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DVDs: 'Neon Demon' wows visually, but lacks substance

Very like take his cue from Lynch is Nicholas Winding Refn with his elliptical (to put it mildly) “The Neon Demon” (2016 / Broadgreen / 117m / $34.99 BR / R). Were I less kindly disposed – and as it happens I am – I’d call this pretentious twaddle about a vacant-eyed naïf (Elle Fanning) who enters the cut-throat world of fashion modeling and is a surprising, nay, credulity defying success. Naturally the older models, some of whom have had extensive work done to stay in the game, are envious. I’m sure Refn thinks he has something startling and original to say here but – the lesbianism and cannibalism angles very much to one side – there’s no observation here that couldn’t be found in the pages of “Millie the Model” (who knew it was cutting edge?).

The film is strikingly photographed, but the plot runs out at the halfway mark leaving a lot of pointless symbolism (just what is with the recurring appearances of that geometric thingie?) and a subplot involving Keannu Reeves and a puma that goes nowhere. Mind you, a writer for Vanity Fair and a good many online scribes were wowed by this so perhaps my sometime viewing companion and I weren’t on the right pharmaceuticals to appreciate the trippy visuals. Visually it’s a "wow" stunner, but I found it lacking in substance.

I can’t claim to be a big fan of the work of David Lynch, though I’ve grown to appreciate him somewhat more in recent years. I had seen his “Blue Velvet” and possibly his misbegotten "Dune” and his deeply disturbing “Eraserhead” by the time ABC-TV premiered his television series, but I had not been sufficiently whelmed to bother watching it. Until the huge box set of “Twin Peaks, the entire series / Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” (1990-91, 1992 / Paramount Home Entertainment, CBS DVD / 1503m, 134m (9 discs) / $94.99 BR / NR, R) I hadn’t seen a single episode or the feature film that followed. I’m not entirely certain I missed anything earth shattering, but I have to admit this is without doubt the oddest series ever to make it to the small screen. It begins, some of you might recall, with the discovery of the corpse of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in the northwestern town of Twin Peaks. The similarities to an earlier murder in another state brings in FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlin) to oversee the investigation already underway by local sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean). Things get strange pretty early on, what with fish somehow getting into percolators and agent Cooper deriving most of his clues from dreams and visions of giants and dancing dwarves and so forth. Some think the series went off the rails well before the first season ended, but I suspect the peculiarity was planned from the get-go. Or was it a case of “Good grief, they bought the danged thing. Now what the dickens do we do?”

The investigation certainly goes off on weird tangents that eventually include alien abductions and a serial killer whose disguises include drag and a pantomime horse (whose greeting is, naturally, “Hello, Wilbur”). Lynch and company do eventually provide a solution to the mystery of who killed the all-American Laura – but whose life had been far wilder than most of the townspeople suspected – but it’s secondary to insane plotlines, tons of business skullduggery and a collection of townspeople for whom “quirky” falls well short of the mark (one constantly carries and converses with a log). Part outrageous soap opera, part screwball comedy and entirely surreal, this is a series for very specialized tastes. The film that followed is even odder and enraged fans because it didn’t tie things up  and provide answers, as they’d hoped it would (did they really expect that from Lynch?). Indeed the film is an exercise in strangeness for its own sake and lacks some of the actors who made the series so enjoyable, such as Piper Laurie, Richard Beymer, Michael Ontkean and Russ Tamblyn (some filmed scenes but they were cut from the film – an hour and a half of deleted footage, “The Missing Pieces,” from the film is included). Peggy Lipton and even MacLachlin are barely to be seen; the film deals with Laura’s descent into debauchery and death in a hallucinatory fashion. If you know that going in, you might get more out of what, after “Eraserhead,” is arguably Lynch’s most uncompromising work. Mind you, on the strength of a single viewing, I’m not going to go so far as to say it’s good, but the director is taking absolutely no prisoners here.

A far more trenchant observation of cut-throat business politics was offered back in the 1950s by Rod Serling in the Kraft Theater teleplay he adapted for the big screen “Patterns” (1956 /The Film Detective / 83m / $14.99 BR / NR). The portrait of business versus ethics remains as valid today as it was then. New recruit Van Heflin finds himself caught in a struggle between old-timer Ed Begley and corporate head Edward Sloan, who’s inherited the business from his father. Begley treasures the old man’s approach – he kept the corporation running throughout the depression without laying off a single employee. But sonny boy grows the biz through acquisition of wobbly companies and cutting jobs (sound like a familiar strategy?). If the only Serling work you’re familiar with is his heavy-handed parables for “The Twilight Zone” (or worse, his script for “Planet of the Apes” – though I’ve never been able to bring myself to believe that the worst of it is really from his hand) you might be taken aback by the superb, incisive and razor sharp writing here. He is beautifully served by the cast, particularly Begley and Sloan – two sadly underrated actors, although the latter was certainly valued by Orson Welles who used him whenever possible – and Beatrice Straight as Van Heflin‘s wife. Even Van Heflin, a performer I’ve never been as whelmed by as I’m supposed to be, scores well. This is an impressive film with an important message – one that over half a century later we still are ignoring – that has gotten a terrific restoration (that the last few moments of the soundtrack still need some attention is quibbling).

Of course no one defines cut-throat takeovers like the ancient Romans and the four part History Channel miniseries “Barbarians Rising” (2016 / History, A&E, Lionsgate / 336m (2 discs) / $19.99 BR / NR) examines the various leaders who led their conquered peoples against the Romans in the latter’s multi century attempt to build an empire out of the what was then known of the world. Hannibal, Spartacus, Arminius and Attila – all of whom the Romans termed barbarians, which simply meant non-Romans - were among those who fought their subjugators to a standstill before finally being defeated (Rome finally fell because its taxation policy gouged the middle class while leaving the wealthy relatively untaxed). Most interesting of these might possibly be the British warrior queen Boudica, the only female opponent who battled Rome to a temporary standstill, and the Vandals (yes, that was initially the name of a north African peoples) who took back Hannibal’s homeland by outmaneuvering Rome politically. This is brought to you by the same folks who brought you “The Men Who Made America,” so it is the same eclectic combination of talking heads (some real head scratchers in fact), documentary voice over and recreations. In this case you might sometimes ponder if these uneducated savages really urged on their followers with such high-flown rhetoric or how everyone had such perfect teeth in those pre-dentistry times. You might also ask yourself if Boudica really sported that multi-hued coif I am reliably informed is a lengthy solon treatment costing several hundred dollars (and let’s not even talk about some pretty sophisticated eye makeup). The facts may be accurate but attention to such detail hasn’t been as scrupulous as it might have been. Or did they not want to make the cast too unpretty and risk low ratings? I guess I can’t blame them too much for wanting to pull in as many viewers as possible, and I have to admit I’m not sure this paints any less realistic a picture than what I received in history class in school.

For an intense and splendidly realized thriller, don’t miss “Edge of Winter” (2016 / Sony Pictures Home Entertainment / 89m / $19.99 / R). When divorced and cash strapped dad Elliot Baker (Joel Kinnaman) takes visiting sons Bradley and Caleb (Tom Holland and Percy Hynes White) out to teach them how to shoot, the outing quickly deteriorates. A car crash leaves them stranded miles from his house and the on the trek to a hunting cabin whose location Elliot only vaguely recalls one of the boys crashes through the ice as they cross a frozen lake. Then Elliot learns his ex-wife and her new husband are going to move very far away and his chances of seeing his boys will become practically nil. Pushed over the edge he conceives a mad plan to remain in the isolated cabin with his sons, living off the land.

Anyone phobic about the cold (such as my sometime viewing companion) might want to avoid this title and its snowy landscapes – and even I was tempted to seek out a shawl. But everyone should run, not walk, to their closest video sales or rental outlet and seek out a copy. This is not only an exceptional thriller but superior filmmaking on every level. I’ll grant that perhaps Elliot tips over into insanity a mite too quickly but the groundwork is laid, beginning with the very first scene where he is seen haggling on the phone with a collection agency. This is a man on the edge and Kinnaman further limns it in his following scenes with his sons who he clearly is clueless about how to connect with. He desperately wants to but obviously doesn’t get to spend enough time with them. Holland and White nicely convey that they’d pretty much rather be doing something else. As you might gather much of the film falls on these three actors and they turn in superlative performances. I could run out of synonyms for excellent praising these three. Even if you’re not keen on thrillers (and this one’s a nail-biter, folks) but value quality acting, you’ll want to see “Edge of Winter.” For icing on the cake, it’s impressively lensed and smartly paced.

The most fun I had all week came from the French TV series “The Little Murders of Agatha Christie (Les petits meurtres d'Agatha Christie – 2009 / MHz Networks / 457m (3 discs) / $39.95 / NR). This delightful soufflé takes Dame Agatha’s novels originally involving Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and recasts them with French policemen Superintendent Larosiere (Antoine Dulery)and Inspector Lampion (Marcus Colucci). Quite what the rationale was I can’t say; it surely wasn’t financial. I doubt they saved anything on licensing fees or by resetting the locale in France given the timeframe is the 1930s – anything not spent on location shooting in Britain went into period fashions, vintage cars and tasty Art Deco sets and furnishings. (I should mention that the show looks gorgeous, both in its production design and its photography.) Dulery as the overbearing superior and Colucci as his beleaguered assistant make a wonderfully droll pair; interestingly the creators made the decision to make the latter character gay and have that the one thing the former character doesn’t have a problem with (Lampion’s modern approach to crime solving is another matter). Even if you’re familiar with the novels of the queen of mysteries (I confess it’s decades since I binged on them) I suspect you’ll find these French twists on her works a pure delight.