20th Century Fox
There is an obvious standout scene in The Counselor, one you'll recognize as soon as you reach it: without giving too much away, it involves a wild-eyed Javier Bardem recounting, to his pal and fledgling criminal Michael Fassbender, a sexually-charged memory involving himself, his beloved and bewildering Cameron Diaz, and the windshield of his flashy yellow convertible. Flashing back between lines of Bardem's trembling narration to haunting snapshots of the event in question, we witness the film peak in electricity — we see the cast having a rare bit of fun on this slow crawl through the crevices of human desperation, and we see Ridley Scott's stronghold on the direction of the film loosen just a bit to give the script's weirdest material a venue worthy of its character.
It's a unique moment in the movie when it doesn't feel like the grisly, earthy realism of Scott's vision and the savory heightened reality pulsing through Cormac McCarthy's script are at odds. More often than not, the The Counselor's desert backdrop and dispirited denizens dry out the movie to the point where what we're watching, no matter how attractive, feels like it's forcing its way down. But it's the brief snippets into the otherworldly imagination of McCarthy, who writes this script as if it were a novel, that keeps us drinking up The Counselor.
We enjoy festive gulps of the characters who speak almost entirely in maxims, and the bizarre world that seems to operate in accordance with these bubbles of nihilistic wisdom. While Fassbender's male lead is scrubbed clean of any role beyond the courier of Scott's occasionally barren A-story thriller, and his fleeting accomplice Brad Pitt offers little more than a head of hair from which to shield your eyes, some of The Counselor's more inviting participants manage to really make McCarthy's poetry work. Bardem, as a criminal world fixture terrified and undone by his powerhouse lover — bouncing between our sympathies and alien fascination — lays claim to some of the movie's most engrossing scenes, the aforementioned topping the list. But the only performer who truly embodies the fantastical genus of McCarthy's writing is Diaz, offering not so much a character from a peculiar story but a creature from a bizarre planet.
As the sun around which McCarthy's solar system revolves, Diaz institutes herself as the beacon of the weird wilderness with which this script is filled. Covered in cheetah spots, sporting a gold tooth, and never wavering from her flawlessly delivered tenets of sociopathy, Diaz gives us the height of The Counselor's capabilities, the pinnacle of what would — in more generous hands — emancipate it entirely from the gritty crime thriller identity it winds up inhabiting.
Although Scott is a director with penache, he gets in the way of McCarthys' strengths on this outing. Having imbued so many science-fiction stories with the reality and humanity they needed, Scott seems to miss the point on this one: The Counselor is a real world thriller that needs more of the feel of McCarthy's fantasy.
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Thanks to a slow start and faithfulness to the navel-gazing source material, Stephenie Meyer and the film adaptations of her Twilight series became a whipping boy for self-respecting moviegoers. It's too bad — anyone who turned their noses at the later entries of the mega-succesful franchise missed some of the craziest camp since John Waters. That gave us hope when it came to the first non-Twilight Meyer adaptation: The Host, a romantic twist on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Hope is quickly dashed only minutes into the latest from director Andrew Niccols (GATTACA, In Time), as The Host struggles with the same on-the-nose, emotional dizziness that plagued the pre-Breaking Dawn movies in the vampire saga.
Actually, it might be worse.
Whereas Twilight relied on dead-eyed gazing to convey the courtship between Bella and Edward, The Host actively works to externalize the inner monologue, spending most of the movie inside the head of its split-personality main character. Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) was a regular Southern belle before Earth was invaded by a parasitic race of aliens known as "Souls." The planet is quickly taken over by the amoeba-like critters, who inhabit the bodies of humans in hopes of correcting their imperfect tendencies. No luck, though — when Melanie is eventually captured by "Seekers," a jumpsuit-wearing police force who help new arrivals find host bodies and crack down on the rebellious few without aliens in their skulls, she goes down fighting. A Soul known as "Wanderer" is placed inside of her, but against all odds, Melanie's consciousness remains.
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The two get off to a bumpy start, but before too long, Melanie has Wanderer empathizing with the human Resistance. She also feels guilty for taking over her host's life, and decides to right the wrong by trekking out into the desert to reunite Melanie with the ones she loves. Like his past films, Niccols intricately builds the world of The Host. As Melanie and Wanderer hit the road like a Jekkyl and Hyde version of Thelma & Louise, we get a taste for the new Earth designed by the Souls. It's basically communism: everything is shared, everything is free, and everyone lives in harmony (minus the pesky humans who refuse to share their headspace with a glowing amoeba from outer space). The world of the Souls is perfect, and Wanderer's awakening to the idea that even utopias have their downsides is an intriguing arc.
But as Niccols and Meyer are both familiar with, a well-constructed setting and concept only goes so far. Ronan is an actress with broad range (see: Hanna) and elegant delivery. Here, her subtle work is bogged down by grating voiceover and a demand to react like a deer in headlights. The two personalities spend most of the film bickering at one another, Ronan's rage-filled Southern twang blaring over her wide-eyed, observational approach to Wanderer. When they arrive at the desert cave retreat of the Resistance, The Host's voiceover problem reaches crippling levels. Turns out, Melanie had a boyfriend, Jared (Max Irons), before being captured by Seekers. He's hanging with her uncle Jeb (William Hurt) in the caves, and less than enthused by Melanie's extraterrestrial companion. Wanderer — renamed "Wanda" to fit in with the normals — is chastised by Melanie for even speaking to Jared, so she retreats into the arms of Ian (Jake Abel). Yes, when Earth is overrun with alien beings and the last of the human race struggles to stay hidden from Seekers, there is still room for a romantic quadrangle... between two interchangeable hunks, an alien impersonating a human, and a disconnected voice.
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The movie is littered with missed opportunities, seemingly uninterested in diving into the character-driven side of the elaborate science fiction ideas it is built upon. Hurt does an impressive job turning the leader of the Resistance into a broken down survivor of the massacre, but his willingness to accept Wanderer into his society is just lazy storytelling. Likewise, the Seekers have their own conflicted figurehead: Diane Kruger's nameless hunter. Unlike her Soul coworkers, she has a thirst for human blood. She wants to wipe them out instead of aid them. It's a lively twist that's only addressed two-thirds into the movie, after Kruger has spent most of her screentime driving a shiny sports car and scanning mouton vistas with her bright blue Seeker eyes.
There are moments that impress. Niccols briefly opens up the scope of the movie by throwing in an adeptly shot car chase. The designs of the Resistance's hideout and the Seeker technology are all precise and culled from logic. An intricate mirror system that directs sunlight down to an underground field of wheat — brilliant! But in the end, The Host is like its central character: a vacant husk, completely bewildered inside and out, with the faint sound of a good idea trying to scream its way through. Niccols and Meyer's team up isn't a terrible movie, it's a meandering one. The Souls might be right to invade us — we could use a bit of direction.
What do you think? Tell Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
[Photo Credit: Open Roads Films]
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Sometimes a director has a favorite actor that they jibe with whom they cast in a whole whack of movies in a row. Think Scorsese and DiCaprio Wes Anderson and Bill Murray or Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst. It's a sort of professional infatuation that can serve a project well but it can also lull them into self-indulgence. Although this is only the second time that Killing Them Softly's writer/director Andrew Dominik has worked with Brad Pitt it feels like they have a certain camaraderie. The symbiosis previously worked in their favor in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time around they never quite find the same rhythm.
Of course Killing Them Softly has an entirely difference cadence than that golden-hued meditative Western; it's stylishly violent and blackly hilarious. After all the catalyst for this whole affair is a half-cocked scheme cooked up by a wanna-be gangster nicknamed Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) and carried out by a desperate ex-con (Scoot McNairy) and a scummy Australian junkie (Ben Mendelsohn) who steals and sells purebred dogs for cash. Their plan to knock over a mobbed-up card game is air tight (or so it seems): the game runner Markie (Ray Liotta) has confessed to setting up a heist of his own game in the past. The knuckleheads think the card-players will blame him again.
Unfortunately for them Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate the matter. His record is impeccable his glasses mirror-slick and his hands steady. His technique is of course to kill his victims "softly " from a distance. "It's so embarrassing " he comments to a middleman played by Richard Jenkins to watch his targets plead and cry and lose control of their bodily functions. It's just as embarrassing to see his colleagues lose their mettle like Mickey (James Gandolfini) a gangster he called in to help out. Mickey is a dogged drunk and a womanizer who's given to rapturous platitudes about a prostitute he knew in Florida. "There's no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who's hooking " he tells an increasingly frustrated Jackie. Grossly funny scenes like this the scatological problems one encounters while driving dog-napped pups across country and an explosion gone awry are outweighed by a weirdly bloated narrative that makes pits stops so characters can loll in junkie nods to the tunes of the Velvet Underground.
The changing political climate of the era is used as a clumsy foil for this underground economy. At first it's interesting and makes you feel a bit clever to notice the TV in the background playing an old clip of George W. Bush droning on about the economy or a huge political ad on a billboard looming over a desolate area. As time goes on Bush is replaced by Obama (first as senator later as president) on TV but nothing really changes for these people or their situations. Midway through it's obvious and by the end overbearing especially as Jackie lectures Jenkins's lawyer (and us) about why the system is as screwed as the characters. "America's not a country it's a business. Now f**king pay me " he tells Jenkins's Driver in an echo of the classic Goodfellas line uttered by Liotta.
Dominik has only made three films but he's a formidable writer and director with a keen eye for assembling ensemble casts. It's possible that time and multiple viewings will treat Killing Them Softly as well as it has The Assassination of Jesse James or Chopper but for now it works better as a character study or perhaps a showpiece for its talented performers than an overall experience.
When writer/director Andrew Niccol initially became involved in the adaptation of Stephanie Meyer's The Host, I thought, "wow, this is a great marriage of material and talent." Both in genre and tone, Niccol is the perfect filmmaker to take on Stephanie Meyer's sci-fi story about a subtle takeover of the human race by aliens known as Souls. Anyone who's seen his quiet, enchanting Gattaca will attest to that. Though he had originally just provided the screenplay for the adaptation, he was also rumored to direct, but that prospect seemed lost when Nanny McPhee Returns' Susanna White became attached to helm the film.
All is now well, as Variety reports that Niccol has officially signed on to direct the picture at the Cannes Film Festival. Nick Wechsler and Steve and Paula Mae Schwartz are producing. As reported last week, Saoirse Ronan will play protagonist Melanie Stryder, who is humanity's last hope for survival. There's no word on when production will begin, since Niccol is still putting the finishing touches on his latest sci-fi thriller Now for Fox. The Host originally had been set for a 2012 release, but my guess is that will be pushed back to 2013 to allow proper time for both pre-production and post.
I find it hard to get excited about a film that comes from the mind of the woman responsible for Twilight, but I've got a lot of confidence in Niccol's storytelling aptitude. He should be able to make a mysterious and exciting film from Meyer's story.
News of a new Andrew Dominik project ramped up on Tuesday when Deadline reported that Brad Pitt is negotiating to star in and produce Cogan's Trade, a comedic crime saga that Dominik will direct.
Earlier in the day, The Playlist had been tipped that Dominik was putting the film together and, referencing an earlier comment by Casey Affleck, said it appears the actor would also reteam with his and Pitt's Assassination of Jesse James director.
Says Deadline, Pitt will play Jackie Cogan in the adaptation of George Higgins' novel. Cogan is a professional enforcer who investigates a heist that takes place during a high stakes poker game held under the protection of the mob. Dominik wrote the script.
According to the Heat Vision blog, names such as Sam Rockwell, Mark Ruffalo and Javier Bardem have also sprung up as possibilities for the ensemble piece.
Cogan's Trade has been set up independently, financed by Inferno Entertainment, which will handle international sales. Plan B's Pitt and Dede Gardner and Chockstone's Steve Schwartz and Paula Mae Schwartz are producing. Inferno's Bill Johnson and Jim Seibel will exec producer with Marc Butan. Roger Schwartz is co-producer.
Although Affleck previously said he was doing a movie with Dominik in January 2011, it is not clear when the film will start.
Dominik is also set to direct the adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates' Blonde, with Naomi Watts playing Marilyn Monroe. Word on that project is that the financing is in place and a February start had been planned.
However, Wiretap recently heard that if Dominik could get the Pitt project off the ground, Blonde could move to June.
Source: Hollywood Wiretap
Ten years ago, Doug Liman was prepping a little film called The Bourne Identity, based on Robert Ludlum's beloved spy from the days of the Cold War. He updated the setting and turned the material into an exciting contemporary action film with strong, well defined characters and full-throttle pacing. Bourne made major bucks for Universal and turned the struggling filmmaker into an in-demand director. Since then, he's produced TV shows (The O.C., Knight Rider, Covert Affairs) and made successful motion pictures (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jumper), cementing his status in Hollywood as a go-to action auteur.
Liman recently finished up work on the political thriller Fair Game and is sifting through scripts and optioning properties as he decides which one deserves his attention first. In addition to developing All You Need Is Kill and an untitled Three Musketeers project at Warner Bros. (among many other projects), he has today signed on to helm an adaptation of Monte Reel's non-fiction book "The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon." The story chronicles the search for the last surviving member of an Amazon tribe from the perspective of the government agents charged with both verifying his existence and preserving his way of life.
Chockstone Pictures has acquired the film rights to the novel, which Liman will produce along with Ed Saxon, Dave Bartis, Steve and Paula Mae Schwartz. Mark Bailey is adapting the screenplay and will serve as exec producer on the pic. Chockstone most recently helped bring the Cormac McCarthy novel The Road to the big screen and also helped Terrence Malick make The Tree of Life, which is supposed to release sometime this year.
The Last Of The Tribe sounds pretty interesting as an anthropological study and could make a cool adventure pic, but Liman needs to set his priorities. If there's one thing that I've learned from interviewing filmmakers, it's that producers have the luxury of working on multiple projects at once while directors need to focus on them one at a time. Sometimes it takes a director two to three years to properly finish the movie; it seems like a long time, but its a necessary sacrifice to turn in the best product. When a filmmaker is juggling as many gigs as Liman is (he has six projects in development, all of which he's circling as a directing vehicle), the work tends to suffer (See: David Goyer's Blade: Trinity or John McTiernan's The 13th Warrior). They won't all wait for him, so he'll have to decide where he wants to take his career next or risk the creative quality of some of the films.