Friday 2 August 2013

Hot fuzz: "The Heat" and "Only God Forgives" (ST 04/08/13)

The Heat (15) 117 mins ***
Only God Forgives (18) 90 mins **

The Heat attempts a gynocentric shakedown of the Lethal Weapon-style buddy cop movie – and, believe me, it gets gynocentric indeed. Even that title serves as a euphemism for the burning passion the film’s uptight FBI agent heroine refuses to acknowledge exists within her. “Please don’t misrepresent my vagina,” asks Sandra Bullock’s workaholic Ashburn of her mouthier, more wanton associate Mullins (Melissa McCarthy); as written by Katie Dippold and directed by Paul Feig, who directed 2011’s female-led Bridesmaids, the film will come, amusingly and persuasively, to make a case for women everywhere to regulate their own heat.

Ashburn is, in essence, a refinement of Bullock’s Miss Congeniality persona: thoroughly driven in her pursuit of a Boston druglord, she’s still so inept in her personal life that the cat she’s taken in as a surrogate snuggle-buddy turns out to belong to her neighbour. Mullins, conversely, is an almost archetypal bull in a china shop, keeping a fridge full of ammunition, and a lover in every bar. So far, so familiar. Yet what elevates The Heat is the way Feig and Dippold approach every buddy-movie ritual – the good-cop/bad-cop routines, the after-hours boozing – as a maze of possibilities, resolving to find unexpected paths into and out of each one.

It pays off hilariously in the encounters with Mullins’ extended family – a send-up of that view of Boston domestic life proposed by such (seriously male) ventures as TheFighter – and again when Ashburn attempts that variety of impromptu tracheotomy shows like e.r. have made look too, too easy. The film’s open-mindedness – held over from Dippold’s work on TV’s perennially peppy Parks & Recreation – occasionally yields more progressive surprises: consider how The Heat presents Mullins’ sexual profligacy, not as something squalid or threatening, but the upshot of a healthy appetite, no more frowned upon than all Mel Gibson’s on-screen ladykilling.

These are deft but slight twists on formula, and hardly a radical feminist overhaul – the work of skilled pros working within the system, rather than attempting to dismantle it from without – and I suspect that, as with Bridesmaids, Feig’s latest risks being talked up as something more significant than the supremely entertaining night out it is. But given the boysy, adolescent place the mainstream is at right now, making a smart, professional, commercially viable comedy centred on two women over the age of 40 may be among the most subversive gestures imaginable. Unlike a lot of movies doing the rounds, The Heat misrepresents no vaginas.

The Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 breakthrough Drive was relatively restrained until the moment its hero began stomping on bad-guy cranium; after that, cars were rather too enthusiastically replaced by carnage. Refn’s Thai-set follow-up Only God Forgives elects to put its blunt force traumas upfront. The first act alone features the (off-screen) rape and murder of a teenage prostitute, and the American responsible, Billy (Tom Burke), having his head stoved in by the girl’s father. Billy’s brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) looks on meekly, the one soul here who doesn’t seem unduly keen to get his shirtsleeves dirty. He’ll have a job.

Those nooks and crannies that aren’t splashed in gore are instead drenched in Refn’s garish visual sense, which can marshal screen space brilliantly – my inner architect purred appreciatively at one gorgeously framed study of a cambered hotel corridor – even as it marks out an extended red-light area, somewhere you simply might not wish to venture after dark, if indeed at all. Only God Forgives pushes Drive’s aesthetics further, into more autistic territory: again it suffers for being organised around Gosling, now less a performer than an especially slow-moving billboard, a pair of zeitgeisty quotation marks with nothing very much going on between them.

Refn’s earlier films – the Pusher trilogy (1996-2005), Bleeder (1999), even 2008’s not unflashy Bronson – had a surer feel for consequence; their deep-rooted understanding of criminal cause-and-effect is what distinguished this director from that unhappy glut of pre-millennial Tarantino copyists. Somewhere beyond the new film’s bloody surfaces, we might perhaps discern a parable of bad parenting: we’re invited to view Billy and Julian’s issues as attributable to their mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), who shows up for Act Two in full Paris Hilton garb, foul-mouthed, ruthlessly self-centred, and prone to comparing her sons’ genitals over dinner.

Scott Thomas has never been so inelegant on screen, which is another jolt, but the role proves more Alexis Carrington than Medea, and the pouring on of peroxide and gaudy trinkets at the expense of emotional or psychological credibility proves regrettably typical of Only God Forgives’ general direction: this woman’s just vile, and here you sense Refn playing into the hands of exactly those resentful male loners who might get off on these kinds of vengeance fantasies behind closed bedroom doors. Whether a boy is too much of a brute or not brutal enough, it is, apparently, entirely the mother’s fault. Now that’s what I call vaginal misrepresentation.

The Heat and Only God Forgives are in cinemas nationwide.

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