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. 



California food

‘You’re not still going on about California, are you?’

Well, yes, I am. And that’s because I have neglected to tell you about one of the most delectable parts of my holiday, the food. The gargantuan serving sizes of burgers, pizzas, sandwiches and pancakes acted as a strong magnet in bringing me to the USA for the third time. And so for the lip-smacking benefit of all, here’s a post on the cream of the crop of the meals I ate whilst over in America.

The first morning we were there we ventured out in search of a true American breakfast. So we settled at Denny’s, self-styled ‘America’s Diner‘, where we chowed down on pancakes, grits, french toast, eggs, bacon and countless refills of coffee. Here’s what I had that morning:

I believe the operative word for this is a ‘French Toast Slam’

And here’s a picture of all of our breakfasts. This might not seem like much to our American cousins, but this could probably feed my family for a week.

Breakfast at Denny’s

The waiters and waitresses were very helpful and courteous, stopping several times to refill our coffee from jugs that looked like they were right out of a movie. I therefore nearly started a rant straight out of Reservoir Dogs about not believing in tipping but they were all so nice in there that there was no need, and we ended up visiting Denny’s three times in total.

Another restaurant that we saw all over the place in California was In’n’Out. Priding itself on its simplicity, there are just four uncomplicated burgers on the menu. However, there exists within the restaurant a Secret Menu, which isn’t too secret among Californians who love eating there! Items on the Secret Menu actually outnumber those on the regular menu, and you can style your burger into practically any way you want. They even show up on the receipt! On the recommendation of a friend, I chose the most popular item, an Animal style burger, which has a secret sauce, a mustard-cooked beef patty and lettuce and tomato. The fries were done the same way. It was absolutely delicious.

This one was located on Sunset Boulevard.
Animal Style Cheeseburger
Animal Style fries

I showed these pictures to my friend who lived in California for a number of years. He groaned in longing and berated me for whetting his appetite once more. In’n’Out really is one of the nicest places you’ll eat in California – just remember to have your burger done Animal Style.

Now, I’ve forgotten to mention this so far, but about a year ago I was diagnosed with eosinophilic oesophagitis – in other words, an allergy to cow’s milk and soya. Since this was diagnosed rather late, and since I wasn’t bothered about symptoms since they were so benign, I gleefully ‘forgot’ about this allergy throughout the course of the two weeks I was there, as you might have already gauged from above. Perhaps the most direct violation of this allergy requirement was in my consumption of one of the greatest of all American foods, Macaroni Cheese. After my second visit to the USA in 2010, I had developed a kind of romantic fascination with the delectable meal. No matter where I went or how I tried, though, nothing back home in the UK could really recreate that salivating flavour. So, as I ventured into Souplantation, a superb all-you-can-eat salad bar, I filled my cup several times and enjoyed the tangy, brilliant taste.

Mac ‘n’ Cheese

After I had gotten over that steaming pile of cheesy deliciousness, I went up to San Francisco where I just had to try the delicacy of Clam Chowder. A soupy mixture eaten in states all over America, it actually turned out to be rather nice, although I abstained from one of the large bread bowls that people were carrying around.

Clam Chowder

Another delicious thing that was sold at San Franciscan shops was Sourdough. The type of bread is made from naturally occurring yeast and lactobacillus. The latter gives a distinctive mildly sour taste. It was the main type of bread baked during the San Francisco gold rush in the mid-19th-century.

Employees at a Sourdough restaurant busy at work.

I had much more to eat, but a subject of interest was the size of the drinks over there. In many restaurants that I went to, people seemed to trust you to only fill up your drink once by giving you a cup and directing you to the soda fountains. Well, I assume that’s what they think, because they still have small, medium, large and XL cups for you to choose from. I chose a large cup one time and witnessed the loss of 50 cents as somebody went to fill it up for me again. The cup pictured below is a small, but back here I would definitely envision it as at least a medium. It’s like they WANT YOU TO DIE!

Approach with caution…

To round off all posts about my holiday (until further notice) here are a selection of iconic images that I took, including one of a dog that looks like a mop. Enjoy and thanks for stopping by.

Universal Studios Hollywood
Auxin Powers: International Plant Hormone of Mystery
This is the location of Mary-Jane and Spiderman’s kiss in the 2001 film; it is found on the Warner Brothers lot.
Here’s a spectacular waterfall in Yosemite National Park.
Oh yeah, we saw a bear, didn’t I tell you?
I wonder if this dog listens to Bob Marley…
The location of Frank Bullitt’s house in ‘Bullitt’, on Clay Street in San Francisco.
The San Francisco cable car – a great experience to ride on the outside.
The Golden Gate Bridge, when I could actually see it.
The otherworldly rock faces of Monument Valley.
The Grand Canyon

Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge

My first full day in San Francisco was partially spent marvelling at the steep gradients of the hills. They are as jaw-droppingly large as the tourist images suggest and totally add to the unique brilliance of the city. I would later explore these angular roads via the iconic cable car, but before then I hopped on a ferry to take a tour round America’s most notorious high-security prison, a practically inescapable place surrounded by icy water and fast-moving currents: Alcatraz. We journeyed there in the evening, when it was covered with an ominous layer of fog:

Alcatraz Island

Upon our arrival we learned that Alcatraz had been selected and preserved as a US National Park; after all, there was so much history that lay inside its walls. Al Capone had served a four-year term on the island not long after his conviction for income tax evasion. The events of June 1962, in which three prisoners escaped to the bay after undertaking a very elaborate escape plan, are still widely discussed to this day. It is not known if these three prisoners survived or drowned and there are various theories for what actually happened (the events were dramatised in Don Siegel’s excellent Escape From Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood).

The cell of Frank Morris – one of the prisoners who tunneled out of the moisture-damaged wall. Note the paper maché head that was used to distract the guards.

The prison itself is very atmospheric. You walk through the rows of cells as voices of guards and prisoners from the fantastic audio tour tell you about what it was like to live there fifty years ago. Tales of boredom, violence, escape attempts and solitary confinement emanate from behind the bars. You really have to go there and experience it for yourself; the myths still appear in popular culture, most recently in a short-lived eponymous television show airing on Fox.

A row of cells at Alcatraz Federal Prison

A number of films have also been shot at Alcatraz which no doubt appealed to me. Perhaps the most famous is Michael Bay’s The Rock (starring Sean Connery), probably his most critically successful film. Aside from Escape from Alcatraz, Clint Eastwood also went to the rock for The Enforcer, the surprisingly good third entry into the Dirty Harry series. On the arthouse side, John Boorman’s stellar Point Blank, a pioneering film in terms of its editing, was partially shot on Alcatraz, the first film to do so after its closure in 1963. I’m pretty sure this is one place where Boorman stuck his camera, the outside recreation area:

‘I want my 93,000!’ – Walker, Point Blank (1967)

Both before and after walking in the footsteps of some of the most violent and dangerous criminals, I visited the Golden Gate Bridge. We had driven across it when it was absolutely engulfed by an even thicker layer of fog, and when visiting it from beneath it hadn’t changed much. However, it wasn’t necessarily a disappointment; I was able to get a clearer picture the next day, and the mist added to the atmosphere of another movie location, the place of Kim Novak’s suicide leap in one of my favourite films, Vertigo.

The Golden Gate Bridge

The bridge itself is a stunning work of engineering. Since its opening in April 1937, it continues to be undamaged by earthquakes, and a team of hundreds work on it every day, painting it in the colour of international orange amongst other jobs. Just beneath the bridge is Fort Point, the military base that was intended to prevent an invasion should there be one (which there wasn’t). A great exhibition was on at the base celebrating 75 years of the bridge, but I was happy enough to just take a picture, as Fort Point was another location in Point Blank.

Fort Point

I’ve been travelling all over the place in the past few days and only spent a few days in San Francisco so I haven’t been able to blog every day. Tomorrow I’m off to the Grand Canyon, but who knows what will appear on this website next! I have no idea. See you then, anyway.

I’m in LA

The relentless peril of exams has now ground to a halt and I have been set free. So, this very morning (it will be yesterday morning to British people) I left Heathrow airport at 11.30 and arrived in the USA eleven hours later. On board I was treated to what felt like a particularly violent simulator ride 30,000 feet in the air, with double dips and consequent squeals of terror. It wasn’t a very pleasant flight but eventually I would come to touch down in the city of a million different stories, of glamour and hype, of expensive restaurants and striking movie studios. In fact, perhaps the most famous place in the world – Hollywood.

Well, it didn’t get off to a great start. I nearly broke US Federal Law by unwittingly almost bringing a banana into the States without declaring it. I was sniffed out by a (rather cute but deceptive) dog, my first thought being: ‘Oh no! Someone’s stashed some illegal drugs into my suitcase like in those border patrol shows! Is that a taser?’ Luckily, I was able to just hand it over, which they promptly binned (no wonder they’re all so large).

Upon leaving LAX I was instantly greeted by what I’m told is stereotypical of LA – traffic! If you thought driving round Soho on a Friday night is slow, then you should see the kind of jams that build up over here. Six lanes on the freeway, all crammed with random cars and people trying to get around. We hastily moved off the freeway as soon as possible and made our way to Sunset Boulevard, passing through Beverly Hills on the way…

The houses here are very expensive.
I feel like the narration from Billy Wilder’s ‘Sunset Blvd.’ is about to kick in…

There isn’t really much else that I did that day which is noteworthy. I was myself barely able to adapt to the change in time zones which is why I’m finishing this at four o’clock in the morning. Anyway. As we drove down Hollywood Boulevard and passed perhaps the most famous cinema in LA, we noticed that there was a premiere going on. As I kept my eyes peeled, I realised that the film was Seth Macfarlane’s ‘Ted’, and a certain Mila Kunis was moving across the road in front of us…

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre
Sorry for the unflattering circle, Mila, but my zoom doesn’t extend very far…

So I’m now going to try and get some sleep before a crazy and eventful day of stuff… today. I hope you enjoyed reading this and hope you’ll come back to hear more of my adventures in the filmmaking capital of the world.