Saturday, December 29, 2012


1962 - 2012

It is with deep sadness that I report the passing of Peter Sklar, founder and publisher of  Peter was a true supporter of independent and foreign film and a good friend to Indie Film Guru.  He carried our posts weekly on his community-based website.  Peter and his camera were dependable sights at every unique and important event in the community.  I fondly recall seeing him daily during each year's Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and like the many people whose lives he touched, I will miss him greatly.
- Mark Dispenza

The Deep


An Unlikely Hero Beats the Odds
by Mark Dispenza

Iceland's Best Foreign Film entry to the 85th Academy Awards is an improbable tale of survival set against a North Atlantic landscape of stark beauty.

In March of 1984, a local fishing vessel set out from Iceland's Westman Islands and never returned. Many hours after the boat sank in the near-freezing North Atlantic, a lone survivor, haggard and almost incoherent, knocked on a door in the village from which the boat had set out. He had swam the distance of several miles in six hours and then walked barefoot for two hours in freezing temperatures over cutting volcanic rock covered with ice and snow - a feat that should have been impossible for any normal human being.


The most amazing thing about Baltasar Kormakur's film is that it is a dramatization based on an actual event. Kormakur is best known to American audiences as director of Contraband, the Mark Wahlberg vehicle that released earlier this year, but he has a track record of outstanding films over the last decade in his native Iceland. His recreation of the sights and sounds on a fishing boat and the Icelandic coast are engrossing in their realism and simple beauty.

Olafur Dan Olafsson plays Gulli, the fisherman who beats the odds to survive in the harshest of conditions. Olafsson effectively conveys Gulli's will to survive primarily through facial expression and conversations with sea gulls during the survival sequences that run through the second act. The latter part of the story is devoted to Gulli's attempts to return to his normal life and escape the public attention his amazing story precipitated.

Olafur Dan Olafsson

Kormakur fittingly dedicates his film to the fishermen of Iceland. His film is a celebration of the humanity and strength of the people who populate the country's Westman Islands. These are a people who work hard to build a life in a desolate location, afflicted by both frigid weather and the terrible hell unleashed upon them from time to time by the area's active volcano.
Now that The Deep has made the cut for Oscar's Best Foreign Film shortlist, a few of the American distributors who have been hovering around it since Toronto may finally bite. I hope for this because The Deep should be seen on the big screen to gain a full appreciation of the beauty of its cinematography, especially the underwater scenes. If you don't get to see it in that format, and you have to reserve it on Netflix or Amazon, at least watch it on a big screen TV.


Saturday, December 22, 2012



Love and Death                               
by Zac Ryan

A heartbreaking and unflinching look into the lives of an elderly couple, Michael Haneke's Amour barely breaks from the confines of a Parisian home, as Anne slowly deteriorates from an illness that cannot be contained or helped. Sure, it may not sound like the type of film to bring holiday cheer, but the love that the two leads share as their lives crumble around them is an experience to be cherished.

The opening is stark and dark, like a typical Haneke film, filled with bleak undertones. When the cops arrive at a home, the stench quickly hits them. As they work their way through the rooms and open windows, they find a door that has been sealed off with tape, hiding a death.. Once inside they find the decaying body of a woman, dead for who knows how long, dressed in her Sunday best and adorned with the care usually given by a mortician for a final burial. Before there is a chance to breathe, the film cuts to the title card with little sound or emotion through the title sequence.

This is where we veer off from the typical horrors that Haneke gave us in recent films like Caché and both versions of Funny Games. We jump back to happier times. A time when Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) sit within a crowd at a concert hall. These two have chemistry together and a lifetime of memories behind their eyes and wrinkled skin.

When they return home, they see that someone has broken in. They both feel uncomfortable and frail. It isn't the break-in, but the illness that quickly follows. The next morning as Georges is talking, Anne stares off into the abyss, possibly lost in the conversation, but we soon realize that Anne had her first stroke, which eventually leaves half of her body paralyzed. Instead of wasting away in the hospital, Anne makes Georges promise her that he'll never take her back to the hospital. She would rather spend the remainder of her time in their home, filled with memories. From here, the film never leaves the home, which is massive in size, and becomes more claustrophobic as the story and Anne's decline unfolds.

Georges becomes the caretaker, caring for his wife of sixty-plus years. There are tender moments when he moves her from her wheelchair to the bed, his constant affection of movements to keep her as limber as possible, and even changing her diaper as she becomes more infantile. These moments are a new type of embrace that take an old couple from passion to compassion in their final days, weeks and months. You can feel the love, and also the frustration that Georges feels, when feeling completely worn down, he slaps his wife. Even then you feel compassionate in his action.

Haneke and cinematographer Darius Khondji keep the shots wide, allowing the art direction to showcase the life once lived by the two. The photos clue the viewer to the passion and abundance the couple once shared, and the memories won't be forgotten. Ultimately it is a showcase for two living legends of the French New Wave that doesn't glamorize or dwell in the mundane. There is no way to beat Anne's affliction and they've both succumbed to her fate. It is a beautiful portrait, although bleak and a chore to get through, and it is the easy frontrunner of the films recently announced for the best Foreign Film in this year's Oscar race.

When Hollywood turns it's back on those who are AARP-eligible, Haneke allows his performers to fully embrace the demise of life and that of a great career. Riva should easily be a nominee for the Best Actress Oscar for her complete embodiment of a role that centers around slow deterioration with minimal dialogue. The pain in her eyes, the stillness of her lifeless body and the depth of her expression tell us volumes about her character.

And there are little touches throughout, most notably a dove that flies into the open window not once, but twice in the film. To me, the bird symbolizes a life of freedom, able to fly to and fro, and possibly a bit deeper meaning. Doves can represent love and peace, and maybe that is why, in an act of defiance, Georges covers it with his coat, only to free it once again. Then again, maybe I'm looking too deeply into it. But does Haneke ever include something without meaning in his films?

Amour has been justifiably honored by many critics and awards in the festival circuit, including the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Best Foreign Film from the Boston Film Critics, Best Film at the European Film Awards, Best Film from the LA Film Critics Association and countless other awards and nominations.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Save the Date

At Opposites Ends of the Altar           
by Zac Ryan

Two sisters, one planning her big day and the other questioning her decision to move in with her long-term rocker boyfriend, bring little in the way of new aspects to the rom-com genre, but the likable leads and rocking soundtrack make Save the Date worth the view.

When we first meet Sarah (Lizzy Caplan), she's reluctantly packing up boxes to move in with her boyfriend, Kevin, who she's been in a relationship with for two-plus years.  The reluctance isn't because she's a commitment-phobe, but because she questions making the final leap.  She even packs the dishes, still caked with leftovers of previous meals, into the box, knowing that she can eventually come to terms with the big decision.  At the same time, she is the helping hand, offering a little bit of advice and an alternate voice for her sister Beth's nuptials.  Beth is played by the multi-talented Alison Brie.

Geoffrey Arend and Lizzy Caplan

Even though she is reluctantly moving in and moving on to the next big step in adulthood, Sarah isn't necessarily ready to settle down.  All of her insecurities and questions about her future are thrown into a tailspin when Kevin (Geoffrey Arend) proposes to her at the end of the sold-out hometown show of his band, Wolfbird.  Even though Kevin has been forewarned not to, he proposes to Sarah in the middle of the crowd and is left with egg on his face, as a bevy of camera phones captures the embarrassing moment for the whole world to see.  Now he must venture out on tour with his bandmate, who happens to be Beth's fiance, Andrew (Martin Starr).

But Sarah is the type of catch who doesn't stay single long.  She finds herself the fancy of another suitor named Jonathan (Mark Webber), who constantly flirts with Sarah as he picks up books for his thesis in marine biology.  The two hit it off, and Sarah is quick to warn him of her inability to settle into something for too long.  But the hormones of two attractive and successful people are hard to hold off.  The whirlwind rebound for Sarah grows quickly, while Beth hopes it will only lead her sister back into Kevin's arms.

Mark Webber and Lizzy Caplan

Save the Date isn't ground-breaking in story or structure, but the leads, along with the amazing supporting cast, makes it a step above the typical Hollywood romantic comedy.  These couples cover the mundane, but somehow they make it worthwhile and leave you wondering what will actually lead Sarah to settle down and truly find herself.  Caplan, who has been a standout in previous ensemble pieces, like Party Down and Bachelorette, is superb as the lead.  She is able to carry and shift seamlessly between the comedic and the dramatic.

The film is muddled by Michael Mohanl's direction, with constant shots of feet (ala Quentin Tarantino), but he allows the viewer a chance to sit back and listen to the conversations that will jump from dramatic to quick-witted.  The soundtrack is helped by a catchy indie-rock mix, instead of the plague of pop-centric montages typically found in mainstream films.

Currently the film is available in limited release or from IFC VOD.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Go Indie for the Holidays

Holiday Gift Guide                       
by Mark Dispenza

This is the time of year when you may wonder what kind of holiday gift will light up the eyes of the indie film lover in your life.  The fact is it's not as big a challenge as you may think.  There are an endless variety of gift possibilities to fit every budget and taste.  The following are a few of our top picks.


There are now film festivals in almost every community and country in the world, and it's a sure bet there's one within 50 miles of where you are right now.  You usually do not have to pre-select the films, which leaves selection to the discretion and personal taste of the recipient.  You can buy film packs of as few as 4-6 films for little more than $50 or buy an all-access pass for prices ranging from several hundred to thousands of dollars.  Festival Focus has a database of film festivals that is searchable by title, keyword and country.


The Criterion Collection is an online store that offers high-quality, technically engineered DVD and Blu-ray editions of art house films that span the entire history of cinema, including special masters collections of great filmmakers, such as Akira Kurosawa and Louis Malle.  The site also offers film memorabilia and gift certificates, in case you're not sure what the recipient wants or has already collected.  Kino Lorber and Film Movement also offer great collections of foreign and independent film gift box sets.


Video on Demand is the fastest growing method of indie film delivery in the current market.  The cinephile can download a selected film and watch it instantly on a desktop, tablet or television screen.  Several major services offer gift subscriptions, including Fandor, Hulu, IndiePixVOD, and of course, Netflix.


If you're not sure if your particular cinephile will prefer to use a VOD service or order DVDs for home delivery, there is the option of gift card purchases that can be used to buy DVDs and Blu-rays or download films directly.  Gift certificates may offer more versatility and can be used for things like books and music, as well. and iTunes are two of the most popular sites offering gift certificates and gift cards.


For the cinephile who prefers to see movies on the big screen for the pure cinematic experience, most theaters offer gift cards that can be redeemed for movie tickets or concessions.  They range from large chains like Ciinemark to smaller, more local venues like Metropolitan Theatres in California and the Prytania and Canal Place in New Orleans.

Happy Holidays
Indie Film Guru 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Holy Motors

A Cinematic Thrill-Ride                     
by Zac Ryan

A visually stunning love letter to cinema, Holy Motors may be light on plot, but it delves deep into multiple genres and may have one of the greatest performances of the early twenty-first century.

I recommend that you go into Holy Motors without much knowledge of the story, the characters or the visual candy in store for you.  Coming off of its successful screening in Cannes earlier this year, I was told to avoid anything in the press and any trailers if I wanted to have the ultimate experience.  Before sitting in the darkened multiplex to witness Leos Carax's latest film, I had seen the trailer only once, but little can actually be gleaned from it.  So I leave you here dear reader, if you want to have one of the best film experiences in several years, and admonish you to turn away from the rest of the review and let the mind wander when you actually see the film.

In the opening images of Holy Motors, the director Leos Carax wakes in a room wallpapered to look like a forest and is freed by inserting a key into the wall that is part of his finger.  From there, he looks over a group of theater-goers, watching a flick on the big screen.  Then suddenly, a dog is wandering down the aisles.  Maybe this old dog represents Carax and his old ways of cinema compared to the splashy special effects-laden films currently being churned out by the studios.  Maybe there is another meaning, or maybe the director wants you to dig deeper into the film with multiple viewings to fully grasp his messages.

From the cinema we meet Monsieur Oscar, played by long-time Carax collaborator Denis Lavant, as he leaves his palatial estate and jumps into the back of the waiting stretched limo.  What emerges from the limo after its jaunt across Paris, but a hunchbacked woman, who heads onto the town to beg for change.  This is one of the many characters or "appointments" he will have over the course of a single day.

In between each appointment, Oscar sits in the back of the limo, which has been set up as a makeshift changing room.  He transforms easily into each character with a mixture of prosthetics, wigs and acting chops. Neither Oscar, nor Carax, ever explains what the mission is or why he's set upon these "appointments."  Viewers are left to make up their own minds, as Lavant plays eleven different characters over the course of the day.  Not only is he the beggar, but also an emotionally abusive father, a performer in a motion capture session, and a sewer dwelling, flower-eating madman who kidnaps a fashion model (Eva Mendes).  The latter character was previously featured in Carax's segment "Merde" in Tokyo!

With each new vignettes, Carax mixes between genres.  One minute the audience may be laughing at the antics, while in the next segment the film shifts gears and hits a serious moment, all before breaking out in a song as an interlude.  And Lavant flawlessly embodies every character.  It is the type of role actors dream of, but as films often rely heavily on the use of actors against green-screened backdrops, an actor is hardly given the chance to explore multiple facets within the same movie.  Just like Cloud Atlas, Motors wants the viewer to dig in deeper to find the meanings between the connective tissues.  It may not be easy in the first viewing, but as you pull back the layers, you may just be able to see what Carax wanted to share with all of us.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Channeling the Master
by Mark Dispenza

In death, as in life, Alfred Hitchcock remains the master of mystery and suspense. Don't go into Hitchcock expecting that the curtain will be pulled back to reveal the master once and for all. You'll be either disappointed or misled.

Filmmaker Sacha Gervasi's interpretation of Stephen Rebello's acclaimed Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of "Psycho" takes considerable liberty and won't bring you closer to understanding what made Hitchcock tick, but it will give you a delightful opportunity to watch a great actor in a stunning portrayal that effectively captures the great director's sly sense of mischief and single-minded pursuit of perfection in every frame of film.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm far from an authority on Hitchcock's life and methods. I wasn't even one year old when Psycho made millions terrified to step into the shower. My age was early in the single digits when I sat in front of the television and watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents with my parents. The power of the man's personality was such that today I cannot recall much at all of the stories on the program, but I remember in some detail Hitchcock's weekly introductory monologues and how much the man intrigued and amused me.

In classic films such as North by Northwest, Rear Window and Vertigo, Hitchcock kept movie audiences in the palm of his hand, manipulating their perceptions with clever camera angles, lighting and cinematic sleight-of-hand. Gervasi's film gives little insight into Hitchcock's masterful technique and creative process, which was revealed in much greater detail in Rebello's source material.

He chose instead to give us a more conventional love story that brings forth the woman in the shadows - Alma Reville, Hitchcock's wife and a woman of considerable creative talent in her own regard. She is played here by Helen Mirren, a terrific casting choice, especially considering that she is teamed with Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock.

Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren

Hopkins so fully immerses himself in the role that many in the audience at the advance screening I attended had to wait for the credits to see who played Hitchcock. The actor effectively captures every nuance of the great director's character. He transported me back to those early days, allowing me to relive the wonder and joy Hitchcock gave me as a television viewer and movie-goer. Watching Hopkins channel Hitchcock and interact so beautifully with Mirren gave me one of the best times I've had at the movies all year. There is Oscar buzz all over this performance.

This is Gervasi's first time out as a feature film director, and despite the liberties he takes with Hitchcock's story, causing some in the film community to cry foul, he has managed to fully convey the sense of wonder that so captivated Hitchcock's audiences. That focus on character is a strength that was evident in Anvil, Gervasi's acclaimed documentary about the Canadian no-hit rock band that redefines the concept of persistence.

Scarlett Johannson

Gervasi cleans up Hitchcock a bit by making light of his alleged sexual obsession with his leading ladies. Hitchcock even manages to have a professional relationship with his shower victim, actress Janet Leigh, played here by the always watchable Scarlett Johannsson.

But then again, this is not a movie about Hitchcock the master of suspense,or Hitchcock the man. This is a movie about Hitchcock the entertainer, complete with all of the illusions he conjured to surprise and delight us.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Compatible Dysfunction
by Mark Dispenza

"Meeting cute" has been a staple of romantic comedies for decades...until now. Meet Pat (Bradley Cooper), a bipolar train wreck who was just released prematurely on his mother's recognizance after eight months in an institution, and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who deals with severe depression following the untimely death of her husband by sleeping with everyone she comes into contact with. Surely this is a match made in hell...except that it isn't.

They meet for the first time at a dinner given for them by Tiffany's sister (Julia Stiles), who is involved in a clandestine plot to set the two up and make Pat forget about his ex-wife, with whom he is obsessed. He had been arrested and institutionalized when he discovered his co-worker in the shower with her, and then beat the hapless man to within an inch of his life. His ex now has a restraining order against him, a fact to which he pays too little heed.

Pat and Tiffany's first conversation of mutual interest is about the meds they've been prescribed and how they reacted to the side effects. From then on things get rocky. As Pat becomes ever more obsessed with reuniting with his ex,Tiffany hatches a plan to get his attention by volunteering to carry a letter to her. In return Pat must become her partner in an unlikely attempt to win an upcoming ballroom dance competition. Just when you think this whole plot can't get any crazier, it does.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper

Cooper has proved his worth as a leading man and as a comic actor in films such as The Hangover, but in Silver Linings Playbook, he achieves a depth of character that shows once and for all that he's not just another pretty face. Lawrence (Winter's Bone, The Hunger Games) never fails to astound with her intensity and range, and this film is a case in point. She plays above her age as an older and slightly more mature, if not outright crazy, character and she nails it.

Robert De Niro returns to comedy in top form as Pat's father, who is just as insanely obsessed, but with the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Jacki Weaver continues to add to her resume of recent successes as Pat's mother, who is tirelessly dedicated to restoring order to her home by low-key attempts to tame the restless spirits of the two men she loves.


Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro

David O. Russell, in his follow-up to The Fighter, scores again with another great story about ordinary people who achieve happiness and their own brand of success against the odds. It is filled with quirky characters who look a lot like the people we know, and who can be just as annoying and just as endearing. The script was adapted by Russell from the novel by Matthew Quick.

Not since Moonstruck, my all-time favorite of the genre, have I experienced a romantic comedy that's so much fun, yet so implausibly real at the same time. I highly recommend this film. It may be the most entertaining movie you will see this year.



Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Royal Affair

A Scandalous Affair                             
by Zac Ryan

With a heavy dose of costume drama, A Royal Affair could easily be about today's political climate here in the United States.

When we first meet Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander - soon to be seen in this season's Anna Karenina) she is being whisked away from her home to become the new wife and eventual Queen to her distant cousin in Denmark, Christian VII.  He isn't the most noble of men, but instead, hides behind a bush and is more enthralled with being reunited with his dog than his new bride.  He's a bit of a man-child, a a typical type found in American comedies, but the country and the counsel believes he is a bit insane. The King would rather spend his time bedding countless prostitutes than tending to the issues plaguing eighteenth century Denmark or his bride.

After the King tends to his one duty to the country, having a son, he is off to travel, where he meets the German doctor, Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen).  He quickly becomes the King's closest confidant and personal caretaker, allowing him to slip easily into royal society.  Johann gives Christian the strength to fight against counsel who sees the peasants as second-class citizens, bringing the ideas of the Enlightenment to a country that is still stuck within the Dark Ages.  Struensee notices the King's love for Shakespeare and teaches the King to act in front of his counsel, making sure he knows he is the King and all authority lies in his own decisions.

With the power now back within the monarchy, Christian disbands the counsel and seeks to bring equality among the citizens of the country.  Laws are brought forth to clean up the smell that lingers within the country, to stop the savagery of capital punishment, and bring the country into the new ways of the World.  It is one man, along with his new trusted adviser, against the conservative mindset that has plagued Denmark from moving forward.

But while the King is busy bringing forth change, a relationship brews between Johann and Caroline.  It isn't about the lust between the two, but they see beyond the good looks, and connect on a deeper level based on their love for Voltaire and Rousseau.  What starts out of a connection on an intellectual level becomes one of passion.  Caroline is left in the shadows of the King, one she never felt a connection to on any level, to a connection of mind and body.  And when she finds out she is pregnant, Johann pushes Caroline to sleep with the King once again, considering that they haven't shared a bed in almost a year.  But rumors begin to peculate between the ousted counsel and the citizens of the land, who must try to find a way to overthrow Johann using Charles as his puppet, and get the country back to its roots.

A Royal Affair is superbly directed by Nikolaj Arcel, who co-wrote the script with his long-time partner Rasmus Heisterberg (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).  With a run time of over two hours, the film never slows and the drama constantly builds.  While the history is widely known in Denmark, it may be new to many on this side of the pond.  As we sit a country divided among conservatives and liberals, the period drama gives notice that change can be a good thing, not just for the country, but also for the most common of its people.

While Mikkelsen (best known as the villain in Casino Royale) and Vikander are fabulous in their roles, it is Følsgaard who shines on screen.  He perfectly captures the King as man who feels inadequate in his superior position, and easily jumps between bits of power, mainly through his bits of acting in front of the counsel, to his bits of laughter and slight maniacal demeanor.

The film has already won kudos at this year's Berlin Film Festival for Følsgaard's portrayal of the King, the writing by Arcel and Heisterberg, the Audience Award at the AFI Film Festival, and was recently chosen as the Danish entry into the Foreign Oscar category.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

New on DVD

Now is the Time to Catch Up              
by Mark Dispenza

Halloween is over and if you're a resident of New Orleans like me, you need a break from the week-long party of adult insanity the former family event has become.  The indie film festival season is underway.  Toronto is over, AFI-Fest is in progress and Sundance is on the horizon.  For Hollywood this is the calm before the storm of Thanksgiving weekend holiday season openers.  What is one to do?  Curl up and watch a good movie from the comfort of your home. Fortunately the last month has seen a plethora of top indie film releases.  

The heavyweight of this year's indie films, Moonrise Kingdom is a humorous, quirky and touching story from writer-director Wes Anderson.  A young orphan escapes from a scout-like summer camp to elope with a misfit young girl just as a powerful storm bears down on their sparsely populated island.  A frantic search party forms comprised of a terrific cast of characters, including Frances McDormand and Bill Murray as the girl's parents, Edward Norton as the distraught scout master, Bruce Willis as the lonely local sheriff and Tilda Swinton as "Social Services."  This is as close to a guaranteed good time for all as you can get.

Ruby Sparks
In a wonderful follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine, the writer-director duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris deliver yet again.  A writer manifests his idea of the perfect woman into reality and learns that you should be careful what you ask for.  What starts out as light and entertaining comedy has a much more powerful message to impart by the end.  You'll never look at your significant other the same way again. 

Take This Waltz
Writer-director Sarah Polley gives us a smart and sensitive portrayal of a marriage during that risky time when husbands and wives fall into familiar patterns and take the wants and needs of the other for granted. As in many marriages the real cause of this one's demise is rooted in failures of communication and listening.   Michelle Williams nails it in the lead role, assisted in no small part by Polley's remarkably insightful script.  

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
The apocalypse is an event best shared with someone special in this dramedy from writer Lorene Scafaria, who steps behind the camera for the first time to deliver a comic tale that evolves into much more dramatic and philosophical territory by the end.  It's a fun twist on the doomsday scenario that makes up in heart what it lacks in Hollywood-style special effects. With this US national election underway and the economy barely puttering along, you'll realize you could have bigger problems.  

Safety Not Guaranteed
Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza create great romantic comedy chemstry in this unique twist on the mad scientist tale.  Based on an actual newspaper ad, Derek Connally's script goes a step further and imagines a fanciful scenario that brings two quirky and independent loners together on a remarkable adventure.  Unfortunately the film does not realize its full potential due to uninspired directing.  

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Sessions

Lessons in Love
by Mark Dispenza

Writer-director Ben Lewin has strayed from his roots in network televison (Ally McBeal, Touched by an Angel) to bring audiences a life-affirming story on the subject of sex that mines the depths of purist love.

Originally titled The Surrogate when it debuted to appreciative audiences at Sundance earlier this year, The Sessions is based on an autobiographical article by writer-poet Mark O'Brien about his experience using the services of a sexual surrogate to have sex for the first time. This is a challenge because Mark contracted polio at an early age and has spent his entire adult life dependent on an iron lung for survival. He can only remain outside the device safely for up to three hours. Although Mark can feel sensation all over his body, he is paralyzed from the neck down.

John Hawkes
Mark is played by John Hawkes with all the authenticity we have come to expect from this Oscar-nominated actor. After he finds himself turned on by a young, sexy caregiver, he decides that it's time to overcome that limitation to a normal, fulfilled life. While on assignment to write an article about how persons with disability experience sex, he learns about a sexual surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who works with the disabled. Mark decides to take the plunge.

Cheryl informs Mark that her approach is clinical, and to mitigate against too much emotional attachment from her clients, they will be limited to six sessions, hence the title of the film. What Cheryl doesn't see coming is that she is the only one she should be concerned about.

Mark is the type of protagonist who doesn't change much during the course of the story. He changes the people who come into contact with him. Their defenses are down because they see a vulnerable person deserving of their sympathy. They don't expect any real bond to form with this helpless man. In their minds they see themselves as doing a good deed and making the miserable deprivations of this man's life a little easier to bear. But then they find themselves drawn in by Mark's sincerity and emotionally generous nature. At that point it's all over. They are unexpectedly and permanently attached to him.

Helen Hunt
Hunt is in her best form as she portrays a woman who sees herself performing a valuable service, but in a compartmentalized way that keeps her emotions in check. She allows us to see and experience the erosion of those emotional defenses as her sessions with Mark progress.

Mark is a devout Catholic who seeks guidance and counseling from his parish priest for his life decisions and even sexual adventurism, the latter of which puts Father Brendan, played by William H. Macy, in the awkward position of advising Mark in his pursuit of premarital sex. Macy is responsible for many of the film's lighter moments and biggest laughs as he works through Mark's life challenges. Like everyone else who gets close to Mark, Father Brendan himself will be changed by the experience.

William H. Macy and John Hawkes
If you find yourself doubting the human capacity for love in these perilous times of political contention and economic uncertainty, get to your local theater as soon as possible to see this wonderful film, and replenish your capacity for faith in humanity.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

On The Island of Misfit Toys                  
by Mark Dispenza

Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky from his own novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower effectively captures the wonder of the high school years, yet doesn't shy away from the hard truths. Instead of taking the usual route of playing it for laughs, Chbosky expresses both the exhilarating highs of teenage discovery and the devastating lows that come from encounters with the less savory aspects of the adult world.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is an intelligent kid who prefers to avoid trouble by remaining quiet and in the background, hoping no one will notice him.  His solitude hides a multitude of deep-seated emotional problems.  He recently suffered the suicide of his best friend, who didn't even bother to leave a note, and he has a terrible secret that is hidden even from his parents and siblings.

Ezra Miller and Emma Watson

As he begins high school, Charlie is lonely and miserable until he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) and becomes the protege of their unusual group of  high school seniors.  That's when his life gets a great deal more interesting.

During the high school years, most teens try to make sense of the frightening adult world by banding together into stereotypical groups.  This gives them a sense of belonging and a code of behavior they can follow and force onto those who might deviate and cause friction within the group.  Charlie's new friends are the deviants.  They bond over their very differences and refusal to conform.  He is brought into this world by Patrick, who is gay and an under-achiever.

But it's Sam who really gets under his skin.  Despite the difference in their ages, Charlie falls hard for Sam and wants to be with her all the time.  However, Sam is much more interested in pursuing relationships with boys who treat her badly and give her "the love she thinks she deserves."  Sam feels a connection to Charlie and loves him in her own way, even though she will not allow him to get too close.  There is a dark secret that they share, but it won't be fully revealed until the climax.

Watson is charismatic as Sam, and she succeeds in creating a powerful empathetic bond with the audience. She is attractive, strong and vulnerable at the same time - a believable complexity.  This is a breakout role for her and will catapult her from her iconic image as Hermione in the Harry Potter film series into much more adult roles.

Logan Lerman and Mae Whitman

Less comedic in tone, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the smartest coming-of-age film about the teen years since Submarine.  Chbosky is a writer-director who has a talent for telling stories about the daily struggles of ordinary young people in extraordinary circumstances.  His talents were clearly in evidence as writer of the film version of Rent and as co-creator of the television series, Jericho.  I anticipate that his best work is yet to come.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

A Nutty Thrill Ride                               
by Zac Ryan

If you take a heaping dose of Quentin Tarantino and blend it with the brilliance of Charlie Kaufman, you will barely scratch the surface of Martin McDonagh's sophomore effort, Seven Psychopaths, a meta-filled buddy comedy that mixes equal parts action and dark comedy.

Just like his previous film, the slightly superior In Bruges, Colin Farrell is back as the main character. This time around he's an Irish transplant smack-dab in the middle of LA. He previously had a little success, but now he has one hell of a writer's block. I, too, if I delivered a powerful film like In Bruges in my first effort out, would be afraid of how I'd be able to top it on a creative and critical level. And Farrell's Marty must be a small part of McDonagh considering he's even been named Marty in the movie.

If this sounds like a familiar setup, you may be right. Kaufman previously tackled the matter of creative block with such high marks in Adaptation, that it seems McDonagh may have borrowed a page from his playbook... but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. While Adaptation was filled with winks and nudges about Kaufman (along with his fictitious brother, Donald), Psychopaths doesn't fill itself with real insiders and past experiences to fully say "this was my struggle."

In the movie, Marty confides in his pal, Billy (played brilliantly by Sam Rockwell), that he hasn't been able to get any further than the title Seven Psychopaths, and a small character bio for the first of the seven psychopaths, but nothing more. Both agree, along with all the Hollywood big wigs, that it is a killer title. But that is all it is.

Sam pressures Marty into letting him help out with the story, and maybe they can share a little screen credit in the end. See, Billy has a bit of crazy side himself, including a small side business where he kidnaps dogs from the local park and returns them for the reward money. And people in LA must love their dogs because I don't see how else he survives in this overpriced metro, especially when splitting the reward money with Hans (Christopher Walken).

On his latest expedition to the park, Billy steals a Shih Tzu, not realizing the can of worms that he just opened. The owner of the dog is a bad-ass that you wouldn't want to cross. Charlie (Woody Harrelson) is unhinged and another one of the aforementioned seven psychopaths. He'll kill anyone that gets in the way of reuniting with the one he loves, as long as his gun doesn't jam up. You would think a skilled madman would spend a little extra on the artillery, but maybe all his extra cash is spent keeping his dog in gourmet meat. We'll never know.

While the script plays a bit episodic as each of the psychopaths are introduced into the story, the plot takes a back story to the dog-napping, which is a good thing, as films solely about the industry are typically dull and boring for those outside of the thirty-mile zone. If I can make one little complaint, it's that the film could have used one or two fewer "psychos," allowing the story to fully embrace and flesh out the characters a little more. Martin was able to handle the two-hander perfectly while writing In Bruges, but the extra psychos feel stretched a little too thin in the end.

The snappy dialogue and frantic pace reminds me of early Tarantino, where the characters would have some of the most asinine conversations while dealing with life and death situations, and Martin, being a playwright, perfectly handles the back and forth between all parties involved. As each of the psychos gets closer to our main characters, the tension builds into a climactic and somewhat forced third act resolution. When the blood has been shed, only then can Marty find his story. Hopefully McDonagh will continue telling stories on the big screen.