Good Time.

Good Time is the newest film from the Safdie brothers, whose last project, Heaven Knows What, was based on the memoir by Arielle Holmes, who starred in it and then played the Darth Vader-obsessed character in last year’s American Honey. Good Time is a straight-up heist film, with Robert Pattinson tremendous as the main character, in the vein of a Jim Thompson novel but less successful than Thompson was at tying up the loose ends of an intriguing plot setup. It’s out now on iTunes and amazon.

Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, who robs a bank with his developmentally disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie), only to have a dye pack in the bag of cash blow up on them in the getaway car. This leads to an extended chase sequence where the brothers are separated and Nick is arrested, leaving Connie free but desperate to free his brother from Rikers, where he knows Benny isn’t likely to survive. Connie’s attempts to pay his brother’s bail drive the rest of the film, aided by the fact that Connie is about half as smart as he thinks he is – I don’t think the word “contingency” would be in his vocabulary.

Pattinson is absolutely great in this, the second excellent performance I’ve seen from him this year along with The Lost City of Z. He’s a magnetic presence, and he plays Connie in a constant manic state that keeps the tension high and also makes it clear to the audience that he’s liable to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. His concern for his brother is palpable, maybe the one sign of humanity we see in Connie, who otherwise is somewhere on the sociopath-psychopath spectrum and seems destined to get a lot of people maimed or killed. Several critics, including A.O. Scott, accused Safdie of overdoing his portrayal of someone a little slow and a little hard of hearing, but I didn’t think it was exaggerated or offensive in the limited time he’s on screen.

No one else in the movie even seems real, and there’s no depth at all to any character. Pattinson ends up in the apartment of an older woman he met on a hospital bus and befriends her 16-year-old granddaughter, but those two are largely ciphers in the film – you expect a back story, a connection, even a metaphorical one, but there’s none there. I found nothing at all beneath the grimy surface of Good Time; it’s a heist gone wrong story, with a dark-hearted character at the center, who ends up teaming up with a feckless idiot in a last-ditch attempt to raise the funds he needs. Once those two pair up, the energy of the film sputters out, and doesn’t return at all until the final sequence before the credits when the story gets its resolution.

One aspect to recommend the film, beyond Pattinson’s performance: The score from avant-garde composer Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never, is banging, and props up the film in several moments when the engine starts to stall.

Argo.

Ben Affleck’s Argo earned substantial praise right out of the chute when Roger Ebert tabbed it as the likely Best Picture winner based on, I presume, a strong story, well-acted, with Hollywood at its heart. (You just have to look at last year’s Best Picture winner to see how much that last point matters.) That aside, I knew the true story behind Argo was in itself interesting enough to make me want to see the film, as did the trailer that strongly evoked the look and feel of an era that exists largely at the periphery of my memories – I remember the hostage crisis and clearly remember seeing the bulk of the American hostages deplaining when they were finally released in 1981 – even if the film played a little loose with history. As it turns out, Affleck and company did a masterful job of infusing drama into a story where the conclusion is known to all at the film’s beginning, and the work they did in recreating 1979 provides a massive injection to your suspension of disbelief, to the point where even the bits that seem obviously false, like coincidental timing of two events, don’t break the spell the movie has over the viewer. The result is a heist movie without the pervasive unreality of most heist movies, yet one that retains the dry humor that sets the best heist movies apart from the rest.

The story, well-known by now but classified until 1997, involves the escape of six employees at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on the day that demonstrators breached the gates and stormed the building, taking another 60-odd employees hostage for what turned out to be 444 days. The six employees who escaped spent a night at the British embassy but had to leave and eventually found sanctuary at the Canadian embassy thanks to the courage of the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, and his wife, Pat, who could have faced execution had they been caught by the Revolutionary Guard. (Taylor discussed the story with BBC Witness earlier this week, stating that the biggest problem for his six houseguests wasn’t fear of discovery but boredom.) The U.S. government was aware early on that these six employees had escaped, but couldn’t come up with a viable plan to rescue them until extraction expert Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) came up with the idea to create a fake movie, with Mendes himself playing the film’s Canadian producer and the six escapees playing members of the film crew. The film in question was called Argo, and was a fairly blatant Star Wars ripoff that happened to be set in a place that made Iran a plausible location for the crew to be scouting. The group of seven ended up leaving Iran without as much trouble as Affleck’s film would indicate, although the truth would have been fairly dull on the screen, and Affleck also boosts the tension with a substantial amount of gallows humor from all angles, including John Goodman and Alan Arkin hamming it up beautifully as the fake film’s makeup guy and executive producer. (Goodman also appeared in last year’s Best Picture winner, The Artist, and if there were a way to quantify the most underrated actors in Hollywood, he’d have to be on it.)

Argo, the real movie, shifts around the timing of certain events to heighten the drama, making the group’s escape from Tehran more thrilling by keeping them a half-step ahead of the Iranians at every point, including a race on the tarmac in the film’s climax that apparently never happened. If you knew none of the real story, however, every bit of this movie would seem plausible except for the coincidences of timing – Arkin and Goodman returning to their sham office in Hollywood just as the Iranian authorities are calling to confirm Mendez’ phony credentials, or the CIA finally authorizing the group’s tickets on SwissAir as the seven are waiting at the ticket counter at Tehran’s airport. The pacing, however, is so crisp that most viewers won’t have enough time to think about these improbabilities; the script never dwells too long on any one character, scene, or plot point, taking a story that, in reality, probably played out quite slowly and instead turning it up to fourth gear almost from the moment Affleck first appears on screen.

His appearance, and those of the six refugees, also help cement Argo‘s power to suck you into its story even with the occasional artistic license. Images during the final credits show how carefully the actors were chosen and made up to resemble the largely-unknown people they’re portraying, with hairstyles and fashions that are instantly recognizable for their era. The film is shot with the slightly muted tones you see when watching movies filmed in that era, while the settings, mostly in Tehran but also in D.C. and in Hollywood, are just as carefully constructed to take you back to that time period. The shots of Tehran are especially stunning, including reenactments of violent street demonstrations that will certainly evoke memories in any viewer my age or older.

Affleck will likely get a Best Director nod for Argo and perhaps one for Best Actor as well, but beyond his central role, it’s an ensemble effort, with the actors playing the refugees working with limited material to carve out unique identities for their characters, and only Bryan Cranston, playing Mendez’ supervisor at Langley, getting enough screen time to earn award consideration. I haven’t seen enough contenders to consider whether Argo deserves to win Best Picture, or even be nominated, but it would be ironic and perhaps a bit awkward if a film that paints the Iranians as dimwits were to earn that honor when the unbelievable Iranian film A Separation was consigned to the foreign-language category just a year earlier.

If you want more of the true story behind the film: the Wired story from 2007 that Affleck optioned for the film version; The Houseguests: A Memoir of Canadian Courage and CIA Sorcery, a self-published memoir from Mark Lijek, one of the six embassy employees rescued by the CIA; and Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, co-authored by Tony Mendez himself.

Inception.

Inception is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Ocean’s Eleven with a few sequences directed by Michael Bay – in other words, a heist movie that involves sneaking into someone else’s dreams, but with lots of guns and blowing shit up. The first two parts are clever and pretty tightly done, but the movie’s gradual devolution as the heist progresses, combined with a hero/antihero protagonist, cut off the film’s upside for me.

Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is an expert “extractor,” a mercenary spy who can infiltrate the dreams of other people and extract critical information. Cobb and his partner in crime, Arthur (an impressive turn by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) employ a dream-within-a-dream trick as their specialty but fail to extract information from Saito, a Japanese executive who then hires them for the biggest job of their careers – an “inception,” or planting a new idea in the target’s mind rather than extracting an existing one. Cobb returns to his father-in-law, who originally trained him in the field, to hire a new dream architect, (Ellen Page, largely wasted as a prop whose “architect” skills come up once in the final heist), and then travels to Kenya to add a chemist (Dileep Rao) who prepares the powerful sedatives used to put the target to sleep, also allowing for a crazy and somewhat pointless chase scene. When the team is assembled and begins attempting to extract the information, however, they encounter two problems: The target has been trained to fight potential extraction, and Cobb himself isn’t fully capable of leading the mission.

Neither my wife nor I found the plot confusing – everything’s pretty clearly explained, but never at such length that you want to go get a cup of coffee till they finish – but the very short cuts in the final third of the movie are incredibly distracting, and a horrible choice of colors made the final battle within the target’s mind impossible to watch. For some reason, that final dream level takes place in what looks like a military facility in a tundra, and everyone – team members and the armed “defenders” who are projections of the target’s subconscous – is dressed in white, usually with hats or hoods up. Other than Ellen Page, whose long hair identified her, everyone else looked alike.

Other decisions with the visual and sound effects brought far more benefits to the finished product. When the characters are falling in the first dream level, they lose gravity in the second, meaning Arthur first must fight the defenders in zero-G conditions (I cannot imagine how much fun that was for Levitt to film) and then concoct a solution to wake his comrades up without the benefit of an in-dream “kick” (usually a fall). The team also uses music to signal an imminent kick within the multiple layers of the dream, and the use of ever slower music the deeper the dream-level helped build tension while also clarifying the varying speeds of time within each dream.

The film seems to skirt the major problem with its central character – that is, that Cobb is no hero, but actually a selfish ass. He takes his team into a high-risk venture where the main reward is primarily his and the risk to the remaining team members is terrifying. He doesn’t inform his team that he’s having a technical problem that has a significant negative impact on their chances of success. Even within the mission, his personal motivation to reach the goal causes him to stay on course even when the risk of failure is increasing. We have to root for Cobb to succeed because he has two young kids at home who have lost their mother and have no immediate hope of seeing their father, but that alone can’t whitewash the fact that he’s put four other people at great risk to achieve his own personal ends.

Of course, the main question about Inception is how to interpret the ending – once again, spoiler alert – although my wife and I both found it fairly unambiguous; her remark after the film was that she was “waiting for the big twist” that never came. The director, Christopher Nolan, has refused to clarify the ending, stating instead that the important part is not whether the final scene represents reality or a constructed dream, but that Cobb has chosen this scenario as his reality, to leave his fugitive life behind and “return” to his children. He’s also pointed out that parents who see the movie are far more likely to accept the concluding scene as reality than non-parents because of our deep desire to see Cobb and his children reunited, which is undoubtedly true. However, we both felt that the only hint of ambiguity in that final scene was the fact that the camera goes black as Cobb’s totem wobbles but before it falls – and unless you want to argue that it’s a dream where Cobb has altered physics but didn’t show it to us until that very point, I don’t see how the totem wobbles without eventually falling. (I admit it was a visually arresting shot, however.) Had Nolan wanted to make it truly ambiguous, he could have ended the film before the kids turned to see Cobb, which would have made it consistent with his other dream-states in the film. Nolan took care of some superficial stuff to try to create confusion, like keeping the kids in similar clothes (although in different shoes), but somewhere along the line, there was a decision to give the ending a little bit of Hollywoodization so the audience at least gets the cathartic moment of Cobb and his kids reunited, but for us that airbrushing pushed the ending past any question of whether it was real.

I’m shifting my standards slightly here, however, to the detriment of Inception; by the standards of mainstream Hollywood films, Inception was intelligent and thoughtful, well-acted, and sharp-looking. But if you remove the frippery of rampant gunfire and chases and the sentimental ending, there’s a smarter movie underneath that had an action film grafted on to it – a successful commercial decision that kept the film from reaching its full artistic potential.

If you like the concept of entering another’s dreams or thoughts, check out the film I mentioned in the first paragraph, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of the two or three best movies I’ve ever seen, where two ex-lovers attempt to forget each other by having their memories of their relationships professionally erased – until one changes his mind during the procedure.

Man on Wire.

New post over on ESPN on Leonys Martin and a few other prospects, plus today’s Klawchat transcript and today’s Baseball Today podcast.

The documentary Man on Wire
won the Oscar for the best long-form documentary in 2008 and has the honor of being just one of two films with at least 100 reviews to hold a perfect critics’ rating on rottentomatoes.com, the other being Toy Story 2. The film uses the narrative style of one of my favorite genres in fiction, the heist or con story, to describe the event that captured national headlines and launched its protagonist into global stardom.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, in 1974, French tightrope walker Philippe Petit and a few of his friends brought about a ton of equipment up to the unfinished roofs of the Twin Towers and strung a wire between them, after which Petit spent about 45 minutes walking, sitting, and lying down on that tightrope, about 450 meters above the ground, attracting a crowd of gawkers and, eventually, the authorities. (The film’s title comes from the police report on the incident, where the first three words under the heading “Complaint” are those of the title, written in capital letters.) It was an audacious, foolish, and incredibly wonderful achievement, and a beautiful memory of a time when those towers stood for something other than 9/11.

Petit’s history with the towers actually predates their construction; he relates first learning of the plans to build the towers and immediately realizing that conquering them was his life’s dream. Fortunately for us, he had a trove of archival footage, both still and video, which is incorporated into this documentary, which gives us a window into his preparations for the stunt, the relationships between members of the team, and the fact that fashion in the 1970s was awful even in France. (Men + overalls = regret.) The narrative jumps back to Petit’s first efforts as a tightrope walker, including his walks between the towers of Notre Dame and between two arches on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, before plunging into the long-planned caper in Manhattan, including how they got all that gear past security and how team members were nearly caught in both towers the evening before the walk.

The most impressive part of the movie for me wasn’t Petit’s exploits or the explanation of how his ragtag team managed to sneak all that equipment to the tops of the towers, but of the reactions of two of the NYPD officers on the scene. Both men, shown in interview clips from 1974, make it clear that they recognized right away that they weren’t just watching some criminal or mischief-maker, but were witnessing history, watching one man do something so amazing that people would still talk about it thirty-plus years later. To be able to remove oneself from the moment, and to subdue the natural indignation of the officer of the law towards one who would so flagrantly mock it, is a testament to both of these men and to the wonder that Petit’s endeavor inspired.

Although the effort ends in victory, as Petit completes his walk and ends up serving no jail time, the film ends with bittersweet notes due to Petit’s loss (or perhaps repudiation) of his devoted lover, Annie, and the apparent (and not well-explained) decline of his friendship with the one team member who stuck it out to the end. That friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau, breaks down in tears twice in the film’s final segments, but has had harsher words elsewhere for his former colleague, accusing Petit of fabricating various too-good-to-be-true anecdotes in the film. (Blondeau is professional photographer, and I imagine much of the archival footage was his.) The lover, the still-pretty Annie Allix, is gracious in accepting that Petit’s walk in the clouds altered his life forever, and perhaps realized through his betrayal of her that he would never be as committed to her as she was to him – or as he was to himself. Petit is charming, but beneath that charm lies a self-assured nature that might be megalomaniacal in other contexts, such as the sentiment that perhaps the towers were built specifically for him to climb and walk.

Man on Wire is exquisitely made and paced, never dragging, rarely wasting words or time (aside from the pointless “reenactment” of Petit’s post-walk “celebration” with a female admirer that looks more like an outtake from Benny Hill), giving everyone his or her say even while Petit is the star of the show. Most importantly, the directors allowed the event to speak for itself, rather than larding the film with opinions from people uninvolved in the preparation or execution of the walk. The images and Petit’s words will transport you to that foggy morning in August, 1974, but with the benefit of the backstory behind this amazing achievement.

The Brothers Bloom.

I saw bits of The Brothers Bloom on the flight back from Arizona in October – and when I say “saw,” I mean that in a literal sense, as I didn’t put on headphones – and was interested enough to add it to our Netflix queue, but promptly forgot to do so. Seeing the title on a ten-best-films-of-2009 list (CNN’s, I believe) two weeks ago reminded me, and it was right up my alley.

The Brothers Bloom had a number of things working in its favor before I even pressed play. I love movies or books about con men – it doesn’t get much better than The Sting, despite the movie’s massive musical anachronism, and many of the hard-boiled detective novels I read are built around cons of one sort or another. It alludes to a number of literary works I’ve read – including, as you might guess, the one I’m struggling through reading right now. (And that is a major reason I’m reading Ulysses; without that experience, I often feel like I’m ignorant of a secret language that later authors used in their works.) It’s filmed all over Europe. It stars Adrien Brody, who I thought very much deserved his Oscar for The Pianist. (Or, one might argue, he deserved what he took along with the award.) It’s witty. And it has heart without excessive sentimentality.

The Brothers, Stephen (older) and Bloom (younger), are passed from foster home to foster home as children, earning their tickets out of each home for one sort of mischief or another, a pattern that culminates in a con that launches them on a roughly twenty-year spree of defrauding wealthy people as a way of life. Bloom, whose first name is never revealed, is always telling Stephen he wants out of the racket, but can’t commit to such a decision. When they pull what is to be Bloom’s “final” con, on wealthy, beautiful loner Penelope Stamp, Bloom falls in love with the mark while she finds the excitement her life has always lacked. Oh, and their Japanese sidekick, known as Bang Bang, never speaks but is a wizard with explosives.

Rachel Weisz ends up stealing much of the show in her role as Penelope as she manages to produce a fairly compelling display of social awkwardness and low self-confidence. Her effusive celebration when she pulls off, against all odds, her part in their biggest con, has an endearingly nerdy quality to it – she can’t believe she did it, and her celebration lacks the self-restraint of someone more conscious of how she looks to others around her. Brody’s performance was as strong, but the weakness and passivity of his character blended him into the background more than you’d expect for an actor of his caliber. Mark Ruffalo, as Stephen, oozes with confidence in a role that calls for a little overacting. Rinko Kikuchi says three more words as Bang Bang than she did in Babel, although she looks great throughout the film.

The richness and pace of the script were what made the movie work for me, even more than the performances or the con man angle. Everything is quick, quick cuts, short scenes, and no drawn-out monologues or lingering tension until the movie’s final sequence; it’s a hard-boiled movie, right down to the bantering among the characters and the remorselessness of the head fraudster. Writer Rian Johnson must be a fan of classic literature, from the overt reference to Herman Melville’s final novel, The Confidence Man, to the names Stephen (Dedalus) and (Leopold) Bloom (the two main characters in Ulysses) to Robbie “Hagrid” Coltrane’s stint as a Belgian man who pays far too much attention to his thick mustache (a nod to M. Poirot, I presume), which I admit is a cheap and easy way to win points with me. I haven’t seen anything of Johnson’s before, but I see he made a hard-boiled detective film in 2005 called Brick; if any of you have seen it, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

The Brothers Bloom did fall short in one regard – the path to the climax, where Bloom is forced by the script to make some, in my opinion, unrealistic choices, leading to an unrealistic (but poetic) choice by Stephen. Bloom’s desire to keep Penelope out of the con game is much more easily solved by him leaving the con game than by what ultimately unfolds, but having him simply walk away would have eliminated the slam-bang finish, where only Bang Bang’s exit is truly clever or memorable. It’s a forgivable flaw given the strength of the first 90 minutes, but I am, as always, a sucker for movies with a little heart.