Sunday, October 21, 2012


 4.5 / 5 

The tumultuous political climate of the late 1970s is as distant to many of today's moviegoers as World War II was by the time a group of students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage for more than a year.

Ben Affleck's new film Argo takes it for granted that audiences of (ahem) a certain age will remember certain things as if they happened yesterday -- Ted Koppel anchoring Nightline, for instance, or the way that before the advent of answering machines and cell phones, there could be great drama in how many times a phone rang before it was answered ... or the caller hung up.

Argo has such a moment, and it's much to the credit of the film and its director (and lead actor) that the three seconds that elapse between rings seem an eternity.  Affleck has hooked us with a tantalizing reminder of the way we lived just a few decades ago -- and he reels us in with the kind of cinematic suspense that would make Hitchcock's pulse race.

Even if we don't remember the specifics, we know how this will end, so it's even more impressive that Argo winds us up so brilliantly.  This is the truly rare film that warrants a cliched rave like, "It'll have you on the edge of your seat" -- because it will.

Argo tells the lesser known story of the "Canadian Caper," an effort to free six Americans who had fled the U.S. Embassy in November 1979, while 52 of their colleagues got left behind. Word gets out to the CIA, who tries to hatch a plan to rescue the Americans.

Thanks to a quick, spiffy history lesson that begins Argo, there's no good way to go about it -- and of the bad ways, the absolute worst is the idea floated by Tony Mendez (Affleck), whose suggestion is so over-the-top unbelievable, it might work.  Mendez will pose as a Hollywood producer and smuggle out the six, pretending they're part of a film production scouting exotic locations.

Much of the fun of Argo comes from watch Mendez align himself with the '70s-style Hollywood producers (John Goodman and Alan Arkin) who he recruits to bring some credibility to the project.  It's not a stretch to them to think they're working on a movie that will never actually be produced; most of their pictures aren't.  "If I'm gonna make a fake movie," Arkin screams, "it's gonna be a fake hit!"

Even at its most comedic, Argo never forgets that there's an espionage thriller of mammoth proportions just beneath the surface, and when it finally moves back to center stage, Affleck proves that his nail-biting action scenes in The Town were no fluke.

The last 20 minutes of Argo are as tense and as well-constructed as any thriller in recent memory.  This is where Affleck has proven he is one of the best directors working today -- he can take the kind of set-up and characters that in other hands might seem routine and turn them into something fresh and marvelous.

Argo is a thriller about politics, but it's not a political thriller -- whether its makers side with Americans or Iranians, with Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan is irrelevant.  What matters is telling a corker of a story with style and flair, and in that, Argo is a smashing success.

It's not every filmmaker who can wring such suspense out of a shot of a ringing telephone, and it's not every film that can make history come to life as vividly, as dazzlingly as Argo.

Viewed at ArcLight Hollywood -- Oct. 21, 2012


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Catching Up: "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"

 3 / 5 

There may never be a good or appropriate time to try to make a fictional film about the still-unfathomable tragedy that happened in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.  For those who lived through it, whether in person or on TV, what humanity lost on that day defies explanation: lives and property, yes, but innocence, faith, certainty, even (though we want it not to be true) hope.

Being only mildly familiar with the 2005 novel on which Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is based, I knew only that it used the events of 9/11 as a creative foundation, and in that regard had been targeted for criticism from the start -- anyone who tries to define the emotional aftermath of the U.S. terrorist attacks in a popular art form, especially one that's fictionalized, is an easy target.

So, it's natural to approach a major studio film about 9/11 with trepidation, particularly one based on a book that had tepid response, that features some of Hollywood's most popular mainstream movie stars, and is so, well, slick and polished.

Despite that, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close proves remarkably authentic in the way it tackles the difficult and intermixed nature of grief and guilt.  It keeps intact many of what were identified as the book's faults, particularly a borderline cloying relationship between the main character, Oskar Schell (an effective debut performance by Thomas Horn) and his father (Tom Hanks), who died at the World Trade Center.  It's this central relationship that is both critical to the success of the movie -- and in part its undoing.

This is the kind of father-and-son relationship that only exists in the movies: Dad's just ever so mildly eccentric, Son is possibly autistic, and they love each other so mightily and perfectly that they appear never to have fought or argued, and Dad only lives to develop the mind and feelings of Son.  Poor Mom, then, is relegated to a side role until late in the story.

A few days before Dad died, he created a game to help develop Son's sense of self, but of course Dad died before the game was afoot, and now it's up to Son to finish it.

Yes, this part of the movie is as sickly sentimental and sweetly unbelievable as it sounds.  Moreover, through a complete coincidence, the earnest Oskar discovers a key in his father's closet, but has no idea what it might open -- but he's convinced it will open something, so he traipses around all five New York boroughs to find it.

Yes, this part of the movie is as outlandish and treacly as it sounds.

But ... underneath all that, there at the heart of the film, is something completely unexpected: An honest, genuine attempt to use this boy's story, contrived though it may be, to explore some brutally tough territory, to get beyond the "bad-things-happen-to-good-people" platitudes and recognize that when they do, most people are totally unequipped to handle the outcomes.

Grief becomes wrapped up in mind-numbing, shattering guilt -- and for being a young boy, Oskar has more than his share of both about the events of Sept. 11.  His need to discover the lock the key can open seems remarkably random at first, and remains so even through the revelation, but also helps dig deeper.  When the mother (Sandra Bullock) finally figures into the story in a prominent way, their scenes together are dramatic and cathartic.

Oskar's transgressions on that Tuesday morning were minor, at best -- but they have so consumed him that they have become all-consuming.  Likewise, Mother knows her son resents her for being the parent who survived ... but, what can she do, except try to love her son even more for his hatred.

Yes, this is some surprisingly difficult -- and rewarding -- stuff.  Granted, it's all told with a high-gloss, Hollywood sheen. Should that be held against it?  No, but the need to edit and hone down the script (even at the risk of losing one of its major characters) might have been considered.  Still, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has a lot to recommend it; there may be no way, or even need yet, to explain what 9/11 meant to any of us, collectively or individually, but this is a movie that is admirable for its efforts to try.   

Monday, October 15, 2012

Before the Race Begins

It's just about Oscar-bait time, so before the race for the gold begins in earnest, here's my look at my five favorite films of the year so far.  One truth about the Oscars: The Best Picture winner is usually not the film, looking back, that most people would consider to be their favorite -- and this year is not likely to be different.

Still, here are five films that are my favorites to date in what has been an undeniably mediocre year.  Not included: John Carter, a movie I admired greatly -- and that almost did make the cut.  I admired its determination to create a full world, to tell a swashbuckling adventure story, and as much as I thought its harsh detractors were wrong (and ultimately, I believe, will be disproven in time), I liked these five movies even more.  In reverse order of preference:

#5 - Hope Springs

The actors are the draw here, not because they are big names (and they are -- you don't get much bigger than Meryl Streep) but because they play such small characters, people with troubles as commonplace as anyone in the audience.  Hope Springs has the knack of understanding why we are so mean to the people we love most, and finds warm-hearted sympathy in the plight of living a life filled with dashed dreams and diminished expectations. Even there, in the place that life deposits you, there is beauty and laughter. Hope Springs is a tonic for a weary heart.

#4 - Chronicle

This year has been so overloaded with mega-budgeted super-hero movies that Chronicle's feat is doubly astonishing: It is among the very best super-hero movies ever by its simple decision to tell a crackling good story about what might happen to a modern teenager if he were embued with super powers. Somehow, this tiny-budgeted independent film has more soaring visuals and sweeping, identifiable emotions than the last dozen Marvel or DC films combined.  It's a captivating, delightful surprise.

#3 - End of Watch

This cop drama starts out in iffy territory, trying to graft the "found-footage" trend onto a gangland crime thriller. But once you get into its visual, violent, profane rhythm, it becomes virtually impossible to stop watching. It's been a long time, indeed, since I found myself as invested in the action and, more importantly, the characters as I was in End of Watch.  It's a stunning achievement in filmmaking.

#2 - Beasts of the Southern Wild

You'll remember two things: Hush Puppy and the way you feel. Like the best art of any kind, Beasts of the Southern Wild will incite different feelings in different people.  Driven not by narrative but by emotion, it's an odd, vibrant, exciting and beautiful movie about strength and resilience -- as demonstrated by a plucky 6-year-old.  The Academy had better think about reinstating that old "Young Performer of the Year" award it used to give to Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin, because no child has blazed across the screen in recent memory, possibly ever, with the sheer force of Quvenzhane' Wallis.

#1 - Safety Not Guaranteed

More like "film not classifiable" -- it's a genre-busting blast of pure movie joy.  Do yourself a favor: Don't read a synopsis, don't do research, just see it.  Give it your full attention (ideally in a movie theater).  Two hours later, you'll come out feeling like you were hit by a bolt of happiness.  If the Academy were honest with itself, they'd admit: There's unlikely to be a movie this in love with being a movie anytime this year -- or who knows when, for that matter.  A sheer, utter blast of fun.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


 3 / 5 

Sinister values style over substance, which in the case of a horror movie that could otherwise be pretty predictable, is a very good thing: I felt more uneasy and unnerved after seeing Sinister than I have in a long time.

Director Scott Derrickson brings Sinister a sharp visual flair, full of mood and unhappiness, as if the haunted house at the center of the story has been consumed by shadows that can never lift.  Sinister is a horror movie that seems to aspire to something more, at least from that visual standpoint -- even when the script strains credulity to explain why the lights are never on, the resulting lights and shadows are the closest to classic film noir that today's literal-minded audiences might accept.  It's almost thrilling to see a B-movie created with such care.

The story, on the other hand, is slightly less innovative, though it certainly begins with an unpleasant bang: Four people are hung by a tree as we watch the grainy, Super-8 film that documents their demise. It's not an image you want to dwell on, but the camera is unflinching, and if reading the description seems grisly, watching it is something else.

The movie is one of several snuff films that true-crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) finds in the attic of of the Pennsylvania house he's just moved his unwitting family into.  The tree is in the backyard but Ellison, in the first of many questionable decisions, has not bothered to inform his wife and two children about the murders.

A decade ago, Ellison achieved some notoriety with a best-seller, and he's just a little too determined to recapture some of that success; it doesn't cross his mind that maybe moving his family into the scene of a quadruple homicide isn't going to elicit a bunch of chuckles.

Mysteriously, a box of the Super 8 movies appears in his attic, and Ellison can't stop watching as, one after one, families meet violent ends on film.  Never mind that most of these movies were made long after videotape came into fashion, or that splicing together Super 8 film doesn't make the most compelling dramatic action.

Slowly, it comes clear that there is something bizarre and likely supernatural at work here.  But through it all, Sinister seems less concerned with creating a coherent story or believable action than creating a palpable sense of dread.

In that, it works.  Sinister is designed less to make you jump and scream than rattle your nerves deeply. No, the story doesn't make much sense.  No, there's really not a valid reason the lights in the house malfunction but the electricity that drives the Super 8 movie projector works just fine.  Plot strands are dropped without rhyme or reason, and the ending is simultaneously overwrought and perfunctory.

Sinister may not be a movie that holds up on a second viewing.  But when the sights and, more importantly, sounds are this unsettling and even genuinely disturbing, a second viewing really isn't necessary. Sit through Sinister once. That's likely all it will take to keep your own lights on.

Viewed Oct. 14, 2012 -- ArcLight Pasadena