Blend in, fight back or run away? Movies reviewed: Neon Demon, Free State of Jones, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

When faced with a monolithic system, do you fight back, try to blend in or run away? This week, I’m looking at movies about people trying to make the land their own. We’ve got soldiers and slaves heading into the swamp; a boy and his uncle heading into the bush; and a teenaged girl heading into the jungle… of modelling.

13502538_1122801797742983_2500767010940376674_oNeon Demon

Wri/Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives)

Jesse (Elle Fanning, Ginger and Rosa) is a small-town girl recently arrived in L.A. She’s there to make it big as a fashion model. But to do that you need connections. Right away, she meets Dean an earnest young photographer (Karl Glusman, Love). He takes some photos for her portfolio. Then, at a nightclub filled with neon she meets three women ready to lend a hand. Two blonde supermodels named Sara and Gigi (American Abby Lee and Aussie Bella Heathcote) and a makeup artist. Red-haired Ruby (Jena Malone) says she knows all the right people.

Almost immediately, Jesse starts her dizzying rise to the top. She signs with a major agency, lands a gig with a famous photographer, and is chosen as the lead 13115958_1092780254078471_5268238841686621476_omodel in a runway show. A star is born.

But beneath its shiny veneer this world is rotten to the core. She still sleeps in a super-seedy motel room. Hank, her skeezy landlord (Keanu Reeves) is a serial predator always on the lookout for victims. Jesse is startled to find wild animals animals climbing through her window. Other models she encounters are just bitter vipers waiting to strike. And her makeup artist friend, Ruby? She’s a makeup artist all right — for corpses. Only Dean seems genuine…but he’s not famous, so he doesn’t fit in her new world.

13445279_1117929004896929_5538370989361420723_nWhen her so-called friends witness Jesse’s triumph at an audition they are consumed by jealousy and rage. In despair, one model smashes a mirror in the washroom. At first Jesse tries to comfort her. When she cuts her hand on the broken glass, something horrible happens. The model literally tries to suck up Jesse’s blood to gain some of her beauty and youth!

Neon Demon is a surreal fable set in the world of modeling. Danish director Refn Wilding is known for his dark, stylized urban dramas like Drive (starring Ryan Gosling). Like his other films, it has great music, pretty people and arresting images, both beautiful and hideous. I liked it, but it’s not your usual narrative. It’s strictly art-house horror, so it’s never clear whether it’s a dream, a fantasy or real life – it’s left up to you to decide.

unnamedFree State of Jones

Dir: Gary Ross

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a Confederate soldier from Mississippi. He’s a medic, so he sees his fair share of death at the frontlines. But when he sees a young boy (Jacob Lofland, Mud), a draftee from his home town, killed on his first day, he’s FREE STATE OF JONEShad enough. Newt takes his body back for a proper funeral. Which makes him a deserter.

Back in Jones County he discovers the problems aren’t just at the front – they’re behind the lines too. All the men and boys are being sent to die defending slavery, but the actual slave owners – anyone with more than 20 slaves – is exempt from serving. This war is being fought for rich people, the cotton plantation owners, not for the poor farmers like him and all his neighbours. Not just that. The army is stealing all the food, FREE STATE OF JONESclothing, practically anything of value from the poor farmers in what they called taxation. They need it to feed the troops they say. But they leave the plantations untaxed and untouched. The raids are all led by the villanous Lt Barbour (Bill Tangradi) with his foppish blond curls.

Newt has had enough — he flees to the swamps, attacked by a vicious army dog on the way. Runaway slaves there nurse him back to health and become his new family. In particular, beautiful Rachel (the wonderful British/South African actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a house slave who serves as a secret go-FREE STATE OF JONESbetween for the runaways and slaves still on the plantation. And the self-named Moses (Mahershala Ali) a righteous leader who escaped with a hideous iron contraption still locked around his neck.

Word spreads and poor white farmers join Newt’s makeshift army. He declares a free state in Jones and FREE STATE OF JONESneighbouring counties. He deems them all free men, both black and white, says farmers can reap what they sow, and that no one will ever go to war again for the rich. They start like Robin Hood, taking back food the army is stealing. But end up going to battle against the Confederate government from deep within Mississippi.

This is a fascinating, true story. It’s timely too. with the rise of populism in American politics. Warning – it’s a very long movie (almost feels like a mini-series). It continues long after the civil war, covering things like lynching, post-war slavery and KKK terror, rarely mentioned in mainstream movies. It’s the first time I’ve heard about this slice of history — a genuine civil rights movement born deep in Mississippi, in the midst of civil wat.

HUNTTHD-01_KeyArt_FMtrimHunt for the Wilderpeople

Dir: Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows)

Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a chubby 12 year old city kid, into hip hop and gangsta movies. He’s a “bad egg” says Paula his tough-as-nails social worker (Rachel House). He’s surly, unresponsive and a frequent runaway. Given up for adoption as an infant he’s reached his final foster home – if he doesn’t fit in here, he’ll be sent to juvie. His new 12541048_771498859649965_4286703744334521458_nhome is out in the middle of nowhere at an isolated farmhouse in the green-covered hills of New Zealand. He’s immediately welcomed by the warm and giving Bella (Rima Te Wiata). She decorates his room, makes him special food, even gives him a hot water bottle to snuggle up with at night. Her husband HFTW 1 Julian Dennison (Ricky), Sam Neill (Hec) CreditHec (Sam Neill), on the other hand won’t even give him the time of day. He’s reclusive and anti-social, but he does know his way around the woods. Ricky runs away a few times but soon realizes this is his real home with a loving mom, a new dog, he calls Tupac, and a place to write haiku.

But then disaster strikes, and his new life is imperiled. He flees into the bush to live off the land. Like the South African wildebeest he plans to walk a thousand miles. Unfortunately, he V1-0071_150525HFTWP23_620hasn’t a clue what to do. Luckily, Hec comes to his rescue to help him out. But unbeknownst to them both they become famous – in a bad way: the object of a nationwide manhunt. Can they survive in the bush without driving each other crazy?

This world is full of strange people. Like Psycho Sam, a tin-foil hat devotees and idiot city hunters who want to turn them in and collect the reward.

V1-0046_150521HFTWP17_93474This movie is told from an indigenous point of view. The director and most of the actors – though not the characters they play – are of Maori descent. The story incorporates indigenous culture. Ironically, it’s Uncle Hec, the white character, who passes on the indigenous learning that Ricky was never taught. And Ricky who shares contemporary culture and basic literacy with the isolated Hec.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a feel-good, light, family comedy. I like this movie — it’s cute and a lot of fun.

Neon Demon, Free State of Jones, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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