Posts Tagged ‘John Goodman’

There’s a conversation that comes around every few years, concerning the long-term prospects of the big studio blockbuster and whether in fact it is a viable form of entertainment. (As most major studios base their business plans on the assumption they will have at least one blockbuster hit every year – this is why they are sometimes called ‘tentpole’ releases – this is far from an idle discussion.) The last time I recall it properly doing the rounds was in 2005, when Stealth (it is perfectly acceptable to have forgotten or never heard of this movie) lost $60 million, A Sound of Thunder (ditto) lost $70 million, and Sahara (ditto again) lost at least $100 million.

Astute readers may have noticed that all of the above movies were not very good, but the big studios seem to have trouble grasping the fact that the failure of a bad movie may simply be down to its badness; they are so frequently successful in pushing dross on audiences that these occasional moments of rebellion from cinemagoers must be quite confusing for them. Nevertheless, here we are again, with the latest Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers movies (relatively) underperforming and the latest version of The Mummy not exactly setting the box office on fire either. Deja vu beckons, as the people responsible cheerfully ignore the fact that some films have done exceedingly well this year (Wonder Woman for one; Fast and Furious 8 for another) and suggest the whole system is flawed, not their dud product.

Having said that, some films seem to be struggling for no apparent reason – for example, well-reviewed, mid-budget genre films like David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, which you might expect to be well-positioned to do okay. Perhaps it’s just not quite big or accessible enough to be a real summer movie nowadays. Comparisons have been made with Keanu Reeves’ ultra-stylish, ultra-ridiculous John Wick movies, not least because Leitch worked on those, too.

The movie is set in November 1989, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, although the movie takes great pains to point out this film has only the noddingest acquaintance with actual historical fact. As the communist grip on the city begins to falter, chaos begins to envelop the intelligence community there, and an MI6 plan to retrieve a highly important McGuffin goes bad, with the lead agent being killed by a Soviet assassin and the McGuffin being lost.

Not content to leave it at that, the top brass at British Intelligence send in Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), quite possibly the most preposterous MI6 agent in cinema history, and that includes Roger Moore in A View to a Kill. Broughton is packed off to Berlin to liaise with semi-rogue agent Perceval (James McAvoy) and recover the lost information – but quite apart from the competition from other agencies (the CIA, KGB, and French Intelligence are all on the scene), the situation is complicated by the suspicion that a double-agent may be involved and trying to prevent their identity from being revealed…

Or, to put it another way, Charlize Theron swanks her way around Berlin in a succession of chic thigh-flashing outfits for the best part of two hours, pausing only to beat the living daylights out of the local cops, occasionally drawl a profanity, disrupt a revival of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and engage in some eye-catchingly hot girl-on-girl action. Hrrmm.

Theron does kind of have form as an action movie heroine, especially following her recent successes in the last Mad Max and Fast and Furious 8, but I have to say the movie that leapt to mind was Karyn Kusama’s AEon Flux, the main virtue of which was its sheer oddness. Atomic Blonde is a slightly more conventional proposition, in that it doesn’t feature killer topiary or people with an extra pair of hands in an unexpected place, but it’s still very much a vehicle for Theron (not surprisingly, given she produced it). Not that there isn’t a strong supporting cast – John Goodman plays a senior CIA dude, Eddie Marsan a Stasi officer looking to defect, and Sofia Boutella is Theron’s love interest (appearing without prosthetic makeup or limbs, for once).

As a thriller it is only marginally successful, I would say, as the plot becomes quite startlingly and bafflingly convoluted in fairly short order, the fact that most of it is told in flashback not really helping much. But you could certainly argue that the plot is the most dispensable part of Atomic Blonde, which trades heavily on its ass-kicking supermodel aesthetic, stylish direction, and retro vibe.

(To be honest, for a film supposedly set in 1989, most of the well-known songs on the soundtrack hail from rather earlier, and the film has a touch of punk rock attitude which is arguably more 1970s than 80s. You could also argue that the movie overdoes it when it comes to establishing its historical credentials: at one point a breakdancer is savagely beaten with a skateboard, while in the background ’99 Red Balloons’ is played on a ghetto blaster. All right, all right! It’s the 1980s! We get the idea!)

On the other hand, it does work rather well as a ridiculous, very stylish action movie, provided you’re happy to buy the conceit of a leggy supermodel repeatedly beating up gangs of big strong men without her hair getting overly mussed by her exertions. The movie is crunchingly violent, I should say, and even though Theron generally emerges victorious, I found some of the male-on-female violence a bit uncomfortable to watch. On the other hand, there are some highly impressive sequences, the highlight being one which incorporates two separate fist fights, a gun battle, and a car chase, all in (apparently) a single travelling shot. I’m practically certain they cheated, but it’s still a bravura piece of film-making.

Yet I have to say that for all the film’s supposed aspirations towards feminine empowerment, I couldn’t help but detect a slightly leery whiff about it, because Theron is depicted in a way that almost certainly wouldn’t be the case if she were, you know, a male action hero. There is copious nudity from the lead of a kind you will look for in vain in your typical Jason Statham or Tom Cruise (or even Roger Moore) film, and there’s also the girl-on-girl stuff, which feels just a bit salacious. Can you imagine a Hollywood studio releasing a mainstream action movie with a gay protagonist? Me neither, but a bit of lipstick lesbianism is a different prospect, of course.

In the end I had a pretty good time watching Atomic Blonde. I couldn’t really find it in me to take it seriously at all, but then that’s hardly the point, is it? The plot may be a blithering tangle, but it’s plenty stylish and the fisticuffs, gunfights, and car chases all pass muster with the greatest of ease. I’m not sure this is the stuff of which successful franchises are spun, but as a one-off piece of slightly disposable entertainment, it does the trick rather nicely.


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Well, with the Oscars out the way, the decks are clear for an onslaught of releases which a few years ago would have been cheerful, unpretentious genre movies. These days, of course, everyone wants a slice of the megafranchise action that Marvel Studios has been concocting over the last few years, regardless of whether or not their material really fits the bill: out in a couple of months is a DC comics movie that for once looks like it won’t be actively painful to watch, while we are also promised the actual real first episode of Universal’s, er, Universal Monsters franchise (Dracula Untold has apparently been stricken from the record), while first off the blocks, representing Legendary Pictures’ rather similarly-titled MonsterVerse (put those lawyers on standby!), is Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

The year is 1973, and the Vietnam War is coming to its messy conclusion. ‘Things are never going to be this messed up in Washington again,’ declares Bill Randa (John Goodman), which at the very least is a felicitously knowing first line for a movie these days. Randa is high-up inside a secret agency named Monarch, whose mission statement is to hunt down Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (or giant monsters to you and I). However, Godzilla’s visit to San Francisco is still forty years off, and to pass the time until then Randa gets himself and his team onto a US government mission to a newly-discovered island in the Pacific, surrounded by a perpetual storm system and – perhaps – containing a bizarre ecosystem the likes of which no-one has even suspected before.

Providing a military escort for the explorers is the possibly-unstable Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, while also along for the ride are photojournalist Mason (Brie Larson) and ex-SAS guide James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Randa’s list of things to do on their visit to Skull Island, when they finally get there, starts with ‘drop bombs everywhere’ (the wafer-thin pretext is that this is to assist with a geological survey), which annoys at least one of the island’s inhabitants: one of the chopper pilots barely has time to say ‘Is that a monkey?’ before the squadron is involved in a pitched battle with…

Well, come on guys, the movie is called ‘Kong’, who do you think it is? It’s a bit of a divergence from standard monster movie grammar to wheel on the big beast in the first act, but the movie pulls it off, I would say. In the aftermath of the battle, the survivors regroup and start to think about getting home alive. But, naturally, it’s not going to be that easy, and many discoveries await: lurking on the island are all sorts of monsters, which seem intent on eating our heroes, and also John C Reilly as a stranded Second World War airman, who seems intent on eating all the scenery.

You could be forgiven for turning up to Kong: Skull Island with a degree of trepidation, for quite good reasons – 84 years on from the original movie, King Kong remains a movie icon like few others, but he’s an icon with a singularly poor track-record when it comes to appearances in subsequent movies – if films like King Kong Lives and King Kong Escapes have any value at all, it’s simply as glorious trash. You could also argue that to do a remake of King Kong which completely omits the tall building-related section of the story, and takes place entirely on the island, is also a rather bizarre choice.

However – and I can hardly believe I’m typing this – Skull Island is actually a really fun fantasy adventure film, with a lot going for it. The problem other King Kong projects have tended to encounter is one of tone – they either end up as silly, campy nonsense (the Toho and De Laurentiis projects, for example), or take themselves absurdly seriously (my main problem with Peter Jackson’s take on the great ape). Skull Island gets the tone just about right: it knows when to play things straight, and when to relax and have a little bit of fun with the audience.

There seems to me to be no pressing reason as to why this movie is set in 1973 (there’s some dialogue about how Kong is young and ‘still growing’, presumably to prepare us for a rather bigger present-day ape in a subsequent movie) – there are no overt references to the 1970s King Kong remake, anyway. It mainly seems that the film-makers thought it would be a cool wheeze to make, essentially, a Vietnam war movie that includes a load of giant monsters of different kinds. All the iconography of guys with assault rifles wading through swamps, and helicopters skimming low over the jungle canopy is here, and while it is just dressing-up with no thematic depth, it definitely gives the film its own identity (the classic rock soundtrack is also a definite bonus).

Kong himself (mo-capped by Terry Notary) is rather impressive, both terrifying and sympathetic at different times, as the story requires, and it seems to me the makers of this movie know their stuff when it comes to both this character and the whole giant monster genre – there’s a scene which seems to me to be a call-back to Kong’s love of calamari (first established in King Kong Vs Godzilla), and another which may be either a reference to a deleted scene from the original Kong, or an unexpected appearance by a new version of the Toho monster Kumonga (the fact that Kumonga is not one of the characters for whom Toho receives an on-screen credit – oh, yes, readers, there are big-name Toho monsters in this movie (sort of) – suggests the former). All in all, it’s an engaging new take on the character.

Even the stuff in this movie which is not especially brilliant doesn’t particularly detract from it as a piece of entertainment – Tom Hiddleston has an air of slightly detached bemusement throughout, as though he signed on for the movie without bothering to read the script, and I found this rather funny rather than annoying. I have to say that most of the actors are content to do big character turns rather than anything too subtle and nuanced, but again this is exactly what the piece requires.

If I’ve been at all excited by the prospect of Legendary’s planned monster franchise, then it’s really been more in hope than expectation – but Kong: Skull Island gets so much right that I’m actually really looking forward to future films in this series, provided they handle the tone and subject matter as deftly as this one. It’s certainly a much more nimble and straightforwardly entertaining movie than Gareth Evans’ Godzilla, to which it is technically a prequel. In fact, in terms of technical accomplishment, dramatic success, and ability to channel the spirit of the original film, I would say this movie gets closer to the original King Kong than any other featuring the character. An unashamedly big, crazy, fun monster movie, and a very pleasant surprise.


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As I have occasionally observed in the past, it can be difficult to attract publicity to a new film production – crowded marketplace, short attention span, audience fatigue, and so on – especially if your project doesn’t immediately connect with an established interest group and doesn’t feature big-name stars. There are various ways round this, especially if your film has a decent gimmick or some interesting quirk involved in its production. The people at J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company seem to have hit on a particularly interesting and clever way of advertising their film, which is to keep the fact that they were making a film at all completely secret. Keeping up a steady drip-drip-drip of information about a project is pretty much standard procedure these days, especially for a genre sequel, so when the release of a trailer for Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane was actually the first sign of its existence as far as most people were concerned, there was a bit of a kerfuffle.


Does the film live up to the non-hype? Well. Mary Elizabeth Winsome, who I would venture to suggest is not on the big screen enough, plays Michelle, who as the film starts is making a hurried departure from her home, as an orchestra gets all ominous in the background. Shortly afterwards her car is involved in an accident, and she wakes up in a cellar, chained to the wall.

It turns out she is in the personal underground bunker of Howard (John Goodman), an ex-military survivalist. Howard informs her that the USA has come under attack from unknown forces and that the air outside is contaminated and deadly. She will have to stay in the bunker with him for a year or two until things clear up, and until then, there are to be no attempts to escape or contact the outside world – this applies both to her and the third inhabitant of their little world, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr). Michelle takes this news about as well as could be expected, in the circumstances, and it’s only a short while before she finds herself wondering – if Howard is telling the truth and Very Bad Things are happening up top, why can she still occasionally hear the sound of cars going by…?

In terms of attracting interest to a very low budget genre movie, the no-publicity publicity approach is quite a novel idea. Less original is the way this film has been widely linked with the 2008 film Cloverfield, Matt Reeves’ curious found-footage kaiju movie. There are no character or plot elements in common between the two films; it’s very, very late in proceedings before the significance (such as it is) of the title becomes apparent, and to be honest it’s an extremely tenuous connection. Claiming that Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane constitute a series is a bit like doing the same for Wolf and The Wolf of Wall Street, or Moon and Moonraker.

However, all this just seems to be a tactic to get people into theatres to watch the movie, and I’m inclined to grant them some latitude because the movie is mostly rather good. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is always watchable, and to be honest it’s great to see John Goodman in a proper leading role that doesn’t require him to play a film producer of some kind. Goodman gets the best role, of course, and really shows his considerable abilities as a straight actor – Howard is a memorable combination of looming menace and slightly prissy control-freak, and Goodman keeps you guessing almost to the end – is Howard mad or not? And, not quite the same thing – is he telling the truth or not?

It’s practically become a trope of a particular kind of fem jeop story that, when an attractive young woman ends up down a bomb shelter with a man, who then tells her that the world has ended and they’ll have to stay there together for years, it’s a virtual certainty that his motives are not entirely pure and he may not be telling her the whole truth. The writers of 10 Cloverfield Lane seem to be fully aware of this and cheerfully play with audience expectations. Naturally, fake-critic etiquette prevents me from saying too much about what their game actually is, but this is a film with a clever script, solidly structured, which does a good job of telling you in advance some of what’s going to happen without you actually noticing it.

However, in the end the film-makers have to show you their cards, and it’s only near the very end of the film that it sort of stumbles. Once again, I wouldn’t dream of talking about the ending in too much detail, but there’s a definite change of gear and approach, and not necessarily for the better. On the other hand, I’m not sure what I would have done differently to conclude the film. As it is, the ending is by far the weakest part of the film, not least because it feels especially generic and derivative and not really of a piece with the rest – for this kind of twist to work it has to be a surprise, but not so big a surprise that it feels ridiculous. This may be a case of trying to square the circle.

Still, this isn’t the first modest little genre movie to stumble in the closing stages as a result of its own ambitions, and the rest of 10 Cloverfield Lane is good enough to make it well worth watching: there are strong performances from the cast, and it’s actually quite refreshing to watch a genre film that derives tension and drama simply from people sitting in a room together, without feeling the need to constantly spray CGI all over the screen. A flawed film, certainly, but still one with a lot to commend it.


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Most people, I think, would agree that it is something of a social no-no to talk about yourself too much. In the film industry, of course, the rules are often different to those of everyday life and in recent years we have seen something of a mini-boom in high-profile productions wherein Hollywood talks about itself in great detail and at considerable length. Sometimes these films are ultimately fictions, but on other occasions we are treated to a re-telling of stuff which is actually supposed to have happened – in short, we are back in ‘based on a true story’ territory again. This week’s essay in non-fictitious fiction is Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach (perhaps best known for the Austin Powers movies).


Dalton Trumbo is one of those names which is so distinctive that many people are aware of it without knowing much about the person it was attached to. The film does its best to dispel this ignorance: Trumbo was a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1940s, fond of the good life and lengthy baths, and (it would seem) especially fond of the sound of his own voice. He was also quite fond of social justice and left-wing politics, to the point where he refused to cross the picket lines of strikers.

The film opens with the HUAC commission coming to prominence and the activities and beliefs of Trumbo (here played by Bryan Cranston) and a group of other left-leaning writers coming under increasingly intense and hostile scrutiny. The crusade against them is marshalled by shrill gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), with various other right-wing movie stars weighing in too. Eventually Trumbo and the others are summoned to appear before Congress, where they will be expected to answer questions about their political beliefs and those of others they know.

Trumbo, of course, decides this is unjust and unconstitutional and ends up losing his job and being sent to jail for a year for his refusal to cooperate. With Communists officially barred from doing any work in the movie industry, things look bleak for our man – but enough cleverness and determination can take a man a long way. But is his family – especially his wife (Diane Lane) – strong enough to bear the weight of his principles?

You kind of wonder just who Trumbo has been made for, given the setting and topic don’t exactly seem calculated to appeal to people who couldn’t get a ticket for Deadpool. Roach and the screenwriters may have been hoping to bring a too-little-known tale to wider prominence, especially with the casting of the guy from the thing about the teacher, but I still think this film is mainly going to be seen by reasonably mature, well-informed people who are already broadly familiar with the subject matter. If this is the case, then Trumbo makes some serious missteps, because it is much too simplistic about many of the issues and personalities involved. Very early on, Trumbo’s young daughter asks him to explain what a Communist is, and the expalantion he gives – basically, ‘Communists are people who believe in sharing’ – is cringeworthy. My own politics are firmly left of centre, but I still think there are a few more shades to the political spectrum than that.

In a similar vein, the two sides in the struggle at the heart of the film are drawn in an equally uncompromising way. Trumbo and his fellow blacklistees are likable, witty, decent people, and Kirk Douglas is a brave, decent guy, while Hedda Hopper is virtually a Nazi and John Wayne is a bullying hypocrite. Edward G Robinson in particular is presented in a fairly unflattering light – basically, he caves in and names names before the HUAC commission, which is a particular problem given that historically he did no such thing.

So as a political drama, Trumbo is rather awkward and clumsy – just about the only time the film does anything dramatically surprising is when Trumbo meets an apparently-illiterate black inmate in prison, and the film totally undercuts the audience’s expectations of what happens next. However, as a piece of entertainment, it still has a lot to offer, because the middle section is stuffed with very funny scenes. Post prison, the only people Trumbo can get work from are Poverty Row Z-movie producers the King brothers (John Goodman has an unreasonable amount of fun as the senior brother) and he basically sets up a script farm where blacklisted Oscar-nominated writers knock out scripts about womens’ prisons and bug-eyed alien monsters. (Shades of The Front.) Having once had delusions of writing ability myself, I enjoyed the scenes of Trumbo simply being a brilliant writer under very trying conditions to be enormously enjoyable.

In the end, though, rehabilitation comes in the form of gigs writing big movies for Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. (Trumbo seems convinced that Spartacus is some kind of all-time classic of the cinema, which strikes me as pushing it a bit – I mean, it’s two hours of brilliant entertainment, but spread across a 197-minute movie.) The nature of this kind of film means that it’s about very famous people who don’t really look like they should – so you’ve got a John Wayne who doesn’t really look like John Wayne, a Kirk Douglas who doesn’t quite look like Kirk Douglas, and so on. Once you get past trying to work out who’s supposed to be who, it’s all good fun, though. (The film cuts a few corners by intercutting actual scenes from Spartacus, with the real Douglas, with reconstructions featuring Dean O’Gorman, who plays Trumbo‘s version of him.)

What stops Trumbo from becoming either a well-meaning but bungled attempt at a serious drama or just another piece of behind-the-scenes-in-classic-Hollywood fun is the central performance of Cranston, which gives the movie serious heft and gravitas. It’s a fairly big and actorly performance, but one gets the impression that Trumbo was that kind of character anyway. Rather commendably, the film makes it clear that while Trumbo was indeed a man of deep conviction and personal integrity, he could also be a monumental pain in the neck and almost impossible to live with – and Cranston puts all of these things across impeccably.

Which, I suppose, must lead us to the regular ‘what are the chances of gongs?’ slot all of these films trawling for Oscars receive. Quite understandably, only Cranston is up for the big awards, something which I suspect would ordinarily hurt his chances. Then again, I suspect quite a lot of people would like to see him get some recognition for a steady career, even if his most notable role by far has been that thing on TV with the teacher. And, as previously noted, Hollywood does love stories about itself, especially ones with the right kind of virtue-triumphs ending. So I would say Cranston is in with a decent chance. Win or not, he is the most impressive thing in a film which obviously means well but doesn’t quite have the brains or the subtlety to be totally successful.

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I like George Clooney. I’ve enjoyed his screen performances ever since the first movie I saw him in, which was From Dusk Till Dawn, far too many years ago for me to comfortably contemplate. I even didn’t think he was too bad as Batman, though the film in question is another matter. I have come to admire him all the more following his reinvention of himself as a progressively-inclined hyphenate, making a series of impressively entertaining and intelligent films like The Ides of March, Good Night and Good Luck, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I will give a sympathetic hearing to anything he cares to promote in my direction.


And the trailer for his latest project, The Monuments Men, makes a good, stirring pitch, for what looks like it’s going to be a rousing, old-fashioned movie with the best of ideals at its heart. In addition to writing, producing, and directing the film, Clooney plays Frank Stokes, a senior art historian who makes a heartfelt pitch to the US government: the year is 1943, and the outcome of the Second World War is no longer in doubt. However, the months ahead will see the majority of Europe’s greatest cultural treasures placed in desperate peril as the war rages around them – to say nothing of the standard Nazi procedure of stripping any significant cultural items from any territory they occupy.

Bearing this in mind, Clooney and his sidekick Matt Damon lead a crack team of character actors (Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin) into the war zone with a view to either protecting said cultural treasures or retrieving them from the hands of the Third Reich…

The full-blown war movie has gone a little out of fashion these days, and The Monuments Men is by no means what you’d call an action adventure. Instead, it is more of a comedy-drama, albeit one motivated by the noblest of concerns – in interviews, Clooney himself has said it originated out of his own desire to make a film which was not, on some level, a cynical one.

As I said, I like Clooney, and I’m all for idealism, and if the film is arguing for the vital importance of culture as part of the bedrock of civilisation, then I’m absolutely with it all the way – but while The Monuments Men has some moments of real quality, on the whole the film is a bit of a disappointment when compared to some of Clooney’s previous work. The trailer is great at pitching the central premise of the film – a sort of high-minded amalgam of The Dirty Dozen, Dad’s Army, and (possibly stretching a point) The Da Vinci Code – but the movie itself is less successful at turning the premise into a satisfying narrative.

For one thing, I get the impression that this movie is rather less of an epic than Clooney would have liked it to be, clocking in at a smidge under two hours, and the main consequence of this is that the whole putting-the-crew-together element of the story is raced through in the course of the opening credits. As a result, the early scenes of banter and camaraderie take place between a bunch of people we don’t actually know that well, and the effect is rather like going off on an adventure with a bunch of complete strangers. In this kind of film the first act is everything, and the film never quite recovers from this bumpy start.

The movie also struggles to accommodate the sheer scope of the story it’s trying to tell – as the characters admit at several points, the numbers involved are mind-boggling, and the story ranges across practically the entirety of western and central Europe. Forging a coherent narrative out of all this proves extremely difficult. In the end the film opts to focus on the hunt to rescue a few particularly significant pieces of art, with some other episodes woven into the story, but the final effect is still that of a film which is a collection of disparate bits and pieces. Some of these are effectively funny, or moving, or tense, but they don’t quite cohere into a really great film.

Perhaps it’s just that the ideas which The Monuments Men is trying to explore are too big and abstract to lend themselves to a film of this kind. Certainly the movie itself seems unable to quite decide on what its central message is – ‘Watch yourselves! No piece of art is worth your life!’ Clooney warns his team as they disembark in Normandy, but by the end of the film he’s stating the exact opposite to justify some of the sacrifices made in the course of the story. Hmmm. Inevitably, when dealing with the issue of cultural obliteration during the Second World War, the spectre of the Holocaust is raised at several points in the course of the film, but it never quite comes up with a way of really engaging with this beyond an uncomfortable, reverent silence.

Still, the performances are good and it’s well mounted, and it’s not what you’d actually call a bad film – it just really struggles to convert its good intentions and big ideas into the meat and drink of narrative film-making. I won’t deny it was a bit of a disappointment to me, but I still wouldn’t describe it as a bad film – average, more than anything else. One of Clooney’s minor works, I suspect, but still laudable on many levels.

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If, like me, you’ve been thinking that the quality of new movies under review here lately has been noticeably higher than this time last year, then an answer of sorts may be at hand: looking back, I see it’s over a month since my last visit to either the sweetshop or the coffeeshop. Clearly, partaking of the more refined fare on offer at the arthouse is its own reward. That said, the Phoenix has made a big commitment to showing Skyfall (with considerable financial success, I suspect) and as a result the kind of intelligent, grown-up movies it usually specialises in have been a bit squeezed out.

Is this why the major chains were able to lure me back with Argo? I don’t know, but this is certainly a bright and mature movie, as one would expect from George Clooney, who produced it. Directing it is… I’m sorry, there seems to be a mistake here. It says ‘Ben Affleck’. Not the Ben Affleck, the guy out of Armageddon, Daredevil and Paycheck, obviously, the one who I last caught in the utterly baffling Jersey Girl. Must be some other Ben Affleck – funny, I thought there were rules against that kind of thing. Hey ho.

The movie opens with a deftly-told slice of political history, recounting the west’s installation of the Shah of Iran, his abuse of his position and the Islamic revolution which forced him to take refuge in the USA. From here we go into a very well-mounted and plausibly nervy sequence with the US embassy in Tehran under siege by revolutionary elements demanding the Shah’s repatriation for trial. The walls are scaled, the embassy is stormed, and the entire American staff is taken hostage.

…well, not quite. Six of them sneak out just before the embassy is taken and find a haven of their own in the residence of the Canadian ambassador. If they’re caught there, it will be a diplomatic incident; if they’re caught trying to flee the country, they’ll be executed. It is a tricky situation for the State Department and the CIA, whose responsibility dealing with this sort of crisis it nominally remains.

Coming to their rescue is hangdog CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by Ben… ah, I see what’s happened, they’ve got the name of the lead actor mixed up with that of the director. I wonder who it really was. Anyway, Mendez comes up with a startling plan to ensure the escape of the six fugitives, involving fake IDs, adverts in the Hollywood trade press, real-life make-up legend John Chambers (played here by John Goodman) and a chance encounter with a TV showing of Battle for the Planet of the Apes (which, if it genuinely happened, may actually justify the existence of that movie)…

Oh all right, everyone insists that Ben Affleck didn’t just star in this movie, he directed and co-produced it too – so I suppose I have to accept this is true. I don’t know what ol’ Ben’s been up to in the last eight years but he should certainly keep at it, as this is a rock-solid movie that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Having said that, I went into it knowing relatively little about the substance of the story, so I was pleasantly surprised by much of the incidental detail and the accompanying Hollywood in-jokes. Anyone more familiar with the story, or with less of a fondness for late 70s SF cinema, may find it much less of an unexpected delight.

The details of the plan are, as many of the characters admit, slightly absurd, and the movie runs with this, becoming a very deadpan black comedy for much of its first half – ‘this is the best bad idea we’ve got,’ a senior CIA man earnestly tells his superiors – with jolly turns from Goodman and Alan Arkin as a veteran movie producer who gets drafted into the scheme. (The real-life involvement, albeit tangential, of distinguished SF writer Roger Zelazny has not made it into the script.) This is engaging and very funny, but the film never quite loses sight of the seriousness of its story – a comic scene involving numerous characters in nudge-nudge SF-style costumes is effectively intercut with similar, much graver events in Iran itself.

Once Mendez jets off to the Middle East the film becomes a rather more straightforward and serious thriller: will the scheme be rumbled? Will the six fugitives be identified from reconstituted embassy records before they can escape? (I must confess that the scenes of shredding being reassembled brought back fond memories of a highlight of my own career in government service: what can I say, this film seems designed to make me biased in its favour.) 1980s Tehran is well-mounted and the movie is never less than involving.

Of course, this is a dramatisation of real events, not a documentary, and so one has to take some of what’s presented with a pinch of salt. There were a couple of moments during the film when I thought ‘this is straight out of the Hollywood scriptwriting playbook, I’ll bet it didn’t actually happen like that’ – and, generally, I was right! I’m not sure if making your improvements on history so blatantly obvious justifies them or not. Hmm. Some of the background detail has been less-obviously tweaked, in a way that presents some countries in a less than flattering light – Affleck himself has owned up to feeling bad about this. I suppose the facts are out there for anyone who’s really interested in the history, and this is just a movie, after all.

It’s a consistently clever and well-made movie, though, with some extremely effective sequences in it. Ben Affleck is not what you’d call an ostentatious director, but he gets the job done with skill and fluency. As an actor… oh, the temptation to dust off all those old jokes is almost irresistible. Ben is not terribly demonstrative, shall we say, but he has undeniable charisma and his performance makes sense given he’s playing a professional keeper of secrets – it’s not the most introspective part, either. Certainly there is no shame to be attached to Affleck’s contribution to this movie, in any department.

Y’know, even back when I was laying into Ben Affleck every time he turned up in a duff new movie, it was really done much more in sorrow than in anger, because I always liked the guy and could see he had in it him to do so much better. So to have him reappear in a movie as good and enjoyable as Argo has been one of the year’s great pleasures. Nice to have you back, Ben! Keep it up…

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