The Counselor by Ridley Scott

The Counselor by Ridley Scott

To give the simplest summary of the latest film from Ridley Scott and first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, the Counselor (Michael Fassbender), deeply in love with his fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz), tries to make a quick score in a one-time drug deal with Reiner (Javier Bardem), his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) and middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). The deal backfires, and now The Counselor is wrongfully targeted by a Mexican drug cartel.

So Cormac McCarthy, Ridley Scott, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz in a monumental cinematic failure, what happened?

Let’s be clear. The true author of The Counselor is Cormac McCarthy, not Ridley Scott. The artistic choices that McCarthy is attempting with the script are evident. He seems to have a disdain for exposition, as most of the scenes start and end before the typical story movements in a plot. What remains are these existential conversations that occur after a lot of the action has taken place.

McCarthy thinks that by removing story explanation, the film’s themes and ideas will float to the surface. The dialogue just drones on and on and on non-stop, having the viewer scratching their heads trying to keep up with it. As a result, there is no time to absorb the themes and ideas that McCarthy is trying to communicate. Audiences can tune to a different syntax (i.e. Yoda or Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange) and absorb heavy themes, but it is hard to do both at the same time.

Michael Fassbender carries the film sufficiently on his shoulder by adding as much believability as possible and together with Penelope Cruz make a good solid emotional anchor with their love story. Javier Bardem does his trademark brand of ‘psychotic hair acting’, fashioning a spiky hairstyle that looks like he is forcibly pulling out his hair with hair gel. Brad Pitt’s character just seems like an odd combination of character quirks that comes off more shallow. It is hard to buy Bardem and Pitt’s characters because gangsters would never philosophize and advise their underlings like old wise sages.

Cameron Diaz is the odd one out and it is hard to judge her performance. It took me a while to realize that Malkina character was from Barbados, and apparently she put on an accent for it, but it was undetectable. The role is something we never seen from Diaz before and it is a wild explosive left-field character. I just don’t know what to make of it. Every actor is delivering on what is written, but it’s hard to judge if it’s good or bad acting because the performances do not add up to the sum of its parts. The actors are not to be blamed.

The final conclusion I can draw is that director Ridley Scott and the cast believed that Cormac McCarthy has written something great and have proceeded to honor it by acting it out unedited as if it was Shakespeare. Had they been more critical about the screenplay and its mechanics, something more profound definitely could have been made. From what McCarthy is trying to say with these themes, he would have done better by just writing a philosophy paper about greed and corruption. As a bleak morality tale, it is not at all compelling.

The Counselor is not a film I would recommend people to see for leisure, but anybody with an interest in screenwriting should give it a watch to study the forensics and learn what not to do, even if you are a critically acclaimed novelist.

 

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Prometheus by Ridley Scott

The Iceman by Ariel Vromen

The Iceman (film)

The Iceman by Ariel Vromen

The true story of Richard Kuklinski, the notorious contract killer and family man, who has claimed of killing over a hundred victims.

The cast gives good performances. Michael Shannon brings gravitas to the Iceman. It’s impressive how much life he’s breathed into a role that is so oblique and intimidating. The audience never really knows what is going on inside his head, but a threatening violence is communicated underneath his dead calm demeanor. It’s an engaging scary performance. Winona Ryder is good in the role of Kuklinski’s wife Deborah but the potential of the role isn’t explored to the fullest. The real-life Kuklinski did hit his wife and broke her nose several times. Unfortunately for Ryder, it is not explored in the film. Kuklinski’s wife in the film suspects something is wrong but is scared to pry, which is contrary to her real-life counterpart had no idea what was going on at all. This was all probably changed to create more character likability for Kuklinski, more on that later. Chris Evans gets to transform and do some character acting as the Iceman’s assassin partner Mr. Freezy. Evan seems to be reveling in this part, it’s probably a breath of fresh air from having doing the recent Marvel films. James Franco also shows up in a fun cameo role.

The story, however, fails to rise above the sum of its parts. One particular aspect of dramatic filmmaking is for the story to be compelling, the audience generally has to empathize and root for its protagonist. It’s hard to feel that for Richard Kuklinksi because he is fully aware of his actions. Kuklinksi was an effective killer from his lack of compassion for people. He gave zero thought to murder and that’s what made him scary. But director Ariel Vromen tries to insert the idea that Kuklinski had empathy and struggled with balancing his antisocial behavior with the safety of his family. This is only touched upon and never fully explored. But perhaps there was nothing behind the real Iceman’s psychosis, maybe he just did not have empathy. The truth is Vromen doesn’t know more than we do and the film is only working on pure speculation. . So it is soft pedaling solely for dramatic purposes, Vromen should have just taken narrative liberties and just fully presented his own take of what happened.

Perhaps it’s not even Vromen’s fault, dramatic film was probably not the proper format for this story. I recommend everybody see the 1992 HBO documentary The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer. Watching Richard Kuklinski recount his own story was a much more compelling and shocking experience. The Iceman, by comparison, seems relatively watered down and this isn’t a story that should be toned down.

Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding Refn

Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding
Refn

Julian, a drug-smuggler thriving in Bangkok’s criminal underworld, sees his life get complicated when his mother
compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother’s recent death. Chang, a Thai police lieutenant, is exacting his own brand of vigilante justice and punishing everybody involved.

Only God Forgives is the classic case of a director doing a continuation of his authorial style. An aesthetic that was recognized in a previously successful film is further explored in a more extreme fashion in a follow-up piece. Very often it’s focused on using the established cinematic style to carry the entire movie. Wong Kar Wai made Fallen Angels after the success of Chungking Express. David Lynch made Inland Empire after the success of Muholland Drive. Terrence Malick made To the Wonder after Tree of Life.

Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylistic continuation of Drive. What’s stripped away is the frequent plot turns, traditional character development and character likability. These are probably the most quiet cinematic gangsters I’ve ever seen in my life. Characters are posed like empty vessels. They don’t talk much. Sometimes when they do, the director mutes their dialogue. Ryan Gosling plays a still taciturn character in a similar way he did in Drive. Kristin Scott Thomas is an effective threatening presence as Julian’s stern mother Crystal. There’s very little to draw from Gosling’s Julian, but it is there. Even within it’s morally ambiguous world, there is a clear character arc. Julian is an active character trying to find redemption but also wants to please his mother. Which leads to me to the Chang character…

Nicolas Winding Refn has said the Lieutenant Chang character represents the Old Testament God, exacting judgment and punishment on all the sinners in the story. I am not sure how clear that is in the film unless the audience read the press notes beforehand. Does the God theme really matter? In a way, yes. The film is so stoic with its characters posed like figurines, you cannot help but inject symbolism into the film’s empty canvas to derive meaning out of it. Trying to watch this film as a genre crime thriller, which is what it is on the surface, would be relatively more frustrating. Luckily I caught on to it.

The Chang character, in a perpetual black shirt with a white collar, is dressed like a priest. He is a violent enforcer of poetic justice, and all his actions are ritual-like. In a more traditional movie, Chang would have been the protagonist. Here, he’s the antagonist. From the story’s perspective, where all the characters are varyingly degrees of bad, it’s as if Chang is the Grim Reaper coming to collect souls even though he in fact is a force for good. That’s a really interesting left-field story choice and I dug that. Lieutenant Chang is the most fascinating character and a great antagonist.

There is an indulgent aspect to Only God Forgives, any director taking on big questions will naturally come off that way. Refn could have easily written a theology thesis but he’s chosen to express his thoughts with narrative film. I have no problem with that but it automatically sets up qualifiers for audiences to enjoy the film. While it is not necessary, I think having viewed Drive first will help one familiarize with Refn’s film language before seeing this movie. As for the God themes, it can go either which way. Some may find it pretentious, but I found images from the film stuck with me long after and I am still pondering the film’s themes. I found the Julian and Chang characters compelling. So for that, Only God Forgives is neither the masterpiece nor disaster that all the Cannes hype is suggesting, but more of a hyper-stylized personal statement. It will surely divide audiences, and your enjoyment will depend on how you deal with abstractions.

Design Of Death by Hu Guan

Design of Death by Hu Guan

The violent death of an unpopular village miscreant Niu Jie Shi is initially blamed on an infectious disease, but an investigation shows that everybody in the village had a reason to murder him. A doctor who is assigned to the village begins an murder investigation.

Following the trend of the success of Let the Bullets Fly and Crazy Stone, has set a new trend of these Chinese absurdist satirical “anything goes” comedies. The tropes include quick dialogue banter, quick cuts, anachronistic music, a “life is meaningless” theme and surreal absurdity. For anybody who may be familiar with the satirical writings of Lu Xun, it is exactly like that satirical acidic literary voice and transported it to a cinematic experience. Derek Yee’s The Great Magician attempted a version of this earlier this year and failed. And now comes Design of Death, based on a novel by Chen Tie Jun and directed by Hu Guan.

Just a sidenote, my mentioning of the film’s influences is not a critique. Being aware of (I will be adding this to my “Common Film Review Cliches to be Avoided” page ) a film’s influences is not direct to it’s own quality. I only bring it up to set up my review. On with the actual review now…

The mystery and the plot of Design of Death was what I was mostly invested in throughout the 109 minute running time. I wanted to know the story of what happened in this village. It wasn’t that it was really that mysterious or that kept me guessing with its twists and turns. With its surreal setting where anything can happen (i.e. there’s an X-ray machine in a village in the 1940s.), the lack of a consistent world rules seemed pointless to guess the mystery at all.

Huang Bo as Niu Jie Shi finds the proper balance of annoying and likable and carries the movie with a lot of charm. It’s tricky because he has to be annoying enough for you to see how the villagers grow annoyed of him but innocent enough for the audience to feel bad for it when he gets his comeuppance. He manages to build a character through the first half of the movie which mainly comprise of comedic gags and hijinks. Taiwanese actor Alec Su understands the kitsch of the film enough to have fun with his role as Dr. Niu. He plays it completely straight like he’s some evil scientist from a Saturday morning cartoon. Even his white costume is reminiscent of a lab coat. Yu Nan is not good looking in a traditional movie star way but has a unique presence as Niu Jie shi’s taciturn wife. I do not know how she managed to land a role in The Expendables 2 but I look forward to seeing her kick ass in that. Simon Yam is always a welcome presence in any movie but the fact that he’s being dubbed took it away for me.

It’s a bit superfluous talking about acting in the movie because it’s not a story that hangs on performance. The actors are not playing characters. Design of Death is not functioning on any sense of pathos with developed characters. Every character is a stereotype representing different ideas solely functioning to serve the film’s message.

Ultimately I do not find Niu’s actions reprehensible or deserving of his fate. He is an annoying little hemorrhoid of a human being I’ll give you that, but the way Huang Bo plays Niu Jie Shi suggests that he is not evil in his own nature or has no intention to harm others. He’s just annoying simply because it’s fun to annoy everybody in the village and there’s nothing else to do.

By the end, I saw where the film was going with it’s message and it asks that you go with it and attacks it with it a very “anything goes” satirical tone. I laughed more than I did in Let the Bullets Fly but it’s just simply an emotional place I did not want to go. I sat back and let the film lead me to it’s conclusion and finally it was a hollow experience.

There is a current rise of these comedies in China. With it’s harsh censorship and restrictions, these absurd satirical comedies makes sense because it is a way to laugh at things but still able to contain a strong unsubtle moral message. I understand its existence but I really hope these trend of films will go away. It’s run out of steam.

After all, why I would pay to watch a film to laugh my way to finally feel hollow?

Into the Abyss by Werner Herzog

Into the Abyss by Werner Herzog

On October, 24 2001, Michael Perry and his friend, Jason Burkett, decided steal a Camaro from the the Montgomery home of Sandra Stotler. Perry entered the house through the garage. Perry shot Sandra Stotler with a shotgun and the two men dumped her body in Montgomery County’s Crater Lake.

The duo then returned to the gated community where Sandra Stotler lived and waited outside the locked gate until the dead woman’s son, Adam Stotler, and his friend, 18-year-old Jeremy Richardson arrived. Perry and Burkett lured the teens to a wooded area and killed Adam Stotler and Richardson. Perry and Burkett, driving the Isuzu Rodeo Adam Stotler had been using, went back to Sandra Stotler’s home and finally stole her Camaro. They kept the Camaro for no longer than 72 hours and were finally apprehended after a gun fight with the police. Perry received a death sentence and Burkett received a life sentence.

Into the Abyss is the new documentary film from Werner Herzog, it focuses on the two convicts and various people affected by the crime. In his documentaries, Herzog always seeks what he calls the “ecstatic truth”, his theory that storytellers should never look away from the truth. It’s not enough that we know that murder exists. You have to look at it face-to-face. Once you do this, you will find a whole well of deeper truth.

That was my experience watching Into the Abyss, on the surface it covers a very depressing subject. At the helm of any  lesser director it would probably be depressing. Instead, it cuts right through and takes you to different places emotionally beyond “hey dude, murder is depressing, so be depressed while you watch this”. It’s emotionally raw, the parts about the victim’s families dealing with the victim’s deaths are powerful stories. We see that it so much more harder to grieve when one’s death was over something so meaningless. Mostly we can say that these deaths are all made from wrong choices. Did these people have a choice? Some seemingly did and some claimed they did not. It would be so much easier to judge and encapsulate how we feel about a person’s actions if we did not look at the whole truth of his predicament.

There is humor at times, but it’s not there to break tension. It comes as part of the ecstatic truth. Herzog greets the father of Jason Burkett, Delbert Burkett, who is also in prison, “How are you?” The sits down and casually snaps a “I’m fine.” Herzog half-scoffs, “How fine (are you really)?” Delbert recounts how he testified for his son in court and pleaded to the judge not to execute Jason. He blames himself for not being there as a father and never gave his son a chance for a good life.

It’s even romantic at times, the wife of Jason Burkett speaks about how she fell in love with her husband and desires to bear his child, despite that they will not be together for 40 years until he makes parole. She holds a sonogram picture of the baby and that was an unnerving moment. As she held up the picture, I wondered if the child is another seed of criminality. That’s what I saw. I think other people will have different interpretations. The film is dense enough for it.

One of the most chilling moments for me was the interview with Fred Allen, the Captain of the Death House Team in Texas, where the prisoners are brought to be executed. He describes the procedure of taking the patient to be lethally injected and his struggle with keeping the job after lethally injecting 125 convicts. A notepad is shown noting the times of the procedure of Michael Perry’s execution: when he arrived, when he was strapped to the bed, when he was injected and when he passed. That struck me still. I did not have an emotion for that.

Herzog does not narrate as he usually does and I think that was a good aesthetic choice. He only conducts the interviews. Herzog’s own views are implied in the film (he is against the idea of capital punishment), but it’s not as loud of a statement as one would experience in a Michael Moore film. It is unlike Cave of Forgotten Dreams where he needed to answer, “Why the hell are we looking at these caves for 2 hours?”  There is no question of why we need to watch this and Werner Herzog takes a step back from telling us his personal views. The viewer is left to decide how they want to judge the actions Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Herzog provides no answers, but asks all the right questions.

Why did these three people die for a car? Why did these two kids kill for a joyride? How does death affect a family? How do you live your life knowing that you will be executed next week? Is there any real purpose to executing Michael Perry? After all, it won’t bring them back. Does anyone, including the state, have any right to take a life? Just because the law says so, does that make it right?

At the end, It left me raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I thought about the absurdity and ironies of life. Into the Abyss reflected the human predicament and how as human beings we think we know everything, but we are not even close to understanding ourselves.