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Cameron Diaz, left, and Penelope Cruz star in


Cameron Diaz, left, and Penelope Cruz star in "The Counselor. "

The Counselor

With an impressive cast (Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz), A-list director Ridley Scott and an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men), the movie The Counselor seemed destined for greatness ... or something.

It's something all right. A fascinating failure, it's an overwritten shemozzle that looks impressive even as it delivers crateloads of McCarthy-style nihilism, hammering home again and again that there are no limits to human evil.

Fassbender is the eponymous lawyer, tempted into buying in to an elaborate drug deal cooked up by Bardem's flamboyant drug kingpin Reiner. The counselor receives abundant warnings of the path this venture will lead him to, but he goes along and soon finds himself and his beloved (Cruz) in serious danger as a result of cold treachery.

In the illegal drug biz. Who saw that coming?

Much of the film hinges on Cameron Diaz's character Malkina, Reiner's moll/partner. She's a woman so kinky, she has sex with Reiner's car for kicks. "She terrifies me," Reiner confesses to the counselor. Good instincts.

It's a hell of a character, and while the former Charlie's Angle has acquired an appropriate hardness to her erstwhile ingenue looks, this pivotal role proves to be just beyond Diaz's abilities. Note the final scene.

It's a bad movie, and yet it's a bad movie I'd watch again. And that's ... well, something. HH


All Is Lost

Connected as he is to mainstream Hollywood history, Robert Redford makes an unusual star for a movie as unconventional, minimalist and dialogue-free as All Is Lost. Redford has always impressed as an old-fashioned kind of movie star, and his best moments in film have always been in repartee -- trading barbs with Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, engaging in love-fuelled dust-ups with Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were, and bouncing journalistic banter off Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men.

At the age of 77, Redford has the screen to himself in writer-director J.C. Chandor's survival story. In the role of "Our Man," Redford stays busy with the business of trying to stay alive when his sailboat smacks into a large drifting container in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The casualties are the communications devices.

From there, the movie proceeds like a protracted, one-man Titanic, as Redford's character contends with escalating challenges, including a storm at sea, further damage to the vessel, and an ever diminishing supply of fresh water.

This is a pure survival movie, somewhat diminished by the fact that our man is equipped with an L.L. Bean store's worth of useful implements.

Chandor, who made the excellent financial disaster movie Margin Call, directs the film wisely, with only a few big visual effects and a slow but compelling build to our hero's ultimate crisis.

But Redford's presence doesn't actually help Chandor's cause. While his athletic exploits are impressive, his performance is, frankly, overly considered and unnatural. Redford can't help playing to the camera, as if he was relying on his star quality to keep our eyes fixed on his desperate exploits.

If you want to see Robert Redford spend a movie in a desperate struggle for survival, seek out the 1972 mountain-man adventure Jeremiah Johnson.

It's an old-fashioned kind of movie, and it's more in Redford's wheelhouse. HHH


Ender's Game

The alien bad invaders responsible for a deadly attack on Earth were referred to as "buggers" in author Orson Scott Card's bestselling novel Ender's Game. But in the movie, they're strictly referred to as "Formics," evidently a cautionary move to distance the film from Card's controversial antagonism to gay marriage.

Other alterations from the novel were a matter of expediency. While the book starts when our hero is just six years old, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is pretty much already a teenager when he enters the orbiting "Battle School." He has been recruited by the gruff Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) after Graff witnesses Ender's ruthless but effective handing of a school bully. Graff sees in the skinny, dewy-eyed youth a potential leader in an impending battle with the Formics after earthlings barely survived their surprise invasion 50 years earlier.

Graff keeps pressure on the brilliant, troubled boy, going out of his way to alienate the lad from his fellow recruits. Ender gains friends anyway, including kindly fellow recruit Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) and the feisty punk Bean (Aramis Knight).

Screenwriter-director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) does very good work rendering the novel's universe on film, particularly in regards to the zero-gravity battle room where the beleaguered Ender finally gets to demonstrate his tactical genius.

Still, the overall film fails to make deep impact. This is a story about a child soldier, a boy cruelly manipulated by adults to serve as a killer. But one does not walk away from Ender's Game with a so much as a prickle of outrage. This is largely owing to the casting of Ford as Graff, a character that should have been translated as more of a bastard. Ford has so often been cast as the practical man of action (Patriot Games, Air Force One) that his star persona mitigates what should be seen as contemptible behaviour.

Also, when you put Ford in space, you cannot help but cut him slack. Call it the Han Solo Effect.

The DVD includes audio commentaries and deleted scenes. HHH



A young girl sets her mind on getting a bicycle.

That is the driving narrative engine of this movie. If that sounds overly simplistic, be assured, it is not.

Wadjda, the movie's plucky 10-year-old heroine, lives in Saudi Arabia in a suburb of Riyadh. In that kingdom, remember, women aren't allowed to drive cars. And while there are no apparent laws against bicycling, the activity is clearly frowned upon as an unsuitable activity for a young lady.

That does not deter Wadjda (the utterly charming Waad Mohammed), despite the admonitions of her beautiful mother (Saudi TV star Reem Abdullah), who warns: "You won't be able to have children if you ride a bike."

But Wadjda is possessed of an unseemly competitive streak. Her male friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) has a bicycle. How is she ever going to beat him in a race if she doesn't have a bike of her own?

At home, Wadjda is subject to stresses of a more mysterious nature. Wadjda's mother frets over her husband's fidelity. It takes a while to realize she is not worried about him taking a mistress, but a second wife... one who will give him a male heir.

This seems a simple human drama, and on one level, it is. Female writer-director Haifaa al-Mansour tells the story in a straightforward, unaffected style, letting the characters reveal themselves by their actions, and eschewing any heavy-handed proselytizing.

But if the approach is disarmingly gentle, the message seems downright radical, given the realm in which the story takes place.

This is reportedly the first feature film ever made in Saudi Arabia. It is simply stunning that it would be a film that so courageously addresses the inequities facing women and girls, encompassing driving restrictions and the everyday oppressions of school life, compared with the freedoms afforded men, including male workers shouting pervy comments at our 10-year-old heroine.

But it speaks to a hopefulness that change is at hand, reflected not just in Wadjda's own small triumphs in the context of the movie, but in al-Mansour's ability to get this film made at all. HHH1/2

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2014 ??65530

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