Monday, November 25, 2013

Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2013)

Nicholas Winding Refn is without doubt one of the most exciting film makers to have hit American shores in the last decade. He exploded into the consciousness of American film lovers with Bronson, a biopic of England's "most violent prisoner," at the same time catapulting Tom Hardy out of obscurity and into the roles that led him to being one of the most sought after actors working today.

His next English language film, Drive brought him out of the obscurity of the art house/independent film world and directly into a much more mainstream spotlight as Ryan Gosling starred in the pulp masterpiece, which succeeded in being one of the most stylistically magnetic films of 2011. It also helped Gosling prove he could be more than beefcake for a Nicholas Sparks film or a romantic comedy, which has allowed him to take his career to new places.

In seeing the early trailers for Only God Forgives, I had absolutely no idea what to expect of the film. Following that, the press and reviews further cemented my bewilderment. Unfortunately for everyone with an interest in film in general or with an interest in Refn and his films particularly, absolutely nowhere was it made clear that Only God Forgives was dedicated to the great Alejandro Jodorowsky. Had this been clear, everything I'd been seeing about the film not only would have made more sense, I'd have been in a much bigger hurry to see it. The trailers suggested Refn was repeating himself in a way that would have been disappointing, but that's not at all what he was doing. The two films seem more like distant relations than Only God Forgives seems like a rehash of the things that made Drive such a compelling film.

Where Drive definitely had a fairy tale aspect to it, Only God Forgives, doesn't have a fairy tale aspect to it, it is a fairy tale, through Refn's perspective, in tribute to Jodorowsky. What that makes for is a film heavy on symbolism, style and like so many of Refn's other films, set in an underworld of fringe characters. The two films definitely have some relation, obviously have come from the same genetic material, but are also very, very different. Drive is very obviously a more commercial kind of film than this with a much more mainstream vocabulary. This film is perfectly comfortable playing by it's own set of rules and leaving the audience to figure those rules out for themselves. 

Ryan Gosling stars in the film as one of two drug smuggling brothers in Bangkok Thailand who also happens to run a boxing club. When his brother rapes and kills a sixteen year old prostitute, a police officer (played with a charisma that matches Gosling's previous Refn role as The Driver by Vithaya Pansringarm) then gives the girls father free reign to deal with this as he feels he wants to. Inevitably, the girls father bludgeons her killer to death. It is at this point that Gosling's mother arrives in Thailand, played by Kristin Scott Thomas in a role unlike anything she's ever done before, and begins demanding Gosling's character acquire the revenge she believes his brothers murderer so richly deserves.

That description is very similar to the ones which were in many of the reviews at the time of the films release and which is also very similar to the one that came with press releases as well. Unfortunately, that summary doesn't get close to what is actually interesting about the film, because it is nowhere near as straightforward as is sounds, nor is it anywhere near as traditional an action/revenge film as that would make it sound either. There is throughout the entire thing, Refn's obvious love for Jodorowsky and his way of approaching the kind of film making that made Jodorowsky a legend.

To make it even more interesting, Gosling has even fewer lines in this film than he did in Drive, which is a pretty courageous move for both the actor and Refn. Take one of the most recognizable and popular young actors working today, have him play a character that is at best morally questionable, and then give him almost no lines in the entire film. Whatever anyone might have to say about Gosling and the current popularity he's experiencing, he's capable of being an interesting, charismatic screen presence without saying anything.

Kristin Scott Thomas is weird and repulsive as Gosling's mother. She's also absolutely outstanding. She plays the coiled snake matriarch with a venom and ferocity that is compelling and disgusting at exactly the same time. It's an unusual role for her, like that of Albert Brooks as he was cast in Drive, and it works equally as well as casting against type did for that film. One of the primary criticisms leveled against Refn is that he's a "stylist," and whether or not that is true, he is definitely capable of getting some of the best performances of their careers from the actors he works with.

It's also an absolutely beautiful film. The cinematography is the best kind of eye candy and the neon streets of Bangkok lend themselves easily to a world of deep darks and bright, bright lights. The film is awash in beautifully lit, shot and staged scenes that recall the kind of dreamlike, symbolic quality of Jodorowsky, but also have an immediacy that the legendary directors cinematography often lacked. It has the kind of rich, deep darks and piercing lights that create an atmosphere not dissimilar to many of the old noir films, while still dealing with the complicated world of color and eschewing black and white, where that atmosphere is a bit easier to create. Cinematographer Larry Smith (a regular Refn collaborator) executes Refn's vision with damn near perfection. Hopefully this film will see him working with other top notch directors. It would be great to see this quality of camera work more often.

And like Drive, the music plays an important part of the films overall feel and impact, and again, it's excellently chosen and composed. Cliff Martinez returns as composer and again, delivers a knock out score. It has the same sense of rhythm that gave the Drive soundtrack and score such a great feel, but it definitely understands the nature of Refn's more dreamlike, symbol rich goals with this film. Beyond that, it adds depth and dimension when it needs to, but also fades away to the background completely when it needs to as well. Martinez and Refn are proving to be a powerful partnership in creating films and the music for them that compliment and elevate both mediums when they're presented together.

All in all, anyone who can appreciate a narrative style that is slightly left of center, gorgeous imagery, a brooding sense of the inevitable and watching Kristin Scott Thomas give a deliciously dastardly performance is going to appreciate this film. It is far less straight forward than Drive was as a narrative, so it's not shocking that some people who came looking for more of the exact same might have been disappointed in what they got, and the marketing for the film also failed to make clear just what kind of film it is, so the initial lukewarm reaction is somewhat understandable, but over time this film is going to find it's following, and an audience that appreciates what it is. It has some relation to Hanna in certain ways, though with a much more definite lean toward the pulp and exploitation films of the past. It's also not at all shocking that the film didn't reach and wasn't even really marketed to a wider audience after the success of the previous Refn/Gosling collaboration that was Drive. In some ways, Drive's less traditional approach to being an action drama was a much more straightforward film and overall narrative. There are aspects of Only God Forgives that would have been beyond the reach of the average, casual film goer. Having some sense of the likes of Jodorowsky and Buñuel definitely helps in not becoming completely lost in the first twenty minutes of the film.

Refn is continuing to take much more traditional kinds of narratives into interesting and engaging cinematic territory. Some of those experiments and attempts are going to work better than others, without a doubt, but so far, all of his work has at least been interesting and oddly beautiful at worst. At best, it's been engrossing and emotionally engaging while also being visually stunning. Let's all hope his work can continue to exist between those two poles.

Only God Forgives is currently available to stream via Netflix Watch Instantly. It's also available on DVD and Blu Ray (this is definitely one to see in hi-def). Links to the streaming rental via Amazon, DVD and Blu Ray will be below.

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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

One of the reasons I've continued writing reviews through the years (aside from the fact that it's something I enjoy) has been that I've wanted to give the people who are reading them some alternative to the kind of film geek culture that's emerged since the advent of the internet and the explosion of film journalism and social media on it. There's a lot of good film journalism out there, don't get me wrong. There's also a whole lot of what I now refer to as the "Reign of Geekdom."

Where the kind of people who tend to be obsessive about film, and especially genre film, in the way I am were the outsiders and generally looked down upon in relation to the rest of the culture at large (and within the film community) for the majority of my life, we've now become the ones who are running the websites, writing the articles, and driving a lot of the film culture. In some ways, that's great. I can't imagine what without the last ten or fifteen years worth of shift in film culture hadn't happened, something like John Dies At The End would have gotten made and/or distributed. Edgar Wright is a successful film maker. Genre film has come out of the basement in a big way.

At the same time, something kind of ugly has come out of the basement with it. The vile side of film geekery. Now we actually have popular and well respected film websites dedicated space to parsing the finer points of "fake geek girls," and the kind of bizarre, self righteous, self aggrandizing attempts at attempting some kind of geek hierarchy. It's roughly described as the kind of attitude that feels that anyone who does not share ones opinion about the quality of one piece of culture or another is somehow automatically, inherently inferior and treated as such. And really, worst of all, it can be incredibly mean and cruel. It won't take too long sifting through the more popular film sites to come across some articles that are written from this kind of perspective and it only takes a quick look through the comments section on any article on any film site to find this to be true.