Movie Review ~ Above Suspicion

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: A newly married FBI agent is assigned to an Appalachian mountain town in Kentucky and drawn into an illicit affair with an impoverished local woman who becomes his star informant. She sees in him her means of escape; instead, it’s a ticket to disaster for both of them.

Stars: Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Johnny Knoxville, Thora Birch, Sophie Lowe, Austin Hébert, Karl Glusman, Chris Mulkey, Omar Benson Miller, Kevin Dunn, Brian Lee Franklin 

Director: Phillip Noyce 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 104 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6/10) 

Review:  I’m the first to admit that it’s taken me a while to buy a ticket on the Emilia Clarke train.  I’m likely one of the last people to have avoided playing the Game of Thrones, I’ve yet to be completely won over by Clarke’s charms in films like Me Before You and Last Christmas, nor was I convinced she was destined to be an action heroine by Terminator: Genisys or Solo: A Star Wars Story.  I just wasn’t seeing a star there like most people did.  In the end, what I needed was a movie like Above Suspicion to turn my head and finally notice there was an actress with some depth there…and unfortunately this time she’s the best thing about the film. 

That’s partly due to strength of Clarke’s performance as Susan Smith which, through no fault of her own, winds up overshadowing everyone else in the film.  She sets a high bar for commitment: to the look, the accent, the demeanor, everything is considered and casts a believable picture of the local high-school dropout and sometime drug abuser.  Living in a cramped double wide with her drug dealing ex-husband (a bedraggled Johnny Knoxville, We Summon the Darkness) and a menagerie of rogue deplorables while raising their two children, Smith busies herself with small-time crimes like check fraud to help her stay afloat. Smith senses an opportunity for change when she hears new FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston, The Longest Ride) is working with the town’s law enforcement (Austin Hébert, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) to ferret out who has been robbing rural banks. 

Armed with firsthand knowledge of the culprit and not unwilling to give up names in exchange for payment, Smith’s informant relationship with Putnam escalates quickly to a physical level, even as she befriends his new wife Kathy (Sophie Lowe) at the same time.  However, once Agent Putnam has what he needs from Smith she becomes more of a liability than an asset and as her usefulness wanes, so does his interest in her on an intimate level.  With Putnam moving on and leaving Smith to deal with the fallout from the town who now views her as a snitch, she becomes desperate to either get her man back or make sure his success is short lived.

Little more than a juiced up made for television movie about the real-life scandal that rattled a small Kentucky town in 1988, Above Suspicion should work on screen as well as it does on the page.  Based on Joe Sharkey’s 1993 non-fiction book of the same name and adapted by Chris Gerolmo, who penned Mississippi Burning, it’s hard to fathom this tale of an FBI agent’s affair with his informant that led to murder could ever be called lackluster but absent in overall polish it certainly is.  Surprisingly, it’s directed by Phillip Noyce who is no slouch when it comes to putting together a crackerjack thriller with films like Dead Calm, Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, or heck, even the severely compromised 1993 Sharon Stone film Sliver to his credit.

The whole film feels flat and even though cinematographer Elliot Davis (Love the Coopers) captures some beautiful Appalachian scenery, he has a curious obsession with filming Clarke on a diagonal tilt and it doesn’t make the rest of the movie have any more depth to it.  It just makes you cock your head to one side in all of her close-ups.  Clarke is also underserved by Huston as her co-star, with the two exhibiting zero of the chemistry necessary to create the kind of heat that would convince us of the passion that burned hot but cooled dramatically once Putnam, a clear opportunist, saw something shinier ahead of him.  Huston plays the endgame at the outset, leaving little room for his characterization to grow having one foot out Smith’s door from the beginning. 

If there’s one actor that feels like a match for Clarke, it’s Lowe as Putnam’s short-suffering wife.  Not being married that long, Kathy Putnam already seems to understand that her husband is a flawed man who will need constant attention throughout their union.  Lowe brings a brittleness to the role that doesn’t stem from being a jilted wife but from being resentful of having to do all the hard work with her husband while Smith gets him for the fun parts.  Together, Clarke and Lowe share some excellent scenes that spark with the kind of liveliness the rest of the film really needed.  Popping up in a brief role, so brief I have to believe more of it was left on the cutting room floor, Thora Birch (Hocus Pocus) is Clarke’s bouffant-coiffed beautician sister that I wanted additional time with.  Sadly, the script favors more scenes between Putnam and Smith that just rehash the same arguments over and over again on why they can’t be together. Point taken, point made.

Originally intended for release in 2019, Above Suspicion fell victim to the delays of the pandemic and is flying below the radar into theaters before joining the other generic-named titles in the Redbox machines at your local gas station.  The entertainment value is marginal, and it’s mostly due to Clarke and some high production values that keep the film buoyed for most of it’s average running time.  Is it a total wash? No, nothing about tips the scales so much that I would say to skip it but thinking about how a tweak in the casting or even adjustments in performances could have helped up the ante just makes me wish I’d seen that better movie instead.

Movie Review ~ The Neon Demon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.

Stars: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Alesandro Nivola

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: First 75 minutes: (7/10); Final 45 minutes (1/10); Overall (4/10)

Review: When I first caught the trailer for The Neon Demon, I thought it had a nice giallo look that reminded me of horror maestro Dario Argento. Giallo, for the horror-averse, is a 20th-century Italian film genre and giallo films are thrillers often with slasher, supernatural horror, or crime fiction elements. Awash with bright, bold colors and an overall vison that favored style over any shred of substance, these films can be seen as overly cornball now but were considered viscerally raw during their time of release. I went into The Neon Demon expecting a nice side dish to Argento’s classic 1977 film Suspiria, but wound up with sour stomach.

While the thought of indulging in any food that slithers, slimes, or swims gets my stomach roiling I think I have a steely tolerance for gore and general grotesqueness but The Neon Demon finally broke me. This is a film with a substantial ick factor aiming to shock more than awe, it practically begs you to disengage more and more as the minutes t(ick) by. And that’s too bad because I can’t remember another movie in recent memory that starts off so well before devolving into a gross display of nastiness.

Right off the bat the film introduces an uneasiness as the studio credits/logos appear with no sound (one genius audience member kept asking for “Sound, please?”) and the credits play over a color shifting texture set to a synth score. We’re at a photo shoot and young Jesse (Elle Fanning, Trumbo) is playing dead for the camera, bathed in blood and keeping her eyes fixed and breathing to a minimum. New to town, she’s befriended by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone, Inherent Vice) who appears to be taking a parental interest in Jesse’s well-being but may have sinister intentions hidden away.

Ruby introduces Jesse to her model friends, Gigi (Bella Heathcote, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and Sarah (Abbey Lee, Mad Max: Fury Road) who size up the fresh face as a serious threat to their already diminishing shelf life. Picked up by a prestigious modeling agency (led by Christina Hendricks, Zoolander 2 in a dandy of an all-too-brief cameo), favored by both a bad-boy photographer (Desmond Harrington, The Dark Knight Rises) and a famous designer (Alessandro Nivola, A Most Violent Year), and pursued by a seemingly benign acquaintance (Karl Glusman) before she knows it Jesse is the toast of the town in an other-wise gluten free industry.

These developments occupy the first half of the film and it creates genuine intrigue in the viewer as well as the characters. Who is this girl and where did she come from? Hints of a broken home and a dangerous past are only that, hints, mere morsels of information that lead down a rabbit hole. Once it leads you to the bottom, though, the ground hits hard and reality sets in. There’s blood letting (and drinking), necrophilia, cannibalism, and adolescent rape for the viewers that stick this one out (numerous people at my screening didn’t make it to the end credits).

It’s no secret that director Nicolas Winding Refn thrives on excess. Making a warm entrance with 2008’s Bronson (which introduced Tom Hardy to us) before releasing his big splash Drive in 2011, he fell mighty far with his follow-up Only God Forgives two years later and now The Neon Demon is his most difficult film to stomach yet. This one has an uncooked feel, bloody and tenderized without offering any heat. Some movies could make up for a lurid ending by knocking the beginning out of the park but even the fascinating opening stretch can’t save this one.

Winding Refn’s style (and name, his monogram appears over the beginning and end titles, showing up in the same frame as his actual film credit) is all over this one. He’s admitted to being color-blind which is why his palette is so vibrant and the film admittedly has a chic perfection to nearly every frame, but the script (co-written by Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham) is a schizophrenic mess. One moment it’s a wicked parable condemning the industry with its subversive commentary and the next it’s glorying the excess of young flesh and starved bodies. The graphic nudity feels exploitative and unnecessary, with Winding Refn lingering too long and too intently on his subjects.

Some sort of survival award must be given to the actors Winding Refn cast here. Fanning manages to come out the best, nicely using her blank stares and whisper of a voice to suggest innocence even when we start to suspect she’s been playing us all along. Lee and Heathcote are a nice pair of harpies, gnashing their teeth the higher Jesse rises and Lee in particular really sells an insanely disgusting moment near the conclusion. I’ve always loved Malone and feel sort of sorry for what she’s asked to do here, including an act so revolting I can’t bear to think about it let alone write about it. Then there’s Keanu Reeves (John Wick) as a manager of a seedy motel that shows up in one of Jesse’s twisted psycho-sexual nightmares only to act out an even more horrifying atrocity in reality.

Going back to Suspiria, I always loved its tagline: “The Only Thing More Terrifying Than The Last 12 Minutes Of This Film Are The First 92” and could apply a similar one to The Neon Demon: “The Only Thing More Disgusting Than The Last 5 Minutes Of This Film Are The Previous 112”.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Neon Demon

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Synopsis: When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.

Release Date: June 24, 2016

Thoughts: Here’s one thing you can never say about director Nicolas Winding Refn’s films…dull they ain’t. The Danish director made a name for himself stateside with 2011’s pulse-pounding Drive before following up with the chic but much-maligned Only God Forgives in 2013. He’s back with a new tale of excess, this time centering his lens on the fame hungry models that populate the Los Angeles hillsides. There’s more flair in this two-minute trailer than most movies can muster in 90 minutes and while I’ll always favor substance over style there are moments to be seen here that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Starring Elle Fanning (Trumbo), Jena Malone (Inherent Vice), Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows), Christina Hendricks (Zoolander 2), Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Keanu Reeves (John Wick) and reminding me just a tad of Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece Suspiria, I’m looking forward to feeding The Neon Demon.

The Silver Bullet ~ Stonewall

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Synopsis: A young man’s political awakening and coming of age during the days and weeks leading up to the Stonewall Riots.

Release Date:  September 25, 2015

Thoughts: Though we still live in a world plagued by racism, homophobia, sexism, and a lot of other unfortunate “isms”, it’s worth noting that we’ve come a long way over the last half century and these key moments in the civil rights movement for all walks of life are getting the silver screen treatment in full force the last few years.  2014 had its Selma and 2015 audiences will get see Meryl Streep in Suffragette and Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall.  Fitting for the director of Independence Day, Emmerich (White House Down, who I wasn’t aware was gay himself until a few years ago) takes on a dramatized version of the events surrounding the 1969 Stonewall riots, placing a fictional story in the midst of the very real conflict.  I’ll admit to being under-educated on this period in history and while I won’t rely on the film to tell me all I need to know, I hope it’s a good jumping off point to continue the discussion on equality.