, Linda Woolverton is the written by credit with ten other based on credits, including the Brothers Grimm themselves. She has some movie credits to her name, but ultimately she has done a lot of TV and written for children, young children. None of her work has been solo until now. Sadly, she needs that help. Nothing here is ever fully fleshed out and the ideas are not developed as fully as they can be. I wish they had been as some of them were amazing. Others that were developed a touch, a touch were actually well done and they had the bravery to do some things. Just not enough.

Some of that goes to the director, Robert Stromberg. Don’t know the name? It’s ok. He is an oscar winner, but this is his directorial debut. What he has been is the production designer, that means he tells everyone else how pretty the setting will be, for Cameron’s Avatar, Oz the Great and Powerful and Alice in Wonderland. Well, for the first time since Avatar he got it right. Visually. Directorially, he needs work. His sense of pacing and care for the characters he is trying to develop is horrific. He spends no time on the character interactions in detail, barely showing the development of the characters. The only thing saving him is the cast and for me the visuals.

I find the movie gorgeous. I didn’t see it in 3D but wish that I had for the flight sequences. While the creature design is great and actually kind of unique they do look CGI for the most part. They look crafted with care, but there’s no way you buy them being “real”. I was able to overlook that for the beauty, colours, and whimsy of the world of the Faerie. Froud would be happy. The details in many other sequences were also present and not just glossed over. Magnificent transitions between shots and subtle details in others really made this work. The make up on Jolie and Riley was beyond perfect. Itwas flawless.

TL;DR?

The movie made me smile. The movie made me laugh. I felt joy and even teared up when I was supposed to. In all of this the movie works. I *enjoyed* myself during the film, even if those I saw it with did not. I let myself get wrapped into the world and taken for the ride they delivered. While I can’t say I enjoyed every minute, I can say that I enjoyed most of them.

I am a sentimentalist at heart. A true romantic (why am I single again?) and let the movie in. I didn’t think too hard. I let it bring the emotions in.

If you can do that, watch this movie.

Its absolutely for children of most ages. There is stuff for adults, but not nearly as strong as it should or could be. I do recommend the film and that when you sit down, its not about turning your brain off; but instead letting your own inner child sit back and watch the show.

Will Maleficent break the Disney live action curse? It might take all the powers of Hell, but it just might.