It sounds like an all-too-Hollywood idea for a high-concept suspense thriller: A sextet of State Department employees are trapped in Iran, and their only hope for escape lies with an ingenious CIA official who plans to free the Americans by having them pose as a location-scouting team for a Canadian science-fiction movie. Yet within its first minutes, director/star Ben Affleck's Argo - based on a recently declassified chapter of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80 - registers as terrifically, nerve-rackingly authentic, even if the film's most enjoyable elements are, in truth, as Hollywood as they come.
Those of you who were alive and watching movies in the 1970s will likely be tickled by Argo's vérité as soon as you see the return of that period's familiar Warner Bros. logo, followed by the instantly recognizable, disco-era font of the opening credits - the one that makes the words look like they've been inflated with a bicycle pump. But beyond these niceties and the film's note-perfect scenic and costume design, the spirit of the late '70s is wholly alive in Affleck's filmmaking, which boasts the propulsive force and drive of such classic thrillers as Three Days of the Condor and All the President's Men. There's very little violence in Argo, yet Affleck stages the looming threat of violence with spectacular assurance; the rhythms of his scenes, with their action seemingly caught on the fly, are jagged and unpredictable, and even terse, quiet conversations seem to have electric currents racing through them. It's the strangest thing about Ben Affleck. As a performer, the man is frequently credible and occasionally impressive, but also almost dangerously low-key; charming though he is, Affleck doesn't always seem fully awake onscreen. (Even here, giving a solid performance as CIA agent Tony Mendez, he doesn't come across as truly connected with either his co-stars or his character's plight.) As a director, though - for Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and this new film - Affleck appears fully alert to composition and nuance and tempo, and his more-than-admirable professionalism makes you, as an audience member, feel fully alert, too.
Of course, it would be tough not to feel alert when you're being entertained as thoroughly as you are here, and this factual tale having (mini-Spoiler Alert) a happy ending offers Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio a luxury rarely afforded the makers of suspense thrillers: The movie is allowed, for a goodly amount of its running time, to be really, really funny. Much of its humor stems from the clipped, amusingly steely deliveries of Affleck and Bryan Cranston, the latter playing a CIA superior who grudgingly agrees to Mendez's improbable plan. But it's in the film's Tinseltown sequences, and the rescue-mission recruitment of makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), that Affleck's offering is at its most unexpectedly hilarious; Goodman, with his beaming geniality, and Arkin, with his sardonic grumpiness, lend the film rich comic texture without, for an instant, diminishing the film's inherent seriousness. The characters' priceless one-liners, like the breathlessly exciting (and fictional) nail-biter of a climax here, may be pure Hollywood, but they're employed in service of Hollywood movie-making at its finest. "If I'm going to make a fake movie," growls Arkin's producer, "it's going to be a fake hit." Argo, happily, is a real movie - a sharp, smart, marvelously confident movie - and it's all but destined to be a real, and really big, hit.
As someone who's borderline obsessed with the violent comedies of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, and who's in the constant process of committing McDonagh's feature-film debut In Bruges to memory, I was more than a little psyched to see the writer/director's new Seven Psychopaths. And you know that feeling you get when your inflated expectations about a movie cause you to be inevitably disappointed by the results? That absolutely did not happen to me here. A wildly profane and bloody farce that finds Colin Farrell's alcoholic, blocked screenwriter associating with some of Hollywood's most verbally dexterous lunatics, McDonagh's latest is a lightly profound, ceaselessly quotable meditation on storytelling and creative ownership, and if you can get on board with the movie's cheerful nihilism and Grand Guignol flourishes, you, too, might find it irresistible. I fell a bit in love with the film during its opening sequence, which featured Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg as squabbling assassins who make the unfortunate acquaintance of a masked individual who is clearly not a Boardwalk Empire fan. But there was really no end of scenes I didn't adore in this fast-paced, proudly macabre lark; though lacking the dramatic heft of In Bruges or theatre pieces such as McDonagh's The Pillowman and Lonesome West, Seven Psychopaths is still thrillingly demented fun. And while Farrell is in first-rate straight-man form, the film is routinely stolen by Sam Rockwell as his eccentric best bud, and Woody Harrelson as a sociopathic dog owner, and, best of all, Christopher Walken as ... oh, does it really matter? It's Christopher Walken, for Pete's sake. You just know he's gonna be the craziest and funniest one of 'em all.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
Another wannabe writer - a wannabe anything, really - is the focus of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, writer/director Stephen Chbosky's sweet-natured, serious-minded, and altogether wonderful adaptation of his beloved young-adult novel. A detailed and evocative coming-of-age drama in which the titular wallflower, Logan Lerman's Charlie, learns about life and love during his freshman year of high school, the movie displays almost none of the tweeness and self-consciousness of many works in its genre. Filmed with lovely, graceful elegance and a true feel for its early-'90s time period and urban-Pennsylvania locale, Chbosky's big-hearted tale of adolescent anguish and exhilaration is a tender, emotionally insightful depiction of youth, and it's acted about as well as you could hope for ... which, frankly, is a surprise considering that its lead is being played by Lerman. A callow, hollow presence as heroic figures in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and the 2011 The Three Musketeers, Lerman, much like Shia LaBeouf in Lawless, comes into his own here playing easily wounded and decidedly uncool, and his winning sweetness is matched by the joyous bravado of Ezra Miller, superb as Charlie's gay, fearless pal Patrick. (It's a relief seeing Miller so empathetic after his terrifying turn as the young mass murderer of last year's We Need to Talk About Kevin. I can now look at the guy again without wanting to hide under the bed.) With equally lovely work courtesy of Johnny Simmons, as a closeted football player, and Mae Whitman - forever Arrested Development's Ann Veal - as Charlie's first girlfriend, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a touching and funny and subtly heartbreaking achievement, and one made all the more notable for its quite outstanding performance by Emma Watson, whose faraway sadness as the free spirited Sam can make you misty-eyed without her having to say a thing. And we thought Hermione was the possessor of magic.
Can you handle yet another movie about a struggling writer? How about if this one comes complete with creepy snuff films and the ghosts of deceased children and a terrorized Ethan Hawke and an otherworldly killer named Mr. Boogie? In director Scott Derrickson's Sinister, Hawke's true-crime author, for journalistic reasons, moves his clan into the home of a recently massacred family, and it's probably superfluous to say that good times are not in the offing. But for all of the expected silliness and lame plotting inherent in this supernatural-serial-killer flick, I'm happy to report that it does feature a terrifyingly insistent score and handful of truly horrifying shock effects; the home-movie sequence involving a rolling lawnmower gave me a heartier, more satisfying jolt than I've experienced in any other fright film this year. And while, Hawke's and Vincent D'Onofrio's contributions excepted, the acting here leans toward the weak side, there is at least one terrifically appealing performance courtesy of James Ransone, playing perhaps the most adorably solicitous sheriff's deputy since Twin Peaks' Deputy Andy. Sinister isn't bad at all, but in a horror-movie climate as routinely disappointing as ours currently is, I hope it goes without saying that any echoes of David Lynch are welcome in the extreme.
Follow Mike on Twitter at Twitter.com/MikeSchulzNow.