Summer Movie Journal #3


Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz
  • Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz

The Counselor (2013; dir. Ridley Scott) — For a while, all I knew about this collaboration between the director of Blade Runner and the writer of Blood Meridian was that’s Andrew O’Hehir declared it one of the worst movies ever made. Bad press like that curtailed its theatrical run last fall, so I didn’t get to see what all the fuss was about. Now the pendulum is swinging back; in a recent review of the bonus-crazy Counselor Blu-ray, Film Comment’s Amy Taubin called it “the most underrated and indeed ridiculously maligned film of 2013.” If you don’t mind elliptical storytelling or long, slow, deep, soft, wet disquisitions about the evil that men do that last three days, then you’ll probably agree. Michael Fassbender is the luckless, nameless criminal dilettante of the film’s title, and Javier Bardem is the bewildered playboy who helps Fassbender make his one big, bad decision. Cameron Diaz’s all-knowing leopard woman is supposed to be the film’s central metaphor, but for me, Brad Pitt’s smug, paunchy middleman performs that function just as well. He sort of knows what he’s doing is wrong, but even when he has to face facts, he can’t believe it’s really happening to him. The hangman’s delight with which Pitt recognizes the seriousness of his and Fassbender’s predicament is one of the many reasons why this is the most frightening movie I’ve seen in a long time. Grade: A-

Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? (2013; dir. Michel Gondry) — Bright kids doodle when they listen to people talk. They aren’t checking out or unplugging if they don’t stare at you while you expound upon whatever it is you find important; it’s just the way they process and engage with information. Now, this process is no fun to watch — unless the speaker is MIT’s Noam Chomsky and the doodler is the guy who directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This affectionate documentary records Gondry’s daydreams and free-associative translations of Chomsky’s musings about life, history, and the “infinite array of structured expression” contained within human language. Gondry’s drawings, which are reminiscent of a Paul Klee sketchbook come to life, are as much fun to watch as Terry Gilliam’s animation sequences from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. To nobody’s surprise, this film had a limited theatrical run earlier this year because the intersection of the Venn diagram representing “Fans of linguistics and radical politics” and “Fans of handmade surrealist romances” can’t be all that large. No matter; I’m hoping someone sees this and GIFs the hell out of it. Grade: A-

Help! (1965; dir. Richard Lester) — If A Hard Day’s Night is about a band’s rise to fame, then Help! is about how awful and disorienting it is to be famous. You can hear this confusion in the songs, which, for all their exuberance and invention, focus on confinement (“Help!”), paranoia (“You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”), and abandonment (“Ticket To Ride”); even when they’re lip-synching them on a beach with bikini-clad girls, these songs are among the Beatles’ saddest. (The beach looks pretty rocky, too.) The piss-taking irreverence of the first Beatles-Lester collaboration is similarly desperate and panicky this time around, partly because a lot has changed in a year and partly because mocking the real world is more refreshing than mocking a hypersaturated Technicolor fantasyland filled with mad scientists, menacing Hindoos, and Beefeaters in gas masks. Also, there aren’t enough George Harrison scenes. Grade: B-

Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix
  • Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix

The Immigrant (2013; dir. James Gray) — Singing (or prostituting yourself) for your supper in early 20th century New York City isn’t ipso facto evil, but, you know, it does things to you. For recent Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard), this sell-what-you’ve-got existence hardens her to most people while rendering her more vulnerable to others, like handsome itinerant magicians or Almighty God. For loquacious showman-pimp Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix, a little more articulate this time), it renders gestures of love and compassion indistinguishable from the slimiest interpersonal manipulations. The late cinematographer Gordon Willis would have appreciated the deep sepia tones of James Gray’s dense, languorous period piece, which is unusually keyed in to both historical detail and job-related pain. And a short scene where a tough, composed prostitute drops her unaccented English to admonish Ewa in Polish is worth as much as a whole book of Ellis Island mug shots. sage Wesley Morris says it ends with the shot of the year, which might be true. Grade: B+

The Play House (1921; dir. Buster Keaton and Eddie Klein) — In 2011, Kino Video released Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection 1920-1923, a three-DVD set which finally put all of the great artist’s early two-reelers in one place (they used to appear as extras on earlier DVD editions of Keaton’s feature films). I finally bought my copy a couple months ago. Although the handful of shorts I’ve seen so far hint at the puzzled grace and witty ingenuity of The General or The Navigator, The Play House is the early high point. Its opening sequence, where Keaton plays every part (actor, musician, audience member) in a minstrel show, is at times wilder than Keaton’s later exploration of theater and dreams in Sherlock Jr. He may be a terrible musician who gnaws on his clarinet embouchure like an anxious puppy and blows in his trombone like he’s trying to clear a beer bong, but he’s also a resourceful audience member who knows it’s important to bring an umbrella to a show in case anyone above you accidentally spills their soda. Later in the film he does a monkey imitation that would make Andy Serkis’ heart swell with pride. Grade: A+

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