Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Does this really suck that much?

I was eating in a Chinese / Japanese restaurant (Asian Bistro in downtown Silver Spring) one day for lunch when I overheard a man trying to order food at a nearby table.  It wasn’t that he was speaking loudly, but the restaurant was not very busy.  He was asking about fish and chicken dishes, and he wanted to know if he could have some roasted chicken or fish in lemon / butter and some potatoes.  The waitress, who wasn’t a native English speaker, was having difficulty addressing the man’s questions.  She would try to point him to dishes that were somewhat similar, and he would ask her how the dishes were prepared.  “Don’t you have any normal chicken?” he asked.  This wasn’t a young man, so even if he had just stepped into downtown Silver Spring from some backwater, it was unlikely he had never come across an Asian restaurant before.  I drew the conclusion, perhaps because I couldn’t come up with any other probable answer, that something had to be mentally wrong with this fellow.  Why else would someone go to an Asian restaurant, especially when there are so many other restaurants in the area, and try to order non-Asian food?  And on top of that, then get upset when they couldn’t provide him with what he wanted?

Because we have expectations.  We operate on assumptions.  We rely on past experiences to help us make decisions and negotiate the world around us.  This is commonplace knowledge.  But this weekend, I got to see an exercise where there were expectations and assumptions in play, but it was the audience that seemed to get it wrong, at least, in my humble yet brilliant opinion.

There’s been a lot of brouhaha lately from the critical community about just how bad this summer’s (2013’s) movies suck.  You’d think the sky was falling.  But I was holding out hope for two movies that are not big budget:  The Canyons (and this is for purely personal reasons, namely Bret Easton Ellis collaborating with Paul “Mishima:  A Life in Four Chapters” Schrader) and Only God Forgives.  So two Fridays ago, sitting in front of my summer 171 class, I pulled up rottentomatoes.com and instantly felt deflated.  OGF scored a humiliating 13% fresh, which went down to 11% after clicking on Top Critics (what I always tell my classes to do to avoid the riff-raff).  As of right now (7/29/13, 6:14 pm, EST), it has only inched up 5 percentage points.

Oh, no… Say it isn’t so!  Really, that bad?  I started to look at some reviews, which included comments like “unwatchable,” “fatally dull,” “one-dimensional video game of death,” and “pretentious.”  Aw, man.  Shit.

Why did I care?  Because I really liked Drive (2011).  I thought it was a fresh pastiche of 1980s Miami Vice-style crime stories with sudden, brutal violence.  I liked Bronson (2008), also directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, which was incredibly manic but stylistic and intriguing.  I was taken in by the fact that Ryan Gosling, who has enough star power to choose anything he’d want to be in, would return to working with Refn (who also wrote the screenplay, as he does with most of his projects) on what is, when you look at its competition right now, beyond a budget film (It didn’t even top out at 5 million!  And some critics called Now You See Me “cheap” for the low price tag of 75 million!).  In Thailand.  As a character more vacuous than Driver.  I’m most honored when a student takes a second class with me, especially if it is something they don’t need.  Gosling can make all the money he wants to, yet he went with this.  Throw in Kristen Scott Thomas, and you had me at hello.

Only God Forgives, like a lot of low budget, indie films, is releasing as video on demand as well as theaters.  It is playing at AFI, but given all the flack it was receiving, I was reticent to buy a ticket.  When I saw it was VOD as well, I decided I’d stream it.  I’ll be doing the same thing with The Canyons this Friday (8/2), even though the reviews for that are already abysmal.

Guess what?  I really liked OGF.  In fact, when I reached the end (which resolved, in my estimation, perfectly, and was not long and drawn out like some films that seem like they do not know when or how to end), I was scratching my head at why this film got so slammed with negativity.  If you are conversant with the genre, or this director’s work, then you were provided with an artistic (is that what they meant by “pretentious”?) and vicious film.  This is not a plot-driven film, but then again, most films that are action-based aren’t.  The plot is an excuse to move from one set piece to the next.  An excellent example of this is The Raid:  Redemption (2011).  There is a semblance of a plot where a SWAT team has to clear a high rise apartment complex of drug dealers and a paper-thin subplot of the protagonist having a brother who is a drug dealer, but really, it’s about the amazing fight choreography and deft cinematography of those fights.  The sequel is coming out in Indonesia this September.  Can’t wait to see that when it gets here.  Effective, knew what it was, and didn’t try to be something it was not.  I admire that sort of integrity.  I will be the first to underscore that TR:R, Drive and OGF are not for everyone (in fact, they aren’t for a lot of people), but for the audience that likes this genre, all three movies are outstanding.

So, where’s the disconnect with the critical community?  Drive scored high (87% of Top Critics) on Rotten Tomatoes.  Critics fawned over it.  Was it because it was set domestically (none of those pesky subtitles to read)?  It had Albert Brooks (who, incidentally, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes for this role), Bryan Cranston, Ron Pearlman, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks?  Ryan Gosling’s character was more of a “good” guy than this role?  I don’t know.  If anything, I think Refn improved his directing techniques in OGF.  His color palette (which includes a lot of deep gem tones) combined with the kinesis of the camera is hypnotic at times.  One critic I read compared his use of color to that of David Lynch, but whereas Lynch likes static camera shots more (I think to up the creep factor – leaving a shot go uncomfortably long, forcing you to watch something past when other directors would cut away), Refn’s camera is constantly in motion.  That is not to say there are no static shots, but when Refn does employ them, especially in sequences where Julian is in those odd transmigrations where he appears in one place, then another, then back to let us know he never left but his mind put him elsewhere, create more impact to when static shots are used. 

Another point of brilliance in this film is the use of sound.  I am almost tempted to go see this in the theater to see if the sound replication is the same, but on my (admittedly not high-end) sound bar, all music is very loud, and dialogue ranges from sounding like you are standing next to the character that is speaking, to muted character dialogue (where you can barely hear) to cutting out the sound on the dialogue, yet we know the characters are speaking, as their lips are moving and other characters are clearly listening to them.  Why this is brilliant:  remember, this movie is not about plot or character development.  When a character is heard clearly, this is information that will help the audience with what is going on.  When the character is muted, when we can barely hear and I am turning the sound way up, it is incidental information.  The sort of pat back and forth you would hear in that kind of scene in this kind of movie, so do you really need to pay close attention?  The true effectiveness is when character voices are completely removed.  I’ll give two examples.  Julian goes to confront his brother’s killer, who has had his arm cut off by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, who, for my money, was the best actor in this film), the police detective, who is furious that a father would whore out his underage daughter (Chang has a young daughter).  When Julian arrives at the father’s house, there is no sound when the father, tearful, clutching his stump that used to be his arm, explains what happened and why he killed Julian’s brother.  We don’t need to hear it.  We’ve already sat through the murdesr of the daughter and Julian’s brother, then Chang’s wrath.  Why would we need it explained?  What this additionally allows is to just view the emotion behind the scene.  It gets distilled down to its essence:   two people who have recently lost a family member, who may not have that undying love that we are supposed to have for said family member.  When Julian does not exact revenge, as he was instructed to do by his hellbeast-of-a-mother, Crystal, it makes perfect sense.

The second example is at the very end of the film.  We’ve seen Chang performing at his favorite karaoke bar, and some of his men always seem to accompany him and look on, in admiration (or fear, or both, but their gaze seems too tender to be fearful).  The whole place watches in quiet approval.  This is a man who doles out justice.  Granted, the justice is uncannily harsh, but it is justice in a place that seems mostly devoid of it.  There’s respect there.  The last performance, we do not hear him sing.  We know he is singing, but we focus on his face, on his posture, on his eyes.  This is what vengeance looks like, and it likes to sing karaoke after a hard day’s work.  And then the film ends.  Flawless.

I reject comments that this film lacks morality.  Chang has a well-developed sense of what is right and wrong.  And one thing that is refreshing about this sense is that it does not discriminate.  We often see women spared from real retribution in films on the grounds that women and children cannot be subjected to the same sort of retaliation that men must endure (I guess because they are men?  What other criteria is there?  Can women and children not also commit unspeakable acts?).  Chang deals with Crystal the same way he deals with others in the film.  She’s done so much wrong that she is fully deserving of his punishment.  She is a victimizer, not a victim, like the girl that Billy rapes and kills, which is the initial conflict of this film.  When Crystal earlier sends Julian and others to kill Chang at his house, Julian is informed that everyone in the house needs to die.  Julian, a disturbed simpleton, has enough of a moral compass to kill one of the goons before the goon can kill Chang’s daughter.  For Julian, it’s not that the daughter is out of bounds because of age but that she simply isn’t part of the revenge “owed” his brother.  It just doesn’t factor in.  If he had known everyone was to be killed, I would wager he would not have allowed the housekeeper to be killed either.  But the cop out front, that’s ok, as he’s an obstacle.  There are simply certain things that are out of bounds.  For someone who runs a fighting ring, Julian does understand that there are rules to follow.

There is no hero in this film.  The closest we come is Chang, and he is so extreme that while I did root for him, I couldn’t call him a “hero.”  Maybe that’s a sore spot for critics – Julian (Gosling, our star) is not our hero.  He can’t even beat Chang in an honest fistfight.  There’s certainly plenty of villains and bad behavior, but that’s been around for a while now.  I genuinely don’t understand the misguided reviews the film has received.  Or, if I have identified aspects in this post that critics would take umbrage with, then I do understand, but find them overall petty.  The film’s not for everyone, and in a summer full of films trying to be for everyone, it is refreshing to see something not trying to please everyone and pleasing no one.  This film pleased me.   But then again, I knew what restaurant I was sitting in and knew what to expect when I ordered.

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