REVIEW: Only God Forgives

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Only God Forgives
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn (screenplay)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm and Tom Burke

Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to my favorite film of 2011, Drive, will manage to kill whatever good mood you have that day. This time around, rather than sunny California, Winding Refn takes us to what I can only assume is Hell’s Indochinese district. Only one thing happens here: abuse.

The movie starts with Muay Thai boxers trading blows, and it’s the most civil interaction you’ll see from here on out. From a stadium seat view, we descend slowly, with all  wrapped in an orange glow. Julian (Ryan Gosling) sits in the stands, his expression impenetrable. He exchanges a nod from behind the caged bleachers to the only other white men in the gym. They’re down on the floor, likely exchanging some drugs. Either way this is more than a gym. Suddenly we see hands slowly closing to fists, then Julian revealed only by gold bands of light striped across his face. His brother Billy, drunk, bathed in bands of red light, asks if Julian is ready to meet the Devil.

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10 Movies I Changed My Mind About

I hated Pulp Fiction the first time I saw it.  The first Tarantino movie I’d ever seen was Kill Bill: Vol. 1, which is a decidedly gorier and altogether more accessible movie for an eighth grader (technically I wasn’t legally “mature enough” for either by the MPAA’s standards), although I was the only one in my grade who seemed to enjoy it.  When I watched Pulp Fiction for a second (and a third and a fourth ad infinitum) viewing, it gripped me like few other movies had before or since.  To this day it is still one of my all-time favorites.

Movies, especially great ones, often change from viewing to viewing, not because they are different but because we are.  Though we now live in an age of Rotten Tomato blurbs and aggregated consensus, a critic’s most valued possession is still their written voice.  With every review now posted quickly and then archived online, conversation on most movies usually peaks quickly when they are first released, and then dissipates just as fast.  The only time afforded to looking back is the annual “Best of the Year” cluster fuck.

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REVIEW: Drive

Drive
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Hossein Amini (screenplay), James Sallis (book)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks

Violence comes and goes with Ryan Gosling’s unnamed driver.  Like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, there’s no indication where he came from or where he’s going.  However, you get the feeling he’s been traveling place to place causing the same kind of chaos.

Drive doesn’t initially appear to be a movie of such violence.  The almost serene first half is stylistic perfection, with director Nicolas Renf tracking the driver from behind the wheel of a suspenseful, sneaky heist escape (in a Chevy Impala), to a movie set where he flips a car and to his initial meeting with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son.  He stumbles on the mob second hand, when Irene’s unfortunately named husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) needs to pull off a robbery to get some thugs off his back.

From that heist on, Renf holds no prisoners with the blood-letting.  It wouldn’t work if Gosling approached it with the same semi-charmed apathy he gives the character in the first half.  He trembles as the body count stacks up.

What makes Drive a film to remember at the end of 2011 is the moody, gorgeous cinematography and the first-rate score.  The brooding visuals mesh together with the electronic beat of Cliff Martinez’s music to create a neo-noir with an 80s synth rhythm.  Even when Renf and screenwriter Hossein Amini hack and slash these characters to bits, it never feels out of place.

There is a scene fairly early on in the movie where the driver sits with Irene’s son and watches a cartoon about sharks.  He asks the boy how he knows the shark is bad, and the boy says “Because he looks bad.”  This scene is important to understanding not just Gosling’s driver, but the principle villain as well.  While Ron Perlman is all-too at home in the campy role of a crime boss, Albert Brooks seems a little off-beat as a mob kingpin.  He delights in the role, though, going over the top without losing sight of the consequences of all the killing.

Drive is also unique as a noir in that it doesn’t let either of the attractive female characters (Mulligan or Christina Hendricks) expand into a femme fatale or even really expand much at all.  Irene is accustomed to tacking on a smile for her son, and Mulligan is perfect at conveying happiness and sadness with contrasting expressions in her smile and deep, dark eyes.

At the end, though, this is ultimately a man-made world of corruption and violence, and the driver is left to eliminate it to keep Irene and her son safe.  He works as a car repairman for a schmuck with a limp (a terrific Bryan Cranston).  Brooks’ Bernie Ross puts up the money to have the driver race a car for him.  He and Perlman’s Nino are so opposite that their scenes together in the garage and in their front of a pizzaria are one of the few things that detract from the movie’s mood.

You could split Drive down the middle for its nearly bloodless first half and its gory second act, but it also fits together as a convincing whole.  This is because Renf never loses sight of his characters.  Though the villains are undeniably evil, the hero isn’t all that good.  We’re left to root for him because we see him from all angles and see that his heart is ultimately in the right place.  He’s the good shark.

Grade: B+

REVIEW: Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Written by: Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, and Mike Vogel

Forty pounds lighter, with their dreams still in tact,  Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) go for broke on the streets on an unnamed urban setting.  She’s aspiring to be a doctor in a loveless home, and he can’t seem to decide what he wants to do.  But they’re in love, and they think that’s enough.  Flash-forward a few years (and pounds), and these same people would tell a much different story.

Cindy and Dean’s beginning and end are at the bipolar core of Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. In one instance, we see two hipsters full of youth and verve and in the next, he’s balding with a beer gut and she has kept her pregnancy weight and permanently embedded a scowl.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Lars and the Real Girl

Lars and the Real Girl
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Nancy Oliver
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Paul Schneider, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson

Pretty much your standard indie-love-dramedy. Boy meets girl. Boy suppresses feelings for girl. Boy orders an anatomically correct mannequin off the internet in replacement.

Okay, so not quite the standard love story arc we’re used to, but it’s definitely something quirky and cool enough for to get excited about, since it is the premise is really what drives the interest throughout movie. Lars Lindstrom (Gosling) lives in the garage/apartment adjacent to the home his brother (Schneider) and him inherited from their dead parents. For the most part Lars seems like a normal guy, driving his own car, attending church, dressing in a range of gaudy sweaters and working in a small desk job where he has many co-worker friends who attempt to reach out to Lars. The problem is, is that Lars rejects their affection and often seems irritated by their company and kindness. Continue reading