Argo * * * *
Cert 15, 120 mins
Argo’s plot is so far-fetched that, if it was in any other movie, we would simply scoff.
But the extraordinary truth is that it happened. In 1980, the CIA really did mount a secret operation to help six Americans escape Iran by pretending they were part of a Canadian crew making a sci-fi film.
The details did not emerge for years and even now are not well known. Which means we can watch and enjoy as the tension builds.
Cast your minds back to 1979, when the Shah of Iran was deposed. Angry that the US was giving him refuge, students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, holding the staff hostage and demanding the Shah’s return.
After trying to shred vital documents, six employees managed to escape out a back door and hid out at the home of the Canadian ambassador.
In Argo, that’s where Ben Affleck comes in. He once again proves, as he did in The Town, that he’s a pretty good actor but a great director.
His best work is done behind the camera but he also stars as CIA agent Tony Mendez, charged with coming up with an escape plan for the six embassy workers.
His idea sounds daft but at least stands more of a chance than giving them bicycles to make their way, in the snow, to the Turkish border 300 miles away.
Mendez suggests he should pose as a Hollywood producer and fly to Tehran to scout locations for a sci-fi film called Argo, a cheap Star Wars rip-off.
He builds up his back story with help from prosthetics expert John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).
“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” says Lester, throwing himself into the role.
For a while Argo is an amusing look at how Hollywood works, until Mendez arrives in Tehran and it turns into a deadly serious thriller.
Affleck the director is good at recreating the terrifying atmosphere in Iran at the time, where bodies were openly hanging from cranes in the street and everyone’s motives were questioned.
There is great period detail for those who can remember when huge glasses and even bigger moustaches were all the rage.
It builds to a brilliantly tense finale which will have you glued to the screen.
Just remember to breathe. RL
The Sapphires * * *
Cert PG, 103 mins
This film is also inspired by a true story but isn’t nearly as dramatic as Argo, and that’s its main problem.
Despite being set in the middle of the Vietnam War, nothing really terrible is allowed to affect the main characters, no doubt because of the PG certificate.
It touches several times on issues of racism but never explores them in any depth. It’s all rather sanitised.
What we are left with is a perfectly nice, uplifting and sometimes amusing drama, thanks to the efforts of a strong cast lead by Chris O’Dowd.
He plays hard-drinking, sarcastic Irishman Dave Lovelace who somehow – we’re never told how – ends up in the middle of nowhere in the Australian outback in 1968.
There he finds three singing sisters taking part in a talent contest. They are easily the best but don’t win because they are Aboriginal.
He recognises their abilities and agrees to help them audition for the US Army, which is looking for groups to entertain the troops in Vietnam.
But first he has a condition, that they change their style. “You’re black and you’re singing country and western music – it’s just wrong,” he tells them, teaching them to sing soul hits for the ‘brothers’ in Saigon.
The sassy sisters pick up mixed-race cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) on the way.
Vietnam just seems exotic and exciting and not especially dangerous, as Dave embarks on an underpowered romance with eldest sister Gail (Deborah Mailman).
It’s fairly predictable and all a bit safe, but entertaining enough – and the music is great. RL
Ginger & Rosa * *
Cert 12A, 90 mins
Last October, Birmingham actress Felicity Jones starred in a little-seen film called Albatross, in which she befriended a teenage girl and aspiring novelist, who then visits Jones’ father while he struggles with writer’s block in the attic.
Albatross relied heavily on the potential sexual frisson between two characters of different generations and a similar undercurrent is at the heart of Ginger & Rosa.
The difference being that this is only a 12A certificate so other, less interesting themes are pursued as well.
Directed by Sally Potter (Orlando), the style and cinematography of the film try to keep us watching even though it never really feels like 1962.
And there are too many themes which smack of cinematic contrivance.
The coming-of-age drama is about two young women born when the first atom bomb was dropped in Japan and who are now teenagers worried about nuclear proliferation.
Fusing that with a story of sexual awakening is ambitious but futile given dull lines like ‘Happiness is not really an option when you know the world can be blown to pieces at any minute’ and ‘You can’t stop a war if there’s going to be one...it’s in the hands of God’.
The cast includes Timothy Spall, as ageless as ever at 55 – and Annette Bening, looking older than her 54 years (as most people did in ‘62).
One of the few heartwarming period touches is a deep-yellow egg yolk.
But the dominant hair colour on show makes this feel as it’s the dawn of the Swinging Sixties... as seen through rather depressing, ginger-tinted glasses.
At the MAC from Friday to Thursday. GY
People Like Us * * *
Cert 12A, 114 mins
Backed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, you might not be expecting to hear the F-word twice in quick succession in this drama about the sometimes disparate roots of family values.
But, despite its other themes including alcoholism, smoking and suicide, the BBFC has probably got the certification right if you see this as a film for 12-year-olds and above.
The story about two adults unaware of a common bond is good enough to ensure that anyone who has ever experienced an identity crisis will probably draw something positive from its well.
The first five minutes open at breathless pace as Sam (Chris Pine), who is heavily in debt, fights for job stability.
He meets Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) who is struggling to keep her own head above water while bringing up a young son, Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario is a boy with a bright future after also starring in Sinister last month).
Thankfully, debut director and co-writer Alex Kurtzman slows the pace down enough for us to appreciate some terrific cinematography by Salvatore Totino which is well-above average for family dramas of this nature.
Not worrying about looking older on screen, Michelle Pfeiffer adds a touch of Hollywood royalty as Sam’s mother, while Philip Baker Hall has a brief but classy cameo as a lawyer.
Although the story arc feels a touch too manipulative at times and the film ends up feeling as long as it is, both Pine (Star Trek) and Banks (The Hunger Games) are both given the room to develop their characters.
And the ending is not only clever, but it will have an emotional kick, too, in all but the hardest of hearts. GY
Silent Hill: Revelation 3D *
Cert 15, 94 mins
Like Roger Moore before him, Sean Bean is a star who can add a certain something to the most mundane of movies.
Black Death and Outlaw are two recent thrillers which have been saved by his presence.
But, given his truly bizarre attempt at a Yorkshire-flavoured American accent, Bean was never going to be able to do much to save this sequel to a video game adaptation – so he promptly goes AWOL for a hefty chunk of the film.
And yet...here’s the odd thing.
Out of all the movies I’ve seen with members of the public recently because the distributor wouldn’t sanction a press screening, this was the one sell-out.
Full marks for the way an audience of fanboys sat there with restrained patience watching it all fall apart before our eyes, but I for one left praying their investment won’t yield another film in the series.
Adelaide Clemens plays Heather, a young woman left trapped in a nightmarishly incomprehensible, psychological netherworld after her father Harry (Bean) disappears.
With Bean unable to save the unsavable, we’re left with waves of hard-working special effects trying to torture Heather instead of being able to enjoy a top star on form.
Most distractingly of all, the sound engineers seem to think they’ve been let out of the cupboard on Christmas Day to play with a brand new set of toys, so cavalier is their lack of thought about how to make a horror film actually sound scary.
Unless you are unlucky enough to already be deaf and watching this with subtitles, the impact of the overbearing impact of the sound effects will be to render your desensitised ears useless. GY