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The Sessions

There are some movies you watch and immediately know that it’s going to receive multiple award nominations from all types of organizations. The Sessions is one of those movies. It’s a deeply human story about life and love and it stars an underrated actor playing a severely crippled man who looks at the world from a different perspective than we’re accustomed to, thus allowing us to see the world that way as well for a brief period of time. It’s one of those movies that is noticeably flawed, but its strengths outweigh its weaknesses so much that the flaws seem negligible. The Sessions is funny, emotional, heartfelt and warm and it’s a must see.

Based on a true story, John Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a handicapped man who has suffered from polio since the age of six. As he says, he isn’t exactly paralyzed. He still feels sensations, but his muscles have become so weak that he can’t move anything. He’s a deeply spiritual man (at one point he says he has to be spiritual because living the way he must would be unbearable without having someone to blame) and one day he seeks out the advice of Father Brendan (William H. Macy). He explains to him that, even though he knows it’s forbidden in the Bible, he wants to have sex. He knows his disease only gives him a limited amount of time to live and he wants to experience all that life has to offer before departing. Surprisingly, Father Brendan gives him his blessing, so Mark sets up some appointments with a sex surrogate, Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt), who teaches him about physical love.

Hollywood movies these days put a strange importance on sex, perhaps because society has dictated its. Most movies look at it from a childish viewpoint, as something that all men must do, lest they remain a virgin, an arbitrary sexual term that bears no real weight. The Sessions looks at it from a decidedly different and refreshing viewpoint. Despite being the main protagonist’s central goal, sex isn’t treated like an immature necessity, but rather as a pleasurable experience, just one of many that we humans are able to enjoy. Mark hasn’t had many experiences like it and it’s not so much the sex he wants, but that he simply wants to feel something. He wants to feel alive for a brief (sometimes very brief) period of time. One beautiful scene shows Mark’s thoughts as he partakes in sexual activity, but they aren’t filled with lustful desire like some may expect. Instead, he’s picturing running on the beach and feeling the sand beneath his toes, the rush of a waterfall as it flows through his fingers and running his hands through a loved one’s hair. This wondrous scene simultaneously devalues the notion of sexual importance in the typical societal sense and brings to light its real importance as a special, intimate feeling that we take for granted.

Also refreshing is the film’s stance on Catholics or, for that matter, religion in general. Father Brendan, for example, isn’t a vindictive oppressor like many men-of-the-cloth representations, but rather a sympathetic man who understands that basic human needs and desires sometimes outweigh biblical interpretations. He’s initially hesitant to give his approval, as I imagine any priest would be, but he doesn’t let scripture cloud his judgment. Not once is there a statement in favor of or against his decision, but in the end, he does what he knows is right, even if that means going against his faith. That’s not to say The Sessions takes a stance on faith either—it seems neither for nor against it—it merely exists as a personality trait of the characters within the story.

Despite his handicap, Mark is never treated as lesser. He’s as complex a human being as anyone in the movie, perhaps more so given his humorous outlook on life in spite of his predicament. The movie uses his handicap as a means for comedy at times (the image of a fully naked woman sitting on a crippled man’s face is surprisingly amusing), but it never feels mean spirited because he does the same thing. He jokes about himself and sometimes relates those jokes to God, whom he says must have a “wicked sense of humor” to keep him on Earth with such a disease. He’s a lively and passionate man that you can’t help but care about not out of pity, but because he’s a genuinely wonderful person.

Where The Sessions fails the most is in its worthless side stories, most notably the one involving Cheryl’s home life. Her troubled private existence is so incredibly thin and barely explored that it fails to bring forth even the slightest bit of compassion from the viewing audience. There are numerous other little missteps as well that threaten to derail the movie, but the central story and performance are so good, so touching, so life affirming that in retrospect, it hardly matters. The Sessions is practically guaranteed to receive some well-deserved awards nominations in the coming months, including a Best Actor nod for John Hawkes, who gives what may be the best performance of his career. This is one that’s well worth sitting down for.

The Sessions receives 4.5/5


Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a tough movie. It handles a tough subject matter and puts its characters in tough situations, which makes it tough to sit through for the audience. Its narrative is sometimes tough to follow thanks to a disjointed storytelling approach and it’s also so darn mediocre, it’s tough to decide whether or not it’s worth seeing. It’s the type of movie I most hate watching, one that I feel indifferent about. Its posters are touting the fact that it won accolades at Sundance, but to normal moviegoers, that means little and I can’t imagine they will latch onto this picture the way the filmmakers are hoping.

Elizabeth Olsen (better known as Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s younger sister) plays Martha, sometimes referred to as Marcy May. She has been out of contact with her family for two years and has shacked up in the middle of nowhere with a cult, led by Patrick, played by John Hawkes. Soon, she escapes and takes refuge with her sister, Lucy, played by Sarah Paulson, and her husband, Ted, played by Hugh Dancy.

It’s a simple synopsis. At least it appears to be. It’s at this point the film begins to jump place and time, from her current situation to her unpleasant time in the cult. At first, it can be confusing, but it proves itself to be a well thought out narrative tool that allows us to see how she has been affected by the abuse. While she was away, she first discovered her sexuality, but she discovered it through rape and group sex. Later, when she walks in on her sister and brother-in-law making love, she doesn’t realize she may be crossing some boundaries because her introduction to sexuality was perverted. There was no privacy or right to her own body. Her body was essentially Patrick’s and he could use her whenever and however he wanted, but because of what she was told by the other girls living in the same situation, she began to believe it was a good thing. She was finding acceptance from Patrick.

As stated, it’s a tough movie. Rape is never fun to sit through, but you’ll be sitting through it multiple times in Martha Marcy May Marlene. However, it must be noted that the horrific deed is never romanticized. It’s shot like the grungy, filthy act it is and credit must be given to first time full length director Sean Durkin for it. Nothing in the movie is particularly beautiful to look at and its dark tone is matched by its dark visuals, though one could argue it’s perhaps a bit too dark, to the point where if it were in 3D, the entire screen would literally be black. Still, he keeps the direction understated and full of moderately long takes, which gives the film to his actors, who all come through. Hawkes is great as usual, but Elizabeth Olsen is the one who has to prove herself. And she does. With some more experience and guidance, she could prove herself to be a star.

This is a movie for its actors and it succeeds or fails because of them. Nevertheless, questionable casting decisions pervade it—Olsen and Paulson look nothing alike; the illusion of sisterhood is difficult to grasp—and certain character actions seem out of the blue and don’t make much sense. It’s clear Martha is struggling with some demons, but the reasoning behind some of her freak-outs isn’t always properly explained. Actually, not much is. Aside from the names being different monikers for Martha (Marlene the name she used to answer the phone), the title’s significance is lost on me, if there even is one at all.

Martha Marcy May Marlene keeps you in the dark, which isn’t always a bad thing, but it keeps you there to a fault. Its ambiguous ending only adds to its frustration. Keeping things open ended is fine, as evidenced by the brilliant ending in Inception, but here it comes off as unfulfilling in a movie that was already severely lacking in explanation. When all is said and done, you’ll find Martha Marcy May Marlene to be haunting without being unsettling, interesting without being gripping and good without truly being great.

Martha Marcy May Marlene receives 3/5