The Sessions

Fox Searchlight

Rated R for graphic sexuality, frontal nudity and frank dialogue.

Compassionate Disability Drama Chronicles Indomitability Of The Human Spirit

Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) was left paralyzed from the neck down by the polio he’d contracted as a child. Consequently, he can only breathe with the assistance of an iron lung, though he can use a portable respirator for a few hours at a time.

Nonetheless, the condition has never stopped him from fantasizing, especially about his attractive attendants like Amanda (Annika Marks) who quit when he expressed his desire for her. The sexually-frustrated 38-year-old decides that the only way he’ll probably ever lose his virginity is by paying a woman to sleep with him.

However, this proves easier said than done, between the physical challenges presented by quadriplegia and his having to wrestle with a major moral issue as a devout Catholic. Since his religion forbids fornication outside the sanctity of marriage, Mark consults his parish priest for special dispensation.

Armed with the surprisingly-sympathetic Father Brendan (William H. Macy)’s blessing, Mark retains the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate with the bedside demeanor, or should I say bedroom demeanor, of a saint. Over the course of a half-dozen romantic rendezvous, the sensitive therapist gradually helps her patient conquer problems with performance anxiety and premature ejaculation.

En route to consummation, the pair simultaneously forge a friendship in spite her fears that he might develop an attachment to her. After all, she is married. But Mark emerges from the experience a changed man, as he develops the confidence to flirt with other women and he even ultimately finds a wife (Robin Weigert).

The Sessions’ subject matter might strike some as salacious, given the film’s frequent, full-frontal nudity. But the picture actually plays out more as a compassionate tale exploring a variety of themes, including faith, friendship, relationships and the indomitability of the human spirit.

Written and directed by Ben Lewin, himself a polio victim, the movie is based on Mark O’Brien (1950-1999)’s life story as chronicled in his autobiography, How I Became A Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest For Independence. The late author was already the subject of Breathing Lessons, a biopic which won an Academy Award in 1997 in the Best Documentary category.

Rather than resort to manipulative sentimentality, the production resists the temptation to follow a Hollywood formula in favor of a realistic plot that Mark undoubtedly would have appreciated. As a journalist and longtime civil rights advocate, he never looked for pity but lobbied for legislation and equality on behalf of the handicapped.

Co-stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt generate an endearing chemistry here, turning in a couple of virtuoso performances deserving of serious consideration come Oscar season. A poignant, character-driven drama depicting the disabled as complicated individuals with a full range of emotions.

 

Excellent (4 stars)

Running time: 95 minutes

 

A Royal Affair (En Kongelig Affaere)

Magnolia Pictures

Rated R for sexuality and violent images.

Queen Plots Coup In 18th Century Costume Drama

If you’re a fan of elaborate costume dramas of Shakespearean proportions, A Royal Affair is likely right up your alley. Nikolaj Arcel, who wrote the script for the Swedish language version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, does double duty this time around, both directing and adapting Bodil Steensen-Leth’s erotic novel, Prinsesse Af blodet, to the big screen.

The epic tale revolves around the love triangle which develops when Denmark’s 15-year-old Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander) falls head over heels for a dashing doctor named Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). This only makes sense since her considerably older husband she’s just met is not only a clumsy lover, but stark raving mad to boot.

She and the royal physician are not only attracted to each other, but share some lofty ideals for the long-oppressed citizenry. So, casting their fate to the wind, the smitten lovebirds soon set about plotting to overthrow the cuckoo king.

Of course, no monarch takes kindly to a coup d’état, and complications ensue. It doesn’t help matters that the recently arrived Caroline is a sister of Britain’s King George III, and Johann is German, which means the insurgency has the potential to turn into an international incident.

While carrying on their torrid affair, the pair contemplates ushering in the Age of Enlightenment, a cultural movement that had already taken hold elsewhere around Europe. While folks familiar with Danish history might have an idea where this all leads, it was definitely fun for this uninformed critic to witness the intriguing play-by-play in the dark as to what was looming just over the horizon at each tawdry twist and turn.

A lust for power revealing, what else, but something rotten in the state of Denmark.

 

Very Good (3 stars)

In Danish, French, German and English with subtitles

Running time: 137 minutes

 

OPENING THIS WEEK
Kam’s Kapsules:

For movies opening November 16, 2012

Anna Karenina (R for sexuality and violence). Keira Knightley plays the title character in this adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic tragedy, set in 19th century Russia, revolving around a married aristocrat who embarks on a scandalous affair with a wealthy count (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). With Jude Law, Emily Watson and Olivia Williams.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (PG-13 for sensuality, violence, partial nudity and disturbing images). Vampire, fantasy franchise finale finds happily-married Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella (Kristen Stewart) locked in a fight to the death with a supernatural menace (Maggie Grace) threatening the life of their young daughter (Mackenzie Foy). Ensemble cast includes Taylor Lautner, Kellan Lutz and Nikki Reed.

 

16 Acres (Unrated). Ground Zero documentary recounting the decade-long debate over how to rebuild the World Trade Center in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack. With appearances by NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Governor George Pataki, architect Daniel Libeskind and real estate magnate Larry Silverstein.

 

Buffalo Girls (Unrated). Child abuse documentary taking an intimate peek into the boxing careers of 8-year-old Stam Sor Con Lek and Pet Chor Chanachai, female prizefighters who support their families while pursuing Thailand’s flyweight title. (In Thai with subtitles)

 

Citadel (Unrated). Primal horror flick about an agoraphobic father (Aneurin Barnard) who enlists the assistance of a vigilante priest (James Cosmo) to rescue his baby daughter from the clutches of the same hooded gang that had murdered his wife (Amy Shiels). With Jake Wilson and Wunmi Mosaku.

 

Funeral Kings (R for profanity, sexual references, drug and alcohol use, and smoking). Coming-of-age dramedy about a couple of Catholic altar boys (Dylan Hartigan and Alex Maizus) who get more than they bargained for when they decide to play hooky from school after serving at a funeral mass. With Jordan Puzzo, Charles Kwame Odei and Kevin Corrigan.

 

Generation P (Unrated). Mad Men documentary about the rise of advertising in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. (In Russian with subtitles)

 

Happy New Year (Unrated). PTSD drama about a self-destructive Iraq War veteran (Michael Cuomo) who finds himself plagued by guilt and desperation upon return to the U.S. after a tour of duty overseas. Cast includes J.D. Williams, Will Rogers and Jose Yenque.

 

Hitler’s Children (Unrated). “Sins of the Father” documentary examining the fate of the offspring of such notorious Nazis as Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hoess. (In German, Hebrew and English with subtitles)

 

In The Family (Unrated). Equal rights drama, set in Tennessee, about the legal battle mounted by a grieving gay man (Patrick Wang) to retain custody of his adopted 6-year-old son (Sebastian Barnes) after his life partner (Trevor St. John), the boy’s biological father, perishes in a car accident. With Lisa Altomare, Susan Kellermann and Conan McCarty.

 

The Law In These Parts (Unrated). Middle East documentary about the system of military justice administered by Israel for the benefit of Palestinians living in the occupied territories. (In Hebrew with subtitles)

 

Mea Maxima Culpa (Unrated). Scathing exposé implicating the pope in a cover-up of widespread pedophilia among priests inside the Catholic Church.

 

Price Check (Unrated). Sexual harassment dramedy about a supermarket chain executive (Eric Mabius) with money woes whose marriage ends up in crisis after he sleeps with his seductive new boss (Parker Posey) to secure a promotion. With Annie Parisse, Edward Herrmann and Cheyenne Jackson.

 

La Rafle (Unrated). Holocaust drama revisiting the real-life events which transpired in Paris on July 16, 1942, when the French police conducted raids resulting in the arrest of 13,000 Jews who were subsequently deported to Auschwitz. Starring Melanie Laurent, Jean Reno and Gad Elmaleh. (In French, German and Yiddish with subtitles)

 

Who Bombed Judi Bari? (Unrated) Freedom Of Information documentary seeking the truth about the FBI frame-up of cancer-stricken Judi Bari, an environmental activist who was arrested on trumped-up charges back in 1990 while trying to save California’s redwood forests from the lumber industry buzz saw.

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