4 stars = Outstanding
Ben Affleck long ago proved he was no one-hit wonder, and here he's directed a movie about what's been called the most audacious rescue in history -- by the real-life CIA exfiltration expert the actor plays on screen.
The Oscar-nominated thriller is part history lesson (with a little dramatic license taken), part caper, part comedy and surprisingly suspenseful for a film based on actual events that happened three decades ago.
No one knew the whole remarkable story for decades, until President Bill Clinton declassified the operation in 1997, Tony Mendez wrote a book called "The Master of Disguise" in 2000 and Wired magazine published a piece called "The Great Escape" in 2007.
"Argo" opens on Nov. 4, 1979, with rage surging from the Tehran streets into the U.S. embassy, leading to the capture of 66 hostages. Six Americans slip away to refuge at the house of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).
The CIA and Hollywood, both masters of disguises, sleight of hand and far-fetched schemes, improbably join forces to try to get them out of Tehran. CIA officer Tony Mendez (Mr. Affleck) suggests having the six masquerade as Canadian citizens on a location scout for a science fantasy adventure, a sort of "Star Wars" knockoff.
Mendez enlists a real-life producer and makeup wizard -- played respectively by scene-stealing Alan Arkin and John Goodman -- in his plan. Still, he faces a series of hurdles almost as long as the Hollywood Walk of Fame and so treacherous that if he fails in his ruse, he and the other Americans will die. Badly.
Mr. Affleck (who directed "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town") directs a screenplay by first-timer Chris Terrio, based on a selection from "The Master of Disguise" and the Wired article.
"Argo" simmers with real tension as it leapfrogs among characters and locations as much as 7,500 miles apart. The story is juiced with white-knuckle tension near the end.
The DVD's main extra is "Rescued From Tehran: We Were There," which has Jimmy Carter, Mr. Mendez and the houseguests detailing how they got out of the embassy, how they killed time at the ambassador's house (lots of books and board games) and what exactly happened during the escape, which got the Hollywood treatment on screen.
The Blu-ray adds a "Picture in Picture: Eye Witness Account," director commentary, more on the "The CIA & Hollywood Connection" and more on the Canadian government's input.
2 1/2 stars = Average
In "Sinister," Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) moves his wife (Juliet Rylance) and their school-age son and daughter into the home where a mother, father and two of their three children were hanged from a tree in the backyard. A third child is missing and presumed dead by the sheriff none too happy to see Ellison in his jurisdiction.
Ellison is a true crime writer who struck it rich a decade earlier and has been trying to replicate that success ever since. Desperate for money and another taste of fame, he initially doesn't tell his family about the horrifying history of the house.
Some of their belongings are still unpacked when Ellison finds a box in the attic with a projector and home movies on Super 8 film. They're marked with deceptively innocent labels, but when he starts to watch them, he finds they're footage of families being murdered in particularly sadistic ways.
Freaky, frightening things start to happen and the writer realizes he may have opened a Pandora's box that he cannot run from or slam shut.
Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose," "The Day the Earth Stood Still") directed "Sinister," which, in the end, reaches for the most disturbing and cheapest way to unsettle moviegoers and travels the distance from sinister to sick.
' Anna Karenina'
3 1/2 stars = Very good
"All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
It's the opening, and most quoted, line of "Anna Karenina." Families don't get much unhappier or more nervous, in general, than the Karenins.
Director Joe Wright and dramatist Tom Stoppard worked audaciously to re-imagine the classic, for better or worse -- and it's for both.
Tolstoy's novel, published in serial installments between 1873-77, tells the adulterous tale of aristocratic Anna Arkadyevna Karenina (Keira Knightley) -- dutiful if not wholly devoted wife of dull Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) -- and her ill-fated affair with the dashing cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
In thinking outside the literary box, Mr. Wright and Mr. Stoppard locate Anna (and us) inside a once-glorious, now derelict imperial Russian theater. She gets pregnant by Vronsky, who is willing to marry her. But she's the captive of social pressures, her own insecurities, Karenin's indecision about a divorce -- and, most of all, his threat to take away her son.
Ms. Knightley's glorious, blazing eyes -- and curled lip, when faced with a slight -- make this one worth seeing. Not to mention the close-up tongue action of the love scenes.
This version, nominated for four Academy Awards, is like an extravagant snow globe -- maybe too extravagant for the film's own good, but nevertheless gorgeous thanks to Seamus McGarvey's stunning, sensual cinematography.
ALSO THIS WEEK:
• "Fun Size" (2 stars): Routine comedy with Nickelodeon star Victoria Justice, Jane Levy and Chelsea Handler and set at Halloween, when a teen charged with watching her younger brother loses track of him on the craziest of nights.
• "The Factory": Twisted thriller starring John Cusack as a Buffalo detective tracking down a serial killer preying on prostitutes.
• "Game of Thrones Season 2": Hit HBO series based on George R.R. Martin's fantasy world.
• "Top Gun 3D": The film about hot shot pilots is available in 3-D. Tom Cruise stars.
• "Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome": Takes place in the midst of the first Cylon war.
• "The Six Million Dollar: Season 3": Lee Majors plays the man with robotic parts.
• "Swamp People: Season 3": More tales of the Cajun characters.
• "Top Gear: 50 Years of Bond Cars": Richard Hammond celebrates spy vehicles.
• "The Thief of Bagdad": The 1924 film starring Douglas Fairbanks is available on Blu-ray.
• "Atlas Shrugged: Part II": A revolutionary motor could be the solution to economic problems.
• "Barney Loves You": Collection includes "We Love Our Family" and "You Can Be Anything."
• "Hats Off to Dr. Seuss Collector's Edition": Includes five of the author's tales.
• "Missions That Changed the War: The Doolittle Raid": Gary Sinise narrates the documentary.
• "Naked City: 20 Star-Filled Episodes": The TV series aired from 1958-63.
• "4 Assassins": Four colleagues reunite in a dangerous face-off.
• "The Package": A man must hand-deliver a secret package to a crime lord.
-- PG staff and Rick Bentley, McClatchy Newspapersmoviereviews