Incredible Melting Man (Blu-ray)
Your best option for seeing this film is to import the (region A) blu-ray released by Shout Factory. It's about £12 on amazon. This is a film that I was obsessed with the idea of when I was a kid, but which I somehow hadn't got around to seeing until now. The reason for my obsession was that The Incredible Melting Man was one ... of the horror Top Trumps produced by Waddingtons in the 1980s. You may have stumbled across these if you were the right age - some of them were astonishingly horrible. I'm actually astounded that they were sold to children without anyone complaining - in the video nasty 80s I guess there were bigger things to worry about.
Anyway, one of the cards was The Incredible Melting Man, and it featured drawing of a still from the 1977 movie. For years I've wondered why such an obscure film got pride of place alongside more famous monsters like Dracula and Godzilla. That's still a mystery. But at least I've seen the film now.
An astronaut called Steve comes back from a mission to Saturn with a bizarre disease that makes him melt, slowly. He quickly escapes from the absurdly badly guarded military hospital where they're keeping him. He then proceeds to run amok through the countryside, killing people for absolutely no reason. Somehow, even though he's melting, he's superhumanly strong and bizarrely murderous.
The best thing about this is that it doesn't bother to explain why Steve has gone all melty. It's effectively The Quatermass Experiment, but really cheap, so I guess we have to assume that radiation somehow messed the guy up. The only clue we have is some grainy stock footage of the sun seen from space and Steve's assertion that the sun looks really great when seen through the rings of Saturn. That doesn't tell us much. We also don't find out what happened to the other two astronauts in the rocket (one of them is wearing some really shabby looking leather gloves).
As for Steve, we don't find out anything about him. Even his moustache vanishes under the tide of goo as he slowly melts away. We get some aural flashbacks, but they're mostly just the countdown to his rocket being launched. Perhaps he has no memories before the launch of his rocket. Maybe that's why he's killing so many people. But if that's the case, we never get to find out - he's just a lumbering, sticky brute. One little girl calls him 'Frankenstein', and he might as well be any old generic creature (and yes, she meant 'Frankenstein's Monster', but cut the child some slack. She was only about eight and had just had a nasty shock). It's impossible to judge the acting of the melting man (who weirdly gets top billing; his few lines as an astronaut are delivered appallingly badly, and otherwise he just wanders around in makeup).
Steve is being hunted by the inept Dr Ted Nelson, who wanders around with a geiger counter shouting 'Steve? Steve? Steve? It's Ted Nelson, Steve. Ted Nelson. Steve? Steve?' (and on and on. He does get the film's best laugh line, though: "Oh god, it's his ear!" upon finding a lump of melting flesh in a bush). The actor, one Burr DeBenning, gives it his all, especially in the film's emotional climax. His urgent, shouted delivery of the line "Listen to me, I'm Dr Ted Nelson!" is almost worth the price of admission alone.
There's also a general who is desperate to cover up the existence of the melting astronaut, but who doesn't do any of the things that one would have to do in order to ensure a cover-up was actually successful. He doesn't even get a search party going, he just sends Dr Ted Nelson out in a jeep. There are the usual victim characters to round things out - an obnoxious fisherman; a fat nurse who runs through a plate glass door without any apparent ill effects; and a geriatric couple who decide to steal some lemons from an orchard in the middle of the night. (The nurse running in slo-mo is probably the film's single best scene).
There are also some great children, who sit around smoking fags, make lewd suggestions to a girl (their age) and are last seen reading Playboy while laughing uproariously. I'd like to have seen more of their adventures; a modern day Tom and Huck. Oddly, director Joanathan Demme has a tiny role as a householder who falls victim to the melting man. He bears a strange resemblance to 80s Canadian snooker legend Bill Werbeniuk, but thinner.
It's pretty funny, then, but probably not quite enough to recommend just for that. It's not clear how much of the humour is intentional. The director claims that it was all meant to be broadly comic but that the studio ruined it by trying to elicit pathos for the melting man. That does feel a bit like special pleading after the fact. There are some very funny moments, but most seem unintentional.
There are also some very boring bits. In one section we see Dr Ted Nelson's wife knitting for what feels like ages. It occasionally cuts to Steve standing watching her house, melting. This sequence goes on forever and generates no suspense at all. The film also suffers from classic bad-film problems like non-professional actors messing around, and stupid non-sequitur dialogue (Ted, at a moment of high drama, starts to berate his wife for not remembering to buy crackers. On another occasion he makes a local sheriff promise not to even tell his wife, only for the sheriff to reply 'You know I'm not married.')
Another big problem is that most of the deaths take place offscreen, for obvious budgetary reasons. It's still quite gruesome, though. The melty effects are actually pretty gross - he's a gruesome, glistening mess of a man - and there's a terrific severed head floating down a stream (not necessarily terrifically convincing, but great nonetheless). The effects were done by Rick Baker, who later became a horror legend for his work on American Werewolf in London and similar films. It was an early effort for him, but he does seem to have been the most competent person involved in the film by a long way. The director of this movie also made the unwatchable sci-fi 'comedy' Galaxina. You really don't want to see that one. Trust me.
There is also a stunningly gratuitous topless scene, featuring a sleazy photographer and a reluctant model. I guess they knew what the audience demanded from these things.
The music is entertainingly overwrought, often trying to persuade us that pedestrian scenes are really, really tense, other times just letting rip with cool electric guitar licks. It does sometimes go bizarre, though, as in the interminable knitting scene, where the music suggests mice running up a grandfather clock, rather than a woman knitting. That said, I'm not sure what music would be appropriate for a woman knitting.
Insanely, for such a terrible film, it's been given a great Blu-ray by American outfit Shout Factory. The picture looks amazingly clear - savour ever dribble of goo from Steve's face! There's some horribly grainy and damaged stock footage used for the spaceflight sequences, but otherwise it's hard to imagine this looking any better than it does.
There are also some good extras. The director is an affable guy, and does a commentary and an interview. We hear - at great length - about his troubles with the studio and about how he really wanted to make a film with the feel of a 50s horror comic. I quite enjoy these kinds of commentaries, especially when the odd flash of old bitterness shines through. Rick Baker also contributes a short interview, in which he is cheerfully bitchy about the leading man' acting ability (it seems they didn't get on too well, which is fair enough. Being smeared in gloop every day can't have been much fun).
One for bad film aficionados, then. It's scratched a childhood itch effectively enough, and I enjoyed watching it on some level. But do you need to see it? No. Of course not.
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Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Box Set (Blu-ray)
This boxset costs around £60 to £80, although may turn up cheaper on ebay. Alfred Hitchcock is a monumental figure in film history, and one of the few vintage directors whose films still feel fresh and watchable today. How much better he was than his contemporaries can be judged by how many of his films are still well known, ... compared to those of other top-flight old Hollywood directors like John Ford or Billy Wilder. He was always commercial while pushing at the boundaries of film as an art, and his visual stylishness was almost crying out for Blu-ray.
This was a much-anticipated boxset, but is generally regarded as a bit of a mixed blessing. It contains many of Hitchcock's greatest films, but the inclusion of everything he made after Psycho is a mis-step, as his last films are mostly dreadful. Worse, the picture quality on two of the best films is deeply disappointing (as it is on a few of the lesser ones). It's unlikely any of these films will get another Blu-ray release, and so to present such mediocre upgrades as we see in a few cases is unforgivable. Some of this might be down to Hitchcock's filming style - his excessive use of back projection makes restoration quite challenging - but it feels that they could have done better for several films.
With 14 films to mention, this review is quite long. Apologies in advance.
The first film in the set - one of Hitchcock's first American movies - uses his favourite plot: the hero is wrongly accused of a crime (in this case blowing up an aeroplane factory), ends up with a reluctant woman in tow, and goes on the run to clear his name. This has a sweep and scale missing from Hitchcock's British films, and was the first time he used famous landmarks (the end, on top of the Statue of Liberty, is the most famous scene).
The cast aren't well known today, but Robert Cummings (who looks like a young Bob Monkhouse) is engaging as the hero, and Priscilla Lane very sexy as the heroine. There's slightly too much propagandist speechmaking about the virtues of freedom and such (there was a war on, after all). But it also seems to be playing a bit with horror movie references, with the desperate hero stumbling across a blind hermit in a hut and taking refuge with a gang of circus freaks.
This has excellent picture quality - the image is crisp and shows plenty of detail. This is one of those black-and-white films that really flourish on Blu-ray.
***Shadow of a Doubt (1943)***
This was Hitchcock's favourite of his films. It is one of the cruellest. The young heroine, Charley, lives with her family in small-town California. She is thrilled when her namesake, Uncle Charley, comes to stay, hoping he will bring a bit of life to her world. But Charley is a serial killer, and Young Charley gradually has to accept that the uncle she adores is not what he seems.
This lacks the big set-pieces of Saboteur, as evil worms its way into a rather quaint domestic set-up. It's remorseless but engaging, with great comic relief from Charley's young sister, and from Hume Cronyn as a murder-obsessed neighbour. Teresa Wright is charming (and very pretty!) as Charley, and Joseph Cotton is fantastic as her wicked uncle, a million miles away from the nice-guy role he played in Citizen Kane. There's a romance that feels tacked on, but otherwise this is excellent.
Picture-wise it's also very good, although there's some visible damage to the print in a few shots. It doesn't seem quite as sharp as Saboteur, but it feels like it does the film justice.
This is a frustrating film, because bits of it are very good, but a couple of rogue elements sink it. Two young men murder one of their friends for a thrill, hide his body in their apartment, and then invite his parents and fiancée around for a party. As it begins with the murder, the suspense comes from how (and if) the murderers will be exposed. It's another cruel film, with emotional devastation lying round every corner, and while other films tease us with, say, the possibility that the heroine might get stabbed, here we hope that the crime isn't exposed purely to spare the onscreen feelings of the victim's father.
The main problem with it is that Hitchcock famously chose to film it as if it was a play (it's an adaptation of a play by Patrick Hamilton), which means creating the illusion that it was all filmed in one take. This was not possible - film reels are about eight minutes long - so to maintain the illusion the camera has to keep doing really fake close-ups shots of people's backs so they can do a quick edit. After a while you start to look out for these, which takes you out of the story - the film becomes trapped by its own inventiveness.
The other major problem is the miscasting of James Stewart in the crucial role of the murderers' old teacher. The part cries out for a bit of ambiguity, but Stewart blunders around as if he doesn't understand the dialogue he's reciting. The main characters, played well by John Dall and Farley Granger, are clearly a gay couple, although no one mentions the g-word on screen. What's interesting is that everyone clearly knows they're an item and seem perfectly comfortable with it. But the problem is that the script obviously wants James Stewart's character to also be gay, and... well, the actor doesn't seem to notice.
Picture wise, this is good, although there are a few stray speckles at various points in the film. It looks amazingly clear and detailed. A few reviewers have said that the colours seem a bit off, but I haven't seen it for so long I can't really tell. Maybe faces seem a bit pale sometimes, but to my eye this is one of the better ones.
***Rear Window (1954)***
This is my favourite Hitchcock film - one of my favourite films full stop. LB Jeffries is a photographer recovering from a broken leg. While he's wheelchair-bound he spies on his neighbours through his back window. He starts to suspect that one guy, a heavy-set salesman, may have murdered his wife. As the evidence mounts up, Jeffries' girlfriend Lisa endangers herself looking to help his case.
As with Rope or Lifeboat, Hitchcock has challenged himself by confining the action mainly to one set - Jeff's bedroom - and the courtyard he looks out onto. Most of the sequences involve Jeff looking at something, us seeing what he's looking at, and then a shot of his reaction. It's an absurdly simple premise, but beautifully executed. Hitchcock wrings unbearable tension out of this set-up, without the film ever losing its sense of humour.
James Stewart and Grace Kelly give their best ever performances as Jeff and Lisa, and Thelma Ritter is great as a cynical masseuse. The rest of the cast, although mostly seen and not heard, are superb, and we watch with Jeff as their stories - funny, poignant or scary - unfold. I'm not generally given to hyperbole of this type, but frankly, if you don't like Rear Window then you don't like cinema.
The picture quality on this one is a little disappointing - slightly softer around the edges than you'd like. It's an obvious improvement on DVD, but with a film of this calibre they really should have gone all-out to make it look perfect.
***The Trouble With Harry (1955)***
One of the least essential Hitchcock movies, this is a comedy about small-town folk trying to dispose of a troublesome corpse (Harry) before the local deputy finds out. The main problem is that it's more wry chuckles than belly laughs (although there is one great line about a threshing machine). Stretched out for more than 90 minutes, wry chuckles become rather tiresome.
It looks lovely, with beautiful autumnal New England scenery. The leads - John Forsythe (later in Dynasty) and Shirley MacLaine (in her first film) are annoying at first but grow on you. Edmund Gwenn, a veteran of many Hitchcock films, is charming as the loveable old sailor who thinks he's killed Harry. It's the first Hitchcock film for which Bernard Herrmann did the music, and it's a huge leap up in quality from Rear Window, which has rather drab music.
Although it's one of the least impressive films, it has one of the best transfers to Blu-ray. It looks stunning - the colours practically glow. A shame Rear Window couldn't have looked this good.
***The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)***
This is another disappointing film - it's a remake of one of Hitchcock's first big hits, made in 1934. A couple stumbles across international intrigue, and some spies kidnap their son. They have to try to rescue the boy and prevent an assassination.
In updating the film for 1950s Hollywood, Hitchcock has somehow mislaid all the things that made the original great. In place of the genuinely warm, witty characters in the first film, we're given James Stewart loping around doing his usual aww shucks mannerisms, and cherub-faced annoyance Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera. And while Bernard Miles isn't bad as the main villain, he's not a patch on Peter Lorre in the earlier version. Most of all, this lacks the urgency and desperation of the earlier film. While it recreates the Albert Hall climax reasonably well, it doesn't have the great dentist sequence, or the fantastic final shootout.
The best bit is a comic fight in a taxidermist's workshop (featuring Richard Wordsworth from the Quatermass Xperiment). But the suspense sequences aren't impressive, and while it's all beautifully shot, it doesn't really add up to much. It's a shame, because it's still a good story; it's just one that seems to belong to the black and white 30s rather than the Technicolor 50s.
This one also looks great in high definition. It does rather expose some of the back projection and special effects - an increasing problem from here on - but not in a way that detracts from the film too badly.
This recently overtook Citizen Kane in the BFI's list of the greatest films of all time. I've never really understood why it's so acclaimed - Rear Window seems both more engaging and more intelligent. I daresay I'm missing something.
An ex-cop with vertigo is employed to tail a rich man's wife. She appears to be possessed by the ghost of a dead ancestor, and the husband is worried that she'll do herself harm. Inevitably, the detective and the woman fall in love.
The plot is pretty silly - the big twist stretches credibility to breaking point and beyond. It's a story about the detective, Scottie, and his obsession with the woman. James Stewart gives a good account of himself, bringing the darker side of the hero out very well (he could have done with a bit of that in Rope). The scenes where he moulds an initially unwilling woman into what he wants her to be are uneasy in all the right ways (and famously not too far from how Hitchcock himself behaved towards his actresses).
Scottie's obsession is when the film really comes to life, but that's only for 15 minutes or so out of a too-long two hours ten. The acting is immaculate (Kim Novak as the woman is especially good) and it's directed with Hitchcock's usual flair (the famous dolly zoom effect he devised for the vertigo attacks has become part of the cinematic language). But I just can't understand why this is meant to be the greatest film he ever made, let alone the greatest film *anyone* ever made.
Happily the Blu-ray looks fantastic. Along with Trouble With Harry, it's the best looking of the colour films.
Easily Hitchcock's most famous film, Psycho is still a brilliant horror movie - it revolutionised the genre almost as an afterthought. A stressed woman steals money from her employer, and while fleeing stops off at a harmless looking motel. Unfortunately, earnest Norman Bates, who runs the place, has a very sick, domineering mother...
This is the one Blu-ray in the set that was already available, and I reviewed it at length elsewhere. Needless to say, the film still works superbly - it's my favourite after Rear Window - and the picture quality is excellent, more than doing justice to a classic. The music is amazing, Anthony Perkins is brilliant, and it's reputedly the first ever film to feature a toilet flushing. What's not to love?
After Psycho, the quality of the films plummets. Apart from Frenzy, the last few Hitchcock films are difficult to sit through, enlivened by a few good scenes or nice shots. His ideas of glamour and witty repartee begin to feel hopelessly outdated in the 60s and 70s, as he keeps trying to persuade us that glacial blondes on high heels are the be-all-and-end-all. There are times when he seems like an embarrassing uncle dancing at a wedding disco, blissfully unaware of how horribly unhip he is.
***The Birds (1963)***
Birds start to attack humans in a small coastal town in California. This one has its fans, and there are some tremendously good sequences. The problem is that it's two hours long when it needs to be 90 minutes, and the romcom antics that clog up the first half hour are deeply irritating.
The other problem is the leading lady, Tippi Hedren, who isn't very good. Everyone now knows that Hitchcock treated her very badly, and her poor performance probably comes from her being obliged to do an unconvincing Grace Kelly impression. But she never feels interesting, and only seems real in the nasty scene where she's attacked by seagulls. The special effects are showing their age in some places, although the decision to use sound effects instead of incidental music feels ahead of its time.
This is the first Blu-ray with disappointing picture quality. It's wildly variable - sometimes it looks good, other times it looks pretty bad. This is probably down to the original film - the excessive use of back projection and superimposed birds seems to make it impossible to get a nice, uniform quality.
This time Tippi Hedren plays a frigid kleptomaniac who is trapped into marriage by a suave publisher (Sean Connery). There's very little suspense; it's more in the style of Vertigo, as the 'hero' tries to mould a woman to be what he wants her to be. This is where Hitchcock really starts to lose his touch.
There are one or two lovely shots in Marnie, but for the most part it's a rather turgid melodrama let down by simplistic psychology (something Hitchcock was prone to, as in the very silly Spellbound). It also has appalling acting - Hedren is totally out of her depth (Hitchcock's offscreen behaviour towards her allegedly became intolerable during the making of Marnie, which can't have helped). Connery, still in the first flush of fame, also seems a bit lost, not quite as cocksure as he would become. There's some very hammy acting from Louise Latham as Marnie's mother.
This is also unpleasant in other ways - the idea that one might 'cure' a woman's frigidity through a combination of bullying and marital rape is, to put it mildly, problematic. The picture quality is variable - in some shots it looks good, in others it's got a heavy layer of grain that's very distracting (the sky in the famous train platform opening shot looks bizarre!). However, it seems this is down to problems with the source material (the same issues were present on the most recent DVD version too).
***Torn Curtain (1966)***
An American scientist pretends to defect to East Germany in order to acquire some information from a rival scientist. His fiancée tags along, kind of by accident. This is dismal. By the mid-60s espionage meant James Bond or Harry Palmer, not this quaint nonsense. Paul Newman and Julie Andrews have neither charm nor chemistry, and the incidental music is abominable (Hitchcock fired Bernard Hermann during the making of this and never worked with him again). This is a contender for the worst Hitchcock film.
There are a couple of good scenes, including a cracking murder sequence, but most of the suspense falls flat, largely because it's not possible to care about the characters. At least the picture quality is decent - some shots are a bit grainy, but all in all it looks good. Shame it's not one of the more visually engaging films, really.
Topaz is maligned as one of Hitchcock's least interesting films - it bombed at the box office, and they never did quite sort the ending out. It's certainly not up to the standard of his earlier movies, but I found it a lot more engaging than Torn Curtain or Marnie. It's a globe-trotting spy story that feels almost modern, with its ambiguities and betrayals. The director has rediscovered his visual panache after the rather flat Torn Curtain, and while it's never quite successful, it does have some good stuff in it. One shot, in particular (the really famous one with the woman getting shot) exemplifies both why Hitchcock was so excellent and why he's also a bit dodgy in his treatment of women. It has good light-touch music, too, by Maurice Jarre.
It does lose momentum in its very talky last 45 minutes (it's much too long), and the lack of stars probably ensures it will always be quite obscure. The picture quality is rather good on the Blu-ray. Occasionally it looks a bit over-enhanced, but on the whole there's a good strength of colour and plenty of detail visible.
Frenzy is Hitchcock's last great film, flawed though it is. It gives a disturbing glimpse at what Hitchcock might have done had he not been constrained by censorship for so many decades. This again has a man wrongfully accused of being a sex murderer go on the run. But this time the hero is an obnoxious jerk and the killer is incredibly charming; and the crimes include some nasty, sexually explicit stuff. (This is why the set has an 18 certificate.)
It's not perfect - the supposedly comical subplot about the police detective's wife's cooking is bizarrely out of place, and the music is oddly prim. But the film presents a bustling, teeming view of London (the first time Hitchcock had filmed there for 30+ years), and has two great sequences - the wonderful pan down the staircase as the killer deals with another victim, and the horrible but hilarious potato lorry scene.
This is a disappointing Blu-ray. It looks like too much DNR has been applied - faces especially have a waxy, unnatural look to them, and some of the longer shots have had some detail smoothed away. This is a real shame, as in other respects (colours, especially) this is a huge improvement on the DVD. The film could look so much better than it does; along with Rear Window, this is the biggest disappointment in the set.
***Family Plot (1976)***
Family Plot is dismal. It was Hitchcock's last film, and should never have been greenlit by the studio. A fake psychic and her boyfriend are trying to track down the missing heir to a huge fortune. The heir, meanwhile, is a kidnapper/jewel thief who is understandably concerned about people looking for him.
With its leaden humour and lack of thrills, this doesn't feel like it has any connection to anything else Hitchcock ever did. There are no stars (Bruce Dern is fondly regarded by aficionados of cult cinema, but Cary Grant he ain't) and it's impossible to care about the characters. One potentially exciting scene, where a car's brakes are cut, is ruined by some of the most infuriating 'comedy' I've ever witnessed. The only good thing about it is John Williams's soundtrack.
Perhaps appropriately, the worst film in the set also has the worst picture quality. This is wretched; I've seen better DVDs. The faces look like they've had an idiot applying Photoshop filters to them, and there are loads of speckles on the print. I don't see the point of including a film in a Blu-ray set if no effort is going to be made to present it in decent high definition. I wasn't likely to watch it again anyway, but this is appalling.
With 14 films, there are obviously tonnes of extras, and mentioning everything would double the length of what is already a too-long review. All the films have a making-of documentary, and those are the most interesting extras. They're all much too reverential, though (the presence of Hitchcock's daughter Pat in most of them means they're hardly going to be anything else). Anyone looking for juicy gossip from Tippi Hedren will be disappointed. The more recent the film, the more people they have to interview, so the lesser films get slightly better documentaries. It's also worth watching the alternative endings to Topaz, just to see how much worse it could have been.
Each disk takes a long, long time to load, and there are idents, disclaimers and the annoying '100 Years of Universal' trailer to get through before we actually arrive at the menu screen. You can skip through most of it, but it will still take at least a minute to get to the actual film; not a great advert for a format that's already considered slow to load.
The packaging is nicer than I expected, using cardboard sleeves to make the set agreeably thin (much thinner, for instance, than the eight-film Universal Horror set). In spite of being cardboard, it's a robust item (as you'd hope given the price) and the only complaint is that the disks risk being scratched as you slide them out of their sleeves. I think it'll be OK as long as you're careful.
All in all, an emphasis on the later, lesser films and variable picture quality make this set difficult to recommend. The films are getting individual releases now, and you'd probably be better off getting the ones you want separately rather than investing in this. If they'd made Frenzy and Rear Window look better, and included North By Northwest (as they did in the American version of the set) this would be a far more appealing proposition. As it is, it feels like a wasted opportunity.
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Seven Psychopaths (Blu-Ray)
This blu-ray goes for about £10 on amazon, but is obviously cheaper if bought second hand. Everyone loved In Bruges, playwright Martin McDonagh's first film - it took an unpromising premise and an unlikeable leading man and somehow turned out to be the funniest film of its year, with sadness and beauty at its heart. So ... naturally everyone hoped for something similar from the bigger budget follow-up Seven Psychopaths. Unfortunately, while the film isn't bad, it is not in the same league as In Bruges.
Marty is an Irish screenwriter in Hollywood struggling with his next script, which is titled Seven Psychopaths. Meanwhile his best friend, no-hoper aspiring actor Billy, runs a sideline in kidnapping people's dogs and then 'finding' them and pocketing the reward money. His partner in crime, Hans, is an ageing Quaker whose wife is in hospital with breast cancer. Billy steals a dog belonging to a dangerous mobster, Charlie, who will stop at nothing to get his dog back. And there's a vigilante after Charlie's crew.
It's a bit too complicated. In Bruges had a very simple plot, which gave it room to let the characters develop. Here everything is a very break-neck, at least in the first half when it's all being set up. The characters this time aren't meant to be so easily read as the characters in In Bruges - there are twists and secrets and things - but the killer dialogue that made McDonagh's plays and In Bruges so great often seems forced. It doesn't feel as universally appealing as In Bruges. The specifically Irish/British references have been toned down a bit, probably to give the film greater appeal in America, but at the cost of losing some of the effortless comic effects of his earlier work.
Any film that is about how difficult it is to make films is automatically suspect. There is very little reason for anyone not involved in the film industry to give a hoot. I suspect there's a layer of postmodern knowingness going on here - your hero's an Irish writer called Martin, you say? How droll - but that doesn't dispel the suspicion that we're being asked to care about things that aren't inherently all that interesting. It's still funny, which is more than can be said for Fellini's ghastly 8½, but that doesn't alter the feeling that this is basically self-indulgent. The hero of McDonagh's play, The Pillowman, is a writer, but the play is about more than that, so it gets away with it. I'm not sure Seven Psychopaths ever quite escapes feeling like an industry in-joke.
It does get a bit more interesting in the second half, as Marty tries to row back from the violent shoot-out ending that the film and the film-within-a-film seem to be heading for, only to have another character sabotage his efforts. But just having a few characters deciding that screen violence is bad doesn't really equate to an examination of screen violence. And acknowledging that you write women characters really badly (as the film does, by having someone point this out to Marty) doesn't necessarily make it better (McDonagh does write women well in other contexts, so this is presumably meant to be a joke. Still, though, most of the women characters in the film are terrible).
McDonagh directs well, with a real flair for beauty - the deserts around Los Angeles look lovely. But he does seem a little too influenced by things that were cool 20 years ago. The film starts with a very self-conscious Tarantino pastiche. Worse, the seven psychopaths (I'm not sure there really are seven) are introduced by freeze framing and onscreen captions. This is a Trainspotting trick, and surely no one pretends to still find Trainspotting cool, do they? Two or three of the psychopaths have stories that sit outside the main narrative, and these feel perhaps a bit too clever for their own good. The Vietnamese Priest story, especially, is a smart little twist-ending tale, but it doesn't fit very well with the rest of the film.
But for all that I've just slagged it off, the film is just about funny enough to get away with it. Like In Bruges, it flips pretty quickly from great gags to soberingly nasty violence (there's comedy violence too, but that tends to be kept safely tucked away in fantasy sequences or probably-fake flashbacks). The problem is that In Bruges had only a handful of characters, so the nastiness hurt because we cared about those people. Here there are too many characters, and the deaths don't have the kind of weight they perhaps should have. That doesn't stop the film being fundamentally enjoyable; McDonagh still has the ability to write very funny one-liners. And if you can't raise a few smiles out of the name shih tzu, you're probably in the wrong line of work.
And he has a great cast. Colin Farrell continues to redeem himself as Marty. This time he's weary and boozy, and does pretty well even though he has to play straight man to a lot of showier characters. His hair becomes more like Morrissey's as the film progresses, which can't be good, but otherwise he's pretty much spot-on. Sam Rockwell is mostly good as his annoying friend Billy. I guess I found him kind-of irritating, which is probably the point, but he has some very funny stuff (his bizarrely specific concern about chlamydia, for instance).
The best of the cast are Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken. Harrelson is hilarious as the violent mobster, Charlie. He's never quite threatening, even when he's killing people; instead he's strangely vulnerable. I guess we can all relate to the pain of losing a dog. Walken gives one of the best archetypal Walken performances for years (the part was obviously written for him). He has that otherworldly mystique thing that he does, broken by the occasional bout of swearing or toothy grin. It's kind of a surprise to see him playing an old guy - he always seemed ageless.
Smaller roles go to Tom Waits (I love his music, but I've never completely liked him as an actor) and Harry Dean Stanton (who has a great cameo). The film bizarrely wastes Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko in tiny, nothing roles, but generally there's no one bad in the supporting cast. There's a good soundtrack as well, featuring lots of old sixties songs, as is the style these days. The film opens and closes with The First Cut is the Deepest by PP Arnold, one of the best songs ever recorded, which is automatically a point in its favour.
It's just a shame the film isn't quite coherent. It's funny, it's well made and very well acted, but it just lacks some essential part that would tie it all together properly. It feels like McDonagh's own voice is being lost a little in the muddle, as if he's tried to cram too much into one film and has smothered the part that made In Bruges an instant classic. I hope he does better next time.
As you'd hope, the picture quality on this is very good. Every wrinkle on Walken's face is clearly visible, and that's surely all we want. Any modern film that doesn't look good on Blu-ray has messed something up somewhere. This is about as good a transfer as you'll see.
There are a collection of largely unimpressive extras. Most are those ones where they sit the lead actors down in front of a camera and have them make crushingly banal observations about the character they play - I've no idea what purpose those are meant to serve, but since most of them have the swearing beeped out, I'd guess they were made for TV.
The trailer doesn't really represent what the film is like very well. There's a dreadful, dreadful minute and a half video in which characters from the film are replaced by animated cats. Anyone who thinks animated cats are funny in and of themselves is a terminal fool. And bear in mind that animated cats is all we'll be allowed to access on the internet if David Cameron gets his way.
The only good extra is 15 minutes of deleted scenes. Some of them are poor - there's a bit too much of Sam Rockwell improvising in front of a mirror - but there's at least one scene, a funeral, that's as great as anything that's in the final cut.
Seven Psychopaths isn't a classic, but is still just about worth checking out. It feels like a lost opportunity, but it shouldn't hurt the director's career, and hopefully he'll do more, and better, films.
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