American Mary (2012): Changing bodies, changing lives

American Mary (2012) was directed by a twin sister duo from Canada, Jen and Sylvia Soska. The twin sisters’ previous and first directing endeavor, Dead Hooker in A Trunk (2009), received mixed reviews but it intrigued several critics and fans alike. American Mary was an introduction to Soskas’ work for me and it was mostly an enjoyable first glimpse into their creative world. I will be leaving out the conclusion of the movie and major spoilers but I will mention scenes not shown in the trailer.

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Mary at work.

The plot itself starts with a prototypical story of a struggling female medicine student but the event that acts as a catalyst for its ending was a fresh idea that brought my impression of the movie over to the positive side. Mary struggles to balance her studies with work and she looks for money in the sex industry after finding herself unemployed. An unexpected turn of events presents her with a completely different opportunity that allows her to use surgical skills from med school. Thus, Mary becomes a highly sought out body modification artist.

A portrayal of subculture in any movie can be either positive and complex or reduced and cliché-based. American Mary is both but people unfamiliar with the subculture might take away that these people live removed from society, they are unhappy, and will cross established personal boundaries. In a rather shocking scene, a twin sister duo (played by the Soska sisters) enters a strip club while one of them offers money to a stripper just to bite into her tongue. The sisters then leave to meet with Mary while the stripper is left behind crying. The stripper consented to the kiss but not to have her tongue bitten until she bleeds. This disregard for consent and boundaries is not so rare in the movie. Beatress, who has her body altered to resemble Betty Boop, brushes off Mary’s pleads to leave her alone. Mary’s other clients appear to be ordinary happy people, but the stories of these people are untold and less emphasized than those of customers from the underground scene. My own interest and experience with subcultures allows me to understand that the Soska sisters probably did not intend to imply that there must be something wrong with you if you desire to have your limb or vulva removed. The characters do attain the happiness that they seek when their body reflects how they feel about themselves, but the use of such clichés is unexciting and might harm the community.

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Beatress.

Ruby and Beatress are two most extremely body modified characters in the movie. The stripper Beatress, as it was already mentioned, has paid thousands of dollars to resemble Betty Boop. Her friend, a fashion designer Ruby, aims to become a real-life doll, which she achieves thanks to Mary. Ruby and Beatress became my favorite characters despite their pushy personalities, especially Beatress’s, perhaps because she is truly happy when her outward appearance matches how she feels on the inside. Beatress and Ruby are unapologetically themselves.

The movie does not shy away from medical humor, for example, the surgeons call themselves “slashers” and joke around that they cut people for living. This might be interpreted as a criticism of society that accepts one type of surgical work, but is often critical of plastic operations and even more so of body modifications. Although the last category does not fall under life-saving procedures aimed at saving the body, body modifications can help treat depression or anxiety stemming from body dysmorphia related issues. Here, however, I am not sure the movie carries this message as well as I would like it to.

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Ruby.

Gore is modest and scarce and it does not go further than the second Hannibal Lecter movie (Hannibal, 2001), for example. Most work happens outside camera’s view, close-ups are rare and the movie often shows patients already with bandages on. A viewer who considers Hannibal or most criminal TV series (CSI, Bones) their limit for gore might feel a little uncomfortable, but a viewer expecting detailed gory scenes might be less impressed. The make-up and practical effects team transformed Tristan Risk (Beatress) and Paula Lindberg (Ruby) into a real-life Betty Boop and a real-life doll whose appearances are both alluring and uncomfortable. Looking at them brought up some uncanny feelings which is a sign of an impressive work for any horror film, especially for one with a lower budge. Soska sisters also hired people with real body modifications to play some of Mary’s patients.

Seeing Mary becoming an artist who gets lost in her work and pushes the boundaries too far will probably keep most people watching. Katherine Isabelle’s acting suits the character and she mostly manages to capture Mary’s changing personality. Her performance could have been stronger and rely less on the doe-deer glassy eyed look to express her character’s fading connection to life but she is able to carry the movie until its conclusion.

I eagerly awaited what fate the conclusion brings to other characters as I became engaged with their stories. The strip club owner Antonio does not remain a mere connection between Mary and some clients and his own preoccupation with Mary is endearing despite Billy Barker’s uneven performance.

The movie opens and closes with the song “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert. This choice is not particularly original as Mary is the name of the main character. Nevertheless, the analogy is not lost here as Mary indeed listens to the wishes of those who have been refused help (body modification) elsewhere, in this case, by the surgeons.

American Mary is a solid 5/10 movie but watching it did not make me feel like I had just wasted an hour and a half of my life. On the contrary, I felt anticipation as I witnessed the dramatic conclusion unravel and I felt sadness for characters who were punished for simply expressing themselves. I would also not classify this movie as a horror movie because it simply is not one; there are no supernatural monsters. I would describe it as a psychological thriller about an American Mary who (justifiably) becomes a raging women in what is essentially a rape-revenge film.

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Death, Hello, We Meet Again

No doubt many people have a difficult relationship with death and dying. Although we might all be intimidated by a thought of dying, some of us are fascinated by death and the relationship of our culture with death. People used to criticize and judge me for my interest in art and its dialogue with death, but also with a lack of avoidance when it came to looking up pictures and videos of people dying (a lot of them very gory). I also wanted to become a funeral director (I feel like this is such a cliche now). As a result, although some of my interest in death portrayed in the arts remained, I completely abandoned exploring real life relationship with death and what dying meant to me. I can fully admit now, it was because I was ashamed and bothered by comments that made me feel very solitary and misunderstood. I should maybe clarify that when I speak of shame, I mean that feeling that makes you hide your interests from other people and sometimes yourself, too.

Recently, however, I discovered a youtube channel called “Ask a Mortician” and it was like rediscovering my old self. Although I do not want to become a funeral director anymore, I absolutely fell in love with Caitlin Doughty’s videos and her honest interest in death.

Furthermore, she managed to verbalize my own reasons for being interested in the topic, and her videos helped me overcome the shame that I felt later in life because I was simply interested in something that scares or disgusts more people.

Caitlin also gave a Ted talk about our society’s relationship to death and her career as a mortician. Additionally, she wrote a book about her experience while working in funeral homes and death industry.

Her book is en enjoyable reading that does not take much time out of your day, and it is not too gruesome! Caitlin’s goal is not to disgust and shock you. Quite to the contrary, she believes (and so do I) that by working on your relationship with death and dying, your relationship with life (and life itself ) will become elevated and more positive.

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“Ask a Mortician” has featured a few guests on her channel, who also create “morbid” content. One of these is “Under The knife”, a youtube channel that creates videos on various medical history topics. I wish there were more videos on this channel, but for now I will take what I can get. ;]

If you like real crime stories, I believe you will enjoy Cayleigh Elise’s Dark Curiosity channel. The majority of her stories fall under the unsolved/disappeared/missing categories. I can guarantee that you have not heard of the majority of cases she talks about, and the amount of research and preparation she puts into making of these videos is phenomenal and quite rare for channels without a huge production team behind them.

I think I will stop here, and share more favourite youtube channels next time!

🙂

-TheUncannyGirl

Internet Saved the Cinema

source: http://www.classiccinemas.com/Content.aspx?page=7

I was born in 1988 Slovakia which was then a communist country. I remember going to the cinema in the late 1990s in a post communist country; people were eagerly standing in long lines, hoping that they would be able to buy a ticket for their favourite movie that just premiered. It was not unheard of our cinema to sell out all tickets for their show. Gradually, as the 2000s rolled in and more and more people owned VHS and then DVD players, the cinemas started to empty and I can recall multiple discussions people had about not going to a cinema and instead waiting half a year for their favourite movie to come out on a VHS/DVD. Sometimes, if there was less than five people attending the screenings, the screening would be cancelled and tickets refunded.

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source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2430463/Inside-Communisms-cinema-dreams-Eerie-ruins-Slovakian-theatre-children-brainwashed-films-plays.html

A declining number of cinema goers could of course be associated with economics as well, however, a large number of movies that people rented from the VHS and DVD stores could serve as a counterargument that there is an additional reason for a renewed interest in the cinema experience on top of potential financial reasons. The cinemas I visited were being closed or screenings cancelled because people were not showing up. However, in recent years, something has changed. The increasing number of blogs, websites, or youtube videos featuring reviews and discussions about new releases suddenly meant that if you did not see the latest blockbuster movie or any movie of any genre that you were interested in, you fell behind in a conversation. The Internet created a new space for movie fans to discuss movies as they were being released.

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source: http://www.lapresse.ca/cinema/201512/18/01-4932725-star-wars-bat-un-record-douverture-en-amerique-du-nord.php

Additionally, I believe that people were able to rediscover the joy of a seeing a movie on a big screen which together with darkness after the lights go out creates a certain vacuum around a movie viewer (unless you are unlucky and surrounded by people who talk or interrupt the movie otherwise). Naturally, one has to admit the social aspect of movie going, including a capitalist bonus in a form of special merchandise sold when certain blockbusters enter the cinemas (special cups are probably the most common form of merchandise exclusive to cinemas for a limited time period) is important, too.

Although not all movies have the same attendance and some screenings are rather empty, the future of the cinemas seems brighter than a decade ago, and I think that Internet has had a huge positive role in the revival.

-TheUncannyGirl

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Interior view of Hale’s Tours (a film show set inside a mock train carriage) on London’s Oxford Street, which first opened May 1906.” source of image and caption: https://thebioscope.net/2010/08/30/the-london-project-2/

The Void (2016): The battle between SFX and storybuilding (no spoilers)

I recall film critics’ initial reactions when The Void first premiered at the festivals around 2016. This reaction was that of an overwhelming support and enthusiasm. It seemed as if The Void was going to follow the success of movies such as It Follows (2014), The Babadook (2014) or even The Neon Demon (2016). Although each of these movies had its weaknesses, they were captivating endeavours with their own fresh approaches. It Follows took some inspiration from the horror and young adult films of the 80s and 90s, The Neon Demon reminded viewers of beautiful color schemes and movies of Dario Argento.  Nevertheless, the films did not simply recycle what was created before; they came up with their own approach to the stories; they used and enriched the old with their novel vision.

Void 01The Void is also reminiscent of the horror movies of the 80s, such as The Fly (1986, or any other David Cronenberg movie), Hellraiser (1987); or even the movies that premiered at the very end of the seventh decade of the last century, for example, Alien or Phantasm (both 1979). The Void is a child of Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie. Watching the extras on the blue ray edition of The Void convinced me even more about the already evident talent of the two creators. The practical special effects are absolutely stunning and their passion is evident and present in the movie from the beginning to the end. The behind the scenes extras reveal multiple troubles (mostly time and money) that complicated their work, however, non of this is felt by the audience when it comes to SFX (Gillespie and the rest of the SFX and art team won’t let you forget their stunning  and threatening creations).

Sadly, the storyline suffers from a lack of attention that has been almost exclusively directed at the special effects. The pacing is one of the main problems. From my perspective, the sequence ordering was too out of place and it prevented me from feeling any deeper concern for most of the characters (and what was going on with the fictional world in general). In other words, my brain objectively understood the story, but my heart was not involved; I did not FEEL it. There are simply too many things going on (too many secrets, too many opened doors…) which do not lead anywhere. Cliche lines and transparent motifs (motherhood) that are presented in an obvious and unsurprising manner do not help the movie. First part of the movie is probably my favourite one (in its entirety), although there are various favourite moments throughout the entire film; however, these are scattered here and there and the second and the third act does not work as a whole. While I am generally OK with movies ending with unanswered questions, the movie does not even articulate which question(s) lacks the answer.

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Luckily, the team of actors did an amazing job and gave a lot of depth to the individual characters (casting by Van Echeverri and Casey Walker). The actors are the second strongest aspect of the movie.

To conclude, the visual practical effects and the team of actors are the strongest elements, however, the movie is mostly an homage to its predecessors and barely brings anything novel. Nevertheless, it proves that practical visual effects can be believable, spectacular, and threatening, even in the time of HD cameras (I am looking at you major blockbusters). It confirmed to me that most major production companies and studious are simply too lazy or unwilling to invest into quality work. Lastly, the movie also demonstrates that visual part of the film alone does not a great movie make. The movie was crowdfunded on Indiegogo, which was a good choice and I hope when the pair makes another movie I will find their Indiegogo on time and will be able to make a contribution myself (I had no idea about The Void Indiegogo campaign when it was still ongoing). I hope that Kostanski and Gillespie will produce more amazing visual movies but also amazing story telling movies. I enjoyed The Void and I hope you can too, despite its shortcomings.

-TheUncannyGirl

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Santa Clarita Diet: Zombie as an alternative life form.

(warnings: may contain some spoilers)

Santa Clarita Diet (2017) premiered on Netflix last week bringing the zombies once again closer to the comfort of our homes. The lives of Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Liv (Abby Hewson) take an unexpected turn when their wife and mother Sheila (Drew Barrymore) becomes a zombie. The three try to find a cure to Sheila’s zombie problem with a help of their neighbor Eric (Skyler Gisondo). The level and quality of gore in Santa Clarita Diet is remarkable considering this is not The Walking Dead. Netflix does not have to follow many rules and it shows. I was not impressed by the trailer when it first aired, but I was still compelled to watch the show because I love zombies and I have enjoyed most of Netflix’s productions. The show pokes fun at suburban neighborhoods and people who settled down, but it is also soaked through with undead humor. People who do not necessarily enjoy a zombie horror might enjoy this zombie comedy.

Santa Clarita Diet is another addition to movies which represent zombies from their own point of view, and explores an idea that zombies do not mean an end to our existence, but sees them as an alternative way of being. The idea is nothing new and almost as old as the genre itself. The first zombie films took inspiration from Haiti’s voodoo religion but in 1968 a movie by George A. Romero, Night of the Living Dead, changed the course of the genre forever. Romero’s zombies had nothing in common with voodoo, they were not slaves whose souls have been taken from them; any human would become a zombie after death. Romero was inspired by Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954), however, a novel which is relevant to the development of zombie and vampire genre. Two classes of vampires were introduced in the novel: the feral and more traditional vampires who only come out at night and a new class of those who overcome the disease and can survive in daylight. The new class is the new life form that inhabits the Earth and Robert Neville, the main character, represents the last surviving human on the planet. Matheson’s undead are multidimensional. Romero famously followed the tradition of exploration of zombie consciousness which culminated in his character Bub in Day of the Dead (1985) when audiences could empathize with Bub who kills the main villain of the story to revenge the death of Dr. Logan. Bub was able to recognize people and perform simple tasks. The idea of zombies who retain their consciousness, hopes, and dreams was taken even further in the beginning of the twenty-first century.

One of the closing scenes in Shaun of the Dead (2004) shows Shaun keeping his undead best friend Ed in a shed so he can occasionally play video games with him, but the idea is not further explored. One year later, a black comedy Graveyard Alive: A Zombie Nurse in Love (2003) discusses how zombification leads to empowerment, a theme that it shares with Santa Clarita DietGraveyard Alive’s zombies are not aggressively feral; they continue living their lives with added appetite for humans and sex. Patsy Powers is able to catch the attention of a doctor that she has been interested in for a while but who prefers another sexy blond nurse, Goodie. Eventually, the entire staff at the hospital turns into zombies. Patsy’s zombie life is exciting compared to her previous life of soap operas, misery, and daydreaming.

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Graveyard Alive

American Zombie (2007) pushes more boundaries with its documentary form. The world is populated by classes of feral, low-functioning, and high-functioning zombies. A crew of documentary filmmakers interviews several zombies to discover their lives and to uncover the truth behind the zombie disease. Perhaps the most sympathetic zombies are a woman who is desperate to find out whom she was in her human life (zombies forget who they were), and a woman who is ashamed and in denial of her zombie identity. The latter zombie is a vegan, she hopes to get married to a human and have babies. Although it is heavily implied that zombies cannot have children, they are good at foreplay and have their own human groupies.

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American Zombie

A relationship between zombies and humans is fully explored in Warm Bodies (2013) that is narrated utilizing zombie’s inner monologue. A relationship between a human and a zombie reveals that certain zombies can be cured. The movie also features different zombie classes (based on the degree of decay) and focuses on love as being the key factor in re-humanization.

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Warm Bodies

Santa Clarita Diet plays with the idea that Sheila resembles a zombie before rather than after she becomes one. Her zombie self is full of energy and she confesses that she prefers the zombie life, but this is not surprising as we find out on the show that the dead are driven by their desiresThe series is Graveyard Alive and American Zombie‘s foster child with more hilarious jokes, but it adds something new. Unlike Patsy or characters in American Zombie, Sheila has a family life and remembers everything before and after she became a zombie. The show explores and asks how far we would go for our zombie loved ones. Serialization allows to observe human behavior throughout a longer period of time and I am curious to see how the show deals with some moral issues, but also with Sheila’s decaying body which is becoming a problem. The first season set a pretty high standard, but I believe Netflix could nail the second season as well.

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HORROR SHORTS BEFORE BEDTIME

One of my favorite passtime activities during a study period is watching horror film shorts on youtube, and the rest of the internet, because I do not always have time to watch a full feature movie (I am also one episode behind in American Horror Story season 6, haha).

I do plan to focus on a certain trope and write articles that will focus on one of them at a time, but now I will just share a few of those films that I stumbled upon today and that I liked. I have seen some that I did not enjoy, but I am not going to write about those (now). Of course, you might and you might not enjoy these as much as I did, but I do like to share, what you think is up to you. 🙂

Leaning (2014) by Enrico Conte

The make up, overall mood, and setting worked nicely together. I found it very atmospheric and exciting, and enjoyed the acting of the girl who plays the daughter. I enjoyed the ride although it is not the scariest horror movie short I have seen.

Description taken from the director’s Youtube channel:

“Leaning is born from love and passion for two different forms of Cinema with the desire to mix them up. Love for a real Masterpiece as “Night of The Hunter” by Charles Laughton and passion for genre movies of the past: an essential american thriller melted with horror cinema in its most violent and shining period. A simple and twisted game at the same time, wich cannot fail to entice fans of the genre and intrigue them about how, the evil but fascinating Sheperd played by Robert Mitchum in Laughton’s classic, would appear, if viewed by the sordid, violent and extreme look of authors such as Hooper, Carpenter, Fulci, Craven, Argento.”

Alexia (2013) by Andres Borghi

Perhaps my favorite on the list because I got really really spooked. A little advice that remains true for watching any horror movies: AVOID using headphones, or use them, like me, but be prepared to accept that the experience is always way more intense. I had to take them off to ease the claustrophobic feeling that someone or something is in the room with me.

I enjoy horror movies centered around technology, such as Japanese Pulse (2001) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and long haired female ghosts and demons of Japanese horror cinema and literature. This movie combines both but without being a brainless copy of the Japanese horror film tradition.

Mr Creak (2015) by Liam Banks

The shortest movie on this list, Mr Creak, takes you into an attic at night. The cliche setting of the story makes for a good babadook-ian atmosphere, but so does the performance of Julia Damassa portraying the woman who audience watches as she recites a poem written on miniature scrolls.

The Cut (2015) by Kirill Ermichev

Finally,  a bonus: a simple short movie without any commentary from me as it would spoil everything. Enjoy!

Have a good night!

TheUncannyGirl

The Neon Demon (2016): Do not hate the players, hate the game? (SPOILERS INCLUDED)

I have been meaning to write about The Neon Demon (2016 ) by Nicolas Winding Refn since I first saw the movie this summer. I was mesmerized by its visual aspects and it did not feel like I sat through two hours of the movie at all. I have since seen it again and the movie’s charm was not lost on me this time either.

The quality of the movie is not assessed by paying attention only to its visual side, but its story too. I always judge a movie by looking at least at these two criteria and how well they are executed. Some of the articles I have read about The Neon Demon focused on men exploiting women and rape culture. The title of this blog post comes from a well known phrase “do not hate the players, hate the game” but it is followed by a question mark. “The game” can refer to the fashion industry or on a bigger scale to the society itself, a game in which women compete against each other for an approval. Women are born into a world with certain rules and parameters that they initially view to be fixed and unchangeable, maybe even a part of a tradition. They often do not think to question the rules, the game, and wether they want to participate in it or not. Thankfully, other women have now for decades tried to speak out about this issue, although with different outcomes. This willingness to participate and even enjoy the game is portrayed in The Neon Demon and it is a portrayal worth talking about. The models consciously become willing participants in the fashion industry where beauty is the main commodity and thus the models themselves continue to set unreal standards to be met by women and expected by men.

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The Neon Demon‘s story revolves around 16 year old Jesse coming to Los Angeles from a small town to become a model. She quickly grabs the attention of everyone after being signed with a model agency. Ruby, a make up artist, becomes her new friend and introduces Jesse to fellow models Gigi and Sarah. Gigi and Sarah are experienced models who have accommodated to the expectations of the beauty industry. Especially Sarah who proudly displays her body that has been altered by multiple plastic surgeries. Jesse becomes the raising star and her natural beauty is compared to the unnatural beauty of Gigi and mostly Sarah. Everybody around Jess treats her as a naive newcomer, including Dean, a photographer that shoots her first photos in the beginning of the movie (Dean is also romantically interested in Jesse). However, Jesse is less naive than everyone initially estimates and she is fully aware of her beauty and its benefits. Jesse eventually gets murdered by Gigi, Sarah and Ruby.

Jesse, Gigi, Ruby, and Sarah are not stupid and they are fully aware how fashion industry works. Sadly, they do not fight against it but instead choose to compete against each other for the place in the eyes of the photographers and fashion designers. I deliberately did not say a heart, because the male gaze plays a significant role in this movie. Women do not compete for the place in the heart of men; they want to please the human/male eye, and its extension, the camera lens. Nowhere in the movie is it implied that they are interested in participating in the creation of art that is the fashion photography. However, it is not only the male gaze, but the female gaze that can be dangerous, too.

First, I would like to refer to the scene which made me feel very (probably the most) uncomfortable. The scene takes place at a bar after Jesse’s first fashion show. The designer asks Dean to asses Gigi’s beauty to prove a point that fake beauty  (i.e. gained through surgery) can be easily distinguished from natural beauty. Gigi proudly presents herself although she is not happy being compared to Jesse who remains silent and does not oppose the comparison, unlike Dean who finds the entire discussion uncomfortable.

Neither Gigi or Sarah ever decide to quit the industry. On the contrary, they decide to kill Jesse, bathe in her blood, and devour her entire dead body. The very last part of the movie shows Gigi and Sarah participating in a photo shoot. Gigi is unable to stomach what they have done and kills herself in order to get rid off Jesse inside her (well, what she ate of her). Sarah is able to live with what they have done and (re)gains her it girl status.

The movie does not end with a happy ending for Jesse, but what is the ending really? The strongest part of this movie is its power to hypnotize its viewers with stunning visuals and music. The weakness of this movie is its story which concludes without any real conclusion. Or maybe that was the point? That the good does not always win and the show must go on?

I would like to briefly discuss the meaning of “good” from the perspective of this movie. Is Jesse a good person and should the analysis be even concerned with it? Jesse’s character is viewed in comparison to other characters, namely Gigi and Sarah, who are portrayed as fake, competitive, and often say harsh and too honest words to Jesse. Dean initially perceives Jess to be beautiful and talented girl despite her objections (she tells him she possesses no real talent, but is aware that she can make money with her beauty). Knowing Dean’s opinion of Jesse as a person is important as it is him  who points out to her and to the audience how she has changed after her first fashion show. He asks her to leave with him but Jesse refuses. This exchange demonstrates that Jesse feels comfortable in fashion industry and in an environment that treats women so harshly.

Morally and visually the most shocking scene depicts Ruby having sex with a dead body. Ruby has sex with an anonymous female body because Jesse refuses her sexual advances which are very aggressive and Ruby actually comes close to raping Jesse. Ruby thus settles for the next best thing: an inanimate body; and fantasizes about having sex with Jesse. This appears to satisfy her. The scene reminds us again that women also commit crime against each other; as if men’s pressure on them was not already enough, they also need to defend themselves from each other.

I have  a slight issue with motivations of individual women in this movie. Is it enough to say that they want to be adored for their beauty? That they need to feel on top of the world? I wish Refn added a little bit of background information about the individual characters. Sure, not knowing adds a certain mystery, but it also makes them too one note for me. Furthermore, it would be nice to see the female characters unite and rewrite the rules of the game.

It might seem as something that would not be a reflection of the real world fashion industry but that is not true. Body positivity and criticism of women bringing down other women in order to feel better about themselves has become more common in recent years. I believe it would have added another dimension to the movie, but on the other hand, Refn probably was not interested in spreading feminist message but in offering a story in which hate is being rewarded.

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