Like nearly everyone else I know, I saw “Argo” recently and had a good time watching director-star Ben Affleck’s slick, fast-paced account of how a handful of the hostages taken at the U.S. Embassay in Iran in 1979 managed to escape.
Aflleck is being compared with Clint Eastwood for his approach to mainstream moviemaking and that seems valid — both men serve up straightforward storytelling, low-key performances, and nothing too violent or profane to offend an average moviegoer.
And coming at the end of a particularly dismal run of Hollywood studio releases, “Argo” has been like an oasis in the Sahara for anyone over the age of 20 who is looking for something other than a cartoon or a sequel or a dumb comedy at their local multiplex.
It was smart for Warner Bros. to release the movie in the early fall, both in terms of reviews and audience response.
This was one of the most dismal summers in recent memory for studio fare — the slow and steady takeover of kiddie fare continued with a bizarre “reboot” of “Spider-Man” and some of the best reviews of the season going to a frantic, overstuffed comic book movie (“The Avengers”).
Simple, broad stories don’t just play well to undiscerning adolescents in this country, they are also easily understood by the growing foreign audiences for Hollywood fare — especially in Russia and China. While most of us might be fed up with 3D movies, they are still hugely popular in Europe and China (where most of the new multiplexes are being equipped with digital 3D projection systems).
We tend to forget that the dumb, flatfooted studio movies that are driving older Americans away from the multiplexes seem like completely fresh fare to audiences in places like Russia and China which are just getting acquainted with cliches that are decades-old to U.S. audiences.
Of course, those of us living in coastal Connecticut don’t have to depend on what Hollywood dishes up for the mainstream market. We have several arthouses at our disposal and are only a short trip from Manhattan and its fabulous Film Forum, IFC Center and other rep houses.
But in vast chunks of America, what plays in local theaters is the stuff the studios decide is worth mass releasing and these days that boils down — much of the year — to a 24/7 kiddie matinee.
There was a time — not that long ago — when horror movies and cartoons and stupid comedies (of the Abbott and Costello variety) were largely restricted to weekend matinees designed for children and young teens. That’s what I grew up on — cheap Japanese sci-fi flicks, Hammer horror movies from England, and sword-and-sandals pictures shot in Italy. But I happily crossed over to adult fare in my early teens and never looked back.
Who could have guessed in the 1960s and 1970s that the B-movie fare meant for kiddie shows and drive-ins in those days would become the dominant model for Hollywood in the 21st century?
40 years ago, “Argo” would have been taken for granted as an everyday “good movie” on the order of “Three Days of the Condor” (below) or “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” — a nice piece of craftsmanship that no one would expect to win major critics’ prizes or Oscars at the end of the year.
Of course, back then you had films like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “Taxi Driver” and “All the President’s Men” being made by the major studios at a steady clip.