Argo

In theaters.

Note: This review discusses the end of the movie because (A) it's based on a documented historical event, so fussing too much over "spoilers" seems silly and (B) this is what I want to write about, and it's my blog, so I can do what I want.

Argo definitely succeeds as a movie. The extraordinary premise—the escape from revolutionary Iran of American embassy workers disguised as Canadian filmmakers—captures the imagination immediately. The cast is almost completely composed of great character actors delivering spirited performances. The tonal shifts between tension and humor are odd, but somehow they work. The period touches—from the hilariously unattractive late-'70s fashions to the charmingly retro film work—are spot-on and compellingly immersive. It's a fun, exciting, inspiring movie.

Toward the end, though—when the Americans are almost made at the airport, and then the revolutionaries realize they've been tricked, and they shoot open the doors and race onto the runway to try to prevent the plane from taking off—I kind of wondered, wait, did this really happen too? And it turns out, no, it didn't. Numerous details have been fudged, both to simplify the escape (mainly by playing up the CIA's efforts and downplaying those of their Canadian counterparts, which is problematic in itself) and to make it more dramatic (all that running and shouting in the airport). Like many based-on-true-events stories, Argo has been moviefied.

Normally, I can't get too excited about this issue unless a film truly distorts a person's character or the import of an event—which I don't believe is the case here—but for some reason, with Argo, the distortions are what I keep coming back to when I try to write about the movie. Paradoxically, I'm more frustrated than I usually am with such cinematic misreporting and more inclined to forgive the elisions and narrative ruses. I am of two minds, and that's ultimately what I had to examine.

Looper

In theaters.

Time travel never makes much sense—ever—but Looper handles it much better than most. The trick, it turns out, is simply to acknowledge that it's crazy, that you'd need to diagram out the forking timelines if you truly wanted to keep track of it all, and even then the paradoxes would overwhelm you if you insisted on thinking about it too hard. Better not to, we're told a few times. Accept the rules that you're given, and go with it. So we do.

And it's worth it because Looper also nails the really crucial element of time-travel storytelling: the emotional logic. The actual mechanics might be nonsense, but the emotional connections between past and present and future ring true and resonate powerfully through all the explosions and gunshots of what is, besides, an exceptionally well made action movie—all the more exceptional for being able to finesse all that goofy time travel stuff.

Robot & Frank

In theaters.

Despite the whole robot-home-healthcare-worker premise, nothing about Robot & Frank feels particularly far-fetched or sci-fi. It's quite easy to imagine a sophisticated but narrowly focused robot like the unnamed one here. In fact, I'm quite certain that that kind of thing is already in development, in one form or another. Christopher Ford's gentle, domestic screenplay barely qualifies as speculative fiction.

And that, I think, is why it works. Robot & Frank isn't sci-fi (nothing against sci-fi, for the record). It's a thoughtful, playful look at how we relate to technology—and to one another—right now, not in the future. The human performances are delightfully expressive, and the robot honestly isn't, though that doesn't prevent us from growing fond of it, which is sort of the point. As an examination of how people map our own emotions onto other entities, Robot finds one of the shrewdest, most subtle takes I've ever seen.

The Imposter

In theaters.

The story at the heart of The Imposter is one of those true stories that would never fly as fiction. It's too open-ended, too outrageous, too unbelievable. Watching the documentary, you have to keep reminding yourself that this really happened, that scoffing about how none of it makes any sense doesn't actually make sense under the circumstances. Director Bart Layton presents everything coolly and clearly, but human irrationally simply can't be rationalized in any satisfying way, making The Imposter an impressive but frustrating, bewildering experience.

The Dark Knight Rises

In theaters.

It's difficult to think sensibly about director Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. Despite the sometime jumbled action sequences, they get under your skin in a truly unsettling way. The villains are charismatic, the setting is often unbearably bleak, the plots play on powerful contemporary fears, and the hero's vigilantism is genuinely disconcerting (and, indeed, acknowledged to be, even within the movies themselves). Furthermore, Batman BeginsThe Dark Knight, and now, closing out the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises all feature just enough intellectual provocation to capture the imagination and more than enough visceral triggers to send that imagination into overdrive. I certainly don't love the movies, but I'm sort of in awe of them. Rarely do you see a summer popcorn flick that delves quite so deeply and persistently into the unconscious.

Brave

In theaters.

In some ways, Brave is a disappointingly conventional addition to Pixar Animation's acclaimed oeuvre. The protagonist is a princess, the story follows a traditional fairy tale path, and the humor indulges in some uninspired stereotyping and a few dumb, shoehorned pop culture gags that I consider beneath the beloved studio.

At the same time, the voice acting is delightful, the animation is breathtakingly lovely, and the two central characters, a girl and her mother, are drawn with heartfelt nuance. Princess or not, a female protagonist struggling with a nonromantic relationship is unusual in American cinema, and Brave movingly handles its strained mother-daughter bond. Perhaps only the astronomically high expectations that Pixar's name engenders make Brave disappointing. I still laughed, I still gasped, and even minor Pixar makes me cry.

Prometheus

In theaters.

Alien is a classic horror movie in large part because of its simplicity. Stark and raw, it plays on primal fears with no subplots or distractions from the conflict at its center. That is its brilliance, the understanding that elemental needn't mean shallow. Alien, in its simplicity, is intelligent and incisive and ridiculously terrifying—and Prometheus, director Ridley Scott's new film in the Alien universe, is none of those things because it is a convoluted, overblown, pretentious mess.

Maybe—maybe—Scott and his collaborators deserve credit for their ambition, for trying to make something grand and profound. But I'm reluctant to give that credit because they've gone about it in all the wrong ways. There's absolutely no evident discipline on screen, no rigorous thought, no narrative insight, not even a shred of storytelling capability, just self-indulgent, would-be philosophical ramblings reminiscent of a college freshman getting high in his dorm room on a Friday night. Despite the pretensions of grandeur of PrometheusAlien is not only scarier but also much smarter and more deeply provocative. Prometheus might as well be called Icarus—it's failure would be tragic if weren't so incredibly annoying.