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The Neon Bible

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Neon Bible

Starring: Gena Rowlands, Denis Leary
Director: Terence Davies
Rated: NR
RunTime: 92 Minutes
Release Date: March 1996
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Diana Scarwid, Jacob Tierney, Drake Bell, Leo Burmester, Frances Conroy, Peter McRobbie, Joan Glover, Dana Dick

Review by Steve Rhodes
2 stars out of 4

THE NEON BIBLE is a innovative film by Terence Davies, who did the acclaimed DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES. THE NEON BIBLE has a highly confusing narrative but with much technical brilliance underneath. It is a hard picture to describe since it is a collage of images from a boy's past. These brief snippets of his recollections are glued together with a massive infusion of old time songs ("The Old Rugged Cross", "Chattanooga Choo Choo", "Tara's Theme", "Dixie", and many others).

The plot, to the extent there is any, has to do with David (Jacob Tierney at age 15 and Drake Bell at age 10) being on a nighttime train while visualizing his past. The movie is shown in flashbacks.

His mother Sarah (Diana Scarwid) is close to being sent to a mental institution. His father Frank (Denis Leary) is a factory worker who has lost his job. Staying with them is his high spirited Aunt Mae (Gena Rowlands). Aunt Mae is a mediocre singer who lives in the memories of her theatrical career and longs to return to the stage. Although it is by a British director, it is set in a Southern United States Bible Belt town in the 40s.

The acting is passable. Leary, who specializes in overacting, this time is in control in his small part. Rowlands is the best of the lot, but below average for her. Scarwid is over the top and not believable. My biggest problem is with Tierney who approaches the character of David with such detachment. Rarely does he waste time showing any emotion and yet, this is David's life we are seeing so you would expect more animation. Quite a boring performance.

The dialog by the director, based on the novel by John Kennedy Toole, is sparse and eclectic. Many scenes have little or no dialog. It is the sort of show that has you staring for a long time trying to figure out where the show is going and why. I did not know the show's length and actually thought it was ending after half an hour. After one hour into the show, the picture begins to make some sense, but never comes together. At the end, I found myself thinking what a mess, but yet there are many magical and special parts of this disappointing movie.

Let's not waste any more time on what is wrong with THE NEON BIBLE. There are technical aspects so special that were they in a better film, they could have been spectacular.

First and foremost is the wonderful camera work and cinematography by Mick Coulter (GREGORY'S GIRL, LOCAL HERO, COMFORT AND JOY, and FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL). Let me cite just three examples. When they want to age David by five years, he stands with his back to the camera while facing a large moon, and in the translucent moonlight, he is slowly morphed into a boy five years older as if they were using time-lapsed photography.

Second, the scene transitions frequently start high up, like in the stars, and then move down slowly into the scene like a memory might start in your subconscious and then slowly form. Editor Charles Rees deserves some of the credit too for the magical transitions. Third, in the scene at night of a revival all of the people's faces are lit by gaslight as if God's radiance is the source instead.

In the press kit, Davies discusses the look of the film. Whereas in his last two shows he used a special lab process to desaturate the color, this time he went for a full saturation. Since the show is about memories he wanted the lighting "to be rich or accentuate the chiaroscuro."

The sets by Christopher Hobbs (EDWARD II) are accurate and evocative of the small country towns of the south. I especially liked the Nehi drink signs on the stores. This is a grape drink I remember drinking as a little boy in the south. You could get one of those for a nickel and for fifteen cents more you could have a hamburger too.

The dialog, when there is any, does have a few good lines. The most thought provoking is David's, "If you were different from anybody else in town, you had to get out. They used to say in school, 'you have to think for yourself,' but you couldn't do that in town. You have to think what your father thought and that was what everybody thought."

I will be happy if someday writers describing the south of that era will not feel obligated to include a Ku Klux Klan scene as this one did. I grew up in the south just after this time, and I never saw a KKK rally in my entire life, and I don't know anybody that ever has. Yes, they happened, but they were fairly rare. Writers should not feel obliged to include them, especially as the scene here is superfluous to the story.

THE NEON BIBLE runs 1:31. I do not believe film is rated. There is no sex, nudity, or bad language that I can remember. There is a mild amount of violence. Except for a single brief violent scene, it would probably get a PG rating. As it stands, I think it is PG-13 material. The show will bore most kids, but any kid over say 8 or 9 should be able to watch it. I sat there with my mouth agape in most of the show so I certainly can not recommend it, but for its technical brilliance I do give it **.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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