by Steve Habrat
In 2011, Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn found mainstream success with his blazing art-house thriller Drive, a film that took me by complete surprise. What I figured would be just another throwaway action movie with growling muscle cars turned out to be an 80s existential gut-punch throwback that wasn’t easy to shake off. Needless to say, it definitely had me eagerly anticipating what Refn would deliver next. Two years later, Refn returns with Only God Forgives, a film that couldn’t be a bigger disappointment. Lit like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, sculpted around one of the laziest plots you could imagine, and weird just for the sake of being, well, weird, Only God Forgives reteams Refn with Drive star Ryan Gosling, an ever-welcome talent that was the head-stomping main-attraction of Drive. With a star like Gosling in front of the camera, you’d think that he would be able to bring something substantial to this snoozefest, but its as if he was sleepwalking through the role, quietly trying to make sense of what exactly Refn was trying to achieve here aside from paying tribute to his idol, Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is what he claimed to be doing with Drive. What we’re left with is a senselessly bloody exercise in style without any purpose or direction. Only God Forgives exists simply to be morose collection of empty neon images that are better suited for a music video.
Only God Forgives introduces us to Julian (played by Ryan Gosling), an American drug dealer running a boxing club that is actually a front for a drug operation in Bangkok. One stormy evening, Julian’s erratic brother, Billy (played by Tom Burke), rapes and kills a young prostitute in a seedy hotel room. The Bangkok police quickly discover what Billy has done, but rather than detaining him and taking him to the station, the police call in retried officer Chang (played by Vithaya Pansringarm), a sword-wielding sadist known as the Angel of Vengeance. Chang encourages the girl’s father, Choi Yan Lee (played by Kovit Wattanakul), to do what he wishes to Billy. In a fit of rage, Choi kills and mutilates Billy’s body. Word of Billy’s death soon reaches Julian and his associates, who track down Choi to question him about Billy’s brutal murder. Meanwhile, Julian’s mother, Crystal (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok to claim Billy’s body and get to take control of the situation. After learning that Julian spared Choi’s life, Crystal demands that he take to the neon streets and exact bloody revenge on the men responsible.
Early on, Only God Forgives shows signs of promise with the swirling sense of dread that lingers over the hypnotic red and blue frames. Refn slowly glides his camera down harshly lit hallways aglow with red lighting that suggest that we have stepped into Hell itself. You’ll be on the edge of your seat as Billy, Julian, their associates, and a boxer stand around in a darkened room declaring “it’s time to meet the devil.” The tension and unease tighten when Billy stumbles off to a futuristic whorehouse in the hopes of finding a young fourteen-year-old girl to have his way with, something that is sure to make any viewer sick to their stomach. It all feels so tremendously evil and it’s about as atmospheric as a film can be. Sadly, the sinister mood of the film is quickly overtaken by Refn’s trudging pace, which gives way to frustrating tedium. Every single scene feels unnecessarily drawn out or glaringly hollow as characters sit around in flashing nightclubs or lavish hotel rooms staring off into space or silently plotting their next vicious move. It’s certainly pretty to look at, that I can’t deny, but it seems that Refn is under the impression that these stretches of meditative silence are thought provoking in all their surreal glory. Instead, they become mind-numbingly boring, further hurt by the lack of an entrancing character.
As far as the characters of Only God Forgives are concerned, almost every single one of them is as wretched as they could possibly be. Gosling’s Julian just sits around sulking, watching blank-faced prostitutes pleasure themselves or staring down at his quivering fists like it’s the first time he has ever seen them. He does show a few hints of compassion, which makes him slightly redeemable, but his constant detachment makes his character a major bore. Things really get weird when his sexpot mother, Crystal, shows up to scold him for not gunning down his brother’s killer when he had the chance. Crystal consistently alludes to having sexual relations with both of her sons, the most awkward coming when she discusses Billy and Julian’s, um, manhood with Mai (played by Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute paid to act as Julian’s girlfriend. Then we have Pansringarm’s Chang, a mysterious man who brings his punishing sword down on any man or woman who has committed an atrocious sin. He encourages Choi to murder Billy, only to return to chop off one of Choi’s arms for turning a blind eye to his daughter’s line of work, and he savagely tortures a gangster responsible for ordering a hit that left several citizens and police officers dead. Pansringarm’s eerily calm demeanor is meant to send chills, especially when he nonchalantly brings bloody vengeance down on his victim’s heads with so much as blinking, but Refn doesn’t write any personality into the character. The most interesting thing about him is that he likes to sing karaoke.
Only God Forgives finds Refn also reteaming with Cliff Martinez, the man who composed the chilling score for the masterpiece that is Drive. Only once or twice does Martinez unleash the retro synths that accompanied Drive and he does incorporate a throbbing organ that compliments the hellish blaze of the winding hallways we wander around, but everything else just falls flat by comparison. One of the stronger aspects of Only God Forgives is the way that Refn pays tribute to Jodorowsky, the man behind such midnight movies like Holy Mountain and El Topo. Several symmetrical shots called to mind certain scenes from Holy Mountain and there was even an echo of Kubrick in a few spots, something that was particularly surprising. Overall, while Drive was certainly going to be a tough act for Refn to follow, Only God Forgives is a disastrous follow-up that consistently allows style to mask the fact that there is very little substance. The artistic freedom is certainly refreshing and the ominous mood is undoubtedly effective, but it becomes increasingly clear that Refn is simply stroking his ego, leaving you disappointed that you didn’t just re-watch your copy of Drive. Plus, it’s a bad sign when Ryan Gosling can’t even save your movie.
Only God Forgives is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Another year has come to a close and I know I will fondly remember 2011 as the year nostalgia ran rampant through cinema. We couldn’t get enough of the retro throwbacks that Hollywood dumped onto us! It touched horror (Insidious), superheroes (Captain America: The First Avenger), dramas (The Artist), thrillers (Drive), and even more than that. Many proclaimed that the year was lacking strong, well-made films that will live on but I have to disagree with those statements. I found 2011 to be a very good year for film with a number of wonderful films flickering across the silver screen. I will admit that, yes, the awards season was a bit dry with the usual awards tailored releases but one could make the argument that they were spread throughout the year. Hell, Spetember, which is usually the dumping ground for crappy movies, saw several great releases. So, my loyal readers, here is my picks for the 10 Best Films of 2011. I will follow the best with the honorable mentions and the 5 Worst Films of 2011.
10.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
This Cold War thriller about a group of spies at the upper levels of British Intelligence trying to locate a Soviet mole that has apparently been walking among them for years is tense, paranoid, dry, and quietly threatening. With a discreet but brilliant performance from Gary Oldman and a slew of supporting acts not far behind (Toby Jones, Colin Firth, and Tom Hardy all give it 110%), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy becomes a film not about the mole but about the casualties of the Cold War. The casualties are the egos, careers, and lives of the men and women battling this war where accusations are fired instead of bullets. I remained on the fence about including this film in my Best of 2011 list but as the days pass, I find myself being squeezed tighter and tighter by its frosty grip.
9.) The Help
You know that chick flick that wasn’t Bridesmaids or Crazy Stupid Love (both awesome movies, by the way) that your girlfriend really wanted to see but you groused about going to? Yeah, The Help. It was really, really good and you missed out. The Help was a dazzling and patient film that was a cry for female camaraderie while never isolating the male viewer. It was a film about speaking your mind while opening up and listening to those around us. It was a film about unlikely friendships and cathartic confiding in one another. It was also a really great drama with moments of howling hilarity and stinging heartbreak. So yeah, that film you refused to see because it was just a “chick flick”? Yeah, you might want to see it because it happens to be a whole lot more than just for “chicks”. See it also for the show stopping performances from Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis.
Moneyball is to baseball what The Social Network was to Facebook. Featuring a crackling script by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and top notch performances from Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane and Jonah Hill as the number crunching Peter Brand, Moneyball is consistently engrossing. If you can’t get enough of the babble about how to properly recruit a player, you’ll be thrilled to watch a film about a man on a search to make concise and solid decisions yet has failed to make the best ones in his own life. Pitt throws himself into Beane and for the first time in quite a while, disappears completely in the skin of his character. Hill breaks from his funnyman typecast and delivers a brainy performance that will open up more doors for him in the future. Even if you are the furthest thing from a baseball fan, you will find yourself hanging on every word and every frame of Moneyball.
7.) War Horse
Steven Spielberg’s majestic and epic interpretation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book is a touching and traditional opus. The film is pure Spielberg, a feel good blockbuster that leaps across Europe spying on the regal horse Joey and the several lives that he touches as he navigates through war torn landscapes. The film is complimented with an extraordinary score from John Williams that will become just as iconic as his scores for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jaws. Whether you are jolted by the intense WWI battle sequences, marveling at the jaw-dropping cinematography, or still reeling from the barbed wire sequence, everyone can agree that War Horse is a cinematic triumph for, yes, all ages.
6.) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Director David Fincher’s frigid crime thriller that follows a disgraced liberal journalist and a punk rock hacker is a mature thrill ride that will leave you the viewer scarred. Refusing to pull any punches, Fincher’s take on Stieg Larsson’s source material is fully realized, confident, and just as unpredictable as its heroine Lisbeth Salander. Mara transforms herself into the troubled and prickly hacker while also making her extremely charismatic. Daniel Craig has fun as a man trying to repair what is left of both his dignity and his career. Just as graphic as you’ve heard (there is not one, but two squirm-inducing rape sequences), intense, and featuring the coolest opening credit sequence of any movie in 2011, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo leaves you pinned to your seat. You will also never listen to Enya’s “Sail Away” the same way ever again.
5.) The Artist
The nostalgia of 2011 hit its peak with the silent French film The Artist, a vivacious film about a silent film actor facing the death of the silent film. The Artist proved that we do not need loud action sequences, explosions, or words, for that matter, to be deeply affected by a motion picture. It also stands as a tribute to artists themselves, who stand by the medium that they contribute to. The Artist thrilled us with haunting images, on point slapstick, and gooey gobs of cuteness. Good luck getting the performances from Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo out of your head. You’ll also eat up all the affection that director Michel Hazanavicius bestows on every single frame. You’ll find yourself longing for a musical sequel and to relive the chemistry between the two leads. Trust me.
4.) The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s cosmic symphony of creation and evolution is so resplendently beautiful, it will practically drive you crazy. You’ll never forget the vivid swirls of the creation of the universe sequence or the crystal clear wonder in 1950’s suburbia. While the film is truly a work of art to gaze at, the film is made even stronger by the performances at the heart of it. Brad Pitt as a stern and cynical father who possesses an explosive temper will strike child-like fear into the viewer and Jessica Chastain as a naive and awe-struck housewife is graceful and inviting. The real beauty of The Tree of Life is in what you take away from the film. To me, Malick seems to simply be reminding us that life will throw some emotional curves at us, but don’t ever forget to stop and take in the glory around us.
3.) The Descendants
Paradise is not all its cracked up to be in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. George Clooney gives the best performance of his career as Matt King, a man whose wife is comatose from a boating accident and while she is in the hospital, he learns she was having an affair. Doleful and sporadically hilarious, The Descendants moved me beyond words and at times, is almost unwatchable due to the mental and emotional beatings that King takes. While Clooney steals the show, his troublemaker teenage daughter Alexandra, played by Shailene Woodley, is the life vest keeping King’s head above water. You’ll feel every blow that life dishes out to King but that is what makes The Descendants so emotionally raw, real, and just plain great.
Nicholas Winding Refn’s rough and tough thriller Drive has been wrongfully overlooked this awards season. It’s an unabashedly cool art house thrill ride that is one part homage to the 1980’s and one part existential tribute to Alejandro Jodorowsky. Featuring moments of angelic tranquility and fits of nerve frying rage and unflinching gore, Drive dared to be different and all the more power to it. Featuring the one-two punch of Ryan Gosling’s loner, nameless Driver and the erratic brutality of Albert Brooks’ gangster Bernie Rose, Drive isn’t simply all muscle with nothing under the hood. The film boasts the coolest soundtrack of the year, features moments that are instant classics (the head stomping scene, the opening car chase), and is the epitome of badass, all while taking you for a ride you’ll never soon forget.
There is a scene in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo where our child protagonists Hugo and Isabelle take a trip to the movies. Scorsese’s camera captures their wonderment, their gasping thrills, and their imaginations running wild all while they have smiles plastered across their faces. They are watching their dreams of adventure play out on a larger-than-life screen and they haven’t a care in the world. This is why I go to the movies. For two hours, I get to forget the outside world and I get to step into another, one where my dreams come alive and my imagination is at play. While Scorsese’s ultimate message is the call for film preservation, one I can stand behind, Hugo is alive with the love of cinema. If you are willing to immerse yourself in its glorious 3D universe that Scorsese meticulously creates, you will want to remain in the world along with Hugo and thrill as he darts around the 1930s train station that he calls home. A film that is tailored for film fans and film students a bit more than the casual moviegoer, Hugo is a love letter delicately written and magnificently composed by a living legend. Hugo is why I go to the movies.
– Crazy Stupid Love is a return to form for the romantic comedy genre.
– Midnight in Paris is a return to form for Woody Allen and is unapologetically charming.
– Thor, Captain American: The First Avenger, and X-Men: First Class were all stellar comic book offerings from Marvel Studios.
– Super 8 was a super cool retro action/science fiction film that fans of 1980s Spielberg gushed over. Myself included.
– The Adventures of Tintin was a rollicking nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark and stood as the best animated film of the year.
– Rango was quirky tribute to Chinatown, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Sergio Leone.
– Insidious was a flawed but fun haunted house freak out.
– Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was the best and most nerve-racking action film of the year.
– 50/50 was at once hilarious and heartfelt. Be prepared to wipe away a few tears.
2011 also had its fair share of cinematic duds and man, were they disappointing. For my Worst Films of 2011, I chose not to go for the easy choices (Bucky Larson, Jack & Jill) and go for the films that had potentially but fell short of their expectations. These were the ones that hurt bad and were an immense challenge to sit through. These are the films you should have stayed far away from in 2011.
5.) Cowboys & Aliens
Not a downright awful movie but given the talent surrounding this science fiction/western mash up, it should have been a hell of a lot better and much more fun. Flat and one note, this clunker threw one lifeless action sequence after another at us, never once getting an “Ooooooh” or an “Ahhhhh” from its viewer. The aliens were also pretty lame looking too. Daniel Craig tries his hardest but he can’t save this one. Heck, not even a naked Olivia Wilde had the magic!
4.) Green Lantern
The only superhero outing from DC Comics this summer turned out to be a candy colored nightmare of trippy special effects and a cluttered script. Ryan Reynolds as the cosmic cop was also a pretty horrible choice on the part of the filmmakers. It didn’t help that Warner Brothers tried to make this the successor to the mega successful Batman franchise and they ended up marketing the film to death. Weird and with more shifts in tone than you could shake a green ring at, Green Lantern was headache inducing and laughable, with enough plot holes to fuel a dozen terrible blockbusters. If you don’t believe me, just watch the massive climax of this thing. You won’t believe your eyes.
3.) Breaking Dawn Pt. 1
America, don’t you feel the slightest bit of shame that this passes for pop culture in our country? The Twilight Saga struck again in 2011 and left countless girls and grown women (You all should know better) swooning over Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson yet again. With nothing resembling a plot, Breaking Dawn Pt. 1 existed for simply one reason: To cheat young girls and grown women out of ten bucks. And sadly, they flocked right to Lautner’s abs like moths to a light bulb. If you are not a part of the hysterical hype, you will want to bash your head against the wall while you watch this.
2.) The Hangover Part II
Before all the girls were robbed blind while hyperventilating over the sight of Lautner’s abs, bros everywhere were robbed blind while howling over the painfully unfunny jokes by Zach Galifinakis and his brutish wolf-pack. An unnecessary sequel that did nothing to elaborate on the mostly unfunny first installment, The Hangover Part II was offensive in almost every possible way. If you missed this while it was in theaters, don’t fret and certainly don’t go seeking it out. It seemed like near the end of its theatrical run, the film lost steam as many people started realizing that this was a flat out horrendous movie. Maybe there is a God. Seriously, folks, this is an ugly, ugly movie that should have never seen the light of day.
1.) Battle: Los Angeles
Bad doesn’t even scratch the surface of the vociferous, stupid, and aggravating Battle: Los Angeles. You couldn’t tell if this abomination was supposed to be the most expensive commercial for the Marines ever made or the unholy brainchild of a kid who watched District 9 too many times and was obsessed with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Whether you’re cringing over the eye-rolling dialogue, trying to decipher just what the hell is going on in the non-stop gun fights, or trying not burst out laughing when the film goes for the dramatic territory, one thing is for sure, Battle: Los Angeles was the worst thing Hollywood dumped on audiences in 2011! Avoid it like a plague.