Ben Affleck’s Argo is an intelligent, reasonably compelling depiction of an intelligence operation that remained pretty secret for years.
The film’s opening sketches a brief history of Iran, followed by an intense re-creation of the tumultuous events in 1979, when the U.S. embassy was overtaken by Iranian revolutionaries. Six Americans managed to get out and were given a place to hide in the residence of the Canadian ambassador (a nice turn from Victor Garber); their rescue by Antonio Mendez, forged from an unlikely scenario, forms the basis of this thriller, written and directed by Affleck and loosely based on an article by Mendez. The unlikely scenario involved Mendez (doggedly embodied by Affleck) pretending o be a producer for a sci-fi epic Argo, to be filmed in Iran. This cover story, aided by the participation of a make-up guru (John Goodman) and a fading producer (Alan Arkin), was designed to convince the suspicious Iranians about the movie’s authenticity…while laying the groundwork to commercially fly out the Americans in the guise of Canadian filmmakers.
Affleck gives himself a lot of ground to cover: the “backstage” machinations of the Intelligence network; the friction among the Americans; the tense standoff with the Iranians who took over the American embassy; the machinations of Goodman, Arkin and Affleck to create the trappings of a cheesy sci-fi movie. The movie succeeds in building steadily with the crosscutting between the turbulent events in Iran and the behind the scenes negotiations to get the rescue plot in motion, but it really takes off upon Affleck’s arrival in Iran, where every encounter poses a possible threat, with the possibility of violent reprisal a real concern. There are a number of suspense-filled sequences as the terrified hostages must play out the masquerade, under the watchful eyes of Iranian officials and revolutionaries alike. While Affleck is perhaps a little too subdued as Mendez (after all, he is impersonating a producer who would dare to go to Iran..shouldn’t he have more energy?.), Garber, Goodman and Arkin contribute winning performances and Bryan Cranston is suitably harried as Affleck’s CIA superior.
At the beginning of Seven Psychopaths, two hit men (played by actors you would know from Boardwalk Empire) are discussing movie cliches and conventions while waiting for their intended victim, when out of nowhere…well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but writer/director Martin McDonagh quickly establishes this is going to be one quirky, violent, and frequently very funny movie. The film’s premise centers around Colin Farrell as a blocked, troubled, probably alcoholic scriptwriter grappling with his new screenplay entitled, not so coincidentally, Seven Psychopaths. Enter Farrell’s devoted, dangerous friend Sam Rockwell, who offers to help Farrell realize his vision, while involved in his little enterprise, namely kidnapping well-heeled dogs (with Christopher Walken) with an eye toward collecting a reward from their relieved, grateful owners. Complications abound when Rockwell and Walken kidnap gangster Woody Harrelson’s beloved pooch, leading Harrelson to call on a seemingly infinite number of henchmen (including Zeljko Ivanek) to get the dog back. The title refers not only to the psychopaths who populate the movie, but also those in the “movies within the movie,” as various characters spin stories of psychopaths (among them Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits) along the blood-soaked way.
Seven Psychopaths works for a number of reasons. McDonagh’s script is filled with rough-edged wit, interesting (if not entirely unexpected) plot twists, and enough cinematic references to engage both the dedicated and the casual moviegoer. In addition, the movie gives a number of good actors room to create eccentric characters that you might care about—or at least enjoy not caring about. Woody Harrelson is terrific as the violently unpredictable gangster who is capable of admiring your courage in one breath, while taking you out (and not for dinner) with his next breath. Colin Farrell does a good job as the beleaguered scribe—he really does his best work in these offbeat endeavors. Perhaps the best aspect however, lies in the sterling performances by Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, who previously dazzled in McDonagh’s play, A Behanding in Spokane. Rockwell is very funny as Farrell’s friend and intended co-screenwriter who has this thing about movies ending in “the right way;” his version of the “ending within the movie” is one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen all year. Walken gives his best, most engaging performance in many a moon as a man with a cravat (you’ll find out why) who manages to keep his faith as all those around him are losing theirs, a trait which provides both funny and touching moments. Simply put, Seven Psychopaths is one of the most entertaining (and bloodiest) films I’ve seen this year.
Taken 2 continues where Taken left off; in the first one Liam Neeson’s daughter was kidnapped by white slavers and he left no stone unturned-and virtually no white slaver left standing-to get her back. However, these dead men all have families, all of whom vow revenge in this by the numbers sequel. They kidnap Neeson and his wife (Famke Janssen) this time (daughter Maggie Grace avoids capture), and it is left for Neeson and the terrified but resourceful daughter (“Focus—I told you to FOCUS” as Neeson tells her on a number of occasions) to cast off the shackles, save mother (who resolutely remains taken) and contribute their fair share towards curbing overpopulation—particularly by foreign bad guys who can’t shoot straight—and lie! It’s enjoyable, disposable, and exactly what you would expect. I can hardly wait for Taken 3, where the remaining relations invade the Neeson family reunion and kidnap everyone including Granny–but not Neeson; someone’s got to get the clan back.