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: Moneyball (2011)

Director: Bennett Miller


Moneyball should be a cloying sappy mess. It’s based on a true story about an underdog baseball team who worked against an established system to make history. It’s a credit to all involved, then, that Moneyball is a riveting and intelligent drama, with professionalism etched all over it. Play ball!

The most unbelievable thing about so-called ‘unbelievable’ true stories is the sheer number of them that actually occur. The 20-game winning streak that the Oakland Athletics achieved in 2002 was unprecedented but it was grounded in the tangible reality of statistics. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the Athletics’ general manager, is determined to get a win after losing to the Yankees in the 2001 postseason. His determination is inflamed by the departure of three major players from the Athletics, and so he goes on a hunt to find replacements from other teams. He meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an advisor to the Cleveland Indians, and hires him as an assistant manager after Brand reveals his statistical theories. This sounds like a snore-fest, but screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian (together at last!) keep the facts straight and relevant. Beane adapts Brand’s advice; don’t buy players, buy wins! By putting the right players in the right places on the diamond, they can play to their strengths and start winning games. The team’s scouts believe the scheme to be madness, as does coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) when the first number of games are lost. With his career on the line, Beane does that underdog thing and sticks in his heels and sees the plan through, and victories start coming the Athletics’ way. There’s not a lot new in this against-the-odds tale, so the script and Capote director Bennett Miller emphasize the odds, and how the team do their best to work against them. As Beane tells his scouts, “we’re card counters at the casino”; with Brand’s plan, Beane regains his confidence both at work and in his personal life, as shown in his relationship with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey) and ex-wife (Robin Wright). The effectiveness of Brand’s plan culminates in a string of victories, which sees the Athletics aiming for a record. The plucky underdogs are transformed, as always, from scrappy to happy.

It’s strange to think of Brad Pitt as an underdog, but his Beane is neither too cocky nor over-morose, making for a likeable everyman working a dream job. Hill does well in a dramatic role, though Brand (a composite of a number of real assistants Beane had) often feels just like the tool by which Beane gets to where he needs to go. It might deceive itself otherwise, but Moneyball is an underdog story; it just happens to be a very smart one, with confident direction and witty, insightful writing. Think of it as Bull Durham With A College Degree. It’s not quite a home run, but even the most baseball-averse should be won over by Moneyball.

Review: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Director: Terry Gilliam


Some films pay homage, some films get remade and some are like Twelve Monkeys. Chris Marker’s little masterpiece La Jetée gets an expectedly downbeat redux in Terry Gilliam’s film, and proves a good template for remakes/adaptations by being incredibly faithful to the source material. Add in Bruce Willis, and you’re on to a winner.

La Jetée itself is probably one of the biggest proponents of that great cinematic device, the dystopian future. As in Marker’s short, most of mankind has been wiped out by a virus and the survivors that remain have been forced underground to survive. As seen in Brazil, Gilliam is a dab hand at blending the futuristic, the dystopian and the chaotic and, much like that film, the future of Twelve Monkeys is well realized though aesthetically grim. Amongst the futuristic refugees is James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner who can reduce his sentence by signing up for a time travel experiment and bringing back a sample of the virus to synthesize a cure. When the plan goes awry and Cole ends up in 1990, he is certified as insane when he tries to explain himself. Cole ends up in a mental institution under the watch of Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe), and where he befriends fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Pitt excels in a barrage of paranoid ramblings and nervous ticks, while Stowe’s initial cynicism melting into care for Cole makes her lack of a consistent career since all the more strange. Meanwhile, Willis turns in one of his best performances as the wronged and battered protagonist. After a few more failed attempts, Cole eventually ends up in 1996 and, with Railly’s help, discovers the truth about the virus and the group who released it, known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, now led by Goines and bent on destruction.

La Jetée was a downbeat film, but it overcame it with beautifully simple filmmaking technique and a runtime short enough to prevent the audience getting too down. Twelve Monkeys does get a little maudlin, but the movies have been telling us for years that the future is done for, so why worry? The future is grim, but Gilliam cleverly doesn’t make the present look much better. The virus was stolen from the laboratory owned by Goines’ father (Christopher Plummer), and once again our present selves become the architects of our future destruction. It’s not terribly optimistic, and key plot turns sometimes hinge on coincidence or happenstance, but Twelve Monkeys is brilliantly brash and bizarre, honouring Marker’s mini-opus whilst making a mark all of its own. Monkey see, monkey do, do see Monkeys.

Review: The Tree Of Life (2011)

Director: Terrence Malick


The Tree Of Life has been released in the same summer as Transformers: Dark Of The Moon and Green Lantern. To say these two blockbusters are diametrically opposed to The Tree Of Life does not go far enough. They are not in the same league; they are barely on the same planet. The Tree Of Life is what the doctor ordered for anyone suffering from blockbuster overload. Be warned, though; the dosage is strong and may cause relapse if you’re not prepared. Yeah, it’s deep.

Anyone who saw The Fountain might think Terrence Malick’s latest might be ripping off Darren Aronofsky’s flawed but fascinating mini-epic. Both films are concerned with the transcendence of time and man’s place in the world, and The Fountain centres on a quest for the elusive Tree of Life, as described in Genesis. Aronofsky ultimately found himself constrained by budgets and doubts, but The Tree Of Life feels unrestrained, unburdened by a need to pander to the masses. It features Brad Pitt and dinosaurs, but that’s as close to mainstream as The Tree Of Life gets. Starting from the origins of Earth, Malick travels through the primordial goop (that’s where the dinosaurs come in), eventually arriving at present day, where Jack (Sean Penn) is reflecting on his childhood in 1960s America, in particular his relationship with his parents (great performances by Pitt and Jessica Chastain). This story is the main concern of The Tree Of Life, as young Jack (brilliantly played by newcomer Hunter McCracken) deals not only with the trials of the pre-teen years, but also with the contradictions of an aggressive father and pacifist mother. An opening voiceover by Chastain maintains that a person can live life in one of two ways, “the way of nature and the way of grace”. The Tree Of Life is an argument for a balance between the two; nature can be cruel, but there is a gracious beauty to it that simply cannot be ignored. Is nature representative of God? Or of us? Or something else entirely? The tracing of the birth of the planet to today is not just to show off some (admittedly outstanding) special effects, but to provoke questions, some of which can only be answered in a relative way. The Tree Of Life is a film that will divide audiences, as it demands attention and patience. Despite this glowing review, if you can’t commit some brain matter to this one, just don’t bother.

Due in no small part to Emmanuel Lubezki’s achingly gorgeous cinematography, the film feels less like an entertainment and more like a work of art. CGI effects combine with smooth handheld camerawork to create a sumptuous visual feast; 6.5 billion years of history in the blink of an eye. Malick brings both his visual artistry and gift for character to his script, as one man’s life is meshed into the fabric of our world. Some will say it’s slow, self-indulgent, and straining too hard for meaning that may not be there. Others (this critic included) will recognise it as ambitious, daring and beautiful, to be filed next to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The only way to know which camp you fall into is to see The Tree Of Life for yourself…