Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough, with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo and Zoe Bell.
Earth. It used to be a nice place to live. Commander Jack Harper thinks so, especially now he’s stuck planetside salvaging scrapped tech and maintaining the automated defensive drones. An alien invasion took it’s toll on Earth, so everybody save Jack and his partner jumped ship and sailed off to Titan to begin new lives. Well, Jack’s stuck with his old one, indefinitely. Then one day a crippled starship enters his territory. Its sole occupant, a mysterious woman, leads Harper to discover some unknown, shocking truths about humankind’s legacy beyond broken cities and mechanized battlebots.
Have you noticed lately that Tom Cruise’s roles lean towards the action hero type? The guy’s fifty-one. Can we say “mid-life crisis?” From the Mission: Impossible franchise to Jack Reacher to Oblivion, it may be now safe to say that his Top Gun days are well over. Best be sure to tell Tom this factoid. It’s time to retire into Forrest Gump territory. And that role gave Tom Hanks street cred. Ironic huh? Like the star of the Fast & Furious franchise going up in an auto-shaped ball of flame?
What, too soon?
And isn’t Morgan Freeman in every movie nowadays? I mean, other than schilling for Visa, hosting Through The Wormhole on the Science Channel, and (as an aside) portraying his best role, Easy Reader from The Electric Company, (that dates me) the guy’s been f*cking everywhere. Maine prisons. Rubbing elbows with rogue spies. Trundling bitchy Miss Daisy down to the Piggly Wiggly. Surviving cancer with Jack Nicholson. Off to Vegas with other geriatrics. Now he’s on post-apocalyptic Earth. Guy gets around faster than a rabbit with herpes.
(PS: I wrote the above before even watching the movie. I’m assuming my pontificating holds up some…)
…I was wrong. Anywho…
Oblivion is an odd duck of a comic-book movie adaptation. What makes it odd is that, first of all, it was based on a comic. I didn’t know that. Did you? Really? Huh. Goes to show what I know. Secondly, I haven’t seen so much philosophizing about identity within a sci-fi film since the original Star Wars trilogy. I don’t say this as derisive, though it may come across that way.
The plot Oblivion is a thin one, but it tries to come across as much thicker than it is. The movie’s motif borrows from countless sci-fi psychodramas, from Blade Runner to Solaris to…to the Solaris remake with George Clooney. Oblivion has less to do with creating new worlds and more about proclaiming identity. It’s character drama. The concept of who you are in a given time under certain circumstances. Are you really sure of who you are and what those circumstances are? Are you lost? Is it the déjà vu all over again scenario? I don’t know, and film did not provide any easy answers.
What it did provide was a visually clean farscape. Not ostentatious, with a lot of smart CGI. You know how most of today’s sci-fi films want to bludgeon you over the head with digitally rendered whatsits and foreign locales off-world with nary a modicum of subtlety? Right, Oblivion doesn’t do that. Instead it offers up a very real, one could say prescient view of a ravaged planet Earth. Did I mention the cinematography (including the CGI enhancement) is breathtaking. I won’t lie to you. Most of Oblivion is pretty damn beautiful.
There was a bit more original drama than I had expected for a lifted plot. Actually, this movie is more a melodrama wrapped up in the guise of a sci-fi flick. There’s a good amount of play and tension against the characters, not unlike a relatively well-wrtten soap opera arc. And like your daytime dramas, there is plenty of intrigue and weird plot loops tossed about. It’s tricky to give a clear explanation about what Oblivion is really about because, 1) it’s near impossible without dumping spoilers all over you, and; 2) it’s not exactly clear what Oblivion is trying to say. Don’t get me wrong. The film is interesting. It’s also obtuse as hell, and can make for a confusing viewing experience. But it’s sci-fi, only when it’s not, and when it’s not…um, it’s something else. Stop yelling at me.
This was a confusing review to write, and it shows. Mostly because I didn’t know where to stand on this film. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It was rather confusing as if the film couldn’t make up its mind. It sure as sh*t met The Standard considering its lousy turnout at the box office. Is that a reflection on this movie? Kinda. I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that Oblivion was pretty.
Rant Redux (2019)…
I’ve been noticing lately that in addition to commenting, editing, twisting and rationalizing the reasons why my earliest installments need some tweaking, I’ve found myself inadvertently correcting other stuff. Like the list of the players for the particular hack job I’m trying to suture. After the story, who is telling it is the most vital part of the movie, kinda like a Greek chorus; the cast and the director serve that need, following by the scenarist (however the poor drudge who wrote the damned script seldom gets any recognition save the dog and pony show every February). All together form the foundation for a movie, and the rest (eg: costuming, soundtrack, CGI effects, riders, etc) are in essence eyewash.
Why am I telling you this? For the first part, me noticing errors and fixing them are the meat of why I’ve been revising these sandwiches. If the cast and creative crew are indeed the vital signs of a winning or faltering movie I gotta give credit where credit is due (despite the cracks about Cruise’s midlife crisis cum action hero, he did a good job here, as well as most of his John McClane-esque roles). That and it’s the easy part of doing this crap.
The second part is that I am truly, truly sorry for this installment—even more regretful hoodwink that was Silver Linings Playbook. Oblivion‘s rambled and rambled and was held aloft by some pretty righteous bullsh*t. Truth be finally told, I was way too messed up to even pay attention to the second and third acts, and here’s why:
My then wife for months was suffering from an incessant cough. She smoked quite a bit so that was no surprise. I smoked, too. But it was this angry, raspy cough that sounded like she was going to puke up her lungs. She wisely saw a doctor and had some tests done. Weeks later when she delivered my the preliminary results it was on my night off (late at night) when she dropped the science on me.
COPD was the verdict. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Your lungs betray you and gradually refuse to do their job. You suffocate on the carbon dioxide you have difficulty expelling. The disease invites an unholy host of terrible maladies, and in the endgame COPD is what kills you. From my understanding and her explanation she was living on borrowed time.
My first reaction was angst. I pressed her for info getting increasingly agitated with every vague detail, drinking all the while, meantime Oblivion (oddly accurate) was rolling on the BD player. I was bawling, screaming “It’s not fair” and fuming with rage and alcohol. I was so torqued I snatched a hatchet from the tool shed and contemplated trashing my own car. I didn’t though, through my whiskey-addled haze I thought of my insurance premiums and it would be expensive to cover my own vandalism. It’s weird what sticks in your conscience when yer pished.
So then what? Grief, fear, crying jag, booze. The wife had went to bed, understandable scared of the diagnosis (and me too, I guess). I was left alone stalking the living room, Oblivion still on pause. Grabbing at a stone, I crashed back down deciding to “watch” the movie. The remaining notes on my pad were blind chicken scratch. Not that I cared. I just needed something that felt normal then and there.
Write drunk, edit sober. Doesn’t really work for movie reviews, since you must have your faculties about you. Big shocker but I only recalled bits and pieces of the end of the movie and the early rant shows that? Did it sound like a lot of BS to you? Bingo! You’ve just won a prize: my bittersweet honesty. You’re welcome and sorry again.
On the brighter side, later on my wife’s diagnosis was reduced to severe asthma, a precursor to COPD but was treated and cleared up after a year or so.
Don’t smoke, kids. And don’t drink and pass judgement on mediocre movies that don’t make much sense. Even when sober.
So after wiping a fresh bar towel across my blurred memory of Oblivion I took to task to giving it a second chance. The movie’s title did it justice to my mental state back then. It’s amazing what one can take away from a Tom Cruise movie with the suspension of disbelief and not under the influence of whiskey. Beer maybe, but not whiskey. What? You think I’m nuts? This was a Tom Cruise movie! You need to numb yourself for most of his filmography. You can’t handle the truth.
You know the expression about a thing being “greater than the sum of its parts?” An example of this is Star Wars: A New Hope. If you take it apart and scrutinize the film (as millions of mouth-breathers do every hour), the thing is riddled with flaws, inconsistencies and a lot of flubs (not to mention the last scene lifted from the ultimate Nazi agitprop film Triumph Of The Will. Dubious at best, nerf herders). But despite those flaws—or perhaps even because of them—A New Hope is a lot of fun. It’s not a great movie, stuck with all the claptrap of comic book sci-fi trappings; a popcorn movie to be sure, but I like popcorn, especially on a lazy Saturday afternoon with no hangover to nurse. The movie has a homespun charm than can’t be denied, and that scrappiness elevates, if not buoys the entire franchise (even most Rebels can forgive the questionable prequels for stretching the plots and defying internal logic…no they didn’t). It’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Oblivion is the direct opposite. It’s entertaining, but only based so on the cool parts the movie culls from. Imagine all the noteworthy S/F films in Hollywood canon, if not doctrine from the past 50 years. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet Of The Apes, Silent Running, The Matrix, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and, yes the Star Wars saga. Oblivion treats films of that ilk like the salad bar at Old Country Buffet. Picks at what looks good despite what might be best for you. But it’s from the salad bar! Yep, and Oblivion is cottage cheese drenched in French dressing. It may not suit all tastes, but it comforting for many. Then again so is hanging out with John Barleycorn.
Post-apocalypse survival. AI run amok. Nuclear holocaust. Alien invaders. Screwed up history. Mind warps. All present in Oblivion. I once (read: infinitely) applied the saw attached to the blues to describe how a niche film genre works. Say it with me now and you’ll get a cookie: it’s not the notes, but how they are played. John Lee Hooker made millions by this precept. And why not? It works, both in music and cinema. It works…but it can get tiresome. You can only listen to “Boogie Chillin'” so many times trying to eradicate that memory trapped in the murky mire that was The Blues Brothers (don’t forget the Cheez-Wiz, boy).
Oblivion borrows a little from all the above films and tropes and essentially does the “greater than…” idiom in reverse. It felt like director Kosinki (probably bummed his Tron reboot didn’t fly) went through a sci-fi flea market and picked out all the goodies he knew would work in his next effort. Ir did, just not in the way he might have hoped. We understand the three-act structure of plays and films, and there are sub-acts—scenes—that add light and shade to the plot as it moves merrily down the lane. Scenes should never be abrupt, or at least without exposition; they are not chapters. After Kosinksi cobbled together his movie from multiple dips at the golden sci-fi movie spring you can practically see the stitching as the movie moves from chapter to chapter, not scene to scene. At least I was correct in my original opinion: no segue so no sense. Jarring. Abrupt. And yet so familiar…with good reason.
Hey folks, you’ve seen Oblivion already, even if you haven’t. If you’ve seen 2001, you’ve seen Oblivion. I’ve you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ve seen Oblivion. Hell, if you’ve seen The Day After, Galaxy Express 999 or the freakin’ Manchurian Candidate (either one) you’ve seen Oblivion. You’ve just watched a sorta incoherent s/f rip-off from the best cliches of that genre for the past half century. And Kosinski did so with such verve. Naked and shameless. I have to respect that much. I’m not sure if Kosinki can play blues guitar, but I’m pretty sure he’s an Elmore James fan.
The story may be stale, but the movie was a treat for the eyes. Can’t be ignored. The ruined Earth of Oblivion looks like how our planet should after climate change, nuclear war and our natural satellite reduced to powder. The visual of Cruise on patrol walking over a sand dune covering half of the Empire State Building’s observation deck is telling. Startling. The buildings once straddling the Venetian canals are now the cliffs serving as waterfalls into endless basins. Yankee Stadium is a crater akin to the Moon’s Copernicus. Kosinksi succeeded in turning Mother Earth into an alien planet. I couldn’t deny that one bit.
And you know what else? This may be a jump, but Cruise’s Harper pining for an Earth he never knew, perfect in his mind, and suffusing his mountain retreat with some very old skool tech…It suits the mood, without a whit of irony. Especially balanced against the ominous 21st Century tech Harper is ostensibly planet side to service. We have two choices here: Harper relaxing to a hi-fi that was made before even I was born grooving to “Midnight Rider” (why not?), or chasing down or being chased by sentient, well-armed drones that resemble albino TIE fighters with HAL 9000’s unblinking red eye. Which toothpaste would you choose? Interesting as this dichotomy was, it still reflects the salad bar thinking. Sure, cool dynamic, but that and a lot of other things in the movie might seem awesome ultimately boils down the the audience being unfamiliar with another movie.
In the endgame, I’m not a snob. With a clear eye I was entertained by Oblivion. But that was it. Any epic message to bestow on my brow was not there. It’s all a rip-ff, sure, but it was a decent, pretty rip-off. An okay time-waster even you see the ending miles ahead of time.
And if you didn’t see anything coming, you are either, a) drunk as a skunk playing funk aboard a junk, or; b) Oblivion is your first foray in s/f movies.
I recommend the drunk part first. And lock up that woodshed.
Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Entertaining but only filler. ‘Ware any s/f movie implying epic proportions only to land in a crock of French dressing.
We return with another wobbly, half-baked subterfuge in your humble blogger twisting the Standard to their own evil ends using the first Pacific Rim movie as bait.
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 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.
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 tothe 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 A 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 incognita. Dirty 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?
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.
“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.
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!”
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.