“Lincoln” both boldly articulate and silently reverent in approach to history.

For a film whose ambitions are as lofty and as responsible to the American historical record as “Lincoln”‘s are, it’s a strangely low-key affair. There are few rambling monologues and self-important speeches, few cries to the rafters and appeals to the masses, and very, very few battle sequences, meaning that a film about the end of the Civil War features about 30 seconds of the Civil War. Playwright Tony Kushner’s script is not measured in tears, but rather, words. And how refreshing that is!

“Lincoln”, too, serves as a potent counter-argument to many of helmer Steven Spielberg’s alleged flaws as a filmmaker — his overt sentimentality, reliance on music to evoke emotion, downplaying of the scripts he’s working with. “Lincoln” often times evokes a minimal stage drama — it’s an exceptionally focused, dialogue-centric historical document. Or at least acts the part damn well. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 tome “Team of Rivals” (a non-fiction book so transcendent in popularity, even I read it!), “Lincoln” is thankfully not the life-spanning, unfocused account of the 16th president’s entire life that one would expect. Rather, it’s honed in almost exclusively on January 1865 — not exactly an era everyone immediately knows the significance of, but still a watershed moment for human rights & dignity. And how was this moment accomplished? By bribes, political doublespeak and cynical manipulation.

Let me explain.

The film is about Abraham Lincoln’s (or rather, Daniel Day-Lewis’s, in a masterful portrayal) struggle to push through the 13th Amendment — in other words, to finally outlaw slavery. Lincoln is up against an immensely tight timeline, however. It’s widely understood throughout the House of Representatives that to end slavery is to demolish the Confederacy’s economy, thus ending the war, therefore the Amendment must be passed before the war in order to garner the votes of otherwise racist politicians. Not helping matters is the starkly divided nature of the political landscape (sound familiar?!?), with Lincoln’s more progressive Republican Party meeting strong opposition from the racist, bitter Democratic Party (….not so familiar). In order to snag the necessary 2/3rd’s majority, Lincoln needs around 20 Democratic votes or abstentions.

Here is where all of the bribery and sneakery comes into play, holding a magnifying glass up to the machinations of American politics that films seem to strive so hard to avoid. In “Lincoln” these are not just present, but absolutely necessary to the momentum and meaning of the film. “Lincoln”, both character and film, seem to struggle with the question of whether smaller evils are necessary to conquer a great one. The outcome is obvious to anyone with the most elementary understanding of history, yet Spielberg still conjures considerable suspense over the amendment’s fate.

Upon reflection, I think he accomplishes this through the mouths that spout his dialogue. This is a film reportedly with over 140 speaking parts, all littered with famed actors absolutely chewing through whatever parts they have. Littering “Lincoln”‘s impressively recreated sets are the likes of Sally Field, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Lee Pace, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Tommy Lee Jones. While listing their distinct qualities wouldn’t be terribly succinct (mind you, nor is my inclusion of their list), the assembly of these thespians is an utter joy to see, especially considering the passionate clashes that Kushner writes for them. This film is both the finest acting ensemble of the year and one of its most towering individual performances in Day-Lewis’s Lincoln — and the fact that these complement rather than distract from each other is a miracle.

The fact that “Lincoln” seems best designed for the stage, rather than the cinema marks an impressive maturation for our ever-evolving 66-year-old auteur in Spielberg. His presence is certainly felt here less than any of his work in years. But really, when you have one of the greatest actors of our time playing one of the greatest presidents of our time, it’s impossible not to feel just a little reverent. Day-Lewis completely trumps expectations, and not by bellowing across rooms or employing thick accents, but rather by employing a mildly shrill, surprisingly calm tone of voice. It deeply humanizes a man our culture has sort of accepted as legend, and while his flaws are certainly ignored, it’s only because his uncanny political instincts are too busy being displayed for 150 minutes.

Many great works of art dive into the darker side of humanity, exploring our warped psyches, our tendencies for violence, our blatant self-importance. Yet all the same, sometimes it’s all too refreshing to see a film about good people doing good things. By offering a simple window into a pivotal month towards the end of Abraham Lincoln’s life, this is a work that pulls a figure of magnanimous reputation down to our level, daring us to see what makes him tick. I adore Lincoln, and I adore “Lincoln”. B+

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Despite weak script, “Man With The Iron Fists” is a pulpy, passionate slice of kung-fu cinema

“The Man with the Iron Fists” exists in both an intersection of various cultures & aesthetics, as well as its own funky, far-off corner of cinema that is, for better or for worse, all its own. Perhaps more than any other movie this year, it is an auteur’s project — the helmer being the RZA (pronounced ‘rih-zuh’) — who wrote, directed, composed the music, and even plays the titular lead role of the iron-fisted man. It’s an undeniably bold undertaking, a $20 million passion project for the creative mastermind behind the most enduring (and my personal favorite) act from the ’90s East Coast hip-hop scene: namely, the Wu-Tang Clan.

RZA references this with a wink and nod, staging the opening sequence to his group’s ’93 classic “Shame on a N***a”. It’s a fusion of propulsive, old-school hip-hop and, get this, elaborately choreographed, very very bloody kung-fu combat. Have I sold you yet?

To a certain kind of crowd, “Iron Fists” is pure fan service. It’s a throwback to the kind of campy, overplotted, yet all-too-earnest genre/martial-arts fare that thrived in the 42nd Street New York grindhouse theaters where RZA came up, often skipping classes to go to double, if not triple features. Certain movies are made with paychecks in mind, career moves, bills to pay. “Iron Fists” is clearly an end-product that its creator has been working towards, in one way or another, for all his life. Although it’s not my ideal vision (more on that later), it’s certainly his and I cannot fault him for that in any way.

“The Man With The Iron Fists”, true to genre, is teeming with various clashing dynasties, freewheelers, and loyalties all criss-crossing and betraying each other. The plot concerns, in essence, a bunch of evil warriors aiming to tyrannize a 19th century Chinese village, and the people banding together to stop them. Chief among them are Lucy Liu as a charismatic brothel-owner, the aforementioned RZA playing a blacksmith, who after torture renders him armless, very literally gets iron fists wielded to his body, and Russell Crowe, who in the wildest, loosest role of his career, plays drunken desperado Jack Knife, aptly named for his weapon of choice. Recent roles in self-serious dreck like “Robin Hood” haven’t terribly flattered Crowe’s talents, so to see him playing a near-psychopathic bad-ass is a delight. But this is a cast that’s much more enjoyable when swapping punches with each other, rather than words — a testament to some thespians’ broken English, as well as the script, which equips dialogue about as subtle as a Sega Genesis video-game cutscene.

Not to say, of course, that I expected Quentin Tarantino-level dialogue, who curiously enough is officially credited for presenting the film and mentoring its helmer. It’s a much different beast, and a more visually oriented project than what we expect from QT, with creative choreography and elaborate set design embodying RZA’s trademark attention to detail. He’s a master stager, and the film is certainly well above the technical competence of most first-time filmmakers. Although he generally reserves them for the front & back ends of the film, his action sequences are bold and bloody, often approaching near-poetic fluidity.

RZA’s musical background lends much more attention to the soundtrack than would otherwise be held, and indeed, “Iron Fists”‘s soundtrack is a mini-slice of heaven for hip-hop nerds like myself. Established greats like RZA’s original Clan, Talib Kweli & Kanye West drop tracks, alongside strong upstarts like Danny Brown & Pusha T. Blues-rock heavyweights The Black Keys even kick in a great track, the film’s unofficial anthem “The Baddest Man Alive”. The songs run the gamut from tightly-wound, paranoid croaks to loose, syrup-soaked jams. Together, they comprise a soundtrack whose variety and quality nearly justifies the film’s existence, alone.

The characters, save Crowe’s Jack Knife, are largely disposable, and by the end, we aren’t left too emotionally affected one way or another. Such is not the point. “The Man with the Iron Fists” is an intricate, carefully considered toy — serving little more than brief entertainment, but admirable in how it reflects the mad machinations of its creator. B

“Skyfall” a beautiful, bloody celebration of Bond’s 50th anniversary.

“This is the end”, croons the voice of a familiar British pop-culture phenomenon over the opening credits of Sam Mendes’ newest film. And given how often the smoky, serene voice of Adele waxes poetic about endings & heartbreaks, we almost buy it. But we don’t, for two reasons. One, because this film represents a newfound creative urgency in one of the biggest pop-culture phenomenons of the last century. What phenomenon, you ask? Well, that’s reason number two why I called bullshit on Adele: because we’re dealing, here, with Bond. James Bond. This is a character who, for five decades and twenty-three films, has been reinvented and reshaped with the times. That’s why he’s special, and that’s why he’s tricky. Nevertheless, “Skyfall” overcomes countless possible issues of theme & identity, to become just about as perfect as a film of this kind can be. So often in the past, as with great entries like “Casino Royale”, “From Russia With Love”, and “Goldeneye”, people tend to preface their praise with ‘it’s a great James Bond film’. “Skyfall” is different. It is simply, a great film.

Daniel Craig is back in his third rendition as the cold-hearted spy, and I’m fairly certain any talk of past, superior Bonds simply doesn’t exist anymore. Other actors have all had their own welcome twist on the character, be it with a dash of campy humor, devilish charisma, or weathered age. But Craig liberates the character from the very term ‘character’ — try for a change, ‘human’? He’s as vicious and brutal as he’s been before here, but seems to be re-contextualizing himself to fit into the saga at large. Indeed, 2012 marks 007’s 50th screen-anniversary, and so “Skyfall” is littered with throwbacks to films, characters and vehicles past. And perhaps just as much as Craig’s Bond debut, 2006’s “Casino Royale”, “Skyfall” reshapes the character dramatically, but here’s the twist — it develops him into what we know. The past two films have developed him as a killing machine with little patience for wisecracks or dalliances, but with this one, Craig subtly morphs into the gadget-wielding, self-idolizing lady-killer we’ve always known this character to be. This film exists at an intersection between throwback fantasy and pulpy, brutal reality. How the franchise will move from here will be fascinating.

It’s often said that action films are only as good as the villains, and the plot that these villains present. “Skyfall” is a knockout in this regard. And who exactly is the mastermind terrorizing our protagonist? Javier Bardem, whose villainy has been exploited before to masterful ends and an Academy Award in “No Country for Old Men”. But where his villain in that film was a silent, devilish presence, making his mark on victims with a silenced cattle gun (*shudders*), Bardem’s Bond villain, Silva, is just the opposite. He’s blond. Bold. Effeminate, even. During a memorable confrontation, Silva boyishly tickles the inside of Bond’s thighs — what other bad guy has touches and layers like that?

He has the power to annihilate entire economies with the stroke of a keyboard, but he has no interest in that. What does he want to do? In short, terrorize James Bond and murder his boss, M. Returning as M is Judi Dench in her seventh, greatest take on the character. Without revealing too much, she reveals a poignance and complexity at her character’s core that I can’t get enough of, and that previous films certainly didn’t show enough. I often complain that action films, by making the stakes as big as possible, lose an emotional grip on us. Audiences’ emotions are more attuned to root for an individual over a city. “Skyfall” recognizes this, and the truly personal nature that Silva takes only reveals itself in the film’s final 30 minutes. And Jesus, what a sequence it is.

“Skyfall”‘s action, while sparse, is as cleanly executed and eye-popping as last year’s similarly invigorating “Mission Impossible” installment. The opening sequence, in which Bond traverses across Istanbul via motorbikes, cranes and trains to catch his target, is pretty damn wild. It’s that mission’s unfortunate conclusion, when Bond’s co-worker accidentally shoots him off the train, leading to an assumed declaration of death, that he begins to fall into darker territory. While a recluse, Bond takes up a boozy, painkiller-fueled vibe — taking much of the film’s first half for the guy to confront his mortality, pick himself up and brush himself off.

As he travails around the world in search of Silva, the stakes only raise higher. A protracted chase sequence across London, through cars, courthouses and, I dunno, the world’s most renowned transportation system, is utterly brilliant. (And, if my memory from a recent UK visit serves me right, freakishly accurate to real-world geography.) And without revealing the context or location, again, “Skyfall”‘s conclusion is utterly haunting, with cinematographer Roger Deakins shifting from warm Scottish hues to muted blues, adopting by the end a nightmarish, fiery color palette.

I’ve yet to fully explain all of “Skyfall”‘s little (and massive) joys — how freakishly sexy Bond girl Berenice Marlohe is, how hilarious Ben Whishaw is as tech-savvy smartass Q, how good Thomas Newman’s score is. But perhaps some of these are best reserved for your experience, for all of “Skyfall”‘s 146 minutes proudly, boldly make the case for James Bond as one of the most vital characters in the history of the movies. And the thing is, we already knew that. But never like this. A-

“Taken 2” is an insulting actioner on auto-pilot from the first frame to the last.

Hollywood’s pattern of what constitutes success baffles me, perhaps because as time goes on, I see there is no real pattern. It can turn artists into mechanical hacks, side players into megawatt stars, and 57-year-old, deeply-respected Irish theater actors into bona-fide action stars. It’s odd. It’s unpredictable. And it’s the path of Liam Neeson, who with 2009’s “Taken”, made a leap into an area both widely known to us and totally foreign to him: action-oriented mediocrity.

It continues with “Taken 2”. That goes without saying. It’s a retread of an already-familiar formula, whose every beat feels like it was diagrammed on a napkin and whose every line seems to have been composed by a second-grade ‘learn-to-type’ computer game. We’re talking about a film that recycles the vast majority of its soundtrack from last year’s (much better, much cooler) “Drive”. We’re talking about a film whose major emotional arc is the ability of a teenage girl to pass her driver’s test. We’re talking about the most shameless retread of a piece of popular action cinema since, Jesus, 1990’s “Die Hard: Die Harder”. These are grave words, serious words.

Neeson returns as pumped-up ex-assassin Bryan Mills, once again. You may recall that in the prior film, his teenage daughter was abducted by men looking to make her a valuable component of the European sex trade. He killed them and got her back. What ingenious formula has “Taken 2” devised to reunite these three figures back together? Well: the father of a guy that Bryan killed wants revenge and so abducts him and his wife, leaving his daughter to rescue them! The tenacity, the originality! It’s like last time, but different!

Director Olivier Megaton, of such auspicious fare as “Colombiana” and “Transporter 3”, continues his hot-streak of taking promising genre elements and diluting them to the most obvious, inoffensive results possible. The action of “Taken 2” literally consists of driving cars at an above-average speed, with the occasional close turn and the rare instance of the passengers exiting the vehicle to poorly fire a weak-sounding handgun. I believe the most inventive moment of the film is where the villains hang the protagonist’s wife upside down as a form of torture. And even still, it’s a painful moment to watch as a person, and a shoddily executed moment from a technical angle.

Liam Neeson, man. As much as I feel his recent taste for actioners have squandered his talents as an actor, I’ve still rooted through and through for his moments of triumph. Early this year, with “The Grey”, he revealed new emotional depths even as he pressed & fought through packs of wolves. But he’s firmly on auto-pilot here, with about 95% of his energy being devoted to making his lines sound authoritative and urgent. Taken as an audio-only recording, perhaps then “Taken 2” would adopt a measure of drama, of suspense.

I’m a person who seeks for fairness in all realms of life, and I don’t even mean this in a hyper-liberal, ‘yuppie’-esque context. Rather, in the sense that as a person, if I am to put effort into something, I expect it back. Thus, it stands to reason that if people are to try to engage me on the laziest terms possible, I’ll reject it. Flatly. I saw Taken 2 on October 5 and, 36 days later, after painstakingly adding sentence after sentence, am just now completing this review. There’s things in this world and this life that are worth talking about, thinking about, remembering a mere five minutes after it’s all said and done. “Taken 2” is not one of those things. D-

“Silver Linings Playbook” an emotional wallop of a romantic comedy (early review)

Dance scenes in movies are such a familiar trope that when we’re greeted with one, it’s often with heavy dashes of irony, either on the creative side or the receptive one. That’s no secret.

There’s a dance scene towards the end of “Silver Linings Playbook”. That’s no secret.

It serves as a major plot point, towards which many characters’ actions contribute to and weigh on. Just about everything these people have worked towards hinges on this moment — be it external goals, like an obscene amount of cash, or more inner ones. Like a hope at a better, more stable life. Maybe even true love. And with all of these factors weighing down on the sequence, what does it do?

Damn it, it soars.

“Silver Linings Playbook” feels like the next logical progression for all involved — writer/director David O. Russell is still tinkering with the same blurry family dynamics of 2010’s Oscar-winning “The Fighter”, Bradley Cooper keeps playing in the off-kilter sandbox he entered with last year’s pill-fueled “Limitless”, and Jennifer Lawrence gives her most mature, subtly sexy performance in a short, sweet career dealing exclusively in that sort of work.

But then, it represents something of a leap off the deep end for them too. “Silver Linings” pushes family strife into seriously wounded, borderline violent territory. The loose cannon afoot in the household is the normally charismatic, collected Cooper, playing Pat, a Philadelphia substitute teacher who is looking to rebuild his life after an eight-month stint in a mental hospital. The incident that put him there? An unhinged attack on a co-worker he found his wife in bed with.

To try and get his life back on track, Pat takes several drastic steps — moving back in with his parents (played by Jacki Weaver & Robert de Niro) seeing a therapist, exercising on a near-addictive basis. But beneath his philosophy of finding a positive “silver lining” in everything, lies a desperate desire to get his wife back, as well as a tendency to skip on his medication.
Throwing things even more for a loop? Tiffany (Lawrence), a mid-20s widower whose own emotional & psychological turmoil has been trailing her.

The two agree to team up: in exchange for Tiffany passing on a letter to Pat’s estranged wife, Pat has to be her partner for a dance competition she’s a part of. They’re both loaded pistols. Loose cannons. In other words: possibly perfect for each other.

Mental illness is certainly no laughing matter, and “Silver Linings” certainly has a tonal tightrope to walk. But, and largely due to the work of Cooper and Lawrence, the film doesn’t make freakshows or aberrations of these people. They’re deeply flawed — often prone to sudden outburst and bizarre tics — but are all the more human for it. This is not a film about mentally ill people rebuilding their lives, but rather, just PEOPLE rebuilding their lives.

O. Russell’s dialogue has its signature blend of naturalism and humor, creating a universe with no clear antagonists — but conversely, no perfect figures. Everyone seems to come to blows in one way or another in “Silver Linings”, and these confrontations hurt them. We become so invested in these people that, in a way, they come to hurt us too.

This is a film also notable in that it may be a rebirth for Robert de Niro — a man who, after three decades of legendary, radical acting, seems in the 2000s to have tapered off for shitty cop dramas and dreck like “Little Fockers”. But no matter. He’s truly energized here — displaying spot-on comedic timing, but also a darker, more confrontational side, often exemplified through his scenes with his son, Pat. Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker in his first non-“Rush Hour” role since 1997, and John Ortiz all round out the strong supporting cast.

“Silver Linings Playbook” makes the case for David O. Russell as one of the notable writer-directors of this cinematic generation — a highly literate, heady guy who nevertheless creates films full of raw emotion, messy relationships, and in this film’s case, strong uplift. Words can only carry my experience with this film so far. At one point, the adjectives and superlatives stop, and all that remains is the goofy, oversized smile that I had at the film’s conclusion. It’s a simple pleasure, a familiar one, but still so rich with feeling. A

The Weinstein Company’s “Silver Linings Playbook” opens in limited cities (NY, LA, et al) on November 16 and expands nationwide on the 21st.

“Flight” a flashy, flawed Denzel drama

There’s a pivotal moment in the drama “Flight” where Denzel Washington has had a particularly bad night of drinking. This wouldn’t be a problem — as the film repeatedly shows, his airline pilot can operate in insanely stressful conditions while zonked as shit — but he has a government-run hearing in about 45 minutes. This is an actor who’s made a career playing civil-rights activists, cops, Union soldiers, and near-Biblical figures of confidence and morality. So what does he do? Call up his coke dealer, bump a few lines, wipe his nose, put on his Aviators and swagger his way out of his trashed hotel room.

It’s a moment for those with the darkest sense of humor. It’s such a subversion of everything we expect in Washington, in the normally goody-two-shoes director Robert Zemeckis (of “Forrest Gump” and “A Christmas Carol”), and Hollywood at large. But the way in which it marks a turning point in his character’s arc, using dark humor to underline the pathetic struggles of this man’s fixation, is truly masterful. Truly complex. And pretty much an isolated incident in “Flight”, which is a competently written, well-directed film that succumbs to sentimentality and over-explanation just as it seems to get really, really interesting. (After the aforementioned scene, it’s worth noting.)

You know the “stressful conditions” I referred to earlier, that Washington’s character, Whip Whitaker, can deftly navigate? Well, early in “Flight”, in the film’s obvious centerpiece, Whip pulls out an utter miracle and crash-lands his plane from a nose-dive at 30,000 feet, with 96 of 102 souls saved. It’s a terrifying 20-minute set-piece, although much of the horror comes from our own build-ups and expectations. (The marketing, having to commercially sell a film about a frequently relapsing alcoholic, has understandably played up this scene quite a bit.)

But what is scariest for Whip is the aftermath of the flight: the prying eye of the press, his newfound public image as a hero, and, well, uh, blood tests indicating that he had alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine in his system at the time of the accident. If they come to light legally, he could be in prison for the rest of his life. He begins a romantic involvement with recovering heroin addict Nicole, but the real core of “Flight” is Whip’s battle with the bottle.

Director Robert Zemeckis is a filmmaker I greatly respect and admire, but one often ponders if he was right for this job. Highlights from his career include a scene where Tom Hanks emotionally screamed for a volleyball (The “WIIIIILLLSON!!!” scene in “Cast Away”) and an adaptation of a 9th-century Old English poem (“Beowulf”) that managed to get a scene of full-frontal nudity from star Angelina Jolie. My point? Subtlety isn’t this guy’s forté.

And given that a good idea of “Flight”‘s drama is what is simmering inside the mind of a man whose characters are historically guarded and reserved, it’s often a film that feels slightly out of step with itself: often overplaying moments worthy of merely a glance, or explaining in a character’s monologue what should have been shown through his actions. Denzel’s final speech at the film’s end is particularly cringe-worthy. This is an actor with two Academy Awards laying around his house. To have him use his voice, rather than his body or face to communicate his darkest feelings and deepest shames? It’s a shame. Dude’ll probably still pick up an Academy Award nomination for his work here, but John Gatins’ script disservices him.

The mixed spiritual signals that “Flight” sends present a problem, too, and not necessarily because they clash (or align, for that matter) with mine. The film makes frequent allusions to the flight’s crash as an “act of God”, offering little explanation as to how the six lost lives fit into that picture. Side characters often offer Whip religion as an escape from the bottle and from his demons, yet the film hints that he’s tried this before with little success. I mean, Jesus, as the flight crashes, a wing literally annihilates a CHURCH STEEPLE.

There’s references, but where’s the context? What do these add up to? I’m not sure there’s much. In the end, we are left with another masterful Denzel performance, a plane-crash sequence for the ages, and the most obnoxious usage of the song “Gimme Shelter” in a long, long cinematic history of people obnoxiously plugging the Stones. These are not subtle pleasures, and this lack of grace occasionally proves to be “Flight”‘s un-doing. But it tries. In an industry that’s generally on auto-pilot (hah!), that’s truly worth something. B

“Seven Psychopaths” a densely-packed, blood-soaked delight

“Seven Psychopaths” uses both the simplest and most elaborate motions to execute its vision. On one hand, writer-director Martin McDonagh is juggling a back-and-forth between good and bad guys, a raucous comedy, an ongoing mystery as to who the titular ‘psychopaths’ are, an incisive look into the creative process, and a biting critique of Hollywood cliche & sexism.

On the other hand, there’s cool gunplay and a cute dog.

By spreading its ambitions about as wide as a Tarantino-esque crime comedy will go, it pretty much invites anyone in to relish its pleasures. (Not that people did: as of this writing, its made a pretty dismal $12 million stateside, and so, naturally is no longer in theaters. I write this only out of a fierce sense of loyalty.)

Colin Farrell’s Marty is a struggling screenwriter who needs some strong creative inspiration to knock out his latest script, “Seven Psychopaths”. First clue as to this film’s intentions: its own screenwriter is named Marty, who reportedly faced strong writer’s block in the years in between this and 2008’s masterful “In Bruges”. Marty (the character) seems to get some energy from his friendship with Sam Rockwell’s Billy Bickle (second clue: same last name as “Taxi Driver”‘s psychopath Travis), an unpredictable, goofy fellow who makes a living kidnapping dogs. Billy does this alongside Hans, a man who stays pleasant despite his cancer-patient wife and shady past.

Things start to go south, though, when Billy swipes the wrong little Shih Tzu: instead of the timid housewife he was targeting, he swipes the dog of Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson, continuing a bright streak of roles), who happens to be Los Angeles’s loosest, wildest mobster. Costello starts to gun for those responsible, putting Marty smack in the middle of a near-war. All he wanted to do was write a damn movie.

All the while, as this goes on, Marty and Billy start conducting “psychopath” auditions so that loose-cannons can share their stories for the film. This proves to be one of the film’s most inspired conceits, as watching who exactly the title’s “seven psychopaths”, both in Marty’s (character) script and in Marty’s (real-life) film is a sly, slick delight that rewards as it confounds. The cast, littered with top-notch names, has four performances that would run away stealing 95% of other movies. However, in McDonagh’s world, they’re just another mouth. Business as usual. I love it.

These four: the previously-mentioned Farrell, Rockwell, Harrelson, and Walken annihilate their respective parts. Bouncing back from this year’s disgusting “Total Recall” remake, Colin Farrell re-presents his argument for why he should be atop the A-list. Jittery, nervous, and very very profane, he’s a relatable protagonist with a shade of grey. Ditto for Sam Rockwell, spending most of his screentime with a goofy animal beanie on his head and a gun in his hand. As certain revelations come to light about his character, he only gets wilder and more amusing. But Christopher Walken, man…

Given that he’s spent most of his career hanging around the directors that directly inspired “Seven Psychopaths” (Tarantino in “Pulp Fiction”, the late, great Tony Scott in “Domino”), Walken’s presence in this only cements its status as a spiritual cousin to some of the great, poppy crime capers of our time. The fact that he hammers out truly great work, rather than coasting on his offbeat image, feels only like bonus points. He has a haunting, sinister edge even as he adorably cuddles with a puppy and talks about God. When was the last time a screen legend tinkered with his persona like this?

Watching “Seven Psychopaths” can be an exhausting experience, but only in the sense that one needs a notebook to jot down all the lines that deserve to be on a T-shirt or the scenes that demand their own poster. This is a film that, for all of its violence and chaos, is strongly calculated and crisply executed. Listening to these characters talk about how women are greatly under-served by American movies, when there are roughly two female speaking-roles in the film? No accident. A scene where they discuss the idiocy of final Hollywood shoot-outs taking place in a desert, only for the film to conclude in the Californian wilds? Neither is that. McDonagh is biting the hand that feeds. I can’t see a film of his getting off the ground for a few years. But this man is two for two in his oeuvre, and if he continues to make films as dizzyingly articulate as “Seven Psychopaths”, I can’t see that streak breaking. A-