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Film Fri Oct 25 2013

The Counselor, All Is Lost, Escape from Tomorrow & Spinning Plates

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The Counselor

There is fascinating for all the right reasons and then there's The Counselor kind of fascinating. I guess the cliché is a train wreck, except The Counselor isn't like a wreck; it's too controlled and measured for that. As batshit crazy as they are, the words are too precisely chosen and so precisely delivered that there's nothing about the film that's speeding out of control exactly. While the film is never, ever boring, it's so laughably earnest in its "look at me" execution that you'll walk out wondering what the hell the point to it all is, and that's never a good thing with either a Ridley Scott-directed film or the first original screenplay by author Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road).

I was in love with the trailers for The Counselor because they seemed to go out of their way to make it impossible to figure out what the story was, and I'll give them credit for succeeding on that front. In fact, the film's plot is a remarkably straight-forward tale of an attorney who gets involved in a one-time only massive drug deal that goes sideways almost from the get-go. The first scene in the film features the title character — never given a name and played by Michael Fassbender — and his wife (Penelope Cruz) rolling around in bed, so we know right from the beginning where his primary weakness lies.

Fassbender's partner in the drug deal is his old friend and client Reiner (Javier Bardem), a man driven to extravagance, largely due to his need to impress his lovely female companion Malkina (Cameron Diaz). And then there's the cagey Westray (Brad Pitt), who is working with Fassbender as something of a facilitator on the deal. Along the way, we see a few familiar (and very welcome) faces, including the great Bruno Ganz as a diamond dealer, Rosie Perez as a count-appointed client of Fassbender who needs a favor from him, and Rubén Blades, who delivers a great monologue that sets the tone for just how bad things are going to get for our handsome counselor.

The issues I have with the film have to do with the wildly overwritten nature of the screenplay. Some might boil it down to "people don't talk like that," but I've certainly enjoyed enough films written and/or directed by David Mamet to know that doesn't bother me. Part of the program is the actors aren't selling it, and perhaps that's because even they know it's silly material. The one performer who handles the spirit of the words the best is Diaz, playing a slightly too-old-for-a-skirt-that-short, overly made-up trophy companion who has seen and done it all. A story that Bardem tells Fassbender about an encounter between Malkina and his car is almost too much to believe even after seeing it with your own eyes. But Diaz throws herself into this ruthless, skanky role with tremendous gusto and venom, and she might be the only actor in The Counselor whose performance I bought entirely.

I realize that McCarthy is all about being thought provoking, but that's different than scratching your head at the stream of consciousness and twisted logic that plagues this film. I think somewhere in here are hidden thoughts about life along the U.S./Mexican border, complete with a few uncomfortable stereotypes at play. I wish there was something enjoyable even in the film's sleazier moments, but even those seem to be operating at half speed and didn't want to fully commit to the immorality that this film so desperately needed.

Perhaps the bigger problem is that Fassbender's character just seems to go where the winds pushes him. I'm not used to seeing this actor play such a wimpy, reactive schlub who can't seem to think for himself and is constantly asking people he shouldn't trust what his next move should be. The deep faults in The Counselor have less to do with it being confusing for the sake of being confusing and more to do with the filmmakers showing the audience just how hard they're trying. It's a bit embarrassing, to be honest, and I expect more from even subpar Ridley Scott films. In the end, the material might have been better served in a different director's hands, but I'm not sure even that would have solved many of the issues. The film is an overall mess in the hands of this handsome cast. And plus, people actually don't talk the way that they do in this movie, and it's annoying as hell.

All Is Lost

I was fortunate enough to see this astonishing Robert Redford vehicle in close proximity to my first viewing of Gravity, and it's clear very early on that both films are extremely similar in terms of their stories of a single resourceful person doing everything they possibly can to stay alive under impossible circumstances. In the case of All Is Lost, the vehicle in question is a decent-size sailing yacht floating around somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and the biggest difference between Redford's unnamed character and from Sandra Bullock's lone astronaut is that he doesn't feel the need to run his mouth constantly. Oh, and the movie is quite good.

We don't get much by way of backstory in All Is Lost. One morning Redford is jarringly awoken and water begins pouring into his below-deck cabin. Seems his boat has run into the corner of a storage container that has fallen off a bigger ship. A corner of the container has been torn open and hundreds of tennis shoes are seen floating on the water and into Redford's boat. He manages to patch the boat, but the water has damaged much of his equipment, including his motor and radio gear, but his clear sense of knowing how to sail without instruments makes us believe this man has a shot of finding land soon enough and making it home safe.

With almost no dialogue (the most talking Redford does is when he's trying to get his radio to work), All Is Lost conveys just enough information to let us know about this man's abilities and personal strength, which is far more than his age might lead you to believe. The centerpiece of the film has the yacht go into a horrific storm that forces Redford to lock himself below deck just before waves roll the boat over more than once (the actor had to do all his own stunts because using a stunt double would have been too obvious).

Writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) does a remarkable job of keeping things simple and, above all, believable. I'm sure some douche will nit-pick some small decision Redford's character makes during the course of his ordeal, but it all seemed totally authentic, as he slowly ratchets up the tension with each new obstacle — weather, sharks, lack of water, finding the shipping current where Redford would most likely be spotted by passing tankers. One thing that never left my head was how smart every decision was that Redford made, especially in situations where he has more than one option. And of course there comes a time when the elderly man feels like he is simply out of options.

The impact of All Is Lost is total and pulls in all of the senses. You can feel the heat of the sun burning his skin during the day, smell the undrinkable salt water, taste the little bits of food he manages to salvage. I'm always impressed watching someone perform complicated or difficult tasks and make it look like second nature. You can look into Redford's eyes and see the intelligence and contemplation of each new challenge. He never panics, manages his fear, and thinks ahead to what his needs are going to be if certain cataclysmic occurrences happen.

I love listening to Redford deliver dialogue, so it was especially impressive that my favorite role of his in perhaps decades is one where he barely speaks. Redford isn't playing this part; he's living it in the most utterly convincing way imaginable. All Is Lost is a remarkable and impressive piece of filmmaking with one of our finest elder statesmen of acting at the helm in more ways than one. Even if you haven't liked what he's done as an actor or director of late, this is something so entirely different and near perfect, it's tough to imagine anyone not being impressed as hell at his work here. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Escape from Tomorrow

The debut feature from writer-director Randy Moore, Escape from Tomorrow, has a "making of..." story that is at least as interesting as the one being told in the film. Along with a small crew armed with small digital camera and sound equipment and his actors, Moore managed to repeatedly get into Walt Disney World in Florida and clandestinely shoot the better part of this bizarre little film about a man fired while on vacation with his family and the psychological meltdown that follows.

The first sign that something is amiss is that we view the normally colorful theme park in stark black and white, which adds a gloomy, timeless quality to the proceedings. Jim (Roy Abramsohn) and his family are about the leave their hotel room on the last day of their vacation when he receives a call from the home office letting him knows he's been fired. He decides to keep the news a secret from wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and kids Elliot (Jack Dalton) and Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez), so they can enjoy their final trip into the Magic Kingdom. The black-and-white take on Disney World also makes parts of the Escape from Tomorrow feel like a horror film, which is completely appropriate considering the increasingly surreal journey Jim takes on this day.

As he wanders with the park, Jim is convinced that two underage, provocatively dressed French girls (Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru) are flirting with him, and before long he goes from seeing them everywhere he wander to his entering into full-on creep vibe by actively seeking them out. But other things begin to change in Jim's world as well, some of which go beyond explanation. He enters into a drunken romp with a floozy he picks up on the park; he lands up inside the Epcot dome (Spaceship Earth), where secret doings are occurring; his daughter goes missing; and the French girls continue to openly taunt him.

Even some of the movie's more traditional, almost-documentary moments are strange to behold — the very real moment of getting to the front of a very long Buzz Lightyear ride line, only to have the ride shut down just before the actors board; seeing inside some of the classic rides, such as the Haunted Mansion and ones built around Snow White and Winnie the Pooh; or even simply seeing the Disney costumed characters in a film that also features nudity in no small doses. If there had been a trip into some sort of Alice in Wonderland ride, I would have guessed a journey through the looking glass would have been in order.

The filmmakers also make great use of both classic scores from the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Zbigniew Preisner, along with original compositions from Abel Korzeniowski (W.E., A Single Man and the recent release of Romeo and Juliet). At times, the music selections give the film a 1950s scare-film atmosphere, but soon switch over to more melodramatic pieces, while still feeling warmly retro.

There certainly comes a point where we wonder if what Jim is seeing is real or all in his pressurized mind. And very little of director Moore's take on any of this is straight forward. Much of what happens or is shown in the film may feel like filler, but the filmmaker simply wants us to feel like all of this unpleasantness is happening in a familiar place devoted to happiness. There's a subversive promise to Escape from Tomorrow that isn't completely there, but one would hope that Moore will continue to defy authority in future films as well.

It's impossible to watch this utterly unique work and not immediately start wondering how many lawyers got paid how much cash to make it possible for you to sit in a screening of this film. But once you move beyond such thoughts, beyond considering how many close calls the filmmakers must have had when making Escape from Tomorrow, you may wonder exactly what it's all about. Is it a dream, a nightmare, a "Twilight Zone"-worthy con that is repeated every so often with weak-minded tourists on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or is it a peak behind the curtain at the machinations of a massive corporate entity that requires human sacrifice? Hell if I know, but the film is as fascinating as it is fantastical.

Spinning Plates

In the last few years, a slew of documentaries have been released concerning something we do every day: eating. From master chefs and their famous restaurants to those who make, buy, and sell wines, the subjects are as varied as the cuisine that they serve. And while I'm no foodie or wine expert, I'll admit to having a strange fascination with these films, partly because they inspire me to try new dishes, but mostly because I love hearing about the subjects' lives and how they began their fascination with certain types of food and dishes and wines. But the new documentary making its way across the country currently, Spinning Plates, takes a slightly different approach to its three subjects. While the ways this trio of restaurant owners runs their businesses is quite different, writer-director Joseph Levy has found certain commonalities (often involving hardship) in their stories that makes the film fascinating.

For folks in Chicago, there's a particular point of interest since one of the restaurants profiled is Alinea (named the Best Restaurant in North America and one of the finest in the world) and its founder/chef Grant Achatz, whose battle with tongue cancer has been chronicled before, but the telling here is especially moving. The film doesn't dwell on this terrible time in his life, however, and there is plenty of discussion of how he creates new dishes, how he involves his family in his cooking, his approach to opening satellite restaurants, and how his road to becoming one of the world's most celebrated chefs started from such simple and humble beginnings. His passion comes through the screen, and his dishes are almost too incredible to believe.

About a three- to four-hour drive west and north of Chicago (I'm totally making the road trip soon) is Balltown, Iowa, home to Breitbach's Country Dining, a restaurant that was opened in 1852 (making it the state's oldest eatery) and purchased by the Breitbach family in 1891, with sixth-generation owner Mike Breitbach running it currently. The diner is more than just a tourist destination serving largely buffet-style food at seemingly reasonable prices, but it has become a community gathering place, with local friends and family pitching in whenever necessary. The tragedy that befell Breitbach's was not one but two horrific fires within a year of each other that each burned the place to the ground. But watching the community rally with volunteer laborers and donated raw materials to twice rebuild this necessary bit of Americana was simply awe-inspiring.

The third establishment is Tuscon's La Cocina de Gabby, named after owner Francisco's sainted and talented wife, who does authentic Mexican meals that look ridiculously yummy. But this restaurant is also source of a great deal of struggle and heartbreak as the couple and their still-young daughter throw every penny they have into maintaining both the kitchen and their home, with the mortgage companies closing in on them. I don't know much, but watching this family prepare meals together has convinced me that if Gabby isn't cooking these incredible dishes, there's something wrong with the world.

Spinning Plates embraces ideas about community, familial bonds, tradition, survival, and above all else, food as art. It's the kind of film that, naturally, makes you want to visit these restaurants but also gives us tips on embracing change and conquering obstacles and becoming even more successful in the process. "Inspiration" isn't a word I throw around often, especially about food-related docs, but this work absolutely is an inspiration, not just to those who want to open their own restaurant, but also to anyone struggling to make their dream come true. It's a remarkable little movie that fills you with the honor of meeting such moving human beings, who all share the gift of being able to open up our hearts, minds and stomach to new possibilities in and out of the kitchen. And if anyone wants to front me $400-$500, I'd be happy to visit Alinea, purely for research purposes. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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