My Year Without Sex

Australian sex comedies in the 1970’s revelled in its physical manifestations.  Going further than Britian’s Carry On series, films like Alvin Purple had a gritty realism amongst its outlandish sexcapades.  These days film-makers seem keen on exploring its emotional sides whilst still having some quirky fun.  My Year Without Sex is a charming addition to the genre showing how enforced chastity can change a family’s dynamics.
Natalie (Sacha Horler) is a loving mum happily married to Ross (Matt Day).  Upon visiting her doctor, she suddenly collapses due to a brain embolism.  After spending weeks recovering in hospital, she is instructed to momentarily abstain from any strenuous activity - including sex.  Attempting to establish new parameters in their relationships, the arrival of female priest Margaret (Maude Davey), gives added strength to cope without the three letter worded craving.
Making mundane situations entertaining can sometimes be difficult.  Celebrating her characters ordinary lives, director Sarah Watt succeeds by interweaving a truthful honesty in their development.  Although ‘going on a journey’ can be a hackneyed phrase, it’s easy to do so here with people refusing to surrender to illness.  Anyone who has lived through these moments should find much to relate with the frustration in trying to re-engage with normal life well articulated by its strong cast.  It’s often the ability to overcome such hurdles that shows the strength of a person and of a family learning to deal with their situation. 
Watt’s story-telling skills can be seen in the script’s added subtexts.  In examining the increasing sexualisation of society and the over-stimulation of constant visual distractions, she shows how these elements can increase someone’s stress.  By giving in to the barrage of consumerism there is the danger that, like her characters, we lose some of our emotional needs.  In spite of some occasionally predictable sequences, the family’s re-evaluation of their existence help maintain some much needed authenticity.  These themes are mixed in an engaging blend proving the best comedy is drawn naturally from everyday surroundings.
Performed by a fine ensemble and avoiding the traps of mawkish melodrama, My Year Without Sex is a diverting essay in defying illness.  It also shows how the sea-change between the portrayal of sex and comedy in Australian cinema has grown from the salacious antics of nearly forty years ago.
Rating out of 10:  7

What Just Happened

Hollywood’s PR experts are often its most creative people.  Spinning tales of smooth film production, their skills in shaping truths for their own benefit is remarkable.  What Just Happened attempts to hold a mirror to such gurus with vanity and deception apparently running rampant.  Based on an insider’s memoirs, the titanic story of bruised personalities and imaginative madness shows how the artistic process can be halted by one’s sense of self worth.
Tinseltown producer Ben (Robert De Niro) is in a state of constant harassment.  Feeling the heat from a studio unhappy with the ending of his latest movie, he also deals with the dramas engulfing his next film.  When its recalcitrant star refuses to shave his beard, a potential catastrophe arises.  Caught between stars, agents and two ex-wives, Ben’s everyman abilities are stretched to breaking point with an ego more than matching their own.
Having directed many hits over the decades, What Just Happened offers Barry Levinson a chance to bite the hands that feeds him.  Ultimately throwing his punches rather than aiming hard at his targets, his general disdain for the Hollywood money-men is clearly seen.  From turning thoughtful pieces into ‘products’ to the pressure in staying on top, their influence has dimmed the lustre the dream factory once had.  In a way you feel a wistful sadness in that the audience become the losers as they view images seemingly light years away from the writer’s original intent.
There are still many amusing moments to be had, even if they aren’t as funny as they should have been.  To be genuinely satirical rather than bitterly cynical is a gift few directors possess with Levinson unfortunately plumbing for the latter.  Occasionally meandering through its episodic script, salient points become lost as events try too hard in gaining traction.  Making up for this is some great acting from De Niro whose talent for roles requiring repressed rage is well utilised.  Playing themselves, Sean Penn and Bruce Willis have a great time with John Tuturro as a stressed agent being good value.  
A middling effort rather than a cracker of a comedy, What Just Happened seems as empty as the people it presents.  Not without merit, it raises the point in how such powerfully dysfunctional people find the time to make films in between their own personal dilemmas.
Rating out of 10:  6