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Molly’s Game (2017)/ Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.

Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.

In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.

I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.

Nate’s Grades:

Molly’s Game: A-

Call Me By Your Name: B-

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The Shape of Water (2017)

You haven’t seen a romance like director Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster mash (monster smash?), The Shape of Water. del Toro, an aficionado of cinematic creepy crawlies, has swerved from big-budget studio fare into a smaller, stranger period romance between a woman and an amphibious creature who already arrives pre-lubricated (I apologize already for that joke). I was compelled to watch The Shape of Water twice to better formulate my thoughts, mostly because I was not expecting the movie to be so enthusiastically whimsical, adult, and romantic, and the best beauty and the beast tale of this year.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman working on the cleaning staff at a classified government laboratory. Her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a hopeless romantic trying to find his place in the world as a gay man. Her best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is supportive but thinks they should mind their own business. An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) from the Amazon is confined to a cell and repeatedly beaten by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the vile head of security at the station. They believe the creature’s ability to breathe underwater and on land will be the key to winning the space race. The scientist in charge, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is secretly a Russian spy, though his allegiances are more to the fragile creature than any country. Elisa teaches the creature sign language, the joys of hard boiled eggs, and lots of cheery music. She also falls in love with the creature and grows determined to save the Amphibian Man by breaking him loose.

From the get go, del Toro drops us into a world that is not our own, as he’s so skilled at doing. This version of 1960s Baltimore feels as though it’s the twentieth century equivalent of a fairy tale village, and our monster is also the princess in need of rescue. Our heroine has a strange scar that foreshadows her place of belonging. The entire film bristles with a sense of expertly curated magic realism even though there isn’t anything explicitly magical. The supernatural and fantastical are met with a casual acceptance, as they would be in any storybook legend of old. When Elisa discovers the Amphibian Man in his tank, it’s literally at the ten-minute mark or even earlier, and she is unfazed. She immediately accepts the existence of this scaly mere-man, establishes a line of communication, and befriends the creature. It’s as if del Toro is trying to prime the audience for what’s to come and hoping to skip over the intermediate waiting period of incredulity. For del Toro, the real fun is once the characters connect, and belaboring that necessary connection is not in the audience’s best interests or time.

The movie glides by on effusive outpouring of charm, given such vibrant, sweeping life thanks to del Toro’s repertoire of pop-culture influences and his passionate love of cinema. The Shape of Water feels like del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) took one of the old Universal horror B-movies and decided to make it into one of the most personal, delightful, and curious filmgoing experiences of the year. It’s film as escape for society’s outsiders. The sense of whimsy is ever-present without being overpowering or diluting the drama. It never feels quirky for its own sake of satisfaction. You’ll recognize several of del Toro’s artistic references, the re-purposing of cultural artifacts, but the magic suffused within every frame is thanks to del Toro and his team of filmmaking artists. If Amelie was going to fall in love with a sea creature, it might look something like this The Shape of Water.

The movie is also surprisingly, refreshingly adult in its depiction of human beings. Again the opening minutes set a standard of what to expect. We get a sense of Elisa’s daily routine before leaving for work, and one crucial component involves furious masturbation in her bathtub (set to an egg timer for sport?). This is a far more sensual movie than I was ever anticipating. There are multiple sequences of Hawkins disrobed and offering herself to the Amphibian Man. We never see any underwater action but we do hear about some of the mechanics of how the coupling is even remotely possible physically (“Never trust a man,” Zelda chuckles upon hearing those dirty details). It’s not all sexy time indulgences. There’s a sharp undercurrent of very real and very upsetting violence, typified by Strickland’s ruthless determination to break the creature. He’s a Bible-thumping sadist generally dismissive of those he finds different and lesser and yet he’s drawn to Elisa. Why is that? Because she’s a diminutive woman who cannot talk, and this sexually excites him like nothing else. He even comes on to her, thinking his interest is a form of masculine charity. There are some shocking moments of very real violence and its lingering effects. Strickland’s on-the-job injury becomes a metaphorical moral gauge for the putrid character’s state of being. The Shape of Water is a movie that does not blunt anything, whether it’s the sexuality or violence of its story (beware pet lovers: this is the second 2017 entry where an amphibian being hidden from the government eats somebody’s house cat). This is a fable for adults, a grimy Grimm’s tale with a sprinkle of Old Hollywood sparkle.

The Shape of Water is also a deeply romantic and earnest love story about two outsiders finding a connection in the most unlikely of places. Engineering a story that pushes two oddball characters together, each finally finding a kindred spirit, is an easy recipe for a satisfying conclusion; however, their romantic connection has to feel rightly earned. If we don’t believe the characters have fallen for one another, that this potential relationship elevates their existence, that the colors of the world seem brighter when around this person, then it doesn’t work. You have to buy the love story and it must be earned. Amazingly, del Toro is able to craft a love story with a mute woman and an Amphibian Man that checks most of the boxes of Hollywood romantic escapism. Elisa has an openhearted way of looking at the world, and her acceptance provides her with a bravery few others have. The creature presents somebody who views her not as a woman with a disability, as something lesser, but as something whole and wholly fulfilling. Everyone wants to be truly seen by someone for who they are rather than what they’re not.

While del Toro is supremely skillful at making Elisa’s romantic yearnings felt, there is one inherent weakness in this girl-meets-fish dude tale of love. The Amphibian Man isn’t really much of a character and far more of a symbol to the other characters. To Elisa, he’s her hope. To Giles, he’s a wild animal. To Strickland, he’s a defiant challenge to be tamed. To Zelda, he’s the questionable new boyfriend for her pal. To Hoffstetler, he’s a beautiful creature. To the U.S. government, he’s a potential scientific breakthrough. To the Soviets, he’s a liability and a potential future weapon. We’re told the indigenous people of the Amazon worshiped the Amphibian Man as a god but ultimately he remains a cipher others project onto. The love story feels a little too one-sided from an audience investment perspective. Still, the romance works and that fact alone is incredible considering the unique pairing.

Hawkins (Maudie) is the beating heart of the movie and delivers a wonderfully expressive portrait of a woman finding her voice, so to speak. She’s relatively upbeat and that fits the whimsical tone of the picture. Hawkins plays a woman excited by the possibilities of the world. She reminded me of Bjork’s tragic heroine from 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, a woman who saw the extraordinary in ordinary life, who could perceive a symphony of music just on the outer edges of everyone else’s hearing. Going completely wordless for the movie, save for one very memorable fantasy sequence, requires a lot of daunting physical acting from Hawkins, and she’s more than up to the task. I guarantee a scene where she tearfully forces Giles to say out loud her signing will be her Oscar nomination clip.

When we talk about the weird and wild promise of cinema, it takes a controlled, assured vision and precise execution to bring together the dispirit elements and allow them to coalesce into something that feels like a satisfying, mesmerizing whole. The Shape of Water is del Toro’s gooey love letter to monster movies while stepping outside of homage and into the realm of something daring and different. I could talk about the Busby Berkley musical number as declaration of love, or that the story is told from socially marginalized voices finding an affinity together, or the small character moments that give generous life to supporting figures like Zelda and Hoffstetler, or that it leaves implied stories to be chewed over for extra richness like Giles likely being outed at his work to the dismay of his closeted superior, or the perfect casting for secondary antagonists, or the exquisite cinematography that seems to utilize every shade of green the human eye is capable of seeing, or the stunning production design, or the sweetly eccentric whistling musical score by Alexadre Desplat, or the grace of Doug Jones’ performance in the amphibian suit, or just how funny this movie can be, even the sadistic villain. I could talk about all that stuff but I’ll simply condense it all to a plea to give The Shape of Water a chance. It’s rare to see a storytelling vision this precise that’s also executed at such a high degree of difficulty. In other hands, this could have been an unholy mess. With del Toro, it’s a lovely mess.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Miss Sloane (2016)

timthumbMiss Sloane is an intelligent and exacting political thriller that should appease fans of the genre who enjoy a good arm-twisting from a powerful manipulator, in this instance the towering and intimidating full force of Jessica Chastain. She plays the titular Sloane, the best lobbyist inside the beltway, and a woman who leaves the comfort of her firm for the challenge of taking on the gun industry to help pass a reform bill. From there it’s an underdog tale powered by the winds of moral righteousness and given a tough-talking yet flawed hero that will burn down whatever she can, including her own reputation, to win. The biggest draw is the performance from Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) as she gets to yell at people for approximately two hours and look good doing it. It’s a game of persuasion and leverage and D.C. voter politics, and she makes the constant stream of information accessible while providing a focal point for our interest. It’s a pretty information heavy film with a minimal of supporting characters that stand out (Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a school shooting survivor-turned-team member is the notable exception). With her victory never in doubt no matter the odds, the movie establishes that it exists in a parallel world where actual gun control reforms can be advanced. In the wake of doing nothing from Sandy Hook, this must be a fantasy world. Director John Madden (The Debt) keeps the tone as cool and calculated as his heroine. The script by Jonathan Perera is plenty smart though the final act relies upon some unbelievable shenanigans that betray its sense of pragmatic realism. Still, the cunning gamesmanship of a pro working the levers of power for a worthy cause allows for some liberal fantasy indulgence. Miss Sloane is a suitably entertaining thriller that whisks you away and says even “bad people” have a purpose in our broken political system.

Nate’s Grade: B

Arrival (2016)

arrival-posterFor the new sci-fi film Arrival, I felt that an unconventional review might be suitable considering that the movie is about communication. Therefore I sought out my pal Eric Muller to converse over the many qualities of this intelligent movie. Enjoy, dear reader.

General plot synopsis: a dozen mysterious alien ships hover above the ground across the globe. The government seeks out the assistance of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an expert linguist, to try and establish a communication line with the aliens and determine whether they are friend or foe.

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Nate Zoebl: So Eric, my good friend, let’s talk about our first impressions of director Denis Villenueve’s Arrival. I was really taken with just how cerebral it all was. Given the director’s pedigree (I absolutely loved Sicario), I was expecting an intelligent movie that wouldn’t follow the same blueprint as, say, Independence Day: Re-Something or Other Go Boom, but in many ways this movie feels like you’re studying for the SATs. I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s a rather highbrow movie that follows a team of smart people doing something incredibly hard with a level of precision that brings an intense sense of realism to the scenario. It made me think of Arthur C. Clarke science fiction where if first contact were to happen it might go very much like this. It’s a linguistics puzzle box and I found that to be fascinating. The movie delivers on that front. I’m sure the casual moviegoer will be bored by the lack of intensity for two acts of movie but I was delighted. You?

Eric Muller: My first thoughts were, “Wow, Hollywood made a first contact movie that looks like how the real first contact would go.” Unlike other Hollywood blockbusters, this movie is patient. The focus of the movie is not the actors or special effects like other contact movies, the focus of Arrival is the script. The movie is a love letter to language and communication. The director did an amazing job of telling the story and also flipping conventional storytelling.

maxresdefault-1Nate Zoebl: We’ll get into more of the flipping the script, so to speak, in our spoiler section but I heartily agree. I’ll also admit that I feel much like Amy Adams as I await your next reply in this discussion (not to make any general comparisons to you and heptapod aliens). I think patience, as you cited, is one of the movie’s greatest virtues. It takes its time, it naturally develops, and this is definitely evident in the first act. The step-by-step process of Adams and Jeremy Renner and the other scientists being escorted to the alien ship, suiting up, being told the hazards and unknowns, and going inside, experiencing the different gravity, and coming up close to the giant white wall that promised so much on the other side, it’s teased out in a fashion that allows for anticipation to rack your nerves. The fear of what they’re stepping into really settles in.

Eric Muller: I’m okay with being compared to a heptapod. I appreciated the movie taking its time, allowing the audience to learn and discover at the same time as Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. In other movies, learning the new language is usually done in a 15-minute montage. This movie is a Sci Fi movie dedicated to discovery, which is what science is.

Nate Zoebl: It’s definitely a movie of discovery and I appreciated that it doesn’t gloss over the challenges and details of that. It’s also a discovery of our heroine, but again we’ll save that discussion for a little bit. At its core, it’s a movie about language and communication. How are we able to connect and interpret others? If 12 giant alien ships, which kind of looked like Pringles chips, were to one day appear randomly across the globe, how do we interpret intent? That’s the movie’s ticking clock, uncovering the intent of the seven-legged squid-like aliens before the more alarmist elements of our society give in to paranoia and destruction. How would an alien species even begin to try and have another understand its language? That’s a fascinating starting point. I appreciated that the alien language was, indeed, alien. It’s made up primarily of inky pictographs, circles with slight variations. This movie must have been nirvana for a calligrapher.

Eric Muller: There are going to be a lot of tattoos based on heptapod language. But you said it; the language barrier would be the first and hardest barrier to overcome in this situation. And there is one scene that really illustrates that point. When Forrest Whittaker asks Amy Adams why she is showing the aliens just simple words. Adams breaks down why the question “What is your purpose here on Earth?” is such a complicated question. Especially to anyone who doesn’t understand English.

amy-adams-in-human-tiff-55f67baa-4f7c-48a7-876e-e2e00cccf90aNate Zoebl: I think that’s such a smart scene because it opens up for us dumb-dumbs in the audience just how complicated language can be. He asks why teach them words and she says so that they have a vocabulary that they can answer back with. Arrival is kind of like the most intriguing ESL class you never took at the Learning Annex. What technical elements really stood out for you in the film?

Eric Muller: My favorite thing was them getting inside the spaceship. I know it was a simple camera trick with some CGI but it looked so good.

Nate Zoebl: Villenueve films are downright impeccable when it comes to their technical merits. Sicario was, top to bottom, a beautiful movie from looks to sounds to editing. The cinematography for Arrival was tremendous and really accentuated the overall eeriness. Also, the sound design deserves an Oscar. The sounds of the aliens as well as the disconcerting musical score kept me on the edge of my seat. The special effects were best used sparingly. The aliens themselves worked best when they were somewhat shadowed, allowing our imaginations to go into overdrive to fill in the rest.

Eric Muller: Was it just me or did the aliens looks like the final form of the Elcor species from Mass Effect? For a budget of only 47 million, Arrival looks better than a lot of movies made with three times that budget.

Nate Zoebl: My question for you: was this central mystery enough for you before the pieces fell into place in the third act and the movie’s larger end design was revealed? I think we’re getting close to talking about all that good spoiler stuff, but before we do I wanted to know if the central drive was enough for you and in particular if the characters worked well enough. We’re treated to a tragic series of flashbacks to provide some back-story to Adams, but I don’t know if I’d say the movie presents much in the way of characterization until the third act (promise, we’re getting there…). Hear me out, old friend: I almost think Renner’s character is the typical “girl” part that Hollywood fills in these kind of larger movies, the co-lead which is really meant to support the main character and, typically his, journey of self-actualization or healing or whatever. I think there might be some subtle gender politics being subverted there or maybe I’m reading too much into an underwritten character.

Eric Muller: The central mystery was more than enough to keep me interested. As I noted earlier, we were discovering the events just like Any Adams. And you are right that this movie feels like if it had been made 10-15 years ago the genders for the two main leads would have been swapped. Probably have had Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.

Nate Zoebl: The natural sequel to The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down. I suppose it’s here we should start getting into spoilers, so if anyone would like to remain pure, please come back later to read the rest of our conversation.

[WARNING: SPOILERS FROM HERE]

 

Nate Zoebl: It’s a movie about language and our interpretation of language and I think, very cleverly, Villenueve and the screenwriter play with the language of film storytelling. We’ve been assuming from the start that these snippets of sense memories from Adams were of her tragic past. Au contraire my friend, they are revealed to be not flashbacks but flash-forwards to a future she has yet to live. Rust Cohle was right; time is a flat circle.

Eric Muller: This movie is a classic twist on a golden age Sci Fi story. Amy Adams’ character arc could have been an episode of the Twilight Zone and been just as good.

maxresdefaultNate Zoebl: I think the filmmakers make something we’ve seen before, and frankly have become somewhat trite, and subvert it while making the movie and the central protagonist far more interesting. We’ve seen the tragic character that has to overcome the grief over the death of a child before, even recently in 2013’s Gravity. We’re primed for that kind of familiar Hollywood back-story to provide a dollop of depth to the main character. And then when the reveal comes, it makes the scenes have even more emotional power. Adams knew that she would have a daughter who would ultimately die as a teenager of some sort of awful disease, and Adams chooses to go ahead with this future fully knowing the unbearable pain that waits. This revelation instantly makes her character so much more interesting and puts the audience in her place to ask whether we would do the same.

Eric Muller: It is a great twist on a story we have seen before. Also it puts her in the position of whether she tells her husband about their daughter’s future.

Nate Zoebl: And that philosophical divide is ultimately what dooms her marriage. Here’s my choice, and I’ll be interested if yours varies: I would have gone along with it too. Yes, knowing what is to come means that a child was brought into existence to die sadly as a teenager and will suffer, but she will also live and love and laugh for many days beforehand, and knowing the end provides a lens that incentivizes every moment spent together. Yes she will die eventually but any one of us could be snatched from the world at any moment. At least she got to know love and life for so many years before it was taken away from her. How would you choose in this scenario?

Eric Muller: I would let my wife know so we could enjoy every minute with our child.

Nate Zoebl: Let’s step away from the emotional aspects. The end reveal also provides a jolt of energy to the climax because now it becomes a race against time, but time is also forward and backwards. Amy Adams has to stop the Chinese military from striking the alien ships and she has to use information from events that have not happened to save the day in the past. It’s a heady moment of criss-crossing plot streams that really works.

Eric Muller: That reveal, that scene with Amy Adams with the Chinese general, was my favorite scene in the movie. The writing, the way it was shot, and the timing. The timing of that scene gave the audience a chance to breathe and fully take in the reveal.

arrival-movie-amy-adams-jeremy-renner-forest-whitaker-1Nate Zoebl: The scene reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a film I wasn’t that fond of beyond its second act planet-to-planet investigations. The screenwriter in me wants to criticize the use of the future to bail out the past because it feels a tad too easy. However, while it really irritated me in Interstellar (couldn’t you be a bit more helpfully specific, Future People?!) I didn’t have a problem with its use in Arrival. Maybe I’m a hypocrite but I feel like the execution is much more impactful here and it doesn’t undo the plotting from before. It doesn’t feel like a cheap trick. The heptapod aliens experience time as a circle rather than linearly, much like Dr. Manhattan crushing through the past, present, and future simultaneously. If we could see our future selves and the actions we make, and inform our current decision-making, I think that would probably bring about a rare world peace. Also, I really liked that the aliens weren’t just these benevolent gifters but had an agenda as well because they know humans will save them thousands of years in the future. It’s like they intervened so we could save ourselves.

Eric Muller: I also liked that the aliens said they will need us in 3,000 years. We never discover what the aliens need from us then. I think we went over this earlier, but Arrival is not a new story but just a great take and twist on that story.

Nate Zoebl: I liked that open-ended nature of the story. What if the aliens had come to Earth and spoke in nothing but emojis? Lots of pictures of eggplants and “A-ok” fingers and strangely anthropomorphic poop.

Eric Muller: Then we would use Amy Adams’ soon-to-be-dead daughter to solve the mystery.

Nate Zoebl: The aliens would essentially be modern teenagers (I’ll shake my old man fist at The Kids Today). The daughter would be all like, “Whatever mom.” And then we’d all be dead. Though the ending reveal raises the question of fate versus free will. Can these future events and memories be prevented? I don’t have an answer.

[END OF SPOILERS DISCUSSION]

Nate Zoebl: So Eric, what would you rate this movie?

Eric Muller: I have to go 5 out of 5 stars. One of the best movies I have seen this year. It was a better version of Contact. When you look at it versus Independence Day: Resurgence, it did everything right that ID4 2 failed at, like how you view Civil War versus BvS.

Nate Zoebl: Fair enough, though please don’t ever bring up BvS in polite conversation without first giving me plenty of advance warning. I’m still working through that one. I think I’d rate it an “A-” myself, and I might change that in time. I think the only thing that held me back from a full “A” is that it saves the emotional investment a bit too late to have the full wallop I think it intended.

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount PicturesEric Muller: I think saving the emotional investment was the wise choice. Cause we get it to start with the investment and then the ending flipflops it.

Nate Zoebl: Now, on a scale of eggplant emojis, how many eggplants are you giving this movie?

Eric Muller: Is this where I admit I’m too old to understand emojis?

Nate Zoebl: I’ll also admit that I don’t understand the appeal, especially conversations that are nothing but emojis. Fittingly, I’ll end this discussion with pictographs:

[Smiley face emoji + cat dancing emoji + little green alien with “we’re number one” foam finger emoji + movie theater emoji + eggplant emoji + “A-ok” fingers emoji]

Nate’s Grade: A-

Doctor Strange (2016)

doctor-strange-comic-con-posterAfter eight years and over a dozen movies, the unstoppable box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems like it could successfully sell the public on any concept, no matter how undeniably bizarre. This is the same studio that made us weep over the death of a tree that said three words. At this point, I think I can argue that the MCU has a higher film-to-film consistent quality of excellence than Pixar, the other most trusted brand in cinema (Pixar’s creative/emotional highs are certainly higher but they’ve had their share of misses). Marvel has earned the benefit of the doubt. The common complaint is that their movies feel too formulaic and insubstantial. I would definitely argue against the latter and the former needs no real defense. Marvel has built an empire on a system that works because it delivers crowd-pleasing and character-oriented blockbusters that are packed with payoffs for fans and newcomers. The alternative, chiefly the dour bombast of the fledgling DC film universe, isn’t much more appealing, but then again I have been labeled a “Marvel shill” by those infuriated from my inconceivable pan of the very conceivably terrible Suicide Squad, so take my word with some skepticism. For any other brand, Doctor Strange could be too weird. With the MCU, it’s another comforting sign they really know what they’re doing.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant New York neurosurgeon who loses full control over his hands after a horrible car accident. He travels to Nepal to seek out holistic remedies to aid his recovery and instead finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful mystic. She takes a liking to Strange and invites him into their temple to train as a pupil of powerful sorcerers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong). Former sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has gone rogue and believes the only way to survive the oncoming cosmic giant Dormammu is to join him. Doctor Strange must summon all the skills of multiple dimensions in order to save the day.

doctor-strange-movie-tilda-swinton-benedict-cumberbatchDoctor Strange is at its core an origin tale and one that feels somewhat familiar at least for its first half. It’s likely not an accident that Stephen Strange bears more than a passing resemblance to Marvel’s other egotistical, arrogant charmer, Mr. Tony Stark. He’s a man who has to be humbled and learn the error of his ways and his outsized hubris, which makes for an effective character arc to structure an introductory movie around. It also makes fine work of Cumberbatch’s otherworldly sense of haughty superiority (I can’t wait to watch future Strange and Stark banter). The first half is essentially Training Montage: The Movie. Strange learns about the ancient mystic arts and, more importantly, super powers. The movie doesn’t follow Thor’s lead and argue that magic is another form of science. It declares magic as its own thing. Strange learns how to open portals, how to shift reality, how to astral project, and even how to stop time. Each new power is given proper attention and the learning curve adjusts as needed, allowing an audience to process the various rules and dramatic stakes. It’s a structurally smart assembly of mini-goals to keep an audience secure in what otherwise could be overwhelming for its New Age mumbo jumbo.

After the origin heavy lifting is taken care of that’s when Doctor Strange becomes everything I could hope for, namely a highly imaginative action movie with a breakneck pace and a boundless sense of imagination. This movie feels kinetically alive and unpredictable in ways that few Marvel movies even approach. Once Strange and Kaecilius meet at the halfway mark it becomes a gallop to the finish line with one highly entertaining action set piece after another, and even better they are wildly different. We don’t have battles about running and firing weapons or just punching bad guys extra hard; instead, it’s reality itself that bends to the will of the fighters. Characters walk on walls, shift the state of architecture, create teleportation portals to hop in and out of, shift the entire gravity of the world to force people away from said portals, and turn New York City into a kaleidoscopic playground. There’s an extended chase scene that literally feels like a series of M. C. Escher paintings come to starling life. The sequence is eye-popping in the best way and, shocking enough, it’s not even the climax of the movie. There are so many fun possibilities for crazy action sequences. There are other sequences that stand out, such as an out-of-body fight between two warring astral projection foes. The real climax of the movie is something I’ve never seen before, a battle that takes place as time resets. The smoldering ruins of a cataclysm are put together brick-by-brick and characters dodge the debris as it rapidly reforms. It’s visually thrilling to watch but it’s also a clever sequence because there are continuous opportunities for danger and in many ways that your brain cannot naturally suspect, like when a wall reforms and traps someone within. Whatever your feeling on the general MCU and its blockbuster formula calibrations, Doctor Strange is a great leap into something different, momentously exhilarating, and inventive.

Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) was an intriguing choice considering his background in supernatural horror, but, as should be obvious, the MCU overlords score again with their foresight and risk-taking. Derrickson’s visual influences hew much closer to Christopher Nolan and the Wachowski Siblings than the greatest hits of the MCU, and that’s exactly what this world needed to stand out on its own. I cannot overstate just how enjoyable the last hour of the movie can be, though this isn’t meant as a backhanded slight against that first half. The action-packed hour only works because of the setup from before and laying a careful foundation for the characters, their dynamics, and the rules of this trippy universe that bends conventional physics. All the careful world-building and training montages set up the sprint through a fireworks factory of fun, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time, eagerly anticipating the next detour into crazy.

I’m even going to impart you, dear reader, with some advice I haven’t given since 2013: if possible, see this movie in 3D. The hypnotic visuals and elusively shifting reality demand to be seen with the added help of the third dimension. The movie will still obviously work in a non-3D format but why deny yourself the full impact of these incredible visual experiences? New York City contorting is worth the extra few bucks alone.

doctor-strange-spell-cumberbatchThe acting is another highlight for such an enjoyable movie. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) easily makes for a terrific lead actor, someone who can bring a sense of gravitas or dry sarcasm when called upon. His sense of comedy is underrated and this Sorcery Supreme gets his fair share of punctuating the weird and wild with a perfectly delivered joke. A bit with a sentient cape allows for great physical comedy. His American accent is also much improved from earlier far spottier efforts in 2013’s August: Osage County and 2015’s Black Mass, which featured perhaps the worst “Baustun” accent in recent memory. Cumberbatch is the charming smartass, the know-it-all who realizes how much he still has yet to learn, and his final showdown with the Big Bad Evil sheds large-scale disaster for something much more personal (no giant portal in the sky or faceless army of monsters/aliens, hooray!). His character arc of learning that it’s not about himself culminates in a brilliantly conceived sequence that satisfies. The other standout is Swinton (Snowpiercer) who once again melds with her character, who happens to be a mysterious Celtic mystic who may not even be human. The early half is instantly elevated when Swinton is on screen. She presents a matter-of-fact sense of the preposterous that is downright serene. It’s also a role that is more than just a requisite mentor as The Ancient One has some secrets that will be revealed. I was also genuinely pleased with how much screen time Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal, Rogue One) gets for his villain, who has a wicked deadpan. I pity Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) who plays the underwritten love interest role we’ve seen similar to Natalie Portman prior performances. She at least gets a few good scenes before being forgotten.

With each additional entry into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fan in me gets to reexamine and realign the pecking order of quality. In my own subjective rankings I would say that Doctor Strange is just below the top tier of the MCU (Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, Iron Man) and on par with Winter Soldier. This is a highly enjoyable and highly imaginative action movie teeming with eye-popping visuals. Many of the visual set pieces are stunning and demand to be witnessed on the largest screen possible. The movie never loses its sense of fun and wonder while still respecting the dramatic stakes of the cataclysmic events, and when it goes big it makes it matter. I have no previous attachment to this character and Doctor Strange was just about everything I wanted the film to be and then some. It’s another sign that Marvel can take any property and find the formula to make it a satisfying smash. I enjoyed Doctor Strange enough that I want to see it again, and this time even bigger to better soak up the strange.

Nate’s Grade: A-

 

Steve Jobs (2015)

steve-jobsDizzying with its dialogue, Steve Jobs tells the story of its titular man through three Apple product launches, 1985’s Macintosh computer, 1988’s Apple rival and failure, Next, and 1998’s iMac, the beginning of the re-emergence of Apple into ubiquity. It’s really an Aaron Sorkin movie above all else, which means we get absurdly intelligent characters walking and talking at rapid-fire with brilliant one-liners and snappy dialogue that bristles with musicality to it, the kind that your ears perk up for. It’s a feast for the ears; however, Steve Jobs is really an emotionally cold stage play on film. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) is the director but the staginess of the conceit is too much for the visually nimble filmmaker to overcome. There are a few small visual flourishes as inserts but the star is Sorkin’s verbose screenplay. We get a glimpse into the prickly, egotistical, bullying, visionary, and curious man that was Steve Jobs. His continual denial of being the father to his daughter is a source of great contrarian insight. The structure of the script lends itself to repetition and artificiality. All these characters keep turning up and having these important conversations at these moments? After a while it feels like the characters are talking in circles and waiting for catharsis, and the concluding ten minutes is a detour into unearned sentiment. The movie and its major themes just do not come together with the clarity or force that the filmmakers believe. Michael Fassbender is superb as Jobs and there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch. It’s an engaging movie in the moment but I don’t feel like I know Jobs any better than before. In attempting to tell the life of one influential man, Sorkin has made the movie about himself, but The Social Network this is not.

Nate’s Grade: B

Blue Jasmine (2013)

SONY-JUOS-01_Onesheet_Layout 1With writer/director Woody Allen’s proliferate output, cranking out a movie every year, it’s all too easy to take the man for granted. Critics will argue his halcyon days are long gone, that the man is coasting on his past laurels. Of course when you’re comparing everything to Manhattan, Annie Hall, or Crimes and Misdemeanors, well sure most movies will be found lacking, even Allen’s. And there’s no real forgiving of 2001’s Curse of the Jade Scorpion. But when Allen hits a rich topic with a capable cast, he can still produce knockout cinema, as is exactly the case with the engrossing Blue Jasmine.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is experiencing a tumultuous change of living. Her wealthy husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) has been indicted for a Ponzi scheme that fleeced millions. Her posh New York lifestyle has vanished, Uncle Sam has frozen the assets that haven’t been repossessed, and she’s forced to move in with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco. Jasmine immediately has her complaints, mostly about the men that Ginger seems to date. She also tries adapting to a life she has been ill prepared for. Much like a domesticated animal, Jasmine’s social skills and pricy tastes do not have real-world transitions into her getting a job and supporting herself. She’s looking for a way to re-enter the shrine of privilege, and that it through a man of means.

blue-jasmine-trailer-1Blue Jasmine is a fascinating character study of a life of self-delusion, denial, greed, and guilt, and it is a marvelous film. Allen hasn’t done something this cutting, this precise in several years and it’s a reminder at just how skilled the man can be at building magnetic, fully realized characters, especially women. This is a rich, complex, and juicy character for an actress of the caliber of Blanchett (Hanna) to go wild with. Jasmine is something of a modern-day Blanch DuBois with a sprinkling of Jay Gatsby; she’s a woman who’s become accustomed to a luxurious fantasy world that she’s still striving to recreate, but she also is a woman who reinvented herself. As we learn in the opening scene, Jasmine left school without finishing her degree when Hal whisked her off her feet, to a world of privilege. She even changed her name from Jeanette to Jasmine at her husband’s whim. She also became particularly adept at looking the other way when it concerned her husband’s shady dealings. Surely she must have known what was happening (in the end, it’s pretty clear) but as long as her illusion of wealth was maintained then it was easy to not ask questions. Why ruin a good thing, even if that good thing is built upon ruining the lives of ordinary people? Two of those people bilked of their money were Ginger and Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), which make Jasmine’s complicity all the more troubling. Every line of dialogue from Jasmine needs to be studied and dissected, analyzing how buried is the real Jasmine.

Jasmine’s declining mental state is also given much attention and curiosity. We are watching in full view a woman go through various stages of a nervous breakdown. She’s medicating herself via booze and a cocktail of prescription drugs, but there are hints that point to something other than substances at play. She hints at undergoing electric chock therapy (does this still exist?) and she may have a touch of mental illness as well, though it’s unclear. Jasmine is given to talking to herself, reciting anecdotes and patter from previous parties with the rich and fabulous. It could be a sign of madness or it could be a desperate attempt by Jasmine to zone out, to return to that former life, to relive her former glory. Personally, I’ve done something similar, recited old conversations out loud to myself, though usually a line or so, not to the degree of recitation that Jasmine engages in. In the opening, it’s revealed that the lady she’s sitting next to on the plane, who we assume she’s talking with, is really just a bystander. She tells her husband she was confused because Jasmine was really just talking to herself. As Jasmine tries to get back on her feet, with delusions of grandeur about reinventing herself again, her world seems to be collapsing around her as she struggles to adapt to the real working world. A receptionist job for a dentist is beneath her as well as far too much for her to handle. She has one real sincere heart-to-heart where she lays out her true feelings, and it’s to her nephews in a pizza shop with no other adult present: “There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.

An enthralling character study, but Blue Jasmine also benefits from Allen’s precise plotting, folding back into flashbacks to create contrast and revelations. There is an economical finesse to Allen’s writing and directing. Every scene is short and sweet and imparts key knowledge, keeping the plot moving and fresh. It also provides back-story in a manner that feels unobtrusive. Jasmine’s more modest living conditions with her sister are contrasted with apartment shopping in New York City’s Upper West side. The class differences between Jasmine and her sister are put on full display when Ginger and Augie visit New York. However, Allen isn’t only lambasting the out-of-touch rich elite here. Few characters escape analysis. In this story, everyone is pretending to be someone else, putting on fronts, personas, to try and puff themselves up. Once living with her sophisticated sister, Ginger starts seeing her world with new eyes, mainly finding dissatisfaction and a yearning that she could do better. She meets Al (Louis C.K.) at a fancy party and gets smitten, though he’s not what he seems. She dumps her current boyfriend, buying into Jasmine’s theory that she “dates losers because that’s what she thinks she deserves.” She tries to remodel herself into a posh, inaccurate version of herself, a knockoff on Jeanette to Jasmine. It’s a bad fit. The person with the most integrity in the entire film appears to be, surprise, Andrew Dice Clay’s character. Augie is a straightforward blue-collar guy but he has a clear sense of right and wrong, one that comes in handy when he’s able to bust people.

blue-jasmine-trailerThis is much more a dramatic character study than a typical Allen comedy of neurosis, but I want to add that there are a number of laughs to be had, mostly derisive. There is comedy but it’s of a tragicomedy vibe, one where we laugh at the social absurdities of self-deluded characters and the irony of chance encounters. It’s far less bubbly than Midnight in Paris, Allen’s last hit, but that serves the more serious, critical tone. The class conflicts made me chuckle, as well as Jasmine’s hysterical antics and self-aggrandizing, but I was so thoroughly engaged with the characters and stories to complain about a lack of sufficient yuks. Confession: I generally enjoy Allen’s dramas more than his straight-up comedies.

Naturally, the movie hinges on Blanchett’s performance and the Oscar-winning actress is remarkable. I expect her to be a lock for another Oscar nomination if not the front-runner until later. She fully inhabits the character and lays out every tic, every neurosis, every anxiety, and every glimmer of doubt, of delusion, of humanity. She is a fully developed character given center stage, and it’s a sheer pleasure to watch Blanchett give her such life. You’ll feel a mixture of emotions with the character, from intrigue, to derision, to perhaps some fraying sense of sympathy, especially as the movie comes to an end. Blanchett balances the different faces of Jasmine with startling ease; she can slip into glamorous hostess to self-pitying victim to naiveté like turning a dial. I never tired of the character and I certainly never tired of watching Blanchett on screen.

Woody Allen has been a hit-or-miss filmmaker for over a decade, and you’ll have that when the man has the perseverance to write and direct a movie every freaking year. I had a pet theory that, as of late, every three years was when we really got a great Allen movie: 2005’s Match Point, 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2011’s Midnight in Paris. Well now my theory has been put to rest, thank you very much, all because Allen couldn’t wait one more year to deliver Blue Jasmine, a truly great film. It’s a tragicomedy of entertainment, an exacting character study of a flawed, complex, deeply deluded woman as her carefully calculated world breaks down. Anchored by Blanchett’s supreme performance, the movie glides along with swift acumen, doling out revelations at a steady pace and consistently giving something dishy for the actors and audience to think about. It’s funny, it’s sad, but more than anything Blue Jasmine is compelling as hell. This is one of Allen’s best films and one I’d recommend even to non-fans of the Woodman. Give Blue Jasmine a chance and you may be surprised what you feel, for the film and the woman, both complex, engaging, and memorable.

Nate’s Grade: A

Hitchcock (2012)

I think Alfred Hitch1897cock would be amused at his continued notoriety, not just from the quality of his films but also from the magnitude of his own presence. 2012 offers not one but two different movies about the master of suspense, both of which are oddly close in time period. HBO’s The Girl explored Tippi Hedren’s account of what it was like to film The Birds, with Hitchcock being a provocateur. The more straight-forwardly named Hitchcock looks at Alfred’s trials to make one of his seminal films, 1960’s Psycho. I only wish that the movie spent more time on Psycho and less time on the Hitchcock marriage.

Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is starting to feel like he’s being left behind in Hollywood. He’s looking for his new project, something to rekindle his creative fervor, get those juices flowing once more. Then he comes across the book Psycho, based upon the murders of Ed Gein, a man who thought his dead mother was telling him to kill and make skin suits of his victims (Gein is also the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs; truly the gift that keeps on giving for horror). Murder, cross-dressing, incest. You can understand the hesitation from studio heads to bankroll the picture, even with the great Hitchcock name attached. With the sturdy support of his unflappable wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), Hitchcock puts his own money and clout on the line to see Psycho through. As the pressure mounts, Alfred is worried that his wife is spending a bit too much of her time with a certain screenwriter who wishes to woo her efforts away.

93856_galSir Alfred was a blunt individual so I will follow suit and mince no words – this movie is terrible. How could it possibly be? It has tremendous acting talent and the rich angle of looking at the making of one of Hollywood’s most controversial and famous movies of all time the groundbreaking Psycho. Alas, it’s when the movie takes its many sidesteps away from the behind-the-scenes action of Psycho is where it goes astray. First off, I find the narrative framing around the marriage of the Hitchcocks to be superficial and hamstrung. We’re telling this vastly interesting story and grounding it in a very slight manner, gauging every creative struggle through the prism of whether or not Alfred and Alma will stick together. I assume it’s supposed to provide an emotional entry point for the movie, but I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about the jealous spasms Alfred felt as his wife spent more and more time with a caddish screenwriter, and boy did that storyline get tiresome. I want to know more about Psycho and not this dumb portrayal of martial woes told with such graceless handling. The whole portrayal seems so minute and clumsy and such a poor framing device when the making of Psycho is a juicy enough story. I didn’t need the focus to be on whether the Hitchcock marriage will persevere. Oh, and the resolution for this feels completely pulled from thin air, without any groundwork laid to explain the about-face into compassion in those final minutes.

Then there’s the portrayal of Alfred Hitchcock himself, which is so dubiously shallow when it comes to psychology. Oh, he’s obsessed with blonde leading ladies? Oh he’s a bit of a control freak? Oh he can be overbearing and demanding and standoffish? Wow, what powerful insights into arguably the most famous director in movie history. The movie, adapted by John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan), feels like it was made by someone who did the bare minimum of research on the man. There are no new insights or even mildly interesting ones to be found. It’s the standard boilerplate repeated with different actors. And then there are the nails-on-a-chalkboard scenes where Hitchcock imagines himself talking confessionally to none other than Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). Excuse me? Oh my goodness do these tacky sequences just grate. I don’t even understand their inclusion. Is this a manifestation of Hitchcock’s own sense of madness when it comes to moviemaking? Does he feel some connection to the horrible disturbed man who inspired his newest film? Does Hitchcock only feel like he can communicate to a figment of his own imagination? Whatever the reason, I wanted to smack myself in the head every time Hitch and Gein had a heart-to-heart. I should have known I’d be in for a bumpy ride when, in the movie’s opening minutes, a news reporter asks Hitchcock, after the premier of 1959’s North by Northwest, why he doesn’t just hang it up? Did this idiot even see North by Northwest? Would you ask Spielberg if he should retire after viewing Saving Private Ryan or Kubrick after A Clockwork Orange?

Then there’s the matter of Hopkins as Hitchcock. It never feels like the right fit. Turkey jowls aside, the man doesn’t look too similar to Hitchcock nor does he adopt a demeanor that proves convincing. Sure he goes for that highly imitable voice and cadence that Hitch is well remembered for, particularly his openings on his own TV show. You never feel like Hopkins has a real strong bead on the character, and surely the fault lies with the weak characterization relying on the collective knowledge of Hitchcock’s outsized public persona. Likewise, Mirren (The Debt) is fine but gets to play another of her steely strong-willed matriarchs. Mirren won’t let you done when it comes to performance but, given the lack of strong characterization, she goes on autopilot. The best actor in the movie is surprisingly Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers) who has a striking similarity to Janet Leigh, and not just in what you’re thinking. She’s instantly likeable and takes the Hitchcock peculiarities in stride, putting up a strong front but voicing her concerns when appropriate.

94506_galDirector Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil!) gooses up his story with all sorts of horror genre techniques, including editing fake outs and violent edits. I’m also unsure why so many liberties needed to be taken with the retelling of this story. I’m not going to be a person decrying the use of fictionalized elements in a true-life story for dramatic effect (I loved Argo), but you have to do so in a way that tells a better story without getting too far away from the essential truth of the matter. Hitchcock, in raising the talents of Alma, attributes many of Psycho’s development achievements to her keen womanly insights when they came from others. That’s fine, except that the movie portrays her in such a rarefied state of genius that she quickly becomes the movie’s surefire narrative cheat. Having problem with the last act? Let’s have Alma fix it. Having problems with the editing? Let’s have Alma fix that. It’s not compelling of a story for one character to chiefly have all the answers instinctively and without any sense of struggle. I understand that Alma did a lot of unaccredited work on Hitchcock’s movies, though it wasn’t uncommon for women to be screenwriters at that time and you’d think the pull of being a Mrs. Hitchcock would get her well-deserved credit. Regardless, I wish that Gervasi and McLaughlin had given Alma more depth than being put upon wife/secret savant collaborator.

It’s a shame because there’s a genuinely interesting movie to be had somewhere in here. The making of Psycho was fraught with difficulties and the studios just didn’t get it. Watching Hitchcock work through that process and persevere would be far more interesting. I enjoyed the multitude of famous cameos, like Michael Stuhlbarg as Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock’s agent and eventual head of Universal Studios, and even Ralph Macchio as Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano. I suppose the ins and outs concerning one of the most famous movies of all time could be considered, erroneously I feel, to be too “inside baseball.” That’s why I think the filmmakers expanded the romantic drama angle and had it consume the majority of the running time. Often the stupid perils of the will-they-or-won’t-they romantic squabbles feel so petty and cheap considering the magnitude of the work going on. Hitchcock feels like a movie that found the least interesting and essential angle to tell the story of the making of Psycho. Diehard movie fans might find some fun to be had with the minutia of Hollywood and Hitchcock’s life, but I cannot fathom how anyone could view this portrayal as effective. It’s not insightful, it’s not challenging, it’s not relevant, and it’s certainly not entertaining. This movie is not deserving of the name it bears.

Nate’s Grade: C

Lincoln (2012)

Steven Spielberg’s long in the works biopic of Abraham Lincoln could have easily been retitled, The Thirteenth Amendment: The Movie, such is the narrow band of focus. Lincoln is an engrossing, handsomely mounted study in the political machinations that went into passing the 13th amendment to outlaw slavery. Unless you’re a fan of history of politics, I can’t imagine that this movie is going to prove that engaging for you. This is a big movie about Big Moments with lots of people with beards giving speeches. Daniel Day-Lewis does a tremendous job as our titular sixteenth president, giving the man more foibles and traces of humanity than I can remember from any screen portrayal. Liam Neeson (The Grey) had long been attached to be Spielberg’s Lincoln, but I cannot fathom any other actor in the role after seeing Day-Lewis’s amazing work. I think he’s a shoo-in for his third Oscar. It’s intriguing to witness what a political animal Lincoln was, able to play off different sides to get his way. In the end, you may even feel a stir of patriotic pride, inspired by the good that government can grant with the right leaders for the right causes. The supporting cast all provide great performances, from Sally Field as the volatile Mrs. Lincoln, to James Spader as a conniving lobbyist, to Tommy Lee Jones as a stubborn curmudgeon… so basically Tommy Lee Jones. Just about every speaking part is a recognizable character actor. Who’s going to turn down the prospect of a Spielberg Lincoln movie? The tighter window of focus allows the movie greater depth as an important political juncture in our nation’s history, but Lincoln could have also been the 19th century equivalent of that Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just a Bill.” This is an easy movie to admire but I think a more difficult film to love, to fully embrace.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Writer/director Martin McDonagh only has one movie to his name but the man has already accrued legendary status in some circles. The 2008 dark comedy In Bruges didn’t create much of a blip at the box-office, but its blend of absurdist comedy, dark drama, shocking violence, and languid contemplation found a rabid cult following. I have several friends who regard In Bruges as the best film of 2008 (WALL-E still reigns supreme for me but I quite enjoyed In Bruges).McDonuagh’s latest, Seven Psychopaths, reminds me of Barton Fink: both are about struggling writers, both are satires of the film industry, and both have sudden splashes of violence and a serial killer who pushes the protagonist to artistic completion. In other words, Seven Psychopaths is a fun film and a great time at the movies.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is experiencing some killer writer’s block. He’s stuck on his new screenplay titled “Seven Psychopaths.” His buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help out. The guys run afoul of another psychopath, mob boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson), due to Billy’s side business. He kidnaps rich people’s dogs and then his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), returns them and collects a reward. Billy and Hans have kidnapped the wrong shih tzu, and now Charlie and his muscle is going to make them pay.

The refreshing thing about the bloody, wickedly entertaining Seven Psychopaths is that it constantly surprises you. This is such a rarity with modern movies, particularly Hollywood movies that attract as notable a cast as this one. McDonagh is wonderfully adept at throwing narrative curveballs. There were a few surprises where I literally jumped in my seat. You constantly think you have the movie figured out, and then it goes down a different alley and becomes more interesting. One of the pleasures of having psychopathic lead characters is that they are impulsive and do not have to follow the normal purview of logical decision making. They might just call the bad guys and divulge where they are hiding. They can do anything at any moment, and part of that unpredictability is what makes the movie feel so electric, so creatively alive. I must stress that McDonagh surprises in ways that feel satisfying and yet believable given the world he’s concocted. Part of the fun in the first half is just figuring out who the seven psychopaths will be. It’s not like it’s some laconic chamber piece mystery but the psychopaths are an eclectic mix from the real to the fictional to real characters doubling as inspiration for fictional ones. I think in the end there may only be six psychopaths, unless McDonagh is counting himself amongst the numbers.

McDonagh also has a blast deconstructing the very kind of movie that he’s providing. Marty bemoans writing another rote psychopathic killer movie where the violence is fetishized and the bad guys are mythologized into idols. You think the film is headed in one direction, in the Guy Ritchie-style standoffs and shootouts, and then it takes a less traveled path, one where it criticizes these sorts of movies and ponders existential questions about the nature of self-expression and death. It began as a care-free movie about thugs and writers and transformed into a movie that manages to have something to say about life, philosophy, and the cyclical nature of vengeance. Two of our three main protagonists are pacifists and remain so to their imperilment. At one point, a character narrates how this story as a proper movie would end, and it covers all the nihilistic clichés of vengeance and epic body counts. But then Marty, and McDonagh as well, wants to turn away from the expected, from violence for the sake of violence, from the exploitation of stylized suffering. McDonagh doesn’t forget to entertain while he’s making you think in between those handfuls of popcorn. The female characters in the movie (Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko) are generally wasted, in different senses, but McDonagh uses this as another charge against this type of film (a boy’s night out of carnage). This is an accessible movie that can be enjoyed on a whole other meta level. I loved the various gear changes. For me it took the pulpy action material and elevated it to another level of genius.

McDonagh still maintains his darkly sardonic streak of humor that made In Bruges such a riot. I was laughing throughout Seven Psychopaths; chortles, snorts, giggles, big belly laughs. With its heedless violence, obviously this will not be a film that runs on every person’s wavelength of funny. The very opening involves two mafia hitman debating whether shooting somebody in the eye takes actual precision or just dumb luck. It’s the sort of mundane conversation you’d see in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and also the precursor to something nasty and ironic. McDonagh’s sense of humor is similar to Ritchie or the Coen brothers, but the man establishes his own sense of wicked whimsy. The absurdist dialogue is always a hoot and can generate serious malice, especially when delivered by stern psychopaths. Rockwell (Moon) in particular is outstanding and delivers a virtuoso performance of the unhinged. The man just radiates energy. You’ll feel jacked up just watching him. I keep waiting for this underrated actor to break out with each star-making turn, and his comedic zing is played to perfection in Seven Psychopaths. In contrast, Walken (Hairspray) is rather reserved as he underplays his character, one of the saner men he’s played. It feels like the passing of the torch from the older generation of psychopath to the newer generation.

Being a colorful movie about colorful bad guys, and girls, you’d expect there to be some grade-A oddballs, and McDonagh does not disappoint. Some of the psychopaths in question have little bearing on the story plot-wise. There’s Zachariah played by the impeccable Tom Waits (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). He answers an ad that Billy set up for psychopaths to share their stories to Marty. His tale involves cross-country spree killing of serial killers, rabbit petting, and the love of his life, and partner in crime, leaving him. As far as plot, this little aside has little significance to the plot other than setting up a superb joke to end the movie with. But the character is so interesting, multidimensional, and played with equal parts aloofness and sincerity by Waits, that you can’t imagine the movie without him. Several of these psychopaths could have been the stars of their own movie, from the vigilante killing mob thugs to the tale of one father’s long path to vengeance. Even the fictional psychopath, the Vietnamese man (Long Nguyen) seeking vengeance against G.I.’s, could have enough weight to carry a feature film. The amazing part of the movie is that you don’t feel like any of these characters are shortchanged. McDonagh finds ways to emotionally ground his characters, allowing the audience to empathize amidst the bloodshed and loony characters. We care about Hans and his ailing wife; we care about the friendship between Marty and Billy. It’s real for these characters and so it feels real to us, despite the hyper-real flourishes of the movie.

If you’re a fan of In Bruges, or just dark comedies mixed with sudden violence, then you’ll probably find something to enjoy with Seven Psychopaths. You don’t have to be nuts but it helps. McDonagh has crafted another winner with sharp dialogue, a twisty plot full of surprises, incisive commentary on movies and movie expectations, as well as some sincere soul-searching and poignancy. This baby has it all, folks. Above all else, it’s just a blast of fun. the actors all seem to be having the times of their lives, notably Rockwell, and the morbid laughs and off-kilter thrills should cement another McDonaugh film for cult status. Seven Psychopaths is a palyful movie along the lines of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and even Adaptation. It’s bursting with ideas and comments and jokes. when you leave the theater you almost want to get back in line and start the ride all over again.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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