Argo (2012)

Argo (2012)

Dir: Ben Affleck, US, 120mins

Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman

On paper Argo is a high concept Hollywood dream. It is the type of film studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) would have green lighted in The Player (1992). In Robert Altman’s droll satire we catch the end of a test screening for screenwriters Andy Civella (Dean Stockwell) and Tom Oakley’s (Richard E. Grant) opus, a worthy awards bait drama set on death row called Habeas Corpus. As prisoner Julia Roberts is gassed and all appears lost Bruce Willis’s attorney busts through in the nick of time. “What took you so long?” she asks. “Traffic was a bitch” he replies. Argo, thankfully, does not resort to ridiculous jumps in logic. It is based on a true story but with a premise so ludicrous it could have come straight out of La La land, which it did to an extent. Before I confuse matters any further let me explain.

Argo is based on what has become known popularly as the “Canadian Caper”, a CIA operation declassified during the Clinton era. In 1979 the US embassy in Tehran was raided by revolutionaries displeased by American asylum for corrupt Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Personnel were held hostage, a stand-off that lasted until early 1981. Six fled and took shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador. The CIA hatched a plan to get them out of the country but hit a wall on how to go about this in such a hostile atmosphere. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), an expert on such scenarios, who put forward the idea of location scouting for a film as cover, creating new identities and passports for those trapped. Given the all clear Tony heads off to Hollywood to hook up with make- up artist and old contact John Chambers (John Goodman) to find a script, the Star Wars (1977) rip off of the title, for this audacious hoax.

Affleck has stuck to his South Bostonian roots for previous efforts away from acting. He won an original screenplay Oscar with Matt Damon for Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997), where he also starred in a supporting capacity. Directorial forays Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010) were both Dennis Lehane adaptations also set in “Southie” as it is known to locals.

Moving outside this comfort zone he brilliantly conveys the anxiety of the situation. The taking of the embassy is shot in a loose, jagged cinema verite style, seamlessly mixed in with documentary footage, as the jostling crowd amass whilst inside a growing unease develops leading to a frenzy of document shredding. Scenes with the six are claustrophobic and as cabin fever sets in personalities clash. There is a genuine air of peril and despondency but also camaraderie. It is testament to the actors portraying these roles that they do so much with so little and give the audience an authentic interest to invest in. In fact so absorbing is this human drama that come the final airport scenes knowledge of the outcome is temporarily forgotten and displaced by a clammy, knife edge tension where all bets are off.

This is mainstream film-making and historical liberties are taken. The Canadian influence in organising the rescue mission is far greater than shown here. However, Argo does smartly nod to American meddling in the Middle East, adopting an apologetic stance. An animated introduction elegantly conducts a brief history lesson with, unsurprisingly, oil top of the agenda. This is not an overriding concern which sacrifices the films tempo. It doesn’t go into the detail of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), which shrewdly mapped out connections on a broader canvass. Accusations could be made that it resorts to the cliché of the “foreign other”, faceless hordes with no voice or characterisation, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) the most disturbing example. The airport guards are atypical of this but a brief scene at the finale demonstrates a greater understanding. Sahar (Sheila Vand), a house keeper aware of the Americans location, crosses the border to Iraq, cutting through western self congratulation.

On a lighter note Argo mines a keen satirical vein as Mendez embarks on setting up his fake picture. From creating a production company, taking out ads in trade press Variety and a script reading which brings out an exuberant array of sci-fi nuts, the absurdity of the industry is sent up with Mendez baffled in the background. Chambers brings in veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), actually a composite, who guides him through the process. Arkin has great fun with this grizzled role which reminded me of Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman, mimicking the legendary Robert Evans) in Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog (1997), also an industry satire with Motss asked to create a bogus war against Albania for presidential spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro). Arkin, Goodman and Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss head up a strong supporting cast, one with numerous faces you recognise but can’t quite put a name to.

The appearance of the 1970’s Warner Brother symbol at the start of this film is reassuring. Personally this evokes memories of Klute (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Night Moves (1975) and All the Presidents Men (1976), sharp, vibrant film-making from Alan J Pakula, Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn. Argo takes its cues from this era, although it would struggle for a place at the same table. This is pure entertainment but smart, considerate and a welcome anecdote to a dirge of summer blockbusters that generally flattered to deceive.

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The Master (2012)

The Master (2012)

Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 143 mins

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

Controversy and mystery have surrounded Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master since its conception in late 2009. Unsurprisingly word of the film’s religious cult foundations drew inevitable comparisons to Scientology, well renowned for its Hollywood A-list advocates. Rumour has it that Anderson held a screening for Tom Cruise, who starred in his sprawling, soapy Magnolia (1999), to a mixed reaction. Although connotations are implicit The Master is a very different animal from what was anticipated. This is a stylistic continuation from There Will Be Blood (2007), less ambitious but somehow more elusive in content.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a world war two veteran lost in 1950’s America. He drifts from town to town holding down jobs briefly. One evening seeking refuge he stows away on a yacht. When discovered he is taken in by its owner Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the head of a new movement known as The Cause. Freddie stays with the group travelling along the East Coast and becoming Dodd’s right hand man but his erratic behaviour and close friendship with Dodd causes friction within the group particularly Dodd’s wife Mary Anne (Amy Adams).

Direct lines can be drawn but a dissection of Scientology this is not. Dodd’s undoubtedly shares similarities with L Ron Hubbard, himself an oddball fantasist. The Cause and its new age methods of past life regression have some roots in Hubbard’s dianetics methodology but Anderson’s agenda is not to take a scalpel to this influence. If anything The Master follows a long-held fascination with sons and father figures, generally surrogate. This is most notable in porn drama Boogie Nights (1997), a film essentially about family, with director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) but can be traced back to debut Hard Eight (1996) and is evident in Magnolia and There Will Be Blood.

Quell is a bundle of neurosis: traumatised by war, haunted by lost love, sex obsessed, alcoholic and prone to random bouts of violence. Dodd bonds with him over a love of alcohol, Freddie being a dab hand at producing his own toxic brew. The central fixation revolves around how Dodd will attempt to reprogram him and these scenes are as taxing in their repetition on Freddie as they are the audience (surely the point). Freddie refuses to buy into The Cause’s ideology and this comes to a head in a stand out scene where both men are thrown in jail and opinions are explosively aired. Despite this Freddie is loyal to Dodd and physically attacks any vocal detractors. Dodd in turn finds in Freddie someone who is a reality check but also indulges his eccentricity and sense of adventure, the latter being subdued by his figure head status. Their relationship revolves around power play as much as it heals and nourishes and in this sense the background of The Master offers a perfect platform for this recurring Anderson theme to be put under the microscope.

This is Phoenix’s first film since he “quit” acting to turn rapper which was documented in I’m Still Here (2010), an extended practical joke and bizarre career deviation. His return is searing and certainly the performance thus far of his career. He is that rare quantity who can seemingly alter his entire physicality. Think of the bulked up alpha male roles in James Grey’s crime dramas The Yards (2000) and We Own the Night (2007) and then the limp, fey villain of Gladiator (2000). Here he is hunched over, all mannerisms and facial tics, one side fixed in a permanent squint. It makes for compulsive viewing and despite his flaws Freddie is as innocent as he is damaged and volatile, a difficult trick to pull off considering the extreme nature of the character.

Most had anticipated Dodd to be the showier role but Hoffman compliments in a surprisingly calmer capacity. Dodd becomes more ill at ease as the film progresses, trapped and expected to continually advance his theories which always lay on shifting ground. The power behind the throne is Mary Jane. A bathroom scene where she admonishes Dodd for drinking demonstrates the authority she exerts over him. This is a coiled performance of inner machinations from Adams. A scene where she stares at Freddie across a crowded room during a gathering cuts right through the joyous, bohemian atmosphere.

Anderson’s first two films marked him as heir apparent to Martin Scorsese. Hard Eight could be a distant cousin to Mean Streets (1973) with its grubby, noir inflected setting, albeit minus the seamlessly incidental structure and complete immersion into locale of the latter. Boogie Nights seemed to be the clearest indicator yet that this would be the case, a whirling dervish of a film punctuated with punchy camera and editing techniques blazed through with period music ala Goodfellas (1990). Romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love (2002) is an anomaly. A change of tact, light and playful but ill-judged falling between the mainstream and experimental not helped by the inclusion of Adam Sandler.

The Master has the measured, epic grandeur of There Will Be Blood. Mihai Malaimare’s cinematography is exquisite as is Terence Malick collaborator Jack Fisk’s production design. Certain shots burn into the psyche: Freddie lying atop the crow’s nest of a boat, framed by the ocean or Freddie bolting from the farm across a field into the mist (perhaps a visual metaphor for his life). However, unlike Anderson’s predecessor it is hard to pin down. There Will Be Blood knitted together its historical setting with religion and capitalism in eternal conflict granting it a modern context. The Master lacks this level of insight. It maintains a Kubrickian distance throughout, flawless but slightly removed. In this respect it reminded me of Thackeray adaptation Barry Lyndon (1975), frame by frame of visual perfection but difficult to crack the exterior. Admittedly the psycho drama on show here makes for a pivot more gripping than Ryan O’Neal’s rise and fall but the overall sentiment still remains.

Despite this I am still contemplating the intricacies of The Master weeks later. It demands a repeat viewing which, like some of Kubrick’s back catalogue, I sense will bring further reward. It continues to mark Paul Thomas Anderson out as a unique voice in American cinema and where he goes next will be highly anticipated. Immaculate in design, glacial in execution, but an enigma well worth trying to solve.

Shadow Dancer (2012)

Shadow Dancer (2012) ½

Dir: James Marsh, UK/Ire, 101mins

Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson

James Marsh’s second feature film Shadow Dancer takes place in Northern Ireland. After a failed terrorist attempt on the London tube system Collette (Andre Riseborough) is arrested by MI5. Placed in a holding cell she is handed a dossier and given two options by handler Mac (Clive Owen): a lengthily jail sentence or to turn informant. Fearing for the welfare of her young son Collette agrees to work undercover.

The politically fraught nature of The Troubles has often presented a backdrop for thrillers on-screen. Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) is the most notable example asking questions of national loyalty alongside love and gender as Fergus (Stephen Rea) attempts to escape his past after the botched execution of soldier Jody (Forrest Whitaker). Real life figures have been portrayed such as Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day Lewis) in In the Name of the Father (1993), a member of the Guildford Four incorrectly implicated for pub bombings in the 1970’s. Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) depicted the final months of Bobbie Sands (Michael Fassbender) in a gruelling account of the 1981 Maze prison hunger strikes that stays long in the mind after the final reel. Innocent victim of police corruption or a man willing to die for what he believes in, either way the weight of history bears down on both.

Whilst watching Shadow Dancer I could not help but draw comparisons with Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008) which is near enough identikit in terms of plot albeit based on the true story of Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess) who later disowned this version of events. This film was flashier and more generic in approach, notching up the tension as McGartland climbs higher up the pecking order. Shadow Dancer adopts a more languid pace, sometimes overly so though there are virtues to this.

Marsh’s background is in documentary. He won an Oscar for Man on a Wire (2008) and his last output was Project Nim (2011), both well worth checking out. Here his cameras sits back and scrutinises the cultures of the IRA and MI5 with a bleak, pared down palette similar to that adopted in his part of the Red Riding Trilogy (2009). We find secrets and lies in each camp, both coldly results orientated where lives are put second to making a mark on the political landscape. Collette’s failure to carry out her task adds to an already paranoid melting pot bringing suspicion not only on her but those close. Meanwhile Mac battles against boss Kate Fletcher (Gillian Anderson) to protect Collette and uncovers information that leads to consequences that cut deeper.

The relaxed pacing allows for a thorough sense of time and place to be rendered. We spend most of the films running time within Collette’s community and become immersed in this microcosm, a tightly knit group like many others, steeped in tradition where family is everything, but frayed with internal conflicts. The supporting cast add to the naturalistic feel of these sections of the film particularly Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson as Colette’s brothers Gerry and Connor. At times this slow burner could do with an injection of adrenaline but this would distract from the level of detail which marks this film out from many of a similar ilk.

The film rests on Riseborough’s shoulders as Owen’s character is a stock type and never fully fleshed out perhaps due to the covert nature of his profession. As the pivot her performance is low key but engrossing, a hardened exterior with inner resolve blackmailed into a scenario where the duplicity towards those closest eats away at her. The opening scene points to childhood guilt that has driven her into this faction, an almost preordained way of life that would have occurred even if she had not been arrested. Family ties are an important factor here, the bond and need to protect counterbalanced against political sacrifice and this becomes even more relevant come the finale. It is also to be respected that when events do threaten to resort to convention the script smartly swerves away, something I didn’t see coming and which opens up a revision of what has happened previously in what is more a perceptive drama than taut thriller.