ARGO

Could anyone have predicted ten years ago the path that Ben Affleck has taken? To go from being the butt of countless ‘Bennifer’ jokes, prancing around Hollywood in terrycloth jumpsuits, to being one of the most interesting, well-composed film-makers working today? Audiences love a comeback story, and that’s precisely what Affleck has given us, with three excellent films under his belt, the best of which, Argo, is a genuine front-runner for best film of 2012.

It’s possible that Ben Affleck’s skill as a director and (as his fantastic work in Argo can attest) actor, owes a great deal to his time right in the centre of the public eye. Rebuilding his credibility as an artist to be taken seriously must have been no mean feat, given the ridiculous level of tabloid exposure he had, but by turning his attention to slow-burn thoughtful fare such as Argo he has all but removed himself from public life and simply lets the quality of the work speak for itself.

Argo is a fascinating story, so absurd that it can only be true. Concerning a covert mission to rescue six American citizens in hiding during the Iranian hostage crisis of the early 1980s, it’s deeply serious material, but with an almost farcical edge. And while Affleck certainly takes many opportunities to inject humour into the film, the stakes are so high that when the extraction actually begins, the level of suspense stretches the limits of endurance.

Bizarrely, the film makes an interesting counterpoint to last year’s suspense highlight Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Where that film relied on outlandish stunts and huge suspension of disbelief to perch us on the edge of our seats however, Affleck’s languid pacing works perfectly for Argo. Creative license is assumed, but the realism permeates every frame. M:I’s Ethan Hunt is for all intents and purposes a superhero, whereas Tony Mendez (Affleck) is simply a man, albeit an expert as his specific vocation. He appears to take everything in stride, right down to his troubled home life, and Affleck’s enigmatic performance is easy to overlook, but absolutely grounds the film.

It’s character work that gives nothing away yet says so much, and if he appears to take everything in stride, it’s simply because he must. This is a man who prepares for the worst so he won’t be caught unawares when it happens, and as such he seems a little distant, aloof as to whether the mission succeeds. Yet small moments give him away, betraying his intense investment in what he does. It’s not flashy, but it’s a very well pitched performance.

As good as Affleck is in his dual role as star and director, this is by no means a one man show. Alongside a mightily impressive cast including Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, the film is beautifully shot with wonderful period detail, and Alexandre Desplat’s clever, lively score adds the exciting spy film atmosphere that is absent from the script.

Argo is a triumph, an old-fashioned example of how to make tense, exciting adult drama, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that Affleck’s film will be a key player on the coming award circuit, and deservedly so.

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

I can generally tell within the first five or ten minutes if I’m going to dislike a movie. Sure, sometimes things get off to a shaky start and salvage themselves as a story is allowed to develop, but unfortunately it’s often the opposite, and something that starts well falters later on. Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed, a film with a more unpleasant opening than anything I’ve seen recently, tried valiantly to win me back but was sadly only around halfway successful.

The film stars Aubrey Plaza as Darius, an interning magazine journalist sent with two colleagues to research a story about a bizarre and mysterious classified ad seeking a partner in a time travel mission. What follows is a fairly generic love story which is sweet enough, and the quirky time travel element provides a freshness lacking in many indie romances. Plaza is her usual moody self, yet is allowed to strip away some of her trademark cynicism as her character warms to Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the potentially damaged loner responsible for the classified ad, showing a tender side not seen from her before.

Their relationship is a cute coming together of two social misfits, and works pretty well despite some questionable plot holes and an ending that doesn’t quite add up. However, this is only half of Safety Not Guaranteed, and Darius and Kenneth’s story is hampered by a brief runtime (86 minutes), too much of which is spent on the secondary story concerning Darius’ fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) and boss Jeff (Jake Johnson).

Any warmth Trevorrow generates in scenes of Darius and Kenneth is obliterated every time the film switches to the mean-spirited, creepy antics of Jeff, who is using the trip to rekindle a past romance with Liz (Jenica Bergere), dragging troubling ethnic stereotype Arnau along for the ride. Jeff is such a leering, off-putting character, uncomfortably dragging what could be a decent film down an irredeemable degree, and after the ham-fisted attempt at redemption following his encounter with Liz blows up in his face, he simply slips back into his obnoxious persona, giving gross macho advice to the meek Arnau.

The jarring juxtaposition of the two narrative threads results in a film that is tonally all over the place, sending contradictory messages and wrapping up with little satisfaction. There is a charming if slight romance in Safety Not Guaranteed, it’s just a pity it is surrounded with such a distasteful garnish.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY

In the tradition of underworld crime dramas such as The Godfather, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is a tense and gripping tale of gangland politics, yet reaches for more with sharp allegory and moments of biting satirical jabs at the bureaucratic mishandling of the recent financial crisis.

Featuring an impressive ensemble of solid performances, Killing Them Softly weaves a complex narrative across various levels of an urban crime syndicate, from Richard Jenkins’ shady middle-man, something of a liaison with the ‘legitimate’ world, to the bottom-feeding duo of Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, whose heist of an illegal poker room launches the plot.

Brad Pitt is pitched as the film’s lead, and he delivers typically solid if unremarkable work as contract hitman Jackie Cogan, yet truthfully he is just one piece of Dominik’s larger puzzle. Killing Them Softly‘s scope is ambitious, and for the most part successful, particularly in the darkly hilarious interactions between Pitt and Jenkins scattered across the film. The frustrations of committee decision making are a big theme of the film, and surprisingly the infuriating situations Cogan is faced with seem almost like they’ve dropped out of a Mike Judge film.

However, as an unfortunate consequence of the multiple story threads, not everything works. James Gandolfini appears as a colleague of Cogan, and while his story is interesting, it has little impact on the wider plot and as such could have been trimmed or jettisoned altogether. On the opposite end of the spectrum, not enough time is devoted to Mendelsohn’s stunning work as the grimy, burned-out junkie Russell. His arc is wrapped up a little too neatly, and without much explanation, yet Mendelsohn gives one of the stand-out performances of the year, and announces himself as an early Oscar season contender.

Killing Them Softly is certainly a good film, but I have an odd suspicion that in a months time I’m not really going to remember much about it, aside from Mendelsohn perhaps. There are some terrific moments, and Dominik has a good eye but seems a little hesitant to push himself too much. The infusion of political critique is smart if occasionally too obvious, and, much like last year’s Drive, the unexpected flashes of violence are effective in their brutality. It may not have the legs to go down as a classic, but Killing Them Softly does have enough going for it to merit a recommendation.

Sight and Sound Odyssey, pt. 3

OK, so the story here is I’m going to try and work my way through the BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine critics poll, conducted once a decade, in which they ask hundreds of film critics to submit their selections for the greatest films of all time. I’m limiting myself to the top 50, around half of which I have seen before, the rest I’ll (hopefully) be enjoying for the first time. A lot of these films are well known, and as such shouldn’t be too hard to track down, but some are potentially harder to acquire so getting through the list might take some time. As I work through the list (in no particular order), I’m going to write up some thoughts, most likely at five film intervals.

Here we go with the third set of films. See the first five here, and the second here.

SEVEN SAMURAI (Kurosawa, 1954)

Well, this is a film that I would count among my absolute favourites of all-time, if not possibly my number one. Anyone who finds themselves reading a blog post of this type has probably either seen Seven Samurai (#17) or knows they should see it, so I don’t even know what I can say.

At a basic level, almost all action cinema in the past 60 years, in particular team-based action films such as this years Avengers, owe a tremendous debt to Seven Samurai. It’s a template setting film, as Kurosawa flawlessly structures the film into three distinct acts, beginning with the introduction of plot and characters, followed by a perfectly paced set-up towards the electrifying final showdown. Few movies in history have had this kind of lasting influence, and it’s an undeniable game-changer for action cinema all across the globe.

Yet, for me at least, the real beauty of Seven Samurai lies with Kurosawa’s treatment of his characters. Similarly to his genius with plot structure, the characters of the samurai themselves again created a mould still used to this day. Each brings their own spark to the team, whether the nobility and leadership of Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the pure calculating skill of Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), or the buffoonish antics of Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) which somehow hold the team together. Nowadays they might seem like well played-out character tropes, but having an understanding of where these things started is crucial for any cinema lover, and for these reasons (and so many more), the first port of call needs to be Seven Samurai.

 

 THE GODFATHER (Coppola, 1972)

Yet another film that I don’t even know where to begin with. It’s The Godfather (#23) for heaven’s sake!

I think what always stuck out for me with The Godfather was, while this is unquestionably a key film in the New Hollywood of the 1960s and 70s, it stands apart in terms of style. When so many of his peers were experimenting with form and storytelling technique, Coppola boldly chose to treat the film in a very classical manner, pulling influence from German expressionist films of the 20s and 30s for some of the most fantastic lighting ever committed to celluloid. Few films are this visually and thematically rich, from the stunning chiaroscuro in the opening scene to the terrifying climactic confrontation between Michael (Al Pacino) and Kay (Diane Keaton).

The performances are electrifying across the board, but for me this is absolutely Pacino’s film, and maybe his strongest ever work. It’s a bit of a shame that nowadays most of his acting is so predictable and over the top, but in his younger years he had such impressive range, all of which is on show in The Godfather. His journey from timid outsider to ice-cold puppet master is a wonder to behold every single time, and while Marlon Brando’s role perhaps gained a more iconic status from the film, It’s Pacino who holds the whole thing together.

There’s really no surprise that The Godfather is one of the most beloved classics of all time. It’s like a textbook on how to craft a successful film, with every masterful element coming together into a flawless, awe-inspiring whole.

 

 PSYCHO (Hitchcock, 1960)

I really need to start breaking up my viewing of this list and scatter more of the lesser known films in with the widely seen and discussed classics. Oh well, here’s my thoughts on Psycho (#36).

The second Hitchcock film on the list, and probably his most famous work, Psycho is a smaller scale picture than many of his masterpieces, but is no less powerful. Personally speaking, the real draws here are Bernard Herrmann’s fantastically evocative score (maybe my favourite of all time) and Anthony Perkins’ dynamite performance of Norman Bates. He blends timid innocence with a deeply unsettling creepiness, and his famous “People always mean well…” dialogue still chills me after several repeat viewings.

Almost as interesting as the film itself however is the story behind its production and release (which bodes well for the upcoming film based around the making of Psycho). Hitchcock’s decision to make the film was seen as an odd choice by most at the time, and the plea he made to audiences to keep the film’s twist a secret showed a degree of interaction unheard of at the time. Sadly, the story goes that Perkins’ homosexuality led to him being shunned at awards time, and in Hollywood in general, yet for my money it’s one of the most riveting performances I can remember.

 

 THE GENERAL (Bruckman & Keaton, 1926)

The work of Buster Keaton is something of a shameful unknown quantity for me. I’m pretty sure I saw Sherlock Jr. (or at least parts of it) many years ago, but other than that I’ve just never caught up with anything else. So I was quite excited as I sat down to watch The General (#34), which is available on YouTube in its entirety.

The General is a charming and sweet little story about Johnnie (Keaton), a timid railway engineer who embarks on a mission to rescue his beloved Annabelle (Marion Mack), who is taken hostage by a gang of Northern soldiers during the Civil War. The potential for excitement in a relatively slow-paced train chase is somewhat limited, but Keaton finds inventive ways to disrupt the chase, keeping the film surprising and clever, and allowing him to display some of the fearlessness he’s remembered for.

That said, I didn’t exactly love The General. Keaton himself is fascinating to watch, and his ability to express so much with a largely expressionless face is mind-boggling. I think the film is perhaps a little longer than it needs to be though, and, possibly because of my hazy memories about Sherlock Jr., I expected it to showcase more madcap action than it actually has. It is a lovely story though, and Keaton manages to use the limiting locations to their fullest potential, and the titular locomotive becomes an important character in itself.

 

 THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Dreyer, 1928)

Wow, this film knocked me for a loop. As I’ve mentioned before, there are certain commonalities between many of the films on the Sight and Sound list, and what seems to be considered valuable in some of the very old films is what I can only assume is revolutionary (for the time) formal technique, such as with The Passion of Joan of Arc (#9).

Dreyer’s film is a marvel of minimalism, as the director eschews any flash and crafts a relatively by the book retelling of the trial of Joan of Arc leading to her execution as a heretic, and the idea of martyrdom. The sets Dreyer works with are sparsely decorated, with simple white backgrounds, geometric lines, and little in the way of expressive lighting. The technique fits perfectly however, and allows Dreyer to place total focus on his star, Maria Falconetti as Joan. Completely exposed by masterful close-ups, Falconetti delivers a performance for the ages, conveying the fragility of a terrified 19 year-old girl, but also the bravery and faith in her purpose bubbling just below the surface. Watching Falconetti, you really feel that this young woman could inspire defiance and revolution in the oppressed masses, and makes the tragedy of her martyrdom all the more affecting.

For me, The Passion of Joan of Arc is the most eye-opening film on the list thus far. It’s heart-wrenching, but also inspiring, and just amazing to see how a gifted film-maker can do with so much with so little.