Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God Forgives (2013)

According to the Bible, our sins can be absolved by repenting and honestly regretting those actions you’ve made in your life. Only then will God forgive you and allow you passage into heaven. Now, I’m no theologian (hell, I’m a Phage), but that sounds a sweet deal. You can do literally ANYTHING you want in life and get access to the easy (after)life. I always question this logic when talking with genuine theologians, as surely there has to be limits on the depravity that you can commit in your life. Stole a packet of sweets from the local shop when you were 6 years old? OK, fair enough… that can be forgiven. What about stealing the packet of crisps and force-feeding them to someone with a sweet allergy, causing them to get horrendously ill… still forgiveable? Maybe… But what about committing genocide with those sweets? Can that be forgiven? They must be some pretty bad ass sweets… that’s for sure. But the logic is flawed, surely? Why this lofty pre-amble? Surely it’s obvious? Only God Forgives is out… does it make me worship at the altar, or should it repent for sinning against my eyes and ears?

Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God Forgives is the “follow-up” to Drive, insofar that it stars Ryan Gosling and is from the same writer / director, Nicolas Winding Refn. Let’s get one thing clear here: I loved Drive. I thought it was powerful, wonderfully shot and had a great display of acting from all in the cast. It was probably my highlight of 2011. It’s a polarising film though, no doubt about that. For every Phage that loved it, there are probably two that despised it, or at the very least failed to “get it”. How does Only God Forgives look in comparison? Chalk this up as another polarising slice of cinema…

With the US getting this film a few weeks ahead of the UK, I was already (accidentally) primed for what to expect. Reviews flooded at me, and they lurched between “cinematic gold” to “crushingly disappointing”… But I went in thinking “I know better than those guys, surely they missed the point of the film?” After all, the moody trailers looked fantastic and I know what to expect from Refn… but I was disappointed. Brutally so.

Before I start tearing into the flesh of this cadaver, let’s dance over the plot. Only God Forgives follows Julian (Ryan Gosling), who works / runs a Thai Boxing gym out in Bangkok. His life gets flipped when his brother is murdered… after raping and killing a 16 year old sex worker. Their mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) immediately flies into Julian’s life and sets about trying to get revenge for her dead son. And the only revenge applicable here is “eye for an eye” – she wants the head of whoever was responsible for this. “Whoever” just happens to be a member of the local police force, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm)… and he’s quite nifty with a sword…

Only God Forgives (2013)

It sets up like a standard revenge flick, mixed in with the grubby Bangkok underworld. It should be a gripping ride. But it’s not. Only God Forgives is not the film I wanted, nor expected. It’s a highly self-indulgent piece of cinema masquerading as art. The classic elongated shots on Gosling are there… you know the ones I mean: he’s staring into the middle distance and the camera loiters on him for what seems like an eternity. There’s also the occasional eruption of gore, as was the case with Drive. Then there are innumerable karaoke pieces that are meant to illustrate the current “mood” of the picture and lots of jumping and jerking around in chronology. All in all, it made for one bewildering and slightly confusing movie.

Now, the thing that struck me about Drive was Ryan Gosling. He wasn’t really someone that meant much to me back then. Some will gush about The Notebook, but to me – he was a nobody. Then we had Drive and Crazy Stupid Love… OK… I quite like this guy. But since then? I’ve yet to be blown away again. A lacklustre Gangster Squad, a disappointing The Place Beyond The Pines… and now this. Whilst there’s nothing bad per-se about his acting here, there’s also nothing to blow you away. He walks around a lot, stares into the middle distance and gets his ass handed to him on occasion. Indeed, I think the best acting in this film came from Kristin Scott Thomas as the boys’ mother. She was deplorable, foul and thoroughly dislikeable, which Thomas delivered well. But that’s also the problem with the film itself… everyone’s pretty dislikeable.

Only God Forgives (2013)

Every character is flawed here. There is no hero. There is no antihero, really. Everyone has an axe to grind and carries their demons with them. Hell, the plot revolves around trying to avenge the death of a guy who was a murdering rapist. It’s not a noble quest, and indeed the guy got what he deserved in The Phage’s humble opinion. So if you couple the flawed, under-coloured characters with the meandering, loose plot and sense of style over substance, you’re left with quite a hollow shell of a film. It’s odd that I couldn’t help but think of Guy Ritchie‘s Revolver at points, as that too was a case of a film getting too big for its boots and jumping the shark. It also placed an emphasis on neon lights…

Only God Forgives isn’t the film I was expecting. In fact, it probably tallies as one of the biggest disappointments of 2013 for us here at Film Phage. Maybe we held our expectations too high, or wanted a continuation of Drive. Simply put: this isn’t a good film, not for us at least. I’m sure it will polarise audiences, but there just wasn’t enough glue to hold this film together. It felt awkward and forced at times. Although it’s a misstep for Refn, we’re still eager to see what he’ll pull out of the bag next… just don’t let us down…

I bet you can already see the line we’ve been aligning throughout this piece can’t you? The ironic line involving the title of the film? Yes… I don’t know if God can forgive this film (ba-dum-tsh!). Whilst it’s not up there with genocide-inducing sweet deaths, we struggle to forgive this. Not that I have a God-complex; for I do not believe that I am God… I am merely a Phage. But in the cinematic realm, we have a high opinion of ourselves. But we will forgive it this one time… as we say… just don’t let us down again. Please? There’s a sweetie in it for you…

Phage Factor:

1.5 Stars

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Spring Breakers (2013)

Spring Breakers (2013)

Spring Break. It’s a concept we don’t really have in the UK, at least not in the way that Hollywood tells me is the norm in the US. We don’t head to the beach, strap on bikinis, take half of it off and drink copious amounts of beer and spirits on the beaches and all start making out. If we did that here, it’d probably be as follows: head to the beach, strap on bikinis, put on at least four more layers, feel pretty miserable that the weather’s so awful and drink copious amounts of tea in a local café. That’s not to say we’re not an exciting nation – we are! I assure you! But our little rock isn’t built for beachy hedonism in the Spring. It also most certainly isn’t built for the sort of debauchery and extreme hedonism on show in Spring Breakers, that’s for sure…

Spring Break forever.

Spring Break forever.

Much has been made of the fact that this is written and directed by Harmony Korine – the guy that brought you the controversial Kids many moons ago. Me? I just associate the name Harmony Korine with the awesomely beautiful song by Steven Wilson (The Phonic Phage recommends it: linked here), so I don’t have much attached to this particular director if I’m being honest. Also, if you’ve just listened to that Steven Wilson song, then this film is the complete antithesis of it. Spring Breakers is big, brash and bold, so check your coat at the door.

The film revolves around four girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) and their quest to go on their first Spring Break down in Florida. They’re seeking the teenage American dream: the drugs, the drink and the debauchery. And they get it. But when it all starts to get a bit out of hand, they’re taken under the wing of Alien (James Franco) – a so-called “gangster”, replete with gold teeth and corn-rows. But how far will the girls go to hit the ultimate high?

Spring Breakers (2013)

It all sounds wonderfully superficial doesn’t it? It looks like a very dumb and gaudy premise for a teen drama, as does the trailer. You’d also probably believe this for the first 15 minutes of the film, which has more topless girls than your average adult entertainment convention. It actually made me feel a bit weird to be sitting there watching it, as I contemplated what the film was actually trying to achieve, and whether I’d be watching this for 90+ minutes. But it all changed dramatically when James Franco entered the fray.

I thought Franco was stunning in this film. He plays Kid Rock Alien – the white boy gangster who’s living “the dream”: huge house, more money than sense and a bloody piano outside by his pool, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. What fascinated me with Franco was how convincing he was as the somewhat deplorable Alien. I found his character detestable, but his acting sublime. He’s acting full-tilt crazy and that accent? Perfect southern drawl. Franco gets a bad rep for sometimes “phoning in” a performance and playing the same role again and again, but this certainly isn’t the case here.

Kid Rock + Die Antwoord = James Franco. Clearly!

Kid Rock + Die Antwoord = James Franco. Clearly!

What of the remaining cast? The four girls? I wonder how this was sold to their agents to be honest, as they spend the vast majority of the film in neon bikinis. Much fuss has been made of this being the one to “break the mould” for Hudgens and Gomez who’ve both been associated with “pure” Disney films in the past. I guess its an attempt at rebranding from them both. I found the four of them to be thoroughly convincing in their roles, no doubt about that. They’re far from weak actresses, but I’d be keen to see what they all move onto next in a more “grounded” film that requires more clothes.

What really merits mention here is the cinematography. The film looks sublime. If I had to pigeon-hole it, it’s somewhere between Savages and Drive (but not as poor as the former, or strong as the latter). The colours are bold and beautiful and some of the shots are the type you wish you could frame and mount on your wall; they’re just that good to look at (and no – I’m not referring to the copious shots of topless girls). If nothing else, you’ll be impressed with how the film looks. I feel I also ought to focus on the soundtrack used here too. As some of you know, in a former life I was involved in the music industry (hence The Phonic Phage), so I have an ear for it. When I saw the trailers for Spring Breakers I was ready to dismiss it out of hand, as any film that makes a song and dance of its soundtrack generally isn’t worth watching. I don’t go to the cinema to watch Glee. But I was surprised. Sure, all of the Skrillex (aka Sonny Moore of now defunct metal band From First To Last) tunes were in place, but so too were compositions from Cliff Martinez. Who’s he? Only the guy that made Drive sound so goddamn fantastic. Essentially this clash of aggression and peace, along with the glaring neon and stunning visuals makes this a sensory feast for the eyes and ears.

Spring Breakers (2013)

This actually leads onto the major drawback of the film… what’s the point of it all? It’s an exhilarating ride to be on at times, but afterwards you don’t really know why you’re so excited by what you’ve just seen when you actually think about it. Either the film’s trying to be too clever for its own good and believes it’s delivering a very poignant message to the audience, or there is no message to be taken away from this and it’s pulled the wool over your eyes with all its visual and aural delights. The plot is there, but it’s somewhat hollow and you almost feel bemused with yourself for liking the film as much as you do. Indeed, you might actually walk out of the screening thinking it was the worst way you could have spent a couple of hours… but that’s the joy of Spring Breakers; Spring Break isn’t for everyone!

Spring Breakers is a lot like the wild party it shows on screen. It’s a giddy concoction of noise and visual splendour, but when it’s all over you’re left wondering what you’ve actually achieved from your time spent there. Sure, the memories of that experience are wedged in your head, but you’ve not learnt anything new; you just know you’ve had a good time. That being said, I think praise needs to fall on James Franco, as I’ve not been intrigued by a character in quite some time. For me, he carries this film on his shoulders and runs with it. If you’re a fan of Franco, or my rambling has tempted you into seeing something you’d normally dismiss as “a stupid teen flick” (despite its 18 rating), then I think you should go out there and make your mind up for yourself…

All this film goes to show me is that you can’t do something like this in the UK. Nowhere in our isles could you stay in a bikini all day and night (who hasn’t tried?!). Also, we don’t have those classy red cups that you US folks always seem to have at every frat / sorority party in the history of cinema. Plus, as much as I liked James Franco‘s deep south drawl, I don’t think we could have a character like that over here. For us, the deep south would be a county called Devon. Sure, the accent’s quite slow and meandering, but it doesn’t have that same allure… not by a long shot.

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star