The Neon Demon is the new film from Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish auteur best known for his blood-spattered fetishisation of Ryan Gosling. The film’s not released until 8 July, but I was fortunate enough to attend a preview screening and Q&A with Refn, or NWF as he’s now calling himself, at Manchester’s HOME cinema.
Let’s begin by saying that it is a marked improvement on his last work Only God Forgives, the Bangkok-set misfire which strew terrible characters, terrible dialogue and dull Oedipal metaphors over 90 tedious minutes.
For The Neon Demon, Refn has left Thailand and taken us back to Los Angeles, the sprawling city that Newton Thomas Sigel photographed so beautifully inDrive. Sigel hasn’t returned but Natasha Braier, his Argentine replacement known for her work on The Road, provides similarly dazzling visuals, from sweeping shots of the dusky Los Angeles basin to surreal and sparkling strobe-lit sequences.
Ben Wheatley is one of the most exciting British directors working today. His two best films are Kill List, a deeply disturbing horror/thriller about a tormented contract killer, and Sightseers, a black comedy about a troubled couple on their parochial, psychopathic honeymoon.
Key to these films’ success are strong characters with interesting dynamics. Kill List begins almost like a domestic kitchen-sink drama centred on the failing relationship between Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Burning), but it subsequently evolves, or rather devolves, into something dark, dank and horrible in a most unpredictable manner. Sightseers may be most commonly remembered for its scenes of outlandish violence, such as when Chris (Steve Oram) deliberately runs over a litterer in a fit of righteous anger. However, underneath the comic outbursts of gore is the poignant relationship between Chris and Tina (Alice Lowe), an oddball pair with a past of loneliness and insecurity.
Having proved himself as a director of visceral horror and emotional substance, Ben Wheatley is the natural choice to direct J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, a Goldingesque tale of violent class war exploding within a brutalist tower block. The fragility of civilisation, and the primitive savagery that lurks beneath it, is a darkly fascinating subject that has made for excellent films and books, such as Threads, a devastating vision of post-apocalyptic Britain, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which needs no introduction.
High-Rise does not brush shoulders with such works, for its allegory of class divide gets lost in a dull montage of blood, sweat and blue paint. Oh, and dancing air hostesses, for reasons that are, to put it politely, enigmatic.
The focal characters – Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a measured, middle class doctor; Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a sultry woman who serves as Laing’s gateway in to the upper floors’ high culture; Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a pugnaciously aspirational documentary maker; and Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the patrician architect who designed the building – are introduced well enough, but ultimately do not receive sufficient development.
As the lead and perhaps most relatable character, we are in the body of Laing when he traverses the tower’s social scene, which he admits to ‘not being very good at’. Some may find him steely, but Laing has an affable reserve and high emotional intelligence. He isn’t particularly interested in the petty one-upmanship that comes with climbing the social ladder, but he manages to deftly negotiate it anyway through his insouciant reserve that maintains peoples’ interest and disarms any potential enemies. Hiddleston, one of Britain’s hottest exports, is well cast here, he delivers the best performance of the film.
However, after a competent introduction to society in the high rise, Laing and the others get lost in an incoherent narrative that favours aesthetics and absurdity over credible character interplay. It begins three months ahead of the main events, showing a blood spattered Laing roasting a dog’s leg over a fire surrounded by dirt and detritus. After the aforementioned introductory period of around thirty minutes, the film then charts what led to this repellent spectacle with a disjointed series of set pieces that give little sense of progression.
Electrical problems are plaguing the building and resentment is brewing between the upper and lower floors, but the descent into nihilism just… happens. Dogs are being drowned, Laing’s painting his apartment (and himself) like a total madman and the whole building becomes a rubbish-strewn nightmare – but there’s no tension, no crescendo, no credibility and, curiously, no one who considers leaving! The worsening relations should have been more gradual and given much greater depth and meaning by the characters, their dialogue and their relationships. Instead, the main character covers himself in paint to communicate his increasingly aberrant state of mind, which appears to be an obvious metaphor for tribal decorations.
High-Rise fails as a film about primal savagery and particularly as a film about class. In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, I cringed as Jasmine and her husband Hal, arrogant members of New York high society, barely contained their raging superiority complexes as they awkwardly condescended to Ginger (Jasmine’s sister) and Augie, a decidedly blue collar couple who wonder at Hal and Jasmine’s luxurious home. No such realist interplay is to be found in High-Rise, because its characters are thinly drawn and it isn’t rooted in reality, which is very much to its detriment.
Towards the film’s end, there are moments in which Royal and his minions discuss the politics and future of the tower, with Royal remarking that the lower floors should be ‘Balkanised’, meaning that they should be fragmented and pitted against each other in a manner reminiscent of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. I liked the use of that phrase, there should have been a lot more of this in the script, more overt political manoeuvring rather than surrealist claptrap and brutalist 70s chic.
Alas, Wheatley’s High-Rise is more concerned with aesthetics and the 1970s, which means there’s more in the way of shag-pile carpets, dodgy hair and the colour brown than developed characters, coherent narrative structure and sociopolitical substance.
The Film Inquiry team have been considering cinema’s greatest couples. I was planning on choosing a non-romantic couple for my contribution until I remembered the very special Enough Said. Directed by Nicole Holofcener, the film charts the romance between Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini), two divorcees who are introduced to each other at a party. Their remarkably naturalistic performances are key to the film’s success.
Gone Girl is a dark, suspenseful and brilliantly twisty thriller with a sharp satirical edge.
I saw Gone Girl back during its theatrical release and I had so many good things to say about it that it became a hard article to write – it’s easier to severely criticise something than to steep it in praise. The film really felt like an event, the widespread advertising had roused the interest of many people I knew. The trailer had certainly roused mine, it was an 18 certificate domestic thriller that really compelled me to wonder ‘Did Nick Dunne kill his wife?’ – I was sure that David Fincher would answer the mystery with his trademark style and vigour.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ haunting What Have We Done To Each Other? filled the huge and completely empty auditorium as I walked into it, immediately creating the film’s rivetingly dark, aberrant tone. The instrumental continued during the film’s opening, which I expected to be another of Fincher’s elaborate introduction sequences, but was actually far more understated. Dunne’s suburban Missouri neighbourhood is captured in a slick, foreboding manner by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who has collaborated with Fincher on Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The film’s first hour is riddled with a very ominous ambiguity. With his insouciant, equable manner, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) appears to be a likeable protagonist who is taking his shocking situation perhaps too much in his stride. As new details emerge from the case, however, we begin to wonder whether Nick’s nonchalance is a manifestation of a callous, sociopathic mind.
There’s not much more I can really say about either character or narrative development, as the film has a great twist. It is perhaps a spoiler to even say that, so I will stop. I was pleased to find that the film is just as good second time round, especially if you’re watching it with someone who hasn’t seen it, you can experience the film’s twists and turns vicariously.
In addition to its excellent plotting is a sharp satirical edge; Gone Girl’ssatire on the media is far more cutting and resonant than anything in the dull, self-satisfied and heavy-handed Network (1976). Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) – the brassy, brash presenter of a Fox News inspired current affairs programme – doesn’t wonder about Nick’s curiously relaxed behaviour, she declares with absolute certainty that Dunne is a sociopath who has murdered his wife. Abbott obnoxiously raises her voice as she shamelessly peddles bias and hatred to masses of people, inviting ‘experts’ to falsely corroborate her toxic claims. As the film progresses we see the extent of Abbott and her programme’s fickleness and yellow journalism.
As the media circus that literally surrounds Nick gets increasingly hysterical and dangerous, the threat of mob violence seems only moments away until Nick recruits Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), an affable and brilliant lawyer. Bolt’s relish for challenging situations and unwavering confidence is very comforting for both Nick’s and the audience’s nerves – Perry gives a great performance as the amusing, quick-witted executive.
To support Cronenweth’s attractive photography and the wide, cinematic 2.35:1 format is the aforementioned excellent score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The score is a collection of electronic ambient music that ranges from the peaceful with Sugarstorm and Like Home to the dark and disturbing with What Have We Done To Each Other? and Consummation, which is a sound straight from hell.
Reznor and Ross are very adroit at creating music that perfectly fits and enhances each scene. Reznor gave an interesting insight into the collaborative methods between Ross, Fincher and himself in an interview with Hit Fix –
We made the decision to make music we felt belonged in that world, not for scenes, not for characters. We absorbed the script, we thought about the space it was in, the feelings involved, then spent a few weeks composing music from an impressionistic point of view, subconsciously almost, to run by David to ask ‘Hey, does it feel like it’s in the right world?’’
This approach was ‘right on the money’, inspiring Fincher which in turn further inspired Ross and Reznor.
The Academy is routinely criticised for omitting quality films from their nominations and commending works that don’t deserve it. I think this year’s greatest insult is a Best Picture nod for the comparatively insipid American Sniper over this delightfully warped psychological thriller. They nominated Rosamund Pike for Best Actress at least, but I can’t discuss her show-stealing performance!
Jake Gyllenhaal gives an excellent performance as Lou Bloom, one of the most compelling on-screen manipulators I’ve seen in a long time.
Nightcrawler is a Schraderesque character study of a man far more dangerous than Travis Bickle. Like Bickle, Lou Bloom doesn’t like people, however Taxi Driver saw Bickle feel compassion for at least one person – Lou seems to have contempt for absolutely everyone. Lou’s interactions with other people have only one purpose – control. He is very opportunistic and has an unshakable confidence that isn’t hindered by the human inconveniences of nervousness and guilt.
Jake Gyllenhaal commands the long monologues of Dan Gilroy’s script, stealing every scene he’s in as the unnervingly brazen and enthusiastic Lou Bloom. Gyllenhaal lost 20 pounds for the role and it really worked, his gaunt face and glaring eyes do quite a lot of the acting for him. The performance carries the film and this will no doubt be recognised by the Academy next February.
In the film’s opening moments, Lou is a vagrant who is shown committing crimes both petty and, it’s suggested, not very petty at all. He’s in the desperate pursuit of a job, and when he meets someone who could be of benefit, Lou initiates his charm offensive and inundates them with a relentless barrage of articulate yet platitudinous language as if he’s reciting the effusive CV of a quixotic student.
Although his self-promotion is overbearing in the first few instances, Lou soon proves his skill in accruing large amounts of information and repeating it with the utmost conviction and credibility. Gyllenhaal must have relished delivering director Gilroy’s excellent script, his manner of speech reminded me of Patrick Bateman’s highly detailed monologues on everything from his morning routine to Huey Lewis and the News in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Despite both men’s articulacy, their diction feels recycled, and this is because it is – their sociopathy means they cannot form true, sincere relationships, but they can counterfeit them through their adroit ability of learning and imitating the necessary behaviour.
Quick wits and amorality are key skills for any successful paparazzo, so it is unsurprising that Lou Bloom thrives in the field. His first forays into professional prying are very funny. Inspired by a chance encounter with venerable camera man Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), Lou buys a rudimentary camcorder and scours the myriad streets of Los Angeles, abruptly stopping next to the scene of a car accident and poking his camera right in people’s faces; when he’s challenged he proclaims with an uncommon doubtfulness –‘I’m fairly certain I’m allowed to do this!’ You soon see Bloom gain confidence as he pushes the boundaries further and further, making for tense, unpredictable viewing.
His audacity proves successful, snatching footage that’s nice and gory, impressing Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the blonde, brassy director of a local news channel. Despite an appearance and demeanour that suggests seasoned business acumen, Nina spends much of the film under the thumb of Lou.
After proving his worth, enjoying his growing control over Nina and soon realising how vital he is for the news agency’s spiking ratings, Lou proves that his manipulation can work, albeit it very unattractively, in courtship. Gilroy’s best monologue occurs when, over dinner with a reluctant Nina, Lou blackmails her into establishing a longstanding sexual agreement, using a business-like vernacular bereft of anything remotely romantic, erotic or sexual.
Like Gone Girl, Night Crawler is a satire of the yellow journalism peddled by television news, content that’s perhaps interesting for the public but not in the public interest, a distinction that is gleefully ignored in favour of lucrative scare-mongering and countless other immoralities. As the majority of the characters are under this satirical gaze, I found it hard to care when they fell victim to Lou’s vicious conniving, my apathy extending to even his long, suffering accomplice Rick (Riz Ahmed), who is too darn wet and insipid to get that emotionally invested in. None of this, I hasten to add, is a major detriment.
The film is attractively shot by Robert Elswit, much of whose striking work can be found in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson including There Will Be Blood (2007), Punch Drunk Love (2002) and Boogie Nights (1997), the latter’s sun-kissed, neon-lit aesthetic being most similar to Nightcrawler’s. Elswit’s work here is also likely to immediately draw comparisons with Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography in the beautifully slick Drive (2011).
With a tense, unpredictable narrative that’s laced with strong satire and anchored by a great character and great performance, Nightcrawler is one the best films of 2014.
The Toxic Avenger is an absurd piece of filmmaking with just enough laughs and quirks to make it bearable.
I have been informed that The Toxic Avenger is one of Troma’s better films, so it was perhaps not the most appropriate introduction to their notorious catalogue that contains titles such as Nazi Surfers Must Die and Class of Nuke ‘Em High.
I was expecting gratuitous nudity and violence, and I was presented with it, but one thing I didn’t expect was the pantomime acting. There’s an array of absurd caricatures, including Bozo (Gary Schneider) a psychotic, gym frequenting idiot who enjoys running children over with his friends Slug (Robert Prichard) and Julie (Cindy Manion). Whilst at the gym, they antagonise the janitor Melvin (Mark Torgl), a ridiculously dorky moron who spends much of his screen presence squirming and baring his comedy-looking teeth. I thought there would be a good old fashioned revenge film to be found in The Toxic Avenger, and there is to a certain extent, but the relentlessly silly acting broke any modicum of investment I may have had in the characters to the point where it became almost unwatchable.
Other characters include Mayor Belgoody (Pat Ryan Jr), the corpulent, corrupt mayor of ‘Tromaville’; the German police chief (David Weiss), who accidentally exposes his closeted Nazism by compulsively performing the Nazi salute and blurting out Fuhrer!, and Sara (Andree Maranda), the Toxic Avenger’s attractive, blind girlfriend whose condition is often the subject of juvenile jokes, the most frequent one being her stick inadvertently making contact with Toxie’s crotch.
I’m sure most are familiar with the premise – during a particularly humiliating session of bullying, Melvin the janitor falls out of a window and into a barrel of toxic waste, transforming him into a super strong and super righteous mutant – The Toxic Avenger.
Performed by Mitchell Cohen, the Toxic Avenger’s, or Toxie’s, screen presence is the film’s chief merit. The prosthetics and makeup applied to Cohen’s body are very good considering the budget and Troma’s reputation. The scene in which Melvin transforms into Toxie is also appropriately painful looking and gruesome, reminding me of the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London released three years prior.
What I found particularly funny was the Toxic Avenger’s voice. He initially only grunts and roars, I assumed he could no longer speak, however the toxic waste somehow provided him with a silky smooth mid-Atlantic accent (the voice acting provided by Kenneth Kessler). Kessler’s diction is made for radio, it never gets old hearing it emanate from such a grotesque mouth. Amusingly, whenever Toxie speaks in this accent, his back is always facing the camera; this I thought was a reflection of the budget, so I was surprised when in the latter stages of the film you see Toxie speaking directly into the camera with no technical hitches at all – a sudden influx of money, perhaps?
Like everything else in the film, the violence is amateurish. At times it reminded me of my friend and I’s home movies. Using the ‘DigitalBlue’ camera, we created whole horror film franchises including the terrifying ‘Oven Glove Man’ series and homages to the infamous Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th. Inevitably, the two characters eventually clashed in a Freddy vs. Jason fashion, my friend was the ‘Oven Glove Man’ and I, wearing a fancy dress hockey mask, was Jason Voorhees.
If my memory is correct, the majority of the films followed the same format of a murder scene followed by a still shot of the victim covered in terrible blood and gore effects that I had applied with relish using the software’s paintbrush function. Now and again the film felt like this, there would be lengthy fight scenes with little in the way of tangible choreography and violence. The viewers’ bloodlust is only given slight satiation when Toxie deals a finishing blow and the incapacitated victim’s wounds are shown in often motionless close-up shots, some of which being very gory, particularly the scene in which Bozo runs over a teenager’s head.
With gore, scantily clad women and ridiculous campy humour, The Toxic Avenger has many earmarks of a Troma film. However, unlike most comparable films, there are enough laughs to make its 87 minutes bearable and at times somewhat entertaining.
There’s far too much plot development and far too little action in Maniac Cop.
It is Maniac Cop’s amusing title that attracted me to the film, its tagline ‘You have the right to remain silent… forever’ also made me laugh, however William Lustig’s Maniac Cop is a classic example of all concept and no substance. A sixty-second trailer may draw you in, but the feature length production is pitifully executed.
The film opens with three murder sequences, all of which are amateurish and underwhelming. I wasn’t concerned, the film had only just begun, I was confident that it would soon shift a gear into gore hound territory; after all, the Blu-ray copy I watched was an Arrow Films release. This gear change unfortunately never happens, the filmmakers instead develop a dull, nonsensical thriller-mystery narrative rather than prove their ingenuity with corn syrup and gore. A Cormanesque producer should have economically stripped the script of generic narrative filler, emphasised its core high concept and employed Tom Savini, the highly talented and twisted SFX man responsible for the gore in films such as Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Friday the 13th (1980) and William Lustig’s earlier film Maniac (1980).
I can’t really be bothered to name characters or summarise plot, but I’ll try. The film opens with a young woman being chased by two hoodlums, she escapes the pair and approaches an ominous looking police officer, who, rather than serving and protecting her, strangles her to death. The film then follows Detective Frank McCrae (Tom Atkins), who believes the hoodlums’ claims that a police officer committed the crime, his evidence-bereft belief turning very quickly into adamancy based solely on his venerable cop’s instinct – this is of course all completely stupid. Bruce Campbell then turns up as Jack Forrest, a cop who is framed for the murders of the tabloid press dubbed ‘Maniac Cop’. The best performance of the film is delivered by Robert Z’Dar’s enormous jaw, it lends a palpable strength and menace to his character Matt Cordell. I am now too bored to continue writing this.
Believe it or not, William Lustig and Larry Cohen should have taken a leaf out of Troma’s book. I recently watched The ToxicAvenger, a film that, like the rest of Troma’s catalogue, tried its utmost to be completely camp and awful. Unlike the majority of Troma’s catalogue however, there are enough laughs and torrents of gore in The Toxic Avenger to make it something of a success. Maniac Cop on the other hand has no sense of humour, no excessive violence and no lashings of crass sexuality; it’s an utterly stillborn slasher film that leads its viewers through a grindingly banal narrative to a denouement that’s seriously amateurish. When the credits roll, you’ll be left wondering ‘…is that it?’