Tag: based on true story

Movie Review: Argo (2012)

Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

When the corrupt, much-loathed shah of Iran is taken in by the United States after his country revolts against him in favor of Ayatollah Khomeini, there is a riot at the US embassy and most of the staff is taken hostage. Six employees manage to escape to the Canadian ambassador’s house, and after a few months the CIA takes action to get them out. Exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) forms a daring plan to impersonate a Canadian movie crew scouting “exotic” locations for a fake Hollywood sci-fi flick, enlisting the aid of seasoned monster make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to make it convincing. It’s a weird, dumb plan but we can assume it works somehow, otherwise why make a movie about it?

Argo reeled me in mostly due to its strange and interesting premise, a (mostly) true story I’d never heard of because, well, I’m an ignorant American with shaky grasp of Cold War history (we never seemed to make it past WWII in my history classes). I was most worried about how the Iranians might be portrayed in a movie fraught with actual racial and religious tensions, but Affleck does his best to be even-handed. The opening scenes laying out the poor treatment suffered by Iranian citizens at the hands of the opulent shah make their anger and desperation understandable, and various shots of them burning American flags are eventually paired with news clips of prejudiced Americans burning Iranian flags and even beating up a peaceful Iranian-American. They’re still the bad guys, but I kind of felt like everyone was an asshole on both sides, so that’s realistic.

For the most part Argo is a tense thriller with well-placed moments of levity and a number of digs at the Hollywood system. It is well aware of both how ludicrous its premise is as well as how real the people are, effectively communicating the danger of the situation and the fear of everyone involved. The cast is strong, with Affleck a little flat but ably leading a large number of charismatic and recognizable co-stars. I felt we didn’t really get to know the six “house guests” very well, but the actors all did their best to portray well-rounded characters with limited material (especially Clea DuVall, yay!). Obviously Goodman and Arkin steal the show with all their old-man, fuck-Hollywood banter, and they even get in on the nail-biting climactic escape. This movie is easy to like, distilling a complicated historical event into something exciting and dramatic- though notably downplaying Canada’s aid in the extraction. I pretty much dug it.


Pair This Movie With: Naturally John Goodman and movie satire had me thinking of Matinee, which I watched fairly recently. Both films also deal with real-life historical events through the eyes of the movie business.

Movie Review: Le Trou (The Hole) (1960)

Seen: On dvd on my friend Sam’s projector set-up.

After our Cage weekend featuring The Rock, a friend recommended another prison-related movie that I hadn’t heard of. Le Trou is a deceptively simple film that focuses on a group of affable male prisoners who plot to escape their cell by digging a tunnel in the sewers underneath the prison. They spend weeks setting up their plan, monitoring the guards’ movements and routines, and then take turns digging for days straight under the cover of a nearby construction project. Mostly they hang out and are best friends and it’s adorable.

Describing this movie makes it sound kind of boring, which is too bad. It really is just a bunch of super friendly French dudes hanging out in a cell, being super nice to each other, and having a super good time together. It’s paced slowly but never dull, as we see new cellmate Geo (Michael Constantin) get to know the other men in the group, and share his own story. He accidentally shot his wife through the shoulder during an argument, and she accused him of attempted murder so he’s not getting out any time soon. They trust him enough to bring him into their plans, and the story moves along gradually from there as the various pieces come together.

There isn’t a lot of tension, which is interesting for a prison break film. Most of the people who work at the prison are shown to be polite and forgiving, and this is definitely not a high security set-up. (Honestly it looks like a pretty nice time, everyone is friends and they get free soup every day! Why would they want to escape?) As their work moves along it seems likely they’ll escape, and they work so hard for it you hope they do. It’s filmed in a tight, intimate way that makes the viewer a part of the group, a fellow inmate and friend, and the stakes are raised through the connection forged between character and audience. I know it doesn’t sound it, but this film is compelling and just all-around good.


Pair This Movie With: Mmmm probably another prison movie? I haven’t seen The Great Escape but that’s an option. Or Cool Hand Luke is always fun.

Movie Review: Hysteria (2012)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

I don’t know about you guys but we just had a pretty crazy heat wave in the Northeast and I don’t have air conditioning, so get ready for several upcoming new release reviews, for once, since I did my best to be inside of cool buildings. Hysteria was first on my list of things to see after hearing its praises sung by Joanna on the Matineecast. Based on the real events surrounding the invention of the vibrator in the 1880s, the film follows young Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a struggling doctor who finds himself without a job time and time again as he attempts to combat his superiors’ antiquated ways of thinking about health practices and, especially, germs (which totally exist!). He gets a position with Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who primarily treats wealthy women in various stages of “hysteria” (also totally a real thing, hello!) with what he believes is re-aligning the uterus into its proper place, but actually amounts to vaginal massage. Granville takes over his duties and, after his hand consistently cramps up, he looks for a new way to perform the procedure. Dalrymple’s free-spirited daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), meanwhile, interrupts his quiet life with frequent proclamations of feminism and helping the poor and other wacky notions.

Structured as a period romantic comedy, Hysteria manages to delightfully entertain while it subtly works in somewhat subversive elements about female sexuality. It’s laced with the rom-com stereotypes: Oh no the dude somehow runs into the lady and falls on top of her, how awkward ha ha! You think he’s in love with the lady he gets along with but actually he loves the one who bickers with him! Wow! Its tone remains lighthearted for most of its runtime, converting ideas that are in many ways still controversial and taboo into a digestible format. First we laugh at how stupid these old-timey male doctors are for not believing in germs and for thinking “hysteria” is a real thing, then we realize that they don’t even know about female orgasms. The amount of stupidity in the main male characters is hilarious, and it’s nice to see that the jokes are on the men for once. While dissatisfied women in the film slyly take advantage of Dr Dalrymple’s cracked theories so that they can have weekly sexual fulfillment, women in the audience nod in understanding and shake our heads at the doctor’s cluelessness.

I hadn’t seen Hugh Dancy in too much but I found myself enjoying him a lot here, mostly because with the sideburns he looked like Hugh Jackman (is it a “Hugh” thing?). Most of the film is from his point of view, which is always interesting for a romantic comedy. As Dr Granville he’s this mixture of dopey and passionate that makes him likable despite being an idiot and sexist. Jonathan Pryce is excellent as always, his character flawed for many of the same reasons as Granville but more hard-headed and dickish. Maggie Gyllenhaal is fiery and fun-loving, out of place in the time period but so awesome it doesn’t matter. They are surrounded by a host of excellent supporting castmembers, from Felicity Jones as Charlotte’s prim and proper (and phrenologist lol) sister to Ashley Jensen as her lower-class friend. Rupert Everett shows up for several enjoyable scenes as a wealthy “bachelor” (read: homosexual) obsessed with electrical inventions, who actually constructs the vibrator device.

Hysteria is primarily a silly romantic comedy with gorgeous period costumes, but the filmmakers smartly work in commentary about female bodies and historical sexism that still resonates today. It is rather formulaic in its storytelling and I got sick of the amount of orgasms played for laughs (the opera thing was overkill, really), but overall I liked it a lot. It’s not extremely progressive but it’s nice to see this kind of story given a female perspective. Also it’s cool that I got to talk about vaginal stimulation in a film review (FINALLY).


Pair This Movie With: I thought about A Dangerous Method since that features more awesome costumes and weird ideas about lady problems. At times it also reminded me of The Road to Wellville.

Movie Review: The Sound of Music (1965)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, from my personal collection.

It’s no secret I love movies about nannies (au pairs, governesses, whatever) since I grew up with one (the greatest lady in the world, she is). Between The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews was one of my favorite people as a kid. She’s just so magical and musical and caregiving! In this sugary classic she stars as Maria, an effervescent almost-nun who is essentially kicked out of her Austrian convent for singing and hiking too much. She is assigned to be a governess for the nearby Von Trapp family, headed by a stern widower Captain (Christopher Plummer) who orders his seven children about like soldiers. Maria uses all her magic singing powers to teach everyone about love and dancing and such. Meanwhile World War II is about to happen.

In many ways The Sound of Music is the anti-feelbad WWII movie, since most of it focuses on the love story and family fun times leading up to the Nazi invasion of Austria. Even once the Nazis get there, Captain Von Trapp is all “I love Austria. FUCK NAZIS” and then he and his family get away by Climbing Every Mountain and in real life they have a fruitful music career in the States. (This is based on a true story, you know.) The last half hour or so feels unconnected to the preceding 2.5 hours, with its action-packed getaway and depressing reality, but there are plenty of hints early on as villainous possible Nazi-sympathizers move in and out of the family’s fancy estate.

I love this movie. It’s the perfect family film, with fun songs and goofy moments for kids and a compelling romance and historical setting for adults. Everything is slightly simplified but not overtly so, and there are certain things I appreciated more as a child and others I understand better now as an adult. Julie Andrews is almost sickly sweet but I love her so much it doesn’t matter, especially because she uses her goodness in some underhanded and clever ways at times. Plus I like her cute bob haircut. Plummer allegedly hated working on this movie and he is a bit of a sourpuss the whole time, but I love his rendition of “Edelweiss”, a song that makes me sad for absolutely no reason and isn’t even an Austrian folk song so its effect is completely manufactured. I like all the kids, surprisingly, possibly because they look like they’re having so much fun in curtain clothes.

The Sound of Music is certainly dated in some ways- from its schmaltzy script to its somewhat sugarcoated/reductionist view of Germany’s annexation of Austria- but keeping the focus on Maria and her relationship with this troubled family gives it a heartfelt, genuine feeling that is only increased with the excellent tunes from Rogers and Hammerstein. It’s long as hell but never boring, carefully developing its central characters while throwing in historical references, stunning vistas, and musical numbers to keep the pace lively. Watching it now I wonder what all these British people are doing in Salzburg in the 1930’s, but that never fazed me before so I guess it’s not a problem now.

The main negative thing that really stuck out to me this time around was how ridiculously romantic comedy-esque the character of the Baroness is. She’s all manipulative and amoral, planning to send the kids off to boarding school after she cons her way into marrying the captain for his money. She like the lady in The Parent Trap and also a billion other movies. It’s just an unnecessary subplot that detracts from the otherwise positive characterization, and by now it comes off as cliche.


Pair This Movie With: Well like I said earlier I usually identify this with Andrews’ other 60’s nanny musical, Mary Poppins. Or if you want to set it against a non-cheery vision of WWII in Austria, I thought The Counterfeiters was quite good.

Movie Review: 50/50 (2011)

Seen: At the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto. (Canada!)

I know it took me forever but I finally saw 50/50. Yay me. Based on the actual experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, the film follows 27-year-old radio editor Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he copes with his recent cancer diagnosis. He struggles opening up to his appointed therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick), pals around with his only friend (right?) Kyle (Seth Rogen- who is basically playing himself since he is actually best friends with Reiser), gets chemotherapy with some lovable old dudes (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall), and re-assesses his relationship with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). All while ignoring calls from his over-protective mother (Anjelica Huston).

50/50 is pretty much exactly what I expected it to be, and that’s totally ok. It oscillates between goofy, cutesy humor and heart-wrenching drama, without drifting too far into either for an ultimately realistic portrayal of the protagonist’s dilemma. I couldn’t help but think often of my mother, who in the past few years has seen several of her close friends be diagnosed with cancer, some prevailing and some not. The script is strongest in its moments of subtlety, from a quiet “How are you doing, mom?” in the doctor’s office to a friendly offering of pot while Adam gets chemo for the first time. The over-the-top antics of Adam and Kyle trying to pick up cancer-sympathetic girls and the histrionic relationship Adam has with his girlfriend make for weaker scenes. Especially the latter. Seriously, am I the only one who is utterly fed up with this stupid “bitchy ex-girlfriend” cliche? I assume Rachael is based on a real person, so sorry if Will Reiser actually dated a two-timing melodramatic artist, but he could at least have attempted to humanize her. She’s portrayed as a woman who is awful for no apparent reason, and I can’t figure out why they were even dating.

Otherwise I am a fan of this film! The performances are great, from Gordon-Levitt’s ever-adorable face and Kendrick’s relatability to Rogen’s surprisingly resonant supporting performance and Huston’s enduring awesomeness. The absolute best part if you are a total geek is that Matt Frewer is there for like three scenes, and he totally has a line about how great television is! And I was like FUCK YEAH MAX HEADROOOOOM.

So 50/50 made me teary, duh. And I laughed sometimes. And I liked it.


Pair This Movie With: Oh god it’s so hard to not just say Max Headroom. But that’s where you need to go if you want more Matt Frewer. For an actual, sensible pairing how about Rocket Science for another example of Anna Kendrick helping out a dude who has a problem.