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Argo (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Did you ever think that Ben “Gigli” Affleck would become a respected Hollywood director who now has three great films under his directing belt? Yeah, I would have never guessed that either, especially after also seeing Reindeer Games and Daredevil. I thought he was doomed for the bargain bin but over the years, he slowly climbed onto the A-list by carefully choosing roles that would repair the damage done to his career by J. Lo and J. Gar. I was seriously impressed with his 2010 Boston heist thriller The Town and left wondering what Mr. Affleck would deliver to us next. Now we have his political/hostage thriller and Hollywood send up Argo, which is based on recently declassified events. Vacillating between chuckle-worthy jabs at Hollywood and their big budget copycat projects and knee-jerking suspense set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Affleck smoothly explores jaw-dropping history (with tweaks here and there) while measuring out a pinch of nostalgia for cinema buffs (that retro Warner Bros. logo stamped on the beginning of the movie). Basically, Argo is one of the best films of the year, a real crowd pleaser brimming with starry-eyed jingoism and unmatchable performances that all deserve to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They sort of owe Affleck one, especially after overlooking The Town for a Best Picture nomination.

Argo begins on November 4th, 1979, with militants storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran after the U.S. provided shelter for the recently deposed Shah. All the employees inside the embassy are taken hostage but six lucky ones manage to escape to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Played by Victor Garber). With the group’s safety in question, the U.S. State Department begins devising ways to pull the group out without getting them killed. The State Department calls in Tony Mendez (Played by Ben Affleck), a CIA specialist who has had experience in getting people out of nasty situations. One evening while watching Battle of the Planet of the Apes with his son, Mendez gets the idea to use the story that the group is actually a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called Argo. After finally convincing his cranky supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Played by Bryan Cranston), the two get in contact with Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (Played by John Goodman) and sleazy film producer Lester Siegel (Played by Alan Arkin) to help them create a fake movie. As Mendez and his team race to make the Star Wars knockoff seem as authentic as possible, the militants begin to suspect that some of the employees escaped right before the embassy was stormed and they set out to track down every last escapee.

While Argo never does much to really shake the viewer out of the feeling that you’ve seen all of this before in thrillers past, Affleck still gets a free pass with the idea that these events really took place (you can’t deny real life heroics). He may manipulate here and there for effect and granted, it works for dramatics, but it is such a crazy slice of reality that you easily ignore the predictable beat. And while the thrills may be familiar, they feel like they are cranked up to eleven. Affleck’s previous films had plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments and hold-your-breath action and Argo is no different. You’ll tense up every time the film leaves U.S. soil and ventures into chaotic Tehran. Affleck never misses a moment to capture the agony and fear that those six Americans were feeling as they waited for a way out of their extremely dangerous situation. And just wait until the end escape; with Affleck and the shaky six as they march through an airport loaded with steely-eyed guards sniffing out Americans. These scenes are the work of someone who truly understands suspense and how to put the viewer through the ringer. Affleck breaks up this suspense with witty moments of hilarity as Arkin and Goodman deadpan about the Hollywood studio system. The comic moments are a much-needed break from the somber warnings of life and death (bodies hang from cranes in the streets of Tehran, a grim reminder that the stakes are high) and give the film a flamboyant quirk.

Further making Argo a must-see are the performances from the main players, all of which are Oscar worthy, in my humble opinion. Affleck has never been better as the weary CIA escape artist Mendez, who rarely sees his son and turns to a bottle of hard liquor when things aren’t going quite his way. Cranston is his usual rock hard self as he O’Donnell, Mendez’s boss who can unleash fury like you wouldn’t believe when the chips are down. I’m still amazed that Cranston quietly flies under the A-list radar but he manages to do it. I just wonder when this guy is going to explode. Goodman is fantastic as make-up artist Chambers, who squints through oversized glasses and burns through lines like, “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!” It is a dream come true when he is paired up with Arkin as the smart aleck film producer Siegel. Arkin doesn’t stray from his usual cranky demeanor and it fits perfectly when he declares, “If I’m gonna make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!” His best moment comes when he snarls, “Argo fuck yourself!” Kyle Chandler (King Kong, Super 8) also drops by and really sizzles as Hamilton Jordan, the Chief of Staff to Jimmy Carter. He’s another one, along with Cranston, who is on the verge of really breaking out but just stays low-key.

Argo never ceases to amaze considering all the different styles that Affleck blends together throughout its two-hour runtime. The scenes where Mendez and his team sit inside earth toned government offices and suck on Pall Malls seem like they were ripped out of any political drama from the 1970’s. There is a warm affection for classic science fiction and forgotten B-movies from the mangy days of Hollywood, when trash was king. There is a chilling urgency and grainy realism to the scenes where the Iranian revolutionaries rock the gates to the U.S. embassy before storming over and breaking in. It’s all a bit too unsettling, especially with recently events in Benghazi filling the evening news. Yet nothing clashes in this liberally charged plea for peaceful approaches to violent conflicts. It is a virtually flawless film that leaves you stunned that this outlandish idea actually saved the lives of six Americans. Politics aside, Argo is certainly going to be an awards season darling when the race for Best Picture begins. It is astonishingly consistent (not one scene seems wasted or useless), staggeringly hopeful even in its darkest moments, and beautifully acted at every turn. I can’t wait to see what Affleck does next.

Grade: A+

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

by Steve Habrat

The first pairing between director Tim Burton and versatile actor Johnny Depp would become one of their most beloved collaborations in the years the duo have been working together. The 1990 gothic fairy tale Edward Scissorhands is a fragile and enchanting bedtime story that seems to come from a personal place within Burton himself. Over the years, Edward Scissorhands has climbed the classic film ranks as it seems to gain more and more popularity as the years pass and new generations are introduced to it. While a wide audience sticks by Burton’s tale, the film has really resonated with the Hot Topic goth crowd. It’s easy to see why they love the film, as it follows a soft-spoken misfit who is encouraged to mingle with conformist suburbia where he is at first viewed as an alluring oddity and then is quickly misunderstood. Edward Scissorhands also features a tender love story, one that ends in a cracked heart but also happens to be vaguely romantic in its longing. The film is also incredibly memorable for Depp’s performance as shy recluse who is inquisitive of the world around him, a world he has never ventured out to explore.

Edward Scissorhands ushers us into candy colored suburbia where we meet local Avon saleswoman Peg Boggs (Played by Dianne Wiest) who has a heart of gold. While going door to door, she makes her way up to a seemingly abandoned mansion where she stumbles upon a shy young man cowering in the shadows. It turns out that this shy young lad is Edward Scissorhands (Played by Johnny Depp), who Peg manages to coax out and interact with. She notices that his face is horribly scared and that his hands are made out of scissors. Noticing that he is alone in the dilapidated mansion, Peg encourages Edward to come home with her and to meet her family. Upon arriving, Edward meets Peg’s husband Bill (Played by Alan Arkin), her young son Kevin (Played by Robert Oliveri), and her beautiful teenage daughter Kim (Played by Winona Ryder), who Edward quickly falls in love with. Peg begins to introduce Edward to the rest of the curious neighborhood, who quickly discover his stunning artistic talents. It turns out that Edward is a master at hedge trimming and hair cutting, making him an instant hit of the neighborhood. Soon, Edward meets Kim’s boyfriend Jim (Played by Anthony Michael Hall), who refuses to warm up to Edward. Edward also finds himself being seduced by the sultry neighbor Joyce (Played by Kathy Baker), who after being rejected by the nervous Edward, accuses him of trying to rape her. The neighborhood soon grows suspicious of terrified Edward and they begin attempting to run him out of the neighborhood.

Edward Scissorhands is such a joy to watch because we get to see Edward exploring a world that he never knew existed. It’s a delight to see him interacting with a waterbed, a mirror, and whatever else he happens to come in contact with. A scene where he attempts to eat peas is a pure “awwwwe” moment. He warms your heart with his attempts to fit in with the neighborhood. He is unassuming and always has a sheepish smile for the eccentric housewives who flock around him. He is even more intriguing because he never has too much to say and he lets his twinkling eyes do most of the talking. Credit the talented Depp, who says so much with just his movement. When he cuts hair and trims hedges, his face contorts with extreme focus and confidence but when he wanders around the neighborhood, that confidence dries up and in its place is uncertainty and wonder. In my opinion, Depp makes this film the heartwarming tale that it is.

Director Burton, who is working with a script by Caroline Thompson, allows his interest in Vincent Price and classic horror films to find a place in Edward Scissorhands. Vincent Price has a cameo in the film as a lonely inventor who creates Edward but dies of a heart attack before he is able to finish Edward’s hands. When the film is wandering the halls of the mansion, Burton relentlessly tips his hat to films like 1931’s Frankenstein and the Hammer horror films that he loved as a kid. The film also happens to be about a misfit loner artist who is misunderstood by the conservative suburbia, who only seem to accept him when they are benefitting from his talent. Even the character of Edward seems to be a haven for both Burton and Depp, a misunderstood outcast who is tormented by Kim’s jock boyfriend. In many respects, the world that Edward comes from seems much more normal and disciplined unlike the circus that is suburbia. Burton twists this suburbia into a day-glo world of routine and ennui, a place where many take comfort in gossip and empty pampering, nothing that is ever truly fulfilling.

Edward Scissorhands also finds a strong supporting cast, especially Ryder as the sympathetic Kim. Kim begins to find herself hypnotized and attracted to this peculiar young man and rejecting the obnoxious jerk that mistreats her. Her performance is absolutely magnetic. Wiest shines as the kindhearted Peg who sticks by Edward until the very end, becoming a motherly figure to poor Edward. Her patience and grace are absolutely stunning. Arkin is comical in the role of a dry husband who does his very best to connect with Edward even if that connection is a weak one. A scene in which they share a drink is absolutely hilarious, especially Edward’s reaction to the alcohol. Baker as the dishonest housewife Joyce who accuses Edward of rape is a despicable individual as is Hall’s aggressive Jim, who is equally terrible to the naive Edward. The dark horse here is the briefly seen Price as the inventor that builds Edward. The few scenes in which we get to see his radiant love for Edward is the strongest part of Edward Scissorhands and the ones that hit the hardest.

Tragic and sweet, Edward Scissorhands does have a handful of dark and sinister moments that are a staple of Burton’s work. You can try to resist the film all you want but there are moments that will charm you whether you like it or not. Like any good fairy tale, Edward Scissorhands lures us back to its magical world again and again to make us feel all warm and fuzzy from it’s fish out of water story. The film proves that there was magic to be found when you pair up Burton with Depp, as it leaves us ravenous for another collaboration from the unconventional duo. Overall, Edward Scissorhands stands as one of Burton’s strongest efforts and one of Depp’s best performances to date. If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to step into the wondrously gothic world and get to know Edward Scissorhands. A true marvel in every sense of the word.

Grade: A-

Edward Scissorhands is available on Blu-ray and DVD.