Monday, October 28, 2013

The Counselor - Review

The Counselor – Review

The Counselor directed by one of my all time favorites Ridley Scott, at its core is an unusual morality cautionary tale that when you freely choose to engage in an activity that you know has risk that are especially high, you better be prepared to suffer imaginable consequences when things go awry. 

It’s also about the dark noir sides of greed and how humanity has evolved, or devolved if you, where human beings who operate in these shady slivers of life; devoid of any conscious, will do some of the most unspeakable things to other humans for that greed.

Starring Michael Fassbender who is only referred to by his legal title as “Counselor” is a nice and decent man with a lovely and innocent girl friend named Laura played by Penelope Cruz. Early on we see that they are a loving and nurturing couple to each other while planning their eventual white picket fence life together. But what Laura, who is a bit naïve, doesn’t not know is that her fiancé is looking to score some quick and easy cash, millions to be specific, to pay off his debts and at the same help finance his other dream of being a co-owner of a high end club for the super wealthy with his friend named “Reiner” played by Javier Bardem. “Reiner” who comes off both a bit of a flake but also street smart as well, has expensive taste and it is obviously manifested by his high maintenance no nonsense live in girl friend named “Malkina” who is a sultry sexy blonde who walks in her Manola Blahnik like she is the antichrist in heels always making her presents known where and when ever she is in the room. 

Reiner is a well connected player to some powerful people, among them is a facilitating drug cartel conduit named “Westray” played by Brad Pitt. “Westray” a cowboy city slicker hybrid is a polished, worldly and erudite personality who has done these types of deals many time before but also warns everyone he has dealt with in the past that the margin for error when dealing with these cartel types is next to zero and that he should not do the deal..
And so the stage is set and therefore you ask does things go well for “The Counselor” in his quick cash deal? Well, of course not and what ensues is a spiraling tale of what happens metaphorically when someone knowingly goes into a dark closet with bad people.

I was utterly mystified and dumfounded by the incredibly low score for this film on Rotten Tomatoes. I found “The Counselor” an exceptionally well made film but in fairness to some this not a subtle film. It has huge characters that jump off the screen in bold dimensions, attitude and execution.  Specifically this is not the type of film for the viewer who wonders out loud to friends every few months when the sequel “Dumb and Dumber 2” is coming out. This is an extremely highbrow screenplay written with certain panache, certain flair, certain confidence and certain style. At times I felt I was watching characters that all had Ivy League degrees or at a minimum had membership to the IQ society of Mensa International. And while I found this level of screenplay conversation utterly refreshing and mentally stimulating, even when it was between seedy looking characters in dark places, I must admit I was a bit amused once by a bartender in Juarez Mexican who even offered up scholarly erudite lines that made me feel I entered into college course on the differences between Socrates and Aristotle.

Still, I think “The Counselor” is one of the better made films this year. And while it does not have any redeeming characters to root for, a few graphic scenes that sent chills up my back and Cameron Diaz’s performance who was spectacular in her role as “Malkina “, who I may add  had an erotic scene with a yellow Ferrari that is permanently etched in my mind forever.

In the end this Ridley Scott effort is a movie to be enjoyed as a pleasant reminder as to why we all went to college and not become drug dealers or any other criminal activity in general. Why? Because in “The Counselor” and in real life criminals always have guns, dogs and very sharp things at their disposal, so when you choose to play in their arena you pretty damn well should at least expect to be cut.

3 – 3/4 Stars

Saturday, October 19, 2013

12 Years A Slave - Review

12 Years A Slave – Review

12 Years A Slave is an incredible mind spinning, unsettling and fabulously raw story about perseverance, strength, fortitude, courage and determined moral conviction as told through the real life story of Solomon Northrup.

Solomon portrayed by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is a young and prosperous man living free in Saratoga New York with his devoted loving wife and children as a somewhat Renaissance man of middle class success and standing. He is well read and an accomplished musician artist living the American dream as much a man of African heritage would ever be allow to live as such in the year 1841.

Early on Solomon is harmlessly introduced to two men looking to secure his services as a violinist. On that very same day he is taken to dinner by the men to be enticed even further by the potential financial windfall awaiting him for his unique services. It is at that dinner where he consumes too much alcohol that his life takes a dramatic turn as he awakens hours later chained in a dark and dirty cell. He is immediately brutally beaten and made aware that he no longer a free man but in fact a kidnapped man to be sold into southern slavery as an escaped runaway with a new name.

What transpires next is not simply Solomon’s generalize written re-witnessing of the brutal history and inhumane aspects of American slavery. Instead this is an unflinchingly and unnerving 2 plus hours of how slavery with all of its demeaning, demoralizing and instances of legalized murder, was an example of Solomon Northrup’s life and the many millions more lives like his who suffered through many years under the weight of immense evil with incredible human bravery.

Make no mistake about it, 12 Years A Slave is incredibly painful to watch; devastating to watch; brutally powerful to watch; and harrowing to watch. British Director Steve Mc Queen takes his camera lens and surgically transforms its use into more of a microscope for the audience to zoom in. We too become transformed whereby one is too emotionally moved to even blink for one single moment at both the nightmarish psychologically horrific aspects of slavery as well as it’s more noted examples of human savagery of humans inflicting unbridled pain and punishment towards other humans for no other reason than they are paid for property.   

This movie is no whimsical Gone With The Wind or comedic revenge fantasy like Django Unchained and there is no Hollywood cute make you feel good fairy tale ending here neither. No simply put this film is a remarkable unforgettable drama about unbreakable human courage and in doing so make you the audience by  watching this re-accounting to live it as well in the manner as if someone had surgically removed a single nerve from the most sensitive part of your body and held it up to candled flame. 

Believe the Oscar buzz, this movie is in the running for Oscar gold statues and it was never better illustrated by having the unusually rare 3 great scenes that for all practically purposes left me numb watching them. One is at approximately the 1 hour mark, the other at the 1 hour and half mark and the other at the 2 hour mark. In each instance the film begs you the audience to watch, don’t you dare turn away and in doing so asks you the viewer to contemplate “what would I have done?”

Produced by Brad Pitt and shot in Louisiana, this film is a lock for several nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Chiwetel Ejiofor, Best Supporting Actor for Michael Fassbender as the crazed plantation owner Master Edwin Epps and possibly a Best Supporting Actress nomination for newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Epps plantation slave mistress “Patsey”.

This is a must see film. 

4 - Stars

Friday, October 11, 2013

My Top Most Controversial Films

My Top Most Controversial Films

I have listed from my viewing experiences the most controversial films that I have seen.

Without any regard to ranking or personal preference I have listed those films that not only had a broad spectrum of reviews, but also made national news due to their subject content and story line.

They are:

1.       Basic Instinct – Legs crotch flash, sex and female serial murderer
2.       Last Tango in Paris – Rated X, Marlon Brando’s use of butter and libidinous appetites
3.       Midnight Cowboy – Male Prostitution  - Only film with an X rating nominated for Best Picture
4.       United 93 – Reenactment of 9/11 flight was eerie and intense
5.       The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Menacing true Story of serial killing of unsuspecting teenagers
6.       Scarface (1983)  – A film about drug dealing - murder becomes glorified as a modern day cult classic  
7.       Henry and June – First film rated NC17 dealing with libidinous adventures
8.       Reservoir Dogs – Song “Stuck In The Middle With You”, a knife and an ear results in very hard to watch.
9.       The Silence of The Lambs - A transsexual, a cannibal and a feminist all in one film
10.   Kids – A story of teenage sex and the spread of AIDS
11.   Dirty Harry – An iconic cop who appears to be fascist and  racist and yet culturally popular
12.   Cruising – A Cop  goes undercover in gay community to find serial killer with stereotypical portrayals
13.   The Exorcist – Devil possession of children.
14.   The Passion of the Christ – Jesus last days draped in blood and brutality – National  concerns of anti-Semitism
15.   The Last Temptation of Christ – A crucified Christ wonders about sex and a life with Mary Magdalene  
16.   A Clockwork Orange – The primordial instincts for rape and violence it set to Beethoven
17.   Deep Throat – If you have to ask, look it up
18.   Psycho – People were afraid to take showers after this film was released
19.   The Deer Hunter – Working class men, the Vietnam war, drugs  and Russian Roulette
20.   Rosemary’s Baby – Some believed a perversion of the Christian faith with devil worship
21.   Irreversible  - A viscous lengthy rape and murder made people walk out of theaters
22.   Hard Candy – A teenage girl gets revenge against a pedophile
23.   The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover - Depravity and decadence mixed with wealthy excesses
24.   Brokeback Mountain – Homosexual love within the backdrop of a western story
25.   Blue Velvet -  Small town gangsters and violence,  with scenes of sexual degradation
26.   Fatal Attraction – Husbands nationwide saw the potential consequences from cheating

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Captain Phillips - Review

Captain Phillips – Review

Tom Hanks once again slides into his everyday man role that his career has come to be uniquely defined by with his latest portrayal in the true story of Captain Richard Phillips 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of his US flagged cargo ship the Maersk Alabama.

Directed by Paul Greengrass who brought us “The Bourne Supremacy”, “Flight 93” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” Greengrass has a proven track record of mastering the start of film plots with a keenly sharp and focused lens on what his movies are all about. He also provides a paralleled presentation of characters that have an interesting above brow, multi faceted quality to their persona all the while securing a common man empathetic relatedness for the audience to care about their well being i.e. Jason Bourne.

At the early start of “Captain Phillips” we see he has a heightened sense of foreboding about his latest tour around the horn of Africa, largely enhanced by recent news reports of cargo ships being targeted by pirates. For Phillips the danger he senses is not only something new but is genuinely real; wrought with justifiable deep seeded concerns manifested by his insistence in the film  to rehearsing the ships security protocol for a possible worst case scenario. Hanks acting interpretations and prowess are on full display here by his effective through the paces ability to calculatingly transfer this same sense of foreboding directly towards the movie viewing audience for them to experience as well.

From the Somali side we see men preparing their ships as well for what to them is their job too. Only in their instance their preparedness is not simply framed in pedestrian terms of going through ship protocols as a means to a legitimate working man’s trade, instead for these Somali men we see they are preparing their ships in the hopes of securing enough funds for their basic human  subsistence, as well as a parallel need to alleviate themselves from the  perpetual threats from ruling Somali war lords who with forcible duress insist these same impoverished men earn their expected millions in ransom piracy dollars or run the risk of dying.    

So the movie Captain Phillips stage is set, and once the inevitable happens with the pirates eventually capturing control of the Maersk Alabama, what ensues for the first half of the 2:13 minutes total running time is a case of high stakes - high seas cat and mouse mind games, threats, beatings and trickery played by the two respective captains against one another in order to gain the upper hand in this life and death struggle. In the second half of the movie the United States Navy – Navy Seals are introduced taking on the role of a collective third character in this stand off of what now is a full blown maritime battle of masculine wills.

Generally, Captain Phillips is a very entertaining movie effort to watch and it does a lot of things very well, especially capturing the vast isolation of the ocean as its backdrop and yet additionally capturing the claustrophobia juxtaposition of cramp close quarters of men moving about in mammoth sized looking ships. Also the story does an effective turn on the highly skilled training of the United States Navy to cleverly, strategically and technologically be able to execute both figuratively and literally their mission.

What I had a few minor problems with this highly anticipated film was an overall bloat with what felt like too many facts from myopic editing, seemingly providing literally a running verbatim transcript account of every single conversation, exchange, threat and counter threat uttered during this prolonged ordeal, making for me a screenplay dialog that felt at times redundant. Such is the case and examples were the numerous times the Somalis threaten to kill Captain Phillips with what had to be well over 25 plus times.  For me it started to feel insincere with so many taunts and murderous threats, that beyond a certain point in the film it starts to lose its effectiveness as being something potentially immediate or genuinely ominous.

In addition the music soundtrack seemed to be misguided in trying to use drums and ethnic rhythms to create a richer cultural link to the Somalis characters unique brand of sinisterly antagonist intentions. To me it would have been far more effective to simply use silence; no dialog, no music at all to build the right measure of anxiety I think Greengrass wanted to convey.

Greengrass is gifted with strong directing techniques, but here they get bogged down a bit by what I felt was an unconscious attempt to emulate the skillful execution of similarly plot films such as the successful Zero Dark Thirty and Argo films of a year ago. If you compare the three stories they do share the same procedural connect the dots to its execution and to its resolution, from beginning to the very end; almost mirroring each other in this regard. Only in Captain Phillips case what is missing is the slow emotional soaring crescendo swell of mission accomplished. Why?  I think Captain Phillips seemed to work way too hard to make 95% of the film an even handed fair playing field from the Somalis perspective, from Captain Phillips perspective and of course from the US Navy’s perspective, sharing what I felt was mutual relevance to all three players afoot. Thusly, l felt a void of what should have been a full feeling of overwhelming excitement at its victorious conclusion “Yea the good guys won”.  Instead, I managed to care and have joy for its heroic finally, its just I did not have as much of that feeling as I should have, leaving me ultimately somewhat underwhelmed instead. My guess the reason is Greengrass didn’t make the film sharper and shorter and therefore the stakes didn’t feel as high with his insistence of sharing so much screen time with so many characters.

In the end Captain Phillips is still a solid and compelling piece of cinematic theater. Also Tom Hanks reminds us again he is a superb actor who can carry a film, delivering real dramatic weight from beginning to end and also establishes Hanks as one of a few actors working today who is a hero via his use of intellect and visceral strengths without a reliance of any use of physical might or brutality. 

3 – 3/4 Stars

Friday, October 4, 2013

Gravity - Review

Gravity – Review

Starring Sandra Bullock as “Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone”, George Clooney as “Specialist Matt Kowalski” and Directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambian and Pans Labyrinth), Gravity is a rather simple and basic plot of survival against mounting odd.

Early in the film we see Kowalski on his jet pack frolicking about space with a some what been there done that attitude on his current mission. He’s a professional at his job but also a bit of a jock on an amusement park ride with his jet pack.  Dr. Stone on the other hand is more grounded and focused but still very amenable to Kowalski’s perpetual talking, space humor and playfulness.

Early in the film while the two American astronauts are diligently in the midst of executing repairs on the Hubble Telescope, a warning is issued to them from ground control that a satellite has been struck and is developing a fast moving debris field that requires them aborting their repair mission immediately. 

So what happens next? Well what happens next is the first absolutely must see film of 2013 and one of the best films of 2013. It is singularly the most riveting, visually imaginative and mesmerizing movie experience I have seen in years.

This is a game changing piece of cinema creativity, which I am certain will win an Oscar for Special effects. Its level of detail for the minutest objects in space as well as capturing the sense of the countless difficulties humans must experience when operating in stiff suits in the cold, dark, directionless and weightless vacuum of space is flawlessly directed and impeccably crafted.

I was glued to my seat with what I as certain for all who see this is the closes any of us will experience space travel. Gravity in my estimation gets you there – places you there like no science fiction film has.

A couple of recommendations. One, you would be foolish to rent this film; you have to see in the theater. Two, I highly, highly recommend you see it in the combination IMAX and 3D format, and finally three, sit as close as possible to the screen; I dare you.

Again, this is a must see film and I will be seeing this again.

Gravity – 4 Stars