A Review of Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings: A Timeless Tale Told in Wondrous Stop-Motion

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Film: Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Writers: Marc Haimes (screenplay and story), Chris Butler (screenplay), Shannon Tindle (story)
US Release Date: 19 August 2016
Primary Cast: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Brenda Vaccaro

Young Kubo (Parkinson) lives alone with his mother in a cave on the edge of the sea. Every morning, he gets his mother out of bed and makes her breakfast before travelling to a nearby village where he spends the day telling stories. Aided by a magical instrument and plenty of origami paper, Kubo captivates the crowd completely from morning to sunset.

At his mother’s behest, Kubo never stays out after dark—until he does. At which point, he is caught up in an epic adventure filled with magic, mystery, tragedy, and love. Along the way, Kubo is guided by a protective monkey (Theron) and a man cursed to have the form of a beetle (McConaughey). With Monkey and Beetle’s help, Kubo discovers abilities he never knew he had while also learning the truth about his family’s history.

The tale told by Kubo and the Two Strings (Kubo) is one that’s been told a thousand times, but its immersive visuals paired with a deft-hand for storytelling both set the film apart.

Kubo is that rare family film that doesn’t have a whiff of laziness about it. In Knight and Laika’s hands, even talking animals—a tired imperative of animation—manage to feel fresh. The film is brimming with substance and style alike, and it’s clear that genuine care, thought, and heart were all involved in its creation. Though it possesses emotional weight, Kubo isn’t heavy, and it certainly isn’t flat. Instead, the film passes through the dark of the theater like an enchanted breeze. And even if the script isn’t perfect, the film remains so lovely and mesmerizing that it doesn’t really matter.

Visually speaking, Kubo is one of best animated films I’ve seen. It may even become a personal favorite. Since I won’t know what it’s like to grow up with Kubo the way that I did with so many Disney films, it may never affect me as deeply some of them did, but I still appreciate the great deal of work, animation, heart, and artistry that it took to make it.

There is something pleasantly strange about stop-motion, and Kubo embraces this wholeheartedly. Used as it is in the film, stop-motion evokes the uncanny while imbuing the movie with a fantastical, dreamlike quality. Visually, the world of Kubo is the world of imagination—it may take its root in reality, but it is another place entirely, and for all its otherworldliness, it attracts far more than it repels. The animation in the film is incredibly textured. It has depth. In effect, the art is as much a character as Kubo or anyone else. The smooth, flawless surfaces that dominate the industry are not to be found here. Instead, Laika presents expertly executed imperfection for audiences to get lost in, and the film is overflowing with life as a result.

Kubo also exhibits its daring and its singular identity in its narrative, albeit with less intensity and abandon. The film’s tale is timeless; it is at once pleasantly unique and totally familiar. It’s a fairy tale of sorts, and, as such, it operates within an established set of parameters. And yet, it never lets such limits stifle its creativity or sense of wonder. Importantly, Kubo also possesses enough courage not to over-explain its narrative for effect. More than other family films, it allows its characters, their journey, and its images to speak for themselves, and it doesn’t dumb itself down more than necessary. In short, Kubo balances its creative daring with enough restraint that adult audiences should have no problem falling under its spell.

For the most part, the film’s voice cast works to support Knight’s overall vision. Art Parkinson’s voice is appropriately small and earnest. Rooney Mara is also quite memorable as two of the film’s villains (known collectively as, “The Sisters”), and her cold, measured tones make for some of the most frightening moments. Ralph Fiennes is also good (and appropriately intimidating) as the Moon King, although his performance won’t surprise anyone whose heard any of his other voice work.

Though the film’s cast is strong overall, McConaughey does throw Kubo’s tone off balance from time to time. His character, Beetle, is often used for comic relief, but the jokes and McConaughey’s particular sound don’t always mesh with the rest of the film. There is something unrefined about his presence; and had his character been reworked, the film may have been much better for it.

In other ways, the film would have also been improved by a voice cast in which Asian actors weren’t relegated to only the smallest roles. But then, how would they have used McConaughey’s name to get people in the door?

Though I watched plenty of animation as a child, nearly all of it came from Nickelodeon and Disney (the most notable exception being Rankin/Bass Christmas cartoons). As an adult, I only see an animated film in theaters once or twice a year, and those films also originate from a limited number of places. I didn’t see my fist Aardman movie until Shaun the Sheep, and the most recent Dreamworks film that I remember watching is Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (which came out in 2002, for any who’s counting). My knowledge of animation-like most things—is a bit more limited than I would like. As of today, Kubo and the Two Strings is the only Laika film that I’ve seen, but it certainly won’t be my last. I was more than impressed by the film, and I’m incredibly eager to see what this inventive, Oregon-based studio does next.

Until Next Time
I actually saw Kubo the weekend that it came out, but life delayed my review a bit. Regardless of how much I enjoyed it, the film has the distinction of being the first—and currently, the only—movie I’ve paid to see here in LA (which is just as meaningless as it sounds, but there you have it).

As always, thank you so much for reading! If you’ve seen the film, feel free to share your thoughts on it by posting a comment below (comments are moderated, so don’t fret if you what you post doesn’t appear immediately).

If you’d like to keep up with me in between posts, you can easily follow me on twitter and letterboxd.

What I’ve Been Watching: Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hugo, and The 39 Steps

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Film: Hitchcock/Truffaut
Director: Kent Jones
Writers: Kent Jones, Serge Toubiana
US Release Date: 4 December 2015
Primary Cast: Mathieu Amalric (narrator), Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Peter Bogdanovich, Oliver Assayas, Wes Anderson, Arnaud Desplechin, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader

Before beginning my first semester of graduate school, I elected to spend an evening watching various television shows on the internet. Then, after several episodes of The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I decided to watch Hitchcock/Truffaut on HBO GO.

At only an hour and twenty minutes, Hitchcock/Truffaut provides a brief, broad picture of its subject matter, but it remains worth watching all the same. Film-lovers of various kinds should be able to find something worthwhile, enjoyable, or illuminating in Jones’s work, even if they are not particularly familiar with Hitchcock’s filmography.

The primary feeling in the documentary is one of genuine appreciation for Hitchcock and his contribution to cinema (both through his own films and through the ways in which his methods and work have influenced others). In this way, the film is better at entertaining viewers while urging them to (re)watch Hitchcock with an eye for the auteur’s incredible skill and craftsmanship than it is at merely educating them. Despites its subject matter and various talking heads, there is nothing pretentious about the film either, and it remains engaging and accessible throughout. Viewers already well-versed in the master of suspense may occasionally be frustrated by this, but Jones’s film, like so many of Hitchcock’s, is meant to be accessible to a wide audience.

The film would be more interesting to Hitchcock fans if it close-read more of his work (with the exception of Vertigo and Psycho, it skips over most of it), but it remains a solid companion piece to Truffaut’s interview-filled book. Though Hitchcock/Truffaut might not provide audiences with any earth-shaking revelations, it does add perspective to Hitchcock’s work while giving audiences several—limited, but not unimportant—nuggets of cinematic wisdom.

Film: Hugo
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: John Logan (screenplay), Brian Selznick (book)
US Release Date: 23 November 2011
Primary Cast: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Chloe Grace Moretz, Emily, Helen McCroy, Jude Law, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee

Though I’ve only seen a handful of them since being introduced to Raging Bull in college, I generally enjoy Scorsese’s films. Which is why I never went out of my way to watch Hugo.

As someone who has loved some of the director’s bloodier, darker, and more disturbing work, the idea of watching a PG family drama made by him never really appealed to me. So, when I found out I would be watching Hugo in a class earlier this week, I was less than thrilled. I understand how Hugo might warm the hearts of nostalgic cinephiles, and I understand why someone who loves film and film history as much as Scorsese may have wanted to make it. That said, I don’t expect to be watching it again. The film is, in a number of ways, an ode to the magic of movies. But the magic of movies can’t watch a film, and those of us already aware of its existence know that it can produce works far more affecting, thought-provoking, and important than Hugo.

Visually, the film is quite gorgeous, and it’s crystal clear why the academy chose to honor the film for its cinematography, its art direction, and its effects. The world of Hugo is incredibly detailed and is bursting with life and color, and some of the film’s images are quite captivating.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of its narrative. The film is over-crowded with characters and sub-plots that should have been cut, and its story proceeds in clumsy and uninteresting fashion. Parts of film feel forced, and much of it is overconstructed that little remains but surface. Kingsley, McCroy, and Baron Cohen each provide some memorable and lightly touching moments, but they are too scattered to elevate the film into the realm of its director’s more notable works.

As a tribute to the power and wonder of cinema, Hugo is lamentably flat. It lacks momentum, feeling, and purpose. It’s as lifeless as the automaton that Hugo works to repair, and it doesn’t do anything to push the medium forward as it’s subject, Georges Méliès, would have done. It’s also unclear who this film is meant for—perhaps those particularly fond of the color blue?

Film: The 39 Steps
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: John Buchan (novel), Charles Bennett (adaptation), Ian Hay (dialogue)
US Release Date: 1 August 1935
Primary Cast: Robert Donat, Madeline Carroll, Godfrey Tearle, Lucie Mannheim, John Laurie, Peggy Ashcroft, Wylie Watson

If there’s one thing I’m legitimately pleased with concerning my first semester of graduate school, it’s how much Hitchcock I’ll be watching. Though I’m not actually taking a Hitchcock course—I’m navigating the dark, hostile waters of film theory and grad student professionalization instead—I am a TA for one, and that’s almost as good. I’ll also be able to watch most of the films in 35mm, which is definitely an added bonus, especially since Vertigo is the only Hitchcock work that I’ve seen on film before.

The first film on the syllabus: 1935’s The 39 Steps.

In terms of plot alone, The 39 Steps is easily categorized as a mystery/thriller, but when it comes to its actual story, it’s more of a character-driven comedy at heart. For all the death, chase scenes, and espionage, the film has a noticeably light-hearted feel, and it moves along so quickly that viewers have little choice but to have a good time. Even those characters who appear for just a single sequence are sketched with clarity, and the entire film is brimming with life and personality as a result. Donat’s portrayal of Hannay is also rather enjoyable, and he presents the film’s protagonist with more emotional nuance than one might expect.

At just 86 minutes, The 39 Steps doesn’t take its time, and viewers aren’t given any more of chance to catch their breath than Hannay is. And while it’s true that aspects of the plot are a little ridiculous when examined in the cold light of day, it’s also important to remember that Hitchcock never let plausibility stop him from doing what he wanted. If the results are entertaining, and if the film works according to its own internal logic, then sheer realism shouldn’t be much of a concern.

One thing that continues to surprise me about Hitchcock is just how well his films hold up. The 39 Steps is over 81 years old, but it’s characters and story remain engaging, entertaining, and (at times) quite humorous. While watching the film, I was constantly reminded of North by Northwest (1959), and The 39 Steps can certainly be thought of a precursor to that work. Moreover, even if The 39 Steps is not as impressive as some of Hitch’s more popular movies, it’s still quite good, and those who’ve enjoyed his more prominent masterpieces would do well to go back and give this earlier film a look.

Until Next Time
Grad school has started, and my life may soon devolve into exhaustion and chaos. Which is to say that I can’t promise consistent posts right now. Then again, when have I ever? In all seriousness, I may mostly be doing posts like this one for a while—posts in which I provide a sort of overview of the films I’ve watched in a period of about a week or so. Also, while I’ll often be watching 3-4 movies a week in class, I won’t be making it out to the movie theater much at all, and that will inevitably impact the lay of the land here for a bit. The more you know.

In the meantime, why don’t you follow me on twitter and letterboxd?

A Review of Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer: Faulty Genre-Bending Horror

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Film: I Am Not a Serial Killer
Director: Billy O’Brien
US Release Date: 26 August 2016
Primary Cast: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Karl Geary, Christina Baldwin, Dee Noah

John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) is a high school student in a small, cold Midwestern town. The precise name of the town doesn’t matter; Max considers it “nowhere,” and nothing remarkable should ever happen there. When not at school, Max spends much of his time reading up on serial killers and helping his mother (Laura Fraser) at the family funeral home.

A diagnosed sociopath, Max struggles to connect with other people, and—like so many other teenagers at the center of novels—he is often bullied at school. In fact, the only person Max can really open up to is his therapist, Dr. Neblin (Geary). During his conversations with Neblin, Max reveals a belief that, despite his efforts to keep himself in check, he has no choice but to become a murderer.

And then a lot of people start dying in Max’s town. Their bodies are ripped apart, and some piece of them is always missing. As most of the town is steeped in grief and helpless panic, Max is filled with fascination, and he tries to understand the mind of whoever is behind the carnage.

Billy O’Brien’s adaptation of Dan Wells’s 2009 novel is an unevenly executed film that doesn’t quite manage to rise to the occasion. While dotted with bright spots—including an offbeat, devilish sense of humor—the movie remains rather flat, and it does little to truly engage, disturb, or stick with its audiences. I Am Not a Serial Killer is not a bad film, but it’s not a remarkable or noteworthy one either. O’Brien presents a film that will entertain a number of viewers, but it won’t deeply affect most of them, and the movie neglects to develop the most interesting aspects of its own story.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is at its best when it embraces its comedic side and when its focused on John’s character. John’s fascination with the macabre, combined with his desire not to kill despite his sociopathy and job at a morgue could all make for a fascinating character study (as could the psychology of the actual killer), but O’Brien never commits to that. Instead, he clutters his film with too many throwaway characters and minor plot details, which slows the film down while distracting from its more intriguing elements.

In addition to its writers’ better moments, Max Records (Where the Wild Things Are) also does a good deal to help the film shine. Records clearly has what it takes to make the transition from child star to adult actor, and I’d love to see him at the center of something a little more compelling. That said, Records makes the most of the material, and he navigates John’s personal struggles, the film’s lighter side, and a troubled script with considerable talent. Even when he’s revealing John’s darkest impulses, Records has the charisma and skill to keep the character sympathetic, and to keep viewers at least mildly concerned for his wellbeing.

At turns dark, creepy, quirky, funny, and mildly endearing, I Am Not a Serial Killer is not without strong moments, but it is also weighed down by an unfortunate inability to elicit emotion or intense attachment from its viewers. Like John himself, O’Brien’s film lacks emotional intelligence. As a result, viewers any older than John may leave the theater having felt almost nothing at all, and such lack of investment does not bode well for anyone hoping to see the rest of Wells’s trilogy brought to the big screen.

A bleak sense of humor alone is not enough to keep a film afloat, and O’Brien runs out of steam too long before the credits roll. Clocking in at under 2 hours, I Am Not a Serial Killer feels much longer, and it’s clumsy pacing weakens it considerably. The film also suffers from an identity crisis. In blurring the lines between genres, this YA/Mystery/Thriller/Horror/Sci-Fi occupies a complex space that invites impactful, innovative storytelling. Unfortunately, what O’Brien does within that space doesn’t capitalize on its potential.

Though funny, I Am Not a Serial Killer lacks energy. Though dark, it’s never truly scary. In fact, the harder the film tries to delve into horror and the strange, the less terrifying and effective the entire endeavor becomes. In fact—and due largely to abrupt, inelegant presentation—the film’s blackest, most grotesque images have the unfortunate effect of trivializing and detracting from John’s internal battles.

The last act is where O’Brien’s work most clearly comes apart. Instead of giving viewers a solid conclusion capable of elevating all that comes before it while also obscuring the flaws that haunt it, I Am Not a Serial Killer ends in disappointing fashion, which only calls attention to its problems. The film’s final turns are executed in a clumsy, slipshod manner which fails to provide viewers with any worthwhile or satisfying payoff.

There is a lot in I Am Not a Serial Killer that could produce a powerful, thought-provoking film. John’s way of seeing and connecting to the world, the killer’s motives, the ways in which the killer and John are different (and alike), and what happens to ordinary people when the devil invades their town are all subjects that deserve exploration. Unfortunately, O’Brien doesn’t present such topics with enough thought (or heart), and his film lacks depth because of it.

Taken as the product of its best ideas, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a unique, character-driven work that combines the creepy with the darkly comedic in entertaining fashion. Taken as a whole however, the film is just a hair better than “alright.” The film’s distinct personality is often charming, and there is plenty in the movie that deserves praise, but there isn’t much under surface, and any larger ideas are not well-articulated enough for I Am Not a Serial Killer to have a lasting impact.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for stopping by! As I indicated in my last post, I’m currently adjusting to life in LA. I start graduate classes and my related on-campus jobs this coming Monday, and I’m still pretty unsure of what my life will look like after that.

One thing I do know, is that I will be spending a good deal of the next year and a half reading about film theory and film history. So be sure to wish me luck as far as that’s concerned.

I also saw Kubo and The Two Strings earlier this evening, and it’s one of the best animated films I’ve seen in a while. And if I have the time, I’ll say more about that in another post.

What I’ve Been Watching: Hiatus Edition

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It’s been just over a month since my last post, which may be why I feel so strange writing this one. In the time since my review of Swiss Army Man, I wrapped things up at my old job, packed up my belongings, and drove from Tulsa to LA to begin life as a graduate student in the Cinema and Media Studies program at USC. Until a few days ago, I’d never been farther west than Farmington, NM, and—after two years away—I certainly don’t feel ready to be a student again. I don’t know this city. I don’t know this school. And I don’t know how to study film at this level (reminder: my undergraduate degree is in English). On a related note, I’ve been incredibly overwhelmed by a number of things for a while now. A lot is changing, and I no longer have the comfort of a routine that I know well. I don’t even know where the nearest movie theater is (although, I’m sure I could figure that out pretty easily). But I’m here. And I’ve brought my blog with me.

In light of both my recent relocation and my impending status as a master’s student and TA, it’s clear that my life will be changing even more in the upcoming weeks and months. And so, this blog might change a bit too. . . though I’m not sure how. I may find that I can no longer see movies in theaters and may focus more on films that have been out for a while instead. I might choose to write about films that come up in the courses I take. I might attend so many screenings on campus and be so wrapped up in my studies and work that I barely have a moment to breathe. I might also start writing less reviews and more analyses, or I could even broaden the scope of this blog to include posts in which I discuss life as a student in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. As always, time will tell.

But for now, here’s a few quick words on the movies I watched for the first time over the last several weeks.

Film: Equilibrium
Director: Kurt Wimmer
US Release Date: 6 December 2002
Primary Cast: Christian Bale, Taye Diggs, Sean Bean, Emily Watson, Christian Kahrmann, William Fichtner, Sean Pertwee

On July 13, 2016, I—in a moment of sheer unthoughtfulness—clicked Equilibrium after opening Netflix. Instead of doing any research on the film or looking through the site for something a little more worthwhile, I watched a movie based on nothing more than its genre (sci-fi/action) and the fact that it was right there in front of me.

While the cold and gray dystopic future in which Equilibrium is set initially holds promise for a thought-provoking film on human emotion and on what becomes of man under totalitarianism, it quickly abandons such potential. Instead of using his genre film to explore what it means to be human, Wimmer elects to present a shallow, watered-down tale that doesn’t have quite enough style to disguise its unfortunate lack of substance.

There are moments when Equilibrium is entertaining, but it is also terribly forgettable. Even with its slick action sequences and its invented setting, the film feels uninspired. Certain plot points are also rather contrived, and none of the performances are particularly impressive either. For a film so concerned with emotion, Equilibrium fails to give viewers reason to feel anything at all. Instead, Wimmer wastes a perfectly good sci-fi premise on a film that offers little in ideas and viewing experience alike. Unless they have some incredible love for long black outfits or have (somehow) all but run out of movies to watch online, Equilibrium is a film viewers should have no qualms about skipping.

Film: Blazing Saddles
Director: Mel Brooks
US Release Date: 7 February 1974
Primary Cast: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Slim Pickens

I’m not sure why I took so long to watch Blazing Saddles, because I thoroughly enjoyed The Producers and Young Frankenstein, and Gene Wilder has long held a special place in my heart.

Inevitably, Blazing Saddles reflects the time in which it was made and, as a result, some moments in the film (such as Mel Brooks in red face) made me squirm a bit. Still, I also understand that Blazing Saddles is very much aware of racism, and that it means to put certain types of prejudice front and center.

Content, context, and political correctness aside, I definitely had a good time watching Blazing Saddles. Parts of the film are better than others, and the script (which was penned by 5 people) is a little uneven, but it all comes together to form something that works. The movie is incredibly fun and is much more clever than it may seem at first. To many, Brooks is the master of “low” comedy (or of “high-low” comedy if you prefer), and I have no intention of arguing with them. Blazing Saddles is a mess, but it knows it’s a mess, and—most importantly—it’s a hilarious and entertaining mess at that. Mel Brooks does what he wants, and his comedy is one-of-a-kind.

As for the performances in the film, I particularly enjoyed Cleavon Little. He is incredibly charming as Bart, and he is like a bright ray of sunshine at the center of this frenetic film. Although his character is less likable, Harvey Korman is also quite memorable.

Now that I’ve seen Blazing Saddles, I find myself itching to rewatch and explore some of Brooks’s other works. He isn’t for everyone—hell, I only really like him when I’m in the right mood—but his films, even when they are ridiculous, are worth paying attention to. I can’t yet say whether Blazing Saddles is my favorite Brooks, but I definitely liked it better than Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

Film: Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Director: Taika Waititi
US Release Date: 24 June 2016
Primary Cast: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Oscar Kightley, Taika Waititi, Rhys Darby, Stan Walker, Mike Minogue, Cohen Holloway, Troy Kingi

With just two films, Taika Waititi has become one of my very favorite working directors, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople is currently one of the best films of 2016.

Waititi’s latest is an adventure dramedy that gave me the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a while. And I felt the same way about his vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows when I saw it last year. Waititi is a talented and inventive writer, and he clearly has a knack for intelligent, quirky comedy. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is built on its characters, and it never forgets its story, but it never goes too long without a laugh either.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is genuinely funny. It’s also incredibly charming. There is something precious and undoubtedly touching about Waititi’s tale of accidental fugitives who develop an unlikely friendship. Even at its most whacky, it never lacks heart. Narratively speaking, there’s a little bit of Up in the film, and some of the jokes and visuals are reminiscent of Wes Anderson, but Hunt for the Wilderpeople stands apart from any such influences. Above all, this film—which is positively overflowing with personality—is built on its writer/director and on its wonderful cast.

The most important member of that cast is Julian Dennison, who is absolutely fantastic as young Ricky Baker. As Baker, Dennison is sure to captivate the hearts of audiences the world over, and he’s pretty hilarious too. The chemistry between Dennison and Sam Neill is also impressive, and the two make for a wonderful onscreen duo that easily carries the weight of Waititi’s vision.

I love this movie. I’d probably give it a hug if I could. Waititi is a gem, and I hope we get a lot more from him that allows him to showcase both New Zealand and his distinct personality the way that this film does.

Film: The Little Prince
Director: Mark Osborne
US Release Date: 5 August 2016
Primary Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Riley Osborne, Albert Brooks, Bud Cort, Paul Giamatti

I’ve never read The Little Prince; and while I’m sure that more intimate knowledge of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous tale would have made it easier for me to follow some of Osborne’s recent film, I had no problem enjoying it.

The release of Zootopia may have impacted Paramount’s decision to drop The Little Prince, but the film’s script and storytelling style may have also had something to do with it. Even though The Little Prince is a story often read by the young, its message is one that adults need to hear. While animated, Osborne’s The Little Prince is not necessarily aimed at kids, and it occupies a strange (but perfectly valid) place that may have left certain executives anxious. For instance, the movie lacks the sort of flashiness and loud humor often seen in children’s films and opts for a more tender and occasionally somber tone instead. This is not a bad thing—it is part of what makes the film so good—but it may have left studios worried about its mass appeal and marketability. The film also has a complex narrative structure, which could confuse some viewers, especially younger ones.

That said, The Little Prince is delightful, and it deserved the wide US theatrical release that Paramount robbed it of. The film isn’t perfect, but it’s well above average. It’s visually strong, it’s emotionally powerful, and it doesn’t dumb itself down just because its protagonist is an animated child.

One of the very best things about The Little Prince is its animation. Notably, the film successfully uses multiple animation styles in a way that enhances its overall look while also strengthening the story it tells. If viewers find themselves preferring the gorgeous, vivid, and textured stop-motion images of the little prince’s story, they shouldn’t be surprised; for, they are the images of love and imagination, whereas the dull CGI of the little girl’s regimented, serious life represent a less desirable way of looking at the world. At a time when so many animated films seems to share a single visual style, The Little Prince sets itself apart quite beautifully.

Osborne’s film also boasts a high-profile voice cast. At the top of the list sits Jeff Bridges, whose unique sound lends a good deal of personality and heart to The Little Prince. Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, and Albert Brooks also provide some memorable moments. However, child actors Riley Osborne (Kung Fu Panda) and Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar) are the real (rather gentle) heart of the story.

The Little Prince has a fractured, multi-part narrative. Taken as a whole, its parts form a solid and affecting film, but certain sections are noticeably stronger than others. The stop-motion segments, as well as a particularly fantastical sequence near the end are simply more interesting than much of the film that surrounds them. As good as The Little Prince is, its unique structure may leave viewers frustrated whenever the story is set firmly in reality. Of course, those viewers could just simply find their inner child and focus on that which is “essential,” but that’s another matter.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by! I also rewatched X2: X-Men United (because I am X-Men trash), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (because I love LotR and TTT is my personal favorite), and Spy Kids (because I couldn’t remember anything about it) while I was not posting. Make of that what you will.

If you want to keep up with this blog in between posts, make sure to follow WordsonFilms on twitter. You can also follow me on letterboxd, but my account is a complete mess, and you aren’t allowed to hold that against me.

Also, for what it’s worth, I spent approximately 50% of my free time during my hiatus watching (and rewatching) Bojack Horseman. Which I love. Which you should watch. Because it’s the best.

A Review of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man: A Mixed Bag of Farts, Humor, and Heart

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Film: Swiss Army Man
Directors: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Primary Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
US Release Date: 1 July 2016

Hank (Dano) is a young man stranded on a desert island. Starving, and lonely, he decides to commit suicide. But then, just as he is about to hang himself, a corpse (Radcliffe) washes up on the beach.

The corpse—which Hank eventually names “Manny”—is rather gassy. So gassy in fact, that Hank is able to ride him like a jet-ski back to the mainland. Once there, Hank is confronted with the daunting task of finding his way through the wilderness and back to civilization. Though he considers leaving Manny behind, he feels indebted to him and ends up bringing him along instead.

Though carrying Manny does slow Hank down, it soon becomes clear that he welcomes his presence. Even though Manny (being a corpse and all) is silent at first, he does find his voice eventually. When he does, he and Hank develop a special bond. After learning that Manny does not remember life, Hank begins teaching him about various things, and their conversations cover a number of topics, including Jurassic Park, pooping, trash, masturbation, and riding the bus. All the while, Hank finds a multitude of uses for Hank’s body—uses which entertain, which provide an outlet for Hank’s emotions and creativity, and which help to keep Hank alive.

Swiss Army Man is the first feature film from music video directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known collectively as “Daniels”). Though its premise is absurd, Swiss Army Man is much more than cheap fart jokes or some Daniel-Radcliffe-plays-a-corpse gimmick. It’s sure to offend its fair share of sticks-in-the-mud with its more vulgar, puerile, and bodily moments, but Swiss Army Man will also capture the hearts and imaginations of countless more. Though Daniels do leave room for improvement, their efforts also yield a well-paced and fascinating cinematic adventure. Swiss Army Man deserves criticism, but not for its particular brand of humor or for its desire to blend the raunchy and the strange with the grim and the sentimental. Like Manny’s body and like Hank’s imagination, this daringly different buddy comedy accomplishes a great deal, and it’s noticeably far from ordinary.

Swiss Army Man isn’t shy about who or what it is. Unlike Hank, the film itself is not embarrassed by that which makes it “weird” and different. Instead, it allows its particular personality to saturate every scene. The film begins with a whacky—and decidedly memorable—opening sequence unlike anything viewers will have already seen. Instead of slowly acclimating viewers its stranger characteristics, Swiss Army Man chooses to bypass any small talk or foreplay and gets straight to exuberant warts and all instead.

As one might expect, the quirks and confidence of Daniels’ are present throughout their film’s narrative, especially where Manny is concerned. That said, they also inform its music and visuals, both of which are integral to the film’s layered tone and its specific feel. Swiss Army Man’s score—which was created by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra—is quite beautiful, and it adds emotional depth to the film while highlighting its more fantastical elements. At the same time, the film’s detailed and textured images also work to lend both depth and distinctive personality to this surreal adventure movie.

Swiss Army Man borders on fantasy, and Daniels are confident enough in their vision to leave their film in a liminal space that doesn’t’ always coincide with any sharply defined reality. Within mere moments, what’s real and what isn’t becomes unclear, and it remains so all the way through. And though Swiss Army Man does not make the mistake of completely explaining away its more hallucinatory elements, it does gradually reveal that Hank’s mind and emotions can’t be separated from the world of the film around him. In fact, that viewers receive just about everything from Hank’s warped and idiosyncratic perspective is crucial; by telling their story in such a manner, Daniels invite audiences to grapple with the (un)reality and the potential meaning of its every moment and detail, which both enriches and complicates interaction with the film.

On the surface, Swiss Army Man is a survival story wrapped up in a flatulence-fueled comedy. But it’s also a complex film whose narrative is hounded by despair. It’s about a deeply felt life-saving friendship, and it’s about a man’s struggle to remember the “life [he] forgot.” It’s a film that required intense imagination and a special combination of immature and black humor to create. It also required a good deal of heart, and even though that heart isn’t always in the right place, Swiss Army Man’s emotional force is sure to surprise many who see it. Daniels’ script provides genuinely funny, genuinely puzzling, and genuinely moving moments alike, and a consistent stream of clever turns enables their film not only to make the gross seem palatable, but to transform it into something memorable, affecting, and multifaceted.

Script and imagination aside, a great deal of Swiss Army Man’s power resides in its two lead performances, both of which demonstrate a great deal of creative commitment on behalf of the actors. While hopeless Hank is hardly Dano’s most compelling character, he does a fantastic job with the script he is given, and he brings a good deal of weight to a film whose very premise quietly threatens to unmoor it at every turn. As the talking-multipurpose-tool-corpse Manny, Radcliffe has the more interesting of the film’s roles, and he certainly makes the most of it. Combining emotional intelligence, comedic timing, bravery, and restraint, Radcliffe’s work in Swiss Army Man may just be his best yet. Who knew that playing a farting corpse could go so well?

Swiss Army Man is ridiculous and whimsical and emotional. It’s dark and funny and heartfelt too. It’s also flawed. And though part of Daniels’ message is that flaws are the norm and that even seemingly useless things, thoughts, and feelings have their value, that does not excuse certain imperfections in their film. Swiss Army Man’s final section is weak compared to much of the journey that precedes it, and the final moments feel just a little too slapdash in the end. Daniels also would have done well to cut the numerous flashbacks meant to flesh out Hank’s background; such scenes actually weaken Hank’s characterization, and they detract from the film by removing viewers from the kooky and engrossing reality of its present.

That said—and for all its bright spots—there remains one aspect of the film that I can’t stop thinking about: Hank’s cellphone wallpaper. The image, which features a woman named Sarah (Winstead)—a woman he does not know, a woman he photographed without permission—is presented as Hank’s reason for running away as well as for finding his way back home again. And the more I think about this detail, the more disturbed and disappointed I feel. Instead of leaving Swiss Army Man offended by fart jokes and body humor, I left trying to figure out the extent of its protagonist’s misogyny. Hank’s unsettling obsession with Sarah—whom he falls in love with based on appearance and selfish fantasies only—is not presented as particularly virtuous or healthy, but it isn’t wholly condemned either. Perhaps one of the lessons that Hank is supposed to learn (with Manny’s help) is that there is much more to life than some woman who doesn’t love him, but the film also ends without that woman ever regaining something like humanity. The image on Hank’s phone completely flattens Sarah, and Daniels are content to leave her that way. When Sarah does finally appear in person, the film does hint that Hank’s behavior toward her is disturbing, but it’s too little too late, and it’s certainly not enough to undo the fact that Daniels repeatedly ask their viewers to side with Hank regardless of his creepy obsession with her.

There is nothing cute about stalking someone or about reducing women to their appearance, and Swiss Army Man’s directors should have given Hank some other motivation for falling apart and running way. Apparently, Hank never really grew up or learned to see women as actual people who exist independently of his own desires, fantasies, and insecurities; and since Swiss Army Man is shaped by his perspective, the film is complicit in such misogynistic tendencies. With this in mind, Manny’s penis-compass (which is a thing) ceases to seem funny and becomes rather frightening. Though there is much in it worth praising, there is still something very male and very toxic bubbling under the surface of this film—whenever it faded from view, I was swept up by the directors’ vision and had a great time. But when it reared its ugly head, I fought the urge to squirm.

Swiss Army Man has a little bit of everything; it boasts strong performances, numerous laughs, visual and aural inventiveness, and a good bit of daring. The film also has a unique, complex tone and is unapologetic about itself in a manner that helps it stand out from other movies. Not all of Daniels’ attempts at depth and sentiment work, but most of Swiss Army Man remains strangely endearing all the same. This odd and often charming work is far from perfect, but its original ideas are entertaining, fascinating, and refreshing. If Hank weren’t a clueless misogynist, the film would be much better; as it stands, it’s still good enough to ensure that plenty will be lining up to see what Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert do next.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading! As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I will probably be pretty scarce for most of the next several weeks. If you want to keep up with this blog during any hiatus, your best option is to connect with me on twitter, but leaving a question or comment on this page works too.

A Review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon: A Provocative and Visually Stylish Nightmare

theneondemon
Film: The Neon Demon
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Primary Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Karl Glusman, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks
US Release Date: 24 June 2016

Jesse (Fanning) is a quiet 16-year-old girl with the face of angel. She has no family. She has no friends. But she is beautiful, and that might just be enough.

When the film opens, Jesse is being shot by an aspiring photographer she met online (Glusman). Just after the shoot, she encounters Ruby (Malone), a makeup artist who prepares faces for photoshoots and funerals alike. When she learns that Jesse is new in town, Ruby takes her under her wing and even introduces her to a pair of older, more experienced models, named Gigi (Heathcote) and Sarah (Lee). After their initial meeting however, it becomes clear that Jesse won’t be developing any sort of friendship with Gigi or Sarah, as the two women are clearly threatened by her youth and by her potential to take the fashion industry by storm.

If Gigi and Sarah fear Jesse upon meeting her, they are right to do so; for, despite her young age, she is signed to a modelling agency within just days of moving to LA. Soon, she begins her ascent to the top. And then, things become very dark indeed.

Directed by the simultaneously acclaimed and reviled Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon is—to this viewer’s eyes and ears—one of the best movies of the year so far. This cinematic fashion show meets horror show is certainly not for everyone. It will anger, disgust, and disappoint many who see it; but The Neon Demon will also mesmerize, electrify, and delight numerous others. The surface of the film is slick and cold. Its mind is a surreal dreamscape. And its heart is dark, dead, and bloody. Yes, the film’s narrative is messy and occasionally lacking, and some of Refn’s stylistic choices may feel derivative, but regardless of any flaws, this bold, alluring, and indulgent film still provides an experience unlike any other to be had at the movies within the last several years. Love it or hate it, The Neon Demon is not a film that audiences on either side of the fence will be forgetting any time soon. This film aims to titillate and disturb, and for the right viewers, it will do both.

Admittedly, I do still need to see some of Refn’s earlier work, but I can confidently say that his films are intense and visually striking. As a director, he has the power to create dark, alluring, unforgettable fever dreams that both captivate and punish those who gaze on them. Refn is not afraid to alienate his audiences either, and he often seems to revel in making them uncomfortable. Though they vary in subject matter and degrees of success, Refn’s movies provide impactful and singular viewing experiences. I’ll never forget the way I felt while first watching Drive or Valhalla Rising, and to a slightly reduced degree, I can say the very same for Bronson and Only God Forgives. And now, I know that I’ll also always remember the first time I watched The Neon Demon. As Refn himself likes to say, the film “penetrated.” It gave me an experience that will never leave me—an experience marked by a sublime combination of the beautiful and the horrifying. And that alone is worth celebration.

Like Jesse, The Neon Demon is visually spellbinding, and it gets much of its power from the way it looks. It knows this, and there is nothing inherently wrong with it either. Sure, the film may be shallow, but it is deliberately, and thoroughly so. If Refn’s characters seem to lack depth, that isn’t because he forgot to give them depth, but because this isn’t that sort of film. In The Neon Demon, Jesse and other models are reduced to nothing more than their appearances—a fact which can either destroy them, give them great power, or both. The film’s narrative is also somewhat sparse, and it often wanders without clear focus, but plot isn’t what matters here. The Neon Demon is much better at instilling feelings, at provoking thoughts, and at playing with its viewers senses than it is at telling a clear and detailed story, but that does not make it a bad film. The writing isn’t perfect—Dean should have been edited out, and the final moments did leave me wanting something more—but it is what it wants to be. Even if it is mostly surface, The Neon Demon remains fascinating and powerful. Maybe that’s the point—after all, there’s a reason the world Jesse navigates exists, and there’s a reason that corporations keeps using glossy airbrushed images of pretty girls to sell their garbage.

Quite frequently in Refn, style is substance, and those deriding The Neon Demon for possessing too much of one and not enough of the other are missing the mark. “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Or at least, it’s almost the only thing. The others are food, sex, and blood, and The Neon Demon embraces all three with wild abandon. Refn even includes hints of vampirism, in which food, sex, and blood are all but inseparable. More importantly, where the film is absurd or gruesome, it is supposed to be. As ridiculous as it may seem on paper, there is nothing uncalculated in this movie—and that certainly includes its most vile and upsetting moments. The world of the film devours young women and turns them into monsters all at once, and Refn portrays that in extremely vivid fashion.

**[This paragraph contains spoilers]** Men want to rape and use Jesse. Women want to rape, and kill, and be her. In such a nightmarish world, why wouldn’t there be room for such taboo acts as cannibalism and necrophilia? Perhaps The Neon Demon is shocking and awful for the sake of being shocking and awful, but it is also shocking and awful because it’s exciting and because it makes sense. When The Neon Demon begins, Jesse is posing as beautiful corpse. By the end, she does so once more. Not only is there a beautiful (and terrible) symmetry in that fact, but it’s how it always had to be; and it’s not actually that hard to imagine why Ruby, Gigi, or Sarah do what they do once one considers the realities of the world Refn places them in.

Refn doesn’t give two shits about catering to respectable sensibilities, and pleasing mainstream audiences is not what he does best. The man loves the dark and the horrible, and he isn’t above mixing erotic pleasure with graphic violence. Awful as he may be to some, Refn does not hide the fact that he takes delight in the base; instead, he gives viewers a chance to do the same within the comfort and safety of a movie theater. There is something incredibly and unabashedly self-indulgent about The Neon Demon, and viewers can be enraptured by it, or they can look away.

The performances in the film are solid but don’t really need to be discussed, as they are all subordinate to Refn’s larger vision. Dialogue is not the primary means by which The Neon Demon moves along. For the most part, the cast are asked to look a certain way, to evoke a certain mood, and to maintain the film’s icy, glittery, glassy shell, and they do so beautifully.

What does need to be discussed is Cliff Martinez’s score. In fact, Refn owes a great deal to Martinez, whose work is one of the very best aspects of the film. His pounding, sparkling, and haunting tracks are crucial to The Neon Demon’s overall mood and effect, and Refn’s vision and cinematographer Natasha Braier’s images wouldn’t be complete without them. Like the neon triangles on the runway, and like the mirror that Sarah shatters in anger, the score is all sharp angles. It goes from incredibly dark to dazzlingly light at the drop of a hat. There is nothing gentle, or smooth, or timid about it, and it captures the seemingly dissonant subjects and tones of the film quite remarkably. Moreover, though some of the music is beautiful, it is dangerously so, and Martinez’s heavy use of synth and similar sounds doesn’t allow viewers to forget that it—like Gigi—is artificial in nature. Martinez’s score doesn’t simply enhance the film it accompanies; rather, it is an integral part of it, and it lends the film a dark, timeless, and otherworldly feel that elevates the entire cinematic effort.

For some, The Neon Demon may not be worth a single viewing. For others, it will demand many more. Refn is a provocateur, and his latest divisive work will evoke strong reactions from those who see it. Those who are receptive to Refn’s particular aesthetic, to his emphasis on the visual and the visceral, and to his rather depraved approach to his subject matter will leave The Neon Demon buzzing and intoxicated.

It’s not a comedy (at least, not anywhere near the surface), but I laughed when The Neon Demon ended, and I don’t think Refn would have minded my reaction in the slightest. When I laughed, I laughed with a sort of nasty glee that I can’t remember feeling in a movie theater before. I can’t quite describe it, but it was definitely there. Go see the film, and you just might feel it too. And don’t let negative reviews deter you either. The Neon Demon is polarizing and imperfect, but it undoubtedly deserved to be seen all the same.

Until Next Time
I have no idea what I’ll be up to by the time The Neon Demon is available on Blu-ray, but I hope I’ll be able to take the time to rewatch the film and write up some more in-depth analysis—on how it works, on why it does what it does, and on what it has to say.

I may have to put this blog on a short hiatus sometime in late July/early August. I’ll be moving to LA, attempting to get my bearings, starting a job as a TA, and entering a Master’s program at that time, so things are going to be rather crazy for a while. If you want to keep up with me in the meantime, just follow this blog on twitter.

Thanks for stopping by!

What I’ve Been Watching: Trainspotting

trainspotting

Film: Trainspotting
Director: Danny Boyle
Primary Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Kevin McKidd, Peter Mullan, Kelly Macdonald, Shirley Henderson, James Cosmo, Eileen Nicholas
US Release Date: 9 August 1996

Trainspotting, aka that film with lots of feces featuring three actors who would later play minor parts in the Harry Potter series.

Ok not really. But I still can’t help but think of it that way.

Anyway, after my recent encounter with The Shawshank Redemption, I decided to knock another 90s film out of my Netflix queue by watching Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel. Before watching the film, all I knew was that Danny Boyle directed it, Ewan McGregor was in it, and that it depicted a group of heroin addicts. While watching it, I was continually surprised, disgusted, and entertained; what follows is simply a short post elaborating on that fact.

My experience with Boyle’s work has been relatively limited (so far). That said, one thing that his works seem to me to have in common is a great deal of energy. Those films of his that I have seen are kinetic, dynamic, and leap from the screen. Even when they are not all that I might want them to be, Boyle’s movies keep me invested with their combination of intensity and vigorous storytelling. All of this is true for Trainspotting, a film that managed to hold my attention tightly for its entire duration despite the fact that it will probably never join the ranks of my personal favorites.

By the very nature of its subject matter—namely, the lives and the relationships between a number of addicts—one would expect parts of Trainspotting to be unpleasant, but Boyle does not simply decorate his film with moments of grim reality. Instead, he allows grim reality to dominate every scene. While he does not wholly condemn his characters, Boyle doesn’t turn a blind eye to the consequences of their behavior either. Rather, he successfully manages to portray multiple horrors of crime and drug use without ever allowing his film to become melodramatic. Trainspotting may be frustrated and disillusioned, but it does not pair those feelings with moralization. For all their many faults, Trainspotting respects its characters enough not to sugarcoat their lives or to use them to make sweeping generalizations. The film does not judge them or those who live as they do either. As terrible as they might be, the film’s characters are not painted in clear black and white, and it’s certainly no accident that the figure in the film who doesn’t do drugs is the one who hurts the most people.

Trainspotting is many things, but dull is certainly not one of them. The film is fully itself and it has a great deal of style; whether viewers will find that style agreeable it a different issue entirely. That said, Trainspotting actually seems to understand its own potential for revulsion so well that it somehow becomes more likable, and it finds a way to keep audiences hooked—even despite the fact that none of its characters are particularly decent.

Even with its more surreal moments, there is also a fearless commitment to realism in Trainspotting that can make it hard to stomach. Certain scenes may make audiences feel queasy, but they do so so that they might know the film’s characters more intimately. More importantly, as gross and horrible as parts of it are, Trainspotting never rings false.

At the same time, the film is also characterized by a bleak sense of humor that keeps it watchable and—in its own way—quite fun for its entire running time. As awful as its story may be, there is an unmistakable sense of delight buried deep within Trainspotting, and it has far more sheer personality than most film’s I’ve seen.

Tonally and topically speaking, Boyle has a lot of balls in the air over the course of Trainspotting, and he does an impressive job of keeping most of them from crashing to the ground. In this effort, he is helped a great deal by the strength of his film’s characters. Boyle may not wholly defend the actions of Renton, Spud, Tommy, Begbie, and Sick Boy, but he doesn’t allow their shared tendency for bad behavior obscure their individuality either. Each of Trainspotting’s key players is drawn sharply and is distinct from the rest. They come to life vividly, and—for better or for worse—Boyle refuses to rob them of their humanity by turning them into symbols for anything greater than what they are.

As strong as the ensemble is, Ewan McGregor’s Renton is undoubtedly the star of the show. His narration invites viewers in, and his presence anchors the film perfectly. McGregor’s magnetic charm goes a long way in Trainspotting, and his performance may just be its most enjoyable feature.

Furthermore, while the dangers and the results of heroin use certainly play a role in the film, Boyle is even more interested in the connections between his characters. Addicts and criminals may not make the best of friends, but they do seem to understand each other in ways that others do not. As sad as it may be, there are bonds between the film’s protagonists—I use the term loosely—that cannot be explained without heroin. For while the drug makes it difficult for them to trust or to truly help one another, it also gives them the only people they can hope to have long-term and regular companionship with.

In addition to intelligent writing, strong directing, solid acting, and a good measure of (rather dark) verve, Trainspotting also benefits from a fantastic pop sound track. The songs in the film sharpen the scenes they are in, and they bring this energetic, personality-filled film to life with great intensity while firmly placing it in the late 1980s.

Trainspotting includes more shit, bad decisions, and statutory rape than I might prefer, but I’m still glad to have finally seen it. This bold, character-driven film presents a gritty and honest—but not entirely joyless—picture of addiction, and it explores some of the conditions darkest corners. At the same time, Boyle never forgets that he has an audience to entertain—even if that means turning their stomachs from time to time.

Until Next Time
As utterly ridiculous as such a comparison is to make, I felt stronger and more varied emotions watching Trainspotting than I did watching The Shawshank Redemption. Whether this is a reflection of me or of the films themselves remains to be determined.

As always, thanks so much for reading! If you love Trainspotting and would like to tell me why, just leave a comment below or connect with me on twitter. I’d also love to know which Danny Boyle film you think I should watch next, because at this point, I’ve only seen this one, Trance, and Steve Jobs.

My next post will be a full review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. Get stoked!