Saturday, July 20, 2013

take it off!

Intentional or not, the marketing of Drive made those hungering for another Fast & the Furious walk out of theaters.  But some, including myself, ended up being genuinely surprised how fun, riveting and stylish it was.  Just when I thought 1980s-nostalgia was played out, Drive created a world that was dark, violent, moody but blended with richly detailed, contrasting L.A. settings, and that hot pink title font and that catchy electropop soundscape.  Knowing in its humor, Drive embraced its tropes while purposefully being irrelevant compared to talky and loud action pics of the day.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Ryan Gosling's follow-up Only God Forgives is a tepid and rather uninteresting neo-noir journey into a stylized version of Bangkok's criminal underworld.  This time the joke is on the Drive fans.  Those hoping for similar atmosphere, great music, and another quietly electric performance from Gosling, will likely find little here to get lost in.

Julian (Gosling) runs a boxing club that's a drug smuggling front.  His brother Billy (Tom Burke, in a dreadful, albeit thankfully brief turn) rapes and kills a young prostitute. Billy is arrested and killed. Frosty mother (an icy, unrecognizable and largely squandered Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to pay respects and see revenge on Billy's killers.

Only God Forgives is a melding of Western and Far Eastern revenge flicks, filmed quite nicely by Larry Smith.  Smith was the lighting cameraman on Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, which is what this movie sometimes reminded me of, with its stoic, nightmarish fairy tale quality.  Shooting in Bangkok (chronologically) gives the film a dingy, neon allure.  Cliff Martinez returns with another good score--the centerpiece being a spooling electro riff in the "Wanna fight?" sequence--one of the rare moments when the pic jolts to life.  Thomas is a compelling presence and a weird one, especially for movie buffs, since it's unlike anything she's done before.  Her scenes are the most arresting in the movie: her testy hotel arrival, moments between her and Julian with some Oedipal and Lady Macbethian shades, and when she gets to describe violent Julian's past (is she trustworthy or literally, with her long skinny cigarettes, just blowing smoke?).

Lacking in tension, this "Angel of Vengeance" tale seems to "try" to be offbeat though it ends up feeling a bit preciously-plotted and watered down.  Gone is a wide array of quirky, engaging characters (which is what we found in Drive and what is usually found in the movie's influences: film noir and Westerns) so there isn't much to be invested in except the style.  I'm an unabashed fan of Gosling as both an actor and a sex symbol but his dispassionate staring did little for me (maybe Refn's intention?).  Gosling called the script (by Refn) the "strangest thing" he's read. And it's also probably one of the easiest for him to remember, since he barely has any lines or emotional cues.  The high point for him is when he wails "take it off!" to his "woman" (Yayaying Ratha Phongam), which is what I was hoping she'd yell back at him.  **

- Jeffery Berg

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