Can Ryan Gosling save ‘Only God Forgives’?

“Only God Forgives,” starring Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas, opened on Friday to mixed (mostly negative) reviews. This art house/crime thriller film, written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, was nominated for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

In 2011, Refn, Gosling and Carey Mulligan teamed up for the eloquent and extremely violent “Drive.” You can read Stephanie Zacharek’s review of “Only God Forgives” here.

And on the small screen: The success of political-intrigue TV dramas such as “Scandal,” “House of Cards” and “Homeland” means the Beltway has displaced Manhattan and Los Angeles as the capital of noir, says James Wolcott in next month’s Vanity Fair. You can read the full story here.


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Happy birthday, Carey Mulligan!

Photo by Matt Hart – ©2013 Bazmark Film III Pty Ltd

She is 28. Shown as Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby” by director Baz Luhrmann and production/costume designer Catherine Martin.

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Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin create a gorgeously over-the-top Gatsby for the new millennium

The Great Gatsby/2013/Warner Bros. Pictures/143 min.

By Michael Wilmington

Director Baz Luhrmann’s razzle-dazzle, ultra-snazzy movie of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby” – which has been unjustly trashed by a number of critics – is a sometimes sensational movie that may not match the aesthetic brilliance and roaring ’20s allure of the book. (How could it? )

But it gives us plenty to enjoy anyway: a great story, much of Fitzgerald’s matchlessly lyrical narration and memorable dialogue, and a strong cast. Leonardo DiCaprio makes one of the best Gatsbys possible in a part that now seems perfect for him. Tobey Maguire plays Nick Caraway, Carey Mulligan is Daisy Buchanan and Joel Edgerton is her husband Tom.

There’s also a truly spectacular visual realization – by Luhrmann and his wife, Catherine Martin, who is the film’s production and costume designer – set in a dreamy fabrication of 1922 Long Island and Manhattan (actually shot in Luhrmann’s and Martin’s native Australia) that knocks your eyes out again and again.

This is Luhrmann’s (and Martin’s) Gatsby, as much as Fitzgerald’s: a romantic musical Gatsby, a hip-hop Gatsby, a gorgeously over-the-top Gatsby for the new millennium. But Luhrmann so obviously loves and admires the book that it becomes not only a beautiful movie and the best Gatsby film adaptation of the several made so far (1926’s with Warner Baxter, 1949’s with Alan Ladd, and 1974’s with Robert Redford), but, for me, one of the best movies of the year so far. It’s also a picture that deserves far more appreciation than it’s getting from a lot of my colleagues.

“The Great Gatsby” opens today.

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Highs outweigh the lows in London-set ‘Pusher’

Pusher/2012/Radius TWC/87 min.

“Pusher,” by director Luis Prieto, is a fun romp through familiar territory. Maybe romp isn’t quite the right word, given that this is a drug dealer’s violent, watch-your-back world full of sketchy thugs with extremely bad teeth, gorgeous strung-out girls and vicious power-brokers with very short tempers.

Prieto’s movie is based on Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 Danish film trilogy, also called “Pusher.” Winding Refn, who captivated American audiences last year with “Drive” starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, is executive producer here.

This “Pusher” follows a dealer named Frank (Richard Coyle) as he goes about his illegal business over the course of a week in his home base of London. (The original was set in Copenhagen.)

When a big sale is interrupted by the cops, Frank improvises and saves his skin. But now he owes a wad of cash to a supplier and he tries to cobble together the cash under a looming deadline.

The story, scripted by Matthew Read, is formulaic and doesn’t probe much beyond the surface. But there’s so much energetic camerawork and such assured performances that I had a good time immersing myself in the seedy, sleazy glitz of London’s SE1.

Coyle’s Frank likely tells himself that this too shall pass, that soon he’ll be done with dealing once and for all. Frank is exactly the kind of guy – smart, cocky, very cute and fully deluded – who thinks he can breeze through the badness and eventually live a different life. Emphasis on eventually. Did I mention he was very cute?

Just as interesting to watch is blonde glamazon Agyness Deyn as Flo, his dancer girlfriend; she brings a depth to the part that also signals mystery and muted pain. It is perhaps a little hard to buy that Frank would choose as his sidekick a chattery simpleton like Tony (Bronson Webb) but Tony comes from a long line of nervous, weasely, all-talk henchmen, most memorably played by classic film-noir great Elisha Cook, Jr.

Croatian-Danish actor Zlatko Burić plays Milo, the portly crime lord who happily juggles chats over buttery pastries with sending his boys to bash people’s knees in. Burić played the same role in the 1996 trilogy and he effortlessly nails the part.

“Pusher” isn’t the most original movie you could watch, but perfection isn’t everything. Look at the awkward, seemingly incompetent, sidekick thugs I mentioned above. Sometimes just being psycho is enough.

“Pusher” opens today in New York and LA (at the Sundance Sunset Cinema in West Hollywood). It is also available via video on demand.

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McQueen paints harrowing portrait of addiction in ‘Shame’

Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender

“Shame” by London-born writer/director Steve McQueen is a searing study of a man, both buttoned-up and out of control, obsessively seeking oblivion and teetering on the edge of disaster. A sex addict perpetually on the outside looking in, he lives solely for his next physical encounter.

On the surface, the laconic, hauntingly good-looking Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seems very much together. His colleagues like and respect him, he lives in a stylish Manhattan apartment, women are easily drawn to him.

His sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a struggling singer, is not faring as well and lands on his doorstep because she has nowhere else to live. Starting with Brandon finding Sissy in his shower, the two begin a tense co-existence. Brandon attempts to keep his porn, rooftop trysts and hotel hookups private, but we sense Sissy is completely up to speed on his compulsion; she tries half-heartedly to curb her own partying and sleeping around.

Whereas Brandon strips any feeling from his encounters (the one exception is a colleague he courts, the ethereally pretty and warm-hearted Marianne, played by Nicole Beharie), Sissy is the opposite, fiercely clinging to whoever will buy her champagne and share her bed for a night. Sissy’s mounting desperation eventually forces Brandon to confront his self-destructive compulsion.

With muted emotion and spare dialogue, McQueen, who wrote the screenplay with Abi Morgan, implies more than he tells but we know with certainty that Brandon and Sissy’s history is rooted in pain and deep dysfunction. The scene in which Brandon and his boss (James Badge Dale) come to hear Sissy sing at a club – she performs a wrenchingly sad version of “New York, New York” – flawlessly conveys their baggage and buried guilt.

McQueen, an acclaimed artist and director of 2008’s prize-winning “Hunger,” which also starred Fassbender, heightens the mood of numb despair by using long takes, cool tones and stark lighting. Toward the end, in bed with two women, Brandon’s anguished face tinged with yellow brings to mind a tortured figure in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, expunging any hint of sexiness or erotic allure.

Nicole Beharie and Michael Fassbender

Noirish shots of Brandon prowling New York streets at night reveal the energy he expends to shroud his life in secrecy and keep his emotions at bay.

There are many graphically raw scenes that earned the film a NC-17 rating and many are harrowing to watch. Harrowing, to be sure, but also moving – Mulligan and Fassbender are marvelously compelling in these roles that let them express uncommon depth and a mighty struggle. Beharie and Dale strike us as real people as opposed to stock types, yet they neatly suggest the general pattern of Brandon and Sissy’s superficial relationships.

To some extent, “Shame” follows in the tradition of “The Lost Weekend” and “The Man with the Golden Arm,” as well as “Last Tango in Paris,” but McQueen’s work seems broader, more resonant in our instant-gratification, must-have-it-now culture. Says Fassbender, “It speaks to this constant drive we have for satisfaction and highs, one that is followed by feelings of shame and self-loathing.”

“Shame” also speaks, in tough language, to vulnerability, damage, connection and love.

Tilda Swinton plays a beaten-down mother.

Also opening today (in a limited release) and very highly recommended: “We Need to Talk About Kevin” by Lynne Ramsay, a thriller in which neo noir meets New Age parenting. We witness, in jagged pieces that jump back and forth in time, the unthinkably brutal rupture of a dysfunctional but not entirely unhappy family.

Tilda Swinton plays a mother struggling to love her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) who comes into the world seething with anger. John C. Reilly plays her denial-prone husband. Though the script isn’t fully there and I just couldn’t buy Swinton and Reilly as a couple, this is nonetheless tour de force direction from Ramsay. I hope her vision and style are recognized during awards season.

Rich with visual metaphor, bold use of color and captivating performances, this is destined to be a neo-noir classic.

Emily Browning

In writer/director Julia Leigh’s erotic reworking of the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” we meet Lucy (Emily Browning), a perverse college student using her stunning looks to make a living in the sex industry.

Though I admired Browning’s performance, the movie was disappointingly sluggish and dull.

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‘Drive’ is full of killingly well-executed action scenes, sharp acting, ironic dialogue and ultra-snazzy visuals

Drive/2011/100 min.

By Michael Wilmington

“Drive” is a gut-twisting LA action movie, stripped to the bone, but also drenched with visual style. It’s about a driver played by Ryan Gosling who falls in love with the woman down the hall in his building, nervous Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) just got out of jail and is being forced into another heist by shady moneymen Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks).

Albert Brooks

The show is full of killingly well-executed action scenes, sharp acting, ironic dialogue and ultra-snazzy visuals – all of which won Nicolas Winding Refn the Best Director prize at the last Cannes Film Festival. Hossein Amini wrote the script based on James Sallis’ novel.

It’s a movie built largely out of our memories of other movies, but that’s not necessarily bad. We know where this movie is coming from as soon as we know Gosling’s character has no name but The Driver – just like Ryan O’Neal in Walter Hill’s 1978 “The Driver.”

Neo-noir is this picture’s middle name, and its forebears include “The Driver” (of course); John Boorman’s 1968 “Point Blank” with Lee Marvin; Peter Yates’ 1968 “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen; and Michael Mann’s outlaw movies “Thief” (1980) and “Heat” (1995). As you’d expect from a movie with that kind of lineage, “Drive” begins with a great chase and gives us a little dip under Gosling’s opaque exterior by letting us know that he’s a movie stunt driver by day and a getaway driver at night. (He allows his robber/clients only five minutes to get back to his car).

He’s also a prospective race car driver, for whom his auto shop owner/patron Shannon (Bryan Cranston) wants to get sponsorship. Shannon turns to the very same criminal financiers, Nino and Bernie, who want Standard to pull a job for them, for which Standard wants The Driver to drive. And The Driver does, mostly because he’s in love with Standard’s wife, Irene, and his little son Benicio (Kaden Leos).

The movie alternates its always-thrilling action scenes with more emotional character stuff – including a brilliant turn, Oscar-worthy really, by Brooks as the falsely good-natured gangster and ex-movie producer Bernie. (In the ’80s, says Bernie, he did action stuff that some critic called “European.”) The classy cast sometimes seems to be getting paid for holding it all back, especially Gosling, whose minimalism here makes vintage Eastwood or McQueen look like John Barrymore.

As the film goes on, it gets more violent. The violent scenes are short but extremely bloody. Since the movie plays some of its carnage with razor-sharp comic timing (especially Brooks’ scenes), it becomes more and more disturbing as well. There’s something sinister and icily detached about that comic violence. “Drive” suggests a world where brutality is rampant, where greed rules, where immorality thrives.

Though Refn may not have really made a classic neo-noir, it’s a very good effort. A little more Albert Brooks maybe. Not too much. Five minutes or less.

Albert Brooks photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage/The New York Times

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