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 East

We are born with a chance

Ellen Page/Brit MarlingThis is the moment whereupon we can all say, in reference to Brit Marling, “We knew her when.”  The East is the third film she’s both written and starred in, and to call it “ambitious” would be similar to calling the collected works of Franz Kafka a “decent read.”

The East, to me, felt a bit like a reunion with old friends.  It’s been ages since I’ve seen Ellen Page in a prominent and layered role (and not just because I don’t care about Woody Allen), and Marling’s Another Earth seems like it happened years ago.  Actually, it did.  The film is Marling and director Zal Batmanglij’s second stab at a story centered around a cult-like group, but this one doesn’t rely on concept and a “twist” ending.

The duo’s newest effort follows Sarah Moss (Marling), the cover name for Jane, an agent working for a private intelligence firm connected to the FBI.  Sarah is contracted by her tight-fisted employer, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate The East, an “eco-terrorist” group, who have promised to “jam” several multi-billion-dollar corporations in order to make them see the error of their ways.  But the people Sarah encounters are not quite the evil Emmanuel Goldstein boogeymen the popular media paint them as.  Led to The East’s HQ by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), Sarah meets the entire group, all of whom use pseudonyms: Izzy (Ellen Page) is aggressive, distrustful, and extremely passionate about her work; Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) is gently manipulative and keeps the hair and beard of an anarchist Jesus; Eve (Hillary Baack) is deaf and immediately bonds with Sarah due to their shared skill of sign language, but as far as her role in the group, doesn’t get to do much other than act as sentinel; the aptly-named Doc (Toby Kebbell) is a former med student who has seizures due to side effects of an anti-malaria drug he prescribed to himself and his sister; Thumbs (Aldis Hodge) is a hardhead; Tess (Danielle Macdonald) is an incomparable hacker and someone you’d want as your best friend.  Sarah spends three weeks with the group and practices “Freeganism,” known in some circles as “dumpster-diving,” which entails eating nothing but food discarded by others in order to illustrate the wastefulness of modern society.  The practice involves every aspect of living on the grit of society and ensuring that everything is free – people share services, ideas, food, and so on.

There’s a formula for films like this.  That is to say, films that involve a cop or fed infiltrating a group of criminals in order to take them down.  You know the formula; it’s mostly the same as the one used for heist films.  Usually, the mole ends up getting made at a critical moment after bonding with a certain member of the group (see Reservoir Dogs, City On Fire, The Departed, etc.).  Whether or not the infiltrator switches sides is variable.  Here, yes, the members of The East abide by the tropey “each member has a special skill” convention, but in this case – a moneyless group living in a torched hotel building and working with a skeleton crew – it makes sense that the essential personnel would be varied.  Also, yes, of course Sarah switches sides, because exploiting deadly capitalist practices, including a poisoned water supply that results in brain tumors in children, is what good guys do.  However, Brit Marling wrote this, so it’s not as simple as all that.

Sarah’s interactions with the group are organic from the outset, and the wonder of it is that we don’t know how genuine she’s being in her spoken dialogue, since she’s undercover.  Content with revealing the true identities of The East to her boss, who has every intention of locking them up forever, Sarah still seems to truly care about them as individuals, which makes her both the perfect agent and a dangerous liability.  She immediately convinces Eve to leave the group, and she does it at a moment when she really doesn’t have to – she could sell the latter out just like she plans to do with the rest.  But no, not this hero.  She knows the group is using Eve, and the spot Eve leaves would be a major empty hole in the movie if it weren’t for the fact that Sarah fills her role.  Because she’s human before she is the embodiment of her work, Sarah sympathizes with the situation of Doc, who can barely perform his work anymore due to the severity of his Parkinsons-like symptoms, and even tries to befriend Izzy, who immediately wants her to leave.  The group fashions Benji as its leader despite his insistence that everyone has an equal say – remember how “long cons” work?  The conman involves the victim by making them think the entire thing was their idea?  Yeah.

One of the film’s many centerpieces is a “spin-the-bottle” scene, which according to Marling and Batmanglij, was entirely improvised.  During this, the collective, including Sarah, spin a bottle and ask the chosen person for some kind of favor that will allow the two to know each other better.  For example, “Can I shake your hand?”  The other can answer, “Yes,” or alternatively, suggest something lesser but related, such as “How about we high-five instead?”  The scene, which features a kiss between Brit Marling and Ellen Page, achieves a true openness and intimacy barely ever seen onscreen.  Moreover, none of this is done for titillation (an idea reinforced by the fact that Izzy’s suggestion that she and Sarah kiss was apparently ad-libbed).  Men also kiss men in the scene, and Skarsgård’s character does some other interesting things.  In a lesser film, this scene and another wherein the characters bathe each other in a lake, may have become one big orgy.  But it is this very restraint that makes the scenes intimate, so that when Sarah removes a browning apple from a garbage can and devours it in front of her boss, it’s real.  She’s been there.  We know it, we’ve seen it, and we’ve been there with her.

The East is a movie about saying “Enough.”  It was filmed concurrently with the BP oil spill and the dawn of Occupy.  It deals with the world as we know it now, wherein the fear of impermanence causes us to consume, throw away, and forget in excess.  It’s about omnisexuality and openness.  It’s about how quickly we’ve absorbed into our very beings things that we not only don’t need, but that have only been around for a few years (YouTube, iPhones, the current DNA of social media, and so on).  It encourages activism, but opposes militancy, and never presumes to tell anyone what to do.  This isn’t to say that it doesn’t hold its moral ground – there’s a very clear anti-apathy theme – but instead of taking a “side,” it brashly suggests that we are all on the side of humanity and Earth, that all of us should take a look at the injustices going on – the atrocities of billion-dollar companies and conglomerates, the gross unbalance of accountability, the mistreatment of wildlife, the masses’ acceptance of a world in which we worship pictures of photoshopped women and men – and be disheartened by the status quo.

Go in cold.

The East (2013); written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; directed by Zal Batmanglij; starring Brit Marling, Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård, and Toby Kebbell.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Because I can read minds!

With the above, we get a Nicolas Cage gem to rival that of “Not the bees!” (which, despite its popularity, is not even featured in the final cut of The Wicker Man remake).

What we get with this film is a bit different.  Jon Turteltaub and Doug Miro’s (and six other writers’) reimagining of the Dukas poem, the Goethe ballad and the Fantasia short cartoon, is aimed at a strictly PG audience.  Only one scene is reminiscent of the older Disney film (the sorcerer’s apprentice animating mops and buckets to clean up his mess and the disastrous results that follow), and most of the humor is material I would have found hilarious as a ten year-old.  The film does have its charm, however.  Choosing Baruchel as the proverbial “chosen one” is somewhat inspired, as are several other characters.  Well, one other character: Drake Stone (Toby Kebbell), a secondary antagonist in a movie with way too many bad guys.  Kebbell gets to have fun with this role, parodying modern flash-artists who give illusionists a bad name (i.e. Criss Angel), and easily stealing the show.    Alfred Molina also stars as Horvath, the main baddie, who unfortunately remains fairly one-note throughout.  Par for the course in a film made for children.

But is it good for children?  I’m not sure.  Early on, Molina hurls a knife through a windshield and kills a guy.  Later, he murders a twelve year-old girl (albeit off screen).  I dug this stuff when I was younger, if not for anything but the laughs generated from annoying people getting theirs, but I’m curious as to what this onscreen behavior in a film with a very specific audience is advocating.  Sure, Molina plays the “evil” character, but everyone wants to play the “bad guys” in Hero Quest, don’t they?  Is Hero Quest even in print anymore?  Probably a rhetorical question.

Ultimately, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is clumsy film-making; the plot contains more holes than a Lorraine Swiss, the editing is choppy (as though the editors were rushed to shorten the film), and the characters are nothing more than the usual suspects in a film of this type – except Kebbell, who seems oddly out of place with his East-end accent and fourth-wall-breaking lines, including “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” (a throwback to the original Star Wars) which gets the film’s biggest laugh.  Despite all that, Cage plays his role with the usual enthusiasm and seriousness, and the audience can never once doubt that he at least finds great importance in this story’s action.

It’s a good time at the movies, with the obligatory post-credits hook for a sequel (which doesn’t quite make up for the amount of unresolved plot details).  Worth seeing with kids or good-humored friends?  Definitely.  I did have to shake my fist at the Product Placement Gods, however, when Cage brings to life a stone eagle perched atop the Chrysler building and flies it into the night…in four different scenes.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010); written by Doug Miro; directed by Jon Turteltaub; starring Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina and Toby Kebbell.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Mahmoud Ahma-Gyllenhaal-ejad

This is what I’m talking about: a game-based film with reputable actors, engaging action, decent dialogue, good-looking CG (if any), and Uwe Boll nowhere near it.  Thanks to Mike Newell and Jerry Bruckheimer, the next filmmakers who adapt a game to film may try a little bit harder.

I’ve never been one for game-to-film (nor book-to-film, for that matter) adaptations.  I believe that games are games for a reason, and as a writer, that books are written text for a reason.  But since nothing I say will stop these money-magnet films from being made, no matter the quality, I keep going out to see the ones that pique my interest (I’m looking at you, The King of Fighters).  Jake Gyllenhaal mentioned in an interview earlier this year that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time would change the way people looked at game-to-film movies, i.e. they would now be looked at as real films instead of kitschy novelty acts.  This film does that, albeit still giving you what you’d expect from a film of the genre: lots of battles, CG-assisted parkour, muscly heroes, etc.

The cast is a good place to start.  I realized this film was going to be something different when an early scene featured Ben Kingsley, Jake Gyllenhaal and Toby Kebbell in the same room.  Kingsley, a veteran, gives the rest of the (much younger) cast plenty of breathing space until his pivotal scenes (which start about halfway through the movie).  Gyllenhaal plays Prince Dastan (yup, he’s got a name now) as a likable Aladdin-like troublemaker who is always undermining his family but manages to stay on the side of the audience.  Kebbell, best-known as druggie rockstar Johnny Quid in Guy Ritchie’s excellent RocknRolla, has his first meaty role in a while here, playing Dastan’s older brother and head of the Persian army, Garsiv.  The film also features the lovely Gemma Arteron, who is really coming into her own as an actress but also making a habit of being in blockbuster fantasy reimaginings (see Clash of the Titans – or better yet, don’t – she plays a good role in that film but her screen time is stomped out by Sam Worthington’s “boring hero” act).  Arteron plays Princess Tamina, a ruler with some knowledge of pagan magic.  Alfred Molina also appears in an amusing role as an oddball who races ostriches (“every tuesday and thursday”).

The film is a surprisingly fair (and fictional) portrayal of the people who are now Iranians (unlike the embarrassing 300, a myspace/macho man film which depicts the Persians as deformed creatures of pure malice).  I can’t ignore the fact that the Persians are all played by white actors with English accents, but I’ll take what I can get from Hollywood these days.  The film could have used more ethnic characters in Persian roles, but it’s nearly enough that the Persian government isn’t portrayed as morally corrupt or otherwise reprehensible.  The search for Alamut’s “secret weapons” and the absence thereof is largely an allegory to U.S.’s search for “weapons of mass destruction,” which we won by simply having them not exist…I digress.  Thankfully, in the film, not too much focus is spent on this.

The on-location sets are great and the art direction is excellent, despite the fact that the costumes are made more from the standpoint of “cool art direction” and not from real-life source material.

The story is your standard popcorn fare: orphan gets mixed up in something big, ends up in a battle, touches a magical macguffin, gets framed for something and goes on the run with a beauty who can’t stand him.  The actors, however, make this plot very easy to swallow despite how many times you’ve seen it, and the plot takes interesting turns especially near the end.  If you haven’t seen the trailers and promos, it’s not immediately obvious that Kingsley will turn out to be the villain (although he wouldn’t be in a film without a large role), and there are even some other interesting bad guys in the form of the Hassansins (or Hashshashins- from which the word “assassin” is thought to originate), based on the historical group of Muslims who split from the Fatimid Empire.  Their use of throwing darts and poisons is only myth, but it serves the nature of this film well, and helps take the responsibility of action scenes that will impress teenagers away from the 66-year-old Kingsley.

As far as the source material, the film isn’t based on a specific story from one of the games, but it takes reference material from each of the biggest titles and throws them in for fun (and you don’t have to be familiar with it at all to get the full enjoyment).  The parkour and climbing scenes mimic what we love best about the Prince series; the swordfight with a guy who looks peculiarly like the guy you fight at the end of the original game; the Sands of Time themselves; and the relationship dynamics of Dastan/Tamina echo the newer game (the Xbox 360 version, not the movie tie-in).

 

In closing, this is a fun film if you just want action and stock dialogue, but is also engaging enough for the film buff (or if you don’t like that term, which I’m starting not to as much because I’m realizing I don’t know all of its contexts, we’ll say “serious filmgoer” or “cinema veteran”).  The acting is solid, the actors seem like they want to be there (unlike many films of this type), the use of “magic” has appropriate focus and doesn’t ruin everything, and even the vaguely-explained plot twist at the end (which almost cheats, but you can judge) provides a satisfying experience.  Perhaps if they make a sequel, we’ll get actual ethnic characters?  Oy, let’s not get too progressive now.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010); written Boaz Makin and Doug Miro; directed by Mike Newell; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arteron, Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina.

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