Film reviews 51: “The Counsellor”, “Movie 43”, “L’Avventura”, “Y Tu Mamá También” and 8 others…

l'avventura 2

This month:  “L’Avventura” (pictured above), “The Counsellor”, “Design for Living”, “Fucking Amal”, “Girl Most Likely”, “Just Like Heaven”, “Meanwhile”, “Movie 43”, “R.I.P.D.”, “Strange Parallel”, “The To Do List” and “Y Tu Mamá También”.

I recently interviewed Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney and asked him what was the bear that ate Lance Armstrong. That article can be read here. Plus, I wrote a review of Morrissey’s autobiography that can be read here. The average rating is 5.13/10 with film of the month being Y Tu Mamá También. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

L’Avventura (1960) – 8.5/10

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra
Starring: Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti, Lea Massa
“First you must tell me that going out without me is like missing a limb.”

l'avventuraWhen Claudia (Vitti) darts across a lengthy corridor searching for Sandro (Ferzetti), every footstep echoes across the walls with melancholic reverberations. Moments later, she repeats the journey in the opposite direction. Claudia’s anguished motions are still pinged by guilt: Sandro has become her new lover, following the disappearance of Anna, who was Sandro’s girlfriend and Claudia’s friend.

Antonioni luxuriates in these long spaces and what breaks the silence. The corridor is part of an elegant mansion, the kind where a ladder is needed to touch the ceiling. However, there’s another kind of echo: a reminder of the opening hour during a Mediterranean yacht trip, when the group of friends lay in the sun, dipped into the water, and marvelled at each other’s wealthy belongings.

The vast scenery is beautiful and empty – beautifully empty, even. There isn’t any evidence of mankind in sight, and these socialites look like rich explorers who are considering purchasing some islands for future summer holidays. Subsequently, Anna vanishing becomes a magic trick; the camera spins and the eye digs for trap doors.

There are a few suggestions as to where Anna departed: on a bus to another city, or kidnapped by nearby smuggler. The more obvious scenario, that the cliffs provide a symbolic suicide spot, is ignored – partly because Anna was reading The Bible and Fitzgerald, but also because her friends can’t empathise with this kind of self-punishment.

After the waves, only Claudia remains determined to investigate Anna’s disappearance. Yet, Claudia’s psychological reasoning tumults and spins ingeniously. Like Anna’s magic trick, despite the wide landscape and drawn out tempo, there’s room for awe and surprise.

The Counsellor
(2013) – 4/10

Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt
Malkina: “I’m going to fuck your car.”
Reiner: “You see a thing like that, it changes you.”

the counsellor michael fassbender protestRidley Scott is used to high expectations, considering his second and third films were Alien and Blade Runner. Last year’s Prometheus was a disappointing hype train; every trailer garnered whooshes and YouTube approval, but earned an unfair backlash along the lines of: “But this isn’t Alien!”

One year later, a similar pattern has emerged. The Counsellor boasts an original screenplay by celebrated American novelist Cormac McCarthy. The cast is a list of Hollywood’s most attractive and sought after A-listers: Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt. (I half expected Ryan Gosling and Blake Lively as extras.) The story is also character-based, centering on existential themes and the philosophy of human greed. No 2D, no superheroes and not dumbed down. It can’t not be great, right?

Well, The Counsellor, like Prometheus, is impressive visuals backed by a flat script. McCarthy’s first screenplay relegates the plot in importance, instead concentrating on the metaphorical behaviour of the starry ensemble: a human zoo confined to a city-noir habitat. Sadly, there’s little interest in any of these people, and the absence of notable story adds to the boredom.

Fassbender is The Counsellor – his name is never revealed. That anonymity reflects his inscrutability. In an early scene, largely shot from under a bed cover, he proposes to his wife Laura (Cruz) with a diamond ring. To finance the gift and other lifestyle choices, he pokes his nose into a lucrative Mexican drug deal facilitated by Reiner (Bardem); both men converse with deep voices, maintaining the rhythm of poetry – but none of the substance.

The drama is disinterested in the details of crime. Focus is repeatedly placed on the animalistic nature of gang ethos. Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Diaz), has tattoos running down her back that emulate a cheetah. Her love affair with material goods extends to a surreal flashback where she informs Reiner, “I am going to fuck your car.” To a certain extent, she does, and it’s a bold move from Scott and McCarthy; the scene is preposterous, yet somehow fits in with the film’s cynical view of wealth. However, the metaphor is run into the ground several times, most notably when real cheetahs literally leap into the foreground.

I’m not an expert on McCarthy’s novels and I wish I experienced The Counsellor without knowing he wrote the words. However, the dialogue flows unnaturally: sentences run on too long, and words jumble in their own self-importance. Conversations can run slower on the page; the eye reads words faster than actors can speak them (especially Bardem and Fassbender in this). I walked in expecting an evocative Ridley Scott film. I left having experienced a laboured Cormac McCarthy screenplay.

Any mystery behind the characters isn’t suspenseful, but more a fault in the screenplay. Fassbender’s overdramatic tears echo Gosling’s role in this year’s Only God Forgives. Diaz is unable to speak McCarthy’s dialogue at a natural rhythm – her monologues sound like they’re read off cue cards, while also wildly stuck inside an exhausted femme fatale personality. Without more information and character insight, the emotional payoffs are unjustified.

Design for Living
(1933) – 6.5/10

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writers: Ben Hecht, Noël Coward (play)
Starring: Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins
“Have you ever felt your brain catch fire and a curious dreadful thing go right through your body –  down, down to your very toes, and leave you with your ears ringing?

design for living lubitschDesign for Living came a year after Trouble in Paradise and they share similar themes, some almost identical shots, and an overlapping cast. Once again, in a pre-Hays era, a love triangle doesn’t shy from the entanglement borne from sexual frustration.

The central trio are madly in love with each other: Tom (March) and George (Cooper) are best friends who fall in love with Gilda (Hopkins), who reciprocates their affections – separately. To save the friendship, the three move in together after following Gilda’s proposal: “Let’s forget sex.” Tom and George, both frustrated artists, agree to the pact, knowing Gilda can be their hands-off muse. However, some urges can’t be controlled that easily

“It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement,” admits Gilda, “but unfortunately I am no gentleman.”

Gilda is an electric personality who loquaciously describes her passions with run-on sentences and twists of the tongue. She’s also the fiery rebuttal to the two men’s faltering creative output. She repeatedly utters the word “rotten” toward Tom’s theatrical plays, and informs George she stopped speaking to a friend who admired his paintings.

With these dynamics, it’s harder to comprehend Gilda’s attraction to either of them, let alone both. Tellingly, George bitterly admits he can understand being betrayed by Tom for her – but she has unforgivably betrayed George for Tom. When it’s just George and Tom on-screen, a Gilda-shaped black hole emerges. After all, the male friends are introduced asleep on a train carriage.

Design for Living lacks the wit of Ninotchka or Trouble in Paradise. It does, however, deliver in spark, right from the first moment Gilda literally presses a toe against her two comrades. The plot itself – based on a Noël Coward play – is surprisingly daring, especially when compared to the forthcoming era of remarriage comedies. The final shot is particularly miraculous – along with Hopkins’ performance, making the film somewhat worthwhile.

Fucking Amal
(1998) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Lukas Moodysson
Starring: Rebecka Liljeberg, Alexandra Dahlström
“It’s because you live in fucking Amal. If you lived in Stockholm, you’d have had loads of girls.”

fucking amal show me love moodyssonI revisited Moodysson’s debut Fucking Amal because of how much I loved We Are the Best! and, aside from the obvious similarity of young female protagonists, he already displays a knack for the unspoken adolescent joy of music. Just as Together utilised ABBA’s “S.O.S.”, Fucking Amal’s pop sounds emulate the fleeting emotions of the Agnes and Elin – both in love, but unable to act upon it.

To an extent, the pair can’t even describe their emotions. Moodysson’s script finds comedy in outsiders who attempt to categorised their emotions. If you don’t wince at Agnes’ forced birthday party, then I envy you. At just 16, she intentionally loses her only friend, and moves on to scribble Elin’s name on paper – an act of painful wish fulfilment.

Elin’s response is questionable, as she’s aware of the shock value of coming out in front of her peers. But the affection is undeniable, especially in the dull greyness of Amal. The girls in We Are the Best! form a punk band, but Fucking Amal finds the area where teenage rebellion and teenage love intersect.

Girl Most Likely
(2013) – 4/10

Directors: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini
Writer: Michelle Morgan
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon
“He was like the George Clooney of fathers.”

girl most likelyAn early trailer for Girl Most Likely dropped under the original title Imogene, but was taken down before I had the chance to click the link, presumably so that the video could be retooled. That indecisiveness and ill-planning shapes the dramedy as a confused product: bits of midlife crisis, elements of failed career, family regression, detective games, quirky crustacean gags. Wiig’s magnetic likeability carries proceedings with as a permanent fixture who hangs the threads together with deadpan delivery. It’s also the worst film Whit Stillman’s ever been involved with.

Just Like Heaven
(2005) – 4.5/10

Director: Mark Waters
Writers: Peter Dolan, Leslie Dixon, Marc Levy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Reese Witherspoon, Jon Heder, Dina Spybey

just like heavenJust this morning I woke up feeling I was dead, and then wishing I was dead. Witherspoon is slower on the uptake in soppy romcom Just Like Heaven, in which she has to walk through a table to realise she’s become a ghost. Ruffalo is inexplicably the only person who can see her, after moving into her home and shoving some of the furniture around.

Dolan’s role with the script doesn’t elevate Just Like Heaven anywhere near the quality of The Larry Sanders, but at least there is a sense of humour – stacked on the DVD shelf next to PS I Love You, I know which one I’d choose. Combined with supernatural elements, Ruffalo and Witherspoon have fun with the silly premise; while not earth-shattering, it’s a change from the normal meet-cute scenario.

The pair can’t touch, so the romance develops through a course of unnaturally wacky one-liners and comedic excursions, with a touch (!) of the “no touching” rule of Pushing Daisies. The scenarios are fairly unmemorable, unless if confused with other ghost films. Inexplicably, Ruffalo’s stoned friend (played by Heder) has a communicative gift that makes him the “chosen one” – albeit one who says “dude” a lot. Other hi-jinks include Witherspoon effectively turning up to her own funeral by hearing her family and colleagues list their memories, which don’t really align with the perky spruce the actress adds to the character.

Waters’ direction isn’t exactly memorable. At least, not in the way Woody Allen mirrored many of the key scenes in Alice while maintaining his perennial style. That’s because Waters knows the audience want a gentle romance, with a slight edge of fantasy. Heaven is mentioned in the title because Hell and purgatory are not options in these light 95 minutes. Tellingly, when the credits roll, The Cure’s original version of “Just Like Heaven” kicks in, rather than the raucous Dinosaur Jr cover.

(2011) – 4/10

Director/Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: D.J. Mendel, Danielle Meyer, Pallavi Sastry
“I’m still interested in the role of Mary Magdelene. I’d love to play Jesus’s lover. Who wouldn’t?”

meanwhile hal hartleyJust under 60 minutes, Meanwhile still feels dragged out. The one-time TV proposition was rejected by studios – with good reason – and relied upon Kickstarter for its funds. It’s unclear how the story could be expanded into a series, other than the underdevelopment of the only real character, Joe (Mendel).

Hartley’s usual droll dialogue lacks bite, with the sharpness blunted by the digital landscape and seemingly rushed DIY shots. Joe meanders through his day, fitting in actresses, music rehearsals and business deals into his schedule. Occasionally there’ll be a philosophical conversation that halts a minute later.

I recently watched Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, in which he more or less updates Slacker with psychedelic pacing and rotoscoped animation. Waking Life doesn’t come close to Slacker, but it demonstrates a willingness for experimentation that Hartley doesn’t apply to Meanwhile. Joe wanders around a stale city and stale frame, disconnected and without purpose – as a viewer, the limp dialogue makes it harder to sympathise.

Movie 43
(2013) – 1/10

Directors: Elizabeth Banks, Steven Brill, Steve Carr, Rusty Cundieff, James Duffy, Griffin Dunne, Peter Farrelly, Patrik Forsberg, Will Graham, James Gunn, Bob Odenkirk, Brett Ratner, Jonathan van Tullekin
Writers: Ricky Blitt, Will Carlough, Tobias Carlson, Jacob Fleisher, Patrik Forsberg, Will Graham, James Gunn, Claes Kjellstrom, Jack Kukoda, Bill O’Malley, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Alec Portenoy, Greg Pritikin, Rocky Russo, Olle Sarri, Elizabeth Wright Shapiro, Jeremy Sosenko, Jonathan van Tulleken
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts, Anna Farris, Chris Pratt, Emma Stone, Kieran Culkin, Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Bell, Uma Thurman, Chloe Grace Moretz, Richard Gere, Gerard Butler, Halle Berry, Stephen Merchant, Elizaveth Banks
“I want to give you a hickie in your vagina.”
“You already have, Neil. You already have. I’ll see you in church.”

movie 43 kristen bell superhero justin longI’m sure you read the press reports, and yes, Movie 43 really is that unfunny. If anything, more should be made about the high levels scatological, racist, infantile humour that makes me sincerely worry about the producers’ frames of mind. (I heard Peter Farrelly on Kevin Pollak’s podcast more or less saying he had minimal involvement with the project, despite newspaper headlines.) Or maybe the concern should be over the stars involved – in this case, the credits exceed the review.

The other more likely option is that Movie 43 is deemed the mathematical formula for attracting audiences. Well, somebody forgot to carry the one in their calculations. Sketch comedy rarely works with films, especially when the thematic connection is bodily excretions. The reviews write themselves.

It might also be a Hollywood satire, much like Chris Morris tricking celebrities in Brass Eye to warn the public about the dangerous drug “cake”. Hugh Jackman has bollocks growing from his neck; Anna Faris asks her boyfriend to shit all over her; an animated cat urinates on Elizabeth Banks. Maybe some big names will sign up for anything, just because of the other cast members, which Movie 43 has proven with devastating precision.

(2013) – 3.5/10

Director: Robert Schwentke
Writers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, Peter M. Lenkov (novel)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Bacon, Mary-Louise Parker
“He’s a deado. Hmm.”

R.I.P.D.R.I.P.D. is up there with The Long Ranger as one of the financial flops of the year. Like, The Lone Ranger, there’s been a backlash to the backlash – and I agree in that it’s not that bad. If anything, I predict future midnight cult screenings, given how expensively bizarre it stays. The credits also pop up after 85 minutes, which helps the novelty aspect.

Ryan Reynolds, an emotionless policeman, dies and picks up a new occupation in the afterlife. Without handing in a P45, Reynolds is partnered with Jeff Bridges, and the pair hunt down ghosts walking around Earth. It’s suspiciously like Men in Black and Ghostbusters, especially with the vaguely family-friendly comedic tone.

If it constitutes as an update, the emphasis is placed on the 3D. It’s never innovating, yet I begrudgingly respected the shameless overuse of anything – and everything – flying towards the screen, for whatever reason.

The mystifying faults come from the lack of any jokes, despite a cordially humorous tone. The plotless adventure is a series of action sequences that ramble where some form of comedy should lie. Reynolds is largely at fault; as the lead, his facial expression is of perennial boredom. Seriously, there are at times where it’s as if he’s protesting the film’s production by sabotaging takes.

Luckily, Bridges is more enthusiastic as an 18th century cowboy (which sounds more fun that is appears on screen). Mary-Louise Parker is also a bright spark in her few moments as their fussy instructor. Perhaps she and Bridges could have led R.I.P.D. and produced a more vibrant dynamic. But instead, Bridges’ character sums it up perfectly when he proclaims, “Give me a reason. It doesn’t have to be a good one. It doesn’t even have to make sense.”

Strange Parallel
(1998) – 6.5/10

Director: Steve Hanft
Writers: Steve Hanft, Jason Mason, Elliott Smith
Starring: Elliott Smith, Larry Crane, Gus Van Sant
“Excuse me, have you seen Elliott Smith?”

strange parallelThe anniversary of Elliott Smith was commemorated by a rare excellent Pitchfork feature, the leak of a rockin’ Heatmiser studio version of “Christian Brothers”, and what looked like – on YouTube, anyway – a hideous tribute concert with Skye Ferreira mumbling words off a piece of paper.

Obviously the better tribute is to listen to Elliott’s own music. He also starred in his own film: a semi-documentary, doused with a surreal storyline of a songwriter who installs a robotic hand to write his songs. The quirky story would be frustrating if it interrupts a music video, but Strange Parallel is for the loyal fan that’s played every song – right down to “No Name #6” and “See You in Heaven” – ad nauseum and yearns for new material. Anyone else should look away.

The musical clips are a brief glimpse into a songwriter’s factory; Smith was supremely talented, and exhaustively so. He plays every instrument, layer upon layer, singing his heart out. The robot storyline proves that beneath the melancholy lies a sense of humour.

The To Do List
(2013) – 3/10

Director/Writer: Maggie Carey
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader
“Uncle Andy has a motorboat. That should be easy.”

the to do listI’ve mentioned it repeatedly (because it keeps happening), but American comedies need to stop using The Spin Doctors and “Two Princes”. Whether selfish nostalgia or unfunny irony, it’s part of another trend of setting films in the past – and making that the joke. The To Do List endlessly parades outdated fashion, including one character worrying she’ll miss Home Improvement on TV. There’s no insight or emotional value; just to disguise that The To Do List is at heart a less-than-average sex comedy. Placing a cliche in a 90s background doesn’t excuse the cliche.

Or perhaps there’s a more meta element. It’d be easy to assume Carey took inspiration from her own adolescence (which would explain the 1993 setting), but I’m beginning to sense a more career-related nostalgia. The regret isn’t about not kissing a boy at the prom or trying harder at school. No, the regret is not being involved with Freaks and Geeks. That show’s brilliance is of course indebted to Paul Feig, but its talented cast were the right age – possibly why its quasi-sequel Undeclared failed.

With The To Do List, even if it’s not the case, I imagine the entire cast wishing they were in Freaks and Geeks, which would explain why the likes of Aubrey Plaza and Donald Glover are playing teenagers. When I watched Freaks and Geeks and associate with the characters, do Hollywood associate with the actors instead?

There’s very little to say about the film itself. Plaza stars as a valedictorian who makes a checklist of sex acts, while in the process sifting through the most predictable narrative arc that probably seem laboured in 1993. A sample line: “Hand job. Blow job. Rim job. Why so many jobs?” And a “poo in the swimming pool” gag more in line with a Nickelodeon film. Add “re-write” to the to-do list.

Y Tu Mamá También
(2001) – 9/10

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Carlos Cuarón
Starring: Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal, Maribel Verdú
“Who cares if you screw each other’s women if you come immediately?”

y tu mama tambienI revisited Y Tu Mamá También in the wake of Gravity, and found a few floating patterns. Cuarón displays an early interest in a woman who runs away upon an emotional breakdown; instead of outer space, Luisa (Verdú) takes a road trip with two horny teen boys. Julio (Bernal) and Tenoch (Luna) speak and think of little other than sex: past exploits, current fantasies, future opportunities. Luisa, an older woman they meet at a wedding, is one such opportunity who is invited to join them at a faraway beach called Heaven’s Mouth. Even the landmark’s name is sexualised.

The boys never cease to be boys. Luisa emerges as a comparatively mature figure who finds amusement in their infectious enthusiasm for carnal matters. She is leaving her husband, but there’s still confusion over why she’s joining Julio and Tenoch. They, however, are too distracted by her body to ask questions. The rush is shared by the viewer who indulges in the trip’s impulsive nature, even when the car speeds past political unrest, or their beers are interrupted by beggars. Tenoch comes from a wealthy background, given his father’s a politicians with some clouds shrouding his finances; he’s too young to notice that even Julio – also fairly comfortable – is jealous.

Luisa isn’t a naive bystander, nor an opportunistic hitchhiker, and is well aware of the boys’ intention. “You think it’s cool to spy on women in their hotel rooms?” she asks, to their surprise. “Did you want to see me naked? See me naked and have a wank?” The accusations are thrown with a playful smirk, and the guilty partners are unmoved. Free from respective family members – the boys’ parents, Luisa’s husband – the playing field is even and open discussion takes place, long before the freedom of a deserted swimming beach. Luisa, introduces herself as someone who prefers to be awake than asleep or dreaming; the trip is her reawakening.

The frank conversations become a bit too frank when Julio and Tenoch reveal their personal betrayals. Relationships are further frayed when Luisa’s flirtations develop into physical interactions. The dynamics aren’t too far away from Jules et Jim, Design for Living or the truly horrendous Threesome (if anyone remembers that). Emotional maturity becomes a test where you might not like your best friend or, even worse, the aspects you recognise in yourself. An omniscient narrator speaks in the third person and past tense, commenting on the untold anguish, such as a stomach pain caused by betrayal, or the traffic jam caused by a dead body.

Y Tu Mamá También utilises long takes that may not be as immediately flashy as Children of Men or Gravity, but capture the width of Mexico outside Tenoch and Julio’s obliviousness. Several shots capture all three characters in unbroken shots, whether in the car or toasting a sex-related anecdote at a bar; the camera keenly takes in the suffering around the edges, subtly mixed in with the unspoken melancholy.

The boys drive to the beach, while metaphorically making their way towards adulthood. The road back seems pointless and, as the narrator explains, “uneventful”.  It’s likely they pay more attention to the poverty on the sides of the road, or the economic discrepancies in Mexico – rather than the one that exists within their friendship. Tellingly, the government finds a similar makeover with a political revolution.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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1 Response to Film reviews 51: “The Counsellor”, “Movie 43”, “L’Avventura”, “Y Tu Mamá También” and 8 others…

  1. Pingback: Kenicky’s 2013 film roundup | HALF A CANYON: The Greek chorus of UK film blogs

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