I believe I have said this at some point over the last few weeks, but writing film reviews can be harder some weeks than others. If a movie is really good or really bad, it practically writes itself. Unfortunately, 2012 had more mediocre releases than any other year that comes to mind. Usually a film that I consider a waste of time and money isn’t horrible, it’s just milquetoast. With that in mind, I am ecstatic to tell you guys that the Triangle is getting two new releases this week which not only are totally worth your attention, they both contain several factors that could give them decent arguments for Top Ten status at the end of the year.
First, we will look at The Sessions. Based on the autobiographical writings of journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, the only thing I really knew about the film walking in was that it had won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and that it featured Helen Hunt walking around naked frequently. I honestly couldn’t tell you which sounded less appealing. Long ago I stopped believing Sundance was a stamp of quality on films, and Helen Hunt has unfortunately become a member of the “too many trips to the plastic surgeon” hall of fame. Don’t take that as my being misogynistic; check out her forehead and you will find a face that has been Botoxed into atrophy.
When the film first opens we are introduced to O’Brien, a paraplegic man stricken with polio as a small child who now is confined to an iron lung for 20 hours out of the day. Once able to navigate UC-Berkeley by himself via motorized gurney, he now requires assistants for the most rudimentary of daily acts. Hiring a young woman as his new helper, O’Brien finds himself falling in love, only to be turned down. Feeling helpless and depressed about his inability to touch another person, he accepts an assignment to write a story on the sex lives of various handicapped people in the area. While talking to a therapist who specializes on the subject, he opens up to her about his issues. The therapist gives him the number of a “sex surrogate” (Helen Hunt), someone who works with the disabled to help them through their sexual issues physically.
If that all sounds too touchy-feely for your weekend movie-going experience, get over it. What should be a dry dramatic bio actually is one of the funniest films released this year. Director and screenwriter Ben Lewin, up to now best known for the Jennifer Jason Leigh drama Georgia and a polio survivor himself, has crafted what is arguably the first guaranteed Best Picture nominee of 2012. John Hawkes, who stars as Mark, delivers the finest acting performance to grace the screen this year as well. Equal parts funny and touching, his portrayal of Mark manages to be sympathetic without ever crossing the line into pity.
Lewin also deserves praise for his ability to never portray the female characters in a misogynistic light. In Hollywood films it seems that a woman character has to go along with everything the males ask of them, without ever questioning motives or consequences for even a second; if there is a moment’s hesitation, they are deemed to be uncooperative or self-serving. Here, we are given fully formed females that not only live their own lives outside of Mark’s dilemma, but several are able to rebuff his romantic advances without coming off as heartless or mean-spirited. Cast a Seth Rogen type as a polio victim looking for love and see how open-minded the audience will be toward the ladies in the cast.
The Sessions manages to break itself out of the true-story ghetto almost immediately, while allowing us to follow the characters struggles with a comedic tint and never relying on the blueprint set forth by so many films of its ilk made in the past. Truly unlike any other film released this year, you will walk out of the theater truly happy to have witnessed a work such as this. Highest of recommendations.
Now onto a more serious matter: James Bond. Sam Mendes, award-winning director of American Beauty, was given the reins on Skyfall under the assumption that he could bring something new to the franchise that is the granddaddy of all film series. On this, the 23rd installment of Bonds’ adventures, it is safe to say the director delivered as promised.
Skyfall opens with Bond (Daniel Craig) and fellow agent Eve attempting to catch a mercenary who has managed to steal a thumb drive that contains the identities of every undercover NATO operative working in foreign lands. The battle leads to a fistfight on top of a moving train, with Eve attempting to get a clear shot of the enemy. Reporting that she can’t be sure she won’t hit Bond, M (Judi Dench) demands that she take the shot before the enemy gets away. Eve pulls the trigger, and Bond plummets into the waters below.
Months later, after a funeral service has been held for Bond and his personal property sold, MI6’s offices are the target of a terrorist attack. Bond, watching the events unfold in a bar on a tropical island, decides it is time to report back to active duty. Upon his return to the land of the living, he must first pass a series of rigorous tests to prove he is actually able to do his job.
Barely passing, he is sent to track down the drive and the man responsible for the theft. What he stumbles upon is one of the most memorable villains to be found in a Bond flick, Silva (Javier Bardem), and a fight that quickly becomes personal for all involved.
Directors are kind of like quarterbacks; they are given too much credit when a film succeeds and too much blame when it fails. That being said, one can’t help but feel that Mendes has managed to somehow inject new life into this series. Besides the technical aspects that we can see onscreen, such as one of the greatest opening credits sequences I’ve seen in years, the work that he manages to pull out of his actors is amazing. Who expects nuance when watching an action film?
Craig seems energized by working with Mendes. The Bond we see here is unlike any other that came before, including Craig’s earlier portrayals of the character. Quickly finding he is becoming too old and shaky to perform his duties, and not doing a very good job of hiding that fact, this Bond finds himself no longer the alpha male in any given room. In fact, there is a lingering question even after the film is over of whether M sends him on the assignment because she feels he is the only one capable to do the job, or more as a sacrificial lamb to draw out the enemy.
As M, Judi Dench is finally given enough of a role to justify her being brought into the series as a supporting actress. Actually, calling M a supporting role in earlier Bonds is probably being too kind; Dench was making more of a cameo in those films. Here, we are actually allowed to peer inside the character, to get a feel for her motivations. In the Connery films, M was just a boss; here she is an a mother figure for Bond, someone for him to seek approval from, no matter how much he wants to act like he doesn’t want or need it.
Perhaps Mendes’ greatest work is captured in the scenes featuring Bardem’s Silva. When Bond first meets the villain, it is on a deserted island which seems to be homage to the old TV series The Prisoner. Silva first attempts to make Bond uneasy with what seems to be sexual advances, only to show that he is playing with Bond before killing him. Taking what could have easily become homophobic in the hands of a lesser talent, Bardem relishes in the opportunity to play a killer with an actual back story and motivations. As hard as it is to believe, after a career of delivering masterful performances, this may be Bardem’s best work yet.
Not only has Mendes delivered on his opportunity to revive the legend of Bond, it would be hard to believe that he isn’t considered a top-tier talent after this film’s success. More so than the action unfurled on screen, perhaps that is the most exciting thing about Skyfall. Again, highly recommended.