Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ARGO (2012)

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The 2012 Oscar nominees had some of the most controversial choices in it's history; of the ten films nominated, three were historical films (Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN, Ben Affleck's ARGO and Kathryn Bigelow's ZERO DARK THIRTY) that were all criticized for inaccuracies, and the latter two of those films delved into the confrontational modern relationship between the US and the Middle East, which inevitably led to even more condemnation.  The most uproar was directed  at  ZERO DARK THIRTY, which portrayed the US military's hunting and killing of Terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden as an exciting thriller, but that also appeared to imply that that that search for Bin Laden was aided by the torture of terrorist suspects, a highly disputed point.  The anger at the film's portrayal of "enhanced interrogation techniques" even spilled over to the halls of congress.  Therefore, on the night of the Oscar broadcast, there was more than a little tension.  Would the Academy embrace such a divisive film?  At first, it appeared that ARGO and ZERO DARK THIRTY may have split the vote, allowing Ang Lee's far less incendiary  LIFE OF PI to possibly sneak in.   When Lee's film won Oscars for  its score, special effects and cinematography, followed by Lee himself best winning for best director, (his second win) it certainly seemed a possibility.  But, instead the award went to ARGO, the less controversial of the two films.  It's victory was really understandable; while Bigelow's film dealt with recent history, ARGO's late 1970's setting allowed for more perspective, and therefore its harsh look at Iran could be seen as criticism from a distance.  More importantly,  Affleck's film is just a really good, entertaining movie, with not only effectively done period settings and plenty of tension, but surprising amounts of humor, throw in some nice satire of Hollywood producers that the Academy could surely identify with, and its victory seemed more and more likely.  It's also a nice comeback success story for its director and star Ben Affleck, who, after winning a best original screenplay award for GOOD WILL HUNTING in 1997, had drifted into lackluster roles and tabloid controversy, before returning as a surprisingly effective director with 2007's GONE BABY GONE.

The film's story began when, in 2007, writer Joshuah Bearman wrote an article called "The Great Escape" for WIRED magazine, based on just declassified documents about a CIA operation to rescue American hostages trapped in Iran in 1979 after that country's revolution. Producers David Klawans, George Clooney and Grant Heslov bought the rights to the story, and in 2011 Affleck was brought on to direct, co produce and star in the film as CIA agent Tony Mendez.  Filming was accomplished quickly, with Istanbul standing in for Iran and the scenes at CIA headquarters shot on location in Washington DC.  Considering the films time period, Affleck consciously tried to capture the look of a 1970's film, even going so far as to blow up the film to increase its graininess. With strong reviews and word of mouth, the $44,000,000 film returned $136,000,000 in the US.

John Goodman, Alan Arkin, & Ben Affleck

Starting in 1979, it begins with the overthrow of the Iranian government and the taking of American diplomats as hostages.  Six of them manage to escape to the Canadian embassy, but it appears its only a matter of time before the Iranian government discovers where they are.  At the CIA, agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), comes up with the idea of creating a fake Hollywood movie that would send producers and crew members to Iran to pretend to be scouting locations.  Working with Hollywood producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin), Mendez travels to Iran, and after many moments of tension, he and his fake crew manage to bluff their way back into the US.

Other than attempting to capture the look of a 70's movie, Affleck directoral style here is straightforward and no nonsense; never flashy, he trusts that the tense story and the fine performances should always be at the forefront of the film, and he's right.  The editing together of authentic news reel footage with new scenes is seamless and effective, and I also like the constant usage of real TV news broadcasts from that era to show just how heavy the hostage crisis loomed over the country.  Director Affleck is also good at changing the film's tone when CIA agent Tony goes to Hollywood and seeks the help of makeup artist John Chambers (based on a real person, who did the makeup for the original PLANET OF THE APES movies, played by John Goodman) and movie producer Lester Seigel (made up for the movie) and the film becomes very funny, signaled by seeing Goodman's character at work on a loving recreation of a "b" sci-fi movie set complete with cheesy monster. All of the Hollywood scenes are great fun, and both Goodman and Arkin seem to having a ball playing brash, profane, wise cracking men who sign on to make a fake movie partly out of patriotic duty and partly for a lark.  The funniest moment comes when, in a delightful in joke, cynical makeup man John tells director Affleck's character,  "You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day."

But despite the good humor, the film never lets us forget that it's all in service to a deadly serious (and very risky) plan, and once Tony travels to Iran, the tension never lets up.  There's a marvelous scene in which Tony has to take the six diplomats with him to pretend to scout locations, and they are forced to slowly drive thorough a loud protest that could turn violent at any moment; even if you know how the film ends, it's a chilling moment.  And many other moments in the film are just as pulse pounding, from the children slowly piecing together shredded pictures of the ambassadors that could give them away, to the casual but threatening tone of the soldiers at the airport, the film is an excellent example of how the constant threat of violence can be more suspenseful in a movie than actual acts of violence.

Affleck's lead performance in the film mirrors his no nonsense style of direction; his character is a tight lipped professional who has to wear a poker face through much of the film.  He knows that the audience will immediately admire his character  for so willingly putting his own life on the line to save others, so he doesn't have to play for sympathy. And even in the scenes with his family, Affleck thankfully avoids maudlin sentiment.  That goes for the rest of the cast, who, (except for the funny mugging of Goodman and Arkin) play characters who accept the seriousness of their situation with stoic realism, from the endangered ambassadors to Bryan Cranston's tough CIA chief Jack O'Donnell.

Except for one faithful maid, all of the Iranian characters in the film are portrayed negatively; while that is perhaps to be expected given the nature of the story, it still may have been nice to see some people in Iran who aren't threatening.  However, to the film's credit, the CIA's direct involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and the fall out from that overthrow is clearly mentioned at the beginning of the film.

Ben Afflick & Bryan

I've already mentioned that the film has taken some criticism for its inaccuracies; while most of these are just small things done to build up the tension  I do have a small problem with some: for example, the film states that the British and New Zealand embassies turned away the six American diplomats, when in fact they both did provide some help, and former President Jimmy Carter himself, while praising the film, said that he thought the Canadian Embassy should have been given more credit in carrying out the plan.   But I don't think these are fatal flaws.  One problem I do have is that, while I've mentioned how much I enjoy the movie's constant tension, I think it goes too far by having Iranian soldiers literally chasing after the plane with our heroes on it just as it takes off; this is, of course, all Hollywood fiction, and it feels like it.  Not surprisingly, the real diplomats got away with more than mere seconds to spare.  Still, in a film with so many well done suspense scenes, one that milks the tension a little too much is forgivable.


This is a tough call for me: although I can't find much to fault with ARGO, I think that Ang Lee's LIFE OF PI is just a shade better.  Lee's film manages to be a beautiful looking adventure story while also having an interesting philosophical take on religion.  But ARGO is a fine choice.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


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THE ARTIST was the first (mostly) silent film to win the Best Picture award since the first Academy Award ceremony way back in 1927 picked WINGS; in fact, it was the first silent film to get a wide release at all in America since Mel Brooks's amusing parody SILENT MOVIE in 1976.  Even more unusual is that, despite it's Hollywood setting, it's production began in France, making it the only French film to ever breakthrough to mainstream audiences in America.  And with good reason, THE ARTIST was clearly a labor of love for director Michel Hazanavicius, who put so much work into the film's look and style to make sure it was authentic to the era it was set in.  And while it's not my personal favorite film of 2011, I still find it charming and lovely, with a great score by Ludovic Bource and excellent camera work by Guilliaume Schiffman.
Making an homage to silent Hollywood films had been a dream of Paris born director Hazanavicius for years.  After making two successful spy spoofs (OSS 177: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES, in 2006, and OSS 177: LOST IN RIO in 2009), he finally was able to get studio interest.  He wrote a screenplay based loosely on the careers of silent film stars like John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks, and cast stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, both of whom  he had worked with before in his spy movies, to play the leads.  The film was funded by different French studios and shot entirely in Hollywood, with as many authentic historical locations being utilized as possible; even the house that silent star Mary Pickford once lived was used. Hazanavicius made sure during filming to not use any modern camera techniques (like zoom lenses) and even shot the film at a slightly different speed than normal to give the action a more sped up look, like an authentic silent film.  The film was shot in thirty five days at a budget of around $15,000,000; it would go on to make around $45,000,000 in the US alone.
It's story begins in 1927, when silent film idol George Valentine(Dujardin) accidentally bumps into pretty young fan Peppy Miller (Bejo) at a movie premier and then smilingly introduces her to the press.  When Peppy tries to use her sudden celebrity to become a star herself, George himself demands that the studio hire her as an extra.  When sound films start to become popular George dismisses them as a fad and produces his own silent film, which flops, meanwhile Peppy's star keeps rising.  A destitute George auctions off all his possessions, and even considers suicide, but Peppy, who never forgot how he helped make her famous, stops him and demands that the studio cast him as her leading man in a big musical.

Jean Dujardin & Berenice Bejo

For the most part, THE ARTIST is simply a joy to watch, and its affection for old Hollywood films shines through in every frame.  Along with introducing a whole new audience to the joys of silent cinema, it also features in joke references to old movies (both sound and silent) for film buffs.  The use of silent film techniques throughout the film, like irises and superimposed images, is very effective. (I especially like the juxtaposition of superimposed images that flood the screen during Peppy's rise to fame.)   The movie cleverly opens with a showing of George's latest movie, an adventure film that has him being tortured with electrical  bolts (not unlike the kind that brought Frankenstein's monster to life); he responds to the torture by yelling through title card, "I won't talk!", an amusing bit of foreshadowing.  That kind of wit runs through the whole movie, and reaches an apex when George, during a nightmare, suddenly begins to hear all the sounds around him, while he himself is still silent; the scene builds slowly, with the sound of a glass being placed on a counter making a clink noise, to the building of various noises, until it climaxes with a horrified George being laughed at by passing show girls and then hearing a feather land on the ground with a loud bang.   Along with being a fun scene, it nicely summarizes the fear that ran through Hollywood as sound films quickly took over and stars suddenly had to scramble to adjust.  Another nice bit of foreshadowing comes when George's self directed and financed silent movie plays to an almost empty theater and ends with him slowly dying in quicksand!
It's interesting to note that George's similarities to John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks is more than a physical resemblance;  Gilbert and Fairbanks were both matinee idols who had trouble adjusting to sound film, and Gilbert's role in the 1933 Greta Garbo starring film QUEEN CRISTINA came because former lover Garbo demanded he be cast, just like Peppy does in THE ARTIST.  Sadly, neither of them made the kind of comeback that George does in the film.

John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks & Jean Dujardin

Jean Dujardin won an Oscar for best actor for his work here, and with his good looks, pencil mustache and immediate charm, it's easy to see why.  He really is the perfect embodiment of those dashing old stars, the kind of man who looks equally at home in a Zorro outfit or a dinner jacket.  And Dujardin's performance and Hazanavicius's script wield his likablity carefully; at first, George Valentin is far from perfect.  He's a glory hound who soaks up applause from an opening night audience alone before introducing his leading lady, and who has a large portrait of himself in his mansion that he waves to; he also clearly is no faithful husband to his long suffering wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller).  But we still see George as a good person, partly because he helps along Peppy's career (I love the detail of him putting a beauty spot on her face to make her distinctive), and also because he has an adorable little dog named Jack that he's very affectionate with (he even takes Jack to a movie at one point!).  So the audience feels for him even as his ego leads him to produce his own silent film, which leads to his financial ruin, and the film's inevitable happy ending is touching now that he's learned a lesson in hubris.
As for Berenice Bejo as the well named Peppy, well, let's just say that it is no surprise that she's director Hazanavicius's wife!  Peppy is almost too good to be true; an absolute doll who gains fame and fortune but never lets it go to her head, and who always admires George and never forgets his helping her even when he's down and out.  Whether she's doing a energetic dance number or sneaking into George's dressing room to hug his coat, Bejo is never less than enchanting.  The rest of the film is also well cast, and I particularly like John Goodman as cigar chomping studio head Al Zimmer, who has a priceless reaction to Peppy blackmailing him into hiring back George.
My main problem with the film is that the story is a little too simple and predictable; at times it feels a bit stretched thin, with later scenes starting to drag and become repetitive.  The fact that George has to be saved from suicide twice (once by little Jack, making like Rin Tin Tin, saving him from a fire he started, and again by Peppy stopping him from shooting himself) shows a certain lack of originality in the filmmaking, and I think a subplot or two could have served the film well.  But I feel hard hearted to be criticizing such a good natured movie that's in love with cinema itself, so I still greatly enjoy the film, and I think it's a good movie to show kids if you want to introduce them to the early days of movies.


As much as I enjoy this film, it wasn't my favorite of that year.  I think two old masters of filmmaking both did even better work that year: first there's Woody Allen's charming and funny MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and Martin Scorsase's gorgeous and moving HUGO (which, like THE ARTIST, looked back fondly on the early days of filmmaking).  Still, THE ARTIST is definitely not a poor decision by the Academy, and given that both Allen and Scorsase had won for previous films, I can't complain too much.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


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In 2011 the Academy started the new decade off with a bit of a throwback;  Tom Hooper's THE KING'S SPEECH, is the kind of handsome English period piece that won so many awards back in the 1960's.  Which isn't to say it's a bad film, it's just that it so positively drips with uplift and importance that at times it can be overbearing, and I sometimes find it too stately and too enamored with its English royal characters.  While I think overall it's a fine film, it's not my favorite of that year.

Screenwriter David Seidler first got the idea for the film years earlier; as a child in England, Seidler had a stammer that he eventually overcame, inspired by King George VI's overcoming of his stammer.  Years later, Seidler wanted to turn that king's story into a movie.  In the 1970's and 80's he researched the story, eventually meeting with the king's son and widow.  The widow requested that he not do the story until after her death because it brought back painful memories for her , and he agreed.  She passed in 2002 and he began work on the story again three years later.  Eventually he wrote a script that almost became a play before English director Tom Hooper became interested.  Eventually the English Bedlam Productions studio agreed to finance the film with help from the UK Film Council.  Hugh Grant and Paul Bettany were both considered for the role of the king before Colin Firth, riding high after a netting a best actor nomination for his previous role in A SINGLE MAN, was cast, with the highly respected Helena Bonham Carter signed up to play his wife.  Meanwhile the part of the king's Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, seemed perfect for well known Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, who was quickly brought in.  Working with a tight budget of around $15,000,000, production designer and set designer Eve Stewart and Judy Farr, along with costume designer Jenny Beavan managed to all do impressive work and help deliver a good looking film, shot entirely in different English locations.  Thanks to strong word of mouth and reviews, the film would go on to gross almost $140,000,000 in the US alone.

Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth & Geoffrey Rush

   Beginning in 1925, we see Prince Albert, the Duke of York and the second son of King George V(Firth), stammer his way painfully through a speech heard around the world.  His wife Elizabeth (Carter) convinces him to see unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush) who slowly but surely works  with him.  When King George V (Micheal Gambon) dies, Albert's older brother Edward (Guy Pierce) abdicates the throne to marry a twice divorced American, forcing Albert onto the throne.  When war is declared with Germany, Lionel helps Albert give a rousing speech to the whole country.

Considering the formulaic story and often serious tone of the major world events happening in the film, it's a relief that Seidler's script is filled with welcome witty lines for its talented English cast to say.  I love the way that Micheal Gambon's king, remarking on how the royalty are expected to behave,  angrily says "This family is reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures, we've become actors!".  This reaches a high point when Lionel gets Albert to swear repeatedly to loosen him up, which unfortunately caused this otherwise clean film to get an R rating. It was worth it to show such a funny and bonding moment for Lionel and Albert.
While THE KING'S SPEECH is a number of things, at its heart its a mismatched buddy movie, with the uptight, wealthy English royal Albert forced to work with the lower class, eccentric  Australian Lionel, who refuses to show the Duke the respect he's used to (he calls the Duke "Bertie"!).  Inevitably the two men's differences cause them to clash at first (There's a nice visualization of that as Albert looks so out of place as he sits in front of a worn down wall in Lionel's office), but they eventually learn to trust and respect one another, and Lionel even gets Albert to open up about the abusive nanny he had as a child.  Rush is a delight as the Shakespeare loving, mildly eccentric Lionel, who knows when to praise Albert and when to anger him.  As Albert, Firth won a best Actor award for his work, and he is very good in his ability to make the audience wince every time his stammer acts up, and one can really sense the frustration this obviously intelligent man has in simply being unable to express himself.   And of course his chemistry with  Rush is likable and believable, as are the romantic sparks between him and Helena Bonham Carter, who brings great warmth to the standard role of the supporting wife.  And the film is nicely filled out with good performances from actors like Timothy Spall as a humorous Winston Churchill and Guy Pierce as Albert's selfish brother Edward.

Colin Firth

The film's final scenes are a big build up to the king's first big speech now that war has been declared with Germany, and Hooper loads up the tension, making it seem like Albert approaching a seemingly huge microphone is practically entering a lion's den.  The inevitable power of the speech is shown through a montage of various English people (rich and poor, soldier and servant) listening in; while the images are lovely here,  I can't help thinking that Hooper and Seidler are overselling the speech and heroism of Albert (who is called brave more than once in the film).  Although I can understand that the royalty still meant something to many people in England,  I can't quite say that I agree that one man over coming his stammer can really be put on the same level as soldiers heading off to fight and die, king or not.  I will freely admit that, having grown up in a country without royalty, I sometimes find movies that praise them like this a bit hard to swallow.  People in other countries are free to disagree.


I've already said that I enjoyed other movies from 2010 more than this one: I think films like THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT, WINTER'S BONE, TOY STORY 3 and my personal favorite, David Fincher's THE SOCIAL NETWORK are all superior.  But THE KING'S SPEECH is a solid and well made film, so it certainly isn't a poor choice.

Monday, August 5, 2013



In 2009 Kathryn Bigelow's war film finally ended the hold male directors had on best picture winning films (Bigelow also won a best director award, another first).  It was also nice to see a low budget independent film winning the award instead of the mega budgeted sci-fi hit AVATAR, which was, ironically enough, directed by James Cameron, Bigelow's ex husband, and who also pushed her into directing THE HURT LOCKER in the first place.
The idea for the film came from reports by journalist Mark Boal, who was embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq during the 2004 invasion. Boal had worked with Bigelow before, and emailed her about his experiences in Iraq often.  A year later she and Boal worked on a script; up until then, Bigelow was known for directing glossy action films like 1991's POINT BREAK, but she wisely went for a more realistic feel for this film.  For the three leads she cast actors that were mostly unknown (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Garaghty) who all trained with the military before shooting began.  The film was shot in the country of Jordan, just a few miles from the Iraq border, and actual Iraqi refugees were cast to play the various Iraqi characters  in the film.  Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd used multiple hand held cameras often shooting at the same time to catch all the action, and a whopping two hundred hours of film was shot before editing.  Despite the sweltering heat, the film was finished quickly on a budget of around $15,000,000; it's gross in the US would only be slightly higher than that, and in fact, if you adjust for inflation, its the lowest grossing best picture winner ever.  (This may have been due to the film's September release date, long before Oscar nominations could have helped at the box office.)

Set in 2004, THE HURT LOCKER is about three American soldier bomb squad members in Iraq: William James (Renner) the new leader, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldrige (Garaghty).  William is brought in to replace the team's original leader (Guy Pierce) who is killed by an explosive in the film's opening scene.  William, a hardened veteran who had perviously served in Afghanistan, has a tendency to take chances, which upsets both of the other men; Sanborn even openly considers killing him with an explosive and making it look like an accident.  Eventually, the men bond and survive several dangerous experiences that harden all of them.  At the end of their tour,  Owen is wounded, and Sanborn admits he can't take the war anymore.  But when William returns home to his wife and son,  he misses the excitement of duty.  At the film's end he returns to Iraq.

Anthony Mackie and Jeremy Renner

Upon the film's release, some actual Iraq war veterans criticized the film's realism, finding various flaws in tactics and character actions.   (Considering that 1978's best picture winner THE DEER HUNTER had many openly surreal scenes involving the Viet Nam war, that probably wasn't a big problem for the Academy).  Having never been near a battlefield in my life, I can't really comment on that, but the fact of the matter is that the film feels real, and that it brings home the Iraq war in ways that news broadcasts and reports can't totally capture.  One of the film's real strengths lies in the almost constant tension that arrises in the many combat scenes; the sense that a gunshot or explosion could come from almost anywhere, and that innocent looking person walking towards you could be trying to kill you.  The jerky camera work and intense performances capture all the difficulty of modern urban warfare.

Although we occasionally hear the soldiers complaining about their situation (Owen Eldrige says at one point "Pretty much the bottom line is, if you're in Iraq, you're dead."), it's obvious that Bigelow and Boal didn't want to make a political film; so there is no conversation of the rightness or wrongness of the Iraq invasion, instead the film just plunges us into the middle of the conflict and shows us the day to day dangers that the American soldiers on the ground were facing.  I think this is the right decision; since the war was still raging while the film was being made, any kind of politicking could have been  outdated by the time of the film's release, so it's better to just show the chaos of the war to the audience and leave the speeches to others.

The Stunning opening bomb blast

Along with showing the violence in Iraq,  the film also looks at the mentality of the natural born soldier.  The film opens with a quote from war correspondent Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."  And the audience understands that addiction through the film's gripping action scenes, which are exciting to us even as we fear for the lives of the characters (the slow motion explosion that opens the film is both horrifying and strangely beautiful). We also understand that addiction through the character of William James, a man who willingly puts himself into dangerous situations, defusing bombs that could  explode any second and pursuing possible enemies into unsafe territory, because he clearly loves the rush of adrenaline.  And he doesn't care how he gets that rush, openly threatening the lives of Owen and Sanborn with his reckless ways.  Even when he engages in some good natured wrestling with Sanborn, it inevitably ends with him going too far and Sanborn pulling a knife on him.  We can almost understand why Sanborn openly considers killing him at one point; such men are dangerous.  Like many addicts, William himself can't seem to understand his own addiction; in one of the film's more powerful moments, Owen rages at William over the fact that his recklessness has resulted in Owen being badly injured.  William's response to Owen's anger is just blank silence, because he knows there is no answer.  And when William briefly returns home to his wife and child, he realizes that he should be satisfied just being around them, but it isn't enough for him;  he has to return to Iraq.  In many ways he is the embodiment of the "real Americans" who "love the sting of battle" that General George S Patton so memorably talked about in the 1970 best picture winner PATTON.

Not everything in the film works: although some scenes with William befriending a local Iraqi kid that he dubs "Beckham" (Christopher Sayegh) are nicely done and show William's more tender side, they lead to an odd series of events.  First, while inspecting a suspicious building, William finds a body that he thinks is Beckham's, which angers him so much that he goes alone and out of uniform in the Iraqi city to try find who's responsible.  In the film's strangest scene, he winds up in a room with an English speaking Iraqi professor(Nabil Koni)  who says he's glad to see him, and assumes he's from the CIA.  But before the two men can talk, the professor's wife comes home and verbally berates William until he leaves and heads back to the base.  The scene seems to be trying to reach some meaning that it doesn't seem to get; even more unusual, William later discovers that the body he saw was not Beckham's, which renders his whole trip into the city pointless.  While I don't think the film needed this whole sequence, it does give the audience a chance to see the city outside of just being a combat zone, with normal Iraqi people going about their business, so on that level they're interesting if not necessary to the film's plot.


While 2009 gave us a very different (and wildly entertaining) war film with Quentin Tarantino's WWII epic INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, I think that Bigelow's visceral war film was the clear best picture winner of that year.