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.
Maybe it's Godzilla's revenge. "Godzilla" Word comes this week that there likely (and somewhat surprisingly) will be a sequel to Sony's disappointing big-budget 1998 "Godzilla". But, even more surprising, the guys who made the first overhyped film (remember those "Size does matter" billboards?) won't have anything to do with the second overhyped film.
Although Sony Pictures Entertainment and director Roland Emmerich's Centropolis Entertainment couldn't (or wouldn't) immediately confirm it, an insider tells Hollywood.com that the two sides parted ways on "Godzilla 2" in March, and Sony (which holds the U.S. rights to the Japanese-born Godzilla character) now hopes to hire a new production team within a few months.
And that's probably a good thing, since Emmerich and his producer/co-writer Dean Devlin seemingly remade "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" instead of a Godzilla movie. Their monster was too skinny, and it was more interested in laying eggs than laying waste to New York. Still, since there's no accounting for taste, the thing made about $375 million worldwide.
"Godzilla 2," by the way, shouldn't be confused with "Godzilla 2000," a low-budget Japanese film to be released in U.S. theaters this summer.
Centropolis had begun work on "Godzilla 2," commissioning a story treatment by screenwriter Tab Murphy ("Tarzan"), which reportedly climaxed with a big battle between Godzilla and a giant insectoid foe in downtown Sydney, Australia. But, after making "The Patriot" with Mel Gibson, the duo is reportedly more interested in making action dramas than sci-fi spectacles.
If and when Sony makes "Godzilla 2," it's likely that the monster will still look like a giant iguana, although it could be bulked up slightly.
"The American Godzilla is a $40 million computer program that was developed for the first film, and that's a significant part of the budget for the sequel," says the insider. "They're not going to throw that out and start over again."
Most interesting of all: Some Sony officials reportedly want the American Godzilla to fight the Japanese Godzilla in "Godzilla 2."
Ian McKellen LORD OF THE DOWNLOADS: New Line Cinema's "Lord of the Rings" preview (viewable at www.lordoftherings.net) was downloaded nearly 1.7 million times during its first 24 hours online, surpassing a record set by the trailer for "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" . The preview makes "Rings" (the first in a trilogy to be released in 2001, 2002 and 2003) look like it's worth the hype, but frankly we're more interested in the Hobbits. A few months ago, there were reports that the extras playing these diminutive beings were suffering long shooting schedules and arduous makeup applications, but no new gripes have been reported of late.
"The Hobbits' body doubles are real little-people from India, very short people whom are exactly the right size for certain shots when they need to have a smaller person," say our friends at Theonering.net, a Web site devoted to the films.
"On the flip side," the Web site reports, "all the non-Hobbit actors have large body doubles [the Ian McKellen double is reportedly 7-feet tall]," who are used to help make the "real" Hobbit actors (Elijah Wood, Sean Astin and Ian Holm among them) look small. Something called "CGI shrinking" is also being used minimally.
The production, now in its sixth month, is currently based in Heritage National Park on the North Island of New Zealand, and director Peter Jackson is keeping the crew sane by filming for three weeks at a time, followed by a two-week vacation.
TOM HANKS AS ROBBY THE ROBOT? Did you know that director Frank Darabont was once a writer on the remake of "The Blob" and "The Fly II"? Then maybe it's not so weird that the guy who made "The Green Mile" and "The Shawshank Redemption" wants to do a remake of "Forbidden Planet." He's in negotiations to make the film at New Line.