‘Argo’ and ‘Skyfall’ are exciting adventures
Owls Head — Argo (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 120 min.). Based on a true, but long-classified incident, “Argo,” which I fully expect to win the Oscar for Best Picture later this evening, is a terrific entertainment. It always amazes me at how suspenseful a well-crafted film can be, even when we already know the outcome. Director Ben Affleck (his third directing effort) successful combines a sense of what life was like during the Iranian hostage situation of 1979-80, some Hollywood-based humor and the suspense of sneaking out six American consulate workers, who had been hiding out for weeks at the Canadian ambassador’s residence, from Tehran, while more than 60 of their co-workers remained Iranian prisoners.
Affleck also plays CIA agent Tony Mendez (Mendez also has released a book about the scheme and escape, but the film is based on an article in Wired Magazine by Joshuah Bearman). Mendez is an expert at ex-ville, that is rescuing people from behind enemy lines. For this situation, he comes up with the idea of a fake Hollywood movie, with the six Americans pretending to be part of a Canadian film crew. Helping create the fake movie are his old friend John Chambers (a fine and funny John Goodman), an expert at special film make-up, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a film producer. The script they settle on is called “Argo,” and is a science fiction adventure set in the Middle East. (The three come up with a hilarious line, used throughout the film, that starts cannot be printed here, but uses “Argo” as “Ah, go” to start a phrase.) Bryan Cranston plays Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’ superior at the CIA, while Victor Garber is Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and Tate Donovan is Bob Anders, the unofficial leader of the six stranded Americans.
An angry crowd stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, taking all the employees and soldiers inside hostage. The Iranians’ basic demand was to have the Shah of Iran, who was in the United States for medical reasons, returned to them to answer for his crimes against the Iranian people. During the storming of the embassy, six employees who worked in the visa department and therefore had direct access to an outside street, fled the embassy and finally found refuge with the Canadian ambassador and his wife. When the U.S. State Department came up with a plan to have the six bicycle 300 miles in winter to the border, Mendez hatched his own plan (“This is the best bad idea we have,” he says.), which basically meant taking the six out through the airport under the watchful eyes of the Iranian military.
The film has swept several of the season-ending awards, even as controversy erupted because, while the film was nominated for Best Picture, Affleck was denied a Best Director Oscar nomination. Special Blu-ray features include picture-in-picture eyewitness accounts by the survivors, as well as former President Jimmy Carter, Mendez and the houseguests recounting the real-life harrowing story. Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio also provide an audio commentary for the film. In another feature, Affleck explains how he re-created the film’s period. For a third feature, Affleck and Mendez talk about the secrets of the phony movie, while a fourth looks at the Canadian government’s involvement in the rescue. Grade: film and extras 3.75 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Skyfall (MGM, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 143 min.). Director Sam Mendes has made a bold, entertaining and typically big James Bond film, with some creative twists. For example, in the usual opening action prologue -- by the way, one of the most action-filled ones ever, including the deaths of three British agents, a car chase, an Istanbul roof chase (only on motorbikes this time) and hand-to-hand combat atop a moving train -- Bond actually fails. All this helped the film open to the biggest numbers yet for a Bond film in what was the 50th anniversary year of the Ian Fleming-created franchise.
This is the official 23rd film in the series -- a space was left for it in the recently Bond Blu-ray collection box set -- and has a shaken Bond (the very good Daniel Craig in the role for the third time) wondering if he should come back to duty. He does, of course, after MI-6 headquarters are destroyed by a blast instigated via Internet-fed instructions. M (Judi Dench) is forced to retire, but is given a few days to wrap things up by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the new chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. MI-6 is relocated to Winston Churchill’s old World War II bunkers, and Bond sets out to capture the band guy, who turns out to be Silva (Javier Bardem, often at his creepiest best), a former MI-6 agent with a personal grudge against M. Bond is aided by new field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) as he goes to a gambling casino in Macau (after tracking a sniper to Shanghai). Throughout the film. There are references to the old versus the young. Mallory tells Bond: “It’s a young man’s game.” And a new, very young Q is introduced, played by Ben Whishaw. The ending revisits Bond’s past and also sets up new beginnings.
One of the best extras is audio commentary by director Mendes, who grew up as a fan of the series. He explains the film was shot in sequence -- a rarity these days -- and how the ending is, with one exception, on a set that duplicates one in 1962’s “Dr. No,” the first Bond film. Mendes also brings back Bond’s Austin Martin car (yes, there is a reference to the ejector seat) and Monty Norman’s wonderful Bond Theme. (I must mention that Adelle’s sung and co-written theme song is one of the best ever, recalling such past glories as “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Thunderball.”) There also is a second audio commentary by producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson and production designer Dennis Gossner. More than a dozen short features (59:25) look at the making of the film, and there is a look at the film’s premiere. Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3.5 stars
Death Race 3: Inferno (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R/NR, 105/106 min.). It would seem this series has out-stayed its welcome, as this is the weakest entry yet. Luke Goss returns as Carl Lucas, now forced to play Frankenstein in the prison-set death races. He needs only one more win to free himself and his crew, played again by Danny Trejo as mechanic Goldberg, Fred Koehler as computer expert Lists and Tanit Phoenix as navigator Katrina. However, R.H. Weylund (Ving Rhames), head of the corporation that runs Death Race loses control of the race and Terminal Island prison to a hostile takeover, engineered by Niles York (Dougray Scott). York has plans to expand the races world-wide every two weeks at a different hell hole and to ensure that Frankenstein loses the next race, which is set in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert.
As soon as Lucas and crew arrive at the desert prison, there is an attempt to kill Frankenstein -- so much for prison security -- and, oh yeah, his mask is pulled off, so his crew knows they have been lied to. I suspect most of the unrated material comes during the prequel to the Death Race, a new to-the-death battle by 16 female prisoners to see which 10 survive to be navigators during the race. There are several gross shots here. One of the film’s biggest problems is that the opposing drivers are barely sketched, and only a couple are even identified before the race is underway. As the race proceeds through sand dunes and then a shanty town, it is hard to keep track of who is who, leading to a general who-cares attitude about the film. There is an epilogue that explains how the film’s twist was set up; frankly, all you need to watch is the closing 10 minutes.
Extras include an alternate opening (5:21); nine deleted scenes (11:50, the first was used in the alternate opening); a making-of feature (10:39) that tells how the film went for bigger vehicles and more destructive weapons; audio commentary by director Roel Reine; looks at the race (5:57) and Goldberg (5:21); and a montage of deleted shots (4:59). Grade: film 2 stars; extras 2.75 stars
Guns, Girls and Gambling (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 90 min.). If you like to see Christian Slater take a lot of punishment, you’ll enjoy this movie, which is amusing, but not as funny as it should be. Slater plays John Smith, whom everybody thinks has an ancient Apache warrior mask that was stolen from an Indian casino, the same night of the Elvis impersonation contest. Smith was a late entry in the contest, after his wallet was stolen. The other Elvises, who may actually have pulled the robbery, include The King, played by Gary Oldman; Gay Elvis, played by Chris Kattan; Asian Elvis, played by Anthony Brandon Wong; and Little Person Elvis, played by Tony Cox. One of the film’s many running jokes -- each of which is used far too often -- concerns the politically correct use of labels for very short people and American Indians. In fact, other characters are labeled by stereotype: Powers Boothe is The Rancher; Jeff Fahey is The Cowboy; Helen Mattsson is The Blonde; Matthew Willig is the tomahawk-wielding Indian; and Megan Park is Cindy, The Girl Next Door. The town also has two sheriffs, played by Sam Trammell and Dane Cook, one controlled by The Rancher and the other by The Chief (Gordon Tootoosis). The film has many nods to Quentin Tarantino, but still manages to fall flat. There are no extras. Grade: film 2 stars
Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 94 min.). This is the pilot for the spin-off series set during the First Cylon War and with William Adama’s first action as a combat pilot in the Colonial Fleet; however, the Syfy Channel did not pick up the series. Part of the problem is the casting; I never accepted Luke Pasqualino as young Adama, portrayed as a cliché young hotshot pilot. As n person, he does not like anything like Edward James Olmos, and as written, he acts nothing like the future character we have come to love and admire. Much of the film is rather pointless action -- call it a video game quality if you like -- and the plot, with its several twists, just does not make sense. I had more respect for the film, however, after watching the feature (22:58) on the visual effects. In fact, the film did start out as a gaming program and nearly everything in the film takes place in a virtual environment. There are close to 1,900 visual effects shots. Even the snow in the planetary environment is an effect. There also are 13 deleted scenes (29:22), most of which have uncompleted special effects, so lots of green screen shots and cards outlining missing action sequences. Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 2.5 stars
Lawrence of Arabia (1962, Sony, 2 Blu-ray discs, PG, 227 min.). Speaking of the Academy Awards, one of the grandest Best Picture winners recently made its Blu-ray debut. In the film, which won seven Oscars, including Best Director for David Lean, Peter O’Toole plays British World War I army officer T.E. Lawrence, who single-handedly united rival Arab desert tribes and led them to war against the Turkish Empire. This is the extended director’s cut. The cast also includes Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy and Omar Sharif. It also has a marvelous Oscar-winning score by Maurice Jarre, which includes both Western and Eastern melodic ideas, and the unforgettable sweeping theme for the desert. Exclusive to the Blu-ray version are a picture-in-graphics track about Arabia and O’Toole revisiting the film. Both the Blu-ray and standard editions include a making-of documentary; a conversation with Steven Spielberg; looks at casting, the camels, the romance of Arabia and the New York premiere; and the 1970 making-of documentary. A deluxe edition includes a beautiful, 12 x 12 hardcover photo book, with both historical photos on on-the-scene photos. It is well worth getting. Grade: film 5 stars; extras 4 stars
Bonanza: The Official Fifth Season, volumes one and two (1963-64, CBS/Paramount, 9 DVDs, NR, 30 hours 20 min.). It is great to see the old episodes in improved picture and sound, with the original music. As most know, the Western series follows the Cartwright family, led by Ben (Lorne Greene) and his three sons, Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon) as they operate their sprawling timberland ranch, the Ponderosa, in the midst of dangerous, lawless 19th century Nevada. There are comedic episodes (“Hoss and the Leprechauns,” “Ponderosa Matador”), tense dramas (“The Legacy,” “The Quality of Mercy”), love stories (“She Walks in Beauty,” “Journey Remembered”) and even a fantasy (“Twilight Town”) in the first half of the season, which comes with photo galleries, an excerpt of Greene and Blocker on “The Andy Williams Show” and audio commentary by Andrew J. Klyde on the leprechaun episode. In the second half, Joe proposes marriage, Adam heads down the aisle in a trilogy of episodes until cousin Will (Guy Williams of “Zorro” fame) proves a rival, and Hoss helps an opera singer who may be a runaway slave. There are more photo galleries and Klyde does audio commentary on “Enter Thomas Bowers.”
Matlock: The Eighth Season (1993-94, CBS/Paramount, 6 DVDs, 17 hours 17 min.). The late Andy Griffith again plays skillful, charming criminal defense attorney Ben Matlock in this courtroom drama. He is aided by his daughter Leanne Macintyre (Brynne Thayer, introduced in the last episode of season six), a former prosecutor in Philadelphia, his investigator Cliff Lewis (Daniel Roebuck, who became a regular in season seven) and Billy (Warren Frost), Cliff‘s dad. One of this season’s guest stars was Jeri Ryan (“Star Trek: Voyager”) in “The Fatal Seduction Part 2.” There would be one more season before Griffith decided to take a break from acting.