Crock lobster


(c) Element Pictures / Scarlet Films


We’re almost three weeks into 2016 and I haven’t had a rant about anything yet.  But never fear.  I’ve recently seen the new dystopian comedy movie The Lobster, directed by the man who made 2009’s Dogtooth, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos.  And yes, it’s left me in full ranting mode.


The Lobster tells the story of David, played by Colin Farrell, who’s been dumped by his wife and is thus in a pickle – because he lives in a weird future society where coupledom is sacred and being single is so unacceptable that singletons are sent to a facility called the Hotel, which really is like a big bland hotel, and given 45 days there to pair off.


Anyone who remains a bachelor or spinster by the end of the 45 days faces a strange punishment.  They get surgically transformed into an animal of their choice.  David’s decided that, in the worst-case scenario, he’ll become a lobster because “lobsters live for over 100 years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives.”  This fate has already befallen David’s brother, who’s been turned into a dog and who accompanies him to the Hotel.


I thought The Lobster’s bizarre premise sounded appealing – especially nowadays, when you can hardly move without tripping over yet another lame romantic-comedy movie from the USA or Britain broadcasting the message that there’s something wrong with you if you’re single; and the only route to happiness is to be shacked up and in lurve with somebody.  I’d welcome a sharp black comedy that craps over those irritating rom-coms and their facile assumption that happiness = coupledom.


Even more promisingly, The Lobster had amassed a score of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film-review aggregator website.  So I headed to see it with high hopes.


Looking at that Rotten Tomatoes score now, though, I can only surmise that my funny bone is located in a very different place from where it’s located in the majority of the world’s film critics.  For the film failed to coax a single laugh out of me.  I don’t think there was a single moment during its 118-minute running time when my lips formed even an approximation of a smile.


(c) Element Pictures / Scarlet Films


The first thing that bugged me about The Lobster was an issue of personal taste.  It’s one of those dystopian science fiction movies that are supposedly set in the future, but actually take place in the present day.  Everyone looks the same, dresses the same, drives the same cars, lives in the same houses, potters around the same furniture, etc., as they do now.  This approach I always find patronising.  The filmmakers are telling me that terrible stuff is happening in this future society they’re depicting.  But hey, if you think about it – nudge, nudge, wink, wink – the same terrible stuff is happening to us today!  Look – this is really our society now!  Wow!  Thank you, Mr Intellectual Filmmakers.  I’m much too thick to have worked that out by myself.


I suppose this is one of many things that we can blame the French for.  French-directed sci-fi movies like Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville (filmed in contemporary Paris), Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (filmed in contemporary locations in England and France) and Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch (filmed in contemporary Glasgow) tried the same shtick in 1965, 1966 and 1979 respectively.


Incidentally, the big sci-fi element of The Lobster, the transformation of humans into animals, is neither shown nor developed.  It disappears from the plot halfway through and I suspect Lanthimos only included it in the first place because it gave him an opportunity to show some extreme black-comedy scenes where cute animals get abused.  Remember, though, that the cute animals being abused aren’t really animals – they’re transformed people.


Now I enjoy a bit of cute-animal abuse as much as the next heartless brute – for example, the scene in A Fish Called Wanda (1988) where a Yorkshire terrier gets flattened by a steamroller.  But during The Lobster, somehow, even the images of a cute donkey being shot in the head and David’s cute dog / brother getting kicked to death failed to raise a chuckle from me.


The film also suffers from a busy soundtrack.  For one thing, you have some very intrusive background music of the classical / stringed variety.  And then there’s a voice-over by Rachel Weisz, who plays one of a band of fugitive non-conformists called the Loners, who hide out in a nearby forest, live strictly as singletons and stage guerrilla attacks on the couple-obsessed society they’ve run away from.  (Later in the film, David escapes from the Hotel and joins the Loners, only to violate their moral code too by forming a romantic attachment with the Weisz character.)  It’s rarely a good sign when you get a voice-over in a movie – having someone tell you what’s going on usually means that the writers don’t think their script is good enough to show you what’s going on.  And it doesn’t help either that Weisz’s flat, strained voice is hard to listen to.  Which brings me to the acting…


(c) Element Pictures / Scarlet Films


I can’t deny that the cast is good.  Not only are there Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, but also John C. Reilly, Olivia Coleman, Ashley Jensen and James Bond alumni Léa Seydoux and Ben Wishaw.  In the later scenes, when David is living in the forest with the Loners, even the ubiquitous Irish actor Michael Smiley shows his face, although it’s a bit unclear what he’s doing there.  (I suspect Smiley was in another part of the forest shooting a different movie – probably some low-budget British horror effort with a title like The Outpost IV – when Lanthimos and co. noticed him and shouted, “Hey, Michael!  Do you want to be in our movie too?  Come over here for a few minutes!”  Actually, he should have stayed with The Outpost IV.) 


Alas, the quality cast is hamstrung by the fact that everyone performs in a stilted, numb and naïve manner, which presumably is how the citizens would behave in a stultifying society that worships domesticity.  But the stiltedness of the performances becomes wearying.  Farrell’s dazed, not-all-there mannerisms are most tiring of all because we’re with him for the whole film.  You end up feeling you’ve spent two hours stuck in a lift with Father Dougal McGuire from Father Ted.


And yes, two hours is much too long for this movie.  At sixty percent of that length, it might’ve got away with it – introducing us to its ideas and then buggering off before the novelty wore off.  By the time that David joins the Loners in the forest, I was mentally pleading for things to stop.  But The Lobster just keeps going on and on and on.


By the way, those forest scenes reminded me of the Woody Allen movies Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973), wherein Allen finds himself living reluctantly with guerrilla-groups in the wilderness.  Oh, how I longed for a gag in The Lobster where Colin Farrell asks for “grapefruit segments, two poached eggs, cinnamon toast and regular coffee” at the camp mess and gets served mashed lizard instead, or mucks up his basic weapons training by holding onto the grenade and throwing the pin, or is urinated on while practising camouflaging himself as a bush, which is what happened to Woody Allen in those ‘early, funny ones’.


The Lobster has one thing going for it, which is some gorgeous Irish scenery – it was filmed in the countryside of County Kerry.  But that was the only good thing as far as I was concerned.  After two hours, I was relieved to escape from its claws.


(c) Element Pictures / Scarlet Films


California screaming: film review / Seven Psychopaths


(c) Film4

Martin McDonagh’s most recent movie is called Seven Psychopaths because there are allegedly seven psychopaths in it.  This number could be disputed, however.  One of the psychopaths doesn’t do any psychopathic killing, but merely stands around and looks scary – so he might not qualify as a psychopath at all.  Two more of the psychopaths prove to be the same character, while another is played in different parts of the film by two different actors.  Early on, there’s a brief appearance by an additional psychopath who isn’t one of the official seven, a psychopath who finds religion and gives up killing.  And later, the film has cameos by three more surplus psychopaths, including the real-life Zodiac Killer who terrorised northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Therefore, Seven Psychopaths could as easily have been called Five, Six, Eight, Eleven or Twelve Psychopaths.  Just saying.


McDonagh’s previous film was 2008’s In Bruges, the story of two hit-men who hole up in the titular Belgian city after a botched job and endure boredom, uncertainty, guilt, existentialist angst, annoying American (and Canadian) tourists, a debauched dwarf and a vengeful gangster boss, and it was an unheralded but absolute cinematic joy.  Seven Psychopaths begins by deconstructing its predecessor.  It shows two more hit-men, not dissimilar to the ones played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason in In Bruges, waiting to carry out a job by the Hollywood Reservoir above Los Angeles and killing time by discussing the logistics of shooting people through their eyeballs.  Once McDonagh gets those hit-men out of the way, however, he zooms in on an Irish writer called Marty, played by Farrell, who’s attempting, fruitlessly, to write a screenplay for a Hollywood studio.  The gimmick of Marty’s script is that it contains – you guessed it – seven psychopaths.


Trying to help Marty with his script is his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), an aspiring actor who’s blessed with boundless enthusiasm but zero common sense.  Later, Billy’s business partner Hans (Christopher Walken) contributes some ideas too.  Billy and Hans, it transpires, are actually partners in crime because they do a profitable line in kidnapping dogs.  After the distraught owners have stuck up missing-posters and offered money, they return the dogs and claim the rewards.  Then, unwittingly, they kidnap a Shih Tzu called Bonnie, who’s the beloved pet of murderous gang-boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson).  And suddenly, thanks to his two associates, Marty finds himself in more intimate contact with a real-life psychopath than he’d ever bargained for.


Just to make things a little bit worse, Billy also tries to aid Marty with the research for his screenplay by putting an advert in a newspaper asking any psychopaths living in the Los Angeles area to get in touch.  As a result, while the situation with Charlie gets seriously out of hand, they receive a visit from a mysterious character called Zachariah, cradling a white rabbit and played by Tom Waits, who has some macabre tales to tell them.


So far, so Quentin Tarantino-esque.  However, what makes Seven Psychopaths extra-special is that its main narrative is peppered with stories-within-a-story, whereby Hans and Billy’s suggestions for the script, and Marty’s own ideas for it, are dramatized on screen.  This allows McDonagh to poke fun at the not-very-high standards of the typical Hollywood product these days.  A sequence showing the climax of the script as Billy envisions it is bloodily, stupidly and hilariously over-the-top, though to be honest it’s probably how a normal Hollywood studio would climax a film about seven psychopaths.


This self-reflexive approach also allows McDonagh to deflect possible criticisms of his film by making those criticisms of it himself, first.  For example, when Walken chides Farrell for writing his female characters so poorly, McDonagh is surely acknowledging the fact that the film’s two leading actresses, Abbie Cornish and Quantum of Solace’s Olga Kurylenko, have little to do besides provide some pleasing eye-candy.


Seven Psychopaths isn’t quite the film that In Bruges was.  Despite the Beckettian ennui that pervaded it, In Bruges had a relentless narrative drive.  Gleason and Farrell arrived in Bruges, pottered around, encountered key characters and locations and then halfway through things kicked into life when their volcanically-tempered and thoroughly pissed-off boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrived in town too – thereafter, like the jaws of a mantrap closing, the various characters and locations meshed together to create the film’s long, exciting, funny and bloody finale.  Seven Psychopaths lacks that plot momentum and if anything it turns the narrative-shape of In Bruges back-to-front.  Early on there are characters and incidents all over the place.  Later, however, things slow down and a stillness descends over the film.


An additional advantage that In Bruges had over Seven Psychopaths was the city of Bruges itself, which gave the film such a gorgeous and distinctive backdrop that, in a story full of memorable characters, it seemed almost the most memorable character of all.  Los Angeles doesn’t achieve the same effect in Seven Psychopaths, although a Californian friend who watched the movie with me did comment that McDonagh had managed to make L.A. look “nicer than it really is.”


Nonetheless, by its own terms, Seven Psychopaths is very good.  Even during scenes where things could have dragged a little, the entertainment value remains high thanks to the laugh-out-loud qualities of McDonagh’s dialogue and the engaging eccentricities of his characters.  The writing is reinforced by the performances.  Harrelson and Waits aren’t really called upon to do much other than appear menacing and grizzled respectively – which both of them do capably.  Farrell, whom I’d never really rated as an actor before I saw In Bruges, gives another excellent performance here.  He’s as mouthy and as harassed-seeming as he was in the earlier film although his Marty character is much more grown-up.  The man-child qualities that made Farrell so funny in In Bruges are here transferred to Rockwell’s Billy.  Rockwell has to balance being loveable with being strangle-able, a feat that he pulls off with aplomb.   We can understand why, despite the exasperation he causes Marty (and he causes him a lot), Marty still regards him fondly.


Perhaps the best performance, however, comes from Walken as the gentle and God-fearing Hans (although his religiosity doesn’t stop him dog-napping, which I assume is a sin).  He’s almost Job-like in the punishment that McDonagh’s script visits upon him and he bears it with a melancholy calmness and stoicism that’s truly endearing.


Incidentally, it says a lot about the film’s unpredictability that although Christopher Walken is in it, and although it’s choc-a-bloc with psychopaths, Walken is actually the nicest character by far on screen.  If Seven Psychopaths was the sort of Hollywood movie that it spends its time satirising, Walken would no doubt be doing more conventionally Walken things – strutting around, for instance, and shooting people point-blank in the head.