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Out in Theaters: ‘THE BOOK OF HENRY’

The Book of Henry, only the third film from “indie” director wunderkind Colin Trevorrow, plays like a film adaptation of a best selling novel. There’s sudden shocking twists, richly drawn, if brazenly over-the-top, characters and a hurried pace that all coalesce to feel like the product of 300 pages of prose siphoned into a 100-page screenplay. Big, bold and unpredictable, Henry unfolds like a suburban Dan Brown novel; it’s pulpy and scrumptious while it lasts, brimming with sudden breakneck turns that veer the narrative into perpetual new territory, but won’t leave much of an imprint once you’ve slammed it shut. Read More

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Out in Theaters: MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN

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Sorry Jason Reitman, I don’t know if we can be friends anymore. We had a good run but, I think it’s time to cut the umbilical cord. Though Men, Women and Children is a marked improvement over Reitman’s nearly horrendous Labor Day, it still misses the mark by a long shot, offering a muddled, obvious, sentimental mess trying to pass as smartphone generation gospel. The film’s central thesis is as convoluted as a Reddit comments section, as insincere as an emoticon apology. Reitman’s throughline that “technology bites…or does it?” is set up with the cold precision of a Mac Store. The section on why video games are bad is over here, in the front we have scummy chatrooms, the dangers of technophobia is jammed back there and right this way is the destructive power of internet speed-dating. It’s a Tinder of hot topic issues; a mosaic of D.A.R.E. videos from middle school health class. Through a girth of over-sharing, Reitman steeps the film too deep in melodramatic strife and winds up imparting a cold, stiff, impotent feeling. Like grandpa when he’s taken far too much Viagra.

The film introduces us to not just one, two, or four main protagonists but a heaping ten of them. But before we even get to any of these men, women and children struggling within their mortal coils, Reitman introduces us to a character that will have a significantly larger role than you’d ever expect. That character is a satellite voiced by the wonderfully British Emma Thompson. I guess she isn’t technically speaking actually the satellite – nor is the satellite necessarily anthropomorphized – but every time we see the thing rocketing to the outer reaches of the Milky Way – something we’re supposed to believe is significant but never is – we hear her voice and vice versa. Thompson has a few zingers and crude observations that cull early laughs but the intermittent returns to said satellite is a consummate representation of the film at large. It’s odd, ill-fitting and just doesn’t work.
 
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Ansel Egort
is one of Reitman’s many targets. He’s coping with the fact that his mom abandoned him. He just quit the football team because he’s a teenager and life is pointless because a YouTube video called “Tiny Blue Dot” says so. Because all teenagers prescribe to YouTube philosophy. Now he spends his days playing League or Legends or World of Warcraft or whatever MMO was currently popular when Reitman was filming this. Not to imply that Reitman is actually tapped into what teenagers do and don’t think is cool. I wouldn’t dare suggest that. At school, Ansel’s friends have not only abandoned him but have turned to harassing and outright bullying him. All for tapping out of the varsity pigskin squad. As milk cartoons strike him down, he’s a statue, taking it on the chin like some self-imilkating monk. With him alone, Reitman deals with abandonment issues, bullying, teenage dating and even suicide. Had the princely-named Ansel and his trials and tribulations been the sole subject matter of Men, Women and Children, we could actually be convinced to care. As is, he’s just another brick in a wall of “woe is me”.

Spontaneous abortion is yet another. Anorexia another. Cheating on your spouse just one more. BDSM porn addictions? Check. Teenage impotence? Check. Underage maybe-pornography? Double check. Overbearing, technophobe mothers are an obvious shoe in for Reitman’s catalog of problems. But I know what you’re thinking. What about a woman pimping out her own teenage daughter to online yucksters? Yup, that’s in the mix too. It’s like Reitman fingered through the DSM and earmarked every other page. Then he went Urban Dictionary and yanked some of the most common entries. Finally he made a Facebook poll of what the biggest issues facing people in 2014 were and shoehorned the top ten responses into one bloated, junky, blood-and-thunder diatribe. The product resembles spending two hours on Chat Roulette. The statement, little more than a bunch of obscured dicks in your face.

The trouble is, there really is a lot of really good acting going on within its midst. It’s a frustratingly similar case to Labor Day. Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin weren’t bad so much as they were just trapped in an awful script, working for a director than had never been anything but competent. Men, Women and Children suffers an identical blow. The actors have shown up ready to put in the work but the script lets them down at every turn. Save for (miraculously) Adam Sandler, the sole survivor of Reitman’s mushy hand and the only character whose arc feels genuine and unsentimental. The only explanation for the fierce dichotomy of talent and production is that those Hollywood folk still haven’t gotten the memo to jump ship on Reitman. Accordingly, he’s still got a designer cast to work with and they give it their all.

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Even though I took issue with the trumped up dramatics of his character, Egort’s performance is airtight; frothing with pathos and interspersed with moments of true joy. Jennifer Garner excels as a dictatorial mother who safeguards each and every internet interaction for daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever). She’s easy to hate, though a bit hack-i-ly written, but Garner helps flesh her into an actual person rather than the one-dimensional character she’s sculpted as. As a villain, she works but only ironically and that’s still only because of the depth of Garner’s skill.

Another cast stand out is Dean Norris, father to Ansel and new boyfriend to the washed-up but nonetheless fashionable Judy Greer (the mom pimper). Norris was always a dark horse on Breaking Bad (side note: his garage confrontation with Walt alone should have earned him an Emmy nomination. COME ON!) and he unleashes much of the same macho man with a mushy inside energy here. That guys eyes vibrate when he’s worked up like no one else’s. And those jowls. Whoa mama.

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Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt are as divided in their marriage as anal beads and bounce off each other just as much. Their romance is as snuffed out by the forces of the world as a dog queefing in the wind. Whenever sex needs to be scheduled (or, ugh, rescheduled) you should probably just buy matching his and hers FleshLights. As DeWitt and Sandlers sexual absentia mounts, they each turn to online lovers. Her via Ashley Madison – the go-to cheat on your hubby website (side note: I wonder if they paid a sponsorship for their inclusion)- him with a high class escort. And when I say high class, I mean $800 an hour high class. The only real bit of emotional honesty comes from Sandler’s awkward interaction with said hooker and how he ultimately decides to deal with his and his wife’s infidelity. But, as has come to be expected of a Reitman film, that emotional honesty is few and far between.

At its heart, Men, Women and Children is rochambeau. Not the French general, the nut kicking contest. With so many potentially nerve-striking issues on display, Reitman has money on the fact that at least one will get ya where it hurts. And he does. A few scenes legitimately sting. The duteously great acting makes this feat possible. This doesn’t however make Men, Women and Children “good” by any means. It’s just a statistical fact that if you’re blasting a shotgun blindfolded, you’re bound to hit something eventually. Can we have the old Jason Reitman back now?

C-

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Out in Theaters: THE COUNSELOR

“The Counselor”
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Dean Norris, Sam Spruell, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic
Crime, Drama, Thriller
117 Mins
R

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When we think Ridley Scott, typically big, lavish spectacles pop up in our minds, which is why The Counselor comes as such an admirable surprise. Much more interested in cautionary talks than fits of physical violence, The Counselor plays mind games with its audience, toying with us intellectually and emotionally. One long con bleeds into a slow climb towards a heady climax of inescapable comeuppances, and we have front row seats to the scramble. If Scott’s former films are a series of taxing somatic workouts, The Counselor is the glistening sweat beading from his forehead once the Western dust has settled. Like a man with an agenda tucked up his sleeve, Scott wields an unblinkingly grim look at the allure of the international drug enterprise and the heartless abandon of cartel justice. As a piece of purely adult entertainment, it’s fearlessly mature and irreverent – the antithesis of studio expectation.

The narrative structure in which this ill-mannered tale of thoughtless vengeance unfolds is laid out like an eight-course table settings. A series of foreboding set-ups piece together a pilgrimage through the stages of greed, wealth, and power, all bonded by prosaic speeches. Various supporting characters all leaning against the post of lawlessness forewarn our hero, a man trying to dip his toe into the drug business, known only as the counselor (Michael Fassbender), of the potential gravity of the situation he’ll be marrying his money and his mouth to. No matter the caution tape they place, telling him to settle with hamburger while he can, the counselor’s taste can’t be satiated with anything less than Kobe beef. As it is, each rehearsed soliloquy is a trap set to spring later in play.

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Stepping into a new role as a screenwriter, author Cormac McCarthy is a maestro at establishing these simmering ideas that later erupt in bright bursts of bloodshed. Doling out a class of ironic justice, McCarthy defies civil expectations of “fair,” parsing romanticized ideas of criminal proceedings from the stark actuality of border politics. Standing on some dusty line in the sand and glancing into the sun, there is no line, no limit, no “fair” – only gory messes and dutiful cleanups.

In revealing this harsh reality, McCarthy and Scott know exactly how and when to play their cards.  As the adage goes, if you show a gun in the first act, it better go off by the time the credits roll. Throughout The Counselor, McCarthy and Scott show an arsenal of guns and give each a moment in the sun to pop off in the film’s home stretch. Though some may feel taxed by the grueling nature of Scott and McCarthy building this house of cards, the payoff is well worth the wait. 
 
Although McCarthy’s talky script flirts with being overly showy, like the teachers pet showing off, his larger-than-life dialogue works to convert this tale of untold tragedy into a thing of grit-toothed folklore, transporting it like smuggled heroin from the blood-in-the-sand shoot-em-up it might have been to a more uncharted territory. But make no mistake; this is entirely McCarthy’s intention – entirely his rodeo. His fingerprints smother the dialogue, fueling the jet black tone and unrelenting bleakness dripping from the screen. Dangling characters at the end of his puppet strings, using them as mouthpieces for his prosaic tact for conversation, McCarthy’s pithy word play is the star of the show.

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To the chagrin of those expecting a guns blazing actioner, The Counselor is only violent in rare fits, so for those going for a bloodbath – beware. When it does shift to the grisly side, it’s more of the full-stop violence of Refn’s films than anything this side of Kill Bill. This is violence as reality; violence as horror; not some glamorized Hollywood spectacle. But the elements that will really haunt you are the ones that slink into the shadows, the ones that are suggested, talked about in whispers, but never shown.

With a screenplay that exchanges high-octane thrills for moments of stressful self-reflection and one-on-one character conversations, Scott keeps the proceedings lively by punctuating them with anecdotal scenes that offer some of the lighter and more engaging moments. Between the gasps, the laughs, and the many talks, there’s not too much room for adrenaline. Much more a mentally stressful film than one that will have your blood pumping in thirsty gushes, all may be quiet on the western front, but it’s not in the minds of those living there.

For a movie that depends so much on the weight of these character chats, a rock solid cast is an absolute necessity. To the benefit of all, the top-tier cast lined up fully rises to the occasion. As the titular counselor, Fassbender continues to flex his thespian muscles, showcasing a spectrum of trade tricks that really makes his performance pop. Although still unconvinced of her true talent, at least in the English language, Penélope Cruz manages to be more than just eye candy and displays a woman who humanizes beauty and love requited. Brad Pitt continues to hit his mark in a solid streak of winning performances, although his Southern drawl may have started to wear a little thin. Cloaked in gaudy clothes and rings the size of dinner party costume jewelry, Cameron Diaz puts in the role of a lifetime. Sadly, that’s a low bar to hit and her performance fails to become the true stunner that it could have been.  

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As the gold-toothed Malkina, a sexual minx of any sinner’s fantasy, Diaz is on the precipice of something great but never trusts herself enough to take a true risk. In many ways, Malkina is a feminine ode to McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh. Though lacking the brute force of Chigurh, they share comparable devilishly savvy elements. It’s as if they are long separated siblings or lovers who will never be. Ironically, Malkina’s love interest here is played by Chigurh actor Javier Bardem, although his role here is more a thing of kooky-clothed comic relief than the stuff of day terrors. While Chigurh was driven by a distorted cosmic sense of justice, Malkina is ruled by authoritative greed. Too secure in her old image to take a blind leap of faith into the mysterious recesses of something fresh though, Diaz flirts with being great but doesn’t commit. Although I originally had her as a potential Oscar nominee, those chances are all but slashed.

As is becoming a trend for him, Scott throttles the line of brilliance but allows himself to get bogged down in the execution of it. Illustrating his potential for staggeringly intelligent storytelling, there are explosions of excellence scattered throughout The Counselor and a surgeon-steady backbone of thoughtful inspiration, it still gets a little muddled along the way. The wealth of intriguing ideas are there but I’m not convinced that they are fully realized.

Stepped in the tradition of the Old West, The Counselor leaves you wanting to know more, curious if you’d missed anything, and thirsty for another viewing. With the magic of a red pen and another few months spent on pre-production, this could have been an astonishing product, as it is, it’s Prometheus in the desert – brilliance pocked with gaping holes. With a little more polish and another couple edits, this could have been as solid gold as the cap on Cameron Diaz’s canine.

B

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