Watching Ben Affleck nail the role of jock douchebag O'Bannion in the 1993 Richard Linklater classic, Dazed and Confused, I never would have thought that the guy doling out homoerotic retribution to the underclassmen would one day turn out to be a great director.
In fact, it took him directing his own movies to consistently be in good movies. Always a strong writer, Affleck's choices for acting roles have been mostly misses. Does Good Will Hunting really make up for Gigli, Armageddon, Daredevil or Pearl Harbor? Forces of Nature, anyone? Exactly.
Three Cheers. John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck star in Argo, which Affleck also directed.
Starting with Gone Baby Gone and then his great sophomore follow up The Town, Affleck came out as a bigger force behind the camera. His third directorial feature, Argo, cements Affleck as a director with confident style who can craft a lean, propulsive and exciting narrative.
Loosely based on actual events during the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis (from the Joshuah Bearman article and adapted for the screen by Chris Terrio) Argo tells the tale of a CIA operative, Tony Mendez (Affleck) who is brought in as a consultant when the State Department learns that six American embassy workers have escaped the overrunning of the U.S. Embassy by a bunch of pissed off Iranians, incensed by the U.S. government's granting of asylum to the Shah, an American supported dictator king who predictably lived on high while brutalizing his people.
When the hostage takers discover the six are missing -- they are hidden in the home of the Canadian ambassador -- they are assumed to be spies. If they leave the relative safety of the house and are seen on the street they will be publicly executed.
After the U.S. entertains a couple of poorly-thought-out plans to rescue the six, they decide their best if dimmest hope is to go along with an idea concocted by Mendez and his boss, Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston). The gist: Mount a fake movie production to get Mendez into Iran and out with the six posing as his film crew -- one of those, "it's so crazy it just might work" sort of things.
Mendez and O'Donnell solicit the services of a Hollywood producer and make-up artist, John Chambers (John Goodman, eating scenes whole with his radiating good cheer), and his partner, Lester Siegel (a hilarious Alan Arkin, "Argofuckyourself!"), to do the actual groundwork to get a production off the ground -- "If I'm gonna make a fake movie, it's gonna be a fake hit," declares Siegel. When they come across a script for a cheesy, derivative sci-fi flick called Argo, Mendez decides its exotic locations add another layer of veracity, perfecting his cover story.
And if you were alive back when all this happened you know how it turns out. What's amazing about Argo, and Affleck's skills with a story, is that it pulls a Titanic. Despite the inevitability of the outcome, the film keeps you on the edge of your seat with palpable tension.
As a political film -- presciently timed after the events in Benghazi -- Affleck is even handed. The opening of the story had me damn near sympathetic to the cause of the hostage takers. The Shah brutally suppressed political dissent and began a process of Westernizing Iran that angered the populace he had already let fall into poverty and despair. Typically, that kind of rage gets out of control and Affleck doesn't look away from the larger causes, and manages to absolve Jimmy Carter to boot -- who signed off on the mission.
But it also touches on themes about our ongoing Muslim rage problem, the way they are portrayed in the media as if bombs and drone strikes that kill scores of non-combatants isn't a legitimate reason to lose their shit. Even now the war drums beat to invade Iran, a nation that hasn't invaded another country since the 17th century.
Affleck's true business here is telling a unique story in a suspenseful, funny and deft way and he nails it. The period setting is just right with excellent production design and art direction that puts you right in the world, captured by the gritty and rich cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto (Bitiful) -- the '70s set story inspires the visual aesthetic recalling the late decade thrillers of William Friedkin (Sorcerer) and Alan J. Pakula (All the President's Men).
Affleck gives a subdued performance as Mendez -- I don't even remember him raising his voice -- instilling the character with a sense of confidence while adding tense underpinnings of regret and uncertainty. Bryan Cranston is great, but then Walter White can do no wrong. And Goodman and Arkin are a blast: naturalistic and funny as hell. Cool little cameos abound, too, speaking to Affleck's skill at filling the periphery with fun character actors. Nothing about Argo seems thoughtless.
Well-dressed Wackos. Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken share a quiet moment in the dark comedy Seven Psychopaths.
Argo is one of those gems of cinema that exists between fantasy and reality and is told in such an adept way that you'll feel you've lived through the Chinese curse of its interesting times.
Because we still are.
I've got to see writer/director Martin McDonagh's In Bruges stat. Because if it's as fun and bloody and bizarre as his newest, Seven Psychopaths, then it's sure to be a good time.
You know what an accurate barometer for dark (or any) comedy is? When you walk into the theater in a bad mood and you walk out in a good one. Seven Psychopaths' cool, slick and droll tone, oddball premise and great performances from its excellent, well-chosen cast did the trick.
Marty Faranan (a fun Colin Farrell re-teaming with McDonagh after In Bruges) is an alcoholic Irishman, living in Hollywood with dreams of finishing his first screenplay, "Seven Psychopaths" -- a violent action piece that he hopes to turn into a love story with no violence. His best friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell, just owning here) is an unemployed actor and part-time dog thief with his partner, Hans (a goddamn perfect Christopher Walken). Their grift is to kidnap an owner's dog and return it after a couple of days in the hopes of an exchange for a reward.
Unfortunately, they kidnap a Shih Tzu named Bonny who belongs to nut-job gangster, Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson, of course), who's strange attachment to the dog fuels an all-out hunt to kill her captors, after he quickly figures out the scam Billy and Hans are running.
What follows is a meta-laden, film-within-a-film narrative that finds Marty crafting his script from the events surrounding him as the back stories of his best friends are revealed amidst Charlie's blood-soaked pursuit.
Martin McDonagh's kinetic style is apparent from the first scene, and like Affleck he exhibits a talent for filling the periphery roles with notable actors -- though killing them off with surprising regularity. McDonough's script is a bizarre Mobius strip meta-narrative that borrows a bit from that post-Pulp Fiction wave but charts its own path; using QT's staple non-linearity to reveal interconnected, quasi-vignettes that weave in between the film proper and the one Marty is trying to write in his head -- sometimes telling the truth and sometimes not. It's a neat way of plotting and building characters while being a way for the film to comment on itself as it goes in grisly and surprising directions.
The plot is a bit scattershot and not everything jibes in its timeline. But (and this is important) Seven Psychopaths isn't particularly cynical and it's not wearing cool on its sleeve, like so many post-Tarantino imitators (Smoking Aces comes to mind). As pulpy as the situations are, they're brought to life with fully fleshed -- if utterly insane -- main characters who all manage to somehow remain loveable and feel real.
It looks great thanks to the lensing of Ben Davis (Kick-Ass, Wrath of the Titans) and the Carter Burwell score is a joy. But it's McDonagh's script which nails the chaotic, exciting vibe that is a great springboard for the performances.
Farrell reminds us of his fine comic timing and Harrelson is well-cast as Charlie, but it's really Rockwell and Walken that own the movie. Rockwell's charismatic unpredictability make the film's funniest moments, and Walken is legitimately Oscar-worthy as Hans, a sweet old criminal whose equally adorable, dying wife is a partner to his violent past.
Endlessly quotable, funny, weird and gleefully violent, Seven Psychopaths has cult film written all over it.
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