Tag Archives: Cliff Martinez

Only God Forgives – A Fistful of Nothing

Tabula rasa: A picture of a cardboard cutout of a robot designed to look like Ryan Gosling

Tabula rasa: A picture of a cardboard cutout of a robot designed to look like Ryan Gosling

Nicolas Winding Refn finally broke out onto the international stage with Drive, his ultra-slick stripped-back thriller that won him the best director award at Cannes in 2011. For his latest, another violent thriller so stripped back its veins are oxidising, Refn has reunited with Drive star Ryan Gosling and the results are… troubling.

Turning his attentions to Thailand, Refn’s film puts Gosling’s kickboxing promoter/drug dealer Julian on a collision course with corrupt sword-wielding supercop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) – a man so terrifying he cleanses himself after torture sessions with a relaxing bout of karaoke – after his morally base brother dies in his custody.

The man who made a supervillain out of Albert Brooks (without having to use animation), Refn here transforms Kristin Scott Thomas into the ultimate controlling gangster mother, a Lady Macbeth by way of Animal Kingdom’s Smurf. Thomas’s Crystal is the driving force behind the revenge plot against Chang, and her grotesquely Oedipal manipulations of Julian provide as much spine-shudderingly nasty moments as Chang’s array of pointy weapons. She gets all the best lines, but then there aren’t that many lines to get.

Only God Forgives is almost more of a remake of Walter Hill’s The Driver than was Drive, with its cool-as-a-cucumber “hero”, unswayable villain cop and seedy manipulative sexpot. But draining dialogue and backstory only works if your characters are likeable, and Refn’s story fails at this first juncture. Gosling comes off vacant, sometimes bored, as if the audience is meant to relate to him purely for being Ryan Gosling. The Driver in Drive had endless cool, here all Julian has is a neat waistcoat and a worrying case of mummy issues.

Back behind the camera is Bronson cinematographer Larry Smith, whose eternally red-stained frames are stunning to behold, lighting the dangerous dark of Bangkok with a tense neon glow. It’s a gorgeous work, but the content is never as interesting as the lighting and framing deserve, while the choppy, esoteric editing aims for Nic Roeg but winds up lacking meaning or punch.

The music by Cliff Martinez thumps along suitably, but it is run-off from his Drive score, and at times sounds frustratingly like the work of Philip Glass.

What’s truly lacking here is any sense of Thailand. There is no cultural context, no feel for the city, its history or society, and the film feels like the work of someone whose only understanding of Bangkok was a viewing of Ong Bak and a Lonely Planet guidebook.

In the end Only God Forgives is neither satisfying nor entertaining. It’s often quite boring really. But it’s not exactly bad, just a stunningly composed slip-up in Refn’s career. It’s characterless and verging on plotless; style beating substance across the face with a hot wok. The Oedipal subplot would be laughable if it weren’t so busy making your soul throw up.

The preposterous levels of gore will ensure more than enough walk-outs, while the lack of character and drama will take care of many of the rest. The remainder can absorb the scenery, ponder the emptiness of the project and laugh if they can manage whenever Kristin Scott Thomas says a naughty word.

Drive fans are gonna be pissed.


(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)



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Spring Breakers – Where the Wild Girls Are

Floozy Riders: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine

“Spring Break for eva, and eva…” – It’s the nonsense chant of a generation of young Americans, who believe that being young and from the Land of the Free they are entitled to their brief weeks of hedonism. Yet we see them in their university classes not paying attention, not caring. Harmony Korine’s dissection of this culture, Spring Breakers, is a clever curiosity, one which strikes with as much satire as it does advertise a lifestyle.

Korine, who wrote 1995’s challenging tale of take-it-all young Americans, Kids, tackles similar concepts here. Four college girls want to go on Spring Break to Florida. They “deserve” it. So when funds are too tight, three of the girls, Candy, Brit and Cotty, rob a local restaurant with a hammer and a toy gun and pool the cash together. Faith, the helpfully monikered Christian of the group, is not as disapproving of their methods as she is excited for the trip, and follows her three less innocent friends to Florida.

In sequences as outlandish as any late ’90s rap music video, we witness the desired atmosphere of Spring Break – bodies and breasts shimmy and shake on the beach, liquids are poured on and drunk off young women. It all looks fun and yet Korine’s assemblage of the footage finds a grotesquery in it. The monstrous faces of Aphex Twin’s ‘Windowlicker’ video are nowhere to be seen, but they’re there, beneath the fresh youthful skin of these deluded partygoers.

Our four heroines fit right in, although a re-enactment by the rebellious three of their illegal escapades does begin to worry Faith, who starts to think it may be time to head for home. Too late; they are soon arrested at a drug-fuelled party, and, broke, are left to rot in jail. Their saviour comes in the form of Alien (James Franco), a drug-dealer, DJ, gangsta poseur of the highest order, who takes the girls in under his wing. He shows them a good time. He shows them what affluence is. He shows them what you can do with real guns.

In typical Korine style Spring Breakers eschews much in the way of narrative in favour of a series of perverse set-pieces. Before the girls go to Florida we see Faith with her Bible group, headed by a pastor played by wrestler Jeff Jarrett, who preaches how awesome God’s forgiving nature is. It feels straight out of Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, despite the fact this glossy film could not look any more different to that Dogme venture. Other sequences include the girls getting high at a party where the fractured editing keenly captures drug-induced wildness, Alien listing off all the bling and swag he owns as if on an episode of MTV’s Cribs and, later, a vicious slow-motion robbery and assault accompanied on the score by a sombre Britney Spears song. These are inspired moments in an otherwise one-trick film.

In some ways little more than an update of 1960’s teensploitation morality tale Where the Boys Are, Spring Breakers hits the culture of entitlement hard, but does not do a lot else. The catch is that Korine has cast two former Disney stars, Vanessa Hudgens as Candy and Selena Gomez as Faith, in leading roles, as well as former teen soapstar Ashley Benson as Brit. But after five minutes of the film, once we’ve seen Vanessa Hudgens dragging from a bong, the shock value of the casting is gone. Korine has his young wife, Rachel Korine, playing Cotty, do much of the “heavy lifting”, appearing in the raunchiest scenes that it might have been more shocking to see a High School Musical alumnus perform.

Gangsta Squad: James Franco with Benson and Hudgens

The addition of Franco, enjoying himself intensely in the flamboyant, preposterous role of Alien, helps fuel the condemnation of middle class hero-worship of criminals. Korine pointedly has Alien’s TV at home set up to play Brian De Palma’s Scarface on a loop, a scathing attack on the cult of Tony Montana in American pop culture. What Korine risks is creating a similar cult around the charismatic Alien – sure he’s inviting his targets to worship the fraud, but is this not somehow undermining the criticism?

Still, while the central theme is lacking, and the young starlets do not make much of the material, there remains some excellent filmmaking on display here. The music, mostly by electronic artist Skrillex and Drive composer Cliff Martinez (with a little Britney thrown in), captures the tone throughout. Cinematographer Benoît Debie, best known for shooting Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, has a remarkable eye for finding the beauty in horror and the horror in beauty, and the slick, sickly gloss of this film’s first half gives away to a neon-lit nighttime of desire and danger. The editing is mostly sharp although there is a tendency to recycle imagery, often patronisingly on cue when characters refer to earlier events or themes.

So who is Korine’s film for? If it’s aimed at the actual Spring Break-going type, then will the satire not fly over their heads? If they don’t walk out, will they enjoy it without irony, wishing they could be Brit or Candy, or worse still, Alien? For the art house crowd who are used to Korine’s repulsive, exploitative but somehow often moving shtick, this is exactly what you might expect, but it is short on ideas and entertainment for long stretches.

Spring Break is over, it’s time for everyone to go back to their lives.



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