Thursday, January 17, 2013

Argo: a film directed by Ben Affleck

When militants stormed the United States embassy in Tehran in 1979 in retaliation for the U.S. sheltering the deposed Shah of Iran, more than 50 members of the embassy staff were taken hostage.  Six of them, however, escaped and hid at the home of the Canadian ambassador.  Back in the U.S., CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) dreams up a wacky, improbable plan to rescue the six while watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV with his son.  The six Americans are going to pass as Canadian filmmakers scouting exotic desert locations for an imaginary Star Wars ripoff called Argo.

Labeled by Mendez's CIA supervisor Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) as "the best bad idea we have" the powers that be nevertheless sign off on it, and Mendez begins an eye-opening  journey of discovery in Hollywood-Babylon where he finds out that even an imaginary film requires a ton of pre-production.  He meets with John Chambers (John Goodman) a makeup expert who in the past did disguise work for the agency.  He welcomes Mendez to Tinsel Town by telling him "So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? ... You'll fit right in."

The fake project begins to take shape when Mendez meets with producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) who helps Mendez to set up a phony film studio and successfully establish the pretense that this movie has been green lit and will be entering principal photography soon. A memorable, but frightening montage sequence juxtaposes the first reading of the Argo script by actors wearing ridiculous alien costumes with a televised news conference where the very real demands of the embassy militants are being read in English by an angry spokeswoman wearing a veil. Fun and games, and lies and truths merge in a pivotal but indecisive moment of history.

Eventually Mendez manages to sneak inside Tehran, meet the six, and instruct them in record time on the customs, mores, politics and pitfalls of Canadian English.  Time is of the essence, for back at the embassy the militants have realized that six Americans are missing, and armed posses are looking for them.  The film's finale at the airport is a nail biting sequence expertly handled by director Affleck.

The fact that Mr. Affleck was passed over as director when the Academy Awards nominations came out raised a lot of eyebrows.  The Golden Globes, last weekend, honored him with its version of the best director prize.  In addition, this year's Oscar host Seth MacFarlane believes that Ben Affleck got robbed in the Best Director Oscar category.  It should prove to be an interesting Oscar ceremony on February 24.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Django Unchained: New Tarantino Film

When Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) learns that the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is married to a woman named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the German bounty hunter posing as a dentist mountebank can't help but recount the myth of the Valkyrie Brünnhilde and how she deceived her father Wotan: a story best told through Richard Wagner's epic cycle of operas The Ring of the Nibelung, and Fritz Lang's silent epic Die Nibelungen.  But Christoph Waltz's character only gets us started on the tale.  It's up to the real storyteller here, Quentin Tarantino, to take us to its shattering, fiery conclusion: an ending rivaling Götterdämmerung, the end of the Wagnerian cycle.  And he does, in his new film Django Unchained.

Once again, Tarantino is on his post-modern road trip, barreling through his favorite movie genres.  This time he has picked on the Western -- but not the John Ford, Howard Hawks studio product of Hollywood's Golden Age, and not even the dark psychological films of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.  It's the spaghetti westerns that emerged in the 1960s that's getting the Tarantino treatment here: films such as Sergio Leone's "Dollars trilogy," a lesser western all'italiana titled Django by director Sergio Corbucci, and the countless grindhouse schlock that came out as the genre started to exhaust itself by the mid 1970s.  These neo-westerns were rougher, earthier beasts, and Tarantino is a master at capturing the good, the bad and the very ugly stylistic stereotypes of the genre with ease: the hungry zoom lens racing to focus on an immense closeup of a craggy European actor playing an American desperado, the uneven sound synchronization of dialogue due to Italy's tradition of post-dubbing, and the memorable music by Ennio Morricone and countless lesser imitators who gave the spaghetti westerns their funky but memorable edge.

But that same edginess unfortunately seems to follow Tarantino right into the structure and theme of this film, which quickly puts away its western trappings and suddenly turns into a period blaxploitation flick.  We leave behind the dusty western towns and snowy vista landscapes, and suddenly we are in a Southern antebellum plantation where a young patrician named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) fights his strongest slave specimens, one against the other, in a historical fictitious gladiatorial practice he calls "Mandingo fighting."  He brings to mind, of course, the film Mandingo, the Dino De Laurentiis 1975 stinker that's reportedly one of Tarantino's favorite films, and which has my favorite tagline of all time: "He is more than man, he is Mandingo."  They just don't write them like that anymore.

For the fiery finale, Django and Dr. Schultz attempt to rescue Broomhilda, who just happens to be one of the rebellious house slaves at Mr. Candie's plantation, aptly called Candie Land.  Here, Tarantino aims to recreate the massacre at the end of The Wild Bunch, a seminal western that is itself a hybrid of the old and the new. But Jamie Foxx lacks the gravitas of William Holden, drunk on violence, ripping Mexicans apart at the helm of a machine gun.  The results are less Sam Peckinpah and more John Wood, which is not a bad thing.

Before all of this, though, we meet Stephen, a cantankerous ancient house slave that has been keeping the status-quo at Candie Land for decades. Stephen is a truly perverse creation, and Samuel L. Jackson is in top form as he embodies this larger than life monster.  At times, Tarantino's dialogue in this film feels stilted, as if period and genre bind him to a set of rules he doesn't want to follow.  But when it comes to Mr. Jackson, the gloves are off, and the dialogue comes alive, even when half of what comes out of his mouth is contemporary ghetto street more worthy of an L.A. rapper than a house slave in the Old South.

The late American and spaghetti westerns had one thing in common: they were mostly about the end of an era.  They portrayed the end of the West where both lawman and outlaw were running out of dusty trails to roam as civilization was slowly creeping in.  Django Unchained like Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is about the beginning of something: the future of America as a land free of slavery.  Django Unchained may not be the perfect homage to the spaghetti western genre, but nevertheless it is an entertaining journey through Tarantino's movie-fueled imagination.