Tag Archives: Elle Fanning

CAPSULE: HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alex Sharp, , Tom Brooke,

PLOT: An aspiring teenage punk in 1970s London meets a cute girl; only catch is, she’s an alien.

Still from How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This light-hearted artistic fling between the offbeat talents of director John Cameron Mitchell and writer meets its quota of whimsical sweetness, but falls short in terms of weirdness.

COMMENTS: I was completely alone in the theater on a Monday night screening of How to Talk to Girls at Parties. When I bought my ticket the high school cashier on a summer job assumed I was asking to see Life of the Party (ouch!). Hopefully, the empty seats were just a sign of distributor A24’s compromising to commercial realities—better to suck it up and slot this curio’s release in the heat of summer up against Han Solo and the Avengers than to let it slink off to video unscreened—and not a sign of total lack of public interest in the project. While Girls is not a must-see cult hit, it’s not a waste of time, either; at the very least, it’s an oft-unconventional offering that could find a future Netflix audience of adventurous youngsters.

Girls is a period teen romantic comedy with the slightest tinge of punk and sci-fi flavor, more Earth Girls Are Easy (or even Splash) than Liquid Sky. Around the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977), a trio of socially inept teenage punks stumble into the wrong party in Croydon while on the prowl for girls. While the fat kid and the self-appointed pick-up artist wander around scoping out the shapely bodies in tight latex unitards doing Cirque du Soleil acrobatic routines to whalesong electronica, the sweetest and most talented, Enn, stumbles upon a newly “manifested” alien Zan (Elle Fanning, who, God love her, is still seeking out the weirdest roles she can find rather than settling for a part as a minor X-Man character). After Enn explains the basics of his punk philosophy to the girl, Zan seeks, and is reluctantly granted, a dispensation to experience human life for 48 hours (“do more punk to me,” she croons to Enn). The remainder of the plot arc is easy to guess: the mismatched pair court, with the normal teenage social awkwardness amplified by an alien culture clash, while Zan’s “colony” (whom Enn and friends believe to be a cannibalistic California cult) pressure her to get her back into the fold. There’s some mild weirdness along the way: an out-of-place (and not-too-effective) psychedelic music video when Zan improvises a punk number onstage (“we must have been dosed,” Enn reasons); perverse alien sex practices better left undescribed; a conception scene with eggs like yellow party balloon and sperm that looks like a 3D model of a rhinovirus; Nicole Kidman as bitchy aging punk godmother Boadicea; and an underwhelming punks vs. aliens showdown that might have been huge if given a proper B-movie treatment. Overall, the movie has a good-natured, unthreatening-yet-rebellious spirit, and some eye candy in the costuming (each of the alien colonies sports its own sartorial theme). Still, the reveal of the ultimate nature of the alien cult(s) suggests many potentially more interesting stories than the John Hughes-y tale that actually unfolds here.

Multiple reviewers have complained that Girls is trying “too hard” to be a cult movie. This criticism comes from a perspective I’m not quite able to grasp; it’s probably a variation on the old “weird for weirdness’ sake” saw. I suppose the complaint is based on the premise that cult movies can only arise by happy accident when the director was actually trying to do something “more authentic”; this can be easily disproven by dozens of examples (including, I’d argue, one from this very same director). Whether you think it succeeds or not, Girls isn’t trying too hard; it’s just trying to be what it is, which just happens to be something a bit different from what critics and audiences expect.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s fully invested in exploring the weird, but not always the funny.”–Chris Hewitt, Empire (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE NEON DEMON (2016)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee,

PLOT: A 16-year old girl travels to Los Angeles to become a model; her rare beauty makes her an immediate hit, but not everyone in town wishes her success.

Still from The Neon Demon (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Since I’m incredibly jaded when it comes to cinematic strangeness, when I get the rare opportunity to watch a weird movie in a theater, I like to pay attention to the reactions of the other theatergoers to try to assess the film’s baseline level of audience alienation. At the well-attended late night screening where I saw The Neon Demon, at two separate points the young man sitting directly behind me let out a distressed “WTF are we watching?” My own viewing companion (a film fanatic with mainstream tastes) complained Demon was both “too arty” and “too trippy.” On the other hand, there were no confirmed walkouts—although one woman did step out briefly when a certain grossout scene commenced, only to return when it was over. The lack of mass departures was discouraging, but the audience’s stunned reactions were generally strong enough to convince me that Refn’s onto something genuinely weird here.

COMMENTS: Stylishly unreal and bluntly provocative, lit by neon and covered in glitter, The Neon Demon may be the most beautiful and least meaningful art film of 2016. It begins with radiant waif Jesse (Fanning) posing for necrophilia-themed glam shots, and progresses through an expressionist Illuminati pyramid catwalk triumph and gratuitous grossout scenes (which I won’t spoil, except to say that multiple taboos are tweaked, sometimes in the same scene) to a bloody climax. The film is washed in Natasha Braier’s unreal lighting schemes, a la Suspiria—or even more on point, a la a bigger-budgeted Beyond the Black Rainbow—and the characters are clothed in Erin Brenach’s bizarrely conceived metallic/pastel costumes, with the entirety choreographed to a chilly, abstract electronic score by Cliff Martinez. Sensually, Demon is a pulsating, glittering delight, although anyone looking for intellectual sustenance will find little nourishment here (the film’s unsubtle message is “L.A. feeds on the beautiful,” hardly a novel insight). The whole experience is like attending a rave held at Hollywood’s most fashionably nihilist discotheque.

The roles are underwritten—or, more charitably, archetypal. Fanning does well enough as the wunderkind of pulchritude, a luckless gal who knows she has one asset in life and is determined to use it. Jena Malone is more impressive as a make-up artist who takes it upon herself to play big sis to the industry comer, while Heathcote and Lee portray a pair of catty anorexic working models, on the wrong side of 21 and eaten up with envy at Jesse’s success. The marginal male characters are just as obvious—a couple of domineering, vaguely threatening fashion impresarios, and aspiring boyfriend and photographer Dean, who, upon learning Jesse is only 16, hesitates ever so slightly before leaning in for a good night kiss. Of the masculine predators, the standout is easily Keanu, playing against type as a low-rent sleazeball operating a motel catering to runaways. Given the character’s utter depravity, the role was brave and unexpected for a waning matinee idol. After 2006’s A Scanner Darkly and now this dark cameo, I will declare that Reeves’s penance for his masterpiece-wrecking Jonathan Harker is officially complete.

Fashion isn’t art, it’s design, so can—or should—a movie about the fashion scene be artful? Individual shots from The Neon Demon are pure genius—yet, there’s not much that ties the film together conceptually, other than its obvious cautions about the high-stakes world of professional superficiality. A fashion maven rightfully scoffs at the notion that Dean (who claims, without much visible evidence, that Jesse has unseen depths) would be interested in the model if she wasn’t singularly gorgeous. Just like it’s subjects, The Neon Demon is shallow and beautiful. And though beauty isn’t everything, it actually counts for a lot.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Pretentious and self-indulgent, it seems tailor-made to appeal to lovers of the obtuse and inscrutable until it takes a left-turn into schlocky, gore-drenched splatter imagery.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING, (Disney dubbed version)

PLOT: Two young girls befriend a forest spirit who lives in a tree near their new country house.

Still from My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: My Neighbor Totoro is somewhat strange, like being dropped into the unfiltered imagination of a six-year old girl. Its kidlike oddness is not sustained enough to thrill adult weirdophiles, however.

COMMENTS: In My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki takes yōkai, Japanese traditional folk monsters, and literalizes them in the only way possible: by making them into real spiritual phenomenon that are only visible to children. None of the adults in the movie, even Satsuki and Mei’s university professor father, doubt the real existence of the yōkai; a grandmotherly character confesses that she could see them when she was young, but lost the ability with age. This strategy creates a pleasant truce between kids and adults as to the reality of these fairy creatures. Grownups can’t see or interact with Totoro or his friends, but they don’t denigrate or patronize kids for believing in them. The girls’ first encounter with the mythical creatures is in the form of “soot sprites” who huddle in the dark corners of the long-vacant country home. Later, Mei, the younger of the girls, will encounter a couple of miniature troll-creatures (these mini-Totoro’s are never explained); following them leads her inside a hollow camphor tree, where she finds the massive plush Totoro slumbering, and immediately befriends him. Later, at a rainy bus stop, Satsuki meets Totoro, too. Impressed by her offer of an umbrella, he introduces her to the film’s strangest invention, the Catbus: literally, a fuzzy bus with a tail and a Cheshire cat grin. Catbus is a fusion of the organic and the mechanical, a newfangled yōkai for the 20th century. Although there are magical nights when the girls soar above the treetops with Totoro and friends, not a lot of the movie’s running time is actually devoted to fantastical encounters with yōkai. Most of the time, we are engaged in the girls’ domestic life with their doting dad, and in observing the bucolic vistas of a Japanese country village. There is a distant stressor in the girls’ sick mom, but for the most part their days are spent happily, exploring the countryside and doing cartwheels among the flowers. Although some adults may find the lack of expected tension and conflict in the story perplexing and unfamiliar, Miyazaki’s technique strikes a chord with young children across cultures. What four- to eight-year-old girl wouldn’t want to have a huge, friendly, protective teddy bear like Totoro as a friend to recline and rely on? Totoro doesn’t have bad guys or moments of serious jeopardy because its ultimate message to kids is that they don’t have to be scared by life’s challenges and changes; the unknown isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity.

Although Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli has long been intimately associated with its current distributor, Walt Disney, in the English speaking world, the fact is that Totoro‘s first American distributor was none other than the low-budget exploitationeers . The scant negative reviews for the film that can be found almost all relate to the Troma theatrical release. It’s not clear whether this is because Troma’s dub job detracted from Miyazaki’s magic, or whether Disney’s seal of approval predisposed critics to approve of the effort. Disney acquired the rights to this early feature in 2006 and re-dubbed the film with a better-known vocal cast. Meanwhile, Totoro himself became so popular that he was incorporated into Studio Ghibli’s logo, becoming Japan’s equivalent of Mickey Mouse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film evinces a disorienting combination of cultures that produces a nowhere land more confused than fascinating.”–Leonard Klady, Variety (Troma theatrical version)

LIST CANDIDATE: TWIXT (2011)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Dern, Elle Fanning, Ben Chaplin, Joanne Whalley, Alden Ehrenreich, David Paymer, Don Novello, Anthony Fusco, Tom Waits

PLOT: Horror writer Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer) is in decline, hacking out formulaic product and going on book tours to nowhere places, like the town of Swan Valley. The local sheriff (Bruce Dern) tells him about an unsolved massacre that took place in the town years ago, suggesting a collaboration on a book, which Hall doesn’t take seriously—until he starts dreaming of a young girl, V (Elle Fanning), who may be connected with the murders, and may be either a ghost or a vampire; and of Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin), who becomes a spiritual muse the deeper Hall delves into the mystery.

Still from Twixt (2011)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: What gives the film an aura of weirdness is its visual style, elements of which recall earlier Coppola films (mainly the more experimental ones like Rumble Fish and One from the Heart), along with the elements of autobiography that thread through the film. While it may be a bit too early to declare this as Essential Coppola, there are rewards to be found here for the adventurous moviegoer.

COMMENTS: Twixt has had a tortured time getting out to an audience; originally scheduled for release in late 2011 after several festival screenings and Comic Con hype, the movie has been released in France and England and only recently made its domestic premiere in San Francisco, with no concrete word (as of this writing) as to wider release in the U.S. Which is not that surprising, considering that most of the domestic reviews pretty much ripped the film to shreds. To a certain extent, they have a point—most of those reviews have commented on the murkiness of the narrative, which Coppola has stated had its origins in a dream. Most of those reviewers probably think that Coppola’s best creative days are behind him, or that he needs to return to more commercial fare to be ‘relevant’ again. It’s probably very telling that what North American distributors and critics have seen as a problem, Europe has eagerly embraced (especially France, where critics have acclaimed the film).

Twixt is a messy concoction, and for most audiences who are used to storylines where everything is clearly presented and all the twistedness will eventually be straightened out by the time the end credits roll, it won’t be a fun ride. Coppola describes it as “one part Gothic Romance, one part personal film and one part the kind of horror film I began my career with,” which is a pretty packed sandwich—not everything will fit neatly there. However, those concerned with neatness will conveniently overlook good performances by Kilmer, Dern and Chapin and some intriguing autobiographical references.

Twixt is available on R2 DVD and Blu-Ray. Again, no word as of yet when it will be available on R1 disc.

UPDATE 12/28/2015: In 2013, Twixt was released on R1 Blu-Ray by 20th Century Fox with excellent picture quality and sound. It’s light on extras, but what’s included is very interesting – a documentary on the making of the film shot by Gia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, prior to her feature film debut with Palo Alto (2014).

Twixt official site

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…easily [Coppola’s] silliest work… a mishmash of absurd horror tropes with a gush of blood…”–Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIST CANDIDATE: THE NINES (2007)

DIRECTED BY: John August

FEATURING: , Melissa McCarthy, Hope Davis, Elle Fanning

PLOT: Three separate plot strands—about a self-destructive actor under house arrest, a

Still from The Nines (2007)

writer trying to get his series past the pilot stage while being filmed by a reality TV crew, and a video game designer whose car breaks down in the middle of nowhere—intertwine in a mysterious way, with the same actors playing different characters in each mini-story.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Any doubts I might have had about considering this pretty good, pretty strange movie as a candidate for the List were allayed when I heard writer/director John August proclaim “we’re a weird movie, for a lot of reasons…” on the “making of” DVD featurette.  If the director deliberately set out to make a weird movie, who am I to refuse to consider it?  But, while August’s movie scores above average in terms of both quality and of weirdness, I’m not sure that it’s combined totals are high enough to inaugurate it as one of the greatest weird movies of all time, at least not on the first ballot.

COMMENTS: I have to be careful in discussing The Nines not to give away much more than you’d discover on your own by reading the blurb on the back of the DVD case.  When you pop the disc into your player, you can expect to see three different stories—“The Prisoner,” “Reality Television,” and “Knowing”—acted by the same core trio, each playing different roles in each tale.  Besides the actors, locales, song lyrics, a television series, and—especially—the number “9” recur in each of the divergent plot lines, drawing correspondences and reverberances between these various worlds.  There is a thread connecting each strand; and although the first two stories, at least, are engaging on their own terms, it’s figuring out that overarching plan that supplies most of the interest.  One thing that can be discussed (and praised) without spoiling anything is the acting.  Hope Davis plays, variously, a horny housewife, a conniving TV producer, and a hiker in the middle of nowhere; Melissa McCarthy tackles the triumvirate of a bubbly public relations expert, the mother of a mute girl, and herself, the “Gilmore Girls” actress.  But it’s previously unheralded Ryan Reynolds who’s the real revelation here.  As a dimwitted, Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE NINES (2007)

CAPSULE: PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND (2008)

DIRECTED BY:  Daniel Barnz

FEATURING:  Elle Fanning, Felicity Huffman,

PLOT:  Adorable, precocious and angst-ridden Phoebe (Fanning) has a psychological

Still from Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)

disorder that makes her spit on her classmates and occasionally talk to the Red Queen, among other misbehaviors; she uses her role in the school’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” as self-therapy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  A few very brief and inorganic Alice in Wonderland hallucinations do not a weird movie make.  (In the film’s defense, it’s not trying to be weird, at all).

COMMENTSPhoebe in Wonderland is definitely an actor’s movie.  While the plot introduces us to some interesting, quirky characters—enigmatic drama-school weirdo and free-spirit Miss Dodger; conflicted mom Hilary, who loves her child dearly while resenting the fact that caring for her has overtaken her life; and of course Phoebe, who desperately wants to be a normal but can’t control her need to ritualistically hop on each stair in a correct order that exists only in her mind—it resolves itself in a disappointing Lifetime-network-feel-good-tearjerker-of-the-week fashion, with only the briefest of detours into Wonderland.  Fortunately, Dakota’s little sis Elle turns out to be every bit the actor her older sibling is, and carries the film on her tiny shoulders, with the adult veterans doing their part to keep up with her.  She evokes a heartbreaking pathos in her desire and inability to be the good little girl her parents can be proud of and her peers accept.  The visions of Wonderland she sometimes sees aren’t magically staged, and in fact make little literal sense: whatever Phoebe’s psychological issues might be, she’s no schizophrenic.  Only once does the intrusion of Alice’s world inside Phoebe’s mind work or make much plot sense: when she sees the rabbit hole yawning in front of her (it’s also the best looking of the fantasy sequences, which are mostly pedestrian and effects-free).  With that single exception, the script should have kept itself firmly on this side of the looking glass.

We go to independent films hoping to see something different than the twenty formula Hollywood movies that are permitted to dominate the United States’ 38,000 movie screens each week.  It’s disappointing to find that, when an independent film does manage to break the major studio stranglehold and get a small release, it turns out to be pretty much the kind of fare Hollywood would have released anyway, if they’d had extra room for another April drama.  Phoebe in Wonderland is just as good as any product released to the cineplexes, perhaps even a cut above in the acting department, but we have to wonder: don’t we deserve at least one screen per metropolitan area dedicated to showing something off the beaten path?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The ‘Wonderland’ motif, which could be a really cool framework for the story, is little more than a sparse reference point, and Phoebe’s occasional dalliances in the surreal are more disruptive than not.”–Jamie Tipps, Film Threat