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And blood in the water

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THE NEON DEMON. Following Drive (2011) — which I found revelatory and some dismissed as over-reaching genre trash — director Nicholas Winding Refn re-teamed with Ryan Gosling for a crimson tour of Thailand, viewed through the frame of one particularly hideous organized crime family. Only God Forgives (2013), a contemplatively-placed study in vengeance and loyalty, punctuated by extreme violence was at once a departure from Drive and a logical next step. Refn altered the style of the piece, (the music, cinematography, editing) to better explore its place and render a true sense of setting. I don't find Only God Forgives as compulsively watchable as I do Drive, but I appreciate its technique and, of course, its estimable grittiness and inner darkness. And now I can see it as part of the continuum of Refn's career, particularly in the later period. With The Neon Demon, he returns to Los Angeles, envisioning it this time as a sort of parallel city to the environs of Drive. And, again, he has made aesthetic adjustments accordingly, making a movie that is very much of its place, even if that place is an imagined one.

Jesse (Elle Fanning), the apocryphal angelic ingénue fresh off the bus, knows she possesses a certain something; that she can and will succeed. And sure enough, her first forays into modelling yield victory. After posing for some ostensible art-house shots with well-intentioned Dean (Karl Glusman), she signs with icy super-agent Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) and starts meeting all the right people. A renowned photographer hand-picks her for a rare test session; a genius designer has her closing out his big show. She also meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist and occasional necrophile with obscure motives. In Ruby's entourage: two brutally beautiful models, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who seem entirely motivated by hatred and competition. All the while, Jesse resides in an impossibly questionable motel where manager Hank (Keanu Reeves) and his henchman Mikey (Charles Baker) operate a cash business sheltering runaways, possibly just for their own sick wish fulfillment.

Refn's new vision of Los Angeles is a vicious, grotesque and beautifully realized one. He sets the insane sterility of a soundstage photo shoot against the paint-peeling squalor of a skid row motel and somehow infuses both with the same degree of elegance and menace. And when the places themselves are this infused with viciousness, the character of its habitués is a foregone conclusion. Even Jesse, who at first strikes us as an almost-innocent, albeit one in possession of her own beauty as an asset, soon falls prey to the vagaries of the people and place surrounding her. Their affirmation, and its attendant success, moves her farther and farther from her early sweetness — and a burgeoning relationship with Dean — into the rarefied airlessness of high fashion. It also engenders the envy and hatred of those around her, which of course leads to an archetypally graphic Refn climax.

It can be uncomfortable to throw around the word "auteur," but it is undeniable that Refn is an artist in complete control of his art. The Neon Demon, like everything he has made, clearly came from his hand, eye and tortured imagination. It contains some elements reminiscent of Drive in its gentle pace toward explosion and its dominant electronic soundtrack (again by Cliff Martinez). And it possesses some of the meditativeness, the oblique despair of Only God Forgives. It also defies the viewer with a cast of sinister, unlikable characters and a narrative defined by occasionally inscrutable, hallucinatory turns. But the defining characteristic here is beauty, albeit a vicious, bloody fever-dream version of it. R. 117m. BROADWAY.

THE SHALLOWS. There is, of course, a significant part of me that will always think Steven Spielberg made the definitive shark movie over 40 years ago and why would anybody even bother? So far that part of me has not been proven wrong. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (of the sturdy but unremarkable Non-Stop and Run All Night, both beneficiaries of the presence of Liam Neeson) has made a go of it here, reframing the story to center more on the survival element than the shark. It's generally engaging, has in it better surfing sequences than the Point Break remake and isn't too long.

After her mother's death from cancer, Nancy (Blake Lively) takes a hiatus from medical school to spend some time alone. She makes her way to Mexico to surf a secret beach that her mom loved. It proves as idyllic as promised, until Nancy is bitten by shark and trapped by the tide a couple of hundred yards from shore. The bulk of the narrative is driven by Nancy's struggle to figure a way out of her predicament, punctuated by occasional shark action. On the whole, it makes for a watchable, entertaining experience, but it never reaches the level of tension I had hoped for.

Lively gets an opportunity for a more dynamic, full-blooded performance here than she is usually afforded, and she proves equal to the task. Having said that, there isn't enough substance to it to make it resonate; as much as I celebrate the feminism at work here, and as much as I hate to lament missed opportunity, there was potential to do something more significant with this material that what ended up on the screen. PG13. 87m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

— John J. Bennett

For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.


THE BFG. A little girl befriends a giant and the two ally with Queen Victoria to oust the other less friendly giants (presumably from the EU). PG. 120m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

LEGEND OF TARZAN. After his Victorian makeover, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) reverts to his chest-pounding ways to rescue his bride from a Belgian baddie. PG13. 87m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR. So they're still making these. This one has Leo (Frank Grillo) running the gauntlet with an anti-annual-murderous-free-for-all politician (Elizabeth Mitchell). R. 139m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

SWISS ARMY MAN. Castaway bromance with a hopeless man (Paul Dano) and a flatulent corpse (Daniel Radcliffe). Filmed in Humboldt — anybody see their house? R. 117m. BROADWAY.


CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE. This buddy/spy comedy has a serviceable story about a former dweeb who becomes a ripped CIA operative (Duane Johnson) and a popular guy disappointed with his adult life (Kevin Hart). But the leads' chemistry and charm makes going to the reunion worth it. PG13. 107m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

FINDING DORY. Ellen DeGeneres voices the friendly fish with the fried short-term memory (anybody relate?) who's searching for the rest of her long lost blue tang clan. With Albert Brooks and Ed O'Neill. PG. 97m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

FREE STATE OF JONES. Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali star in a Civil War action drama about white farmers and slaves forming an armed rebellion against the Rebels. Don't wear your Skynyrd T-shirt with the Confederate flag. R. 139m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. Another alien invasion brings back most of the old crew (Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, and hey, Vivica Fox) and some young'uns (Liam Hemsworth, Jessie T. Usher) to defend the earth, if not its architecture. PG13. 120m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

NOW YOU SEE ME 2. But maybe you don't have to. This sequel about do-gooder magicians can't pull the same rabbit out of its hat as the original, despite a charming ensemble cast and fancy illusions. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman and Daniel Radcliffe. PG13. 115m. BROADWAY.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill


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