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.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.
The story arc of Bridget Jones Part Deux is identical to the first except for one little detail: Instead of trying to find a man Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) worries about losing the one she's got. She has already climbed her highest mountain and dreamed her impossible dream she has her soulmate Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) all wrapped up in a little bow and yet the movie keeps going. And going. In the short span of four weeks together Bridget and Darcy have already become the couple that don't speak. She stares at him while he sleeps. He chastises her for it grumpily she apologizes and then she freaks out thinking that he will break up with her. Rinse and repeat. His slinky secretary (Jacinda Barrett) flirts ominously. Bridget feeds her insecurities by stuffing her face drinking like a sailor and then slurring insults at whatever passing character will provide the maximum of shame and embarrassment. It's charming really. Hugh Grant rears his scaly head as former paramour Daniel Cleaver and a song and dance routine breaks out in a Thai prison. I wish I was kidding.
The massive appeal of the character from the books and the first film isn't that difficult to understand. Bridget isn't the smartest girl or the prettiest girl or the thinnest girl but she still wins Prince Charming. She's sweet though and she's funny and she offsets Darcy's stuffiness in a neatly symmetrical opposites attract way. But if the point of Bridget the First is finding the character's attractiveness within the point of the sequel is that Bridget is fat and stupid and the object of our ridicule.
Zellweger famously put 25 pounds back on to reprise the role but this time it seems closer to 50. Bridget's fat is zoomed in on enlarged jiggled fetishized and dragged through pig dung. And her unabashed quest to humiliate herself in public knows no bounds. None of this is exactly Zellweger's fault--the screenplay is terrible for starters--and yet all of it is. She decided to take on a sequel with a character that had absolutely nowhere to go and she doesn't muster the energy needed to save her this time. Even the acclaimed Oscar-nominated English accent sounds a little shaky.
Grant and Firth are caddishness and constipation personified but the stereotypes are way too easy. Firth's Darcy is depicted as a saint of course but one begins to wonder what sickness lurks within a man who watches idly as his girlfriend humiliates herself so brazenly. Grant's Cleaver with his thirst for random conquest is at least explainable. But Darcy seems to crave a woman who will need a quick hook at every social event and a bib at every restaurant. Maybe it's not the slinky secretary Bridget should be worried about it's the bag lady feeding the pigeons. On a positive note Jacinda Barrett is hands down the greatest actress who has ever emerged from MTV's The Real World.
Beeban Kidron who directed the hideous drag melodrama To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar clearly doesn't get the Jones phenomenon. She ratchets up the camp factor well past tolerable pushes it into misguided slapstick and culminates in nails-to-the-chalkboard shrillness in the Thai prison. And making matters worse not a shred of effort appears to have been expended to make the whole undertaking any more original. Entire scenes are repeated from the first movie. The "Ugly Sweater" scene. The "Big Underwear" scene. The "Fight" scene. And so on. This isn't the first time a sequel has been a glorified remake; Desperado and Terminator 2 spring to mind. But at least those movies had some shred of ambition. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason aspires to nothing and succeeds handsomely.