Skip to main content

Near the end of 1979, the new hard­line rulers of Iran – incensed by the US government’s sup­port for the pre­vi­ous des­pot – stormed the embassy in Teheran and held the occu­pants host­age for over a year, long enough to wreck President Jimmy Carter’s attempt at re-election and to define American rela­tions with the Persian Gulf for anoth­er thirty years. That side of the story is rel­at­ively well-known. The secret story of the six embassy staff who escaped, hid in the Canadian ambassador’s house, and were then spir­ited out of the coun­try dis­guised as a Hollywood film crew? Not so much.

Thanks to the recent declas­si­fic­a­tion of the CIA and State Department files, the weird and won­der­ful story of Argo can be told, and – this being a Hollywood story about a Hollywood story – it gets a bit of a punch-up to make sure none of the enter­tain­ment poten­tial is wasted. So now, Argo is “inspired by a true story” rather than “based on a true story” and it is also the smartest and most enter­tain­ing Hollywood pic­ture for grown-ups this year.

Directed by Ben Affleck (who also stars as Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who hatched the plan), Argo is sim­ul­tan­eously a polit­ic­al drama with some smart things to say about the US engage­ment with the Middle East, a bitchy Hollywood satire with plenty of gags about the van­ity and delu­sion of the movie busi­ness and a tense ‘race-against-the-clock’ thrill­er that is executed as well as any­thing by William Friedkin. While 40-year-old Affleck shows that he now has the chops to com­pete with the very best, it is Chris Terrio’s script that is most likely to win a naked gold dude come Oscar-time.

Also loosely based on a true story – but cop­ping a lot less flack for its nar­rat­ive orna­ment­a­tion – The Intouchables is a French bro-mance between a mil­lion­aire quad­ri­ple­gic (François Cluzet) and his wrong-side-of-the-tracks care­giver (played with a stag­ger­ing amount of instant star qual­ity by tele­vi­sion comedi­an Omar Sy). The usu­al cross-cultural (and inter-class) learn­ings ensue but it’s the exe­cu­tion by dir­ect­ors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano that elev­ate The Intouchables above emo­tion­ally manip­u­lat­ive schlock like Conversations with My Gardener. The rela­tion­ship between the two leads seems effort­lessly ami­able and it has a warmth and spon­taneity that keeps draw­ing you back in.

Danny Mulheron’s Kiwi horror-comedy Fresh Meat is sporad­ic­ally funny with some great moments but too many flat peri­ods between them. Some dim-witted crims on the run after bust­ing their lead­er out of a pris­on van take shel­ter in a sub­urb­an house, hop­ing that they can use their host­ages for fun as well as lever­age. What they don’t real­ise is that the middle class, pro­fes­sion­al, Māori couple they have tied up in their lounge room are also cold-blooded mur­der­ing can­ni­bals with a shiny array of sharp imple­ments in their state-of-the-art butchery basement.

Briar Grace-Smith’s script tilts the bal­ance of power reg­u­larly between the two lots of cra­zies and fleshes out some of the char­ac­ters more than one might expect. Tem Morrison gives it everything as the demen­ted and frus­trated pat­ri­arch (although I was dis­ap­poin­ted that there were no “cook me some eggs” jokes) and new­comer Hannah Tevita as inno­cent daugh­ter Rina is quite a discovery.

This edi­tion of the paper hits the streets on Halloween and – des­pite the best efforts of Paranormal Activity – the scar­i­est film out at the moment is actu­ally a doc­u­ment­ary. Evan Grae Davis’s film It’s a Girl is about the sys­tem­at­ic gender-cide of girl chil­dren, spe­cific­ally in India and China, where more girls are killed every year than are actu­ally born in the USA. The dowry sys­tem – which places a neg­at­ive cash value on girls at mar­riage – was offi­cially out­lawed in India in 1961 but con­tin­ues largely unen­cumbered by the atten­tions of the author­it­ies. In China it is the government-mandated one child policy that sees boys pre­ferred to girls – the lucky girls are aban­doned and left to orphan­ages, the rest abor­ted or murdered at birth.

Shadow Dancer sounds like an 80s pop album but is actu­ally a thrill­er about a “tout” (or “grass” if you prefer), played by Andrea Riseborough, recruited by British intel­li­gence to inform on her IRA broth­ers while the lead­ers of the two sides try and nego­ti­ate a “peace pro­cess”. Clive Owen is as wooden as always as her hand­ler and dir­ec­tion is by James Marsh who is per­haps best known for the doc­u­ment­ar­ies Man on Wire and Project Nim. The sec­tari­an para­noia of Northern Ireland is nicely drawn and there’s at least one “didn’t see that com­ing” moment which is one more than you usu­ally get.

Mental is a real oddity, a shambles of a film by Australian P.J. Hogan here reunit­ing with Toni Collette who he intro­duced to the world in 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding. They are both back in fic­tion­al Dolphin Heads, a small town full of judge­ment­al busy­bod­ies who frown on eccent­ri­city or dif­fer­ence. The Moochmore women (moth­er Rebecca Gibney and daugh­ters Bethany Whitmore, Malorie O’Neill, Chelsea Bennett, Nicole Freeman and Lily Sullivan) all think they are barmy, an idea rein­forced by their awful neigh­bours. When Gibney takes a well-earned break at the loc­al men­tal hos­pit­al, hus­band (and town may­or) Anthony LaPaglia enlists Collette’s hip­pie drift­er, “Shaz”, to babysit.

Like an Ocker Mary Poppins, this house-keeper unleashes their inner strength and their vital per­son­al­it­ies, wreak­ing hav­oc on the con­ser­vat­ive com­munity. The film is a mess (which I think is partly the point) but the sav­ing grace is the cast, all of whom – LaPaglia, Collette, Gibney, Kiwi Kerry Fox and American Liev Schreiber – get a moment or two to show us what they can do. Schrieber’s Aussie accent is the best by an American that I’ve ever heard.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times news­pa­per on Wednesday 31 October, 2012.

Correction: In the first ver­sion of this – and the one that got prin­ted I bet – I thought that Mental was set in the same sea­side town as Muriel’s Wedding. This was an easy mis­take to make as Porpoise Spit and Dolphin Heads seem pretty sim­il­ar to my ears. Dolphin Heads, though, is a real place.