Argo – Review

Argo (2012) 

Directed by Ben Affleck. Starring Ben AffleckBryan CranstonAlan ArkinJohn GoodmanVictor GarberTate Donovanlea DuVall.

If back in 2001, when the ridiculous Pear Harbor was released, somebody could have told me that in 11 years, one of my favourite film of 2012 would have been one directed by that same Ben Affleck, I think I would have laughed for a good 10 minutes straight. And yet, now despite these preconceptions and against my own pre-judgement I am willing to come out and tell you right now (even spoiling my own review) that I really really really loved Argo!

The film starts off with a mini history lesson: a montage sequence, heavy in exposition, which uses not just archive footage and photographs but also drawings resembling a movie storyboards. At the time, while watching it, I thought it was a weird stylistic choice, but of course, once you’ve seen the film, to have storyboards makes perfect sense, though I still argue whether we actually really needed this sequence all together.

Finally, once the history part is out of the way, the real film can start and audience is catapulted right in the middle of the action as the US Embassy in Tehran is broken into by Iranian revolutionaries and most of the Americans are taken as hostages. Only 6 of them manage to escape and find refuge  with the Canadian Ambassador. Will the US government manage to rescue them and take them out of Iran?

Ben Affleck, the director proves an absolute master at cranking up the tension to unbearable levels: watching Argo is a truly draining experience. In places  the film reminded me of that famous opening sequence in Alan Parker‘s Midnight Express, except that this time, that tension is present throughout the whole film.

The recreation of the 70s setting is impeccable too: I had not seen such a perfect recreation of the 70s  since Spielberg’s Munich. But it’s not just the meticulous art direction, the costumes, perfect make-up and those awful haircuts and hilarious facial hair (seriously, what was wrong with us back then?!) it’s also the way the cinematography works, down to the actual grain of the 35mm film (including some artificially post-produced, and rather effective, film scratches) which what makes this film look like it could have been really made in the 70s. Even the camerawork is reminiscent of those 70s classics (apparently Ben Affleck was quite specific about duplicating camera moves and framing from films like All the President’s Men).

Real archive footage is cleverly woven into the film, either seen through television sets or inter-cut with footage of people filming on portable cameras, as if it was their footage. All this adds an extra layer of reality to the film, making it feel almost like a documentary. The result is timeless film, with the same sensibility and look from those classics from the 70s, and yet at same time, it’s as gripping and fast-paced as a good thriller today so that it can be enjoyed by a more modern audience with their infamously short attention span.

I am sure the film has taken lots of liberties with the  real story itself:  it’s easy to see what scenes must have been beefed-up for dramatic effect and to heighten the tension, but since the final result is so strong and so beautifully done, I’m willing excuse any licence and just go with the film.

It must also be pointed out that among all this perfectly crafted nail-biting tension, the film also manages to be extremely funny in places. Courtesy of Alan Arkin‘s and John Goodman‘s characters and their constant fun-poking at Hollywood segments which serve as a welcome relief from all the anxiety and dread of the rest of the Argo. And even if on paper, the more comical sequences seem to belong to a different film altogether,  amazingly, Ben Affleck manages to balance them perfectly with everything else.

You may argue that the film should probably have ended 5 minutes before it does and that the sequences involving Ben Affleck’s family feel a slightly forced and a bit tagged on and that the in the final resolution, the director gives himself up to the Hollywood way, with sweeping music but to me all this is a small price to pay for an otherwise close-to-perfect film.

Well done Ben, and good luck at the Oscars.

9/10

Flight – Review

Flight (2012) – 

Director: Robert Zemeckis. Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly ReillyNadine VelazquezBrian GeraghtyBruce GreenwoodJohn GoodmanDon CheadleJames Badge Dale.

(SOME SPOILERS AHEAD)

After a long 12 years hiatus during which he only directed animated features (The Polar ExpressBeowulfA Christmas Carol) director Robert Zemeckis is finally back to live action film-making. I say finally because I must confess I have always had a bit of a soft spot for his films:  Back to the Future has of course been on the top of the list of my favourite films since 1985, I have also fond memories of a both Romancing the Stone and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I cry every time Tom Hanks looses his ball in Cast Away,  and despite its many flaws, I still think Contact is a marvel when it comes to camera moves… and then of course the multi-Oscar winner Forrest Gump, a film many people adore (and from which I’ll distant myself, because I seem to be the only one who has some serious issues with it). So basically, I came into this with a certain trepidation, having only seen the trailer once on the internet and thus expecting a slightly different film than the one I actually got.

Flight opens with a gritty, dirty, squalid and pretty-realistic sequence featuring our Denzel Washington definitely not looking at his best, surrounded by all sorts of alcoholic beverages and a naked lady wandering about a soulless hotel room near an airport. Once the first few lines of dialogue start, they include straight away some f**k and s**t . It’s as if Zemeckis is almost trying to prove right from the start to his audience that he’s really left the kids stuff and 3D animated wizardry of his last few years behind and this is a now a serious film for grown-ups.

After this new signature intro we move on to what this film is going to be remembered for and possibly one of the most harrowing, nail-biting flight-disaster sequence since… well, probably Zemeckis’ own Cast Away! I’m not saying that we haven’t seen this sort of things before, of course (Final destination, Alive, Fearless, just to mention a few) but the prolonged nature of this flight-disaster sequence makes it somehow even more powerful and harrowing than I was expecting. Whatever other issues I have with the rest of the film,  this is a first class sequence. Zemeckis has always known how to stage action set pieces and keep his audience glued to the screen and crank up the tension to almost palpable levels and in the end this sequence becomes certainly no less memorable than the one where a DeLorean is speeding through 88Mph to get to the clock tower in time for the lightning to strike (hope you’re with me with this parallel… and if you’re not, what on Earth are you doing on a site called MovieGeekBlog?!).

However very little after that, Flight slowly (in fact quite slowly as the film clocks at around 138 minutes) becomes something quite different and actually turns into a rather conventional film about a drinking addiction and predictably starts to go through all the motions and the classic steps of the genre: lots of drinking, denial, hitting rock-bottom, relapse and of course redemption (this last part incidentally is the one I have more problems with). Don’t take me wrong, there’s nothing here that it’s bad, but I do wonder if it hadn’t been for Denzel Washington’s exceptional performance whether this film would even be considered for the forthcoming award season. Indeed Washington hasn’t really been this good since his Oscar-winning performance in Training day  (In fact I would argue this is a much more difficult part to pull off).

John Gatins’ script is a mixed bag: on one hand it manages to craft a whole series of interesting and carefully calibrated moral ambiguities (this is really the winning part of the film: do you treat Denzel as a hero for saving many lives, even though he was drunk while doing so?). On the other hand, the film is also peppered with some shameless (even rather effective) melodrama. Unfortunately the story moves almost in fits, as it starts and stops and constantly loses its momentum as various characters come in and out sometimes quite randomly (including an interesting but very redundant sequence with an almost unrecognisable James Badge Dale playing a hospital patient dying of cancer). The film shifts even into parody and almost slapstick with the admittedly very funny John Goodman, but he’s only there for a couple of out-of-place sequences and once he’s gone the film goes back to its original pace.

Finally, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood all give the movie some great support power despite some of them being terribly underwritten (particularly so in the case of Kelly Reilly).

The soundtrack is made of a fairly restrained score by the director’s favourite Alan Silvestri and a whole series of older classic songs, something which worked perfectly on Forrest Gump. But while on that one it made perfect sense to have such a top-of-the-pop for the decades, here it felt to me just like an excuse to sell its soundtrack CDs and it’s all quite random.

Eventually, the climax feels a bit overblown and its resolution all too clean and feels quite inevitable. The film also has an extra coda (something to do with Denzel’s son) which I could have definitely done without, and where the old Zemeckis sentimentality from again Forrest Gump seems to resurface.

But it’s hard to dismiss this film altogether: it’s got the heart in the right place, it’s well made, perfectly acted and, for most of it, it’s well handled.

Ironically the film really seems to fly when with the crashing of the plane, but where it should actually be uplifting and soar, it can’t quite take off.

6.5

%d bloggers like this: