Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Argo, Ben Affleck's third directorial outing, tells the true story of six Americans who escaped the American Embassy in Tehran just as it was being taken over by supporters of the Iranian Revolution.  The six avoided being taken hostage only to find they were just as trapped.  They could not safely leave Tehran, instead taking shelter for more than two months with the Canadian Ambassador.

Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative tasked with extracting the non-hostages and bringing them safely back to the United States.  After cycling through several bad ideas, he and others eventually decide the best bad idea they have is to create a fake cover as a movie crew, in Iran to do some location scouting.

Shot and edited to look like a thriller from the era, Argo works on just about every level.  The acting is realistic and emotional without being flashy, the production values evoke the time and place nicely, and the editing ratchets up the tension very effectively.

If I had one criticism of the film, it would be that the tension at the end seems too forced.  There are just a few too many coincidences, a few too many incidents of perfect timing.  This story is already tense and incredible enough on its own merits; to add too much makes it feel artificial.

Still, Argo's opening sequence is one of the year's best.  The visual and sound editing evoke chaos, terror, tension, and consequence in a truly effective manner.  Historically informed audiences will know, at least to a broad degree, where this film will go and what the consequences of larger action will be--which, if anything, make the story even more incredible.

I recommend the film to just about any adult audience, and I think it's one of the best films I've seen so far this year.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

 Seven Psychopaths, the newest film from the must-be dark and twisted mind of writer-director Martin McDonagh, starts out with a bang.  A few of them, really.

This darkly comic, supremely violent, meta-film film stars Colin Farrell as Marty, a screenwriter struggling with ideas for his next screenplay, Seven Psychopaths.  His friend Billy, played nicely by the always underrated Sam Rockwell, suggests he look to real-life psychopaths to inspire him--a suggestion that proves more fruitful than he originally imagined. 

Billy, meanwhile, is getting over his head in his own "business" ventures.  He and his partner-in-crime, played by Christopher Walken, kidnap dogs and collect the eventual reward money.  When they kidnap the wrong shih tzu, they find criminal boss and violent psychopath (!) Woody Harrelson on their tails.

McDonagh, who previously worked with Farrell on In Bruges, is not afraid to play around with tone.  Some of the film's most grotesque violence also provides its biggest laughs, while the aftermath leads to some of its most heartfelt (and heart-wrenching) moments.  Farrell's in-film screenplay, meanwhile, allows the characters themselves to comment on what's going on around them--the tropes and expectations of film and storytelling.  It's remniscent of films like Adaptation and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, admittedly two of my favorite films.  Unfortunately, it doesn't quite live up to those comparisons (nor to In Bruges, for that matter).

Movie-goers who are turned away by excessive violence (even when that violence is used for a point) should probably avoid Seven Psychopaths.  Ideally, its title and decidedly earned "R" rating will be enough to keep those viewers away already, but one never knows.

Similarly, if dark, meta, or dark-meta humor is not your thing, this film is not for you.  Seven Psychopaths doesn't pretend to be for everyone, but while it doesn't hit the heights of McDonagh's other film and theater work, it is uproariously funny and generally entertaining. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Master

The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a beautifully shot, well-acted film that doesn't quite come together as a satisfying whole.  Joaquin Phoenix stars as a troubled, alcoholic WWII veteran--established thoroughly in the first half-hour or so, and continually after that--who finds a path with Philip Seymour-Hoffman's Cause, a pseudo-religious set of beliefs that promise him direction and, well, cause.

The two meet rather by accident, but during their time together come to an understanding, as Phoenix becomes more and more integral not only to Seymour-Hoffman's cause but to his life.   The Cause, which is definitely nothing like Scientology at all, is written off by some as a cult, while others dedicate their lives to furthering its teachings.  When Phoenix first comes across it, he, like the audience, is unsure how to respond.  As he becomes closer to its leader, he becomes closer to its philosophy and beliefs.

The tender, complex relationship that forms between the two men is the real heart of the film.  Others don't understand.  They try to publically disgrace The Cause or put a wrench between Phoenix and Seymour-Hoffman, but while it's obvious that the former truly needs the latter, the latter's need turns out to be just as strong. 

The performances are uniformly excellent, creating complete (if bizarre) three-dimensional characters whose motivations, passions, and concerns all build naturally.

The more that I write about this film, the more I process it; the more I process it, the more I like it.  I am not sure what to make of the film's ending--in fact, of its whole last half-hour or so--but it is definitely a film that leaves the theater with you.  I can't help but feel that a lot of this film wound up on the cutting room floor.  It's not just that the trailer publicizes scenes that don't exist; it's more that the story seems so rich but so incomplete.

Ultimately, The Master is a film you're sure to remember--though you may love it, hate it, or just question it.  The film is unlikely to work for everyone, but for some it will likely have a huge impact.  Just like The Cause.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve is a boring movie.  Its plot is predictable, its characters are unrealistic and annoying, and its writing is frustrating.  It's certainly not horrible; it just isn't good, either.

Featuring Clint Eastwood as Clint Eastwood,--er, Gus--an aging baseball scout losing his vision and Amy Adams as his tightly-wound lawyer daughter, Curve seems like a direct response to last year's Moneyball.  2011's Oscar nominated baseball draft movie documented Billy Beane's use of sabermetrics and statistical, computer-driven approach to drafting players.  In Curve, the "likeable" characters write off this style while its villains thrive with it.  The audience, then, is supposed to come away with the idea that good, old-fashioned scouting is superior, but it just comes off as "Old guys don't like new stuff."  Which, I suppose, could be Clint Eastwood's whole mantra, given his most recent films.

Curve's characters are broadly drawn, though the under-utilized cast does what it can with the writing.  Few characters, besides Gus and daughter Mickey, are given much by way of "shades of grey."  The villains have no redeeming qualities; the supporting heroes are perfect and polite and understanding of everything.

The estranged relationship between father and daughter is the real heart of the film, however, and the writing does at least give its protagonists flaws and room to grow.  The problem is, neither character starts the film as particularly likeable, and while each gets better by the end of the film, I couldn't quite bring myself to be cheering for either one. 

This sounds like an entirely negative review, which isn't strictly fair.  The predictability may be right up some viewers' alleys, and there is certainly an audience for Eastwood's gruff old man schtick; I'm just not really a part of it.  There are better baseball films out there.  There are better father-daughter stories out there.  But it all honesty, there are worse films of each, too.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Things have a way of coming full circle.

As Rian Johnson's new film, Looper, begins, his protagonist fills in the basics: time travel has not yet been invented--but in thirty years, it will have been.  It is highly illegal and used by only the most powerful mobs.  Tracking and identification has advanced to a point that disposing of a body is all but impossible, so when the mob needs someone gone, they send that someone back in time where he is killed by a specialized assassin, who then disposes of the body and the problem.  These assassins are called "Loopers," since signing on to the job comes with a caveat--the last person they'll be killing for the mob is themselves, closing their "loop."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, an assassin whose loop is about to close--until something goes wrong.  Now, Joe has to track down his future self, played by Bruce Willis, in order to save not only himself but the future that now may or may not come to pass.

With very little exposition, Johnson creates a very complete world, planting small seeds early that lead to big payoffs later.  He also has a knack for the visual; one early scene features very little actual violence, but rather plays of the implied violence in a fully disconcerting way.  It's a scene bound to stick with a viewer days after the film is over.

Featuring a strong supporting cast in Emily Blunt as a fierce mother who will do anything to protect her son, Jeff Daniels as the world-weary Looper boss the future mob sends back to oversee everything, and Johnson regular Noah Segan as a screw-up hired gun, Looper pulls a series of strong performances that give the movie its heart.  Good sci-fi isn't about aliens or time travel or bizarre scientific advances--it's about the human emotion behind those things.

Looper is up there with my favorite films of the year.  It's intelligent, clever, well-acted and well-made.  It builds on its "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" premise and explores answers that may not be so cool after all.  It's a 2012 must-see.