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.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Master

I Want to Believe                               
by Mark Dispenza

The Master is not, as you may have heard, a thinly-veiled history of the Church of Scientology.  It is an incredibly well-crafted and thought-provoking film about the human drive to believe that our importance as individuals is based on something larger and greater.

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius.  His major films, such as There Will Be Blood and Magnolia, come years apart and reflect the kind of attention to detail that can only be accomplished by long-term, conscientious work.  In other words Anderson goes deep.  He takes on the big questions of humanity and brings them down to the micro level of individual characters--small stories with big meaning.

In The Master, Anderson follows one lost individual's search for meaning.  Freddie, played by Joaquin Phoenix in what well may be his best role ever, is a returning veteran of World War II.  Although the film doesn't spend much time on his war experience, it's understood from the opening sequence that it had a profound effect on him.  Now he suffers from alcohol addiction, drifts aimlessly and is subject to bouts of both open and passive-aggressive anger.  He is, as Lancaster Dodd later asserts in his characteristically direct style, "a scoundrel."

Joaquin Phoenix

That makes him the challenge that Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has been waiting for.  Dodd believes that he has found the answers to all of life's questions, and it all boils down to an age-old battle between cosmic players who currently occupy the bodies of the human race.  He calls his philosophy, or religious cult as it may be, the Cause.  By the time he comes across Freddie, he has already amassed a considerable following from people who address him as "the Master."  If Dodd can turn around Freddie's life, it will prove, once and for all, the validity of his concepts.  In return Dodd expects Freddie's complete loyalty and devotion.

At first Freddie goes along because Dodd is providing for his physical needs.  Being unemployed and without prospect, that's important for his survival.  Over time he begins to drink the Kool-Aid and gives Dodd the devotion he demands, even to the point of physically assaulting Dodd's enemies.  As he comes into contact with other individuals, including those who belong to Dodd's entourage, he begins to question the validity of the Cause.  He starts to see Dodd, not as a savior, but as a fallible human being who seems to be "making it up as he goes along."  Freddie pulls away from his mentor and begins to seek a life on his own again.

Amy Adams is brilliant as Dodd's young wife.  In public she is his devoted spouse and deals harshly with dissenters.  In private she is not so deferential.  She understands that he is nothing but a man, weak and fallible, but she is able to create for herself a considerable amount of control--over both Dodd and the followers of the Cause.  When Dodd shows ordinary human weakness, she comes down on him and chastises him soundly, but only in private.  One must keep up appearances.

The interesting thing is that Dodd may not really have the answers to the big questions, but he does help Freddie and gives him the support he needs to get on his feet and eventually seek his own path, whether Dodd approves of it or not.

Once when I was a college student, over-confident of my intellectual acuity, I attacked someone's beliefs during the course of an otherwise friendly conversation.  I no longer recall the exact substance of our discourse, but it involved politics or religion--one of those subjects that brings out the fire and passion in people and the wise admonish us to avoid in polite conversation.

My superior debating skills prevailed, and I will never forget how emotionally distressed and helpless my opponent looked by the time I finished with him.  My smug satisfaction with intellectual victory lasted all of two seconds before my empathy prevailed.  It was obvious that I had cut the person's lifeline and left him adrift in a dangerous current.  I no longer felt intellectually superior.  I felt like a bully.  It was the last time I tried to dissuade someone from a closely-held belief by direct confrontation.

Later as I mulled the incident over in my mind, I confessed my deed to a friend.  I expressed out loud what I was thinking.  I said that I shouldn't have done it.  She asked, "then why did you do it?"  It was at that point that I realized my attack was based on my own insecurities, and not on the beliefs of another, however tenuous they may actually be.

Perhaps we are all Freddie, and it's the seeking that truly has meaning.  It doesn't really matter where we find our answers, as long as they are valid for us.