The Sessions

November 16, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
Directed by: Ben Lewin (“Paperback Romance”)
Written by: Ben Lewin (“Paperback Romance”)

Every January, the Sundance Film Festival is held in Utah where the table is set for the independent film industry to introduce some of the best projects they have to offer. Through the years, films get their big debut in Sundance and the buzz is strong enough to carry them into the next calender year. It happened to 2009’s Audience Award winner, “Precious,” which rode its wave all the way to a couple of Oscar wins.

Some films, however, make a splash in Sundance and then fizzle out. For example, 2010’s Audience Award winner, “happythankyoumoreplease,” earned mostly negative critic reviews and basically disappeared from the radar after the festival.  As 2012’s Audience Award winner, the Fox Searchlight acquired dramedy “The Sessions” vies to be the next Sundance hit to make some noise in the Academy Award race.

“The Sessions” tells the true-life story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a man who has lived with polio for many years and is forced to spend time in an iron lung so he can survive. Approaching 40, Mark decides he finally wants to lose his virginity. To accomplish this, he hires a sex surrogate named Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt) and consults his priest (William H. Macy) for spiritual advice.

After turning in fantastic performances as total creeps in consecutive years in “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Hawkes gets to show his versatility in “The Sessions” playing a weak and vulnerable character. Simply put, Hawkes is transformative. He adapts a specific voice, different mannerisms, and is totally believable and sincere as he gives a physically-restraining performance where he can only emote through facial expressions and speech. Grating Boston accent aside, Hunt’s performance is decent, albeit a little one-dimensional. The one curveball of the main cast is Macy, who always entertaining in his time on screen, but is occasionally an awkward or ill-fitting presence in certain scenes.

For a film so heavily centered on sex, “The Sessions” is decidedly tame. The film is often so lighthearted that if Helen Hunt weren’t completely nude for half of the movie, it would probably be rated much, much lower on the MPAA scale. The biggest reason the film is so mild comes from Lewin’s screenplay. The self-deprecating jokes from Mark are cutesy, there’s flowery poetry, and the majority of the other dialogue is toothless. The script isn’t particularly smart, doesn’t have many surprises and falls into place exactly how one might think it would. This is most evident in a contrived scene in the last “session” between Mark and Cheryl.

The film will no doubt be a mainstream crowd pleaser, something that is evident by its Audience Award from Sundance. What is also evident, however, is that “The Sessions” is pure Oscar bait.  It’s harmless, inoffensive and vanilla cinema that features a strong lead performance that will certainly create some Oscar buzz. By no means is “The Sessions” a bad film, but it is starving for something other than the great performance from Hawkes to truly stand out.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

November 11, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes
Directed by: Sean Durkin (debut)
Written by: Sean Durkin (debut)

Check your pulse if you don’t feel a chill winding between your vertebra during a scene in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” where Academy Award-nominated actor John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”) sits among a commune of vulnerable, lost souls and proceeds to serenade them with “Marcy’s Song,” a previously unreleased track on folk musician Jackson C. Frank’s eponymous 1965 album. It’s a hauntingly beautiful moment in the indie thriller that confirms just how absorbed one can become when looking for something tangible to believe in. The soft-spoken lyrics suggest a fine line between dreams and reality as he sings about a girl he loves who no longer exists to him anymore. As lead title character Martha, actress Elizabeth Olsen stares intently as if no one else is listening. Her fascination is palpable with every strum on his guitar. You can only wonder how many others have fallen victim to his siren song.

As a member of a highly-persuasive rural cult, Martha (AKA Marcy May) is easily captivated by their customs, but eventually makes her escape and reaches out to her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) haven’t seen Martha in years, so when they get a phone call from her asking to pick her up at a remote location, Lucy doesn’t hesitate and opens her lakefront home to her troubled sibling.

It’s not as easy, however, as giving her a bed to sleep in or food to eat. Martha has issues and her paranoia runs deep. Unlike Natalie Portman in “Black Swan,” who can’t get a handle on her psychosis, Martha’s problems stem from something more concrete. Her emotionally-damaged psyche triggers a disconnection from the real world and, in turn, forces her to relive her time in the cult through flashbacks and creepy nightmares. It’s during these unnerving instances, masterfully edited by Zachary Stuart-Pontier (“Catfish”), which gives Martha a jolt into a narrative more complex than just a typical crazy-girl nail-biter.

Directed and written by first-time feature filmmaker Sean Durkin, Martha is relentless with its unsettling tone, which is always at a feverish level. Durkin makes bold choices in the nonlinear way he decides to tell his story, but each scene is crafted with such precision, the extra work spent on experimenting with timelines seems effortless.

Then there’s Olsen, whose breakout performance is the most inspired we’ve seen since Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated turn in “Winter’s Bone” last year. It’s a stunning debut that elicits fear, anxiety, and mental anguish within one girl’s fragmented state of mind.

Winter’s Bone

July 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey
Directed by: Debra Granik (“Down to the Bone”)
Written by: Debra Granik (“Down to the Bone”) and Anne Rosellini (debut)

Situated somewhere in the wilderness of the Missouri Ozark Mountains, local girl Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) teaches her younger brother and sister how to cook deer stew and hunt for squirrel. She shows them how to live off the land, how to be thankful for the little they have, and how to survive.

In any other film, the backwoods setting and Midwestern drawl might have some directors and writers taking the easy route and relying on stereotypes to portray their characters. Filmmaker Debra Granik (“Down to the Bone”) has other plans in her film “Winter’s Bone,” winner of the 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. Instead, Granik takes this little known region and brings it to life through a steady and minimal tale of strength and determination. It’s this year’s “Frozen River.”

Fairly unknown actress Lawrence plays Ree, a young girl who spends her days tending to her siblings and mentally-frail mother. When news comes that her meth-addicted father has put their house and land up for his bond and has skipped out on court, Ree is forced to search for him before the authorities can take away the only things keeping the family together.

But even in a small community like theirs, not many people want to get involved in other people’s affairs. Doors may swing open for Ree as she questions her neighbors about her father’s whereabouts, but they close just as quickly.

Beautifully shot with the vast and bleak landscapes of the Ozarks in every frame, “Winter’s Bone” is an authentic and deeply moving experience propelled by the amazing performances of Lawrence and John Hawkes, who plays Ree’s detached uncle. It’s really Lawrence, however, who etches a name for herself in the industry with her heroic role.