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Monthly Archives: November 2012

Lincoln

For the seven or eight Americans that may be out there who still haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, be forewarned. This is not a sprawling Spielberg epic, either as a look at the life of Abraham Lincoln or as a broad analysis of the institution of slavery in the United States. Rather, this is a film mostly about politics, the ways politics can be used (for better or worse) to advance an issue, and the very real humans who carry out said politics. To be sure, the movie focuses on Lincoln. But it is very specific in time frame to Lincoln’s quest to get the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) passed through the House of Representatives and (based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals)  the story of how it got done.

It is this focus that is largely the strength of the movie. In many ways, the easy way out for Spielberg could have been to do a piece of melodrama exploring the absolute black mark of slavery on America. But his choice to mostly ignore the background of slavery (and even, largely, Lincoln’s background) and dive right into a specific moment in time, as well as a very precise, strategic process, makes for a gripping film despite the endgame being known by everyone in the theater. The movie ultimately becomes a process film and character study.

And it is in this character study where Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln truly shines. It’s pretty hard to imagine a performance that could better strike the combination of subtle brilliance, charisma, leadership, cajoling (gentle and not), public assuredness and private humanness that Lincoln had to navigate during this time than the one Day-Lewis gives. His Lincoln is a man of vision, but also a man that realizes that his hands might have to get a little dirty here and there to reach that vision. And that a little in the moment personal compromise may be necessary to reach the ultimate vision. Day-Lewis is near perfect in the role.

This movie is filled with awesome character performances. From David Straithairn as Secretary of State (and Lincoln right hand man) William Seward, to a surprisingly good Tommy Lee Jones as hardcore abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, to James Spader as a rascal-y (but key) lobbyist, all the way down to Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, just to name a few, all the performances feel spot on and in the moment (the moment being the mid-1860s). One of the ways the movie establishes the human-ness of these characters is with what is a surprising amount of comedy  peppered throughout the story. As we left the theater, I only half-jokingly referred to Lincoln as the comedy event of the season. It really was very funny in many sections. And the humor mostly worked. There is always a tendency to mythologize big moments in history like this, and the little moments of levity between characters helped in a huge way in bringing you into the room when key moments were going on. The weight of the moment is never lost, but there had to be moments where the pressure was felt by those making it all happen way back when, and they either had to let off some steam or even once in a while lose their tempers.

All the back room wheeling and dealing is there in the movie. And, again, it’s masterful in the ways it presents the business of politics being carried out. Maybe you grab a few needed votes with a little “patronage”. Maybe you snag a couple by making things personal for people. Maybe you sway some people with shame. Maybe you appeal to their morality, or logic, or promises of power. Maybe you just threaten them. This movie presents Lincoln as a master of politics, almost always seeming to know what buttons to push on what person just when he needs to. I saw the movie with a row full of folks who work in politics, and I could tell they were all geeking out to it all. I really felt like one of the messages Spielberg wanted to get across in doing this story in the way he decided to was that in a representative republic like the one we live in, politics need not be a dirty word. Politics is often simply the way the process works, and worked properly, politics can be a very powerful force for good, giving voice to those who may not otherwise have a voice. It was actually very inspiring to watch the story of a group of people elected by the people that took their responsibilities with the seriousness with which the times demanded. You’d have to be blind and deaf to not catch the screaming message being sent to today’s politicians by this movie.

It’s funny, in a way, to call a Steven Spielberg film about the abolition of slavery a good little movie. But that’s pretty much what this is. It’s ultimately a solid little procedural and character study. Its flaws lie largely in not doing enough, and maybe not quite taking it all seriously enough. I felt at times that, while it was a nice take on the politics of the day, the tentacles of the movie didn’t really dig deeply enough. It felt at times like we were just sort of scratching the surface of what must have really been going on behind closed doors. The fighting and debates had to be more vicious than were even portrayed. And while the humor in the movie did a lot to humanize the characters, at times it felt like the comedy was taken a step or two too far, diminishing the seriousness of the historical moment in sections. These are kind of nitpicking points, as this is a very good, interesting take on this moment in Lincoln’s legacy. But it would have been nice to see Spielberg go a little further and really run with the politics angle. Dig a little deeper. Tell some nastier stories.

Having said that, see this movie. It’s worth it at the very least to be reminded of what a great leader Lincoln was. And also to be reminded that the great leaders are still, at their core, humans. At times in this film, Lincoln is literally just a guy walking around his house, a guy telling stories to make a point, or a guy sharing a moment of empathy with a wounded soldier. At the same time, he is a guy with great vision and leadership that did a masterful job of leading powerful, often doubting, leaders to do the right thing. Lincoln is a well done, original take on a great moment in American history.

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2012 in Favorites, General Film, Reviews

 

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook is well worth the trip to the theater.  It is what one might call a “feel good movie,” pun entirely intended.  As Doug mentioned, a friend of TMT’s has been able to get us into early screenings of films so that we can be like “real” movie reviewers and see the flicks before the masses.  Well, the benefit of that is that you are sitting in a crowd of movie-lovers before there has been a lot of buzz about a movie.  You have fresh eyes and the reactions to the films seem a little more honest, for lack of a better word.  The atmosphere at Silver Linings was incredibly positive, a lot of laughter, a lot of people thoroughly invested in the machinations of this family unit.

Speaking of honesty, the film revolves around Pat, played by Bradley Cooper, a 30-something high school teacher whose recent mental break earned him a court ordered 8-month stint in a mental institution.  For the first time, Pat’s mood swings and other symptoms, including the apparent inability to self-censor, are diagnosed as bi-polar disorder.  Pat serves his time and returns to stay with his parents as he continues his healing.  Pat is estranged from his wife, but he is determined to get her back and this keeps him focused until he meets Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence.  Tiffany has her own set of mental issues, after very unexpectantly losing her husband, and she takes a shining to Pat.  One thing leads to another and Tiffany ends up convincing Pat to be her partner in a dance competition.  When you really think about the plotline, I’ll admit, it hangs together shakily at best, but is is a credit to David O.Russell, who wrote the screenplay adaptation of Silver Linings and directed the picture.

It’s hard to say what makes Silver Linings so good.  Certainly part of it was how Bradley Cooper moves Pat between his panicky manic stages and his, while socially awkward, day-to-day activities, Pat’s “normal.”  The movie has a great ensemble cast that includes Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker, and Julia Stiles, among others, and all their performances are solid.  But really what makes the movie is that it isn’t really about Pat’s mental illness.  Sure, that’s the conflict around which so much revolves, but the point of the movie is that everyone has their own stuff to deal with and they all find their own ways of coping.  Whether it’s Pat Sr.’s superstitions or Ronnie’s panicked ramblings, every character demonstrates their own issues, but also how they cope.  Pat’s issues are just a little more public.  As Pat works to control his illness, he has taken to looking for the silver lining in situations and his attempts to be positive rub off on those around him.  It’s hard to be down on a flick about looking for silver linings in hard situations and about families and friends who are trying to look out for one another, trying to take care of one another, and just generally doing the best that they can.  And you can’t really beat the feeling of being in a room full of people who are invested in seeing that kind of story play out.

Sure, there are things to criticize in Silver Linings.  The ending is a little too neat, everything is wrapped up in a neat little package and I do have to wonder how a person with bi-polar disorder or any mental illness might feel about the treatment of mental illness in the movie.  Mr. Russell probably deserves credit for his handling of the scenes that deal exclusively with Pat and his illness.  But at the same time, mental illness in general is treated in a sort of lighthearted way and I find it hard to believe that a person who has a serious break due to bi-polar disorder would recover the way that Pat does.  But, while the film is lighthearted, and the ending is perhaps a little too tidy, it doesn’t seem to me that the film tries to make light of mental illness.  Instead, it presents a fairly optimistic picture of what comes from looking on the bright side of things and resiliency which is something I’m always happy to take a little dose of.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2012 in Reviews

 

Skyfall: Bond is Back!

I think we must first take note that we have now identified at least two international super-spies that, were they to meet Aaron Cross, would call him a p*ssy.  Maybe it is inevitable that all modern day spy movies would start to carry the same trends, but I can’t help but point out that Jason Bourne, Aaron Cross, and Bond, James Bond all took a shot in their shoulder in their most recent escapades and both Bourne and Commander Bond managed to stay conscious thereafter and it took a second bullet to stop Bond from fighting off the bad guys.  Only Cross passes out, despite genetic engineering that is supposed to make him physically and mentally superior to his counterparts.  Ridiculous.  Now that we have established that Bourne and Bond are the superior spies, on to Skyfall.

I don’t think I can properly express how excited I am to see the real Bond return to the big screen, none of this Quantum of Solace nonsense.  A friend suggested to me that Quantum was trying too hard to be Bourne and she might be right, but in Skyfall, Bond is no longer the street tough apparently trying to use brute force and ignorance to fight his way through every situation.  Instead, Bond in Skyfall  is back to being the charismatic, strategic, and, yes, still very, very buff , as demonstrated in the innumerable gratuitous Daniel Craig shirtless shots, charmer of Connery and Brosnan fame.  Yep, we’re back to the Bond who can appear in the shower of a woman that he’s just met uninvited and instead of getting punched in the balls, get, well, get what he came for.

The plot of Skyfall is actually pretty simple; the bad guys have stolen a hard drive containing a list of all the NATO embedded spies in Europe from MI6 – a list that is not even supposed to exist – and M, Bond, and the rest of the team are trying to get it back.  However, it turns out that stealing the hard drive may be cover for something else entirely.  The embattled M, played once again by Dame Judi Dench, is trying to save the reputation of MI6 and prove to the Defense Ministry that MI6 and she are still relevant in the spy craft world.  It’s a common refrain throughout the movie as Bond and M seem determined to prove that old-fashioned legwork is still just as important to the spy game as the newfangled technology that the Defense Minister and others espouse.  But it’s not just the old fashioned legwork they are defending, it is their own relevance in a new world.

And speaking of newfangled technology, Skyfall also sees the return of some beloved Bond characters, Ms. Moneypenny and Q are both back.  I’m not sure I ever knew before that Q stood for Quartermaster, but the new Q is just that – new.  Instead of a dignified old gentleman in a lab coat, Q is a young computer nerd with hipster glasses and a mop of unruly hair.  The scene in which Bond meets the young Q for the first time might most perfectly exemplify the real drama of the movie.  While Javier Bardem is bizarrely entertaining as a former spy turned Bane-style anarchist who has it out for M, his strange mother issues aren’t enough to carry the film.  No, the real conflict is internal to the agency, Bond’s gripes with M after she makes what he considers to be a bad call, M’s disagreement with the Prime Minister over the future of MI6 and basically everyone’s general disagreement over the way that field operatives can or should be used.  Sitting side by side, the young Q, who looks about 12 years of age, embodies the new guard while Bond embodies the old.  And while they gently rib each other over each man’s value, in the end they need and support each other.  After all, Q is afraid of flying and I suspect Bond doesn’t even know how to turn on a computer.

Now I don’t want to breeze right over Javier Bardem because he made some interesting choices playing Silva, a sort of megalomaniacal hacker.  But I know Doug would be seriously disappointed if I didn’t note the most interesting choice of all, the way he was dressed about half way through the movie when MI6 thinks they have him captured.  He is wearing what appears to be a janitorial jumpsuit with white, double Velcro strap orthopedic shoes.  Yep, it is quite the look and I will add that there is a reason why we dress prisoners in orange jumpsuits, but I guess that can be chalked up to just another bad choice by MI6.

Now I’m a pretty big Bond fan and, as you may have guessed I was not a fan of Quantum of Solace and I can’t say I was that taken with Casino Royale, but Skyfall is a proper reboot of the Bond series as producers had hoped Casino Royale would be.  It’s a nice mix of new spy thriller with the old Bond favorites, the Bond Girls, the Aston Martin, complete with machine guns and an ejector seat, a lot of stuff blows up, and Bond casually delivers his perfect one-liners.  He even orders a martini and while he never actually says, “shaken, not stirred” we see it being shaken and Bond pronounces it “perfect!”  If you’re a fan of Bond movies or spy movies in general, you’ll enjoy Skyfall.  Oh, the things I do for England!

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2012 in Reviews

 

Life of Pi

So, an awesome movie loving friend of Trianglemovietalk’s got us into a 3D pre-screening of the new Ang Lee filmed version of Life of Pi. I don’t know if it’s enough for me to say I’m already trying to think of what to get her for Christmas as a thank you. Because only the poopiest of party poopers can walk out of a screening of this movie with anything less than a goofy grin, a little tear in the eye, and absolute satisfaction. It doesn’t always mean that a movie is the best movie, or the most interesting movie, or whatever. But every once in a while you see a movie that not only regenerates your love of movies in general, it actually illustrates why movies do and should exist in the first place. Life of Pi will do all of that for you, if you’ll just go see it.

I’ll confess right off the bat to not having read (yet) the Yann Martel book from which the movie was made. I would imagine, as is almost always the case with books made into movies, that there was much left out and that the imagination of a reader can take the reader places a film can’t take you. But I can’t imagine, even having not read the book, that Martel could be upset with what Ang Lee produces with his film. The basics of the story revolve around a shipwrecked boy (the Pi in the title) trying to survive on the open ocean in a tiny dingy alongside a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. And I don’t care how much of Richard Parker was played by real tigers, and how much was done with CGI. But if there has been a more complete, nuanced character on film so far this year than Richard Parker, I want to see him (or her). Simply put, I demand that the Academy give a nomination to Richard Parker. Really, if I don’t see a Bengal tiger in a tuxedo sitting down front next to Jack Nicholson come Oscar night, I’m not going to be happy.

And the Pi of the title is a true inspiration, in more ways than one. A curious, thoughtful boy who is completely and innocently open to the possibilities of many religions and spiritualities, his views evolve as he grows up in India under the watchful eye of a father who implores his children to be practical and reasonable. Reason, you might say, is the father’s religion. And Pi is respectful of his father and his father’s views, even while Pi’s nature and curiosity pushes him to explore all that is available to him in the tenets of diverse religions. We live in a world where there is a simultaneous extreme righteousness in many religions, accompanied on the other side of the coin by an often cynical and sometimes overly wary and judgmental view of the role of religion in people’s lives (often an extremely positive role). One of the beauties of Life of Pi is the way in which it explores, in a completely non-preachy way (I can’t emphasize the non-preachy-ness part enough), the way in which religion and spirituality can be a life affirming and saving thing for a person. In Pi’s case, the human spirit and the spirit he possesses and has nurtured through his young life (not taken dogmatically from any one religion), is ultimately what saves him.

Alongside the themes of religion and spirituality and the human spirit in general, is a more subtle exploration of the self-imposed constrictions and limitations we put on ourselves in order to live our lives. What is it that we are even willing to believe, and how healthy is it for people to limit themselves in their imagination, their willingness to accept and believe in things outside a certain box, or at least outside what a society says is “believable” or “Ok”? If you’re not inspired to be more open, to be more accepting of others, to consider that maybe you don’t have all the answers, that it’s alright to not know everything, that people and things different from you aren’t inferior (and plenty more themes that we should all gladly take in), you’ve missed the point of this wonderful story and movie.

Oh, and by the way, on top of and just as important and enjoyable as all this inspiration, you simply won’t see a more beautiful film in the theater this year than Life of Pi. We had the advantage of seeing the movie in 3D, which was used to an absolute “T” by Ang Lee, taking you to places of fantasy and places of beauty and places of nature that will leave you smiling with the sense of wonder that movies should be able to produce. The 3D effects are perfect, but not over-done and not used just to be used, if that makes sense. They simply bring out the beauty of a natural world that is out there, a world that can also become threatening and violent at the drop of a hat. Pi is left to fight the elements most of all, but also himself and his beliefs. And although always mesmerizing and beautiful, it’s not a smooth ride for Pi. There are moments of true sadness, moments of loss and grief that occur in all of our lives. The movie is going to leave you mostly with inspiration and hope, but also a touch of melancholy for those you may have lost yourself.

In the end, it’s early, but I can’t imagine Life of Pi not being a prominent part of Oscar night. Oftentimes you hear a movie described as the “type of movie that Hollywood loves to honor”. A lot of the time, a declaration like that is made half mockingly and sarcastically, often for a movie that is clichéd and rote. Life of Pi may or may not be the type of movie that Hollywood will honor. But I can’t think of a better example of a film that encapsulates and takes advantage of all the best of what a well-made movie can deliver. The story, the visuals, the wonder, the inspiration is all there. Go see it. Enjoy it. And most of all, take a minute or two to think about it now and then after you see it.

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2012 in Favorites, General Film, Reviews

 

Flight

It couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes (probably more like 7 minutes, 43 seconds) into the new Denzel Washington film Flight (directed by Robert Zemeckis) before I leaned over and whispered, “Start shining up the Oscar, ‘cause Denzel is on his game.” And I meant it. It took just that long for Denzel to have you on the hook, instantly fascinated with his character, and teed up and ready to go for what promised to be a not by the numbers movie. And as the film unfolded, Denzel as the flawed, alcoholic but ace pilot Whip Whitaker kept you on that hook, invested in everything that happened to his character. Add in the supporting cast, complete with the always pitch perfect Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle, an excellent Kelly Reilly (as a like soul to Denzel’s character), and the having a blast John Goodman, and all the makings were there. BTW, is there anybody in Hollywood having more fun this movie season than Goodman, chewing scenery in both Flight and Argo faster than a hasn’t eaten in months Pac-Man?

The other thing beside the perfect casting that Flight had going for it was clearly a good idea to jump off from. The movie starts off electrically in the first 20-25 minutes, as we are witness to one of the most edge of your seat plane crashes ever put on film. Whip as captain of the plane pulls off a miracle, albeit not without casualties, landing. But there is a lot more at work than a simple plane crash story. The pitch for this movie had to be something along the lines of, “We want to do a movie about a plane crash, but we want to focus on the real, flawed people that are involved in it and a part of it. People aren’t perfect, and they aren’t all bad, either. Let’s go beyond the usual and treat the audience like adults, really explore some of these characters.” Or at least that’s how I imagine the pitch went.

The problem is, the writers and Zemeckis couldn’t stick to their guns. After the first third of the movie, which sets up fascinating possibilities that could lead us anywhere, the rest of the movie is filled with lead the audience by their noses from point A to point B plot contrivances that are, at best, somewhat lazily written and, at worst, insulting to the audience. I was all ready to go for an interesting, adult themed movie that explored the complicated nature of people. But if you’re going to T up a movie that purports to do that, then go ahead and do it. Unfortunately, the only thing explored during the second half of Flight seemed to be focus group cards and re-shoots. Literally the entire movie was held together by the performances, particularly Denzel’s performance. If you read the words on a piece of paper, you wouldn’t believe any of it. It is the actors in this film that are the glue that make you believe it.

The ending of the movie, involving Denzel and those trying to protect him from himself doing all they can to get Denzel through a thorny appearance before the NTSB, has some of the most unbelievable, audience manipulating events taking place that you will ever see in a movie. This ending is a perfect microcosm for the entire film, though. Because while you find yourself almost screaming at the screen to make the story stop, you also can’t help yourself in enjoying the brilliance of the Denzel/Goodman/Cheadle/Greenwood ensemble absolutely tearing it apart before your eyes. You want to throw spitballs at the writing, while high fiving and thanking the actors for saving it all for you. In the end, if you go to the trouble of seeing Flight, you’ll probably be OK with it because you won’t soon forget the Whip Whitaker character that Denzel wholly creates. And even though you won’t be singing the praises of the movie he won it for, if and when Denzel strolls up the aisle with that grin of his to pick up Oscar, you’ll think he deserves it. Except I just remembered Daniel Day-Lewis has to win it for Lincoln.

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2012 in General Film, Reviews

 

Frankenweenie: Tim Burton’s Greatest Hits

Frankenweenie; it’s the quintessential Tim Burton movie, the movie he was born to make.  If you’ve watched a lot of Mr. Burton’s flicks over the years, Frankenweenie will not be new to you.  You’ll notice a lot of his cinematic devices and plot devices too.  Black and white like Ed Wood?  Check!  The merging of two creatures to make one weird monster like Mars Attacks!?  Check!  Stop motion like The Nightmare Before Christmas?  Check!  The climax in an abandoned, burning down windmill like Sleepy Hollow?  Check!  Hell, he even recycled the main character’s name from The Corpse BrideFrankenweenie may not be Mr. Burton’s best work, but if you like his stuff, this is like his greatest hits reel and it won’t disappoint.

Frankenweenie revolves around Victor Frankenstein, a middle school loner who prefers the company of his dog, Sparky to that of any of his classmates.  Sparky stars in elaborate 8mm sci-fi flicks produced by Victor.  I will assume that part is autobiographical.  Sparky, unfortunately meets his untimely demise early in the film after a series of unfortunate coincidences brought about when Victor’s father forces him to try out playing baseball with a neighborhood team.  Victor, inspired by his new science teacher, decides to build a machine to bring Sparky back to life.  He succeeds, but has to keep his experiment a secret.  Sparky, however has other plans and soon word gets out that Victor has created a machine that can bring dead pets back to life.  All the neighborhood kids try to replicate Victor’s experiment with their own dearly departed pets, with varying degrees of success, and soon all hell breaks loose.

The film is a lot of fun to look at; black and white with that classic Burton look.  It is supposed to be modern-day, but looks more like an idealized 1950s throw back, complete with closed-minded villagers and references to all the classic sci-fi and horror flicks from Frankenstein to Godzilla and everything in between.  The film is, however, most memorable when it focuses on the relationship between Victor and Sparky.  That’s when you really see the heart of the film and, I’ll admit, I got a little choked up when Victor lost Sparky.  If you’ve ever had a four-legged fur friend, and certainly if you’ve ever lost one, Victor’s loss hits close to home.  And his desire to bring his best friend back is terribly understandable.  That being said, having a dead dog running around is, as Victor’s dad says, upsetting.  But Burton makes some larger points too.  Exploring American disdain for both science and creativity and exploding the idea that grown ups are always right.  Probably one of the funniest scenes features a, let’s say, Eastern European science teacher trying to defend his job before a room full of slack-jawed parents by explaining that he wants to crack open children’s heads to get at their brains.  He is, of course, saying everything all wrong, but also explaining with absolute clarity the problem with this town full of mindless followers more concerned with their lawns that their kids.

In the end, as I said, Frankenweenie doesn’t disappoint.  It’s touching with just the right amount of fantastical adventure.  it looks cool and it’s the kind of movie you could watch a couple of times to just to pick up all the other movie references.  This is a strange movie season; how often do you get two stop-motion movies featuring loner middle schoolers, the supernatural, and nerds saving the day?  It is truly a gluttony of riches.  And while Frankenweenie is certainly a fun and entertaining way to while aware a lazy Saturday afternoon, if you have to pick only one stop-motion zombie flick for the year, you should make it ParaNorman.  Frankenweenie, while totally enjoyable, doesn’t quite measure up to the hilarity and universal truths explored in ParaNorman, but I really hope you don’t have to pick and you can see them both.  When we go so long starved for great stop-motion supernatural animation, why look a gift horse in the mouth?  Why not enjoy them both!  They are certainly worth it.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2012 in Reviews

 

Argo

Let’s stipulate right out of the chute that if Ben Affleck’s hair and beard, shooting style, or even just opening credit design choice for Argo can do anything to jump start a quality, going back to the 1970s movie making ethos in Hollywood, the film will have earned its keep. Admit it people, for all the grief the 70s take overall as a lost decade, when it comes to movies (and music) the decade had it going on. And when Affleck hit me with Van Halen Dance The Night Away over a slow-motionized Hollywood party scene and Led Zeppelin When The Levee Breaks spinning on vinyl, Ben Garner had earned some points.

Argo is a fun movie, and in a movie universe where the best movies are usually cartoons and everyone is looking to build a franchise, it’s good to see a movie like this made that isn’t a small independent. There is a lot of 70s throwback style to this. Which makes sense, since it is after all about an offshoot of the Iran hostage crisis of the 1979-1981. The story is a based on fact one about a handful of workers in the U.S. embassy in Tehran who were able to escape before being captured. They end up being protected and hidden by the Canadian embassy, while the U.S. government tries to figure out a way to get them out.

You can read all about the truth of what happened on the CIA website, as the entire operation is now public knowledge. But long story short Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, an agent who comes up with the idea of pretending to be scouting for a film location in Iran as a way to get into the country and get the hidden U.S. embassy representatives out. In order to do this and seem credible, Mendez engages a Hollywood makeup artist (Oscar winner John Chambers in real life) and producer to help him put together the cover of a real movie being made. They start a production company, come up with a script (a sort of Star Wars ripoff) and they’re off and running.

The Affleck as CIA agent in Hollywood section of the film is both highly engaging and comic relief, as John Goodman and Alan Arkin ham it up skewering the ins and outs of Hollywood. In fact, one of my criticisms of Argo would probably be that the Hollywood setup part of things was too brief and thin. First off, there’s no way everything was set up as easily as it was portrayed in Affleck’s version of things. And second, Goodman and Arkin are just too much fun together to be limited to the amount of screen time they were given. Arkin’s line reading of one word, “Taco”, by itself is worthy of a statue come Oscar time. And if you don’t agree with me, Argo fu–, oh just go see the movie.

Once we get beyond the fun and Affleck gets down to the business of pulling the hiding Americans out, the second half of the film is a very solid little thriller. Affleck as director is quite effective in building up suspense with simple mood without overdoing it or laying it on too thick. There is, I’m sure, plenty to debate as to how 100% true to actual events Affleck is in the movie. Apparently, he overdid the tensions at the airport during the actual “escape” while maybe underplaying the particulars of getting into Iran with the movie cover in the first place. There were, by all accounts, a lot of ins and outs in terms of U.S.-Canadian cooperation that were changed here and there for the sake of time, as well. But what I’m sure is true is that the entire operation really was certainly operating very much out on a wire while it was happening and, again, Affleck as director is effective as ratcheting up the tension.

The ensemble of actors playing the hiding American embassy workers are remarkable as a group in their unremarkableness. Affleck made a good directing choice, I thought, in making them very much a group of people that don’t portray any super standout characteristics, but rather are just people in a place doing a job and getting caught up in horrible circumstances. They are portrayed as worrying and making decisions as a group, which worked well in the context of the story. Bryan Cranston as the CIA operative coordinating everything back in America is excellent in bringing out the tensions and importance of the operation.

Affleck as director also did a solid job in reminding the audience of just how big a deal the entire hostage crisis was back in 1979-80 in this country. I was a preteen at the time, and I can remember as Affleck shows in the film the nightly 5 minute or so updates on the situation interrupting The Love Boat. It seems odd in the world we live in now, where because so much is over exaggerated it tends to diminish those things that are truly important, but you could argue that the Iran hostage crisis affected the country at the time very much in the same way 9/11 did.

Ironically enough, considering the solid job he did as director, I’d agree with my wife (who I give full credit for pointing out the cool 1970s opening title design) when she says Affleck as Tony Mendez was pretty underwhelming. He seemed way too laid back in his acting choices. It could be that he was trying to go for a cool under pressure vibe about the Mendez character, but it came across as Mendez not being so much cool as just detached and disconnected. There was no there there. And the side story regarding Mendez’s family was so underdone as to be completely unnecessary (and at the end of the movie, simply superfluous).

There’s probably plenty to nitpick with Argo. The movie, while it tries to steer away from too much political commentary, nevertheless is almost necessarily viewed through a political prism. With what is coming out about the attack of our embassy in Benghazi, you can’t help but watch Argo through that lens. How you feel about America’s involvement in propping up dictators will affect how you view things. How you see religious based terrorism in the Middle East comes into play. To Affleck’s credit, though, he takes a pretty neutral stance on all of it. He’s simply telling the story of a group of people (Americans and Canadians) helping their own against pretty big odds. It’s well done, exciting and refreshingly free of judgment.

 

 

 
 
 
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