‘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.

‘Zombieland: Double Tap’ is Fun, But Also a Bit Stale

Zombieland Double Tap poster

For the record, I have seen the original “Zombieland” although it took being on cable one morning for me to watch it. In the midst of an endless sea of zombie movies and television shows, here was one which had a fresh take on the zombie apocalypse, and it proved to be endlessly entertaining throughout. While everything and everybody could have been easily upstaged by Bill Murray’s howlingly funny cameo where he is at his self-effacing best, it had a game cast of actors who reveled in the fun you could tell they were having during its making.

Now it is 10 years later, and we finally have the long-awaited sequel “Zombieland: Double Tap” (nice title). The cast now comes with at least one Oscar nomination under their belts, Reuben Fleischer is riding high after the commercial success of “Venom,” and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have freed themselves from the “Deadpool” franchise long enough to pen this one. What results is definitely fun, but it also lacks the freshness of its predecessor, and everyone seems to be trying a little too hard to be funny and clever this time around. Plus, the sight of a zombie’s head getting bashed does not have the same visceral thrill it used to have.

When we catch up with our intrepid band of heroes, they are laying waste to the latest zombie horde as they make their way towards a government building which these days has had one too many unwelcome guests – The White House. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has long since become a hardened survivor, and the many nights he spends with Wichita (Emma Stone) in the Lincoln Bedroom has him seriously thinking about marriage. As for Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), he treats everyday in there like it is Christmas while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) continually resents him for treating her like she is still a little girl. Things come to a head when Wichita and Little Rock suddenly become tired of life in the Oval Office and hit the road to find some new sights. After some hesitation, Columbus and Tallahassee do the same.

For a moment, I figured “Zombieland: Double Tap” would take place entirely in The White House and that the filmmakers would take great pleasure in ridiculing the terrible state of American politics. But since “Zombieland” took place largely on the west side of America, it only makes sense we find these characters traveling through various locales on the east coast which include, yes, Graceland. Like in any zombie movie, home is where you find it as no one can afford to stay in the same place for very long.

Seriously, these movies thrive on their inspired cast of actors. Woody Harrelson, who can play just about any role at this point in his career, looks to be having the time of his life as Tallahassee as we watch him channel Elvis Presley more often than not, and he makes his undying hatred of pacifism and minivans especially palpable. Eisenberg and Stone play off of each other wonderfully as they constantly try to prove who is more sarcastic than the other. As for Breslin, it has been fascinating to watch her grow up onscreen, and her yearning to look for other people her age in this apocalyptic world gives her character more room to grow than the others.

Still, there is a constant feeling of “been there, done that” which permeates these proceedings. Sometimes filmmakers can get away with doing the same thing one more time, but other times they fall victim to staying in their comfort zone to where things get stale very quickly. With “Zombieland: Double Tap,” it is an example of half and half as there is still much fun to be had, but what was once fresh now feels far past its expiration date. Plus, seeing these characters continually try to be cleverer than the other gets exasperating rather quickly.

One of the things this sequel really has going for it is new blood. Zoey Deutch, so fetching in “Everybody Wants Some,” is a scene-stealer as the infinitely dumb Madison. Sure, this character is a dumb blonde cliché, but Deutch is a hoot throughout as she makes Madison so adorably stupid to where I kept waiting for her to sing “Cause I’m a Blonde” at the drop of a hat. We watch a lot of movies like these waiting for dumb blondes to die a most horrible death, but Deutch gives us more than enough reason to see Madison live one more day and then die on another.

There is also the always excellent Rosario Dawson who shows up as Nevada, a fellow survivor who, like Tallahassee has quite the thing for Elvis. She and Harrelson have quite the chemistry together as they talk about their love for “the king,” and it is a shame she is not in the movie more. However, when she does reappear, it is at the perfect moment.

And there is no forgetting Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch who play… Well, just watch the movie to find out.

Fleischer does what he can to keep things rolling, and he gives us one great zombie attack sequence which lasts several minutes and looks like it was done in one shot. This sequel is never boring, but it still feels lacking in one way or another. Even when the main characters ban together to attack an amazingly large horde of zombies which threaten Babylon, an oasis of peace which is just asking to be laid waste to especially when you take into account it has a no guns policy, the climax is never as thrilling as it wants to be.

“Zombieland: Double Tap” is not a bad movie, but it is also not particularly memorable. Whether or not the fans of the original enjoy it, I do not think it will have the same staying power. Everybody here looks ever so happy to be reunited, and the fun is definitely on display, but that same amount of fun does not quite translate fully over to the audience. In the end, things could have been much worse, but this sequel is still a near-miss for me.

By the way, be sure to stay through the end credits as there is a couple of post-credit scenes which are funnier than anything else in this sequel. Trust me, it is worth waiting to go to the bathroom until after the lights come up.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ is Not the Droid You Are Looking For

Solo movie poster

Here we are again in a galaxy far, far away, and it is the third time we have ventured there in three years. We also head back to an even longer time ago when one of our favorite “Star Wars” characters, in this case Han Solo, was young, full of vigor and demographically desirable. But while the “Star Wars” movies have always been filled with tremendous imagination and unforgettable characters, I have to be honest and say that “Solo: A Star Wars Story” proved to be an underwhelming space adventure. While I am as big a Han Solo fan as the next person, seeing his early years portrayed here felt strangely ordinary to where this didn’t feel like a “Star Wars” movie, but instead an average science fiction movie yearning to be.

This movie begins with a routine chase sequence in which Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to escape a criminal gang, and from there I started to have a bad feeling about this. Usually these movies have me totally hooked in right from the start, but I did not feel the same kind of excitement I usually feel with the average Lucasfilm adventure. When Qi’ra and Han are suddenly separated at a transport station, Han tells her he will come back for her. Will he? Well, she is played by Emilia Clarke. Will Qi’ra and Han live happily ever after? Did Greedo really shoot first?

“Solo” reminded me of the problems I have with most prequels as they seem more concerned with connecting the dots between their story and the ones we have seen a thousand times. Like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “The Thing” prequel, the filmmakers are saddled with a cinematic history they are forced to adhere to, and it results in a lack of surprise and suspense as we know how things will turn out. And, like “Hannibal Rising,” it tells us more than we need to know about an iconic character to where I walked out feeling how certain things are best left to the imagination instead of being made into a movie.

Alden Ehrenreich has been an actor on the rise ever since his scene-stealing role in “Hail, Caesar,” and he certainly has a strong screen presence as Han Solo. At the same time, he ends up giving a one-note performance as the intergalactic smuggler which lacks the charisma Harrison Ford brought to the role. While he tries to play it cool throughout, Ehrenreich never quite comes to life here, and what results is a disappointing case of miscasting.

We do get introduced to some new characters, and among which is Tobias Beckett who is played by Woody Harrelson. As always, I am reminded of how Harrelson can play just about any character he takes on, and he provides us with the mentor Han Solo was always destined to have. Tobias, like Han, is a smuggler, but he also represents the darker road Han could find himself on if he is not careful.

Other actors are not as lucky. Thandie Newton shows up as Val Beckett, Tobias’ wife and partner in crime, but she is gone way too soon. Jon Favreau voices the alien character Rio Durant, but Rio merely functions as an easily disposable member of Tobias’ crew who we know will not last long. Paul Bettany makes Dryden Vos into a wonderfully ruthless crime lord, but his presence in “Solo” feels a bit uneven as if he is there to fill in the missing blanks. It should be noted how Bettany took over this role after the original actor cast, Michael K. Williams, was unable to return for reshoots. Things had to be changed to accommodate Bettany, and it shows.

Production problems kept plaguing “Solo” before its release, the biggest of which was the firing of the original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, both of whom still received an executive producer credit. It was one of several instances which showed how protective Lucasfilm was of this franchise. The word behind the scenes was that Lord and Miller were looking to mix things up and did not want to give audiences the same old thing, but Kathleen Kennedy was not about to let anyone change things up. While I commend Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan for taking extra special care of this franchise, I came out of “Solo” thinking they should shake things up in the future if they want it to maintain the relevance it still has.

Replacing Lord and Miller is Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, and this had me excited as this is the same man who directed “Apollo 13.” That film was based on a real-life event everyone knew the outcome of, and yet he turned it into a riveting piece of entertainment. I figured he would bring this same energy to “Solo,” but even he is saddled with the characters’ history which he cannot easily maneuver around. Apparently, Howard reshot 70% of this movie, and I came out of it wondering how much of the finished product was his. As a result, the whole movie feels inescapably uneven.

For what it is worth, “Solo” does improve when Donald Glover, a man of many talents, arrives on the scene as Lando Calrissian. Glover brings the kind of charisma to this role I expected Ehrenreich to bring a wealth of to Han, and it makes me want to see Lando get a film of his own. From the first moment he appears onscreen, Glover makes this character the epitome of cool to where he does not need a can of Colt 45 to prove it, and he brings an infectious joy to a movie which needed it sooner.

We also get to meet another unforgettable droid here, L3-37. As voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she is a sardonic delight as she shows more attitude and resilience than any other droid I have seen in any previous installment. It is also a kick to see L3-37 discuss the possibilities of sexual compatibility between her and Han with Qi’ra. After all these years, the “Star Wars” movies are proving to be more progressive than ever before! As for Lando, I think it is safe to say this is the droid he was looking for.

While certain moments like the first time Han meets Chewbacca (played here by Joonas Suotamo) and the initial appearance of the Millennium Falcon end up feeling uninspired and anticlimactic, the scene where Han makes the infamous Kessel Run in less than twenty parsecs is thrilling to watch, and it reminded of why I love the “Star Wars” movies so much. Yes, we know how things will turn out, but Howard keeps us on the edge of our seats as he subverts our expectations and plays with our emotions with glee.

Sure, “Solo” does have its moments, but they only served to remind of everything about it which does not work. The screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan features dialogue which feels lifeless even when spoken by talented actors. Granted, there is none of the god-awful dialogue Hayden Christensen was forced to utter in “Attack of the Clones,” but it still feels derivative of lesser sci-fi movies which cannot even compare to “Star Wars” in general. I was also surprised at how uninspired the film score by “Jason Bourne” composer John Powell ends up sounding, and it only comes to life when he utilizes the immortal themes of John Williams.

“Rogue One” was also a prequel, but it had a cast of characters you really cared about, and its story of sacrifice pushed all the right buttons as we came to deeply admire the heroic actions they took. Even though we know the secret plans of the Death Star would end up in the hands of the Rebels, getting there was more than half the fun. “Solo,” however, is nowhere as effective, and what results is a big disappointment and a missed opportunity. This marks the first time I have ever given a negative review for a “Star Wars” movie, and yes, I have seen “The Phantom Menace.”

Lucasfilm would be better off looking to the future instead of going back to the past. Enough backstory has been established for these iconic characters to where we don’t need any additional information. We will certainly be looking forward when “Episode IX” is released in December of 2019, but it appears other “Star Wars” origin movies are in the works such as one on Obi-Wan Kenobi. Seriously, I am with Ralph Garman when he said, wouldn’t a movie about Obi-Wan watching Luke Skywalker growing up from a distance be a little too creepy?

* * out of * * * *

‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Caps Off a Truly Great Trilogy

War for the Planet of the Apes poster

The summer 2017 movie season hasn’t necessarily been a bad one, but so far it has been overrun by franchise fatigue. Did we really need another “Transformers” sequel? Was the wait for the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” really worth it? Can’t Pixar do more than just give us another sequel to “Cars?” Some franchises have seriously overstayed their welcome to where it feels like we need to take a LONG break from sequels of any kind, except of course for the next ones coming from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But now we have “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the third in the rebooted “Apes” franchise which is not only the best one to date, but also one of the best movies of 2017. Unlike other sequels which essentially repeat the same story to nauseating effect, “War” is not out to give us a replica of everything which happened before. From the start, we see how far the apes have evolved, and we also see the humans going through a state of de-evolution as well. In this war, it won’t matter who wins because nothing will ever be the same for anybody.

Taking place two years after the events of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “War” finds the conflict between the apes and the humans getting bloodier and bloodier. Both sides have taken heavy casualties, and the humans have resorted to recruiting apes to betray their own in a desperate effort to gain the upper hand in an escalating conflict. Caesar (Andy Serkis) has now reached a mythic status on the planet as a strong leader, and he now speaks as well as any human. When the movie starts, he has just survived another battle which leaves many dead in its wake, but instead of killing the remaining human soldiers, he sends them back to their base with a message to their leader, leave us alone. At this point, Caesar merely wants to protect his fellow apes and everything which is rightfully theirs.

But after being reunited with his loving family, Caesar suffers an unimaginable tragedy perpetrated by a military unit led by the ruthless Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), and he heads out on a mission of revenge which, to quote a Klingon proverb, will be best served cold. Joined by several of his closest friends which include the wise and benevolent Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar comes not just to understand the world around him, but also about himself and of how he may be the maker of his own fate.

Whereas “Rise” dealt with evolution and how humans may not be a superior race of beings, and “Dawn” observed how humans and apes can be their own worst enemies, “War” focuses on the themes of vengeance and hate and what they do to the soul. Caesar’s quest for revenge is completely understandable, but his friends worry about what his hate for the Colonel is doing to his inner self. Caesar finds his strength from within and is as wise as he is strong, but we can see his soul is being corrupted on this mission as he is determined to exterminate his enemy with extreme prejudice.

The cost of revenge is a common theme in many stories, but “War” treats it with a great deal of intelligence. Caesar is constantly haunted by visions of Koba (Toby Kebbell) whose treacherous actions led Caesar to drop him to his death in “Dawn.” Maurice, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of these “Apes” movies, reminds Caesar of how Koba never got past his hate for humans to see the need for peace. But while Caesar convinces himself his motives are far purer than Koba’s, he comes to realize he is no different from Koba as his need to exact revenge takes precedence over everything else which holds great meaning in his life. The question is, can Caesar pull out of this moral nosedive before it’s late, or will he sink into an abyss of hatred which will rob him of all he stands for?

Not enough can be said about Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar, and his work should have netted him at least one Oscar by now. We have seen Caesar go from being a frightened young ape into a hardened warrior, and Serkis has made every emotional beat count for something deep and true. While the visual effects help to illustrate how he has paid a price for the war being fought, it is Serkis who gives these effects soul and meaning as he plumbs the depths of Caesar to give us a character who is wonderfully complex and haunted by past deeds which cannot be simply washed away.

Woody Harrelson once again reminds us how he can play just about any role given to him these days with his portrayal of Colonel McCullough. His performance draws a bit from Marlon Brando’s in “Apocalypse Now” as, like Colonel Kurtz, McCullough has become a rogue soldier as his need to wipe out the apes and save the humans comes from a place of pain and delusion instead of from a higher military authority. Part of me expected to McCullough to be the usual military antagonist movies of this kind typically employ, but Harrelson gives this character much more dimension than you might be anticipating, and he matches Serkis scene for scene as their characters come to discover how alike they really are.

In addition, Serkis and Harrelson get strong support from Karin Konoval who makes Maurice far wiser than CGI can ever convey, Steve Zahn whose character of “Bad Ape” is kind of the equivalent to “Harry Potter’s” Dobby, and Amiah Miller is a scene-stealer as the mute war orphan who comes to be known as Nova.

Matt Reeves, who directed “Dawn,” returns to helm “War” and tops what he gave us before. The third movie in a franchise usually falls back on a well-trod formula, but he instead advances the plight of the apes to another level which furthers their evolution, and of the humans’ furious attempts to eradicate them which reveals their failings and a tremendous lack of understanding about where we all came from. And while the visual effects are tremendous in how they make the apes look ever so real, they are not the point. Reeves’ focus is more on character and performance more than ever before, and it is those things which make “War” especially epic. A lot of summer blockbusters are geared towards wowing us with special effects to where the human element is lost, but Reeves and company have the special effects serving the movie and its characters in a wonderfully effective way. On top of all this, “War” is well-served by one of Michael Giacchino’s best film scores to date.

The “Apes” reboot trilogy now joins the company of great cinematic trilogies such as Episodes IV, V and VI of “Star Wars,” the Jason Bourne trilogy, and “The Lord of the Rings” among others. It’s so pleasing to see filmmakers give us the kind of summer blockbuster many don’t always expect to see, one filled with great performances and intelligence as well as characters who are very interesting and whom you want to root for. Many blockbusters are the equivalent of a fast food meal which you may have enjoyed eating but which does not leave much of an aftertaste, but this is epic filmmaking which you can’t help but be emotionally drawn into. In a summer movie season which has been lacking to say the least, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a real winner.

I also have to say “War” kept reminded of a Talking Heads song called “(Nothing But) Flowers.” As apes and humans traverse a landscape dominated by trees, rocks and lakes to where you can’t remember the last time you saw a building, the following lyric kept playing in my head:

“If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Now You See Me 2’ Wants To Be Cleverer Than It Is

Now You See Me 2 poster

There’s a great moment, one of the very few, in the 007 adventure “Die Another Day” when James Bond is being presented with the latest nifty gadget from Q. Upon seeing what the gadget does, Bond tells Q, “You know, you’re cleverer than you look.” To this Q replies, “Still, better than looking cleverer than you are.” Those lines of dialogue kept repeating in my head as I watched “Now You See Me 2,” a movie which tries to be cleverer than its predecessor. But in the process, this follow up become so infinitely exhausting as it heedlessly defies logic more often than not.

We follow up with the Four Horsemen a few years after the events of the first movie, and they have managed to stay in hiding regardless of how impossible it is to stay off the grid these days. But Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are soon brought out of retirement to expose a Steve Jobs-like tech guru whose fraudulent practices have caused hardship for millions of people. Henley Reeves is out of the group, due to Isla Fisher’s pregnancy, and in her place is Lula (Lizzy Caplan) who quickly proves to be more than just a wannabe magician.

They work again in conjunction with FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who was previously revealed to be the one who brought the Four Horsemen together, but their big comeback show goes awry when it is sabotaged by someone who shows that Jack never died and of Dylan’s role in the whole endeavor. That someone is revealed to be Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), a tech prodigy who invested a lot of money in companies run by Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and lost much of it after the Horsemen stole Tressler’s millions. Walter wants his money back and forces the group to pull off their greatest heist yet, and they run into additional trouble when the imprisoned Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) finds a way to get his revenge from behind bars.

“Now You See Me” was a runaway hit back in 2013 and, while it had a number of plot holes, it proved to be a fun ride and had a terrific cast of actors whose charisma made it all the more watchable. But this same cast, even with new additions Caplan and Radcliffe, can’t save this sequel as we come to spend more time debunking their actions than we do in just going along for the ride. While I am prepared to suspend my disbelief through many films, it became impossible to do so with this one.

Watching “Now You See Me 2” becomes increasingly ingratiating as so many random characters try to stay one step ahead of each other. But while we go to a movie like this to see good defeat bad, the filmmakers have tried much too hard to keep the audience guessing from start to finish. Considering how this sequel takes place in a time long after movies like the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy have been released, you would think the bad guys would be better prepared. Then again, crime does make you stupid.

If it weren’t for the talented cast, this movie would be almost unwatchable. Ruffalo, Harrelson and Eisenberg have an effortless charisma about them, and they slip back into these roles as if a day hadn’t passed since the original. Both Caine and Freeman could play their roles in their sleep, and that’s what they do here. While it’s a bummer Fisher couldn’t return, Caplan proves to be an engaging presence and her enthusiasm is wonderful to take in. And it’s great to see Radcliffe join in with this ensemble as he reminds us of something which should be abundantly clear by now: there’s much to him than Harry Potter.

Behind the camera this time is Jon M. Chu who previously directed the “Step Up” sequels, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Jem and the Holograms,” a movie better known for its terrible box office opening weekend than anything else. While Louis Leterrier, who directed the original (he is an executive producer on this one), managed to keep things going at a steady pace, Chu stretches things out to where this sequel overstays its welcome by at least half an hour. He also ends this movie in a way which makes no logical sense considering where certain characters ended up in the original. Long before it ended, I found myself having a headache that had Excedrin written all over it, and I knew taking any would not make me feel any better.

You can only fool an audience for so long until they start analyzing the story very closely. When they start asking questions during the movie’s running time, you are in trouble. “Now You See Me 2” gets undone because the filmmakers didn’t care if it all made sense or not. Instead, they end up insulting our intelligence to where you wonder if it was worth it to even make this sequel.

In the future, I would love to see a prequel to this sequel in which we watch the characters get together and figure out how they will pull all their plans and magic tricks off. It will be worth watching just to see if the characters can convince themselves, let alone the audience, that their mischievous plans make any sense whatsoever regardless of the unpredictable variables which will come their way. If they can accomplish that, you will have one hell of a movie.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * out of * * * *

 

The Duel

The Duel poster

The Duel” is one of those movies that wants to generate tension you can feel simmering below the surface, but it doesn’t come to life until it is much too late. It’s a shame because it features a pair of mesmerizing performances that are offset by a weak one, and its last half really does keep you on the edge of your seat. Everything leading up to that, however, is undone by a dullness that infects the whole proceedings.

The movie starts off in the year 1866 as young David Kingston watches his father get killed in a knife duel by Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson), and then it moves to 20 years later with David (now played by Liam Hemsworth) a man and serving as a Texas Ranger. David gets assigned to investigate a series of murders and disappearances that have taken place in an Old West frontier town named Helena, and he reluctantly brings along his wife Marisol (Alice Braga) who doesn’t want to wait for him to return home. It is there that he becomes reacquainted with Abraham who is the town’s preacher and manages to keep the people there in a fearful grip. You should have a pretty good idea of where the story will go from this description.

The setup of the story is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” which had Leonardo DiCaprio avenging his father’s death at the hands of Daniel Day Lewis, and “The Duel” looks to travel that same path. The problem is that director Kieran Darcy-Smith and screenwriter Matt Cook are not entirely sure how to reach the expected climax with David and Abraham fighting to the death. There are also many questions the movie raises and never answers in a satisfying way, and it really should not have taken long for Abraham to realize who David really is. As a result, the movie never comes to life until we get past the halfway point.

The best thing about “The Duel” is Woody Harrelson who, at this point in his career, can play just about any character he wants to whether it’s in a comedy or a drama. Right from the start, he is a menacing presence as he stares down into everybody’s soul and manages to put the town under a hypnotic spell. Harrelson has played his share of bad dudes before in movies like “Natural Born Killers,” “Out of the Furnace” and “Rampart,” and Abraham Brant is another he can add to his ever-growing resume. Harrelson may have made his Hollywood breakthrough playing a dim-witted bartender on “Cheers,” but watching him in “The Duel” makes that seem like such a distant memory.

Another strong performance comes from Alice Braga as Marisol, David’s wife who falls under Abraham’s spell to where you really want to kick David for leaving her alone so much. Braga is riveting as she takes Marisol from a strong-willed woman to one who is under the grip of something she is desperate to get control over. This is not some stock female character that can be found in your typical western movie, and Braga makes that very clear throughout.

But then there’s Liam Hemsworth who is simply miscast as David Kingston. It’s not that he isn’t believable as a Texas Ranger, but that he shows no real acting range in the role. In many ways he gives an emotionless performance, and it would have been better if another actor equal to Harrelson were cast in his place. Hemsworth just doesn’t bring much to the part, and the movie suffers considerably as a result.

For what it’s worth, Darcy-Smith does a very good job of transporting the audience back to the 1880’s as everything we see feels authentic to the era. He also jacks up the tension considerably in the last half as David and Abraham try to outsmart one another in the barren fields outside of town, and there’s a taut scene where the two face off in the town’s bar. It’s a very effective moment as the anticipation of guns going off becomes unbearably strong, and we can’t be sure of who is going to walk out of there alive.

Indeed, there are many things to like about “The Duel” from its production values to its performances, so it is frustrating to say that it really disappoints. The filmmakers may have wanted to emulate the great and gritty westerns of the past like “The Wild Bunch” or any starring John Wayne, but it can’t hold a candle to them. They are many who say that the western is dead, but no genre ever really dies. But after watching “The Duel,” it does feel like it needs a lot of reenergizing.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * out of * * * *