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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Argo (Release Date: 10-12-2012)

      Can we all just take a second and give Ben Affleck a hand? A Hollywood punchline as recently as a few years ago, the Daredevil has reinvented himself and his image from the ground up in a way that few tinseltown folks could possibly imagine. Did he give into drugs, or pursue some other absurd career path? No, he just starred in a few particularly stinky bombs right in a row (Gigli, Surviving Christmas), and was banished to acting purgatory. But unlike other down-on-their-luckers who've managed to scramble their way back to the top, Affleck didn't need constant press, or a singular, break-through performance to reclaim his mantle. He did it by switching sides of the camera, almost instantly becoming one of Americas most enticing filmmakers in the process.

        Argo is worlds removed from anything Affleck's ever touched in the past. Liberated from the moods and vibes of his hometown Boston (wherein all three movies over which Affleck has had considerable creative control have taken place), the film tells the story of six Americans hiding out in the Canadian embassy during the Iranian revolution. Without getting too into the politics of it (the movie hardly does, anyways), 1980 was a not-so-awesome time to be a U.S. citizen living in Iran, the lives of the stowaways libel to be taken any given day, and in graphic, public manners. Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), an exfiltration specialist working for the CIA who hatches a madcap scheme to set the entrapped half-dozen free: pretend to be a seven-man film crew scouting locations for a newly green-lit Sci-Fi pic named Argo.

        Yes, these based-on-a-true-story trappings are pretty incredible, ranging from almost too good to be true, to... well, too good to be true. Argo occasionally slips into unsettling pageantry, wherein the previously tall tale relies a bit heavily on standard thriller beats and becomes altogether unbelievable. But maybe that was the point. Besides telling its pot-boiler yarn outright, Argo is also a movie about movies, about the movie industry, and about the expectations and machinations of storytelling itself. There are rich layers of film history hidden not too far beneath the surface, many harkening back to the grainy, political paranoia films of the 1970's, but more still detailing the manner in which movies infiltrate and shape aspects of our realities. The film could be viewed as an essay of sorts on what exactly makes audiences tick, but if you want to simply take Argo at face value, you've still got one hell of a film.

        There is that itty bitty, teeny tiny problem in character development department, though. With the exception of a single particularly one-note performance, all of the hostages come off as a bit faceless, and while John Goodman and Alan Arkin have great fun skewering Hollywood in their supporting roles, they both serve as little more than accomplished comic relief. Most damning of all, Affleck is a touch bland in the lead, and while calling him, 'bad,' would be a gross overstatement, one could see a number of different leading men finding something more within the part. What none of those thespians could have done, however, is direct the living hell out of a flick like Affleck has done here.

        While Gone Baby Gone and The Town openly displayed that the guy was no chump when handed the reigns, Argo represents a sizable step forward. It's gorgeously shot, paced with absolute expertise, told in a way that deftly balances its many disparate elements, edited with zip and punch, and is able to turn the screws and make hands sweat whenever it damn-well pleases. The cracker-jack climactic sequence is so dynamically, brilliantly strung together that you stop faulting it from defying logic, and just give in. That's what movies are supposed to do; tell a story that makes us forget the world around us for a couple of hours, sucks us in, and holds us tightly with a white-knuckle grasp. Argo might not be perfect, but the parts that work positively sing. Consider this Affleck's graduation: From now on, everything that the actor-turned-director comes out with must be viewed as an event, not just a novelty. When Oscar comes calling, as he surely will, his golden approval for the man behind the camera on this one will be very well deserved.

Grade: B+

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