21 November 2013

Three Times: The Counselor

 Three reasons Malkina will be legendary

1. I thought about listing three candidates for the "most over the top" performance in The Counselor but that would be silly. Most over-the-top-ness, thy name is Malkina. The character is introduced as the cheetah-wrangling girlfriend of Javier Bardem's Reiner and object of wonder to Michael Fassbender's Counselor but she proves much more crucial to plot developments than either of them as we move along. As I tweeted immediately after my screening: I want desperately for Cameron Diaz to mount a simultaneous campaign to win both the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress and the Oscar for Best. I found myself asking, "Did she really just..." at a rate usually reserved for John Waters films. Diaz finds a lascivious strut not seen since her padded bra debut in The Mask. I have more affection for Ms. Diaz than many (due to my uncritical love for her 90's roles in WTT faves She's the One and My Best Friend's Wedding) but it's been a minute and I definitely had a sustained hmmmm when I heard she was to play Malkina. With each off the shoulder dress, however, she owns the character for better or worse or amazing.

The animal print tattooing isn't new to fans of SuicideGirls but Malkina's asymmetrical haircut and intentionally dark roots are more inspired, as is her investment in waterproof mascara to achieve those cheetah tears. Penelope Cruz, whose Laura is a significant character in the screenplay Cormac McCarthy wrote but not so much in this film, is batted around mouse in her cage.

2. Diaz' line recitation so random that I wondered whether she had developed a speech impediment as a coping mechanism for her participation in Knight and Day. Or perhaps she had collagened her lips as part of her method, to get that unnatural rhythm, with those abrupt sentence endings. But no--the oddness can be attributed to her post-dubbing over a Rihanna-style accent! The next generation of film scholars will clamor for the "restored" Malkina voice, per the artist's original intent. Hopefully even now those precious recordings have been secreted away to a Scandinavian mental institution for safekeeping.

3. Okay, let's cut the bullshit preambles and talk about "The Car Scene." If you know nothing else about The Counselor, you know that Cameron Diaz humps the windshield of a convertible. For me, the most shocking element is that director Ridley Scott made this sequence the only flashback in the film, adding to its bizarre power.

Something must be said though: we were 180 degree pan away from a real cultural moment. In his retelling, Reiner uses a catfish metaphor--that's a start but those of us who aren't regular Hillbilly Handfishin' watchers might need a visual aid....Also, was there ever an impulse from Reiner to use windshield wiper fluid? Throughout the film the only thing that seems to scare tough guys is female sexuality (see also Edger Ramirez's priest, who does not care to hear the rest of Malkina's confession).

Three answers to the question "what was Cormac McCarthy thinking?"

1. My answer is "I don't know." But that's not just an admission of ignorance--it must be the most common line of dialogue in this film. The two most frequent I-don't-know-ers are Reiner and Brad Pitt's Westray, but there are also some Spanish language quien sabes. Given that Reiner and Westray are the men who are supposed to counsel the Counselor on his drug deal, "I don't know" is an unsettling answer to hear so often.

Reiner, who rolls around in the phrase as gleefully as Shere Kahn, is like most guys hooked into the cartel--pressured to enjoy as much life as possible in a compressed timeline (he wears rose-colored glasses and a shirt printed with butterflies and double cherries as charms). But one of the things he finds out he didn't know is what would make a good location for his new club. Reiner's grim end is an excellent call back to the gutshot man in No Country for Old Men, who is worried about, of all things, the lobos coming to get him. Well, would you rather be eaten by a rogue cheetah?

Pitt is the best at enlivening the abstractions of the script in his western suit and silver jewelry--Westray even has a Michael Mann "don't have anything in your life you can't walk out on in 30 seconds" ethos. But he still doesn't know. The people who have the answers in this film aren't often onscreen. 

2. However unpleasant, The Counselor is the natural continuation of No Country for Old Men, the jackpot these people have gotten into and from which only death can extricate them. (Aside: one thing I don't know is why everyone keeps saying this is McCarthy's first screenplay. Have you picked up the book No Country for Old Men? That's a screenplay.) Remember in the third act when Llewellyn Moss doesn't get away (like Westray he takes his eyes off the prize (though at least Westray can blame it on that Natalie Dormer's irresistible Tyrellian smirk we know from Game of Thrones)).  Remember the godless violence, the way Chigurh was not brought to justice, the cops too late or already retired? The Counselor is where we've arrived 30 years later--as Devin Faraci suggested his defense, it is Scott's (and McCarthy's) Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

Audiences had a much easier time with No Country because it was much funnier and benefited from the Coen Bros.' exquisite sense of costume and set design. It's rather amusing when Tommy Lee Jones' Ed Tom Bell is moaning sonorously about the end of civilization but he is not incorrect. The American audience for this film does not wish to admit any relation to the narco cultura flourishing in Mexico (El Paso always boasts of its low murder rate) but that doesn't not make it unreal or even exaggerated. If you doubt that, check out the third part of Whore's Glory.

3. Cormac McCarthy does not tease. He shows cracks where people will break and then watches them break. There is an excellent metaphor at the beginning of the film (delivered excellently by Bruno Ganz) about a perfect diamond. Such a stone would be made only of light--only because of the flaws in the gem that we can see it at all. Small fissures emerge everywhere after that, from the crow's feet in the corners of actors' eyes to the spines of the desert cacti.

McCarthy may or may not be an awful misogynist, but this film is about the misogyny (a sexually violent ruthlessness) of cartels. The grotesque peccadilloes of, say, Blood Meridian are outdone by a standard Thursday of business for the Zetas. McCarthy asks the Counselor: Have you ever seen a snuff film? Do you know what a bolito is? You don't know about that? Well you will.

Three guesses at the protagonist of this film

1. The Counselor. Obvious choice, the title of the film, etc. etc. But, then, I've hardly mentioned him. I'm a Fassbender fan but he recedes to peripheral interest in his own film, denied expression of his usual perversions and struggling with a blank slate character (he also has his own, if less pronounced, accent troubles). His odd, dirty-talking relationship with Laura makes zero impression. 

2. Malkina. The poster hints at her centrality. She makes it alive to the last scene of the film and does some reptilian skin-shedding, trading her back-piece-revealing dresses for a king cobra/grim reaper hood. She's on her way to Hong Kong, presumably to exchange her pet cheetahs for dragons and get her tongue forked. I look forward to Diaz going full Kristin-Scott-Thomas-in-Bangkok and trying on a Cantonese accent in the sequel (this movie was box office catnip, right?).

3. The septic truck full of drugs. Or what the septic truck full of drugs represents: the cartel. The truck full of drugs might change hands a couple of times, it might get decorated with some fresh bullet holes, but it is always getting to its destination.

True power The Counselor is represented by Rubén Blades' Jefe, the unnamed head of the unnamed cartel. Blades' purr is especially well-suited for delivering McCarthyisms (and besides, he deserves all his glory because his house is so much better decorated than the Counselor's or Reiner's).  He asks the spent quasi-protagonist about his doomed fiancee: "Would you exchange places with her on the wheel?" The Counselor's affirmative answer is ridiculous, the reason he is so fucked in the first place.

In the end, I can only thank Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy and 20th Century Fox for this fucking weird movie. I wait for the films that score 100/100 AND 0/100 on Metacritic and so this is one of the most fun to consider since Melancholia. The enemy of the WTT is the Hollywood drama that scores 78/100 on 40 critics' scorecards. 

For the all or nothing drug lords, the point is the same. There are no coincidences. The drugs always get through and everyone who takes their eyes off the prize for a moment is dead. The living drink and snort and laugh and pass around a man decomposing in an oil barrel like a Christmas fruitcake. Malkina's cheetah lives in the desert, killing jackrabbits with incomprehensible elegance. It will go on killing until it dies.

10 November 2013

Out of Sight: A Personal Remembrance

Here is the first movie poster I ever coveted.

I would like to claim that when I stepped into the Showcase Cinemas in Grand Rapids, MI the weekend of June 26th, 1998, I wanted to see Out of Sight because of Elmore Leonard (RIP) but at that time I preferred James Ellroy and Walter Mosley and even John D. MacDonald. I would like to say I wanted to see it because of Steven Soderbergh but I had never watched one of his films. I would like to say I wanted to see it because I knew how fabulous all the actors were in its ensemble cast but the gifts of Viola Davis and Don Cheadle and Steve Zahn and Luis Guzman and Isaiah Washington and Albert Brooks and Dennis Farina (RIP again!) were unknown to me.

I wanted to see this movie because of Jennifer Lopez.

The preceding summer I'd had the privilege of watching (twice!) the interesting-for-exactly-one-reason film Selena, which gave a generation of Puerto Ricans the belief that they could one day play Mexican songstresses in endless biopics. Later, I spent a good deal of time rewinding and pausing a specific sequence of U Turn, showing even then the eye for detail that makes me such a thoroughgoing cineaste today (I refer that Oliver Stone bloodbath as "My Basic Instinct"). My thoughtful father even showed me Lopez' back page spread in Vanity Fair explaining, "I feel like I'm showing you pornography." And it did feel that way, though I did not yet have the vocabulary to cope with the image--today I could leave the simplest of Instagram comments: dat ass tho.

While she remains an inspiration to all women with baby hairs along their brows, it would seem that Lopez has never made another good film (full disclosure: I have not seen Jersey Girl or El Cantante or Gigli). Watching Parker earlier this year, it seems all her nerve is gone as well, if not her physics-defying figure. (But I think of the great beauties and how hard it is to be in anything decent. Brigitte Bardot's career after Contempt is a similar wasteland and I would take Out of Sight over anything Ava Gardner or Hedy Lamarr ever did.)

I cannot over-exaggerate my affection for Jennifer Lopez as a teenager--the highest anticipation I have had for any film in my life was Tarsem Singh's The Cell (the only rival might have been The Tree of Life...neither of these opening nights ended happily for me). And so I spent the spring of my freshman year in high school talking about this trailer I'd seen (I could not send a link to my friends, I had to describe it using words!). I explained how great it was when Clooney says, "we'll make it an island..." while wiling away the hour in the back row of a math class whose main purpose was to teach you responsibility: how to not damage and/or lose the very expensive calculator your parents bought you. Out of Sight promised a delicious escape to the Real World: Miami era: rollerblades and Dan Marino jerseys (and the exact same cordless phone I had at my house).

But the film was also enticing because it had scenes in Detroit, where I took occasional trips as a lad. It would show the sexiness and grit and danger I was anxious to embrace from a safe distance across the state. The name of George Clooney's character--Jack Foley--even reminded one of Axel. I still think the Welcome to Detroit montage Soderbergh sets to the Isley Bros.' "It's Your Thing" was the best thing to happen to civic pride until those Chrysler commercials.

Sitting in the middle left of the theatre enjoying the frigid air-conditioning, I quickly discovered that this film was great not just because Lopez looked amazing but because Clooney was so thoroughly charming--starting with their scene in the trunk you can see that he just makes her laugh. She's mad at Clooney for ruining her nine hundred dollar suit (COME ON!) but she can't help batting her eyes, shadowed to match the new Jaguar helmets. I happen to agree with her, that it never made sense how fast Dunaway and Redford got together in Three Days of the Condor.

After they go on their separate ways from that steamy trunk, the film proceeds with messily brilliant interplay between other couples, the draggy Guzman and pre-Holofcentered Catherine Keener, the unhinged Cheadle and Mr. I-wear-my-sunglasses-at-night Zahn, instantly compelling thanks to Leonard's genius dialogue.

But the stars of the show are finally brought back together on a winter night in the D for what is simply one of my favorite five minutes in American cinema (you can tell I feel this way by searching for Out of Sight on this website...there are no fewer than four non sequitur references to that chemistry). Apparently Soderbergh based the sequence on the infamous Don't Look Now love scene which--after I try and fail to push the nightmare fuel of Donald Sutherland's naked body out of my brain--begs the question: does that mean before-she-was-J Lo and Clooney also had on set intercourse?? And forget whichever Venetian hotel held the Christie-Sutherland sheet wrestling--Lopez and Clooney got the Detroit Metro Westin! They're yellow silhouettes inside a snow globe...Frederick Seidel, please describe this for me:
                 If there is
Something else as beautiful
As this snow softly falling outside, say.  

Lopez does a brilliant job of deflecting unwanted male attention throughout the film, whether it's the overzealous tussling of Isaiah Washington's light heavyweight or the unctuous sales bros at the hotel bar and their affection for all things "Hisapanic." When Clooney appears in reflection at the cityscaped window he is all classic tropes: the lighter (he could have smoked indoors!) and the bourbon (pre-hipsterization!) and the cocksure smile (it's a To Have and Have Not for our times!)

At some point--I'm imagining the maturation of a filmgoer--my excitement for potential nudity was replaced with wonder at the editing. By intercutting flash forwards (timed to David Holmes' perfect score), Soderbergh plays with the inevitability of the hookup, of the two leads taking a "time out." Just as Clark Gable practically bankrupted the undershirt industry when it was revealed he didn't wear one, Clooney made me reconsider the potential stylishness of boxy white boxers. I wanted to see them get in bed but just as badly wanted to know what Clooney said to get her back to the room in the first place. It's an excellent surprise when Lopez insists: "Let's get out of here." Yes, let's. To my mind there's nothing more satisfying than a well-earned freeze frame. 

All of this came to me later--on the way out to the car my father and I had a bitter argument about whether that was actually Samuel L. Jackson in the final scene--but a nascent understanding of Soderbergh's brilliance in exceeding genre limitations started that afternoon. Of all my favorite films as a 15-year-old, this one has stayed with me the longest.