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.

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.

The Green Hornet

It’s better than herpes

The original Green Hornet TV series was notable because unlike the campy Batman show, it was played straight.  It was the story of two silly urban heroes in masks, but this was serious business to them.

The Rogen/Goldberg version isn’t quite as B&W as far as its narrative lens.  The film opens with Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) being scolded by his totalitarian father (Tom Wilkinson) in one of those “every child has a hundred moments like this, but for this character it was so profound that it will stick with him for the rest of his life and, more importantly, catalyze the movement of this entire film” scenes.  Ten years later, Reid decides, upon his father’s death, that he will abandon his frivolous lifestyle and team up with his father’s former mechanic, Kato (Jay Chou, in the role that popularized Bruce Lee with American audiences), and together they will fight crime by pretending to be “bad guys.”  The duo make this decision after desecrating a statue of Reid’s deceased dad.  This setup switches the mood of the film about three times: the beginning is funny (ish) and lighthearted, with Rogen popping one-liners and goofing off.  Then Wilkinson abruptly dies and we hear Johnny Cash’s “I Hung My Head,” one of the saddest songs ever performed, as a hundred somber folks attend the funeral.  Immediately after this, Rogen and Chou destroy the statue, resting its head (the head of Reid’s father) on the couch next to them as they drink beer and babble.  In any other film, this could be a type of dark humor, but here, it’s mean-spirited and confusing.

The film picks up, however.  Insecure villain Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) assumes control of all crime in Los Angeles by killing James Franco and walking slowly away from the explosion without flinching.  As the Green Hornet and Kato gain infamy in the city, Chudnofsky becomes jealous, and we have an urban war on our hands.  Cameron Diaz also shows up as Lenore Case, Reid’s new secretary, who wisely avoids giving her affections to either of the buffoonish leads.

Refreshingly, the film’s twists are inventive and sometimes genuinely surprising (either that or I wasn’t able to pay close enough attention due to the fact that a pair of cumbersome 3D glasses were stuck to my face).  The comic-book-style revelation scenes near the end are very well put-together, and the pair of Rogen and Chou are genuinely likable (a necessity, since the lion’s share of the film’s dialogue belongs to them).  The role of Chudnofsky is a “cool-down” role for Waltz, who plays a stereotypical archvillain and appears to be having some genuine fun with it.  It’s his first role since his wonderful performance in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and he’ll follow it with performances in the potentially-great Water For Elephants and the umpteenth remake of The Three Musketeers.  Diaz appears only to keep the film from being a “brodeo” (to use the parlance of our times).  It is due noting, however, that the film has a certain homo-eroticism to it, usually initiated by Reid.  He and Kato form a best-buds relationship, but some of the humor has further layers.  Reid asks Kato to “take [his] hand and come on this adventure,” and sheepishly claims to a roomful of journalists that he and Kato are “just platonic” after blurting out “Kato is my man.”  They bicker like a couple, have the classic Movie Break-Up and Reunion, and playfully slap each other on the privates once or twice.  Plus, neither of them end up with a woman in the end.

As a whole, the film delivers what it promises.  You’ll be disappointed if you go in expecting anything but silly action, campy humor, and death treated like a casual routine.  I wonder, though, with Chou’s prominent billing, large blocks of dialogue spoken with a genuine accent, martial-arts moves that sometimes resemble Wing Chun (including an explosive-yet-incorrectly-delivered “No Inch Punch”), and a clever Bruce Lee reference hidden in Kato’s sketchbook… did the Chinese once again rename it The Kato Show?

The Green Hornet (2011); written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; directed by Michel Gondry; starring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz and Cameron Diaz.

Knight And Day

I’m the guy

I decided Tom Cruise and I were “okay” again after Mission: Impossible III, which shouted over its proverbial shoulder to acknowledge the true flair of the franchise while simultaneously letting Tom Cruise showcase his talents as an actor.  No matter your level of fright at his Scientology exploits, you cannot deny Cruise’s lasting appeal, natural dramatic prowess, and general likability in films.  When Valkyrie came along, despite its stellar cast and honest ambition, I wasn’t sure.  Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg?  Another Hitler thing?  Cruise has surely crossed a threshold across which we can never follow if this sort of film will be his norm from now on.  I’d rather spend time with Daniel Kaffee any day.

With Knight And Day, Cruise is allowed to be comfortable again.  Part romantic comedy, part actioner, part espionage thriller, there’s plenty of room to play around in James Mangold’s world.  Cruise stars as Roy Miller, a rogue CIA agent conveniently skilled in every situation that presents itself to him during his screen time, and Cameron Diaz appears alongside him as June Havens, an innocent car restorer who becomes involved in Miller’s absurd mission.

At the outset, the film presents itself as a rom-com and promises fun, starting with your run-of-the-mill Meet Cute and some flirty banter.  Early scenes involving Cruise and Diaz in a diner and on an airplane showcase the charm of the two leads.  Soon, however, “bad guys” attack.  Nearly every subsequent scene follows the same formula: charming build-up, satisfying wit, BOOM!  BANG!  RUN!  Cruise calmly kills off legions of armed villains under increasingly preposterous circumstances as Diaz screams, whines, looks good, and occasionally pops off a clever line.

It is, perhaps, the film’s nihilism and predictability that make it all the more charming.  From the first fight scene, during which Cruise kills the entire crew and passenger roster of an in-flight plane, the tongue-in-cheek tendencies of the film are evident.  The situation and its presentation skirt satire, and if not for Cruise and Diaz’s straight-faced performances, it might be full-blown farce.  The action scenes, as ridiculous as they are, seem fine in this world because Cruise remains the down-to-earth (if hopelessly brazen) eye around which the film’s storm spins.

Knight And Day falters when Cruise briefly goes away and we are asked to believe the convoluted espionage-thriller backstory the film previously  (and wisely) shoved aside by having Cruise sum things up with “Maybe it’s better if you don’t know” and “Those were bad guys; these are worse guys.”  Suddenly, however, we are expected to buy into an evil Hispanic maniac’s plot to capture a powerful MacGuffin (The Maltese Falcon…er, a strange battery, that is) which Miller happens to have.  The Lull Section of the film is your typical break in the adorable rom-com couple’s relationship while everything else in the story gets settled, but in this case, with long drags of silence and confusing “figure stuff out” scenes, it becomes a bore.  On the bright side, the film has a nice supporting cast, including Paul Dano and Viola Davis.  Maggie Grace even pops up a few times as June’s little sister, April.

Not clear about what it wants to be, Knight And Day lets the viewer decide what to take away from it.  If anything, Hollywood has finally gotten its fourth-wall-obliterating, self-conscious exercise in acknowledging its own conventions out of its system.  The formulaic, CG-drenched action pieces distract from the romance, and the cute, well-played romance scenes distract from the action.  In some ways, it’s two films in one, but in the end, even if Roy Miller is crazy, as many of the film’s characters claim, even if he believes he’s superman or superagent or even that humanity was born from ancient space volcanoes, you have to admit: he makes it work, and you want to watch him.

Knight And Day (2010); written by Patrick O’Neill; directed by James Mangold; starring Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz and Paul Dano.