MOVIES - Spooks play it for real

Argo (15) Affleck's embassy hostage drama is packed with great dialogue and performances

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n Bryan Cranston and Ben Affleck play CIA spooks in the highly entertaining Argo
n Bryan Cranston and Ben Affleck play CIA spooks in the highly entertaining Argo

Based on the too-ridiculous-to-make-up true story of a recently declassified CIA mission, Ben Affleck's splendid drama takes place against the backdrop of the 1979 Iranian revolution, when 52 members of staff were held hostage at the American embassy in Tehran.

Before the embassy was taken over, six Americans managed to slip out of the compound and hole up at the Canadian ambassador's house, unknown to anyone but the US government.

With no way into the volatile country, the CIA are forced to come up with an extraction plan, something that proves elusive until Agent Mendez (Affleck) hits on an idea that they pose as a film crew scouting locations. As his boss Bryan Cranston admits, it's the best bad idea they have.

But for the ruse to pass scrutiny, every detail of it has to believable and therefore as convincing as possible, to the extent that it has to pass for a real production.

To that end Alan Arkin's producer and John Goodman's special effects guru are brought on board and a script is found from a pile of unproduced movies, for a film called Argo, a Star Wars-style sci-fi adventure to be filmed in the desert.

If Agent Mendez can get in to the country posing as the film's Canadian producer, he believes he can forge the documentation required to convince the Iranian authorities that the six Americans are in fact part of the Canadian film crew who entered the country with him.

Argo is almost two films in one, a deft blend of Hollywood comedy and political thriller, two elements you might think have no place in the same story, yet they sit well together and apart, and dovetail expertly.

If anything, it's actually more successful as a comedy, one that provides more funny scenes than most out and out comedies manage, with Arkin and Goodman working a treat together.

As a thriller it still works, but something is missing. Situations of peril arise, everyone hangs around for a few moments, and then they move on while rarely making it necessary for a character to impact the action or situation.

This is particularly true of Mendez, and from a character viewpoint, Affleck may strangely be the weak link, with Mendez often coming across like the star player in an Olympic standing-there team. Granted, much of his work is behind the scenes, forging passports and identities and the like being his real skill, and he's still a mature and stoic presence.

It does escalate in danger and pace, with great chat between great characters, particularly in the early stages as the scale of the crisis is bounced around various CIA faces.

Mendez is also much more forceful and productive when it comes to dealing with his superiors in the agency, and these scenes offer a bevy of fine actors (with Cranston the finest of them) the chance to make with the West Wing banter.

But Affleck the director is now three for three with the movies he's made, following The Town and his still unsurpassed Gone Baby Gone. Anything he does from now on should be regarded with real hope and anticipation.

Argo is smart, funny and blessed with an amazing cast, and if the very worst you can say about it is that it's merely hugely entertaining, that's still more than you can say about most films.

Running Time 120 mins

Director: Ben Affleck

The Sapphires (PG)

Chris O'Dowd on song in 1960s-set Aussie music drama

Inspired by real events in Australia in 1968, The Sapphires is the spirited and likeable story of three aboriginal sisters and their cousin, all of whom are blessed with beautiful singing voices.

Chris O'Dowd is Dave, a down on his luck, hard-drinking Irishman who runs a local talent show that makes X Factor contestants look like world-beaters.

Even though the girls don't win, largely because of the background of racial tensions, they're the best by a mile, and Dave spots their potential.

After seeing an advert looking for entertainers in Vietnam, they're christened the Sapphires and are off to entertain the troops in Saigon, and though what follows is very broadly put together, it has bags of charm to make up for it. Getting over internal squabbles forms much of the meat, and though there's no particular depth to the conflict, the war is real enough, even if this stuff does get stretched a bit longer than might be necessary.

Plenty fine soul numbers get belted out by a bright bunch of actors, with O'Dowd just getting better and better in starring roles, and there are some decent jokes, that generally depend on a snappy one-liner from him or one of the girls.

And while the film does grow in stature and drama, it isn't really meant to be anything other than a crowd pleaser, which it genuinely is.

Running Time: 103 mins

Director: Wayne Blair

People Like Us (12a) Family drama has a lot to say – not all of it very interesting

Chris Pine is Sam, a smooth-talking wheeler-dealer with mounting financial problems who returns to LA on the death of his father, a man with whom he never got on.

In his will, a large amount of money has been left with instructions that Sam pass it on to someone named Josh, leading him to discover a whole aspect of his dad's life he had no idea existed.

Sam learning to be a better person is the crux of yet another "inspired by true events" tale, which may explain the meandering nature of a film that starts out as one thing, then seems to turn into another, before becoming something else entirely.

It's a curious beast, hardly the most arresting story in the world, yet some of the scenes it's constructed around are solid and the characters inhabiting them interesting. But they're too often ready with a witty comeback in a very over-written film, one that stumbles when it finally has to chew on the meat of the situation. Dialogue doesn't feel natural, with Sam's mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) largely there to explain the plot.

At its worst, it recalls Cameron Crowe at his most indulgent, particularly his ruinous Elizabethtown, and as it goes on and on interminably, it ends up being a long road to a not very rewarding destination.

Running Time: 114 mins Director: Alex Kurtzman

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