'Lincoln,' sex surrogates and the search for a legend

When I first heard seven years ago about Steven Spielberg's desire to make a movie biopic of Abraham Lincoln starring Liam Neeson as our venerated 16th President, I cringed. Not only did it sound like obvious Oscar bait, but Spielberg can be the kind of filmmaker who pulls at the heartstrings in the most obvious and insulting way. Last year's "War Horse" was a perfect example of that.

His heavy-handed historical drama "Amistad" from 1997 also features Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman at their speechifying worst, so even after Daniel Day-Lewis was cast as Lincoln a couple years ago, I still believed that with Spielberg at the helm and John Williams again doing the score, "Lincoln" would be a pretty cheesy movie, especially with such a huge amount of story to cover to do the man justice.

So I was very surprised to find "Lincoln" to be a movie that deftly balances thoughtfulness and reason, and gives audiences a pretty clear picture of the man behind the legend (and his personal struggle) in just four months' time.

The sensitive, three-dimensional portrayal of Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Day-Lewis is a major reason the movie is so fascinating. He may have been 6'4", but if anything, this Lincoln is quiet and reserved. Even his big speeches -- as stirring as they can be -- seem like they are coming from a real place and don't carry the booming voice of puffed-up "authority" that you hear from most politicians and pundits today.

Spielberg’s more overt sentimentality is kept in check, yet he’s still able to be inspiring. The movie focuses specifically on the last four months of Lincoln’s life, giving us a richer portrait of the President’s skills as a politician as he maneuvers for enough votes in the House to adopt the 13th Amendment and end slavery. A more all-encompassing biopic of his life would have moved too fast and felt like highlight reel.

Especially in today’s frustratingly gridlocked political environment, Lincoln is timelier than ever. Tony Kushner’s remarkable juggling act of a screenplay shows shades of Lincoln’s personal conflict with his eldest son, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and his unstable wife Mary Todd, played by Sally Field— but more than anything, the movie gives us hope that government can accomplish great things even as it drags itself through the muck and strain of corruption.

It also takes the time to show a great leader giving thoughtful consideration to problems just as equally as he applies intense pressure. The end solution? Real and meaningful change.

At the heart of "The Sessions," opening today at Liberty Hall, is another well-spoken man. The movie, which mixes broad comedy, frank sexuality, and faith, is based on the true story of Mark O'Brien, played by John Hawkes. O'Brien was paralyzed from the waist down from polio, and lived most of his life on his back in an iron lung. But he was also a gifted poet and journalist, so even his everyday conversation is full of pithy humor and insight.

While doing an article on sex and the disabled, Mark decides to explore sex for himself for the first time at 38 and hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt). What develops between them is -- no surprise -- more meaningful, as much as she would like to keep it strictly clinical. Mark also develops a bond with his priest (William H. Macy), whose beliefs about sex before marriage are challenged.

Writer/director Ben Lewin has made a remarkably upbeat and affecting film, but if there's one major criticism I'd levy against it, it's that "The Sessions" moves too fast. There are glimpses of Hunt's family life, but nothing of Macy's character outside Mark, and after a while, anything not directly related to the central sex story is whittled away. Lewin cuts so quickly between some scenes (usually for a punchline) that they rarely have time to register.

Must-see: Watch the 1996 Oscar-winning 35-minute short documentary "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien" in its entirety.

If you watched CBS' October 7 "60 Minutes" profile of the remarkable new documentary "Searching for Sugar Man," you probably won't enjoy the movie as much as if you hadn't. (Hell, you probably shouldn't watch the trailer.)

For just over a quarter of an hour, "60 Minutes" used as much footage from the film as possible, lazily mixing in a couple of their own shots, and telling the story in the same ingenious way that director Malik Bendjelloul tells it in "Searching for Sugar Man." In other words, it's a spoiler-heavy CliffsNotes version of the film.

Without going into it too much, "Searching for Sugar Man," also opening at Liberty Hall today, is an extremely well-shot and put together movie, especially for its shoestring budget. It tells the parallel story of Rodriguez, an obscure early-70s Detroit musician who reportedly committed suicide onstage and the rise of his unexpected popularity in the country of South Africa. His lyrics gave the country hope in the middle of apartheid, and the film effortlessly links together the concepts of hope and art with a humbling lack of pretension.