Saturday, November 30, 2013

Only God Forgives


Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Ratha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Only God Forgives is full of deplorable, immoral characters doing heinous things. Not like I'm judging or anything. And neither apparently is Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose Drive follow-up is a perplexing, blood-soaked trip down the rabbit hole that once again makes it abundantly clear he has no interest in courting mainstream approval or playing by the rules. And bless him for it, as he seems to have created his own cinematic language. But what's most remarkable about this is how he repeats himself without ever seeming like he's repeating himself. Drive was a tough act to follow so that this is just as polarizing and crazy as you'd think is a victory in itself. With a silent protagonist and an emphasis on hypnotic mood over story, there are enough similarities between the two that this could almost be considered its spiritual sequel. Except this isn't a "real hero" we're talking about, at times struggling to even operate on the fringes of being a "real human being." Likely to inspire as much frustration as admiration, it's a somewhat sickening and graphic viewing experience, but one that undoubtedly stirs in the mind long after it's final scene.

"Time to meet the devil" are the last words spoken to Bangkok boxing club owner and drug dealer Julian (Ryan Gosling) by his older brother Billy (Tom Burke), whose night on the town leads to him brutally raping and murdering a sixteen-year-old sold into prostitution by her father. He's caught by the karaoke loving, sword wielding Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) of the Thai police, who lets her father extract revenge on Billy, killing him. Billy's demise brings the arrival of Julian's mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to Bangkok, demanding he avenge her first born son's death. But that's not as easy as it sounds, since Chang's a dangerous man and Julian's heart and guilty conscience wrestle with the idea of extracting revenge. Controlled by a domineering mother and weighed down by the sins of his past, this silent, emotionally troubled loner must make a decision that could permanently alter the course of his violent life.

Slow, methodical and nearly impossible to pin down, the film visually calls to mind Lynch or Kubrick while telling a story that plays almost at times like a straight ahead revenge thriller, western or Hong Kong action movie you'd expect to get from Tarantino. Only there's a lot less talking and action, but for good reason. Refn's more interested in telling an allegorical tale visually with archetypes and symbols rather than characters and narrative. While it shares certain similarities with Drive, it's easy imagine anyone who loved that film despising this far more impenetrable effort since there's a lot less here emotionally to latch onto. Whereas that story focused on an ordinary loner who stepped up to become a reality-based superhero, Julian is actually sort of a wimp suffering from severe mommy issues. It's fitting that when his big showdown with Chang does occur it's significantly more one-sided than expected since he was never really wanted it to begin with. He's only interested in redemption and washing away his past sins and vanquishing Chang in the name of his deceased rapist brother would do little to accomplish that.

That Gosling can play this role so quietly but still manage to convey everything this abstract script requires speaks to his talent and continued dedication to making purely artistic choices that fly in the face of what's expected from him. In top form again, he turns in his best work since his 2011 hat trick of Drive, The Ides of March and Crazy, Stupid Love. But the movie really belongs to a bleached blonde Scott-Thomas, who as a cross between one of the those trashy reality TV housewives and a Mafia godmother, plays pretty much the most despicable character put on screen this year. From her very first appearance (in which she berates a hotel desk clerk) to an extremely uncomfortable dinner scene where she humiliates Julian in front of his prostitute girlfriend, Mai (Rhatha Phongam), she makes it easy to see how her sons turned out how they did. His reaction to her behavior is even scarier, while remaining completely in line with the moral black hole that is these characters' lives. The idea that this man can even be involved in any kind of committed relationship is one of the film's cruelest jokes, culminating in expected consequences. As good a case as any can be made that the least unethical character is the film's antagonist, Chang, who uses his sword to dish out his own brand of moral justice. You definitely won't be shedding any tears for his victims.

Only God Forgives is much more about how it looks and feels than anything it's about. In fact, it's tough describing exactly what it's about while removing those other two elements from the equation. Drenched in neons and red, it's unquestionably a visual achievement and an anecdote for those sick of getting the same thing over and over again from most mainstream movies. Also like Drive, you can picture a more accessible, commercial version of this being made that removes all the shocking violence, ambiguity and self-indulgence. It would undoubtedly be more easily digestible and maybe even play better, but it wouldn't be nearly as interesting or give you as much to contemplate. That multiple viewings are required to take it all in, despite the story being relatively simple, is a sure sign there's more bubbling under the surface than you'd get from most revenge flicks, which this isn't by a long shot. At least not in any conventional sense. Artistically, it's a big deal, even as you may find yourself turning away from the brutality unfolding on screen.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Director: Peter Landesman
Starring: Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, Paul Giamatti, James Badge Dale, Ron Livingston, David Harbour, Tom Welling, Jeremy Strong, Mark Duplass, Gil Bellows, Colin Hanks, Jackie Earle Haley
Running Time: 93 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
In the midst of the media coverage surrounding the half-century anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I caught this news program that talked about how miraculous it was that Abraham Zapruder was able to keep his 8mm camera steady on the President's limo for over 26 seconds when the shots rang out. It was one of those facts I always knew was amazing but never seriously contemplated. How did he do that? And why isn't it a bigger story? Writer/director Peter Landesman's Parkland is all about details just like that. Details that have unfortunately been tossed aside in favor of speculating on a myriad of unproven conspiracy theories for the past few decades. This is finally the movie about everything else. The really important stuff no one focuses on, which only makes it that much more frustrating that critics have so casually dismissed it.

In recounting the surreal and chaotic events that took place in Dallas following the assassination, the biggest worry was that this could become another Bobby, Emilio Estevez's overtstuffed historical ensemble piece that turned RFK's killing into a goofy game of "spot the star," as an impressive cast participated in what merely amounted to a large-scale soap opera. There's none of that here, as a similarly stacked ensemble is comprised mostly of character actors who slide invisibly into their roles in a manner similar to real life people they've been chosen to portray. It's as if Landesman knows this is a topic that's been explored to death on film and TV, but usually in the most obvious and uninteresting ways possible. He responds with a take that's legitimately different, gripping and informative. That the most powerful story and performance rests in the hands of a lesser known actor playing a person few know even existed, speaks volumes.

Based on Vincent Bugliosi's book, "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy," the movie depicts the events of November 22, 1963 from a number of perspectives. The doctors and nurses at Parkland Memorial Hospital who tended to the fatally wounded President. Secret Service chief Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton). JFK's security detail. The FBI. Lee Harvey Oswald's guilt-ridden brother Robert (James Badge Dale). And of course Dallas-based clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who was at Dealey Plaza unwittingly capturing the entire horrific event on film with his home movie camera. With a sweep this broad and the story examined from so many angles, there was a real risk of this being an unfocused mess, but those fears are put to rest with an opening half-hour that generates an almost nauseating level of suspense while visualizing disturbing details we've only heard about the shooting's immediate aftermath. And many we haven't.

Much of the action occurs in the Parkland where Kennedy arrives without a pulse or breathe sounds, but a weak heartbeat. Describing him as barely "alive," upon arrival would be using the loosest possible definition of the word, but first-year surgical resident Dr. Jim Carrico, almost by chance, is handed the unenviable duty of resucitating him. Joining him is head nurse Doris Nelson (Marcia Gay Harden) and eventually Dr. Malcolm Perry (Colin Hanks). Carrico's played by Zac Efron, subverting expectations by not only disappearing into the part, but doing surprisingly well in an emotionally gut-wrenching sequence. The look on his face when he realizes who's been brought in and what happened is priceless. I'd say it's the moment of the movie, if not for the five or six other ones that could reasonably compete with it.

Seamlessly incorporating actual news footage within the film, the events of the day are so detailed and chaotic it almost feels as if this is a handheld docudrama unfolding in real time, taking us along for the ride while managing to somehow sidestep tired recreations of famous scenes. The approach  even extends to the depictions of JFK (Brett Stimely) and Jackie (Kat Steffens), whose faces are covered through much of the proceedings. Until they're not. Jackie obviously has more to do, but Landesman wisely casts a complete unknown, sparing her any added pressure as she grieves on the sidelines, rarely taking center stage. This is more frightening because it reflects the First Lady's marginalization by the Secret Service as they switch their allegiance to new President, Lyndon Johnson (Sean McGraw), who was, by all accounts--no matter your opinion of him politically-- a class act in the days immediately following the tragedy.

The President's story, and the country's, is told through these seemingly ordinary people in Dallas, at times playing as if it were an post-assassination procedural, illuminating under-reported facts. Like Robert Oswald's quite, ashamed belief in his brother's guilt the very minute he hears the news of his arrest. Torn between Lee's actions and their lunatic mother Marguerite (Jacki Weaver) looking to cash in, an Oscar-worthy James Badge Dale does the unthinkable in actually earning sympathy for a family member of Lee Harvey Oswald. His inability to obtain a proper burial for the man who killed the President is understandable, but not as understandable as no one willing to provide one. When Robert comes face-to-face with his emotionless brother, he sees what we do: a monster. Besides baring a shocking physical resemblance to Oswald, actor Jeremy Strong's speech pattern and mannerisms are so frighteningly accurate that it comes as a relief only a single scene is spent with him. Any more would probably be too sickening to take. 

Just about the only character as guilt ridden as Oswald's brother is Zapruder, played by an unsurprisingly terrific Paul Giamatti. Burdened with footage he never wanted, we finally get an inside look into how and where that 8 mm film developed and the ensuing negotiation with Life magazine for it's release to the public. While it may be hard to classify anyone as a "hero" under circumstances like this, Zapruder definitely comes closest, and Giamatti navigates the Dallas business owner's battle to rid himself of the footage while still insuring the Kennedys aren't exploited. As it turns out, the right magazine got it, and when it was time to publish the pictures, they did it the right way. And years later, when it was time to let the footage go, they managed to take the high road again. We wouldn't have been so lucky today. One of the most shattering scenes is when we finally get to view Zapruder's famous home movie along with him, reflected through the eyes of the man who filmed it.

Guilt and responsibility is what ties all these characters together. For Secret Service head Sorrels, played by Billy Bob Thornton, it's the realization that the President was lost on his watch. For FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston) it's the lost opportunity of having Oswald in his office and leaving threatening notes just weeks before the assassination. It's a nearly unrecognizable Tom Welling as Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman, trying to drag Kennedy's corpse out of Parkland against the medical examiner's wishes to perform an immediate autopsy. What's fascinating about the scene is how Kellerman seems like the hero protecting the Kennedy family while the medical examiner comes off as a clueless twit. History would prove who the real twit was. The body should have stayed in Dallas. And how about the Secret Service barely being able to fit the casket on the plane. It would be unbelievable if it wasn't all completely true, making this the only movie about this tragedy that should probably come with an accompanying spoiler warnings.

While recognizing anyone's interest in Parkland goes only as far as their interest in the actual event and I was easy to please, this is a topic that's been poorly handled. The most recent hatchet job being the Killing Kennedy TV movie, which depicted the tragedy as a cross between an unfunny SNL skit and a cheap crime show reenactment. 2011's superb The Kennedys miniseries came closest to doing the tragedy justice, while still serving as only part of a much larger story. Oliver Stone's JFK is undeniably masterful filmmaking, but it's not about the actual assassination so much as our theories about the potential conspiracies surrounding it, which look less believable by the day due to the lack of any concrete evidence. Our desire to keep looking stems mostly from the refusal to associate such a pivotal event with a nobody like Oswald. But conspiracies are boring compared to the actual truth surrounding ordinary people who had to react to an extraordinary event they were unprepared to be a part of. But calling this the best film made yet about the Kennedy assassination isn't completely accurate. So far, it's the only film that's actually been made about it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Rick Yune, Dylan McDermott, Finley Jacobsen, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Robert Forster, Cole Hauser, Ashley Judd 
Running Time: 120 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

You know a movie means business when they kill off the First Lady off within the first ten minutes. That this isn't even a spoiler, but merely the inciting event kicking off the White House terrorist takeover thriller, Olympus Has Fallen, should give you an idea the kind of action spectacle we're dealing with. It's greatest attribute is that it doesn't even give audiences time to question whether this or that can happen (hint: it probably can't) or figure out logistics. North Korean terrorists descend upon Washington D.C., staging an all out assault on The White House, muscling their way through by killing as many innocent bystanders, secret service, military and law enforcement as possible. And in this PG-13 movie era where it seems everything on screen is sanitized within an inch of its life, it comes as a great relief that director Antoine Fuqua doesn't pull any punches. He doesn't give in to political correctness, showing no hesitation in depicting the "bad guys" as angry terrorists who want to blackmail and destroy us. To his credit, he knows exactly the kind of movie he wants to make and that there's justifiably very little room for subtly or nuance in it. It's fun and ridiculous in ways only the most enjoyable action movies are. 

The pawn in the North Koreans' game is President Benjamin Asher, who's played by Aaron Eckhart exactly how you'd expect the actor to play a stubborn, but heroic, tough as nails Commander in Chief. Over a year removed, he's still reeling from the tragic results of a car accident at Camp David, when his good friend and lead secret service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) saved his life while failing to prevent the death of the First Lady (Ashley Judd). After being removed from the President's security detail, Mike's now working at the Treasury Department and one the film's best dialogue exchanges comes when Director of the Secret Service Lynn Jacobs (Angela Bassett) tells him that Asher knows he did the right thing but was removed because he can't stand looking at him and being reminded of that night. A good line from a fairly clever script, effectively setting the stage for much of what follows, even if you could argue what's been seen so far is interesting enough for another story in itself.

All hell breaks loose when the North Koreans descend upon Pennsylvania Ave. by air and ground, eventually shooting their way into the White House where the President and Secretary of Defense McMillan (Melissa Leo) are being held hostage in a bunker by dangerous terrorist mastermind Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune). It's up to Banning, seemingly the last agent alive, to rescue his former boss and make sure the First Son, Connor (Finley Jacobsen) is located. Their demands involve the removal of U.S. forces from Korea as well as a plot involving the detonation of our nuclear weapons, but that's almost beside the point. This can really best be described as "Die Hard in the White House" and your enjoyment of it is directly proportional to how exciting you find that premise, as it does mostly deliver on the tagline. It's hard not to when you have Butler taking a much needed breather from rom-com nonsense to slither through the walls of the Oval Office killing unsuspecting terrorists.

It's ironically the smaller character moments provided by an impressive supporting cast that end up carrying this. Like a frighteningly believable and bloodied Melissa Leo refusing to reveal the nuclear code or reciting the pledge of allegiance as she's dragged across the floor. Morgan Freeman's known for playing calm, benevolent leaders so it's kind of unusual to see him, as Speaker of the House Allan Trumball, suddenly thrust into the Presidency without any preparation and having to think on his feet. He and Army Chief of Staff Clegg (played by the great Robert Forster) are Banning's only lifeline to the outside world, even if at times it seems Clegg is working against him.

There's this scene where Clegg makes this horrible decision that kills his own men, but look at Forster's face. He's like a kid playing a video game. Not only does he think this plan is actually working, if he loses some of his men in the process, so be it. The idea of "giving in" to these terrorists' demands and withdrawing the troops is literally his worst nightmare. There's a small attempt to convey Banning's life outside work but that Radha Mitchell's role as his wife insignificant in terms of characterization isn't much of a detriment considering that's not where our concern lies. Dylan McDermott is sleazy and menacing as disgruntled ex-Secret Service agent Dave Forbes, who's defected to the other side to help Kang carry out his plan and is headed for a showdown with his former colleague.

As ridiculous as the movie may seem, it works within the context of its own silliness, never violating the ground rules it sets for itself. The opening thirty to forty minutes aren't silly though. They're actually pretty scary. After that, well, not so much. But it's still a great time. Whether Eckhart is believable as the President of the United States is almost beside the point here. Similar to Harrison Ford in Air Force One, he's believable as Aaron Eckhart playing the President in a treacherous situation, which is exactly all that should be asked of this. There's a London-based sequel on the way, but the filmmakers might be underestimating just how much the setting has to do with its success as it's tough to beat the sight of being able to just walk through the front door of a decimated White
House. As the better titled of the two recent White House attack movies, Olympus Has Fallen definitely won't inspire deep discussions about national security when it's over, but under its own terms, it's surprisingly smart and exciting.            

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Iron Man 3

Director: Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Ben Kingsley, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Jon Favreau
Running Time: 130 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

With Iron Man 3, the creative powers behind the franchise acknowledge what audiences have known for years: Tony Stark is more interesting than Iron Man and the movies should be about him. He's also kind of an arrogant jerk who never once gets put in his place or receives any type of comeuppance for his showboating. It's even fair to say that out of all the superheroes, Stark is the only one who lives a charmed existence and has yet to learn there can be consequences for self-serving behavior. This third, and best, installment in the series, explores those consequences. But the bigger story might be that we have a Marvel film that's actually about anything at all.

With a new director and screenwriter at the helm, it's a drastic departure from its misguided 2010 sequel largely because it seems interested in giving the hero some inner turmoil for a change, engulfing him in a plot that's enjoyably crazy by superhero standards and even contains a twist that's justifiably generated some discussion. My biggest problem with the previous films were how goofy and sunny they were, and on more than a few occasions obsessively preoccupied with advertising other Marvel properties. The only thing writer/director Shane Black seems concerned with here is telling a good story, with the results definitely coming through on screen. It's a shame this probably isn't the closing chapter of the Iron Man saga, because it would at least be a fitting one.

The film opens with a flashback to New Year's Eve 1999 when billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his latest one night stand, scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), are approached by nerdy, disabled inventor Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), offering them a job with his fledgling company, Advanced Idea Mechanics. Stark not only rejects the offer, but thoroughly embarrasses and humiliates him. Killian isn't heard from again until now, showing up for an impromptu meeting with Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to pitch Extremis, a regenerative treatment that's been proven to help the physically crippled recover from injuries. At the same time, a rash of domestic bombings are being orchestrated by a terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who leaves chilling and confounding video messages in the vain of bin Laden. With Tony suffering from PTSD and devoting more time to perfecting the technology of his many Iron Man suits, the government calls on former War Machine Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to don the suit as the re-branded "Iron Patriot." But when it's clear that a vengeful Killian and the Mandarin are linked, Tony is pulled back into the fray, despite hardly being in the state of mind to deal with it.

One of the many things this movie does better than its predecessors is effectively close the gap between Tony Stark and his alter ego. As entertaining as Downey's been throughout as the billionaire playboy, the weak link in the entire series has always been when he puts on that suit because there's just been no escaping the fact that it becomes just like every other superhero movie. Or more accurately, like every other Marvel entry, which at this point are starting to seem interchangeable. IM3 solves this problem by wisely having him spend most of the film's length as Stark. But a defeated version, whose arrogance has finally caught up with him, as evidenced by the reemergence of two characters from his past he casually, and arguably cruelly, dismissed.

Even Pepper can't seem to stand Tony anymore, as he seems more interested in refining all the Iron Man suits he can remotely activate than paying her any attention at all. This leads to one the film's smartest scenes early on when one of those suits try to attack Pepper, marking the first time in the entire series where the suit actually seems to serve a thematic function in the plot that strengthens the characters motivations. He basically leaves Pepper for his Iron Man persona, despite being too emotionally shaken and mentally fragile from the last film's events to actually step back into the armor. He spends most of the film in limbo, having to seek motivation from an 8-year-old sidekick named Harley (Ty Simpkins). Even that, which should feel like a storytelling crutch, strangely works because Downey and the kid play off each other so well.

Since Downey is Stark for most of the film and can operate the suits remotely there are only about two big action set pieces in the film, and because of that, they actually mean something. While the entire plot revolving around Killian's technology is a little ludicrous in the sense that his motivations waiver and its results look kind of silly when visually rendered on screen,  Pearce brings much needed gravitas and sliminess to the role, taking it just seriously enough while still playing it with a slight wink. Opinions will vary on the big twist involving the Mandarin but count me among those who think it's one of the riskier creative choices made in a movie universe not exactly known for them. Without completely spoiling it, the direction of the character takes a left turn that brings to mind themes out of Wag the Dog or Capricorn One. It's unlikely an actor of Kingley's caliber would have signed on for fluff so it's a relief when the script turns what could have been a stock villain into an actual CONCEPT that represents our own fear and paranoia. Kingsley, of course, rises to the occasion with with a deliriously loopy performance that's amongst the strangest work he's done.

After being underutilized in the last film, no one can complain this film doesn't get as much mileage as possible from Gwyneth Paltrow, who takes the next logical step in the story as Pepper Potts, completing the character's transformation from loyal assistant and girlfriend to Tony into a more active participant in the action this time around. The biggest surprise is that the transition works really well. Cheadle's James Rhodes has always been the odd man out so it's ironic that in the installment they finally acknowledge his limitations as a character, he leaves somewhat of a mark. Rebecca Hall is also solid as Tony's ex-girlfriend and scientist, Maya, who despite having little screen time, is a surprisingly well developed character serving just the right function for the story. Even with few lines, James Badge Dale is memorably menacing and thuggish as henchman Eric Savin, providing the muscle for Extremis.

The only notable absence is behind the camera, as the first two films' director Jon Favreau reprises is on screen role of Tony's bodyguard turned "Head of Security" Happy Hogan, while handing over directorial duties to Shane Black, who's best known for writing Lethal Weapon and helping resurrect Robert Downey Jr's career in 2005 with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Apparently, this was a good decision since whatever Favereau brought to the franchise isn't missed at all here. Not only are the action scenes the best they've been in the series (climaxing in a pretty spectacular final showdown), but the movie's actually funny and dryly sarcastic in a way it hasn't been before, almost as if it's finally in on the joke. The stuff with the kid and even a Iron Man fan with a Tony Stark tattoo seem like deliberate attempts to send up fanboy culture. It definitely helps when you have a screenwriter who's less interested in making a conventional superhero movie than just doing something fun and crazy, as is demonstrated by that bizarre Mandarin twist.

While I'd like nothing more than this to be the last installment of the series and for RDJ to move on to more creatively fulfilling projects, we're kidding ourselves. As long as there's money to be made, it'll continue and everyone involved will miss the opportunity to exit on a high note. But at least this entry gave the actor something slightly different to do and attempted to explore the character in a way the previous two didn't. That little bit helped, allowing him to turn in his most interesting work yet as Stark. It won't be confused with Zero Dark Thirty anytime soon, but there was at least a concerted, if  mostly successful, attempt to incorporate some timely issues into the script in an inspired way.

The biggest relief comes in knowing that this movie is about Tony Stark rather than plugging whatever Avengers, Thor, Captain America or The Incredible Hulk sequel Marvel is shoveling down our throats next. We're so far past the saturation point for these it isn't even funny, only making it harder for them to mean anything going forward. As usual, there's that obligatory post-credits sequence they can't resist, but at least it involves an actor and character we don't mind seeing. It's a good thing Iron Man 3 works, because amidst recent sub-par efforts, it's nice to be reminded what a superhero movie should look like when everything comes together as it should.