The long, quiet Thanksgiving/Black Friday weekend presented me with the opportunity to dive into several recent releases. Like the offerings laid out on a holiday dinner table, these films ended up representing a variety of flavors and colors — artistically, politically and/or religiously speaking — but I didn’t walk out of any of them completely unsatisfied.
For an appetizer, I couldn’t resist the sexually-charged true story The Sessions. While it has been generating awards buzz ever since its January premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, primarily for John Hawkes’ and Helen Hunt’s soul-and-body-baring performances, I was unprepared to find the movie so deeply moving. I had tears in my eyes for nearly half of the 95-minute running time. Viewing paralyzed protagonist Mark O’Brien’s plight is inherently humbling, even though the Oscar-worthy Hawkes (an Oscar nominee for Winter’s Bone and also visible in the current Lincoln) invests him with a sense of grace and humor that nullifies any potential pity. I was equally touched, though, by William H. Macy as the compassionate Roman Catholic priest (seemingly a dying breed nowadays) who serves as Mark’s spiritual and unwitting sexual advisor. But perhaps more than anything, The Sessions impressed and moved me with its all-too-rare, positive approach to human sexuality. While Hunt’s real-life sex surrogate is the least-developed character in the film (Hunt deserves kudos for making her more complex), she rightly demonstrates — and learns for herself — that sex entails much more than intercourse. This is a great movie for adults and even for older adolescents.
I next jumped to what many fellow critics would surely call the turkey in my cinematic buffet: Breaking Dawn — Part 2, the finale to the mega-successful Twilight Saga. Having sat out the first part of the series’ climax after seeing the previous chapters, I was quickly struck by how I apparently hadn’t missed anything but the birth of Bella and Edward’s bizarre vampire-human hybrid baby (who is even more bizarrely named “Renesmee”). Edward (Robert Pattinson) is a little less gloomy since marrying Bella (Kristen Stewart) in the last chapter and she’s happier too, at least until she receives word that the ruling vampire clan, the Volturi (led by a deliciously campy Michael Sheen), are out to kill Renesmee. Everything builds to a showdown, which is the case in most of the Twilight films, but this one is truly impressive and features a truly unexpected twist. If only the other films in the series featured such surprises instead of being so by-the-numbers in adaptation and crafting, the saga might have proven more significant. At least the filmmakers have truly saved the best for last.
Lincoln arrived in theaters swathed in early critical accolades and a seeming guarantee that it would be the important, “good for you” movie of the year, essentially serving as the green vegetable in one’s Thanksgiving dinner. Steven Spielberg’s biopic about the 16th president of the United States, resurrected via a compelling performance by two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, boasts a screenplay by gay Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Kushner (Angels in America) as well as a massive cast of other award-winning actors including Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, David Straithairn, Jackie Earle Haley, Hal Holbrook and many more (watch for a brief but welcome appearance by Tony winner and gay fave Julie White of The Little Dog Laughed and Transformers fame). The proceedings are beautifully shot and given a burnished, painterly quality, and are supported by typically top-notch art direction, costumes and a John Williams score. Kushner’s script, however, seems much too narrowly focused on Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th amendment that would ban slavery; as my partner aptly commented, the movie should have been more accurately titled The 13th Amendment. The resultant, generally saintly image projected of the “Great Emancipator” ends up feeling constrained and limited, not to mention historically questionable. The film is a talky, 150-minute affair but not without interesting modern-day ironies and parallels, including to our GLBT fight for marriage equality. While worth seeing for Day-Lewis (Field is also great as his wife, Mary Todd), one needs to take the one-sided history depicted in Lincoln with a grain of salt.
For dessert, I took in Ang Lee’s 3D visual spectacle Life of Pi at the end of Thanksgiving weekend, appropriately enough. I have not read the bestselling book it is adapted from so I knew little of what to expect other than a kid and a tiger stuck in a lifeboat together. The movie, at least, is a thought-provoking religious parable. Primarily conveyed by grown-up survivor Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a doubting writer (Rafe Spall, a late-in-the-game replacement for Tobey Maguire), it entails young love in Pi’s native India, a shipwreck that claims the rest of his family, and a handful of exotic animals that also make it to the lifeboat. One is a full-grown Bengal tiger with the unlikely moniker Richard Parker, superbly brought to life by CGI. Young Pi (an excellent, wholly believable turn by newcomer Suraj Sharma) must befriend the tiger to make it through what turns out to be more than six months at sea, and he learns more than a few things about both animal and divine nature in the process. The storytelling approach is used a bit excessively; I think I would have preferred it limited to the opening and close of the film and let the images and action speak for themselves in between. Otherwise, Life of Pi is a profound, haunting and beautifully-made motion picture experience suitable for ages 10 and up.
The Sessions: B+
Breaking Dawn, Part II: C+
Life of Pi: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.