Tag Archives: Victor Garber

Argo – Hollywood’s finest exodus since The Ten Commandments

Big decisions: Affleck and Cranston in Argo

With tensions increasing in the Middle East as Iran comes ever closer to developing the bomb, this quite brilliant, witty political thriller seems very timely, despite being set over 30 years ago.

Argo, the latest from one-time Hollywood poster boy/laughing stock Ben Affleck, now a respected director of punchy, entertaining if until now slight films, tells the so-improbable-it-must-be-true tale of a CIA operation to evacuate six American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis of ’79-’81 by pretending they are members of a science fiction film crew. In its unlikely fusion of genres, the film manages to lampoon the audacity of Hollywood while also racking up the tension as the crisis escalates.

Affleck himself plays CIA consultant Tony Mendez, a so-called “Moses”, whose expertise is in extracting American civilians from international hotspots. During the crisis which follows the Iranian Revolution, six of the staff members at the American Embassy in Tehran escape the embassy, the centre of the crisis, and hole up in the residence of the Canadian ambassador to Iran.

With no hope of smuggling them across the border into Turkey, Mendez comes up with the plan of sneaking them out in broad daylight through Tehran’s airport, by coaching them to pose as a Canadian film crew doing a reccy in “exotic locations” for a sci-fi B-movie, called “Argo”. To sell the deception, Mendez teams up with (fictional) one-time Hollywood big leaguer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and real-life Oscar-winning make-up effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who worked on Planet of the Apes and the original Star Trek series. Hosting gala events in service of their Star Wars knock-off (which most closely resembles 1980’s Flash Gordon movie), the trio land an ad for Argo in Variety and generate buzz for the fraudulent film. All that has to be done then is for the terrified embassy staff to keep their nerve.

Full of punchy one-liners, especially from Goodman, Arkin and Bryan Cranston as CIA boss Jack O’Donnell, Argo’s script jets along at a very enjoyable pace before its nerve-wracking finale. Editing tricks cut between the film and documentary footage to emphasise the remarkable reality that lies behind the story. The almost excessive period detail, shot in bright ’70s colours, sells the movie to its audience even better than Mendez sells his film to the Iranians.

I’ll drink to that!: Goodman and Arkin (also Affleck, just about)

Acting is mostly solid across the board, although Affleck is perhaps not the strongest actor who might have fronted it, and he fluffs some of his best lines. Goodman and Arkin have remarkable fun as the pair who see through the “bullshit business” while also doing remarkable pro bono work for their endangered countrymen. Cranston, so hot right now it burns the eyes, has a strong go at the “disapproving chief who’s actually incredibly proud of his renegade underling” role, and it’s a treat to behold. The rest of the exhaustive cast is assembled from some of the best TV and movie character actors out there; Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver… the list goes on and on.

What the film does that no amount of perusing declassified State Department documents can do is truly get at the heart of the movie business, and give it a deserved ribbing. From the moment the film opens with the red Warner Bros logo from the 1970s, you can tell this is a film gleefully in love with a different age of moviemaking. Much of the opening preamble, bringing clueless audiences up to speed on the history of Iran (think Persepolis, but less sweet), is explained using storyboards. When Mendez reaches Hollywood, the hokey sets, ridiculous costumes and obnoxious self-promoters seem far more alien than Iran itself.

While Iran is the villain of the piece, so to speak, Argo is not overly critical of the nation, refusing to demonise it as it underlines the need for change that resulted in the Iranian Revolution. Using Istanbul as its shooting location, it paints the country as one of massive contradiction, where US flags are burnt while Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants are found on the high street.

Despite its energy, Argo slumps a little in the middle, as it struggles to define the characters of the six refugees, who are even more over-shadowed by the titanic performances of Arkin and Goodman than Affleck is. As the nail-biting finale approaches, the film blatantly goes beyond the real history and artificially raises the tension without any need. Yes, it’s intense, but for the only brief moment in its two-hour run-time this impossible story becomes unbelievable.

Affleck’s finest film to date, Argo is an endlessly witty, powerful and thrilling drama. With skilful craft in recreating an age almost out of memory, it has a unique honesty to it that is far more interested in the individual figures involved than flag-waving patriotism. A spy movie without guns or sex, Argo is nothing less than a ridiculous adventure with fine, clever characters and a fist-chewing climax like few others.

Be sure to stick around during the closing credits where actual photos from the real-life Argo exodus are placed side-by-side with images from the film. It is a final testament to the remarkable work Affleck and his team put into telling this story.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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Titanic: 100 years later, it still sinks, and now stinks in 3D

They said it was unsinkable...

According to my calculations, with a worldwide gross of $1.8 billion and home video/DVD sales of several million units, if you’re reading this then you’ve probably already seen this film. But despite claims that director James Cameron and Fox are just after the money with this re-release, it is hard to complain about it being back on the big screen, as the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic (ooooooh… did I just give the end away?). Indeed, you would hope that All Quiet on the Western Front will be back in cinemas between 2014 and 2018. How could we not return to Saving Private Ryan in June 2044?

The question therefore is should it have been re-released in 3D. Indeed, it’s been a struggle for most critics to not use this film’s resurgence to argue for or against 3D – sure what does it matter what we think about the film at this stage?!

Well you’re going to find now anyway. Let’s start at the beginning… In a 20 minute prologue that is arguably more interesting than the rest of the film, oceanographer Bill Paxton searches the wreckage of the ill-fated liner for a magnificent diamond that by all historical records and archaeological morality deserves to be in a museum in France. A clue leads him to centenarian Rose (Gloria Stuart), who was aboard the Titanic and owned the diamond. She proceeds to tell a very lengthy story about the ship’s sinking which features a surprising number of scenes that she was not present for and could therefore have no means of recounting them accurately.

"The reflection's changed..."

Over the next three hours, posh Rose (Kate Winslet) meets poor Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), they fall in love, plan to run away together, and then the ship sinks. Various minor characters insist on stealing scenes from the leads.

Revisiting Titanic after more than 10 years, a number of things strike you. How baby-faced Leo looks. How glowing Winslet was back then (it’s a very different glow to the one she has now). How truly godawful the dialogue is (it’s not that the “something Picasso” line is bad, it’s that it takes three more uncomfortable lines to explain the joke). How delightfully hammy Billy Zane is as the jilted fiancé. How much more Victor Garber resembles Enda Kenny when he does an Irish lilt.

Victor Garber and Enda Kenny

Most shocking however is how well spread out the film is. It is extremely long, but like the best epics it never feels particularly boring. Indeed, the Titanic strikes the iceberg a little over 90 minutes into the film, barely halfway through proceedings! This leaves a huge amount of time for the admittedly spectacular, perfectly drawn-out sinking of the colossal ship. Say what you will about James Cameron (suggestions include: “His dialogue is laughable”, “His messages are delivered ham-fistedly”), but he can do grand spectacle like few others.

Behind the scenes footage of how the screenplay for Titanic was written

So, now that you’ve been reminded why you loved or hated the film originally, let’s deal with this 3D issue. A lot is riding on the reception of Titanic in 3D. Cameron created the current appetite for 3D amongst the masses – an appetite perceived by Hollywood as being perhaps bigger than it actually is – with Avatar, another film you probably saw. Desperate to jump on the bandwagon after Avatar, Hollywood pumped out a number of 3D films that were digitally made 3D in post-production, a method referred to as retro-fitting. 2010’s Clash of the Titans was the first of these films to emerge, and was slated for its cardboard pop-out look. While its sequel Wrath of the Titans is now being praised for being shot in 3D, it seems little has improved in the world of retro-fitting, even with the master of 3D James Cameron in charge.

Titanic 3D is flat and ugly. The characters stand out from the background like marionette puppets, but without any of the definition and depth that creates a real three-dimensional face. Worse still, the film makes regular use of focus pulls and depth-of-field trickery, causing 3D blurs to clutter up the imagery. This is most noticeable near the film’s beginning, as the Titanic leaves port at Southampton and throngs of out-of-focus people pass by the camera as Rose and Jack make their ways aboard. The 3D creates the illusion that these dashing blurs are closer to you, naturally causing your eye to attempt to focus (in vain) on them and drawing your gaze away from the action and principal characters.

"I'm flying!"

Fans of 3D action will be similarly disappointed. The collapsing of the ship happens mostly side-on, so there is very little cause to duck or dodge objects “coming right at you”. Worse still, in the wide shots of the ship, the 3D causes the digital persons walking on the decks to stand out, revealing them more clearly as dated computer creations. Titanic’s seams are showing.

"I'm sinking!"

In the end, it is what it is, a brilliantly produced movie based on a clumsy, patronising screenplay. You already know if you like it or not, but the 3D will take away from that either way.

Titanic: 3/5

Titanic 3D: 2/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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