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.
Lucy (Ashley Judd) is a small town girl just getting by with her small-town job and small-town roommate. Relationships are forgettable to her mainly because she tries to sneak out before her lovers even wake up. But Cal (Jeffrey Donovan) wants more than a one night stand. He actually cares encourages her to stay for breakfast and maybe even have a conversation. This is all new for Lucy. Someone actually cares about her feelings? How could that be when she doesn’t even care about her own? It changes her approach to all her usual routines--her boss (Stacy Keach) her family and her church. But positive change has a hard time sticking and old habits threaten to ruin Lucy’s progress. That’s about as far as we can stretch this plot description. Really it’s just sleeping around trying to stay faithful and open and going about small-town life. It’s really slow or you could call it deliberate if you’re being kind--so you’d better love promiscuous drunks to spend 90 minutes with them. Judd gives her most powerful performance in decades since her debut performance in the indie film Ruby in Paradise. She may not be playing a suicidal cutter in Come Early Morning but she gets to show real emotional pain. She cries yes but what’s really going on with her self-esteem is much more subtle. An awesome supporting cast makes sure Lucy exists in a real inhabited world. Keach is an honorable boss who hopes against hope that maybe Lucy will pick up and follow him to bigger and better places but kind of resigned in the knowledge that people don’t leave their nest. Laura Prepon (TV’s That ‘70s Show) plays Lucy’s roommate as spunky as small- town folks get but never in an obnoxious way. Diane Ladd plays what may be Lucy’s future a bitter old woman taking crap from a sexist grump. These kinds of people really exist and these actors portray them as slightly complicated people considering the simple examples they are meant to serve in the film. Donovan sure makes Cal a lovable guy and you almost root for him to find someone more stable than Lucy yet he’s never a pushover just an honest good soul. Actor-turned-director Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy) really loves the small-town setting so she lets the camera linger on loving establishing shots. It creates a believable world of folks in their routine. She cast perfect supporting players to beef up the star vehicle and really just lets them go. Some are familiar faces professional enough to tone down any personas they may have. Others are unknowns who bring more authentic color outside of Hollywood. The story gives them all quirks to show but a lot of it is just effective casting. There is nothing flashy about the style of Come Early Morning. It’s definitely an indie in the vibe of people sitting around talking but there are no extended diatribes á la Kevin Smith. Come Early Morning is focused on moving the characters’ emotional journeys forward. That’s exactly what Adams should be doing in serving this rural relationship drama. If given a subject with broader appeal or a killer hook Adams could surely have a long career behind the camera.
The premise to Old School sounds a bit cringe-worthy when you first hear it--visions of sexist frat house humor wild parties buxom babes and beer bongs dance through your head. OK maybe there's a little of that going on in Old School but the heart of the film is surprisingly more centered than your average balls-out comedy. A trio of twentysomething friends have found themselves at a crossroads in their lives. Mitch (Luke Wilson) a promising real estate lawyer unfortunately catches his girlfriend (Juliette Lewis) in a compromising position. Frank (Will Ferrell) a lovable doof marries the sweet Marissa (Perrey Reeves) before realizing he made a big mistake and Beanie (Vince Vaughn) the owner of a successful chain of stereo stores refuses to believe he is the only true family man of the three. When Mitch rents a house near their old alma mater Beanie sees it as a chance to recapture some of that fun-filled college exuberance and turns the house into a fraternity which accepts not just students but any guys out there who want to escape adulthood's travails. The film's antagonist comes in the form of an uptight university dean Pritchard (Jeremy Piven) who bears an old grudge against our intrepid trio and does everything he can to shut the house down. But true brotherhood prevails.
Old School works far better than it should thanks to the chemistry of the three leads. Each has his own particular brand of comedy and the combination keeps you rolling in the aisles. Providing physical comedy Ferrell's Frank a goofy college wild man tamed by matrimony is wonderfully outrageous (but someone should tell him to keep his clothes on). Ferrell also shows a dramatic flair especially when dealing with his troubled marriage. Who would have thought this Saturday Night Live alum could act? Vaughn shows his infinite skill at zingin' out quick-witted one-liners (as he does so well in Swingers). Yet his smarmy Beanie also hints that he loves his life as a stable dad more than he cares to admit. Then there's the likable straight man Mitch a character the easygoing Wilson has perfected to a tee ever since his debut in Bottle Rocket opposite wacky brother Owen. Piven who usually plays wild men in films such as PCU and Very Bad Things gets to try on a different hat as Pritchard the nerd who grew up to be the dean of the school--and it looks like he had fun.
Writer/director Todd Phillips obviously enjoyed his college years. His first studio-released film the 2000 Road Trip offered a raucous yet refreshing look at college life that didn't necessarily go for the gross-out humor at every turn (although some turns were certainly made especially given star Tom Green). With Old School Phillips has matured--a little. Thankfully the film doesn't go for the joke for the joke's sake but remains rooted in how these three men are dealing with the pressures of adult responsibilities coming up with their somewhat misguided remedy to those pressures. But it's still a comedy about aging frat boys. You know going in there's going to be a wild party or two some contemptible drunken behavior perhaps even a hazing scene where new recruits have cinder blocks tied to their nether regions. It happens. Phillips also feels the need to incorporate a clichéd romantic twist around Mitch and a girl he had a crush on in high school. A sweet gesture but not nearly as entertaining as watching three grown men slosh around in K-Y jelly in a female wrestling match.
December 21, 2001 8:07am EST
Jamal (Redman) and Silas (Method Man) have spent the last six years attending a two-year community college and smoking way too much marijuana. When their friend Ivory (Chuck Davis) dies after falling asleep with a lit joint loosely dangling from his lip and catching on fire Silas uses his ashes to fertilize one of his plants. Now it seems that whenever the two smoke weed from the special plant they get a visit from the ghost of their dead friend. When the time comes to take their THCs (that's Testing for Higher Credentials) Jamal and Silas light up and enlist Ivory's help to pass the tests. The plan works and the twosome's perfect test scores get them admitted into Harvard University. But the high times quickly take a nosedive when an on-campus security guard steals the spiritual plant. The two must now figure out how to stay at the highbrow institution and fulfill their dreams of developing pot in a real lab.
Method Man plays Silas a pot dealer with big dreams with Redman as his best friend Jamal. Because the roles are practically tailor-made with them in mind they are able to play their characters as written and bring much of their public persona to the screen. They also have great chemistry and literally light up any scene they are in together. With a shaky script to stand on these two easily carry the film. Lark Voorhies (Saved by the Bell) is convincingly sweet and natural as the poor but really smart girl and Silas' object of affection but Essence Atkins is too over-the-top and contrived as the U.S. vice president's daughter with eyes on Jamal. Obba Babatunde had some good scenes as the uptight but underdeveloped character of Dean Cain and there are some great notable cameo appearances by Spalding Gray as a professor of African-American history and rappers Cypress Hill as party deejays.
How High was produced by Danny DeVito's Jersey Films and marks Jesse Dylan's feature directorial debut. The movie has some extremely funny moments like the overly dramatic slow motion shot of Jamal's cheese doodle dropping onto Dean Cain's imported handmade rug and some great references that aren't too obscure to catch (does "Pass the dutchy from the left hand side" sound familiar?) But while the film has its creative moments it is marred by a superficial script complete with a not-so-funny pimp his sidekick and some stereotypical "hos." The story becomes a little too formulaic and lacks the sophistication of Ice Cube's Friday and the intricacies of Tamra Davis' Half-Baked. But as far as this comedies go How High--thanks mostly in part to Redman and Method Man--is entertaining enough to join the ranks of classic pot comedies like Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke.