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Friday, July 19, 2013

Movie Review: 'Only God Forgives'

As the end credits roll on the new collaboration between Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling (2011's Drive being the first), a title acknowledges a debt to Alejandro Jodorowsky, and with good reason. Reminiscent of the midnight master's 1989 Santa Sangre with its twisted mother-son relationship and emphasis on mutilation, Only God Forgives is a fetishistic fever dream.

Gone are the neon blues and oranges of the earlier film's nighttime Los Angeles, replaced by the saturated crimsons of Bangkok's seamy underworld. And released from the burden of a complex plot, Refn is free to create a hyperstylized mood piece that's certainly striking if not for all tastes.

Gosling plays Julian, an American expatriate in Bangkok who, with his brother, Billy (Tom Burke), runs an underground fight club and traffics drugs for their monstrous mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). These men are damaged goods: Julian spends his time hanging out in gentlemen's clubs, sexlessly watching the prostitutes perform, while Billy has sunk to deeper and deeper levels of depravity, finally raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl.

Enter Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a mysterious authority figure, who orders the girl's father to do what must be done. And he does, literally bashing Billy's brains out. Upon receiving the news, Crystal comes roaring into town with blood in her eyes. Knowing she can't turn to ineffectual Julian for help, she hires a hitman to eliminate Chang. When that fails, she realizes her own life is at stake and has no recourse but to beg her son to man up and save her life. Julian tries to obey, but whatever resolve he might have had was long ago drained from him, leading to the inevitable confrontation.
Gosling's Julian is even more of a cipher than Drive's unnamed antihero. Completely under the control of his domineering mother, he seems to be drifting through life, placidly accepting his fate, whether being humiliated by Crystal or beaten to a pulp by Chang.

Thomas is a sight to behold here, especially for those accustomed to seeing her in period pieces. With her long, streaked hair and abundant eye makeup, she's a maternal nightmare, hurling obscenities while puffing on skinny cigarettes. It's easy to see where her sons acquired their nihilism -- when Julian tells her that Billy was killed because he murdered a young girl, she shrugs him off, snapping "I'm sure he had his reasons."

Pansringarm's Chang is the strangest character in the piece. A retired cop, he's a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner, holding the entire Bangkok police force in his sway. He also considers himself to be God, something that Julian, too, comes to believe.

Technically, the film delivers on its obsessions. Director of Photographer Larry Scott, shooting with an Arri Alexa, is perfectly in sync with Refn in bringing the director's vision to life. People and objects are arranged in deliberate tableaux; the pronounced violence is almost lovingly staged; and the saturated nighttime reds give way to naturally-lit outdoor scenes that are startling in contrast, as if for a brief moment the film has awakened back to reality.

The score by Cliff Martinez (who also provided the music for Drive) contributes immeasurably to the mood of the piece. It's always there, whether it's a major or minor player, adding to the tension; a musique concréte that would do David Lynch proud. Beth Mickle's production design also plays a major part in this visually-driven story, whether arranging a multitude of red lanterns across the ceiling of the karaoke bar Chang performs in or a variety of different-sized glasses on the restaurant table at which Crystal awaits the arrival of her weakling son.

Strong stuff, but rewarding for those prepared for the subject matter, Only God Forgives opens Friday, July 19th, in selected theaters.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Son of Great Performances

This is the third installment in an irregular series of posts recognizing good acting, not necessarily in recent work but also those performances that have stood the test of time. I guess you could consider this one the TV edition.

Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore in "Bates Motel."

A&E seems to be on its third life. Beginning as an arts network, it actually had some good programming before it became one of the leading purveyors of garbage television. Now, with shows like "The Glades" and "Longmire," it's seems to be trying to make amends by following the agreeable trend of programming original longform scripted television.

Joining the ranks of AMC's "Walking Dead" and "Breaking Bad," the series "Bates Motel" is one of the network's best new shows, especially considering it shouldn't work at all. I mean, a contemporary prequel to "Psycho"? But Highmore and Farmiga, as Mama's Boy Norman and manipulative Mom Norma, inhabit their characters so well.

Farmiga's incredibly expressive face is always fascinating to watch. And she plays Norma subtly, not as an out-and-out nutjob but a desperate single woman always angling to improve her condition. Of course, she's not without her secrets, and she's a lousy liar, acting increasingly offended when people get to close to the truth about something.

Highmore matches her almost note for note. Norman tries to maintain a façade of bland normalcy, but the monster inside him keeps rearing its ugly head. And it doesn't help that Norma has him emotionally debilitated. Then, of course, there was the whole Dad thing. Highmore has strange eyes that can look lifeless, which he uses to great advantage when Norman is trying to conceal his real feelings. The final episode of this season was a killer. I can't wait for it to return.

Jennifer Carpenter in "Dexter."

Poor Deb. After the promotion to lieutenant, she's hit what we might consider an extended rough patch.
First the failed relationship with Quinn; then she comes to the realization that she's in love with her own brother; then she sees him kill a man; and finally she kills LaGuerta herself to protect him.

Carpenter has done some Emmy-worthy work showing us the agony Debra is going through. First, she comes to terms with her inappropriate feelings for Dexter, only to have them dashed when she discovered his monstrous secret last year.

We're only one episode in to the final season, but she's still on a downward spiral, having left the police department and working for a private investigating firm. But she's sleeping with the guy she's supposed to be investigating and doing lots of drugs.

I've always appreciated Michael C. Hall's understated performance, but Dexter looks positively sedated next to Carpenter's fiery, obscenity-spouting performance as his broken sibling. It'll be sad to see this show go. Even in its weakest season (the one with Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks), it was still more entertaining than "True Blood," which has been on life support ever since the second season ended.

Edie Falco in "Nurse Jackie."

Talk about a mess. Jackie's addiction and lies have cost her both her marriage and the love of her eldest child, Grace, who blames her mother for the breakup and is on a serious rebellious streak. Falco, with her large, expressive eyes, brings the troubled but tough character to life.

It's a convincing performance and one filled with wry humor. I loved the episode last season when, faced with having to enter a treatment program, she imagines herself addressing an AA crowd, only to snap out of her reverie, stare directly at herself in the mirror, and defiantly say "Blow me."

The first episode this season worried me. It was flat-footed and sitcommy, and even her hairstyle was weird. But the producers must have realized how far they'd strayed because it was back on track the very next week.

Jackie's got a new relationship with a sweet-natured cop, but her family troubles keep crashing in on their intimacy. And she's got to keep on her toes with fifteen-year-old Grace, who keeps rushing off to Manhattan to see her older boyfriend, a street musician. Naturally, Jackie's on edge, and Falco keeps the character believable, even when she celebrates one year of sobriety by taking a pill in this season's finale.

Emmy Rossum in "Shameless."

Another actor with incredibly expressive eyes, Rossum, as eldest Gallagher daughter Fiona, is the glue that holds her dysfunctional family together. She's tough as nails, but also vulnerable, as when she found out that her boyfriend had been lying about himself to her.

And her siblings all need care: Lip, the enormously intelligent underachiever, needs constant motivation; Debbie, her little sister, is entering an awkward stage. Frank has become an out-and-out sociopath, so much so that in this season's finale Fiona took him to court to make him forfeit his parental rights.

Rossum's Fiona is a character you can care about. Never intentionally cruel (except to Frank, who deserves it), she keeps everyone pulling in unison, even when it involves a liberal interpretation of the law. And the awful jobs she takes to pay the monthly bills — Fiona always stands firm no matter how challenging the adversity, and Rossum does such a good job with the role.


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