Out on Friday 8 July
Refn mixes models and cannibals. A magician sequel with unlikely rug pulls. Greta Gerwig hatches a scheme.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of The Neon Demon, Now You See Me 2, Maggie’s Plan, The Legend of Tarzan, Weiner, River, and A Poem Is a Naked Person.
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THE NEON DEMON
Nicolas Winding Refn’s 10th feature might just be the Danish provocateur’s most outrageous yet. A horror movie set in the fashion world of Los Angeles, it features home invasion, vampirism and supermodel cannibals, the last of which would surely be a genre staple if they’d just do more than nibble at a hunk of flesh before returning to their salads. And if that’s not enough to whet your appetite or make you barf depending on your tastes, Refn chucks in some gorgeously lensed lesbian necrophilia.
Just turned 16, Jesse (Elle Fanning) is fresh off the bus and looking for work. Turns out her “deer in the headlights look” is coveted by an industry that spits women out at 21, and she’s soon being stripped naked and slathered in gold paint by a psycho photographer (Desmond Harrington) who looks set to stab her to death with his scalpel-sharp cheekbones at any moment. Jesse’s rise is stratospheric, leaving catty cat-walkers Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) to accentuate their pouts as they eat her dust.
“Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” says Alessandro Nivola (whose credit as Fashion Designer recalls Ryan Gosling’s as The Driver in Drive (opens in new tab)), and it’s a philosophy that Refn embraces. Thinner than a lettuce leaf and only half as nourishing, The Neon Demon says that our obsession with beauty is beastly – and that’s it.
But if it’s looks you’re after, this one’s a stunner, from the neon-drenched nightclubs and stroboscopic catwalks to the shimmering swimming pools and night-time skyscrapers that glitter like diamonds on crushed velvet. The camera tracks and prowls with exquisite precision. Dialogue is slowed to a seductive slur. And the urgent pulse of Cliff Martinez’s (Drive (opens in new tab), Solaris (opens in new tab), Traffic (opens in new tab)) electro score is the movie’s giddily exciting heartbeat.
Here, style is form: vivid and vapid. Perhaps it’s all part of Refn’s theme, his fabulously hollow movie reflecting a beautifully empty world. But even if it is, it makes for rather uninvolving and ultimately forgettable drama. What’s more, the designer DNA that The Neon Demon uses as its building blocks – The Wizard of Oz (opens in new tab), Valley of the Dolls, Last Year at Marienbad (opens in new tab), All About Eve, Persona, Blood and Black Lace, Mulholland Drive (opens in new tab) – only highlights shortcomings.
Still, there are tasty turns from (an underused) Keanu Reeves as Hank, a lecherous motel owner, and from Jena Malone as a make-up artist who, like everyone else, wants a piece of Jesse. And did we mention it’s funny? This last is crucial, because while The Neon Demon might not be as disturbing, scary or unpalatable as The Daily Mail or, indeed, Refn would have you believe, it does succeed as a horror-comedy: even the aforementioned lesbian necrophilia is, ahem, tongue in cheek, the laughs as black as blood in the moonlight.
THE VERDICT: A shallow, slow-burn horror that takes an age to get to the strong meat but looks good doing it.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn; Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves, Bella Heathcote, Christina Hendricks; Theatrical release: July 8, 2016
NOW YOU SEE ME 2
Now You See Me (opens in new tab) didn’t set a particularly high bar, but its squandering of a cool concept – Ocean’s Eleven (opens in new tab) with magicians – meant that pulling a sequel out of a hat didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Disappointingly, this follow-up by director Jon M. Chu barely improves on the original’s fumbled tricks.
It’s not exactly a banner year for harbingers of the apocalypse (see the latest X-Men (opens in new tab)); here illusionist troupe the Four Horsemen pick up where the original implausibly left off, albeit with Lizzy Caplan replacing Isla Fisher. The whole gang feel pretty interchangeable: Jesse Eisenberg’s the de facto leader, Woody Harrelson’s mentalist is presumably supposed to be the funny one, and Dave Franco feels like he’s making up the numbers. There’s none of the, well, magic that makes the best team-ups sparkle.
Daniel Radcliffe has fun as a reclusive tech wunderkind who sends the Horsemen on a MacGuffin-seeking mission, and Caplan gets to crack wise about being the token woman. But on the whole, this isn’t fun or funny enough to earn the suspension of disbelief required as logic and credibility vanish beneath a sequence of unlikely rug pulls.
THE VERDICT: Another missed opportunity that lacks the wow factor and showmanship of the best tricks. The cast deserves better.
Director: Jon M. Chu; Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Lizzy Caplan, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe; Theatrical release: July 8, 2016
Writer/director Rebecca Miller’s (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (opens in new tab)) first movie in six years finds her edging in on Woody Allen/Noah Baumbach territory – and making a very fair fist of it. We’re in New York, where Maggie (Baumbach’s muse Greta Gerwig), a thirty-something ‘business developer for the arts and design’, hears the clock ticking and, with no likely partner in the offing, takes the turkey-baster route to pregnancy.
Her choice of sperm donor is ex-classmate Guy (Travis Fimmel), a ‘pickle entrepreneur’ – but no sooner has he delivered the goods than Maggie falls for academic/would-be novelist John (Ethan Hawke). Trouble is, John’s married – to control-freak Georgette (Julianne Moore, complete with bizarre ‘Danish’ accent). Thus begins a love triangle…
This is the kind of movie you’ll either love or be irritated by. If you relish lines like: “No one unpacks commodity fetishism like you do”, or John classifying ‘like’ as “a language condom”, you’ll lap it up. Few actors do charming insecurity better than Gerwig, who’s backed by a crack ensemble that also includes Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, and veteran actor Wallace Shawn in a cameo.
THE VERDICT: Miller’s NYC comedy bristles with wisecracks and quotable lines, while spinning a plot that sidesteps narrative cliché.
Director: Rebecca Miller; Starring: Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Maya Rudolph; Theatrical release: July 8, 2016
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN
After much directorial pass-the-parcel, Harry Potter (opens in new tab)’s David Yates finally pushed through this long-gestating reboot; the results are handsome, but the urgency to bring Tarzan back remains perplexing. Neither sexy nor sharp enough for adults, too serious and earnest for tweens, this may leave an opening for a franchise but feels like a picture in search of an audience.
Rather than tell an origin story we meet Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) caging his inner animal as landed gentry in London. But when King Leopold of Belgium’s Captain Rom (Christoph Waltz) invites him back to his homeland with his feisty wife Jane (Margot Robbie), the T-man feels the call of the wild.
Yates admirably anchors Tarzan’s return to topless flexing in historical events (colonialism, slavery, exploitation) and downplays sexism. He amps up connections between his hero and heroine and gives us a bromance with a real-life abolitionist. Despite this – and a tonally odd joke about licking gorilla balls – Tarzan never quite takes flight.
But god, it looks lush. Yates knows how to design spectacle, and the gorgeous cinematography and Boy’s Own storytelling are a feast for the eyes. Just not for the pulse.
THE VERDICT: A diverting-enough romp that suffers from following The Jungle Book and never swings into full-throttle thrills.
Director: David Yates; Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie; Theatrical release: July 8, 2016
Bob Roberts meets The Good Wife in this fly-on-the-wall doc about Anthony Weiner, a disgraced US congressman who ran for office again as NY mayor. Watching his campaign derailed by yet more salacious revelations is like a slo-mo car crash, a queasy pleasure we’re spared little of thanks to Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s ever-present camera and Weiner’s insatiable thirst for the spotlight.
Directors: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg; Theatrical release: July 8, 2016
Wearing an expression not unlike brother Kiefer’s panic-face, Rossif Sutherland makes an impression in Jamie M. Dagg’s lean man-on-the-run debut. Sutherland plays a US doctor in Laos who encounters a tourist assaulting a local woman; he lamps the chump, then finds himself on the run. Dagg keeps things simple, but his jogging camera whips up the urgency and he’s well-served by Sutherland’s rangy physicality.
Director: Jamie M. Dagg; Starring: Rossif Sutherland, Douangmany Soliphanh, Sara Botsford; Theatrical release: July 8, 2016
A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON
Shot between 1972-74, Les Blank’s rock-doc wound up buried for decades after its star, roots-rock iconoclast Leon Russell, took issue with the director’s freeform approach. Finally unearthed, it’s an intoxicating one-off. Between the thrilling concert footage, what emerges is a pungent time capsule of a forgotten fringe of America, ripe for rediscovery.
Director: Les Blank; Starring: Leon Russell, Willie Nelson, George Jones; Theatrical release: July 8, 2016