Only God Forgives

God may forgive, but I do not. ‘Only God Forgives’ is as lifeless as the severed head that turns up mid-way through the movie. It’s an ugly, reprehensible picture mascarading as art-house cinema. Am I communicating? This movie is shockingly bad – and what makes its badness all the more surprising is the fact that Ryan Gosling has teamed up with director Nicolas Winding Refn; their last collaboration ‘Drive’ was one of the best movies of 2011. ‘Only God Forgives’ is among the very worst of 2013.

Gosling does even more staring and less speaking this time around; the camera didn’t catch him blinking. He plays Julian, a drug dealer in Bangkok whose mama played by Kristin Scott Thomas forces him to find and kill whoever is his responsible for his brother’s death.

Gosling is surrounded by bright red neon wallpaper; one that gives a better performance than he does.  What’s Kristin Scott Thomas doing in this movie? She’s probably the best thing about it – at least she seems to be having fun playing the cartoonish matriarch; if of course a cartoonish matriarch was allowed to drop the “c-word” more than once. Vithaya Pansringarm is the retired cop who knows how to swing a sword. And beat Ryan Gosling to a bloody pulp.

‘Only God Forgives’ didn’t leave me with a single memorable image. We see some nicely lit up interiors but exterior shots consist mostly of shady alley and sketchy hoods that evoke the sleaze and corruption of Bangkok. Even Refn’s signature visual style is weak.

I don’t know what Nicolas Winding Ref is going for and I don’t care. If I’m to guess, it appears as if he enjoys the snail-paced anticipation of one grotesque outburst of violence after another. One scene shows us a tortured victim who has a knife driven across his eyes before being stabbed in the ear; I didn’t realize I was at a screening of ‘Saw 17’ – enough already. This isn’t a commentary on a corrupt system. This isn’t a spaghetti Western set in Bangkok. This is nothing – it’s vacuous. ‘Only God Forgives’ is so bad it makes me want to revoke my previous praise for ‘Drive’. This is one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had the movies. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Let me spare you the pain. Please. I watch these movies so you don’t have to.

Pacific Rim


The highly anticipated and strikingly noisy ‘Pacific Rim’ is now playing in theatres. If you plan on seeing a movie that isn’t ‘Pacific Rim’ at the multiplex, make sure it’s not playing in the auditorium next to it – there may be a tremendous amount of audio bleed. I was the guy who gave Michael Bay’s ‘Transformers 3’ a positive review in 2011; that film’s sound, fury, and visual intelligence won me over. I feel the same way about ‘Pacific Rim’ as I do about the third entry in the ‘Transformers’ series.

The key difference here would be the fact that ‘Pacific Rim’ is directed by Guillermo del Toro (who is publicly known for making better movies); his masterpiece was ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’; I also liked the ‘Hellboy’ pictures and they were well received by critics and audiences alike. ‘Pacific Rim’ could be his ode to the cheesy Japanese monster movies of the 1950s. Here is the premise – the year is 2020 and humans have been waging a war against the Kaiju, gargantuan monsters that have traveled to Earth through a dimensional space portal in a crevasse beneath the Pacific Ocean. To combat the Kaiju, the humans have created equally enormous and weaponized robots known as Jaegers that are operated from inside by two human pilots. Something called a neural bridge melds together their consciousness and memories.

I’ll admit, it’s pretty ridiculous and I think the movie lacks a human element; but in terms of big expensive set pieces, it delivers. Del Toro has already established himself as a genre enthusiast – capable of creating fantastical worlds with a weirdly beautiful visual style. His previous movie worlds have been inhabited by monsters – ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, ‘Hellboy’, and ‘Mimic’ are examples of this. The results have been mostly intoxicating. There isn’t a dull shot in ‘Pacific Rim’ – there’s visual eye candy filling every inch of the frame. This is Del Toro’s biggest scale project to date and though the results aren’t quite as satisfying as the director’s previous work, there is an irresistible sense of fun – this movie doesn’t any delusions of grandeur; it knows exactly how unabashedly silly it is and fully embraces it. 

‘Pacific Rim’ could have been called ‘Transformers vs. Godzilla’. But, it also reminded me of ‘Real Steel’ – a movie that was also about ginormous robots whose fighting actions were controlled by their miniscule human counterparts. The controls in ‘Pacific Rim’ have a much higher degree of complexity – my explanation in the plot description above might be a lot simpler than it actually is. But, for a big, loud summer film, does it really matter? Once the exposition is out of the way, we want to see giant robots fight off huge monsters and that’s exactly what we get.

The cast consists mostly of non-A-listers – a risky choice for a movie with a $190 million budget. Charlie Hunnam from ‘Sons of Anarchy’ plays the rogue pilot with unparalleled skills but he doesn’t respond well to his directives. Rinko Kikuchi’s childhood flashback scenes give the film some dramatic weight. The comic relief rests on the shoulders of two researchers played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman – their lab-coat banter is cleverly amusing. Idris Elba’s performance is laughably bad; but it’s forgivable for a movie about monsters vs. robots. He plays Pentecost; totally unaware of the religious implications of his name, at the top of his lungs he shouts “Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse!” Apocalypse Later indeed – this cornball speech made me smile. Even with the conceptual complexities around the porthole, the neural bridge, and every permutation/combination involving their sub-elements, the cast is able to sell the ridiculousness of it all.

Whether we’re watching the robots battle the monsters underwater, admiring the finely detailed costumes, marveling at the hugely expensive sets and awe-inspiring visuals, there’s no denying the visual prowess ‘Pacific Rim’ has to offer. Even with a runtime of 131 minutes, ‘Pacific Rim’ zips by quickly. I don’t suggest this often but I strongly recommend seeing ‘Pacific Rim’ in IMAX 3-D; this is the way to see a movie of this scale. Many of the battle scenes take place at night in the pouring rain (or at the bottom of the ocean) – typically, the 3-D format wouldn’t be suited for a picture like this as the added dimension often dims the luminance effect. But with the IMAX screens (even the smaller “LIEMAX” ones), the shutter is open for a longer period of time than on a normal projector – this allows more light through resulting in optimal picture quality. This is the format I saw the movie in and I was able to make sense of the action transpiring on the screen even in its dark settings. QED.

Frances Ha

I’ve been trumpeting ‘Frances Ha’ since I saw it last weekend; it is as a lock for my Top 10 of 2013 list. In response to this, a friend texted me asking me what the movie was about. I paused for a moment and thought about how I should answer this question; and then realized that though not much really happens in terms of actual plot, this is still a picture that took me on an incredible emotional journey.

Because I’m writing a review for the movie, I should probably make a greater effort to describe what it is about here. We meet Frances – a 27 year old dancer who lives with her best friend Sophie in New York. One day, Sophie decides to move out and live with another friend; Frances ends up hopping from place to place, she doesn’t have a job that is consistent, and all this leaves her with having to figure out how to live her life.

I realize my simplistic description doesn’t do the movie justice because it doesn’t sound much more than a cliché; a college-educated middle-class girl wandering the streets of New York without a sense of purpose. This is a small film, but a great one – and much of that has to do with the writing and the performance by Greta Gerwig at the title character (Gerwig penned the script alongside Noah Baumbach, the director of the picture). Frances is charming, open-hearted, and such a goof. But, she is completely herself at all times and her character feels very real – we can describe her like we can close friends; it’s impossible not to love her. At times, she is her own worst enemy, but there is a rooting interest for this character; and the movie wants her to succeed, and so we want her to succeed and to find happiness. Gerwig strikes the perfect balance between effortless verbal timing and physical comedy.

‘Frances Ha’ does have its share of influences – it reminded me of Jean Luc Godard’s ‘Masculin Feminin’ about young people trying to make their way in the world and figuring out who they are by making mistakes along the way – sometimes learning from them, sometimes not. It has a circa 1970s Woody Allen feel – the chatty, observational and cultured characters within the New York setting. This movie is also shot in black and white in a grainy, intimate way – this visual aesthetic reminded me of pictures from the French New Wave, which also honed in on restless youth. Despite its historical cinematic influences, ‘Frances Ha’ is still very much its own contemporary thing.

This was the most joyful experience I had at the movies so far this year – especially the film’s final moments that made me so thrilled and giddy with excitement in a way that I haven’t felt for any character in a long time. There is a surprising amount of emotion and happiness; the ending describes the film’s title in the sweetest way possible. It’s simple, but very effective – this movie has the perfect ending. ‘Frances Ha’ earns my highest recommendation. QED.

World War Z

‘World War Z’ is the biggest positive surprise of 2013 so far. As I recall, the rumors indicated that several scenes were reshot, or removed from the film altogether, and the release date was delayed by several weeks. I didn’t necessarily validate any of this information, but it left me feeling skeptical about how the end product would actually turn out.

‘World War Z’ is based on the 2006 novel by Max Brooks, who happens to be the son of comedy filmmaker Mel Brooks, but there aren’t many laughs to be found here. The movie really only shares the book’s title – to say that the film takes artistic liberties with the source material would be an understatement (heads up to all the purists out there who can’t toss aside their literary agenda). Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is a former U.N. specialist who comes out of retirement when zombies suddenly overrun his city of Philly. This leads to Gerry helping out the U.N. search for a cure to end the pandemic. Hey, it’s Brad Pitt versus the Zombie Apocalypse – who are you going to cheer for?

If worst haircut awards were handed out at the end of the filmgoing year, I think Brad Pitt would be a lock to receive such an accolade. But he’s still Brad Pitt, and his character is more of a Superman than Henry Cavill’s ‘Man of Steel’. Why exactly are these zombies overrunning major cities all around the world? I don’t think the movie provides an explanation and that’s ok. These are still the smartest zombies to ever be put on film – they swarm in huge herds like ants to get over a barrier. Why? Because there is human flesh on the other side of this wall, so they essentially create their own ladder – with one zombie clawing atop the other to hop over the other side). It’s not just a special effect for the sake of showmanship – there’s a purpose supporting the flashiness. I think that’s pretty cool. In my review of ‘Warm Bodies’, I said “Zombies don’t make for interesting creatures – they snarl, walk slowly, sniff the air, feast on human flesh, approach a physical barrier, and are eventually killed with a shot to the head.” Neither Warm Bodies’ or ‘World War Z’ make an effort to explore new territory but they managed to take a tired genre and spin it into something fresh.

‘World War Z’ is tension-filled without producing buckets of over-the-top blood and gore. The MPAA has given the movie a rating of PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images. I think this movie pushes the boundary of this rating – the level of intensity is comparable to the first two ‘Alien’ pictures (or the only two Alien films that should have ever been made). The title delivers on presenting us with a picture that is on a global scale – we are treated to some fabulous set pieces as the zombie apocalypse has Gerry racing from Korea to Jerusalem to Nova Scotia. One terrific sequence involves Gerry and a group of passengers on a plane en route to Jerusalem – I won’t spoil it for you, but what a frighteningly intense sequence.

The performances in this picture are so much better than what we typically get from big, summer blockbusters; especially the one given by Brad Pitt. Pitt is in every scene, so the weight of the picture lies on his shoulders – but he sells it. This is true even when the script makes an attempt to have higher meaning; the parallelisms to real-world contagions are a tad ridiculous. One other area of criticism –the 3-D/shaky-cam effect was almost deadly, causing me to endure a headache for the first twenty-five minutes; I kept lifting my glasses hoping my headache would disappear. We really need to get rid of this 3-D format; it just detracts from the viewing experience. Let’s move on.

Some viewers may be split by this picture – the first half offers a loud, visceral experience; the back half of the picture is more quiet, relying on timing and precision to generate its scares. For me, both halves are equally suspenseful but for completely different reasons. If you liked ‘Alien’ more than ‘Aliens’, you’ll probably prefer the second half. I’m breaking my rule here – I try not to second-guess the audience, but I think the ‘Alien’ test is a good indicator.

Thanks to some brilliantly constructed sequence which match the first two ‘Alien’ pictures in terms of intensity, ‘World War Z’ ends up being the biggest positive surprise of 2013. This is a great summer entertainment. I recommend seeing a 2-D version of the film if possible; the 3-D version is headache-inducing (at least at the start). QED.

3-To-See: ‘Fast & Furious 6’ (Wide-release), ‘Mud’ (Cineplex Yonge/Dundas, Magic Lantern Theatres – Carlton Cinema), ‘World War Z’ (Wide-release)