ONLY GOD FORGIVES, THE WOLVERINE and WASTELAND



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I hate to say it.  It’s so snarky and such a cliché and I hate it when I hear someone else say something like it, but I simply don’t know a better way to phrase it: Only God Forgives is the sort of movie a filmmaker makes when he starts believing his own press.  In other words, it’s a film that shows incredible talent on the part of its director Nicolas Winding Refn (who also wrote the screenplay), but is so showy, ostentatious, gaudy and florid, calling attention to how brilliant the filmmaker thinks he is, that it  becomes impenetrable as it drowns in its own pretentiousness.  One just stares at the screen trying to figure out what everyone was thinking while you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m sure it means something to the filmmakers, but hell if I can make heads or tells of it”.
This is too bad, I mean, really too bad, because Refn is the wunderkind from Denmark who made his name with the Pusher trilogy (which I haven’t seen) and used the notoriety of those films to come to the U.S. to make Drive, that glorious neo-noir about a stunt driver by day, get away driver by night, who finds himself conflicted when he falls for his neighbor who has a little boy as well as a husband in jail.   That movie was a controlled, tension filled character study with a real page turner of a story.  In contrast, Only God Forgives moves at a snail’s pace with a story made up of beautiful sets filled with people who often sit or stand immobile looking like mannequins, all filmed within an inch of its listless life (the stunning cinematography is by Larry Smith)—it’s as if Macy’s windows were designed by Chan-wook Park or Kar Wai Wong.
The basic story revolves around an American with mommy issues who runs a boxing gym in Bangkok.  When the American’s psychotic brother rapes and kills a sixteen year old prostitute, a fascistic, but righteous, police detective uses very righteous and fascistic means to restore order by manipulating the prostitute’s father/pimp into killing the brother.  When the American finds out what his brother did, he lets the father go.  But then the American’s mother comes to town ahead of an expected drug delivery and she wants vengeance.
Ryan Gosling plays the American, and like many of his other roles, he’s probably a bit too metrosexual for the part (he speaks so little so that whenever he does, his tinny voice seems a bit out of place).  In the end, it’s Kirsten Scott Thomas as the mother, in wicked Babs Stanwyck blonde tresses, and Vithaya Pansringar, as the righteous police detective with a karaoke fetish, who deliver the most effective performances (Thomas also has the best line; when she finds out what her son did to the prostitute, she says, “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons”).  
Much has been made of the violence in the movie and it’s there, for sure, but it’s nothing that out of the ordinary for this sort of film and I’m not sure what everyone is so upset about.  At the same time, IMHO there is some hypocrisy here.  It’s obvious that Thomas has more going on in her relationship with her sons than simply expecting a card on mother’s day.  But while Refn has no problem throwing gallons of blood around the sets, he seems to balk at showing incest.  I’m not convinced the movie is as brave as Refn may think it is.  Even White Heat with James Cagney was more daring in this area.
In the end, Refn has nobody to blame but himself for how it all turned out.  He is the director and the writer after all, so it’s a little hard to find another fall guy.  But it might be interesting to take note: for the first film in the Pusher trilogy, he co-wrote the screenplay with Jens Dahl; Drive was written by Hossein Amini.  And there is something about this movie that does show contempt for screenwriters.  It’s a film that feels all driven by the vision of an auteur who doesn’t think he needs help to reach his vision.   There was certainly potential here, but it might have been interesting to see how it would have all turned out if someone else had written the screenplay.
The Wolverine is a perfectly acceptable entry in the rash of blockbusters revolving around comic book heroes.  There’s nothing that wrong with it and ends up being more fun than one might think.  Perhaps the easiest way to say it is that on a scale of one to ten, it’s far, far superior to Pacific Rim and Man of Steel, but it’s no Iron Man or The Dark Knight.  It stars Hugh Jackman in the title role and he looks great in his Elvis sideburns and motorcycle tough Marlon Brando clothes.    The serviceable screenplay is by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank; the ditto direction is by James Mangold.  It all revolves around some dirty dealings among a wealthy Japanese businessman; the Yakuza; and a walking virus of a slinky blonde (played amusingly by Svetlannd Khodchenkova, again in tresses gold of Stanwyck Babs).  In the end, it should be said the movie doesn’t paint the country of the rising sun in a particularly positive light: it’s major themes seem to be that save a Japanese soldier from the bombing (atomic, of course) of Nagasaki, he’ll still stab you in the back, and Japan is a country run by the rich and the mob with a police force that doesn’t seem to exist. 
Wasteland is a sort of heist film that is structured in such a way that the pay off finale is its only real reason for existence.  Because of this, the screenplay (by the director Rowan Athale) has only one purpose and that is to revolve itself around the “surprise” twist ending (the surprise is in quotations because it’s really not all that big a surprise by the sweet time it takes to finally get there).  What happens is often what happens in movies structured this way: the story and the characters never quite seem believable or satisfying since they are not there to drive or tell the story, but only to set up the ending. 
The story unfolds in an as told to way:  recently released petty criminal Harvey (Luke Treadway) is being interrogated by DI West (Timothy Spall) after being found at the scene of a crime, a break in at a club owned by a mobster with the mobster’s enforcer, who Harvey has a grudge against, lying almost dead on the ground in front of him.  Harvey, who is in pretty bad shape himself, tells West what happened. 
It’s not a bad way to tell a story, but it’s a fairly clunky one here.  Athale makes one of the most common mistakes in screenplays like this: Harvey tells West all sorts of details that he couldn’t know since he wasn’t there to witness the events himself.  And the way he tells a story doesn’t feel like the way an accused criminal would tell it, but the way a character needs to tell it so the audience gets the whole shebang (again, to set up the ending).  He doesn’t even tell West the same story the audience sees: at the very end, we discover suddenly that Harvey has never used the names of his accomplices the whole time in talking to West, though in the flashbacks, the names are constantly used—so what parts of the story did he tell West and which didn’t he?  (And just how hard is it going to be for West to figure out just who these friends of Harvey are anyway?  One of them is Harvey’s roommates, for Christ’s sake, not to mention a character who is his ex-girlfriend)
Though there is something satisfying about Harvey’s ultimate plan (Harvey wants revenge and he gets it, sort of; the enforcer ends up in hospital, but there’s no indication that anything more is going to happen to him), it’s just dramatized in a somewhat slipshod manner and it’s all a bit convoluted with too many goals for the characters.  And the ending with West listening to Harvey one more time is ridiculous and not one iota believable (again, it’s not there because the characters would act this way, but out of necessity to reveal to the audience that “surprise” ending). 
At the same time, everybody gives the whole shebang their all.  You certainly can’t fault any of them.  They get more than everything out of their parts that they can and, in fact, act as if an Oscar nomination depended upon it.  At the same time, they are trapped by lengthy sets of dialog that often go on and on.  One doesn’t always know how to react the verbosity.  Sometimes you admire the actors for their dexterity in saying Athale’s realistic and vibrant dialog; at other times, you just want to yell at the screen, just shut the hell up and get on with it already.  Only Spall, with his long suffering, jowly bull dog look, gives the strongest and most interesting performance (and Athale’s biggest error as screenwriter is probably the underuse of this character). 
For more reviews, check out my blog at http://howardcasner.blogspot.com

IN THE HOUSE, MUD and TO THE WONDER



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In the House, the new film from writer/director François Ozon, is a movie where you wait an hour and forty-five minutes for the other shoe to drop…and it never does. 
The basic premise revolves around Germain, a somewhat bitter high school teacher, who assigns his literature class an essay about what they did over the weekend.  The results are depressingly high schoolish until he reads one from student Claude who writes about his attempts to insinuate himself into the household of a fellow student who has an ideal, Andy Hardy/Donna Reed middle class home.  The essay is condescending and laced with wry observations, but it shows talent.  It also ends with “(to be continued)”.  As the film goes on, Claude gets inside that household and writes more and more (to be continued) essays until Germain is so hooked that he not only spends extra time with Claude, he also helps him in ways that will come back to bite him in the ass.
The movie starts out well and even makes your mouth water at the possibilities here.  Just what is this Claude up to?  And why is he involving Germain?  But alas, these are the shoes that never drop.  And as the story continues, often backed by a thrilling music score by Philippe Rombi that makes you think something exciting is transpiring on screen even when it isn’t, the more and more puzzling the whole thing becomes.  Not only do we never find out exactly what is going on, it kind of ends with the idea that nothing was ever going on at all in the first place.  But if so, then what was the point of it all?
Equally puzzling, and I think one of the major problems with the movie, is that as Claude continues on with his soap operic observations of this family, the better Germain (as well as his wife who also starts reading the essays) thinks Claude’s writing and story is becoming, when in actuality, the less and less interesting, the more banal, boring and clichéd, it turns out to be.  Let’s face it, Claude was never going to be mistaken for Proust, but still it’s just difficult to believe that Germain continues to have such a high opinion of his student the more he reads.  Even more puzzling is that as the essays pile up, the more obvious it is that Claude is at times just making things up (if he’s not, then he’s even a worse writer than he appears).  But this never seems to dawn on Germain, perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of the film.
It must be said that though the actors never quite sell the premise and plot turns, their performances are still first rate.  Frabrice Luchini, a character actor with a face that Walter Mathau would be proud of, plays Germain with a certain hang dog loopiness.  Kirsten Scott Thomas plays his wife and it’s one of her sharpest performances.   Ernst Umhauer is Claude with a smile just this side of Damien in The Omen.  Also in a blink or you’ll miss it cameo is Yolando Moreau, proof that even in France, as over here, if you win the equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actress but don’t look like Catherine Deneuve, you’ll still be stuck having to play parts insultingly unworthy of you.
 
The conversation I had with my friends after seeing Mud, the new Matthew McConaughey vehicle by writer/director Jeff Nichols (who also gave us Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories), went something like this:  Them: “What did you think”, Me: “I think it moved a little leisurely”, Them: “A little?”, Me: “All right.  It was as slow as molasses”, Them: “Thank you”.
Yes, Mud is not the most forward momentum of movies.  And in a way that’s rather surprising given the basic subject matter.  Ellis, a young teen, and his best friend go look at a boat that has lodged in a tree after a recent flood, but discover that someone is living there, the title character Mud, who is in town to rescue the woman he loves and take her away before he is killed by the bounty hunters hired by the father of the woman’s boyfriend Mud killed after the boyfriend beat up the woman.  Sounds pretty much like a ticking time bomb of a premise to me, but the movie tends to get diverted along the way with the teen’s problems with his parents who are drifting apart and his attempt to win the heart of a girl who is out of his league, until the tension all gets a bit waterlogged since Nichols just can’t get as much energy flowing for his other through lines as he does for the one concerning Mud.
But there’s also something else missing from the heart of this movie.  One of the major leit motifs here is that Mud is constantly described as a liar and nothing remotely as he presents himself.  The woman he loves says it; his substitute father figure says it; even Mud says it, until at one point even Ellis himself screams it at him.  Yet, oddly enough, the one thing that Mud never does is lie.  Everything he tells Ellis is pretty much exactly on the level with not one whiff of misrepresentation.  Well, that’s not exactly accurate.  Mud does tell a whopper once.  When Ellis yells out at him that women aren’t worth loving, Mud tells him that’s not true.   Except that within the context of the movie, Ellis is right and Mud is lying.  All the women in the movie do nothing but declare their love for a man, then stab him in the back.   I suppose that Nichols might be saying that the nobility of the male of the species resides in the tragedy of their continual decision to fall in love in spite of how unworthy their beloveds are.  Still, it all seems a bit odd to me.
The point, though, is that this sort of throws Ellis’s journey off a bit.  The audience is being set up for Ellis to learn some big secret about Mud,  a lie that will change Ellis forever and help him on his journey to adulthood as is the wont of coming of age films.  But there is no secret.  It’s all a red herring.  And Ellis learns something about life, but it has little to do with the title character.
The movie is lovely to look at with languorous vistas of sunsets and open waters and there’s a nice feel for small town life.  It has a slam bang climax that’s not that believable, but is incredibly satisfying emotionally.  The acting is solid, though it’s Sam Shepard as the father figure who gives the most interesting performance.   Tye Sheridan as Ellis is capable.  And McConaughey does his McConaughey thing, though this time he only strips down to his bare chest.  Oh, yeah, uh, Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon are in it, too. 
Tortuous.  I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to say it.  Writer/director Terence Malick’s new film To the Wonder is…tortuous.  Directed/filmed/edited in the same style employed for the central section of his last film The Tree of Life, a series of quick glimpses and expressionistic scenes, To the Wonder starts out somewhat hypnotically with gorgeous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki.  But it’s not long before one quickly realizes that there ain’t a lot going on here and what there is, isn’t that original or interesting.  In fact, the best way to summarize it might be to say that there seems to be some sort of story here, but Malick is desperately determined not to tell it.  It concerns a man’s relationship with two woman, one a French citizen he brings to America with her child and whom he grows tired of, the second an old flame that he has a fling with and whom he grows tired of.  As the film goes on it begins to resemble more and more a classical music video that one might find on a PBS station after its daily schedule is over.   And the aesthetic approach, the snippets of scenes sewn together with a somewhat impressionistic, improvisational feel, seems as if it’s not there to bring more insight and depth to the relationships semi-dramatized in the movie, but chosen to cover up the idea that there’s really nothing of interest going on.   The characters are played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko (who seem to spend much of their time quietly avoiding each other while living in a house they can never seem to finish and is filled with boxes and suitcases that are never fully unpacked—I think this is what is called symbolic), with Rachel McAdams as the old girlfriend and Javier Bardem as a rather unimpressive priest who does little but walk around in existential agony, though not in as much existential agony as I was in watching the movie.
Tell me what you think.

BAD GIRLS: Movie reviews of Julia and Easy Virtue


What do you do with a problem like Julia? Half the time I found myself screaming at the screen at how ridiculous and inexcusably stupid the seemingly never ending plot turns were. The other half I was riveted to my seat just having to know how the whole damn thing was going to turn out. Julia is an alcoholic barfly (what my father once called a good time girl) with the sociopathic tendency to lie and manipulate people into getting what she wants. The irony is that she’s so successful at it, fascinatingly so at times, it just keeps digging her in deeper where she has to lie to fix the problems caused by her previous lies (just like that great sociopathic liar Craig’s Wife played by Rosalind Russell). Whatever one may think of the plot, the real driving force of the movie is the magnificent Tilda Swinton. She does one of those Bette Davis, go for broke, I don’t give a damn what I look like, performances. It’s written by Michael Collins, Camille Natta, Aude Py and Erick Zonca (maybe the number of writers is why there are so many plot turns) and directed by Zonca (who directed the beautiful The Dreamlife of Angels). In the end, one has no choice but to admit it is highly entertaining in spite of the questionable plot runs and an ending that seems too curt, as if the authors had just gotten too exhausted to fully resolve things.

Easy Virtue is based on a play by the witty Noel Coward, though the movie doesn’t seem to have that much wit to it. Whether this is Coward’s fault or the adaptor’s (Sheridan Jobbins and Stephan Elliot) is unclear since I’m not familiar with the source material. In the end, one spends most of the movie watching a young woman try to ingratiate herself into a family when she is so obviously so out of their league. There’s no suspense because you want the character to fail and it can be a little annoying spending an hour and a half waiting for someone to realize the obvious. The acting is fine, with Colin Firth (as a shell shocked war veteran that does a wicked tango); Jim McManus (as a dipsomaniac butler); and Kirsten Scott Thomas (as the “there’ll always be an England” aristocrat) taking the honors. Jessica Biel, somewhat ironically, is a bit out of her league, but she has such luscious lips and is so wonderfully American, you know she’s going to win the battle.