The Neon Demon (Broadgreen, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.” We first meet Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old girl from Middle America looking to leverage her youth and innocent beauty into a modeling career in Los Angeles, made up as a glamorous victim of a decadent world. Sprawled out in designer clothes across an expensive couch with fake blood slathered across her neck and dripping down her arm, she could be shooting the ad for her own fate in the big bad city.
Nicholas Winding Refn, who wrote and directed his social commentary-as-heady horror film, isn’t big on subtlety. Elle Fanning is a superb young actress who has become shorthand casting for innocence, youth, and authenticity, and that serves Refn’s purposes perfectly. She does indeed have that “deer in the headlights” look, as her agent says in one of the on-the-nose lines that fills the script, and her fresh look, not yet jaded by LA decadence, makes her the next big thing in a culture where the supermodels du jour age out of their prime at 20.
This is LA as a culture of predators and prey. On one of her first nights in the city, staying in a seedy motel (run by a thuggish Keanu Reeves) that is home to drop-outs and runaways, there’s an intruder in the her room. Not a person but a cougar that has already sniffed out the fresh meat in town. Put another way, Jesse is the delicate angelfish swimming in a pool of sharks but she learns quickly. Two hardened, competitive models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) size her up as the competition immediately at some industry soiree and begin immediately with the head games. A freelance make-up artist (Jena Malone) takes her under her wing but is it sisterly concern or something else? Malone is a seemingly warm, normal, human connection in a culture of surfaces and attitudes, but when we drop in at her day job styling corpses at a funeral home her whole nature is tossed into question when she uses her subjects as sex dolls. She’s an artist who wants to possess her creations. Heathcoate is perfectly feral as the cutthroat superstar model who plays mindgames with the competition while Abbey Lee, a real-life modeling veteran, brings out an ambiguous mix of hunger, loss, desperation, and opportunism as she loses jobs to Jesse, who starts to become as brittle and self-absorbed as the rest of the walkway meat market.
The Neon Demon was booed at Cannes and almost universally panned by critics that saw the film as vapid or shallow, but then that’s taking it all at face value. Beauty is the beast in this a horror film as fashion layout. Refn’s stripped down production design and eighties neon visuals are accompanied by synth soundtracks and dance club sounds, but the film is also filled with images of fertility, lunar cycles, hedonism, and occult symbols. What begins as an allegory for the hunger for youth and beauty with the modeling / show business industry as a form of vampirism becomes absurdly literal, channeling cannibalism and Countess Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins. I don’t see it as failed social satire, as its critics claim, but as a more primal portrait of the obsession for youth and beauty and the drive to control, dominate, package, own, and ultimately devour it. Jesse is the latest sacrifice to the gods of success and desire and power in NWR’s monogrammed photo shoot. And even if you don’t go with Refn’s predatory allegory, you can simply luxuriate in the glorious images and mad imagination of the modeling industry as sacrificial altar. This is style as substance and it is delicious.
Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn and actress Elle Fanning and the featurettes “About Neon Demon” and “Behind the Soundtrack of The Neon Demon.”
Blood Simple (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the assured 1984 debut feature from Joel and Ethan Coen, essentially created the neo-noir aesthetic of the late eighties and early nineties by taking the pulp crime thriller out of the night in the city and dropping it in the open spaces and desert towns of the southwest. Sleek, simple and austere, with an inventive style that has fun with the material while effectively ratcheting up the tension and suspicion, the complicated web of murder and betrayal in a small Texas town springs from an adulterous affair, a pathologically vengeful husband (Dan Hedaya), and a scrupulously plotted set of misunderstandings and mistrust that turns even innocents into co-conspirators. It’s a classic noir convention that the Coens twist with a witty irony that leaves the survivors no wiser at the end of the ordeal. John Getz is the terse bartender who nominates himself protector of his boss’s wife (Frances McDormand) when she runs out on him and M. Emmet Walsh oozes perspiration as an oily private eye with an empty grin, a folksy front, and no moral compunctions.
Criterion presents the Coens’ preferred “Director’s Cut,” which they released to theaters and home video in 1998, which has been newly remastered from a 4K restoration for their special edition on Blu-ray and DVD special edition. It replaces the jokey supplements of the earlier releases with terrific new interviews with the filmmakers (conducted by Dave Eggers), actors Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh, composer Carter Burwell, and sound mixer Skip Lievsay, and the 70-minute “Shooting Blood Simple,” a kind of a select commentary by Barry Sonnenfeld and Joel and Ethan Coen talking through scenes with the visual assist of a Telestrator. If you subscribe to the Noir City E-Mag, you can read my rave review there.
Also new and notable:
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is not a mockumentary follow-up to Taika Waititi’s hilarious What We Do in the Shadows but an eccentric, affectionate coming of age comedy with a heartwarming soul that never slips into easy sentiment. Julian Dennison is Ricky, a teenaged foster kid steeped in rap music lyrics, and Sam Neill is Hec, the reluctant “uncle” who goes searching for the runaway kid in the bush, and they become unlikely outlaws on the run. They’re New Zealand’s answer to Thelma and Louise on foot: Problem Child and Grumpy Old Man, New Zealand’s most wanted eluding cops, search parties, and an overzealous child welfare agent (Paula House) who’d rather be commanding a SWAT unit. This is a sweet, funny comedy with an offbeat sense of humor and supporting cast of eccentrics, but it’s also built on loss and sorrow and it never sacrifices one for the other.
The Dekalog (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Krzysztof Kieslowski will remain best known for his lush, plush art-house Three Colors trilogy, a celebration of grand emotions from beautiful people, but nothing in his career tops the delicacy, the subtlety, and the intimacy of this epic of tragedy and triumph among the proletariat inhabitants of a dreary Warsaw apartment complex. The ten stories inspired by the Ten Commandments and loosely connected by place and time are a study in close-up of the weather-beaten faces and battle-scared souls of everyday people. Each hour long drama stands on its own as a fully conceived film, but taken together it’s a beautiful, devastating, and profound work of art. Previously on DVD from Facets, it’s remastered by Criterion for its Blu-ray debut and new DVD release, with the feature film versions A Short Film About Killing (1988) and A Short Film About Love (1988). Full review to come.
Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity, came out of RKO’s B-movie unit as the first of a series of sophisticated horror films produced by Val Lewton. The feline Simone Simon is a kittenish but frigid young wife of the all-American Kent Smith, and her nervousness comes directly out of a curse she believes she has inherited. Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t, including the sexuality that bubbles under the surface. Newly remastered from Blu-ray and DVD, with new and archival supplements. Full review to follow.
Johnny Guitar: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as frontier entrepreneurs in a war of wills, the 1954 Johnny Guitar is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter. It’s dense with psychological thickets and political reverberations (including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood), designed with color both expressive and explosive, and directed with the grace of a symphony and the drama of an opera. Olive has remastered for the film from a new 4K restoration for its new “Signature” line of special editions and fills the disc with new supplements, including commentary by film critic Geoff Andrew, interviews with historians and archivists, and a booklet with an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Full review to follow.
High Noon: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), the classic western starring Gary Cooper as a small town sheriff awaiting a gang of killers coming for revenge set to the countdown of a ticking clock, is another special edition from Olive, also mastered from a new 4K restoration. This one features a visual essay on the film’s production design, featurettes on the editing and on producer Stanley Kramer, and a discussion of the film’s relationship to the Hollywood Blacklist, plus a booklet with a new essay by Nick James.
Dead End Drive-In (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD), Australian genre filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith’s 1986 dystopian science fiction, is drive-in social satire in a Mad Max world. The young and the unemployed are rounded up in drive-ins and plied with snack bar meals and evening movies to keep them compliant and only one (working class citizen Ned Manning) plots his escape. The political and social observations aren’t subtle (when the authorities get worried that the restless youth may soon tire of incarceration, they distract them by creating and encouraging racial division) but they are effective as they are woven through the action and color of the low budget action satire. On Blu-ray+DVD combo (two discs in one package) with director commentary and two bonus short films.
Kamikaze ’89 (Film Movement, Blu-ray, DVD), a cyberpunk murder mystery in a totalitarian future, stars filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder in a rate leading role for another director. Wolf Gremm directs and Fassbinder plays an eccentric police detective in a leopard-skin tracksuit investigating a bomb threat in his last days on the job. It was his last appearance on screen; he was dead before the film was released in 1982. It debuts on Blu-ray and DVD in the US with commentary by producer Regina Ziegler and the documentaries Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Last Year (1982) and Wolf At the Door (2015) directed by Wolf Gremm, plus a booklet with essays by Nick Pinkerton and Samuel B. Prime.
Classics and Cult:
Valley of the Dolls (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD)
Labyrinth: 30th Anniversary Edition (Sony, Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD)
Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection (Shout Select, Blu-ray)
Fixed Bayonets! (Kino Classics, Blu-ray)
The Enemy Below (Kino Classics, Blu-ray)
A Scandal in Paris / Lured (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)
Count Dracula’s Great Love (Vinegar Syndrome, Blu-ray)
The Shape of Things to Come (Blue Underground, Blu-ray, DVD)
Masks (Realgore/CAV, Blu-ray, DVD)
Mai-Chan’s Daily Life: The Movie / Bloody Carnal Residence (Redemption, Blu-ray, DVD)
TV on disc:
American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson (Fox, DVD)
The Catch: The Complete First Season (ABC, DVD)
The Grinder: Season One (Fox, DVD)
The Good Wife: The Final Season (Paramount, DVD)
Modern Family: Season 7 (Fox, DVD)
2 Broke Girls: Season 5 (Warner, DVD)
Fresh off the Boat: Season 2 (Fox, DVD)
Last Man on Earth: Season 2 (Fox, DVD)
Grimm: Season Five (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
Reign: Season Three (Warner, DVD)
The Originals: Season 3 (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
Bastard Executioner: Season 1 (Fox, DVD)
Blue Bloods: Season 6 (Paramount, DVD)
Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders: Season 1 (Paramount, DVD)
Jericho (Acorn, DVD)
The Disappearance (Acorn, DVD)
Ripper Street: Season Four (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD)
Indian Summers: Season Two (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD)
Midsomer Murders: Series 18 (Acorn, Blu-ray, DVD)
Twin Peaks: The Original Series, Fire Walk With Me & The Missing Pieces (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD)
Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (StarVista, DVD)
Barbarians Rising (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Wonder Years: Season Six (Time Life, DVD)
Gunsmoke: Season 12, Volume 1 (Paramount, DVD)
Gunsmoke: Season 12, Volume 2 (Paramount, DVD)
More new releases:
Warcraft (Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
The Shallows (Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
Central Intelligence (Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates (Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
Free State of Jones (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD)
Cell (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD)
Edge of Winter (Sony, DVD)
The Innocents (Music Box, Blu-ray, DVD)
Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray, DVD)
Sacrifice (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray+DVD)
Ma Ma (Oscilloscope, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Real MVP: The Wanda Durant Story (Lionsgate, DVD)
Classic Albums: The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (Eagle Lion, Blu-ray)