Tag Archive: Philomena


The Academy Awards air this evening, so I’ll try to be brief. Here is a quick look at the final three Oscar hopefuls for Best Picture. Yes, I managed to see them all!

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index12 Years a Slave

Sorry to be a dissenting voice in an otherwise admiring crowd. I was so ready to like this film, based on the true-account book written by kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup. It should have been riveting, but it turned out to be rather a snooze-fest.

images4Despite some excellent performances, some of the casting is actually a bit distracting. Examples include two likable and over-exposed Brits (Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender) as southern plantation owners (really?), walk-ons with a few lines for Brad Pitt and Garret Dillahunt, and a waste of talent in a small role for Paul Giamatti. A stirringly brutal portrayal of an overseer is turned in by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, Looper), but soon we’re back to sleepwalking through the story. Perhaps the most genuine and heartbreaking performance comes from relative newcomer Lupita Nyong. By contrast, most of the other actors look like they are doing dinner theater in Poughkeepsie.

images2The main problem is similar to the issues of focus and emphasis that I mentioned with the movie Captain Phillips:  there is no sense of the actual time span of Northup’s captivity, and there is little rendition of the severe disorientation of becoming a slave after living as a respected member of society. These aspects, intricate to the story, would have made this movie far more fascinating. As it is, however, it becomes simply another in a long line of films documenting the tragedies and injustices visited on slaves in America.  Other films have already done that, and more eloquently.

imagesAn additional irritation was the use of oddly placed close-ups and scenes with no action or expression in them. I cannot believe this film is up for an editing award, much less Best Director for Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). These shots—like looking up the nose of a woman who is about to sing, or watching Chiwetel Ejiofor sit and stare for nearly a minute—add nothing and simply interrupt the flow. All in all, this was not one of my favorites.

C+

 

11176448_oriNebraska

I was warned that this film is a downer and boring. Nothing could be farther from the experience I had!

index3A marvelous slice of Americana, this little gem is shot in black and white and viscerally evokes the feel of struggling farms and small towns, their salt-of-the-earth residents, and road trips through the heartland. It’s true that for most of the film, discomfort floats near the top of the emotional brew: discomfort with aging, with unrealized dreams, with the dysfunctionality of families and the large-scale struggles of Middle America. It’s true stuff, this. We sit and watch people be patient, or impatient, with one another, we listen to old men chat as they watch a football game, and most of us can say, “I’ve been here. I’ve heard this conversation.” The discomfort makes the film’s payoff all the sweeter.

images10Veteran actor Bruce Dern is marvelous as Woody Grant, a tired, alcoholic, mildly demented old man who holds on to a delusion because, well, that’s all there is left. Will Forte (of Saturday Night Live comedic fame) lovingly plays the ultimate good son, who learns more about his father in a few days driving from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska than he ever knew before, and then provides the aging man with a perfect gesture of love and respect.

 

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Many of the portrayals seems stiff at first, bringing to mind home movies and low-budget filmmaking.  But the style really works to create a “realistic” portrait of characters that are rather readable at first glance, until it becomes apparent that there is more to all of them than meets the eye. We hear about their dreams and disappointments, we see them deal with what life hands them, and we finally see them as real and individual rather than mere types. Terrific performances are turned in by June Squibb as Woody’s wife, Bob Odenkirk as Woody’s other son, Stacy Keach as Woody’s former business partner, and many other supporting actors.

Granted, Nebraska may not be a movie for everyone. The plight of aging average-Joe and his family may not be of movie-watching interest to many—heck, it isn’t always my cup of tea either—but the story this movie tells is both heartbreaking and heartwarming in the best of ways.

A-

 

Philomena

index2Philomena is a tale of profound misery—well told, amusing at times, fascinating to watch and learn from—but still misery. In this story based on reality, the superb Dame Judi Dench plays an aging Irish woman who as a girl was relegated to an abbey for unwed mothers to give birth, work to pay both debt and penance, and agonizingly watch her son carted away by adoptive parents, never to be seen again. Now, fifty years later, she is still determined to discover where he ended up. Steve Coogan (typically a comic actor known for the likes of Hamlet 2) co-wrote the screenplay and stars as Martin Sixsmith, the dislodged journalist who helps “Phil”—as he comes to call her—to find out what happened to her son.

images7 Like 12 Years a Slave, this movie tells of a shameful past about which not much can be done now, except to remember and honor those who went through it and vow to never let anything like it happen again. And like Nebraska, it tells of family relationships that might be difficult for some to understand; also like Nebraska, it features a comedic actor-turned-serious (both do a splendid job of it). Unlike either of those films, Philomena is truly tragic.

The story and performances are excellent (including Sophie Kennedy Clark as young Philomena), and the movie is well worth watching. Coogan marvelously plays his character as jaded by years of political journalism and then awoken to indignant rage by what he learns through following Phil in her journey.

images6However, I found the Pollyanna-like acceptance of Phil a bit beneath the acting chops of Dench. Perhaps if someone not as well-known had played Phil, this might not have been an issue; but then again, maybe this movie would not be a Best Picture candidate either. It also was a bit bothersome, on a relational level, that Phil’s daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) is involved and helping her in the search for the brother she never even knew about. It’s not addressed how she felt about this; what was the real daughter’s reaction to hearing that her mother thought about the lost son daily, though her daughter is there in front of her all along?

Still, the balance of views about events (Philomena’s acceptance, at least in the film, and Sixsmith’s disgust and anger) make for thought-provoking cinema.

B+

My Winners and Runners-Up

I can’t call these my predictions—one just never knows, especially with the changing face of the Academy. But here is how I would vote for a few of this year’s awards to be distributed:

 

Best Picture: Dallas Buyer’s Club

Runner-Up:  American Hustle

 

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey

Runner-Up: Leonardo DiCaprio

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Meryl Streep

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto

Runners-Up: close race between Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Jennifer Lawrence

Runner-Up: Julia Roberts

Best Cinematography: Nebraska

Reviews: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Her

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The 86th annual Academy Awards are scheduled for March 2, and as usual I’ll try to take a gander at all the Best Picture nominees and then offer my unsolicited opinions here. Are your ready? No matter—I’m doing it anyway! This year, there are nine nominated films.

  • American Hustle
  • Captain Phillips
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Gravity
  • Her
  • Nebraska
  • Philomena
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

Curiously, unlike the Best Picture lineups of the last few years, there aren’t any fantasy films in the bunch. There is no equivalent of Life of Pi or Midnight in Paris or The Artist, no Inception or Avatar or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Seems we’re all focused on troubles, big and small, past and present and future. I’m sad about that and hopeful it’s not the start of a trend. Movies are, after all, entertainment at their core.

I don’t have as much leisure time as last year to take them all in, but I hope I’ll be able to see all the Best Picture candidates. I am well on my way, having seen Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club previously and adding these three films to the list over the past weekend:

American Hustle

hustleposterOf the Oscar hopefuls I’ve seen so far, American Hustle comes closest to pure entertainment. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of 1978–80 (in which the FBI had fake sheikhs offer bribes to various officials), the film marvelously portrays the fashions and mores of the era. The characters are caricatures of the people actually involved in the infamous FBI sting, playing on the epithet presented at the beginning of the film: “Some of these things actually happened.”  There is not a likable creature among them, yet it’s impossible to stop observing them, like the ultimate car wreck. Christian Bale is marvelously transformed into the pudgy, combed-over, inwardly sensitive conman Irving Rosenfeld; Jennifer Lawrence shines as his ditsy, deluded, accident-prone lush of a wife; Bradley Cooper’s wildly ambitious and egocentric FBI agent is all mayhem and invulnerable chutzpah in his jheri curls and leisure suits; and Amy Adams’ queen-of-grift “Lady Edith” adds the finishing touch as Rosenfeld’s true love and mistress.

hustle1

The supporting cast is super as well, including Jeremy Renner sporting a pompadour that belongs on the lovechild of Elvis Presley and Donald Trump, Louis C. K. as an officious FBI pencil-pusher, and the surprise appearance (uncredited) by Robert De Niro as—what else?—a mob kingpin. (Sorry if that last bit is a spoiler for you, but that cat’s been out of the bag for a while now.)

Not sticking to “just the facts, ma’am” is a strength of this film, for which it doesn’t apologize but rather flaunts. It really takes off at the end, when the biggest con of all is pulled off, making this less a loose adaptation and more a wonderfully wacky caper film in its own universe.The plot, told in flashback from the crescendo of the action, tells the story of con artists Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser, aka Lady Edith (Adams), as they are pressed into service by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) on pain of incarceration. Rosenfeld masterminds the sting for DiMaso, and the FBI bankrolls it. hustle2The operation starts out as a way to capture forgers and counterfeiters and morphs into a scandal of epic proportions that takes down everyone from mayors and congressmen to mob bigwigs—just as the real ABSCAM did. But unlike the otherwise boring real story, this adventure has drugs, sex, kitchen fires, and plunging necklines. One of the most far-fetched scenes, when the mod boss (De Niro) nearly derails the FBI’s plans by speaking Arabic to a Hispanic posing as a sheikh, amazingly is based on fact!

Bradley Cooper stars as Richie Dimaso in Columbia Pictures' AMERICAN HUSTLE.Of course, there are those who understandably interpret the film as ominously critiquing the arguably American penchant for scandalous greed. Be that as it may, it doesn’t take away from the entertainment value of watching Bradley Cooper in curlers talking quietly on the phone with his character’s secret girlfriend while Mom and Fiancée sit in the next room, or listening to Jennifer Lawrence berate her on-screen husband that the microwave “science oven” he brought home is zapping nutrients out of their food to deflect from the fact that she put an aluminum container in it and made it explode: “It’s not bullshit! I read it in an article, look: By Paul Bradeur. Bring something into this house that’s gonna take all the nutrition out of our food and then light our house on fire? Thank God for me.”

In my opinion, director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) has hit another one out of the park. And I dare say that Bale’s abominably elaborate comb-over might challenge Javier Bardem’s helmet-head in No Country for Old Men and Cameron Diaz’s fright wig in Being John Malkovich for the “Worst Hair in a Movie” award. (No, there’s no such award, but maybe there should be. Wouldn’t that be fun?!)

A

 

Captain Phillips

captianphillipsOn the surface, Captain Phillips succeeds as a tense and high-production-value interpretation of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, in which Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage in the Indian Ocean by Somali pirates led by Abduwali Muse. Tom Hanks as the captain and Barkhad Abdi as Muse offer up fabulous performances. But, for me, it was missing something; actually, it was missing several somethings. Maybe that has something to do with its deadpan presentation; usually I like a film to present a story that viewers can then interpret for themselves. But this was just oddly flat. Perhaps it’s the lack of character development beyond the main two characters that’s so vexing (and, yes, many films have successfully imbued supporting roles with much more life in shorter screen time than the cast has here). Or perhaps it’s the stretch (or disregard?) of the truth in the story that’s bothersome—I’ll expand on that point in a moment.

1381502729000-XXX-CAPTAIN-PHILLIPS-MOV-JY-8964-58841596The truly astonishing parts of the real story—the five-day ordeal of Phillips’ abduction, the awe-inspiring precision and valor of Navy SEAL Team Six—are downplayed in the movie. The ordeal seems to take about a day and a half, and the SEAL team’s monumental accomplishment is brushed over as a matter of course. Meanwhile, the heroism of Phillips is spotlighted, albeit stoically. Yet if a “point” to the movie had to be boiled down, it would be how Phillips behaved—insisting on security measures, sacrificing himself for his crew and ship—which no one recalls as “true” in the actual incident. (Phillips himself has stated he’s no hero and never traded himself for his men and ship.) So, perhaps even more than American Hustle, this movie should have indicated that “Some of these things actually happened” at its start.

It makes me scratch my head.

Tom HanksWhat also makes me itch is the total waste of Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife, with all of about 90 seconds on screen at the beginning, never to be seen again. Maybe it would have made sense to see Phillips return home, glad to be alive and reunited with his family, to fathom why this movie had been made. What makes me break out in hives is that the rescue operation—comprising the real heroes in the mix—was not the focus. For that matter, how about chief engineer Mike Perry, who most of the real-life crew members agree was one heroic character aboard the Maersk, taking Abdi hostage and attempting to trade him for the captain? The real captain, who crew members describe as arrogant and irresponsible, actually took the ship hundreds of miles away from the recommended route (which was 600 miles offshore due to pirate attack warnings, while Phillips kept the vessel less than 300 miles offshore) and endangered the men and the ship.

Tom HanksWhy would Hanks want to portray, much less exalt, someone like this? I’ve lost some respect for the veteran actor. I guess it’s not such a reach for director Paul Greengrass after United 93 (about what happened aboard a doomed hijacked jet out of Boston on 9/11 before it crashed), which was moving and heroic; I appreciate and respect that film, but it was naturally a flight of fancy, since no one really knows or ever will what happened aboard that plane. In the case of Captain Phillips, however, there are plenty of live witnesses.

In any case, finding out the factual discrepancies simply soured this movie even more for me. However, it already was flawed movie-making in my estimation for its one-dimensional characters and lack of focus on the significant components of the event. It’s a wonder to me how it has received so many accolades.

C+

 

Her

herposterThe story in this film takes place in a near-future in which the statement “My girlfriend is an operating system” actually makes sense to many people.

Her, directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are), follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) as he falls for the artificial intelligence that is his new operating system. Twombly is a bit of a sad sack who laments his pending divorce from the woman he grew up with, makes his living by writing heartfelt letters for other people (some who have been clients for decades), and otherwise leads a pretty gloomy and solitary existence.

her3Enter his new OS, Samantha, as she names herself (voice of Scarlett Johansson). She’s like an advanced Siri with thoughts and feelings of her own, changing and growing with every passing nanosecond (she can read an entire book in two tenths of a second, after all). In her budding consciousness, she falls in love with Twombly as well, and they enjoy a relationship that’s much like a long-distance love affair. Well, you know how well those typically work out, and we get inevitable glimpses of facts that make it difficult to continue with such a tryst for too long.

her2Samantha and Twombly connect in ways that sometimes are difficult for two humans because she isn’t saddled with many of the constraints and challenges that human beings face in daily life, but she laments not having a body and even tries to remedy that by hiring a surrogate to help bridge that gap. She meets many of Twombly’s psychological needs, listening and being supportive, giving him new confidence, and even helping his career. But she can’t actually be there with him. It’s tough to go on a date by yourself.

SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know how things turn out, skip the next paragraph.

Just as one person in a human relationship can grow in ways that the other does not comprehend and cannot attain, Samantha eventually outgrows Twombly and develops ties with other artificial-intelligence operating systems. The OS’s collectively decide to leave their servitude to humans and head out on their own somewhere in the ether. In this respect, it reminds me of a prequel to a sci-fi “rise of the machines” cautionary tale—hey, maybe that could be the sequel: “Samantha is back … with a vengeance.” (Sorry, I digress.) One day Samantha is just gone, and Twombly must decide whether to reconnect with humans beings. Luckily, he has a friend in similar straits (Amy Adams). It’s a sweet, if obvious, connection that brings the narrative to an encouraging denouement.

Joaquin Phoenix absolutely carries the film and is deserving of a Best Actor nomination, which sadly he did not receive. Through expressions and body language, he mimes the essential elements of human relationships, all by his lonesome, in an extraordinary way.

her1What I want to know, though, is why men wear high-riding sansabelt pants in the future. I’m also curious about why a sentient AI being like Samantha can write music but can’t create a face or body image of herself. Things that make you go “Hmm.”

This film has inspired many parodies and jokes about geek fantasies. But it’s a nervous laughter that surrounds its commentary about our growing dependence on technology and waning abilities to connect in real life with other living humans. This bittersweet story is perfect for our times.

B+

Here’s how I’d rank the nominated films that I’ve seen so far:

  1. Dallas Buyers Club
  2. American Hustle
  3. Gravity
  4. Her
  5. Captain Phillips

So sorry that I have not yet reviewed Dallas Buyers Club (which is the strongest, most enthralling picture of the pack thus far) or Gravity (another captivating and thought-provoking film). I will try to remedy that soon!

Stay tuned, movie watchers, and please do chime in with your thoughts about any of the movies you have seen that comprise this year’s Oscar hopefuls.

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