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New release movie reviews - 8 November
THE SESSIONS ****1/2 (94 minutes) MA
In what has got to be one of the most deftly crafted, touching, funny and honest films about sex, religion, disability and love, Australian veteran writer/director Ben Lewin (The Dunera Boys) delivers a heartfelt gem that is as moving as it is unassuming. It easily chimes in as one of the films of the year. Based on a true story, The Sessions is a simple film about a life-defining quest for knowledge. To wit: at 38 and largely confined to an iron lung, writer/poet/wise cracker Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) decides to lose his virginity and so hires professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt) to help him out. O'Brien consults his priest (William H. Macy) and psyches himself up for his sex sessions, all the while deploying humour like a deflector shield as he copes with his bumpy, eventful journey of self-discovery. Supine and smiling for most of the film, Hawkes is unrecognisable as the gruff crystal meth maker in Winter's Bone (2010) or the seductive cult leader from Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). His head might be the only part of him that moves, yet he still manages one of the most animated lead performances in years. Coupled to this is the career-best performance from Helen Hunt as the therapist whose determination to remain dispassionate grinds against her instincts. And at 49 she deserves major kudos for being that rarest of all things, namely a Hollywood actress not afraid to look her age. She's just one of the reasons the film is Oscar-bound. (See our interview with Ben Lewin.)
THE MASTER ***1/2 (137 minutes) MA
Here's a perfect example of a flawed film held together by a mesmerising central performance. As the leader of a post-war Scientology-type cult called The Cause, Philip Seymour Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic, thoughtful, intelligent, kind yet fiercely committed man determined to redefine the understanding of life he shares with his many followers. Chief among these is alcoholic blow-in Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix); fresh from the war and obsessed with sex, he's a psychologically scarred sailor whose self-sabotaging neuroses find succor in the bosom of the community Dodds has constructed. Unlike director Paul Thomas Anderson's previous Oscar-winning triumph There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master is episodic, meandering and not overly concerned with coherence. Though the recreation of the period is unarguably authentic and often looks amazing, there are gaping chasms in the story and side stories that go nowhere. Yet the power of Hoffman's performance is so hypnotic you forgive the film's faults just to revel in his all-consuming portrayal of a man possessed by his own beliefs. Phoenix (in his first role since the 2008 jokeumentary I'm Still Here) is terrific, as are Amy Adams, Laura Dern and Ambyr Childers, particularly impressive as Dodd's devoted daughter. But this is Hoffman's film. An interesting side note is how Anderson insisted on shooting The Master on old-fashioned 65mm film stock. Christopher Nolan defiantly shot The Dark Knight Rises on film and Spielberg insists he will only ever shoot on film. Shooting digitally has huge benefits in terms of lower costs, sharper image resolution and increased flexibility, yet clearly some A-list filmmakers feel they get a feel from film that can't - yet - be replicated by a card full of ones and zeros.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR **** (103 minutes) Exempt
Superb, ingeniously staged update of the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical classic that reimagines the story of Jesus Christ as a media savvy cult leader of an Occupy-type movement. Replete with mobile phones, dreadlocks, pop art murals and multi-media displays, Ben Foster plays Christ as a boisterously charismatic public speaker, former-Spice Girl Mel C is in great voice as Mary Magdalene and Chris Moyle is a hilarious, show-stopping King Herod. Fans of Norman Jewison's ground-breaking 1973 film version will adore how Herod's comic Try It And See number has been recast as a TV text-in poll about whether Christ is "Lord or Fraud"! But the real revelation here is the astounding, stellar performance by Australian comedian Tim Minchin. Playing it straight as Judas Iscariot, he frames the story as one of misplaced faith, betrayed ideals and the perils of authority. Filmed live at London's O2 Arena, the film is on for one week only. For screening details, visit jesuschristsuperstarthemovie.com.au.
ALEX CROSS *** (101 minutes) M
Familiar cop-movie terrain is given a good going over here as family-loving Detroit cop Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) goes through the procedural paces in the hunt for emaciated psycho killer Picasso (Matthew Fox from Lost, and who lost a huge amount of weight for the role). Based on the character created by novelist James Patterson - Cross was played very differently by an elderly Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls (1997) and Along Came a Spider (2001) - the film is crammed with inevitable (and admittedly enjoyable) cop-vs-psycho cliches, yet the proficient, pacy direction by veteran action specialist Rob Cohen (Daylight; The Fast and the Furious; Stealth; Mummy 2) keeps the fights, carplay and chases moving at a nifty, time-killing clip. Veteran Cicely Tyson has a good turn as Cross's no-nonsense mother while Edward Burns is less annoying than usual as Cross's partner.
SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS ** (84 minutes) MA
Having trouble finishing his script for a movie called Seven Psychopaths, frustrated writer Marty (Colin Farrell) gets hooked up in a bizarre dog-napping caper involving his pal Billy (Sam Rockwell), Billy's pal Hans (Christopher Walken) and the local, trigger-happy gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), owner of the napped dog. Too self-consciously clever for its own good, the tangled tale lurches along and you realise that this is one of those "meta-films" where the movie you're watching is the one the main character is writing. We saw this already in Adaptation (2002; directed by Spike Jonze and written by meta-specialist Charlie Kaufman), and there's no reason why writer/director Martin McDonagh (his first film since 2008's wonderful In Bruges) couldn't revisit the concept. Yet despite a great cast, a great premise and some great ham acting - a must whenever Christopher Walken walks into frame - the movie's lack of focus keeps it from kicking out of second gear and into the kind of crazy groove it clearly strives for.