Talking Movies

November 14, 2013

The Counsellor

Ridley Scott reunites with his Prometheus scene-stealer Michael Fassbender for a brutal tale of drug trafficking; written directly for the screen by novelist Cormac McCarthy.

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Fassbender is ‘the counsellor’, the exact nature of whose practice is left as vague as his name. He buys a diamond in Amsterdam (from a cameoing Bruno Ganz) to propose to his naive girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). The money to finance this lavish lifestyle will come from going into business with his client Reiner (Javier Bardem), a cheetah-owning drug dealer with pretensions to being a nightclub impresario, and sagacious middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). Hovering around the edges of this one-time business arrangement though is Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who unnerves everyone. Unsurprisingly everything quickly goes sideways, and, with 20 million dollars worth of blow in the wind, scary people from Ciudad Juarez who don’t mess around are soon skipping over the border to El Paso to kill all concerned – this being McCarthy’s patented sprung-trap approach to the drugs trade…

The Counsellor’s dialogue is pure McCarthy in the way 2007’s Sleuth is pure Pinter. Sub-Hemingway shtick like the early “Are you really that cold?” “The truth has no temperature”, vies with unconscious quotations of Keats, and, in a lengthy scene with Ruben Blades’s Mexican drug-lord Jefe, a reworking of a Matrix Reloaded speech by The Oracle. McCarthy’s foreshadowing is hysterically blunt. When the hideous mechanical device the bolito is described, or a snuff movie involving necrophilia, the characters ought to lean in and say ‘It could happen to you! It probably will, in about 40 minutes…’ McCarthy’s interest, par No Country for Old Men, is apparently solely in the operation of the mechanical vice of the drugs trade that slaughters all involved for any misstep. Characters are introduced, and then slaughtered by new characters that we never learn anything about.

The Counsellor works best in its wordless sequences. People at work displaying their murderous tradecraft are absorbing, brutal, and vivid; an assault on a drugs truck and an intricately planned garrotting being the standout set-pieces. One could forgive McCarthy’s unrealistic dialogue in what purports to be an unflinchingly realistic observation of the mechanics of drug trafficking were it not for his troubling characterisation. Beginning with the uncomfortable cold open McCarthy displays a very bizarre interest in hyper-sexualised female characters. Diaz’s goofy grin is rendered pleasingly cruel, but her Malkina displays a very Puritan prurience in Catholics confessing about sexual sins, and that’s before we get to what, following Reiner’s lead, we will call ‘the catfish scene’ – which is WEIRD beyond belief. McCarthy’s lack of interest in his leads is exemplified by Fassbender’s titular lawyer being utterly irrelevant by the finale.

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s bizarre co-dependency ruined them both during the 2000s, we can only hope Fassbender is not about to be snared in the same glossy trap.

2.5/5

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November 21, 2012

Gambit

Colin Firth assumes Michael Caine’s role in an unnecessary remake of 1966’s unloved art forgery caper that fell flat next to Peter O’Toole’s How to Steal a Million then, and which falls equally flat now.

Firth is Harry Deane, a put-upon art expert who curates the private collection of vulgar multi-millionaire and ‘degenerate nudist’ Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman). Firth has reached the end of his tether and plans to exploit Shahbandar’s uncontrollable desire to lord it over his hated Japanese rival by buying the second long-lost painting in a matching set of Monets; having outbid said rival for the first painting a decade before. Tom Courtenay’s Major Wingate provides the forged Monet, while the spurious provenance comes from Texan rodeo-rider PJ Puznowksi (Cameron Diaz). Puznowki’s grandfather stormed art-laden Nazi bunkers, and Deane is convinced this will hook Shahbandar into believing that Gramps Puznowki may have liberated a Monet back to Texas. All Deane has to do then is authenticate the forgery and 12 million pounds is his… But cons are never that simple, hilarity ensues.

Regrettably hilarity does not ensue, at quite some length. For reasons passing understanding the movie opens with a truncated version of how Deane wishes the movie to play out; which is very disorienting. First you think that the plan has gone very well, and that it’s going to hit a snag after the original caper. Then you realise that was a dream sequence, and so when you find that plan dragging on forever in real time later you’re needlessly impatient; because you’ve seen how fast it can go. The actors are stranded trying to mug laughs out of a weak script. Diaz goofs around like she’s back in 1998, Rickman squeezes some smiles from being comically obnoxious, Firth does an uptight Englishman without flexing his acting muscles, and the venerable Tom Courtenay (who provides oddly sporadic voiceover) is entirely underused.

The Coen Brothers screenplay undoubtedly attracted these actors, and there are numerous small touches that scream Coens such as Shahbandar’s eccentric security system and his nudism, garrulous and seemingly idiotic Japanese businessmen, Stanley Tucci’s demented big entrance, and the neighbour who wordlessly punches Deane in the nose in several scenes (a particularly unfunny but typical touch). But this is a film set in England with predominantly English characters which appears to have been bolted together entirely from Hollywood clichés about England and Englishness. Constantly inserting the words sod, bugger, and bollocks into dialogue does not make it instantly authentically English, guv’nor… This film surely hurts the Coens’ reputation as it is a laugh-free zone in which they only script one mildly amusing sequence; in which Firth, Diaz and Rickman engage in some extremely old-fashioned farce involving missing trousers and endless room-swapping at a swanky hotel.

Gambit was a film that should only have been remade by Steven Soderbergh. Avoid.

1/5

December 1, 2009

The Box

Donnie Darko writer/director Richard Kelly ends his rollercoaster decade with an attempt to edge back towards the mainstream by aping I Am Legend and releasing a Christmas horror based on a Richard Matheson story. Kelly succeeds, to an extent, as his third film as director is closer in feel to his sublime Donnie Darko than to his vey muddled sophomore effort Southland Tales which was delayed for years before being given a notional distribution. But getting more coherent doesn’t mean getting better…

The Box opens promisingly, speedily establishing the lives of happily married couple James Marsden and Cameron Diaz and their twelve year old son living in Washington DC in an acutely observed 1976. The Viking exploration of Mars dominates the TV news, and this family, as Marsden’s NASA scientist and aspiring astronaut designed its camera system. A series of unfortunate events (including an incredibly odd scene featuring a creepy pupil disrupting teacher Diaz’s class) serve notice that this is one of those many, many films in which things will not go well for James Marsden. And sure enough into their money worries comes a mysterious box with a button under a glass dome, left on their doorstep with a card from Arlington Steward. Frank Langella is wonderfully sinister as Steward who visits them to explain the function of the button: if pressed two things will happen, someone they do not know will die instantly, and he will pay them 1 million dollars…

Langella is a fine actor yet Kelly does a very unsettling Two-Face style CGI make-up job on him to communicate otherness, though it is so effective it makes the plonky 1950s B-movie music that accompanies him seem scary. The 1950s B movie vibe ramps up as paranoia sets in that Mr Steward wants more from the couple than just a simple decision on whether or not to push the button and that he might not be working alone. Coincidences, a baby-sitter with a secret, an inexplicable killing by another NASA employee and a punch up at a wedding rehearsal dinner all broaden the terror of the story efficiently but then Invasion of the Bodysnatchers intrudes too obviously and our heroes start reading books explaining the plot. You are now leaving Darkoland, welcome to Southland. Cue embarrassingly bad special effects involving water, mutterings of conspiracies and aliens and alien conspiracies, and half-explained sub-plots involving time-travel, moral tests and free will.

Marsden is nicely sympathetic as the hero, infinitely more effective than Diaz whose now fading looks highlight her feeble acting skills, but the script’s convolutions defeat his best efforts while Langella’s villain is over-explained out of existence. There is much to like here but Kelly’s persistent concern with elaborate conspiracies suggests only low budgets which restrain his imagination can inspire him to succinct brilliance. Paradoxically, avoiding The Box could improve his work.

2/5

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