The Counselor

October 26, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz
Directed by: Ridley Scott (“Prometheus”)
Written by: Cormac McCarthy (debut)

He might be considered by many as one of the most talented living writers working today, but Cormac McCarthy’s transition from penning novels like “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road” to writing his first screenplay for “The Counselor” is not a smooth one to say the least. In fact, if you factor in McCarthy’s heavyweight status in the literary world along with the film’s star-studded cast and three-time Oscar nominated director Ridley Scott (“Black Hawk Down”) at the helm and “The Counselor” just might be the most surprising failure of the year.

Central to the story is actor Michael Fassbender (“Shame”) as the nameless title character, a lawyer who is in need of some fast cash and turns to the seedy drug cartels in Juarez, Mexico to help him out. When a drug run doesn’t go as planned, Mr. Lawyer must figure out how to fix the problem before the drug lords find him and toss his head into the Rio Grande.

As simple of a narrative as that sounds, McCarthy somehow turns the story into a complicated mess. Not only do scenes end awkwardly and feel disconnected from one another, the heavy-handed philosophical dialogue spoken by everyone involved makes for an exhausting experience. In one particular scene, Fassbender meets with an independent diamond seller to pick out a stone for his girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). What should be a simple exchange between the men turns into a 10-minute sermon on the cut and clarity of precious gems. Yes, we know it’s a metaphor for something that happens later in the film, but McCarthy might as well have saved the scene and used it for a 2 a.m. infomercial.

Scott’s direction is fine and Fassbender and Brad Pitt, who we’re still not sure what his purpose in the film was, are serviceable, but they can only work with what McCarthy has given them. The same does not go for Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem. As the two-headed snake in Fassbender’s drug-deal-gone-bad, their characters feel like underwritten parodies. Sure, their dialogue is just as terrible as the rest of the cast, but their goofy delivery makes McCarthy’s words even more meaningless.

Heavy on sexual escapades (the film opens with a long scene where Fassbender performs cunnilingus and continues with Diaz humping a car without panties) and light on style and vision, “The Counselor” proves that stars don’t always align even when things look impressive on paper.

To Rome with Love

July 6, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni
Directed by:
Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”)
Written by:
Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”)

Even at the age of 76, Woody Allen remains one of the most prolific filmmakers working today. So prolific, in fact, that he has produced at least one movie in which he has written and directed every year since 1982 and a dozens of other movies going back to the mid-60’s. Last year, Allen struck gold with “Midnight in Paris,” a whimsical time travel-centric romantic comedy which brought him, among other things, an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and the biggest box office success of his lengthy career. Still, with so many films being churned out, there are bound to be some that are less successful than others. Using a beautiful European city as a backdrop once again, Allen returns with “To Rome With Love,” a messy romantic comedy that is desperate for a focus.

The film is told through four vignettes of different stories taking place throughout Rome. The most successful of these is the one involving Allen himself, in his first acting role since 2006’s “Scoop.” In a random meeting while visiting Rome, Hayley (Allison Pill) and Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) quickly fall and love in get married. Hayley’s parents Jerry, (Allen) a man retired from the recording business and Phyllis (Judy Davis) fly into meet Michelangelo’s parents including his father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) who has a talent that Jerry wants to utilize. Allen gives himself the best material in the film, as this vignette contains the wittiest and most well written moments of the film. Allen’s return to acting is also welcome, with his neurotic babble and sharp one-liners firing on all cylinders. While the latter half of this story gets a little silly, it manages to maintain its cohesion and form the strongest portion of the movie.

In the next vignette, we see architect student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) living a comfortable life in Rome. This all changes when Sally’s good friend with a reputation of making men fall in love with her, Monica (Ellen Page) shows up after recently being dumped. As Jack tries to not fall for her, another fellow architect named John (Alec Baldwin) constantly shows up to Jack advice to give him advice. There are some good things to come out of this section of the film. The chemistry between Page and Eisenberg really works, with Page as a standout in particular. One might think that Eisenberg would be the perfect actor for an Allen movie, but his dialogue feels incredibly forced and scripted. There is also something bothersome about the omnipresence of Baldwin. While he is fine on screen, his constant appearances don’t add much and are hard to take seriously.

In another vignette, newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are on their honeymoon in Rome. As they are about to meet Antonio’s very important family, Milly sets out and gets lost in Rome and a prostitute named Anna (Penelope Cruz) mistakenly shows up at Antonio’s door. While Milly is lost, she stumbles across a movie set and gets to spend time with her favorite actor while Antonio must pretend Anna is his wife. Indifference is the best way to react to this portion of the film. Most of the dialogue is subtitled, and the only recognizable actor on screen is Cruz. Unfortunately for this part, cheesy sexual jokes and gags are told at Cruz’s expense and they tend to fall pretty flat.

Finally, the fourth story involves everyday businessman Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) who wakes up one day and is a massive celebrity for no apparent reason. This story is the most unsuccessful of the group. While it is clear what Allen was trying to get across with this story, there is literally no reason that Leopoldo should be famous. It’s a preposterous concept even given Allen’s penchant for whimsy. It provides for some amusing moments at first, but the story very quickly wears out its welcome.

If there’s one thing that “To Rome With Love” is begging for it is a common thread. There are hints of themes of adultery in three of the four vignettes, but other than the shared backdrop of Rome, the audience is truly left with four completely unrelated stories. While Allen does a fine job at balancing time and switching back and forth between the vignettes, only one of them truly stands out which makes for an uneven and unsatisfying overall product.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

May 20, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush
Directed by: Rob Marshall (“Chicago”)
Written by: Ted Elliott (“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”) and Terry Rossio (“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”)

On the high seas again for the fourth installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” action-adventure franchise, this one penned as “On Stranger Tides,” three-time Academy Award nominee Johnny Depp returns as the slurry and always-peculiar pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, a character he first brought to the big screen in 2003’s “The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

Eight years and two inexplicable sequels later, Capt. Jack is still up to his mischievous ways — drinking rum, wielding his sword, and looking for booty — this time in all its 3D glory. With a fantasy series like Pirates as bankable as ever, it’s safe to say Disney may still have a few installments to go, despite the fact that “Tides” is basically a quest we’ve all been on before.

This time, Capt. Jack finds himself on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, a menacing-looking ship belonging to the much-feared pirate of all pirates Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Swabbing the decks with the rest of the crew, Capt. Jack has set sail to find the Fountain of Youth, a mythical spring needed by Blackbeard to save his life should an ominous prophecy come true. On the ship with Capt. Jack is Blackbeard’s daughter Angelica (Penélope Cruz, bringing the sex appeal provided in the first three films by Keira Knightley), who seems to have some kind of romantic past with our buccaneer hero.

Former Pirates Director Gore Verbinski is replaced here by Academy Award-winner Rob Marshall (“Chicago”), a filmmaker with the grandiose mindset to pull off a blockbuster like this, but who instead plays it cautiously by following his predecessor’s by-the-numbers approach. Even with Marshall’s enthusiasm for musicals, don’t expect a song and a dance from any of the mateys here. Capt. Jack is flamboyant enough without help from Gilbert & Sullivan.

Back for another round of swashbuckling is Academy Award-winner Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”) as the vile and peg-legged Barbossa, who proves more of an ally to Capt. Jack on this journey. Like Depp’s captain, Rush has embraced his character so thoroughly that without him or Depp there would be no point to continue the charade.

Whatever the case may be, the narrative of this series needs a major wake-up-call if it doesn’t want to lull audiences to sleep with the same old fantasy plotting and repetitious action sequences. Pay no mind to the four or five swordfights we get in “Tides” – the best scene comes during a mermaid battle that is heavy on CGI and imagination. Take all the scenes where the boys are banging blades and mix them in a barrel and you’d be hard-pressed to tell which one goes to which “Pirates” movie.

Besides its overall unoriginality, “Tides” just doesn’t have the same magic “Black Pearl” had back when Capt. Jack was something special and not just another option for a Halloween costume. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s had enough time to fiddle with the equation and turn it into a spectacle. For failing that, he deserves to be tossed overboard.

Nine

January 26, 2010 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz
Directed by: Rob Marshall (“Chicago”)
Written by:  Michael Tolkin (“Changing Lanes”) and Anthony Minghella (“Cold Mountain”)

It’s nowhere near his 2002 Academy Award-winning film “Chicago,” but Rob Marshall manages to get as much out of Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella’s script as he possibly can. While the musical numbers of Kate Hudson, Fergie, and Penelope Cruz are quite good, the rest of the cast’s singing and dancing contributions are unmemorable (Judi Dench is one of the greatest living actresses today, but I never want to hear karaoke again).  Overall, it’s a passable musical because of the choreography and some of the catchier tunes, but “Nine” doesn’t live up to its Oscar-grubbing hype as well as it promised.

Broken Embraces

January 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Penelope Cruz, Lluís Homar, Blanca Portillo
Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar (“Talk to Her”)
Written by: Pedro Almodóvar (“Talk to Her”)

At its most uncomplicated, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s (“Talk to Her”) noir-inspired drama “Broken Embraces” is the story of a love triangle between an aspiring actress, a director, and a producer. If it were really that straightforward, however, this wouldn’t be considered a genuine Almodóvar film.

While not as brilliant as some of his past collaborative efforts between he and his muse – Academy Award winner Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) – their work together including 1999’s “All About My Mother” and 2006’s “Volver” are always exquisitely multi-layered and cleverly-written contributions appreciated most by the art-house lover.

Almodóvar demands a lot from his audience and it’s no different with “Broken Embraces.” The complexities of his narrative begin with the introduction of a blind writer and former director named Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), who spends his time writing scripts under the dutiful eye of his agent Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas), who also helps him come up with stories.

When a mysterious writer who calls himself Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano) comes to his door and requests Harry to write a oddly familiar story with him, Harry is forced to relive some of the most joyful and painful moments of his life. Through flashbacks, Almodóvar transports us to Madrid in the early 90s when Harry – known by his real name Mateo Blanco at the time – begins his affair with Lena (Penelope Cruz), an aspiring actress trapped in a loveless relationship with Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), a wealthy older gentleman who Lena lives with after he finances her ill father’s hospitalization.

Shooting a comedy called “Girls and Suitcases,” Mateo casts Lena in the lead role. Although Ernesto does not approve of his much-younger lover spending her time on a movie set, he signs off as a producer on the film so he can have her monitored at all times. As the intricate ménage a trios becomes more personal, each player in the game has something to gain and lose from their participation in the film within the film. Almodóvar treats each nuance of the story with the great precision we’ve grown accustomed to with his work.

Whether we’re talking about the crisp pallet of reds, browns and oranges that stream through each scene or the maddening traits that inhabit some of his most profound characters, Almodóvar’s attention to detail is second to none. Even when he takes some well-known Hitchcockian elements and brands them as his own do they feel fresh and exciting. “Broken Embraces” proves Almodóvar is one of the only directors working today that really known how to avoid making melodrama self-important.

G-Force

July 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Bill Nighy, Will Arnet, Zach Galifianakis
Directed by: Hoyt Yeatman (debut)
Written by: Cormac Wibberley (“National Treasure”), Marianne Wibberley (“Bad Boys II”), Ted Elliott (“The Legend of Zorro”), Terry Rossio (“Déjà Vu”), Tim Firth (“Confessions of a Shopaholic”)

Hear that laughter? There might be a few children in the audience who are easily-entertained by the antics of the fluffy computer-generated guinea pigs that star in the new family adventure “G-Force,” but most of the giggling is coming from producer Jerry Bruckheimer as he strolls all the way to the bank.

As unbelievable as it is, the producer, who is known mostly for mindless action flicks like “Armageddon” and “Gone in Sixty Seconds,” has found another way to fill his pockets all while releasing projects with the entertainment value of a rusty jack in the box. Earlier this year, Bruckheimer jumped genres and released the subpar romantic comedy “Confessions of a Shopaholic.” Now, it’s on to live-action/animation with “G-Force.”

It’s true, Bruckheimer has been down this avenue before, but a computer-generated kangaroo really didn’t do well for him in 2003’s box office and critical bomb “Kangaroo Jack.” In “G-Force,” he and first-time director and visual effects icon Hoyt Yeatman (he won an Oscar for “The Abyss”) shrink the heroes into cuddly rodents with “Mission Impossible” tendencies. Did we mention it’s in 3-D?

The story follows a group of secret agent guinea pigs – voiced by Sam Rockwell, Tracy Morgan, and Penelope Cruz – who try to stop an evil home appliance industrialist (Bill Nighy) from taking over the world. Zach Galifianakis plays the FBI agent who trains the furball trio and the rest of the team, which includes Speckles the Mole (Nicolas Cage, who does some nice voice work) and a housefly named Mooch. Galifianakis, the star of the surprise summer hit “The Hangover,” however, is wasted as is the rest of the human cast. All are lost in a pointless script that relies on stale pop-culture references most kids won’t understand. And don’t say those references are there so parents in the audience don’t go crazy from boredom. If the mental well-being of moms and dads was really a concern, the rest of the movie would’ve at least tried to be entertaining for someone above the age of five.

While the guinea pigs themselves are impressive in terms of quality of graphics, the five screenwriters who churned out “G-Force” don’t give them much to do or say other than the basic action-star drills, stereotypical dialogue, and more than occasional act of flatulence. Guinea pigs were just so much cuter when they were voiceless pets who slept most of the day.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

August 27, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz
Directed by: Woody Allen (“Match Point”)
Written by: Woody Allen (“Scoop”)

Calling a Woody Allen film the best film of this summer (excluding animated trash-compacting robots, of course) might rub some comic book fans the wrong way, but with “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” the New York City-born auteur has returned to form and does it out of his East-Coast element.

The setting might not be in Manhattan like many of Allen’s films, but in Spain, the three-time Oscar winner has found a fanciful way to display his unique take on the difference between passion and love in both relationships and fine art.

In the film, Oscar winner Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”) plays Juan Antonio, a Spanish painter who makes an indecent proposal to two American tourists vacationing Barcelona for the summer. When Juan Antonio audaciously walks up to Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and asks them to spend a weekend with him, the duo is bemused by his debonair style and disregard for possible rejection.

Vicky is engaged to be married and has no interest in Juan Antonio but joins him anyway, while Cristina, who had noticed the smooth talker earlier at an art gallery, is easily persuaded to take up the offer. Although it is a lovely weekend for the trio, the scheduled sexual escapades are altered when Cristina becomes ill and Vicky is left to fend off Juan Antonio’s charm.

The complexities of these characters are revealed even more when Allen pulls an ace from his sleeve in the second half of the film when he introduces us to Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who’s fierce attitude and semi-psychotic behavior has been the downfall between her and her heart’s conquistador.

It’s Cruz’s intense performance that is the show-stopper in “Barcelona.” In her best role since earning an Oscar nomination for Pedro Almodovar’s 2006 film “Volver,” Cruz owns the screen as a woman scorned, not only by a love lost but also by life itself. When her and Bardem share scenes, the raw emotion and brutally honesty of the film climaxes. Whether the ex-lovers are fighting in the streets of Barcelona or when Juan Antonio is pleading with Maria Elena to speak English when she is talking in front of Cristina, Allen’s definitely got a handle on searing verbal conflict.

Cruz deserves another Oscar nomination this year in the Best Supporting category. Along with her performance, director Allen’s trek across the Atlantic is inspiring despite missing the boat on his last two voyages with “Cassandra’s Dream” and “Scoop.” But in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Allen writes a foursome of characters that epitomize what the word “desire” means. It truly is a sexually-engaging (and not just because of the buzzed ménage a trois scene between Bardem, Cruz, and Johansson) and fascinating cinematic travelogue of neurotic narrative.