Tuesday, November 13, 2012


One of the purest pleasures to be had watching movies is when your preconceived notions and prejudices get upturned unexpectedly. For years I’ve avoided Helen Hunt, having been well put-off by the smugness that’s crept into her work ever since she won the Oscar for As Good As It Gets. That was the first strike I held against The Sessions. The other was that over the course of recent years I’ve tried my best to avoid the sort of maudlin, Sundance-style helping of misty-eyed humanity, of which The Sessions seemed to be a high-profile specimen. (The genre is as much garlic to this vampire as the words “coming of age.”) But, surprise, surprise, writer-director Ben Lewin (The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish) has fashioned a movie, suggested by the late poet Mark O'Brien's article detailing his encounter with a sex surrogate, which is humane in the best sense, never denying the essential humor of its protagonist, never tipping over into bathos.


O’Brien, the subject of Jessica Wu’s Academy Award-winning documentary Breathing Lessons, was six years old when his body was overtaken by polio, and he was 36 when his desire for intimate human contact led him to pursue the counsel and services of a professional surrogate. The story Lewin’s movie tells is full of potential ways in which the storytelling might go wrong, almost all of which are avoided thanks to the graceful restraint of its actors. (The movie features, as Dana Stevens correctly observed in Slate, the year's best sex scenes.)  As Cheryl, the surrogate who commits to six sessions with Mark in which they will explore the facets of physical intimacy he has never experienced before, Hunt uses her tensile physical appearance to play off both her ease with her body (she’s fully naked throughout), the detachment she has to call up to do her job, and the ambivalence she begins to feel when she unexpectedly responds to O’Brien’s escalating infatuation with her. Hunt’s copious nudity does invite the question as to why, during a crucial scene, the filmmakers play coy with the opportunity to balance the scales, when Cheryl holds up a mirror to Hawkes so that he might see his own body for the first time in 30 years. The reflection is framed and angled so that the audience is denied the same sight that is so important to O’Brien, and it feels like a breach of faith, a crucial misstep. It’s all the more curious when you read what O’Brien himself wrote about the moment: 

“After she got off the mattress, she took a large mirror out of her tote bag. It was about two feet long and framed in wood. Holding it so that I could see myself, Cheryl asked what I thought of the man in the mirror. I said that I was surprised I looked so normal, that I wasn’t the horribly twisted and cadaverous figure I had always imagined myself to be. I hadn’t seen my genitals since I was six years old. That was when polio struck me, shriveling me below my diaphragm in such a way that my view of my lower body had been blocked by my chest. Since then, that part of me had seemed unreal."

But despite this lapse, the movie isn’t shy elsewhere, and it’s John Hawkes as O’Brien who seems to dictate the playful grace and strength at the heart of The Sessions. He’s our tour guide through the naked honesty which O’Brien exemplified about himself. Hawkes never invites our pity or overplays the bitterness that underlies O’Brien’s humor, yet he draws us in primarily through his eyes and invites us to understand the frustrations, the need, the patience and the fears that lay with Mark every moment, whether inside his iron lung or outside it, constantly sucking on an air tube to survive. Together Hawkes and Hunt do a particularly delicate, but never precious dance, and the movie never scores points off of her for being “emotionally paralyzed” the way a lesser movie might, just as we’re not invited to cry for Mark as some sort of saint in a useless, polio-afflicted shell. Yet the tears the movie inspires are well and honorably earned, a tribute to a life most difficult yet lived with energy and resourcefulness and spirit, all of which is reflected back through this movie in the most unassuming, bracingly unsentimental and refreshingly honest manner possible, which O’Brien himself might have well appreciated.


Flight is anchored (in good ways and bad) by Denzel Washington’s acting too. It’s not exactly a fearless performance in the way Hawkes’s is (or certainly Hunt's), but Washington fascinates throughout and his movie-star gaze, gravity and good looks hold you through some patchy storytelling. The movie is remarkable in that it never invites you to give Washington’s character, an alcoholic pilot who lands a crippled passenger jet through sheer skill despite the fact that he was drunk, high and exhausted from a three-day bender while flying, any undue breaks because of his skill. But the movie also never regains the highs it achieves during that white-knuckle disaster, and for all intents and purposes it’s a pretty square chunk of work. Director Robert Zemeckis, clearly a master technician, never finds a way to ignite the fear and disillusionment the story of this broken man clearly revolves around. He underlines almost every scene with thudding literal-minded classic rock that reflects his points with embarrassing bluntness, a holdover move from the ghastly offenses committed in this arena in Forrest Gump. We get Joe Cocker "Feelin' Alright" when Denzel snorts up before his flight, and "Sympathy for the Devil" to introduce John Goodman's Dr. Feelgood character, etc., etc., ad infinitum, yet somehow George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” is avoided. (I’d complain of missing the days of raucous Zemeckis comedies like I Wanna Hold Your Hand/1941/Used Cars mold, but what’s the point? Zemeckis seems far too complacent to ever access that hunger and boldness now— his late movies are those of a fat, sassy, complacent cat.)

Flight is never less than watchable, even when it’s slack and perfunctory-- the subplot involving Washington’s tentative romantic relationship with an attractive junkie going through AA leads nowhere; and a crucial backslide the character experiences near the end of the film is a huge howler in terms of believability—Washington trashes a hotel room just hours before a hearing before the NTSB, and yet the agent assigned to guard his room in order to prevent just such an event never hears any of the terrific noise that would have accompanied such a blowout. The actors can’t be blamed for the movie’s missteps: Bruce Greenwood as the pilot’s union rep and Don Cheadle as Washington’s lawyer are both magnificent, treading moral lines as blurred as the one Washington walks, but they’re never turned into cartoon villains, and even though his role is a silly conceit John Goodman gives the movie a shot of adrenalin to match the cocaine buzz he’s there to deliver to Washington’s addled pilot. And of course Washington is magnetic. The problem is, as engrossing as it is, Flight never strays from the plan, and it never takes the viewer anywhere that isn’t telegraphed a mile away. The movie encourages us to be impressed by how bad Washington’s character is (and by extension how bad Washington is), but it never seriously undermines the foregone conclusion of his redemption. 


I nearly walked out of Cloud Atlas after 10 minutes, so impatient was I with its fractured sense of time and place, so sure was I that I’d never get my bearings. But this strange, impassioned, epic seduced me with sinuous weaving of its multiple story lines, interconnected as they are in sometimes obvious, sometimes offhand ways, and populated by actors playing multiple characters that cross boundaries of race, gender and some truly mind-bogglingly bad make-up. There are lots of conventions, like those strange make-up jobs, which I could have either accepted in deference to the emotional pull the movie exerts, or I might also have allowed them to throw me out of the movie. But the literally splintered vision of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's adaptation of David Mitchell’s popular 2004 novel held me, never bored, alive to its possibilities for the length of its three-hour running time. I’m not 100% convinced that the writer-directors have found a way to crack the code of how to tell such a complicated mélange of narrative threads that make up the book-- one friend likened it to a relentless session of channel surfing-- but it's a thrilling attempt nonetheless, and I'm grateful for the blissful result of the effort. 

It’s not accurate to describe the movie’s editing rhythms as metronomic, but Cloud Atlas is fascinating in the way it manages to build tension and narrative drive from snippets of stories told simultaneously that, taken as a vaguely theological/political argument about the interconnectedness of the universe, I’m not sure I’d buy in another format. And it turns out I'm a lot more forgiving of a movie whose real pulse I can feel, a movie that is actually shooting for a target it may not even have the means to achieve. One thing is for sure--it’s a movie that isn’t afraid to appear foolish in reaching for ways to effectively translate the interlocking poetry of six stories about personal revolution and transformation, about the ways that our lives are not our own, the vast connections over time and space that we unknowingly forge. Once I surrendered to the movie’s odd rhythms, and gave up on trying to play spot the actor—Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Doona Mae and Hugo Weaving all appear in the guises of various races and genders through the movie’s multi-century time span—Cloud Atlas cast a completely unexpected spell over me, and I’ve barely been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it. It misses the target more than once, but this one-of-a-kind movie never once made me regret its ambition, the sort that many often pine for from Hollywood yet are put off by when a dribble of it finally comes down the pipe. I’m with Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who wrote:

“I can understand why some people will back away from Cloud Atlas because it seems overloaded and pretentious and sentimental and infused with a spiritual vision that resembles the wise sayings found on the walls of organic-food cooperatives. It is all those things, but so (even more so) is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, and I’m way more likely to want to watch this one again. It’s funny, violent and prodigiously romantic; it has immense heart and more gorgeous cinematic moments than I can describe.”

In Speed Racer (uh-oh, here he goes again) the Wachowskis experimented with telling simultaneous story strands, often within the same frame, all of which now seems like ample training for the sort of tonal, narrative juggling that goes on here. The movies are quite dissimilar in overall approach and effect, two distinct pieces of evidence that the Wachowskis may be our most outré, formally challenging mainstream filmmakers. (Though in the world of Hollywood, where you’re only as good as your last flop, one has to wonder how much more slack major studios will be willing to cut these two—it’s been a long time since The Matrix.) Cloud Atlas may not be another Speed Racer, but it’s a moving, silly, baffling, beautiful, unique beast all the same. I can’t wait to see it again.


The biggest surprise of the weekend, however, was Skyfall, which despite all the advanced praise turned out to be a dud almost as profound as Quantum of Solace and quite a few notches below Craig’s initial triumph in Casino Royale. It’s not visually incoherent like the previous Bond film, but it’s flat and unimaginative and almost totally lacking in wit or surprises of the good kind. This marks the third Daniel Craig Bond film propelled or at least informed by the specter of personal tragedy and/or vengeance, and it’s high time the franchise stopped ringing this particular dinner bell. The wheezy, shopworn, illogical script is full of cues about Bond’s tired methods-- would that it was as winkingly critical about its own jokey attitude toward the franchise’s creeping status as a cultural dinosaur— but it’s aiming for emotional rewards here that seem imposed on the material rather than earned by it. Considerations of Bond’s age and anachronistic status in an age where field-work espionage has been reduced to savvy computer manipulations are all well and good, but the way in which they’ve been dramatized here seem hoary and lazy, further symptoms of the replacement of meaningful movie action with people staring fearfully or with awe at banks of computer monitors.

Worst of all, this is the Craig movie that feels least like a Bond movie—the swatches of the Bond theme on the soundtrack feel like sops to an audience the movie doesn’t believe in anymore. It’s pretty shocking, and not in a delightful way, that we’re cued to feel more anger about a replica of that famous Aston Martin being riddled with bullets and exploded than we do the death of a major character. And that’s to say nothing of the minor characters—Javier Bardem’s gay villain is amusing as far as he goes, but that’s before the movie turns him into a rote stalker, and eventually a mewling mama’s boy, for its reductive, disappointing Straw Dogs redux finale. And Skyfall hits a real low point of the entire Bond series in the Bond girl department—Naomie Harris is given little to do beyond the movie’s inexplicable stunt opener, and where her character ends up has to be as big of a letdown for her as it is for us. But Harris draws aces compared to the lovely Berenice Marlohe, a beauty in the Claudia Cardinale mold, whose presence in the movie is not only inconsequential but ultimately humiliating—her death (it’s no spoiler) is one of the ugliest moments in the entire series, fodder for a cheap joke and the shocking indifference of our hero. How can it possibly be a good thing for the evolution of James Bond that halfway through this movie I started pining to see Tomorrow Never Dies instead? Though it’s my favorite Brosnan Bond picture, it’s by no means distinctive, and yet I’d see it again in a heartbeat over this one… and Michelle Yeoh does make up for a load of sins, particularly of the sort perpetrated on these newest Bond girls.

By the time the movie has devolved into its “this time it’s personal” mode, Skyfall has succeeded in making James Bond, and the very idea of a Bond movie, seem puny, laboring with increasingly meager returns within the shadow of the Bourne franchise and the increasingly unbearable heaviness of Bond in the Daniel Craig era.



Robert Fiore said...

I don't know about that Cloud Atlas -- it's like a girl helped make it or something. Ha ha! My little joke. I quite enjoyed it actually, attenuated fairy tale though it is. Moral: Violence solves everything. The central gimmick guarantees that every actor is miscast at least twice. Worst -- Tom Hanks as a yobbo, just didn't believe that for a second. Also, does not make the implied subtext that anybody can be any gender he or she chooses 100% convincing.

Dan Heaton said...

While I think the hyperbole about Skyfall ("the greatest Bond ever!") is out of control, I don't share your negative views about the film as a whole. It's a mishmash of old Bond and something else entirely, but I think Mendes pulls it off. It's a gorgeous film that feels breezy for such a long running time, and Craig plays Bond with more confidence. I wasn't as drawn into the Dark Knight-like back story for Bond, but the execution was strong enough that I can give it a pass. Interesting post.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Robert-- I'm not sure the gender-switching and multiple role-playing was (always) supposed to be believable so much as it was fanciful and certainly in tune with the idea of connections unseen over time. (I took Hanks' Irish brute in the spirit of a lark.) But you're right about the movie's fairy tale quality, which I think, along with the rather daring way in which the movie is made, helps sell the fancy.

Dan, you've got some nerve NOT agreeing with me!

Seriously, though, I realize that a negative point of view is certainly not the majority perspective on Skyfall, but I really didn't see a movie that felt fleet of foot. And I really do think Bond needs to lighten up again, but I wonder if it's not too late, at least for me-- the movie's implied shift back toward a sense of fun seems like halfhearted backpedaling after all the anguish, which isn't nearly as effective emotionally as the movie seems to think it is. It will be interesting to see where the franchise goes next. I have a friend who advocates starting fresh with Bond and making it completely a period piece in line with when the novels were written and set-- of course this will NEVER happen, but I like the idea!

The Fan With No Name!!! said...

Your take on SKYFALL really threw me Dennis!?!! Are you a James Bond fan - books &/or films? As you are aware of it has received an overall positive reception and a lot of love within my circle of friends so it was a shock to the system to read your reaction!!! (I guess what's most frustrating is - for the most part - we seem to agree overall in what films we like & enjoy so I guess that might be my main reason for the shock but like my Dad always reminds me, if all of us thought the same and like all the same things it would make for a pretty dull world!) I sorta' think I see your points but for right now I thought it was pretty darn good (how's that for a critical evaluation!). I'll probably go see it again and keep you points in mind! And again are you much of a 007 fan (& of so which is your favorite film of the franchise?)?!??

(Ted Haycraft / Evansville, IN)

Taidan said...

I agree with you on Skyfall--it's a disappointment.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Ted, I actually am quite a Bond fan, though some of the movies I would put either midway or near the bottom of the list include some that are held very dear by most who have followed the series-- I think THUNDERBALL is, by and large, a snooze, and DR. NO, which is a far better movie, doesn't really send me either. As far as my favorite, though I love GOLDFINGER, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and the Craig-era CASINO ROYALE, top position is now and has been held for many years by YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, which I think perfectly epitomizes the bridge between the smaller-scaled, meaner-spirited Connery Bonds and the gigantic spectacles they would become. (CASINO ROYALE is smashing filmmaking and a great "introduction" to Bond, but Eva Green as Vesper Lind and that whole relationship between them really elevates the game.)

I got that sinking feeling in SKYFALL about 45 minutes in, and the execution of Berenice Marlohe was the exclamation point on it for me. And as I've said before (somewhere), it can't be a good sign that midway through SKYFALL I started wishing I was watching TOMORROW NEVER DIES instead (Michelle Yeoh makes up for a multitude of shortcomings!) TND is my favorite Brosnan Bond, and though I love THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, I also have very soft spots for LIVE AND LET DIE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN. Though I realize neither are exactly top-notch movies, they were realized right when my Bond fascination was peaking (I was 13), after having seen YOLT, OHMSS and DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER in the theater as a youngster. The Moores that followed though-- MOONRAKER and OCTOPUSSY especially-- are the ones I would consider to be the bottom of the barrel of the series.

I also like THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS a lot, and it has, along with GOLDFINGER, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and A VIEW TO A KILL, the best Bond song, Aha's "The Living Daylights."