Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Only God Forgives Review

Only God Forgives
Directed by Nicolas
Winding Refn
Released in 2013

Are you in the mood for some graphic violence? In some circles, the default masculine answer is “yes,” but let me reiterate: With all the terror attacks, mass murders and ghastly accidents you read about and increasingly watch on the news on a daily basis, are you in the mood for some graphic violence? If you’re still wavering, I wonder if you would take to the type of story where the only clear-cut moments of character action are acts of extreme, graphic violence — gougings, amputations, blunt force trauma, etc. — that thus perpetuate an endless cycle of vengeance from which there is no chance for escape, aside from death? For you Saw and Hostel enthusiasts still standing, what if I was to say that all this occurs through a most pretentious mode of “art cinema”? Indeed, the only thing more elusive than the point of Only God Forgives is who its intended audience is supposed to be.

After his mesmerizing, if thematically shallow, slow-burn thriller Drive, there’s little surprise the film world wanted to see what director Nicolas Winding Refn brewed up next. With Ryan Gosling once again in tow, I don’t think anyone expected something like this. In Only God Forgives, Refn focuses his significant talents for lighting, setting and mood on an ultra-violent creepshow that lacks a coherent metaphorical grounding or wider purpose. It’s blood and guts with some puerile art cinema interludes — shots of Gosling’s hands; a raised samurai sword; blood pouring from a sink; pitch-blank, Lynchian doorways. There’s a laughably literal nod to Freud’s regression theory that deserves to be taught in film school on how not to employ symbolism. You can scrutinize the moody color schemes and ham-fisted Oedipus references all you want, but I’d say you’re missing the scorched forest for the pretty embers on the trees.

Set in Bangkok, the film only takes a minute or two until Billy (Tom Burke) offers a pimp $15,000 to ‘use’ his teenage daughter. If that doesn’t send your stomach churning, Billy’s subsequent rape and murder of a Thai prostitute should do the trick. From there, retired cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) locks Billy and the father of the dead girl in the bloodstained scene of the crime, arming the grieving parent with a baseball bat. The horrible and inevitable ensues, and Julian (Gosling), Billy’s brother, seeks out vengeance all anew. Upon learning of what his brother did to deserve such a fate, Julian spares the man, only to face to the wrath of his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). When Julian tells her of Billy’s crime, she sneers, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” It’s a flippant turn of that haunting quote, “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons,” from Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. Whereas Renoir opened the frightening possibility of empathy for our enemies, Refn makes that impossible, given the events described above and the only creepier revelations that arrive by the film’s end. At the very least, it’s a line that gets one of those stunned, one-breath laughs (huh!).

From there, the script writes itself: Somebody kills someone, and then someone close to the deceased in turn seeks vengeance. You could say that Only God Forgives is about the power of friendship and family, though that’s like saying The Shining is about the downsides of being a father. As horrible the violence sounds, the characters affected could hardly be called human. The actors mug and stare with about the same vigor as the corpses most of them soon become. Gosling amplifies the man-of-few-words part he played in Drive to deafening levels of apathy and inaction; he only holds the screen for the obvious aesthetic reasons, particularly when fitted in a sweet suit. As his mother Crystal, Scott Thomas hurls some of the nastiest insults you’ll hear from anybody, man or woman, so she sort of rules above the cast by default, particularly when taking into consideration the classy English roles she’s played in the past.

Pansringarm poses the biggest question mark as Chang, the “Angel of Vengeance,” a murderous practitioner who moonlights as a nightclub crooner. In the most drawn-out, agonizing scene out of a collection of many, Chang impales some poor chap with chopsticks and knives before a group of Thai female entertainers lined up on stage. He tells the women to close their eyes while imploring the men to watch. They obey, and he proceeds. You may recall a similar scene in Drive, when Gosling’s character held a hammer to the head of some thug in the back room of a strip club where topless ladies stared at them and didn’t do a thing. There is a relentless drive to deface, humiliate and rob the agency from the female characters in Only God Forgives, even more so than Drive, and I can offer no reasons as to why. Perhaps I am not scraping the broad religious metaphor the title intends to provoke, or maybe I am just overly nauseous. In any case, after the third minute clocked in during Chang’s extended torture scene, I asked myself: Why am I watching a vision of the world so depraved, cold and meaningless, and removed from my own?

Final Verdict:
1.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pacific Rim Review

Pacific Rim
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Released in 2013

Pacific Rim reminds us that special effects, high-concept plots and international audience optimization — in a word: money — are not inherently bad things. This aliens-versus-robots monster movie shares a similar log line and $200 million budget with Michael Bay’s Transformers films, which deserve their reputations as the go-to punching bags for blockbuster tonelessness. But where all of Bay’s characters seem to have or appeal to a spoiled 15-year-old boy’s brain — hypersexual, needlessly loud, casually racist — director Guillermo Del Toro affords us a little decency with a likable, comfortably diverse cast that holds family, chivalry and teamwork above, let’s say, more gratuitous pleasures. Del Toro manages to do this while assembling some of the most colossal fight scenes ever put to film, like one where a giant robot (called a “Jaeger”) drags a cargo ship through the streets of Hong Kong before cracking it over a Kaiju’s (Japanese for “giant beast”) whale-sized skull. If there is one movie this year that deserves the most overused of words, “awesome,” it is Pacific Rim.

Cinema needs extravaganzas like Pacific Rim every so often. For one, the scale of the Jaeger-on-Kaiju action requires nothing less than a 20, 40, if not 70-foot (IMAX size) screen for full impact. Aside from mile-back extreme long shots, a single frame can hardly contain these beasts, and Del Toro wisely employs a lot of close-ups (which are still around 50-feet across, to scale) to capture the scaly aliens and unpolished mechs in all their gnarly glory. The editors, Peter Amundson and John Gilroy, cut the action into remarkably fluid montages that move briskly but not as to slay the epileptics in the crowd. Each pair of Jaeger pilots must sync with one another’s brain in what the movie refers to as a “neural handshake” — there’s a subplot regarding the invasion of memory and fantasy into the present (a la Inception), but this Eastern-influenced touch lends a nice, deliberate strategy to what could be just Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots chaos (a la Transformers). And make no mistake: Some of the action looks beautiful, particularly when the creatures leave the ocean and duke it out in the city. From the front rows, the blur of metropolitan neon and intermingling of organic and inorganic forms resembles the kaleidoscopic symphony of a Stan Brakhage film (a pretentious reference I make only partly in jest). It all looks very cool, and very expensive, and there’s no way your home theater or your iPad could do it justice.

The size of these battles does, however, rob the film of its human element, which is what, in the end, cinema is all about. Del Toro foresaw this issue and takes a cue from Jurassic Park, throwing in a baby Kaiju (just smaller than a T-Rex) to terrorize a few dozen people instead of multiple millions. That scene is a one-off, though, and the non-action stretches often do exactly that: stretch. You may be forgiven for finding the robots and supposedly minor characters more interesting than the lofty lead three. The main player, Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), fills a Channing Tatum-type role with about the same gravity Tatum would bring: not much, but he’s charming. Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) plays a highly skilled but inexperienced pilot under Officer Pentecost’s (Idris Elba, unremittingly badass) tight leash. The inevitable chemistry between Hunnam and Kikuchi plays it too safe, though we should all take notice at the presence of an Asian woman in a high-profile American production such as this (Freida Pinto in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the last, I recall). The wildcard role goes to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day, who steals his every scene as a scientist with a more-than-healthy interest in Kaijus. His high-pitched, fast-talking, smart aleck riffs are equal parts Paul Giamatti and Groucho Marx, and Del Toro knows he’s the real heart of the film, allotting him nearly equal screen time to the protagonists. His partner (Burn Gorman) shamelessly entertains as a genteel, twitchy British scientist, and then there’s a cameo by a Del Toro favorite. I’ll refrain from naming the latter actor, but he makes a grand entrance, holding Day’s nostril hostage with the tip of a butterfly knife in what must be a shout-out to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Del Toro lets the humor and delirium of his supporting cast rule for a surprising wealth of time, which almost makes you forget that the main story of Hunnam, Kikuchi and Elba leaves you cold.

If the
numerous references above haven’t already made it clear, this is not exactly an original production: The climax rips off Independence Day, the flashback structure borrows from Inception, the robot design nods to Japanese anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Iron Man, King Kong, Godzilla and, of course, Transformers deserve mention. But Del Toro, as great a director as he is, has never been a brain-bending innovator like, say, Charlie Kaufman or the Coen Brothers. In his best film, Pan’s Labyrinth, he took a simple fairy tale, draped it in politically charged gothic horror and emerged with a work that few will take to task its merits as serious cinema. While Pacific Rim lacks the humanity of that film and Hellboy, there’s a bit more to it than robots kicking ass. Not a lot, maybe, but Del Toro injects a rare zen and beauty into this often stale genre. He may be playing with toys instead of redressing his nightmares, but it’s not like he forgot how to put on a show.
Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5
This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.