Argo (2012)

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Director: Ben Affleck. Warner/Smoke House/GK Films. (15)

THRILLER

 

Producers: Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Grant Heslov.Writer: Chris Terrio. Camera: Rodrigo Prieto. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Sets: Sharon Seymour.

Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Bob Gunton, Adrienne Barbeau.

SYNOPSIS

Shortly after the deposed Shah of Iran is granted asylum in the United States, angry crowds in Iran gather frequently outside the American Embassy. When the crowd storms the building, six employees escape and hide in the home of the Canadian Ambassador (Garber) and sit it out. Stumped as how to rescue them from a country in turmoil, the CIA’s Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with an idea to fake the production of a science fiction movie (Argo), using a location scouting trip to the Middle East as the cover. Despite initial reservation, Affleck travels to Iran and prepares the embassy staff to leave.

REVIEW

Seeing as Iran, Iraq, or general Middle East-bashing has been de rigueur in Hollywood for many years, it is probably no surprise that this presposterously plotted, ‘all Iranian’s are crazy revolutionaries’ thriller was green lighted.

What is more amazing, almost fantastically beyond the realm of probability, is that the story is actually based on real events. It sounds vaguely like Alexandro Jodorowsky’s (actual) plan to first film Dune in the seventies with Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson in the cast. Of course, many years have passed since the events depicted here (1980) and confidential government documents have long since had the dust blown off them, turned into articles (by Joshua Bearman) and now adapted into Hollywood blockbusters (we’ll sidestep the 1981 Canadian TV movie that recounted this story).

A Hollywood film that looks favourably (or at least doesn’t dwell on long since elapsed violence) on Iranian culture and people would be almost too dramatically implausible to ever make it onto a producers desk. This said, Argo is still a very good film from a director/star with considerable talent in creating a slick product.

Affleck looks even more impossibly handsome with a beard like a privet hedge that covers that lantern jaw whilst also managing to look twice as miserable as usual as the hero of the piece. The Mendez character also has suspiciously little to say, rendering him almost mute and one dimensional. We can tell he is a renegade who will disobey orders to get the job done and save the day – who else would a top-flight movie start want to portray?

Perhaps he was mistaking moribund for macho, so the film and leading man only ever roar into life when the top-flight supporting players walk in. Thank heavens for the hilarious Arkin as quick-to-quip Hollywood producer Lester Siegel and Oscar winning make-up maestro John Chambers. These two, armed to the high teeth with expletive strewn Hollywood wit, make a formidable comedic tag-team. They bite at the juicy one-liners that pepper the script with scene-chewing gusto. The plaudits go completely to them. Their frequent cry of “Argo fuck yourself” whenever annoyed is an inspired, smile producing addition.

Affleck fares better on the other side of the camera. Much better in fact. It’s worth noting that despite his huge success as a film star, he has had more artistic success with his work behind the scenes (an Oscar and Golden Globe for best screenplay, Good Will Hunting. His feature directorial debut Gone Baby Gone received good notices across the board) than in front of the lens (we’ll forget the large number of Razzie nominations for worst actor of the year). Despite the broad comedy deployed in the middle of the film (and arguably these are the better sequences. Affleck should try his hand at an outright comedy sometime), the opening embassy storm and later moments of the staff during their escape are staged for all the wound-up tension he could wring out of them. These are scenes made of an escalating, stomach-knotting suspense. Not scary, they play on the apprehension that comes from being completely out of your depth and having to hide in a cellar after dinner. Excellent intuition and understanding for a director that has an immediate effect on the audience.

 

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Ruby Sparks (2012)

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Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. Bona Fide/Fox Searchlight

DRAMA

 

Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa. Writer: Zoe Kazan. Camera: Matthew Libatique. Music: Nick Urata. Sets: Alexander Wei.

Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould, Toni Trucks, Deborah Ann Woll.

SYNOPSIS

Calvin (Dano) is a shy and retiring novelist who has produced only one book in his entire career, hugely successful and fondly remembered by a generation, thus ensuring he never needs to work again. Then one day his latest creation, a character called Ruby (Kazan), suddenly comes to life as his real-life girlfriend. Much to his delight, he finds that by altering her mood and feelings on paper causes corresponding changes in the real girl. But his joy at manipulating her into always being the perfect woman is short-lived.

REVIEW

Fun and frequently funny comedy drama, from the same directors behind the charming Little Miss Sunshine, shows how far you can go with a little sparky imagination.

A lot, however, rests on the charm of the performances and Ruby Sparks is a film that hits the home run in every performance, with something unique to savour from each. Coogan’s rival writer is a lesser talent seething with almost unspoken jealousy for his younger counterpart, sleeping with Dano’s girlfriends out of spite. Messina is a delight as Dano’s hen-pecked brother who encourages him to change his girlfriend frequently, if for nothing more than he might get laid more often. And better. Gould’s patient shrink is presented as a perfect balancing act to Dano’s neuroticism. Bening (whose character, Gertrude, seems to echo Hamlet’s character for marrying another man after the death of the male lead’s father) and Banderas chill out as Dano’s free spirit folk whose garden is their house.

The leads are a very appealing double-act; Dano, with meek and passive aggressive voice and body language, seems like the most harrassed of writers block sufferers, a collection of twitches, squeaky outbursts and untrusting looks. His character is a sweet guy, but also repellant as he lives his life and relationships through ink and paper, the ultimate sexual controller of women. The only lasting relationship he has is with his typewriter and even that is a let down, helping him produce no more than one good book. That he squeezes comedy juice out of the role for everything it’s worth is all the more impressive.

Kazan has given herself what is the most interesting piece dramatically, with violent, sudden and exhausting mood changes, a literal bipolar character. She is hard to keep up with much to less to enjoy but she has our sympathies, being no more than a puppet on an ink ribbon.

Kazan’s script leads to some split thinking though. On the one hand, it is an energetic, thoughtful, clever piece with some unforgettable dramatic moments a writer should be proud of. The example that lingers after leaving the theatre is the crazy, mad love scene when Dano, frustrated that his constantly evolving work on paper is only making Ruby unbalanced and unpredictable in real life, bashes out a series of increasingly bizarre behaviours on his trusty typewriter for her to act out.

One of these actions highlights the problem, on the other side of the coin, with the writing. Ruby constantly refers to the writer as “genius”. This is how other people refer to him, almost as shorthand to move the conversation away from this difficult person and on to something easier to discuss. Star Kazan is the writer too and near the end of the film, another character she plays states that Dano’s new book is pretentious. This script could be seen as overly precious clever-dickness, as if the writer has descended into their own literary frenzy of self congratulation. None the less, she can still write some great scenes so let’s hope we get more from her.