The Sessions

The Sessions (2012), directed by Ben Lewin

Delightful films are the worst to review because you can only use the word “delightful” so many times before the review becomes nauseatingly repetitive and glowing.

So I’ll just get it out of the way: The Sessions is delightful.

It’s the story of a man who can’t move most of his body thanks to contracting polio at a young age, and his desire to become a sexual human being. To achieve this he seeks the services of a sex surrogate, a professional who helps disabled people to experience sexual release, including intercourse.

It’s not everyday you see a film about that, am I right?

Aside from being the d-word, one of the most notable aspects of The Sessions is its handling of the topic of sex, and particularly sex and the disabled. The film recognizes a person’s sexuality as a an essential element of their identity, which is depressingly pretty refreshing for our culture.

That the movie never questions how important O’Brien’s sexual awakening is to him is wonderful, as is the portrayal of the support he receives in his endeavour from his friends, health care workers and even his priest (William H. Macy).

Rather than get bogged down in “issues” or some sort of discussion of society’s view of sexuality, we are instead presented with a funny, honest and touching movie about one person just trying to feel the connection that sex allows. This allows the movie to be about the person, which is ultimately more powerful than being about the “issue.”

Plus by not making it the focus the film doesn’t even justify the “moral dilemma” some might have with the content.

The quality of the performances is what most audiences will walk away thinking about. I think John Hawkes is a marvelous character actor and I’m always thrilled to see him on the big screen. He has a real talent to play a wide variety of characters and do so with a certain honesty and attention to his craft that is always compelling to watch.

Anyway, he’s great in this one and manages to make Mark a relatable, lovable, human character who comes across as being more than his disability. The movie suggests the man himself, in real life, had a similar effect on people.

Helen Hunt is not often someone I think about as a great actor, despite the Oscar. I don’t know why, she just rarely pops up in interesting projects. Maybe it’s still the whole Mad About You thing. But she’s great in this, hits all the right notes for what is an interesting character in a unique situation. Her performance highlights the complexity and power of what her character does for O’Brien.

Ultimately The Sessions finds its power and its point in being so approachable and enjoyable. It may make the film less Oscar-bait powerful. John Williams doesn’t score it, I don’t remember anyone crying in the rain or yelling a powerful speech. It’s simply funny and touching, which is the perfect tone.

It’s delightful. Sorry.

The Sessions is in cinemas now.

Lincoln

Lincoln (2012), directed by Steven Spielberg

Spielberg, Spielberg, Spielberg…

What an interesting presence in the world of film Mr. Spielberg has become. Once the Golden Boy who basically invented the summer blockbuster and, let’s face it, defined most of our childhoods one way or another (Indiana Jones, E.T., Jurassic Park, Jaws), he is now, to many, the hated dinosaur of cinema.

And in some ways, fair enough. War Horse was horrendous. The fourth Indy movie was nearly as bad. Tintin was OK, but nothing fabulous.

But he has still directed more important, and excellent, Hollywood movies than anyone else I can think of. And he’s not completely obsolete, Munich was a great film. And that was only seven years ago…

Anyway, among the people I know there is usually a collective rolling of the eyes whenever a new Spielberg movie comes out.

Lincoln might not shut the detractors up but I’d like to put out there that it’s a pretty excellent movie and rather restrained and levelheaded for Mr. Spielberg.

In fact if anyone has any complaints it would probably be that Lincoln is a little dull and quiet. Typically Spielberg is the master of emotional manipulation, but Lincoln plays out more like a political procedural than a majestic celebration of all things Abe.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some flourishes, and Spielberg’s respect and admiration for the man clearly shines through, which is fair enough. But I never gagged on it. And that’s saying something for old Stevie.

In fact, as someone who doesn’t know much about Lincoln, I would say I learned more about his background from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter than Lincoln. Except I’m pretty sure all that vampire stuff was dramatic license. I’m not really sure.

People have asked me if I would recommend it and I think that’s a tough call. For anyone interested in Lincoln, or interested in the history of American politics, it is an excellent movie I would recommend highly. I can’t say I’ve seen such a detailed and focused movie about the passing of a constitutional amendment before.

That being said, if that sounds tremendously boring to you, it will be. In fact, naming the film Lincoln is a bit of a misnomer in ways. The film should really be called The 13th Amendment, because that’s what it’s about. It’s about the amendment to end slavery and all of the political ins and outs, some above board, some under, that went on to have it passed. It was a close one, folks.

And yet it is about Lincoln because Spielberg uses this small part of his history, taking place roughly over the course of a month, to illustrate what kind of a person and leader Lincoln was. We don’t see the buildup of what made Lincoln Lincoln, but we see the man in his prime, doing what he needs to to get a bill he believes in passed.

Daniel Day-Lewis is, as ever, excellent and completely inhabits the role. I had to remind myself a couple of times that it was even Day-Lewis I was watching up there. He’s one of those Deep Actors who really gets into the role, and the result here is a superb, never flashy, and completely believable performance. He turns a legend into a man and yet wholly demonstrates his place in history and the reasons for the admiration he so rightfully earned.

I almost hate to give a Spielberg movie a positive review, but I have to here. I liked that it was so focused, so committed to detail and providing a full picture of its subject. It avoided the emotional claptrap that drags most Spielberg pictures into sentimental rubbish. It’s levelheaded and honest, kind of like Lincoln I suppose.

Again, because of its narrow focus, it won’t be for everyone. I love history, so I got swept up in it. It’s not a revelation of a movie, it isn’t pushing the medium in any way, but it is an excellent use of it.

It inspired me to learn more about Lincoln, which is probably exactly what Spielberg intended. Well done, Sir.

Lincoln is in cinemas now.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), directed by Sean Durkin

I’ve been dying to see this movie ever since it came out in the fall but this has been my first chance. It’s probably fallen under most people’s radar but I love John Hawkes and I also love quiet, slowly paced films involving people with Southern accents (hence my Terrence Malick, David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols obsessions). Also, for some reason (don’t judge me), I find cults fascinating. This movie is three for three so far.

It stars The Other Olsen Sister (Elizabeth Olsen) as a young woman who is taken in by and ultimately flees from a cult. It opens with the fleeing and the movie is one part her struggle adjusting to “normal” life while living with her sister and her husband and one part flashbacks to her experiences with the cult.

And this ain’t your regular old back-to-the-land, thank ya Geesus cult. It’s not even just a creepy old dudes preying on impressionable young women cult either. Don’t get me wrong, it is those, but it goes deeper then that. Think Manson. Think Jonestown. That sort of thing.

But I get where Martha (Marcy) is coming from when she gets sucked into the group. I would probably follow John Hawkes into anything too. Do I ever love that man. I am constantly hounding Hollywood (by, you know, yelling at my tv and the internet) to put John Hawkes in every movie they make. They’ve started to listen to me and he has been in a lot lately, but still: more, more. The Surrogate blew minds at Sundance this year, so that’s one to look out for. And anyone who hasn’t seen Winter’s Bone needs to. Now.

I don’t know what it is about him. He just has so much expression in his face and a certain maturity and understanding in the way he puts forward a character. And he’s versatile. Sometimes I want him to be my awesome Uncle and other times, as in this movie, he just scares the hell out of me. Oh, and PS John Hawkes, you need to play Rick Danko in a biopic of The Band. Seriously.

But the movie. Right. I wasn’t as taken with Martha Marcy May Marlene as I thought I would be but I have the suspicion that it would grow on me with future viewings. And maybe We Need to Talk About Kevin just took up all the appreciation for evil I had for the week.

This is a very well made movie, with striking performances, fabulously affective yet subtle cinematography and subject matter that couldn’t be juicier. And yet something held me back. It might have been Olsen, who I never quite believed and didn’t seem to have much range beyond dozy and confused. I mean, that was her character I realize, but I never got a sense of that urge for meaning or community that draws people into these cults. She just seemed so blank.

Also I think expectation entered into it. I’ve watched docs on Jonestown before and have read things here and there about cults. I know how they work and what they get up to. I was far more interested in learning about how Martha integrates back into normal life, or how the whole situation ends up playing out. And we never get that. In fact for an almost better depiction of how cults work try to hunt down the Canadian film Ticket to Heaven (or watch it on YouTube!). It’s dated but truly insightful.

So I felt like I’d seen everything in Martha Marcy May Marlene before. And just when it got to something that I was interested in…it ended. I had trouble with the end because that was what I cared about, what happens to Martha, not what had happened to Martha, because that seemed obvious.

The film is masterfully made, there is no doubt. What I had some resistance too was the story, which didn’t go far enough for me. I’d like to watch it again now that I have no expectations to focus on Hawkes’ performance and the look of the film, and maybe, knowing how it ends, find a better understanding of what it was going for and why. For now though Martha Marcy May Marlene feels half-finished.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is available on DVD and Blu-ray.