Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Counselor (plus a brief of mention of Carrie)

         Motion Denied! (at least by the majority of the court)
                    Review by Ken Burke             The Counselor
A grim tale of a prosperous lawyer who tries to fatten his situation with a major drug deal that goes awry leading to numerous deaths and a fatalistic sense of despair.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting.  But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage
.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]


Happy Halloween!  Normally, I’m not in the habit of noting actual holidays or the flimsy excuses for raucous celebrations (the latter being the category for Halloween, as the only workdays allotted for time off to celebrate this increasingly-trumped-up excuse for children’s dental nightmares and adults’ hopes for sexual debauchery are the “can’t make it in today” hangover-recovery-absenses that result when this ancient run-up to All Saints Day occurs during the work week), but given that this review cluster will be posted on All Hallows Eve this year, it seemed appropriate, along with the need for me to extend my single exploration of The Counselor (Ridley Scott) with reference to some classic horror films as they’ve been more accessible to me while I’ve been staying at home more to help my marvelous wife, Nina, as she’s dealing with some so-far-undiagnosed-gastrointestinal problem, so I haven’t been able to get out of the neighborhood much to see more interesting fare way over there in the independent-cinema cities of Berkeley and San Francisco, with the most intriguing possibilities being Robert Redford’s one-man-show in All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor) and the first feature film from Saudi Arabia, Wadjda (ever more stunning, that the powers that be over there allowed it to be directed by a woman, Haifaa Al-Mansour; from what I’ve read about it, I can only hope that it’s as good as described and makes it to the finals for Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film).  Locally, I determined that The Counselor was my best option, easily passing on Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (Jeff Tremaine) and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (Cody Cameron, Kris Pearn), even though I may be the only one who made such choices, given that the latest installments from the Jackass and Meatballs franchises are raking in the dough ($32 million on opening weekend for the former—easily paying off its mere $15 million budget and finally pushing the superb Gravity [Alfonso Cuarón; review in this blog’s October 9, 2013 posting] out of the #1 slot—and close to $101 million after 5 weeks for the latter—also paying off its $78 million budget) while my choice, The Counselor, made not quite $8 million in that same opening weekend as Bad Grandpa (far short of its $25 million budget, even though all 4 of these just-mentioned movies are playing in over 3,000 theaters), and my aspirationals aren’t doing that well without me either (Wadjda has made just over $900,000 after 7 weeks, playing in a limited 87 venues, while All Is Lost is getting rave review for Redford but has pulled in not quite $641,000 after 2 weeks, although that may change if it broadens out to more than just the 81 theatres it’s currently in).  So, off we go to miserable Cormac McCarthy territory for The Counselor to see what has inspired such revulsion from so many in the critical community (Rotten Tomatoes gave it just 35%; Metacritic a paltry 49%; plus there was utter dismissal from Two Guys’ frequent contributor/collaborator Richard Parker, who provided this representative drubbing from’s Chris Nashawaty at http://www.cnn. com/2013/10/25/showbiz/movies/the-counselor-review-ew/?iref=obnetwork).

“To miss something is to think it’s coming back again.”  This pithy statement from cold-hearted-master-of-her-domain Malkina (Cameron Diaz) could easily sum up what screenwriter McCarthy offers us in the bleak tale of The Counselor, in which the otherwise-unnamed-titular-lawyer-character (played by Michael Fassbender) decides to enhance his already lucrative career (a statement I make based on his lavish surroundings, along with his decision to go to Amsterdam to purchase a magnificent 3.9 carat diamond to crown the engagement ring intended for now-girlfriend-soon-to-be-fiancée Laura [Penélope Cruz]) by arranging a mega-million-dollar-drug-deal, in partnership with equally-lavish-living Reiner (Javier Bardem), overseen by cautious, well-experienced Westray (Brad Pitt), a plan intended to reap vast rewards but fraught with horrendous dangers, as Reiner and Westray make abundantly clear to their should-have-known-better-legal-comrade on several occasions before their worst fears come to pass.  That brief synopsis of the film’s narrative situation—as well as the deaths of almost all that I’ve noted so far—are about the only aspects of The Counselor that are clear and indisputable; the rest of it is at best intriguingly-evocative or at worst pompously-muddled, depending on how you react to what is presented to you.  As noted above, there are very many who would vote for the second option—and I have to admit that the many aspects of the plot’s “revelations” are so obscure, if not removed entirely from the screen, that even I am a bit frustrated with trying to make full sense of what I saw—but based upon my initial reaction and my further contemplation I’ll have to veer more toward a positive response to this film, once again putting me in the lonely minority of reviewers who found defendable aspects of such critically-maligned fare this year as The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski), Closed Circuit (John Crowley), and The Fifth Estate (Bill Condon)*  However, as I try to defend myself here I’ll start by further admitting that you have every reason if you see The Counselor (a dubious proposition, I’ll wager) to find similarities in it to previous work from McCarthy (the stark, deadly setting of West Texas from his 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men, so successfully adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen in their 2007 Best-Picture-Oscar-winning film [plus other Oscars to the Coens for Best Director[s] and Best Adapted Screenplay], along with a reprise of Bardem, sporting another atrocious hairstyle, as he did for the character of amoral murderer Anton Chigurh in the earlier film [at this rate, some day he’s going to get a career-accomplishment award for Worst Hair since The Three Stooges]), not to mention Scott’s previous associations with a similar Southwest setting (however, much more visually grand than the barren locations of The Counselor) and the problems brought on by crime (although with much more sympathetic characters than anyone except Laura in Scott’s current film) in his direction of Thelma & Louise (1991; itself an Oscar winner for Callie Khouri’s Best Original Screenplay), which may give it a repetitive rather than familiar feeling.

     * Two Guys reviews respectively in our July 11, 2013; September 5, 2013; and October 24, 2013 postings.

What might also seem familiar is the cool reserve by self-assured lawyer Fassbender—until everything closes in on him—(reminiscent of his notable take-charge-until-overwhelmed-ad-exec-sex-addict in Shame [Steve McQueen, 2011]), the well-informed-but-ready-to-bail-out-when-things-get-dicey Pitt (more vulnerable here, at the end at least, than in his usual roles, harking back to another guy whose scheme falls apart in the aforementioned Thelma and Louise as well as a cop overwhelmed by a mastermind sociopath in Se7en [David Fincher, 1995]), the sensuous-manifestation-of-many-a-man’s-fantasies Diaz (except for such alterations as sweetly-naïve Mary in There’s Something About Mary [Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, 1998]), and even the combined appearance and attitude of Bardem, who doesn’t evoke previous characters so much as he seems to combine coiffure and attitudinal aspects of many of Al Pacino’s roles since The Godfather; Part III (Francis Ford Coppola, 1990) and Kramer (Michael Richards) from TV’s Seinfeld series.  Possibly the only main star who takes us to territory that we don’t normally expect (a situation even echoed by the supporting actors, including Bruno Ganz as the counselor’s diamond dealer but with a fiercely-pragmatic attitude about life’s challenges and the firm attitude that we must seek to counter the universe’s uncaring coldness [he notes that purchasing his valuable products—without commenting on his material profit in the process—is an “announcement to the darkness” about the value of our own lives]) is Cruz, who is presented here as trusting, vulnerable, concerned, and insecurely religious (as opposed to Diaz’s Malkina, who ironically has one scene in a church where she attempts to somewhat unburden herself of her sins to a priest who uncomfortably leaves the confessional after repeatedly insisting that he can’t offer her absolution unless she’s first baptized a Catholic; she’s not concerned about such necessary structures nor really that interested in forgiveness but more focused on just revealing all of her moral/legal lapses, possibly just so that her sordid life is made more public than she normally allows it to be) rather than the self-assured presence that she’s demonstrated in a number of well-honored films, many made with a wide variety of notable directors, from Pedro Almodóvar onward through her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008 [in which she co-starred with Bardem, whom she married in 2010]; she also co-starred with Diaz in Vanilla Sky [Cameron Crowe, 2001] another film in which Cruz is the more passive lover of the protagonist who is grievously harmed by the volatile Diaz character [to further all of these connections, Cruz played the same Sofía character in the original version of Vanilla Sky, the Spanish Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes; Alejandro Amenábar, 1997)]).  Yet, with all of this familiarity of setting, drug-deals-gone-wrong-plot-devices, general misery of the human condition, and actors embodying types we’ve seen before, the impact here is one of effective, unsettling doom (or maybe the film's mood just reminds me of my mother), made all the more forceful from McCarthy’s script that focuses on the specific demise of everyone connected to the counselor—except the second-hand-association of Malkina—but also implies a horrible fate for any of us who dare to dabble in situations that are predicted for easy payoffs but instead loom deadly with ghastly horrors.

Possibly the greatest horror for all of them is Malkina, because after she decides to interfere in the cocaine deal—which leaves the cartel that the counselor, etc. were working with (at least I assume; like I said, plot details are kept purposely vague here in an attempt—I think—to pull you more into the moment of the actions, as in unpredictable-if-not-just-random-real life, than to see how all of the actions fit together into a coherent whole, a usual goal in fiction but not so likely in the actual universe that we must inhabit) determined to exact their revenge on all concerned so that systematically they kill Reiner and Westray (but not before Malkina gets her loot anyway by sending in a hired helper to seduce Mr. Disappearing Act in London so as to steal some necessary numbers that allow her to wipe out his offshore accounts—if you’ve seen The Fifth Estate you know that she just got to him before Julian Assange did), then likely behead Laura and toss her body into a landfill before sending Mr. Lawler a snuff-film DVD of the atrocity to the sleazy hotel where he’s trying to hid out in Juarez, so that he will suffer the most as the only one left alive (at least for the moment, never knowing when these monsters will decide to finish him off as well).  Malkina takes great pride in her pet cheetahs, providing us with an ending soliloquy on why she admires such natural hunters (to the point that she has cheetah spots tattooed all down her back) rather than human cowards with their inherent flaws, people she has no qualms about destroying in order to further distance herself from her own species rather than delve into even-momentary-dignity, as the counselor’s diamond-dealer advocates at the beginning of this sordid deconstruction of human identity.  In the end, Malkina’s the only one of the major characters who survives (even one of the minor ones, the young motorbiker/”The Green Hornet” [Richard Cabral], suffers another beheading—a gruesome fate for many in this film, but at least his is quick as he speeds through an unseen wire on a night-highway run, whereas Westray is the victim of a medieval-mentality torture device that automatically tightens around the throat so the damned “chosen one” dies of a horrible strangulation prior to decapitation—as Malkina’s henchmen kill him in order to retrieve a necessary device to restart the truck that will haul the valuable cocaine [along with a Columbian corpse in one of the other barrels with the drugs, a “joke” of sorts from the thugs way down south who first send the accursed product into Mexico for its eventual trip to Chicago]), with no indication that she’ll ever encounter any sort of justice, as she relocates herself away from the scene of all of these crimes, including the other on-screen-execution of the 2 guys who killed the Hornet before they were caught and killed themselves, seemingly by a rival cartel who then delivered what was intended as the counselor’s stash to its final destination.  (Received by a guy played by John Leguizamo, whom I didn’t even recognize until going over the final credits; for that matter I didn’t realize at first that the cartel lawyer, Abogado Hernandez [Fernando Cayo], that our counselor turns to in desperation for absolution, was a different guy from that cartel’s chieftain, Jefe [Rubén Blades]—Spanish for “leader” or “boss”—[who dismissively tells Fessbender’s soul-crushed character to accept the decisions he’s made and the consequences they contain, even though our counselor had no involvement nor control over the problems that occurred: simply losing the shipment and the profit it represented was an unforgiveable sin to them, despite Malkina’s temporary-confessor-priest claiming there was no such thing—as long as you could produce proper Catholic credentials], which is either a problem with my eyesight/short term memory [because their scenes are separated by other intense events and both occupy similar lavish surroundings which are standard issue for just about anyone with much of a speaking role in this film] or simply another loose experiential thread that Scott doesn’t care if you resolve upon first viewing.)  I surmise that from the filmmakers’ perspective it’s the overall environment of evil that’s important for you to comprehend, not precisely who does what to whom, with the whens and whys also not necessarily explicated.

I salute anyone who completely follows this convoluted plotline with so many off-screen events upon first viewing, but I also got the feeling while watching The Counselor that McCarthy’s intention—upheld well by Scott—was to give you the sense of a novel on screen, not an adaptation of a novel streamlined for cinematic necessities but instead a complex discourse that mixes a number of events that are hard to fully remember or understand without re-reading/re-viewing but that ground an audience in the overall gestalt of the experience so that you’ll feel it as the characters do: deprived of the full context, knowing and reacting to only what occurs in the moment rather than being able to understand all that is happening to each one of them as they are overcome by events that unexpectedly consume them.

Certainly if you’re less immune to the sufferings of the human condition than directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez seem to be (at least when they’re in the mode of Grindhouse [2007] and related gore-fests), there are plenty of aspects of The Counselor to turn you away quickly from the screen or keep you from the theater to begin with.  In addition to the several implied and depicted beheadings there’s a scene recalled by Reiner where Malkina literally makes love to the hood and windshield of his Ferrari (I doubt that Niki Lauda [Daniel Brühl] from Ron Howard’s Rush [review in our October 24, 2013 posting] would have allowed her to besmirch such a storied car for as long as she does here), an experience that Reiner calls “too gynecological to be sexy.”  Then there’s his crude joke (told by a guy who’s supposed to be a Mexican) that Jesus wasn’t born in Mexico because they couldn’t find 3 wise men and a virgin.  Further, despite the vicious killings that occur on a regular-enough basis in The Counselor, this is a dialogue-heavy film, and not just with a lot of talking but some very erudite talking that will certainly not be welcomed by viewers who are satisfied enough to look at the constantly swanky surroundings of the characters (except for the dismal scenes in Juarez), the attractive presence of the main characters (assuming that you’re not too put off with Bardem’s electric-socket-inspired hair), and the vicious death scenes in desert locales that evoke easily what worked so well in No Country for Old Men.  However, that conspicuously-imposed dialogue—along with its various philosophical ruminations about the difficulty of life and the need to resuscitate it against the impending inevitability of death—kept holding my attention, even when the ongoing cruelty of the plot’s situations were getting hard to embrace or the disengaged ruthlessness of just about everyone except Laura and her counselor were reminding me too much of the seeming utter hopelessness of governance in this my-vision-is-the-only-answer world that we’ve “evolved” into (plus it was nice to see Rosie Perez again on screen [not nearly enough for me since her strong presence in the 1990s—although she’s done a lot of TV work that I admit I haven’t seen]).  Further, as Scott Foundas, Chief Film Critic of Variety, points out in his “Why ‘The Counselor’ Is One of Ridley Scott’s Best Films” (October 28, 2013 at, eloquent-although-self-conscious-non-conversational dialogue is not the norm in most movies but it has been presented quite successfully in works by such celebrated writers as David Mamet and Harold Pinter (or, for that matter, in film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works where not only do the characters speak in a specific rhythmic form of prose but we also come to understand from their theatrical settings the acceptance of plot structures where important action occurs off-stage [off-camera in the case of The Counselor], as detailed by my Mills College colleague, Stephen Ratcliffe, in his book Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet [Counterpath Press, 2010], although some Shakespearian cinematic adaptations give us the literal vision of those “hidden events,” as with the 1996 Kenneth Branagh Hamlet film).

When I put all of this together, I can understand why the dominant response to The Counselor has been one of distain:  too much dialogue that sounds like it belongs better on a printed page, too many plot points left up to the viewer’s interpretation, too many off-putting situations where it all feels suffocatingly awash in luxury and sleaze that are (hopefully) foreign to most of our experiences, too much gloom and death as we’re reminded too clearly of the economic fate that far too many of us suffer at the hands of brutal hunters like Malkina and her supportive (but, ultimately, also controlled) banker.  Those who react to The Counselor in this manner may feel the way I did when I saw Tequila Sunrise (written and directed by Robert Towne, 1988), a miserable (in my opinion, but somewhat supported again by the critical community with a Metacritic average of 62 and a dismal Rotten Tomatoes 44) exercise (also involving a clash between a custodian of the law and corruption from Mexican drugs) created by a celebrated cinematic genius, nominated for Adapted or Original Screenplay Oscars for The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973), Shampoo (Ashby, 1975), and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (Hugh Hudson, 1984), winner for Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)—a script frequently cited in screenwriting books as the epitome of Hollywood perfection (and a film that I’d easily give my rare 5 stars to if doing a review—something I should do someday, add some classics to the ongoing new releases in this blog’s collection), yet I found it to be a miserable waste of their talent (actors included Kurt Russell, Mel Gibson, and Michelle Pfeiffer) and my time, just as many feel today about The Counselor, despite the pedigree that Scott, McCarthy, and the extensive celebrated cast bring to this project.  Because there are so many troubling, unresolved aspects of the narrative that make it hard to keep reasonably on track as to what’s occurring in the film, I can go only to the 3 ½ star level (still considerably higher than what’s offered by most of my contemporaries, including many whose opinions I respect [Richard Parker, I'm talkin' to you]), but despite these distractions there’s a certain sort of fascination for me about The Counselor that makes it worthy of my after-the-fact contemplation, a sure sign that I’ve been usefully intrigued by what I experienced even as I may have struggled somewhat during my direct experience of it.  This may not be enough of a recommendation to get you to buy a first-run ticket, but if not I hope you’ll consider it later in a video or On-Demand option because I think you’ll find that there’s much more going on there than may be initially indicated by the surface tensions and travails.  If that’s still not enough for you, then at least take a listen to my recommended related musical interlude (because of its Juarez and human-decadence connections), Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” at (from a 1966 concert in Melbourne so that it’s closer to the original release version from the 1965 Highway 61 Revisited album, as well as containing an introduction where Bob “explains” [if you have any reason to believe what he’s saying] what the song is about; if you’d prefer to see Mr. Dylan and some famous friends, including Eric Clapton and Ron Wood, moving around at a concert—rather than the still photos that accompany this older performance of the song—then here’s another [not sure when it happened, but it occurred at some point when the tempo of the song was plausibly in the same direction as when written, unlike how Dylan seems to be performing now; any suggestions as to when and where this was?] version at

OK, now let’s transform real-life-based-doom-and-gloom into a quick tribute to Halloween horror, based on a couple of classics of that genre that I’ve been re-exposed to on video or through other means lately and the current remake of 1 of them playing in appropriate parallel with this annual witching season.  I’ll start by referencing Brian De Palma’s 1976 version of Carrie, which was instrumental in forwarding this director’s career with a narrative that had already launched the soon-to-be-hugely-successful novelist reputation of Stephen King as this 1974 work was his first publication.  (It also furthered or essentially began the ongoing careers of actors Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, Sissy Spacek, and John Travolta, along with reviving that of Piper Laurie; Spacek was nominated as Oscar’s Best Actress for her role as tormented-but-telekinetic-teen Carrie White while Laurie was nominated as Best Supporting Actress in a career-reviving role [her first one in film (along with a lot of TV in the interim) since The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961; she was nominated for that one also, as Best Actress)], playing Carrie’s fundamentalist Christian mother, Margaret [Spacek lost to Faye Dunaway for Network (Sidney Lumet), but her competition also included Talia Shire for Rocky (a big winner in other ways that year, taking Best Director for John G. Avildsen, over a much more substantial crew of contenders—Ingmar Bergman for Face to Face, Lumet, Alan J. Pakula for All the President’s Men, and Lena Wertmüller for Seven Beauties [still one of the few female Best Director nominees, along with Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003) and the only winner so far, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2009)—and Best Picture over All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory Network, and Taxi Driver (sorry, Sly, but no, no, no!) and Liv Ullmann for Face to Face (her never winning an Oscar despite an extraordinary career, mostly with Bergman, is an equal travesty with the entertaining-but-ordinary Rocky knocking out both Face to Face [and Bergman] and Taxi Driver [where Scorsese wasn’t even nominated but Avildsen was—yikes!]; by the way, Laurie also lost, to Beatrice Straight for Network [a fine choice despite her tiny running time on screen, although in retrospect the award could just as well have gone to Jodie Foster for Taxi Driver].)  This older version of a misfit girl cruelly tortured by her classmates and abused by her mother is often considered one of the great horror movies (sometimes classified as psychological horror but it all seems appropriately demonic to me, although the motivation for Carrie’s murderous rage upon her mother and the fictional town of Chamberlain, ME is certainly understandable given all that she endured there throughout her short life); you can get more details on De Palma’s offering if you like regarding the Rotten Tomatoes 92% rating at http://www.rotten and the analysis by Roger Ebert (3 ½ of 4 stars) at http://www. (I’d be willing to go for 4 of 5 because this is a damn good horror movie but not fully of the caliber of a true chilling masterpiece such as The Exorcist [William Friedkin, 1973]—itself an adaptation of a well-written 1971 book by William Peter Blatty—which would merit one of my rare 5-star rankings, especially the 2000 re-release version with the creepy scene where the possessed girl, Regan MacNeil [Linda Blair], spider-walks down the stairs).

However, contemporary critics aren’t so kind to the current remake of Carrie (the only other new release I’ve had a chance to see over the last week) directed by Kimberly Peirce, with Chloe Grace Moretz as the title character and Julianne Moore as Margaret, a version like the 1976 one that’s taken largely from the original book but makes a few mostly unimportant changes in how the bloodletting all shakes out.  If I were giving an official rating to the new Carrie it would likely be 3 of 5 stars simply because I think this is a reasonable remake that displays technological advances over the lower-budget-original but does little to extend its impact (nor that of the novel as best I know, although—true confession time here—I’ve never read the book and haven’t seen the 1976 movie in so long that I couldn’t say anything that specific about it [although my frequent savior in such situations, Internet summaries, has brought De Palma’s version back to mind reasonably so and given me a solid enough understanding of what King was up to almost 40 years ago) nor gives me any insights into the motivations or situations of the characters that I wasn’t already familiar enough with, despite my misplaced memories.  I’m glad I was able to get some 1976 details, though, because one of the aspects of the current rendition that I thought was a bit too over-the-top is the final confrontation between Carrie and Bible-thumping Mom (she even thumps Carrie with it at one point, showing how powerful the Word is when combined with a roundhouse slug) when Carrie responds to being stabbed by her mother (in a misguided attempt to terminate what the older woman interprets as demonic possession of her child because of the powers she manifests over the normal laws of physics as well as her “wanton” desires to date and live some semblance of a normal teenage life instead of being a constantly-ridiculed outcast) by mentally hurling all manner of sharp objects at Margaret, pinning her arms and body to the wall in an all-too-obvious Crucifixion pose (paralleling the numerous Crucifix and tortured-saints-images in the closet where Carrie is frequently confined to pray for her “sins,” in a an even more sadistically-warped version of Catholicism than I was brought up with, an invention of Margaret’s based on intercourse as the first sin [rather than disobeying the apple-eating-prohibition regarding the sacred Tree of Knowledge] and the response of males to Carrie’s menstrual blood as if they were hound dogs on the scent of prey [OK, Margaret may not be completely off-base regarding this aspect of our biology, especially from the burning unmated-male-desire to have sex in a situation of least-likely consequences, but, still, her period is not a condemnation of Carrie’s unknowledgeable and innocent actions; however, Margaret’s biology isn’t any more trustworthy than her theology, as she tried to convince herself that her one night of sex with her ex-husband produced a tumor to punish her rather than a fetus so she sees Carrie’s birth as a possible abomination, still she refrains from killing the child after her bloody and blood-curdling opening scene of the movie, giving us a visceral understanding of what a warped, dangerous person this never-should-have-been-a-mother is for her ever-suffering daughter), yet I’m reminded now that this was an aspect of De Palma’s version as well, whereas King was less symbol-laden than either filmmaker, simply bringing about Mom’s demise through willed heart-stoppage from Carrie.

Just as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’s (Frank Capra, 1939) presentation of corruption among our highest level of lawmakers sadly never loses relevance, so does Carrie’s exploration of unwarranted teenage bullying never go out of style (especially in our world of atrocious cyber attacks that frequently lead to heartbreaking suicides, which likely would have been the case with Carrie after her classmates pelt her with tampons, sanity napkins, and chants of “Plug it up!” in response to her distraught reaction to her misunderstood, blood-gushing first period, followed up by the humiliating viral video of the incident, had she not accidently discovered her special powers which would ultimately allow her to avenge herself on these cruel kids), and the special effects of Peirce’s retelling are especially effective as Carrie turns her fury onto her primary tormenters, burning down the high school and tearing up the city streets in the process, but as anything more than a quickly-digested Halloween treat I think the concept of this movie has saturated our cultural consciousness enough already that you don’t especially need additional exposure to its assaults on careless intimidation.  However, if you’d like to know more about this latest presentation of the explosive girl down the block, you might start with the official website at http://www.sonypictures. com/movies/carrie/, its rankings from Rotten Tomatoes carrie/ (47%) and Metacritic (52%), and then watch this comparison of the trailers for both versions of this well-known horror tale at com/watch?v=0OIf_mGQ4QQ to see how they might stack up in your opinion.

On the other hand, if you’re in the mood to delve into a combination of a Stephen King 1977 novel, some serious undercurrents and implications added to that narrative which are the equal or better of anything thought-inspiring you might find in the life-and-death-philosophical-ponderings of The Counselor, and the on-screen audiovisual brilliance associated with one of the all-time master filmmakers then you might want to just dig out a DVD of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining, not so fully embraced upon first release but now considered a masterpiece of the horror genre (although this one is also at times referred to as psychological horror, as if everything that Jack Torrance experiences as the Overlook Hotel is just in his mind rather than what I see as a very plausible presentation of a horribly haunted house whose spirits take over that mind, sending him on a mission of killing his wife and child before they escape, leaving the hotel to claim him instead, although in some unexplained manner he’s seemingly “always” been there—or at least his madness has always resided in him, just waiting for the evil incarnate of the hotel’s past tragedies to consume him fully; the grumps originally surveyed by Metacritic gave The Shining only a 61% rating [], but that was based on a measly 10 reviews, so if you want to explore past critiques in more depth I’d say you’re better off with the Rotten Tomatoes reviews at where the average is a more appropriate 92% [based on a much healthier sample of 62 reviews]; for me, this is another masterpiece by one of the great artists of the cinema, a meticulously-planned-and-executed success that would rate 5 stars, as do several of Kubrick’s films).  By comparison to contemporary standards of horror there’s not nearly as much grotesque bodily dissection as we have become accustomed to (although the amount of blood that comes gushing out of that elevator shaft is easily as much or more than the bucketful’s you’d expect from the Saw series and its ilk), but the unsettling mood of madness is well presented and made even more evocative to me than in the book because Kubrick’s version truly allows the hotel to incorporate Jack into its eternal Earthly purgatory whereas in the written version the whole place blows up due to an overheated furnace, bringing a final end to Jack, the hotel, and whatever once dwelled there.

My interest in The Shining wasn’t all just through home-video-collection availability, however; it was also inspired by a Linkedin Film Addicts group discussion of this work that included encouragement to watch the Rodney Ascher 2012 documentary Room 237 that explores a host of theories about the “true” meaning of Kubrick’s film including references to the extermination of Native Americans, the Nazi-led Holocaust attempt at exterminating Europe’s Jews during WW II, and the supposed “admission” by Kubrick that he helped NASA fake the footage of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.  All of this—and more, concerning the intricate manner in which Kubrick seems to have planned the visual design and shot transitions in The Shining—is in Ascher’s explorations, which are also discussed by New York Times writer Robert Ito in his January 25, 2012 article “Cracking the Code in ‘Heeere’s Johnny!’” at  So, first I ordered the Ascher film through Netflix, but after watching it I just had to revisit The Shining itself (along with the occasionally-recuperating Nina), a pleasure I hadn’t given myself in far too long, so for a classy Halloween cinematic treat that won’t increase your calorie count or blood-sugar level, I heartily endorse a return to The Shining, possibly as a prelude to reading King’s newest book, the just-recently-released Doctor Sleep which follows the life of Jack’s son, Danny Torrance, who’s now grown into a middle-aged man but retains his unique metaphysical powers of foresight, telepathy, and connection to the spirit world, so that you can retain your Halloween attitude until it’s time to reboot for Thanksgiving.

Finally, to reference another recent home video viewing, I’ll extend the Halloween theme to include the costumes that so many youngsters and older-sters wear on this night of celebration of the supernatural (and the suspension of standard rules of propriety that often accompanies this “holiday”) and extend that into taking on new identities for a temporary time.  If you simply dress up as someone (or something) else you merely alter your appearance; however, if you attempt to embody that identity through actions and vocalizations you would find yourself simply at the level of caricature or imitation, yet with enough time, training, and talent on your part you might seem to entice that entity back into our temporal sphere (in a Danny Torrance-like manner), truly bringing to life a presence no longer with us.  That’s what you get with Jamie Foxx’s Best-Actor-Oscar-performance in Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004), a powerful exploration of the early career years of the legendary Ray Charles, another Netflix delivery that was enormously wonderful to watch again after a nearly-10-year absence.  While most of the soundtrack is composed of Charles’ actual recordings there’s a bit of Foxx in there as well, demonstrating his musical abilities on par with his superb acting abilities.  You can start exploring aspects of the film, if you like, at its official website, or you can just immerse yourself in the music, with a good start being Ray’s first #1 hit, “I Got a Woman” at is an early version of the song; more recent ones prior to Charles’ death in 2004 are also available, but this old recording shows what he was like in his up-and-coming days, closer to when this hit was released in 1954; then, just for curiosity, I’ll leave you with Roy Orbison’s take on a similar-yet-different theme, “Mean Woman Blues” at http://www., with the date of this performance unknown to me [the song was written by Claude Demetrius, recorded by Elvis Presley for the soundtrack of his 1957 movie Loving You (Hal Kanter)—his first starring role—and also recorded in 1957 by Jerry Lee Lewis with altered lyrics, which are the ones used by Orbison in 1963]).  Here’s hoping that, however you celebrate it, this Halloween is a fun one for you (it’s Nina’s favorite time of the year, although it’ll need to be a bit muted for her this year, so have some candy or a cocktail—depending on your age and/or treat preferences—for her) and come back next week for more movie madness from Two Guys in the Dark, where we’d never trick you into thinking that you’d find a short review here.

If you’d like to explore The Counselor in more detail here are some suggested links: (my favorite obnoxious interviewer, Houston’s own Jake Hamilton, spends 18:36 with actors Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, and director Ridley Scott)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as difficulties we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Fifth Estate and Rush (with some commentary on Escape Plan)

            Hard Drive, He Said (plus some info on our new
                                          “breakout” technologies)
                   Review by Ken Burke             The Fifth Estate
A fictionalized version of Julian Assange’s secret-document-posting website, WikiLeaks, leaving you to decide if he’s a channel of truth or a dangerous criminal.


Another based-in-fact film, about the 1976 Grand Prix racing season’s competition between Niki Lauda and James Hunt with intense images of this dangerous sport.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting.  But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]

This week’s main pairing takes us once again into the world of docudrama (as so many notable [not always for the right reasons] films have done already this year and last, including Captain Phillips [Paul Greengrass], Lee Daniels’ The Butler [Daniels], Fruitvale Station [Ryan Coogler], The Bling Ring [Sofia Coppola], 42 [Brian Helgeland], On the Road [Walter Salles], No [Pablo Larrain], Zero Dark Thirty [Kathryn Bigelow], The Impossible [Juan Antonio Bayona], Lincoln [Steven Spielberg], Hitchcock [Sacha Gervasi], The Sessions [Ben Lewin], and 2012’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Argo [Ben Affleck]*, along with upcoming 2013 films 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen), Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Justin Chadwick)—and even though their history is highly fictionalized [to say the least] the historical contexts of 2012’s Les Misérables [Tom Hooper] and Django Unchained [Quentin Tarantino]** are also undeniable), with focused explorations on divulging incriminating state secrets in Bill Condon‘s The Fifth Estate and grueling depictions of the horrors lurking while racing at breakneck speeds around a Grand Prix track in Ron Howard’s Rush (if you’re intrigued by this “rush” of facts-inspired offerings you can read more about the topic in Tim Grey’s "Why Reality-Based Films are Flooding the Oscar Race" from the October 15, 2013 issue of Variety [Although you may need a subscription to this site to access the article.  I know I paid for one at some point but can’t remember if it’s still needed; also, the download may be a bit slow.]–however, as Grey points out, not all of the examples from this approach are automatic winners, as evidenced by the very poor showings this year of Jobs [Joshua Michael Stern] and Lovelace [Jeffrey Friedman, Rob Epstein], about the late computer genius who redefined an entire global industry and the late actress best known for the porno “classic” Deep Throat [Jerry Gerard (actually Gerard Damiano), 1972]—which you could say redefined its industry as well, though not in a good way for Lovelace [Linda Susan Boreman] who went on to detail her abuse in this emerging-from-the-underground-world as she became an anti-porn activist).  With The Fifth Estate I’ll have to admit up front that I’m out in the wilderness on this one (or else almost everyone else is), with the Rotten Tomatoes average at a mere 39%, Metacritic barely better at 49%.  Of course its real-life protagonist, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, doesn’t care for it at all either (see the second suggested video link far below), a point made in a meta-manner at the end of the film when the character of Assange (Benedict Cumberpatch) faces the camera and tells us directly that what we have on screen is based on 2 books (Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg [Assange’s close associate for most of our film’s narrative, played there by Daniel Brühl] and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding [both books from 2011]), which he dismisses as awful distortions, so we’re no closer than we were about 7 years ago—when this tell-all exposé site began making life uncomfortable for a number of corporate and political institutions—to really knowing the inside story of how Assange and company constructed their assault on “eyes-only” documents and how it fell apart internally between these former colleagues because their own story doesn’t come across as clearly as the many secrets that they have received from various sources and made disturbingly public.

           * Reviews in this blog respectively in the October 16, 2013; August 22, 2013; July 16, 2013; April 18, 2013; March 29, 2013; March 16, 2013; January 7, 2013; December 28, 2012; December 14, 2012; November 9, 2012; and October 19, 2012 postings.

** Reviews in this blog in the December 30, 2012 posting.

Given that I can’t know what really went on between Assange and Domscheit-Berg beyond their conflicting accounts, all I can do is judge this film on its merits as a compelling story with excellent acting and polished production values; on those counts it works very well for me, leaving me properly concerned about what goes on behind the scenes in the sociopolitical maneuverings that are responsible for the economic, policy, and military decisions made by the dominant countries of this troubled planet, especially when I keep hearing every day about additional intrusions into not only the private lives of American citizens by our own National Security Agency (as revealed by fellow informer and political refugee—or dangerous criminal, take your pick—Edward Snowden) but also into the private correspondence of a number of world leaders who are joining with segments of the U.S. populace to demand clear explanations about what’s going on behind the scenes of governments and why affairs (the diplomatic kind, not the sexual ones; we learn plenty about most of those) are conducted in the manner that they are (Yet, if the public statements of many of our elected officials about the reasoning for their actions regarding the recent federal govt. shutdown and the raising of the national debt limit are indications of what’s passing for reasoned discourse in those closed-door bargaining sessions, then maybe I’d be better off just not knowing how far down the river most of us are being sold in order to perpetuate the specific policies, policymakers, and support sources currently in place, no matter who's running the show in Washington).

One of the presentations of WikiLeaks in terms of intention and execution that probably does stand up under scrutiny is how few actual people were responsible for running the site and for making decisions on what was to be done with the constant flow of information that was coming in to Assange and his tiny band of rebels from a variety of anonymous global contributors (with the most famous now-exposed one of these whistleblowers being Chelsea [previously Bradley] Manning, regarding the huge trove of Afghanistan and Iraq war documents which are scheduled for release not just by WikiLeaks but also by the New York Times, the U.K. Guardian, and the German Der Spiegel when the film opens in a July 2010 scene).  The central quandary of the story is up for argument right from the beginning as there’s not only pressure within the traditional press community (the so-called “Fourth Estate,” which may not have always been accorded parallel status with the traditional “estates” of the Church, the Nobility, and the Public but has always been a part of human society and culture in the discovery and use of communication tools and technologies, as presented to us in a marvelous montage under the opening credits, showing the compressed evolution from the earliest image-making implements to contemporary electronic media) to match each other in getting this clandestine Manning information out into the light of day but also pressure to get assurances from Assange that the WikiLeaks version would also redact specific names from the hundreds of thousands of documents so as not to endanger the lives of various secret field agents and informers when all of that information is made public.  If you just want to save your time for the essence of The Fifth Estate’s prime dilemma until some future date on video, you could probably just watch these rapid opening minutes of the first scene, then skip ahead to the almost-end when Domscheit-Berg breaks from Assange on this very issue (he sides with the mainstream press on the redaction, Assange publishes the unabridged version thereby intensifying all the ensuring chaos, which results in his current diplomatic immunity within London’s Ecuadorian embassy [although the immediate reason for that, as we’re reminded in the closing credits, is due to a sexual assault charge regarding 2 Swedish women and Assange, but he insists their intercourse was consensual and that him leaving England at this point would just be part of a plot to extradite him to the U.S. for arrest and trial on espionage and sedition charges), then watch the final direct-to-the-audience statements from Assange as he challenges the very legitimacy of the manner in which his story is presented in this film while still encouraging all of us to challenge the power of the powerful in our various societies, using the sophisticated media tools now available to us in the process of locating, then sharing the type of information that we have a right to know about the decisions, illegal or fatal in many cases, that shape our collective lives despite uninformed, manipulated input from us at best or no input at all given the covert nature of the many actions being hidden from our knowledge.

Certainly we are given reason to want to trust Assange’s initial motives as he and Domscheit-Berg go after a crooked fat cat, Julius Baer, whose massive Swiss bank is involved in illegal Cayman Islands activities with his clients’ money until those nefarious schemes are revealed by WikiLeaks when we flash back to 2007 Berlin as our 2 comrades first forge their alliance, even though the German technology activist is shocked to find that his Australian counterpart is really a 1-man band who uses several fake email addresses to enhance the presence of the WikiLeaks operation.  With their limited resources (and main server hidden on a Spanish farm), they expose Baer’s improprieties, survive court challenges to shut down their operation, and continue to lift the cloak of secrecy from controversial, at times disgraceful, activities that are going unreported in the mainstream press (such as the deadly firing on unarmed journalists by American troops in Iraq or the crimes perpetrated by death squads in Kenya) either because of information control by various governmental agencies or possibly by clandestine pressure on such news organizations to stay quiet (although that’s just conspiracy speculation on my part, not something that was explored in The Fifth Estate, so that's one bit of paranoia that you don't have to blame on WikiLeaks).  Once the huge cache of war documents pilfered by Manning and published in the various sources becomes known, careers are destroyed (as illustrated by what I assume is a fictional composite character, State-Dept.-Libya-expert Sarah Shaw [Laura Linney, in desperate conversation in this photo above with colleague James Boswell (Stanley Tucci)], as some scandalous cables of hers are released—one of which she admits was so “hot” that she signed Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s name to it—whose supposedly private statements prove to be so damaging that she’s let go, even as her bosses are still scrambling to smooth over the damage presented in these thousands of revealed documents; as Shaw and Boswell note before all hell breaks loose for them, “Those computer geeks are starting to become a real nuisance”), although it’s not that clear (to me; please offer corrections if I’m in error) that any lives were lost because of the full versions of the war-related cables sent out by Assange, although the ongoing concern that such tragedies were imminent is what led the accomplice newspapers to take redaction action (notably, The Fifth Estate does show that hackers who sent some of the information about corruption in Kenya were identified and assassinated).  So, all of this leads us back to the initial question:  Is Julian Assange (along with Manning and all of the other “leakers”) to be hailed as a hero for forcing our vast international military-industrial-political complex to own up to its shady backroom dealings that so frequently enhance the profits of the already-wealthy-and-powerful, or are his actions nobly-conceived-at-best-but-horribly-misguided-in-practice, endangering the lives of those in the true line of fire while their superiors may face embarrassment but rarely lose anything of permanent value, including their lofty positions in government or commerce?

(Sorry about the tiny identification caption under this photo;
I can't remove it or make it larger.  I can't fix the spacing of 

this paragraph either or some other places in the review.  
You win, Blogspot.)
As presented in the film, Assange is not easy to work with         (I doubt that the real guy is objecting to this presentation of himself but is more concerned with the depiction of Wikileaks, which functions almost like a religion for his purposes), possibly because of inherent personality traits, possibly because of childhood molding of his reaction to the world after his mother took up with a strange-cult guy whose group was very abusive of the children including requiring them to dye their hair white, a practice that Assange oddly continues even into his adulthood.  He states that he wants to be a moral crusader but one who allows others to disclose without fear of being disclosed (largely accomplished by the WikiLeaks practice of unleashing a glut of false information so that it becomes virtually impossible to pinpoint where the truthful releases have originated), yet he seems resigned to the reality that innocent civilians and quasi-innocent-mid-level-diplomats will be burned by his actions because he refuses to compromise the “purity” of his process through any adjustments to the original documents (The Fifth Estate is deadly serious from start to finish—except for a brief nightclub scene of Assange “dancing”—although I can’t help but think, when I hear Assange say “WikiLeaks doesn’t edit!,” of the protagonist in Machete Kills [Robert Rodriguez] being just as fundamentalist when he says “Machete don’t text!”), although the film does give a clear impression that Assange and company make reasonable attempts to verify the accuracy of their purloined properly before going public with it.  We get flashbacks of his traumatic upbringing that explain somewhat his social ineptitude (so that Domscheit-Berg becomes a much more effective public spokesman for their intentions and actions), but we see at heart that this is a deeply-troubled, increasingly-agitated man who easily becomes monomaniacal in his own right, raising questions of conscience about how much any one individual “prophet” can be trusted to always lead his followers to the correct sacred mountain in their quest for salvation.  Some have complained about the amount of event detail packed into this film (supported by a wealth of documentary news footage to illustrate the references), as if it might better be called Rush than Howard’s racecar opus because we get rushed through so many situations with graphic locations and information whirling past us on screen; for me, that worked well to indicate the huge task ahead of this small band of dedicated anti-hegemonic “taggers,” leaving evidence of their work for all to see but protecting themselves from their well-funded enemies by always being actively aware of their surroundings and who the likely spies are, awaiting a chance to drag them off.  Condon structures this tension appropriately, leaving us intentionally unresolved but disturbed, the exact attitude that Assange hoped to convey in his attempt to encourage other hackers and leakers, forcing secret operations and decisions into more open scrutiny.  As much as I admire the desire, though, I have to admit that as a former member of a good number of academic and organizational executive committees it’s a tough ideal to inhabit, being completely honest and transparent with those in your inner circle and those you represent because if only 1 or a few of you are being forthright you set yourself up for exactly the kind of comedown suffered by staffer Shaw as she takes the fall while others around her just look the other way as if they’d never be involved in such unsupportable actions (when the truth is, they just keep their secrets better hidden so they never have to explain them).  

If operations such as WikiLeaks could somehow force all of us, from small-group-interactions all the way up to the highest levels of government, to be more direct in what we act upon and more responsible for what results from our actions, I’d consider Assange to be more of a hero than The Fifth Estate (referring to the non-corporate journalists and disseminators who simply command the technology available to them rather than participate in the social systems that they wish to undermine, thereby making themselves gallant warriors to those who support them but destructive criminals to those who reject their tactics) presents him to be (purposely, as the real guy keeps reminding us from his exiled-in-embassy-limbo).  Until then, I’ll just keep walking the line of ambiguity between being glad that we’re increasingly in an environment where deadly secrets are harder to keep and concerned that with investigative journalism intentions being mixed with social media practices it’s becoming difficult for anyone to have any semblance of a personal life, no matter how much we need such a reprise from constantly being “on stage.”  As I walk that narrow line I’ll try to keep my nerves calm by humming The Beatles’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” (from their 1963 debut British album, Please Please Me), available for you to sing along with at (accompanied by pictures of just John—who seemingly wrote most of it [although Paul presents a different story]—and George—who took the lead vocals [although I never realized that until now; I thought it was John singing lead]).

Moving speedily along to Rush we have the parallel situation already noted of a film based in reality—this time the fierce Formula 1 racing competition between Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda—but with the further connection of Lauda being played by The Fifth Estate’s Daniel Brühl, a German.  (We’ll get a final twist on the related countries/cultures of Germany and Austria when I make a few closing comments on Escape Plan [Mikael Håfström] where Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a German convict—and, if you’re just looking for random connections between the 2 main films this week, I guess I could also note the Australian character of Julian Assange in the previous film and Australian actor Hemsworth in this one, but my “brilliant” observational connections have probably worn thin enough by now—unless you’d like for me to somehow relate any of them to one of Hemsworth’s Asgardian relatives when he soon returns to his most famous role in Thor: The Dark World [Alan Taylor].)  It was a dark world back in 1976 too when F1 World Champion Lauda faced a stiff challenge from Hunt, whose freewheeling manner on and off the track must have felt like a personal insult to constantly-focused-and-“driven” Lauda, although both shared the “black-sheep-of-family” distinction prior to their racing triumphs as neither was groomed for nor expected to build a career in such a dangerous-as-well-as-proletarian sport.  In a nutshell, that’s all there is to the plot of this film—tightly-wound-but-successful-Teutonic-odds-calculator competes fiercely with ego-consumed-sensual-excess-playboy for superiority on the world’s most-prestigious-yet-dangerous raceways—especially if you’re already aware of this rivalry from over 3 decades ago or quickly Google (How’s that for subtle brown-nosing in hopes that it might improve my usual posting headaches this week? [After-post note: It didn't work; still took me hours to endure the horror that is posting on Google Blogspot, including some new wrinkles this time—but that's OK, I don't mind ... it's all for your precious benefit.]) the 1976 end-of-season-points-winner, but, as with any successful ripped-from-the-headlines movie, what must work for the audience is a narrative plan that pulls us into the flow of the story, keeping us riveted to the progression of events, even if we do already know the outcome.

Howard is highly effective at accomplishing this with Rush, as he uses a structure very similar to the one employed in The Fifth Estate: begin with a defining event in the overall plot, backtrack to show us how this critical situation came to be, then take us into the aftermath after having invested us in over half of the running time of the film so that we can appreciate both the original key event and what occurs with the main characters as a result of it.  In the case of Rush, the crucial conflict is the 1976 Grand Prix competition in Germany, a race that should never have occurred because of the dangerous track conditions from prior rain but which did go forward against Lauda’s arguments due to Hunt’s boastful goading, as well as his need to finish in good form to keep accumulating the needed points to catch up with Lauda for that year’s championship given his poor start due to inadequate engineering in his McLaren racecar (previously he’d never wanted a sponsor, but after the 1975 season he was in danger of not having enough financial backing to even continue so he ditched his loner attitude and covered himself up with corporate logos like everyone else in those “coffins on wheels,” as he put it).  The show went on, but Lauda almost didn’t because of a spinout that resulted in a collision followed by fire that severely injured him.  Yet, 6 weeks later after almost-superhuman determination and recuperation therapy he was back on the track, scarred for life but determined to stay put in the race to the top, given that Hunt had been accumulating needed points during Lauda’s enforced absence; Lauda came in 4th but still got a huge response from the crowd, especially because in 1976 he was racing for Ferrari and his return match was in Italy (although his quest for a repeat championship didn’t pay off in 1976—sorry if I haven’t sounded the extra-special Spoiler Alert foghorn this week beyond the standard boilerplate warning at the beginning of my every review, but it’s just too easy for you to look up the results of that F1 year for me to be too worried about ruining your day—if you really want that, invite me over to do an a cappella medley of my favorite Roy Orbison songs—but he would bounce back in 1977, then later in 1984).  So, with the Spoiler Barn Door already wide open, I’ll just cut to the chase (so to speak) and note that it all came down to the last Grand Prix race of 1976, in Japan near Mt. Fuji, this time with even worse rain conditions than in Germany because torrents were still falling, as Hunt was only 3 points behind so that a 3rd place finish would push him over the top.  Lauda made that considerably easier for him by deciding to drop out shortly into the race, determined not to injure himself again (as shown in his mind’s eye with images of his wife, Marlene [Alexandra Maria Lara], whom he’s determined to not put through another session in hell if he pushes his body into another death-defying circumstance), but Hunt still had to accomplish his own victory, not helped at all by his needed pit stop toward the end to replace some very-worn-out tires.  Still, he gets enough track covered by the end of the flag-waving to take the title, but that would be his only one (at age 29), then he’d retire 3 years later, followed by death from heart attack at in 1993 (at age 45, a sobering thought for me, given that we were born in the same year—him in August, me in December—and I’ve got a congenital heart valve problem, but I’m still here while he rests in peace; I can only hope that my lucky streak continues far beyond his, as in 1993 I was granted tenure at Mills College, allowing me a secure life in academia, then into film-reviewing retirement while Hunt's “candle burned out long before [his] legend ever did” [with that lead-in I don’t see how I can resist this “Candle in the Wind” (from the 1973 Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album) tribute to Marilyn Monroe by Elton John at watch?v=5CZBNwMy578; sorry if this is a distraction from Rush, but I could listen to this song all day, any day, even without the accompanying images of Marilyn you'll find at this link]).

OK, back to the review, which is already in progress.  This photo illustrates what mainly makes Rush work as well as it does:  it’s all about the constantly-dangerous situations that these F1 drivers expose themselves to and how we are constructed to care about their fates, even if we know virtually nothing about their pedal-to-the-metal-sport (I acknowledge that I’ve had little interest in my life at watching people speed around in circles—or on more complex tracks—even as the constant back-and-forth of hockey, tennis, basketball, and [Dare I say it within the borders of any country below the Arctic Circle?] any nation’s definition of football wears me out in its repetition compared to the constantly-focused-but-sporadic-action-strategy of baseball)Rush pulls us in effectively because there are so many unaccounted-for-variables as these madmen push their overheated machines through countless repetitions of the track, with serious injury or death awaiting at every turn.  Hunt attempts to defy death in another manner by trying to clean up his live-for-the-day-attitude, first by marrying supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde)—which soon thereafter flops because it turns out there’s nothing in his wild world that he’s willing to replace with her so she replaces him instead by running off with actor Richard Burton (it’s not clarified in this film, but she also marries Burton, after his second divorce from Elizabeth Taylor, but their marriage was gone as well by 1982)—then by trying to tone himself down in support of his new McLaren sponsors, but when you’re born to run as he is there’s apparently nothing much you can do to rein in the quest for the checkered flag, so by the time he’s finally in the ultimate winner’s circle he’s dragging 3 buxom young ladies with him, apparently no more individually precious to his future (or maybe even his next week) than the nurse and the airline stewardess that we’ve seen him casually conquer earlier (in the latter case, followed by a clever cut to pistons pounding in an auto engine, with the simile easy to interpret but fun to see nevertheless).  Meanwhile, Lauda continues to use his disgust for such hedonism as an incentive to push himself back into the fray, from a different sense of ego, that of feeling naturally superior but needing to prove it because he lacks the charisma that drives Hunt on toward the finish line, no matter how irrational his tactics may be.  At various times throughout this film we get leading narration from each of these speedster experts, but the end commentary belongs to Niki as we get some actual footage of both men along with an acknowledgement from Lauda of his respect for Hunt as a competitor, if not as a trusted colleague.  Lauda shows his own unstable qualities, though, by telling his new wife that happiness is his enemy because it brings fear of losing what he now treasures beyond the racetrack.  That nagging concern may well be what both pushes him to near-death and encourages him to respect such limitations, showing him to be battling his own demons, giving him a bond with Hunt, about which we can only infer an understanding of the complexity that such a relationship represents.  In a similar manner, most of us can only imply to ourselves what it must be like to risk all in such a disaster-is-always-waiting-environment, no matter whether your position is informed by cautious consideration or wild abandon (Lauda has more of an engineer’s precise evaluation of track conditions before each race; Hunt throws up, then swigs some champagne, takes a toke, and smooches one of his off-track beauties as he lets it fly). Howard does a fine job of inserting us into the flow of this somewhat-long-ago-battle of indestructible wills (although their accompanying bodies are physically-limited enough), allowing us to see the high and low points of each unyielding driver, forcing us to rush along with them in POV shots of the various racetracks as these potential-death-machines hurtle us along in hope-to-come-back-alive-fashion, putting us onto the track alongside the speeding combatants.  

   Rush isn’t likely to garner much in year-end awards, but it certainly intrigued a non-racing fan such as myself and would likely be a worthwhile high-adrenalin day at the movies for anyone (I again thank long-time contributor Richard Parker from San Antonio, TX for encouraging me to see this, along with my race-car-loving-wife, Nina [just kidding; she was anxious to see the movie (because as Al Pacino and Antonio Banderas get older she’s finding new attractions toward dudes like Hemsworth), but after a near-fatal car wreck many years ago Nina would just as soon that all cars moved at the speed of turtles (not that she cares much for these creatures either, but at least she can outrun them)]), with its highly-effective combination of close-ups, quick edits, and subjective imagery that puts us in the drivers’ seats, along with a much quieter sense of closure as Hunt and Lauda meet up after the film’s final Grand Prix, with the former ready to take time off to indulge himself while the latter is still pushing off-season discipline and preparation, a clash of differently-oriented personas that likely need each other to provide an external balance that their internal makeup cannot even fathom.  To finish off these comments on Rush, then, I’ll just steal the use of David Bowie’s “Fame” (from the 1975 Young Americans album, with inspiration and musical backing from John Lennon, to once again connect up with the previous review’s Beatle comments) at which is used in Rush to underscore the media barrage that Hunt enjoyed during his “victory-lap-season” after the races were over in 1976.  Both of these push-to-the-limit-racers had their own sense of what “fame” offered them, which Ron Howard conveys effectively for those of us who’d previously never heard of these guys nor spent hours watching cars zoom along at close to 200 mph for no other reason than to see who could keep from leaving the venue in a real coffin when the day was done.

  So, I’ve already established the flimsy German-Austrian (not Australian; the last time I was in Austria the most common tourist item I saw—after big beer steins, cuckoo clocks, and Mozart chocolates—was a T-shirt that reminded everyone that there are no kangaroos in Austria—and I do hope that everyone at Jason King’s Salty Popcorn site Down Under is aware that distinction [now I’ll find out if any of them actually read my reviews like they say they do) connection between Rush and Escape Plan so let’s see what else I can say about it.  As is my practice sometimes I won’t offer an official review of Escape Plan because I’ve already rambled on enough this week, but I’ll admit that I was just too intrigued by a movie that paired Sylvester Stallone (master jailbreak artist Ray Brisling) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Emil Rottmayer, accomplice of mastermind-cybercurrency-disruptor Victor Mannheim) in something less overbearing than the Expendables movies where every action hero of the last 30 years (except Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) has been propped up in front of the camera for old times’ sake (Stallone directed the first one in 2010, followed by Simon West in 2012—when Arnold was included—with a third installment intended for 2014 directed by Patrick Hughes, with both of our famous muscle boys back again along with other aging hunks Antonio Banderas [Nina says "Adiós"], Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford scheduled to join in—and then there’s Kelsey Grammer, but given that I doubt I’ll see this one so as to keep my Expendables non-attendance-record intact I’ll just have to speculate what the heck he’s doing joining in with all the star-power beefcakes).  If I were giving Escape Plan a regular evaluation I’d offer about 3 stars because the 2 1970s-‘90s star retreads (I can imagine that Arnold might need alimony money after that love-child-with-the-maid-scandal put his marriage on the rocks, but I guess that Sly just won’t quit until someone works out a career-ending CGI match between Rocky and Mohammed Ali [although, and I kid you not, there apparently is a plan in motion to have Rocky Balboa back again in a year or so in a story focused on Apollo Creed’s grandson, to be played by Fruitvale Station’s Michael B. Jordan, directed by the same film’s helmsman, Ryan Coogler; I’ll just let that rest until there’s a reason to say more about it]) still have some respectable screen presence and work well against each other in an interesting tale about how our CIA is infiltrated by a secret operative, Jessica Miller (Caitriona Balfe)—although we don’t learn that until the end of the movie, but thank me now for saving you from parting with your hard-earned cash unless you’re like me and just have to see what these aging icons might still have to offer to a tension-filled action film—daughter of Rottmayer (who’s actually Mannheim, so we fully understand by the end of this exercise in pension-relief why the big lug could never be broken to divulge the whereabouts of his “boss”), who sets up the scam to have breakout artist Brisling (a former attorney whose wife and son where killed by an escaped con, so Brisling has dedicated his life to making prisons ultra-secure) locked up in a secretly-located, maximum-security private prison with the intended intention of finding flaws in the design but is actually there, unbeknownst to Brisling, to help Rottmayer bust out of the place (if the CIA could arrange to have him shipped off to this seemingly-escape-proof-tomb it’s now not clear to me why they have no idea that it’s on a large tanker at sea—where’s Captain Phillips when you need him?—but let’s not let rationality intrude on our airtight plot now, shall we?)

  Ray soon finds that nothing is as planned, given that his implanted location finder has been ripped out of his shoulder, this prison of glass-walled cells and guards hidden behind masks is designed with insights from his state-of-the-art book, and his untrustworthy partner, Lester Clark (Vincent D’Onofrio), has conspired with Warden Hobbs (Jim Caviezel) of this for-profit prison (which does hold many a vicious victim, but they’re there to keep them out of circulation, with hefty fees paid to insure no parole from enemies of the captives—which was Rottmayer/Mannheim’s case, as it is now Breslin’s).  Fortunately, Breslin’s still savvy enough to figure out a reasonable breakout plan—until he finds that the escape hatch leads to the deck of a tanker rather than dry land—and Rottmayer/Manheim has contacts that can be reached when they finally realize they’re close to the coast of Morocco, so when all of the stars finally align (so to speak) our pumped-up protagonists escape their confinement (taking out evil warden Hobbes and many of his goons, especially the vicious Drake [Vinnie Jones], in the process), all is revealed at the end, and our 2 musclemen each go their separate way (with a cutaway to tell us that Ray’s associates, Hush [Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson] and Abigail Ross [Amy Ryan] have figured out the devious intentions of Clark so he’s now locked in a container headed for who-knows-where, if there’s enough oxygen inside that big metal box to support him until he gets there [implication is: don’t count on it]), back to their previous lives.  The “what” and “why” aspects aren’t that critical here, although the “how” of Brisling figuring out various escape plans and the initially-unclear-situations of who’s double-timing whom make for an enjoyable-enough-escapist adventure, although one that resolves itself in standard good-guys-can-shoot-rings-around-bad-guys-when-the-situation-has-to-be-resolved-fashion, just as we’re left with the quandary that a guy with the wherewithal to destabilize worldwide financial markets is just let loose, along with his daughter embedded in the CIA, so that if he decides to wreck havoc there’s probably no stopping him except for his fondness for smart capitalist/secure-prison-guru Ray Brisling—but, then, we’re not really supposed to be thinking about such dismal scenarios after 2 of our movie stars have escaped a dreadful end, are we?  IF you can keep it to that level of thinking, you’ll probably enjoy the well-crafted diversion of Escape Plan (to start you on a search for more info here’s an opening link at the official website) for its unobtrusive 116 min. running time; however, if you’re after anything much more than that, I’d recommend you to either of the more substantial films above, even if you care nothing for politics nor racecars.  Or, if you just need to escape completely before we convene again next week, I’ll keep the previous Beatle-ish flow going with McCartney’s “Band on the Run” (at [from the 1973 album of the same name, here as a performance by Wings from Seattle in 1976), simply because it seemingly references an ambiguous prison break, so I hope you’re havin’ fun until we meet again.

If you’d like to know more about The Fifth Estate here are some suggested links: (10:27 ABC news story about the actual Julian Assange who is opposed to the film and encouraged actor Benedict Cumberbatch not to take the role; most of this clip is an interview with Assange, including some commentary on WikiLeaks-allied whistleblower Edward Snowden and how Assange feels that those who oppose current governmental policies in the West are increasingly being forced into exile)

If you’d like to know more about Rush here are some suggested links: (5:34 min. 2013 interview with the actual Niki Lauda, who says that what’s depicted in this film is accurate to the real events) and http://www. (5:42 min. interview with James Hunt from 1979 just prior to the ’79 Grand Prix season, with commentary on his non-championship seasons in 1977 and ’78 after his ’76 win and his prediction that he’ll retire after the ’79 season—which he did)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as difficulties we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.