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

only god

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 Good, the Bad, and the Weird: “Gangster Squad”

GANGSTER SQUAD

In the second installment of my GBW column, I look at a film that held great promise, but crashed and burned.

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird: Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad” (2013)

When I was about 11, my brother, who was six years older, did me a solid by renting the movie “Mobsters” at a long-forgotten video store called Movies Plus. (This was the place that really kicked off my cinematic education, unknowingly. They had a deal — five movies for five days for five bucks — that took me through several summers.) I recall being excited by the cast, which included Christian Slater and Richard Grieco (!), and also thinking the trailer, which I likely saw on E!’s “Coming Attractions,” looked fantastic.

Was the film fantastic? Noooo. Although at the time, I quite liked it.

I had not thought of “Mobsters” in a long time, until I read Jeff Shannon’s review of the flop “Gangster Squad” before finally catching up with it on DVD: “Here’’ a telling comparison: I recently happened upon a showing of ‘Mobsters,’ the Christian Slater vehicle that’s been a cable-TV staple since its release in 1991. Packed with B- and C-list costars like Richard Greico and Costas Mandylor, it’s still a marginally better film than ‘Gangster Squad,’ and that’s faint praise indeed.

I think Jeff Shannon is correct, sadly. On paper, it all looked so promising: A great cast, including Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, and Emma Stone. A flashy trailer. The gangster milieu.

But there was also reason to worry. The director, Ruben Fleischer, had a 50-50 track record — the fun “Zombieland” and the awful “30 Minutes or Less.” And the whole LA-fifties-gangster thing seemed a little played out. Then came Aurora, a re-edit, and a January release date shift. The result was a movie that barely qualifies for two stars out of four.

The Good:

  • The costumes were nice?
  • Okay, the costumes were nice, but there are a few other bright spots, mostly due to the casting. It’s nice to see Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, and the typically gruff Robert Patrick in support; Mackie, especially, makes the most of a small role.
  • Also related to casting: Josh Brolin deserves starring roles, and he got one, here. But there is far more to look forward to from him, including a starring role in Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day.

The Bad:

  • Everything else.
  • Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are ludicrously underused. Why did Gosling even take this part? It’s a nothing role, really, and he coasts through it. He’s become one of my favorite actors, truly, so seeing him look dull, and play dull, is, well, dull. Sean Penn, too, is utterly forgettable, playing Mickey Cohen as a noisy lump with an overdone, Big Boy Caprice-style accent (“Here comes Sant-y Claus!”)
  • It’s boring, and that is its most crucial sin. The gunfights are endless, the violence ugly, the look, flashy but drab. It is a waste of time, money, and talent.

The Weird

  • It felt odd to see Nick Nolte in the cast, since “Gangster” in some ways brings back memories of a meh, if better, film in which he starred, “Mulholland Falls.”
  • Emma Stone is a wonderful actress, but I’m not sure she’s right for the femme fatale. For she and Gosling, “Gangster Squad” will be a forgotten blip on the resume. In fact, writing this kind of makes me want to go watch them in the wonderful, completely enjoyable “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

Coming soon: Thoughts on “Behind the Candelabra,” “Frances Ha,” and more

EMMA STONE as Grace Faraday and RYAN GOSLING as Sgt. Jerry Wooters in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama “GANGSTER SQUAD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Wilson Webb

Gosling, Coens, and More Reasons I Should Really Be in Cannes This Week

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The Cannes Film Festival kicks off today in the south of France, and yes, I should be there. Not only is it probably sunny and warm, but there are the movies, and the boos, and crazy photographers.

But let’s stick with the movies. Cannes often sets the rest of the film-going year in motion. Last year’s Palme D’Or winner, Michael Haneke’s stunning “Amour,” went on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and even squeaked into the Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actress categories. It probably should have won those four, too.

Sometimes, other awards stand out. In 2011, “The Artist” missed out on the Palme D’Or but received major praise, earning Best Actor honors for Jean Dujardin. (Remember him?)

On a personal level, I’ve been keeping track of Cannes for years now. I can recall watching the awards on some choppy, buffering website in the early 2000s, and seeing the late Roger Ebert host coverage on cable at some point. Some of my most beloved movies of recent years – “Drive,” “Rust and Bone,” “Holy Motors,” “Blue Valentine” – screened there, and waiting anxiously to hear what earned cheers and what earned jeers has become a May pastime.

The 2013 lineup has its share of highlights. Here are the top five reasons I wish I were sitting in a crowded movie theater in Cannes:

  • “Only God Forgives”: I don’t know what it is about “Drive,” exactly. I saw it shortly after its TIFF premiere in 2011, and my response was, roughly, “Meh.” Then, days later, I noticed I couldn’t get it out of my head. I began listening to the soundtrack like mad, and when I saw the film again, it had easily burrowed its way onto the (lengthy) list of my favorite films. The idea of Nicholas Winding Refn working together again, this time on a film about revenge and Thai boxing clubs? Yeah, I’m in. The trailer sealed the deal. This is my most eagerly awaited film of the summer.
  • New Polanski: “Carnage” was stagy and a bit dull, despite some strong performances and some piercing dialogue, but his new film, “Venus in Fur,” stars his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and the actor I would cast in a Polanski biopic, Mathieu Almarac. (I just enjoyed his great performance in “Chicken and Plums.”) Quite frankly, it’s always interesting to see what Roman is up to.
  • Capital-M MAJOR directors unveiling their latest creations: Alexander Payne, the Coen Bros., James Gray, Sofia Coppola, Jim Jarmusch. Wow. We will get to see Coppola’s “Bling Ring” soon, but the others might not show up until autumn, at the earliest.
  • The jury is fascinating: I love the idea of Steven Spielberg as jury president. What will he seize on? Wouldn’t it be awesome if it was “Only God Forgives”?! But the jurors are also fascinatingly diverse: Nicole Kidman, Lynne Ramsay (fresh off of her “Jane Got a Gun” controversy), Ang Lee (who just beat Spielberg for a Best Director Oscar!),Christoph Waltz, Daniel Auteuil, Cristian Mungiu, Indian actress Vidya Balan, and Japanese director Naomi Kawase. I’d love to be in on those jury meetings.
  • The premiere of Paolo Sorrentino’s “La Grande Bellezza”: I see a lot of movies. So when I say I was taken aback at a film’s utter strangeness, that means something. “Il Divo” director Sorrentino’s last film, the Sean Penn-is-Robert Smith-sorta “This Must Be the Place” is truly, truly odd. It is streaming now on Netflix, and note I did not say it is bad, exactly. I’m not quite sure how I’d rate it, honestly. But it’s certainly unique, and I can’t wait to see how Sorrentino follows it up. I know little about “La Grande Bellezza” (“The Great Beauty”), but this IMDB description intrigues me: “The story of an aging writer who bitterly recollects his passionate, lost youth. A portrait of today’s Rome.” Will “banga banga parties” be referenced?

The Cannes Film Festival runs through May 26. My Palme D’Or pick: I could see Spielberg and co. embracing Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” I don’t expect a Spielberg-led jury to go for Takashe Miike, so “Nebraska” seems a safe choice.

Poster art courtesy of Radius-TWC