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

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Stoker by Park Chan Wook

Stoker by Park Chan-Wook

After India’s (played by Mia Wasikowska) father dies, her Uncle Charlie (played by Matthew Goode), who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother Evelyn (played by Nicole Kidman). She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Screenwriter Wentworth Miller has stated that this is not a vampire movie. To this I say, “Trust the tale, not the teller.”  Regardless of what Miller says, it’s a vampire film or not, Stoker is clearly playing to the beats of a vampire film underneath its surface.There are things at play that suggest this, Uncle Charlie is fixated with India and he preys on her. India seems to possess some kind of innocence or purity that is at stake of being corrupted. Lastly, the movie is called Stoker. That’s no accident.

It’s as if someone took a traditional vampire movie, folded it inside out, wore it like a bag on his head looking outside from within. That’s the way to watch Stoker. Anybody who says there is nothing happening in this story is not looking at the subtext. The subtext is the supertext, that’s where the story is taking place. Park Chan-Wook leaves a lot of empty space for the audience to ponder about what’s going on. There is a whole lot going on if you tune to the film’s grammar and look in the right places.

Matthew Goode has always had this steely piercing look that looks sinister and that quality is well used under Park’s direction. Park knows how to pull back and just shoot an actor in a certain pose to emote a mood or feeling. As Uncle Charlie, we never know what he’s thinking or if we can really trust his intentions. Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman give fine performances but Matthew Goode gives the standout performance. The real star of the film however is Park Chan-Wook himself. He elevates the script by adding a visual poetry that subtlely implies. Everything is played at such a low volume that the audience is unnerved waiting for the tension to crescendo.

A good companion piece to Stoker is Park Chan-Wook’s 2009 vampire horror film Thirst; it’s probably what got Park the job. This is probably one of the best English-language debut for an Asian director. It’s a smooth transition as his directorial stamp is very much present. You will need to put in more brain work for Stoker, but it pays off.

Prometheus by Ridley Scott

Prometheus by Ridley Scott

In the late 21st century, the crew of the spaceship Prometheus follow a star map discovered among the artifacts of several ancient Earth cultures. Seeking the origins of humanity, the crew arrives on a distant world and discovers a threat that could cause the extinction of the human race.

First off, I am proud to say I was not a victim of all the hype and it was definitely a much better film-going experience having not having seen the film with too much worked out in my mind. Now on with the review…

Awe is a very important component for science fiction films. Thematically science fiction deals with both the potential and limit of mankind, reflecting who we are as human beings if there were no bounds to our ability to accomplish good or heinous things. For example, seeing a spaceship soaring through space or a planet get blown up should both evoke awe. From frame one I was instantly awed by the world created in Prometheus. Using real physical sets and locations over computer generated ones really makes a big difference. I was marveled by the space of the world and was ready to explore it along with its characters. Thanks, H.R. Giger!

It’s been a while since we had a true science fiction film asking big questions. Does God exist? Who am I? Who made me? Why did he make me? How would he see me? Every character represents in the story a different argument against all these questions. Although we are given a conclusion for all these questions on a narrative level, the film never really provides an answer to its big thematic questions and I loved that.

This is one of Rapace’s better-suited parts that I have seen her play as she has a lot more emotions to play compared to a role like Lisbeth Salander. Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is not “Ellen Ripley Deux”, she is clearly playing her own original character. If there are any similarities, it’s that they’re both well-rounded female characters that both show moments of vulnerability and strength.

Michael Fassbender is captivating as the android character David and interprets playing a robot creatively through physical choices. A delicate weightless walk, a constant neutral tone to his voice and facial expressions that don’t quite match what’s being said. The audience is left constantly guessing, “What is he up to? Is he being deceitful? Was that a joke or did he really mean that?” He plays up the ambiguous non-human nature of a machine and adds to a lot of the mystery of what’s going on in this world.

As a side note, is the Blade Runner sequel from Ridley Scott necessary at this point? The “can a robot be human?” theme established in this film can be totally explored possibly in sequels with the David character.

There’s been a very common complaint about how the characters act very unscientific for a group of scientists. I have thought about this argument even though it didn’t occur to me upon my first viewing because I was absorbed into the film. I will say this as a counter argument: Prometheus, as the title suggests, is a cautionary tale. The characters are meant to do all the wrong things and pay for it. It’s a rule of the genre, it’s the equivalent of someone checking an odd noise in the attic in a horror movie. Now you might say that that’s not an excuse for bad characterization, I agree. But if people are noticing stuff like this, I think the movie probably failed to engage you on some level. It was not the case for me and I didn’t have a problem with it.

What will ultimately divide audiences about Prometheus is the fact that it is a movie embedded with dual goals in its DNA. There’s the Alien prequel and the Prometheus movie. Personally I was much more fascinated with the Prometheus portion. Some may think that Prometheus does not answer enough questions about Alien. I agree and disagree. It does provide you answers about the events in Alien but it gives it to you in the form of creating more questions. Personally, I would have preferred fewer answers. I’m more interested in the questions.

Bring on Prometheus 2!

The Grey by Joe Carnahan

The Grey

The Grey by Joe Carnahan

A man who has lost the will to live must save a group of men after a plane crash in the midst of Alaska. That is a compelling premise.

If you lost the will to live, is there any value in human life? How do you value someone else’s life? Is there even any point in running away when you are in the face of death?

The Grey asks these existential questions but doesn’t get bogged down by the weight of them. It externalizes these ideas into something entertaining: a survival film. And more importantly, the film doesn’t leave these questions unanswered. It manages to answer them from the point of view of Liam Nesson’s character, John Ottway. And if there’s one thing that Liam Nesson does really well, it is bringing gravitas to a role and a story, no matter how ridiculous the situation may be (i.e. in Taken where he singlehandedly takes on Paris. Or heck, even the scene in The A-Team where the team in a tank falling from the sky and he orders the team to maneuver the tank through firing out of its cannon).

The structure of the story is that of a philosophy thesis. These characters exist as viewpoints. Survival arguments between the characters are disguised existential arguments. One noteworthy scene is where all the men sit around in a campfire and share their personal stories, it works both as character development and on a thematic level establishes what they all have to live for as existential discussion. As for the wolves, I know nothing about wolves and their social behavior. I don’t know if they make sounds like a Tyrannosaur Rex or sneak up on people like ninjas as they’re portrayed in The Grey. And you know what? It does not matter one single bit. These are not real wolves. These are thematic existential wolves. Yes, they exist as an idea and they work like that of a movie monster metaphor.

As for the set pieces, they are brutal. They reportedly shot in -40 degree weather and it looks it. We feel the pain of these deaths. The balance between the philosophical and the survival film tropes make it a thrilling experience.

The A-Team and Smoking Aces was both fun fluff, but The Grey is levels higher and it shows maturity and improvement on the filmmaker’s behalf. This is the best Joe Carnahan film has made yet.

I’m all for not hurting animals, but there’s something really badass about watching Liam Nesson punching a wolf. The Grey is aware of its popcorn movie layer though despite of that has much higher ambitions than to simply entertain, it chooses to say something deep instead. And it succeeds. Or else they could have just named the movie – Liam Nesson: Wolf Puncher.