Skip to main content

If I'm going to make a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit.


Argo
(2012)

With hindsight, it’s probably easy to make a case for Argo’s Best Picture win; sympathy with Affleck for his director nom snub, fatigue with the dry worthiness of frontrunner Lincoln, the unlikely scenario of a movie that can present Hollywood as a hero. It’s certainly no bar to recognition that Argo isn’t a great movie. It has a great premise, no doubt about that, of the “so far-fetched it has to be true” variety. But it drifts too far into “sexing-up” the material, which ultimately distances it from the best movies of the era that it is trying to ape.


Which is not to present a case that Argo should have been more accurate to the historical account of the rescue of six US diplomats from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. Fidelity has never borne much correspondence to quality in cinema, and what ultimately matters is the dramatic integrity of the finished film. Jimmy Carter seemed to get this, noting that he liked the movie but the rescue was 90% down to Canada (rather than the heroic CIA man who risks all). The problem arises where we can see the cogs and wheels of the Hollywood adaptation whirring and clicking away, creating a convenient conflagration of tension when a modicum would have served better.


The opening sequence, showing the escalating tensions that gave rise to the storming of the US Embassy in Iran is superb; tense and frightening, with the vulnerability of the staff made believably palpable by Affleck. And the partly storyboarded, potted history of Iran makes for a neat little introduction. A fine cast of non-stars (but mainly just-recognisable faces) has been assembled, encouraging an immersion on the part of the viewer only slightly tempered by the costume party attire and coiffeurs. Tate Donovan (Damages), Scoot McNairy (Killing Them Softly), Christopher Denham (Sound of My Voice) and Clea DuVall (Carnivale) all make strong impressions as tensions within their isolated group simmer.


Nothing else can quite match these sections, although the Hollywood scenes prove to be immense fun and are highly quotable. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are having a ball (“Argofuckyourself”) as producer and make-up man respectively. It may be that Hollywood smart talk writes itself, but their dialogue is no less funny for that (“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit”, “You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA”).  Arkin, in particular, is on a late-stage career roll, proving generally to be the memorable presence in otherwise middling fare. Maybe Goodman’s given his agent a kick up the arse, as he is suddenly getting the pick of supporting roles again following a mostly forgettable post-millennium decade. There’s also a scene where Arkin options the Argo script from Richard Kind, who is as indelible as always.


Less all-together successful is the role of the CIA, which follows a fairly standard path (resourceful exfiltration expert goes ahead with his crazy-but-daring scheme against the direct orders of his superiors), despite the odd witty line (“This is the best bad idea we have, sir”). As with the broke-backed Zero Dark Thirty, our CIA protagonist is given a moment of ridiculously OTT gross insubordination (“Do your fucking job!”). He also has some ripe, over-written dialogue to contend with, comparing exfiltration to abortions. And, as with Killing Them Softly, Affleck feels the need to have a TV set on in the corner of the room in each scene showing coverage of the crisis (in Killing it was the 2008 election).  It’s curious to see a movie where the CIA is established unquestionably as heroic (when did that last happen?), even if admits to the US’s involvement in the bringing to power of the Shah of Iran. Maybe this slight tonal discomfort results in the feeling that these are merely actors playing Spooks, or maybe it’s a consequence of a film playfully lifting the veil on moviemaking.


There’s little doubt that Affleck does a lousy job of making his hero's family life interesting; this aspect seems shoehorned in, to give Tony Mendez a semblance of a character arc (no one worried about Woodward and Bernstein needing fleshed-out backstory in All the President’s Men). There is the smallest sliver of relevance to the main story, in that the inspiration for the fake movie as a means to smuggle out the Embassy officials comes from watching TV with his son. But I don’t think it justifies an otherwise clumsy estranged husband and father subplot (I was hoping that, when Mendez arrives at his wife's house at the end and asks "Can I come in?", her reply would be "Argofuckyourself"). We even get a corny shot of him contemplating his wedding ring as he stashes it before going on assignment. Affleck is fine; at first I suspected vanity casting, but Mendez as a character is more a facilitator of the action than fully formed (making the family plot all-the-more extraneous). The film is littered with fine actors in small-ish roles, and Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek and Titus Welliver also deserved more screen time.


It’s in the final act that things begin to fall apart, as Affleck is unable to resist overegging the pudding with every scrap of tension he can muster (all those cuts away at crucial moments, to the piecing together of the shredded photos of the embassy staff, of flights being approved just in the nick of time etc) when really all he needed was the scene in which Scoot McNairy comes into his own and "sells" the film to their interrogators. Once we reach the point where the Revolutionary Guard is chasing the escapees’ Swissair flight along the runaway, we know that Affleck has forsaken any pretence at restraint and is content to throw anything into the mix he can.


But, as a director, he is improving with each film. There may be a bit too much of the student in his approach at present (studying Heat for The Town, All the President’s Men for this) and there’s something very literal about the way he attacks his material, but the results feel relatively seamless. Here, in particular, he manages the shifts in tone from life threatening claustrophobia to broad La-La-Land gags without fracturing the story as a whole.


Affleck has been compared to Sidney Lumet for his story-first, unimposing approach but I don't see him getting there quite yet; there's a surface gloss absence from Lumet's best work (there’s always a slight whiff of artifice to big moustaches and bad hair, like it’s a ‘70s theme night rather than an authentic milieu), and Ben needs to get past the urge to cast himself or little brother regardless of whether it suits the subject matter.


Argo was produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and was at one point considered as a directing project for one of them. I like that they have an eye for interesting and unusual historical/political material (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Syriana, The Ides of March) and the upcoming The Monuments Men looks to follow directly in Argo’s path (little-known but compelling historical incident, no doubt much-embellished, with appealing actor-director lead and ensemble cast). So far, though, they haven’t quite scored a home run with anything they’ve shepherded to screen. For all that Argo is an exciting and amusing ride, there isn’t much substance beneath the surface. It ends up more Sydney Pollack than Alan J Pakula.

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What do you want to be? Rich or dead?

Blake's 7 1.3: Cygnus Alpha

Well, the quality couldn’t last. Vere Lorrimer does a solid job directing this one, and the night shooting adds atmosphere in spades. Unfortunately the religious cult on a prison planet just isn’t that interesting (notably, big Brian Blessed was about the only well-known British thesp who wasn’t cast in the similarly themed Alien 3).

It’s Who-central from the off with lovely lovely lovely Kara (Pamela Salem – The Robots of Death and Remembrance of the Daleks) and the Caber, I mean Laran (Robert Russell, Terror of the Zygons) noting the incoming London. Which reuses a shot from Space Fall (the spinning object is a planet, clearly one with an unhealthy speed of rotation).
The length of journey issues in this story don’t bear much analysis. It’s now four months since the events of Space Fall, and poor old Leylan has clearly been affected badly by what went down. But he’s only now sending his report? Useful for the wayward viewer, but a bit slack otherwise.

So.…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

Isn’t Johnnie simply too fantastic for words?

Suspicion (1941)
(SPOILERS) Suspicion found Alfred Hitchcock basking in the warm glow of Rebecca’s Best Picture Oscar victory the previous year (for which he received his first of five Best Director nominations, famously winning none of them). Not only that, another of his films, Foreign Correspondent, had jostled with Rebecca for attention. Suspicion was duly nominated itself, something that seems less unlikely now we’ve returned to as many as ten award nominees annually (numbers wouldn’t be reduced to five until 1945). And still more plausible, in and of itself, than his later and final Best Picture nod, Spellbound. Suspicion has a number of claims to eminent status, not least the casting of Cary Grant, if not quite against type, then playing on his charm as a duplicitous quality, but it ultimately falls at the hurdle of studio-mandated compromise.

She's killed my piano.

Rocketman (2019)
(SPOILERS) Early on in Rocketman, there’s a scene where publisher Dick James (Stephen Graham) listens to a selection of his prospective talent’s songs and proceeds to label them utter shite (but signs him up anyway). It’s a view I have a degree of sympathy with. I like maybe a handful of Elton John’s tunes, so in theory, I should be something of a lost cause with regard to this musical biopic. But Rocketman isn’t reliant on the audience sitting back and gorging on naturalistic performances of the hits in the way Bohemian Rhapsody is; Dexter Fletcher fully embraces the musical theatre aspect of the form, delivering a so-so familiar story with choreographic gusto and entirely appropriate flamboyance in a manner that largely compensates. Largely.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

The world is a dangerous place, Elliot, not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on, and do nothing.

Mr. Robot Season One
(SPOILERS) With all the accolades proclaiming Mr. Robot the best new show of the year, the tale of a self-styled “vigilante hacker by night and regular cyber security worker by day”, intent on bringing down E/Evil Corp, the largest conglomerate in the world (as opposed to multinational Comcast, the 2014 “worst company in America” which owns the USA Network, home of Mr. Robot), I expected something a little more substantial than a refitted Fight Club, “refreshed” with trendy (well, a few years old) references to Occupy, Anonymous/hacking incidents and a melange of pop cultural signposts from the last fifteen years. There are times when the show feels entirely suffused with its abundant derivations, rather than developing into its own thing, its lead character’s pervasive alienation a direct substitute for Edward Norton’s Narrator. And yet, it has a lot going for it, and the season concludes at a point (creator Sam Esmail’s end of first act) where it has the potential…