Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God ForgivesUS ex-pat Julian Thompson (Ryan Gosling) is smuggling drugs in and out of Bangkok from his boxing club when older brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed by the father of the girl he raped and murdered. The act is overseen by Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), known to the local police as the Angel of Vengeance, who then severs one of the father’s arms as penance for his parental neglect. When mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in town for her son’s funeral, she meets with Julian and other associates to arrange Chang’s assassination.

Having previously collaborated on 2011’s Drive, a film which received almost blanket praise, Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling reunite for another over-hyped serving of ultra-violent and hyper-stylised thrills.  Dropping the 80s trappings that characterised their previous offering, the director instead outfits his latest film with traditional Thai iconography and garish monochrome in the hope of making a Western for the Far East, complete with its own near-silent cowboy hero.

Thankfully, while Drive (adapted from James Sallis’ 2005 novel of the same name) had little more to say than “Look at Ryan Gosling, he’s wearing a jacket”, from the very outset it is obvious that Only God Forgives is a far more interesting proposition. Gone are the unconvincing attempts at redemption and obviously afterthought love interests; the only thing that matters to Gosling’s character — who, it is encouraging to note, has a name this time and everything — is the unhealthy and unfulfilled relationship he has with his mother.

From the moment Scott Thomas appears onscreen sparks fly — she hits the film like a bolt of electricity and immediately lights up the room. Gosling can by now stare into the middle distance with his eyes closed (it’s a talent), but after a time you can’t help but question whether such effortlessness may in actual fact be a simple lack of effort. Scott-Thomson on the other hand is a pleasure to watch as she conducts Bangkok’s criminal underbelly from the comfort of her penthouse suite, a live wire in a blonde wig who stings her son with endless insults and attacks on his very manhood.

The violence feels part of the story this time around, rather than a stylistic decision. These aren’t glamourised or glorified acts of heroism but dark and disturbing episodes of sadism and revenge. One of the film’s stand out scenes features a bare-fisted boxing match between Thompson and Chang — their first confrontation — in which a black-suited Gosling is left beaten and bloodied while his mother watches passively from the sidelines. It’s a mesmerising moment, both beautiful and mercilessly brutal.

Regardless of how often Refn might change the colour filter on his camera, however, there is little disguising the fact that for most of Only God Forgives‘ running time very little is actually happening, and even less being said. These scenes are almost as excruciating as those responsible for the 18 rating, only for different reasons; on one occasion we watch from various angles as Julian walks silently down a corridor, a scene that is drawn out to truly ludicrous lengths, while the editing does its best to suggest that the events taking place on screen may not even really be happening.

Only God Forgives has polarised audiences, even leading those who enjoyed the under-plotted and barely scripted Drive to criticise the film’s apparently meandering aimlessness. Unlike their previous effort, however, this is a film that has something to say, and while it might often feel staged, plodding and self-indulgent there are moments of such artistry and Oedipal strangeness that you can’t help but admire it.

3-Stars

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The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

The Place Beyond The PinesAfter learning that a former lover had given birth to his son in secret, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) quits his job as a stunt racer for a travelling circus and begins robbing banks to better support his new family — whether they want his help or not. When Glanton’s raids put him on a collision course with idealistic beat cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a chain of events are set in motion that will impact not only their own lives, but those of their children, Jason (Dane Dehaan) and A.J. (Emory Cohen), too. Read more of this post

Gangster Squad (2013)

Gangster SquadIt’s 1949, and in the wake of World War II Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has wrestled the city of Los Angeles from its angels and subsequently set his sights on the Mafia Mecca of Chicago. In an attempt to put an end to the crime boss’ reign before it’s too late, Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) recruits good cop Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and asks that he put together an unofficial task-force of officers that he can trust. Meanwhile, initially reluctant to join the newly formed Gangster Squad, best friend Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) sets his eye on the kingpin’s girl (Emma Stone). Read more of this post

If 2011 Were A Movie…

In recent years we have seen Hollywood tap a variety of different resources in its ongoing search for new ideas. Stopping just short of sticking its hand down the side of the sofa and rummaging for loose inspiration, Tinseltown has instead chosen to adapt everything from the usual books, video games and television shows, to websites, theme park rides and – I still can’t quite believe it –  even board games. So, why not an entire year?

If 2011 were a movie, aside from reflecting such recent events as The Royal Wedding, the London riots, the Eurozone crisis and those pandas arriving at Edinburgh zoo, it would also have to reflect the trends and tendencies prevalent in the films it has seen released during its tenure. As such, it would most likely be a remake of a foreign language prequel, a motion-capture throwback and a steamy tale of friends with benefits, with no strings attached.

If 2011 were a movie it would star Michael Fassbender as a man haunted by an unsuppressable Irish accent, Ryan Gosling as someone who can wear clothes really well, and Natalie Portman in the midst of what must amount to the most productive pregnancy ever. Stellan Skarsgård would play a man with a hidden agenda, Felicity Jones’ character would ultimately win your heart and Justin Timberlake would appear as a surprisingly capable actor.

If 2011 were a movie it would be set in Rio de Janeiro, where endangered birds come to mate, the fast are as fun as they are furious, and vampires routinely honeymoon.  At least, that is, until Michael Bay crashes a Transformer into it, forcing our heroes to set sale, on stranger tides, in search of the secret of the unicorn. On a Zeppelin. It would see McLovin slay some vampires, James Bond team up with Indiana Jones, and Queen Amidala wooed by a bunch of carrots and a period mix.

If 2011 were a movie it would be called 2011: The Movie – Part II Of The Rise Of The Planet of The Apes Of The Moon 3D (in 4romascope). It would have more punctuation than characters, more dimensions than punctuation, and in all likelihood be prefixed with Green. It would be a kid’s film by Martin Scorsese, a superhero movie by Michael Gondry, a live action movie by Brad Bird and an animated movie by Steven Spielberg.

If 2011 were a movie it wouldn’t be as good as the book, the original or the trailer for Sucker Punch made it out to be. It would miscast Liam Neeson, boast too much Nicolas Cage, and at some point feature a fat character shaving his head and shitting into her dress. Worst of all, however, New Year’s Eve would kill the finale. And it would be inexplicably steampunk.

More importantly, however, if 2011 were a movie I would pay to see it. I would marvel at its melancholy, gasp at its production values and laugh unabashedly at its failure to kill Bono. It would be surprisingly heartfelt for a summer blockbuster, unexpectedly jaw-dropping for a low budget Norwegian flick, as funny as the TV show, and a fitting conclusion to a much loved franchise.

If 2011 were a movie, 2012 would have a lot to live up to.

Drive (2011)

An ostensibly nameless driver (Ryan Gosling), sun-lighting as a stunt driver for movies, is earning an extra buck on the side as a getaway driver when things go a little bit tits-up. Having mumbled a few loaded words at his pretty neighbour, the diver is forced into reverse when Irene’s (Carey Mulligan) convict husband is released from prison. Wanting to do well by his neighbour and her young son, the driver concocts a plan with Standard (Oscar Isaac) in order to settle the latter’s debts and protect Irene and Benicio (Kaden Leos) from a couple of gangsters looking to tie up loose ends.

Drive is a film that has you caught in its headlights from the off; a gloriously retro font and finger-bitingly tense pre-titles chase sequence smack of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s confidence in his minimally scripted, maximally visualised creation. Boasting enough subtext to keep you locked in an almost devastating state of yearning,  it really is impressive just how much can be chewed out through a devilishly well-placed tooth pick. For while Gosling might use only a scattering of words – we don’t even learn the man’s name – he is a maddeningly sympathetic and utterly compelling cypher through which to experience Winding Refn’s trite but beautifully stylised (and massively gory) creation.

The scenes shared with Carey Mulligan’s friend-interest positively smoke with chemistry (that’s what chemistry does, right? When it’s not melting jellybabies?),  oozing attraction in the way that only the most forbidden, definitely doomed romances can. The support is surprisingly strong too, quite despite the fact that every other character is drawn with the broadest of strokes, with Ron Perlman in particular falling back on his own awesome reserves in order to make his character anything more than a reject from The Sopranos. Albert Brooks succeeds through juxtaposed shock alone (is that Nemo’s dad? The guy slitting that nice man’s wrists?), while it is just such a relief to see Malcolm in the Middle‘s Bryan Cranston back in work that you are more than willing to overlook the fact that he is near interchangeable from every other mentor figure, ever.

The plot is its biggest weakness, however, as it doesn’t really have one. Despite starting out strong, the initial premise quickly and disappointingly segues into an unexpectedly conventional revenge movie. As a stage for some pretty serious foreboding (You know, I can’t say I’ve ever seen Oscar Issac and the poltergeist fom Paranormal Activity in the same room, at the same time), the film holds up slightly less well as narrative. It simply isn’t satisfying as a motion picture. It’s cool, sure, but I didn’t exactly leave the cinema fulfilled; it all seemed too slight.

A wonderfully visceral piece of genre filmmaking, and a truly tantalising exercise in word economy, Drive succeeds thanks to a star-making turn from Gosling and a soundtrack that verges on note-perfect. While it might not be the masterpiece touted by over-enthused journos, it is nevertheless an immensely enjoyable and thoroughly engaging piece of Grindhouse cinema.

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

All Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) wants is dessert. All his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), wants is a divorce. In the face of his wife’s betrayal, Cal relocates to a swanky bar, one which he had never thought to visit before. Having watched Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling) leave with a different girl every night, Cal inadvertently finds himself playing padawan to Jacob’s infallible charm. From under this tailored wing, Cal begins to rediscover his manhood, beginning a spate of one night stands with nutso teacher Kate (Marisa Tomei). Back at the bar, meanwhile, Jacob has betrayed his inner chauvinist by falling for Hannah (Emma Stone), a perky accountant who unexpectedly resists his tried and tested routine.

There is a sequence, approximately two thirds into Crazy, Stupid, Love, which teases the movie that could have been. Perhaps ironically the perfect mix of cute and sexy, this scene is a veritable feast of charm, quirk and confidence that culminates memorably in a homage to Dirty Dancing‘s famous lift. As Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone lie in bed, having failed entirely at hot sex (come on, it’s in the trailer!), the film verges tantalisingly on greatness, what came before lapping jealously out of sight – out of mind. It doesn’t last.

Tonally, it’s all over the place. Joyless to begin with, Crazy, Stupid, Love flits from serious drama to laughable farce by way a slightly dubious sermon in masculinity, peaking prematurely with the above sequence, some twenty minutes before the actual conclusion, before breaking glass for the emergency neat bow. It is a meandering direction that makes you feel every second of the film’s 118 minute running time, spreading the story over a slew of cross-generational storylines that struggle – discordantly – for the dwindling spot-light.

Steve Carell and Julianne Moore are heartfelt, honest and deeply engaging, their damaged relationship pushing for a respectability not usually found in the ensemble romantic comedy. Gosling and Stone, meanwhile, pretty much sit the first hour out, coming together in a decidedly cliché attempt at parody, effectively lampooning the Hollywood romance embodied by Gosling’s smooth criminal. Each romance borders on exclusivity, however, undermining the other in what amounts to a series of uneven episodes – conflicting in tone, and grating in gears. With both threads vying for your heart (and – refreshingly – brain), straddling the rom-com hyphenated divide with a definite unease, precisely what the film does not need is another, twee teenage crush, as Cal’s son falls for his babysitter, who is in turn holding a torch of her own for Cal.

Culminating in a scene in which both Jonah Bobo and Steve Carell address the eighth grade with two conflicting, but equally saccharine, lectures on love, it is almost impossible to recall the promise and verve with which Crazy, Stupid, Love started out. Having accidentally threatening to turn the oh-so trite premise on its head, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa don’t stop until the film has been relentlessly course-corrected in time for the contractual happily ever after. Seriously, some of these contrivances need to be seen to be believed. The film’s fleeting misogyny aside – though if you didn’t feel objectified then who am I to complain – it is a movie that hits gold entirely by accident and completely without realising, swiftly falling back on convention for fear that anyone might have noticed.

Uneven, about 20 minutes too long and unfortunately short on Stone, Crazy Stupid Love squanders its promise in a misguided bid to finger all of the pies. With each subplot proving surprisingly satisfying on their own, together they simply clump unflatteringly as the script jumps from measured pathos to perky banter with even less finesse than Cal’s own transition from dad to lad.

Blue Valentine (2010)

When Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy’s (Michelle Williams) dog goes missing, it is just another disaster in a steady stream of relentless strife. With the dog’s fate unknown until well into the movie, it is safe to say that by the time the truth is out you will be well and truly prepared for it. Hardiness training incarnate, Blue Valentine is a psychological exercise in learned helplessness as we witness the pair’s romance dwindle and die, ingeniously intercut with scenes from the relationship’s inception.

Taking a leaf out of Mark Webb’s book of bittersweet and splicing happy and sad scenes for our viewing pleasure, director Derek Cianfrance has crafted a truly devastating piece of cinema as we get to watch two individuals who are inherently wrong for one another fall in love – knowing all to well what unhappiness is destined to follow. Inverting such dramatic tropes as pregnancy and marriage, Cianfrance turns what were once joyous occasions into sombre sanctimonies of resounding remorse. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World I was desperately willing the protagonists to fall in love with other people, unlike Scott Pilgrim vs. The World there was no adorable Knives-like alternative.

That the movie is saved from laughable melodrama as things gradually make their way from bad to worse, only serves to demonstrate the collective talent of those involved. Starved professionally of a good day, Michelle Williams has certainly had time to practice her distraught face. Off the back of such happy-go-lucky romps as Brokeback Mountain, Mammoth and Shutter Island, she is perhaps one of the most sympathetic character-actors working today. Cast in perhaps the most anti-Notebook love story possible, Ryan Gosling meanwhile successfully transposes his three-tissue gentleman status with a thoroughly unlikeable turn. Although coming off positively angelic when sharing screentime – and blows – with the even more brutish Mike Vogel, Gosling is nevertheless a hugely sympathetic ass-hole. Tragically convinced he can change, his desperate but “look Dean, you’re totally going about this the wrong way” attempts to rekindle the romance with his increasingly despondent wife relentlessly pull on the overworked heartstrings.

The score also conspires to lend credence to this emotional downward spiral as indie favourite Grizzly Bear croon their own brand of through-provokingly solemn music. Despite themselves, it is with music that Blue Valentine truly comes alive. The actors and script genuinely convince that this intrinsically doomed relationship might actually work. Despite everything, the scenes depicting the relationships onset and following pregnancy and marriage radiate love and affection. As the couple break into impromtu song and dance, you are left clinging to this shred of warmth in an otherwise Arctic vacuum. As the song recurs, gaining significance the way only ‘our song’ ever could, it is thanks to the delightfully foreboding “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love” and the heartwarming “You and Me” that you survive the movie with anything resembling a will to live.

Beautifully acted and making full use of its inspired two-tiered structure, Blue Valentine is a welcome alternative to the traditional Hollywood love story. Endearing, humbling and absolutely devastating, it is a movie to savour and appreciate rather than physically enjoy. Leave the popcorn at home for this one, preferably somewhere between you and the razor-blades.