Psychopaths Are People, Too: Seven Psychopaths

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Writer’s Block sucks. But movies about Writer’s Block are even worse. Generally speaking, films about screenwriters, or writers in general, that have Writers Block are the most mundane, trite, and uninteresting things ever. They seem to be just short of a half assed Woody Allen rip off. The problem with many of those “Writer’s Block” Films is that they appear less to be an examination of the writer or even of human nature, and more whiny “I can’t write” movies. Worse, what they tend to be writing in the film is rather uninspired. But it only took the mastermind Martin McDonagh, the man behind the darkly hilarious In Bruges, to take that inherently meta content, make it even more self-referential and make it one of the funniest, meaningful films of 2012. Seven Psychopaths is dense, clever, and a riotous good time.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is having trouble writing his screenplay. Trying to write a violent film that explores the existential aspects of, well, these seven psychopaths, he’s stuck. Meanwhile, as Marty is having trouble coming up with ideas, his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) gets involved with some mobsters after he… steals a Shih Tzu. All the while, murders are being committed around the area. What is the film about, though? The murders? The unfinished screenplay? The friendship? And what about those titular seven psychopaths?

Part of the brilliance of McDonagh’s swift and funny film is that it’s about all these things, intertwined and inseparable. The murders are, to some extent, the MacGuffin and what moves the film, pacing it around as if it were Marty’s own screenplay. These murders and dog nappings are what get the film rolling, even when we are introduced to the first of the seven psychopaths three minutes into the film. The unfinished screenplay is the framework and narrative structure of the film, what is essentially built to hold the film together in the same way that the office scenes hold The Cabin in the Woods together (actually, a lot of comparisons could be made between the two films). The friendship between Marty and Billy is the heart of the film, something that is at first considered so crass and vulgar that one would think that the film would lack a heart. On the contrary, the film is full of heart. Also, blood.

Marty’s unfinished screenplay, its continual work in progress framework serves a higher purpose. McDonagh is able to comment on the state of film as it is and how it has been for over a century. It seems farfetched, but the meta, postmodern approach, which seems to both honor and satirize the meta-ness of other films like the work of Tarantino, allows itself to seep through the storyline and act as commentary for the audience. Although both Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko are both billed on the poster, leading people to believe that their roles are substantial, neither actress is on screen for more than ten minutes. This fact is commented upon again when Hans Kieslowski (a brilliant Christopher Walken) comments upon the weak development of the female characters in Marty’s script, which ironically (or not) also features only a couple characters. Kieslowski’s main complaint is that there few women that are in Marty’s script lack development and as soon as they start to are whacked off, killed, or stabbed. Although it makes McDonagh a little complicit in his criticisms of females in films (especially in films geared towards men), making him like a funnier Michael Haneke making a funnier Funny Games, what works is that instead of chastising everyone, McDonagh is in on the joke and Walken serves as either the film critic/academic or that guy who read that script you wrote at Starbucks and is now offering criticism. The violence of it all blends the dark material McDonagh has used in the past and, again, as commentary.

There are constant parallels between what is going on in the script and what is occurring in “real life”, an interconnectivity and symbiosis that if one thing happens in the script, it will happen in reality and vice versa. The cleverness behind this is not as blatantly obnoxious as it could have been and instead flows fluidly back and forth. In many ways, the use of the screenplay framework is much like Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation., but even then seems to come off slightly subtler than even Kaufman’s script. Whereas Kaufman seems to show a very obvious and direct correlation between the script and the reality, McDonagh treats his framework like a fluid series of coincidences. The fluidity behind this turns something that would have been dense and overblown into something significantly smoother.

The psychopaths of the title? They, too, serve a higher purpose. From the likes of Walken, Tom Waits, Woody Harrelson, and Harry Dean Stanton, these nutcases and whatever problems they have can serve as two interpretations: a) the men who are these psychopaths don’t let their psychopathy define them and b) they all represent different audience expectations for films. Let us begin with a): each of these men has a story to tell, and while those stories may not technically justify their insanity of what have you, it adds incredible depth and nuance to the characters. That may not be exactly to justify or to somehow force the audience into projecting that kind of complexity into whatever killer may turn up on the news tomorrow, but understanding that depth and nuance in everyone may be the point.

And for b): the various psychopaths and killers in the film seem to represent various audience expectations for movies. This particular theory came to me while I was sitting in the theater while Rockwell, Walken, and Farrell were on their way, avoiding Harrelson’s gangster Charlie Costello. The men are headed to the desert, and while Farrell says he wants to write a film about men going to the desert to talk about existential things, Rockwell responds by saying (or screaming, rather), “WHAT, ARE WE MAKING FRENCH FILMS NOW?!”

While in the desert, the men talk about how to end Marty’s screenplay, and each one has a specific idea of how the film should end. For Billy, a shootout is a must, but for Walken, a philosophical discussion about human nature is the way to go. And although not every psychopath is allowed their input for Marty’s script, it is not hard to tell what they would say about it. This seems to be that the seven psychopaths are the perfect representation of the audience. Walken, who’s character’s surname is Kieslowski, just might step foot to go see A Short Film About Killing, while Rockwell would definitely be a Pulp Fiction or The Expendables kind of man, while Farrell himself might just go and see Jules et Jim. These different approaches to film and entertainment again serve as commentary for McDonagh about not only the film industry and its creative processes, but the reactions to that work. Its satirical nature and treatment of crime films is pure gold.

Breathlessly funny, McDonagh’s script works overtime, and although the camera work doesn’t work overtime (except in the killer sequences) with the dialogue once again showing up as swift and hilarious. Throughout the vulgar, but killer dialogue, there are always erudite observations about human nature, which is part of McDonagh’s brilliance. The performances are highlighted by some of the best acting all year, probably best from Rockwell (who might finally breakthrough, after his masterful turns in such things like Moon) and Christopher Walken.

Martin McDonagh’s clever film works on several levels, making it dense enough for those privy to hyper analysis but breezy enough for anyone else. Featuring some incredible dialogue, Seven Psychopaths investigates both the art of (in)humanity and audience expectation in one of the most meta and funniest films of the year. Seven Psychopaths is, shall we say, a killer film.

Everything or Nothing: Mildred Pierce (2011)

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If there is one thing that annoys me to no end, it is when people automatically, almost seemingly impulsive write off any film or movie that happens to be an adaptation of a book. “The book is always better than the movie.” ”Look at all the stuff the movie left out!” “They didn’t do so and so like the author.” However, I implore them with, “Accept the film as its own entity!” The thing they should realize is, film is a different medium. And with that medium, you have a lot of obstacles: creative input and running time, primarily. What audiences often look for are transliterations of their favorite books, something they will never get unless they want to sit for several hours in a theater. That will also never happen unless you find a production team willing to put that much effort into translating every scene and every piece of dialogue to the screen. Not for a theatrical feature at least. So, here I would like to commend the mini-series format! The format, which is roomier than a feature film but shorter than a series, is almost perfect for those purists unsatisfied with theatrical adaptations. (Also, people with patience.) Perhaps the most literal transliteration I have ever seen (and, granted, I have not seen many) is Todd Hayne’s Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain. This is the most thorough adaptation of a novel I have ever seen, using dialog verbatim from Cain’s novel and including nearly every scene from the novel. Clocking in at five episodes and almost five and a half hours, it is completely worth your time. Did I mention that Kate Winslet is superb in it?

James M. Cain, whose novels inspired the term noir and were themselves adapted as film noirs, was popular for writing respected hard boiled novels. From The Postman Always Rings Twice to Double Indemnity (whose screenplay would be written by fellow hardboiler Raymond Chandler), Cain knew exactly how to portray moral ambiguity and social class hypocrisies. With Mildred Pierce (published after Postman and before Indemnity), it is a bit of a different turn for Cain. No gangsters. No overt double crossing, in the noir sense. And no first person narrative. Nevertheless, Cain’s portrayal of a divorcee during the Depression trying to attain success and keep her prodigal daughter happy was a success, and was adapted into a film in 1945 by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), and featured an Academy Award-winning performance by Joan Crawford as the titular character.

Jump sixty-seven years later, and in the place of Crawford is Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet, playing the strong, but somewhat damaged Mildred Pierce. In the first episode, in her cozy California home during the Great Depression, she throws her husband out of the house and is thus left alone to care for her two children, the contemptible Veda (Morgan Turner) and the precious Moiré/Ray. Mildred, now on her own, struggles with the dignity of taking a job as a waitress just to keep her girls happy. And, oh, the men. Handsome she is, and it would not be fair to call her promiscuous, but with her newly garnered title of “grass widow”, she can now do as she pleases. She is liberated, and her choices regarding whom she meets, which honestly are not very many, are not met with usually soap opera-esque judgment of neighbors. The story goes on, as Mildred raises her two girls, and in the meantime, she meets Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), she opens up her own restaurant, extends it as a chain, and concentrates her love on her dear Veda.

Mildred Pierce, as glorious as it can be, is work to watch, if only for its luxurious pacing. Its supine narrative style makes sense, given the subject matter. Really, how exciting can you really make a character study about a woman struggling and (kind of) overcoming the economic perils during the Depression, all the while dealing with her decidedly pretentious daughter? For what it is worth, it is handled with grace and style. Though there are moments torpid in style that may irk you, it allows the viewer to admire and observe the precision that both Haynes and Winslet have used when creating the character of Mildred Pierce. The series is a study of something not to be studied: a woman doing what she needs to do to get by. It may be the most gracious way of Haynes saying that women can be the best fighters, and will do anything for their children, and thus it is unnecessary and ultimately fruitless to overanalyze their motivations. (That, however, does not completely stop Haynes entirely. On the Blu-ray box set’s special features, each episode has a 4 minute heavy analysis of the episode and the characters.)

Even with the most prudish of viewer, it is hard to be disappointed by HBO’s attention to detail. Even with the distasteful Rome, one cannot deny how gorgeous, detailed, and designed the series was. (It was also incredibly expensive.) For Mildred Pierce, we are transported to late 1930’s – early 1940’s California. Not the patent California of most period pieces, so bright and so obviously manufactured, but a pleasantly natural look, as if the audience were really there. The costume design is gorgeous, the set design evokes the time period perfectly, and the look of the series is stunning. The cinematography has a sunny yellow about it that is reminiscent of the area. The picture is not drenched in browns and yellows, but it fits the time period and the setting of the series, and, like the general setting of the series, evokes a perfect feeling for the series. The cinematography, though, is the most marvelous thing about it. There is nary a scene that does not look good or is not expertly constructed, by both director Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman (who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Haynes’ Sirkian Far From Heaven). If it is drenched, it is drenched in the period, feeling completely naturalistic with the rest of the mise-en-scene.

Kate Winslet is perfection in the role. Without her, Mildred Pierce simply would not be as good as it is. Appearing in every single scene of the series, she plays the character with all of her facets, while still allowing Mildred to be enigmatic. Appearing in every scene in something is a lot of work, and it may call into question as to whether the story is told subjectively from Mildred’s point of view. On the contrary, much of the story is told omnisciently, with the camera looking at her often from others’ perspective. It may seem that the series is just as much about the perception of Mildred from the other people in her life as it is about Mildred herself. Winslet takes on the role, exposing the pathos and sensitivity of Mildred, as well as the character’s strength and survival mentality. Though, the performance does not look effortless. It really should not look that way. It should look like a woman doing what she can to provide for her family, as well as providing for herself. That being said, Winslet is, at times, beautifully restrained in her technique, never falling prey to overacting. She is the perfect Mildred Pierce, and embodies everything the character stands for.

Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood both play Veda, the former playing Veda as a child and the latter playing Veda as an “adult”. Veda is, in a word, a complete bitch. Every line is intentionally play acted with a stagey, Lawrence Olivier kind of tone, as if the child had memorized it from a script. Every apology, every word of admiration, and even every argument has such pretension, it can drive one insane. One gets the impression that young Veda is preparing for an audition worthy of Joan Crawford or Ann Blyth. Although you want to slap her every time you see her on screen, it is a great performance nonetheless. Both actresses are able to hone their bitchiness perfectly for the role.

The supporting cast is just as excellent, with Guy Pearce as Mildred’s main beau, Melissa Leo as Mildred’s best friend, and Mare Winningham as Mildred’s boss as her diner job. The acting is the highlight of the entire series, with each role carefully constructed to fit the time and era without feeling like something stagey or overacted. The performances are what make the series so enthralling, every minute of the way.

The relationship dynamic between Mildred and Veda is critical to the entire series. It is even more important than the dynamic between Mildred and her men. Veda is the ungrateful, prodigal daughter, almost never understanding the struggles her mother goes through to get what she wants. Director Haynes notes that the relationship is comparable to that of unrequited love. Mildred wants to do anything and everything for her daughter and will be loyal to her regardless of the terrible abuse from her daughter. The stupid, dogged loyalty is something that many people experience, both through the mediums of parenting as well as romantic relationships. She is willing to sacrifice everything, and yet get nothing in return.

Mildred Pierce is the closest thing anyone will ever get to a transliteration of any novel. However, as surprising and refreshing as that is, the lead performances are what make the series so incredible. Kate Winslet is at her best playing Mildred, showing her off as both vulnerable and strong. Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood portray Veda as the archetypal bitch, and so very well. Their clashing and individual lives intertwining like barbed wire makes the final episodes soapy and delicious. Though the pacing is slow at times, it is arguably one of the best book to screen adaptations ever. Astounding in every sense of the word, Mildred Pierce delivers.

Grade: A

Game On: Review for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”

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The introduction of the “videogame aesthetic” – hyper kinetic editing, ultra-somewhat cartoonish-violence, ear splitting use of sound effects – in mainstream films has been rightfully condemned by critics. Let’s face it; it’s a chore to watch those movies. As “exciting” and “adrenaline pumping” as they are, it’s actually hard to keep up. If I wanted to watch a video game, I’d go over my friend’s house and say “Oh, no, I don’t want to ruin your kill-death ratio” and just watch him play. Video game aesthetics, or what one person called “chaos cinema”, are endless hogwash of attempted excitement that are generally used to cover up and distract from the mediocrity that is everything else.

Allow me to sound somewhat like one of those guys on infomercials and say, “But what if I told you there was a movie that used ‘video game aesthetics’ to its advantage?” The difference being that the video game aesthetics that the film emulates are retro, so to speak, and resemble something more along the lines of arcade games than first person shooters. Nevertheless, you still get a similar kind of adrenaline thrill from this iteration of graphics and editing style that you may encounter elsewhere.

The film in question is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, directed by British filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), which was adapted from a series of comic books. The fact that it is based on a comic book, one that also tries to emulate arcade style, is telling about the film’s visual style. Not only does it feature that amusing 8-bit sound occasionally (especially in for the Universal Studios beginning), but it feels like a comic book. Sometimes the camera pans from a panel to another, other times there are clear descriptors of characters or actions or cuts in the edit that feel like a comic book. The last time something vaguely similar was pulled off well was in 2005’s Sin City, which utilized the original Frank Miller graphic novels as the actual storyboards. Scott Pilgrim does just as well, creating that same kind of nerdy, almost hipster vibe, without alienating the viewer.

I’ve babbled on long enough about technical details. But what about the film itself? Scott Pilgrim is a nerdy, kind of awkward 22 year old Canadian kid (Michael Cera playing Michael Cera again) who falls for an aloof American girl named Ramona (Mary, Elizabeth Winstead). But before he can date her, he must battle her Seven Evil Exes. Which is exactly what it sounds like.

Melding varying genres generally found in comic books, while it’s not the most premise I’ve ever seen, it is pretty interesting considering. Not only does the aesthetic make this very niche-made film work, the performances and script add more power to the punch. The witty and fast talking screenplay was written by director Wright and Michael Bacall, a script that never lets up. It’s speedy and fun, and I’ll probably get some crap for this, but it’s reminiscent of the fast talking screwball comedies of Howard Hawks. Did I mention it’s hilarious and quotable?

Michael Cera…well, he plays Michael Cera again, which is fine. It works for the character, who is, as per usual, dorky and a little awkward. Scott Pilgrim isn’t actually as awkward as Cera’ characters tend to be. It’s a fine performance, but nothing to rave about. The film pretty much rests on his shoulders, and one does come out surprised that he could actually battle those Seven Evil Exes.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, however, is a revelation. Playing the slightly broken, rather impulsive Ramona, her character is definitely reminiscent of Kate Winslet’s broken, impulsive Clementine from Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The character could have been perceived as fairly one dimensional, but her comedic timing is great and she gives the character a tender fragility.

The supporting cast is also great. From Kieran Culkin as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace, Audra Plaza (Parks and Recreation) as the sharp and foulmouthed Julie, and the Seven Evil Exes themselves, it ends up being a supporting cast that makes the film.

The thumping, probably hipster-esque music is a highlight of the film. Partly compiled and written by Beck, it thumps, throngs, and shakes with powerful bass and a dynamic sound that is, while completely self-referential, completely fantastic to listen to. It not only fits the generally hipster feel of the film, but also its Canadian locale.

Generally speaking, almost every element of the film is rendered perfectly. It does exactly what it is supposed to do and it’s a fast and fun film, a ride that is totally original and memorable. It’s the kind of film that, if it were a game, you would definitely be scrambling for more tokens so you could play it again.

Grade: A-