“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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“THE TOWN” (2010) Review

“THE TOWN” (2010) Review

I have never seen “GONE BABY GONE”, Ben Affleck’s debut as a movie director. But after seeing his second directorial effort, “THE TOWN”, I now find myself feeling determined to see it. Why? I believe that Affleck just might have a possible future as a successful movie director. 

Based upon Chuck Hogan’s 2007 novel called “Prince of Thieves”“THE TOWN” turned out to be an interesting crime drama about a working-class Bostonian from the Charlestown neighborhood named Doug MacRay (Affleck), who also happened to be part of a gang of brutal bank robbers. Their robbery of a Cambridge bank at the beginning of the movie allowed him to become acquainted with Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), one of the bank’s managers. Doug and his fellow bank robbers (Jeremy Renner, Slaine and Owen Burke) also attracted the attention of one Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), a ruthless FBI agent bent upon capturing or killing them.

I have never read Hogan’s novel. But I must admit that I really enjoyed Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard’s adaptation of it. One aspect of the movie that impressed me was its balanced mixture of action, romance and psychological drama. In fact, I found myself surprised that as the film’s director, Afflect managed to utilize all of these different aspects of the story and keep the pacing from becoming uneven. Another aspect of the movie turned out to be Robert Elswit’s photography. His sharp colors and focus gave Boston – including its old sections – a colorful look that made me longed to pack my belongings and move to the East Coast. Dylan Tichenor’s editing perfectly emphasized the movie’s action sequences without resorting to the dizzying camera work and quick cuts that seemed to have pervaded many action films in the past three to five years.

There were some aspects of “THE TOWN” that I found questionable. The movie never explained the military-style haircuts worn by the four bank robbers. The script revealed that the MacRay character had spent some time in the military, but never made it clear when that happened. Nor did the script ever revealed the background of MacRay’s friends, especially his best friend James “Jem” Coughlin (Renner). And as much as I admire Jon Hamm as an actor, his attempt at a Boston accent sucked. Although he only made an attempt in one scene, Affleck should have reshot that scene with Hamm’s natural accent. Speaking of accents, there were moments when I found the cast’s use of Boston slang rather incomprehensible. I certainly look forward to the movie’s DVD release . . . and close captions.

Unlike his directorial debut “GONE BABY GONE”, Ben Affleck did not remain behind the camera. He also portrayed the main character, Doug MacRay. And he did an excellent job in portraying the complex bank robber torn between his life of crime, the woman he fell in love with and the lies he told to maintain their relationship. I have always enjoyed Affleck’s ability to portray complex characters. It seems a pity that many film critics and moviegoers seemed incapable of appreciating his talents as an actor. Although I have been aware of Rebecca Hall since “VICKY BARCELONA”, I must admit that I have not found her recent roles very interesting. I almost came to the same conclusion about her role as bank manager Claire Keesey . . . until the moment when she discovered the truth about Doug’s crimes. At that moment, Hall breathed life into the role, transforming her from what would be conceived as a nice woman, into a character that proved to be just as complex as the others.

Jon Hamm took time off from his hit television series, “MAD MEN” to portray F.B.I. Special Agent Adam Frawley, a character completely different from his 1960s ad man. And being the top notch actor he has always been, Hamm did a superb job in conveying his character’s ruthless determination to stop the bank robbers by any means necessary. Recent Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner portrayed an equally ruthless character, Charlestown bank robber, James “Jem” Coughlin, with great depth, complexity and first-rate acting. What made Renner’s performance so interesting to me was his character’s ruthless determination to maintain the status quo in his personal life – which included keeping MacRay in his life and in his sister’s life. Speaking of the latter, Blake Lively gave an outstanding performance as Krista Coughlin, Jem’s younger sister. Lively’s excellent performance easily conveyed her character’s weariness and desperate longing for MacRay to be in her life and to escape the economic and social trap of Charlestown.

Veteran actors Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite gave brief, yet top-notch performances in “THE TOWN”. What I found ironic about their appearances was that their characters had something to say to Affleck’s MacRay about his mother. Cooper portrayed Stephen MacRay, Doug’s jailbird father, who was serving a life-long prison term for robbery and murder. Postlethwaite portrayed Fergie the Florist, an Irish-born florist and crime boss that provided robbery jobs for MacRay and his crew. As I had stated earlier, both characters had something to say about the late Mrs. MacRay. Whereas Mr. MacRay’s memories were filled with cynicism and resignation, Fergie spoke of Doug’s mother with a great deal of malice and contempt. And both Cooper and Postlethwaite were superb in their roles.

Despite a few quibbles I might have about “THE TOWN”, I must admit that I enjoyed it very much. The movie turned out to be a first-rate adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel with an excellent script, exciting action sequences and superb acting by a well-picked cast. Because of “THE TOWN”, I look forward to more directing endeavors by Ben Affleck.

“STAR TREK VOYAGER”: “The Curious Affair of B’Elanna Torres’ Age”

 

“STAR TREK VOYAGER”:  “The Curious Age of B’Elanna Torres’ Age”

Over the years there have been many complaints about the inconsistency regarding characters and stories in TREK series, ”Star Trek: Voyager” (1995-2001). I will not deny that the series has been guilty of the occasional inconsistency. To be frank, all of the five TREK series and many of its movies are guilty of the same. However, I was shocked and surprised to learn that some of the websites that provide information on the entire franchise turned out to be just as inconsistent.

While perusing the http://www.wikipedia.com website, I was surprised to discover a major discrepancy featuring one of the major characters on ”Voyager”, namely that of the Chief Engineer, B’Elanna Torres. According to this site, B’Elanna was born in 2349, the same year as Operations Chief, Harry Kim. It also included that B’Elanna had joined Starfleet Academy in 2366, right after her last meeting with her mother, Miral Torres. Two years later in 2368, B’Elanna allegedly resigned from Starfleet Academy and not long afterwards, joined Chakotay’s cell in the Maquis. There is another source that confirms this – namely Jeri Taylor’s Voyager novel, ”Pathways”. Personally, I had major problems with this summation.

One, I find it hard to believe that B’Elanna had joined the Maquis sometime between 2368 (the year that Chakotay had resigned from Starfleet and joined the Maquis) and 2369. If this is true, then she would have first met Tom Paris, in the Maquis. But the television series had never hinted that B’Elanna and Tom knew each other before Voyager was hurled into the Delta Quadrant in early 2371. The early Season 2 episode, ”Non-Sequitur” made it clear that Tom had served his full sentence in a Federation prison – eighteen months in an alternate timeline that Harry Kim found himself in. According to the episode and the stardate, Tom had been released from prison in September 2371. Which means that Tom had been captured and imprisoned by the Federation in March 2370. And the Season 2 episode, Dreadnought”, made it clear that Voyager’s encounter with Cardassian missile occurred nearly on the second anniversary of B’Elanna’s first encounter with the missile – not long after she had joined Chakotay’s cell. According to the stardate, ”Dreadnought” occurred in the summer of 2372, which means that B’Elanna had joined Chakotay’s cell sometime during the late spring of 2370.

Also, it is not possible that B’Elanna had joined Starfleet Academy in 2366, after seeing her mother for the last time. According to the late Season 5 episode, ”The Equinox”, B’Elanna had not seen her old Academy boyfriend, Maxwell Burke, in ten years. ”The Equinox” was probably set in late 2375, which means that she and Burke had last seen each other in 2365. This also leads me to believe that B’Elanna had already been in Starfleet Academy by 2366. I am also convinced that it is possible that B’Elanna had last met with her mother after resigning from Starfleet Academy and not before joining it. Although there is no episode that claimed that B’Elanna had last spoken to her mother after leaving Starfleet, the Season 6 episode, ”Barge of the Dead” certainly did not make it clear that she had joined Starfleet Academy after her last meeting with Miral – despite what Wikipedia and Jeri Taylor have claimed.

There is one last reason why I find it difficult to accept that B’Elanna was born in 2349. It happens to be the same birth year as her close friend, Harry Kim. If the two friends had been born in the same year, this meant that both had entered Starfleet around the same time. And both would have immediately been placed on the Engineering track. Their chances of meeting for the first time at the Academy would have been pretty good. Yet, the premiere episode, ”Caretaker” makes it pretty clear that B’Elanna and Harry met for the first time, while in the Ocampan settlement.

It is the series itself that makes it easy for me to refute the claim that B’Elanna Torres had joined the Maquis in 2368 or that she had been born in 2349. In regard to the first claim, the stardates provided in episodes like ”Non-Sequitur” and ”Dreadnought” seemed to contradict Wikipedia or Jeri Taylor that B’Elanna had joined the Maquis in 2368. And episodes like ”Caretaker”, ”The Equinox” and ”Barge of the Dead” gives enough evidence to refute the claim that B’Elanna had been born in 2349.

About an hour ago, I had examined the Wikipedia. Changes had been made. It no longer claimed that B’Elanna had been born in 2349. Instead, it claimed that she had been born in 2346. I do not know if this is true, but it seems a lot more plausible than its earlier claim. But I would not be surprised if these changes were removed by the site’s webmaster. No matter. I know what I believe.