Seymour Movies Redux

“SEYMOUR MOVIES” was the title of my long-lost weekly TV review block for WPIX-TV. (Hey, guys. How’s it going up there? Miss you much.) It’s re-invented here as a new blog feature that won’t run as regularly. Another installment will follow this one soon. Promise.

The Master — (IMMEDIATE REACTION: I don’t care how great a filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is; I am never going to his house to watch sports with his friends if they’re all like his main characters.)

If I ran a repertory movie house, I’d set up a double feature with Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line leading off and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master as its companion piece. I’ll bet you they’d flow so seamlessly into each other that audiences willing to sit through the whole program would swear they were the same strange movie. And I would bill the double-feature, for either Veterans Day or Memorial Day, under the general rubric: “The Greatest Generation: Approach With Caution.” Here’s another one: “War is Hell and So Are Other People.”

You’re never allowed to know the specific kind of trouble Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has seen during World War II. But you’re free to guess the worst from watching Freddie distilling moonshine from toxic industrial wastes and humping sand-sculptured women. Never mind if he was unhinged before the war; only a rare strain of shellshock (an expression I will always prefer over PTSD) could have caused such a severe case of nervous decompression. .

The protagonists in Anderson’s movies are either highly combustible (Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood; Barry Egan in Punch-Drink Love) or highly malleable (Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights; almost everybody in Magnolia). Freddie carries both these extremes into the only place where someone like him could find comfort and release: a pseudo-scientific, quasi-mystical cult whose leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) fills in the dark, empty spaces in Freddie’s soul. Not even this outfit can meet his amorphous needs – and the movie’s bleak theme may be that nothing can.

It’s a forbidding takeaway and the movie’s frosty, near-clinical diagnosis of such angst won’t win your heart. Phoenix, improbably, almost does in the way that an injured wolf, however much he snarls and tears at you, can subdue your resistance with its whimpering. As unnerving as Freddy is, you come away worrying about his future. I’m also kind of worried about Anderson’s. The Master can only enhance his long-term prospects for moviemaking immortality. But it leaves you wondering how hard he’ll press his ongoing inquiry into the nature of need. Addiction itself can only be his next logical subject and it’s more than a little scary to wonder how he’ll frame that discussion.

Argo – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: Is Bryan Cranston the greatest American actor?)

The tight spaces of Argo’s narrative and settings don’t give Ben Affleck the kind of room he had in both 2007’s Gone Baby Gone and 2010’s The Town to show his facility as a director with gritty atmosphere and smoldering passion. If anything, Argo’s account of how six American foreign service workers were extracted from post-revolutionary Iran by posing as a Canadian film crew seems more like a calling card for Affleck’s potential television work in case the feature-film thing doesn’t work out.

This movie’s success with critics and audiences so far seems to assure Affleck of more chances at the helm, even if his performance as CIA operative Tony Mendez, the escape plan’s mastermind, seems contained to a fault. But then, containment seems to be the movie’s prevailing motif. The decision to shoot every character, even Kyle Chandler’s perfectly puffy rendition of Carter chief-of-staff Hamilton Jordan, as if each was in a box too small to hold them works to the movie’s advantage by boxing in or, maybe more accurately, bottling up your dread and anticipation throughout. There would be no purpose in making a movie like Argo unless you can make your audiences worry how the story’s going to turn out – even when they can easily research the outcome before they buy tickets.

So far, the only actor here who seems to be getting anything resembling Oscar buzz (Really? Already?) is Alan Arkin as the brash-but-soft-hearted movie mogul who cooperates with the Agency by selling the idea of a fake Star Wars rip-off. Arkin’s fine and John Goodman, as the droll makeup artist who serves as middleman between the spooks and the suits, is even better. But you’ve seen them do their respective shtick before, however effectively mounted here. The performance that most conspicuously breaks through the tightly-wound story line belongs to the increasingly legendary Bryan Cranston, who is yet again playing a character with warring intentions, though there’s no reason to place his harried Agency middle-manager Jack O’Donnell in the same clinic with Walter White, the self-justifying sociopath Cranston’s made immortal on AMC’s Breaking Bad. It would be easy for most actors to play O’Donnell at a single high pitch as he’s pushed around by those above and below his GS level. Somehow, Cranston makes O’Donnell’s passage from skeptical boss to harried controller to steely improviser seem recognizable to anyone who’s either supervised or been supervised towards an impossible deadline. He seems too well-adjusted to be involved in such abnormal shenanigans, which is precisely what makes him authentic in this welter of quick-change deceit. I doubt such intelligent work will be rewarded with an Academy nomination. Cranston will just have to settle for covert acclaim – at least for the time being.

The Paperboy — (IMMEDIATE REACTION: So oily and greasy, I could fry a whole chicken in it.)

Books are books and movies are movies and I’ve been acutely aware of the difference since sixth grade when I tried to pawn off a book report of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea based solely on the Walt Disney movie version – and, yes, I am still ashamed of myself, thanks for asking. But I’m hearing so many people, even a few I trust, saying Paperboy the movie is the fault of Paperboy the book that I am compelled to pick up my magnifying glass and serrated tweezers to split a few hairs I might have otherwise left alone.

I’m going to fix upon what may be the smallest of these hairs: Yardley Acheman. In Pete Dexter’s book (which, since I have the floor, I will declare one of the two best novels written by my former Philadelphia Daily News confrere while withholding for now the other one’s title), Acheman’s a white journalist who sees himself as a stylistic dandy when compared with his bloodhound colleague Ward James. Despite his own propensity for turning newspaper work into something perilously close to poetry, Pete carries an abiding bias towards hard-working, nose-to-the-ground reporters like Ward over “New Journalism” peacocks such as Yardley and I badly missed that subtext in Lee Daniels’ movie, where subtext along with subtlety has been tossed over the side like so much tainted cargo.

In said movie, Yardley is a black Englishman (David Oyelowo) who’s supposed to be the “word man” on an unnamed Miami newspaper to the “leg man” here re-dubbed Ward Jansen (depicted by Matthew McConaughay with more peacock swagger than one might have expected.) I don’t know why the name change had to happen, but I’m guessing that the novel’s 1965 setting was moved four years ahead in order to make more plausible the idea of a newspaper-reporter-of-color coming to a small Florida town to help prove that a white swamp rat named (as in the book) Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is innocent of murdering a bigoted local lawman.

It’s still not plausible. African-American reporters were barely integrating northern newspapers in 1969, making it more improbable that black tabloid transients were being imported from overseas to juice up New South broadsheets. And they sure as hell weren’t getting jobs as “New Journalists” in New York as Yardley’s supposed to have achieved in the movie. I was looking very hard for black New Journalists in those days because I badly wanted to become one. That’s how I know this is bullshit.

Defenders of both the movie and Daniels shrug at such anachronisms. It’s a vision of the past, O.K.? No one expects Imitation of Life or The Long Hot Summer to be documentaries of their time and place. Word. But whatever you may think of those 1950s melodramas to whose levels of warm moisture and socio-cultural itchiness Daniels’ Paperboy seems to aspire, there’s a spike of emotional truth that cuts through their respective levels of gauziness and muck. This movie’s glib re-jiggering of Yardley’s identity and purpose into a racial-sexual red herring signifies a preference for gaudy effects over the kind of honesty that’s ONLY possible in great melodrama. Someday, assuming Daniels gets more chances to deploy his over-the-top blend of raciness and grotesquerie, there may well be retrospectives devoted to his body-of-work, his – if you will – vision. I may even be around to bear witness if I choose to. I will find something else to do.

Oh, yeah. Don’t know if you’ve heard but Nicole Kidman pees all over Zac Efron’s jellyfish bites. Have I ruined it for you? Guess what? That’s not even the grossest thing you’ll see.