Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Seven Psychopaths" might be two or three too many.

I recently wrote that bad reviews were much more fun to write than good ones, but sitting here wondering what to say about Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is making me feel that while writing bad reviews may be fun, writing so-so reviews is pretty dang difficult.  Throwing out a few sentences into a blank MS Word document, looking at them, rearranging them several times, and hoping some sort of coherent train of thought manifests itself as a result is the beginning of the process that (sometimes) leads to something I’m not ashamed to read back to myself, and then allow you, Dear Reader, to see.  The few sentences that get thrown onto the screen seem to come a bit faster, and contain a bit more wit, however, when I find myself on either end of the disgust/praise spectrum than they do when I’m somewhere in the apathetic middle.  Watching Colin Farrell play a writer struggling to get farther than his title of Seven Psychopaths makes me glad I don’t have to resort to some of the ends to which he must go for inspiration.

Farrell plays Marty, a screenwriter who has fixated himself on a title, “Seven Psychopaths,” and now strains his brain to flesh out a narrative from those two words.  His environment presents obstacles, as his girlfriend is a nag, badgering him about getting started and making headway on the screenplay, and his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is apparently a slacker/loser, making an existence out of stealing dogs and then returning them to grateful owners for the reward money.   Oh, and it goes without saying that Marty, being Irish, and a writer to boot, drinks to excess, to the point he can’t remember his girlfriend kicking him out of the house the night before he awakens on a sofa at Billy’s place. 

On the sofa beside him is Billy’s latest “hostage,” a Shih Tzu that happens to be owned by Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a gangster of some sort who loves this furry little turd beyond comprehension and sets out on a murderous crusade to find it, one that leads to Billy’s co-hort Hans (Christopher Walken), and then to Marty.  During all of this, Billy has provided Marty some story fodder in the form of pointing out a newspaper story about a current serial killer who targets mob figures, and has even taken it upon himself to find some research opportunities for Marty by placing a newspaper ad for psychopaths to come and be interviewed, without Marty’s approval and against his better judgment and survival instincts. 

The plot weaves and jumps through Billy, Hans and Marty’s escaping Charlie’s goons, the interviewing of one of the psychopath want-ad respondents, and the visualizing of their brainstorming sessions for the screenplay – ideas that range from Vietnamese villagers and hookers in Vegas hotel rooms, to a mixed-race couple on murdering-of-murderers spree through 1960s-Civil-Rights-era America, to a current-day mass nighttime shootout in a Los Angeles graveyard.  They flee to Joshua Tree National Park in the California desert, have some deep philosophical discussions, and eventually have a showdown with Charlie to determine who gets to keep the Shih Tzu.  You know, just a quiet, introspective character study of a film... 

So was the whole thing a figment of Marty’s imagination, some sort of writer’s mental process that led to the screenplay he’s shown completing at the movie’s end?  I leave that for you to determine, but there’s probably no right or wrong answer to that question.  The opening scene of the movie is definitely one of Marty working on his story, and the tag sequence that interrupts the final credits is almost certainly a dream sequence, too, so one must wonder just how much of what happens in between is imaginary as well. 

Anyway, Farrell is pretty good here, as he usually is.  It seems he realizes that he's the center of sanity in this story, and the nutjobs around him are the entertainment, so his struggle to maintain a grasp on his less-stable companions sort of mirrors the audience's trying to keep up with what's actually happening to them and what's their vivid imaginations running wild. Rockwell has shown us he can "act out" with the best of them in such fare as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the first Charlie's Angels flick (yes, I saw that - don't judge), and Walken is... well, he's Christopher Walken. Some people (although I'm not certain that I'm one of them) subscribe to the theory that Christopher Walken in anything can be entertaining, if nothing else than waiting to see if he'll demand more cowbell at any given moment.   

This movie was written and directed by Martin McDonagh, and I liked what I believe he was trying to do here, but the final product on screen seemed like he was trying a bit too hard, and I think parody/satire/alternate reality depends on an effortless-ness in order to succeed.  While not exactly the same genre, I enjoyed his In Bruges about four years ago a lot more than this.  Although I could sense his style in the characters and dialogue of Seven Psychopaths, I thought In Bruges was much funnier and don’t feel like it tried anywhere near as hard. 

I wouldn’t have minded paying for the tickets for this one, but fortunately, I didn’t have to (thank you, Regal Cinemas Crown Club rewards points!).  That said, if you’re a Colin Farrell fan, or even a Sam Rockwell fan, then you might find this enjoyable once it pops up on Cinemax a year from now (and this one definitely feels like Cinemax – not HBO…).  Maybe you’ll have an easier time of coming up with something witty to say about it afterwards than I did.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Heaven help you if you're "Taken 2" it...

I've got two words for you: Pointless Sequel.  No, wait – I’ve got at least two more: Cash Grab.  Well, since I’m reviewing this flick, I'll add yet another two that might apply to the masses ponying up their eleven bucks to see this thing over the last two weeks – Mindless Sucker.  I won’t take full responsibility for those last two words being applied to me, as seeing this thing wasn’t my choice.  I graciously allowed a certain Liam Neeson-lusting Significant Other to choose the evening’s cinematic fare, and this was the choice that was made.  It is entirely possible that this was some sort of retribution on her part for my dragging her to see Ted this past summer, but I digress...

I wasn’t the biggest fan of the original Taken, but it wasn’t all that bad, and there are worse action flicks out there upon which one could piss away two hours of his or her life.  I said at the time that it smacked a bit too much of the Bourne movies to be taken seriously as an original story idea, but that probably wasn’t unintentional, given the crowd to which the movie was being promoted.  That said, once it was over, it was over - daughter rescued, bad guys dead, Hero safe and sound, roll credits - there was no story-meat whatsoever left on the bone of that carcass.  Yeah, right.  Ticket sales like that don’t go unpunished, so the sequel was inevitable. 

So how does this flick go?  Well, after completing a security-consulting job in Istanbul, the former CIA operative Bryan (the afore-referenced Liam Neeson) allows his very-old-looking teenaged daughter Kim and suddenly-separated-and-now-very-friendly ex-wife Lenore to accompany him on a spur-of-the-moment vacation there.  Why on Earth should they suspect the surviving fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, neighbors, grocers, milkmen, etc., etc., etc… of all those Albanian creeps Bryan killed while rescuing Kim in the first film are gunning for revenge, and seem to have pretty well-coordinated surveillance techniques to find our Hero so quickly?  Bryan and Lenore end up… well, you knew it was coming… taken… but thanks to the world’s only iPod Nano with cellular capability hidden in Bryan’s sock, he is able to be chained to a steam pipe and still talk Kim through her Urban Commando 101 lessons and guide her to rescuing him, after which he is able to apply his “particular set of skills” in finding Lenore.  No, seriously, folks – I’m not pulling your chain here. 

Producer/co-screenwriter Luc Besson is a better writer than this.  One need only watch his La Femme Nikita and Leon: the Professional to see that.  Then again, he’s also written the Transporter flicks, so maybe this shouldn’t be all that much a surprise.  Anyway, the writing laziness displayed in the development (or lack thereof) of this movie’s baddies is almost comical. The Albanian patriarch, played by Rade Sebedzija (whom you’ve seen in countless other flicks and TV shows, whenever a Russian or Eastern European bad guy is required), seethes and spews such simplistic venom about Bryan “murdering” his angelic white-slaver sons that I imagined the lawn-darts-at-chained-animals or fly-wing-pulling that might be played at their family reunion picnics.  Bryan’s climactic fist-fight near the end of the movie sort of surprised me, too, coming as it did against an opponent that was so under-developed as a character that I didn’t even realize he was all that important once they started beating on one another. 

The illogic of some of Professional-Security-Expert Bryan’s equipment choices is just as ridiculous (grenades and Sharpies…?), and let's not even get started about how poor teenager Kim can’t pass her driving test, but when bullets start flying, she can navigate a stolen taxicab though Instanbul’s streets evading tens of police cars.  There’s even a street-violinist (or whatever instrument he was playing) who conveniently continued playing in the same spot for about thirty-six hours so that Bryan could use him as a navigation point of sorts in his search for the “taken” Lenore. 

As an aside, I understand the old adage that says “sometimes, an actor’s just gotta work” when it comes to playing less-than-desirable roles, but poor 29-year-old Maggie Grace must really, really need a paycheck when she chooses to play a 16- or 17-year-old (if she’s even supposed to be THAT old).  I’ll give her credit – she looks like she might could pass for 24 or so, but that’s about it.  Sure, recasting the role was out of the question, but she was too old to play a teenager in the original film four years ago, and as we all know, the clock runs backwards for no one, so the problem is only more noticeable in this movie.  Of course, this might very well be the reason a 28-year-old actor was cast as her boyfriend… 

Anyway, the moral of all this is that, if you’re a huge Liam Neeson fan (like some gals in my life happen to be), then you MIGHT enjoy this turkey, but I question your taste if you do.  If you happen to be connected to such a person in some life-committed sort of way, however, then sadly, you may find yourself being “Taken” to it (I couldn’t resist).

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up"

I've been accused of over-thinking movies on occasion.  Personally, I don't see how this is a bad thing - like, what's the alternative? Under-thinking them?  Surely at one time or another, you've watched a movie to its climax, looked over to whomever came with you and asked "but what did it all mean?" (or maybe that’s just me… or maybe you’re just not inquisitive enough…)  More often than not, that's not a good thing. After watching Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up" for the second time, I'm still asking myself that same question, but I'm not sure it's necessarily a bad thing. "Blow-Up" is one of those Greatest-Film-Ever movies, one that routinely shows up on lists published by various movie-loving entities and is dissected and studied in film schools and at film festivals. I had seen it once many years ago, back in the Dark Days of VHS pan-and-scan tapes played on two-head VCRs and 19-inch televisions (oh, the horror...), but Turner Classic Movies ran it again a while back as part of their 31 Days of Oscar schedule, and I was able to give it another look, this time on better equipment and with older and (hopefully) more mature eyes. 

The story follows a day in the life of Thomas (David Hemmings), a very young fashion photographer in London during the Swinging '60s. Thomas is extremely jaded for one so young (he can't be more than twenty-five), as we see his complete disdain for the women he photographs, as well as his feeling of superiority to the world around him. He doesn't care whom he keeps waiting or what he leaves behind when he decides to leave his current task and move on to the next thing that grabs his attention.  He spots a couple in a London park, a young woman (played by an almost-unbelieveably young Vanessa Redgrave) and an obviously-older man. The couple seem to frolic. Or are they quarreling? Thomas (and we) see them from just enough of a distance that we can't be sure. Voyeur-ishly, Thomas photographs them. The girl spots Thomas, confronts him, begs Thomas to give her the film. Thomas refuses, even telling her that it's not his fault that nobody has any privacy those days. She runs back into the park, but the man has vanished. The girl's efforts to get the roll of film from Thomas lead to a half-nude pot-smoking session between the two, after which the girl leaves believing she has the film, but Thomas still has it. He develops it, and what he begins to see is what moves the second half of the film. 

What is it that he sees? Was it really there? What brought about the look of fear in the girl's eyes seen in one of the photos? Is that blurred patch of light in the trees what we think it is? Thomas asks himself all of these questions, and more, in silence as he examines his photos, as do we. The genius of the sequence is that even without a word of dialogue, with just a solitary actor on screen and no sound other than Thomas' puttering about his lab, we know exactly what he is thinking and what the story in the photos is.  For those of you wondering just what the heck "editing" is, this is it.  Thomas spends the remainder of the day and into the night and following morning careening about London, searching for the girl (even spotting her momentarily at one point before she almost-magically melts into the background) and for an answer, but never finding one. 

So, what does it all mean? That question still lingers. Antonioni was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for this film, but the movie did not receive a Best Picture nod, and I can see why. The movie caused quite a stir in its day for the scenes of marijuana use and fleeting full-frontal nudity (both of which are very tame by today's standards), and critics of the day debated ad nauseam about the lack of a clear-cut ending, as well as what, if any, symbolism was supposed to be in the film's final scene (which I won't divulge...). I don't think any of that was Antonioni's point. While the shallowness of the London Mod scene of the time may have been the driving philosophy behind Thomas’ outlook on the world, I believe whether he witnessed a murder, and if he did, who may have committed it, are secondary to his being a changed man at the film's end, and seeing him awaken from his boredom and cynicism to become energized over something IS a conclusion, of a sort.