Blu-ray/DVD: Takeshi Kitano’s ‘Violent Cop’ and ‘Boiling Point’

Violent Cop (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)
Boiling Point (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD)

Takeshi Kitano has a way of making stillness into tension in his crime films.

violentcopIn the opening shot of Violent Cop, Kitano’s 1990 directorial debut, the camera holds on the smiling face of a toothless derelict. Like a pebble dropping into a pond the calm is shattered when a soccer ball knocks his dinner from his hand and a swarm of teens rushes him. The violence erupts out of nowhere as they relentlessly beat and kick him, and as the homeless man lies dead on the ground the feckless kids hop on their bikes and nonchalantly peddle away as if leaving the playground.

Into this cruel, uncaring world strolls Azuma (Takeshi), the police detective who earns the film its title many times over. In his first scene he beats a suspect, one of the teenage boys, in the kid’s own room. Azuma has a reputation for making up his own rules and he maintains a precarious position in the department that looks away as the lone wolf gets results at the price of unbridled police brutality. “Behave yourself for a year while I’m chief,” demands his new superior. He looks on like he hasn’t heard a thing, and before long he’s back to his usual tricks, running down suspects, beating drug dealers, planting evidence, even slugging a pimp standing in the stationhouse hall. Once in a while he cracks a smile, but mostly he wears a deadpan mask. Kitano has an amazing face, calm and bemused, at times almost blank, with big teddy bear eyes and soft features that suggest a gentle nature denied in his every action. Even when the battle becomes personal and the hair-trigger cop goes on his rogue rampage, he maintains that serenity, hardening just a bit, his crook of smile straightening out to a taut determination, perhaps suggesting a touch of bitterness and sadness.

Takeshi Kitano, better known by his nickname “Beat” Takeshi in Japan, rose to fame as a stand-up comic and remains one of Japan’s most popular TV personalities (he’s been known to host or star in as many as four TV shows simultaneously). His background helps explain how he can transform bullying bastards into such likable characters, but it doesn’t account for the fully realized style. Kitano stepped in as director of Violent Cop at the last minute and leapt out of the gate with a powerful, fully developed style. He boldly sketches shots with a seemingly simple directness and stages visceral action scenes with a mesmerizing impassivity: the camera locks down and watches the war zone erupt. And for a director of so-called action films, Takeshi’s cinema is full of static images and long digressions, intermissions from the blood sport. When the inevitable clashes recur, the sudden shots of brutality carry a startling kick to them.

boilingpointTakeshi’s second film, Boiling Point (1990), carries this stylistic idea even farther. The story concerns passive gas station attendant and baseball team benchwarmer Masaki (Masahiko Ono) whose one moment of action is a badly timed attack on a rude customer who just happens to be Yakuza. When the gangsters start taking it out on both his co-workers and his teammates, Masaki sets out to buy a gun and take care of the problem. Takeshi is even more oblique in his presentation of violent action and spends the middle of the film on a strange, rambling subplot involving a disgraced mobster (Takeshi again, this time in a supporting role as a fun loving brute with a penchant for rape) and his mission of revenge. The narrative almost dissolves in abstractions and digressions before the startling conclusion, but it remains a compellingly warped look at the uniquely Japanese culture of violence.

Violent Cop is a classic Japanese gangster tale shaped it into Kitano’s unmistakably warped reflection of cops and criminals culture with startling style and his charismatic presence, and is easily the bigger audience pleaser. Boiling Point isn’t as compelling but is in some ways more challenging and inventive. In these films he completely transformed the genre screenplay, a cops and gangsters tale of corruption and revenge, into a jaundiced, cynical vision.

Both are newly mastered for their respective Blu-ray debuts and new DVD editions. The initial DVD releases from the old Fox Lorber label fifteen years ago were pretty bad: soft, noisy, with interlaced video, and not mastered for widescreen TVs (no 16×9 option). These new discs are remastered in HD and are a marked improvement. They are sharper and feature greater detail and none of the video noise of the DVDs. The color, however, is a little weak and the image still a bit soft, likely due to the source materials.

Violent Cop includes the 20-minute featurette “That Man Is Dangerous: The Birth of Takeshi Kitano” and trailers. Boiling Point also includes the 20-minute featurette “Okinawa Days: Takeshi’s Second Debut” and the trailer. Both are in Japanese with removable subtitles and come with a booklet featuring an essay by Tom Vick.

More releases on DVD and Blu-ray at Cinephiled

‘Memento Mori’ and the Terrible Melancholy of Korean Horror

The rise of Asian horror in the late nineties was built on a different recipe than the Freddy and Jason knock-offs and post-Blair Witch found-footage horrors of American movies. After the cycle of gore films of the eighties ran its course in both Japan and Hong Kong, horror was relegated to the made-for-video industry (known as v-cinema), where younger talents found ways to create eerie thrills on limited budgets and resources. A 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki laid the groundwork for the coming boom: Ringu (a.k.a. The Ring) was made into a TV film, a TV series, a smash 1998 movie by Hideo Nakata, and a string of sequels and remakes (including a Korean version). Along with the eerie madness and supernatural forces of Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s movies (Cure, Pulse) and the vengeful ghosts of Ju-on(a.k.a. The Grudge) and its many sequels and remakes, a new genre was born. J-Horror underplayed the on-screen violence, creating shivery moments of malevolence seeping into the material world from beyond, killing and corrupting everything it touches, with stories built on the vengeance of spirits unable to move on. The conventions of American ghost stories—discover the secret keeping the dead trapped on Earth to send them on their way—no longer applied. The truth will set neither the living nor the dead free.

Where the Japanese industry largely recycled the creepy imagery and angry supernatural killers of those trend-setting films, South Korean directors took the same elements in a different direction. K-Horror also focused on unsettled spirits, but rather than anger and vengeance, they explored regret, anguish, loss, and betrayal; the most resonant films offered spirits more damaged than malevolent, prevented from moving on by unfinished business or unfulfilled yearnings. The Asian horror revival coincided with the sudden relaxation of film censorship rules in South Korea, which helped fuel the rise in Korean action cinema. But even as action thrillers became more visceral and violent, horror cinema was closer to the teen and young-adult serial melodramas that still dominate Korean TV—more focused on the emotional than the physical.

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VIFF 2016: Con artists, poets, and life on the streets

I still marvel at how the Vancouver International Film Festival seems to be one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. Opening a few weeks after Toronto, it is almost concurrent with the New York Film Festival, which makes headlines with the official American premieres of some of the season’s most anticipated films. Many of those very same films are screening across the country in Vancouver, often a day or two before NYFF, and it is a mere 2 ½ hours away from my Seattle domicile. It’s one of the quirks of the festival circuit: the films that made their respective North American premieres in Toronto (after a possible “unofficial” screening at Telluride) vie for a spot at NYFF, where it gets the media spotlight, while Vancouver quietly slips somewhere around half of those into their line-up.

Here are a few titles snagged by VIFF this year: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Pablo Larraín’sNeruda, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle…. There are other films playing both fests, and plenty of films screening at Vancouver that are nowhere to be seen on the NYFF schedule, but that should give you a taste of a few of the delights that Vancouver offers over 16 days and eight venues (seven of them within walking distance of one another). It’s why I go every year that I am able.

The festival is over now and my report is a lot later than I intended but most (if not all) of the films I saw will be coming to a theater, disc, or VOD stream near you so here are notes on a few highlights from six days and two trips across the border.

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (South Korea), his first film since his superb but unheralded American debut Stoker, returns to the intense imagery, twisting narratives, perverse subcultures, and elevated emotions of his Sympathy trilogy with a story of con artists in 1930s Korea. His lush South Korean thriller, adapted from the British novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters (also made into a British TV miniseries), has the look of a lavish period drama, the elegance of an arthouse picture, the complex plotting of an ingenious caper that only the movies could sustain, and the sex and nudity of an exploitation picture. Park adds the setting: Korea under Japanese colonial occupation. The target is the emotionally troubled heiress of a Japanese family fortune (Kim Min-hee) and the Korean con man (Ha Jung-woo) drafts a street pickpocket and thief (Kim Tae-ri) to play his inside woman, the handmaiden to the Lady. That’s as much as you’d want to know walking in to the film, which lays all that out quite swiftly and wittily in the first few minutes of an involved film filled with set pieces, switchbacks, and flashbacks. It has all the elements you want from a good genre film and then it adds a fascinating dimension of national identity and appropriation as a matter of power, which is more a matter of gender than culture. What appears to be an elegant, self-aware exploitation thriller in costume drama dress reveals itself to be a love story hidden in a tale of exploitation and allegiance and it rewards us with a perverse fairy tale ending, albeit a fairy tale where the big bad wolves are pornographers, forgers, and pimps.

Kim Min-he and Kim Tae-ri in 'The Handmaiden - Photo credit: Magnolia Pitures
Kim Min-he and Kim Tae-ri in ‘The Handmaiden – Photo credit: Magnolia Pitures

Pablo Larraín’s Nerdua (Chile) is ostensibly about the revered poet, senator, and face of Chile’s Communist Party in the 1940s when he went underground and into exile after the government started imprisoning Communist Party members, union leaders, and protesters, with plenty of poetic license applied to history. Call it Larraín’s Citizen Kane, the story of a man’s life as understood through the stories surround him and the power that such stories and perceptions have. As such, it’s a film about storytelling and cultural mythmaking as shaped by Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco as an artist and social bon vivant embracing bourgeois privilege while playing the voice of the proletariat in public) and narrated by his nemesis. Gael García Bernal is Police Prefect Óscar Peluchonneau, assigned by the president to arrest and, more importantly, discredit Neruda in the eyes of the adoring public. He’s the film’s answer to the Citizen Kane‘s reporter Thompson by way of a warped reflection peasant-born poet Neruda, narrating as if he’s the hero of the tale. He’s also a complete fiction, as if created by created by Neruda himself, a poet who carries around paperback detective novels as pinballs from one safe house to another. Larraín’s direction and lush images play up the mythopoetic angle while he undercuts the pretensions with reminders of the reality behind the theater with Peluchonneau’s barbed (yet woefully un-self-aware) commentary and glimpses of the heroes fumbling and stumbling through their imagined heroics. The gaffes and stumbles and failures are for us, a reminder that there are people behind the myth. The myth remains eternal, given life by art and by faith in our heroes.

Paterson (US) is the name of Adam Driver’s character, a blue collar city bus driver; the location, Paterson, NJ; and a reference to a book of poetry by William Carlos Williams, a son of Paterson (the city) and the favorite poet of Paterson (the man), who is also a poet. Got it? Paterson pens his modest odes—most of them inspired by his wife Laura (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani of About Elly), in the seat of his bus before beginning his route or sitting on a park bench at lunch, scribbling the phrases he’s worked out while watching the world go past his windshield or eavesdropping on the conversations of passengers. This is Jim Jarmusch in the mode of the unassuming poet of everyday American dreamers, surveying the rhythms of life in the blue collar city and celebrating the artistic impulses and creative projects that bring color to our lives: a teenage girl scribbling her own poetry, a bartender with a wall dedicated to the greatest sons of Paterson, NJ, Laura’s black-and-white designs adorning everything from her handmaid curtains to her fledgling cupcake business, though she has a new dream seemingly every day. The humor is low key and the narrative a lazy drift through a week in Paterson’s life, which has its own, inviolable routine. For Jarmusch, the wonder comes in the grace notes and delightful coincidences (watch for the twins that keep weaving through his story) and the warmth in the way he appreciates those moments. Paterson hasn’t any grand ambitions—even his poetry is a private pleasure, so different from Laura’s exuberance in sharing her creative activities with the world—but it doesn’t make his art or his life any less meaningful.

Staying Vertical (France), written and directed by Alain Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lake), plays like a metaphor for creative labor and writer’s block that got lost in the same loop that Léo (Damien Bonnard), a blocked screenwriter avoiding his deadline with a circular journey through the French countryside to the city and back, endlessly spirals down. It opens with him trying to pick up a surly, handsome young punk (Basile Meilleurat) and then shacking up with a single mom (India Hair) on a sheep farm on the prairie. It’s hard to measure time passing in this loop and before we know, he’s the father of a newborn that mom essentially leaves him in the break-up. This closed universe also includes the strangest naturopathic doctor you’ve ever met (she attaches plant fronds to Léo like cables to check his vitals) and a cantankerous old man who blasts prog rock from vinyl in the farmhouse home he’s let slide since his wife’s death. Along with the hardly-subtle symbolism stirred through the cycle (watch out for the wolves picking off the sheep!) is explicit sexuality (no surprise to anyone familiar with Guiraudie’s films but startling to anyone else) and naked desire. I found it overly glib and indulgent and the pansexual Léo is not exactly likable but fatherhood makes him sympathetic—it’s the only thing that motivates him besides his own desires and creative blocks—and Guiraudie brings an enigmatic beauty to the physical landscapes and Léo’s spiritual transformation and a sour twist to his satire on artistic purity in a world where wolves pick off the stragglers and loners abandoned to the wilds. By the end of the film I was, if not won over, at least intrigued by the earthy poetry of Guiraudie’s direction and the mix of resignation to loss and determination to survive.

Ken Loach won the Palm d’Or for I, Daniel Blake (UK), a classic Loach social commentary on the struggles of the working classes and underclasses let down by society. This one, about a 59-year-old carpenter and widower in Newcastle recovering from a heart attack while fighting for assistance, is at once an angry assault on a bureaucracy that treats people as case numbers to be filed and shuffled on, a defiant cry for dignity and respect for the folks at the bottom of the social ladder, and a touching portrait of human compassion and contact in the cracks of the system and the queues of people lining up for government assistance. The paperwork deems Daniel (played with incredulity and dogged determination by comedian Dave Johns) fine for work (no matter that his heart surgeon forbids him from returning to work) and cuts off his disability assistance, sending him through a surreal maze with no exit. Loach sustains the grueling ordeal with a tart humor, courtesy of John’s exasperated commentary at every bureaucratic roadblock, and his outreach to a single mother newly arrived in the area and struggling to feed her two kids while her assistance is on hold. It’s not just the compassion, it’s the feeling of being useful that the system his systematically beaten down. Katie (Hayley Squires) is not the daughter he never had, she’s just someone who needs someone on her side. That’s something Daniel can provide and it gives him reason to keep plugging away.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have their own way with social realism and commentary, one that that doesn’t have Loach’s humor but is just as good at capturing the textures and rhythms of lives and often better as sketching the anxieties and conflicts within communities. The Unknown Girl (Belgium) revisits themes from earlier films—poverty in poor communities, families going paycheck to paycheck, immigrants at the bottom of the social food chain—but views them through the eyes of a young doctor (Adèle Haenel). She’s on her way out of a small neighborhood office she has been running for a retired old doctor (perhaps a mentor, certainly a friend), treating folks on assistance and government insurance, at times paying out pocket in cash, at others putting off payments, and into bigger practice with prestige, resources, and an more upscale clientele. And then she discovers that a young woman found dead nearby had knocked on her door as she was closing and she ignored her. The police have no identity for the young woman, an immigrant and probably a streetwalker, so the doctor takes the responsibility upon herself and follows the trail into outskirts of the community she’s never really experienced. This is Dardenne redux in many ways, a film shot almost entirely with handheld cameras getting a little closer to the subjects than we’re used to, measuring both the connections she has built with some patients and the distance she keeps with others. But I also appreciate how her journey is initially driven by guilt but ends up powered by compassion and a sense of responsibility. Where I, Daniel Blake ends in frustration and rage and blame at the system, The Unknown Girl suggests that we can make things better one person at a time.

Godzilla Evolution

Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla film in twelve years, stomped into the record books as Japan’s top moneymaking live-action film of 2016, and the highest grossing Godzilla film ever, but it practically snuck into American theaters last week, staking out one or two showings a day in urban multiplexes with practically no advertising and no advance screenings. American audiences sought it out and sold out showings nonetheless, inspiring stateside distributor Funimation to expand its release to more screens and showtimes.

What makes this all the more surprising is that it’s counter to everything we associate with a classic Godzilla movie. And I don’t mean the inevitable shift from suitmation (the man in a suit stomping through elaborate miniature cityscapes) to motion capture and CGI. The third Japanese reboot of the series opens with an echo of the original 1954 Godzilla, on the mystery of an abandoned boat in open water, but otherwise it wipes the slate clean and treats this as the first ever encounter with a giant creature on a tear through Tokyo. Not what you expect from a film whose title translates roughly to New Godzilla—according to the film’s executive producer Akihiro Yamauchi, “Shin” can stand for “new,” “true,” and “god”—and alternately has been called Godzilla Resurgence by Toho. As far as this film is concerned, it isn’t a return. This is first contact.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Have a Freudian Field Day with ‘Spider Baby’

Spider Baby (1967), more formally known as Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, is a magnificent film maudit of exploitation cinema, a true American independent vision, and an eccentric triumph unappreciated (and in fact largely unseen) in its own time. Think of Lord of the Flies by way ofFreaks, a mix of horror and comedy with a nod to Psycho and a dash of Freud. It’s one of the greatest blasts of B-movie creativity to get dumped into American drive-ins and grindhouses—and get rediscovered decades later in the era of home video by genre-movie mavens. (That’s how I first stumbled upon the film and fell in love with its invention and inspiration.)

This was the official directorial debut of Jack Hill, who apprenticed under Roger Corman (shooting uncredited scenes for Dementia 13 and The Terror), and went on to make his name in cult-movie circles with films including Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both starring Pam Grier, and Switchblade Sisters (1975), a girl-gang picture that Quentin Tarantino rereleased under his Rolling Thunder banner in the late 1990s.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Blu-ray: The original ‘Cat People’

catpeopleThe original 1942 Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was made on a low budget for RKO’s B-movie unit, the first in an amazing series of B-horror films from producer Val Lewton that transcended its origins. It’s a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity masquerading as a cheap exploitation knock-off. Cheap it is, but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t.

Simone Simon is a kittenish young artist from a rural Siberian village who has moved to urban America but still believes in the legends and superstitions of her homeland. Kent Smith is the generically charming American engineer who meets her in the zoo, where she obsessively sketches the black panther prowling its small cage, and they marry, but her fears prevent her from consummating the marriage. She believes that she comes from a cursed bloodline of the devil-worshippers and that any form of romantic passion will transform her into a jungle cat. That’s not exactly how the film frames it—she won’t even allow a passionate kiss out of her fear—but the film slyly makes the connection between sex (both repressed and unleashed) and horror. Smith sounds more parental than partner as he dismisses her superstitions and fears with a superiority that comes off as insensitive as best and arrogant at worst. The only transformation we see is in the character of the suddenly aggressive Simon when she becomes jealous of her husband’s coworker (Jane Randolph). Everything else is left to suggestion and imagination, using feline snarls and shadows on the wall and ingenious art direction (her apartment is filled with art featuring cats) to hint at transformation. Tom Conway is both slickly sophisticated and a little sleazy as a psychiatrist who becomes too interested in his troubled patient.

Tourneur proves to be a master of suspense and a brilliant director of poetic horror and he and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca created remarkable, evocative images on a limited budget, using light and shadow like a film noir in a dream realm. This is a landmark of psychological horror and one of the most beautiful horror films ever made.

The Blu-ray debut is mastered from a new 2K restoration and it includes some terrific supplements, including the 2008 documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows, directed by Kent Jones and narrated by Martin Scorsese. It traces the career of the cult film producer from the class productions of the David Selznick organization (where he did uncredited work on such scripts as A Tale of Two Cities and Gone With the Wind) to head a unit making low-budget horror films for RKO Studios. He was saddled with bad scripts (which, we’re told, he often rewrote without credit) and crude, exploitative titles (which he could not rewrite), and through evocative imagery, inspired lighting, a creative use of sound and suggestive set pieces he overcame low budgets and minimal resources to make such classics as  I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim. In the words of Lewton himself (voiced by actor Elisas Koteas): “We make horror films because we have to make them, and we make them for little money, and we fight every minute to make them right.” Writer/director Kent Jones fills the production with rich clips and some inspired interviews (including Japanese horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa).

Carried over from the 2005 DVD release is commentary by historian Greg Mank with archival audio interview excerpts of Simone Simon. New to the disc is an archival interview with Tourneur from 1979 and a new interview with cinematographer John Bailey, who shot the Paul Schrader remake and studied the film in preparation. The 16-minute video interview is both an appreciation of RKO studio cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (complete with a comparison to the more heralded John Alton) and a revealing discussion of his work on the film. Also includes a fold-out insert with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.

More horror Blu-ray and DVD special editions at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: Bill & Ted and World War II

fixedbayonetsSamuel Fuller writes and directs Fixed Bayonets! (Kino Classics, Blu-ray), a Korean War platoon drama set in snowy winter mountains. The small-scale production focuses on a small squad of American soldiers ordered to hold a mountain pass while their division retreats and stars Richard Basehart as Corporal Denno, a soldier who can’t bring himself to fire his rifle at the enemy and bristles at the thought of taking command, and Gene Evans as Sgt. Rock, a grizzled veteran who passes on his wisdom to Denno as senior officers are killed and he becomes the highest-ranking officer. Their only hope is to create the illusion of a much larger force hidden in the mountains and Rock has a few tricks up his sleeve. It’s the story of ordinary men rising to the occasion when the situation demands. Fuller draws on his service as a soldier in Africa and Europe in World War II to create the platoon dynamics (the squad is filled with all sorts of types) and the tactics and battle action. The entire film is shot on soundstages, with sets recreating the snow-covered mountains and forests and the caves in which the soldiers take refuge. It makes for a film small in scope and scale and more suggestive than realistic, and the artificial setting gives the film a kind of abstracted, theatrical quality that eschews sentimentality and melodrama for a blunt portrait men facing death that come suddenly and arbitrarily. James Dean is an uncredited extra but he’s hard to pick out.

Debuts on Blu-ray with commentary featuring film historian Michael Schlesinger with Christa Lang Fuller and Samantha Fuller, the widow and the daughter of Sam Fuller.

enemybelowThe Enemy Below (Kino Classics, Blu-ray), a World War II submarine drama based on the novel of the same name by Commander D. A. Rayner, stars Robert Mitchum as Captain Murrell, the newly-appointed commander of an American Destroyer in the South Atlantic, and German star Curd Jürgens making his American film debut as Commander Von Stolberg, a German submarine commander whose mission is imperiled when the American warship gives chase. Murell is not a career Navy man—he was a merchant seaman before the war—and his unconventional tactics have the crew questioning his experience, but they rally under his command and they rise to the challenge of their first major enemy action. Directed by Dick Powell in a deliberate (at times plodding) manner, the film offers its share war movie action but the focus is on the battle of wits, a kind of chess game played with torpedoes and depth charges, with the two captains attempting to outwit the other by anticipating one another’s movies. David Hedison and Theodore Bikel co-star as the respective second officers. The 1957 feature has enough distance from the war to sidestep patriotic themes to present two officers dedicated to duty with dignity and respect for their respective crews. It won an Academy Award for its special effects and inspired the 1966 Star Trek episode “Balance of Terror,” with the Starship Enterprise recreating the role of the American Destroyer and a Romulan warship playing the submarine.

Debuts on Blu-ray with no supplements.

billtedcollectionBill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection (Shout Select, Blu-ray) gives the special edition treatment to a pair of cult slacker comedies. In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are the high school underachievers and would-be rocker stars who are destined to save the world with their music, or so claims their most excellent fan from the future, a time-travelling sage named Rufus (George Carlin). But first they have to pass high school history and learn to play their instruments. Directed by Stephen Herek, this is spirited doofus comedy sustained by the sweet, slack-jawed performances of Reeves and Winter as dumbfounded idiots who stumble through time to cram for their history final with the help of a time-traveling phone booth that allows them to round up Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Beethoven, and Socrates (among others) and bring them back to suburban California. Their finest moment: a meeting of minds with Socrates (whom they call “Soh-craits”) over a soap-opera proverb. “Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”

Peter Hewitt takes the reigns for the inspired sequel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey which is even sillier and funnier. Reeves and Winter are killed by evil robot doubles and sent to hell, where they play Twister with the Grim Reaper (a hilariously deadpan William Sadler with an indeterminate accent) and draft him into their band Wyld Stallyns (where the Grim Reaper goes show-biz with a vengeance). Wacky and weird and nonsensical, it’s hardly satire but the sheer invention of their ludicrous journey will have most dudes rolling on the floor. Both are rated PG and each film features two new commentary tracks: one featuring actor Alex Winter and producer Scott Kroopf, the other with writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon

A third disc includes the new documentaries “Time Flies When You’re Having Fun! – A Look Back at a MostExcellent Adventure” (61 minutes) and “Bill and Ted Go to Hell – Revisiting a Bogus Journey” (52 minutes), both featuring new interviews with Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter and co-writer Chris Matheson, among others. Carried over from the earlier DVD edition are the 30-minute “The Most Triumphant Making-of Documentary” (with Winter, writers Matheson and Ed Solomon, directors Stephen Herek and Peter Hewitt, and producer Scott Kroopf), the 20-minute interview featurette “The Original Bill and Ted: In Conversation with Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon,” plus “Score! An Interview with Guitarist Steve Vai,” “Hysterical Personages: A History Lesson” (on the historical characters on Excellent Adventure), “The Linguistic Stylings of Bill & Ted” (on their particular slang), and an air guitar tutorial by Bjorn Turoq and the Rockness.

captive1915The Captive (1915) (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Cecil B. DeMille helped established Hollywood as the center of American filmmaking in the 1910s and long before he made his reputation with a series of salacious comedies and a selection of grandly-mounted Biblical epics, he was cranking out a dozen films a year. This is one of those films, a short feature (running under an hour) that he produced and directed in 1915 from a play he wrote with his longtime collaborator Jeanie Macpherson.

Set in Montenegro during the Baltic Wars, it features early silent movie superstar Blanche Sweet as a Balkan farm girl left to tend the family farm and raise her kid brother when her elder brother is killed in battle against the Turks. House Peters is a Turkish POW who is assigned to work her farm and defends her from invading Turkish soldiers. The simplistic drama recreates the Balkin setting in California and DeMille directs in a straightforward manner that essentially illustrates the intertitles. Blanche Sweet is charming as the plucky farm girl who teaches her captive to do laundry and plow a field and House is handsome, chivalrous, and gentlemanly, the all-American boy as Turkish aristocrat in a fez that looks as authentic as a Shriner’s cap. File it under historical curiosity, an example of the unsophisticated storytelling that was old-fashioned within a year thanks to the impact of D.W. Griffith and by DeMille’s own rapid evolution as a filmmaker.

Though the packaging claims it was thought lost, it was actually discovered in the Paramount Vault in 1970 and was subsequently preserved by the Library of Congress. Still, it’s never been on home video in any form so this is the first chance most audiences have to see the film. No supplements.

Blu-ray: Ghostbusters 2016

ghostbustersGhostbusters: Answer the Call (Sony, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, 4K Ultra HD, DVD), originally released as simply Ghostbusters (2016), is the reboot / remake / revival of the 1984 frat boy comedy starring Bill Murray as a sardonic con man in academia turned nuclear powered paranormal investigator and the most controversial film of the year, at least if you measure such things by Facebook rants and Twitter burns from arrested adolescents. Why? Because it stars four women in the roles originally played by four men. Which is apparently is blasphemy in the fanatical fringe of the church of popular culture.

It’s a hard case to make when you actually see the film, a playful romp through a haunted New York City by four extremely funny women improvising banter through a half-baked script. Falling somewhere between remake and reinvention, it takes the basic premise, tosses in a new bad guy, adds lots of CGI phantoms and the usual apocalyptic assault on NYC, and… well, that’s pretty it. Which is enjoyable enough as these things go but a little disappointing from a film that reunites filmmaker Paul Feig with collaborators Kristen Wiig (of Bridesmaids) and Melissa McCarthy (The Heat and Spy), tag-team leads who generously share the laughs in a genuine ensemble comedy. Wiig is a physicist whose tenure track is derailed when her buried ghost-obsessed past comes back to haunt her thanks to her former high school BFF McCarthy, still struggling to give her paranormal research an academic stamp of approval. Kate McKinnon is the team’s secret weapon, a maverick nuclear engineer who whips up proton packs, atomic-powered ghost traps, and other cool inventions. She’s not so much a mad scientist as a gleeful eccentric with a manic energy that comes out in sideways glances, wicked grins, and spontaneous moves that suggests she’s dancing to her own private soundtrack. Completing the team is Leslie Jones as a subway worker and amateur New York historian who provides the blue collar practicality.

There are plenty of cameos from the original film, from cast members Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts, Ernie Hudson, and Sigourney Weaver to the grinning green Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and precious few surprises. But there is one unexpected delight: Chris Hemsworth, taking a break from the regal authority of Thor, plays their bubble-headed hunk of a receptionist (aka “stripogram Clark Kent”) with the glassy-eyed abandon of a born improv comic. The big special effects set pieces lack the whimsical invention and twisted absurdity of the original film and the running jokes are tired before they hit their stride but these women have chemistry and quickly build a compelling sense of solidarity. They are a fun group to spend time with. If only they had a movie worthy of their comic potential.

The film has been rebranded Ghostbusters: Answer the Call for home video but it’s the same film, at least in the PG-13 theatrical version. An extended version with over 15 minutes of additional and extended scenes is also available on both VOD and disc.

The disc features the IMAX presentation, with the film letterboxed in the 2.39:1 widescreen format with some scenes reverting to IMAX full frame and special effects spilling out of the frame and into the black bars.

On Blu-ray and DVD with two commentary tracks (one from director Paul Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold, the other featuring editor Brent White, producer Jessie Henderson, production designer Jeff Sage, visual effects supervisor Pete Travers, and special effects supervisor Mark Hawker), the featurettes “Meet the Team,” “Visual Effects: 30 Years Later,” and “Slime Time,” and “Jokes a Plenty: Free For All,” and a collection of alternate improvisational takes (what was called “Line-o-rama” in Judd Apatow disc releases).

The Blu-ray editions add two additional featurettes (including a spotlight on Chris Hemsworth’s improvisations as Kevin), collections of deleted scenes and extended and alternate scenes, and the obligatory gag reel, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film (which also includes extended and alternate scenes).

Ghostbusters [DVD]
Ghostbusters [Blu-ray]
Ghostbusters [4K UHD/3D Blu-ray]

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Blu-ray: X-Men Apocalypse

xmenapocX-Men Apocalypse (Fox, Blu-ray, 4K HD, DVD, VOD), the sixth in the official X-Men big screen franchise (the ninth if you count the Wolverine and Deadpool spin-offs) and the third film in the prequel trilogy, is cut to fit into the big screen mythos as carved out of the source comics by director Bryan Singer. He directed the first two films in the series and now, following his time travel-based X-Men: Days of Future Past, he wraps the series with another end-of-the-world battle. The villain this time is an ancient mutant, a big blue baddie from ancient Egypt played by Oscar Isaac. He fancies himself a god and, after being roused from a nearly 6,000 year hibernation, decides to raze civilization and start over with the survivors. You know, Darwinism as a global reset.

We jump from his backstory, an extended prologue that looks like a CGI version of an Egyptian epic, to 1983. It’s ten years after the end of Days of Future Past and we begin again introducing and/or reintroducing what seems like dozens of characters destined to line up behind either Apocalypse, who goes in a recruiting drive for his Four Horsemen, or Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), the telepath who runs the covert mutant academy called the School for Gifted Children and believes that man and mutant can co-exist peacefully. Frenemy and future nemesis Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), sides with Apocalypse (in every sense of the term) after his experiment with co-existence ends with, once again, his family killed in front of his eyes.

His is merely the most dramatic of tragic pasts and traumatic events that define the dramatis personae, which include the young versions of future X-Men leaders Jean Grey (Sophie Turner of Game of Thrones, bringing conviction to a role that largely calls upon her to look tortured and intense while projecting psychic powers) and Scott Summers, aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), the man with the laser eyes. There are also young versions of Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), new characters like Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Angel (Ben Hardy; we’ll pretend that The Last Stand isn’t part of the X-legacy), and best of all a return visit from Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Peters brings a playfulness to the role and contributes the wittiest and most enjoyable action scene in the film, a supersonic rescue mission speeding through a slow-motion explosion. And it’s surely no secret anymore that Hugh Jackman makes a startling cameo as Wolverine in a scene that plugs right in to his own elaborate history.

It’s overloaded, to say the least, but if it gets a little clumsy at times and leaves potentially fascinating characters neglected (Storm and Psylocke are particularly underserved), it’s still kind of impressive how much information screenwriter Simon Kinberg (who plotted the original story with Singer and others) crams in with the spectacle of the 143-minute film. Singer’s direction brings out character beats and suggests relationships in the heat of action and he adds touches of humor and humanity throughout, which helps add texture to the increasingly familiar spectacle of CGI-assisted battleground demolition and battles of superpowered figures.

In this sea of cool costumes, colorful powers, and epic destruction, Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence (as Mystique / Raven, the face of mutant liberation on a one-woman campaign to save her people from human oppression and exploitation) bring some much-needed gravitas and grounding. They suggest strength and power even before the digital effects and stuntwork are unleashed. Isaac, buried under enough make-up to make him unrecognizable, doesn’t fare so well but he makes a credible villain by virtue of his commitment to his stony confidence and absolute belief in his divine right.

Like the Avengers movies, the X-Men films don’t really work outside of the franchise—there’s too much character history woven through story for it to stand alone—and the visual overload of so many characters buzzing through the chaos is better suited to the big screen than the home screen. But as the final piece in the self-contained screen mythology of the X-Men, it’s quite satisfying, even with the timeline adjustments (time travel twists are so forgiving!). It surely won’t be the last X-Men film but it’s likely the last to feature star players Lawrence, Fassbender, and McAvoy. Expect the next generation of young heroes introduced here to lead the next chapters.

Rated PG-13

On Blu-ray and DVD, with filmmaker commentary, a gag reel, and a gallery of stills. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the hour-long documentary “X-Men: Apocalypse Unearthed,” deleted and extended scenes, and a wrap party video.

X-Men: Apocalypse [DVD]
X-Men: Apocalypse [Blu-ray]
X-men: Apocalypse [Blu-ray 3D]

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Blu-ray/DVD: Olive Signature editions of ‘Johnny Guitar’ and ‘High Noon’

johnnyguitarJohnny Guitar: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Joan Crawford’s Vienna is the most masculine of women western heroes. A former saloon girl who earned her way to owning her own gambling house, she’s a mature woman with a history and she’s not ashamed of what she did to carve out her claim for a future.

Directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as frontier entrepreneurs in a war of wills, the 1954 Johnny Guitar is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter. It’s dense with psychological thickets and political reverberations (including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood), designed with color both expressive and explosive, and directed with the grace of a symphony and the drama of an opera.

Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a lanky, affable cowboy who wanders into Vienna’s saloon in the opening minutes and serves as witness to the dramas bubbling up in this frontier community in the hills. But his acts of heroism aside, he’s the equivalent of the stalwart girlfriend watching the showdown between Vienna and the Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). She’s the town banker and moral arbiter whose power is threatened by Vienna (her saloon is built on the site of the railway line) and whose shameful desire for a bad boy miner (Scott Brady) flares up into vengeance against Crawford, the object of his desire.

The film’s dynamic first act occurs almost entirely within the confines of the gaming room of her saloon, with characters arriving, engaging, and exiting in dramatically timely fashion, but the effect is anything but stagebound or theatrical. Ray directs the rise and fall of the drama and the interplay and evolution of stories like a symphony, a sustained piece with themes and movements that builds to the climactic kiss between Vienna and Johnny and one of the greatest lyrics ever spoken in a western: “Lie to me. Tell me you love me.”

This is a clash of wills that erupts in fire and destruction with the two players taking on roles out of a modern myth. Emma, leading a lynch mob while still in a black mourning dress, confronts Vienna, clad in a soft, white, elegant gown while playing the saloon’s piano: the dark, angry fairy tale witch taking on the innocent heroine, though Vienna is anything but innocent. And when Vienna sets the place on fire and practically dances in triumph, a black figure against the bright flames, she’s the wicked witch incarnate, but symbolism aside, the scene burns deep and hot with rage and revenge unleashed.

Jean-Luc Godard once made the claim that “Nicholas Ray is cinema.” Johnny Guitar is evidence to support his case.

Joan Crawford as Vienna in 'Johnny Guitar'
Joan Crawford as Vienna in ‘Johnny Guitar’

Olive gave the film its DVD and Blu-ray debut a few years ago. Now it gets the deluxe treatment in a new 4K restoration and it looks amazing. The saturation of the color (and this is a film where the reds and yellows of the costumes explode from the screen) is intense and the image has magnificent a sharpness and clarity. And the film finally is released in its original aspect ratio.

New to this edition is commentary by film critic and scholar Geoff Andrew, the featurettes “Johnny Guitar: A Western Like No Other” (18 minutes) and “Johnny Guitar: A Feminist Western?” (15 minutes) with critics Miriam Bale, Kent Jones, Joe McElhaney, and B. Ruby Rich, “Tell Us Was She One of You: The Hollywood Blacklist and Johnny Guitar” with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (11 minutes), “Free Republic: Herbert J. Yates and the Story of Republic Pictures” with archivist Marc Wanamaker (6 minutes), and ” My Friend, the American Friend” with Tom Farrell and Chris Sievernich discussing Nicholas Ray (12 minutes). Carried over from the previous release is a short video introduction by Martin Scorsese, which was recorded for the film’s VHS release last century. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

highnoonHigh Noon: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – One of the westerns considered part of the canon of American greats, High Noon (1955) has been called an old-fashioned celebration of courage and responsibility in the face of impossible odds, an ironic dissection of the western myth, and a blast of moral outrage at the silence and passivity of American citizens. Howard Hawks claimed this film inspired him to make Rio Bravo, because he couldn’t fathom a sheriff who went around begging for help. There’s so much loaded weight attached to the film (from famously right-wing lead Gary Cooper to famously liberal screenwriter Carl Foreman, who was blacklisted by Hollywood) that it can overwhelm what is essentially a lean, dusty western classic set to the real time of a ticking clock, counting down the minutes until a gang of killers ride in looking for revenge on Sheriff Cooper.

Grace Kelly plays Cooper’s Quaker bride, anxious for him to set aside all thoughts of violence on this their wedding day, and Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney, Henry Morgan, Lee Van Cleef, and Katy Jurardo co-star. Fred Zinneman directs for producer Stanley Kramer, and Tex Ritter sings the legendary theme song: “Do not forsake me, oh my darling.”

New to this edition are the featurettes “A Ticking Clock” with film editor Mark Goldblatt (6 minutes), “A Stanley Kramer Production” with filmmaker and film historian Michael Schlesinger (14 minutes), “Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon” with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (10 minutes), and he visual essay “Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of High Noon” narrated by Anton Yelchin (12 minutes). The accompanying booklet features an essay by Nick James.

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘The Dekalog’ from Criterion

dekalogThe Dekalog (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Krzysztof Kieslowski is best known for his lush, plush art-house Three Colors trilogy, a celebration of grand emotions from beautiful people, but the The Dekalog (1989), an ambitions ten-part project made for Polish TV, is arguably his masterwork: a delicate, intimate epic of tragedy and triumph among the emotionally battered proletariat of a dreary brutalist apartment complex in Warsaw. The ten stories inspired by the Ten Commandments and loosely connected by place and time are not Sunday School fables illustrating simplistic moral lessons—the connections to the individual Commandments are not always obvious—but powerful, profound stories of love and loss, faith and fear. Each hour long drama, which Kieslowski wrote with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, stands on its own as a fully conceived film

Dekalog: One explores the awakening of a young prodigy’s spiritual curiosity as he explores a new computer and starts asking the hard questions of life from his rationalist father and religious aunt. Kieslowski paints a loving, nurturing family portrait in the episode, only to shatter the peace with tragedy. In Dekalog: Two a married woman pregnant by her lover is tortured by a life-shattering decision. As her husband lays dying in the hospital, she vows to abort the child to protect her marriage if he lives, and his doctor realizes his prognosis will decide the life or death of an unborn child. These are among the most moving of Kieslowski’s tales and they form a beautiful complementary pair as they address issues of faith and spirituality more directly than any of the following episodes. Haunting images (wax drips onto a portrait of the Madonna like tears running down her cheek in Dekalog: One) express the emotions locked under the hard faces of scarred characters, until the feelings well up in profound conclusions that resonate with the passion and loss inherent in the magic of everyday life.

The next two make an even more elusive, ethereal pair. Dekalog: Three is a kind of road trip to the heart as a woman tracks down her former lover, now a married family man with a child, and pleads with him to help her find her missing husband on Christmas Eve. In Dekalog: Four the tender emotional balance between a widowed father and his grown daughter is upended when she opens a letter from her deceased mother and learns a secret that she always suspected. Curiously both hinge on lies which unbalance and upset established relationships and confessions which bring things back to a new course, stable but forever changed. These intimate stories are tender, conversation laden cameos, lovely little miniatures nestled among the more ambitious episodes of the series. Though modest in scope, Kieslowski invests each of these stories with rich emotional life as he explores the loneliness of a single woman during the holidays, a loving father’s fear of abandonment, and the confused feelings of a young adult. His sympathy buoys each resolution with a warm understanding.

The faith of a young lawyer is shaken in Dekalog: Five when he defends a man for the violent murder of a taxi-driver. It’s a provocative attempt to reconcile the gap between murder and state sanctioned execution and Kieslowski pulls no punches on either side: the murder scene is excruciating in its relentless intensity. But as he looks through the eyes of the troubled attorney who suffers a crisis in faith, the film turns inward and becomes contemplative and personal. This is no anti-Capital Punishment screed but an examination of the meaning of justice itself. Dekalog: Six is a touching and troubling story of a young, emotionally unstable postal worker who becomes obsessed with a promiscuous older woman. He steals her mail and peeps through her apartment window with a telescope, but when she returns the gaze the one way relationship becomes much more complicated. Kieslowski gets under the skin of both characters as she confronts the boy and shames him with loveless sex, and they come out the other end of the tale as humbled humans who take a harder look at themselves and a sympathetic second look each other. Both were expanded into feature-length films and released to theaters (also included in this set) but these hour-long versions stand on their own as the most potent episodes of the series.

In Dekalog: Seven Kieslowski turns “Thou shalt not steal” into the devastating story of the theft of a mother’s love and the emotional wounds left in its wake. Majka, a willowy young woman devastated by sadness, kidnaps her young sister Ania to set things straight in her charade of a life. The girl is in fact her daughter, raised by Majka’s mother Ewa to avoid scandal, but Ewa has jealously hoarded the affection of the little one, walling the real mother off from her daughter’s love. Kieslowski has never shied from painting the brutish colors of human nature, but echoing beneath the hurt and anger and selfishness of the blindly selfish Ewa and vindictive Majka is a desperate cry for love and affection. Another contentious relationship is explored in Dekalog: Eight, the story of a holocaust survivor who confronts the woman (now a renowned professor of ethics) who refused her shelter when she was young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in 1943 Poland. The potentially explosive issue is dealt with in direct terms, but it’s the undercurrent of faith questioned and regained that gives the episode it’s resonant beauty.

Potential shouting matches and melodramatic confrontations are quietly transformed into aching moments of emotional nakedness and painful honesty in Dekalog: Nine, a study in obsession. An impotent surgeon encourages his wife to take a lover but almost immediately becomes consumed with jealousy and suspicion, secretly monitoring her calls and shadowing her movements until he becomes paralyzed with inaction while spying on her with her callow young lover. The story of mature love seemingly doomed by noble sacrifices and protective lies and complicated by crossed signals and missed connections is capped with beautifully hushed conclusion. Dekalog: Ten is the closest Kieslowski comes to lighthearted comedy: The episode opens with a punk singer belting out a song poking fun at the Ten Commandments. The vocalist (Zbigniew Zamachowski, who Kieslowski later cast as the hapless street musician hero of White) reunites with his conservative brother over the death of their father when they discover that he’s left them a priceless stamp collection. The plot turns on a con game but Kieslowski centers the film on the brothers’ emotional journey through sacrifice, suspicion, and loss until, when all looks bleakest, they find within themselves a sense of hope and family connection. Kieslowski leaves us with humor and ends the series on a quiet, modest, lovely grace note endowed with hope.

Dekalog: Eight becomes a kind of crossroads that directly touches on other episodes of the series—an ethical problem posed in the professor’s university class is taken from Dekalog: Two and a neighboring stamp collector is the absent father buried at the opening of Dekalog: Ten—but it’s only the most obvious of the connection. Characters pass through other stories, sometimes only briefly, and themes reverberate through the series. Kieslowski explores ordinary people flailing through inner torments, hard decisions, and shattering revelations in close-up, grounding his stories in the faces of his deeply human characters. It’s ultimately a personal spiritual investigation into the soul of man and that hasn’t any answers, except perhaps a plea for compassion and understanding.

The set presents the new 4K digital restoration, mastered from the original 35mm camera negatives, presented in a theatrical revival earlier this year. It also includes A Short Film About Killing (1988) and A Short Film About Love (1988), the feature-length version of episodes Five and Six. More than simply expanded editions, they reconsider the stories with not just additional footage, but in some cases alternate footage.

Also includes a 30-minute featurette on the visual rhyming through the series by film studies professor Annette Insdorf, a gallery of archival interviews with director Krzysztof Kieślowski, and new and archival interviews with Dekalog cast and crew, including co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, thirteen actors, three cinematographers, editor Ewa Smal, and Kieślowski’s confidante Hanna Krall, plus a booklet featuring an essay and film analyses by film scholar Paul Coates and excerpted reprints from Kieślowski on Kieślowski.

Blu-ray/DVD: The Neon Demon

neondemonThe Neon Demon (Broadgreen, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.” We first meet Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old girl from Middle America looking to leverage her youth and innocent beauty into a modeling career in Los Angeles, made up as a glamorous victim of a decadent world. Sprawled out in designer clothes across an expensive couch with fake blood slathered across her neck and dripping down her arm, she could be shooting the ad for her own fate in the big bad city.

Nicholas Winding Refn, who wrote and directed his social commentary-as-heady horror film, isn’t big on subtlety. Elle Fanning is an enormously talented young actress who has become shorthand casting for innocence, youth, and authenticity, and that serves Refn’s purposes perfectly. She does indeed have that “deer in the headlights” look, as her agent says in one of the on-the-nose lines that fills the script, and her fresh look, not yet jaded by LA decadence, makes her the next big thing in a culture where the supermodels du jour age out of their prime at 20.

This is LA as a culture of predators and prey. On one of her first nights in the city, staying in a seedy motel (run by a thuggish, intimidating Keanu Reeves) that is home to drop-outs and runaways, there’s an intruder in the her room. Not a person but a cougar that has already sniffed out the fresh meat in town. Put another way, Jesse is the delicate angelfish swimming in a pool of sharks but she learns quickly. Two hardened, competitive models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) size her up as the competition immediately at some industry soiree and begin immediately with the head games. A freelance make-up artist (Jena Malone) takes her under her wing but is it sisterly concern or something else? Malone is a seemingly warm, normal, human connection in a culture of surfaces and attitudes, but when we drop in at her day job styling corpses at a funeral home her whole nature is tossed into question when she uses her subjects as sex dolls. She’s an artist who wants to possess her creations. Heathcoate is perfectly feral as the cutthroat superstar model who plays mindgames with the competition while Abbey Lee, a real-life modeling veteran, brings out an ambiguous mix of hunger, loss, desperation, and opportunism as she loses jobs to Jesse, who starts to become as brittle and self-absorbed as the rest of the walkway meat market.

The Neon Demon was booed at Cannes and almost universally panned by critics that saw the film as vapid or shallow, but then that’s taking it all at face value. Beauty is the beast in this a horror film as fashion layout. Refn’s stripped down production design and eighties neon visuals are accompanied by synth soundtracks and dance club sounds, but the film is also filled with images of fertility, lunar cycles, hedonism, and occult symbols. What begins as an allegory for the hunger for youth and beauty with the modeling / show business industry as a form of vampirism becomes absurdly literal, channeling cannibalism and Countess Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins. I don’t see it as failed social satire, as its critics claim, but as a more primal portrait of the obsession for youth and beauty and the drive to control, dominate, package, own, and ultimately devour it. Jesse is the latest sacrifice to the gods of success and desire and power in NWR’s monogrammed photo shoot. And even if you don’t go with Refn’s predatory allegory, you can simply luxuriate in the glorious images and mad imagination of the modeling industry as sacrificial altar. This is style as substance and it is delicious.

Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn and actress Elle Fanning and the featurettes “About Neon Demon” and “Behind the Soundtrack of The Neon Demon.”

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