The Metaphysical Mayhem of Seven Psychopaths: a Reflection from Steve

What the heck was that? That was Seven Psychopaths and it is one strange movie! As I watched the film, I found myself thinking over and over that it just didn’t work. I was certainly enjoying the pieces, but the pieces just didn’t seem to fit together in a way that justified what writer/director Martin McDonagh seemed to be trying to do. Why would McDonagh’s work need to be justified? In this case it needs to be justified because he’s crafted a violent movie with a central character who happens to be a screenwriter and this screenwriter claims that he wants to move away from violent movies and work on stories that focus on world peace. How can one not make a connection between the character Marty, an Irish screenwriter played by Colin Farrell, and Martin himself? If Marty represents Martin then one must ask whether Martin is playing fair. Can you make an extremely violent movie while claiming you’d prefer to ponder world peace? Then the ending came and the movie made a strange sort of sense. The questions weren’t all answered, but that didn’t seem to matter. There seemed to be something deeper going on here.

Before we get to those deeper things, be forewarned that this movie has plenty of both violence and pondering. That is why I’m calling this a reflection rather than a recommendation. Although in the end I loved the movie, I’m not sure who I would recommend it to. On the one hand, if you have a problem with graphic images of violence, I can not state strongly enough that you should avoid this movie. The violence is quite, well, violent and, yes, graphic. It is violent in many and various ways. It will make you cringe. (Actually, some of the humor is likely to make you cringe, too.) On the other hand, if you like your movies to be filled with action, if you desire the mayhem to be nearly non-stop, only taking a breather for the occasional joke, and if you are not even sure what metaphysics are, then this movie may not be for you either. If pausing to listen to characters ponder such things as the existence of God and the afterlife doesn’t sound like a good time to you, then you may want to skip this film. Yes, it’s a bit like what Tarantino does in movies such as Pulp Fiction, but it feels both more spiritual and more disruptive here and you might not like it. If, on the other hand, you like your metaphysics mixed with mayhem, then, by all means, give Seven Psychopaths a try.

That brings us back to the key question: is writer/director McDonagh playing fair? Can you make an ultraviolent movie with a central character who claims he wants to focus on peace, especially if that character is based in some way on you, the writer/director? Many reviewers have made that connection between Marty and Martin, but I think the key to understanding the movie (and seeing that McDonagh is playing fair) is found in the realization that not only Marty, but also Billy, and possibly even Hans, are representations of particular aspects of McDonagh’s persona. Billy (in a typically delightful and off kilter performance by Sam Rockwell) is Marty’s best friend. Billy decides to help Marty with his screenplay by putting an ad in the paper so that Marty can meet some actual psychopaths (which begs the question: would an actual psychopath answer such an ad?) and by causing some psychotic mayhem of his own. Even as Marty desires to scrap the project and work on something more peaceful, Billy envisions a movie filled with gore and, of course, a grand Hollywood final confrontation with a bloody shoot-out. I think that Marty and Billy represent not just two sides of McDonagh, but the opposing forces that are found in each of us. Like Marty, we desire something better for the world. Like Billy, we are also drawn to something darker. At least in part, it is the Billy in me that is drawn to movies like this, including the works of Tarantino. (If you would like a Biblical example of this side of ourselves, check out Romans 7.)

However, I do not like movies that are simply filled with gratuitous violence. There has to be a sense of deeper meaning. I need the metaphysics, as well as the mayhem. That is where Hans enters the picture. Hans (played brilliantly by Christopher Walken) is Billy’s partner in a dognapping scheme. (Yes, the plot does take many strange turns!) As the movie unfolds, we find out that Hans has experienced some extremely difficult events in his life. He now faces everything, including grief and threats to his life, in a calm, controlled manner. You might be tempted to call him cold-blooded, but there is more going on with him than that. He is at the center of much of the philosophical pondering. He makes it clear that the only way to make any sense of the chaotic reality we live in is to have faith that there is something more. His explanation of the actions of the Vietnamese psychopath points to Christ-like self-sacrifice.

I wrote at the beginning of this piece that the ending brought with it a kind of resolution, but one must ask, which ending? Billy’s shoot-out with its strange sense of justice? Hans’ explanation? Marty’s acceptance of his fate in his conversation with the bunny-holding psychopath (in a small, but weirdly entertaining turn by Tom Waits)? Interestingly, each of these involves some form of self-sacrifice. Clearly, here and in his previous film, In Bruges, McDonagh is striving to make some sense of his upbringing in the faith, but such striving is difficult. Sometimes it leads to metaphysical mayhem. Marty, Billy, and Hans provide three ways to view the world, three ways to see ourselves. Does one come closer to the truth? Let me get back to you on that.


Steve’s Look at Upcoming Movies

So far I’ve only seen one movie released in 2012 (The Hunger Games), but that’s about to change. With the release of The Avengers this weekend, the floodgates will be opened. I’ve added a new page to my blog on which I rank 44 movies coming out between now and the end of the year. Take a look to see what I’m most looking forward to and then leave a comment to let me know which movies you are most anticipating. For each movie I’ve included the release date and reasons why and why not to see it. See you at the movies!

Ugly Tattoos: a Reflection on Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steve

I hate tattoos. There, I said it. I know that will offend some of you, especially those of you with tattoos. I hate tattoos because they are ugly. Our world is filled with enough ugliness. Why do so many people feel the need to add to the ugliness by putting bad art on their bodies? Tattoos used to be a sign of outsider status, of rebellion, but now that everyone is getting them they are just bad art. Years ago I heard a great line about tattoos: why would you put art on your body that isn’t good enough to hang on your wall? Sorry, lady, but that butterfly isn’t cute. It’s pathetic! So, will everyone please stop with the tattoos and stick with body piercings. At least piercings will heal up and go away when you come to your senses and see the big mistake that you have made. Have I made myself clear enough? I hate tattoos. But, I am also fascinated by them (which is another reason that I hate them.) I can’t take my eyes off the darn things! I’ll never forget that hot July night when the Stray Cats took the stage at Duffy’s. In that nearly 100 degree heat Brian, Slim Jim, and Lee quickly shed their shirts and for the next hour and a half their colorful tattoos glistened on their sweaty bodies. Alright, I’ll admit it, the tattoos added to the ambiance of that glorious evening of rock and roll. So, I guess maybe tattoos aren’t all bad. If you are in a rockabilly band, by all means get a tattoo, or two, or three. Heck, cover your arms and torso with them. But the rest of you lay off!

What does all this have to do with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, aside from the fact that Lisbeth does have a dragon tattoo? I feel about these movies (both Fincher’s version and the Swedish version) a bit like I do about tattoos. Actually, I didn’t hate them. They are both very good movies. Fincher’s version is, in particular, an incredibly well-crafted movie. I found them to be ugly, not in regard to their art, but in the way they reflect upon humanity. I am disturbed by our fascination with that kind of ugliness. Lest you think I am simply a prude, check out the Steve’s 100 page on this blog. In that list of my favorite movies you’ll find four by Tarantino, four by Scorsese, among quite a few other dark films. I would wager to guess that more of my list is dark than light. Maybe that is at the heart of my concerns about the Dragon Tattoo movies. For some reason they seem to have forced me to ponder what it is that I find fascinating in movies of this type. First, there is simply the adrenalin rush involved in an intense viewing experience. Beyond that, there is something cathartic about seeing evil played out in a movie with some sort of resolution at the end. Of course, there isn’t always resolution, or at least not the resolution that we would hope for. In many of these movies there is also the revenge factor. I do not believe in revenge. It is not a solution, but rather a continuation of, or even escalation, of the problem. Do movies serve an important function by giving us a safe outlet for our desires for revenge? Or, do they promote the idea that revenge is a viable solution to a problem? On the one hand, I love the Kill Bill movies. On the other hand, after the killer is discovered in Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, I find the question that Lisbeth asks Mikael to be quite disturbing and, equally so, his response. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here!)

Certainly Tarantino’s movies are graphically violent, as are many others on my top 100 list, so what is it about Dragon Tattoo that caused such a strong reaction in me? What line did it cross? It has been suggested that Fincher’s version should have received the stronger MA rating rather than an R. I can understand where those arguments are coming from. The rape, revenge, and torture scenes are very dark, indeed. The question I find myself asking is whether they cross the line from presenting a realistic picture of the ugliness of human nature to reveling in a fascination with that ugliness. And, if so, how is that different from what Tarantino does in Kill Bill,  Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, or Reservoir Dogs? I’m not sure, but it feels different to me. That being the case, why did I still decide to watch the Swedish version of Dragon Tattoo if Fincher’s version bothered me so much? Mostly, I suppose because I find Lisbeth to be an intriguing character and I wanted to see if another director could present the story in a way that was less disturbing. I could then recommend that one over Fincher’s version. The Swedish version is less intense, but the fore-mentioned scenes are still disturbing (especially the rape, less so the revenge and torture). It seems the problem lies somewhat in Stieg Larrson’s story, but I do think both director’s could have chosen to present those scenes less graphically. Thus, I have put this in the Reflection category rather than the Recommendation category. I do not want to recommend that anyone see these films. On the other hand, if you know what to expect and still desire to see them, I don’t recommend not seeing them either! I wish life was simpler.

With all of that being said, I still feel a need to comment on the relative merits of the two films. They are, as I’ve said, very good movies, but I don’t think either of them is a great movie. The reason again is Larrson’s story. As dark and sordid as it is, it is also fairly shallow. It is really just an Agatha Christie-style who done it with more grisly murders. We know someone in Vanger family is the killer because it had to be someone on the island. I’m guessing the book fleshes out the Vangers a bit more, but neither movie focuses much on them. They are mostly just pieces in a puzzle. Although Larrson’s story is weak, he did come up with a marvelous character in Lisbeth Salander. Both actresses bring her to life, but I prefered Rooney Mara somewhat over Noomi Rapace. Maybe that’s just because I saw her version first, but I think it’s because she brought a greater intensity to the role. I’d say the Mikael Blomkvist part is a toss up. Both Daniel Craig and Michael Nyqvist were good in the role, but he’s simply not as interesting a character as Lisbeth. Beyond the two leads, overall I liked the Swedish cast better. They felt more real. That version also had more heart and left me feeling at least a little bit of hope. Fincher’s version, though, has a much better look. The Swedish version, directed by Niels Arden Oplav, at times looks amateurish in comparison. The other place where the Fincher version excels is in the soundtrack. The Swedish soundtrack is fine, but once again Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have created incredible music, as they did in winning an Oscar for Fincher’s The Social Network. Their music becomes another character in the movie, creating an intensity that is palpable. I’d love to see them win another Oscar! The main storyline is obviously the same in the two versions. There are slight variations in details, but I didn’t think those made either movie better than the other. There is quite a difference in how the movies end. Both deal with another issue after the main crime is solved. I thought this portion worked better in Oplav’s version, it felt less tacked on than in Fincher’s version, and it had that slight sense of hope that I mentioned earlier. So, of the two, which would I recommend? Ha, you thought you had me, didn’t you? I stand by my non-recommendation. But, if you feel you must see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’d say see them both. Then, go and get a tattoo advertising my blog. Just make sure that it isn’t ugly!

A Look Way Back: Steve Ranks the 2009 Best Picture Nominees

I have finally seen all of the 2009 Oscar nominees for the Best Picture, so I’ll add my ranking to our blog.  However, in working on this blog, I’ve become even more aware of two distinct ways in which movies are rated.  There is the consideration of artistic merit, which includes both style and storytelling.  Generally, this is what so-called “critics” focus on.  Then, there is simply reflection on whether a movie provides a fulfilling experience.  This is what “fans” seem to base their ratings on and also points to which films are likely to be watched more than once.  I find myself thinking about movies in both ways, so I’m going to rate them both ways.

2009 Best Oscar-nominated Pictures by Artistic Merit

1. Inglourious Basterds – The strongest combination of style and storytelling of the ten.  However, Taratino’s style definitely isn’t for everyone, even though this is actually less violent than much of his work.  Also, some find his themes of revenge troublesome, not to mention the rewriting of history, but this movie does raise the interesting question of what would be an appropriate action if one had the opportunity to rid the world of Hitler.  This is dazzling filmmaking.  Style with substance, I say.

2. The Hurt Locker – Not a terrible choice for best picture, but I didn’t find it to be nearly as strong as Basterds.  Whereas Taratino was clearly rewriting history, The Hurt Locker was presented as realism, but too much of it rang false for me.  Still a great movie, though.

3. District 9 – This is a love it or hate it movie and I loved it.  I love the mishmash of styles, beginning as a cheesey documentary and then passing through the territories of drama, thriller, horror, all with a strong undercurrent of social commentary.  That is where it blows away the next movie on this list.  It makes you think deeply about not simply apartheid, but prejudice in its many forms.

4. Avatar – This movie ranks this high simply for style.  Yes, it’s a good looking movie (although I think the floating mountains are simply ridiculous!), but it’s severely lacking on the storytelling side of the equation.  Think deeply?  Nope, this is a James Cameron movie.  In too many ways this is Dancing with Wolves in Outer Space.  Given all that, I’m surprised I’m putting this at no. 4, but that’s how good it looks.

5. Precious – I hesitated for over a year before seeing this because I thought it would be too depressing.  It is a sickeningly sad story…poverty, rape, incest, abuse…but it is well done.  I place it here mostly for the strength of the acting.  I also liked the directing for the most part, especially her flights into imagination to escape the torment of her world.  I wish the ending had a bit more of the hope of that imagination in it.

6. A Serious Man – Being a Coen Brothers film, you’d expect this one to gain a few more style points, but this is one of their most reserved and subtle movies.  However, as with most of their work, this one grows on you with repeated viewings (see the list below).  It is a marvelous modern telling of the Job story.

7. Up in the Air – I wanted to love this movie.  George Clooney!  Jason Reitman!  I didn’t love it.  It was an interesting examination of our culture and the loss of deep relationships, but that is also where it failed for me.  I didn’t like the way the affair was handled.  Alex gets mad when Ryan nearly exposes their affair to her husband.  I’m sorry, Alex, you were in an affair.  Affairs hurt people, destroy relationships and this one detracted from the movie for me.

8. An Education – Hmm, if affairs are bad, how about an older man preying on a young girl and nearly ruining her life?  This movie explores what a person will do to escape what they think is a dull life and the wrong turns we can take in trying to find a meaningful relationship.  It is well done, but I found the character of David to be such a creep and it turns out I was right.

9. Up – Many people love this.  Not me.  It was o.k., actually quite good in spots, but I thought they added too many elements.  It felt disjointed to me.  I don’t think it was even the best animated film of 2009.  I’d give that honor to The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

10. The Blind Side – Style? Sappy!  Storytelling? Clichéd!  Does it deserve to be considered for Best Picture?  Of course not!  But, I cried my eyes out and enjoyed nearly every minute of it.  This is the kind of movie that has me wondering what I mean, what anyone means, when they say a movie is good.  And look where it is on the other list!

2009 Best Oscar-nominated Pictures by Desire for Multiple Viewings

1. Inglourious Basterds

2. A Serious Man

3. District 9

4. The Blind Side

5. Avatar

6. The Hurt Locker

7. Up

8. Up in the Air

9.  Precious

10. An Education

Steve’s 100 Movies

Check out the new page on our blog.  I’ve added a list of 100 of my favorite movies.  Simply click on the “Steve’s 100” tab at the top of the page.  Happy viewing!

Steve’s Tentative Top Ten

When someone recommends a movie to you, how do you respond?  It seems to me that you need to know that person’s taste in movies in order to know how to judge the recommendation.  For instance, I know that I almost always agree with Roger Ebert’s reviews, so I trust his recommendations.  So, here is a tentative top ten list of my favorite movies to help you get a sense of where I am coming from in my recommendations.  The list is tentative because there are so many movies that I love that limiting a list to only ten is nearly impossible.  I decided to try to make this list a fairly good representation of the movies that move me the most.  As I was thinking about what to include I came up with so many movies that I’m planning to add a list of 100 movies sometime soon, so come back to look for that.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear about a couple of your favorites, so feel free to comment.

Here they are (in no particular order):

Wizard of Oz (As it was for so many, this is the movie that first turned me on to the magic of movies.  It is simply perfect!)

It’s a Wonderful Life (It’s a wonderful movie!  Could you hand me a kleenex? Or two? Or three?)

Taxi Driver (Scorsese and DeNiro!  Discovering the power of movies that explore the dark side of life.  You talking to me?)

The Big Lebowski (The Coen brothers could have filled at least half of this list by themselves…Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, O Brother, No Country for Old Men…possibly True Grit, but I’ll have to see it again to be sure.)

Inglourious Basterds (I confess, I love Quentin Tarantino.  Such style, but also more substance than he is given credit for.  Yes, extremely violent, but also an unflinching examination of such things as the seductive and deadly desire for revenge.  This spot could also be filled by Pulp Fiction.)

Field of Dreams (How’s this for a change of pace from Tarantino?  Such a delightful movie, so much more than a baseball movie, revealing the power of giving oneself for others.  Pass the kleenex again!  If you show it, I will watch!)

High Fidelity (A movie set in a record store!  {I love music almost as much as movies} Featuring Top Five lists! {As you can see, I love lists} One of the best movies about navigating the treacherous waters of relationships.  John Cusack’s best performance.  Jack Black’s too.  From the book by one of my favorite authors, Nick Hornby.  About a Boy, also from a Hornby novel, could also easily be in this list.)

Hannah and Her Sisters (Most people list Annie Hall as Woody Allen’s best, but this is the one that I love.  The entire cast is great, but Michael Caine is incredible!)

Caddyshack (Such over the top characters, so many great quotes.)

Casablanca (Yes, it is a classic in every sense of the word.  Bogie could also be represented here with The Maltese Falcon.)

Star Wars (Wonderful in so many ways.  Either New Hope or Empire Strikes Back could fill this spot.  Return of the Jedi comes close, but I was never quite sure about those Ewoks, a bit too cute and a sign of bad things to come.)

Toy Story (Childhood, friendship, loyalty…oh, heck, just pass the kleenex again.)

Platoon (Works great as a Viet Nam war movie, but even more so as an examination of the battle of good vs. evil around us and within us,  although I’m not sure I’ll ever enjoy it quite as much ever again…thank you, Charlie Sheen!)

The Sound of Music (Is there a better movie musical?  And, yes, this one also requires a hanky or two.)

The Fisher King (A great movie on sin and redemption.  I love Terry Gilliam’s wild directing style.  Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams are marvelous.)

I could go on and on…Big Fish, Magnolia, and so many others…consider this a preview of the list of 100 coming soon.