Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Review: Argo

Argo is the type of American film that Hollywood sorely needs right now.  Currently there are only a small handful of directors, including David O. Russell, Jason Reitman, Bennett Miller, and Tony Gilroy that are championing conventional, well-made adult dramas.  With Affleck’s first two films, he took on the crime genre, but with Argo I hope we can add him to the list of directors above.  Now don’t get me wrong, we all know I love auteurs like Malick, the Coens, and Tarantino, as much as anyone.  But in the new frontier of superhero franchises and animated 3D films, it’s nice to know that major studios will still throw a few dollars toward a down-the-middle political drama.  Maybe I’m being na├»ve, but I’d like to think there is a constituency of film-going adults out there that appreciate being catered to every once in a while.

Set during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1980, Argo is a declassified true subplot of that larger world event, in which six of the U.S. diplomats escaped the Iranians and found shelter at the home of the Canadian Ambassador.  This all takes place in the first scene of the film, and Affleck takes great care to make sure this movie starts off strong.  When the CIA finds out what has happened to the six Americans, operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) devises a plan to pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting for locations in Iran, in order to retrieve the Americans.  This makes for an entertaining second act (Mendez engaging the help of Hollywood in order to make the film seem legitimate) and an intense third act (retrieving the Americans). 

The ensemble acting is probably the film’s best aspect.  Between all of the hostages, the various CIA and State Department employees, and the Hollywood producers, actors, etc. involved, this was a large cast to say the least.  The scenes with crowded rooms of political figures, intelligence operatives, or American diplomats had exactly the same smart, fast-talking aura of political films from the time period in which the film is set.

Alan Arkin and John Goodman get to ham it up as a big-time Tinseltown producer and makeup artist, respectively, and their performances are easily the best in the film.  Ben Affleck is serviceable, as he was in The Town, but I wouldn’t say it was a good performance.  I wouldn’t mind if he cast himself in a supporting role next go-around, as he has always been much better there than as a leading man throughout his acting career.

Where he does excel, however, is behind the camera.  The story is by no means full of “big” moments, and Affleck does not go out of his way to add any unnecessary bravado.  Rather, the film registers its impact in more organic ways.  It is extremely intense in the simplest ways—conversations in which Mendez must sell the legitimacy of the fake film to foreign officials is an arm-rest clutching tightrope act; ditto a scene where Mendez drives a VW bus through a rabid Iranian crowd in the streets of Tehran.  The final act of making it through customs under fake identities is similarly gripping, as well.

A great third effort for Affleck, and I think we can now say has made the transition from merely "promising" to someone in his directorial prime. 8.5/10.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Review: The Master

“I have unlocked, and discovered, a secret. A secret to living in these bodies that we hold.”

                                                                                    -Lancaster Dodd, The Master
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) sprints across a foggy cabbage patch, breathing heavily as he’s being chased, in a gorgeous tracking shot that reminded me I was in the hands of a director who knows his way around a camera. It isn’t totally clear how Freddie, a WWII Navy Veteran, ended up there in the first place, or why he is running. But it doesn’t matter. He’s running from himself as much as that particular situation. Over and over in The Master, director Paul Thomas Anderson returns to a shot of the wake behind a ship at sea, informing us of this aimlessness of character and narrative that we are viewing.
Skulking around on a pier somewhere, Freddie hops aboard a boat, and wakes up the next morning after apparently blacking out from his own brand of hooch. It is on board this vessel that he meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a group loosely based on Scientology but only referred to in the movie as “The Cause.” Dodd has clearly taken interest in Freddie, and subjects Freddie to an intense round of “processing,” an exercise in which Freddie is forced to answer a series of extremely personal questions without blinking, designed to force the subject into an intense self-examination.
Not really a spiritual group as much as a metaphysically and philosophically based group, The Cause is nevertheless used by Anderson as a treatise on religion (which, surprisingly, is not depicted nearly as poorly as one would imagine). Anderson has treaded religious ground before. In There Will Be Blood, his previous film, Anderson uses an oil tycoon and a rural church minister to explore both the competing and similar interests of American capitalism and religion. In The Master, there is a similar struggle between competing forces: man’s individuality and instinctual nature, versus his need for control and purpose.  Whereas in There Will Be Blood, the competing interests exploit each other to gain an advantage, here the two men both desperately want something that the other has.
It is this symbiotic give-and-take relationship upon which the film plants its flag and explores its themes. To that end, a quick word on the acting. This is, to me, the best all around acting in a film since...I don’t even know, probably Sideways in 2004 or even before that.  Joaquin Phoenix is the best he’s ever been, giving a performance that is threatening, physical, and altogether unpredictable.  Hoffman’s foil to Phoenix, however, is on a completely different level (for me).  This is the epitome of a controlled performance; yet he is also charismatic, gregarious, and just mysterious enough to make you question his motives.  This is a performance that will stick with me for a long time.  Amy Adams gives a similarly restrained performance as the woman behind the man, and she probably won’t receive much Oscar love for it, but it deserves to be rewarded nonetheless. 
The film never really explores what The Cause is really all about, and, although this is somewhat unsatisfying for the viewer, it is purposely left ambiguous.  For how often do our own religions, “causes” which we are knowledgeable of, leave us grasping for answers at times? One who claims to fully understand the metaphysical or spiritual realms of the universe we live in is either truly ignorant, or a fraud (like Dodd?).  This, then, is the irony in Dodd’s quote at the top and in many of his hollow methods and doctrines throughout the film.  
Nevertheless, there are a couple of scenes in particular that do go into detail about The Cause, containing excellent exchanges dialogue and debate. If I have one criticism of the film, it is that it the script is much sharper when it is exploring ideas rather than characters. But it is not meant to be sharp; it is meant to be visceral and raw, which it succeeds in mightily. This struggle is summed up in what is the most revealing line of dialogue in the film, as Dodd tells Freddie “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” Dodd, in a way, is right—no one has ever lived without a master. Could it be, though, the only Master we ever truly serve is our own selves?