Posts Tagged ‘Nicolas Winding Refn’


From the auteur director who once declared “I like violence, I love violence!” and “I make films with my cojones” comes 2013’s most arresting and emotional film. The Dance of Reality retraces Jodorowsky’s troubled childhood in Chile with a wildly imaginative bent. Re-imagining his oppressive father as a Stalin doppleganger (performed by his son Brontis Jodorowsky) and his mother as an opera singer (Pamela Flores), Jodorowsky re-writes the stale rulebook of the biopic (or in this case the autobiopic) with a film that is as much a testament to his surrealistic voice as a director, as it is to the therapeutic power of cinema.


The ever-contentious innovator Harmony Korine achieves a bizarre combination of commercialism and radical formalism with Spring Breakers. The film is driven by a plot (written by Korine) that moves efficiently and relentlessly, while maintaining the illusion of chaos. Korine’s work with editor Douglas Crise (BabelArbitrage) is particularly impressive, as they weave together a cyclical, hallucinatory cutting rhythm, with which to sting out Korine’s raw coverage of hedonistic partygoers. Highlights include the opening beach party (set to an unexpectedly tuneful Skrillex soundtrack), a ruthless heist scene and James Franco’s stirring rendition of Britney Spears’ ‘Everytime.’


My Sweet Pepper Land from Iraqi–Kurdish director Hiner Saleem is a painfully funny film, with a fresh take on the Spaghetti Western. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, Baran (a Kurdish Independence war hero) leaves the Iraqi city of Erbil to be stationed in a lawless town on the boarders of Iran, Turkey and Iraq where he begins a small, violent, revolution. Unlike many recent American Western, the film does not feel confined to history, owing to its contemporary backdrop of Middle Eastern rebellion. That said, the film still maintains many great Western tropes, making it an excellent contribution to the genre.


The greatest unexpected crowd-pleaser of the year was Frank Pavich’s celebratory documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to turn Frank Herbert’s Dune into a film. With an invigorating, emotive narration from Jodorowsky himself, as well as contributions from many of the key players in the pre-production of the project, Jodorowsky’s Dune ultimately discovers how glorious it can be to fail spectacularly. Jodorowsky tells of his search for Orson Welles, his promise to pay Salvador Dali more money per minute than any other actor and his outrage at Pink Floyd as they munched hamburgers while he pitched them the project. It is also beautifully cut and animated.


Before Behind the Candelabra was cut from a television series into a film, Side Effects was Soderbergh’s cinematic swansong and it would have been sufficient. A sordid tale of moneymaking in the pharmaceutical industry, Soderbergh dramatises this biting critique immaculately, without selling out an ounce of tension to the film’s social commentary. Working effectively on both levels, the film also provides room for a career best performance from Jude Law, as well as a frighteningly sedate Roony Mara. Supporting roles are cast exceptionally, with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum both making an impression. Soderbergh’s own cinematography also creates an immersive atmosphere of depression, with gloomy tones and a foggy shallow focus captured on the Red EPIC camera.


With Harmony Lessons 29 year old Kazakh director Emir Baigazin announced himself as one of the world’s boldest young directors at the Berlinale 2013. The film tells of Aslan, a thirteen year old boy living with his grandmother in a small village in Kazakhstan. An intelligent boy, Aslan is bullied by the other students at his school, lead by the sadistic Bolat. The film observes Aslan’s descent into violence and sadism, as he transfers his angst towards various animals and insects, rather than his fellow students. The film’s style is boldly rooted in its local aesthetic, while simultaneously recalling the American tradition of the Gangster genre. The way Baigazin deals with violence is powerful and sometimes almost unbearable.


2013’s best hi-concept film was surely Gravity, a film so simple in its intent, yet so elaborate in its design and execution. Up with Jaws and Alien in its sense of dread, Gravity is a hugely tense thriller that overcomes shortcomings which include crude characterisation (George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski), unconvincing emotional stakes (Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone) and silly dialogue, with its overall purpose: the attempt to avoid dying alone in the void of space. If anything the film actually suffers from its efforts to add depth to the dilemma, because its horror is so fundamental and horrifying. That Cuarón rendered this horror so convincingly, with masterful long shots and subtle 3D, is the film’s true power.


An enormously ambitious follow up to 2010’s Blue Valentine for director Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines walks a fine line between cinematic epic and overreaching indie film, eventually emerging as a happy medium of the two. Cianfrance attempts a bold designation of screen time to the film’s four main male characters, defined predominantly by act. This creates a make-or-break situation for the viewer, some of whom will run with it, while others will baulk will the changing allegiances. For those who stay with the film, it has enormous emotional potential and boasts fine performances from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, as well as the younger Dane DeHaan.


Banned in its native India, Papilio Buddha is a fierce, relevant film defending the rights of the Dalit people in the Western Ghats of the country. Poet, turned director, Jayan Cherian brings a sensitive, crafted approach to a story that brims with political anger and injustice. While the film’s primary area of interest is its attack on caste oppression, it also deals with other issues of prominent contemporary concern, including deforestation, women’s rights and homosexuality. The irony of seeing such a film banned, is that it seems so relevant to many current issues of debate. Encouragingly, Papilio Buddha has just earned a place among the Panorama section of the Berlinale 2014, which should give the film the platform it needs.


A divisive film if there was one in 2013. For most viewers Only God Forgives was either a provocative success, or an insulting failure. For those who were not phased by the gratuitous violence, mannequin-esque performances, broody long takes and sometimes terrible dialogue, there was an immersive cinematic experience to be had. The film is adorned with Refn’s familiar ‘fetishistic’ elements (bold colours, long takes, minimalist acting, booming soundtrack), but this time he tries something new – he asks the viewer to indulge in his (occasionally crude) symbolism, to assemble the full story. Like it or hate it, each viewer will find something different; this makes Only God Forgives a genuinely refreshing thriller in the contemporary film market.


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Cannes was not kind to Only God Forgives. Yet, Nicolas Winding Refn is not a director who requests niceties. He has facetiously called himself a pornographer, which is not literally true; however in Only God Forgives he allows his camera to linger on dialogue empty scenes so long, that it might seem invasive and gratuitous. While this film might provoke some viewers to recoil, it is a bold, stylish and strangely meditative thriller, which speaks with figurative brilliance about the loss of sexual innocence and the violence of the adult world.

Literally speaking though, Only God Forgives takes place in Bangkok, Thailand. A stoic Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an US expat, boxing club owner and drug smuggler. Julian’s brother Billy (Tom Burke) is murdered by gangsters, after he murdered a sixteen-year-old prostitute. The gangsters are advised by the devilishly God-like swordsman Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm.) Billy’s death ushers in the arrival of their mother Crystal (played brilliantly by a nauseating Kristin Scott Thomas), who arrives from the US to see Billy’s body. Crystal and Chang initiate a whirlwind of violence, stemming from her monstrous, sexualised angst and his brutal discipline.

At its heart Only God Forgives is a deeply Oedipal film about two men dealing with their mother’s sexual depravity; a depravity that may stem from the violent death of her husband. Crystal claims to have had a particularly “special” relationship with deceased son Billy (in one memorable scene she describes his penis as “enormous”) and yet Julian seems sidelined, impotent, and childlike (hence Gosling’s ruthlessly low-key performance.) Like his mother, Billy was also sexually deviant; his ultimate fantasy involved abusing minors. Julian seems traumatised by his own family, as well as his failings to impress and satisfy his mother (and the prostitute he pays to see regularly,) so he trades his sexuality for his fists.

Visually Refn has created a unique orientalism, with which to locate the story. Shooting on the streets of Bangkok, as well in sets dressed to look like ornate brothels and grandiose boxing rings, Refn depicts a hellish, womb-like dreamscape. Shifts from location to location are not handled with clarity, but rather the viewer floats through the film (with the help of Cliff Martinez’s absorbing score) gradually being drawn in, or maybe repelled. Refn’s nightmarish visuals have frequently been compared to Gaspar Noé and David Lynch, but in terms of shooting style there is more in common with Takeshi Kitano’s violent minimalism. Side-on tracking shots recall ones from Refn’s own Bronson, but may actually be inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s transgressive masterpiece The Holy Mountain.

Refn dedicates this film to Alejandro Jodorowsky and has described Only God Forgives as his “Jodorowsky film.” As with Jodorowsky’s films, Only God Forgives sets itself up as a challenge. It is a film that asks the viewer to dissolve completely into the subtext, rather than take each scene literally. Refn assembles scenes that comment on his Oedipal themes, rather than compel the narrative with plot. Ultimately the film discourages rational thought, asking for the viewer to metaphorically connect its ideas (male genitals are equated with fists, weapons serve to bring impotence & innocence, wounds are orifices for penetration, adults destroy innocence); this occurs in a manner like Jodorowsky’s rejection of logic, inspired by Buddhist koans.

By coupling its psychosexual themes and meditative style (and some rousing karaoke numbers from Chang), Only God Forgives finally betrays a tragic hilarity. As Julian propositions Chang with the words “wanna fight?” Chang looks judgingly at his crotch. This moment is protracted as if to summarise the film’s ideas about sex and violence and yet it also revels in the absurdity of Refn’s filmmaking. Only God Forgives may appear a challenging ninety minutes, but it is a bold stab at a different kind of storytelling, not without moments of Refn’s roughish showmanship.

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Kicking off our shorts column, we turn to the giallo inspired horror Yellow by Berlin based Brit director Ryan Haysom. Looking specifically to the 70’s horrors of Dario Argento (Deep Red, Suspiria) and the violent contemporary thrillers of Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Bronson), Yellow revels in the violent lineage of European cinema as an elderly man looks for an elusive killer of women.

Adhering to the giallo genre more rigorously than Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, Yellow feels like the first film to truly capture the highly stylised spirit of giallo in some decades. Perhaps it is ironic that the shooting location is Berlin, not an Italian city, yet the city’s architecture affords an eerie timelessness.

Surprisingly the film was shot on the Canon 5D Mark II DSLR by cinematographer Jon Britt (camera assistant on My Brother The Devil­). Yellow’s rigorous colour palette looks patently separate from many films shot on the 5D, displaying the benefits of a bold approach to lighting for the camera.

The music by Antoni Maiovvi is a real shot in the arm for the film’s giallo stylings. Sounding like a meeting of Goblin (Argento’s staple composers) and Kavinski (who performed ‘Nightfall’ on the Drive soundtrack), it brings the paranoid atmosphere found in Argento’s films to a contemporary audience.

Like much of the giallo genre the plot is not entirely of the essence, which becomes frustrating at times. However, in the tradition of the genre set pieces are key and Haysom handles them well making this a very satisfying short for fans of art house and horror.

See here also for the film’s stunning poster by designer Graham Humphreys (designer of posters for El TopoEvil Dead 2.)

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