Review – Argo

Review – Argo

2012, 120 mins, 15, Dir. Ben Affleck, starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston and John Goodman.


Argo is Ben Affleck’s third film as a director. Having not seen his previous two, and having heard nothing but abuse related to his acting career (especially when teaming up with Michael Bay), I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But I was pleasantly surprised – Argo turns out to be a taut and intriguing slice of recent history, a thriller which takes a few liberties but has a wicked sense of humour which balances that out.

The film begins with a sequence that explains the situation in Iran in the late 1970s, which is where much of the film takes place. The USA and Britain in 1953 overthrow Iran’s Prime Minister in response to the nationalisation of the oil industry, and the Shah (or King) takes over, crushing all forms of political opposition. Two decades later there are mass protests; the Shah flees, but crowds swarm on the US Embassy. Many of the American diplomats are taken hostage, but six escape and are taken in by the Canadian Embassy. It is the job of Tony Mendez, a CIA Operative, to get them out, and he initiates a very unexpected plan; make the group pretend they are a Canadian film crew scouting for locations for a science-fiction film. It sounds almost ludicrous, and yet as fellow CIA Operative Jack O’Donnell says in the film, ‘It’s the best bad idea we have.’

Perhaps the main reason why Argo is so enjoyable is that it’s so funny. Screenwriter Chris Terrio uses the ridiculousness of the plan to craft some genuinely funny lines about the Hollywood film industry, which features prominently in Mendez’ preparation. John Chambers is his Hollywood guru, a true-life make-up artist who worked on Planet of the Apes, and satisfyingly portrayed by John Goodman. Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, is the disgruntled and aged film director, past his prime, enlisted to add his name to the fake project. It is he who has some of the best dialogue: ‘If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.’

But it is also pacy and well-directed. There are more than a few sequences in the film which keep you on edge, the imposing Iranian officials casting a shadow of doubt over the fates of the diplomats. Affleck is a great director of tension, but it is not just edge-of-your-seat stuff that he excels in. He shows attention to detail, whether it’s the nail on the wall of the Iranian Minister for Culture that once held an (absent) picture of the overthrown Shah, or the camera angles which so faithfully recreate photographs taken in revolutionary Iran. He’s also good with actors, and gets great performances across the board from all his cast, many of whom have simply magnificent 70s moustaches (as if Tom Selleck is showing up in every reel).

Argo may be about a hostage situation, but it is certainly not a film which glorifies America. While we do care for the plight of the six hiding diplomats, the film takes great pains to emphasise that it was indeed the USA that instituted the corrupt Shah, resulting in famine and poverty, and nobody could deny it takes some (admittedly hilarious) swipes at one of its biggest national industries, the movies. Rather, Argo focuses on the strength of co-operation between countries, and does it successfully.

The Six American diplomats, who in the film hide in the Canadian embassy

Inevitably, some parts of the story do change, and towards the end of the film we are given a very Hollywoodised interpretation of the events. It doesn’t matter. For a story which has not been widely told, and as a film partially about that prestigious American industry, Argo is intelligent, hilarious and suspenseful, and knows it. 



Review – The Muppets

Review – The Muppets

2011, 103 mins, U, Dir. James Bobin, starring Amy Adams, Jason Segel, Chris Cooper and The Muppets.

The Muppets

Everyone knows who their favourite Muppet is. In the February edition of Empire, dozens of celebrities gave their verdicts on the character that has most inspired them (mine is the Swedish chef). In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard a single thing about Jim Henson’s puppet creations. After the highly successful Muppet TV show in the 1970s, a number of films were produced, ranging from the surprisingly good (The Muppet Christmas Carol) to disappointing TV specials (The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz). Despite their continued popularity, the iconic creatures haven’t made their way onto the big screen since 1999.

But that’s all about to change. Hitting UK cinemas on Friday is their new film, simply titled “The Muppets“, a film that has received universal critical acclaim. And it’s not hard to see why. Their latest outing is stylistically quite different from all that has come before it. For one thing, it’s incredibly frenetic, almost as frenetic as Animal (although in the film he is living in a celebrity anger-management clinic) and the song and dance numbers have a wonderful feeling of spontaneity. No surprise there, as the film is directed by James Bobin, creator of Flight of the Conchords, who uses his absurd sense of humour to great effect. Bret Mackenzie, one of the conchords, also contributes by writing some songs for the film – “Man or Muppet” has now been nominated for an Oscar. The humour is intelligent and often self-referential, Fozzie Bear at one point exclaiming “Wow, that was such an expensive looking explosion! I can’t believe we had that in the budget.” 

The three (human) leads do a great job and Chris Cooper is hilarious as the (admittedly rather stereotypical) greedy oil magnate, especially when he randomly bursts into song halfway through and frequently demands “maniacal laughter” from his henchmen. The film is especially noteworthy for its vast range of celebrity cameos, harking back to the days of the Muppet Show, which saw the likes of Peter Sellers and Steve Martin as guest hosts. This time round, there are appearances from Jack Black (whom the Muppets kidnap in a kind of spoof Chinese martial-arts scene), Ken Jeong, Kristen Schaal (a lead character in the conchords show), Alan Arkin, Zack Galifianakis, Jim Parsons, Emily Blunt and numerous others. Elmo sadly doesn’t appear for legal reasons (although a documentary on his puppeteer, Being Elmo, was widely acclaimed recently). 

It is a real joy to see the Muppets back on top form. They are still as funny as ever, spurred on by Kermit’s neverending optimism (and Miss Piggy’s neverending vanity). The story isn’t quite as dazzling as its numbers but it’s conceptually very impressive. The freshness of this new offering is something to behold, and it certainly proves Bobin as one of the most creative directors around. It’s good to have you back, Kermit.

4 stars out of 5