“Seven Psychopaths” a fun character story

There are actor’s movies. There are director’s movies. There are even cinematographer’s movies. “Seven Psychopaths” is a writer’s movie.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the film tells the story of struggling screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) who becomes entangled in the story he’s writing as he becomes surrounded by seven psychopaths, including Billy (Sam Rockwell), Hans (Christopher Walken) and Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Hans makes his living kidnapping dogs and returning them for ransom money. When he accidentally steals mob boss Charlie’s dog, Marty is thrown into the struggle of his life as he, Billy and Hans go on the run.

The story of the seven psychos is intricate and interesting. Seeing how they all interact together with Marty’s journey gives a fascinating portrait of madness and how it ties into violence. Though all violent in their backstories, all 7 characters find solace in peace at the end, asking the question, what qualifies you to being a psychopath? And can you change once you realize what you are?

The film is well-acted, well-shot and decidedly well-written, with many funny lines and sublime character arcs. Some have compared the film to a Tarantino-esque style, but it is definitively McDonagh’s style, blending violence, comedy, high ideas and deep characterizations. He does a good job in all of his films of building the themes of his narrative up to the conclusion. Who would have thought that a movie like “Seven Psychopaths” would ultimately be a story about finding peace?

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“Thor: Ragnarok” goes for straight-up fun and it works

The previous “Thor” films were admirable action adventures, but lacked heart and individuality. It’s hard to make a serious film when your protagonist is a hammer-wielding god and the villains are weird space aliens. So Marvel has wisely decided to ditch the pretense and go straight past logic into pure fun. These films are better for it.

Directed by Taika Waititi, “Thor: Ragnarok” features the titular character (Chris Hemsworth) trying to prevent the foreseen end-of-days. Despite his best efforts, his long-entombed sister and goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), emerges to destroy the nine realms. Trapped on an alien planet with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor must team up with the Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to escape his bondage from the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) and save his home before Hela destroys it.

In lieu of trying to capture the serious tone and majesty of “Game of Thrones” or “The Lord of the Rings”, “Thor: Ragnarok” instead throws caution to the wind and tells a fanciful adventure-comedy that ties in to its predecessor’s mythology. Never taking itself too seriously and playing up the dynamics of the visuals, the film is a constantly enjoyable ride. Most answers to the plot seem to be as simple as why not. We want to see Hulk and Thor in a gladiatorial match. Why not. Wouldn’t it be cool for Jeff Goldblum to be in a Marvel movie just playing himself? Why not. No room for Natalie Portman in the story? Cut her. Why not. Let’s have Thor fight a literal Satanic creature. Why not. Let’s put in Dr. Strange for pretty much no reason. Why not. There’s something oddly commendable about such an approach.

For the returning characters of Thor, Loki, Banner, Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), having been with the franchise for so long, they have developed a comforting rhythm. The viewers know what to expect and they deliver their part.

It’s sad to write, but again, it’s the role of the villain that is a tad shallow and forgettable. Even with an actress with the chops of Cate Blanchett, there’s just not a lot you can do with a one-dimensional, evil villainess role. Her desire is to destroy the galaxy because she’s the goddess of death and hated her father. That’s not very interesting. Throwing in that she’s Thor’s sister does little to deepen their connection since they’ve never actually met before. If Thor and Hela remembered each other, if they used to play as children until Odin banished her for being evil or Loki tricked her into becoming goddess of death, that would have added some personal stakes. Thor would be remiss to kill his sister because he cared about her once. Perhaps Hela might have second thoughts about annihilating everything, but chooses to forge ahead regardless. But instead we get just another going-to-destroy-the-world story.

Regardless of that, the even humor and colorful visuals keep the story entertaining. Most other characters, no matter how insignificant they at first seem, are fleshed out, interesting, and given good character arcs such as the Grandmaster, Skurge (Karl Urban), Valkyrie and Korg (voice of director Waititi). It gives the film an intriguing ensemble usually lacking in Marvel films.

The film fully feels like Thor’s story as the stakes for him grow higher and the personal choices he has to make impact his character. Can he take his father’s throne? Can he make the hard decisions he needs to without corrupting himself as his father did? Can he bring Loki, Hulk and Valkyrie to his side? At the film’s conclusion, the weight of responsibility for his people is all that matters and his love for them drives his heroic nature. His story therefore, with actual stakes to the film, is memorable.

New “Macbeth” bloody, beautiful, lacking purpose

Shakespeare has been adapted for the screen so often that the purpose for doing so is often simply because it’s been a few years since someone has done so. The problem then is in trying to do something with the material that hasn’t been before. For director Justin Kurzel, that solution is to deposit some modern-day war allegory into the plot and fill the frame with lush cinematography. Is that enough of a purpose?

“Macbeth” tells the familiar tale of the title character (Michael Fassbender) who is prophesied by three witches to be king. Edged on by his wife (Marion Cotillard), Macbeth murders King Duncan (David Thewlis) and usurps the throne. As madness overtakes the pair, opposing forces push in around them.

The film focuses on the war aspect of Macbeth’s background, showing how the terrors of conflict can drive a man to do reprehensible acts. In addition, the film features the Macbeths burying their young child, adding further fuel to Lady’s declaration to cleanse her femininity. Does Macbeth having PTSD factor into an interpretation of Shakespeare’s play? Does Lady Macbeth’s lack of childbearing contribute to her vengeful disposition? The underlying currents of such notions are certainly present in the story. It’s an interesting take.

The star of the film is certainly the cinematography. Whether it is bright blues and whites, dark reds and oranges or lush greens and browns, the film is a lived in, ethereal canvas. It paints the environment as an active participant in the story, intensifying the power of nature and fate. But it’s also distracting. The visuals are so detailed and so refined that they pull the viewer out of the story because they can tell that what the director is really after is the image at the expense of story in a way. The over-stylization at times also speaks to being more of a show-off than a storyteller. The story of Macbeth’s power lies not so much in the screen as much as the words of Shakespeare, his ability to infuse each line of dialogue with nuance and sublimation. In that sense, this version of the story offers little that’s new.

So even though 2015’s “Macbeth” lacks purpose, it is still definitively Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The forlorn, despotic tale lives in the narrative and for those unfamiliar with the original work, it is not a bad introduction to the story.

Greatest Hockey Films

In lieu of Gordie Howe’s passing, arguably the greatest hockey player to ever lace them up, let’s take a look at the top three hockey movies ever made.

  1. The Rocket: The Legend of Rocket Richard (2005)

A film more about the actual man and the grit of the era than the idealistic legend, “The Rocket” shows star player Maurice Richard with all his flaws, his attributes and his persona. Putting you right in the action, the film feels genuine and made with adoration for its subject.

  1. Miracle (2004)

A heartfelt interpretation of the team of US youngsters who took down the high-powered Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympic games, the film suffers from Disney nostalgia, but there has never been a more dramatic, high-quality Hollywood production hockey film. Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks is perfect, and his pre-game speech is one of the greatest of its kind in sports movies.

  1. Slap Shot (1977)

The ultimate hockey movie, “Slap Shot” is revered for its humor, characters and longevity. Paul Newman is sensational and the Hanson Brothers steal the show. The film hearkens back to a hockey era where fighting reigned supreme, an image that the modern NHL has tried desperately to quell, but still, “Slap Shot” remains, reminding us of that time when fighting and hockey were nearly synonymous.

 

“Green Room” a harrowing thriller

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, “Green Room” tells the story of a punk band, “The Ain’t Rights”, who witness a crime in a neo-Nazi venue and have to escape before they themselves are killed.

Starring Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat and Sir Patrick Stewart as the leader of the Nazi gang, the film is a taut thriller with barely any fat on its frame. It doesn’t bother with backstory or creating deep characters, but simply presents its story, the circumstance serving as the main crux to build up your empathy.

It feels claustrophobic, adding to its unease and drama, as most of the action takes place in the “green room” in the club. The film also does a good job of building the stakes, as just when things get dire, the next scene somehow makes them worse.

While not particularly memorable, it is nevertheless an engaging gore fest, thrilling at times, funny at others (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not), and never dull.

“The Big Sick” an engaging romance story

Many call “The Big Sick”, directed by Michael Showalter, a romantic comedy, but there are deeper issues involving family, partnership and connections that push the film more into dramedy territory, more a true romance with comedic elements. The result is a strong story about how families, no matter how different they appear, are the same because of the love they share.

Based off a true story written by its actual subjects, Kumail Nanjiani is a stand-up comedian who falls in love with grad student Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan). When she contracts a mysterious illness that puts her in a coma after a big fight, Kumail connects with her parents whom he has just met, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). As his own family pressures him to marry an Indian woman, Beth and Terry help him learn the ups and downs of a long marriage, and he sees how their suburban culture is so similar to his Indian upbringing, showing him how love can transcend culture.

In a film that doesn’t shy away from the fear of death or the pain of disappointing family, “The Big Sick” manages to be an uplifting story of love that digs beneath the surface farther than many other films of its ilk. The characters are all charming in their own way, the way you love a family member despite their deficiencies, and the character arcs for each is moving and important to the overall story. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano carry the message of the film through their interactions with Kumail and drive the emotional spine.

A criticism may be that the film becomes a bit schmaltzy near the end and the story is very by the numbers, sticking closely to plot point A, plot point B, rising action, etc. and not deviating in a surprising fashion, but for a film that tries to incorporate different themes into this type of story, being overly formulaic is not a true detriment.

The film is about the passing of knowledge about love, across cultures, from one generation to the next and recognizing that finding your own path no matter where you came from is the most important thing in life. It’s a beautiful, timeless story set against a millennial backdrop.

“Loving” sweet but lacks emotional punch

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, “Loving” tells the story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving, a mixed race couple living in Virginia. After their marriage in Washington, DC, they return home only to be thrown in jail. The state judge orders them to leave the state for a duration of 25 years. The pair are discovered by the ACLU who push their case all the way to the Supreme Court.

The film is a societal example of progress through perseverance and simple goodwill. The acting is good, the cinematography is splendid and the direction is steady, but the film lacks gravitas. It doesn’t feel particularly important or memorable in part because it doesn’t grandstand. Normally that is commendable, but perhaps a tad more pontificating would have created greater emotional impact and added weight to the story.

While the tale of Richard and Mildred is sweet, the characters lack depth. They are not particularly interesting and the story does not go deep into moral qualms and the choices they have to make. As a result, the film meanders from point A to point B, never fully engaging the audience without compelling characters with interesting backstories and ethical choices. We feel sympathy for them, but we do not feel that much empathy and it makes the film a rather so-so experience.

“Loving” is an important story to remember and the film is a decent exploration into the struggle of the Loving family, but it lacks the dynamics to make it a truly exceptional film.

Understanding films from all angles