U.S.: Ben Affleck, 2012, Warner Home Video
Based on fact -- although it's fact run through the usual big-movie embellishing machines -- Argo tells the story of a CIA "exfiltration" expert (director-star Ben Affleck as real-life operative Antonio "Tony" Mendez), who joins forces with an Oscar-winning makeup man (John Goodman as the real-life studio legend John Chambers) and a few other movie people, to cook up a real-life great escape. In it, they assemble a phony movie production in order to rescue six American State Department workers hiding in the Canadian Embassy in Tehran during the 1979-81 hostage crisis.
Here's the plot: Mendez proposes to disguise the Americans as part of the production team for a third-rate (no, make that fourth-rate) Canadian Star Wars knockoff called Argo, and sneak them out of the country with fake passports and Swiss airline tickets courtesy of the CIA -- with the help of Mendez's tolerant boss, Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston). The movie plays like a mad combo of mixed genres: Spy Games espionage stuff, Wag the Dog government trickery, Close-Up Iranian street film, and The Sting, an intricate con game -- except that this time the picture puts the CIA (and especially Tony Mendez) in a favorable light, instead of tapping into the usual Three Days of the Condor Company nightmare.
What's unusual about Argo, and gratifying and enjoyable, is that it's both an engrossing historical (or semi-historical) thriller, and a sardonic Hollywood semi-satire. And, executing a script that reportedly includes 120 speaking parts in several languages, while employing a cinematic style that alternates rapid cutting with restless long tracking shots, the moviemakers give the movie a virtuoso gleam, mounting tension, but also a sense of fun. Argo covers a lot of ground with those tracks and pans, with the movie following and making lucid the dramatic tensions among Mendez, the six fugitives, and the Canadian embassy people, and outside, the CIA operatives and their opposite numbers in the Iranian police.
Who would have thought that Affleck, along with his old buddy Matt (Bourne) Damon, would wind up becoming one of the current movie kings of the spy thriller genre? Argo was produced and directed by Affleck, who underplays his part, while sporting a '70s counter-culture late Beatles beard and long hair -- and if Affleck rang the bell in his last directorial effort, the lacerating Boston gang movie The Town, he really seals the deal here. Argo entertains us in so many ways, while working in so many genre and tonal shifts, that it's no wonder the film has built up a big constituency. It's got a great subject: It's about how movies and real life can intersect, and its whole dramatic structure is built on that main theme. (Extras: commentary; featurettes; feature-length picture-in-picture.)
The Sessions (A-)
U.S.: Ben Lewin, 2012, 20th Century Fox
The Sessions is a movie about love and pain, sexuality and disability, poetry and confinement, the world inside and the world outside. Based partly on the article "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" by Mark O'Brien, as well as his other writings and life story, it is about O'Brien's determination to lose his virginity at age 38, despite the fact that a childhood bout with polio has left him confined for 90% of the time to an iron lung, with the extreme curvature of his spine, residue of the disease, forcing him to spend most of the remaining 10% in a wheelchair or lying on his back.
But Mark can still get erections. And he can still fall in love -- which he does, sometimes with unhappy results, with some (or at least one) of his caretakers. He also can write beautifully, tapping out the letters with a mouth-stick, expressing himself and his world with wit and clarity, and with a near-absence of self-pity. It was that writing, in the article above and elsewhere, that led Mark, posthumously, to writer-director Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance), who decided to tell Mark's story on screen. The result is The Sessions, one of the year's most realistic and moving love stories, and a tale full of suspense, humanity and compassion.
We don't often see stories like this on screen, and even less often done this well, or as filled with honest emotion. That's a pity.
The Sessions (which was called The Surrogate when it played at Sundance) carries us through Mark's determination to have a sexual life, to his decision to hire a sex surrogate -- Helen Hunt as the real-life surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene -- and their sessions together, in a motel room, facilitated by Mark's caretaker Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and an inquisitive desk man (Ming Lo). Alone together in the bare-looking motel room, Cheryl tries to teach and gentle him into his heart's desire. It's not easy.
The movie presents sexuality in a healing, lovable way, with wit but without cynicism -- and what we see is a healing, loveable relationship, sensitively and knowingly portrayed by the actors. Helen Hunt, who has to play a good deal of the movie in the nude, as well as to simulate various sex acts that would have been taboo on screen for a distinguished Oscar-winning leading lady several generations ago, imbues her part with the casual realism of a professional, and the aches of doubt that come upon her in the midst of her job. (They are only supposed to have six sessions and then depart for good.)
Through it all, there isn't a sniggering moment, though there's plenty of humor -- much of it courtesy of William H. Macy as the Catholic Father Brendan, the devoutly religious Mark's (fictional composite) long-haired, unflappable often wry spiritual adviser. (When asked if the deflowering is a sin, Father Brendan suggests that God will give Mark a pass.)
John Hawkes plays Mark, and it's something of a surprise to see this hardy ex-Texan actor, who was so effective as the backwoods outlaw meth dealer in Winter's Bone, just as convincingly play a man who can barely get around without help. But Hawkes communicates with great sympathy the reality of Mark's disability -- and he and Lewin do it most powerfully in one scene, based on life, where Mark, alone in his iron lung after the caretaker leaves, suddenly finds himself in the midst of an outage that knocks out his power. He has also dropped the mouth-stick that is his only means of communicating by phone to the outside world.
The actor and the film also convey what makes Mark so special as a human being: his poet's soul and his ability to write and reach out to others, even under conditions of extreme difficulty.
Most of all, Lewin -- along with Hawkes, Hunt, Macy and all the others, including two very fine disabled actors, Jennifer Kumiyama as Carmen and Tobias Forrest as Greg -- shows us the primal importance of empathy in life and love. The Sessions gives us, believably and without mush or gush, a tender but tough tale of sexuality and love and how they intertwine. It's a picture that, like the great films of Yasujiro Ozu, Vittorio De Sica, or Mike Leigh, conveys a real sense of life and humanity. Though you may think it's impossible to tell such a story without at least a little sentimentality, Lewin, who has specialized in dark comedy (The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish), will prove you wrong.
One of the reasons for that avoidance of mush may be Lewin's admiration and affinity for darkly comic, irreverent filmmakers like one of his own favorites, Luis Buñuel. Another reason may lie in Lewis' own childhood bout with polio, from which he recovered more completely, but not fully. This writer-director knows a good part of what Mark went through, and he helps us know it too.
The Sessions -- which was a hit at Sundance, winning both the Audience Award and the Jury Prize for an Ensemble Cast -- tells its story with a warm heart and a cool eye and without ever going overboard. Just like the surrogate, the movie knows never to push -- but simply to do its job, honestly and well.
U.S.; Robert Zemeckis, 2012, Paramount
Denzel Washington gives an extraordinary performance in Flight -- a Robert Zemeckis movie about the limits and contradictions of heroism, the perils of celebrity and the corrosive effects of lies and alcoholism. It's a very good film, at times an excellent one. It's also a very welcome movie. Some of the show's themes (like the ones above) are potentially rich and deep, and they're more meaningful than what big-star, big-budget Hollywood movies usually give us. Flight flirts with melodrama, dances around with social messages, gives romance a quick hug, and sneaks outside for a necking session with heavy-duty action and adventure cinema, without ever totally committing to any of them.
Flight is also a very entertaining movie, and its very mutability and changeability -- the way it hops from genre to genre, mood to mood, from high action and high entertainment to high seriousness, is a large part of what makes it so compellingly enjoyable. Flight has elements comparable to The Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas or The Verdict, and elements that remind you of The Big Lebowski, and others that almost suggest an Indiana Jones movie. All of them are crucial to its overall effect.
Washington is at the core of the movie's strong appeal. He's the kind of empathetic actor and charismatic movie star -- adept at comedy or tragedy or drama and capable of playing it good or bad, raunchy or noble -- who can handle a lot of different emotional colors and layers. He and director Zemeckis, working from a script by writer-actor John Gatins (Real Steel) always keep their vehicle flying fast, if not always right-side-up. And Washington keeps it in the air. In Flight, he plays a keen, highly skilled but highly flawed commercial airline pilot and accidental hero in aviator shades, named Whip Whitaker -- which is a name that sounds as it could have been invented for a '30s-'40s Saturday afternoon movie serial hero.
Zemeckis and Gatins introduce us to their hybrid hero with a heart-stopping double whammy. They show Whip engaged in a morning lay-over bout of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll (and booze), with a sexy flight attendant named Katerina (Nadine Velasquez), with the pilot (imminently due for his next flight out of Orlando), still drunk but "straightening himself out" with a snort of cocaine -- then speeding off to take over the wheel of the plane, taking two slugs of vodka from the flight beverages, and sliding in beside his nervous copilot, Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), who believes in God and the blood of the lamb, and whose faith will be sorely tested by what happens after the plane takes off.
What follows is one of the year's great action sequences, a triumph of staging, special effects, editing and cinematography, and a synthesis of all of them, that reminds you that Zemeckis also made the Back to the Future trilogy and Beowulf, and executed another crash in Castaway. It's one of the ace-of-aces of all movie flight nightmares.
Action: The plane hits a pocket of extreme turbulence between Atlanta and Orlando, and it shakes and shudders and tips and dips and goes into what looks like a fatal, fatal dive. But Washington's Whip, an ex-navy pilot with superb instincts, keeps cool, stays in control, flips the plane and flies it upside down (to stabilize it), and then flips it back upright and crash-lands it in a field near a church -- shearing off part of the church's steeple, while a bunch of the faithful watch and run around below. This amazing grace-under-pressure performance saves all but 6 of his 102 almost-sure-to-die-without-him passengers and crew and makes him an astonishing media hero in the category of pilot "Sully" Sullivan of the Hudson River incident.
Then comes one of the movie's other layers: social and psychological problem drama: The Zinnemann/Lumet factor. Can you really have a hero, whose blood alcohol count at the time of his heroics probably hit stratospheric intoxicant levels, even if you forget the cocaine? We soon discover that Whip is a full-blown alcoholic and has been for decades. We also veer into a pocket of wild comedy, thanks to John Goodman -- who pops up, motor running hard, as one of Whip's best friends, his hula-shirted, ponytailed, perpetual-motion cocaine dealer Harling Mays. Goodman is wafted in on a wave of the Rolling Stones and "Sympathy for the Devil," for a performance that's a hoot and half and that reminds you (in a good way) of Goodman's manic vet in The Big Lebowski and his polite escaped con in Raising Arizona.
Now another layer is revealed -- trial thriller -- with the arrival of Bruce Greenwood as ex-pilot buddy and union rep Charlie Anderson, and the always first-rate Don Cheadle as Whip's dead-serious and devious lawyer Hugh Lang -- whose first task is to bury that lab blood report, and who obviously disapproves of the man he's been hired to save. Reeling in the wings, with a layer of romance, is the pretty local heroine-user Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly, whose plot function is to supply a deceptive love interest and get Whip to an A.A. meeting, which he doesn't like and skips. And Whip's ex-wife and son (Gabrielle Beauvais and Justin Martin) are there to let us know that Whip hadn't been a particularly good father, even if 96 people owe him their lives.
The film's range is the key to its success. By shifting keys and moods so easily and constantly, Flight keeps us guessing, scrambles our responses. And Denzel Washington is one of those movie stars who has such command of the audience, that he can alter a film's whole trajectory with either a smile or a frown, or a long thoughtful gaze.
Flight raises him to the heights, even as an edge of moral darkness opens up around Whip Whitaker's world. Zemeckis' picture is both entertaining and sometimes almost criminally exciting, as well as moving and disturbing. It gives us both a wild ride and a touching human experience.