Sunday, July 28, 2013

Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives is a movie that I have been looking forward to for some time. I am a huge fan of Nicolas Winding Refn and his last effort, Drive, is one of my favorite movies of all time. I attempted to go into this movie without seeing a ton of trailers and tried to ignore the early reviews of the film as well. After seeing this movie, I would recommend that you do the same, don't watch any trailers and definitely do not read the mainstream media's reviews of this movie. If you do, you will go in with a tainted expectation of the movie.

This movie follows Julian (Ryan Gosling), a small time Thai boxing promoter and drug dealer, living in Bangkok. His brother brutally rapes and murders a young girl and is "taken care of" by a policeman, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who considers himself to be the "Angel of Vengeance". Things become more complicated when Julian's mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), comes to Bangkok to bury her dead son. Her arrival sparks a series of events that brings death and destruction to the already chaotic streets of Bangkok.

Style over substance is definitely the main theme of this movie. NWR's movies seem to be "devolving" with each new picture. Bronson was a character study, Valhalla Rising upped the violence factor but still had a focused story, Drive upped the style factor and cut down on the character building, and Only God Forgives has almost no character development and over-the-top style. He still manages to make a thoroughly engrossing movie even when all of the factors point to it being a terrible movie. Other than the character not being likable, I thought this was a fantastic movie. Soundtrack was awesome, story was pretty good, and the movie is simply stunning. The way this movie is shot, just like all of Nicolas Winding Refn's movies, are freaking beautiful when they need to be and brutally horrific when the time calls for it.

The characters in this movie are not likable, and they really aren't supposed to be. Julian is supposed to be our "hero" and he is a morally reprehensible individual, dealing drugs and banging hookers. He kills for his mother and has to take her shit at every turn. His mother, Crystal, is a whole other story. She is one of the most disturbing characters that I have seen in quite some time. She berates her son in the worst ways, attacking him at the deepest levels and it is uncomfortable to watch at points. On top of the fact that she more than likely had an incestuous relationship with her older son and order the killing of her husband. Other than that she seems like a swell gal. Lt. Chang is the most interesting of the characters in my opinion. He truly believes that he is the "Angel of Vengeance" and deals out justice in the streets of Bangkok, anyway that he deems fit. He murders, tortures, and dismembers people that have come after him or committed crimes. He is looked up to by his fellow officers and hides this side of himself from his family. I really think the movie would have been better served focusing more time on him rather than the plight of Julian.

No matter what anyone tells me, I liked this movie and I thought it was fucking solid. It might not have been as incredible as Bronson or Drive but it was still better than 90% of the shit that Hollywood throws at us throughout the course of the year. I have come to the conclusion that the "style over substance" is a bullshit argument and people are generally too lazy to try and understand what is actually happening on screen. Most movies have more style than substance but it is never pointed out because most mainstream viewers don't give a shit. People going into an arthouse movie want a little more substance but sometimes you just have to roll with it. This is a  fantastic movie to me, if you don't agree then that is fine, just don't try and talk other people out of seeing this movie. Let them make the decision for themselves.

This is a solid movie that you really have to go into with no expectations. Do not listen to the naysayers who will try and talk you out of seeing this movie. See it and make your own determinations, it is the only way that you will be able to tell if you like it or not. I thought it was great, not as great as Drive or Bronson, but it was still right below them in terms of quality. Nicolas Winding Refn is a special director and I can't wait for him to take on a project with a "grown up" budget.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Conjuring

The Conjuring had me hooked as soon as it was announced, you have the team that created Insidious and some of my favorite actors making a haunted house movie, count me in 100% of the time. When I was at New York Comic-Con last year, this movie was revealed to the public for the first time and it looked glorious. We only got small pieces of footage but it looked incredible and I instantly wanted to see it. This was one of the only movies that I was excited to see this summer, and it did not disappoint. It might not have been Exorcist-level scary, but it was great regardless.

The Conjuring tells the story of the Perron family, who after moving into a house in rural Rhode Island begin to experience paranormal phenomenons in their home. The incidents are initially very minor and then culminate in the assault of one of their daughters by an unseen entity. The family calls in Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), famous paranormal investigators/demonologists, to investigate the events that are occurring in the house. When the Warrens come on the scene, they begin to unravel the mystery behind the events and try to save the Perrons in the process.

This was a really, really solid horror movie. It wasn't Exorcist-level frightening but it was one of the scarier movies to come out in the last few years. What this movie does better than most is creating a sense of tension. In most scenes there is a palpable sense of tension and sometimes it is just to mess with you and other times it is there to scare the shit out of you. There is a gore-less horror movie for the most part and it did not detract from the movie at all. I love gore in horror movies but there are times when it isn't needed and this is one of those cases. Tension and dread are the only things that this movie needed to get the job done. The first ten minutes of the movie set the tone for the entire movie and it introduces the creepiest dolls in movie history.

Whoever was in charge of casting for this movie did a phenomenal job. The four main actors (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, and Ron Livingston) did a fantastic job, with Wilson and Farmiga being the standouts. Of all the surprises in the movie, the biggest one to me is the quality of the young actors in the movie. Each one had their own spotlight moments in the movie and they added to the realism of the story. Taylor, Livingston, and the kids were integral in the success of the movie, because without them acting as a family, the movie would have fallen flat. Wilson and Farmiga have a great chemistry on screen and chemistry helps solidify them as the standouts in the movie.

The only thing that detracted from the movie for me is that this movie did not eclipse Insidious. James Wan, the man behind both films, did a wonderful job bringing this "true" story to the screen but Insidious had some big shoes to fill. Insidious had great creature design, never ending sense of dread, solid acting, and superior story. It was a fresh take on an old story but it was just more effective than The Conjuring in my mind. Insidious is one of my favorite horror movie of the past few years and The Conjuring fell a few places below it on my list. Wan pulled just a few too many things from his previous hit. The visual design of the spirits in The Conjuring were very similar to the spirits in "The Further" from Insidious which was a slight detraction from The Conjuring. Other than those small gripes, The Conjuring was a fantastic movie and should be seen by all horror fans.

This is a fantastic movie that just feels slightly out of place in the summer blockbuster season but it was welcome nonetheless. James Wan has another surefire hit on his hands and it is going to be awesome to see him take on the Fast & Furious franchise in the near future. Go and see this movie if you want to get the shit scared out of you and have a good time at the same time.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

E is for Extinction: Best X-Men story of All-Time?

In the late-90s, the X-Men hit a creative "wall" where everything was just stale and old hat. The characters were boring and there was no momentum in the series. Marvel decided that they needed to reinvigorate their stale flagship title, X-Men, and handed the reins over to the mad genius known as Grant Morrison. Morrison is one of the best writers on the planet, not just in the comic industry. He has an amazing understanding of the characters he writes and has a habit of introducing some of the craziest fucking ideas you will ever read or see. He took the cast of characters in the X-Men and focused on a small section of them which included Jean Gray, Cyclops, Beat, Wolverine, Emma Frost, and Professor X. He added in the supporting cast consisting of the students that inhabit the Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.

E is for Extinction is the first arc in Grant Morrison's definitive run and is one of my favorite story arcs in comic history. The arc centers around the villain, Cassandra Nova, and her quest to eradicate the mutant gene from existence. We are talking full blown genocide, not a battle to kill one mutant, but to eradicate the race completely. She creates "wild Sentinels" which are not bound by directives and are able to adapt to certain situations which make them much more dangerous. She sends a few large "wild Sentinels" to Genosha, a sovereign mutant nation, and proceeds to murder 16 million mutants in a matter of minutes.  The arc deals with the ramifications of this act and shows us just how much of a force Cassandra Nova can be.

This was the first time that I had ever seen a writer of X-Men delve into the social issues that are inherent to the series. We see how many people in the Marvel Universe are outwardly racist towards the mutants simply because they are different looking. Most of the students at the school are horrific looking but most people never try and get to know them, they simply mark them as freaks and are scared of them. The character of Beak, a kid with bird-like features, is shunned by even some of his own kind because his outward appearance is categorized as grotesque. He is an extremely interesting character and ends up playing a huge role in Morrison's run on X-Men and has been sadly shelved by most writers since. The idea of mutants being closeted and hidden from the world is nothing new, but Morrison tackles the subject head on and it all comes to a head at the end of the arc, and it is spectacular.

Genocide was the most disturbing aspect to show up in this arc. There have been plans to eliminate mutants before, but they were mostly limited to regulating them and keeping them oppressed. Morrison takes it a step further and asks the question, "What if someone wanted to eliminate Mutants from existence?". This isn't a Scarlet Witch depowering people, this is bunch of massive Sentinel murdering millions of mutants in the blink of an eye. One of the most poignant scenes in the arc is when Xavier is in Cerebra dn you are seeing the count of the lives on Genosha just counting down to zero, and he keeps mentioning how he keeps seeing lights go out. That is him feeling and experiencing the deaths of millions of people, it is simply one of the most fucked up and disturbing scenes in comic history.

It was also really refreshing to see Frank Quitely, one of the best artists in comic history, not draw the X-Men as these buff and sexy protectors of the Mutant race. Most of the mutants are shown to be deformed by their mutations and even the main cast is not drawn as "pretty" as they normally are. Wolverine is a short, hairy, greasy looking bastard and Beast looks like a "beast", more animal than man. The rest of the main cast has their own distinct looks but those two stood out to me. Quitely has the ability to make all of his characters look very distinct and different from one another which is great for a series that focuses on so many character, each having their own different set of abilities.

This was just the first arc in what is the best run in X-Men publication history. Morrison did what so few writers are able to do, and made the X-Men interesting on a personal level with the reader. He made you invested in their lives, not just their actions, and that is the mark of a truly gifted writer. His willingness to tackle social subjects was a welcome addition to the comic world and his character creations were next level. The only other writer I have ever seen Marvel give this level of freedom with characters is Jonathan Hickman, and they are currently letting him do it with The Avengers. The overall craziness might not be there but they are letting him guide these huge conjoined story arcs with a main goal in mind and it is our job to see it through to its conclusion.

This is one of those times where I shouldn't even have to tell you to go read this. But, you need to go read this right now. The following two arc follow in the same footsteps as E is for Extinction, are excellent in their own rights, but this sits alongside Joss Whedon's "Gifted" arc in Astonishing X-Men as the best X-Men stories of all-time. Download it or buy it, just read it.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Spring Breakers

The art of the misleading trailer is something that Hollywood has mastered over the years. In order to get all of the horny co-eds and twentysomethings into the theaters, the studio behind this movie made it seem like a fast paced crime thriller with tits and ass galore. I am happy to say that while there is a lot of T&A in this movie, there is also a tremendous amount of depth to it. Harmony Korine put together a special movie with a cast that ends up doing a pretty spectacular job.

Spring Breakers follows the foursome of Brit, Faith, Cotty, and Candy (Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine, and Vanessa Hudgens), as they attempt to escape their boring college lives and experience spring break. The trio of Brit, Cotty, and Candy decide that they are willing to do whatever they need to do, and decide to rob a diner in order to fund their trip. After getting the money for the trip, the four girls head down to Florida for a week of debauchery. They get caught doing some illicit activities and are taken in by Alien (James Franco), who proceeds to show them the dark underbelly of Spring Break.

There is a ton of themes that are flowing through this movie and it was a welcome surprise after seeing the initial trailer, which made this movie look like a vapid piece of trash. Spirituality plays a huge role in this movie, and is focused around the character of Faith. She is a very religious person and she is desperate to experience the world but seems to be looking for these experiences in all the wrong places. She realizes that she is headed down a path of damnation and decides to abandon the group and go back to her old life. Faith sees all of these horrible things going on around her and tries to save her friends but is turned down because they are enamoured by the life that Alien leads. Alien seems to represent "The Devil" throughout the movie, he never forces the girls to do anything but he is always tempting them with money and the promise of a nerverending "Spring Break". Faith bails when she realizes what he is doing but it takes much more disturbing events for the others to snap back to reality.

The appeal of the "Spring Break" experience is undeniable but there is a point where you have to give it up and go back to reality. The characters in the movie were so desperate to hold on to the feeling that they get from being around Alien and his "lifestyle" that they started to become just like him. Candy and Brit are the two that go full bore and fully immerse themselves in the lifestyle that Alien lives. They are entranced by the money and items that he has. They seem to ignore all of the bad shit that could go on at any moment in time while hanging around him. They see one of their friends get shot and seem to ignore it. The end scene is so disturbing when you really take the time and think about what is going on. They go from girls looking to have a good time to being ruthless killers almost instantly.

A quality cast, deep story, and fantastic imagery elevate this movie from being trashy to being potentially one of the best movies of 2013. Selena Gomez is surprisingly solid in this movie, and that caught me completely off guard. I thought she was going to be a joke in this movie but she really does make you feel for her in her struggle to break away from what she sees as a soul crushing existence. I am not a huge fan of James Franco, but he does an excellent job of  making the character of Alien both sympathetic and terrifying through the course of the movie. They are the standouts in the movie for sure and the rest of the cast does a solid job as well.

I would be doing a disservice to the movie if I failed to mention the amazing job that Harmony Korine did. He made an extremely deep movie with interesting characters, in a package that can appeal to both the mainstream crowd as well as the indie crowd. Nothing is overdone in this movie which is saying a lot, because it could have been overly violent or boring. The perfect balance has been struck and many of the scenes reminded me of Drive, with the scenes of violence being devoid of dialogue and the violence serves a purpose and is not pointless. He uses neon in this movie in a ton of scenes and it works beautifully. There is a theory online about how certain colors in the movie are used to symbolize the presence of God, but I don't know if the movie is that deep.

This is the best movie of the first half of 2013 and it bested many of the summer blockbusters in terms of entertainment. Sometimes you need to have a deeper movie experience and this one definitely delivered on that with a very layered viewing experience. This is one that you absolutely must see, I cannot recommend it enough.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Warm Bodies

Of all of the zombie movies that have come out over the last few years, this was the one I was least looking forward to seeing. This is a movie that I had no desire to see and only saw it because a few horror fanatics that I know recommended it. I thought that it was going to be the Twilight of zombie movies and I am extremely happy that my predictions were wrong. It takes what has become a somewhat stale genre and injects some new, fresh ideas into it. The mixing of Shakespearean themes and horror turned out to be a pretty badass combo and I delve into it a little more later in this review.

Warm Bodies tells the story of R (Nicholas Hoult), a young zombie, who is still able to think and even voice some basic words. R wanders around an abandoned airport with his fellow zombies while the last remnants of human society are contained to a walled off city. Julie (Teresa Palmer), the daughter of the leader (John Malkovich) of the humans, goes on a supply run and runs into R and a pack of zombie. In the ensuing chaos, Julie's boyfriend is killed, and R take Julie to safety. Unknown to Julie, R killed her boyfriend and ate his brain. By eating his brain, R begins to feel love and an attraction towards Julie. From this point on it is a battle for survival and learning that things aren't always what they appear to be.

This is a PG-13 zombie movie, so don't look for a ton of gore and over the top zombie kills in this one. The story is the primary focus of the movie. The trailers for the movie made it seem hokey and tried too hard to appeal to the Twihards. The themes of the movie are love conquering the hardest of circumstances and holding on to your humanity no matter how dire a situation may be. Some of the zombies hold onto pieces of their humanity despite being reanimated corpses and they yearn to be alive once again but have no idea how to get back to that point. At points they are more human than the actual living humans, who have become cold and uncaring as a result of the destruction of most of the world's population. The whole movie is about R's redemption and his will to live despite the circumstances he faces. The love conquering all obstacles centers more on his growing love for the beautiful Julie. All of the obstacles put in front of R deal with keeping him separated from Julie in some way and his love for Julie is what powers him through all of these trials.

The Shakespearean overtones of the movie are really limited to the main characters having names beginning with R and J. They come from different "families" and are not supposed to be together. But fate brings them together and a forbidden relationship begins. The more depressing aspects of the Romeo and Juliet story are thankfully left out of this movie, such as the annoying family members and the suicides. The R and J connection is more than likely lost on a high percentage of younger viewers but I did enjoy it because I have never seen Shakespeare mixed with horror before.

This is a very solid horror movie and at no point did the lack of gore or nudity take away from how enjoyable this movie is. Hoult and Palmer are excellent in their roles and Hoult really has to show his acting chops in this movie because for a good portion of the movie his character is barely able to speak and has to convey a lot of things simply through his actions. His character also has to use music to convey his messages to Julie in their early meeting. Each has its own meaning and they play perfectly for each scene.

I recommend that you go see this movie. It might not be every one's cup of tea but it is good enough to counteract the lack of horror norms. The acting and story are the glue that holds this movie together and I wouldn't be against seeing a sequel to this in the future.