Sunday, December 30, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

Given this movie, it seems proper that I start with a cliche and contrived introduction to my thoughts.

You ever wonder about pitching a movie like this? Writer/director Martin McDonaugh (In Bruges) probably has more leeway than I'm giving him credit for (maybe not, who knows), but I always remembered hearing in a producing class or a screenwriting course, that Hollywood executives loved being pitched a movie described as "A meets B." "Die Hard, but on a bus!" would be an example for something like Speed. So if I was to pitch Seven Psychopaths, I'd probably start with "it's like Quentin Tarantino trying to make Adaptation." 

I am cheating a bit here. When I was reading some reviews after this movie came out, many a writer claimed McDonagh's second film was heavily inspired by Tarantino. Certainly there are quirky characters engaging in hyperviolence and heavy dialogued discussions about a variety of matters with an occasional flashback or aside... but Tarantino would probably be the first to say that his own voice is in parts a hodge-podge of what inspired him artistically. Also, Seven Psychopaths is certainly as subversive as something like Adaptation, but there is a substantial twist. Jonze's second film was described as a movie within a movie, while this film here is more like a movie looking for a movie. When you combine that with the blood and eloquent swearing, you have... well you have this. 

To give a starting point, the film follows Marty (Colin Farrell) who is a sucessful screenwriter who just has a title for his next project. He wants to write a movie called "Seven Psychopaths" based on real people, stories about real people, fictional creations, etc. Marty lives with an actor/dog thief named Billy Bickle* (Sam Rockwell) who along with his dog thief partner-in-crime Hans (Christopher Walken), have stolen a Shih Tzu belonging to an unhinged mobster (Woody Harrelson). Things take off from there. How about another cliche line- you often hear that "you have to see something to understand it", well this time I really mean "you have to see something to understand it." 

It's not that Seven Psychopaths is overly complex, but there are so many nuances and layers to the story in such an untraditional and sometimes knowingly traditional manner that it really deserves a viewing and a personal discussion as opposed to me trying to even take a crack at explaining how fantastically intricate and well thought out the screenplay and execution are. The cast is probably going to make whatever year end list I end up compiling and the film is self-aware in a way that few films unapologetically are.

What does really get me at the end is the nicely framed, nicely edited, and nicely scored scene where Marty listens to a recording that Hans left him. Walken absolutely does an incredible job with the dialogue (hell, probably the best "Walken is actually acting" scene in a long time) where he talks about violence, a topic that the film is continuously commenting on. Beginning and endings, literal or otherwise, are certainly a part of this movie and how cyclical violence can be, much like life. It's an interesting companion piece to a film like Looper, but this is surprisingly much more sentimental. The best part is, the film sells the moment. It's a wild, harsh, and no-holds-barred movie and then there is an almost uplifting and affirming sense of closure at the end. It puts as nice of a bow on this kind of movie as one could, which is certainly saying a lot (and yes, a final cliche to close on).

*A character named Marty and another character named Bickle. Yep, that's a Taxi Driver reference. Sorry. I had to point that out.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


The prevailing feeling I have about Argo is that it is first and foremost a very exciting movie. There are elements of a caper throughout the first half intertwined with political intrigue before it becomes a full-blown thriller for its last act. Argo is part dramatized history, but there is a political tension that floats around the events of the film and thus actually makes the film better for it.

Disregarding my personal feelings about the quality of said films, if one looks at the Middle Eastern/American dynamic in American films post-9/11, these stories did have trouble finding an immediate audience with examples being thrillers such as The Kingdom or Rendition. Instead, films would couple that said tension with other storylines such as the mulit-tiered oil conspiracy in Syriana or having a story take place on the homefront like In the Valley of Elah (not the most direct example, but it certainly deals with American identity post-9/11). The most notable film would be the apolitical soldier's story in The Hurt Locker, a film that I felt was also highly noted for how thrilling and suspenseful it was first before how it dealt with miltiary politics second.

In any case, the true-story of Argo begins with the taking of hostages at the American embassy in Iran in 1979 and it follows CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, also the film's director) as he comes up with an unique plan to extract six Americans who escaped the embassy seige and are hiding at the Canadian ambassador's house. The scheme involves heading into Iran as a Hollywood agent intent to film a science-fiction project that needs a desert landscape. Mendez would enter the country by himself and leave with the hostages as part of his film crew. 

This fake movie, entitled "Argo", must seem as real as possible. Mendez joins with make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a fully functioning film studio office and have artwork comissioned and auditions taking place as to appear that "Argo" is an actual film that will be in a theater near you. As Mendez's colleagues point out, if this mission fails then the CIA and America will be viewed as a joke at best and at worst lives will be put at risk and prisoners executed. The hostages themselves (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, and Rory Cochrane) are growing worried and nervous and when Mendez arrives, they are unsure if they'll be able to escape the country. 

Chris Terrio's script raises the stakes, blending suspense with stranger-than-fiction aspects for a film that manages to proceed in a relatively realistic fashion. The film knows when to enjoy itself and have the audience laugh, but also when to have you concerned that its heroes might fail. Affleck has assembled a talented cast, but it's his continuing growth as a director that is most notable here. He understands how to control what could've been a difficult movie for others. Examples include the scenes where the turmoil of the hostages is intercut with a table read of the script or how when Joe Stafford has to explain to the Iranaian official at the airport about the elements of the film that Stafford himself had trouble memorizing and remaining convinced.

Affleck's work on the film is thoughtful in how he found the perfect balance for a number of elements. The film is almost deceptively finely tuned, a quality that Mendez and his co-workers would be appreciative of.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Master

The Master may not be my favorite film of the year (that honor is being held by Lincoln at the moment), but it certainly is the film that I would want to talk about the most. I feel this is because that the movie is incredibly challenging. Not in the sense that it is difficult to understand, but it is perhaps more about comprehending what I've watched and being able to have my brain digest the experience. 

I can say without a doubt that the movie is an intensive character study. If I were to compare its auteur writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson to his idol and teacher Robert Altman, I'd be quick to point out that Altman also made many different kind of films. PTA (as Anderson is often called by his fans) started out making large ensemble movies like Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia. The first two do have central characters, but they have a lot more speaking roles and tangents in them than say in Anderson's There Will Be Blood (with Punch-Drunk Love perhaps functioning as a transition piece in that it has the flavor of Boogie Nights or Magnolia, but its focus doesn't waver much from Adam Sandler's character). The Master is much more along the lines of There Will Be Blood and it would be more like Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller rather than his Nashville, A Wedding, or Short Cuts.

Although the central character of The Master is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the character study is twofold in how Freddie is compared to the supporting character of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Where Freddie is the beatnik, Hoffman is the intellectual. They are the complete opposite of the same common ideal of what a proud American should be: the do-it-yourself man who works hard on the floor or the guy who has risen to the office that looks down on that said floor as he enjoys economical success. That analogy being said, the world of The Master is much bigger than a warehouse. It begins on a boat.

When we first meet Freddie, he has come home from serving in World War II and some of the first behaviors we witness of the man include making a cocktail out of fuel, humping the body of a woman made out of sand on a beach, and just flat-out not understanding a series of questions by a psychiatrist that tells the audience that Freddie suffers from PTSD. Freddie has moved from the physical battles of war to return home to what will be a battle of his own mind. Freddie drunkenly wanders onto the yacht belongong to Dodd, who decides to welcome Freddie into his fold instead of casting him out. Who exactly is Dodd? "I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you," he says to Freddie.

Lancaster engages with Freddie in a question and answer session before Freddie finds himself joining Lancaster's group, only known as "The Cause". The session delves into life traumas belonging to Freddie including a past relationship and little-by-little his masculinity is laid bare. What is so interesting is despite how Lancaster's love-hate relationship with Freddie progresses, his own front of a personality is ripped into as well. The possibility that Dodd is a fraud who may or may not truly believe in half of what he is spouting begins to dawn on the audience and then along comes the third part of the film's triangle of characters- Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams). She is very much the brains behind Lancaster or at least the heart. She appears sweet for most of the film, but then when she is in private with her husband at a bathroom sink, we see how her innocent demeanor is a charade for actually being the most acute and observant character in the piece.

The performances behind the characters are on par with their on-page characterizations. Phoenix is refreshing to see again as he brings Freddie's anxiety and inner-most feelings to the forefront of the screen as he did as Commodus in Gladiator or Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Adams is able to convey a sweetness that can be turned devilish at a moment's notice. Hoffman continues the tradition of energetic and manipulative PTA prophets alongside Tom Cruise from Magnolia and Paul Dano from There Will Be Blood. Then of course there is the film on a purely technical level. Johnny Greenwood's (of Radiohead fame) monotone score sets up a rhythmic pattern that keeps the film moving along. Anderson and Greenwood know when to use the film's themes and when to let silence settle in. Then there is Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s (Youth Without Youth) cinematography. It's absolutely gorgeous and works perfectly with how PTA has evolved from the hectic but entrancing camera movement of Boogie Nights and Magnolia to the more composition-focused imagery from There Will Be Blood. Just look at the shopping mall fight and motorcycle scenes; the film looks like a fever dream.

A dream is perhaps the best way to explain how The Master just washes over you. The standalone moments will be remembered the most such as the questioning and experiments or Hoffman's speeches and musical numbers. Then the thoughts about the experience and what the film is saying to you personally will begin to settle in. Is the film about a father and a son? A student and a teacher? Is it really focused on societal truths about America that are still relevant today? All of the above? Whatever you find in the movie is up to you and with Magnolia being the shining example, I feel that PTA is the master (no pun intended) of ambiguity. He'll show you a lot, but leave any further communication up to the individual of which The Master is so inquisitively focused on.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Most of "Looper" takes place in 2044. It's a recognizable future. Some vehicles can float a little off the ground, but there are cities with slummy nightclubs and rural farmhouses located the next exit after a diner. Even when the film moves to 2074, this is not the foreign worlds of Star Wars or Avatar, it's just typical ol' Earth. That is part of the ingenuity of the film- having this familiar environment for a science-fiction film "about" time travel. I say "about" because time travel is nothing more than an item that is discussed for some of the film. "Looper" is like many a mainstream film in that it has a three-act structure with an introduction, confrontations leading to a climax, and a conclusion. The nature of time-travel is actually just a backdrop to a character-driven story about second chances, sense of purpose, and even the cycle of violence.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a killer who works for the mob in Kansas, led by Abe (Jeff Daniels). Abe came from the future and uses these killers, called loopers, to eliminate enemies of the organization as a way to be sure to dispose of the bodies. The mob sends someone back in time like they did with Abe, only there is usually a looper with a gun waiting to kill the target. Like with his previous two films, writer/director Rian Johnson comes up with an already unique concept and then throws the proverbial wrench into the mix. "Brick" was a high-school noir that became complicated and "The Brothers Bloom" was a con-man movie that developed into a puzzle. "Looper" asks the fun sci-fi'ey question of "what if you met yourself from the future, what you do and say to each other?" Although, for Johnson's unique creation of a future Earth, his question becomes "what if you suddenly found yourself having to kill your future self who was just sent back in time and what would you then do and say to each other?"

Future Joe is played by Bruce Willis in a stroke of casting that was made-to-be. Willis is certainly the action-icon, but more so than his costars from say The Expendables, Willis ventures into a variety of other genres and film-types. He managed to find a great collaborator in Wes Anderson on Moonrise Kingdom, but next year he has sequels to franchises G.I. Joe, Die Hard, and Red. The man is massively talented whether he is carrying a blockbuster like Die Hard or an intimate drama like The Sixth Sense. Here, for a movie where he plays the "older" main character, Willis brings his experience as a seasoned veteran of such high-concept films (Twelve Monkeys and Unbreakable come to mind among others). There is a scene where future Joe finds himself having to hurt a child in order to complete his mission that he went into the past to fufill. The range that Willis brings to that scene involves some of the most powerful and emotive performing that he's done in a long time. It wouldn't be a stretch to rank this as one of if not his best performance.

The cast is also joined by Emily Blunt as young Joe's love interest and like Gordon-Levitt, Blunt has been enjoying a wave of successful roles. Blunt plays a mother of a boy who is central to the film universe's mythos. Pierce Gagnon, age 7, plays the young kid and it's incredible how he holds his own and delivers a truly creepy and heartfelt performance. The kind of 'Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun' type of performance where you wonder where this kid will be many years from now in his acting career. It's a testament to Johnson's mind-game riddled screenplay that having a child character and a romantic subplot thrown into a sci-fi thriller manages to somehow add and not annoy audiences or detract from the film's impact.

The film becomes a brain teaser right at the end, but it doesn't matter if you don't get it. You as the audience member will probably be caught up in what the film is saying about the truths of humanity even if you don't realize or verbalize your response. "Looper" says a lot about the decisions one can make and like a movie that I'll talk about several days from now ("Seven Psychopaths"), it provides a fantastic commentary on violent behavior. Not a criticism (especially with the events in Connecticut and Colorado being in many minds), but almost a reminder about the responsibility we all hold to others and ourselves... even if we can't meet 'us' from the future.

Monday, December 17, 2012


My reaction after sitting through the end credits to Coriolanus had me remember how my high-school-Macbeth-reading-self felt challenged by Shakespeare's dialogue. The opposite had happened with this experience as it certainly helps to have an incredible cast spouting the words with every emotion appearing livid on their face and in how they presented the dialogue's syntax. The language almost compliments the material and makes this fictitious world, in which the play is adapted into, feel accessible. Its director and lead actor, Ralph Fiennes, was able to work with John Logan's highly imaginative script and find a way for the language to make sense. There are modern allegories to certainly be made about government and class, but there is also a fantastic character study at the heart of it all. I'm reminded of why I've liked cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare whether it be literal (Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet") or otherwise ("The Lion King" or "10 Things I Hate About You").

Logan has come up with having Rome and Volsci as two warring countries set in what could easily be the doomsday scenario of having a society exist if the Cold War had turned hot in Europe. The media, the government, and the royal family are all recognizeable to our modern sensibilities, but Fiennes intertwines that with a careful eye into Shakespeare's tale of Coriolanus along with astonishingly gritty and hyper-realistic cinematography from Barry Aykroyd (The Hurt Locker). It's an inspired film about a man's ambitions and the ambitions of those around him in the name of many things, but the casting also finds a way to further flesh out the world. It's so great to see so many great actors (Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox) diving fearlessly into such strong and inspired material. The way in which they bounce off each other even if one of them is just giving a monologue as the other listens creates such a lively and empowered scene. 

Like the written word, language, and style on which this film is based and along with such stimulating choices by the filmmakers, it isn't an understatement to say that Coriolanus feels like a master-class in how to draw someone into a world of just pure drama and continue to do with each passing scene. For such a dialogue-heavy feature, I'm at a loss for where I should begin to describe the intensive and inquisitive mood that the film left me in as a completely surprised viewer.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

We Bought a Zoo

Released almost a year ago around the holidays, Cameron Crowe's first narrative film in six years wasn't a great character study like Jerry Maguire or a coming-of-age film like Almost Famous, but instead it's an all-ages family film. There are a few moments towards the beginning where you might find yourself rolling your eyes. Recently widowed Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) has to struggle with finding his own balance of a mid-life crisis while raising two kids, one of whom is a rebellious boy (Colin Ford) who is getting into trouble at school. His job at the newspaper isn't doing it for him, so he goes and buys a zoo in a funny little "a-ha!" moment (I'm skipping through some other details, there is a  rationality behind the inciting acts).

The film is pretty formulaic as there is a villain, romance, and a cast of eccentric one-note supporting characters (from a Scotsman to guy-with-a-monkey-on-his-back). The film softballs certain moments in favor of just being a family film as it follows your typically structured script to a T. The film does turn into something slightly more complex as it goes on due to Benjamin's character and Damon's sentimental and thoughtful portrayal. For example, there is a particularly great arguement between Benjamin and his son that puts a majority of the film in perspective. Like a lot of animated films, I feel that We Bought a Zoo will pander down some of its material to appeal to all ages, but Damon and Johansson are able to at least charm.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Lawless is an extremely well-crafted movie. Every element to its production showcases the time and effort put into the decisions by director John Hillcoat and his crew. The obvious examples being the sets and costumes, the beautiful cinematography by Benoit Delhomme, the editing and pace, and especially the soundtrack by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave that includes modern bluegrass and country music by Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. The acting is also very on-point with the film boasting an impressive cast (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Dane DeHaan, and Guy Pearce). The film is very well done, but it unfortunately isn't anything all that different from any other gangster or western experience.

I suppose I imparted too much of my own overly high expectations. Hillcoat's first film The Proposition was a western based in Australia with a script and soundtrack by Cave. The film had an ethereal quality to it that made the movie feel like something completely different from what anyone might've come to expect. I certainly hold the film in high regard and I considered it to almost "further the discussion." What I suppose I mean is that if film can be regarded as discourse, then such a seemingly unique film is a high artistic achievement in being able to break what felt like new ground in a 100+ year artform, thus allowing for more discussion by movie-goers and filmmakers to consider when presented with watching or telling a story. Hillcoat's second film The Road, isn't as good as Lawless, but it also just about falls short of achieving its true potential. Part of this may be the difficulty in adapting Cormac McCarthy's original material. There is so much to be found in the novel, what else could the film bring forth?

When I heard that Hillcoat's third film would be a combination of the gangster and western movie genre as bootleggers find themselves contending with the law and the mob in the woods of Virginia, I was hoping this would be something as inspiring as The Proposition. It's certainly a good movie, but I suppose I just didn't get as much out of the film as I had hoped. The craft to the depicted violence is noticeable, but the idea of that violence only begetting more violence was handled much better in recent films such as Looper or Seven Psychopaths. The characters are compelling, but they are typical such as the over-the-top villain (Pearce), the emotionally distant lone-wolf who finds companionship (Hardy), and the boy who just wants to become his own man and impress those around him by living up to their expectations (Labeouf).

Certain storylines fall flat, but what a well-handled tapestry that Hillcoat creates around the content to make it not all feel totally ineffectual.