Seven Psychopaths (2012)

2015 #72
Martin McDonagh | 110 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English & Vietnamese | 15 / R

Seven PsychopathsThe writer-director and star of In Bruges re-team for the former’s sophomore feature; and if that doesn’t sound oddball enough for you, the lead cast is rounded out by Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken. Zaniness is sure to ensue.

Colin Farrell is Marty, a screenwriter struggling with his new work (all he has is a title). Rockwell is his best friend, Billy, who kidnaps dogs and then returns them for the reward money. Walken is Hans, his associate in this enterprise, whose wife is dying of cancer. Harrelson is Charlie, a violence-inclined mob boss who loves his Shih Tzu, Bonny… which brings trouble to everyone’s door when Billy dognaps her (of course).

So, the inciting incident is Billy taking the Shih Tzu. The film’s US tagline was, “They Won’t Take Any Shih Tzu”. I get the pun, but c’mon, there must be a version of it that makes sense!

The film itself is similarly laden with decent ideas that somehow just miss the mark. It feels sloppily told — not badly made, but awkwardly put together. There are some hilarious bits scattered about, which do at least make it feel worthwhile, but in between there’s so much darn filler. It needs a good trim. Heck, it needs a good structure. Writer-director Martin McDonagh seems to think he can get away with this, and plentiful other storytelling oddities, Re-writingmainly via references to Farrell’s endeavours to pen a movie called, you guessed it, Seven Psychopaths. One wonders if there’s a hefty dose of autobiography in the writer’s struggle…

Perhaps this explains why McDonagh has produced a screenplay that feels kinda dated — with its talkative characters, violent crime story, and irreverent humour, it’s all very post-Tarantino. 20 years on from Reservoir Dogs, isn’t it time for something else? As Hans puts it when they’re all striving to improve Marty’s screenplay, “You’re the one who thought psychopaths were so interesting. They get kinda tiresome after a while, don’t you think?”

Seven Psychopaths has its merits — some bits are very funny indeed, even if they’re fleeting — but your tolerance for shaggy dog stories will determine how much enjoyment you get out of it. As a follow-up to the genius of In Bruges, it’s nought but a disappointment.

3 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Seven Psychopaths is on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm.

Matchstick Men (2003)

2010 #84
Ridley Scott | 111 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

Matchstick Men ends with a twist. One of those great big changes-everything-you’ve-just-seen numbers that have a habit of making a film notorious. Yet I’m almost loath to mention it, because I’ve never read a review, preview, summary or what-have-you of the film that mentions there’s a twist. Maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong pieces; maybe no one cares; maybe they’re all just playing along trying to keep it secret. But not me, because I bloody hated it.

The twist, that is. The rest of the film is pretty good, but the twist undermines it — and not just because I knew it was coming. I don’t wish to sound boastful, but I knew it was coming before I even started watching, guessed from the little I did know about the film from one or two reviews and (sort-of-spoiler warning!) that they’d cast a 24-year-old as a 14-year-old. I spent the whole film hoping that my predicted twist wouldn’t come to pass, but, with crushing inevitability, it did. I didn’t guess every element of it before I began, though I picked up most as the film went along, and those that I didn’t get weren’t surprising either.

Is it easily guessable? I don’t know. It was to me. Perhaps I’ve seen too many heist-type movies or TV shows (watching several seasons of Hustle covers that one easily), or perhaps just too many films with twists, or perhaps it’s just my writer’s brain at work — the latter does have a tendency to make many films guessable. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, because a guessable twist can still work. This one doesn’t.

Twists are fine. Twists can be great. As I said, you can guess a twist is coming and it can still work. A really good twist works even when you know for certain it’s coming; its existence raises what you’ve seen, makes it all work even on repeated viewings when the element of surprise is obviously gone. Matchstick Men doesn’t have that kind of twist. It has the kind of twist that undermines everything you’ve just seen. Not because it’s illogical — it isn’t in the slightest — but because it tramples over the film’s emotional resonance, in my opinion.

I don’t want to give away the twist here because, even if it’s a rubbish one, that’s a bit unfair on the film. I’d encourage you to watch it anyway and see what you think. And there are reasons to watch it anyway, even if some of the best ones are at least partially tossed away at the end.

Good things, then. The performances. Nic Cage can be awfully mannered and OTT quite often, but here it works. His character is inherently implausible — an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe who’s also a con artist — but he plays it well, replete with tics and habits. It could easily be a caricature or spoof of the afflictions, and at times it threatens to tip the balance — when we see him obsessively cleaning to a jaunty “isn’t this funny” score, for instance — but the line is successfully trod most of the time.

Alison Lohman is also exceptionally good as a 14-year-old girl. It took a scene or two to convince me, but after that I was plenty on board with it. It occasionally takes some effort to remind yourself she was 24. As the third lead, Sam Rockwell plays a typical Sam Rockwell part. He does it very well, naturally, and there’s nothing to fault him on, but he’s been better elsewhere. The rest of the cast are absolutely fine but not exactly called on much — this is Cage’s film, and to a lesser extent Lohman’s. They have the emotional journey, the film’s heart-and-soul around its long(-ish) con ‘plot’ (which could just be lifted from any episode of Hustle… except it’s not even that complex).

It’s also, as you may have noticed, A Ridley Scott Film. It doesn’t feel like one. It has a ’00s-US-indie aesthetic in every regard and consequently feels like the work of a first-or-second-time young-ish director. Perhaps this is to Scott’s credit, but on the downside it lacks any distinctive qualities. I suppose it’s not fully at odds with the rest of his career — even when you try to pick a genre Scott’s known for, you often find only two or three examples of it in his CV; and there are several genres you can do it with — but if you hadn’t told me it was a Ridley Scott film I’d never have guessed, and I’d wager no one else would either.

Matchstick Men was a lot better than I’d expected, because most of the coverage I remember shoved it aside as a middle-of-the-road side project for Scott. It’s definitely better than that, if still not the “sweep the Oscars” success Ebert seems to think. But I wish they’d stuck with the decision to cut out the twist, not because I object to how it leaves our hero (which was the reasoning, apparently), but because it undercuts an awful lot of what’s good in the film and consequently left a bad taste in my mouth, all for the sake of some aren’t-we-clever-ness.

Stop the film about when Roy wakes up in a hospital bed. Imagine they got away with it and he went to live happily with his daughter. It’s not just a nicer ending, it’s a more whole one too. And then imagine that film on my end-of-year Top 10, because this one won’t be.

4 out of 5

Choke (2008)

2010 #27
Clark Gregg | 88 mins | TV | 18 / R

ChokeChoke is adapted from a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, and you can tell.

I’ve not read Choke, but I have read Fight Club, and the film was an incredibly close adaptation both in terms of the narrative style and the dialogue’s voice. Here, the distinctive narratorial ‘voice’ is very reminiscent of Fight Club, both book and film, as are numerous other elements: support groups; random encounters; the inclusion of a Big Twist. While an awareness of the author means the latter feels a little formulaic, Shyamalan-style, at least it seems Palahniuk can still pull them off.

The sum of all this is Choke feels like it exists in Fight Club’s shadow; a low-budget adaptation of another of an author’s works after one has been a high-profile success. This is a little unfair to Choke — despite the surface similarities, the meat of the film is in no way an attempt at Fight Club 2 — but the similar feeling and tone it frequently exudes can leave that impression.

It’s also not as funny as the trailer led me to believe. It definitely has moments — several proper laugh-out-loud ones too — but it lacks consistency. The tale is sometimes muddled in what it wants to be and how it wants to cover it. Some very serious issues are touched on, and while they’re not treated lightly (it occasionally nudges at being a dramedy) the comedic tone rubs against them. It isn’t vulgar in the way some comedies are when exploiting serious issues for ‘laughs’, but nor is it conclusive in its own style. Having not read the novel, I don’t know if we need to lay the blame for this at the door of Palahniuk or screenwriter/director Clark Gregg.

The cast are without fault. Sam Rockwell is brilliant as ever, continuing to build a body of work that suggests he’s been underrated. Perhaps there’s a similarity to some of his roles, but he has a sort of rough likability that can make one overlook that. I’ve still not seen Moon (shame on me, I know) but one hopes it might provide a launch pad to wider recognition, even if he ultimately failed to gain any major award noms for it. Also in the cast are Anjelica Huston, in an interesting and constantly evolving part, and Kelly Macdonald, who it’s always nice to see even if her American accent is variable.

Choke has its moments — quite a few of them, actually — but it feels like it’s perhaps missing a few others, with what’s left not quite gelling into the whole its cast and crew hoped for. It doesn’t go far enough down the quotable/zany route to become properly cultish (I may be proved wrong in this of course), nor does it come far enough down the meaningful-undercurrent path to transcend such underground aims. I think I want to like it a bit more than I actually did, and awareness of this may make my mark a tad stingy. I’d certainly encourage anyone who thinks Choke might be up their street to give it a go.

3 out of 5

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

2007 #27
George Clooney | 109 mins | TV | 15 / R

Confessions of a Dangerous MindGeorge Clooney’s directorial debut is part biopic, part comedy, and part spy thriller.

It’s the last part that works best, but perhaps that’s just because I have a predilection for spy thrillers; that said, the filmmakers would seem to agree as, after a late appearance in the plot, it comes to dominate its climax. It’s also nicely shot, especially the excursions to Europe.

I would recommend it (though not quite as heartily as Clooney’s second film, the excellent Good Night, and Good Luck).

4 out of 5