Review: “Philomena”

Philomena

With tales of wizards and warriors taking over at the box office, it can often be forgotten that some of the most powerful stories we’ll ever hear happen to everday people just down the street.

“Philomena” is the true story of a woman (Judi Dench) who was forced to give up her child after an unwed pregnancy and, after decades apart, decided to track him down with the help of a disgraced journalist (Steve Coogan).

The search for Philomena’s child begins when the woman discloses to her daughter the secret that she’s been hiding for years. This same daughter then works as a server at a high-class function where she learns that Martin Sixsmith, a former journalist and political spin doctor, is shopping around book ideas. After thinking it over, he decides that maybe this “human interest story” is a better idea than his next best idea: an anthology of Russian history.

As with every great mystery, there are roadblocks and twists to encounter, but the story is about more than just the search for Philomena’s child. It also about her confronting what was done to her by the convent that forced her adoption and the pain of never knowing what became of her child.

There is a recurring discussion between Martin and Philomena on whether there is a God and, if so, what would be his purpose in doing what he did to this harmless woman. Not only that, but the very people who claim to be in communication with Him and doing His work are at the heart of the wrong that was done to her. With Martin playing the atheist/agnostic and Philomena being a devout Catholic, each side gets to have their own thoughts expressed without anyone in our easily-offended society feeling the urge to be offended.

Dench and Coogan make for a great pair throughout the film in other aspects as well. While Coogan’s Martin is jaded by his years in politics and high society, Philomena is easily enchanted by the simplest of ideas. One of their greatest exchanges takes place on the back of a cart traveling through an American airport. Philomena has just finished a dime-a-dozen romance novel and cannot wait to tell Martin every twist and turn the book has to offer. Even though Martin (and probably the audience) couldn’t care less, this little old lady is more excited about her book than Martin would be having won the lottery.

What makes “Philomena” work, aside from its humor, is the conviction of its characters. Though Philomena may feel a little cartoonish at times with her joy and wonder, both she and Martin are well-rounded people. Mixed with a smart script (adapted from Martin Sixsmith’s book), the performances by Coogan and Dench bring a warmth to the film and provide us with a reason why we should really care about the search for a lost child.

From veteran director Stephen Frears (“High Fidelity” and “The Queen”), “Philomena” is a story of overcoming regrets and making amends with our pasts. With powerful storytelling and likeable characters, the story of Philomena Lee is one that sticks with you.

Grade: A-

Next up I’ll be reviewing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. Be on the lookout for my Favorite Movies of 2013 post coming soon. Happy viewing.

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Review: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

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Who knew folk music could be so depressing? Everyone? Oh, ok.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a glimpse inside the life of a folk musician named, you guessed it, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). Playing small bars and hopping from couch to couch, Llewyn is trying to find his path after the death of his musical partner. Along the way he crosses paths with a troublesome cat and a myriad of other talented musicians.

From the minds of Joel and Ethan Coen comes this somber tale of a musician who never catches a break and, let’s be honest, rarely deserves one. Whether it’s from losing his friend or his own personal demons, Llewyn is not the most likeable guy in the world. He sleeps around with people he shouldn’t, destroys dinner parties and talks down to anyone who doesn’t share his same musical ideals. Yet, in the neurotic world that we’ve come to expect from the Coens (“The Big Lebowski”, “Fargo”), he still manages to be a fairly decent person by comparison. The only other people you might want to spend more than five minutes with are Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al (Adam Driver) but that’s about all the screen time either of them has anyway.

Some of the characters that Llewyn comes into contact with are a pair of traveling musicians (John Goodman and Garret Hedlund), a legendary music executive (F. Murray Abraham) and Jim’s partner (romantic and musical), Jean (Carey Mulligan), who may be the most insufferable of the lot.

The film is less about plot and more about watching Llewyn dive into his problems through music and relationships. He recognizes the unpopularity of both himself and his profession but strives to force people into his way of thinking. His dark emotions combined with the genre of music he’s putting out make for a somber tone throughout the film.

As dark as it may be at times, this is still a film made by the Coen brothers so there are plenty of laughs to be had. The cat that Llewyn is forced to look after for half the film is as unreliable as his caretaker, providing comic relief each time it tries to escape. John Goodman and Adam Driver both add some humor in their respective scenes as well, the latter adding some ridiculous vocals to the goofy protest number “Please Mr. Kennedy”.

Since most of the secondary characters come and go like the wind, a lot of the film rests on Oscar Isaac for both acting and musical performances. The latter is where he truly excels in the film. It’s one thing to sing sad music and it’s another to sing it to the point where the entire personality and anguish of a character comes through with a simple guitar and a voice.

While it probably isn’t the best work from the Coen brothers, it does feel distinctly fresh and carefully put together. The visuals, tone and pacing are all on point and make what could have been an insanely boring film into something enjoyable and artistic.

Grade: B+

Coming next will be my review for “Philomena”, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. Until then, happy viewing.

Review: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug

When it was first announced that J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel “The Hobbit” would be adapted into three films, my first thought was that the second film would be the weakest of the three. It’s easy to drag both the beginning and the ending of a book out into their own individual films. The first would have the excitement of a new adventure plus a cast of characters to introduce and the last would have the epic conclusion that serves as an exclamation point to the series. However a middle chapter could be difficult because it may come across as merely a bridge between the first and last film. Thankfully, this was not the case with “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”.

Picking up where the first film left off, this second chapter follows Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and a band of dwarves led by heir-to-the-throne Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) as they journey to defeat a menacing dragon and reclaim their homeland.

In order to expand the original novel into three films, director Peter Jackson and his writers had to shoehorn some new material in to fill gaps in the story. This allowed the opportunity to bring back characters like Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who “Lord of the Rings” fans will be happy to see again.

One of the biggest complaints of the first film was that there wasn’t enough action to balance out the talking and walking. In roughly 2-3 scenes, Legolas gets the opportunity to slice, dice and behead as many orcs as he can get his hands on. One scene has Legolas and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) teaming up with the dwarves to take out what feels like a thousand bad guys as the latter tumbles down a river in barrels. Even Bilbo becomes a bit of an action hero this time around, at one point taking out 6-foot spiders in an enchanted forest.

Before you get too worried that this film is all blood and guts, there are plenty of long conversations as well. After reaching their destination, Bilbo has an exchange with Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) that is quite reminiscent of his game of riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis) in the first film.

“The Desolation of Smaug” does a good job continuing to develop characters while, at the same time, introducing brand new ones like Bard (Luke Evans) and Tauriel. It’s still a little hard to distinguish between a couple of the dwarves in Bilbo’s party, but through the course of two films it feels like we’ve met them all one way or another.

The only thing I really didn’t care for in this film was how much it felt that the audience needed to be reminded of “The Lord of the Rings”. It’s hard to go ten minutes in this film without hearing about Sauron or the Ringwraiths, etc. Of course “The Hobbit” is a prequel of sorts to the other trilogy, but it almost comes across as the team behind this film doesn’t have enough confidence in the storyline at hand. As if the stakes in the current series aren’t high enough so we have to allude to this much darker villain that threatens the entire world.

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” benefits from great performances in Freeman, Armitage and Ian McKellen (who will always be Gandalf/Magneto to me) as well as great source material to pull from. You know it’s a good film because it doesn’t feel like you’ve been in the theater for 160 minutes and soon as the final shot goes dark, there is an instant echo of “Aww man!” in the audience. There may have been a few wavering fans after “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” but “The Desolation of Smaug” will win them back with another great outing in Middle Earth.

Grade: A-

On a completely different note, I’m currently doing a YouTube series called See These Movies with a few friends where we review older movies. Right now we are going through some Christmas classics, the latest of which is “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”. Check it out.

Happy viewing.

Review: “Out of the Furnace”

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If you’re a soldier stuck in a small Pennsylvania town after several tours in the Middle East, maybe bare-knuckle boxing isn’t the way to go.

In “Out of the Furnace”, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) are two brothers struggling to survive in a small Rust Belt town. When a sudden tragedy strikes the family, Russell ends up in prison and Rodney is sent back into action with the military. After serving his time, Russell realizes his brother has made some dangerous friends in the world of underground fighting. When a ruthless criminal (Woody Harrelson) comes after Rodney to collect a debt, Russell has to choose between trusting the authorities and endangering himself to inflict his own justice.

With American manufacturing headed the way it is, there are many of these small towns throughout the country where factories are closing and illegal activities are moving in. Through these two brothers, we are shown the choice that many people from these communities are forced to make: an honest job that barely gets you by or something dangerous that could make you rich or dead.

Though small-town economics and the path a man chooses would have been a great focus for the film, “Out of the Furnace” instead tells the story of veterans who come home to a financially drained community and discover their service hasn’t guaranteed them an easy life.

Christian Bale continues to transform himself with every role, this time taking on the persona of a blue collar country boy. He and Affleck have a strong chemistry as brothers and it helps that the latter provides a strong performance as well. Their counterpart, Woody Harrelson, dances the line between comedy and complete lunatic like he has in the past with “Rampart” and “Seven Psychopaths”. Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat is a devious little redneck who would just as soon kill you as shake your hand. As the leader of a number of illegal activities, his unpredictability makes for a good villain. Completing the rest of a strong cast are Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard. Sadly all but Dafoe are pretty much wasted.

Despite a strong cast, “Out of the Furnace” struggles from a mediocre script from writer Brad Ingelsby and co-writer/director Scott Cooper. Between the two of them they have written a total of 3 movies before this, only one of which was worth remembering (“Crazy Heart”). The film starts out very strong but starts to lose its way during the end of the 2nd act. The conclusion picks things up a little bit but the finale still felt a little rushed and hollow.

After watching the film, I kept thinking about how close it was to being great without ever getting there. Another draft on the script might have upgraded the film to something memorable, but for now it’s slightly above average.

“Out of the Furnace” isn’t a bad film but given the talent of its cast and a release date right in the middle of awards season, the final product is a little disappointing. If you’re not into hobbits from Middle Earth, “Out of the Furnace” is a good way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Grade: B-

I’m hoping to post reviews for “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “The Hobbit” in the next few days so be looking out for those. Until then, happy viewing.

Review: “All Is Lost”

All Is Lost

Ever wonder how long you could make it lost at sea with a sinking boat? For a 77-year-old, Robert Redford does just fine.

Redford plays the unnamed character “Our Man” in the film “All Is Lost”, a 106-minute study of an old sailor who must do everything he can to survive at sea after a shipping container strikes his boat.

If you’re looking for dialogue, this may not be the film for you. Aside from an opening monologue by Redford, there are maybe 15 spoken words throughout the whole film. But if you’re willing to look past that, there’s a great film to be watched.

There are many critics who are eager to give Redford the Oscar for Best Actor and, having seen the film, it’s easy to understand why. You can often say that an actor’s performance carries a film, but it’s a little rarer for that actor to be the only one who appears onscreen. Redford gives a subtle and captivating performance that makes up for the fact that we almost never hear him speak.

“All Is Lost” is only the second feature film from writer/director J.C. Chandor whose first film, “Margin Call”, was one of the best of 2011. Unlike this film, “Margin Call” is a big ensemble piece concerning the recent financial crisis. For “All Is Lost”, Chandor trades out conversations on insider trading for the haunting beauty of the sea.

Though Redford’s performance may be the headline of the film, there’s more to offer than just the actor’s comeback. Chandor’s minimalist approach makes a film that could have been a big Hollywood production feel that much more real. The only shots that feel like a movie are ones that place the camera below sea level gazing up at Redford’s life raft and, honestly, they are too beautiful to complain about.

For all of its good qualities, there is one aspect of the film that a small group of people have a big problem with. According to many in the sailing community, there are certain devices that Redford’s character should have had at his disposal to combat the problems his character faces in the film. While it’s not a big deal for 95% of moviegoers, it should at least be pointed out. Especially in a film like “All Is Lost” where realism is one of the biggest attributes being thrown around.

With that aspect of realism out of the way, one thing that did make the film different from others like it is that Redford is extremely calm through the majority of his character’s plight. Waking up to see water rushing across the cabin floor, he meticulously gets up to inspect the damage and repairs the leak without flipping out the way one would expect.

“All Is Lost” takes its time, but never feels slow. Between its beautiful, but deadly, setting and one of the best performances of Redford’s career, it makes for a simplistically fascinating film at a time of year otherwise dominated by hobbits and Norse gods.

Grade: B+

See These Movies – The Shawshank Redemption

I’d also like to tell you about a new video series (link above) a few friends and I have put together where we look at older classics and talk about what we love or what we think is overrated. Even though we are all under the age of 30, I promise we’ll cover some films older than say, 1994. Please check it out and let me know what you think. (PS-I already know I completely look like a lumberjack)

Happy viewing.