Sunday, December 17, 2017

I Keep Getting Reminded of The Neon Demon (2016) and I Keep Getting Angry

Still Frame from The Neon Demon IMDB page

The scene is set: a young girl, all dolled up lays glassy-eyed and covered in fake blood. The camera pulls out on her posed-but-broken looking body. We are at a photoshoot, where the model is creating a scene of beauty and allure, all while looking as if she is dead. This is a trend I never understood in fashion shoots, the "drop dead gorgeous" scheme as I like to call it. But I guess so long as a woman still looks good regardless of her current state of life, her body can still be used for enjoyment, right? Hmmm... And so I pushed through and watched The Neon Demon (2016), which ended up being one of the worst movies I've seen in a long time. Well alright, maybe "worst" isn't the right word, but it was definitely the most disappointing and irritating. Because here's the thing: there was potential and setup for some good commentary in this movie! All the ingredients were there, but it went in the direction of nothing more than a gratuitous and seemingly self-satisfied mess in my opinion. And since I keep having reminders of this movie come up, I decided to get my thoughts out about it.

The Neon Demon is a film written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Elle Fanning as Jesse, an aspiring young model who moves to Los Angeles to pursue her career, where she learns just how ruthless this world can be as she rises in the ranks to the scorn of others. The cast is rounded out with the likes of Jenna Malone as Ruby, a makeup artist with an obsession with Jesse, Abby Lee and Bella Heathcote as rival models who know the ropes of the industry, and Keanu Reeves as a seedy motel owner where Jesse is staying. Christina Hendricks also makes a brief appearance as a modelling agent that has interest in Jesse. Overall, it's a capable cast that turns out good performances with what material they are given, but the stand-out for me was Jenna Malone, who is incredibly talented and honestly deserves better than what she tends to get as an actress (more on that later). But for now I will throw out a warning about major spoilers for the film in the rest of my post.

Here's what I was liking about the movie before it started to disappoint: the basic premise had a lot of potential to explore a lot of topics about the nature of the fashion and modeling industry, women as objects, beauty as a commodity, etc. And it does touch on some of these subjects. Notable scenes include those where people have an inkling that Jesse is lying about her age (she is only 16 and shouldn't be able to work without parental consent) but choose to look the other way and still utilize her in sexualized ways, highlighting our obsession with youth and indeed sexualizing girls at younger and younger ages. There is also a scene where Christina Hendrick's character takes one look at a girl in her office and sends her away after making such a snap judgement on her worth based on how she looks, which is a subject that far too many women are aware of: being thought worthless if they are not beautiful in a particular way. There is a scene where a photographer chooses to have a closed set with Jesse posing naked for just him as one of her first jobs, in order for her to work with such an acclaimed photographer, reminding me of all those coming forward now with allegations of sexual assault that thought they had to put themselves in these uncomfortable situations where they are taken advantage of in order to further their careers. There is even a scene where the models at a casting call walk around in their underwear, and they are solely judged on how they look as objects in the eyes of the one man in the room, and are completely disposable. Now, this last one is framed in such a way that I feel the message is getting across: we see the vulnerability of Abby Lee's character, Sarah, as she begins so confident having worked with this designer before, only to be torn down when that which she has to offer is not even looked at and passed on for something new. There is a lot of focus on the face of the designer choosing the models, so it doesn't seem like the intent of this scene is just to leer at young skinny girls parading around in their underwear. I am always highly suspicious of these decisions in movies, and this one could have easily fallen into nothing more than some lingering male gazes (it almost does) but having such a focus on the actual gazing itself happening leads me to see that there was indeed an intention and discussion starting to be made here.

But as soon as these topics started coming up and I became more intrigued, the rug got pulled out from under me in favour of focusing on a hammy and unsubtle "message" for the film. Because what is this film really trying to say? That it's a girl-eat-girl world in the fashion industry. How do I know? Well, because a couple of jealous models literally eat Jesse, that's how. Oh, and because the synopsis on states: "When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has" (emphasis mine). With so many avenues and even scenes within the movie itself set up to say so much more about society, beauty, and gender, that's the overall message you go with? That women will devour each other in order to be successful, while hardly touching on how our competitiveness as females is derived from our larger society and how we are deemed as worthy within it? The film doesn't even present it's message in a clever way, it's an annoying and ham-fisted metaphor through and through, despite an air about it that seems to think that it's being very clever about what it's saying.

Speaking of ham-fisted: the dialogue. The dialogue is sparse, but that which is present is a bit over-the-top. There's a whole scene where the models discuss how lipstick colours are either named after food or sex, and that this also relates to life, asking Jesse if she herself is more food or more sex. It's so corny, and yet could have been such a great segue into the topic of consumption of women like products to buy. Yet instead, it literally just translates from the very beginning into her being yearned after for sex by men and Ruby, but ultimately being literal food for the other models. There is also some hammy monologue that Jesse goes on at the end, seemingly out of nowhere about how her mom always said she was a "dangerous girl" because she knows how she looks and how people look at her. This character shift almost seems to come out of nowhere as if the writers really just wanted to throw this dialogue in and show what a femme-fatal she is, even though it amounts to nothing and doesn't really align with how her character has acted so far: if you want to show how this industry and living here has changed her, there needs to be some development, not just out-of-the-blue right at the end when it doesn't even matter anymore.

Also in terms of the dialogue, Nicolas Winding Refn does have a certain stylistic way about him, that some audiences love while others hate. I know that Drive (2011) was pretty divisive between critics and general audiences, though I personally thought it was pretty interesting. One thing about this movie, though, was the way in which there were long spaces in the dialogue and prompted by the direction that felt a little awkward, but it really suited the relationships in the film. The same thing happens in The Neon Demon, but here it feels super unnatural. Someone will ask a question and it will go unanswered in an awkward space of time for far too long; it was excruciating and no real human being speaks like that, making it feel so weirdly put-on. And not only was the dialogue drawn out, but other sequences as well. These include scenes such as Jesse being painted by a photographer or walking down the runway in strobing lights. Such scenes were all clearly there for visual gratification, and they were indeed quite neat looking, but ultimately went on far longer than needed to appreciate this artistry.

It honestly felt like there wasn't enough in the plot that all these things had to be dragged on for more time than necessary, otherwise there wouldn't be a full run-time for the movie: dramatic pauses between sentences took up a good half hour or more of the time, I swear (not that I was timing them). And not only that, but there were scenes that felt completely unnecessary, as if they were added in an attempt to make the plot and overall situation more complex, but ultimately got forgotten about or didn't really matter in the end. This is most notably seen in any interactions with Keanu Reeve's character, Hank, who runs the motel Jesse is living in as she begins her life in Los Angeles. There is an incident with a cougar getting in the building, which I'm sure is a metaphor for something but I didn't get it. Jesse also has a dream about Hank putting a knife down her throat during the night, but again I don't know what this was supposed to mean given how everything plays out. Finally, Jesse leaves the motel to stay with Ruby one night after hearing what sounds like Hank killing a guest next door, but I really don't know what the purpose of this was despite showing some fear of violence in Jesse, which is a theme all too common in many movies, just watching the young girl hide and whimper. But there were many other reasons that could have been used to have Jesse staying with Ruby, so that whole bit felt very forced and purposeless, again given how everything played out in the end. Which is a shame because I love Keanu Reeves and he could have been given more to work with here, or his character could have had a bigger thematic purpose. But alas, twas not the case.

Finally,-- and this is the big one-- the reason I think this movie bothered me so much was the gratuitousness and seeming self-satisfaction of it all. There was so much going on that felt really unnecessary, but that the creators specifically wanted to include just to be able to see it play out: a feeling of "look how artistic and clever I am with this gruesomeness" which ultimately isn't that clever nor does the payoff seem worth it in the end. I feel this a lot especially when it comes to nudity of women (young women, in particular) and ask if it's really purposeful to have these bodies exposed or is it just for the kicks and leering of the male creators/audience? The "reasons" for these things to happen often seem so cheap and like throwaway lines too, so as I said before, I am always suspicious of things like this getting added to movies. And even here, I mentioned how the casting call for models seemed more focused on viewing the male-gaze itself rather than the women, but those actresses and models were still subject to walk around almost naked on set and filmed as such all day. It's not that I outright disagree with nudity in film, but I do question the choices at times and the true intent behind them.

I am thinking about these things in particular right now, as just two days ago I read Salma Hayek's account of her dealings with Harvey Weinstein, which highlight the trials of coming to make the movie Frida (2002). Hayek claims that the movie about the iconic Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, was almost shut down as Weinstein didn't think her unibrow was sexy (despite being pretty iconic to the historic figure) and pushed to have the inclusion of a sex scene that was not originally in the script: leading up to this, Hayek recounts incidents where Weinstein attempted to get her into the shower for him to watch, so now, this insisting that this sex scene occur with her nude in order to get this movie made --that she had worked on for years-- really seems like just another plot to get her naked no matter what, despite her established refusals to do so in private. It makes you wonder about a lot of other movies too, and what the actors/actresses were forced to do or show in them. I think this series of tweets from user Alan Scherstuhl sums up my feelings on this subject nicely:

Now, this isn't per say jus about nudity, but including things and making actors/actresses perform them when not exactly necessary, or making these bits go on for far too long-- think: the almost 10-minute sex scene in Blue is the Warmest Color (2013). There are things that seem really gratuitous in a lot of films and movies nowadays that just feel like the creator wanted to see them play out in front of them like some weird fantasy, all while pretending that there is some nonexistent "message" or "reason" behind the whole thing. And this brings me to Jenna Malone in The Neon Demon:

Jenna Malone is a very capable actress who I see show up in projects from time to time, but given her skill, I honestly want so much more for her. She's great in everything she is in, even if the role ends up being small (think of her minor supporting role in The Hunger Games trilogy). But here, while the role of Ruby could have been very interesting, the way the story and direction went made me feel uncomfortable for her and what she was required to do for this part that ultimately boiled down to a "predatory lesbian" trope. For example near the end of the movie there is a scene where she is outside washing blood off the sidewalk and watering plants, etc, and she is wandering around shirtless. Why? It's the nudity thing again, there hadn't been anything too much up until this point so you had to include some breast somewhere, right? 

But the most awful part of this movie for me was one scene in particular that involved her working on the makeup of a corpse for a funeral: while doing this job, Ruby starts thinking of Jesse, climbs on top of the corpse, spits in its mouth, kisses it, and masterbates on top of it. Imagine writing that and wanting an actress to act this part out. Imagine wanting to see that being acted out in front of you time and time again, and then later on film. Yeah, I get that it's supposed to make audiences uncomfortable (Or is it? What kind of necrophilia fantasy such as the one mentioned at the beginning in regards to death-fashion shoots does this play into?) Of course, actors/actresses don't need to take roles if they are uncomfortable with what's involved --props to Jenna Malone for being a trooper and going through that all gung-ho--, but we all know that most movies that are taken seriously nowadays involve some kind of sexual content on the part of women, most notably when written by a man. And there are also agents urging people to take part in films, and if one actress doesn't feel comfortable with the part, eventually you will get to one who will do it just for the exposure or experience of working with this person or because they are told they should. Eventually, someone takes part and acts out these bizarre scenes. And hey, if they are comfortable with it, all the power to them, but I'm just suspicious of these things being written in order to be acted out in the first place. It also has to do with the framing, I mean the whole thing is quite on display and in your face in this movie, there could have been a way to do it that didn't seem so... I don't want to say graphic, but maybe more subtle? 

In any case, I started The Neon Demon feeling curious, only to become uncomfortable and angry at how things played out. It felt like this movie thought itself oh-so-imaginative and clever, while ultimately being nothing more than a mess of violence, clunky dialogue, and eye-roll inducing symbolism with an absolutely unoriginal takeaway. It could have been so much more, and the visuals and potential of the premise are quite intriguing, I will give it that. But unfortunately a focus on aesthetic and desire to include specific extended moments led to the actual story being treated in what I feel to be a lazy fashion. 

Does any of this matter though? I'm just one person on here, and I don't plan on watching this movie again. And I do know that I have a tendency to overthink things. But like I said, I keep being prompted to think about this film for some reason, and that leads me to think about other implications that this movie has in relation to our views of women and the film industry in general, which has recently had more of a microscope being put up to it (though not completely). Have you seen The Neon Demon? Do you feel differently about it than I do?

Friday, December 8, 2017

#CBR9 Review #26: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

After finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, I figured it was time to dive into more Margaret Atwood content! I was looking at Alias Grace but my friend assures me I will love the TV show, so I’m holding off on that one for now. So where to go? Well, the title of The Heart Goes Last kept poking at something in my brain, and so, off I went. It’s as simple as that. And what I got was something very unique and filled with commentary about many different things, but also quite a wacky little setup and adventure in a way. Though, I didn’t love it: because I didn’t love any of the characters therein. For some reason, I couldn’t feel for them, and they seemed almost distant or not truly like real people to me. And perhaps that is part of what is important in this novel, given some of the issues and how they play out: they are the semblance of reality and just the ideas of people while really falling into a lot of unrounded tropes. “That type” of person at face value, if you will. And I do find that if I don’t connect with characters or don’t find them interesting or as if they connect to relatable emotions and personalities, I tend to not fully enjoy a story. It’s not as if this is a bad novel, but definitely not a favourite.

The Heart Goes Last focuses on a married couple named Charmaine and Stan, in the wake of an economic collapse in America. The wealthy remain so, but many people are facing unemployment and homelessness: Stan and Charmaine are living in their car when they see an ad for an experimental new community which provides everything they need, but once they are in, they cannot leave. They eagerly sign up and learn that the setup involves living a normal life in a normal house for a month, and then living and working in a prison for a month, back and forth. The design is derived from experiences utilizing prison labour and does seem to operate smoothly as people share resources and essentially all put in work to ensure that they community continues as it does. But of course, you get the feeling from the beginning that not all is as it seems, as certain “undesirables” are eliminated, only certain types of people and those who appear to follow rules without issue are accepted into the community to begin with, and life continues is a comfortable but strict manner. This unsettling seeming hidden side to the community and prison of course comes to light in what is actually a bit of a wacky situation, manipulated by people on the inside who want the truth out. Overall the plot is intriguing and I was engrossed enough to wonder how it would play out and zip through it quite quickly. Though truth be told it did seem a bit absurd at points, I didn’t totally understand all the inner-workings and economics of the situation, and I wasn’t sure if every part of it was really necessary in coming to the end goal. 

Despite being a little thrown by the overall story and seeming unnecessary or egregious nature of some of it, the novel is thematically very strong. It deals with a lot of subjects in a creative and telling way such as: how we perceive people versus who they really are, the security of being told what to go and how to be versus the freedom of making our own choices, is removing free will wrong if people are happy, how the things people tell us and drill into our minds can still come to affect us years later, etc. Some of the most poignant themes, however, are those that are so relevant to our society right now: one of the biggest ones being institutionalized prison labour that is essentially slavery, as well as how we treat those in prison or anyone who we deem to be undesirable or doesn’t follow the prescribed path. There is also a piece on sexual coercion and how sex can be tied up in situations that lead someone to feel powerless and unable to control the situation. Given what is occurring today with all the sexual assault cases particularly involving powerful individuals, this is a very important topic. However, once outside of these situations in the novel, I did find that the preoccupation on sex and happiness in some of the relationships was perhaps overdone: I’m not saying that sex isn’t important and can’t be a huge factor in relationships but really, that realm is not something I relate to.

I was also pleased to find some commentary and themes regarding sex, violence, and sex robots in this novel. I recently tried to start a conversation in a group chat with my friends about sexbots and some of the areas wherein they can be harmful in a grander scheme, buuuuuuuut this did not go very far as nobody responded to the articles I sent about the destroyed sexbot at a convention and following comments I made (Whoops, complaining about being ignored in my review, this is neither the time nor the place, Lisa!). But anyways, there is some interplay between the concept of these realistic robots and the features that are allowed, versus how this may affect real life or lead to dissatisfaction and a need for new advancements or perhaps even violence in the real world, etc. A interesting topic for sure, and one that perhaps we aren’t even aware of what the repercussions will be at this moment.

And yet, despite the inclusion and presentation of a number of topics that got me thinking, it was almost a little too much at times, and I found one of the most important ones (prison labour) almost being forgotten near the end, despite being so crucial to the setup of the novel and how things progress. But more than anything, I found that some of the themes were really overshadowed for me by the main characters who I did not care for. I mean, it’s not as if I can’t be interested in unlikable characters, but here I found there wasn’t enough to them: the grumpy husband who wants his wife to be more into sex, the wife who just wants to live a happy and picket-fence life  (okay this one I maybe related to a bit in her insistence to pretend like not everything is terrible all the time), the manipulative outsmarting bitch, the guy who just can’t stop cheating on his wife because of a sex addiction, the disfigured woman who just wants to be loved no matter what, the ceo who always gets what he wants no matter the cost. It felt pretty stock and while there were some moments that hinted at something more, it wasn’t enough. The characters didn’t feel real enough for me to empathize with them or even to understand their motivations. Pair that with a somewhat over-the-top story, and it started to run away from me pretty quick in the second half of the novel.

That said, the premise and overall idea of The Heart Goes Last had potential, and some strong themes therein, however a lot of this got overshadowed by a few too many twists that really weren’t that shocking at all. The characters seemed like they were just along for the ride and not in control of anything. Which…. Okay, so maybe that is kind of the point to the whole thing, in relation to the themes of having your role and life decided for you in order to fit into a picture-perfect puzzle with every cog in place. But uuuuh, it wasn’t clear. Maybe I just need some more time to reflect on this. And the pacing of the plot did keep me wanting to know what happens next, I just found it maybe to be a little too forced feeling? Hm. I just don’t know anymore. Things definitely got a bit convoluted in how everything played out in this one, so I guess at the end of the day, it really boils down to a little too much going on in the plot and action, with too little happening in the characters. If only there was a way to pare down one while bumping up the other. All in all, though, not a bad read, just not one that I found to be particularly great.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Friday, December 1, 2017

#CBR9 Review #25: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

(Book #2 in the Stormlight Archive series)

I have been working on this book for about 2 months now: I mostly read at work and it has been busier, also it’s so long, but now I only have one book left for my half-cannonball goal! The next book in the Stormlight Archive series just came out and my cousin actually gave his copy to me for me to read after this one but uuuh…. seeing as it’s page count comes in at 1200+ pages (Words of Radiance at 1087), there’s no way I’ll make it by the end of the year, so it will have to wait until I finish my goal. This preface being said, let’s get on with the book and stop my rambling. (Just kidding, it will continue throughout the review as always! Beep beep!)

Words of Radiance is the second novel in Brandon Sanderson’s expansive Stormlight Archive series, focusing on a number of major characters including Kaladin, Shallan, Dalinar, and Adolin. While the previous novel included a lot of flashbacks and information on Kaladin, this book features more about Shallan and her life leading to the present story being told. While previously these major characters (with the exception of Dalinar and Adolin) had been separate, the end of the first book began to move them together and all their stories, though still with their individual storylines and conflicts, begin to converge directly. It makes things a little easier to follow and see the affects on one another, but the world doesn’t seem any less small than previously.

The beginning of this novel (not unlike the previous one establishing context and backstory) starts a little slow as new roles and dynamics and the affect of the previous novel are settled into. Kaladin begins a new role in the King’s guard, Dalinar faces uniting a torn kingdom after the betrayal of another highprince, and Shallan begins to learn about her abilities as a radiant all while travelling to the wars on the shattered plains to meet up with Jasnah’s royal family. Fortunately, the pace picks up quite a bit until the ultimate climax near the end of the novel, and indeed gets very exciting. There’s a lot going on overall, and the book is fully fleshed out in terms of plot and characters, and I am always astounded at the intricacies and just absolute breadth that Sanderson brings to his stories and world: there’s just so much to it!

I found Words of Radiance to be once again a long but good read with plenty of twists, intrigue, adventure, and just enough magic thrown in there too. I just have a couple of complaints, which basically mirror the exact same issues I had with the previous novel, Way of Kings. They are minor, however, and didn’t really affect my overall enjoyment of the novel, they just made me pause a few times or roll my eyes before getting over it and moving along.

The first issue is that, while impressive, the scope of the novel is really huge. The main characters and plots are honestly enough, and while I sometimes forget the odd name or role of a person or two (such as I do in any epic fantasy like this), it’s not really enough to cause any issue. I do however, find that some parts with minor characters are extraneous. Well, actually, it’s mostly that the book is divided into different “parts” and after each one is an “interlude” with other characters. Some of these are interesting and do tie in quite directly with the overall story, such as the inclusion of Sveth the assassin and Eshonai in the parshendi army. Others, however, at this point have nothing to do with anything: why am I supposed to care about these characters? Maybe they will play a role way later on, but honestly I don’t think I will remember them by then. I know that it’s to show that the world presented is bigger than that which centers on the main characters, and like I said, it is very inventive and impressive, but we already know that the world is larger than these areas and that these actions have a farther reach: we see glimmers of that in the major plots and in countries of origin, etc. These interludes always occur right after something exciting happens in the novel too, not unlike the end of a weekly tv show that wants to keep you hanging on until next week. But is that really necessary in a book to space it out? I read some kind of chapter-ending-cliff-hanger and I want to keep going right now! Don’t make me waste time in what is already a book with a ton of pages that now has even more about things that aren’t per say necessary! (But then, I do know that some people really enjoy these little blips or short story-like things of something different, so who is to say I’m right in complaining about it!).

The other issue I had also comes in the form of world building, and it’s veeeeery minor but still made me stop a couple of times. It’s more or less the seeming arbitrariness of some of the customs and rules at given times. Sure, we are in a different universe and people do things differently all over the world, but sometimes it seemed like these little blips were put in there for no reason than just because. The one that kept coming up repeatedly was the thing about “safehands” for certain women, covering one of their hands at all times after they reach a certain age as a form of modesty. It just kept being mentioned and I was wondering if there was really a purpose to it or would it end up playing a part later? Apparently, not yet. I mean, I could see this as a commentary on certain arbitrary rules we have in our own society in regards to the bodies of men vs. women, ie that male breasts and seen as fine but after a certain age women need to cover theirs even though they have a function of feeding the young. But they even mention women’s breasts and modesty in one part of the novel (an interlude!) so I don’t really know if I can make that claim that it’s a commentary on this: it would make sense but as of now it doesn’t read like it, it just keeps getting mentioned like “don’t forget this is a rule here!” without any payoff so far. I don’t know, but every time I just stopped for a second.

Speaking of arbitrary, sometimes the way certain people act/give orders/act insolent to royalty and get away with it or not doesn’t seem to follow a specific pattern. I mean, this book is largely serious and not goofy like Merlin where his seeming insolence doesn’t really have too many serious effects, but here I feel like Kaladin gets away with a LOT. And yes, he is respected for saving the highprinces but there is still a hierarchy that is brought up a lot, and roles and status are really respected in this world so it almost seems random or out of place at times? Again, this might just be me.

But again, these issues I have are minor compared to the overall flow and enjoyment of this novel, no matter how long it may have taken me to get through. There were little hints coming up in the later parts of Words of Radiance that may indicate an upcoming love triangle, which I am 100% not here for, but we shall see how this is handled and plays out (if at all, though I can for sure smell it in the air). In any case, I will likely kick off next year’s CBR with the 3rd novel in this series, Oathbringer, as I definitely need to find out what happens to the world now, after the daunting conclusion I just finished with.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]