“Only God Forgives” fascinating continuation of Refn’s unique cinematic language

Nicolas Winding Refn, during the interviews leading up to Only God Forgives, has emphasized that when making films, he largely makes decisions to satisfy his own visual and violent fetishes — going so far as to label himself a “pornographer” in this specific regard. I’m not sure that he’s wrong, and I’m not sure that I mind. Refn’s certainly made philosophically and socially minded films before — his Danish Pusher trilogy is a statement on futile efforts to find social mobility in the Copenhagen crime underworld, managing to evoke unbearable existential dread in the process. But in recent years he’s preoccupied himself with, more or less, visually-driven pop entertainment: the ebullient, rollicking British character study Bronson, as well as the synth-driven, (infamously) hyper-violent escapist masterpiece Drive. Refn’s developed something of his own cinematic language in the process; distinguished by gaping periods of silence, unusually heightened emotions and sudden bursts of hilariously graphic violence.

With 2011’s Drive, Refn pulled off the near-impossible as far as nutty Danish art-house directors go: he solidified a great creative & personal friendship with one of the most famous men on the planet, Ryan Gosling, achieved fairly potent mainstream box office success and the adoration of the art-house community the world over. The possibilities were infinite. He could get his hands on any franchise on the planet. Any superhero Refn wanted could conceivably go between his lens. He could make anything.

He made Only God Forgives.

A $4.8 million pitch-black, Thailand-set crime drama fairy tale with overtones of incest, sexual assault and frequent mutilation, Only God Forgives is at once a bold rejection by Gosling and Refn of the mainstream success they experienced with Drive and a deeply similar continuation of much of that film’s violent themes and detached style. Remember the scene in Drive where Ryan Gosling viciously, repeatedly stomped a mob henchman’s skull into an elevator floor? Only God Forgives is for those that chuckled at that scene.

Gosling’s character actually has a name this time around — Julian — but funnily enough, he goes even further with the deadly-silent persona that he and Refn have established. He may utter around 20 sentences in the movie. His Julian is enslaved to his foul-mouthed mother Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas) to the point of alarm — and so when his brother is murdered by a silent knife-wielding policeman known as the Angel of Death, Crystal sends Julian on a revenge mission to strike him back. Further crippling the already sycophantic Julian: living with the knowledge that his brother was killed for abusing an underage prostitute and thus more than deserved what came to him.

The film thus sets up an inevitable confrontation between Julian and the Angel of Death, but takes its sweet time in doing so. Refn has referred to Only God Forgives as a story of a “man who wants to fight God”, and loudly establishes visual motifs of spiritual conflict and ethical guilt. (You will see men looking at their hands, contemplating past deeds..like, a lot.) Larry Smith’s phenomenal cinematography bathes these abhorrent characters in vivid reds and creeping darkness, which bashes the audience over the head even further with its themes, but in the most beautiful way possible.

There’s a lot of surface-level beauty to be extrapolated from Only God Forgives, and I feel no guilt in admitting that I regard the film highly for it. Nearly films will (rightfully) place their significance in theme, in intertextual reference, in character, and in emotional release. This is fine. For those qualities I will go to them. But with his work here, Refn’s highest end seems to be pushing the visual and sensory potential of cinema to a place as graceful as it is garish. Drive, in its many complexities, was both essay and love-letter: commenting on the dangers of machismo taken to its furthest extreme while proudly embracing the romance and corniness of John Hughes-type movies. If you didn’t find value in one, you could enjoy the other, and this is why Drive found its audience.

Only God Forgives, by contrast, is pure nightmare. And tell me — do your nightmares have to make sense to penetrate your soul?

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“Pacific Rim” among the loudest & clangiest films of all time, which works into its favor every step of the way.

Pacific Rim will inspire far more action figures than prolonged conversation, and I mean this in the best way possible. I cannot profess to be any great monster-movie expert, but one doesn’t need to be in order to absorb the passionate, comprehensive vision that writer-director Guillermo del Toro has cooked up. del Toro may be among the most famous, glorious nerds on the planet, a man whose encyclopedic love of all things fantasy, genre and post-modern is known to anyone even vaguely familiar with him. With Pacific Rim he crafts his loudest, brashest entertainment — possibly among the loudest of all time, actually — and happily doesn’t sacrifice any of the idiosyncratic ecstasy that comes with the title-card “A Guillermo del Toro Film”. (I offer as evidence of his mastery the bloody Spanish-language fairy-tales Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone, as well as Hellboy II, one of the nuttiest, best comic-book movies of the decade.)

The way Pacific Rim has history going down, at some point this year, a trans-universal portal will emerge on the rim of the Pacific (cha-ching!) and a terrifying 200-foot monster, dubbed a “Kaiju”, will emerge and smash cities. In order to combat this creature, global governments pool their resources to create the “Jaeger” machine, an equally towering combat robot piloted by two warriors. The Jaeger wins, but Kaijus continue to emerge from the portal every few months, leading to a full-blown army of Jaegers being rolled out.

The film opens in the year 2020, as the world seems to be on its last leg. The Jaegers’ ranks are down to four and Kaijus are beginning to arrive two, three at a time. Here we meet our rugged heroes — Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), who’s still recouping from the loss of his co-pilot brother a few years back, and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), an intelligent analyst longing to be a pilot. Naturally, these two must end up in a Jaeger together, but the film first insists they work out their respective baggage, making for truly engaging character moments in the mid-section of the film. While closer to archetypes than genuine characters, Hunnam and Kikuchi still infuse more than enough soul and effort to make our sympathies lie with them. Idris Elba has a towering role as the Jaeger’s top commander (in the film’s universe, literally the biggest bad-ass alive) and STILL brings depth, contradiction, even weakness to the role. Charlie Day brings his nutty energy from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to a berserk-scientist role and may be the most lovable guy in the film.

These individuals are largely the reason that Pacific Rim never suffers from what I call “Destruction Porn Syndrome” — where in a movie, the stakes are so ludicrously high (save the city! save the world! grab the girl!), that the audience’s emotional connection is severed and we reject the film’s reality. This said, the film still features three massive battles between Jaeger and Kaiju — battles that take them to space, to the ocean floor and, most notably, to the gorgeous neon-lit streets of Tokyo. del Toro frames and orchestrates these set-pieces with unbelievable brio and visual clarity — not that its much of a challenge to keep 20-story-tall objects in the frame, mind you. Pacific Rim‘s fight sequences are textbook-reference perfect: exciting as shit, clever in their weaponry, visually cohesive, and constantly elevating to levels of near-unbearable stress. Pacific Rim, more than any film I can think of, is combat as an art-form, loaded with indelible images and rugged beauty.

These visuals are the most original aspect of the flick, to be sure, but even the totally derivative aspects are realized with such life and vitality. The plot, while a nutty amalgamation of Godzilla, Top Gun and Star Wars, is such a loving rip-off that its influences are impossible to hold onto too tightly. It’s giddy, it’s clangy, and more often then not, inspires true awe. B+

“Before Midnight” turns one of the great movie duos into one of the great movie trilogies.

Before Midnight is the third installment in a sequence of films I wouldn’t hesitate to call among the greatest and most significant that I’ve ever witnessed. It may be far too punchy and direct to state this; an odd match for a film whose pleasures and nuances are so subtle and so muted. But the unrestrained joy and reverie I experience from Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy wholly warrants it.

But first: context. 1995’s Before Sunrise chronicled the meeting of two strangers: Jesse and Celine. Sunrise followed the two through Vienna as they, despite cultural and ideological differences, come to know each other, make love to each other, and finally, before Celine departs on a train, promise to reunite in six months’ time with each other. 2004’s Before Sunset catches up with the duo nine years later on a brief encounter in Paris. As it happens, their youthful promise was an unfulfilled one. Once full of exuberant opinions on life and philosophy, the two are more tethered in Sunset, both to their responsibilities (the duo never reunited, and so Jesse is now a married father) and tethered, too, to the more sober, fatalistic perspectives that time seems to impart. Sunset is among the most swooningly romantic films ever made and does so without so much as a kiss, as it hinges on one simple question — is Jesse going to throw away his family for one last shot at the love of his life?

Before Midnight answers this question and then some. It swiftly demonstrates a conclusion to the first two films’ key drama — yes, the two have ended up together — and then rapidly moves on to deeper, darker territory. Set on an idyllic Greek resort over the course of a late afternoon and eventual nightfall, Midnight is about the consequences of what happens when one abandons their responsibilities to pursue love and a new life. Jesse’s wracking guilt about leaving his now-teenage son for Celine, growing insecurity about the manner in which they provide for their two daughters, and suspicions of infidelity are only some of the topics Jesse and Celine fire at each other about as the film progresses.

Seeing one of the all-time great screen couples viciously go at it with each other over real-life neuroses and fears is one of the film’s great virtues, as well as its great pains. The famously conversation-heavy structure of the past two films, while reprised, actually serves an entirely different, darker function in Midnight — where with the first two films, it took us deep into the characters’ souls and viewpoints, here the all-too-familiar device is used to hurt. Shock. Distort. Everything light, bubbly and charming about its predecessors has been totally inverted, since the characters no longer seek to get to know each other, but rather, to prove each other wrong in a passionate series of arguments. While it’s a bold and unpredictable direction to take such a romantic series, it’s still shocking at points just how vividly their hurt becomes our own.

But Before Midnight is no hysterical, crazed sob-fest. Moments of genuine humor and warm observation are to be found at every turn of Linklater’s film, largely due to the efforts (acting and writing) of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Linklater lets much of their conversation unfold in unbroken takes, capturing both the luscious Greek vistas and unbelievably tightened craft of the principal actors. After a fascinating, checkered career alternating between bizarrely rapturous experiments (Slacker), ambitious failures (Fast Food Nation), mainstream comedies (School of Rock) and bona-fide classics (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life), he’s more than earned the right to artistically indulge himself — yet in an all-too-unfamiliar turn, it’s precisely here where Linklater’s mastery of human drama and pared-down aesthetics are at their peak. His simple shot arrangements and uncomplicated camera movements don’t suggest an inability of higher complexity, but rather, the wisdom to know they’re not needed.

Before Midnight is the crowning achievement of a trilogy that only gets better with time; one that tackles terrifying issues (the longevity of true love, the onset of compromise and disappointment with adult years) in the simplest, most effective way possible: with people. Between people. Concerning people.

It seems to me that as the years go by and budgets raise ever-higher, movies are losing their interest in human expression and documentation. So when movies like Before Midnight, ones so achingly true, wickedly entertaining and above all, profoundly human come through your theater? Grab them and never let go. A+

“This is the End” two hours of finely tuned, totally hilarious Hollywood narcissism

This is the End walks an incredibly fine line — certainly more daring than anything else that mainstream American comedians have cooked up in a long while. The conceit is that most of Hollywood’s young comedy elite — Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, and an endless army of cameos — are playing versions of themselves stretched out to various degrees of fictionality. After years of establishing themselves as likable, amicable goofballs in just about every major work of their careers (these men are alums of Superbad, Pineapple Express, Knocked Up and the like), This is the End shines a bright light on the darker, more narcissist side of these young stars — and in doing so, serves as a backwards reflection on fame and notoriety at large.

Did I mention it does this in an unbelievably funny way? Here’s the premise — all of young Hollywood has gathered to a party at James Franco’s house. Emma Watson, Rihanna, Jason Segel, Michael Cera (who absolutely slaughters it in playing an insane coke-addled version of himself) and Paul Rudd are among the luminaries under Franco’s roof. But soon, the world very literally begins ending outside — people being sucked into the sky, monsters emerging, massive sinkholes forming in the ground. Consequently, everyone’s dead but our core six protagonists — Seth, James, Jay, Craig, Jonah and Danny, who are now holed up in Franco’s trendy LA pad with dwindling food, swelling egos, and a lot of drugs.

Given the hysterically amoral nature of much of the film, it’s important to keep some form of an emotional core. The film provides that in the friendship between Seth and Jay — with Jay’s skeptical attitude towards fame clashing with Seth’s hyper-friendly, Hollywood-partying ways. The film never loses sight of them, even as it juggles other mega-watt stars and their dramas, quirks and flaws.

And my god, the stars. Everyone here is in peak comedic form, with razor-sharp timing and ace chemistry. Jonah Hill’s sycophant religious nut is a joy, James Franco riffs on his more arty, bourgeois tendencies, Danny McBride is a foul-mouthed villain that’s easily the most quotable of the group, and Craig Robinson gets a killer musical number entitled “Take Yo Panties Off”.

The film is co-directed by star Seth Rogen and long-time partner Evan Goldberg. While their technical finesse is nothing to write home about, with particularly flat visual effects, its their evident skill with comedic set-up and solid grasp of character that shows an odd, unexpected discipline in this duo.

Another key concept they clearly grasp — one that many recent comedies could stand to pay attention to — is not overstaying their welcome. This is the End comes a little under two hours, but never becomes too bogged down in monotony — a small miracle, given the limited amount of stars and locations in 75% of the film.

This is the End is as self-indulgent as mainstream films come, true, but why is that a bad thing? To dive head-deep into one’s own ideas also reflects a large amount of passion and conviction. Unusual words to describe a hard R-rated comedy? Certainly. Earned words to describe THIS hard R-rated comedy? Certainly. A-

“Iron Man 3” strips character and conflict to bare essentials, and is superior to its predecessors for it.

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This genre’s totally gonna go to shit in the near-future, you guys know that, right?

For a little over a decade, superhero opuses have totally been slaughtering it at the box-office and have gained a more prominent spot in pop-culture consciousness. But in a post-Dark Knight world, there’s not much melding of legitimate social commentary with escapist, heroic thrills anymore, with studios choosing to focus on the latter category  — making many comic-book films these days into bright, bursting spectacles that are also a total shit-show of character and narrative cohesion. They don’t have to be troubling, near Dickensian visions of urban anarchy and despair, much like Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But dude, where’s the damn effort?

The superhero film in my eyes can go in two directions from here — either bigger and bigger, aiming for an action extravaganza with the scope and sweep of an Avengers (note: this is the popular option), or retreating into tighter, more character-based territory.

Iron Man 3 is a fairly refreshing middle-finger to the direction of the genre — and summer escapism at large. Rather than blowing up the scope of the film’s action, writer-director Shane Black makes a clever left turn — making the conflict of the film smaller and more focused than past installments, and greatly limiting what Tony Stark, our billionaire-playboy-philanthropist-genius protagonist is capable of.

These limitations come in clever packages. The lasting appeal of the Iron Man franchise is the character’s constant smug confidence and endless array of clever weapons and gadgets. So when 20 minutes into Iron Man 3, Stark’s entire toolkit is torpedoed (literally) and he’s banished into the North Carolinian wilderness, the film becomes a fairly minimalist detective story, emphasizing Iron Man’s intellect far more than his fists for much of the running time. It’s a tighter, smarter picture than anything out of Marvel in years.

Wise move on the studio’s part to let Shane Black guide this one — a famed Hollywood screenwriter renowned for his melding of action escapism with snarky meta- elements (see: Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). His rapid-fire dialogue is a natural fit for Robert Downey Jr.’s famed snark, and in classic Black fashion there are genuinely unexpected reversals and twists to be found here.

This is also much more of an ensemble piece than one would expect — Don Cheadle and Gwyneth Paltrow continue their successful rapport as Downey’s best/girl friend, respectively, and Guy Pearce lends a fair bit of reality to a villainous role that literally requires him to breathe fire. But Iron Man 3′s highs are often when Ben Kingsley is on-screen. Playing the ‘lead’ villain The Mandarin, Kingsley taps into a nutty energy that’s both completely hilarious and unlike anything he’s done in his long, storied career.

To see Downey so comfortable in this role, contrarily, isn’t quite as large a joy. Yes, he’s excellent as Tony Stark — what else would you expect? — but I’m beginning to fear that if he doesn’t ease off his comfortable niche within mega-million-dollar spectacles, we may never get the same interesting character work that defined his career at its explosive start and especially in the early 2000’s. Tony Stark is only Robert Downey, Jr. His excellent work within his franchise has ensured that no other actor could capably occupy this mantle. But after this long, I just hope Robert Downey, Jr. isn’t only Tony Stark. B+

“The Great Gatsby” underwhelming adaptation of one of literature’s great, swooning masterworks

The Great Gatsby arrived in theaters burdened with having to successfully communicate the key plot points and ideas of one of the masterworks of American literature, and that’s not even close to the biggest problem the finished product ended up having. Indeed, as a pure adaptation the film is earnest and loyal to a fault — direct passages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (still transcendent) prose are often ported directly from the novel straight to the film. This creates a bizarre relationship from novel to adaptation — rather than simply interpreting the narrative, it seems writer-director Baz Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce felt they needed to incorporate the reputation of the source material into the film as well. Excerpts of the original text are literally projected onto the screen at points — and by leaning on another medium to harness much of the film’s power, Gatsby‘s standalone impact is diminished quite a bit from the get-go.

I will say this much — I doubt that Gatsby will ever be visually translated quite so lusciously on the big-screen ever again. The lavish interiors of Fitzgerald’s Long Island locations are replicated about as gorgeously as imaginable, and while many outside locations appear to be largely CGI, this is forgivable due to the complexity demonstrated in the work and the total impossibility of nailing 1920’s New York any other way. The costumes, particularly for the iconic Daisy, are glowing and radiant, and when he can hone it in and make it focus, Luhrmann’s camera captures the frenzy and posture of the era uncannily well.

Thus begins one of my larger complaints about the film. He rarely does that. In past films like Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann indulged in quick cutting and constant reversal of camera angles, but it was always in pursuit of capturing excitement and evoking genuine feeling. For this, his works succeeded. The editing style in Great Gatsby, however, is so incomprehensible and nervous that it robs much of the film of any sense of physical geography — but most importantly, of any sense of pace or patience. Thus, while the film may visually appear as dignified as anything out of Old Hollywood, it moves along with all the nuance and restraint of a jittery, Red-Bull infused little brat whose Xbox controller isn’t working.

Thus, Great Gatsby charges along at a breakneck pace, hitting every major mark from its source material and explaining every significant symbol (the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg and the green lighthouse are given lengthy lip-service) — but without much sense of impact or consequence.

The plot is one of the most simple and involving that I’ve ever read, and not even the most bungled cinematic iteration can strip it of all of its power and elegance. Narrated by intelligent Yale export Nick Carraway (a totally flaccid Tobey Maguire), the film details what happens when the well-to-do Long Island couple Daisy & Tom Buchanan (Carey Mulligan & Joel Edgerton with dark, seedy charisma to spare) collide with the elusive, mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby, whose eye-popping parties totally embodied the loose spirit of the Jazz Age that Fitzgerald wrote about. Daisy and Jay’s secret romantic past has burdened Gatsby tremendously for years — and when the two strike it up again, all involved parties are sent on a tragic spiral.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s magnetism gives the film much of its existing humanity, but you already knew that. For a man whose career has been built largely on tragic hero roles, it only makes sense that he should play one of the most famous doomed figures in American literature. DiCaprio is equally at home during lavish, impressively choreographed parties and during moments of remarkably heightened emotion and vulnerability. Whether the film is at its most raw or its most artificial, DiCaprio is the momentum every step of the way.

Did The Great Gatsby translate one of the great romantic novels of our time to the screen successfully? Yes. Did it translate the story of one of the great romantic novels successfully? Surely not. By both attempting to tether itself incredibly closely to the text and reach in a distinctly “modern” direction (Jay-Z curated score, and all), helmer Baz Luhrmann overstretches himself and creates a product as phony as the characters its source material condemned. C-