“ARGO” (2012) Review

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“ARGO” (2012) Review

Ben Affleck must be at a lucky point in his career. His third directorial effort had recently been released in theaters and became a commercial and critical hit . . . like his two previous films. The movie also won several awards, including the top prize – the Academy Awards Best Picture of 2012.  And Affleck never struck me as the type who would direct and star in a film about the CIA rescuing American diplomats from the Middle East, let alone co-produce it. But he did and the result is the movie, “ARGO”

“ARGO” began in early November 1979, when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran and took most of the civilian and military staff hostage in retaliation for American offering refuge for the deposed Shah of Iran. At least six staff diplomats managed to get out of the embassy and seek refuge at the home of Canada’s ambassador, Ken Taylor. With the six diplomats’ situation kept secret, the C.I.A. assigns one of their operatives, one Tony Mendez, to find a way to get the diplomats out of Iran before they could be discovered. After dismissing several proposals, Mendez creates a cover story that the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting “exotic” locations in Iran for a science-fiction film.

Mendez and his C.I.A. supervisor Jack O’Donnell, contact John Chambers, a Hollywood make-up artist who has previously crafted disguises for the C.I.A., in addition to his work in the “PLANET OF THE APES” film series. Chambers puts them in touch with a film producer named Lester Siegel. Mendez, Chambers and Siegel set up a fake film studio and successfully establish the pretense of developing Argo, a“science fantasy” in the style of “STAR WARS” in order to lend credibility to the cover story. Meanwhile, the escapees grow frantic inside the ambassador’s residence. Shredded documentation from the American embassy is being reassembled, providing the militants with evidence that there are embassy personnel unaccounted for.

I am going to cut to the chase. I enjoyed “ARGO” very much. What am I saying? I really enjoyed this movie. So far, it is one of the better ones I have seen this year. Once again, Affleck knocked it out of the ballpark with a first-rate thriller that gave audiences a peek into the efforts of the C.I.A. to save those six diplomats who managed to get captured by the militants. Affleck, along with screenwriter Chris Terrio, did an excellent job in setting up the entire story from beginning to end.

One of the movie’s gem scenes featured the actual storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. It is quite obvious that Affleck, along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, used a hand-held camera style to film this particular sequence. And although I am not a fan of this particular style, I must say that it suited this particular sequence very well, projecting an effective sense of chaos and panic.“ARGO” featured other memorable scenes, including Mendez’s efforts to recruit both Chambers and Siegel for his mission, a tense encounter between Taylor’s Iranian maid and intelligence officers looking for the diplomats, the humor-filled setup of the Argo Operation in Hollywood, frustrating moments in which Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan came close to shutting down Mendez’s operation, the final escape from Iran by air and a nail-biting sequence in which the same group hit the streets of Tehran for a “location scouting mission” in order to maintain their cover.

There is so much about this movie that I enjoyed that it would take an essay for me to explain in great detail. I do not have the patience for such a project, but I do have to comment on the movie’s technical aspects. Not only did Rodrigo Prieto did an excellent job in re-creating the violence and confusion of the American embassy takeover, he also captured the muted glamour and insanity of Hollywood with vivid color. I could see that a great deal of his work benefited from some outstanding editing from William Goldenberg. In fact, I really have to hand it to Sharon Seymour and her production designing team for their re-creation of the 1979-1980 period in American and Iranian history. Seymour and her team were ably assisted by Peter Borck
and Deniz Göktürk’s art direction, along with Jacqueline West’s realistic looking costume designs.

But “ARGO” would have never worked by Affleck’s outstanding direction and the talented actors and actresses that were part of the cast. Not only was I impressed by Affleck’s direction, but also his subtle performance as C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez, who did not need guns and fighting skills to accomplish his task – merely brains and nerves of steel. John Goodman was marvelous as the witty and slightly cynical make-up artist, John Chambers. He also had great chemistry with both Affleck and Alan Arkin, who portrayed the sardonic and prickly Hollywood producer, Lester Siegel. I was not that kind to Bryan Cranston in my review of “TOTAL RECALL”. But it was great to see his magic again, in his fiery and funny portrayal of Mendez’s C.I.A. supervisor, Jack O’Donnell.

“ARGO” also featured some wonderful supporting performances as well. Kyle Chandler made two brief, but very memorable appearances and President Jimmy Carter’s foul-mouthed Chief of Staff, Hamilton “Ham” Jordan. It is a pity that his role was not longer. I was also impressed by those who portrayed the besieged diplomats – the always entertaining Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé. Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane were especially memorable as a paranoid Joe Stafford and the hilariously sarcastic Lee Schatz. Victor Garber gave solid support as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who gave the diplomats refuge. And Sheila Vand was marvelous in the tense scenes that featured the Taylors’ Iranian housekeeper, Sahar. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall.

Naturally, “ARGO” is not a perfect movie. Not all of it is historically accurate. This was very obvious in one shot that featured a dilapidated HOLLYWOOD sign that overlooks the Los Angeles Basin. The sign was restored to its former glory in November 1978, 14 to 15 months before Tony Mendez’s arrival in Southern California. And I found Mendez and the diplomats’ encounter with the Iranian airport security guards and escape from the country somewhat contrived and manipulative.

Flawed or not, I cannot deny that I found “ARGO” to be one of the most satisfying movies of the year. I enjoyed it that much, thanks to a first-rate script by Chris Terrio, superb direction by Affleck and an excellent cast that included John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin. In the end, “ARGO” strikes me as another triumph for Affleck and his two co-producers, George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

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“JULIE AND JULIA” (2009) Review

Below is my review of Nora Ephron’s new comedy-drama, “JULIE AND JULIA”, about the life of celebrity chef, Julia Child and the New York blogger who was inspired by her, Julie Powell:

“JULIE AND JULIA” (2009) Review

Written and directed by Nora Ephron,  “JULIE AND JULIA” depicts events in the life of chef Julia Child during the early years in her culinary career; contrasting with the life of a woman named Julie Powell, who aspires to cook all 524 recipes from Child’s cookbook during a single year. Ephron had based her screenplay on two books – “My Life in France”, Child’s autobiography, written with Alex Prud’homme; and “Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously” by Powell. Two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep portrayed Julia Child and two-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams portrayed Julie Powell.

The plot is simple. A New Yorker named Julie Powell, who works for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to help victims of the 9/11 bombings, has become disatisfied with her life when she realizes that her friends (or should I say acquaintances?) have more exciting professional lives. To help her deal with her apathy and knowing that she is an excellent cook, husband Eric (Chris Messina) suggests that she create a blog to record her experiences in cooking a recipe (each day) from Julia Child’s famous cookbook, ” Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. Woven in to Powell’s story is Child’s experiences as the wife of an American diplomat in Paris during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The movie also reveals Child’s entry into the world of French cuisine and her attempts to write and publish a cookbook on French cooking for Americans.

“JULIE AND JULIA” was not a movie that exactly shook my world. It was a warm and engaging look into the lives of two women whose interest in French cuisine attracted the attention of the public. In the case of Julia Child, her decade long attempt to write a cookbook on French cuisine led to her becoming a television celebrity and icon. Julie Powell’s attempt to recount her experiences in preparing the recipes from Child’s cookbook led to her blog, media attention and this movie. I have read a few reviews of the movie and most critics and filmgoers seemed more interested in Child’s early years as a chef in France than they were by Powell’s experiences with her blog. Granted, the Child sequences were a lot of fun, due to Streep’s performance of the charming, enthusiastic and fun-loving chef. But I must admit to being surprised by how much I had enjoyed Powell’s experiences with her blog. I realize that I am going to be bashed for this, but Powell’s experiences seemed to have more emotional substance to them.

I am not saying that the Powell sequences were better written or more entertaining. But due to Ephron’s portrayal of the Texan-turned-New Yorker, the Powell sequences seemed more complex and emotionally satisfying. In other words, Amy Adams – who portrayed Powell – had the meatier role. Most critics and fans of the film would disagree with me. After all, it seemed very obvious that Streep was having a ball portraying the enthusiastic and fun loving Julia Child. Her ability to easily befriend many of the French and her deepening love for French cuisine made it quite easy to see how she quickly became a celebrity. But Ephron never really delved into the darker aspects of Child’s character or marriage – except touch upon the chef’s disappointment at being childless. She certainly did with Powell. And Amy Adams did a superb job in re-creating a very complex and occasionally insecure personality. But I suspect that when the awards season rolls around the corner, it will be Streep who will earn most of the nominations . . . or perhaps all of them.

The rest of the cast of  “JULIE AND JULIA” were just as excellent as Streep and Adams. Stanley Tucci portrayed Child’s diplomat husband, Paul Child. He gave a warm, yet more restrained performance as a man happily caught up in his wife’s growing interest in becoming a chef; yet at the same time, conveyed his character’s unhappiness with his failing diplomatic career due to a change in the country’s political winds. Like Adams, Chris Messina had a more difficult role as Powell’s husband, Eric Powell. Unlike Child, he has to deal with his frustration in his wife’s growing obssession with her blog . . . along with her occasional bouts with arrogance, insecurity and self-absorption. And at one point in the film, he loses his temper in spectacular fashion. I also enjoyed Linda Emond’s performance as French cook Simone Beck, who co-authored Child’s cookbook; and Mary Lynn Rajskub as Powell’s acerbic friend, Amy. One other performance that really caught my eye belonged to Jane Lynch as Julia Child’s equally extroverted sister, Dorothy McWilliams. Watching Lynch and Streep portray the McWilliams sisters take Paris by storm was a joy to behold.

Although I had enjoyed  “JULIA AND JULIA” , I had a few problems with it. One, it was too long. The movie’s pacing started out fine. Unfortunately, I was ready for it to end at least twenty minutes before it actually did. By 100 minutes into the film, the pacing began to drag. And although I had no problems with the movie’s alternating storylines, I felt that it failed to seque smoothly between Child and Powell’s stories. The jump from Powell’s story to Child’s and back seemed ragged and uneven to me. And as I had pointed out before, the story surrounding Child’s story seemed less emotionally complex and more frothy in compare to Powell’s story, giving me another reason to view the movie as uneven.

Despite its flaws, “JULIE AND JULIA” is an entertaining film that many who are into cooking or food would enjoy. Both Meryl Streep and Amy Adams gave first-rate performances. And the movie also gave filmgoers a peek into life for Americans in post-World War II Paris. In the end, I found the movie enjoyable, but not earth-shattering. I would recommend it.