March 25th, 2014

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: RIDLEY SCOTT

THE COUNSELOR (2013) ***

Despite its big-name cast, Ridley Scott’s The Counselor kinda came and went last fall, garnering poor to middling reviews in the process. It was on my radar, but it didn’t stay long enough in the theaters for me to check it out. Hopefully, it will find new life on home video because it’s a pretty sweet movie. And it’s fairly nutty too. How nutty?

Well, imagine if the love child of David Fincher and John Waters made a John Grisham thriller and that might give you an idea of what to expect.

The plot is extremely vague. And that’s a good thing. Something about a lawyer (Michael Fassbender) getting mixed up with some drug traffickers. The deal goes sour and they come after him.

But the plot is secondary to the characters. And I liked that. Mostly the plot is just an excuse for a bunch of great actors to sit around in a room drinking cocktails while they exchange bizarre anecdotes and tell each other crazy stories.

The film is filled with terrific dialogue. It was written by Cormac McCarthy (his first original screenplay), so that was to be expected. A lot of the dialogue though is out-and-out hilarious. There’s a great scene where Rosie Perez offers to pay Michael Fassbender back for his services via a blowjob. His response is utterly hysterical. Brad Pitt also tells a pretty funny joke about Jesus too, and some of Cameron Diaz’s monologues are good for a laugh.

Along the way, we get some great moments of violence and general insanity. There’s a great decapitation scene involving a motorcycle, and another one that looks like it was inspired by Dario Argento’s Trauma. But it’s the scene where Cameron Diaz fucks a car that will go down in history as one of the nuttiest moments in motion pictures.

The film also boasts some awesome performances by Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, and Javier Bardem. After No Country for Old Men and Skyfall, Bardem seems to be doing ¾ of his acting with his hair nowadays. That is to say he’s pretty great.

Ridley Scott’s direction is tight and crisp. He knows the script is out there, but he always had a knack for making the ridiculous seem almost plausible. In that respect, the film is a kindred spirit with Scott’s Hannibal.

Sadly, after about 90 minutes, the flick sorta loses its way. And during the last half hour, the film begins to run out of steam. It shuffles its way to its conclusion when at the very least it should’ve been building up some sort of tension. (Sorta like No Country for Old Men.) Still, there’s enough crazy shit here to warrant a look.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: THE COEN BROTHERS

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013) ***

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a down-on-his-luck folk singer playing clubs in Greenwich Village in the early ‘60s. Llewyn is constantly broke and relies on a network of friends who let him sleep on their couch. He’s got to come up with some money to get his girlfriend (Carey Mulligan, Isaac’s Drive co-star) an abortion, which is just another obstacle for him to overcome while he struggles to make it big. Along the way, he gets stuck with babysitting a cat too.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a solid Coen Brothers film. It has all the quirky characters, idiosyncratic dialogue, and oddball touches you’d associate with their work. The film sometimes feels like a spiritual successor to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Both films feature some good music that not only weaves throughout the narrative, but also helps to perfectly set the time and place.

The performances are really good too. Isaac gives a somber performance as Llewyn, and he makes you feel for his character throughout his various ups and downs. Mulligan is fun too as the bitchy, foul-mouthed, pregnant folk singer. But it’s John Goodman who steals the show as a smack-addled jazz musician who accompanies Llewyn on a road trip. Any time you’ve got Goodman spouting Coen dialogue in a movie, it’s a good time, especially when he’s saying shit like, “I was purging from every orifice. One like a fire hose!”

Inside Llewyn Davis is consistently entertaining throughout, but it never quite grabs you in the same way the best Coen Brothers films do. I’m not sure how it will stack up to their other films in the long run. (Only time and repeated viewings will tell.) But for now, this is a pretty strong second-tier Coen Brothers flick.

MUPPETS MOST WANTED (2014) ** ½

I had some reservations about Disney’s 2011 Muppets reboot, but my love for the (original) characters pushed it (barely) into the win column. This direct sequel is a step down from that flick. It suffers from a really weak plot (not that you need a good plot in a Muppet movie, but there you go), a noticeable lack of inspiration, and a general feeling of déjà vu. The Muppets already sorta reused several elements from The Muppet Movie and Muppets Most Wanted one-ups that by ripping off The Great Muppet Caper and Muppets Take Manhattan. I mean the plot involves A) A series of jewel heists and B) A show-stopping wedding between Kermit and Miss Piggy. Don’t tell me the filmmakers have already run out of ideas.

Basically, the Muppets cap off their return by going on a world tour. An evil frog named Constantine escapes from a Russian gulag and swaps places with Kermit. While Kermit plots his escape from prison, Constantine uses the Muppets’ shows as a cover to steal the Crown Jewels.

The whole evil Kermit imposter plot device is pretty weak. You never once buy the notion that none of the Muppets (including Miss Piggy) notice Kermit is missing. Again, I shouldn’t really criticize the “plot” of a Muppet movie, but it just never quite works.

The human cast is a bit spotty too. Ricky Gervais is just sort of there as Constantine’s henchman. And Ty Burrell beats the same joke into the ground over and over again as an Interpol agent teamed up with Sam the Eagle. Tina Fey fares slightly better as the prison guard with a thing for Kermit, but she isn’t exactly funny. Luckily, there are dozens of cameos that help to keep things afloat. As a rule of thumb, the more random they are; the better. (At one point we see Christoph Waltz do the waltz.)

The good news is; the songs by Bret McKenzie are fun. The opening number in particular is pretty funny. And for all its faults, there is some fairly bizarre stuff here that just needs to be seen to be believed. I mean, where else are you going to see Danny Trejo performing snippets from A Chorus Line? I also give the film bonus points for finally resolving the question: “What would Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy’s offspring look like?” These out-of-left-field moments are a lot of fun and nearly make up for the creakier elements of the film.