BURN: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit

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BURN: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit is the new documentary by Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez that focuses mainly on one fire station in Detroit as well as on the city’s new fire chief.  The movie is for those who have seen Scary Movie 4 and thought that the after and before pictures of Detroit under attack by Martians was a joke.  Apparently, it’s not.  Detroit has the most fires per capita in the U.S. and things don’t look like they are going to get better any time soon.
The movie holds your attention and there are moving moments as well as some strong character studies of a young fire fighter now confined to a wheelchair and who will never fight fires again and an old timer who is going to retire at the end of the movie.   There’s also an interesting character study of Donald Austin, the Executive Fire Commissioner: he comes across as rather foolish and in over his head and one wonders if he would have agreed to be in the movie if he had realized what the results would have been.   And it’s all set against some harrowing scenes of fires blazing away and men putting themselves in harms way.
But in the end, it feels as something is missing that prevents it from being more than it is.  In many ways, it feels like a movie searching for a message or focus, caught between being a character study of first responders and a study of what exactly is wrong with the fire department in Detroit.  And this rock and hard place is understandable.  No matter how much the filmmakers may have wanted it to be only a character study, it’s impossible for them to get away from the serious issues facing Detroit.  It just keeps sticking its ugly head in.
And Detroit is in trouble.  Besides the fire per capita issue, Detroit has lost a third or more of its population; there are 80,000 abandoned buildings; fire equipment is in need of repair and there’s no money to keep them from constantly breaking down or for purchasing new ones; and the fire fighters have to take second jobs just to make ends meet.   As the filmmakers show the city, it looks like the perfect location for someone wanting to make a movie about a post-apocalypse America.
And this is where the movie really gets frustrating as it slowly, but irretrievably, becomes a film about a problem that has no solution.  The fire fighters blame the city and government and the Fire Chief blames the fire fighters.  But what is really odd here is that the filmmakers, for whatever reason, never ask the Mayor, the City Council, the local media, the state government, any experts, anybody else at all about what is really going on.  It just seems odd that if that if almost half of the movie is going to be about Detroit falling apart and how handicapped the fire department is, that the filmmakers wouldn’t really go for it.  Instead it comes across more as a documentary that, as a friend of mine says, just doesn’t have enough meat to it.
The film is divided into four sections, one for each season of the year.  The final section is fall.  This section is filled with upbeat images of hope and people finding new possibilities in their futures.  But it’s too late and to be ruthlessly honest, it’s a bunch of hokum.  Nothing’s changed.  The problems are still there looming as large as they were before.  It may say fall in the subtitles, but on screen, it’s basically no different than the winter the whole story started with.  The ending here doesn’t feel like a reflection of everything the documentary has said before.   It feels more like an ending based on a business decision, something to make the audience feel good when they leave the theater.  It may make a difference at the box office, but all it really does is let the causes of Detroit’s problems off the hook—the last image for the audience is not “something must be done”; instead, it’s more of, “yes, it’s horrible, but we’re the people and we’ll get by”.


For my next Oscar entry, I will now turn to the Best Actor race.   There is an irony here.  This is stacking up to be a weak year for movies and for nominations in all categories.  At the same time, the Best Actor race is quickly becoming not just crowded, but overcrowded. 
Of course, this always happens.  No matter what else, Hollywood and movies are so male oriented that no matter how weak a year it is in movies, the men always come out ahead.  As Spencer Tracy said when he was asked whether he should get top billing over his female co-star, This isn’t the Titanic (though there are some in the industry who are suggesting we might be reaching suck a critical stage—but that’s a different story).  At the same time, this weakness will probably have some effect even on this category and that is on who will win.
DANIEL DAY LEWIS (Lincoln):  At this point, there seems to be only one sure thing (the bet your grandmother’s farm on it, etc.) and that is Daniel Day Lewis will be doing a threepeat by winning the Oscar for Lincoln.   Normally, getting a third Oscar period, especially in this short a period of time, is almost impossible.  But as was mentioned, this is a weak year for nominations.  This means there is a lot of competition to be nominated, but not to win.  In addition, it’s what’s called a gimmick nomination—Lewis is playing a real person (ole honest Abe) and it’s a big budget film directed by Steven Spielberg.   Nuff said.
JOAQUIN PHOENIX (The Master):  Lewis’s only real competition and as the days near the voting deadline, we’ll see if the forward momentum leaves Lewis (or Lewis peaks too soon) and it goes to Phoenix.  When it comes to The Master, the critics love it, but the regular people (who vote for the Oscars) don’t seem to so much.  But Phoenix’s performance is about the only thing anyone agrees on, so he should easily receive a nom. 
RICHARD GERE (Arbitrage): Almost a sure thing.  The industry has been wanting to give Gere a nomination for some time (especially starting with Chicago).  He’s not a great actor, but he’s now been around a long time, paid his dues, and gives solid performances in solid movies.  He also has never rested on his looks, but has continually picked roles that stretch him (or try to stretch him—when it comes down to it, he’s not Gumby, damn it).  Gere  is the sort of actor that Hollywood respects, but can almost never give an Oscar to, but they do look to try to give him a nomination at some point so they get it over with so they never have to worry about it again.  For references, this is like John Wayne—who did go on to win one, so you never know; Gene Kelly; Dennis Hopper, etc.   It’s what is called a career award or nomination in industry parlance.
Special note: there generally aren’t any women that come to mind that fit this sort of nomination—women rarely get career Oscars or career noms.  Their nominations almost invariably come from an appreciation of their performance (make whatever social comment you want here). 
That’s as far as I can go right now.  The rest are still unknown quantities.  Jean Louis Trintignant was considered a shoe in for Michael Hanake’s Amour, but he now may get lost in the last minute shuffle.   The others being considered are getting good buzz, but are to some degree still unknown quantities or it’s still unclear how people are responding to the performance.  This includes:  John Hawkes (The Sessions—very good buzz); Denzel Washington (Flight—getting really good buzz and Washington doesn’t do badly come Oscar time); Hugh Jackman (after years of whining at not being cast in a musical, he finally has been, but I never predict when it comes to movie musicals until they open—movie musicals are too likely to crash and burn); Bradley Cooper (The Silver Linings Playbook—unknown quantity, though the previews look a little too formulaic and sentimental for my tastes); Anthony Hopkins (unknown quantity and he doesn’t particularly look like Hitchcock); Bill Murray (Hyde Park on the Hudson—it didn’t work when he went tres serious in The Razor’s Edge, but maybe second time’s the charm). 
That’s it right now, but like in the presidential elections, polls change daily, so keep checking back in.


This is an interesting article, but it misses one of the major points–it doesn’t matter what the movies do to attract an audience–as long as ticket prices are so high and keep getting higher and movie theaters like Arclight and Sundance open and make going to movies something special to do rather than something everybody does on a regular basis, the industry will put itself out of business or become like Opera, poetry and theater, an elite form of entertainment.  And you can’t save an industry by telling people they should do something–that’s like trying to get kids to eat their broccoli because it’s good for them.


As an addendum to my best picture race analysis for the Oscars, I called Argo the Mitt Romney film and Beats of the Southern Wild the Barack Obama film.  But I realized after thinking if over more, that this is true only aesthetically.  Ironically, from a thematic standpoint, it’s the reverse.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is about a group of fiercely independent people who celebrate constantly in a very patriotic manner and who want absolutely nothing to do with the government or receive help from any outside group—the perfect Romney demographic.  Meanwhile, Argo is about  a group of people who want to avoid using violence and sending in troops to solve an issue in the Middle East, rather using a consensus building approach by joining forces with another country (here Canada) and solving the problem in a more subtle way, which makes it more the Obama picture.


It’s getting to be that time of the year, so I’m going to start my annual blogs on the Oscars.  I know, I know.  It’s the one baited breath thing you’ve been waiting all year to hear about.  Well, you can finally stop thinking about the election and really grapple with something important now.  No need to thank me.  It’s just what I do. 

These entries will be quick and off the top of my head, so my thoughts will change as time goes on.  This entry will deal with best picture.

By now, I usually know what’s going to win top dog.  But this year, I was really stymied for a long time and even now I’m not totally sure.  I’m not certain why things are so up in the air this year.  Maybe it’s because it’s been one of the worst years for movies in the U.S. and it’s been hard for anything to really galvanize people.   But it does look like things are starting to gel. 

Argo:   The Mitt Romney of the noms.  As of right now, this is the lead to win best picture (though I think the Presidential election will come out differently).  It has all the right qualifications.  It’s perfectly middle brow, i.e., it makes the audience think it’s edgy, takes chances, is very serious, really grapples with important subject matter, when in reality, it’s a safe, above average action/thriller.  Very retro, but gets the job done.  It also is a box office hit, but not such a hit that people think it’s a studio time waster like The Avengers or The Amazing Spider-Man.  It also has some nice selling points from a marketing standpoint.  First, it’s based on a true story and a true story that most people are unaware of; and it’s a great story, one of those, if it hadn’t really happened, no one would ever believe it had (even if it didn’t really, exactly happen the way it happened in the movie).  Second, Ben Affleck’s acting career had seriously stalled, then he became a director, and is now finally getting new respect, so it’s something of a come back story.  Third, it’s topical—well, topical for a Hollywood story; it takes place in the Middle East, though as was mentioned above, it doesn’t really tell us that much or give us any serious insight into what’s going on over there.  The writer and director are having too good a time entertaining us to do something like that.

Beasts of the Southern Wild:  The Barack Obama of the noms (though, again, I personally think the election will go a different way than the Oscars).  The indie darling of the year.  It probably should win best picture, but will have to settle for a best picture, actress (the youngest ever), screenplay and maybe supporting actor and director nom.  This is the movie that does something and takes the art of filmmaking forward, unlike Argo that is very old school, very George Bush.   It has a great grass roots organization behind it; after all this time, it’s like the Energizer Bunny: it just keeps going and going and going.  It came from nowhere and worked its way up to the top on sheer quality alone.

The Master: a tough call.  The critics love it, but not many others seem to, and it’s the others that vote for the nominations.  In a year of only five noms, I would say this wouldn’t have a chance, but it’s the sort of love it or hate it that the new rules of possibly up to ten noms is made for and it may slip in.  Whether it will get a directing nod is much more difficult to say.  Should get a best actor nom no matter what (Joachim Phoenix) and possibly supporting actor and actress (Hoffman and Adams).

Les Miserables: There is a certain set of films that is impossible to make a guess on until they open.  These are movies that are so big, have such high expectations, have so much “talent” associated with them, that everyone thinks they are a sure thing until they open when most of them crash and burn.  This is especially true of musicals.  I refuse to make any sort of guess until people who have seen it (regular people, not critics) start reacting to it.  Remember Nine?  I’m not making that mistake again.

Lincoln:  See above for Les Miserables.  The previews make it look ponderous, overstuff and self-important.  But it’s Steven Spielberg, so who knows, it might also be entertaining.  It’s suppose to win a best actor for Daniel Day Lewis (beginning to look like one of the few sure things right now), and some possible supporting noms.  Expect to see it in the top ten even if it’s awful simply because it’s Spielberg.

Django Unchained:  In a year of five, probably no way, but in a year of up to ten?  Maybe.  The problem is that it’s by Tarantino.  Tarantino is one of our greatest filmmakers, but he’s a very serious filmmaker who doesn’t makes serious films.  They do nothing, but do it absolutely brilliantly.  This, I think, makes it difficult for the Academy to actually nominate him.  The exceptions were Inglorious Basterds which was about the heavy subject of WWII, Nazism and the Holocaust, and Pulp Fiction which was something people hadn’t really seen before and made people see movies in a different way (and was a film noir, which helped).  Django is basically a Spaghetti Western, so there you have it.  Also, people seem a little uneasy right now whether it’s going to work.

Silver Linings Playbook: It’s been getting a lot of good buzz, but the previews make it look incredibly formulaic and sentimental, so until it opens, it’s an unknown quantity.

Arbitrage:  Not on anybody’s radar right now, but don’t count it out.  It’s the sort of well made, unambitious, entertaining movie that wins voters over.  It’s just fun and there’s often a movie on the list that is just fun.

Moonrise Kingdom:  The, “Oh, yeah, right, I remember that movie, I loved it, but whatever happened to it” film of the year.  People have even forgotten it opened this year and it’s been overshadowed by Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Amour:  A shoe-in for awhile, but it’s also the Austrian entry in the Foreign Language Film category so that may cut against it.  I still think it might have a chance since we have up to ten movies to nom.  It’s very different from Haneke’s other films, so the voters may feel safe in voting for it.  It also may get a best actor and actress nom, as well as screenplay.

Life of Pi, Flight, Zero Dark Thirty, The Hobbit are all too unknown quantities right now.


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Frankenweenie is the full length version of director Tim Burton’s short film called, astonishingly enough, Frankenweenie.  The 87 minute version is written by Leonard Ripps and directed by the aforesaid Burton.  Like the short film, the story here is your basic boy meets dog, boy loses dog, boy gets dog, but with a Mary Shelley twist.  Victor, a young boy in high school (who for some odd reason starts out as a filmmaker and then suddenly switches a third of the way through to become a scientific genius, a standard trope in Hollywood these days, I guess), figures out a way to bring his pet dog Sparky back to life after it is hit and killed by a car.  While this version is not boring and is enjoyable enough, I can’t bring myself to say it’s much more than that.  The short was clever and refreshing.  The full length feels a bit padded and bloated, filled with some extra monsters created the same way Victor brings Sparky back to life, but with no real explanation as to why they turn out so differently than Sparky does (other than that the story needed padding).  The strongest aspects of the movie are some beautiful miniatures (Rick Heinrichs, Tim Browning and Alexandra Walker did the production design and art direction) of an Andy Griffith like home town filled with Leave it to Beaver houses, as well as stark and effective black and white photography that makes you think the story might turn into a duck and cover educational film at any moment (the time period is the ‘50’s).  The city the story takes place in is called New Holland—it’s unclear why since no one is Dutch.  Well, there actually is a reason—it’s to justify the existence of a windmill so the climax can mimic that other movie with Boris Karloff.  In the short, the windmill was located in a miniature golf course—a cleverness this version often lacks.
The Paperboy is a southern melodrama that out Gothics William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams put together (the various fetishes dramatized here read like a typical night out at a German S&M bar with water sports not of the Olympic kind and Black on White bondage and torture).  Though Nicole Kidman is in it, it’s Zac Efron who is sexually exploited here with the writers (Peter Dexter, who also wrote the book the screenplay is based on, and Lee Daniels, who also directs) going out of their way to film him in tighty-whities and shorts (in all fairness, Matthew McConaughey also bares his butt a couple of times, but I suspect that that’s only because it’s a standard clause in his contract).   The movie starts out well, but soon loses its way and finally seems to stop going anywhere.  This may be because it feels as if something is missing at the core of the story.  It’s about two reporters (the aforesaid McConaughey, and David Oyelowo, as a somewhat fey version of Sidney Poitier) investigating the conviction of a man on death row in the home town of McConaughey’s character.  What’s missing is a compelling or convincing reason why they care, or perhaps more importantly, why their paper, and only their paper, cares.  Without this, it’s unclear that anything is at stake and the tension quickly seeps out of the story, with it all becoming a tough swamp to slog through, both literally and figuratively.  No one gives a bad performance, while Kidman and John Cusack (as the weirdo on death row) giving the strongest.  To be honest, McConaughey does push his bit a bit too much, as he is wont to do, but Efron in the title role (he plays McConaughey’s younger brother) is surprisingly good, until he has to really emote; but even then, he does well enough for the circumstances.  In the end, though, the story is never quite believable, especially a Governor’s pardon resulting from a newspaper story based on anonymous sources that is obviously full of lies (hey, it could happen).  The movie might have worked a little better if everybody, including Dexter and Daniels, were having a bit more fun with it (or any fun at all), but no, everyone is deathly serious here.  So, if a ranking would help, when all is said and done, this is no Killer Joe, which in its turn is no The Killer Inside Me.
Sister is the Swiss entry in the Academy Award foreign language film category.  Written by Antoine Jaccoud, Gilles Taurand and the director Ursula Meier, it’s a very solid and at times moving character study of Simon, a young teenager who goes to a resort in the nearby mountains and steals equipment and skis and sells them to make money to support himself and his sister.   Simon is played by Kacey Mottet Klein, who handles the role as capably as his character steals.  You may not approve of what he does, but you have to admire his lack of self pity, his self reliance and his Trump-like entrepreneurship.   The story grows in strength once the big reveal is, well, revealed, and matters get far more complicated, both emotionally and practically.  There are strong guest turns by Sweet Sixteen/Red Road’s Martin Compson and The X-Files Gillian Anderson.  The somewhat downbeat subject matter ends on a glimmer of hope, slim as it may be.


Oh, if only my painful and agonizing years in high school were as painful and agonizing as Charlie’s, the hero of the new coming of age film The Perks of Being a Wildflower.   There’s something so beautiful and rhapsodic about Charlie’s freshman year that serves as the plot of this movie, that one not just envies him, one feels robbed of a true right of passage to pre-adulthood.   Why does he get to have all these horrible things happen to him?  Why is he so blessed?  What’s wrong with me?
The movie is pure nostalgia with all the depressing sweetness that description implies.  This also means it’s not a realistic depiction of what happened, but a heightened romantic view of that period of time (it has moments with the same feeling as the opening scenes of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited—a look at college life so hauntingly beautiful that it’s too excruciating to experience a second time).  And the writer/director Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote the book the screenplay is based on) does something well nigh impossible—he’s made a coming of age film that is not only worth seeing, but actually gives coming of age films a good name. 
Charlie (played by the waiflike Logan Lerman, who is heartbreaking from the moment he appears on screen) is a wallflower, but for good reason.  It’s not long before it’s revealed that something awful has recently happened to him that is preventing him from connecting with people (what that is, is soon revealed, but in such a casual and off the cuff way that it socks you in the gut).   It’s not much longer before you realize that there’s something even deeper than that going on.  Everyone hints at it (they mention him seeing things, black outs, he has mysterious flashbacks to an aunt he deeply loves, etc.), but it’s not until the end of the movie that the whole story comes together. 
But Charlie’s determined not to let his past become his future, so he goes to a football game (an experience he obviously has no essential interest in; he just as obviously has no idea what is going on on field), and there he takes a chance and talks to another misfit like himself, Patrick (the excellent Ezra Miller, who played the sociopathic son in We Need to Talk About Kevin), and through Patrick, Charlie meets Sam (the spot on and refreshing Emma Watson, doing perhaps an even more successful job of making one forget that she was in the Harry Potter films than Daniel Radcliffe did in The Woman in Black)—the next thing you know, Charlie’s going to parties; eating pot brownies and taking LSD; and attending midnight shows of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (yes, Virginia, the story takes place in the 1980’s).   And he slowly sees the end of the tunnel approaching until…well, see the movie and find out.
Charlie is what in screenplay parlance is called a reactive character, a character that doesn’t have a clear and strong goal (other than trying to survive or get though a difficult situation), but whose story is told in his reactions to everything going on around him.  If you read any books on screenwriting, they almost invariably state that such a character is anathema to the essence of successful story telling.  This, of course, as movies like …Wallflower show, is “malarkey”, to quote a recent Vice Presidential debate (a “whopper” to quote a Presidential one). 
But it’s pertinent in many ways to the theme of the movie here.  At one point, Patrick points out the “perks” of Charlie’s reactivity—he is the only one who can interpret everything going on around him because he is not actively involved; he is the one who is the stand in for the audience, who tips us off as to what the real meaning of the events he and everyone experiences are; he is the one who can see things no one else can because he is the Observer (complete with that capital O).  It’s his reactivity that drives the story and gives him the ability to have insight where no one else does.   It gives him his place in the world.  Characters like Charlie are just as indispensable to art as active characters like Indiana Jones and James Bond.  They may even be more indispensable—characters like Jones and Bond tells us almost nothing about life except that it isn’t remotely like it is in the movies; characters like Charlie do almost nothing but tell us about life.
The movie is not perfect.  There is so much tragedy at times that it almost threatens to bring to mind Birdie Coonan’s line in All Above Eve: “What a story!  Everything but the bloodhounds nippin’ at her rear end”.   Chbosky’s dialog is witty and strong, but at times he lacks a deft hand at directing actors so that some lines roll a bit clunkily off the tongue.  And some of the adult characters feel wasted (especially Dylan McDermott as Charlie’s father who feels cast below his pay grade).  But I also feel like I’m kind of carping here.
…Wallflower may be full of tragedy, but Chblosky is essentially an optimist.   He does not take the nihilist view of Gregg Araki and Larry Clark that describe American youth as a generation of sociopaths and lost souls on the eve of self-destruction.   For him, the kids are not exactly all right, but they are not lost.  They have a future and the inner strength to go for it, but it’s not an easy road.
The movie’s also pretty swell. 


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When I was a mere barefoot boy with cheek, every Saturday my local theater had a special matinee for kids and we saw either a Japanese monster film (Godzilla, et. al.); a sword and sandal story inspired by Greek and Roman myth or characters (often starring Hercules, whether he was actually the original character in the Italian film or not, that’s how it got translated); or a Hammer horror film.   I have fond memories of that period and the few things I learned as a virginal pre-teen: never remove small miniaturized people from remote islands; never fight sword wielding skeletons; and perhaps, most important of all, never, ever go to a small, remote village in England.  If you do, you will likely never return alive. 
Yes, it seems that beneath the quiet exterior or tea and crumpets and bland food, in every small and quaint British village exists an evil that no mere mortal can conquer (or if you do, it will just come back again some day—isn’t it fortunate for studios that their desire to create franchises intersects so beautifully with the way evil works in the world).  This view of rural England has become an institution for such a long time now, it has even earned its own filmic satire in Simon Pegg’s Hot Fuzz.   And true to form, The Woman in Black, the new Hammer horror film written by Jane Goldman and directed by James Watkins, revels in this gothic tradition. 
The Woman in Black is star Daniel Radcliffe’s attempt to play adult characters and leave his iconic role of Harry Potter behind.  From the look at things, he couldn’t find a screenplay he liked enough that required full frontal, so he settled for this one.  And he does an excellent job of playing the father of a young boy (complete with five o’clock shadow to make sure you know he’s more than old enough to shave—Radcliffe, not the young boy); a father in deep, but deeply buried (this is England after all), anguish over the death of his wife.   And Radcliffe has a quiet intensity that works very well in a movie that is made up of many moments of quiet intensity.
However, it must be said that in spite of an excellent supporting cast made up of a group of actors who look like they’ve always lived in a village that has yet to install electricity, as well as solid performances by the better known Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer (as the noblesse oblige upper crustaceans), the real star of the movie is a fantastical house located far away from everything that can only be reached by a road that is only available at certain times of the day due to tides (it’s so evil, no other building is willing to be near it, I guess).   Often seen from above and far away, it’s located on an island of malevolence asea in a marsh of grayness.   It’s one of those locations (as in the movie The Haunting) that is a character unto itself, and often a more fully developed one than any other character in the film.  And believe me, one look at this architectural monstrosity (in more ways than one) and you’re screaming at Radcliffe, are you crazy, flee, you idiot, flee for your life. 
The basic story revolves around something happening to the children in this village.  They’re all killing themselves.  It seems to have something to do with the owner of the house, but when Radcliffe arrives in his role as solicitor in order to wrap up lose ends now that the house’s owner is dead, the villagers all turn they’re anger on him.  It’s unclear why, and this does lead to the main issue with the movie.  It’s very scary at times, often terrifying, but it never really holds together.   The basic idea of the curse is great, but the execution of it in the screenplay doesn’t always feel as if makes enough sense.  
Once Radcliffe gets to the house he’s suppose to get to work, but exactly what he’s supposed to do is never quite clear.   In fact, he never really does much of anything (the movie begins with a warning from his employer that this is his last chance at keeping his job and with the work ethic he shows, no wonder).   But Radcliffe quickly becomes far too busy being distracted (by creaking doors, mysterious sounds and a vague and distant image of a woman in black) to make a remote dint in the piles of junk that surround him in the house.
But the one issue that really prevents the plot from coming together as it should is that Radcliffe’s character, for some reason that is not satisfactorily explained (at least for me), never asks why everybody hates him; why the children are all dieing; and what everybody is afraid of.  Because of this, when he finds himself ensconced in the house, the story has no place to go because there is no rhyme or reason as to what is going on.  Instead, what the audience gets is an arbitrary series of jump and go boo moments that, indeed, yes, are very jump and go boo and more than make the hair on your arms stand on end.  But at the same time, this section also becomes a tad repetitious and has little forward momentum.
And because the back story doesn’t seem to have been fully thought out (why exactly is the Woman in Black the woman in black), the ending, which is a bit shocking, doesn’t resolve anything in the story and actually says that everything that came before was pointless.
But still, for what it is, it definitely does what it needs to do: scare the bejesus out of you.  And it teaches another important lesson.  The more things change (Hammer is now under new management and has just recently go back to producing films), the more things stay the same: never, ever go to a small village in England or you may never come back alive.  It’s just common sense.


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Argo, the new thriller written by Chris Terrio and directed by Ben Affleck, has been described as one of those throw back Hollywood studio movies, one that isn’t based on a franchise or comic book, but is instead a solid, well written, professionally made piece of entertainment aimed at adults.  And this is a very accurate description.  But at the same time, this also means that it reduces a terrifying and important and politically complex situation to a routine thriller; has jokes that are as old as the Hollywood Hills (though I seemed to be the only one that laughed at the screenwriting/free meal punch line); and has character arcs and plot turns that are obvious and formulaic and have everything but subtlety (and the kitchen sink, I suppose). 
But does any of this matter?  Does anyone care?  It doesn’t seem so.  Mainly because it is also highly, if not, incredibly entertaining for the most part (or enough part to make it work very well on its own terms).  Indeed, the approach may reduce the circumstances to a Casablanca like simplification, but it doesn’t ignore the historical reality altogether (and gives it more attention and depth than expected).  The jokes may be stale, but they are still funny and delivered with the timing of pros.    The plotting may be predictable, but it still keeps you on the edge of your seat.  And the character arcs may be formulaic, but they still bring a tear to the eye. 
So I suppose the conclusion is: go for the entertainment, but leave your aesthetic at the door.
The story revolves around a group of American embassy workers who manage to get out a back door and take refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.  To rescue these six people before the Iranian government finds them (and most likely would kill them), a CIA agent, Tony Mendez, is assigned to rescue them and he does so by coming up with the “best, worst idea” they have: Mendez will pretend to be a Canadian movie producer scouting locations in Iran and then take the six out with him pretending that they are part of his crew. 
There’s nothing that wrong with the movie.  It more than gets the job done.  And it has some wonderful aspects to it, especially in some of the supporting roles.  Alan Arkin plays a once big movie producer now reduced to accepting life time achievement awards and he plays his part as if it’s the role of his life (he may be as old as the jokes, but he makes them zing as if they’ve never been told before).   John Goodman solidifies his career as one of our most enjoyable supporting actors as John Chambers, a make up artist who won an Oscar for the original Planet of the Apes movie.   Victor Garber takes a nothing role as the Canadian Ambassador and fills it with such humanity, one wants to give him the Nobel Peace Prize.  And there’s a scene at the end where the annoying Doubting Thomas/Debbie Downer character, who had bad talked the mission the whole way, fulfills his arc by suddenly becoming more invested in his playacting than the others, describing the fake movie they are not shooting to some Iranian guards as if he was pitching the project that could make or break him (which it could, I suppose).
At the same time, as fun as it is, one does wish it could have been better.  The rest of the cast is filled with a bunch of TV actors as if the producers were hoping that casting them alone would cover up a certain flatness in most of the roles (it doesn’t, though, as hard as people like Bryan Cranston try).  The second act drags a bit, and though the third act is exciting, it is also a bit over the top (so over the top, it’s obvious it didn’t quite happen this way—and it didn’t—the most suspense the real participants had at the airport was a ticket agent who suddenly disappeared for no reason for ten minutes, only to return with a cup of tea) and relies on the authorities turning into a bunch of Keystone Revolutionary Guards (one wanted to shout to them, “Just call the tower, you idiots”).
And then there’s Ben Affleck.  Many, including yours truly, were relieved when he became a director.  He wasn’t doing anything that interesting from an acting standpoint and his career seemed to stall.  Then he gave us Gone, Baby, Gone and he was back with a vengeance.   Since then, he has become a more than competent director.  Unfortunately, he’s also gone back to acting and keeps putting himself in the lead in his films.  There’s nothing wrong with his performance here, but like most of the supporting ones, he can do little with breathing real life into the role and I just kept thinking how much more interesting the film might have been if someone with more screen presence, like Jeremy Renner or Ryan Gosling or Michael Fassbender, had been in the lead.
But then I saw the movie Seven Psychopaths (the second feature by writer/director Martin McDonagh, who gave us the deliriously wonderful In Bruges in 2008) the same day as Argo and what a study in contrasts.   
Where Argo was made with a studio finesse, …Psychopaths is a shaggy dog of a story; where Argo is the perfect movie to study for formula with all I’s dotted and tittles crossed, …Psychopaths feels made up as it goes along;  where Argo is filled with a supporting cast of actors that seem to be used to cover up a lack of depth in the characters, …Psychopaths has one of the most impressively written ensembles inhabited by perhaps the best and most exciting cast of the year (even when it comes to using TV actors, Argo comes up with Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights where …Psychopaths uses Boardwalk Empire’s Michaels’ Stuhlbarg and Pitt); where Argo feels like the poster child of how-to screenplay books and college classes, …Psychopaths seems to revel in saying “fuck you” (and not just implicitly, but also explicitly over and over again in the screenplay) to anyone who thinks one should write according to the rules; and where Argo feels satisfied to be what it is, a well made thriller, …Psychopaths feels infused with the passion and a desire to really do something personal. 
So whereas Argo is fun and extremely entertaining (and you will not be disappointed if you see it), Seven Psychopaths is something else: a wonderful, witty, perhaps brilliant rag tag of a movie that does nothing you expect and surprises you in ways that very few movies do.
The basic story line revolves around Marty, a screenwriter who is blocked, (Collin Ferrell, who along with Renner, et al., would probably also have been a better choice for the lead in Argo) and his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell, in perhaps his finest performance to date), who makes a living kidnapping dogs with his friend Hans (a heartbreaking Christopher Walken).   All Marty has for his opus is the title, Seven Psychopaths, but nothing else.  But in working out his storyline, he finds himself caught up in Billy and Hans’ world, especially after they abduct a dog from the sociopathic mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson, who seems to be having more and more fun the further he gets away from the role that first made his name, that of obtuse, country boy Woody in the TV series Cheers).  Let’s just say that chaos, violence and hilarity ensue.
McDonagh  does some remarkable things in Seven Psychopaths.  The story is ridiculous.  It’s almost never believable.  It’s so over the top, it makes Scarface look like Little Lord Fauntleroy.   But the more preposterous the movie becomes, the more caught up you are in the whole stupid, insane mess.  And just when you don’t think it can get any more outrageous, McDonagh pulls a rabbit out of his hat (both figuratively and literally) and doesn’t just go one level higher, he makes a tiny adjustment and suddenly you’re so emotionally caught up in the whole thing, you find yourself on the verge of tears.   No matter how far from reality the story gets, there’s something so real at the core, that the emotions at times sweep over you in ways that never make any sense, but yet, there they are.  How does he do it?  I don’t know.  But there’s no point in fighting it; resistance is futile.
In the end, though I think Seven Psychopaths is a far superior movie to Argo, I think both represent what I wish movies would be.  If you’re going to do a studio driven, formulaic movie that doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is, at least make them as entertaining and intelligent and enjoyable as Argo.   But if you’re going to write something personal, if you’re going to revel in being independent and taking movies in a new and unique direction, then movies like Seven Psychopaths are indispensable.   Argo is the future of the studios.  Seven Psychopaths is the future of filmmaking.