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.
Despite what the trailer might have you believe In the Land of Women isn't exactly a sweet sigh-inducing romance. Yes main character Carter Webb (Adam Brody)--a slightly snarky screenwriter who makes his living writing soft-core porn--leaves Hollywood for Michigan to get over a hard break-up by taking care of his aging tart-tongued grandmother (Olympia Dukakis). And yes he subsequently ends up getting entangled with angsty blond teenager Lucy Hardwicke (Kristen Stewart) and her lonely mom Sarah (Meg Ryan). But the trio's tenuous relationships are complicated by confusion resentment illness and misunderstanding all of which add up to a situation that's hardly straightforward--and frankly not all that romantic either. Brody is no stranger to playing sarcastic pop culture-savvy Southern Californians: After four seasons on The O.C. as Seth Cohen he's got the type down pat. As Carter he balances wry quips with a nice dose of empathy--you can tell that he truly cares about both Lucy and Sarah (not to mention his grandma as crusty as she is). But to be honest it's a little hard to see why. Stewart plays Lucy with a shy sullenness that's not very endearing--she gets a little more animated toward the end but it's too little too late--and Ryan's trademark perkiness has worn thin. She gives Sarah's dramatic scenes her best shot but the character's confusion and pain don't seem at home on her unnaturally tight face. Dukakis gets in a few zingers as Grandma Phyllis but the character is essentially one-note--as is Lucy's sister Paige (Makenzie Vega) who swiftly goes from "cutely precocious" to "awkward yapping." In many ways Paige seems like a character lifted out of the John Hughes playbook which isn't that surprising given Carter's fascination with the '80s director's oeuvre--and the movie's Hughes-ian high school subplot. Unfortunately the "classic" high school movie scenes (the party Lucy takes Carter to their movie outing at the mall her dawning realization at the end etc.) while fun for folks who grew up watching the movies they're obviously inspired by have a light tone that's jarring compared to the rest of the film's drama. When it comes down to it Carter--who's looking for a reason to stop drifting through life--has a lot more in common with Garden State's Andrew Largeman than Hughes heroes like Ferris Bueller and John Bender. Trying to squeeze him into a teen-centric story rather than focusing on helping him grow up doesn't do him--or the movie--any favors.
Don’t let the previews fool you—Terabithia isn’t anything like Chronicles of Narnia. Based on the Newbery-Award winning children’s novel by Katharine Paterson the story is more about childhood friendships and the way imagination can quite literally open new worlds. Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) sees himself as an outsider at school—and at home. He really only feels himself when he’s drawing. Then he meets the new kid Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb) who has just moved from the big city. Despite their differences—she’s rich he’s poor—they become fast friends. Leslie who likes to spin magical stories opens Jess’ eyes to the possibilities and together they create the secret kingdom of Terabithia a mystical place accessible by swinging on an old rope over a stream in the woods near their homes. Interacting with the Terabithian denizens they’ve imagined both evil and good Jess and Leslie learn to deal with the pressures of their young pre-adolescent lives—and learn what the power of real friendship truly means. The young fresh cast really make Bridge to Terabithia work. Robb and Hutcherson are already veteran kid actors: Robb is best known for stealing hearts in Because of Winn-Dixie (another kid novel adaptation) and popping chewing gum as Violet in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory while Hutcherson played the tough older brother in Zathura as well as Robin Williams’ kid in R.V. Their acting experience clearly shows as they make the friendship between Jess and Leslie both genuine and heartfelt. There isn’t a false moment in their performances especially from Hutcherson who at first sends off an I-could-care-less vibe but through his soulful eyes becomes more attached to Leslie and their secret place. And as Jess’ little sister 7 year-old Bailee Madison plays the moppet without any cutesy affectations. As far as the adults are concerned stand outs include Robert Patrick as Jess’ stern dad just trying to make ends meet for his family and Zooey Deschanel as the kids’ music teacher who Jess has a crush on. In 1978 author Katharine Paterson wrote Bridge to Terabithia for her then 11 year-old son David Paterson about a special friendship he had. It was an instant hit. Now David all grown up is able to bring his mom’s touching story to life as one of the writers. Talk about a family effort backed by Walden Media--the geniuses behind Holes and Chronicles of Narnia. Directed by Rugrats creator Gabor Csupo Terabithia truly captures the essence of childhood imagination even I dare say more so than Narnia. Maybe it’s because the idea of Terabithia comes from the minds’ of very real children who are going through very real emotions as they enter into adolescence. Csupo keeps the imagery simple allowing audiences to create a fantasy world filled with mythical creatures right along with the film’s main characters. And if you haven’t read the book you might be surprised by the story’s poignancy. In a saturated field of animated duds and kid films better suited as after-school TV specials Bridge to Terabithia stands out as a one of the better family movies to come around in a long time.
Imagine the sci-fi spirit of Blade Runner crossed with the drug-induced musings of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and set to trippy animation. Now consider that this animation plays like a book by Philip K. Dick (who also penned Blade Runner’s novel) and you’re likely spinning with imagery; welcome to A Scanner Darkly. Set in Anaheim California seven years into the future an undercover narc named Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is assigned to spy on his druggie friends (Robert Downey Jr. Woody Harrelson Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane). They’re all hooked on Substance D the latest suburban drug and its side effects--including possible manifestation of separate identities--can be downright nasty. Unfortunately Bob the “scanner ” is hooked too and he leads the ultimate double life unbeknownst to him: By day he partakes in “D” consumption; by night he watches the surveillance tapes as a cop--not realizing he may in turn be spying on himself. Scanner marks a welcome return of sorts for all five actors to their more decadent (cinematic) days. Downey and Harrelson are up to their old Natural Born Killers tricks even though their characters share nothing other than insanity with those in Oliver Stone’s movie. Downey perennially the most underrated actor steals every scene he’s in with his character James’ mile-a-minute psychobabble. Not far off is Reeves who somehow grasps Bob’s drug-induced psychosis almost too well and is much more comfy (and likable) playing the central character in a film that’s not carrying an entire production company. We haven’t seen Ryder in a major release since ‘02’s Mr. Deeds and although her part isn’t as meaty as the boys’ she gives a compelling performance. And Cochrane whose breakout role was the dopey burnout in Scanner director Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is an often funny casualty of the paranoia associated with Substance D. Linklater’s last release was Bad News Bears and his next is October’s Fast Food Nation. Clearly and to his credit no director offers us as much variety with so many of his films clicking on all cylinders; to his discredit however parts of his latest film don’t click. The biggest flaw is the animation which while truly amazing to behold detaches us. What began as a winning experiment--on his 2001 philosoph-ilm Waking Life--can no longer be dismissed as such but rather a gimmick behind which Scanner hides. Sure it’s apt for Dick’s futuristic dystopia but this film didn’t need any added complexity to bog our brains down. In addition Linklater’s Scanner outcasts fail where his others have been immortalized: They don’t endear us--yes that truth is faithful to the source material but films can’t get away with such disconnect. Ultimately all we feel towards the characters is fascination over their animated likenesses. But Linklater is praiseworthy for even tackling such a novel and the adaptation will find a fervent cult following.