Keith Urban Says ‘American Idol’ Didn’t Steal Him From ‘The Voice Australia’

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A longtime fan of TV talent shows, Keith Urban jumped at the chance to be a judge on The Voice Australia when offered the job early last year. So, it came as a surprise to producers when the country music star announced he would not be returning for a second season.

“I couldn’t do that show again, because I was making the record, I’m literally making it right now, will be for the next couple of months,” he told reporters earlier this week about recording in the U.S., which kept him from returning to Australia. “Then Idol came along and it was perfect timing.”

A longtime Idol follower, he recalled watching the 2008 season finale with wife, Nicole Kidman when David Cook and David Archuletawere competing for top honors. Late for a dinner appointment, the celebrity couple decided to record the show and watch it afterward.

“I kid you not, the show must have run like 30 seconds over or something, and the TiVo cut out,” Urban recalled with dismay. “Ryan [Seacrest] is saying, ‘And the winner is, David…’ and it stopped. And we just sat there, gobsmacked going ‘Who won?’”

As for joining Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Randy Jackson on the Idol panel, Urban has few reservations about leveling harsh criticism at undeserving contestants.

“I’ve probably benefitted more from naysayers in my life,” he confessed. “It’s more so been the people who’ve said, ‘Terrible, you’ll never do any good at this. This is not your thing.’ Those people have actually been more beneficial to me than the people who’ve believed in me in the long run because I think they just gave fuel to my fire.”

But don’t expect to see him running roughshod over contestants on the show. Urban knows that most people realize when they’ve delivered a lackluster performance and while it’s important to be honest with them, there’s no need for piling on.

Although he claims to have learned the most from negative criticism, he confessed it still hurts when it’s leveled at him. “I don’t mind that it hurts me when people are negative or critical,” he revealed. “I’d like to think that my spirit is still pretty close to the surface. I wouldn’t like to think it’s so buried I can’t find it under my thick skin. Being immune to it, that starts to get into a dangerous place for any of us.”

Despite the well-publicized feud between judges Minaj and Carey, Urban enjoys the spirit of shows like The Voice and Idol.

“I’ve watched Idol for years, so it’s a bit surreal to move from the couch to the desk,” he marveled, joking, “Next up, X Factor! TV talent show whore, yes!”

American Idol premieres Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 8 PM on FOX.

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‘Django Unchained’s’ Jamie Foxx Talks About Racism, Horse Training and Working With Leonardo DiCaprio

In Quentin Tarantino’s new western Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx plays an ex-slave determined to free his wife from the the plantation of ruthless slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

For Foxx, the movie presented a number of firsts, including a wild ride on horseback, a vengeful slave and an onset accident that left DiCaprio with a blood-drenched hand.

Calvin Candie manages a 60-square-mile spread called Candie Land, a sugar plantation populated by hundreds of slaves, including Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).

When King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django ride in with their hidden agenda, Candie, a man who is not used to being contradicted, loses patience with the pair, smashing a shot glass on the table before him.

Word on set was that during rehearsals, DiCaprio delivered a tour de force performance. Subsequently, staffers were stopping by the set to watch the scene as it was being filmed.

“What happened was the shot glass somehow slid over underneath where he was slamming his hand,” Foxx told reporters. “In one take, he slams his hand there and the shot glass goes through his hand. Now blood is shooting out of his hand and I’m thinking, ‘does everybody else see this, cause this is crazy!’ And he keeps going and I almost turned into a girl.”

DiCaprio had a lot of trouble embodying his character, a vile racist given to casual violence and liberal use of the N-word.

“We were in rehearsals and Leo’s saying his line, ‘n***er this, n***er that,” said Foxx, who remembers his co-star straining at the use of the word in the presence of his African-American castmates including Samuel L. Jackson. “Then Samuel pulls him aside and says, ‘Hey motherf***er, this is just another Tuesday for us, let’s go.”

Growing up in Texas, Foxx is no stranger to casual racism. “There are racial components in the south, me being called n***er growing up as a kid,” he revealed. “So when I read the script, I didn’t knee jerk to the word ‘n***er’ like somebody from New York or L.A. would knee jerk because that was something I experienced.”

If the movie’s casual racism wasn’t a challenge for Foxx, riding bareback was, even though he’s a rider in his free time and actually rode his own horse, Cheetah, in the film.

“What’s interesting about my horse and Django is that they sort of learn together,” said Foxx. “While my horse is learning tricks, Django is sort of evolving as a person, as a superhero, all the way to the end of the movie, where you see my horse do the same thing at the end.”

In the movie, Foxx, atop Cheetah, spins out at 28 miles per hour. “There were people ready to catch me just in case something happens,” recalled Foxx. “On the outside I looked like Django, but on the inside I was Little Richard. I was there, ‘Oh Lord Jesus, Lord Jesus, Lord Jesus, please stop this horse! Lord Jesus stop this horse!”

On the next take, a stunt man told him, “If you feel like you’re about to come off the horse just let go of the son of a bitch,” said Foxx. “And I’m thinking, ‘He’s a damn fool if he thinks I can get off this horse!”

But after several takes, Cheetah became winded, slowing down enough for Foxx to complete the take to Tarantino’s satisfaction.

Foxx, who won the role of Django after Will Smith dropped out due to a scheduling conflict, relished portraying a badass in a time where most African-Americans were subservient.

“We never get a chance to see the slave fight back,” he observed, noting that usually when a slave has a chance to exact revenge, he shows mercy instead. But not here.

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“In this movie there’s a lot of firsts and we knew that coming into it there’s gonna be all the other things said and everything about it, but it’s been a fantastic ride.”

‘Dexter’s’ Michael C. Hall Shares His Favorite Episodes, Contemplates Life After Show Ends

With Dexter’s seventh season currently airing and its eighth being its last, the show’s 43-year-old star, Michael C. Hall, is optimistically looking toward to his projects beyond the Showtime hit.

“I’m excited as much as anybody else to see what’s on the horizon, though something that could go five more years is a little daunting at this point,” Hall told reporters in Beverly Hills recently. “I would like to mix it up a little more, commit to characters and have a sense of when it’s going to end, and having that ending three or four months later, not six or seven years.”

While Dexter has been a great boon to his career, Hall has reason to be concerned about typecasting. Will he ever be able to shake the persona of the blood-splatter expert/serial killer?

Hall’s been here before. When he finished HBO’s Six Feet Under, in which he played a funeral director, he wondered if anyone could imagine him not surrounded by dead bodies.

“Hmm,” he smiled. “Well, they are still imagining me surrounded by dead bodies. But, I recognize at the same time that it’s a title role in a show that has been on for eight seasons and I’m not going to try to run away from that or deny it.”

Through the seasons, Hall has won a Golden Globe, married and divorced co-star Jennifer Carpenter, and defeated cancer after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009. But for him, the hardest part was putting on Dexter’s kill suit.

“It’s like, you know George Bush, that ‘Mission Accomplished’ suit that he wore?” asked Hall about the one-piece coverall his character wears when indulging his peculiar habit. “Underneath, it’s like that. And after, there is that multiple gloves thing… It’s a real process.”

As for his favorites episodes, there are too many to count. “The first episode of the seventh season is in my Top 5, because it has been so long coming, this revelation,” he said about Dexter’s sister, Deb (Carpenter), finally learning he’s a serial killer.

“I think we are seeing Dexter in a landscape now where he is perhaps being punished by awareness of his behavior affecting more than just him; obviously his victims but also people who are really close to him,” he continued.

Hall went on to list an episode from the first season in which Dexter has a grisly flashback. “I got to pass out in a pool of blood, that was fun,” he recalled. “It wasn’t real blood. It wouldn’t have been fun if it was real blood.”

After eight seasons, Hall is quick to acknowledge the show has had an indelible imprint on him. “It has changed me,” he smiled. “I think it makes me really be aware that I don’t thankfully struggle with a compulsion to kill people. At least, not perpetually.”

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‘Dexter’s’ Michael C. Hall Calls His Friendship With Ex and Co-Star Jennifer Carpenter ‘Respectful’

Michael C. Hall shocked fans back in January of 2010 when he revealed he was undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Three years later, Showtime’s Dexter star, with the support of his costar-turned-wife, turned ex-wife, Jennifer Carpenter, remains cancer free.

“There is a lot of cancer in my family, people who’ve gone through it, survived it, died from it,” Hall told reporters at a press conference in Beverly Hills recently. “Going through that experience maybe helped me to feel closer to some of them.”

For Hall, Dexter is a career-defining role, ironic that it should coincide with his life-threatening illness. According to him, the key to getting through it was time off for treatment.

“I had the luxury to really commit to my treatment,” revealed Hall. “I have good health insurance. Truly that makes things a lot easier.”

The 42-year-old actor began his career on the HBO series, Six Feet Under, before landing the Showtime hit, about a blood-splatter expert who moonlights as a vindictive serial killer.

Carpenter, 32, plays his sister, Deb, a cop who for a long while was unaware of her brother’s bloody proclivity. After months of dating, Carpenter and Hall were married in December of 2008 and were divorced two years later, after his cancer went into remission. They continue to play opposite each other on the show and earlier this year there were rumors of a reconciliation between the two.

“I think it’s a testament to our individual and collective commitment to the show,” said Hall about their evolving relationship. “We’ve been through quite a journey in our personal life, but thankfully that remains a fundamental friendship and respectful.”

Hall and Carpenter are thrilled about the seventh season, because Deb finally realizes her brother is a murderer.

“That’s the big challenging situation that Dexter has to be vigilant about,” said Hall about the reveal. “He is ready to lay it out there, ‘This is who I am, this is what I do and I suspect if you really challenge yourself, you agree with that.”

Throughout the course of the show, Dexter has done in numerous offenders who, for the most part, deserved it. So does that mean he should get the death penalty on Season 8?

“I’m not in favor of the death penalty myself,” confessed Hall. “Maybe I should say that’s what Dexter is for!”

Dexter airs Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime.

Are you surprised to hear how well the exes get along after the breakup? Tell us in the comments section below.

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‘Dexter’s’ Michael C. Hall Calls His Friendship With Ex and Co-Star Jennifer Carpenter ‘Respectful’

Michael C. Hall shocked fans back in January of 2010 when he revealed he was undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Three years later, Showtime’s Dexter star, with the support of his costar-turned-wife, turned ex-wife, Jennifer Carpenter, remains cancer free.

“There is a lot of cancer in my family, people who’ve gone through it, survived it, died from it,” Hall told reporters at a press conference in Beverly Hills recently. “Going through that experience maybe helped me to feel closer to some of them.”

For Hall, Dexter is a career-defining role, ironic that it should coincide with his life-threatening illness. According to him, the key to getting through it was time off for treatment.

“I had the luxury to really commit to my treatment,” revealed Hall. “I have good health insurance. Truly that makes things a lot easier.”

The 42-year-old actor began his career on the HBO series, Six Feet Under, before landing the Showtime hit, about a blood-splatter expert who moonlights as a vindictive serial killer.

Carpenter, 32, plays his sister, Deb, a cop who for a long while was unaware of her brother’s bloody proclivity. After months of dating, Carpenter and Hall were married in December of 2008 and were divorced two years later, after his cancer went into remission. They continue to play opposite each other on the show and earlier this year there were rumors of a reconciliation between the two.

“I think it’s a testament to our individual and collective commitment to the show,” said Hall about their evolving relationship. “We’ve been through quite a journey in our personal life, but thankfully that remains a fundamental friendship and respectful.”

Hall and Carpenter are thrilled about the seventh season, because Deb finally realizes her brother is a murderer.

“That’s the big challenging situation that Dexter has to be vigilant about,” said Hall about the reveal. “He is ready to lay it out there, ‘This is who I am, this is what I do and I suspect if you really challenge yourself, you agree with that.”

Throughout the course of the show, Dexter has done in numerous offenders who, for the most part, deserved it. So does that mean he should get the death penalty on Season 8?

“I’m not in favor of the death penalty myself,” confessed Hall. “Maybe I should say that’s what Dexter is for!”

Dexter airs Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime.

Are you surprised to hear how well the exes get along after the breakup? Tell us in the comments section below.

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‘Hitchcock’: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren Slash Through the Melodrama of Making ‘Psycho’ (MOVIE REVIEW)

Of the few directors to achieve celebrity status, the biggest among them, both literally and figuratively, is Alfred Hitchcock, whose career spanned fifty years and 66 movies including Rear Window, Vertigo and finally North by Northwest as the fifties were winding down.

It is here where Sacha Gervasi begins his new movie, Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins as the maestro, and the equally captivating Helen Mirren as his longtime wife and collaborator, Alma Reville.

Hitchcock is an occasionally enjoyable, though uneven look, at the making of Psycho, an unlikely triumph that changed the face of horror.

As the new movie begins, Hitchcock is coming off North by Northwest, a critical and commercial triumph which leaves him inundated with offers — including Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, which he passes on because Cary Grant won’t play James Bond.

Instead, against the advice of his agent, Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), and mostly every studio in Hollywood, Hitch decides to adapt a new book, Psycho, Paul Bloch’s thriller about Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein.

With no one to back the movie, Hitchcock mortgages his Bel Air mansion for the $800 thousand budget, choosing to work lean and mean as with his popular TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Hitchcock is most engaging when Hopkins and Mirren share the screen as a durable old couple straining under 33 years of marriage.

While Hitchcock was a cinematic genius, he didn’t make a move without first consulting Alma, and no screenplay went in front of cameras before being subject to her pen.

Hitchcock is known to have obsessed over his blonde leading ladies, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren, but such blustery fantasies are believed to have been nothing more than that.

When he hires Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) as the latest to join the pantheon of ‘Hitchcock Blondes,’ Alma can only roll her eyes.

In the meantime, she’s begun a collaboration away from Psycho, which she derides as “cheap horror claptrap.”

Her partner is a dashing younger writer named Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), whom she regularly meets at a secluded beach house.

Not quite a romance, Hitchcock might have been a mildly engaging movie but is immeasurably elevated by the presence of Hopkins and Mirren, who provide the story’s emotional core.

Donning a fat suit and prosthetics, Hopkins, who bears little resemblance to Hitchcock, fully embodies the director, protruding lower lip and all, adapting his distinctive and deliberate accent as well as his droll and arid wit.

Mirren, who looks nothing like Alma, delivers an emotionally honest performance as a mid-century wife who, in a later era, would have no doubt forged a successful career of her own, given her storytelling talents.

In Hitchcock, (as in life, no doubt) she is his anchor both at home and, after a lackluster early screening of Psycho, at work.

On her recommendation, Hitch, who insisted the movie’s infamous shower scene play without music, was persuaded to lay in Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking chords, raising the scene’s tension to an unbearable level.

Director Sacha Gervasi, who holds a writing credit on The Terminal and directed the memorable documentary, Anvil:  The Story of Anvil, left script duties to John McLaughlin (Black Swan).

While his characterizations of Hitch and Alma are vividly rendered, minor roles like Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), Tony Perkins (James D’Arcy) and Janet Leigh are sketched in much more lightly. And the subplot involving Alma and Whitfield feels like a halfhearted attempt to inject the material with much-needed tension.

While some of his dialogue is snappy, McLaughlin struggles to find the right balance between humor and drama, and occasionally missteps with ‘fantasy’ sequences in which Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) visits Hitchcock providing helpful hints on murder.

The production was barred from using footage from Psycho, an obstacle Gervasi gracefully eludes in the film’s finest moment – a scene where Hitchcock stands in the lobby on opening night, listening to the audience reaction as the shower scene unspools.

Most of us, having seen the movie numerous times, hear Herrmann’s music and the image of poor Janet Leigh being butchered jumps starkly to mind as Hitch swings his arm to and fro, stabbing the air like a maestro conducting a symphony.

Hopkins is among the best actors of his generation and is being talked about for awards season. Should he win an Oscar, it would be his second Best Actor win, with five nominations.

Hitchcock, on the other hand, reinvented the thriller genre and remains one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. Although he was nominated for the Oscar six times, he never took home a statuette.

Hitchcock opens in theaters November 21. Watch its theatrical trailer below.

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‘Flight:’ Denzel Washington Soars in Robert Zemeckis’ Awards-Season Contender (MOVIE REVIEW)

A slug of whisky, a line of coke, and that’s breakfast for airline pilot Whip Whitaker waking up in an Orlando hotel room next to a curvaceous flight attendant.

This is the opening scene of Flight, Robert Zemeckis’ compelling new character study starring Denzel Washington in one of his strongest performances to date.

Whitaker makes his 9 am flight and takes off in a storm, coolly navigating through turbulence and onto smooth sailing bound for Atlanta.

What’s not so smooth is Whitaker mixing vodka with his morning OJ, putting his passengers in peril again. But then he saves them following an equipment failure, employing a maneuver few pilots could execute without crashing.

Back on the ground, he is hailed a hero, albeit one wanted for manslaughter after toxicology reports show cocaine and alcohol in his system.

The crash landing in Flight, as you’ve probably heard by now, is hair-raising twenty minute sequence in which things get progressively worse to the point of certain death.

The problem is it’s a high point that fits uncomfortably with the rest of the movie – a Bond-like set piece in the middle of an intimate character study about a man coming to terms with alcoholism.

That being said, it’s a hell of a plane crash, (though see United 93 for a crash that achieves similar results for a fraction of the cost).

Following this sequence, Flight sags as screenwriter John Gatins, a former actor, focuses more on character than plot, leaving Whitaker only two direction to go in – self-annihilation or salvation. And this being a studio movie, guess which path he chooses.

Whitaker moves to his family farm, away from the prying press, in the company of a heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) he met in the hospital. There, he confronts his demons, visits AA, gets drunk, sleeps with the addict, gets sober, falls off the wagon – in short, all the convolutions we’ve seen countless movie drunks go through from as far back as Billy Wilder’s classic The Lost Weekend to last month’s indie movie Smashed.

With Flight, Robert Zemeckis returns from his sojourn in the wilderness of mo-cap, having directed Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carolusing the cutting-edge computer technique to create eerily un-lifelike results.

It’s a trilogy of impressive technical virtuosity. But despite its innovation, it’s also a trilogy of mediocrity. While he’s made a few pop classics along the way, (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump), audiences don’t expect to be challenged by a Zemeckis movie, and they won’t be challenged here.

What appears to be a quandary about a pilot saving a plane full of passengers from certain death while under the influence, isn’t really a quandary at all. Given the choice of flying with a teetotaler with average skills or a drunken ace, most of us would probably go with the teetotaler.

In the end, Flight concludes that regardless of his heroics, Whitaker betrayed the public trust. It’s the right conclusion and, it seems, a painfully obvious one.

But if the conclusions reached are obvious, it’s the getting there that counts. The audience gets there by way of Washington who, over the years, has demonstrated a broad acting range but is never so compelling as when he has a chip on his shoulder – guys like Hurricane Carter, Malcolm X and Detective Alonzo Harris from Training Day, for which he won the Oscar.

Washington is unapologetic in his portrayal of Whitaker, swaggering through scenes as if he has it all under control, only he doesn’t. And in the back of his mind, he knows it.

But still, he doesn’t seem alarmed by his descent. His denial is convincing enough for him to think he can keep on drinking and flying as he always has.

Coaching him through his case with the FAA, is attorney Hugh Lang (a buttoned down Don Cheadle) and, in emergency situations only, Harling Mays (John Goodman), as Whitaker’s drug dealing pal – a holdover from the sixties with the right prescription, no matter the malady.

In some ways, Mays presents the movie’s biggest quandary – a renegade we’re meant to find endearing and funny even as he chops out lines for his drug-addled friend. How did a dealer get such soft treatment in a mainstream movie about substance abuse? The surprise isn’t the portrayal, but that it wasn’t checked by someone at the studio.

Flight is being positioned for awards season, and don’t be surprised if Washington gets nominated. But performance and plane crash aside, in a climate of fewer and fewer quality mainstream movies, Flight looks like a winner simply by not being terrible.

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‘Seven Psychopaths’: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell Turn Crazy Killers Into Comedy Gold (MOVIE REVIEW)

Martin McDonagh has ‘it.’

After an award-winning career writing for the stage, his first movie, In Bruge, won a Golden Globe for Colin Farrell and earned McDonagh an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay.

With his latest movie, Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh actually tops In Bruges – no easy feat considering that it’s predecessor is also one of 2008’s most highly acclaimed films.

Working in the same Grand Guignol style that has come to characterize plays like A Behanding in Spokane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, McDonagh conjures a broad and witty comedy that turns in on itself as a meta-commentary on hip gangster movies.

What’s ‘Seven Psychopaths’ about?

Wannabe screenwriter Ray, (Colin Farrell) tells his unhinged friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) he doesn’t want to write “just another movie about guys with guns in their hands.” He wants his movie to be much more. Exactly what, however, he hasn’t a clue. What he does have is a title: Seven Psychopaths.

Intent on collaborating with Ray, Billy takes out an ad in the newspaper seeking psychopaths who are willing to share their stories.

Harry Dean Stanton is the Quaker psychopath, not to be outdone by a Buddhist Vietnamese psychopath played by Long Nguyen.

Tom Waits, stroking a pet bunny, plays a psychopathic hunter of psychopaths, while Woody Harrelson is Charlie the gangster, a psychopath obsessed with his little dog Bonny, (not a psychopath), a Shih-Tzu.

Bonny has been abducted by Hans (Christopher Walken) a psychopath at the end of his rope who runs a small-time operation kidnapping house pets and returning them for reward money.

Charlie would rather see his beautiful girlfriend dead than lose his beloved dog Bonny, and he is about to move Heaven and Earth to save her.

While it may sound confusing and maybe too smart for its own good, Seven Psychopathsunspools with clever ease and buffoonish charm. It is effortlessly brilliant and always accessible but more important, it slavishly satisfies the first rule of comedy – make ‘em laugh.

Energy accumulated in the movie’s first hour is slightly dissipated when Ray, Billy and Hans reach the desert for the final showdown and McDonagh’s screenplay spins its wheels. But the jokes keep coming, as lively and unexpected as the many plot twists and convolutions that make Seven Psychopaths so distinctive.

McDonagh is a deft director of actors, starting with Farrell as Ray, the alcoholic writer wannabe. For once, Farrell embodies the most normal character in the bunch. He underplays opposite a manic Rockwell, but still generates plenty of laughs as he wrestles with his demons and the real-life crazies popping up all around him.

Walken and Rockwell costarred in the Broadway production of McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane, and together they bring to the screen a well-honed anarchic energy. Despite their impeccable work over the years, both actors deliver performances that stand among their best.

Walken has carved an indelible niche for himself playing creepy characters in dozens of movies going back to an early cameo as Annie Hall’s suicidal brother, Duane.

In Seven Psychopaths he is strange, unbalanced and again suicidal after the loss of his wife. His performance is energized partly by the fact that it’s Walken playing Walken in the same way Seven Psychopaths is a hip gangster movie about hip gangster movies.

The old adage says, “Comedy is hard, dying is easy.” Comedies, especially ones like Seven Psychopaths, are seldom mentioned at Oscar time and almost never win. Despite how difficult they are to make, good comedies look easy, which makes them easier to dismiss. If you’re smart you won’t dismiss Seven Psychopaths. Clever, original and unpredictable, it is one of the year’s funniest movies.

Watch the trailer for Seven Psychopaths below.

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‘Argo’: Ben Affleck Transforms True-Life Events Into Terrific Entertainment (MOVIE REVIEW)

At the age of 25, Ben Affleck was the youngest ever to win the Best Screenplay Oscar, which he shared with Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting.

That movie launched his career back in 1997 and now, 15 years later, after rehab, and even worse, Gigli, Affleck has reemerged as a director racking up a resume of admirable movies including Gone Baby Gone, The Town and now, Argo, arguably his best film yet.

What is Affleck’s latest about?

Based on the true story of a rescue attempt amid the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Argo focuses on Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA “exfiltration” specialist who comes up with a scheme to rescue six embassy workers holed up at the Canadian ambassador’s mansion in Tehran.

With few options on the table, Mendez and his boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) meet with Secretary of State Warren Christopher (Philip Baker Hall), outlining a plan to send Mendez to Iran posing as a film producer from Canada scouting locations for a movie called Argo.

They have only bad options, Cranston explains, and they’re offering their best bad idea.

While the material seems ripe for satirical comedy, Affleck chooses to play it straight, making Argo a thriller instead.

He and first-time writer Chris Terrio, working from information that was declassified in 1997, make the sort of movie that Sidney Lumet might have made in 1980. Thus, we have the high-grain look and the liberal use of zoom lenses to evoke the era.

Terrio deftly plows through what was no doubt mountains of information to carve out a smooth and stream-lined thriller that is deceptively well-paced but light on character and not above stretching the truth in obvious ways for greater dramatic impact.

In fact, ex-CIA agent Mendez has noted how relatively stress-free the operation was, with the hostages openly laughing at a knock-knock joke ending with the fake movie’s title: Argo f**k yourself!

Alan Arkin and John Goodman gleefully play a pair of Hollywood cynics recruited to give the scheme greater ballast. Their scenes provide welcome comic relief, but, along with the overall absurdity of the plan, introduce a tone that sometimes clashes with the tension generated in Tehran.

Tonal issues aside, however, Affleck’s third feature is assured, smart and very entertaining.

Often when actors become directors they demonstrate limited understanding of visual language but elicit stirring performances from their cast, as did Affleck directing Amy Ryan to an Oscar nomination in Gone Baby Gone, and doing the same with Jeremy Renner in The Town.

Through his trio of films, Affleck has consistently tested his limits as a visual storyteller. In The Town, the shootouts and heist sequences are gripping, but it is easy to see the director studying the best as he emulates Michael Mann’s famed shootout from his movie, Heat.

In Argo, Affleck demonstrates consummate filmmaking skills, such as the opening sequence where he builds tension masterfully as the U.S. embassy is overrun by an angry mob.

The audience is placed in the shoes of embassy workers who by now seem used to anti-American protests at their gates. But tension quickly escalates and the staff gets that creeping feeling that today might be different.

By the time they respond, it’s too late. They have become part of a deadly international crisis that will last for 444 days.

With buzz generated from Telluride and Toronto last month, Argo is clearly being positioned for awards season in a year otherwise so thin that That’s My Boy might have made the cut — which is to say that although Argo is not particularly weighty material, it is expertly crafted and a thoroughly enjoyable popcorn movie.

Watch the theatrical trailer for Argo below. The film  opens nationwide on Friday.

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