It is Thanksgiving season. That means the fall and winter movies are upon us, and the Best Picture winner in the impending Oscar race will likely be released someone soon (or already has.) Many great indies are released early in the year, and the summer block buster season is fun, but most of the true classics see the light of day in the fall or the winter. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve caught up on a lot of these classics-to-be, and just in time for the holiday season. Happy Thanksgiving and watch some movies[i]. Also, I hope none of you got shot trying to shop on BLACK FRIDAY[ii]!
I will start with the current Oscar front-runner:
Argo is an example of a well-made thriller that is thought of more highly than it should be. It is Ben Affleck’s third and most-acclaimed film that he has directed, and it is his most mature, continuing his streak of career reinvention, but it is not his best film. Gone Baby Gone was a once-in-a-career film that will likely remain his best directorial work for the foreseeable future. But Ben Affleck has certainly shown that his hands are capable of crafting good, adult entertainment.
And Argo is a favorite currently to win the Oscars, if you are betting people. The perfect Oscar movie, Argo is good enough to be respected but not great enough to be divisive and it is about how Hollywood saves the day. Argo thumbs its nose at the Conservative establishment that thinks Hollywood is too sissy for true, militaristic patriotism. It is everything the Academy wants. Good, not great movies win Best Picture, if you want to be a part of the conversation come next nomination time early next year, see this movie.
But let’s remove all that Oscar and Affleck-career context for a moment. Argo intelligently uses a non-action packed storyline that contains more suspense than your usual thriller. Affleck sulking his way out of Iran is infinitely more interesting than Liam Neeson[iii] fighting his way through Europe in the latest Taken snoozefest. Affleck goes old-school, filling the audience with anticipation and even fear as Affleck’s Mendes character tries to get Americans out of Iran during the Iran Hostage Crisis. The hook into the plot is that Affleck gets in and out of Iran through the gimmick of pretending to make a B Science-Fiction movie. He is your pretend producer scouting locations, and at every turn, the Iranians fall for it. His job is simple: get the people who escaped the U.S. Embassy and are currently hiding with the Canadian ambassador to Iran, in the man’s home. Affleck needs to get them out of Iran undetected. That is where Mendes’s cover comes in, and the movie unfolds quickened pulses and perspiring brows.
The film is not too self-serious, though, including solid jokes by good actors giving solid performances. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are hilarious as Hollywood execs that help Mendes in his mission. So is Bryan Cranston as a C.I.A. supervisor for Mendes, whose intensity is funny in all of the right ways. They give the story levity and heart. Meanwhile, Ben Affleck plays it straight, but he is still limited by his own acting, never showing too much to the camera, but coming off as statuesque in his performance. He is a stand-in for your usual hero. He does his job and literally goes home at the end of the day (mission). There is nothing terribly interesting about Affleck’s portrayal of the actual C.I.A. operative, but it really isn’t his story. It is a story of Hollywood. And patriotism. And jingoism.
Argo has been accused of racism, but Argo is not the problem. If Argo is racist, most American movies featuring characters of non-American backgrounds could be considered racist. Sometimes they are liberal and condescending to minorities or foreigners (The Help, The Terminal) and sometimes they are outright vilifying people of other cultures (The Searchers and other westerns). Argo never steers too far into any direction, though, pretty much avoiding over-vilifying the Iranians and it also tries to cover its tracks with the story-board prologue to the movie that contextualizes the Iranian situation in the late 70s. This is more of a widespread problem than a particularly racist portrayal of Iranian. While it doesn’t deal with Iranians with the humanity of A Separation, it doesn’t turn them into monsters either.
It is a well-told, well-edited political thriller that shows both the power of Hollywood (it is a good adult movie in a sea of movies directed towards children and teenagers) and the limitations of the industry (the movie isn’t really offering more than solid entertainment).
Prepared to be entertained if you choose to see this film, but also prepare to roll your eyes on how thoroughly Hollywood manages to pat itself on the back come February.
I give Argo a strong 7.
There is something to be said for John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. They both give brave, entertaining, and heart-felt performances in The Sessions. John Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a man with polio, who is paralyzed from the neck down. He lives in an iron lung for most of the day, and for about four hours a day, his personal assistants take him anywhere he needs to go. He lives a good but not entirely fulfilled life. You see, he is a virgin. That is where Helen Hunt comes into play. Cheryl Cohen Green (Hunt) is a sex surrogate / therapist. Her job is to have sex with people who have obstacles in their intimate lives. Hawkes certainly has obstacles in his character’s life.
The Sessions is a warm, optimistic, human indie film about the complexities of sex. The ever charming William H. Macy plays a beer drinking, hip priest by the name of Father Brendan. Brendan acts as a confidante for O’Brien, no matter the theological implications of his sex surrogate may be. Brendan feels as if God is giving O’Brien a pass on this one. And this pass allows O’Brien to have all comedic scenes of awkward sex that entertain throughout the movie. These scenes are more adult than your usual sex-based comedy, but they’re still something adolescently entertaining about the whole affair.
While The Sessions doesn’t rely on cheap plot devices, but something in this film still feels slight. People accuse other, more widespread films of merely being actors showcases (The Master, Silver Linings Playbook) but The Sessions is the true actor’s showcase of the year. There is a decent plot, with decent writing. But the film never conveys true stakes for the characters. Hawkes and Hunt make you invested, but the end results of the film don’t feel as if they matter in the end. The final scenes of this film feel like a victory lap, even in their melancholy, and borderline cliché. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t CARE about Mark O’Brien. It is impossible be indifferent.
The Sessions is worth seeing, but will not go down as one of the best films of 2012.
I give The Sessions a decent 7.
Steven Spielberg is not on a hot streak. As one of the genre-film greats (if not the greatest), his reputation for being overly sentimental and not very entertaining in the late 2000s and early 2010s have magnified the weakness that his filmmaking have always contained. While Stanley Kubrick could be too cold for audiences, Spielberg is on the opposite side of the spectrum. This is evident especially in his 2011 output of Tintin and War Horse.
Lincoln reenergizes Spielberg’s career. Spielberg didn’t need another great movie; he is one of the biggest names to ever grace popular entertainment. But still, this film is one of his best and most-certainly contains the best performance of any of his films. Daniel Day-Lewis unsurprisingly glows in his role as Lincoln, inhabiting the role with the ferocity that he gave the fictional, John Huston-mimicking oil-tycoon Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood and Cristy Brown, the artist with cerebral palsy in the biopic My Left Foot. This is the bar for portraying icons, and that bar was unsurprisingly set by Daniel Day-Lewis. Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field glow as Thaddeus Stevens and Mary Todd Lincoln, respectively. Every member of the supporting cast does their job, and in the end, the film is done in a manner that seemed impossible for Spielberg—unsentimentally.
Lincoln is a procedural to end all procedurals. Relying on factual events instead of Hollywood-ized over-exaggeration, the movie feels true to history. Now, I’m sure there are moments where Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner gave their flourishes too, but they are not overly evident. In terms of tone Lincoln is more 12 Angry Men than Glory, pulling the viewer into the story without cheap tricks or by wearing its message or emotion obviously. Without said tricks, Spielberg and Kushner build tension and keep the movie interesting with a face pace that would do Argo proud. The glimpses into Lincoln as a man are short and sprinkled here and there: whether through his estranged relationship with his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt[iv]), the struggles he had with his loving but unstable wife, or the anecdotes he gave to those who work for him, much to their dismay. This portrait of Lincoln is as complete as one could expect, and in many ways, it surpasses what many of us already expected when we heard Spielberg is going to make a Lincoln biopic featuring Daniel Day-Lewis by not only being a movie perfect for just history teachers, but by actually being a great and engaging film.
Speaking of portraits, it needs to be mentioned that in a year of great cinematography[v], Spielberg’s director of photography Janusz Kaminski uses the screen as his canvas, making compositions and color schemes worthy of their own paintings. Lincoln’s most romantic features are its shots, with every screen worthy of a beautiful still. Lincoln sits in a chair talking to Union soldiers as if a king on a throne, since he is clothed in immense power after all. Lincoln holds his youngest son while beneath dancing curtains, with the light and shadows dancing across the room, showing how much he feels but also how much he keeps inside during the trying Civil War. Congress’s many angles are perfectly judicial. Kaminski won Oscars for Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, and he has worked with Spielberg since the latter, but this may be his best work yet, aiding the film in the best way possible.
Lincoln is a great film to see over the Holiday weekend.
I give Lincoln a lite 9.
PS: The top picture here is from the festive Christmas feast scene from the amazing Fanny and Alexander of Ingmar Bergman fame. A great holiday film for the arty type.
[i] I made it an entire paragraph without a Life of (Pumpkin) Pi joke!
[ii] Which should be turned into a horror movie pronto. Maybe it would be the first pseudo-horror movie nominated since the great and already underrated Black Swan.
[iii] Neeson may be a better actor than Affleck, but his movie choice has certainly dwindled. Maybe he should be in Affleck’s fourth film.
[iv] JGL is in three of my Top 10 films of 2012 so far: The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, and now Lincoln.
[v] Mihai Malaimare Jr. for The Master; Roger Deakins in Skyfall; Wally Pfister in The Dark Knight Rises, Robert Yeoman in Moonrise Kingdom, Ben Richardson in Beasts of the Southern Wild – among others!