Thursday, October 31, 2013

Elegant Huntress, Nietzschean Warnings — The Counselor

If you think you've seen this tale before, think again.

DEMAND ON VIEWER: Moderate to High (extended dialogue featuring complex poetically styled sentences of Cormac McCarthy; judging by the comments posted to the Ridley Scott interview below, this artfulness was lost on some viewers. Very violent and disturbing images, including beheadings, not suitable for the young or impressionable.)

OVERALL: Recommended

This film is a joining forces of two names of wide achievement: Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy. Scott's films include Alien, Promethius, Black Hawk Down, and Blade Runner.
McCarthy's books include The Road, No Country for Old Men, Child of God, The Passenger, and All the Pretty Horses

The pretext for Counselor is a story about a lawyer involved in a drug deal gone bad. But a deeper tale is told here, one about the arrogance of the 1% rich male, whose casual callous bravado is shown as stupidity, and whose sense of control is a complete illusion. (How they got to be 1% is another matter; for some it is financial bullying, others hard machismo, and others a leechy sloth, playing off other people's wealth. The men in this film seem to combine all of these lovely traits.)

Fassbender. Pitt. Bardem. Diaz. Cruz. An all-star cast, and they each do their job well. Bardem and Pitt especially play off previous roles to misdirect the viewer. These are all strong men, and yet they are, one by one, made weak and brought down by a woman who loves to hunt.

The "Counselor" turns out to be the one who needs counsel, and he gets it elegantly from several sources. A diamond-seller (Bruno Ganz), referring cryptically to a gem as cautionary, says, "Why do we adorn beauty? Because we know it is fragile, and yet we also know that this fragility is noble." 

What is this overconfident lawyer to do when he is in trouble? He is already past that crossroads, he is told by a philosophical drug lord (Ruben Blades), and cannot go back and recreate the world that existed prior to his choices. "When you know that your reality must die," he offers, "your view of death changes."

The end is a surprise, because of its quietness, and lack of the usual Hollywood showdown. There is enough fighting, gore, and shoot-em-up to go around, but after so many of the don't-know-when-to-quit variety action films recently, I expected a crescendo rather than a diminuendo to the finish.

The end is also indirect, another welcome change to the usual storytelling methods. There is a CD, but what is on it? The viewer is left to work that out (to its fairly horrible conclusion), but this can only be done if close attention has been paid to the dialogue.

There is a tale here of female ascendancy. The Cleopatra-like eyes of the villain-
anti-hero remind one of the horus-eye, the all-seeing glyph of ancient Egypt, and its corresponding tigress imagery reveals that Mexican cartels and headless bodies are only one way that a cold and calculating, all-seeing eye can wreak revenge. 

Importantly, this tigress also does it with sex. She masters her male victims and slowly strangles them in their own nets. The trip wire is a repeated visual, though used for much more sinister purposes here. People are beheaded and strangled, blood spurting. But far before that, she had already attached herself and wound her way around them. She does the same to the viewer. We at first take her for a bimbo, a party-favor, part of the poolside show. She fucks a car; Fassbender asks, "Why are you telling me this?" Bardem doesn't even know, but he knows he is scared by her. He describes her against the windshield of his car as some sort of sea animal, with suction. This is not simply a circus act. It is what she does.

Is she some sort of avatar for all those who have been taken advantage of by those with power and status? Is she an incarnation of the unholy impulse for revenge? A prophecy of retributive justice against the stupidity of the patriarchal system that includes priests, kings, lawyers, and the doe-eyed women who prop them up? Or simply an acknowledgment of a primal (sexual) urge within all of us for the hunt, something that we as humans never fully escaped from our evolutionary past?

Sam Spruell (tough-as-nails criminal, the one who springs the trip-wire), Bruno Ganz (who played Adolf Hitler in Downfall) and Ruben Blades (reminiscent of the Godfather) all deserve mention for turning in fantastic performances in supporting roles. Without them this film would be less than half of what it is. They give the film its philosophical heft and visceral power; they bring to life Cormac McCarthy's poetry and imagery.

Friedrich Nietzche
Counselor is said to be Nietzchean and nihilistic. It is true that the characters' viewpoints are amoral, and McCarthy's work clearly trends that direction. (Unlike so many movies lately with trite titles such as "Into Darkness," this one really is about the darkness, and about our greed and the choice to enter that darkness.) 

Nietzche's Beyond Good and Evil and Thus Spake Zarathustra are meditations on what it might mean to honestly re-create our values as human beings. What must be rejected and destroyed, in order to get there? This is more than mere negation of value; it is the encouragement of honest engagement with our values. 

Perhaps we do not have to do the destroying; those who choose the path of darkness will destroy their own. Ultimately we are spared the brutal dire consequences that the characters in the film face. We are left to walk out of the theater, out of the story, to re-enter a world of our own choices, seeing that they still lie before us. In this sense Nietzche still speaks to us through films and stories like Counselor. Can we hear what is being said, or do we ignore it and go about our business? Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott at any rate seem to be saying, take heed.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Tangle of Dazzling Complexity—Dimensions JDIFF Screening

**JDIFF SCREENING EVENT** At Eronel, Thursday Oct 17, 7pm

A man dances at the edge of a dark hole"I know, deep down that if I don't do this, I'd never be able to truly live my life. I'd always feel like I'm not really here, like I'm in a dream."


DEMAND ON VIEWER: Mild-Moderate. Slow, very quiet, English film. 
OVERALL: Recommended

So begins the oblique storytelling style of this atmospheric and very literary film, combining elements of English countryside, dapper period costume, mysterious time travel, and a restrained but powerful love story. 

A jump rope is used to show how time can fold back on itself
Stephen (Henry Lloyd Hughes) is an inventor obsessed with time travel; he has lost a childhood friend, Harriet (Hannah Carson) and wishes to go back and rescue her. Annie (Olivia Llewellyn) helps him on his way. Could she somehow be Annie? There are enough parallels between them to get Stephen wondering.

The machine he builds is made, interestingly, with a piano. The elemental quality of music is alluded to as a possible key to time. The haunting score
is very appropriate here; the strings play hovering chords, suggesting the larger cosmos turning.

The film avoids some of the usual traps and cliches of the genre. Almost all plot and theme development is accomplished through the dialogue, with very careful and exquisitely shot visuals between. Very literary and appreciable by children (good for attention span development and vocabulary, and features children as characters. It hooked my kids from the beginning!)

Dancing through his three-dimensional string map, Stephen seems to show us that no left-brained, linear exercise in mathematics or physics can lead us where memory can only go. He and Annie go through a beautifully rendered waltz through the same map. Their connection seems to indicate the need to pay attention to our present circumstances, and our present loves, even while knowing that they are transient and part of a fragile web of possible futures.

"I don't believe that time is a straight line from point A to point B. It's a line, a loop, a tangle, a sculpture of dazzling complexity." The end of the film leaves us with much to ponder, about the nature of time and reality, and whether or not Harriet's future remains unchanged or is altered by events and time-traveling interventions. There is delicious ambiguity here; if we expected a neat and tidy explanation, we will have been disappointed.

However, if we let the questions of what-who-where-when fade into the dreamy Cambridge countryside as they were seemingly meant to do in this story, we can dwell on the film's themes, and find a remarkable and tragic tale of love and loyalty; lenses through which we can see our own histories more clearly.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Deeper Series—The Fall

Looking for a series this "fall"? The Fall might just be the thing...

Depth 4
Acting 5
Aesthetic/Visual 5
Plot 5
Originality 4
Production 5
Entertainment 5
Demand on viewer: mild to moderate - story line is easy enough to follow but it is thematically intense and the serial killer element may be too strong for younger viewers.
Overall: Highly Recommended

In the "less is more" mode of British TV series, the five episodes of The Fall accomplish a whole semester of viewing most American series. There is an economy and density of story here that makes each episode like eating fine chocolate. Attention to visual and auditory detail, along with restrained and finely crafted dialogue, makes this series linger in the memory long after it is viewed.

Serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) is wreaking havoc in Belfast, choosing a similar victim each time for sexually charged strangulation. A cold, independent, and powerful Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is called in as detective superintendent.

The series departs from the norm in allowing us to get deeply into the life of the killer, as husband, father, and man with a kind of moral compass. His wife works in the birthing unit at the hospital (in diametric opposition to Spector's shadow career as a killer). His daughter can see things in dreams. She renders a drawing of a woman dying with blood all around her, and says she saw her above her room, where Spector keeps his murder diary hidden.

Sexual tension strides through every scene. There is the babysitter for whom
Spector seems genuinely to care, but after she discovers a lock of hair he kept in a drawer, things become dark between them quickly. But the best sexual tension comes from Gibson, as she reacts and relates to the male dominated police and investigation system. One of the most interesting aspects of this film is the way that Gibson's choices as a woman are questioned and brought under scrutiny by her male supervisor (John Lynch).

Eerily, Paul loves to steal into his victims' homes and savor the feeling of control he has by being there, being in the presence of his victim, taking pieces of her, clipping bows off her underwear. He masturbates to drawings and macabre scrapbooking of these images once he gets back home.

Quietness can sometimes hide a deep well of darkness. This is never more apparent than in Spector's
introverted, black-hole eyes. But the same face shows empathy in counseling and we see him in tender scenes with his wife. Is he only a force of evil? We are confronted with our own lack of understanding, even as detective Stella labors to understand his every motive and confront it.

It is a shame that many of the issues dealt with in this series would not likely find as much interest on their own. They have to be set within a crime drama, which makes it seem as though these problems only occur "on TV," or for those who lead lives of extremity.
Primal desires, especially sexual in nature; the double standard women face when it comes to making independent decisions about their sexuality; the uncanny ability of children to perceive what is happening in their parents lives--these issues are well worth exploring on their own merits. Still, the Fall and writer Allan Cubitt deserve kudos for weaving profound and relevant topics into what could have been merely escapist fiction.