Moving Pictures Reviewed: Only God Forgives

Bloody brilliant or just bloody?

Riding high off the critical and commercial success of 2011’s Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn and new-found partner in crime(film-making), Ryan Gosling, re-team on the obsessively brooding Only God Forgives. Does this neon and crimson-soaked tale of ruthless revenge live up to the duo’s prior triumph or does it take a beating under all its own pretensions?

He’s a very dangerous boy…

Nicholas Winding Refn has fallen hard for Ryan Gosling, and, honestly, who can blame him? Their previous collaboration, 2011’s love-letter to 70’s crime-and-car capers, Drive, stood as a testament to Refn’s ability to squeeze tension out of every uncomfortable silence and thundering engine roar, not to mention Gosling’s endlessly endearing ability to communicate with others solely through icy, unblinking stares. Critics and audiences alike loved it, and the duo clearly felt there was more movie magic to be had from the blossoming bromance. Lucky for the two, Refn had put one of his personal projects on hold prior to shooting Drive: this project, a revenge tale set in Thailand, promised to be darker and more brutal flick than Drive. There would be fists. There would be blood. There would be immaculate camera work. There would be Gosling. Of Course, if good looks alone could carry 90 minutes on celluloid, perhaps Refn would’ve been on to something here. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case.

Maybe that “unfortunately” is a bit unwarranted- don’t get me wrong: Only God Forgives is by no means the movie-buff wet-dream that Drive was. That said, it’s hardly a disappointing film when weighed on its own merits. Hauntingly (and sometimes downright beautifully) shot against the neon-tinged backdrop of Bangkok’s many alleys, karaoke bars, and dens of malicious intent, the film is visually absorbing. Refn clearly goes to painstaking lengths to meticulously frame every punch, gunshot, and swing of the sword. Even idle characters take on a hint of artistic exhibitionism, surrounding themselves in creeping strands of cigarette smoke or dousing themselves in crimson store-front street-light.

Kirsten Scott Thomas glows in Refn’s neon-tinged dreams.

The soundtrack is hardly a slouch either, for that matter. Cliff Martinez, another Drive alum, does an admirable job imbuing each scene with an appropriate sense of surreal and terrifying electricity. Minimalist synths carry the suspense of a long walk down a dimly lit hallway with understated grace, while the occasional blast of an organ cuts through digitized arpeggios during a climactic duel between protagonists. Martinez’s use of eastern-tinged rolling drums that echo throughout much of the film are key to bolstering OGF‘s pacing, not to mention the audience’s attention to the carnage that usually accompanies it.

Wanna fight?

If you’ve noticed, I’ve kept talk about silly things like, say, plot and acting, pretty hush-hush up till now. Not that either of those things are particular letdowns here: everyone on screen seems completely game for the task at hand, and the story, in which Gosling’s boxing manager/drug dealer goes on the hunt for those deemed responsible in his older brother’s death, is both seedy and bloody enough to keep your eyes glued to the action behind the slits of your fingers. The trouble is, there just isn’t enough of either to warrant much ado about them.

Bromance in its natural habitat

Gosling’s lead billing is confusing, given he probably has less than 15 spoken lines throughout the whole movie. While his screen-time, as Julian, is considerable, he spends most of it lugging around with a manic, wide-eyed expression plastered over his mug as he stares at hookers, boxers, cops, and his arms, over and over AND over again. Sure, it can be gleamed as symbolic of Julian’s stranger-in-a-strange-place-out-for-vengeance character arc (if that’s what you think you can call it), but whereas Gosling’s titular Driver wore his silence like a badge of badass honor, Julian wears it like a ball and chain weighing down what could easily make for a more engrossing character study.

“I haz arms.” – Julian

Likewise, Vithaya Pansringarm plays the near enigmatic Lt. Chang (aka, the not so subtle “Angel of Death”) with comparable restraint, though his icy silence makes far more sense given the near supernatural nature of his hound-of-justice character. The rest of the mostly Thai cast put up a good show (and occasional beating), though the real scene stealer of the flick is a very, very high strung Kirsten Scott Thomas as Julian’s mother, the aptly named Crystal. Offering both an air of venerability and maniacal intensity to this drug queen, Scott Thomas is not only believable in the role, but utterly terrifying. The overt hints at Oedipal interplay between herself and Julian flesh out the film’s commentary on the nature of family between savages, and elevates the film beyond its otherwise run-of-the-mill premise.

Somebody’s gearing up to get sliced

One might expect action to be the selling point in a movie like this, however Only God Forgives is far more a mood piece than a standard summer slug-fest. Sure, there’s violence, but most of it is carried out after a quick cutaway, leaving much of the bloodshed (honestly, quite thankfully) to the viewers imagination. Nobody’s head explodes √† la Drive‘s shotgun scene, however there are plenty of gnarly fisticuffs and sword disembowelment to be had here. Keep in mind, this is not a film for the squeamish. That said, the violence itself is hardly tasteless, often playing out in a brutal ballet of flying steel and surging red. If anything, this is Refn’s most reserved outing yet, the shockers paling next to his earlier forays into the genre.

Pretty brutal… prettay, prettaay, prettaaay brutal.

Overall, Only God Forgives proves both an equally impressive and frustrating journey, an engrossing and stylish neo-noir piece bogged down by occasional bouts of self-indulgence and a lackluster script. It’s not Drive, but it’s still a helluva movie. And what’s not to like about that?

3.5/5

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Europa Report

In space, no one can hear your hype.

After a near year-long hiatus, I’m turning Sound/Off back on, bringing you some overdue insights into new and upcoming releases that may otherwise float under your radar.

Aptly labeled “hard science fiction” films are occupy an oft overlooked but beloved niche in a time of explosive blockbusters. Drawing from and yearning for a place in the pantheon of every-other-year smart space movies, Europa Report thrives on gritty believability in the face of otherworldly unknowns.

It’s rough not being Avatar. Hell, it’s rough not being Transformers. Trying to sell a science fiction film without the aid of 3D-enhanced explosions, Smurf-cat-people, or, for that matter, hundreds of millions of dollars, requires a certain tenacity and stringent adherence to understatement most movie studios and goers are quick to dismiss. That said, there have been some pretty stellar (HA! See what I did there???)¬†exceptions to that rule over the past few years, particularly out of the independent sector: 2009’s Moon¬†managed to merge space-based hard sci-fi with classic identity-thriller hallmarks, while, that same year, District 9 used a faux-documentary style to further the otherwise action-heavy alien apartheid film’s believability. Taking more than a few hints from both, Sebastian Cordero’s Europa Report blends hard sci-fi with found-footage and faux-doc structure to admirable and mostly successful results.

“Houston, we have a movie.”

Set in the not very distant future, the film follows an international team of intrepid explorers and scientists who set off to Jupiter’s moon of Europa in the hopes of discovering life underneath it’s frozen, jagged ice sheets. Predictably, things don’t really go as planned: after an early tragedy, as well as a communications blackout, the space-farers are left drifting towards their enigmatic destination without guidance or the certainty of returning home ever again. Built around the aforementioned framing of a found-footage documentary, Report takes recorded video feeds from the mission and tosses it together with interviews collected from the team’s coordinators back on Earth. It’s an intriguing model to frame the action around, but consistently feels forced to the point that the mission’s actual narrative feels a bit to jumbled at times.

TIGHT.

Luckily, once the comm-towers go down and the astronauts are left to their own devices, the film takes a sharp turn toward the engaging. The faux-doc framework pops up only occasionally after the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, and the rest of the story is basically told through crew logs. Surprisingly enough, the found-footage feel works pretty well here given the claustrophobic nature of the events at hand. Stuck in their proverbial tin-can and left without direction from their Earth-bound overwatch, the team is forced to move past their various personal differences in the name of science and human discovery to carry out their primary objective: to search for traces of alien life in Europa’s icy oceans. Of course, what they end up discovering is far more terrifying and dangerous than any of them bargained for.

Good to go?

The film boasts a pretty strong, under-the-radar cast: Michael Nyqvist (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [Swedish], Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) aptly plays a veteran cosmonaut in the thralls of guilt over an early mission mishap, while Christian Camargo (Dexter‘s Brian Moser) and Karolina Wydra (House) are familiar and welcome faces. Lead billing goes to Sharlto Copely, coincidentally revisiting the faux-doc sci-fi niche he helped pioneer with the aforementioned District 9. Interestingly enough, Copely’s role in the film, while pivotal, is fairly confined, his screen-time cut down to the first-half of the adventure.

Copely isn’t in Johannesburg anymore…

While the actors all seem game, sadly, their characters are underwritten, basically boiling down to tropes like hopelessly inquisitive scientist, snarky skeptic guy, space janitor, and survivor chick with short haircut. Nyqvist breathes some life into the hardened yet vulnerable Andrei, though, given the filmmakers’ preoccupations with focusing on the science more than character development, any depth these personalities have are put on the back-burner. It’s a shame, considering the opportunity a claustrophobic environment like a space capsule can offer for inter-character conflicts and complex relationships.

Michael Nyqvist hates this mission.

Thankfully, the mechanical aspects of the film are tied together quite nicely. The special effects are admirably effective, from a lander’s slow descent onto an alien moon to a dramatic POV shot of an ever shrinking spacecraft in an endless blanket of black. It looks low-budget in a way that only adds to its plausible aesthetic. The editing is all over the place: structurally, the film crumbles under its jumbled and jumpy faux-doc narrative, though when the action stays within the confines of the mission, the cuts are done quite effectively. Flourishes of “radiation interference” cause color bursts and video noise and act as nice visual touches in contrast to the blue-tinged HD cams the mission logs are mostly comprised of. Every so often, a crew member picks up their own handheld cam, often leading to some of the most intimate and surprisingly touching moments in an otherwise strictly business outing.

On approach to awesome.

Without going into much detail (which, luckily the filmmakers don’t really, either), the extraterrestrial presence bolstering heart of the flick is tastefully and intriguingly presented. The nature of this outside force is kept a cleverly veiled, yet accessible, mystery that will keep you guessing till the last few frames of the movie. Without exaggeration, this is one of the finest portrayals of a third encounter I’ve ever seen. There’s no early reveal, no shadowy figures coming up behind our heroes and heroines, and really no explanation. And it’s cool, because we really don’t need one. Hats off to Cordero for holding back just enough to draw us in completely.

Brian Moser’s in spaaaace….

While it can be a bumpy ride, this trek to Europa is ultimately rewarding, offering not only a delicately reserved and believable look at a deep space search for alien life, but a fresh blending of sci-fi filmmaking styles that pay tribute to those that preceded it, while offering something fresh and understated to the pantheon. An impressive feat for an indie release, and for a genre that relies so heavily on inordinate amounts of money to draw in an audience. It may not pioneer the concept, but, despite its shortcomings, Europa Report boldly goes where few films have gone before and makes it feel like something exciting and new. Cheers to that.

3.5/5