About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Grown-Up Movies

There are two really good movies for adults playing right now, Argo and Flight both of which I'd recommend, with perhaps a slight bias toward Argo.

For those of you who don't know, which shouldn't be many, Argo is a new movie directed by starring Ben Affleck about an effort to "exfiltrate" from Iran six workers at the US Embassy who were able to escape and find their way to safety with the Canadian ambassador during the hostage crisis of 1979-1981.  It shouldn't work as well as it does, and certainly not from a contemporary standpoint where movies tend to be so loud and action-packed and overwrought.  But it wasn't always this way.  Before everyone spent so much money on special effects it was common to really cast a movie up and down the line.  Which Argo does, with Alan Arkin and John Goodman and Bryan Cranston all having major supporting roles  And even smaller roles filled very reliably, as an example the Canadian ambassador being played by Victor Garber (the captain in Titanic) or one of the hostages quietly filled by Tate Donavan.  And it's possible to generate a lot of tension very quietly, which this movie does.  There's a scene of a van carrying the "film crew" to "scout locations," when this van full of "Canadians" has to make its way through an angry crowd of demonstrating Iranians.  No money in the scene. Just a street in Istanbul (doubling for Teheran) and some extras, it could have even been done on a backlot Arab street in Hollywood.  But it's so well done, so well edited and the sound mixing so good and the quiet fright on the actor's faces so good that you don't need any much more than that

And because all of these little things are so well done, the film works even though the six hostages aren't well-developed chapters, and the CIA exfiltrator is a cipher with the most basic character traits (child he never sees).  That's the main reason why I'm surprised the film works as well as it does, because it doesn't develop the characters very much.  And yet the filmmaking so so muscular, so quietly powerful, taks such good advantage of the inherent drama of the situation, that it all works beautifully.

In its opening weekend, the "Cinemascore" service that polls audiences, came up with an A+ for this movie, which hardly ever happens.  And it wasn't a figment of something.  These days, it is common for a film to drop 40% from its first weekend box office to its second weekend.  Some genres like horror films will be happy to drop less than 50%.  Argo dropped more like 15%, which just doesn't happen at all any more.  It's a lot of good word of mouth and well deserved.

Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future or Forrest Gump in the good old days, more recently motion capture like Polar Express) and starring Denzel Washington, shares one key trait with Argo.  It doesn't stint on casting where it needs.  John Goodman is in this as well, as a friend and dealer to Denzel Washington's drunkard airline pilot, who knows how to use coke to level Denzel off from his drunken binges.  Bruce Greenwood (brilliant in Mao's Last Dancer and good in many other things) is a rep for the pilot's union, Don Cheadle an attorney hired by the union. And while the film centers on a dramatic airline crash sequence that's hardly quiet at all, there've been lots of movies with well-depicted disasters in them.  The film works because it backs that up with all sorts of quieter scenes that let the actors shine.  There's as much will he - won't he tension to wondering what Denzel Washington's going to do with the connecting room mini bar as there is to that van ride in Argo, and this is even quieter.  Just one actor, and the actor not even in camera, just lurking there while we look at a single bottle of booze in a hotel room.

The film doesn't glorify alcoholism.  The alcoholic is played by Denzel Washington, so he's charismatic.  But he's also a drunk, and often not a very likeable one.  This isn't something Hollywood does well, very often. I didn't feel like I was being asked to like the guy, but I wasn't being asked to revel in wallowing with him either.

The one thing that doesn't work for me is the ending.  How do you end the movie?  You can't send the audience out with Denzel Washington still being a drunk, who would tell their friends to see that movie.  You can't end the movie with some kind of miracle cure because it just isn't true to the character in a movie that is trying to be very true.  So where do you find the balance?  There's a valiant attempt to find the third way, but it didn't work for me.  Back in the '60s or '70s I think the movie would have been a little darker and would have worked for back then but recently watching the ending of Marathon Man, which I'd never seen before, you realize that those endings just don't work any more unless you want your $3M film to have a highly regarded run in art houses.  Here, it's not $3M film, that won't even cover the star and director.

But these are both really good films, and worth going to a theatre to see.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Loved Argo, haven't seen Flight.
Great review. Thanks.