Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

2015 #39
George Ermitage | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Grosse Pointe BlankAction comedy starring John Cusack as a hitman who has to face the life he left behind when he’s assigned a job in his hometown on the same weekend as his high school reunion.

In particular, he has to face the girl he abandoned on prom night. She’s played by Minnie Driver, when she was still kinda cute and indie rather than annoying and kinda diva-ish (see also: Good Will Hunting). Other delights: a hilarious supporting cast, including Dan Akroyd, Hank Azaria and Alan Arkin, and a fantastic ’80s-derived soundtrack.

Immensely entertaining, I was this close to giving full marks.

4 out of 5

Grosse Pointe Blank placed 18th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Argo: Extended Cut (2012/2013)

2015 #13
Ben Affleck | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Persian | 15 / R

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
7 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing.
Nominated: Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.


Argo: Extended CutArgo is probably the most traditionally entertaining from 2012’s crop of Best Picture nominees. I know a lot of people awarded that honour to American Hustle, but David O. Russell’s film left me largely cold, and, even with OTT performances and funny lines, I think it is actually a very awards-y kind of film.

Argo, on the other hand, is a straight-up espionage thriller. Based on a true story that you’d dismiss as too ridiculous if someone had made it up, it tells the tale of CIA extraction expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), charged with rescuing six US officials who escaped the 1980 attack on the US embassy in Iran and are hiding at the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Tony’s plan is to fake the production of a Star Wars-style movie, fly in to Iran on the pretence of location scouting, and simply fly the officials out posing as his crew. To make the story look genuine, he enlists Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to all but set up the movie for real. Then all Tony has to do is pop over to a country where Americans are despised and fly their six most-wanted fugitives out on a commercial airline flight.

I think Argo is a winner — with audiences, that is — because of its deft mixing of humour and tension. It begins with the latter, showing the siege in Iran in accurate detail (the end credits contrast photos of the actual event with the film’s recreation, lest you were in any doubt). The US public are concerned about the dozens of embassy employees held hostage — there’s wall-to-wall news coverage, plenty of gung-ho vox pops, etc. The US government, meanwhile, flounder about what to do about the escapees — in very-need-to-know secret, of course, because if news gets out… well… With no good plans, this is when Tony cooks up his Hollywood idea, and he jets off to California to set it up and prove it can work.

HollywoodThis is where we get the humour, mainly directed at the movie industry. Some say this is why it won the big awards: Hollywood loves a look at itself, and here it’s both satirical (“So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot, without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!”) and congratulatory — after all, the plan goes ahead and so (spoilers) Hollywood saves the day. The film creates just the right balance between taking the mick out of Hollywood and bigging-up its role in saving some lives, while also not spending too long on this section that we forget the perilous situation on the other side of the world. After all, once all the fun and games in Tinseltown are over, it’s back to the serious business in Iran.

When we return there, lives are very much at stake, under genuine threat from the Iranian militia if the six are discovered. The latter sequences where Tony sets about actually extracting them are loaded with unease, particularly when, to maintain their cover, they actually have to go on a location scout, complete with government guide. These six embassy employees — secretaries, effectively — are of course not trained spies, but nonetheless must know and be convincing within their cover stories. They have overnight to learn complete identities in case they are quizzed, knowing that even the slightest mistake could spell their capture, and their capture would inevitably lead to their death.

As director, Affleck’s one arguable misstep during all this is the OTT climax. (Spoilers follow, naturally.) In some respects it’s an awkward case: in reality, Tony and the rescuees boarded their flight home with no problems — their tickets were pre-booked and the flight left at 5:30am, so there weren’t even any guards on duty. That would make a bit of an anti-climactic ending to a Hollywood thriller, though, so of course it needs to be jazzed up. The sixThat’s just artistic licence, really — it’s not as if these people were safe, they just had a damn good plan; and, as I said, you need a dramatic ending for a thriller. However, all the “chasing them down the runaway” stuff is a bit full-on and action-movie-ish. It’s not even accurate to how it would go in real life, if it had happened, because the militia’s cars would need to be travelling phenomenally fast to keep up with the plane, and they aren’t seen to be affected by its jets either. For me, the rest of the climax — the guards checking the ‘crew’ out, phoning the LA office, later running up to the control tower, etc — all works; assuming you accept the film is still a Hollywood thriller, not a fact-bound documentary, and so needs a suitably dramatic climax. It’s a shame they didn’t leave it at that, but not a deal breaker either.

This extended version adds about nine minutes of material, primarily in the form of a subplot with Tony’s wife and kid, which from what I can tell was all but excised entirely from the theatrical cut. It’s a humanising subplot rather than an essential part of the narrative, but I also didn’t feel it got in the way of what else was going on, and was surprised to learn it had been removed so thoroughly. There are also a variety of little moments reinserted, plus some alternate shots and takes used, often for little apparent reason. For the interested, it’s detailed in all its infinite intricacies here.

Argo is perhaps an unusual Best Picture winner in the current era. It’s the kind of film that would have been a mainstream hit back in the ’70s or ’80s, back when adults still went to see adult movies rather than solely committing themselves to comic book effects extravaganzas. (A fact I stumbled across the other day: Kramer vs. Kramer earnt over $100 million at the US box office. Serious movieThat was in the ’70s — adjusted for inflation, it comes to over $350 million. For a drama about a couple divorcing and arguing over custody of their kid! Today, it’d be lucky to earn a tenth of that, even if it was up for Oscars. But I digress.) It’s a surprising Oscar pick these days because it’s a genuinely enjoyable watch, rather than a gruelling look at something-or-other serious.

Occasional slips aside, it’s a well-made, highly-entertaining, real-world spy thriller. Was it the best picture of 2012? Maybe not. The best movie? Maybe.

5 out of 5

Get Smart (2008)

2010 #65
Peter Segal | 110 mins | Blu-ray | PG-13 / 12

Get Smart, as you likely know, was a TV series in the ’60s, which makes one wonder how it’s taken so long to get to the big screen. I guess it didn’t have the same fanbase or perceived relaunchability that led to an endless array of big-screen versions of ’60s/’70s series in the last decade or two — Mission: Impossible, Starsky & Hutch, Dukes of Hazzard — indeed, with the likes of Miami Vice and The A-Team, these big-screen-remakes are now moving on into the ’80s. Is Get Smart too late for the party?

Well, not really, because what does it matter which decade it came from — this isn’t a continuation, it’s a modern-day relaunch with current stars (or ‘stars’, if you prefer) and a modern sensibility. Though, in fact, Get Smart acknowledges its roots with a series of relatively low-key references that won’t bother anyone who’s never seen the series (like me) but I’m sure are pleasing for those who have. It also suggests it is a continuation of the series in some ways, despite the main character sharing a name with the series’ lead… but look, it’s just a comedy, let’s not think about that too much.

Get Smart, ’00s-style, is mostly quite good fun. Not all the jokes hit home, but enough do to keep it amusing — which is better than some comedies manage. Even after three Austin Powers films it seems there’s enough left to do with the spy genre to keep a comedy rolling along, even if Mike Myers’ once-popular efforts occasionally pop to mind while watching. And to make sure things don’t get dull, there’s a few action sequences that are surprisingly decent too, considering this is still primarily a comedy.

Some of this is powered by a talented cast: Carrell is Carrell, which is great if you like him, fine if you don’t mind him, and probably a problem if you dislike him; but Anne Hathaway and Alan Arkin manage to lift the material more than is necessarily necessary. Dwayne Johnson also shows he’s remarkably good at a humorous role, which is a little unexpected. How has a former WWE wrestler, whose first acting role had more screen time for his piss-poor CGI double than himself, turned out a half-decent career? The world is indeed full of wonders. As the villain, however, Terence Stamp is ineffectually wooden at every turn. Oh well.

What really makes the film inherently likeable, however, is how nice it is. You’d expect Carrell to be the looked-down-upon wannabe-agent bumbling loser, promoted when there’s literally no one else and still a constant failure, only succeeding (if he does) through fluke. But no — he passes the necessary tests, but isn’t promoted because he’s too good at his current job; when he does get the promotion, he shows an aptitude for spying, fighting, and all other skills, and the other characters acknowledge this. They respect him, in fact, both at the beginning and later as an agent — again, you’d expect Johnson’s character to be the smarmy big shot who either ignores or specifically brings down a character like Carrell’s, but instead he’s one of his biggest supporters. (That he turns out to have been A Bad Guy All Along, Gasp! is beside the point.) The office bullies don’t actually have any power at all and are frequently brought down to size. It makes a nice change from the stock sitcom clumsy-hero-who-eventually-comes-good with irritating-and-condescending-higher-ups on the side, the pedestrian and unenjoyable fallback of too many comedy writers.

Still, Get Smart isn’t without striking flaws. The subplot about a mole in CONTROL (alluded to above) is atrociously handled, not least the ultimate reveal. Perhaps director Peter Segal realised it was pretty easy to guess who it would be and just assumed the audience would be ahead of the story, but that ignores the fact that the other characters barely react to one of their best friends being unmasked as a traitor. It’s all a bit “curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal”, only without a smidgen of the humour that one-liner provided.

But the opening half-hour or so is the film’s biggest flaw. By the time the mole plot is resolved you can almost let it slide, but being faced with a weak opening is more of a problem. Some moments in it work, but there’s the odd jump in storytelling (Max comes across the destroyed CONTROL so suddenly I assumed we were about to discover it was a dream or simulation), or an extended period with either no or too-familiar gags. Once it gets properly underway things continually pick up, but it’s asking a little too much from not necessarily sympathetic viewers.

Still, despite early flaws and the occasional shortage of genuine laughs, Get Smart is redeemed by a proficient cast and generally likeable screenplay. It’s not exactly a great comedy, but it is a pretty good one. Comparing it to the scores I’ve given other comedies recently, that bumps it up to:

4 out of 5