Theater Trip #11 – I Need A New Lawyer (The Counselor, Scott)
The Counselor (Ridley Scott, 2013)
The Counselor is a meditation on the coldness of death and the randomness of fate. The plot focuses on criminals of different sizes, all trying to avoid their destiny. The film, directed by Ridley Scott, does as much to tell as it does to show – the telling done by its writer, the great Cormac McCarthy.
The Counselor isn’t a perfect marriage of styles. I don’t like Ridley Scott’s ultra professionalism. His films lack substance in favor of style, not to be confused with being stylistic. However, his directorial sheen fit well with Cormac McCarthy’s – the film’s author – cheap and tawdry tale. The Counselor is not an adaptation. McCarthy wrote the script by himself, without interference, and we are lucky for this. While Scott’s shiny, pop style made The Counselor feel shallow and jittery, it found an aspect of McCarthy’s rhythmic, dark style that it was able to enhance. In a world of cold-blooded materialism, McCarthy’s insistent tone about fate and death has a pretty face behind it.
A lawyer – Michael Fassbender – is in over his head after mixing up with a drug cartel.
The cast laden with celebrity inhabits cartoonish characters. Cameron Diaz sports a spotty accent and actual jaguar spots (tattoos, of course). Javier Bardem shines, literally, in his colorful clothing juxtaposed against his burnt butter skin tone. But McCarthy’s characters – alien in visual concept – bubble with philosophical monologue. They possess far deeper substance than many of the more “believable” characters of less creative films. Bardem may look ridiculous as Reiner – a South American drug pushing playboy – but his fears about love and death are as real as our own. McCarthy creates a world in which we can enjoy for its soap opera appeal, recoil at its blunt violence, and marvel at its reflective message.
The movie deals with death in both cold and deep ways. You must listen to The Counselor, something that is rare in a movie today. If you listen to the dialogue, so carefully crafted and repeated for impact, if you listen to Brad Pitt’s modern criminal cowboy spouting wisdom on death and business, if you listen to a cartel boss on the other line explaining the simplicity and unavoidability of fate and the decisions we make, one will feel the power of a novel in the confines of the silver screen. McCarthy is a fringe author thrust into the mainstream in recent years, his unique take on the world and sprawling prose befitting of screen adaptation – his suspenseful plots don’t hurt, either. He uses the darker side to illuminate the emotions and fears common among us all. To see it realized on the screen, to hear his characters alive in some of our finest (and coolest) actors, is a rare treat. Consider seeing The Counselor for who wrote it, for the capable if inelegant hands of its director, and for the beauty that comes out of its darkness.
See It? YES
Top 100? Maybe
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai, 2013)
The opening to The Grandmaster – Ip Man strolling down a dark street, challengers in the wings, a close up of a puddle, raindrops popping as they plop – reveals Wong Kar Wai’s mastery of detail. He commands the camera, zooming in and out, in real time and slow motion, visions swirling. The legendary Ip Man has received an epic retread.
The history of martial arts master, Ip Man, is told, starting from his wealthy life in Southern China to his rise as to grandmaster, through Japanese invasion and a humbling aftermath.
The fight scenes are tremendous – necessarily. Choreographer Woo-Ping Luen worked the film. His track record is mighty, if you didn’t know – which I didn’t. The Grandmaster is centered on the mythological story of Ip Man. His rise is divine. Through narration, Ip Man’s story is told, a Homeric rhythm to the exposition.
Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays Ip Man. His stoicism exudes confidence – fitting for a legendary martial artist. The Grandmaster is not dependent on Ip Man’s story alone. Gong Er, the daughter in a rich Chinese family entrenched in the martial arts, is given breadth. Her story coincides with Ip Man’s, a strong female counterpart. Ziyi Zhang is Gong Er. Zhang, well known for pop hits from the past – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and the interminable Rush Hour 2 (2001) – is menacing in her vengeful fervor. Many grandmasters are shown respect, given ample screen time. Kar Wai expands the scope to enhance the legend. The Grandmaster offers total immersion in a mythological world with strong roots. It trumps the fantasy genre at its own game – a hobbit’s tale cannot offer the same.
The cinematic exploration of Ip Man has many incarnations. One of the most popular and current versions is that of director Wilson Yip. His Ip Man franchise has been trucking since 2008. But The Grandmaster was my introduction to Ip Man. The dirtier secret: this was also my first tango with Wong Kar Wai. Witnessing his cerebral, delicate execution of a legend’s sprawling tale, I doubt I will see a finer telling, or a finer filmmaker currently at work. In a time with few masters, Wong Kar Wai is his own legend.
See It? YES
Top 100? No
Gravity (Cuaron, 2013)
The sudden popularity of director Alfonso Cuaron has reached new heights – so much so, he’s taken off into orbit. An exhilarating 3D adventure pretends to be more. Besides Sandra Bullock’s finest performance since, I don’t know, The Blind Side (2009), Gravity offers little.
An engineer embarks on her first mission into outer space, coinciding with a veteran astronaut’s last. An accident involving space debris leaves the two crewmembers fighting for their lives.
Clooney plays Matt Kowalski – a story-telling space cowboy. His character is airless, floating with memories, a calming cosmic presence. The drama rests in Bullock’s character, Sandra Stone. Stone is the ultimate recluse. A past trauma sends her happily into space. Gravity’s simplistic plot hides behind special effects.
Full disclosure: I saw Gravity in 2D and regretted it. My transgression resulted in two-fold displeasure. I had missed the one element of the film given creative energy and I had to watch the rest of it. 3D is a fleeting thrill. I have yet to remember a film based solely on its inclusion of the third dimension. Mine is not a cranky complaint, either – hopefully. I enjoyed Avatar (2009) more the time I saw it in 3D, as opposed to its 2D counterpart – I still and will forever hate Avatar. 3D is fun like a carnival ride, or in Gravity’s case, an amusement park ride – think, Universal (Fuller disclosure: I am scared of carnival rides and avoid them, too).
Gravity had ample opportunity to broaden. The beauty in the film – a glowing earth in the backdrop amid endless darkness – is sustained. Clooney and Bullock float like snow flakes – outer space is still a wonder. Of course, Clooney and Bullock have tipped us off. How dark is space really with the glowing presence of celebrity? Cuaron’s budding career has earned him two of the brightest stars for his space “epic.” Only he chose a basic mission, unwilling to go the philosophical way of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – mercifully – or the introspective route of the Sam Rockwell vehicle, Moon (2009). Gravity refused going straight blockbuster, like the beloved and bemoaned, Armageddon (1998). Happy with its one-dimensional exploits, Gravity is Speed (1994) in space with 3D – hello again, Ms. Bullock.
The best attempt at emotional depth sees Sandra Stone alone in an escape pod, awaiting rescue, pondering death. But it’s misplaced. Bullock has to psychoanalyze herself while deciphering the Russian controls of the pod – give her another Oscar. Clooney flies in and out, drunk off space vodka and a light workload. Unlike Cuaron’s previous darling attraction, Children Of Men (2006), Gravity moves fast, though it’s hard to tell – we are in space, where moseying debris is actually whizzing by at twenty thousand miles per hour. Clive Owen’s adventure in Children Of Men had the energy of a fully conceived idea, of a well-crafted dystopian future, of a true sci-fi thriller. Gravity is self-satisfied, riding high on 3D imagery and funky camera play. And that’s all well and good. We go to the movies to have fun, to have an experience, to see new technology at work, to go places we haven’t gone, many other reasons. Gravity represents the ideal for which all cinematic subjectivists stand for – it is entertaining, and I’m sure a breathtaking experience on a colossal IMAX screen. Isn’t the audience’s joy enough justification for its trumpeted reception? It may also be the future of cinematic experience, another step towards fully immersive 3D films – where we can be astronauts, too. Most definitely, Gravity represents the widespread tradeoff of creativity for technology. In the future, we will step inside of our films, starring right next to George Clooney. What we leave behind may be the artistry of cinema, and what we embrace is what Gravity offers – a relatively priced thrill, nothing more.
See It? Yes, in 3D
Top 100? No
Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)
Child abduction is a bummer. But we now have the answer – throw Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal on the case!
A man’s daughter and her friend go missing. With the police at work, he takes matters into his own hands.
Hugh Jackman trades the muttonchops for a goatee. His character, Keller Dover, is a swig of whiskey away from losing his grip. He plays a paranoid man with doomsday dreams – gas masks and gas cans littering his basement. Jackman is perfect as the intense man inches away from domestic abuse. His pent up aggression is spent on the would-be abductor. Paul Dano plays Alex Jones – a mentally disabled man with coke bottle glasses. Dano is surprisingly adept at getting his face bashed in.
The torture scenes are repulsive. I have no issue with violence in cinema. Prisoners must feel the same way. Jake Gyllenhaal receives the Gosling treatment – a bunch of tattoos and a facial tick in lieu of character depth. He’s Detective Loki – the cop with the perfect record. Like out of a Raymond Chandler novel, Gyllenhaal encapsulates the modern thriller tough guy. He does a better job than anticipated, given the generic mold.
The modern thriller is dependent on plot twists. Director Denis Villeneuve delivers them without conscience. The ridiculous plot twists do not meld with the grotesque violence. As violence in film is enjoying an invisible edge – able to overflow without anyone noticing – has it made the lighter side of the thriller now a cruel joke?
It evoked memory of my reaction to Hitchcock’s wonderfully loony late film, Marnie (1964). Hitchcock had crafted a steady tone – the ending fit like the last piece of a puzzle. Villeneuve is, of course, not Hitchcock. Say it out loud – it’s fun. And it reminds us how hard it is to shift tone, to be funny and shocking, emotional and thrilling.
Terrence Howard plays Franklin Birch. He’s Keller Dover’s friend, his daughter also abducted. He is not the “man” Keller Dover is, but he is every bit the father. When Keller shows him Alex Jones, chained up in a bathroom, Franklin stands in shock, muttering, “what have you done?” Soon enough, he joins in on the fun, accepting the inevitable. Perhaps I’m meant to, too. Perhaps I need to stop saying, “what have you done?” and start enjoying movies like Prisoners.
See It? Your Call
Top 100? No
Keoma (Enzo Castellari, 1976)
Keoma is billed as a “masterpiece” – that’s what’s written on the DVD cover. The movie is named after its lead character. The great Franco Nero dons a headdress, his Italian accent unable to hide behind a Native-American Halloween costume. This tale of identity, splashed with some Old West bang-bang, is sad.
Keoma, a “half-breed,” goes back home to find his town overrun with bandits, his contentious half-brothers doing nothing about it.
Keoma is for the outcasts. Keoma is a “half-breed,” – half Native-American. When he returns home, he discovers a group sick with plague banished to the outskirts. He picks one – a pregnant beauty – and saves her, sort of. His intentions are often unclear. Keoma is both free and forgotten, a loner and alone.
Franco Nero stands up with Eastwood and Bronson – sorry, The Duke is still tops. He was the star of Django (1960), one of the finest, dirtiest spaghetti-westerns. In Keoma, against the backdrop of the Civil War, his Italian accent is forgotten behind his rabid blue eyes.
Enzo Castellari directed Keoma. A prolific director of spaghetti-westerns, he has a fan in the latest American to make one, Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino borrowed from Castellari for Django:Unchained (2012) – he borrowed Nero, too. He borrowed for Inglorious Basterds (2009) – what doesn’t he borrow from? In Castellari’s case, it’s easy to see why. There are long shots of lush green hillsides, but the best lurk in the dark. Shots of hazy saloons filled with patrons clad in harsh colors. The bar wenches smeared in cherry red lipstick and sloppy lingerie. Depressed by bandits, scared of illness, the town, and the tone, is desperate. Keoma is their savior, a Christ like figure. A scene shows Keoma captured and strung up, having been made the antihero. The townsfolk gather, his brothers preaching against him – Keoma’s being crucified.
Bodies fly in lieu of blood, but don’t worry – there’s still blood. Keoma is a tale of redemption. Keoma’s father, played by the steady William Berger, believes in him. He adopted him, after all. Woody Strode, a member of the John Ford “family,” is friend to Keoma, too, though past his prime. Keoma has visions of an old woman, one from his former tribe, tormenting him along his journey. Her concern is wise. Keoma has baggage. He is a protector being protected.
We watch Keoma ride off on horseback, free at last. But we are not in the presence of a mighty man – again, this ain’t The Duke. He returned home, not to free others, but to free himself – I return home to do my laundry.
See It? Yes
Top 100? No
Ministry Of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)
Ministry Of Fear, Fritz Lang’s American period noir, is based off a book that I have not read. It is hard to explain the mesmerizing quality of Lang’s command. Unlike the booming M (1931), Lang’s other works take a hypnotic hold. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) is a prime example. It’s a film that still confounds me – it is unlike many I’ve seen before or since. Ministry Of Fear, more accessible, holds a similar mystique in the face of flawless noir technique.
Set during World War II, a man comes into information about a Nazi spy mission. With no one to trust and Nazis on his trail, what will he do?
Starring the lost Ray Milland, Ministry Of Fear is in capable hands. Lang casted the film well, all able to switch from harmless to threatening with a simple sneer. The tension is built on a prized cake. Milland’s character, Stephen Neal, wins a cake at a fair. When he boards a train, cake in tow, he encounters a blind man. The shock and aggression with which Neal is attacked is both startling and perfect – the blind man runs off with the cake. Stephen has been in an institution. His crime, arguable on moral grounds, haunts him. A séance gone wrong does more to illustrate Stephen’s character than to push plot. Comparable to Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls (1962), there is an eerie subtext at work. Stephen’s bewilderment becomes the viewers’.
It feels like wartime, siren’s blaring, people dragging to bomb shelters. It’s a dystopian wasteland in black-and-white. It feels futuristic, like Godard’s Alphaville (1965). Lang uses a historical backdrop for added vitriol and paranoia. There may not be a greater villain than the Nazis. Ministry Of Fear is not to be heralded for plot, though that’s not a knock. In fact, it’s a triumph – so much to admire before we even get to the shiny nuts of bolts.
Marjorie Reynolds, like a blonde-headed deer, plays Carla Hilfe. Carla is Stephen’s love interest, but she’s an illegal alien, hiding from deportation. We never know to trust her. We are unable to trust Lang, as well – what does convention mean to him?
See It? YES
Top 100? Maybe
Frownland (Ronald Brownstein, 2007)
Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland is genuine in its desire to “kick over rocks and check out what’s writhing underneath.”* What seems to irk the average viewer about Frownland – unlikeable characters, loud sounds, an indie film that isn’t quirky – is punctuated by its animosity toward the audience.
A mentally disordered man, Keith, fights through his mediocre existence.
Keith, played by the lesser-known Dore Mann, is not a hyperbolic mess of a character. His pathologies worsen as his anxieties rise. Arguing with his jobless roommate, Charles, Keith cannot convey his dispute – he is angry that the electric bill has gone unpaid. He stutters and stumbles through half-baked rants, sweat growing on his forehead. Any sympathy for him is at odds with his abrasive demeanor – he is so damn annoying. He is a social recluse by default. Charles feels this way, but Bronstein makes the audience feel similar disdain for Keith – against our will, perhaps. Sympathy and likeability don’t always travel together.
There is a perversity in witnessing the sad details of Keith’s life. He’s a door-to-door salesman, driven to and from work in a van by his taskmaster boss, selling coupon booklets under the guise of charity. His girlfriend screams at him not to touch her. His only friend is an intellectual with little patience left.
Bronstein leaves Keith to illustrate Charles’ life. A scene where Charles takes an aptitude test turns into a stairwell conversation with a man, played by Bronstein, who exposes Charles’ fraudulent persona. We spend a pinch of time with Laura – Keith’s “girlfriend,” played by Bronstein’s actual wife, Mary Wall. We watch her stab at her hands and complain about the pain.
Bronstein brings Frownland to a simmer and lets it boil over. It is the perfect time to disorient the audience as Keith, in the middle of a psychotic episode, barrels through a druggy party. The red washes and contorted sounds may all be in Keith’s head, but we experience it with him, becoming as nauseous as he. When he’s on the rooftop, the peace and serenity of daylight, we exhale. There’s little in the way of closure. Perhaps its because Keith’s is an open case – it’s life.
I have a strange relationship with this film. Having taken an independent film course in college, we were instructed to watch Frownland, with Ronald Bronstein coming in the next day for discussion. The film caused uproar among my peers. Everyone hated it and Bronstein, too. I, of course, was absent that day and did not watch the film – a model student. I tracked down a copy of Frownland to see the hubbub. At the time, with less experienced eyes, I didn’t find much either way. Watching again, realizing its brutality, probing its bleak conviction, I found a strong film. I can imagine why it drives some away, but Frownland deserves to be heralded for doing what other directors cannot. Bronstein made a film so sad, it makes you angry. Now that’s something to frown about.
See It? YES
Top 100? Maybe
*Quote obtained from an interview with Bronstein. Here’s the link: