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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The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

2013 has seen a number of films promoted solely on the strength of their lead actors. This statement probably doesn’t seem that outrageous, as most films are pumped into your subconscious thanks to their leads. What’s more atypical about 2013 is the number of films that have missold you on these leads. The films that spring to mind most prominently? Side Effects and GI Joe: Retaliation. Funnily enough, both films pimped out Channing Tatum as a drawcard. Too bad his performances were… cut short, shall we say? Yes, cut short in both films. He shouldn’t have been sold as a ‘star’ of the movie, as he rivalled Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables for sheer brevity. So, we now come to The Place Beyond The Pines – another film that’s sold heavily on ‘featuring Ryan Gosling‘… I think you know where I’m going with this review, right?

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

Briefly, The Place Beyond The Pines is set in Schenectady, New York – a place of no hope for many. Our ‘protagonist’ Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a stunt bike rider with the travelling carnival. His stopover in the town reveals that on his last ’round’ he got a girl (Eva Mendez) pregnant and now actually has a kid… Wow, quite a revelation! So Ryan jacks in his job and decides to hang around. But how will he make his money? Bank robbery of course! This leads his life to crash into that of Avery – a local beat cop (Bradley Cooper)… And the story unfolds.

That description would be fair to summarise the first third of the film, as the film truly is chopped into three different stories focusing heavily on Gosling, Cooper and their respective sons Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen. The trouble with this is that screen time is cut down a hell of a lot for all of them. Want your Gosling fix? 45 minutes. Cooper? 45 minutes? Others? Oh come on – you didn’t come here for the others did you? And this is the crux of the problem – you’ve come to the cinema for the two leads. You expect to see your two leads a lot!

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

Gosling came onto my radar solidly with the 1-2 combo of Drive and Crazy Stupid Love. I thought he was fantastic in both and I couldn’t wait to see what he did next. But since then? A lacklustre showing in Gangster Squad. I’ll pass. Having said that, I thought that his screen time was used well here and he was almost back to his Drive form. Gos-worshippers will be glad to hear he once again gets his top off and he does, once again, look ripped. So add a star onto my score if that figures highly in your enjoyment of a movie!

Now let’s move to one of my favourite actors – Bradley Cooper. Many regular Film Phage readers will know I bloody love this guy. He’s been going from strength to strength with recent performances, and he was rightly nominated for an Oscar this year for the brilliant Silver Linings Playbook. The Place Beyond The Pines is another shining example of ‘new’ Cooper. The guy that’s not playing the jock, the bully or the cocky one. In fact, his character here is thrust into the limelight and he plays humble and worried with great vigour. Although I’m a fan, don’t think that I won’t criticise the guy… But he doesn’t merit it here. It just fuels my excitement for his next on-screen appearance, which I guess will be The Hangover: Part Three. Sure, it’ll be a return to his ‘roots’ (not Hot Wet American Summer roots – his first film… that was awful) but his cocky roots. Bring it, Brad.

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

So after my gushing, let’s return on track. The real reason this film came unstuck for me was the erratic plot weaving. The writers have tried to be clever and weave a ‘sins of the father’ circle for the film, but it comes across bloated and messy to follow the three different, but interlinked, stories. I’d rather have just seen stories 1 and 2 expanded and skip over the third act altogether. That third act just kept on going, with a dissatisfying conclusion too. Nothing can spoil a movie more than a seemingly half-baked ‘open’ ending. The Place Beyond The Pines typifies this beautifully.

If you add this onto the fact that our stars only feature for a modicum of the overall running time and the film becomes incredibly frustrating. A frustration that is once again compounded by the previews and trailers for the movie that make it out to be an exciting film about bank heists… It is about bank heists. For about 30 minutes. Why do you do this to me Hollywood? Why do you get me so excited only to let me down at the last minute? It’s like promising me the most delicious, authentic pizza from northern Italy and only delivering me a slice of Bob’s Kebab World’s pizza that’s clearly fallen on the floor several times… You can’t tell I’m in Italy now can you?!

The Place Beyond The Pines promised a hell of a lot, but delivered remarkably little. It’s lead performances from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper are strong but are ultimately undermined by the bloated plot and restricted screen time for them both. Once again, hype has got in the way of a movie for me, thanks to artistically edited trailers. Let’s try and be a bit more honest from now on ok?

So although The Place Beyond the Pines doesn’t once again resign poor Channing Tatum to the cutting room floor at an early point, it does again play into a recurring theme of 2013 – false advertising. Next you’ll be telling me that Bradley Cooper‘s not actually in The Hangover: Part Three. Let me tell you this now – if that’s the case, you’re going to see one hell of an enraged Phage come the end of the month! Equally, if I don’t find some pizza in the next 30 minutes, we’re also going to have a problem here… Coops and pizza: my sedatives.

Phage Factor:

3 Star

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