Django Unchained

ImageQuentin Tarantino has said publicly that he wants to retire after his tenth film. He is looking to leave behind a strong filmography that shows no weakness or slump at the end. His eighth entry (counting the Kill Bill volumes separately) into this abstract Decalogue is Django Unchained, and it may be his greatest achievement since Pulp Fiction.

Django Unchained is the finest American slavery period bounty hunter Western ever made, but clearly that doesn’t mean much. As preposterous as that description is, that’s what is so great about a Tarantino film; he digs deep into a traditional genre and develops it into something distinctive. The same can be said about his Holocaust revisionist historical war film, Inglorious Basterds. The title character, Django (Jamie Foxx), is a slave with a horrific past who through a chain of auspicious events becomes partnered with a slavery opposed ex-dentist and current bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). This partnership is sealed with an agreement that Schultz will help Django find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from an infamous Southern plantation.

Django Unchained is void of any superfluous substance. From the opening scene of dialogue where Django and Schultz are introduced all the way to the final “showdown,” Django Unchained has momentum and remains in stride. Tarantino should win his second Original Screenplay Oscar since no other film that can be nominated for this category combines such compelling dialogue with such a spirited and ambitions story. The film unfolds in a series of distinct acts. Furthermore, Tarantino takes his flair for the irregular timeline to a more subtle place by interjecting small contextual flashbacks at key points to reveal critical or entertaining pieces of background that enhance an approaching scene. You may never look at the Ku Klux Klan, or Don Johnson for that matter, the same way again.

The cast is impeccable and is sprinkled with familiar faces beyond the leads, but the leads are all excellent. Christoph Waltz gives Tarantino another Oscar worthy performance as the film’s moral compass, Dr. Schultz. Schultz’s character also works to deepen and broaden Foxx’s turn as Django. Django has a goal, but lacks direction and Schultz literally provides that for him, which gives Foxx some real dimension and power. However, the film’s crown jewel is found in the film’s closing acts when Leonardo DiCaprio appears as Calvin Candie, owner of the massive and legendary plantation known as Candyland. DiCaprio’s performance is a sneaky one, and while initially campy, it becomes very real all too quickly. His character shows a severe authenticity as a symbol for the evils of supposed “gentlemen” during a deeply deranged time in American history. As fun as Django Unchained is to watch, it is still a Quentin Tarantino movie, which implies vulgarity and violence. It delivers on both of those qualities to excess, which is a good thing in this case. As part of the Western genre, a lot of justice is sought out against a lot of bad people, and a six-shooter is basically the only tool. The balance between good acting, strong writing, unpredictable circumstances, and sudden bursts of violence creates a suspenseful tone that could not otherwise be achieved. Django Unchained is a front-runner for one of the year’s best films as well as a front-runner for one of Tarantino’s best films. If this is any indication of what the nearly 50-year-old director has left in him, it is hard to imagine him walking away after stepping behind a camera only two more times. A

Les Misérables

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It is a fairly accepted story that when the sculptor, Auguste Rodin wanted to sculpt Victor Hugo, Hugo agreed, but demanded Rodin come to his house, and he refused to pose for him. This prompted Rodin to frantically sketch the poet and attempt to capture his essence. This interpretation of Victor Hugo worked out and resulted in some famous sketches, busts and sculptures. It also worked out in 1985 when Claude-Michel Schönberg interpreted Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables into a global musical sensation. Now, as 2012 draws to a close, another interpretation of Hugo’s Les Misérables has been released. Director Tom Hooper follows his best picture Oscar winning film The Kings Speech with the first ever film adaptation of the 1985 musical Les Misérables. Unfortunately, Tom Hooper is no Rodin.

Les Misérables (never to be referred to as “Lay Miz” in this review) is set during the French Revolution and follows the trials of ex-prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) over a seventeen year period. During that time, Valjean experiences the endurance and integrity of the human spirit as he relentlessly sacrifices his wellbeing for the good of his adopted daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). Much of Hugo’s original Romantic vision is simplified both for stage and for screen. All versions, however, do condemn the corruption of society as its technological advances inspire greed that leads to abuse of the working class, desperation, increases in criminal activity, and a justifiable uprising. Most evocative of this progression of devastation is the story of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who when fired from her low-paying factory job is forced to sell her teeth, hair, and body to support her daughter. Hathaway has received praise and criticism for her performance as Fantine. However, the fact remains that while not a traditional Broadway-style singer, what Hathaway lacks in technical singing ability, she more than makes up for in emotional presence. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is heartbreaking and touching.

While Hathaway performs her role very well, there truly is not enough here to warrant too much attention. Hugh Jackman, on the other hand, turns out a career defining performance that alone makes Les Misérables worth the price of admission. This is Jackman’s movie in every single way. Les Misérables is a “sung-through” musical, which means there is no spoken dialogue; all conversations and speeches are sung. This can prove a challenge for many actors, yet Jackman accomplishes this task expertly with every bit of rawness necessary. Jackman is so good in fact, that he makes it easier to overlook the film’s two most glaring faults: its direction and Russell Crowe.

Tom Hooper has directed a very standard looking and staged feeling musical here. His actors save the film, which in essence is stylistically a spliced together collection of absurdly close-up one shots that go on for several minutes without cutting. To call this minimalism would be vastly understating it. While it can be argued that more aggressive direction may compete with the actors’ performances, it is impossible to look back on the film after viewing it and not feel like an opportunity was missed to make it something more. He does offer a glimpse of creativity with the film’s opening scene as well as his staging of the comic relief number, “Master of the House,” expertly casting Sasha Baron Cohen as Thenardier and Helena Bonhem Carter as his wife.

Additionally, Russell Crowe, who plays Inspector Javert, simply can not hold his own as the film’s second lead. It is painstakingly obvious how hard he is trying, and this perceptibility is deeply distracting. Crowe does not ruin the film, however since the heart wrenching story and incredible music make up for much of the film’s shortcomings. “One Day More” is arguably the film’s most powerful song, and it is sure to stick with audience members well after the credits roll. At the end of the day, Les Misérables is mostly effective, especially to original fans of the musical. Nevertheless, it is mostly an underwhelming film, with occasional glimmers of substance, all of which are a consequence of Hugh Jackman’s powerhouse performance. B-

Hitchcock

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Movies about the movies are generally fascinating, and this genre has really never gone out of style. 2012’s best picture Oscar went to The Artist, a film about the emergence of sound in film. Robert Altman’s excellent film The Player satirizes the studio system as a backdrop to a murder mystery. The list of films like this dates back to the origin of the motion picture itself. While a common genre to make, these films often find a smaller niche audience and Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock will be no exception.

Hitchcock opens with a charming homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s television program, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Anthony Hopkins plays the iconic director, and his bravura for capturing Hitchcock’s eccentricities without appearing overly melodramatic keeps the film afloat through its sprawling middle section (which is curiously similar to the sprawling middle section of the man himself). It can be a double-edged sword to be a director who takes on a film project about a brilliant director. Gervasi’s film is rather unimpressive in its form. It is constructed rather typically and while telling a story about some brilliant editing, it fails to really practice what it preaches. This film is also not a career spanning project; instead, it commences in medias res as the aging director searches for a project that will validate his position as a master of suspense who is not outgrowing his art form. That aforementioned project is 1960’s Psycho.

The battle to get Psycho made is an interesting story and one worthy of the legacy of films about films. Hopkins dispels some of the tainted oddity that surrounds the reputation of Hitchcock by revealing the passion that lies underneath. Additionally, the film showcases his symbiotic relationship with his wife, Alma (Helen Mirran), a previously unsung heroine who put up with a lot and always stood by the flawed auteur. However, the film does tend to be a bit too “inside” for the casual filmgoer. It is almost imperative to have a working knowledge of Psycho to truly enjoy the film. Moreover, there are multiple winks at the audience for those who come in to the theater already knowing some of the behind the scenes stories like Hitchcock’s battle with Bernard Herrmann about the score or what images were truly spliced into the famous shower montage.

Nonetheless, Hitchcock does sail on in a relatively entertaining way. There is a bit of a lull as the film shifts focuses from Hitchcock to Alma’s friendship with Whitfield Cook (Danny Houston). This side-story is pivotal, but it is dwelled on and overly represented. Hitchcock’s infamous curiosity with his leading ladies is explored as Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) arrive on the set. This story of the director at work is much more compelling and deserves to be showcased a bit more than it is. This obsession that Hitchcock had with his lead actresses on set was also examined in HBO’s The Girl, which debuted on the network earlier this year. In that film, Toby Jones plays Hitchcock with a malevolent and sinister air. Hopkins provides a slightly softer, warmer (yet still faintly obtuse) view of his behavior. Hitchcock is far from the comprehensive, authoritative source on the life of its subject. That film is yet to be made and perhaps never will be. However, it is not without its charm and is sure to please fans, although it may fail to create new ones. B

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

11162899_detThere was once a beloved trilogy. One day, its creator decided a series of prequels were in order, so he directed…Star Wars: Episode 1-The Phantom Menace. Thus was born mankind’s apprehension and speculation over prequel trilogies. A case is yet to be made for why Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit requires three parts. Nonetheless, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a very good film…whew, what a relief!

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes place sixty years before Frodo takes his first step towards Mordor. The story is simple this time around, as we return to Middle Earth. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is persuaded, or rather coerced, by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to assist a party of 13 dwarves in their quest to reclaim their lost kingdom. Freeman is very effective as the neurotic, Woody Allen-esque, Bilbo. His nuanced touch to the role gives the audience a very likable and enjoyable central character arch that is only accentuated by our familiarity with him from Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings films. McKellen slips seamlessly back into his gray robes as Gandalf. While Gandalf is always wise and sensible, McKellen portrays him here as slightly less “urgent” given the lessened threat to Middle Earth and existence that occurs in The Hobbit. This lack of urgency translates to the entire film, which may disappoint die-hard Rings fans. There are more scenes in the “silly” category here than in the previous trilogy. Additionally, there is simply a lowered sense of critical doom and immediacy in this storyline. The film’s opening scenes go on for quite a while and while enjoyable, the end result is a slightly bloated film.

These criticisms are certainly legitimate, but they are truly its only faults. The film looks beautiful and lives up to what one would expect from Jackson’s take on the Tolkien mythology; New Zealand should probably be nominated for best supporting actor. The adaptation of Tolkien’s book is developed in such a way that it will lead up to the Lord of the Rings trilogy very nicely. Familiar characters appear along the way, and they are not unnecessary or false. All of them further the story and add something to the film, which is a credit to the host of screenwriters including Guillermo del Toro and Jackson himself. Furthermore, the dwarf plotline is elevated from the childish mood reflected in the novel to one that feels a bit more mature. This is a good decision and while younger kids can enjoy this film (if they have a long attention span), it is clear that the Hobbit films look to maintain a similar tone to the previous films in the series. At the end, there is quite a bit to like about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. While it lacks the epic quality and complex narrative of The Lord of the Rings films, the groundwork is set for an excellent companion trilogy that is fun, technically impressive, and brilliantly respectful to fans and film lovers. B+

Lincoln

Lincoln Steven Spielberg is quite possibly America’s most recognizable director. His career spans decades and has produced some of the most memorable films and characters in American cinematic history. Nonetheless, his prominent status has caused skeptics to write him off as superficial, crowd-pleasing, overly melodramatic, and at times corny. These attacks on Spielberg are not always unwarranted, however, his body of work is mostly impeccable and, at times, avant-garde. With Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s 31st film as director, Spielberg focuses on the 16th president’s chaotic battle to pass the 13th amendment. While the battle to make the film was also rigorous, it seems that the final product is worthy of both battles.

Daniel Day-Lewis once again disappears into his role, playing Abraham Lincoln in such a way that it is hard to imagine anyone else capable of playing this historical figure. Day-Lewis plays the part with a quiet confidence. Lincoln’s voice is portrayed with a surprisingly warm, high registered tone. This is apparently, historically accurate and is a nice touch. Spielberg seems to know what he has here and takes a subtler approach from the technical aspect, allowing Day-Lewis and a host of other A-List actors to propel the film. Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader are particularly good as Thaddeus Stevens and W.N. Bilbo, respectively. This subtlety from the director’s chair is a good decision, and while Spielberg’s approach is subtle, the film is complex. It doesn’t hurt that Oscar nominees and winners are in dozens of supporting roles, prompting a superior ensemble experience. Writer Tony Kushner adapts Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography expertly without losing any majesty. Kushner’s dialogue is Shakespearean at times and great importance is placed on what is said, not just who is saying it.

Lincoln wisely examines the final few months of the president’s life as he begins his second term. This is not a traditional bio-pic; it separates itself from the routine of that genre and simply tells a great story about a president who happens to live his life through a series of great stories. Lincoln’s political objective is to pass the 13th amendment abolishing slavery through the House of Representatives before the inauguration. This plan hinges on swaying lame-duck Democrats who are about to leave office to support his position. The film is truly an allegory for contemporary politics. It is very hard to watch Lincoln and not draw some pretty steep comparisons with the pageantry and stubbornness of today’s political landscape.

Most of Lincoln works very well. Lincoln the storyteller, Lincoln the lawyer, Lincoln the husband, and Lincoln the politician are explored evenly and with merit. The only major flaw comes when the film attempts to examine Lincoln the father. It is a well-known fact that Steven Spielberg has had some father issues. He often directs films with protagonists who have a dysfunctional relationship with their fathers. In Lincoln, this element is investigated through Lincoln’s relationship with his oldest son, Bob (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Unfortunately, this story is immensely under-developed and symbolically vapid. While Lincoln’s home life is deeply important to understanding the man, the misunderstanding between Lincoln and Bob leads to one mildly interesting scene that still would have been mildly interesting even if Bob was not a part of it. Regardless of Bob’s significance, the conflict between father and son seems thrown together compared to the more pressing conflicts in the film, resulting in a missed opportunity.

Meanwhile, Lincoln offers plenty for history buffs to sink their teeth into, and yet the story is accessible to all audiences. Spielberg takes some narrative chances to use unknown history to make well-known history compelling and interesting, especially in the film’s final act. This is Spielberg’s finest effort in some time. All in all, we are given a portrait of a very great man, and we are reminded of what qualities make a man great. A-

Life of Pi

ImageFirst of all, if you like to enjoy a film in its purest and unanticipated sense, just know Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a spectacular cinematic experience. Now stop reading and go see it. For the rest of you, prepare yourself for The People’s Critic to convince you that you should find a two-hour break in your day to go see this movie.

Ang Lee has been one of those directors who can shatter cultural bias and stereotype and make films that cut to the bone of virtually any genre, culture, or philosophy. A Taiwanese filmmaker, Lee disappears into his material like no other filmmaker. His personal stamp on a film is simply that he gets it right. The Ice Storm revealed his ability to poetically peel the layers off of the American suburban lifestyle and reveal some of the chaos that lies beneath the calm, picturesque surface. His adaptation of Jane Austen’s Victorian Romance Sense and Sensibility was pitch perfect. Additionally he has shown a steady hand at vividly visual genre films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. These films bare little resemblance to each other, except that they “get it right.” Furthermore, no better example for Lee’s “getting it right” can be given than his adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

Life of Pi is a narrative framed by Pi as an adult(Ifran Kahn) telling his story to a writer. This frame story can be summed up by paraphrasing a quote by the writer who says he’s a Canadian who went to French-India looking for a story only to find there’s an Indian in French-Canada with a story to tell. The film then transports us back to French-India in the late 1970s where Pi(now played by Suraj Sharma) begins an epic tale of self-discovery.

Now, clearly most viewers will be eagerly awaiting the story of the guy on a boat with a tiger, but this film is much more than this. It is a religious film, but it does not preach. Instead, it takes into consideration all of the ideas, beliefs, doubts, and misconceptions that exist and simply tells a story. Do not overlook or underestimate the film’s opening act; the setup is as rewarding as the visual magnificence that is to follow. Needless to say, it is the visual effects and cinematic beauty that will doubtless be the conversation surrounding Life of Pi and deservedly so. From the moment the map of the Mariana Trench appears on the screen, hold on to your seats! No film, including Avatar, has achieved this level of visual grandeur with 3D technology. What is more, Life of Pi exists right here on our own planet. Lee’s careful precision as a director, takes full advantage of every opportunity to amaze the audience with wonder.

Inevitably, Pi does find himself in the unique situation of living on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. However, this is all that is unique about it. Many films have explored the survivor element of what the limits of human endurance are. What allows Pi to rise above those is the spiritual depth that is created from the film’s opening act and the awe-inspiring visual effects that are second to none.

Life of Pi is a low-key masterpiece. It sneaks up on you and while not complicated, welcomes multiple viewings. The opening credits depicting animals happily living in captivity holds new meaning after experiencing the film for the first time. Lee presents a very enjoyable and thought-provoking version of Martel’s widely admired source material. It was said that Life of Pi was one of those unfilmable stories- that it can exist in the mind of the reader and nowhere else. Lee has proven those skeptics incorrect; however, this film is more than a companion or adaptation of the novel. It has surpassed that into something much more special and distinctive. A

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

ImageWe may be edging near the saturation point of vampire-related entertainment, however, as brooding, Washington-state-based, vampire/werewolf romance films go, Breaking Dawn: Part 2 easily ranks in the top five.  Twi-Hards have been waiting over four years to finally see how the cinematic adaptation of the Stephenie Meyer series of books will end.  All things considered, the end result is actually rather exciting.

Breaking Dawn: Part 1 left us staring into the (red) eyes of Bella post-pregnancy and post-transformation.  Part 2 begins at this same moment as Bella adapts to her new vampiric life-style and her new role as mother to the half-human, half-vampire child, Renesmee.  Now if you haven’t managed to suspend your disbelief at this point, leave the theater; I’m sure Lincoln is playing right next door.  Regardless, as Renesmee rapidly grows, the Cullen clan finds themselves in new territory, raising a natural newborn.  Furthermore, word spreads to the Volturi that such a unique child exists and that it might be immortal, and therefore, illegal.  This looming inevitability of a final showdown between the Cullens and Volturi drives the plot unlike any of this film’s predecessors, and as climaxes go, this one is by far the best.

In spite of this, there is certainly no shortage of excessive melodrama or corny moments of tepid dialogue.  While Stewart and Pattinson have reached an iconic status as leads Bella and Edward, they continue to fail to deliver powerful performances in these roles.  Throughout the series, both leads seem too comfortable resting on the idea that these characters do nothing but whisper, stare, and have sex.  If you buy Kristin Stewart as a caring mother in this film, I have the actual bowie knife that killed Dracula to sell you.  Taylor Lautner holds his own as Jacob, who’s scene with Bella’s father Charlie Swan (Billy Burke) steals the movie.  Nonetheless, no one goes to see this series of films to be wowed by the range of its actors.  In fact, this film introduces so many characters that none of them have much time to shine (sparkly or otherwise).  What these characters do bring is a host of new X-Men-style super powers, which are enjoyable elements to the film.  Thus, the film delivers in other ways.  Its pacing is strong as it does not dwell on any one moment in its journey to the final showdown.  Additionally, its action is crisp and deliberate; there is very little to distract from the story’s momentum.  The cast does their job, but these successes are the result of writers Melissa Rosenberg and Stephenie Meyer along with director, Bill Condon.

The vampire craze that started all of this may be starting to show some signs of declining slightly, yet this is a fairly strong send-off to an epically successful series of adolescent-aimed pop culture.  It is clearly the best of the series, which adds a significance to all five of the films.  The closing credits illustrate this as they celebrate the entire cast of the films together.  Pop culture vampires may be in their eclipse rather than beginning their new moon, but Twilight certainly lived to see the break of dawn.  B

Skyfall

ImageSkyfall marks the Bond franchise’s 50th year and 23rd film in that time. For those familiar with the franchise, it is not rare to see the world of Bond tweaked, updated, modernized, and “freshened up.” Skyfall is a very different Bond film, in that regard. It seems director, Sam Mendes goes out of his way to saturate his film with thematic trappings that chastise the egoism of youth and praise the wisdom of age. This is an intriguing direction to take, but it does slightly miss the mark.

In Skyfall, Daniel Craig reprises the legendary role for his third time. After a tragic mishap in Turkey, Bond finds himself off the grid and at a crossroads. A surprise attack on MI 6 forces his hand to once again enter the fray of espionage where he is met with doubt and reservation both by M (Judi Dench) and newly appointed Chairman of Intelligence, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). It seems the world of espionage has become a digital one and the artistry of the field operative is becoming superfluous. Nonetheless, Bond is reassigned to active duty to track down an ex-operative and cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem), fueled by revenge against those in the British government whom he believes betrayed him.

The Bond films that rest on a revenge storyline are historically some of the weakest entries in the history of Bond, and this one fits nicely in that group as perhaps the best of the weak. The action starts strong in classic Bond style, as 007 chases down a terrorist with a hard drive that contains all of the identities of undercover agents throughout the world. Bond and M’s relationship is explored in Skyfall in much more depth than ever before, and this film does advance the mythology of Bond a bit more than some other previous entries. However, the film does hit a snag as Bond goes through the motions of tracking down leads throughout China. It is in China where Bond delivers his line, “Bond, James Bond,” and it is also where he drinks a Heineken (Heineken reportedly paid $45 million dollars to have Bond sip their brew in Skyfall). Furthermore, the climax, which does reveal the film’s namesake, also feels a bit clunky and hokey. While Bardem’s villain, Silva does provide some memorable scenes, he is simply a melodramatic excuse to allow Bond to remind us not to underestimate the power of some spit and elbow grease. Silva is, instead, a missed opportunity to chew the scenery along side some of the best Bond villains.

Skyfall is not a bad Bond movie, and it is certainly not a bad movie. Sam Mendes accomplishes his goal of creating a heavy-handed thematically driven exploration of Bond’s inner workings. This is by no means a bad idea. However, this deviation from expectations is not executed with precision and allows the film to flounder in parts. There are some sequences that are absolutely heart pounding and the film leaves us eager to see what’s next; just don’t expect to see your Heineken investment pay off just yet. B-

Flight

Director Robert Zemeckis has given us the latest “disaster” movie. In the case of Flight however, Zemeckis’ first live-action film since 2000’s Cast Away, this is less the Die Hard kind of “disaster” and more the Leaving Las Vegas type. Zemeckis is a well-known director, whose films have peppered the pop-culture lexicon for the past 35 years. He is a pioneer who took Marty McFly Back to the Future, taught Forrest to run in Forrest Gump, and broke new ground in live-action/animation film making with films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beowulf, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol. This year, Zemeckis showcases his craft with a strong character study of a disturbed pilot in Flight.

The intensity and effectiveness of Flight rests on the shoulders of its star, Denzel Washington, and it turns out Denzel Washington has some pretty strong shoulders. Washington dives head first into the character of pilot Whip Whitaker (a classic “pilot” name). Whitaker is a closeted addict, shrouded in denial. He routinely drinks to excess and uses stimulants to even out before flights. His lifestyle has cost him virtually any relationship or contact with his wife and son and has led him down the path of womanizing and heavy substance abuse as a desperate form of distraction.

Flight sets out to tell a story of moral ambiguity. Its protagonist is one who tests the ethical boundaries of the audience where at one moment we are rooting for him and the next, we are disgusted by him. This ambiguity fuels the pace and power of the film, and makes its 138 minute running time literally “fly” by. Washington is excellent, but Zemeckis is precise in his style, editing, and (yes, Pam and Eric) in his cinematography. Washington makes us see Whitaker’s struggle, but Zemeckis makes us feel it with expert use of camera movements, showing us a static sober Whitaker and a flowing, frantic intoxicated Whitaker. The crash sequence is compelling and exceeds expectations, regardless of its assumed predictability. These nuanced touches make Flight deeply engaging and provide for some harrowingly primal audience reaction.

Furthermore, Washington’s stellar performance is complemented at every turn with a pitch perfect supporting cast including Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman (who is 2 for 2 with electric supporting roles this year with Flight and Argo). While the performances and the story are excellent, Flight does not accomplish all it is trying to do. A motif of religious purpose and providence feels crow barred in. Also, while excellent, the soundtrack is a bit heavy-handed in its relevance to what’s happening on the screen, which can be distracting. However, these are minor quibbles. Overall, Flight is an excellent narrative that explores the dangers of addiction in an impressively unique way. This is a strong film that expertly demonstrates the talent of its cast and director. A-

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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