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Knight at the Movies: Argo; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-10-10

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For a while there, it looked like Ben Affleck's career was going to fritter away. After a series of missteps, topped by the wretched Gigli in which he co-starred with then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez (remember their nauseating dual moniker, "Bennifer?") it seemed as if the talented actor, who had won an early career screenplay Oscar (with Matt Damon) for Good Will Hunting, was down for the count.

A critically acclaimed performance in 2006's Hollywoodland as the murdered actor George Reeves began Affleck's renewal. And charming, subsequent acting performances led to a creative comeback. Then with his assured directorial debut in 2007 with Gone Baby Gone, followed in 2010 with the expert bank heist film The Town, there was no doubt that Affleck was not just back in top form as an actor but as a director as well. Now, with the intensely suspenseful Argo, Affleck continues his hot streak and the early Oscar predictions for the movie are merited.

When the American embassy in Teheran was overtaken during the fall of Iran in 1979, six Americans managed to escape detection, hiding within the nearby Canadian ambassador's private residence. Argo is based on the improbable but true story of Tony Mendez, a CIA consultant (played with deft assurance by Affleck) charged with ferretting out the group during the ensuing hostage crisis by his beleaguered boss Bryan Cranston and getting them safely home.

Affleck begins with the absolutely riveting—and terrifying—takedown of the embassy. As the angry mob outside pushes against the gates of the embassy, inside officials are frantically working to shred classified documents and figure out an exit strategy. Affleck cuts back and forth as the outrage outside and the panic inside both escalate, both finally reaching the breaking point. At the last possible second, seemingly, the six Americans slip out the backdoor and into the street, adrift in a country filled with anti-American sentiment.

Miraculously, the group finds itself the not-particularly-welcome guests of the Canadian ambassador (played with typical finesse by actor Victor Garber) and his demure wife. The Iranians, who are holding 52 other Americans hostages, do not know—yet—about the six escapees. But sooner or later, as CIA and Canadian government officials realize, they will. Before they can be found and no doubt publicly executed, Mendez is brought in to figure out a way to get them home.

The plan he arrives at (using the making of a Canadian movie to be shot in Iran as a cover story) seems crazy to the CIA officials—as crazy as it does in hindsight. However, knowing the power and lure of the movies, it also makes a perfect kind of sense. The six hostages will be identified as the film's director, production designer, writer, etc.—all in Teheran for the purposes of scouting locations and with luck, the group will fly out of the country after their brief, phony scouting expedition in the city.

Mendez enlists the help of two old-time Hollywood producers (played with cranky expertise by Alan Arkin and John Goodman) in putting over the scheme, and a dreadfully cheesy sci-fi flick named Argo is chosen as the vehicle. Sketches for sets are drawn, a press conference is staged and all the trappings are put in order to convince Iranian officials that the film is legit. Meanwhile, the tension builds to almost the breaking point as Mendez arrives in the country where is met with mistrust from members of the group, convinced that his wild plan will get them killed.

The ticking of the clock is almost palpable as the film draws to its nail biting conclusion and in the grand manner of Hitchcock it all comes down to suspenseful, tiny details—will a ringing telephone be answered in time? Will a housekeeper keep her mouth shut, ensuring the safety of the group? Will certain members of the group be able to keep details of their invented covers straight as they go through checkpoints? And on and on.

Affleck ably juggles these elements and is aided by his terrific cast and Chris Terrio's densely woven script (based on Mendez's memoir and a Wired magazine article). The re-creation of the late-'70s period is spot-on and recalls movie thrillers from the period (especially Dog Day Afternoon). Argo is an enthralling and deliciously entertaining movie—and a deserved triumph for its star and director.

Film notes:

—Pride Films & Plays presents Gay Film Weekend 2012 Thursday, Oct. 18-Sunday, Oct. 21, at the Center on Halsted in the Hoover-Leppen Theater, 3656 N. Halsted St. This third annual edition of the event includes readings of the five screenplay finalists from the group's Great Gay Screenplay Contest, panels focused on LGBT cinema with local filmmakers (I'll be part of a panel on Saturday, Oct. 20), as well as a queer shorts film program curated by Indie Boots Film Festival. Complete details and advance tickets available at www.pridefilmsandplays.com

—The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., is hosting the Music Box of Horrors, a 24-hour Halloween horror marathon kicking off at noon on Saturday, Oct. 13, with the silent classic The Golem and continuing with an eclectic program of 13 other fright flicks. These range from queer director James Whale's 1933 movie The Invisible Man to Phantasm, The Burning, Evil Dead 2 (a personal fave) and many others.

Sybil Danning, star of Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf, will be at the theater in person, as will Jeff Lieberman, director of the deadly earthworm ickfest Squirm. Lieberman's latest, Satan's Little Helper, will also have its Chicago debut during the marathon. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Vital Bridges. Complete line-up and advance tickets available at www.musicboxtheatre.com

—Out director-choreographer Adam Shankman's film version of the Broadway jukebox musical Rock of Ages, with songs culled from a variety of 1980s big-hair bands, is on Blu-ray and DVD. Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand (the latter two as gay lovers), Mary J. Blige, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Paul Giamatti support Julianne Hough and newcomer/hottie Diego Boneta as the young lovers with dreams of hard-rock stardom.

Funky Town—a Canadian mixture of 54 and Boogie Nights from director Daniel Roby, complete with throbbing disco soundtrack (albeit with redone versions)—is another recent release worth checking out. Based on the Montreal disco scene circa 1976, the film weaves together several storylines, including that of a gay disco impresario (think Alan Carr or Steve Rubell) and his up-and-down affair with a closeted Italian stallion. Good acting and a nice re-creation of the period help alleviate the predictability of the various plot strands.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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