“Argo,” “Seven Psychopaths,” and more on “The Master”
By Dan Cohen, Santa Monica Reporter
Already successful beyond industry expectations, “Argo” is more evidence that adults will fill theaters when something they relate to comes their way. Few in the business predicted that a movie with an inexplicable title, that recounted a true life rescue from forty years ago, and dealt with the messy politics of post-revolutionary Iran, would play the multiplexes for more than a minute. But they were surprised: after opening to a modest 19 million the movie only dropped by 15% its second weekend. That’s unusual. In two weeks this modestly budgeted, (by Hollywood standards,) Warner Brothers release, has grossed its production cost, and will probably end its US theatrical run in profit. That’s before ancillary markets, like DVDs and TV screenings.
Word of mouth and post screening polls show audience response at very close to the top of the range, adding to the likelihood of a long stay in theaters. This also bodes well for international box office. If “Argo” receives a few year-end nominations, Ben Affleck’s smartly directed docu-drama could end up grossing four or five times its cost, maybe more. But just as important, its’ success may clear a path for other adult movies in the next year or two.
Argo opens with the events that led to Iran’s 1979 revolution, which saw the overthrow of Shah Rezah Palavi by a religious and political uprising that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power, and took the country from relative modernity to a much more traditional culture, governed by Sharia laws. In addition to a forced march away from the west, there’s ample evidence that the turnover initiated a downward spiral in the society that has yet to reverse itself. Contributing to that was Iran’s disastrous war with Iraq in the early ‘80s, that saw millions of fatalities on both sides.
Shortly after the installation of the Ayatollah and his regime, mobs incensed by the US’ reluctance to hand over the mortally ill Shah, stormed the embassy and captured over 60 of its personnel. A failed attempt by the military to release the hostages resulted in the death of eight servicemen and further fed the hostility between the US and Iran. It was a moment that foreshadowed the fall of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the rise of Neo-Conservatism, which advocated a more pugnacious stance toward Iran’s anti-American posture.
After the token release of a handful of hostages, (a so called “humanitarian” gesture,) fifty two hostages remained in the hands of student revolutionaries for 444 days, bringing the Iranian masses together in opposition to America, and causing Carter to call for an embargo of Iranian oil. The embargo resulted in endless lines at gas pumps across the US, and ultimately Carter’s replacement by Ronald Reagan.
While blindfolded hostages were paraded in front TV cameras, few outside Washington were aware that six embassy personnel had managed to flee the compound and secure refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. As security tightened at every conceivable egress, various plans to retrieve the six were considered and abandoned. Ultimately a scheme was contrived to send an intelligence agent in the guise of a movie producer, in the hope that in their relative disarray the Iranian’s would believe that the six were part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations, and that they would be allowed to depart the Tehran airport. The only one who believed it had a chance of succeeding was the CIA operative who dreamed it up.
In the interests of credibility, an aging producer, (Alan Arkin) and a prosthetics artist, (John Goodman) are recruited to fake a production based on a stale Sci Fi script, complete with auditions and announcement in the trade press. While Arkin and Goodman pretend to produce “Argo” the intelligence officer responsible for the plan, (Ben Affleck,) fobs himself off as a producer and courts the approval of Iranian officials to visit potential locations. When Affleck ultimately makes contact with the refugees, who are very close to being discovered, they express deep doubts about the plan. The tension escalates from there.
Working from a script by Chris Terrio that bristles with hard-edged humor and an insiders’ feeling for show business, director Affleck toggles between Hollywood and Teheran, juxtaposing the clumsy machinations of movie production on the growing fear among the hidden Americans. We’re shown that even a bogus production is subject to the vicissitudes of the industry’s processes, at the same time the risks to the hideaways rise exponentially. Although it has been reported that the real life escape from Iran proceeded smoothly, a nerve wracking escape sequence has been contrived, that plays like a high end episode of “Mission Impossible;” the original TV show, not the Tom Cruise reboots.
Affleck has covered the story’s sprawl with an even hand. There’s a pleasing balance among the several locales that enriches the suspense. Crisp but unhurried editing contributes to the steady pace. Playing the CIA operative the actor/director is well supported by a host of familiar faces; Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, most of whom who disappear into their rolls.
But Afflecks’ restraint keeps the movie from achieving a feeling of intimacy, which might have elevated “Argo” beyond the level of a ripping good tale that also happens to be true. It lacks the heat of his fictional “Gone Baby Gone,” or “The Town,” both of which, (but especially the latter,) boasted richly detailed characters who became hemmed in by their particular idiosyncrasies. While “Argo’s” script is attentive to moments of crisis, it refuses to light on any individual for longer than it takes to establish a story point. The result is a kind of insularity that favors the macro over the micro. Finally, the movie remains grounded in events.
Ben Afflecks’ relentless good taste as director drains energy from Ben Affleck the actor, to the extent that the movie is more reliant on plot turns than people. It’s satisfying to see the Iranian military take off after Americans fumbling their way through the Teheran airport, but it’s the minimum required to keep the story rolling, because we’re not as invested in the hostages had they been written with more attention.
Let me illustrate the point by way of another movie. The evening after seeing “Argo,” I watched the latest installment of the Bourne series. While shamelessly contrived, “The Bourne Legacy,” evokes more body heat than it merits by keeping the focus on its two main characters, played by Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz. The knowing direction of Tony Gilroy, who proved himself so adept at character with the canny, “Michael Clayton,” holds nothing back in terms of exploiting their emotions. Once we’re invested in Renner and Weisz, we’re captive to the director’s whims, regardless of how implausible. It isn’t a fair comparison but, I found the disposable material of “The Bourne Legacy” more engaging than the more relevant “Argo.”
Events dictate Argo’s agenda, as opposed to the specifics of personality. At just two hours the movie is almost too sketchy; a longer running time might have allowed for more intimacy with the individuals whose lives are at stake. “Argo” is a solid B, but takes a place behind the director’s less tidy but more electric work. Still, it’s recommended.
For a fine example of how character can drive a movie from the inside, rent the DVD of Angieska Holland’s exquisite nail biter, “In the Dark.” A harrowing tale of survival in the sewers during World War II, the movie burrows deep into human behavior, both good and bad, and mines unbearable tension as a handful of Jews resist both the Nazis and their elemental urges. This is a case where we become involved with characters who are twice burdened, which adds another level of depth to the inherent suspense. Highly recommended.
“Seven Psychopaths,” esteemed playwright Martin McDonagh’s second outing as writer/director, is for those who miss the pulpy excesses and quirky illogic of Quentin Tarrantino, and are willing to settle for second best until the real thing comes along. A bloody, profane, and loose limbed comedy about a landscape of ironically self-aware criminals, it provides an ensemble cast enough dialogue and hot lead to chew up the scenery and one another, which they do with relish.
I found this violent romp by turns hilarious, irritating, inspired, contrived, intelligent, and stupid. On its surface it’s like the weather in the Midwest; if you don’t like it just wait a few minutes and it’ll change.
The plot, if it can be described as such, revolves around an alcoholic screenwriter, (Colin Farrell,) who accidentally becomes entangled with a clutch of dognappers. The story kicks into gear when the hapless thieves abscond with a prized pooch belonging to a hot tempered mob boss. Most of the action generates from the attempts of said dognappers, (Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell) to keep one step ahead of the murderous owner, (Woody Harrelson). As the bodies accumulate, Farrell’s hapless screenwriter flails at creating a past due assignment entitled “Seven Psychopaths.” Yes, it’s that kind of movie. Along the way there are numerous digressions that introduce psychopaths Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits. First rate actresses appear on the fringes; Abbie Cornish, Gabourey Sidibey, and former Bond femme fatale, Olga Kurlyenko, but they’re quickly shunted off, terrorized, or blown away to make room for the real mayhem makers, the male psychopaths of the title.
McDonagh, the acclaimed Irish playwright of “The Pillowman,” “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” and others, has noted that he prefers movies to theater, although I suspect what he really prefers is the grander payday. He appears to enjoy creating characters that have the same relationship to reality as invisible ink, then putting forth a heroic effort to breathe life into them with his estimable wit. He’s got an unpredictable sense of humor, and a deeply misogynistic point of view, and the craftsmanship to seamlessly meld the two.
The screenplay for his first feature, “In Bruges,” a comedy about two hit men on the lam, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008. He has returned to the same genre with “Seven Psychopaths,” and vastly outdone himself in terms of body count and vulgarity. If you like this kind of thing, you’ll probably smile and giggle through most of it. When it comes to high end trash I vastly preferred Oliver Stone’s polished “Savages,” from this summer. “Savages” is just about due for DVD release and it’s worth a look.
More on “The Master”
Because I had such complicated feelings about it, and because I continued to hear such conflicting responses to Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious project, I went back to a theater for a second viewing, a rare occurrence as there are so many other films to see.
I wanted to see “The Master” again because the reports I got, some from friends, made it seem like we had seen entirely different movies. And, in truth, I couldn’t get a clear handle on my own response to it. In fact, much of the movie had become a blur. Ok, now that I’ve taken another look, a little more clarity.
“The Master,” is a one of a kind, as bracing and vivid, for me anyway, as Martin Scorcese’s brilliant “Raging Bull.” On some level I think the movie has an almost hypnotic effect on an audience, so much so, that it can be subtly disorienting experience; not easily recalled and arranged in the mind.
More than one or two viewers reported that they couldn’t relate to Joaquin Phoenix’s character because no background material was provided about him. Not true! As a matter of fact, there’s a lengthy and very candid sequence where Freddy reveals his inner torment to Lancaster Dodd in the course of an interview. And in fact, the scene is carefully bracketed; Freddy insists on stretching the perimeters of their first “processing” session. Dodd complies and Freddy accesses a painful aspect of his adolescence. Very moving.
Others reported that Amy Adams part is insubstantial, and that she appears in only one or two sequences. False, again! While Adams role is secondary to the two leads, she’s an integral element at four or five key moments in the story: Academy Awards have been handed out for less screen time, and she has certainly earned a nod for her excellent work in an essential supporting role.
A number of viewers mentioned getting lost in the last third of the movie. First time around I also found the last half hour or so somewhat baffling. But on a second viewing it struck me as perfectly clear, even though the very last sequence is handled with a large note of ambiguity. Aspects of the relationship between Dodd and Quell remain mysterious to the end, but in a positive way, as there’s no question that the two have impacted one another. Most important is that the particulars of that ambiguity are elegantly expressed.
This brings up another question, one that bears relevance to both the popular and fine arts, if we can still make that distinction. Are films, books, or any other means of expression, responsible for answering each and every issue they pose? I don’t think so, but they are without question, obligated to use their raw materials to express them as well as possible. And I think Anderson has elegantly fulfilled that obligation.
The questions posed by “The Master,” address the issues of what it’s like to be alive in the contemporary world, with all its peculiar sights and sounds, and the impact of our interactions with others as we stumble through time. The restless, inarticulate, but driven misfit and the precise, educated, but unfinished cult leader are pieces of a larger puzzle that briefly fit together, and then move apart. Anderson has done an extraordinary job shaping them and their environment, putting them together, then setting them loose to continue on separate paths. The writer/director has left it up to viewers to consider the material and draw conclusions, should we care to, but he’s realized the particulars with startling clarity. I think his movie is here to stay.