Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Refn Returns to the Weird with "Only God Forgives"

*Only God Forgives is in theatres and On Demand now.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, written by Refn, starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vithaya Pansringarm - Rated R

This is definitely one of those disturbing Chigurh movies.
Nicolas Winding Refn got a lot of attention with Drive so it comes as no surprise that some people (critics, as well, I guess we count as people...) are disappointed with his latest film, Only God Forgives.  I am not discounting anyone's negative opinion of the film (opinions can't be right or wrong), but if people are upset because the film isn't all that much like Drive, they should take a second look.  If forced to compare the two films, I will admit that I enjoyed Drive much more than this film.  That said, Only God Forgives is the more challenging, and interesting, of the two.  Fans of Refn pre-Drive should definitely check this out.  But think more along the lines of Valhalla Rising than Drive.
Since I started off with comparisons to define this movie, I might as well take it one step further to give you an idea of what this movie is like, at least in tone.  I would describe it as Kubrick's The Shining by way of David Lynch's Blue Velvet.  This is a very psychological film, and a lot of the main character's inner conflicts are represented in a nightmarish hotel-type setting.  These scenes feature plenty of slow tracking shots as well, so that's where the Kubrick comes from.  It's kind of like Refn decided to keep going through the rooms in the hotel in The Shining instead of just glimpsing in at the weirdness (remember that strange shot with the dude in the dog costume?).  The Lynch comes from the randomness of the film, most notably the karaoke.  Yes, Only God Forgives features multiple karaoke scenes in which the audience watches in perfect stillness.  Think Dean Stockwell's rendition of In Dreams in Blue Velvet.  By the way, I don't consider these similarities a weakness in any way.  Refn still has his own style, and I love it.
Speaking of style, if you just want to watch this movie for some spurts of brutal Refn violence with some interesting uses of color all set to strange yet perfectly fitting music, then you'll be pleased with this.  If you want an easily accessible story to go along with that, you'll be disappointed.
Only God Forgives does a have a relatively simple revenge story since it essentially just about Ryan Gosling killing the cop (an incredibly menacing Vithaya Pansringarm) who allowed Gosling's brother to be killed.  But this is not a movie about Gosling going around beating dudes up.  Gosling barely speaks, for one thing (although he speaks more than One Eye in Valhalla), and his brother doesn't really deserve to be avenged.  Gosling's brother rapes and kills an underage girl.  On top of that, Gosling's basically evil mother (an easy to hate Kristin Scott Thomas) manipulates him at every turn.  In fact, Gosling isn't very likable either.  The film kind of feels like a revenge story told from the "bad" guys' perspective.  There's nothing wrong with that, though, and I find it pretty interesting.  Some people might want to like the protagonist, however. 
The fact that the "hero" of the film isn't exactly into his quest nor do we want him to accomplish his task is strange enough, but Only God Forgives allows itself much more interpretation.  I don't want to posit any theories in a review, but when you look at the movie with characters representing some good and evil archetypes it gets pretty interesting.  If you're not willing to put a little thought into the film, some of it will be downright pointless. 
Because of that, this is up there with Valhalla Rising as one of Refn's more challenging films.  It's still entertaining, but not nearly as fun to watch as Drive or Bronson.  But it leaves an impression, and it might make you think a bit.  And it's still Refn, so at the very least you'll get an interesting audio/visual experience.  Is it as good as Drive?  No, it's different.  It's interesting and challenging.  And sure, I'll watch Drive at least a dozen more times over the years, and I'm not sure if I'll ever watch Only God Forgives again.  But it's still worth checking out.  When Nicolas Winding Refn challenges the viewer it's not always fun, but it's definitely worth your time.  
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
Wow, does Gosling take a beating in this movie or what?  It might be the greatest one-sided fight scene I've ever seen.  Although it is kind of hard to think of many one-sided fights in movies.  There's usually a slight chance the other participant could win...  Anyway, very brutal.
Completely dug most of the music, especially the fight scene music.  Drive still takes the cake in that department, though.  I might buy one song from this soundtrack, but I still listen to songs from Drive regularly.
Okay, might as well get into the theory that I think fits the most.  I'll keep it short.  Gosling's mom is Satan and the cop is God.  This is why he seems almost supernaturally powerful and tends to dispense judgment (this is Old Testament God).  Gosling finally gets away from Satan's influence (and feels the need to reminisce inside the womb one more time...odd), and seeks forgiveness from God.  He wants forgiveness for killing his father years ago (confirmed by the mother), which is why he allows God to cut his hands off in the end.  This is his ultimate fear as early scenes in his nightmare/psyche/hotel foreshadow this punishment.  By the end, enough has happened to him that he accepts his punishment and it relieved/released.  Or whatever...

Monday, July 29, 2013

"Pacific Rim" Really Reminded Me Of...

...Independence Day.  I know most people have been comparing it to Transformers, which I suppose makes sense on the giant robot level, but I found that there were more story connections with Independence Day.
Before I go any further, let me say that I love this movie.  This is in no way a slam or an accusation of Pac Rim being a rip off (see, I even used Pac instead of Pacific, like a real fan would).  I don’t put much stock into rip off accusations these days since everything can be tied back into some influence on the filmmaker.  I just want to point out some similarities I noticed.  And, for the record, I like Pac Rim much more than Independence Day.  But I do have a lot of fond memories of ID4 since it came out when I was 12, and it’s one of those movies I’ll always remember seeing in the theater.  Anyway, in no particular order, here are some things I noticed.

(Of course, MASSIVE SPOILERS ahead for both Independence Day and Pacific Rim.)
1. A leader of a desperate group of people suits back up to join the fight AND he gives a rallying speech before he does so.
"Today, we are cancelling our Independence Day!  Wait...what?"
In ID4, the President, played by Bill Pullman, continues to lead the country even though it appears increasingly hopeless.  Idris Elba's character may not be the President of the United States, but he is certainly the man in charge of the jaeger program.  Both Elba and Pullman give thunderous speeches, and then go on to join the fight personally.  Although Pullman does survive (but Elba's sacrifice connects with another aspect of the movie...
2. A pilot(s) sacrifices himself so the mission can succeed.
Cousin Eddie (can't remember his character name) AKA Randy Quaid plays the sad sack of ID4 who is able to redeem himself by going on a kamikaze run to help save the day.  Elba and his Australian co-pilot also sacrifice themselves to the overall mission can succeed.  Honestly, this is the weakest of the connections since Elba and the Aussie aren't in need of redemption as much as Quaid.  Sure, the Aussie is a bit of a punk throughout the film, but he's hardly as reprehensible as Quaid's deadbeat dad.  But I still count this as a connection.  Especially since there is the father-son dynamic in both films as there's a tearful goodbye when the sons know their fathers have made the ultimate sacrifice.
3. A piece of alien technology is needed to reach the aliens to destroy them.
They're both wearing glasses, so that means
they look alike...
Big Willie Style and Goldblum couldn't just fly an F16 up to the mothership to blow it up (or infect it with that super hi tech laptop that can somehow sync up with alien technology...), they needed to use alien hardware to get there.  Jax Teller and his new girlfriend couldn't just take a jaeger through the portal, either.  In the case of Pac Rim, the kaiju are basically genetic hardware created by the aliens, which the humans can use to transport into the alien world.  In both cases, the humans are successful and return to a hero's welcome.  Oh, and it seems like the aliens in each film looked similar.  I guess all of the good designs were gone by the time they got around to the actual alien masters on the other side.  No big deal, though; they only get a few seconds of screen time.
4. A crazy scientist is used for comic relief AND for communicating with the aliens.
I saved the most obvious connection for last.  When I saw Charlie Day pop up with Burn Gorman, I immediately thought of Data in ID4 (Brent Spiner for you non-trekkers, and that crazy scientist guy for those of you who have only seen ID4).  The scientist in ID4 serves the same basic purposes as the duo in Pac Rim.  First and foremost, they are all the main comedic relief of the film.  Sure, with ID4, it's pretty much just, "Look at how crazy this guy is!" while Pac Rim is only a little bit of that (since Charlie is as obsessed with aliens as Data), and there's more plot elements with the scientists.  But it's still a fairly obvious connection.  What seals the deal is the fact that the scientists are used as vessels of communication for the aliens.  In ID4, it's just used for threats and whatnot, while in Pac Rim it's more like humans spying on the aliens.  The point is the scientists of both films connect with the aliens.  Oh, and doesn't Charlie even look a little like Data's scientist?  Maybe I'm stretching it too far with that...
That's it.
So there are my connections.  Are there more?  Probably.  These are the most general and obvious ones, in my opinion.  What do you think?  Am I completely reaching here?  Did I miss some obvious ones?  Let me know.    

Another Way Too Late Review: "Pacific Rim"

Another late review. In this one, I pretty much just geek out over how much I love Pacific Rim.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, written by del Toro and Travis Beacham, starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, and Clifton Collins, Jr. - Rated PG-13 

Any movie that makes me grin like a little kid during every action sequence deserves my highest rating.

Big summer movies can and should be fun movies to watch.  Since I now watch movies with an admittedly amateur critical eye, I sometimes forget to just sit back and enjoy the movie.  But it’s not just that.  Hollywood more often focuses on darkness now (e.g. Star Trek into Darkness) because it’s cool or something.  There was a time when serious subject matter, like the possible end of the world, was treated a bit lightheartedly.  Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) has made a career out of this, but lately he’s lost his touch (White House Down is a step in the right direction, albeit a small step).  Enter Guillermo del Toro to save the day with Pacific Rim.
Del Toro is most famous for his Hellboy films and his visually stunning Pan’s Labryinth.  Despite the comic-book or fairy tale nature of those films, they were mainly focused on telling an entertaining and fun story without worrying too much about reality.  Pacific Rim is exactly the same.  It’s insanely visually impressive (more on that in a bit), but it never takes itself too seriously.  Pacific Rim is about giant robots (called jaegers) fighting giant inter-dimensional monsters (called kaiju).  How serious and dark could you possibly make a film like this?  Thankfully, del Toro just wants to have fun.  Pacific Rim isn’t a cartoon or anything, but it expects the audience accept the world of the film and enjoy it. 
The story isn’t completely carefree, however.  The world is still ending, you know.  Pacific Rim focuses on American jaeger pilot Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), but it is truly a global story.  The focus is on humans, not nations.  This is almost like the ending to a trilogy in that the war between the humans and monsters has been going on for years, and this is the story of the last chance to defeat the monsters for good.  Some critics have made the end of a trilogy comparison as a negative aspect of the film, but I have no problem with that.  Don't we have enough long, drawn out franchises?  Pacific Rim is the rare blockbuster that doesn’t feel like the beginning of a long series.  There might be sequels in the future (although the film is not exactly tearing up the box office), but this works as a satisfying stand-alone story. 
A film that can be boiled down to robots vs. monsters isn’t all that worried with plot, or at least I'm not that worried about it.  This is a sci-fi action film, and it features awesome set pieces.  Each battle between the jaegers and kaiju is different from the last.  It’s very easy to tell what’s going on in each fight, and even though it is obviously done with special effects, the action has impact that feels very real.  Also, the destruction of major cities doesn’t make you feel awful because in the world this film is set in people are used to sudden evacuations so you know that you’re not seeing thousands of people die in each scene (unlike Man of Steel).  Most importantly, each fight scene had me grinning like a little kid.  I lost myself in the action.  Normally, some issue with the action (camera movements, CG quality, etc.) would distract me a bit.  That didn’t happen with Pacific Rim.  The only bad thing about the action is that it eventually had to end.

Del Toro just has a way of creating worlds that I never want to leave.  Pacific Rim certainly doesn't have as vivid a world as Pan's Labyrinth or the Hellboy series, but those films lend themselves to a more complex world.  Pac Rim still feels very much like a different world since it takes place well into the battle for the planet.  The most important aspect of the design of the film isn't so much the world as it is the jaegers and kaiju.  I liked the designs of all of them, though it would have been nice to see more battles in the daylight without rain. 

Pacific Rim is just a movie that works for me on every level.  I loved the world, the jaegers and monsters, the cheesy comic relief, the action, etc.  Obviously many people will disagree with me.  That's fine.  I do take issue with some people who start to dispute the science of the film because, well, why would you take a scientific approach to a movie about giant robots and interdimensional monsters?  It's like judging Call of Duty in a negative light because it doesn't treat bullet wounds in a realistic manner.  It is what it is.  For me, Pacific Rim was completely engrossing, and it allowed me to simply watch and enjoy a movie in a way that doesn't happen very often.  In fact, this review is so late because I've had a hard time thinking about the movie in a critical light at all.  I just want to tell people that it's awesome and they should check it out.  It's all kind of pointless now that it's been out so long, but I started writing this a couple weeks ago, and I don't feel like just trashing it.  Anyway, Pacific Rim is awesome.  You should check it out.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Way Too Late Review: "The Lone Ranger"

Directed by Gore Verbinski, written by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio, starring Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, Helena Bonham Carter, and William Fichtner - Rated PG-13

This is slightly above a "meh."
I've pretty much taken off the last month as far as reviewing movies is concerned, and I have no real excuse for you.  I haven't been busy, and nothing major has happened in my personal life.  I simply haven't been motivated to write anything, reviews or otherwise.  Now, inexplicably, I feel like writing again, so I wanted to start with The Lone Ranger
In all honestly, I had very little intention of watching this movie before it came to HBO.  I remember reading about it being shut down before it even started filming, and I thought that was probably a good idea.  No matter how big the draw of Johnny Depp, a film version of a franchise that has been dead longer than most intended viewers have been alive is not a great idea.  (Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and I would not have mentioned my initial thoughts if this film had turned out to be a success.) 
But the film eventually got the green light, and the rest is unfortunate Hollywood history.  The fact that it bombed is what made me want to see it.  Last year's John Carter was a high profile bomb, and I ended up loving that movie.  So maybe the same would be true of this. 
In short, I did not like this nearly as much as John Carter.  I didn't hate The Lone Ranger, but it doesn't surprise me that most people do hate it or simply don't care about it.  First, it's a western.  I love westerns, but they are few and far between because they don't make a lot of money.  As far as westerns go, this is too much Wild Wild West and not enough Tombstone for my tastes, but it's still nice to get my western fix in.  (And to be clear, this is not nearly as ridiculous and horrible as Wild Wild West.  No giant robot spiders in this film...) 
Second, and more importantly, the film is kind of a mess.  It's too long (at nearly two and a half hours) and tries to cram too much story into that running time.  I was never all that confused (thanks to a framing device in which a child asks all the questions the audience might have), but I didn't really care about all of the stuff going on.  The moments when some people get their comeuppence meant nothing to me.  In fact, I had a hard time deciding if there were any characters that I wanted to survive or die. 
Despite plot issues and generally not caring about anybody onscreen, I still sort of enjoyed this one.  The action is big and expensive, and it's nice to see a western.  Also, it has Johnny Depp.  I like Depp, so I liked most of the moments that were meant to be funny.  I thought the character ventured too far into Jack Sparrow country every now and then (feeding the bird, for example), but for the most part I enjoyed the performance.  As for Armie Hammer, well, he's Armie Hammer, that bland, handsome guy that doesn't really matter.  He's a fine actor, but aside from playing the Winklevi, his roles haven't been very interesting. 
Depp playing a Native American has left many people upset, but I doubt that that it was factored into the film's success.  It certainly didn't affect my opinion of the film.  Sure, it seems a bit silly to have Depp play a Native American, but in general the Natives are treated as the wronged people who deserve to strike back at the white settlers.  Regardless, the controversy gets to die now since the film is not likely to spawn a sequel.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie, as long as I didn't try to get too involved in the story.  I'll probably never watch it again, but I don't regret watching it once.  It is still a western after all, and I'll take whatever I can get.  Unfortunately, due to this film's box office, I won't likely get a chance to see another western for quite some time.
Random Thoughts
Glad to see Jeff Bridges isn't the only one getting mileage out of his True Grit accent.  Barry Pepper pretty much sounds just like his character from that western.
I had no idea what was going on with Helena Bonham Carter.  Her scene was the equivalent of the visit to the voodoo lady in the Pirates movies, except she's just a prostitute...with an ivory leg?  Not going to lie, I paid almost no attention to that scene because I just didn't care.  In fact, all that scene did was confuse me because I assumed it meant Carter's husband Tim Burton had directed the film when I know it was directed by Gore Verbinsky.  So much confusion...