With each outing in his evolving filmmaking career actor-turned-director Ben Affleck has amped up the scope. Gone Baby Gone was a character drama woven into a hard-boiled mystery. The Town saw Affleck dabble in action pulling off bank heists many compared to the expertise of Heat. In Argo the director pulls off his most daring effort melding one part caper comedy and two parts edge-of-your-seat political thriller into an exhilarating theatrical experience.
At the height of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 anti-Shah militants stormed the U.S. embassy and captured 52 American hostages. Six managed to escape the raid finding refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home. Within hours the militants began a search for the missing Americans sifting through shredded paperwork for even the smallest bit of evidence. Under pressure by the ticking clock the CIA worked quickly to formulate a plan to covertly rescue the six embassy workers. Despite a lengthy list of possibilities only Tony Mendez (Affleck) had a plan just enticing enough to unsuspecting Iranian officials to work: the CIA would fake a Hollywood movie shoot.
There's nothing in Argo or Affleck's portrayal of Mendez that would tell you the technical operations officer has the imagination to conjure his master plan — Affleck perhaps to differentiate himself from the past plays his character with so much restraint he looks dead in the eyes — but when the Hollywood hijinks swing into full motion so does Argo. Mendez hooks up with Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to convince all of Hollywood that their sci-fi blockbuster "Argo " is readying for production. With enough promotional material concept art and press coverage Mendez and his team can convince the Iranian government they're a legit operation. A location scout in Tehran will be their method of extracting the bunkered down escapees.
Without an interesting lead to draw us in Affleck lets his eclectic ensemble do the heavy lifting. For the most part it works. Argo is basically two movies — Goodman and Arkin lead the Ocean's 11-esque half and Affleck takes the reigns when its time to get the six — another who's who of character actors including Tate Donovan Clea Duvall Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane — through the terrifying security of the Iranian airport. Arkin steals the show as a fast talking Hollywood type complete with year-winning catchphrase ("ArGo f**k yourself!) while McNairy adds a little more humanity to the spy mission when his character butts heads with Mendez. The split lessens the impact of each section but the tension in the escape is so high so taut that there's never a moment to check out.
Reality is on Affleck's side his camera floating through crowds of protestors and the streets of Tehran — a warscape where anything can happen. Each angle he chooses heightens the terror which starts to close in on the covert escape as they drift further and further from their homebase. Argo is a complete package with the '70s production design knowing when to play goofy (the fake movie's wild sci-fi designs) and when to remind us that problems took eight more steps to fix then they do today. Alexandre Desplat's score finds balance in haunting melodies and energetic pulses.
Part of Argo's charm is just how unreal the entire operation really was. To see the men and women involved go through with a plan they know could result in death. It's a suspenseful adventure and while there's not much in the way of character to cling to the visceral experience tends to be enough.
By all appearances The Killer Inside Me’s setting of Central City Texas is the epitome of the cinematic small town complete with slow–drawl country music tunes a businessman who practically owns the town and a doe-eyed lady who most of the townsfolk love but whose heart belongs to the deputy sheriff. Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) though is no ordinary deputy sheriff as we learn when he is ordered to evict a local prostitute Joyce Lakeland (the always gorgeous Jessica Alba) because she has taken up with the son of town boss Chester Conway (Ned Beatty). Unfortunately for Conway this is Jessica Alba we're talking about! After a rather interesting exchange with Joyce Ford takes up with her himself and hatches a plan for them to skip town together. When Ford’s fiancé Amy Stanton (a fetching Kate Hudson) suspects an affair between the two trouble ensues and a maelstrom of murder mischief and mayhem soon envelops Central City.
Based on the novel by Jim Thompson who also wrote The Grifters and The Getaway as well as screenplays for Stanley Kubrick’s films The Killing and Paths of Glory The Killer Inside Me is one of the better films of its ilk wherein the “hero” is actually a disturbed — and disturbing — individual. Directed by Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart) and featuring a supporting cast of actors that could each carry their own film (and indeed some have) including Bill Pullman Simon Baker and Elias "I’m not Christopher Meloni and he is not me" Koteas this movie should be penciled into everyone’s must–see list.
To answer the main question on the minds of the panting fanboys: Yes both of the film's buxom beauties Alba and Hudson show heaping gobs of skin. Unfortunately this is film noir a genre in which attractive female characters seldom survive to see the final credits roll.
With that in mind a word of warning: The Killer Inside Me does get a bit gratuitous with its violence and while it's not Bad Lieutenant- or David Lynch-level gratuitous it's still out-there blunt-trauma-to-the-head violent. Winterbottom makes the dangerous choice of rarely cutting away from the looks on the faces of those involved in these scenes and we as viewers become willing accomplices in Ford’s actions. In the film’s defense the violence is actually used for character development and there are enough moments of subtle bleak black humor to counterbalance it. But if you're the squeamish type you might wish to stay home.
Long out of the shadow of his more famous brother Casey Affleck comes out of his own shadow in The Killer Inside Me creating a character as charismatically menacing as a villainous protagonist could be; an Anton Chigurh you could bring home to meet your family. With no shred of his “Baastaahn” accent apparent Affleck speaks in a southern drawl that sounds like he's about to crack at any instant; because usually he is. It's the kind of role that will be talked about for years (if this film gets the proper promotion that is) and in my opinion will make him a very early candidate for Best Actor.
December 22, 2006 10:12am EST
The Good Shepherd is billed as the story of how the CIA began but it is really the fictional story of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) and his involvement in the first covert wing of the CIA. The story moves back and forth in time from when Edward is a literature student at Yale and a member of the secretive Skull and Bones club through the days following the Bay of Pigs in the early ‘60s. Edward is recruited into intelligence work at the beginning of World War II and learns the dark art of spying and espionage from the British. Meanwhile his personal life takes a back seat to his service for his country including alienating his wife Margaret “Clover” Wilson (Angelina Jolie) and their son. He is never home enough to effectively deal with the family problems his absence creates. By the end of the film as the twin disasters of the Bay of Pigs and his broken family unfold--and blame must be assigned--Edward ends up being a metaphor for the modern US intelligence service. Damon who has made a franchise out of playing the spy/assassin Bourne plays a very different kind of spy in The Good Shepherd. Wilson is a boring controlled buttoned down spy who is unfortunately more like the real thing than what we see in the movies. Damon does an excellent job however especially in those moments when he realizes he has screwed up. The actor stays controlled but finds a way to let the audience glimpse the pain of a man who has spent his life keeping his emotions and thoughts under wraps. Jolie is almost too luminous for the part of Edward's hapless wife. She is a bright spot in the movie as she transforms from the sexy/feisty Clover to the medicated/angry Margaret. Newcomer Eddie Redmayne also does a good job as the grown up Edward Wilson Jr. The rest of the cast is peppered with excellent performances from top-flight actors including William Hurt as a menacing intelligence heavy; Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series) as a British intelligence officer who’s fed up—and even De Niro himself as a general who’s the driving force behind the CIA’s beginning. De Niro captures the nature of the gray-flannelled spy but seems to get bogged down with material unable to craft a tight compelling film. The Good Shepherd is long and feels long with some of the transitions too abrupt. The subdued colors evoke the period of the film as well as play into the monotony that is intelligence work. But the problem with monotony is that it’s boring and boring is not something a movie should be. There are some incredibly intriguing scenes however and the film will certainly speak to any of those with genuine interests in the hardcore spy genre--obviously De Niro being one of them--but like its subject matter Shepherd will probably be too elusive for the casual viewer. De Niro seems much more comfortable in the details but less interested in keeping the story gripping. Ironically this is the exact opposite of the main character Edward Wilson who keeps his eye on the big picture but misses the small moments he should have noticed.
The young and idealistic Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is driven by two forces in his life: airplanes and Hollywood. The Aviator begins in the 1920s as Hughes obsessively works on his silent debut film Hell's Angels which he ends up scraping completely to remake as a talkie thus making it the most expensive film of its time. While embarking on doomed affairs with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) Hughes also builds a plane that makes him the fastest man in the world in 1935. The millionaire even engineers a new bra to make the most out of Jane Russell's cleavage for his next film The Outlaw while running TWA and building planes for the government during WWII. Yet the mental illness that would consume Hughes later in life begins to rear its ugly head after he breaks up with Hepburn. As does his dogfights with Pan Am's Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) who sics his in-pocket politician Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) on Hughes--which coming after the flyboy crashes his experimental spy plane leaves him with only a couple of good fights left in him. Hughes eventually stands up to Brewster's senate investigation and then manages to finish and ceremonially fly the Spruce Goose. But soon he makes his final descent into undiagnosed and untreated madness.
The Aviator provides a bevy of tour de force performances. As the leading man DiCaprio gives us an Oscar-worthy turn as Hughes vacillating easily between the playboy the industrialist the aviator and finally the madman. In seducing a cigarette girl the suave DiCaprio says one of the best lines in the film: "I want to find out what gives you pleasure. Would you give me that job? " which pretty much sums up Hughes' modus operandi. The scenes between DiCaprio and Blanchett as the spirited Hughes and Hepburn are also fun and lively especially in their first meeting on a golf course in which Hepburn talks a blue streak while Hughes quietly admires her. Blanchett does an amazing job emulating the acting legend without doing a strict imitation. The worst performance in the film could be Blanchett's nose which looks nothing like Hepburn's but that's about it. The exquisite Beckinsale also does a marvelous job as Ava Gardner who had a brief and tumultuous affair with Hughes but ended up more his confidant than anything else. In supporting roles Alec Baldwin seems to be settling in nicely as one of Hollywood's favorite heavies playing Trippe's malevolence with a twinkle in his eye. As does Alan Alda who again delivers admirably as the elder statesman of "mean."
Marty Marty Marty. Why can't you make a nice two-hour film like everybody else? It's probably not fair to harp on the film's length but it isn't just long it feels long. Rather than being a cohesive whole director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan deliver a montage of expertly constructed scenes and sequences without giving us a true understanding of who Howard Hughes really was. Perhaps Howard Hughes is just too much of a character for one film. The closest we come to getting inside Hughes' mind is during the breath-taking crash of the FX-11 into a Beverly Hills residential area which is undeniably one of the best crash scenes ever filmed. Scorsese is obviously a master filmmaker but some of his old tricks aren't working here. The patchwork quality of the film is underscored by the director's varying use of different period styles--from a washed out look of a '40s home movie to a vivid contemporary look. Used to great effect in his films such as Raging Bull and Goodfellas now it seems out of place in The Aviator. It's true Scorsese will more than likely get another shot at Oscar gold for The Aviator but if he wins it will definitely be for his vastly superior previous work.