Archive for October 2013

The Counselor

October 27, 2013

the-counselor-michael-fassbenderReaders of Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the script for the convoluted new thriller The Counselor, might ask who this movie’s Ultimate Evil is, the Judge Holden, the Chigurh, the suzerain of the earth, silent and serene. Is it the drug kingpin Reiner (Javier Bardem)? Or the middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), who arranges deals between men like Reiner and men who need a lot of cash? Or even the sallow-faced assassin (Sam Spruell) we see stringing wire across a desert highway, the better to separate a motorcyclist from his helmet and its contents? Or could it be the never-named Counselor (Michael Fassbender), whose naïve dabbling in the drug trade stands to win him either $20 million or despair? Who in this amoral universe knows all, sees all, claims that nothing must be permitted to occur upon the earth save by his dispensation?

There’s an answer to that, late in the movie, and meanwhile we watch as the chess pieces, set in shaky motion, march towards a properly bleak McCarthy end. The Counselor is not so much a thriller, really, as it is a new gloss on McCarthy’s favorite conflict between the evil that knows too much and the good that doesn’t know nearly enough. The key, for those inclined to seek it, might lie in a late-inning phone chat between the Counselor and a cartel bigwig (Ruben Blades), who sounds like a somewhat gentler Judge Holden and speaks obliquely about crossings and events long set in stone. Over and over, the Counselor is himself counseled to avoid the path he wants to follow, and once he’s too far along the road, he is told it’s too late.

The movie is full of odd one-on-one conversations that may exasperate those who want the film to get to the point, but the dialogue is the point. It’s not snappy or clever, but it does evoke Hemingway in its weary fatalism and particularly its repeated assessment of women as a threat to the male Garden of Eden. Without women, you see, there would be nobody for men to impress with diamonds and other flashy indicators of wealth, and therefore no crime, no war. I don’t think the movie itself (or McCarthy) believes this — rather, it’s one more way in which the desperate and stupid men in the film sabotage themselves. The Counselor is not a feminist work — not with the old reliable madonna/whore construct represented by the Counselor’s innocent fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz) and Reiner’s cheetah-owning girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) — but it’s not a masculinist work either. McCarthy is not much into heroes except when he’s writing about the literal end of the world.

The Counselor is vaguely apocalyptic as it is, set in a world where cartel thugs dispatch the unwise with vicious time-activated nooses called bolitos — McCarthy digs sending human beings to their maker with implements that seem designed for use on livestock, as with Chigurh’s cattle gun in No Country for Old Men. (In Cuba, a bolita refers to a lottery ball, and someone’s number comes up here.) The movie is being called violent, but the brutal bits are few and far between; we get what we need to keep our dread fresh. The Counselor has been directed by Ridley Scott outside his usual mode of ladling hot/cold visuals onto the screen to let us know that he, Ridley Scott, master visualist, directed it. As a result, it’s Scott’s best film in quite some time. He serves McCarthy’s story. We get the sense that the script magnetized everyone involved, who felt no need to diddle with anything or show off. The cast hums with a low intensity — there are no Oscar moments here, no disgraceful displays like Hugh Jackman in Prisoners. This film isn’t getting, but should, the grateful accolades that Prisoners got, and shouldn’t have.

How seldom we see the feared cartel monsters, or even the drugs themselves, in this putative cartel thriller. Almost everyone in the movie is on the margins of the trade, profiting from it without getting their hands bloody. This isn’t a noir thriller featuring the poor and desperate, but rather the rich and desperate, desperate to maintain their spot in the hierarchy. The story is simple but told with a terse economy that doesn’t spoon-feed us the narrative. The Counselor is one of McCarthy’s late-period minimalist fables, philosophical in speech but plain in action, unlike the efflorescent wilderness of pain and madness painted in McCarthy’s gravestone work Blood Meridian. “The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die,” says Judge Holden in that book, “but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.” We don’t see many drugs in The Counselor because the people may as well be clashing over rocks or sand or flags. The Judge or Chigurh of the movie is revealed before the credits roll, but ultimately the Judge and Chigurh represent human folly, the illusion of control over events save by our dispensation.

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Carrie (2013)

October 20, 2013

Chloe-Moretz-in-Carrie-2013-Movie-Image4As the legend has it, Stephen King’s Carrie almost didn’t see the light of day. King wrote the infamous opening (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”), hated it, and circular-filed it; his wife Tabitha salvaged the pages from the trash, read them, and encouraged King to see the story through. “It bit hard,” wrote Harlan Ellison, who observed that the manuscript got passed around to various female Doubleday employees, all of whom were knocked back. It’s primal stuff, essentially King’s unintentional rewrite of Judy Blume (Are You There Satan? It’s Me, Carrie). The story runs thick with blood of all kinds: menstrual, porcine, finally redrum. It also runs hot — it’s a fever-dream novel, slick with the sweat of sickness, dread, rage.

Brian De Palma’s 1976 film version saw the story’s melodramatic potential and pumped it up into a perverse black comedy. The new version, directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), takes the material rather more seriously. Here and there, it feels closer in tone to King’s emotionally heavy novel than De Palma’s abracadabra show did. That doesn’t mean it’s the better film, nor is it an across-the-board worse film. The story has been transplanted to today, so that when poor Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) receives her chthonic humiliation in the girls’ shower room, her chief tormentor captures it on her phone camera and uploads it to YouTube. This nod to cyberbullying can’t truly take hold, though, because Carrie doesn’t have the internet — or much else — at home. What she does have is the ultimate religious-nut mother (Julianne Moore), who in this telling came close to killing newborn Carrie with her seamstress’ scissors and enjoys scarifying her own flesh with other tools of the sewing trade.

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, as oppressed daughter and lunatic mother in the ’76 film, sank their teeth into the purple material; Spacek underplayed touchingly, Laurie camped it up to the rafters. Moretz and Moore come across more like the unhappy people you might actually meet — their scenes in their dreary home are borderline depressing. Moretz’ casting has been criticized because she isn’t nerdy-looking, but then neither was Rebecca Sedwick, driven to suicide last month after almost a year of cyberbullying. (Really, none of the actresses who’ve played Carrie — including Angela Bettis in a 2002 TV version — have exactly matched King’s description of her as “a frog among swans.”) Moretz’ Carrie is ostracized because of her social awkwardness and her strange aura of religious punitiveness — she’s more like an Amish girl plopped down into a typical suburban high school.

Kimberly Peirce brings out the story’s complex web of mixed feelings between females, who resent, pity or fear each other. The males in the film, as in the book and in De Palma’s version, exist only to do the girls’ bidding. One of the girls, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), feels guilty about her limited role in Carrie’s humiliation and prompts her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to ask Carrie to the prom. The ringleader of the tormentors, Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), enlists her boyfriend to assist in the shockingly cruel climactic prank involving that famous bucket of pig’s blood. Originally written when feminism was really starting to take hold in America, Carrie hasn’t much optimism about the higher morality of girls and women. Nor should it: it’s a horror story, not designed to be comforting. A few, like Sue or the conscientious gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), feel compassion for Carrie. But they’re not enough.

Which leads us to the climax. De Palma filmed it as a gleeful revenge of the nerd, a cascading grand finale breaking out split-screen images of cathartic force. Peirce doesn’t split the screen, though she does make use of computer effects unimaginable back in 1976. Rather than standing disturbingly stock still like Sissy Spacek, Moretz poses and gestures like an ancient witch-woman (the blood smears spilling down her face like tribal marks complete the effect) while everyone who laughed at her goes spinning into glass doors or catches fire or is trampled to death under fabulous prom-night heels. The final exchange between Carrie and Chris is painfully, almost sadistically drawn out. Peirce knows she can’t go whole-hog whoo-hoo over high-school carnage the way De Palma did, not in the era of Columbine and Sandy Hook. She holds back a bit. So what could’ve been a newly relevant reheating of old material — showing what bullying does to victims and to bullies — comes across as a missed opportunity. Still, since most of Carrie has always been a drama working up to a horror-film climax, and since that drama is sensitively directed and powerfully acted, the new version passes muster as a different take that will not, in most people’s hearts, replace De Palma’s. Let them co-exist.

Machete Kills

October 12, 2013

Machete-Kills-20For an actor who trades endlessly on one basic mode — dour hard-ass — Danny Trejo gets a lot of fanboy love. I think Trejo’s fans respond to his presence, his authenticity (he spent most of the ’60s in and out of prison), and perhaps his craggy, unapologetic Mexican-ness. Danny Trejo is as far from stale whitebread as you can get. He’s the real deal. In Machete Kills, Robert Rodriguez’s sequel to his 2010 Machete, Trejo seems to hold almost everyone he meets in cool contempt. Why do these people want to start shit with him? He’s only going to kill them; it doesn’t make sense. Trejo’s Machete, like Snake Plissken, just wants to be left alone. Unlike Snake, Machete can be pulled into heroism by appeals to his sense of justice. Trejo, who does work some subtle shifts in tone into his dead-cool demeanor, stoically pushes forward while the rest of the cast goes nuts.

Here, for instance, we have Sofia Vergara as a character named Madame Desdemona, who runs a brothel, seethes about how much she despises men as she whips a client, and wears outfits studded with quick-draw weaponry. Vergara is often helplessly funny on Modern Family and elsewhere, and she’s funny here, too, but also a little terrifying — she plays vengeful rage as an over-the-top joke, but she plays it huge, operatic in scale, emptying her guns and shrieking and flipping the Iberian slap. And she isn’t even the craziest critter in this menagerie, not in a movie that also includes Demian Bichir as an agent with at least three personalities and Mel Gibson — yes, him — as an arms-running billionaire with plans to colonize space and a penchant for wearing a luchador mask to do dirty deeds.

Gibson, however deplorable he may be out in the world, is amusing and low-key insane here. He takes the spot held by Lindsay Lohan in the first Machete, proving that Rodriguez is good-hearted enough to hire just about anyone if they’re willing to do the work. (Maybe the promised next installment, Machete Kills Again…in Space, will have a role for Miley Cyrus.) Lady Gaga also shows up as La Cameleon, a bounty hunter and master of disguise — she also turns up looking like Cuba Gooding Jr. and Walton Goggins, or perhaps Cuba Gooding Jr. and Walton Goggins turn up looking like her. Rodriguez never explains; he’s off and running. The story is credited to Rodriguez and his brother Marcel (Kyle Ward worked it into a script), and it feels like something a couple of brothers would cobble together in their bunk bed when they’re supposed to be asleep. Decapitated heads! A three-bladed machete! A molecule gun that turns people inside out! Dude, that rocks!

Rodriguez makes jam-packed B-movies, but what has always separated him from colder, more impersonal practitioners of neo-grindhouse is that he seems to be having so much fun, and he lets us share it; he throws loud parties and cheerfully invites us to drop in. There’s a freewheeling honesty to the way he works, and an utter lack of pretense. His movies are what they are, and they are not for those with snobby or refined tastes. Too bad, because those people are missing some of the most vital, full-blooded pure filmmaking American cinema has to offer at the moment, especially at a time when even movies based on comic books slouch into our view like emo teenagers, all brooding and gloomy. Machete may never crack a smile but his stoicism is hard-earned; he grounds the craziness with which Rodriguez surrounds him.

The Machete movies gesture briefly towards political relevance: themes of immigration and drug cartels flow through both. Machete runs into corruption at all levels, to the point where the only person he trusts is Michelle Rodriguez as the leader of the Network, which helps Mexicans cross the border into America. Michelle’s word is so good that she persuades Machete not to kill a hitman who once crucified his brother. The scene isn’t terribly important to the plot, other than to explain why Tom Savini is returning from the first film, but it again demonstrates Robert Rodriguez’s good-heartedness. Anyone, even an assassin who nailed a priest to a cross (or even Mel Gibson), can redeem himself. Like its predecessor, Machete Kills is very far from serious, but that doesn’t make it meaningless.

Gravity

October 5, 2013

Sandra-Bullock-in-Gravity-2013-Movie-Image-2We could easily come up with a few legitimate complaints about Gravity. Emotionally, it’s a little pat. The film’s tagline — “Don’t let go” — resolves into that time-honored Hollywood bromide about life always finding a way. And along about the fifth or sixth crisis faced by Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), we may think a better title for the movie might be The Perils of Sandra. Despite its comforting aspects, though, Gravity is a work of techno-art, with images of humbling grandeur and scenes almost painful in the depth of horror they evoke. The film’s climactic reassurances, though welcome on some level after the bone-shaking ride we’ve had, feel a little soft because the true takeaway from the experience is this: Space is very, very unforgiving. Don’t fuck with it.

We’re up there above Earth, floating and bobbing and revolving, along with Dr. Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Stone is tinkering around on the outside of the space shuttle Explorer; this is her first time in space, and she’s nervous and nauseated. This is Kowalski’s last mission, and he scoots around in his Manned Maneuvering Unit, his mood jocular and calming. Then the Explorer receives ominous news: the Russians have blown up one of their own satellites, and the debris is heading for the Explorer with a powerful quickness. As the death-junk approaches, the music (by Steven Price) becomes a menacing paradox, huge yet needlingly intimate. This crap is coming for you, the score says, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Soon enough, the Explorer becomes a piñata, communication to Houston is cut off, Stone finds herself reeling through the inky void, and Kowalski doesn’t have a lot of juice left in his MMU. And you thought you had problems.

At first glance a minimalist survival nail-biter on the order of, say, Cast Away or Open Water, Gravity ratchets up the terror by observing the pitiless logic of physics. In this zero-gravity reality, people bounce off each other and go spinning heedlessly into hard, unyielding objects; the physicality is a little overwhelming — the smallest movement can have massive consequences. For every action, it seems in space, there is a wildly inequal and opposite reaction. To deal with this, career astronauts must possess a certain serenity under enormous danger and a certain outlook on life and death, perhaps born of seeing the world from a literally different perspective than most of us do. Clooney’s Kowalski never loses his cool, continuing to urge Stone on with lulling optimism even when his own situation looks bleak.

Some have lampooned Gravity as “Sandra Bullock screaming for 90 minutes.” I’m sorry if the marketing has made it seem that way — and most of what you’ve seen in the commercials happens in the first half hour — but that’s unfair to Bullock, an amiable comic actress who has been impressive in dramatic roles, never more so than here. Stone is our avatar; we share her fright and her awe. Bullock finds the spark in a woman who long ago, in the wake of a tragedy, gave herself up for dead. Gravity is, in part, about how Stone learns to value her life again, and that’s a bit of a bummer — we intuit her turn rather than feeling it. But that’s not Bullock’s fault; the script only has so much time to flesh out Stone’s background. When Stone starts to feel alive, Bullock becomes more animated; we can almost feel the heat of her flesh where the blood is flowing again. (Maybe it’s intellectual rejuvenation — rather than feeling powerless, Stone has a hallucinatory epiphany that these are mechanical problems she can think her way around and solve.)

Gravity is perhaps the magnum opus from director Alfonso Cuarón, who hasn’t made a feature since 2006’s Children of Men; he spent much of the intervening time working on this film. This director adores technical challenges, technical wizardry; the carnage-spattered long-take chase scene in Children of Men is deservedly legendary, and he lets his shots here sprawl and breathe and gather dread. Gene Siskel’s statement about Who Framed Roger Rabbit (“I don’t know how they did it, and I don’t want to know”) applies just as accurately to the kind of magic Cuarón weaves. Not merely a cold craftsman, Cuarón shares with his confederates Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu a tough-minded humanism: people are imperfect and inhabit a hostile environment but strive anyway, and the striving itself is worth noting and making movies about. Nothing feels sadistic about the way Cuarón tightens the screws on his characters. He wants to view them in extremis — and more extreme than outer space you can’t get — because that’s where the story is. Gravity has some soft spots, probably best blamed on the marketplace demands of making a movie at the $100 million level, but it’s still a masterpiece, with appropriate respect for the vastness of the chessboard and the smallness of the pawns who can navigate it.