April midpoint movie roundup

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The first couple of weeks in April found me re-watching some films I had already seen (accidentally in one instance) including the Bourne series. I also watched some stuff that was new to me including Tenet which I decided deserved a separate ramble. Here’s the rest, starting with the new stuff:

The Neon Demon (2016) is probably the best film I’ve seen so far this month simply because it’s so different from anything I’ve seen in a long time (although it did have me making mental comparisons to Mulholland Drive – see later). There will be spoilers below, so please don’t read on if you want to avoid them. Nicolas Winding Refn, perhaps better known for his work with Ryan Gosling, directed and co-wrote this story of Jesse (The Great‘s Elle Fanning) a young model making her name for herself in the vicious fashion world of Los Angeles.

The film has a dream-like quality to it with lots of use of colour and lighting effects and lingering close-ups of Fanning. Keanu Reeves and Madmen’s Christina Hendricks have very small parts in the film but it’s mostly centred on Fanning and the models, designers and photographers she encounters. Plus a makeup artist Ruby (Sucker Punch‘s Jena Malone) who also does the makeup on dead bodies at a funeral home. The atmosphere throughout the film is unnerving and full of symbolism, but it’s perhaps not until a model tries to lick the blood from Jesse’s cut hand that you realise this might turn out to be a horror film.

Sure enough, by the end of the film Ruby has had sex with a corpse, bathed in blood and worshipped the moon. She tells Jesse that she doesn’t ‘live’ in the mansion (a location also used in Scream 3 apparently) she has told Jesse to come to and immediately I perk up because I’m currently drafting a vampire novella. There’s a creepy looking bed and some cannibalism too, but the worst scene was actually Jesse listening in on the girl in the motel room next to her being raped and/or killed. For me it was the soundtrack and the visuals that will stick with me longer than the story, but as modern fairy tales go it’s a corker. However, it’s certainly not family- or perhaps even girlfriend-friendly.

The Princess and the Frog (2009) is a two-dimensional animation with some songs done in a traditional Disney style and at the opposite end of the spectrum of fairy-tales compared to The Neon Demon. In The Princess and the Frog a waitress (Anika Noni Rose) works hard in New Orleans to save up the money to fulfil her dream. Desperate to become a restaurateur, ends up being transformed into a frog by a prince (Bruno Campos) who has already been turned into a frog by a voodoo man. She thinks the prince has the money to help her set up the restaurant, but in fact he has come to America in search of a woman with money.

The prince is a bit of a louse throughout the film but predictably mends his ways very late in the story. The film seems to have been made just before Disney realised that they could pay top-billed actors to do the voices. That said, Jennifer Cody is excellent as the waitress’s monied friend Charlotte La Bouff, John Goodman phones it in as her dad, and Oprah plays the waitress’s mom.

Spies in Disguise (2019) is a fun kids movie about Lance (Will Smith), a spy at the top of his game, buddying up with young nerdy gadget designer Walter (Tom Holland) to clear his name after being framed for stealing an assassination drone by the bad guy Killian (Ben Mendelsohn). The animation is 3-D CG and looks great.

The twist to the story is that, as well as inventing various non-lethal family-friendly Disney-approved incapacitation devices, Walter has concocted what is essentially a magic potion that turns Lance into a pigeon. It’s a pretty funny movie with some excellent animation and colourful effects.

The Third Man (1949) has been touted as the best British film ever made and was given a 4k restoration a few years ago. Directed by Carol Reed and starring Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli and Orson Welles, it’s a noir thriller based on the book of the same title by Graham Greene. Rollo Martins (Cotton), a pulp novelist, arrives penniless in post-war Vienna, a ‘smashed dreary city’ occupied by the 4 Allied powers, to visit his friend Harry Lime (Welles). But Harry has been killed in a car accident, leaving behind his Czech girlfriend Anna (Valli) with fake papers and suspicious policemen. Please don’t read on if you intend to watch the film as there are spoilers below.

Martins smells a rat almost immediately and is drawn into a web of mystery which will challenge his views of his much-loved friend Lime. Lime it transpires has been involved in some very shady dealings and has staged his own death to avoid the law with a total disregard for Anna’s future. The camera work and staging is ahead of its time, but I was somewhat disappointed by Orson Welles’s very short total time on screen. The restoration is very good for the age of the film with only a few scenes coming across as badly grained beyond the effects of the film stock. I suppose the closest film to this is Kenneth More version of The 39 Steps from 1959. I don’t know if either is the best British film ever made, that might go to an Ealing comedy imo.

Zootropolis (2016) is a funny and nice looking animation based on the lives of some anthropomorphic animals. The film, available on Disney Plus, is also known as Zootopia in many parts of the world, and was the accidental re-watch. I’m not sure I saw the first part of the film previously for some reason and so it took me a while to realise that I had seen it before. Based on Siggy’s noises of denial, it must be that we watched it one Christmas with her family when it was on TV perhaps and she fell asleep. I enjoyed the first part of the film more than the bits I’d already seen and resorted to getting on with a jigsaw while it came to a conclusion.

A police-rabbit teams up with a wheeler-dealer fox to get to the bottom of a series of bizarre murders. They travel through various zones on the metropolis in the course of their investigations and unearth a dastardly plot to genetic alter carnivores back to their primal instincts and disrupting the unnatural order of things where lions lay down with lambs. It’s a rather convoluted story with a message for kids (and perhaps their parents too) that everyone just needs to work together and celebrate the differences in people. Quite why the tigers, leopards and foxes aren’t tearing the lambs and rabbits to bloody shreds at the top of the story isn’t really explained – but then they talk, wear clothes and drive cars, so let’s not overthink it…

Mulholland Drive (2001) was the first of my repeat viewings. It’s a typically strange David Lynch film about a woman ‘Rita’ with amnesia (Laura Harring) who has been in a car crash and a naïve actress Betty (Naomi Watts) fresh to L.A. It had been so long since I last saw the film that my only memory of it was that there was a lesbian element to it. Yes sorry to say that’s the way my brain works sometimes.

It’s a fascinating neo-noir film and one of Lynch’s best. He typically refuses to explain the story in interviews and there’s been a lot written about it since its release. My interpretation is that the bulk of what we see in the film takes place in Betty’s imagination/dreams as she is high on drugs and suffering from depression after failing as an actor and losing the attentions of her one-time mentor and lover ‘Rita’ who is actually an established Hollywood actor. Some of the characters she encounters are simply metaphors for dangerous machine of Hollywood.

Watts, who was ready to pack up and go home after finishing filming (but persuaded to stay by Nicole Kidman) is outstanding in this film. To begin with her performance looks dreadful but this is because the story exists in a hyper-real version of reality where her innocence and joy is amplified. When she engages her true acting chops, in a scene where Betty is doing a seedy feeling audition, she is very impressive. Then what we’ve come to expect from Watts shines through in the gritter ‘realer’ scenes toward the end of the film where at least one veil is lifted by Lynch. Performances by other actors are quite wooden (as they generally are in Lynch’s films) and that sadly includes Justin Theroux, as a golf club wielding director manipulated by the mob in his choice of lead actor, despite getting (or ad-libbing) some of the best lines.

Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut (2007) is a 213-minute attempt by Oliver Stone to polish his 2004 movie into a epic shape to rival the likes of Spartacus and Ben Hur complete with an intermission. In terms of the sheer amount of historical inaccuracies he’s done a really good job of emulating the farcical Golden Age epics, from the size of the horses, the time-travelling lighthouse at Alexandria, who lived/died where and when etc. etc.

There’s also the predominantly British cast’s mostly Irish accents and Angelina Joile’s Russian accent to contend with. There’s a lot of familiar faces from Game of Thrones among them. It’s a hot mess and I’m not at all surprised that this ‘Final’ cut, which followed a shorter Director’s Cut, was followed a few years later by an ‘Ultimate’ cut (in which Stone took some stuff back out) giving us three different attempts to get the edit right after the initial theatrical release.

I enjoyed it from the point of view of just watching and digesting a massive quantity of movie. I like movies (you might have noticed) and to be able to chow down on something so bountiful was great. There’s no logic to the opening battle sequence but it works better at the start of the film and the homoerotic interplay between Colin Farrell in the titular role and Jared Leto (the star of the whole thing imo) as Hephaistion is captivating. I also didn’t remember that Rosario Dawson is in very good form as Alexander’s ‘barbarian’ wife Roxane.

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