The Neon Demon (18) Film Review

Have your cake, eat it, and then throw up because you look like a pig.

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Modelling is truly the Refn film’s compeer; people are ornamental, violence is sex and vapidity is substantive. The film’s ethereal L.A., guttural and glittering, finds itself somewhere in-between the arterial urbanism of Drive and the neon-drenched dank and fatalism of Only God Forgives: a lurid wonderland of rapacious wolves and fresh golden sheep. Its narrative velocity is just as medial. The story moves forward with a more accessible pace and purchase than OGF, but waits far longer to blow its gruesome load than Drive. The narrative momentum pays off, however, giving Refn’s autonomic aesthetics more credence, and his characters more to show us, to give us and present us with, and so more to be invested and involved in. It also helps that the characters are characters, rather than glorified symbols. There’s a mystery to the film, about who these people are and what they want- what they are; if they’re even people, if they’ve pushed themselves past that definition, been pushed past it, or always been outside it- that is genuinely engaging and that envelopes and corroborates the visual and aural tension of the first two-thirds.

Elle Fanning’s virginal lamb, Jessie, is the quietly captivating heart of The Neon Demon, and a big one at that. Fanning moves and talks with a slow confidence that more than matches the acute aura of Ryan Gosling’s stoic driver and emotionally arrested drug-dealer Julian. Jessie is every bit of every smile, every glance and every slow word, and is everything that the film’s agents and photographers make her out to be. It is rare for a character to actually have that same allure for the audience; the stunning woman is usually not as stunning as the script thinks she is, as casting could get her, or as the characters around her fawn and scramble to reify. But Fanning is. This isn’t Goldie. We’re not just told that she’s different; she is different. We don’t just have to buy that she’s captivating; she is, and she captivates us. She really is the something else that everybody says she is, and I look forward to seeing what she does next, because I think it could be a lot.

Overall the supporting cast is solid, with Keanu Reeves’ sleazy motel manager and Karl Glusman’s boy next door with a fast car and a heart of gold being the two big standouts. Jena Malone should be commended for a committed performance, but maybe not a good one. The same goes for Heathcoate and Kershaw; it’s great that they’re willing to work with challenging material, but it would be better if they could live up to it. All three women were stiff and difficult, and as the film progressed, it became more and more apparent that they couldn’t hold a scene without Fanning. Every minute of screen-time Refn gave them was just another opportunity to lose believability and substance. Which is ironic.

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Cinematographer Natasha Braier brings a fresh set of eyes and ideas to the visuals that help Refn top himself yet again. In terms of aesthetics, Refn is unmatched by anyone working today. Composer Cliff Martinez’s third successive collaboration with Refn is an icy, aortic melange that pounds and throbs with tension and psychosexuality, knowing when to recede and when to explode. The script, too, is a huge step up from the rather clunky two pages that Refn scribbled out for OGF. The film consistently nails the careful tonal balance between drama and absurdity; it stays serious enough to make meaning, but self-aware enough to keep out of its own arse.

But then, on the homestretch, it lets itself down.

Maybe I just knew too much about what was coming; the hyperventilating Cannes press had already robbed me of my ignorance before I had a chance to hit the cinema (scratch that- before the film was even on general release) something which was compounded by scaremongering BBFC press releases and obnoxious Daily Mail empty-head-lines. But, then again, maybe I’m just being generous- maybe it was just silly shocksploitation with illusions of grandeur. Well there wasn’t anything grand about the last forty-five minutes; I can tell you that now and save you the hassle of wondering when you’re sitting there.

And you should be sitting there, because despite where it ends up, the meat of the movie is actually pretry special. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it, and if you love cinema, I think you have a duty to make sure that you do, and to support a filmmaker who is doing his damnedest to bring us something better and something different.  Don’t let the press nanny you into Absolutely Fabulous and don’t let the cynics tell you it’s pretentious; I mean, it is, but that’s half the fun, right?

4/5

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Review: Game of Thrones S6E9 ‘Battle of the Bastards’

(Originally written for The Edge)

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They did it. They more than did it.

And no, I’m not just talking about the Starks; I’m talking about the entire team behind this unbelievable show. The eponymous battle of ‘Battle of the Bastards’ was one of, if not the, best medieval war sequences I have ever seen, in TV or otherwise. Every facet of the fight was expertly crafted, produced and shot. And the scale. Say what you will about the Dothraki horde, and Daenerys’ scaly pets; this wasn’t sleight of hand: it was practical, physical stuff. The effects, the choreography of so many actors and extras, the camerawork, and the amount of bodies – living, dead, or somewhere in-between – on screen, all at the same time, made this not just the crowning achievement of the sixth season, but potentially the entire show, and maybe even the entirety of television’s second golden age.

And god, how satisfying it was to finally see the Starks avenged. After six seasons of failure and death, finally things were put right, and in the best of ways. We all wanted Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) to get a good death – apart from maybe the Bolton loyalists over at the Dreadfort subreddit – we just didn’t know what that meant, or if the showrunners could pull it off. Well, they did, and it was spectacular. What a fitting end for a man obsessed with control to die because he could no longer exercise it.

Image via screenrant.com

The North was fantastic, but what a slog of an emotional marathon! The writers spent almost the entire back half of the episode dangling Jon Snow (Kit Harington) off of a cliff edge. His mindless charge at the Bolton ranks, in a hail of arrows; his faux final stand against Ramsay’s charging horsemen with only Longclaw and his man-bun; being trampled in the body-pit by his own panicking men. I was more than ready for fate to double-down on the mortality of the world’s favourite bastard. But it didn’t, and he won. Of course, credit has to go to the Vale, but bloody, muddy Jon was the real hero of the hour, charging down the Winterfell gates with Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and Wun Wun the Giant (Ian Whyte) to raise the Stark banners. While Ramsay watched from a horse on a hill, Jon was slicing and dicing his way through the thick of the battle. The bastards’ penultimate Fist Full of Dollars showdown in the Winterfell courtyard captured that dynamic perfectly; Ramsay’s tricks had run dry, and even if he’d had a mile and a bottomless sheath, Jon’s fists were going to reach his smarmy face. If we’ve learnt anything this season, it’s that Jon Snow is more determined to kill bad guys than the Gods are to kill him.

One more thing I want to mention is the use of bodies. D&D (Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) moulded the battlescape with corpses, trapping the Stark forces in a literal death pit, and giving us some of the most grotesque and upsetting imagery we’ve seen from the show thus far. It was innovative and incredible, in all the wrong and right ways.

So, that was the North. But what about Meereen? I hadn’t expected to see anything from the rest of Westeros this episode, let alone from across the sea; I thought we were going to get another Blackwater (my second favorite episode of the series now, after this one!). But we didn’t; instead, we got a cohesive double narrative with a lot of great parallels – most notably the children of terrible fathers coming together or coming to blows. Bastards one and all.

Image via screenrant.com

Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) dragon-mounted return to Meereen was cathartic and spectacular, and one of the all-time most satisfying moments in the show (again, only second to Jon pounding away at Ramsay’s face with a metal club of a fist – if you haven’t guessed the score by now you haven’t been paying attention). Finally, the dragons are free; finally, the masters are dead; and finally, thanks to some helpful plot teleportation from the Greyjoy siblings, things are on track for the Dragon Queen invasion we’ve been anticipating since season one, and for the first book readers, 1991.

Oh, and I ship Dany and Yara (Gemma Whelan) too hard. I think it’s becoming more and more clear that Game of Thrones is a fantasy about how women could have fixed human HIStory. The fiction is that they got their chance. Sansa (Sophie Turner) has won the North, and Dany and Yara are about to take Westeros. Let’s have it.

This was simply the best episode of the show. It was everything we wanted and way, way more. And as an aside, thank god that the spoilers and leaks floating around the internet weren’t true, or were at least weirdly sparing. No mention of Ramsay’s death or the battle in Meereen? I’m calling bullsh*t.

 

Clown (2014) Review

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Well, Eli Roth certainly knows which pies to put his fingers in.

Clown, directed by Jon Watts and produced by gorno prince Eli Roth, is a Canadian-American body horror film that’s just about the best movie I’ve seen in the last few months.

Originally released in 2014 in Italy, and 2015 in the UK, Clown has only just found its way over to the States. And although I’m not a Yank, I usually get into stuff about the same time they do, so here we are. Call me blinkered, but I guess that’s just my demographic.

Clown is about a dad, Kent McCoy, played by Andy Powers, who gets stuck inside a clown suit. And that’s because it’s not a costume: it’s a demon’s skin; a demon from Nordic mythology, Cloyne, that lived up in the mountains and ate children. Kent stumbles across the costume in a chest in the basement of one of his properties. The rent-a-clown for his son’s birthday is a no-show, so Kent decides to put it on and rush home to do the job instead.

And there starts the madness- the disgusting, bloody madness.

That probably all sounds a bit silly, and that’s because it is. But make no mistake: this is not a film to be scoffed at. Yes, the premise is ludicrous, but Watts engages with it in a way that is both novel, emotionally weighty and responsible. Clown is equal parts absurdist Cronenbergian body horror and anguished Kafkaesque tragicomedy; a gory trip into the supernatural depths of a fictional Norse legend, that takes a buzz saw and a big heart along for the ride.

Everything rests on the broad and capable shoulders of a truly talented main cast; Laura Allen, who plays Kent’s wife, and Christian Distefano, who plays their young son, deserve particular praise. Distefano goes above and beyond what is expected of an actor his age, convincing us with every line and every face. Allen flawlessly matches both Powers’ possessed patriarch and the wonderful Peter Stormare’s ‘guy who knows exactly what’s going on and why and has all the answers’ (but this time he’s not a priest- he’s a Swede!) Herbert Karlsson, and deserves heaps of praise for committing so fully to a concept that could have easily let itself go too far and get too serious. And we have the cast and the writers to thank for the fact that it doesn’t.

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The film turns on an admirably competent dime, trading dark comedy and body horror for purist tension and suspense without so much as a stumble. I’m happy to admit that my heart was in my throat  throughout the entire back half of the movie.

Clown looks great, too. The cinematography is clean and crisp, and the costumes, the practical effects, the blood, the guts, the viscera and Matthew Santo’s morbid rainbow palette are a treat for the eyes and a turn for the stomach. Matt Veligdan’s soundtrack is in perpetual panic mode, and in tandem with Robert Ryang’s rhythmic editing, it ratchets up the tension, scene by scene, until one finally explodes with confetti-colored blood and bone fragments.

The film is brilliantly self-aware, and plays around creatively with its undeniably silly premise. There’s a way to be sincere without being completely serious about your concept, and Clown does it perfectly. Unlike James Wan’s unoriginal horror tripe, Clown makes you feel and fall about laughing with sick delight all at once; it knows its premise is ridiculous, and that’s what makes it so clever.

As for the ultimate point, I’m not entirely sure. It’s complicated, and maybe even a little provocative; suffice it to say that there are a lot of different things going on: pedophilia, abuse, homelessness, mental illness, etc. etc. It’s not explicit, but it’s there if you want to read it.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Clown is everything a horror movie should be, and more. This is a true genre gem; not a meandering art-house flabbergast like The Witch, but an effortless, kinetic fright-fest, with blood and gore to the rafters and a gloriously macabre sense of humor. You’ll be laughing yourself off the sofa one minute, and behind it the next. What more could you ask for?

An easy…

5/5

Omar Mateen was a homophobe, not a lunatic

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Omar Mateen was not mentally ill, and he was not a Muslim; he was a homophobe who was disgusted by gays, and a sexist who beat his wife.

Lunatic is a word that lets us distance ourselves from the difficult people and difficult problems that we had a hand in creating. In reality, we live with the kind of hatred that Mateen represents every day. We see it and we hear it, and most of the time we let it slide, because, after all, we’re good people; we’re the liberal West: we gave them marriage and we gave them the fringe, what more do they want?

Well, it is those very freedoms that make our homophobia that much more dangerous, and the reason is very simple: disenfranchisement. Omar Mateen did what he did because he could not effect change in a legitimate way. He had no legal recourse, and so he picked up a gun and went out to Pulse, because it was the only option available to him. He would have been right at home in Saudi Arabia, Iran or Pakistan, but in the States, his views are not reflected or legitimized by the law. At least not officially.

Make no mistake: that’s a good- no, a great- thing. But it’s also what makes Western homophobia so much more volatile. Mateen faced a legal wall, so he shot it down. What we need to do is engage with, or ideally preempt, that point of obstruction.

There are two ways I can see of doing this.

Firstly, stop the homophobia. Mateen should never have been able to get that desperate and frustrated, let alone reify his desperation and frustration. He should not have had those views in this day and age. So, what we need to do is deal with and intercept the problem of homophobia through education, and by actively working against the every day normalization of homophobia in society.

As an aside, I don’t think we can lay the blame at Islam’s doorstep for this one- at least, not entirely. Every Abrahamic religion is vehemently sexist and homophobic, and every religion has terrorists. Terrorism has no religion? Terrorism has many religions. And anyway, Mateen was not a practising Muslim. He was a homophobe who found justification in Islam, in one aspect of his cultural identity, and used it to justify violence.

The second way for us to deal with the problem is to take away the violent option entirely. Doing that seemed pretty simple before the Bataclan: take away the guns, take away the assault rifles. It worked for us. It didn’t work for France. But I don’t think that that was a failure of the written law; I think it was a failure of the law in practice. Just look at the scenes in France this past week: English, French and Russian football fans running amok in Marseille and Lille, and a bipolar, unfocused and improper response from French riot police.

Ultimately, we just need to start getting this conversation right. Calling Mateen a lunatic sanitizes his motivations and takes them out of the complex sociopolitical melange in which they festered for 29 years. Branding him mentally ill, with no medical evidence and an offhand quote from his ex-wife, does the same and, more importantly, offends and dangerously stigmatizes an entire group of people who have enough to deal with as it is. This is about bigotry, and this is about gun laws. Stop talking around the issue, and confront it.

HITMAN Episode 3 ‘A Gilded Cage’ Review

HITMAN‘s new mission, The Gilded Cage, sees Agent 47 travelling to Marrakesh, Morocco, to carry out a double contract on the two power-players in an ongoing diplomatic crisis and imminent military coup. It’s essentially the Tehran embassy debacle with a messy paramilitary conspiracy tacked on for good measure.

Marrakesh is a bit of a mixed bag. The scenario is pretty novel and involved, and the opportunities it facilitates make for some of the best set-pieces in the current build of the game. Passing through consulate security as a news team’s cameraman or exploiting evacuation protocols to end up in your target’s armed escort is clever, creative and thrilling. However, these eclectic opportunities can sometimes be too obvious. When NPC’s are telling me where to find the master key for half the map, you know that the handholding has gone too far.

Most of the map just feels like padding. The market, the bazaar and the winding back streets have little to no use. In my first run, I went from the school, to the consulate, and left the way I’d come in. I didn’t even step foot in the market until my third or fourth run through, and that was just to see it.

It doesn’t help that the map is also the least visually appealing of the three episodes thus far. It’s drab and pallid, and the textures on buildings and NPCs are bad enough to look unrendered, even when they are. This is a real shame, and such a missed opportunity. The lamp market at the back of the map gives you a taste of the kind of exotic musk IO could have gone for. Instead, it’s anemic, plain, open and blocky, which makes its aesthetic mistakes all the more glaring. Sun-washed doesn’t mean desaturated. It also doesn’t help that Marrakesh is the follow-up to the absolutely stunning and insanely detailed Sapienza.

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Marrakesh differs from Paris and Sapienza in more complicated ways, too. Whereas the first two episodes had a sense of momentum and of forging a path deeper into the heart of the place or event, Marrakesh is dichotomous. The Swiss consulate is clean and glossy, busy and secure. Zaydan’s hideout, however, is like a bombed out Middle-Eastern warzone; sandy, decrepit, stockpiled with guns and ammunition, surrounded by armored vehicles and patrolled by varyingly indolent troops, something else that facilitates some pretty hilarious and morbidly creative kills. At first, I thought that this was a problem. Tonally, the transition from glassy consulate to abandoned school seemed off and disjointed. But then I kind of got the point- that the wealth of the political class is built on poverty and ruin, and that men like Strandberg see an occupied schoolyard as an opportunity, rather than a tragedy. All three of the game’s current maps have used location to parallel the themes of their hits and the stories behind them, and I think to great effect. This is certainly shaping up to be the franchise’s most political and critical entry yet, and props to IO for that. It’s so great to see a franchise develop and mature over time. I suppose they realized that it’s 2016, and that Christmas-strippers and sex-nuns don’t fly anymore. Female spies and scientists? Much better.

nuns sex and stuff duh

This progression is undermined, however, by cringe-worthy VO whitewashing- the kind of cockney redux that Unity‘s Parisians were lambasted for. How am I supposed to buy your Morocco when your Moroccans can’t even give me a convincing asalaam alikum? It’s racist and it’s lazy, it’s insulting to the fanbase, and it completely kills player immersion. They didn’t even have to go full Arabic; just give me some accents! They managed the Swedes at the consulate just fine, so what happened with the Moroccans? Giving a megaphone-wielding Moroccan political dissident a voice from the bleachy heart of white America completely undercuts any weight that the fictional protests could have had. It’s offensive, and it’s unnecessary. Cut it out IO; if I can beat your game I can handle a fucking accent.

SCORE

+ Creative assassination opportunities…

– …that can sometimes be too obvious.

+ Novel setting and scenario…

– …that IO unfortunately don’t pull off.

– Low res textures and ugly NPCs

– Lazy and offensive VO whitewashing

3/5

The Survivalist (2015) Review

I was a bit late to this one, but nonetheless felt compelled to put something up about it.

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Martin McCann in The Survivalist

Stephen Fingleton’s directorial debut, The Survivalist, is an art house dystopian drama about, surprisingly, a survivalist, played by Martin McCann, living alone in a shack out in the Irish forests.

The film opens with a brilliantly minimalist graphical animation that immediately establishes a stylistic precedent for the sparsity that defines the film, both diegetically and aesthetically. The Survivalist is a masterclass in directorial restraint, frugal world-building and implicit narration. With a single animated graph, Fingleton tells us everything we need to know about this world and its context: the oil ran out and everybody died.

Visually, the film is verdant and lush. The camera floats across green fields and digs into the earthy brown soils of Ireland’s forests with a loose airiness that punctuates the agrestic quiet and emptiness of the film’s long and careful sequences. Even the violence is treated with a gentleness that cogitates more on psychology than physicality. The film’s few confrontations are about mindset and trickery, rather than brute force and aggression. Fingleton’s camera is meditative and careful even in the film’s most tense and brutal scenes.

McCann’s survivalist is quite the opposite: constantly on-edge, paranoid and twitchy. He’s stiff, choked, and utterly possessed by the singular will to survive, putting everything, his time and effort, even himself- quite literally, with his urine and excrement- into conserving his austere existence; sustaining his meager crop and maintaining his scant inventory. Every day is the same, and everything is about being ready and able to deal with whatever or whoever comes next.

That ‘whoever’ ends up being a mother, Kathryn, and daughter, Milja, played by theatre actress Olwen Fouéré and Nymphomaniac‘s Mia Goth, respectively. The couple strike a deal with the survivalist: room and board, so as long as Milja shares his bed every night. This problematic arrangement is the crux of the film. It is fortunate, then, that it is also the best and most engaging part. The way in which the trio’s relationships fluctuate over the course of the film is as compelling as it is disturbing.

Contrary to the edgy critical consensus that thinks we need to come out of every rough-and-tumble art film feeling like Bear Grylls, The Survivalist is not some bleak two-hour slog. This is not the pretentious masochism of your Blue Ruin‘s; it’s a human film about human people. The Survivalist shows us the best and worst of humanity, from the darkest to the most endearing and loyal. That’s not relentless; that’s honest. It’s not all death and betrayal, it’s just that what love there is hides among it, and can even be synonymous. Such is the grayed marvel of the movie’s muddy morality- we don’t know who to like or who to hate; who’s right and who’s wrong. In Fingleton’s naked diegesis, every action feels morally variegated and tangled. One particular scene, involving some intimate fever-relief, really illustrates what I mean, but I won’t spoil it for you; it’s surprising, it’s touching, and it’s complicated, so go in blind and see what you think.

Featuring three fantastic performances, and an admirable expository minimalism and visual deftness to rival the best of the contemporary art house circuit, The Survivalist is an easy recommendation to make. Be prepared, but don’t be afraid. Don’t let the blood mask the humanity that rests at the heart of Fingelton’s twisted visual poetry.

4/5

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review

(Just before we start, all screenshots used in this review are my own, and were taken using the Uncharted 4 photo mode during gameplay which 1. should get the copyrighters off my back and 2. show you why you need to buy this game!)

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It’s funny, I don’t really consider myself an Uncharted fan. But what I remembered while playing A Thief’s End is that I am.

I wasn’t excited about this game. I wasn’t excited about the others either. I watched half the E3 demo and then never gave it a second thought. Until last week, that is. With HITMAN dead until next month’s map releases and Fallout 4 expansion Far Harbor currently unplayable, I was left with a pretty desolate PS4 library. So I decided to jump back on the Sony party train and download A Thief’s End.

I finished it in a sweaty day-and-a-half, and it was fantastic. Everything, the graphics, the gameplay, the story, the performances (across the board) and the Zimmer-level soundtrack, was nothing short of excellent. Naughty Dog are the masters of execution, and this is their opus.

Yes, I think we’re going to have to de-crown The Last of Us. The quality and consistency of production here, the attention to detail and interactivity, intuition and variety, is without parallel, and that includes the developer’s last gory effort.

The game’s biggest achievement is its combat. And no, I didn’t expect to be saying that either. While I’ve enjoyed every one of the series’ entries, I always felt like their shootouts were just monotonous obstacles that got in the way of the next spectacular set-piece or chase, dizzying climb or mind-bending find. That is absolutely not the case here. A Thief’s End pools the best bits of the series’ gunplay and climbing to produce some seriously explosive firefights.

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Not only are the environs bigger and more varied, but the addition of the new grapple rope gives them a verticality and natural kineticism that makes every encounter a joy to blast through, replay, and direct, because with the new, and commendably nuanced, photo mode, every encounter becomes an opportunity for you to break out your inner Spielberg. A Thief’s End really makes you feel like you’re in one of those great Indy action scenes that the series so lovingly pays homage to.

Naughty Dog have clearly been paying close attention to contemporary trends in games of all genres, but particularly the open-ended evolution of the Metal Gear franchise with its fifth and supposedly final entry. One chapter especially takes obvious inspiration from Kojima’s swan-song; a road-trip through the Madagascan jungle and mountains in a jeep, full of guard outposts to annex in any way you want- subterfuge or guns-a-blazing, it’s up to you. And while this clearly isn’t an original approach- Far Cry, the aforementioned Phantom Pain- serious props should go to Naughty Dog for being the first to understand that that formula fairs much better in short bursts than the entirety of forty-hour games…

If you want to be blown away, this is the one to pick up. Uncharted 4 achieves what so many game developers have tried for so long to do: put you in the movies you love and that they love. Movies and games are not inextricable, but they share an undeniable formal bond that, sometimes, it’s okay to just accept and revel in. This is one of those times.

4.5/5