Stand Up Guys

Black suits you

Walken, Arkin, PacinoImagine a film similar to Superbad, but with male retirees as a target audience.  Now picture the lead characters as people who in their younger days aspired to be Michael Corleone and/or any of the dual-pistol-wielding badasses of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow films.  You’d expect the result to be an amusing admixture somewhere between a crime film and a buddy comedy, right?  If you answered yes, Stand Up Guys will not surprise you, but if you’re still with me so far, you’ll be happy to get exactly what you expect.

The set-up involves Doc (Christopher Walken) ponderously puttering around before picking up Val (Al Pacino), an old criminal accomplice, from prison, where the latter has just finished serving a 28-year sentence for accidentally killing the evil progeny of criminal mastermind Claphands (Mark Margolis), whose name signifies that he…really wants approval, I guess.  The duo hang around Doc’s apartment and deliver some stiff dialogue (skirting Island Syndrome for the first few minutes), and then Val decides he will do some partying to celebrate his release, even though the Doc he once knew is now an old man with old man habits and an early bedtime.  Soon comes the kicker that gets the main story arc moving: Doc has been ordered by Claphands to kill Val posthaste and deliver his body.  Apparently, the SOB wanted Val to serve every minute of his sentence before being dealt the ultimate payback.  Doc, however, (despite not seeing Val for 28 years) is gentler than he once was, and has fond memories of Val, whom he now realizes is his only friend.  Val, it turns out, only did all of this partying because he suspected he was to be killed by Doc, and wonders why his friend hasn’t just gotten it over with already.

The movie is directed by Fisher Stevens, who guest-starred as the ill-fated George Minkowski on LOST.  Stevens structures his movie like any other buddy comedy: through a series of vignettes involving the same protagonists and multiple supporting characters who only appear in their respective segments (I did the same thing with Slices a few years ago, when I was required to follow a set structure, and it’s surprisingly difficult to pull off, namely because you have to justify each segment’s existence in the overall plot; many are inevitably cut).   Claphands breathes down Doc’s neck and makes clear that he must kill Val before 10am or suffer the consequences.  With a full night of freedom left, Doc and Val go on an adventure that begins when Val steals a “sweet-ass” car.  They soon rescue their former getaway driver, Hirsch (Alan Arkin) from a retirement home, and he immediately goes from breathing through an oxygen tank to whipping across the highway at 90+ miles-an-hour.  From here, I got the sense that there were some script revisions concerning how disparate and madcap each mini-adventure would be.  Perhaps Stevens realized he had Walken, Pacino, and Arkin in the same movie, and decided to do everything possible with them.  This leads us to some genre sampling, including Ferrell/Apatow-style screwball comedy (brothel humor, the inevitable old-man-on-Viagra joke, and a pup-tent erection); GoodFellas-era Scorsese black humor (a naked woman is found in the trunk of a stolen car and the gang must decide what to do with her), which leads to a bizarrely lighthearted and totally-played-for-laughs version of the infamous rape-and-revenge genre films (aforementioned woman reveals that she was kidnapped, sexually abused, and released by a gang, and the Stand Up Guys, being stand-up guys, beat the crap out of the gang and allow the woman to do what she will with them afterward); Tarantino-ish table chat scenes (which come off more as deliberate opportunities for these three veteran actors to be onscreen together and play off of each other for longer); and even Hong Kong action for a short time, in a finale that delivers not enough and possibly too much at the same time, but I leave that to you.

The supporting cast includes Vanessa Ferlito (!), who I haven’t seen since Death Proof, and whose effortless natural strength (not to mention her wonderful Italian attitude, a woman after my own heart) can steal any show, even when performing with these guys.  Julianna Margulies plays Nina, a doctor and the daughter of Hirsch, who gets a bit more screen time than most of the supporting women.  Lucy Punch, who also appeared in Grindhouse, plays Wendy, the proprietor of the brothel (previously owned by her mother, the former romantic partner of Val), and has a warm presence in the movie until a somewhat ludicrous scene involving Arkin’s character, which would be funny if not for how obligatory it seems – the “feeble old man happens to be a sex god” joke has worn out for me, sorry.  It’s old hat and reliably disrespectful to the women involved.

Perhaps most interesting among the supporting characters is Alex (Addison Timlin), a waitress who happens to be working at the diner (and busing the exact table at which the group sits) every time they come in over the course of nearly 24 hours.  She’s young, pretty, and loves chatting with Doc, who sits in her section every single morning.  She appears as a sort of mystical character, is always at the perfect calm, and is the only character who can draw out the softer details of Doc’s character, and thus convinces us to sympathize with him throughout (not that Walken’s acting doesn’t do a good enough job).  Her true identity is, like most things in this story, what you would expect, but the film’s adherence to structure is what keeps it from skirting farce (despite a Surprise Demise in the middle of the story and the aforementioned finale).

Al Pacino needs to choose his roles carefully now, and acting with Walken and Arkin again is a good one.  His voice is gravely and despondent.  He knows time is running out, and his more emotional scenes hit home, in spite of the fact that the “ticking timer” trope is shopworn and synthetic.  It means something to us only when it means something to the characters, and there’s a good sense of urgency here thanks to the secondary situation: not only does Val only have a few hours to live, but he and Doc only have a few hours to rekindle their friendship.  Walken, who had a good year in 2012, continues to play roles he’s comfortable in, but that don’t bring him into the territory of self-parody.

Throughout the story, characters reminisce for the sake of depth and exposition.  It’s worth noting that when the guys reminisce about their back-in-the-day criminal escapades, it’s nowhere near as interesting as when they (and other characters) reminisce about meaningful memories together.

A few bafflers: why/how does Claphands, a criminal mastermind with tons of money, keep his office in a building that looks condemned?  Why does he only seem to have two henchmen?  Why aren’t his henchmen imposing?  If he only has two non-imposing henchmen and his fortress is in the middle of the (nameless) city, why is Doc so petrified of him?  Why are the owners of the “sweet-ass” car, who are purportedly so tough and infamous that they don’t even lock their car because no one would be dumb enough to steal it, a bunch of wiry white dudes who end up easily pushed over?  Why is Alex trusting enough to go alone to a stranger’s apartment?  Again, it goes back to why most things in this movie happen: because it’s necessary to the film’s House of Cards plot, which would collapse should one detail be altered.  If you’re involved in the story and willing to go with it, none of this is very distracting.

The film’s title is one of those Road Sign Game opportunities.  Place punctuation, and the whole meaning changes, and you don’t feel bad about it because the words didn’t make much sense in the first place (remember “No, U turn”?).  Stand Up Guys doesn’t refer to the name of their gang; it’s a term referring to a responsible person, which Val claims to be, and which Doc certainly strives to be.  Do they succeed?  If you don’t think so, you can always call it Stand Up, Guys!  They do sit around a lot.

Stand Up GuysStand Up Guys (2013); written by Noah Haidle; directed by Fisher Stevens; starring Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, and Vanessa Ferlito.

A Late Quartet

Unleash your passion

Allow me to share a lovely tidbit concerning movie dialogue, as suggested to me by a certain poet with whom I saw Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet: “It’s good dialogue if a character says something and you’re not sure if they’re right.”  Yes.  In real life, your friends don’t speak in laconics, in absolutes, in spartan phrases that tie the meaning of everything that’s happened that day into a pretty bow.  A Late Quartet features dialogue so rich and a plot so adeptly structured that we not only appreciate and recognize the complexities of the characters’ conflicts, but we also know what else they’re thinking about as they speak.

As the story begins, an era ends: Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), cellist in a famous string quartet – The Fugue, who have played over three thousand concerts – has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and has decided that this will be his final season.  The rest of the quartet is comprised of Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the controlling and humorless First Violinist, Juliette (Catherine Keener), the viola player, and Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Juliette’s husband, who thinks the quartet has grown dull and predictable due to Daniel’s failure to “take risks” (including his steadfast refusal to play Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131, without the music in front of them).  After Peter’s quiet announcement that he will only play one more show, Robert reveals that he would like to begin switching chairs with Daniel.  Since Peter’s replacement will not require this change, the group suspect that Robert has desired this for some time, and we soon bear witness to his inferiority complex not only within the quartet, but at home.

The film is split into three main conflicts.  Chiefly, Peter’s departure from the quartet and the struggles of the group to not only come to terms with his illness and abrupt exeunt after twenty-five years, but also to find someone worthy of replacing him – they push for Nina Lee (played by herself), but she’s already in a trio with the stubborn Gideon (Wallace Shawn), and remains a Godot character until the end.  Secondly, Robert’s frustration with the quartet spills into his home life, and he winds up having a one-night stand with a running buddy (Liraz Charhi), which he’s unable to hide from Juliette even for a day.  However ill-intentioned Hoffman’s characters have been in the past, Robert never becomes a stock “bad husband” character, and his attempts at Juliette’s forgiveness are heartfelt and sincere.  Lastly, Robert and Juliette have a daughter in her early twenties, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), who is taking private violin lessons with Daniel.  Their antagonistic student-teacher relationship veils not only mutual admiration, but a secret love/lust, and they begin an affair, which the headstrong Alexandra is less than hesitant to reveal to her mother, whom she believes has not been there for her due to the quartet’s seven-month-a-year touring schedule.  These issues, while organically developed and expertly paced, come to a head during a final practice at Peter’s house, and the fate of the quartet and their relationships hang in the air during the only possible climax for this story: the first concert of the Fugue’s final season.

Finally, we have a film not based upon contrivance, not a half-hearted remake, not a blasphemous adaptation of a beloved novel, and not cash-raking action fare.  It also doesn’t get caught up in its own “science” – the film explores the inner workings of a string quartet, and in such detail that any musician would likely be convinced that Zilberman knows his material, but nothing is included that does not push the story forward or deepen the characters.  This is the kind of film that should be taking home little golden men in February, and not just because of its structure and depth.  The performers, who have lately fallen into unchallenging roles (with the exception of Hoffman, whose role in The Master was a gem at the center of an otherwise disastrous film) shine as the members of the Fugue, and clearly spent time learning at least the basics of their characters’ instruments and how to make themselves look like professionals doing their life’s work.  Keener plays Juliette as a realistically conflicted and humble mother, wife, and friend.  Walken ceases his predictable comedy and self-parody to remind us that he’s an Academy Award winner and can radiate dramatic multitudes (not just caricature) with his mannerisms.  Ivanir plays Daniel as a sympathetic loner, and despite how inappropriate his relationship with Alexandra might be, we want him to have something good for a change.  Imogen Poots is Alexandra, and her rather angsty acting style sticks out due to her being the only young character in the film, but she holds her own with the older, more experienced actors, and the careful writing prevents Alex from ever coming off as a bratty kid.

I know a few people who will likely tell me that they haven’t seen Walken in a film this year, and wonder what he’s doing.  Those are the same people who would find a film like this “boring” – no fighting?  No superheroes?  No galactic threat?  I say screw the galaxy.  Try caring about human nature.  As the above-mentioned poet concluded about this film, “There’s nothing stupid in it.”

A Late Quartet (2012); written and directed by Yaron Zilberman; starring Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, and Imogen Poots.

Seven Psychopaths

It’s very emotional

It never occurred to me that Martin McDonagh, a renowned Irish playwright and director of In Bruges, might end up making the quintessential Guy Movie, or that the latter might be a movie about dognapping.  Seven Psychopaths, the newest from the Oscar-winning director of Six Shooter, had me saying “Jesus Christ” aloud quite a few times in the theatre.

Funnily enough, the film immediately reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s masterwork, Adaptation., which was also about a struggling screenwriter attempting to find a good movie in a slough of terrible ideas.  In both films, the protagonist is named after the screenwriter. Kaufman’s assignment was to adapt a movie from a book; unable to accomplish this, he wrote a screenplay about himself trying to adapt a screenplay from a book.  I wonder, then, if McDonagh was wrestling with a concept and finally settled on writing about himself wrestling with a concept.  The tone of the film, ill-tempered and seemingly aggravated with its characters, may suggest this.

Marty (Colin Farrell), sits on his porch, enjoys the breeze, drinks heavily, and scribbles ideas for his screenplay, “Seven Psychopaths,” on a yellow pad.  His best friend and roommate, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) wants to help Marty with his screenplay by any means necessary, and to an obsessive degree: he not only offers to co-write the story, but he even puts an ad in the paper calling for criminals with crazy life stories to come to Marty’s house and share their experiences.  Ultimately, he resorts to an unbelievable, too-good-to-spoil solution, which involves a madman called the Jack O’Diamonds Killer – a serial killer who specializes in killing members of organized crime syndicates, shown in action in the film’s opening, which features brilliant banter between Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg.  Billy is unpredictable, sexist, and gratingly annoying, and takes his surname from Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle.  You might think this is a coincidence until you see Billy in front of a mirror rehearsing a conversation.

Here’s the trouble – Billy has no success in his acting career, so he makes ends meet by teaming with his other roommate, the aging Hans (Christopher Walken), in a scam that involves stealing dogs and later returning them to their owners in order to collect the reward money.  Hans’ wife, hospitalized with cancer, does not approve, but Hans, a steadfast pacifist, believes he’s doing the right this as long as he gives the money to her.  The duo, of course, steal the one dog they should not steal: a Shih Tzu belonging to the most psycho of the film’s psychopaths.  This is Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a gang leader with incredible love for his dog and absolute disdain for humanity.  Costello ruthlessly hunts down anyone remotely involved with the dognapping in scenes that would normally fit into harrowing, violent drama like No Country For Old Men, but due to McDonagh’s decision to make the film exceeding self-conscious, result in raucous laughs – I was a tad ashamed of laughing at some of the film’s humor, but dammit if I could keep from cackling at Woody Harrelson popping wheelies in a wheelchair while interrogating a hospital patient.

Marty’s problem is that he begins with a concept instead of characters.  He names the film “Seven Psychopaths” before he even comes up with one psychopath.  His first character idea?  A Buddhist psychopath who does not believe in violence.  Thinking aloud on this, Marty says, with a hint of resignation, “I don’t know what the fuck he’s gonna do in the movie.”  This is one of the ongoing themes: the movie we’re watching, parts of which may or may not be happening in Marty’s jumbled thoughts, continuously seeks to find a place for its characters, and the colorful weirdos orbiting Marty (namely Billy and Hans, who make it all too clear that they know they’re in a movie), offer rolling feedback.  Billy recognizes Costello as the “chief villain,” constantly tries to set up a “final shootout” between himself and Costello’s gang, and balks when Marty suggests that the film should ultimately be about love and not shootouts.  Hans, portrayed by the eclectic Walken as buckled-down and cavalier, takes the opposite approach: he tells Marty that his women characters are all either hookers or unintelligent, and are killed within five minutes of being introduced.  This comment comes a few scenes after Olga Kurylenko’s character, Angela, is introduced and immediately killed, and after Marty’s girlfriend, Kaya (Abbie Cornish) breaks up with him and is killed (albeit in what amounts to a dream sequence, but it’s the last time she’s seen).  This provides another funny, self-conscious loop, but doesn’t change the fact that in McDonagh’s film, the actual film released in real-life theatres, the women are minimally seen and either naked or dead.

As was the case with In Bruges, the seemingly minor tidbits piece together to form a brilliant conclusion.  While Marty claims that he wants his film to have “no payoffs, just a bunch of guys sitting in the desert and talking,” Billy insists that the movie will end his way.  As such, we must remember Billy’s rules for movies, which include never showing sympathy for the villain, and never killing animals (Wes Anderson might disagree).  If he acknowledges this as a movie, then he knows he must follow his own rules, and Billy’s moments of hesitation are where Rockwell’s performance shines (a supreme achievement in a film that contains way too much of him).

The film also contains a short appearance by Tom Waits as one of the serial killers who answers Marty and Billy’s ad.  He’s a red herring for the Jack O’Diamonds Killer, but provides one of the movie’s many alternate-movies, which play like Marty’s rough drafts (or, more likely, McDonagh’s rough drafts for the real movie).  Luckily, these sequences all hold a special significance revealed later (yes, even Marty’s idea about a Quaker psychopath).

Seven Psychopaths is showy about its violence, and despite its humor, is one of the bloodier movies of the year (imagine Lawless as a comedy).  I wonder if McDonagh was going through a funk when he scripted/made this film, considering the amount of unpunished racial slurs and woman-bashing happening onscreen.  Whether McDonagh is taking a dig at the notion of being truly literary in Hollywood or was as frustrated as Marty when making this, there blooms an undeniable sense of exhaustion (and a big hint at McDonagh’s view on the less-than-fulfilling life of a screenwriter) once the action is over: sitting in his room, Marty receives a phone call from Waits’ character, to whom he broke a promise, and who calmly tells Marty he’ll kill him on Tuesday.  “That’s fine,” Marty says, distracted, his eyes glazed over.  “I’m not doing anything on Tuesday.”

Seven Psychopaths (2012); written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Christopher Walken.