Reviewed: Final Judgment on Three Oscar Contenders

Onyebuchi, Magistrate Judge.

No Country for Talking Heads: “The Counselor”

No_Country_for_Old_Men_posterMy first contact with Cormac McCarthy was through the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of his novel “No Country for Old Men.” Rarely has a film so quickly had me seeking out its source material. The book I read was just as satisfying as the movie I had witnessed. A testament to the power of successful adaptation.

Eager to expand my catalog, I next read “Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West,” about an adolescent runaway, known only as “the kid,” who, during his aimlessly violent and violently aimless wanderings, falls in with the Glanton Gang, a scalp-hunting operation that scorches the earth, laying a path of blood through Mexico, Texas and Arizona.  Stand out among them is an enormous, hairless man, impelled towards violence and perversion, packed with an extensive knowledge of the physical world, and a wont for discursive ruminations on the role war plays in human nature.

While this is the stuff in which McCarthy trucks (to quite critical acclaim), few living directors can boast a résumé as varied as Ridley Scott’s. “Gladiator,” “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Thelma & Louise,” all conceived and constructed by the same man.  But even Scott couldn’t pull off a film adaptation of “Blood Meridian.”  “It would have been rated double-X,” he explained.  “It’s Hieronymus Bosch, the way McCarthy describes the first time you see several hundred horses with bones and feathers on them.”  So Scott turned to “The Counselor,” an early spec screenplay that Cormac had written.

Every since the first trailer of “The Counselor” debuted, with random cheetah sightings and car crashes and pistols fired while fleeing and men approaching vats that could have contained nothing but putrefied bodies, I was more charged in anticipation of a film than I’d been in a long time. What electricity would Scott use to invade McCarthy’s penchant for fatalistic brutality? What dynamic treatise on the business of being human amidst a world pitched at a Nietzschean register would result?

Treatise is an apt word, as the vast majority of the film is talk. Men talking derisively about women; women talking about the things men give them and the things men do to each other; more men talking to more men about the turn of the world, what will happen to them when their world slows on its axis and eventually stops? The film is shot through with moments of horrific frenzy, but most of them, I noticed, were already seen in the trailer.

The result is “Blood Meridian’s” Judge Holden spread out over an entire cast, given to oblique, wandering ruminations whose topics ping-pong between the cosmic and the terrestrial. Judge Holden with all of his allocution and none of his corporal menace.

It is an unfortunate result as the ingredients (McCarthy writing, Scott directing, Fassbender starring) were all there for a truly amazing legal crime thriller, an expansive one at that. It’s too bad watching it felt too much like reading a book whose words had been painted on the screen. In garish color, all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Petition for Oscar Candidacy: Denied.


Midnight Forecastle: “Captain Phillips”

Tom Hanks is an American institution.


Andrew Beckett in “Philadelphia,” Woody in “Toy Story,” Captain John H. Miller in “Saving Private Ryan,” Forrest Gump in, well,”Forrest Gump.” The fact that his films have cumulatively grossed over $8.5 billion worldwide, making him the highest all-time box office star, seems somehow an inferior designation to his place in American iconography.

The Captain Richard Phillips who Hanks portrays in the film is only a little more biographically detailed than that other antediluvian contemporary finding turmoil in the Indian Ocean and acclaim among the critics and, one expects, the people who vote for things like Golden Globes and Academy Awards. But Hanks-the-Institution imbues more than enough life and history into the man such that every movement, every decision, particularly those made under duress, speaks of movements and decisions past.

Though Hanks finds himself at the center of this film based on the real-life story of the hijacking of the container ship MV Maersk Alabama, he does not carry the film alone. Much of the burden is borne with admirable dignity and pathos by Somali-American actor-director-producer Barkhad Abdi, who plays the eventual leader of the Somali pirates who hijack the ship. A skinny, almost wraith-like twig of a man armed with an old AK, eyes bloodshot with a khat-induced euphoria tempered by the dire straits that have brought him into this line of work.

Captain saves ship and crew from evil enemy pirates would have been an easy story to tell, an obvious one. But Director Paul Greengrass goes great lengths to portray piracy as a multi-faceted issue. Dire circumstances bring these men together, force them to collide the way they do. And as a mutually recognized humanity winks in and out of existence between the characters, one feels it palpably in the audience. It is what makes the hijacking so thrilling and the small, futile efforts to deter the pirates so fumblingly personal.

Hanks suppresses himself in this movie, lets himself be a part of the greater tapestry, and the movie rises as a result, the tide that lifts all actors. In the last ten or so minutes, Tom Hanks delivers a scene so specific, so profound, so brilliant that it seems to have captured all the nuance of the film into a single instant.

Though the voyage to awards-season glory is oft fraught with peril, perhaps this performance can afford this Captain some more time in calm waters.

Petition for Oscar Candidacy: Granted.


Old Man and the Sea: “All Is Lost”

all is lost movie poster

“I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t.” He pauses for a beat, then declares, “All is lost.”

That is, quite deliberately and quite magnificently, the most you’ll hear out of Robert Redford for the next 100 or so minutes. Hemingway is invoked here, in spirit and in form, but perhaps only with his best parts: his rhetorical brevity that leaves more than enough room for emphatic, resounding and thundering physicality. That is what is asked of Robert Redford, the sole cast member of this film, named in the script as Our Man, and bereft, for the film’s entirety, of past and, quite possibly, future.

The film opens with the aforementioned quote, the camera bobbing like a buoy while the near-totality of the frame is taken up with a wayward shipping container, perilous detritus lost somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Flashing to eight days earlier, we awake, just as Our Man does, to a worrying thud, then to the flow of water into parts of the ship where it has no business being. Although the hole is small, the the ocean water manages to find just those bits of equipment, the loss of which will result in an oceanic odyssey that brings Our Man to the very point of breaking. All the while, we are treated to watching him at the height of his competence. Even as it fails him, even as he reaches breaking point, he reveals another nugget of ingenuity.

It moves like a thriller and manages to be a character study of an anonymous man who could have been anyone. There are no totems of a life before the first frame, and it is this simplicity that allows Robert Redford and director J.C. Chandor to reveal a man in full, cataclysmic, astounding extremis. His scowl is universal. His frown is universal. The epithet he screams at the sky — that too is universal.

Which is perhaps why the title is so apt. When the film ends, you feel as though you’ve run the gamut of human emotion, lived an entire life on that stretch of Indian Ocean. When the credits roll, it is gone. All of it. Lost.

Petition for Oscar Candidacy: Granted.



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