“In the first chapter we pick up our initial thematic line: the layers or layer-cake theme. This is the fall of 1828; Charles is thirteen and on his first day in school he is still holding his cap on his knees in the classroom. ‘It was one of those headgears of a composite type in which one may trace elements of bearskin and otterskin cap, the Lancers’ shapska, the round hat of felt, and the housecap of cotton; in fine, one of those pathetic things that are as deeply expressive in their mute ugliness as the face of an imbecile. Ovoid, splayed with whalebone, it began with a kind of circular sausage repeated three times; then, higher up, there followed two rows of lozenges, one of velvet, the other of rabbit fur, separated by a red band; next came a kind of bag ending in a polygon of cardboard with intricate braiding upon it; and from this there hung, at the end of a long, too slender cord, a twisted tassel of gold threads. The cap was new; its visor shone.’
“In this, and in three other examples to be discussed, the image is developed layer by layer, tier by tier, room by room, coffin by coffin. The cap is a pathetic and tasteless affair…”
– Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, from Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov
Ask anyone with kids and they’ll tell you this: having children kills your moviegoing. Let’s forget downloading Friday’s Netflix or whatever you DVRed off STARZ. I’m talking about literally going to the theater. Somehow, I’ve caught three films in the past three weeks: Gravity, Captain Phillips, and, yesterday, The Counselor. My grades for these in that order:
Gravity (B almost-plus)
Sandra Bullock, whose body is on promethean display throughout Gravity—especially the movie’s final low shot, where she towers like a goddess back on (spoiler alert!) Earth—may well have the greatest Pilates instructor on our planet. What shape she’s gotten herself in. This was the first thing my wife leaned over and said to me when the lights came up: “God, she looks great.” The movie’s like Speed but with better effects: it’s really just an elaborate obstacle course, Bullock forced to jump and re-jump—or swim at the movie’s end—through countless hoops. It’s worth the admission price for Cuaron’s formal inventiveness, the camera orbiting the actors incessantly, like an electron its nucleus. Don’t see it if you get seasick easily, but see it in 3D. I could’ve done without Bullock’s backstory, these extra layers of MOTIVATION and REDEMPTION utterly extraneous. Isn’t it enough just to get home in one piece? Doesn’t rescue for rescue’s sake purify the soul? Gravity made me nostalgically recall Ron Howard’s Apollo 13—to my mind, a better film about staying alive in the final frontier.
Captain Phillips (C +)
Yes, Tom Hanks is a great actor, although I’m not the first person to flinch whenever a movie’s recommended because it has “great acting.” Here, too, I really could’ve done without the backstory, as “economical” as it was, more lip service than characterological, as rote as a long-favored chess gambit—the EVER-ENDURING-STAYING-THE-COURSE-ALL-AMERICAN-COUPLE OPENING. What does Hanks and Keener’s anxious chat on the way to the airport do for the movie? Does it make Hanks’ bravery any braver? Captain Phillips is a claustrophobic one-trick pony, enlivened only when the Navy SEALS show up and make their awe-inspiring sniper shots. Ironically, its camerawork is as maximalist as the American military response to the Somalis: Yeah, I get it. We’re the world’s elephantine first responders. We bring aircraft carriers to an AK-47 shootout or airlift in SEALS to kill Skinnies. I’d also like to state for the record that I much prefer Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity to Paul Greengrass’s subsequent sequels. There are better fights in the former and the latter’s camerawork makes me seasick. (Nightmare thought: Greengrass remakes Gravity.)
The Counselor (n/a)
Scott’s opening scene, where Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz toss beneath the sheets, is so matchlessly erotic and economical in establishing them as people we’ll root for that it’s hard for the film not to go downhill from there. But it does worse than that. It’s a movie that gets hokier than further from it you get, until finally you realize you’ve just seen something truly abysmal, the kind of film that jeopardizes its creator’s reputation, or at least makes you a McCarthy revisionist.
Late Cormac McCarthy loves him some philosophizing baddies. My god, The Counselor’s killers are so interesting, so thoughtful, as intellectually ripped as Bullock is physically. Getting waxed by a Mexican drug cartel apparently comes with a series of Great Course’s lectures on Quantum Mechanics and the Morality of Being in a Superposition (or in Fassbender’s case, the DVD contains a snuff film entitled Hola!). Late CM also digs on elaborate methods of killing people. Why simply shoot a motorcyclist when you can first hit your local Jap bike store and measure the exact height required to lop off your target’s head with a garotte wire, strung from truck’s flatbed to a telephone pole, this whole operation demanding numerous trips to your local hardware store—I always forget something at Home Depot—plus assembly and a nine-hour stakeout on a deserted highway. (These assassins have plenty of time to catch movies at the theater, let me tell you.)
More hokum: Brad Pitt’s Westray has the prophetic ability to enumerate garish modes of cartel murder which then occur in the same narrative. Talk about not taking your own counsel, Counselor. And how does Javier Bardem ever get laid with that hairdo? Is he uglifying himself as a way to apologize for marrying Penelope Cruz? This is his third instance of bad coiffure (see No Country for Old Men and Skyfall). Que alguien lo ayude!
Here was a question I couldn’t answer: Just because Cameron Diaz wears feline-like eye shadow, has what appear to be razor-sharp steel fingernails, toys with her prey, owns a pair of cheetahs, AND has a cheetah tattoo running down the length of her back, am I supposed to think she’s like a big cat? She’s also in great shape, hasn’t lost any flexibility whatsoever, unless that was a body double doing the split atop Bardem’s Ferrari. True, if given the choice, I’d rather be Fassbender in that first scene than Bardem’s car. Still, I hope his windshield washer formula was extra strength. What, I’m wondering, is the opposite of De-Icer?
McCarthy’s view of women is the most troubling thing about The Counselor. Gramps has a bad Madonna/Whore complex, I’m afraid, and the ladies are either pure Cruz’s or rapacious, witch-of-fuck Malkinas. A vagina is like a remora? This is probably why the Nobel committee will never come calling, in spite of Suttree, Blood Meridian, and the Border Trilogy’s greatness. Add to this mix the fact that McCarthy’s becoming a true crank: The world’s ending, he seems to be saying, and he’s glad he won’t be around to see it. Diaz’s End Times speech at the movie’s conclusion is a lazy bit of circular logic. Bad people doing only bad things think everything’s bad and will be evermore until The End, which is coming soon.
Gone is Suttree’s hopefulness. Remember the book’s final scene, when the boy shares his water with our hero as he emerges from the wilderness:
“[Suttree] could see the pale gold hair that lay along the sunburned arms of the waterbearer like new wheat and he beheld himself in wells of smoking cobalt, twinned and dark and deep in child’s eyes, blue eyes with no bottoms like the sea. He took the dipper and drank and gave it back. The boy dropped it into the bucket. Suttree wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. Thanks, he said.”