^ mixed up shook up bad gals and bad guys : including Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz in Ridley Scott’s “The Counsellor”
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Not so long ago the Coen Brothers deviated from their usually quirky fare and wove a hard-boiled yarn about lawmen and criminals playing it loose and lethal as they pursued an elusive satchel of money back and forth across the Southwest border. The basis for that masterpiece came from the laconic and acerbic prose of Cormac McCarthy’s similarly titled novel, “No Country for Old Men.” And in an odd and intriguing, first time move, the scribe, for iconic director Ridley Scott (“Alien” and “Blade Runner”), has delivered his first original screenplay. The result is full of pointed soliloquies, diatribes imbued with philosophy and poetry and even daubs of philosophy regarding poetry; but the mainstays, of course, are protracted dissertations on death and destiny, followed invariably by death.
Just as in “No Country” the plot is driven by an accidental anti-hero ensnared in a macabre web of underworld misdoings. In short, McCathy has cooked up an assured rearrangement of “No Country.” It’s not on par by any means, but it is entertaining. And, if you haven’t gotten enough of him lately, Michael Fassbender tackles the eponymous role (that’s all he’s ever called), as a square-jawed, fashionably stoic defender, who, while very dapper and upper crust, has a litany of unsavory clients. One, an imprisoned mama kingpin (Rosie Perez put a lot of pizzazz into the brief role), asks him to pay a fine for her son who’s in jail for a traffic violation (going over 200 mph). He reluctantly complies, but doesn’t know that the kid is involved in a scheme to hi-jack a 20 million dollar drug shipment. Which doesn’t matter, because by sheer association he’s now considered one of the brains behind the ever expanding plot.
Zanies and assassins from every corner of the muted desert town start to drift up. And, if the similarities to “No Country” haven’t hit you over the head at this point, Javier Bardem drops in for good measure as the shady club operator who has a few nascent business dealings with the Counsellor. Bardem’s real life wife, Penelope Cruz, shows up too, as the Councilor’s betrothed, but she’s mostly just garnish and a bargaining chip. The real feminine fire power comes from the gams of Cameron Diaz as the high priestess of the Southwest gangland. She’s flip, enjoys Gucci and Prada and doesn’t value life too much, and, if she so desires it, she’ll fuck a Ferrari (no joke).
Brad Pitt’s in the mix too as another shady sort who advises the Counsellor on how to get his neck out of the noose, but his role, like Cruz’s, feels more ornamental than substantive and perhaps somewhere out there, there’s a studio exec who thought it would be devilish fun to release Pitt and Fassbender in this western noir the same week the pair appeared in the more serious, “12 Years a Slave”–celluloid buddies to save the day at the box office?
The problem with “The Counsellor” isn’t so much the every twisting and inward folding machinations that keep the engine humming. That works quite well, the problem is that none of these people are likable and Fassbender’s Counsellor is such a stiff, you never really give a rat’s ass if he gets offed or not. But the film looks great. Scott has always been a visual stylist and really summons up the dusty milieu with artistic elan. McCarthy too packs it with some rich treasures and a potpourri of indelible underlings. Heads roll (literally) and the stash of drugs is carted around a septic truck that from time to time gets shot up and re-patched so that the shit don’t stink. That’s the wicked type of fun “Counsellor” has. It’s not much, but it clicks along just enough.
— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies
^ nameless upon the sea shall he chance : Robert Redford as “Our Man” in J. C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost”
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Open vastness can be an aesthetic wonderment, breathtaking to behold, like the dark cold of outer space in “Gravity” or the endless desert in “Lawrence of Arabia,” but given a rip in a suit or a missed rendezvous at an oasis, that hypnotic intoxication with the serene forever can quickly become the edge of a hapless demise where outside intervention becomes a mathematic improbability and personal perseverance, the only shot at salvation.
In his sophomore effort, “All is Lost,” young filmmaker J. C. Chandor, who received an Academy Award nomination for his bold debut “Margin Call,” employs the sea as his beauteous hell. The film’s title is a shard from a letter written by a hopeless yachtsman adrift at sea in a life raft. No, this is not the second coming of “The Life of Pi”; “All is Lost” is not that existential, though the lone character, who has no name (the credits list him as ‘Our Man’) does go through an existential crisis of sorts. He also endures a series of Jobian trials that would force most people to just cash in their chips and go swimming with the sharks.
The imperiled seaman is played by none other than Robert Redford. Who, well into his later years, has the handsome grizzled look of one who has been at sea for some time. Not a salty old tar mind you, but the preppy, pleasure cruising version of Hemingway’s ‘Old Man,’ dressed ruggedly effete in cable knit sweaters and Bermuda accoutrements.
When we first catch up with Our Man penning his letter, we make just a tang of his hopelessness and sense of imminent demise before the story back-jumps eight days. Our Man now comfortably rests in a well-stocked, thirty-nine foot yacht somewhere in the Indian Sea. But the tranquil moment falls ephemeral to a sudden disturbance that rocks his boat violently from the side, the way that Bruce, the pet named shark in “Jaws,” effusively, fatally weakened the Orca. Examination atop reveals that a shipping container from a passing cargo ship has fallen off and ruptured his hull, and, without the divine intervention of a foaming mad Robert Shaw wielding a baseball bat, has also trashed his communication systems too.
So there he is, marooned on the high seas, and we don’t know much about Our Man. We don’t know if solo cruises in exotic and far flung places is something he does on a regular basis, or who exactly might be waiting for his letter back home. What we do know is that he’s confident at sea and at terms with himself as he takes to mending the ship’s hull calmly and methodically. He’s no MacGyver per se; there’s no presto-magico invention to save the day, just slow knuckle-breaking work and hopeful trial and error validation.
The repair merely stays his execution, as violent tempests and other extreme maladies close upon Our Man. Redford’s understated and nuanced performance along with Chandor’s simple, yet embraced rendering of the open ocean both as celestial body and chalice of death, fill the film’s sails with wonderment and purpose. There’s nothing else, and both players are on their game. In each ensuing ‘it can’t get any worse’ (and it does) scenario, you can always see in the corner of Redford’s eye a faint trace of fear. It’s a brilliant touch. Like Sandra Bullock’s astronaut in “Gravity,” his sailor knows, that to give into panic would result in his immediate demise and that calm perfunctory progress is the only way to remain alive and afloat. That struggle plays palpably upon the storied actor’s face without word or unnecessary exposition. In saying nothing it tells us oceans about the man who’s name we don’t even know.
If there’s any short coming to “All is Lost” it comes in the ending, which is neither a closed loop nor satisfactory. Perhaps Chandor was reaching for something more. It’s a bold but hollow grab. No matter, the film still showcases the talents before and at the helm and will only add to Chandor’s nascent reputation as one to watch.
— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies
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WikiLeaks, the renegade news outlet that takes hacked secrets from government agencies and publishes them to the world sans redaction while protecting the identity of the whistle blower through an elaborate ‘submission platform,’ that’s so secure, even the publisher doesn’t know the identity of the leaker. That site’s notoriety achieved its apex when it published reports exposing US intelligence assets abroad and crass snippy inter-office memos from those in the State Department trashing world leaders. But that’s just the background and part of the denouement in “The Fifth Estate” which is really more a character study of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his meteoric rise to international infamy.
Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch (Khan in the last “Star Trek” chapter) who in long white locks and with piercing blue eyes looks somewhat ethereal or other worldly, like the fair-haired elves in the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the calmly maniacal Julian Sands in the “Warlock” films. Cumberbatch’s Assange is a hard beast to wrap your hands around. He’s guff, arrogant, but at the same time an idealist who spends time in Africa trying to expose corrupt governments stealing money from the people and killing anyone who questions their brutish entitlements. The film’s window of insight into Assange’s mystifying persona is his early collaborator Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl who played Niki Lauda in “Rush”), who at first idolizes Assange and his mission but later has clashing ideological differences over what to do with the Pentagon papers Bradley Manning leaked to them (it was Manning who exposed himself in a chat room).
The film is directed by Bill Condon, who had notable successes with “Dream Girls” and “Gods and Monsters,” and recently has been involved in the hackneyed “Twilight” series. Condon keeps things clicking along with Twitter-brisk editing and plenty of acerbic Assange diatribes. He makes sitting at a desk and hacking away against the clock a time bomb-beating experience. As far as composition goes, the film looks great, but there’s not much insight into Assange’s past. His stories of his white hair and his long unseen son (near adulthood) seem arcane and piquant at first, but then they feel like ploys used by Assange to manipulate others. And that’s the fatal fault with “Fifth Estate.” Assange is an asshole and you can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance. The well-heeled documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney earlier this year came out with “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” which got at Assange and the WikiLeaks story more satisfactorily. What Condon was aiming for is unclear. It postures well and Cumberbatch is riveting as the media shaping reptile, but in all the plumbing of the journalistic ethic and mad dash globe hoping, there’s just no soul to sell.
— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies
^ generations of cannibals in your backyard ; Bill sage as Papa Parker in “We Are What we Are”
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Human consumption (as in flesh of, not spending habits) onscreen isn’t so disturbing when it’s a vampire or a werewolf gnawing on your fellow being as an hors d’oeuvre, but bring that in a little tighter, where man’s dining on man for sustenance and it becomes down right creepy. Even the understandable plight of the “Alive” survivors who chomped on frozen stiffs to keep themselves going in the high Andes, educes a shudder; and there’s still reports of ritual cannibalism among remote tribes in Borneo, but what if it was next door, and not something perverse and of a sick mind like Jeffery Dahmer, but a long standing family tradition executed in the name of God?
Meet the Parker family. They feel like lost cast members from “Little House on the Prairie,” yet live in the modern suburban remotes of upstate New York. Mom (Kassie Depaiva) handles everything culinary, from the ritualistic harvesting to the careful trimming and lengthy rendering process, which results in a savory stew, but right off the bat, mom has a seizure in the middle of a flash storm, vomits up heaves of blood, and is gone. Her grisly duties then fall to her daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner), though after the death, father (Bill Sage) declares a period of abstinence, which allows for the macabre outer sheen of the film to ebb and the edgy backstory of how the Parkers came to their generations old practice, to fill the strange now as the girls struggle to come of age (a time of sexual awakening for Iris) and dad goes through maniacal mood swings and Parkinson-like fits.
The film directed by Jim Mickle, who amused with the quirky vampire hunter saga “Stake Land,” is fairly loyal remake of the 2010 Mexican film of the same title. That cult staple was set in the impoverished barrios of Mexico City and Mickle’s relocation to the drab Catskills brings home the grim affect with greater visceral resonance. He also leverages hurricane season (the 2011 storm Irene was upon the area when he shot the film) as a cleaver plot device as the rising waters from the ongoing storms begin to unearth and expose the bones of the Parkers’ past feasts.
Little of the barbaric practice makes it onto the screen for much of the film, but the traces are ever there; be it the missing person reminders that pop up in conversation or an information flash (reminiscent of “Prisoners”), the muffled whines that come from the Parkers’ root cellar or the inquisitive coroner (Michael Parks) who starts putting together the pieces–literally.
If the plausibility of that sounds a bit hard to swallow, Sage does an effusive job of making the sell as the righteous propagator and controller. Childers too lends credibility as a young woman torn between wanting love and a normal life and familial obligation to her aggrieved father and siblings. It’s her burgeoning courtship with the bashful deputy (Wyatt Russell) and the coroner’s personal need for answers that become the catalyst for the hellish denouement that will not sit well with the squeamish.
In the mix too is Kelly McGillis, barely recognizable as the frumpish next door neighbor who shows Parker’s young son (Frank Gore) compassion, administering bedside TLC and remedies to the boy bedridden with shakes and a fever. She thinks it’s a just common cold from the bluster and rain outside, but it’s hunger from the abstinence–a point that’s driven home and sets off a light in her head when the anemic seeming towhead suddenly chomps down on her thumb with frenzied lust.
For an indie cult-horror film, “We Are What We Are” succeeds modestly much in the same way “You’re Next” did. It transcends the genre’s trappings and makes the most of its humble resources with confident craftsmanship and nuanced subtly that embosses character and demonstrates care. It’s not going to re-script the genre by any stretch, but for those who have the yen, it is a sating bowl of gruesome gruel.
—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies
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Back in 2009 the whole world watched rapt as an American cargo ship was seized by pirates off the coast of Africa. To save his crew, the captain offered himself up as hostage and was subsequently cordoned off in a lifeboat pod with a posse of armed and anxious pirates looking for a multi-million dollar ransom. Eventually the US Navy and SEAL Team 6 got involved and brought about a quick resolution. It made for great drama then and would seem a natural fit for film, but though harrowing, “Captain Philips” never quite gets below the surface of the whole ordeal.
All of this might come as a bit of a surprise because “Phillips” is directed by Paul Greengrass, who adroitly chronicled the intrepid doings of the doomed 9/11 passengers in “United 93.” His poignant insight and meticulous care for every passenger’s story and plight rang through cleanly and affected with a genuine earnestness. Here that acumen feels lost or at best, severely muted.
“Phillips” begins rather no-nonsense with the captain (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) driving to the airport and bantering about how their children are growing up in a harsh world where being righteous and diligent isn’t enough anymore (perhaps an omen of what’s to come?). Shortly after, Phillips and his crew load up food aid for Africa in the Arabian Peninsula and do a once over of the Maersk Alabama. Phillips is working with a new crew that aren’t quite up to his standards and neither is the ship, which ominously has unsecured ‘pirate gates.’
As a result of such shabbiness, once underway around the Horn of Africa, Phillips insists on drills, but just as he sounds the alarm, two speeding skiffs packed with armed men come at the enormous cargo carrier. The Somali pirates fail in their first strike, but have a trailing mother ship to refuel at, and are back nipping at the Alabama the next day.
Three things drive these men on the high seas, money, mind games and stimulants. The pirates, who can speak English, imposter the Somali Coast Guard, while Phillips, knowing they are listening in, pretends to call in an air strike and later, after the Alabama is boarded, lies about the operational condition of the ship. The Somalis, gaunt, angry and hard to tell apart, all gnaw on a narcotic stimulant known as khat and when offered thirty thousand dollars to just be gone, they laugh and whimsically mention that their last take was six million dollars, to which Phillips asks, “Then why are you doing this?” It’s a good question that unfortunately never gets adequately addressed.
Phillips’s men too, see the whole situation as a transaction and don’t want to take on the task of repelling the pirates (they use a series of high power water cannons) because they’re not getting paid enough and ultimately end up hiding in the hold while Phillips deals with the armed intruders.
There are some intriguing bits of chicanery deployed by Phillips and his crew to stem the pirates, but eventually Phillips ends up in the survival capsule with the armed men and the US Navy on their tail, and that’s where the film breaks down — or goes on too long. It becomes an endless loop of the pirates debating whether to kill Phillips and the Navy eternally searching for the right seam to let loose its mighty hammer. One thing is given : the US will not allow the Somalis to take Phillips ashore alive.
The film based on Phillip’s memoir, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” has recently come under fire by crew members who claim it’s a gross fictionalization of what really happened. Complaints, too, have come from the company which allegedly sent the Alabama through pirate infested waters as short cut to save on fuel costs.
The recent Danish film “A Hijacking” also covered a similar real-life arc with great palp and soul by burrowing into the lives and motivations of those in peril as well as their captors. Here Greengrass (who registered much respect with his guttural Bourne films) wows with gorgeous oceanic vastness and crisp, taut editing, and Hanks, on his game, conjures up a thespian tempest; yet without the charts and logs to deepen the now, the full force effort labors as much under the weight of its shallow effusiveness.
—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies
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Some might wonder how the director of “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Great Expectations” (bet you forgot about that 1998 foray starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke) arrived at a space odyssey such as this. Likely, the international success of “Y Tu Mamá También” opened a few doors for director Alfonso Cuarón. Thus his follow on, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” which was the best segment of the overheated wizard series, enabled the Latin auteur to play freely with special FX and blockbuster-aimed gadgetry. Two films later he capitalized on that and wowed critics and audiences alike with the bleak future-scape thriller, “The Children of Men,” registering perhaps, the first perfect fusion of grand vision and epic scale in the new world order of digital film making.
What goes on in “Gravity” is pretty straight up: three astronauts from the space shuttle Explorer go out on a spacewalk to repair the Hubble telescope, disaster strikes and the rest of the film is about the survivors trying to get to a safe place. The catastrophe, a debris storm from a Russian missile strike that took out a derelict satellite, comes shortly after the films begins. Jocular banter and the mission at hand are replaced with an urgency to get into the shuttle and out of harm’s way, but they waiver for a moment and then it’s too late. Everyone inside the shuttle dies from exposure while one of the three out in space has his helmet and cranium pierced by a shard of shrapnel that passes through with the ease of a hot knife through room temperature butter, leaving only newbie science officer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and grizzled vet Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) alive and adrift in space. They’re apart from each other and the now destroyed shuttle, and the prospects for going on look quite dim. It’s a harrowing moment of realization, like becoming lost in a desert or alone in a raft at sea with no land in sight (that story forthcoming in “All is Lost”)—and space is an even more vast and more unfriendly expanse of nothingness. Throughout all this, Kowalski remains exceptionally calm and in the eerie silence of space, using old school navigation techniques, limited communication devices and a lot of luck, he finds Stone, who’s been hurtling around out-of-control, and tethers her to his back (Kowalski is the only one with a jet pack) and they set off to make their way to the International Space Station hoping their jet fuel and oxygen don’t run out first.
There’s more to the plot of “Gravity” (the International Space Station is a whole ‘nother chapter of epic tribulation), but to articulate any further would be to do the film and the experience a disservice. How Cuarón so seamlessly created zero gravity and rendered astronauts spinning out of control at thousands of miles-per-hour with such realistic credibility, boggles the mind. The feast of visual spectacular wows—each one, outdoing the last–drives the film as much as the hanging-by-a-thread survival yarn.
And if being lost in space without a ship seems like a pretty major problem, the tethered pair have also lost contact with Earth, which I guess cuts out any expository banter and insight from down below–and what exactly would those guys be able to do in any case?
Astoundingly, the voice of Houston control is none other than Ed Harris, who played the effusive and resourceful control manager in Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13.” That movie, based on a historical occurrence that was eerily foretold by the 1969 movie “Marooned,” dealt with the rescue of oxygen starved astronauts in space. There, the players on earth and the celestial above, had soul and their lives unfurled with as certain sensitive fragility and death loomed at every turn. In “Gravity” the two survivors overcome such insurmountable odds so many times, you wonder if James Bond might not be a tad bit jealous. We get a sip of back story too. Clooney is his comfortable wry everyman while Bullock’s Stone has a bit more going on, but it feels like artifice so Cuarón can do such mesmerizing stunts as have a camera follow Stone as she careers aimlessly about. From afar we watch her spin, in the back ground we can see Earth, then the deep dark galaxy, then the broken carcass of the shuttle, and it all repeats over and over as the focus slowly moves in on Stone’s face and then we are in her helmet and looking out, and we see the whole dizzy spin cycle from her POV. It’s an amazing feat of film making, but where Cuarón should have applied similar elbow grease was on the script he co-wrote with his son, Jonás. Sure, the characters have the mettle to be up there and their cool perseverance under pressure is beyond enviable, but what else?
What Cuarón missed that Howard nailed in “Apollo 13” (where we already know the conclusion) was the connection between humans doing something heroic that puts themselves at risk for others. There’s some of that altruistic spirit in “Gravity” too, but just a sparse sprinkling.
So if in space you do something monumental and no one is there to witness or benefit from it, does it matter? Probably not, but even if you view “Gravity” as a vacuous fire drill, witnessing that harrowing hollow hell-ride is one breathtaking endeavor.
—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies