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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths (2012):  Written and directed by Martin McDonagh.  Starring:  Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Abbie Cornish.  Rated R for: Strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.  Running time: 110 minutes.

Rating: 3.5/4 stars



    This may be a consequence of my utter lack of knowledge concerning overall trends in film, but I’m honestly not sure if we’ve ever had two films quite like these come out in the same year, much less within 6 months of each other.  The first film I’m thinking of is Cabin In The Woods, still tied with Moonrise Kingdom as my favorite film of 2012 thus far.  The second, obviously, is Seven Psychopaths.  Before delving into an explanation of that particular train of thought, let’s talk about the Psychopaths first. 

    Seven Psychopaths is the third-ever film to be written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, and only the second to be feature-length (his first, Six Shooter, was an Oscar-winning short film).  The respective middle child in this trio, and his first feature length, is the 2008 masterpiece In Bruges, currently my second favorite movie of all time.  So, as you can imagine, I had considerably high expectations for his next project.  Did I expect it to be on the same level of cinematic artistry as In Bruges?  Of course I didn’t (and it’s not), but what I did expect was unique, off-beat characters, dark and violent moments offset by strangely comic ones without feeling imbalanced, and a fun, clever screenplay, and that’s pretty much exactly what I got, plus a bit more. 

    In this new voyage into Martin’s strange mind, we see the efforts of “Marty” (hehe), played by Colin Farrell, a struggling, alcoholic writer trying to overcome his latest round of writer’s block so he can finish his newest screenplay, called, funnily enough, “Seven Psychopaths”.  His best friend Billy, a dognapper by trade and played by Sam Rockwell, is energetically (and, yes, psychotically) determined to see his friend finish the manuscript.  To this end he pushes into motion a chain of events that eventually take himself, his fellow dognapper Hans (brought to us by the indefatigable Walken himself), and Marty from their everyday Los Angeles lives and into a journey of violent mobsters, stolen dogs, serial killers, serial killer killers, meta-movie references, and shootouts (both real and imagined).  The result is something strange, uncertain, and often confusing, but also unforgettable. 

    For all of the excellent actors McDonagh manages to squeeze into the movie (and they are all very, very good), the standout performance comes courtesy of Sam Rockwell as Best Friend Billy.  Not since Christian Bale in American Psycho have I seen such a compulsively watchable lunatic in a film.  Rockwell adroitly manages to fill the screen and chew scenery in a way that switches from the hilarious to the shocking without ever upstaging or stealing the show from the rest of the cast, a feat that is not to be underestimated.  Not only does he set much of the plot in motion on his own, but his compulsive and driving need to have everything turn out “his way” also dominates the conclusion, to the point that, by the end, you wouldn’t be surprised if McDonagh revealed he’d planned everything out himself from the word go. 

    It is a graphically violent and crude movie, make no mistake, so if copious blood and swearing is not your style, you should probably give this one a pass.  However, what I admire about McDonagh is his ability to bring shocking violence and depravity into this films without it being senseless.  He never shows blood or jots an F-bomb into the script just for the hell of it.  Every act of violence, every horridly crude joke, is geared towards his overall purpose in making the film.  In this case, that purpose is to offer a broad satire of both the standard shock-and-gore tactics typical of many modern action films, and our own insatiable desire for cinematic blood.  This brings me back to the beginning of this review and my reference to Joss Whedon’s Cabin In The Woods.  Like Cabin, Psychopaths is ultimately more than a simple parody of the standard tropes of its genre.  It pokes fun (both subtly and not so subtly) at them, but also tries to explore why they exist in the first place. 

    While this is the aspect of Seven Psychopaths that is probably the most thought-provoking, it is also, depending on your interpretation of its critique, the primary weakness with the film.  Cabin opted to attack the standard formulas in the horror genre by wading up to its eyeballs in them, drenching the Blazing Saddles-esque third act in so much gore than you couldn’t help but laugh at the ultimate emptiness of such tactics.  In Psychopaths, the characters go out of their way to avoid the cliches that their respective characters usually provide.  However, despite the clear effort to avoid these cliches, many of them are there anyway.  For example, Hans and Marty wonder aloud why so many female characters in action films are shallow and poorly-written, yet the 3 named women in the film have little more than a scene apiece.  And when Marty, Hans, and Billy start arguing about the idea of shootouts....well, you can probably imagine where that leads. 

    These seemingly obvious contradictions beg the following questions; is the fact that the film falls back on many of the very cliches it denigrates an unintended failing on the part of McDonagh’s writing or directing ability, a subconscious surrender to the pressure of what’s “expected?”  Does he include them hoping that, shown next to the dialogue criticizing such cliches, the viewers will simply find them humorously ironic?  Is he just lazy?  Or, perhaps, is he purposely including them to show that the demand for cliches is so overwhelming, so unyielding, that they are, to some extent, unavoidable or inevitable?  And if he is, does he see that as a good or bad thing?  The answer you come up with will depend on your own interpretation of the film. 

    Perhaps the scene that best defines Seven Psychopaths (as well as its spiritual kin Cabin) and its approach towards their respective genres occurs towards the very end of the film.  Anyone who has seen the trailer knows the part where Christopher Walken refuses to put up his hands when told to do so by one of Harrelson’s henchmen.  After trying to figure out why his demand (in and of itself a huge cliche) is not being obeyed, the henchman says in a quiet, confused, almost desperate voice;
“But....it doesn’t make any sense!”  
To which Christopher Walken, coolly and bluntly, replies;
“Too bad.” 

Amen to that. 

-Judge Richard

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Nostalgia Critic Follow-Up

This will not be a particularly long post, since I already waxed rhapsodic on the Nostalgia Critic last month.  However, I felt a follow-up was in order, since, in the process of making my Top 11 NC list, I was forced to cross off literally dozens of his videos that are just as good as those I eventually put on the list.  I honestly think that every one of his episodes, even the stranger, less funny ones, are worth taking the time to watch, because all of them are unique, and have Doug’s unique brand of humor in them. So this is basically just basically a follow-up list of what I consider to be some of the other top Nostalgia Critic episodes.  The full collection of his videos can be found at http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/nostalgia-critic.   

Enjoy. 

First of all, the milestones: 

Transformers The Movie: Review (the first episode)- April 06, 2008
Battlefield Earth (the 100th episode) - February 02, 2010
Ponyo (the 200th episode) - February 22, 2012
Scooby Doo (the last episode) - August 14, 2012


And then the others: 

1. Harry Potter Book 7 Launch- April 10, 2008
2. The Top 11 Naughtiest Moments in Animaniacs- May 11, 2008
3. Top 11 Catchiest Theme Songs- June 01, 2008
4. Top 11 Drug PSAs- June 22, 2008
5. Captain Planet- July 06, 2008
6. Surf Ninjas- September 18, 2008
7. Top 11 Nostalgic Animated Shows- September 29, 2008
8. Top 11 Underrated Nostalgic Classics- November 04, 2008
9. Top 12 Greatest Christmas Specials- December 22, 2008
10. Jingle All the Way- December 30, 2009
11. Ferngully- February 03, 2009
12. A Kid in King Arthur's Court- February 11, 2009
13. Titanic - Animated Musical- March 24, 2009
14. Red Sonja- May 05, 2009
15. Full House- May 26, 2009
16. North- June 03, 2009
17. Critic and Nerd: TMNT Making of Coming Out of Their Shells- June 10, 2009
18. Sidekicks- June 17, 2009
19. Gargoyles- June 24, 2009
20. LOTR Animated vs LOTR- July 22, 2009
21. Alone In The Dark- September 08, 2009
22. Star Wars Christmas- December 22, 2009
23. Commando- January 05, 2010
24. Quest for Camelot- March 02, 2010
25. The Care Bears Movie- May 11, 2010
26. Independence Day- July 06, 2010
27. Animaniacs Tribute- August 11, 2010
28. Rocky IV- August 31, 2010
29. Top 11 Scariest Performances- October 12, 2010
30. IT- October 19, 2010
31. Nostalgia Critic and Cinema Snob: Leprechaun- October 26, 2010
32. Secret of NIMH 2- January 18, 2011
33. Care Bears 2- January 25, 2011
34. Dungeons and Dragons- February 01, 2011
35. The Lost World - Jurassic Park- February 15, 2011
36. The Langoliers- March 15, 2011
37. The OTHER Animated Titanic Movie- May 17, 2011
38. Old vs New - True Grit- June 14, 2011
39. Milk Money- July 12, 2011
40. Top 11 Batman TAS Episodes- August 16, 2011
41. The Haunting- October 11, 2011
42. The Cell- November 09, 2011
43. The Grinch- December 16, 2011

-Judge Richard

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Review: The Master

The Master (2012): Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Laura Dern.  Rated R for: Sexual content, graphic nudity, and language.  Running time: 137 minutes.

Rating:  3.5/4 stars

    Having spent the better part of a week going over The Master in my head, I am still hard-pressed to say exactly what I think about it.  I can definitely say that it was not what I expected it to be.  Although similarities with Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, are there- a strange and off-beat acoustic soundtrack, rampant alcoholism, and a cast of strange, twisted, and yet relatable characters- The Master is very much its own film, with own story to tell and its own style in doing so.  Whereas There Will Be Blood offered wide, sweeping shots of the American West as a crucial backdrop to its story, The Master provides one close-up after another of the people’s faces, and trades Blood’s consistently bleak browns for shots ranging from vividly colorful to stark and shadow-filled. 

    At the heart of Anderson’s new tale is Freddie Quell, a struggling, alcoholic WWII veteran, whose every twitch, glare, and nervous tic is brilliantly brought to life by a shaved Joaquin Phoenix.  After an opening segment that depicts several spectacular failures on  Freddie’s part to adjust to civilian life (after being told how full of potential he is), he encounters, “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all a man”, otherwise known as Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. 

    Dodd is the leader of a social/religious/scientific movement called “The Cause,” based loosely (very loosely) on the real-life origins of Scientology.  Quell, who we learn has clear issues with commitment in his life, becomes devoutly, and sometimes violently, attached to (and protective of) Dodd, although what he thinks of The Causes’ various teachings themselves is never made very clear.  Dodd accepts Quell into the movement despite his constant trouble-making, arguing that he and his wife (the ever-engaging Amy Adams) can “cure” him of his troubles. 

    The Cause itself, however, is ultimately not the real focus of the film.  Its similarities to scientology do provide a limited frame of reference, but its hardly an expose or a broad parody of scientology in the same way that Book of Mormon was for Mormonism.  Some of Dodd’s teachings and ideas- that life is trillions of years old, and that “recalling” past lives can cure terminal illnesses, to name a few- are discussed intermittently, but the audience is never given a tangible, solid outline of the what the Cause really is, and whether it can be called a scientific movement or a religious one (both are implied).  Rather than picking out and critiquing a particular philosophy, religion, or way of thinking, Anderson instead uses both the Cause and the complex relationship between Dodd and Quell to take a broader look at the very idea of belief itself, wondering (but never directly asking) why so many people feel the need to “follow” something, be it scientific, religious, or something else entirely. 

    In so many ways, Dodd and Quell are perfect foils for each other.  Dodd is a loquacious, charming, and cultured Don Quixote, walking with his head held high in both  confidence and defiance, earnestly asserting that man is a cut above the rest of the animal kingdom.  Quell, on the other hand, is an animalistic, instinctive, and unhinged Pablo, embodying everything Dodd seems to fight against.  After joining the Cause, one of the first things he does is pass a note to a women he’s never met asking if she wants to fuck.  He stumbles on his words, grimacing angrily at almost everyone and everything around him.  His nonstop pacing, and the constance presence of his hands on his hips, bring to mind an impatient, hungry dog, hurt and anxious, but at the same time cowed and fearful. 

    Strange and inexplicable though it may be, it is ultimately Dodds and Quell’s brotherly relationship to each other that drives the film.  Anderson is the rare director who prefers to show rather than tell, who really uses the art of film in all its aspects, both visual and auditory, to tell a story.  The Master is a prime example of this.  Each character says just as much (and sometimes more) with their silences as they do with their words.  The result is a powerful and thought-provoking film that leaves you unsure of what, exactly, you just saw. 

    Sadly, this could easily result in many people simply dismissing the film as not having any real substance at all, that it’s all arthouse with no story.  While I can understand why someone might think that, I must respectfully disagree.  No, it is not a movie that tells you directly what it is about or what it is trying to say.  The true mastery of the film (pun intended) is that it manages to suggest so much about leadership, faith, and human nature without ever feeling the need to offer any definite answers.  Is Dodd a genuinely good person, or a deliberate manipulator of people’s emotions for his own gain?  Should we despise Quell for his violence and aggression, or pity him for the pain etched in every line of his face?  Is The Cause a sinister movement, or a beneficial one?  Can any movement be considered good or bad?  Rather than saying one or the other, The Master offers itself to its audience, and as the credits roll, asks, “What do you think?” 

    Although I am still not certain what I took away from The Master, few films this year have forced me to think so hard and so long.  It may not be in theaters for long, so if you have not seen it yet, do yourself a favor and get out as soon as possible.  There’s been no other movie like it thus far in 2012, and even if you don’t like or “get” it, you definitely won’t forget it.  What more could you ask for?

-Judge Richard