You need not have been around at the time to know what happens at the end of this movie; its outcome is prefaced in promos and on the poster. And yet, despite being fully cognisant of this, the climax had me on the edge of my seat. In 1979, Iranian revolutionaries, with Ayatollah Khomeini as their spiritual leader, seized power in Teheran. The mob occupied the US Embassy, but six Foreign Office workers fled to the nearby residence of the Canadian ambassador. An introductory explanation of events leading up to these tumultuous times does not try to rewrite history by arguing that the US-backed Shah was anything but an utter bastard. It merely sets the scene for what is a nail-biting, classic escape flick. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed) is the agent who lobbies for ‘the best worst idea that the CIA could come up with’ to get the six Americans back home. Calling on Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and maverick producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin), he forms a Canadian production company with the publicised intention of shooting a sci-fi epic in Iran. The plan is for him to arrive in Teheran and provide the Six with new passports and roles as writer, cameraman, costume designer etc, and then fly them back to Canada. Archival news footage is shrewdly used to establish authenticity (Russia had just invaded the benighted Afghanistan), but some of the best, and lighter, moments come when old stagers Goodman and Arkin are given free rein to take the Mickey out of Hollywood – ‘John Wayne in the ground only six months and look at the mess we’re in!’ In fact, throughout, there is an acute self-awareness of how reality is presented on the screen. A street full of experienced extras can’t quite replicate the frenzied hatred of people manipulated by religious zealots and fuelled by the conviction that all of their social and economic problems are caused by an outsider (America), but this is otherwise fantastic.
If, like me, you were thinking that Tim Burton had lately gone off the boil as a director (Sweeney Todd was unwatchable, wasn’t it?), you might like to give him another chance now that he has turned his hand to animation. Understandably, this very Gothic piece has been given a PG rating, but I am not so sure that its content would be quite as daunting to children as its style, for the entire film is in black and white. Until at least the ten-minute mark, I kept expecting it to dissolve into high-contrast, lurid colour, but monochromatic it remained – and, in keeping with the story, the blacks are very deep and dark indeed. Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a normal high-school kid who, when playing baseball one day, sees his dog Sparky run over and killed when chasing the ball. This came as a huge shock to me – I’d entered the cinema without forewarning of the subject matter and taken to the mutt straightaway. My tears welled just as Victor’s did, and my involvement was immediately cranked up a notch. Calling to mind Stephen King’s rivetingly ghoulish Pet Sematary, the heartbroken Victor adapts a classroom science experiment and miraculously brings Sparky back to life. There are dire consequences, it goes without saying, especially when the neighbourhood bad boys get wind of what has happened. Except for a deliriously macabre caricature of Vincent Price in the form of the teacher, Mr Rzykruski, and a buck-toothed little hunchback (voiced à la Peter Lorre), the artwork is good without being startling – ping-pong ball eyes and spindly limbs have been done to death – but the wardrobe of the Mills and Boon-reading Mrs Frankenstein is a constant delight. The ethical conundrums originally raised by Mary Shelley in her famous novel are confronted head on, but Burton disappointingly takes the double-brie option after leading the viewer to what might have been a tragic but perfectly satisfying denouement. Recommended, but maybe a bit scary for the sub-tweens.