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Mini Review: Philomena (2013)

Judi Dence and Steve Coogan in Philomena

by Steve Habrat

When assessing this year’s long list of Academy Award nominees, a good majority of the films that have landed nominations are mainstream pictures. Perhaps the most obscure (I use “obscure” rather loosely here) nominee would have to be Philomena, the newest dramadey from director Stephen Frears, the man who also gave us High Fidelity and The Queen. Based upon the extraordinary true story of Philomena Lee and her 50-year quest to find her son, Philomena finds Frears crafting a charming odd couple story that never forgets to press all the weepy emotional buttons that Academy members just can’t resist. With the script, penned by co-star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, swinging smoothly between comedic and poignant, Frears can let his stars, funnyman Coogan and Judi Dench, really make the sparks fly. The drastic differences in their personalities comprise most of the chuckles, and watching a naïve woman of God butt heads with an atheist political journalist makes the hour and a half runtime fly by at the speed of light, leaving you wonder where the time just went. It’s chemistry at its very finest.

Philomena introduces us to Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), an aging Irish nurse who has been desperately searching for her missing son for fifty long years. It turns out that in 1951, Philomena got pregnant at a fair, and as punishment was sent to Sean Ross Abby, an isolated convent in the Irish countryside. While working at the convent, Philomena is allowed to see her son, Anthony, for only an hour a day. One day, Philomena is horrified to learn that a wealthy American couple has adopted Anthony and moved the boy to the U.S. Over the years, Philomena’s grief over her loss has gotten worse. Meanwhile, Martin Sixsmith has just been fired from his job as a political advisor for the Labour Party. Distraught over his recent termination, Martin contemplates writing a book on Russian history, but his plans change after he meets Philomena’s daughter and he hears her mother’s amazing story. Reluctantly to write a human interest story, Martin is slowly won over after meeting with Philomena and traveling to the convent for answers. With very little information made available to them in Ireland, Martin and Philomena decide to travel to the U.S., where they learn of Anthony’s extraordinary life.

Philomena #2

Early into their journey, Martin and Philomena learn a devastating twist in Anthony’s life, a twist that leaves the viewer wondering just where Frears and his screenwriters will take the story next. It’s here that a wealth of discovery gushes forth and picks up the film’s tempo to the point where it feels like the story was told in the blink of an eye. The secrets of Anthony’s life are certainly absorbing, this the viewer cannot deny, but his background takes second place to the exploration of faith versus atheism. It’s truly incredible to watch Philomena hold on to her faith, even when her faith had turned on her and ripped her life apart. On the flipside there is Martin, an atheist who is constantly biting his lip and looking for an opportunity to attack those who have wronged the poor, sweet Philomena. While a majority of this plays to the sensitive side of the film, there is also plenty of humor to be milked from it. It’s hard not find Philomena’s naïve wonder to be funny, especially when she is in awe over things like chocolates on her pillow in her hotel room and her fascination with a foreign chef cooking up her breakfast. Naturally, this all gets on Martin’s last nerve, tempting him mutter veiled sarcastic remarks to the beaming Philomena. Despite his efforts to keep a bit of distance between himself and Philomena, Martin isn’t immune to this woman’s misty-eyed grief or twinkling charms, and it is increasingly heartwarming to watch him stand up for her.

When discussing the central performances of Philomena, funnyman Steve Coogan expertly adapts his comedic wit to fit with the more dramatic tone of the picture and it truly does show off his wealth of talent. The earlier scenes of the film find Coogan sneaking in his dry sense of humor, but when the drama rises, Coogan displays impressive confidence, leaving you hoping that he explores more dramatic turns in the near future. And then there is Judi Dench, who really earns her Oscar nomination as the impossibly sweet Philomena Lee.  You instantly fall for this little old lady who clutches to breezy romance novels and an eagerness to forgive even when she is being ridiculed by a handful of glowering nuns. Overall, Philomena is a film that seems to have come from the hearts of the filmmakers and headlining stars. It’s moving, comical, smart, and down-to-earth, completely lacking the sensationalized touches that Hollywood usually insists on for these true-story crowd-pleasers. This is a must-see buddy movie that you won’t be able to pull away from.

Grade: A-

Skyfall (2012)

by Craig Thomas

For me, my favourite Bond film is Goldeneye. I think it is by far and away the best of the bunch. That may be due to it being released when I was at a formative age and it containing all sorts of things I was interested in. It had revenge, exploding pens, computer terrorism and sexy Russian ladies who could kill you with her thighs. In short, it had everything 13 year old me could desire. After that, I could take it or leave it. The older films seemed overly camp whilst the ones that followed just propelled the series further into the ridiculous at every opportunity (invisible cars, anyone?)

Then they decided as is the fashion these days, to do a reboot, a new origins story and a new Bond for a new millennium. The reason in the 40-odd years since Bond first graced our screens in Dr. No, was that the world had changed. No longer were the Russians the main threat. No longer was there a bipolar world with the obvious dynamic of good and evil. No. Now the world was much more complicated and it was time for a more modern, more relevant, more human Bond. One that reflected the uncertainties and complexities of living in the post-9/11 world. There was also the small matter of the Bourne films having a massive impact on the genre, by being “the opposite of Bond”. He went on to say, “The Bond character will always be anchored in the 1960s and the values of the ‘60s. Bond is an imperialist and a misogynist who kills people and laughs about it and drinks Martinis and cracks jokes.”

And so they remade Casino Royale and everyone hailed it as a return to form (even Quentin Tarantino, though he still insisted it was his idea), a great achievement and one that showed Bond still had a place in the world. It transformed him into a 3-dimensional, flawed and emotionally-scarred character, with feelings and emotions and all that stuff that people seem to want nowadays. Then they made the follow-up, Quantum of Solace which carried on the Bond revolution, though in such a way that after the film no-one could understand what the hell had happened.

So when Skyfall was announced, people were clearly nervous. Obviously, it would make a ton of money and loads of people would go to see it (it was after all, still Bond), but would it be any good? In a word, yes. It is better than QoS and probably Casino Royale. It is certainly my second favourite Bond film, but the difference between Skyfall and Goldeneye in my eyes is still immense.

I believe it is important to present your biases upfront, so that people can try to compensate for that. So, as you might have guessed by now, I don’t really like Bond. It just isn’t my cup of tea. I had high hopes for the reboot and, whilst they were certainly better than the rest of them, it still contained the fundamentals of why I dislike Bond. All of these problems are still in the new film, so it was inevitable that by the end I would be punching myself in the face, which I very literally was. But that’s just me.

The plot is fine. It is a simple story of revenge. The gadgets (if you can call them that) are pretty basic. There aren’t any sexy Russian thigh-killers, but then you can’t have everything. In short, it’s a relatively stripped-back Bond and carries on the feel of the last two outings.

In case you missed it, Bond is 50 years old now and the film revolves around this idea. It asks the question “can Bond still cut it?” and the answer is obviously going to be “yes!” For anyone even slightly versed in Bond folklore, this makes the first 40 or so minutes of the film pretty redundant as we all know what is going to happen, but I suppose that is part of what makes Bond so appealing (I guess, I don’t really understand it). Anyway, this idea flows through the movie. Bond is broken, M is hung out to dry and the whole idea of human espionage in general, and the 00 program in particular are questioned, in a very public manner. Throughout, MI6 struggles to cope with the very 21st century phenomenon of cyber-terrorism and the reaction to this is to relocate MI6 into the underground bunkers used during World War Two by then Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Oh yes, and to emphasize the point that Bond might be getting too old for this shit, the new Q is about 12 years old.

There has been a lot of buzz about there possibly being an Oscar-buzz about this film, but that is clearly all studio hype. There is nothing particularly special about this film in any regard, with the possible exception of the official song by Adele, which is actually really good.

On the acting front, Dame Judy Dench is great as always, but I am quickly coming to the conclusion that Daniel Craig is not a good actor, or at least not good for Bond. Perhaps I am being unfair so I will try to address that point in a moment. First, I would like to mention that all the supporting-cast, with the exception of the main bad guy had very little time for any kind of character development and were just kind of there out of necessity.

Now that’s out of the way, I would like to take a moment to say that Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardem) is possibly my favourite (male) Bond villain of all time. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, Bardem is a really great actor and once again gives a brilliant performance as someone supremely creep (see No Country for Old Men for a further example of his ability to be wonderfully evil). Secondly, he has all the best lines and thirdly, I don’t really like any of the other (male) Bond villains.

This brings me to the point both about Silva and Bond, their strengths and their weaknesses. Now, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Daniel Craig in a good film so I can’t really assess how he would do with a good script and I didn’t found out from this. The script could have been almost entirely written by pumping the plot into an online auto Bond dialogue generator. It has all the sophistication of a Marx Brothers film, with none of the humour. Every time someone speaks to Bond it is only to set up another pun or dry comment. They aren’t funny, they aren’t smooth and if you paused the film every time someone said something to Bond and wrote down what you expected him to say in reply, you would be right every time. In short, it is very tiresome and explains why everyone wants Bond dead! I think this also explains why Silva is so much better; he is actually given dialogue! True, it isn’t Shakespeare, but at least it’s something more sophisticated than smart-arse tourettes.

As you would expect, the explosions are great and the action sequences look great, when they are physically done. There is quite a lot of CGI in this film and it’s not difficult to see where this is, but that’s the deal with every big film that comes out nowadays. It is still awful that a visual medium often sacrifices the visuals first, but that is for another time.

Coming to the end, I think there are only two more areas of this film I want to touch upon. The first is the nostalgia. Being the half-centenary of Bond, they also took the opportunity to make a whole bunch of not-at-all-subtle references to a whole host of Bond films which even I noticed. If you’re a fan you could probably play Bond bingo. Some people in the audience were laughing, but I found them as grating as the self-referencing jokes in The Dark Knight Rises.

The second is the product placement. The good news is, it isn’t quite as blatant and in your face as in the first two movies, but it is still there and it is still in your face. From what I noticed, there was the beer, the glasses, the watch, the computers, the cars, and I’m sure there’s a whole host of things I’m missing. But what I didn’t miss was that literally half of the adverts before the trailers were for Bond products. There was the watch, obviously. And the beer. And a Bond-specific movie channel. And the 007 cologne. And a host of other things. All of those are real. Yes, even the 007 cologne.

Personally, I think advertising in general, and product placement in particular, are evil. But I also understand that is a reality of the world in which we live. However, having had such prominent placement in the previous films and a big in-your-face one in the opening scenes I find it hard not to keep searching them out. So when there was a big emotional scene, I was thinking “yep, make sure the watch is in a prominent position out front”. Cynical? Yes. Wrong? Unfortunately, probably not.

One final thing, I found the narrative to lack any real sort of drive. Each particular bit was pretty good, but the driving force seemed to be the need to drive the film forward, rather than being driven by the characters. That’s why Bond is left for dead about half-a-dozen times and no-one seems to learn their lesson. There was very much a sense, in my mind at least, of the creators sitting down and saying “we need to get to x, so we’ll make this guy do y even though it doesn’t make sense either logically, or to the essence of the character.”

So, you can probably tell that I didn’t like it. But I should stress the reason I didn’t like it was that there were a thousand tiny things that irritated me all the way through, and the stupid reveal right at the end really had me boiling with rage, particularly as I’m vaguely aware of it conflicting with something from Casino Royale.

I saw it with a friend who isn’t particularly fussed about Bond and he really enjoyed it. Saying that, he really enjoyed Prometheus and I was sent on a similar trip of movie-rage about the flaws in that film. So, if you just want to see a stupid action movie then you’ll have a really good time. If you’re a fan of the Bond films, and the last two in particular, you will absolutely love this . I am in no doubt about that. And at the end of the day, despite all my vitriol and irritation at the thing, that is all that matters.

Grade: (Bond fans and people who don’t hate Bond) A

Grade: (people who really don’t like Bond for the exact reasons I don’t like Bond) D