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…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

I can't explain now, but I've just been murdered.

The Avengers
5.21: You Have Just Been Murdered
Slender in concept – if you're holding out for a second act twist, you'll be sorely disappointed – You Have Just Been Murdered nevertheless sustains itself far past the point one might expect thanks to shock value that doesn't wear out through repetition, a suitably sinister performance from Simon Oates (Steed in the 1971 stage adaptation of the show) and a cartoonish one from George Murcell (1.3: Square Root of Evil) as Needle, of the sort you might expect Matt Berry to spoof.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

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…