Reviews on 'Byzantium' and 'Only God Forgives'

Almost 20 years after “Interview with the Vampire”, director Neil Jordan has returned to the vampire genre with “Byzantium”. Like Louis in “Interview with the Vampire”, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), the forever-sixteen protagonist of “Byzantium”, can't wait to tell her life story. It involves a slightly older immortal named Clara (Gemma Arterton), and how the two women came to reside in the seaside resort that gives the film its title.

Eleanor's past is actually a lot less interesting than what happens to her in the present. She meets a boy named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), who has terminal cancer. “If you stay with me you'll die,” she says, to which he replies, “I'm dying anyway.” The YA novel elements of Moira Buffini's screenplay are much more compelling than the grim origin story that plays out in flashbacks.

Think of “Interview with the Vampire” after Lestat got his throat slashed and you'll have a good idea of this new film's melancholy tone. Working with a filmmaker who's always been drawn to the subject of lonely outcasts, Ronan and Arterton make for a mesmerizing pair. You won't be able to look away from Ronan's gorgeous vampire eyes, and Arterton makes Clara the sexiest immortal outside of HBO's “True Blood”.

Since Jordan's last foray into the genre, vampires have had much of their blood sucked dry by tepid mainstream movies like “Twilight” and “Dark Shadows”, leaving arthouse cinema to revive the genre with new classics like “Let the Right One In” and its surprisingly first-rate American remake, “Let Me In”. With its graphic displays of violence and poetic imagery (including a waterfall that runs red with blood), “Byzantium” is another one of those revivifying little films – despite the fact that part of the story plays like “Twilight” with the gender roles reversed.

In the I-watch-this-stuff-so-you-don't-have-to department, we have Nicolas Winding Refn's latest, “Only God Forgives”. It reunites the Danish director with his “Drive” star, Ryan Gosling, for what is sure to go down as one of the dumbest, most sickeningly violent movies of 2013.

Playing not so much a character as a hunky, man-shaped piece of furniture, Gosling stars as Julian, an American living in Bangkok who finds himself in all kinds of trouble after his degenerate brother rapes and murders a prostitute. When he finds out his brother has been found with his skull bashed in, Julian's reaction is to stare blankly ahead. Refn strips out almost all dialogue and emotion, so what we're left with is scene after scene of people we know nothing about slaughtering each other. The film starts off with one mindless act of violence, follows it up with vengeance, and proceeds like that on repeat. At least this exercise in extreme brutality runs a mercifully lean 89 minutes.

Having said that, I feel obliged to note the considerable skill with which this thoroughly disposable movie has been made. Working with “Eyes Wide Shut” cinematographer Larry Smith, Refn turns Bangkok into a neon-drenched playground in which lowlifes settle scores in the most unforgiving ways imaginable. “Only God Forgives” sometimes plays like a B-side version of “Drive”; there's a long and torturous murder scene that's like a nastier version of what Albert Brooks does to the poor guy in the pizza parlor in “Drive”. And composer Cliff Martinez once again provides a soundtrack of wickedly cool electronic music.

Gosling is easily upstaged by Kristin Scott Thomas as Julian's vengeance-seeking momma. Like her, viewers will find much of what they see here unforgivable.

“Byzantium” is available now through September 15 on Movies on Demand; I give it a B+. “Only God Forgives” is on Demand through October 14; I give it a D+.

Stephen is an AHS graduate who studied film and journalism in college. He lives in Wichita.