Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Ben Affleck escapes and other notes from the LFF

Ben Affleck’s Argo has just screened at the BFI London Film Festival to much deserved acclaim. Speaking with the benefit of hindsight, we can now claim that we saw Ben’s renaissance coming for years. Following the success of Good Will …

Sun, Oct 21, 2012, 21:27

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Ben Affleck’s Argo has just screened at the BFI London Film Festival to much deserved acclaim. Speaking with the benefit of hindsight, we can now claim that we saw Ben’s renaissance coming for years. Following the success of Good Will Hunting, he struggled to retain respect as an actor. He was too often cast as boring man on the left. A slight tendency towards teakiness didn’t help elevate his performances. But hang on. Do not forget that he and Matt Damon won their Oscars not for appearing in Good Will Hunting, but for writing it. Maybe his talents lay behind the camera.

So, it has transpired. Gone Baby Gone was a first-class melodrama. The Town worked well for most of its duration. Now, we get what is easily the best film of his directorial career. Argo is based on a story that must of us should know, but few of us do. When I discussed the picture with John Goodman last week, he admitted that, before the script landed on his mat, he had heard nothing about it. Following the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, six employees managed to escape and make their way to the protection of their Canadian counterparts. The CIA hatched a seemingly absurd plan to secure their escape. “This is the best bad plan we have by far,” Bryan Cranston’s big wig says in the picture. Tony Mendez (Affleck), one of the Company’s top men, would enter Iran, posing as producer of a science fiction film, and fly the six out in the guise of other crew members.

There are problems with the picture. Some of the suspense is contrived. Chris Terrio’s script saddles Affleck (dubiously cast as a character with Latin origins) with a personal subplot that is wholly unnecessary and somewhat cheesy. Forget that. This is among the most robustly exciting, furiously propulsive films released this (or any other) year. The period detail is nicely carried off. The stock has an authentic, blotchy verité look. The supporting performances are all super. If the story weren’t true (excuse the cliché) nobody would dare to make it up. Don’t miss Argo when it opens here next month. Affleck is a top-flight story teller. We will never doubt him again.

Also screening — among other films not mentioned here before — were Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet and Ben Lewin’s The Sessions. Hoffman, who had never directed before, told me that his new job was such hard work he’d never do it again. Well, he must have enjoyed the company. A story of retired  classical musicians, Quartet stars such crinkly greats as Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon and Pauline Collins. The grey pound is itching in its grey pocket.

The Sessions deliberately induces squirms with its tale of a disabled poet who hires a sex surrogate to assist him in ending his virginity. The picture, a hit at Sundance, yells the word “Oscar” at the top of its lungs (for all that means). John Hawkes stars as Mark O’Brien, a Bay Area writer, paralysed by Polio, and Helen Hunt turns up as the therapist who must get very intimate indeed. If those two aren’t nominated then I’ll eat my head.

For the record, the best film award (to which nobody pays very much attention) went to Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. This strikes me as a weird choice. If they were going to honour a film that premiered as long ago as Cannes, both Michael Haneke’s Amour and Behn Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild were surely better choices. It’s a tricky one for London. With so few premieres, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for a best film gong. With some few exceptions, Cannes, Venice and Sundance all tend to honour films that have made their debut at the respective event.  Oh well. Rust and Bone opens next week. So, you can make your own mind up then.



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