THE SESSIONS

Stars 4

Helen Hunt goes full frontal as a sex worker in this extremely funny and tender film of sexual healing.

Set in 1988, John Hawkes is terrific as Mark, an habitually lovestruck writer and an iron-lung living polio sufferer, whose life becomes far more interesting when he is commissioned to write a piece about the disabled and their sex lives.

His eye-opening interviews suggest that there may be a sex life available to him, and after some investigating, he hires Hunt’s sex surrogate to give him a few bedroom pointers with the ultimate aim of losing his virginity.

Their training sessions become the gateway to a world of emotions he is even less prepared for and soon Mark, a fervent catholic, is soon rushing to William H. Macy’s priest, to confess his, ahem, mounting sins.

The acting is first rate with intelligent and brave performances bringing out the humour, heartache and honesty in the clever and witty script.

Sex itself is dealt with in a matter of fact manner while those struggling with the complex emotions awakened are treated sympathetically.

Details of each characters sex life are slowly revealed and the climax of this unveiling is one of the most satisfying jokes in the movie.

Only once does the film chase a cheap laugh but as that isn’t directed at the disabled but rather the wilful ignorance of an idiot, it’s easily forgiven.

This is a powerful and touching film that never cheapens itself with false optimism or is careless with people emotions, for which Hunt was deservedly nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Edge of Tomorrow

Director: Doug Liman (2014)

This blistering sci-fi spectacular sees Tom Cruise destined to fight the same battle over and over again.

Exciting and intriguing, it flares up with a charismatic cast, ferocious action, dynamite design and maze-like plot.

An alien species called Mimics have conquered mainland Europe and are ready to strike at London. They’re whirling dervishes of tentacles and teeth.

On the eve of a major retaliatory attack, Major William Cage (Cruise) is accused of deserting, dumped on the frontline and then caught in an alien ambush.

The brilliantly staged battle is filmed in a palette of blues and greys which channel the authenticity of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) – any other colour generally means something or someone’s on fire. (Cinematography Dion Beebe).

Aided by the rhythm of the editing (James Herbert, Laura Jennings), humour pierces the action like shrapnel.

Cage is killed in action but is shocked when he awakes fully intact back on the parade ground, the day before the attack.

Stuck in a time-loop he has to continually fight and die, learning each day how to survive a little bit longer.

Unlike the similarly structured classic Groundhog Day (1993), there’s no moral solution to the problem.

When Cage meets the famously tough and beautifully buff sergeant Vrataski (an excelllent Emily Blunt), he discovers she has had a similar experience.

Vrataski has learnt the aliens are responsible for the time-loop and that by destroying their hive mind, humans can win the war.

The lack of romantic chemistry between Cruise and Blunt works in the films favour as they form an effective team.

Bill Paxton is hugely entertaining as the swaggering Sergeant Farrell. He relishes every on-screen moment and turns them to his scenery chewing, comic advantage.

Cruise brings his usual intensity but makes Cage likeable by gamely being the punchline of many jokes.

Which is just one of many great reasons to watch this movie again. And again.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Director: Marc Webb (2014)

A swinging good time is guaranteed in this superhero sequel which comes fully charged with a shocking finale.

During the many amped–up action sequences, the swooping, dipping camera captures the dynamic thrills of the original comic artwork.

They crackle with humour which Brit actor Andrew Garfield supplies through his upbeat charm and gift for physical comedy.

He reminds us how much exuberant giddy fun can be had as a web-spinning, crime–fighting superhero.

Especially when he’s up against an enjoyably preposterous super-villain called Electro (Jamie Foxx).

Garfield has less fun as alter ego Peter Parker and spends a lot time out of costume mooning over his sassy girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).

However the real-life couple share a hugely likeable and engaging on–screen chemistry.

Parker’s dramatic declarations of love bode ill for the future of their relationship, especially as Gwen surprises him by applying to study at Oxford University here in Blighty.

Spider–Man’s friendly neighbourhood persona mask hides Parker’s emotional pain caused by being abandoned by his parent as a boy.

While he’s making a discovery that leads to the truth about their death, a lonely electrical engineer Max Dillon (Foxx) develops an obsession with Spider-Man.

Meanwhile the new head of Oscorp Harry Osborn (a pale and interesting Dane DeHaan) is suffering from a genetic disease and believes Spider–Man’s blood will save him from an early death.

An ignorance of health and safety regulations and a giant vat of electric eels leads to  a workplace accident – transforming Dillon into the glowing blue-skinned Electro.

After an electrifying confrontation in Times Square, Electro is locked up and blames Spider–Man. Osborn frees him and together they join forces to track down Spidey.

Brit guitarist Johnny Marr contributes to the high voltage soundtrack – appropriately he was once in band called Electronic.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Director: Michael Bay (2014)

Hardcore fans may enjoy this fourth episode of the fighting robot franchise – but for everyone else it’s a long dull road to cinematic oblivion.

If you strip this film down to its component parts: alien robots, metal dinosaurs, spaceships and good performances by Marky Mark Wahlberg and Stanley Tucci, it should be a lot of fun.

But it’s mangled construction means that no amount of flashy explosions – and there’s an awful lot of them – can jump start the story into life.

Since the Battle of Chicago the surviving autobots (the good transformers) and the decepticons (the baddies) have been hiding from the authorities, particularly sinister CIA boss Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer).

He’s teamed up with corrupt millionaire designer Joshua Joyce (Tucci) and they’ve hired mercenary transformer Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan) to hunt down the robot cars.

They plan to use the alien technology to build their own indestructible army.

Meanwhile struggling inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) rescues a broken-down truck which turns out to be autobot leader Optimus Prime.

Along with Yeager’s useless daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her idiot boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) they’re soon on the run from Lockdown.

Beneath the special effects sheen there’s a clapped-out engine of mechanical dialogue, shoddy plotting and a repetitive structure of chases and fights.

Devoid of excitement, logic or wit, it lasts a brain melting and bum-numbing two hours and forty five minutes – but seems at least twice as long.

It screams along in second gear at a hundred miles an hour, culminating in another huge battle which includes three dinobots.

As far as autobots go, I’ve watched far more entertaining episodes of The Octonauts.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Director: Kenneth Branagh (2014)

This insipid reboot of Tom Clancy’s CIA agent Jack Ryan is the character’s fifth big screen outing – and the least entertaining.

It squanders its acting talent, glossy design and glamorous locations on a dated plot, weak script and limp action sequences.

Lacking the self-knowing ridiculousness that makes the Mission Impossible films so much fun, it resorts to stealing its best (only?) joke from Indiana Jones and the finale of a Batman movie.

Chris Pine plays Ryan, a US marine turned top analyst. He’s commissioned by a CIA division so secret the movie can’t even be bothered to invent a name for it.

Pine has one excellent scene as a boorish drunk but isn’t allowed the swagger that made his Captain Kirk so entertaining. Kenneth Branagh plays the menacing Russian agent Viktor Cherevin and smuggles in some welcome acting subtlety.

Ryan is sent undercover to Moscow where he forgets his training at the first opportunity and is left huddling at night on the cold streets. Luckily, incompetent CIA chief Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) – his first kill was an innocent bystander – rocks up with a van full of surveillance gear to help out.

Then Ryan’s civilian fiancée Cathy (Keira Knightley) jets in to check on his suspected infidelity and immediately mucks in with the assignment.

She’s a natural at the espionage game and even helps out Ryan with some analysis – his best talent, don’t forget – and loyally doesn’t take any credit. Clearly the CIA have employed the wrong man, er, woman.

Mind you, the Russians are no better. Their not-so-dastardly two-pronged plot involves creating a huge economic depression – as if anyone would notice these days – and blowing up some Wall Street banks, which may not cause the outrage among the western world they anticipate.

☆☆☆

American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell (2014)

This brilliantly acted sleazy and greasy 1970s caper crackles with sexual tension like a cheap nylon suit.

The stellar cast consisting of three Oscar winners (Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro) and three nominees (Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams) is on excellent form in this slick, funny and dynamic crime comedy.

The fine performances combine with aggressive camera work, expert editing, a brilliant soundtrack and freaky 1970’s fashions to amp up an electric atmosphere ever higher.

Bale has rarely had so much fun with a role. He plays the balding, bearded, paunchy Irving Rosenfeld, a conman way out of his depth trapped between the mob and the FBI.

Rosenfeld and his mistress and partner in crime Sydney Prosser (Adams) are arrested by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) and compelled to assist him in cleaning up corruption in the new Atlantic City casino development.

The investigation expands to include expensive hotel suites, video surveillance, $2million in a suitcase and a Mexican who is posing as a fake sheikh.

The operation is threatened by Rosenfeld’s loose-lipped, loose-cannon of a wife Rosalyn – a dynamite performance by Lawrence.

They target passionate Carmine Polito (Renner), a corrupt mayor who is plagued by divided loyalties.

Russell even manages to squeeze a decent performance out of Robert DeNiro – something we haven’t seen for while.

Every character is forced to manipulate, lie, cheat and re-invent themselves as allegiances shift and con is built upon con but it’s not really interested in the plot as much as enjoying throwing the characters together and twisting the audience around it’s finger.

Deep down it’s also a critique of the film industry and of society’s cynical surrender to the power of capitalism – but don’t let that stop your enjoying the relentless ride as the toe-curling tension increases.

The scam continues to the very last line of the film.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Director: Ridley Scott (2014)

Striding into cinemas on a mission from God, Exodus is a handsome and monumental retelling of the Moses bible story.

Ridley Scott combines typically impressive design with spectacular action and even makes a couple of successful stabs at humour.

But he fails to broaden our understanding of events . Remaining true to the spirit of the story he fails to put an interesting spin on it. There is, of course, the parting of the Red Sea and the carving of the Ten Commandments.

Surprisingly for the director who gave cinema Ellen Ripley, G.I. Jane and Thelma and Louise, Scott provides no memorable female characters.

Although Indira Varma as a High Priestess makes an impression, Sigourney Weaver appears briefly and to no great effect as as Ramses’ mother Tuya. Love interest Zipporah (Maria Valverde) is forgettable. Even Scott’s recent and deservedly maligned Prometheus gave us two entertaining female roles.

In a nothing role Aaron Paul continues to cash in on his Breaking Bad kudos – but the likeable actor needs to start banking decent roles soon.

Egyptian general Moses (Christian Bale) is troubled when told he is the son of a Hebrew slave. His foster brother King Ramses II (Joel Edgerton) sees him as a threat and casts him into the wilderness

God appears to Moses in the controversial guise of a haughty and petulant youth – a confident and spine-tingling performance by Isaac Andrews.

He tells Moses to return to Egypt and free the chosen people but the prince-turned-prophet takes his time about it. So in the movie’s stand-out sequence, God lets loose a terrifying series of plagues including crocodiles, frogs, boils, flies and locusts.

All the children of Egypt are killed, including Ramses’ own son, and he orders the Hebrews to flee. But he chases them and they end up trapped between the sea and his bloodthirsty army.

Bale, with his usual intensity, successfully turns from sceptical young warrior to devout old leader – though his wildly changing circumstances barely phase him.

He’s not even surprised when he is unexpectedly introduced to his adult brother Aaron (Andrew Tarbet) for the first time.