Monday, December 10, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 12/9/2012


Argo (2012, Affleck) ***1/2 (A-)


I guess we're going to have to come to grips with it. We're living in a world in which Ben Affleck is apparently an actual director, which has to stand as one of the more surprising career reappraisals of the last decade. I haven't seen previous efforts THE TOWN or GONE BABY GONE, but given the positive critical reception of those two and the unmistakably professional quality of this one, I'm probably going to have to catch up.

Affleck's effective in the lead, though I suspect there were dozens of better choices for a role that mainly calls for cerebral anti-glamor (and Latino ethnicity). Affleck-the-actor has Hollywood action star qualities that Affleck-the-director is clearly working against, given that this is the "good guys" are doomed if the fighting even starts. (Obviously, it probably didn't hurt from a financing point of view to be able to secure an above-the-title star for the project, a temptation/benefit most directors don't have.) The rest of the cast is a who's-who of character actors, all of whom are clearly having fun with their juicy small roles, though Alan Arkin may be having too much fun; his schtick is funny but hammy, and a touch off-key considering the serious tone of the rest of the material.

ARGO is a first-rate suspense movie that draws most of its power from its laser focus exclusively upon the issue at hand, to wit: how to extricate a small group of US Nationals in hiding in Teheran's Canadian embassy during the height of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis? The movie succeeds in large part because of how rigorously Affleck maintains his tunnel vision on that question and only that question. As a result, the inevitable and typical movie-trope distractions (the hero's job vs. home family estrangement being the most obvious) stick out more glaringly than usual, but these are luckily kept to a minimum. Affleck manages to create a palpable sense of dread and a specific sense of place and time; with the exception of a few showy camera moves in establishing shots, it even seems like he's borrowing the film vocabulary of the era (he's certainly borrowing the hair, the mustaches, and the ridiculously huge glasses). Though the plot is driven by clearly political elements, the film avoids the didacticism that a more agenda-motivated movie would have fallen into, while at the same time providing a very clear sense of the issues surrounding the situation. Counter-intuitively, the result is a movie that creates greater political complexity mainly by making the politics of secondary concern to the immediate need for survival.


The UP Series (1964-Present, Apted) **** (A)

The UP series defies these stars and grades, since any one entry isn't going to be much more than a reserved B+, but taken as a whole they are one of the most affecting movies in the history of cinema. At this point it has thoroughly transcended its origins as sociopolitical thought-experiment and has become a slow, real-time meditation on lifespan itself. Despite some of Apted's admitted missteps near the beginning, in which he attempted to guide the subjects toward his own agendas, these men and women steadfastly insist upon their dignity simply by existing as themselves, and the effect of watching an entitled young prat like John (who at 7 is sort of bratty and pompous in a way he's clearly learned from adults, but by 21 is truly gross in his blinkered privilege) evolve in leaps to maturity — still conservative, perhaps still casually entitled, but undoubtedly outward-looking and empathic — is, for me, to understand mercy. Every new installment colors not just what we now know about who the subjects are, but what we previously thought we knew about who they were. Some of these people are wonderful, some seem horrible, some seem rather dull, some vivacious, some petty and small-minded, others staggeringly hopeful and generous and the crazy thing is that each of them likely fits all those categories at one point or another. I sort of love all of them now.


The Avengers (2012, Whedon) *** (B+)

Short: This functions in large part as "Iron Man And Friends", which is probably for the best given the rather sharp drop-off in charisma after Downy Jr., and is likely done about as well as the current superhero formula possibly can be.

Long: Twelve-year-old me would be sorely disappointed in how little I appreciate this golden age of superhero movies in which we so obviously find ourselves, but while most of them are at least decent, there haven't been many really good ones. Worse, I don't get the sense that there has really been an attempt to make a really good one, because what you want from a business standpoint is what has worked before. Thus, you get essentially a string of exact same movie in different tights. Establish world and cast > origin sequence > bad guy origin > minor battles > final battle > hint at the sequel, and we're out. And why would it be otherwise? These movies cost over $100 million each, so why mess with the formula? Just keep cranking out Issue 1 of SUPERHERO, THE MOVIE time after time. Only Nolan's one-degree-from-the-real-world take on Batman and Robert Downy Jr.'s gleefully narcissistic performance in IRON MAN have really broken through to try something fresh. I'm not even sure what I'm asking for. I think it's ambition, or vision, or something surprising and weird. Maybe I'm just put off by product that is so blatantly meant to be product.

Bit of a tangent, sorry. Anyway, THE AVENGERS really doesn't diverge from the formula, but it benefits from working that formula at near maximum efficiency, and from having already established all of its characters in other movies. Thus, the origin sequence is just the plot bringing all of these supes together to form a super group, like Damn Yankees or the Traveling Wilburies, which is a slight but welcome variant on the 'how I got my powers' first act. THE AVENGERS also benefits from healthy doses of director Joss Whedon, who manages to nail the tone (fun, breezy, quips, explosions, etc.) and sneak in a handful of what are known in the industry as The Hilarious Jokes, most of which involve the Hulk hitting somebody. Strangely enough, given how incomprehensible simple fist-fights have occasionally become on Whedon's fine TV shows, the action scenes probably represent a new gold standard in lucidity. You pretty much always know who is punching or shooting which alien bug, where, and how. What I'm saying is, you almost never find yourself thinking, "Wait, Thor is hitting THIS bug? But I thought he was hitting THAT bug. So then, who is hitting THAT bug? Is it Captain America? Where is Captain America? WHERE IS CAPTAIN AMERICA RIGHT NOW??"

These are the things you rarely find yourself asking during THE AVENGERS.

The plot makes zero sense (which, I know, superhero movie, so who cares), none of it has any emotional weight (ibid), and everything blows up real good (ibid ibid). So, I don't know, maybe it's brain candy but it's that good brain candy. It's the house that's handing out full-sized candy bars, not the house that's handing out Bit O' Honey. It's fun. It's dumb. It's forgettable. I think Iron Man dies for a second. Captain America is an unfrozen caveman lawyer, who is confused and frightened by your strange technologies. Thor definitely flexes all the muscles (ladies). Hulk has magical stretchy pants, so does Black Widow. Hawkeye exists. The sequel will be this exact same movie again. When's the sequel?


 The Lion King (1994, Minkoff) ** (C-)

Hasn't aged too well, despite some handsome animation and a couple of moments iconic enough to have trickled into the cultural subconscious. The seeds of Disney's second great quality dive were sown here in its biggest hit to date (still? I think? If somebody has Internet, please research this), with sub-middle school fart humor mingled with over-the-top darkness (channeling Riefenstahl? Really, kiddie movie?), and pacing that caroms between lackadaisical and rushed. The gross racial profiling, which at the time this was new I remember thinking was a silly criticism, stands out pretty clearly. "Never go into that neighborhood, Simba. The elephants haven't gentrified it yet. And as you can see from the animation, it LITERALLY gets dark early over there. Was our studio's founder notoriously racist? Yes, he was! Oh, look at the time.; we're late for a quick song and a trampling. Fatal for me, coming-of-age for you. Spoiler! Let's move on."

I'll never not be disappointed when the choir in the admittedly powerful wordless opening sequence gives way to Elton John's "circle of life" schtick, because when I think of Africa, oh yeah, I think of Elton John. Props, though, for lifting Hamlet's plot engine and plunking it down here. I foresee a double feature with STRANGE BREW.

6 comments:

DuggleBogey said...

Re: Superhero movies.

Whether you enjoyed it or not, I think you'd agree that the Watchmen was an attempt to make "a good one."

Andrew said...

Well, I think I wasn't particularly adroit in my phrasing. I shouldn't have said "there hasn't been an attempt to make a GOOD superhero movie." There have been plenty of good superhero movies (AVENGERS is one). I should should have said something closer to "there hasn't been an attempt to make a VISIONARY superhero movie" Or replace "visionary" with "surprising" or "non-formula" or whatever you like.

My WATCHMEN review wasn't particularly kind. My issue with it was the extent to which it over-emphasized the formulaic comic book tropes that Moore was deconstructing, so it was almost an attempt at making a formula-destroying work fit a formula.

However, given the source material, I suppose it would have to be considered an attempt at making a visionary superhero film.

Andrew said...

Also, it's possible I'm just being grumpy. Maybe a superhero movie is a superhero movie, and I just have to own up to the fact that the genre doesn't reach me like it once did and stop grumbling for the David Lynch version of Ghost Rider. There is little doubt that 8-16-year-old me would have thought THE AVENGERS was the best thing ever.

Though...come on, the David Lynch version of Ghost Rider.

Dawn Summers said...

The Watchmen was one of the worst pieces of crap I've ever seen. And I know from seeing pieces of crap.

Michael M. said...

"Gone Baby Gone" was actually a solid flick, at least in my completely uninformed, noncritical, opiate of the masses viewpoint.

Andrew said...

I've heard GBG was really good, actually, from both pretentious movie snobs and lovers of teh brain candy. I just put off seeing it because Affleck = Pearl Harbor = Wanting to Chew My Own Teeth.