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


The Impossible (2013)

The Impossible (2013)

Sometimes I think that all of this exposure to disaster-themed movies should make us all pretty prepared for the inevitable catastrophic event that will affect our lives: the zombie apocalypse. We’ve seen survivors flee from rage-fuelled fiends in 28 Days Later, people battle the world’s most rapidly changing climate in The Day After Tomorrow and even survive a hulking great asteroid hitting the Earth in Deep Impact. Hell, all Elijah Wood needed in that last one was a bike! He could outrun the oncoming tidal wave. In short: disaster epics are nothing new. What is a bit more novel is the use of the 2004 tsunami that devastated South East Asia – enter The Impossible.

The Impossible is based on the true story of a family that was in the wrong place at the wrong time on 26th December 2004. Here the family are portrayed by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as husband and wife Henry and Maria, and Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast as Lucas, Thomas and Simon: their three children. Ultimately, the tsunami tears the family in two, separating Henry and Maria beginning them on a desperate quest to find their children and each other in the tsunami-ravaged coastal areas of Thailand. And what a story it is.

The Impossible (2013)

Before I get drawn into the plot and acting, what really must be talked about first is the cinematography and shooting of the tsunami scenes. Quite frankly it’s amazing how these guys pulled this off. You never get the feeling that this is the work of camera trickery or some elaborate staging – it just feels real. This is especially noticeable when the camera shoots from high above so you can see the wave ripping through the hotels and houses like a red hot knife through butter. It’s truly astounding.

But what really struck me about the movie was how emotional it was. The Phage is never one to let his emotions get the better of him at the movies – he’s cold and remorseless. Well, he has been ever since he cried when Jenny died in Forrest Gump when he was a lot younger. That was a sad moment! But since then? A heart like stone. Having said all that, I’m not afraid to say that The Impossible really stirred up those emotions. I defy anyone to not feel touched by some of the scenes in this film. I don’t have little Phagelings running around, so I’m not even a parent – therefore the emotional damage has got to be exacerbated for any parents  watching this film too.

Look out for this scene... it's a heartbreaker.

Look out for this scene… it’s a heartbreaker.

What brought up these emotions? Sheer acting talent. Naomi Watts is acting her chops off in this film – you really feel her desperation and also wince with every one of her injuries as she struggles to track down some sense of normality. An utterly convincing performance that surely has to be in with a nod in this week’s Oscars nominations. However, credit also has to go to Ewan McGregor here too. The scene that really tore my heart to pieces was one of him managing to make telephone contact with a relative back home. His delivery of the ensuing speech could not be more emotional and evocative. It really feels as if both McGregor and Watts had tapped into the events of the day and really translated those emotions for the camera. Furthermore, at the opening of the film I was ready to dismiss all of the child actors as “caricatures” and “not Pierce Gagnon“, but even they really came into their own as the film progressed. Although Tom Holland is arguably given the bigger slice of camera time as the eldest brother Lucas, all three really round out the picture well and capture the innocence, sadness and anger that comes with separation.

I should hope that it’s quite obvious from the fact that it’s based on a true story that someone at least survives the tsunami. After all, who would tell the story if the entire family was wiped out? No-one. Having said that, finding out exactly who survives and how they manage this is truly enthralling. I must confess that I approached this film with some trepidation because I couldn’t see how a film about separation could sustain my interest over its two hour run time. All of these feelings soon disappeared by the time the wave hit; owing in no small part to the performances on screen and the riveting story. As I’ve said countless times before, it’s sometimes the true stories that seem even more unbelievable than those cooked up by banks of writers in Los Angeles.

The Impossible (2013)

Sure, the story’s been tweaked a little by director Juan Antonio Bayona to give it that on-screen flare and drama, but at its core you can’t help but buy into the fear and trauma of these individuals. And although some of the third act scenes feel slightly too forced and almost cartoon-esque with its near-encounters (you’ll see what I mean), the film is testament to some fantastic film making and really capturing the story of those that were part of this natural disaster and also delivering a story that can never be told by so many others that were taken by it.

The Impossible is an emotionally devastating piece of film making that should be applauded for its technical prowess, as well as its performances. All five of the actors portraying the family really captured the sheer desperation and angst that must have been felt by those that were there on that day. I’m not normally one to buy into films that are so flagrantly emotional, but The Impossible really hit all the right notes and truly is a life affirming film – it’s not just a clichéd expression used on posters.

So although my years of training for the end of the world has been delivered by years of exposure to Hollywood and its tales of doom, I don’t know how I’d actually fare if the time ever came. Except for zombies of course… I always have Zombieland to teach me how to survive that particular conclusion. The solution? Double tap the ghoul, remember that zombies can’t climb and just go and hang out with Bill Murray for a bit. Maybe try and convince him to take that role in Ghostbusters III too.

Phage Factor:

4.5 Stars