Argo - Featured

This Week in DVD: 2/19/13

Argo

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012) Since it seems almost a strangely foregone conclusion that Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort will clean up at this coming weekend’s Academy Awards without it’s star and helmer getting a nomination, now might be a good time to take the stand that while great, Argo certainly wasn’t the best film of 2012. In fact, when I did my top 25 of 2012 Argo only got an honourable mention and it missed the final cut. Not to take anything away from Affleck, but this tale of political intrigue and near misses doesn’t add anything or take away from an already established genre. Even worse, it loses a lot of its impact when not watched with an unknowing crowd that could gasp at every beat in the plot.

It was a story for the history books and tailor made for Hollywood, but no one could tell it for years. The world knew back in 1979 that six workers at the US embassy in Iran were able to escape after their building was overtaken by rioters who kidnapped and ransomed everyone else unlucky to remain in the building. Finding temporary refuge at the Canadian embassy, the United States government had no idea how to safely get their workers out of a country that wanted them dead or captured. Naturally, they came up with a shell game so convoluted that only a true tinseltown charlatan would have been able to sell it.

Tony Mendez wasn’t a big time LA player, but rather the best extraction expert in the CIA. In Argo, the exciting and fast paced third feature for actor Ben Affleck as a director, a silver screen scam job comes to actual theatres with the filmmaker starring as Mendez, whose best plan to rescue the trapped diplomats comes in the form of bringing them together as a fake movie crew under the guise of being location scouts for a big budget sci-fi epic.

Affleck doesn’t get to stretch his acting muscles too far in the leading role, instead leaving the heavy lifting to his more than capable supporting cast. The people who helped Mendez are for more interesting, anyway, than the stoic family man who had the most to lose, and to his credit Affleck fully realizes this, only giving Mendez the spotlight when he has to personally answer to someone or when his actions have unintended consequences. He’s the guide through this world and the on screen narrator orchestrating everything, but this is a character that isn’t anything more than a simple, humanized G-man. Affleck does a great job, but his work behind the camera resonates far more strongly than his performance.

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His main pointmen back in Los Angeles are producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), the former of which hasn’t had a box office success in ages and who doesn’t really seem to care all that much that his career is in the crapper, while the latter has actually had some experience helping out the government. These are the people tasked with pulling together everything needed to make a credible looking production out of something that’s never going to exist in case the Iranian authorities question Mendez’s real identity or if he gets stopped escorting his charges out of the country. Goodman and Arkin are the most delightful performers in a film full of strong players, but the cynical and distant nature of their jobs never undercuts their desire to help in a mission neither knows they will get a lick of credit for.

While it all get hashed out back home, on the ground in Tehran, Mendez has to deal with a bunch of spoon fed government officials that have gone stir crazy waiting to get out of their guest’s house. Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) simply can’t keep house them much longer than he already has (over 40 days) and suspicion is coming down on him hard from all sides. At the same time, a great deal of the six remaining Americans have no faith in Mendez’s plans despite being too shell shocked still to come up with any better ideas.

Mendez’s dealings with the hostages are where the movie feels the most pat and artificial, oddly enough. It’s not that the performances are distracting or that it’s unbelievable, but the dialogue suggests a spinning of the wheels. Granted, no one other than Mendez (who wrote a book on the subject, himself) and those who were there knows exactly word for word what was said in those conversations, but the dialogue from Chris Terrio’s nominated screenplay feels a bit too “on the nose at times.” After already watching Mendez struggle with getting his superiors to accept his outlandish sounding proposal (including a sympathetic liaison played by Bryan Cranston and an oblivious Chief of Staff played by Kyle Chandler, both of whom are delightful, but in need of more screen time), the audience doesn’t need to watch even more people tell him just how crazy his plan is. We all pretty much got that on the first go around.

Still, Affleck reasserts himself as someone capable of crafting sprawling narratives with a great knack for creating tension out of quiet, seemingly innocuous moments. Following his similar work in Gone Baby Gone and The Town – both of which are still superior to this – Affleck has becomes very close to being considered an auteurist here. He shoots in a no-bullshit style that only occasionally allows the musical score to swell or the editor to make something look chaotic. He often tends to let things play out as they normally would, and here at the film’s conclusion he wrings every bit of tension that he can while people literally look over story boards while others are trapped in an awkward pre-cellular phone dilemma where they can’t simply cross a lot to answer a phone call.

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On a screenwriting level, the film’s final third seems a bit outlandish and it’s hard not to think that the end of Argo doesn’t depict exactly how everything went down, but Affleck has fun staging these sequences for full cathartic effect. On a purely metatextual level, too, Affleck has to know exactly what he’s doing by amping up the finale. He knows his film, despite the Hollywood trappings, was always one about paperwork and bureaucracy to begin with. In a way, he gives the real Mendez the tongue-in-cheek fake film that he was sent to never make in the first place.

The also perceived “Canadian controversy” around the film not truly showing the work put in by Canadian minister Ken Taylor doesn’t hold much weight. The film isn’t Taylor’s story, and the focus is squarely on Mendez and the shell game put into play. The film does a fine job of showing just how far Taylor could go along with the charade, and Garber does a great job of playing the soft-spoken man as someone who wants the best ending for all involved and not as someone who sneers that he wants the people he is protecting gone at any cost. For those who want to poke holes in the film’s depiction of Canadiana, I again point to the entire final third of the film and ask them if they still take the film as a pure face value account of any history, American or Canadian.

Part of why Argo works so well is because it’s just so entertaining to watch. It’s the type of period piece actioner that would only have been made in the 70s or 80s, but made by Affleck today to look exactly like the time period it was made in on both aesthetic and technical levels. It’s grainy, oddly coloured, and everyone smokes like they’ll never die from it, and that seems to be the point. Affleck has created a real film about a fake movie that gives reverential treatment to the decade when the fraud would have taken place. It doesn’t sound like an easy feat to pull off, but he makes it all work splendidly, leaving the audience to wonder what his next directorial effort will end up becoming.

I admire the film to a great degree as a sort of paperback styled potboiler, but when I tried watching it for a third time at home following two outings to see it in the cinema, I felt strangely compelled to do anything else other than pay attention. The allure and the desire to grab me as a viewer was gone and I literally started washing dishes and cleaning my floors while it was on. It barely even registered with me when the credits started to roll and the Blu-Ray menu popped up again. Now that’s the sign of a film that probably shouldn’t be lauded as much as it has been, especially when six of the other nine Best Picture nominees (and several that were snubbed) have had far more staying power than this one.

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For what it’s worth, the Blu-Ray retains a lot of the dirt and grit in the picture transfer to make it look equal to the theatrical exhibition and the sound mix is solid. The special features include a picture-in-picture track with the real life participants in the hostage crisis, which should appeal to history buffs. Also worth checking out is a featurette showing Affleck’s commitment to period realism while filming. There’s also a pair of historical featurettes, including a 45 minute special from a few years ago to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the crisis, a commentary track from Affleck and Terrio, and a featurette talking with the cast and crew about the connection between the CIA and Hollywood. It’s still a package worth checking out, especially if you haven’t seen the film, but the film most deserving of Best Picture nod? Not so much. (Andrew Parker)

 

Holy Motors

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012) – Holy Motors undoubtedly qualifies as one of those old blurb-master chestnuts that can be called a thrilling ride or a corker of a motion picture, but while it’s designed to incite such lofty praise from a core group of cinephiles, I would still have to be careful who I recommend it to. The five star review below represents the film’s success as a piece of art and entertainment geared squarely at an intellectual crowd well versed in cinematic studies and literature. It’s not in any way, shape, or form a film for casual audiences or the type of people who only watch a single film in a year. This is a film for the weary; a film for those who think they’ve seen it all already. In his first film in thirteen years, director Leos Carax delivers a deeply personal love letter to cinema, aimed squarely at those who would appreciate it the most while damning the rest to hopeless efforts to piece together everything that’s happening on screen. It’s brilliant and confounding in some of the best possible ways.

Denis Laurent stars as Monsieur Oscar, an actor of sorts. He awakens in the morning (or does he) and makes his way to a pristine, ivory white stretch limo that chauffeurs him around between nine very different “appointments” throughout the course of his “work” day. Bouncing around between playing wild eyed savages, concerned parents, a dying man, a crippled woman, and many other scenarios, the purpose of the appointments are known really only to Oscar, and not so much to the audience, but over the course of a really hectic day, cracks begin to show in Oscar’s acts, leading the actor to wonder what his purpose is exactly.

Carax has developed the formula for a film that demands every single frame be thought about and analyzed rather than summarily dismissed. There’s a dizzying array of thematic and subtextual material in play here, and reading the nearly plotless first hour of the film could go in dozens of different directions for the engaged and the attentive. It’s a genre mystery for people who know all there is about the inner workings of genre filmmaking grafted onto a deeply personal statement about the true nature of acting and filmmaking.

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Following a surreal opening sequence where Carax himself awakens from a slumber and breaks through a wall into a cinema, it’s literally the awakening of a talent that’s stayed dormant for far too long, and the following feature in a roundabout way attempts to explain why under the guise of a story about a chameleonic performer. His opening with Oscar as an old woman begging for money brings to mind the funding of making a film. The following segment with Oscar playing a motion capture warrior and dragon speaks to the allure of creating something from nothing. A wildman running through a graveyard and eating the flowers off of tombstones that read “Visit my website” before biting a photographers fingers off and licking a model (played by a mute Eva Mendes) and taking her prisoner mimics the adulation an artist receives both rightfully and wrongly and the excess of ego that can come as a result. It then leads to a murder that changes him for the worse – a misguided production that tarnishes his day – followed by taking on the role of a father disappointed not only in his daughter ducking out of a party early, but in the audience for not going along with his side of things.

Once the audience literally gets kicked out of the car, the plot finally kicks in, but that’s even harder to explain and more easy to spoil for those paying attention to the film with all of their visual and auditory might. It’s also the point where Laurent’s largely one man show can be truly appreciated for the depth and dexterity he brings to the character. From the back of his clown-car and show trunk styled limousine, Oscar isn’t the happiest of people. He’s clearly going through something profound that he can’t quite explain until he’s very unwisely given a moment alone to dwell on it (yet another parallel to Carax). Aside from disappearing completely into every miniscule turn he takes on, Laurent makes the man beneath the pounds of make-up and fake hair uniquely human. He’s a man who has forgotten what he’s been doing, much like the man behind the camera, who finds himself reenergized simply through self-exploration.

Holy Motors can very easily and somewhat respectfully be written off as a wank job from an artist making a movie for a very small group of people while indulging himself fully in the process. There’s nothing at all wrong with that when the material is this strangely compelling and thoughfully arranged. It makes the viewer work as hard as humanly possible to get to the truth within it, and by then the nature of the truth ultimately becomes a moot point. Audiences will get out of Carax’s film exactly what they put into it, and if you simply skipped to the star rating at the bottom of this review, your laziness will be rewarded accordingly.

The DVD includes no special features. (Andrew Parker)

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Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012) – A piece of gleefully silly ultraviolent machismo, writer and director Martin McDonagh follows up his Academy Award nominated In Bruges with this messy, but satisfying comedy about writers, dog kidnappers, the mafia, a stone cold killers.

Uninspired alcoholic writer Martin (Colin Farrell) has only the title for his next film: Seven Psychopaths. He doesn’t even have a plot. While researching his more than slightly uncouth best friend (Sam Rockwell) and his soft-spoken partner in the “dog kidnapping” business (Christopher Walken) pinch the pooch of a noted, deranged mobster (Woody Harrelson) leading to violent reprisal and repercussions.

McDonagh crafts a film that’s equally about the creative process as it’s about generally bad behaviour and gun fights. At times the tough guy posturing can be a bit much; almost as if these guys are trying too hard to impress each other and the audience. Then again, that might be part of what McDonagh’s trying to make a point about.

The story isn’t nearly as tight as McDonagh’s previous film as it bounces wildly between the main story and several subplots only to literally forget about almost all of them by the halfway point. The twists that pile up are also fairly obvious, meaning the sharpness has to come from the dialogue rather than the plot. As a story, it never stops being interesting or hilarious, but structurally it’s almost too meta for its own good. It’s one rewrite away from being a masterpiece instead of just being really good.

The real treat here comes from the leading performances. Farrell – who seems to only get to show off his humour and charm in McDonagh’s films – has wonderful chemistry with the appropriately nutty Rockwell and Walken, who gives the patented performances audiences know best from him. As the man caught between the violent outbursts and nervous tics of his friend and the quiet creepiness of a guy he barely knows, Farrell gives one of the best performances of his career. Harrelson also puts in solid work in a fairly stock gangster role and Tom Waits shows up briefly and memorably as a rabbit toting psychopath with an interesting backstory.

Seven Psychopaths succeeds largely because of the cast and witty repartee. It’s a lot of fun in spite of its faults, They’re minor while watching the film, but they start to become apparent if you start thinking about them.

The Blu-Ray includes a gag reel, deleted and extended scenes, and six behind the scenes featurettes. (Andrew Parker)

 

The Man with the Iron Fists (RZA, 2012) – The kung fu genre gets some much needed hip-hop swagger as the RZA marks his directorial debut with The Man with the Iron Fists and shows some real talent as a visual storyteller.

Since his arrival in China’s Jungle Village, the town blacksmith (RZA) has been forced by radical tribal factions to create elaborate tools of destruction resulting in a number of mysterious characters arriving in town whose intentions are unknown as the violence escalates.  When the clans’ brewing war boils over and nearly costs the blacksmith his life, he channels an ancient energy to transform himself into a human weapon. As he fights alongside new found friends and allies he transforms himself into the hero that his adopted homeland so desperately needs in order to stop these villainous forces in their tracks.

The Man with the Iron Fists is quite simply an ode to Chinese cinema and the films of the Shaw Brothers studios, as the rich use of color and a story of loyalty are translated from not only those films, but to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, the early operatic crime opuses of John Woo, and the lush dramatic sweep of the wushu historical epics of Yhang Yimou. Learning at the feet of his co-writer and producer Eli Roth as well as Quentin Tarantino, RZA quickly became skilled as a visual storyteller in terms of at least knowing how to borrow from some of the very best in crafting a mash up style that is truly his own.  This purposeful blending of styles can be a little overwhelming and chaotic at times, but it still works, as it’s an incredible amount of fun to take in and watch unfold in front of us.  His musical background gives him a keen sense of flow, using everything at his disposal to efficiently tell a story. For his first feature film effort there’s no doubt that he shows an incredible amount of promise, and I know I won’t be the only one looking forward to his next effort behind the camera.  If there’s such a thing as a quintuple threat (rapper, producer, actor, writer, director) then I dare say that RZA is it.

The narrative follows so many of the same beats as many of the classic kung fu/westerns do, while still managing an edgy sense of style and humor to the proceedings. It helps that from top to bottom that the entire ensemble cast knows exactly the kind of film that RZA was setting out to create. RZA as our narrator and ‘The Blacksmith’ stays dispassionate of the entire proceedings until the violence draws him in and he became our hero. Russell Crowe adds a great deal of flavor to the film channeling Lee Van Cleef when he tears into the role of Jack Knife: the mysterious stranger who rolls into town as all the war escalates.  Lucy Liu is great as Madam Blossom, the inviting hostess who could turn as deadly. Fans of the Kung Fu genre will recognize a fair number of Chinese stars like Daniel Wu and the iconic Gordon Liu alongside oriental-American stars like Rick Yune and Jamie Chung and stars of the fighting world like WWE alumni Dave Bautista and UFC fighter Cung Le.  The entire ensemble crafts a great balance between the action and the entertainment, adding to the overall experience and mood that the film creates. The results are by no means perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

The picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are top notch and the special features include deleted scenes, a look inside The Man with the Iron Fists, a behind the scenes featurette about keeping the entire film authentic and shooting in China with Chinese crews, 5 additional featurettes while on set with RZA looking at various aspects of the making of the film as well as an unrated extended cut of the film featuring 12 additional minutes put back into the film. (Dave Voigt)

 

Sinister (Scott Derrickson, 2012) – The formula for Sinister, last year’s biggest haunted house horror that doesn’t have the words “Paranormal” and “Activity” and the number 4 in the title, is about as simple to figure out as any in recent memory. Insidious + The Ring = Sinister. By those mathematical parameters (and lowered expectations in the case of the latter half of that equation), Sinister isn’t terrible, but rather just rote and by-the-numbers. There’s some twists, some jump scares that can be seen coming from miles away, a little bit of comedic relief, and it’s very well shot, but there’s absolutely nothing about this movie that hasn’t been done better and quite often elsewhere.

True Crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn’t had a hit novel in over a decade when he dropped the book that made him famous. He’s shuffled around the country with his family, almost universally hated by all law enforcement officers for his portrayal of them as crooked boobs more often than not, and searching for the latest grisly crime scene to make his next dollar off of. Now in small town Pennsylvania, Ellison has settled his clan into a house where all the former residents were hung from a tree in the backyard except for the youngest daughter who went missing.

Naturally the deeper Ellison looks into the story, the spookier things get. A mysterious box in the attic labelled “Home Movies” amounts to a collection of familial Super 8 snuff films from around the country with different scenarios and cutsey titles applied to each that says how everyone will die in them (i.e. “Pool Party” and “Lawn Work”). Then his kids start acting creepy, he starts hitting the bottle, he starts seeing things that aren’t really there, etc., etc., etc., repeat until fairly obvious twist ending.

There are some things to give credit to in Sinister. It doesn’t tip its hat to the true nature of the crimes until later on when a cameoing Vincent D’Onofrio literally Skypes in his entire performance to add some clarity to the proceedings. Hawke is quite good in the lead as a burnt out writer, and his scenes with his wife (relative newcomer Juliet Rylance) make up the best scenes of marital strife in any recent horror film. There’s some great support from James Ransone as a local deputy who wants to help Ellison, but who constantly questions why he hasn’t left the house if things have gotten so crazy. Even director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still) manages to create a decently atmospheric and tense mood by very rarely leaving the house for Ellison and the audience to catch their breath.

Beyond that, however, this one’s completely humdrum. The jump scares aren’t scary, relying on the same creepy kids, lurking demons, and damning photographic evidence that has become so rote and cliché now that it never fully registers as anything other than forced here. Once the film seemingly makes its ghost story literal, it loses all hope of really being interesting again in spite of its better elements. The script also manages to just simply forget about characters in hopes that the viewer will see them as red herrings by way of omission, but by not reminding us that they are there (especially by forgetting that Ellison has two kids instead of just one for an unconscionably long time) we can’t be asked to care when the ending has been made so blatantly obvious right off the bat.

There isn’t anything particularly shocking about Sinister aside from how drab it all feels in spite of its stylish sheen. There’s a pretty good gag at the end, but if you think about it (or more specifically about the dynamics of how Super 8 film actually works) it will take you right out of the film. Then again, with its third act Amityville styled posturing, nothing in this film was designed to make a lick of sense. It’s just trying to goose the audience, and on its own terms, that might be the most unforgivable cliché of the lot of them.

The Blu-Ray comes with 2 commentary tracks: one with just Derrickson, and the other with Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill. There’s also two featurettes (“True Crime Authors” and “Living In A House of Death”), deleted scenes, the trailer, and a digital copy of the film. (Andrew Parker)

 

 

Citadel (Ciaran Foy, 2012) – Positioned somewhere just slightly right of the politics of the cult hit Attack the Block, this intensely claustrophobic Irish import from director Ciaran Foy starts off grimly and never looks back.

Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) can only watch as he gets trapped on an elevator in his condemned apartment building as his pregnant wife is brutally assaulted by a gang of almost feral hoodies. After losing his wife, but saving the child, Tommy has to deal with an almost crippling case of agoraphobia that leads to panic attacks every time he steps outside of his flat. The building is about to come down once and for all, but when he misses his bus out of town, he’s forced to protect his young daughter from the marauders who want to steal her and make the child one of their own.

With shades of The Believers, Demons 2, and Vertigo, Foy delivers a compact and no bullshit thriller anchored by some phenomenal work from Barnard in the lead. While Foy does his best to make the audience know that these monsters are a legitimate threat (sometime a little too literally with the appearance of the stock “crazed priest” character), Barnard actually makes the viewer wonder if maybe his mind is just too damaged to realize what’s going on. When his fears turn out to be real, he becomes one of the most sympathetic horror heroes in recent memory.

The DVD comes with only a very brief behind-the-scenes featurette. (Andrew Parker)

 

The Package (Jesse V. Johnson, 2013) – For anyone who wanted to see former wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin play Jason Statham’s role in The Transporter, your ship has arrived. This uninspired, but not altogether boring actioner finds Austin’s hitman/courier tasked with delivering a mysterious package to a former partner (Dolph Lundgren, once again showing up briefly as a heavy type background character) with potentially lethal consequences. It’s straight to DVD styled shenanigans the whole way around, but Austin’s trademark swagger and surprisingly still great physical presence will give fans something to crow about. It’s not altogether memorable and things pan out exactly as one would expect, but there’s been far worse that this genre has weathered. (Andrew Parker)

Mimesis (Douglas Schulze, 2011) – A muddled meta-zombie film that never makes the most of its hook, Mimesis finds a group of horror fans plucked from a convention and plopped into a real life beat-for-beat remake of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It’s a fine set-up, but the savvy characters and the audience’s knowledge of the original film that it sets out to imitate with a smirk ultimately works against it. Instead of being a clever subversion of genre expectations, it ultimately just ends up being more of the same old, same old with some snarky, know-it-all dialogue peppered throughout. (Andrew Parker)

Also out on Blu-Ray and DVD: Silent Hill: Revelation came out on DVD and Blu-Ray last week and while it’s inexplicably one of the most popular reviews we ever did, we have no intention of revisiting it. You can check out our theatrical review of it here.

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