Saturday, November 2, 2013

Double Feature: The Counselor and All Is Lost

With Halloween past us and more and more titles hitting local theaters, there are a lot of options from which to choose. Adults especially have no end of options, as only a few releases in the coming months will be even remotely geared towards kids (Free Birds, anyone?). So which ones are worth your ten (or more) bucks? Here are a couple of considerations.

Ridley Scott... what the heck happened? I mean, I know a ton of folk were disappointed with the renowned director's return to both science fiction and the Alien universe in last year's underwhelming and confusing Prometheus, but I never imagined it might actually get worse. There, his confused storytelling was at least partially made up for by his technical wizardry. In The Counselor, an all-star cast cannot make up for that that aforementioned poor plotting and an editing process that is as uneven as such ventures can ever get.

Michael Fassbender plays the titular character, a lawyer who gets involved in shady business dealings with the Mexican cartel due to money problems. But when an expected (and lucrative) shipment is hijacked en route, the criminal organization comes to believe that he is involved, putting any and all of his friends in immediate danger at the same time.
You will learn absolutely nothing about these people.
If The Counselor has one strength, it's the outstanding cast. Besides the always-strong Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem also put in noteworthy performances, really putting some personality into this crime thriller. Cameron Diaz also surprises in a role that is both her best performance in years, and her most shocking (unlike Bad Teacher, which was just shockingly bad). Diaz will do things as an actress here that you've never seen before, and come off as the best part of the movie. Only Penelope Cruz appears completely wasted as a casting choice, given little to do and bad dialogue to do it with. Actually, this is a problem with all the actors, as characters are barely fleshed out and motivations are all but unexplored. What you're left with is an aimless cast reciting endless repetitive monologues explaining the nature of the story, instead of actually showing us any of the interesting bits.
Cameron goes after that Oscar.
This is largely the fault of screenwriter Cormac McCarthy. In his first screenplay since 1976 (and the first to be given feature film treatment), the novelist fails to reign in his enthusiasm for the complex story and the result just isn't pretty. It would be easier to blame Scott, but it's obvious the director did absolutely everything he could with a screenplay that treats little things like the passage of time as an inconvenience. Scott captures the beauty of sweeping landscapes with his camera, and captures the gritty underworld in which our characters find themselves. Another issue he has to deal with as a director however is that there are far too many players in the game. Scott is forced to weave a narrative that is constantly weighed down by about a half-dozen side characters - each with their own arc - with each absolutely necessary to the overly-complicated plot. That wouldn't even be so bad if the leads had anything noteworthy to do; they absolutely do not.
Stetsons are cool, now.
If there's any consolation for Scott, it's that - unlike Prometheus - there really wasn't anything he could DO to make The Counselor good. This kind of high-concept story definitely would have worked better as a novel, and McCarthy should not give up his (undoubtedly lucrative) day job. This film is about as far from a must-see as you can get, and while it's not quite as bad as last year's Killing Them Softly, it runs that same vein of slow-paced, violent crime thrillers, and may appeal to fans of that set. But when a cast and director this good are wasted on a screenplay this bad, nobody is walking away clean.

There's a small, but still decent chance you realized that All is Lost existed. Starring resurgent Oscar winner Robert Redford (after a break, he appeared earlier this year in The Company You Keep and will have a big role in 2014's Captain America: Winter Soldier) and captained by Margin Call (I haven't seen it yet but hear wonderful things) director J.C. Chandor, this is the survival-against-all-odds movie everybody would be talking about if it weren't for the mere existence of Gravity.

Redford plays a nameless sailor, whose private ship "The Virginia Jean" undergoes some of the worst luck you can have when in the middle of the Indian Ocean. First, the boat is struck by a lost shipping container, which rips a hole out of the hull and fries all the electronics in one fell swoop (including the navigational equipment, radio and all wireless communication). Then, after our hero manages to patch up the hole, a storm hits that finishes the cargo container's job. Adrift and with little chance of rescue, Redford's character must do everything in his power to make it back home.
He's looking a little rough around the gills, there.
All is Lost is unlike any similar film you've seen before, with the first divergence being the complete lack of character backstory. As I mentioned before, Redford's character doesn't have a name. We also learn nothing about his family, friends, or reasons for being all alone on that side of the planet. Most movies would attend to those aspects with multiple voice-overs, something All is Lost proudly does not provide. In fact, with the exception of a couple of sentences spoken at the very beginning of the film (and a few incidental outbursts), there's really no dialogue at all. All by his lonesome, Redford's character speaks so infrequently that when he does he usually has to clear his vocal chords from inactivity (I can just imagine Redford refusing to speak on the set in preparation for the role). There is no CGI tiger, nor a volleyball named Wilson, to keep him company, and I'm certain a lesser actor would not have been able to put together such a brilliant silent performance as we see here. Even at 77, Redford reminds us why he's such a renowned actor, as he not only does most of his own stunts but carries an entire film without the need to even open his mouth.
Huh. That doesn't look encouraging.
Unfortunately, that brings with it its own set of problems. As I stated earlier, I never saw Chandor's rookie effort Margin Call, so I have little experience (like most) with his style of directing. And to his credit, he certainly does a great job capturing shots and helping his lone actor maintain that image of the bleak atmosphere of being lost at sea. But without character interaction, we're left with only character activity, and half of this film follows the actor performing acts that may confuse and bore anybody who does not sail on a regular basis. Chandor does a little bit to help, making sure we see the clearly printed signs on things like the "Life Raft" and "Survival Supplies", but those moments are inconsistent with the vast majority of the film, where we're shown things that MIGHT be important, but we're unsure why.
He ain't singin' in the rain.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that - sight unseen - you might have already seen all that All is Lost has to offer. You'd be wrong, however, as the tandem of Chandor and Redford make for an impressive movie, if not necessarily one you NEED to see in theaters. This is a brave production, one that really takes a good, long look at the human spirit and leaves you hanging until the very last moment to see whether it is found lacking. Thematically, it is very similar to Gravity (if a bit in reverse), and since Alfonso Cuaron's drama is DEFINITELY a must-see on the big screen, this being in theaters so soon after seems like a bit of a scheduling misstep. Redford is certainly enough reason to check it out (though Oscar predictions might be a bit out of reach), and Chandor does a good enough job, despite his inexperience as a filmmaker. But if it comes down to this or Gravity (and really, why haven't you seen it yet?), the choice is glaringly obvious. Check out All is Lost only after you first surpass that hurdle.

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