It's of no surprise that Seven Psychopaths Oscar nominee Martin McDonagh's madcap crime comedy won the People's Choice Midnight Madness Award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. The film is a weird crowd-pleaser that's as much a blood-soaked macabre midnight movie as it is a self-aware satire on the very place that spawns all this madness: Hollywood.
The movie follows Marty (Colin Farrell playing the straight man this time around) a functioning alcoholic and Los Angeles screenwriter struggling to complete his screenplay Seven Psychopaths. Un/lucky for Marty his wildly off-balance best friend Billy (a scene and movie-stealing Sam Rockwell) is an out-of-work actor who dognaps for reward money and provides the writer with a wealth of material.
Billy works side-by-side in the dog thievery business with Hans (a particularly poignant and wonderfully weird Christopher Walken) a deeply religious man with a haunted violent past who uses the money to provide for his ailing wife (Linda Bright Clay). After the men kidnap the wrong person's Shih Tzu — owned by a bona fide lunatic and gangster by the name of Charlie (Woody Harrelson continuing his 2012 hot streak) — and Billy puts an ad in LA Weekly searching for the city's best psychopaths Marty finds inspiration for his screenplay. It quite literally arrives at his doorstep putting his life — and the lives of everyone around him — in danger.
McDonagh's unpredictable utterly deranged multi-layered noir homage is a testament to the Oscar-nominated McDonagh's scope sensibilities and talents as a writer and director (it has been earning comparisons to the work of Quentin Tarantino and understandably so). The film is not only reminiscent of Tarantino in style execution and use of an eclectic ensemble but in storytelling techniques too.
The film features a series of darkly hilarious vignettes including a pair of bumbling hitmen (played by Boardwalk Empire costars Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) and a series of revenge fantasies featuring distraught mourning parents like a Viet Cong soldier (Long Nguyen) and a Quaker (Harry Dean Stanton); and serial killer killers (Amanda Warren and a bunny-toting Tom Waits) that all hearken back to Pulp Fiction both Kill Bills and Inglorious Basterds respectively.
But don't call Seven Psychopaths a Tarantino ripoff. McDonagh somehow manages to conjure up all the best things about the fellow auteur's aesthetics (he like Tarantino also relies his muse again with Farrell) and remain in a league all his own. It's rare to find a writer who is able to effortlessly inject his own running internal monologue into their characters without it seeming self-indulgent but McDonagh pulls it off.
McDonagh/Billy grapples with making a movie that sports over-the-top violent gun-toting guys and expendable female characters (something it gives a wink and a nod to throughout but doesn't quite solve that costars Abbie Cornish Olga Kurylenko and Gabourey Sidibe play up in their ultimately disposable roles) or one that is ultimately about love and friendship. He somehow manages to make it both.
While Seven Psychopaths doesn't pull off that delicate balance quite the same way the far superior In Bruges did running a bit too long with a fantasy
sequence that's far more satisfying than the film's actual conclusion but it arguably packs heartier laughs than its predecessor (thanks largely in part to Rockwell's Billy's buffoonery and a deliriously funny rant about Gandhi). McDonagh's latest is the craziest thing to come out of Hollywood this year — in the best way possible.
There are two ways to watch a film like Just Go With It. The first is to look at the characters and situations as if they existed in the real world. Through this lens as with most Hollywood productions the story is far-fetched and trite the characters too stereotypical to stomach. However even if you leave practicality at home and well just go with it it’s hard to find anything to enjoy in Adam Sandler’s new movie about a playboy plastic surgeon that convinces his assistant to pose as his ex-wife in an attempt to woo a new lady friend.
Danny Maccabee is afraid of having his heart broken like it was when he was in medical school so he uses his would-be wedding ring from a disastrous engagement as a chick magnet because you know all single ladies love married men. However when he finally meets and beds the girl of his dreams the tactic backfires as she thinks she’s just wrecked a home. Enter Katherine (Jennifer Aniston) Danny’s ordinary (well ordinary when compared to bombshell Brooklyn Decker) office mule who is lured into an ever-expanding web of lies so that he can win his Ms. Right.
The film’s weakest link is its script from writers Timothy Dowling (Role Models) and Allan Loeb (The Switch). Their simple story relies heavily on Sandler’s tried-and-true formula of physical gags and broad family humor offering the audience nothing they haven’t seen before and virtually no organic comedy. While the premise and principle players are very predictable the supporting cast injects some life into the picture most notably young starlet-in-training Bailee Madison whose cutesiness is the only thing I didn’t get sick of throughout the film. Honorable mentions also go to Nick Swardson as Sandler’s crazy cousin and Nicole Kidman who ought to try her hand at comedy more often.
Unfortunately their charm doesn’t compensate for the film’s uneven pacing. I was incredibly bored throughout the second act which is hampered by scenes that play longer than they should but biggest conundrum is Sandler himself: the main draw in Just Go With It as well as its most unlikable element. His character’s arc not to mention his performance is about as artificial as the breasts he gives his clients. Not only is Maccabee a self-centered liar; his deceptions go unpunished as he coasts through the film’s climax into happily-ever-after territory. Some will accept even embrace the Hollywood ending but the conclusion is a loss for Aniston’s character who is otherwise pleasant to watch. A dignified single mother she’s at first reluctant to help Danny due to the immoral nature of his plan but falls for him because he eventually develops a relationship with the kids. I guess she didn’t see him throw them in the mud earlier in the movie.
Generally speaking the greatest strength a contemporary romantic comedy has is its funny factor but director Dennis Dugan unexpectedly creates a comfortable quixotic vibe in Just Go With It which is surprising considering his past endeavors with Sandler (among them I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Grown Ups). It doesn’t make up for the lack of natural laughs but will sate the target audiences’ appetite for a harmless and forgettable Valentine’s Day snack.
The story of Lust Caution begins in the midst of WWII in Asia as the Japanese have a stranglehold on key areas of China including Shanghai and Hong Kong. The iron-fisted Chinese who are collaborating with the invaders are led by Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) a cruel and ruthless man who delights in the torture and murder of his fellow countrymen who are fighting against the Japanese occupation. When a patriotic band of college students (made up of four men and two women all part of the drama school) decide to strike a blow for Chinese freedom by assassinating Mr. Yee it falls to Wang (the mesmerizingly beautiful Wei Tang) to infiltrate his home and heart to pave the way for the killing. But as her compatriots--including handsome Kuang played by American-born Chinese rock star Lee-Hom Wang who loves her from afar--bid their time waiting for the moment to strike Mr. Yee and Wang enter into a torrid affair that begins to consume them both. Think of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion shift from Europe to Asia add in intensely explicit sex scenes and a completely unexpected ending and you have Lust Caution--a film that is soon to be considered a classic as well. Veteran actors Tony Leung and Joan Chen lead a fine cast of actors who together create this completely believable glimpse into Chinese culture during the dark days of Japanese occupation. Both give intense performances--he as the powerful emotionless Mr. Yee and she as his vapid shopping and Mah Jong-obsessed wife. But the most amazing performance is that of newcomer Wei Tang the Miss Universe finalist who makes her film debut in Lust Caution. Her fantastic face slim body and almost ethereal presence seem to blot out everyone else when she is on the screen; you can’t help but look at only her. Her transformation in the four-year span of the story is masterful. As she goes from a naïve young student to a mature woman whose physical obsession with a man she despises begins to overwhelm her. The ingénue proves that she is much more than just a pretty face. In fact she deserves an Academy Award nomination for her often subtle always fearless performance that is at the heart of the film. Ang Lee has a unique cinematic ability to begin a story very specific to a time a place and a culture and end with a universal tale that resonates across all societies and peoples. He did it beautifully with Sense and Sensibility Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as well as Brokeback Mountain and he’s done it again masterfully with Lust Caution. This newest film is an intense look at how war often causes an individual to make the ultimate sacrifice for the common good yet it also explores another underlying theme: the idea that there is a never-ending battle between the sexes for emotional dominance within a sexual relationship. Ang Lee’s deft hand is evident in every frame including the incredibly explicit (and often violent) sex scenes that have given the film its NC-17 rating. But this is not pornography; every scene is necessary to the story showing us that using sex as a means to an end (no matter how noble that end) is a very dangerous game to play especially during wartime. Look for Ang Lee’s name to come up on the Academy’s list again this year as awards season kicks into high gear. He deserves every honor for this emotionally disturbing masterpiece.
Luke (Steven Strait) and Brier (Pell James) first cross paths on a New York City subway before the doors shut on their instant attraction to one another. Of course it is immediately and abundantly clear that they will naturally meet up again before long but where and how? The answers: L.A. and well it's complicated. Each having forgotten about the other Brier a top model in NYC decides she needs a change of scenery and tells her agent (Carrie Fisher clearly in it for the paycheck) she's heading out to L.A. to pursue acting while Luke and his brother Euan (Kip Pardue) decide to move to the West Coast as well. Once there Brier befriends Clea (Ashlee Simpson) and on her first night in town takes Brier to a local dive bar where Luke works as a struggling "musician." Wow that's some coincidence. There is an instant re-connection between Luke and Brier but she refuses to get involved with musicians since her rock-star ex mistreated her. Instead she shifts her focus on generating buzz for Luke. Eventually Luke gets the big recording contract becomes the rock-star jerk he'd swore he'd never become and loses it all. But all is well when Brier decides she can no longer resist Luke's ballads and Metallica-guitarist-circa-'85 hair.
The theme of Undiscovered could apply to its cast. Each of the four leads are on the cusp of being on the cusp and certainly they hope this movie will take them one step closer. For James that might happen. She is a natural on screen and gives a breakthrough performance as the comely Brier. Strait is also a relative newcomer. After turning his debut performance in this summer's Sky High he holds his own in Undiscovered but seems to be relegated to taking his shirt off to make the teenyboppers swoon. Finally there's Simpson who is also making her major-role debut. It's awkward to see her on-screen and yes subconsciously you wait for her to make a noticeable mistake (or butcher a voice-over due to acid reflux). Of course it doesn't happen; she moves along pretty smoothly but is at times subjected to dialogue that seems beyond her especially when she has to words big words such as "banter." And certainly it's not her fault when she describes Luke--a musician best left struggling--as "a cross between Jeff Buckley and Elvis Costello." That's just someone else's words she reciting.
Prolific music-video director Meiert Avis is making his feature film directorial debut with Undiscovered--and his obvious greenness shows. At times the film is more like a music video surrounded by a weak storyline than a cohesive film. His expertise in the rather linear realm of music videos doesn't exactly qualify him for the complexities of a 90-minute film contrived and straightforward as his debut may be. Avis tries to employ every possible clichéd obstacle for the characters to overcome--which reeks of inexperience but could also be the screenwriter's fault. No doubt Avis feels at home with newcomers such as Strait and Simpson who--for all intents and purposes--sing and act but the plethora of singing scenes feel forced. That is forced into the script to showcase the soundtrack when the movie goes undiscovered at the box office.
There ain't much of one. In a nutshell a group of spun-out druggies living in the drab sun-baked land of the mini mall known as North Los Angeles Valley are focused on one thing and one thing only--getting and using drugs--and we get to tag along with them for three wasted sleepless days. There's Ross (Jason Schwartzman) a college dropout pining over a girl who dumped him and the only one of the gang you think might have some redeeming quality--until he handcuffs his stripper girlfriend spread-eagled to the bed naked duct-tapes her eyes and mouth and leaves her with a thrash metal CD--skipping--on the player for three days. (All that ruckus of course raises the suspicions of a butch biker broad--Deborah Harry in a cameo--who runs a phone sex line out of her apartment next door.) In exchange for dope Ross runs errands for a big badass Jesse James type known as the Cook (Mickey Rourke) 'cause he brews the crystal in a squalid motel room he shares with sweet misguided stripper Nikki (Brittany Murphy). The Cook provides drugs to dealer Spider Mike (John Leguizamo) a seriously paranoid hopped-up speed freak and his mossy-teethed tweaker girlfriend Cookie (Mena Suvari) who use and sell the Cook's drugs to hangers-on like the absurdly pimply faced Frisbee (Patrick Fugit) in between sex sessions and flip-outs involving guns spray paint and socks.
Every last person in this ensemble seems to relish getting down and dirty--and by dirty we mean fetid. Murphy and Rourke are particular standouts: with big kohl-smudged eyes and wide friendly smile she's sweetly innocent bobbling aournd in her f***-me Daisy Dukes and high-heeled boots; he's terrifying and larger than life in torn jeans tucked into white shitkickers a ponytail and a Stetson but he actually pulls the heartstrings when he muses about watching puppies be put to death as a boy and defends two chola mini-mart clerks from an abusive gangster. Watching Schwartzman's Ross whom you expect to like as the film's hero perform what amounts to torture on his girlfriend so casually and with such good intentions is more shocking than any of the film's drug scenes or seedy imagery and Ross becomes all the more menacing in his regular-Joe ways. Props to Suvari for letting the world watch her strain so vigorously on the can and to Leguizamo for giving his all in his few scenes whether threatening his pseudo-friends with a gun shooting up crank or jacking off. Peter Stormare and Alexis Arquette give lively performances as a sort of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-meets-COPS pair of vice guys hot on Spider's trail; look out also for former Judas Priest singer Rob Halford porn star Ron Jeremy and Eric Roberts.
With its over-the-top caricatures hyper-frenetic camerawork and creatively near pornographic animation segments this movie looks an awful lot like a music video and with good reason: Director Jonas Akerlund is best known for his controversial Prodigy "Smack My Bitch Up" video and Madonna's "Music." He is unafraid to put this sordid bunch right up in your face flinging the greasy underbelly of the So Cal meth scene sunny side up and zooming in with the cameras up close and personal to a point that's almost unbearably uncomfortable. Akerlund's techniques are sometimes overdone like the bone-crunching sounds and wildly rolling eyeballs that herald each and every high and sometimes screamingly funny like Ross's daydream of a Patton-like Cook pontificating about the female vagina in front of an American flag. A well-done score by former Smashing Pumpkins' singer Billy Corgan moves the film fluidly from calm states of relative normalcy to paranoid herky-jerky scenes of jabbering addicts flying right off the mental deep end. These people are shallow vile and irredeemable and Akerlund's brilliance lies in making you feel for them in spite of themselves.