Read Good Shit On Musings: mike d'angelo

‘The Counselor’: No Movie for Most Men (or Women) by Mike D’Angelo

By Yasmina Tawil

image

[This month, Musings pays homage to Produced and Abandoned: The Best Films You’ve Never Seen, a review anthology from the National Society of Film Critics that championed studio orphans from the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the days before the Internet, young cinephiles like myself relied on reference books and anthologies to lead us to film we might not have discovered otherwise. Released in 1990, Produced and Abandoned was a foundational piece of work, introducing me to such wonders as Cutter’s Way, Lost in America, High Tide, Choose Me, Housekeeping, and Fat City. (You can find the full list of entries here.) Over the next four weeks, Musings will offer its own selection of tarnished gems, in the hope they’ll get a second look. Or, more likely, a first. —Scott Tobias, editor.]

Most people prefer movies to be affirming, in some way. Life-affirming, love-affirming, norm-affirming—just so long as something we believe (or want to believe) gets reinforced, everybody’s happy. Declining to satisfy that desire is step one en route to making an art film, or what publicists who are nervous about the word “art” like to call a specialty release. These, too, cater to viewers’ preconceived notions about the world (good luck finding something that doesn’t), but they target notions that are less commonly held, which makes them less commercially viable. Deriving enjoyment from genuinely despairing or pessimistic movies is a taste that must be acquired, and only a small subset of the population has the time or the inclination. These are the folks who’ll go see a Moonlight, say, or a Manchester By The Sea. They’re game.

It’s possible to alienate these adventurous, open-minded viewers, too, though, by making a movie that’s not just challenging or upsetting, but flat-out nihilistic. A movie that assumes the worst about human nature, with few (if any) mollifying grace notes. A movie that, at least to some extent, glorifies venality and ugliness. “Alienate” is too mild a word for the common reaction, actually. They will be pissed off.

image

Such was the reception that greeted The Counselor back in 2013. Expectations for the film were sky high: It features a superb cast (Michael Fassbender, Pénélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt); was directed by Ridley Scott (a decidedly erratic talent, but still capable of greatness); and, most exciting of all, boasts a screenplay from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy’s books had been adapted several times—most notably by the Coen Brothers, whose version of No Country for Old Men won multiple Oscars—but he’d never before written an original story expressly for the big screen. Had The Counselor been made available intravenously, many would have mainlined it without hesitation.

Cue the adrenaline-shot scene from Pulp Fiction. Not all of the Counselor reviews were negative, by any means, but the critics who hated it really, really hated it. “Meet the Worst Movie Ever Made” ran the headline on Andrew O’Hehir’s savage takedown at Salon, and that wasn’t some editor’s hype; in the actual piece, O’Hehir expands his assessment to “the worst movie in the history of the universe,” thereby dismissing the possibility that alien life forms in faraway galaxies may possibly have committed an even greater sin against cinema. Other reviews in major publications deemed the film “lethally pretentious,” “a jaw-dropping misfire,” and “unforgivably phony, talky and dull.” (Characters do indeed talky on the phony sometimes.) Audiences were similarly repulsed: The Counselor got a dismal D in Cinemascore’s survey, which generally skews so positive that you can currently find an A- assigned to the likes of Assassin’s Creed (Metacritic score: 36/100) and Collateral Beauty (Metacritic score: 23/100). It’s not a popular title.

Here are a few reasons why many people seem to hate it:

  • The narrative is ludicrously convoluted.
  • All of the characters speak primarily in lengthy philosophical monologues.
  • It’s just a catalogue of horrible things happening to people who mostly deserve them.
  • Cameron Diaz fucks a car.
image

We’ll come back to that last one. Let’s start at the beginning, with the basic story McCarthy wants to tell. The Counselor is about a drug deal that goes horrifically wrong, mostly because the title character (played by Fassbender; we never learn the guy’s name), who’s never done this before and just wants to make some quick cash, has not the slightest clue what he’s doing. That’s essentially all you need to know, as far as making sense of events is concerned. McCarthy lays out some essential details—how the drugs are transported, and by whom, and who’s looking for a way to intercept the shipment—but only in the service of making it clear that what befalls the counselor is to some degree just very bad luck. What matters is that he was completely unprepared for the possibility that some random misfortune could cost multiple people their lives. Indeed, even the characters, like Brad Pitt’s Westray, who consider themselves prepared, and keep warning the counselor that he’s unprepared, are not themselves really prepared.

Read more


Too Big a Fail: Cannes Insta-Flops and the Festival Economy by Mike D’Angelo

By Yasmina Tawil

image

Cannes Film Festival, 2014. Among the films competing for the Palme d’Or is The Search, Michel Hazanavicius’ highly anticipated followup to The Artist, which had won the Best Picture Oscar three years earlier (after itself debuting at Cannes). Its pedigree is flawless: based on an Oscar-winning (Best Story) 1948 drama of the same title, which had starred Montgomery Clift; a cast featuring former Oscar nominees Bérénice Bejo and Annette Bening; weighty subject matter involving the Second Chechen War. When the press sees The Search, however, they rip it to shreds. “A grueling, lumbering two-and-a-half hour humanitarian tract that all but collapses under the weight of its own moral indignation,” Variety calls it, in one of the kinder reviews. Hazanavicius recuts the film slightly for its tour of the fall fest circuit, but it’s largely ignored, thanks to the toxic word out of Cannes. Today, over two years later, there is still no indication that The Search—which, let’s just note again for the record, is the successor to a major box-office hit that won Best Picture, Director, and Actor at the 2012 Oscars—will get any sort of U.S. release.

image

Cannes Film Festival, 2015. Among the films competing for the Palme d’Or is The Sea of Trees, a drama about an American man who flies to Japan with the intention of killing himself in Aokigahara, the infamous forest (see: The Forest; nah, don’t see that) where locals commit suicide in alarming numbers. The film stars Matthew McConaughey, who had won the Academy Award for Best Actor just two years earlier (for Dallas Buyers Club); its director is Gus Van Sant, a previous Palme d’Or winner (Elephant, 2003). Expectations are high…until critics just about hoot The Sea of Trees off of the screen. One review accurately deems it “sub-Nicholas Sparks tripe,” a phrase that one wouldn’t generally anticipate when skimming the buzz from the world’s most prestigious film festival. Roadside Attractions, in conjunction with Lionsgate, had picked up the U.S. distribution rights in advance of the world premiere, but wound up sitting on the movie for over a year before finally selling it to adventurous new distributor A24. The U.S. trailer, released just this week, mentions the Cannes selection, but features no critical blurbs at all—an almost unprecedented circumstance for an art film that premiered at a festival. (A24’s trailer for The Lobster, which they picked up from financially troubled Alchemy, includes six blurbs from major critics.) Evidently, they’re hoping nobody will notice.

Read more


“Unfriended” and the Shifting Definition of a Film Director by Mike D’Angelo

By Yasmina Tawil

image

Picture a film director at work. Once upon a time, the popular image would have been of a man wearing jodhpurs and an oversized hat, sitting in a canvas chair with a megaphone in his hand. Action! Nowadays, the generic look runs to backwards baseball caps and gigantic headphones slung around the neck, and our director (still mostly men, sadly) is more likely to be peering intently at a monitor than shouting instructions. In both cases, though, what springs to mind is the classical shooting process: assemble cast and crew on set or location; decide where to put the camera initially and whether or not to move it from that position during the shot; guide the actors through as many takes as necessary; that’s a wrap.

As anyone who’s ever worked on a movie knows, the above is only a tiny (albeit crucial) aspect of the director’s job, which begins well before principal photography starts and continues long after it ends. “Director” is just a less pompous-sounding synonym for “Orchestrator,” which would really be more accurate. Even a tiny, low-budget film requires hundreds of creative and practical decisions to be made, and while many of those tasks can be delegated, one person (theoretically) is the final arbiter, weighing in on everything from costumes and props to script notes and camera lenses. Consequently, much of what a director does is essentially invisible. At the very least, it’s difficult to ascertain just by watching the film.

The recent horror movie Unfriended makes that more starkly clear than any movie I’ve seen in ages. My gut feeling is that the film is brilliantly directed, by a Georgian-Russian filmmaker named Levan Gabriadze. But it’s hard to say for sure, because few of the usual associations we make with movie directors at work apply in this particular context. Even after watching and reading multiple interviews with Gabriadze (and with the film’s screenwriter, Nelson Greaves), it’s not clear to me how much of Unfriended was shot and how much was more or less created in post-production. Nor am I sure that the distinction matters.

Unfolding in real time, the film takes place entirely (save for the last five seconds) on the screen of a laptop belonging to a young woman named Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig). Early on, Blaire accepts a Skype call from her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), and she eventually winds up simultaneously Skyping with four other friends—as well as the vengeful ghost of a classmate, Laura Barns, who committed suicide after being bullied. The plot is silly, but the technique is astounding. If it were just a bunch of kids yammering at each other in Skype windows (and it becomes that in the second half, unfortunately), it would stilll be pretty impressive, given all the opportunities for things to go wrong. But Unfriended goes much further than that. It’s a movie in which the protagonist, for all intents and purposes, is a cursor.

Right from the beginning, Gabriadze and Greaves (and notice that here, already, I feel compelled to credit both of them, because I’m not at all confident about stating who did what) are remarkably willing to risk alienating viewers. Blaire—or, rather, Blaire’s Cursor—opens multiple applications throughout that hide her friends from view…though one face is often partially visible at the edge of the screen, just to keep us alert and paranoid. The Skype windows are consistently obscured, for about 10 minutes straight at one point, in a film that’s barely 80 minutes long. She pulls up Facebook, YouTube, iMessage, Spotify, Gmail, her Chrome history, various websites. And she uses all of those apps exactly the way people use them in real life. When she wants to hear music, we watch as she goes through her playlists (“June playlist,” “lovey shit,” “partayzzzz”), selects one called “rando,” and then clicks on a particular song, which is thankfully not Imagine Dragons’ “Every Night,” clearly visible. But the truth is I’ve never heard that song, so I just now switched over to Safari and pulled up the song’s video on YouTube, and while listening to make sure it’s bad enough for that joke to play, I made a different joke on Twitter (using a dedicated app called Janetter) and quickly checked my email, which for some reason I still do via a UNIX shell, and then I realized that my iMac screen for the last couple of minutes looks exactly like Unfriended. Minus the friends.

(Also Jesus Christ that song is terrible. May I never hear that again.)

Obviously, this would get tedious in a hurry were it not expertly paced, and Gabriadze keeps things moving briskly. Or maybe he just instructed whoever’s handling Blaire’s MacBook to keep things moving briskly—again, I’m not sure how much of this is post-production wizardry. Plus, most of what Blaire’s Cursor does is at least tangentially related to the narrative—she’s messaging privately with Mitch about the dead girl, or looking up creepy posts on unexplainedforums.net (not an actual site). But the verisimilitude, especially for Mac users, is off the charts. At one point, Blaire tries to stop whoever’s harassing them—using the dead girl’s Facebook account—by informing Facebook that the account’s owner is deceased, and we watch in real time as she goes through what appear to be all of the actual steps involved in memorializing a Facebook account, including providing a link to an online obituary. By multiplex standards, that’s almost avant-garde (the whole sequence is silent, except for clicking), and it’s topped later by a ticking-clock horror scenario in which Blaire needs to trash a file but temporarily can’t empty her trash because she keeps getting a pop-up alert that says “The operation can’t be completed because the item ‘sample-saturday.night.live.s39e02.miley.cyrus.hdtv.x264-2hd2.mp4’ is in use.”

I’ll say that again: This is a horror movie that wrings suspense from the question of whether a person using a MacBook Pro will figure out, in the nick of time, which application is using a downloaded torrent of a “Saturday Night Live” episode hosted by Miley Cyrus. And it’s not even the actual episode! It’s a sample!

If you want a sense of what Unfriended looks like, it looks like this:

image

Read more

Recent Articles

Categories