Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Neon Demon: Puerile, Aberrant, Cringeworthy ... Yet Irresistably Sensational

The new film "The Neon Demon" has absolutely no Olympic connection unless you count its setting, contemporary Los Angeles.

It's doubtful the fictional beauties -- or anyone in the fashion industry portrayed on this flashy silver screen horror story -- would align themselves with the LA2024 Olympic bid, which is probably a good thing for the hopeful future Games committee.

The next sentence includes two potential spoilers.

Walking out of "The Neon Demon" and shaking my head, I asked myself repeatedly whether the world really reached a point at which shock value may only be achieved through scenes including cannibalism and necrophilia?

I wondered, "Did the audience really need to see that?" and considered asking others murmuring similar distaste as we exited the theatre. (Answer: no.)

There were the warning signs that should have kept me away.

Reviews helped me learn a few new words that sent me hunting for a dictionary. "Puerile" stuck out in The New York Times' review, while "aberrant" was the apt term in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution mini-review from staff and wire reports.

But the same outlet with the harshest critical POV also published a video "anatomy of a scene" narrated by director Nicolas Winding Refn, and this trailer more than others reeled me in ... hook, line and sinker.

Though I eventually felt icky for spending $12 on the ticket, some of the film's provocative content did deliver entertaining bang for the buck.

Key scenes took me back to previous sleepers tied to Stephen King, including "Carrie" and "The Shining," and the bloodbath that takes shape in "The Neon Demon" is likely to earn cult status down the road (enticing me to lay down this review while the film remains fresh in my mind).

What stinks most about "The Neon Demon" is the story, which sort of plods along (especially the second half) like one of its models tripping on a catwalk.

Tension does crescendo, but curve balls mid-film are distracting -- when the young and stunning wannabe model (Elle Fanning) cuts her hand on a shard of broken mirror, for instance, an established and competing model licks the blood rather than try to stop its flow. Eww!

I did not understand nor care for the psychedelic dream sequences through which Fanning's character, Jesse, appears in her own kaleidoscopic settings. Pink Floyd references intended? Who cares.

Another distraction is Keanu Reeves. Though he is convincing as a Pasadena dive motel slum lord, spotting him only took me back to "Point Break" good guy scenes of the past. And even when he might have been raping a teenager off-screen, I only smirked for thinking of his monosyllable grunts of Ted on his 1989 excellent adventure.

What works, however, is the music, and it hit me 48 hours after watching that "The Neon Demon" functions well as a highly stylized extended music video rather than a feature film. It's surreal in the ballpark with Lady Gaga's promotion for "Bad Romance" or her meat dress days.

Perhaps if they took out most of the dialogue from "The Neon Demon," they could run the meticulous footage on MTV to promote Cliff Martinez's great score.

Savvy movie soundtrack buffs may recall the musician's earlier and outstanding work for thought-provoking films including "sex, lies, and videotape" or "Traffic," "Drive," "Arbitrage," or "Spring Breakers." I found myself queuing up the Shazam app several times during the film, and I predict Sia's original song contribution "Waving Goodbye" -- my favorite takeaway -- will emerge as an Oscar nominee.

As a longtime Jena Malone fan, it was pleasantly surprising to see her early in the film, but later disappointing, er, disturbing to see her take on the aforementioned necrophilia scenes. Yikes!

Like Nancy Kerrigan wailing, post-knee assault, all I could think was, "Whyyyyyyy, Jena, WHYYYYYY?!"

Malone's final scene, topless and knee-deep in a shallow grave, is reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp's "Etant donnes" (at right) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so I'm now curious the extent to which the director and/or set decorator took inspiration from the multimedia work that took 20 years to create (1946 to 1966).

So "The Neon Demon" left me in a strange place because I don't really want to suggest that folks spend money or time on it.

With that said, in the long-run, if this film is going to become a much-debated piece of surreal art, then it may be worth a look-see for the sake of conversation.

Like Andy Warhol's car crash paintings, perhaps one can't help but look.

Images via Amazon Studios/Broad Green Pictures

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