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.
In the opening scenes of the new "comedy" Jack and Jill commercial director Jack Sadelstein (Adam Sandler) and his business partners take a break from the set of their Regis Philbin-starring Pepto Bismol commercial to discuss the prospect of landing Al Pacino for a new Dunkin' Donuts spot. Even with the pressure mounting the idea of landing the A-Lister is the least of Jack's worries—his real stress stemming from his heinous twin sister Jill (also played by Sandler) who is scheduled to visit for Thanksgiving. We don't know much about Jill at that point but even the prospect of spending a few days with his sibling prompts the cankerous Jack to chug an entire bottle of the commercial's pink antidiarrheal product.
Turns out the medical cocktail was quite appropriate. By the end of Jack and Jill kicking back an entire bottle of Pepto Bismol may be the first logical step to curing the gut-wrenching feeling induced by the movie's painfully lazy antics. To call the latest from Sandler's Happy Madison Productions (Paul Blart: Mall Cop Grown Ups Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star) a bad movie isn't strong enough. Nor is describing it as a complete void of comedy. And the movie doesn't even come close to a so-stupid-its-funny scenario. No Jack and Jill is honest to goodness mental destruction—a collision of half-baked comedy sketches violent potty humor shrouded racism shotgun celebrity cameos and unapologetic product placement. There is more coherency care and consideration poured in to a child's spin art painting than any moment Sandler or director Dennis Dugan whip up for this film.
From the movie's very first moments to its obvious ham-fisted conclusion the mere presence of Jill sends Jack into a temper meltdown—and it's not hard to see why. Sandler's lady from the Bronx is a loud abhorrent self-loathing woman an obtuse fish-out-of-water who sees no issue with stereotyping Jack's adopted Indian son or using phrases like "make chocolate squirties" after a night of chimichangas (may I recommend Pepto Bismol?). The script would like us to feel sympathetic for Jill as she's turned down by every man she meets adding to her existing physical appearance woes ("I'm too fat!" she declares before hopping up on a horse and crushing it under her own weight). Unfortunately it's obvious that no one behind-the-camera actually gives a damn about her or any of the other characters to help realize that struggle honestly or humorously.
Knowing the movie can't entirely rely on Jill's flatulence to baffle its audience Jack and Jill employs a number of shameless drive-by appearances from across the Hollywood spectrum to replace actual entertainment. Johnny Depp Jared the Subway Guy Shaq Bruce Jenner the Sham-Wow Guy and Drew Carey (who Jill meets while embarrassing herself on The Price Is Right) all stop by for a cheap laugh. Maybe that's a good thing—the cameos are nonsensical enough to distract from Jack and Jill's plot one that trudges along at a glacial pace as Jill finds ways to stay at Jack's house and ruin her brother's life.
Sandler recruited Katie Holmes and Al Pacino to fill the film's two non-twin roles and to the benefit of their careers he gives them little to do. Holmes isn't given a single scene in which she does anything more than rag on Jack for hating his sister or detach objects her son perpetually tapes to his body (a pepper shaker a hamster a bird a lobster). Pacino has a meatier role one that you may even expect to garner a few laughs spoofing his thunderous thespian self who melts at the sight of Jill. But the material director Dennis Dugan bestows on the legendary actor is scraped from the bottom of the barrel. Not even Pacino can make passing off gibberish as a foreign language funny. The saving grace for the movie is watching Pacino go method and pursue Jill as Don Quixote from The Man of La Mancha. At that point the reference is a reminder that out there somewhere beyond the movie theater/black hole playing Jack and Jill is a world full of culture and class.
Jack and Jill isn't really a movie but more of an extended Royal Caribbean Cruises commercial with a Dunkin Donuts dance number set to an extended fart exploding from a dragged-out Adam Sandler's buttocks. The bar for entertainment value has never been set lower than this film an experience so toxic to the mind that along with its PG-rating should carry a warning label from Surgeon General.
Better make it two Pepto-Bismols.
The story of Lust Caution begins in the midst of WWII in Asia as the Japanese have a stranglehold on key areas of China including Shanghai and Hong Kong. The iron-fisted Chinese who are collaborating with the invaders are led by Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) a cruel and ruthless man who delights in the torture and murder of his fellow countrymen who are fighting against the Japanese occupation. When a patriotic band of college students (made up of four men and two women all part of the drama school) decide to strike a blow for Chinese freedom by assassinating Mr. Yee it falls to Wang (the mesmerizingly beautiful Wei Tang) to infiltrate his home and heart to pave the way for the killing. But as her compatriots--including handsome Kuang played by American-born Chinese rock star Lee-Hom Wang who loves her from afar--bid their time waiting for the moment to strike Mr. Yee and Wang enter into a torrid affair that begins to consume them both. Think of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion shift from Europe to Asia add in intensely explicit sex scenes and a completely unexpected ending and you have Lust Caution--a film that is soon to be considered a classic as well. Veteran actors Tony Leung and Joan Chen lead a fine cast of actors who together create this completely believable glimpse into Chinese culture during the dark days of Japanese occupation. Both give intense performances--he as the powerful emotionless Mr. Yee and she as his vapid shopping and Mah Jong-obsessed wife. But the most amazing performance is that of newcomer Wei Tang the Miss Universe finalist who makes her film debut in Lust Caution. Her fantastic face slim body and almost ethereal presence seem to blot out everyone else when she is on the screen; you can’t help but look at only her. Her transformation in the four-year span of the story is masterful. As she goes from a naïve young student to a mature woman whose physical obsession with a man she despises begins to overwhelm her. The ingénue proves that she is much more than just a pretty face. In fact she deserves an Academy Award nomination for her often subtle always fearless performance that is at the heart of the film. Ang Lee has a unique cinematic ability to begin a story very specific to a time a place and a culture and end with a universal tale that resonates across all societies and peoples. He did it beautifully with Sense and Sensibility Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as well as Brokeback Mountain and he’s done it again masterfully with Lust Caution. This newest film is an intense look at how war often causes an individual to make the ultimate sacrifice for the common good yet it also explores another underlying theme: the idea that there is a never-ending battle between the sexes for emotional dominance within a sexual relationship. Ang Lee’s deft hand is evident in every frame including the incredibly explicit (and often violent) sex scenes that have given the film its NC-17 rating. But this is not pornography; every scene is necessary to the story showing us that using sex as a means to an end (no matter how noble that end) is a very dangerous game to play especially during wartime. Look for Ang Lee’s name to come up on the Academy’s list again this year as awards season kicks into high gear. He deserves every honor for this emotionally disturbing masterpiece.