Wednesday Round-Up: The Agony and the Ecstasy of “Only God Forgives”

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Has there been a recent film from a major director that’s drawn a reaction quite like the tidal wave that has greeted Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives”? From boos following its debut at Cannes to an award as best film of the Sydney Film Festival, it has been a wild, crazy, gleefully violent road.

Here is a film that many have called THE WORST MOVIE EVER MADE, yet also received five stars from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. I’d say the boos are outnumbering the cheers, but still — the praise section is not small.

The film finally opened last Friday, appearing in theaters, on pay-per-view, and on iTunes, one of the most high-profile VOD releases to date. It leaped to No. 2 on the iTunes chart, yet, says Indiewire, “[i]n 78 theaters, the film managed a $315,000 gross, averaging $4,038.” An adequate, but certainly not great, number.

Calum Marsh summed up the explosion of outrage that greeted the film over the weekend for Film.com:

“This past weekend, Nicolas Winding Refn and his blonde-haired muse returned with their latest endeavor to perplex the multiplexes, ‘Only God Forgives,’ and this time they’ve upped their game by making the oblique Thai ‘thriller’ molasses-slow and hyper-violent. It’s a combination that has already proven unbearable for the many hundreds of unsuspecting patrons who have happened to wander into — and then quickly out of — the film since Friday, at least if early reactions on social media are any indication. These experiences have been compounded by the film’s availability on VOD and iTunes, a distribution strategy which has opened the door to vast new groups of disgruntled viewers. … [I]t can’t be denied that, even with ‘Drive’ fresh in their minds, large swaths of viewers were simply not prepared for what Refn and Gosling had on offer this time around.”

(Incidentally, there are way too many interesting articles on the film and the responses it has garnered for me to catalog here.)

So why THIS movie? Why has “Only God Forgives” drawn such outrage? I think the answer is two-fold: First, the star is Ryan Gosling, an actor who has a fanbase as passionate as any young actor in filmdom. That he chose this movie — this stunningly violent, stylized, downright absurdist creation — is, I think, confounding to many of his fans. That’s probably part of what appealed to him. But he is playing a non-character; the role requires little of the actor short of getting physically pummeled. (Kristen Scott Thomas as Donatella Versace-meets-Cruella de Vil has the fun part; “fun” is perhaps the wrong word for it.)

Second, “Drive” was a film that divided audiences to a much-lesser degree, but those who loved it, LOVED it. “Only God Forgives” is NOT “Drive.” If “Drive” was meant to divide audiences, “Only God Forgives” was meant to divide, and then bludgeon.

Of course, there is another possibility: That the film itself is terrible. Whatever its quality, it may prove a game-changer for video-on-demand releases. This is an admittedly offbeat but highly visible movie with a major star, one that appeared at Cannes just two months ago. Releasing it in this way probably ensured a larger audience that it ever would have received at theaters only, so this is a win for Radius-TWC.

Note that I have not offered up my opinion yet, and with good reason: I have not decided. I rented the film from iTunes last weekend, and watched it on my iPad as a storm raged outside. Somehow, that seemed an ideal way to watch the film. Many of the scenes that may have drawn guffaws or near-vomit in a full theater seemed more effective when viewed solo. The film also did not feel as slow to me as many had said it was, perhaps another feeling lessened outside of the cinema.

But they weren’t kidding about the violence. I was particularly annoyed with a long torture sequence involving a relatively minor character. For the life of me, I cannot rationalize exactly what the point of this epic, eye-gouging sequence could be. It took me out of the movie, big-time.

Yet … I certainly did not hate “Only God Forgives.” In fact, I found almost every minute of it luridly fascinating. The look, the music (by Cliff Martinez), the utter strangeness of it all, it grabbed me. I don’t know whether or not I can say it is “good.” But I can say it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, even the films it is clearly alluding to.

I am quite certain that is exactly what Nicholas Winding Refn was hoping to hear. So for me, let’s say three stars out of four, but tomorrow, it could be two-and-a-half or three-and-a-half (or one, or four) …

The rest of our Wednesday round-up:

  • The AV Club looks at Academy Award winners that opened before fall Oscar season.
  • The strange, haunting “Possession” is a film I must watch again, and soon.
  • How great is it that Peter Bogdanovich is directing a new comedy starring Owen Wilson and produced by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach?
  • “Summer Box Office Casualties,” according to Variety.
  • Spike Lee turns to Kickstarter.
  • One of my most eagerly-awaited films still set to open this summer is “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”; here, director David Lowery discusses some of the film’s most important shots.
  • Paul Thomas Anderson and Fiona Apple dated, quite memorably, and they must have ended things on good terms: PTA has directed her latest video. 

Photo courtesy of TWC-Radius

Wednesday Round-Up: Defending “Marie Antoinette,” Debating “Man of Steel,” and Keeping Up With Patrick Bateman

Marie Antoinette

The middle of the week means it is time for my usual round-up of some of the articles I’ve been digging this week, including a handy list of “movies to see” at the mid-point of 2013. I’ve seen my share, but I have plenty of catching up to do …

First: I’m not sure what it is about Sofia Coppola’s films that seems to garner such strong reactions. I’ve met few folks who are in the middle about her work — it’s a love/hate thing, it seems. Her latest, “The Bling Ring,” starring Emma Watson, appears to open Friday in Buffalo (there is some confusion, but it is listed on Fandango), and it seems to be as glossy and surface-oriented as the rest of her films. But I have actually liked that about them. “Marie Antoinette” seems to be the most love-it-or-hate-it of the Coppola filmography, and on the occasion of “Bling”‘s release, New York Magazine’s Vulture website is mounting a spirited defense.

As author Amanda Dobbins puts it:

To be fair, not everyone hated Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” New York’s David Edelstein called it “one of the most immediate, personal costume dramas ever made”; 55 percent of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes sided with him, to varying degrees. But seven years later, “Marie Antoinette,” loosely based on the best-selling Antonia Fraser biography, is probably Coppola’s least-loved film. It’s the one that got booed at Cannes (though of course it did, Cannes is in France); it is the one that didn’t live up to “Lost in Translation.” And if you are anti-Sofia, then it is probably the most obvious example of her worst tendencies: style over substance, minimal plot, overprivileged young women who refuse to speak in full sentences or really at all.

But I think I’m with Ms. Dobbins here: “I happen to love ‘Marie Antoinette’; it’s probably my second favorite of Coppola’s films, right behind ‘Lost in Translation.’ And while I understand some of the criticisms (specifically the part about no one using words, ever), most of its so-called weaknesses — even that famous pair of Chuck Taylors — are the reasons I enjoy it. For all its historical trappings, ‘Marie Antoinette’ is just a painfully hip period film about how annoying and fun and terrifying it is to be a teenage girl. It is a high-school movie transplanted to Versailles.”

And the rest:

  • Speaking of Sofia Coppola, Movie City News has posted her debut short from 1998, “Lick the Star.”
  • Bret Easton Ellis himself said “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” “star” Scott Disick would be an ideal Patrick Bateman in an “American Psycho” remake, but it took Kanye West to make it so.
  • I finally saw “Man of Steel” last night, and I’ll share some thoughts soon. (Let’s say I enjoyed it, with reservations.) The Playlist offers a solid breakdown of the best and worst of Zack Snyder’s Superman epic, and there are lots of good points here.
  • Roger Ebert’s birthday was yesterday, and his website offered up a nice list of films for which his review “made the difference,” including “Hoop Dreams” and “Dark Skies.”
  • Pitchfork’s new movie website, The Dissolve, has not launched yet, but its Tumblr site has, and the great Scott Tobias has posted the aforementioned “movies to see” so far in 2013 list, along with DVD and Blu-ray release dates for some.
  • Now the Rob Ford scandal is impacting the Toronto International Film Festival.
  • Will Brad Pitt’s “World War Z” flop? This writer seems to think so, and offers some convincing reasons why.
  • Yet another trailer for Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives,” starring Ryan Gosling.
  • Interestingly, after a mixed — well, mostly negative — response at Cannes, the filmmanaged to beat “Stories We Tell” and “The Act of Killing” for top honors at the Sydney Film Festival.
  • Lastly, Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is finally set to open in Buffalo this weekend. Here is a nice Guardian interview about that film, “The Avengers,” his career, and more.

 

Photo Credit: Sofia Coppola
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The Summer Movies of 1995 and 2013: It Was the Best of Times, it Was the Blurst of Times

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A friend recently pointed out that this seems to be a pretty awful summer for big-studio blockbusters, and I think that’s a reasonable argument. Behold this list of some of the biggies:

“Iron Man 3,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “The Hangover Part III,” “Fast & Furious 6,” “Epic,” “After Earth,” “The Internship,” “This is the End,” “Man of Steel,” “World War Z,” “Monsters University,” “White House Down,” “Despicable Me 2,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Pacific Rim,” “Grown Ups 2,” “Turbo,” “Red 2,” “R.I.P.D.,” “The Wolverine,” “Elysium,” “Disney’s Planes,” “Kick-Ass 2”

Lots of sequels. Lots of star power. Lots of possible flops. (I’m looking at you, “R.I.P.D.”) It is not to say there is no imagination or ingenuity here, and even monsters like “World War Z” and “Pacific Rim” represent atypical attempts at the genre film. But there is little here to get overly excited about. And that’s too bad.

I have so many fond memories of seeing big summer movies, some I’m ashamed to admit I paid for — “City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold” and “The Cowboy Way” seemed like good ideas at the time — some I still enjoy revisiting.

The year 2013 most seems to resemble, at least in terms of iffy looking blockbusters, is 1995. That was … a pretty week year. Take a gander at this rum bunch, which I’ve out on separate lines for maximum impact:

“French Kiss”

“Crimson Tide”

“Die Hard with a Vengeance”

“Forget Paris”

“Braveheart”

“Casper”

“Johnny Mnemonic”

“The Bridges of MadisonCounty”

“Congo”

“Batman Forever”

“Pocahontas”

“Apollo 13”

“Judge Dredd”

“First Knight”

“Species”

“The Indian in the Cupboard”

“Nine Months”

“Under Siege 2: DarkTerritory”

“Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home”

“Clueless”

“The Net”

“Operation Dumbo Drop”

“Waterworld”

“Babe”

“Something to Talk About”

“Virtuosity”

“Dangerous Minds”

“The Baby-Sitters Club”

“Mortal Kombat”

Pretty grim, right? I know “Braveheart” is beloved, “Apollo 13” is solid, “Die Hard With a Vengeance” was “Die Hard” when “Die Hard” was still “Die Hard,” but outside of those, “Clueless,” and “Babe,” every other film is one I never wish to watch again. Even that summer’s indie releases were rather slight: “Desperado,” “The City of Lost Children,” “Fluke,” “Smoke,” “Kids,” “Unzipped,” “The Usual Suspects,” “The Brothers McMullen.” Not a bad bunch, exactly, but not a lengthy one, either.

Yet this summer, at least, there is something else happening, something noteworthy: It’s a phenomenal season for indies. Check out this small list of independent films that have opened or are scheduled for release from May through August:

“Before Midnight,” “Frances Ha,” “Only God Forgives,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” The Grandmaster,” “The Bling Ring,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Prince Avalanche,” “The To-Do List,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Girl Most Likely,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Byzantium,” “The Hunt,” “Berberian Sound Studio,” “The Way, Way Back”

I can’t speak to the quality of most of these — I’ve seen “Frances,” “Much Ado,” “Girl Most Likely,” and “Byzantium,” but none of the others — but I can say with confidence that it’s an eclectic, fascinating mix. Any summer that includes films from Richard Linklater, Noah Baumbach, Nicholas Winding Refn, Wong Kar-wai, Sofia Coppola, Joss Whedon, Woody Allen, and Neil Jordan is going to offer a few gems.

At the very least, we can be thankful that the travesty that was “A Good Day to Die Hard” opened in February. It would have made a bad summer even worse.

 

Photo from “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” courtesy of 20th Century Fox