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

November 5, 2009

Bright Star

Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish acquit themselves well as Romantic poet John Keats and his fiancé Fanny Brawne, but Jane Campion’s screenplay serves them poorly. So much for her return to period drama being her great comeback…

Brawne, a middle class girl who makes her own fashionable clothes, falls under the spell of Keats when he moves into her old house. When her family moves back into the other half of the rented house a doomed love-affair ensues. Campion’s feminism, laudable in her other work, destroys this film by its relentless focus on Brawne rather than Keats. Being brutal, Brawne wasn’t the Regency’s Coco Chanel, and Campion fails to make her dramatically interesting. While the BBC’s current version of Austen’s Emma features Emma making lists of improving books to read then cheerfully ditching Milton after 2 pages for more mischief Fanny pretends to read Milton and then limply never does because of Mr Brown’s sneering.

Oh dear, Mr Brown… Bright Star is sunk by its reliance on Andrew Motion’s biography. Keats did live with Scottish poet Charles Brown but this film is dragged under by his presence – he is callous, misogynist, boorish and painfully talentless. It’s never explained why kind-hearted Keats endures this oaf, which leaves the audience assuming it’s purely because Brown subsidises the Cockney Romantic. His status as the poorest but ultimately the greatest of the Romantic poets despite snobbish contemporary criticism is thus rendered alienating rather than endearing. Incredibly Shelley and Byron never appear, two scenes with the artist JH Reynolds defending Keats’ poetry – “there are immaturities to be sure, but there are also immensities” – are all we get to create a sense of the artistic community of the era.

This film feels far longer than two hours because it endlessly repeats its precious few ideas: Keats loves Brawne, Keats is too poor to marry Brawne, Keats is inspired to write better poetry by Brawne, Brawne can’t understand poetry but loves Keats, Brawne doesn’t care that he’s poor, Mr Brown is a jerk to Brawne, Keats defends Mr Brown, repeat and fade… Even the failing health of the consumptive Keats, who died aged 26, only ends up running into this endless loop. One of Keats’ most famous lines, “I have been half in love with easeful Death”, runs like a refrain through the film, yet Campion fails to convey any sense of Keats as marked for doom, or, thanks to her narrow focus on the purely domestic, the loss to literature that his early death was – his achievements are recorded in the Norton Anthology of Literature thus: “his poetry, when he stopped writing at the age of twenty-four, exceeds the accomplishment at the same age of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton”.

Ultimately watching people reading letters while those letters are read in voiceover is deeply un-cinematic. The best of these scenes are the closing reading of Bright Star and, over the end credits, Ben Whishaw finally being allowed to recite the full Ode to a Nightingale. Julian Temple’s Pandemonium, a deeply imaginative and visually inventive 2001 biopic of laudanum-addled poet ST Coleridge starring Linus Roache was a model of how to catch the lightning of poetry in a cinematic bottle. Watching it then reading Keats’ poetry would come closer to appreciating his short-lived but dazzling flame.

2/5

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