Saturday, March 15, 2014

Movie Reviews: 300: Rise of an Empire, The Counselor, The Bagman

300: Rise of an Empire
directed by Noam Murro
I adored the original 300 movie. This film dramatically ups the violence and blood splatter but it didn't satisfy emotionally. It can be difficult for sequels to match or improve upon the original. Even if they are good movies in their own right, often the sequel is retreading what we've seen before. Slowed down and sped up athletic violence? Close up depiction of blood spray? Someone seeing a close relative die? Been there done that. Whereas Butler's King Leonidas was a baritone big baaaaad man, Athenian Admiral/General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) is more of a thinking man's leader. He's known more for superior tactics, deception and resoluteness than for macho come get some attitude, although he'll show that at times. It was Themistocles who killed the Persian Emperor Darius (Yigal Naor), Xerxes' father, though he does not brag of this. He's basically Odysseus, the intellectual warrior to Leonidas' brawling Ajax

Themistocles will give public voice to his doubts, fears or mistakes. Leonidas had no doubts, fears or mistakes, not in public anyway. This fits the stereotypical characteristics of Athenians and Spartans quite well but unfortunately, though it was per creator Frank Miller, purposely done, I thought it left something out of the lead role. I only rarely had the idea that the actor was actually the role and not just acting the role. There was something missing.

This void was, apparently gleefully, filled by the beautiful actress Eva Green as the Greek female admiral, Persian loyalist and chief Athenian/Spartan antagonist, Artemisia. Green dominates the movie. Her scenes radiate vigor. If you're searching for someone to play a manic, dangerous, slinky, seductive villainness who looks like she could explode any minute and makes little distinction between violence and sex, Eva Green's your woman. She would be perfect in a remake of Black Sunday. However...if I were a feminist, which I'm not, I would probably question having the lead female role interpreted as an emotionally damaged woman. Artemisia, due to seeing her family raped and murdered and suffering rape and abuse herself by fellow Greeks, now enjoys hurting other people, mainly men, preferably Greek men. Ironically she seeks a "real man" who can master her, seemingly by roleplaying some of the same actions which she suffered. 

There's no historical indication that Artemisia was motivated by rape. She was a Greek Queen. Some Greeks fought for the Persians. Artemesia was unusual for her gender, not her nationality. King Xerxes was never said to be anything but supportive of and impressed by Artemisia, not angered, jealous, frightened or intimidated. He singled her out for praise and wealth. Ho hum. Someone has to play the bad guy or in this case the bad gal. And Green does that well.

The film narrative jumps in time. Events happen before, during and after the first movie. This film does point out the historical irony that a militaristic superstitious monarchy like Sparta helped defend all Greece (and democracy??) at Thermopylae. Persia is attacking Greece by land and by sea. The Spartans have the superior army but the Athenians have the superior navy. Before the Battle of Thermopylae Themistocles goes to Sparta to ask assistance but gets brushed off. It's a religious holiday and per Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) the Spartans aren't overly fond of alliances anyway. In flashback we see the events which led to both Artemisia's and Emperor Xerxes' (Rodrigo Santoro) rise to prominence. Themistocles gets the fractious Athenians to give him permission to fight the advancing Persian fleet. With two of his best friends and one of their sons at his side, Themistocles proves himself a wily adversary who out maneuvers and outfights Artemisia's finest commanders. This excites the woman. 
Under truce she invites Themistocles to come aboard her (ahem) ship to show him what she the Persian Empire has to offer. But bellum interruptus leads to coitus interruptus. So a very displeased Artemisia uses the 480 BC equivalent of nuclear weapons to destroy much of Themistocles' fleet. She thinks him dead. Having survived, Themistocles learns of the Spartan defeat. Themistocles must deliver a new plan. He also must restore the morale of his remaining marines/sailors as some of them are starting to think life under the Persian boot is better than death. I mean when you get your behind kicked that badly you might wonder if you're fighting for the wrong team. Mother Mary is this the end of Greece? The rest of the film plays out like a classic Western. We're outnumbered, outgunned, and surrounded. Boys we got those SOB's right where we want them! Attack!
Although I have a soft spot for movies like this, unless you are really into swords and sandals films, have some violent urges that need to be exorcised via cinematic catharsis, or are an Eva Green fanboy this might not be worth seeing for full price. It's extremely graphically violent (more than the first movie) and briefly depicts more than a few rapes. Cities which fell, as Athens did here, were often subjected to days, even a full week of looting, rape and murder. Headey convinces as the embittered and widowed Queen Gorgo. And we see, as King Leonidas boasted, that Spartan women can be almost as physically dangerous as their men. I did not enjoy this as much as the first film though Green's performance was mucho fun. A family friend who is also a comic book geek/action movie fan strongly disagreed with my take so YMMV. Caveat Emptor.

The Counselor
directed by Ridley Scott
This film was based on a Cormac McCarthy screenplay. McCarthy is the award winning author of such books made into films as The Road, Child of God, No Country for Old Men, and All The Pretty Horses, among many other literary achievements. This film featured an A-list, perhaps even all-star cast. It is a very bleak desolate film but I think it was meant to come across that way. It makes subtle points about greed, need, and how our choices impact ourselves and others. It also features Cameron Diaz in a role that reminded me both visually and thematically of Kristin Scott Thomas' Crystal in Only God Forgives. There are few likable people in this film. And with one exception those who are likable are only so because they're compared to worse people. This film plays with your expectations and refuses to spell everything out for you. There are some things in The Counselor, even down to character names, which foreshadow future events. This is a very bright movie, visually. A lot happens in the daytime. I was impressed by this because it reminded me that no matter what tragedy occurs to you, the world just keeps on turning. Most people are oblivious to your pains. Such is life. A new baby is born just as somewhere else in the world someone is gasping their last breath. Just as with No Country for Old Men, if you are looking for a definitive showdown between the good guys and the bad guys, you won't find it here.

This film opens up with The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) making sweet love to his fiancee Laura (Penelope Cruz). They live in different cities but The Counselor (he's an attorney but no one ever says his name, not even Laura while he's making her happy) intends to change that when they get married. Like all new husbands to be The Counselor loves Laura very much and wants to ensure that Laura enjoys the good life. Well that's half a lie. He does want to take care of her but he's also greedy and ambitious for himself, having watched other people do well materially. Two people who are more financially successful than The Counselor are Reiner (Javier Bardem aka Mr. Penelope Cruz -they share no scenes together in this movie) and Reiner's girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz). They are drug dealers or to be more accurate drug importers/investors/wholesalers. 
The duo is an odd couple. Their eccentricities go beyond Reiner's Little Richard/Eraserhead hairstyle or Malkina's (her name means bad cat) penchant for hunting with her cheetahs, her tattoos, her sexually voracious and predatory nature, or her often outrageous jewelry and clothing. Bardem plays Reiner as a man who is trapped by his lifestyle but isn't smart enough to find the exit. Reiner once invited The Counselor to invest with him but The Counselor declined. Now The Counselor is ready, particularly when he hears about a 4000 % rate of return.

Malkina meets Laura. It's hard for the viewer and Laura to discern if Malkina is teasing her or seriously coming on to her. This encounter leaves Laura unsettled. Malkina views sex as just another power play. Certainly Malkina has enjoyed many sins. She makes that clear when she mockingly attends confession and makes a play for the priest (Edgar Ramirez). Reiner admits that he's occasionally afraid of/disturbed by Malkina, in part b/c of an incident I won't mention here. Reiner accepts The Counselor in on his next deal and sends him to work out some details with Westray (Brad Pitt) a fellow investor, middleman and troubleshooter for Reiner. Whereas Reiner is all drunken drained debauchery, (evidently Malkina is a physically demanding woman), Westray is tightly wound cool. He has only a few weak spots. Westray explains to The Counselor that it's every man for himself. He emphasizes that the Mexican Cartels simply don't tolerate mistakes. In fact they will torture, kill and rape just for fun. The Counselor is undeterred. Westray talks about his own exit strategy, which he can execute at a moment's notice.
While The Counselor is waiting for the deal to be completed (we see how the drugs are packaged and hidden for shipment) he still has to do his day job. As an offhand favor to Ruth (Rosie Perez), a foul mouthed woman that he is representing on a murder charge, The Counselor agrees to bail out her son (Richard Cabral), who was arrested for speeding. This movie is a good example of the hoary truism that if you sit down at a poker table and can't find the mark, you are the mark. This film was a tough one to judge. I think that rather than "show don't tell", this film too often decided to "tell don't show". There was slightly too much dialogue for me. Again this is a very bleak, cold pessimistic movie. It felt more like a play. The film's final portion gives Fassbender the chance to convincingly emote. Other actors include Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), John Leguizamo, Natalie Dormer (Margaery from Game of Thrones), Bruno Ganz, Ruben Blades and Sam Spruell.

The Bagman
directed by David Grovic
This movie clocked in at just under two hours but was nonetheless about 15 or 20 minutes too long. It could have been a contender but unfortunately got bogged down in how smart it thought it was as well as using some tired stereotypes. It uses a MacGuffin (in this film it was a bag) to increase interest. This works for a while. The film looked grandly magnificent and with a different director might have been a worthwhile update to the noir classic genre to which it pays homage. I really enjoyed the muted lighting, sense of increasing desperation, and weird elements. But the ending undercut the good parts. I watched this because I thought that DeNiro and Cusack working together would be fun to watch. But DeNiro is offscreen for most of the film. Jack (John Cusack) is a loyal if somewhat acerbic hitman who works for the crime boss Dragna (DeNiro). Dragna is an urbane, verbose man who has no problem assaulting his daughter and breaking her nose. His business is never quite explained but evidently he is in part a currency trader. Dragna has a job for Jack. Jack is to retrieve a certain bag from some people. Once he has the bag Jack is to go wait for the boss at a particular room at a specific motel. This bag is very important to Dragna but as he makes crystal clear to Jack, Jack is not to look into or open the bag under any circumstances. Period. Story. End of.
Jack follows orders but is upset when an associate of Dragna's tries and fails to kill him. As instructed Jack checks into room 13 at the motel run by the handicapped, officious, petulant, stubborn and creepy Ned (Crispin Glover). Ned is exactly the sort of unpleasant individual that makes you say to yourself that "Just because you're crippled don't think I won't throw you a beating!" After berating Dragna but not getting any response other than "Did you look in the bag?", Jack settles down to wait for Dragna's arrival. He's been shot but obviously doesn't dare go to the hospital. He can't explain the gun wound or the dead body in his trunk. Dragna or his people call at odd intervals to ensure that Jack is in the room.

Jack's paranoia is sky high. He's in kill or be killed mode. Someone saying the wrong thing to Jack can and does get killed. But Jack's been doing his work for a minute now. He hasn't killed or hurt anyone who didn't have it coming. Things get complicated when having briefly exited the room to handle some business Jack returns to find the Israeli prostitute Rivka (Rebecca DaCosta) hiding in his room from her violent pimps Lizard (Sticky Fingaz) and Guano (Martin Klebba). Jack doesn't toss her out because he dislikes pimps and doesn't know what Rivka saw. But that doesn't mean he likes or trusts Rivka either. The walls are closing in, especially when the local police, led by the quietly intimidating Sheriff Larson (Dominic Purcell) start nosing around the motel because of some irregularities. Larson, like some police officers I have known, gets right up in your face when asking a question and is a master at letting silence speak volumes. It's a subtle yet effective way of establishing dominance, particularly if you are as big as Purcell.
The film takes a few weird turns which are more Lynch than Tarantino. There is a fair amount of violence. DaCosta mostly keeps her clothes on. She may or may not be the femme fatale. Cusack's character could be an older version of his role in Grosse Pointe Blank. This is not a black comedy. I would have preferred more interaction between DeNiro and Cusack.
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