Argo

October 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin
Directed by: Ben Affleck (“The Town”)
Written by: Chris Terrio (debut)

Imagine what screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd must’ve been thinking when former CIA officer Tony Mendez released his book “Master of Disguise” in 1999. The memoir, which reveals details about a covert operation he led to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran in 1980, was a story Chetwynd though he had already thoroughly adapted into the TV movie “Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper” one year after the mission ended. While Caper provided many stirring and historical facts about the incident, the most Hollywoodesque parts of it weren’t even known until President Bill Clinton declassified the top-secret CIA files in 1997.

In “Argo,” his third film as a director, Ben Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town”) takes the full, uncensored narrative and runs with it. Unlike his last two films, Affleck doesn’t get a writing credit to his name this time around. Instead, he passes the expansive script duties to first-time screenwriter Chris Terrio who keeps the interaction and dialogue between characters moving briskly, but finds difficultly in building tension without glossing over the conflict.

After militants infiltrated the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, a plan was devised to rescue six diplomats who were able to escape the hostage situation and hide out in the home of a Canadian ambassador. What no one knew aside from those involved was this: Mendez’s risky idea – and the reason a film like “Argo” is so unique on paper – was to smuggle the diplomats out of Iran by pretending they were all part of a filmmaking crew scouting locations for a kitschy sci-fi movie (in “Caper,” they attempt their escape as less intriguing grain exporters). Standouts in “Argo” include Oscar winner Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and John Goodman (“The Artist”) as two film industry pros operating a fake studio back home in Los Angeles.

What’s so ironic about “Argo” is that it’s a story about a faux film, but occasionally comes across just as deceptive as the movie-within-a-movie it’s featuring. Some might consider certain scenes in the third act thrilling, but editing them in such a happenstance manner makes them crowd pleasing at best. Still, Affleck makes more good directorial choices than he does questionable ones, especially when he pays close attention to the details of the era. That, along with the timeliness of the subject matter (one can’t watch without thinking of recently slain U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens), and “Argo” is a solid political spy movie, despite being gift wrapped a little too neatly.

Sunshine Cleaning

March 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin
Directed by: Christine Jeffs (“Sylvia”)
Written by: Megan Holley (debut)

It’s no surprise first-time screenwriter Megan Holley fashioned the script for her dark comedy “Sunshine Cleaning” from a report on National Public Radio. It’s just the type of mildly off-beat story one would expect to hear on a show like “All Things Considered”: Two female friends from Seattle start a crime-scene clean-up company.

The inspiration itself might have easily ruined a feature film — characters written with sensitivity and humor usually don’t ride tragedy’s coattails — but Holley and director Christine Jeffs (“Sylvia”) are able to detail the job’s unpleasantness with fake blood and synthetic brain chunks while still managing to create sympathetic characters and a strangely intimate world.

Relocating the women to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and rewriting the female duo as sisters, “Sunshine Cleaning” follows Rose Lorkowski (two-time Academy Award nominee Adams), a 30-something single mother who’s making ends meet as a cleaning lady. Once the popular head cheerleader in high school, Rose relives her glory days through an ongoing affair with married ex-boyfriend Mac (Zahn), who now works as a police officer.

Rose decides she needs a career change after she ends up cleaning the house of a former classmate. She’s also desperate to make extra money to send her eccentric son to a private school because his principal wants her to medicate the boy for his harmless, albeit peculiar, classroom antics (most recently, licking everything he can put his tongue to).

Taking advice from Mac, Rose begins mopping up the blood, and she recruits her burned-out sister Norah (Blunt), who has emotional problems stemming from (minor spoiler alert) their mother’s suicide when they were kids. Why these two would ever decide to start a company where suicide cleanup is part of the job is beyond comprehension, but the lazy parallel does most of the screenwriter’s heavy lifting, and the gals are fairly good at what they do, despite their initial naiveté concerning biohazard-disposal regulations.

Luckily, they receive a crash course in decomp (Tip Number One: You can’t just throw a blood-soaked mattress in a Dumpster) from Winston (Collins), a one-armed model-builder who owns a cleaning-supplies store.

Rose and Norah become haz-mat-suited cleaning women with support from their father (Academy Award winner Alan Arkin, who basically rehashes his grandfatherly role from “Little Miss Sunshine” minus the cocaine), and attempt to scrub away death’s aftermath. In one subplot, Norah searches out a woman named Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub of “24”), a suicide’s daughter whose photo Norah discovers while cleaning up the mess left behind.

It’s these small strokes of sincerity — away from the yellow police tape, decontamination suits, and a few standard pseudo-indie-film clichés — that make “Sunshine Cleaning” a bittersweet, honest, and well-acted gem.

Marley & Me

December 21, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Alan Arkin
Directed by: David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”)
Written by: Scott Frank (“The Lookout”) and Don Roos (“Happy Endings”)

You’d have to have a heart made of rawhide not to feel a tad gushy while watching “Marley & Me,” especially if the man-dog relationship reminds you of a puppy love from your past. For me, it was my first pet, a funny-looking mutt I named Cracker (he was the color of a Saltine), whom I loved dearly.

The film may rekindle some lasting memories from your childhood, but the source material, John Grogan’s New York Times bestselling autobiography of the same name, is milked of all its sentimentality, and by the time we get to the film’s most tender moments, they’re unconvincing and obvious.

Directed by David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”), “Marley & Me” is not so much about a dog as it is a family’s life journey with a dog as a supporting player through their ups and downs. Owen Wilson is John Grogan, a newspaper reporter stuck in a rut writing blotter stories, who surprises his newlywed (Aniston) with a pup (giving her something to nurture is supposed to be a surefire way to slow down her biological clock).

Marley is an adorable but incorrigible yellow Labrador whose alpha-male inclinations make him “the worst dog in the world.” (Basically, he gnaws everything to a stump and humps Kathleen Turner’s fat leg). In addition to Marley’s mischievous ways, the Grogans’ stress level skyrockets when they begin raising a litter of their own.

While the screenwriters would like you to believe the heart of the story centers on the unconditional love of a dog, Marley becomes an afterthought in the script until he turns weathered and gray in the most heartfelt and drawn-out scenes. Toss him a Snausage for not sinking to Beethoven levels, but I’d rather have my puppy-loving tears triggered by “Old Yeller,” “My Dog Skip,” or even “Turner & Hooch.”