Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding Refn

Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding
Refn

Julian, a drug-smuggler thriving in Bangkok’s criminal underworld, sees his life get complicated when his mother
compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother’s recent death. Chang, a Thai police lieutenant, is exacting his own brand of vigilante justice and punishing everybody involved.

Only God Forgives is the classic case of a director doing a continuation of his authorial style. An aesthetic that was recognized in a previously successful film is further explored in a more extreme fashion in a follow-up piece. Very often it’s focused on using the established cinematic style to carry the entire movie. Wong Kar Wai made Fallen Angels after the success of Chungking Express. David Lynch made Inland Empire after the success of Muholland Drive. Terrence Malick made To the Wonder after Tree of Life.

Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylistic continuation of Drive. What’s stripped away is the frequent plot turns, traditional character development and character likability. These are probably the most quiet cinematic gangsters I’ve ever seen in my life. Characters are posed like empty vessels. They don’t talk much. Sometimes when they do, the director mutes their dialogue. Ryan Gosling plays a still taciturn character in a similar way he did in Drive. Kristin Scott Thomas is an effective threatening presence as Julian’s stern mother Crystal. There’s very little to draw from Gosling’s Julian, but it is there. Even within it’s morally ambiguous world, there is a clear character arc. Julian is an active character trying to find redemption but also wants to please his mother. Which leads to me to the Chang character…

Nicolas Winding Refn has said the Lieutenant Chang character represents the Old Testament God, exacting judgment and punishment on all the sinners in the story. I am not sure how clear that is in the film unless the audience read the press notes beforehand. Does the God theme really matter? In a way, yes. The film is so stoic with its characters posed like figurines, you cannot help but inject symbolism into the film’s empty canvas to derive meaning out of it. Trying to watch this film as a genre crime thriller, which is what it is on the surface, would be relatively more frustrating. Luckily I caught on to it.

The Chang character, in a perpetual black shirt with a white collar, is dressed like a priest. He is a violent enforcer of poetic justice, and all his actions are ritual-like. In a more traditional movie, Chang would have been the protagonist. Here, he’s the antagonist. From the story’s perspective, where all the characters are varyingly degrees of bad, it’s as if Chang is the Grim Reaper coming to collect souls even though he in fact is a force for good. That’s a really interesting left-field story choice and I dug that. Lieutenant Chang is the most fascinating character and a great antagonist.

There is an indulgent aspect to Only God Forgives, any director taking on big questions will naturally come off that way. Refn could have easily written a theology thesis but he’s chosen to express his thoughts with narrative film. I have no problem with that but it automatically sets up qualifiers for audiences to enjoy the film. While it is not necessary, I think having viewed Drive first will help one familiarize with Refn’s film language before seeing this movie. As for the God themes, it can go either which way. Some may find it pretentious, but I found images from the film stuck with me long after and I am still pondering the film’s themes. I found the Julian and Chang characters compelling. So for that, Only God Forgives is neither the masterpiece nor disaster that all the Cannes hype is suggesting, but more of a hyper-stylized personal statement. It will surely divide audiences, and your enjoyment will depend on how you deal with abstractions.

Bad Ass by Craig Moss

Bad Ass by Craig Moss

Decorated Vietnam hero Frank Vega (played by Danny Trejo) returns home only to get shunned by society leaving him without a job or his high school sweetheart. It’s not until forty years later when an incident on a commuter bus (where he protects an elderly black man from a pair of skinheads) makes him a local hero where he’s suddenly celebrated once again. He’s christened as “Bad Ass”. But his good fortune suddenly turns for the worse when his best friend Klondike is murdered and the police aren’t doing anything about it. Bad Ass decides to take action.

This film is pretty conscious of it’s goals and if you are not going along with the kitsch of it, you simply will not enjoy Bad Ass. Danny Trejo is currently 68. So you are not exactly getting well-choreographed fights, and it doesn’t need it. The whole crux of how this film works is seeing dummies mess with Trejo and getting their asses kicked because he has a mean ass looking face and can beat your lunch out of you. These dummies don’t know what they’re messing with till it’s too late. I laughed throughout consistently. It’s funny to know that this story was based on a real incident.

There are a few subplots and sequences that feel inserted to prolong the length of the movie. It could have been a lot shorter. The subplot where Frank romances his neighbor Amber (played by Joyful Drake) is a bit ridiculous but I found myself going along with it. I can’t say any of this was good by any means. There seems to be no point to get mad at it. It’d be like going to The Expendables and walking out feeling mad because it was all about the action. If you’re watching this, you most likely know what you’re in for.

I cannot help but compare this to Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. I enjoyed Bad Ass for the same reason I did not enjoy Machete. One of the major problems I had with was that Machete, while appearing like a bad ass protagonist, had nothing to do in his own movie. Bad Ass as a character is much more likable, the story gives you a lot of reason to empathize and root for him. Frank Vega is actually trying most of the time to avoid a fight, but is very unfortunate because he lives in a bad neighborhood full of people who want start trouble. He beats them up  and then thanks them politely afterwards for their help with a straight face. Yes, Bad Ass has much more to do in his own movie than Machete.

Mainly, Danny Trejo is character actor with an engaging presence and it’s nice to see him play a nice guy with a huge goddamn beard. Charles S. Dutton is also hilarious as the over-the-top villain Panther, I would never have pictured him playing a role like that. See? Everybody seems to be having fun here. I do not see why I shouldn’t. A fun rental for sure.

4:44 Last Day on Earth by Abel Ferrara

4:44 Last Day on Earth by Abel Ferrara

A successful actor and his younger painter girlfriend spend their last day together in New York City before the world comes to an end at 4:44am.

Apparently there is no chaos on the night of the apocalypse, people casually hang out at bars, they chitchat on Skype, the streets are clear for safe driving and you can even have Vietnamese food delivered to your apartment. The apocalypse itself is not much discussed, but everybody seems to be relatively accepting of their ordeal.

What drew me to the film was Willem Dafoe in an apocalyptic movie. To cut it short, this movie has no character, no plot, and does nothing interesting with the apocalypse. It wasted Willem Dafoe. His character Cisco appears to be concerned about the end but cannot seem to get his priorities straight. He talks to himself on the rooftop of his New York apartmett, wanders around to see friends and contacts his loved ones on Skype to tell them he loves them. He claims to love his girlfriend Skye but doesn’t do much to show it other than making love to her. Is there more he can do to show them he cares? What does he want? I am not really sure.

Shanyn Leigh is really horrid as Skye. To be fair, I haven’t seen her other works. I don’t know if it’s a just bad performance or the lack of character that she is given to play. The worst part is I think it’s both. Skye is annoying in the same way as Maria Schneider was from Last Tango in Paris. She’s pretentious, fragile and passive. Could she be frail because the world is ending? I have no clue. I never found myself sympathizing or rooting for her. There’s a scene where Shanyn Leigh witnesses Willem Dafoe talking to his ex-wife via Skype and goes hysterical and it is cringing to watch. The rest of the time all she does is sit around on the floor working on her abstract painting. When one coat of paint is done, she sets down an electric fan to dry it. Yes! You get to watch paint dry in this movie! And you know what? It’s not a day at the zoo. If they weren’t going to anything with her character, Ferrara may as well have casted someone more attractive or more interesting to play the part. Yes, I know that’s a horrible thing to say but there was nothing going on to keep me invested in these characters or situations. None of these characters act believably to their situation.

Just to tread back for a minute, there is nothing wrong with having characters paint on film. It’s a pretty tricky thing to make work, but it’s been done before. Thus far, I have only see it in 2 Takeshi Kitano films (Hana-bi and Achilles and the Tortoise), he manages to develop character with his characters painting. In Hana-bi, a retired policeman who is confined to a wheelchair is given a set of paints and a beret by the protagonist. He starts to paint and we see a series of his paintings as they improve and become livelier paintings. We see that he slowly finds the purpose in his life again and it’s quite poetic. There’s nothing even close to the craft that can pull that off in this film. I did not expect it but I’m citing Kitano to say that Abel Ferrara does not make attempt anything interesting at all.

What makes it worse is there are archival footage of the Dalai Lama shown on Cisco and Skye’s television to directly tell you the director’s message. I have seen this level of filmmaking during my 2nd year of film school. I worked on an apocalyptic-themed student film similar to this movie. A real raspberry. That 14-minute short ended with a series of archival footage splicing Gandi, the Dalai Lama, Stalin and Hitler together, of which the director reasoned that’s what made his film a social commentary. Assuming Abel Ferrara has more experience than my idiot classmate, how could you not know how uninteresting this was? What was he trying to say about people at the end?

Having seen a series of apocalyptic films done this year, I say go see Melancholia or Perfect Sense. 4:44 Last Day on Earth frustrated and angered me till the middle, and towards I just decided to let go and not to get mad over this movie. I do not know how one can manage to make the apocalypse boring but this certainly takes that mantle.

Though I’d really like to keep the number to that Vietnamese restaurant. In case the end is near, I like to have some Pho delivered to my place.

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Mr. Nobody by Jaco Van Dormael

Life is full of choices. Every choice you make leads you onto a different set of choices. You never can possibly know what the best version of your life can be. That’s scary, after all, how do you make your life a worthy one?

A family is broken. A father and mother bring their son Nemo to a train station. Nemo is presented with a choice: should he board the train with his mother or stay with his father? Nemo ponders on this. The film proceeds to play out all the possibilities, showing twelve different lives of Nemo’s life spawning from this one choice.

The film functions on dream logic. We move from the physical into the imaginary, the metaphysical and dream states. It sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Yet the most noteworthy accomplishment is that each transition  is completely intelligible. Director Jaco Van Dormael constructs an inner logic for the audience. As the story progresses and branches out into new stories, we completely know where we are at and it all makes perfect sense. This all makes me realize one thing. This story could not have been told in another medium other than film. It incorporates every bit of film language possible: crosscutting, time transitions, spatial transitions, camera focal length etc.. Even a goddamn crane shot had a legitimate narrative reason for being there. And damn, that impresses me.

It’s not overly cerebral either. Nemo’s potential paths are centered around three women: Anna (played by Diane Kruger), Nemo’s potential one true love, Elise (played by Sarah Polley), a woman that Nemo loves but does not reciprocate and  Jean (played by Linh Dan Pham), as a woman who loves him but Nemo does not care for (this one really broke my heart). Much of the film is an examination of love and happiness. There’s a scene where the teenage Nemo rejects Anna’s invitation to swim with her on the beach. Anna leaves and we see them later as adults bumping into each other in a train station awkwardly years later. Nemo then ponders why he rejected her that day. And the film proceeds to play the alternate scenario, where he tells Anna the truth: Nemo does not know how to swim and did not know what to tell her.

I am a Jared Leto fan (I like his band 30 Seconds to Mars as well). Sometimes it’s possible to like an actor for his choices and he is certainly that case. It’s admirable that he takes smaller roles in art film projects that he respects rather than milk his looks to be famous (which he can totally do). He was great in Requiem For A Dream and Chapter 27 and also the most heartfelt part in Alexander and Lord of War. This is a challenging role and he takes it head on. He plays a convincing 117 year old man and it is fun to watch him play Nemo in the various versions.

Other noteworthy performances are Sarah Polley, who in one version is suffering chronic depression from an unhappy marriage, which she played very dimensionally. Watching her made me think how easily one-note the role could have been. Also Toby Regbo and Juno Temple as the teenage versions of Nemo and Anna falling in love was very endearing and they really sell the innocent sweetness of first love.

One bit I take issue with was the use of “Where is my Mind?” by The Pixies, which is eternally attributed to Fight Club, a film in which Jared Leto is in. There could been other songs to put in that scene. However that’s a minor complaint at best.

This film was released in 2010 and I saw it at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Though in my opinion, this film is not talked about enough and definitely needs to be seen by more people. Mr. Nobody took me away. It broke my heart, touched me and made me ponder about life’s ironies. By the end I left the theater reflecting on my life and how I should live it.

I recommend everybody see it.