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Kathleen Murphy

NYMPH()MANIyakking: Thoughts Prompted by Lars Von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1’

Kathleen Murphy: Plunging into the first volume of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, we’re drowned in cloacal darkness, straining to identify initially faint metallic sounds that rise in volume, odd plinks and whines and scrapes. When von Trier finally lets there be light, it’s dim, dirty looking, oppressive. Narrow passages cut through a maze of worn brick walls and rain-smeared pavement. Impossible to imagine that any sky overarches this dank “underground,” or that there’s any way out of these claustrophobic environs.

Von Trier then snapshots the “instruments” — an industrial fan, its turning retarded by rust; a loop of metal banging brick; a garbage can lid percussed by raindrops — in what we come to recognize is a symphonic overture, composed of the strange “musical” notes we could hardly hear in that original dark. Suddenly, heavy metal chords and grinding vocals erupt, the bellow of some cosmic machine. When the camera frames a closeup of a bloodied hand, outflung on wet pavement, the color comes as a shock. We hadn’t considered that flesh might exist in this dead world.

What a visual/aural downer, you may say — but undeniably exhilarating as well, in its masterly movement and design. Nymphomaniac begins in a post-apocalyptic cul-de-sac, as though its world has already ended. (Didn’t that happen in Melancholia?) But this is the embarkation point of a movie ostensibly about the sexual odyssey of a child-then-woman committed to nonstop, indiscriminate fornication. What does von Trier’s meticulously composed overture signal about Nymphomaniac’s itinerary and destination? Where can we go from here?

Richard T. Jameson: An admirable keynote, on your part as well as von Trier’s. You don’t mention that that opening “shot” of total blackness must last a couple of minutes (I resisted reaching for my iPhone to check). How typically perverse yet surprising of von Trier to start off by denying us anything to look at, at the outset of a movie where we expect to be voyeurs.

The first thing we see is a view of snow falling straight down — a shock cut to beauty and, after all that cacophony, utter silence. The view looks (we assume) out of the alley where that bloody hand with body attached lies. It’s of a courtyard or a street, empty of people. Then there’s one person, a man (Stellan Skarsgard), on his way somewhere with a dainty little shopping pouch. And when he comes back, he appears to pass the alley without seeing the body. But something stops him just out of frame, and he comes back, and he looks, and after a minute he enters.

In the meantime von Trier has allowed the alley entrance to accrete architectural and textural complexity, become almost organic looking, acquire several layers of walls and angles lighted by the kind of ineffable glow that might seep out of a snowflake. Is it the most complex and beautiful setting we’ll see in this two-hour movie?

KM: Only an aesthete cursed by chronic despair could create beauty and complexity out of that stoneworks. But Nymphomaniac is the third entry in von Trier’s Depression Trilogy.

Pretty soon, the battered owner of that bloody hand (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is, Sheherazade-like, storytelling us and her sympathetic rescuer-cum-confessor Seligman (Skarsgard) out of the drear of those alleys and his drab apartment. Recounting colorful (in action and palette) and often very funny stories of her “shameful, sinful” life, Joe insists she’s a “bad human being.” Sipping restorative tea, Joe begins: “I discovered my cunt when I was two.” It’s not exactly “Call me Ishmael” or “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies,” but Joe’s opening line recalls innumerable fictions about youngsters “lighting out” for adventure, finding, sometimes losing, themselves on the road — Candide, Tom Jones, Huckleberry Finn, Stephen Dedalus, et al.

RTJ: We can’t continue this palaver without noting that, in addition to von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist, Melancholia), Joe is played by several actresses at ages 2, 7 and 10. At age 15 Stacy Martin takes over, and she’s the main show whenever Gainsbourg and Skarsgard aren’t on screen. French-English, she was 22 at the time of filming, and this is her film debut. Von Trier insists he didn’t notice she bears a strong resemblance to Gainsbourg’s mother Jane Birkin at a comparable stage in life.

Gainsbourg’s fellow travelers include Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Uma Thurman, Saskia Reeves, Bond villain Jesper Christensen, Subspecies‘ slobbering bloodsucker Anders Hove … and in Vol. 2 we are promised (wait for it!) Udo Kier.

KM: Stellan Skarsgard’s Seligman, Joe’s enthusiastic audience, seems a gentle soul, clearly late-middle-aged but strangely childlike in countenance, his faded features unmarked by experience. Joe may prefer an Old Testament reading of her sexual escapades, but Seligman’s some kind of secular humanist, consistently excusing, contextualizing, intellectualizing, and aestheticizing her sexual exploits. He frequently interrupts her flashbacks with learned allusions, empathetic observations. Is there something a little off about this Good Samaritan? (I admit I flashed back to Pandora’s Box and Jack the Ripper!)

RTJ: Cut him some slack, his son’s a thousand-year-old vampire stuck in Louisiana … but I digress.

One of the things that fascinate me about Nymphomaniac is that we can’t guess what we’re going to be looking at next. I don’t mean the varieties of sexual experience. I mean … well, the most startling and exhilarating scene in the film involves a character whose entry into the mix about two-thirds of the way in could not have been anticipated, and who proceeds to own the movie for what in olden days would have been a reel. An amazing performance, both the character’s and the actor’s, whom I will not name for the same reason I won’t say what the sequence is about: we don’t do spoilers here (unless I spoiled that cut to the snowfall — my bad).

Point is, there’s this dynamic tension in Von Trier, between near-minimal production resources and radical lurches into deeper, richer, more multivalenced, envelope-pushing reality than would have been possible in a conventional film, one with more sets and more breathing room in the cutting.

KM: Dynamic tension charges almost every aspect of the movie. As Joe begins Chapter One: The Compleat Angler, she claims that her tale is a “moral” one. Though this is a girl who (presumably) just wants to have fun — that is, unlimited sex — her experiences are relentlessly mechanical, boring, sometimes just plain funny. For a sexually explicit movie, full of screwing and sucking and galleries of male members, Nymphomaniac (so far) never seems prurient or particularly erotic (Skarsgard remarked to an interviewer that it would make a lousy “wanking” movie); the contes never come off as morality plays. Joe might as well be a sexual anthropologist testing a host of subjects, or an angler testing the efficacy of many different flies.

Will we eventually learn that Nymphomaniac turns on the tension between storyteller and audience, the play between Joe and her enigmatic father confessor? Flashbacks — of both her and his childhoods — are embellished with playful animations, live-action, split screens, and a passel of screen superimpositions, invoking Peter Greenaway’s stylized “reinventions” of cinema. Von Trier accounts for Joe’s premeditated, ultra-mechanical defloration through superimposed addition: “3 [vaginal humps] + 5 [anal humps],” which in turn prompts the learned Seligman to note that these are Fibonacci numbers. In this bent take on “My Night at Maud’s,” consider the tension between posited morality and the banal couplings we actually witness, not to mention the whimsy and outright hilarity of some of Joe’s adventures. Then there’s the tale-spinner’s deadpan, know-nothing seriousness, so frequently countered by Seligman’s delighted digressions into metaphors of fishing, mathematics, science, mythology, religion. Joe’s readings of reality are largely narrow, unimaginative, while Seligman sees sex as a trampoline from which one may leap into humankind’s headiest creative endeavors.

RTJ: Yes, I was surprised by that — that the title character, as embodied by Gainsbourg in the present-tense parts of the movie, isn’t the saucy minx one might have anticipated beforehand. Of course, we don’t yet know what brought her to her abject state of mind and body at the film’s beginning. But you’re right, of the two, Seligman is the antic spirit bringing the film to unexpected life. Will he somehow succeed in doing the same for Joe?

KM: Or will he somehow be the death of her?

Just can’t resist fishing in one of Seligman’s/von Trier’s down-the-rabbit-hole streams of consciousness: During that Compleat Angler chapter, Seligman compares a “nymph” fly to Joe, who “runs the river” as she nets a train full of men; we’re even treated to live-action fishing scenes along with superimposed shagging scorecards. Keep running this river and you’ll surely free-associate from Izaak Walton (author of The Compleat Angler) to Isaac Newton, then remember that the fall of an apple famously helped Newton to “discover” gravity; Joe’s chapter is about a falling Eve, banging her way through a train for a bag of sweets. For further brain teasing, pursue the significance of Fibonacci numbers, the ash tree Joe’s dad loves so much, and medieval polyphony, a resonant metaphor for promiscuity and Nymphomaniac itself.

Whatever I expected of Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1, I didn’t anticipate its wonderful sense of play, the persistent pleasure derived from following this picaresque pilgrimage. More predictably — this is, after all, von Trier territory — there’s horror, and the film’s penultimate chapter, Delirium, provides that in spades. In this episode, Joe loses her mostly affectless reaction to love and pain and sex; and images of screwing to exorcise death and the awful decay of flesh deliver a gut-punch of meaning — perhaps the climax of the countless mostly passionless couplings that came before. I think it’s wildly off the mark to pretend that Nymphomaniac is about a woman’s sexual liberation, any more than that awful architectural dead-end at the beginning of the movie offers a room with a view. Rifling through a grabbag of genres, Nymphomaniac explores everything — genital lubrication and the Golden Ratio, the power of storytelling and ugly reality, Yggdrasil and Bach’s “Little Organ Book”— but we won’t know definitively where we have been or where we are going until Joe’s pilgrimage concludes in Nymphomaniac, Vol. 2 (due for April release).

RTJ: Assuming we know it even then. The wonderful and maddening thing about von Trier is that you never quite know what his game is. People harp on his misogyny, for instance, and yet how many — how few — filmmakers have imagined such transfiguring journeys for female protagonists to be on: Emily Watson’s character in Breaking the Waves, Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, Nicole Kidman in Dogville, Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. Are his stylish embellishments, such as what you’ve called the Greenaway superimpositions here, just child’s play or means of hinting at a whole other dimension to what we’re watching? I still remember my astonishment, sustained throughout the film, at his feature debut The Element of Crime — this blasted black-and-white world served up in curry-sauce monochrome, with an obviously English detective making his way through an obviously not-English city trying to solve a series of crimes — a climate of crime, really — which as I recall never did reach any identifiable conclusion. And yet the calm arrogance of the film’s creator inspired a kind of faith.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Moveable Feast

Before 2000, Abdellatif Kechiche was an actor, presumably finding pleasure and profit in performance. When he came to make movies, the French-Tunisian gravitated to raw, often nonprofessional performers, faces and bodies fresh to the pressure and invasiveness of the camera eye. Reviewing Poetical Refugee (originally La Faute à Voltaire), Kechiche’s first film, critic A.O. Scott remarked the new director’s “fine and unusual instinct for ordinary beauty.” That instinct has persisted in all of his subsequent work. And from the start, the former thespian celebrated the saving power of creative presentation of self in theater, dance … even by means of splendid cuisine! For this immigrant artist, body-based connections often generate a sense of home and metaphysical sustenance for his refugees, literal and/or existential.

Abdellatif Kechiche

Games of Love and Chance

Games of Love and Chance (2003) features a tribe of teens who live and thrive in dreary housing projects outside Paris. Typically, Kechiche concentrates on memorable faces and feelings, human landscapes of passion and individuality so richly diverse they totally background the unprepossessing environment.

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Fall 2013 Movie Guide

Last summer turned out to be catastrophic for bloated big-budget flicks. Over-hyped fare like After Earth, The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim, Man of Steel, The Wolverine et al., bombed with a vengeance. That won’t stop these Hollywood follies from racking up record box-office overseas, where big, bad CGI’d action needs no translation. But American audiences may well be signaling a desire for smaller, well-written, character-driven stories — like the superb long-form fictions crowding cable TV these days.

‘Gravity’ with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

Standout summer offerings like The Heat, The Conjuring and Fruitvale Station featured (sort-of) everyday folks who actually speak to each other, love, hate, fight and go through major life changes without the aid of volleyball muscles, spandex, “Rocky Horror Show” makeup, or industrial-grade WMD. Maybe even avid fanboys are tiring of movies that look like blown-up comic-book frames. How much pleasure can even multiplex sheeple derive from spectacle that’s been mapped and measured for little more than maximum physiological response?

It could be that fall will deliver a cornucopia of new releases designed to satisfy our appetite for interesting Joes and Janes, tasty chatter and human-sized experiences. Maybe — dare we hope? — more upcoming movies will be composed, moved and lighted as though actual filmmakers, instead of gifted computer technicians, had directed them.

So, hopes high, we dive into autumn, the hot harvest season when Oscar prognosticators begin in earnest to winnow out the cinematic chaff and earmark the best of field.

The ones to watch

Good news, folks: Some of the buzziest of fall movies focus on charismatic individuals. Many of their titles reflect an emphasis on larger-than-life types who nonetheless remain steadfastly human, feet firmly planted on the ground — at least when they’re not lost at sea or adrift in outer space!

Captain Phillips chronicles the hot-off-the-press story of a cargo ship officer who stood up to present-day pirates in the Indian Ocean. Playing an ordinary Joe turned hero is two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks’ forte. Even without his volleyball, he’ll be catnip for auds and Oscar. The helmer is Paul Greengrass, whose “United 93” taught us a thing or two about grace under pressure during a hijacking.

Continue reading at MSN Movies

Adore

Watching Adore, one isn’t often prompted to admire Anne Fontaine’s directorial astuteness when it comes to framing and composing her strange fable. It’s more a matter of going with the flow, surrendering to rhythms of light, desire, grace. Coming away, one feels a little dazed, as though one had just come in out of the sun after a long, slow swim. And Adore’s spell lingers. The power of that spell radiates from the sensual allure and intelligence of the two actresses—Naomi Watts as Lil and Robin Wright as Roz—who are the heart of this uterine tale of almost-incest.

Both blondes are in their forties, and their flesh has seasoned past the flawless pliancy of youth. Watts’ beauty is softer, more vulnerable, at times almost childlike; Wright is all killer jawline, long limbs, artfully windswept short hair, erotically androgynous. But each woman’s blue gaze reflects the other’s; basking on a sunny beach, ambling along a path arm in arm, their bodies shimmer into one supple female form.

Best friends since childhood, neighbors in a hillside enclave overlooking a picturesque Australian coastline, Roz and Lil swim lazily, like elegant golden fish, in the serene waters of their conjoined lives. There are husbands, one dead, the other chafing for change (Ben Mendelsohn, poignant as irrelevant spouse), but clearly nothing can penetrate the women’s perfect, enviable rapport. It looks and feels like Eden by the sea, where slimmed-down earth mothers adore their sons, riding the waves like “young gods.”

The boys, one dark, the other flaxen-haired, are best friends as well and, unlike other men, have easy access to their mothers’ charmed circle. Far from having left the nest, Tom (James Frecheville) and Ian (Xavier Samuel) prefer to hang out with their moms, drinking wine, dancing, teasing—in a sort of innocent exclusivity. Then one night, Ian and Roz come together, as though magnetized, in a darkened hallway, falling into bed and consuming love. Outraged, Tom soon finds solace in Lil’s arms.

So, forbidden love. But not the kind that generates delicious frissons of horror and fascination, and certainly not fodder for those who love to cookie-cutter human experience. After brief guilt and a little angst, a mostly blissful ménage-à-quatre ensues, the maternal landscape making room for the muscular young bodies of sons and lovers. The specter of transgressive love never really rises. Rather, there is a sense of completion, of something fated and, yes, natural that has come to pass. We’re way outside realism here, traveling in some primal terra incognita where young men searching for home are welcomed by Penelopes killing time. In one bittersweet interlude, Wright lies naked on her stomach while Ian traces the lovely, curving landscape of her long body. “Soon enough you won’t want me,” his second mother predicts.

Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, A Dangerous Method) adapted Adore from Doris Lessing‘s “The Grandmothers” (the film was originally and better titled “Two Mothers”); sadly, he’s been of very little service in translating the novella’s sparse dialogue to the screen. He’s wholly stymied by Lessing’s style, the narrative rhythms of a griot recounting the story of a “blue world” where events unfold with a strange, inexorable logic.

Since the 1950s, Lessing has been our preeminent chronicler of the complex politics of love and sexual attraction; she’s excelled in exploring the fraught relationships between generations, the frequent chasms of alienation between parents and children fighting to come of age. Always gloriously un-PC (no simpleminded stuff in Lessing-land), she cuts into the actual body and blood of human connections, transgressive, transcendent, sometimes fatal. In “The Grandmothers”—written in her 80s, mind you—she conjures the terrible beauty and power of matriarchy, close to the old pagan sense.

Style-wise, Fontaine takes a very different approach to “The Grandmothers,” but she doesn’t play Lessing false. She’s lavish in her appreciation of  Adore’s spectacular setting; so much of moment takes place on the beach, where waves endlessly rise and fall back, marking and nullifying time. There’s more humor in the film than in the novella: in one wonderful scene, Roz and Lil encourage the latter’s longtime suitor to believe they’re lesbians. Funny, yes, but this hapless male feels real pain and humiliation, standing as though on a stage before the seated, giggling, indifferent women. And there are distaff casualties, too, Mary and Hannah, valuable young women who figure in Tom’s attempt to make a life outside the womb, and Ian’s careless act of cruelty after Roz breaks off their affair.

But above all, Adore celebrates the splendidly expressive faces (and performances) of Watts and Wright. The actors who play Tom and Ian aren’t inadequate; but they’re really extras in this mystery play, more models of masculine beauty than genuinely erotic objects of desire. What these goddesses, so rich and vivid in their emotions and sensuality, see in their boys is flesh of their flesh—“We made that, we made them!”—and what Lessing describes as “a shine of unearthliness that illuminated their two sons, at this time.” (Tempting to wonder what Adore would have been like if Claire Denis had directed it, with her onetime favorite—Grégoire Colin, as he was in Beau Travail—cast as beloved son.)

One might say that Roz and Lil, Wright and Watts, are the mise-en-scène of Adore—and that’s the point of this adult fairy tale.  Nothing and no one outside their bell jar paradise—even adorable grandchildren—can claim anything but temporary shelter. Fontaine has a gentler hand than Lessing, who wields a subtle scalpel, and her final reading of this mothers’ tale leans more toward melancholy than the mocking laughter that puts a period to Lessing’s novella. That melancholy rises, like the scent of sun-warmed, salty bodies, netted in a Now that cannot be sustained, no matter what magic earth mothers make.

Straight Shooting, Queen Anne News; September 5, 2013

Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy

‘The Act of Killing’

Some days it seems the world is chock-full of killing grounds, some known, always more to be discovered. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer digs one up for our edification in Indonesia, where gangsters and paramilitary types massacred a couple million Communists and ethnic Chinese in 1965. The “stars” of Oppenheimer’s problematic memory piece are Mandela-lookalike Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, a fat thug who served as Congo’s murderous right hand during the bloodbaths. Both are delighted to reminisce about and indeed elaborately reenact their heyday as homicidal gangstas. Playacting, dressing up, slapping on horror-movie makeup, movie-lovers Koto, Congo, and friends are like happy kids, reveling in once-upon-a-time atrocities.

A good part of the creeping horror of The Act of Killing is how cool Indonesians are with this suppurating history—“War crimes are defined by the winners,” remarks Congo. These aging men and their comrades-in-arms are far from present-day pariahs; they’re mostly treated as heroes, along with the members of the super-macho Pancasila Youth paramilitary troop, responsible for murdering commies as enthusiastically as did small-time gangsters like Congo and Koto. A prominent newspaper editor boasts that, back in the day, “a wink from me” was a virtual death sentence, often carried out in a corner of his newsroom. White-haired Congo stands on a roof where many died at his hands, explaining that there was too much blood to clean up so he turned to a more efficient, less messy method: a wire and a stick. Guess Zyklon-B wasn’t available—or maybe he preferred his hands-on approach. Did I mention that this dapper granddad does a mean little cha-cha on his old killing ground?

Congo and company wrap themselves in the mystique of movies, especially gangster flicks. “We were more cruel than the movies,” he brags, citing Brando, Wayne, Pacino as role models. The old man dyes his hair black, sports a pink cowboy hat and western gear to stand out on a TV talkshow, where the hostess chortles over and the audience cheers his exploits. “I wore jeans for killing,” he notes, critique-ing his costume and performance in one filmed reenactment. Sidekick Koto has a taste for cross-dressing; in one vignette, he’s a Carmen Miranda senorita, getting vigorously raped while caballero Congo looks on. Congo drags his two grandchildren in to watch him get tortured and garroted on TV; in a (therapeutic?) role reversal, he’s playing a Communist victim. The spectacle produces no reaction; the kids are utterly affectless, as though they were dead to visual shock tactics.

As this grueling horrorshow continues, full of geeks and giggles, it’s like watching pornography. At first, there’s titillation, seeing ugly actors exposed, doing what they should only do in the forgiving dark. But after a while, the illicit thrill wears off and boredom sets in. The Act of Killing is two long hours of pornography, of banality and evil “eroticized” by giving frame space and significance to moral nullities, who may or may not discover some shreds of human empathy and remorse as the narrative arcs toward its tacky musical climax. One can’t help but picture a balding, bespectacled Eichmann released from his glass box for a little song-and-dance about the good old days of gassing Jews.

Executive-produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, Oppenheimer’s “documentary of the imagination” has been lauded as a new aesthetic form, edifying and enlightening in its radical framing of grotesque perpetrators of historical atrocity. But how much and in what ways did the director prompt and collaborate with Congo and company in their self-promoting cinematic fantasies? What revelations come about the nature of evil—or sociopathy—when it’s all colorfully wrapped up in the bad-guys’ movie-made fantasies? Or for that matter, what do we really learn about the power of movies to shape bad acts? The Act of Killing possesses a flashy allure—enjoy an hilariously homicidal Laurel and Hardy!—but what truth lies at its slippery heart?  That human beings are, as Jonathan Swift so eloquently put it, “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”? Is it enough that we simply gaze at Oppenheimer’s monster movie, appalled but none the wiser?

Towards the end of the documentary, Congo returns to that rooftop killing ground. There, in the dark of night, with Oppenheimer presumably directing or at least recording, the old gentleman walks about, stopping at intervals to bend over and dry heave. The sound is awful, as though the man was retching out his body and soul. A repellent moment, in that place, for we have no idea whether this is truth or fakery, acted or directed, remorse or another kind of heartless victimization. Oppenheimer’s POV can’t be described as objective or a brand new coign of aesthetic vantage, or even as acknowledgment of ambiguity. His position feels more like that of a collaborator.

Straight Shooting, July 27, 2013

Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy

Film Review: ‘Only God Forgives’

Drive might have earned Nicolas Winding Refn Best Director laurels at the 2011 Cannes film fest, but detractors rated the Ryan Gosling thriller over-heavy on ultraviolence and arthouse style, light on substance. Refn’s latest, Only God Forgives, again featuring Gosling, makes the dreamlike Drive look like realism. This year’s audience at Cannes was having none of it; Only God Forgives inspired boos, walkouts, few defenders. Here’s a taste of the critical vitriol: “cinematic defecation,” “the worst movie ever made,” “pretentious macho nonsense.” (Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian stands alone in his admiration for Refn’s visceral dreamwork, calling it “emotionally breathtaking, aesthetically brilliant.”) Readings of the film have by and large been almost willfully superficial, absent robust critical engagement.

I’d advise using your own judgment. Take a deep breath and dive into Refn’s “destructive element.” You may find the waters toxic, but Only God Forgives is a mesmerizing medium. This hallucinatory excursion may haunt you, the terrible beauty and relentless formality of its imagery persisting in the dark theater of your mind.

Whenever ordinary people don masks, strike iconic poses and act out, the resulting ritual/theater often teeters between high seriousness and hilarity. I’m thinking of (and you will too, watching Refn’s mad movie) kabuki drama, rites of Communion, Greek or Jacobean tragedy, and on the cinematic front, Leone’s operatic corridas, Lynchian surrealism, apocalyptic parables by von Trier and, of course, Tarantino’s ecstatic celebrations of popular culture. Such highly stylized expressions of art and emotion require an act of faith on the part of their audiences, a willingness to remain spellbound for the duration—always assuming the suspension of disbelief is worth our while. Refn’s Only God Forgives demands that we give ourselves over to that kind of fugue-like state, to share in the antihero’s deeply Freudian descent into an Oedipal hell where the sweltering air he breathes is saturated with blood. (This fresh hell owes much to Beth Mickle’s outstanding production design, as well as lush art direction by Russell Barnes and Witoon Suanyai.)

Only God Forgives doesn’t conventionally engage or move the viewer. We find ourselves in the presence of gods and demons in a lush, perilous underworld, witness to primal ritual, potentially cathartic theater. Think Gotterdammerung, a brutal struggle between righteous Father, monstrous Mother, and an irreparably broken Son. The movement of this old story is inexorable, each scene and standoff giving rise to and flowing into the next, an unstoppable tide of fate (kudos to Matthew Newman’s editing rhythms). That tide is aurally echoed in composer Cliff Martinez’ music, swelling with ecclesial melancholy and rising dread.

Refn has said that Only God Forgives is about a man chained to the womb, an insatiable mother as likely to fuck as to eat her offspring. In the beginning, there are two ensorcelled sons, Julian (Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke). They run a sleazy Bangkok boxing ring, cover for drug smuggling. After a bout between diminutive kick-boxers, the brothers occupy space in a room drowned in darkness, the huge scarlet face of a demon dominating one wall. The two men are criss-crossed and branded by deep shadows, as though their “infection” was literally devouring their bodies. “Time to meet the devil,” Billy announces, heading out for a night of misogynistic mayhem that climaxes in his raping and beating to death a 16-year-old girl. Afterwards he waits for retribution, in a room almost literally awash in blood. This atrocity sets in motion a wheel of Old Testament justice and revenge. The morally still point at the center of that wheel is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, consistently cool), a Thai cop and priestly martial-arts master. Call him Father.

As that wheel turns, grinding dimmer reflections of archetypal Fathers and Sons/Daughters to death, we ride a camera that creeps, Shining-like, down red-suffused hallways papered in ornate designs, through forbidding doors, and into unlighted rooms—really, stages. (Cinematographer Larry Smith, who worked on Eyes Wide Shut and Refn’s Bronson, is at the top of his game.) On a series of such stages, Julian watches avidly—hands tied to his chair—as his “entertainer” girlfriend (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) pleasures herself; dreams of standing on a threshold and plunging his hands into darkness, to have them chopped off by a hidden sword; takes his orders from Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, stunning as horrific Medea mom, chewing scenery–and co-stars–with unrestrained relish), to avenge her first-born and favorite son’s death.

Billy’s dead, because Father Chang invited the prostitute’s dad to wreck revenge on her killer, enlarging the lake of blood. Out in the hallway, we watch the awful forms of paternal vengeance behind the door’s glass, cinematic shadowplay. Not much later, Chang draws his sword—the lethal weapon appears to reside in his spine—to punish the father who failed to protect his daughter. The wheel turns. Despite Monster Mom’s fatwa, Julian cannot bring himself to execute the dead girl’s grieving and maimed dad—though we learn that, back in the day, this mama’s boy committed patricide at her request. Refn’s Oedipal itinerary is predestined; potent Father must confront and exorcize man-killing/castrating Mother, perhaps redeeming a damaged Son.
At one point, in a sequence that imperceptibly morphs from normalcy to surreal, Julian hunts Chang down nighttime Bangkok streets full of moving traffic, all bathed in soft golden light. As Son seeks Father, the street scenes subtly alter, becoming more dreamlike, otherworldly, so that the pursuit turns archetypal. And then Chang just disappears. It’s a stylistic and emotional tour de force. (We seldom surface in Only God Forgives; this claustrophobic film mostly takes place underground, in artificial light and pitch-dark rooms. The notable exception is Julian’s climactic Passion–en plein air–at the hands of the Father.
Reviewers have criticized Ryan Gosling for failure to emote in Only God Forgives. In stark contrast to his character in Drive, Gosling is no avenging angel, action hero or lover. His face frozen by old trauma, he plays Julian as a passive, shell-shocked boy at war with the “bad” hands he cannot control, the bad blood his demonic dam has bequeathed him. He tries to keep his rage in check (binding his hands, washing off imagined blood in a white basin)—in contrast to his brother’s maddened embrace of the female-hating devil inside him. So damaged he’s unable to successfully fight or fuck, Julian fantasizes slipping his hands inside his girlfriend or voyeuristically watches as her fingers slide in an out of her own body. His erotic focus echoes the camera’s lubricious slippage down endless corridors: always seeking a path back to the womb, the voracious maternal maw. His attempt to fight a phallic Father, Chang the cop, in the spotlighted center of his boxing gym, is pathetic. As Crystal prowls the perimeter like an angry leopard, Chang effortlessly beats her son to a pulp.

When Julian and his girlfriend join Crystal for dinner, she steadily insults both Mai—she has only contempt for “bitches”—and her disappointing son, going so far as to minimize his penis size as compared to Billy’s “enormous cock.” With her coarse blond mane, tacky, skintight couture and garish make-up, Scott Thomas is a stone-cold predator, a vulgar, soulless knock-off of Darryl Hannah’s Elle Driver in Kill Bill. But take a good look at Julian’s expression while mom hammers him: His face is that of an abused child, sweet and open and perversely expectant as the blows (caresses?) fall. Ceremonially lighting her long, slim cigarettes, he honors her phallic power.

While Mother sharpens her teeth on her son’s psychic bones, Father Chang metes out awful torture and instant death all around the town—most dramatically in a nightclub full of blinking lights and paper flowers, where a gaggle of  beautiful young dolls, virginal in their retro “prom-queen” frocks and pearls pose under the dead eyes of tattooed thugs. Elsewhere, where cans of film line the walls, a grotesque little homunculus watches his father meet his end. And then out of the blue, the divine Chang takes center stage in a karaoke bar, warbling—in dead seriousness—a love song, aimed at his rapt “boys,” the cops who follow him faithfully. As lullabies go, it’s not bad, the opposite of the poisonous“siren song” of seduction with which Crystal tries to beguile her gelded son, foetally crouched in the corner of another black hole of a room, just one burning, disbelieving eye visible in the pulp of his battered face.

There will be one final bloody Communion for Julian, the last sacrilegious act in his drive to get back inside his mother’s body. Viscerally shattering to watch, this necessary ritual is only the prelude to Julian’s ultimate act of contrition, presided over by a sword-wielding Father, the cop who sets things right in the swampy environs of Only God Forgives. Julian’s blood kin to that damned son who tore out his own eyes when he realized he’d mistakenly murdered his father and married his mother. Though Refn’s drug-trip tragedy conjures classic Greek drama, its brutal power surely comes from the Old Testament:“If thy hand offend thee, cut it off.”

Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy

Only God Forgives doesn’t conventionally engage or move the viewer. We find ourselves in the presence of gods and demons in a lush, perilous underworld, witness to primal ritual, potentially cathartic theater. Think Gotterdammerung, a brutal struggle between righteous Father, monstrous Mother, and an irreparably broken Son. The movement of this old story is inexorable, each scene and standoff giving rise to and flowing into the next, an unstoppable tide of fate (kudos to Matthew Newman’s editing rhythms). That tide is aurally echoed in composer Cliff Martinez’ music, swelling with ecclesial melancholy and rising dread.

Refn has said that Only God Forgives is about a man chained to the womb, an insatiable mother as likely to fuck as to eat her offspring. In the beginning, there are two ensorcelled sons, Julian (Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke). They run a sleazy Bangkok boxing ring, cover for drug smuggling. After a bout between diminutive kick-boxers, the brothers occupy space in a room drowned in darkness, the huge scarlet face of a demon dominating one wall. The two men are criss-crossed and branded by deep shadows, as though their “infection” was literally devouring their bodies. “Time to meet the devil,” Billy announces, heading out for a night of misogynistic mayhem that climaxes in his raping and beating to death a 16-year-old girl. Afterwards he waits for retribution, in a room almost literally awash in blood. This atrocity sets in motion a wheel of Old Testament justice and revenge. The morally still point at the center of that wheel is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, consistently cool), a Thai cop and priestly martial-arts master. Call him Father.

As that wheel turns, grinding dimmer reflections of archetypal Fathers and Sons/Daughters to death, we ride a camera that creeps, Shining-like, down red-suffused hallways papered in ornate designs, through forbidding doors, and into unlighted rooms—really, stages. (Cinematographer Larry Smith, who worked on Eyes Wide Shut and Refn’s Bronson, is at the top of his game.) On a series of such stages, Julian watches avidly—hands tied to his chair—as his “entertainer” girlfriend (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) pleasures herself; dreams of standing on a threshold and plunging his hands into darkness, to have them chopped off by a hidden sword; takes his orders from Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, stunning as horrific Medea mom, chewing scenery–and co-stars–with unrestrained relish), to avenge her first-born and favorite son’s death.

Billy’s dead, because Father Chang invited the prostitute’s dad to wreck revenge on her killer, enlarging the lake of blood. Out in the hallway, we watch the awful forms of paternal vengeance behind the door’s glass, cinematic shadowplay. Not much later, Chang draws his sword—the lethal weapon appears to reside in his spine—to punish the father who failed to protect his daughter. The wheel turns. Despite Monster Mom’s fatwa, Julian cannot bring himself to execute the dead girl’s grieving and maimed dad—though we learn that, back in the day, this mama’s boy committed patricide at her request. Refn’s Oedipal itinerary is predestined; potent Father must confront and exorcize man-killing/castrating Mother, perhaps redeeming a damaged Son.

At one point, in a sequence that imperceptibly morphs from normalcy to surreal, Julian hunts Chang down nighttime Bangkok streets full of moving traffic, all bathed in soft golden light. As Son seeks Father, the street scenes subtly alter, becoming more dreamlike, otherworldly, so that the pursuit turns archetypal. And then Chang just disappears. It’s a stylistic and emotional tour de force. (We seldom surface in Only God Forgives; this claustrophobic film mostly takes place underground, in artificial light and pitch-dark rooms. The notable exception is Julian’s climactic Passion–en plein air–at the hands of the Father.

Reviewers have criticized Ryan Gosling for failure to emote in Only God Forgives. In stark contrast to his character in Drive, Gosling is no avenging angel, action hero or lover. His face frozen by old trauma, he plays Julian as a passive, shell-shocked boy at war with the “bad” hands he cannot control, the bad blood his demonic dam has bequeathed him. He tries to keep his rage in check (binding his hands, washing off imagined blood in a white basin)—in contrast to his brother’s maddened embrace of the female-hating devil inside him. So damaged he’s unable to successfully fight or fuck, Julian fantasizes slipping his hands inside his girlfriend or voyeuristically watches as her fingers slide in an out of her own body. His erotic focus echoes the camera’s lubricious slippage down endless corridors: always seeking a path back to the womb, the voracious maternal maw. His attempt to fight a phallic Father, Chang the cop, in the spotlighted center of his boxing gym, is pathetic. As Crystal prowls the perimeter like an angry leopard, Chang effortlessly beats her son to a pulp.

When Julian and his girlfriend join Crystal for dinner, she steadily insults both Mai—she has only contempt for “bitches”—and her disappointing son, going so far as to minimize his penis size as compared to Billy’s “enormous cock.” With her coarse blond mane, tacky, skintight couture and garish make-up, Scott Thomas is a stone-cold predator, a vulgar, soulless knock-off of Darryl Hannah’s Elle Driver in Kill Bill. But take a good look at Julian’s expression while mom hammers him: His face is that of an abused child, sweet and open and perversely expectant as the blows (caresses?) fall. Ceremonially lighting her long, slim cigarettes, he honors her phallic power.

While Mother sharpens her teeth on her son’s psychic bones, Father Chang metes out awful torture and instant death all around the town—most dramatically in a nightclub full of blinking lights and paper flowers, where a gaggle of  beautiful young dolls, virginal in their retro “prom-queen” frocks and pearls pose under the dead eyes of tattooed thugs. Elsewhere, where cans of film line the walls, a grotesque little homunculus watches his father meet his end. And then out of the blue, the divine Chang takes center stage in a karaoke bar, warbling—in dead seriousness—a love song, aimed at his rapt “boys,” the cops who follow him faithfully. As lullabies go, it’s not bad, the opposite of the poisonous“siren song” of seduction with which Crystal tries to beguile her gelded son, foetally crouched in the corner of another black hole of a room, just one burning, disbelieving eye visible in the pulp of his battered face.

There will be one final bloody Communion for Julian, the last sacrilegious act in his drive to get back inside his mother’s body. Viscerally shattering to watch, this necessary ritual is only the prelude to Julian’s ultimate act of contrition, presided over by a sword-wielding Father, the cop who sets things right in the swampy environs of Only God Forgives. Julian’s blood kin to that damned son who tore out his own eyes when he realized he’d mistakenly murdered his father and married his mother. Though Refn’s drug-trip tragedy conjures classic Greek drama, its brutal power surely comes from the Old Testament:“If thy hand offend thee, cut it off.”

Straight Shooting, July 17, 2013

Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy

– See more at: http://queenannenews.com/Content/Straight-Shooting/Straight-Shooting/Article/Only-God-Forgives/83/399/34414#sthash.FqRAxVFu.dpuf

Only God Forgives doesn’t conventionally engage or move the viewer. We find ourselves in the presence of gods and demons in a lush, perilous underworld, witness to primal ritual, potentially cathartic theater. Think Gotterdammerung, a brutal struggle between righteous Father, monstrous Mother, and an irreparably broken Son. The movement of this old story is inexorable, each scene and standoff giving rise to and flowing into the next, an unstoppable tide of fate (kudos to Matthew Newman’s editing rhythms). That tide is aurally echoed in composer Cliff Martinez’ music, swelling with ecclesial melancholy and rising dread.

Refn has said that Only God Forgives is about a man chained to the womb, an insatiable mother as likely to fuck as to eat her offspring. In the beginning, there are two ensorcelled sons, Julian (Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke). They run a sleazy Bangkok boxing ring, cover for drug smuggling. After a bout between diminutive kick-boxers, the brothers occupy space in a room drowned in darkness, the huge scarlet face of a demon dominating one wall. The two men are criss-crossed and branded by deep shadows, as though their “infection” was literally devouring their bodies. “Time to meet the devil,” Billy announces, heading out for a night of misogynistic mayhem that climaxes in his raping and beating to death a 16-year-old girl. Afterwards he waits for retribution, in a room almost literally awash in blood. This atrocity sets in motion a wheel of Old Testament justice and revenge. The morally still point at the center of that wheel is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, consistently cool), a Thai cop and priestly martial-arts master. Call him Father.

As that wheel turns, grinding dimmer reflections of archetypal Fathers and Sons/Daughters to death, we ride a camera that creeps, Shining-like, down red-suffused hallways papered in ornate designs, through forbidding doors, and into unlighted rooms—really, stages. (Cinematographer Larry Smith, who worked on Eyes Wide Shut and Refn’s Bronson, is at the top of his game.) On a series of such stages, Julian watches avidly—hands tied to his chair—as his “entertainer” girlfriend (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) pleasures herself; dreams of standing on a threshold and plunging his hands into darkness, to have them chopped off by a hidden sword; takes his orders from Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, stunning as horrific Medea mom, chewing scenery–and co-stars–with unrestrained relish), to avenge her first-born and favorite son’s death.

Billy’s dead, because Father Chang invited the prostitute’s dad to wreck revenge on her killer, enlarging the lake of blood. Out in the hallway, we watch the awful forms of paternal vengeance behind the door’s glass, cinematic shadowplay. Not much later, Chang draws his sword—the lethal weapon appears to reside in his spine—to punish the father who failed to protect his daughter. The wheel turns. Despite Monster Mom’s fatwa, Julian cannot bring himself to execute the dead girl’s grieving and maimed dad—though we learn that, back in the day, this mama’s boy committed patricide at her request. Refn’s Oedipal itinerary is predestined; potent Father must confront and exorcize man-killing/castrating Mother, perhaps redeeming a damaged Son.

At one point, in a sequence that imperceptibly morphs from normalcy to surreal, Julian hunts Chang down nighttime Bangkok streets full of moving traffic, all bathed in soft golden light. As Son seeks Father, the street scenes subtly alter, becoming more dreamlike, otherworldly, so that the pursuit turns archetypal. And then Chang just disappears. It’s a stylistic and emotional tour de force. (We seldom surface in Only God Forgives; this claustrophobic film mostly takes place underground, in artificial light and pitch-dark rooms. The notable exception is Julian’s climactic Passion–en plein air–at the hands of the Father.

Reviewers have criticized Ryan Gosling for failure to emote in Only God Forgives. In stark contrast to his character in Drive, Gosling is no avenging angel, action hero or lover. His face frozen by old trauma, he plays Julian as a passive, shell-shocked boy at war with the “bad” hands he cannot control, the bad blood his demonic dam has bequeathed him. He tries to keep his rage in check (binding his hands, washing off imagined blood in a white basin)—in contrast to his brother’s maddened embrace of the female-hating devil inside him. So damaged he’s unable to successfully fight or fuck, Julian fantasizes slipping his hands inside his girlfriend or voyeuristically watches as her fingers slide in an out of her own body. His erotic focus echoes the camera’s lubricious slippage down endless corridors: always seeking a path back to the womb, the voracious maternal maw. His attempt to fight a phallic Father, Chang the cop, in the spotlighted center of his boxing gym, is pathetic. As Crystal prowls the perimeter like an angry leopard, Chang effortlessly beats her son to a pulp.

When Julian and his girlfriend join Crystal for dinner, she steadily insults both Mai—she has only contempt for “bitches”—and her disappointing son, going so far as to minimize his penis size as compared to Billy’s “enormous cock.” With her coarse blond mane, tacky, skintight couture and garish make-up, Scott Thomas is a stone-cold predator, a vulgar, soulless knock-off of Darryl Hannah’s Elle Driver in Kill Bill. But take a good look at Julian’s expression while mom hammers him: His face is that of an abused child, sweet and open and perversely expectant as the blows (caresses?) fall. Ceremonially lighting her long, slim cigarettes, he honors her phallic power.

While Mother sharpens her teeth on her son’s psychic bones, Father Chang metes out awful torture and instant death all around the town—most dramatically in a nightclub full of blinking lights and paper flowers, where a gaggle of  beautiful young dolls, virginal in their retro “prom-queen” frocks and pearls pose under the dead eyes of tattooed thugs. Elsewhere, where cans of film line the walls, a grotesque little homunculus watches his father meet his end. And then out of the blue, the divine Chang takes center stage in a karaoke bar, warbling—in dead seriousness—a love song, aimed at his rapt “boys,” the cops who follow him faithfully. As lullabies go, it’s not bad, the opposite of the poisonous“siren song” of seduction with which Crystal tries to beguile her gelded son, foetally crouched in the corner of another black hole of a room, just one burning, disbelieving eye visible in the pulp of his battered face.

There will be one final bloody Communion for Julian, the last sacrilegious act in his drive to get back inside his mother’s body. Viscerally shattering to watch, this necessary ritual is only the prelude to Julian’s ultimate act of contrition, presided over by a sword-wielding Father, the cop who sets things right in the swampy environs of Only God Forgives. Julian’s blood kin to that damned son who tore out his own eyes when he realized he’d mistakenly murdered his father and married his mother. Though Refn’s drug-trip tragedy conjures classic Greek drama, its brutal power surely comes from the Old Testament:“If thy hand offend thee, cut it off.”

Straight Shooting, July 17, 2013

Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy

– See more at: http://queenannenews.com/Content/Straight-Shooting/Straight-Shooting/Article/Only-God-Forgives/83/399/34414#sthash.FqRAxVFu.dpuf

Only God Forgives doesn’t conventionally engage or move the viewer. We find ourselves in the presence of gods and demons in a lush, perilous underworld, witness to primal ritual, potentially cathartic theater. Think Gotterdammerung, a brutal struggle between righteous Father, monstrous Mother, and an irreparably broken Son. The movement of this old story is inexorable, each scene and standoff giving rise to and flowing into the next, an unstoppable tide of fate (kudos to Matthew Newman’s editing rhythms). That tide is aurally echoed in composer Cliff Martinez’ music, swelling with ecclesial melancholy and rising dread.

Refn has said that Only God Forgives is about a man chained to the womb, an insatiable mother as likely to fuck as to eat her offspring. In the beginning, there are two ensorcelled sons, Julian (Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke). They run a sleazy Bangkok boxing ring, cover for drug smuggling. After a bout between diminutive kick-boxers, the brothers occupy space in a room drowned in darkness, the huge scarlet face of a demon dominating one wall. The two men are criss-crossed and branded by deep shadows, as though their “infection” was literally devouring their bodies. “Time to meet the devil,” Billy announces, heading out for a night of misogynistic mayhem that climaxes in his raping and beating to death a 16-year-old girl. Afterwards he waits for retribution, in a room almost literally awash in blood. This atrocity sets in motion a wheel of Old Testament justice and revenge. The morally still point at the center of that wheel is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, consistently cool), a Thai cop and priestly martial-arts master. Call him Father.

As that wheel turns, grinding dimmer reflections of archetypal Fathers and Sons/Daughters to death, we ride a camera that creeps, Shining-like, down red-suffused hallways papered in ornate designs, through forbidding doors, and into unlighted rooms—really, stages. (Cinematographer Larry Smith, who worked on Eyes Wide Shut and Refn’s Bronson, is at the top of his game.) On a series of such stages, Julian watches avidly—hands tied to his chair—as his “entertainer” girlfriend (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) pleasures herself; dreams of standing on a threshold and plunging his hands into darkness, to have them chopped off by a hidden sword; takes his orders from Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, stunning as horrific Medea mom, chewing scenery–and co-stars–with unrestrained relish), to avenge her first-born and favorite son’s death.

Billy’s dead, because Father Chang invited the prostitute’s dad to wreck revenge on her killer, enlarging the lake of blood. Out in the hallway, we watch the awful forms of paternal vengeance behind the door’s glass, cinematic shadowplay. Not much later, Chang draws his sword—the lethal weapon appears to reside in his spine—to punish the father who failed to protect his daughter. The wheel turns. Despite Monster Mom’s fatwa, Julian cannot bring himself to execute the dead girl’s grieving and maimed dad—though we learn that, back in the day, this mama’s boy committed patricide at her request. Refn’s Oedipal itinerary is predestined; potent Father must confront and exorcize man-killing/castrating Mother, perhaps redeeming a damaged Son.

At one point, in a sequence that imperceptibly morphs from normalcy to surreal, Julian hunts Chang down nighttime Bangkok streets full of moving traffic, all bathed in soft golden light. As Son seeks Father, the street scenes subtly alter, becoming more dreamlike, otherworldly, so that the pursuit turns archetypal. And then Chang just disappears. It’s a stylistic and emotional tour de force. (We seldom surface in Only God Forgives; this claustrophobic film mostly takes place underground, in artificial light and pitch-dark rooms. The notable exception is Julian’s climactic Passion–en plein air–at the hands of the Father.

Reviewers have criticized Ryan Gosling for failure to emote in Only God Forgives. In stark contrast to his character in Drive, Gosling is no avenging angel, action hero or lover. His face frozen by old trauma, he plays Julian as a passive, shell-shocked boy at war with the “bad” hands he cannot control, the bad blood his demonic dam has bequeathed him. He tries to keep his rage in check (binding his hands, washing off imagined blood in a white basin)—in contrast to his brother’s maddened embrace of the female-hating devil inside him. So damaged he’s unable to successfully fight or fuck, Julian fantasizes slipping his hands inside his girlfriend or voyeuristically watches as her fingers slide in an out of her own body. His erotic focus echoes the camera’s lubricious slippage down endless corridors: always seeking a path back to the womb, the voracious maternal maw. His attempt to fight a phallic Father, Chang the cop, in the spotlighted center of his boxing gym, is pathetic. As Crystal prowls the perimeter like an angry leopard, Chang effortlessly beats her son to a pulp.

When Julian and his girlfriend join Crystal for dinner, she steadily insults both Mai—she has only contempt for “bitches”—and her disappointing son, going so far as to minimize his penis size as compared to Billy’s “enormous cock.” With her coarse blond mane, tacky, skintight couture and garish make-up, Scott Thomas is a stone-cold predator, a vulgar, soulless knock-off of Darryl Hannah’s Elle Driver in Kill Bill. But take a good look at Julian’s expression while mom hammers him: His face is that of an abused child, sweet and open and perversely expectant as the blows (caresses?) fall. Ceremonially lighting her long, slim cigarettes, he honors her phallic power.

While Mother sharpens her teeth on her son’s psychic bones, Father Chang metes out awful torture and instant death all around the town—most dramatically in a nightclub full of blinking lights and paper flowers, where a gaggle of  beautiful young dolls, virginal in their retro “prom-queen” frocks and pearls pose under the dead eyes of tattooed thugs. Elsewhere, where cans of film line the walls, a grotesque little homunculus watches his father meet his end. And then out of the blue, the divine Chang takes center stage in a karaoke bar, warbling—in dead seriousness—a love song, aimed at his rapt “boys,” the cops who follow him faithfully. As lullabies go, it’s not bad, the opposite of the poisonous“siren song” of seduction with which Crystal tries to beguile her gelded son, foetally crouched in the corner of another black hole of a room, just one burning, disbelieving eye visible in the pulp of his battered face.

There will be one final bloody Communion for Julian, the last sacrilegious act in his drive to get back inside his mother’s body. Viscerally shattering to watch, this necessary ritual is only the prelude to Julian’s ultimate act of contrition, presided over by a sword-wielding Father, the cop who sets things right in the swampy environs of Only God Forgives. Julian’s blood kin to that damned son who tore out his own eyes when he realized he’d mistakenly murdered his father and married his mother. Though Refn’s drug-trip tragedy conjures classic Greek drama, its brutal power surely comes from the Old Testament:“If thy hand offend thee, cut it off.”

Straight Shooting, July 17, 2013

Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy

– See more at: http://queenannenews.com/Content/Straight-Shooting/Straight-Shooting/Article/Only-God-Forgives/83/399/34414#sthash.FqRAxVFu.dpuf

‘Hannah Arendt’: cerebral superhero

These days America’s political, academic, and pundit classes, along with special-interest citizen groups, seem content to paint by numbers, rendering every issue in flat black and white. But reality is dangerously recalcitrant, unreeling in many more than 50 shades of gray. Ironclad partisanship and political correctness guarantee dumbing-down. We face a disturbing refusal to deal with complexity on any front, but especially on hot-button issues that demand gutsy ratiocination. Facts don’t count in a climate of faux-philosophy and anti-reason. Margarethe von Trotta’s powerful film about German-Jewish scholar Hannah Arendt is acid in the face of this monumentally destructive bent in our national discourse.

Determinedly anti-melodramatic, von Trotta’s biopic chronicles the consequences of a courageous scholar’s maverick take on an historical horror that seemed, not long after WWII, obvious and inarguable: psychopathic monsters had systematically murdered millions of blameless victims. So when The New Yorker published Hannah Arendt’s “blasphemous” report (later a book) on the Adolph Eichmann trial in Israel, her nuanced, deep reading of Eichmann’s character plus suggestions of Jewish culpability loosed a firestorm among academics, free-range intellectuals, concentration-camp survivors, Israeli nationalists, et al.

As directed by von Trotta and toughly personified by longtime cinematic collaborator Barbara Sukowa, Hannah Arendt comes off as a bona fide superhero who thinks her way to hardest truth, no matter the cost—in friendship, academic appointments, her sinecure in the intellectual establishment. This is an authentic action film, for audiences capable of imagining the mind in fearless motion, doggedly pursuing and defeating comfortable lies and rationalizations.

First long sequence in the movie documents—at some length—a woman lying on a couch, smoking; the camera follows her to the window, where Arendt continues her contemplation. We return to those postures more than once in this film. We are invited to register what it looks like to be still, to focus, to wrestle with thought—the antithesis of frenetic device-driven movie “detectives,” afflicted more often than not with existential ADD.

Sukowa’s Arendt sometimes resembles a small, determined pug, given to chewing on an idea until it surrenders its pith. She and her smart set of Manhattan friends—most notably pal Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer, delightfully acerbic)—smoke, sip cocktails, and argue way into the night. The conversational gambits are wonderfully full of meat, and the fights can get hot—but this community of peers absorbs disagreement, reconstitutes fundamental affection and respect, and looks forward to the next exuberant soiree. A great deal of the film is given over to talking; such a pleasure to listen in on the delicious dialectic of argument among civilized intelligentsia.

The respected author of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) has little trouble convincing William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), editor of The New Yorker, to sponsor her trip to Israel to report on the (probably illegal) trial of Eichmann, kidnapped out of South America by the Mossad. Watching—in a press room—the black-and-white footage of one of the orchestrators of the Final Solution, Arendt doesn’t see a psychopathic ideologue or a larger-than-life fiend. Seated in his glass cage is a bespectacled, balding bureaucrat, a nobody incapable of thinking for himself, a characterless creature embodying the “banality of evil.” (Some of the prosecutor’s questions are just as bureaucratically banal—Beckett would have shaped the exchanges into blackly funny theater—causing Arendt to burst into laughter, genuine and sacrilegious.) She mulls (often on that aforementioned couch), pores through trial transcripts, reality-checks first drafts with her devoted secretary (Julia Jentsch, luminous star of Sophie Scholl). Then she publishes what she thinks is truth—and is essentially sent to Coventry for her pains.

Who wanted to hear, barely two decades after WWII, that the incomprehensible evil committed by Hitler and his henchmen was rooted in ant minds and flow charts? If the Holocaust was genocide on the grand scale, shouldn’t its perpetrators be myth-sized monsters, Wagnerian gods from the Germanic id? Didn’t it diminish the suffering of the victims if their murders came at the hands of company men in gray-flannel uniforms? And who would be cruel enough to suggest Jewish complicity in their own genocide?

Arendt isn’t swayed by gut-level approaches to “placing” the Holocaust, the way the majority makes sense of a reality too terrible to bear. Her refusal to censor or dumb down her “briefing for a descent into hell” is painted as arrogant and unfeeling, easy potshots against smart people. Her oldest and dearest friend turns away from her on his deathbed. Writing in Partisan Review, Amazonian McCarthy cuts up her friend’s critics with a vengeance. The administrators of the New School, where Arendt teaches, quick-change from fawning over their resident star to witch-hunting the “Nazi apologist” out of her classroom. On one morning walk, she finds her way blocked by sinister Israeli suits, who tower over the diminutive writer to accuse her of besmirching the new Jewish nation.

In a Hollywood film, all these slings and arrows would occasion much breast-beating and buckets of tears and regrets—thereby earning an easy Oscar. In contrast, von Trotta’s heroine never wavers. She treads the choppy waters of her “crucifixion,” as though all that was an afterthought, incidental to the larger issues she continues to subject to her avidly critical mind. In flashback, we see a very young, starstruck Hannah coming under the tutelage of preeminent German philosopher Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), whose work laid the foundation for modern epistemological methods and thinking. Heidegger turned Nazi in 1933, never apologizing publicly, even after the war, for his choice. When Hannah, heartsick, meets her mentor (and onetime lover) in his old age and demands an explanation, he stands silent. Heidegger groomed his prize pupil’s ruthless ratiocination—and perhaps she also learned something from his refusal to own up to “the greatest stupidity of my life.”

As usual, von Trotta’s cinema engrosses in and of itself, the inobtrusive documentation of a singular heroine in crisis. But seeing this film also jars us into realizing how much damage the absence of critical thinking can wreak on a community, a society at large. Eichmann’s apologia for atrocity was that he was a cog in a machine, a normal, sane Everyman bereft of independent judgment. Brilliant Hannah Arendt is bullied by her community to renounce what she observes and concludes through the microscope of her mind—though her work comes to be hailed as bedrock thinking about modern concepts of societal evil. In 2013, when herd mentality rules, where are our Hannah Arendts?

Straight Shooting, July 7, 2013

Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy

Slouching toward ‘Byzantium’

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
—William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”
Gemma Arterton

Why is Neil Jordan’s latest vampire film titled Byzantium? To be sure, that’s the name of the shabby hotel where Clara and Eleanor, his downscale daughters of darkness, take refuge, and a vampire hitman does brandish a sword he claims he looted from Byzantium during the Crusades. Does Moira Buffini reference the legendary city in her play A Vampire Story, which she adapted for the film? Could be, but I’d lay odds that the title is Neil Jordan’s contribution, and that the boy from County Sligo—W.B. Yeats’ old haunt—means his problematic meditation on the lives of the undead to lead us straight to “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium,” Yeats’ poems about age, time, eternity, and art.

In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats, beset by age and love’s loss, imagined finding a way “out of nature” by becoming a form of art—say, a golden nightingale in fabled Byzantium that would sing of “what is past, or passing, or to come.” But once arrived in “Byzantium” (penned after “Sailing”), the poet discovers that perfect artifice disdains “all that man is, / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins.” The city’s “blood-begotten spirits” suffer no passions and do not die; immortality simplifies all, for nothing changes or grows or decays. Yeats calls it “death-in-life and life-in-death,” the very state achieved by Jordan’s vampires in his own Byzantium.

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Wild angels and easy riders

Ryan Gosling in ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’

He wore black denim trousers and motorcycle boots
And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back
He had a hopped-up ‘cicle that took off like a gun
That fool was the terror of highway 101

As The Place Beyond the Pines begins, Ryan Gosling ritually readies himself to ride his motorcycle in a circus show. His ripped body, covered in mysterious tattoos, advertises a life on the road, punctuated by rest stops in strange places. As stoic as any gunfighter, rodeo rider or rock star, he strides through crowds of fans, trading coded greetings with fellow cyclists. Is this sexy stud the last American hero? Not when the open road curves into a cage for wild angels and easy riders.

In the movies, it’s men on motorcycles who inherit the American cowboy paradigm of footloose freedom and rugged individualism. Like Shane and Ethan Edwards and Hawkeye—and a slew of Western wild bunches—chopper nomads are cursed or blessed by their affinity for the frontier, the unwillingness to trade unfettered speed for roots, the glamour of seductive macadam for civilization’s mix of pleasures and discontents. Harley-Davidson studs dress to kill, their sexy attire an affront to men in gray flannel suits. Their hogs signal powerful (and provocative) transport, often of the sexual kind. Nihilists, dreamers, rebels, sociopaths and lost souls, these bad boys are born to be wild, their exotic Otherness inspiring lust or loathing.

So zip up your black leather jacket and pull on your motorcycle boots for our celebration of vroom-vroom biker flicks as The Place Beyond the Pines hits the screen.

“The Wild One” (1953)

“What are you rebelling against?” “What have you got?”

So tacky and airless it looks like it was shot on a TV soundstage, The Wild One nonetheless nailed the quintessential biker stud and style for all time. That’s largely thanks to Marlon Brando, still volcanic in his Streetcar Named Desire burn-up-the-screen mode. Johnny and his Black Rebels vroom into Wrightsville (so perfectly named) to shake things up by posturing on the wrong side of square, the right side of cool.

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‘Hansel & Gretel’ is bitter and not so sweet

Much—and now understandably—delayed, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is grim going. This horror-action-comedy pastiche possesses all the terror and suspense and visual pizzazz of a downscale videogame for dull-eyed teens happy to lap up lame wisecracks and lots of gore. Back in 2009, director Tommy Wirkola served up Dead Snow, a horror hit about rampaging Nazi zombies. Apparently that modest success convinced some Hollywood drone that the Norwegian helmer should apply his modicum of talent to H&G, a big-budget, faux-fairy tale about skanky witches and the amazingly uncharismatic siblings (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) who make a living by offing them. That was a mistake.

Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner

If there’s any justice, Wirkola’s career as writer-director will hit the wall, in the wake of the catastrophe that is H&G. The man hasn’t a clue how to dream up dialogue that real human beings might conceivably utter, even when stuck in his patently phony Dark Age. Gifted with A-list Renner and the often lively Arterton, Wirkola reduces his leads to unlikable smart-alecks who spend most of their time rolling around in the dirt, punched out by one seemingly unstoppable witch after another. Since H&G is essentially just a string of ultra-bloody dust-ups, it hardly helps that the hack in charge doesn’t know the first thing about directing kinetically and spatially coherent action.

Once upon a time, in the dark of night, a father leads his two kids out into the woods and abandons them. Eventually, Hansel and Gretel fetch up at a grotesque cottage made out of crappy-looking candy and cookies. Inside, a nasty crone fattens them up for the oven. Suddenly brother and sister gang up on the hag, and after a flurry of impossible-to-parse action, she falls screaming into her own cooking fire. Now, in Grimm or Guillermo del Toro, such a nightmare adventure—little kids deserted by their parents, then menaced by a cannibal crone—would be terrifying. Cold-sweat suspense should make us squirm as the witch prepares to cook the traumatized children. But H&G consistently flatlines, never engaging us emotionally, viscerally, any which way. This opening prologue sets the tone: from start to finish, nothing in H&G really moves—or moves us—authentically.

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‘Parental Guidance’: Lump of coal

We should have seen it coming. Parental Guidance director Andy Fickman’s previous family farce was “You Again,” which this writer called “totally, inanely, numbingly awful …. From the evidence on-screen, [Fickman’s] directorial skills might serve to mount a mediocre high school play.” Now this hack is back, gifting us with another DOA comedy.

Billy Crystal, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott in ‘Parental Guidance’

Pity anyone who heads out to take in Guidance, billed as cheery comedy about the clash between old-school and contemporary child rearing, with heartwarming lessons to be learned by three generations of one fractured family. Parents and children blessed with an iota of gray matter or taste will storm the ticket booth to demand refunds. The only people sitting still for this overlong ordeal will be those brainwashed by bad TV sitcoms into yukking on cue at lowbrow comedy and cardboard clowns.

Alice and Phil Simmons (Marisa Tomei, mugging grotesquely, and Tom Everett Scott) are the type of “helicoptering” mommy and daddy who follow a strict program designed to produce perfect children. Off limits are sugar, competitive games, discipline, any kind of unscheduled fun that might derail the kids’ constant grooming for future success. Forget straight talk: Communication is strictly PC, couched in neutered pseudo-therapeutic jargon: “Use your words” instead of getting mad and bashing a bully. Tempted to talk back? “Your opinion has value.” Even the Simmons’ house is programmed to nag like a nanny — courtesy of dad’s prizewinning invention.

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Quentin Tarantino: Cinema’s glourious basterd

Quentin Tarantino

Two decades ago, the man fired a bullet into the head of status quo filmmaking. A volatile combo of creative arrogance and innocence, Quentin Tarantino is an absolute original. His movies don’t look or sound or move like anyone else’s in the world; he transforms action, character, and landscape into something iconic, beautiful, strange, silly or sublime, like a glimpse of an alternative universe where everything is always becoming … more. Forget assembly-line art, grinding out product to stay famous and rake in the big bucks. No, Tarantino takes his own sweet time writing and directing: only six movies have followed Reservoir Dogs, his 1992 bombshell. Surely the most blasphemous Christmas gift ever, Django Unchained makes eight.

Q.T.’s pictures are gorgeous mutations of style, genre, classics and cult faves. Like James Joyce, who fished streams of language for meaning, Tarantino “samples” eclectically from the well of cinema. No other working director takes — and offers — such exuberant joy in the sheer sensuality of movies, reveling in action choreography that transforms physical violence into modern dance and abstract art; salty dialogue and the art of the yarn; bold color design, dynamic composition and cutting; stylized performances; music as narrative bloodstream. Gleefully fracturing chronology, he manipulates memory and immediacy into a new species of narrative form — such as the shape of a woman’s vengeance.

For Tarantino, style is signature, spelling out who you are and what you’re worth. When David Carradine’s Bill, rising to meet his end, drawls, “How do I look?” he’s referencing an aesthetic that’s a gloriously profane form of morality. Looking good is, for Tarantino, the art of cinema.

‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992)

After selling a couple of tasty scripts to Tony Scott (“True Romance”) and Oliver Stone (“Natural Born Killers”), Tarantino crashed out big-time, writing and directing a movie that was the antithesis of everything square. Story’s simple: A wild bunch of colorful hard cases hires on for a jewelry store heist. The caper goes south in a big way, thanks to a gun-crazy colleague (sexy psycho Michael Madsen), and the undercover cop (nervy Tim Roth) who sets them up. “Dogs” sizzled with a new way of seeing and talking and acting; moviegoers got their first bite of the Tarantino template. The “Dogs” (Tarantino himself; Lawrence Tierney, old-school tough guy on screen and off; Scorsese-baptized gangsta Harvey Keitel; neurasthenic Steve Buscemi; the late lamented Chris Penn, pudgy, volatile) were far from pretty but, man, could they talk a blue — very blue — streak; and also bleed redder than red (Q.T. follows Jean-Luc Godard’s aesthetic: “There is not a lot of blood in my film — there is a lot of red”). Conversation’s as loaded as the gang’s guns, as actionful as body blows. We never witness the actual heist, just prequel and apocalyptic aftermath, all the action shaken up into one deliriously explosive now. The absurdist roundelay of extreme violence and stylized dying in “Dogs” (recalling, for starters, Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and Ringo Lam’s “City on Fire”) heralded the beginning of Tarantino’s career-long commitment to fleshing out the concept of what’s transcendently “cool.”

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‘Amour’: True love

Austrian director Michael Haneke has often been accused of casting a cold, even sadistic, eye on the characters who suffer through cruelly uncompromising films like Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, Caché, and The White Ribbon. That detached, clinical style, demanding, above all, that we watch and be implicated in what happens on-screen, informs Amour as well. What’s new is Haneke’s ineffable tenderness toward iconic actors Jean-Louis Trintignant, 82, and Emmanuelle Riva, 85, as their characters succumb to age, illness and death. A lesser director might descend to melodrama, cliché, bathos, Lifetime TV sentimentality, Big Scenes to sex up this kind of unglamorous subject matter. Haneke remains scrupulous and austere: emotionally, morally, aesthetically. A relentless and shattering masterwork, Amour breaks heart but satisfies soul.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in ‘Amour’

A cultivated Parisian couple in their twilight years, Anne and Georges have “always coped,” as Dad later tells a concerned but useless daughter (Isabelle Huppert). Former music teachers, they attend a concert by an outstanding protégé; a grand piano has pride of place in their cozy living room, filled with a lifetime of books, photographs, recorded music. When they return to their apartment after the concert, we watch the two move through familiar spaces, chatting in that companionable, half-heard way people do when they’ve lived together for years and years, “Did I mention that you look pretty tonight?” Georges inquires.

The familiar movie faces are eroded by age, but lost beauty lies just beneath the ruined flesh: Riva illuminating Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Trintignant Judas-ing the woman he loves in The Conformist. Both actors show their new masks to the camera sans embarrassment or apology. Intelligence, integrity and a striking sense of character present and accounted for dominate.

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‘Deadfall’: A cold pleasure

Deadfall is a nifty little noir thriller that showcases solid acting and potent action, all within strikingly visualized winterscapes and interiors. Director Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters) gets that when you transplant noir from rain-slicked urban streets to lonely northern snowfields, the change of venue often adds a special frisson to this stylized genre. (Shane Hurlbut’s moody cinematography doesn’t hurt.) Dark and dirty doings leave particularly lurid stains in all that rural whiteness — isn’t white supposed to be the color of innocence? — while snowfall, heavy and silent, deliciously muffles betrayal that ends in murder.

Eric Bana

Deadfall shares this cold climate with Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan but avoids that film’s ironic glee at the sight of greedy rubes going from bad to worse as they follow noir’s typically downhill trajectory. Ruzowitzky, in this old-fashioned hybrid of Western and noir, grants his characters room for respect, whether they’re rising above or sinking deeper into their existential deadfalls.

At the start, a lone car approaches along a snow-covered road bordered by dark forest, its golden headlights warming the blue-white dimness. Inside, three fugitives from a big casino heist — siblings Addison and Liza (Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde) and an expendable driver — are heated up over their successful getaway. Addison’s jazzed enough to wax nostalgic, recalling the old family farm back in Alabama: “What would home look like?” He should know that, in noir world, feeling safe and happy makes you an instant target. In shockingly short order, the gang’s out in the cold, and splashes of scarlet puddle pristine snow.

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‘Rust and Bone’

Rust and Bone helmer Jacques Audiard enjoys a reputation head and shoulders above that of the guys who made The Intouchables, another French import screened in American theaters this year. But that cheerfully manipulative fairy tale about the unlikely bonding between a rich quadriplegic and his earthy Senegalese minder came to mind during Rust and Bone, Audiard’s much shrewder film about the rehabilitation of mismatched lovers respectively handicapped by missing limbs and a deficiency of humanity.

Mattias Schoenaerts, Marion Cotillard

Edging into Intouchables territory, Audiard massages our emotional responses with an all-too-practiced hand. Even his mix of socio-economic “realism” with soap opera feels calculated, an unconvincing facsimile of the raw authenticity that made his Oscar-nommed A Prophet (2010) so compelling. At bottom, R&B is a Gallic tearjerker about the existential fall and ascent of two good-looking “cripples.” By dwelling on the hand-to-mouth lives of a beleaguered French underclass, Audiard tries to toughen up—and validate—the sentimentality of his material.

The Intouchables was saved from terminal corniness—and offensive racial stereotyping—by charismatic actors (François Cluzet and Omar Sy) who played it straight, rarely stooping to the level of the script. Similarly, it is star power that elevates R&B‘s often shamelessly schematic narrative: Marion Cotillard (Oscar awarded for La Vie en Rose) and Belgian comer Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) command our rapt gaze from start to finish. Their very different styles of physical performance claim frame space as effortlessly as that of the great orcas that Cotillard’s Stephanie trains.

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