Sunday 24 November 2013

The Counsellor by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is an impressive writer and I found his novel The Road one of those rare examples of a book which I literally "couldn't put down", reading it into the pre-dawn hours when I should have been sleeping before catching an early flight.

No Country for Old Men was also an amazingly compelling, and grim, novel of great power. In fact, the only thing I've got against McCarthy is his crazed, idiomatic punctuation.

So when I saw a trailer for a new film directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy, featuring some acerbic, memorable dialogue, I had the highest of hopes. The movie, entitled The Counsellor — about a Texas lawyer who comes hideously unstuck when he gets involved in the drugs trade, classic McCarthy territory — also featured a top drawer cast: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt...

Unfortunately, the movie was for me a major disappointment. McCarthy's script does have some memorable moments and splendid cynical dialogue, especially from Brad Pitt's drug dealer, Westray (great name). But it lacks any centre of gravity and tends to the dull, extravagant, and incoherent.

Perhaps the most serious flaw in the film is the calamitous miscasting of Cameron Diaz as a  preposterous flaming femme fatale.

If you want to see a truly great, taut, cautionary thriller about the drugs trade, and one which genuinely does have something profound to say, check out Who'll Stop the Rain, a magnificent 1978 film directed by Karel Reisz from a great script by Judith Rascoe and Robert Stone, based on Stone's novel, Dog Soldiers.

Or watch the Coen Brothers' adaptation of McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. It's flawed but often brilliant.

Whereas the Counsellor is largely a mess, and a frustrating one. There are a number of scenes featuring the pet cheetahs owned by Javier Bardem's flamboyant drug dealer, and these magnificent beasts are so captivating that one ends up wishing one was watching a movie about them instead. Their reality and naturalness contrast fatally with the artificiality, contrivance and pretensions of The Counsellor.

The one big winner in The Counsellor is Natalie Dormer, credited merely as The Blonde, who makes a stunning impression in a couple of tiny scenes. Like the cheetahs, she is entirely natural and effortlessly convincing. I suspect stardom beckons.

The only other consolation of this film is that it may usher in a new career in screenwriting for Cormac McCarthy, which would mean we could enjoy his writing while being spared his loopy punctuation scheme. 

(Image credits: The posters are from Ace Showbiz except for the one of Natalie Dormer, which is from the official Tumblr site for the movie. The cheetah is from The Dissolve.)

Sunday 17 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World

I was a little reluctant to write about this film because I've been singing the praises of so many Marvel movies lately that I'm concerned I'll come across as an undiscriminating fan. Luckily there are a few aspects of The Dark World which I can comment on critically.

For me, it had a dull opening. Sure, there are two big battles. But the makers of blockbuster movies just can't seem to grasp the fact that action sequences are potentially boring if we aren't engaged with the characters: this is just a bunch of stuff happening to a bunch of people we don't care about... yet. Nor have they learned William Goldman's lesson that films should start small and low-key, and build.

Enough carping, after the boring battles, The Dark World hits its stride with the London sequences where we're reintroduced to an excellent trio of characters from the first Thor movie: Jane (Natalie Portman), Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Erik (Stellan Skarsgard). They are amusing and engaging.

Then we're really off to the races back in Asgard where the celestial realm comes under attack. It's such a smug, shiny place that it's great to see it getting trashed. Plus this action sequence is structured around a prison break, which is a trope that everyone can understand.

The rest of the movie is outstanding, particularly the final big action setpiece where the thrills and violence are cleverly interleaved with humour, and the characters of Darcy and Erik are particularly well used. As ever Tom Hiddleston is great as the nefarious Loki, Chris Hemsworth is impressive as Thor, and the supporting cast is to die for (Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson).

The script of the movie makes a lot of smart moves. For a start, the writers have realised that if you're going to be saddled with a McGuffin then it's vital to somehow embed that McGuffin in a character. For example, if your McGuffin is a computer memory stick, then have someone swallow the stick so you're chasing a person and not just an object. Or have a vital code or piece of information memorised by a child. (A variation on this is when someone witnesses a crime, as in the classic Witness.)

Anyway, The Dark World literally embodies its McGuffin, some evil energy called the Ether, when it actually invades Natalie Portman.

The script also has a strong line of humour and good use of minor characters. There are five names on the writing credits for the film. The screenplay is attributed to Christopher Yost (who has an extensive background in television, mostly on animated Marvel superhero series) plus the writing team of Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (the ampersand signifies a writing partnership in the cryptic world of screenplay credits) who wrote the Narnia films and the first Captain America movie. 

The 'story' credit (which means an early draft of the screenplay) is shared by Don Payne (who contributed to the script of the first Thor movie and has worked extensively on The Simpsons) and Robert Rodat who wrote Saving Private Ryan, co-wrote the excellent film Fly Away Home (about an orphaned Canada Goose... sob) and more recently has been writing episodes of the SF television series Falling Skies.

Nice work, boys. 

(Image credits: All the posters are from the ever reliable Ace Show Biz. Many thanks for making the picture research so simple.)

Sunday 10 November 2013

Escape Plan by Chapman and Keller

To say that I went to see Escape Plan with low expectations would be an understatement. It's a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stallone had last appeared in Bullet to the Head, which I thought was a dud, despite being directed by Walter Hill. Schwarzenegger had been in The Last Stand, which was a surprisingly crisp and engaging action picture. Escape Plan, however, looked like a very conventional prison movie.

But my preconceptions were almost immediately turned upside down. I thought Stallone played a con who had a knack for breaking out of detention. That's what you're supposed to think, for about ten minutes, and then the films moves in a much more interesting direction. 

This is a difficult movie to discuss without giving the fun away. Besides the unexpected set up, it features two major twists. One of these I spotted immediately, the other one totally sandbagged me.

It's a clever, inventive film — imaginative and well constructed. In fact it looks like it was originally a rather more thoughtful story which was rewritten for the high octane action associated with its two heavily muscled stars. So we end up with a movie with lots of swearing, fist fighting and weaponry — Arnold Schwarzenegger rips a .50 calibre machine gun from its helicopter mount and fires it from the hip. Naturally.

But the clever and imaginative movie is still in there.

The original story and screenplay for Escape Plan is by Miles Chapman, who mostly has TV writing credits (on Cybergeddon) and it was rewritten by Jason Keller (Mirror Mirror and Machine Gun Preacher). 

It's a superior popcorn movie, unexpectedly intelligent when it isn't busy hitting you on the head with a monkey wrench, and a surprising amount of fun. It also has a superior supporting cast, including Sam Neill.

Oh yes, and Arnold's goatee is a good look.

(Image credits: all the posters are from the laudable Ace Show Biz site.Thanks, chaps.)

Sunday 3 November 2013

How I Live Now — the Novel

I recently posted about the film adaptation of How I Live Now and mentioned it was based on a novel by Meg Rosoff. I was so impressed with the movie that I picked up a copy of the book at the first opportunity. 

The process of turning prose fiction into film is fascinating. Sometimes it can go horribly wrong, misrepresenting and demeaning the source material. For an example of that, just look at any of the misbegotten movies derived from Elmore Leonard's crime novels prior to the excellent Get Shorty.

At other times, films can stick remarkably close to the books and succeed brilliantly: Fat City, Deliverance, John Huston's version of The Maltese Falcon.

But the oddest situation is where the movie departs wildly from the original book, yet somehow brilliantly captures its essence. A classic example would be LA Confidential.

And that's the case with How I Live Now.

If I hadn't read the novel I wouldn't have realised what a superb job the screenwriters (Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni and Penelope Skinner) did of reinventing it. For a start, they've very sensibly boiled down the number of protagonists. In the film there are now only two brothers. In the book there are three, including Osbert, a character so unmemorable that even the novelist seems anxious to be shot of him.

Instead the movie gives us a friend of the family Joe, played by Danny McEvoy a well rounded character with his own developed backstory who takes up some of the slack for the missing brother and also very effectively stands in for a character with a tragic fate who is introduced late in the book. He is sort of an all purpose replacement.

Most crucially, the screenplay gives us a more coherent and organised picture of the novel's shadowy war that befalls the characters in England and — very wisely I think — junks the whole telepathic angle of the book. Meg Rosoff has conceived Daisy's British cousins as a family of mind readers who also have a supernatural link with animals — the latter idea survives in a subtle form in a couple of scenes in the movie.

The problem with giving the kids ESP and then springing World War 3 on them is that we have extraordinary events happening to extraordinary people. And that's just a little too extraordinary.

Also missing from the film are some of the book's tropes of teenage anguish du jour. In the novel Daisy has an eating disorder and Edmond ends up self-harming. Again, I think the screenwriters were canny in what they left out.

In fact, comparing it to the original text, How I Live Now seems all the more remarkable. It's a magnificent movie.

All of which is not to run down the quality of Meg Rosoff's novel, which scores in an entirely different way. It has a splendid tone of wise ass humour which is faultlessly maintained throughout, by way of the voice of its narrator, the cynically amusing Daisy. This is combined with a vigorous gift for description.

When Daisy first meets Edmond she says he had "hair that looks like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of night." Before long she and Edmond are falling in love and there is "a feeling flying between us in a crazy jagged way like a bird caught in a room."

But soon they are separated by the war and Daisy is a refugee on the run with Edmond's sister Piper, hiding in the woods and sleeping by day until "we woke up sweaty and anxious."

Together Daisy and Piper encounter the same atrocity so unforgettably evoked in the film, in a farmyard now deserted except for opportunistic foxes. But the book differs in that they also find their pet baby goat in the barn, where he is starved beyond recovery. Daisy's solution puts this book forever beyond the pale of teenage chick lit: "so I covered him with a grain sack and shot him in the head."

The novel differs substantially from the film but they are worthy companion pieces. Meg Rosoff's book is a striking, vivid story of adolescents surviving a future war, told in a memorably hard boiled style:"staying alive was what we did to pass the time."

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads.)