Talking Movies

January 31, 2018

Top Performances of 2016


Advertisements

July 7, 2016

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn returns with another artful garish provocation that elicited boos at Cannes. He must be doing something right.

the-neon-demon

Fresh-faced teenager Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in LA with dreams of modelling. She impresses agency head Roberta (Christina Hendricks), even though her photos do not; so much for would-be boyfriend/photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) hitching his wagon to her rising star. Roberta pushes her towards legendary photographer Jack MacArthur (Des Harrington) who is immediately wowed by her innocent looks and shoots her. His instant interest is shared by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces Jesse to her sharp-tongued model friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). But when Alessandro Nivola’s designer is also entranced, leading to successive humiliations for Gigi and Sarah in favour of Jesse, their claws come out. And Jesse, after a trippy catwalk experience, finds herself isolated when events in the worst motel in Pasadena take a sinister turn courtesy of creepy manager Hank (Keanu Reeves).

Refn got a kicking for Only God Forgives that would’ve broken many directors, but, very impressively, The Neon Demon is made with supreme confidence, and with absolutely no apologies – even signed NWR as a statement of artistic singularity. Whereas Only God Forgives gestured towards total abstraction there is a semblance of story here, but, even though he collaborated with playwrights Mary Laws & Polly Stenham on dialogue, it’s in the ha’penny place to the visuals. And the visuals work because Refn knows Cliff Martinez can provide a synthesiser score of wide range that can interpret images: in particular Jesse’s catwalk encounter with a blue pyramid, water, and a red pyramid, which tips its hat to 2001’s Jupiter sequence, and seems to imply that Jesse has communed with the Platonic Ideal of beauty and is thereafter a different and blessed person.

Martinez’s score is quite haunting and beautiful in its ethereal approximation of the timbres of marimba and celeste, but it also embraces great Vangelis Blade Runner washes of synth, as well as juddering techno, contrapuntal melodies, and, for a climactic syncopated cue, almost wah-wah guitar effects. Reeves plays terrifically against type, and his enjoyment is mirrored by Refn mischievously cutting from his introduction to a huge white space where one character initiates another. The Rover cinematographer Natasha Braier observes the scantily-clad models with Kubrickian detachment, complementing a startling scene where Jesse appears faced with sexual assault but is treated as an objet d’art, not human but a personification of beauty. Early on, regarding lipstick names, Jesse is asked “Are you sex or are you food?” Refn seems to imply Jesse as embodiment of beauty can be anything, except a person.

This is more accessible than Only God Forgives, but there will still be walkouts, because this is unapologetically an NWR film: which means mesmeric pacing, semi-abstracted visuals, a foregrounding of music, and outré violence.

4/5

March 2, 2016

Time Out of Mind

Actor/producer Richard Gere teams up with The Messenger writer/director Oren Moverman for a portrait of homelessness in New York City.

feature1

George (Gere) is rudely awakened from his slumber in a bathtub by Frank (Steve Buscemi) and thrown out of an apartment that his friend Sheila has been evicted from. George is a nuisance in Frank’s eyes, in fact he’s a nuisance to most people. Nurse Maire (Geraldine Hughes) tells him he can sleep in the ER waiting room but an orderly countermands her compassion. Private schoolboys and frat boys mock and prank George when he’s at his most vulnerable. His estranged daughter Maggie (Jena Malone) can’t stand the sight of him. When he falls at his feet at a shelter he’s quickly intimidated by the younger, physically stronger Jack (Jeremy Strong). But there he also makes an unlikely friend, former jazz musician and current garrulous optimist Dixon (Ben Vereen). Can Dixon steer George back on to the straight and narrow?

That description makes Time Out of Mind sound almost plot-driven. It’s not. To a fault. At an ADIFF Q&A last week actor/producer Gere was proud of how he and Moverman had worked hard to strip away almost all elements of plot from the movie. There is no true arc nor backstory. We begin abruptly in media res ,and our feelings of disorientation are heightened by a chaotic sound mix; reflecting the long-lens cinematography of Bobby Bukowski that captures from afar the astonishing verite of real people blanking Richard Gere because of his shabby apparel, as well as emulating 1960s anti-Magnum photography by wrapping images in and thru reflections. But this lack of backstory greatly hurts the father/daughter dynamic. Without context Maggie appears hypocritical and narcissistic, her repeated ‘What else?’ reminiscent of and as irritating as Diane Keaton’s ‘As what?’ refrain in Reds.

Time Out of Mind lacks the bravura camerawork Bukowski and Moverman deployed on 2011’s Rampart, but there are numerous long-takes that are so unobtrusive you start with surprise when you suddenly realise that minutes have passed without a cut. Gere doesn’t match the recent gold standard of his barnstorming turn in Arbitrage, because he’s essentially a passive, if occasionally self-destructive, figure. Instead Vereen remains long in the memory. His Dixon is a comic creation given to lengthy monologues, but also gifted incredibly affecting notes of despair and delusion that come to a head when he hesitates agonisingly over playing an out of tune piano. Moverman’s previous directorial effort Rampart was just as much a character study, but it was driven by a ferociously complex and layered character actively moving through a reasonably fleshed out plot. Moverman’s pared back too much…

Time Out of Mind is that most frustrating of things: an important film. It’s incredibly depressing, paints a not too rose-tinted picture of urban homelessness, and is exceptionally well-intentioned. It’s just not great film-making.

3/5

November 21, 2013

Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence teams up with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), and the result is a more thoughtful yet more expansive sequel to The Hunger Games.

rs_560x415-131115151540-1024.Donald-Sutherland-Jennifer-Lawrence.jl.111513_copyCatching Fire opens in a bleak Appalachian winter, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and coal-mining boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hunting turkey in the woods of District 12 of the dystopian post-USA nation Panem. But after The Hunger Games you can never really go home… as is insisted upon by various characters. Katniss and her little sister Prim are now living with their mother in The Victors’ Village, a mere 25 yards and a wall of emotional ice away from the boy she pretended to love in order to survive the Games, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) just down the street. President Snow (Donald Sutherland in a greatly expanded role) threatens Everdeen to convince him, and thereby the outlying Districts, that her ‘suicidal love’ for Peeta was genuine and not an act of defiance against the Capitol; and so remove herself as a symbol of hope for an insurrectionist Mocking Jay movement fomenting rebellion against Snow’s rule…

Lawrence nuances her formidable heroine with a healthy dose of PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Her sedition-inspiring reaction to seeing the family of slain District 11 tribute Rue, who she tried to save in the Games, damns her further with Snow; who is advised by caustic veteran Games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to pitch Katniss back into battle in a Quarter Quell to destroy her status as rebel icon before killing her. And so Katniss and Peeta return to the Capitol as tributes, with mentors Haymitch and Effie (Elizabeth Banks, mining a new vein of comedy in her character’s transition from callousness to chumminess). Peeta once again manipulates TV host Caesar (Stanley Tucci) for public sympathy, and manages to parlay Katniss’ lethal practice display of archery into alliances with narcissistic combat expert Finnick (Sam Claflin),  and the tech wizards unkindly dubbed Nuts (Amanda Plummer) & Volts (Jeffrey Wright) by axe-wielding troublemaker Johanna (Jena Malone, channelling The L Word’s Katherine Moennig). Facing off against the Career Victors inside a jungle arena, they need all their collective skills to survive Plutarch’s constant spit-balls.

Simon Beaufoy and a pseudonymous Michael Arndt (both of whom I’ve ripped previously for cliché) provide a screenplay that beautifully kicks its characters into the second act and then has them desperately try to claw their way back to the first act. Catching Fire follows the broad outline of its predecessor – establish the universe, and then let the battle begin – but this is a more fully rounded universe which dexterously details the battle of wills between Katniss and Snow in the world’s deadliest PR campaign. Kudos must be given to director Francis Lawrence who tosses aside originating director Gary Ross’ inexpert shaky-cam and instead deploys his own preference for held shots and action tracks. A CGI heavy sequence with killer baboons genuinely unnerves, while the geography of the action is always legible; even though much of it occurs at night, as Lawrence strays into James Cameron Blue (TM) territory. Lawrence’s villains, as ever, are complex creations, who will repay repeat viewings, and Katniss’ rebellion viscerally threatens them. James Newton Howard admits defeat in creating an iconic theme though, instead utilising Arcade Fire’s chilling Panem Anthem…

Catching Fire unfurls at a measured pace because it is made with unmistakeable confidence, and its abrupt ending whets the appetite for the sequels.

4/5

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.