F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 10, 2017)

10 08 2017

Adaptation” it most certainly is not, but Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” makes for a most entertaining meta-movie. This specific genre derives its pleasures by baking the creation of the movie into the very fabric of the story itself; the fact that everything was narrativized is not merely a fact slapped on at the conclusion. Some artists smuggle these meta-movies into existence under the guise of something like a heist flick (Christopher Nolan’s “Inception“) or a con artist caper (Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom“), though many in their purest form simply revolve around filmmakers struggling to create.

That’s the case for McDonagh’s meta-movie, my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” In many ways, “Seven Psychopaths” feels like a self-interrogation (perhaps after surveying his prior film “In Bruges”). His leading man, Colin Farrell’s Marty, is a screenwriter struggling to pen his latest script conveniently titled – you guessed it – “Seven Psychopaths.” As he drolly puts it, “I’ve got the title, just not the psychopaths.”

Marty wants to write a film about violent people without succumbing the soul-sucking carnage that plagues many films about such subjects. He wants it all to mean something, not just become a violent shoot-’em-up. Ultimately, Marty gets more than he bargained for when a friend draws him into a Los Angeles gang dispute over … a Shih Tzu. The anodyne object of conflict points out the inherent absurdity of the criminal underworld without fully discounting the grotesqueness of their deeds.

I first watched “Seven Psychopaths” on video in 2013 and found myself rather unenthused by it. (The original grade I bestowed upon it was a C.) With McDonagh’s next directorial outing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” about to make landfall on the film festival circuit, something compelled me to give it a second chance – and judging by its inclusion in this column, you can assume I’m glad I did. McDonagh grants us a dryly humorous window into the writing process, which also means clueing us into his knowledge of audience expectations for what’s to come. This feat is a tricky one to pull off without drowning in self-awareness, and he does it with a good amount of dexterity.

REVIEW: Limitless

4 09 2012

There is always a temptation to overstylize films.  It can be fun – heck, sometimes it can even be healthy – to indulge in this temptation.  But in a feature film, it has to be handled appropriately, and a balance must be established.

Quentin Tarantino has found it.  Wes Anderson knows where it is.  Danny Boyle exudes this equilibrium.  “Limitless” shows that Neil Burger has yet to find it.  His thriller wants to be “Inception” on 5-Hour Energy, but unlike that shot of energy’s promise, it comes with a big crash.

When it’s riding the big adrenaline high, the movie is slick fun that just draws a little bit too much attention to its own strut.  But when the projectile that shot way, way up comes inevitably back down to earth, it crashes with a loud thud and limps towards the finish line.  Once it slows down, we see “Limitless” for what it really is: an average movie that, like the average American, is only using a fraction of its brainpower.

We are also left with the realization that Bradley Cooper, handsome and composed as he may be, is still not quite the leading man that the tabloids so desperately want him to be.  He’s currently on the Ryan Reynolds trajectory  (forcibly pushed on America as a star more for his looks and less for his skills) rather than the Ryan Gosling track (an actor committed to his art but is willing to please the fans).  As Eddie Morra, a struggling writer who climbs to the top of the world with the help of a little pill called NZT, he’s convincing but not compelling, plausible but not entirely persuasive.

Cooper doesn’t carry the movie so much as the snazzy visuals do.  I’m not doubting he has talent: whether it’s scene-stealing in “Wet Hot American Summer,” embracing his looks to provide comic relief for “The A-Team,” or being the straight man that acts as the glue to hold the Wolfpack together in “The Hangover,” Cooper has proven himself quite nimble.  But in “Limitless,” he is most definitely limited.  We’ll get that towering Bradley Cooper performance somewhere down the road, though in the meantime, we’re stuck with Burger’s controlled acid trip and Cooper parading around in a suit.  B-

REVIEW: Bright Star

5 11 2009

If you want to watch a big, sweeping, 1800’s English romance, perhaps you should curl up with that pint of ice cream and watch “Sense & Sensibility” in bed again because “Bright Star” doesn’t fit the bill.  Sure, you have gorgeous countryside and fabulous cinematography, but the romance between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is much more muted than what one would expect.  In fact, writer/director Jane Campion has made a film that portrays more of their heartache than their amorous time together.  But the beauty of the movie comes from just that, the budding passion of their love that cannot bloom fully because of societal constraints and unfortunate illness.  And according to Keats, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

For Keats, Brawne is literally the girl next door, but Campion makes sure that we do not mistake her for the stereotype that the term now bears.  We usually associate the girl next door with being innocent and straightforward, just the kind of girl to marry.  However, Keats thinks her a “stylish minx” (for those who don’t spreak pre-Victorian English, this he thinks she is quite the flirt).  And Brawne’s mother couldn’t be more happy with his disinterest in her daughter because he doesn’t make enough money writing poems.  Brawne also fears falling in love with Keats, but for a different reason; she doesn’t want him to have to give up what he loves to support her desire to design clothes.  Unlike most movie romances, their relationship doesn’t grow out of loathing, but rather out of amiability and friendship.  It is the disease of Keats’ brother and the sympathy that Brawne shows that brings them closer.  He then begins to see her almost as a muse, inspiring his best work yet.  Despite this, his friend and roommate Brown (Paul Schneider of “Parks & Recreation” in a performance that deserves to be remembered) resents her presence, perhaps as Campion suggest for his own selfish reasons.  The evidence is in the text that all the obstacles they faced only drew them closer to each other; Keats even wrote “I have the feeling as if I were dissolving.”  In an ironic twist, that which brought them together is the only thing that could tear them apart.

Campion wisely focuses her movie on Brawne, the character she seems to understand the most.  Keats proves to be quite an enigma, but Brawne proves to be quite a conundrum herself.  Sometimes her emotional swings, however, were quite nebulous.  Cornish plays them quite well, but I think the flaw comes from Campion’s script.  It wasn’t the dialogue that made them unclear; in fact, I caught witty, nuanced lines that no one in my theater noticed.  I don’t think it was the naivete of being a man that made her motives hazy because even my mother had to deliberate carefully on them.

Surprisingly, “Bright Star” is at its best when it steps away from the doomed romance and delves into the world of poetry.  Brawne asks Keats for poetry lessons, and rather than teach her to write it, he teaches her to appreciate it.  The sequences where he elaborates on why he writes are nothing short of sublime.  Keats tells her (and I quote roughly), “You don’t jump into an ocean to swim right back to shore.  You want to absorb the feeling of the water, feel the waves lapping.”  In a sense, the same could be said for Campion’s movie.  You dive into “Bright Star” not to see a movie but to immerse yourself in its beauty.  If this is your aim in watching the movie, the unhurried pace won’t be a bother, and it might even add to the experience as you find yourself encompassed by its grandeur.  B / 2halfstars