Film Review: The Neon Demon

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The Neon Demon, 2016

dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
★★★★

Everybody’s talking about this film. About the viciousness of the characters, the controversial elements of necrophilia and cannibalism, and they’re all counting these as detriments to this film, as if it’s a bad thing that this film takes such chances and goes out of its way to be uncomfortable.

I loved this film.

I’m not entirely sure I understood it, but I really loved it. Every second of it, from the first frame to the very last, I had my eyes glued to the screen (except for a few moments when I got distracted by Keanu Reeves because I’d forgotten his character’s surname in Point Break — “Utah” in case you have the same problem.)

It really seems like this is one of those films that is and isn’t trying to make a point all at once. Is it about the futility of fashion industry? Is it about how badly treated young models are? About how precarious the girls’ positions in the industry are?

Is it about female friendship, about sticking to your pack and not letting anyone in your path? Or is it just a really beautiful-looking film about a girl trying to make it as a model.

In a Psycho-esque turn of events, the film shifts its main characters at the very end, and we’re not quite sure what to think of it. Are we happy she finally got her break or should we mourn Jessi’s chances? It’s also reminiscent of Mulholland Dr, the quasi-competitive relationship of friends who work in the same industry (so I’m happy NWR himself put Mulholland Dr. in his curated film season for Picturehouse.)

And, honestly, when it’s all said and done, the story of the film is just another part of it, that is equally as important as the visuals and the sounds. Refn and his cinematographer here, Natasha Braier, know how to crate and atmospheric experience that resonates until long after the credits have stopped rolling. The visuals are striking as always, and they knows how to play with darkness and light, and especially how to light the actors so that very little needs to be conveyed verbally. None of the dialogue here is actually important, all the most relevant bits of information are given to us by the visuals. Neon is very prominent in this film, obviously, but the whole look of it, the sets, the clothes, are very streamlines, very deliberate. It’s a film that’s been put together on purpose. If you know what I mean.

The score was probably my favourite part of this, however. (Apart from Elle Fanning’s performance, she’s unbelievable.) Refn teams up with Cliff Martinez yet again to create a score that is very 80s, much like Drive, and you feel it in your bones. The synth and bass lines go perfectly with the visuals, and there is a element of A Clockwork Orange that was pleasing and daunting all at once.

This will probably be the most divisive movie of the year, and with reason. It is controversial, it is gruesome, and it is absolutely fucked up. But it is also gorgeous, and powerful, and if it’s right for you, you’ll feel it in your soul.

review by Mariana Duarte

 

 

Film Review: “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures”

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Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, 2016
dir. Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato

★★★★★

Controversy was Robert Mapplethorpe’s middle name, and in this documentary, Bailey and Barbato pain a picture of his life which does not play up the controversy, but rather shows the true art behind his pictures. The film focuses primarily on his active years as an artist, though it does go into some detail of his personal life, because as we discover later, a lot of his inspiration, a lot of the imagery he played with, came from his upbringing and sustained his creativity throughout his career.

Mapplethorpe was an astoundingly prolific photographer and artist, and in this film, we are introduced to many, many, many of his pieces, from the most popular ones, to a few obscure ones, to the very first pictures he ever took, of his sister, on their porch. That adds more layers to the artistic narrative the filmmakers are trying to tell, and they are very successful in conveying that for Mapplethorpe art was all-consuming, though not unambitious. This is very important because often documentaries which tell the stories of artists tend to gloss over their relationship with success, or at least with the ambition to be successful, but here, Mapplethorpe is described as ambitious from the beginning. He wanted the success, the fame, to be as much of a household name as Andy Warhol was, and even the tragedy that his true success would only really come posthumously was not lost in him, as he set up a fine arts foundation to keep his art alive.

What is most interesting about this film is that it is uncompromising in telling this artist’s story as frankly as possible. While some talking heads gush with praises, other are not as positive, which is refreshing to see in a documentary about which a famous artistic figure. But then again, we can tell he was very much loved in the art world, not only for his art, but for the way he treated art, as a true profession. One of the interviewees comments on how in the 70s artists were being unproductive because of all the sex and drugs, but Mapplethorpe would always be producing something, which he respected, and his printer mentioned that he photographed until the very end, until he could no longer get out of bed.

By using these talking heads along with audio excerpts and clips of interviews with the man himself, the filmmakers do remarkable work in building his story from various angles, while managing not to get lost in their own narrative. It is cohesive, and just long enough that you wish you could keep watching. It is beautiful to look at, the style of it very unique and interesting, and overall it is a touchingly poignant biographical documentary about an uncompromising artist that was entirely himself until the very last minute.

review by Mariana Duarte

Film Review: “A Bigger Splash”

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A Bigger Splash, 2015
dir. Luca Guadagnino

★★★

Well, that happened. A Bigger Splash follows power couple Marianne (Tilda Swinton), who is a rock star recovering from throat surgery, and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentarian, in their Italian holiday as they are interrupted by the past in the form of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a record producer and an old friend of the couple’s, as well as his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who is yet another aloof yet sexy teenager who, and I quote, “falls in love with pretty things.” Barf.

There isn’t much of a plot to it, it’s mostly trying to understand these characters, what they want from each other, and how they behave in different combinations. We get a few flashbacks that add very little meaning to the overall story, and we spend far too much time on Penelope who is probably the most annoying character I’ve encountered this year in a film. She’s just too cool, she reads by the pool with vintage sunglasses on, wears loose combat boots with high-waisted short shorts and a see-through vest, she doesn’t brush her hair, and she smokes. She’s just the coolest girl in the whole world, and the final moment of humanity they give her in her last scene does not redeem her utter lack of any character whatsoever.

Marianne, Paul, and Harry’s interactions are interesting enough, also thrumming with a sort of tension that I think would have been more gripping without the presence of the daughter, which makes the whole situation look too much like Swimming Pool, only more bland. Their acting is wonderful, though. Swinton and Fiennes are masterful as always, and have wonderful chemistry onscreen, while Schoenaerts is kind of a revelation because it’s very different from the roles I’ve seen him in lately, and his American accent is pretty decent.

What the film does really well is present naked bodies very matter-of-factly, while almost fetishising certain aspects of it with the clothes on — the men’s chests as they get out of the pool, Marianne’s legs on the table. It’s both demure and decadent, and the warmth of the saturated images really adds to the sensuality of it.

The camera work is very neat as well. It’s very playfully directed, and whips about sometimes, while panning others and closing up on unimportant things. The images in this film feel very fresh and beautiful, accompanied by a wonderful score and a great soundtrack. I only wish we’d heard more of Marianne’s music, because it sounds an awful lot like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era stuff, which is of course wonderful.

Overall, I liked it well-enough, but some things really fell flat for me and it did not meet my expectations for this much-talked about film.

review by Mariana Duarte

 

 

Film Review: “The Hateful Eight” on 70mm

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The Hateful Eight, 2016

dir. Quentin Tarantino
film: ★★★★
70mm experience: ★★★★★

Regardless of what one thinks of him as a person or of his choices of subject matter, it can’t be denied that Quentin Tarantino is a skilful filmmaker, and he proves this yet again in his eighth film, The Hateful Eight. In this, he is still in the past, now in post-Civil War Wyoming as his untrustworthy characters eye each other in a cabin in the middle of a blizzard trying to figure out who will kill whom. It’s your average Tarantino script — funny quips, gripping dialogue, everyone is shady in one way or another, and you should not align your sympathies with anyone whatsoever because they will most likely either kill or be killed.

What makes The Hateful Eight extraordinary alongside Tarantino’s earlier work is the sheer audacity of it. Set in primarily one location — the cabin — and all the exterior shots taking place in the snow, this had every chance to be a boring-looking film, and perhaps it would have been in the hands of someone less skilled at making every shot count. Tarantino somehow makes every shot looks effortless, regardless of how intricate and choreographed it is — I’m thinking here of the scene of Daisy picking up the guitar and playing it while two other men return from the blizzard.

And adding to that one-maybe-two-locations pile, he decided to shoot the film in 70mm film. Tarantino is well-known for his preference of film over digital, talking endlessly in interviews about the magic of film, which is a series of still images moving in front of our eyes making us see the whole film. I understand that, and though I have nothing against digital — people can do great things with it, after all — watching this film in 70mm really made me appreciate the texture and realness of film prints.

From the very beginning of the experience — the overture, the old school Weinstein Company logo — you are completely immersed in the film, and it hasn’t even started yet. Then it begins and it opens from a close up to a wide shot of the snowy mountains, and the grain of the film can be seen, almost like a texture over the image. Before your eyes get used to it, you can sort of see the trembling of the picture as the reel unrolls, and it really feels magical because the film seems to real all of a sudden. You are actually in the room with the film.

Other than that — utterly subject lovesick perceptions — the film itself looks fantastic. I have not seen The Hateful Eight in digital, so I can’t compare, but this version is incredibly sharp. The colours are vibrant, and the sound is glorious. The beautiful score by Ennio Morricone resonates deep in your bones. (Fun fact: Ennio Morricone wrote the music for The Thing, another film featuring Kurt Russell stuck in the middle of nowhere during a blizzard while a bunch of other guys are trying to kill him.)

Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It was so so worth it to see it in 70mm because it looks beautiful and it sounds beautiful. I don’t know where the roadshow is going or if it’s going to go anywhere after here — I saw it at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh, fantastic projectionists! — but hopefully it will, and if you’ve read this, and haven’t seen it in 700 but still has the chance to, please go. It will definitely be worth it.

 

Film Review: “Room”

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Room, 2015

dir. Lenny Abrahamson
★★★★★

Started off the year with a bang, I think. This was my first cinema trip this year, since the film opened on Friday here in the UK, and I’m really glad I went because it’s a beautiful, beautiful film.

In case you don’t know, Room tells the story of Joy (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) as they live trapped in a shed where Joy is kept as a sex slave by a man they call Old Nick. Jack is his son, but Joy raises him with her in the shed, and she doesn’t let Old Nick see or touch him. I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone, so let’s just leave it at that. Ultimately, it’s a story about hope and lack thereof, solitude, and struggling with depression, and we mostly experience it through the eyes of Jack as he observes the world around him.

It’s an absolutely wonderful film. The world they live in, their little room, feels so real. They really created a space that looks lived-in, and the way they play around with how Joy and Jack use the room is ingenious. The look of the whole film is very realistic. They are not wearing make-up, they look sweaty, and Joy has spots on her face and hair under her arms, and in order to give him nutrients she breastfeeds him even though he’s five years old, which is great.

The best part of Room though is the relationship between Joy and Jack. It feels incredibly real, it’s not overly sappy, and they get angry at each other often, but they also make up just as frequently, and the way she holds him is very motherly. Brie Larson does a brilliant job in this. She looks gentle and frustrated, and the way she portrays her character’s depression is painfully realistic. I think this role more than any other (though she has had some fantastic roles in the past) really shows how brilliant an actress she is. She comes off as natural and mature, which is a wonder to watch. Alongside her, Jacob Tremblay also gives a fantastic performance. He is one of the best child actors I have ever seen, and his portrayal is real and sweet, especially from the second half onwards. He plays off Larson really well, and they have great chemistry onscreen.

Overall, I think this is already one of my favourite films of the year. It’s a simple story that will touch your heart but it is not pandering or tearjerking sap. I would 100% recommend this to anyone.