CIA Spooks Save Hostages in ‘Argo’; L.A. Psychos: Movies

Ben Affleck directs and stars as Tony Mendez in "Argo." The film is written for the screen by Chris Terrio. Photographer: Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. via Bloomberg

Gnawingly suspenseful, “Argo” tells the story of a 1980 operation to get six American diplomats out of Tehran during the hostage crisis with Iran.

They had escaped the embassy when its walls were breached and were holed up with the Canadian ambassador.

Tony Mendez, the CIA agent charged with their rescue, came up with an unlikely cover for them to use at the airport. They would be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a “Star Wars” knockoff called “Argo.”

Ben Affleck directs (he also plays Mendez) with a relish for churning up the audience that Hitchcock might admire. With his screenwriter, Chris Terrio, he also threw in a delicious extra element of mordant farce.

To make the cover convincing, Mendez flies to Los Angeles to get an actual film project going. His co-conspirators are two oversize personalities, played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, who deliver their cracks about the industry with vaudeville timing. They deserve their own movie.

They’re the only actors Affleck allows to ham it up. His Mendez is understated, the diplomats nondescript. As a result, the stakes feel truer, if not higher, than in most thrillers.

“Argo” treats the Iranian revolution as a kind of dangerous beast that may strike and kill without reason, but otherwise holds politics at a distance.

The movie avoids histrionics (mostly), but it’s so sweat-inducing that, as the climax approaches and the script invents more and more ways to crank up the tension, you may find yourself pulling back. Being tortured is only fun up to a point.

“Argo,” from Warner Bros., is playing across the U.S. Rating: **** (Seligman)

‘Seven Psychopaths’

Gandhi got it wrong, as one of the loons in Martin McDonagh’s hyper-violent, brashly entertaining “Seven Psychopaths” insists.

An eye for an eye won’t leave everyone blind. Someone will be left standing -- and seeing.

The survivor of McDonagh’s comic, bloody mayhem isn’t hard to predict, but watching him get there is a giddier thrill than might be expected 18 years after “Pulp Fiction.”

Tarantino Party

With his thugs spilling pop culture references alongside copious amounts of blood, writer/director McDonagh (“In Bruges,” Broadway’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”) might seem a holdover at the Quentin Tarantino party.

But it’s hard to begrudge anyone who can corral a cast as vividly loopy as this one, in a story that twists, turns and collides with itself.

Colin Farrell plays Marty Faranan, an alcoholic screenwriter who can’t get past the title page -- “Seven Psychopaths” -- of his new thriller script.

His best pal Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help research by collecting lurid, violent stories from Los Angeles nut jobs.

Those stories, including tales of a throat-slashing Quaker and a Vietcong suicide bomber, meld with Marty’s real life.

And his real life is a mess. He gets caught up in a violent imbroglio when the dognapping Bickle swipes the beloved shih tzu of a vicious mobster (Woody Harrelson).

Patty Hearst

“The dog is my Patty Hearst,” says Bickle, enjoying the danger far too much.

Seasoning this combustible brew are Bickle’s mutt-stealing mentor Hans (Christopher Walken), a rabbit-toting weirdo (Tom Waits) and their wrong-place, wrong-time women (Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko).

“Your women characters are awful,” Walken’s Hans tells screenwriter Marty, as “Psychopaths” swirls in on itself, sending up the artistic highs and guilty-pleasure lows of Hollywood violence.

Marty’s buddy isn’t named Bickle for nothing.

“Seven Psychopaths,” from CBS Films, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **** (Evans)

Scary ‘Sinister’

Whatever else it is, the opening scene of the truly disturbing “Sinister” is fair warning.

Scratchy, silent footage of a family being hanged slowly from a tree is as unsettling as it is frightening.

Directed by Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) and starring Ethan Hawke, “Sinister” might not be the last word on the mostly spent “found footage” horror genre, but it’s among the scariest.

Hawke plays a one-hit-wonder true-crime writer desperate to revive his moribund career. His new book will investigate the gruesome hanging that left four people dead and one child missing.

With his ever-rational wife (an appealing Juliet Rylance) and two kids (Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley), Hawke’s Ellison Oswalt moves into the murder house and makes an attic discovery of a box stuffed with canisters of Super 8 snuff films.

Derrickson stretches the haunted-house pacing to near sadistic levels of suspense, and first-time screenwriter C. Robert Cargill glances more than once at both “The Exorcist” and “The Shining” to set a realistic tone before the demons arrive.

The supernatural payoff isn’t nearly as powerful in “Sinister” as in those two classics -- but backyard oaks won’t ever seem the same.

“Sinister,” from Summit Entertainment and Alliance Films, is playing across the U.S. Rating: *** (Evans)

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Zinta Lundborg on New York Weekend.

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