Reviews

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The Sessions (2012)
10/10
Explorations of Healing: Sexual Discoveries & Spiritual Truths
21 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Ben Lewin's exceptional film entitled "The Sessions" is a delightfully provocative story, hinging on two people's growth through the most fascinating, unusual and bizarre medical sexual relationship perhaps ever depicted in a movie.

Helen Hunt will probably nab a second Oscar for her supporting role, Cheryl, played with absolute breathtaking compassion, grace, nuance and powerful subversion of every misogynistic caricature one could imagine. Her performance alone is reason enough to travel and see this. Through the years, one can see how Hunt chooses her films slowly, carefully and wisely, and it is absolutely clear to me why she wanted to do this- her role has the charm of a scorpion. She stings your intellect into cessation, enlivening your emotional world. Her words and relational caring are heartbreaking, even as she makes you laugh in delirium at an artistic bravery rarely seen among artists, especially actors. Perhaps among such luminaries like Brando, Day-Lewis, Hepburn, Streep. But not many others.

Surrounding the story's naturalistic, almost inchoate humor which tinges each scene of heart-wrenching beauty and meaning is one of the most talented actors working today: John Hawkes. He will most likely also grab an Oscar nomination. William H. Macy is an additional treasure; he turns in a subtle portrayal of a Catholic priest imbued with a genuine love of caring, desiring to help Hawkes' character thrive within the physical limitations of a polio virus survivor.

Within the film exists heavy religious imagery seamlessly woven between the narrative architecture: from Jewish baptism to Catholic iconography, philosophical meanderings to poetic waxing, the story never settles for being typical or mundane, but rather imbues itself with the soul of a saint striving to alleviate the bite and excoriating pain of life. Each actor helps paint this subtle, masterful and accomplished story.

Sadly, the harsh realities created by physical incapacity are a subject too often ignored, swept under the rug or just plain forgotten by Hollywood. Helen Hunt further impressed me in that one of her earlier and most critically acclaimed films, "The Waterdance" (1992, co-starring Eric Stoltz), also explores this subject: the sexual lives of the physically disabled. This is a topic about which she must care, for it keeps coming back to her work as if meant to be, as if she were a veritable physical vessel of love and understanding. She is, in fact, a conduit of grace.

Helen Hunt's performance is so simultaneously understated and transcendent this reviewer cannot help think, turned by the religious symbolism within the film, of the Biblical figural archetype of Mary Magdalene. Except, within this story, there is no prostitution (which, as we learn, is an allegory from which Hunt's Cheryl quickly disabuses both Hawkes and the audience.) Hunt rather represents a femininity scorned by her past's community, yet now finding meaningful help engendering sexual satisfaction, self-efficacy and life change among those in need of intimate therapy. If Mary Magdalene represented, for Christ, feminine companionship even amidst a "sinful" past, Helen Hunt is the arch through which Hawk passes on his way to a fuller, more whole world. In the end, Hawkes' character can be seen as a type of Christ figure, in some ways.

This film is like a beaming purity of emotion that roots itself in your soul. Sex is a primal energy- in leads us to relationship with another. This film is strengthened by that energy- but please don't see this as a cynical analysis of Hollywood once again using sex to sell. Rather, this film uses sex to show love, growth, spiritual transformation and physical healing. Lewin has crafted a veritable mirror to reflect beauty, connection and love back to even the most hardened, pessimistic, sardonic and misanthropic spirit or painful body. A film to seek out!
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10/10
Travelling Salesman: Walking the Tightrope of Morality, Math + Science
12 September 2012
Warning: Spoilers
The University of Pennsylvania's International House hosted the premiere of Timothy Lanzone's exceptional, dynamic, propulsive, timely, genuinely exciting and morally intrepid independent film entitled "Traveling Salesman." Also screened more recently at the NYC International Film Festival, the film is remarkable and evolves along several levels, and with several modalities, all while remaining strictly dialogue-based- no explosions, no graphic sex or (despite one somewhat intense dream-type sequence) violence, no titillating CGI- just strong, compelling, forceful, thought-provoking dialogue. Lanzone both directed and co-wrote the screenplay, a work that can claim direct lineage from the "12 Angry Men" of Reginald Rose and Sidney Lumet, as well as (to a greater or lesser extent) from Darren Aronofsky's groundbreaking "π." Not to mention the subtle homage to Stanley Kubrick.

Lanzone has produced a cogent work of cognitive argument, a script of postulation and instruction, all meandering within and around the concepts of foreign policy, physics, mathematics, and the tangible governing laws of our universe. This is a thinking person's movie, and I believe Lanzone to be one of the most intelligent and gifted young filmmakers working in the television/film industries right now. He is surely amongst the best of his generation. It will be interesting to see what future films he concocts, what festivals into which they achieve entry, and what awards they most surely will win. Like Lanzone's mind, this script is expansive- yet very specifically focused, simultaneously.

How much of our modern capitalist world is not only completely dependent on, but created by, science and technology? How much of that science and technology is predicated on understanding mathematical laws, i.e. the fundamental governing and thus-far-codified algorithms of physics and space? How much will future hot or cold warfare- and is current cold and hot warfare- between nations based solely on the competitive acquisition of mathematical and physical knowledge? The age-old adage being, of course, that knowledge IS power.

The disturbing exploration and answer to these questions, which Lanzone deftly embraces in "Travelling Salesman", is that the entirety, indeed ALL of our world depends upon minds that are able to continually sort through data, see patterns, and form ways of predicting and calculating meaning. Lanzone's script is impressive, perhaps flawless- he references mathematical luminaries such as John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, and G.H. Hardy as if every person in the general population knows exactly what he is talking about- which I loved.

The main import of Lanzone's work is this: how can the United States walk the razor's edge of science in an increasingly cut-throat, competitive world? Where does the line demarking points of no return exist, and how can we be true to what is right, or even know what is right, when knowledge discovered has the power to extrapolate beyond what our imaginations can comprehend?

Dr. Tim Horton- played with subtle and raw mastery by Danny Barclay- is the protagonist of the film, the quintessential genius and best-mathematician-of-his-generation, employed (with others) by the United States government to solve a centuries-old question, to develop an algorithm that I can best describe as a mystic's dream- something that can break all codes, predict, quantify and answer any question- a veritable philosopher's stone of physics. Once we obtain this knowledge, we unleash the equivalent of an atomic bomb in potentialities for future conflict- or unity.

This character gives an award-accepting speech, spliced throughout the film's progression, in which he explicates how science is becoming more and more divisive than unifying- mathematics was once universal, but now it threatens to unlock and unleash powers that have potentials worse than an atomic bomb. This is such an important topic to be explored, not only in this film, but for the general public as well- we are reaching a point in our history as a species where points of no return become more and more depressingly present.

I recently read a journal article detailing Bell's Theorem, a law of quantum physics asserting how objects, once connected, affect each other forever, no matter where they are. It was the Irish physicist John Bell's argument against Bohm's and de Broglie's postulation that "hidden variables" accounted for electrons' non-local, faster-than-the-standard-speed-of-light criterion for entities to be able to affect each other in two separate places. Essentially, inequalities found in laboratory data (this theorem is also referred to as "Bell's Inequality") showed how hidden variables definitely could not fully account for non-local, quantum affectations. There are no "hidden variables." In other words, local realism is false, or at best an outdated explanation mutually exclusive to a transcendent, quantum and always-mysterious reality. Non-localized reversal of effect and cause, Bell's theorem is beautifully counter-intuitive against much of what we learn of western science. This idea that consciousness- an implicate order- transcends our material world is essentially what Lanzone explicates in his fictional mathematician solving the "P = NP" age-old conundrum- the idea that there is a mathematical equation, able to be discovered, that can non-locally act as an oracle, breaking security codes and overwhelming others' ability to cope with or repel such knowledge.

How can we quantify and put a price on such knowledge? How can one nation or entity "own" a universal principal? A mathematical algorithm? A genetic cell line? A genetic sequence? "Travelling Salesman" is a film that one can watch repetitively, each time brainstorming more questions, more conundrums, more fractalizations of the eternal mysteries of life and existence and the evolution of human reasoning. This is the realm of the Best Art Has to Offer. Lanzone is a filmmaker- and artist- to surely watch, and follow. Simply unbelievably excellent filmmaking. This is a film to seek out- and it has earned its well-deserved place in the famous New York International Film Festival. Kudos!
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10/10
Film: All-Around Excellence; Bullock: An Understated, Powerful Masterpiece
7 December 2009
Everyone involved in this film's production must have been at the very peak of their game- no pun intended- because the movie fires on all cylinders and continues to do so after every genuinely earned laugh, genuinely earned tear, and genuinely earned ear-to-ear smile. In fact, that is a better "Summary" for this film- genuine. The adjective works. I found myself entranced by the humor the writer injected into the dialogue and banter interspersed between a poignant biographical drama. I found myself astounded at what great cinema can achieve- a panoramic, lyrical look at race at an individual level, and what one individual's kindness and love can transform in another's life. All in all, a film that reminds you how the truest stories are the ones that leave you speechless, with eyes watering.

Above all, Bullock absolutely won me over. She takes the film not only to another level, but to a Best Actress nomination for herself, and perhaps even a Best Picture nod. Her acting is subtle, understated brilliance, yet hard and powerful when she needs to be. Actresses like Kate Winslet and Julianne Moore could even- WHO'D HAVE THOUGHT!?- take a lesson here- in places where Bullock could have cried, could have shouted, could have done any number of Hollywoodized set pieces, she restrains herself and lets the story, and the life of her character, tell this story. I will be very surprised if she doesn't get, at the very least, a nomination. She certainly deserves it. Kudos!
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9/10
Guidelines for Building Aura and Feeling: Excellence
29 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Truly good film- very anti-much of what Hollywood spews out nowadays; truly creative and innovative in many, many ways, but mostly in the way the camera and actors interact and decide what and which ways to see and not see what is going on- truly brilliantly done film. I feel having a scene with the demonologist would have added a great deal to the overall knowledge and eeriness of the film... This work vacillates between suspenseful and frightening, however some moments are not so much scary as they are comical- a true panoply of emotions here. All in all, well worth your time and money.

I found myself wanting to converse with the actors at different points in the film, which doesn't always happen in explicit Hollywood-produced fare, which I think attests to the naturalism and reality inherent to how this was done.
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Star Trek (2009)
10/10
Kinetic, Subtle, Multi-Layered Masterpiece
1 May 2009
Bravo and kudos all around- J.J. Abrams has taken the fetid clay of a rotting entertainment franchise and fashioned a breathtaking, stand-alone, beautiful film.

It is not only the visual, non-stop cinematic intrepidness of this enterprise, but the glorious production value, the actors who you truly feel researched and understood the nuances of the Star Trek story as well as their individual character(s), and the experienced editing/sound quality that contribute to this film's greatness.

It will be very hard to top. Hopefully this isn't the capstone of Roddenberry's intellectual brainchild, but it certainly may be...ROUNDS OF LOUD, LOUD APPLAUSE! The creators and visionaries and consumers of science fictional exploration would be, and are, very proud.
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6/10
Frenetic Cuts and Lethargic Pace Hamper Otherwise Powerful Story
19 October 2007
I really wanted to love this film. The cinematography was gorgeous, the acting very believable, the story compelling, and the plot very moving.

However, whereas the frenetic time-cuts/image flashing of say, a film like Requiem for a Dream, are extremely appropriate to THAT story, this film's extreme time cuts/image collaging seemed to detract and annoy from the slow, beautiful message of the original novel.

I think, in general, the novel was a tough one to translate to film. Which perhaps is always the case, but this story dealt with so many issues, so many side-lines- with a murder mystery at its heart- that when you finally get to the end of the film, you're a bit bored and very confused.

A jumble, but an okay jumble. I'm glad I saw it, despite all my criticisms.
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10/10
Not Since "Children of a Lesser god" Have I Been So Touched and Moved by a Resonating Commentary about Relationships, Love, and Healing
18 October 2007
Wow. Wowzers. Truly, truly, truly beautiful, thoughtful, original, striking, melancholic, comedic, compelling, well-acted, well-filmed, well-written film about a man struggling to fall back in love with life.

The last time I felt this sad and happy and borderline exhilarated at the end of a movie for what it taught me about love was when I first saw Children of a lesser god.

And, like that film- mark my words- watch for Ryan Gosling being nominated- and, like Marlee Matlin, very likely winning- the Academy Award.

See this movie. Just like Children of a lesser god, it just may move you to tears.
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The Brave One (2007)
10/10
Making the Whole World Thoughtful
17 September 2007
This film is sophisticated on many levels: the way it interpenetrates Foster's character's psyche, exploring her need to exact revenge after her fiancé is brutally murdered, its dissection of American isolationism and the dangers therein, and the paradox of living in a populated city where loneliness exists within every brutality as much as every happiness.

I admire the film for two reasons: one, the way it flips a seemingly straightforward revenge-drama into an articulate exploration of EXTREME pain, and INTENSE grief, and how it refuses to judge the main character, letting the story speak for itself and its viewers decide if what Foster does- and what she receives for what she does- is in fact justice or a cop-out.

Folks, movies aren't supposed to preach or take sides or even necessarily make statements. Sometimes ART needs to EXIST as art, as emotions exist as emotions. That is the beauty of catharsis. Indeed, Jodie Foster's beautiful performance will- hands down- earn her an Oscar nod come January.
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Hairspray (2007)
10/10
Unadulterated EXCELLENCE that compels on so many levels
21 July 2007
This movie works in so many layered ways, it's hard to know where to begin. First off, one can pretty much guarantee Travolta getting an Academy Award nomination for his pitch-perfect, subtle, not-too-over-the-top-but-just-the-right-amount-of-camp, incredibly talented portrayal of Edna Turnblad. This is the kind of role made for movie-stars needing a turn-around comeback, something to remind audiences of why John Travolta is a movie star in the first place. Every scene, every vowel, every mannerism is dead-on as Travolta's characterization almost steals the entire movie from the music, costumes, message, and story.

Secondly, the music and choreography are ingenious. Scene transitions are so beautifully done, the highs and lows of the story conveyed so well with a narrative arc so wide and narrow in all the right places, that it is hard to say a bad thing about this movie.

Lastly, the finale caps the whole movie and reminds us of a timeless message: the one that love and change are intricately linked, and that people who try to oppress and go against a tide of equality are the ones who lose the most in history's pages.
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10/10
Overall, and In General, Woody's BEST, Outshining both Annie Hall and Manhattan
13 July 2007
This is on my top three favorite films of all time, along with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Million Dollar Baby.

Everything just WORKS in this movie- the brilliant humor, the conflicts, the relationships, the time frame, the dialog, the eclectic music, the architecture, the art, the quotes, the poetry, and the most uplifting, tearfully happy final scene and sentence.

I very much feel this film is Allen's capstone and high-water mark in his career; the way he understands the difficulties and vulnerabilities of people in relationships astounds me. The way he probes eternal themes like understanding your heart and seeking elusive happiness despite immense material comforts is hard-won brilliance- and finally, his religious skepticism and questioning with the final "wonder bread" prop during his experiments with Christianity is absolutely hysterical.

Allen makes a film a year, and largely- lately- it's always hit or miss. But Woody sure hit the ball outta the park with this one. 10/10, Grade A, Don't Miss It! Barbara Hershey should have been dominated for an Oscar. She deserved it much more than Wiest or Caine.
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