Only God Forgives

ImageWith a title like Only God Forgives, it is expected that the characters will show very little compassion, but ultimately the same is likely true for the audience who watches it.

A follow up to his phenomenal 2011 film Drive, director Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest film Only God Forgives again stars Ryan Gosling, this time as an underground boxing ring owner in Bangkok.  Like his character from Drive, his character here, Julian, is a man of few words, very few, like 15 maybe.  But that doesn’t stop him from smuggling drugs with his brother Billy (Tom Burke) and basically validating the frequently disturbing cinematic reputation that Bangkok has acquired.  When Billy is murdered for raping and murdering a sixteen-year-old, Julian and his partners find themselves compelled to hunt down his brother’s killer.  Vengeance reigns as Julian and company find themselves facing off against Chang (Vithaya  Pansringarm), a sword-wielding cop on a vendetta of his own.

Winding Refn has created a small and weird film.  Essentially what we have here is a cold-hearted revenge film where one murder begets one more.  What Winding Refn attempts to inject is a sense of mankind’s inherent evil in a spiritual battle where even God is pissed off.  This is most apparent in his development of a hand/arm motif.  By associating man’s arms/hands with the tools of vengeance, he does manage to create some provocative thematic quality.  However, the film is mostly unsuccessful and feels like a perverse and twisted student film and not much more.

Not a lot happens in Only God Forgives as several scenes are composed of people just moving around, albeit moving around slowly and deliberately.  Many scenes are composed of one-shots (one character in the frame) that last 30 seconds or more!  This results in manufacturing the slowest 89 minute film in recent memory.  A slight boost in pacing comes with the introduction of Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scot Thomas), who gives Joan Crawford a run for her money as a controlling matriarch.

Nonetheless, there is not much good to be said for the film.  Gosling is practically emotionless, giving the blandest performance of his career, although clearly steered by Winding Refn.

Winding Refn’s directorial choices are certainly strange from time to time.  With virtually no exposition, his film complicates matters by introducing confusing segments of “dream-like” scenarios (most of which include red dragon wallpaper) that may or may not be real.  These segments feel forced and unnecessarily ambiguous with no rational purpose.  Furthermore, a major talking point for this film is its use of violence.  Only God Forgives appears to be an instrument for Winding Refn to release his own personal anger against spirituality, against God, against mothers – it’s an angry film.  Much of this anger manifests as violence and while occasionally off screen, two rather brutal scenes do not hold back: one involving Chang, the other involving Julian and his mother.  These scenes drip of anger but offer little redeeming quality (See No Country for Old Men for a film that accomplishes the task of personifying wrath).

While Winding Refn is a talented screenwriter and director, Only God Forgives is a mostly failed attempt at expounding on the undertakings of an angry God.  Instead of making a film that analyzes and examines anger, he has made one that simply exudes his own. D+

Only God Forgives is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes.  Early reports of the film suggested it was astonishingly violent, yet while violent, it is more angry and pushes no boundaries set by multitudes of other gritty R rated vengeance films. 

Advertisements

The Internship

ImageListen beautiful babies, I only have time to say this once and whether you’re just a baby chick or a full grown hen there’s not a lot of people that don’t know the cadence of a metaphor-laced Vince Vaughn pep-talk speech, but if you haven’t heard one of these fast paced gems it’s an anecdotal mess – but the kind of mess where something may accidentally come of it, I mean Columbus thought he was in the West Indies but it’s no reason to ridicule the man, it’s the genocide that maybe gives the guy a damaged rep but hey you gotta get back on the horse man, and do it like a champion, a CHAMPION!  

And there you have the message of Vaughn’s latest buddy comedy, The Internship.  Not genocide, but a mess where something worthwhile might occasionally, accidentally come out of it.  Vaughn’s speeches have become less ‘cute’ and more cliché this time around, and so it goes with The Internship.  The film opens with the most uncomfortable scene of the year where two forty-somethings played by Vaughn and co-star Owen Wilson wildly sing Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic,” which is ironically un-ironic as the scene is so cringe-inducing and not funny that you can’t wait for it to end.  Vaughn and Wilson play Billy and Nick, two guys who lose their sales jobs and nonsensically end up as interns at Google in a final attempt to get their hands on that ever-elusive American dream.  And just in case that wasn’t clear, prepare yourself for Owen Wilson’s tepid recitation of Langston Hughes’s “A Dream Deferred.”

Part of The Internship’s humor revolves around how old Vaughn and Wilson are compared to the young, spry geniuses typically courted by Google.  However, that humor is lost rather quickly as it becomes too apparent that Vaughn and Wilson are simply too old for this.  Wilson is especially awkward.  He showed such promise in a more mature role with Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, but it seems his days are numbered as the immature feathered haired sidekick.  It’s laughable (in a bad way) to imagine that these two supposedly excellent salesmen still have live-in girlfriends and virtually no marketable skills.  Nick’s foray into selling mattresses for his brother-in-law (played by Will Ferrell in a moderately funny cameo) proves that these guys are stereotypical screen characters just waiting to prove their worth at some inevitable time when their charm can benefit some unorthodox circumstance.

Simply put, the first act of this film has hardly any redeeming quality and if you walked out, I wouldn’t blame you.  Nonetheless, if you suffer through the laborious opening, things do get better – not much better, but better.  Bill and Nick (a pair of more ubiquitous names would be difficult to imagine) eventually find themselves the underdogs on a team of further underdogs who must compete against other intern teams for a chance at a full-time job with the company.  The tasks are obscenely unconventional as the audience is constantly barraged by propaganda about Google’s progressive nature (Do Google interns truly take part in live competitive Quidditch matches?).  Nonetheless, once the exposition is complete, the film livens up a bit with an entertaining nightclub scene and a funny take on a “first date” scene when Nick courts an executive named Dana (Rose Byrne) who has conveniently forgotten how to have fun and needs a man to remind her of what’s important (actually, feminists may want to avoid the movie in its entirety).

Vaughn and Wilson teamed up once before in the incomparably better film, Wedding Crashers.  These two do have chemistry, but only if the material holds up.  Unfortunately for The Internship, it does not and only the screenwriter is to blame, Vince Vaughn.  Vaughn’s two other screenwriting credits, The Break-Up and Couples Retreat, happen to be equally vapid.  His writing relies on cheap gags, stereotypes, and in the case of The Internship, a strange motif where the bushier a character’s eyebrows, the more villainous the character’s intentions.  The Internship is basically a thinly veiled advertisement for the virtuosity and distinctiveness of Google.  Unfortunately, for the average paying theater-goer, the film is not as innovative as its subject.  Consider passing up this InternshipD

The Big Wedding

ImageWith the highly anticipated release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I decided to re-read the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel about moral decay in American Society.  Reading the book again was meant to assist me in my review for the upcoming Gatsby, but it turns out there’s another story of tragic spoiled Americans consumed with their own lavish excesses already in theaters, and it’s called The Big Wedding. 

The Big Wedding is a star-studded turkey of a movie that can be enjoyed as more of an oddity than anything else.  On the surface, it appears to be a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy about the goofy pitfalls that occur within the chain of events leading up to a big American family wedding.  However, Justin Zackham both writes and directs a film that if anything, actively attempts to rationalize dishonesty as an honorable and necessary trait within the family dynamic.

The story revolves around the Griffin family as they prepare for the wedding  between adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) and his fiancé Missy (Amanda Seyfried).  The Griffin patriarch is Don (Robert DeNiro) who is hosting the wedding at his home that he shares with his girlfriend, Bebe (Susan Sarandon).  DeNiro continues his series of baffling role choices here, and it’s hard to envision what drew him to the character of Don, although he probably hasn’t played a character who takes this many blows to the head since Raging Bull.  The wedding draws an ensemble cast together that includes Don’s ex-wife Ellie (Diane Keaton) and Don and Ellie’s two children Lyla (Katherine Heigl) and Jared (Topher Grace) both of which vary in degrees of estrangement from Don.  The conflict hinges on the news that Alejandro’s biological mother Madonna will also be attending the wedding, and her ultra-conservative views on marriage and divorce cause Alejandro to plead with Don and Ellie to pretend to be married so not to offend her.  Various other subplots regarding Lyla’s marriage troubles, Don’s relationship with Bebe, and Jared’s awkward fling with Madonna’s beautiful daughter Nuria fill out the film’s 89 minute running time, but none of them are remarkably interesting or funny.  Additionally, Robin Williams is given absolutely nothing to do as Father Moinighan in a screenplay that feels like a series of wasted opportunities. 

While The Big Wedding certainly disappoints given its potential, it is oddly watchable.  Most of the characters are quite unlikable, and it begs the viewer to question whether this is intentional.  Katherine Heigel’s character is uniquely deplorable, an example being when she candidly announces who she needs to “lynch” to get a Cosmo.  Zackham makes it quite clear that every character has, in one way or another, used deception, fraud, or trickery as a recourse for trying to keep a family together.  This thematic exploration and justification for dishonesty feels wildly out of place in a supposedly fun wedding comedy, but it is a strangely fascinating direction to take.  Perhaps this film would work better if it were more Gatsby and less My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but what we’re left with is a bit of a mess, albeit a somewhat intentional one. D+

The Big Wedding is rated R and runs 89 minutes.  You might want to make sure there’s an open bar before attending this wedding.

A Good Day to Die Hard

Image

I wasn’t going to review A Good Day to Die Hard. Then I thought some people might try and see it, and if I could have stopped them, I could never forgive myself as a critic.

I recently stated that Safe Haven is a lazy film. That may be true, but it is Beasts of the Southern Wild compared to this weak fifth entry to the Die Hard franchise. The wheels fall off of this film almost immediately, and the audience is asked a question worthy of Simon from the immensely superior, Die Hard With a Vengeance: “Do I ride this out to its predictable, inevitable, and unsatisfying conclusion or do I admit that I wasted $10, walk out, and get a sandwich?” Simon says, “Get the sandwich.”

A Good Day to Die Hard sends John McClane (Bruce Willis) on vacation and he chooses to spend it in Russia checking up on his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who has recently found himself in some major international trouble. Within five minutes, we’re in the middle of a sloppy car chase where it is revealed that Jack is an undercover CIA operative attempting to derail a major nuclear weapons heist. Thus, Jack and John must team up against a Russian gang…

So what went wrong? I will not admit that Die Hard is done; one bad film does not a franchise ruin. So let’s look at this constructively. First of all, no more catch phrases or cliches. “Yippee Ki-Yay” is grandfathered in, but now we’re reminded that John McClane is “old” and “on vacation” at least ten times. This repetition serves no purpose except to go for a cheap laugh, but you’ll never hear the laughter over most of the theater slapping their hands to their foreheads in disgust. Furthermore, this installment takes place in Russia. In one scene, John is handed a tour book by his daughter, Idiot’s Guide to Russia. Clearly, it was the same book Skip Woods used to write the screenplay because the film exposes Russia’s traffic issues, introduces characters named Viktor, Yuri, and Anton, and its climax seals the cliche deal by taking place at Chernobyl. Oh, did I mention Yuri is introduced playing chess, so we know he’s a smart Russian? Disappointing stuff.

Next, is the action. In a high profile action film, it is expected that the action scenes are first rate, exciting, and innovative. Watch the opening car chase in A Good Day to Die Hard; next, watch the masterful opening scene of Sam Mendes’s Skyfall. Every confusing, flawed, elemental choice that John Moore makes in A Good Day to Die Hard is exposed when comparing the two. More attention needs to be paid to making sure the action is not as over-produced, compartmentalized, and hilariously slowed down as it is. There is a scene in A Good Day to Die Hard where the characters walk into a ballroom with multiple chandeliers hanging in different stages of preparation for some event that will be happening that evening. Audiences are immediately forced to think, “Well, looks like we’ll be in this scene until all of these chandeliers are destroyed”, and of course, they’d be right. This type of blatant predictability serves no purpose except to immediately signal a good time to hit the restroom. Action confined in one setting for ten minutes with no real danger becomes dull in 30 seconds. The previous four films did not feel so confined to sound-stages as this one does (even though the first two had McClane trapped in a building and an airport respectively), and it ruins any tension or fun.

Finally, if one wants to make a sequel, then make a sequel. What happened to Bonnie Bedelia as McClane’s now ex-wife, Holly? Where’s good ole’ Reginald VelJohnson as Sgt. Powell? Why introduce all of those fun tech-geeks in Live Free or Die Hard only to strand them in that film? Screenwriters, listen up; these character actors will sign up if the story is there!

At one point, it appeared that we were in for a slightly uplifting February movie season heading into the Spring, but it turns out it is still a dumping ground. A Good Day to Die Hard made $30 million regardless of its being terrible, so the audience is still there, and this film could have been a game changer that could show studios that good movies can be released all year long. Guess we’ll have to wait for a better day, not just a “good” one. D-

This is 40

Image

Judd Apatow has found his cinematic niche in watching outsiders become insiders.  The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People all examine likable, but slightly introverted, man-children.  Each of these films attempts to show that the geeky child in all of us doesn’t have to go away, but it has to grow up a little bit.  Apatow’s latest film, This is 40 is a departure from this philosophy and unfortunately, it suffers for it.  This is 40 feels like an anti-Apatow film in that now we are watching dull, angry insiders desperately pining away for the days when they were outsiders.

This is 40 is marketed as the “sort of” sequel to Knocked Up.  This is because it focuses on married couple Debbie and Pete, peripheral characters from that film.  It is fair to call this a personal film for Apatow since Debbie is once again played by Apatow’s real wife Leslie Mann, and her two kids, Charlotte and Sadie, are played by his actual daughters.  Pete is reprised by Paul Rudd, which has to create some excellent awkward moments on the set as Rudd is directed by Apatow to essentially ‘be’ Apatow alongside his entire family.  Other than these characters, and a couple other very minor ones, this film certainly deserves the “sort of” moniker that it gets since it takes a completely different tone than Knocked Up and leaves behind virtually everything that made that movie work.    

We drop in on Debbie and Pete five years after Knocked Up, and things are not good.  The characters are facing their 40th birthdays and you’d think it’s the end of the world.  Apatow has stripped his characters of their geek-child, and what is left is sad adults, angry kids, and a lot of yelling.  It does not matter what your experience is with 40 or teenagers, this film uncomfortable viewing to say the least.    

There is not much fun to be found in This is 40.  Judd Apatow has always found some stronghold of critical praise in that he is given credit for being ‘honest.’  Basically, many critics say his comedies get away with being raunchy and crass because they are ‘honest.’  Actually, his comedies get away with being raunchy and crass because they are funny and filled with fun, and yes honestly realistic, characters, but that is not the case in This is 40.  Whether or not one can relate to the problems of the characters, this is not an enjoyable movie.  Problems are unrealistically piled on, Debbie’s father (John Lithgow) is nothing more than a caricature whose lines are unintentionally laughable, and the movie is plotless but not in an artistic way.  Outside of a joke or two that work, especially the ones coming from Pete’s dad (played by Albert Brooks), This is 40 is packed with uninteresting side-line characters who come and go like Saturday Night Live characters, and it is entirely too long.  Even the great Melissa McCarthy’s scene is a dud, except for showing the audience that the main characters can bond over attacking a nine-year-old boy and then making his mother look stupid for being outraged.

This is 40 is certainly a disappointing direction to see Apatow heading in.  Hopefully, he’ll reexamine the lives of his characters and find better forms of ‘honesty’ than misery.  D 

Savages

ImageIs Savages pulp? Yes. Is Savages fiction? Oh God I hope so. But Savages is definitely not Pulp Fiction, despite its desperate attempt to be, including casting John Travolta. Savages is a gritty, hard-core examination of the cut-throat high pressure, high stakes game of marijuana cartels. Wait, what? Marijuana cartels? Oliver Stone crafts a screenplay, with help from Don Winslow who penned the source material, that does explain this unorthodox cartel’s extremely violent nature. The story is actually very simple. Young marijuana entrepreneurs gain the attention of a major drug cartel who kidnaps their shared girlfriend in order to force their hand to deal with them. Those entrepreneurs are played by Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson. The shared girlfriend who drags her nails across the chalkboard with flat acting and dreadful voiceover is played lumberingly by Blake Lively. Why they want her back is the film’s biggest mystery. Her character, O, is named after Hamlet’s deranged, suicidal lost love and she hints from the first line of the movie that she may not be alive at the end, providing some powerful wishful thinking. The biggest problem with Savages is the same with most Oliver Stone movies that don’t work, its agenda. Now, this time there is no political agenda; instead it’s a “look how edgy I am” agenda. This agenda is completely fulfilled by putting the viewers out of their misery with one of the worst endings in recent memory.

I could go on about what doesn’t work in this movie, but I feel the point is made. Instead, I’ll quickly mention the things that do work. Benicio Del Toro’s character is introduced with brutal gusto. Also, the film is mostly in focus, even during the ridiculous number of close ups. That’s about it. I am looking forward to the next great Oliver Stone movie; this just wasn’t it. D-