Monthly Archives: August 2013

Dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, Winding Refn’s latest feels more like a horrific hymn to Apichatpong Weerasethakul

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It begins with a dark, Wagnerian prologue. Red smoke fills the void of blackness. Then the blade of a sword slowly invades the right side of the screen, eerily foreshadowing the quiet, yet abrasive tone that Only God Forgives will take.

The film’s title is quite fitting. Set in Bangkok, Ryan Gosling plays Julian, the drug-dealing brother of Billy (Tom Burke), also a drug dealer. Billy commits a truly vile crime (much worse than dealing drugs) and is killed in an intensely morally ambiguous way. When Julian finds his brother’s killer and hears his story, he lets him go. The moral ambiguousness continues when Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok. It’s easy to see how Julian and Billy found themselves in their lives of crime, as Crystal is consistently arrogant, rude, crude, unkind, and extremely superficial. Surprisingly, Thomas excels in this role. Her performance is vibrant and loose-cannon, complementing Gosling’s subtle, nuanced turn. Crystal blames Julian for the cycle of violence that erupts from his inaction, but it’s mainly due to the silent, scary police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who indulges in ultra-violent revenge killings to make his points. Chang is a foreboding figure in the film, hovering over Julian’s consciousness in his daydreams and nightmares. When they finally face each other, the climax is rewarding and thematically endearing.

Julian runs from all of his problems, even if he does have solid reasons. It leads him down a path towards insanity. His mother is also insane, but in a different way. She coddles dissent; she oozes anger. Looking at her, it’s easy to see why Julian backs down from everything, and the only time he steps up to the plate, everything goes terribly wrong. This would all just be great character work were it not for the film’s release date. We have seen Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul produce perhaps some of the best world cinema ever in the past decade: Tropical Malady; Syndromes and a Century; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Forgives really feels like Uncle Boonmee at points, with eerie imagery and effects tying into the story with tremendous thematic relevancy. To see an action auteur like Nicolas Winding Refn throw his hat into Weerasethakul’s ring is truly a gift to film buffs everywhere, because it means he has big aspirations. I think this film is more meaningful and less slight than something like Refn’s last film, Drive, which felt like a style exercise, albeit a great one. This is a style exercise too, but it means more to the film world as it stands right now because it is unwavering, unflinching, and it completely succeeds at transcending even its beneficial Thai influence to become something all its own.

– George Napper

‘The Conjuring’ is 2013’s best summer movie

Horror, like comedy, can be a fickle beast. It’s hard to gauge what will scare most people. James Wan has had experience scaring people in many different ways; he directed the first Saw film, spawning a franchise that was shocking, gory and gruesome as they come. More recently he directed the relatively quiet and atmospheric Insidious. With The Conjuring, he has crafted the horror buff’s dream that may give you nightmares.

Patrick Wilson, who also starred in Insidious, plays Ed Warren, husband of Lorraine Warren. Together, this real-life power couple solved mystery after creepy, haunted mystery in the 1970s and 80s. Their most recognizable case is referred to as ‘Amityville,’ which became the inspiration for The Amityville Horror. Lorraine is played with tremendous commitment by Vera Farmiga. Hers and Wilson’s on-screen chemistry is dynamite and their relationship is the most entertaining and intriguing part of the film before the scares kick in. This dedication to the truth of the story and the people behind it really shows the level of thought and care that went into this film. As a horror nerd, I am ecstatic to see this great mental and emotional effort put into a Hollywood-produced horror film, because it doesn’t happen often.

As the film gets into the case it’s based on, there is a sense that the Perrons’ haunted home was truly the most dreadful and terrifying case that the Warrens ever dealt with. But it’s not just that the sights and sounds are chilling, it’s also that each new aspect of the case ties in thematically with things that the Warrens are dealing with in other parts of their lives. Also, the Perrons are very well-fleshed out, especially Carolyn (Lili Taylor), who becomes the target of the demons that are running rampant through her house. We are specifically shown the depths of her love for her husband and daughters, and this is what makes the film truly terrifying; we care about what happens to this family because we like them and can relate to them – they’re not just kill fodder. So when we see horrible things happening to this family in a seriously scary climax, it’s even scarier because we’re worried that she might not make it. This concept also ties back into the Warrens’ subplot – their love for their young daughter and their desire to protect her after she becomes a target of a demon. I was almost in tears at the hilt of the scares because contemporary studio horror films so rarely do anything like what The Conjuring does. It focuses on the power of love and family over demons and false beliefs.

Besides mastering an old-school tone, the film also masters an old-school look. This is a 70s period piece, and not one chair, light fixture, costume or prop looks out of place. That grounds the audience and helps create a sense of immersion into the Perrons’ nightmare.

All things considered, I think this is the best film of the summer of 2013. It’s emotionally resonant, truly bone-chilling and a really fun ride. You probably won’t want to clap at the end (you’ll see why), but you’ll definitely want to see it again, and that’s saying something for a horror film built on the element of surprise.
– George Napper

Kosinski cycles past ‘Tron’

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Recently, Tom Cruise has never been my cup of tea. I’ve only enjoyed his newer films when they were made by capable directors (i.e. Brad Bird – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol; Ben Stiller – Tropic Thunder). So when I heard that Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski was at the helm for Oblivion, I was not looking forward to it. This is a case where I am glad to have been proved wrong.

Set on a post-apocalyptic earth (yes, more of that… but this one’s good), Oblivion tells the story of Jack (Cruise), a future-government field agent whose job it is – along with hundreds of other agents – to search the ruins of civilization for clues as to what happened in the war between humans and extraterrestrials. But everything he knows about this war is skewed and incomplete, leading him to be curious and inquisitive about the whole thing. Keeping him on track is his right-hand gal/mistress Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who gets in Jack’s way as he discovers the truth about his and Victoria’s existence and a rogue band of humans that he thought the world forgot. Riseborough’s performance is worth the price of admission. Her mannered, by-the-book characterizations go from cute and humorous to oppressive and downright scary as she begins to feel betrayed by her lover. The other aspect of Oblivion that makes it worth seeing is its gorgeous cinematography and crystal-clear special effects. Kosinski obviously has an eye for technology in science-fiction films, sometimes to the exclusion or detriment of other aspects of film-making. His Tron had its über-cool updated lightcycles covering up for its lack of plot or meaning, but here, that’s not an issue. The amazing futuristic visuals help bolster a story that’s not fantastic or completely original, but that’s a solid one and fun to see play out.

Oblivion probably wasn’t supposed to be this good. But I’ll take what I can get. Kosinski is a talented visual artist, and now that he’s been given the gifts of a solid script and a better-form Tom Cruise, he gets major cool points from me.

– George Napper