The Neon Demon

Nicholas Winding Refn personifies what many would argue filmmaking should be; writers and directors developing original ideas and making the films they want to make, not beholden to the whims of studio executives or the banality of mainstream audience expectations. Certainly at this stage of his career, Refn continues to enjoy the level of creative freedom that most filmmakers can only dream about. The fact that he is able to get his films into cinemas – obviously in large part due to the success of Drive – is something to be cherished at a time when so many others find their work (which is often exceptionally good) confined to other forms of distribution. There is still no other viewing platform that is a patch on the immersive experience that cinemas can provide and a film such as The Neon Demon certainly needs to be seen on the big screen. It is bold, bizarre, bloody and beautiful, but will no doubt leave many people cold.


What starts out as a highly stylised critique of the superficiality of the modelling industry morphs into something much more sinister by the time the end credits start rolling. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a 16-year-old who has lobbed into Los Angeles all alone, trying to establish herself in the fashion world. Her naivety and natural beauty make her unique in a world where body enhancements are de rigueur in the interests of career longevity. Whilst photographers fawn and make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) becomes infatuated with the newbie, the other models (played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) are far from impressed and set out to destroy her. The pace is glacial at times, with every shot drawn out with a meticulousness that some will no doubt find excruciating. But, even when there is nothing happening, it is hard to look away because there is always a lingering sense of menace lurking beneath the surface that eventually erupts amid moments of cannibalism and necrophilia.


Despite the darkness of what transpires, The Neon Demon is bursting with colour, Refn’s use of music is excellent and everything is staged with a precision that brings a sense of hyper-reality to proceedings. Dialogue is minimal and the performances are hard to gauge because the characters are so stilted; every line delivered in the same deliberate manner, devoid of any emotional resonance or self-awareness. That is not to say the performances are bad because the personality (or lack thereof) that each character possesses is a statement about the vacuousness of the industry and those within it. Fanning is fine as the new kid in town and Malone is particularly good as a woman who takes Jesse under her wing with intentions that are far from honourable. Of all the characters, creepy motel manager Hank (Keanu Reeves) is the liveliest and least likeable (which is saying something in a movie where almost everybody is grotesque). Hank is a sleaze who preys on the female guests and whilst this is not the first time that Reeves has played such a despicable dude (check out Sam Raimi’s The Gift), I don’t know that many other actors would be prepared to take on such a character. Jesse’s sort-of-boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) is the most sympathetic character in the film, while Alessandro Nivola’s fashion designer leads the way in superciliousness and preposterous pomposity as Refn rams home the message about the nature of those who work in the industry.


There is nothing typical about The Neon Demon and Refn, who also wrote the original story and the screenplay, certainly can’t be accused of ‘selling ‘out’ or compromising his vision in the interests a chasing a broader audience. Despite the subject matter and the themes at play, Refn never resorts to cheap titillation and it is only a couple of scenes near the end of the film that push it into R18+ territory. Sure, some things don’t make sense – such as why Jesse stays in the motel run by Hank even after it has become obvious that he’s a threat – but with so many moments of startling beauty, this is the work of a filmmaker with a unique take on the world around him who has crafted a completely refreshing cinematic experience that mesmerises from the opening moments. A smorgasbord of exquisite colour, lighting and composition, The Neon Demon is a work of art that will no doubt prove divisive, but is most definitely worth watching.

Fiesta Time Again

It’s hard to believe that Brisbane’s annual Valley Fiesta has already rolled around again with the promise of another feast of FREE live music. The 2016 Valley Fiesta happens this weekend, with music, markets and entertainment throughout Fortitude Valley.

Festivities get underway on Friday night (October 28) with the Live and Local band competition on the Brunswick Street Mall stage. Come Saturday evening (October 29), The Vines will headline the main music stage in Brunswick Street East, with Hey Geronimo, Joyride, Harts and Morning Harvey also featuring. Meanwhile, the likes of Yuuca, Polographia, Jess Kent and KLP will grace the Brunswick Street Mall Stage on Saturday.


Sunday will feature the traditional QMA Music Showcase on the Brunswick Street Mall Stage, with this year’s line-up including Bearfoot, Deena, Emily Wurramara, Mzaza and Forevr.

There will also be market stalls in both the Brunswick Street and Chinatown Malls, along with multicultural music and performances on both Friday and Saturday.  Art, food and pop-up bars will feature over the weekend, with events to be held in Bakery Lane and Winn Lane in addition to the myriad options on offer in Brisbane’s entertainment precinct every week.

For more information about Valley Fiesta 2016, including artist details and set times, head to the festival website or follow on Facebook.

Deepwater Horizon

Peter Berg does not do subtle. The director of Hancock, Battleship and Lone Survivor is all about spectacle over substance, even when dealing with real life events such as the explosion that destroyed the oil rig from which this film gets its name that resulted in the death of 11 workers and the release of millions of litres of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the biggest environmental disaster in United States history. Berg isn’t concerned about the political, environmental or corporate consequences of what transpired, or even the moral and ethical debates around our reliance on fossil fuels that drive such deep sea extractions in  the first place; he just wants to blow shit up. As such, whilst Deepwater Horizon does make some effort to examine the events immediately prior to the catastrophic failure that sent the rig into meltdown, by and large Berg is more interested in the opportunities that such a calamity creates for spectacular actions sequences, stunts and visual effects.


The film opens with the various key players in the drama making their way to the rig for the start of another three-week stint in what is undeniably one of the most isolated and potentially hazardous workplaces imaginable. We know straight up that Mark Wahlberg’s Mike Williams is the hero of the piece because he has a sexy wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson) and cute-as-a-button young daughter (Stella Allen) waiting for him at home. Kurt Russell (with moustache, of course) is Jimmy Harrell, the gruff but highly respected manager who is under pressure from BP company executives (a hammy John Malkovich and Friday Night Lights’ Brad Leland) to hurry things along with the operation already 43 days behind schedule. We also meet Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) – the token girl on the rig – and various other crew members who may or may not survive the impending mayhem. It goes without saying that, in an effort to make up time, shortcuts are taken – against the advice of Jimmy and others who possess considerably more expertise than the BP boffins – and the results are nothing less than disastrous.


A few Skype exchanges between Mike and Felicia and a surprise presentation to Jimmy take us away from the impending drama that is unfolding and these moments play out as a distinctly unsubtle attempt to engender an emotional connection from the audience in the hope we will care about the characters and what happens to them. The problem is that these moments are so fleeting and characterisations so superficial that it is hard to invest much energy into worrying about what might happen to anybody, which is particularly disappointing given that these are real people whose experiences are being drawn upon in the name of entertainment. Therefore, it really is the action on which the film relies and this is where Berg’s skills are best served. He ramps up the chaos as the rig becomes engulfed in flames amid spewing oil and gas, the crew of a nearby support ship unable to render any assistance other than plucking survivors out of the ocean.


Once the shock and awe subsides, Berg wraps things up quickly with the obligatory emotional reunions to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy and, hopefully, not thinking about all the stuff that you haven’t been told. Sure, Berg makes it clear that it is the executives from BP, and not the crew members, who are responsible for the disaster, but he never really takes them to task. As is obligatory these days in films drawn from real life, the final moments feature images of the people on whom these characters are based, but it plays as tokenistic rather than insightful in this instance. There is a real missed opportunity here to explore the corporate, political and social consequences of one of the worst workplace disasters of recent times, yet Berg lets those responsible off the hook by pointing the finger at a couple of individuals rather than exploring a corporate culture that emphasises profit over employee safety and environmental responsibility, including the ongoing efforts by BP to downplay their culpability and the impact of their actions. Marky Mark saving Snake Plisskin and Jane the Virgin is stirring stuff, but there is a much bigger story to be told here.


Café Society

Perhaps the most prolific director of all (45 features thus far), Woody Allen is a frustrating filmmaker in that the quality of his output fluctuates wildly; from the delightful to the dire. To be fair, most of his recent output has been pretty decent (Blue Jasmine, Midnight in Paris), but there is always a sense of trepidation whenever a new Allen film arrives in cinemas because, whilst there is a great deal of predictability in the types of characters that inhabit the stories, you just never know whether Allen is going to deliver something great or god awful. In fact, within each individual movie there are often great disparities in the quality of what plays out, with wonderful moments of wry wit often followed by something so insipid that it only serves to undermine those moments that soar. With Café Society, Allen sticks to this template, creating a (s)light 1930’s-set romantic comedy in which a young man relocates from New York to Los Angeles in search of opportunity, only to find himself smitten by his uncle’s secretary.


The central character is, seemingly, yet another incarnation of Allen himself, with Jesse Eisenberg perfectly suited to the role as the confident but uptight Bobby Dorfman. Having moved to LA to escape a future working in his father’s jewellery business, Bobby finds himself employed by his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a Hollywood agent whose incessant name-dropping is a running joke though the film.  When Bobby meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), romance blossoms despite the fact that she already has a boyfriend “Doug” (whose real identity we learn soon enough) and, whilst it easy to see why both men have fallen for her, you find yourself questioning the likelihood of a situation in which this beautiful, easy going young woman would find herself romantically entangled with these two men when neither of them are particularly gregarious. Of course, such dichotomies are the hallmark of all Allen films; a beautiful woman falls for the charms of somebody who would, in all reality, never stand a chance. For a long time, Allen cast himself as the man punching above his weight, but in recent years he has turned to the likes of Owen Wilson, Joaquin Phoenix and now Eisenberg to fill such roles. These characters are essentially the same each time, the only difference being the woman over whom they fawn.


In that regard, Stewart is an inspired casting decision as she is absolutely luminous here. Often maligned as an actress, Stewart has proven time and again that she is a terrific talent and it is her presence alone that keeps you interested. Sure, you can’t help but ask yourself why Vonnie is involved with either of her suitors, but it is easy to understand why they would be pursuing her because whenever Stewart is on screen, Café Society soars. Sure, there are some aspects of the film that are infuriating (such as the voice-over narration from Allen himself) but Stewart’s performance and her easy rapport with Eisenberg (with whom she has worked twice before) helps to alleviate the anger that builds every time Allen’s voice launches into another infuriatingly unnecessary commentary on the course of events. When the romance between Bobby and Vonnie seems to have run its course, Bobby returns to New York to run a nightclub owned by his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) and it is here that he finds himself a new love in Veronica (Blake Lively). Of course, love never runs smoothly and when Vonnie ventures back into his periphery, complications ensue.


Whilst there are several scenes (such as those in New York that endlessly remind us about what a bad guy Ben has become) that could have easily been excised without having any impact on the main characters and their relationships, there is one superfluous scene early in the piece featuring Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect) as a hapless hooker that, despite having no relevance to anything that follows, is actually the funniest moment in the film. The rest of the movie is amusing rather than uproarious, with Parker Posey the standout amongst the supporting cast as Rad, a straight-talking socialite who runs a modelling agency. Dripping in 1930’s glamour, Café Society juxtaposes the glitzy seduction of Hollywood with the dour world of working class New York. It all looks fabulous and, with Stewart possessing a screen presence to rival any of the Golden Age actresses whose names pop up in Phil’s numerous bouts of braggadocio, this is one of Allen’s better efforts.

The Girl on the Train

Described as delivering a ‘Hitchcock-style punch’ and possessing ‘Hitchcockian inspirations’, it is hard to imagine Mr Hitchcock being particularly pleased with such comparisons given that The Girl on the Train is a disjointed, somewhat bland thriller that struggles to overcome its fundamental flaw; a cast of characters who are neither likeable nor interesting enough to illicit much sympathy for their plight. Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that there is nothing about the book on which the film is based that stands it apart as something particularly special in what is perhaps the most congested literary genre of all, other than the fact that it was a huge seller. There seems little doubt that that the popularity of Paula Hawkins’ novel, coupled with the success of the screen adaptation of (the far superior) Gone Girl in 2014, have been the catalyst for the development of this project, rather than any opportunity to present something particularly unique.


The girl of the title is Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), an aimless young divorcee who spends her days sipping vodka from a water bottle, riding the train and obsessing over her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux). During her daily commute, Rachel becomes fixated on Megan and Scott Hipwell (Haley Bennett and Luke Evans), a young couple whose house sits adjacent to the railway line and also happens to be only a few doors down from the home Tom shares with his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). Catching glimpses of Megan and Scott each morning and afternoon, Rachel fills her mind with romanticised notions of their life together, a fantasy somewhat removed from reality as we discover soon enough. When Megan vanishes, Rachel sets out to investigate, only to find herself implicated when it is revealed that she was in the area on the night of Megan’s disappearance. The problem is that an alcohol-induced blackout has left Rachel with no memory of the night in question. From this point, the course of events is revealed to the audience as Rachel herself slowly begins to recall what transpired.


The story shifts back and forward in time, offering some insight into the events from the past that have shaped the course of events that unfold, but it is so hard to care much about Rachel and the predicament in which she finds herself. In fact, nobody here emerges as a particularly pleasant person as secrets and lies are revealed. The changes made in the transition from page to screen – such as the relocation of the story from London to the suburbs of New York – seem more to do with placating those studio suits who simply cannot imagine that there is a world beyond America. In the book, Rachel is presented as a slovenly mess whose alcoholism has left her in physical and psychological disarray, whereas the movie has her seeming decidedly less pitiful. In fact, she looks pretty good for somebody who has supposedly spent two years drinking all day every day. Blunt does her best with a character devoid of any common sense, lurching from one bad decision to another and only learning the truth about what transpired through the return of her memory rather than any investigative effort on her part.


Perhaps because I am familiar with the book, and therefore aware of what happens to whom, I never found anything that takes place to be particularly suspenseful even though director Tate Taylor does keep the circumstances of Megan’s disappearance under wraps much longer than Hawkins does in the book. Whilst Taylor – working from a script penned by Hawkins and Erin Cressida Wilson – doesn’t bring anything new to the genre and he certainly under-utilises the considerable talents of Allison Janney as the detective investigating Megan’s disappearance, some may find the ending a surprise enough to make the journey worth their while. Ultimately, The Girl on the Train is very much like the book on which it is derived; uninspired and lacking the narrative chutzpah to make it stand out as something special.