Monday, July 22, 2013

Only God Forgives: Drive, by way of Boredom

     Expectations can be a dangerous thing: in 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn created my favorite film of the year, Drive, based on the book of the same name by James Sallis and starring Ryan Gosling as a bad ass wheelman. One of the many complaints about Refn's direction is his overuse of style and lack of any substantive narrative structure, and sometimes it seems he's more concerned with what synth-pop song to play in any given scene than the plot which is actually occurring. But Drive bypassed these concerns, showcasing Refn's signature shooting style with a pulpy plot that suited Ryan Gosling's brooding hero perfectly. Zoom up to present day, and seemingly-best-buds Refn and Gosling have created another arty film that deals with revenge and excessive violence. Unfortunately--this time around--the duo has regressed: Only God Forgives shines on a spotlight on the worst aspects of Refn's direction (his obsession with setting up scenes instead of servicing the story), contains one of the most boring performances of Ryan Gosling's career, and its plot is barely more than people walking from point A to point B bathed in neon light.
     Sure, people bathed in neon light look really pretty, and Refn has never had a problem setting up innovative and exciting camera angles. But it all means nothing if the art-house style makes it difficult for a viewer to hold his/her attention. And that's precisely what happens here. There arn't really characters in Only God Forgives in the traditional sense: they're just cardboard cutouts walking to and fro the next or last blood shed. Ryan Gosling portrays Julian, a man running a boxing club as a front for a drug operation. When his brother gets murdered (deservedly so, I might add), he sort-of seeks revenge with his Queenpin mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, overacting) who has flown into town after she heard the news. But even these descriptions are giving the plot too much credit. These things are less figured out than just "sensed".
    The villain role is played by Vithaya Pansringarm, portraying Lieutenant Chang, also known as the "Angel of Vengeance" (though that surely wasn't a fact that was retained in my mind). He's probably the most interesting character in the film, though that's not saying much--his facial expressions rarely change away from looking completely tranquilized. But he's super good at sticking sharp objects into people, particularly in one totally brutal scene which was cringe-inducing.
     The problem here is so much wasted potential: we know that Refn can creature incredible cinema (Drive), and we know that he can make entertaining films that lack plot (Bronson). Here is a film that has a frustrating plot that simply lacks much entertainment value. Sure, you can praise his directing style: you can call it Lynchian, Kubrickian, or whatever compliment that you can think of. But it doesn't change the fact that a film has to keep you interested. Take Upstream Color, for instance. This 2013 experimental film was completely off the wall, lacking a conventional narrative structure. But it was still very transfixing, and it never made me feel like Only God Forgives made me feel: like I was on a dull acid trip that happened to have occasional flashes of ultra-violence. It's all set-up (sure, gorgeous and wonderfully-filmed set-up) with minimal payoff.     (C-)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Pacific Rim: An Entertaining Summer Creature Feature

     I couldn't claim that I was "excited" for Pacific Rim when I first heard the premise (sometime last year): huge man-made robots clashing against giant alien monsters that climb through an alternate dimension worm hole way down in the deepest dark abyss of the ocean, wreaking havoc upon the Earth's most populated cities, laying waste with a few gigantic stomps. But the 10-year-old inside of me certainly was (there has to be a better way to say that). It sounded like a mixture of old Japanese monster movies and Transformers-esque special effects. In essence, that's essentially what Pacific Rim is. But thanks to director Guillermo Del Toro--who created a modern classic with Pan's Labyrinth and put an interesting twist on comic-book films with Hellboy and Hellboy 2--it strikes a cool balance between the two. Because of Del Toro's movie-making ability, Pacific Rim is one of the better films to watch in the theater this summer (it's beautiful and boisterous on the big screen), and though it falls into occasional CGI-overload confusion, it's an interesting and enthralling big-budget spectacle.
     At it's heart, Pacific Rim is Del Toro's love letter to those old films, and his geeky excitement is palpable when you witness the mega battles between the creatures and robots that are the size of skyscrapers. Set in the present day and then moving on to the near future, the film's plot is pure set-up to bring the vibrant destruction onto the screen: the aliens that float up from the crack in the Pacific Ocean are called Kaiju, and they're so full of bad-ass that no military (at first) has the power to stop them. They are fearsome creatures that destroy everything in their path, maiming national landmarks and noshing on any terrified humans that are standing nearby.
     Soon after the initial attacks, the World bands together all of their resources to create a defense that is capable to stand up to the Alien scum. These defensive robots are called Jaegers, and they're essentially massive robots with incredible technology that resemble Master Chief from Halo. Here's where things get a little wild: these robots are controlled not by one pilot but by two. In a process called "The Drift", the pilots' minds are linked together, experiencing the same memories of the past and intuition of what to do next in the fight. It's a left brain / right brain kinda situation, with each pilot controlling a portion of the Jaeger. It works best when the two pilots are compatible with each other, and that's determined by a training period to see who has a connection.
     Our main character is a man named Raleigh Becket, and he's a retired pilot that lost his brother when they were co-piloting an early Jaeger version during the first attacks of the Kaiju. He's a wild card, with a killer instinct and attitude that give him plenty of confidence. He gets brought out of retirement when Earth is facing its darkest hour by the Commander (Idris Elba, who was great on HBO's The Wire). To give our planet a fighting chance, he must work with a talented young woman (Rinko Kinkuchi) and two scientific minds (most notably Charlie Day, branching out nicely from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
     Obviously, this film is way more about action and destruction than acting and dialogue. And there's no doubt that Pacific Rim has an overall corniness to it, but it's a campy kind of corniness that's more often endearing than annoying. One could easily ask the question, "What makes Pacific Rim so much different than the Transformers films?" In other words, why is this film good and those "films" shit? Again, it comes down to Del Toro. In every one of his films, the human beings matter. They have living, breathing hearts. The awesome action that is shown supplements the needs and emotions of the human characters, instead of just creating an action set piece that looks like a slick car commercial.
     Pacific Rim looks absolutely incredible. I didn't see the film in 3-D, and I'm glad (it was post-converted to 3-D instead of filmed in 3-D). Without wearing the glasses, the colors were incredibly vivid and breathtaking. Other than a few of the night-time fighting scenes, the environments and special effects looked like they came directly from a painter's neon color palette. But like any mega-budget summer film, the CGI can grow a little tiresome. Especially when the robots and monsters clash in the darker light, and its tough to tell what's going on with all of the clanging.
     Ultimately, Pacific Rim is a good once watch. I don't think I'll be too interested to view it home unless an 80" flat screen magically appeared. Del Toro created a fun and amusing spectacle that pays homage to monster movies of yore with satisfying new ideas and tons of style with just enough substance: in other words, a great addition to this year's big-budget summer tent poles. Though I didn't enjoy it as much as couple other early summer films (Iron Man 3, Star Trek into Darkness), it's clear that with Del Toro's signature touch is one that makes just about any movie worth watching.  Just barely a (B+)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Written Word Review: The Shining

     Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of The Shining is well known as one of the greatest horror movies of any generation, hinging on a haunting performance by an all-out-crazy Jack Nicholson and showcasing how well the director's nuances worked with terrifying imagery and incredible POV camera tracking shots. It's easily one of my favorite (horror) films of all time. I was a huge fan of the book too, years ago (so I thought) when I read it. So, about a week ago, in preparation of King's upcoming sequel to his third book, called Doctor Sleep (released in September), I flipped open the cover of my copy and poured myself into the first few pages. Butterflies formed in my stomach. I started to sweat. My nerves jumped to the furthest edge of existence. I realized that--after all of these years of being a so-called Stephen King fan and absolutely loving the film version--I had never even read The Shining, one of King's most famous and treasured novels.
     I always knew that Stephen King was never big fan of his novel's portrayal on the big screen, but that clearly had nothing to do with the talent involved. You couldn't ask for a better Jack Torrance than Mr. Nicholson. So I went into the book version of The Shining with an eye for differences, an eye for determining why King was unhappy and what made the book better than the film. Now, don't get me wrong: both versions of The Shining clearly have plenty of room to coexist on the same landscape--they are both pinnacles in horror writing and horror film-making. But after blowing through the book extremely quickly (frankly, I could barely put it down), I realized that--like the majority of text to cinema adaptations--the book actually is even better.
     We all know (at least I hope) the basic plot lines that are common threads between both creations: there's a hotel, called The Overlook, out in Colorado that shuts down for the Winter. In order to maintain the establishment's basic needs (heating the pipes, general repair, emergencies), a caretaker is hired. Jack Torrance accepts the job, deciding that it's just what he needs to finish some important writing that he hasn't had the time to finish. He brings along his wife, Wendy, and his son, Danny, who has a special gift called "The Shining", a kind of telepathic power. He connects with a black cook named Hallorann, who also has the ability, but not nearly as powerful.  Once everyone leaves for the season, they are snowed in for months, and the hotel's horrific powers start becoming more and more evident.
     A few reasons the book is even better (feel free to skip this paragraph if you're planning on reading it): it really shows the struggle that Jack goes through with his alcoholism, self-pity and self-hatred. In the film version, Jack is never particularly a sympathetic character. As soon as the hotel begins showing its malicious power, Jack succumbs and the change is swift and brutal. In the novel version, we get much more time, and we get many more looks into Jack's psyche to show his slow, downward spiral into an abyss of alcohol and violence. And in the film, Jack is the main villain, other than the casual ghost-like being or hallucination that causes Jack to do something. In the novel, the hotel is a malevolent presence in itself. The Hotel is another character: a living, breathing entity that has a power that far exceeds any normal human being, and especially one full of previous violent episodes and someone filled with self-pity.
       As I stated before, King's newest book is titled Doctor Sleep, and it's a sequel to The Shining. This might worry some fans: a sequel to one of King's most cherished and mentioned novels, released almost 40 (40!) years after the original. But me, I'm not worried. I'm confident that King wouldn't take on a story dealing with a key character in The Shining unless he had a really damn good story, and a really damn good reason to deal with all of the criticism of just deciding to do it in the first place.

The tagline is certainly intriguing:

"With Doctor Sleep, Stephen King returns to the characters and territory of one of his previous novels, The Shining. The novel features the now middle-aged Dan Torrance (the boy protagonist of The Shining) and the twelve-year-old girl, Abra Stone, that he must save from The True Knot. The True Knot are a group of almost immortal travelers who cross the country feeding on children with the gift of "the shining." Dan drifted for decades in an attempt to escape his father's legacy, but eventually settled in a New Hampshire town and works in a nursing home, where his remnant mental abilities provide comfort to the dying. With the aid of a cat that can foresee the future, Dan becomes "Doctor Sleep." After meeting Abra Stone, an epic war between good and evil ensues."

King calls it a return to a "Balls to the Walls" horror novel. After reading The Shining (not to mention his last few books--he's still a great writer), I know I'll be stopping by the book store on its release date, ready to pick up my copy and dive in head first.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What You'll Want to Be Watching:

The Bridge

     FX is one of those television networks that has completely thrived in the era of original dramatic cable programming, second to only AMC (with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead). Starting with its breakout hit, The Shield (about corrupt LAPD detective Vic Mackey), back in 2002, it's continually pushed the boundaries with edgy characters and content, and it thrives at creating awesomely worthwhile shows. It gave us Rescue Me, the hit or miss show about NYC firefighters after 9/11, last year's The Americans with its intriguing Cold War premise, and consistently impresses every season with Justified, about our favorite soft-spoken U.S. Marshall starring Timothy Olyphant. Not too mention cult hits Sons of Anarchy and the disturbing Nip/Tuck. (Also not to mention Louie, the best sort-of comedy show currently on television.) Starting on July 10th, it looks like FX might have another hit: the crime thriller The Bridge
     The Bridge has a premise that will excite any crime drama lover: a woman is found dead directly on the Texas-Mexico border. One half of her is American, and one half is Mexican. But this show isn't just about a serial killer on the loose. The two detectives that team up (one from each nation) will have to withstand corruption, immigration issues, drug trafficking and prostitution. Unlike AMC's The Killing--which I still like--the material in The Bridge seems like it could be mined for a myriad of issues that pertain to border relations and all of the tensions that are heightened due to the stressful situation, instead of just trying to find one crazy killer.
     Sonya Cross (portrayed by Diane Kruger--you might recognize her from Troy or Inglorious Basterds) works for the El Paso PD. She's a straight-edge, rule-following officer who also happens to have Asberger's Syndrome. She has a bit of a personality that lacks empathy for other human beings while on her pursuit of the truth. But to proceed, she must team up with Marco Ruiz (portrayed by Demian Bichir--he was critically acclaimed in 2011's A Better Life), a Mexican state policeman who tries to be an upstanding cop even in the face of the cartel. 
     There's a lot of potential here, especially if you've caught one of the various teasers that have aired on FX in the past few weeks. They're full of grittiness, creepiness and beautiful cinematography of the parched desert-like wasteland. As anyone who watched Breaking Bad knows, this area of the country can become a character in itself. The Bridge was also created by Meredith Stiehm, who was an executive producer and writer of Showtime's brilliant Homeland. Early word is very positive. Let's hope that by the end of the first season, the momentum is still present, and hopefully we can't wait to return to the violent U.S./Mexico border. 

Season Premiere July 10th, 10 p.m., FX Network