review

Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor

‘If your definition of a friend is someone who is willing to die for you, then you’ve got no friends.’

It’s been a little over a year since The Counselor was out in theatres, and after a lot of less-than-forgiving reviews I ended up missing it altogether — despite being drawn in by the trailer, the cast, and of course the genius, mouth-watering writing skills of Mr McCarthy.

Never one to worry about a critic’s opinion, or a bad rating, I finally followed my gut and waded in on The Counselor last night.

The Counselor, played by the exquisite Michael Fassbender, represents big-time drug dealers and other corrupt clients all around the world, and after popping the question to Laura (Penelope Cruz), he gets lured in by a one-time deal to set him and his fiancé up for life. He schemes with old buddies (or former clients?) the larger-than-life Reiner (Javier Bardem) and rootin’ tootin’ Westray (Brad Pitt) to make a quick buck by slingin’ drugs across the border. Sounds easy enough right? Wrong. Cue the Mexican cartel and other nasties, and you’ve got yourself a seriously sticky situation.

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From the moment it started, I was mesmerised by the beautiful, bleached-out setting of the Mexican plains — and the cinematography was divine. But it wasn’t just the exterior that was breath-taking, all the interiors — and the clothes — were in a class of their own. From opulent to eccentric, the art department went over and above on this movie. And it paid off, because it really gave us a sense that we were dealing with a different breed of human being. We were watching lavish lifestyles paid for with murky morals.

It will come as no great surprise that the screenplay was delicious — and in typical Cormac McCarthy style it was loaded with the obscurity, and sentimentality we’ve come to know and love. Using his seen-it-all-before tone he carved out what, on the surface, is a simple storyline but made it extraordinary and terrifying by playing on our emotions. Some of the dialogue is spine-tinglingly good and partly responsible for the wearing-down of the rewind button.

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But in the originality and ambiguity of McCarthy’s screenplay lies the movie’s biggest obstacle — and more than likely one the contributing factors as to why it wasn’t the smash hit it should have been.

The screenplay doesn’t spoon-feed us. A.k.a it doesn’t sluggishly lay out the plot for us in the first fifteen minutes, and then unleash all merry hell. In fact, it slowly lulls us into a false sense of security with its tantalising dialogue and interesting characters — which isn’t a bad thing, but in The Counselor’s case it doesn’t help to make clear exactly what is going on. So much so, that if it wasn’t for my brother’s excited running commentary at times I would be completely lost wading through a puddle of Sunny D tans and blinged out Cheetahs. Yes, really.

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But once shit hit the fan, the intensity and terror escalated and The Counselor once again became the high-octane thriller that I expected. There were plenty of you’ve-never-seen-anything-like-this-before moments, and enough twists and turns to keep us enticed — but I was still a bit confused. And, that is never a good thing.

It was around about this point that I thought perhaps The Counselor would have been better off as a book. But then that book would have been transformed into a screenplay, no doubt, because it is undeniably an absorbing story. So, should it have had a different director? But Ridley Scott did a great job of setting the scene, and capturing the intensity. It went astray somewhere, and I’m not sure how or where exactly, but it’s definitely the reason why this wasn’t a box office smash.

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Aside from the tantalising cinematography, my favorite thing about this movie was Cameron Diaz as Malkina. She was the icy, hard bitch in heels delivering wicked one liners and chilling the bones of every path she crossed. It was refreshing to see her in a grittier role, and even more refreshing to see a female role getting to shine without playing second fiddle to a man.

Michael Fassbender, who portrays pain and anxiety like no other, was triumphant as The Counselor — a man who was driven, and destroyed, by his own greed.

Now that I’ve seen the film, (eventually) followed the plot, and seen the ending I’m going to watch it all over again. Purely because the second time around you can relax into it, and enjoy the ride without grappling to understand the directions.

Cormac McCarthy, you’re still the best.

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Coen Brothers’ Fargo, episode one

Well heck, Fargo’s only gone and been made into a darn TV series. But, you already knew that didn’t you?!

Going into this I had no idea what to expect… And given my track record of loathing anything even resembling a ‘remake’, I was pretty sceptical. Fargo, the 1996 movie, achieved that rare feat of interlacing comedy with crime with bloody gore with interesting characters. So, how were they going to do that stretched out across a number of episodes?

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Well, the good news is it ain’t a remake. It shares the same name, the same backdrop, and the same executive producers (see Coen, Joel and Coen, Ethan) but that’s where it stops. We’ve got new characters, a new story, and new weirdness to sink our teeth into.

It all started with an oh-so-familar panorama of bleak, snow soaked landscapes of small town Minnesota, and dark, brooding lighting. And the first episode continued to be loaded with beautiful scenery offsetting the bloody violence. So far, so good.

The beauty of a TV, versus film, is time — and having much, much more of it. And they’ve really put it to good use so far, with the screenplay spilling over with amusing, quirky exchanges — and all in THAT accent.

But the most impressive thing so far is not the photography, the writing, or the characters, it’s whoever made the decision to cast Martin Freeman as the downtrodden salesman Lester Nygaard. His portrayal of a man on the edge is both magnetic and as subtle and understated as ever as he proves once again you don’t need to be wide-eyed and maniacal to play troubled and borderline psychotic.

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But he’s not the only one delivering the goods, Billy Bob Thornton was enigmatic. I’ll admit, I was apprehensive going into it at the thought of there being a Steve Buscemi shaped hole burning its way through my screen, but my nerves soon settled as Billy Bob’s crazed intensity found its own fire, and kept on burning bright the whole way through.

Episode one did everything a first episode should: it introduced us to the characters, kicked off what is sure to be a weird and wild story, and left us thirsty for more next week. Can’t say fairer than that.

Blue Valentine, nobody baby but you and me

Like most females I know, if Ryan Gosling is credited to a film I’m drawn to it. Moth to a flame, red rag to a bull etc etc. But, unlike most of the other films he’s starred in over the past five years, I did have my reservations about Blue Valentine. Purely because it looked like an advert for the ‘all style and no substance’ movie movement. Even like something an art student has conjured up that’s designed to look pretty but not pack much punch besides that.

My initial reaction was, I don’t want anything to do with this. And stubbornly I  stuck with this stance for a good two years after it was first in cinemas.

Well trust me kids as important as it is to go with your gut instinct, but when it comes to movies it’s equally important to let your friends persuade you. After getting sick to death of my best mate harping on and on about Blue Valentine — and everyone reblogging stills and gifs from the movie on tumblr, I caved in. I caved in and loved every second of it.

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I felt such a fool — this wasn’t a pretentious attempt at creating a kooky movie about love, this was a no-frills story about emotion. Being the voyeur that I am, the opportunity to have an uncensored and unguarded glimpse into the lives of every day people is too good to pass up.

The film follows the evolution of Dean and Cindy’s relationship by cross-cutting from how they meet to them coping with the breakdown of their marriage. The cross-cutting is seamless and quite beautiful in how it weaves through their lives before and after they meet — especially when it effortlessly overlaps between the two time periods and they almost start to melt into one. This is something I appreciated even more the second (and third) time I watched it.

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My favourite thing about this movie is the direction — the way Cianfrance uses extreme close ups, often from awkward and unusual angles, at the most tense moments is what gives it its intense and claustrophobic feel. Which, of course, emphasises the stress in their fractured relationship. It makes for quite uncomfortable viewing, but in this context works well.

Their stay in the Future Room, with its sterile decor and blue hue, embodied the tension in their relationship  — and, it’s touches like this in a film that excite me. This part of the story was definitely hard to watch because you’ve got yourself front row tickets to the crumbling of what was once a beautiful and exciting relationship.

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The script is a dream — and trust me, it’s not your typical love story. It’s intelligent with warm moments, depressing scenes and genuine surprises. It will stay with you for a while, and give you plenty to gnaw over.

And as for my worry that it was going to be (a lot of) style over (little) substance, I was completely wrong. There is a lot of attention and focus over the overall image — and as a result it is a beautiful film, sometimes shot with soft focus and lighting that take away some of the hard edges of the story, that captivated me from the beginning.

And as for Ryan Gosling… Well, he was just an added bonus!

Reservoir Dogs, you’re fuckin Beretta!

There is something so fantastically bizarre about Quentin Tarantino’s movies that when I first discovered them it felt like, what I can only imagine, a kid who has been forbidden from eating candy all their life feels upon accidentally chowing down a piece of the sweet stuff and unleashing an outrageous explosion of taste inside their cute little head. Incredible.

Although I refuse to do this in real life, if someone asked me to choose which one of his movies is my ultimate favourite — in blog life, I’d go with the dogs.

It was the second Tarantino movie I saw, a couple of hours after experiencing Pulp Fiction I was desperate to soak up as much of this new found goodness as possible. From the moment it started — that iconic diner scene, I was hooked. I got Tarantino in my blood work.

It’s the simplicity of the story juxtaposed with the intensity of the characters — and the depth with which he creates them. His extraordinary, and rare, talent of being able to describe the entire psychology and personality of a character with one line — or one look — is out in full force in this film. The notorious opening scene is a classic example of that.

It’s the dialogue. It’s always the dialogue with QT, but Reservoir Dogs is a total goldmine when it comes to smart-ass one-liners. I reckon that 80 per cent of his dialogue has nothing to do with the movie’s plot, or the characters in it but that’s why it’s real. That’s why it’s honest.

It’s the relationships he forms between the characters — and how intelligently, and tantalisingly, he develops them and weaves them into the film.

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It’s the brutal, bloody violence alongside genuine humour. And the super-sounds-of-the-seventies soundtrack that contrasts so loudly with the film’s content. And it’s the genius direction of not showing the audience the truly violent moments — the camera pans away when the sadistic-yet-so-cool Mr. Blond slices poor old Marvin’s ear off.

And, of course, it’s Mr. Orange. The character that my twelve-year-old self thought was the coolest cat in town. And my twenty-one-year-old self still thinks is the greatest character ever thunked up. It’s the ‘you’re fucking Beretta’ moment that sealed the deal.

Tarantino knows how to write a weird and wonderful story that we can all sink our teeth into, that’s a given, but what’s so obvious is his unrivalled ability to create characters that stick.

After watching Reservoir Dogs at the cinema, on it’s 21st anniversary, I spent a freezing cold hour outside discussing the psychology of his characterisation with a handful of strangers, and fellow Tarantino nuts. We all agreed that he is in a class of his own when it comes to inventing wholly unique characters in fucked up situations.

If you want gratuitous entertainment, he’s your guy. If you want one hundred minutes of adrenaline busting perfection, the dogs is your film.