Sunday, October 21, 2012

Argo: Escape from Tehran

     It's very tough to make an entertaining film about a touchy and true political situation, especially with the news of the recent U.S. embassy attack in Libya making headlines everyday. It's especially difficult to add humor to the life and death dilemma. Films such as this tend to offend and become a slog through political arguing. But Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck (whose direction is only getting better after the solid Boston crime flicks Gone Baby Gone and The Town), succeeds at both: containing tense I-can't-believe-it's-real thrills, movie-making humor, and impeccable direction by Affleck throughout its entire run time, Argo is a rare movie for adults that is entertaining and also informative of the world we live in. Relations between Iran and America have never been so fun and watchable.
   The year is 1979. The U.S. embassy has been overrun by Iranians seeking vengeance against the deposed Shah, who has fled to the U.S. for surgical treatment. During the intense fray, six American officials escape the embassy and secretly take refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Argo is the story of the CIA's plan to extract the six Americans that have gone into hiding--if they are found by the Iranians, they are sure to be taken and probably executed in a brutal and violent manner.
     Luckily, the CIA has a creative force with a sense of humor: Tony Mendez (Affleck), a quiet and intense man who is a master at getting people out of tough situations. Mendez, thinking (way) outside the box, easily shoots down other official's ideas to try and covertly get the six out and comes up with a plan that is so absolutely insane that it might actually work: enlisting a movie make-up artist, John Chambers (John Goodman), and a film producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a fake film, called Argo, concocting all of the aspects that the process involves (screenwriting, casting, a press release). Mendez, then posing as a producer himself, will fly to Tehren, meet up with the six hideways, and help them pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for futuristic, middle-eastern-set fake film.
     The really great thing about Argo is the suspense that is felt in nearly every scene, especially the ones that take place in the crumbled and dangerous streets of Iran: instead of relying on overblown car chases and explosions, Affleck masterfully directs quick scene after scene of the six officials living on edge, holed up in a house that they can't leave. These are transposed with the backroom dealings at the CIA headquarters, where Bryan Cranston really stands out as Jack, Mendez's boss who green-lights the movie-making scheme against his better judgement. Mendez travels to Iran, where he coaches the group with their new Canadian identities. They must memorize who they are what their jobs are for the fake film (producer, location scout, screenwriter, etc.) in order to get through the three levels of security at the airport--the last level being  a group of Iranian revolutionaries, decked out in camo and assault rifles, ready to shoot any American trying to leave the country on sight. The airport scene is the climax of the film, and it is intense stuff. The tension between America and Iran, especially correlating to today's world, is scary and real, and although there is plenty of humor in the film, some good / some corny--mainly from Arkin's cocky old movie producer--the feeling that these characters are on the precipice of death is felt throughout.
     Argo isn't perfect: the ending goes on and on, and it's somewhat predictable in places (as any real life story tends to be), but it has a magic that keeps your eyes glued to the cinema screen. At times, it reminded me of last year's Hugo, particularly in the way it shows how film can more than just a distraction for a couple of hours: it can cause a purpose in a person's life--or even save someone's life. No specific performance is amazingly special, though I did really enjoy Affleck's calm and funny portrayal of Mendez. But taken as a whole, everyone plays their small part to make the film one of the more enjoyable of the year. You probably know the ending to Argo, if you've read any articles on the film or have a good memory of recent U.S. history. However, the conclusion is only a small part of the fun and tension-covered journey. When Mendez takes the group out in public, to solidify their status as a Canadian film crew, dodging violence and gun-weilding revolutionaries, whether or not you know if they make it home doesn't matter: like most scenes in Argo, you'll be on the edge of your seat.     (B+)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Patience and A Suspension of Disbelief: The Very Specific Set of Skills You Need to Sit Through Taken 2

     It's pretty obvious what happens in Taken 2, the awful sequel to 2008's Taken, which showcased Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, a CIA field operative who--when his daughter gets kidnapped and sold into an overseas sex trade--kills his way through dozens of Albanians as slickly as any well-made video game. The first film was simple, yes, but it showcased well-thought-out action scenes and innovative ways for Mill's to get his revenge. It was exciting fun, and the direction was stable and concise, rarely resorting to overly-slick techniques like the shaky cam or high-speed camera cuts that make you feel like you're watching a commercial instead of a low-budget action film. Taken 2 sits on the opposite end of the spectrum: instead of coming up with an innovate story to continue the Mills' family saga, this is same shit different movie, which would be tolerable (though uninspired) if the script wasn't written like a kid scribbling with crayon and the action wasn't so pathetically unexciting.
     This time, Mills and his wife and daughter travel to Istanbul. It's all fun (lounging in a hotel suite with gorgeous views of the city and swimming in shiny blue pools) until--while out on a date--Mills and his wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), get taken. By who, you may ask? A better question would be: does it matter? These Albanian villains are all simple creations, with cliche dialogue and the ability to shoot ten billion bullets without having to reload, leaning in and out of doorways and alleyways like popups at a shooting range. These uninspired baddies, straight from the foreign villain handbook, are led by a man named Murad, who is the father of a man that Mills killed in Taken, electrocuting him with homemade jumper cables. So Murad has made it his mission to kill Mills--after he witnesses his wife and daughter get tortured first.
     Through a tense phone call seconds before he gets taken, Mills contacts his daughter and gives her instructions to avoid getting kidnapped herself. In one of the funnier scenes in Taken 2, she drags her dad's CIA kill kit from the closet and proceeds to run around the rooftops of the city, dodging big drops and bad dudes, setting off grenades in different locations so Mills--clearly the smartest agent in the history of agencies--can lead her to him just by the big sounds of boom. She get's to him at the exact moment that Taken 2 moves from laughable to straight boring.
     It's no spoiler that Mills, chained and locked up along with his wife, breaks free from the impossible situation (what else would a man do with a set of skills like his?), and proceeds to go on a rampage throughout the city, tracking down Murad and his mini army of lame Albanians. Whatever excitement from Taken has been lost here: everyone he sees dies with ease, even though Neeson--in the four years since the last movie--has seemingly eased into geezerdom, moving like an old man. The movie is so unbelievable that Neeson essentially grabs people, wraps his long arms around their neck, and then they die. Any hand-to-hand combat is disguised by quick cuts by terrible director Olivier Megaton--my bowel movements provide more excitement, and those are much quicker, 5-10 minutes instead of 90. It doesn't even matter what happens in Taken 2, because people pay the high ticket price to watch Neeson protect his family and beat the living shit out of anyone that gets in his way, not for acting and plot development. Unfortunately, they even failed at that.
     Maybe I wouldn't be so harsh on Taken 2 if I hadn't enjoyed the first one so much. But deep down I thought that the cast and crew could at least make something comparable, rather than incredibly worse. There are no thrills: sitting here at my computer, trying to think of the most exciting moment of the movie, all I can do is muster a yawn. There are no exciting moments in Taken 2. For the general movie-going public, it's just a bad movie. For lovers of Taken, it's insulting. If Neeson (more like "when Neeson", because after making a killing at the box office, it's bound to happen) gets a call from his agent to star in Taken 3, where Bryan Mills must save his daughter's unborn baby from revenge-seeking Albanians, hopefully he just hangs up his phone...and decides to take a nap instead.      (D-)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Looper, A Smart and Skilled Sci-Fi Saga

     Films about time travel always amaze or annoy: either you're sucked into the fascinating thought of traveling back to a different era or your mind gets stuck in the paradoxes and plot holes and you wish you could travel back in time to buy a ticket to another movie that made more sense. Looper easily falls into the first category, with its slick storytelling and unflinching violence. Director Rian Johnson's third feature (after the cool Brick and The Brother's Bloom [he also has directed two Breaking Bad episodes]) blends intriguing storytelling with tension-filled plot twists to create the best Science Fiction film since last year's Source Code.
     The year is 2044. The United States is recognizable but is in a realistic state of danger and dilapidation after an economic collapse. 10% of the population has a genetic mutation causing minor telekinesis (essentially boys floating small objects in their hands in order to impress pretty girls).  Flash forward 30 years to 2074: time travel has been discovered, but the powers that be deemed it far too dangerous to be legal--imagine the repercussions of citizens travelling back in time, causing a butterfly effect across decades. However, the mob--led by a new, brutal head boss with no remorse referred to as "The Rainmaker"--has decided that time travel is great way to dispose of bodies (The Mob loves capitalizing on illegal activity). In the year 2074, tracking devices make it far too hard to discreetly "off" the competition. So this major criminal enterprise, taking control of the time travel machine, send people back in time 30 years to 2044, where gunmen called "loopers" are waiting, blunderbuss in hand, ready to blow brain matter and chunks of flesh onto plastic sheets (easier for cleanup).
     Are you following? Picture this: a man (a looper) stands in the middle of a cornfield in 2044. He has his powerful gun in hand. Five feet away sits an empty plastic sheet, lightly blowing in the wind. He compulsively checks his ticking watch. Poof, a different man appears on the plastic (from 2074), tied up with a hood covering his head. Boom,  the man dies and blood squirts. Let's make things more complicated: when the crime boss (from 2074) wants to end a looper's contract, they send the looper's 30-year future self back in time to 2044, where his 30-year younger self is waiting, yet again, with a gun in his hand, ready to kill. This is called "closing the loop", and when this happens, the looper from 2044 collects a giant payday and is free to live out the next 30 years in whatever way he wants to. In this future world, many loopers end up addicted to an epensive psychedelic drug in the form of eye drops, living in addiction and squalor.
     The looper that Looper focuses on is named Joe. He's played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (popping up in many new releases nowadays), as a cocky, drug-addicted gunman who lives for the silver he gets in order to get his next fix, to get to the next party, to hook up with the next beautiful woman. But he doesn't quite look like himself. In preparation of filming Looper every day, Levitt had to sit in the make-up chair, donning realistic prosthetics and accentuating make-up to look a little more like...Bruce Willis. He even has mannerisms like Willis and sounds like Willis. You half expect him to utter, "Yippee Ki Yay, Motherfucker!", whenever he pulls the trigger.
     You can probably figure out why Levitt needs to resemble Willis. One day, on a normal looper mission, Joe waits with gun and ticking watch in hand. Poof, a man appears. Only this man has no hood, and 2044 Joe hesitates just for a second. It's 2077 Joe. Old Joe escapes, and the rest of Looper is like an intricate chess match, with each incarnation of Joe trying to foresee the other's next move. As one can imagine, it's not good for a looper to not eliminate his target, so Young Joe so is also on the run from his boss and his boss's cronies, trying to find his future self to put an end to the madness. But Old Joe has plans of his own, plans that need to be completed with his 30-year younger self in the way or not. Old Joe knows that "The Rainmaker", the previously-mentioned crime boss from 2077, lives in the area (30 years younger) and he sets out to kill him, consequently changing the events that caused Joe to go back in time in the first place.
     Phew, this time travel stuff is complicated. Luckily, Looper doesn't dwell too long on the technical aspects of the space/time continuum and doesn't bother with the question of whether effecting a butterfly's flight trajectory will cause a future nuclear explosion. Other good actors appear in important roles, namely Jeff Daniel's as Joe's sometimes-forgiving-sometimes-malicious boss and Emily Blunt as a secluded farm owner with pertinent secrets of her own. But the real star of this show is Rian Johnson, whose script is just smart enough and just fast-paced enough to not question the validity of the time travel scenario and whose direction is fervent and beautiful. Looper  makes plenty of sense if you go by the guidelines of the rules in which it creates. It's easiest to sit back and take Old Joe's advice when talking to Young Joe at a diner (I'm paraphrasing): "We're not gonna sit here all day and talk about time travel, we'd be here all day making diagrams with straws." Taking that sound advice, Looper--like shooting a blast from a blunderbuss barrel--is loud, violent, and incredibly exciting.     (A)