Talking Movies

December 4, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

Martin McDonagh suffers from difficult second film syndrome as his unfocused follow-up to In Bruges falls between the stools of straightforward black comedy and meta-meditation.

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Marty (Colin Farrell) is a drunken Irish screenwriter living in Los Angeles and wrestling with his high-concept film about the nature of love and evil, Seven Psychopaths. His long-suffering girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) is reaching the end of her tether putting up with Marty, not helped by constant visits from his deranged friend Billy (Sam Rockwell); an actor with a penchant for blowing auditions by punching people and ‘helping’ Marty with research on psychopaths. Billy also has a sideline of kidnapping purebred dogs and letting his dog-loving friend Hans Kieslowksi (Christopher Walken) look after them and then return them and collect the reward which they split. But when Billy makes the mistake of kidnapping a dog belonging to mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson) all hell breaks loose. Charlie quickly identifies the dognappers, and so Marty, Billy, and Hans run for the hills.

It’s tempting to say that the best scene in this movie is the opening scene, because it’s such pure undiluted McDonagh. Michael Pitt and fellow Boardwalk Empire star Michael Stuhlbarg are jumpy hit-men waiting for their target who get into a furious and dementedly logical argument about the marksmanship that killed Dillinger. Tempting, but there are scenes of that calibre scattered throughout the movie. A Gandhi aphorism is dismantled for being illogical, Billy imitates Marty’s Irish accent with truly atrocious results, Marty freaks out when his drinking is condemned as problematic by a character high on peyote, and there is a sublime moment of paralysis involving the great Zeljko Ivanek (rocking a truly terrible moustache as Charlie’s mob lieutenant) when someone refuses to put up their hands because they don’t want to; leaving Ivanek holding a gun and feeling foolish.

But this is a scattershot movie. Marty’s screenplay keeps the film shooting off on tangents, about Quaker stalkers and homicidal Buddhists, which add little. Tom Waits, as a Dexter of the 1960s adds an amazingly gruesome thread of sadistic violence, even by Dexter standards. Abbie Cornish is pointlessly underused, as are Olga Kurylenko and Gabourey Sidibe; something referenced in criticism of Marty’s inability to write decent female characters. But surely writing a complex heroine, which McDonagh has done in his plays, would be a better tactic? McDonagh as playwright can generate unease like Pinter, comedy like Orton, and heightened language like Synge. But, bar a fraught scene with Charlie in a hospital waiting for Hans, this script fails to generate suspense. The desert finale is visually interesting, but the self-referential scripting can’t escape structural convention.

McDonagh has some interesting ideas, and even self-critique, in this script; but as a movie it wants to have its cake and eat it too, and so it never hits the heights it could.

3/5

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October 6, 2011

2ThirteenB Baker Street, Princeton

3e earlier this year aired House re-runs from season 3 right up to the season 6 finale. Being concurrent with season 7’s run of awful Thirteen-free episodes it made me think about how Olivia Wilde’s character sums up the evolution of the show…

My jaw dropped, seeing season 3 Cameron again after three years of Thirteen, as I realised just how boring she was. Cameron’s wishy-washy inconsistent moralising and romantic moping appear utterly bland next to Thirteen’s sarcastic brilliant bisexual drug-addicted self-destructive doctor cursed with the early and hellish death sentence of Huntington’s disease. Some of this may be due to the actresses, after all Wilde also set The OC alight with a luminous portrayal of another bisexual hell-raiser, and the show never really recovered from the end of her recurring role as Alex, while Jennifer Morrison has never been that exciting. But it’s also partly because Morrison’s character is emblematic of a different dynamic within the show. Chase had to murder James Earl Jone’s African dictator early in season 6 to torch his marriage with the departing Cameron and properly make the leap from one dynamic in the show to the other.

The dynamic I’m referring to is the change from the original style of cipher characters surrounding the Holmesian House dripping occasional back-story points around plots written for the sake of a damn good medical mystery, to medical mystery plots chosen because of the character angles of strong personalities surrounding House that they allowed to be explored. A prime example of this is the season 6 episode where Thirteen chooses a case because the patient is in an open marriage, and House sabotages the reserved communication between Sam and Wilson to try and force a relationship ending fight even as he and Thirteen gleefully cajole Taub into attempting an open marriage. The original dynamic is last glimpsed in House’s season 4 disappointment at a lucky diagnosis and his obsessive pursuit of the G&T answer, and his enabling of Zeljko Ivanek, his mirror, in season 5 because he needed to know ‘why’…

House has always had a stronger connection with Thirteen than with any of his other doctors. When House drugs her to confirm his hunch that she’s hiding Huntington’s she drugs him right back to do a liver biopsy, a little more sadistically than is medically necessary: “You drugged me” “You drugged me” “Ouch!” “Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot to say that might pinch a little.” She’s also been granted zinging one-liners every bit as outrageous as House’s. When House claimed of Cuddy, “I kinda hit that last night, so now she’s all on my jock”, Thirteen immediately rejoined, “She looks remarkably good for someone on rufies”. The bond comes from Thirteen’s nihilism and skill. When House fires her for drug-taking then hires her back after she comforted a patient she quickly cracks his motivation, “You wanted to see if I could still make a connection. You’re trying to save me!”

The extremely ill-advised decision to replace Thirteen with Masters, rather than the bizarre car-crash in the season finale, may well be judged the moment where House jumped the shark. Amber Tamblyn’s incredibly irritating one-note doctor who is scrupulously honest to the point of self-destructive and veritably societal-destroying stupidity, a trait even more aggravating than Cameron’s inconsistent moralising, sucked the dramatic life out of every scene she was in. The writers even seemed to admit their mistake with an in-camera apology, or perhaps merely an unconscious admission of guilt, when Masters stuck up for, and enabled the release of, a patient who turned out to be a cannibal serial killer wanted by the FBI. It begged comparison with Thirteen’s diagnosing of psychopathy in a patient who gave her the creeps – as House noted, “Odd that she’s the only one here to have the natural reaction to a predator circling the waters”.

Little wonder that the show seemed to visibly perk up at the end of the season as House drove to a prison early in the morning to welcome back to his team a just released Thirteen. Compliments showered on her included, “You have the best poker face of anyone I’ve ever met”, while she later dispensed to him the stoic wisdom regarding their misery, “We are what we are, and lotteries are stupid”, before, after breaking into his house to check on his depressed state, displaying both the edge and the bracing honesty that bind the two, “Cuddy and Wilson both asked me separately to break in. You’re an idiot.” House has a chance to do something truly remarkable if it can keep running long enough to break our hearts by gradually depicting a slow physical decline for the beloved Thirteen. Here’s hoping it can pretend last year never happened…

House season 8 begins its run on Sky 1 at 10pm tonight.

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