Review: The Counsellor

Director: Ridley Scott

*

At the risk of attracting accusations of schadenfreude, The Counsellor is the kind of film critics love, too big to fail and yet it falls flat on its polished, botoxed face. It comes weighed down with promise. It’s directed by Sir Ridley of house Scott, always a draw despite aiming below his paygrade in recent years. It has five talented and immensely attractive leads, boasting more award nominations, chiselled features and curves than any one film really needs. Most intriguing of all, it’s based on the first screenplay by Pulitzer-Prize winner Cormac McCarthy, whose prose once made Javier Bardem seem scary despite a haircut by Lego. In The Counsellor, along with his fellow cast members, all Bardem can do is work against the very idiocy they’re forced to spew forth and serve as dialogue.

Be under no illusion: The Counsellor is bad. Not underwhelming. Not disappointing. B. A. D. It has too many well-mounted elements to be the worst film of the year (DP Dariusz Wolski might be the only person to come out of The Counsellor with dignity intact), but watching so many potentially-positive components of the film turn on the finished product is akin to witnessing a car crash in slow motion. Take the opening scene, in which the titular Counsellor (Michael Fassbender) and his girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz) roll under their bedsheets and utter inanities like “Tell me what you want to do to me.” “Lift up my dress.” “You’re not wearing a dress” and so forth. Had he put this opening in his next novel, McCarthy would be up for next year’s Literary Times Bad Sex Award.

From there, we jump to Amsterdam, where the Counsellor is buying a large diamond for an engagement ring. He buys the rock from a diamond trader played by Bruno Ganz, in the first of a series of odd cameos that only add to the total talent being wasted here. Without warning or provocation he delivers a very McCarthy-esque monologue on the diaristic natures of stone and the edifying nature of the Jews upon modern nations. The importance of setting up the counsellor and Laura’s relationship via the upcoming engagement is debatable, but any plot turn is really an excuse for McCarthy to crank up the McCarthy-isms. We get plenty of male regret and angst, scenes of bloody violence and hunks of dialogue that cannot be swallowed easily. The erudition on display amongst this crowd of dope-runners and thieves is too grandiose for a big screen crime thriller. That said, McCarthy can write this shit, but that doesn’t mean the assembled cast can say it. Well, they can, but they shouldn’t.

Another early scene sees drug lord Reiner (Javier Bardem, swapping Silva’s mink rug for a petrified hedgehog atop his bonce) and his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz, with hints of the Bahaman accent she was forced to overdub in post-production) taking their pet cheetahs (They’re rich from drugs, see?) to chase rabbits. Whilst he pours her a cocktail from the bar in his car boot, she reveals a cynical worldview via another long speech. When Reiner accuses her of being cold, she looks at him with a slight sneer and declares,

“The truth has no temperature.

Run that one over in your mind. Swirl it about like a overly-sweet Merlot at a tasting. Spit it out and dwell on it. WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?! In theatres, this will get more than a few titters, without question. What does it mean? Is Malkina just saying it for shits and giggles? Or does it have another meaning that only McCarthy’s gilded mind can comprehend? The amused confusion is confounded by the fact that Diaz and Bardem play this dialogue completely straight, as does every other cast member in every other scene. One can’t escape the feeling that even a scraping of irony could have made this film tolerable. The audience is laughing at The Counsellor, but The Counsellor is incapable of laughing at itself.

The film is top heavy with portent and speechifying, and it’s also got quite a lot of plot, but the film seems a lot less interested in what exactly is going on. It boils down to Reiner and the Counsellor making a deal through a business associate, Westray (Brad Pitt), for a massive shipment of cocaine. As is the way of these things, events take a turn for the worst, with bloodshed and loss of innocence by way of more pseudo-philosophical utterances. The drugs are in a sewage tanker travelling from Mexico to Chicago, via a motorbike accident had by a young drug dealer and a shootout that sends the drugs into other hands. The plot is lost in amongst the garbled meetings between the Counsellor, Westray, Reiner, Malkina and all the stories they tell. These lessons serve little purpose beyond McCarthy ego-stroking and audience befuddlement. How else can anyone explain the existence of a scene in which Malkina has sex with a Ferrari?

In an already infamous scene Reiner recalls to the Counsellor an incident in which Malkina teased him in a moment of sprained eroticism that strains what little credibility the film has by this point. Cameron Diaz, spread-eagled on the windshield of a mustard yellow Ferrari, gyrates back and forth while front-seat passenger Javier Bardem stares agog at a sight he goes on to compare to a bottom-feeding catfish. Unless McCarthy was momentarily possessed by the spirit of JG Ballard, this scene is indefensible. It fails to be sexy, serious or relevant, as does the whole film. After all, how can anyone take a film seriously when the lead character, who is in about 95% of the film, is never given a proper name? He’s not mysterious or cool enough to drift by on a pseudonym, and when the likes of Reiner and Westray address him as ‘Counsellor’ repeatedly, the shoddiness of the characters begins to show. Of the leading quintet, Fassbender comes across best, bringing out some much needed emotion as the film drags on. A phone call between our conflicted Counsellor and cartel member Jefe (Rubén Blades) is the closest we get to any emotional connection to any character, as he weeps for all the evil he has brought upon himself. Pitt and Bardem have some hammy fun with their roles, ultimately opting to let their hairstyles and costumes overwhelm them. Cruz is given nothing to do and Diaz is dreadful as the the ice-cold vixen Malkina. Ice-cold is right; no warmth, depth or charm whatsoever, save for a few moments of autophilia.

The Counsellor is terrible, yet it’s not entertaining enough to be so-bad-its-good. It has no interest in its plot or in its shitty characters, save as vessels for McCarthy’s nigh-untouchable prose. The characters are never lost for words; they are lost in words, drowning in dull excess verbiage. No-one talks like this, except in a Cormac McCarthy novel. The only problem is he hasn’t adapted for the leap from book to screen, and Scott and his crew can only look on agog in an effort to understand what they have signed on for. To say The Counsellor needs a counsellor would be too easy. Considering how soulless and morbid the whole thing is, an exorcist might be more like it.

Review: 12 Years A Slave (2013)

Director: Steve McQueen

*****

12 Years A Slave opens with the dreaded words ‘based on a true story’. This critic has lamented the tidal wave of biopics that has swamped the cineplexes this year, but this is something altogether more urgent, more draining, more worthy of the ‘for your consideration’ notices for which these films seem perfectly calibrated. Whip crack; let’s get to it.

Hunger and Shame provided Steve McQueen with a fine calling card for an all-but-inevitable move to filmmaking Stateside, but on paper 12 Years A Slave would appear to be a departure for this enviably talented filmmaker. From hunger strikers and sex addicts to an epic prestige picture about slavery? True, but all provide harsh depictions of abuses afflicted on the body, and the cruelties of which we are truly capable. Backs are lashed and bodies are hung as submission is wrung from souls that, if not already broken, are on the cusp of breaking. Be assured; McQueen knows what he’s getting into.

Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) lived a free and relatively well-to-do life in Saratoga, New York, making a living as a talented fiddler, amongst other roles. Our story begins one fateful day in 1841, when Northup met some travelling performers who duped him with a promise of a job and a payday. He falls asleep drunk and awakens in shackles. It all happens at a pace Northup and we the audience can scarcely comprehend. He was born a freeman, and that freedom has been taken away from him in the blink of an eye. As a slave trader brutally brings several welts of a thick board across Solomon’s back, Ejiofor’s eyes are wide open in fear and confusion.

12 Years A Slave sidesteps any biopic pigeonholes by simple virtue of the fact that Northup’s journey into slavery and his years therein offer little respite. There are no ups and downs to break an overbearing mood or to offer respite to an attention-deficient audience. Northup is transported south, and injustices are heaped upon him and his cohorts with no hesitation or compunction. In adapting Northup’s book, screenwriter John Ripley captures the perverted mindset of the slave-trading South. They are viewed as property, and little more, a belief justified by a manipulated Christian doctrine. At one point, slaveowner Epps (Michael Fassbender) dictates his rules to his slaves and holding a Bible aloft. He quotes the Old Testament and states “That’s scripture.” If one man should stray from the path, he dies.

Initially sold by Paul Giamatti’s slave-trader, Northup arrives at the plantation belonging to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Here, whatever pride and indignant queries Northup still has are beaten out by enforcers Chapin (J.D. Evermore) and Tibeats (Paul Dano). Eventually, Northup’s clear talents and rebellious spirit force Ford to sell him on to Epps, a cruel taskmaster. Few white people in this film are portrayed sympathetically, but there was no sympathy for these slaves in the South. Emancipation was two decades away and cotton needed picking. The cruel truth always wins out and McQueen never shies away from that reality. In that sense, 12 Years A Slave shares its overawing atmos of despair with the similarly-themed Mississippi Burning, as well as the broken passivity of the downtrodden African-Americans. DP Sean Bobbitt ensures the cruelty basks in clammy Louisiana sunshine, whilst sound design makes every whip crack sting and every blow land with a sickening thud.

The faces of the slaves convey so much. Ejiofor’s initial shock masterfully hardens to a passivity hiding a plan for survival. A game of bingo could be played with all the fine character actors filling in the world around Ejiofor. Fassbender proves a cruel standout, and Lupita Nyong’o shines as Patsy, Northup’s energetic fellow slave and centre of one of the film’s vital scenes, in which a perceived wrongdoing receives a disproportionate punishment. The arrival of Brad Pitt late in proceedings could distract from Northup’s plight, but this story is greater than anyone making this film The weight of history is a heavy burden, but McQueen bears it with dignity and a necessary does of brutality. Forgetting the mistakes of the past is not an option; 12 Years A Slave, without preaching or placating, won’t allow itself to be forgotten.

Review: Prisoners (2013)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

**

Unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, you can’t make B-movies and expect to be taken seriously. You can’t just take a potentially-troubling set up and then throw in ridiculous twists and hammy acting. That’d just be silly. It’d be even sillier still to play it all straight, whilst masquerading as a morality tale about the nature of guilt and the limits of vigilantism. Surely any sensible screenwriter would see that this setup would be crippled by its own jarring tonal shifts and suffocating twists. Despite all this, Prisoners exists.

Prisoners is unquestionably silly but, with an acclaimed director and decent cast in tow, it appears deaf to any criticisms that may come its way. That false confidence wouldn’t be entirely misplaced, as Prisoners starts off promisingly. Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) are abducted whilst their parents and older siblings celebrate Thanksgiving. The continuous shots of grey skies threatening rain and snow are an unsubtle metaphor for events to come (even if they are courtesy of cinematographic deity Roger Deakins). English scholars call this device ‘pathetic fallacy’. Keep those words in mind should you deign to watch Prisoners; you may find yourself grasping for such synonyms later.

The hunt begins with the girls’ fathers, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) searching around their neighbourhood. The police arrives in the form of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and tension builds nicely. However, Anna’s brother (Dylan) notes a decrepit RV travelling around the local streets, and this is the point at which Prisoners starts to lose its way. The driver of the RV is Alex (Paul Dano), who has greasy hair, paedo standard issue big-eye glasses and the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. His mental afflictions rule him out as a suspect, but Keller is sure this is the man who took the girls. In the opening scenes, it was established that Keller is a survivalist (He keeps his cellar full of food, bottled water and guns for a very rainy day), but that’s no excuse for the severe lapse in sense and logic he’s about to undergo.

Director Denis Villeneuve brings a certain non-Hollywood gravitas with him in coming to this project; his previous film, the Oscar-nominated Incendies, established him as a director with a flair for both visuals and character. Try as he might, there is no escaping the feeling that he and this material are mismatched. One can imagine Villeneuve reading the first 30-odd pages of the script, signing on the dotted line to direct, and then returning to read the rest of the screenplay and potentially regretting his decision. If that’s the case, he probably stopped reading when Alex is released to his aunt (Melissa Leo),  at which point Keller takes the law into his own hands.

Keller kidnaps Alex, and holds him hostage in an abandoned property he owns, hoping to beat/intimidate a confession out of Alex. This could be a shocking conceit if only there was much, if any, indication Keller was conflicted about doing so. There are genuinely tense moments, but these serve to wash away any possibility of moral upset. Keller’s actions transcend common sense. The conceit of abducting the (possible) abductor is interesting, but the violence involved reduces it to another B-movie trope shooting above its pay grade. The explanation for Franklin’s or his wife Nancy’s (Viola Davis) decision to overlook Keller’s actions is either parental grief (natch) or a lack of characterisation (just as likely). Maria Bello gets a worse deal from the script as Keller’s wife Grace, who spends most of her screentime bedridden and crying.

Prisoners certainly isn’t without merit, but any serious intentions are swamped by an unnecessary violent streak, performances that reek of ham and cheese (Memo to Gyllenhaal: Stop. Bloody. Blinking!) and plot developments dafter than any brush (We haven’t even mentioned the priest, the guy with the mazes or the disappointing final reveal). It’s testament to Villeneuve that Prisoners does holding audience attention by keeping us guessing. It just can’t make up for the silly routes the story is all too happy to go down. Prisoners is so convinced of its own brilliance that it can’t recognize it’s A-grade hokum.