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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Neon Bull (Blu-ray)
Neon Bull (Blu-ray)
Kino // Unrated // September 6, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $19.91 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Tyler Foster | posted January 4, 2017 | E-mail the Author
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As Neon Bull begins, writer/director Gabriel Mascaro slowly provides us with more and more information, each piece easy to grasp but forming a strange and unique picture. First, we see a pile of animals, packed together in a way where we can hardly make sense of where one ends and the other begins. Then Iremar (Juliano Cazarre) grabs one of them by the tail, stroking the tuft of black fur at the end of it. After a moment, it becomes clear that he is rubbing it with dust, and then there is the sound of a door opening and the animal disappearing. Moments later, we discover that it is a bull, part of the vaquejada, a type of rodeo where two men attempt to pull the bull onto its side using the tail, and the dust that Iremar rubs into it is to help the cowboys form a tighter grasp.

As Mascaro's film continues, Neon Bull reveals itself to be a story of contradictions, mostly built around traditional gender roles or ideas of masculinity and femininity, blending things that are thought of as rough and violent with things that are thought of as soft and beautiful. It is a somewhat unconventional film, not driven by much of an overarching story or underlying narrative, yet also not nearly as pensive as many foreign films that reject traditional storytelling, with each individual scene forming a miniature story about a moment in the characters' lives. It's not a film about big epiphanies or sharply-defined themes, but more about filling in the complexity of unique characters who occupy a unique world.

At the heart of the film's contradictions is Iremar, whose job is to help wrangle the bulls used for the vaquejada. He works alongside the somewhat slovenly Ze (Carlos Pessoa), whose belly pokes out from underneath his T-shirt, and they are accompanied by Valquiria (Abigail Pereira), who cooks for the men, and her daughter, Caca (Alyne Santana). The four of them live together in the back of an empty yellow construction truck, sleeping in hammocks, setting up little makeshift kitchens wherever they go. Iremar doesn't seem to mind working with the bulls, but his dream is to become a fashion designer. After appearing in the first scene, doing his job, he is further introduced measuring Valquiria's hips and stomach for a dress he is designing for her. Some might then suspect that Iremar is gay, but he is not, even though his motives in sneaking a porno mag away from Ze is using the women inside as models on which to draw his designs. Ze mocks the sight of Iremar sewing, and the ensuing squabbling immediately turns into a swearing match.

In playing with the traditional divide between masculinity and femininity, Mascaro also delves head-on into frank depictions of sexuality. In fact, the movie's first sexual scene may be its most shocking, in which Iremar and Ze sneak into an auction where purebred horses are being bid on, and attempt to steal semen from one of the horses. In order to do this, they have to excite and stimulate the horse, which Iremar does personally. Later, Mascaro shows a feminine man, who spends quite a bit of time preening his luxurious hair, performing oral sex on a woman, and a man having sex with a pregnant woman. The film presents these scenes so naturally that it feels possible that they feature unsimulated sex. I have seen a number of traditional films (as in, films not marketed as pornography) that advertise the use of unsimulated sex, and it always becomes the focal point of watching the film. With Neon Bull, the details are a mystery, and the scenes are sexier. Mascaro also breaks from tradition by including a scene with a group of men bathing together, all of them fully nude.

Interspersed throughout the film are little vignettes that appear to be separated from the core narrative: a shirtless man performing a sort of dance routine with a horse, in which the horse slides down onto its side and the man lays on top of it, before affectionately rubbing it like one would a dog. There is also the peculiar sight of a sexy woman, wearing a horse mask on her head, dancing for an unseen audience. Later, it is revealed she is part of some sort of strip show and that Iremar has designed her mask, even though that explains less than it sounds like it might. There are little details that puncture the farm-esque lifestyle of the bull wranglers: a beautiful metal horse head fountain, a rock painted to look like a wave, a field full of colorful streamers that have become garbage, peppered inexplicably with mannequin parts that Iremar rescues for his designs. On the fringes, more gender-based contradictions: a man selling panties and a woman selling cologne, the uncouth Ze being assigned to look after a beautiful, elaborately preened show horse, and a female security guard who wouldn't think twice about using her gun while her male friend is afraid of it. Neon Bull allows us to relax, comfortably in these contradictions, considering them, forming a quiet yet specific portrait of an unusual community.

The Blu-ray
Kino retains their striking poster art for Neon Bull on Blu-ray, which is a literal neon bull -- one splattered with a substance that glows under ultraviolet light, as seen in a scene in the film. Logos and text make the design a bit cluttered but the image remains eye-catching. The one-disc release comes in a non-eco Viva Elite case and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 1080p AVC and with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack (Portuguese with optional English subtitles), Neon Bull offers a strong, if subdued presentation on both fronts. Mascaro and cinematographer Diego Garcia go for a naturalistic look that allows for colors as vivid as the ones presented on the cover art, and deftly captures sunlit green grass, Iremar's pink shirt, the yellow of the truck they sleep in. At the same time, it's never an eye-popper, rendering the images vividly but with faint, dusty quality to them, turning everything a hair pale. Sound includes the crowd atmosphere of the bull cages and bull fights, as well as the comparatively quieter scenes of characters simply talking to each other, or not saying anything at all. No anomalies in either the picture or sound were detected during the presentation. Simultaneously reserved and notably strong.

The Extras
Two extra features are included. First, "Rehearsing and Filming Neon Bull" (14:34) is a fly-on-the-wall style documentary, made up of B-roll from the set during shooting and a lengthy chunk of material from some sort of early rehearsal session in a generic house. A bit on the dry side. The other is an Interview with director Gabriel Mascaro (21:11). He covers his idea of Brazilian culture and how that played into the making of the movie, not relying on existing visual ideas or exposition in working out the cinematography, not using editing to emphasize meaning, how the audience's understanding of how documentary filmmaking looks may help audiences buy into his movie more fully, casting, the honesty of naked bodies, and the filming of both one of the movie's key sex scenes, but also the horse sequence. Although there are some interesting ideas here, Mascaro's descriptions of his ideas come off a little presumptuous or overwrought, but I suppose it's better that he sound a bit insufferable talking about it than allowing that attitude to show through in the film itself.

An original theatrical trailer for Neon Bull is also included.

Conclusion
Without the drive of a traditional narrative, Neon Bull might sound like a snooze, but the film's approach is sort of light and playful, and it moves along at a nice clip even while doing little but observing its characters living their lives. Iremar, Valquiria, and Caca are all well-sketched and well-performed, enjoyable characters whose odd family relationship is endearing. The film is brazenly sexual, which may be too much for some American viewers, but those who are willing to give the film a shot may be surprised by how easily one engages with this oddly compelling movie. Recommended.


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