Movies

Argo

The Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 is something I remember as a young teenager. Newscasts would begin or end with how many days the U.S. diplomats had been held hostage. They were seized on Nov. 4, 1979, after the American Embassy in Tehran was overtaken by Islamic students and militants in support of the Iranian Revolution. I remember the counting of days and the intense religious, revolutionary fervor in Iran under leader Khomeini on TV. I recall the mounting frustration to ultimately get 52 Americans out of there. Ribbons honoring the hostages were placed everywhere and yet negotiations failed and the painful hostage crisis continued for 444 days.

I remember all that but what I don’t really recall is the six U.S. diplomats who evaded capture and were hidden by a Canadian immigration official and the Canadian ambassador. Why I don’t remember that part and how they got out of Iran and back home – I don’t know, the rescue itself was a covert operation -- but it was a phenomenal feat.

Decades-old declassified CIA materials have enabled this part of the story to come to the silver screen in the film “Argo.” Director and actor Ben Affleck does a great job in re-creating the whole atmosphere of the crisis, from the utter fear and chaos to the complete danger that the U.S. and Canadian personnel were in. Given that the 6 diplomats in Tehran were being hidden by foreign diplomats, it is likely that they would have been tried and executed as spies.

“Argo” is suspenseful and chilling despite knowing the historical outcome of what actually happened. I couldn’t help but think of the U.S. diplomats who were recently killed at the embassy in Libya. The parallels so close together were eerie and disturbing.

With that in mind, it’s utterly amazing how the U.S. and Canada pulled off a far-fetched plan that faked a movie production in Iran to get the hidden U.S. diplomats out of the country. In the movie, Alan Arkin and John Goodman play funny Hollywood filmmakers who help CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, put the plan in motion. Affleck plays Mendez as a cool and calm cucumber (he drinks quite a lot but doesn’t seem to sweat). He always gets his people out he tells the diplomats – if they just do as he says. But hell it’s tooth and nail if the plan will go their way.

“Argo’s” fake movie within the movie makes for a suspenseful and entertaining ride. And it’s nearly impossible not to feel patriotic and good about the ending.

Unfortunately all the details in “Argo” aren’t totally ship-shape. Its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival drew ire because apparently Canada didn’t receive its correct due in the film. “Argo” shows the CIA making the rescue plan and getting them out but not the work the Canadians did, beyond harboring them at the risk of their own lives. The Canadian Ambassador at the time Ken Taylor calls the movie “entertaining,” but says the roles the CIA and the Canadians played aren’t accurately proportioned in it. Affleck actually changed the film’s postscript because of Taylor’s views to reflect that it was a collaboration between the CIA and the Canadian Embassy that freed the six hostages in Tehran. But as for the rest of the film, it was already done and left as it was.

Despite this, the collaboration does come through, and we can thank heavens that Canada is such a close ally, whose officials risked their lives for the U.S., and that the plan worked. The film is definitely a thrilling must-see for this fall movie season.

For further reading on the six hostages, go to Robert Wright’s 2010 book “Our Man in Tehran: The Truth Behind the Secret Mission to Save Six Americans During the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Ambassador Who Worked With the CIA to Bring Them Home.”

Prometheus

I caught director Ridley Scott’s 3-D film “Prometheus” last Friday on opening night. It’s quite a visual feast as are some of his other movies such as “Black Hawk Down,” “Gladiator,” and “Thelma & Louise.” It’s his first return to sci-fi since “Blade Runner” in 1982, and a quasi-prequel to “Alien” in 1979, so I wasn’t about to miss it.

The film is a bit mysterious and I’m still gathering my thoughts over it. What is clear is that it’s about a team of scientists who are sent off into deep space on a corporate project to find clues about the origins of humankind. Their spaceship lands on a planet with some kind of large installation built on it, filled with tunnels and caves. It seems promising, but once the scientists start to poke around inside ominous things begin to happen. They find a prototype corpse and an arsenal of weapons deserted by their owners. Slithery creatures pop up and apparitions run past, what the heck are those holographic like things?! I wish they’d make a dash back to Earth, but a sample from the corpse yields a human DNA match, enticing the scientists further that it might be from our Creator. But if so, what happened at this desolate place?

I won’t give any more away, but suffice it to say, what follows after is not exactly tame or pretty. You might not want to see this movie if you’re pregnant because it pretty much outdoes the stomach scene from “Alien” and is on par with a scene from “The Fly.” “Prometheus” is a movie that starts gradual but shifts into a fast pace of destruction toward the end. Noomi Rapace, who was terrific in the Swedish version of “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” is quite good as the scientist, who follows a bit in the footsteps of Sigourney Weaver, the heroine who made her mark in the “Alien” series. Charlize Theron, who plays the corporate chief in this, seems a bit flat or misplaced to me, but Michael Fassbender as the deviant robot David is wonderful in his role. I still don’t trust him!

The ending of “Prometheus” leaves open various questions and plenty of room for sequels. Why for instance does the Creator seem to hate us so? I guess that’s for next time. But while the film doesn’t exactly match the classic “Alien,” it’s still a visual treat that raises thoughts about the vast universe and our origins in it. For a sci-fi summer blockbuster, it’s well worth its weight in popcorn and admission.

To read more on actress Noomi Rapace check out the NYT's recent profile of her.

The Hunger Games

Luckily braving the crowds of opening weekend to see “The Hunger Games” went pretty smoothly. It was being shown in four theaters in the same complex at once, and I pre-bought tickets, which was the only way to go for a seat to a film that raked in a $155 million, the third highest domestic debut of all time. People were ravenous to see the Hunger Games!

And I’m pleased to report the film does a good job of living up to much of the hype and expectations of the very popular young adult novel. It’s a grand and vivid production and hews closely to the novel’s post-apocalyptic story with a grimness that’s palpable. There’s the poverty of District 12, the oppression and inhumane lottery forced on the people by the Panem capital, and the gruesome spectacle of the annual mandatory Hunger Games, where 24 kids are expected to fight to the death.

Gracious, the plot’s levity is limited to a few comic touches from District 12’s mentors Effie and Haymitch and the bombastic Hunger Games announcer, played wonderfully by Stanley Tucci. Luckily the bludgeoning that takes place in the Games is mostly seen from shaky cameras and is somewhat indirect. Though it is still scary and disturbing (so beware of taking young kids susceptible to nightmares); poor Rue, may she rest in peace.

It’s not all gore and guts, but the Hunger Games makes a tense survival test. It follows the book well in many respects: Jennifer Lawrence makes a great Katniss, and Josh Hutcherson earns his way as Peeta. The other "tributes," too, are efficiently menacing, and the Games (in movie and book) play out similarly on a thrilling scale. But the film skips over some of the nuances of the book, notably who is playing whom and when? Peeta's alliance with the bad guys is a small ripple compared to it in the book, where he's generally a more untrusted factor (remember when he trained alone?). And though both he and Katniss play-act their love interest in one another at different points to stay alive, the film misses Peeta’s disappointment in finding out Katniss’s calculated affections for him toward the end of the Games. The young romance is definitely more cloudy and nuanced in the book ...

Alas, you only have to wait till November 2013 to see Part 2, "Catching Fire." Till then: "Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor.”

Hugo

I admit I rushed out on Thursday evening to see “Hugo” before the Academy Awards on Sunday, just to see if it would change my opinion on anything. It’s a good film and I should have seen it sooner, but I didn’t get to see it in 3D because the theater just showed it in regular dimension. So much for the 3D experience!

My favorite part about “Hugo” is that it’s set in the Paris train station in the 1930s and is about a lonely boy who lives high up in the clock tower working the clocks. Like his deceased father, he’s a fixer of machinery and is desperate to fix an old automaton robot left by his father convinced that it will contain a message from him. But instead it prints a drawing that is linked to the station’s toy store owner (played by Ben Kingsley) who once was a filmmaker before World War I put him out of business. The boy, aided by the toy store owner’s goddaughter, comes up with a plan to get the reticent man to divulge his past and passion for making movies.

The sets and characters of the train station are terrific, with a funny performance by Sasha Baron Cohen as the station inspector. And though it’s been said that “Hugo” is director Martin Scorsese’s “valentine to the birth of cinema,” I found myself a bit more drawn to the trains, inventions, clocks and automaton of the station than the early cinema part of the story. The brass automaton especially captivated me; apparently such remarkable old machines really did exist in history, check out the YouTube videos at: http://www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/about_hugo_auto.htm.

It seems “Hugo” is both a film for kids and adults. Adapted from the 2007 kids’ book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, it has a crossover appeal that reminded me a bit of “The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe” film and perhaps a few other kinds of kid-adult combos.

Of course, Martin Scorsese deserves a lot of credit for this. I give him and “Hugo” a few awards in my Oscar pick list, which is likely to be heavily trumped by the film “The Artist,” which I have Not seen yet and therefore did not pick much. Of the films I saw and have reviewed, below is a list of favorites from 2011. Enjoy the Oscars!

1) tie - Moneyball & The Descendants
2) The Iron Lady
3) Midnight in Paris
4) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
5) Ides of March
6) The Help
7) Hugo
8) Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
9) The Debt
10) Drive
11) Bridesmaids
12) Win Win

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Granted, many critics took the much-anticipated “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” to the woodshed and beat it to a pulp. The local paper’s review called it “extremely disappointing”; the New York Times’ review called it “kitsch”; The Washington Post labeled it “cloying sentimentalization” and “insufferable”; and The New Yorker review longed for the main character to shut up. And yet the film has nabbed a few Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. It’s almost reminiscent of director Stephen Daldry’s last film “The Reader,” which drew Oscar nominations and a win for Best Actress despite criticism of its humanizing depiction of a Nazi guard.

Similarly “Extremely Loud” takes on an emotional, weighty subject matter, this time the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Adapted from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film unfolds through the mind of an 11-year-old boy who has Asperger-like symptoms and is dealing with the death of his father in the World Trade Center. The boy, Oskar, finds a key in his deceased father’s belongings and goes on a city-wide search to try and find the lock it will open, feeling that it will keep him connected to his dad and tell him something more. It’s quite an emotional treasure hunt from there as the grieving boy journeys all over NYC over many weeks meeting sympathetic strangers to try and find the lock and answer.

So far so good? Not to critics who bemoaned the film’s adaptation of the novel and its sentimentality. Also the boy’s precocious depiction drove some crazy, and others felt the story’s suspension of disbelief was too great. But despite a couple hokey parts, I thought the film quite powerful. Did it use the World Trade Center tragedy to manipulate emotions at every chance? Did it turn it into kitsch? I think it’s for everyone to decide. Personally I was surprised at how negative some of the reviews were and actually how good and moving and well made the film was. The actor, Thomas Horn, does a good job as the hyperactive boy, and the supporting performances by Viola Davis and Max von Sydow were excellent as usual. I remembered 9/11 and navigated the film without feeling overly cloyed. Now if only the film’s title were less of a mouth full. I never seem to get it right. Extremely what?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The British espionage film “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” finally came to our neck of the woods where we had been patiently waiting to see it since before Christmas. And this is a Commonwealth country mind you. So what’s with the late distribution?!

Well it turned out to be an intriguing film (well worth the wait), though not necessarily an easy one to figure out. As the final scene played out and the credits rolled, I heard a woman behind me say “I still don’t understand it.” And perhaps quite a few others didn’t understand all of it either, which is not too uncommon for a film based on a John le Carre novel. Murkiness lurks in the world of high-stakes espionage after all. It definitely helps if you’ve read the novel it’s based on or his others before seeing the film. More importantly if your spouse has read the entire le Carre cannon then you’re in luck, picking a brain and piecing the film methodically together when it ends.

On the basics, it’s not that hard to grasp. It takes place during the Cold War as a retired British intelligence veteran (George Smiley) is secretly hired back to uncover a mole within the top levels of MI6. Smiley suspects the mole is responsible for a failed mission in Hungary in which an MI6 agent has been shot and tortured for info, and subsequently he learns Moscow’s been behind the mission in order to remove the threat within MI6 of the mole’s discovery. Ultimately Smiley closes in on the double agent, setting up a trap for him to be caught.

It’s quite ingenious, the whole spy plot, and the Cold War paranoia feels palpable. Gary Oldman as Smiley is subtle but terrific, rarely speaking but moving his eyes behind coke-bottle glasses and out-maneuvering his adversaries. Oldman is very deserving of his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for this, though the category has stiff competition from George Clooney and Brad Pitt. The whole cast in "Tinker" is superb, and the film leaves you wondering long after it's over about its details and conclusion. I can’t help thinking it was snubbed of nominations in the Best Picture and Best Director categories, but it did get one for Best Adapted Screenplay.

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