Just a Quick Thought: Remembering Kobe Bryant

Sunday, January 26, 2020 has proven to be an extraordinarily difficult and surreal day for hoops and sports fans in general. I’d like to pause my movie reviewing for a second to remember basketball player Kobe Bean Bryant, who passed away a day after Lebron James, currently of the Los Angeles Lakers, passed him for 3rd place on the NBA all-time scoring list. As Saturday night turned to Sunday, we went from historic highs to tragic lows. To say this weekend has been an emotional rollercoaster would be an understatement. 

TMZ first reported the news that the former Los Angeles Lakers superstar and five-time world champion died in Calabasas, CA Sunday morning in a helicopter crash that left no survivors. He was 41. The total number of victims and their identities are, as of this writing, still unknown. [UPDATE: one of the nine victims has been identified as Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.] The cause of the accident is currently under investigation. Reportedly the private chopper was en route to a basketball practice in the Thousand Oaks area.

The loss is felt far beyond the NBA courts and even the sporting world.

Bryant leaves behind a legacy of brutal competitiveness and inimitable determination on the hardwood. One of the first players to go straight from high school to the pros, the prolific scorer racked up an astonishing number of accolades and achievements over a career that spanned 20 years, five NBA Championships (three consecutive) and two Olympic Games (where he won Gold with the Americans, 2008 and ’12).

Notable Mamba Moments include being named back-to-back NBA Finals MVP (2009, ’10) and making 11 All-NBA First Teams, nine NBA All-Defensive First Teams and 18 NBA All-Star Game appearances. He’s responsible for the second-most points ever scored in a single game, dropping 81 on the Toronto Raptors back in 2006 (sorry Jalen). In April 2016, during his final competitive game, a home stand against the Utah Jazz, Bryant peaced out by cashing in 60 in a hair-raising display of just what he is capable of. It was the kind of end to an odyssey that not even Hollywood screenwriters could have concocted.

The accolades didn’t stop when he unlaced his sneakers for the final time; in 2018 he won an Academy Award for Best Animated Film for Dear Basketball, a heartfelt tribute to the game he loved, lived, breathed and slept.

It’s a surreal day, even for someone like me whose relationship with Kobe was more described by admiration than passionate fandom. It’s sickening to think we’re in an era without the Black Mamba. That’s plain wrong. Not since the loss of flamboyant sideline reporter Craig Sager in 2016 have I felt a celebrity death so palpably, and it’s really kind of silly to even say I’ve been affected considering I’ve never had the chance to even be in the same zip code as these famous people. It’s just another stark reminder — not that I needed one four days removed from the four-year anniversary of my own mother’s passing — of the true fragility of life.


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Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Release: Friday, July 26, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is among the biggest names in the biz today and in his ninth and apparently penultimate film he’s relying on clout more than ever to get mass audiences invested in something that he takes as seriously as Jules does Ezekiel 25:17 — and that’s cinematic history. Yawn if you must, but with QT you can safely assume you’re going to be getting something with a little personality. With Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood he’s reminding us of how great the Golden Age was, those good old days when original narratives and marquee names were actually worth a damn. More specifically, he’s harkening back to an era when creative collaboration meant even stunt doubles had a say in what would happen in a particular scene.

Sure, this grand paean to how it used to be is kind of predictable from a guy who rejected film school and yet still obsesses over just about every technical, romantic aspect of filmmaking — he’s one of those loud voices decrying digital projection and remember how he rolled out The Hateful Eight as a “roadshow” presentation, replete with intermission and everything? Hollywood is both his home and his Alma Mater, the place where he took in more films as a kid than any human being might reasonably be asked to view in a lifetime, constantly observing, absorbing, studying in his own way.

However, the way he carries out his long-gestating passion project proves a little less predictable. Dare I say it’s even . . . wholesome? Maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

In Once Upon a Time (the title an obvious homage to Italian director Sergio Leone, father of the so-called spaghetti western and a huge influence on Tarantino) he trades out buckets of blood for buckets of nostalgia. The surprisingly gentle, more meditative approach finds the gorehound putting the clamps on his violent tendencies, creating a more good-natured, less bloody affair that isn’t propelled by a single narrative objective as much as it is a mood, a feeling of uncertainty brought about by change. Indeed, Once Upon a Time is a different cinematic beast, chiefly in that it isn’t very beastly, not in comparison to his last three outings, a string of ultra-violent, in-your-face western/revenge thrillers beginning with the Nazi-slaying Inglourious Basterds (2008) and culminating in what is arguably his ugliest and most deliberately nasty The Hateful Eight (2015).

The timeline spans just a couple of days but a TRT that approaches three hours, coupled with extraordinary period-specific detail, make it feel like a tapestry that covers much more ground. Set in 1969, at the crusted edges of what was once Golden, the story mostly concerns the career tailspin of fictional TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as well as the relationship he shares with his stunt-double, driver and all-around gopher Cliff Booth (a briefly shirtless Brad Pitt — contractually obligated, I’m quite sure). Their friendship takes center stage as the two professionals are forced to negotiate rapid change. This was a time when people like Cliff had more creative input in productions, where actors and their doubles were attached at the hip working on multiple projects together. Today freelancing has opened up myriad opportunities, thereby eroding that closeness and this is just one aspect of the modern industry the filmmaker clearly laments.

I mentioned earlier how big a deal the name is. Nowhere is his status as Big Time Filmmaker more apparent than in the cast he is graced with here. It’s an embarrassment of riches Tarantino somehow manages to allocate just the right way. I just named DiCaprio and Pitt and that’s only two of the three principles. Famous faces are everywhere, in bit parts and in more extensive supporting roles. Australian rep Margot Robbie joins them in a tangential role as American tragicon Sharon Tate, who moves in next door to Rick on Cielo Drive with her famous director husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), setting up the much-talked about arc that puts a wholly unexpected spin on one of the darkest chapters to unfold in 1960s Tinseltown.

Elsewhere, Al Pacino plays a hot-shot agent named Marvin Schwarz (that’s SchWARz, by the way, not SchwarTZ) channelling — yes, still — Tony Montana. He’s here to present a gut-check for the sensitive actor, reaching out to Rick with an offer to take part in an Italian Western. Rick’s appreciative of Marv’s offer but outside his presence he’s inconsolable, confiding in Cliff that he believes this is a sign that his career is well and truly over. Cliff, however, would like him to reconsider, because hey, he’s Rick “f-word” Dalton, and Cliff can’t get any work until Rick does because of vicious rumors circulating the old mill about the stunt man having murdered his wife some years back. Ergo, we go to Italy, right?

Bruce Dern is in it briefly as George Spahn, the owner of Spahn Movie Ranch, the site where many westerns were once filmed, now overrun by a cult of hippies who turn out to be not exactly all about peace and love. While we’re at it, it isn’t just in the way he handles the Tate/Polanski angle where QT shows restraint (and paradoxically absolutely no mercy, if only toward those “damn hippies.”) A sidebar shows Cliff making a brief visit to the Ranch after dropping off a scantily clad hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and while he’s there he’d like to check in with his old friend and the now-blind owner to ensure he’s not being taken advantage of by these layabouts. It’s a scene pregnant with tension, a stand-off from a western wherein long, cold stares precipitate a sudden and brief outburst of violence. But Tarantino feels nothing but contempt for those brainwashed by Manson’s Helter Skelter bullshit, turning the tables on them and converting what should have been another grisly murder into something resembling a farce.

Then there are bit parts snatched up by the likes of “intrinsically 60s” Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator/Cliff’s former boss, and a highly entertaining Mike Moh doing a bold impression of famed martial arts actor Bruce Lee; Timothy Olyphant is a co-star on one of Rick’s late-career shows; Damon Harriman, for the second time this year plays Charles Manson (albeit in a cameo here while his other appearance was in the second season of Mindhunter — it must be those eyes); and Luke Perry in what turns out to be his final screen appearance (he passed away in March). Tarantino also makes a brilliant discovery in newcomer Julia Butters, who plays a precocious child actor who takes Rick to school in on-set professionalism. All of these characters add little considerations to the world Tarantino is reconstructing — resurrecting — and while some arcs leave more to be desired they each contribute something of value.

The pacing of the film no doubt languishes. It’s not his most action-packed film ever. In fact, save for that controversial house call, it’s his least. Yet because Tarantino is so obsessively compelled to detail environments and lives it might just be his most insightful. Not a scene feels wasted or unnecessary, maybe a little indulgent in length at times, but excisable — I’m not convinced. The rich mise en scène steals you away to a decade long since buried underneath modern multiplexes touting the latest CGI spectacles, and I particularly enjoyed the little meta moments he provides, such as clips from Dalton’s most popular gig Bounty Law, or when Robbie’s Tate decides to check out a matinee showing of her new movie The Wrecking Crew at the old Bruin Theatre — the latter a nod to QT himself attempting to check out True Romance (a movie which he wrote but did not direct) when he was a young pup.

All of these details add up to the very antithesis of the movie I had anticipated when it was first announced. Once Upon a Time is proof that you can indeed teach an old reservoir dog new tricks. Or, rather, Tarantino has taught himself some new tricks and empathy looks good on him. He’s successfully created a modern fairytale out of Old Hollywood. It’s a surprising movie, one full of surprising moves but still imbued with that irascible energy of his. It’s one hell of a good time.

Margot Robbie puts her best foot forward as Sharon Tate

Recommendation: It’s a film full of intrigue for those up for a little history lesson as far as the industry and some of the early ingredients that formed the QT soup are concerned, while reports of “less violence!” and “more sympathy!” can only be a good thing in terms of attracting a broader audience.

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

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Velvet Buzzsaw

Release: Friday, February 1, 2019 (Netflix) 

→Netflix

Written by: Dan Gilroy

Directed by: Dan Gilroy

Beauty is in the eye of the soon-to-be-murdered in Velvet Buzzsaw, the new film from writer/director Dan Gilroy, who made his mark back in 2014 with the sensationally gripping Nightcrawler. His third directorial feature following 2017’s collaboration with Denzel Washington on Roman J. Israel, Esq., Velvet Buzzsaw is an apt title for a movie that leans fully into creative madness.

Gilroy’s latest is advertised as a mashup of horror and dark comedy, something that makes it immediately stand out from his previous genre-specific efforts — Nightcrawler a distinctive thriller and Roman J. Israel, Esq. firmly a legal drama. What also makes it stand out is its unapologetic strangeness. As you are no doubt aware by now, Velvet Buzzsaw is the movie where people get killed by artwork. But these are no ordinary schmucks who can’t tell a Renoir from a damn Monet. These are art profiteers who slowly get seduced and then offed by the very works they try to profit from — paintings whose fictional, beyond-tortured artist Vetril Dease seemingly imbued them with a strange and haunting power. As the story progresses, events only become more outlandish — so much so you’re all but compelled to disregard the horror part of the label and embrace the comedy inherent in all the (occasionally bloody) wackiness.

The art of the satire stems from a real-world experience Gilroy had back in the 1990s when he devoted significant time developing a screenplay for a Warner Bros. project called Superman Lives. It was set to star Nicolas Cage as Clark Kent. Try to digest that for a minute. Burp it back up if you need to. Unfortunately for anyone drawn to the image of Nic “Crazy Face” Cage donning the cape and tights they will never get the satisfaction as the studio shut down the project over budgetary concerns. That frustration informs the thematic core of Velvet Buzzsaw, a scathing criticism of the modern L.A. art scene and those who are only in the game because of the money.

The film is set in an alien environment of esoteric taste, haughty opinion and generally unpleasant personality and follows multiple perspectives through a tangled web of relationships, from rivaling art gallery owners — Rene Russo’s icy Rhodora Haze and Tom Sturridge’s creepy, conniving Jon Dondon — to influential outsiders like art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal, reuniting with Russo from Nightcrawler) who has the power to not only sway pricing but as well make or break careers. At the ground floor you get contrast in artistic philosophies in Piers (an unfamiliarly sympathetic John Malkovich), an old-schooler struggling to find inspiration versus Damrish (Daveed Diggs), a hot new street artist reticent to display his work in a gallery. Keep an eye out for rogue players like Gretchen (Toni Collette), an art curator and close friend of Morf’s, who is also itching to make a big career move, as well as the highfalutin Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Rhodora’s frequently under-appreciated assistant, and an art installer named Bryson (Billy Magnussen) with an agenda of his own.

Granted, that is a long list of characters to keep track of. The good news is that we aren’t meant to form an emotional attachment to these creatures. Natalia Dyer’s character, a meek and mild-mannered Haze Gallery intern named Coco, is an exception. As someone rather out of place in this world — she hails from the East Coast and doesn’t seem to have much of an artistic inclination other than balancing multiple Starbucks cups on her daily coffee run — she is best positioned as an audience surrogate. By virtue of how frequently she stumbles upon the gruesome aftermath of paintings come to life, Coco gives us the key to enjoyment here. Go with the flow, absorb the imagery but don’t get too close.

Almost everyone else is disposable, many of them in a literal sense. These are near parodies of people who pontificate over artistic merit for a living. With a couple of exceptions these characters are either completely self-absorbed or cutthroat opportunists, finalists for the old “I can’t wait to see who goes down first” competition. The way they go down certainly makes Velvet Buzzsaw visually pop and feel edgy, while Gilroy’s screenplay, dripping with foreshadowing and cliché-riddled dialogue, tend to align the production with something decidedly more mainstream and predictable.

It’s a frustrating experience because as the film careens towards the absurd it delivers on its promise of comeuppance and in so doing entertains in a strange, almost perverse way. At the same time Gilroy gets so loosey-goosey with his direction the critique itself threatens to lose all meaning. The domino effect of bodies dropping ends up feeling like a gimmick after so many instances, yet undeniably the art of the kill is something to behold. And if this nobody blogger is taking note of some sloppiness, I can only imagine what Morf would do.

“Who are you to judge me?”

Recommendation: How you respond to Velvet Buzzsaw I think really depends on how you interpret the tone. I found it far more funny, albeit darkly satirical, than it was horrifying. Though I did find a few elements that were horrific, like the aftermath of The Sphere sequence and Toni Colette’s hairpiece. Either way you look at it, the premise is pretty out there — but that’s something I’d rather have than a formulaic/half-cooked Netflix Original. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “These are heinous.”

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mid90s

Release: Friday, October 26, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Jonah Hill

Directed by: Jonah Hill

Ahead of its premiere at TIFF earlier this year, débuting writer-director Jonah Hill said of his mid90s, a rough-around-the-edges, scrappy little slice-of-life drama extracted from the streets of L.A., that what he really didn’t want to do was create nostalgia porn. Honestly, this is the first time I have ever heard the phrase ‘nostalgia porn.’ To me that seems like a term only a child of the early-to-mid 2000s could coin. It’s funny though, as Hill certainly captures a number of performances and a milieu that feel gritty and authentic, while his creative approach, shooting almost guerrilla style and in a 4:3 aspect, invariably sends us back to the days of the classically grainy street-skating edits.

The story follows little Stevie (introducing Sunny Suljic) who lives with his co-dependent single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and abusive older brother Ian (the justifiably ubiquitous Lucas Hedges) and his experiences falling in with a group of skateboarders as he attempts to find out who he really is instead of the punching bag he is at home. One day Stevie spots a group of skaters across the street giving a store owner a hard time as he attempts to shoo them away from the property. Amused, he follows them back to a skate shop located on Motor Avenue, drawn in by their swagger.

The supporting parts are played mostly by non-professional actors, starting with Suljic whom Hill apparently discovered at a skatepark. He also invited pro-am skaters Na-kel Smith (playing the notably more mature Ray) and Olan Prenatt (“Fuckshit,” the only logical nickname for someone so hype) to read for him and they quickly got the gig. More on the periphery are “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin), a not-so-bright fella whose poverty is so extreme his family can barely afford socks, and Ruben (Gio Galicia), whose physically abusive home life explains his more antagonistic, tough-guy persona.

Before long, and despite initial misgivings, Stevie (a.k.a. “Sunburn,” a nickname earned after his first and truly awkward interaction) seems to have found his tribe, and a few new thrills in one fell swoop. He quickly latches on to the partying aspects that seem to go hand-in-hand with this vagrant lifestyle. As he gets in deeper his behavior begins to change, that wide-eyed innocence traded out for a misguided sense of what being  “cool” looks and sounds like. (Hint: it ain’t defined by screaming like a maniac at your mother.) With an ego running amok, Stevie finds himself twisting into a pretzel trying to become something he isn’t.

What’s great about mid90s is that you never needed to have popped an ollie in your life to be able to appreciate its themes, or to sympathize with its admittedly foul-mouthed teen protagonists. Fitting in, being accepted, succumbing to peer pressure — these are universal experiences and they certainly don’t dry up after high school. Skateboarding culture is a big part of it but this isn’t a movie about skateboarding. Understanding the nuances of the art form is less important as noticing the escapement, the freedom of movement it provides — and that’s especially true of the creative design of the production itself. Skateboarding is what gives the narrative fluidity, moving us gracefully (and sometimes less so) between moments and locales that give character to this sympathetically told coming-of-age piece.

“Fuck, shit, yo that was dope!”

Recommendation: Mid90s proves an entirely natural and honest portrayal of adolescence and the growing pains associated with it. There is an element of bittersweetness inherent in the going back, but that’s more of a side effect than an end goal. While what happens on screen is engaging, I think what’s happening behind the camera is even more exciting. Jonah Hill, comedic progeny of Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg, has made something entirely divorced from his acting career. Slight but substantive, and with an uncanny sense of time and place, the film is unquestionably a strong first effort. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins.

Quoted: “A lot of the time, you feel that our lives are the worst. But you look in anybody else’s closet, you wouldn’t trade your shit for their shit.”

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Blade Runner 2049

Release: Friday, October 6, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Hampton Fancher; Michael Green

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve proves himself a worthy heir to Ridley Scott with his hauntingly beautiful and poetically told Blade Runner 2049, a narratively and emotionally satisfying expansion of Scott’s 1982 classic. It proposes an even darker version of an already grim future reality in which a potential war between humans and an advanced race of A.I. known as replicants could break out after an unlikely discovery is made on the property of a farmer.

Over the better part of the last decade Villeneuve has enjoyed something of a meteoric rise to prominence resulting from a string of blockbuster-level successes. From his award-winning debut film curiously titled August 32nd on Earth in the late ’90s to last year’s awe-inspiring Arrival, the Québécois has been riding a wave of momentum à la Britain’s very own Christopher Nolan, delivering consecutive heavy-hitters in Incendies (2011), Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015). Villeneuve has entered a point in his career where he just might have forgotten how to truly disappoint an audience. The man has a knack for detailing heavy, sometimes profound stories with genuine humanity. Which brings us to the Blade Runner sequel.

It went virtually unnoticed at the box office, taking in roughly the same amount as The Emoji Movie in the U.S. — thus confirming reality is far more depressing than any dystopian future, even one imagined by Philip K. Dick. Yet there’s no denying Blade Runner 2049 is a seismic sequel, one that not only justifies the ambition but all those years spent waiting (or not waiting). Hampton Fancher returns to screenwriting duties and is joined by Logan scribe Michael Green on an original collaboration that expounds upon key themes and introduces a few compelling new characters. Fortunately at this point in the calendar I’m somewhat less terrified of possibly revealing spoilers so it’s also time to mention how a big part of the experience is the way in which Harrison Ford returns like a childhood memory — though, if you’re like me and it took the news of a sequel being developed just to see the original, maybe it’s more of an implanted memory.

We are returned to a rotting carcass of a planet that, through the lens of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, suffocates under blood orange skies dripping their silver acid down upon the lonely and the damned. The Los Angeles of 2049 continues to play host to a claustrophobic theater of misery, its streets crammed to the curb with imposing edifice and huge holograms. Away from the über-metropolis we have turned to worm farming as a source of protein — it’s important to maintain a sense of nutrition even post-apocalypse — and it’s over these mechanical monstrosities of desperate agriculture we initially swoop in, to arrive at a critical point in the saga.

A few important details first: In the interim, the job of the blade runner (or LAPD officer of the future, if you prefer that vernacular) has been updated. There’s a new level of discretion being applied to targeting suspects as the majority of the replicant population has been integrated into the rest of society and given “purpose” as slaves and servants. These updated Nexus models are the scientifically and aesthetically perfected products of new-sheriff-in-hell Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who seeks a way of expanding intergalactic colonization. This new sinister figure has of course risen out of the ashes of the fallen Tyrell Corporation.

Meanwhile, a young blade runner named ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is preparing to interrogate a Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista in a fantastically nuanced performance), one of the last remaining old-model replicants who have apparently gone rogue in the aftermath of a nuclear blast some time in the 2030s. There on Morton’s worm farm he finds the remains of a female replicant who apparently had died during childbirth, and after some digging learns that the child is in fact still alive. His commanding officer Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), fearing an all-out war between the two factions, orders K to destroy all evidence and find a bullet-shaped solution to the problem. Will he succeed, or will an even more interested party get there first?

Blade Runner 2049 is nothing if not itself a beneficiary of major technological advancements. This is a much sleeker, sexier presentation that feels somehow more lavishly detailed than its predecessor. We may have lost the scrappier, more primal aesthetic of old, but this is nevertheless the Sistine Chapel of modern science fiction cinema. Villeneuve also is afforded a longer leash than most when it comes to introducing computer-generated graphics — in part because they are so convincingly integrated into their environment but more importantly because they have purpose and are sparingly used.

None are more the beneficiary of that kind of movie magic than Ana de Armas portraying Officer K’s live-in girlfriend, the attractive product of a mathematical algorithm designed to keep citizens from feeling quite so hopeless. The Wallace Corporation has manufactured entire lines of robots suited to meet your every need. The Cuban actress may be confined to a supporting part, but her fleeting performance does more to advance the plot than her official movie credit would suggest. Her warmth offers dramatic contrast against an otherwise bleak landscape. De Armas has described her character as something of a cheerleader for Gosling’s beleaguered blade runner. I see her avatar as something more: a spirit guide for those who roam seemingly without purpose.

In taking over the reigns from Sir Ridley Scott, Villeneuve digs further into the fascia of what makes us who and what we are. In Blade Runner 2049 we are beyond the days of primitive experiments like the Voigt-Kampff Test. They are no longer helpful in separating the flesh from the synthetic. The facsimile has in fact become so convincing we hire real people as surrogate vessels (like Mackenzie Davis‘ Mariette) to live out our fantasies. The question is no longer “what makes you believe you are real?” It is now: “what reality makes you feel less alone?” As K inches ever closer to an understanding of his role in the larger scheme of things, Gosling increasingly appears to inhabit the soul of his wizened co-star. His enigmatic qualities suit this role perfectly, while the trajectory he fulfills offers a compelling new wrinkle in the narrative.

“You’ve never seen a miracle,” Sapper Morton sighs before succumbing to the inevitable. I’d beg to differ Mr. Rogue Replicant, sir, because Blade Runner 2049 is something of a miracle for those of us who carried in a healthy skepticism of sequels, both as a rule and specifically when it comes to updating a veritable classic. While some of that fear is actually confirmed in the sequel — for all the ambition, Villeneuve’s predicative never quite strikes the emotional depths of what was offered more than three decades ago, particularly in the closing moments on that rooftop in the rain — this is a logical next step that proves there’s much more story to tell. Indeed, I have seen things in this movie you people wouldn’t believe.

Recommendation: A science fiction sequel that does the brand justice. Packed to the gills with visuals that will haunt you for days and a star-studded team of accomplished actors wholly devoted to the cause, Blade Runner 2049 does the almost unthinkable in becoming not only a worthy spiritual and physical successor but as well suggesting that perhaps the greatest hurdles still lie ahead. An exciting-in-the-extreme entry for lovers of smart sci fi.   

Rated: R

Running Time: 164 mins.

Quoted: “I always knew you were special. Maybe this is how. A child. Of woman born. Pushed into the world. Wanted. Loved.”

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La La Land

la-la-land-movie-poster

Release: Friday, December 9, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Damien Chazelle 

Directed by: Damien Chazelle 

Damien Chazelle’s critically-acclaimed modern musical is being hailed as one of the most original movies in years. That’s not surprising given the cinematic environment into which it has been born. It’s hard not to appreciate the oasis in a sprawling desert. While Disney animation in particular continues to inject original song and dance into each new incarnation, barring one or two high-profile exceptions the traditional musical has been all but banished from contemporary cineplexes. La La Land represents a change of tone from the writer-director’s previous exploration of creative obsession, and the scope has been broadened with the way he interrogates aspects of life beyond the singular pursuit of perfection. What he presents in 2016 is a lively, upbeat jazz musical that revisits several familiar themes.

Viewed through the lens of career ambition (okay, yes — obsession), the city of broken dreams offers an uncanny backdrop. Approximately 60 L.A. locales were used, ranging from dilapidated trolley stations to infamous stretches of freeway near the bustling metropolis. Coupled with the bright, neon lights and iconic landmarks, La La Land is a romantic outing in more ways than one. It is visually spectacular, an ambition unto itself. And while many of the musical interludes won’t leave any lasting impression, two of them — the catchy opening tune ‘Another Day of Sun’ and Emma Stone‘s stand-out solo ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ — are absolutely fantastic. These are certifiable “Oscar moments.”

La La Land tosses several significant and believable obstacles in the paths of our protagonists, once more asking viewers what we would sacrifice to ensure our dreams become realized. Our story, as it were, is constructed out of the interactions between two star-crossed lovers — Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) — as they evolve from strangers with road rage to significant others. In their third romantic pairing (Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad being the others), the actors feel entirely natural together. Under the guidance of Chazelle the two really are wonderful. They’re first spotted in the very traffic jam that opens the film in a surprisingly thrilling fashion. They’re not exactly amiable towards each other at first, with Sebastian blaring his horn at Mia having grown tired of the woman in front of him not paying attention to her surroundings.

Quite serendipitously the two will meet again, first at a small restaurant where Sebastian has just been fired for disobeying his manager (J.K. Simmons in a cameo) who told him explicitly not to play any jazz, only the Christmas jingles. This encounter is also far from pleasant. Later the two meet again at a couple of L.A. parties, where they could be meeting anyone. I would have rolled my eyes more but Chazelle writes so well forgiving these nagging coincidences is not only easy, it’s mandatory. Cheesiness is part of the fabric of the musical. Despite feigning disinterest in one another via the film’s obvious centerpiece — a beautifully choreographed dance number near Griffith Observatory synchronized with a setting sun that bathes the valley in royal purple — the two share an irresistible charm that reminded me of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s affectionate ribbing in Eternal Sunshine.

As the two eventually entwine their lives together they attempt to motivate each other to make their dreams become realities. A passionate jazz pianist, Sebastian sees himself opening his own club one day, despite how he barely gets by on the gigs he plays right now. The aforementioned fall-out at the restaurant finds the musician relegated to playing synth for an 80s cover band at birthday parties. His girlfriend scratches her head when she sees him stooping to a new low by going on tour with a mainstream band headed by a high school acquaintance named Keith (John Legend). “Do you like this kind of music?” Mia asks during a heated exchange over a candlelit dinner. Sebastian stabs back with a reminder that her acting career has yet to take off. Refreshingly, this relationship isn’t perfect. Matters of practicality vs. idealism begin creating friction. Sebastian maintains he is doing whatever he can to make ends meet. He no longer can afford to be so idealistic.

In La La Land conviction is everything. Enthusiasm and vigor prevent the production from descending into schmaltz. It’s a quality that applies to virtually every aspect of the filmmaking process, from Chazelle’s emphatic direction to the complicated dance routines that give characters as much soul as any awards-baiting monologue ever could. From the meticulous location scouting to the cinematography that makes Los Angeles bleed colors we haven’t seen since Nicolas Winding Refn lit the place on fire with 2011’s Drive. The songs won’t make you want to sing in the rain like Gene Kelly, nor are they quite as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious as anything Julie Andrews did . . . but hey, they’re still catchy. And given the inexperience of the cast — Gosling learned to play piano and tap dance for his part, while Stone reportedly had some balance issues — the fact that we catch ourselves moving our feet in rhythm speaks volumes about the harmony of the post-production process. La La Land comes together very well, despite several familiar elements.

The film’s music is almost always fantastical, in some instances even ethereal as a lone spotlight falls on the singer of the moment while the rest of the world fades to black. But the fantasy doesn’t subtract from the authenticity of the emotions on  display.  Impressively the story stays rooted in reality, and the experience is not exactly pain-free. Chazelle is a passionate advocate for jazz music, clearly. I mean of all things, he landed on a jazz musical, in a day and age where country singers and pop stars are being manufactured on game shows. In an era of jaded 20-year-olds who think jazz is just music stuck in the past. And while thematically it feels like the writer-director is somewhat treading water post-Whiplash, ultimately he inspires simply because of the gamble he just took to realize his own ambitions.

la-la-land

4-0Recommendation: La La Land, a film with enough verve and color to supply at least five other major productions, lingers in the mind because of the fascinating combination of modern actors performing arguably outmoded roles in an era where the musical is no longer popular. It’s a film for Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fans and jazz lovers alike. It’s a film for romantics. But if you’re heading in expecting Damien Chazelle to up his game from Whiplash, you might find yourself disappointed. Because that film was a stroke of genius. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 128 mins. 

Quoted: “You could just write your own rules. You know, write something that’s as interesting as you are.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Justin Krook

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, not to be confused with Mike Hodges’ British crime thriller starring Clive Owen, is a globetrotting documentary following around popular EDM deejay Steve Aoki as he prepares for the biggest show of his career. It promises a unique look at a unique life, but unfortunately it suffers from the same identity crisis nonpareils of iPod-shuffling-based music do. Very little about the piece ends up distinctive, much less memorable.

That’s a shame given the subject gives an altogether different impression. Aoki, born in Miami to fairly traditional Japanese parents Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki and Chizuru Kobayashi, is a fountain of perpetual youth. One thing that’s apparent even to the uninitiated is his inability to stand still, to release his foot from the gas pedal as he continues jamming as many live performances into one calendar year as possible despite being nine years deep into a career one might reasonably describe as exhausting. The Guinness Book of World Records has him pegged as the planet’s most well-traveled deejay based on miles logged in the air alone. And in the live setting, where he regularly plasters raging fans with birthday cake (while he himself gets plastered by chugging whatever liquor he has handy), Aoki is a 21-year-old stuck in an almost-40-year-old body. Put simply, he’s an enigma.

Justin Krook is clearly an admirer. His film is concerned with all things Steve Aoki, slowly separating out the personal from the professional, but the profile doesn’t quite evolve into something truly compelling. You get this sense that the background checks — the majority of which boils down to a fairly stock E! True Hollywood story based upon artists who spent their lives trying to crawl out from the shadows cast by their parents — have been obligatorily stitched on, as if Krook knows the majority watching is far less interested in where Aoki comes from as it is in where he’s going next. The end result is a muddled assemblage of timelines both past and present that culminates in a unique (and, of course, massive) show that takes over the streets of L.A. in celebration of Aoki’s latest release, the double-album ‘Neon Future.’

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is at its most fascinating when talking Steve’s ultra-ambitious father. A wrestler-turned-restaurateur, Rocky seemed to live a life that was the stuff of dreams. As if founding popular Japanese cuisine chain Benihana wasn’t enough, Rocky became obsessed with pursuing high-risk outdoor activities like hot air ballooning over the Pacific and off-shore powerboat racing. The latter nearly killed him after a high speed accident under the Golden Gate Bridge in 1979, at which point he recognized his limitations. His refusal to provide his musically-inclined son any sort of financial support isn’t really surprising when you learn more about the man. The tension between Steve and his father becomes the quintessential story of self-motivation, despite a consistently supportive mother who never told her children not to follow their passions.

The film pulls interviews from a variety of industry staples, the likes of which might mean something to those who have immersed themselves in this cacophonous culture. They attempt to illuminate Aoki’s influence upon the scene but intelligible commentary becomes so obscured by empty descriptors like “fucking rad” and “epic” and “extreme” that it’s difficult to glean much of a message behind the words. The gist is that very few deejays work as hard as Steve Aoki. More so than his free-flowing hair, it’s his work ethic that has come to define him both as a person and as a professional. That’s pretty cool. I guess.

Recommendation: If you listen to this kind of music (I don’t, or at least not with any degree of regularity) you might get a kick out of this behind-the-scenes look at the life of one Steve Aoki. But even then fans might find it disappointing how hollow the experience is. After spending nearly an hour and a half with someone we should feel like we get to know that person but that’s just not the case here. Exclusively on Netflix.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 79 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.steveaoki.com 

The Invitation

'The Invitation' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Phil Hay; Matt Manfredi

Directed by: Karyn Kusama

Dinner parties tend to get awkward when guests start dropping dead.

Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body; Aeon Flux) invites you inside the strange goings-on of what was supposed to be a casual get-together among longtime friends, friends reuniting after a traumatic event. Paranoia and mistrust run rampant in The Invitation as painful memories from the past are dredged up and inauspicious developments in the present combine to form one of the most tension-rich environments you’re likely to get in a mystery thriller of its ilk.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to call Kusama’s latest film fairly predictable stuff. Even if you’re only half paying attention you’re likely going to make a good assumption as to how everything wraps up. The disastrous dinner party scenario isn’t played out per se but it is formulaic and there are certain limitations not even the likes of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who share writing duties here, can overcome. Still, writing within limitations doesn’t mean you have to restrict your creativity — if anything it means just the opposite — and this deliciously suspenseful, utterly engaging and nerve-racking story is proof these writers enjoy embracing that challenge. The main beats you can feel coming well in advance but there’s a wealth of material in between that make The Invitation a plump cherry to savor.

The story is about a man returning to his former residence after he’s accepted an invitation to a dinner being thrown by his ex-wife and her new husband. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is on the way over with his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) when his distracted driving results in striking an animal in the middle of the road. So yeah, okay, maybe it’s not the subtlest way of foreshadowing what comes later but the moment succeeds in preempting tension that will rarely excuse itself from the narrative going forward.

That tension sets in in earnest when Will and Kira arrive and are greeted by friends they haven’t seen in some time. Things are definitely awkward, everyone needs a first drink. But everyone also seems a little . . . odd. Maybe that’s just the way Will is perceiving things. Bobby Shore’s camera sticks close by his side as he reacquaints himself with the house he once lived in. He’s quiet and stand-offish, resulting in a number of instances where friends come up to him and ask how he’s doing. Telling him they love him. Maybe it’s just the hosts that are off-putting. After all it can’t be easy listening to your ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) vehemently declaring how intent she is on living a life free of pain and grief now; how she wants a troubled past with Will to be forgotten and moved beyond.

Her husband David (Michiel Huisman) spouts the same gibberish, passionately reciting some bullshit philosophical utterances touted by a “grief support group” the two have recently joined. David even goes so far as to show everyone a video of what goes on during their “sessions.” (Yes, everything is now going to be in mystery quotes.) The contents are “fairly disturbing” to say the least. We continue to ride the night out from Will’s point of view, his mounting discomfort shedding the thin veil of subtlety it had earlier. He’s very suspicious of this David fella and not because he’s the guy his ex is now seeing.

To get everyone’s minds off of the weirdness he just subjected them to, David suggests they participate in an ice-breaking game called ‘I Want,’ a variation on ‘I Have Never,’ and the evening takes another interesting turn when Eden wants to kiss Ben (Jay Larson), the same guy she briefly became hostile towards for making a harmless joke moments ago. This is just one example of the woman’s erratic behavior. At this point we wish we could be Claire, a guest who has become so uncomfortable she just wants to leave, despite the hosts’ protests. Somewhere along the way an unexpected guest has arrived, an imposingly large man named Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). He’s from the same support group. Meanwhile, the partiers are still awaiting the arrival of Choi (Karl Yune), a friend who promised to show up early.

A talented cast and crew help Kusama realize the potential in her cult-themed thriller. Marshall-Green brings a quiet intensity to his part as a conflicted Will but aside from him there are no particular standouts; rather, the ensemble of relative unknowns fails to register a false note in their emotional responses. Major spoiler-related actions notwithstanding, people behave in The Invitation as you would expect them to in real life. These aren’t people you ever really like, something that actually works in the film’s favor as it merely compounds the stress. The characters are each their own oddball, constantly demonstrating behavior that could prove to be their own undoing. Best of all, no one character is defined by a singular emotional outburst; they have names, not labels.

Throughout, Kusama’s direction remains disciplined and keenly focused on the biased perception of an unreliable protagonist. (Or is Will the only sane one in the room?) Kusama employs flashbacks that occasionally feel heavy-handed but contrasted against the vagaries of Will’s shifty demeanor they become vital. They help us appreciate why this get-together was never going to feel normal. It’s her work behind the camera that ensures The Invitation remains a consistently rewarding watch, and despite the third act gut-punch losing a bit of its edge due to some blatant foreshadowing earlier, everything winds up in a snap that’s just too good to resist.

Recommendation: Despite its predictability, The Invitation is simply too well-acted and executed to ignore. It’s claustrophobic and intimate and awkward and tense and pretty much everything that makes the formulaic dinner-party mystery thriller great. An able cast helps convince while strong work from behind the camera marks this as a project clearly everyone believed in. A very fun and rewarding watch, highly recommended. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “Forgiveness doesn’t have to wait. I’m free to forgive myself and so are you. It’s a beautiful thing. It really is.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Café Society

'Cafe Society' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 15, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Woody Allen

Directed by: Woody Allen

I think I’ve cashed in the last of my goodwill towards all things Woody Allen by checking out Café Society, yet another movie about New York, being Jewish and being young, dumb and hopelessly lovesick. The weight of Allen’s neuroticism has become crushing in the present tense. The novelty of his vaguely pervy sentimentality wore off years ago, and while we may find ourselves surrounded by familiar scenery here, the days of Manhattan and Annie Hall have all but disappeared in the rearview.

It’s not that I have ignored that unwritten rule of avoiding a film you know you’re not going to like from the word ‘go;’ I have for the most part enjoyed spending time in Allen’s hyper-self-conscious little fantasies but it’s apparent now that fantasy is all the man is and will ever be about, be it his directorial touch or his shady real-life persona. Semantics, really. Some just leave it at ‘pervert’ or ‘creep’ and if I ended up feeling uncomfortable for Kristen Stewart that must mean I agree to some extent with those labels as well. I mean, it’s Kristen Stewart.

I am, however, disappointed I ignored a personal rule: Stay away from anything Woody Allen that looks suspect, regardless of whom he has talked into working with him. The problem with Café Society isn’t one of objective quality. The film is stunning to behold, set in two of America’s most famous cities and lensed with a certain verve you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Vittorio Storaro’s seductive soft focus and brilliant color palette perpetuate Allen’s love for The Big Apple and the effervescent glow makes Los Angeles look like a place we would all like to live someday. That’s an impressive feat.

The cast is equally effective in seducing: beyond the gimmick of casting Adventureland‘s stoned-in-love Jesse Eisenberg and the aforementioned Stewart, we get a stuffy Steve Carell as an obnoxious L.A. agent named Phil Stern. He so happens to be the uncle of Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) who is looking to get his foot in the door in 1930s Hollywood. Corey Stoll plays Bobby’s brother Ben, a New York gangster with an affinity for burying his enemies in fresh concrete (that’s actually pretty funny). Blake Lively is lovely as Veronica, Bobby’s bride-to-be, while Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin revel in their roles as the quintessentially bickering, old-country Jewish couple. Oy vey, they’re so cliché.

There’s little to complain about when it comes to the film’s technical aspects. Instead Café Society‘s simple themes — finding a partner who will complement you in every aspect of life; being unable to escape your past — suffers from having lived a life thrice. There’s nothing to experience here that you haven’t in countless entries into Allen’s extensive filmography, which is to say that we have probably seen this movie in various incarnations no fewer than 20 times. No filmmaker can be that prolific and that consistently groundbreaking. Not even visionaries like Georges Méliès, who belongs to that oh-so-prestigious club of directors with 200+ titles to their name.

I know, I know. It’s a little extreme to be associating a pioneer like Méliès with someone like Allen but bear with me. The point is, his harping on budding romance has become passé and his creative funk continues in this latest excuse to pad a résumé. Eisenberg is a fresh-faced youngster in Hollywood who has taken up an off-the-cuff offer from his uncle to do odd jobs for him in exchange for the opportunity to make valuable connections. Along the way he falls for the cute secretary, Vonnie (Stewart) and is smitten by her lack of pretense. Trouble is, she’s currently seeing another, much older man and things are both serious and seriously complicated.

Heartbroken and disillusioned, he heads back to New York where he helps his older thug brother run a high-class nightclub that attracts many a wealthy douchebag politician and various nameless sycophants. It is here Bobby is introduced to Lively’s Veronica, with whom he casually jokes about having the same name as his ex. Well, joking is a strong word in a Woody Allen movie. It’s more like, he lusts after her because of the similarity. They soon marry and even have a child. But is life with Veronica (Vonnie 2.0) everything Bobby wants? The past comes back to haunt him when Vonnie 1.0 stumbles into his club one random evening. Of all the night clubs on all the city blocks in Manhattan, why did she have to choose this one?

Very little of Café Society feels like it’s designed to burrow in the longterm memory.  This is particularly offensive when we’ve had stronger characters and more compelling plot lines to follow in Allen’s back catalogue alone. Modern Allen is a flaccid Allen. He seems to get off on repeating himself. ‘Café Society’ is both a term used to describe the crowds that gather at various trendy clubs as well as the name of a specific club started up by Barney Josephson in 1938 in the New York neighborhood of Greenwich Village, today infamous for being one of the most expensive places to live in the States.

There’s one other theme apparent, an age-old lamenting over how people change over time. I can’t get into the nitty-gritty of that without ruining the movie for those still waiting to take this all in, but suffice it to say I find that talking point ironic. The more things change the more they stay the same. It’s certainly true of a director who mistakes quantity for quality. There’s very little romantic about doing the same things over and over again for decades.

Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell in 'Cafe Society'

Recommendation: Tedious fluff piece. Café Society represents more of the same from Woody Allen: annoying characters complaining about their love lives all while trying to find an inspiration for changing themselves for the better. I can’t say this movie is generic but it probably will be for those who have an appreciation for earlier Allen. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart prove they do have good chemistry together though, so at least there is that. And the movie is an absolute delight from a visual standpoint. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy director.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Neon Demon

'The Neon Demon' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 

[Theater]

Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn; Mary Laws; Polly Stenham

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Elephant in the room: there are more lines of dialogue in Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film than there were in his last. That wasn’t enough to stop The Neon Demon from scoring Refn his second-straight booing at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is still delicate as fine china when it comes to plot but this is Refn as I like him: at least somewhat accessible. Booing him this time seems more like a ritualistic exercise than a just reaction.

Cautionary tale about a teen who puts her high school career on hold to take modeling gigs in Los Angeles epitomizes the Refn-ian vision: lots of bright, pretty colors colliding and compensating for the stark lack of light elsewhere on screen (i.e. each time there’s an alley, a corner or anything capable of throwing shadows); a heightened sexuality that frequently veers into the perverse before fully tipping over into depravation. Most characters stare more than they speak, their inactivity designed to draw attention to form, not function. A psychosexual soundtrack courtesy of regular collaborator Cliff Martinez.

Yeah, so . . . about that staring obsession. Unlike in Only God Forgives it actually serves a purpose here. The pulpiest bits of the story concern the danger young Jesse (Elle Fanning, who celebrated her 17th birthday during filming) finds herself in when she becomes the object of a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone)’s affections. Jesse’s natural beauty starts posing a major threat to other models, specifically Sarah (model-turned-actress Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), women terrified that their time in the spotlight is quickly coming to an end with the arrival of such an angelic, naive presence. Long, lustful stares carry a tension that’s more palpable than it is logical: are we really supposed to believe one of these women is better looking than the other?

Passing glances evolve into death stares as Jesse catches the eye of Alessandro Nivola’s brutally cold fashionista. If haughtiness is an indication of expertise, this guy has had all the experience. Refn, self-described as a pornographer, remains steadfastly committed to the physique: cameras ogle over Jesse’s long legs and Rapunzelian hair constantly. As we transform from viewers to voyeurs, we become haunted by this combination of wanting to stop watching but being physically unable to do so. There’s just something so watchable about The Neon Demon, an obsession to know more that gave me flashbacks of the 2011 haunting beauty that was Drive.

Refn may still be a few challenging movies shy of earning comparisons to contemporary provocateurs like Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier (a fellow Dane), but here he is, persisting anyway. Once again the world as he sees it is a brutal, cruel construct, a jagged jumble of broken hearts and heinous acts carried out in the name of self preservation. Malone’s necrophiliac tendencies demonstrate the depths to which these women will sink to obtain whatever it is they perceive Jesse having over them. (What that was was never clear to me but then again, it’s been awhile since I last thumbed through an issue of Vogue.)

The Neon Demon doesn’t break much, if any, new ground in its exploration of the vacuum of happiness that is the fashion industry. It’s neither a history lesson nor a revelation. Perhaps the movie is best when we consider the specifics of the clichés, like how Keanu Reeves takes a stock character and turns him into something we come to fear or the metaphorical beauty of Jesse’s fall from grace landing her at the bottom of an empty pool. Or how uncertain we are that her fellow models are even human. Given the potency of this hallucinogenic trip, it’s safe to say that in 2016 Refn is found reaching for his 2011 highs rather than stooping to his 2013 lows. Thank the neon demons for that.

Recommendation: The Neon Demon represents Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s most female-driven film so far. Some have dismissed this as a sexist, sadistic bit of pretense but that’s overly harsh. It may not be the most original film, nor one where we get all the answers to life’s problems but on the basis of its twisted, mesmeric visuals, The Neon Demon is further proof that Refn is a director to keep an eye on going forward. A great leap forward for the young Elle Fanning, as well. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “She’s a diamond among a sea of glass.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com