At this point, with 3 first-rate films to his name, it’s time to stop remarking on how surprising it is that Ben Affleck is a major American filmmaker and just accept that he is one. His latest, Argo, is his best yet, one that has a broader palette of tones and a larger sense of scale than his previous work.
Argo brings truth to the cliche of “stranger than fiction.” In early 1980, a CIA agent named Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) really did rescue 6 Americans from Iran, after they fled the US Embassy before they could be trapped like the other hostages, and found refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence. And he did get them out by establishing them, with the help, among others, of Oscar-winning Planet of the Apes make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), as members of a Canadian movie crew scouting locations for an intergalactic science-fiction epic to be called “Argo.” Even if the details have been goosed up just a bit to provide for some third-act thrills, it’s an amazing story, and Affleck does it justice.
Like a lot of actors turned director (Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, Rob Reiner), Affleck has a straightforward, unadorned style. Argo, written by Chris Terrio, wastes no time, lucidly and intelligently letting the story speak for itself. The tale allows for a certain amount of self-mocking Hollywood humor, as Mendez enlists Chambers and (fictionalized) producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to set up the CIA’s fake production company, and its fake outer space adventure. Goodman and Arkin eat roles like this for breakfast, and Affleck lets them get their big laughs (Arkin is a riot negotiating for the “Argo” script with an agent, and when asked to explain the movie’s plot at a press conference), but he doesn’t linger over them–he’s got other work to do.. The last section of the story is a riveting thriller, taking us step by step through the Americans’ escape route, and even though its narrow escapes are conventional, they’re expertly done.
Affleck has been great with actors from the start, and he has an ensemble full of performers who can deliver: Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss, Philip Baker Hall as his boss, Kyle Chandler as the White House Chief of Staff, Victor Garber as the Canadian Ambassador, and Tate Donovan and Clea DuVal among the escapees. The 1980 atmosphere is faithfully but not fetishistically recreated by production designer Sharon Seymour and costume designer Jacqueline West, and the cinematography is by Rodrigo Prieto. The taut editing, which smoothly glides between Hollywood comedy and Iranian suspense, is by William Goldenberg.
Argo is the movie a lot of people have been waiting for this year, a smart, professional Hollywood product that isn’t about super-heroes or 3D spectacle. There’s an excellent chance it’ll be part of the Oscar race, and while it’s not an inspired piece of work, it’s a satisfying entertainment from a director Hollywood has increasingly found that it can count on.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona has done a spectacular job of re-creating the 2004 Asian tsunami in The Impossible, which will be arriving in theatres in late December, just as awards season is reaching its peak. Staged mostly in studio tanks with added CG imagery, the 10-minute long sequence puts Clint Eastwood’s version of the disaster in Hereafter far in the shade, creating an utterly believable illusion of what it was like to actually experience the tidal wave.
The disaster affected millions, of course, but The Impossible keeps its focus very tight, almost entirely on one particular family of British tourists. (Actually the film’s characters are based on a Spanish family’s true story, and in any case give rise to the age-old issue of Hollywood taking a story about a storm that mostly decimated Asians and placing Europeans at its center–but as Bayona candidly admitted in his Toronto Q&A, it’s a lot easier to get $50M in financing for a movie that stars westerners.) The Bennets–mother Maria (Naomi Watts), father Henry (Ewan McGregor), and sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin)–have recently arrived at a Thai beach resort for Christmas holiday, when on December 26, the storm causes horrific devastation. Maria and Lucas are separated from Henry, Simon and Thomas, and for most of the movie’s opening half, we follow the first pair.
These sequences, of the tsunami itself and mother and son attempting to survive, are the core of the movie, and contain remarkable imagery (the cinemtography is by Oscar Faura, who also shot Barona’s The Orphanage, and the spectacular production design is by Eugenio Cabellero) and extraordinary, completely convincing performances by Watts and Holland. When Maria is injured and taken to a hospital overflowing with the injured, and Lucas has to keep watch on his mother while attempting to reunite relatives who are at opposite ends of the huge place, teeming with suffering, the sequence is overwhelming.
The Impossible can’t really top that section of its story, and when it stops an hour in to go back and show us what’s happened to Henry, Simon and Thomas, it loses some momentum. The latter half of the movie is concerned with the convolutions through which the family is reunited, and although based on a true story, it has the feel of a nightmare version of the kind of tale every family has about not finding each other in a mall because everyone was walking into the wrong store at the wrong time. An earlier scene in which a minor character is reunited with his father has more impact than the movie’s climax, which makes it feel out of kilter. Sergio Sanchez’s script is far better when it concentrates on real-life details than when it indulges in occasional philosophizing, as when Geraldine Chaplin pops up for a single scene to tell the boys about the stars above them.
In his Q&A, Bayona said it was deliberate choice to tell a story about a family saved and reunited strictly because of luck, without any particular heroism on its part, in order to make clear that they were no better than all those who died, and while that makes thematic sense, it deprives the story of Hollywood-type high points. Yet despite some resulting dramatic thinness, there’s no denying the raw power and artistry of the film’s depiction of the disaster itself and the journey of mother and son. Watts will surely be in the Oscar conversation for her performance, and Holland deserves to be too. Along with the photography and production design, the film’s superb sound design should also be noted. The film provides both the vicarious experience of a titanic event and well-earned tears, and that’s a combination not to be underrated at Oscar time.
Joe Wright was introduced to the world with his film of Pride & Prejudice, and it seems like he’s been trying to escape the pigeonhole of staid Literary Classics director ever since. His Atonement, while based on another celebrated novel, included for no essential reason a show-off single-shot set-piece that ran for minutes on end and included an army, among other things. He went on to the supposedly grittier The Soloist and the graphic-novel inspired Hanna. With Anna Karenina, he’s again in the “best-loved classics” section of the book store, but this time he’s tried to have his high-concept cinematic cake and eat it too.
The result is an Anna that feels very much like a theatre piece, and not just because Wright’s concept was to stage most of the action literally in a theatre, with painted sets and the environs of the space clearly visible. It’s also that this resembles one of those stage productions that come regularly from ambitious directors determined to put their own stamp on a classic work, like an Othello set in the Deep South or a Three Sisters set in the future.
In this case, the “theatre” concept, realized by screenwriter Tom Stoppard, emphasizes the artificiality of the social conventions that envelop Anna and the other characters, a world in which a gasp or even a glance can scandalize the entire nobility. Anna (Keira Knightley) does more than that, of course, entering into an affair with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) that destroys her life with husband Karenin (Jude Law). This version of the novel also gives plenty of screen time to the relationship between Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander), in which issues of trust and Vronsky also figure.
The approach is effective as far as it goes, and it’s gorgeously realized by Wright’s usual design team, including cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and production designer Sarah Greenwood. (The faux-classical score by Dario Marionelli is also lovely.). If anything, the cast is an embarrassment of riches, with people like Kelly McDonald, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams, Michelle Dockery and Shirley Henderson making brief appearances. The emphasis on artifice, though, has the effect of distancing one from the main story and characters. We observe Anna’s tragedy rather than feeling it, and Knightley seems oddly not the focus of the film. The romance isn’t helped by the fact that while Law is excellent, Taylor-Johnson is a bland, unengaging Vronsky.
This Anna is worth seeing, lush, accomplished and intelligent, but not in the end the thrilling illumination of the text that it’s so clearly striving to be.
One of the things that happens at film festivals is that as you see many films in back-to-back proximity, mini-trends start to emerge, at least in the mind, and pictures that were made entirely separately, and which may well end up released months apart from each other, seem to be in direct competition. So it is with today’s double feature of comedies tinged with drama about single women in New York struggling to find their place in the world, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, from a script he co-wrote with star Greta Gerwig, and Imogene, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini from a script by Michelle Morgan. (Oddly enough, actress Mickey Sumner has a small role in Imogene and a major one in Frances Ha.)
Of the two, Frances Ha is clearly the more substantial, a delightful surprise from Baunbach after his coldly cutting Margot At the Wedding and the grump-fest Greenberg. The best thing in the latter movie was Gerwig as the aimless young woman who helps Greenberg spark to some form of life, and although Gerwig is playing a different character here, Frances is not dissimilar from her Greenberg counterpart. A dancer whose clock on a potential professional career is ticking, Frances is amiably without direction. The strongest relationship in her life with with best friend Sophie (Sumner), but Sophie is beginning to grow up faster than Frances, and Frances is hurt and–if she’ll just admit it to herself–worried to be left behind.
Frances Ha has already been and will continue to be compared to Lena Dunham’s Girls (much to Baunbach’s disdain, as an unwary questioner found out who raised the subject at tonight’s Q&A), because it’s about women in their 20s in semi-bohemian Brooklyn, but Frances is considerably less perverse and, frankly, less extraordinary. Yet it’s a charming piece of work, one that combines the loose-limbed feel of mumblecore (where Gerwig got her start) with tightly-scripted dialogue and a more elaborate, far-reaching structure than you’d initially expect. The superb technical credits include beautiful black & white photography by Sam Levy that (deliberately) harkens back to the Woody Allen films of the 1970s and 1980s. The depiction of the friendship between Frances and Sophie is superb, and for Gerwig, this could well be the breakout role she’s been circling around for the past few years.
Kristen Wiig had her breakout movie with Bridesmaids, and Imogene seems to be an attempt to broaden her appeal beyond that and SNL as an actress who can carry a more dramatic role. Wiig is fine, and manages for the most part to avoid sketch-comedy exaggeration. But the tone of Imogene is all over the place, from dysfunctional family indie to rom-com to pure silliness. Imogene was a girl raised in New Jersey who couldn’t wait to get out; after her father’s abrupt exit from her life, she was raised by wacky single mom Zelda (Annette Bening), who’s a low-rent gambling addict and whose live-in lover (Matt Dillon) claims to be a secret CIA agent. Imogene’s brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald) buries his social terror in a fascination with crabs and the shells they can pull over themselves for protection. Imogene herself dreamed of being a playwright, but that never happened, and now she’s holding on to her New York life by her fingernails, with a long-term boyfriend who really doesn’t care about her, and supposed friends who look down on her. When she loses it all in quick succession, and stages a fake suicide attempt to bring her boyfriend back, she ends up being put into her mother’s custody, and has to live again with all the people she despises most–plus Lee (Darren Criss), the Backstreet Boys impersonator who rents her old bedroom.
Naturally, before the movie ends, Imogene will have learned a lesson or three about family and who really cares about her, and she’ll find real romance along the way. The way the film gets there, though, while probably meant to be lovably wacky in the way of Little Miss Sunshine, goes over the line into dumb, over-the-top contrivance that leaves any real emotions stranded. It’s a movie that was badly in need of a rewrite.