REVIEW: The Neon Demon

26 06 2016

Many working directors can lay claim to being a “man’s director,” but few own it quite like Danish pornographer of violence (his words, not mine) and general provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn. The films that have thrust him into mainstream attention on the stage of global cinema have all centered around tough, masculine men exerting their dominance over other people and their environment. Seriously, the narrative throughline is practically flowing with testosterone.

Women, meanwhile, take backseat to these public displays of machismo. In “Drive,” Carey Mulligan’s Irene fulfills the classic archetype of damsel in distress, and Christina Hendricks’ brief appearance in the film as Blanche is far more memorable for her character’s bloody exit than anything she does. Was there a woman in “Valhalla Rising?” Honest question. “Bronson” gets a slight pass since it takes place in a single-sex prison, though the same cannot be said for “Only God Forgives,” which grants Kristin Scott Thomas’ Crystal only a mere foul-mouthed scenery chewing bit amidst a marathon of close-ups on emotionless Ryan Gosling.

In Refn’s latest film, “The Neon Demon,” women move front and center as he peers into the nasty, competitive void where one might expect to find a heart in the fashion industry. But after witnessing Refn’s misogynistic, insulting views of the opposite sex, it’s safe to say they might be better left on the sidelines in his films.

In the aforementioned Refn films, he conveys the idea of masculinity as a renewable resource. One can earn their stripes through hard work and a strong exhibition of power. As time goes by, the essence of one’s manhood can grow in size. “The Neon Demon” shows that he believes the exact opposite about women. Their chief currency, that of beauty, is finite and withering away with each passing moment. To maintain their status, women have to either cheat, steal or lie. Some can buy time for themselves by trading sexual favors with men, but what takes those girls to the top is what will also ultimately make them drop.

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REVIEW: Time Out of Mind

16 10 2015

Time Out of MindThe urban poor are so often exoticized or romanticized on screen (see “The Soloist,” “Gimme Shelter“).  The issue of how our society can allow such a tragedy to befall a person usually gets passed over in favor of our comfortable Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story.  By convincing ourselves one person can supersede their circumstances, we gain the illusory certitude that all possess such a capacity.

Oren Moverman’s “Time Out of Mind,” on the other hand, does not even offer the familiar luxury of a traditional narrative.  The camera simply trains itself on down-and-out George, played by Richard Gere, as he ambles aimlessly through the streets of New York.  Moverman and co-writer Jeffrey Caine never really attempt to penetrate his mind, which has begun to mimic the drifting action of his body, nor do they offer a sociological tract on how he arrived where he is.

The film mostly just presents homelessness as it really is, making its point by not explicitly making a point.  “Time Out of Mind” uses George as a protagonist to lead the proceedings, but he’s arguably the least important element in any frame. It’s an outstanding display of incredible humility that Gere allows himself to become such a wallflower, never letting an actor’s vanity get in the way of conveying a greater truth about homelessness.

In a manner simultaneously clinical and deeply felt, the film details both the free range of the streets and the complex bureaucracy intended to capture all in its safety net.  Though a detailed audio collage always lets us know what happens in any given scene, Bobby Bukowski’s camera is usually located on the other side of the glass, across the street, or even above George.  He sometimes even goes so far as to shoot characters in reflected surfaces, giving us visages of people instead of their actual flesh and blood.  Might this be a replication of our own default position towards the homeless?

These long, distant shots of poetic power give “Time Out of Mind” a naturalistic rhythm that proves difficult to shake afterwards.  The paradoxes by which it operates lend the film both an intellectual and emotional heft.  While it might slightly betray its aesthetic integrity by moving in close in its final scene of emotional confrontation between father and daughter (Jena Malone’s Maggie), this is the only time it rings with a hint of falsity.  A-3halfstars

REVIEW: Inherent Vice

25 11 2014

Inherent ViceNew York Film Festival

Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice” ends with his chief character, Doc Sportello,  attempting to discern shapes within a haze that has formed outside his car window.  Not to worry, this is not a spoiler since screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson chooses to end his cinematic adaptation on an entirely different note altogether.  But the passage is such an apropos summation of “Inherent Vice,” both in terms of its content and the ensuing experience, that it certainly deserves a place in the discussion.

While this is a not entirely unusual noir-tinged mystery surrounding corruption and vice, the story is hardly straightforward or easily discernible.  Characters drop in and out of the narrative at will, making it rather difficult to decipher who the key players really are.  Take no motivation and no appearance at face value, because it is likely to change in the blink of an eye.

Anderson cycles through events at such a dizzying speed that trying to connect the dots of “Inherent Vice” in real-time will only result in missing the next key piece of information.  (I found myself drawn to read Pynchon’s novel after seeing the movie to get a firmer grip on the plot.)  Might I suggest just to kick back, allow the film to wash over you, and let Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello be your spirit guide through the fog of Los Angeles in 1970.

In a fictional beach community outside the city proper, steadily stoned private eye Doc tries to make sense of a strange case in a transitional time period.  The city is still reeling from Manson mayhem, and hippies are no longer cute animals at the zoo but entities whose every move is subject to suspicion.  People are beginning to anticipate Nixonite and Reaganite malaise, though it remains unformed and intangible.  Ultimately, his understanding is about as good as ours – which is to say, it scarcely exists.  What begins as a routine investigation of Doc’s ex-flame and her rich new lover quickly spirals into something far more sprawling.

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