The Snowman

snowman1If ever a Film School wants to show its students what a broken film looks and feels like, then The Snowman is the one to show them. Here’s a film with a good, popular book as source material, a great cast, a good team behind the camera, and yet none of it works. None of it. The screenplay dismantles the source novel, the cast is great but the casting awful, as if the actors were given the parts they didn’t audition for, and the direction and editing so inept… well, on that score, I’d only suggest that it looks like the film suffered from a set of reshoots that just further damaged a damaged film. I know nothing of the production history of the film, but it certainly looks like previews of the initial cut were so bad the studio panicked, did considerable reshoots, only to result in further bad previews and another set of reshoots, because this film feels like its three different films jumbled up together. Almost as if each set of reshoots were helmed by a different director. Funny thing is, I have a nagging suspicion that there were no reshoots at all, and instead this is the film they just made. I don’t think I’ve watched such a confused mess of a film in such a long time.

I’ve seen bad films before, and I’ve certainly seen worse films than The Snowman, but seldom have I watched a film so broken, disjointed. It was almost fascinating.

Strangely, this kind of serial killer, police procedural mystery thriller set in European locations has been done many times before, and much better, on television. Indeed, the Cardinal series (set in Canada, and of which the first seen most closely resembles The Snowman) which I have reviewed here, is far, far superior.

Oddly enough, for once I am actually familiar with the source material the film is based on. The Snowman is adapted from a book of the same title written by Jo Nesbo, and I managed to read about half of the novel before I gave up on it. I think perhaps that these complex serial killer mysteries and their twists and turns are just too, well, convoluted for my taste. I imagine part of the fun for readers of this stuff are the twists and misdirection that the writers use to keep seasoned readers guessing, because it was all too much for a newcomer to the genre like me (substitute ‘convoluted’ to ‘preposterous’). Anyway, I therefore came to the film with a curiosity regards how the book ended and who the killer was. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure, because not a lot of the book seemed to be in the film, and what there was seemed to be twisted up in a mess, so I’m wondering if the film shared the same solution as the book did.

The film was perhaps hampered by the fact that the book was the seventh in a series of novels concerning the character of Norwegian detective Harry Hole, with all the baggage that entails with references to personal history and prior books/cases. The book could get away with some of this through paragraphs of text, but how do you manage this in a medium such as film? I suppose you could argue that any story, any film, is actually continuing a story with lots of past baggage simply because whenever we are introduced to a character he/she has a lifetime of past history in the films fictional universe, its just a question of how much that influences the films actual plot. But here The Snowman film fumbles completely. Actually, I think this is where the films casting really messes up, because the Harry Hole of the novel that I pictured in my head in no way mirrors Michael Fassbender. Harry was a middle-aged, overweight drunk suffering from the trauma of too many bad cases, which the film version seems to think equals handsome Fassbender smoking too much.

snowman2In actual fact, as odd as he unfortunately looks, Val Kilmer, who features here as a character revealed in flashbacks to a prior case, would have been a better fit, and a more interesting-looking Harry Hole. Unfortunately due to his real-life illness I doubt Kilmer would have managed carrying a film in a leading role (he is necessarily dubbed by another actor, but its handled terribly), and more pointedly he hardly looks today the typical leading man he used to, which perhaps serves my point. Fassbender looks every bit your typical leading man for a Hollywood thriller, however it might ill-serve the actual film. Unfortunately, when the lead of a film doesn’t look or feel right, then your film is in trouble. I quite liked Fassbender in Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor, in which he played a driven, flawed character, so he can certainly do this sort of role, which likely suggests that he is handicapped by the script and direction, having little to really work with other than being told to light another cigarette.

I could tell the film was in trouble right from the very start, with a nonsensical prologue that I would imagine was intended to instil interest and mystery but falls so flat it could have been cut from the film and no-one would have noticed. Moreover, it was a sequence not in the book (at least as far as I had read it, and certainly the book did not start with it) which suggests it was manufactured by the screenwriter. Perhaps they thought the film otherwise had a pacing issue or lacked a tease to catch audience interest. A young boy living in an isolated snow-swept lakeside house with his mother is interrogated by a middle-aged man who hits the boys mother and then sleeps with her, before storming off when the boy sees them together in bed. The mother puts the boy in her car and races after the man, who is in a police car. We then cut to the woman’s car coming out of a tunnel with the police car she is chasing nowhere to be seen, so she spins the car off the road onto a frozen lake. The boy gets out of the car before the ice cracks but the woman seems supernaturally calm as she remains inside and waits to plunged into the frozen water as the car sinks in-front of the naturally upset boy.  This boy will no doubt grow up to be either our killer or Harry Hole. Maybe the latter would have been more interesting, particularly as regards how the film ends.

snowman3Films like The Snowman do fascinate me. Broken things can sometimes be fixed, and sometimes they can’t, and in the case of film, well, many have tried to fix broken films with recuts (and many have bizarrely tried to break films with recuts that were previously fine –Apocalypse Now Redux, I’m looking at you) but there are all sorts of things not working in The Snowman and I doubt it could ever work. All sorts of sub-plots and supporting characters just don’t fit; and you could argue some are immaterial and could be dropped entirely while others are fundamental and their failure terribly undermines the film. Its such a mess. I could, possibly should, expound upon them here and write one of my longest blog-posts ever, but whats the point? I doubt many people would be interested enough in a lacklustre effort such as The Snowman to read this or even care. But it could be an important lesson for prospective film-makers in Film School.

The Martian (2015)

marty1As I write this, Ridley Scott’s The Martian has reached a US domestic haul of more than $197 million, with foreign receipts added its worldwide take is some $459 million, making it one of the directors most successful films. It hasn’t been released in China or Japan yet either so there’s plenty yet to be added, so it is sure to cross that magical $500 million barrier. It’s nice to see Scott with a genuine hit under his hat after a decade of his films struggling to find a sizeable audience.

It’s just a pity its The Martian. It is easy to assess why it has been so successful- it is based on a very popular book, has a likeable and popular lead, and is pretty much the perfect Ridley Scott vehicle for mainstream audiences- a simple story told with great visuals. It’s a good movie. But it’s a pretty weak Ridley Scott movie. Think Thelma & Louise over 1492: Conquest of Paradise.

marty2Maybe ‘weak’ isn’t the right word. Its just that… well it didn’t involve me somehow. Maybe its unfair, I read the book so I knew what to expect. Other than an unnecessary coda the film is largely faithful to the book and doesn’t take any liberties so any weakness in the film is surely inherent in the source material. And it certainly looks as spectacular as you’d expect for a Ridley Scott film. Indeed, how he manages to make a film as ‘big’ as this for ‘just’ $108 million is quite astonishing, frankly (something he likewise achieved with Prometheus). You certainly get plenty bang for your buck. And yes its great to see Ridley back in the sci-fi groove now after so many decades. There are some amazing sets and shots in The Martian that reminded me of 2001, and hints at what a film like that might look like if done today. But that’s just it; 2001 would never get made today. We can do better visuals now than Kubrick could ever have dreamed of, but we cannot tell the same kind of story. There is no room for the awe, the strangeness, the alien-ness of space anymore. Its more cosy and familiar now. I don’t think there is any moment in The Martian where we doubt our hero will ever fail to survive, or we really feel the stark terror and loneliness of life alone on an alien world. We’re too busy smirking at disco music.

God that planetoid in Alien was so strange and alien… so dark and moody and dangerous and nightmarish. Mars looks spectacular enough but its just another desert, frankly. I guess I just prefer Scott’s more arthouse, darker, rawer works, those films with his flair for visuals coupled with a darker twist. They are inevitably more esoteric, less audience-friendly. Not necessarily better movies, I’ll admit that, certainly, but I do find even a flawed film like The Counsellor rather more interesting and rewarding. However some might say that I’m talking utter tosh and The Martian proves that Ridley is better when he keeps it simple. The box-office would seem to confirm that. The tone of the film just felt wrong, somehow. Maybe it was just that disco music. It rather worked in the book, but onscreen, it was just distracting, undermining any tension.

Maybe I’ll enjoy it more second time around. I just expected Ridley to stamp some of his darkness on the project but it just turned out light and fluffy and entertaining like the book. I expect that, knowing that now, I’ll react to the film better next time. But I’ll still wonder at what it might have been. Maybe he’s keeping a three-hour version under his hat for a Directors Cut edition that will add some of that darkness and awe. You never know with Ridley. Afterall, Kingdom of Heaven was pretty poor at the cinema, but its later extended version is one of the very best films he has ever made.

Good Movie Basics- Random thoughts

counsellor 3What makes a good movie/bad movie? What are the fundamentals?

Gregory’s recent comment on my review of The Counsellor “It’s despicable, mean-spirited trash and Scott should do us all a favour and just retire” (he clearly didn’t like the movie), set me to thinking about what makes a good movie. I can well understand Gregory’s viewpoint regards The Counsellor, after all, it’s one shared by many. The film doesn’t follow the usual structure of a three-act movie, it doesn’t have a sympathetic protagonist that the viewer can identify with, it doesn’t have a ‘proper’ ending or sense of resolution. It rather undermines the basics of any film-school screen-writing class.

None of the characters have any redeeming features, the worst of them is the one that ends up ‘winning’ at the end,  and the ‘hero’ is frankly a greedy fool that is swept up by everything and fails to effect the outcome in any way at all.  Indeed, he’s a non-entity, caught up and lost in the events, his life unravelling and never really aware of what is really going on. Its no wonder it alienates so many viewers.  Its so easy to dismiss it- at its worst, its a frankly masturbatory affair of a bunch of millionaire actors/film-makers playing at something ‘meaningful’ and ‘profound’ when its nothing of the sort, at its best though, its rather wonderful.

The thing is, so many things about The Counsellor are both infuriating and rewarding. Technically its remarkable what they got away with on such a low budget and shooting it in Europe in lieu of America/Mexico (you’d hardly notice unless you were told). And its so slowly paced, almost a throwback to 1970s film standards, as opposed to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it way so many films are shot/edited now. But does it try too hard to be an anti-mainstream movie?

counsellor 4

My own positive viewpoint likely has at least something to do with my fondness for Ridley Scott’s films. I enjoy his art-house credentials; there is always something rather subversive in his better movies, a heart of darkness if you will. And The Counsellor has this in spades. Its like Chaos Theory in action. Events unfold beyond the characters understanding and control. Characters slip into lengthy monologues about the nature of greed, life, justice…. but don’t really seem able to act upon their pearls of ‘wisdom’.  Their ignorance is astonishing but this blindness, to me, rather mirrors real-life in that none of us are really ever in full control of our lives. In this respect, the film is refreshingly honest. So often we are lulled into false security by films that show characters ‘seizing the day’ and triumphing against the odds, but while that works well for movies life isn’t always like that. People fail; people suffer and die and don’t really understand why, sometimes they just suffer the vagaries of fate and are powerless. Its that sense of a Lovecraftian universe that I find interesting about The Counsellor.   Its wildly self-indulgent, and yes, it would likely have played better with a cast of unknowns rather than a bunch of beautiful millionaire superstar actors, but that’s just how movies get made these days.

But is it a good movie? Ah, there’s the rub. I like it, but so many don’t, and I have to wonder, does it fail at the basics?

Does a good movie need a main character, a protagonist that we can identify with, empathise with? Does a good movie have to clearly set up in its first act its premise, its characters, its plot? Does a good movie have a middle act that further extrapolates its themes,  develops its drama and crisis? Does a good movie have a final third act that solves this crisis with the main character reaching some kind of resolution, whether he succeeds or fails, is he or the audience wiser at movies end? Is there some kind of moralist credential to the film, for good or ill? Simply put, should a movie have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end?

It can be argued that The Counsellor has neither. We begin the film almost in the middle of things, events and characters already in motion, the main character learns little, ignorant of what is really going on (indeed, I don’t believe any of them ever really learn the instigator of their fall) and the film has little meaningful resolution at all, other than perhaps that you’re not paranoid, the universe really is out to get you. If the final shot had been a bizarre pull-shot out and away into orbit and beyond, showing an increasingly small and fragile Earth increasingly lost in the immensity of the cosmos, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. At least the film would have perhaps suggested some meaning in a final flourish.

But that’s to me the point of the film. Nothing means anything, other than perhaps greed undermines all and to the hunter the spoils- justice is utterly subjective and sin is not always punished.

But is The Counsellor a good movie? Or is it a bad movie that I’m reading too much into? I guess even the worst of movies have their fans!

 

 

 

 

The Counsellor: The Extended Cut (2013)

counselorRidley Scott’s The Counsellor is as divisive a film as his previous film, Prometheus. Is he deliberately antagonising his audience, subverting our expectations with his  films now? Prometheus was supposed to be an Alien prequel, and was, in a way, albeit spinning off in some other direction and ultimately not really being the Alien movie fans seemed to want.  The Counsellor, made from a screenplay by literary darling Cormac McCarthy (The Road, No Country For Old Men) and featuring a tremendous cast including  Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt in a tale of greed and drug trafficking, seemed to be prime thriller material- and yet it is hardly a thriller at all, more interested in long monologues regarding observations on greed, where it leads and responsibility for our crimes, than action sequences.

For myself, I quite enjoyed the film, choosing to watch the Extended Cut rather than the theatrical that apparently so infuriated cinemagoers. How much more superior the Extended Cut is over the theatrical, or even what those differences are, I cannot say. I can however state that The Counsellor is a fascinating art-house movie in the guise of a traditional thriller. There is action, and very brutal action at that, including one of the most gruesome and memorable murder sequences I have ever seen, but all of that is simply incidental to the lengthy monologues and sometimes poetic observations verbalised by the characters. What doesn’t help is that, other than Penélope Cruz ‘s character, every character in this film seems thoroughly unredeemable and unsympathetic. It’s faithful to the films theme but does rather hinder audience empathy with the film. We just don’t care for anyone other than Cruz (who is wonderful by the way, full of sensuality and warmth here) and things don’t end well for her either, so whilst avoiding spoilers, don’t expect a happy conclusion here. Its a frankly nihilistic film from beginning to end. Does that sound hard to stomach over two and a half hours? It evidently proved to be for cinemagoers watching the two hour version, and this Extended Cut is surely just more of it.

counselor2

The title character (played to perfection by the dependable as ever Michael Fassbender) is an utterly unlikeable hero, known only as The Counsellor in reference to his dubious trade representing criminals. He seems to have it made from the start; handsome, wealthy and in an exciting relationship with a stunningly beautiful and sensual woman (Cruz) – admit it, you hate him already, I did, especially when it is abundantly clear that even when he apparently has it all, it isn’t enough. He wants more, hence his slide into the drug trafficking of his clients. When things go awry and he and his associates are unwittingly put in the frame, retribution follows but we hardly care. We have little if any empathy for any of them. Its honest and faithful to the point of the film- we simply aren’t meant to like any of them- but it does rather undermine the movie in the traditional sense of rooting for people.  In that respect, I often felt like I was watching a coldly analytical Stanley Kubrick film. It really doesn’t feel like a Hollywood movie.

Indeed  its so refreshingly different to what I expected, and wonderfully, unrelentingly dark, that I rather fell in love with it anyway. It may prove to be one of those films that gets re-evaluated in the future, and becomes widely considered a success after all (another Blade Runner, perhaps?). Kudos to 20th Century Fox for letting Scott make the film he clearly wanted to, as it must have been tempting to rip it apart and make it more, well, traditionally positive – although maybe the theatrical cut was Scott’s way of compromising his intentions somewhat. I won’t know unless I try watching that version but I hardly see the point.

One of Scott’s better movies. Or maybe I’m wide of the mark and it really is as terrible as people make out? If you’ve seen it, do let me know what you think.