Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Counselor: Cormac McCarthy's First Original Screenplay

     You couldn't have put the pieces together any better: Cormac McCarthy--arguably the greatest living American writer--turns in his first ever screenplay. The story is vintage him, dealing with drug smuggling on the Texas/Mexico border and a group of morally ambiguous characters performing violent actions as often as they wax poetic about the nature of man and life vs. death. Filling the roles of these characters is a group of actors that any cinephile could get excited about: Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz (okay, not her), and Penelope Cruz. Even director Ridley Scott was promising--though lately he hasn't any films that could be considered classics, he had the talent to make The Counselor a slick and sexy thriller. And The Counselor is slick and sexy; unfortunately, it's a lot of other things too: messy, confusing, scattershot, and downright weird.
     Fassbender stars as "Counselor", a lawyer who deals with seedy clients who get in too deep with criminal situations. He represents the type of people that come up to him in restaurants years later and threaten him for not doing a good enough job. Not long after the opening credits, the counselor decides to get involved with a group of gaudy and eccentric characters in a drug-smuggling operation involving the Mexican cartel and a pump truck full of raw sewage. There's a couple, Reiner (Bardem) and Malkina (Diaz), who live an extravagant lifestyle filled with a contemporary mansion, expensive cars and exotic animals. Reiner is a charismatic drug kingpin who's also insecure and would rather not think about consequences than face them head on. Malkina is dangerous in our own right, with ulterior motives and a penchant for using her sexuality to transfix other characters. Soon, once things start going incredibly wrong, the counselor realizes that he in too deep. Far too deep. Brad Pitt shows up as Westray, a mystery man who has dealt with the counselor's employers in the past and gives the counselor advice in verbal puzzles. And Penelope Cruz, as the counselor's fiance, provides the counselor with something to fight for once she inevitably becomes involved.
     The best part of The Counselor is also the worst part about it: Cormac McCarthy's script. The author of a few of the best American novels ever written--Blood Meridian, The Road, The Border Trilogy--creates a weird mess of a plot that jumps around cities and characters, introducing us to some people who play an integral part and others who have the same amount of screen time but don't offer anything useful other than some intellectual dialogue that doesn't pertain to anything specific about the story. A word that some may come up with is "pretentious", though I don't agree with that: Cormac's script is always colorful and interesting, but it eventually grows a little tiresome when you want more of a climax instead of an extended conversation about the nature of man.  If anyone has seen The Sunset Limited, the HBO adaptation of a play that McCarthy wrote, it delves into similar territory--a lot of talking, and not much resolution: better suited for a novel than a major motion picture.
     The cast hams it up with plenty of effort, and The Counselor contains a few scenes that are laugh out load funny (one involving Diaz's character doing a nude split on the windshield of a car) or nerve-wracking (one involving a torture device that has to be one of the worst ways to die ever). In particular, I found Bardem and Diaz to be the most interesting characters: Reiner with his flashy wardrobe and personality but with a naive fright under the surface and Malkina with her smiling maliciousness and utter disregard for whoever she screws or screws over. Director Ridley Scott does a serviceable job that echoes his late brother Tony's work: sleazy, sexy and sometimes all over the damn place.
     Overall, The Counselor is just a bit silly. It doesn't seem realistic, and it doesn't come close to anything that McCarthy has ever written (at least the 8 out 10 novels I've read) in terms of staying power or having a reason to even exist. It has occasional moments of greatness and plenty of WTF moments that make you question why someone didn't edit this film down into more of a tightly-packed thriller. There's barely a bit of character development, and that's a major problem when the film is filled to the brim with potentially interesting characters. I wouldn't go as far as saying that I regret watching it, but The Counselor is too much exposition and not enough excitement.    (C+)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Different Kind of Cast Away: Captain Phillips

     Tom Hanks is one of those actors who is so good at what he does. Sometimes it barely gets noticed--his every-man charm, goofiness, and likability come off as so natural that he isn't even making an effort. But every now and then he involves himself in a role that can change perceptions about how good he is at his craft. His portrayal in Captain Phillips is one of those roles: showcasing a bare-it-all emotional climax and a subdued but anxious performance, Hanks adds another good film to his resume, a film that is exciting and taut with tension but is ultimately pretty standard and a bit overlong. It's like Zero Dark Thirty without the backroom dealings and ambiguity, and it's a lesser film to director Paul Greengrass' tear-jerkingly-intense similar film, the true-life story United 93.
     Captain Phillips' based-on-reality plot is something that Hollywood would have loved to dream up: the fact that it's real only adds to the scariness of its situation. Hanks is the titular character, the captain of the American container ship MV Maersk Alabama. His small crew respects him due to his diligence and no-nonsense attitude about the dangers and possibilities of what can go wrong at sea (especially near the Horn of Africa). He's the type of Captain that you'd want on your ship--stern and trustworthy. Not long after the ship enters Somali pirate territory, a nerve-wracking blip begins to ping on the ship's radar. The two little boats with their choking outboard motors seem like no match for the massive ship and its powerful fire hoses, but a lack of sufficient weaponry and a small crew allow a group of four armed pirates to jump aboard.
     Led by a man named Muse, the group makes demands that set off a chain reaction of intense events. Muse is portrayed by Barkhad Abdi, and he's the Somali man that the film focuses most on. But he's not a true villain: he seemingly has some compassion and doesn't seem interested in murdering any of the crew. He just wants the treasure of the cargo to make his bosses happy back home. When the situation escalates into a long sequence involving a lifeboat and the ever-present involvement of the United States Navy, Muse seems to realize that he's a man without choices: he's torn between realizing his errors and having no other options. Abdi--an acting newcomer--does a solid job of internalizing the character's struggles.
     Though Captain Phillips--with a run time of over two hours--has trouble sustaining its intensity through the long lifeboat portion, its climax and Hanks' haunting final moments are sure to stick with the viewer for a few days afterward. Maybe not since the other ocean-based film Cast Away has Hanks had such a powerful performance. But Phillips, as a whole, didn't affect me as much as another Paul Greengrass film, United 93. They're surely very similar: they both involve hijackers, men set in their convictions (whether its in the name of money or in the name of religion), and both employ hand-held camera techniques (a Greengrass staple) that add to the tension and confusion of the more energetic scenes. So what is Phillips missing? For one, since both films are based on true stories, we know the outcome. One could type a few words into Google and find out how the Captain's story ends. United 93, on the other hand, because we know the plane crashes into an empty field, is that much more tragic and heroic. The few passengers on the plane ultimately saved hundreds more because of their selflessness. Captain Phillips is more about the flexing of military muscle, and while that's surely entertaining, a few Somali's stranded at sea are no match for skydiving Seals and high-tech sniper rifles. It's lacks the human element that 93 employs so awesomely.
     Captain Phillips is an above-average time at your local cinema. But it sometimes feels more like a procedural than a full on exciting ride. There's nothing too surprising about the film; what you expect to happen...happens. Maybe it had too much to do with my thoughts on other films: the similar but superior United 93, the recent technical brilliance of Gravity, the recent beauty of Prisoners, the recent violent style of You're Next. But Captain Phillips, despite Tom Hanks' great performance and plenty of entertainment, treads water a little bit too much and fails to reach true greatness.    (B)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Gravity: In Space, No One Can Hear You Have a Panic Attack

     Seeing Gravity in IMAX 3D is the closest the majority of us will ever get to being up in space, hundreds of miles above the Earth. It's also one of the most stressful movie experiences I've ever had the pleasure (or pain) of being a part of: between of all of the spinning, breathing trouble and panic that Sandra Bullock's character experiences, I felt like I was 12 years old again, pinned to the wall of the Gravitron at the Blue Hill Fair. There's no question that director Alfonso Cuaron has created one of the most technically brilliant spectacles--really, see it in IMAX 3D or don't bother seeing it at all--of movie-making maybe ever, and it's a testament to his skill that a film about two people floating in space is intense for its entire 90 minute run time. But after all of the pomp and brilliant execution of special effects and 3D, there's still something a little bit missing that prevents Gravity from becoming an instant classic.
     The movie wastes absolutely zero time before it makes your blood pressure rise: Medical Engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are servicing the Hubble Telescope, and "Houston" comes onto the radio--Ed Harris' voice, in a nice nod to Apollo 13--to warn the crew that debris from a Russian Satellite have started a chain reaction of faster-than-a-bullet metal chunks that threaten to damage their mission and shuttle. And then: Boom. It happens--hundreds of thousands of deadly shards rip apart their ship, and both characters are rolling and floating in free space with dwindling oxygen and a twirling loss of direction.
     There are no more plot points to delve into: just picture every worst case scenario for Bullock's character at nearly every turn, and you're almost there. In a film such as this, a film that focuses on (mostly) one character, it's generally hard to relate without some back story or flashbacks. But Gravity foregoes any sort of character development and focuses on the incredible visuals. Sure, we get a few introspective talking-to-herself scenes about Bullock and a deceased family member, but they're the worst parts of Gravity. And that's not to take anything away from Bullock's performance in the film--it is surely good.  But I'm skeptical that it's one of the best portrayals of the year. Anyone can breath really heavily (like me, sitting in the theater watching the movie). Clooney is charming and assured, as always. But the real star of the film is the terror and loneliness of space.
     Gravity is one of those films that comes along every couple of years that truly advances the technology of special effects and computer-generated imagery. The 3D--something I avoid nowadays--even works perfectly with the zero-gravity objects and floating humans fading in and out of the various shots. A scene involving sparks and fire was especially incredible. When Matt and Ryan are blown from their ship, you are out there with them, in the great unknown, instead of just watching on a screen. Cuaron is an expert at integrating you--the viewer--directly into the scenes. Just take a look at 2006's Children of Men, his most recent film before Gravity: the long tracking shots, the beautiful dystopian visuals, the incredibly intense you-feel-there scenes. He continues his dominance of directing intensity with Gravity. Another shine of excellence: the sound, editing, and score. Since the film takes place in the vacuum of space, explosions and the deadly debris field don't make noise for our characters, so the music plays an intregal role in upping the tension. And when Bullock enters different areas, the clashing of sound rather than silence is a shock to your senses.
     Many themes run through Gravity, themes that have been explored in cinema many times before: trying to survive in the face of death, the randomness of life, the psychological danger of isolation. And these themes--though never heavily focused on--work well with Cuaron's direction. Though Gravity on the whole seems like one long tracking shot, Cuaron actually seamlessly interweaves POV angles from inside Ryan's helmet to outside shots showing the perils of her situation. It's effective. One could go on and on about the visuals in Gravity: it feels like this is the future of movie-making in the ever-growing computer-based technology age. One could also argue how realistic all of the science stuff is, but it's not really the point. This movie is made to entertain, not be a Space 101 class. And it does entertain: Gravity is one of the greatest technological achievements in modern movie-making, and one that could have reached perfection had the characters mattered more and the script be less typical.     (B+)