Losing It at the Movies

“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.

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.”