Argo: A high-stakes game of dress up

Argo

How can no one have turned this true espionage story into a big-screen thriller already? In 1980 the CIA and the Canadian government conspired to rescue six American diplomats hidden in private homes after the student takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Their cover was a movie production unit shooting Iranian locations for a sci-fi epic called “Argo,” the fictitious office for which was assembled in LA by makeup legend John Chambers (the original Planet of the Apes), who had a clandestine career helping the Agency with disguises. The new movie is Ben Affleck’s third directorial effort, after the gripping Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010); he plays Tony Mendez, who masterminded the effort, and the cast includes Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Alan Arkin, Clea DuVall, Chris Messina, and John Goodman (as Chambers). The story has plenty of action, and the weird meta-movie element is inherently rich; according to Mendez, before the fake production company was shut down in 1980, it received 25 scripts, including one from Steven Spielberg. Opens October 12. J.R. Jones

Head Games

When Taylor Branch published his muckraking “The Shame of College Sports” in the Atlantic a year ago, it raised the issue of exploiting young athletes to a level of public consciousness unknown since 1994, when Steve James’s classic documentary Hoop Dreams told the story of two Chicago basketball hopefuls. James has moved on since then, making movies about poverty (Stevie), capital punishment (At the Death House Door), and epidemic street violence (The Interrupters), but with Head Games he returns to the arena. His protagonist this time is Chris Nowinski, a Harvard grad and former WWE wrestler (there’s a resume you don’t see too often), whose 2006 book of the same name exposes the crisis of brain trauma in pro football. The growing number of players diagnosed pre- and post-mortem with chronic traumatic encephalopathy—degeneration of brain tissue following concussion—is a nightmare for the NFL, not to mention college football. The fact that CTE may also play a role in the epidemic of suicide among U.S. war veterans only heightens the urgency of this upcoming investigation. A week-long engagement at Gene Siskel Film Center opens September 28. J.R. Jones

Holy Motors

Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge, Pola X) is one of France’s true visionary filmmakers, having developed a unique form of cinematic poetry from elements of silent comedy, fantasy epics, and his own life. This digitally shot drama marks his first feature in 13 years, and I’ll be interested to see how Carax, who’s long displayed an affinity for early cinema, will engage with 21st-century moviemaking (he first tried his hand at digital cinema with his contribution to the 2008 omnibus film Tokyo). The loose narrative, reportedly his most abstract yet, follows an actor named Monsieur Oscar (played by the acrobatic Denis Lavant, Carax’s perennial alter ego) as he drifts from one identity to another over the course of a single night; the eclectic supporting cast includes Michel Piccoli, Eva Mendes, and pop star Kylie Minogue. If the movie’s Cannes premiere is any indication, Holy Motors is sure to polarize viewers. Opens November 9 at Music Box. Ben Sachs

The House I Live In

No one can accuse Eugene Jarecki of thinking small: his masterful 2005 documentary Why We Fight took on no less than the military-industrial complex, and his new one plunges into the 40-year, $1 trillion war on drugs, focusing on the prison-industrial complex that’s become its primary reason for being. Jarecki’s narrative strategy in Why We Fight was to collect smart talking heads from across the political spectrum but also to interpolate the stories of common individuals affected by the larger system. The House I Live In appears to follow suit: Jarecki rode with dealers and with cops, questioned judges and prison workers, but chose as his narrative linchpin Nannie Jeter, a former employee of his family’s, whose own household was ravaged by her son’s drug addiction. As Jarecki recently told journalist Amy Goodman, “My mission, which started with her feelings about the people she loved, who I loved through her, became a study of why it hasn’t been more morally and decently and honorably approached as a public concern.” Opens October 5. J.R. Jones

Killing Them Softly

With only two films—Chopper (2000), a pitch-black comedy about a career criminal, and the slick western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)—Australian director Andrew Dominik has built quite a reputation for himself. He returns to theaters this fall with Killing Them Softly, a throwback to the gritty crime dramas of John Flynn (The Outfit, Rolling Thunder) and Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick). Adapted from the George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade (1974), the new movie stars Brad Pitt as a professional enforcer investigating a heist that’s occurred during a high-stakes, mob-affiliated poker game. Dominik sets his film in 2008, smack dab in the middle of election season and on the eve of the financial crisis, and though the contemporary setting may provide a familiar milieu, the character archetypes are all vintage 70s: Ray Liotta is a maniacal mob figure, Richard Jenkins a crooked attorney, and James Gandolfini an aging, boozy assassin. Genre enthusiasts are sure to line up for this one. Opens October 19. Drew Hunt

This write-up has been amended to correctly reflect the roles of Liotta, Jenkins, and Gandolfini.

Lincoln

This biopic of the 16th president has been gestating since 2001, when Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studio bought the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best seller Team of Rivals. After numerous script overhauls and cast changes (Liam Neeson was announced for the lead at one point, but eventually it went to Daniel Day-Lewis), I’m curious to see how these shifting factors finally coalesced. For every bit of sludge Spielberg unleashes into the nation’s multiplexes as a producer (Eagle Eye, The Lovely Bones), he can still be surprising as a director. Last year’s War Horse paid unabashedly sentimental tribute to John Ford, who also had a thing for Lincoln; films like The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) seek to expand the Lincoln legend rather than maintain historical accuracy. Spielberg has taken similar liberties with history in his films, but with a heavier dose of showmanship; he claims to revere the legend of Lincoln, but I’ll be interested to see how much he trifles with historical accuracy to satisfy his taste for pageantry. Opens November 16. Drew Hunt

The Loneliest Planet

Russian-born, Colorado-reared filmmaker Julia Loktev put a human face on terror with her striking indie drama Day Night Day Night (2006), in which a dark-skinned young woman of indeterminate politics and ethnicity sets out to detonate a suicide bomb in Times Square. The movie was criticized by some for its opaque treatment of the central character, but on-screen it becomes an agony of waiting, controlled not by any social philosophy but by the inexorable pull of self-destruction. To judge from reviews, Loktev maintains a similar poker face in her new movie, The Loneliest Planet, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg as brash tourists who hire a local guide to lead them across the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. The trip is punctuated by a brief crisis that tests the Bernal character’s manhood, and though none of the three brings it up again, the incident colors everything that happens afterward. That’s about all I can suss out about the story, but one suspects that this new movie, like Day Night Day Night, will be a story of self-isolation in a vividly rendered environment. Opens October 26. J.R. Jones

The Paperboy

This third feature by director Lee Daniels elicited widespread accusations of bad taste when it screened at the Cannes film festival, so it may have less in common with his award-winning heart-tugger Precious (2009) than with his hypersexualized neo-noir Shadowboxer (2005). That film, one of the most deliberately weird to come out of contemporary Hollywood, might have registered as mere camp if not for its lush stylization, affectionate treatment of oddball characters, and fascinating stunt casting. The Paperboy stars Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron as brothers working to exonerate death row inmate John Cusack in late-60s Florida; their investigation introduces them to numerous southern gothic archetypes, including an aging vamp played by Nicole Kidman. Based on a novel by Pete Dexter (Paris Trout), who cowrote the screenplay, this is sure to be a unique experience; in an otherwise negative review for Variety, Justin Chang conceded that “viewers are apt to emerge feeling as if they’ve just been bathed in blood, sweat, urine, mud, and crocodile guts.” Opens October 5. Ben Sachs

Seven Psychopaths

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” Christopher Walken reminds Sam Rockwell in a trailer for this crime comedy by Martin McDonagh. “No, it doesn’t,” Rockwell counters. “There’ll be one guy left with one eye. How’s the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left?” That’s the sort of cracked humor I expect from McDonagh, the celebrated Irish playwright (The Pillowman) turned filmmaker (In Bruges). Colin Farrell plays an Irish screenwriter in LA whose low-rent buddies Walken and Rockwell swipe a Shih Tzu that belongs to vengeful local gangster Woody Harrelson. The poster for Seven Psychopaths—a lineup of the stars (Walken, Rockwell, Farrell, Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, and Tom Waits) in high-attitude poses—makes this look more like a Guy Ritchie comedy than the philosophical, often melancholy In Bruges. But much of that film’s wisdom derived from placing the Irish protagonists in historic Belgium; born and raised in London, McDonagh is a displaced Irishman himself, and Seven Psychopaths gives him a new, potentially fruitful landscape to prowl around. Opens October 12. J.R. Jones

Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell, having restarted his directing career with the emotionally ugly boxing drama The Fighter (2010), turns his attention to a feel-good novel by Matthew Quick, and the segue makes more sense when you discover that Mark Wahlberg of The Fighter was his original choice to play the hero, who’s released to his parents’ custody after four years in a mental asylum and immediately sets himself to winning back his estranged wife. The role ultimately went to Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro (who did some great work with Cooper in the overlooked thriller Limitless) is his worried father; the story takes a left turn when the hero himself becomes the romantic quarry of a neighbor with her own mental problems, played by Jennifer Lawrence. A trailer for the movie emphasizes its sappy can-do sentiment, but I have a hard time believing that Russell—director of such warped comedies as Spanking the Monkey (1994), Flirting With Disaster (1996), and I Heart Huckabees (2004)—would follow his comeback film with this if there weren’t a sharp and abrading edge somewhere. Opens November 21. J.R. Jones