Only God Forgives (Refn, 2013)

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With the cool quotient amped up to mega-freeze, Ryan Gosling’s performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s second most recent film establishes a new frontier for minimalist acting. It’s as though the pair have re-imagined ‘Driver’ from their previous collaboration before bleeding every last vestige of emotion from him – emotion he didn’t exactly possess in spades in the first instance. The result is a vacuous, unctuous portrait of violence and revenge, lacking not in cinematic power but in subtext and delicacy.

Only God Forgives is, predictably, stunning to behold: every frame bears the mark of Refn’s extraordinary gift for stylisation for its own sake, fetishistically inflicting striking reds into intricate, painstakingly arrayed set-ups. It’s a shame then that such remarkable care in sculpting scenes with vivid gradations of light and colour is squandered on a transparently empty narrative that barely registers. Gosling’s Julian is a mamma’s boy, held fast in a rigid psychological grasp by the poisonous Crystal, (Kristin Scott Thomas). When she decrees revenge for the killing of her other son, a conscienceless murderer in his last moments as well, Julian becomes her pawn.

But revenge takes a while and Julian’s nemesis-to-be, absurdly corrupt and murderous Thai policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), has a few bodies to sadistically add to the pile as well. This slow motion dance of death will have its inevitable denouement to be sure, and whilst the vacancy that fills out Refn’s lacklustre narrative ultimately sinks it, there’s a trail of memorably staged scenes to admire along the way.

Cliff Martinez, seemingly often channelling Vangelis through a retro synth sound, produces a savage musical beast in accompaniment. His score, more often than not pushed to the foreground by Refn for maximum impact, gives the unfolding drama its contrived sense of horror. It’s one of his finest scores, though its life beyond the film may be limited.

Is Gosling even acting here? If so, he’s establishing new borders for what the term encompasses; his lone, abstract expression, monotonously worn, has revealed suggestive subliminal powers in the past – in Drive (2011) of course, and even recently in The Place Beyond the Pines (2013). Here, it becomes a wearying device employed by Refn to deflect any definable human cognisance of what’s to come. These are not to be taken seriously as humans anyway; Julian and Chang are just near-statues being robotically manoeuvred into place for the inevitable final confrontation.

Only God Forgives (2013) is a disappointing step backward for the prodigiously talented Refn; his screenplay is absolutely the worst of his career. Yet, his garish, deliberately provocative intermingling of violence, colour and aesthetic perfectionism still guarantees a feast for the senses, if not the intellect.

Up the Yangtze (Chang, 2007)

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Yung Chang’s brilliant new documentary feature is a very difficult one to watch as it heartbreakingly charts the human cost of China’s relentless stampede towards further progress. With great effect he illustrates the perverse ironic extremes, taking us inside the luxurious cruise ships on their ‘farewell’ tours of the Yangtze – mostly obnoxious American tourists inside – whilst China’s own people live in the most unimaginable poverty on the river’s banks, slowly being swallowed by the rising water as the Three Gorges Dam project reaches its inevitable conclusion.

Yung, a Canadian of Chinese ancestry, concentrates on two young people from different backgrounds who seek work on the cruise ship – Bo Yu Chen (“Jerry”), an arrogant young man from a reasonably well-off family who can sing and charm with his good looks but see only dollar signs in the offering with this new job.

Then there’s Shui Yu (“Cindy”), whose family the film concentrates on the most; her parents are poor beyond any concept of the term we can possibly imagine in Australia, with no education or money to assist their three children, barely able to survive on rice and noodles as they live in a horrible rundown shack on the Yangtze’s banks, already having moved once to avoid the rising tide and soon needing to move again.

We watch Shui and Bo Yu’s journey aboard the ship, learning to fit in with the crew as they try to become the perfect employees, increasing their English skills and winning over the respect and tips of the carefree tourists. And yet despite the overwhelming circumstances destroying their lives, Shui’s father elects to ‘see’ the benefits of the Dam in terms of strengthening China even further. Even more amazing is how this family of five remains a loving family unit, unified by the pain of their lives under these desperate conditions – parents who love, in their primitive way, and dare to hope for a better life for their children.

Chang’s film is a powerful document of this country’s changing face, and a potent illustration of the immense gulf that exists between rich and poor, and between perception and understanding.

How can you not be moved when you see Shui’s father walking his meager, falling-to-pieces wardrobe up a steep hill on his back or see the looks of derision and pity on the faces of wealthier Chinese passersby as they watch these impoverished people wheeling their forlorn possessions up a mountainside to escape the voracious waters that are coming for them with all the force of the hand of God Itself.

There are so many other powerful images too – the tears in Shui’s eyes as her parents, in their dirty clothes, are given a tour of the cruise ship, which must surely seem like a spaceship to them; a series of shots in time lapse showing the extent of the river’s progress, Shui’s family ‘home’ soon absorbed by the mighty river, and then forgotten, whilst the cruise ship powers by, catering to the oblivious and wealthy, not a second wasted on the world being laid to waste around them.

Aided by a haunting score by Olivier Alary, which chimes in like a beautiful but sad lament to these forgotten people, Up the Yangtze lingers in the mind like the memory of a wound that refuses to heal; it’s an important documentary and one which should be seen by all.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Ramsey, 2011)

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From its chillingly abstract opening half hour to its more mundane dissection of an unnatural, antagonistic mother and child relationship, Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) retains a power to disturb in the way it neatly interweaves the evolvement of evil against the backdrop of normality it seeks to poison.

The film opens elliptically like the placement of puzzle pieces – from different strands of time – artfully arranged into a mosaic of raw emotional extremes. Though jumbled, overlapping and chaotic, a series of disturbing impressions emerge. From the haunted, detached stares of Eva (Tilda Swinton) we see a woman and mother grasping for sanity amid turmoil that is portentously hinted at but never fully disclosed. The most distressing revelations are reserved for the final segment of the film when the psychological war between Eva and her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) culminates with a truly noxious and personal statement from the boy to his mother.

Though I’m not a fan of her earlier work (in fact, 2002’s Morvern Callar is a film I hated with a passion), I wholeheartedly acknowledge that Ramsay’s direction here is stunning. Idiosyncratic and impressionistic, her approach often bears a strong whiff of Nicolas Roeg about it. The way she manipulates time, colour, and perception is masterful in the way of Don’t Look Now (1973) for example, providing a structural narrative power that only refracted cognitive stirrings as subjective as these can provide.

As ever the incomparable Swinton’s stark, non-classical looks provide the basis for a flawless, relentlessly magnified portrayal of deep-rooted emotional truth. She has few peers in modern cinema with her Eva standing alongside other recent, equally compelling characterisations in Young Adam (2003), Julia (2008), and I Am Love (2009). In the key role of the Kevin as a teenager, Miller, who has grown impressively into his frame since City Island (2009), is also impressive, though perhaps fractionally too one-dimensional.

The film is not without flaws. John C. Reilly is miscast, though not detrimentally, as Eva’s blissfully ignorant husband, whilst the credibility of Kevin’s rendering is infinitesimally offset when unnecessarily allowing the boy’s behaviour to become more overt and uncomfortable to watch. Two scenes immediately come to mind here: his ludicrous devouring of a chicken just after his mother tentatively offers to take him out for dinner, and the abnormally intense scrutiny of Kevin devouring a lychee immediately following a scene in which he’s caused the loss of his young sister’s eye.

A very different experience from Lionel Shriver’s source novel (which is told via lengthy letters written by Eva), Ramsay’s film is a strikingly different but equally brilliant work in which the switch of medium has rendered the ability to faithfully translate prose utterly negligible. Though the director’s stylistic approach will alienate some (with the unsubtle sprinkling of the colour red as an all too defining motif perhaps seen as further overkill), We Need to Talk About Kevin offers a striking, often shocking depiction of a profound maternal pain that will leave you reeling but desperate to experience the perverse brilliance of it all over again.

The Paperboy (Daniels, 2012)

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What a wonderfully lurid, sleazy, twisted southern jewel this 2012 film from Lee Daniels is. Replete with off-beat characterisations, pointless diversions, and a swampy, murderous atmosphere, this is certainly a film that defiantly marches to its own beat. Does it have mass appeal? Not on your life. Is it packed with unsavoury elements sure to repel certain audiences? Yes, yes, yes!

In the 1960’s a lawyer, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), returns to his small Southern home town to investigate the case of a man, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), he believes has been wrongfully arrested for murder. Aided by his Miami co-worker, British writer Yardley (David Oyelowo), naïve younger brother Jack (Zack Efron), and the woman, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who, through letter exchanges with men in prison has finally settled upon Hillary as her perfect man, Ward begins to dig deeper into the case. The whole deliriously colourful episode is viewed as a flashback and narrated by the Jansen family’s all-knowing maid Anita (Macy Gray).

Though the narrative clearly plays second fiddle to the characters that heedlessly drive it along, a rough, raw vitality is what energises Daniels’ left-of-centre vision for adapting Pete Dexter’s novel to the screen. This rawness is also reflected in the often unconventional visual approach which sets a dulled, dirty colour scheme against strangely incongruous perspectives. You could argue the whole project has been haphazardly wrought but the approach feels daringly original in its own crazy way.

There are memorable scenes aplenty, including the notorious but hilarious urination scene involving Charlotte and Jack, and another vividly realised sexual encounter of sorts in the jailhouse. But it’s the work of the performers that will linger longest in memories. For McConaughey this the continuation of a hot streak which peaked again around this time with William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012). Efron proves he’s capable of striking out successfully against his wholesome image whilst negotiating some tricky scenes with Kidman. Then there’s the startling Cusack who blows perceptions of his once romantic lead status to smithereens.

But it’s Kidman who shines brightest; her daring, luminescent turn is a wonder to behold. Rarely has she been more magnetic on screen, channelling every white trash vixen from a back-catalogue of Jerry Springer specials. Offensive, demented, lazily plotted and overflowing with extraneous lurid asides, The Paperboy (2012), for all its shortcomings, is at least a memorable, deliriously idiosyncratic concoction.

 

Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, 2012)

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Zero Dark Thirty is a sleek, well-oiled machine. This follow-up to The Hurt Locker (2009) from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal is a lengthy but compelling portrait of obsession that encapsulates terrifyingly modern definitions of terrorism and controversial means to an end. C.I.A agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), over the course of a decade, is portrayed via a resolute, systematic transformation of will. From naïve but flinty rookie operative – whose early exposure to the extraction of information via torture strengthens a weak stomach – she becomes the kind of lead investigator who will take no prisoners in her quest to see Osama Bin Laden’s influence eliminated.

Directed with the invasive, irresistible proficiency we’ve come to expect from Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is a remarkably immersive film though not without flaws. Taking into consideration the length and detailing in the script, the film does possess a sense of grinding relentlessness. This is partially a reflection of the central character, no doubt, but it does mean dramatic impetus is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of broadening the ‘bigger picture’.

Is Chastain’s work all it’s cracked up to be? It’s a steely, gripping performance, certainly, but somewhat devoid of colour or dimension. The relentless pursuit of the shadowy, messianic spectre of Bin Laden reveals a rare fortitude in Maya as her obsession blooms into an inexorable vendetta. We can certainly appreciate her integrity and passion on this level, but the one-track mode of thought tends to both enhance and detract from the film.

A host of quality support performances contribute to what is a flawless ensemble but Australian Jason Clarke deserves special mention for his work as the agent who becomes a valuable mentor to Maya after he first exposes her to the realities of wartime interrogation – scenes which are handled well and without any of the exploitative edge that the adverse publicity which surrounded the film may lead you to believe is present.

The ubiquitous Alexander Desplat turns in another subtly immersive score that – in the same vein of Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’s work on The Hurt Locker – provides a dark undercurrent without ever drawing undue attention to itself. Then there’s the cinematography of another talented Australian, Greig Fraser, which contributes heavily to the increasingly palpable sense of naturalism conveyed, especially in the lengthy, tense final sequence as the compound that may house Bin Laden is finally breached.

 

Everything Must Go (2010)

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The hapless are a bountiful crew, existing as they do, in cinematic terms, for entertainment rather than enlightenment purposes. Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) is just such a man; on the day he loses his salesman’s job, he comes home to discover his wife has not only left him but also changed the locks and dispersed all his worldly possessions on the lawn.

Written and directed by Dan Rush, Everything Must Go (2010) is not illustrative in any constructive way; it’s the Portrait of a Man as Open Wound, into which misery is piled in the hope we will empathise en masse, even offering a chuckle as salt is poured into the gaping hole where Nick’s life once was.

The alcoholic Nick exists only to be put through the wringer or exhibited like a circus animal. His is a mighty fall from grace, but Rush is sure to provide him with companions in the form of neighbours to share this soul-searching period in which he takes up residence on his lawn with little option but to sell everything off to passing strangers.

There’s the chubby black kid, Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) who befriends him and whose bike is appropriated by Nick once creditors take his car from his possession leaving him immobile. There’s also the gorgeous new neighbour, Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a pregnant photographer setting up house whilst waiting for her husband to join her from interstate. Overlooking his curiously uninhabited street, Nick sits in his luxury recliner that acts like a psychiatric tool after a while as he opens up to Kenny and vents his spleen upon Samantha.

Rush has the audacity to lean on the sliver of a short story by Raymond Carver (about 4 and a half pages long) to falsify literary credentials for his project. The connection between this ‘source’ material and Rush’s film is so tenuous as to be non-existent. Casting Ferrell against type is an interesting move but that deadpan look, so deftly utilised for a slew of moronic man-child comedies, fails to generate even a random spark of believability in its pretence of a man wallowing in human misery.

The film’s feeble moral decree is faintly etched around a half-hearted resolution: Beware – drinking to excess will doom you and carve your ordered life into tiny pieces. Long before the final selloff, the twist in the tale, the cathartic gesture of parting gifts disguised as largesse, and the empty, shallow offering of a vapid motto inside a card, Rush’s film has well and truly run aground in a narrative cul-de-sac, where hopefully it’ll remain forever.

 

I Want You (1998)

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Caught in the amorphous web of Elvis Costello’s song of the same name, with its coy intimations of duplicity, comes a previously unearthed gem from the back-catalogue of British director Michael Winterbottom. I Want You (1998) is a tasty treat too, with a slowly inter-cutting narrative describing the lives of a quartet of oddly dissociated characters congealing in the vanquished surrounds of a blank, wind-stripped English seaside town that time has clearly forgotten.

Martin (Alessandro Nivola) has been released from jail, but he has ties to this place, namely to the beautiful Helen (Rachel Weisz), a local hairdresser. Presumably it’s here in Farhaven that his crime was committed, prefacing his eight-year stretch in the slammer. Helen was once his illicit, very young, star-crossed lover, just in her mid-teens at the time.

What motivation is responsible for Martin’s return trek to Farhaven? Is he here to rekindle an old flame? To make amends for the deed that sent him behind bars? Or is he simply a malignancy creeping back under the guise of someone contrite and reformed?

Meanwhile, lurking on the periphery is a mute teenager Honda (Luka Petrusic) and Helen’s secret admirer, bringing her small gifts when not otherwise absorbed in his favourite pastime – using sophisticated listening equipment to eavesdrop on those around him. Having uttered not a word since the death of his mother, he lives in a seaside shack with his sister Smokey (Labina Mitevska), the local nightclub singer whose carefree lifestyle and uninhibited sexuality seems to entrance the bored locals. Before long Martin, biding time until he works up the nerve to confront Helen beyond wordless phone calls, becomes drawn into their little world.

I Want You is the work of writer Eoin McNamee but its bears many of the traits of previous Winterbottom films. Indeed the elusive Brit’s model is betrayed not a whit; firmly in place are the sense of detachment and vague characterisations in which a tapestry of singular, often peculiar moments are woven into a more expressive whole, only taking on firmer shape over time.

Aesthetically the film has much to recommend it, with a strikingly expressive range of lenses used by Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, whose past collaborators include Krzysztof Kieslowski on Three Colours Blue (1993). External scenes are regularly consumed by the pervasive tint of pale greens, electrical blues and sunburnt golds. You can sense not only a Kieslowski influence, but that of Jean-Pierre Jeunet in visual terms as Winterbottom seeks to expel the murky natural palette of this washed-out world and infuse it with a sheen of unreality.

Another interesting stylistic choice manifests itself in the way crucial moments switch to Honda’s perspective where a version of events seems fed through a distorted lens, each an intensely-portrayed, decolourised refraction. Can we trust what he sees? Regardless, his muteness complements a talent for stealth, allowing him to become a silent, but intrinsic component of the unfolding drama.

None of the characters are rounded wholes; they’re sketchy creations at best but clues deliberately omitted or kept vague bob just beneath the surface, intermittently rearing their heads to contribute more pieces to the puzzle. In the film’s opening scene a body is dumped off a pier, but is it a glimpse from the past or future?

I Want You, though difficult to access on an emotional level, is nonetheless fascinating viewing: distant perhaps, but a somewhat compelling depiction of an obsessive, destructive love. The performances of Weisz and Nivola, leaning more heavily on the suffocating atmosphere of implied danger and the sound of skeletons rattling in closets, are superb without much in the way of explicit avowals to guide them. In a sense Honda acts as both a witness and moral compass; Smokey merely subsides to the background, whilst Martin and Helen keep pace for a collision with unknown consequences.

There’s an ironic circularity to the ebb and flow of these lives, with misplaced love and its attendant misery exposed like an open wound. As for the sobering resolution, what does it prove? Perhaps only that vulnerability is the perfect foil for those most in need of a defense – or outlet to a fresh beginning.