"The Sessions"

Richard's Review: 4 ½ stars

“The Sessions” should be the downer movie of the year. But the story of a severely disabled man who wants to explore his sexuality, before, as he says, his “use by” date, is funny, passionate and bawdy.

Based on the life of poet Mark O’Brien (played in the movie by John Hawkes) “The Sessions” sees a man who can’t move have a sexual awakening with some unlikely advice from his priest (William H. Macy) and the help of a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt).

“The Sessions” doesn’t reinvent the narrative wheel, things progress pretty much as you imagine they might, but as obvious as some elements of the story may be, the frank treatment of its subject and performances elevate the story.

Director Ben Lewin (who also wrote the script) expertly handles the delicate subject of sex and the disabled, never once allowing the characters to fall into the trap of pious condescension or pity. It’s a no nonsense look at life and love from a disabled point of view, and Lewis handles it simply and effectively.

The real credit for the story’s humanity, humor and passion, however, belongs to the actors. Helen Hunt bares all, emotionally and physically in a tender performance that would make her best-known character, “Mad About You’s” Jamie Buchman turn beet red, but it is John Hawkes who walks away with the picture, figuratively, not literally.

Playing a man who sleeps in an iron lung, who lost the ability to move below the neck at an early age, he is extraordinary. Using only his eyes, mouth and voice to express himself he creates a complete portrait of a man struggling past his emotional baggage to break through to another phase in his life. It’s a subtle performance that relies on minute changes in vocal quality and facial expressions to portray complication emotions. It’s also a far cry from his most famous role, the violent hillbilly drug dealer he played in “Winter’s Bone” and one that will garner attention at awards time.

“The Sessions” is a simple film about a difficult subject that eschews sentimentality for heartfelt feelings, and does so with a dose of unexpected humour.

 

"Alex Cross"

Richard's Review: 1 ½ stars

Say “Heller!” to the new Alex Cross. The last time we saw the forensic detective on screen he looked a lot like Morgan Freeman. This time out, in the new thriller “Alex Cross,” he looks a lot like a famous mischievous grandma named Madea.

Tyler Perry has stepped into the role and where Freeman played the character with a gravitas and dignity in “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider,” Perry brings a stoicism to Cross that may make the character very attractive to woodpeckers.

Cross is a modern day Sherlock Holmes, a know-it-all who inspires his co-workers to say things like, “Just once I would like it if you got something wrong, ‘cuz this is getting annoying.” When a young, wealthy woman turns up dead, her house littered with murdered security guards, Cross begins to untangle the clues which will lead him to the crazed killer (a skeletal Matthew Fox). As he gets close, he makes a rare mistake in judgment that ends up changing his life.

I’m not a fan of picking apart a movie on the finer details. If the story is really clicking along I think audiences will be engaged enough in the plot to accept some irregularities. “Alex Cross,” however, never connects, so all the story’s inconsistencies suddenly become blinding. For instance, bad guys swapping cars to avoid being followed is nothing new, but here it rings false because the second car is a cab waiting to pick him up in a remote indoor parking garage. In a good movie it would be a blip. Here it contributes to the overall feeling of disbelief.

Disbelief aside, the problems are many, starting with a script peppered with dialogue that sounds TV movie ready. Ed Burns plays a cop whose girlfriend describes him as “just the kind of guy my father told me to avoid,” and later a character advises, “you don’t play the game, the game plays you.” It doesn’t feel like a script, it feels more like a greatest hits of the most over-used lines in movie history. The only cliché that goes unused is, “I’m too old for this ****,” but with the movie’s sequel-ready ending, I’m sure screenwriters are already crafting that line into “Alex Cross 2: My Name’s Not Madea.”

The main problem, the nine hundred pound elephant in the room, though, is Perry. It’s next to impossible to buy into the actor as an action star, let alone one so wooden that I found myself staring at his skin, searching for knots. He’s not given much to work with, that’s for sure, but nor does he elevate the material.

“Alex Cross” is the kind of movie that makes you wish Morgan Freeman were 20 years younger, and still agreeable to chasing down bad guys.

 

"The Paperboy"

Richard's Review: 3 ½ stars

There is a shorthand film critics use at TIFF time to identify movies. Deep into the festival, when all the movies start to run into one another we rarely use the title of a film, instead we’ll pick up on the most notable scene or theme and do a quick synopsis.

It goes like this:

“Are you going to see ‘The Paperboy’?”

“Which one’s that?”

“The one where Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron.”

You’ll never see that on a marquee, but for weary festival goers it’s a lot more evocative than the movie’s actual title.

The film begins with a 1969 murder in a South Florida town. It’s actually what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, an event that isn’t really all that important to the story, but is more the catalyst for the action to follow. The upshot of the killing is that a man named Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is arrested thrown in jail and sentenced to the electric chair (all off camera).

Here’s where the real story starts.

A Miami-based investigative journalist named Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), and his writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), are convinced the man was wrongly convicted and decide to have a closer look at the case. Complicating the investigation are Jansen’s family ties to the scene of the crime—his father publishes the local newspaper—and his brother Jack’s (Zac Efron) obsession with Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), the convict’s jailhouse bride-to-be.

“The Paperboy” is an odd film. It’s an art house thriller—meaning that there aren’t many thrills—in which each of its stars do some fairly intense envelope pushing.

Efron works hard to shake off the early teen idol gloss that made him famous, and mostly succeeds, although director Lee Daniels’s camera caresses the actor, taking full advantage of Efron’s effortless appeal.

Kidman is sultry an over-sexed Barbie doll indulges in the above-mentioned scene (it’s a remedy for a jelly fish sting) who explains her attraction to the prisoner with the words, “Hilary ain’t so bad, and I ain’t so good.” What also ain’t so good is a strange sex scene between the would-be lovers in a prison waiting room. The “keep your hands where I can see them rule” isn’t going to stop these two from having a funky good time.

McConaughey continues to move away from the romantic comedies that defined the last decade of his career. He’s now acting with his clothes on (and without Kate Hudson) in movies that show what he can do.

They are all good—Kidman is particularly interesting—but it is John Cusack who makes the biggest impression. As swamp man Hilary he forever erases the image of sweet Lloyd Dobler and his boom box. It’s an intense, dirty performance in an off kilter movie filled with nice work.

“The Paperboy” isn’t a movie for people who like to pigeonhole their movies. It’s a dark, impressionistic look at race, sin and how (but not really why) people make connections. It’s filled with great performances but doesn’t seem to know how to tell the story in a truly compelling way.