“Argo,” “Looper,” and “Take This Waltz”

As I rush to watch as many of the films released this fall, as well as films I missed earlier in the year, in order to be ready for my next appearance on the Midday with Dan Rodricks show – on WYPR, 88.1FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station – I’ll keep on posting my thoughts on each movie on this blog.

Following Ben Affleck’s excellent directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, in 2007, I had high hopes for the work to follow. As an actor, Affleck had never wowed me. He was possessed of some (small) screen presence, limited range, and a certain vague likeability that occasionally made up for the irritation caused by seeing an unqualified man promoted to movie star status. But then came The Town, which was all atmosphere and no substance, and which featured Affleck himself at the center. While there was some very good work behind the camera (Affleck does seem to have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of shot construction), and some very good work in front of the camera (Blake Lively, for instance), Affleck as actor was unable to distinguish dourness from sincerity. So my initial hopes were tempered.

And now here is Argo, my favorite film of the fall season, and one of my favorite films of the year. It again features Affleck at the center, but he has wisely chosen to underplay his role, and let others bring the drama and the intensity (and the comedy). I have read many reviews that praise the film, though some point out that many of the more tense thriller moments of the film never happened in real life. I suppose that matters, since part of the appeal of the film is that it is based on the real-life 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, when 6 lucky Americans escaped to the Canadian ambassador’s residence and were then miraculously spirited out of Iran by the CIA. But while I, too, was disappointed to find out that the final moments of the actual escape were far less dramatic than their cinematic adaptation, I nevertheless am in awe of Affleck’s skill as a director of actors and camera. With confidence and panache, he pulls off a brilliant espionage tale that is not only set in the 1970s, but looks as if it were actually shot in the 1970s, as well. I think the movie would have been even better had another actor played the Affleck role, but otherwise the film is nearly flawless.

Most time travel movies suffer from the unsolvable conundrum of how the actions of a character from the future, in the cinematic present, would most undoubtedly negate that character’s own existence. Marty McFly’s meddling with his parents’ relationship in 1955, in Back to the Future, should have completely changed the 1985 future/present. Instead, when he returns to the life he left, he is the same, with the same siblings, in the same house, even though his father and mother are completely transformed. This is unlikely – if not virtually impossible – yet we go along with it because we have had such a good time watching a superbly crafted movie that wins us over with its humor, drama and suspense.

Rian Johnson’s terrific Looper, falls into this kind of category. Its plot does not hold up to close scrutiny – what time travel movie’s plot does?!? – but the script is so wildly inventive, and the atmosphere and performances so strong, that our disbelief is willingly suspended for the duration of the ride. As in Brick – the only work of his I had previously seen – writer/director Johnson displays a masterful command of script, camera and actors that envelops us in enough fully realized details to keep us from comprehending just how much he has bamboozled us into believing this unbelievable story. It helps that he sells the impossibility up front, in an amazing sequence where the character played by Paul Dano’s future self disintegrates in front of our eyes. Once you buy that as a viable plot contrivance, you’re on board for the rest. Johnson also wisely chooses to have Bruce Willis’s character attack the complexities and silliness of time travel head on in a confrontation with his younger self, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And so, the flaws of the genre dispensed with, we are ready for the rest of the film.

And what a film it is! Lush in color and rich in verbiage, Looper features a trio of outstanding performances from the three main actors: Willis, Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt. Ah, Emily Blunt … she is fast becoming my favorite actress of her generation. Like Cate Blanchett, 14 years her senior, Blunt can take any role and invest it with such honest emotional intensity that I am convinced that I would most happily sit in a movie theater and watch her sniff glue for three hours. From her breakout role in The Devil Wears Prada to her tour-de-force lead in The Young Victoria to her gloriously romantic and sexy pairing with Matt Damon in The Adjustment Bureau (another film where one must suspend disbelief, and where she is the main reason one is so willing to do so), Blunt has proven herself to be … simply sublime. Watching her, as a fiercely protective single mom, confront Gordon-Levitt and Willis, is like watching a tiger fighting off velociraptors. And when the tiger subsequently chooses to seduce a velociraptor, even better.

Still, the ending leaves a few too many of those pesky time travel questions hanging, and a certain major character’s offscreen death bothered me just a bit too much, which is why I ultimately like the film a whole hell of a lot, but don’t absolutely love it.

Until the last 25 minutes or so, I found this film to be nearly perfect. I enjoyed the interplay between Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen, Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby, and Michelle Williams and Sarah Silverman. I enjoyed the story, about a young married woman who falls in love with her neighbor in spite of the fact that she loves her husband. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship and still been deeply attracted to someone else will find the subtle details of the film touching and believable.

Sarah Polley has proven herself, yet again, to be a director of consummate skill. I loved her debut feature, Away from Her, about a 60-ish man coping with his wife’s early onset dementia. In this film, Polley has lost none of her talent for working with actors, and makes even Seth Rogen – whom I have always found annoying – appealing.

She has a lovely ending at 90 minutes, as A.O. Scott of the New York Times noted in his review, but chooses to continue the film for a final 25 minutes that reduces the ultimate power of her story. I thought the sex montage was unnecessary, and I found her actual ending depressing. I understand what she was going for (“new things become old,” as a character says earlier in the film), but I thought the earlier ebullience pointed to a lovelier conclusion. Oh, well, such is life and such is art. I look forward to her next film, nonetheless.


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