The Counselor

The Counselor is a Hollywood train wreck that is so vapid and bloated that it becomes painful to watch no matter how many times it tries to tell us that it has something meaningful to say. There is a deep rooted nihilism to the script that prevents any emotional connection to even one of the characters and, what is assumed to be, the protagonist is so cold and robotic that the audience is left without a through line to the story. This film fails on all levels with the possible exception of technical, but it is hard to appreciate the skill when what’s on screen is so utterly insane.

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The plot (loosely defined) is centered around a lawyer who is never named that enters into a drug deal because he is hard up on cash even though he buys his girlfriend a 3.9 carat diamond engagement ring. He is the lawyer for a number of shady characters who instruct him to walk away and not go through with the deal. He does the deal anyway and it goes south. What follows is approximately an hour or so of characters talking about how meaningless life is. Characters are introduced solely to tell the lawyer how screwed he is. The lawyer is only slightly more screwed than those watching this film.

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There is an abundance of talent involved in The Counselor and the fact that it fails so spectacularly is a wonder to behold. Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy are responsible for directing and writing respectively. The A list cast includes Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, and Brad Pitt. Only Bardem and Pitt have emboldened their characters with any kind of substance. Cruz is mostly wasted and Diaz is wildly miscast. Fassbender, while typically very good, plays this as an acting school how to, with his facial expressions ready at a moments notice but never finding any genuine emotion to go with them. All are given lines of stilted dialogue that only serve to further the divide between the audience and any kind of connection with the characters. Everybody involved in this project has made great movies in the past which makes it all the more surprising that no one ever stopped to think about what they were doing with The Counselor.

There are three or so scenes that are brilliantly done and would be wonderful if they were in another movie. There is also a scene where Cameron Diaz has sex with a car’s windshield. So take that as you may.

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Escape Plan

Escape Plan is exactly what you would expect a Schwarzenegger and Stallone movie to be. It’s heavy on action and brisk comedy, light on understandable dialogue or a coherent plot. If you know what you’re getting into Escape Plan can be an enjoyable two hour diversion from daily life.

Stallone plays Ray Breslin who escapes from prisons as a career. If you think it’s far-fetched that Stallone excels at hatching plans wait until you hear that he used to be a lawyer. Breslin takes a super-secret government job to test the security of a new kind of prison. One that was built according to the book Breslin wrote on escaping prisons. While inside he befriends Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger) because the plot requires him to do so. He must use his immense knowledge of prison security and call on the favors of his new friend to get out of this one and beat the prison warden played by Jim Caviezel. Caviezel brings out every over-the-top bad guy cliche of the last 30 years for this picture right down to listening to classical music. The plan gets increasingly complicated to the point where it’s just easier to watch the action and try to enjoy yourself.

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Stallone and Schwarzenegger traded in on their action films of the past in The Expendables 2 using their old lines to force comedy into the film. Thankfully there is none of that in Escape Plan. While they play the same types of characters they always play they aren’t resorting to using actual lines from the past. Stallone plays the brooding thuggish guy and Schwarzenegger plays the cheeky strong guy who’s having more fun than he should. Nothing new, but in that lies some of the charm. They know they’re getting older and these aren’t the movies of 20-30 years ago, but they’re trying to have some fun and deliver a decent action film. I’d still take this over the Jason Statham straight to video action pics of recent history.

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Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips is an edge of your seat thriller that takes a true story and makes it unforgettable. Paul Greengrass (Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) uses his frenetic hand-held approach to ratchet up the tension and delivers a breathless account of the Maersk Alabama’s hostage situation by Somali pirates in 2009. Tom Hanks plays the titular captain and once again proves that when he wants to, he is one the greatest actors to ever live.

The story is taken from the true life incident in 2009 where an unarmed shipping boat was taken hostage by four Somali’s. As the situation elevated the Somali’s escaped on a lifeboat and took Captain Phillips prisoner to use as a bargaining tool. The story made international headlines as the US Navy interceded. While this was an international incident there is the possibility of someone not knowing about the event so I will leave the plot synopsis there to reduce the spoilers.

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Paul Greengrass has created an often imitated style that employs fast cuts, hand-held cameras, and ADHD pacing. The true benefit in this film is how that style lends itself to feel like a documentary. Greengrass puts the audience on the boat with the crew, and in some cases with the pirates. There is more tension as the pirates search the boat because it feels as if they could turn around and spot us looking in on the affairs. Greengrass’s shrewdest move may have been in highlighting the life of the Somali pirates. He shows us where they come from and gives them motivation that may have been overlooked. We’re not meant to feel sympathy exactly, but we are meant to understand that this isn’t simple evil. This choice is what allows the last act to get as claustrophobic and tense as it does. Both sides are right and wrong at the same time.

Tom Hanks is stunning in this role. At the onset of the film he appears as a normal family man and boss. Hanks shrugs off any movie star posturing to portray an everyday guy that loves his family, does the best job he can do, and leads his crew the best way he can even if the crew doesn’t always like it. As the hostage situation elevates Hanks makes calm, but normal choices and makes the character feel real. The last few minutes of the movie show Hanks at his most unforgettable and it may be the single greatest acting scene of his career.

Barkhad Abdi play the lead pirate Muse (pronounced Moo say.) This is his first film role and he stands up to Tom Hanks and is able to hold his own throughout the film. He brings a pathos to the character and manages to bring across complicated emotions to show that his motivations are nuanced and layered. This is a stellar debut performance and there can be great things in his future.

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Captain Phillips is about the 2009 hostage incident, but it is also about so much more. There are geopolitical and economical undertones throughout the film. Captain Phillips begins the film by talking about how he’s worrying about the future for his kids and how the job landscape just isn’t the same as it used to be. Meanwhile, Muse and his fellow villagers are being told that if they don’t successfully hijack a boat and make some money they are going to be killed. Everyone is subject to stress and worry, but there are different degrees of it for those of us entrenched in western privilege. Greengrass doesn’t sledgehammer in his points, but he lets the material speak for itself. For example, when the four pirates with their four guns open the door to their lifeboat to see the might of a full US Naval warship we should be reminded of the Roman Empire and their tendency to crush all those oppose them no matter the reason. Much is made throughout the film that the people on that boat matter less than looking bad in international headlines. Captain Phillips is a well crafted film and an edge of the seat thriller but it is so much more for those with the eyes to see.

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Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon delivers a lovely version of Much Ado About Nothing and proves that he is as adept at small scale passion projects as he is with blockbuster superhero team ups. He has assembled a line up of actors from his former projects that carry the words into a new generation. It is updated in dress and scene, but harkens backward in both intimacy and dialogue. Whedon has managed to walk the very delicate line that usually upends modern day adaptations of Shakespeare and come out on the right side. The mental jarring that usually occurs when antiquated dialogue is juxtaposed with automobiles and cell phones is sidestepped by Whedon’s choice in plays. Much Ado is light on gadgets and heavy on wit allowing the audience to remain focused on the plot without being forced to accept hands brandishing guns as the tongue spouts “swords.”

Whedon’s Much Ado is filmed in black and white with a mixture of hand-held and his usual quirky camera angles. He has a flair for staging a shot that is indelible and feels perfectly placed. The black and white color scheme and hand-held camera provide the structure for the intimacy that is felt throughout. The camera follows the actors almost as if it were merely our eyes moving to follow the actors on the traditional stage. The benefit is that it allows the audience to get personal with the words, and words are something that Whedon understands very well. He has long been admired for his scripts both in film and television, however, the praise has typically been focused on the way his characters convey dialogue that is both realistic and pop culturally referential at the same time. Here he does not alter the original text, freeing himself up to focus on the staging and visual side of the story. It is with that in mind that Whedon leaves his mark on this adaptation, giving us a different feel for the story than we’ve seen before.

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The actors fare well with the material and there are plenty of familiar faces for fans of Whedon’s previous work. While the story’s protagonists are technically Claudio and Hero it has always been Beatrice and Benedict that are remembered. That is no different in this version. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof portray the pair with gusto. They perfectly encapsulate the verbal sparring and wit that is inherent in the characters giving every line a double meaning and delivering them in rapid fire succession. Whedon has cast well and found a stable of actors capable of delivering Shakespearean lines without sounding silly as is often the case with Americans playing the roles. Even the minor supporting characters are done well and Whedon favorite Nathan Fillion even shows up to play the blustery Dogberry. There is solid acting throughout and it is especially joyous as these are not actors typically known for these kinds of roles.

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Joss Whedon has made his name in sci-fi/fantasy and his first foray into a more traditional narrative has shown a promise that I didn’t known was present. This was a risk for him as it goes against everything he is known for. Whedon goes the opposite route of Kenneth Branaugh’s earlier film version. Where that film was grand in scope Whedon’s is more warm and familiar. Branaugh used period dress and setting where Whedon updated to modern times using his own house as the setting. This is a very different adaptation than I’ve seen before and I’m very pleased at the results. It is a version I will no doubt return to again.

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Gravity

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney headline the incredible new film from Alfonso Cuaron. Gravity is exceptional in every frame and is a technical wonder of filmmaking. There is palpable tension throughout the entire running time requiring a gritted teeth resolve to endure the events with the characters rather than disconnecting. Cuaron has crafted a superb film that relies on a truthful performance from Bullock as much as it does his exquisite and stunning camera work.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play a medical engineer and an astronaut on a mission to provide repairs to the Hubble telescope. An accident leaves them adrift in a space battle for survival and Ryan Stone (Bullock) must learn to face her past if she wants to make it back to Earth.

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Alfonso Cuaron makes all the right choices with his direction and goes against the blockbuster grain at every turn. There is a rabid insistence on realistic portrayals of what happens in space that are not commonplace in today’s space movies. For example, there is no sound in space. This fact is represented in the film. Much of the film is the sound of Bullock’s voice paired with a haunting and tense score.

The camerawork is what truly amazes about Gravity. The film opens with almost fifteen minutes of footage without a cut. The camera moves as if it is in zero gravity with a floating effect throughout the entire film. There seem to be no cheats and all the CG matches effortlessly with the actors. One is left to wonder how this amazing camerawork was achieved.

Gravity is almost exclusively Sandra Bullock’s vehicle. In addition to being the only actor on screen for the majority of the film she provides the emotional base. She roots the film with an honesty that plays somewhat off of the audience’s feelings towards Bullock herself. Bullock is known for being an everywoman sort of actress with a relatability that the film depends on. The audience is expected to feel for Bullock’s character because they generally feel for Bullock. This is not to say that Bullock is ineffective in the film. She puts in a solid performance with no showy overtones. She is realistic without being over the top which may hurt her Oscar chances but serves the film brilliantly.

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Gravity is a wonderful start to the Oscar season and is a thankful respite from the head rattling blockbuster season. Alfonso Cuaron crafts an at times unbearably tense emotional story with dazzling camerawork that should be considered essential viewing for film lovers.

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Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the latest actor to make the jump to writer/director and the results are a tad mixed, but the film shows promise for the future. Don Jon has some deep storytelling flaws and suffers from being slightly uncertain about what kind of film it wants to be, but it makes up for some of that with charm and pitch perfect performances.

JGL plays Jon who is a playboy charmer who can bed any woman he wants with relative ease. He has the looks, the body, the car, the pad, and the attitude to ensure that he always has a different lady to take home. What the women don’t know is that Jon has almost no interest in them. He is addicted to porn and the women in them. Real women just can’t live up to the porn star wildness that he watches online. Then he meets Barbara played to Jersey perfection by Scarlett Johansson. Barbara is smoking hot and won’t put out on the first night which drives Jon crazy. Jon becomes infatuated with Barbara and before he knows it he’s a one-woman man. One real woman anyway. Barbara is everything he thinks he wants except for in the bedroom. Barbara just can’t grab Jon’s attention the way porn does.

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Barbara suffers from her own kind of delusional addiction, although hers is societally approved. She has rom-com fueled visions of what relationships should be and her fantasy world doesn’t always match up with what real men can offer her. She believes Jon is wrapped around her finger as he even signs up for community college classes at her insistence. Everything seems to go smashingly until Barbara checks Jon’s internet history. Jon and Barbara must then figure out how to destroy their delusions or the relationship is doomed.

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Gordon-Levitt is proving to be a gifted filmmaker and likely has a bright future in the director’s chair. There are a few film-school angles that jar the story rather than help, but overall he shows great competency behind the camera. His true brilliance in Don Jon is bringing out the best from the actors around him. Scarlett Johansson is wonderful in this film. She truly shines in every scene and her Jersey girl with high class aspirations demeanor holds up throughout the film. This performance is by far her best in ages.

Julianne Moore makes the most of her scenes as Jon’s classmate at a community college course by bringing a warmth and realism to what is otherwise a role that is wholly unnecessary except as a plot device. Moore captures the uncertainty behind the eyes of a woman completely lost in her own life. Furthermore, and most importantly, she provides a spark to the film just as it starts to sag.

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Don Jon’s glaring fault lies in the screenplay, specifically the advancement of the plot. Gordon-Levitt’s dialogue is spot on and never feels fake, however, he doesn’t seem to know how to get his characters where he wants them without serious and unrealistic plot tinkering. For example, Jon meets Esther (Julianne Moore) when he enrolls in a community college course. The problem with this is that he has no reason to be in the class. He doesn’t want to be there and Barbara insists he attends for reasons that are murky at best. The true reason he is there is to meet Esther who can provide life lessons for Jon to learn. There could have been an authentic relationship between Jon and Esther somehow, but the college course smacks of laziness. Gordon-Levitt will need to sharpen his screenwriting chops for his next feature.

The premise of Don Jon is solid and shows great potential, but ultimately it falls short of being a great film because it skirts the truly dramatic implications of the set up in favor of charm and light laughs.

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