Friday, June 10, 2022

Film Reviews: Terence Davies Directs a Thoughtful WWI Era Gay Drama; A Hip and Fun “Sexplanation” Documentary

A Sexplanation (c) Herra Productions

Film Review: A Sexplanation 
On Demand Streaming 

Alex Liu, a science and health reporter, has directed himself in his first documentary, “A Sexplanation,” in which he goes around the country asking experts and persons-on-the-streets alike about, well, sex: How did they learn about it, is there embarrassment around it and, most important, how open are you about it in your daily life? Liu, a charming, gay, Asian American guy is not just behind the camera, he puts himself through some of the more “humiliating” stuff in front of it, like talking to his immigrant family about sex and having an MRI while performing, um, things on himself, all in the name of science. Like those MTV documentaries in the 1990s, Liu incorporates animations, quick editing and graphic graphics to keep it all entertaining while also educational. Liu explains his motives in making this film is to “strip away shame from sex – unless shame floats your boat.” Despite some juvenile references (Did he really have to meet a Stanford psychology professor at a restaurant called The Nut House?), this is all easygoing and fun, even when he interviews a Republican state senator and a Catholic priest - both remarkably friendly and dogma-lite. My favorite moment is when he asked his mother if she ever suspected he was gay, and she said she had suspicions when he was so enthusiastic for the figure skating events at the Olympics. Moms always know. 

Benediction (c) Roadside Attractions

Film Review:  Benediction 
In Cinemas 

British director Terence Davies moves to the beat of his own drummer, and that beat is quiet, deliberate and steady. In “A Quiet Passion,” his contemplation of the life of Emily Dickinson (as played by Cynthia Nixon), he emphasized the quiet with the passion being implied. In his latest movie, which also looks at the life of a poet, this time Siegfried Sassoon, the passion bubbles a bit more on the surface. Sassoon (a subdued but powerful Jack Lowden) was a decorated WWI British soldier, whose antiwar poetic treatise, “Soldier’s Declaration,” gained him fame but also a stay at a psychiatric hospital for “trench fever” instead of a court martial. There, Sassoon meets what is possibly his first and most important love of his life, Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), another poet whose “Disabled” would be an important touchstone for Sassoon, as least in Davies’ treatment. After the war, Sassoon became a part of an influential social circle of gay men, including the “bright young thing” Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) and the songwriter Ivor Novello, played a bit too Oscar Wilde-influenced by Jeremy Irvine – one wonders what a young Jeremy Northam, who played Novello in “Gosford Park” could have done with the part here. While this is the most entertaining and plot-heavy (as it were) part of the film, it did feel very much of a traditional timeline biopic (there’s a moment where Sassoon is seen injured, with possibly a self-inflicted gun wound, but it’s never brought up again) instead of a character study of wounded PTSD soul that the first half hour would predict. 

Benediction (c) Roadside Attractions

Davies also occasionally jumps timelines to Sassoon at the end of his life, now played by Peter Capaldi, finding solace in his newfound Catholicism that gives the film its metaphorical religious title. We also find out that Sassoon is married to a woman named Hester and has a son. That we ultimately see this played out in the past is somewhat spoiled and diluted by these flash forward scenes. However, it is fascinating how Davies incorporates probably the only special effect moments of this movie to show us how time will always change us. I wish Davies would have used an original score, although he does make good use of a Vaughn Williams piece and a surprisingly effective although anachronistic “Ghost Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend).” The movie ends where it began, with the horrors of war and their effects on survivors. It’s a powerful moment, wonderfully and wordlessly embodied by Lowden, as poetry again pierces the heart of the characters and the audience.

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