‘Seven Psychopaths’ Lays Waste To Many Action Movie Cliches

Seven Psychopaths movie poster

Leave it to playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh to find ways to skewer those endless clichés we keep seeing in action movies. Seriously, it feels like so many directors outside of Quentin Tarantino have tackled them to where we are completely burned out on films which try to show how clever they are in taking apart clichés which have long since been torn apart time and time again.

McDonagh’s film “Seven Psychopaths” appears to be another one of those satirical and incredibly violent action movies on the surface, but underneath it all is a surprisingly moving story about friendship. Now I can already hear a lot of people telling me how using violence to tell a story like this is utterly hypocritical, but they are clearly not aware of McDonagh’s plays like “The Pillowman,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” or “A Behanding in Spokane,” and they clearly have not seen his previous movie, the brilliant “In Bruges.” All those works do have a high level of blood and violence in them, but they are not simply designed to shock people. Instead, McDonagh uses those elements to get at a deeper truth about life and the people closest to us, and this is not always apparent to those who view his work from a distance.

The movie stars Colin Farrell as Marty Faranan, a struggling writer who is eager to finish his screenplay which is also titled “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem is he spends far more time getting drunk on wine and beer than he does in writing anything. So far, the only idea Marty has come up with is a Quaker psychopath who finds an interesting way to follow someone to the afterlife (I won’t dare give it away here). His actor friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help him, but he is caught up in his part time business of dog kidnapping with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken). With this business, they cleverly managed to abduct dogs, and then they return them to their owners for a reward.

One of the dogs Billy kidnaps, however, turns out to be a Shih Tzu named Bonnie which belongs to Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a vicious gangster who has far more love for animals than he does for humanity. This forces Marty, Billy and Hans to go on the run as Charlie and his henchmen will stop at nothing to get little Bonnie back. While making their getaway, they come to look at what has become of their lives and of how they need one another’s friendship to survive in such a competitive world.

Now combining comedy with violence (and we are talking very bloody violence here) is never an easy mix as it often feels uneven in most movies which attempt it. Bobcat Goldthwait tried it earlier this year with “God Bless America” which had its two main characters going on a crime spree in which they killed off various spoiled rotten celebrities with extreme prejudice. While Goldthwait mostly succeeded with that film, he was walking a thin line between success and failure as his subject matter proved to be very controversial.

McDonagh has it a little easier than Goldthwait though as, while the struggles of these Hollywood wannabe characters does feel a bit realistic, the story has him dealing with a number of seriously deranged characters, all of whom seem comfortably removed from reality. And as he did with “In Bruges,” McDonagh does a wonderful job of combining some laugh out loud moments with scenes of strong emotion. As a result, you never are sure what exactly will happen from one scene to the next.

In movies like these, Colin Farrell appears to be having the most fun as an actor. After appearing in the needless remake of “Total Recall,” he fares much better as a writer who is afflicted with self-doubt and is not always the nicest person to be around. But the joy of watching Farrell here is seeing his character grow as a person right up to the film’s conclusion, and he is much better at accomplishing this than many typically give him credit for.

Watching Sam Rockwell as Billy Bickle once again reminds us how he is a powder keg of creativity and is as unpredictable as most actors get these days. Rockwell is endlessly entertaining as his character takes some interesting twists and turns throughout the movie, and he almost steals the show as he performs for Farrell’s and Walken’s characters what he thinks is the best climax of an action flick ever. The audience I saw this with at Arclight Hollywood ended up applauding him when he was finished, and you do not always see this happening in a movie theater.

Then there is Christopher Walken who still appears to be going back and forth from being a brilliant actor to one who engages in self-parody a bit too much (“I gotta have more cowbell!”). But as Hans, Walken gives one of his very best performances in a long time as he perfectly captures the character’s giddiness at how he makes a living to unveiling a deep pain which he can no longer hide when tragedy overtakes his life. All the way up to his last moment onscreen, Walken is a marvel and a thrill to watch.

Woody Harrelson himself has been on a roll in movies for the past few years, and his performance as Charlie Costello is absolutely inspired. You come out of “Seven Psychopaths” feeling like Harrelson was born to play this role, and this is saying something when you consider Mickey Rourke was originally cast as Charlie before he had some sort of falling out with McDonagh. But this character brings out that wonderful comic touch Harrelson consistently gave off in “Cheers” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and it also showcases the uninhibited darkness which he unforgettably portrayed in “Rampart” and “Natural Born Killers.” Harrelson can go from being funny to frightening in zero seconds flat, and you do not even have to be a pesky paparazzi photographer to see this.

There are also some terrific turns from Kevin Corrigan and Željko Ivanek as two of Costello’s hoods, and Tom Waits is wonderful in a supporting role as a remorseful psychopath. The movie is also aided by a great film score by Carter Burwell, an excellent production design from David Wasco, and some beautiful cinematography from Ben Davis.

The only place “Seven Psychopaths” falters is in its use of female characters. Abbie Cornish portrays Kaya, Marty’s girlfriend, and she gets very little to do here other than get insulted by Marty and Billy and look pretty pissed off about it. While Cornish does look beautiful when she is pissed, we all know she is capable of much more.

Olga Kurylenko also shows up as Costello’s girlfriend, Angela, and she is a wonderful presence as well but has also been given a role which is smaller than she deserves. Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” fame fares a little better as Sharice, the girl who accidently loses Costello’s beloved Shih Tzu, but this role is meant as nothing more than a cameo. But considering Cornish and Kurylenko get top billing, you cannot help but expect them to have better characters to play here.

Still, “Seven Psychopaths” is a very entertaining movie and a must for any fan of McDonagh. Yes, it is violent and plays around with all those things which keep getting repeated ad nausea in action movies, but it also is about wanting something more in a story than just guys with guns. I will leave it up to you the viewer to see how McDonagh accomplishes this here.

Also, it will also leave you wondering about the following question: does a human head explode if you shoot it in the right spot? This same question was asked in Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz,” and inquiring minds are still looking for an answer.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Martin McDonagh on the Making of ‘Seven Psychopaths’

Martin McDonagh on the set of Seven Psychopaths

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012 when this screening took place.

Playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh dropped by Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood for a Q&A about his movie “Seven Psychopaths.” It features a terrific ensemble cast which includes Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits and Olga Kurylenko, and it follows the exploits of a writer who is desperate to finish his screenplay even as his friends inadvertently get him involved in the kidnapping of a gangster’s beloved dog.

“Seven Psychopaths” is McDonagh’s follow up to his brilliant movie “In Bruges,” but it turns out he wrote the script for it after he finished writing “In Bruges.” He explained he made “In Bruges” first because the script for “Seven Psychopaths” had a “canvas that was way too big for a first-time filmmaker.” This movie certainly has a lot of layers as it deals with multiple characters and storylines, and many of the characters have more to reveal about themselves than we realize at first glance.

The evening’s moderator said she once heard how McDonagh had admired Christopher Walken as a child, and McDonagh said he felt we all did as much as we respected Harry Dean Stanton (who has a cameo in the movie) or Tom Waits. It also turns out this was not the first time McDonagh had worked with Walken on a project.

Martin McDonagh: I did a play in New York with Christopher and Sam Rockwell about three years ago (“A Behanding in Spokane”), so I had that in. It was a dream come true to have Chris on set and doing his stuff.

McDonagh recalled the atmosphere on the set of “Seven Psychopaths” as being “strangely a lot of fun,” and the audience at Arclight Hollywood could certainly sense all the fun this cast of actors had. When asked if there was any improvisation, he said everyone pretty much stuck to the screenplay despite some exceptions.

MD: There were some little bits at the end of the shootout sequence in the graveyard, but everything else was on the page. The actors were so good that they made every line seem like they had come up with it on the spot. I think that’s the secret of truthful acting; to make it seem like it’s all improvised.

The dog playing Bonny was a Shih Tzu who is also named Bonny in real life, and McDonagh was great in describing how this one got cast.

MD: There were four or five Shih Tzus that came in to the casting couch. Bonny seemed more kind of edgy and the others were all ribbons and shampooed. Bonny felt like early De Niro.

McDonagh also made it clear if he knew the possibility of all those puns which made it into the movie’s advertisements like “they won’t take any Shih Tzu,” he would have gone with a German Shepherd instead. But it came down to deciding what would be the most incongruous dog for Harrelson’s gangster character to have, and Shih Tzus are so irresistibly cute. Bonny was apparently very sweet to work with, and the cast, especially Walken, spoiled the dog like crazy.

The main character played by Farrell is a writer named Marty Faranan, and Faranan is McDonagh’s middle name. However, aside from the middle name and the alcoholism, McDonagh claimed there are no connections between him and this character. McDonagh did however say what Marty wanted to accomplish with his script is the same thing he wanted to accomplish with this movie.

MD: The speech that Marty has at the start about wanting to make a film called “Seven Psychopaths” but still wanting it to be about love and peace is kind of where I was coming from. It’s really about friendship and for searching for something beyond movies about guys with guns. At the same time, it was a crazy guys with guns violent movie.

One of the best things about “Seven Psychopaths” is how it satirizes action movies and the clichés which continue to overrun them. The moderator talked of how there are certain conventions in them which seem to imply how you cannot kill a dog but that you can kill a woman, and McDonagh freely admitted he is constantly rankled by them as much he is from the notes he gets from studio executives.

MD: When you have a character putting a gun to a dog’s head you get a thousand notes about that, but not one about shooting someone in the stomach. Not one.

In terms of his cinematic influences, McDonagh cited the films of Sam Peckinpah and Terence Malick as being major ones on his cinematic work. When it comes to “Seven Psychopaths” however, he admitted Peckinpah was definitely the bigger influence. Other filmmakers whom he looks up to include Akira Kurosawa who made the classic “Seven Samurai,” Martin Scorsese whose film “Mean Streets” was a big influence on this film, Preston Sturges who made screwball comedies like “The Lady Eve,” and Billy Wilder whose darkly comic and satirical films he admires. Clearly, McDonagh is more influenced by old school filmmaking than he is by current mainstream entertainment

Martin McDonagh has more than earned his place among the greatest and most inspired playwrights working today, and his work as a filmmaker keeps getting better and better. “Seven Psychopaths” is a very clever movie which deserves a big audience, and it was great to see him take the time to come down to Arclight Hollywood to talk about its making.

‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ – Cynicism Be Damned!

The Art of Racing in the Rain movie poster

Okay, I get why people in general are being resistant to and are cynical about this particular movie. A story told from a dog’s point of view? Even I had trepidations as I entered the theater to check this inescapably sentimental feature which looks to have many visuals of an adorable dog or two. Was this dog going to have a “Mr. Ed” relationship with his owner? How many scenes would we get of the dog sniffing another dog’s butt? Trust me, I have been to dog parks and I have seen them do this endlessly. And considering how this dog’s owner is a race car driver, will the dog be able to advise him of how to keep sliding out of control on the track even if it isn’t raining? Indeed, it says a lot about a race car driver who can drive in the rain without skidding or getting into an accident, and only so many can pull this off.

Well, it should be noted how Garth Stein’s novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” upon which this movie is based, brought about a similar reaction as Stein’s literary agent laughed at its concept from the get go. As a result, Stein fired him and had the last laugh as the novel spent over 150 weeks on the New York Times best seller list. Now it has finally been turned into a motion picture, and I have to admit I was truly taken in by it. While it breaks no new ground, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” moved me in a way I did not expect, and it is not at all an exercise in emotional manipulation or filled with an endless supply of cringe-inducing moments.

We meet Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), a race car driver, as he stops by a farm to see the puppies on display. One of them is quick to capture his attention, and we can see how quickly the two form a bond which we know will never be broken. It’s a sweet moment as even the most jaded viewer has to admit how cute puppies are, and no Sarah McLachlan song is utilized at any time to sell us on this connection (for the record, I love Sarah McLachlan).

Denny comes to name his new dog Enzo after Enzo Ferrari, the Italian motor racing driver and entrepreneur who made the kind of car I keep asking my parents for at Christmas time. Enzo completes the bond between him and Denny by taking a piss on his apartment floor, and this is after Denny hurriedly takes him outside to pee on the grass. Still, like Jack Nicholson in “Wolf,” he had to mark his territory before being properly potty trained.

Throughout “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” we are privy to Enzo’s inner thoughts as he spends his days watching races on television with Denny, and he even goes with him to races to where he realizes how racing serves as a metaphor for life. Moreover, Enzo becomes infinitely keen on being reincarnated as human in the next life after watching a documentary about a particular Mongolian legend. Can he make this happen? Does the answer really matter?

The filmmakers prove to be very knowledgeable about dogs, and this made the movie especially interesting to me. A dog’s sense of smell really comes to the forefront as Enzo eventually realizes a certain character is very ill, and it breaks the heart to see the concern on his face which cannot be verbalized to this person. It was at this point I wished dogs could talk because this particular character could have gotten medical attention a heck of a lot sooner. Imagine what Enzo would say, “Hey buddy! You’re sick! See a doctor now or I’ll chase you up a tree!”

But while the characters cannot hear Enzo’s inner thoughts, we can thanks to Kevin Costner. Upon learning he would be voicing Enzo, I was concerned Costner would give Enzo’s narration the same monotone delivery he gave John Dunbar in “Dances with Wolves,” and that movie is a bona fide classic. However, he captures Enzo’s wise nature which is not easily corrupted by money, greed or an inescapable addiction to cellphones, and not once does he overplay a single moment which is much appreciated. Even as Enzo groans about Eve (the ever so radiant Amanda Seyfried) coming into Denny’s life as a certain line of dialogue from “Killing Zoe” flashed through my mind (“never let a woman come between two men”), Costner shows how Enzo evolves through each new person who comes into his life and of the challenges thrown in his way.

Directing “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is Simon Curtis, the filmmaker who first introduced us to Daniel Radcliffe in his version of “David Copperfield,” and who also directed one of the most underappreciated movies of 2017 with “Goodbye Christopher Robin.” This could have been an emotionally overwrought cinematic experience, but Curtis keeps things grounded in a certain reality we can all relate to, and he is very careful to not milk our emotions too much throughout. Just when I thought things would start getting overly sentimental, Curtis succeeds in keeping everything in check to where any cynical thoughts we had about this movie were completely done away with.

I should also add I saw this movie with my parents who have in fact read Stein’s novel, and they both confirmed Mark Bomback’s screenplay is very faithful to the source material. Yes, there are predictable moments such as when a character dies prematurely or when the grandparents (played by Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan) sue Denny for custody of his and Eve’s daughter, Zoe (the delightful Ryan Kiera Armstrong), believing Denny’s career will leave him little time to be at home. My parents, however, reminded me how people with money often do this in life more often than I realize, so this is clearly not so shallow plot device to get us all miffed at the grandparents.

And yes, this movie starts out with the inevitable, with Enzo in his last days lying on the floor and waiting for Denny to come home. Curtis eventually circles back to this moment as we are reminded of the unbreakable bond between humans and dogs, and it leads to a lovely moment where Enzo gets one last spin in a classic car. Few movies in 2019 have gotten me choked up, but this one did.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is not a masterpiece of cinema, but it does its job and gives us an emotionally fulfilling time at the movies. Its take on dogs is very thoughtful, and if you were never keen on owning an animal before, this movie may change your mind. It’s a shame this project has proven to be a hard sell for audiences as its storyline seems too ridiculous on paper to be taken seriously. I cannot really blame people for having a cynical attitude to this material as I certainly did, but what results is a very good movie which will check your cynicism at the door if you give it a chance. And if you never thought about owning a dog before, seeing this movie just might change your mind.

As for myself, I am in no hurry to own any pets as stuffed animals, especially Eeyores, are more than enough for me. And to Curtis’ and Bomback’s credit, there is a scene where Denny has to take Enzo to the vet, and we are reminded of just how much caring for a pet can cost. The love of a pet can be a great thing, but it can also be seriously expensive. Still, there is no doubt in mind we can get more love from a dog than Chevy Chase did in “Funny Farm.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

A Pablove Run in the Midst of Devastating California Wildfires

California wildfire

It has been a terrible week for Southern California. Last Wednesday, a lone gunman carried out a mass shooting at a bar in Thousand Oaks, a city I lived in for five years, which left 12 people dead. But as the city mourns a terrible tragedy, it is now being endangered along with a number of surrounding areas by a horrific wildfire which has now left acres upon acres in ashes. The fire has hit close to us as well as Griffith Park is being threatened by the same wildfires to where parts of it have been down, and animals from the LA Zoo had to be evacuated. As a result, us Pablove runners saw our Saturday run cancelled, but we were encouraged to do the run on our own.

This week’s run was five miles for full-marathoners, and two miles for those doing a half marathon. I am still committed to running the full marathon, so five miles it was. After sleeping in for a change, I did my run in my neighborhood which is in the mid-Wilshire area right near Museum Row. I usually do my maintenance runs on 6th Street all the way to San Vicente Boulevard and then turn back, but with this run I decided to take things in a different direction.

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As I stepped outside my apartment, I found it was a warm sunny day in November. Just when I thought the warm weather would finally depart Southern California, I was reminded of how climate change is not a hoax. The sun was bearing down on me as if I were an extra in “Lawrence of Arabia,” and this combined with the inevitability of me running on concrete instead of asphalt made it clear this run would be tougher on my joints than usual. I had my interval timer watch on my wrist, and I was all set to go and determined to be a self-starter. Nothing would stop me… except for the fact I forgot to put on my water belt. I should have known better. There is no excuse for me to go out for a run without bottles filled with grape-flavored generic Pedialyte and water containing electrolytes. Why I initially left my apartment without these necessary tools is something scientists are currently looking into.

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I decided to head down Cochran Avenue towards Washington Boulevard as it would provide me with an uneven course which had hills to run up and down. That’s right, I gave myself hills to run over! In past training seasons, none of my fellow runners ever looked forward to running up any hill put in their path, but hills are part of the Los Angeles Marathon, so we have no business avoiding them.

One thing I was reminded of as I ran the streets of Los Angeles was how we are often greeted with inescapable distractions while running through Griffith Park, Burbank, Glendale and other parts of North Hollywood. There are all those fast food restaurants like Carl’s Jr. which had posters on its windows of the most luscious double cheeseburgers, and they made their fast food meals something you couldn’t wait to sink your teeth into. Of course, once we enter any fast food establishment, we are greeted with a reality we did no ask for as the meals are never as appealing as we imagined. We end up feeling like Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” when he gets his burger and says, “Can anybody tell me what’s wrong with this picture?”

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Instead, I was greeted with such distractions like yard sales where I could buy things for an unbelievably low price, or by signs for “A Bronx Tale” musical which was based on the play by Chaz Palminteri which was in turn adapted into the fabulous motion picture directed by Robert De Niro. None of these things made me hungry, but they informed me of opportunities I just might be missing out on.

Last week, I ran at a pace of 3:1, but this time I ran at a pace of 2:2 after having done so in a maintenance run during the week. Since I came out of that run in one piece, I was confident I would do the same here despite the hot and dry weather. Surprisingly, I did quite well. I owe some thanks to the female voice on the Runkeeper app. When I did my maintenance run, the word she said which stood out most was “steady.” She never said “run,” “light speed” or even “ludicrous speed,” just “steady.” By staying “steady,” I got through this run without ever feeling winded. This training season is clearly getting off to a good start.

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One thing I was reminded of from previous training seasons is how excited dogs would get whenever we ran pass them in residential neighborhoods. It’s as if they were saying, “Hey! Wait up! We wanna run too!” In the neighborhood I live in, there are also plenty of dogs being walked around town or staring at passing humans behind gates or fences, but these ones are a little more territorial. Some were interested in running, but others were far more intent on protecting their owners’ homes. One big dog growled at me to where the “Beware of Dog” sign really wasn’t necessary. Another one came out of nowhere, and I jumped as it barked loudly at me as if to say, “GET OUT OF HERE! THIS IS MY OWNER’S HOUSE! YOU DON’T PAY RENT HERE!” I started to feel like Chevy Chase in “Fletch” when he was chased by that Doberman Pincher, but I did stay steady and didn’t go into warp speed.

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When I got to Washington Boulevard, the sun was bearing down hard but I was determined not to be turned into a human shish kabob. I even dared myself to run on the side of the street which had no shade. When I turned around and ran on the other side, I asked myself why I didn’t appreciate shade enough to run in it. What was I thinking?

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There wasn’t an alert on my phone to tell me I had reached the halfway point, so it occurred to me to take a look at it as I got closer and closer to Fairfax Avenue. When I did, it showed I had already run 2.55 miles. It would have been nice to be informed of this sooner, but anyway. I ran back the same way I came, and this time I kept my distance from the dogs. Regardless, they remembered exactly who I was and didn’t hesitate to bark at me from a distance. Excuse me for existing!

And then there were those yard sales which I did slow down by, thinking there might be a CD or a DVD worth purchasing. But knowing the weather was going to get hotter and the air quality wasn’t getting any better, I just went on by. When I arrived back at my apartment, Runkeeper made it official that I had ran 5.07 miles, and I did it all by my lonesome… Well, last season I did most of the runs by my lonesome, so this isn’t anything new.

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After all these years of marathon training, the one rule I have never forgotten is, when running, to land on the balls of my feet. You never land on the heel as the odds of getting injured will be far greater. This is one of the many reasons why I still get to train for the Los Angeles Marathon, and for the ninth year in a row.

Ben after a run

FUNDRAISING ALERT: Now this may not be the best time to ask for donations as we are all eager to help those suffering from the wildfires wreaking havoc all over California, but if you have any extra change, please consider making a donation to The Pablove Foundation. While millions of dollars are given to cancer research every year, only a very tiny portion goes towards a cure for pediatric cancer. Please click here to learn how you can help.

 

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Cujo’

Cujo movie poster

It took Cinematic Void putting together a Stephen King film festival at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood to give me a reason to finally check out the cinematic adaptation of “Cujo.” It was a movie I have heard a lot about, and I remember the book’s original artwork with those growling teeth which indicated this particular dog was looking for more than puppy chow and snausages. Moreover, the word Cujo has long since been burned into my consciousness, and it seems to exist as a description of a dog who has gone mad and cannot be mistaken for man’s best friend. In “Fletch,” it made perfect sense when Chevy Chase said “Cujo” as he wandered through a seemingly abandoned house in Utah. Considering he was attacked by a Doberman Pinscher earlier in the film, his fear of being attacked again was completely understandable.

“Cujo” was released in 1983 during a decade when adaptations of King’s work were plentiful and varied in quality. While some were exceptional (“Stand by Me,” “The Shining,” and “The Dead Zone”), others like “Maximum Overdrive” just didn’t work. “Cujo,” however, proves to be an above average adaptation of his work as well as one of the more unusual. While many of his books deal with the supernatural, this one deals more with the horrors of real life instead of just monsters.

I’m sure you all know the story to “Cujo” by now. In case you don’t, it involves a beautiful St. Bernard who, at the movie’s start, chases a rabbit through the woods. In the process, he gets his head stuck in a cave filled with bats, one of which bites him on the nose. From there, he goes from being a lovable household pet to an infinitely vicious one as he attacks any and every human being in his sight.

From the outside, “Cujo” seems to have a very straightforward plot which indicates to the viewer it will be one of those animal attack movies we have seen time and time again. But what really surprised me most is how it focused more on the human element to where I realized the dog was really a supporting character more than anything else.

You have Vic and Donna Trenton (Daniel Hugh Kelly and Dee Wallace), a married couple and the proud parents of a highly imaginative boy named Tad (Danny Pintauro). But while they appear to be leading the perfect life in Castle Rock, Maine, there are cracks beneath the surface which will inevitably become visible to everyone. Vic is increasingly concerned with economic security, something even more understandable these days. Donna is having an affair with Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone), her ex-boyfriend from high school, as she is terrified of being trapped in a small town for the rest of her life. And Tad, he is still at an age where it’s far too easy to believe monsters are hiding in the closet and waiting to jump out at him. Seriously, seeing Tad race to his bed after turning off the light and hiding under the covers brings back a lot of memories.

Taking the fears of each character into account, it serves as a reminder of how brilliant King is at examining not just horrors of the unknown, but also the ones we are forced to experience in the real world. This makes “Cujo” especially effective as the obstacles these characters are forced to deal with feel almost as scary as the thought of this dog tearing their flesh apart.

“Cujo” was directed by Lewis Teague who also helmed the Stephen King anthology film “Cat’s Eye” as well as the cult classic “Alligator” and “The Jewel of the Nile.” Teague was lucky he got to make “Cujo” back in the 80’s, a decade where filmmakers had the opportunity to build up to a furious climax instead of being forced to rush straight to one. These days, studio executives would have begged, if not ordered, him to rush right into the sequences where the dog attacks the hapless humans and increase the blood and gore horror fans are expecting. Instead, Teague got to take his precious time introducing us to characters who are not mere stereotypes and whose struggles will soon pale in comparison to the dog whose appearance becomes increasingly dirty and slimy.

This movie’s major set piece comes when Donna and Tad become trapped in a Ford Pinto as Cujo thrashes away at it, trying to get inside. From there, “Cujo” becomes a major exercise in sheer intensity as we watch Donna do what she can to save herself and her son before the dog makes chop suey out of them both. But if the dog doesn’t get to them, the sweltering summer heat may do them in instead. Suffice to say, they cannot stay in the car forever.

It’s interesting King chose a St. Bernard as the type of dog instead of another like a Doberman Pinscher. Of course, casting a Doberman might have seemed like typecasting as they have always been the villains of dogs. St. Bernard dogs seem more like comic relief, and this was made clear back in the 1990’s with those “Beethoven” movies starring Charles Grodin. Therefore, choosing a St. Bernard as a dog is an inspired choice as it shows how easily a dog, any dog, can turn deadly after being bitten by a bat. When we first see Cujo, he is a beautifully groomed dog you just want to hug. But he soon becomes a dog in desperate need of a shower as he looks disgustingly slimy and has what looks like an abundance of snot sliding off his face. Eventually he becomes an evil force to be reckoned with, and it’s easy to understand how no one could have prepared for him.

But while this dog looks to be the main star of “Cujo,” he is not. The real star is instead Dee Wallace who, just as she did in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” gives us a mother who cannot be mistaken for the average movie mother. I love talking about when actors inhabit roles more than play them, and it is certainly the case with Wallace here as she gives a performance best described as emotionally blistering. She makes us feel Donna Trenton’s frantic struggles as well as her mental and physical exhaustion in dealing with a crumbling marriage, an affair, her son and, of course, the dog. Also, she makes us feel every single bead of sweat coming off of her body as she and Tad are trapped not just in the car, but in the sweltering summer heat as well.

There also moments where Donna loses her patience with Tad, and this makes Wallace’s performance feel all the more real. Just as “Cujo” was being released, some associated with its production were keen to cut a scene where Donna snaps at her son as she grows tired of his crying out for daddy. This, however, would have been mistake as all parents lose their patience with their children. Seriously, just as my mom. I’m sure she has tons of stories she would love to share with you.

While I’m at it, let’s not leave out Danny Pintauro whose performance as Tad feels unbearably real at times. Seeing him weep and panic when the dog tries to get at him and his mother makes an already intense motion picture even more intense.

Teague and his collaborators which include composer Charles Bernstein, director of photography Jan De Bont, and editor Neil Travis clearly had more on their mind than giving us the average horror film with “Cujo.” While there is a conventional feel to much of what we see here, the filmmakers were more invested in the human element than the animal one. Lord only knows how this movie would look if it were made today, and I’m stunned it has not been remade yet. As this cinematic adaptation shows, horror movies can’t thrive unless we are emotionally invested in the characters to where they are not just stock or filler. This film may not be a masterpiece, but it proved to be far more effective than I ever could have expected it to be.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Beginners’ is a Warm-Hearted Look at the Evolution of Relationships

Beginners movie poster

Mike Mills’ “Beginners” looked like the kind of movie I live to avoid. The son caring for his father who has a terminal disease, them making amends with each other before time runs out the relationship his son is currently involved in, etc. This has been the formula for an endless number of manipulative movies which bring out the cynical bastard in all of us. But there was something about this movie’s trailer that made it look like something more unique and heartfelt, and I’m not just talking about that Jack Russell terrier speaking in subtitles (thank god this is not another “Look Who’s Talking” sequel!).

Listening to Mike Mills’ interview on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross informed me that “Beginners” is largely autobiographical; although I’m sure the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The story centers on Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist with many failed relationships behind him. Upon the passing of his mother, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) announces to him that he’s gay, and soon discovers that he is suffering from terminal cancer. In the meantime, Oliver gets involved with the very free-spirited Anna (Melanie Laurent) and finds himself exhilarated by her, but frightened at the things that could easily tear their relationship apart.

“Beginners” is told in a non-linear format with the story jumping back and forth between Oliver’s time with his dad, and the time he spends with Anna. Many people find this filmmaking technique annoying and too artsy-fartsy, but it serves this movie well and was never jarring. It moves from one part of the story to another effortlessly, and Mills never condescends to his audience in filming this way. Besides, when it comes to memories like these, we don’t remember everything that happened in the order it took place.

I was actually surprised at how emotional “Beginners” was. From the trailer, it kind of looks like a light comedy bordering on becoming a dramedy. But there is a deep sadness at its core as the revelations brought about mean different things for each character. For Oliver, it makes him look back at the time he spent with mom and wonder if she was always the unhappy wife to his father. For Hal, it is a bittersweet journey embracing his true sexuality while wishing he had more time on earth to enjoy it.

The reasons for Hal coming out now never feel contrived when he explains it to his son. He makes it clear he always loved his wife even when they both knew he was homosexual. Plus, he wanted the married life and the things which came with it: the house, the family, everything he couldn’t have had if people knew he was gay. Christopher Plummer delivers this speech simply and in a matter of fact way, never having to act it out for the benefit of the audience.

There’s no doubt this is a very personal film for Mills who previously made a movie I still need to see, “Thumbsucker.” While the end credits indicate the places and characters used are fictitious and any similarity to those living or dead is coincidental, it doesn’t change the fact Mills went through the same thing with his own dad. This is what makes “Beginners” such a good movie; it comes from an honest place and not one of simple manipulation. Its themes of love are universal and profound as relationships of all kinds need constant work to keep them strong.

This is one of the best roles Ewan McGregor has had in some time. As Oliver, he inhabits the character with a knowingness of what life has put him through, and the things he wants scare him the most. His eyes speak of a strong sadness he has trouble reconciling within himself, and you want to see him be a happier person. McGregor becomes the character right in front of us and gives a perfectly unforced performance which reminds us he’s still a terrific actor.

I really enjoyed watching Melanie Laurent here as Oliver’s girlfriend, Anna, and this is the first movie I’ve seen her in since “Inglourious Basterds.” She portrays the kind of free spirit us guys would all love to fall in love with. The chemistry she shares with McGregor is very strong, and their interactions make for some of the film’s most gleeful moments. Her demeanor, though, hides a dark spot in her life which is hinted at but never fully explained.

As for Plummer, he is simply magnificent as Hal. Seeing him embrace his sexuality is great fun as he makes new discoveries about life and “house music” among other things. Plummer is also heartbreaking as we find him experiencing joy just as his life is on the verge of expiring. For the last decade or so, he has been playing detestable villains in movies, and it’s a favorite role of his. But seeing him portray Hal reminds us of what we already should know, he’s one of the best actors working today.

But to be honest, all these great actors get completely upstaged by Cosmo who plays the Jack Russell terrier Arthur. Whether he’s with Plummer or McGregor, he’s such an adorable presence and even his eyes seem to speak words no other dog can easily speak. This may be the best performance I’ve seen by a dog since Mike the dog tossed away his dog food in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Watching him makes you want to rush out to the nearest pet store and get your own Jack Russell terrier. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, my apartment building doesn’t allow pets. Well, I’m better off with stuffed animals anyway.

“Beginners” shows us no matter how much experience we’ve had with relationships, we are always starting over again when it comes to a new one. It doesn’t matter what our age or sexual orientation is, relationships are an ongoing process we need to work at. We need to be open to risks and letting ourselves be vulnerable to the people we care the most about. And when all is said and done, we need to live through pain in order to experience pleasure.

* * * ½ out of * * * *