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Ben's five-star caper

ARGO Thriller. Starring Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Victor Garber. Directed by Ben Affleck. Cert 15A

It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time just over a decade ago when even to mention Ben Affleck's name was to invite a derisive snort from movie buffs. The Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting long forgotten, he'd become stuck in a rut of bad movie choices with Pearl Harbor, Paycheck, Jersey Girl, Surviving Christmas and the Razzie-reaping Gigli all indicating that a once-promising career was heading towards Armageddon. My, how things have changed.

A move behind the cameras for the gritty Boston noir of Gone Baby Gone showed a genuine talent for directing, one which blossomed even further with the heist caper The Town, in which he also starred, and now he's upped his game even further with Argo.

Set in the wake of the taking of hostages at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, this wildly implausible story is based on a real CIA operation, the documents on which were only declassified in 1997. When six members of embassy staff made it out the back door, before the Revolutionary Guard arrived, and holed up in the Canadian ambassador's residence, it took months for the US to figure out a way to try to get them home. The solution? Easy.

Fugitives

They'd just fake the existence of a sub-Star Wars movie that was to be filmed in Iran, pretend the fugitives were Canadian film crew and that should do it. Piece of cake.

Affleck himself plays Tony Mendez, a real-life CIA 'exfiltrator' who came up with the bonkers plan and in his role as director he has the task of balancing three rather different story strands.

First up we have the plight of the escaped embassy staff hiding out in Tehran, realising that the Iranians have figured that they've somehow slipped the net and will execute them as spies.

Then there's the hand-wringing in Washington as the hostage crisis drags on and the authorities become fearful of sacrificing those still held for the sake of the six. On top of that there's the comic relief in Hollywood, as Mendez's plan for the fake film comes together with the help of make-up expert John Chambers (a real-life Oscar-winner played by John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (a fictional construct essayed by a sparkling Alan Arkin). Affleck juggles all three aspects of the plot brilliantly.

Performance-wise, Arkin pretty much steals the show, with Affleck content to underplay the part of Mendez and allow Scoot McNairy (Monsters/Killing Them Softly) to shine in the Tehran scenes as the most sceptical --and rightly so -- of the distressed diplomats.

Clearly and cleverly indebted to the smart but commercial movies of the late Seventies and early Eighties -- think The China Syndrome, All the President's Men, Capricorn One and their ilk -- Argo has a look and feel which you rarely come across in contemporary cinema, allied to a great ensemble cast and a mastery of pace and tension. One of the films of the year, no question.

HHHHH

THE SAPPHIRES Musical Comedy Drama. Starring Chris O'Dowd, Jessica Mauboy, Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell. Directed by Wayne Blair. Cert PG

Hmmh, fast-talking Irishman convinces a sceptical group of musicians that performing Soul music is the way forward -- now where have I heard that one before?

Relax, there's none of your patronising Roddy Doyle rubbish here, but a story 'inspired by true events' in which promoter Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd) convinces a group of Aboriginal female singers to ditch their beloved country'n'western, moulds them into Australia's answer to The Supremes and takes then on a gruelling tour of Vietnam ... in 1968.

The central premise may be corny and obvious as hell -- will Lovelace and group leader, the feisty Gail (Deborah Mailman), ever see eye to eye? -- but the film does inject some grit into proceedings by contrasting the racism the girls experienced in their homeland with the reception they receive from black GIs in Vietnam.

All in all, a decent enough way to pass an hour or two with plenty of good tunes to help you on your way.

HHHII

PEOPLE LIKE US Drama. Starring Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Hall D'Addario, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Wilde. Directed by Alex Kurtzman. Cert 12A

More 'real-life' events inspired this melodrama which, with its good cast, could have had the makings of a decent drama until first-time director Alex Kurtzman took the option of sending proceedings lurching into soap territory at every turn.

Chris Pine plays Sam, a fast-talking salesman who's been estranged from his father for years and is reluctant to go to his funeral. He discovers that he has a half-sister he never knew about. It all becomes very mawkish in the final third and nothing can lift the project above 'Weepie of the Week' standard.

HHIII

HERE COMES THE BOOM Comedy. Starring Kevin James, Henry Winkler, Salma Hayek, Guy Gerard, Gary Valentine. Directed by Frank Coraci. Cert 12A

Let's see, a Kevin James comedy about a slovenly biology teacher who takes up martial arts to save his school's music programme in the face of heartless budget cuts?

Picture three scripts which have been rejected by Adam Sandler for being too obvious flung in the air and filmed in whatever order the first hundred pages landed.

There, you've just saved yourself a tenner.

HIIII


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