"Argo" -- A movie about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis probably doesn't sound like it would be a laugh riot -- or should be -- but that's just one of the many ways in which this is a glorious, gripping surprise. Directing his third feature, Ben Affleck has come up with a seamless blend of detailed international drama and breathtaking suspense, with just the right amount of dry humor to provide context and levity. He shows a deft handling of tone, especially in making difficult transitions between scenes in Tehran, Washington and Hollywood, but also gives one of his strongest performances yet in front of the camera as the film's star. It's exciting to see the confidence with which Affleck expands his ambition and scope as a filmmaker. "Argo" reveals his further mastery of pacing and storytelling, even as he juggles complicated set pieces, various locations and a cast featuring 120 speaking parts. And the story he's telling sounds impossible, but it's absolutely true (with a few third-act tweaks to magnify the drama). When protestors stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 people hostage, six employees sneaked out a back door and sought refuge at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Longtime CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with a crazy scheme to rescue them: He'll fly to Tehran, pretend that they all entered the country together to scout locations for a schlocky sci-fi movie called "Argo," then walk right out the front door with them and fly home. Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin are among the excellent supporting cast. R for language and some violent images. 120 minutes. Four stars out of four.
-- Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic
"Here Comes the Boom" -- This comedy starring Kevin James as a tubby science teacher who becomes a mixed martial arts sensation is every bit as ridiculous as it looks. That's not such a bad thing for the movie, whose makers embrace the fact that they're essentially doing a live-action cartoon. Co-writer James and director Frank Coraci assemble a likable gang of oddballs that make it kind of work. Everyone surrounding James is so disarmingly incredulous yet perversely enthusiastic about his MMA foray that they disarm the audience to the outrageousness of this guy getting into the cage against ferocious brutes and coming back out with his teeth and vital organs intact. The real flaws are the stabs at genuine moments -- the inspirational classroom hijinks, the simple-headed critiques of the shortcomings of public schools, the humdrum romancing as James slowly wins the heart of Salma Hayek (yeah, like that's going to happen). Coraci lets all of that stuffing linger and wander too loosely. There are decent gags and laughs, but in between, it's "here comes the boor" -- James acting the buffoon to little effect for much of the movie. He's helped by the amiable supporting cast, especially Henry Winkler as the music teacher faced with budget cuts that propel James onto the fighting circuit to raise cash and former UFC champ Bas Rutten as James' trainer, who steals scenes with his lowbrow, bear-hugging charm. PG for bouts of MMA sports violence, some rude humor and language. 104 minutes. Two stars out of four.
-- David Germain, AP Movie Writer
"Seven Psychopaths" -- In his second movie, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has mangled together a comic, self-aware revenge flick that's half Guy Ritchie, half Charlie Kaufman. It's manic and messy, and McDonagh -- whose previous film was the delightfully grim, more centered "In Bruges" -- doesn't yet have the visual command for a sprawling, madcap tale as this. But it's also filled with deranged wit and unpredictable genre deconstruction that make it, if not quite a success, a fascinating mutt of a movie. Colin Farrell plays Marty, a hard-drinking screenwriter in Los Angeles and a clear stand-in for McDonagh. He has his movie title -- "Seven Psychopaths" -- but little else. He gets sucked into the hijinks of his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), whose dog-napping scheme turns bloody when Billy and his friend Hans (Christopher Walken) swipe the Shih Tzu of a pooch-loving gangster (Woody Harrelson). The cast, which also includes a bunny-cradling Tom Waits, is great, but Rockwell -- enthusiastic and deranged -- is exceptional. In the film's meta narrative, he's a kind of stand-in for movies, themselves: violent, funny, crazy and irresistible. When the action decamps to the desert, the film finds its footing. The writer-director is best in such Beckett-like limbos, heavy with Catholic guilt -- an enthralling talent even when obscured by all the self-aware playfulness here. After breaking apart the crime film, he puts it back together again for a conclusion worthy of the genre. And in the end, the movies -- in all their insanity -- win. R for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality, nudity and some drug use. 110 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
-- Jake Coyle, AP Entertainment Writer.
"Smashed" -- The title refers not so much to the nearly perpetual state of inebriation that a young husband and wife put themselves in but rather to the way the wife finds her existence truly shattered when she tries to get sober. Staying at least slightly drunk all the time is easy, as Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character knows well. It's a blissfully ignorant existence, one big party. But once you stop drinking, the reality you've shoved aside returns with a vengeance. This battle with the bottle (and with bottled-up demons) is a frequent film topic, and "Smashed" deserves some credit for mostly avoiding the sort of histrionics that can be staples of the genre. Instead, director James Ponsoldt's film, from a script he co-wrote with Susan Burke, is understated to a fault. The bottom isn't low enough, the struggle isn't difficult enough, and the characters (especially the supporting ones) don't feel developed enough to provide necessary context for our heroine's journey. "Smashed" is the rare movie that feels too short, too thin and it ends on an unsatisfying and rather unconvincing note, despite some recognizable, raw moments that preceded it. But Winstead ("Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," ''Scott Pilgrim vs. the World") gets to show the full range of her abilities in her heaviest dramatic role yet as a first-grade teacher who finds her marriage and her work in jeopardy when she tries to stop drinking. Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad" does the best he can with an underwritten role as her hard-partying husband. R for alcohol abuse, language, some sexual content and brief drug use. 85 minutes. Two stars out of four.
-- Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic