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Argo

With its DVD/VOD release timed to coincide with a likely Oscar win for 2012's best picture, Argo may make you wonder: What is all the fuss about?

Director-star Ben Affleck has made a well-directed and entertaining suspense movie, a Hollywood-centric take on the so-called "Canadian Caper," in which six American escapees from the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran took refuge in the Canadian consulate under the care of ambassador Ken Taylor (dutifully played here by Canadian actor Victor Garber).

Taylor and his wife risked not only Canada's diplomatic standing but their lives in hiding the six Americans for months. But let's just forget that boring, life-save-y stuff.

Curiously, the movie makes no bones about how America got into that mess: American intelligence forces helped undermine a legitimately elected prime minister to install the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran. Yet the CIA is here offered up as the good guys, particularly Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), a heroic agent skilled in the art of extraction -- getting people out of hostile environments.

Mendez consults with Oscar-winning Hollywood makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman) to concoct a bogus movie project, based on a particularly hackneyed sci-fi script titled Argo. Collaborating with a seasoned Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin), Mendez gets the ball rolling on the film, inviting press to a public read-through of the script, getting ads in the trade papers and even designing storyboards.

It is one thing to show suspicious customs officials fake passports. It is quite another to be able to show them a article about your movie project in Variety.

Ultimately, Argo settles for being a fun ride, and with its expert pacing, its fine performances, and excellent production values, it is just that. Its excellent odds at an Oscar win have to do with the way it simultaneously pokes fun at Hollywood and credits Hollywood invention for freeing the hostages.

Here, Canada is slotted in the supporting actor category alongside Alan Arkin. 'Ö'Ö'Ö1/2

Sinister

The most effective horror movies establish the terror in the first few minutes. Accordingly, Sinister begins with unnerving home-movie footage of a family of four being executed in their backyard, hanged from a tree by an out-of-frame killer.

That pretty much does the trick is creating an initial sense of dread. It only grows when true-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) not only visits the scene of the crime, he moves his wife and two kids into the small-town murder house, avoiding telling spouse Tracy (Juliet Rylance) how he managed to purchase it at such bargain-basement prices.

Once celebrated for his single bestseller, Oswalt is looking for "my In Cold Blood" and hopes to find it in this mysterious case in which the entire family was murdered, save for a young girl, who is still missing.

Certainly some kind of breakthrough seems to be heading his way when he discovers a box in the attic labelled "Home Movies," containing reels of Super 8 film and a movie projector. Ellison screens the films, innocently labelled with titles such as "family barbecue" and "lawn work" only to discover they are records of not one but a whole series of family homicides.

Ellison fails to report the cache of evidence, effectively launching his own investigation in what seems to be a series of grisly cult slayings. But in the meantime, his children seem to having their own reaction to the house. His teen son starts experiencing night terrors. And his daughter, given permission to paint her own room, demonstrates a hitherto morbid streak with the creation of some ominous images.

Alas, instead of building to the desired climax, director Scott Derrickson's efforts result in a kind of deflation two-thirds into the movie as the story eventually devolves into tired horror movie hokum. 'Ö'Ö1/2

Anna Karenina

Director Joe Wright squeezes the vast landscape of Russian society circa 1877 from Leo Tolstoy's novel into busy sets in a ramshackle old playhouse in this pretentious adaptation. A scandalous dance between the married Anna (Keira Knightley) and Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Russian military exquisite, becomes a weird exercise in modern dance, as stylized as the rhythmic paper-pushing ballet in the bureaucratic dominion of Anna's brother Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen).

The only scenes in which the sets fall away occur in the subplot in which the lovelorn landowner Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) is seen scything his fields alongside his workers, a reflection of his love for the land. Consider yourself bonked over the head by Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard's conceit that urban society life is an exercise in theatre, where its members are subject to pitiless scrutiny, and woe to those who go off-script.

That is the sin of Anna, a respectable society wife and mother, married to the decent but clinical, detached St. Petersburg government functionary Karenin (Jude Law). She travels to Moscow to console the distraught wife (Kelly Macdonald) of her promiscuous brother when he has been found to be having an affair with the family governess.

But it is in Moscow where Anna falls under the spell of Vronsky, who pursues her. Her drawn-out succumbing leads to her inevitable ruin. A man may have been free to indulge in extra-marital hijinks, but at that time, it could be a married woman's undoing.

Wright's heavily stylized approach is, on occasion, visually impressive, but is at violent odds with the populist source material. 'Ö'Ö

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 21, 2013 C14

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