Review: Only God Forgives
The Pitch: Bangkok (Armed And) Dangerous.
Review Transcript Taken From A Focus Group Conducted Prior To The Making Of The Film:
[TRANSCRIPT BEGINS] “So, Mr. [CENSORED], thank you for taking the time to respond for this focus group. The makers of this new film would like to thank you for your time. So, I understand you’ve just seen Drive, which was Mr. Winding Refn’s previous film, and I’m just looking through your feedback form… So you liked Ryan Gosling and his performance, although you feel he was a little silent and broody at times… You liked the casting of the female roles as well, so that was Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks, although you felt that maybe they were portrayed as overly vulnerable? OK… You liked the setting and felt there was a strong story, and you felt that Albert Brooks made for a strong portrayal of evil… Yes, he is good when he does those voices on The Simpsons… (laughter)… You felt that overall the movie was very stylish, and wondered where you can get one of those scorpion jackets? I normally go on eBay for things like that… You thought the violence was a bit much at times… And the other thing you picked out was the score… Yes, the score was by Cliff Martinez… Yes, he’s done a few Steven Soderbergh films in the past… Yes, I know, it’s a shame he’s retired… (pause)… No, Soderbergh…
“So, thank you for your feedback, and… the new film? Oh, OK, I’m not sure how much I can tell you for now… Well, it’s called Only God Forgives, and it’s set in the seedy Bangkok underworld, amid drugs and prostitution… Yes, no, I’ve been to Bangkok too and I thought it was lovely as well, although I stayed away from some of the bars late at night… What else? Well, it’s the story of two brothers, one of whom commits a terrible sin and then ends up being punished for his crimes, and then the other brother is dragged into a bitter battle of revenge by his mother. There’s also a policeman, who comes in to investigate when the brutality starts, and becomes embroiled in the battle for the family’s revenge… Yes, it all sounds quite action packed, doesn’t it, although I think I should warn you it might turn out to be a little different to Drive…
“Yes, there are some elements which get carried over… Ryan Gosling will be back after Luke Evans dropped out… It’s a bit of a different role for Gosling this time… Yes, he will be quite broody, I think he’s only got seventeen lines in the whole script… Self-parody? Maybe just a bit, but that’s the risk you take when someone is as good at Ryan at sitting in the corner and smouldering… I expect there will be some different ways that gets used… I’m expecting the wardrobe will be just as sharp this time, although I think they’re looking to stay away from scorpion jackets… It’s a bit gimmicky, you’re right… You’ll be pleased to hear that Cliff Martinez is back doing the music as well… Yes, I think it could be even better than Drive… Why? Well, as there’s not much in the way of plot or dialogue in the film, it’ll be heavily reliant on the cinematography and the score… It’ll probably be deeply atmospheric… The violence? Well, Mr. Winding Refn has admitted in the past he has a bit of a fetish for violence, so I’d expect there to be more of that too and … No, I think he still means it should come out of the story organically… Yes, that might be a bit difficult if there’s not much story, but maybe it’ll make more sense when you see it… No, you’re right, maybe it won’t…
“Different? Well, there are a few things different this time… For a start, it’s set in Thailand, so the opening and closing credits are all going to be in Thai with English subtitles… There’s some stronger female characterisation, as they’ve got Kristin Scott Thomas to play the mother… Yes, she was in Four Weddings… No, she’ll be quite different here, I think what she’s going for is a sort of angry Donatella Versace meets Lady Macbeth thing… No, I think she’s intended to be the strong figure, and Gosling somewhat more submissive, or at least passive… the bad guy’s also a little different, there’s some almost mystical things going on… I understand Mr. Winding Refn’s interested in provoking strong reactions… No, I don’t think it sets out top be deliberately provocative just for the sake of it… The best way to judge these things is to watch them… What else? From what I understand, it should be quite heavy on the symbolism… Well, you’re right, you can read interpretations into just about anything, what I mean is that there’s likely to be lots of stark imagery and lots left open to interpretation, with some dream sequences and some surreal moments… Yes, some of the symbolism is sexual… No, not all of it… No, I don’t think they have a hard time keeping it up… Oh, very funny, sir… (coughs)…
“Yes, it does all sound rather different to Drive, I think that’s the point… Have you seen any of Mr. Winding Refn’s previous films, like Pusher or Bronson?… You haven’t… No, I believe Mr Winding Refn’s making films more for himself than he is for the audience… yes, yes I do, I have seen it myself… You’re right, there’s not much point in a focus group if they’ve already made the film… No, I still get paid… No, even if I wasn’t I would still defend this… Because I really loved it… Yes, it might make me a bad person… Put it this way, if Drive was a violence-tinged fairy tale with a stark and unswerving morality, then this is a perversely rigid, deliberately paced, nihilistic nightmare of gaudily patterned wallpaper and dark alleyways that subverts your expectations at every turn as it explores themes of religion, morality and even a dash of Oedipus complex, … Yes, it’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you can put yourself in tune with its growling cadences and bursts of ultraviolence and find the idea of a man with a magically appearing sword who sings karaoke in gaudy nightclubs perversely appealing, then you’ll be utterly hooked… Oh, OK… Just one last question I’m supposed to ask: Based on my description of Only God Forgives, do you now think you’re more likely or less likely to watch it? (long pause)… Less likely, OK, I understand… Yes, I will… No, there’s no need for language like that… Anyway, thank you for your time.” [TRANSCRIPT ENDS]
Why see it at the cinema: I had a Twitter sweepstake to see how many people would walk out – turned out to be zero at my screening, somewhat surprisingly. If you feel you can last the distance – and it’s only an hour and a half – then a dark room and some patience are the best way to absorb Only God Forgives’ pulsating rhythms and intense mood.
What about the rating? Rated 18 for strong bloody violence. Yeah, just a bit.
My cinema experience: An unexpectedly full house in an admittedly smaller screen at the Cineworld in Cambridge, the neon vibe of the film was enhanced / diminished (delete as appropriate) by yet more people on their mobiles during the screening. On the way out, comments ranged from “I was really bored” to “that was all right, I guess”. Each to their own.
The Score: 10/10
Review: The Place Beyond The Pines
The Pitch: Sins of the fathers.
The Review: If they ever come to update the Chinese zodiac, then 2011 might need to be revised from rabbit. With Drive, Crazy, Stupid, Love, The Ides Of March and (for UK audiences) Blue Valentine, 2011 was undoubtedly the Year Of The Gosling. Having made a moderate name for himself with earlier character pieces such as Half Nelson and Lars And The Real Girl, Gosling seared himself indelibly into the minds of film loving audiences with a year of high quality roles. 2013 sees him reunite with the directors of two of those works, Nicolas Winding Refn later this year and firstly Derek Cianfrance. Where Blue Valentine, Cianfrance’s previous collaboration with Gosling, was an almost claustrophobically intense two hander on the demise of a relationship, Pines sees Cianfrance set his sights more broadly, with a significantly wider range of characters and a much wider narrative scope. But the key differentiator to Gosling’s back catalogue is the introduction of another heartthrob alpha male in the finely chiselled shape of Bradley Cooper.
This isn’t a Scorcese or Mann style story of crime and families; while both relationships and criminal activity make a strong showing, the good and the bad interact in vastly different ways. The story of Gosling’s Luke is the initial focus, as his career as a motorcycle stunt rider for a local sideshow barely pays the bills. When he discovers he’s fathered a child by ex-girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes), his attempts to provide a stable financial future lead him to mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) as the two pull off some audacious bank robberies using Luke’s exceptional riding skills. Inevitably, their activities attract the attention of police officer Avery (Cooper), but his run-in with Luke creates its own set of problems. Romina finds herself being drawn into Avery’s world as well, and the two sets of lives become increasingly linked as time passes.
Once again, his collaboration with Cianfrance serves to extract another top-draw performance from Gosling, who’s got the smouldering thing absolutely nailed, but manages to find another variation on his Drive persona with a more flawed, fractured individual whose violent outbursts are significantly less controlled and productive than his scorpion jacket-wearing counterpart. The real revelation is Cooper, who after becoming stuck somewhat in a rut of big budget but empty comedies and action movies builds on the good work he put in for Silver Linings Playbook, allowing real shading in what could have been a simple role. There’s complex characters across the board, and as well as Cooper and Gosling Mendelsohn and Mendes also shine, and the supporting roles are also well filled by Ray Liotta, Harris Yulin and especially Dane De Haan as a more troubled youngster. That Cianfrance works so well with actors should come as no surprise, but his compositional skills also step up a level from Blue Valentine and from a magnificent establishing shot of Gosling walking through the park to ride his bike into the show, to almost any scene where Luke’s on the run on his bike, the first hour or so crackles with bursts of kinetic energy between the character moments.
It’s a shame that what comes later feels just a shade anticlimactic by comparison. Pines is episodic almost to the point of portmanteau, setting up three distinct chapters where characters take on vastly different perspectives in relation to the respective leads and with stories told in subtly different styles. The big problem is in the final chapter: as soon as the title card comes up for it there’s an inevitability to where the story’s headed, but it takes the two leads at that point so long to join the dots to what the audience already knows it verges on the painful, and by the time it has the narrative resolution of the thread that links the episodes is almost an “oh, is that it?” moment. You almost wish that Cianfrance and fellow scripters Ben Coccio and Darius Marder had avoided the attempt at the epic, sweeping scope and kept their focus tight on Gosling and Cooper, possibly even on just one or the other, as the first act had the makings of a classic but the whole isn’t quite the sum of its parts. It’s rare to see a film that clocks in at two hours and twenty minutes that you feel could have benefited from being longer, but another twenty minutes could have given Pines the room it needed to breathe and develop with the scope it set its sights on. But, once again, it’s most likely Gosling’s performance that will live longest in the memory.
Why see it at the cinema: The tight first hour alone is worth making the trip out for, especially any scene where Gosling is tearing it up on his bike.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong language, violence and drug use. There’s a lot of the first and a bit of the other two, and this would have been hacked to death to get anything lower.
My cinema experience: A sparse crowd, somewhat understandably as this was a Saturday morning show at Cambridge Cineworld. No noticeable issues with projection, sound or audience.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: The captive Saturday morning audience were treated to an extended roster of trailers, including one for the Event Cinema Association for events which have all happened already. That resulted in a gap of 29 minutes before the film started, not ideal for a film running to 141 minutes itself.
The Score: 8/10
Review: Gangster Squad
The Pitch: The Untouchables 2. In Color! With Rex Hamilton As Abraham Lincoln.
The Review: Mickey Cohen. Small time boxer, post-war crook who ran gambling in Los Angeles and a name familiar to readers of James Ellroy as part of the backdrop of ongoing crime that featured in his LA Quartet, including the big screen adaptation of L.A. Confidential some sixteen years ago. If you’re going to take anything from Gangster Squad, though, it’s best to put those preconceptions aside, as Gangster Squad is more of a three minute egg to dunk your soldiers in than a hard boiled thriller. The starting point for the movie’s problems is its choice of director: Ruben Fleischer made an impressive debut with Zombieland, which had a distinctive voice and tone but still managed to bring freshness and variety to a very well-worn genre. 30 Minutes Or Less was a little more anaemic, a collection of good moments (and a few stale ones) and some uncertainty as to what exactly Fleischer was trying to achieve. It’s the through-line of that uncertainty that proves most difficult in finding coherence in this motley crew.
Fleischer’s desire to push himself but also to experiment also shows up in the casting and the performances, which run the entirety of the spectrum from snug fit to loose-fitting knock-off. At the top end are the grizzled faces and voices that you’d expect from the genre, with Sean Penn the most effective under some mild prosthetics as Cohen himself, here portrayed as an all-powerful overlord of L.A. crime with the police in his back pocket and fingers in every pie from Burbank to the Hollywoodland sign. The other predominant grizzle comes from Nick Nolte, wandering in and out of the plot in a vaguely expository fashion. Josh Brolin is cast in the Kevin Costner earnest-but-dull role of the lead cop, investing Costner-ish levels of stoicism and blandness to his apparently Irish-American gang leader, and from there it’s a downward slope to Ryan Gosling’s weedy-voiced charmer, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena and Giovanni Ribisi’s underdeveloped sidekicks to poor Emma Stone’s unfortunate attempt at the femme fatale caught between the weed and the hard case. The only real saving grace is Mireille Enos’s version of the Costner wife, keeping Brolin and the rest of the gang on the straight and narrow.
If the casting’s a mixed bag, it’s nothing compared to the overall tone of Gangster Squad. While it’s understandable Fleischer and scribe Will Beal (working from Paul Lieberman’s source novel) might be looking to differentiate themselves from other genre examples, the uncomfortable mix of cartoon, almost comic-book violence, virtually Keystone incompetence from the Squad as they attempt to strike at Cohen’s operation giving way to earnestness and attempts at gravitas and emotion never come close to gelling and attempts to invest the police with any kind of reasonable morality. (That wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t so clearly the intent.) The net effect is roughly equivalent to turning up to your Christmas panto and discovering that Wishy-Washy and Buttons have been armed with tommy guns, but it would probably be easier to invest in the characters at the pantomime.
The other overriding feeling of Gangster Squad is one of pastiche, but one where the satire seems to have gotten lost en route. As well as the strong Untouchables vibe, there’s a Goodfellas-style Steadicam entry into a fancy club that attempts to glamourise the Hollywood lifestyle, a scene reminiscent of L.A. Confidential where two officers make a visit to the office of a prominent establishment member and even a bizarre scene reminiscent of Terminator 2 during the climactic shoot-out, but each one feels a half-hearted throwback to the original, rather than even a decent homage. It’s a shame, particularly when Gangster Squad feels at its best when not slavishly imitating others, most notably in a car-based takedown of an inbound drugs shipment. Believability doesn’t need to be the name of the game, but half-hearted rather sums it up; if only Gangster Squad had the courage of all its convictions.
Why see it at the cinema: There’s a few LOLs which the audience seemed to appreciate and there’s one car-based takedown which works well on the big screen. However, Sean Penn’s face blown up to full size does look remarkably fake at times under the prosthetics, so it’s a mixed bag.
What about the rating? Rated 15 in the UK for strong bloody violence and very strong language. A couple of very brief moments of extreme dismemberment and the odd c-word, and the 15 rating is fair enough. Just a shame that the plotting and general standard of dialogue feel PG at best.
My cinema experience: Saw this at the Cambridge Cineworld on a Saturday afternoon. There were six tills open, all at the concessions stand, many simply there to turn people away from sold out showings of Les Miserables. My server was moving with the speed of a disinterested sloth attempting The Times Crossword, and despite being in a short queue it took me fifteen minutes to acquire a ticket. No projection problems, volume was set reasonably, and the half full audience behaved reasonably well apart from the one person on my row with his mobile on full brightness and the one person who attempted to make finger animals in the projector while the credits rolled. How very droll.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Just under half an hour of adverts, trailers and PSA, about standard for Cineworld these days.
The Score: 5/10
Review: The Ides Of March
The Review: Somewhere along the line, George Clooney became an American institution, but I’m still struggling to pinpoint the exact moment that it happened. It must have been after he was in ER (the second one; he was actually in two different series called ER, fact fans, one of which was a comedy), and definitely after he was in that Batman film. Admittedly he probably got into that because everyone was convinced he was a movie star; somewhere between Out Of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven it actually came true, but actually his screen career’s been patchy at best. His directorial efforts haven’t really been any different, and from the highs of Good Night, And Good Luck to The Leatherheads sinking without trace, a Clooney film is far from a sure thing. So it’s a great relief to report that The Ides Of March is actually a cracking thriller, but one of a very particular type.
But just as Clooney’s character seems practically perfect in every possible way, much of the success of Ides isn’t just Clooney’s skill in front of and behind the camera, it’s actually his leading man. For Clooney is almost a support player in his own movie, but his leading man seems physically incapable of appearing in a bad film these days, on a hot streak this year including Blue Valentine, Drive and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Ryan Gosling is rapidly turning into the George Clooney of his generation, the next matinee idol and on a similar trajectory. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the film follows similar threads, Gosling’s idealistic campaigner working keenly in the shadow of Clooney’s virtuous liberal Senator. When Gosling gets a call from a rival campaigner (Paul Giamatti), curiosity gets the better of him and it sets in motion a chain of events that threaten to not only upturn his life, but also that of the fresh-faced intern (Evan Rachel Wood) who’s keen to get in his, erm, briefs.
That last reference would have worked better if Ides were a courtroom or legal thriller, but tonally it actually has a lot in common with some of the better examples of that genre from recent years, such as A Few Good Men or The Firm. (This might also suggest Gosling could be the next Tom Cruise rather than George Clooney, which should certainly be within his reach if he wants it.) It’s also a sign that The Ides Of March isn’t actually as deep as it thinks it is; it’s not quite paddling pool shallow, but the politics itself is an extreme form of liberal idealism that wouldn’t hold water in the real world, and the actual debate never really gets a look in, as it’s all about the Clooney campaign. But Clooney the director makes the greater contribution of the two Clooneys here, with heavy use of close-ups getting heavily into the drama and the pacing kept just right for the material.
It’s not to diminish Clooney the actor’s contribution; whenever he or Gosling is on screen, the effect is magnetic, and when the two are together the screen positively burns with charisma. It’s very much an actor’s movie, and there’s sterling support from the likes of Giamatti, Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei. Those expecting an intricate political dissection of the current state of the Union will be disappointed; an early reference to Neville Chamberlain gives a feel of the more timeless themes of personal integrity and power that Clooney the writer and his partner Grant Heslov are keen to explore. A slightly muted reception in the US might be down to the two party system, and the fact that The Ides Of March wears its Democrat badge with pride (even if it does evoke some of the most well known Democrats of recent years for many of the wrong reasons), but if you’re looking for entertainment then there’s no need to beware this Ides Of March.
Why see it at the cinema: Flirting in tight close up, when the camera is fully in the faces of Ryan Gosling and Evan Rachel Wood, there’s something for everyone.
The Score: 8/10
Review: Blue Valentine
The Pitch: Breaking up is hard to do. And to watch, for that matter…
The Review: Love stories have been rich fodder for cinema over its entire history, with many of the most highly regarded films ever made boiling down to the simple story of how two people find love. Trying to pin down love is a little more elusive, however, and the nature and representation of romantic love is somewhat different to what it might have been in previous generations. Consequently, fewer films have trodden the path of what causes love or relationships to break down; Blue Valentine tackles both ends of the relationship spectrum, looking at a couple’s initial coming together and the beginning of the end for their relationship.
The non-linear structure is initially only given away by the visual cues; different film (one digital, the other more old fashioned) used for the different times, but also the appearance of the two leads. Not only do Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) sport different clothes and hair to show up the difference, but their very mannerisms and demeanour serve to contrast the exuberance of their first exchanges and the world-weariness of their marriage after six years together, seemingly going through the motions. It’s almost trivial to say that both are excellent, scattering their respective characters with little details which make them completely believable, albeit more than a little unsympathetic.
Now more than a third of marriages end in divorce, where once that statistic would have been much lower; the film juxtaposes the older characters and their relationships with the failing marriage, although it’s hard to escape the underlying cynicism about both love and marriage, almost as if those couples that stay together do simply because they can’t be honest with themselves, and that there is no such thing as love at all, only circumstance and a set of choices that present themselves over time. There’s certainly mutual attraction at the beginning of this relationship, and the kind of flirting that often happens in indie and low budget films, but the cuts between the beginning and the end are done in such a way as to make the end inevitable and the film becomes almost a modern day tragedy, a parable of our times and a social commentary on generational differences but one still only reflective of the minority. The rampant symbolism in the settings, from doomed love songs to tacky motel rooms, all support the fatalistic attitude that Blue Valentine has towards Dean and Cindy.
Director Derek Gianfrance wants to make us hurt as much as the characters, so pushes us in close with the camera, even when the going gets tough, through both physical pain and the emotional endurance of the characters. There was much controversy over the sex scenes, but they’re all an extension of the mood at that point in the narrative and there’s nothing hugely gratuitous, serving only to ground the whole film firmly in the real world. The direction itself gives full weight to the acting, and there’s a suitably doleful score that flits in and out of proceedings, but what you’re left with is a very one sided argument about the nature of relationships, and the only thing that rewards are the beautifully nuanced performances. The almost complete lack of sympathetic characters means you may appreciate the quality of Blue Valentine while in its presence, and that quality does make it worth your time initially, but if you’re anything but a hardened cynic you may not wish to make a long term commitment to it.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s beautifully shot, extraordinarily well performed and the close in camera means the cinema will give you an absolute intimacy with the characters. If that’s what you want, of course.
The Score: 8/10