“Only God Forgives” review

only god forgives

Before I start discussing Only God Forgives, let me just say I loved Drive, the film that universally showed us that Ryan Gosling is a star whether he talks or not.

Until today. Mr. Gosling, you can’t ride this train forever. You can start talking in your movies again. We made a grave mistake.

Only God Forgives. the latest film by Nicolas Winding Refn, might definitely mean something. I just have no idea what it is. The amount of violence and general human depravity in the film has been thrown around as a reason why people dislike it, but it really has no bearing on my opinion- to me, it was no more graphic than any other R-rated action film. Then again, rarely do those films have so much riding on them.

I thought this movie would establish Refn as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, a Tarantino that pours less into the screenplay and more into the visual insights, the balance of light and art and film all into one (not that Tarantino neglects these things, but he’s mostly concerned with his ability to say the N-word, permission that was apparently granted in a secret ceremony that only Samuel L. Jackson was invited to attend). To be fair, Refn’s flair for production design and striking visual images is what keeps the movie afloat.

But I really, really didn’t like it.

The lack of a succinct screenplay really upset me, more than I thought I would. As you will come to learn through my writing, I herald the screenplay above all else with a feature film, but there are ways around that. If you have phenomenal actors and a thrilling director, you can make a brilliant movie. Hell, Pacific Rim only had one of those (and yes, I would say Pacific Rim is brilliant, in a robots fighting monsters kind of way). But drive was definitely lacking (heh) in Only God Forgives. I felt like I was watching the Kodak slide show of the vacation from hell. Let this be a lesson to all young directors- you probably think a movie can come together through only your unique vision. This is probably not the case, and, if it is, you’re only allowed to prove it after you have three pictures cross the $100 million mark and you win an Oscar.

The problem is a lack of respect for his audience. Refn is aware that his audience is, largely, American men under the age of 50. This is the age group that has idealized Gosling’s character of “The Driver”, and what he stands for. His calming silence, ability to get shit done, and his desire to do what is morally right in his mind made him the new “Man With No Name”. Refn took that character we came to respect, and made him awful. I have no problem with taking a character to new depths- indeed, Gosling is not even technically playing that role again. But the intricacies of the way both roles are acted indicate that they come from the same place. Refn is too smart to think that audiences won’t see similarities, and the result is what truly darkens the film. Julian, played by Gosling, isn’t so much deliberate in his silence as he is……silent. There’s a difference between silence and acting, Ryan, I’m sorry Mr. Refn misled you.

And the ending. Fuck that ending. I won’t give it away, but let me say this: I used to joke that a show like Breaking Bad, a really taut drama with numerous twists and turns, should end the final episode with nothing happening. Like, Walter White goes into a restaurant, eats a meal, and leaves. Done. After seeing Only God Forgives, I would never wish that ending on my worst enemy.

All in all, maybe I’m overplaying my disappointment. I somewhat enjoyed the picture (although it was a fairly boring film, despite the fact it was designed to “elicit reactions”). The other actors were fair, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm being the biggest stand outs in two vastly different performances. At the end of the day, though, I will probably see the next Refn picture, oddly enough. I’d rather see a director divide an audience than please one all the time. I’ll accept this as an artistic exercise, and see him on his next go-around. Here’s hoping it means more.

“The Conjuring” review

For my first ever article for The Russell Bulletin, it seems fitting that I should talk about The Conjuring, one of the best horror films to debut in several years. I feel like I have to keep my love of horror movies a secret from the general public, and my friends to an even greater extent. Some of my earliest memories involve my dad and me going to the video rental store (insert “those are gone now” joke here, people who can’t get past the fact technology changes) and picking out some of the scariest classics: the original House of Wax or Night of the Living Dead when I was younger, graduating to Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street when I was older. None of them, though, ever came close to the horror of The Exorcist.

The Exorcist was a movie of legend around my elementary school. If your parents let you watch The Exorcist, you got to be king of the playground. Kids would let you win at tag. No joke, one kid said that during his Student Government speech, and it got him elected Student Body President. My parents, though, were mostly sane and knew I would cry myself to sleep for the subsequent three years after seeing it, so they told me to wait until I was older. I resorted to only pretending I had seen it. (“Yeah, I’ve totally seen it. Remember when her head spins around? So totally tubular.”)

I apologize for the previous flashback, I was in my Rocket Power phase in 5th grade.

It wasn’t until high school when I made the call that I could watch it and would not cry. I talked my dad into renting it (I was very dependent on his desire to watch these movies also, in retrospect), and watched it on a cold rainy night in October.

Oh, how scared I was.

I always had a minor fear of the devil, so that movie ballooned it like Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor. I had to buy holy water from my Catholic friends in the most wacky misunderstanding of a drug deal the school administrators had ever seen. I thought that was the tops of scariness. I would never be scared again. And, in a sense, that was true. I thought I’d seen it all. Movies ever since have done little in terms of innovative scares. Every once in a while, you’ll have the calculated horror of Funny Games or The Strangers, or even the rotating fan camera action of Paranormal Activity 3, but nothing new really strikes out as, “Yes! I have never been scared like that before! You, film-makers, have added a new phobia to my list of things to remember to tell my girlfriends.”

Which brings me to The Conjuring.

The Conjuring is really nothing new. A scary doll, a family being tormented. These are all things that you can find in a McDonald’s in Pasadena right now. The impressive thing is the caliber that improves this often-gimmicky genre.

The acting is among the best I’ve seen in a horror film, particularly from Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren and Lili Taylor as the mother looking for safety for her family. The screenplay is not particularly revolutionary (usually a problem for me, as an aspiring playwright), but the passion that director Joseph Wan clearly has for the horror genre apologizes for these small missteps with a subtle flair of creepiness, in place of goriness. His concepts in movies such as Saw, Dead Silence, and Insidious have established him, in my opinion, as the leader of this often critiqued genre.

To quote my father: “Anyone can be gory. Add blood. There, it’s gory! Creepy, now there’s something.”

Truly, though. The production design of this film is reminiscent of a non-indulgent Tim Burton. Everything is in just the right amounts to make sure we understand something is off. Not dangerous or innately scary, but just….off. The camera work is usually awful in scary movies, but this struck me as everyone in the film business saying, “Hey, we haven’t made a good one of these in awhile. Let’s try this time.” Maybe that’s ultimately frustrating (or maybe I just have no idea how Hollywood works). The Conjuring succeeds because it trusts the movies that have come before it, and loves them, and shows them to the audience with the utmost respect.

I always watch my films with the end goal of the Oscars in mind (just wait for me around award season, kids), and I see little hope. Only one scary movie has ever made it to the Oscars, and that was that scary movie from my childhood, The Exorcist. I wonder if those kids knew that they were watching history in the making. If it got one nomination, I would consider it a success. Production Design is a long shot, but it would be deserved. Make-up and Hair would be the closest possibility, but horror movies are often overlooked for period pieces……or The Hobbit (curse you, Peter Jackson!). Too bad inanimate objects can’t win awards, because then I would have to give Best Supporting Actress to Annabelle, the doll that’s too big to be small and too little to be life-size, but sure knows how to look like Amy Winehouse’s final hours.

Is that too soon?

“Pacific Rim”: A loving tribute to anime

Pacific rim

Pacific Rim is the best blockbuster movie released so far in 2013. If you want to know whether or not it’s worth seeing, the answer is a resounding yes.

Pacific Rim is Guillermo del Toro’s love song to mecha anime and kaiju film. Everything about it, including the characters, set pieces, giant robots, and monsters will stir up nostalgia within anyone who’s been a fan of Evangelion, Power Rangers, or classic films like King Kong or Godzilla.

There’s the protagonist who’s a good guy by all accounts. There’s the general who has a rough exterior but a heart of gold. The shy love interest who is submissive to authority until she finally finds her voice and kicks all kinds of ass. Oh, and the asshole rival to the protagonist who completely redeems himself with an act of self-sacrifice.

The fact that the main cast fits so well into these archetypes has been polarizing among critics. Among all of the reviews that I’ve read, it’s the one thing that’s been consistently called out as a flaw in the film. Here’s Twitch’s Greg Christie:

And then the film starts introducing all of the other supporting characters, each one an iconic archetype, although stereotype might be more fitting.

[…]

There’s no room or time for the characters to breath. Everyone is practically introduced in a way where they might as well turn to the camera and say, “Hi, I’m the bossy but cute Asian love interest for the white man.”  “Hi, I might seem like a hard ass military black dude, but there’s more to me than just that.” “Hey there guys, we’re the comic relief for tonight.” “Ah, ya know I’m the prick you’re going to hate but I’m totally going to redeem myself with a huge sacrifice later.” ” Yo, I’m Ron Perlman, I don’t have to be anything else cause I’m mother fucking Ron Perlman and that’s enough.”

For most other films, I would agree with Christie’s take. In fact, that’s been one of the biggest problems I’ve had with the Star Trek reboots: the characters were simply hollow clichés based on the characters from the original series. But with Pacific Rim, I found myself feeling the same was as Scott Weinberg did in his review:

The Pacific Rim heroes are as deep as they’d be in issue #1 of a new comic book, and frankly it’s a little refreshing to have some basic heroes after dealing with so many emotional superheroes with daddy issues.

None of the characters in Pacific Rim are going through a Man of Steel-style identity crisis. Even though one of the characters does in fact have “daddy issues,” the conflicting universal themes that the film is working with – wanting what’s best for your child and wanting to take your own path in life – are reliable anime tropes that add a necessary emotional center to what could have easily been a shallow Transformers knock-off.

The cast does a fine job working with what they’ve been given. Charlie Day stands out as a character that’s basically the result of his character from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia being Doc Brown’s apprentice instead of Marty McFly.

Del Toro doesn’t disappoint with the action. Like 2008’s underrated Speed Racer, the visuals are heavily influenced by anime’s style, though (as Christie notes) Guillermo also brings in his signature color palette. The fights between the robots (or “Jaegers”) and the monsters (“kaiju”) are visceral, with each hit given just enough screen time to let you soak it in – unlike Transformers, you won’t get dizzy or have trouble keeping track of who’s doing what in a fight. The result is a visual feast that you can’t take your eyes off of. 

The film even surprised me with some of the summer blockbuster clichés that it avoided. For instance, the potential for romance between the protagonist and his love interest is set up rather early in the first act, but the film makes no attempt to overtly sexualize her and when the day is saved there’s no “now kiss” moment. Seriously, Man of Steel, hundreds of thousands of people just died. Not the time.

How to fix Man of Steel’s ending

(Warning: This post focuses on the ending to the recently released Man of Steel. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t be an idiot and continue reading because obviously there will be spoilers.) 

Man of Steel, the first Superman film in seven years, finally came out last Friday after nearly a year of teasers and hype-building. The end result of a collaboration between Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, and David Goyer, the film gets a lot right: we see an interesting take on the Fortress of Solitude and the presence of Jor-El in Superman’s life, a cast of strong female characters that don’t simply scream at every explosion (Pepper Potts, I’m looking at you – how many times in the Iron Man series has she screamed “TONY!”?), and a fleshed-out backstory of Superman growing up feeling like an outsider. Clark’s powers manifesting as autism-like symptoms was brilliant in this regard.

But the movie also got a lot wrong. As much as I love the guy, Michael Shannon was terrible as General Zod. The eye-bulging, rage-mode screaming can only carry a villain so far before it wears thin. The flashbacks to Clark’s childhood could have been executed better – it was blatantly obvious that Clark pushed that bus out of the water, and how did Pete get out of the bus for Clark to have to save him anyway? I won’t even get into how odd it seemed that Zod and company had all of Clark’s powers after less than 24 hours on Earth. These complaints are relatively minor compared to the problems facing the final thirty minutes.

As mentioned in basically every review on the web, the final battle between Superman and Zod took way too long and deviated way too much from the character in order to give the audience a massive, city-destroying battle. It’s absurd to show Superman killing to save a handful of people when the destruction wrought in the fist-fight moments before likely killed dozens of innocent bystanders.

Here’s how you fix the ending to Man of Steel in a way that reduces the total length of the film without taking away the badass fight scene: replace the giant Kyptonian ice-snakes at the World Engine with Zod. It makes logical sense: have Faora and the other Zod minions protect the main ship, have Zod protect the very machine that will turn Earth into Krypton, Zod’s stated one-and-only goal

This allows Superman and Zod to fight as hard as they want and not put any civilians in danger, which fits better with Clark’s M.O. for most of the movie. It would let Zod disappear without Superman having to kill him: just give us some BS about the two machines being sucked into the Phantom Zone at the same time because they’re synced up. I’d buy it. 

It also allows for a throwback to the original 1978 Superman. As the hole to the Phantom Zone opens, Clark hears Lois Lane on the other side of the Earth getting pulled in from her end. He flies faster than ever to go save her. Here, we insert some voice-over from Jor-El, along the lines of “The only way to see just how powerful you’ve become is to keep pushing yourself” and “You can save her.” This would make fans of the Reeves Superman a little bit more content with the reboot and make him saving her more impressive – no one thought he might fail when he was starting from a few hundred meters away.

If you’ve got any comments or other ideas about how things should have gone down, I’d love to hear them. Hit me up, I’m @kylebrussell on Twitter.

The rise of shared video streaming accounts

Streaming Sites and the Rise of Shared Accounts – NYTimes.com:

We were each going to use HBO Go, the network’s video Web site, to stream the show online — but not our own accounts. To gain access, one friend planned to use the login of the father of a childhood friend. Another would use his mother’s account. I had the information of a guy in New Jersey that I had once met in a Mexican restaurant.

Our behavior — sharing password information to HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu and other streaming sites and services — appears increasingly prevalent among Web-savvy people who don’t own televisions or subscribe to cable.

I use my a former dorm-floormate’s mother’s HBO Go account. I use my mom’s Netflix account. My friends use my Amazon Prime subscription. From Jenna’s article (and a high-ranking source of my own at the MPAA), it sounds like these companies prefer having many people share subscriptions over having no subscribers at all – and thus don’t plan on cracking down on this behavior. I think it’s a fair middle ground between stopping piracy and providing a decent customer experience. 

Roger Ebert, 70, passes away

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The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that Roger Ebert passed away of cancer today. He was a film critic whose body of work was both celebrated and vast; Ebert regularly produced reviews over the course of 30 years, sometimes writing about nearly 300 movies a year.

Ebert’s renown as a writer is widely known, but something particularly fascinating about him was his status as an early adopter of new technology. As the Sun-Times states, he invested in Google initially, and was one of the first notable personalities to be found on emerging social network Twitter. He was a man who recognized quickly and accurately the influence that digital innovation would exert over the ways we communicate with one another and, to an extent greater than any other critic around him, leveraged that into a wide c0ntinued readership. Yet he rarely seemed perturbed by the caveats that this increased degree of exposure, remaining mum about the occasionally infuriating Internet experience. A late-life shot across the bow at trolls and his well-documented war against people who believe video games are art were some of the only ruptures in an otherwise perfectly manicured online presence.

Ebert could be inconsistent and somewhat arbitrary, and because of his de facto status as the Big Dog Film Authority that opened him up to a lot of heat. But he also recognized that such is the toll that comes with the democratization of voice – not everyone is able right away to use it in a courteous manner, and not every authority figure that emerges is able to stand up to scrutiny when nearly everything they say is archived on the Internet. Good on him for nonetheless recognizing the value of a forum for open discourse and having the grace to accept the pitfalls that still come with that.

Drew Byrd-Smith – drewbyrd.blogspot.com

Vimeo now lets artists sell and rent their videos

Vimeo now lets video producers sell and rent their work – and keep 90% of the revenue – The Next Web:

Vimeo On Demand allows Pro account subscribers to sell or rent their videos on the platform at a price of their choice, with Vimeo taking a cut of just 10% of revenues.

Beyond price, the new offering allows users to set country-by-country availability and customize their page design to better suit their own brands. Creators can sell their content on Vimeo itself or via their website as they choose.

Launching at SXSW, Vimeo On Demand’s first title is a remastered and expanded version of animated film It’s Such a Beautiful Day, by the Academy Award nominated Don Hertzfeldt. The film is available to rent for $2 or buy for $6.

This is awesome. It’s basically a paywall for high-quality video content online – I hope it leads to more artists deciding to make content independently like Louis C.K. did back in 2011.

Park Chan-Wook brings Asian shock horror stateside with Stoker

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJWrXKoTpL0&w=560&h=315]

Park Chan-Wook has been cultivating a name for himself over the course of thirteen years as a distinct creative mind, one who often pairs visceral violence with lush and unforgettable imagery. Though perhaps not yet a “visionary,” the go-to buzzword for studios looking to generate some auteurial mystique around a promising director, he’s looking to popularize his brand of glossy mania with English-speaking audiences through his new film Stoker. Some of those shots – the frozen face, the spider inching up a sock, Nicole Kidman’s intense close-up – already show considerable promise.

park chan-wool oldboy stoker

You most likely know Chan-Wook by 2003’s Oldboy, which is a good solid slice of Asian shock cinema. But have you caught companion films Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or Lady Vengeance yet? Thirst? I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK? All of these films are unified by their unconventional structures, pinpoint cinematography, and storylines almost too ridiculous to be believed. (Almost!) Stoker is only in seven theaters right now; consider this a chance to brush up on the work of a legitimately original voice before it expands to a theater in your area.

 

Drew Byrd-Smith – drewbyrd.blogspot.com