The Counselor

Truth has no temperature

the-counselorCormac McCarthy’s The Counselor is a film comprised entirely of dialogue and brutally matter-of-fact violence, wherein characters communicate via Shavian monologues and aphorisms.  On another level, it’s a film wherein everyone talks about decapitation, and then everyone gets decapitated.  I wish I meant it more figuratively.

McCarthy isn’t known for gentle narrative.  His themes of unstoppable evil and destruction in both the novel and movie versions of No Country For Old Men are about as subtle as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket (thanks, Chandler).  This worked well in tandem with the Coen Brothers, who employ similar themes, but when it comes to Ridley Scott, I’ve discovered that anything magical usually happens by sheer coincidence (talk to me about Alien sometime).  The narrative is right in line with Scott’s violent tendencies, but as far as thematic material, nuance is not part of this film’s vocabulary.  If a character in The Counselor gives another character a warning about how to behave in a certain situation, that situation inevitably comes up.  If someone seems way to concerned with his own well-being, or seems a bit too confident that he will make it out of this story alive, he dies (more brutally based on level of arrogance).  Early on, a bizarre, head-removing weapon is mentioned in casual conversation between the titular character (Michael Fassbender) and his associate Reiner (Javier Bardem).  Reiner tells him something along the lines of “You have to see these things to believe them.  Once you see them, they change you.”  By the patterns established thus far, do you think this exact weapon appears later on?  At this point, I almost wanted Reiner to add, “Do you know what the term ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ means?”

The narrative itself plops us into the middle of a business deal that has been in the works, in some form, for about two years.  Exact details are sparse, but the Counselor, an unremarkable lawyer whose greed has finally gotten the best of him, has invested in a drug deal with a four-thousand percent return rate.  His partners include the aforementioned Reiner, a posh mogul in the underground club scene; a blowhard cowboy named Westray (Brad Pitt); and most importantly, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), an unbridled sociopath with a traumatic past and a nearly full-body tattoo of a cheetah.  Malkina is named after the Grimalkin, an evil faery cat in Scottish mythology (during the infamous witch trials, many women were preposterously accused of using the Grimalkin as a familiar).  The other players are the Counselor’s painfully naive girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), who has no idea about his goings-on (and is thus destined to be a sacrificial lamb because of them); The Wireman (Sam Spruell), a simultaneously theatrical and stone-faced mook working for Malkina; and of course, the shadowy Cartel, who are never portrayed as much more than ill-tempered and bumbling grunts (with the exception of a high-ranking member played by Rubén Blades), but who, in the words of Westray, will “rip out your liver and feed it to your dog” in the event of a misstep.  Other vital but briefly-seen characters appear; I’ll get to them later.

The Counselor performs a legal favor for Ruth (Rosie Perez), a client currently in prison, whose son, a biker known as the Green Hornet (Richard Cabral), is a cartel member involved in transporting the cocaine – unbeknownst, of course, to the Counselor, whose involvement in the Hornet’s case is the Inevitable Fuckup that catalyzes the film’s tragic narrative thread.  When the Wireman assassinates the Hornet and steals the cocaine, everyone’s crosshairs gravitate toward the Counselor (which is a bit of a surprise, given his apparent knack for keeping his name a secret, but everyone knows that in the movies, two organizations are always invincible and omnipotent: the Mafia and the Cartel).  He asks everyone what to do.  No one knows or cares.  The wealthy Westray can make himself disappear if he likes, so he travels to London in order to waste time until everything blows over.

These events unfold on minimal sets, and through dialogue clearly meant for the stage.  People say big things, and you know that in this world, they’re right.  Irrelevant characters (albeit played by great actors like Toby Kebbell and John Leguizamo) are shoehorned between important scenes to pontificate about some broad concept.  While this approach to dialogue is pragmatic for this type of narrative and quite pleasant to listen to, I’m not sure I’d call it “good.”  It’s indulgent.  McCarthy’s characters resemble Greek gods, or some other beings that know more than regular humans do and stage their battles in a world separate from everyone else’s – note the names of the ancillary characters – The Blonde (Natalie Dormer), The Buyer (Dean Norris), The Diamond Dealer (Bruno Ganz), The Priest (Edgar Ramirez) – people named for roles and functions.   The Blonde exists to distract someone.  The Buyer exists to buy the cocaine (and give narrative satisfaction to, quite literally, the only bit of plot movement).  The Diamond Dealer exists to sell a diamond to someone important.  Someone more important will receive the diamond, and someone even more important will notice the diamond later.

The female characters are either stereotypically innocent and helpless, or sexually manipulative and calculatingly evil.  In and of itself, this is irresponsible and clumsy, even for (perhaps especially for) such a forwardly “masculine” writer as McCarthy, but consider the fact that none of the male characters are very layered either.  The Counselor is the everyman.  Reiner is vanity.  Westray is misplaced confidence.  The Blonde is a succubus.  Malkina is death.  I’m sure you could find a tarot card that corresponds to everyone in this story.  I’d never excuse badly-constructed female characters, and there’s no excuse for a story populated entirely with thin characters, but I guess I’m thinking about intention here – not that the writer’s intentions aren’t transparent or shopworn, but I still can’t help but imagine this same story with this same dialogue taking place in an arena theatre.  Cameron Diaz digs up a performance so commanding that one wonders why she has been so heavily relegated to funny love interest roles and self-conscious cameos.

I am lucky to have seen this film, but I’m not sure I could see it again (I had similar feelings about the adeptly-constructed Shame, also starring Fassbender).  All the wrong people are killed, and not ironically.  Death scenes are dragged on until the character bleeds out, and if that doesn’t take long enough, it’s shown in slow-motion.  The excess of the violence would be laughable if not for the film’s hopeless tone and the way the blood brightens against the black and yellow deserts and cool cityscapes, which are so bland they may as well be black-and-white.

I feel compelled to mention a certain internet consensus that states, “The Counselor has received negative reviews.”  I’ve read some of these reviews, and I’ve come to a conclusion that I cannot stop coming to: the Hollywood blurbsters cannot deal with anything that does not operate under a formula they’ve accepted as one of X amount of ways a storyteller is allowed to tell a story.  I promise you: there is no limit.  Everything has not been done.  A fiction author is allowed to write a screenplay any way (s)he desires, and you are free not to like it, but the implication that McCarthy had no clue what he was doing is beyond sophomoric and belongs on the blogging room floor.  Formula is dying.  Get hungry for new types of narrative.  As the final line of the film goes, “I’m famished.”

The_Counselor_PosterThe Counselor (2013); written by Cormac McCarthy; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz.

The Butler

We have no tolerance for politics in the White House

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-Robin-Williams-Forest-WhitakerLee Daniels takes a page out of John Carpenter’s book: attempting to force us to give a crap about who directed the movie by putting his own name in the title.  This always fails.  Why not include the DP, the key grip, and the editor in the title as well?  What about the makeup artists who made Forest Whitaker look like an old man?  Or what about, y’know, the writer?  I’m not against everyone involved getting proper credit, but a film not written by the director belongs to the director insofar as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World belongs to me just because I bought a copy and had my own reading of what it was all about.

Thankfully, the film itself does not fail.  The Butler features Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, in part based upon Gene Allen, a black butler who served in the White House under several presidents.  Starring alongside Whitaker is Oprah Winfrey, who should really quit the talk show/phony philanthropy schtick and become a full-time actress, as Cecil’s patient wife, Gloria, who must deal with not only Cecil’s long hours at the White House (which he’s not allowed to talk much about anyway), but the absence of her son Louis (David Oyelowo), who embarks on a life of activism in spite of his father’s insistence that the family stay apolitical.  The film’s narrative runs through Cecil’s and David’s entire lives over several decades, showcasing the points at which they intersect.  Gloria’s home life is touched on to some degree as well: she battles her own alcoholism, the horror of not knowing what’s happening to her own family members while they’re away, the advances of her lecherous neighbor (Terrence Howard), and whatever Cecil himself happens to bring home from work (and she is left in the dark for so long that JFK’s assassination doesn’t seem like such a big deal to her).

The various presidents are played by a cornucopia’s worth of movie stars, including Robin Williams, who plays Eisenhower completely straight, John Cusack as the opportunistic Nixon, heartthrobby James Marsden as Kennedy, Alan Rickman as the characteristically befuddled Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, and Minka Kelly in a great (albeit tiny) performance as Jackie Kennedy.  Best of all is Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, whose hilarious vignettes could have carried an entire movie.  Each character fits into their sections well, but the star power becomes overwhelming sometimes – Vanessa Redgrave appears in a small role during Cecil’s childhood on a plantation, and Cecil’s coworkers (larger roles) are played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz.  The inevitability of another famous person showing up every ten minutes is not too distracting, but it’s a bit funny, giving the film a “meta” quality it probably doesn’t want.

Where the film falters is the use of thematic voiceover – something never necessary to a film’s movement; didn’t we learn that in Blade Runner?  Cecil’s rich voice sums up each section of film by restating exactly what we just watched and heard, while we see real archive footage of things that actually happened at that time.  This is not ancient history, however; this is historical information that everyone living today already knows about.  And when a film is already upwards of two hours, this stuff needs to be chopped.  There’s also some sloppy and obvious dramatic irony: Nixon tells Cecil, “I’m not going to resign, no matter what!” when the audience knows full well that he will.  Sentimentalism also nears full stride: piano music over melodramatic dialogue, and so on.  Much of the movie is genuinely emotional, but attempting to squeeze tears out of an audience using every device possible actually takes away from that.  We even get a Hollywood Mentor played by Clarence Williams III, who tells Cecil that the “N word” is “a white man’s word, filled with hate,” and after a lifetime of using the word, Cecil never speaks it again.  Is the character’s advice good?  Yes, of course it is.  But moments of epiphany are a sham, and scenes like this are designed for synthetic echoes later in the movie.

I’ll let you judge for yourself whether the film’s overt messages about racism are oversimplified (and whether the portrayal of the Black Panthers is as cartoony as what they showed us in school), but what cannot be denied is the genuine impact of seeing the Freedom Bus torched with Louis aboard (one of the historical events wisely dramatized and not shown entirely in archive footage); the cringe-inducing image of a segregated water fountain; our collective concealed rage at Cecil’s boss’s apathetic reactions to Cecil’s insistence year after year that the black staff be paid as much as the white staff.  In the showing I attended, there was plenty of cheering at triumphant moments (and, not surprisingly, in a theatre full of white people, an obnoxious amount of “What did he say?” in reaction to Cecil’s dialect [which, by the way, is spoken in an American accent!]  I consider myself adept at understanding dialect, but it sometimes seems like no one else is even trying).

In spite of its rigid narrative, The Butler manages genuine impact and a whole lot of true moments.

The_Butler_posterLee Daniels’ The Butler (2013); written by Danny Strong; directed by Lee Daniels; starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and David Oyelowo)

In a World…

Sister Code!

in a worldAdd Lake Bell’s name to your film vocab list.  If you’re looking at films as art, her name holds more weight than any Cameron or Bay.  In a World…, Bell’s feature-length debut, provides a feminist reading of the movie voiceover industry, and subverts certain expectations by shooting a female-centric romantic comedy as though it’s a drama (look at the shots!).

The story’s protagonist, Carol Solomon (Bell herself), is the daughter of voiceover king Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), who has published an autobiography and is about to receive a lifetime achievement award in the wake of Don LaFontaine’s passing.  He’s also dating a much younger woman (Alexandra Holden) around Carol’s age, and is fairly overt concerning his opinions about women maintaining their roles and not trying to do what men do (despite having two daughters).  Excited about living with a woman half his age, he kicks Carol out.  Carol, whose work as an independent voice coach barely provides her with two nickels to clink together, moves in with her sister, Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband, Moe (Rob Corddry).  The two have been together for a long time, and Dani’s long work hours as a concierge have prevented any real intimacy (chances are, the arrival of Carol isn’t going to help).  Carol, however, does her best to mediate: Moe asks her for advice (or rather, freaks out at her) after innocently allowing his young female neighbor to use his and Dani’s shower while the latter is at work.  Dani inevitably calls to say she’s coming home early, and Moe nervously jabbers that he will cook them a “sandwich bar” for dinner.  It’s a great gag, and the banter between these three characters is such a pleasure that I would probably (read: definitely) watch a sitcom starring them.

Through one thing and another, Carol is called by coworker Louis (Demetri Martin in a tolerable performance) to coach Eva Longoria, because her Irish accent sounds, in his words, “like a retarded pirate.”    Carol also provides a temp track for a new movie trailer when Sam Soto’s heir apparent, Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) is sidelined by laryngitis.  The new film (a meta-movie that spoofs The Hunger Games and just about everything The Hunger Games itself rips off) brings back Don LaFontaine’s famous introductory clause, “In a world…”.  Unexpectedly (to Carol, not us) , the film’s executive producer wants Carol for the job.  Carol, of course, does not tell her father, who is so wrapped up in himself and his voiceover legacy that he assures Gustav he will put this unknown woman in her place for trying to take the job.  Simultaneously, Carol asks Dani to record the voice of an Irish client at the hotel for research (Carol has been banned from the hotel for recording people).  When the Irish rogue comes between Dani and Moe, Carol feels obligated to help, even while she has her hands full with potential stardom.  At a family dinner, Carol gives the news to Sam, who shows absolutely no support for her.

In a World… is not racked with surprises and twists.  Who wins the voiceover role is not as important as why.  Films about the film industry do not work when they’re too self-conscious or inside-jokey (see Argo), but that’s just it: this story is not about films or big breaks; it’s about characters.  Carol, not the stuff that surrounds her, is important.  Dani’s relationship with Moe is important – these are things that people are concerned with, things that in real life (and in good films) feel urgent.

Fred Melamed, who appeared as Larry David’s therapist in Curb Your Enthusiasm (another character whose obnoxiousness was begotten by his obliviousness), plays Sam Soto in a way that could convince anyone that this character is based on an actual person (he isn’t).  The film’s great supporting ensemble comes in the form of Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, and Carly Chaikin, all of whom have (and display) plenty of experience with comic timing.  There’s even a cameo by Cameron Diaz as herself playing the lead in The Amazon Games, and I daresay it’s one of her more satisfying recent roles.

There’s a lot of Goldbluming in this film, and I’ve never seen it done so well.  This is one of very few instances in which “improv” actually makes sense in dialogue meant to carry a story: Bell’s characters tend to stutter and stumble over the beginnings of their sentences, digging for the right words when they’re put on the spot.  Human beings do this.  Not a whole lot of film characters do.  But because of that, it feels wonderfully exclusive to this film and its titular “world.”  This is one of the best directing jobs I’ve seen this year.  Its blood is rollicking, but every bone is deliberately placed.  Bell has given us the “nose kiss,” the “sandwich bar,” and “sister code.”  Good comedy, actual improv (i.e. not Will Ferrell rattling off unfunny one-liners in totally unscripted scenes), unsettling commentary about women in male-dominated industries, and best of all, a unique character.  I’m not sure what’s better.

In_a_World_posterIn a World… (2013); written and directed by Lake Bell; starring Lake Bell, Michaela Watkins, Fred Melamed, and Demetri Martin.

Machete Kills

Machete don’t blog

Robert Rodriguez is the only director left who makes pure action films worth a damn anymore, and it’s in part because of his affectionate spoofing of the ’70s exploitation film genre.  The absurd action of Desperado still upstages anything John Woo has ever done – look at the differences in how seriously each film’s stunt-laden gunslinging takes itself.  The original Machete, which grew out of a fake prevue in front of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (also a parody film), took time-honored grindhouse traditions (unbelievable violence, unbridled misogyny, unnatural levels of badassery, a plot too big for its britches, missing reels, and way too many characters) and rolled them into an hour and a half of nostalgia.  The roadblock I continually hit here, as much as I like the first film, is that when you do a sequel, people take it more seriously because they now have expectations.  Machete (Danny Trejo) may be a thin character, but by the time Machete Kills was released, viewers of the first film had already known him for several years, and cheered on his relationship with biracial Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba).  Thus, whether or not a common convention of cheaply made exploitation films is to kill off the “love interest” at the start of the next film as a throwaway excuse for the protagonist to go off on another killing spree, it’s not funny when Sartana is shot in the face by a luchador with a laser gun.  Uh, spoiler, I guess.

On that note, many women are brutalized in this film.  Yeah, it’s all tongue in cheek, but it’s still happening on screen, it’s still being acted out, we’re still seeing it and paying for it and swallowing it.  Sofia Vergara and Alexa Vega play a couple of prostitutes bent on revenge (on whom?  More later).  It’s supposed to be funny – look at the types of ridiculous characters that folks in the ’70s thought were empowering or this or that! – but the fact is, this movie was released this year, and we’re not past a lot of this stuff yet (plus, most know Vega as a pre-teen in Rodriguez’s Spy Kids, where she played a more layered heroine).  Vanessa Hudgens, one of the better actors in the film, plays an innocent bystander (figuratively) who is shot multiple times and tossed from a helicopter after becoming a victim of Rodriguez’s still-evident issue of immediately killing off characters when he does not know what to do with them in the plot.  Michelle Rodriguez returns as Luz, who was shot in the eye in the first film and miraculously survived as a result of being hilariously indestructible.  There, it worked.  Here, she’s shot in the other eye and becomes totally blind.  As funny as her continued invulnerability is, in theory (she’s still able to overcome her opponent without sight, and without caring much about the fact that she cannot see), it’s a bit of a bummer to see it happen, especially after the director’s heavily sound-bited insistence that he loves “strong women” (there’s that dangerous adjective again).  Amber Heard plays the turncoat handler Miss San Antonio, who acts as Luz’s foil.  I won’t spoil whether she gets shot in the face, but you can guess.

The story this time follows Machete as he is hired by the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen under his birth name, Carlos Estevez) to investigate Mexican revolutionary Mendez (Demián Bichir), who plans on launching a rocket at Washington, D.C.  Through one thing and another, Machete uncovers a conspiracy led by arms dealer Luther Voz (Mel Gibson): Voz has seen a vision in which the world is destroyed and everyone must move to space.  To expedite the process, Voz has installed a proverbial Mendez in every country, planning to launch several of these missiles at key locations all over the globe.  He wants to recruit Machete as part of the special group who will go to space with him, but our stoic hero wants no part of it (especially once he sees the collection of luchador masks in Voz’s headquarters).

Performances, again, are what hold this film together, especially when it feels like every actor understands the tongue-in-cheekness and the nuance.  Heard is a gem as Miss San Antonio.  Even Mel Gibson seems to get the joke.  In the film’s best stretch of subplot, a bounty is placed on the heads of Machete and Mendez, who are then hunted by a collection of colorful ne’er-do-wells.  These include a maniacal sheriff played by William Sadler, a vengeful cop played by Julio Oscar Mechoso, and a faceless/genderless bounty hunter called El Camaleón, played by four actors: Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas.  It’s an ambitious idea and a very good string of scenes (especially when Banderas speaks deliberately bad Spanish with a forced Mexican accent), and may have been one of the most interesting film villains of any age, if not for the throwaway joke that brings the character to a narrative dead-end.

Two films, in any series, are enough for me.  When you plan on doing more than two, you enfranchise the series.  Franchises are bad.  They exist to fatten pockets and egos and stomachs and the shelves of people who collect mindless crap.  When it’s a film series, the second one is often an incoherent celluloid goo that merely connects the two important films.  If Rodriguez really intends to do a third Machete (which, if we’re going to believe what this film promises, will take place in outer space and feature Trejo, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Rodriguez with one of her eyes back, Alexa Vega, Mel Gibson, and Sofia Vergara), it’s going to require a lot more thought.  Either that, or it will be just plain non-ironically bad.

ImageMachete Kills (2013); written by Kyle Ward; directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring Danny Trejo, Amber Heard, Michelle Rodriguez, Demián Bichir, and Mel Gibson.