October 14, 2012

Argo

A sharp and gripping thriller, expertly tailored by director-producer-star Ben Affleck. Sustaining suspense in a movie where some of the audience know the ending (of the true-life story) is a challenge; Affleck keeps stirring the pot all the way through, and keeps the suspense high until the end. My grade: A-minus.
The opening sequence- a reenactment of the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran (November 1979) is terrifying. I don't know any of the history of these events, but it's shocking that the embassy remained open at the time. Why didn't the State Department pull their servicemen out sooner? The scenes of mob violence, and the capture of the diplomats, all hit home hard after the events in Benghazi on 9/11/2012.
In the wake of the capture and the beginning of the hostage crisis, CIA "exfil" expert Tony Mendez (Affleck with bad 70s hair) is called in to consult with State. Bryan Cranston is Mendez' boss, and he deserves a medal for his flawless and entertaining exposition. He briefs Mendez during a walk-and-talk through Langley, and he manages to explain for us the complete political-diplomatic-bureaucratic landscape in a fast-paced monologue, in a perfect balance of clarity, in-house jargon, and humor. "(President) Carter's shitting enough bricks to build the pyramids" is one memorable line.
I don't think anyone says the words "this plan is so crazy, it just might work" but that's essentially the idea. The only way to extract six Americans from Iran during the revolution is to cook up a crazy plan, develop a deep background, and rely on sloppy Iranian bookkeeping to bluff your way through.
Mendez goes to Hollywood to set up a complete fake movie production company, where John Goodman, Alan Arkin, and Richard Kind provide terrific comic relief. As much as I like Goodman, I feel like he's overused-- until I saw a photo of the real Oscar-winning makeup artist he's playing.
I appreciated that Argo shines a light on Americans who are rarely recognized for their hard work- foreign service workers toiling for the US in some of the most dangerous places on Earth; and the unknown officers of the intelligence services, choosing to fly into Iran to save the lives of strangers, with little hope of success. It's a thankless, heroic occupation, far from the land of spies or assassins, these men and women are acting covertly to save lives.
CASTING NOTES: Set in 1979, the hairstyles, grooming choices, and eyeglasses of the Americans in Iran are regrettable. It's easy to doubt that any man would ever choose to comb his hair that way, or that any woman ever thought those eyeglasses would work for her. Color me surprised during the closing credits, when photos of the characters were matched with the real-life passport photos of the six Americans-- those combovers and the walrus mustache are all authentic. Plus, the actors closely resemble the real people- when you're casting actors to play obscure historical figures, the only reason to cast the parts so well is out of respect.
Both Kyle Chandler and Chris Messina are having their "moments" these days; I see these two everywhere! Since Friday Night Lights went off the air, Chandler made Super 8, Argo, and four more features either in the can or filming now, two directed by Oscar winners Martin Scorsese (The Wolf Of Wall Street) and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty).
Since I saw Chris Messina in Julie & Julia in 2008, he's appeared in 11 movies, plus he's a regular on The Newsroom, Damages, and The Mindy Project.

October 9, 2012

The Robot Arm Was Early Today

8:10am, my son sounded the alarm.
"I hear the robot arm! The robot arm is coming!"
This is not the opening scene to a sci-fi movie. The "robot arm" is mounted on our new town garbage truck. Two minimum-wage jumpsuit-jockeys have been replaced with a giant robotic arm: the robot arm can collect all the garbage, and the driver never has to get out of the truck. Needless to say this is the coolest thing a two-year-old has ever seen, and I think it's pretty neat too.
Unfortunately, the robot arm was early this week, and I hadn't rolled our toter to the curb yet. I literally had this week's kitchen garbage bag in my hand when I heard the diesel engine. I ran downstairs in my shorts and tee shirt, and just barely caught the guy before he passed us by.
All this got me thinking about COMMANDO.
At the opening of the movie, Arnold is a retired black ops soldier, and his fellow squad members are being assassinated. One of his men is asleep at dawn when he and his wife hear the diesel truck engine down the street. They belatedly realize that they haven't taken the trash out yet. The guy dumps the kitty litter in the bag, and hustles down the driveway in his bathrobe and slippers to catch the truck before it passes them by.
The truck is backing up to the end of the guy's driveway. Two garbage men are hanging off the back.
"I thought you'd miss me." the man says.
One garbageman pulls the bandana off his face.
"We won't."
 The two garbage men (actually villainous ex-soldiers / hitmen- that's Bill Duke [right]) shoot the guy to death, then dump their weapons into the back of the truck and drive away.
What was their plan to murder this guy exactly?
  • Steal a garbage truck
  • Drive to the target's house
  • Hope that the truck's engine noise wakes him up
  • Hope that he realizes that he's hearing the garbage truck
  • Hope that he forgot to take out the garbage the night before
  • Hope that he decides to race out to the curb with his trash?
I guess it's possible that their plan was to park the garbage truck in front of his house, trudge up the driveway, break in, murder the guy, then walk back to the truck and drive away?
They must have been thrilled when the guy ran down to meet them out front. Saves them all that walking.
NOTE: Thanks to Legion's Fate blog for the screen caps. His weapon-centric plot synopsis is terrific, and funny too.

October 8, 2012

Looper

A smart and thoughtful vision, and a clever exploration of time travel, but Looper's overcomplicated time-travel Möbius strip muddles the motivations and heart of the movie. Emily Blunt and her young son provide some emotional heft, but the movie (and my brain) spent too much energy placing the puzzle pieces together to appreciate the journey the characters were taking. B-minus.

The year is 2044. Joe is a Mob hitman whose 30 - years - older self comes back in time to change the course of "history". Problem is, the Mob wants Old Joe dead, and Young Joe has no future as long as Old Joe defies his fate.
After 30 years of crime and loneliness, Old Joe finally found peace and true love. This is all ripped away by the new boss of his old Mob, so Old Joe's motivations are clear- go back 30 years and prevent the ascent of the mysterious "Rainmaker" who would someday rule the Mob and destroy all he had to live for. Yes, this is the plot of the second "Terminator" movie, except the "John Connor" in Looper is 10 years old and destined to be an evil kingpin, not the leader of the resistance.
Young Joe doesn't appreciate Old Joe's struggle against destiny. Young Joe is thinking short-term: he cannot escape the wrath of the Mob in the here-and-now, as long as his older self defies his fate and muddles in his own history, so Young Joe must kill Old Joe before the Mob catches up to them both.

 Young Joe is the protagonist of the film, and I am puzzled by his motivation. He begins the film as a cold-blooded assassin who is struggling against his destiny: doomed to be executed when the Mob can no longer use him. He hoards his treasure, in the hopes that he can escape his fate someday. So when his older self arrives and explains what will become of him, Young Joe does not join forces with Old Joe to change the course of his life. Instead, he refuses to be told what will become of him. It seems unrealistic, even in the hopeless near-future where this movie is set, to imagine any 30 year old trying to kill themselves at age 60 instead of taking a chance at extending that deadline. Doesn't there need to be an emotional arc for the protagonist to travel?
At the halfway mark, the movie transforms in to the standard Western "standoff at the isolated farmhouse" template- screen doors, pickup trucks, vagrants sleeping in the barn, creaky floorboards, you name it. Emily Blunt (flawless American accent) is Sara, the tough single mother with a shotgun, defending her young son (Pierce Gagnon). Young Joe is the dangerous stranger whom Sara slowly begins to trust; she literally helps clean out his wounds while talking all folksy. All we needed was a cowboy hat.
The sci-fi fan in me appreciated the cleverness of the time travelling: Young Joe cannot keep anything from Old Joe- as soon as Young Joe does something, Old Joe "remembers" it.  Remember Marty McFly's family photo, with the disappearing siblings? In Looper, a retired hitman's fingers begin to disappear as his younger self is tortured to death.
The aspect of Looper that I thought would be the biggest problem: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's prosthetic appliances, combined with his Bruce Willis impression, turned out to be surprisingly good. It doesn't change the fact that we all remember what Bruce Willis really looked like 30 years ago. If I were the director, I probably would have just ignored the issue and left off the prosthetics, but they probably helped more than they hurt.
Bruce Willis 30 years ago and today; JGL playing Bruce at that age (center)

October 1, 2012

140 Trippin, Throwin, Rollin, & Tumblin

  1. "Cleo's Mood" Jr. Walker & The All-Stars
  2. "Tripping Billies" [live at Luther College 2-6-96] Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds
  3. "Throwing It All Away" Genesis
  4. "Hate To See You Like This" Fountains of Wayne
  5. "Hang Loose" Alabama Shakes
  6. "Sway" Rolling Stones
  7. "Feels Like The First Time" Foreigner; when he recorded it, did Lou Gramm know he was singing a future staple of strip clubs for decades to come?
  8. "Airstream Driver" Gomez
  9. "Gold On The Ceiling" The Black Keys
  10. "Miracle Man" [live] Elvis Costello & The Attractions; from a Stiff Records sampler Stiffs Live
  11. "We're Going To Be Friends" The White Stripes
  12. "Age of Consent" New Order
  13. "Ho Hey" The Lumineers
  14. "If I Wanted Someone" Dawes sounds like Daryl Hall & Crazy Horse, and that's okay with me.
  15. "Hello Hello" Missy Higgins
  16. "Everybody Loves You Now" [live July 1980, Bayou, Washington DC] In 1981, Billy Joel released Songs In The Attic:
    "At the time of its release, it was unique as being the first widely available appearance of music from his first album, Cold Spring Harbor [1971].
    Songs in the Attic introduced Billy Joel's early work to fans who had only come to know his work after The Stranger [1977]. In his earlier work, most of the instruments were played by session musicians, but by the late 1970s, Joel had a fairly consistent touring group, and so he wanted to showcase the songs with this band."
    Growing up as a Billy Joel fan, with Billy Joel as a musical cultural constant throughout the 1980s, I never ever heard this song. Two other live recordings from this album appeared on his 1985 two-disc Greatest Hits collection: "Say Goodbye To Hollywood" (June 1980, Milwaukee Arena) and "She's Got A Way", (June 1980, solo piano, The Paradise Rock Club!) It was almost as if his Greatest Hits collection was the limit of his catalog. I discovered this song in 2012, while listening to Alec Baldwin interview Joel on his podcast Here's The Thing.
  17. "Any Little Town" The Push Stars
  18. "Rollin' and Tumblin'" Bob Dylan
  19. "Smile Big" Leftover Cuties; as heard in a hurdles-themed running commercial during the London Summer Olympics
  20. "Must of Got Lost" J. Geils Band
  21. "Bad Girls" M.I.A.; as heard in The Mindy Project pilot.