Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon

Maybe think of The Neon Demon as a models’ Black Swan crossed with Maps to the Stars.  Or not.  The Times called it “ridiculous and puerile.”  The only thing ridiculous there is calling it “puerile” — clearly, The Neon Demon went over that reviewer’s head.  One who probably didn’t think The Shallows was ridiculous.

The Neon Demon - text blockScott Tobias of NPR, on the other hand, understands what the director of Drive was doing.  His review, titled “Refn’s ‘The Neon Demon’ Paints Hollywood In Garish, Gorgeous, Gory Colors”:

In the shimmering Tinseltown gothic of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, beauty is a commodity both precious and volatile, subject to runway trends and the ravages of age, with just a blemish, a wrinkle, or a sliver of fat separating today’s “It Girl” from tomorrow’s bus back to Indiana.

…the mesmeric pull of The Neon Demon cannot be denied. It lures you in for the kill.

There were a couple big plot problems I had with this movie, which is too bad.  Luckily they happen, unusually enough for plot problems, in the first half of the film.  They’re a little frustrating because they could be easily re-written to lift The Neon Demon to one of the best of the year.  But the visual pull of this film is undeniable.  7/10

Comparison Notes (each recommended and better): Sleeping Beauty, Electrick Children, Mulholland Drive

Note: Though the Times slammed The Neon Demon as “puerile,” they contradicted themselves by featuring an “Anatomy of a Scene,” which I include below along with the trailer.

The Neon Demon - Anatomy of a Scene

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What Lies Under the Skin? [u]

Under the Skin - Instagram #2IMAGINE A CROSS between Eraserhead and Holy Motors.  Impossible?  That may be the most succinct way to describe the new Jonathan Glazer film Under the Skin.  Other films that flashed through my mind: 2001, The Matrix, Teeth, The Elephant Man, American Psycho, The Skin I Live In, MartyrsThe Minus Man.  But really Under the Skin can almost perfectly be described as a cross between Eraserhead and Holy Motors.  The movie is about an alien seductress / black widow character who goes about on her missions — but we’re never sure exactly what she is.

Under the Skin makes about as much sense as Eraserhead, which is not to say that it doesn’t make sense.  But there’s a lot left to the imagination — it’s all a bit of a mystery.  You are left to fill in the blanks.  It seems the movie could have added about 30 minutes to really explain everything — here and there it seems almost as if a connecting scene has been cut.  But I think the open style of the film makes it greater.  The movie is based on a novel, which a quick internet check reveals goes a long way to explain thing that are left a mystery on screen.  So, without having read the novel, I would say Glazer definitely had his own take on the novel.  Wikipedia confirms this, stating that the film was “loosely adapted” from the novel.

Besides not filling in all the blanks, the movie mixes very real-world and seemingly abstract scenes in a way that further makes us scratch our heads a little.  See Spoiler Alert below for more on this, for I think I at least partially cracked the code.  I am reminded of David Lynch’s response inDavid Lynch text block a Q&A session to someone asking him to explain Mulholland Dr.  I couldn’t find that exact exchange, but this quote about his surrealistic films in general is essentially the same:

The language of cinema can say abstract things. It can say things with sound and pictures that go into a viewer’s eyes and heart, and a thing is conjured that is not in a regular language – but there is a knowing, a realisation in the viewer from this language of cinema. It’s beautiful, beautiful language.

He provided this basic answer when asked to divulge the secrets of Mulholland Dr.  In other words, he’s not going to tell you a darn thing.  You go and figure it out yourself, according to your own interpretations.  If you’re going by the movie alone, the exact same thing could be said for Under the Skin.

Under the Skin - poster

On top of the masterful filmmaking, Scarlett Johansson turns in another great performance.  The film’s limited dialogue is somewhat muted, and often in a thick Scottish accent, to the point that at times it’s difficult to make out.  But I think this is deliberate — it’s not always so important what’s being said, but that something is being said in the appropriate context.  Talking in this movie is necessary at times to facilitate interactions, but the words themselves are secondary.

Back to Scarlett Johansson — she is turning out to be perhaps the best actress of her generation.  Kirsten Dunst I like a lot, and she was incredibly prolific, but she never presented the sheer range that Johansson is putting on display.  Neither has Michelle Williams, who is terrific as well.  Think about Johansson in just the last year: Her, Don Jon, Captain America, and now Under the Skin, where she executes an authentic British Scarlett Johansson - text blockaccent.  All highly disparate roles, all masterfully executed.  She’s pushing up into Meryl Streep territory — all she needs now is a role where she speaks four different languages in a perfect Polish accent.

Under the Skin is an extraordinary film.  The evolving puzzle is eminently compelling and captivating.  Immediately upon watching it, I was deeply impacted, but my stupefaction was leading me to an 8 rating.  Then I had my ah-ha moment (see below), and upon reflection I realized what a great film it is.  Disturbing, yes — it will get under your skin, it may haunt you, and it’s the best film of the year so far.  9/10

[UPDATED 7/26/14] — Rating upgraded to 10/10.

2014 in INDIES

2014 is turning out to be quite the year of the edgy indie.  Last year we had The East, The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints — all conventional films which were barely indies at all given the star power.

This year, let’s see — we have Visitors, Nymphomaniac, and Under the Skin.  The Jarmusch picture will restore normalcy compared to the avant-garde crop we have so far.

SPOILER ALERT — FURTHER ANALYSIS

SPOILER ALERT!  SPOILER ALERT!  I am about to reveal some action EARLY in the film, so I am not really spoiling it.  But a film as great as this deserves to have absolutely no plot elements disclosed.  So DO NOT READ ON until you have seen Under the Skin, or unless you don’t mind a little spoilage.

My stupefaction, my bedazzlement upon watching this film prevented me from understanding how great it was at first.  Then I went to sleep.  In the middle of the night, I was dreaming about it, affixing the skin of my own right leg with that in the film.  And I woke up suddenly, with the light bulb going off:

Early in the film, our nameless protagonist brings back male suitors to her lair.  Upon entering, both man and woman begin to strip down in a pure black environment.  As the suitor follows, he walks down into a black liquid until completely submerged, while she walks backwards on the surface of the pool.  When watching this, I thought it to be purely an abstraction, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it all meant.  The lightbulb that went off in my head: As the men enter the black pool, they are actually entering her.

OK, maybe that’s not such the bombshell that I was building up.  But it makes sense to me: the black pool is in fact the interior of her body.  Now I imagine that reading the novel or its synopsis might lead to a different conclusion.  But in the context of the the way the film ends, this idea that when they enter the blackness — which they all do quite willingly, that they are actually being enveloped by her extended body — her version of sexual intercourse — this understanding allows me to grasp the movie in a way that I initially could not.

* * *

A different perspective — more light can be shed from an L.A. Times article on the movie:

 “She has no ill will,” said Johansson of her character in “Under the Skin.” “This isn’t a film about woman preying on man or a kind of hypersexual relationship. It has nothing to do with those things, it’s merely a lioness on the prowl, hunting. I think by the end of the film if you as the audience can feel sympathy for this other species as she begins to sympathize with us, that’s the experience.

Well put: that is exactly how I feel about it.

Under the Skin - Instagram #1

Celluloid Junkie on Mulholland Dr.

I ran across a blog posting on Mulholland Dr. which offers a quick breakdown and summary explanation of this ever-explorable masterpiece.  The post also contains invaluable videos of interviews with Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, and David Lynch, and other useful links.  I had previously watched the Inside the Actors Studio interview with Ms. Watts back before NBC destroyed Bravo, and it is excellent.

The author almost over-simplifies the movie, but then speaks to a truth that I and many others have found: Mulholland Dr. is eminently re-watchable.  Though she gives a quick capsule of the story, she also pays due to the film’s rich complexity.

I’ve written about this movie a few times before, and always invite discussion.mulholland_dr630

Movie Bite: Pan’s Labyrinth

email 12 March 2009

I completed watching Pan’s Labyrinth last night.  I meant to ask my supervisor at work the translation of “Fauna”, because I don’t think it should be translated as Pan’s Labyrinth, but rather The Faun’s Labyrinth.  Probably another case of American marketing taking over, as with Ladri di Biciclette as I discussed last time.

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful film.  I feel for me that it has a target audience of a mature child, say the age of the protagonist, a young heroine named Ofelia.  It takes place in 1944 Spain, and has 2 stories running in parallel: One of a mystical, magical world that Ofelia begins to journey into, and the other of the adult world of Spain in lingering civil conflict toward the end of WWII.  I would not say this is a masterpiece, though it is a masterfully made film in many regards.  It flows along with balletic grace, and is a beautiful film to watch.

The best definition I have for “magnificent” is that which Laura offered for Mulholland Dr.:

We just finished watching it. Magnificent movie. Neither one of us can even begin to sort it out. Maybe we’re not supposed to? Seems like a kaleidoscope that has people’s minds as the colored chips. Continue reading

Film as Soufflé

email 12 Nov 2008

Most of the time, a character moves through a story as a single person, changed from the beginning of the story to the end only by the experiences he endures.  But there is another type of story being told in recent years in which a player merges into or takes the place of another.  Identities can be mixed, renewed or transposed, with possibly a simple, singular flip, or, as is the trend in the films I write of today, with ever evolving complexity which can reach a crescendo of rotating parts, a constant folding of one personality into or under another.  The successful enterprise I liken to a soufflé, that dish wherein a light, fluffy cloud of beaten egg whites is delicately yet deftly cut into the heavy mass of the soufflé’s base over and over again until perfectly stirred into a homogeneous casserole which when baked will deliver culinary magic.

The best example I can think of where characters are juxtaposed and layered in this manner is the Lynch masterpiece Mulholland Dr.  I’ve written about and discussed this film enough already (previous post).  The NY Times reviewer Stephen Holden likened the character and plot development to Russian dolls, which is another way of looking at my soufflé analogy. Continue reading

More on Mulholland Dr.

from email 28 March 2008; truncated previous posting

More on Mulholland Drive:

I sent the following email, which includes Stephen Holden’s superbly-written review, back in ’02.  When I wrote the preface below, I had seen the film once in the theater and no more.  When watching it, I thought that there were some old tricks that Lynch was using which seemed to me, a big Lynch fan, a little tired.  These elements were early in the film – what stood out were flickering lights, used by Lynch maybe a little too much, and a dwarf in a strange suspended chair.  As the movie progressed, I thought it was somewhat compelling but also a lot of gobbledy-gook — confusing for no good reason.

There was something that drew me back to it – at the top of my mind, the Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, sung by Rebekah del Rio (coincidentally, I just found out, from San Diego), so I think I rented it, and then ended up purchasing the DVD.  I watched it a number of times, sometimes patches of it, occasionally all the way through.  It seemed eminently re-watchable.  Few of my DVDs do I re-watch; this was at the top of that category.  Each time I watched it or a part of it, I fell a little more in love.  And, gradually, I “got” it – as I said, to the extent that it can be “got.”  So, to recap: my suggestion is don’t think you’ll comprehend everything the first time through.  My advice is watch it once, return it to Blockbuster, and kind of forget about it for a while.  You can always watch it again later if you want.

A lot of time has passed since my email below – you can tell how dated it is by my reference to Naomi Watts as, rather anonymously, ‘the same actress.’  And to conclude, my view on the film has progressed and evolved from what I wrote below.  I now consider M. Drive quite a brilliant little masterpiece, one of my favorites.

View Trailer on IMDb

It doesn’t hurt or give anything away to watch this preview; nor, too, should the review below diminish the viewing experience.

I’ll still be writing one of these days about the Lynch catalog.  A preview of that: Blue Velvet is a quintessentially American film, in a sense a twist on, or the dark side of, It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street (not that there is a Christmas theme); a masterpiece for Lynch or anyone else, and a must-see for any lover of movies.  My belief in the chronological integrity of things makes me say that it wouldn’t hurt to see Blue Velvet ahead of M. Drive, but however it’s done is good.

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