Argo

A great American what?

The unfortunate part of Argo is its timing.  The suspicion and mistreatment with which the film’s American characters are met in Iranian airports is the exact treatment Middle-Eastern folks receive in American airports now.  Additionally, the Iranians are portrayed as bloodthirsty animals just waiting to unleash gunfire on anyone revealed to be American “spies.”  Their well-documented fascination with American movies and culture is touched upon; however, these scenes are brief and stylistically backwards, making a group of Iranian soldiers seem like, for lack of a better term, dummies.  There’s also an added dramatization in which armed revolutionaries chase an escaping airplane down a runway, which sounds worse than it is.

As a film, Argo is drama 101.  Its structure is simple and effective, and its narrative is complete.  There is a stigma revolving around Ben Affleck, as though he’s somehow the successful hack of the current Hollywood generation; sure, his acting is sometimes pretty flat, but he’s a good filmmaker.  He knows the ropes of a realistic drama.  Argo is a movie that is allowed to be two hours – it vibrates with a sort of quiet that renders its scenes tense and thrilling without the contrived insertion of fight scenes and villains.

The narrative, based on a true story, follows Tony Mendez (Affleck) as he is pressured by the CIA to come up with a solution to a problem: Islamic “extremists” have taken over the U.S. embassy in retaliation for the country’s support of the recently deposed Shah Pahlavi.  Six of the embassy staff escape capture, however, and end up virtual hostages of Iran as they are housed in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) with little hope of escape.  Mendez and his supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) will team with renowned Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and fictional movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), and together they will create extensive marketing for a fake Star Wars knockoff.  The six hostages will take on the identities of the movie crew after Mendez makes contact with them in Tehran, and with the CIA’s help, will board a commercial aircraft out of Iranian airspace.

As this is a film, the plan must not be an instant success, but Affleck’s dramatic license is not as egregious as it may have been in other hands. Immediate problems include the fact that the extremists are re-piecing the shredded documents from the abandoned embassy, which means they’ll soon discover the identities of the six missing staff and be able to recognize them on sight.  Additionally, Taylor’s housekeeper, Sahar (Sheila Vand), who does not speak English, may be onto the identities of Taylor’s six “house guests,” and Taylor and Mendez fear who she might tell.

The film’s action, though evenly paced and quiet, is climactic, particularly when the plan is put into motion and the six hostages plus Mendez are out in the open, attempting to make their way through the airport.  A slew of real footage from the crisis is used, particularly in the beginning, almost in an attempt to say, “Look how close to real life we made this movie look!” but which doesn’t distract from the story for long.  In the end, we see some photos of the real people next to the actors who played them, voiced over by a speech from the real-life Jimmy Carter (whom Affleck wisely decided not to have appear as a character in the film), all except Mendez, since Affleck seems to have been rightfully embarrassed/ashamed about casting himself, rather than a Latino actor, in the role of the hero.

In fact, Mendez is really the only character we don’t get to know very well.  Carter refers to him as a “great American” for what he sacrifices to get his people out of Iran.  Why does he go so far to do this?  The mission is classified, so he’s not doing it to impress his estranged fiance’ (Taylor Schilling) and son.  He’s (thankfully) not a staunch patriot, as we see him sleeping through the morning news reports and wrestling with his supervisors (mainly Cranston’s character) about which technique they should use to stage the escape.  As a bad acting instructor would ask, what’s his motivation?  Affleck’s Mendez reaches Boring Hero status by the time the mission begins.  As author Clint McCown would tell you, “it happened in real life” is no excuse in fiction.

Goodman and Arkin play the most enjoyable characters and provide some truly funny moments, including industry-savvy-yet-accessible Hollywood banter, in a film so awash in its own seriousness.  Goodman’s character at one point quotes Karl Marx’s line about tragic history repeating itself as farce, and cites this quote as belonging to “Marx,” after which Arkin replies, “Groucho said that?”

The would-be breakthrough character in the film is Sahar, who despite the paranoia of Mendez and Taylor, actually protects the hostages and the mission at the risk of being killed by interrogators who fanatically support the Ayatollah.  Of course, since this is a Hollywood movie, the misunderstood foreigner with a heart of gold must, as a rule, be played by a beautiful girl in her early twenties, but the inclusion of a sympathetic Iranian character (with her own ambitions, despite how little they may be touched upon) is a positive gesture.

Best Picture buzz already surrounds Argo.  It won the Toronto Film Festival, which has predicted BP at the Oscars for the past five years.  Due to its (in)convenient timing, the film may slide into home, beating out Lincoln and Les Miserables, the other shoo-in nominees, and it may deserve it (over the other nominees, that is – not over every film that came out this year).  Argo may be a bullet-for-bullet example of what a screenplay is supposed to look like, but there’s also a heart there.  I’d have appreciated it if the heart wasn’t so glowingly red-white-and-blue, but it’s there all the same.

Argo (2012); written by Chris Terrio; directed by Ben Affleck; starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin.

Total Recall

We can remember it for you

recallThe first third of Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall (Total Remake?) is very good sci-fi with beautiful Blade Runner-esque set designs and imaginative inter-universe ideas, including a weapon that shoots a rope, binding the target and subsequently allowing manual control of the victim through simple hand movements.  Once the film devolves into a chase scene that seems to last an hour and a half, however, the formulaic action and stock characters become a bit tiresome.  The most inspired sections of the film feature references to the original Philip K. Dick story and the original movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (who isn’t quite the actor Colin Farrell is, but whose fish-out-of-water Douglas Quaid character seemed to fit more organically in the setting), including near-exact replicas of scenes and ideas from the original movie, the infamous three-breasted woman (Kaitlyn Leeb), and a robot who gets its arms ripped off whilst standing on the wrong side of an elevator (See you at the party, Richter!).

Colin Farrell stars as Quaid, pulling his nearly perfect American accent, which is kind of a shame in that the dystopian future of the story suggests that the only habitable parts of the world are now Britain and Austrailia – why couldn’t Quaid be an Irish guy?  And why does everyone else have to pull a phony American accent when they’re supposed to be fighting for rule of Britain and when, like Blade Runner, the Chinese have taken over most worthwhile industries?  Not a terrible foul, but a bit confusing and unnecessary.  Costarring with Farrell are Kate Beckinsale as Lori, Quaid’s wife who turns out to be a government agent sent to kill him, as played by Sharon Stone in the first film.  Lori’s role is expanded here, and instead of being blown away by Schwarzenegger before a laconic bon-mot (“Consider that a divorce!”), she engages in a cat-and-mouse chase with Quaid that doesn’t end until the final thirty seconds of the film.  Jessica Biel appears as Melina, a resistance member with whom Quaid must team up, played by Rachel Ticotin in the original.  Bryan Cranston, as likeable as he is, plays an effective (if hopelessly one-dimensional) villain here, taking Ronnie Cox’s role as the ruthless Cohaagen.  Here, instead of an evil CEO who removes the air from Mars, he’s the president of Britain (called UFB in the film) who seeks to invade Australia (“the Colony”) and crush any attempt at rebellion.

The story, as usual, follows Quaid as he works a dead-end job, this time in a factory producing war machines that look like a mix between Imperial Stormtroopers and the LOKI Mechs from Bioware’s Mass Effect series.  He and his wife are stressed out from their jobs, and Quaid decides to escape by visiting REKALL, a company offering a virtual reality experience in which incredible fantasies can be implanted into the customer’s mind as false memories.  Quaid meets Mac (John Cho), an operator at REKALL, who gives Quaid the chance to experience his fantasy as a secret agent.  As he hooks Quaid to the machine, however, something goes wrong.  “You’re a goddamn spy,” Mac says as he looks over Quaid’s files.  Just then, the operators are gunned down by Cohaagen’s police force, and Quaid, out of sheer instinct, kills them all using impossible martial arts and pinpoint skill with close-range firearms.  The film does a great job, as the Schwarzenegger film did, of maintaining the confusion about whether this is reality or in Quaid’s mind.  He’s accused of being a secret agent just seconds after he asks to be placed in a fantasy setting in which he is one.  Everything Mac offers Quaid in the fantasy eventually comes true in the film, including the fact that at different points in the story, he’s working for both Cohaagen and rebel leader Matthias (Bill Nighy in a cameo).  The final shot of the film mirrors the ending of the original, which resolves the story but leaves its reality open to a closer reading.  It’s a great payoff, but I’m not sure the hour-plus of nonstop action is worth the ending unless you’re a fan of the original, however.

The movie suffers from a case of Island Syndrome, with good actors speaking badly-written dialogue.  The conversations alternate between laconic and exposition-packed, and Farrell’s showdown with Cranston reminded me more of 2011’s frustrating thriller Unknown than the 1990 Total Recall.  What that film had that this one doesn’t was a strong woman; the Manfluence Principle is in effect here, as both major female characters are obsessed with Quaid: one (Melina) with romancing him, and the other (Lori) with murdering him.  Characters also speak background information in place of any sort of inventive revelation; for instance, Quaid and his coworker Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) speak aloud plenty they’ve already known about each other for years and would go without saying, such as how long they’ve both worked in the factory and that it’s kind of a shitty job.  Harry appears later in one of the film’s best scenes, a reimagining of a scene from the original combining the characters of Mel Johnson, Jr. and Roy Brocksmith, during which Harry claims to know that this is all part of Quaid’s fantasy and not really happening.  Quaid must figure out within a very short time whether this is a lie, and in either case make a decision with irreversible results (in the original, Schwarzenegger sees a bead of sweat roll off Brocksmith’s face and realizes he’s nervous, therefore he’s lying; I won’t spoil what Farrell’s Quaid does).  The tension nears that of the original and far surpasses the tension in any of the remake’s scenes, save one in which Quaid slices his own hand open to remove a tracking device.

Finally, Wiseman’s film seems to take the opposite stance on the Occupy movement that Nolan’s new Batman film did, albeit much more subtly than the bloated superhero epic.  The government is conspiring against its people by airing propaganda about a group of freedom fighters who simply want equality (calling them”terrorists” as we’ve heard so many conservatives do).  Nighy’s briefly-seen Matthias character takes on a sort of Emmanuel Goldstein role here, taking the heat for the UFB’s transgressions and reflecting the American public’s (don’t blame me; I didn’t choose the accents) unslakable need for scapegoats and blame-magnets, regardless of truth or guilt.

I’m not sure why this remake needed to exist (do any?) but the action is constant and intense (unless you’re like me and extended CG-action scenes induce a boredom so potent that you wish you were at work).  What works most of all, though, is the sci-fi setting and landscape.  More stories (hopefully better written) could take place here.  To be honest, the character I was most interested in was John Cho’s frosty-haired REKALL operator, who, depending upon your take on the film’s reality, could have been responsible for all of the story’s events.  As derivative as these ideas were even in Philip K. Dick’s time, they make for good sci-fi.  If screenwriters with the skill, will, and drive to make better stories in this universe exist, then as Arnold said in the original, “Give these people air!”

Total Recall (2012); written Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback; inspired by Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” and the 1990 film; directed by Len Wiseman; starring Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, and Kate Beckinsale.

Detachment

Always absorbing everything everywhere all the time

I was a substitute teacher for two years. If that wasn’t enough of a reason for me to be treated for serial masochism, consider this: I was a substitute teacher at three schools, and two of them were the elementary school and the high school that I attended as a student. The third, situated in a slightly better-off nook of the rural fringe (at least until Hurricane Irene) had been my high school’s perennial rival. My old school district still employed teachers with whom I’d taken classes as a child; now we were colleagues. Nobody at the Other School cared for me much.

Henry Barthes, played by Adrien Brody in Tony Kaye’s Detachment, reflects the characteristics I tried to embody during my stint as a sub — namely, a genuine empathy for students and a desire to put time and care into teaching them something that would stick. Barthes, despite working a job in which everything is temporary — school, class, relationships with coworkers, bonds with students — takes his duties seriously and delivers lessons (which seem to be completely of his own invention, not from any curriculum I might recognize) with vigor. When Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks), a fellow teacher, asks why he doesn’t become a real teacher, Barthes responds, “I teach every day. What do you mean?”

Detachment is an engrossing, occasionally heavy-handed (mainly when it slaps us with quotes from Albert Camus and Edgar Allen Poe), character-driven story that follows Barthes through three weeks of personal and professional trials. He has begun subbing at an urban school with a decaying administration, exhausted teachers, and students who threaten him within five minutes of his first class. He frequently visits his grandfather (Louis Zorich), who lives in a care facility, his memory and life-force slowly fading. He also meets Erica (Sami Gayle), a sixteen-year-old prostitute who roams the bus route near Barthes’ small apartment. After witnessing her physical abuse at the hands of a repulsive customer, Barthes decides to let her stay with him for a while. The ephemeral nature of everything in Barthes’ life is immediately evident: these are all temporary situations. Eventually, he will have to move on to a new school. His grandfather will die. Erica will have to move out. His reasons for embracing this lack of commitment, whether consciously or unconsciously, are explored through intermittent flashbacks, which slowly unravel the fact that Barthes’ mother killed herself when he was young, and he never knew his father.

What initially enthralled me about this film is that it takes an old trope — the Man With No Name — and applies it to two characters, then forces them to spend time together. Barthes is stoic and ashen for nearly the entire film, maintaining “I have no feelings you can hurt” and that “I’m a non-person. You can see me, but I’m hollow.” Erica comes out of nowhere, materializing on the bus as Barthes cries in his seat. According to the formula, familiar to us from the old Westerns like Shane, the Man (or Woman) With No Name appears abruptly “just passing through;” (s)he gets involved in other people’s business, solves a core problem or provides the necessary tools with which to solve it, then disappears, never to be seen again. This is the myth Barthes wants to claim for himself. He says he has no feelings yet he’s vulnerable, prone to quick anger and deep sadness at matters over which he has no control. His job allows him to show up, have an impact, then vanish. Just as he begins displaying emotion, Erica appears. Erica becomes the catalyst for Barthes’ change; they form a classic Travis-Iris Alliance and the better sides of both begin to shine through the grime of the workday.

The film features an ensemble which includes Christina Hendricks (sadly underused), James Caan, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Bryan Cranston, Blythe Danner, and Tim Blake Nelson. The teachers often appear in group scenes in which they get to kvetch about the school; these scenes, along with Barthes’ disconnected testimonials, out the film’s agenda in regard to the education system in America (and screenwriter Carl Lund’s feelings are, to say the least, not optimistic). Memorable exchanges include a harrowing scene in which Liu’s character, the school guidance counselor, finally snaps into a histrionic (yet genuine) polemic concerning the hopelessness of the students at her school — this is directed at a student, who begins to absorb the lesson, but then responds with “Fuck you” and walks out. Caan’s character, a substitute for the former dean (another temporary situation) shows students pictures of gonorrhea-infected genitals. Nelson’s character, yet another unhappy teacher, spends his breaks standing on the school’s playing field, staring at the sky. Barthes finally notices.

Barthes: You alright?

Mr Wiatt: What, you see me? You see me standing here?

Barthes: Yeah, I see you.

Mr Wiatt: Oh god. So relentless. Thank you. Thank you!

Unfortunately, we see most of these supporting characters only fleetingly with Barthes. The most developed relationship is a hackneyed attempt at romance between Barthes and Ms. Madison.

In spite of his apparent apathy, Barthes puts care into his lessons when he could just be a glorified babysitter, and we can see in his face that he wants to leave these students with something. Consider this speech from his first week teaching the new students.

“How are you to imagine anything if the images are always provided for you?” He goes on to explain doublethink: “Deliberately believing lies while knowing they are false. Examples of this in everyday life: I need to be pretty to be happy. I need surgery to be pretty. I need to be thin, famous, fashionable. Our young men today are being told that women are whores, bitches, things to be screwed, beaten, shit on, shamed. This is a marketing holocaust! Twenty-four hours a day, for the rest of our lives, the powers that be are hard at work, dumbing us to death. So to defend ourselves and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read, to stimulate our own imaginations, to cultivate our own consciousness, our own belief systems. We all need these skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds.”

How many of these students will learn to read, to cultivate their minds, to think independently? In this situation the moviegoer is just another temporary visitor witnessing a story that is clearly the middle of a story. If evolution begets resolution, then the end is well on its way, because there is a good amount of evolution on the part of Barthes once things begin to change (he confronts his feelings about his mother, finishes his three weeks at the new school, and makes two very substantial decisions about Erica).

In the final shots, Barthes reads aloud the opening of “The Fall of the House of Usher” as the school empties around him (nailing the parallel between the Usher house and family and the school). Has he let go? Will he become a real teacher? Explore a new career altogether? Has he left his fixation on the transient behind him after his experiences over the last three weeks? What’s the next step with Erica (there’s a conclusion to this story in the film, but even so there must be another step at which we can only guess)? I like that Detachment seeks to tell a human story (and tackle large social issues), dropping questions in the audience’s lap without making pretentious and unavailing stabs at final answers.

Detachment (2012); written by Carl Lund; directed by Tony Kaye; starring Adrien Brody, Sami Gayle, Christina Hendricks, and James Caan.

Drive

How about this?

Drive is the grindhouse film of this generation  (I haven’t yet boiled it down to exact mathematics, but it seems film generations are akin to turtle years).  It’s a Man With No Name story directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, and it’s something of a surprise.

Unless you’ve been under the celluloid rock, you’re no doubt aware of the up-and-coming Ryan Gosling, who has starred in multiple films this year and will star in the sure-to-receive-several-Oscar-nominations The Ides of March, alongside George Clooney, which opens next month.  Gosling plays the protagonist of Drive, a literal Man With No Name credited only as “The Driver,” and Refn goes to painstaking lengths to avoid having other characters speak his name.  In proper MWNN fashion, the Driver apparently appeared out of nowhere one day, asking for a job at a garage owned by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a grizzled mechanic with a bad leg.  Seeing the Driver’s talents, Shannon gave him a job on the spot.  The film’s narrative begins while the Driver is wearing three separate hats in his life: he does stunt driving for movies, works at the garage, and moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals.  He barely speaks and has no visible ties to anyone, except maybe Shannon, who treats him as a sort of adopted son.

After a wonderful, non-animated car chase that has been compared to the likes of Bullitt (a prerequisite to watching this film), we find the Driver bumping into his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan).  She looks after her young son while her husband is away at prison, and for an undisclosed reason, the Driver decides to help her out.  During these scenes, we bear witness to beautiful pieces of cinematography.  Several scenes are acted out in one flowing shot.  Others make brilliant use of mirrors, such that the facial expressions of three characters, all facing different directions, are visible at one time.  The Driver and Irene become familiar with one another, but they don’t sleep together; she clearly loves her family and just needs a friend.

Eventually, her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), comes home, and we immediately see why he landed in prison.  He’s genuinely devoted to his family, but try as he might, he keeps getting involved with the wrong kinds of people, and already finds himself owing protection money to a few bad folks.  Instead of telling the Driver, who has taken a clear interest in his wife, to leave the family alone, Standard sees him as an opportunity to settle his debt.  In a gorgeous scene featuring the best use of an “Exit” sign I’ve ever seen in a film, Standard hires the Driver to help him with a simple heist.  The Driver agrees, only because the completion of the heist will get the bad people away from Irene and her son for good.

The heist ends up being the biggest disaster since the heist from Reservoir Dogs, and the film jumps from PG-13 to R in one second flat when a character’s head is blasted with a shotgun in slow motion.  We are introduced to the other major players, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a movie producer who wants to hire the Driver; and Nino (Ron Perlman), a Jewish gangster who owns a pizzeria and who is also responsible for Shannon’s bad leg.  In the action that follows, the Driver hunts down the offenders one by one in order to secure Irene’s safety.

Drive is a film most easily swallowed if taken at face value.  The problem with a MWNN story is that if you’re too good of a screenwriter, you run the risk of making the character too interesting.  If a character is interesting, the audience wants to know more about him, and the MWNN mustn’t reveal anything about himself.  Why is the Driver so silent and distant, yet immediately obsessed with the safety of Irene and her son?  How is he so adept at taking down trained mobsters, and why is he so stoic about cold-blooded murder?  Some of his behavior may hint at Asperger’s Syndrome, but none of this is ever explored, and we’re politely asked to ignore it once the violent parts begin.

Still, the film remains more about characters than anything else.  Carey Mulligan, always a magician on the screen, is given very little to do other than sit around and mope, but she owns the scenes in which she appears.  Oscar Isaac, whose character comes and goes within fifteen minutes, gives the most sympathetic performance, where the character could easily have been the cliche’d Bad Dad who doesn’t care about his family.  Standard, however, truly wants what’s best for Irene and the kid.  Bryan Cranston is a good fit for the classic ill-fated mentor, and the casting of Brooks as a villain is inspired, if odd to see (imagine Jeff Bridges stabbing crippled people in the throat, and you’ll have a good idea of what this looks like).  Ron Perlman gives a full-caliber performance as the sparsely-seen Nino, and is quoted as saying (when asked by Refn why he would want to play this character after appearing in so many great films), “I always wanted to play a Jewish man who wants to be an Italian gangster…because that’s what I am…”  Drive also features a brief appearance by the multi-talented Christina Hendricks, who plays the underused (and perhaps unnecessary) character of Blanche.

The film’s weaknesses include the abrupt jump to gory violence, which dilutes the film’s great mood.  In addition, the music is a bit invasive.  The lyrics tend to narrate how we’re supposed to read the film’s events, almost like a first-person narrator shelling out all-too-revealing thematic passages (though the use of the song “A Real Hero” imbues the film with a fairtytale-like quality).  Despite these issues, Drive deserves attention.  The performances are solid and impassioned across the board, and the film achieves a level of true grindhouse cinema, mainly because it’s not self-conscious and has a small budget.

This is a piece of art that demands polarized opinions.  I think more art should be that way.  Do you even remember the last thing you felt “neutral” about?  I certainly don’t.

Drive (2011); written by Hosseini Amini (based on a book by James Sallis); directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston.