ARGO and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS



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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.

Dark Horse


In the movie Precious, a story about a black, overweight, pregnant teenager who is HIV positive, Precious tells her teacher that no one loves her.  Her teacher responds that people do love her and Precious, for whom this statement almost seems for worse than anything else that has happened to her, replies, “Please don’t lie to me.”  I thought of that scene with I saw the new Todd Solondz film, Dark Horse.  Dark Horse is about Abe (Jordan Gelber), a 35 year old underachiever with anger management issues (often in connection with his being homophobic) who lives at home with his parents, an overprotective mother (Mia Farrow) and a disapproving father for whom he barely works (an hysterical Christopher Walken, who just has to stare with those bug eyes of his to get laughs).   Abe’s only hope for a romantic future is manic depressive Miranda (Selma Blair) who is unrepentantly honest about telling Abe how unappealing he is to her. 

In other words, Abe is a loser.  He has no real future.  He has no hope.  He does not have the capability of changing or taking control of his life.  He is both a victim and his own worst enemy.  And in dramatizing this quagmire of a life, Solondz gives Abe only one piece of dignity: Solondz doesn’t lie.  Abe is a failure, a misfit, a person who has no reason for existence (as one of the characters tells him—“no one needs you”).  And there is simply nothing to be done.  And from Solondz’ point of view, that’s just the way life is sometimes.  For some people, there is just nothing to be done except accept the reality of it. 

Dark Horse is not an easy movie to watch, but I found it fascinating in many ways.  I should say that I am not the biggest Solondz fan.  I find that most of the time all he does is ridicule people, putting them in the most humiliating situations he can, encouraging us to do the one thing he criticizes the world for: laugh at them.  Perhaps the difference this time is that by having one central character, rather than an ensemble, Solondz was forced to go beyond his usual S&M approach to characterization and give a more expansive view of his subject.  

Solondz’ main way of digging deeper into Abe is by using fantasy sequences where he interacts with variations of the supporting cast.  In this way, Abe careens between defending his actions, sometimes convincingly, and brutally facing up to his culpability in the way his life has turned out (the quote above, “no one needs you”, may be have been said by his father’s secretary, who in reality is the only one who truly cares about Abe, but here she is just a projection of how Abe sees himself). 

Gelber is a rolly polly Teddy bear of an oversized oompa loompa.  He’s good and the sheer energy of his performance really helps carry things along.  At the same time, he is also perhaps just a tad too cartoonish, as if he hasn’t quite caught on to the acting style that is necessary to really help create this off kilter Solondz world.  The supporting actors (Farrow, Walken and Blair) are better able to navigate this tricky style, fully investing in Solondz’s universe while still keeping it all very real, nightmarishly so at times.  

The story is just one step after another toward Abe hitting rock bottom.  Normally, when that happens, there’s no place to go but up.  But not here.  No, here it all ends tragically in more than one way.  People are saddened at first by Abe’s departure, but it’s not long before everyone’s life returns to normal proving Abe and Solondz right: no one needed him.  Many writers and directors would have softened it all and given Abe a chance.  But that would have been the unkindest cut of all, because it wouldn’t have been true.  In the end, all Solondz can really do is give Abe the dignity of being honest about it.