Argo

This is probably the best movie of the year.

Somewhere along his career trajectory, Ben Affleck went from  leading man  handsome guy, to dim witted lucky guy, then overrated talentless hack, to promising director, to full scale talent behind the camera. His has been a roller coaster film career and with ARGO, he has arrived back at the top, with a film that will probably be competing for the biggest awards at the end of the year.  Everybody loves to tear down the ones who make it to the top in a field where talent is envied. Watching the vultures go after Affleck for several years has not really been a pretty sight. Admittedly he made some bad choices, both in movies (Gigli) and in girlfriends (JLo). The fact that those choices did not work out did not demonstrate that he was a failure, they in fact showed that he was a work in progress, taking risks along the way. Whatever he learned from the doormat days, he has turned into something very productive. I have yet to see his other directing features. “Gone Baby Gone” sounded a little too harsh for me at the time, I just don’t know about a film concerning child abduction and murder (I skipped “The Lovely Bones” despite an Oscar nominated performance from Stanley Tucci, an actor I greatly admire, for similar reasons). I had every intention of seeing “The Town”, but it has just slipped by me . ARGO, on the other hand, hooked me from the very first trailer because the story is one of those things that I remember from the dark days of the seventies.

This is a spy story where the C.I.A. are the good guys, the Iranian Revolutionaries are the bad guys, and the Canadians are our best friends. In other words, this movie reflects reality and my own world view. The seventies were filled with movies in which the intelligence community of the U.S. was overrun with megalomaniacs whose sole purpose was to pull the strings on events of the world stage, for their own benefit. I liked most of those films but I always took them with a grain of salt, because it never seemed to me that people who wanted to protect the country in the first place had to be automatically evil. After the Church hearings in  mid-decade, there were even people who thought we did not need human intelligence agencies anymore, that computers and satellites would fill all those needs. We all now know better and this is a story that celebrates the accomplishments of our intelligence community rather than trashing it. Of course they are not perfect, but they are also not the Keystone Cops with delusions of being Dr. Evil in their heads.

The taking of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, is recreated on screen here very convincingly. I think some of the shots were real news footage but most of the opening section is a chaotic visualization of a tragic day in diplomatic history. The six Americans who escaped from been taken hostage did so because of the layout of the Embassy, not because they were smarter than the ones who ended up being held for more than a year. They were smart enough to take the small window of opportunity they had, and run with it. It is at this point, that our friends the Canadians stood up for us. The Canadian ambassador takes in the six at great personal and diplomatic risk. The nearly three months that the Americans hid out with the ambassador, were  a period of time that any moment could have ended in disaster. Afflect as director, manages to build tension not only in the usual ways, but in subtle ways. The performances by the actors portraying the six Americans are subtle. They don’t over emote, they sweat under the strain in realistic ways. There is self recrimination by one, who ignored his wife’s pleas that they leave Iran months earlier. There is stress indicated not by yelling matches but fearful conversations. Simply chafing under the need to be inside all the time, one of the Americans has to step outside for air, just to be able to breathe. That action frightens everyone and you can see in their faces the terror that they faced. When Affleck’s CIA agent arrives and tells them his plan, they are even more frightened than they were before. The fear comes from the atmosphere they were hiding in.

The director does a great job of showing us the streets of revolutionary Iran. There are random teeming protests and men with machine guns on nearly every corner. Suspected loyalists to the shah are arrested, imprisoned and even hung from construction equipment in public. We hear how bad the police state before the revolution was, but we see how bad the mob rule of the revolutionaries is during the story. The music in the film was right for building tension but not drawing attention to itself. As our CIA operative arrives at his hotel, we get point of view shots that highlight the fear on the streets. Every official that asks a question feels like a potential bomb, just ticking closer to an inevitable explosion of violence. All of this was done efficiently, without too much lingering and without drawing attention to the film techniques. It reminded me of the David Fincher “Zodiac”. Everyday things feel wrong, even though on the surface they appear to be stable for the moment. At the end of the film, the story uses more traditional means of building tension, including last minute door closings, transmissions slipping out of gear, and pictures being matched up just as the escape is under way. All of that is handled well, and although we knew the outcome before the movie even started, it was still tense.

The light moments of the film come from the deep background story that the agency sets up to get the Americans a cover that will allow them to escape. ARGO is the title of the fake movie, that the six will supposedly be scouting locations for in Iran. To be able to sell the idea, the CIA sets up a production company in Hollywood using an Academy Award winning make up artist and a past his time producer. The make up guy was real, he later received recognition from the government for a variety of help he provided to the CIA, the producer is an invention, but represents exactly the kind of personality that would be required to pull off this deception. I have read enough material about Hollywood, and lived in Southern California long enough to be able to say they nailed the spirit if not the exact truth of the insider world that made up that world at the time. Anyone could call themselves a film producer, but to get coverage and connections, you needed insider help. The most true moment in the Hollywood scenes of the film occur as Alan Arkin as the producer and John Goodman as the make up guy turned producer, try to option the script for ARGO, from the agency that represents the screenwriter. Richard Kind plays the agent and the banter he exchanges with Arkin is exactly on point. Movie guys bullshit each other, insult each other and respect each other all at the same time. Each one is trying to outmaneuver the other on a deal and they basically lie to do so.

It always seems strange to me when a period piece is actually reflective of a time in my own life.When I was at USC as an undergraduate, there were always protests against the shah by Iranian students. When the revolution came, I was taking a class from my favorite history professor on revolutions and the Iranian revolution was the last of the four we studied. When I was making deliveries of photo materials all over Hollywood, I saw the studios and the restaurants that the film makers frequented. Everything in the movie felt real. I loved seeing the poster for obscure films in the production offices as the CIA and the movie guys are putting their film together. I remember films like “When Dinosaurs Ruled  the Earth” and the poster in Arkins office for “Sssssss” is on the wall right in front of me as I type this. The glasses and hairstyles of the 1970s are spot on. I was looking at the actors portraying the six Americans hiding, and I noticed how they had their hair parted the way I did at the time. The luggage that they carried was not drawn on wheels but dragged and picked up as it would have been at the time. People smoked in public buildings and on airplanes, try doing something like that today. All the little details are exactly right and the art direction here feels like 1979.

So far I have not talked about the performances. This is a ensemble film, and even the lead character played by Affleck, is one of many stories in the film. Arkin and Goodman steal their scenes in the way pros know how, without being hammy. The six actors playing our trapped diplomats were all unfamiliar to me except for Tate Donovan, and they were stellar. They conveyed the real fears of average people in overwhelming circumstances. Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador is fine but his part is thin despite the real life ambassador’s true heroism. Bryan Cranston is stuck playing a bureaucrat again, but this time his role is not a caricature but a honestly conflicted middle agency guy. His warning to Affleck’s character as he is heading to the Turkey and Iran is chilling, at the same time funny. Affleck plays a real life hero, Tony Mendez, who hatched the plot and bravely walked into a hornets nest to save his fellow citizens. He is appropriately purposeful and sober in his time with the non-hostages. You can see he is driven in the Hollywood scenes but also appreciates the absurdity of his position there. It is not a flashy part but it is an important one. The backstory of his relationship with his son is an important touchstone. These guys are not James Bond, they are family men, doing a hard job that sometimes puts them in the same place as the worst people in the world. The script and the performance convey that very well. Even small parts seem well cast. Adrienne Barbeau has a couple of lines, but who else would you cast as the producer’s ex-wife, fading beauty, working actress doing a read thorough in costume of a B-movie? Kyle Chandler looks like Hamilton Jordan without having to do much more than comb his hair a little differently. The whole cast was excellent.

“ARGO” tells a spy story, though a Hollywood prism, with historical attention to detail. It was exciting as hell despite the fact that everyone knows how it turns out. The director puts suspense on the screen in lots of the right places, and in those spots where it is being artificially jacked up for movie drama reasons, it still works. The film stays largely free of politics, and focuses on honest people trying to do their job, who got caught up in the whirlwind of history. This movie deserves to be a big hit because it is all kinds of entertaining  and you will feel good at the resolution. A terrific story that is told by exceptional film makers.

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA

Two years ago, three of my favorite ten movies of the year were animated. I like films that are creative, I like cartoons, and I like smart kids films. This movie is not really all that creative, it certainly is not smart but it is an animated cartoon. I’m not sure why Sony is doing a cartoon movie featuring what were essentially Universal characters in the first half of the last century. As I think about it, maybe their emphasis has been to take cartoons and put them to live action (ala “the Flintstones”) rather than going the other way. Universal does have “Despicable Me 2” coming, so I know there is an animation presence there, but somehow this is not theirs. From a financial point of view, maybe they wish they had this but from an artistic one, they can live without it.

Hotel Transylvania is really a movie made for little kids. I mean five years and under. The characters are simplistic, the story is well worn, and plot points feel like they are lifted from a thousand kids movies in the past. When the Monsters jump on stage and start playing music like a rock band for no reason what so ever, I felt like I was in an episode of “Scooby Doo” or “The Archies”. I know I am showing my age with those two references, but that is basically how the movie feels. If characters from kids cartoons still do this, then fill in your own example.

The look of the movie is fine but not dynamic or unique. Everything is passable as a castle, or vampire or werewolf, but none of it feels very interesting and when the fart jokes start coming, I was ready to give up. The movie actors giving voice to the Monsters are not doing anything to make the characters really sing, it feels like they are going through the motions and collecting their paychecks. I did not hate the movie, I just did not care about anything in it. It is a little better than Madagascar 3, but it doesn’t have the Rainbow Afro/Circus song to make it memorable. If you have tiny children who want a Halloween style movie, this may be OK, we waited on “Frankenweenie” because we thought it would stay in theaters a little longer. Let’s hope it is better than this inconsequential effort.

James Bond 007 Celebration Episode 2

A couple of weeks ago, I started my 50th anniversary celebration of James Bond. This date marks the actual debut of Dr. No, so it is a pretty safe bet that there will be Bond tributes all over the net. I checked on Google, but they did not have one of their trademark logos celebrating 007. All is well however, I just finished watching the EPIX exclusive documentary “Everything or Nothing: The Secret World of 007” and it satisfied my needs for a Bond fix. Today, as I was watching “Taken 2” with my daughter Amanda, we saw the trailer for “Skyfall”, I leaned over and said “35 more days” and we both gave out a shout of anticipation.

The set up for the current project is to rate the 007 films by the actors outings as James Bond. Since Lazenby was only Bond once, he started us off. The fact that he never made another Bond film is not really a tragedy, he was not really an actor, and subsequent Bonds have been more than sufficient to replace him. I do think on the other hand that it is a tragedy that Timothy Dalton did not get to portray Bond more than the two opportunities afforded him. My friend Art and I both thought he looked the most like the James Bond we had envisioned in our heads when we read the books (at least when we could get Sean Connery out of our minds). Dalton is an excellent actor and he did a fine job restoring some dignity to Bond after some of the over the top Roger Moore outings. The one thing that he seemed to lack was a deftness with a comic line. He always brought great intensity to the role but lost the light touch that the audience had grown used to.

Anyway, my ranking of his films is complicated. I think both movies are excellent, but they are both fairly grim. My final decision is a personal reflection of my mood at the times I saw these films in theaters.

“The Living Daylights”

This ends up as my second favorite Bond, even though it is the more “Bond” like of the two Dalton films. The scenario of the assassin who Bond is supposed to kill but instead merely prevents from caring out their orders is straight from the original story. A pretty face stays his hand. In the original short story, that is as far as it went. Here an elaborate set up of spy vendetta, corruption in the KGB, and ultimately a little detente, fill in the story.

I like the characters of the duplicitous Russian general, and the American mercenary who sees himself as a war historian/General. Their plot to steal from the Russian arms stockpiles, sell the arms on the open market and exploit the British Secret Service to do so, reminded me a bit of the intrigue in “From Russia with Love”, with two sides being played while a third is profiting.

There are a couple of long sequences in Afghanistan, and at the time it was easy to look at the Russian quagmire and shake our heads at a distance. Today, it is a little more difficult to do that.

There is a solid sequence in which the Russian General fakes his own kidnapping from British intelligence. The monosyllabic blond Russian strongman, infiltrates the safe house and engages in a series of hand to hand combat situations with other British Agents. I always liked the fact that the MI6 guy in the kitchen was almost a match for the guy. Bond was not alone in her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the other guys were competent as well. Of course Bond is special, which is why he rises like cream to the top of the heap.

The girl in the story is the weak link. She is pretty but not any more convincing as a cellist than she was as a sniper. The European scenes and chases are effective and the pre title sequence was good looking although a little confusing the first time through.

License to Kill

“License to Kill”, which in my mind should have remained “License Revoked”, is at the top of my Dalton list for a couple of very personal reasons. It is the last James Bond film I saw with my best friend.We had seen nine Bond films together when they first opened. Art died during the six year interval between this and the first Brosnan film. It is also the first Bond film I took my daughter Amanda to. She was a year old and slept in the car seat that I deposited in the seat next to me in the theater. When she did wake up, she never fussed or in any way bothered anyone else in the theater, but it was an early matinee that was sparsely attended.

I also like the movie because it is one of the most violent of the Bond films. It’s subject is personal vengeance, and one of the classic scenes from the novel “Live and Let Die”, ended up in this story. The feeding of Felix Leiter to a shark and his subsequent delivery with a sadistic note reading “He disagreed with something that ate him”, is a classic nasty piece of work from Ian Fleming himself. It is one of the reasons that the original novels were criticized for their sadism. The character of Milton Krest is from a different short story in the same collection as “The Living Daylights”, and the punishment of the villains girl by being whipped with the trail from a stingray is also a gruesome slice of that short story collection.

There is a strong leading lady, a good plot that makes use of Felix for something more than simple exposition, and a real villain. Actually we get to see Bond dispose of two thoroughly disagreeable bad guys, one of them played by Benicio Del Toro. The main villain is Sanchez, brought to life by the truly great character actor Robert Davi. He has flare, intelligence and a brutal personality to match those other characteristics. His character could also be a real person, the Mexican drug lords are probably even worse so it is not really an over the top visualization of a drug cartel story.  I also think the tanker truck stunt toward the end of the picture is a memorable Bond style trick. Throw in Wayne Newton, and Q in the field for some comic relief and you get a pretty good package despite some script issues.

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The James Bond 50th Anniversary Celebration will Return.

Taken 2

There was almost no chance I would not like this movie, but there was also almost no chance that it would be as great as the original. Apparently I can predict the future because I was right on both counts. Taken 2 is a satisfying sequel to the original revenge story from 2008. It is hard to believe that it was nearly five years ago that the original came out. Liam Neeson has become a go to action star in his late fifties and early sixties and he looks completely credible doing so. In the time between the two Taken films, he has built up his bonifides by playing a series of tough guys in starring and featured roles.

I’ve enjoyed his work since I first saw him in “Excalibur” back in 1981, but in the last few years he has become a personal favorite. It may be that since Gene Hackman is no longer working, I am looking for an actor to trust when it comes to parts that feature traditional masculine traits. Tough and intelligent, with a sense of purpose in the way they walk and talk. My daughter would probably say I have a “mancrush” on him, but it is really just that he embodies a lot of the mannerisms and directness that actors like Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Hackman possess. They all play real types much more effectively than any other role. I have sort of avoided the “Clash of the Titans” films, because the costumes and hair styles undermine the very things I like about Neeson as an actor. He is not affected in his portrayals, there is no method angst and no tics or traits that seem obviously to be actors crutches. An action movie like “Taken 2” requires a sense of heightened reality, but it has to be grounded in what is real.

This go round, Neeson’s character Bryan Mills is the subject of a revenge plot, created by the families of the characters he wiped out in the first film. If there was any way to make sense of the notion that someone would be “Kidnapped” again, this is the lone plausible stream. Otherwise, the movie would seem like lightning striking the same spot or someone winning the lottery a couple of times in a row. The basic set up takes place pretty quickly and I think that may be a weakness of the film. The head of the family of gangsters is cast well and the Albanian environment seems believable, but we get no sense of the scope of the group and their power. I think some plot development that followed their planning of the whole revenge would be helpful. The only reference we get to the set up of their plan, was a scene with the corrupt French security official who was Bryan’s friend in the first movie. After that, we barely see the evil doers except as faceless drivers of chase vehicles or thugs shooting innocent bystanders for almost no reason. In the first “Taken”, Neeson has to track a guy down with only a brief vocal clue as to his identity. Along the way he interacts with members of the crime family for brief moments, which give him an opportunity to practice his spy-craft, and allows us to loath some of the bad guys individually. In this film, we see the bad guys working but without much sense of animosity or purpose; except for the head man. All of Bryan’s tools are used this time against the setting or environment of the abduction. We can see he is clever in tracking the path of the van that is whisking him away, but none of his tricks has anything to do with the people involved (until the very last).

It’s not that the first bunch of gangsters were so interesting because they were not. The weakness is that only two of the bad guys seem motivated. The best scene that brings us closest to the set up that I think I needed a little more, takes place with Bryan hanging from a bar in cellar and the evil “Godfather” character gloating over him. The threats he makes and the violence that he acts upon do mark him as the one person that we most want to see get a comeuppance. While the resolution works, it lacked the soul satisfying (or destroying if you are a pacifist) gut reaction of some of the first films multiple climax moments (Yeah, I see how it reads). To be honest there was never going to be a moment like in the first film when Bryan nails the bad guy in the legs, hooks up the electricity and then just walks out. It is a hard moment to top. This version tries to remind us that Bryan’s character is not a monster, although he is a death dealing demon of vengeance. There is some slight hint of the emotional release we want, but it was less orgasmic than I hoped for.

There are some terrific fight sequences. The one where Neeson takes on a half dozen or so of the criminal crew with a piece of a baton or re-bar was exciting and well staged. There were a couple of shootout scenes that had the kind of tension and resolution that an action fan is looking for. The car chase sequences were only mildly effective to me, I think the crowded marketplace setting and the lack of a point of view from the pursuers weakened the suspense a little, but that could just be me. The set up of the story focuses too much on Bryan and his family drama, and not quite enough on the hateful (and should be hated) villains. It still works and an 80% dose of Liam Neeson whoop ass still makes for a great two hours at the movies.