Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


I came into this movie expecting a parody along the lines of something directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the same filmmakers who inflicted such laugh free movies on us like “Meet the Spartans,” “The Starving Games” and “Vampires Suck.” The problem with most movie parodies today is everyone is constantly in on the joke to where watching them becomes excruciating. It’s no wonder this genre has been dying out lately as we can see the jokes coming from a mile away to where the punchlines are ruined before they’re even spoken.

So it is a nice surprise to see “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a sly take on the classic Jane Austen novel, does not come even close to falling into this trap. It actually stays respectful of Austen’s work while adding a bit of the undead to the proceedings. The actors take their roles and the story more seriously than expected, and there’s never a kitsch feeling to be found throughout. This movie could have easily fallen apart in the wrong hands, but smarter minds prevailed and gave us something quite entertaining.

The movie is actually based on the novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith which follows the plot of “Pride and Prejudice” while adding both zombie and ninja elements to it. The characters still exist in 19th century England, but it’s an alternative universe where the undead are a constant nuisance and Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance) has taken the time to train his daughters in martial arts and weaponry. Chief among his daughters is Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) who is the best trained of them all as well as fiercely independent. While her sisters are eager to find a husband, she does not feel the need for one.

Into the picture comes Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) who is an expert at identifying zombies and taking them out before they even have a chance to reveal themselves to the unsuspecting. Just as in Austen’s novel, Darcy and Elizabeth share an utter contempt for one another which will soon reveal the unmistakably strong attraction between them. But can they survive the zombie onslaught long enough for them to share their true feelings to each other? Well, anybody who has read Austen’s classic book knows the answer, but keep in mind how it never contained zombies like Grahame-Smith’s book does.

Lily James makes Elizabeth Bennet into a woman as lovely as she is lethal when it comes to taking out zombies with a sword. Seeing Elizabeth and her sisters stroll into a social event and armed to the teeth with weapons of all kinds makes clear that polite behavior has to be set aside when the undead drops by for a bite. Does she do one better than the other actresses who have played this classic character in the past? This doesn’t matter as she gets to take on a different version of this fiercely independent female who is more than capable of taking care of herself.

The same goes for Sam Riley who takes on the role of Mr. Darcy. Comparisons to Colin Firth’s interpretation of Darcy, which everyone seemed to fall in love with at first sight, might be inevitable, but I’m not going to bother. While Riley tends to keep Darcy’s stiff upper lip a little stiffer than it needs to be, he still makes Darcy into a formidable soldier and his scenes with James crackle with an attraction which cannot be denied.

The other actors in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” look to be having a great time as well. Among the standouts are Jack Huston as George Wickham who turns on the charm to where the easily duped are duped beyond repair, Lena Headey makes Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt, an especially fierce protector of her own family, and Matt Smith steals several scenes as the infinitely dubious Parson Collins. Once again, none of the cast acts like they are in on the joke, and the movie is so much the better for that.

Directing “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is Burr Steers who in the past few years has made one picture too many with Zac Efron (“Charlie St. Cloud” and “!7 Again”). However, this was the same man who helmed “Igby Goes Down,” a movie with a biting sense of humor which cut deep as it came with a lot of emotional honesty. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” doesn’t cut as deep as “Igby Goes Down” did, but it feels like Steers has more to play with this time around as he melds Austen’s world with the undead, and he is not as constrained by cinematic conventions as he was in the past.

Is Steers able to keep the momentum going from start to finish? Not quite. The movie does lose some steam towards the end as there is only so much he can do with the zombie thing. Also, it has a PG-13 rating which means the violence is going to seem neutered to an extent which is frustrating to accept. Imagine how insane the proceedings would have been had the violence and bloodshed went unrestrained. This would have been even more fun had Screen Gems let Steers turn this into a go-for-broke extravaganza.

All the same, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” proved to be far more fun than I expected it to be, and it brings to mind those crazy B-movies we all grew up on. Jane Austen could have been rolling over in her grave at the sight of this, but her fans can take comfort in that her works remain as popular today as they were years ago. Besides, it’s got zombies in it. How could it go wrong?

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * out of * * * *

The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon poster

This is a motion picture you will either be on the same wavelength or not. That’s usually the case with any Nicolas Winding Refn film whether it’s “Bronson,” “Drive” or “Only God Forgives,” but I imagine “The Neon Demon” will be his most divisive movie yet. As for myself, I was entranced with this movie from start to finish as it combines the visual aesthetics of a Gaspar Noe film with the dreaminess of a David Lynch one, and those elements come together to form something that is uniquely Refn. In a sea of movies out right now which feel largely underwhelming, “The Neon Demon” is a refreshing one with its undeniably strong visuals, and that’s even though it takes a very sharp left turn in the last half.

We are introduced to Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model looking to get into the Los Angeles modelling scene. Equipped with some striking pictures shot by her friend Dean (Karl Glusman), she succeeds in getting signed with top Hollywood agent Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) who encourages Jesse to lie about her age and is quick to dismiss other aspiring talents coldly and without a second thought. Soon Jesse comes to befriend makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who introduces her to the kinky club scene as well as a pair of models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), who are ruthless in their intent to stay relevant in an industry quick to chew them up and spit them out.

Essentially, “The Neon Demon” is Jesse’s descent into the hellish and shallow world of modelling as she becomes the envy of photographers and fashion designers in the industry and creates a cauldron of resentment for those who can only dream of having her natural beauty. That’s the thing; Jesse has a look that feels infinitely real compared to other models who have long since resorted to plastic surgery which has made them look like lifeless statues. How does a novice model make her way through such a cutthroat and friendless realm of existence? Well, Refn is not out to give us the definitive answer to that question, but the journey he takes us on gives us kind of an idea of what it could be like.

I loved the beautiful and yet clinical look Refn gives “The Neon Demon” as it is entrancing and immersive. We are sucked into a world that is not healthy for us, but we can’t turn away from it as, like Pandora’s Box, we have an insatiable desire to see what is inside. Colors abound as if he tried to combine the beautiful images from Noe’s and Dario Argento’s films (“Suspiria” in particular) and turn them into something original. This movie also benefits largely from the beautiful electronic score composed by Cliff Martinez which hugs these images while poking at the darkness lying beneath them.

Elle Fanning has long since distinguished herself from her equally famous sister Dakota, and her role here as Jesse is her most daring yet. Some will complain that all she does in “The Neon Demon” is just sit around and look beautiful, but that’s missing the point. What’s utterly fascinating about Elle’s portrayal is how she takes Jesse from being a seemingly innocent rookie in a business that can be quite cruel to someone who fiercely owns her beauty in a way that is as seamless as it is haunting. This is not a dialogue heavy movie, so Elle has to show this transition without words for the most part and she succeeds to where we cannot help but be horrified about what Jesse will become.

However, Elle is almost upstaged by Jena Malone who combines an earthly look with an almost alien one as makeup artist Ruby. Malone has always been a tremendous actress, and she makes Ruby a wondrous enigma of sorts as she reveals only so much about her character on the surface. As the movie goes on, Malone comes to exhibit a strong vulnerability as Ruby is denied the thing she desires most and ends up acting out in sheer desperation. Malone is riveting and fearless, and she shows no hesitation in embracing Ruby’s dark side.

Abbey Lee deserves credit for bringing unexpected depth to Sarah, a model slowly realizing she is now past her prime, as she sinks into a swamp of infinite envy and resentment. I liked how Bella Heathcote makes Gigi into a model who is unapologetic about the sacrifices she has made for her career and is fiercely defensive of her place in the industry. While Glusman doesn’t get to show a lot of range here as Dean, he does have some nice moments as a man trying to hold strong to his ideals of what real beauty should be. And even Keanu Reeves shows up as Jesse’s unsavory apartment manager Hank, a man John Wick would show no hesitation to beating the crap out of. Say what you will about Reeves’ acting skills; he’s much better here than he was in Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock.”

If there was anything that perplexed me the most about “The Neon Demon,” it was the last half where it suddenly turns into a Grand Guignol horror film. It’s like the movie suddenly turned into something completely different as we find the women in Jesse’s life determined to possess her natural beauty any way they can, and I mean any way. Granted, this is a Refn film so you have to expect the unexpected, but it bears repeating here as things take a direction that almost seems out of whack with what came before.

Many will keep trying to get answers from Refn in regards to the questions “The Neon Demon” casually leaves unanswered. Then again, this is not a movie designed to have easily answered questions as the viewer will have to use their own imaginations to decipher what they have just seen. The movie’s title alludes to an antagonist that can take on a variety of forms that even the real world can’t separate itself from. Or maybe it’s the one deep fear we have to conquer before moving on with life. Whatever the case, “The Neon Demon” in not a movie to be easily dismissed or forgotten. People will either like it or hate it, and I am not afraid to say that I liked it a lot.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.