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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews The Neon Demon

In Nicolas Winding Refn’s film The Neon Demon, Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a sixteen year-old pretending she’s nineteen, looking to make it as a model in Los Angeles.  Jesse’s beauty renders all of the men around her smitten and all of the women around her jealous. Things don’t end well.

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The Neon Demon is a truly bizarre film, gorgeous to look at but empty of character depth or anything resembling a narrative arc.

There is a plethora of memorable, gorgeous imagery in the film. Mr. Refn and cinematographer Natasha Briaer can compose a staggeringly beautiful frame.  There is imagery in this film that has stuck with me in the days since I saw it.  For that alone Mr. Refn and his team are certainly deserving of praise.

It’s interesting to me that this film about fashion and the fixation on beautiful women, and the idea of a woman as a beautiful image and little more, is itself a film filled to overflowing with beautiful imagery but one that stubbornly refuses to allow us access into any of the characters. I assume this was by design, which for me renders the film an interesting intellectual exercise but not a film that I really enjoyed.  I wish we’d been allowed to know or understand what was going on beneath the surface of Jesse (Elle Fanning), Ruby (Jenna Malone), Sarah (Abbey Lee, from Mad Max Fury Road) or Gigi (Bella Heathcote).  The film keeps all of them at a distance, as beautiful but unknowable objects.

There is a dreamy, hallucinogenic air to the film.  It is hard to know what is real and what is fantasy.  (The Neon Demon reminds me in this respect somewhat of Black Swan. Both are about women competing in an intense field that focuses on a near-unattainable perfection of beauty, and both feature twists into unreality and hallucination.  But where Black Swan succeeded both as an interesting character study and as a riveting thriller, The Neon Demon is neither.)

Elle Fanning has come a long way from Super 8; her acting skill and movie-star charisma has only grown.  She is well-cast in the lead role, and there are some moments of incredible performance that show us what a talent she is.  For instance, there’s a moment at a photo-shoot when the inexperienced Jesse is asked to undress by a photographer she wants to impress.  We watch the whole scene play out on Ms. Fanning’s face in extreme close-up, as she goes through a range of emotions, and it is quite extraordinary.

As I noted above, the film is filled with riveting imagery.  That opening shot of Jesse at a photo shoot, lying in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Super 8

J.J. Abrams’ new film, Super 8, is an unabashed love-letter to the late ’70s and early ’80s films directed by Steven Spielberg and, as such, seems like it was designed from top-to-bottom to tickle every movie-loving funny-bone in my body.  I’m sure I’m not alone.  Super 8 has some narrative problems that prevents it from ever reaching the heights of the great Spielberg-directed films it was designed to emulate, but that doesn’t stop it from being a rousingly entertaining film of a type that we really don’t see too much of anymore.

It’s the summer of 1979, and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just recently lost his mother to a terrible accident in the factory where she worked.  As the school-year ends, he finds solace in the project he’s working on with his friends: filming a make-shift zombie movie on a super 8 camera.  Somehow, Charles (Riley Griffiths), the boy directing and masterminding the film, has convinced a girl, Alice (Elle Fanning) to play a part in their movie.  Joe is immediately smitten, but his father (Kyle Chandler) forbids him from having anything to do with her, due to a bitter feud with her father.  One night, after having all snuck out to film a scene of their movie, the boys and Alice witness a terrible train derailment.  Soon after, all sorts of mysterious events begin happening in their small town, and the military arrives to supervise the investigation of the train-wreck.  As things escalate, the boys begin to suspect that something terrible was released when the train crashed, and the super 8 footage they shot that night might hold a vital clue.

It’s interesting that I began that description of Super 8 by writing about some of the character story-lines in the film, rather than the monster-on-the-loose sci-fi story.  That’s because where Super 8 succeeds — and succeeds brilliantly — is in creating several wonderfully layered character story-lines (several of which I have only hinted at in my above summation) that engage the audience and pull at one’s heart-strings.  It’s on the monster side of things where the film wobbles a bit, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Many of Steven Spielberg’s early films were told from the point-of-view of a child or children (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is the best example), and like that film, Super 8 spends a lot of time fleshing out the characters and personalities of the different kids who form the main cast of characters.  I’ve read several reviews that commented on how Mr. Abrams and his team echoed the device used in E.T. of allowing the kids to be constantly talking over one another in the film, the way real … [continued]