Two current movies approach the world in vastly opposite ways. ARGO, directed with frenetic action and drama by Ben Affleck, takes on a real incident from 1979 when 6 Americans escaped to the Canadian Embassy as Iranian mobs stormed the U.S. Embassy. A little known story because of official secrecy, the incident makes a crackerjack piece of entertainment that is filled with suspense, action, and satire. Affleck stars as a CIA agent who concocts a fake movie called ARGO with the help of a once successful film director, drolly embodied by the great Alan Arkin, and a once successful make-up pro, played with delightful understatement by John Goodman. Their plan? Create a fake sci-fi film and go to Iran to scout for locations and sneak the refugees out. That this actually happened doesn't take away from the gung-ho drive and character development director Affleck brings to ARGO. We get to know the six refugees as well as the agent and the Hollywood types, and the result is one of the year's best films.
And now for something totally different. Directed by Lana and Andy Wachocski (THE MATRIX) and Tom Tykwer (RUN, LOLA, RUN), CLOUD ATLAS is a phantasmagorical message film filled with so many plots and themes it makes INCEPTION look like Candyland. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, and a host of others embody a number of characters in different eras but often similar situations. In general, this adaptation of David Mitchell's complicated fantasy novel stresses individual freedom from oppression by the corporate state. We see this in the 19th century slave trade, in a young composer trying to keep his original ideas from being stolen by an old master, in innocent elders attempting to break free from their prisonlike nursing homes, and in several other plots.
The most impressive variation takes place in New Seoul Korea in the 22nd Century, where a fabricant worker (clone) leads a revolution against a totalitarian government. Taking cues from films like BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX, the filmmakers have created a dazzling world that masks oppression with glitz. The action scenes are amazing, especially as they are intercut with similar critical moments from the other plots. All of the actors play their roles with honest emotional intensity, but the English actors Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw are both brilliant as the old, both good and bad, and the rising new (good). Both are worthy of Oscar nominations, as are the set designs and the make-up
CLOUD ATLAS is not a perfect film. It sometimes becomes didactic in its messages, and it is too long. But it is a spectacular, involving, and never boring film that makes the viewer gasp and even think. That's what good movies should do.