The Counselor


Michael Fassbender doesn't know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

Michael Fassbender doesn’t know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Bruno Ganz, Toby Kebbell, Emma Rigby, Edgar Ramirez, Dean Norris, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo, Fernando Cayo, Paris Jefferson, Andrea Deck, Giannina Facio. Directed by Ridley Scott

When we choose to abandon the straight and narrow, we do so most often because of greed. We want more than we would otherwise be entitled to by the dint of our hard work and effort, so we take the shortcut. Sometimes we escape with a tidy sum to put by for a rainy day but more often than not, we reap the consequences of what we have sewn.

The counselor (Fassbender) – he is never given a name in the film – is a sharp lawyer who must have been absent the day they were handing out a conscience. He’s all about the Benjamins, although he is madly in love with Laura (Cruz) whom he has proposed to. While his practice is making him a decent amount of money, he is raking in the cash like he’s printing it thanks to his relationship with Reiner (Bardem) who is part of the Mexican cartel, and middleman Westray (Pitt) who brokers the deals.

Reiner is arranging for the shipment of some drugs from Mexico to Chicago in a septic truck. Being the paranoid sorts that they are, the truck is only going to go as far as Arizona before finishing it’s journey. The Mexican nationals driving the truck get it to its destination, then a courier is supposed to take a kill switch needed to start the truck to the next driver who will finish the job.

Unfortunately, the courier is ambushed and killed on his way to the next driver and that courier happened to be the son of Ruth (Perez), a high-up member of a cartel family that the counselor is defending on a murder charge. To make matters worse, the counselor had sprung the courier from jail after a reckless driving and speeding arrest, which led the cartel to believe that the counselor had something to do with it.

Reiner, Westray and the lawyer are all at risk as are their immediate loved ones which in Reiner’s case is the ice-cold financier Malkina (Diaz) and in Westray’s case is nobody. Malkina, who has a soft spot for watching jaguars take down jackrabbits in the desert and knows more about what’s going on than Reiner or the counselor suspect, promises Reiner that she is going to leave at the first sign of trouble but in point of fact she’s long gone well before that.

As you would expect from a screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy, the plot is very complex and requires a good deal of attention on the audience’s part, particularly during the first few scenes of the movie where those paying close attention can pretty much garner everything they need to figure things out.

The cast is impressive as you might expect with all the A-list power behind the camera. Fassbender is a busy man these days but makes time for a role which is as much of a cipher as any he has played to date. Not only is his character given no name, he isn’t given much of a soul either. That seems to reside all in Cruz who is unaware of the depths of the double dealing her groom-to-be is sinking to.

Bardem, as always, is interesting whether he is shamelessly hamming it up (as he is here) or underplaying discretely (as he does in Skyfall). As you can see in the photo above, there is nothing subtle about Reiner and for that kind of role, Bardem is a good first choice (or fallback as the case may be). Pitt is serviceable as the wise and worldly Westray who understands exactly what sort of people they are up against.

I’ve never been particularly a Cameron Diaz fan but this might be my favorite performance of hers to date. Malkina is a manipulative predator, weaving a web of lust and betrayal and then striking as true and as deadly as a cobra. It is one of the best female villain roles since Cruella de Ville – while Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster did show someone who was evil, you can’t really call truly call the role that of a villain.

The movie is pretty convoluted in places and there are a lot of characters who show up, say a few lines and then disappear for good. Perhaps the audience might have appreciated combining some of these roles or at least having other characters mouth the platitudes. The bean-counters would have appreciated it as well.

McCarthy is never a particularly easy read and this screenplay, an original story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, isn’t always easy to watch. The sex is in your face (quite literally at times) and those who are uncomfortable with sexuality will certainly be disturbed by what they see here. There are some pretty violent moments as well with at least one beheading and a lot of bodies being shot to pieces. Those sensitive to those sorts of things should take note too.

Still, this is a solid thriller that is a little smarter than most and a bit better-written as well. It is a grim movie that just gets bleaker as the film goes on and as the Counselor and his allies realize that they are trapped in a situation that there is no escaping, try as they might. This may not end up in anyone’s top 5 Ridley Scott movie lists but it should certainly make his top ten.

REASONS TO GO: Generally smart and well-written. Fassbender, Bardem and Pitt are terrific and Diaz makes a surprisingly vicious femme fatale.

REASONS TO STAY: Convoluted and hard to follow in places. Unrelentingly grim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some fairly graphic violence and language, along with a few morbid images and a fairly extensive and graphic amount of sex and conversations about the same.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production shut down for a week in August 2012 after the suicide of director Ridley Scott’s brother Tony, who was also a co-founder of their production company Scott Free. The movie is dedicated to him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Winged Migration

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New Releases for the Week of October 25, 2013


The Counselor

THE COUNSELOR

(20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Rosie Perez, Toby Kebbell, Ruben Blades, Goran Visnjic. Directed by Ridley Scott

A respected lawyer gets involved with a crooked business deal and discovers that it’s not just his life and career that’s at risk but everything – and everyone – he holds dear. Oscar-winning director Scott is working off a script by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy. That’s the kind of one-two punch I can get into.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language)

Bhai

(Reliance) Akkineni Nagarjuna, Prasanna, Richa Gangopadhyay, Kamna Jethmalani. Telugu superstar Nagarjuna hopes to restore his fading box office appeal with this action-drama-comedy with musical overtones.

See the trailer, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa

(Paramount) Johnny Knoxville, Bam Magera, Steve-O, Jason “Wee Man” Acuna. Irving Zisman, an irascible 86-year-old man, heads off on a trip to discover America accompanied by his 8-year-old grandson and a bunch of hidden cameras. Along the way he will meet male strippers, toddler beauty pageant contestants,  mourners at a funeral and an assortment of ordinary and unsuspecting Americans.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for strong crude and sexual content throughout, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use)

Short Term 12

(Cinedigm) Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Rami Malek, Kaitlyn Dever. A young supervisor at an at-risk teenager facility finds her own past brought bursting through her carefully erected defenses when a troubled young teen joins the facility. Unexpectedly, she finds a bond developing between them that may help her overcome her demons yet.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief sexuality)

A True Story

(Freestyle) Cameron Fife, Tyler McGee, Jon Gries, Katrina Bowden. Two friends who have nothing other than their belief that the screenplay they’ve written will someday make an amazing movie navigate the waters of Hollywood. Swimming those waters are apathetic studio cronies, predatory agents, slutty ex-girlfriends and a motley collection of back-stabbers and bootlickers. In short, a true story.

See the trailer, a featurette and a link to stream the full movie here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language and some violence) 

We Are What We Are

(eOne) Julia Garner, Ambyr Childers, Bill Sage, Kelly McGillis. A seemingly normal family in a small seaside town is ruled by a patriarch who sticks to custom and tradition with the rigidity of the self-righteous. He is grooming his daughters to take over for him one day but that day comes much too soon when a terrible storm strikes the area. As local authorities begin to realize the full extent of the horror that the family has kept secret for years, the storm grows in intensity threatening the entire town.

See the trailer, a clip and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for disturbing violence, bloody images, some sexuality, nudity and language)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Lisabeth Salander has Mikael Blomkvist in stitches.

(2011) Thriller (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgard, Steven Berkoff, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson, Geraldine James, Goran Visnjic, Donald Sumpter, Ulf Friberg, Julian Sands, Moa Garpendal, Embeth Davidtz. Directed by David Fincher

 

Sometimes a movie is so good when it is originally made that it seems virtually unthinkable that it be remade. Most of the time, those remakes fall far short of the mark. Once in awhile however, the remake comes out with a voice of its own that offers something to the original, enhances it even.

Purists were aghast when the hit Swedish film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was set for an American remake. There was some comfort in that Fincher, whose pedigree includes Se7en and Fight Club would be behind the camera but still there were shudders to think of what liberties and watering down Hollywood would do to the source material, the late Stieg Larsson’s novel (the first in a trilogy, all of which have been translated to film in Swede and all of them reviewed elsewhere on the site) which was grittier and more brutal than Hollywood tends to be.

Mikael Blomkvist (Craig), a crusading journalist and co-publisher of the left-leaning Millennium magazine has been convicted of libel against a wealthy Swedish venture capitalist named Hans-Erik Wennerstrom (Friberg). The judgment against Blomkvist essentially empties out his savings and puts Millennium at risk of failing. His co-publisher and lover Erika Berger (Wright) confesses that the magazine may have three months of life left at best.

Wennerstrom isn’t the only one looking into Blomkvist. A security firm is hired by lawyer Dirch Frode (Berkoff) to investigate Blomkvist and the operative of the security firm, Lisbeth Salander (Mara) is asked to turn in her report in person, something that makes her uncomfortable. It turns out that her report is pretty thorough and the few things that are missing are best left that way.

Berkoff represents reclusive industrialist Henrik Vanger (Plummer) who wants to hire Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his grand-niece Harriet (Garpendal) whom he believes was murdered by a member of his family 40 years earlier. There are certainly plenty of suspects; ex-Nazis who may not be as ex as they might have you believe; bitter, jealous and greedy, grasping money-grubbers, torturers, rapists and pederasts. Makes for quite a Christmas list.

At first Blomkvist is met with hostility from nearly everyone other than Martin (Skarsgard), Harriet’s brother who is skeptical that Blomkvist will find out anything new. Martin is running the family business now and not running it with much success. The once-vast Vanger empire is shrinking; once a great steel and railway manufacturer, they make most of their profits from fertilizer these days. Considering all the BS that is fed to Blomkvist, I’m quite certain he must have thought that appropriate.

As Blomkvist discovers that his e-mail was hacked by Salander (whose identity he doesn’t yet know), he is infuriated but begrudgingly realizes he needs a research assistant as he is making a little bit of progress but needs someone who can help him dig things up from corporate records at Vanger Industries. He meets Salander who proves to be skittish but intrigued; she isn’t very fond of men in general, having been raped brutally by her state-appointed guardian Nils Bjurman (van Wageningen). She did get her revenge however and proved herself someone not to mess with in the process.

Blomkvist and Salander turn out to make a formidable team and the lies and prevarications of 40 years of silence begin to slip away and they discover Harriet’s disappearance may be the gateway into a much more hideous secret – and that Harriet may not be the only victim. Worse yet, the killer is fully aware of their discoveries and has them both firmly in their sights.

When I found out about this remake, I was like most fans of the books and the Swedish versions somewhat troubled. I couldn’t see Hollywood allowing a movie to include scenes of graphic rape and torture, all of which were at the heart of the previous versions. I fully expected something sanitized and vapid. Then I heard that it was Fincher directing, and to be honest my reaction was “He’s probably the only director in Hollywood who could pull it off,” but I thought he might have difficulty getting the studio to allow him free rein to make the movie he wanted.

Surprisingly he did and we might have The Social Network to thank for it. The runaway commercial and critical success of that film has given Fincher greater clout than he’s had previously and might have allowed him to shut down studio interference in the project. Certainly the rape sequence and the torture sequence late in the film are as disturbing as those in the Swedish film and the book.

Craig was only able to do this film because of the delay in filming the latest James Bond. Here he plays a man unused to action, one more cerebral than some of the heroes he’s played lately and quite frankly Craig is up to the task. It is as different a role from Bond as you can get but equally as heroic, and if this franchise is successful will really put up Craig among the elite stars working today.

Mara is the breakout star here. One had to worry if she could fill the shoes of Noomi Rapace, who was so very central to the success of the Swedish trilogy.  Not only does Mara fill those shoes, she may well surpass them and will herself into stardom; this is a star-making performance to say the least. Salander is a tortured soul and certainly Mara captures that, but she’s also no longer willing to be a victim and the inner strength that makes Salander one of the most interesting heroines of all time is very much evident here as well. She may wear outlandish hair styles, provocative t-shirts and smoke far too much but she is also brilliant as well.

The movie is a bit longer than three hours long which was nearly more than my poor bladder could take – theater sodas are so darn large these days! It also fleshes out the Swedish film quite nicely, although the Swedish version ends with the death of the killer more or less with a brief coda showing a television report that covers the denouement between Blomkvist and Wennerstrom. The American version plays that out a bit further which frankly was unnecessary for my taste.

Still, this is some terrific filmmaking buttressed by some great performances, particularly in the case of Mara (Plummer and Skarsgard, both veteran actors, also deliver solid performances). It may be too intense for some, a bit too long for its own good but by and large this is a really good movie that doesn’t disgrace its source material in the least; if anything, it enhances it nicely and makes for a worthy addition to Larsson’s legacy.

REASONS TO GO: Mara does a star-making turn here. Based on one of the best-written thrillers in recent years. Great cast and production values.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence and sexuality can get very intense. Doesn’t measure up to the original in several critical areas. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some very disturbing content here, including graphic rape and torture. There is also plenty of nudity and sexuality and a surfeit of naughty words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The piercings that Rooney Mara sports as Lisabeth Salander are real; none of them are cosmetically or digitally enhanced. Mara got them for the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the empty vistas of Northern Sweden seem best on the big screen but it might not be a bad thing to see this at home in front of a roaring fire on a cold night.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Artist

Beginners


Beginners

Oh look..."The Sound of Music." Lovely, just lovely.

(2011) Drama (Focus) Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers, Melissa Tang, Amanda Payton, Luke Diliberto, Lou Taylor Pucci. Directed by Mike Mills

Relationships are more complicated than nuclear physics. There are no hard and fast rules that govern them and just when you think you have them figured out, the rules change. In love, as in life, we all muddle through as best we can and come to the realization that there are no experts – we are all, in reality, just beginners.

Oliver (McGregor) is very sad. It’s 2003 and his father Hal (Plummer) has passed away from cancer recently. Oliver’s relationship with dear old Dad is extremely complicated. Six months after his mom Georgia (Keller) died, Hal came out of the closet. It turns out that Hal had realized he was gay for the length of the marriage, more than 30 years.

As we flash back to young Oliver (Boos), we see with startling clarity that Georgia was in a marriage that was without passion, a lonely institution that left her sad and bitter, a non-conformist in all other respects but apparently unable to divorce her husband when she was clearly unhappy.

Oliver himself has been unable to commit to a relationship, ostensibly because he didn’t want to end up like his parents, lonely in their relationship. He meets Anna (Laurent), a French actress living in New York shooting a film in L.A. Like Oliver, she’s damaged goods but she might well be the love of his life.

As he tries to navigate his way through this relationship and find a way at last to commit rather than creating a reason not to, he flashes back to the last years of his father’s life, when he embraced the gay community – indeed, embraced life – and found happiness at long last with Andy (a nearly unrecognizable Visnjic). When his dad got ill and Oliver became his caretaker, the two men finally connected in ways they never had been able to when Oliver was growing up. His father had found joy late in life; would Oliver find it too, or would he turn it away as he always had?

Mills based much of this on his own experiences with his dad, reportedly. For that reason, the relationships ring true. They are very imperfect and fraught with land mines and machine gun nests. Nobody in this movie gets out unscathed, which is as it should be because that’s how life and relationships are.

Mills cast the movie brilliantly. McGregor is an immensely likable actor who here has to play an emotionally closed off man who desperately wants more than it looks like he’s going to get. He has a constantly befuddled expression on his face, with an occasional detour to sad. Oliver is never so alive as when he’s with Anna, and McGregor lights up around her as a man in love must do. He also gets the single most powerful moment in the film when one of his father’s friends gently wakes him to tell him his father is gone. The grief is so raw, so close to the surface that I wept, relating as a son who lost his father too young.

Plummer as that father has a touch of pixie in him, a kind of rakish twinkle in his eye that is immensely appealing. Hal discovers life and revels in everything about it. He awakens his son to ask him about a style of music he heard in a night club that he’s unfamiliar with. When his son tells him that it’s called House Music, Hal writes it down dutifully as an old man who can’t trust his memory would. Little touches like that make characters live and breathe.

Anna is lustrous and free-spirited and Laurent captures both the quirky qualities that make her endearing as well as the self-doubts and demons that make her fragile. It is a nuanced performance that those who remember her from Inglourious Basterds won’t be surprised by. Visnjic, once the hunk in “E.R.” is less brooding and hunky, but still crazy handsome as Andy, a man plagued with the suspicion that everyone hates him because he’s gay.

Some may shy away from the movie because of Hal’s sexuality; they do themselves a disservice. This is not a story about gay people; it’s a story about people. People who are imperfect, who make terrible choices and also wonderful choices – people who leave adorable Jack Russell terriers behind that communicate in subtitles. These are flawed people but flawed in the way real people are flawed. Now, I will grant you that at times I had problems figuring out the storyline because they aren’t all told sequentially which can make you scratch your head trying to figure out where you are in the scheme of things, movie-wise. Still, I found myself liking this movie and being deeply affected by it long after I left the theater. For someone who sees as many movies as I do, that’s a precious gift indeed.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic depiction of a man coming to terms not only with the loss of his father but with his own inadequacies. Great performances from McGregor, Laurent and Plummer.

REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed storytelling leaps back and forth from Dad’s story to young Oliver to modern Oliver.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of bad language and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Plummer and McGregor have both played Iago in separate stage productions of Othello.

HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate drama befitting an intimate setting.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: An Inconvenient Truth

New Releases for the Week of July 1, 2011


TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

(DreamWorks) Shia LaBeouf, Rose Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Ken Jeong, Patrick Dempsey, Leonard Nimoy, Alan Tudyk. Directed by Michael Bay

Transformers liaison and now college student Sam Witwicky discovers a terrifying secret, one involving the Space Race and how much the government really knows about the Transformers and the Decepticons. All this leads to a final invasion of Earth by the Decepticons, one which even the Transformers can’t save us from.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes, promos and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense prolonged sequences of sci-fi action, violence, mayhem and destruction, and for language, some sexuality and innuendo)

Beginners

(Focus) Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic. A young man who has never had much ability to commit to a relationship must cope with the grief of his father’s recent passing. When he meets a girl who might be the key to his future, he flashes back to the last months of his father’s life to find the means to connect with another in his own life.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Delhi Belly

(UTV) Imran Khan, Kunaal Roy Kapur, Vir Das, Shenaz Treasurywala. A trio of flatmates in New Delhi all have their problems, from overbearing bosses to fiancées who may or may not be the one they want. They all have one problem in common however; a crime lord who has put them on his hit list, and we’re not talking Casey Kasem here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Comedy

Rating: NR

Larry Crowne

(Universal) Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Bryan Cranston, Taraji P. Henson. Larry Crowne’s world has just come tumbling about his ears. Fired from his job at a big box retail outlet for not having a college education, he enrolls at a community college. Not only does he find his mind expanding, his life begins to expand as he comes out of his shell and falls for a beautiful teacher.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and some sexual content)

Monte Carlo

(20th Century Fox) Selena Gomez, Leighton Meester, Katie Cassidy, Andie McDowell. A case of mistaken identity lands three high school graduates the vacation of a lifetime. Of course, they’re not about to tell anyone they’re not who everyone thinks they are…which leads to some uncomfortable situations and, hopefully, hilarity. Although I wouldn’t expect too much.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Tween Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG (for brief mild language)