Saturday, November 24, 2012

Argo: A Riveting Thriller From Director/Star Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck has already proven himself as a director with Gone Baby Gone (2007), and The Town (2010), two well-received crime dramas. Argo (2012), his third time behind the camera, has recently been released, and it’s another winner. The film tells the fact-based story of a CIA operative who helped six U.S. diplomats escape from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. After the fall of the Shah & the rise of militant factions within the country, the US embassy’s staff is taken prisoner. A group of diplomats manage to evade capture, and hide out at the home of the Canadian ambassador. As our government negotiates for the release of the embassy’s hostages, the CIA tries to come up with a plan to get these 6 escapees out of the country safely.

A CIA agent and expert in ex-filtration (Affleck) comes up with a unique plan; he can fly to Iran and pretend to be scouting locations for a Canadian science-fiction film. He’ll get the diplomats out as part of his film crew, complete with fake identities and passports. The movie follows the creation & initiation of the plan, and parallels it with the situation in Iran and the threats faced by the diplomats & the larger group of hostages at the embassy. Iranian rebels are searching for any people who may have escaped , and factions within the CIA & our own government begin to doubt the validity of this daring idea. They're worried that if the plan is discovered, it might affect the negotiations for the release of the embassy hostages.
Some of the diplomats don’t entirely trust Affleck's CIA agent, and feel they can’t learn their cover identities well enough to evade questioning or capture. But he’s determined to get these people home. As the date of the escape nears, things get more intense within Iran; the US even thinks about cancelling the entire operation. Even though you already know the ending, this is a top-notch thriller. It’s a suspenseful ride, filled with great moments and excellent performances. As with many fact-based movies, some of the real-life events are combined or compressed, but this is still a powerful story, and because many of us were alive at the time these events took place, it resonates on a deeper level.

Affleck and his crew get the looks and the details right, mixing in real footage from the era to give the story authenticity. He wanted to make sure the project looked and felt real; the movie was shot on film, and the image was blown up to give it a grainy, 1970s look. The director and his crew were inspired by the style of movies like The Parallax View & All The President’s Men. Even the Warner Brothers logo used to open the film is the one used in films from that era.  The cast is peppered with familiar faces and top-notch character actors, including Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Bryan Cranston and John Goodman, who portrays real-life makeup master John Chambers (an Oscar winner for the original Planet of The Apes), who assists with making the Hollywood side of the “fake” project feel real.

The film was produced by Affleck, George Clooney & Grant Heslov; the taut screenplay is by Chris Terrio, based on The Master of Disguise by Antonio Mendez & The Great Escape by Joshuah Bearman. Argo is an exciting, tense ride that’s all the more amazing because it really happened; Affleck and his cast & crew have done an excellent job showing us the story behind this mission (the details of the operation were declassified by President Clinton in 1997), and giving us some insight into how the government and intelligence agencies operate in a time of crisis. Ben Affleck is proving himself to be a filmmaker to watch. Argo is currently finishing up its run in theaters, and should be released on video in the near future.

Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

A brief personal note: This week marks my 100th post at Eclectic Avenue. It's been a lot of fun to share my thoughts & reviews with you since I began doing this in April 2011. I want to thank all the readers from around the world who've taken a look at the site and indulged me as a I ramble on about movies, music & books. Thanks for your support!


Saturday, November 17, 2012

"Skyfall" Celebrates The Essence of Bond

Daniel Craig & Judi Dench in Skyfall
The James Bond movies have been going strong for 50 years now. The series has had its ups downs over the years, and fans continually debate their favorite Bond actor or what entry is the series' best. But few would argue that when Daniel Craig took over the role in 2006's Casino Royale, he helped to reinvigorate the series, and came closer to author Ian Fleming's conception of Bond more than any actor since Sean Connery, or perhaps the criminally underrated Timothy Dalton. Casino Royale set a new high water mark for the franchise. Craig’s follow-up film, Quantum of Solace (2008) was not quite as well-received, though it still had some good moments. Now Craig’s third turn in the role, Skyfall (2012), has arrived, and it’s one of the best Bond movies in recent years. Please note the following review contains some mild spoilers, if you haven’t seen the film.

As the film opens, we’re treated to a classic style 007 chase sequence, as Bond and another agent (Naomie Harris) trail an assassin in Turkey. M (Judi Dench) is monitoring the action remotely; the killer they’re chasing has a disk containing some very sensitive information. Bond catches up with the man, and as they struggle on top of a moving train, the second agent trains a gun on them from a distance. M orders the agent to take the shot; because it’s more important to secure the information the man is carrying than worry about Bond’s life. The shooter misses; Bond gets wounded, and falls into the water below; cue the opening credits and an excellent, old school sounding 007 title track from Adele.

Of course, that’s only the beginning of the story. With Bond presumed dead, and the top-secret information lost, M is under fire (and under investigation) from the British government. Meanwhile Silva, the mysterious villain behind the theft of the disk begins a very personal attack on M and MI6. Bond returns (was there any doubt?) but is shaken by his experience, and not quite the man he was before; he’s got some mixed emotions about what M did, but still feels a sense of loyalty to her. Bond is sent after the shadowy Silva (Javier Bardem), but does M know more than she’s telling about this man? What is Silva’s connection to M? And what is his endgame? Before the story is over, both M & Bond will have to face some very personal demons, and reflect on the choices they’ve made in their lives.

The film examines the relationship between Bond & M in a much deeper way than we’ve seen before in the series. It’s an almost parental connection, though there are more layers to their story, and Silva’s origin factors into things as well. In both Casino Royale and to a lesser degree, in Quantum of Solace, the filmmakers started to get beneath Bond’s skin, and show what makes a man like 007 tick. The films are almost an unofficial trilogy, with Skyfall concluding the story of where Bond has been, and offering us a hint of where the character may be going. The acting is top notch; Dench, Craig and Bardem are all excellent in their roles; in fact, I think this is Craig's and Dench's best work in the series. There are also good supporting performances from Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Ben Whishaw as Q, a character returning to the franchise for the first time since the end of the Pierce Brosnan era.

There are all the usual things we’ve come to expect from a Bond outing; exotic locales, exciting action sequences, beautiful women, showdowns with the villain of the piece, and even a bit of sly humor. Since the movie is being released during the 50th anniversary year of the series, there are some great visual references to past films, and an appearance by an iconic vehicle that fans will surely recognize. The direction by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road To Perdition) is superb; in fact, it’s the first time an Oscar-winning director has helmed a Bond film. There’s great cinematography by Roger Deakins (No Country For Old Men, A Beautiful Mind), and a good score by Thomas Newman (The Green Mile, Erin Brokovich), both of whom have previously worked with Mendes. The script by Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, and series newcomer John Logan (Gladiator, Star Trek: Nemesis) is sharp & well written, with some excellent dialogue, especially in the scenes between Bond & M, and their exchanges with Silva.

Skyfall not only pays homage to what makes the 007 films great, but lays the groundwork for the future; in a way, it distills all the best elements of Bond’s past and present into one package, and it's both the end of one story, and the beginning of a new journey for 007. It’s not only a good Bond movie, it’s a well made film on any level. This is the best of Craig's three outings in the role, and it's certainly one of the finest films in the series. The movie will have extra resonance (and some nice surprises) for you if you’re a longtime James Bond fan. But Skyfall is solid entertainment that should also appeal to those who appreciate intelligent, well-crafted action fare. Bond is definitely back, and it doesn't look like he'll be leaving us anytime soon. Here's a link to the film's trailer:

Next time: Ben Affleck's "Argo"

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Going On A Country Rock "Expedition" With Dillard & Clark

The late 60s through the mid 70s saw the rise of country rock, with artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, The Eagles, Gram Parsons, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Poco and even ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith contributing to the genre. One of the best albums to come out of this era is Dillard & Clark’s 1968 release The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark. It’s considered one of the classics of the sound, which combined elements of rock, folk and traditional country. The group was founded by Gene Clark, a former member of The Byrds (themselves no strangers to country rock) and Doug Dillard, who had just left his family’s bluegrass outfit, The Dillards.

They recorded the album with some talented collaborators, including guitarist Bernie Leadon, who went on to join The Eagles, and bassist Chris Hillman, who had also been part of The Byrds. Hillman & Leadon also helped form The Flying Burrito Brothers, another well regarded country rock band. The album is awash with the sounds of banjo, fiddle and organ, and there are some fantastic songs, including the opener “Out On The Side,” and “Train Leaves Here This Mornin,” which Leadon later covered during his stint with The Eagles.

This is old-fashioned country & bluegrass, shot through with a dose of rock & roll. Much of the music here is also folk flavored & on the melancholy side, including the amazing “She Darked The Sun,” “Something’s Wrong” and the wonderful Clark tune “Why Not Your Baby?” which is included on CD reissues of the album as a bonus track. It’s one of the most poignant songs ever recorded. The songwriting by Clark, Dillard & Leadon, ranks with the best of the genre. There’s some stunning musicianship here; the playing and singing is stellar, and you can hear the influences these musicians had on other artists who visited these soundscapes in their careers.

The group only recorded one other album together; the 1969 follow up Through The Morning, Through The Night, which leans even more heavily toward the bluegrass sound. It wasn’t as well-received as their debut, but there are still some wonderful songs, including the title track and covers of The Everly Brothers classic “So Sad” and The Beatles “Don’t Let Me Down.” Both albums are available on one CD, which also includes the group’s singles. While the albums are available as separate releases, I highly recommended the “two-fer” disc, which provides you with the group’s entire recorded output on one CD.

Sadly, Gene Clark left us in 1991, and Doug Dillard passed away this past May. But they left behind a musical legacy (in their various projects together & separately) that still touches listeners to this day. I have to admit I hadn't heard the album until recently (though I'd enjoyed both artists' work with their other groups, and the 1994 Velvet Crush cover of "Why Not Your Baby?" is one of my favorite songs), but I've been listening to the album regularly since discovering it. If you’re a fan of country-flavored rock, which has seen a resurgence in the past few years with the success of groups like The Avett Brothers, Fleet Foxes, Mumford & Sons and The Zac Brown Band, you owe to yourself to check out The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark. It’s truly an aural journey worth taking. You won't be disappointed with this excellent record by these truly wonderful artists.

Here are links to “Why Not Your Baby?” and “Train Leaves Here This Mornin & In The Plan”

Next time: Bond is Back

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Black & Blu" is a Melting Pot of Rock, Soul & The Blues...

Gary Clark, Jr. is a blues guitarist based in Austin, Texas. He’s played with many legends of rock, blues and soul, including the Dave Matthews Band, Buddy Guy and Alicia Keys. While he’s released a couple of albums on his own independent Hotwire Unlimited label, the recently released Black & Blu (2012) from Warner Brothers, is his major label debut. It’s an enjoyable, stylistically diverse album that showcases Clark’s excellent vocals and gritty guitar work. This is a record that’s steeped in soul, blues & rock, and there’s even a bit of hip-hop thrown into the mix.

Tracks like “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” and “When My Train Pulls In” have a more traditional blues sound, but then there are songs such as the R&B flavored “Please Come Home” and the 80s rock feel of “You Saved Me.” There’s also a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” that segues into “If You Love Me Like You Say,” a song from bluesman Little Johnnie Taylor; the pairing works exceptionally well; it’s one of the best tracks on the album. In fact, there isn’t a bad track on the disc, though the diversity of the music may surprise & even frustrate some listeners looking for a more blues based record. The 28-year-old Clark shows he can be a master of many styles, and he’s comfortable working in a variety of musical genres.

The genre hopping continues with the distortion-laden, almost metal-like “Numb” and “Ain’t Messin 'Round,” which recalls 60s soul. The title track pays homage to the socially conscious 70s work of artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder; and “Glitter Ain’t Gold” is a collision of rock & soul, sort of a Lenny Kravitz meets Prince jam. The playing by Clark and his band is revelatory, and it’s got a live feel; it doesn't sound manufactured. The production by Rob Cavallo (who’s worked with Green Day) and Mike Elizondo (who's produced discs for Dr Dre & Fiona Apple) gives the songs room to breathe; this isn’t an over-produced record.

The album is available in stores, and online at various digital download sites. Some digital versions (including the iTunes Deluxe edition) include a couple of worthwhile bonus tracks: “Breakdown” and “Soul.” If you’re a fan of any of the styles or genres discussed in this review, or if you've read about & heard Gary Clark, Jr’s work before, Black & Blu is worth your time. This is mature, well written & performed music by an artist who respects the styles of the past, but moves forward with his own musical footprint. Clark is a talent to watch, and I look forward to his next release.

Here are links to the video for "Ain't Messin 'Round" and a live performance of "Please Come Home"

Next: A country rock journey with Dillard & Clark