Archive for October, 2013

The Counselor

Monday, October 28th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

If one believes the assessment of Scott Foundas in his apologetic “Variety” essay, Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” is a slept-on and misunderstood near-masterpiece on par with “Blade Runner” and not the ridiculous, cringe-worthy embarrassment described by many other critics. For those keeping track, Metacritic’s page for “The Counselor” averages fifteen positive reviews, thirteen mixed reviews, and twelve negative reviews to come up with a score of 49 on a hundred point scale. Foundas discloses his role as the organizer of the “first complete North American retrospective of Scott’s films,” and the critic’s feelings extend to the eyebrow-raising claim that “The Counselor” is “bold and thrilling in ways that mainstream American movies rarely are, and its rejection suggests what little appetite there is for real daring at the multiplex nowadays.”

Familiar generalizations about the public’s lack of taste and intelligence aside, the first part of that claim is dubious. Directed by Scott from novelist Cormac McCarthy’s first script produced originally for the screen, “The Counselor” is a cryptic neo-noir crammed with the most familiar tropes and expectations of the style. Contrary to Foundas’ opinion, the movie ventures nothing and gains even less, unfolding with a solemn pomposity that will delight only those viewers who believe they are in on the joke as opposed to being the butt of it.

Take, for example, the spectacle of Cameron Diaz’s cheetah-stroking femme fatale replicant Malkina grinding and squeaking her mons pubis on the windshield of Reiner’s (Javier Bardem) Ferrari. Apart from the scene’s flirtations with outright misogyny, amplified by Reiner coarsely likening Malkina’s vagina to a “catfish thing” and a “bottom feeder,” McCarthy appears to reveal a disappointingly regressive embrace of masculine fears regarding “repulsive” female sexuality. Whether or not one finds the scene liberating or debasing (see Tracy Moore’s “Jezebel” column for a more detailed discussion), the moment typifies the film’s anything goes desperation to rise above the forgettable banality of its plot.

While “The Counselor” is not exactly a bore, Scott’s phony gravitas and McCarthy’s drug trade philosophy-lite conspire against the efforts of the game stars. Along with Bardem and Diaz, the principal cast includes Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, and, in the title role, Michael Fassbender. A few arresting visuals, including the high-speed clothesline decapitation of a motorcyclist, must compete with secretive conversations too dutiful in their elisions. Further, the pace of the film oozes like the fecal sludge that hides the narrative’s MacGuffin-esque drug shipment in a disguised septic truck bound for Chicago.

Along the way, Scott indulges plenty of McCarthy’s signature bloodletting, including the sight of the nightmarish “bolito,” a kind of motorized piano wire garrote/noose that cuts through the neck of any victim unlucky enough to have it slipped over his head. Death comes for the guilty and the innocent alike, but aside from brief glimpses of Cruz’s naïve and underdeveloped Laura, Scott and McCarthy have no interest in exploring a point of view alternative to the twisted lawbreakers whose moral failures lead to unspeakable outcomes. Only time will tell if Foundas made the right call on “The Counselor,” but unless the movie gets embraced as camp, it is unlikely to ever attain the status of Scott’s better films.

Carrie

Monday, October 21st, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A disappointing and unnecessary remake of Stephen King’s first major success, Kimberly Peirce’s take on “Carrie” almost slavishly follows the rhythm and pace of Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic. The rehashed script, credited to Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and original screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, fails to turn up anything new and significant from the source material despite filmmaker claims to the contrary. Indiewire’s Drew Taylor has suggested that the late addition of Cohen’s name to the official credit list is a legal development born of Aguirre-Sacasa’s sometimes word-for-word and scene-for-scene reliance on Cohen’s adaptation.

King’s conceptual tour de force continues to hold a magnetic appeal for audiences of many ages. Drawing on the primal fears that accompany the physical and emotional changes of adolescence and placing them in close quarters with the tension between religious fanaticism and the strong pull of normalcy and conformity, King tapped into the insecurities that go hand in hand with rites of passage. The greatest fright of “Carrie” arises from the inversion of the Cinderella story: an unthinkable scenario in which a mother seeks to murder her own flesh and blood. Peirce boldly affixes a messy, opening flashback to Carrie’s birth that flirts with infanticide by scissors, but the prologue detracts somewhat from the punch of De Palma’s charged shower room spectacle and its mix of eroticism and revulsion associated with Carrie’s menstruation.

Like some of the self-referential elements of the 2002 TV movie version of “Carrie,” the new edition slips in a few convenient updates, including an underdeveloped cyberbullying thread surrounding a YouTube upload of Carrie’s humiliation. Less competently, a throwaway reference to Tim Tebow will date faster than William Katt’s ruffled, powder blue tuxedo shirt. Surprisingly, very little attention is paid to the discovery of Carrie’s telekinetic super-powers, a thematic component ripe for reconsideration in the context of titles like “X-Men: First Class.” Aguirre-Sacasa’s experience as a Marvel Comics writer makes the missed opportunity especially vexing.

Peirce, whose blistering “Boys Don’t Cry” explored a world filled with inexplicable horror, seems like a strong choice to tackle “Carrie,” but the raw verisimilitude of her 1999 feature debut is conspicuously absent in the new movie. The director struggles with tone, especially when it comes to the handling of the high schoolers who make Carrie’s life hell. Peirce does clarify Sue Snell’s (Gabriella Wilde) sense of regret and guilt, restoring both the character’s pregnancy and her “psychic connection” to Carrie that manifests most directly in the climactic house destruction scene. The rest of the tormentors, especially Portia Doubleday’s exceedingly cruel, one-note Chris Hargensen, dart toward parody and cartoon.

While there is nothing wrong with the casting of talented performers like Chloe Grace Moretz (in her first leading role) and Julianne Moore, Peirce provides few opportunities for the principal actors to distance and distinguish themselves from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Spacek and Laurie both earned Oscar nominations for their portrayals in the De Palma film, and that feat most certainly will not be repeated by Moretz and Moore. Peirce works hard on the development and clarification of the twisted, abusive, and operatic mother-daughter dynamics, but Moretz never quite accesses the fragile vulnerability of Carrie with the same degree of credibility demonstrated by the unforgettable Spacek.

Salinger

Monday, October 14th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Probably the weirdest and most disappointing thing about Shane Salerno’s documentary “Salinger” is the lack of interest shown in the words and ideas of the popular author’s literary output. Sure, the movie follows a familiar script that makes connections between “real life” sources and inspirations for well-loved characters and events, but the desperate autobiographical sleuthing does its enigmatic subject no favors, focusing on the “mystery” of J.D. Salinger instead of anything resembling a thoughtful consideration of the man’s talents. The movie is enough to send disciples back to their dog-eared paperbacks. I daresay “old Jesus probably would’ve puked if He could see it.”

If the superficial treatment of Salinger’s oeuvre fizzles, so too does Salerno’s ill-advised decision to stage reenactments of Salinger pounding away at a typewriter, often in front of a huge movie screen filled with images that speculate on everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to the failure of Salinger’s marriage to Claire Douglas. The effect is cheap, disheartening, and, if you’ll pardon the easy swipe, phony as hell. The use of a mute actor impersonating Salinger distances us from the charm, warmth, and humor of the fiction, stirring up instead the uglier tendencies toward the writer’s irritability, paranoia, and seclusion.

While some of the talking heads are people who knew and interacted with Salinger, too many of the interview subjects belong in the desperate stalker or eager opportunist categories. Salerno gives Joyce Maynard way more screen time than necessary to articulate her points about Salinger’s pattern of fixating on very young women and girls. A grim section highlighting the ghastly crimes of Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley Jr., and Robert Bardo would be more at home on an episode of some lurid true crime cable series. In contrast, a too-brief discussion about William Shawn’s decision to overrule the “New Yorker” fiction editors who rejected “Zooey” hints at a more insightful and discerning narrative.

Salinger fanatics and completists will discover a handful of titillating material, including a very short, previously private motion picture film clip of the author made during his World War 2 service, several rarely-seen photographs including the only known image of Salinger at work on “The Catcher in the Rye,” and a final revelatory coda outlining the possibility of forthcoming publications. Claiming that “information was provided, documented, and verified by two independent and separate sources” (whatever that means), Salerno describes a novella informed by Salinger’s work as a counter-intelligence agent, a love story based on Salinger’s relationship with his first wife, a treatise on the Vedanta religion, and a full account of the Caulfields, including a retooled version of “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans.”

Most tantalizing of all: five new Glass stories, purportedly focused on Seymour, and a “detailed genealogy” of the family. Salerno claims the first of the tales sees Seymour and Buddy “recruited at a party in 1926 for the children’s quiz show ‘It’s a Wise Child’.” Less hopeful is the note that these stories are “saturated in the teachings of the Vedanta religion,” a deep fear long held by Salinger followers disillusioned by the author’s later tendency toward theological didacticism at the expense of rich and involving storytelling. Salinger biographer Paul Alexander summarizes this shift, saying of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” “It’s long on tone and absolutely devoid of plot.” Salerno’s movie doesn’t have much of either, so here’s hoping that we might get to read some new Salinger in the near future.

Gravity

Monday, October 7th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A hair-raising survivor thriller, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” imagines the deadly consequences of the Kessler effect on a shuttle mission spacewalk endangered by projectile debris. At the risk of drawing fire from the enthusiastic moviegoers who made “Gravity” the most successful October film opening to date, the movie does not surpass the intellectual and emotional engagement of Cuaron’s brilliant, blistering “Children of Men,” although for many, the fierce determination and will to live expressed by stranded astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) will sets heart to pounding. “Gravity” is still better than good. Along with Emmanuel Lubezki’s phenomenal work as director of photography, the visual design certainly heralds another milestone in the development of photorealistic CGI.

“Gravity” is so direct, so focused on the life-sustaining importance of critical tasks performed step by detailed step, one wonders whether or how philosopher and Cuaron fan Slavoj Zizek will apply the “paradox of anamorphosis” to the new film. Zizek’s fascination with the idea that meaning in “Children of Men” can be derived only from examining the background and the margins – as opposed to the principal elements of plot that dominate the foreground and the action – invites a kind of discourse that must be altered for discussions of “Gravity.” Of course, it is entirely possible that Zizek could surprise us all with a claim that the chasm of space functions in a manner parallel to Cuaron’s previous efforts, but I for one see the filmmaker’s latest as a canny, calculating blend of technological experimentation and classic Hollywood formalism, the latter most disappointingly embodied by Steven Price’s often-standard issue score.

As one of the biggest movie stories of 2013, “Gravity” has already generated a metanarrative constructed by people interested in the intricacies of the production process as much as the drama of Dr. Stone’s predicament (the last time this happened on a similar scale may have been “Avatar”). Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson posted a series of comments on Twitter popping a few holes in the movie’s logic balloon. The items called out ranged from minor, possibly aesthetic issues (why Bullock’s hair didn’t float in zero-G) to questions of positioning (Hubble, the International Space Station and a Chinese rig are “all in sight lines of one another”) to several other matters of plausibility. From a storytelling standpoint, one can chalk the entire lot of Tyson’s observations up to the most basic rights of artistic license. The popular scientist also made sure to note that he enjoyed the film “very much.”

No potentially groundbreaking movie dealing with space exploration can escape the inevitable comparison to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “Gravity” reviewers have lined up to pay their respects to Stanley Kubrick’s landmark. Kubrick’s film, no less meticulous in its own approach to orbital verisimilitude, was sui generis in a way that “Gravity” cannot claim. Andrew O’Hehir even suggests that “Gravity” is like a “secular equivalent to the spiritual or supernatural dimension found in Kubrick’s and Tarkovsky’s great space movies.” Both “Gravity” and “2001” have a way of defining the terrifying immediacy of an astronaut’s fragile tightrope walk between life and death, but Cuaron – with one notable exception – chooses not to float toward the metaphysical phantasmagoria so indelibly conjured by Kubrick.