Playing Catch-Up: Crisscross, The Dust Factory, Gambit, In The Arms of a Killer, Overboard, Shy People


So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past few weeks!

  • Crisscross
  • Released: 1992
  • Directed by Chris Menges
  • Starring David Arnott, Goldie Hawn, Arliss Howard, Keith Carradine, James Gammon, Steve Buscemi

An annoying kid named Chris Cross (David Arnott) tells us the story of his life.

In the year 1969, Chris and his mother, Tracy (Goldie Hawn), are living in Key West.  While the rest of the country is excitedly watching the first moon landing, Chris and Tracy are just trying to figure out how to survive day-to-day.  Tracy tries to keep her son from learning that she’s working as a stripper but, not surprisingly, he eventually finds out.  Chris comes across some drugs that are being smuggled into Florida and, wanting to help his mother, he decides to steal them and sell them himself.  Complicating matters is the fact that the members of the drug ring (one of whom is played by Steve Buscemi) don’t want the competition.  As well, Tracy is now dating Joe (Arliss Howard), who just happens to be an undercover cop.  And, finally, making things even more difficult is the fact that Chris just isn’t that smart.

There are actually a lot of good things to be said about Crisscross.  The film was directed by the renowned cinematographer, Chris Menges, so it looks great.  Both Arliss Howard and Goldie Hawn give sympathetic performances and Keith Carradine has a great cameo as Chris’s spaced out dad.  (Traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam, Chris’s Dad left his family and joined a commune.)  But, as a character, Chris is almost too stupid to be believed and his overwrought narration doesn’t do the story any good.  Directed and written with perhaps a less heavy hand, Crisscross could have been a really good movie but, as it is, it’s merely an interesting misfire.

  • The Dust Factory 
  • Released: 2004
  • Directed by Eric Small
  • Starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, Hayden Panettiere, Ryan Kelly, Kim Myers, George de la Pena, Michael Angarano, Peter Horton

Ryan (Ryan Kelly) is a teen who stopped speaking after his father died.  One day, Ryan falls off a bridge and promptly drowns.  However, he’s not quite dead yet!  Instead, he’s in The Dust Factory, which is apparently where you go when you’re on the verge of death.  It’s a very nice place to hang out while deciding whether you want to leap into the world of the dead or return to the land of the living.  Giving Ryan a tour of the Dust Factory is his grandfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl).  Suggesting that maybe Ryan should just stay in the Dust Factory forever is a girl named Melanie (Hayden Panettiere).  Showing up randomly and acting like a jerk is a character known as The Ringmaster (George De La Pena).  Will Ryan choose death or will he return with a new zest for living life?  And, even more importantly, will the fact that Ryan’s an unlikely hockey fan somehow play into the film’s climax?

The Dust Factory is the type of unabashedly sentimental and theologically confused film that just drives me crazy.  This is one of those films that so indulges every possible cliché that I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t based on some obscure YA tome.  I’m sure there’s some people who cry while watching this film but ultimately, it’s about as deep as Facebook meme.

  • Gambit
  • Released: 2012
  • Directed by Michael Hoffman
  • Starring Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, Tom Courtenay, Stanley Tucci, Cloris Leachman, Togo Igawa

Harry Deane (Colin Firth) is beleaguered art collector who, for the sake of petty revenge (which, as we all know, is the best type of revenge), tries to trick the snobbish Lord Shabandar (Alan Rickman) into spending a lot of money on a fake Monet.  To do this, he will have to team up with both an eccentric art forger (Tom Courtenay) and a Texas rodeo star named PJ Puznowksi (Cameron Diaz).  The plan is to claim that PJ inherited the fake Monet from her grandfather who received the painting from Hermann Goering at the end of the World War II and…

Well, listen, let’s stop talking about the plot.  This is one of those elaborate heist films where everyone has a silly name and an elaborate back story.  It’s also one of those films where everything is overly complicated but not particularly clever.  The script was written by the Coen Brothers and, if they had directed it, they would have at least brought some visual flair to the proceedings.  Instead, the film was directed by Michael Hoffman and, for the most part, it falls flat.  The film is watchable because of the cast but ultimately, it’s not surprising that Gambit never received a theatrical release in the States.

On a personal note, I saw Gambit while Jeff & I were in London last month.  So, I’ll always have good memories of watching the movie.  So I guess the best way to watch Gambit is when you’re on vacation.

  • In The Arms of a Killer
  • Released: 1992
  • Directed by Robert L. Collins
  • Starring Jaclyn Smith, John Spencer, Nina Foch, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Sandahl Bergman, Linda Dona, Kristoffer Tabori, Michael Nouri

This is the story of two homicide detectives.  Detective Vincent Cusack (John Spencer) is tough and cynical and world-weary.  Detective Maria Quinn (Jaclyn Smith) is dedicated and still naive about how messy a murder investigation can be when it involves a bunch of Manhattan socialites.  A reputed drug dealer is found dead during a party.  Apparently, someone intentionally gave him an overdose of heroin.  Detective Cusack thinks that the culprit was Dr. Brian Venible (Michael Nouri).  Detective Quinn thinks that there has to be some other solution.  Complicating things is that Quinn and Venible are … you guessed it … lovers!  Is Quinn truly allowing herself to be held in the arms of a killer or is the murderer someone else?

This sound like it should have been a fun movie but instead, it’s all a bit dull.  Nouri and Smith have next to no chemistry so you never really care whether the doctor is the killer or not.  John Spencer was one of those actors who was pretty much born to play world-weary detectives but, other than his performance, this is pretty forgettable movie.

  • Overboard
  • Released: 1987
  • Directed by Garry Marshall
  • Starring Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Edward Herrmann, Katherine Helmond, Roddy McDowall, Michael G. Hagerty, Brian Price, Jared Rushton, Hector Elizondo

When a spoiled heiress named Joanne Slayton (Goldie Hawn) falls off of her luxury yacht, no one seems to care.  Even when her husband, Grant (Edward Herrmann), discovers that Joanne was rescued by a garbage boat and that she now has amnesia, he denies knowing who she is.  Instead, he takes off with the boat and proceeds to have a good time.  The servants (led by Roddy McDowall) who Joanne spent years terrorizing are happy to be away from her.  In fact, the only person who does care about Joanne is Dean Proffitt (Kurt Russell).  When Dean sees a news report about a woman suffering from amnesia, he heads over to the hospital and declares that Joanne is his wife, Annie.

Convinced that she is Annie, Joanne returns with Dean to his messy house and his four, unruly sons.  At first, Dean says that his plan is merely to have Joanne work off some money that she owes him.  (Before getting amnesia, Joanne refused to pay Dean for some work he did on her boat.)  But soon, Joanne bonds with Dean’s children and she and Dean start to fall in love.  However, as both Grant and Dean are about to learn, neither parties nor deception can go on forever…

This is one of those films that’s pretty much saved by movie star charisma.  The plot itself is extremely problematic and just about everything that Kurt Russell does in this movie would land him in prison in real life.  However, Russell and Goldie Hawn are such a likable couple that the film come close to overcoming its rather creepy premise.  Both Russell and Hawn radiate so much charm in this movie that they can make even the stalest of jokes tolerable and it’s always enjoyable to watch Roddy McDowall get snarky.  File this one under “Kurt Russell Can Get Away With Almost Anything.”

A remake of Overboard, with the genders swapped, is set to be released in early May.

  • Shy People
  • Released: 1987
  • Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
  • Starring Jill Clayburgh, Barbara Hershey, Martha Plimpton, Merritt Butrick, John Philbin, Don Swayze, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Mare Winningham

Diana Sullivan (Jill Clayburgh) is a writer for Cosmopolitan and she’s got a problem!  It turns out that her teenager daughter, Grace (Martha Plimpton), is skipping school and snorting cocaine!  OH MY GOD!  (And, to think, I thought I was a rebel just because I used to skip Algebra so I could go down to Target and shoplift eyeliner!)  Diana knows that she has to do something but what!?

Diana’s solution is to get Grace out of New York.  It turns out that Diana has got some distant relatives living in Louisiana bayou.  After Cosmo commissions her to write a story about them, Diana grabs Grace and the head down south!

(Because if there’s anything that the readers of Cosmo are going to be interested in, it’s white trash bayou dwellers…)

The only problem is that Ruth (Barbara Hershey) doesn’t want to be interviewed and she’s not particularly happy when Diana and Grace show up.  Ruth and her four sons live in the bayous.  Three of the sons do whatever Ruth tells them to do.  The fourth son is often disobedient so he’s been locked up in a barn.  Diana, of course, cannot understand why her relatives aren’t impressed whenever she mentions that she writes for Cosmo.  Meanwhile, Grace introduces her cousins to cocaine, which causes them to go crazy.  “She’s got some strange white powder!” one of them declares.

So, this is a weird film.  On the one hand, you have an immensely talented actress like Jill Clayburgh giving one of the worst performances in cinematic history.  (In Clayburgh’s defense, Diana is such a poorly written character that I doubt any actress could have made her in any way believable.)  On the other hand, you have Barbara Hershey giving one of the best.  As played by Hershey, Ruth is a character who viewers will both fear and admire.  Ruth has both the inner strength to survive in the bayou and the type of unsentimental personality that lets you know that you don’t want to cross her.  I think we’re supposed to feel that both Diana and Ruth have much to learn from each other but Diana is such an annoying character that you spend most of the movie wishing she would just go away and leave Ruth alone.  In the thankless role of Grace, Martha Plimpton brings more depth to the role than was probably present in the script and Don Swayze has a few memorable moments as one of Ruth’s sons.  Shy People is full of flaws and never really works as a drama but I’d still recommend watching it for Hershey and Plimpton.

Shattered Politics #71: Gangs of New York (dir by Martin Scorsese)


Gangs_of_New_York_Poster

Despite the fact that it was nominated for best picture and marked the start of his fantastically successful collaboration with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York does not have the best reputation.  It always seems to be regarded as one of Scorsese’s lesser films and, often times, both The Aviator and The Departed are described as representing a comeback of sorts from Gangs.

To a certain extent, I have to agree.  Gangs of New York is a lesser Scorsese movie but then again, a lesser Scorsese film is still a hundred times better than the greatest films from Brett Ratner or Michael Bay.

The flaws of Gangs of New York are many.  The film, which tells the epic story of how an Irish gang led by Leonard DiCaprio battled a nativist gang led by Daniel Day-Lewis in Civil War-era New York City, runs for nearly 3 hours and yet it somehow still feels rushed and incomplete.  Cameron Diaz is far too contemporary of an actress to be truly believable as a 19th century pickpocket.  For that matter, Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the worst performances of his career, coming across as being one-note and shrill.  If you only knew DiCaprio from his work in Gangs of New York, you would have a hard time believing that he was capable of doing the type of work that he did in Inception or The Wolf of Wall Street.

And yet, Gangs of New York is one of those flawed films that I can’t help but enjoy.

First off, on a purely personal level, how can I not love a film about how terribly the Irish were treated in the 19th Century?  Seriously, the Irish were regarded as if they were somehow subhuman.  They were attacked for being Catholic.  They were viewed as being criminals.  An entire freaking political party — the American party — was formed specifically to keep the Irish out.  But you know what?  We Irish kept coming, we kept fighting for our rights, and now everyone wishes they could be one of us!

Secondly, and this should not a shock when you consider that the film was directed by Martin Scorsese, the film looks absolutely gorgeous!  Despite the fact that it’s takes place in a 19th century slum and most of the characters are poor, Gangs of New York is a visual feast.  I loved the ornate sets and all the colorful clothes.  I loved the attention to detail that was put into everything.

(My favorite visual from the film: Daniel Day-Lewis and his entourage walking down a street while fireworks explode directly over Day-Lewis’s shoulder.)

Third, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting.  One reason why DiCaprio’s performance is so noticeably bad is because he’s acting opposite Day-Lewis.  Sporting a handle-bar mustache and speaking in an almost satirically exaggerated New York accent, Day-Lewis turns Bill into one cinema’s greatest villains.

Add to that, the great Italian actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice show up for a few minutes, playing Simon Legree in a theatrical production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin!  Scorsese should make more films with Radice.

But, perhaps the main reason why I enjoy Gangs of New York is because, as I’ve mentioned so many times in the past, I really am a big history nerd.  And Gangs of New York deals with a period in American history that really doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves.  While we all know that the Civil War started when the South seceded from the union, what is often forgotten is that the North was not united in their support of Abraham Lincoln and the Union.  In fact, the Mayor of New York, Fernando Wood, was such a strong supporter of the Confederacy that he, at one point, suggested that New York City should secede from the union as well.  And when Lincoln instituted the draft, NYC — and several other cities in the north — exploded into riots.

Of course, Gangs of New York is not a 100% historically accurate.  For one thing, it compresses the time frame of the draft riots and — as films often do — it downplays the culture of Northern racism and instead portrays racists like Bill Cutting as being the exception to the rule.  But, even with that in mind, Gangs of New York still serves as a good starting point for those who want to learn more about American history than what they’ve been told in school.

My favorite parts of Gangs of New York dealt not with how the gangs fought each other but instead how the gangs were used as political foot soldiers.  One of the major supporting characters in Gangs of New York is William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent), a real-life politician who was at the center of one of America’s first major political scandals.  When we first meet Tweed, he is using Bill Cutting’s gang to fix elections.  However, as the film progresses, Tweed comes to realize that the political future of New York rests with the Irish.  So, Tweed starts using the Irish gang to fix elections.  For those of us who are into political history, the Boss Tweed scenes are a lot of fun.

Gangs of New York has its flaws.  It’s the type of project that, if it were made today, it would probably be a series on HBO and it would win all sorts of awards.  (Actually, it did kinda.  It was called Boardwalk Empire.)  It’s not perfect, but I like it.

Yay! Here Are The Alliance of Women Film Journalists Award Winners!


Film Review Under the Skin

That’s right, I said “Yay!”  And believe it or not, I’m not at all being snarky.  The AWFJ awards are always some of my favorite of the annual precursor awards.  Not only do they provide a different (and, let’s just be honest, better) perspective than the other male-dominated critical societies but they also have a lot of extra (some fun and some thought-provoking) categories.

Here are their picks for the best of 2014!  I especially appreciate and agree with the recognition given to Under the Skin and Emily Blunt’s performance in Edge of Tomorrow.

Best Film
BOYHOOD

Best Director (Female or Male)
Richard Linklater for BOYHOOD

Best Screenplay, Original
BIRDMAN – Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, Nicholas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo

Best Screenplay, Adapted
GONE GIRL – Gillian Flynn

Best Documentary
CITIZENFOUR – Laura Poitras

Best Animated Film
LEGO – Phil Lord, Christopher Miller

Best Actress
Julianne Moore for STILL ALICE

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Tilda Swinton for SNOWPIERCER

Best Actor
Michael Keaton for BIRDMAN

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
J.K. Simmons for WHIPLASH

Best Ensemble Cast (tie)
BIRDMAN – Francine Maisler, Casting Director
and
GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL – Douglas Aibel (US), Antoinette Boulat (France), Simone Bar, Alexandra Montag (Germany), Debra Maxwell Dion (LA), Jina Jay (UK)

Best Editing
BIRDMAN – Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione

Best Cinematography
BIRDMAN – Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Film Music Or Score
BIRDMAN – Antonio Sanchez

Best Non-English-Language Film
IDA – Pavel Pawlikowski (Poland)

EDA FEMALE FOCUS AWARDS
These awards honor WOMEN only.

Best Woman Director
Ava DuVernay for SELMA

Best Woman Screenwriter
Gillian Flynn for GONE GIRL

Best Female Action Star
Emily Blunt for EDGE OF TOMORROW

Best Breakthrough Performance
Gugu Mbatha-Raw for BELLE

Female Icon of the Year (tie)
(a woman whose work in film and/or in life made a difference)
Ava DuVernay
and
Laura Poitras

EDA SPECIAL MENTION AWARDS

Best Depiction Of Nudity, Sexuality, or Seduction
UNDER THE SKIN – Scarlett Johansson

Actress Defying Age and Ageism
Tilda Swinton

Most Egregious Age Difference Between The Leading Man and The Love Interest
MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT – Colin Firth (b. 1960) and Emma Stone (b. 1988)

Actress Most in Need Of A New Agent
Cameron Diaz for SEX TAPE

Movie You Wanted To Love, But Just Couldn’t
INHERENT VICE

6 More Film Reviews From 2014: At Middleton, Barefoot, Divergent, Gimme Shelter, The Other Woman, and more!


Let’s continue to get caught up with 6 more reviews of 6 more films that I saw in 2014!

At Middleton (dir by Adam Rodgers)

“Charming, but slight.”  I’ve always liked that term and I think it’s the perfect description for At Middleton, a dramedy that came out in January and did not really get that much attention.  Vera Farmiga is a businesswoman who is touring colleges with her daughter (Taissa Farmiga, who is actually Vera’s younger sister).  Andy Garcia is a surgeon who is doing the same thing with his son.  All four of them end up touring Middleton College at the same time.  While their respective children tour the school, Vera and Andy end up walking around the campus and talking.  And that’s pretty much the entire film!

But you know what?  Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia are both such good performers and have such a strong chemistry that it doesn’t matter that not much happens.  Or, at the very least, it doesn’t matter was much as you might think it would.

Hence, charming but slight.

Barefoot (dir by Andrew Fleming)

Well, fuck it.

Sorry, I know that’s not the best way to start a review but Barefoot really bothered me.  In Barefoot, Scott Speedman plays a guy who invites Evan Rachel Wood to his brother’s wedding.  The twist is that Wood has spent most of her life in a mental institution.  Originally, Speedman only invites her so that he can trick his father (Treat Williams) into believing that Speedman has finally become a responsible adult.  But, of course, he ends up falling in love with her and Wood’s simple, mentally unbalanced charm brings delight to everyone who meets her.  I wanted to like this film because I love both Scott Speedman and Evan Rachel Wood but, ultimately, it’s all rather condescending and insulting.  Yes, the film may be saying, mental illness is difficult but at least it helped Scott Speedman find love…

On the plus side, the always great J.K. Simmons shows up, playing a psychiatrist.  At no point does he say, “Not my tempo” but he was probably thinking it.

Divergent (dir by Neil Burger)

There’s a lot of good things that can be said about Divergent.  Shailene Woodley is a likable heroine.  The film’s depiction of a dystopian future is well-done. Kate Winslet has fun playing a villain.  Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort are well-cast.  But, ultimately, Divergent suffers from the same problem as The Maze Runner and countless other YA adaptations.  The film never escapes from the shadow of the far superior Hunger Games franchise.  Perhaps, if Divergent had been released first, we’d be referring to the Hunger Games as being a Divergent rip-off.

However, I kind of doubt it.  The Hunger Games works on so many levels.  Divergent is an entertaining adventure film that features a good performance from Shailene Woodley but it’s never anything more than that.  Considering that director Neil Burger previously gave us Interview with the Assassin and Limitless, it’s hard not to be disappointed that there’s not more to Divergent.

Gimme Shelter (dir by Ron Krauss)

Gimme Shelter, which is apparently based on a true story, is about a teenage girl named Apple (Vanessa Hudgens) who flees her abusive, drug addicted mother (Rosario Dawson).  She eventually tracks down her wealthy father (Brendan Fraser), who at first takes Apple in.  However, when he discovers that she’s pregnant, he demands that she get an abortion.  When Apple refuses, he kicks her out of the house.  Apple eventually meets a kindly priest (James Earl Jones) and moves into a shelter that’s run by the tough Kathy (Ann Dowd).

Gimme Shelter came out in January and it was briefly controversial because a lot of critics felt that, by celebrating Apple’s decision not to abort her baby, the movie was pushing an overly pro-life message.  Interestingly enough, a lot of those outraged critics were men and, as I read their angry reviews, it was hard not to feel that they were more concerned with showing off their political bona fides than with reviewing the actual film.  Yes, the film does celebrate Apple’s decision to keep her baby but the film also emphasizes that it was Apple’s decision to make, just as surely as it would have been her decision to make if she had chosen to have an abortion.

To be honest, the worst thing about Gimme Shelter is that it doesn’t take advantage of the fact that it shares its name with a great song by the Rolling Stones.  Otherwise, it’s a well-done (if rather uneven) look at life on the margins.  Yes, the script and the direction are heavy-handed but the film is redeemed by a strong performance from Vanessa Hudgens, who deserves to be known for more than just being “that girl from High School Musical.”

Heaven is For Real (dir by Randall Wallace)

You can tell that Heaven is For Real is supposed to be based on a true story by the fact that the main character is named Todd Burpo.  Todd Burpo is one of those names that’s just so ripe for ridicule that you know he has to be a real person.

Anyway, Heaven Is For Real is based on a book of the same name.  Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is the pastor of a small church in Nebraska.  After Todd’s son, Colton, has a near death experience, he claims to have visited Heaven where he not only met a sister who died before he was born but also had a conversation with Jesus.  As Colton’s story starts to get national attention, Todd struggles to determine whether Colton actually went to Heaven or if he was just having a hallucination.

You can probably guess which side the movie comes down on.

Usually, as a self-described heathen, I watch about zero faith-based movies a year.  For some reason, I ended up watching three over the course of 2014: Left Behind, Rumors of War, and this one.  Heaven is For Real is not as preachy (or terrible) as Left Behind but it’s also not as much fun as Rumors of War.  (Rumors of War, after all, featured Eric Roberts.)  Instead, Heaven Is For Real is probably as close to mainstream as a faith-based movie can get.  I doubt that the film changed anyone’s opinion regarding whether or not heaven is for real but it’s still well-done in a made-for-TV sort of way.

The Other Woman (dir by Nick Cassavetes)

According to my BFF Evelyn, we really liked The Other Woman when we saw it earlier this year.  And, despite how bored I was with the film when I recently tired to rewatch it, we probably did enjoy it that first time.  It’s a girlfriend film, the type of movie that’s enjoyable as long as you’re seeing it for the first time and you’re seeing it with your best girlfriends.  It’s a lot of fun the first time you see it but since the entire film is on the surface, there’s nothing left to discover on repeat viewings.  Instead, you just find yourself very aware of the fact that the film often substitutes easy shock for genuine comedy. (To be honest, I think that — even with the recent missteps of Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children — Jason Reitman could have done wonders with this material.  Nick Cassavetes however…)   Leslie Mann gives a good performance and the scenes where she bonds with Cameron Diaz are a lot of fun but otherwise, it’s the type of film that you enjoy when you see it and then you forget about it.

Red Band Trailer: Sex Tape


Hey there, loyal Shattered Lens readers.

So, as you may have noticed, I am running really far behind as far as getting all of my film reviews done.  Along with reviewing the two films that tied for first place in my latest What Should Lisa Watch Poll, I also need to review the last few films that I saw in theaters and on Lifetime.

I apologize for all of the delays but fear not — I will get caught up!

Until then, here’s a red band trailer to consider.  Just judging from this trailer, Sex Tape appears to be a one joke film.  However, I like Jason Segal and I enjoyed Bad Teacher so I will keep an open mind as far as Sex Tape is concerned.

 

Defending the Counselor


The_Counselor_Poster

(Spoilers Below)

The Counselor was one of the most anticipated films of 2013.  After all, it was based on a screenplay by the Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy and it was directed by Ridley Scott.  Its cast included such stars as Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt.  The film’s two trailers promised a return to the thematic territory that the Coen Brothers explored in their Oscar-winning adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.

And yet, when The Counselor was released in October, the reviews were scathing and audience response was reportedly terrible.  Writing for Salon, film “critic” Andrew O’Hehir suggested that The Counselor was not only the worst film of 2013 but the worst film of all time.

And you know what?

For not the first time, Andrew O’Hehir was wrong.  The Counselor is not the worst film of 2013.  Instead, it’s one of the best.  It’s a film that will be studied long after more acclaimed films have been forgotten.

Why is The Counselor so hated?

It’s not an easy film to love.  In fact, the film is rather brave about alienating its audience and refusing to allow for the crowd-pleasing moments that viewers have come to expect from even the most prestigious of films.

In order to truly defend the Counselor, it’s necessary to know the plot of The Counselor.  Needless to say, everything that follows constitutes a huge spoiler so, if you’re one of those types, feel free to stop reading now.

Brad-Pitt-Michael-Fassbender-Counselor

Okay, still here?  Here’s a condensed version of what happens in The Counselor:

The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is an honest lawyer in El Paso who has never broken the law and is engaged to marry the beautiful and saintly Laura (Penelope Cruz).  For reasons that are never explicitly stated (but, as I’ll explain below, are obvious to anyone who is willing to look for the clues), The Counselor agrees to help his clients Westray (Brad Pitt) and Reiner (Javier Bardem) smuggle a huge shipment of cocaine into the U.S. from Mexico.  However, Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) steals the drugs and frames the Counselor for the theft.  As a result, Reiner ends up getting executed by the Mexican cartel, Westray is beheaded on the streets of London, and the Counselor ends up hiding out in Juarez, Mexico, sobbing as he looks at a DVD copy of a cartel-produced snuff film that features Laura being murdered.  The end.

Yeah, it’s not exactly a happy film.  And yet, it’s a film that sticks with you, a portrait of a shadowy underworld that is fueled solely by greed, paranoia, and masculine posturing.  Ridley Scott makes good use of the South Texas landscape and the talented cast creates a memorable gallery of rouges.

And yet, The Counselor is getting some of the worst reviews of the year.  What’s especially interesting is that the things that so many critic cite as flaws are actually the film’s greatest strengths.

The Counselor

Consider the following common criticisms:

1) The film features some of the most overly articulate drug deals of all time.

This is the most frequent complaint that I’ve come across concerning The Counselor and there is some validity to it.  The Counselor is a very talky film.  The film’s first hour is pretty much made up of The Counselor having three conversations, all about the same thing and all reaching the same conclusion.  Cormac McCarthy’s dialogue is, perhaps not surprisingly, rather portentous and florid.  The Counselor does ask the audience to accept a world where even the head of Mexico’s most powerful cartel is given to going off on long philosophical digressions.  The Counselor is one of those films where nearly every line seems to have a double meaning.

That said, I think that those who attacking the film’s dialogue are missing the point.  This is not meant to be a naturalistic film.  Instead, it’s a heavily stylized B-film that uses its sordid story as a metaphor for dealing with deeper issues of greed, masculinity, and the changing mores of American culture.  Much as every line of dialogue has a deeper meaning, so does every pulpy plot twist.  It takes a while to adjust to McCarthy’s dialogue but, ultimately, that dialogue serves to remind us that the film has a lot more on its mind than just telling the story about a drug deal gone bad.  The combination of overly articulate dialogue with primitive violence and desires encourages us to look under the film’s surface.

2) The film’s plot is predictable.

This may be true but I think that’s actually McCarthy’s point.  From the start of the film, the Counselor is continually warned that things could potentially go very wrong.  Despite these warnings, the Counselor still gets involved in Reiner’s drug and, through a combination of hubris and fate, he loses everything that he loved.

The Counselor’s downfall is not meant to be a surprise.  Instead, McCarthy’s point is that the consequences of our actions are usually obvious but we, as human beings, chose to live in denial about just how little control we actually have over our own fate.

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3) Ridley Scott’s direction is stylish but ultimately empty.

This argument goes that, while Scott manages to capture some gorgeous images of the Texas/Mexico border, those images ultimately don’t add up to much.  The idea goes back to a charge that is frequently leveled against Ridley Scott as a director, that he’s all style and technique with little substance.  (Interestingly enough, this is the same charge that is often made against the Coen Brothers.)

In the past, I’ve been critical of Ridley Scott.  (For proof, check out my reviews of Robin Hood and Gladiator.)  However, that being said, I think that, with The Counselor, Scott does a good job of visually interpreting the concepts at the heart of McCarthy’s script.  My mom was from South Texas and I’ve spent enough time down there to understand just how perfectly Ridley Scott manages to capture the combination of beauty and harshness that one finds along the border between Texas and Mexico.  In Scott’s hands, the emptiness of the Texas landscape serves as a perfect parallel for the emptiness of the lives of the majority of the film’s characters.

Speaking of which…

4) The motivations of the Counselor remain a mystery.

Why does the Counselor get involved in the drug deal in the first place?  Many of the film’s critics have complained that the Counselor’s motivations remains a mystery and therefore make it impossible for audiences to sympathize with the character.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

What these critics are failing to realize is that the Counselor’s motives are obvious every time that he appears on-screen.  The audience has to be willing to look for them.  The audience has to be willing to think and that, of course, is asking quite a bit of some viewers.

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While the Counselor hints that his reason for getting involved with the drug deal is so that he can make enough money to provide a good life for Laura, his actual motivations are far more selfish.  One need only see the Counselor in his perfectly pressed suits or in his sleek but sterile home to understand exactly who the Counselor is.  He is a character who has made his living by defending those who break the law but who has never had the courage to actually flaunt the rules himself.   He is a man who lives in a self-constructed prison of ennui and associating with Reiner and Westray gives him a chance to escape from his conventional existence.   He is a character who spends his day profiting from the crimes of others but, because he can go home to his beautiful home and his beautiful fiancee, assumes that he’s somehow detached from the consequences of the actions of his associates.

The Counselor starts the film as an unemotional, blank-faced cipher, a man whose entire identity is based on his job title.  (Indeed, we never learn once learn or hear the character’s actual name.)  The only time that he shows even a hint of human depth or emotion is when he’s with Laura.  He’s a man who, in many ways, is dead on the inside.  It’s only after he gets involved with Reiner and Westray that the Counselor starts to show any signs of life until, by the end of the film, he literally cannot control his emotions.   The Counselor frees himself from his stifling and conventional existence at the cost of everything and everybody that he loves.  In his pursuit of freedom, he simply moves from one self-imposed prison to another.

5) Particularly in its portrayal of Malkina, there is a strong streak of misogyny running through the film.

This is a point that I’ve seen made by several critics and it’s one that bothers me as both a feminist and as a female who happens to love genre films.  Just because a film features a misogynistic character does that therefore make the film itself misogynistic?

The majority of those who claim that The Counselor is anti-female often point to the character of Malkina.  As played by Cameron Diaz, Malkina is a hyper sexual sociopath who manipulates and destroys everyone else in the film.  Even though he’s obsessed with her, Reiner also claims to fear her and he has several conversations with the Counselor in which he cites her as proof that women cannot be trusted.

However, just because Reiner says this, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the film agrees.  In fact, as should be obvious to anyone who is actually willing to pay attention to the film, Reiner is portrayed as being a fool who, ultimately, is just as delusional as the Counselor.  Reiner, Wainstray, and the Counselor all exist in a hyper masculine environment.  For all of their posturing and macho talk, it’s also obvious that none of them are capable of truly dealing with women.  Wainstray can only bring himself to acknowledge them as potential sexual partners while the Counselor both idealizes Laura and uses her happiness as an excuse to pursue his own criminal enterprises.  Reiner, meanwhile, is both attracted to and terrified of Malkina.

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In perhaps the film’s most infamous scene, Malkina removes her panties and then grinds against the windshield of a Ferrari while Reiner watches from inside the car.  Some have argued that, with this scene, the filmmakers are equating Malkina’s sexuality with evil.  I, however, would argue that this scene shows that Malkina — alone of all the film’s major characters — understands the fact that all of the men in her life are essentially boys who are either incapable of or unwilling to grow up.  Malkina uses her sexuality not because she’s evil but because she’s intelligent enough to use every weapon at her disposal to make sure that she will be one of the few characters to survive to the movie’s conclusion.  By the end of the film, it’s obvious that Malkina is both the strongest and the most intelligent character in the film.

There’s an interesting scene towards the end of the film in which the Counselor, who is hiding out in Juarez, stumbles across a group of protesters who are holding pictures of young women who have either been killed on or vanished from the streets of Juarez.  Since 1993, over 4000 women have been murdered in Juarez.  The majority of those murders are still unsolved, with many blaming the Spanish tradition of machismo.  The feeling of many is that “good” girls stay home while “bad” girls get jobs in the city and are often  murdered as a result.  And, since the victims shouldn’t have been pursuing a life outside of domestic servitude in the first place, why waste the time trying to win them any sort of justice?  For the past decade, brave activists have put themselves in danger by daring to demand justice for the dead of Juarez.  When the Counselor stumbles across their rally, it’s a brief moment in which the real world and the cinematic landscape come together.

It’s also a scene that serves to remind us that the film’s characters are living in a hyper masculine world, one that embraces the concept of machismo without understanding or caring about the consequences of that destructive  culture.  The Counselor’s horrified reaction to the rally is the reaction of a man who has finally been forced to confront the evil of which he is now a permanent part.

6) The film’s ending is depressing.

Complaining about Cormac McCarthy writing a depressing ending is a bit like getting upset at a cat for purring.  It’s what McCarthy does and anyone with any knowledge of his work has no right to be shocked that the film ends on a note of hopelessness.  Much as with No Country For Old Men, The Counselor ends the only way that it can.  It may not be a happy ending but it is, at least, an honest ending.

The Counselor may not be an easy film to like but it’s definitely a film that deserves better than to be dismissed as the worst of 2013.

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What Lisa Watched Last Night: The 84th Annual Academy Awards


Last night, me and my BFF Evelyn watched the 84th Annual Academy Awards.

Lisa and Evelyn at the Oscars

Why Was I Watching It?

As if you had to ask.

What Was It About?

It was about honoring some good films and making a lot of catty comments about rich people who don’t know how to dress themselves.

What Worked?

You know who is adorable?  Bret McKenzie, who all good people as a member of The Flight of the Conchords.  He won an Oscar last night for best original song for Man or Muppet and he gave exactly the type of wonderfully sincere acceptance speech that you would expect from Bret McKenzie.

You know who else is adorable?  Jim Rash.  The script he co-wrote for The Descendants is overrated but it was still good to see Community’s Dean up there accepting an Oscar.

And you know who is really, really adorable?  The little Emma Stone.  Loved her dress and loved her whole little skit with Ben Stiller.

Jean Dujardin, Christopher Plummer, and Octavia Spencer all gave wonderful acceptance speeches and Uggie got to go on stage when The Artist won best picture!  That was so cute!

What Didn’t Work?

Much like the Golden Globes last month, the Academy Awards were a rather somber affair,  It was as if everyone couldn’t get over the fact that they had actually nominated Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close and everyone was muttering under their breath, “Let’s get this over with before anyone remembers that we nominated a film that not even those people at the Golden Globes were impressed by!”

As much as I enjoyed two of the nominees for best picture (The Artist and Hugo), respected one of them (The Tree of Life), and enjoyed another almost despite myself (The Help), the majority of the nominations this year went to movies that we will probably never watch again and to performers who will probably never have a year as good as this one.  Perhaps that is why the various Academy montages all seemed to feature scenes taken from films that received not a single Oscar nomination.  (More time was devoted to the latest Mission Impossible than to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.)  It just gave the whole ceremony a rather odd feel.  It reminded me of when I was in high school and the drama club would give out little trophies and certificates at the end of the year.  I received a little trophy for being the Best Actress in Advanced Theatre during my junior year.  I also got a certificate for “Biggest Flirt.”  (My acceptance speech, by the way, was: “Couldn’t it have been for best lay?”  Ahhh, High School.)

As host, Bill Crystal was pretty bleh and he kinda looked like Robert Blake from Lost Highway.

Whenever Rooney Mara popped up on screen, me and Evelyn would yell, “You need boobs to wear that dress, honey!”

Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech was long-winded and she came across as being a bit full of herself, I think.  Now I know that you’re saying, “Well, gee, Lisa, she’s the greatest actress ever so she’s earned the right to be full of herself!”  Actually, if you really pay attention to Streep’s performances, you’ll see that the main reason she has a reputation for being a great actress is because she never allows you to forget that she’s acting.

I missed James Franco.

“OMG! Just like me!” Moments

As I mentioned on twitter, Evelyn and I have decided that we were the Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz of my living room.  We’re still debating on just who exactly was Cameron and who was J.Lo. 

Lessons Learned

Everything is better with James Franco!