Seven Psychopaths

Director: Martin McDonagh

Screenwriter: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Colin Ferrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Woody Harrelson

Seven Psychopaths is Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to his quirky 2008 hit, In Bruges.  McDonagh is making a name for himself as his two films complement each other nicely and provide a roadmap for the type of director McDonagh aspires to be.  Like Tarantino or Hitchcock, McDonagh strives to make films about similar types of characters viewed through a similar societal lens.  Awareness seems to be McDonagh’s trademark.  His characters are flawed, yet keenly aware of these flaws.  His scripts are dark, yet this darkness is carefully tempered by his films’ awareness of the fact that they are films, as his characters are always interacting with the film industry in some way.  This awareness allows the viewer to enjoy his films on multiple levels, first on a narrative level and again on a satirical level that tries to provide commentary on humanity through the narrative.

In the case of Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh turns his focused lens on an unfocused, alcoholic screenwriter, Marty (Colin Ferrell).  Marty is struggling to write a film called Seven Psychopaths and turns to his friends and their acquaintances for inspirations on ways to characterize his seven different psychopathic characters.   What follows is a wild series of events that lead Marty down the literal Psycho-Path to self-realization.  As his characters become fleshed out, Marty starts to see that he’s living a detached life.  His detached life is illustrated by the flaws of his screenplay.  Marty’s writing is not authentic.  He borrows from other people’s lives to write his characters, and his tragic personal life causes his women characters to be nothing but fragile stereotypes.  His relationship is in shambles, his inspiration is drying up, Marty is desperate for a motivation, and thanks to a mixed up con-gone-wrong by his dog kidnapping grifter friends, Hans and Billy (Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell), this motivation comes in the form of an LA underground gangster (Woody Harrelson) who is seriously upset about his kidnapped Shi-tszu.

Seven Psychopaths is a busy film and it is also McDonagh’s most brutal.  There is so much going on that its stars only have a matter of minutes to shine.  Standouts are Rockwell and Walken.  Rockwell’s Billy is a fast-talking idea man.  He’s relentless and firing on all cylinders in every scene.  Walken plays Hans, who is much more relaxed than Billy, but equally fun to watch.  Walken is doing a Walken impression here, which is basically what people have come to want from him in this phase of his career.  Regarding its brutality, from the opening scene, the film’s tone is quite clear.  While trailers might lead one to believe that the dog kidnapping plotline is central to the story, it is actually a very minor element.  The majority of the film’s 109 minutes explores exactly what happens when the “inmates take over the insane asylum.”  Desert shootouts, sadistic serial killers, and revenge killings pepper the action of the film.  Seven Psychopaths feels inspired by the independent films of the 90s.  As it unfolds, it is reminiscent of 1994s Floundering or 1995’s Living in Oblivion not in plot (or in casting James LeGros), but in its meaning.  These films blend the effects of fantasy and reality in a compelling way, creating a very enjoyable movie.  If only James LeGros could have shown up as an eighth psychopath!  B+

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Argo

Towards the beginning of Ben Affleck’s latest film, Argo, make-up artist John Chambers, played by John Goodman, says to CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), “Even a Rhesus Monkey can direct a movie.” This type of tongue-in-cheek word play signifies a new, and deserved, confidence from the actor turned auteur. Argo is formulaic at best in terms of Chris Terrio’s screenplay, but its Affleck’s direction and the performances from his cast that raise Argo above the bar he set with his previous film, The Town.

Argo is set during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, when a group of Iranian militant revolutionaries storm the US embassy in 1979. However, this film actually recounts a previously unknown and confidential story of six Americans who escaped the embassy and were given sanctuary by the Canadian ambassador. These six are in a unique and treacherous situation of being unknown escapees who, if caught, could be made examples of by irate militants without complicating the heavily observed hostage crisis at the US embassy. Their story becomes the focal point of Argo as the White House, State Department, and CIA all spitball ideas on how to rescue these six trapped Americans before they are discovered by the Iranians. Eventually they settle on a long-shot idea from Mendez, which involves posing the escapees as a film crew scouting locations in Iran for a fake movie by the name of Argo. Terrio’s screenplay does a great job of building tension in all the right places, but it does so in a sort of Screenwriting-101 kind of way. In other words, it’s predictable.

Regardless of predictability, Argo is a deeply involving film. Just because we laugh when we’re supposed to laugh, and we cry when we’re supposed to cry, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. Instead, Argo is a perfect team effort. At its heart, there is a tremendously powerful and amazing story told in an uncomplicated way, which is just what every good movie needs at its core. Additionally, it is expertly cast with terrific performances from John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, and Alan Arkin who steals scenes as the cantankerous Lester Siegel. Arkin and Goodman head up the fake film studio needed to validate Mendez’s plan to disguise the escaped hostages as a film crew. Here, the film adds an enjoyable layer of film-geek enthusiasm. Finally, Affleck outdoes himself as director. Argo has a deliberate and even pace, some historically iconic staging, and camera work that enhances the tone of the film. In fact, Affleck even shows some side-by-side comparisons between historical photos and some shots from his film in the closing credits. His attention to detail brings dimension and realism to the film in a time where real decisions had to be made without the luxury of our modern digital age.

Argo is the first great movie of the fall season and delivers as both a historical snapshot and an edge-of-your-seat thriller. This is a very strong effort that succeeds beyond any Rhesus Monkey’s wildest expectations. A-

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the closest thing we’ve seen to a John Hughes movie since Cameron Crowe channeled him to make Almost Famous. That film felt more epic than the traditional Hughes film, in part due to Crowe’s drawing from his experiences with Rolling Stone. Author/Director Stephen Chobsky also draws from experience to create Perks, however his film has the more intimate feel of a Hughes movie (The Breakfast Club), and that makes it great.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is set in or around Pittsburgh, PA in the early 1990s. Charlie (Logan Lerman) is the aforementioned wallflower; a high school freshman with light heart, but a heavy soul since his best friend recently committed suicide. He finds fitting in and making friends a challenge and instead chooses to lose himself in the novels of equally awkward, soul-searching literary protagonists supplied by his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd). Charlie’s awakening comes as a result of being accepted by a group of like-minded upper-classmen. It is here that Charlie’s coming of age journey into adolescence finds its stride.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower seems to unfold effortlessly. We learn more about Charlie as he learns more about himself. This surrealist approach to self-discovery allows the viewer to be both surprised by and understanding of Charlie’s decisions and actions. His closest friends are Sam (Emma Watson) and Sam’s step-brother, Patrick (Ezra Miller), and they shape the heart of this film. Sam’s confidence, charm, and beauty complement her romantic and impulsive attitude towards life, which spellbinds and captivates the sullen but passionate Charlie. Ezra Miller as Patrick deserves special notice as he steals every scene he’s in. This character is miles from his ultra-disturbing performance as Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin, but is even more impressive. Patrick’s story reveals him to be somewhat of a foil to Charlie as both have similar struggles of adolescence and deal with them very differently. The supporting characters all have their moments as well, allowing secondary characters to be purposeful and not artificial. The film’s best line is given to Charlie’s dad, played Dylan McDermott, in an amusing exchange about borrowing money for a date.

The success of Perks also lies in Chobsky’s handling of his own source material’s tone. He never lets us, or Charlie, get too comfortable, hinting that something more sinister is lying beneath the surface, yet he never allows the film’s youthful spirit to suffer. This balance illustrates the volatility of teenage years with that same touch John Hughes had. The film also allows music to play a major part in the characters’ lives, which was a classic Hughes trademark.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is very successful at what it sets out to be. Many recent films of this genre either feel too self-important and preachy or they go the other way and seem shallow. This film strikes out a balance and while not treading new ground, deservedly treads proudly. B+

Looper

Every fall season a movie comes along that lacks the hype and pandering for an audience. Instead, it is released and looks to succeed by word of mouth. Last year that film was the still under-appreciated Drive; this year my top contender is Looper.

Looper begins by introducing us to Joe, a barely recognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt who performs the title task as a “Looper.” Looper is a time-travel story, but roots itself firmly in a mostly-recognizable version of the near future. The only major difference is that time travel is invented soon after the present setting of the film, which allows for a somewhat confusing, but well executed, original story. Loopers are hired guns who kill for a futuristic mob that sends their hits 30 years into the past before time travel was invented. This allows for mob enemies to simply disappear in their present time and be disposed of in an earlier time when they wouldn’t be investigated. Loopers are paid well to shoot first, ask no questions, and most of all be punctual as hits will suddenly appear in a predetermined location at an exact time. Allowing a “loop” to “run” results in some very unsavory consequences. The downside to Looping is that one day, every Looper’s loop must close, which means the future version of yourself will be sent back for immediate execution. When this happens, a Looper gets a big final pay day and 30 years to enjoy it before the inevitable.

The premise for this film is imaginative and dealt with in a surprisingly cohesive way by director Rian Johnson. As with all great time-travel films, rules must be established so that the viewer may understand exactly what the limits are within these multiple dimensions. I provided a short discussion about some classic time travel theories in a previous blog post that you can read here. In short, this particular film’s view is similar to the Back to the Future variety where you can co-exist with multiple versions of yourself and events that affect the younger version will also impact the later version. Thus, when Joe finds himself face to face with his older self, played by Bruce Willis, he inadvertently allows him to run. However, Willis’ character can not simply run since he knows the consequences against Gordon-Levitt will affect him too.

The story’s arc is much more far-reaching and complex than a cat-mouse chase between alternate versions of Joe. As we learn more about Joe’s future from Bruce Willis, our sympathies are toyed with and our moral centers are jarred endlessly. Johnson’s screenplay and direction provide powerful and conflicting motivations for both characters, making the movie deeply engaging and surprisingly fresh. Additional story lines regarding a futuristic crime boss (Jeff Daniels), a fellow Looper (Paul Dano), and farmhouse mother and her son (Emily Blunt and an Oman-esque Pierce Gagnon, respectively) all flesh out this film and give it real dimension and pragmatism, regardless of its sci-fi, time travel plot.

Looper is a tightly wound, entertaining film that has something for everyone to enjoy. There is a slight dragging feeling at the close of its second act, but this perceived lull is making way for a strong and dominant conclusion. In summary, this review only touches on the surface of what Looper accomplishes; there are multiple surprises in store for all audiences who see it, so let the word of mouth begin! A-