Sunday, October 21, 2012

Movie Review: Samsara

Samsara is defined as the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma. In the new movie by director Ron Fricke, shot over five years on five continents, misery is juxtaposed with beauty, both natural and manmade, in scenes from twenty-five countries. Music is nearly the only sound in the film, but much is communicated by the looks in the eyes of many of the humans depicted in a wide variety of activities, from ritual dances, to prayer, to digging through dumps for objects of value. In today's instant travel internet world, there isn't anything in "Samsara" that we don't know already exists, but some of the images are shocking just the same. I came away moved by the intelligence I saw in the eyes of even the most abjectly poor subjects, overwhelmed by a hint of the sheer volume of production, and consequent consumption of resources and subsequent waste, required to keep our species alive, and awed by human diversity and creativity, both in art and the expression of our everyday lives. Taking away answers provided by religion, what purpose and meaning does our species have on this planet? Are we even remotely capable of achieving any kind of compassionate balance with other sentient beings or are we on a course of inevitable destruction resulting from our own behavior? "Samsara" doesn't answer these questions but gives its audience plenty to think about. It's worth the time and money to come up with questions of your own.

Movie Review: Argo and Seven Psychopaths

One is about the production of a fake film used as a ruse to save six Americans trapped in Iran during the Iran hostage crisis in '79 and '80. The other is a film about a film that is being written as the film is unfolding right in front of us. Both are about the idea that anything can happen, no matter how outlandish and impossible that anything may seem to be.

In "Argo," CIA employee Ben Affleck is charged with finding a way to extract six Americans who escaped the overrun American Embassy in Tehran and are hiding out in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. Several implausible plans are suggested, including having them ride bicyles three hundred miles to the Turkish border in the winter. Affleck comes up with a better implausible idea: pretend they are members of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars ripoff. Involve real Hollywood veterans like special effects artist John Goodman and producer Alan Arkin, set up a fake studio to make a fake movies actors and script included, and convince the Revolutionary Guard this is legit. Ridiculous, right? Wrong. This is exactly what happened, although Affleck adds levels of tension and drama apparently not part of the real experience. That's OK. It makes for a great thriller, complemented by the irreverent and jaded humor of Goodman and Arkin. There's a wonderful pun on the title that includes an expletive and an imperative that both actors deliver with relish throughout the film. It represents yet another impossibility, but reinforces the idea, which is why we love movies, that anything is possible.

In "Seven Psychopaths," screenwriter Colin Farrell and his actor friend Sam Rockwell are collaborating on a script about pyschopathic killers (one of whom is played by American music icon, Tom Waits: worth the price of admission when you realize he's in the same movie as Christopher Walken). As the film frames the stories of the imaginary psychopaths, real psychopaths are on the loose, including the mysterious Jack of Diamonds and a vicious hood played by Woody Harrelson, whose shih tzu, Bonny, has been kidnapped by Christopher Walken and Rockwell, who kidnap dogs and then innocently return them when rewards are posted. In an homage to Tarrantino and slasher movies, buckets of blood ooze and splatter from beginning to end and both the "real" world and the "imaginary" world of the script mix in the end. Yes, anything is possible.

Anyone who has lived long enough can look back over the circumstances of his or her life and point to any number of circumstances and unexpected twists and turns that, in retrospect, changed everything. One's own life can seem like an impossible fiction written by a overly imaginative novelist or screenwriter. Try writing your own script and selling it to Hollywood. If you're lucky, it'll be as entertaining and implausible as "Argo" and "Seven Psychopaths." You might even get to meet Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin during the production of your life story.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Movie Review: The Master

In Paul Thomas Anderson's beautifully filmed "The Master," it's easy to understand why Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a skilless alcoholic WWII vet with post traumatic stress disorder, would willingly attach himself to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman): he's a hopelss drifter running fearfully from life. It's harder to understand why Dodd, the founder of a Scientology-like cult who calls himself "the commander," as well as a writer, a doctor, a theoretical philosopher, and a nuclear physicist, would be interested in attaching himself to Freddie. It's not just because Freddie makes an out-of-this-world home elixir that includes a healthy dose of strained paint thinner. What's in it for Dodd? Is it that others either adore or revile him and Freddie seems almost indifferent? Is it because he wants to prove that the Cause can save even a seemingly ruined human being like Freddie? Or does he need to have a fool, an alter ego, around to reinforce and validate his megalomania? Finding value in the film depends on finding an answer to questions about their relationship. While pondering those questions, you can enjoy outstanding performances by Hoffman, Phoenix and Amy Adams as Dodd's loyal and assertive wife. You can also enjoy some extraordinary scenes, like those when Freddie is working as a department store photographer, an employment bound to go bad, or as a field worker in a Salinas cabbage patch. "The Master" is ambitious film making that may fall a little short of its intended goal, but it is thought provoking and will hold your attention throughout. Definitely worth seeing.