Ben Affleck’s strong artistic progression continues with “Argo”.

Recent years have proven really interesting with regards to films rooted in real events. Living in the capital-I “Information Age” means any overcaffeinated eight-year old with an iPhone can readily check a film’s accuracy as it screens before their eyes, calling into question exactly what responsibility filmmakers bear to reality. Do they stick to it in a beat-for-beat, nearly verbatim manner at the possible expense of momentum and energy, or leap off the deep-end into damn-near fabrication, in service of artistry? Ben Affleck’s “Argo” may be the best case for the latter option since 2010’s “The Social Network”, a film notoriously riddled with holes and lies that nevertheless endures as one of the peaks of 21st century filmmaking and writing. “Argo” doesn’t quite reach those heights, but then, it’s a different kind of toy.

“Argo” has a lot on its plate, elements of which often contradict itself: it’s a Hollywood satire bankrolled by its most successful studio, a work about a politically volatile scenario that still must remain ideologically neutral, and a nail-biting thriller with moments of comedic relief. How Ben Affleck cuts these together in a technically & tonally consistent way, all while playing the lead role in the damn thing, is a mystery. And a minor miracle. He’s quickly approaching what could be considered territory rivaling the films of actor Robert Redford. I say “considered”, however, because in my eyes he’s already surpassed him.

The story of “Argo” was only declassified two presidencies ago, and even still it seems to be too good to be true. In the wake of angry Iranian crowds storming the American embassy in 1979 Tehran, six employees narrowly escape into the arms of a Canadian ambassador. Without much time before they’re found and almost certainly killed, a solution must be found and fast.

Enter Tony Mendez. Or, rather, Affleck, sporting 2012’s most glorious facial hair. He’s an American extraction expert, and is called in to assess the situation. His idea: go to Hollywood, create a fake production company with a big science-fiction epic as its crown jewel, and head to Iran to “film”, with the hidden employees posing as that film’s crew. It’s a big plan, a bold one. And the fact that as director, Affleck manages insanely suspenseful sequences heading towards an outcome that 90% of the audience already knows? Unheard of.

The high-caliber skill with which “Argo” is handled technically, however, highlights its shortcomings in another, equally weighty arena: emotional. Chris Terrio’s script provides a lot of varied bit roles and a lot of meaty, punchy dialogue for them to say to each other. This said, very few people actually seem to develop or expand in meaningful ways, leaving “Argo” as a men-on-a-mission film much more about the mission than the men. This would be fine if the half-assed attempts to humanize Mendez weren’t made, and one wonders exactly how we were meant to see the character — more specifically, how large a role preconceived notions of Ben Affleck were meant to play. He’s a charismatic presence, but the hazy context rendered him a slightly distant one for me.

Backing him is an ace lineup of supporting players, to be sure — Bryan Cranston kills it as Mendez’s eternally agitated CIA superior, John Goodman and Alan Arkin are hilarious as his crafty Hollywood correspondents, and Michael Parks, Phillip Baker Hall and Kyle Chandler all make welcome appearances. These are the sort of snappy supporting roles we always crave as filmgoers, all under one convenient cinematic roof.

“Argo” barrels towards its finale breathlessly, certain details of which could prompt potential calls for historical fact-checking. But then…would you really have it any other way? “Argo” plays it fast and loose with facts, sure, but its grip on cinematic tension’s attack-and-release structure is tighter than any out there. It exists at a near-perfect intersection of writing, directing and acting, and serves as another strong showcase for a talent who, 14 years after snagging an Oscar, is finding his voice and his pace. B+


“Looper” a modern science fiction classic.

Maybe this is what it was like watching “Blade Runner” for the first time. Or “Brazil”. “Solaris”, even.

These are science-fiction films buzzing with originality, with ideas jam-packed from the first frame to last; with visual flourishes that professors still swoon over when they dissect them, shot-by-shot, 30 to 40 years after their release. They endure. They enthrall. And they inspire new filmmakers to go out and contribute their own insights to the medium, all the damn time, even to this day. This past weekend, as the lights came up once “Looper” concluded, I guarantee you two or three major future cinematic voices were born. It is not every film that inspires such assurance, but then again, what films are made with such assurance?

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, “Looper” has the sort of impeccable construction demonstrated only by works under effortless control of their creator. Indeed, with a brash (and very, very literal) shotgun blast to the face opening the film, Johnson announces his plans to get in your head and stays there. “Looper” accomplishes this even if you discard the knotty plot mechanics. Indeed, even approaching it from a moral perspective, there’s enough to ponder for weeks — these characters, who we are intended to root for, are drug-addled killers who will sell out their best friend or even murder children to see their dreams fulfilled. “Looper” identifies the moral grey area Hollywood strives to avoid, and then bathes in it for two hours.

Suppose I tell you the story now. Suppose in 2044, time travel is invented, outlawed, and used only by the Mafia to send bodies from the future to be disposed of. Suppose the people who take out these bits of dirty laundry are called “loopers”, if only for the special clause in their high-paying contracts that one day, one of their targets will be themselves. This is called “closing the loop” and sets the stage for the film’s central conflict. Physically speaking, at least.

20-something Joe is one of these loopers, a streetwise Francophile whose wealth is growing alongside his drug habit. One day, he realizes that a man zapped into his gunsights is…well…him. Him with 30 years of added miles, but still him. To reveal where the film’s second and third acts take this premise, is to spoil one of the great joys of the year. Namely, the complete unpredictability of this thing. Props to Sony’s marketing for doing what few companies seem to do: keep the good stuff secret.

But this isn’t an Abrams-esque, mystery-shrouded film with hints and secrets that only sporadically pay off. Indeed, much of “Looper”s pleasure comes from simply seeing familiar elements contorted to Rian Johnson’s unique vision. The characters dress and speak in a sort of old-timey, folksy vernacular that still comes off crisp and cool, the weapons are called freaking “blunderbusses”. Christ, the last half of the film takes place on a farm. (Have I spoken too much?) Johnson the writer meets Johnson the director at a sort-of unspoken sweet spot, with characters subtly revealing their own neuroses and motivations as much through sharp lines as they do with glances, beats, even the way they hold their gun. These subtle touches balance Johnson’s bombastic tendencies nicely, and in fact he demonstrates an exceptional eye for action here. He has an aesthetic confidence that’s totally unheard-of for filmmakers merely on their third film, with inventive camera moves and editing sleights-of-hand that wouldn’t be out of place in a coked-out Scorsese montage.

The best visual effects of “Looper”s futuristic Kansas City landscape are, in fact, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. These two actors, wholly dissimilar in style and followings, come together to play one man and the results are out of this world. Gordon-Levitt, with hours of prosthetics and a totally altered physical language, nails younger Bruce Willis better than…well…younger Bruce Willis. It’s a phenomenal performance from an actor who, these days, has very literally cranked out great work on a monthly basis. Willis, too, seems as energized as he’s ever been, perhaps supplementing remarks in recent interviews that “Looper” is the best film he’s ever been in. In a filmography with the likes of “Die Hard”, “Twelve Monkeys”, “Pulp Fiction”, and “Beavis and Butthead Do America”, these words loom large. Perhaps, as time could tell, they’ll prove to be true ones.

“Looper”, like all the best science-fiction films, uses imaginary conceits to ask very fundamental, very essential questions. Older Joe and his younger counterpart have enough dissonance to stand apart, yet are united by one trait: their fundamental selfishness. Watching how these arcs (or “arc”, plural/singular tenses confuse me when there’s two of one character) resolve themselves is unexpected and profound, and when the ending hits, it’s completely satisfying yet leaves you an open wound. You’ll see what I mean. This is a film where, very simply, all is as it should be; a marvel of structure on every level: technical, thematic, and surprisingly, emotional. But really? This movie’s just fun as hell. A

“Dredd” a candy-colored, Adderall-wired actioner.

It’s not a good year to be Sylvester Stallone.

Taking into account the tragic passing of his son, the slavish self-mockery of his all-star action sequel “Expendables 2”, and the fact that the most notorious flop of his career has just been revitalized into a high-wired, uber-violent, candy-colored rush of a film. Rough stuff. 1995’s “Judge Dredd” has long been reviled for its blank treatment of the character (whose name gives the film its title), and so director Pete Travis has set forth to portray a bare-bones, brutal version of the comic-book icon. Set in a tumultuous, post-nuclear future, “Judges” like Dredd are a hybrid of judge, jury and executioner in one, deployed by the government to sentence and execute criminals on the spot of their crime.

Dredd is completely dedicated to his job, which requires him to be alternately firm and agile, stoic yet violent. In fact, we never see Dredd outside of his job, although this is probably because “Dredd” takes place over a 24-hour period. This lean approach completely reverses what we tend to associate with genre films these days: rather than the sprawling yet half-cooked nature of most sci-fi/action works, “Dredd” is taut and tight. By confining itself in time and space (more on that later), the tension is higher and the stakes more clearly understood.

“Dredd”‘s premise is simple. A crime lord — an attractive female named “Mama” in a clever subversion of macho expectations — dominates over a 200-story tower, where her crazed, drug-pushing thugs intimidate the thousands of residents into silence. Dredd aims to take these guys down, with an up-and-coming rookie, Cassandra, tagging along because of the value of her psychic abilities.

The film, then, becomes a simple progression from the bottom of the tower to the top, one that isn’t unlike this year’s Indonesian actioner “The Raid”. But where “The Raid” thrived off of a raw, ragged energy and hand-to-hand combat, “Dredd” is a glitzy, mega-watt, $45 million B-movie. The performances are strong and authoritative. Karl Urban, often seen on the sidelines of franchises like “Bourne”, “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Trek”, is given the headlining role he’s always deserved. The dude kills it.

Given some pretty imposing constraints — his eyes are never shown during the film, he’s often given ridiculous dialogue to deliver in a Christian Bale-esque voice, and a skintight armor suit — Urban is really phenomenal. Olivia Thirlby, long the indie darling of films like “Juno” and “The Wackness”, is given the opportunity to cut loose and blow shit up. Her character, unquestionably the most relatable of the duo, is a fascinating contradiction. Her duty is to blow thugs’ faces off with the utmost pragmatism. Her heart says to put them in prison cells. Attention to inner conflicts like this are what subtly grant “Dredd” some humanity. Some.

Many films assume that two people with guns pointed at each other is enough to label as “tension”. “Dredd”, on the other hand, is constantly ramping up the creativity, throwing in new ideas and gimmicks every other scene.

Consider “Slo-Mo”. It’s a synthetic drug, designed by the film’s villains, that slow the brain’s perception of time to about 1%, compared to normal. The film, often during the most frenetic, intense action scenes, will be shown from the “Slo-Mo” perspective of thugs under its influence. The blood-spurts glisten like rubies, the bullets inch by, and “Dredd” becomes something a little greater and a little cooler than mere action cinema. The thing comes alive. I only give this film a lower grade (relatively speaking) because, well, the goddamn title is “Dredd”. B+