Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:
Director/actor Ben Affleck adroitly combines the strength of a sensational, true-life story with relevant, politically charged suspense that's strategically laced with humor -- and the result is intense, exceptionally intelligent entertainment.
Set in 1979 and 1980 in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis, the plot revolves around six besieged American Embassy workers who seek refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Knowing that if they're found by the militant Iranians, they'll be executed, along with the ambassador and his wife, the Canadian and American governments, under the direction of then-President Jimmy Carter, turn to CIA espionage adviser Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), who calls in covert "extraction" operative Tony Mendez (Affleck). His job is to rescue them -- but how?
Realizing the worldwide appeal of the motion picture industry, Mendez inventively enlists the help of Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who, in turn, recruits flamboyant producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who blusters, "If I'm doing a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit!"
Forming Studio Six Productions, they pretend to be scouting desert locations for an upcoming sci-fi adventure film, touted as "a cosmic conflagration." After forging their Canadian passports, Mendez then has to convince the terrified, bewildered hostages (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe) to assume their new aliases and "show biz" identities as director, screenwriter, cinematographer, assistant producer, etc. -- and conduct them out.
Inspired by Joshuah Bearman's Wired magazine article, "The Great Escape," and Antonio J. Mendez' book, "The Master of Disguise," it's been scripted into a dandy, dramatic caper by Chris Terrio and skillfully directed by Affleck ("The Town," "Gone Baby Gone") with meticulous attention to authentic historic detail, intercut with faux newsreel footage, to ensure credibility. Producer collaborators include George Clooney and Grant Heslov.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Argo" is a compelling, high-tension 10 -- a terrific thriller!
In the original thriller, Kim (Maggie Grace), the daughter of former CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) was abducted in Paris by Albanian sex traffickers, and he went on a one-man rescue mission.
As this sequel begins, Bryan and his wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) are divorced. They share custody of teenage Kim, who is not only trying to get her driver's license for the third time but has also found her first boyfriend. When Lenore confides that she's having marital problems and her new husband has canceled their family vacation, Bryan impulsively invites his ex-wife and daughter to meet him in Istanbul, ostensibly to tour the exotic sites along the Bosphorus, including the Suleymaniye Mosque and Grand Bazaar. So that's where Bryan and Lenore are snatched by swarthy, revenge-seeking Albanians, led by bitter tribal chief, Murad Krasniqi (Croatian actor Rade Sherbedgia), who has vowed diabolical vengeance against Mills for the death of his gangster son.
Under the supervision of French producer Luc Besson, who co-wrote the script with Robert Mark Kamen, director Oliver Megaton ("Columbiana," "Transporter 3") has young Kim escaping capture, adroitly scampering over Turkish rooftops and tossing grenades, following specific telephoned directions from her calm, remarkably resourceful father while he is being held captive and her blindfolded, bleeding mother is repeatedly threatened with sharp knives. Sound implausible and absurd? It is. But that's topped by the reckless car chase with inexperienced Kim driving a stolen taxi through the crowded souk, crashing into pursuing police cars, while her father shoots the bad guys who follow them all the way to the gates of the American Embassy.
What's most remarkable is how hulking, 6-foot-4, 60-year-old actor Liam Neeson (acclaimed for "Schindler's List" and "Kinsey") has become a full-fledged action hero. Next thing you know, he'll have joined the "Expendables" crew, alongside Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Taken 2" is a generic, mind-numbing 4, leaving the door wide open for another, perhaps inevitable installment.
"HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET"
Back in the summer of 2010, when Jennifer Lawrence made this low-budget horror thriller, she wasn't an Academy Award nominee for "Winter's Bone" nor an action heroine in "The Hunger Games." She was just an ambitious young actress doing her best to play a feisty high school girl-in- jeopardy.
Seeking a fresh start, divorced hospital worker Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) and her 17-year-old daughter Elissa (Lawrence) rent a beautiful house on Sycamore Lane in Woodshire, a small, upscale, rural town. They can only afford such luxurious accommodations because -- several years earlier -- a double murder took place next door. A young girl, Carrie Anne, killed her parents and then mysteriously disappeared into the woods and was presumed to have drowned, although her body was never found. Her older brother, Ryan (Max Thieriot), who was away at the time, lives there now as a virtual recluse, shunned by neighbors who repeat rumors that Carrie Anne is still alive, roaming around at night, doing little to help their property values.
Against her mother's wishes, Elissa befriends Ryan, curious about the tragedy that changed his life, bluntly inquiring, "Why do you still live in the house your parents got killed in?"
Scripted by David Loucka ("Dream House") from a tortuously twisted story by Jonathan Mostow ("U-571"), it's predictably directed by Mark Tonderai ("Hush"), who was remarkably fortunate to be able to work with two capable actresses who look enough alike to be mother-and-daughter.
Oscar-nominated for "Leaving Las Vegas," Shue's once-promising career has, unfortunately, been reduced to recent potboilers like "Piranha 3D."
In one scene, Elissa plays the guitar and sings but, reportedly, Lawrence felt so insecure about the quality of her own voice that she asked the movie's music supervisor, Steve Lindsey, to have someone to dub her in post-production, so that's not Lawrence's voice, it's singer Sarah Rayne's.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "House at the End of the Street" is a banal, formulaic 4, striving to rise above strictly superficial scares.