Thursday, 18 October 2012


15, 2012, Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin


There comes a moment in Argo, Ben Affleck's third stint behind the camera, where feeling relaxed in your cinema seat will become something of a distant memory. This feeling will inevitably be followed by clammy hands, a speedy heartbeat and seat-shuffling galore, topped off with a silent affirmation for Affleck's credibility as director. If none of the above applies - Argo, for you, is a write-off; a genre-stabbing mash-up of striking cinematic genres that offers a slim amount of originality. If that's the case, then with all due respect, more fool you.

Six members of the US embassy are forced into hiding in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, holed up in the Canadian embassy for months after their building is stormed by rioters. With the CIA at a loss of how to extract the American’s out undetected, the CIA’s ‘exfiltrator’ Tony Mendez (Affleck takes starring role, levelling it out with full 70s hairdo) propose an out-there plan: they use their Hollywood contacts to announce production on Argo, a science-fiction adventure that transforms him into hotshot producer who must fly to Iran to scout locations for the shoot. Code for: smuggle the American’s out of the country paraded as Argo’s film crew. A script-reading and Variety article later, Argo is go. As Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston admits, 'It's the best worst idea we have.'

Kicking things off in fifth gear, setting up the US embassy’s situation, once the film’s pace slows to allow for the story to present itself, you'll feel deeply embroiled in the 70s aesthetic that is pulled off well. The cinematography, the colour palette - even the old-school Warner Bros logo used as the film begins stays in your mind. Somewhat more strikingly, as the film finds its footing, the political genre becomes Affleck’s focal point. Contrast these All the President's Men-esque office-rushing and intel-sharing scenes with the ensuing movie industry satire that follows (think Get Shorty with John Goodman and Alan Arkin as a director/producer duo  – magic combo,) it is surprising how little this alienates, and instead how accessible the plot transition becomes; crucially never playing it for laughs, the two slot in rather well. Their delivery ensures no need for the script to strive for the comedy. It all comes natural. It's no less of a credit to Affleck as a filmmaker though that he knows when to leave the lightheartedness behind, and delve headfirst into the matter at hand. The guy proves with confidence that he knows how to give a good go at several genres in one audacious feature, but also is savvy enough to know when to move swiftly on when you could assume you’re onto a winner.

 Once the extraction mission is in full swing, the tension heightens to mind-blowing heights. Although the crew are severely underdeveloped, you never once fear any less for these characters that Mendez is attempting to rescue. In a film where the line of good and evil is pretty plain to see, Affleck refuses to insult the intelligence of the viewer, opting instead to direct with a panache so discreet that it's always clear what's occurring. Fundamentally, whichever opinion is formed, it all boils down to one common hope between the nail-chewing audience members: let them get home safely.
If characterisation was applied successfully - namely to Mendez and his family relationship that unfortunately adds nothing when an attempt is made at carving out some form of dynamic between he and his son - Argo could have been sublime. It just falls short. The final stretch may come under fire for being drawn out, extending the running time for a bit too long. As it is, it's doubtful you'll experience as tense a final third for quite a while, with the editing of Affleck's brilliantly-captured scenes doing everything that needs to be done. After acclaim for previous films Gone Baby Gone and The Town, all eyes were on this film to be the clincher. Ben Affleck nails it once again, further proving - and maybe removing all doubt in the process - that he is a truly gifted maker of films.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Sessions

15, 2012, Directed by Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood

There are times when an astounding story can open your eyes to matters you never paid any thought to because you felt you never needed to; then there are those you are simply blissfully unaware of. The Sessions tells the story of poet and journalist Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a disabled individual who, due to a bout of polio as a youngster, is confined to an iron lung, unable to move any part of his body save for his head. 38 years of age, Mark’s visits to his local priest (William H. Macy, on fine form) lead him to Helen Hunt's sex surrogate Cathy in a bid to lose his virginity. A tough sell for a film indeed. But no need for worry. Writer/director Ben Lewin tackles the true-to-life story (based on articles, poems and journals O'Brien himself wrote) with aplomb, flitting from scene to scene without a worry over the pressure of dealing with such a sensitive matter. Hawkes' portrayal of O'Brien, all witty asides and down-to-earth musings, is really quite something - proving that for all his Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene silent and uneasy exterior, he can deliver when tasked with the more challenging performances. And boy, does it speak for itself. 
Hunt's professional therapist is good on-screen company for Hawkes, the two forging an unlikely but convincing chemistry. Most interesting are her scenes when she returns home from her sessions with O'Brien; evidently more difficult to leave him behind each time (she immediately points out six sessions is the limit; sex surrogates aren’t prostitutes, after all,)  the interactions with her husband, and their forced pillow talk – compared to her lively fluent conversations with her patient - could have been mapped out to add flesh to Cathy's bones.
Attempting to split the strangely-rapid scenes by cutting to O'Brien's talks with H. Macy's priest to fill in the gaps prove just a little mismatched to the remainder of the film. At times, it appears Lewin worries some scenes are outstaying their welcome, when you just feel it simply could have been more effective if shown. Not least because the application of the overused voice-over technique genuinely works well in this instance. After all, if anyone's thoughts are going to be intriguing to hear, it's going to be a man with an iron lung who spends most of his time thinking.
Although Lewin's script may brush over the more nasty aspects that may come with the territory (perhaps his point - Lewin himself is a former polio sufferer,) the central performances complement the astounding story, if not to as an astounding degree as you’d hope.  But as the laughter pours out, you'll marvel at how a film about a guy unable to move his body can be so heartwarming. In other hands, The Sessions could have been littered with sentimental schmaltz. In Lewin's grasp, it is so much better, if perhaps played a little too much for smiles. 



Tuesday, 16 October 2012


12, 2012, Directed by Dustin Hoffman 
Starring: Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly

A quintessentially British cast has been compiled for screen legend Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet, based on Ronald Harwood's play about a group of former musicians who now live together in a retirement home: think The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for opera singers. The old-age heroes are a trio when we first meet them, formed by Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly and Tom Courtenay - before a singing blast from their past, in the form of Maggie Smith, completes the quartet. The happy reunion is stunted by an apparent ‘history’ between Smith’s former-superstar Jean and Courtenay’s Reg, causing considerate struggles when the quartet must reform one final time at Beecham House’s annual gala to mark what would have been Verdi’s birthday.  Each are delegated their individual character set-pieces to begin with, almost disparate from each other as they stroll/glide/hobble  their way around the retiring home. Courtenay leads  talks with visiting schoolchildren, attempting to decipher the ‘modern art form of rap,’ whilst Connolly's cheeky Scot Wilf is busy making harmless advances on the home's sweet young carer, Dr Coburn (Sheridan Smith) and Collins’ sporadic Sissy flits about, forgetting to deliver notes to fellow residents. It is when Smith makes her presence known to these that Quartet keeps it together; up-tight, and not in anyway self-deprecating, the actress makes her Jean warm, in an otherwise pretty cold role. Reg's evident problem with Jean’s presence is explored with care by Courtenay and Smith, even if this does lead to what appears to be several memory lapses in the space of a scene; thankfully, the script doesn’t notch this down to their age. 

As is the same with other films that may contain older characters, there's always a hint of danger - a stumble here, a raised voice there may evoke uneasiness in concern of the consequence of such an action. Fortunately, Quartet includes hints of these moments with  nothing coming of them - instead allowing Hoffman to embrace why these characters, and we as cinemagoers, have come together instead of opting for what could have been a more dramatic route. This does mean that several moments are left open ended (early stages of dementia are evidently witnessed) – but the film’s close is wholesome enough to satisfy. Admittedly, Hoffman's direction isn't actively felt, although you can tell the legend wallowed in the Buckinghamshire country scenery and the script falls flat at countless moments. No, Quartet may not be a nail-biter, or even the film of the year, but it's a carefully-constructed piece that cares about its characters more than most; lest we forget, Hoffman knows character - his portrayal of cinema icons Benjamin Braddock (The Graduate), Ratso (Midnight Cowboy) to name but a few. It is to his credit that backing him up are four incredibly-established actors who all ensure that Quartet remains a performance-led piece, that may at times require a walking stick to keep it upright.