Monday, November 25, 2013

The Counsellor: A Nihilistic Motion Novel.

Ridley Scott's The Counsellor is one of his bravest films, a bleak look into the crime underworld without any moral filter. Is it a great film? No, but it's daring in ways that many Hollywood movies aren't. We finally get Cormac McCarthy's first original screenplay, if you can even call it that, onto the big screen and it plays out more like a novel than a film. The movie doesn't so much focus on plot as much as it does on story. What's the story? Well it's complex, but at the end of the day it is basically your generic movie criminal characters in way over their way, except here they all get what's coming to them, whether they are protagonists or not. No matter how pretty or likeable they are, they're gonna get it, and they're gonna get it rough. The Counsellor does not flinch away from the true brutality of the underworld. There is a harrowing scene involving a DVD, which portrays no on screen violence that will make audiences stomach churn.

Where the movie falls short is McCarthy's screenplay, which doesn't do the audience any favours in helping them follow any form of narrative. The dialogue is too cryptic and winding for the viewer to fathom while being entertained at the same time. Might make sense on paper, but not on the big screen. The plot doesn't really begin until an unfortunate bike ride. This little mess helps propel the film and forces it's characters to act. Until this moment there is a tedious and complex build up, which is only satisfactory because of Bardem's charming charisma. I enjoyed all of the performances for the most part, but spewing out McCarthy's long-winded dialogue didn't help them. Cameron Diaz was ice cold as Malkina and looked great, reminding me of Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction (1994), but seemed to be confused speaking the words, coming off like a Beverly Hills bimbo attempting to read Shakespeare, or in this case Dr. Seuss. 

This movie has been blasted on all fronts, and a many of it's criticisms may be correct, but I admire it's boldness and Scott's and the actors' willingness to take a chance. In conclusion, I found The Counsellor  to be a very interesting movie, a dark morality play that takes a risk in conveying audiences the stark reality of the cartel business. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gravity: Believe the Hype.

First things first, if you havn't already seen Alfonso Cuaron's space epic, Gravity, it is mandatory that you experience it in its intended format at the IMAX in 3D. And that's exactly what it is, an experience. So many movies nowadays are sensationalised in the media, seems like almost every opening weekend produces a "masterpiece" and so many of these movies fall short of their critical acclaim. Gravity isn't one of those movies. The ecstatic critical praise and box office success completely coincide with the actual film. I honestly believe it is a landmark in cinema history. Whether a fan of the movie or not no one can deny it's cinematic achievement. Personally, I've never seen anything like it before and I came to this conclusion in the opening 12 minutes. We thought the potential of 3D was penetrated perfectly with Avatar, but Gravity is on a whole other level here. The real question is how is anybody ever going to top it?

The plot is basic, but the special effects are complex. It stars Sandra Bullock as Dr Ryan Stone and George Clooney as Matt Kowalski, two astronauts on a routine mission, working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Due to the technical accomplishments of this film we might as well include ourselves in the cast. We float side to side and upside down with them while the enormous scope of the earth engulfs  the background. "Terrifyingly beautiful" Dr Stone describes the breathtaking view at some stage and we can empathise with her. The vast landscape of space is overwhelming and it has never been visualised on such a large scale as this. You might not want to watch this if you are hungover or you might go ahead and give yourself an anxiety attack.

After having our mind blown in the first scene, Steven Price's brooding score washes over the theatre and the thrilling rollercoaster ride begins as debris comes darting at high speed towards our protagonists and their ship. The next 78 minutes is a paramount of almost unbearable suspense and tension. Bullock is the centre of our attention during this ordeal. At times our point of view transcends to her point of view as the camera, without a cut mind you, enters her space helmet so we can see the vast destruction through her eyes. We follow her as she attempts to survive by any means necessary, trying to grab onto anything to keep her from been pushed into outer space. We are hurdled around in zero gravity with her and I found myself constantly twisting and turning my head in order to keep up, dodging debris along the way.

As pure cinema goes, Gravity clearly excels because of its filmmaking technique and groundbreaking special effects. The film's themes might not be as cryptic as say Kubrick's 2001, they are universal and will relate to viewers on a more general level. It's a spiritual film and deals with human endurance. We learn that Ryan is haunted by the death of her daughter and goes through life merely existing. Kowalski on the other hand, finds hope and promise in the good and bad. He acts as Ryan's guardian angel in a way. Ryan's struggle through this tremendous turmoil in space slowly becomes not just the fight for survival, but the fight to truly live again.

Some say the conclusion of Gravity may be cheesy or unrealistic, but by this stage we are so invested into this experience and filled with awe that any other conclusion would be incredibly cynical. Gravity nods its head to the Sci-Fi genre, but this is no Star Wars. It is the Jaws of the 21st century because it touches on one of mankind's primal fears. In 1975 it was the ocean and what lies below, in 2013 its deep space. We are all afraid of the unknown and there is so much we don't know about the universe. In terms of a Hollywood production, Gravity has given us the closest glimpse of the horror and beauty of it.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Before Midnight: Let's Walk & Talk.

I have never seen Richard Linklater's first two installments of his romantic trilogy. Even though I admire the director's other work, particularly the cult, coming of age Dazed and Confused (1993), it seemed a tall order to get me to see a romantic drama. However, Before Midnight is far from romantic even if it wants to be. It is a realistic and rational look at a longterm relationship between two middle aged characters. It's also funnier than most romantic comedies without trying to.

I can understand why most, especially men, wouldn't want to see this even if they had a gun to their head, but if you take it for what it is and are willing to just go with it you might be pleasantly surprised. If you choose not to go with the flow you will hate it as it would appear incredibly tedious. We get scenes that go on for twenty minutes with one camera, two people, walking and talking. The talking is great and is what propels the film, while the performances enhance it. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Linklater, clearly well acquainted from the previous Before flicks, share the writing credits and they'd have to. It is genuinely impressive to see these two actors carry out a dialogue rally for twenty minutes without a break. 

Although a Texas native, it is evident that Linklater is world travelled and possesses a universal outlook. You can see the influences from French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer, who also took the theme of love and beat it around, released it from its imprisonment within the Hollywood narrative formula in order to question and philosophise it. Shot on location in Greece, the foundation of western philosophy, we witness the couple discuss their past, future and present while incorporating debate on the social and cultural history of men and women. They are not naive chislers anymore, they are sober and uncertain about the huge gamble to spend the rest of their lives together. 

Before Midnight is a film about people, about their aspirations and anxieties. It's about wanting to get everything out of life, but unfortunately the time given to us cannot accommodate it all. The running time of Before Midnight is 109 minutes. Try to fit it in.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Big Bad Wolves: Push it to the Limit

The Israeli thriller, Big Bad Wolves, really pushes the bar. Not in terms of on screen violence, but in regards to taking a huge leap in the balance of humour and horror, and in my opinion they landed it. This movie isn't for everyone, but the more audiences it connects with the greater its accomplishment will become. Living in the nauseating era of political correctness I'd like to see Hollywood try to recycle this delicious dark nugget with Will Smith.

The plot involves a suspected child murderer, a ruthless cop, who plays by his own rules and an unsettling father of one of the murdered girls. Our allegiance is bounced off each one of these characters as the plot unfolds. The casting of the suspected child murderer is excellent as we feel both empathy and apathy for him at various times by his face alone. The audience is genuinely in a state of conflict in their attempt to figure out if he committed these heinous acts or not.

Following some humorous and coincidental circumstances, the three men end up in a basement in the middle of nowhere within an Arab region. An interrogation pursues for the majority of the movies with plot twists and turns Nostradamus couldn't predict. Apart from the flawless plot, which constantly keeps you on your toes, the real achievement lies in directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado's orchestration of the film's audience. Essentially, this is a movie about a suspected sadistic child rapist and murderer and the torture and intimidation carried out on him. So why do we laugh? The subject matter contains the most depraved and horrifying acts in society, yet at certain moments we have a good old laugh. 

An example of this awkward transcendence between shock and laughter comes in a scene where the father describes to the suspected killer, the disgusting, graphic details of the torture taken out on his deceased girl. His little tale is disrupted by humorous back and forth banter between himself and the cop. The audience is snapped directly out from disgust to a chuckle, albeit at times a nervous chuckle, possibly one of guilt. 

Another example arises during an intense torture scene. The suspect is about to have his toenail ripped off with a pair of pliers, musical score is to the max, viewers on the edge of their seats squirming when suddenly the phone rings. It's the father's mother berating him with maternal questions. We let out a sigh of relief, but Big Bad Wolves means business. It does not shy away from the violence, it simply uses comedy to prolong it. 

There is Jewish humour sprawled all over this flick, specifically between family. Sort of like if Eli Roth made an episode of Seinfeld or if Wes Craven and Woody Allen had a baby. It also contains subtle, but very affective political and religious satire between Jews and Muslims in Israel. There are similarities between Big Bad Wolves and Bong Joon-ho's masterpiece Memories of Murder (2003) in terms of deploying unpretentious social commentary within the story and the fusion of humour with serious subject matter.

Big Bad Wolves is possibly the year's best movie and without a doubt it's most daring in terms of theme and content. It aspires to the true originality of storytelling that Hollywood once delivered during the movie brat era of the 1970s, unapologetic, unafraid and knocking down the doors of political correctness. It would appear that the torch has been passed.