What is the difference between a film plot and a human being? If you blindfold human beings, they cannot walk a straight line but start to move in unwitting circles. A film plot moves in circles only when you take off its blindfold. Self-aware, suddenly all-seeing – in a word postmodern – it feels compelled, like Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, to mimic the circular agenda it perceives in all plots.
Tales are about tail-chasing. They pine for symmetry and closure. It is the intuitive, “blind” tales, fearless of reaching into the dark (from Oedipus to Lear to Vertigo), that have the rough passion and visceral vim, the seeing unseeingness, of great art. So McDonagh’s new film, like his In Bruges, is clever, ludic, perky, perspicacious – and ever so slightly tiring. Lots of self-reflexive movie knowingness; lots of gags about genre and storytelling; lots of Colin Farrell again, larkily befuddled, imparting his “Irish” to this ricocheting snooker game of a comedy thriller, as his Hollywood-based writer labours to create his same-title-as-the-movie screenplay.
Psychopaths? Borderline versions are all around him, from best pal Sam Rockwell, embroiled in a dognapping business with elderly flake Christopher Walken, to Woody Harrelson, shih-tzu-owning gangster and authentic psycho. We won’t forget Tom Waits either, horse-faced with a cloud of dyed red hair (Rudy Vallée crossed with Frankie Howerd), cameo-playing a serial killer of serial killers. That’s the film’s funniest circular joke: “Going around the country,” explains Waits, “killing people going around the country killing people.” McDonagh does a lot of that dry drollery. He is Samuel Beckett rolled into Flann O'Brien. But one day he should give us a movie – please? we’ll pay? – that goes straight and boldly forward, even into the dark, and doesn’t gaze at its po-mo pirouettes in a vanity mirror.
The Man with the Iron Fists is postmodern too, in a fashion. Rapper Rza of Wu-Tang Clan is director, co-writer and star of this to-my-senses certifiable riff on Asian martial arts cinema. Rza plays a black blacksmith in old China, where Russell Crowe, slinging an English accent and fancy knife-bladed handgun, moseys through cleaning up cantons. The fights are balletically berserk: fountaining blood, flying limbs. There is an army of ninja prostitutes. It all starts to make sense at the end when we see the credit “Quentin Tarantino” as co-producer and presenter. Ah yes. The trashmeister is back, recycling his high-end trash. The grindhouse grinds on. There are a few pretty sparks among the ugly noises.
The Sundance or ex-Sundance romantic comedy is a genre of its own. Take Celeste and Jesse Forever. Liberal, sophisticated, adorably dysfunctional, moyen intellectuel, its young couple on the brink of divorce can’t stop loving each other. Or liking each other. Or even, some nights, lusting after each other and consummating it. Celeste, played by co-screenwriter Rashida Jones, pretty with fine-sculpted features, and nice Jewish boy Jesse (Andy Samberg) can’t make up their minds. But that is what the Sundance-style romcom is about: the charm of existential dither. This isn’t a mumblecore movie, so the dialogue is cogent, funny and audible. The actors are likeable and credible. And there is quiet, seditious verve to the way expectations are derailed and then re-railed, just as in those areas of real life that still exist even outside the expanding Sundance empire of middlebrow observationalism.
The Oranges observes a more controversial romance. Deep in US suburbia, paterfamilias Hugh Laurie (post-House an honorary New Jerseyite) falls for a neighbour’s twenty-something daughter. She falls for him in return. Maelstrom in Metroland! Laurie's wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter go into shock. The girl’s parents (Alison Janney, Oliver Platt) go through the roof. Disintegration is complete when Keener drives back from her refuge in the local B&B, where she has booked up all the rooms (no greater hate than one which hits a husband in the wallet), and runs over the lighted Christmas animals – crash, bang, splinter – which Laurie has put up in the front yard.
Sporadic in its own sparkle, middling in its wit, the film will be required viewing mainly for Hugh Laurie phenomenologists: those who study the extraordinary story of an actor who began as a BBC comedy buffoon, became a sardonic, sombrely sexy American super-surgeon and now turns to advantage that decade of stubbled supercool – albeit enlivened here by spooky eyes oddly reminiscent of the Martian leader in Mars Attacks! – to make it wholly unfazing that he sweeps into bed and bliss a girl young enough to be his daughter.
Do not pass up Tu seras mon fils (You Will Be My Son), a French dynastic drama about a Lear-like winegrower (terrific Niels Arestrup, the white-haired Franco-Dane of A Prophet) abusing his patrimonial powers. The good-natured only son (Lorànt Deutsch) – Cordelia in breeches – gets shafted. The legacy-hungry dependents move in. It all ends in tears, bouquet’d with irony, wisdom and bleak comedy. Yves Angelo’s cinematography is the finishing touch to the film’s “nose”, a rich, subtle and velvety pastoralism. This man also photographed Un coeur en hiver and Tous les matins du monde: enough said.
Do pass up I, Anna. Poor Charlotte Rampling. She deserves better than to be gurneyed into this casualty ward of a psychological thriller by her own son, director Barnaby Southcombe. Stricken characters – her lonely hearted manslaughter suspect, Gabriel Byrne’s broken-marriage detective – are wheeled about like incurables in search of a miracle drug. Can they find a cure for the arty lesions of the editing? For the doomy shadows on the visual narrative’s lungs (a disease called Film Noir Pastiche)? Or for the arrhythmic heartbeat of a story that stops, starts and stutters, as if each fresh take happened on a different day in a different dimension of mood and feeling.