One of the finest films of 2012 based upon the real life story of Mark O'Brien, stricken with polio at the age of six, confined to an iron lung for the entirety of his life. "The Sessions" is based on O'Brien's article "On Seeing a Sex Therapist". A therapy brought to the forefront by Masters and Johnson in the 1970, "Human Sexual Inadequacy".
John Hawkes ("Winter's Bone") gives a performance on par with Javiar Barden's in "The Sea Inside" (2004); with minimal head movement he conveys emotions running the alphabetical gamut from A through Z; so compelling is his performance that the discomfort of viewing him at an angle is a reminder of the entitlement, selfishness of the fully mobile individual. With the power of a poetic mind and tongue he woos with Cyrano de Bergerac's seductive, alluring charm; peppered with self-deprecating humor he wins the hearts of his caretakers and eventual love of this sex therapist, Cheryl Cohen Green, a brilliant, Academy Award worthy depiction by Helen Hunt.
At thirty-eight Mark wants to correct his virginal state (besides his head there is another part of his anatomy that is salubriously functional); he seeks the advice of his priest "Father Brendan" (poignant, hilarious dead-pan performance by William H. Macy); Father Brendan feels that God and the Church will give him a pass on illicit sexual behavior, outside of marriage.
"The Sessions" outstanding success lies in the enactment of the treatments; "Cheryl" is a clinician, records every meeting with the detachment of a professional; total nudity is never salacious, sensational or prurient. Hunt's performance lacking histrionics or gravitas resonates with acute empathy for "Mark"; her expertise, layered with kindness, will not accept failure.
"The Sessions" is informed by profound dignity, an example of the immense capability of a spirit to soar beyond the constraints of a frozen body, to touch the stars and mingle with the gods.
FOUR & 1/2 STARS!!!!
In the midst of the Chicago Film Festival I squeezed in the highly touted and commercially successful "Argo", a film that captures the explosive and traumatic events revolving around the Iran hostage crisis; November 4,1979, the American embassy in Tehran, was stormed by Iranians, posing as students, the saga lasted 444 days; six escaped and found refuge in the Canadian embassy. "Argo" is the enactment of those who got away and the ruse perpetrated by the C.I.A. to accomplish their incredulous salvation.
Instead of judging "Argo" on its historical veracity I chose to view it solely on its "film" attributes, and it shines. Ben Affleck (admittedly, I have always been a fan, even liking the catastrophic bomb, "Pearl Harbor") stars and directs this scenario, buried until President Bill Clinton declassified it in 1997. From the onset "Argo" is true to the times: sideburns, ubiquitous smoking, 1980 technology; in today's world this endeavor would have backfired, immediately and profoundly.
Affleck is brilliant in creating a narrative where the conclusion is known but the process cloudy; commencing with historical information about Iran, the Shah and America's involvement in the region, culminating with the Ayatollah's triumphant return, masterfully incorporating film footage of the horrific debasement of the interned Americans; youthful David Brinkley and Ted Koppel ambushing the communication limelight with their iconic, daily reporting.
Affleck is "Tony Mendez" the C.I.A. operative who executes the preposterous plot of rescuing 6 Americans (disguised as Canadian filmmakers) making a movie in hostile "Iran"; levity and humor inform the creation of "the best bad idea" with John Goodman giving a sensational, jovial portrait of Academy Award winner "John Chambers" (a makeup artist par excellence); Alan Arkin as producer "Lester Siegel" gifts audiences another palliative, perspicuous performance.
"Argo" careens hypnotically from one nerve fraying moment to another; a ride worthy of the price; ultimately remembering, revering those who escaped and the heroes who implemented their survival.
What is truly remarkable and compelling about this Documentary is where it takes place and the principals involved. Israel, a slice of democracy in a hostile milieu has gifted movie goers outstanding films in recent years; films dealing intrepidly with controversial topics: religion, politics, families in crisis. "Lebanon", "Lemon Tree", "Restoration" and the superb Academy Award nominee "Waltz with Bashir" are a few renowned examples of superlative filmmaking.
"Dolphin Boy" is the touching and miraculous true story of a young boy living in an Arab village in Northern Israel: "Morad" seventeen, handsome, bright; he is content and loved by his pious Muslim parents and siblings. Disaster strikes when a note is confiscated and misinterpreted by his classmates, alleging inappropriate behavior with a female relative of one of the boys; he is catastrophically beaten, overcomes death, his body recovers but his mind has lost even a tenuous thread of sanity; incapable of speaking, manifesting all the symptoms of autism. The year is 2006.
Dr. Kurz, a psychiatrist specializing in post traumatic stress and dissociative behavior suggests, after months of futile analysis, and the refusal of Morad's parents to place him in an institution, "Dolphin Therapy". A contemporary and controversial treatment for children suffering from autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome. There are organizations in Florida, Mexico, Australia, Ukraine and Israel. Morad and his father Asad go to Eliat, on the Red Sea; Asad pledges not to return home until his son is cured.
The dolphins with polished, refined instincts rule their watery world; like Neptune, Poseidon, Naga they either accept or reject interlopers; Morad is a welcomed guest and steadily improves, becoming an admirable free diver. After three months and a monumental financial toll on his family, Morad speaks, reflecting "it was the first day of my life". Morad improves but the positive is balanced with the negative: he falls in love with a Jewish girl, but still cannot contemplate a return to his village; he is fearful of seeing his mother and siblings and is haunted by heinous nightmares; he has erased and refuses to speak of the crime perpetrated upon him.
Mystifying is the ability of the dolphins to heal; is it a fallacy? Possibly, it is the power of acceptance that sooths the wounded psyche; not a modicum of hostility, just unquestionable love permeates a soundless cocoon; words are anathema, the gentlest caress from a slippery mammal provides an unfathomable, phenomenal, inspiring cure.
This film is so good that even after hours of mental marinating it is impossible to escape the aura of its mastery. Lee Daniels ("Precious") is fearless and at times controversial in his selection process. "The Paperboy" based on the novel by Pete Dexter is brutally raw and unflinchingly honest, never shying from the taboo. The film commences with "Anita" (pristine, sensitive performance by Macy Gray) narrating the story of the "Janson" newspaper family that she has toiled, for untold years as a maid, cook and anchor.
In 1969, the detested, abhorrent Sheriff of swampy Moat County Florida, is murdered. "Hilary Van Wetter" (supremely powerful acting by John Cusack) is on death row for the crime. Brothers "Jack" (Zac Efron) and "Ward" (Matthew McConaughey) Janson along with fellow reporter Englishman "Yardley Acheman" (David Olelowo) unearth evidence of Hillary's wrongful conviction. While in prison Hillary has wooed through copious letters, slutty, sensational "Charlotte Bless". Nicole Kidman as Charlotte is positively mesmerizing; perfect blend of divine and dirty; sexy and sincere; voice and body ooze total uninhibited, unabashed sensuality; shrouded in genuine goodness and kindness. Nicole as Charlotte is unforgettable.
Matthew McConaughey exercises his inimitable skills as a method actor. "Ward Janson" facially scarred, tenacious, charming, loving and protective of his brother, "Jack". He and co-writer "Yardley" search for truth while obfuscating secret demons. Ward, like all the principals, has vulnerabilities. McConaughey shines as a tortured, tormented incomplete human being.
Zac Efron, "Jack" a twenty-year-old, gifted swimmer, booted off the team and school for his uncontrollable temper; he is drowning in his love for Charlotte; so fine and candid is his performance, you empathize and grieve, recognizing the futility of desiring the unattainable; destined never to be requited. He is the "driver" and "paperboy", a gopher for the family newspaper.
"The Paperboy" is not for the squeamish; resoundingly gruesome, enough blood to satisfy a coven of thirsty vampires; but unquestionably realistic; characters flawed, but hauntingly real; like the swamps, their murky depths unknown, forever.
A great looking cast cannot save this action flick from resonating as one of the top "bombs" of the year; nonsensical, implausible, laughably ridiculous. Liam Nesson, ageing nicely, is again recreating the role of "Bryan Mills" an ex-CIA operative; "Taken" revolved around the kidnapping of his daughter "Kim" (Maggie Grace) by an Albanian sex trafficking cabal; titillating, spine-tingling scenario made this a fun, fascinating movie experience.
"Taken 2" had a difficult time deciding on who was to be "taken"; Mills? Ex-wife, "Lenore" (Famke Jansson)? Kim? Actually after twenty minutes, it hardly mattered. It is spring break and mother/daughter surprise Mills in Istanbul, Turkey; they are being stalked by the father and his fraternity killers, seeking revenge for the death of sons/brothers killed by Mills in "Taken".
The film careens from the Houdini escapisms of Mills to the profound transformation of "Kim" from co-ed to trained demolition expert; ultimate credulity test was Kim, lacking a drivers license, racing with the temerity of Mario Andretti through the tumultuous streets and bazaars of Istanbul; if this was intended as irony, it flopped miserably.
In this tumbling cacophony and mayhem the one source of interest and credibility was the grieving, vindictive Albania father "Murad" (great depiction by Rabe Serdedzija); with a countenance terrifying the gods; his hatred, like a cloak of armor, defines his every gesture; the screen dulls with his absence.
"Taken 2" will keep you awake, leaving, knowing the Mills family will perpetually question choosing Istanbul for spring vacation.
1 & 1/2 STARS!!
Alert: these "oranges' instead of being beneficial are a detriment to one's health. Skip this supercilious, embarrassing diatribe about a failed marriage, doomed affair; worst flaw: painfully uninteresting people; barely a nutrient worth imbibing, a calorie- less, bland, boring one hour and thirty two minutes!
Hugh Laurie, the paradigm of brilliant, caustic wit in the seven- year -role of Doctor "House" is totally unremarkable as a man whose marriage is in hospice; commences a relationship with his best friend's (Oliver Platt) brainless, unaccountable daughter (Leighton Meester); the plot yawningly sinks into a morass of lackluster, lamentable drudgery. I will take the limping, scruffy, curmudgeon "House" in a nanosecond over this clean-shaven, cane- less, vanilla "David".
The movie is saved from zero stars by Alia Shawkat. As "Vanessa" the smart, primarily ignored daughter of (Laurie and Catherine Keener); her succinct, crisp observations of this dysfunctional family, gift her a level of integrity, far superior to her vapid, empty counterparts.
"Oranges" does zilch for tourism in New Jersey; these characters are ubiquitous, sprinkled in cities, towns, villages throughout the universe; totally unworthy of "screen time".
ONE & 1/2 STARS! (OUT OF 5)
Viola Davis. Robbed of last year's Academy Award for best actress, is reason enough to see this highly manipulative film about two women who fight the entrenched bureaucracy of the teachers union in Baltimore. The film is fraught with fallacies, and living in a city where the teachers went on strike for a week and a half this past September, the wounds, no longer oozing, have yet to scar. Nevertheless, it was entertaining, heartwarming predictability.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays "Jamie Fitzpatrick" a beleaguered, single mother, working two minimal-wage jobs to support her eight-year-old dyslexic daughter "Malia" (Emily Alyn Lind); the school is an abomination, failing on every level; heartless, uncaring teachers, whose dreams were slaughtered on the pyre of tenure and unworthy pupils. The exception being "Nona Alberts" (Davis) who is still harboring a dim vision of improving, inspiring the intransigent uninspired, motivationally bereft student.
Jamie and Nona join forces, command a blitzkrieg of a revolt; fighting to take over the doomed "Adams" (named for John Adams the second President of the United States) elementary school; felling one vicissitude after another, refusing to "back down", they infuse their roles with enough legitimacy, rallying the audience to tear and cheer their failures and conquests. Davis is luminously stunning; Gyllenhall, a masterful second.
"Won't Back Down" whether intentional or not, is reminiscent of real-life Gloria Romero (b.1955) a former California State Senator and Democratic majority leader; the first woman to hold that position; she stepped down to become chair of the Education Committee, championing, after heated debates, the "parent trigger law" which allows a majority of parents, in a failing school, to vote on a method to restructure the school. Defining, once again the "power of one" to supersede the many.
"Won't Back Down" is melodramatic, at times erroneous, sensational, pushing the gamut of emotional buttons; in this instance, buttons that did mind the pressure.
What is it about time travel that is so hypnotic, magnetic, romantic? The possibility of rectifying past errors? Reclaiming the "one who got away"? Or just the supernatural, infallible power of "knowing", and possibly "altering" destiny?
Time travel has been a pervasive genre, informing contemporary film and literature: "Time After Time", "Terminator", "Donnie Darko", "Groundhog Day" (crippling, anesthetizing redundancy), "Back to the Future"; Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife" (also a movie) and most recently Robert Koppel's "The Next Step: A Gobsmacking Odyssey of Reinvention", tempting, teasing versions of mind and body tackling and overcoming matter.
Many owe a debt to Chris Marker (1921-2012) an iconic French writer and filmmaker, forerunner in imagining the unimaginable; "La Jette" (The Pier, 1962) is a 28 minute black and white film, comprised of stills, ending with the protagonist visioning his demise; this brilliant film inspired Terry Gilliam's 1995, "12 Monkeys" and was a monumental influence on Rian Johnson's "Loopers".
"Loopers" should appeal to a wide audience, even those who are not science-fiction aficionados; erudite, fascinating, riveting, a mind-bending, enthralling experience. "Joe" played simultaneously by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis ("Old Joe"). The year is 2044 and the world is controlled by organized crime; time travel is invented in 2074; those who the "Boss" (Jeff Daniels, gives a creepy, malevolent performance as "Abe") wants eliminated, are sent back from the future to be slaughtered and incinerated by "loopers". Young Joe must complete his loop by killing his older self.
"Loopers" soars with scintillating performances by Gordon-Levitt and Willis. Because of the dazzling craftsmanship of the makeup artists, Gordon-Levitt is miraculously transformed into a young Bruce Willis; his superb capturing of every nuance, grimace, strut, erases any question that the young and older man are one in the same. Bruce Willis chisels another notch on his scale of memorable movie moments.
Emily Blunt gives a solid depiction of a tough, savvy, farm girl, "Sara", the mother of "Cid" (an assiduously astounding performance by five-year-old Pierce Gagnon)!
"Loopers" will trigger a myriad of "movie conversations", but more than anything it bounces from the past to present with roller-coaster, exhilarating ease, culminating in an intriguing, questioning conclusion. "Loopers" has cemented a firm position in the rarefied, archival echelons of time travel flicks.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are partners, patrolling the crime-infested neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Terrific acting combined with the intimacy of the hand-held camera lends pivotal and realistic credence to a world that exists, but one we shun and pray never graces our doorstep. For those with sensitivities the "F" word replaces "Like" as part of the vernacular.
Whether an expert or a neophyte, lover or neutral on the sport of baseball "Trouble with the Curve" has no trouble pleasing all audiences. Clint Eastwood, the constant curmudgeon, once again hits it out of the ball park.
Eastwood's "Gus" is an ageing, almost sightless scout for the Atlanta Braves; unlike his vision his instincts for the trade are 20/20; but he is competing with the "Moneyball" generation and refuses to cave to technology and accept obsolescence; he has to witness, listen, and go with his finely tuned, archival "gut", in the scouting process; no man or machine can best him.
His boss and friend "Pete"(a seasoned, sensitive performance by John Goodman) recognizes his vicissitudes and enlists the aid of Gus's daughter "Mickey" (terrific, feisty depiction by Amy Adams) nurtured by the game, shunned by her father after her mother's death; a lawyer on the fast-track but knows and loves baseball and matches her father in fiery grit; the movie sizzles with their raunchy repartee; she surprises him in Ashville, N.C. on a scouting excursion, resulting in a volatile, heart-warming, heart-breaking, illuminating experience for both.
Justin Timberlake is "Jonny" an ex-baseball phenom now a scout for the Red Sox; a favorite of Gus's who is instantly attracted to "Mickey" the wiz kid of sports trivia; shades of "Diner" but the roles are reserved; she is the master/ mistress of the game.
In the twenty-first century computers, statistics, are intrinsic, an ingredient in the contemporary world, regardless of the field; but nothing can replace the personal, visual, hands on, face-to-face encounter; how else to determine the manner a player clutches the bat? Traditionalists will be pleased to see a film where the digital succumbs to man's judgment. Forecasting a marriage of both forces; maybe not equal but beneficial to all parties and more importantly, the game.
Yes, "Trouble with the Curve" is predictable; but predictability can be comforting, like turkey on Thanksgiving, that warm, stuffed highly anticipated elation, coming once a year; in an era of unpredictability, nothing is as satisfying, soothing as a prime, predictable film.