Seven Psychopaths (A-)
U.S.: Martin McDonagh, 2012, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Martin McDonagh mixes the worlds of "real life" crime and the movies in Seven Psychopaths, a lively dark comedy about the perils of being an Irish screenwriter named Martin, writing a crime thriller screenplay called "Seven Psychopaths" in modern L.A., where your best friend is a psychopath, and at least six other certifiable psychos are hobnobbing around. Included in the septet: a serial killer who kills other serial killers, a Buddhist priest hell-bent on setting himself ablaze and also trying to deal with the hooker in his hotel room, and a murderous gang boss incensed because his pet Shih Tzu has been dog-napped -- by other psychopaths.
The seven psychos and the some of the people around them are played by a pretty formidable line-up of actors: Colin Farrell (as screenwriter Martin), Sam Rockwell (as his best-friend actor and would-be collaborator Billy Bickle), Woody Harrelson (as gangster/dog-lover/stone cold killer Charlie Costello), Abbie Cornish (as Martin's understandably discontent main squeeze, Kaya), Olga Kurylenko (as Charlie's girlfriend Angela, who has a side job), Christopher Walken (as the gentle, stylish, cravat-wearing dognapper Hans Kieslowski), Linda Bright Clay (as the self-sacrificing Myra), Kevin Corrigan (as Dennis, one of Costello's thugs), Tom Waits (as bunny-loving, killer-killing serial slayer Zachariah Rigby -- and find me a better character type than that for Waits), Harry Dean Stanton (in a perfect Harry Dean Stanton type: a vengeful Quaker), Long Nguyen (as the Vietnamese Buddhist priest), Christine Marzano (as the hooker), Gabourey Sidibe (as the cruelly harassed dog walker), Zeljko Ivanek (as Hollywood denizen Paolo) and Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg (as Larry and Tommy, two hit men who aren't around long).
That's sixteen characters (and one Shih Tzu) altogether, including the four psychopaths we already mentioned. You'll just have to figure out who the other three psychos are yourself, or wait until McDonagh shows one of them in the movie, and flashes the title "Psychopath One" (or whatever) on screen. There are some surprises. But I'd go see a movie with any three of the seven actors playing actual psychopaths in this one, in a trice. This is one hell of a cast, and every one of them does an excellent job, including the ones who get killed quick and the ones who don't speak a line -- and especially including Colin Farrell, who, as the writer, has to play straight man and do reaction shots to everyone else.
You can probably tell from that description that Seven Psychopths has a lot of Quentin Tarantino influence, even though writer-director McDonagh names two other directors as his favorite cineastes: the lyrical and sometimes violent Terrence Malick and the lyrical and almost always violent Sam Peckinpah. McDonagh's movie is one of those "meta" things, like Adaptation or Scream, in which we know the characters are in a movie, and maybe they know it too, and the movie is about how life and art and reality and the movies, and the concession stand, are all the same thing.
Anyway, this is what happens: The on-screen author of Seven Psychopaths, full name Martin Faranan (Farrell), has this title for a script he wants to write: "Seven Psychopaths," natch. But the only real psychopath Martin seems to know to aid his research is his crazy pal Billy Bickle (Taxi Driver allusion, of course), who always has a crooked grin to creep you out and who has put an ad for his buddy in LA Weekly. That ad asks any people of the psychopathic persuasion to get in touch.
Meanwhile, we see some psychos who may or may not be in Martin's script already. Dreams? Movie stuff? But the real murderous mother lode opens up when Billy and his partner in the dognapping business, Hans (Walken), dognap Bonny the Shih Tzu. That's a blunder that brings down the icy-eyed wrath of Bonny's owner/adorer/real bad guy, Charlie Costello (Harrelson).
Soon seemingly nonstop shootouts and a string of killings are under way. But Seven Psychopaths calms down, just about the time Martin's script is supposed to, and the show turns into a mellower, deeper conversation piece, with Martin, Billy and Hans wandering around and gabbing while hiking in the barren desert of Joshua Tree National Park and other hot spots, some artificial.
This is a smart movie, and a violent one, and occasionally a touching one, and all the actors in it seem to be having a hell of a good time. Ben Davis' cinematography here has a richly detailed gleam to it, a crisp action movie style put to better and more intelligent use than usual.
The Possession (B-)
U.S.: Ole Bornedal, 2012, Lionsgate
In The Possession, another horror movie with religious overtones -- or to put it another way, another knockoff of The Exorcist, there's this evil-looking box, see, with strange markings and Jewish symbols and little compartments with funny little keepsakes. And every time somebody opens it bad things happen. Minor characters get killed, major characters get threatened, houses are vandalized, moths crawl out of everywhere, and little girls named Emily go crazy and attack their classmates, stab their daddy with a fork, and start talking like Mercedes McCambridge.
Daddy happens to be an amiable but troubled college basketball coach named Clyde (played by Hollywood's favorite Javier Bardem look-alike, Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who's in a messy divorce with his wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick), and only gets to see his daughters -- little Emily (Natasha Calis) and older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) -- on scheduled visits, when Stephanie's smug orthodontist boyfriend Brett (Grant Show) is around.
Clyde's biggest hassles: the fact that Emily picked up that box at a yard sale and now seems to be possessed (or at least to have very bad table manners) and the difficulties of treating that possession before Emily's head starts swiveling and she starts describing indecent acts with Lucifer to everybody. He also has to do right by Stephanie and Hannah, and to drive all the way to Brooklyn to find a Hasidic exorcist -- and the only one who'll come back with him is Tzadok, played by ex-Hasidic rapper Matisyahu.
The Possession may be a knockoff of The Exorcist, with dybbuks instead of devils. But it's more entertaining, and more fluidly visualized, well-acted and excitingly done, than most of the mishegoss that passes for horror movies these days. The script, by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, is too often mediocre and derivative, and it drags the film down, especially at the end, when all Hell and several small hurricanes break out in Emily's hospital, without anyone on the staff seeming to notice, or seeming even to be around anywhere.
But it's actually a better scenario than most recent horror movies have (which admittedly isn't saying much), with more character and better dialogue, better acted. The direction by the Danish fright-meister Ole Bornedal (who did both versions of Nightwatch), is good, both visually and dramatically. So is the suburban cinematography by another Dane, Dan Laustsen. And there's better than good music by Anton Sanko, an ex-accompanist (for Suzanne Vega) who delivers an excellent pastiche of Bernard Herrmann's Hitchcock scores.
The Possession isn't particularly original, and that hospital scene is too much -- or maybe too little. But if you'll stick around for the final climax, the movie has a genuine shocker for you. The filmmakers here, especially Bornedal, have skills and style and chutzpah. And they have a Hassidic exorcist who can double on rap, plus the best imitation Bernard Herrmann I've heard in quite a while. They just need a better script, and maybe better table manners.
For a Good Time, Call... (D+)
U.S.: Jamie Travis, 2012, Universal
For a Good Time, Call... is a romantic comedy about two Manhattan roommates who collaborate on a phone sex service, and discover the joys of talking dirty for fun and profit. I didn't like it much (though it was a hit at Sundance). But there's something impressive about the way this movie finds and wastes a pretty good cast -- especially its costars, Lauren Anne Miller, as Lauren Powell, a doe-eyed brunette stunner, and Ari Graynor as Katie Steele, a blonde and brassy bombshell. These two talented actresses play two New York City twentysomethings who find love while operating that phone-sex company service in their rent controlled apartment above Gramercy Park. If that sounds like something crude and funny, you're half right.
Lauren and Katie start off as reunited old enemies who fell out early in early college years over a bad Farrellyesque joke involving a urine sample, and who are bought together now by their mutual friend Jesse the gay comic (Justin Long). Jesse, who seems to be constantly auditioning for a blue revival of Finian's Rainbow, leaps to the rescue when Katie is about to be booted out of her rent-controlled paradise and after Lauren has been cruelly kicked out of her digs by her clean-cut and slimy yuppie boyfriend Charlie (James Volk), who complains that life (and sex) with her is boring and anyway he's off to Italy. Jesse's suggestion: a sort of How to Marry a Millionaire rent split arrangement. Unfortunately these gals dislike each other so much, it's a wonder Jesse was able to keep his status as a mutual friend. Before you can say "clichéd rom-com," Lauren and Katie are living together, and Lauren has discovered Katie's phone-sex routines, and since she's temporarily between engagements, she decides to join Katie as business partner and then as a phone sex performer.
Miller and Graynor are congenial company, and they both have great smiles, which they overuse here. They also wriggle a little too much, either with or without Katie's private stripper's pole. (The idea is to let them act sexy, but show how silly it is.) Few of the jokes are funny, and that especially includes the phone-sex conversations, which only made me smile, once, during one customer's orgasm. This is the kind of movie that tries to milk laughs out of a scene where Lauren's parents (Mimi Rogers and Don McManus) visit her and Katie, and two huge dildos are perched on the coffee table. It's also the kind of rom-com where the characters talk about almost nothing but sex or themselves for the entire film. Not politics. Not literature or drama. Not movies or music. Not the Internet or the meaning of life. Nothing but sex and relationships.
For a Good Time, Call... generates some mild suspense by making us wonder, for a long time, who's going to supply the romance, to match up with Lauren and Katie. It can't be that jerk Charlie. But is it any of their faithful clients -- including Mark Webber as Sean, Katie's surprisingly sensitive best regular? Is it that loud cabbie played by Kevin Smith? Is it Jerry the frighteningly casual airline pilot, played by Seth Rogen (Miller's real-life husband)? Is it phone-mad Harold, played by Ken Marino? Could it possibly be Jesse the gay comic and dog lover? Could it be a mystery man, or a rent control expert? Or could this movie be planning a switcheroo, bringing the phone-sexers together for a lesbian finale?
I'll never tell. The movie was directed by Jamie Travis, who's made some prize-winning shorts, and the script was written by Miller and her ex-roommate Katie Anne Naylor. But anyone expecting another girl-hit like Bridesmaids may be sorely disappointed. It's just another high concept gone wrong.