FS, Contributing Writer
Having already scored with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, director Ben Affleck goes three for three with Argo (wide release), a taut, involving and surprisingly funny fact-based thriller about the CIA’s extraction of six American diplomats who’d escaped the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and taken refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s residence.
Affleck, hidden behind a beard, also plays the agent who comes up with the apparently daft idea to have the six impersonate members of a movie crew scouting locations for a Star Wars rip-off. He’ll fly into Iran pretending to be a producer and provide them with the fake documents they’ll use to get past airport security.
The phony-film scenario provides most of the movie’s laughs, introducing John Goodman and Alan Arkin as a pair of Hollywood old-timers who help the Agency set up what looks like an actual project. They skewer the pretensions and practices of the movie business with glee, adding a sharp satirical dimension to the tale.
How accurate is Argo to the historical record? Not terribly, especially towards the close, when it invents a good deal to turn what was actually a fairly mundane exit from Tehran into a series of cliff-hangers marked by close calls and hairbreadth escapes. But this is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, not a documentary, and on that level it works remarkably well.
That’s certainly more than can be said for Alex Cross (wide release), an attempt to revive on screen pulp novelist James Patterson’s forensic psychologist-turned-detective, previously played by Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, and here by Tyler Perry.
The plot concerns the effort by Cross and his Detroit police partners to track down a sadistic serial killer (Matthew Fox) who’s targeting upper-echelon employees of an international corporation headed by a French dandy (Jean Reno). When they get too close, the villain adds them and their families to his hit list, and they have to go rogue to bring him in and unravel his motive.
Unfortunately, Perry – who’s made his career with his drag routine as magna mater Madea – proves totally unequal to the task of being a credible action hero.
But it’s unlikely that anyone could have sold the movie’s imbecilic plot, which is based on Cross’ supposedly astronomical but actually nonsensical deductive abilities and a whole raft of dumb coincidences, or looked less than ridiculous in the badly choreographed, blurrily shot fight sequences.
The result is an ugly, stupid picture, so bad that when the killer announces that he enjoys inflicting pain even on himself, you’re thinking that he’d be the perfect audience for it.
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (Angelika) has been adapted for film and television many times, for the most part badly (and not only because the second half of the book is almost always jettisoned completely). But this new version by Andrea Arnold is one of the worst.
That’s not just because in a misguided effort at contemporary relevance she’s turned Heathcliff into an African youngster (presumably an ex-slave). Or even because she’s chosen to cast his role and that of the young, doomed Cathy with amateurs whose dead delivery of their lines drains every hint of emotion from the story.
No, the new Wuthering Heights fails primarily on stylistic grounds. It’s shot in the jerky, handheld camerawork so commonplace, and so irritating, nowadays, and mostly in light so weak that it’s often impossible to discern what’s happening on the screen. The minimal dialogue, frequently hushed or garbled, doesn’t make things any clearer. One wagers that anybody who hasn’t read the book will be at a loss to tell what’s going on.
The 1939 version with Laurence Olivier might be romanticized to the point of absurdity, but it offers a far more affecting vision of the piece than this parched, chaotic telling – more the cinematic depths than the heights.
“Paranormal Activity 4”
Paranormal Activity 4 (wide release) turns out to be an equally formulaic piece of haunted-house hokum, which mimics its predecessors in using a supposed “caught on the fly” technique to continue the series’ plot about witchcraft and possessions that reveal themselves in demonic poltergeist-like phenomena.
This time around, the subjects are the members of a nice suburban family who take in a strange neighborhood boy after his mother is hospitalized. His presence sets off weird occurrences that threaten mom and pop, but especially their teen daughter and her snarky boyfriend, both of whom have a habit of filming their every moment with camera-phones and computers.
This fourth installment in the Paranormal franchise is running on fumes, with the “found footage” device making no sense and, in any event, adding little to an ending that’s all illogical cheap tricks. Only die-hard fans will find it a Halloween treat; for most it will be a dispiriting Hollywood trick.