The Neon Demon Movie Review

Five years ago, Nicolas Winding Refn made Drive, one of my absolute favorite pictures in years. The ultra stylish and occasionally extremely violent action thriller was light on plot, but heavy on atmosphere. I found it hypnotic. I was less enamored with Only God Forgives, the filmmaker’s follow-up two years later. Violent and fascinating to look at? Indeed it was and it had some good stuff in it. Yet I wrote at the time that it lacked soul and that’s something Drive had with the relationship between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan.

Now we arrive at The Neon Demon and that whole soulless thing pervades this experience even more so. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, fresh out of some small town and in Los Angeles to become a model. She’s sixteen, but tells everyone she’s 19. Jesse is stunningly beautiful and knows it. So does everyone around her and it infects them with feelings of jealousy and lust. This includes two other models (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote) and a makeup artist (Jena Malone) who befriends our wide eyed beauty for a while. Then there’s the photographer (Karl Glusman) who has the hots for her and the manager of the fleabag motel (Keanu Reeves) she’s staying at that might, too.

The central concept of The Neon Demon is that being gorgeous can get you somewhere in life, but it can be dangerous as well due to how it affects others. We pretty much get that within the first 15 minutes and then Demon just keeps going. And going. Anyone familiar with the director knows he favors style over substance and there are some technically pleasing shots to behold. Drive had an interesting enough story to go with the tone and visuals. Forgives did some of the time. This mostly doesn’t. It’s an ugly film about beautiful people.

I found myself simply not caring where the plot went and atmospherics weren’t enough to hold my attention. Nor were the performances. None are bad, but none really rise above the material. The final act gives us a tone shift that may you have you either rolling your eyes or trying to keep your lunch down. We’ve come a long way from the thrill I felt awaiting Refn’s next picture after Drive. With Demon, he seems stuck in reverse.

*1/2 (out of four)

Oscar History: 2011

For the Academy Awards, 2011 will forever be known as the year when a French black and white silent film came out of nowhere to win three major categories, including Best Picture. That would be The Artist and it picked up momentum over its rivals, becoming one of the more unlikely recipients of the prize in some time.

During that year, the number of Picture nominees was nine and it beat out The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and War Horse. 

As for some others I may have considered, my favorite film of the year was Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Another personal favorite: David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Furthermore, the expanded list of nominees could have given the Academy a chance to nominate some of the better blockbusters that year: Rise of the Planet of the Apes or Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol for example.

The Artist‘s auteur Michel Hazanavicius would win Director over stellar competitors: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Alexander Payne (The Descendants), and Martin Scorsese (Hugo). Again, Mr. Refn and Mr. Fincher would have made my cut.

The Artist love continued in Best Actor where Jean Dujardin took the prize over Demian Bichir (A Better Life), George Clooney (The Descendants), Gary Oldman in his first (??) nomination (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and Brad Pitt (Moneyball).

I may have found room for Ryan Gosling’s silent but strong work in Drive or perhaps even Steve Carell in Crazy, Stupid, Love – in which he showed off real dramatic acting chops coupled with his comedic abilities for the first time.

Awards darling Meryl Streep took Best Actress for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher (no relation) in The Iron Lady. Othern nominees: Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Viola Davis (The Help), Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn).

The Academy’s penchant for ignoring comedy was shown here as Kristin Wiig should have merited consideration for her megahit Bridesmaids.

Beloved veteran Christopher Plummer won Supporting Actor for Beginners over Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn), Jonah Hill (Moneyball), Nick Nolte (Warrior), and Max Von Sydow (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).

Two others I may have made room for: Albert Brooks in Drive and especially the brilliant motion capture work of Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Octavia Spencer was victorious in Supporting Actress for The Help over her costar Jessica Chastain, as well as Berenice Bejo (The Artist), Melissa McCarthy in the rare nod for comedy in Bridesmaids, and Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs).

Two other comedic performances worthy of consideration: Rose Byrne in Bridesmaids and Jennifer Aniston’s scene stealing work in Horrible Bosses. I also would have found room for Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.

And that’s your Oscar history for 2011, folks! I’ll have 2012 up in the near future.

New York Critics Go Caroling

In 2002, the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) went gaga over Todd Haynes’s drama Far From Heaven, bestowing it with their award for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Dennis Quaid), and Supporting Actress (Patricia Clarkson). Yet when it came time for Oscar nominations, none of those picks were reflected with the Academy.

Thirteen years later, could history repeat itself again for Mr. Haynes? It’s a worthy question as the NYFCC have showered love upon his latest project, Carol. The 1950s drama centering on a lesbian relationship won big at their ceremony today, taking Picture and Director. The Big Apple critics appreciation for Carol gives it a somewhat needed boost for its Oscar chances. When it screened at film festivals earlier this year, it seemed close to a lock for Picture recognition but its stock has waned some.

As I did yesterday with the National Board of Review’s selections, it’s important to show you how often each critics organization matches what the Academy ends up doing. With the NYFCC, 12 out of their last 15 selections for Best Picture (the ones in the 21st century) have gone onto Oscar nominations in the same category. The exceptions were the aforementioned Heaven, 2001’s Mulholland Drive, and 2006’s United 93.

The same 12/15 ratio extends to the Directing category in which winners were Academy snubbed. Besides Haynes, the others were Mike Leigh for 2008’s Happy Go Lucky and Kathyn Bigelow for 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty.

I believe it’s much more likely that Carol manages a slot in the Picture race come Oscar nomination time than Haynes himself, but we’ll see how that plays out well as my predictions continue to be updated on the blog.

As for the acting races – the NYFCC hit us with two surprises. The biggest was Supporting Actress where they selected Kristen Stewart for her work in the little seen Clouds of Sils Maria. While she’s been mentioned as a possibility, very few prognosticators (this one included) have picked her for a Oscar nomination. I still don’t see it happening, but this win does raise her profile for sure. It’s also worth noting that only 2 of the last 15 NYFCC recipients in this category haven’t received Academy attention (the aforementioned Clarkson for Heaven and Maria Bello in 2005’s A History of Violence). Even more surprising is that the NYFCC didn’t honor Rooney Mara’s work in Carol, since many consider her the most likely winner for the gold statue.

The other surprise was Best Actor, which went to Michael Keaton in Spotlight. The shocker was the category he won for because Mr. Keaton is being campaigned for in Supporting Actor and not lead. It’s highly likely that the Bat/Birdman will be recognized come Oscar time… just not in the race where the NYFCC feted him. Of note: three past winners in the 21st century didn’t get Oscar nods: Paul Giamatti in 2004’s Sideways and the last two recipients: Robert Redford for All is Lost and Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner.

Actress went to Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn and her Academy nod seems pretty much assured. She joins Room‘s Brie Larson (who won the NBR yesterday), Joy‘s Jennifer Lawrence, and Carol‘s Cate Blanchett as front runners for award attention into the future. As with Actor, three winners out of the past 15 didn’t receive Academy attention: Hope Davis for 2003’s American Splendor, Sally Hawkins for 2008’s Happy Go Lucky, and Rachel Weisz for 2012’s The Deep Blue Sea. 

Supporting Actor went to Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies and he’s also a strong contender in the big race. It is worth noting that the NYFCC has actually picked five out of their last 15 winners that never made it to the Academy’s red carpet: the previously mentioned Quaid in 2002, Steve Buscemi for Ghost World (2001), Eugene Levy in A Mighty Wind (2003), Albert Brooks in Drive (2011), and Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike and Bernie (2012).

Bottom line: a solid day for Carol and we’ll see if the momentum keeps up as my analysis for the 2015 awards season keeps rolling along…

Top 25 Best Movies (1990-2015): Nos. 25-21

With 2015 nearly over, we can take a look at the beginning of the 1990s through today and see an entire generation of films represented. It caused your trusty movie blogger to think about what my personal favorite 25 pictures have been over that time period and that’s a daunting task. I chose to make the list anyway and, truth be told, it’s a list that could literally fluctuate from day to day.

For one thing, it certainly wouldn’t be accurate to say I’ve seen every acclaimed film from 1990-2015 (and there’s still more to come). Yet I certainly feel confident I’ve viewed enough to make a solid listing and if it changes, I’ll gladly update this.

What we have here is my personal best breakdown of my 25 pictures I keep going back to. That I just can’t quit (Brokeback Mountain didn’t make the cut, by the way). Obviously this is entirely subjective. Movies I wrote down that didn’t make the list are ones that I truly love and or admire from comedies like Dumb and Dumber, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, The Big Lebowski, There’s Something About Mary, The 40 Yr. Old Virgin, and Superbad. Disney classic Beauty and the Beast, which is way at the top of my traditional animated material from the studio. Same goes for Pixar’s Toy Story franchise. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained. Fincher’s The Game. Genre standard bearers like Scream, The Matrix, and Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Best Picture winners Unforgiven and No Country for Old Men. American Psycho. Glengarry Glen Ross. Black Swan. Nightcrawler. Captain Phillips. American Sniper. Lost in Translation. Casino. Traffic. The Sixth Sense. The Usual Suspects. L.A. Confidential. Inception. And this is what didn’t make it.

So let’s get to what did, my friends! We’ll do this in five installments counting down from #25 to #1. Here we go:

25. Drive (2011)

Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra violent art house crime pic is a triumph of mood and music with magnificent performances from Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Albert Brooks. More than most others, Drive stayed with me and I find myself going back to it frequently. Is it in acquired taste? Yes and definitely mine.

24. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

This is the only documentary of many I could have considered for inclusion, including Hoop Dreams, Man on Wire, and so on. Yet no documentary floored me like Capturing the Friedmans, which tells the truth is stranger than fiction tale of family members accused of child molestation. It’s riveting, heart wrenching stuff that I found myself endlessly recommending to friends.

23. Fight Club (1999)

I wasn’t crazy about David Fincher’s Fight Club when I saw it in the theater circa October 1999. Since then, I’ve come around and been able to recognize it for the timely masterpiece that it is.

22. Casino Royale (2006)

It’s my second favorite James Bond flick ever after only 1963’s From Russia with Love. It brilliantly cast Daniel Craig in the role of 007 and stands as an absolute classic in the canon of the British super spy franchise.

21. Minority Report (2002)

Many movie fans simply thought this Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise futuristic action thriller was solid. I thought it was amazing from the moment I set eyes on it and it says a lot about the current state of our world and its security. It’s Spielberg’s best work since the early 1980s in my opinion.

And there you have it! I’ll have 20-16 up very soon…