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Beyond Skyline

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Seriously, who doesn’t want to see Frank Grillo (the better Purge movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) team up with Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (The Raid and, bizarrely, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) to fight an alien invasion? Cinema has clearly been building to this moment. Draw the curtains across every screen – we’re done.

But in case you need more: Beyond Skyline follows on from the little-loved 2010 sci-fi dud Skyline, but jettisons almost every possible element thereof except for the basic premise, instead building a whole new and much better story, which should make connoisseurs of imaginative and cheerfully cheap B-movies absolutely giddy.

In the shell of a nut, Earth is invaded by a fleet of alien ships that hypnotise the population by use of weird blue lights before sucking them up into the air for nefarious purposes. Hard-drinking LA cop Mark Corley (Grillo at his grizzled best) finds himself going toe to toe with the invaders, teaming up with a rag-tag group of survivors, including transit worker Audrey (Aussie Bojana Novakovic) and homeless veteran Sarge (Antonio Fargas – yes, Huggy Bear), whose blindness makes him immune to the aliens’ hypnosis beams.

Of course, a square jaw, a service sidearm and a drinking problem aren’t much against a full-scaled extraterrestrial incursion, and our plucky heroes soon find themselves in the bowels of an alien mother ship, where they bump into a couple of leftovers from the original film: Elaine (Samantha Jean, taking over from Scottie Thompson in the first film), who is about to give birth after the aliens have accelerated her pregnancy, and her boyfriend Jarrod, formerly played by Eric Balfour, and now a human brain implanted into a robotic alien combat drone.

That seems worth repeating: a human brain implanted into a robotic alien combat drone.

A few quick action and effects sequences later and the ship has crashed in the jungles of Laos, where Corley and Audrey team up with a motley band of former drug runners, including the aforementioned Uwais, Ruhian, and Aussie Callan Mulvey, who are preparing to launch a counter strike from a hidden base in an abandoned jungle temple. Can this unlikely band of heroes take the fight to the invaders? Will the newborn Rose (Elaine and Jarrod’s baby), her DNA mysteriously messed with by the aliens, prove, to be the key to the future? Will Iko and Yahan machete  hordes of aliens to death? Is Frank Grillo an underappreciated god of action cinema?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Beyond Skyline is an almost mathematically perfect example of a great B movie. It never takes itself too seriously, yet it makes perfect sense within the confines of its own reality, cleaving to its internal logic and never fudging things for effect.

And frankly, it doesn’t need to: it’s designed to deliver maximum bang-for-buck. In a brisk 106 minutes you get an alien invasion, numerous gunfights, giant alien mecha wrecking stuff (yep, they just throw in some giant robots, and it makes perfect sense), Bojana Novakovic as a kind of K-Mart Sarah Connor (after she could do chin-ups), Frank Grillo murderlising dozens of aliens with a weird kind of talon-weapon he’s picked up along the way, and Uwais and Ruhian doing much the same with their blistering martial arts prowess.

It’s just so much fun, and done on a squillionth of the budget of comparable box office-busting fare – Thor: Ragnarok, perhaps? To be fair, Beyond Skyline lacks Marvel film’s self-deprecating wit, but the action scenes are certainly of comparable quality, with Skyline ahead on points in the vital Fighting Aliens with Penkat Silat category. Debut director Liam O’Donnell’s special effects background means he certainly knows how to get the most out of his obviously limited budget, and while you’re never in any doubt that you’re watching a cheap movie, you know that every single dollar is up there on the screen.

Beyond Skyline is skipping theatrical distribution in Australia and heading straight to home release, which is a shame – it’d be a hell of a film to watch with an engaged and enthusiastic audience on the big screen. Nonetheless, fans of fast and frenetic sci-fi action should definitely make the effort to get in front of it – it’s an instant classic of the genre.

 
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Eat Locals

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Young ne’er-do-well Sebastian (Billy Cook) fronts up in a quiet English country town for what he thinks will be a saucy rendezvous with the cougarish Vanessa (Eve Myles). Instead, he founds himself the unwilling guest of the council of elder vampires who secretly rule the British night. Every 50 years the group – which includes Charlie Cox (Daredevil), Freema Agyeman (Doctor Who), and Vincent Regan (Atlantis) – gets together to hash out territorial disputes and induct new blood into their ranks – hence Sebastian’s presence. This get complicated when an SAS squad, led by a determined and somewhat demented protest (Mackenzie Crook) raid their farmhouse meeting place, determined to put the vampires on ice.

Eat Locals is the directorial debut of actor Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Gemma Bovary), and he’s roped in a bunch of old pals to help him out – fellow Guy Ritchie alumni Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran, and Nicholas Rowe all make appearances in this brisk horror comedy. It’s clear that Eat Locals wants to be able to stand alongside the likes of An American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead, and Dog Soldiers, but it’s hampered by a somewhat hammy script and a budget that simply cannot encompass the ambitions of Flemyng and his screenwriter, Danny King (Wild Bill). Dodgy effects work is one thing, but when you find yourself noticing the poor cinematography in exterior sequences, something is seriously awry.

The proceedings are buoyed by a game cast, brisk pacing, and the odd stand out action beat. Plus, any movie where a granny vampire lets loose with a machine gun to the strains of The Damned has its heart in the right place. Still, the hit rate of jokes is maybe 50% and the whole thing never quite manages to rise to its obvious potential. If you’re in a forgiving mood you’ll have fun, but don’t expect miracles.

 
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The Walking Dead: The Complete Seventh Season

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As the 100th episode of The Walking Dead looms for the Season 8 premiere, we have a look back at Season 7, the most critically divisive since the “are they ever going to leave this bloody farm?” shenanigans of Season 2.

After the eye-rolling finale of season 6, where the showrunners decided to hold off on the identity of who got clobbered by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) because it was “fun”, Season 7’s premiere episode “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” had an uphill climb. We needed a satisfying answer to the question “who carked it?” but also a meaningful letter of intent, to try and understand what the seventh season would be about.

While the show delivered big time on the first question – killing two beloved characters, one of whom had been with us since the beginning – the second query was mostly ignored, and fans noticed. Some five million (!) viewers left The Walking Dead in the first half of the season (7A) and reviews ranged from weary to scathing. Ironically the Greg Nicotero-directed first episode is a fantastic piece of shocking, intense horror – beautifully executed – however the half season that followed felt rather listless.

Watching Rick (Andrew Lincoln) react to tragedy can be effective in small doses, however eight whole episodes of it felt a tad indulgent. That’s not to say it was all lousy, “The Well” and “Sing Me a Song” were both solid, and “The Cell” was striking and unusual, and has permanently installed that bloody “Easy Street” song in my head.

The second half of the season, 7B, was a big improvement. From the get-go with “Rock in the Road” one could feel the transition to a more proactive stance, as our heroes decide it’s time to fight back. Of course as we found with the strong climax, “The First Day of the Rest of Your Life” – the all out war scenario has been held over until Season 8, making 7B the march to war. Some may debate the wisdom of this, but it does mean the new season can hit the ground running.

In terms of rewatching, Season 7 is solid, albeit unspectacular. The premiere and finale are both thoroughly entertaining, and there’s solid character work all the way through, but the pace has definitely slowed and that needs to be addressed. In terms of blu-ray extras the usual bag of not terribly exciting deleted scenes (most of which were better left on the editing room floor), making of documentaries, featurettes and audio commentaries round out a solid package.

Sadly the audience-anticipated “F takes” with Negan in full sweary mode aren’t included on the blu-ray, which is a bummer for fans of the comic, who want to see the big man loose those “fuckity fucks” with his typical charming alacrity.

Ultimately The Walking Dead: The Complete Seventh Season is a solid blu-ray but not necessarily a must-have. It showcases this red-headed stepchild of a season with crisp quality and generous extras, but is unlikely to change your stance if you didn’t dig on the rather protracted action the first time around.

 
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Batman/Superman Anthology 9-Film Blu-Ray Set

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Released for the Christmas of 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman was not only part of the wave of genuine blockbusters which swept Hollywood during that decade, but was also the film which ushered in the modern superhero genre, and remains one of the finest examples of this style of filmmaking. Tim Burton’s 1989 game-changer Batman, meanwhile, repurposed DC Comics’ most complex anti-hero for a new generation, and proved that a comic book movie could be epic, dark, and unusual.

With Superman and Batman’s recent return – and first ever live action cinema team-up – to the big screen in Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and their upcoming regroup in Justice League, Warners treat fans of The Man Of Steel and The Dark Knight to a nine-film Blu-ray set including all of the Christopher Reeve Superman films (as well as 2006’s ill-fated Brandon Routh-starring Superman Returns, which connects in with them) and all of the pre-Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films, starring Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney.

Christopher Reeve as Superman.

The jewel amongst these Superman releases is without doubt Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Filming of the first two Superman movies took place simultaneously, but after the first film was released (despite its critical and commercial success), Donner found himself unceremoniously booted from the project and replaced by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night), who dumped a great deal of the footage that Donner had already shot, and demanded extensive re-writes to the screenplay. A clear labour of love, the Richard Donner cut is the result of painstaking research in locating all the missing footage, special effects plates, music cues and shooting scripts and re-assembling them in the manner that Donner had originally envisioned.

The result is a film that is a little more serious and a lot more in tone with the first film than the Superman II that was eventually released to theatres in 1980. The quality of the Superman movies declined rapidly with the release of Superman III in 1983, which was little more than a vehicle for then hot co-star Richard Pryor, while Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987) had the shoddy appearance of a Saturday morning kiddie show, despite the very welcome return of Gene Hackman as Superman’s nemesis, Lex Luthor.

With Bryan Singer’s 2006 reinvigoration of the franchise with Superman Returns, the director was very specific about wanting his film to follow on from the Christopher Reeve flicks, so its inclusion in this box set is appropriate, but still a little odd. The film is a heartfelt, at times quite beautiful, take on the Superman franchise, and leading man Brandon Routh makes for a perfect Man Of Steel. Disappointingly, 1984’s Supergirl, a quaint romantic fantasy which never really managed to kick into top gear (despite a strong turn from Helen Slater as Superman’s cousin, Kara Zor-El), is not included here, even though it is stitched into the canon of this era of Superman, with Marc McClure’s Jimmy Olsen appearing across the films.

Michael Keaton as Batman.

Whereas the Christopher Reeve-era Superman films are bright, colourful, and poppy, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) perfectly captured the mysterious noir atmosphere of the early comic books, and features Jack Nicholson’s delirious Joker up against Michael Keaton’s slightly neurotic Bruce Wayne/Batman. Bringing in Danny De Vito as a repulsive Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s sensuous, latex clad Catwoman, Batman Returns (1992) was pure Tim Burton – a dark, sumptuous adult fantasy that had many young children leaving the cinema in tears.

With both Keaton and Burton departing the series, Joel Schumacher took over the directing chores for the next two films. While Burton’s films were unique from each other, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997) were essentially two versions of the same film, gaudy slabs of neon eye candy which progressively mocked the character and his world. The revolving door of Bat actors continued with Val Kilmer and George Clooney being stuffed into the rubber suit, although the films were sadly becoming more about selling toys and McDonald’s happy meals than with any form of genuine storytelling or character development (Clooney didn’t even bother to try and change his voice for his scenes as Batman).

While the films in this luxurious box set differ wildly in quality – ranging from overcooked turkey (Batman & Robin) to essential modern classics (Batman, Superman: The Movie) – they present a fascinating cinematic picture of two of popular culture’s most enduring and fascinating characters.

 
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The Devil’s Candy

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Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones was a darkly comic horror that took a teenager’s obsession and entitlement to the extreme. In The Devil’s Candy, the Tasmanian director tackles those long time bedfellows of Satanism and Metal Music.

Ethan Embry plays Jesse, a Metallica loving artist moving into a new home with his punky daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco), and straight-laced wife, Astrid (Shiri Appleby). Soon after settling in, the large figure of Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince) turns up at their front door. Ray used to live in their home and wants to move back in, whether they want him to or not. This is the perfect setup for a home invasion film, but Byrne refuses to let the film settle on this routine premise. First there’s the little matter of the demonic voices Ray can hear speaking to him through his radio; the same voices that Jesse has begun to hear too; the voices which centre on the men’s obsessions of varying morality. Jesse wants to be taken seriously as an artist, whilst Ray will do whatever it takes to make the voices stop.

This is a down and dirty film that relies on unease and tension for a large part of its narrative, with Ray taking a disturbing interest in young Zooey. As the two men become more and more intrinsically linked, Byrne lets the tension simmer before exploding into a violent finale lit by the literal fires of hell. Whilst Ray isn’t your average satanic antagonist – he’s shown to be a bumbling whiner on more than one occasion – the danger he conceals is never in doubt, due to Byrne’s skilful direction and the film’s ominous throbbing score.

 The Devil’s Candy is a short, sharp shock of terror that knows well enough to keep its audience in the dark even as the sun rises in its final shot.

 
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Taboo Season 1

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Ugliness is an integral part of the aesthetic in Taboo. The take on early 19th century London it presents is not a pleasant one, all mud, blood, offal, corruption, and horror. Even its characters are a parade of grotesques, looking like they just stepped out of the pages of a Mervyn Peake novel.

It’s a fascinating world we’re thrust into, though: the tail end of the 1812 war between Britain and the US, at the dawn of modern corporate dominance in the form of the British East India Company, the powerful merchant concern who are our villains here. Our “hero”, for want of a better term, is Tom Hardy’s James Keziah Delaney, long thought dead in some African hellhole and greatly upsetting the apple cart when he returns to London to claim his inheritance upon the death of his father.

Part of his inheritance is a vital spit of land on the Canadian/US border, which will be of strategic import in coming negotiations. The East India Company, largely represented by Jonathan Pryce’s conniving chairman, are of the opinion that the world would be a better place if James wasn’t in it, but they haven’t reckoned with the kind of man who has returned from Africa: tattooed, scarred, and a rumoured cannibal. But is James’ pragmatic savagery any match for the monolithic Company?

Taboo is OTT in the best and most gloriously Gothic sense of the word, offering up a feast of brutality and sensuality as our enigmatic hero, cutting a menacing figure in his stovepipe hat and long coat, negotiates high society and low in his quest for allies and advantage. He’s more at home in the gutters, it seems, winning Stephen Graham’s criminal Atticus to his cause, but is just as formidable cutting a deal with American spy Dr Dumbarton (Michael Delaney), or getting up in the grill of Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), upper class husband to his half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin).

Is there incestuous desire between James and Zilpha? Of course there is, because Taboo throws every Gothic and Victorian literature trope into the blender and then spills it all out on the screen, like the result of Charles Dickens and Horace Walpole going on an absinthe bender together. What elevates it is a modern political sensibility that approaches topics such as class, race, colonialism, and corporate malfeasance with an astute eye – while still allowing space for the odd disemboweling.

At the centre of it all is Hardy, giving a performance as magnetic as any other in his career as the opaque and ruthless James. He’s ostensibly our point of view character, but for much of the series he remains as much a mystery to the viewer as he is to the rest of the cast of characters – Hardy’s sheer watchability carries us through, though, even if we’re left as witnesses rather than participants in the drama.

A grim romp with plenty of secrets, lies, violence and the odd grand guignol sequence, Taboo is an enjoyably idiosyncratic drama –  call it Peaky Blinders: The Early Years, or Boardwalk Empire 1814 if you need a quick shorthand. Such glib descriptions do it something of a disservice, though; while the ingredients might be familiar, in combination they result in a fresh flavour that is unlike anything else we’ve yet seen in the increasingly popular “adult historical melodrama” genre.

 
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From a House on Willow Street

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When a group of professional criminals, including Sharni Vinson as team leader Hazel, decide to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy couple, they get a lot more on their plate than the big ransom they were expecting. Their victim, Katherine (Carlyn Burchell), for a start doesn’t seem too concerned about her predicament.

At face value, From a House on Willow Street is a title that evokes memories of exploitation flicks of the ’70s and ’80s, such as Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. And whilst director Alastair Orr’s (Indigenous, The Unforgiving) latest film isn’t as exploitative as you might think, it still has enough going for it to send a few chills up the spine.

Sydney-sider Vinson stands out against the bloodshed and shadows, following up on her promise in You’re Next; she’s aiming for much more than just being your standard Scream Queen. Breaking free of the Final Girl trope by being at least proactive in her own story, Hazel is one of the film’s greater strengths. Elsewhere, the film’s building tension is only ever let down by digital effects that offset the practical ones, and an overreliance on jump scares.

Blending horror and home invasion, From a House on Willow Street shares a lot in common with Ryuhei Kitamura’s No One Lives which saw another bunch of kidnappers bite off more than they can chew. There’s also elements of Event Horizon too, as Hazel and her team are haunted by spirits of people they’ve previously wronged. And whilst that might sound like a lot of cherry-picking, Orr manages to serve it up in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re being offered leftovers. To top it all off, From A House on Willow Street makes the best of its running time to ensure it’s a sharp, succinct dip into horror.

 
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Author: The JT LeRoy Story

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Plenty of authors use pen names for one reason or another. Stephen King had Richard Bachman. JK Rowling has her crime fiction nom de plume, Robert Galbraith. Laura Albert, the subject of the film at hand, had JT LeRoy, and the both the reasons for his creation and the sheer scale of the deception go well beyond the norm, as detailed in Author: The JT LeRoy Story.

Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy published his first novel in 2000. Sarah was a rough, raw, emotionally devastating tale of a gender-confused teenage hustler working the truckstop circuit and idolising his junkie mother. LeRoy, gender-fluid, HIV-positive, and hailing from an unimaginably abusive background, based the novel on his own experiences. By the time his follow-up work, the short story collection The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, landed in 2001, LeRoy was a genuine literary sensation, hailed as an uncompromising voice from the underground and amassing a following that included Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, grunge icon Courtney Love, actress and filmmaker Asia Argento (who would go on to film The Heart is Deceitful) and more.

Of course, LeRoy didn’t exist. It all came out in the wash in 2005/2006. LeRoy was the literary persona of Laura Albert, a housewife in her 40s, who began constructing the avatar as a way to communicate her years of abuse to emergency hotline counselors, and eventually used it to channel her unarguable literary talent. How it all got out of hand, leading to Albert roping in her sister-in-law to play LeRoy at public appearances and cultivating personal and, it seems, sexual relationships with a number of high profile patrons and fans, well, that’s the story we have here.

Director Jeff Feuerzeig lets Laura tell her own tale, supplementing the narrative with snatches of animation and, interestingly, a huge number of answering machine messages and telephone conversations, the latter of which Albert apparently recorded without consent. These are frequently fascinating; at one point Corgan refers to himself as “The Corganator”, at another Love pauses the conversation to bump a quick rail of cocaine.

What’s really arresting, though, is the palpable need people have to believe in whatever fits their narrative. It’s easy to laugh at these bandwagon-jumping celebs as they sing LeRoy’s praises and describe their personal connection to the fictional author (poor Matthew Modine comes off as particularly naive in one clip), but it speaks to something deeper: the desire, found even in the most successful, to attach themselves to something unique and special.

Of course, Albert took advantage of that, but the question is whether through intent or dysfunction. Her own history of abuse and trauma is well documented, but one still wonders if there is a line between expression and exploitation in this case, and where it might lie. Albert herself is no help in locating it; we get a lot of her here, speaking directly to camera, but while she seems open to discussing the fine details of events, what;’s missing is any sense of self-awareness or introspection. She takes no responsibility for any harm she’s caused, and it’s rather damning no matter how sympathetic you may be feeling.

Author fails to hold her to account for that, and that is the film’s central failing. There’s no thesis here, just a recounting of (fascinating, mind you) events. We get the facts, but not their meaning, and that makes the film interesting but ultimately inessential.

 
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The Neon Demon

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Nicolas Winding Refn was posed a question early on in a Q&A of The Neon Demon that piqued his introspection. It related to that of his filmmaking process and if he (intentionally or not) opts for style over substance. He responded with a question of his own – what really is style over substance? Are the two ever truly mutually exclusive?

This question, or slight variations of it, have dogged the Danish filmmaker for much of his turbulent, twenty-year spanning career. Although his brevity-conscious response imparted immense insight into how he views his films, it is his latest film, The Neon Demon that speaks volumes, reverberating throughout the cinema and drowning out the severe booing it received at Cannes (which many directors have come to consider a rite of passage for anyone producing anything of memorable note and significance). Harsh criticism has followed Refn throughout most of his work, fortunately though the man (and by extension TND) has remained impervious to this, delivering an amazing, exemplarily made film to those that deserve it most – his legions of loyal fans.

TND has proven not only to be the Danish filmmaker’s magnum opus (thus far at least), but also the definitive answer to this aforementioned question that has divided critics throughout his extensive, disparate filmography. It is most definitely driven by a story, a subversive and subject-to-interpretation story to be sure, but gilded with Refn’s instantly-identifiable flair for (and propensity toward the) surreal.

He creates an unprecedented, arresting presence, plunging us into this neon-soaked dreamscape, an otherworldly Los Angeles, that shocks as well as it stuns, often grotesquely beautiful, yet inexorably hypnotic.

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You might find yourself squirming in your seat through Jessie’s tumultuous journey through L.A.’s fashionistas, but you will never be able to look away; much like a dream, you are a pedestrian to its (Refn’s) conviction and whim. When a compelling story is paired with awe-inspiring imagery, you have a formidable work on your hands and a talented, highly-capable director at the helm, such is the case with The Neon Demon.

Only a handful of directors are known (and widely acclaimed for) their creative verve. Quintessential exploitation filmmaker and deity of the hipster, Quentin Tarantino, is known (and idolised) for his razor-sharp, indulgent dialogue showcased in lengthy scenes that tease suspense while only occasionally delivering (depending upon what Tarantino is feeling).

But who, if any, among Refn’s contemporaries are known for being so visually stunning? One who needs not resort to a nine-digit budget or hiding behind the glossy smokescreen/whitewash found within the miracles of green-screens these days? (See Zack Synder).

Precious few handle themselves so confidently, who embody this visually-stunning style and definitively earn virtuoso status. This bold approach, commonly misinterpreted as style over substance, is the schism wedged between seasoned critics and casual filmgoers alike. This was the singular dissension that filled the collective lungs of those swollen bags of hot air at Cannes and caused them to vent such vitriol. These self-same folk who mistake an emphasis on striking, ethereal imagery as coming at the cost of a coherent, memorable story and solid performances.

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Refn has been assiduous in realising his vision, right from his fledgling Pusher days. Thankfully he has never relented to appeasing these hostile few, and in that regard he is fearless, with the results he produces shining and withstanding both critique and the test of time. Much of this can be attributed to Refn’s unique eye. As French painter Claude Monet collected a fanatically virulent bunch of critics vocal with their harsh disapproval of his art, so too Refn has been on the receiving end of naysayers, bearing the brunt of swipes related to his deeply stylised films.

From the opening of The Neon Demon it is immediately apparent that the director has not tailored his work to assuage those that have spoken ill of his trademark approach. On paper, it almost beggars belief that he can be such a visually-prolific filmmaker. By his own admission he is almost totally colour blind, seeing only the most extreme hues, those at the polar opposite ends of the spectrum. Thus the neon, almost iridescent, colour palette Refn uses and reinvents in all his work (thought particularly from Valhalla Rising onwards) makes perfect sense – a pragmatist that seeks to stretch said colours to their extremities, fusing each into a perfect marriage, so that he may see it, while simultaneously treating the viewer to an optical feast.

What he attains through this unorthodox method is the superlative, artistic quality akin to Barry Lyndon, which has received universal accolades for both director Stanley Kubrick and cinematographer, John Alcott. That’s a mighty big call, but one need only study even some of the stills from The Neon Demon with an impartial mind to appreciate the striking beauty imbued within each frame. Why should such a work be subjected to such undue criticism simply because it enchants with such beauty?

Interestingly (and perhaps ironically) this senseless jealousy and hatred for such beauty commonly found within the diatribes of those speaking negatively of the film parallels the mistreatment of Jessie within said film, further strengthening the point Refn is trying to make.

Throughout the film’s tight running time one is acutely aware that they are watching a Nicolas Winding Refn movie (just in case you missed the monogram “NWF” prominently positioned underneath the title in the deceptively subdued opening sequence). We are first introduced to Jessie, the film’s central (and arguably eponymous character). Splayed out, blood-soaked and rigour stiff, staring impassively at the camera as pictures (no doubt taken by a pervert not dissimilar to us, the voyeur) snap incessantly, while a synth-inspired soundtrack pumps primal bass (yet another sterling soundtrack by frequent Refn collaborator, the masterful Cliff Martinez).

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With no information to go on, we can only gauge that we are past the event horizon of this dreamscape/nightmare Refn is sharing with us, and that what he delineates is likely to become more ghastly and mesmerising as we continue.

Freshly turned sixteen-year-old Jessie is new to the sprawling city of Los Angeles and its myriad of unsavoury, wily inhabitants, be they the more obviously opulent (that of the talent agency owner, Christina Hendricks) or the more repulsively sleazy (that of the motel owner, Keanu Reeves in a brief but lasting performance). As this shy, modest dilettante tries to ingratiate herself in the cutthroat fashion industry, she soon encounters success unimaginable, while embroiling herself in a succession of perilous situations. The worst of which involves upsetting the fragile pecking order enforced by the unholy, witch-like trio of the openly hostile Sarah (Abbey Lee) and the more docile, yet unpredictable Gigi (Bella Heathcote) who are in contrast to the sweet, almost overbearing friend found in Ruby (Jena Malone).

That is the premise and in the execution, the film quickly (deliberately) falls into the fantastical, much like the audience tumbling headlong into the rabbit hole – and this is what Refn does do deftly in his unique (often underrated and misunderstood) way.

There is a story, though Refn may focus more on the visual aspect of its telling, as compared to the performance-based work of say, similarly accomplished fellow Danish filmmaker, Lars Von Trier. Bear in mind that one would never openly voice such an opinion in comparing the pair within either of the men’s respective hearing. They have a less-than-cordial relationship as a wealth of YouTube clips of their Cannes spats and clashes will attest (despite being supposedly distantly related). What drastically differs the two, though, is pacing. Refn has, thus far, never suffered from a meandering pace and bloated running time (which Von Trier exhibited in the Nymphomaniac double).

For someone who fills every frame with a visual feast to gorge on as starving pigs to the proverbial trough, Refn never sacrifices the pacing in order to accentuate to a layman viewer that they are gazing upon something stunningly beautiful. No overly-indulgent, ten-minute static ‘nothing’ shots commonly found in (and to the detriment of) of Gus Van Sant and Jim Jarmusch’s work (see Elephant and Broken Flowers). Also to his credit, Refn has markedly improved on the story front since his previous film, Only God Forgives. That was another neon-saturated, ultra-violent, prolonged dream sequence with reality having little bearing (or evident bearing) on the dream world and vice versa. Sadly, OGF suffered from this endless, scarcely-linked shuffling of awesome single shots and vignettes haphazardly connected with one another. Thankfully, The Neon Demon does not suffer from this, it continues to gain momentum right up until its aghast-inducing ending.

The performances are engaging and believable, without ever straying into contrivance or melodrama, which might’ve seemed like a tall order from the plot outline. One couldn’t be begrudged for heading into the movie convinced bad performances would be inevitable. After all, since when does a bunch of ruthless, image-obsessed models ever conjure images of a group of individuals that would have anything profound or poignant to offer either in their interaction with each other or those outside their coterie?

Yet each of the lead actors draws a blistering apex predator performance, full of intrigue and a large dollop of menace. The standout was definitely Abbey Lee (Ruben Guthrie, Mad Max: Fury Road). Doubtless steadfastly hurtling toward superstardom she shines here as the spurned and murderously irate Sarah. With an intensity, so commanding, she often blotted out the performance of Elle Fanning, who herself deserves top kudos for handling the difficult (perhaps slightly underdeveloped given it being the central) role of Jessie.

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It was in this interaction with Jessie and the trio of models (two models and a makeup artist for the purists out there) that the conflict ensues and proliferates, played out almost as an ancient Greek tragedy. Unsurprisingly, the Danish filmmaker cited Greek and other mythologies and fables as his main influences whenever penning a story and that is particularly prevalent within The Neon Demon. It wouldn’t be a Winding Refn film without a bit of the old ultraviolence, though in comparison to some of the utterly sadistic scenes of Only God Forgives, TND never feels dangerously close to crossing the line. It is important to note that, within this context, an absence of sickening violence should not be mistaken for the director being censored or stifled, nor baulking at the tough subject matter, either by his or that of the studio/financier overlords. This particular Danish filmmaker isn’t curtailing the story he chooses or how he depicts it, the opposite in fact, he is one of the daring few that chase the extremities of their imagination and constantly challenge the conventions of self and the impositions of filmmaking.

Fortunately, in the case of Nicolas Winding Refn, what he produces is always a joy to watch and admire. If Helen of Troy’s beauty was enough to launch a thousand ships, Refn’s unique, aesthetically-gorgeous films are sufficient to launch a million heated discourses on the Interweb. For those that are lucky enough to possess a pair of eyeballs, Refn’s movies are invariably similar to wandering through an art gallery, one threaded with the occasional installation of horrific, visceral imagery. When the stroll is concluded and you exit the magnificent edifice, you are always exultant to have been so privileged as to have been granted access in the first place. The Neon Demon is Refn’s boldest, most accomplished project to date, loudly proving to the cinematic world and those that obliquely orbit it (we the hoi polloi filmgoers), that he is still very much one to watch, and perhaps yet to reach his prime. Please, may we have some more?

 

Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based reviewer and writer. For more of his upcoming work, including excerpts of his upcoming novel, like the page.

 
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I.T.

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Pierce Brosnan plays Mike, a business mogul who has everything; a fast car, a big house and a beautiful wife played by Anna Friel. When his IT adviser, Ed (Aussie James Frecheville), gets him out of a jam during an important presentation, Mike offers him a modicum of hospitality, inviting him to come over for beers and to fix his wi-fi. Unfortunately, Ed takes advantage of this perfunctory act of gratitude and uses it to start stalking Mike’s daughter, Kaitlyn (Stephanie Scott).

In psychological thrillers which involve a disturbed individual becoming obsessed with someone else, the audience can sometimes forgo a bit of subtle storytelling. For example, if someone stares a little too long at the hero, it’s just accepted as shorthand for ‘This is our antagonist and things are going to fall apart.’ I.T., the latest film from A Good Day to Die Hard’s John Moore, is so over the top that it’s hard to tell if the whole thing is a commentary on the very nature of psychological thrillers.

Wiring up Mike’s house with intrusive security measures – that the aforementioned seems to have no qualms about having installed – Ed watches on from his own home that looks like it hasn’t been upgraded since he saw The Matrix. As Frecheville pogos around his cyberpalace to industrial music, he begins to make life extremely difficult for Mike and his family; sending out upsetting emails and nude videos of Kaitlyn.

At times, I.T. feels like it was created by people who fear technology. Mike, at the behest of IT expert Henrik (Michael Nyqvist), soon strips himself of his electronic gadgets as the film hurtles towards a caveman showdown that sees the already terribly underused Friel scream from the sidelines in her underwear. It’s all incredibly silly and not even slightly in a fun way.