“Controversy is part of the nature of art and creativity.”
I realize it is a little strange to start a movie review with a quote from Yoko Ono but buckle up because there are more coming. I apologize.
I am going to argue today that the two movies I am going to review are tied together by graphic depictions of violence. Yet, one of these movies has been mired in controversy because of it and the other has been elevated and, dare I say, applauded for its approach to the subject. By chance, I happened to see both of these movies on the same weekend so maybe that is why this stands out so much in my mind. Regardless, let’s get started, shall we?
Sharknado (2013) – [TV-14]
I’m tempted to not go into the plot of this for you as, frankly, I don’t know how you wouldn’t have heard about Sharknado. But if by some miracle you have managed to avoid it, everything you need to know is in the title. It’s about a hurricane that makes landfall and rains hungry sharks all over Los Angeles. No, really.
The collection of B-grade talent in it is incredible. Beyond the obvious, Ian Ziering and Tara Reid, there are dozens of folks who have been in a myriad of miscellaneous bad movies and bit TV appearances. The Tasmanian guy who is Ian Ziering’s buddy is played by Jaason Simmons. Yep, the Jaason Simmons who played Logan on Baywatch. The stranded school bus driver . . . that’s Robbie Rist who played “David Baxter” on the Mary Tyler Moore show and “Milo” in Iron Eagles (He was also Michelangelo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and III). Just check out its IMDB page. The company that put this together, The Asylum, is incredible at pulling together a movie quickly on very small budgets and trust me, they don’t splurge on quality acting.
But that’s not why you are watching Sharknado, is it? You are watching because it is absurd. You want to see Ian Ziering chainsaw a flying shark in half. You want to see people eaten by crudely rendered computer graphic sharks. You are watching to see the cheesy lines and the pointless, graphic (if ridiculously staged and poorly executed) violence. Hey, it’s cool. That’s why we all want to watch it. If anyone tells you they want to see Sharknado for the plot, don’t lend them money because they clearly have no problem stretching the truth.
Let me stop beating around the bush. This movie is terrible. But you knew that already. Oscar Wilde once said “No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.” I would argue that, intrinsically, we all know the opposite to be true as well. That’s why people have potbellied pigs and English bulldogs as pets. And the same is true for Sharknado. It is terrible. But under certain conditions . . . it really is kind of great. I can’t rate it very highly because by almost every movie making standard, it is subpar. The special effects are bad. The acting is terrible. Plot? Don’t even worry about it. But it’s just so much fun that I can’t help but recommend it highly. It’s certainly a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon when you remember it’s on your DVR.
4 paws out of 10.
Only God Forgives (2013) – [R]
Right away, let me tell you that this may be the most beautifully shot movie I have seen this year. I wanted to get that out of the way because that’s about the only thing critics are universally giving this movie credit for. They are right. Come the end of the year, I find it hard to believe there will be another film as artfully shot as this. The sound design is great and the score by the ever reliable (if criminally ignored) Cliff Martinez is phenomenal. It carries a large portion of the story on its back. The direction by Nicolas Winding Refn is remarkable. In every technical aspect of movie making, this movie is spectacular.
But that’s not what people are arguing about. First off, it’s slow. The pacing is deliberate and not at all like something you would go to an IMAX theater to see in 3D. It isn’t meant to be like Transformers 2 that keeps giving you more and more to keep your attention. Refn purposely slows the pace and pares down the dialogue so every movement, phrase and frame is a tiny picture.
Kristin Scott Thomas does a tremendous job of making what little dialogue she has into thick, spiky clubs that she beats Ryan Gosling and the rest of the cast with. Ryan Gosling, who has maybe 50 lines total, manages to wring an incredible amount of emotion out of his sad, puppy dog face. When a character speaks, because everything is so slowed and sparse, you listen to every word but this is also what frustrates people. The U.K. paper, The Guardian, declared “Only God Forgives this level of tedium.” I think that’s a little extreme. After the success of Refn’s last movie, Drive, which also starred Gosling, I think people suspected this would be similar and it isn’t. Only God Forgives is clearly a personal movie to Refn and he wants to make sure you don’t just see but feel his messages.
And then there’s the big controversy – the violence. Ultimately, violence is the tie binding these two movies. In Sharkando, it is cartoon violence done for sheer entertainment value. You aren’t meant to wonder about the families of people eaten or mutilated by sharks. The violence is simply presented as entertainment. In Only God Forgives, however, violence comes organically from rage. It has consequences and emotions attached to it. That is why it feels so burdensome and I suspect why it is such a sticking point with critics. Placing it in the slow, empty confines of the world Refn creates only heightens your response to the violence.
Is the violence strong? In places. But it is surprisingly restrained in others. There are only a few places where violence occurs directly in front of the camera. Oh, he’ll show you the before and after, but this isn’t a slasher-type gore movie. Refn’s violence is purposeful and meant to shock not just with its brutality, but with its personal impact. Does he go too far in a few places, maybe? Refn himself acknowledged in an interview that he sometimes fetishizes the violence in his films, lingering just a little too long, admiring his handiwork. But is that any worse than reveling in the mindless violence of something like Sharknado, The Expendables or the recent remake of Evil Dead? Look, I’m just a cougar so I can’t make that call but trust me, if you give it a chance, this could be a movie you remember.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the plot yet. Here’s the deal: This movie is like a bad, fever-dream. I would argue this film is exactly what the title says it is about, forgiveness. Julian (Gosling) is seeking, and one could argue, ultimately finds forgiveness for the things he has done in his past. It is a movie about justice and the price of achieving it. But don’t expect the movie to come out and explain this. Much like a dream, the actions on the surface don’t always make sense or follow any sort of linear trajectory. You just have to let it play out and think about it later. Perhaps that is the reason some critics have called it pretentious or “ultra art-house”. But Refn wasn’t making a film to be universally loved. He did that with Drive. This is for himself and for others who want to give themselves over to rumination about the nature of humanity. Indeed, he dedicates this movie to Chilean director, Alejandro Jodorowsky who is often criticized for doing exactly the same things with his movies.
Since I am quote-heavy this time, I will employ another to explain my positivity about Only God Forgives when others were so negative. To quote the lovely and talented Shakira “I pefer an ugly truth to a pretty lie. If someone is telling me the truth that is when I will give my heart.” Where Sharknado is fun and light-hearted, it is also a beautiful lie. Only God Forgives isn’t trying to entertain you with a beautiful lie, but trying to communicate ugly truths about humanity and your weakness for violence and vengeance. We, cougars, often fall prey to these urges as well so don’t feel too bad.
This movie isn’t for everybody. I’m not even sure it is for me. But I am sure it is far more thought provoking and interesting than what you may have heard from critics. As Victor Hugo said, “What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain.” Take a walk outside of your garden and marvel at the scale and majesty of the mountain that Refn built.
8 paws out of 10.