Friday, October 19, 2012

Argo, The Paperboy, and Seven Psychopaths

            Fiction Stranger than Truth … But just Barely
                      Review by Ken Burke                         Argo

An amazing story of sheer determination, based on the true events of CIA agent Tony Mendez’s ruse to bring 6 hidden American embassy workers out of Iran in 1980.

                                                                                The Paperboy

Some would call this film grotesque but others will be captivated by its sheer audacity as sex and violence run rampant in hot, steamy Florida several decades ago.

                                                                    Seven Psychopaths
This one is at best an acquired taste as we meet a struggling screenwriter, some crafty dognappers, a furious mobster, and other loonies all in collision with each other.

            As you might know, a few weeks ago I tried to restrict myself to only one main review each posting for the near future because the hours being consumed by my real job (Professor of Film Studies, Mills College, Oakland CA) weren’t leaving me enough time to write those long reviews weaving together comments on two or more trips to the local theatres.  However, that’s only been partially successful because since that self-pledge I have confined my weekly official reviews to only one offering but I still keep encountering others that just seem to demand some commentary, even if not officially sanctioned by a star rating.  This week, though, I’ve got to get back for once to the old format because all 3 of these films really deserve to be officially acknowledged with a review and a rating, even if only the first of the bunch is likely to be acceptable for a wide audience.  Ben Affleck’s direction and star-turn in Argo has been getting a lot of Oscar buzz already, which is appropriate because it manages to turn history—CIA agent Tony Mendez comes up with a scheme based on a crappy fake movie as a ruse to sneak 6 American diplomat “hostages” out of Iran in early 1980 (they were just as isolated as those dozens more famously quarantined at our occupied embassy but managed to slip out an unguarded door and take hidden refuge at the home of the Canadian Ambassador)—into a tension-filled last-second rescue that honors a cinematic heritage of just-barely-resolved, stomach-churning location-intercut events that goes back to the first decade of the 20th century with the early short films of D.W. Griffith (The Lonely Villa, 1909, and The Lonedale Operator, 1911, to name a couple of the more well-known; Affleck builds marvelously on this tradition not just with his escape finale but also with his magnificent mid-film intercut scenes of the “table read” of the ersatz sci-fi Argo script juxtaposed with images from Iran of the angry demonstrators preaching their ideology and torturing the embassy captives with fake “executions” intended to increase the paranoia of these known hostages).  I have no idea (Yes, there’s a book I could read, Argo by Mendez and Matt Baglio [more on the real events behind this film can also be found at], but let’s not get too extreme in our options, shall we?) if Mendez and company actually were in the process of takeoff from the Tehran runway, just barely eluding their Revolutionary Guard pursuers as the jet literally launches, making the Guards’ jeeps look like little lizards that a leaping stallion is leaving behind in the dust, but even if the final act of the real rescue wasn’t that heart-stoppingly dramatic the entire mission must have been that much of a frighteningly close call for these diplomats masquerading as filmmakers. I’m sure nothing about this “great escape” would seem exaggerated for those who were part of it, even if Affleck is taking some Hollywood liberties with how close the ruse came to being discovered before the escapees could get through the airport checkpoints, not unlike the Hollywood culture he parodies earlier on about the ego-driven movie business with John Goodman (John Chambers, sci-fi make-up expert) and Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel, producer) as his Tinseltown contacts helping create the illusion that a real Canadian-financed Star Wars rip-off named Argo was actually in pre-production, with Affleck’s group scouting locations in Iran for something that would have looked like Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997) set on Luke Skywalker’s Tatooine.

            The photo above speaks eloquently to the highest level of tension raised effectively by Affleck as director (as an actor portraying Mendez he never reveals how stretched his emotions are, even though he knows that failure will mean certain death for all of them and no matter how experienced he is at constructing “realities” which must hold up under intense scrutiny any blurted-out miscue from one of his amateur accomplices will immediately blow their cover), as the phony filmmakers reach their last roadblock, the fierce Revolutionary Guards at the boarding gate who are determined to exact revenge upon their sworn American enemies or anyone attempting to conceal that heritage in an attempt to escape from their rigid martial-law state of hostile assumptions.  Had these Guards been in better radio contact with the air control tower the discovered-too-late escapees would have been stopped before the plane ever took off; whether this is another narrative liberty or the reality of street-thug mentality not caring enough in those pre-Internet, pre-cell phone days of yore about more sophisticated uses of technology I don’t know, but once again the clumsiness of the would-be captors is played for great tension-inducing dramatic effect as one hurdle after another comes up to destroy the well-laid plot, leaving the audience ready to crack from the pressure—just as earlier drama has been built up within the film by long-running traveling shots that take us through various environments in Iran, emphasizing the feeling of being immersed in this closed environment where leaving hinges on meticulous planning and miraculous acceptances of manufactured plausibility—even though we know going into the theatre that they all successfully escaped.  (This relates to one of the premises of a great book on visual aesthetics in the popular media of film, television, and video, Herb Zettl’s Sight Sound Motion [info on the 2011 6th ed. can be found at] that foreknowledge of the outcome of an event normally decreases the anticipatory energy of that event, allowing “aesthetic entropy” to set in [see his Chapter 10 on time and its connections within media products to “event intensity” and “experience intensity”], so that despite our cognitive reassurance that Mendez and his cohorts will fly free the supportive intensities of the actual event [especially as it relates to current tensions about Americans under fire from terrorists in North Africa and the Middle East] and Affleck’s successful cinematic rendition of it results in a film that according to Zettl “resist[s] aesthetic entropy because [it is] packed with so much aesthetic power and density that [the] entropic atrophy is extremely slow.”)

            Put simply, Argo kicks ass as a powerful example of what happens when a tightly-written script (by Chris Terrio) is brought to life by talented actors who balance their characters’ public bravado with terrified inner worry, all orchestrated by the balance of confining cinematography and rapidly-paced editing of events happening simultaneously, both in different parts of the airport and even back in Hollywood where a critically-located telephone desperately needs to be answered to verify the “validity” of Argo (that is, the non-existent “film” within our actual film).  Put this all together and you’ve got a winner, both for the real Mendez and his one-shot-in-a-million scenario and for director/actor Affleck as his Mendez pulls off a heist that would make George Clooney (one of Argo’s producers) proud, given his experience as heistmeister Danny Ocean in Ocean’s Eleven (2001), …Twelve (2004), and  …Thirteen (2007, all directed by Steven Soderbergh).

            According to critical consensus, though you wouldn’t find the same level of acclaim—or anything close to it—in Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, in which Matthew McConaughey (Ward Jansen, a hot-shot Miami Times reporter returning to his home town in Moat County, FL [a noxious place that needs to be separated from the rest of civilization by at least a moat if not a 50-foot wall] to investigate a seeming miscarriage of justice), Zach Efron (his younger brother, Jack, a speed bump on the road to maturity, who spends a lot of time in just his underwear showing off an even better body than Ward if that’s what you need to see on the silver screen), Nicole Kidman (trashy sexuality personified as Charlotte Bless, self-appointed prison philanthropist who’s chosen the seemingly wronged convict, Hillary Van Wetter, as her subject for redemption and fiancée material, based on nothing but passionate correspondence exchanges), and John Cusack (as Hillary, who’s likely not as innocent as Ward and Charlotte assume but enough of a psychopath to join the crew in the next film under consideration) make late '60s Florida look like something out of a crack-influenced Tennessee Williams memoir.  If you can stomach the crude violence and contain yourself during the sex scene where Charlotte and Hillary essentially copulate during a jailhouse interview with neither of them able to touch the other (as illustrated by the above photo) but Kidman free to touch herself while simulating oral sex on Cusack in ways that leave Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989) as nothing but a warm-up (so to speak) to this main event, you’ll likely find the entertainment value in this sordid story of a journalistic investigation gone horribly wrong.  If none of that white-trash wallowing (along with an angry Black guy, David Oyelowo as Yardley Acheman, Ward ‘s easily-irritated Miami-by-way-of-London [or so we’re led to think] newspaper colleague) appeals to your sensibilities or if you’ve had enough of McConaughey trying to find the truth about a murder in a Southern setting (Bernie, Richard Linklater, reviewed here in the May 24, 2012 posting), or showing off his body in a humid Florida atmosphere (Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh, reviewed here in the July 4, 2012 posting), or finding himself in horrible circumstances with the lowest level of Texas or Florida assholes—and I use that term with affection; no, affection for the characters, not that kind of affection, not that there’s anything wrong with that—(Killer Joe, William Friedkin, reviewed here in the August 30, 2012 posting), then maybe The Paperboy is either too much of the same flamboyant Mr. McConaughey or too much of a pile of lurid situations that you’d just as soon not have to sit through; however, if none of that is too much of a turnoff then The Paperboy may be just too much of a ribald trashfest to miss, assuming you can find it because it’s not playing in very wide release, nor is much of anyone else encouraging you to see it (Rotten Tomatoes 39%, Metacritic 45%, Movie Intelligence 54%), which just goes to show how corrupt my values are that I find it delightful enough to give it 3 ½ stars, although I do acknowledge that it gets to be too much of good thing by the time we get to field (or is that swamp?) stripping an alligator toward the end (unless you’re craving an alligator burger—but it just tastes like chicken … really).

            Some really grotesque things happen in The Paperboy, with possibly the worst being what we never see but what sets us off on this flashback to 1969—as told by Jansen family maid, Anita Chester (Macy Gray)—the death by mutilation of cruel racist sheriff Thurmond Call (Danny Hanemann), with some quick flashes in the interesting opening multi-imagery of his body in a state similar to Darth Maul (Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, George Lucas, 1999) after he’s hacked up by young Obi-Wan Kenobi (in general, the imagery throughout the film feels spontaneous, as if we’re following the Jansen family and friends around at close range, increasing the sense of danger to them and us).  We don’t know exactly why Sherriff Call was killed (although the little we see of him tells us enough, as he’s reminiscent in disgustingly fat appearance and fierce racist tone to Orson Welles' corrupt Police Captain Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil [Welles, 1958]—but that’s appropriate for a guy who enforces the law in a place with a sign that sarcastically welcomes “Yankees and Niggers”); however, we quickly learn that Hillary is convicted of the murder but Ward and Charlotte think it’s a frame-up (although his interest is spurred by respect for the proper workings of a legal system that the “good” sheriff likely didn’t abide by while hers is more that she’s just so touched by the “sincerity” of his letters that she just can’t believe he’s guilty; she should have been a bit more skeptical because when Yardley publishes “evidence” that clears Hillary enough for him to be freed [even though Ward came to doubt the validity of it but failed to keep his name off the byline] she ends up marrying the creep who hauls her off into the swamps, proving to be a far cry from the dude she assumed him to be—now why she couldn’t tell that from his excellent imitation of Nicholas Cage after a stroke I don’t know, but nothing good happens to anyone in this film so why should she be spared?).  Ward meets the same bad end as Charlotte at the hand of dumb and belligerent Hillary (although Ward has to first recover from another horrible situation, brought on by his secret cravings for Black men but with no reporter’s sense of danger in place when a bar pick-up turns really nasty on him), with only Jack surviving the deadly swamp in a manner also reminiscent of Nicholas Cage, as a fictionalized version of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman barely escaping death in another Florida swamp in Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) unlike his no-so-lucky twin brother, Donald.

            Let’s face it:  Ever since the Kingston Trio told us that “You won’t last long in the Everglades” back in 1960 (sing along if you like at we’ve been properly warned but that doesn’t keep orchid thieves and would-be rescuers (Ward and Jack needed a better battle plan; they should have called Tony Mendez) from venturing into territory better left to reptiles.  I’ll remind you that you’ve been warned as well about The Paperboy, in that in certain aspects it’s disgusting and difficult to watch (with the second most notorious scene after the jailhouse sex probably being Kidman peeing on Efron in order to ward off the poison from his jellyfish stings … and if you find that delightfully kinky then I’d better not tell you what happens to Ward or you might really come to this film for the wrong reasons), not to mention profane enough to shock unsullied ears; maybe it’s because, like McConaughey, I grew up in Texas that I find it all too familiar and therefore funny in the same despicable manner as Killer Joe, but, then, there’s no accounting for tastes, even for something that tastes like bloody chicken.

            Bloody chickens are about the only thing missing from Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh’s disturbingly funny take on a situation that also recalls Adaptation in that it’s about a screenwriter at a creative stalemate who’s trying to use events from his own life as a means to find the center of his screenplay (also called Seven Psychopaths, so we’re back to film-within-a-film territory, just like in Argo; I’m telling you, if my brilliant observations didn’t exist about how all of the stuff I write about each week is so inherently related that it all seems to be cosmically-ordained I’d just have to create such an enlightened version of myself to preach these epistles of insight, because I don’t think that this planet could survive much longer minus my connect-the-dots discoveries—without me humanity would be stuck with just Aristotle’s philosophy, Shakespeare’s dramatics, Einstein’s cosmology, and Mitt Romney’s empathy for the underpaid binders full of women in the world; it’s clear that we need something more to balance that equation, which I nobly provide).  While there’s some on-screen identification of who these less-than-magnificent seven are in this story (as with the clarifications offered in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly [1966]) you could even make arguments that the film’s poster as shown in the photo above identifying the two main women in the cast—Olga Kurylenko (as Angela, moll of demented mobster Charlie [Woody Harrelson]) and Abbie Cornish (as Kaya, unsympathetic girlfriend of frustrated writer Marty [Colin Farrell])—as two of the psychopaths is treating them more harshly than they deserve (Oh, where is Marvelous Mitt when we need him?) given their actions relative to the men in the cast and considering that we’re completely overlooking the vicious female killer Maggie (Amanda Warren), who finally became so fierce as to alienate former psychopath partner Zachariah (Tom Waits), as well as the only fictional character to emerge in Marty‘s screenplay, the killer Buddhist (How often do you find that sentence in a paragraph?) Vietnamese priest (Long Nguyen)—given that the Quaker executioner from the unfinished script turns out to not be Marty‘s creation after all but is simply stolen from buddy Billy‘s (Sam Rockwell) recounting of a ghastly incident in the real life of our final—and probably supreme—wacko, Hans (Christopher Walken).  If all this plot description sounds like it was written by one of the seven (and I may well have the qualifications to join their troupe, but that would mean I’d have to move to Southern California with all that traffic which would make a psychopath out of anyone), it’s because while there’s an interesting, convolutedly-linked-up story here (not as much so as in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction [1994] but still with some nice surprises and a constant sense of “Where in the hell is this thing going next?”—and I mean that in a good way, much “gooder” than the “sympathetic assholes” comment above), this film is not so much about what happens but more about how we’re drawn into the crazy circumstances of these seriously flawed folks where we can appreciate all of this lunacy despite the bloody, raging rejection they all have of anything that approximates a settled lifestyle.

            Despite the appeal of other loony characters (and the cuddly alternatives of rabbits and dogs through the intersecting stories) possibly the most attention-getting of this bunch of unhinged and generally homicidal characters are Marty, Hans, and Billy simply because they drive the plot a bit more than the others (although Zachariah makes a marvelous interruption of the closing credits to complicate things even a bit further just as you’re ready to leave the theatre, not for any hint of a sequel but just to complete the off-kilter mood that this loopy film has created over its 110 min. running time).  Farrell gets in some good scenes with his alcoholism problems, jabbing at the stereotypes of his Irish heritage along the way and confirming his inclusion in the psychopath countdown although not with the violent intentions of his colleagues, Rockwell proves to be about as disconnected from sanity as you can get and still function from day to day especially in his alter-ego as the masked Jack of Diamonds who kills only upper level Mafia and Yakuza hoods, and ever since Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) all Christopher Walken has to do is just walk into a room and start talking for everyone else to know they’d better take cover as soon as possible (although he’s trying to redeem himself through religious piety here, despite the difficulties he faces with his surroundings and his antagonists—however, you could make the argument that he accounts for 2 of the titled psychopaths on his own, both as the Quaker stalker fictionalized in Marty’s work-in-progress screenplay and the real killer/self-mutilator that occupies Marty’s more-or-less real world and shares the dognapping scam with Billy).  Ultimately, though, it's Billy’s ill-advised decision to snatch Charlie’s beloved Shih Tzu, Bonny, that's the impetus for the resulting chaos that leaves so many of these characters dead by the time Marty finally makes his way out of the Mojave Desert, with enough inspiration to finally finish his screenplay and probably do a couple of sequels (if Zachariah doesn’t get him first).

            Whether you’ll get this homicidal farce or just find it repulsive will likely be determined by the same “taste” buds that tell you if The Paperboy is a surprisingly guilty pleasure or simply a waste of talent and celluloid (although even if you detest it you’ll likely have to admit that Nicole Kidman portrays a hell of an effective—and effectively hellish—sex addict, far removed from her more established “upright” [uptight?] roles, getting her back to the steamy territory of Eyes Wide Shut [Stanley Kubrick, 1999], another film that generally calls for a negotiated response in terms of acceptance or not).  Seven Psychopaths is a similar challenge to the viewer’s integrity, forcing you to decide whether you’re willing to accept something that borders at times on the crude anti-humanity of what we saw Harrelson (and Juliette Lewis) doing in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) even while it provides a nice satire on the kinds of characters that the stars of Seven Psychopaths have become famous for, a poke at Hollywood’s fascination with deranged protagonists and American audiences’ willingness to admire these goonies (you could easily sense the embracing of this cast combination when the trailer first hit the theatres) or will you find this graveyard-filling “psycho”-drama to be beneath your level of tolerance (the critical consensus favors the former, with the Rotten Tomatoes guys coming in the highest, at 85%)?  For me the audacious excesses work more often than not (especially in the scenes where Billy and Hans leave Marty with ideas on how to finish his version of Seven Psychopaths) but my weird level of acceptance has probably been established enough to serve as an indication of counter-decision for many of you.  If so, I’m fine with the disagreement but Marty, Billy, and company might kiss you off with the increasingly well-known tag line from Affleck’s film, “Argo f___ yourself!”  If you make the decision to try The Paperboy or Seven Psychopaths without heeding the warnings being offered here and then find yourself repulsed I might have to offer the same response so think carefully about these last two but feel confident that you’ll be inspired by Argo without feeling like you’ve seen the constructed patriotism of a Presidential campaign ad.

            If you’d like to know more about Argo here are some suggested links: (warning: this site may take longer to download than it took to free those hostages from Iran) (background on the hostage situation and an interview with director/star Ben Affleck)

            If you’d like to know more about The Paperboy here are some suggested links: (if you really want to saturate yourself with this film here’s a virtual box full of clips)

            If you’d like to know more about Seven Psychopaths here are some suggested links: (25 min. interview at Toronto Film Festival with Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, and Sam Rockwell—and a horrible example of hotel room lighting)

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  2. Caught Argo and Psychopaths and agree they are both worth the time. Ben Affleck has emerged as a force in the entertainment world and will likely direct a true classic in the future. Psychopaths is basically just a good popcorn movie, making one wonder where Bruce Willis was. A little too graphic in spots and it could have been a bit spicier if the female leads were not killed off so quickly. Paperboy is on the to do list.

  3. Hi rj,
    Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read the review and to comment. Your responses are well appreciated. Ken