Fall Buzz: Argo and The Master

Arguably, Argo and The Master are the most buzzed about Oscar possibilities in theaters thus far; I’ve seen them both and I feel pretty proud of myself. After all, I had seen about two Oscar-nominated films at the time of the announcement last year. But last year was a fluke year in which none of the films were that must-see. This year is already different: I’ve already hopped aboard the Argo train. I am stoked for Silver Linings Playbook, The Sessions, Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit, and Les Misérables, to name a few. And the early buzz about Skyfall is really, really exciting. So I’m about a million miles a head of where I was last year and jazzed to be there. Also, I didn’t like The Master.

The way that people were talking about the trailer for The Master is the way I talk about the Cloud Atlas trailer. It’s awesome to see Joaquin Phoenix back in the game and Philip Seymour Hoffman never disappoints. So I went in banking on their performances, which of course, were great. But mainly people were excited that it was a Paul Thomas Anderson film and worship the ground he walks on. So I looked into his filmography; I like Boogie Nights, but I haven’t seen Magnolia (except for that frog scene). Did the hero worship really start with There Will Be Blood? Because, sure I liked it, but my main takeaway from that is the milkshake line, so that can’t be a good sign for its posterity in my mind. Okay, Daniel-Day Lewis and and Paul Dano were fantastic.

So people were beside themselves waiting for The Master but watching it gave me a headache. Not in an Inception-y kind of way, but in a why-did-I-just-subject-myself-to-two-hours-of-that kind of way. It is over-stylized and sweepingly grandiose, self-congratulatory in a way that screams “Look, people are giving me money to show you my exact vision” sort of way. Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie is sadly child-like in everything he does, as if he skipped his adolescence in World War II, and unlike how most other boys became men, he decides to live in a perpetual child state when he gets back. The fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader is blatantly making things up the entire time is eerie, in that it should be painfully obvious to those around him, not just his son. By the time Laura Dern calls him on his contradictions, he packs up and moves to another country to continue building his cult. And seems by the end that Anderson just expects us to drink the Koolaid too and  follow along without any further explanation. Freddie rides off in the desert, they go to look for him, and magically he is in his hometown, trying to reconnect with an old sweetheart. Next he is summoned to England, and we realize he has been separate from the cult for a long period of time. Oh. I can’t put it better than Owen Gleiberman, who wrote

Paul Thomas Anderson now wants to sever our connection with the people on screen, so that nothing gets in the way of our link to the magnetic pull of his directorial voice. It’s a warped vision of what a movie is. But when a director who, in Boogie Nights, made the humanity of his characters sing now insists on making movies as if he’s “the master,” and is hailed for it like he’s the indie-crossover answer to Orson Welles, maybe it’s not necessary for us to love his films. Maybe worship, in its way, feels better than love.

Argo, though, is well worth the hype. It has a suspenseful premise (the stakes couldn’t be higher), a wonderfully talented cast, and major resonance for today’s world. Ben Affleck couldn’t have known about the tragedy to occur in Benghazi, but it makes for a great parallel to Iran 1979. As the film started I felt like I was fighting tears (although full disclosure, I almost felt like crying when I saw the Cloud Atlas trailer for the first time in theaters moments before, so my emotional head space that day is questionable) but, as someone who wasn’t alive to see it occur, it was jarring to see images so similar to what I see now on CNN.

And personally, as a student of international relations who has entertained the idea of being a foreign service officer, this is scary. But it also appeals to the other side of my studies, the creative peacebuilding side. Tony Mendez, Ben Affleck’s character, is clearly a creative individual. As an exfiltration expert, he was required to envision all the different ways a person could be extracted from a hostile environment. My studies have led me to entertainment as a tool of peacebuilding, and in that way I feel a kinship with Mendez. If I were in that position, I don’t think it would’ve been odd for me to imagine a sci-fi B-movie as a plausible means of cover. So, yes, Argo appealed to me on a higher level than its crackerjack storytelling. It harkens straight to everything I hope to do in my future.

Rounding out the awesomeness is a cast full of “hey, that guy!” actors. Ben Affleck is great, but I would give extra attention (Supporting Actor attention) to Bryan Cranston. We can expect the guy to be great in anything but his greatness still surprises in how…great it is. I mean, he was on 30 Rock this week and just killed it. The man can do anything. Alan Arkin and John Goodman head up the Hollywood portion. But then, there’s Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane (Dazed and Confused…anyone?), Kyle Chander. Titus Welliver, and Zeljko Ivanek. Also, proving that he is literally in everything, there’s Chris Messina, whose starring role in The Mindy Project does not seem to be holding him back.

I focused my attentions a lot on the actors playing the stranded Americans. Along with Tate Donovan, DuVall, and Cochrane, we have Kelly Bishé, recognizable (to me) as Lucy on the last season of Scrubs; Christopher Denham, I had to look up, but I know him mostly from being obsessed with Sound of My Voice, a movie I haven’t even seen yet. I saved the best for last: Scoot McNairy. He gets the juiciest material of the six, but he also proves himself as one to watch. He has been working steadily for years but appears ready to break out, with a role in Brad Pitt’s Killing Them Softly this year as well. I already added what I could find of his on Netflix to my Instant Queue. (I started Wreckage. It is not good, you guys. Aaron Paul got me through the first twenty minutes, and I am counting on Scoot to carry me through to the end. But…eesh. There is such a huge dichotomy at play: fantastic actors like Aaron Paul and Scoot McNairy paired against people who cannot act at all. Ugh.) I hope my Scoot quest continues more smoothly in the future.

Potential award-winning films are releasing now to December. I look forward to seeing how they stack up against Argo and (hopefully) overtake The Master.

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About Staciellyn Chapman

Grad student at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. This blog is an attempt to condense the craziness that is my TV viewing habits (with the occasional aside into film, music, and general life).

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