THE NEON DEMON
Even when I don’t like his films (which is rare), I’m always glad writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn is out there in the world making movies. He’s something of a button pusher, sometimes a little too obviously so, but going back to his Pusher trilogy, Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and his breakthrough work Drive, Refn remains as solid a visual artist as anyone working today, even if his themes of violence amid a certain amount of serenity don’t always hold together. Again, the fact that a filmmaker is even thinking in these terms and challenging the norm (of both big-budget and indie films) is thrilling.
Refn’s latest work, The Neon Demon, tackles a few familiar elements of his movies through the eyes of a largely female cast, including Elle Fanning as a 16-year-old model named Jesse, who is barely off the bus from Georgia (it should come as no surprise that Fanning herself is from Georgia and was 16 when she started shooting this film). As Jesse begins her journey through the fashion world, she catches the eye of a few key players who have the ability to send her career skyrocketing. She possesses the qualities of an “It Girl,” and it excites the power brokers to no end.
But the first person to spot Jesse’s potential is makeup artist Ruby (a magnetic Jena Malone), whom she meets after a shoot. Before long, Jesse signs with a modeling agency (run by Christina Hendricks), has her portfolio shot by a star-maker photographer (Desmond Harrington) and is picked to be the final runway model in a show by a famous designer (Alessandro Nivola). While Jesse seems like one of the few good people in her small universe, her fortune and presence makes her a target of severe jealousy by some of Ruby’s model friends. In one particularly unnerving scene, Jesse cuts her hand on a piece of glass and model Gigi (Bella Heathcote, from Mad Max: Fury Road) attempts to drink the blood oozing out of her palm, in a desperate attempt to ingest a tiny piece of whatever special quality Jesse possesses.
With a shared screenwriting credit from Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, Refn’s The Neon Demon is an exaggerated and accelerated version of the Hollywood modeling experience, complete with unhealthy doses of sex, violence, shallow people and predatory power brokers. But there’s also something other-worldly about Jesse’s journey, as if something has crept into her soul and is in the process of corrupting her, making her poison to everyone else who enters her circle of influence. Complete with Cliff Martinez (Drive, Spring Breakers and several Steven Soderbergh projects) providing another synth-heavy score that adds another layer of sleaze to the proceedings, and Natasha Braier (The Rover) as cinematographer delivering on the colorful, lighting-heavy world of fashion, while stripping away the gloss for Jesse’s outside life.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the couple of scenes in The Neon Demon that feature Keanu Reeves as the manager of the motel in which Jesse is staying. He’s about as fully formed a bastard as Reeves has ever played, and I love this side of him, snapping at his tenants the minute they require assistance from him. He’s wonderful here.
If you haven’t figured out if The Neon Demon is your cup of tea or not, don’t you worry. I fully expect at least 50 percent of the people who see it are going to loathe it. It’s a pretty film about pretty people; it’s a film about vapid people that is in no way vapid itself. Fanning’s performance is subtle and precise. Jesse lives between fear and anxiety, but as things start going her way, those qualities turn into tentative excitement. Her eyes empty out when she’s working, but they fill with life and humanity when she’s off the clock. The true villain of the piece is difficult to find, but once you figure out who it is, it becomes an even more disturbing work.
The Neon Demon finds a way to feel chaotic and messy while still appearing polished. Refn’s observations about Los Angeles in general and modeling specifically alternate between astute and obvious. But it’s his themes of this world consuming this young woman that impressed me the most. He has captured this world centered on beauty and promptly turns it into a horror show, complete with the bloody trimmings. The film will likely leave you conflicted, and that’s good, because it means you’re actually feeling something, which doesn’t happen nearly enough in a darkened theater these days.
To read my exclusive interview with The Neon Demon star Elle Fanning, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
FREE STATE OF JONES
I’ll confess, I’m not quite sure I understand all the hatred aimed at Free State of Jones. Is it because it tells a Civil War-era story that involves slaves from the perspective of a white man? If so, that’s a fairly ridiculous take on this material considering that the story would never have happened without Southern farmer Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who was tired of seeing small farmers have nearly all of their crops and other goods taken by Confederate troops, when they were only supposed to donate 10 percent of their goods to help keep the war going. As the war is violently grinding to a halt, Knight sparked a rebellion of his own against Southern plantation owners and other rich men, who were effectively able to buy their way out of serving in the war.
Hiding in the Mississippi swamps with a small group of runaway slaves, and eventually other small farmers who shared in his beliefs, Knight created the Free State of Jones (named after Jones County, Miss.), an organization that continued into Reconstruction, with one of its greatest struggles being keeping former slaves free and giving them the vote. If the stories are accurate, this rebellion and its principles regarding former slaves gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan in the region
Writer-director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) occasionally lets this compelling story feel a bit too much like a stale history lesson, but McConaughey’s fiery, often angry, performance keeps something of a fire burning in the heart of the movie. Probably the least interesting aspect of Free State of Jones are flash forwards to a ’60s-era trial of a descendant of Knight’s, who is apparently one-eighth black, which means that marrying his white fiancée is illegal. But the question becomes whether he truly is the offspring of Knight and former slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw of Concussion, Belle), or Knight and his legal wife Serena (Keri Russell). At one point, the three lived together harmoniously with their various offspring for quite some time. The flash forwards seem superfluous and irrelevant, and coming back to them breaks up the main story to such a degree as to be aggravating.
One of the most fully realized characters in the film is that of escaped slave Moses (Mahershala Ali of “House of Cards” and the two Mockingjay films), whose only goal in life is to travel from Mississippi to Texas to find his wife, who was sold away years earlier. Also on hand is Bill Tangradi as Lt. Barbour, the tax collector and source of many hardships for the newly formed state. He’s a bit too mustache-twirling villain for my tastes, but there’s something so depraved about him, that you grow to despise him with all due affection.
Director Ross takes a fairly straight-forward, often artless, approach to the material, and while often the inherent drama of the events carries it through, in many cases, it feels like a certain spark is missing in this heavy-handed drama. The events that inspired Free State of Jones are an interesting footnote to the final days of the Civil War and the period that followed, but as film, the exercise feels hollow and something less than cinematic. This is unfortunate because the performances by McConaughey and Mbatha-Raw are exceptional, but they are not enough to elevate the material to where it deserves to be. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING
A perfect blend of feel-good crowd-pleaser and deeply dark humor, The Fundamentals of Caring comes from writer-director Rob Burnett (the long-time “Late Night with David Letterman” producer, as well as an executive producer on the series “Ed” and “Bonnie”), who adapted Jonathan Evison’s novel “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.” On the rebound from some awful experience in his life (that I won’t reveal here), Ben (Paul Rudd) decides it’s time for a change, and he takes the six-week course on how to be a home healthcare provider. He’s simultaneously dodging his estranged wife, who is attempting to get him to sign their divorce papers, which he is not prepared to do.
Ben’s first assignment is to care for a wheelchair-bound young man named Trevor (Craig Roberts, from Submarine and Neighbors), whose dutiful mother Elsa (Jennifer Ehle) is convinced Ben will be driven off by Trevor’s exceedingly abrasive personality and tendency to pretend to be dying. As instructed, Ben follows Trevor’s carefully scheduled regimen on meals, pills, television and the rest, but nowhere in the routine is there any time outside the home, something Ben thinks is a shame, and after the two start to become something resembling friends, Ben suggests a road trip to visit a few of the roadside attractions that Trevor seems to enjoy reading about online (he also enjoys a great deal of porn, FYI).
Not surprisingly, Elsa is against the idea, but she eventually relents, partly because she knows that getting out of the house and breaking routines can be nothing but good for her son. The men pile into the wheelchair-accessible van, and away they go on a tour of mostly the American Southwest. The actual plot of the film isn’t really what makes Fundamentals shine; it’s the banter between Rudd and Roberts. Many at the screening I attended said the film works because it’s “Rudd being Rudd,” which is mostly true. But Roberts gives as good as he gets. Still, when Ben is attempting to get Trevor to eat a Slim Jim for the first time, I couldn’t stop laughing at Rudd’s taunts when Roberts initially refuses. Some of what Ben says is insensitive—there’s no question about it—and every bit of it is hysterical.
By making this a road-trip story, Burnett gives our heroes time to bond and dig deep into their respective issues (granted, the idea that both men are crippled—one on the inside, one on the outside—might be a bit too on the nose), but it also forces them to interact with new faces, something they both desperately need. On their journey, they pick up a hitchhiker named Dot, played by Selena Gomez, who seems right at home in this four-letter-word environment. She’s running away from her overly restrictive father, but it helps that Trevor has a big crush on her and is completely without the skills to charm her. Naturally, he seeks advice from Ben, who is dealing with some fairly painful thoughts of his own.
The one big misstep in The Fundamentals of Caring is the 11th-hour addition of another passenger, Peaches (Megan Ferguson), a ready-to-pop pregnant woman who offers little to the mix beside the inevitable birthing scene. I’m at a loss why this character was necessary or what she adds to the nicely balanced trio. But I guess if you have your heart set on a water-breaking scene, you need a pregnant lady. Gomez is so strong in her part that she makes Ferguson seem entirely unnecessary.
The film’s wrapup is a little too tidy, but Burnett supplies us with such a good time and so many laughs getting there, it’s easily forgivable. Rudd’s gift for improvisation serves him especially well in this setting. While normally, his talents are used to elicit laughs (which is certainly the case in many spots here), he also taps into the heart and sadness that moves just under his character’s skin, not visible but always present. The Fundamentals of Caring is textbook you’ll-laugh-you’ll-cry stuff, and it works quite nicely. The film premieres today on Netflix.
To read my exclusive interview with The Fundamentals of Caring writer-director Rob Burnett and star Paul Rudd, go to (http://www.aintitcool.com/node/75514) Ain’t It Cool News.
It begins innocently enough. New Zealand-based reporter David Farrier (who is credited as co-director, along with documentary vet Dylan Reeve), whose expertise is with covering strange and unusual stories—usually of the light-hearted variety—stumbles upon the online phenomenon of “competitive endurance tickling” videos. Clearly a fetish experience, these videos feature young men in various states of undress (although never nude, I don’t believe), holding or strapping down a subject and tickling him aggressively. As we learn in the film, the “victims” often get paid quite handsomely for taking part, and it seems like harmless fun.
But when Farrier reaches out to the company that produced the videos, Jane O’Brien Media, the response he gets is so vile, insulting and threatening (including attacks on his being gay) that it fuels the journalist to dig deeper and chronicle the entire experience, becoming the film Tickled. If the movie had just been about competitive tickling videos, it would have been an amusing 30-minute short that you’d likely never hear about. But Tickled is about something far more dark and menacing. As Farrier begins to find subjects for his film, including former participants in the videos, he uncovers a web of deception and formidable cyber-bullying (commonly referred to as “doxing”), the likes of which I’ve never seen.
There are a great many genuinely surprising and shocking reveals in Tickled, but the film’s greatest achievement is as a thoroughly researched cautionary tale about who you get involved with online without ever having met in person. You’ve certainly heard the warnings about giving out personal information to the wrong people, but this film is about the lure of easy money and the price some people pay for attempting to get out of a situation they no longer feel comfortable being a part of. The movie is confirmation that all of the paranoia associated with faceless evil on the internet is mostly justified.
Farrier and his team follow the carefully hidden breadcrumbs to America (of course) in the hopes of exposing the faces behind Jane O’Brien Media, and the resulting footage will make you hold-your-breath tense. The film takes us from secret tickling recording sessions and eventually gives a sense of just how vast and expansive the tickling empire truly is. It sounds ridiculous and funny, I know, but you likely won’t be laughing. The entire investigation and resulting film never stops getting stranger with each passing moment, and we even begin to wonder if Farrier has slipped too far down the rabbit hole to emerge unscathed (lawsuits and private investigators tracking Q&A screenings of the film have become a regular thing for Farrier and Reeve).
Shot beautifully by cinematographer Dominic Fryer, the film at times takes on the guise of a classic thriller, peaking around corners and shooting great distances at suspicious subjects. Short of spoiling some of the film’s great secrets, nothing can quite prepare you for the many turns this story takes. In many ways, it’s a classic American story about the lengths some will go to to keep their livelihood from being threatened. But it’s also about the corruptive nature of power and influence. And if you’re able to catch of double feature of Tickled and Weiner, then you might have a clearer picture of just where our scrambled heads are right now in this country. Tickled is a truly gripping and eye-opening work that almost dares you to laugh by the time its over. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
One of the biggest hits in South Korean box office history, The Wailing is something of a mash-up of familiar horror films and genre tropes, combining elements from The Exorcist and just about every virus outbreak movie you can think of, with a side order of recognizable zombie behavior. From writer-director Hon-jin Na (The Yellow Sea, The Chaser), The Wailing is pure horror insanity that gets progressively more overwhelming—both in terms of its plot and its level of sensory scare ingredients—and the result is something that moves back and forth between brutal, outrageous (there’s a distinct Sam Raimi vibe as well, at times), socio-political, and downright graphic.
A series of violent killings in this small town sparks the story as fairly ineffective police officer Jeon Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won) does his best to solve these crimes that seems to stem from pure rage. When it is believed that a virus of some sort has infected a large number of people in the town (as evidenced by some truly gnarly looking blisters and rashes), suspicion begins to fall on a newcomer to the area, an elderly Japanese man (Jun Kunimura), who the locals are convinced is some sort of evil spirit that has cursed their area. With no evidence aside from a suspicion of strangers, police, thugs and even a priest confront the weird old man with disastrous results.
The Wailing begins as a police procedural and slowly transitions over its two-and-a-half-hour running time into a paranoid tale of possession, when the officer’s daughter (Kim Hwan-hee) shows signs of having the devil inside her, prompting her desperate father to call in a powerful shaman (Hwang Jeong-min), whose elaborate exorcism rituals are the most fascinating portions of the film, and some of the most disturbing, since the young daughter is really taken through the possession ringer, as it were, with much screaming and contortions. Another great character in The Wailing is that of a mysterious woman named Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-bee), who shows up occasionally to give important observations to the officer, both about the Japanese man and his daughter’s condition. She seems helpful, but in supernatural films, you never know who you can trust.
Hong-jin Na’s films seem to follow a familiar pattern of slowly ramping up without every really coming back down until the very end. The increasing amount of chaos, noise and violence is mind-numbing at times, to the point where it’s easy to get lost in exactly what is going on and who is truly good and evil. There are also far too many scenes of characters just staring into space, paralyzed by fear and panting like dogs. Watching someone who was scared a few minutes ago and is still feeling the residual effects is not nearly as compelling as you might think. But the film has so many genuinely terrifying moments (with that running time, it better) that the scenes that might not work don’t ruin the overall impact of the work. The Wailing is high on atmosphere, melodrama, and under-the-skin creepiness, and it really deserves to be seen on the big screen. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS
If you’re looking for a complete and total change of pace from the usual summer fare and have fairly eclectic tastes in music, The Music of Strangers might tick a few boxes for you. Told largely from the perspective of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the film tracks the 16-year history of The Silk Road Ensemble, an ever-changing line-up of musicians who gather together in a different country each year to create music from scratch and put on a massive concert with their resulting compositions, which blend music and instruments from Europe, Asia and Africa, with the idea that regardless of what nations may be at odds politically, music erases most of those designations, and the results are often quite beautiful and riveting.
Directed by Morgan Neville, who made last year’s fantastic Best of Enemies doc and won an Oscar for helming 20 Feet from Stardom, The Music of Strangers is far more of an emotional journey than one might expect, especially when the camera lingers on the lives of musicians from the Middle East, whose nations are being torn apart by radical violence and the resulting revolution. But I also loved the oddball players in the group, including one singer from a part of Spain where the musical foundation is Scottish bagpipes. The cameras allow us to hear both the individual players make music in their native regions, as well as discover how well they play with others.
At the center of it all is the very zen Yo-Yo Ma, who you can’t help but want to be friends with. He saw the importance of these artistic gatherings as a means not just to explore musical creation but also incorporate the visual arts and storytelling. As much as the ensemble might seem to be promoting cultural blending, there’s also a clear sense of each musician rediscovering their specific roots and birthing a newfound pride in their heritage. I’m can’t promise you The Music of Strangers is going to convert you into a fan of this symphonic world fusion, but I have no real connection to this music at all and found it quite exemplary and rousing. The entire film might be too touchy-feely for some, but by not hiding the often devastating home lives some of these musicians have, the film avoid being a sugar-coated telling of these stories. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Documentaries are always an important part of any film festival, and at last year’s Sundance Film Festival (where I saw this film originally), docs were among the most controversial and talked-about films of the fest. Chief among these often-disturbing works was the Swedish-Danish co-production Pervert Park, which profiles the residents of a St. Petersburg, Florida, trailer park occupied entirely by men (and at least one woman), all of whom are registered sex offenders.
Co-directors Frida and Lasse Barkfors attempt what some might think is the impossible: to dig deep into the lives of these people and discover not only the details of their specific crimes, but what in their childhoods and early adulthoods led them down the path to committing these crimes. Not surprisingly, tales of childhood violence, sexual abuse and humiliation abound, and while we certainly get a clearer understanding of their pre-trailer park lives, the filmmakers don’t attempt to excuse or forgive the perpetrators’ crimes. Instead, the film simply adopts the sound idea that there are no monsters in our world who are born monsters. They are shaped, molded, corrupted and broken until we get the people we see in this film.
The film makes a fairly strong case that a few of the younger residents were entrapped by flimsy internet police stings, during which the police badger someone seeking a sexual encounter via the internet and are tricked by a cop posing as an of-age woman who asks if he wants to include her underage daughter in the mix. Simply agreeing to this is apparently enough to arrest someone, even if the young man had no intention (according to him, admittedly) of including the daughter in the tryst. It’s Pervert Park’s trickiest segment, one I’m sure many will bristle at, but it’s certainly opening up the conversation, and that’s what’s most important.
Pervert Park is no easy viewing experience. It’s one abhorrent story after another. In many cases, the convicted criminal gives the details of their arrest, and in the next breath, give us the story of being horribly abused before the age of 10. Your emotions and sense of right will undoubtedly be challenged. Although there is no real commentary by the filmmakers, we are essentially asked to take some amount of pity on many of the residents, and it’s up to the audience to decide whether they deserve that.
The park was founded and built by the mother of a convicted sex offender, whose son found it difficult to find a place to live with his record, and we see it in the eyes of the residents that the fact that someone took a chance on them by giving them a place to live has made a huge, positive difference in their lives. By not judging its subjects and simply allowing them the opportunity to give us a glimpse into their day-to-day existence and convey to us the darkest days of their lives, Pervert Park is that rare doc that challenges everything we believe about crime, justice and rehabilitation. There are no right answers; there is simply testimony. The rest is for us to decide, but at least we’ll do so after knowing a bit more than we did going in. This one is not for everyone, but I promise if you make it to the end, this is an experience you won’t soon forget. The film opens today at Facets Cinémathèque.