“Argo” and “The Sessions”: For Mature Audiences Only
Despite the horror-show double feature of wide releases this weekend—I don’t know what’s scarier, Paranormal Activity 4 or Tyler Perry Alex Cross-dressing as a man—silly season is officially coming to an close at the movies. As we near the end of the year, otherwise known as Oscar time, serious films for grownups start coming out of the Hollywoodwork. In the last 24 hours, I’ve seen two that are destined for my 10-best list: Argo and The Sessions.
From its throwback Warner Bros. production-company logo on, Ben Affleck’s Argo potently evokes the late-70s, early-80s era in which this true tale is set—perhaps not coincidentally, the last great period for American studio films. The haircuts and clothes may be ugly, but this is one beautifully tailored movie. In a quietly charismatic performance reminiscent of Three Days of the Condor‘s Robert Redford, Affleck stars as a CIA extraction expert who concocts a fake sci-fi movie as a cover story to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. The clashing styles of two company towns—Hollywood and Washington, DC—creates much-needed comedy to offset the almost unbearable suspense, even if you know how the story turned out.
If I have one complaint about Argo, it’s that the script by Chris Terrio is a bit light on character development; the six “houseguests,” as they’re called, are pretty much interchangeable. So it’s a huge help that Affleck has cast some of America’s best character actors in largely functional roles, including several veterans of Damages (for which Terrio once wrote): Tate Donovan, Zeljko Ivanek, Chris Messina, Victor Garber and the great John Goodman. And you can’t go wrong with award-winners like Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, Friday Night Lights‘ Kyle Chandler or Little Miss Sunshine‘s Alan Arkin either.
But the real star of Argo is Affleck—the director, not the actor. In only his third film, after the excellent Gone Baby Gone and the slightly disappointing The Town, he shows a sure hand behind the camera, building tension masterfully and choosing his evocative ’70s soundtrack wisely (the Rolling Stones’ “Little T&A” and Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” are used to particularly good effect). He’s made a film that works simultaneously as a note-perfect period piece and a stunningly relevant cautionary tale, especially when extremist attacks on embassies and consulates continue to make headlines. Argo‘s destined to make news of its own come Oscar season.
As is The Sessions, certainly for actor John Hawkes and possibly for costars Helen Hunt and William H. Macy and writer-director Ben Lewin as well. Hawkes, who earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination as the menacing yet tender meth addict Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, is simply phenomenal as Mark O’Brien, a polio-stricken poet who leaves his iron lung long enough to try and fulfill his desire to experience sexual pleasure. Laid out on a stretcher, his spine severely curved and mostly immobile below the neck, Hawkes creates a marvelously full-bodied character using only his face (especially his deeply soulful eyes) and his quirky voice, modeled on the real O’Brien, the subject of Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning short Breathing Lessons.
As the surrogate who attempts to help Mark realize his erotic dream, Hunt is a bit shaky in the Boston-accent department, but her emotionally and physically revealing performance is otherwise as good as it gets. And Macy is wonderfully understated as the priest who counsels Mark through his journey; the inherent joke that a celibate priest would live vicariously through his experience remains blessedly unspoken.
A Polish-born Aussie expat—and a senior citizen—Lewin is an unlikely candidate to become a hot property in Hollywood (his previous films, like Paperback Romance and The Favour, the Watch and the Very BIg Fish didn’t make much noise in the U.S.). Yet he brings great, unexpected humor to the story and has sagely selected a supporting cast including two fellow veterans of Hawkes’ late, great HBO Western Deadwood: W. Earl Brown and Robin Weigert. At a Q&A after the The Sessions‘ opening-night screening at NYC’s Angelika Film Center, I asked Hawkes and Lewin if that was a coincidence. In fact, it was not: Lewin had screened the entire series when preparing to work with Hawkes and noticed Brown and Weigert, with whom Hawkes confessed he pled to take on her small but pivotal role.
Gone before its time, Deadwood was perhaps too smart and complex to sustain a large enough viewershp. How exciting that we’re again starting to see films that are equally respectful of the audience’s intelligence. Enjoy them while you can.
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