Sunday, 18 November 2012

Argo

****
If someone made this up you probably wouldn’t buy it. Director Ben Affleck brings this stranger-than-fiction tale into vivid and very exciting life.

The year is 1979, the setting Iran. Amidst turmoil and revolution, the US embassy in Tehran is invaded. Hostages are taken but some of the diplomats manage to flee. Six such escapees find shelter in the Canadian embassy and the CIA hatches a plot to get them out. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) create a smokescreen. This comes in the shape of a fictitious Canadian film production: a science fiction fantasy called 'Argo'. With the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin) they take a genuine script and develop LA media buzz – all to get the trapped Americans, posing as a make-believe crew scouting for locations, out of Iran.

The film is quite conventional in its form but Affleck’s workmanlike execution creates a fabulous piece of entertainment. The rip-roaring, wild and outrageous story makes for very compelling viewing. It kept this reviewer right on the edge of his seat. From the intense storming of the US embassy to its thrilling conclusion I barely found time to breathe.

It’s a fascinating story. The sheer bizarreness makes for an interesting watch but the film is not without its problems. The six diplomat characters are written so paper thinly you have little idea who they really are. On top of that they’re a bit pathetic and not very likeable. This is a problem because you need to be rooting for these guys. Ultimately, the only person I wanted to see safely out of Iran was Tony Mendez, the man sent in to rescue them. I wish more time had been devoted to fleshing out their parts, especially considering the large numbers we focus on in the CIA headquarters and the White House, many of whom seem rather superfluous.

The film is bathed in delicious seventies detail - much of it subtle which actually delivers more impact. From the off, the era-appropriate seventies Warner Brothers “W” logo sets the tone. As an aside, I never tire of this device. Other examples, FYI, include Fincher using a seventies Paramount logo to start Zodiac and Eastwood using a twenties Universal logo to begin Changeling – each lending an immediate authenticity to the film to come. (And you gotta love the studios for letting them do it.)

I’m a little bemused by some of the near-perfect reviews this is getting, as the script, at times, is a little weak. A lot of the humour falls flat and occasionally it feels a bit TV movie. However, the adrenalin thrills more than make up for it, making Argo a superior piece of work. (Hence four solid stars.)




Sunday, 4 November 2012

Husbands (1970)


****
OK, this might not be to everyone’s tastes. Some may say it’s self-indulgent or perhaps just a show-offy excuse for the actors to flex their thespian muscles. I’ll struggle to argue against either of those accusations but at the same time I can’t help loving it.

The film starts with a death. A friend of Archie (Peter Falk), Ben Gazarra (Harry), and Gus (John Cassavetes) falls victim to the hard-drinking, heavy-smoking lifestyle that they all embrace. The three remaining friends deal with it by heavily drinking and smoking their way through the process of mourning. This magnificent binge carries them from the funeral in New York all the way to London, where they try to drink, gamble and womanise the pain away. It’s also a doomed attempt at shirking the responsibility that comes with middle age.

This triumvirate of acting talent burn up the screen. The three men spar with one another relentlessly – there are struggles of power as each attempts to out ‘Alpha’ the others. Archie and Gus often cruelly gang up on Harry lending credence to the maxim of three being a crowd. They argue, fight and giggle in such an authentic way it feels more documentary than a work of fiction. Some scenes don’t even seem to have a point but it’s so raw and vibrant it does make for compelling viewing. It’s a great drunk film too, capturing the highs, lows and general messiness of a marathon sesh.

It’s often uncomfortable viewing. Scenes run longer than the perceived wisdom might rule. And I mean much longer. You might even describe them as gruelling. But within these scenes appear moments that are just solid gold.

Although barely into the decade - unselfconsciously styled against a backdrop of real locations - it’s a wonderful window to the seventies. As with all of Casavettes’ work there is nothing neat about the film. In a true reflection of life itself, it is scrappy and chaotic with no loose ends conveniently tied up.


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