Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Argo - 3 1/2 stars

In 1979, the US embassy in Iran was overrun.  Around 50 people were captured and held hostage.  Before the embassy fell, 6 diplomats were able to escape and they hid out at the Canadian ambassador's house.  The CIA wanted to get them out but since there were a bunch of others being held as hostages, they couldn't just go in and rescue them.  Since the Iranians didn't know they were free, they had to be retrieved secretly. 

CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed) comes up with an idea.  He will fly into Iran with fake passports for the diplomats and they will all fly out together.  Their story will be that they are a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars ripoff.  It's a bad idea, but as he says in the movie, "It's the best bad idea we have."

Before the embassy is taken, the movie opens by giving us a brief history of Iran and the US involvement.  I had heard stories of how the CIA covertly deposed friendly rulers and helped install evil dictators in various countries, but I didn't know about Iran.  According to the movie, we helped oust Iran's leader, who was loved by the Iranian people, and we helped install a dictator who tortured and murdered many of Iran's citizens.  No wonder the Iranians hated the US.  To make matters worse, this dictator had fled the country and was given asylum by the US.  Just imagine if Saddam Hussain or Pol Pot were living freely in the US.  The Iranians rightly wanted him returned to them so he could face justice. 

Anyway, this is a very good movie.  In order to sell the cover story, Mendez goes to Hollywood to enlist the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).  Siegel knows that they need the press to help sell their lie, so they stage an elaborate script reading with full costumes.  All the scenes with Arkin and Goodman are funny and really help to lighten the tension.

This is based on a true story (although I can't find Lester Siegel on imdb.com), and it was only declassified in the 1990s.  It's the kind of movie that would be hard to believe if it weren't true.  This is also Affleck's third movie as director (after Gone Baby Gone and The Town), and at this point he has established himself as a very good director.  He seems to only go after good material, and so hopefully there will never again be a really crappy Ben Affleck movie.

Taken 2 - 2 1/2 stars

If you remember Taken, that was the movie where Liam Neeson used to be a special forces-type guy, but now he works in private security.  His daughter was kidnapped in Paris, while she was on the phone with him.  He went to Paris, rescued his daughter, and killed all the guys who took her.

Now the relatives of the men who were killed in the first movie want revenge.  And luckily his ex-wife and daughter just happen to be coming to see him in Istanbul.  So they are going to kidnap all 3 of them and kill them. 

I admit that this movie mostly recycles the first movie, but not as well.  It may have been hard to believe that he could find his daughter in the first movie, but this movie really stretches logic.  Even though he was hooded and driven across town in a van, he is still able to retrace his route using sounds.  He has his daughter throw grenades and uses the sound of the blast to lead her to him.  And he kicks a lot of ass.

If you can suspend disbelief, the movie is decent.  Not great but there are some good moments.  There isn't much humor, but it works.  I like that he talks to the bad guys a few times.  When they try to make him feel bad about killing their brothers and sons, he actually brings up the fact that they kidnapped his daughter, and many other girls before selling them into sexual slavery and ruining their lives.  They don't really have an answer to that except to say I don't care, but you killed my son, blah blah blah. 

I enjoyed this movie almost as much as the first one, but I can't quite recommend it.  I only recommend it to people who loved the first movie and want to see more of the same.  That may be a bit of a cop out, but too bad. 

Looper - 4 stars

Finally, a great science fiction / action movie about time travel.  Written and directed by Rian Johnson (who gave us Brick and The Brothers Bloom), Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe.  Joe is a looper.  Set in the year 2044, loopers are hit men.  In 2074, bodies are particularly difficult to dispose of, so the mob sends their victims back in time to 2044, where a looper is waiting to shoot them.

The trailer shows that Joe will encounter his older self, who is sent back to be killed.  His older self is played by Bruce Willis.  What the trailers don't show you is that all loopers know this is an eventuality.  When the mob wants to end a looper's contract, they send them back in time to be killed by their younger self.  So while it's a bit of a surprise to Joe when it happens, it isn't completely unexpected.

One good thing about the movie is that this is only the setup.  Will younger Joe succeed in killing his older self?  Obviously old Joe can't kill young Joe.  Will young Joe let old Joe live?  Will the mob catch up to them first?  See, if a looper lets his older self get away, the mob kills both of them.  When old Joe first arrives, he is able to escape before young Joe can kill him, so the mob thinks he let his target get away.  Then the movie introduces some story elements that I had no idea were coming.

Jeff Daniels has a lot of fun as the mob boss.  I always enjoy his performances, and it reminded me of The Lookout, another good movie that teamed Daniels up with Gordon-Levitt. 

One thing I really liked is how the movie dealt with old Joe's memory.  As his history was changed by running into his younger self, his memory started to change.  He had a wife in the future, and he started to forget her because it became more likely that his younger self wound not end up meeting her.  This is something I always think about in time travel movies.  In Back to the Future, as Marty interacted with the Doc Brown of the '50s, would the older Doc Brown's memory instantly change so he would remember meeting Marty in 1955?

This is a great movie.  I only have a couple of reservations.  One is the way they made Gordon-Levitt look more like Willis using makeup or CGI.  It was a little distracting, especially his lips.  I never complain that an actor doesn't look enough like another actor when they are playing different ages of the same character.  They should have just left it alone. 

It's hard to talk about my other issue with the movie without getting into spoiler territory.  I think I can safely say that there is a leader in the future that old Joe is really upset with.  He says this guy is closing all the loops.  Well, I thought the movie established that all loopers were eventually killed, so why was old Joe so surprised by it?  I understand why old Joe didn't want to be killed, but he acts like closing the loops is a new thing.  Every looper knows it's a possibility so he should have known it was coming.