[Screen It]

"THE NEON DEMON"
(2016) (Elle Fanning, Jena Malone) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramatic Thriller: A sixteen-year-old takes the modeling world by storm and must contend with those drawn in by or who are jealous of her natural beauty.
PLOT:
Jesse (ELLE FANNING) is a 16-year-old who's arrived in Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a model and is residing in a seedy motel run by Hank (KEANU REEVES) who's seen pretty girls like her come and go through his place. After a session creating some avant-garde photos taken by young photographer Dean (KARL GLUSMAN), Jesse meets makeup artist Ruby (JENA MALONE) -- who works on both models and corpses and is immediately smitten by the young beauty -- and quickly lands an agent, along with a photo shoot in front of demanding professional photographer Jack (DESMOND HARRINGTON).

That doesn't sit well with Ruby's friends, Sarah (ABBEY LEE) and Gigi (BELLA HEATHCOTE), who've worked hard to make it in the modeling world and don't like this young novice grabbing all of the attention. As Jesse's natural beauty wins over the decision makers in the modeling world and she becomes increasingly conceited about that, she must contend with Ruby's growing attraction to her as well as Sarah and Gigi's jealousy of her quick ascension in the industry.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In terms of watching new releases as a movie reviewer, there are a number of viewing options. Occasionally, we receive a screener or screening link to view at home. More usual is a press screening where it's just critics taking in the picture, while the most common is a promo screening that includes both reviewers and regular audience members who've won advance passes to see the films before they open.

All have their pros and cons, but my least favorite are those promo ones. I don't always mind watching a film with an audience if it's a comedy or horror film where the community atmosphere and response sometimes enhance the experience. Otherwise, I prefer not being interrupted by people leaving and returning with snacks, talking/texting/web surfing during the movie, kicking the back of my chair and so on.

But a promo crowd can come in handy when determining how the general public is going to react to any cinematic offering. And by that I mean seeing how many of them get up and leave in the middle of the movie, never to return. I've occasionally seen multiples of people leaving screenings, but it's been a while. That is, until our recent preview of "The Neon Demon." And most of those were even before the lesbian necrophilia and cannibalism that ultimately turned an often visually arresting if plodding and flawed flick into a sordid bit of exploitation designed, it would appear, simply for shock's sake.

As directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (the critically acclaimed "Drive" and the overall disliked "Only God Forgives") who works from a script he penned with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, the story revolves around a 16-year-old teen (Elle Fanning) who's arrived in Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a model. While Helen of Troy might have had a face that launched a thousand ships, young Jesse has one that apparently can launch those in the industry with the desire to use her looks to sell their wares.

Part of that obviously involves the shallowness, vanity and youth obsession of the modeling world, something further hammered home by the presence of Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee playing models a few years older who are jealous of the teen's natural rather than fabricated or labored hard for beauty. And the teen even falls prey to her own sudden fame and success, quickly becoming conceited about her attractiveness and others' desires to emulate that.

Going hand in hand with the pretty women at the center of the story, the film is visually mesmerizing at times, with some of the most striking camera composition and visuals you'll see all year (made cooler by the electronic/synth soundtrack that accompanies them). Yet, and purposeful or not, the film ends up mirroring the stereotype of pretty but otherwise empty and vacuous women in the modeling industry.

That's likely the cause for the theater desertions at our screening as various audience members eventually realized the film was a whole lot of visual panache covering a fairly blasť story and all-too-obvious thematic points about the modeling industry and cultural/societal obsessions with and glorification of hard to obtain or possess beauty.

The pick ultimately tries to drive that home with symbolism involving the aforementioned necrophilia (loving beauty even in death) and cannibalism (either beauty consuming those who have or desire it and/or the extreme measures some would take to have it). Yet, as I stated earlier, that seems more like an attempt to be notorious, shocking and/or scandalous simply for the sake of being just that rather than a logical continuation of the story or its characters. The performances run in line with all of the metaphors, while the pacing ends up bogging down rather than escalating as things slowly unfold and wrap up.

Perhaps it worked better on the page than in the finally realized execution, but at least the cinematic train looks pretty as it runs off the tracks driving home its symbolism (and people from the theater). "The Neon Demon" rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed June 20, 2016 / Posted June 24, 2016


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