Sunday, November 11, 2012

LEFF'12 day one and two: "The Master", "Greetings" and "Amour"

 I am not stretching my words to the length of a cat's tail writing about The Master (2012). I shall be back in a few months after I've seen it again and therefore be able to put into paper what I believe the experience deserves. I watched it last night as one of my most expected films of all time (considering I wasn't there for many of the great classics) and yet how could I still be surprised, I don't know. I am not speaking of quality evaluation. I am speaking of an unparalleled cinematic experience, much like Tree of Life (2011). Only I liked it more than Malick's, for being such an intensive character study. A tale of mentor-pupil, magnetically bonded like Baker Hall and John C. Reilley in Hard Eight (1995) (although, yes, the only thing I am currently questioning is Hoffman's motivation, because even Baker Hall has one). An hipnotic, time-traveling technicolor-like visual approach, carrying the rebirth of a man psychologically destroyed by the Second World War (Freddie Quell) at the hands of the founder of a religious cult (Lancaster Dodd), "The Cause", mystically hoping to cure the former soldier and thus believe he himself has unlocked the meaning of life. One is an hormonal wreckage, clinging to a bitter lost love (sweet innocence); the other, like Daniel Plainview, the most ambitious man in the world. Waving between Thomas Pynchon  in literature, and mixing Kubrick and Fellini's perverse worlds with even more twisted, degrading and neglected fears, wishes and imaginations. Joaquin Phoenix is otherworldly (many will consider it "overacting" and its legitimate), Hoffman is bizarre and Amy Adams is ravishingly manipulative. Dodd fights an afflictive battle to try to understand Quell's mind, as he progressively becomes the only capable man of questioning the master, accomplishing his own rebirth and going back for his pure ancient desires. Between madness and make-believe, from oniric humiliation to magic-realistic lush (the dream and the phone, the eyes turning black, the decadent lust, the color of the sea).

My first ticket for Brian DePalma's retrospective gave me entrance to his 1968 Greetings, which won him a Silver Berlin Bear. I went in completely unaware of what I was up to see, but I did expect a thrilling plot and restless tracking shots. Instead, this satirical piece on Vietnam War, about three young men trying to elude the U.S. army's recruiters, unfolded as a sewing of sketches linked by world, characters and their expectations, but never by the usual causal-effect logic. I didn't know Jonathan Warden nor Gerrit Graham but watched Robert de Niro playing his first major role. DePalma brought DeNiro back as the same character played here, Jon Rubin, in Hi Mom! (1970), an adaptation of one of the funniest chapters of this piece: Jon convinces a woman to behave intimately in front of a camera with its lens cut like a window (the reference is obvious, Rear Window (1954)), an experimental project that instantly turns in something else when she's finally nude. It has a wonderful payoff when he works out the same plot on a Vietnamese woman, in the middle of a war he doesn't want to fight. It's a very nouvelle-vaguian sketch out of a very nouvelle-vaguian aesthetics (and the intertextuality is extremely obvious, as the references to Blow Up (1966)). A portrait where everybody is paranoid or obsessed about something (JFK's assassination, finding a soulmate, having sex), caring about the war seems more stupid and meaningless than singing for no purpose at all.

Amour (2012), by Michael Haneke, is not a perfume. It is a Golden Palm winner that stems out of a very truthful, very sad premise. It then breeds out of two brilliant performances by the European legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. The colors are coherent, the texture and the framing create the lonesome house, a metaphor for minds of the characters, knowing their time is drawing near. Technically, nothing to point out and we even get the pleasure to hear a bit of music, not like many of his works. But it all goes away by minute twenty, when you've realized you still have two hours of endless boring chat, repetitive scene after repetitive scene, infinite shots where the old man cuts flowers one after the other. It's painful at some point. And not because of those people's suffering, which I don't deny but didn't care about. I would've liked it if it was a fifteen minute short film without dialog.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The most improbable screenwriter for the new Star Wars episodes?

I was -- I am as skeptic towards the new Star Wars episodes as all of you guys. Wait, I was. Or was I? I am confused. I am perplexed. Michael Arndt was reported to have penned a 40-50 page treatment for Episode VII and is likely to go for the whole script. He is one of my favorite screenwriters, the genius behind Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, and I can't imagine what such an improbable but fresh choice can do with the saga (he also co-wrote the upcoming The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is working on the screen adaptation of Phineas and Ferb and on a secretive Pixar project for 2014/2015). Good job, Disney, you've granted my money already.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"Argo" is truly the escapist feature

Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy (2011) was a cold, analytical, slow-paced, spy movie engendered by minute attention to detail and a puzzling structure inflicting a paranoid feeling of double-intentions and distrust of your own and Smiley's fragile conclusions. It was commanded by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson and resulted in a little masterpiece. I could get used to one of those each year. But I didn't mind a bit sitting to watch a whole different approach to a melancholic main character, a troubled international political context and an espionage agency as the otherwise vibrating, exquisitely tense and witty flick that is Argo (2012). The year's ultimate escapist film, though it is much more than watching a bunch of guys trying to escape Iranian crazy people.

The premise is a delicious starting point. The real-life story of how the CIA and the Canadian Government hooked up with Hollywood to produce a fake sci-fi movie in order to remove, as part of the fake crew, six people from the Canadian embassy in Tehran, during the hostage crisis the U.S. suffered in 1979. A somewhat metanarrative political thriller that buckets as much suspense as comedy potential.

And that's how it rolls. Chris Terrio's script is a straightforward incredible machine of tension, suspense and last-minute touchdowns where slight distortions of historical facts only happen on behalf of the drama (as the "adaptation" of President Carter's delay in approving the plane tickets). The way it delivers the tons of thoroughly-research-based but elegantly-baked exposition makes the bed for the oiled interlocking of three very distinct worlds: CIA headquarters, Hollywood studios and Tehran's mutinies. The secret was to ally the bureaucracy and urged political swing of the first, the hilarious comic relieves of the second (among the golden cast, a special bow to Alan Arkin) and the claustrophobic, rioting suspense of the third, with Ben Affleck swifting between them both in front and behind the camera.

Affleck is fine as Tony Mendez, but he exceeds himself once again after The Town (2010) on the director's chair, confirming for the third time and hopefully once and for all that this pretty boy is up to the challenge of being considered one of the most valuable filmmakers of his generation. This is not a guy who read the script and decided to shoot it. This is a man who understood the story and interpreted history, or else he wouldn't have been able to create this tale of asphyxiating timing. Close-ups locking the characters into frightening impatience and uncertainty; the capacity to make you feel the tumults of the revolutionary crowds; strong editing; a cut-in-half 35mm filmstock, increased by 200% to produce an aged graininess - some of the distinctive options the young director took that put you on the edge of your seat.

Some will complain about the overpopulation of characters and the lack of development of most, if not all, of them. "Argo" is a heavy-plot-driven movie, relying more on the smartness of the operations and the dimension of the stakes than on the character's inner lives. Although it cares to show you how broken Mendez's life is and that draws you close to him. It is as subtle and economic in conveying the sentimental states of the couple among the hostages and Lester's among the movie business. They had more stuff on John Chambers that didn't make the final cut, and maybe even on Jack O'Donnell, but this wasn't the time nor the place and I plainly accept it as it is.

I believe this film will live as another testimony to the power of stories and how they basically structure our perception of reality. It's all in there, as when they offer the Iranian militia's some storyboards as souvenirs. The dangerous game of real life and the amusing, often escapist, flare of storytelling is the inevitable way to look at things, at living things mostly, even if you don't take part in the fictions of diplomacy and international politics and just humbly want to tell the weather to your friends.