Film reviews: Only God Forgives, Heaven’s Gate, Paradise: Hope, From Up on Poppy Hill, My Father and the Man in Black and The Conjuring

It’s like a multiple motorway collision seen in slow motion. What is happening is appalling. How it happens has a hideous, spellbinding grace. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is magisterially deranged. A Danish filmmaker already halfway to abstract expressionism (Valhalla Rising, Drive) now all but completes his journey. This Zen reverie of violence, virtually devoid of cogent narrative, has a western drug dealer in Bangkok (Ryan Gosling) going up against a brutalising black-clad cop (Vithaya Pansringarm), known to friends and foes as the Angel of Vengeance, who has abetted the murder of Gosling’s brother.

That brother has already beaten, raped and killed a prostitute in scene one. No one in this story is a sweetie pie. Perhaps that is its appalling appeal. The scenes march by, near-wordless tableaux drenched in red or gold, ablaze with street neon or jewelled with nightclub lights, sometimes punctuated by song – the cop takes the concept of “singing detective” to a new surreal level – and usually climaxing in an act of visceral, vivid violence.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not offering reverence. Part of the film’s spell is its close skirmishing with bad-in-all-senses art. A blonde-coiffed Kristin Scott Thomas, as Gosling’s avenger mum deplaned from America, is a hair away from hilarity. Comparing your sons’ cock sizes aloud to a prospective daughter-in-law in a posh restaurant is not the stuff of Aeschylus, even an Aeschylus dragged kicking and screaming to Thailand. Scott Thomas is so cast-against-type you admire her audacity. In her scarified pallor and bleached-pale hair she resembles Ingrid Thulin, Ingmar Bergman’s former muse of doom. Meanwhile her mannish walk and butch haute couture wardrobe say “Eff you” to memories of The English Patient, never mind Four Weddings and a Funeral

Many characters get impaled in many ways: ways which, twice seen, will surely risk a hyperbole-induced giggle. But there are still seeds of seriousness in Only God Forgives: a sporadic beauty, like lightning flashes across oriental scroll paintings, and a laconic voltage in the life-or-death confrontations. Refn has at least set the bar high for his aesthetic future. After this, any Refn thriller will be some kind of event.

What a weird season we’re having. Elsewhere on screen: sequels to stinkers (The Wolverine, Red 2); restorations of studio fiascos (Cleopatra, now Heaven’s Gate). Hollywood, as if obsessed with past follies and artistic crimes, seems to be attempting a last cathartic purge. (“Cinema”: compound noun combining “sin” with “enema”).

Michael Cimino’s 33-year-old Heaven’s Gate was never a folly, of course, even less a crime, despite the baying of early critics. In the countdown to the movie’s release those critics had been nourished, like caged animals, on meaty gossip scraps about an over-budget production bloated with directorial egomania. Then in 1980 they were confronted with a film – an intruder in their enclosure of received ideas! – that resembled no Western they had seen before. Opaque, poetic, violent, elliptical. No wonder they tore it apart.

Well, here it is again, digitally re-magicked and restored. Unfamiliarity, initiating re-familiarity, breeds bliss. This gloriously crafted film is an imaginative recounting of the conflict that almost “lost the West” – the Johnson County war – when cattle barons, reportedly blessed by Washington, set out to hunt and near-genocidally slay Wyoming immigrants claiming land.

Cimino endows the visuals with a Zola-esque texture and realism. But the characterisation and dramatic reach go beyond even that. Kris Kristofferson (US marshal), Christopher Walken (cattlemen’s hired gun) and Isabelle Huppert (young brothel madam) coalesce in a tragedy-touched love triangle; the townspeople, mostly eastern Europeans, form a powerful chorus of pathos and defiance; the final battle – long and packed with detail and minute incident – is a crazed reverie that compounds historical memories (including Roman warfare) as if time has stood still, in a vacuum, for this apocalyptic opposition to be resolved. Before this moment: Old America. After it: New America. To each filmgoer, the task to decide which America he prefers and roots for.

Paradise: Hope
concludes Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy with its best film. The dumpy girls and boys at the rural diet camp are like some parody of the Hitler Youth, or some skewed lyric to an idealised Austrian Dream. Seidl likes his tragicomedy black. He likes it malicious and a little miserablist. You do not go to these films hoping to see – well – love, faith or hope. Let alone “paradise”.

But there is a terrific central performance by Melanie Lenz, a sad-sack adolescent brimming with overnourishment and underachievement, while mum is away hunting the Kenyan beach boys of Paradise: Love, the trilogy’s starter. A blonde bombshell in a calorie-swollen carapace, Lenz is lusted after by both the dim and the bright: the gormless clubbers who near-rape her in a bar, the Humbert Humbert-ish diet camp doctor (Joseph Lorenz), dapper, seedy, handsome but haunted-looking, who stalks his prey like a lepidopterist pursuing an overweight butterfly.

Goro Miyazaki’s From Up on Poppy Hill is a small joy from Japanimation Land. Miyazaki’s famous dad Hayao (Spirited Away) co-authored the comic-book-based script about a lovestruck boy and girl in 1963 Yokohama who might be brother and sister. The animation is gorgeous. Delight in the comical chaos of the demolition-threatened school clubhouse, a funky treasure trove of dusty books and addled scholars. The incest-scare subplot never trips up the movie’s charm. And there’s a haunting reverberance, very Hayao Miyazaki, to the war memories that empower the parental back-stories.

Talk of war memories. What if you had a dad who once managed Johnny Cash? In My Father and the Man in Black – one of those family documentaries (Capturing the Friedmans, Stories We Tell) that stand the hair on end – Jonathan Holiff un-trunks the evidence. Letters, telegrams, a taped audio diary. Cash was a walking disaster zone: a near-daily victim of drugs or drink and a serial concert canceller. Saul Holiff had to tidy the messes, including the torn-up appearance contracts that kept wealth at bay for manager if not singer. No wonder Holiff Sr finally killed himself. (No spoiler. We’re told this at the start.) No wonder, too, that this film plays like a non-fiction Walk the Line with script input by Eugene O’Neill.

The Conjuring
, a haunted house screamer, has been admired by fans of director James Wan. Gosh (they say), he can turn from the bloodthirsty Saw to this? Amityville-style traditional horror? Yes, he can. Big deal. In matters that matter, here is a humdrum hunk of am-dram Gothic, lent prestige by a few specious avowals of its basis in a true exorcism case.

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