domingo, 24 de febrero de 2013

Argo: A cosmic conflagration

"This is the best bad plan we have... by far, sir."
--Jack O'Donnell

If it wasn't based on real events, one could say that the premise of Argo is one of the most absurd ideas ever. And I have to wonder how many probably laughed at it at the CIA Headquarters when Tony Mendez pitched it in. The fact that it really happened only makes it even more impressive. In a way, that reminds me of Compliance, another recent 2012 watch which is improved by the realization that what one saw on the screen actually happened.

The film follows the efforts of the CIA and the government to rescue six diplomats from Iran in the middle of the 1979 hostage crisis at the embassy. The film opens with a compelling, easy-to-follow prologue explaining the background of the political situation of Iran at the moment. I can see how some people might consider it sort of an oversimplification of things; an "Iran for Dummies", if you may. But I think it served its purpose and successfully established the environment in which the film takes place. After that, we see the riots in front of the embassy escalate until hundred of people manage to storm inside forcing the six diplomats to escape into the Tehran streets and into hiding at the house of the Canadian ambassador.

Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA operative and exfiltration expert, brought in as a consultant by the State Department. As the government scrambles for possible covers to exfiltrate the diplomats, Mendez comes up with the idea of using the filming of a cheesy sci-fi film as the cover. As absurd as it might seem, Mendez worked the logistics of the plan with friend and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), which includes setting up a phony production company, choose a script, design posters and storyboards, and make public script readings.

As Mendez prepares to travel to Iran, he sets up fake credentials and identities for the six diplomats, who are growing more desperate as time passes by, and the possibility of being captured increases. Affleck successfully builds a tense atmosphere around the events with a tight direction by intercutting different events to get the point that they are not safe. None of the diplomats is fleshed out enough, but still the different actors did well with what little was given to them.

Goodman and Arkin were pretty good, and played well off each other. But I'm surprised that Arkin was nominated for this. His performance, although charismatic, wasn't that impressive to me. He did have the best line of the film though ("Argo fuck yourself!"). Affleck was pretty good as well, considering that his role was more of a stoic operative, and required little emotion. But he did handle well those subtle moments of introspection in Mendez mind.

Overall, Argo is a neatly crafted film in terms of directing. Affleck manages to infuse tension in something that probably shouldn't have, considering that lots of people know the outcome. In a way, that reminded me of Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, which also had a decent amount of tension, despite the fact that we all know what happened. Plus, he does so without resorting to the typical thriller clichés of explosions, shootouts, and whatnot. As the film progresses, the implausibility of all the "close calls" that the group faces start to mount, but I still found it to be effective. Even though I know it was silly, script-wise, to have the Iranians racing the plane at the last moment, I was still on the edge of my seat waiting for the plane to take off. Kudos to Affleck and Co. for that. Another small moment of "forced irony" was when they showed Sahar crossing the border to Iraq in the end. Interesting, but I could've done without that "a-ha!" moment.

In my opinion, Affleck continues to show that he has the skills to be one of the best current directors. Argo might not be a masterpiece, but it was an entertaining and well crafted film. Grade: B+

(All pictures belong to Warner Bros. and its affiliates)

Spoorloos: Obsession and the banality of evil

(Although I tried to refrain from SPOILERS, the review might include some)

Once upon a time, in the mid-90s, a young teenager that knew little of film rented a 1993 film called The Vanishing. The film, starring some of the 90s hottest stars (Kiefer Sutherland, Nancy Travis, Sandra Bullock) ended up being a mildly enjoyable, run-of-the-mill thriller that vanished into forgetfulness shortly after. Fast-forward a couple of years after, the teenager started getting more into films, and at some point found out that the film he had seen was a remake of an European film of the same name. Reading more about it, he found out that the American remake had pretty much changed the whole story in favor of a "happy ending". But what made everything weirder is the fact that the remake was handled by the same man that had written and directed the original: George Sluizer. 10+ years after, the teenager, now a 30-something, decided to give the original a try and what a surprise he had.

There's something to be said when you can watch a film that you already know the outcome and still be thrilled by it and enjoy it. That was my case with Spoorloos which, despite following the same premise as its remake that I happened to see first, it successfully managed to stand on its own not allowing to be overshadowed by its "evil twin brother". Whereas The Vanishing ended up being a forgettable, run-of-the-mill thriller for me back in the 90s, Spoorloos was a compelling and dark film that's still in my head because of its haunting ending.

For those that hadn't heard of it, Spoorloos follows a young couple: Rex and Saskia (Gene Bervoets and Johana ter Steege) as they share a vacation trip through France. During a routine gas stop, Saskia disappears, which launches Rex on a spiral of desperation and obsession for the next three years. Rex's obsession, which has rendered him unable to hold a healthy relationship with his new girlfriend (Gwen Eckhaus), also puts him on television where he pleads the kidnapper to just let him know the truth. This prompts the inconspicuous man (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) into the inevitable face-off with Rex.

All of the performances are pretty good, but I was mostly surprised by Bervoets, who manages to convey Rex's feelings of desperation, obsession, and curiosity successfully, thus making the climatic moments more believable. Donnadieu is also pretty good as the kidnapper: common man Raymond Lemorne, who plays the man with a creepy banality to it, without turning him into a "demon". Their eventual meeting even hints at how similar, or how common, they both are.

The ending was pretty dark and haunting. I think that what happens there is one of the worst fears any of us has. The fact that it mirrors both Saskia's, and then Rex's dreams only makes it more haunting. Yet another haunting thought that passed my mind in the end was, why would someone want to completely change the ending, let alone the same director, in a remake? Sure, I know that in the 90's the studio probably wanted a "happy ending", but then why remake a film if you're going to ax the whole point of it? It's baffling and I have to wonder why Sluizer went with it.

All in all, a very intense watch and a perfect portrayal of what Mark Kermode referred to as the "banality of evil", and the dangers of obsession. Similar portrayals that come to mind are Jake Gyllenhaal's in Zodiac and Gary Oldman in Romeo is Bleeding. Grade: A-

(All pictures belong to Argos Films and its affiliates)

sábado, 9 de febrero de 2013

Bad 4 Good: Teen angst at its early 90's best

The early 90s was a tough time for heavy metal. Granted, the rise of grunge music pushed away lots of crappy acts, but other worthy ones got lost in the shuffle of musical trends. Bad 4 Good could count as one of this victims. The band was formed under the guidance of guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, and consisted of four talented teenagers from 11 to 16 years old. Lead singer Danny Cooksey was known for his 2-year stint as redheaded kid Sam McKinney in Diff'rent Strokes, while guitarist Thomas McRocklin had appeared as "Lil' Stevie Vai" on Vai's video "The Audience is Listening" (see it here).

Refugee's album cover
The band released their only album, Refugee, in 1992. The lyrics aren't particularly deep. They cover all the obligatory subjects of rock songs of that era. From the rebellious nature of "Bangin' Time Again" and Phil Lynott's cover of "Nineteen", to the surprisingly sex-charged "Rockin' My Body", or the eco-friendly "We're Gonna Fight". There are also a couple of solid power ballads in "Slow and Beautiful" and "Nothing's Great About a Heartache". The latter is particularly good, at least for my 80s taste. The album even features a rap/heavy metal fusion called "Felony".

There's also an interesting song called "Terminate" with lyrics that seem inspired by the Terminator films. The song includes lyrics like "built like a hearse, seven times Mr. Universe" and "he's crying tears of metal in the 21st century" or "he'll look you in the eyes and tell you that he'll be back". Considering that Cooksey had a small role as John Connor's friend on Terminator 2, which was released the same year as the album, it's possible that the song was intended to be sold for the soundtrack, but didn't make it.

Despite the seemingly cliché and formulaic nature of the lyrics, the boys more than make up with their talents. Cooksey has a strong, grave voice that lends itself perfectly for screams and wails, but also for strong vocals, while McRocklin, who was a Vai protege, shows how much he learned from his mentor. Bassist Zack Young and drummer Brooks Wackerman aren't left behind either. Although evident in most of the songs, these talents are better showcased in the instrumental headbanger "Tyre Kickin' (Ya Makin' Me Nervous)".

Bad 4 Good disbanded shortly after the album release, and their members moved on to other ventures. Cooksey has become a prolific voice-actor, Wackerman is playing drums for Bad Religion as well as other bands, Young has played for several bands like A.I., while McRocklin quit the business allegedly "fed up" with the industry. But still, as a perennial lover of 80s heavy metal, this is an album I gravitate towards a lot. If you are a fan of 80s metal, the album is a must to listen to; and even if you're just a heavy metal/rock fan, period, you should give the album a try. Grade: A-

(All the pictures belong to Interscope, its parents and affiliates)

domingo, 3 de febrero de 2013

Compliance: A tough, uneasy watch

Some films are fun to watch, while others are a thrill, edge-of-your-seat experience. A few, however, are just too tough to watch, because of the subject matter or the way it is handled (Requiem for a Dream comes to mind). Compliance falls in this last category, not because it is a bad film; far from it. But because it is done so well, that you can feel the uneasiness of the characters involved.

Compliance follows a prank call that goes too far, involving Susan (Ann Dowd), who is the manager of a fast-food restaurant and Becky (Dreama Walker), one of her young employees. The prank caller pretends to be an officer investigating a theft that might involve Becky, but also hints at a possible bigger bust involving her brother as well. As the prank goes on, the situation gets more out of hand until its tragic consequences. Now, it may sound like a simple premise, but the film turned out to be one of the most uncomfortable watches I've had recently. 

The film successfully establishes Susan as a meek, insecure woman which makes the caller's manipulations more believable. Dowd's performance is nothing short of great, but she's not the only one. Pat Healy is disturbingly good as the caller. His cold, carefree performance makes it all the more unnerving and creepy; and Bill Camp, who plays Susan's fiancee, is equally great. Finally, kudos to Dreama Walker for another great performance in such a tough role. She held her own and managed to make Becky's descent into a scared, confused, and vulnerable victim a believable one.

As the film reached its climax, it begins to push the boundaries of plausibility. But after reading the events it was inspired on and realizing it all happened almost as it was seen on the film, it puts things in perspective and only makes it harder to stomach. As I told my wife in the end, reality is scarier than fiction. One starts to wonder "What would I have done if I were in that situation" and, the way things are presented in the film, one can understand why things went as far as they did. Most people are condemning the manager for allowing this to happen, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

Overall, a really good film with great performances all-around, but one I don't see myself rewatching anytime soon. Grade: A-

(All pictures belong to Magnolia Pictures and its affiliates)