Chuck Koplinski: Affleck in director's chair delivers engrossing 'Argo'

If there's a recurring theme in the three films Ben Affleck has directed, it's that he's fascinated with how characters react when they're trapped.

"Gone Baby Gone" dealt with the long-term ramifications of an act done in kindness that ultimately results in inescapable and tragic consequences. "The Town" concerned itself with people trapped by their economic circumstances and the dire acts they resort to in an effort to free themselves. His latest, "Argo," is based on a real-life spy caper that recounts the efforts of a lone CIA "exfiltration" expert who devises an outlandish plan to help free six Americans trapped in Iran during the hostage crisis that began in 1979.

Tautly constructed and surprisingly funny at times, this is Affleck's most accomplished film as he's able to combine disparate tones to great effect while cutting back and forth between two equally intriguing storylines. The result is a wholly entertaining movie that effectively pushes viewers to the edge of their seats while telling its tale with a liberal dose of ironic humor that underscores how ludicrous and miraculous these events were.

Affleck also stars as Tony Mendez, an extraction specialist brought in by his old CIA colleague Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) once the agency gets word that six workers have escaped from the U.S. Embassy in Iran before it was taken by extremists. They've taken refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), and all involved are stymied as to how to go about rescuing these citizens without creating even more turmoil.

Desperate, Mendez concocts a plan in which he will pose as an employee of a Canadian film company who wants to come to Iran with a crew to scout locations for a big-budget science-fiction epic. To make this venture seem credible and provide solid backstories for all involved, he consults with a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman) and Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) who help him set up a legitimate production company to produce "Argo," a blatant "Star Wars" rip-off that Mendez hopes will appear authentic enough to fool the Iranian authorities.

Needless to say, Mendez's plan is met with skepticism not only by his superiors but also those he's trying to help. The screenplay by Chris Terrio does a marvelous job of creating tension on multiple fronts as the infighting among the six being held threatens to reach a fever pitch throughout the film's second half. In one of the movie's most effective scenes, when Mendez and his charges are pretending to scout locales at an open bazaar, suspense is raised not only through their interactions with the locals, but also by the fact that any member of the "crew" may crack and forget their cover story at any time.

Affleck has found his niche here with sequences such as this as well as the film's conclusion that finds Mendez and company trying to get through the Tehran airport to a plane that will take them to freedom. Cutting back and forth between that locale and CIA headquarters, which has dropped the ball in making ticket reservations for the group, the filmmaker expertly and slowly increases the tension without resorting to cheap melodramatics. Affleck creates a sense of realism throughout, not only through the film's production design, but also in the way in which he allows the story to unfold organically. This serves to help heighten the suspense of the movie, as it's seemingly free of artifice, eschewing any false notes in its effort to tell the story honestly.

As good as he is behind the camera, Affleck is the weak link in front of it. He simply does not have the presence needed for Mendez, who should ooze confidence at every turn. Fortunately, he has an eye for casting, as Cranston is quite good as the hard-nosed but supportive superior, while Goodman and Arkin steal every scene they're in, each of them relishing the cynical nature of their characters. Their performances, as well as Affleck's steady hand behind the camera, help make "Argo" not only one of the most fascinating films of the year, but also one of the most entertaining.

Also new in theaters

Pleasant surprises abound in "Here Comes the Boom." (3 stars out of 4) The last thing I expected when walking in to see Kevin James' latest, "Here Comes the Boom," was to be surprised by it. Wouldn't you know it, I was — and pleasantly at that, as the film is unabashedly patriotic without overdoing it, speaks to the all-too-prevalent problem of underfunded public schools and features an inspirational story that doesn't simply show what one underdog can achieve but what an entire community can accomplish when working toward a common goal. To be sure, James' brand of humor is present as well — pratfalls abound as well as awkward moments between our hero and the woman he's pursuing — but neither is overdone, which results in a charming change of pace.

James is Scott Voss, a veteran science teacher at a Boston high school who has reached the midway point of his career and is content to coast toward retirement. However, he's roused to action when it's revealed that the school will have to cut its music program because of budgetary issues. This will leave the head of that department, Marty Streb (Henry Winkler), without a job, a circumstance that couldn't come at a worse time as he has just found out he's about to become a father again. Desperate and at loose ends, Voss comes up with the insane notion of participating in various amateur mixed martial arts tournaments in order to raise the necessary $48,000 to save the program. Reasoning that he'll make money even if he loses, the out-of-shape educator quickly finds out just how outmatched he is. However, one of the students in the citizenship class he's teaching part time, Niko (Bas Rutten), is a former fighter, and he agrees to help Voss train in exchange for private tutoring lessons so that he can pass the test to become a U.S. citizen.

Reminiscent of films made during the Great Depression, "Boom" comes off as a sincere expression of the American ideal; that one is able to transform himself through hard work and that one can serve as a positive example for others, which can help exact widespread change. It's a notion that we needed to hear then, and one we surely could stand to hear now. James and co-writers Allan Loeb and Rock Reuben unabashedly put forth the notion that America is still the land of opportunity, as seen through the eyes of Niko, who stops at nothing to become a citizen, as well as a place where, when its citizens unite behind a cause, anything is possible. This is Frank Capra territory, and while director Frank Coraci will never be mentioned in the same breath as that great artist, he wisely doesn't overplay things here, never opting for a moment that's too cute or manipulative, thus keeping the film's sincerity in tact.

Without question, "Boom" has its fair share of corny moments, but there's an innocence at play as well that makes it charming. And while I came to accept the notion that Voss might be able to survive in the world of MMA, I had a harder time accepting the fact that he could end up with a woman as lovely as school nurse Bella, played by Salma Hayek. Then again, with the film espousing that America is the country where dreams come true, Voss' success in this arena would qualify as his "Pursuit of Happiness," so I'll let it pass.

"Take This Waltz" stumbles over own pretentions. (1 star out of 4) Pretentious, disjointed and overlong, Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz" is a shambling mess of a movie that knows what it wants to say but goes about it in such a self-consciously arty manner that its message becomes obscured. That it's populated by self-absorbed, unappealing characters doesn't help matters either, as the film's running time of nearly two hours seems more like a prolonged sentence in self-flagellation.

The usually appealing Michelle Williams is Margot, a young woman who is suddenly awash with marital discontent after meeting Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a business flight and forming an immediate connection. They share a cab from the airport and find — coincidence of coincidences — that they live across the street from one another. Despite her being married, the pair wind up meeting from time to time, doing their best to resist the passion that exists between them, and when they're not together, Margot wastes no time fantasizing about her dream lover, all of this going on around her oblivious husband Lou (Seth Rogan).

Daniel is nothing more than a fantasy object, the sort of sensitive guy all women dream of as he's able to "understand" all they're going through, is easy to talk to and great in bed. He even has a cutesy job as he pulls a rickshaw around town, going so far as to giving Margot and Lou a ride in one of the film's best scenes.

Meanwhile, Williams portrays Margot as a woman adrift in a sea of uncertainty, so much so I was hoping she would drown. Her back-and-forth nature and the actress' mealy demeanor make it nearly impossible to empathize with her emotional plight. When you don't believe in one of the romantic leads and come to despise the other, you know the movie has jumped the rails.

Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of the film is that it's so calculated. Its symbolism is obvious and ham-fisted (get a load of the amusement park ride scene at the end) and one character in particular — Lou's alcoholic sister played by Sarah Silverman — isn't presented as a real person because she's really a plot convenience. She appears early in the film, drops out of sight and then pops up during its awkward conclusion to deliver a speech in which she figuratively gives Margot a slap across the face which snaps her out of her stupor.

The problem is that, because Polley's script and direction are so obvious and deliberate, it comes off as a remote exercise, rather than an impassioned look at love and lust. Needless to say, you're much better off sitting this "Waltz" out.

 

'Argo'

3 1/2 stars out of 4

Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Scott McNairy, Rory Cochrane and Kyle Chandler.

Directed by Ben Affleck; produced by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Affleck; screenplay by Chris Terrio.

A Warner Brothers Pictures release. 120 minutes. Rated R (language and some violent images). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow him on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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