Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” – Cute and hilarious.

Poster for "Seven Psychopaths"

I know what you’re thinking. This film is about a culturally satisfying number of psychopaths. It’s from Martin McDonagh, the bloody-minded, utterly un-PC writer/director of In Bruges (as well as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which is, to this day, the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen on a stage). How can it possibly be “cute”? Well I’ll tell you, dear reader. The main character is a drunken Irish screenwriter named Martin (Colin Farrell), who is attempting to write a screenplay for a film called Seven Psychopaths. The very same film we’re presently watching, in fact. The film cuts back and forth between his beautifully imaginative psychopathic origin vignettes and the “real world”, along with occasional revelations that some of his psychopaths are in the actual story of the film we’re watching. Maybe. It’s wonderfully unclear.

Seven Psychopaths seizes on the fundamental truth of storytelling that no idea is completely original. You may think it came from a serendipitous muse that squirted it into your brain from the collective unconscious, but we are the inexorable products of our surroundings, our culture, and most importantly, our stories. Stories we’ve been told, stories we’ve forgotten, and stories we’ve subsequently retold and passed off as our own work. This is a bloody-minded Adaptation. Hugo without the whimsy. It is sickeningly self-aware, and could have felt like a lesser parody of either of those films if not for such a perfect ensemble cast.

Sam Rockwell plays Billy Bickle, professional dognapper. When Bickle’s partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), accidentally steals a Shih Tzu owned by mobster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), the two are forced to scramble to stay alive as Costello ruthlessly seeks out his purloined puppy. While Walken and Harrelson are perfectly cast, the absolute standout is Sam Rockwell, who plays the rather obviously-named Bickle as a relentlessly delightful sociopath. His every interaction with Farrell is pitch-perfect, even as he interrupts each fresh outrage to question whether his screenwriting friend might have a drinking problem. The film also features a solid supporting ensemble, including Zeljko Ivanek and Kevin Corrigan, as well as an outstanding turn by Tom Waits, who manages to turn the simple act of petting a bunny into something wondrously terrifying.

You might notice I haven’t mentioned any ladies yet, and there are several in the film. Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, and Gabourey Sidibe each have small parts, and they do decent work with what little they’re given. Newcomer Linda Bright Clay is especially strong as Hans’ wife. But this is where the film’s veneer of self-awareness starts to crack a bit. Can a screenplay that’s chock full of crappy, one-note, brutally treated female characters redeem itself by having one of its myriad gentlemen point it out in the third act? My general response would be ‘no’, but Farrell’s hilariously weak defense that “it’s a tough world for women”, and Walken’s wry retort that despite that, most of the ladies he knows “can string a fucking sentence together” completely saved it.

Still from "Seven Psychopaths"

In fact, when the last act of the film drops any pretense of real-world story and has the entire ensemble vigorously debating how the movie should end, it somehow manages to hit every note perfectly. Its self-awareness becomes incredibly endearing, even as it debates precisely what kind of shootout should bookend the story. The film’s most honest moments emerge from this sequence, as Marty questions whether he even wants to write this kind of story anymore. Psychopaths might be a fun idea with which to frame a story, but they do get a bit fucking tiresome when you have to write so many of them.

But whether he wants to keep writing this kind of story or not, McDonagh still seems to be having a great deal of fun with the material. His Irish characters still border on caricature, his racist humor reaches Tarantinoan levels of superfluousness, and his odd fascination with the Vietnamese continues. His creations are born in a world of cartoonish excess, and die with as much frenetic and hilarious bloodlust as the script can muster – unless of course he changes his mind before the film ends. But in a film like Seven Psychopaths, mind-changing is an integral part of the narrative. The film conceives of a great many brilliant characters, then dispenses with any necessity to actually put them into the story. Some might regard this as a cheat, but I simply saw it as a laundry list of possibilities. When Martin McDonagh plays in his sandbox, this is the unholy ensemble that emerges. And as hilariously overdone as it might be, it still felt as fresh and effective as ever.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Will Gluck’s “Friends With Benefits” – A smart and capable sex-romp

Poster for "Friends With Benefits"

Friends With Benefits is not the first R-rated comedy (this year) to try and tackle the subject of friends having casual sex, but it is certainly the most successful. Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached, which was surprisingly schmaltzy and un-raunchy for a film whose inception was a script called “Fuckbuddies”*, managed to fall prey to a host of rom-com clichés, and became quite tonally bizarre by its end. “I’m the guy she marries. You’re just the guy she used to fuck a few times.” Does a line like this (easily that film’s most memorable and disturbing) really belong in a comedy? But for all of that film’s romantic and tonal shortcomings, it might have still been a successful sex comedy if it hadn’t fallen prey to the double death knell of uninteresting characters having uninspiring sex.

Friends With Benefits, from Easy A director Will Gluck, seems as aware of romantic comedy clichés as it is determined to avoid them. Executive head-hunter Jamie (Mila Kunis) and magazine art director Dylan (Justin Timberlake) speak quite frankly of their views on love and relationships, but always through the filter of cinema (by way of an atrocious film-within-a-film starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones). The strength of Friends With Benefits lies as much in the captivating chemistry between its leads as the bold choices in its screenplay. The film doesn’t tell us that Dylan and Jamie are friends, by way of some shared off-screen history or common acquaintances. It shows them becoming friends from the outset, and the two completely pull it off. Kunis and Timberlake’s delivery feels a bit theatrical in the first act, but for a pair of complete strangers who are believably hitting it off, a bit of heightened, first-date performance doesn’t go amiss. As their friendship develops, they are as believable confiding in each other emotionally as they are at giving each other a bit of good-natured shit-talking, and that’s really all this friendship needed.

Oh, and did I mention that they have a whole lot of hot, dirty sex? The first half of this film is a delightful and unrelenting sex romp, and that’s exactly what it needed to be. With the exception of some awkwardly drawn sheets and obvious body doubles, this film’s depiction of sex feels as authentic as the majority of its dialogue.

Still from "Friends With Benefits"

Woody Harrelson may be the glaring exception. His gay sportswriter, Tommy (who commutes from Jersey by boat, and whose first line includes the phrase “trolling for cock”) is about as cartoonish a character as there is in the film, but is saved entirely by Harrelson’s commitment and delivery. In fact, Tommy is a fine example of the tenuous relationship with reality that is at play in this film. Friends With Benefits will be trifling and silly when it feels the need to (a completely unnecessary sequence atop the Hollywood sign comes to mind) but it will always return to a place of credible emotional resonance.

Dylan and Jamie’s relationship evolves nicely as we learn more about their respective families, and this is where Jamie may have been a bit short-changed. Jamie’s mother Lorna is a nice comedic turn from Patricia Clarkson, but the character feels just a little bit slight when compared to Dylan’s family, whose storyline takes an unexpectedly serious turn (which featured some brilliant supporting work from Richard Jenkins). To see Dylan and Jamie struggle with something a bit less pleasant was both unexpected and welcome, and only served to make them more believable as friends. And what’s more, it reinforced their credibility as characters with emotional lives outside of what we see on screen.

Friends With Benefits is both a fun, sexy romp and a capable romance, but it is also surprisingly emotionally resonant. Rather than forcibly building toward some insipid romantic climax, we simply get to see these two exist as friends for a while. And as this slice of their collective life went on, I found myself rooting for the duo to work out, but not particularly caring how they managed it. While the likability of these characters demands a certain Hollywood ending, this film almost feels as if it could just as easily end with them staying friends or staying in love. But more importantly, either outcome would have felt completely earned and satisfying.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

*Thanks to Peter Sciretta from /Film for making sense of the convoluted title history of these two films.

Roland Emmerich’s “2012” – Does what it says on the tin

Roland Emmerich’s 2012 may well and truly cement its director as a one-trick pony. It’s as if he wanted all the global-scale disaster of The Day After Tomorrow (and then some), but to be even less restrained by minor scientific trifles. Indeed, if there’s one word that aptly describes this film, it’s “unrestrained”. Just as Transformers 2 was a $200-million-dollar channeling of an 8-year-old Michael Bay playing with his toys, this film is Emmerich tramping through the sandbox, wreaking unimaginable havoc upon the other children. He is his own Godzilla. He is rage. He is bile. He is become death, the destroyer of worlds.

This film absolutely revels in destruction, and yet successfully strikes the tone of a light-hearted adventurous romp. It also features a truly remarkable character. Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) is a struggling divorcé sci-fi writer-cum-limo-driver. Nothing special about him whatsoever. And yet, as the film goes on, his true role is revealed. He knows exactly the right people. He gets all the right information. He is always in the right place at the right time. He can drive a limousine with a missing door through the plate-glass of a collapsing building as his un-seatbelted family holds on for dear life, and make it to the airport to take off in a fully fueled plane, seconds before the runway is swallowed into hellish oblivion – not once, but twice*… And he always comes back for more.

The film gives us little doubt about who this man is. He is the Luckiest Man in the World.

I’m sure other versions of him come to mind. Jack Bauer, John McClane, James Bond… We’ve seen characters with absurdly persistent luck before, but it’s usually shrugged off as a combination of training, enemy ineptitude, and contrived invincibility. What makes 2012 so remarkable is that it may offer the most convincing explanation yet for this character. It’s the end of the world. And naturally, there will be a smattering of survivors. A few scientists, rich people, AND the Luckiest Man in the World. The film could easily have focused on one of the many barely seen individuals whose unceremonious slaughter makes up the beautifully rendered CG backdrop through which our heroes must cavort, or one of the additional billions who die off-screen, not fortunate enough to meet their end in front of a famous landmark or city skyline… But let’s be honest, who really wants to see that movie?

Whether deliberately or inadvertently, Roland Emmerich has seized upon one of the fundamental truths of large-scale disaster. The bigger the disaster, the harder it is for us to fathom the loss of life in any meaningful way, and with the fictional – and frankly silly – apocalypse on display here, it’s hardly worth trying. So instead, as with Emmerich’s previous films, 2012 focuses on a plethora of characters, many of whom are one-dimensional and serve no other purpose besides cannon fodder, and yet he succeeds far more often than he should at making us genuinely care about them. One scene, in which an old man calls his estranged son to make amends – a setup that absolutely begs for a schmaltzy goodbye – nearly shocked me to tears with its actual ending.

The performances were adequate for the subject matter, but there were a few standouts. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Oliver Platt are two government officials – fairly one-note representations of Compassion and Pragmatism respectively – but they do an admirable job with their limited material. Woody Harrelson is absolutely hilarious as an Art Bell sort of radio host. Zlatko Buric gives an adept performance as Yuri Karpov, a retired Russian boxer and billionaire. Karpov is a fascinating, albeit slightly uneven character, and he gives a provocative (but straight-forward) justification when discussing the ethics of buying himself a seat on mankind’s only chance of salvation. He gazes mournfully across at his wife and children, and asks Curtis, “If you were rich like me, what would you have done?”

Indeed, the ethics of self-preservation are a central question in this film… We see a meeting of the leaders of the G8 – the richest countries in the world – who come up with a plan to build a series of Arks to save a small percentage of the population. Amusingly, the manufacture of the Arks is outsourced to China, but for a very good reason – the scientists have somehow [correctly] predicted that a megatsunami will cover the Himalayas with Emmerich’s signature non-receding ocean water.

Still from Roland Emmerich's "2012".

At this point, I must mention, the bad science in 2012 did take me out of the film once or twice. Most of it strays just far enough from reality to provide exciting and implausibly narrow escapes for our heroes, but there were a few truly egregious offenses, most of them tsunami-related. Bad science also provided the fuel for a horribly contrived end sequence – I won’t spoil the details, but suffice to say, it goes on far too long and was entirely unnecessary. I would recommend you not think too hard about the ending of this film, but Emmerich’s planned followup TV series, “2013”, may force me to revise that position.

This is the most thoroughly the world has ever been destroyed on film (with the possible exception of Titan A.E.), and the visuals certainly seem to emphasize quantity over quality in a few scenes. Nonetheless, they are mostly brilliant – one scene, depicting the eruption of a supervolcano, featured perfect visuals and near-perfect drama. But for most of its run, 2012 is just a huge, ridiculous ride. It’s more of the same from Emmerich, but if you’ve enjoyed any of his earlier disasters (as I have), it’s well worth a look.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

*A gimmick the filmmaker is clearly fond of.

Bonus: Check out this amazingly recut trailer for “2012: It’s a Disaster!” from Garrison Dean of io9.com:

Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” – Better than it has any right to be

Poster for "Zombieland".

Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland is about four people milling about in a world overrun by zombies. And…that’s about it. My expectations were low for this film. Back in June, when I wrote up the trailer, I referred to it as “the latest entry in an already clogged genre”, and attempted to explain the zombie phenomenon as an societal indulgence of psychopathic fantasies of mass slaughter. And in that grain, it did not disappoint.

These zombies are no slow-moving, Romeroan allegory for a society steeped in consumption and conformity. They’re beasts. They chase down and slaughter humans in grotesque, blood-spattering, gratuitous, slow-motion glory, in an apparent attempt to combine all the cinematic advantages of both fast and slow zombies. And Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is the rough-and-tumble zombie-killin’ cowboy who’s happy to put them down. To say that at least one scene ends with him literally standing atop a pile of dead zombies hardly merits a spoiler warning.

In fact, I’m not sure if I could spoil the plot of this movie if I tried. Ruben Fleischer has accomplished something truly remarkable here – he’s created a world that is not only completely devoid of plot, but could not logically include one. America is empty, save for a few aimless, meandering zombies and even fewer aimless, meandering humans. No one has a long-term plan or even a short-term objective, save for the usual rumors – the eastern survivors hear there’s a zombie-free zone out west; the western survivors hear there’s a zombie-free zone back east. As Tallahassee puts it when speaking to his new protégé, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), “You’re like a penguin at the North Pole who hears it’s nice at the South Pole this time of year.”

If that’s all this movie had been – an aimless, nihilistic slaughter fantasy – it would’ve been a huge disappointment. And yet, this film contains some truly remarkable character work. The survivors meet under the most random of circumstances, and band together (eventually) because they don’t know what else to do. After a brief Mexican standoff, Columbus catches a ride with Tallahassee, and the two are eventually joined by Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).

At first, there is very little sentimentality amongst these four. They refer to each other by their respective cities of origin, so as not to become too attached. They make blithe reference to the demise of each other’s loved ones. They have some pretty serious trust issues.

And yet, amid this loss of identity and hope, they gradually remember what it’s like to be human. For a long second act in which we see almost no zombies, these four actually start to open up to each other. This piecemeal family-amid-disaster could easily descend into maudlin territory, but the film manages to humanize these characters without losing any of the fun and cynicism of the first act. When the inevitable “romantic” subplot occurs between Eisenberg and Stone, it consists of the latter asking the former to join her so she doesn’t have to drink alone, shortly before announcing that she “could hit that”.

zombieland

Harrelson and Breslin perform admirably in their roles, despite not getting much time to shine in the film’s 88 minutes, and Emma Stone’s performance is adequate, although her character’s motivations become increasingly muddled as the film goes on. But the strongest performance in the film is easily Jesse Eisenberg.

I’ve been a fan of Eisenberg’s since Adventureland, and he continues to demonstrate his prowess as an actor, doing a better job at playing Shia LaBeouf roles than LaBeouf himself. Columbus really is the emotional center of this film, and it is a testament to Eisenberg’s performance that I can refer to any of the characters as such. Columbus has stayed alive by following a self-imposed list of rules – some practical (“Wear seatbelts”), cautionary (“Beware of bathrooms”), or even philosophical (“Don’t be a hero”). They’re eventually supplemented by an entry from Tallahassee – “Enjoy the little things.”

If I had to extract a message from the film, it would be that last rule. It is exemplified by one of the best scenes in the film, in which the characters wreck up a kitschy souvenir shop at an Indian casino just for the hell of it. The amusement park climax of this film is more or less completely forgettable, and yet there are so many brilliant little scenes between these characters that I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with them. As a horror flick, creature thriller, or road-trip tale, the film does very little to distinguish itself, and as a zombie film, it’s actually rather boring (and devoid of zombies!). But as a comedy and character piece, it is quite an accomplishment.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10