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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Savages


 

Savages

Blake Lively is jealous that Salma Hayek gets a meal and she gets a salad.

(2012) Drama (Universal) Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Emile Hirsch, Demian Bechir, Amber Dixon, Joel David Moore, Diego Catano, Shea Whigham, Joaquin Cosio, Antonio Jaramillo. Directed by Oliver Stone

 

When pushed to the wall, we all do what we have to in order to survive. We may be the most peaceable souls normally but that all changes in certain situations. Sometimes, we must become savages in order to make it through.

Chon (Kitsch) and Ben (Johnson) have a business together. Their business happens to be growing marijuana. Ben is a botanist and a businessman from Berkeley. He has managed to breed the most amazing weed on the planet and has put together a network of distributors that keeps costs down and quality high.

Chon is the big stick in the equation. Ben’s business model doesn’t call for violence often but when it’s needed Chon supplies it. He’s a vet fresh off of tour in Afghanistan who has a cynical outlook on life. He’s the yin to Ben’s yang….er, or vice versa.

What they have in common is O. Which stands for orgasm. Which stands for Ophelia (Lively). She is Ben’s girlfriend. She’s also Chon’s girlfriend. Sometimes all at the same time. She has orgasms. Ben has orgasms. Chon has wargasms. It all works out nicely for everyone. Life is kind of a stoner paradise from their beach house in the OC.

Then it becomes clear that the Baja cartels want to invade. Alex (Bechir), a slimy lawyer, puts what sounds like a reasonable proposition out to Chon and Ben. Chon is suspicious and Ben is more interested in getting out of the business entirely. However when they turn down the offer, Elena (Hayek), the head of the cartel, sics her vicious enforcer Lado (del Toro) on the boys. He discovers their weakness is O (not orgasms, Ophelia who provides them – she likes to be called O because she hates her name by the way) and kidnaps their weakness.

At first Chon and particularly Ben are so concerned with O’s safety that they’ll do literally anything to ensure it. But as they get their composure back it becomes clear that once the cartel gets what they want (their superb weed and their business model) all three of them will be disposed of so it’s all-out war – reluctantly on Ben’s side. And in any war, there are casualties.

Say what you want about Oliver Stone’s politics, his point of view, the man can direct – JFK is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s just that sometimes he has a habit of inserting himself into a movie – the good ol’ “Look Ma I’m Directing” syndrome, or LMIDS.

Much of the problem is in the narration. Blake Lively is a fine actress but there is just far too much narration and what that is generally is the filmmaker inserting themselves into the story. Trust the story to tell itself – and trust the actors to convey what’s in their heads. If you have to narrate every scene, you’re selling your story and your cast short.

And part of the problem is also in the story itself. The main characters are a little narcissistic, a bit naive, and they do a lot of drugs. I mean Ben, O and Chon smoke a lot of their own product. That may make it seem like they’re just kids in paradise but in reality they’re criminals, selling illegal narcotics. They do some pretty bad things along the way which might be part of Stone’s message, but I’ve never been a fan of 70s movies that require you to root for the bad guy who’s less bad.

And there are some pretty impressive performances here, particularly from del Toro who’s as magnificent a villain as we’ve seen since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men and Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. He delights in inflicting pain and torment but he’s all business as well. He’s as frightening an enforcer as you’re ever likely to meet. Not that you meet a lot of enforcers.

For all intents and purposes this is a kind of Jules et Jim for stoners but done as a crime drama with a side of brutality. Does that really sound like an interesting film to you? Maybe it is and I’m just missing it but quite frankly I never connected to the movie and I usually do with Stone’s works. I haven’t even mentioned the ending which is really jump-the-shark bad. It’s definitely a LMIDS move that adds an additional unnecessary fifteen minutes onto the film and for no other reason than for the filmmakers to pull a fast one on their audience.

I’m not one for recommending this but this is the kind of movie that probably should best be experienced while bombed out of your gourd. It will help with the somewhat unlikely plot and the somewhat unlikable characters. But mostly, it will help with the directorial parlor tricks that serve to take you out of the film and remind you that this is an Oliver Stone Production. We only need the opening credits to remind us of that; anything else is just an overactive ego.

REASONS TO GO: Del Toro may well be the best screen baddie in the business at the moment.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly narrated and too many cutesie directorial moves. Very difficult to get invested in the main characters. The ending is really godawful.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of drug use – and I mean a lot. If that kind of thing makes you uncomfortable, this isn’t the movie for you. There’s also a lot of violence, a bit of torture, plenty of sex, some gruesome images, nudity and pretty much constant cursing. This is what they call a “Hard R.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Uma Thurman was cast to play Ophelia’s mother but her part was cut from the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are fairly mixed, trending towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Traffic

HACIENDA LOVERS: Elena lives in two homes; one in Mexico and one in California – both are hacienda-style villas that are excellent examples of the form of architecture so prevalent in the American Southwest and Mexico.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Father of Invention