Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Counsellor

Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender in The Counsellor

The screenwriting debut of novelist Cormac McCarthy sees him team up with director Ridley Scott for a bleak tale set amidst the drug trade of the US-Mexican border region.

When a shady lawyer (Michael Fassbender) gets caught up in a transaction gone wrong, he starts to fully realise that his world may be a cesspit of corruption of murder, endangering not only him but his fiancee (Penelope Cruz).

Employed by a flamboyant Mexican dealer (Javier Bardem), who has a strangely sinister girlfriend (Cameron Diaz), he is warned by a business associate named Westray (Brad Pitt) that Mexican cartels can be ruthless and unforgiving when crossed.

Although an original screenplay, we are firmly in ‘McCarthy-land’, where human suffering is seemingly around every corner and harsh punishment is meted out in remorseless ways.

Ridley Scott has long been interested in bringing the novelist’s Blood Meridian to the screen and he’s admitted that when the option to make this film came up, he jumped at the chance.

The result is a dark and strange film, defiantly going against the grain of conventional studio filmmaking, with its sordid scenes of sex and violence marking it out as a rarity in the current climate of animation and safety-first blockbusters.

It may have one of the most in-demand casts of recent memory, but it largely plays them against type – Fassbender is a naive protagonist, Bardem a surreal supporting act, Diaz a wild femme fatale and Pitt a larger-than-life cowboy, with only Cruz playing it straight.

None of them are untainted by their world (although some are more tainted than others) and initially life seems good for the title character as he indirectly reaps the rewards of the drug trade before foolishly succumbing to his greedier instinct, although ironically it is a benevolent act that triggers the main events of the film.

Although the characters are distinctive, the real stars here are the writer and director: McCarthy has managed to create his grim but often disturbingly plausible visions intact, whilst Scott can do this kind of drama in his sleep as the plot unwinds with clockwork efficiency.

Scott has often been accused of being more interested in visuals than characters, but that makes him a perfect fit for this material, where humans really are pawns, and whilst McCarthy’s screenplay will undoubtedly enrage screenwriting gurus, this is no bad thing.

An early scene involving rabbits being chased and hunted by cheetahs is a forewarning of what is to come: shootings, beheadings, strangulation by weird devices.

This is a brutal world in which we see people in over their heads, affected by forces out of their control.

The oddness of the material extends to the quality — parts of the film are highly effective and stay with you long after the final credits roll, but there is also a strange familiarity here.

This may be because Cormac McCarthy has been such a cultural influence on the border region of Mexico and the US: after Breaking Bad (2008-13) and the Coen Brothers’ masterful adaptation of his own No Country for Old Men (2007), there seems to be a sense of déjà vu running throughout the film.

Despite this, there is something to admire in how it boldly defies conventions and stays true to the spirit of the screenwriter’s vision.

Some audiences will be repulsed by aspects of The Counsellor but like a fine wine may be more appreciated in the years to come.

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic

Directors Interesting

Ridley Scott Omnibus

Ridley Scott on Omnibus in 1992

Director Ridley Scott was the subject of BBC arts programme Omnibus in 1992.

Titled Eye of the Storm, it was first shown on UK television around the release of 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992).

Although there is a certain irony that Scott’s career suffered a dip soon after (until his renaissance with Gladiator in 2000), it is a solid profile filled with various collaborators, including David Carradine, Sigourney Weaver, Mimi Rogers, Michael Douglas and his two sons Jake and Luke.

Amongst the things discussed are:

> More on Ridley Scott at Wikipedia
> Sundance Labs interview with Ridley Scott from 2002


Ridley Scott Searchlab Lecture

In 2002 director Ridley Scott gave an interesting Searchlab Lecture in which he talked for over an hour about his career.

It was posted by Fox Searchlight as part of their series of web videos where they get directors to discuss their craft.

Presented in four parts, he covers the following:

  • How he almost became a fashion photographer
  • Working with D.A. Pennebaker on the landmark documentary Primary (1960)
  • His time directing live television at the BBC and moonlighting in commercials.
  • The rising costs of movie making
  • How perfectionism and pragmatism can make a good mix.
  • Dealing with actors
  • Matte paintings and the dangers of CGI
  • Why comics are difficult to adapt
  • How MTV gave Blade Runner a second life
  • The problem of finding a good writer
  • Why he finds storyboarding crucial
  • Auditioning actors and the importance of good casting tapes
  • Why comprehensive script read throughs are a waste of time
  • Recording read throughs with principal actors on audio
  • Working with actors on set
  • Why he likes filming actors with two cameras
  • Pitfalls facing rookie directors
  • The importance of ‘just doing it’
  • Art vs commerce and whether the general audience is smart or not (interesting answer!)
  • Editing and the importance of cutting to music

N.B. The video contains some industrial language so don’t play it too loudly if you are in the office 😉

> Ridley Scott at the IMDb, Wikipedia and MUBi
> Fox Searchlight and their YouTube channel

Interesting Viral Video

Blade Runner Revisited >3.6 Gigapixels

This experimental short film by François Vautier is a stunning tribute to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

Made as a unique picture with a resolution of 3.6 gigapixels, it uses 167,819 frames from Blade Runner: The Final Cut.

BLADE RUNNER revisited >3.6 gigapixels from françois vautier on Vimeo.

Vautier describes how he put it together:

1> First Step : The “Picture” of the film
I extracted the 167,819 frames from ‘Blade Runner’ (final cut version,1h51mn52s19i). Then I assembled all these images to obtain one gigantic image of colossal dimensions : a square of approximately 60,000 pixels on one side alone, 3.5 gigapixels (3500 million pixels)

2> Second Step : An Illusion
I placed a virtual camera above this big picture. So what you see is like an illusion, because contrary to appearances there is only one image. It is in fact the relative movement of the virtual camera flying over this massive image which creates the animated film, like a film in front of a projector.

Notice how the whole concept echoes one of the signature scenes from the film where Deckard enhances an image via voice recognition software.

> Blade Runner at Wikipedia
> More videos by François Vautier on Vimeo

Cinema Thoughts

Robin Hood

One of England’s most famous folk heroes gets the big screen treatment with Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe reuniting for a grittier, historical take on the legend.

Set in the 12th century, Robin Hood sees an archer named Robin Longstride (Crowe) returning to England from the Crusades with a small band of followers, after King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) has been killed in battle.

After a chance encounter with a fallen knight named Sir Robin Locksley, Robin returns to Nottingham and discovers the oppression of the villagers by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) and the danger posed to the newly crowned King John (Oscar Isaac) from a suspiciously bi-lingual nobleman (Mark Strong).

When Robin assumes the identity of Locksley, he meets the knight’s father, Sir Walter (Max von Sydow) and his widow, Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett). Gradually he gets caught up in the intrigue of John’s court, the possibility of a French invasion and a society where the poor are taxed heavily to fund foreign wars.

Strikingly different from previous feature films about Robin Hood (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves), this has a wider political scope, is more embedded in the historical intrigue of the time and has a lavish attention to period detail, even if historians will have a field day picking out inconsistencies and inaccuracies.

This an origin story whose antecedents are not previous versions of the myth, but rather Scott’s own historical epics: Gladiator (2000) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005).

The presence of Crowe as a solider who goes rogue has obvious echoes of his turn as Maximus Decimus Meridius, whilst the depiction of the Crusades and medieval warfare also touches upon an area Scott has visited before.

As you might expect from a Scott production, the technical contributions are generally excellent: the period detail includes some remarkable blending of English locations, built sets and CGI; whilst the editing (Pietro Scalia) and cinematography (John Mathieson) give a real kick to the set-piece sequences.

Crowe and Blanchett have undeniable screen charisma, even if their characters don’t really come alive as other Robin and Marians have done (notably Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in Richard Lester’s 1976 film) and some of the villains are disappointingly one-dimensional, with Strong and Isaac given particularly wafer-thin roles.

Audiences might be surprised how little there is here of the familiar Robin Hood template involving a maverick folk hero robbing from the rich to give to the poor.

Given the current economic times, when a proposed new tax on banks is even named after him, this Robin Hood doesn’t really do that much wealth redistribution, which must rank as a missed cultural opportunity.

The screenplay by Brian Helgeland feels like a patchwork of ideas grafted together – it was reportedly rewritten from a project about a heroic Sheriff of Nottingham (!) – and although some of the ideas and avenues it explores are intriguing, there are too many characters left with too little to do. Robin’s gang of men, Van Sydow’s Sir Walter, William Hurt’s Earl of Pembroke (who looks strangely like Ridley Scott) and Mark Addy’s Friar Tuck are all given relatively short shrift.

It is also frustrating that after 139 minutes we end up where most Robin Hood films begin, making you wonder why they got sidetracked with all the historical sub-plots instead of getting directly to the meat of the legend.

That said, there are some unintentional cultural touchstones: the unifying of rival English factions to face a common enemy has echoes of the new UK coalition government, the plight of the poor mirrors recent Greek protests at austerity measures and – most timely of all – French audience members may be raising some eyebrows later tonight when the film opens the Cannes film festival.

Universal possibly see this as the beginning of a franchise, but in order for that to happen it will have to perform very strongly in a competitive climate at the global box office.

There is something pleasingly old fashioned about this version of Robin Hood compared to the superhero pyrotechnics Hollywood unleashes on the public every summer, but whether it can achieve the same level of critical and commercial success as Gladiator is doubtful.

> Official site
> Robin Hood at the IMDb
> Read more reviews at Metacritic

Directors Interesting The Daily Video

The Daily Video: Ridley Scott Searchlab Lecture

Director Ridley Scott gives a Searchlab Lecture courtesy of Fox Searchlight in which he talks in depth about about his career and films.

I think it is from 2003, and you can watch the other three parts below:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

> Ridley Scott at the IMDb
> More Fox Searchlab Lectures


Trailer: Body of Lies

This is the trailer for the new Ridley Scott film Body of Lies, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe:

It opens in the US and the UK on Friday 10th October

> Official website
> Find out more about the film at Wikipedia