“Elysium” – a stunningly gorgeous case of squandered potential

However I’d like to look at it, this year hasn’t been particularly rich in good Sci-Fi so far. Sure, I should probably mention “Man of Steel” as a particularly good example, though it is still technically a reboot and a comic book adaptation, and maybe “Star Trek into Darkness” (again, a sequel to a reboot of an established franchise). Nevertheless, in the field of original Sci-Fi, apart from “Pacific Rim” that I (and nobody else) loved, it’s been real slim pickens out there. Therefore, I really hoped I could wrap up this underwhelming summer in style and “Elysium” seemed to be perfect for just that occasion.

Quite honestly, I have been anticipating Neill Blomkamp’s newest creation for months now. I’m quite certain I’m not the only one around here who was floored by the perfectionist, beautiful and painfully gritty “District 9” a few years back, and among a multitude of thoughts streaming through my brain after seeing it I remember hoping I could have another serving of this kind of delicious Sci-Fi.

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In terms of story, “Elysium” does not come across as particularly original, but stays in tune with Blomkamp’s earlier film by touching on a sensitive problem we are facing at the moment. In it, we are presented with a dystopian vision of the world that is overpopulated, poor, filthy, and dangerous, where the vast majority of people struggle to see another day, all the while the richest and the most powerful (in other words, the mythical ‘1%’) have abandoned the planet altogether to dwell on a space station called “Elysium” orbiting the Earth. Simply put, Elysium is paradise incarnate, where everyone leads happy lives oblivious to the trials and tribulations of the regular folk on Earth. Not only that, but most importantly, every citizen of Elysium has access to the cutting edge medical technology that can heal pretty much anything, thus rendering them nearly immortal.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the otherworldly technology and the standard of living makes living on Elysium a dream of everybody down on Earth. Therefore, attempts at breaching its borders with stolen spaceships seem to be quite frequent, but they are almost invariably unsuccessful with most of the illegal immigrants being caught, deported and/or killed by ruthless Homeland Security led by Delacourt (Jodie Foster) – nearly the most powerful person on Elysium.

Back on Earth, we meet Max (Matt Damon), an ex-con who works in a droid factory and is doing a particularly bad job at staying out of trouble. One morning he manages to get into an argument with a police droid and walks away with a broken arm and extended parole only to roll up at work to suffer a terrible accident that leaves him with only a couple of days to live. Knowing perfectly well that the technology on Elysium could heal the radiation poisoning that is slowly killing him, Max seeks help of a local gangster Julio (Diego Luna). In exchange for the ticket to Elysium (which doesn’t necessarily mean he would get there), Max agrees to kidnap one of the heavily guarded ‘haves’ (William Fichtner), tap into his brain and extract information that might be worth billions on the black market. What he doesn’t know is that the person he’s about to rob is in possession of data that in the right set of hands could change the course of history. All that leads to Max being put in Delacourt’s crosshairs, who sends one of her most vile and dangerous sleeper agents Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to put him out of his misery.

Even with all its shortcomings, to which I’ll get in a minute, “Elysium” did earn its place on my shelf alongside my favorite kind of Sci-Fi. Even though the story is not the strongest card in its hand, this film’s lively world and gritty atmosphere made me squeal with enjoyment all throughout the screening. I can honestly say that Blomkamp has a fantastic grasp on how to build dynamic worlds and seamlessly incorporate the Sci-Fi elements into them. In “Elysium” we don’t have an alien race that needs to be worked into the universe, but instead we’ve got tons of really cool technology that nobody wastes time explaining (a cardinal sin committed by “Oblivion”). I personally love the immersive feel Blomkamp has provided (yet again), because it was completely up to me to discover all the fine details and little geeky things. I would be really disappointed if at every turn someone had to say a line or two to help me understand what’s going on. Blomkamp definitely understands how important it is to keep the viewer ‘in the zone’ at all times and how such moments would most definitely break the immersion. Sure, at times it is necessary to provide some details about what’s going to happen, but even at that, Blomkamp doesn’t really slow the pace down for us to catch up.

I think it’s not going to be a stretch if I say that “Elysium” is a near perfect example of how the Sci-Fi components should be incorporated into a film to create and engaging experience for the genre aficionados, because that’s to whom Neil Blomkamp has definitely addressed all his efforts. While I believe everybody can find “Elysium” very entertaining (it is, after all, a high quality big budget Sci-Fi film with high-profile cast and fantastic special effects), it’s the bunch of young adults (and adults) raised on video games, who will find this film to be a rollercoaster of genre-winking that will bring a smile to their faces. Seriously, how could I stay indifferent to the idea of the main character casually using a rail-gun that is not even mentioned in the story? And that’s not the end: from the combat exoskeletons, police droids, through brain chips ran on Norton Commander, all the way to personal force fields, “Elysium” is simply full of meticulously designed details that immensely help to lose oneself in this wonderfully crafted world of disparity and violence.

 

Having said all that, “Elysium” while perfect in its visuals, attention to detail and geeky references, it falls short in quite a few other departments. The first and the most important major concern I have with this film has to do with its story. As someone who values films most often for their storytelling, I regret to say that “Elysium” could have been written a bit better. It’s not that I dislike Blomkamp’s writing altogether, because I did enjoy the way the story was presented and paced, but I would like to have seen more emphasis laid on the characters, even at the cost of longer running time or the action sequences. I understand completely that a Sci-Fi film has to juggle way too many balls in order to get everything right, but all things considered, even a great spectacle can be destroyed by terrible writing.

As much as I enjoyed the story, even with its simplicity and all too conveniently placed characters and plot points, I think in general too much focus is placed in it on the wider universe and establishing the atmosphere. At some point the world starts to live on its own and doesn’t require additional hand-holding, so that the emphasis could be shifted towards something else. Sadly, the deeper we go into the story, the more “Elysium” fails to develop. For instance, all throughout the film we can learn so much about life on Earth and see it as a well-designed thriving world, all the while Elysium itself seems to be completely disregarded. As a result, I couldn’t help but think this so-called paradise was empty and devoid of any character. Empty houses, empty rooms… Plus, almost all of the sparse characters felt severely underwritten. In all honesty, it might have been done by design in order to elevate the sense of privilege and class disparity if Elysium was actually almost uninhabited, but something tells me it was not the case. Taking into account how nearly all characters (including Jodie Foster) looked undeveloped and glossed over, I can only assume that Blomkamp spent way too much time obsessing over the grit and dust on the Earth side of things and forgot to breathe life into the main players on stage.

Speaking of Jodie Foster, I can’t really stay silent about her performance, which was disappointing at best. That woman doesn’t really fit very well as a cold-hearted ‘catch-you-next-Tuesday’, which as a result made her character look blown out of proportion and comical, especially with that fake accent that she clearly could not pull off. Maybe if we got some more background on her, and/or more on-screen time, things could be different, but as a villain Jodie Foster was definitely out of her depth.

Not to worry, though. On the other hand, wherever Jodie Foster’s character fell short of expectations, Sharlto Copley’s Kruger made up for it in style. On some level, I don’t think if I’d be too far off by saying that Jodie Foster was only posed as the main baddie of the film, whereas it was Copley who was the true villain all along. Normally, I wouldn’t mind that kind of misdirection because of its eventual inconsequentiality. What I was disappointed with in the end was the fact that Kruger’s character whilst being potentially so rich, vibrant and layered, ended up receiving even worse treatment in the writing department than Jodie Foster’s Delacourt.

I was seriously dying to learn the importance of Kruger’s implants, the reason his weapon of choice was a katana, and most importantly, what his motives were. In return, I got exactly nothing in that regard. I can only consider it a wasted opportunity, because Kruger quickly becomes as one-dimensional as it gets. Sure, he gets to be a major boss in the story and all his abilities and what-not are there, but he could have been so much more. Thanks to lack of attention, Copley’s character goes all too quickly from disturbingly terrifying to a baddie with a sword, and it weren’t for that, “Elysium” in my opinion would have had the chance to become something more than a just another beautifully wrapped Sci-Fi story.

As much as I’d like to be able to say otherwise, “Elysium” as a whole is a wasted potential to redefine the genre. It wouldn’t really need much more than to balance the beautiful visuals and perfectly crafted world with a compelling story inhabited by relatable and vivid characters. In terms of atmosphere and the overall Sci-Fi experience, I can only congratulate Blomkamp, because “Elysium” is a very fun ride. Really, if at any point in time somebody out there decides to adapt the “Fallout” universe for the big screen, I believe that Blomkamp would be a fine man for the job. He clearly gets the post-apocalyptic vibe and like no-one else has the ability to smear the Sci-Fi onto real life to eliminate its artificial smell. However, I cannot accept a poorly written story just because the film looks beautiful. I really need my characters to jump off the page (or at least have more than one dimension) and no amount of grit and geeky tech can make up for that. As a result, what could have been ground breaking, ended up just very good. I know it looks as if I didn’t like “Elysium” – far from it – but I really expected Neill Blomkamp to dazzle me, which he did only partially…

Just because there’s more of you, doesn’t mean you’re right…

Speaking of Internet rage, I Just wanted to put it out there, so that I have something to refer to in two years’ time. Yeah, so in case you just woke up from a coma, none other than Ben Affleck has been cast as the next Batman in the upcoming sequel to this year’s “Man of Steel”, which is supposed to be a Batman/Superman crossover. And again (and pretty much on the same day as the Joss Whedon thing happened) the Internet has crapped its collective pants in the violent episode of nerd-rage and to this day – three days later – it still stinks… Wherever I turn, it’s really difficult to see past the feces-hurling and name-calling, because for the vast majority of the Internet vocal hate-club Ben Affleck is as good as dead as an actor and to take on such an iconic character of The Caped Crusader can only be seen as a slap on the face of everyone out there.

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I’m not even going to delve into the subject deeper, because it’s not my place to comment on casting decisions, especially in light of what I’m about to say. As somebody who has grown up alongside the Internet revolution, I should only remind everyone that the phenomenon of the World Wide Web has not so much spawned, but brought to the public light the collective problem of humanity – the fear of change. We know all too well that we tend to like what we know and fear (and dislike) the unknown and different. That’s about as close as it gets to the foundations of racism, intolerance and a whole slew of other modern problems we struggle with every day. Combine all that with the anonymity the Internet provides and we can bask in hatred all day long, just because somebody somewhere is trying to force a change down our throats.

But change is good and it’s what we need to evolve and further ourselves as humans, and more often than not what we had feared so terribly in the first place, ends up being our next favorite thing in the whole world. ‘Who needs iPads anyway?’ you’d have asked yourselves a few years back – now you probably own one (or its Android equivalent) and cannot imagine your life without it; that’s how addictive toilet gaming is… But I digress…

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So let me dig out some dirt, if you let me, because I simply can’t stand the overwhelming abundance of non-creative memes that attack my poor sense of vision every time I look something up online. As the old adage goes (and if there isn’t an adage like that, there damn well should be one by now), the Internet forgives, but it never forgets. And it didn’t forget what you all felt when you heard that a Brokeback-brat Heath Ledger was going to become the next Joker in “The Dark Knight”. Hell, even Jack Nicholson wasn’t having any of it, partly because he wasn’t even considered for the role, but to leave a character of that magnitude to a prince Charming was just a bridge too far. It’s amusing to read all that profound wisdom from where I’m sitting now, but it wasn’t all dancing and singing back in the day. It got to a point that Nolan himself had to explain his casting choices to fend off the pitchforks and torches.

And do you remember Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man? Well, it didn’t get all that nasty, but there was a good crowd of nay-sayers voicing their disdain about it all too loudly. And Daniel Craig as the next James Bond? I reckon none of those brave hate-mongers who prophesized doom to “The Dark Knight”, “Iron Man”, or “Casino Royale” will admit how terribly wrong they ended up being. Therefore, I’ll reserve judgment until I’ll have seen Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne. Sure, he’s made some terrible films in the past, but let’s not overlook that he is  a talented man of film (universally acclaimed and thusly awarded) and I think we might be in for a surprise with this one. But I hope to God he’d ditch Bale’s bat-voice…

Perception strikes back

It really has been a slow month with next to nothing of value hitting the screens. Not only that, it seems to me that apart from some scarce casting news, there isn’t much happening at the minute in the greater world of film. Sure, there still are festivals and some minor announcements here and there, but not enough for me to have an opinion about – and that saddens me deeply, as I shan’t really write for the sake of having something new up there. I genuinely hope things pick up come September, because it’s just silly to be picking on sequels all the damn time.

Well… Having said all that, I had the privilege yesterday to observe the vocal collective of overzealous movie lovers go batshit crazy in the comment sections of every major movie blog/news outlet and I think I’d like to say a few words on the matter as well. I could theoretically join any of the already existing threads, but I won’t simply because every single one of them has been derailed by the movie-goer equivalents of religious fundamentalists and turned into hate-spouting shoutfests. We all know you can’t really have a mature conversation with someone convinced that repeating himself and shouting will get his point across.

In the interest of keeping things concise (well, relatively), I’ll just get to it. Ok, so why exactly has the Internet exploded with rage? Well… Sequels… But not just any sequels. It turns out that Joss Whedon (the man behind “The Avengers”, if you don’t know) during a recent interview has voiced – and not for the first time, I might add – his very strong opinion on “The Empire Strikes Back”. Do you feel the tension in the room? Well, basically, he admitted not to be a big fan of this film’s ending. Granted, he started off by naming “The Empire…” an example of a sequel done right, but he then went on to say how displeased he was with how the film concluded. And to him, it didn’t conclude at all, thus resembling an episode of a TV show rather than a stand-alone full-feature film.

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You could imagine that the second I read it, I immediately scrolled down to the comments to check for hate-speech. Suffice it to say, you can’t tamper with film classics of that caliber without getting a good chunk of the Internet up in arms. Especially when the said classic is a cornerstone of a substantial culture nurtured and expanded upon over the last decades. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that having someone that prominent in the geek-world say thing like that will provoke a strong emotional response from the community.

But… are you sure the man doesn’t have a point? As a person interested in the truth and hearing both sides before making hasty judgments, I’d like to stop and think what Joss Whedon tried to say in the first place. He didn’t dismiss your (and mine) beloved “Star Wars” at all, and if you felt offended, then you are also incapable of having an unbiased opinion that brings anything of value to the table. The only thing the man said was that he didn’t enjoy the ending to “The Empire…” because of its totally unresolved nature, because he had to wait another three years to see how everything came together. And it is a genuine concern based on his experience.

I think it’s safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of the offended commenters have never seen “The Empire…” or “The Return of The Jedi” when during their original theatrical runs. I sure didn’t because I wasn’t even born at the time. Therefore, it is imperative that before making any comments on Joss Whedon’s credibility, we should try to see the problem through his eyes. We often forget that we take certain things for granted and simply assume things like The Original Trilogy has been there always. Sure, for me it was… At any given point in my life I was able to sit down and watch all three Star Wars films back-to-back without even thinking about how any of the respective episodes would perform on their own. I have never had any issues with how “The Empire…” ended, because every single time I would just pop “The Return…” on and continue the journey. And that, my dear Internet, is a luxury you didn’t get back in 1980.

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Joss had to wait three years to see Luke become a full-blown Jedi and rescue Han from the slimy hands of Jabba the Hutt. If you look at “The Empire Strikes Back” this way, you might actually notice that its ending was far from perfect. It was completely different from the original “Star Wars”, which was conceived as a stand-alone feature and was only expanded to a set of three following the amazing box office results, because at that point George Lucas knew very well he would get the financing for a whole trilogy, so he decided to leave so many loose threads and end “The Empire…” on a cliffhanger. That’s a risky move on its own, because it was very much designed for the viewers to exit the cinema not satiated and longing for more. And three years is a long time to wait for a follow-up to something as awesome as “The Empire Strikes Back”, so no wonder people did get emotional about that.

So, as a person who not only has grown up with The Original Trilogy at his side, but also had enough resolve to look past the attempted vandalism done by its creator in the form of the revamped Special Edition and the Prequel Trilogy, I can only say the following: before you draw your sword and jump in your crusader’s armor, make sure you’re fighting for the right cause. Blind faith and jihadist zealotry never go down well in a discussion, while cogent arguments always do. Calling people names, because he happens to be of a different opinion (and perfectly valid at that), sadly does not look like a result of sound reasoning.

“2 Guns” – because one double-crossing is just too mainstream…

I think it’s official now: the summer blockbuster battle fatigue has just kicked in and I can’t really see myself going out of my way to watch yet another 2.5 hours of destruction porn so abundant in the cinemas over the last two months or so. This is why I refused to watch “Wolverine” and “The Lone Ranger” (plus, a little bird told me that the latter would most likely suck royally), because I was approaching the tipping point, at which I would actively vomit in the cinema. I’ll still catch up with them whenever they’re released on Blu Ray, so no worries.

In order to save myself the embarrassment I have recently decided to undergo a detox of sorts that included picking mostly comedies to see on the big screen. Keeping in mind that there are still some big titles I’m looking forward to see this summer (i.e. “Elysium” next weekend), a course of treatment including some light cinema would freshen up my senses, keep my mind nice and open, and subdue the cynical prick that now lies dormant in the darkest reaches of my mind.

By total accident I ended up extending my latest trend of getting in touch with the buddy variety of action/comedy and added “2 Guns” to the list. I must admit that I ventured to see this particular film with surprisingly limited knowledge about it. Normally I do know certain things, which is a direct result of reading up about film-related news all the damn time, but “2 Guns” have blind-sided me really effectively. Prior to the screening I hadn’t even seen the trailer; I knew only the premise of the film (aka a one-sentence synopsis).

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“2 Guns” is basically a very classical take on the buddy cop comedy, in which we meet Bobby (Denzel Washington) and Stig (Mark Wahlberg) who do some shady business with a Mexican cartel led by ruthless Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos). They sell forged passports and do everything to stay afloat and climb up the ladder in the drug underworld. However, they are both undercover agents (Bobby works for DEA and Stig for US Navy Intelligence) and, to add insult to injury, they have absolutely no clue about their respective identities. (By the way, the lack of communication between federal agencies is simply stunning)

In order to take down Papi, Bobby orchestrates a bank robbery, where they would steal Papi’s dirty money as evidence to help lock him down for good. Little do they know, however, that the money they stole belongs to somebody else, who would stop at nothing to get it back.

Gosh, it’s difficult to summarize this film. Not that it’s overly complex and multi-layered and such, because it is after all an action comedy, but I found it amazingly difficult to write it up without giving the most important plot points away. That’s just how it is, “2 Guns” is a comedy about two guys, who don’t know who their partner is, and they end up being double-crossed while being double-crossed by somebody else. At some point, this film started to look more like an episode of “Scooby-Doo” with all the unmasking, betrayals and what-not.

Even though the plot looks rather convoluted, “2 Guns” plays out quite simple. It’s a very formulaic buddy comedy that takes a lot from “Lethal Weapon” and “Tango and Cash”. But, let’s be clear here for a second: even though the film is filled with witty humor and snappy dialogue, it’s still a pretty violent and action-packed show filled with blood, guns, some mild torture and even a topless chick (Paula Patton) whose breasts serve no actual purpose on the screen other than to tick the genre box. Surprisingly though and thankfully at that, in spite of pairing up Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, “2 Guns” doesn’t rely on racially-influenced dynamics and humor to propel the film. I find it very reassuring that we can now see a decent example of seeing past the cliché black/white buddy cop comedy, because there is only a finite number of puns and one-liners that would fit into that equation, and we’ve seen them all, I’m afraid.

 

Ok, so there are guns (2 of them, snap!), violence, humor, explosions, drug cartels, shootouts, car chases, boobs, money, rogue agents, rogue soldiers, rogue-pretty-much-anybody, fat useless policemen and sexy waitresses. On paper all the boxes are ticked and in theory “2 Guns” should be fantastic. Problem is that it’s all been done. Even Simpsons did it… Therefore, this little film will never be amazing and awesome – it will only be OK. Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast, but it’s not one of the films that will linger in your memory for longer than ten minutes. It’s nice and refreshing, but it has nothing to offer apart from the solid craftsmanship.

“2 Guns” goes down very nicely, even with very predictable twists and turns. It’s perfect when all you need is a break from the heavy-handed blockbusters we’ve been seeing all summer, but it adds nothing to the genre. The actors are OK, the action is OK, the humor is OK – it’s all just… OK. If anything, “2 Guns” takes a few steps towards self-parody at times with the absurd amount of double-crossings and rogue agents that run rampant on the screen. Seriously, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that US Government agencies have zero control over their employees and assets – that’s how ridiculous it gets by the end. Maybe, for sake of clarity, this film should come bundled with a sign that says “Avoid taking anything in this film seriously… Seriously…” It’s just good fun, but nothing more…

Saturday Fright Night Fever #5 – “House at the end of the street”

Well, this is awkward… It’s more of a standard nowadays to see that now well-renowned and acclaimed actors have started out in cheap genre flicks, but it sure looks odd when an Oscar-nominated (at the time) star shows up on a poster of what looks to be a run-of-the-mill horror. I mean, what could possibly entice someone like Jennifer Lawrence (with all the gongs she scored over these past few years) to look at a script for “House at the end of the street” and think it would be nice to star in it? Did she lose a bet or something? I know it’s not uncommon for big guys to do things like that, but there always is a reason for it, like a big-shot producer, an awesome genre-redefining script, or a fantastic director shooting a passion project, because he’s always wanted to do something like that.

I figured that “House at the end of the street” should be something else and with zero prior knowledge (not even a trailer) about it, I proceeded to watch it… Yeah, it was something else alright… Not that I expected much, but what I have just witnessed is simply reprehensible and we should ostracize the people responsible for letting this film happen, so that no-one ever makes that mistake again.

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Right, so “House at the end of the street” can be quickly summarized as a story about a mom (Elizabeth Shue) and her daughter (Jennifer Lawrence), who for whatever reason want to start their lives anew and in order to do that they move in to a nice little house on the outskirts of a small town. They clearly have some emotional baggage with them, which surfaces all too often during pretty much any conversation, but they want to be a happy family once more. Very quickly into the film, they discover that the place they’ve moved into lies just a stone’s throw away from an abandoned house where many years ago a brutal murder had been committed and a local urban (rural?) legend has it that the person responsible never got caught and still roams the local forests. The ladies don’t really buy into all those scary stories and continue on with their lives, but very soon they become aware that the house at the end of the street is not abandoned at all…

First of all, whoever labeled “House at the end of the street” as a horror should really rethink their actions (Netflix, I’m looking at you…). Well, it does start off very convincingly, but very soon into the film almost all the cards are on the table and the entire sense of mystery and danger dissipates in an instant. Basically, the whole premise of the story completely precludes any sense of threat from building up and we are stuck watching Jennifer Lawrence be an overgrown teenager for a while.

Granted, in the very beginning I was thinking “House at the end of the street” could make a half-decent slasher between Jennifer Lawrence as the unlikely heroine and all the genre references to “Friday the 13th and other classics. Hell, I even thought we might have a supernatural element on our hands in here and however dumb it would come across, it would still provide the much needed atmosphere in this otherwise bland and lifeless spectacle. However, in spite of all my good wishes, “House at the end of the street” decided not to grow up to become a full-fledged horror, but rather to fall off the wagon and after a string of affairs with one too many genre clichésto end up a mediocre tasteless thriller with vestigial atmosphere and only a handful of pretty predictable scares, to boot.

The way I understand it, “House at the end of the street”  must have been conceived as a twist that needed to be garnished with some sort of a story. Well, while I do appreciate the effort and the twist on its own is just fine (not quite original, but it works), the idea of building a run-of-the-mill generic story around it, filled with one-dimensional characters and sappy dialogue is never going to make it look like a good movie. Sprinkling some scares won’t help either, because if there’s no build-up, no threat, no mystery or danger, then the scares are just annoying.

 

I have no problem with horrors being rather predictable as such, so long as they play on my emotions. Well, this one doesn’t, which immediately made me notice all the conveniently placed props and plot devices (malfunctioning flashlights and other Chekhov’s guns) and register them as eye-gougingly irritating. As a result, all the scares are all the more predictable, the twist doesn’t really catch you unawares, and you end up laughing at the characters’ poor decision-making and their shoddy development.

At this point, I don’t even know whether this film would have worked had it been for some minor changes here and there. As it stands, “House at the end of the street” fails across the board in creating an experience worth watching. It doesn’t matter that the film sports a top class cast if the dialogues, the pacing and the story progression are simply dumb. Some films are unsalvageable and will remain stupid with or without Al Pacino. Sure, it’s my responsibility for agreeing to sit through all of this, because I somehow believed “House at the end of the street” would have something more to offer in the end, but it doesn’t. It was just a playground for some really good actors to have a little break from all the heavy-handed dramas aimed at the Oscars and such. It’s official: flickering lights in a basement, an old house, a mad person on the loose and five (!) jump scares don’t make a horror and this is something Mark Tonderai needs to learn if he wants to direct genre films.

Minireview: “The Heat”

Directed by Paul Feig (who is mostly known for the surprisingly successful “Bridesmaids”), “The Heat” has taken me by complete surprise and brought a serious onslaught of hilarity into the summer blockbuster line-up. Admittedly, my expectations towards this particular comedy were kept relatively low, especially after the utterly underwhelming “The Internship”, which succeeded in destroying my comedy palate. Thankfully, “The Heat” strikes all the right notes and, while not entirely original, brings all the ingredients together to create a very refreshing summertime dish that’s light on the stomach, but zingy on the senses.

(I should probably grab a sandwich or something, because I can’t stop thinking in cooking analogies)

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In terms of the story, “The Heat” is a feminine variation on the buddy cop comedy where a young and arrogant FBI agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is paired up with an obnoxious police officer Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), as they turn Boston upside down trying to find the identity of a mysterious new drug kingpin Larkin. In the process, however, they both have to come to terms with their own shortcomings and learn to co-exist. Moreover, their unlikely partnership quickly develops a peculiar dynamic that not only drives the whole film forward, but also serves as a vital plot device that pretty much carries the entire story.

I find it ironic that shortly after I had to sit through “The Internship” and nearly choked on the awkward and nearly forced performance by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, I was quickly reminded of how that kind of comedy can be done right. Sure, the idea of pairing exact opposites together is nothing new in here, but when it’s done with confidence and flair, with only a speck of originality, the end result has the potential to fly.

 

While I normally wouldn’t associate Sandra Bullock with an all-out comedy and frankly I didn’t expect she had it in her, she did a wonderful job in creating a funny character (although very conveniently layered, so as to keep the pacing going) that knew her place in the picture. Granted, I think everybody would expect Melissa McCarthy to take the lead in any comedy she’s in, because she clearly is gifted that way. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that most of her best gags were at least partially improvised. She does know she’s the star here and all eyes are on her at all times. What I think makes “The Heat” work so well, is the combination of McCarthy’s filthy humor and lack of any moral brakes with Bullock’s perfectly professional supportive role where she would let McCarthy do her thing all the while providing the fillers and backup vocals here and there to make the film work as a whole.

“The Heat” does not reinvent the genre in any capacity, but stands firmly on its own within it. It’s not just a two-man show with little around it, but rather a very balanced work including a set of very memorable secondary characters (hilarious in their own right) that makes a banal buddy cop story funny once more.

 

“Only God Forgives” covers you in filth…

In the age of widely accessible and completely anonymous Internet herd mentality-fueled hatred it is inexplicably easy and all the more enticing to jump on the wagon and bash a film, regardless of it being actually terrible. After all, and I speak from a position of experience, being able to point out negatives comes to most of us much easier, than making the effort to give positive remarks about anything; it’s just how things go nowadays. Long gone are the times when we used to listen to our mothers and grandmothers say something to the effect of ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, better keep your pie-hole shut’. Now that we don’t have to face anybody directly, we can spout hatred and bigotry all day long hidden safely behind our avatars from the comforts of our own homes.

If that makes any difference, I try to do everything in my power to remain objective in the way I perceive things, or cinema in this case. I’ll still say what I need to say about any given film whilst trying not to be influenced by anybody’s opinion on the matter. So, I have no problem going after duds like “Iron Man 3”, or “Die Hard 5” (I can’t stress enough how deeply disappointed I was with those two pitiful additions to the collective treasury of moving pictures) so long as I stay true to what I believe. However, I find it most difficult to hop on a hate train (“After Earth” much?), as I think it’s the equivalent of taking the easy way. Sure, I might dislike a film that has been getting shafted left and right by the critics and movie-goers alike, but I’ll never sink to the level of hating a film, because it’s the prevailing opinion about it.

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Now, I’ve been hearing/reading/watching all sorts of opinions about “Only God Forgives” by Nicolas Winding Refn. Since the beginning of this year, the collective media were buzzing with excitement about Refn’s newest baby and the critical acclaim together with commercial success of his previous work – “Drive” – could only ramp up the expectations. And the, Cannes Festival came along and the hate train left the station. “Only God Forgives” ended up splitting the critical world exactly in half with some people loving and praising it, and others pulling all the stops in expressing their disappointment. I think it’s perfectly valid to find oneself on either side of the argument, but I reckon we might be having a hate-club situation on our hands here (for the reasons I mentioned earlier). So, whenever a film that divisive rolls around, I find it imperative to go and watch it, so that I could have my own opinion.

“Only God Forgives” is a story about Julian (Ryan Gosling), a small-time criminal living in Bangkok, who, together with his older brother Billy (Tom Burke) runs a boxing club as a cover for a drug-dealing outfit. One day, however, Billy goes on a ‘night out’ and ends up raping brutally murdering a teenage prostitute. After Billy has surrendered to the police, a police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) arrives on the scene together with the victim’s father and allows him to exact vengeance on his child’s murderer. However, when all is said and done, Chang decides to punish the girl’s father as well for letting his own child prostitute herself in the first place and he hacks off his arm with a sword.

Learning of her son’s demise, Julian and Billy’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok with a sole reason of finding out whoever was responsible and once she does, she tasks her only remaining son to find and kill Chang for what he’s done. Thus, the circle of vengeance starts spinning…

A lot can be said about “Only God Forgives”; about its ponderous tone, gruesome imagery, neon-lit sceneries, dialogue or lack thereof, and convoluted immoral take on human nature, but you can’t really tell me that it’s a bad film. I personally loved it, but I think I need to emphasize I wouldn’t want to watch it again anytime soon.

It is my understanding that the vast majority of the concerns voiced in connection to “Only God Forgives” are somehow related to the film’s glacially paced story and pretentious self-indulgent tone that stretches out the film’s 90 minute run time into infinity. Well, as for the latter, I can’t really relate, as I didn’t feel bored by “Only God Forgives” at all; I was definitely more mesmerized instead with the hypnotic, at times bordering on surreal visuals Refn kept throwing at me. Although drawing parallels to David Lynch’s work in order to describe Refn’s newest film would definitely be overkill bordering on sacrilege, I feel “Only God Forgives” (if one wants to get as much from that film as humanly possible) should not be approached as regular film with a regular story. In that, expecting a follow-up to “Drive” will only get you annoyed, because stylistically they are miles apart. You might get a sense of noir climate going on (judging solely by the trailer), but in reality it just ends up being very misleading, as “Only God Forgives”, apart from the fact Ryan Gosling is in it, has nothing to do with “Drive”, be it in terms of story, style, or tone.

 

Once you can get over the fact you are not going to see “Drive 2 – Bangkok by night”, you’ll notice immediately the most stunning feature of “Only God Forgives”, the photography. I was truly amazed how perfectly composed and lit every single frame of this film was. There was literally no item, no flower, and no person out of place in this film. However, the fact everything about “Only God Forgives” is so meticulously staged helps to take away the sense of realism from the film. I don’t see it as a negative, but I can surely understand where the alleged pretentiousness comes from that put so many people off. Because nothing in the film happens spontaneously and/or rapidly, the overall feeling I got, was that of a stage play, where the actors would over-articulate, walk slowly and go overboard on the acting.

And the violence… “Only God Forgives” is a surreal fairy tale filled with visions, very long sequences savoring the tone and the visuals, and it’s all precisely punctuated by spikes of gore and violence. Whenever lieutenant Chang shows up on the screen and draws his sword (or materializes it from nothingness, because he doesn’t seem to be carrying it, yet when he’s about to punish somebody, he just draws it casually from behind his back) we are quickly taught that what we are about to witness is aimed at disturbing us.

But, it is not the blood, guts, torture and dismemberment that leaves a bad aftertaste in this film… It’s the characters and their decisions showing the filthiest side of human nature made me flinch, because what some of them do (or used to do) is simply wrong on every level. Taking into account Julian’s relationship with his mother, his reason to have fled America, the mother’s bend on retribution and disregard towards pretty much anyone, I think I have been misled all throughout the film. The more you are drawn into the dark and filthy underworld, in which the characters dwell, the more you understand lieutenant Chang’s actions to the point of believing, he is the true main character of the story; but that’s just my conjecture.

All things considered, “Only God Forgives” is a special film that requires a lot of investment from the viewer. I reckon that stunning photography and the perfectly matching dark and ominous soundtrack could not be enough to satisfy an unsuspecting audience member, especially when the usual points of interest in a film are glossed over or contorted into very unfamiliar shapes. You can’t really say much about the acting, because everything in this film is staged akin to performance art, plus there’s more or less five minutes worth of dialogue to complement. You shouldn’t really expect much from the story either, because all the usual features of a film in here are but elements to elevate the style and tone. “Only God Forgives” is a piece of film that simply flows and takes you along on a journey to places you really don’t want to visit.