REVIEW: Valhalla Rising

18 06 2016

Valhalla RisingCall director Nicolas Winding Refn what you will (and I can think of a few things), but the man is never short on ambition. He has always worked to incorporate avant-garde elements into familiar genres like the prison film, the heist film and the gangster film. Each worked in varying degrees, often depending on the extent to which Refn decided to push the pre-established boundaries.

His 2010 film “Valhalla Rising,” however, might be the most purely effective of all his recent work. That’s not say it makes for the most entertaining or provocative watches. But this five-chapter tale of Norse mythology does mark his most sparse, stylistic work.

Story frequently takes a backseat to form, tone and mood, all of which Refn controls quite nimbly. The director has often called himself a pornographer of violence, and he certainly delivers the action. Yet “Valhalla Rising” does show him willing to engage in courtship, flirtation and foreplay before getting onto the hard stuff.

Of course, as is often the case with stylized exercises, the show gets old rather quickly. With little beyond the subdued fury of Mads Mikkelsen’s one-eye to carry the brutal, hallucinatory tale, “Valhalla Rising” sags under the weight of its own grand zeal to arouse. Still, it makes one wonder what Refn could produce if he went down a path even more uncommercial than this. B-2stars


REVIEW: My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

29 04 2015

My_Life_Directed_POSTER_FINAL_A_AIM.inddFor a while, I debated whether or not Liv Corfixen’s documentary “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn” merited a review on my blog.  Clocking in at 59 minutes, the film falls in the gray area between short and feature.  But given its interest to fans of “Drive” and haters of “Only God Forgives,” I figured I could spare a few hundred words for the sake of cinephilia.

After being put to sleep in Cannes by Refn’s critically reviled 2013 film, I described “Only God Forgives” as “a fetish meant only to please Refn and a few others who share his bizarre – and borderline irresponsible – penchant” while also claiming it lacked any internal logic.  This behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking process, anchored by Refn’s wife, alerts us to the fact that Refn himself saw the trainwreck coming on set and found himself helpless to prevent it.

For the moviegoer, the film’s squandered opportunity represents a loss of 90 minutes and maybe a few dollars.  But for Refn, however, the flop of “Only God Forgives” jeopardizes his very livelihood.  I might have felt sorrow or pity for the director after “My Life Directed” had Corfixen allowed the documentary to function almost entirely as an apologia.  Yet she insists on using her footage as partial vindication for the project, a choice that makes her movie better and leaves his in stasis.

With the exception of its resigned and defeated (rather than triumphant) tone, “My Life Directed” more or less resembles a standard making-of special.  Since Refn allegedly would not let Corfixen shoot his blow-ups on set, it falters as a portrait of a director losing control of his film and as an autopsy of a failed filmmaking venture.  The film would make a decent Criterion Collection extra, if “Only God Forgives” were ever to get that treatment … though I do not think anyone expects that day to come.  C+2stars

REVIEW: Jodorowsky’s Dune

9 07 2014

Jodrowsky's DuneCannes Film Festival – Director’s Fortnight, 2013

Is it possible that one of the most influential forces in the history of cinema as we know it was a film that wasn’t actually made?  That’s the case made by director Frank Pavich in his documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” a celebration of a landmark in science-fiction cinema that never left pre-production.  And darned if we aren’t educated, entertained, and slightly awe-struck by the time the film ends.

The popular novel “Dune” ultimately did meet the silver screen in David Lynch’s 1984 cult classic.  But that would pale in comparison the version Alejandro Jodorowsky, Mexican master of the surreal, was planning in the mid-1970s.  Involving everyone from Pink Floyd to Orson Welles and even Salvador Dalí, his take on “Dune” would certainly be unlike anything the movies had ever seen.

But rather than mourning the midnight movie that could have been, Pavich uses his documentary as a platform for celebrating the boundless creativity of Jodorowsky and all the obstacles such a singular vision can create.  It’s undeniably fun to watch Jodorowsky interviewed about all his grandiose plans, and such energy serves as a wonderful reminder of how blissful it is to watch a director revel in the joy of moviemaking.

Pavich also takes care to show us all the ways in which Jodorowsky’s unfinished project trickled out into the industry and popped up in several landmark films.  Featuring appearances by acclaimed filmmakers like Nicolas Winding Refn (who dedicated his Cannes 2013 entry “Only God Forgives” to Jodorwosky) along with rabidly zealous journalists such as Devin Faraci and Drew McWeeny, “Jodorowsky’s Dune” makes for one heck of a party for the cinema.  Its allure is practically impossible to resist if you love movies.  B+3stars

REVIEW: Only God Forgives

20 07 2013

Only God ForgivesCannes Film Festival – Official Competition

Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” was mediocre genre revisionism.  His latest film, “Only God Forgives,” is an attempt at surrealist action that borders on the experimental.  On principle, I’d like to say I preferred the latter since it was at least ambitious.

However, after a second watch from the comforts of my own bed (the first, a late-night screening in Cannes, put me to sleep for large chunks), I really cannot bring myself to endorse “Only God Forgives.”  It aims for David Lynch or Alexander Jodorowsky, the great surrealist filmmaker to whom the film is dedicated, but falls far short of the mark.  Teasing at a dreamlike experience is not enough – the film must deliver, and it cannot execute on its promise.

Refn’s film lacks any internal logic, bizarrely floating through non-related scenes of a sadistic Thai police officer and Ryan Gosling’s stoically mute Julian.  All great actors run the risk of turning themselves into a cliché (see: Johnny Depp), and I’m sorry to report that we may have reached a tipping point with Gosling.  He’s so frustratingly not a presence in the film that it does not play as tough anymore; it’s just plain obnoxious.

Thankfully, the film does deploy Kristin Scott Thomas to talk enough for the both of them.  As a psychotic mother, perhaps a physical embodiment of Oedipal desire, she’s a firecracker who adds a jolt of energy every time she comes on screen.  Sadly, that’s only a few scenes.

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3 10 2011

I don’t know whether “Drive” feels like such a radical movie because of its own merit or because Michael Bay and the “Transformers” culture have made violence and art antonyms in the cultural thesaurus.  Regardless, anyone who realizes that the two can coexist will rejoice in seeing someone approach the genre like a painter with a palette, not a 12-year-old with plenty of testosterone to exude.  Through his stylization and aestheticization of action, director Nicolas Winding Refn gives us hope that the “impending Dark Age,” as Roger Ebert coined it, is not inevitable at a cinema near you as long as people are still willing to take bold risks like combining the art film with the heist film.

Much like his viscerally charged “Bronson,” a career-launching vehicle for Tom Hardy, “Drive” is a dazzling visual experience that struts across the screen with swagger and confidence.  Refn’s film comes with that increasingly rare sense that every moment and every frame have been carefully and purposefully constructed, and as a result, his film will be watched again and again.  Maybe in a few years, this movie will be a textbook for how to actually direct – and not just supervise – an action movie.  (I can dream, can’t I?)  The times call for a new “New Hollywood” movement, and directors like Refn and Steve McQueen are entering mainstream consciousness at the perfect time to lead it.

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