Argo, Affleck and a hard-hitting Hollywood tale

ben affleck

I saw Argo the other night and thought it was great. Really tense throughout, with a few lighter moments to keep from getting too heavy. I said as much to friends and got told rather firmly that the film was historically inaccurate and missed the point.

When I queried this I was told it didn’t fully explore the political situation behind the stand-off between Iran and the US. Whilst this may be true, I’m not sure that matters too much. I’ll explain why. But first, the plot.

The Hollywood option
Set in revolutionary Iran in 1979, the story focuses on six American diplomats forced to flee their embassy and take refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s house. CIA ex-filtration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to orchestrate their escape, by posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo.

If this were just a film, most people would probably avoid it with a story this ludicrous, but it’s true. This was a proper CIA-sanctioned mission – that’s what makes it so compelling. To return to the comments my friends made about the film’s inaccuracies, Hollywood is known for butchering history – often in a spectacular way. Or twisting it to suit its own means.

Let’s face it, films based on true stories are often going to upset somebody. Maybe they’re inaccurate, maybe they’ve left out key facts. Sometimes the facts don’t make a great film or there are too many characters for the story to be focused enough.

First and foremost, film-makers are trying to make something that’s going to appeal to as many people as possible. The more controversial the material, the more it’s going to be a challenge. Anyway, lesson over, let’s look at the film.

Affleck the A-list….Director
Never thought you’d hear that one right? This is his third film as Director, following the critically-acclaimed Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Both tense, dramatic and well-told stories in a realistic setting.

Also both were set in Boston. So many – including myself – were interested to see if he could deliver the same type of suspenseful film not just in another location, but way outside the US. In a way, the stabilisers are off and he’s wobbling down the street on his own. With a good measure of success.

As well as displaying a deft touch as Director – balancing drama with comedy moments – his acting is also solid and unfussy. Casting himself as lead character Tony Mendez, he comes across as a relatively inscrutable, stoic protagonist – yet has the self-awareness to be the calm centre of the storm, allowing other characters to spin around him.

A cosmic conflagration
He also gets some great performances out of the supporting cast which included: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy and Bryan Cranston. argo poster - by conception studiosArkin and Goodman were on top form, poking fun at the inner workings of the Hollywood machine with some great lines. Goodman to Affleck, ‘You want to come to Hollywood and act all fake like a big shot? You’ll fit right in.’

It’s never going to be an easy task to tell a tale this complex, however I think Affleck pulls it off. This is a tense, concise, well-told story, cleverly cut with a satirical nod towards Hollywood, but kept grounded by a level-headed Director who’s going from strength to strength. It may not please everyone from a historical point of view, but it’s a darn good film nonetheless.

Skyfall, Mendes, Bond and badass Bardem

Bond team assemble! Ok, I’ve slightly mixed up my franchises but seriously, hats off to Sam Mendes. Or should it be hats off to Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson? The producers behind Bond in the Brosnan and Craig eras. Maybe we should also doff our caps to Daniel Craig? Not just for his performance as Bond so far, but for his recommendation for Sam Mendes to direct. His influence is clear to see.

What he’s done is strip Bond back, not just to the visceral, gritty feel we got in Casino Royale, but on an emotional level, to a point where he’s fallible, broken, hell-bent on resurrection and proving that, whilst he may be a bit of dinosaur in the modern age of espionage, he’s still a necessary tool in MI6’s arsenal. Let’s look at the factors that make this Bond one of the best we’ve had in a long time.
james bondSam Mendes
Many of you will know him as the Director of American Beauty in 1999, however the best reference point in terms of why he got the Bond gig is probably Road to Perdition in 2002, his first film with Daniel Craig. But then, he’s always had a common theme running through his work – family roots and close ties. From American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, through to Jarhead and Skyfall, his films have first and foremost been about relationships and the bonds between certain characters.

For those that doubted his ability to handle action, Id like to point out the opening sequence in Skyfall – an exhilarating rooftop motorbike chase, culminating in a fight on top of a train and kick-starting the film’s events. The whole sequence is tense, dramatic and thoroughly exciting – pitched perfectly between realism and fantasy, which is precisely what we expect from Bond.

There’s plenty of other scenes I could use as examples of why Mendes was the man for the job. Suffice to say he balanced action, drama and classic Bond moments with quiet, tender scenes that really gave the film weight and characters depth – particularly the relationship between Bond and M, which I’ll come to later.

Roger Deakins
Simply put, the man who makes Mendes look good! Deakins was Cinematographer on this film, the person who plans and coordinates the actual shooting of the film, capturing the Director’s vision on screen. Relationships between Directors and Cinematographers vary. In this case, Deakins has worked with Mendes before and also extensively with the Coen brothers. He’s been nominated for stacks of awards, including winning a lifetime achievement award in 2011.

In terms of Skyfall, there’s a veritable plethora of beautifully shot scenes: Bond staring over the grey London skyline, coffins draped in the Union Jack, the opening chase sequence in Turkey, a yacht sailing towards an abandoned island when we first meet Bardem’s Silva, then there’s the whole of the third act in Scotland.

If you want to capture the rugged, majestic beauty of a wild landscape, Deakin should be on your speed-dial as a Director. He’s the man behind No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Jarhead, Shawshank Redemption – I could go on, check out his body of work.

bond skyfallJavier Bardem
What a villian! Bardem seemed to position him as the perfect blend of deranged, menacing, calculating and camp, or at least sexually ambiguous. His first scene is a classic and up there with Heath Ledger’s introduction as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

In fact, there are a lot of similarities to be drawn between Bardem’s Silva and Ledger’s Joker. In terms of physical looks, chilling back-story and meticulously planned acts of terrorism. In Dark Knight, the Joker spends about a third of the film outwitting Batman and Gordon, similarly Silva runs rings around Bond and M from his introduction up until the closing act.

That said, I’m not suggesting Ledger’s Joker would fit in Bond’s world. Bardem’s Silva still remained very much his own creation in that sense. His motivation – a deeply felt vendetta towards Judi Dench’s M – drives his actions. You’ll have to watch the film to find out why – I’ll just say that Bardem gives Silva’s motivation for vengeance against M believability. So often in action films I’ve not got on board with the villian and his or her motivations to kill someone/take over the world. In this case Bardem makes it work, giving Silva a tortured soul and fire in his eyes.

Bond and M
When talking about Mendes and themes in his work, I mentioned relationships and bonds between characters. In this case, a key driver of the film is the dynamic between Bond and M. Whilst some might feel screen-time for stunning Bond girls has been somewhat sacrificed, you could argue Bond charging around with a beautiful girl in tow doesn’t give us anything new.
judi dench
Of course you get Bond girls here, but more time is devoted to M, arguably the ultimate Bond girl in the Broccoli/Wilson era. From her casting as the first female M in Goldeneye in 1995, through to Skyfall in 2012, she’s become progressively more influential with each film, particular in Daniel Craig’s time in the role.

There’s a scene where she’s deciding whether Bond is fit for active duty and Mallory – played by Ralph Fiennes – says to her, ‘You’re sentimental about him’. Mendes lets this relationship unfold superbly, culminating in a tender, elegant and heartfelt moment in the third act.

50 years of Bond
I’d like to finish with a musical clip below by A. Skilz and Krufty Kutz, submitted to Annie Mac’s show on BBC Radio One in the UK. They created it to celebrate 50 years of Bond. If you’ve forgotten what’s so good about the character and this franchise, remind yourself now. I guarantee you’ll be giddy with excitement at the end. Proud to be British.

Ben Affleck: a directorial phoenix emerges!

the town

I’ve had a disastrous morning. Not the most upbeat way to start a post, but hang in there. I dropped a full jar of honey on the floor which shattered. Honey and glass is impossible to clean up. Then banged my heel in the shower, spilt hot tea on my leg, lost half my breakfast in the toaster – the part I salvaged I managed to push off my plate onto the table with aggressive cutting!

And so, on to this post. As you might guess it’s about Affleck’s rise from the ashes of an acting career to become a directorial force to be reckoned with – much to the surprise of many. The reason for mentioning my morning mishaps is I hope this piece becomes my salvation – that I rise from the flames resplendent, with no more disasters for the rest of the day. I want to become the phoenix! Ahem, let’s move on.

So last night I watched Gone Baby Gone – another ‘been on my list for a while’ film. As expected, it’s really good. I’ve ended up watching the films Affleck has directed in reverse order, having seen The Town a while ago. Both are set in Boston and deal with crime and family. Both are brilliant – suspenseful, thrilling and wholly engrossing throughout.

gone baby goneGone Baby Gone (2007)
If you’ve not seen this, it’s a crime mystery drama based on a book by Dennis Lehane – author of two other titles that have been turned into impressive films, Mystic River and Shutter Island. The latter superbly directed by Scorsese and features a career-high performance by DiCaprio.

In terms of plot, it features Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother) as a private investigator hired to find a missing girl. Faced with the challenges of working with distrustful cops (Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman), drug dealers and other lowlifes – his relationship with his co-worker and partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) becomes strained as the investigation progresses. There are twists, turns and revelations and, whilst the plot is complex, it’s worth paying attention to the end.

Affleck (senior) gives the Boston setting a grittiness and believability and gets a great performance out his younger brother. Who said siblings can’t work together? I’ve had my doubts about Casey Affleck, he’s always seemed quite a closed book in terms of being an expressive actor. Now I understand his appeal. He gives a truly impressive performance, particularly showing suppressed emotion – one of the hardest things to convincingly portray for an actor. He’s also highly believable as a normal Boston guy in a tense, dangerous situation. The action never feels fake or Hollywood, a lot of this is down to Casey’s talent as much as older brother Ben’s direction.

This film suffered a little on release due to the subject matter and art imitating life, particularly in the UK where the disappearance of a girl that looked almost identical to the one in the film meant release was pushed back. This should take nothing away from it, this is a well told, well acted, well directed film – particularly from a debut Director.

Incidentally, if we’re talking Lehane adaptations, it’s worth noting that it’s less depressing than Mystic River and not as thrilling or scary as Shutter Island – sitting perhaps inbetween the two as a good, solid crime mystery. Worth your time.

The Town (2010)
Is this a companion piece to Gone Baby Gone? Maybe it should be packaged up as a Boston crime trilogy boxset with The Departed? Anyway, Affleck’s directorial debut set him up nicely to direct this tale of bank-robbing in the heart of Boston’s Charlestown – a place that accounts for over 300 robberies a year.

As well as directing, Affleck starred as the leader of the gang who decides to keep watch on bank manager (Rebecca Hall), as she could potentially identify him following his gang’s last job. As he begins to fall for her romantically he has to deal with volatile partner (the excellent Jeremy Renner) and evade capture from FBI detective (John Hamm).

the townFor me, this film had a lot of similarities with Michael Mann’s Heat, or the opening robbery sequence in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. At least in terms of epic, realistic gun battles in broad daylight and the cat-and-mouse game between cop (Hamm) and robber (Affleck). High praise you might say, but justified.

How Affleck found the time to act in this as well as get great performances out of a cast including Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall, John Hamm and Jeremy Renner I’ll never know. Renner was astonishing – all coiled up, explosive rage and intensity.

If you compare Affleck’s two directorial outings so far, I prefer The Town. It’s a simpler story than Gone Baby Gone, but more exciting and thrilling. Both are very good films though. Which leads us on to Affleck’s latest…

Argo (2012)
Hard for me to say too much about this as it’s only just come out at the cinema. The plot tells the story of a real life CIA mission in 1980 to rescue six American diplomats from revolutionary Iran, by posing as a Canadian film crew and staging a fake film in the country.

It’s got an interesting cast. As well as Affleck, it includes Bryan Cranston (from TV show Breaking Bad), John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Quite a departure from Affleck’s first two films, so it will be interesting to see how he handles it.

I’ll finish with the trailer below so you can judge for yourself. First impressions suggest it’s positioning itself as a serious thriller with comic elements. Almost like a grown-up version of Ocean’s Eleven. What do you think?

Three Amigos: Rise of the Mexican Directors

guillermo del toro

Ok, for this piece I’d like to discuss my love of Mexico’s finest Directors. In terms of what got me fired up to write this, bear with me whilst I set the scene.

The other night I was watching an old episode of the BBC miniseries, Luther, starring Idris Elba (check out a clip here, worth looking up if you’ve not seen it), and it got me thinking about the film Elba is currently working on, Guillermo del Toro’s latest, Pacific Rim.

guillermo del toroNow I’m intrigued. I’m a massive del Toro fan and it’s a shame he couldn’t deliver his version of The Hobbit. I am sure Peter Jackson’s take will be epic, but I bet Guillermo’s would have been quite something.

The reason I’m a fan of del Toro is simple, his filmography: Pan’s Labyrinth, Blade II, Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army. 

Like many others, I love the worlds he creates. His monsters are equally terrifying and beautiful. I suppose it helps that he spent 10 years as a special effects make-up designer before breaking into directing.

For example… Let’s take a moment to savour the scene where Liz bargains for Hellboy’s life with the Angel of Death…

Guillermo has often been described as creating fairy tales for grown ups. This is an apt description as Pan’s Labyrinth is not for the faint hearted. Yet in some ways, the worst monsters in his films are human: the fascist Captain in Pan’s Labyrinth, Rasputin in Hellboy etc.

And if we’re talking dark, it’s not just Guillermo that has a fascination with the macabre, his directorial partners in crime – Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro G. Inarritu – also follow a similar path, albeit sticking more to drama than fantasy.

Mexico’s finest
Let’s start with Alfonso Cauron. His standout for me, was Children of Men; gritty, grimy, set in a bleak future and critically well received. He was a bit of a leftfield choice to direct the third Harry Potter film, Prisoner of Azkaban. However, his style and tone fit the subject matter surprisingly effectively. Again, it was well received and largely seen as the bleakest, darkest instalment in the franchise. No bad thing at all.

alfonso cuaron
Then there’s Alejandro G. Inarritu. He’s had a stack of nominations for his filmography to date, most of which are linked by the theme of death: Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful.

Team players
All three directors tend to help each other out. Both Guillermo and Alfonso helped produce Inarritu’s Biutiful. Cuaron helped produce Pan’s Labyrinth and Inarritu edited it. You could say that, through this tag team effort, the film achieved greater heights than del Toro alone could have managed.

However, I think it’s just a case of three, talented individuals working together to create a masterpiece. This sort of collaboration hasn’t adversely affected their solo careers, as all have been successful in their own right. Indeed it’s benefitted them.

And whilst they all have their own style, there are themes and influences that link them together, like a happy family: life, death, darkness, light, magic, and fantasy. Pretty much the voiceover for the Pan’s Labyrinth trailer.

katnissThe future for the amigos?
Well, del Toro has Pacific Rim, plus rumours of Hellboy 3, which would be an exciting prospect. Inarritu has The Revenant, with DiCaprio and Sean Penn. Cauron has Gravity, a space film starring George Clooney.

Most interestingly though, Cauron is in the running to possibly direct the second instalment of the Hunger Games franchise (I think it’s safe to call it a franchise already right?). Entitled Catching Fire, it’s set to release November 2013.

So all in all, the Three Amigos are doing fine, with some exciting stuff in the pipeline. In celebration of this, let’s finish on a lighter note. Here’s the original Three Amigos in action with My Little Buttercup. Classic comedy.