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 ~ Knock Knock

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Synopsis: When a devoted husband and father is left home alone for the weekend, two stranded young women unexpectedly knock on his door for help. What starts out as a kind gesture results in a dangerous seduction and a deadly game of cat and mouse.

Release Date: October 9, 2015

Thoughts: Director Eli Roth first made a splash with the campy grotesqueness of 2002’s Cabin Fever before helping to coin the term torture porn for 2005’s Hostel and it’s deplorable 2007 sequel.  Briefly jumping in front of the camera for a few films, he’s back in the director’s chair for two movies in 2015 and both look like more exercises in excess.  While the trials and tribulations of The Green Inferno are legendary in Hollywood circles, Roth took on this small thriller while he was waiting for The Green Inferno to make it through some legal woes.  Starring Roth’s wife Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas (Oscar winning actresses neither appear to be) as two vixens that terrorize family man Keanu Reeves (47 Ronin, John Wick) the trailer for Knock Knock does no one any favors…least of all audiences trying to make up their mind to see the film or not.  It looks like a loud, obnoxious film…much like most of Roth’s work up until this point.  I’m more interested in The Green Inferno with its cannibalistic storyline than this cheap-o psychosexual thriller made only as a time-killer for the director.

Movie Review ~ John Wick

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An ex-hitman comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters that took everything from him.

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Dean Winters, Bridget Moynahan, Ian McShane, John Leguizmo, Willem Dafoe

Director: Chad Stahelski & David Leitch

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: For a while, it seemed like the age of Keanu had passed…not that anyone really noticed.  Lampooned endlessly for his surfer dude line readings and tendency to make even Shakespearean dialogue sound like he was ordering at Burger King, if you look over his credits over at IMBD you’ll see an impressive list of work that spans various genres and A-List directors.  As of late, Reeves has been doing some more work behind the camera only coming out occasionally for films like the troubled 47 Ronin in 2013.

So it was with mild trepidation that I ventured into an early look at the latest Reeves opus to hit the big screen, a dark revenge action flick that pulls no punches and lands nearly everyone it throws.  While it’s not the revisionist career-defining moment for Reeves (that most surely came with The Matrix) it’s a wake-up call to those who thought his career was on life-support.

These revenge dramas are all the rage as of late, buoyed by the endless Taken films that even by the first sequel had already felt played out.  I was nervous that John Wick would fit into that category of trashy style over substance trifles but what we have here is a film with grit, muscle, blood, and bone…and a sophisticated one at that.

I’m usually not a fan of movies that open with the ending and then flashback but John Wick starts off with such an unexpected bang that it’s a forgivable sin.  Recently widowed Wick hasn’t even had time to clear out his wife’s side of the bathroom counter before two important things enter his life.  The first is an adorable pup intended as his companion and the other is a Russian mobster’s son that takes a liking to Wick’s classic car.  When Wick loses more than his prized car, he retaliates by using the skills he employed in his younger days as a killer for hire.

Part of the fun of John Wick is Derek Kolstad’s script which lets us peek behind the curtain at a society of professional killers (like Adrianne Palicki’s wicked Ms. Perkins) that may be deadly assassins but who also live by a code of honorable ethics.  If one of their own breaks this code, there’s hell to pay — just one of the many pleasures the film offers up to action hungry viewers.  As John goes after the son of former employer now city kingpin (Michael Nyqvist, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) the bullets fly and limbs break in several gloriously staged sequences of ultra violence.

Co-directed by Reeves’s sometime stunt double Chad Stahelski (along with fellow first time director David Leitch) , the film has an appealing slate of bad guys/gals that all take their turn putting out John’s, um, wick.  Playing out against some well-designed set-pieces lit by a neon glow, the film feels more alive the as the bodies pile up.  Unafraid to spatter blood all over the walls and our lead actor, the filmmakers wisely resist the urge to let the film drift into camp territory.  There’s no extraneous dialogue or character development happening here — it’s an efficient film at every turn.

A clear audience-pleaser if the screening crowd I saw this with is any indication, John Wick is a nice fall surprise for those naysayers that wrote off Reeves a decade ago, serving as a nice reminder that the actor can still pick a winner.

The Silver Bullet ~ John Wick

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Synopsis: A former hit man is pursued by an old friend who was contracted to kill him.

Release Date: October 24, 2014

Thoughts: I must admit to being impressed at the staying power of Keanu Reeves (Parenthood) over the years. Though the actor has taken his fair share of blows for his tuned out line readings and good fortune to be in at least two franchises that became cult classics, he’s persevered to continue to churn out work without straying into Nicolas Cage whacked out territory. After licking some wounds inflicted upon 2013’s long-delayed and quickly forgotten 47 Ronin, Reeves is back with John Wick…a film that becomes less interesting the longer the trailer goes on. There’s so much neon on display I half expected to see the film credited to director Michael Man…but aside from promises of double crosses there’s not much else to suggest the film would reach the pedigree of a Mann vehicle. I’m not sure if Reeves will ever truly earn a place in Hollywood’s A-List but credit is due for sticking it out so long.

Movie Review ~ 47 Ronin

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A band of samurai set out to avenge the death and dishonor of their master at the hands of a ruthless shogun.

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi

Director: Carl Rinsch

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: There’s nothing film critics will get behind quite like a big-budget bomb and it appears that 47 Ronin just made the grade in the final days of 2013, effectively wiping out memories of The Lone Ranger, the other expensive movie that tanked earlier this summer.  Here’s a little secret I’m going to let you in on though…it’s not anywhere near as bad as some fuddy duddy national critics would have you believe it is (neither, for that matter, was The Lone Ranger) but it’s also not the grand spectacle Universal Studios thought they were getting.

Arriving amid rumors of a troubled production phase, 47 Ronin could probably be called the Cutthroat Island of samurai films.  That is to say that like the infamous 1995 pirate epic that bankrupted its studio, it’s possessing huge production values thanks to a whopping budget but probably was never destined to be a movie that made all that cash back.  It does have one thing that Cutthroat Island didn’t have though; a plot drawn from Japanese folklore that provides more than enough excuse to go big or go home and 47 Ronin goes big.

Now it should be said that this is far from a perfect film.  Because it’s set up like a folktale, the filmmakers push the limits of reasonability to bring to life the story of the masterless samurai (called ronin) that seek to reclaim their land by avenging the death of their master.  Adding in lizard faced demons, ghosts of the undead, sinewy dragons, shape-shifting witches, and several beasts that can’t be classified,  screenwriters Chris Morgan (Fast & Furious 6), Hossein Amini (Snow White & the Huntsman), and Walter Hamada (a producer on The Conjuring) can’t be faulted for stuffing their take on the tale to the brim.

Where the film goes astray is the very fact that it’s a Hollywood film to begin with.  Though the legend has been put on screen seven times before, this is the first time that a major Hollywood studio has made a go of putting their stamp on the Japanese myth.  That’s like if a Russian production company made a film version of Johnny Appleseed…there’s something lost in translation that the film can’t recover from.

It always felt strange to me that a largely all Japanese cast was speaking English, probably so star Keanu Reeves (Parenthood) wouldn’t stick out further in his role as a foundling of mysterious origin taken in and raised with the samurai but never truly being part of them.  No disrespect meant to these Japanese actors but had the film been subtitled, it may have allowed these actors to dig deeper in their roles and not come off (as they often did) as simply reciting their lines phonetically.

Though I couldn’t stand her in July’s Pacific Rim, Rinko Kikuchi fares much better here as she slinks through the film as a villainous witch that changes appearance at will.  As an advisor to a rival kingdom’s leader she has a Lady Macbeth quality that’s lip smacking good without ever resorting to camp.  There’s also fine work from Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine) as the head samurai teamed up with Reeves and the lovely Ko Shibasaki as the requisite lovely princess in distress.

Even with a veteran editor (Stuart Baird) on board, it was probably not the best idea for Universal to place this property in the hands of a first time director.  With the emphasis on sumptuous costumes and large scale set-pieces, it’s actually hard to see where Carl Rinsch fit in as the director in the first place.  I think the movie could be trimmed by a good ten minutes but there are enough distractions for the eyes to keep you from checking your watch too much.  You can skip seeing the movie in 3D as it’s probably the least effective use of the medium in 2013.

This is one you’ll have to see and make-up your mind for yourself.  Maybe it’s because I read such scathing reviews for 47 Ronin before I saw it that the bar was set so low that it was destined to exceed those expectations…or maybe it’s just because the movie isn’t that bad to begin with and we’re just dealing with critics at the end of their 2013 good will toward men.  It’s not a film I’ll likely revisit but I wouldn’t chuck it in the trash heap if a copy found its way into my collection.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

It’s funny but there are certain trailers that just stick with you over the years…maybe it’s because it was your first glimpse of a film you were looking forward to or maybe it’s all about where/when you saw it. In the case of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was both.

I have a confession to make.  Long before Edward and Bella came around and before Buffy staked her claim in Sunnydale, I was a huge vampire fan…Dracula to be exact (or as the four year old Joe used to say “Drak-lee-la”).  So when 12 year old Joe heard there was another Dracula movie coming out in a big way you know he was excited.

I remember seeing the first teaser for this before a Sunday matinee screening of A League of Their Own at Centennial Lakes 8 and though I liked Penny Marshall’s baseball comedy all I was thinking about throughout was how much longer I’d have to wait until the tale of Count Dracula was arriving.

A well-produced teaser, this actually wound up being removed from theaters because it was deemed “too intense”.  Watching the first images from Francis Ford Coppola’s film that wound up being art-directed to the hilt, you’ll probably be scratching your head as to what’s so intense about it but we live in different times now.

Catch-up!  Check out my look at the teasers for MiseryAlien!

The Silver Bullet ~ 47 Ronin

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Synopsis: A band of samurai set out to avenge the death and dishonor of their master at the hands of a ruthless shogun.

Release Date:  December 25, 2013

Thoughts: There’s something about the preview for 47 Ronin that makes me think of those salad days in the late 80’s/early 90’s when you couldn’t throw a samurai sword in a video store and not hit a martial arts film starring any number of thick necked action heroes.  Keanu Reeves (Parenthood) has his share of detractors but as blank as he may appear to be, I can tell the guy has an appreciation for filmmaking and seems to enjoy selecting unexpected roles.  This isn’t the first time the Japanese folktale that anchors the film has been put on screen but it is the first time that Hollywood has taken a stab at it.  It looks kinda schlocky, pretty fun, and something that will require a big tub of popcorn to really enjoy.