Art and Commerce: The Master & Argo

Paul Thomas Anderson and Ben Affleck direct.

Just saw Argo. I was not knocked out by it nor did I hate it. It was good. No surprises. It unfolds in that comfort food way where you are always a step ahead of the film but you like it that way. It has great casting -people with interesting faces (I am tired of CSI-type casting where everyone is pleasing to look at in a car commercial kinda way) and plenty of great late 70’s period detail. Affleck is only a few years younger than me so his love of certain 70’s music and films gets all kinds of attention in the art direction and I couldn’t help but love it. Affleck even opens the film with the old 70’s Warner Bros. logo in all of it’s grainy glory (Fincher beat you to the punch Ben when he did the same thing with Paramount’s logo in Zodiac). Ben plays it a little too stoic the whole 2 hours and it is a shame that he seems to have more screen time than the 6 hostages. Having said that, I wish the film would have closed on the hostages post-rescue and not on Ben and his estranged wife whom we have not seen until the very end. That scene, with the shmaltz-o-meter arrow on high,  almost killed the whole movie for me. It was entertaining on the whole. The Hollywood-guys scenes are fun – Alan Arkin is such a joy to watch.

Here is Ben’s face in every scene

Argo is the kind of movie that will make money and win awards because it appeals to a wide audience, it covers an important part of American history and it has Ben in it. It’s a movie studios die for. It has that perfect balance of art and commerce. I would say that it lacks in the art department but it’s a fine piece of entertainment all the same. The movie never really sticks with anyone long enough for you to feel connected. It is gripping in execution but it is dramatically relegated to a smattering of conversations. The final escape (which is the one thing that didn’t actually happen – bummer) is one tense moment after another to the point that plausibility crumbles under cinematic machinery. As the plane lifts off and cop cars are racing behind, one thinks of Jake and Ellwood in the Blues-mobile.   I liked Ben’s hair and beard look. I also loved all those people wearing glasses.

A movie that has made some good coin but not the kind of coin Argo will go on to make is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master which I have seen twice and I think is the one of the best films of the year.  The Master begins and not for one moment do you know where it is going to go. It is written, directed and performed in a way that is uncannily organic. Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are all truly amazing. Pheonix stands out in particular as the recently-returned-home seaman Freddie Quell; a wounded beast of a man. There is a palpable sense of danger in every scene he’s in.

It has considerably less directorial flare than PTA’s previous films (something he is known for) but it gets to higher ground emotionally and in overall resonance. The characters and the film itself project internal knowledge that leave us, the viewer, forced to draw conclusions and make connections; this will frustrate some and beguile others. I was beguiled. I am an admitted fan (see HUGE) of PTA and like great bands that you connect with, I am always anxiously awaiting his next film. He’s good for cinema. He takes it seriously. He is interested in progressing as a filmmaker. Whereas he started out tipping his hat (a little too generously) to Scorsese and Altman in his early films, he has gone on (I would say starting with Punch Drunk Love) to be a confident and important director – I think the best working today.

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