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

The Artist – Review

The Artist (2011) 

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Starring Jean DujardinBérénice BejoJohn GoodmanJames CromwellMalcolm McDowell

In a way “The Artits” is a real love letter to silent movies from the 20s and 30s and to cinema in general. Clearly French producer/director/writer/editor Michel Hazanavicius knows his background in silent films and he understand them well enough to be able to pull off not just something that it’s incredibly reverential to that time and that type of film-making but at the same time clever enough to be appreciated by a modern audience and critics alike.

Hazanavicius seems to have a real understanding of the visual medium and knows how to tell a simple and honest story without relying on cheap special effects or heavy exposition. This is a real return to basics. They say “they don’t make them like they used to anymore”. Well, in this case, it seems that somebody actually has just made it exactly like they used to.

There’s a naive sensibility throughout “The Artist” that’s both charming and slightly infectious and it’s hard not to fall for it.

There are moments of inspired genius at play too: the very first moment we realise that it is actually a silent film we are watching, and so we have to read the expression in the character’s face as opposed to listening to an applause from the audience in a cinema in order to understand the response to a film that’s just being screened. It is a slight shock at first, but it’s also very clever . There’s a wonderful dream sequence with that unexpected twist with a glass (You’ll know what I mean when you see it) and some genuinely sweet moments peppered throughout the film.

And of course all those movie references and in-jokes  everywhere that only a real movie geek can spot. Some of them are more obvious than others, starting from the main character’s name Valentin, which is obviously a reference to silent movie star Valentino and his actual look which clearly reminds us of  Fairbanks from the The Mark of Zorro (incidentally he is also shown watching extracts from it later in the film).

However while I understand and applause the film for its understanding and knowledge of the 20s and early 30s, for some reason I don’t quite feel the same way about all those other “references” from pretty much all sorts of decades. The story itself for example takes from both of Singing in the rain (about a silent movie star struggling with the advent of talkies) to the  and A star is Born (about a movie star in decline), but there are echoes to those classic noir films from the 40s, from Citizen Kane itself (I’m referring to the breakfast montage sequence  transported to the “Artist” to achieve the exact same effect) and classic from 50s from directors like  Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock. Not to mention all those typical stock characters seen hundred of times in other movies (even the dog itself is lifted from the Thin Man).

It does make me wonder… When is an idea considered “non original” and when it’s a clever reference or an in-joke?

If this is a film about the silent era and the time between the 20s and 30s, why is it then referencing so many other later films? What is the point of using the soundtrack from Vertigo (a film made in 1958!!) for one of the final scenes? (In fact there’s been a controversy about this particular issue about the soundtrack of Vertigo).

I have to be honest with you, event though I know I might be very unpopular (everybody seems to love this film and it’s most likely going to be the big winner at the Oscar next February), and it’s maybe because I am so familiar with all the movies that came before and that “the Artist” is “borrowing” from , but once the novelty wore off, I found that the actual story itself quite simplistic and slightly unoriginal. And most important, did it really deserve to be 1 hour and 40 minutes long?

It all works the way you expect it to work, each character is exactly like you imagine they will be, and the ending is exactly like the poster advertises it to be. In the end I couldn’t help feeling that the “mute thing” was all just a big gimmick. And if  we take that out the film, what are we left with? Actually very little indeed. A story we’ve seen a hundred times, predictable at best, with some slapstick humour not particularly funny (yes, amusing a couple of times, but not more than that), some cute moments (the many takes during the filming of the dance sequence being possibly the best), but not that moving or tragic and finally a dog doing the same pretending-to-be-dead joke 9 times (My friend Alec counted them, so I blame him if it’s not actually 9, but you get my point).

So while I admire its technique, its knowledge and those few clever and inspired moments, I couldn’t help feeling that there was not enough to fill a whole 100-minutes film (In fact if it wanted to pay a real tribute to the silent era of film-making it should have been a lot shorter like all those movies were).

Is this really the best film of the year? Does it really deserve to be the Oscar winner of 2012? Will it really sustain many repeated viewings like all those classics it’s constantly borrowing from. I guess only time will tell but I thought it actually had very little to tell.

6.5/10

You Don’t Know Jack – Review

You Don’t Know Jack (2010) 

Director: Barry Levinson Writer: Adam Mazer Stars: Al Pacino, Brenda Vaccaro and John Goodman, Susan Sarandon

This wasn’t an easy watch, I have to tell you. More than once during the long 134 minutes (according to imdb, or 164 according to my SkyBox) I thought of stopping the recording and quitting the film before the end.

I was an absolute wreck throughout and I must have lost the count of the times my eyes were so watery that I couldn’t even see the screen anymore. But in the end the film is so skillfully done, beautifully acted, well paced and gripping that I couldn’t turn it off.

It is one of the most powerful film I’ve seen in the last few years, one that touches a subject that still divides the world: euthanasia.

I am extremely happy I saw it, but I don’ t know if I could do it again.

Oscar winner Director Barry Levinson has obviously got an agenda and the film is by no means impartial, and yet it never feels heavy-handed and in fact by the end, there’s still a lot of room for discussion.

The music, for example, is used sparingly and whenever is there, it doesn’t feel overdone.

The deaths of the people in the euthanasia scenes are quite detailed and intense to an almost unbearable level, especially at the beginning of the film: But once you get the idea of how the whole process works, after about 30 minutes or so, the “assisted suicides” become less graphic and they begin to happen more and more off-camera, though respectfully they’re always signaled by  a caption with the full name of the person who’s just died.

That makes you always very aware you’re watching something real, something that has actually happened. Consequently it makes it even harder to watch. However the film is never exploitive.

Of course, if you really wanted to pick it apart, then you would probably argue that there isn’t enough time given to the opposite side of argument. Only a few sound-bites are given to the protesters and the prosecutors are very sketchy characters,who are only seen arguing their cases during the court cases; however mercifully they are not caricatures and we never laugh at them (which would have been terribly manipulative).

There are some lighter moments here and there and I did find myself laughing at the dark and surreal humor, but, on the whole, given the subject itself, this is pretty serious stuff and there’s not a lot to laugh about.

On paper this could have become the cheesy, typical TV-movie-of-the-week: and yet “You don’t know Jack”  has that Quality (with a caption Q) we’ve all become to expect from a HBO production over the years: the direction, the photography, the editing, the script and of course the acting!!

First and foremost Al Pacino, who truly gives one of the best performance of his life  and within the first few minutes completely disappears inside the role of  Jack Kevorkian.

He shows us the best of him and the worst. He wants to help, he’s compassionate, he’s got principles and he has guts, but he’s also an arrogant, sometimes vicious and not necessarily a nice man. He’s also a reclusive man who hardly shares his feelings with anyone (hence the great title “you don’t know Jack”).

The supporting cast is great too, from the ever-wonderful John Goodman, to Susan Sarandon.

In the end whether you agree with Kevorkian’s practices or not, it is hard not to be compelled by this movie. Whether you react positively or negatively to it will probably be tainted with personal views about assisted suicide rather than the film’s actual merits. But since this is still an ongoing dilemma, it’s great to see a film exploring the issue so well. It’s interesting that they choose to do it as a TV movie as opposed to for the big screen: it makes you think whether America is actually ready for the debate… (and don’t tell me, the manipulative, “Million Dollar baby” did it before).

9/10

%d bloggers like this: