Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Rental Roundup #1: Argo, Killing Them Softly DVD reviews

Four DVDs rented off the new arrivals wall at Little Shop of Movies today: Argo, Killing Them Softly, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Master. Watched the first two tonight.
(who is the most self-important person in this picture?)

Argo is scandalously lousy, considering the praise heaped on it. I normally don't pay any attention to the Academy Awards, for obvious reasons, but they've really outdone themselves voting for this piece of tripe as best picture; the film is a sub-cinematic liberal wank, an act of Hollywood self-congratulation, and yet another attempt by Ben Affleck to sell us on how soulful, deep, and caring he is (he's getting to be worse than M. Night Shyamalan, whom I always sort of hoped wasn't being entirely serious in his self-flattering self-castings; Affleck couldn't even cast himself as a Boston bank robber - in The Town - without making him the most generous, caring, and moral bank robber in America).  Pretty much everyone already knows the film's story, drawn from an actual historical footnote: Affleck, as a CIA "exfiltration" specialist, cooks up a scheme to rescue six Americans from the residence of the Canadian ambassador of Iran, as a sort of sideshow to the Iranian hostage crisis. His idea - "the best bad idea we've got," as his CIA cohort Bryan Cranston describes it at one point - is to pose as a film producer, smuggle in forged documents, coach the diplomats and their wives how to pass as movie people, do a bit of location scouting in Iran, and convince the Iranians that they are a Canadian film crew for a low budget Star Wars knockoff named Argo. To make the story believable, Affleck and his CIA co-conspirators actually hold press conferences in America, get an article published in a trade journal, rent an office, design a poster and storyboards, and option an actual screenplay.

The film adds absolutely nothing of interest to the story just told, just acts it out in the (doubtlessly highly oversimplified and historically inaccurate) manner of a TV movie of the week, so unless you're illiterate, if what you want is historical information, just read the Wikipedia entry on the actual mission (or, heaven forbid, a book about it) and skip the film altogether. If you ARE illiterate, you could still have a more entertaining and edifying experience by having someone else read the Wikipedia entry to you, while bypassing the film. Since we all know Argo is based on a true story, and since there would be no movie here if the mission didn't succeed, there's not even any real suspense generated. The film has no visual interest, no particularly well-developed characters, takes no risks, and does very little with the cast members with actual talent that Affleck surrounds himself with (Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Rory Cochrane, even a bizarrely wasted Michael Parks, who flickers on-screen for all of three seconds and then completely and utterly disappears). Exactly one funny joke occurs when Arkin, as one of the Hollywood people brought on board, refuses to answer a persistent reporter's question about the name of the  ship in the movie - the ship also being called Argo - and, growing tired of being badgered ("Argo what? Argonaut?"), responds with "Argo fuck yourself!" An amusing moment from a talented veteran, but the film is so short on other inspired things to do or say that it repeats the joke some five times (each repetition of which is still more interesting  and entertaining than anything else that happens in the film).

Then there's the question of the moral purpose of Argo: on one level, it can be seen as an endorsement of CIA involvement in the entertainment industry; on the other, it seems to suggest that silly science fiction movies are somehow a universal good that can solve all the world's problems and triumph over fundamentalism, anti-Americanism, and all manner of political ills and injustices ("Iranian revolution bad, cheapshit Hollywood knockoffs good"). Both of these factors probably go a long way to explaining the Oscar, since Americans LIKE siding with authority whenever possible, and seem to enjoy celebrating their own vapid mass culture, but they don't make Argo a good, or even a moral, film. In fact, Argo is a bunch of mediocre rubbish, and should be avoided.

I would perhaps be kinder on it if it hadn't won an Academy Award for best picture, but... fuckit.
By pleasant contrast, Killing Them Softly is very nearly great, and definitely deserves to be seen; the scandal here is that it came and went pretty much unremarked. I'm going to hazard a guess about the film, however, without having read much about it at all: I'm convinced that what we see onscreen cannot possibly be 100% as the director intended. It's my understanding, via Jonathan Rosenbaum, that the brothers Weinstein (who produced the film) have a long history of re-editing and reworking material - including foreign films that they pick up to distribute - and often substantially alter films they're producing from the director's intent, in their attempts to craft a hit (they are hands-on businessmen with definite ideas of what a successful movie should look like). They appear to have no bones about taking something that could be a great work of cinema, seen by few initially but remembered for ages, and changing it into a mediocre short-term moneymaker, hyped for a few weeks, forgotten in a few months - regardless of what damage they do to the long-term reputation of the film in question or cinema in general in the process. Sadly, I smell their craft at work here. Andrew Dominik - who previously made Chopper and the very effective, subtle The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - handles so much of his material in this film with care and precision and respect for his audience that I really don't want to believe him responsible for the ham-fisted, blaringly obvious fuckups that pop up time and again throughout the movie. I would prefer to believe that someone stepped in and made him change the film, forcing him to make it less subtle, less original, less important, less restrained; the best argument I can offer for this theory is that it fits the film so well, because all the things wrong with Killing Them Softly look suspiciously like the sort of changes that movie money-men might insist upon.
Here are some specific instances: there is very, very little music in the film; it has an extremely restrained soundtrack, makes great use of silence and ambient noise, seems to be consciously trying to build tension and draw our focus to the terrific, terrific dialogue (drawn from a novel by George V. Higgins, who wrote the novel that was the basis of the great 1970's film The Friends of Eddie Coyle - a film which the aformentioned Affleck's The Town, also a Boston crime drama, cannot hope to compete with, but against which Killing Them Softly stacks up pretty well). This tense silence is so effective and seems so much a matter of directorial choice that it doesn't make sense that on several occasions, suddenly the film breaks from this modus operandi and asserts corny, obvious, overly loud popular music of a singularly hip variety to comment DIRECTLY on the action onscreen. When Brad Pitt, as the film's central character - a cynical, smart hitman - drives into town, the soundtrack plays Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around." When two haplessly incompetent wannabe crooks shoot heroin to celebrate a small victory, the soundtrack is none other than the Velvet Underground's "Heroin." And worst of all, when Pitt first shoots someone in the film, the song is "Love Letters (Straight From The Heart)", which, of course, is a Blue Velvet reference - the love letter is, as Frank Booth says, "a bullet from a fucking gun, fucker!" If Dominik is responsible for these song choices, he should be chastened, for not having the courage to carry through with the apparent impulse towards silence - but I suspect that these are Weinstein Company attempts to increase the popular appeal of a highly grim, dark, unpalatably cynical, but potentially great film, by making it a little hipper, cooler, more ironic, "entertaining." Such moments are definitely at odds with the things that work in the film.

Something similar happens with incidental radio and TV broadcasts in the film. Killing Them Softly makes, at times, great use of the speeches of Barack Obama, as delivered just before and just after his election. The climax of the film is basically Brad Pitt in a bar responding to Obama derisively, offering a very different vision of America from Obama's. This moment resonates against an early scene where Scoot McNairy (also in Argo, but much better here), as one of the hapless wannabe hoods, trudges along, dishevelled and obviously broke, with an Obama Change poster in the background. That moment at the beginning of the film, and Pitt's reaction to Obama on TV at the film's end, are absolutely all that the film needs to make it obvious even to the stupid people in the audience that the film is attempting to use the crime genre to comment on contemporary American life. Anything more would be overkill, and out of keeping with the restraint, subtlety, craft, and quiet tension that the film cultivates through most of its runtime. Overkill is just what we get, however. A good fifteen minutes of the film - ie., far too much of it - is commented upon and overlaid by voiceovers from political speeches, including an ample helping of Bush; some of this becomes patently silly in its overtness. There is discussion at one point in the film of the necessity of killing a certain character, to show that there are consequences for misbehaviour; the next time we see this character on screen, a Bush speech booms out of the soundtrack talking about the need to punish corporate criminals, which exactly echoes the prior conversation ("there need to be consequences!"). It's exactly like using "Heroin" to illustrate the shooting of heroin; it's out of keeping with the stuff that works in the film, but completely IN keeping with the stuff that doesn't, so much so that I really want to be able to absolve the director and blame someone else.
If it wasn't for these too overt, too obvious, too loud attempts to underscore the action of the film with radio, TV, and music, I think Killing Them Softly would be the greatest American film I've seen in quite awhile. It's very true to what I presume (not having read Cogan's Trade, but having read The Friends of Eddie Coyle) is Higgins' vision of crime and life in America. The performances are fantastic - fans of James Gandolfini should be particularly pleased, because he's absolutely terrific here, giving a supporting performance as an unknowingly washed-up killer that, for nuance and subtlety, should have won him an award of some kind, if awards in America were actually meted out according to talent. The violence in the film is some of the most honest, ugly, sad violence I have ever seen onscreen; Ray Liotta, at one point, takes a beating that fills you with pity for his character, and bleeds and cries and vomits in a way you simply never see in American movies, ever. I would have liked to see more of Sam Shepard - he plays a character named Dillon, which, coincidentally, is the name of the character played by Peter Boyle in The Friends of Eddie Coyle; but it's enough that he appears. (Brad Pitt is just fine, too!). There is so much that is so good about the movie that I think I'll recommend it in spite of its flaws - even if those flaws are glaring, unfortunate, unavoidable. It appears to be the sort of film director's cuts were made for, but it seems highly unlikely, given its modest reception, that such a thing will ever come to pass. If the Weinsteins are indeed the ones responsible from keeping this film from being the great work of cinema that it could have been, they should be ashamed of themselves, and seek repentance of some sort: they need to realize that, at least in the case of auteur-driven art cinema, people generally want to see films as their directors intend them, and not how the money-men think they'll sell best.

On the other hand, if the director, Andrew Dominik, is in fact the responsible party - well, someone let him see this review, okay? He should trust his audience (and himself) more. We can take it.


Anonymous said...

Finally I am reading something from someone who hated Argo. I have zero desire to see it and even less because Ben Affleck was moaning about not being nominated for Best Director. Yuck. I've never found him to be even a competent actor and can't figure out why he is being allowed to direct big budget films. And all the American rah rah - I see that you liked Zero Dark Thirty but I also can't imagine seeing it - rah, rah, America, rah rah, we torture and rah rah. Jessica Chastain - she was picking good films but now she just seems to go for whatever, as tends to happen with a little bit of fame.
- Karen
p.s. - did you hear Roger Ebert's cancer has returned? not sure if you like him as a critic or not.

Allan MacInnis said...

Actually, maybe you didn't read far enough: I did not, in fact, "like" Zero Dark Thirty. I acknowledged its craft, in the first couple of sentences of the review, because I felt I had to, since it is a beautifully made film, and I can see why some people were seduced by it. However, as I say, it at the very least borders on being politically immoral; and at best, it is politically gutless and far too tame and too hollow. I think I would have respected it more if it was an outright work of popular fascism, like Christopher Nolan's Batman films; by contrast, it doesn't seem to have any convictions at all, let alone the courage to state them strongly.

As for Argo, you might be amused to note, I'm not the only person *I* know who thought it was crap; a film studies guy who had been my TA at UBC weighed in during a bus ride we recently shared about the movie, before I'd had a chance to see it. He's from Iran, so I took his comments with a grain of salt - "of COURSE a Persian would hate this film!" - until I saw it for myself, and discovered he had ample reason to dismiss it regardless of where he comes from. It's one of the lamest films to get widely praised in recent memory.

Finally: yep, I heard about Ebert's cancer coming back. It's very sad. I might blog something; I had other stuff on my mind today. I do read Ebert, though he has his flaws. I've seen him patently misunderstand really good films (his review of Leonard Nimoy's The Good Mother is a pet peeve of mine - his review doubtlessly damaged that film, when he obviously just didn't GET it); I've also seen him praise mediocre ones (Mississippi Burning and, I would bet, Argo), and condemn films as immoral that I rather love -- see my Mandingo review below, but also consider his reviews of The Devils, Death Race 2000, and many of his other "zero stars" films. 'Twas a time he would act as a guardian of public morality, from which point of view most of his most flawed, wrongheaded reviews were written. He's lost some of that quality over the decades, which suits him well.

That said, Siskel and Ebert at the movies was VERY important to my growth as a young movie lover, when I was a kid, and I still READ Ebert's reviews (though usually only AFTER I've seen the films in question). He's a true film lover, a decent writer, and seems to be one of the good guys, whatever his flaws (and hell, I have flaws too - as does every critic, even great ones, from Jonathan Rosenbaum over-praising Small Soldiers to Robin Wood misperceiving Cronenberg). I admire Ebert's courage, and I'm very sorry to hear that his cancer is back.