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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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From the DVD Shelf: Drive (2011)

I missed Drive when it was released in 2011, but I was intrigued by everything I read about it and it’s a film that I’ve been hoping for some time to catch up to.

Ryan Gosling plays the enigmatic driver at the center of the film.  (His character is never named in the movie, something that is done so subtly that I never even realized we didn’t know his character’s name until I was sitting down to write this piece.)  In the film’s dynamic opening sequence, we learn that he is a highly-skilled getaway driver, with incredible abilities behind the wheel and a tight set of rules over what he is willing to do and not do when getting involved with various other criminals and their plans.

The driver has apparently led a very solitary life, focused on his work (both legal — as a mechanic and stunt-car driver for the movies — and illegal), but all that changes when sparks fly with his new neighbor, a pretty, wounded mother (Carey Mulligan) whose husband is in prison.  The driver forms a nice bond with this woman, Irene, and her son Benicio.  Then Irene’s husband comes home from prison, and the driver gets involved in a criminal deal that goes from bad to worse.  None of the characters emerge unscathed (physically/emotionally) from the downward spiral of events that follows.

Drive is a movie that you will watch with a tight knot in your stomach.  Right from the beginning, it was quite clear to me that this wasn’t going to be a movie with a happy ending.  I found myself liking both the driver and Irene, and it was torture watching the events unfold, knowing, just knowing, that none of this was going to end well.  That’s a mark of what a skillfully made film this is.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn is masterful at slowly, ever-so-slowly, ratcheting up the tension and tightening the noose.  It’s also fair warning that this is not a film for everyone.  Drive is tough to watch at times.

The film has a sexy/sleezy/cool vibe that I found very intriguing.  It felt reminiscent to me of the tone of some eighties thrillers, particularly the work of Brian De Palma.  Mr. Refn doesn’t utilize any of the Hitchcockian stylistic devices that Mr. De Palma is so well-known for.  No, what I’m talking about is more a matter of tone.  Drive presents us with a world (and a main character) that is at once very cool, and very ugly.  So many of the films of Mr. De Palma walked that same line.  Take the opening credits of Drive — with that throaty ballad playing loud on the soundtrack, and the … [continued]