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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Gangster Squad (2013)

Gangster Squad (2013)

Have you ever seen a movie poster than thought “oh hell yes, this has X in it… I love X… I bet this film will be great”? Sometimes the gamble pays off as the star in question is someone like Daniel Day-Lewis or Will Smith. Sure, they’ll have the occasional off-film, but overall their hit rate is exceedingly high. On the other hand you have people like Samuel L. Jackson – a self-confessed workaholic, but is as likely to be in a fantastic genre-defining film, as he is a complete dud. It happens. You just hope that you don’t pick the “dud” film in someone’s career – or at least not the one that everyone bemoans as “not his / her best”. So that brings Gangster Squad into the limelight. Its cast has lots of really hot names, but do they meet our expectations?

Gangster Squad is roughly based on the book by Paul Lieberman, which retells the true story of post-World War II Los Angeles. It’s a time of gangsters, where Chicago ruled the United States of America and corruption was rife at every level as the country came to come to terms with post-war life. LA was ruled by Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) – your archetypal gangster: a corrupter and a thoroughly deplorable individual. On the other side of the thin blue line you’ve got the newly established “Gangster Squad” – a secret group of police officers tasked with bringing down Cohen’s Empire. But can they succeed? Therein lies Gangster Squad.

The Gangster Squad

But who is the Gangster Squad I hear you ask? Well, that’d be a team led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), which consists of half dozen of LA’s best, including Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) and Max Kennard (Robert Patrick). Clearly some big names in that list – even Terminator 2‘s T-1000 is in there. How can they lose!? Throw Emma Stone into the mix as Cohen’s girlfriend / piece of arm candy, which Gosling‘s Wooters wants a piece of, then you have an explosive cocktail that should explode with all the sleaze and excitement of post-war USA… but the machine isn’t as good as the sum of its parts.

That’s not to say that all of its “parts” aren’t well oiled an firing away nicely. The two biggest assets of the film lie with the two leads: Josh Brolin and Sean Penn. Brolin portrays the 1940’s-50’s stoic police officer with remarkable conviction. In fact, if you were to throw Brolin back in time, you’d probably be convinced he belongs there anyway. He’s just cut from the right material to suit the time period – Men in Black 3‘s comparison to Tommy Lee Jones is still very apt. You can’t help but imagine this would be the part Jones would play should this have been shot 20 years ago. However, the real kudos needs to go to Sean Penn who is simply fantastic as Mickey Cohen. He’s vile. He’s offensive. He’s a dislikeable human being. A perfect mob boss. There’s a real conviction behind his acting, but then again, we’d expect no less from Penn considering his back catalogue. The only distracting thing? Those prosthetics. They’re almost as distracting at first as Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s in Looper. I just couldn’t help but think “what’s Mickey Rourke‘s Marv from Sin City doing in this flick?”. The fact that the film styles itself as a noir, much like Sin City did, only solidified these ideas in my head. It was effective makeup, but a little distracting at times.

Prosthetic twins!

However, the film falls down in many other areas to render it “enjoyable” rather than “great”. The plot, for a start, isn’t anything mind-blowing. As you can see from that description, it’s pretty much a case of good guys v bad guys. But then again, it’s a gangster movie; you were going to get that one way or another. The real let downs for me were Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Individually, I think these guys are fantastic actors, but here they just didn’t shine. When I think of Gosling I either think of his powerful performance in Gangster Squad (2013)Drive or his suave showing in Crazy Stupid Love, but this is neither. His part tries to be cool and calm, with an undercurrent of love and malice, but it just doesn’t come across as it should. I’m pretty sure this year’s Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) written and directed Only God Forgives will set him back on track as the super hot property we know he is. Similarly, I feel that Stone was cast just as a name. Her role as Grace Faraday is quite disposable – any mid-20’s actress could have played the part equally as well. Whether she was cast owing to her past dealings with director Rubin Fleischer in Zombieland, or because her chemistry with Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love was so great, we’ll never know. Regardless, I just wasn’t that impressed with her performance here, which is a shame considering how much talent and charisma she has.

Ultimately, Gangster Squad just failed to ignite for me. It had its moments, and any time Penn was on-screen was fantastic, but it just felt a little too loose and meandering – perhaps 15 minutes longer than it should have been. It also lacked the punch that I expected from the cast. Maybe I should manage my expectations some more, but maybe not, because I know these actors are firing off at nearly the top of their game right now. We should always expect more.

So I guess the lesson here is to “never judge a book by its cover”, or “never judge a film based on a book by its poster credits”, which is nowhere near as catchy. Too much emphasis has been placed on Gosling in the marketing, when they should have really emphasised Penn‘s role, as he’s clearly the don here. A gnarled, prosthetic-ridden don… one that really needs to avenge the death of Goldie, who smelt like angels ought to smell. Oh wait, that’s Sin City‘s Marv again. Simple mistake.

Phage Factor:

3 Star