Monday 31 October 2016

The Neon Demon, Elvis & Nixon and The Legend Of Tarzan: Your Week In Film (October 31-November 6)

Fashion beast: The Neon Demon is a transgressive treat

DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and TV highlights for the next seven days...

Nicolas Winding Refn is at his most fuck-you divisive in The Neon Demon (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWWW, a film that merges horror, satire, high camp and the occult to thrillingly transgressive effect. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, newly arrived in Los Angeles with big ambitions to make it in the cutthroat world of fashion modelling. Her disarming youth and rabbit-in-the-headlights innocence prove an instant hit with photographers, agents and stylists, and it isn't long before she's beating more experienced models to the top jobs. How they loathe and envy her.

Refn takes his time showing Jesse's career ascent but there's an unease tick, tick, ticking away in the background that no amount of cloudless LA skies or beautifully composed tableaux can eradicate. Death and danger permeate every frame here - from the opening shots of Jesse covered in blood for an amateur photo shoot to the recurring images of predatory big cats. You know something bad's coming, it's just a matter of when and how. And when Refn eventually turns up the batshit crazy to maximum, it's well worth the wait - a final half-hour involving cannibalism and necrophilia that fair takes the breath away (Jena Malone will still be asked about one particular scene if she lives to be a hundred).

Gratuitous? No, simply the perfect conclusion to the themes and ideas Refn (Drive) has laid out so masterfully throughout the rest of the film. We live in a culture that chews up and spits out youth and beauty - quite literally in The Neon Demon's case.

Elle for leather: Jesse is drawn into danger in LA

Necrophilia of a different kind now as The Pelvis and Tricky Dicky are dug up and put centre stage for the umpteenth time in Elvis & Nixon (DVD and VOD) WW. Loosely based on a true story and a famous photograph, Liza Johnson's film imagines what really happened when the King of Rock 'n' Roll turned up at the White House one December morning in 1970 to directly petition the president to make him an 'FBI agent at large' (Elvis thought he could go undercover to turn the kids of America away from drugs and radical politics). A broad comedy from which neither character emerges unscathed, it has a certain breathless pantomimic appeal, and Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey acquit themselves well in the titular roles.

The Legend Of Tarzan (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WW features another blast from the past as Fantastic Beasts director David Yates becomes the latest filmmaker to have a go at adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs's most famous creation for the big screen. The main problem, I suspect, is that the idea of a white English posho lording it over black Africans is, in these more enlightened times, seen as somewhat racist. Yates and his team tackle this obstacle head on and make a decent fist of repositioning Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) as an honourable cove with nothing but love and respect for the tribes he and wife Jane (Margot Robbie) encounter. Putting the iniquities of the 19th Century slave trade front and centre – and giving Samuel L Jackson a sizeable role in proceedings – help too. Skarsgård is suitably butch and brooding as the titular character and Christoph Waltz adds another bravura villain turn to his CV. In a year that has given us the visual delights of The BFG, Doctor Strange and The Jungle Book, some of the CGI wasn't always convincing though.

TV-wise this week you could do a lot worse than check out Joy (from Friday, Sky Cinema Premiere, 13:45 and 20:00) WWW, David O Russell's underrated biopic of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, an American celebrity who isn't particularly well known in the UK. It boasts a great cast (Jennifer Lawrence as the titular character, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper) and has some interesting things to say about the entrepreneurial spirit and American capitalism too. Far from being an unalloyed endorsement of the latter, as some critics suggested, Russell's film explores the murky side of business and how dipping your toes into that world can make a person not just tenacious and determined but utterly ruthless too. It's a story of lost innocence in which Lawrence is, of course, terrific.

Strictly business: Joy Mangano gunning for success

Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens is all ripped abs and convincing Yank accent in The Guest (Saturday, Film4, 21:00) WW as David, a soldier with a very dark secret. It’s one of those “stranger-danger” thrillers so popular in the ’80s in which an innocent family, couple or person is first befriended then menaced by some insidious outsider (see Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, Pacific Heights etc). Action-packed and genuinely funny in parts (Stevens, it turns out, can do comedy too), The Guest lands a couple of slyly satirical jabs square on the jaw of the US army which is probably what I liked about it most.

There's nothing remotely funny or satirical about the soldiers featured in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (Friday, More 4, 21:00) WWW. The film, which details the CIA's decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks on New York, was rightly hauled over the coals upon its release for implying information obtained by torture had been utilised successfully in the investigation (it hadn't). However, if you can get over that fairly large obstacle, a slow-burning but genuinely gripping piece of work is your reward.

The excellent Jessica Chastain is Maya, a CIA black ops agent who becomes slowly more obsessed with tracking down the Al Qaeda bogeyman (if Zero Dark Thirty is about anything, it's about obsession). Chastain's role is an astonishingly unglamorous one as she spends the entire film either angry, exhausted or both. Maya is given no external life to speak of - her mission defines her utterly. That kind of narrative austerity is of a piece with the rest of the movie which, far from being the gung-ho spectacle I'd anticipated, lays out the ugliness of the 'Get Bin Laden' operation in some detail.

We see alleged terrorists tortured and brutalised, we see men and women gunned down in cold blood by US Navy SEALS, we see young children terrified for their lives - all in the name of bringing down one man. It's nasty, tawdry work and Bigelow offers up little to cheer, even after Bin Laden's elimination. The Hurt Locker may have won her an Oscar but this is a much better film.

Manhunter: Bin Laden is the target in Zero Dark Thirty

A couple of quickies to end with: Sigourney Weaver returns as Ripley in James Cameron's thrill-a-minute Alien sequel, Aliens (Sunday, Syfy, 21:00) WWWW, while online subscription service MUBI have just the thing for that Halloween night binge-watch - the original Scream trilogy WWW, which does the meta horror thing better than anything before or since.

What I'll be watching this week: Ken Loach's Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blake must be doing something right as reactionary pond life (Camilla Long, Toby Young and Iain Duncan Smith) are queuing up to condemn it. Also, Film 2016 (Wednesday, BBC1, 23:15) returns for a new run of eight shows. Presenter Claudia Winkleman is gone, to be replaced, Have I Got News For You-style, with a different host each week. Zoë Ball kicks things off, with Danny Leigh and The Independent's Ellen E Jones on hand to provide critical insights into the week's new releases, which include Nocturnal Animals and The Light Between Oceans. Plus, director Damien Chazelle talks about his new musical, La La Land (which is marvellous).

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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