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Films within Films
In another interesting coincidence, three of this week’s new films feature films within films as plot elements. The best one is entirely fake, one is being written as events occur, and one involves a series of home movies you’d never want to take to a place that offers film to DVD transfers.
“Argo” is easily the best of the bunch, and one of the best films of the year so far. It’s more evidence that Ben Affleck’s greatest film talent is in his directing rather than his acting, although he acts here as well. It tells the true story of the improbable rescue of a six US embassy employees during the larger Iran hostage crisis. While most of those held were in the embassy itself, these six had escaped and were in hiding at the Canadian Ambassador’s residence. There weren’t any easy or obvious ways to exfiltrate the group and the longshot plan that was developed was to pretend they were a Canadian film crew producing a science fiction movie, in Iran to scout shooting locations.
This provides an interesting dynamic in the film as we’re given very successful and apparently quite authentic depictions of the unrest in the country, as well as the developing plan, with much of the film filled with a well-executed sense of tension. But we’re also treated to a neat quasi-exposee of the filmmaking industry and process that is genuinely hilarious at times. For example, in order for the deceit to work, and for the six Americans to escape, they needed to learn not only their Canadian cover biographies but enough to convince an interrogator that they were also members of a film crew. There’s something very open and self-deprecating about a film and a director that include the lines “Can you teach somebody to be a director in a day?” answered by “You could teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.”
Affleck plays the CIA operative who came up with the plan, a real individual who was highly honored for his clandestine work with the agency. Much of the strength of the movie comes from the supporting cast, with John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the veteran industry insiders providing the audience with a steady stream of cynicism about Hollywood, and Bryan Cranston as Affleck’s CIA supervisor.
In a neat touch, during the closing credits, we’re shown a series of paired images of real events as they were recorded and the events of the film, as well as pictures of the real people and the (very well cast) actors that portrayed them. Some of these are also accompanied by a later description of events spoken by Jimmy Carter, who was President when it happened. I’ve seen many of these end credit tributes and comparisons in other films but there’s a compelling feeling of need to watch these and I can’t remember another occasion in which the audience, which had already started to get up and exit the theater, simply came to an abrupt and silent halt. In the preview screening, there was no movement during this period and, if there’s a criticism of the film at all, it may be that it would have been advantageous to start this sequence of images so quickly that people didn’t even begin to move as many people were struggling to see over others who had already started to walk along rows of seats.
In “Seven Psychopaths,” Colin Farrell plays a writer who is working on a screenplay that mirrors the action on screen. The two are so closely correlated that it’s hard to decide if the film is propagating the screenplay or vice versa. It’s a follow-up projects of sorts for writer/director Martin McDonagh who previously made “In Bruges.” And while both films are funny in a somewhat similar and twisted way, “In Bruges” felt lighter and happier, despite dealing with contract killers. By comparison, “Seven Psychopaths” feels darker and somewhat more mean spirited – and the result is less fun to watch.
That said, it’s still worthwhile for anybody who enjoys this cast – and it’s a treat just to watch Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Woody Harrelson play off each other – with Farrell as the straight man of the group. The actual count of psychopaths seems off as the film starts with an exchange between two killers who aren’t in the tally – but that’s hardly the point of the film.
Further down the quality food chain is “Sinister,” starring Ethan Hawke as a writer of true crime stories who may once have pursued his writing for idealistic reasons but who now seems more motivated by an attempt to regain past fame and fortune. Rather than simply relocating his unfortunate family to the town of a recent, grisly quadruple murder, he moves them into the house where it happened in order to dig up details. But what he doesn’t expect is the box of home movies that details that and several other killings.
The plot of “Sinister” is so obvious that I returned from the screening and then had a conversation with somebody who told me almost everything that happened (accurately) based on a single viewing of the preview. I had essentially switched gears myself, as a viewer, as the story held virtually no interest or surprises for me and I started to view it, instead, as an interesting filmmaking exercise. In that respect, in reminded me of the recent “The Woman in Black,” starring Daniel Radcliffe (aka. Harry Potter), in that both films do a very good job of creating scenes and frightening images (for those who are frightened by such films) through the use of clever cuts and camera angles more than through the use of special effects. I’m more inclined to recommend it to filmmakers than to film fans, unless you’re a genre fan of spooky haunted house/occult-ish films. And what's scarier than the movie is the trajectory of Ethan hawkes's career.
The film I least enjoyed (of this week’s openings) was “Here Comes the Boom,” with Kevin James as a high school biology teacher who takes up mixed martial arts to raise money to save the school’s music program. This one doesn’t fit the film within a film pattern of the others and neither does it fit any pattern of desirability or enjoyable storytelling. The first sentence of this paragraph tells you all you need to know in terms of how likely you are to appreciate it – except that it might be worth knowing that most of the people he encounters during the movie seem like they would be more successful than him, and yet the story continues to follow his stunningly unlikely pursuit of a sport that ought to have hospitalized him, perhaps permanently, moments after he first entered the octagon. But his ability to avoid long term paralysis was offset by my own case of almost paralytic boredom and disinterest in the material. If you’ve already watched “Argo” and you’re considering “Here Comes the Boom,” watch “Argo” again.