HARDBARNED! The Blog

The Counselor Sinks Faster Than Gravity

This weekend I visited an old friend, a film junkie like me who is always eager to share his stack of restaurant gift cards and free passes to the movies. Thanks pal! Without planning it, we ended up at the theater twice in two days, which is highly unusual, as I only go out to see films a few times a year anymore. Two other friends had insisted that Gravity must be seen on the big screen, and of course I wanted to see Cormac McCarthy's first screenplay, The Counselor, brought to life by Ridley Scott and his talented cast, despite Adrian McKinty's script takedown (spoilers ahead). 

For most of my life and until a few years ago, I had always loved going to the movies, seeing art-house films, indie festival fare, blockbuster popcorn, genre flicks, foreign cinema, classics, documentaries and even shorts, but, like what happened to David Edelstein (one of my favorite critics) recently, the people who always end up sitting near me have driven me from the theater. You know how it is. 

You show up and the theater is deserted. Nobody wants to see the movie you've had your eye on for weeks, or so it seems. Your movie, perhaps a critically acclaimed box-office flop, is barely hanging onto the bottom of the Fandango listings and might show once or twice a day at some inconvenient time like 2:45. You pick a primo seat and claim it as your own, relaxing comfortably near the center of the row, near the back in the revamped, reclining stadium seats with retractable armrests. You note the comfortable chair but resist the temptation to let the back of your head touch the cloth headrest. You can't believe your luck. Everyone else is seeing that much more popular animated movie about talking owls and their quest to save the flying baby elephants, or whatever.

But...you can hear the soundtrack from this film, playing in the next theater over with the far-more dominant audio system booming through the wall. It must be funny too because people are shrieking over there. Soon enough the curtains part and you're greeted by an unknown toothpaste salesman doing his best Ryan Seacrest who wants to tell you about the newest episodes of yet another teenage vampire television drama, as well as the social networking capabilities of the computer screen installed in the newest model of Ford Fiesta. You suffer through this insulting advertising loop while being reminded every few minutes of what you've just been hammered over the head with. 

Don't forget not to text and drive! Candy. The Ford Fiesta can transcribe your text messages as you dictate them while you focus on the road. It will simultaneously bring you showtimes from see-a-movie-dot-com, send your text messages and post status updates for all your friends. OMG! Coke sounds great when you pour it in THX surround, doesn't it? Will hunky wolf Skylar and sexy vamp Brianna overcome their cross-species romance/heartache? Tune in next week on this TV channel. Don't forget nachos. Did we mention those nachos in the lobby? Buy them. And the car. Check out this new dance-pop-hip-rock-electro-spin single from some pop princess diva with lots of deep thoughts, while you wait, but we'll be back in 30 seconds with more crap to shovel into your brain at 300 decibels. Have a Coke. Did you catch all that? We'll repeat it in 25 seconds. Popcorn. Vampires. Coke. Ford. Coke. Coke. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh.

This doesn't always happen. Before you even get to the green screen and actual movie trailers, sometimes you get grainy local commercials for dentists, hair salons and auto-body shops instead of (or in addition to) Mr. Toothpaste and his merry-go-round of commercial bullshit. Remember the good old days when movies didn't have commercials? Just a few trailers and then you were off to movie-land. Now it's a half-hour of this garbage followed by another half-hour of trailers. It probably won't be long before we'll suffer through an intermission filled with commercials every five minutes throughout the movie. You make it through all of this and people start filling up your perfectly empty little theater, just as the credits start to roll. They creep up the aisle and sit nearby. Then their glowing cell phones come out. It's all downhill from there. 

I like to be transported by a film, and it's hard for that to happen when people are chattering, telephoning, texting and twittering. So, more often than not, my theater seat is the couch, next to my lovely wife, in our wee apartment with a not-so-wee TV set. We make our popcorn on the stove and pause for pee breaks or to talk about what's happening onscreen. We have our own beverages of choice and a control of our own climate. And we spend a lot less.

That said, on occasion, usually at odd times selected to avoid the crowds and provided I don't have a David Edelstein-style experience, I love seeing a highly-anticipated movie on the giant screen. The Counselor was a mixed bag. I wanted to like it a lot more than I did. I loved Cormack McCarthy's books No Country For Old Men and The Road and thought both movies were also great. His Blood Meridian is a brutal, relentless masterpiece that will indeed be difficult to adapt. The chase scene culminating in a home-made batch of gunpowder remains indelibly burned into my brain, but Blood Meridian has the same problem that McCarthy's first story written directly for the screen, The Counselor, has.

There is no central character to become attached to, to empathize with, to endure alongside and suffer through with because he or she is a protagonist who is not all good or all bad or even finely nuanced necessarily but absolutely human and simply well-rendered, with heart enough to be worthy of a reader or viewer's emotional investment. What makes this person tick is not spelled out in excessive detail and yet this protagonist--Llewelyn in No Country, the nameless Man in The Road--is drawn with flourishes of humanity such that one cannot help but cheer him along and identify with his struggle.

The Counselor, boasting a bevy of swaggering A-listers at the top of their games, just never connects. It's all procedural, and Ridley Scott deserves plenty of credit for plowing artfully through all those requisite, well-tread procedures that Soderbergh covered thoroughly in Traffic--the drug selling, drug buying, drug shipping, drug dealing, drug warring, drug mess cleaning and all the drug fallout. The movie looks as great as everyone in it, but the procedure train never lingered long enough for me to get attached to any of the players or to truly care much about their inevitable implosions.

There are some great lines of McCarthy dialog, delivered mostly by great character actors in supporting roles--the diamond expert, the cartel lawyer, the chop-shop foreman--Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz, Fernando Cayo and John Leguizamo steal brief scenes from the big stars. As the esteemed Mr. McKinty pointed out, some of The Counselor's weakest lines, like "you don't know someone until you know what they want" or "the truth has no temperature" are reserved for its biggest stars. Michael Fassbender's performance, as usual, was admirable and intense, but everyone else seems like a gossamer caricature, strutting lithely through scenes as though they are as many costume fittings. Everyone looks great and sounds great but says little and means less.

Despite her comedic talents, I did not buy Carmen Diaz as a humorless, comically overdrawn femme-fatale. Though the reliably excellent Javier Bardem has a couple of interesting moments, he is given precious little more to do than is his lovely wife, Penelope Cruz, who barely flirts with the movie from the periphery. Brad Pitt's advice-dispensing Westray, after being presented as a tempered, wizened, wary old veteran of the game makes such an obvious, catastrophic mistake while on the run for his life that I was left wondering if someone else had taken over for McCarthy and written the end of the movie for him.

Though Mr. Pitt survived the zombie hordes in WWZ, his slick cowboy was no match whatsoever for Carmen Diaz's evil cheetah lady. I avoid the torture-porn genre, but Pitt's death is one of the most horrific and memorable scenes of recent cinematic memory, and The Counselor is one of its most crushing downers, even if you don't care much about the characters.

Though we found ourselves firmly on the same page with The Counselor, my learned movie-addict friend and I disagreed almost completely over Gravity. We often gripe about the excessive use of computer graphic (CG) imagery in film, but perhaps my tolerance exceeds his. Of course, just about everything in Gravity other than Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and Ed Harris' disembodied voice is comprised of CG, so I might have expected my old friend to be upset. However, I suspect that our differing reactions came down to our ability to suspend our disbelief.

Maybe all the physics don't add up. Maybe there were too many battles with space junk. Maybe the Russians would've been kind enough to ask if we had any astronauts in orbit before launching a fucking missile to destroy a satellite and thus creating an orbital storm of space shrapnel, but none of that really mattered when I was watching the movie. I found Bullock so compelling and the simulated weightlessness that Mr. Cuaron had ingeniously created so thoroughly convincing that I was right there with Dr. Ryan from the beginning. Holding my breath with her, holding out hope, voting for optimism and for life and all the precious things in it that we all hold so dear. Wait a second. I'm not eating cheeseballs, I swear. And I'm only on my first Yazoo 10th Anniversary White IPA of the evening. 

Maybe I have made a change in the last several years. I have moved a little bit toward optimism and a little bit away from pessimism. It's not a seismic paradigm shift; I'm still the same old realist. I just watch a little less of the heaviest drama and let a little more humor in. I'm still drawn to the dark and the heavy, but I make more of an effort to watch comedy and probably see fewer documentaries. Laughter is good medicine, but so is optimism. As negative as I can get, life is better with a regular dose of both. I love exploration in the face of extreme danger, true-life adventures and survival stories, and I had no problem suspending my disbelief.

Maybe there were too many CG-things floating about in the space-station cabins, as my friend pointed out, and maybe survival was improbable and unrealistic, but I cared about Dr. Ryan and wanted her to live. I admired the simplicity of the story, something akin to man versus nature (a favorite literary trope of mine) only this time it was woman versus the unforgiving vacuum of outer space, and there was no filler, just a difficult mission, a severe environment and an epic, personal challenge for a someone that seemed real and worthy of my emotional investment.

And at least at this showing, nobody was texting.