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Seven Psychopaths

Black comedies are hard to pull off because it’s extremely difficult to depict graphic, brutal violence and mean for it to be funny. It’s one thing if the violence is over-the-top or tame PG-13 action, but filming executions, assassinations and suicides and expecting the audience to laugh is like throwing in loopy cartoon sound effects over footage of the Holocaust. Somehow, though, Seven Psychopaths manages to do it. Some of the violence is still off-putting (there’s really nothing particularly interesting about watching someone cut their own throat), but the writing is so sharp, the performances are so good and the idea is so kooky that it manages to overcome the genre’s inherent problems. It’s not for everyone, but if there’s a template that needs to be followed for future black comedies, that template is Seven Psychopaths.

Colin Farrell plays Marty, a screenwriter currently in the middle of writing a movie titled “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem is that’s as far as he’s gotten. He doesn’t even know who these supposed psychopaths will be. Fortunately, he has a friend named Billy, played by Sam Rockwell, a local dognapper who wants to help him write the script. He gives him a number of stories that could detail who these psychopaths will be and even goes so far as to stage crazy and often dangerous events that will hopefully help him out of his bind. Eventually, the story begins to write itself when Billy dognaps a Shih Tzu owned by local gangster Charlie, played by Woody Harrelson, who will stop at nothing to get it back, even if it means killing everybody in his way.

The reason Seven Psychopaths works is because, in a way, it’s an absurdist comedy. It takes a relatively simple idea, one that could be (and has been) used in harmless family films and turns it into something that’s darker than dark. It’s kind of like a boy and his dog movie, except the extent the owner will go to get him back involves handing out bullets rather than flyers. Even if the violence is sometimes too extreme for its own good, the idea is too zany to take seriously, and that’s a good thing. But its absurdity does not mean it isn’t clever. The simple idea eventually balloons into something grandiose and observant, about how art imitates life. Although we never see the finished product of the “Seven Psychopaths” screenplay Marty has written, we know exactly how it plays out because it’s taken from the events we’ve just witnessed. It’s very meta in the sense that it knows it’s a movie and toys with the silly, but admittedly amusing, idea that screenwriters aren’t nerds sitting behind their computer pushing their glasses back onto their face, but rather adventurers who take their own real life experiences and put them on the page, no matter how outrageous they may be.

The best self-referential nod comes when Billy and Hans, played by Christopher Walken, are reading through Marty’s script. They remark on how the woman characters are awful and they either have nothing to do or are killed off five minutes after being introduced, a comment on sexism in the cinema. It doesn’t seem like much at first until you think back on the women characters in the movie who show up and disappear like props. These types of moments are what make Seven Psychopaths so enjoyable, the ones that say, “Yes, we know what we’re doing, so sit back, relax and enjoy.” But the ideas themselves only make up a portion of why the movie works. It’s the delivery of these moments by outstanding actors clearly having a good time that raise the movie to the level it’s at. Walken, the eccentric person he is, nails his role and manages to make the smallest, simplest lines bustle with humor, but it’s Sam Rockwell that shines. As a critic friend of mine commented after the movie was over, he’s one of the great character actors working today and is continually snubbed by the Academy for his brilliant performances. Perhaps this year will be his time to shine.

To expect something truly remarkable, though, would be a mistake. Coming from director Martin McDonagh, who knocked it out of the park with his feature length directorial debut, In Bruges, it’s hard not to get excited, but In Bruges this isn’t. This is funnier and, arguably, more clever, but it’s not as deep or emotional as In Bruges and, at the end of the day, narrative and thematic depth and emotional complexity are more important. Still, it’s not necessarily a criticism to say Seven Pyschopaths isn’t as good as In Bruges. Few movies are. It’s still an uproarious good time and, if dark comedies are your thing, it’s not to be missed.

Seven Psychopaths receives 4/5



It’s been six years since Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her role in the fantastic Clint Eastwood film, Million Dollar Baby. Since then, she has either starred in weepy romantic tripe (P.S. I Love You) or movies where she tries so hard she’s practically begging for another award. Amelia was her last attempt and she failed. Her latest, Conviction, is much the same. The movie, though decent, won’t garner any Oscar buzz in the coming months and I’d be shocked to see Swank nominated for Best Actress after this over-the-top performance.

The movie is based on the inspiring true story of Betty Anne Waters (Swank), a woman who put herself through years of schooling to eventually earn a law degree and exonerate her brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell), who had been in jail for 18 years for a murder he did not commit.

Betty Anne Waters is an amazing woman and I had the pleasure of meeting her prior to my screening of Conviction. After years of working through the legal system and failing to get her brother out of jail, she took it upon herself to enroll in a community college, earn her bachelors, then her masters, then finally her law degree, only to spend even more time tracking down past evidence in an attempt to take a DNA sample that would prove her brother’s innocence. She devoted her life to this cause, knowing only in her heart that Kenny was innocent. In a sad example of irony, he only went on to live six months after being released, accidentally falling off a wall and fracturing his skull.

However, this tragedy isn’t even in the movie. As Betty Anne said to me, that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about hope and love and a brother/sister bond that can’t be broken. It was about showing the importance of being a free man, not falling prey to the real life twist that followed. It’s this talk with Betty Anne that has my feelings for the movie so confused. Outside of a few small instances, everything in the film happened, but it all feels so contrived, like when they finally get the DNA evidence and prove his innocence, only to have his release refused by the claim that he can be still tried as an accomplice, thus prolonging the movie. While this no doubt occurred, it’s hard not to gawk at it with an exhausted sigh.

But that little voice in the back of my head kept telling me to give it a break. Besides, I was interested in what I was seeing, even if I was rolling my eyes a bit more than I had hoped. I’m fascinated with these types of stories and if you’re aware of Darryl Hunt, Rubin Carter or the West Memphis Three, chances are you are too.

But the movie critic in me finds too many faults with it to give it a break. It may be a remarkable true story, but it holds little dramatic weight. Given the 18 year time period, events are rushed through and the characters are given no time to develop. After her brother is convicted, Betty Anne’s life becomes consumed with the case, which distances her from her family, eventually causing her husband to leave her and her two sons to go live with him. I didn’t care because, frankly, she didn’t seem to. The emotion is all but missing.

I say all but missing because the small amount that does exist is overly dramatic, partially thanks to Swank’s hit-and-miss performance, but mostly due to the heavy handed script. Instead of telling this story meaningfully, it’s Hollywood-ized for modern audiences who can’t handle intelligent, thought provoking material.

Nevertheless, the wit is there and Sam Rockwell once again gives an outstanding performance. It’s not that this film is bad. It’s just so middle of the road. For every one thing it does right, it does two wrong. The story of Betty Anne Waters and her brother is incredible, but there are plenty of interesting ways to hear it. Conviction, unfortunately, isn’t one of them.

Conviction receives 2.5/5


Iron Man 2

There are superhero movies and then there’s Iron Man. The original movie, when it was released back in 2008, was about as fun as anybody possibly could have hoped for. My reluctance going into it stemming from my lack of faith in the character—a hero I considered a B-lister—and doubt in Robert Downey Jr.’s ability to pull off the role set me up for amazement. And amazed I was. Iron Man was a comic book adaptation done right and it blew me away. It suffered from mild problems here and there, but was otherwise a fantastic summer action flick with a solid structure and substance to back it up. Its sequel, unfortunately, fails to elicit that same excitement. While still fun in its own right, the whole of the film runs into some large setbacks that keep it from reaching that rare “better than the original” status.

Iron Man 2 begins six months after the events of the first movie. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has outed himself to the world as Iron Man and is now reveling in the glory that comes with such a title. He’s a celebrity, but the government considers his suit to be a weapon and demands its handover, a demand he easily refuses. Meanwhile, a Russian man named Ivan (better known as Whiplash, played by Mickey Rourke), has set out to destroy him. After an early encounter, Ivan winds up in jail, but is busted out by a powerful weapons mogul competing with Tony’s “Stark Industries” company named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).

That seems to be the least of Tony’s problems, however, because it turns out that the energy source he uses to keep him alive is poisoning his blood and slowly killing him. He has been keeping this news to himself and hasn't yet told his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his new secretary Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) or his friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle taking over the role from Terrence Howard), the latter of whom steals Tony’s Iron Man technology and hands it over to the government for testing. But things don’t slow down yet, because Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is visiting him to find out if he is a suitable candidate for S.H.I.E.L.D., some type of agency that Tony knows little about but hopes to get to the bottom of soon.

If not already evident, Iron Man 2 suffers from Spider-Man 3 syndrome. It tries to pack too much into one movie. On top of the new character introductions, including a reintroduction of an already established character in the form of Rhodes as War Machine, this movie tries to incorporate the story at hand, the mystery of S.H.I.E.L.D., the romantic relationship between Tony and Pepper and the unknown past of Tony Stark, delving into the relationship he had with his father and the significance it holds in present day, into one cohesive whole.

Its hands are certainly full, but Iron Man 2 doesn’t stop there. It tries to juggle comedy and drama while still being a fun action flick and keels over because of it. Its tone is all over the place. Much like the other recent superhero movie, Kick Ass, no single tone is ever established and the abrupt and sudden turns it takes are unpleasant and amateurish.

Due to this, some characters don’t get their required screen time. Whiplash, for instance, is mostly relegated to engineer work, tinkering inside of giant robots and sitting in front of computers. His first big action scene is a blast and, though short, the concluding fight with him is fun to watch, but everything in the middle is a bore. He goes missing for a good chunk of the movie despite being the prominent evildoer and this is where the film starts to go awry by trying to pack in its laundry list of to-dos.

The one thing Iron Man 2 has going for it that outshines its predecessor are its action scenes. Many, including me, complained about the mediocre brawls in the first movie, including an anti-climactic final battle that finished out the picture with a whimper. That downfall is rectified here and the action scenes are a thrill to watch, even if some do come about arbitrarily.

But the substance from that first film is missing. The villain, played by Jeff Bridges, was more compelling because as we learned about Tony Stark, we also learned about him. We got to see both evolve over the course of the movie, one using his technological prowess for good while the other spiraled out of control into pure hate and rage.

Iron Man 2 misses all of that. It’s a shadow of its former self and is a rather substantial step backwards for the franchise. If the first was truly great, this sequel is merely okay. It has some positive characteristics, like a great sense of humor (though isolated by its poor mix of drama), and the performances, especially from Downey Jr., are terrific, but it’s too cluttered for its own good. It's worth seeing, but don’t be surprised when you’re primary feeling walking out is underwhelmed.

Iron Man 2 receives 3/5