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Risky Stunts

Counselor is tired, Grandpa is spry

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THE COUNSELOR. Cormac McCarthy will go down as one of America's immortal literary voices. But that doesn't necessarily mean he's a great screenwriter. Case in point: this new venture with director Ridley Scott. Sure, it's got McCarthy trademarks in spades. But his tendencies toward misanthropy, deceptively simple prose (at least in his later work), elliptical structure and general thematic darkness tend to work better on the page than they do onscreen. (It's a testament to the technical skill and narrative savvy of the brothers Coen that their No Country For Old Men is every bit as watchable as McCarthy's book is readable.) At least part of the problem lies in the author's teaming with a director who's stronger as a visual stylist than he is as a storyteller. This script may well have had the potential for greatness, but that greatness would have to be born of the grit and grime and internal terror at the story's core, whereas Scott really only pays lip service to those traits, relying on a startlingly prominent —admittedly talented — cast, dolled up in couture and diamonds, and talking tough under gray skies. McCarthy's work often scares and always pleases me because he seems to access the darkness so easily; this disappoints me because it feels forced, phony and dull.

The titular attorney (Michael Fassbender) lives in the rarefied air of the South Texas upper crust. He drives a Bentley, wears Armani and lunches at the polo club with his fiancée (Penélope Cruz), whose giant engagement ring was procured for him by his diamond guy in Amsterdam. He also keeps company with some of his well-heeled clients, among them a flamboyant nightclub owner named Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his razor-sharp, super-freak lady friend Malkina (Cameron Diaz). When Reiner isn't tooling out into the desert in the Ferrari to have a barbecue and watch Malkina's pet cheetahs hunt rabbits, he's moving weight across the border with help from a mysterious middleman in J.R. Ewing duds (Brad Pitt). The counselor has run into some money troubles, so he scrapes together what he can and throws in on a major deal with this motley crew. The whole thing quickly goes sideways, and the movie becomes a slow march toward destroying everybody's lives.

There's a lot of weirdness at play in The Counselor, and for me that means there's a lot to like, but the elements never fully cohere. The production is impressively expensive looking, the cast excellent, and some scenes genuinely off-putting and memorable. But Scott's need to work on a large scale and McCarthy's self-conscious tweaking of his prose style work against the intimacy and delicate dread of the story; instead of tension, the ultimate effect is boredom. R. 117m.

BAD GRANDPA. I tend to like the Jackass guys, probably for the same reasons everybody else does. They seem good-natured, fun-loving and supportive of each other's weirdness. Among them, elder statesman Johnny Knoxville has always struck me as the voice of reason and kindness, even when he's shooting himself or giving his buddies paper cuts between their fingers. So, while I don't really go in for all of their pranks or the gross-out stuff, I had reason to expect that I'd like Bad Grandpa. And I did, even if it is essentially more of the same.

Irving Zisman (Knoxville) is a pretty bad grandpa indeed. After the debacle of his wife's funeral service he gets his penis stuck in a soda machine, then sets off on a road trip to deliver his 8-year-old grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) to his deadbeat dad in North Carolina. Along the way, Irving and Billy bond over six packs and hidden-camera pranks played on an unwitting Middle American populace.

Like any Jackass project, Bad Grandpa delivers lame sex jokes, scatology and genuinely ingenious comedy in almost equal measure. There are almost as many misses are there hits, but those hits are ballsy and funny enough to carry the day. As I mentioned, Knoxville and Co. aren't doing anything new here, but what they do is courageous and original, if not particularly artful. I admire it even when I don't like watching it, and Bad Grandpa minimizes the coarser stuff, playing up the funny, so it's generally pretty enjoyable. R. 92m.

John J. Bennett

Previews

ENDER'S GAME. It's gamers vs. alien bugs when young genius Ender (Asa Butterfield) is tapped to save the planet. PG13. 114m.

FREE BIRDS. Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson voice animated time-traveling turkeys off to change Thanksgiving's main course. Yes, you just read that. PG. 91m.

FRUITVALE STATION. The last day in the life of Oscar Grant III, killed by police in an Oakland BART station on New Year's Day. Starring Michael B. Jordan, written and directed by Ryan Coogler. R. 85m.

INEQUALITY FOR ALL. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich does the math on the growing gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent and what it means for American society. PG. 89m.

LAST VEGAS. The Bucket List meets The Hangover with Hollywood's senior chairmen, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro and Kevin Kline. PG 105m.

Continuing

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Tom Hanks is beset by Somali pirates in a charged and riveting drama. PG13. 134m.

CARRIE. Prom prank goes awry in an uninspired remake. Fine work by Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore as the mother and daughter with issues. R. 99m.

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2. The 3-D sequel goes a little Dr. Moreau when food creatures populate an island and hero Flint (Bill Hader) has to stop them. PG. 95m.

ESCAPE PLAN. Stallone and Schwarzenegger are busting out of the joint, but trapped in film that's not fun enough for them. Know where your exits are. R. 116m.

GRAVITY. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are adrift in space. It's the best of sci-fi with a real human story. PG13. 90m.

THE WIZARD OF OZ. Release the flying monkeys! The 1939 classic returns in 3D. PG. 102m.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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