Month: October 2013

Film Review- ‘The Counselor’ (***)

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"Let's give cheers to all of the terrible decisions we've just made"
“Let’s give cheers to all of the terrible decisions we’ve just made”

“The Counselor”  *** (out of 5)

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt

Written by: Cormac McCarthy

Directed by: Ridley Scott

**SPOILER ALERT (some spoilers may be in the review)**

From time to time, it’s a treat to skip the pageantry of blockbuster films, kid-fare, and 3D gimmickry to see an ‘adult’ movie.  I’m not referring to a skin flick at all, but rather the type of film that requires mature sensibilities and the use of my critical thinking skills.  With Cormac McCarthy scripting, and Ridley Scott directing, it was a virtual certainty that “The Counselor” would fit that profile and sate my desires.  Make no mistake, this is an adult film, and one of the more serious, unforgiving films you’ll ever see.  Occasionally it brings the film down- just not all the way.

The strengths of the film are in the performances.  ‘The Counselor’ himself (we never hear his name) is played with a slight touch of naiveté by Michael Fassbender, in a performance that shows me again that there is no role he cannot inhabit with ease.  Penelope Cruz is not on-screen a great deal, but she’s so likable in her limited scenes it’s hard not to be invested in what comes of her character.  Her real-life husband Javier Bardem is typically chameleonic in his turn as a drug dealer/night club owner, channeling Vincent Vega and apparently Guy Fieri.  Perhaps the biggest surprise for me is the quality of Cameron Diaz’s performance.  I’m always hesitant when I see her name in the credits, for she’s stuck with a voice that always has a tint of non-chalant sorority girl in it.  This time around, she inhabits a character that’s so ‘dirty’ (gold tooth-dirty) and seemingly trampy that her character’s real ties and abilities are well-hidden.  She’s well cast in that way- the woman who could just be the ‘bimbo’, but in actuality is a well-honed predator who’s simply sharpening her claws with every scene.

Writer Cormac McCarthy, the author responsible for stories like “No Country For Old Men” and “The Road”, is a master at taking simple situations or simple characters and making them complicated.  With his first orignal screenplay, he stays true to form.  It’s interesting to note that in all three films mentioned here, he writes characters that have clear choices in front of them, but they make the wrong one, and spend the rest of the film trying to alter the inevitable, terrible fate that awaits them.  “The Road” offered a hopeful ending, as unfortunate as it was, and “No Country’ at least offered the audience the grim satisfaction of maiming the ‘bad guy’ and throwing off his path of destruction.

“The Counselor” does not have any interest in such nuance.  Characters make poor decisions, and face grim consequences.  I certainly appreciate that McCarthy doesn’t allow our characters to make these decisions without consequences, but it sure does make for a depressing expose on film.  I liked the counselor and his girl (Cruz) and Reiner (Bardem), but as Yoda once said, “If once you start on the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny”, and it’s appropriate that our favorites suffer as a result of that.  The movie goes to great lengths to remind us of this- in fact, towards the end of the film, there is a character whose sole purpose is to spell it out for our main character.  Again, it makes sense and is plenty satisfying, but at the same time brings with it an emptiness that only a depressing narrative can do.

I’ve never seen any of the ‘Final Destination’ films, but what I gathered from watching trailers was that there was no escape from the character’s fates.  We all know they’re going to perish, for no one can escape death.  “The Counselor” has the same idea, albeit with a far better cast and the slickest of ‘sheens’ you can imagine, courtesy of Ridley Scott (no one working today makes a better ‘looking’ film).  Brad Pitt’s ‘broker’ character tries so hard to escape the inevitable that the movie comes dangerously close to beating us over the head with its’ morality.  This not a bad film by any means, but it’s also not a great film; it’s simply well-made and efficiently written, and tells us all not to do stupid things, or at least to not be shocked when bad things happen after making stupid decisions.  There’s a better film here within the current framework that isn’t quite so bleak, that feeds more off the energy of Cameron Diaz’s character, and perhaps doesn’t limit itself to a simple, albeit effective morality play.


Weekly Trailer Reviews 10/21-10/27 (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, etc)

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier–  Marvel’s second solo film with the first avenger forgoes the pageantry of wartime America and jumps right into ’70s-style political intrigue.  Robert Redford??  What is this, “All the President’s Men”?  “Marathon Man”?  No red, white, and blue suit?  In all seriousness though, this is a heck of a trailer.  For all the travails of the other avengers, Cap (Chris Evans) might just have the toughest task- being a leader…of super humans in a period of time where he isn’t close to anyone, and doesn’t have family. It’s an honorable thing to help defend what isn’t most precious to you, but perhaps Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) will become more than a ‘teammate’ to him, and offer a deeper meaning to his life. 

Also- the ‘Winter Soldier’ (Sebastian Stan) is known to some, but not all.  Let’s hope the purposeful shading of his character in the trailer is a prelude to a fantastic battle of wits and powers between hero and villain.  If there is any downside to the excitement I have for this film, it’s that the directing brothers Russo haven’t done anything on film to inspire me; however, neither has “Thor: The Dark World”‘s Alan Taylor, and I trust him.

Emily Van Camp, Frank Grillo, Hayley Atwell (Agent Peggy Carter returns!), Toby Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cobie Smulders co-star, and it arrives in theaters April 4, 2014.  (Unless I’m missing something, the poster is misleading)

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues– The first full-length trailer for the most anticipated comedy in the last decade arrived this past week.  It did not smell of rich mahogany, but perhaps a solid pine.  The solid opening scene of the trailer is the best part; however, I’ll reserve judgment and assume that this is a case of leaving the best parts for the actual film.  Most comedies give away the comedic moments during the trailer, leaving little else to the imagination (see: Adam Sandler movies), but I’ll give director Adam McKay and crew the benefit of the doubt, considering how incredibly funny the original film is.  This opens December 20th, 2013, and I’ll be there opening night if I can; just imagining the litany of guest stars alongside the Channel 4 newsteam is enough to make you laugh:  Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen, Kristen Wiig, Nicole Kidman, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, oh my!

That Awkward Moment–  I’ve seen two red band trailers in the last two months, and strangely enough, they’ve both been for movies starring Zac Efron.  In this comedy, he shares the screen with Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station”) as pals who vow to stay away from the ladies, since you know, girls suck or whatever.  Of course, it’s hard to do when you’re young, male, and apparently have uncontrollable urges.  This seems like it will land one step above “Sex Drive”, and fall one large step below “High Fidelity” in terms quality for the genre of guy-driven comedies about understanding the nature of sex and relationships.  This trailer will probably be more well-known for a scene involving Mr. Efron naked and planking a toilet than anything else; it’s possible that’s all the film will be known for, but I’ll put my trust in Michael B. Jordan to elevate the source material, at least when he’s on-screen.  If nothing else, young, notorious heart-throbs will be shirtless at times, so I’m sure it’ll make money.  This opens January 31, 2014. 

Hercules: The Legend Begins– Boy, it’s a great thing we were all yearning for competing ‘Hercules’ movies, because we’ve got ’em! There’s Dwayne Johnson’s “Hercules: The Thracian Wars”, and this film, starring everyone’s favorite hulking man-god….Kellan Lutz.  (sigh)  I’ve said before that it’s unfair to compare every sword & sandal epic these days to “300”, since that itself borrowed from the genre, but it’s fair to say after watching this trailer that this ‘Hercules’ interpretation is clearly made in the mode of “300”.  Unfortunately for this film, the “300” sequel opens the same month, and the more recognizable Dwayne Johnson occupies the same role later in the year.  If you’re interested, this opens in March of 2014.

Endless Love– This is 50% of a very solid trailer, and 50% of every ‘Romeo & Juliet’ ripoff’s trailer.  Alex Pettyfer shows up with long locks and tries to seduce a very innocent, wealthy young girl (Emma Rigby).  I honestly could not tell if his intentions were purely deviant, or if he truly cared for the girl based on the trailer.  What I am sure of is that Florence & the Machine’s rendition of “Addicted to Love” playing over the first half was an excellent addition.  Bruce Greenwood also shows up as the girl’s father, who, surprisingly, doesn’t want the boy in her life, and Robert Patrick appears perfectly rugged as the boy’s father, who naturally needs to defend his son.  I can’t imagine anything new or revelatory coming from this film, but I suppose if you’re a fan of “Dirty Dancing”, this one’s right up your alley.  Pettyfer is even shown emerging from under a vehicle he’s been working on to complete the hunk profile.  I’m not sure I buy him as a mechanic, or anything for that matter, but at some point people didn’t believe in Patrick Swayze, either.  This opens on Valentine’s Day, competing with the film I’ll actually see that day, “About Last Night”.

Mini Film Review- “Europa Report” (**)

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europa report

‘Europa Report’ (**)

Starring:  Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Embeth Davidtz, Daniel Wu, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra

Written by: Phillip Gelat

Directed by: Sebastian Cordero

For those that aren’t aware, Europa is a moon of Jupiter.  It’s more well-known than other terrestrial objects due to the proliferation of ice on its’ surface, combined with the possibility that life may have a way to exist underneath.  This movie explores, poorly, a scenario in which humans actually travel to this moon in hopes of discovering something significant.  This journey takes nearly two years to complete, and the toll it takes on the crew is investigated.  The film is shot in the popular ‘found footage’ style- I imagine the reason why is due to the lack of a sizeable production budget, thus the need to alter the script.  It’s possible that this is a better movie if the plot played out in a traditional sense, and not through a recording. 

Aside from the silly story device, there are other problems.  Somehow, even with a topic this fascinating and significant, this film cannot get past using worn sci-fi clichés to advance the plot and tie loose ends.  For the first time (that I’m aware of), we have a film that takes place on a MOON OF JUPITER, with the gas giant looming in the background, yet we only get to experience a slice of Europa on film.  Can you imagine the amazing vista the alien world of Europa would be?  The vast plains and valleys of ice?  I have imagined it many times over, but alas, this film either isn’t interested, or doesn’t have the capacity to mine the depths of wonder that Europa could offer.  Instead we have a few moments of real danger involving radiation and what amounts to a super-powered heat lamp disguising itself as a creature from “The Abyss”. 

I looked forward to seeing this, hoping that if nothing else, it would be polished enough to pass for something exciting and deep, like “Moon”, or a film that encapsulated the mystery of Jupiter like “2010: The Year We Make Contact” did. The original trailer, released earlier this year, was promising, and showcased Sharlto Copley (“District 9”) and Michael Nyqvist (the Swedish-language ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ movies), even though they’re in more of a supporting role here. However, a polished turd is still a turd.  We’re not talking about ‘SyFy’ bad, but this film is still completely underwhelming.  It doesn’t mean anything when it should mean something.

*note- The “found footage” style of movie needs to take a real long break from appearing, if ever again.  The story device was interesting the first few times, but it just keeps happening.  Anymore, it’s become an excuse to proliferate an idea as opposed to being the idea itself.  No more “Paranormal Activity” movies (too late), or “Cloverfield” spin-offs.  Please.

Weekly Trailer Reviews (10/7/13-10/13/13)

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snowpiercer  BLUE mr nobody  LAST DAYS ON MARS


“Blue Is The Warmest Color”– For a film that won the coveted Palme d’Or (Best Film) at the Cannes Film Festival this year, you’d think the people involved would be a lot happier with the outcome of their 179 minute, NC-17 film.  As it is, director Abdellatif Kechiche is upset with his lead actress, Lea Seydoux, and has taken to trashing her in the press.  Maybe that kind of press does wonders for the box office in France.  The trailer itself is very well done, showing us glimpses of the two main characters and how they end up together.  My hope for this film (based on a comic/graphic novel) is that it succeeds as a deeply emotional love story, and doesn’t gain a following simply for the well publicized, 12 minute lesbian sex scene.  This has an October 17th, 2013 release date in France, but as for North America’s ability to see the film?  I don’t see anything listed, but checking on iFC is probably a good idea. 

“Dom Hemingway”–  From the producers of “Sexy Beast” and “44-Inch Chest”, and the director of “The Matador” comes another “guys who are egregiously cockney, exceedingly arrogant, and do terrible things to people” movie, this time starring Jude Law with ugly teeth and a guy who could pass for Hugh Grant’s brother.  Law stars as the titular character, a former (current?) thief who has been locked up for 12 years, and upon his release he has to ‘readjust’ while attempting to reclaim what he feels is owed to him for not snitching on his peers.  The most interesting aspect of this trailer was Jude Law transformation into a vulgar, unlikable character that we’re not used to seeing him do, going back 11 years to his role in “Road To Perdition”.  I’m not sure what we’ll get out of this film; it may capture the energy of similarly themed films like “Sexy Beast” or “Layer Cake”, or it could be as jumbled and unfocused as a Guy Ritchie film.  Either way, I’m interested, because Brits are just more interesting to watch.  The U.S. release date for this is April 4, 2014. 

“Mr. Nobody”–  You may be asking yourself why I would review a trailer for a 4-year-old film starring Jared Leto that I or you have never heard of.  The simple answer is that the trailer is really quite striking, and apparently the distributor found it necessary to re-enter this film back into the current film bloodstream.  Jared Leto plays Nemo, a 118-year-old man who is the last ‘mortal’.  You see, apparently in the future, they’ve ‘cured’ mortality, but Nemo is the last living mortal who can’t be cured.  As he is something of a novelty, he is interviewed by a reporter, and decides to retell his life story as it was and how it could’ve been. 

There’s a gut-wrenching scene in this trailer where younger Nemo has the impossible dilemma of getting on a train with his mother, or staying behind with his father (Rhys Ifans) after they split, and clearly that moment (I’m not sure which version actually took place) defined him.  This movie seems to be a hybrid of “The Fountain” (which I hated), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (which was rather lame despite the acclaim), and “Sliding Doors” (an excellent and underrated Gwyneth Paltrow film).  My hope is that the reason this is seeing new life is because they didn’t have a market for it, and now they do.  You can currently purchase this via Amazon @ $19.99, or rent it for $9.99.  In other words, after four years, they still can’t figure out how to distribute this film.  This is another one to periodically check iFC listings for.

“The Last Days On Mars”– Starring Liev Schreiber, we have another film about unknown nasty things on Mars.  None of the people in this trailer have seen “Red Planet”, “Mission to Mars”, “Species II”, or any other piece of junk film designated to scare us about our little brother planet.  I have no indication after watching this trailer that this is any different in scope or quality than the previously mentioned films, which does not bode well for it.  There is so much undeveloped material when it comes to science fiction and space, so why does Hollywood continue to make every extraterrestrial film something about a menacing ‘specimen’?  I think it’s high time they mine the rich literary fields of Arthur C. Clarke for more material.  This sees a limited US release on December 6th, 2013, and if I have my way, it will fade into oblivion shortly after that.

“Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D”–  For whatever reason, I still hold out hopes for a powerful, horrific story involving the original vampire, as even Coppola’s 1992 entry didn’t cut it for me.  For whatever reason, Dario Argento is considered a horror savant, as I haven’t enjoyed what I’ve seen of his.  For whatever reason, this cheap-looking film is in 3D.  There is no reason to see yet another take on Dracula, especially when 3D is being used in such a kitsch-y fashion.  If, for some reason you need to see this, maybe out of pity for Rutger Hauer, good luck finding a theater in the US to see it at.  It was released 10/4/13, but only pulled in a little over $3000 at the box office, so expect this on video quickly if you’re interested.  I’m not.   

“Snowpiercer”–  Based on the trailer I saw for this, it could just as easily be called “The Hunger Games On A Train”.  However, this is the first English-language film from Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (of the very good “The Host”), and Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, and Alison Pill are in it, which means I’m going to allow my jaded eye to see a bit more before I ignore this.  It’s interesting to note that the plot revolves around a train that has to keep going, and ‘piercing’ through the snow, because of a failed global warming experiment.  I’m interested in seeing if there are any political or scientific angles on this story.  This has been released in South Korea, but a North American release date has not been set.  When that date is set, have caution- apparently the Weinstein Company has edited the film going forward for English-speaking countries, down 20 minutes from before, which has upset the director.  In the end, it may not make a difference, but it’s unfortunate that once again the Weinsteins giveth, and taketh, away. 

“After Tiller”–  I won’t offer any opinions on the topic of this documentary, which just happens to be abortion.  I can only comment on the effectiveness or lack thereof as it relates to the trailer, and in that respect, it is quite effective.  Sometimes there are two sides to a story, and whether you like it or not, there are people who work for a living, and sometimes that work happens to be for doctors who perform late-term abortions.  These people have families and children as well, but to a segment of the pro-life movement, their deaths are justified.  I could go on, but I won’t, and I’ll rely on this documentary about the aftermath of Dr. George Tiller’s murder to inform me.  This doc was originally released in January of 2013, and is now traveling the film festival circuit.  The only way to see it will eventually be on video, or at one of these festivals, as I doubt this will gain enough traction to reach a broader audience.

“About Last Night”– Starring Kevin Hart and Michael Ealy, this well-done and funny trailer showed me the possibility of another grown up “dating nowadays” movie was coming our way.  Directed by Steve Pink (“Hot Tub Time Machine”), this remake of the 1986 Rob Lowe/Demi Moore headliner comes out on Valentine’s Day 2014.  This might actually be the rare holiday-set film that wants to say something about relationships, as the director has done some solid work in the past, including the screen adaptation of a favorite film of mine, “High Fidelity”.  I’m expecting a rated R film here, so we shouldn’t have to worry about dumbed-down dialogue or an overindulgence in cliche.  Plus, Kevin Hart is a seriously funny guy. 

“Open Windows”–  My last trailer review included thoughts about “Grand Piano”, which stars Elijah Wood as a creepy guy piano genius.  In this one, he’s a star-struck creepy guy who has won a contest to have dinner with the next “Big Thing” actress, played by former porn star Sasha Grey (who actually did wonderful work with Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience”).  The twist is that the actress refuses to have the dinner with him, and someone has set both of them up for something dangerous.  I’m intrigued at the thought of placing a fictionally famous character in harm’s way, and throwing in ‘fan’ who’s motivations are purely based in sexual fantasy into the equation.  Interestingly, there is no U.S. release date set for this film, but it has seen the light of day in Spain and France.

Film Review- ‘Gravity’ (*****)

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If you're ever stranded with someone in space, it would help if the other person was Sandra Bullock.
If you’re ever stranded with someone in space, it would help if the other person was Sandra Bullock.

“Gravity” ***** (out of 5)

Starring: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

Written by: Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron

Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron


In the process of formulating this review, I’ve struggled to find the most accurate combination of words to express the exact feeling I had as the credits for “Gravity” rolled.  So many specific thoughts of praise for the film darted inside my brain and collided with the surges of emotion I felt.  With “Gravity”, director Alfonso Cuaron has created a masterpiece of cinema- not only is the film a supreme technical achievement, but it speaks to the audience, reminding us to be both reverent and cautious of nature.  Cuaron may not have originally intended this film to be more than a survival story; if that is the case, however, I imagine he saw it differently upon completion.

The idea behind the film is rather straightforward.  Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a rookie astronaut, and she is in space to mend something resembling the Hubble telescope.  Her character is obviously smart and determined, but there exists a vulnerability about her.  Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (who we find out later is close to breaking the space walking time record) is there to offer big brother-type leadership.  He’s exactly what I envision an astronaut being like- the man who is brilliant with a personality to boot.  He’s a superstar and a hero, and honestly, who better than George Clooney to embody that role?

We know from watching the trailers that something devastating will happen to the shuttle.  We know our main characters will be set adrift in space unless they can somehow reach the International Space Station, return to oxygen and possibly use an escape module to get back to Earth.  By itself, that doesn’t make the movie sound as interesting.  Instead, it is the setting that grabs our attention.  Having most of the movie take place in real-time and zero gravity gives every scene a suddenness that oozes with tension, the unknown, and anxiety.  Anxiety over whether or not the astronauts will live, or whether they will die from oxygen starvation, exposure to the absolute zero temps of space, the damaging blows from debris traveling faster than the speed of orbit, or the many other ways one can die alone 370 miles above the Earth’s surface.  There is such an inherent power in the very situation our main characters find themselves in, and it was easy to allow my stomach to creep northward into my throat on many occasions during this movie.

As I mentioned before, I believe there is another aspect to this film that may or may not have been intended.  There is a stark contrast between Clooney’s nonchalant and joyous nature at the beginning of the film when he is fluttering about the shuttle with his booster pack, and the way Bullock’s rookie astronaut, despite her training, seems clumsy amongst the stars.  Humans exist on Earth for a reason; we aren’t built for space travel or space anything.  Our bodies and minds lend themselves to the warmth of our ‘Mother Earth’, and space is SPACE.  In “Gravity”, the cosmos are not depicted as anything other than what they are- cold, vast beyond our imagination, and un-adaptable.  As the film stated upon opening, there is no life in space.  It is that it is, so to speak.

However, humans are also explorers; we always have been and always should be.  Space exploration and travel exist to give us a better understanding of who we are as we continue to chip away at the big question- “Why?”.  Unfortunately, there will always be that great barrier of space between our knowledge and what we could discover elsewhere.  The power of the cosmos displayed in this film reminded me how important it is to understand the significance of being humble before science.  Humans can be proud of our accomplishments in technology, but we are so incredibly far away from having an acceptable comfort level amongst the stars that the possible world of Star Trek is clearly more fiction than science.

Some of us never stop yearning for the stars, and we long for that connection with the universe that the film reminds us is a bleak prospect.  However, for as bleak as space is, this film reminded me of why we went there in the first place.  Mankind has a capacity for hope that the main characters manage to show, and despite our struggles as a race, we continue to hold that capacity.  In the midst of terrifying circumstances, “Gravity” shows us again the power of the human to try.

“Gravity” is the most exhilarating movie experience I’ve ever had.  This is a flawless film, in both execution and impact.  No scene is wasted, no digital effect skimps on quality, and no alternate pairing of actors could have engaged me more. No film about space is more elegantly crafted or as beautiful.  I wish to express my true admiration for what Alfonso Cuaron has created as a filmmaker.  He has shown that the willingness to be patient with an idea, to be reverent about the idea’s source material, and to respect that the audience is intelligent enough to see more than a survival story should serve as a lesson to future directors.  At the risk of heaping too much praise, or sounding off with hyperbole, I offer this:  “Gravity” is the best film I’ve seen this year, and perhaps of any year.

*Important note: it’s possible that the film may lose some effectiveness if you don’t see it in 3D. I saw it in Imax 3D, but I believe it will still be effective in 2D.