I didn’t really know what to think of Lisey’s Story for the first two episodes or so because it’s so disarmingly, otherworldly strange and surreal, but as the story unfolds in an almost subconscious vernacular, step by step I found my footing and it has become likely my favourite Stephen King adaptation ever undertaken. I think it’s the closest we’re ever gonna get to an ‘arthouse’ King story, and the sheer audacity and bizarro world sensibility of it might be why it’s not being received too well, but make no mistake, this is gorgeous top shelf stuff. The story, told in bold expressionistic strokes, tells of the core relationship between Lisey (Julianne Moore) and her deceased husband Scott Landon (Clive Owen), a famous writer and deeply troubled man who left a series of clues for her before passing that will lead her on a journey to the heart of his unfinished literary work and protect her from deranged homicidal stalker Jim Dooley (Dane DeHaan) who seeks to find his hidden manuscripts. That all sounds very straightforward but the creators opt to tell this story in deep, dense flashbacks, musical cues that take prescience over dialogue and an arresting, dreamlike visual palette that takes over for exposition. In Scott’s books he tells of another dimension called Boo’Ya Moon, a realm of the dead and half-dead that’s full of alien beauty and home to a terrifying monster called the Long Boy. This sort of exotic astral plane proves to be very real and integral in both putting Scott’s spirit to rest and killing Dooley, who becomes quite the force to reckon with for Lisey and her two sisters (Jennifer Jason Leigh & Joan Allen). Moore is fantastic as Lisey, full of emotional intuition and charisma, while Owen has never been better and his level of commitment and intensity to a role that is cast way, way against his usual type is staggering, I have never seen him so raw and vulnerable. There are frequent flashbacks to his horrifying childhood where he struggles to deal with his half mad Viet Nam vet father who is so mentally far gone he can barely get a sentence out. The dad is played by an unrecognizable Michael Pitt who manages to be despicable, relatable, pathetic, chilling and heartbreaking in the same notes, it’s a mad dog, candid performance you don’t usually see in mainstream stuff and he should win all of the awards. The show is just unlike anything I’ve ever seen, from the strikingly intense, almost David Lynch style work from the actors to the stunning mystical dreamscape of Boo’Ya Moon to the languid, formless narrative that’s free of peripherals or structure to the deep, haunting emotional core to the sweet, innocent and life affirming romance between Lisey and Scott to the wonderfully atmospheric, spine chilling score by ‘Clark’, this is just grand, unique storytelling that sweeps you away into its world. You have to be willing to go though, and I think that’s why so many people recoiled at this. Many were likely expecting an accessible, routine King adaptation firmly planted in the ground like we usually see wrought of his work, but this is simply something from another world altogether, it’s one that you feel your way through in images and impression rather than dialogue and drama. If you’re ready for that, I’d highly recommend it. Don’t listen to the hate out there, it’s truly, truly extraordinary stuff.
No other film has grown on me quite the way Martin McDonough’s Seven Psychopaths has. Initially disarming in expectations versus result, this isn’t just your average black comedy, there’s wonderfully subversive meta-narrative twists and it has something subtly acidic to say about the development and treatment of genre screenplays in the Hollywood of today, which wasn’t the approach I was expecting prior to seeing it for the first time. That and it’s straight up one of the funniest fucking things I’ve ever seen. Less serious and emotional than McDonough’s masterpiece of a debut In Bruges, the tone here is about as deadpan as it gets, with Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken as Billy and Hans, two LA oddballs who make a living snatching people’s dogs and collecting the reward money later. Inevitably they grab the wrong guy’s dog who just happens to be unhinged gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), sparking a brutally violent wild goose chase all over LA and the surrounding area. It sounds like you know what you’re gonna get, right? Not really, for you see they’re joined by boozy, neurotic screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) who is trying to pen a script of his own titled ‘7 Psychopaths’, which not only becomes a running joke, but also provides aside vignettes and even heavily influences the plight of our three heroes in the ‘real world.’ Hans is a quiet, compassionate pacifist and Walken plays him against type, very understated. Farrell’s Marty is a hilarious, anxious wreck who orders six beers at noon and tears his hair out both from writer’s block and the unpredictable behaviour of Rockwell’s Billy, who is a blisteringly funny, antagonistic weirdo that should be on medication but has instead been let off the leash for what is probably the best and definitely the funniest performance the actor has ever given. Harrelson plays it loopy as a guy who’ll blow your head off without twitching an eye but bawls like a toddler when no one can find his silly shit-zu for him. They’re joined by Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko who don’t have much to do (also a meta joke later on) as well as Zeljiko Ivanek, Kevin Corrigan, Linda Bright Clay, Michael Stuhlburg, Michael Pitt, Harry Dean Stanton, all giving lovely work. Tom Waits is as great as you’d expect Tom Waits to be as ex-serial killer Zachariah, who carries his pet bunny rabbit around and tells harrowing tales from years before. The real hero here is McDonough’s brilliant script, and I love how it ducks the limbo bar of Hollywood writing standards and aims for something just left of left field. Farrell says it best himself when he laments “I don’t want it to be all violence and action though, it should be a set up for an out and out revenge flick and the heroes should just drive off into the desert and talk for the rest of the movie…” then he, Rockwell and Walken do just exactly that, for a time anyways until Harrelson catches up with them and the final confrontation gets skewered by McDonough and his refusal to play it straight too. We need more writers like him in Tinseltown, and although I wasn’t so much a fan of his newest Three Billboards one, Bruges and Psychopaths have already been minted as classics for me, two of the best this century.
Ariel Vroman’s Criminal does its best to pay homage to beloved pseudo science fiction genre films of the nineties like Face/Off or Eraser, and for the most part it succeeds. All the elements are in place: padded, eclectic cast, implausibly sketchy high concept brain tampering, slick anti-terrorist war games, a brash arch-villain and adorably clunky emotional interludes. When a deep cover agent (Ryan Reynolds, weirdly uncredited) is killed in London, his FBI handler (Gary Oldman), has a shit fit at the lost secrets he knew and commissions Dr. Tommy Lee Jones to use sketchy cutting edge science and transfer Reynold’s memories into another man’s cerebrum. Of course they choose some violent, irreparably damaged convict, namely Jericho Stuart, played with growling, feral panache by Kevin Costner. “You hurt me, I hurt you back worse”, is this deeply sociopathic dude’s mantra, and it’s expectedly hilarious that the bureau shoots themselves in the foot by picking such a wild card for the program, but there you have it. With new memories, Jericho’s basic primal instinct is diluted with emotional scar tissue from Reynolds, haunted by his former wife (Gal Gadot, terrific), as well as a host of clandestine secrets from Ryan’s noggin that propel him on a globetrotting (well, London trotting, really) excursion to bring down a radical cyber criminal (Jordi Molla, the Spanish Gary Oldman, coincidentally sharing the screen with his counterpart). This is the Kevin Costner show all the way, it’s really the best work I’ve seen from him in years. He would have been way better taking the antagonist route with his career, as showcased here. Jericho is a bitter, psychotic outsider and Kevin plays it up royally, dishing out bone smashing beatdowns on random pedestrians and calling anyone he sees a ‘fucker’. Oldman yells at everything, and I mean everything. It’s like there were cue notes next to his lines that said ‘just scream your lines the whole way through’, but he’s fun too, that early career intensity showing through his weathered gaze. Michael Pitt also shows up with a hysterical Dutch accent, doing the boy with the dragon tattoo hacker shtick, looking pale and sullen. The cloak and dagger stuff is uproariously silly, as it should be, the emotional core appropriately sappy too. Smart move in keeping the hard R action movie alive, unlike some movies we know (I’m casting a disgusted look over at Expendable 3), and indeed Kevin gets some overly bloody kills in that fulfill the carnage quota and then some. He kicks ass, Oldman hollers, Reynolds cameos, Gadot cries, Jones looks weary, and so it goes. Not a total slam dunk, but it will make you feel nostalgic for those good old Sly/Armie/Van Damme blitzkriegs of yore.