‘The Counselor’ could use some counseling on making us care about its characters

Writer Cormac McCarthy is not known for creating feel-good stories. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Road” was a dreary chronicling of a man and his son’s attempts to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, and his “No Country for Old Men” presented one of the coldest, scariest characters in the professional killer Anton Chigurh.

McCarthy now has written the screenplay “The Counselor,” teaming up with director Ridley Scott. The result is a mixed bag, a talky movie interspersed with brutal violence — a study of rich but grim people, obsessed and greedy, driven by their extravagant needs to venture into a world where they are in way over their heads. In the end there are only three sympathetic characters — and two of them are cheetahs.

The title character has no name — he is referred to throughout ast “the counselor.” He is played by Michael Fassbender, and with this actor’s formidable screen presence — and as some teasers hinted in the trailers — it seemed like this character was going to be a savvy and manipulative man, pulling the strings and well in control. Instead, he turns out to be the most totally out of his element lawyer-gone-bad since William Hurt’s Ned Racine in “Body Heat.”

The counselor is an El Paso-based attorney living a lavish lifestyle. He jets off to Amsterdam to purchase a diamond ring for the love of his life, Laura (Penelope Cruz). Yet he has some financial issues that have driven him to invest in drug trafficking with a couple of partners — club owner Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt), a veteran in the drug-shipping world who prides himself in knowing the constant dangers of the business, bragging that he has the capability of dropping out and disappearing quickly if things go wrong.

The counselor does a favor for an imprisoned client, Ruth (Rosie Perez), helping her son get out of jail, and an incredible coincidence involving a septic tank truck used to smuggle a drug shipment mistakenly implicates the counselor, making him a marked target for the drug cartel, which dispenses with due process.

With all this heat, the counselor and Reiner wilt like a couple of flowers in a drought while Westray delivers his “you’re out of luck and I’m outa here” speech. In the background is Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) who obviously loves living the well-to-do life and seems to have her own agenda.

McCarthy’s script is filled with philosophical tangents — which seem comical given that they are delivered by people who sell drugs and kill people — along with some breaks from the story so the men can talk about women and sex.

By the time all this plays out, the only character worth feeling sorry for is Laura — so blindingly in love with the counselor and ignorant of the dirty dealings in which he is engaged. The cheetahs, meanwhile, are two pets just doing their thing, then gazing at the people around them and seemingly thinking: how pathetic. Really.

 

Blazing its way along the guilty pleasure path to a $32 million box-office opening weekend is “Bad Grandpa,” presented by the same wacky minds that brought us the “Jackass” movies.

Among the “Jackass” stunts were little interludes in which Johnny Knoxville, disguised as an octogenarian, takes some nasty spills and/or behaves in the most obnoxious ways. In “Bad Grandpa,” this ultimate dirty old man gets a showcase.

Using the hidden-camera format that Alan Funt perfected with his “Candid Camera” adventures, “Bad Grandpa” sets up a story line in which Knoxville’s old man, Irving Zisman, is recently widowed, and at his wife’s funeral his daughter shows up, says she has to go to jail and demands that Irving take his 8-year-old grandson Billy to North Carolina to his estranged father. Irving is reluctant but has no choice.

So the road show begins. Irving and Billy are put into scenarios that involve people who do not know they are being filmed for a movie. One might suspect that not all of the scenes were legitimately candid — for example, would the filmmakers actually go in and have Irving destroy a real wedding cake?

The humor is very crude and some cases, cringe-inducing. The fun in the movie is seeing what’s the next thing this unlikely duo will get tangled up in and how outrageous they will get. Interestingly, despite being low-brow in its humor, this movie did attract Catherine Keener, who agreed to play a corpse, Irving’s departed wife Ellie.

 

Vincent Price’s extraordinary life as recalled by his daughter Victoria

Mention the classic horror films from the 1930s to the 1960s, and three names immediately come to mind: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi – and Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee if the Hammer films from England are included. But for many aficionados of  the genre, a fourth star must be included – Vincent Price.

In 1999, “Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography” by Victoria Price was published. It is a book rich in detail, capturing not only Vincent Price the actor, but the man as a husband and father, and an avid art enthusiast, collector and promoter. In 2011, Victoria went on the lecture circuit to talk about her father in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth. Since then she has made periodic appearances throughout the country to offer insight into Vincent Price for his still faithful fans.

Most recently, Victoria offered a presentation on opening night of Son of Monsterpalooza on Oct. 11.

In the first minute of her presentation, Victoria confessed she is not a fan of horror movies. “But I am a fan of horror fans,” she said. “It’s because of you guys that my dad’s legacy is still alive.”

Victoria said that her dad was the most interesting person she’s ever known.

“The reason I like to talk about him is that he did something really well, and that is he lived his life really well.” She said that she believes the reason Vincent had a good life was that it boiled down to one word – love. “He loved life. He loved art. He loved people. He loved adventure. He loved laughing. He loved giving back.” Thus his life was filled with joy.

Victoria’s reminisces were enhanced by a slide show, and after the introduction, she recalled the full life of her father.

Vincent grew up in an affluent family in St. Louis, as his father owned a successful candy business. Vincent was the youngest of his siblings and was different in several ways. His family was blessed with musical talent that came up a bit short in Vincent, which was fine with him, as his passion was in the visual arts. At age 11, he bought his first painting, a Rembrandt, taking three years to pay off the $37 price. As a young man he traveled to Europe to see the great works of art.

Young Vincent also took in interest in acting, and when he developed an acquaintance with the writer James Thurber, he told Thurber about his acting ambitions. Thurber in essence told him to forget it. But years later, Thurber said he was no longer giving people advice about their career choices, given how far off he had been with Vincent.

Vincent began to establish himself on stage in Europe and landed a role in a production of “Victoria Regina”  because he was tall and thin, and the play was a massive success. Subsequently, Vincent was named Newcomer of the Year. When an American producer, Gilbert Miller, wanted to buy the play, the play’s writer, Lawrence Houseman, said he would only sell the work if Vincent was allowed to continue playing the role in the United States. There he was cast opposite Helen Hayes.

His work caught the interest of movie makers in Hollywood, who in 1935 offered Vincent a $1 million contract. He went to Helen Hayes and asked for advice. She challenged him by saying, “Do you really know your craft?” Because if you don’t, Hayes said, you will be a flash in the pan. Upon reflection, Vincent concluded he did not know his craft, having really only done one play, and he turned down the contract.

After taking time to learn his craft, starring in plays on the East Coast, he finally went to Hollywood, and was hired by Universal Pictures. His movie debut was in a comedy “Service de Luxe.” Although he was cast as a leading man, he did not feel comfortable in that role. He wanted to be a character actor, so he went to work for the Mercury Theatre with such upcoming greats as Orson Welles.

While at the Mercury, he met and soon married actress Edith Barrett. He returned to Hollywood and was now moving into his niche of character roles.

Among his films in that era was one of which he was particularly and facetiously proud. It was called “Green Hell” and is considered one of the worst films ever made.

Victoria said that her dad never refused to give an autograph, except for one time – on Victoria’s 12th birthday. He took her to Magic Mountain, and when people came over seeking an autograph, he turned them down, saying it was his daughter’s birthday. “It was the worst birthday present ever,” Victoria quipped.

Vincent’s son Vincent Barret was born 22 years before Victoria, and she said her father pointed out that was the best example of planned parenthood: get one kid through college, then have the second one.

Still unable to really establish himself as a character actor in Hollywood, he returned to the stage and won a role in the melodrama “Angel Street.” This was his first chance to play a villain, and as Victoria said, “He loved it. He loved being hissed and booed.” Thus he returned to Hollywood and began his long career in playing bad guys. But he did take a break from villainy with his role as Shelby Carpenter in “Laura” in 1944.

Divorced from Edith Barrett in 1948, he met a costume designer named Mary Grant in 1949, who became his second wife and mother of Victoria.

Vincent and Mary shared an interest in art and enjoyed traveling in the pursuit of great works throughout the world.

In the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, Vincent was gray-listed for being a “pre-war anti-Nazi sympathizer,” meaning that if before the war if you were against Hitler’s Nazi regime, you had to be a communist. When he finally was taken off the list, he was offered a role in “House of Wax.” He took it because it had a bit of an art theme.

Victoria said this movie changed his life. While the movie was playing to full houses in New York, he was starring in a play, and sometimes he would go into a showing of “House of Wax,” sit behind teenage girls who were squealing throughout, and at the end of the movie he would lean forward as say in a menacing voice, “Did you like it?”

Away from acting, he was an adventurous art collector, and he and Mary were cultural ambassadors.

Meanwhile his reputation as a star in horror movies was growing, and he enjoyed his association with director William Castle, with whom he made “House on Haunted Hill.”

At age 50, Vincent became a father again,  and Mary at age 45 was a mother for the first time as Victoria was born.

Victoria related why she is not a fan of horror. When she was about four years old, she was taken to see Vincent in a children’s play, “Peter Pan,” in which he played Captain Hook. When little Victoria saw her father wearing a hook and being mean, she became unglued. “A loud tantrum freak-out,” she recalled. So during intermission, Mary took Victoria backstage so Vincent could show her that the hook was removable and fake. While relating this story, Victoria presented a visual record of a series of photos of the backstage scene, and as each one progresses, little Victoria seems to be less upset, eventually, in the last photo, seen playing with the hook.

Victoria said she never saw any of her father’s horror movies until she was 16. She found them hard to watch because he was mean in them, and he would get killed, sometimes in hideous ways.

Vincent also is known for his roles in the Edgar Alan Poe adaptations like “The Raven” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Starring with Karloff and Peter Lorre forced Vincent to be a mediator, as Karloff was a disciplined, follow-the-script actor while Lorre came from the improvisation-rich German theater.

Victoria said she lived a very normal childhood, and she showed photos of events that seem very ordinary – Halloween parties, friends over for visits, even a picture of Vincent riding the Teacups at Disneyland with Victoria and her friends. “Dad was having way more fun than me and my friends,” Victoria noted.

Despite sharing so much together, including collaborating on a cook book, Vincent and Mary drifted apart.

While making “Theater of Blood” in 1973, Vincent met British actress Coral Browne and eventually left Mary and married Coral.

“Coral was an amazingly powerful woman,” Victoria recalled. “She was not the nicest person on the planet. She called herself my wicked stepmother. But she was brilliant and talented and they (Vincent and Coral) fell head over heels in love. And my parents’ marriage had not been working for a long time, so it was a new lease on life for my dad.”

Vincent and Coral had an amazing marriage for 18 years, Victoria said. Coral was not easy but she was full of life.

Starting in the 1970s, Vincent lectured throughout the world on visual arts. But he still was acting, pushed out of his comfort zone by Coral, and in 1978 he took a stage role, a one-man show titled “Diversions and Delights” playing Oscar Wilde, the playwright and author. Vincent then took the show on the road.

He also served as host of “Mystery” on PBS, which Victoria said suited him so well.

Vincent liked to meet and encourage young artists, and was doing a show on Disney called “Read, Write and Draw,” and was teaching kids how to create stories. An associate suggested Vincent meet a young artist who was quirky but talented and who had written a short movie titled “Vincent” about a little boy who wants to be Vincent Price. This young artist/filmmaker was Tim Burton. Vincent agreed to narrate the film, which came out in 1982.

Later, Victoria said, “Tim gave my dad a great gift; he gave him his swan song, which was ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ How many actors do you know who get to go out at the end of a 60-year career with a role (he played The Inventor) that is so touching and iconic?”

Coral kept Vincent away from this children during her marriage to Vincent, and it was not until after her death in May 1991 that Victoria was able to reestablish a relationship with her father. Her discussions with Vincent in these later years led to the writing of the biography.

Despite his failing health, Vincent was able to become a superb participant in Trivial Pursuit.

Oct. 25, 2013, marks the 20th anniversary of Vincent Price’s death at age 82, and in reflecting upon the incredible life of her father, Victoria said, “I think the thing that was so extraordinary about my dad was that he found a way to find joy in whatever he did. To my dad it was passionately important to have people live a life of meaning.”

In closing her presentation, Victoria speculated that Vincent would have wanted her to offer something that emphasized the humor that her father also displayed, so she showed a clip from an old Dean Martin Celebrity Roast show in which Vincent took some loving but humorous jabs at Bette Davis. Much like he was able to scare people, he also could make them laugh.

Son of Monsterpalooza: The ghouls are out again

It’s October, which means it’s also time for fans or horror and science fiction entertainment to gather at the Marriott in Burbank, costumed or not, to check out the latest in memorabilia, collectibles, pins and jewelry, T-shirts and masks, along with stunning artwork and sculptures, and for movie fans, a chance to meet a few stars.

This event is called Son of Monsterpalooza, and as its name implies, it is not as big an affair as its parent, Monsterpalooza, which is held in the spring. The fall gathering is contained within the convention hall, while the spring program spills over into a neighboring building, usually where the actors are stationed.

Still, the roster of guests at Son of Monsterpalooza was more than adequate for the movie macabre fans. Two movies this year — “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” (25 years) and “Night of the Living Dead” (45 years) — are celebrating anniversaries of their releases. On hand for the “Killer Klowns” festivities were the Chiodo Brothers, Grant Cramer, Suzanne Snyder, Mike Martinez and Harrod Blank. Meanwhile, Russ Streiner, who played Johnny and served as a producer, and John Russo, screenplay co-writer, were on hand to represent “Night of the Living Dead.”

Steiner, 73, may not be as agile as he was when he took on the cemetery zombie in the opening minutes of “Night,” but he remains active as an independent film director, producer and instructor. He echoed what Judith O’Dea (Barbara) said when she appeared at Monsterpalooza in April — that as grim and horrifying as “Night” was, the George Romero-directed low-budget film that was destined to become a classic actually was fun to make. O’Dea had noted that crickets were so prevalent during the shooting, they could be heard loudly even during the indoor scenes. “Yeah,” Streiner confirmed, “There were crickets everywhere. It was summer in Pittsburgh (where the movie was shot).”

Wings Hauser was making his first-ever appearance at a convention of this type. His most recent role in a horror film was in “Rubber” in 2010, a strange movie about a tire — yes, a tire — that has destructive telepathic powers. “I didn’t know what was going on in that movie,” said Hauser, who played the role of Man in the Wheelchair in “Rubber,” adding that he was told by writer-director Quentin Dupieux that it was best he didn’t know.

Hauser, who has an extensive list of guest roles in television series over the years, is probably best known for his portrayal of the brutal pimp Ramrod in “Vice Squad” (1982), a movie that sparked some backlash regarding his violent treatment of women. Among his victims was a character played by Season Hubley, who was married to Kurt Russell at the time. Hauser sat on a panel about grindhouse movies on opening night of Son of Monsterpalooza, and was asked if Russell talked to him about the vicious on-screen treatment of Hubley’s character, Princess. Hauser replied that indeed Russell did, noting that the physical demands of the role left Hubley bruised. Hauser, who incidentally was childhood friends with Russell, in response unbuttoned his shirt and revealed a bite mark Hubley had inflicted upon him.

For Hauser, this debut appearance at a convention was a revelation. He considered a lot of his films he starred in as insignificant and forgotten. So he was surprised at how many fans dropped by to say they loved his work. One man stopped by to have him sign a poster of one of his movies, planning on sending the autographed poster to a friend in Afghanistan.

Hauser, father of actor Cole Hauser, is married to actress and singer-songwriter Cali Lili Hauser, a distant relative of Edward G. Robinson. The couple are working on a movie, “Eve n’ God” they hope to release soon. Hauser, also a musician, has an album coming out soon too.

Steve Railsback was so compelling and creepy as Charles Manson in the television movie “Helter Skelter in 1976, but also is known for his roles in “The Stunt Man” in 1980 and “Lifeforce” in 1985; and endeared himself to “X-Files” fans for his appearance as Duane Barry in two 1994 episodes. He also served as executive producer and had the title role in “Ed Gein” in 2000 about one of the most famous serial killers ever — Gein has served as the basis for Leatherface in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movies and Jame Gumb in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Talking about his work in “Ed Gein,” Railsback said he did not want the movie to be a slasher film. Instead he wanted to focus on the factors that led to Gein’s horrendous urges to kill and skin his victims. Railsback also reflected on working with Peter O’Toole, with whom he starred in “The Stunt Man.”

“He’s a genius,” Railsback said of O’Toole, who received one of his eight Academy Award nominations for his role as the eccentric, controlling movie director willing to sacrifice anyone to get the perfect shot. “He was very giving,” Railsback said. “But that’s what acting is — giving. I give to you; you give back.”

Other actors present to chat with fans at Son of Monsterpalooza included Dee Wallace (“E.T.”, “The Howling” and “The Lords of Salem”), Ed O’Ross (“The Hidden,” “Full Metal Jacket”), Camille Keaton (“I Spit on Your Grave”), Nastassja Kinski (“Cat People”), Lisa Loring (“The Addams Family” television series), Al Leung, who was featured in a tribute on opening night  to his long career in movies (he had a recent stroke and has not been able to work), Tony Todd (“Candyman,” and “Final Destination” movies) and Jeffrey COmbs of “Re-Animator.”

And, of course, the legends of horror movies were represented by offspring. Bela Lugosi Jr., a regular guest at Monsterpaloozas, was on hand, and Vincent Price’s daughter Victoria, who has written a rich and extensive biography of her father, made an informative slide show presentation on opening night, not only focusing on Vincent Price’s career as a horror movie icon, but also his dedication to the arts.

Monsterpalooza continues its run of the fun, the creepy and the howling, with its next convention March 28-30, 2014, at the Marriott in Burbank.

 

 

Perilous times beyond Earth’s reach in ‘Gravity’

The movie is called “Gravity,” but a more appropriate title would be “Debris.” While there is not much gravity involved, there are plenty of objects, some floating around harmlessly like pens, notebooks, water bubbles and a Marvin the Martian doll, and others much more perilous, like satellite parts turned into shrapnel, zooming in a destructive orbit around Earth.

With a minimal cast in the budget, it is apparent that most of the funds allotted to “Gravity” went into the stunning visual effects. With the Earth serving as a gorgeous backdrop, this intense thriller captures the beauty –  and the deadly allure — of outer space.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are the main stars in the movie, with other characters relegated to very minor roles — some unseen, such as Ed Harris as the voice of Mission Control. Outer space is the setting for about 99 percent of “Gravity.”

Writer-director Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien”), collaborating on the script with son Jonas, dispenses with any character-developing prelude and moves right into the story. “Gravity” opens with a spectacular shot of the Earth that pans slowly to the left, and gradually radio communications, faint at first, become more clear, and the camera closes in on the scene of the action — a Space Shuttle parked at a satellite, where work is being done.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a medical engineer busy installing some hardware she designed that might enhance Hubble signals — and also may have some breakthrough uses on Earth. Unfortunately, she is not having success in getting the machinery in operating order.

Astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney), meanwhile, appears to be having a good time buzzing around the scene, using his jet pack to propel him around on a spacewalk. He finally settles down and pauses to assist Ryan. Suddenly, Mission Control issues an urgent transmission, warning that a Russian missile has blown up a satellite, creating a fast-moving debris field that now is blowing through other satellites, destroying them, growing in size, and barreling around the planet in a vast, deadly orbit.

So, the mission must now be aborted. Time is running out for the astronauts to pack up their gear, return to the shuttle and get away before the debris field swarms them.

Things go very wrong very fast, leaving Dr. Stone and Kowalski in a dire challenge for survival. The experiences of Stone and Kowalski tap into primal fears. Much like floating adrift in the ocean, not knowing what lurks in the water below you, the prospect of drifting off into space is a real in-the-gut terror.

Clooney’s Kowalski is the epitome of the “right stuff” test pilot/astronaut. He maintains an even strain. “Houston, we have a problem” is never uttered by Kowalski, but in the midst of all this danger, his voice is calm. He is witty in the face of death, and as he tells Stone what they need to do, he adds with a tranquil by-the-way tone that this effort most likely will not guarantee survival.

Bullock adeptly captures the essence of an intelligent person battling natural urges to panic, struggling to gain control of herself and think clearly. At times she is resigned to accept death, then revived by glimmers of hope.

The Cuarons wisely keep the story uncomplicated, focusing on the natural will to live and horrifying prospects of isolation. With a running time of only 90 minutes, it feels taut and never lets up on the spine-tingling dread.