The Nice Guys (2016)

There’s been a low-level hum of satisfaction around the critical community when it comes to Shane Black’s latest directorial effort, perhaps a reaction to his return to a recognisable world after the superhero excesses of Iron Man Three, or perhaps because, well, his two lead characters played by Ryan Gosling (as squeamish PI Holland March) and Russell Crowe (as enforcer Jackson Healy) are kinda nice guys. Deep down, that is, because of course both have jobs that involve them in some sordid work, not least Crowe’s character Jackson, who is the tough guy sent round to break noses when payments aren’t made or respect isn’t given. That said, I’m not always convinced the film is itself particularly nice, though it’s at least a mark of upfront candour about your sexual politics to start with the image of a murdered and bloody, naked p0rn star splayed out centerfold-style as a teenage boy’s (literal) fantasy image. The film is set in 1977 so of course there’s a lot of that’s-how-things-were-back-then type set-ups, and for me a lot of them leave a bad taste in the mouth, as if the filmmakers are aware of the gross misogyny but just sort of think it’s fine if one of the lead characters is a woman — well, a 13-year-old girl (Holland’s daughter Holly, played by wide-eyed Anna Chlumsky-alike Angourie Rice), who has to witness some pretty nasty stuff, but also gets to boss around the men. It’s got some good writing and definitely a likeable swagger to its leads — and in the case of Russell Crowe, that’s a rare enough thing these days — but Black, like his film, came of age writing in the 1980s and a lot of that retrogressive spirit shines through pretty clearly.

The Nice Guys film posterCREDITS
Director Shane Black; Writers Black and Anthony Bagarozzi; Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot; Starring Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 9 May 2016.

The Big Short (2015)

Whatever else came from the Wall Street crash of 2008, it’s certainly been the impetus for plenty of films since then, going right back to my first entry on this blog, Arbitrage (2012), not to mention the following year’s The Wolf of Wall Street — though those are less specifically about 2008, as about the broken culture of high finance. The Big Short certainly gets that culture across well, while digging deeper into the specifics of sub-prime mortages, collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and the other jargon and terminology, framing it in an easily-digestible way for viewers whose understanding of such matters is fairly shaky (i.e. most of them, presumably). What this means in practice is jittery camerawork with lots of racking of focus and quick zooms, along with the interpolation of awkward cameos purporting to explain the more abstruse concepts, hosted by such figures as Selena Gomez at a gambling table and Margot Robbie (harking back to Wolf again) in a bathtub. The problem is that all of these tropes are largely distracting, while the bulk of the narrative prefers to focus on a few quirky characters whose stories are presumably more interesting, though it’s not clear to me that they were really central to the crisis (basically they’re traders who made a buck from everyone else’s misfortune). So there’s Christian Bale’s doctor with Aspberger’s, a Cassandra-like figure largely separate from the rest of the cast; there’s Steve Carell’s fund manager and his staff; there’s Ryan Gosling’s shark-like trader; and there’s the small garage-based midwestern startup led by John Magaro, who enlist the help of former Wall Street highflyer-turned-environmentalist Brad Pitt. Needless to say, the acting talents on screen — not to mention the comedy chops of director/writer Adam McKay — ensure that the film is never boring. I’m just not certain that this film filled with shouty men in suits is ever very much more than just a snappily entertaining, fitfully amusing digression.

The Big Short film posterCREDITS
Director Adam McKay; Writers McKay and Charles Randolph (based on the book by Michael Lewis); Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; Starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Brad Pitt; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Friday 29 January 2016.

รับคำท้าจากพระเจ้า Only God Forgives (2013)

A note on the title: The title card of the film is in Thai, subtitled into English. None of the online sources give me a transliteration of this title, but if I were following the rather pedantic rules I’ve been using on this blog, I would give the title in Thai.


There are undeniably words and ideas that, if you read (or indeed write) a lot of film/literary criticism, you find yourself coming across more often than one might expect in the real world. It often comes down to finding an apt adjective to try and grasp a sense of a film’s style or mood, and if any ever film was reliant on style and mood then it’s this one. And the chief adjective that comes into my addled brain is “oneiric”.

I think it’s worth leading with that because when I start getting into a plot summary it will sound all so very banal, that I must stress that when it’s playing out it owes far more of a debt to European art cinema (and you can see from all the co-production credits that it quite literally has plenty of that) not to mention the more dream-like passages of David Lynch. But I like the word ‘oneiric’ because of its Ancient Greek derivation, and if there’s any story that has inspired Only God Forgives, it must surely be that of Oedipus; plenty of what happens in the film only really makes sense if you’re attuned to the mythic archetypes that Refn is fixated upon.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The protagonist of the piece is the laconic Julian (Ryan Gosling), the owner of a Muay Thai (kickboxing) gym, whose twisted brother gets himself killed. Their mother (a steely and platinum blonde Kristin Scott Thomas) demands vengeance, and things start getting messy, particularly when police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and his samurai-like blade gets involved. But if Gosling and Scott Thomas ethnocentrically head the credits list, it is in fact Pansringarm who carries the film, his implacable middle-aged detective, moving slowly and with great deliberation, functioning as the sort of avenging angel for these errant Westerners.

Other reviewers have done much better at unpicking some of the implications of cultural tourism in having a Danish director and US stars in the Thai setting (and I would point you to this piece on The Hooded Utilitarian I found while trying to Google the film’s correct Thai title). In short, though, these are interlopers in a culture they don’t fully understand and Refn isn’t interested in the usual narrative structures — famous (white) lead actor gets one over on the violently foolish locals. There’s quite a different story happening here, and it’s one with no clear winners.

If the film steers clear of the standard revenge film clichés, it comes a lot closer to being a risible arthouse exercise in style over substance — at times it’s like a pure channelling of the violent physicality and alienation of, say, Gaspar Noé (who is thanked in the credits). Certainly, Cliff Martinez’s droning score only seems to heighten the disconnect between the ravishing imagery and any emotional affect. Still, as you’ll see by the rating I’ve given the film, I don’t think it quite succumbs to the weight of all that portentous imagery, if only by the very vigour with which it is embraced. Almost every shot is saturated in neon reds and blues, as Julian drifts impassively through a seedy underworld of brothels, fight clubs and karaoke bars, presided over by the ever-watchful eyes of various monsters (the huge iconic demon on the wall at the boxing club, or the martial statue that haunts Julian’s dreams/waking life). Several of the conversations between the protagonist and his mother (not to mention a particularly grisly scene near the end) exist mostly in order to deepen the play of signifiers that Refn is so invested in: phallocentrism, castration complexes, the interplays between sex, birth and death — stuff that easily drifts into the pretentious.

What I’ve been trying to get across here, however inadequately, is that I would quite understand if other viewers were to find an arid, pretentious vision of revenge and parental attachment issues. I think the film can easily be taken that way, from its violent imagery, its hyperstylised colours and its almost narcoleptic forward momentum. And yet, if it perches on the edge of this very fine line, I prefer to think that it succeeds, compellingly pushing at the boundaries of morality in showing an impassive man who appears to have resigned responsibility for his life being confronted by an embodiment of divine judgement, retribution and maybe even forgiveness, though of all the divine qualities, that one is the most tenuous here.

Only God Forgives film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nicolas Winding Refn; Cinematographer Larry Smith; Starring Ryan Gosling, Vithaya Pansringarm, Kristin Scott Thomas; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 2 August 2013.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

I get the feeling that this is a film that’s a bit in love with itself, though I do tend to get that feeling whenever a running time greatly exceeds two hours. Thankfully, the extra investment of time is largely borne out by what’s on screen, with a few caveats that made me feel if anything that maybe a bit of extra time was needed. Maybe it should have been a mini-series. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a film of three distinct acts, the first two separated by a fairly short period of a year or two, the third taking place 15 years later. The central characters are Luke (played by Ryan Gosling) and Avery (played by Bradley Cooper), as well as their respective sons. Riding as a motorcycle stuntman in a travelling carnival show, Luke learns early on that he has a son with Romina (played by Eva Mendes), but when he tries to do what he thinks is the decent thing she resists his advances (she has already moved on), and he gets sucked into criminality. Avery enters the story later as a cop who gets mixed up in their relationship, and 15 years later their sons have to deal with the fallout. That’s really as much as I can say without giving away too much of the plot, but it’s essentially a ‘sins of the fathers’ scenario with added layers of class angst and existential yearning.

The film is primarily set in and around Schenectady in upstate New York. I’ve linked to the Wikipedia article because its first paragraph reveals the more prosaic origin of the film’s title, though it’s not mentioned or even alluded to in the film itself. No doubt this is because ‘the place beyond the pines’ instead is intended to encapsulate a vaguely-felt desire of the central characters to escape their fates, where actions in their respective pasts continue to exert a hold over their present reality. If there’s something of a hint of ancient tragedy to the undertaking, this becomes clearest in the film’s third act, where the screenwriters pull the strings (rather too forcefully) to arrange a series of character confrontations leading to the denouement. Then again, there are points throughout the film where the events are over-determined in order to telegraph a thematic point, with entire characters seemingly crowbarred into the narrative in order to move it along (I wasn’t convinced by Ray Liotta’s cop, and even Avery’s son felt like a cipher).

Where the film is strongest is in the way it showcases class-based antagonisms. Each of the acts uses class signifiers as a significant form of divisiveness between the protagonists. Romina and her partner Kofi are certainly poor, but they are lawful, respectable, hard-working people who attain a certain economic stability by the third act, whereas Luke represents an embattled underclass (a sort of modern lumpenproletariat) with very limited options for generating the kind of income required to raise a child comfortably, hence his desperate turn to lawlessness. Avery meanwhile is a highly-educated professional doing work his father (who is a judge) clearly considers beneath their class, which puts him into direct conflict with his blue-collar colleagues on the police force. Once again, these divisions formed over the first two acts, are brought to a head in the third, and while the class distinctions are initially more fluid in the school environment, events propel each of the two sons towards a more fully-formed class consciousness (if that’s not overstating things a little).

Ultimately this is a good film which had the potential to be far more. If the first two acts are anchored by strong central performances from charismatic screen actors, they add up to very little without the third act, which is let down by overburdened dramatic manipulation. However, there’s a lot of potential here, and a lot to give hope that the director’s future films will build on this.


CREDITS
Director Derek Cianfrance; Writers Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 25 April 2013.