RIDLEY SCOTT’S THE COUNSELOR — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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The Counselor, Ridley Scott’s chilly and uncompromising anti-thriller/noir from celebrated novelist Cormac McCarthy, easily became the most divisive, polarizing big-studio release of 2013. To listen to most critics you’d think it was the worst movie ever made – a slap in the face to the audience and to filmmaking in general. However, to a small but vocal minority, it has become something of cynical masterpiece, some sort of nasty movie-miracle, and the sort of film that’s typically made at the indie level with a zero budget featuring a cast of unknowns (think Miss Bala or Sin Nombre or City of God). Scott, working in a genre not typical to that of his grandiose tendencies, has never had a screenplay like the one McCarthy gave him; this is the bleakest material of either artist’s career, and that says something coming from the minds that have spawned such cultural touchstones as Alien, Blade Runner, No Country for Old Men, and The Road, to name only a few (fine, Blood Meridian probably ties with The Counselor in the depravity department). Professional critics complaining that the film is nothing more than style over substance couldn’t be more wrong, and general movie-going audiences, especially the Joe & Jane Popcorns out there (thanks, Jeffrey Wells!) who spoke loudly by ignoring it at the box office and bestowing it with a Cinemascore of “D.” People seem resistant to anything that remotely pushes the boundaries of content and form (ahem, Fury Road, ahem…). Just look at the top 20 grossing films from 2013; there are only three that might fit the bill as being auteur driven. The Counselor is as elliptical in style to that of Olivier Assayas’s criminally under seen neo-noir Boarding Gate or to the previously mentioned No Country for Old Men, but the difference is that The Counselor has an even more fatal, lethal endgame, and potentially goes further with the practice of withholding key story information and the skipping-over of easily identifiable “plot-points.” Remember when Brolin got killed off-screen in No Country, and how bracing that was to have it presented in such a nonchalant manner, almost like the Coen brothers didn’t even care? There’s some of that spirit in The Counselor, as the film becomes more and more interested in the why than the whom, about the little conversations as oppose to the big ones.

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One of the many things that will throw most people off with The Counselor is the way that the characters speak. To complain about the highly-stylized writing and line delivery would be to immediately dismiss, discount, or conveniently forget the last 30-40 years of cinema, with distinctive voices (to only name a few) like Mamet, Allen, Pinter, Altman, Kubrick, Malick, Mann, and Anderson (both P.T. and Wes) consistently writing in a manner that is more stylized than realistic. A movie is a movie – it’s not real life, it shouldn’t always have to approximate the “realism” of something, and the way that the characters speak in The Counselor expresses just as much as who the characters are as it does describe what they are doing. It’s also interesting to note that McCarthy dispatches with any ideas of showing the drug deal in any traditional fashion right from the get-go; when the film starts, the plot is in full swing, with Fassbender’s character already having had numerous conversations to get him to the point that he’s at when we first meet him, and the strings have already been pulled by other characters to have the plot spin so wildly out of (in) control. You’ll have to see the movie, of course, to truly understand what I mean, but without spoiling any of the sadistic fun, this is one of those narratives where someone, somewhere is calling the shots while a wide variety of people never truly know what’s going on. If it seems like I’m avoiding giving a proper plot summary, well, I just don’t feel it’s necessary. You’ve seen the ads: it’s Breaking Bad with big Hollywood stars, from the director Gladiator and Prometheus. Someone makes a deal with the Mexican Cartel, the deal goes south, and all hell breaks loose. It’s just that the brilliance of The Counselor comes from the way that information is presented (or not presented!), the way characters look at one another, and how the “Counselor” of the piece (Fassbender) is always asking other people for help and advice, consistently being counselled himself.

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When it comes to Ridley Scott’s involvement, there’s much to be said. He’s always been attacked as a “style over substance” guy (maybe not with the same ferocity that his late brother, Tony, was attacked), too interested in smoke and fire and razzle-dazzle. It probably stems from the fact that many people view him as a “director for hire” as he’s not a credited writer on his features. I’ve never gotten that slam, or any other “style over substance” slam on any other filmmaker – filmmaking is supposed to be stylish and innovative, it’s supposed to show you something new and fresh (or at least it should attempt). Otherwise, what’s the point? In The Counselor, because everything from a visual stand-point is so precise and honed (a formal nod in line with the Coen brothers) one might overlook just how much is going on underneath the slick surface. McCarthy has littered his brutally poetic screenplay with digressions on death, men, women, love, the absence of love, the idea of sin, the male fear of women, sex, desire, mother vs. whore, impotence, the accumulation of wealth – it’s all there for the taking if you’re interested in digging a little deeper than normal. And while Scott has long been a premier visual stylist (Blade Runner is a certifiable work of painterly art and the widescreen compositions in Kingdom of Heaven are worthy of a museum), he does some of the most un-showy work of his career in The Counselor, and as a result, there’s an elegant, piercing quality to the visuals. Gone are the arid, dusty stylings of Black Hawk Down and Body of Lies and his ancient battle epics, and say good bye to the deep, burnished qualities of American Gangster and Hannibal. In The Counselor, Scott, along with his ace cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (who, it should be mentioned, shot numerous features for Tony Scott, and recently shot Prometheus for Scott), concentrate on tight close-ups, exact framing, and a more natural, relaxed color palette which still allows for splashed of extreme, vibrant color. Scott knows that McCarthy’s words on the page is what’s driving the story forward, so the more classical approach to his direction is welcome and smart. But never forget – this is Ridley Scott we’re talking about, the man who fed Ray Liotta his own brains and had Dr. Lectre feed a child some of Liotta’s brains at the end of his grand Guginol black comedy grotesquerie Hannibal. When Scott wants to get up-close and personal with arterial spray he’s just as adept as Haneke or Tarantino or Winding-Refn in that department, so after the idea of the bolito is presented in that fantastic scene between Fassbender and Bardem, you know you’ll see it down the line.

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The performances are uniformly excellent, with Diaz and Bardem registering strongest. For her part, Diaz has never been this icy or cruel, and it was terrific to see her sink her teeth into such a wicked portrait of insanity. The already infamous sex-scene-with-automobile is big and showy and funny but it’s the rest of her performance that seals the deal; if you look at her close-ups you can see the nastiness sinking in, and I love how you can see the age and wrinkles around her eyes and in her face – this is one hot momma who has been out in the sun way too long. It’s wonderful. And dangerously sexy. Bardem adds another indelible baddie to his rogue’s gallery of villains, but here, he’s in a much different key than he was as the homicidal man with a bowl-cut in No Country or the sneering megalomaniac from Skyfall. His reaction shots and line delivery during Diaz’s bout with the car are nothing short of hysterical, and the way that he imbued his character with a sense of “it’s coming for me” misfortune did a lot to actually make him one of the more sympathetic characters of the piece. He knows he’s in for it, there’s nothing he can do, he’s fallen in love with a serpent that there’s no escaping from. Fassbender starts off all sleazily charming and you think this is a guy maybe worth rooting for, but then you see how he’s really a self-serving jerk who clearly knows he’s getting in over his head but then does nothing to stop it. Watching Fassbender lose control of the situation, a situation he foolishly thinks he’s in complete control of, is one of the many sick pleasures that this film affords. Pitt must love the fact that he gets to play these little nasty “character” bits now that he’s settled into his absurdly impressive career, and as the greasy middleman to Fassbender and Bardem’s dealings, he brings cruel humor and cocky swagger to every scene he appears in. For her part, and she’s not seen much, Cruz does exactly what McCarthy wanted her to do: represent pure, unfettered, innocent beauty. Familiar faces show up in bit parts, with Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz, Ruben Blades, Dean Norris and John Leguizamo all totally owning their cameos, and Natalie Dormer proving to be an alluring distraction just as she did in Ron Howard’s Formula-1 drama Rush.

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There are two movies that The Counselor directly recalled for me: Anton Corbijns spare and beautiful The American and Sam Peckinpah’s utterly nihilistic and sad Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Much like in The American, Scott and McCarthy smartly subvert the audiences’ expectations based on preconceived notions predicated upon genre: The chase has to be here, it needs to end there, this character needs to be killed by that character, etc-etc. And as in Peckinpah’s down and dirty Alfredo Garcia, the narrative in The Counselor comes to a rational (however disturbing and bleak) conclusion that is as audience unfriendly as humanly possible. Most people don’t want to watch the failings of morally repugnant people, but that’s what you get in The Counselor. It’s not the job of cinema or of filmmakers to only tell stories about the ethically just and dignified. Part of the kinky kick of a movie like The Counselor is getting to spend time with venal, nasty people, far removed from the norm, and then getting a chance to watch their lives unravel, and witnessing them getting what they all deserve. Because the cast is peppered with sexy faces and familiar names and because the trailer has been cut to emphasize the three or four scenes of violence/action, audiences are not going to be prepared for what’s in store. It’s The American or The Grey or Haywire or Killing them Softly or Drive all over again – auteur driven films masquerading as general audience pleasers that leave many people irritated and scratching their heads. Those are all GREAT films for me, and I love it when Hollywood has the guts to turn out stuff that’s challenging and rewarding, and there’s something to be said for 20th Century Fox letting Scott and McCarthy get away with a finish that nearly matches the gut-wrenching climax of David Fincher’s immortal serial killer thriller Seven.   The Counselor is a film for film buffs, the sort of movie for people who enjoy spending two hours on the dark side, and who can allow themselves the chance to act as a spectator to truly horrifying events, where, from the outset, it was clear that there would never be a happy ending. It’s easily one of Scott’s best films of his already legendary career, and a further reminder that when he goes “small,” the results are just as spectacular when he shoots for the epic.

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ANDREW NICCOL’S GOOD KILL — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Good Kill is an excellent anti-war drama that scores serious points for delving into the psychological complexities that would come with killing people all day long at the controls of a drone that’s cruising endlessly around Afghanistan while you sit in an air-conditioned metal can at some secret Nevada Government installation. Ethan Hawke is the troubled ex-pilot who has been replaced by computers and unmanned aircraft, Bruce Greenwood is his snappy and ballsy senior commander who loves to lay down the law, Zoe Kravitz is a wet behind the ears rookie who takes a shine to Hawke, and January Jones is Hawke’s skimpily dressed ex-dancer wife who is slowly but surely losing her husband due to the torment of his job. Written, produced, and directed by Andrew Niccol (the underrated political satire Lord of War, the sensational sci-fi noir Gattaca, the brilliant script for Peter Weir’s startling The Truman Show), this is a really strong effort, which is customary for Niccol, as he’s always been interested in exploring unique ideas that go beyond the norm. Good Kill plays like a nifty companion piece to Lord of War; they both share a cynical spirit that befits the morally ambiguous material and both feature characters that walk a very fine ethical line. Hawke is fantastic here, all introverted and buttoned up, prone to explosive bits of alcohol-fueled rage, pursing his lips and speaking out of the corner of his mouth. He’s been on quite a roll the last few years and this is another terrific performance from him. Good Kill is a provocative, topical piece about the mental cost of drone warfare, and how it affects the people sitting in these steel trailers in the middle of the desert pulling the trigger on what appears to be an X-box machine. The visualization of the drone strikes have an eerie, unsettling quality to them, and the situations that are depicted in the film were lifted from factual incidents, which makes the narrative sting even more. The Obama years will forever be known as The Drone Years, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see this film have a long shelf life. I love how Niccol is so pessimistic all the time with stuff, as there are few other filmmakers who have been this consistently interested in tackling real, current issues while still infusing their work with a sense of stylish entertainment. Amir Mokri shot the hell out of the movie, giving it a very sleek visual appearance without being in your face; he’s one of my favorite current cinematographers. And while I maybe expected a larger finish, you have to applaud Niccol for going there with Hawke’s character, allowing him to finally do something he KNEW was right, rather than just taking an educated guess and pushing a button.

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PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON’S PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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A heartbreaking ode to Los Angeles loneliness. A troubling study of unchecked mental illness. A sweet and unlikely romance born out of our innate human nature to be accepted and loved. A transcendent stylistic experiment masquerading as a “romantic comedy.” Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant, hypnotic, and completely consuming Punch-Drunk Love is all of those things and so much more, a deeply idiosyncratic work that has continually grabbed me ever since I had the chance to see it on the big screen over 10 years ago. I’ve returned to this singularly unique and painfully funny film repeatedly throughout the years, and it never ceases to make me smile, shed a tear, and become so totally involved with the characters that I feel as if I know them by now. Adam Sandler has never been better, and will likely never have a project that will utilize him the way that Anderson so perfectly did here. Subverting Sandler’s infamous man-child character made popular throughout the years via all of those low-brow comedies, Anderson knew you’d bring your Sandler baggage into this movie, and it’s fantastic to study how he played off Sandler’s odd charms and strange fixations as a performer. Sandler is all coiled nerves and broken mental wires, a man emotionally stunted to an alarming degree, and how this inner turmoil is conveyed by Anderson through the incessant, ADD-styled musical score by Jon Brion (complete with Shelley Duvall’s amazing rendition of “He Needs Me”) and through Robert Elswit’s lens-flare-inflected wide screen cinematography is nothing short of astonishing. For 90 minutes, you’re inside the rocky headspace of Sandler’s Barry Egan, a loner working a non-descript job in a non-descript warehouse in the classically non-descript San Fernando Valley, and it’s as jolting to him as it is to us when he meets the love of his life, in the form of Emily Watson, as random of a romantic partner for Sandler, at least on paper, that could ever have been discussed or cast. Watson is playing a fabulously complicated character, a woman who isn’t sure of herself let alone how she feels about Barry, and through their hilarious and increasingly awkward yet hopeful courtship, you being to see how these two lost souls have finally met their match. You know you’ve found the best person you can find when you can stare into their eyes and tell them how much you want to smash their face in or bite off their nose, all in good fun of course, and then proceed to hold each other for the rest of the evening. This is a hopelessly romantic movie that also happens to have a darker than usual story strands, involving a menacing villain referred to as Mattress Man, played with delicious evil relish by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who terrorizes Sandler and Watson over the phone and then in the form of some Utah-based goons who travel a few states just to meet the other end of a tire iron, in one of the film’s most memorable and jolting sequences. But the fact that the villain of the piece is there more as a psychological tool of frustration only adds to the increasing buzziness that the film’s mood evokes; like I Heart Huckabees, Birdman, and other films that explore the psyches of troubled protagonists, Punch-Drunk Love has a ton to say about a ton of themes, while the restless aesthetic quality ups the anxiety level. This is easily the most divisive film of Anderson’s career, but for me, nothing has been this magical or surprising from him as a filmmaker. Small piano/harmonium POWER. Also, this film is one of only two productions made by Revolution Studios that’s worth taking not of, the other being Black Hawk Down. Anderson would win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for his beguiling work on Punch-Drunk Love, and while the film was a box office disappointment, it’s certainly found its much deserved status as a modern cult gem. Side-note: the address that Barry Egan gives to the phone sex credit card operator is freakily similar to the location of my second to last apartment in Los Angeles!

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Episode 8: Brad Bird’s TOMORROWLAND, Tod Williams’ THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR, Top Five Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger

Episode 8 is now live!  We discuss the current theatrical release of Brad Bird’s TOMORROWLAND, and our feature film of the week, Tod Williams’ THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR as well as our top five performances of Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger!  Enjoy everyone!

 

 

KATHRYN BIGELOW’S POINT BREAK — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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A thrilling sense of kinetic filmmaking has guided the work of Kathryn Bigelow over the last 25 years, and Point Break is just a go-for-broke action picture, complete with moments of total absurdity, fantastic and unexpected humor, and dead serious thrills. Bigelow’s film, from a clever and exceedingly entertaining screenplay by W. Peter Iliff (Rick King received a story credit), is an incredible piece of vigorous action filmmaking — a heist picture, an undercover policier, a romance, an extreme sports movie that feels ahead of its time in retrospect — the creative team threw a little bit of everything into this film and it’s no surprise that the movie has taken on a massive cult following after a solid but not break-out box office performance. Donald Peterman’s dynamic and muscular cinematography is always bracing and exciting, while Mark Isham’s awesome score swells and builds to some great peaks. Ultimate Patrick Swayze POWER here, Gary Busey steals the entire film, and it goes without saying, Keanu Reeves was just all live-wire terrific here, letting his inner Surfer Dude attitude shine through but also getting a chance to kick some ass when called upon; call it a warm up for his heroics a few years later in the blockbuster action pic Speed. Howard Smith’s editing is fluid and keeps the pace at a fast clip (that backyard chase!) and Bigelow really shined with the action sequences, which have been cribbed from repeatedly throughout the years by various filmmakers. The film was a solid success in the theaters, doing $80 million worldwide on a 50/50 split, but the movie would really cement Bigelow’s action chops, after early efforts like Blue Steel and Near Dark announced a new, distinctive voice, and setting up more ambitious future endeavors like Strange Days, K19: The Widowmaker, and the one-two punch of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Hell – I’ll even go to bat for The Weight of Water! And it must be said: Jumping out of airplanes with no parachute POWER!

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STEVE KLOVES’S FLESH AND BONE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Four Big Ones. Four Stars. Dark-hearted brilliance. How was this movie shrugged off by critics and audiences back in 1993? Just ridiculous. Steve Kloves did a phenomenal job with this bitter neo-noir, throwing out references to In Cold Blood and other genre staples while investing his own sense of moral shading and thematic exploration of love, violence, and the effects of lingering tragedy. The quiet, devastating narrative grips you right from the start, with one of the most tension packed home invasion sequences I’ve ever seen on film. No music, perfectly edited, all pure cinema — a truly startling opening to an incredible film. Shot with unrelenting patience and style by master cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Big Fish, The People vs. Larry Flynt, A River Runs Through It), this is a picture that feels like it was filmed literally in the middle of nowhere, with broken down homes and motels dotting the forbidding Texas horizon, as Rousselot’s camera endlessly surveys the bleak qualities of the barren landscape. There’s no smiling here for Dennis Quaid — that famous mile-wide grin is nowhere in sight during Flesh and Bone. It’s a tremendously internal performance, filled with sadness and a steely rage that feels as if it’s been brewing inside of him for years. James Caan is perfectly evil as Quaid’s menacing father who has done some things that can never be undone. A new to the business Gwyneth Paltrow steals every single scene she appears in (and does some side-action nudity), giving a sultry, creepy supporting performance as a drifter who gets mixed up with Caan’s ruthless father figure and which spices up the final act. And Kloves got an interesting turn from eternal screen-cutie Meg Ryan, playing a beaten-down stripper who crosses paths with Quaid, and whose life will forever be changed after falling in love with him. I love how Kloves had Ryan sport a black eye for much of this hard-bitten film, and the ending was a true wowser, giving you the pay off you’re hoping for while still subverting your final expectations. Total Crimes Against Cinema that this film isn’t available as a Blu-ray special edition; I’ll grab the $5 DVD for now and add it to the collection.

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THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR 2004 Dir. Tod Williams – A Review by Frank Mengarelli

“Don’t ever, not ever, never, never, never, open the door in the floor.”

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            Simply put, THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR is one of the best films from the previous decade.  It is small, intimate and arousing.  Set in present day in New England, the film follows a young man, Eddie, who is set to graduate from a prestigious prep school, Exeter Academy, the same school where Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges) went, and his two deceased teenage sons went as well.  The intent of Eddie’s summer is meant to be spent interning for Ted, Ted was a novelist who became a popular children’s writer, and Eddie is an aspiring writer himself.  As the summer moves along, revelations are made, tragedy, old and new are summoned, and a love affair between Ted’s wife Marion (Kim Basinger) and Eddie formulates.

This film is tough.  Pain, love, loss and isolation surface almost immediately.  Marion never got over the death of their two sons, and Ted has transformed the pain into raising their young daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning) and working on a new children’s book featuring his recurring characters, Thomas and Timothy which are hauntingly named after their two sons who died.

Film Title: Door in the Floor

            Jeff Bridges gives him most vicious and turbulent performance as Ted.  He is an alcoholic philanderer who emotionally uses people, and softly degrades them.  Basinger gives her finest performance as the broken and stoic Marion, who has never fully recovered from the loss of their two sons, and who uses Eddie sexually as a vessel to channel her pain.

There are few, but the scenes between Bridges and Basinger are absolutely beautiful.  These two characters are so broken, and everything they have been through together was only sustainable by their love for each other.  Even though it is not expressed physically, nor shown at all, you can feel how pure it is, how undying it is.

So many films are made about love, and very few can express it the way THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR does.  Pure love at times messy, filled with pain, and beautifully tragic and this film is an absolute visual and musical interpretation of that love.  The film is beautifully shot by Terry Stacey, and remarkably scored by Marcelo Zaruos.   The film’s score is as important as any other aspect of the film, it does not arbitrarily show up and is not easily ignored.  It is designed to provoke an emotional reaction in a scene of a film that is layered with joyous yet heartbreaking emotion.

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            The film’s title is taken from Ted’s most famous children’s book, which upon watching him read it to an audience, and seeing the dark drawings of the book (which Bridges drew himself), it is perhaps the most intense children’s book ever written.  The film begs a question to the audience.  Have you opened your own door in the floor?  Will you open your own door in the floor?  Will you face your own desires, your fears?  Will you come to terms with the realities of everything that you love, everything that you hate?  It is simple for anyone to open the door in the floor, but not many can withstand what comes through it.

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