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Two movies have opened recently that revolve around style. One is a documentary about a filmmaker who is known for his, the other is a film by a director who has it.
How one reacts to De Palma, the new doc by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow about the director, first name Brian, who really made his mark in movies with the horror film Carrie, may depend on how you feel about the filmmaker’s films in general. For me, De Palma, who is the only talking head here, it’s his show all the way, is only as interesting as his movies, which means that once we get to Blow Out, it’s all down here from there.
His earliest films tended to be of the independent sort, made on a shoestring budget, if that. They may not have always looked as professional as a Roger Corman production, but they had a fresh hipness to them and gave us such actors as Robert DeNiro and Jill Clayburgh.
His most successful films, when it comes to a meshing of auteurism and box office, came with the movies that were heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, films like Carrie, Dressed to Kill and the aforementioned Blow Out. There was something so kinetic and thrilling in his combination of individual style with Hollywood slickness that gave these films a certain electricity.
Even his artistic (Obsession) and box office (Phantom of the Paradise) failures are not without interest and show an artist struggling to develop his voice.
And then there is that wonderful use of split screen and his part in the resurrection of Bernard Herman’s career as a film composer.
But then came movies like Body Double, whose only redeeming quality is Melanie Griffith, and the change in the studio system brought on by the devastating disasters of such films as Heaven’s Gate where the accountants took over, and movies no longer had to make a profit, they had to make a PROFIT.
Though some of these films De Palma made were financially successful (The Untouchables, Scarface, Mission: Impossible) and others not (Mission to Mars), none were particularly interesting as films. De Palma had stopped being an auteur and became a traffic cop, just trying to pull all the various parts together without losing control and causing a traffic jam (The Black Dahlia).
And in some ways, he has only himself to blame when it came to the change in the studios. After all, he did make that utter piece of excrement, The Bonfire of the Vanities (a movie he actually thinks isn’t bad…I have absolutely no response to that).
The documentary is certainly worth seeing for those who have seen his films or who are interested in what happened to change the kind of output the studios started giving us. For others, I’m not so sure.
The Neon Demon is the new visual stunner from Denmark transplant, Nicholas Winding Refn. His first film in the U.S. is still probably his best, The Driver, an exciting neo noir about a man who does movie stunts involving cars by days, and is a getaway driver by night.
His next film after that, Only God Forgives, has style out the whazoo. Brilliantly shot with a stunning Thailand backdrop, the story was almost impossible to follow. So vague it prevented many from becoming emotionally involved in the movie or even taking it seriously.
One feared Refn might be going the way of such filmmakers as Terence Malik, creating movies that looked great but were almost incomprehensible.
Well, it should be said that The Neon Demon looks as electric as Refn’s earlier films, but thankfully, it has a plot that one can actually follow. That doesn’t mean it works exactly, but it’s by no means boring.
The basic plot follows 16-year old Jesse (Elle Fanning, excellent) who comes to LA not sure what to do exactly, but she stumbles into modeling. Fresh, natural and innocent, she attracts everyone she meets, though in this case it’s more like flames to a moth.
The plot in many ways is divided into two parts. In almost every scene Jesse is put into some sort of a threatening situation. With men, it always seems as if she is in danger, but it always falls short as their bark is always worse than their bite.
But the females, two models and a makeup artist, are a different story. They’re basically portrayed as a gang of high school “mean girls” in which every line is said with a passive-aggressive purr of an insult (Jean Malone, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, all spot on as if the parts were autobiographical). Here, their clawing is far worse than their meowing. They are the only real threats to Jesse.
There’s something uncomfortable in watching a movie where the only real pleasure is seeing a woman constantly in threat of being harmed or raped. And a 16-year old at that. In Refn’s earlier film, Only God Forgives, the rape and murder of an underage girl happens off screen. Here it’s the whole movie.
In other words, it’s a movie in which you’re made uncomfortable because it feels as if the movie is telling you more about the filmmaker, rather than the situation.
It might help if the plot didn’t feel a bit clichéd and unoriginal (the screenplay is by Molly Laws, Polly Stenham and Refn himself… yes, for some reason it took three people to write this). Rather than being a strong and compelling story, it’s only real purpose seems to be for the filmmakers to treat the central character the same way everyone in the movie does.
With Karl Cusman of Gaspar Noe’s Love as Jesse’s sweet natured boyfriend; Desmond Harrington of Dexter very effective as a photographer with dead eyes; Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks as an agent; and Keanu Reeves quite unnerving as the manager of a sleazy motel.