RIORI Redux: Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” Revisited

The Players…

Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung, with Oscar Issac, Carla Gugino, Jon Hamm and Scott Glenn.

The Story…

Wrongly institutionalized after an accidental killing, a young girl known only as “Baby Doll” is slated for lobotomy. She’s nuts. She creates her own reality. She had nothing doing will denying her lecherous, drunken foster uncle getting cut out of the will. Nothing.

Baby Doll isn’t taking this lying down (so to speak), and naturally and aims to escape her prison as well as take a bunch of her fellow young female inmates along for the ride. But a ride it is, especially when Baby and her buddies have to dance their way out and in of her mental phantasms.

Wait, what?


So here we are.

This was supposed to be the 100th Installment here at Good Ol’ RIORI. Truth be told, what with me manipulating the structure of the so-called “volumes” here, we passed that landmark, like, fifty Installments ago. Weren’t you keeping track? I barely was. The snowdrift of mediocre movies I scrambled through has left my head a tad hazy. Too much underrated exposure to Aaron Eckhart and/or Scarlett Johansson I guess.

Instead, I’m opting to review and overhaul the first 17 Installments—the so-called Volume 1 of RIORI—for your viewing pleasure and mine own edification. The first volume consisted of posts on FaceBook. Basically extended screeds until I got wise and created a WordPress account to little fanfare. At first. I just cut-and-pasted my crap onto WP pages and figured that’s that, and went on to clamber up higher cliffs.

However, it always chafed me that the first “volume” here was a such a raw and naive attempt. The posts were too short, sophomoric and responding to the NOW culture that social media cultivates. In short, I was dumb and in a hurry. Why? Like all avid, would-be blogging Hemingways I had a message to spout and an ego to feed. And let’s face facts, FaceBook posts and blog posts are the same thing: ego massage. We all think our innermost opinions are an essential, Wikipedia-esque vitality the ‘Net needs. Hence the proliferation of funny cat videos on YouTube. I enjoy them too. Give in to the guilt.

At time of this pressing, a few months back on the Cooking Channel, food geek and scientist Alton Brown wisely decided to escort himself away from the role of game show host to get back into the kitchen. Being a cook, his Good Eats series was de riguer viewing through the aughts. The show was a treat, even if you weren’t some aspiring foodie (read: culinary snob in training). Brown’s witty discection about cooking worked on a Mr Wizard cum Kids In The Hall level that was entertaining as well as educational. Good TV overall, as well as scarce. Bam!

The aforementioned few months back involved Brown in “reloading” episodes of his original show. Correcting mistakes, tweaking formulas, adding new recipes and cleaning out his decade old erlenmyers stained with glace. That’s what I’m gonna do here: flesh out the bare bones that made this blog such a limping success. I think it’ll serve both as a revue of those heady days back in 2013 and an intro to all my new FaceBook followers to the glorious pile of cowpies I’ve had to scoop up over the last 6 years. Remember social media: fluff the ego.

So now, a hundred-plus Installments under my belt, and have since learned that deeper delving into a mediocre movie oft requires more than two paragraphs and a slump home, I’m gonna upgrade those lowly first 17 Installments. Polish them, groom them, apply mascara and hopefully expound upon my grand experiment. This time employing spellcheck and be naked of hubris.

Well, just mostly naked.

Here we go and here we try…

The Rant (2013)

Horror master Stephen King once wrote in his Bare Bones memoir that one of his biggest and earliest fears was losing your mind. Going insane. Having the cheese fall off one’s cracker. He did admit that the fear was viewed through naive eyes. One does not lose their minds in one fail swoop, like on an episode of the Twilight Zone or something. King addressed the process of going mad brilliantly in his classic, The Shining. As it became with Jack Torrence, psychosis happens across a continuum, develops like a malign dream, is a sickness. Insanity is not like breaking a limb, sudden and immediate. It’s deliberate and slow. To quote Riff-Raff, “Madness takes it toll.”

Apparently no one told writer/director Zack Snyder this.

It seems after Snyder’s sudden and runaway success with his 300 he earned carte blanche to indulge his cinematic id. Shoot a movie that popped from his fevered imagination fully-formed like Zeus’ siblings from Cronos’ cloven skull. One with even more spectacle than the crimson Battle of Thermopylae could deliver. A phantasmagoria of dragons, ninjas, robots, fighter planes and of course, girls with guns. The hallucinations of a diseased mind hyped up on truck stop speed and espresso.

Behold the opus that is Sucker Punch.

The title alone says something. An unfair blow to the gut. That’s more or less what this film delivers. It meets the standard of poor reputation, sad box office draw, critical lambasting and naturally going way, way over budget. So begins the inaugural installment of RIORI. Hooray!…

…*tumbleweeds roll across webpage*

Plot make any sense yet? There’s a plot? Is one even necessary? If the above sequence of events seem disparate from a single film, you’d be wrong. It’s more or less how Sucker Punch plays out. All at once. That rigmarole is a single film, one and the same.

WTF? Uh-huh. Yeah.

Sucker Punch has got to be one of the most demented sci-fi/fantasy/action hybrids I have ever seen (as if I’ve seen many sci-fi/fantasy/action hybrids at all).

The story is inscrutable, the acting both entrancing and repellant, the sets off-the-wall amazing and depressing and the F/X so beyond over the top you cease to have a suspension of disbelief. You have to go with it because otherwise, if you think about what’s going on too much, your brain would pop and spurt out of your ears like so much hot cerebral tapioca.

In short, Sucker Punch is awesome.

Sometimes you just wanna be entertained. Sometimes you need a big old guilty pleasure to make the day ease by a little smoother. Sometimes you feel like having your senses and sanity assailed, whipped with a cat o’ nine tails made of cobras wielded by a nude, immolated dominatrix that can juggle chainsaws, do origami with her toes and has a PhD in metaphysics whose name is Sheila. This is the movie for you.

Say what you want about Snyder’s infamous cinematic flair for visually going over the edge, he’s damned good at what he does. Punch has got something for everyone, except much consistency, substance or sense. The movie’s nothing short of utter nonsense, relying almost totally on the applesauce that usually complements a film’s key components like plot, acting, three-act structure, catering, etc. Epic special effects and big stupid surround sound eruptions. Martial arts and trench warfare. Robots and rockets. And of course, girls with guns in skimpy/tight outfits. Not to mention also that this film was dropped at the beginning of spring, before God, when most filmmakers are just putting out dandruff made last year. What balls it takes to make a film that is completely devoid of all the niceties and pretensions of polite, professional cinema. It’s oddly refreshing and to a lesser degree…quite mature.

I know. Calling out Sucker Punch’s execution as mature seems like a lot of hogwash considering Snyder’s debut was the 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead. Almost all of the Living Dead movies (save the original) are nothing more that puerile exercises in adolescent salivations for gore and mayhem. But to just toss everything out the window, simultaneously hurling sh*t at a wall just to see what’ll stick is a stance of defiance that only the most courageous, confident and maverick filmmakers command.

There is a ridiculous amount of heavy-handed symbolism, granted, as if even the most water-headed filmgoer can hitch a ride and take it all the way to the end of the line. Such handholding can come across as insulting at best and sturdily mawkish at worst. Such sophomoric storytelling is usually accompanied with a three season deal for a reality show on some Fox network, usually resulting in a book deal with Snooki (oops). Such rampant juvenilia usually hawks a big gob at any sane movie watcher. And yet, it does take guts (maybe not much brains) and a self-assuredness that only comes with a measure of wisdom. It also takes being stubbornly attached to your vision, no matter how myopic it may seem. In sum, Snyder is f*cking crazy. Bold, but f*cking crazy all the same.

Enough pontificating. What made the movie so “awesome?” Well, beyond the visual and sonic treats there’s…uh…nothing else really. The plot is wafer thin, moving along like sludge, only in place to be used as a medium to bounce from a scene of action, titillation, more action or another sequence that hopefully results in a lot of sh*t going kerblooey.

And the acting? Who cares? Only Jena Malone and Scott Glenn have any real acting chops. You might remember Malone portraying Jake Gyllenhaal’s girlfriend in Donnie Darko. She’ll be in the forthcoming Hunger Games sequel too, and possesses both earnestness and sass that works pretty well with her character Rocket here in Punch. Glenn’s been all over the place, known for playing grizzled characters, like Jack Crawford in The Silence Of The Lamba and Capt. Mancuso in The Hunt For Red October (guy seems to like working with Hollywood adaptations of novels). I enjoyed Glenn’s goofy cameos in the film quite a bit; an anchoring factor in a film that is always threatening to come off the tracks. Other than those two, the rest of the cast is only there to look pretty (they succeed. Duh).

The cinematography was mounted on a careening roller coaster. Very well, I might add. Nothing stays still for very long here in the world(s) of Punch. It’s a very, almost exhaustively kinetic film. Two hours freaking jet by watching this travesty. The frenzied action scenes are only interrupted by the “B” plot of the girls trying to flee the bordello/asylum/Babydoll’s ailing mind/who the f*ck knows awash in greys and silvers and a lot of dour expressions, an ethereal “reality” invading our crack-addled amusement park. This tries to be congruent and symbolic of the “A” plot, or is it the “C” plot? Christ, I couldn’t keep track. If this is Snyder’s attempt at auteur filmmaking…

Forget it. I should just stop trying. There are no redeemable “serious” filmmaking machinations at work in Sucker Punch. The only constant in the film is that there is a whole winking and nodding aspect of the feature that repeatedly shouts at you, the audience, are in on the whole messy jest. The unfortunate part is that the joke is without a punchline. Snyder gave us nothing to hang onto. Again, was that the point? The whole movie was pointless.

And rising above all this degradation was a solid two hours of entertainment.

At any rate, all this overly elaborate editorializing may fly in the face of what I’ve been rambling on about for the past few minutes. Maybe Punch wasn’t intended to be the masturbatory effort Snyder barfed out, rife with neon symbolism, feminine fantasies, an examination of mental illness and hallucinations of sphinx-like splendor. Maybe all Snyder wanted to do was deliver shock and awe. Visual and sonic bombast. A manga come to life. Scott Glenn in period garb. An excessive blow to the senses. Maybe stuff like that.

Sometimes that’s all you really need to be entertained, I suppose.

Rant Redux (2019)

When I re-read this pastiche, I was actually kinda surprised my “economy” of words summed up pretty well the essence of Snyder’s fever dream. I guess now that sometimes less is more, especially the face of the f*cking huge undertaking Sucker Punch must’ve been. After watching it again, the word big is an apt term for this mind-bending, very entertaining fiasco. Punch was the classic example of form following function, But the actual function was mired in such popcorn existentialism that I must’ve left the masses blind. Here we are, a bit budget popcorn flick that requires further examination. Wrong flavor for this kind of phantasmagoria.

Classic qualifications for a “cult film.” We’ll see if that prediction bears fruit in 2021. Maybe 2029 to be safe.

But yeah, I found that if you read between the stilted lines there was some very real feminist navel-gazing going on there. Not a bad thing. I found upon repeated views that it made the mess more palatable. It is odd to actually dissect a crazy, fantasy actioner like Punch as if deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls. Okay, maybe not that intense, but to simultaneously ask an audience to go along with this disjointed tale (which may be a manifestation of a diseased mind in abject fear for their sanity. Or not) as well as look for the loose nuts and bolts might be too much of a task for yer average Twizzler gobbler, like me.

The key term for Punch is existential. I swallowed wheelbarrow loads of Sartre and Kierkegaard back in college to recognize the bad faith that resonates in all of us, even in the movies. For the uninformed, the term “bad faith” was coined by none other that Jean-Paul himself; only this very moment matters. What’s past is past and gone. What may be, may be, but unattainable. Only NOW matters, and there is a very thick vein of NOW bleeding throughout Punch. Babydoll’s fate is moments away, but does what went down—no matter how tragic—means nothing now, and what might happen is an unattainable fever dream. If you doubt me, examine the editing (if you can with that salt and fake butter on your lashes).

I feel it is now time to admit that I’ve presently mastered the art of spewing bile and bullsh*t in equal doses. See what a difference six years make? You’re welcome.

At its heart, I think Punch is indeed akin to an existentialist play, one that navel gazes about being and nothingness, what it means to be human and its frailty and the price of true freedom. I know, heady sh*t from a Snyder film, but if you take the longview virtually all of Snyder’s movies question the human condition and what exactly is that anyway? 300, Watchmen, Man Of Steel, even his version of Dawn Of The Dead is about survival as well as maintaining one’s individualism against oppression (okay, Dracula 2000 barely scratched at that, but it did lead to sharper, not necessarily better things). There’s that metaphor careening through Snyder’s output, for good or for ill. It’s only his Punch that such a vision truly gels. And oy, it can be a headache to follow.

Punch is unique in its execution, ignoring the crazy, over-the-top, sumptuously rendered CGI action sequences. No. After watching and considering (and reconsidering) the movie’s flow, Punch tells a non-linear story. But instead of flashing forward and backward again through time (a la Quantum Leap), we go sideways. Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time (sub Babydoll for Billy). The story does trudge along a straight line, but with truly demented road stops along the way. This direction is not as difficult to follow as, say, The Fountain was executed. But once Punch diverges, you have to follow the context. Quickly. Even moreso than Aronofsky’s celestial mindf*ck.

The ozone trips that take place in Babydoll’s psyche/dance routines are all bristling with dire individualism. Seeking freedom, seeking self. Yeah, yeah. Lemme crawls out of my colon and face the sunshine. To be blunt, Snyder was exploring the “feminine mystique” from a guy’s POV. With lotsa booms and lotsa bullets. Lemme explain this in plain terms:

Back in the 1960s, writer and nascent feminist Betty Friedan penned the social examination The Feminine Mystique, questioning why the postwar homemaking women were so dissatisfied with their comfortable, modern convenience lives. Friedan called it “the problem that has no name.” Gender roles on the other shoes, usually wingtips: “What do women want?!?” Even modern women could answer that, but they knew that something was missing in their Better Homes And Gardens idyll lives.

Fast forward 50 years, director Snyder thought he had an answer—maybe a theory not unlike Friedan’s, but with more CGI aggression—and wanted to send a message/spin to arrested development, popcorn-munching Middle American movie goers that not only do women want to display themselves as strong, capable, assertive people but also heroes trying to escape social oppression based on centuries of patriarchal mores and control.

I’m back in my rear again, right? Too bad. You read it, you can’t unread it.

Punch is an over-the-top James Cameron movie, steeped in Snyder’s lack of subtlety. I cite Cameron, that old taskmaster, as a signature of his movies he always has a strong female protagonist. Always. Either some innocent who rises to the occasion or a tough-as-nails female who is still female. Think of his take on Ripley in Aliens, and her foil Vasquez. Or Sarah Connor in The Terminator and its sequel; she’s gets to be yin and yang. Of cast-iron bitch Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss. Or even funny lady Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies. Snyder had a statement to make in Punch, but was bleary-eyed in his execution. Cameron is like a knife. Snyder is like a stapler: I’ll pin a few things up here and there, you tell me what pages made sense. Snyder leaves it up to you…and maybe himself.

This is all a good thing. Really. I’m not bashing Snyder here (not this time) for his subtle-as-neon execution, script or production. Not at all. Punch was very entertaining, and that’s the ultimate goal of all movies. Shoving a erstwhile, CGI manifesto of a cinematic feminine mystique…well, I figure it would confuse most casual audiences. Not to sound any more high-minded than that I have already, but I studied wads of existentialist philosophy in college so I suppose I was inadvertently pre-programmed to enjoy Punch at the outset, even if I didn’t know that at the time. I mean, duh, females can be action heroes while still maintaining  mystique. I’m a guy. I can’t really get that, but I can respect that. Especiallly with awesome action scenes and rather pithy moments of sexy self-examination. Punch overall is a deconstructionist “girls with guns” melodrama. Snug clothes around a healthy female form is also a spoonful of sugar.

Sorry, I’m a guy. Deal with it, ladies of various strengths.

The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: Rent it. I even own a copy of Punch in my hard library, and has fast became a go-to flick when I need an action fix, like with the original Blade or The Matrix. It’s a guilty pleasure and I’m wearing a sh*t-eating grin proudly.

Next Installment…

We continue reconsidering director Zack Snyder’s muse with his take on Watchmen. Think what you may, but do acknowledge he got that project out of Production Hell and into cinematic flesh, warts and all.

For what that’s worth.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 73: Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” (2012)

The Players…

Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Olga Kurylenko, and Woody Harrelson, with Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish and Linda Bright Clay (if you squint just right you might spy the venerable Harry Dean Stanton, too).

The Story…

The hardest part about writing a story is the first page. Struggling scenarist Marty’s been experiencing this trouble for months, due to both writer’s block and hangovers. One my preclude the other.

Marty’s wingnut pal Billy is willing to help his wingman. Bill’s big on ideas, low on cash, dotty in the head and quite absent of scruples. The best gig this loser has isn’t wielding a pen but a dognapping scheme on the side. Scour the parks, make a mark and wait. His benefactor Hans has the connections (and if you can’t trust a guy named Hans, who can you?).

Then Billy makes the wrong connection; absconding with a psycho mobster’s prize shih tzu. Things just go into the supper bowl from there on.

Think this action’ll help Marty’s floundering script? If you have to ask, it’s obvious you’re not a dog person.

The Rant…

This one may ramble, ever moreso that usual. I hope your patience will be rewarded. I got fresh ginger snaps baking right now.

So. Where would black comedy be without Tarantino today?

Please flip open your textbooks to the chapter on mimicry and tribute, please.

I’ve gone on record that I think Tarantino is a hack, both here at RIORI and at several bars where I can clearly illustrate only with words what the bottom of a bottle of Bud looks like right before it gets impacted into your cheek. Folks got strong opinions about the man’s work. I do too, so start crushing your spent beer cans into hockey pucks now. I’m just about getting used to the outcome.

Still, I must admit he’s a clever, entertaining hack. Plenty of aspiring Hollywood scribes out there are still mixing their instant Ramen with their Tide at the laundromat. Tarantino did his salt mine service, as well as scrutinizing the old school movie sh*t that spoke to his inner muse. And it’s a damn good thing for him that Colombus, Ohio’s regular movie-going populace never listened to the Meters or saw Scream, Blacula Scream! Hence the Emoji Movie. Want fries with that? Of course we can super-size it. What’s a library?

*blogger scrubs bile from feet, wipes mouth*

Koff. Sorry there. Been a while.

So Q’s a big deal, his twitchy craft drawing thousands to the multiplex. I don’t mind that; it’s perfectly okay to have a favorite filmmaker. Yours creates worlds that speak to you, entertain you, maybe titillate you, with or without the red drape over the lamp. Taratino creates worlds all right, mostly violent, twisted and sometimes pervy worlds. A lot of his flicks are the equivalent of slowing highway traffic to catch a look at the car crash in the oncoming lane (and please quit doing that. I’m in a hurry and Shake Shack is only open so long).

But here is where I take issue with the man’s movies. When I call him a hack I don’t mean in the traditional, pejorative sense. To clarify, in Hollywood parlance a “hack” is a writer that churns out scripts for cash rather than creative ends, and integrity is a four-letter word. The term can be applied to writers in general, but the insult holds a lot of traction in Hollywood, probably due the large imbalance between good movies and poor excuses for poor excuses (every Alien vs Predator flick springs immediately to mind.) There’s a holy host of hacks out there in Tinsel Town pounding keyboards for a paycheck first with nary a muse to be seen. Unless you count the paycheck. I would.

Before I further clarify Q’s style of scribbling in relation to hackiness, I’m gonna cite an ideal punching bag when it comes to punch up. This screenwriter has been almost solely responsible for a wide smattering of unsatisfying, mediocre pap polluting silver screens as far away as Neptune. This odious creature came to my attention/rekindled my dislike courtesy of a blurb from The AV Club, so if you take issue with what I’m about to say, blame (or bless) Alex McLevy.

This scenarist isn’t know for black comedy, nor for winking pop culture splash, dash and thrash either. However he has had a dripping paw in many, many movies over the past 20 years that were—how shall we say this gently—total sh*t. From Batman & Robin to the recent release and would-be Stephen King franchise The Dark Tower that’s gone all pear-shaped. His scripts are crapola, and his cachet mostly rides on the Oscar he got for A Beautiful Mind, which won Best Pic for 2001. I could hem and haw, but to get the meat of the matter (as well as desperately keeping on topic) we must understand the difference between being a hack out of of creative naiveté and a need to keep the wallet full.

I don’t think Q’s of the former. I think Akiva Goldsman is. And there is a point to all of this schpiel about black comedy and hackery. There is.

Yeah. So Goldsman. Yikes. Him. You betcha. The master of spinning the Erle Stanley Gardner plot wheel. The resident epitome of hack writing. I’ll save the laundry list of his cinematic crimes for some other time. Not the point here. I’m gonna focus on that statue he finagled out of the dotty, old Academy; the one for Beautiful Mind‘s script. Again, Ron Howard’s feather-in-the-cap was a good movie. The acting was sterling (big ups to Paul Bettany and well-deserved bow to Jennifer Connolly. Ed Harris was along for the ride, too. Nuff said). Goldsman’s typing was well done.

(There’s a “but” coming.)

But, our hero scribe took a lot of liberties with the story. Either out of Hollywood sweeting or smoothing some edges. Sure, seeing Russell Crowe as mentally unbalanced mathematician struggle through…everything made for some gripping drama. I’m not one to nitpick. Much. No more than your average touring funk band passing whoever’s number. But not long after watching Mind with my then-girlfriend (who thinks Connolly is the bee’s knees; her fave film is Labyrinth, and Bowie wouldn’t be kicked outta the bed for eating crackers, no way) was studying psychology foe school, and the chapter came up about aberrant behavior came to the fore. She was assigned to deconstruct a movie that portrayed a character with mental illness, preferably a biopic (EG: Girl, Interrupted, Awakenings, The King’s Speech, the aforementioned Mind and etc) and later sift through the actual history of the case file.

After being over my girl’s shoulder, I learned that Mind could’ve been an even better picture if Goldsman didn’t muddy the story with Hollywood claptrap.

Example: in the second act, Nash’s wife Alicia has all but had it with her damaged hubby. But her REDACTED eventually wins the day. In reality the woman kicks Nash out for him to wander the world, later divorcing him. He’s eventually let back into his home (sans children. The real life Nash’s had no children) but only as a boarder. For like 13 years. They ended up “dating” for the rest of their days, even though Nash had many breakdowns and only got proper medication 20 years after his first schizo episode.

Is that black comedy? Very. Roll the rock away from the cave black, but not funny. In light of this historical info I felt that Goldsman’s script was for lacking. Wait. Did I feel that way prior to reading the historical record? No. Afterwards? Kinda. Didn’t care for the sweeting, or the hoodwink across my eyes realizing the the story could’ve been even more affecting. But in hindsight—and in a very oblique way—Goldsman’s final draft was blackly funny. Perverted even. After watching Russell Crowe love and care for people who were REDACTED (not sorry for this. Folks complain about spoilers more than jock itch, including females) than his own hottie wife? Not funny, but black and indeed comic.

BTW, the whole REDACTED exchange scene? Fabrication, even beyond Hollywood. Then Goldsman wrote into the ground I, Robot, I Am Legend and Transformers: The Last Knight to mention a few (2 of which came under my scalpel here already. Shiver now). Why Hollywood commits so many millions of ducats to placate this scribe escapes me. Then again I voluntarily watched a pair of them and scrawled about it here, mostly under the effects of sodium pentathol and whiskey. Kidding. I don’t drink spirits anymore.

Um. It’s not all bile here. Really. Patience pays, like I’ve heard about how it’s at at the local hospital. Back to hackery:

Ultimately we now come back to Quentin. Another writer cum director that saved Hollywood from itself, with all its tired plots, derivative storylines, banal dialogue and less than hip soundtracks featuring the dulcet tones of Steve Winwood post-Spencer Davis and Warren Zevon post-Warren Zevon. Tarantino made his mark with verve and flash; snappy witticisms, films rife with pop culture nods as well as its satires, warped plot lines and casts of thousands of left-of-center minor soon to become major players again. That and Sam Jackson and lots of that good old-fashioned ultra-violence. But with cheeseburgers!

Sounds snippy, doesn’t it? However if you think about it though there’s a lot of truth going on there. So much that Q’s maiden voyage of soon to be superstar mayhem got the square peg/round hole treatment from director Scott. Romance failed to figure what he had his hands on then, him being such a flashy filmmaker. I’m not saying Tony Scott’s a bad director. I’m shouting it.

True, the gateway drug for some was Scott’s True Romance. A film directed by a man who should’ve never directed it (tho’ he did a good job) backed by a script the scribe should’ve directed (but his Hollywood eyeteeth had yet to shed) by Tarantino. True Romance illustrated keenly that the slick hand of Tony Scott only caressed this flick courtesy of the soft massage he smoothed over Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop 2 (like there were a lot of unanswered Axel-esque questions still stabbing at the firmament). From Tarantio’s demented pen it was a byzantine (surprise) crime caper good horribly right involving gangland heavies, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it plot twists, Val Kilmer as Elvis and comic books (surprise?). The plot revolves around wayward lovers Christian Slater and Patrica Arquette on the run from, basically, themselves. Theirs is just the quotation marks that bookend the wily antics of the supporting cast (big ups to Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. The “interrogation” scene was worth the asking price alone).

Q’s story was good, executed with much flash. Scott’s direction was stiff and an extension of how totally out of his element he was directing a madcap Taratino script. Mr Top Gun tried quite hard to make Romance an action film until the stitching showed. Understood, it was entertaining, but Romance didn’t really stick with you. You kinda forgot it a week later, like some carton of lo mein in the back of the fridge. You know, the carton that sprouted tentacles? Pass the soy sauce.

Hold it. Before I lambast Q some more and Scott quite less, let’s reheat this: what is black comedy? Well, we ain’t talking Richard Pryor here (but if you considered his act that supposition may be not that far removed). We’re basically talking about laughing at death. And crime. And infidelity. And any unpleasant subject that disrupts our typical happy moral existence. As far as movies and their stories go, Tarantino didn’t invent this subgenre. Making light of tragedy goes back to Shakespeare (e.g. Measure For Measure, The Taming Of The Shrew, Othello, etc), if not further.

*rifles through the Good Book*

Consider the tale of Christ’s passion. No, really. There’s a warped humor in that mythos. We have the alleged son of God as irritant to the status quo. Guys, you don’t need to have fealty to the emperor. He don’t care about you none anyway. Just be kind and compassionate to your neighbors and maybe we’ll all be better for it. Love is all you need, right Thomas?

Nope. Three nails, hung in the hot sun until you suffocate. Ugh. That spear sure stings, I’ll wager.

In the final act however JC rolls that rock away from the cave to the astonishment of his best buds and says, “Been there, done that. My Dad loves me and loves you all. But the next time you f*ckers see me you better jump.”

Kinda like that.

A good story, smeared with some rather ill-fitting concepts about how we’re supposed to get along but take great pleasure in not. Jesus playing poker with Death and rapping Him on the knuckles with a ruler. Bittersweet? Sure, but so is black comedy.

That’s been Q’s ace up his sleeve. He’s made silly of tragedy, to clever ends by the way. In his magnum opus Pulp Fiction as prime—if not seminal—example all the cards are on the table, smearing Taratino’s malign and prickly id for all the world to see, especially Middle America. How the Wolf cleans up the car. How Butch rescues Marcellus, considering the implements of destruction. How Mia responds to a shot to the heart. Stuff like that, and all of it black. Quite black. We’re talking charcoal here. Accidental shootings, sodomy and drug overdoses are decidedly unfunny. Unless played by the proper hand.

That’s the key: a smart scenarist that can wrap a chewy center around a delightful chocolate coating of irony and winking. I begrudging credit Q as quite adept at this feat. Such style has influenced countless “edgy” directors and writers in his wake. Some for the better, most for the snore. So much so that a holy host of filmmakers often get catch a bad case of the Tarantinos. Roger Avery, sometimes Guy Ritchie and maybe our guy on the chopping block, today’s hero Martin McDonagh. Sometimes it’s okay, the rest of the time it’s fanboy worship.

So how is black comedy supposed to work? Simple. Despite all the blood, guts and failed genital piercings, black comedy must be funny. Comedy is comedy. It can be a tough row to hoe. For all the dubious praise and credit I unloaded on Q, his influence is inescapable as well as earned. As well as winningly funny. Without his demented scripts we wouldn’t have entertaining flicks about murder and mayhem and all the chuckles they warrant like Doug Liman’s Go, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch and (maybe, we’ll see) this week’s gonzo platter Seven Psychopaths. All were amusing, all were left-of-center, all were a gunshot wound buffet. Not bad for a pop culture Cuisinart filmmaker like Tarantino. I mean, for a hack.

So does my litany say that hackery and black comedy are intertwined somehow?

Maybe. All those non-linear, divergent plot threads often muddy already muddied, blood-stained, clogged with dead dog’s bodies waters.

Sorry. That might be a tad stony. Someone send up a flare…

Marty (Farrell) has a problem. Problems. He’s a Hollywood screenwriter, struggling with his latest story. Writer’s block. That’s one.

The other might be a drinking problem. Might be a two.

Or his pesky tagalong buddy Billy (Rockwell) who wants to offer his BFF writing advice, despite being unable to put a paragraph together without using profanity like quotation marks. Probably a third.

The aforementioned love affair with the bottle made Marty’s gritchy wife Kaya (Cornish) bail. Winking at a fourth.

Billy’s also a leech, unable to hold down any real job. All he really has going for him is this kooky dognapping scheme when where all goes well, he takes away a meager handful as his “benefactor” Hans (Walken) “reaps” the “rewards.” That’s way too many legit quotation marks. Definitely a fifth.

(You see where this is going, right?)

It all gets ugly when Billy nabs the wrong pooch. Crazed gangster-type Charlie’s (Harrelson) prized shih tzu Bonnie is a jewel in Hans’ crown and a bullet for Billy’s head. Naturlly a worried Billy pulls Marty into his demented circle. Quite the sixth.

At the end of several very long days, Marty finds himself along with Billy and Hans on the run from Charlie’s goons, malice on their minds and a mission to rescue Bonnie at all costs, guns at the ready. And still no damned script near done.

That’s seven. Quite a handful—fistful—of goofy problems for poor Marty. And all he wanted to do was finish the stupid script. If he gets out of this scrape it might make a helluva story…

Okay. This one is black. But not bleak. There is a difference.

First, let’s talk about Tarantino some more. Right, so I called him a hack. He is, and here’s why (but not really. My viewpoint gets rather blurry so cut me some slack): it’s a foregone conclusion that scenarists create scripts based on a few standards. I do the same here, but for free! You’ll be reimbursed somehow for your curious patience.

The standard as I call them are simple: create an entertaining story to be made into a movie, let your creative (if sometimes manic) muse channel your creative energy into the creation of said script to be the backbone of a good movie, and may your finished product may be able to elevate a humdrum movie into a machine that churns out the tickets.

I did not mention creative ego. I also did not mention placating said ego. A well-written, successful movie should be the scenarist’s final reward for hard work done. A nice, shiny statuette that looks dandy on the mantlepiece or the back of the guest bathroom’s toilet would be nice reward, too. The guest bathroom, not the statue. If you got a guest bathroom it prob’ means you have a nice house and maybe entertain a lot. Enjoy scooping out your guest’s “rainbow trout” floating in the bowl come Sunday. I am a very petty man.

Speaking of being petty, I find most of Q’s very entertaining films satisfying a very basal need. Namely his, and they also are myriad.

I call out Tarantino as a hack because almost all of his work contains not so very subtle but incredibly winking nod to his pet subjects. Namely almost outre film genres (EG: blaxploitation, spaghetti westerns, giallo, etc) riddle his “high concept” work. That and a lot of fanboy-ism. To put it simply, Q’s  a hack for not churning out scripts for money. He does it to stick a middle finger up the jocks’ assh*les that bullied his geeky ass so brutally in high school. That might actually be on record somewhere.

His films aren’t films. They’re revenge for a miscast youth. Spielberg’s flicks may be steeped in childhood tribulations and personal obsessions, but there’s precious little finger-waving in his output. Q’s a hack for willfully not pulling up his pants. He’s a show-off, and that’s why I begrudgingly like his output. As do every frat boy and wayward high school nerd who worn bondage pants in the 90s just after they eventually got hip to the Desendents.

It’s also why I often play the curious motorist, stuck in sluggish traffic and needing to know why I’m gonna be late to work. Again. Always on the scan for the flickering klaxons (that’s what they’re called) spinning on the squad car on the shoulder that has either pulled over a drunk driver, at the scene of twisted metal or just some poor schlub with a bum rear tire. I don’t really want to see this, but the rest of Middle American traffic patterns have already clogged the thruway and now I must plug in the Bluetooth and call in. That and check out the carnage. Not by choice, mind you. Really. And pay no mind to the dude behind the dude.

I don’t care for Tarantino’s work, and feel guilty for watching his pr*ck flap about for over two hours. And yet somehow dig it. I don’t suckle like most of his frat boy fans (despite me being a frat boy once), but I feel I’m pretty good at seeing Q still wears tighty-whiteies. That and I already had the entire Meters catalogue (on CD) in my collection pre-1993. I was band geek; leave it alone.

Sigh. That being said, Seven Psychopaths‘ director McDonagh caught a bad whiff of Tarantino’s spent typewriter ribbon (I’m willing to bet that the man still churns out his stories via typewriter; that would be the hip thing to do, right?). Martin’s script/direction sure felt like Tarantino wishful thinking to this dolt here.

I mean here:

Our story has it all regarding black comedy paired with hackery. And yet…and yet the final product did not suck. Sure. It was derivative Tarantino, maybe just a shadow. Still these days it’s tough to cut a film like Seven without echoing/nodding to Q’s fidgety output. Especially considering all the mockery was there. No clear hero? Check. Wonky, wandering premise? Double check. Eclectic, at-odds casting? Yeah. Christopher Walken? Need I say more?

So where’s the issue?

At the end of the day, none really. It’s been beaten to death that Tarantino’s scribblings have spawned an unearthly amount of hacks taking their swing at the next big Pulp Fiction maladjustment. However with Seven, and McDonagh in specific, I gotta reload this popgun and aim: it ain’t the notes, it’s how they’re played.

In order to be good at riffage, you need to be very good at your axe and have a keen ear to absorb what sounds exciting and timeless. Director McDonagh kinda, sorta succeeds here, if you count aping Tarantino success. Maybe so; mimicry and flattery and all dat gobbledygook. Still, Seven feels like McDonagh is banging away warped AC/DC chords in his parents garage. But then again, Angus Young’s licks weren’t terribly complex in the first place. And they sounded good. Still do. Now here:

Black comedy? Seven is more like a spoof. Like I said, all the elements are in place. A sensitive, whacko mobster after the guys who pilfered his prized pooch as Ponzi scheme? There’s a plot out of an ish of mid-90’s Mad magazine, and plays that way, too. Wait, hold on. That’s not quit true. Seven reminded me more of a descent into a demented version of a Hope/Crosby “road movie” from the 40s: Road To Singapore, Road To Rio, Road To Compton, etc (cue golf swing).

For those when need to know where that goofy analogy comes from, curl up by the fire, honeychile. Venerable comedian/actor Bob Hope and just as venerable singer/actor Bing Crosby teamed up together for a bunch of these road movies back in the 40s, where the plots were interchangeable and always involved our hapless heroes in wonky, silly circumstances simultaneously on the run from someone to somewhere to somewhere else. They were huge cash cows and virtual pop culture staple in the American movie-going congress. So much so that their oddball influence convinced some nabob at Colombia (namely one Warren Beatty who produced the mess) to do a tribute in the form of a little film failure called Ishtar. It also had its two leads (again Beatty with a confused Dustin Hoffman) on the run and plopped into terra incognitaDirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap it wasn’t. Sounds like the stuff Goldsman would thrive in, like pinworms in an infant’s stool.

That being said (no, not the pinworm sh*t), Seven in a way revives the old gold-hearted crooks on the lam schtick, only with a sticky black center. And again, it kinda works. As black comedies go, this is light (or perhaps light-hearted) on the black, and dished out with some strategy.

Like with Tarantino’s signature casting-style, Seven would be a truly derivative absurdist comedy without our motley crew. If you think about it—but not too much, mind you—Q’s capers would be pretty straightforward action-dramas if it weren’t for his irreverent characters. Well, Seven is no different. In fact, if it weren’t for its oddball cast, there really wouldn’t be much of a movie, just an overwrought Monty Python skit. Seven barely missed being tagged a bigger budget remake of Death;s dinner scene from The Meaning Of Life.

Think I might be crawling up mine own arse here. To quote Grail: “Get on with it!”

Right. The cast. Meat and potatoes. Our crew is comprised of unpleasant people, some less than others. It’s kinda odd. Our protag Marty played by an ornery, drunken Farrell is supposed to be the “hero.” Of what? He’s the lead, sure, but he’s also co-dependent, both on the bottle and Rockwell’s dopey Billy. How are we supposed to get behind such a wishy-washy lush?

Ah ha. That is the trick, the ace up McDonagh’s sleeve. What sets his cast apart—from Colin all the way to Woody—from the standard Tarantino cast of thousands is along with Marty no one here earns our sympathy. Hell, even Jules and Vince on their way to the first hit have a friendly rapport (French burgers and such), and even more telling—which also earns the audience’s sympathy for these two hoods if only for a nanosecond is the throwaway line: “Let’s get into character.” The hit is their job, not who they are, especially considering Jules “trying to be the shepherd” at movie’s end.

(Damn. My anus is really dark. And warm, too.)

Marty and company are all heels (save Hans, but only a little bit). These hoodlums are bleakly funny, but no one would ask them to house sit, lest they want the liquor cabinet ransacked, all their teenage daughter’s panties gone and landing on Etsy and the big plasma TV destroyed, screen impaled by an errant tennis racquet with one of Steffy’s thongs wrapped around the handle. Let alone dog sit.

I do paint a picture, don’t I? But really, for all of Marty’s addictions, Billy’s idiocy, Hans’ smarminess and Charlie’s hair-trigger there is no “getting into character.” It’s already ready already. All McDonagh gave us was a goofy script with a lot of one-liners/sight gags, the strategic plot twists and an eventual shootout, OK style in the final act. No more, no less.

So what was so enjoyable about Seven? Glad you asked and I appreciate your saintly patience. That thing above: strategy. Although it takes a bit to sink in/gel, you figure out across 100 minutes that Seven is indeed a spoof. A really subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, ham-fisted spoof, but a joke nonetheless. The over-arching strategy here? Seven thrives on meta-humor. Uber-meta-humor. We’re talking if you don’t get it, you’re not seeing it, not hearing it and/or totally ignorant to Tarantino’s stock in trade. And f*cking Pulp Fiction was sodden with meta humor (you ever notice that all the servers at Jack Rabbit Slim’s were dead celebrities from the 50s? No? You proved my point).

Seven is one big winking joke, but still a funny one. By the second act I found myself laughing out loud at our madcap cyphers. Not so much for the aforementioned wisecracks, pratfalls and very cold-blooded scenes involving blood, cancer and betrayal, but for the “I saw what you did there!” moments. Namely, I was laughing in spite of myself and the wit. Not sure if one precluded the other. Not matter, funny is funny and quietly mocking a subgenre—a rapidly hackneyed one—is, well, black. Spitting in Satan’s eye and the Dark One planting a smoldering cloven hoof into your anus. Which may explain my warmth.

Speaking of warmth, even though our gonzo cast aren’t the most original, fleshed-out folks, McDonagh found a way to keep these seamy miscreants enjoyable. Sympathy may be hard to come by with Marty and company, but our canny director created a very resourceful work-around to make us curious about these clods.

Farrell, Rockwell et al simply play themselves. Especially Walken and Harrelson, whose on screen charcters are virtually inseparable from who they are as “real people.” Got a heavy feeling a lot of this flick’s dialogue was off-the-cuff (particularly regarding Walken’s signature stammering delivery). You wanna little madcap dash with your heist scheme gone wrong? Make sh*t up as you go, Hell, worked on Who’s Line Is It Anyway? Minus the dognapping thins (but I’ll betcha Proops had a bit waiting in the wings).

Rockwell being Rockwell, virtually all his roles hang on him being a wordsmith at best and a motormouth at best. You think the story is demented? Well so is Rockwell’s Billy, Marty’s doofus foil and aide de camp. He’s the passive protag here, second fiddle. But ultimately Seven is his movie. Like how he stole the show in The Way Way Back (that installment is kicking around here somewhere), Rockwell comes across as naturally dumb, smartass, clueless and very cagey all at once. We understand his Billy to be the (potential) wild card, but like all his mouthiness, his role is shuck-and-jive. Namely, he’s naturally wonky so much he’s clever. Yeah, he was also the funniest.He’s a naturally funny actor. Not comedic, but funny. In the head funny. Don’t give Rockwell the keys after you’ve been drinking. It’ll only result in finding another one of Steffy’s thongs stashed in the glove box, stinking of formaldehyde.

Now Walken, like in all his roles, regardless of genre is unnaturally funny. I ain’t talking unintentionally funny, like how Hope made Bing look silly in Road To Cleveland (that might have been a real movie. Might). I’m screaming regardless of the movie, regardless of the role Walken is an ill-fitting suit. From The Dead Zone to Communion to True Romance to that nifty Fatboy Slim music video when Chris got to show off his dance moves the man is so endearingly awkward that you can’t help but grin whenever he’s on the screen. No different here in Seven. It’s always David Byrne-style “How did I get here?” with Walken, and even though his smarmy Hans endears enough clean sympathy here there’s always this undercurrent of “This is not my beautiful wife!” Even though Hans’ beautiful wife is well aware how he got here. If this makes no sense, big deal. You just gotta see Walken’s Hans to taste the meta.

Woody’s Charlie is so casual, which is what makes him scary. I’m not talking in-yo-face, absurdist, Mickey Knox scary. No. We all were introduced to Harrelson as the simple-minded hick Woody Boyd back on Cheers. His casual obliviousness endeared almost to idiot savant level on that classic sitcom populated by a lot of misguided barstool philosophers. Despite Cheers was ostensibly a comedy, the addition of Boyd to the cast invited a catch-you-off-guard kind of humorous character. Irreverent, sweet and like a lost puppy (let that go. It’s just a metaphor, dammit). Woody Boyd as Charlie is no different; not such a big leap. Charlie is Harrelson is Boyd: sweet, confused and child-like. Did I also mention psychotic? Yeah, he was a fun “villain.” Keep that gun clean, there.

All right, there’s a few takes on our usual suspects (Farrell was a tad wooden and the females were simply wallpaper. Hell, Cornish was barely paste). We gotta mention some technical aspects. It’s already agreed upon that Seven is a bottom-feeding, winking joke (and all the better for it), but some props must be given to McDonagh for tweaking a little mood-making for shots and staging and of course pacing. Despite the film’s trademark lack of trademarks the director has gotta spin some spin, right?

Uh-huh. Two major things about Seven‘s atmosphere crawling up on me. First, the lighting. Something about it, like it never quit. Very little shadow here, almost as if it played into McDonagh’s “You get it, right?” aesthetic about his take on black comedy and how he was blatantly ripping off/scewering Tarantino’s tropes. Don’t miss a thing here. Take the shade off the lamp, you’re naked now. It was another piece of the puzzle that made me giggle all the more when I felt I shouldn’t have. Sometimes covert clever can be more inviting than overt “clever.”

The second thing that swirled about my prickly movie-chewing muse watching Seven was its pacing. It was odd. Not dragging (although the final act kinda scraped bootheels in the sand), just odd. It kinda ping-ponged, but neither too fast nor too slow nor just right. It created some genuine unease in the watching that the characters’ predicament did decidedly did not. Some boat-rocking on par with eating that chili burrito before getting on the Coney Island Cyclone; something’s not gonna end well and it might require tossing away a shirt. You gotta create tension somehow in a film? Isn’t f*cking with the flow of the story a sharp way to do so? Works better than a knowing cast of goofballs contradicting one another’s motives. I’ll take what I can get.

Oh yeah. One more thing. Since Seven‘s story hinges on Marty’s failure to cut a script again and again and again, a question began to curl around brain stem halfway through the film. Was this all in Marty’s head? He’s a drunkard, restless and obsessed with finding a way through to completing the script. And everyone he deals with seems so wrote and reflecting the troublesome psychopaths he’s trying to rein in, would it not be too far a cry that his adventures are nothing more than his frustrated psyche trying to find some sort of escape? I mean, the final act wraps up in the desert, almost all Rimbaud-like (including Marty’s hair). If that were the case, wouldn’t all the black nightmare comedy, derivative characters (including the Quaker Billy suggested that also suggested his real life) and overall disconnected, dysfunctional, inebriated malaise he suffers over may bow down to a dreamlike existential crisis?

Hey. Wait. I don’t recall eating granola bars. Uh-oh.

That’s the weird thing about black comedy, hackery and meta-humor. Alone it’s all pretty straight forward. Piss on the devil’s tail and avoid the pitchfork. Write fast but not well and avoid critical scorn while laughing all the way to the bank. Joke about sh*t that was never intended to be funny until the right joker comes along. All a bit esoteric, sure, but no real mystery there.

The mystery arrives, and hopefully in an entertaining fashion, when you don’t know where the f*ck to start looking. And where to start looking first, if ever. Seven was like hearing the joke about the aristocrats. I’m getting offended, but please tell me where I’m going?

Good news. Wipe your brow. You’re not on the Road To Perdition.

Hang on. Was that an actual movie? Or was it Metacritic?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Yeah, it’s a canard in the best, middling Taratino sense, but also funny enough as an okay waste of a Saturday afternoon. Just don’t forget to curb yer dog.

Stray Observations…

  • “One cancer ward, comin’ up!” Worst. Cocktail. Ever.
  • “I don’t have a drinking problem! I just like drinking!” The first step.
  • Walken has got to be the best near-physical actor ever.
  • “He’s from Ireland.”
  • Zack. Hommage to Tom Waits’ first film role?
  • “Okay. You seem normal.”
  • Mac is one sick bastard, God bless him.
  • “A little.”
  • The scene with the wheelchair was some delicious tension.
  • “This dog is my Patti Hearst!” Cue cheesy poofs.
  • Farrell should’ve stuck with small films. Gives him more room to actually act than just be handsome.
  • That whole “one eye” bit? Yeah, that’s from a Tom Waits lyric. Full circle!
  • “Want some people, Billy?” “Why not?” Just say no.
  • NO SHOOTING. Enough, already.
  • “I wanna know what happens in the end!”

Next Installment…

Can Abby Breslin uncover the pseudo-mystery of who her mom really is? Definitely, Maybe, kinda like what the blue stripe sometimes says. And how Dad may snivel.