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.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.
Adapted from a King short story 1408 centers on renowned author Mike Enslin (John Cusack) who writes books about haunted places—houses hotels graveyards etc. He doesn’t believe in any of the mumbo jumbo since he hasn’t ever seen anything paranormal but he is happy to cash the checks anyway. When Enslin finds out about a haunted suite number 1408 at the notorious Dolphin Hotel in New York he does some research and discovers it indeed has had a grisly past. He decides he just has to stay there much to the chagrin of the hotel’s manager (Samuel L. Jackson) who hasn’t let anyone near the room in years. Anyone whose been in the room for more than an hour kills themselves you see. The manager tells Mike it isn’t necessarily because he cares about him he just doesn’t want to clean up the mess afterwards. But Mike is undeterred—and so sets out on the longest journey of what could be his short life. Save for the tense exposition scene between him and the always-good Jackson it’s mostly Cusack’s show—and he nails it. He displays that certain affability we’ve loved in films such as Serendipity but then demonstrates some real chops when it gets down to the nitty gritty adeptly alternating between jaded cynicism bewilderment bereavement and finally full-blown terror. See the room isn’t just a place where ghosts materialize and de-materialize. Its pure evil and manifests itself into whatever personal turmoil the occupant is going through at the time. For Mike this means reliving the death of his young daughter (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) and his further estrangement from his wife played convincingly by Mary McCormack (The West Wing). In Cusack’s capable hands Mike is one tortured soul but can he be strong enough to survive the odds? It’s not an easy thing to turn a Stephen King story into a movie. John Cusack aptly puts it in the production notes “I don’t know how he knows how to scare people so intensely or where those impulses come from but King is definitely channeling some spirits and demons.” Boy does he ever but as his loyal readers know his horror doesn’t necessarily mean gore (although his books do have that stuff in spades). In fact much of the terror King’s characters experience happen right inside their own heads which is frightening to read but really hard to translate to film—and many filmmakers have failed at it with exception to Rob Reiner who got it right with Misery. Now along with Reiner there’s Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) who understands how to take King’s internalizations in 1408 and bring them chillingly to the forefront with little to no CG effects or gimmicks. Rather the director plays with the audience making them guess whether they are watching real ghosts or just what’s happening inside Mike’s psyche. Hafstrom says he hopes viewers will wonder “What would happen to me in 1408?” I wouldn’t want to find out that’s for sure.