BFI London Film Festival – DAY 1 (Part 1)

BFI London Film Festival 2012 posterAt last! The BFI London Film Festival 2012 has arrived. Since receiving press honours for the site last month I’ve been counting down the days to this great city’s very own film fest. Who said my North American counterparts should have all the fun? Although the festival officially kicked off this evening, with the European premiere of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, I managed to take in four early press screenings earlier today, and honestly there wasn’t a bad egg among them.

Stay tuned over the next week and a half for all of the latest from London; I’ll be working around the clock to bring you reviews of everything I manage to see. Here’s the first instalment of what I saw on Day 1…

The Sessions poster 2012 helen hunt john hawkesThe Sessions (***1/2)

Full of warmth and bolstered by some very fine performances, Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, about a severely disabled man’s sexual awakening, is a smart little crowd pleaser that soars in spite of its unconventional subject matter.

Based on the true story of Mark O’Brien—a Catholic poet paralysed from the neck down due to polio—the film follows O’Brien in the various sessions he undergoes with a sex-surrogate in order to lose his virginity. Its key strength lies in the building of witty exchanges and touching scenes around the relationships that blossom in O’Brien’s life as his sexual journey develops.

Lewin’s screenplay, which at times is razor sharp, is perfect Oscar fodder as one of those solid films that doesn’t quite fit the Best Picture criteria, so the Academy throws it into Screenplay categories instead. In this instance such recognition would be duly deserved, as Lewin approaches the odd yet perfectly credible subject matter with affection and good-willed humour that shines through the film via his script.

Perhaps most critical to the film’s success however is John Hawkes’ central performance, which he nails. There’s no two ways around it, this is a fantastically committed and rounded characterisation that draws the viewer right into O’Brien’s predicament with unabashed honesty and a wicked sense of humour. Almost as good is Helen Hunt as surrogate Cheryl. Her character’s evolution as a direct result of her interaction with O’Brien is a highlight, and if anything, leaves you wondering if by the end of the film she actually deserved more.

The film is not without flaws. For one I questioned just how affecting O’Brien could really be on the several women he encounters throughout the film. The delicacy with which Lewin handles to meatier aspects of the film only makes this issue more prominent. Yet this is a small problem in a film full of big successes. I found The Sessions to be a worthwhile and at times deeply moving film. All in all a great start to my LFF experience!

Frankenweenie movie poster 2012 disney tim burtonFrankenweenie (***)

Just about the most fun I’ve had watching a Tim Burton film in years. Following disappointment after disappointment, Burton has finally struck gold once more with Frankenweenie, his 3D black and white stop-motion extravaganza reimagining the Frankenstein fable in suburbia.

Brimming with gothic references, this is typically Burton without retreading the same old ground that he so often does. For once the Burton-Depp-Carter clique is nowhere to be seen, and thank goodness because this really is the director’s freshest offering since Big Fish, and most broadly entertaining since Ed Wood.

Dazzling animation and fantastic character design help to bring this story of a young boy’s attempts to resurrect his dog using science and lightning to life. They add far greater depth and dimension than the 3D, which feels like an afterthought and is just as pointless as it always is; there’s really no effort from Burton to utilise it in a purposeful manner.

A talented voice cast, which includes Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, and young Charlie Tahan excels, often in multiple roles. But the most exciting thing about Frankenweenie is that for once it feels like Burton actually has a point to make. There are clear themes of loss and challenging the status quo that will speak directly to viewers young and old. Not to mention there’s a level of restraint here that has been sorely missing from many of Burton’s recent big-budget offerings. The results speak for themselves.