REVIEW: “Philomena”

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When making a movie based on an emotionally-charged true story there are certain obstacles and temptations that filmmakers must avoid. Time after time we’ve seen movies succumb to dizzying melodrama and cheap emotional tugs. Actors and actresses sometimes go big which can drown out the true heart of their characters. But some films get it right. They balance grounded emotion with smart and crisp storytelling. For the most part “Philomena” is one of the films that gets it right.

“Philomena” tells the touching true story of Philomena Lee and her search to find her son after 50 years of separation. The unquenchable Judi Dench plays this mother who is haunted by thoughts and visions of her long-lost son which drives her to find him. Her daughter introduces her to a journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) in hopes that he will investigate and tell her remarkable but heartbreaking story. But he’s not without baggage. He was recently unfairly fired from a government position and his journalism career is floundering. He thinks a human interest story is beneath him but he takes it and hoping of getting back on track.

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We learn Philomena’s story along with Martin. Through flashbacks we see that a young Philomena was left at a convent in Ireland by her father after she becomes pregnant. Later on the sisters force her to work seven days a week in a hot laundry room as some sort of twisted act of penance. They allow her and other mothers to see their children once a day but then, without the mother’s consent, they give the children up for adoption. This is what happened to her son. Philomena and Martin’s search begins at the convent and eventually takes them to the United States.

While this is a story of a mother searching for son, it’s also about two very different individuals who form an unlikely friendship. Along the way they have many fascinating conversations that pull the curtain back and reveal more about them. For example Martin is sour and cynical while Philomena is gentle and optimistic. There are also reoccurring discussions on faith. Martin sees faith and the belief in God as pointless. Philomena finds strength in her faith and it permeates every part of her being. Their discussions never fall into sermonizing. They feel natural and believable.

Steve Coogan is mostly known for his comedic work but this is unquestionably a serious role. There is some good humor in the film which works really well, but most of it comes at Philomena’s expense. Coogan mostly plays everything straight and he is fantastic. I’ve often overlooked and underappreciated Steve Coogan as an actor. This performance makes me a true believer. And as expected Dench is amazing. She is such a wonderful actress and she works with an effortless brilliance. In this film she tells more in a close-up expression than some can say with two pages of dialogue. Needless to say her Oscar nomination is well deserved.

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Unfortunately Philomena isn’t criticism proof. Despite all of its strengths, there are moments where the script stumbles or Stephen Frears’ direction undermines the great performances. Most of the film’s emotion is earned, but there are tearjerker moments that feel a bit staged. The script also tosses in some glaring ham-fisted political jabs. They come out of the blue without an ounce of smarts or subtlety behind them. These quibbles may not seem major but they are a distraction.

Still “Philomena” is quite the story. While several dramatic liberties were taken with the actual true account, most of them help make this a better film. There are a few missteps and personally there are several films I would rather see get a Best Picture Oscar nomination. But “Philomena” features two sparkling performances and enough humor and heart to win me over.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

TOP 5 SUPPORTING ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2012

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It’s that time of year again. People are reflecting back on the 2012 movie year and throwing lists together. The Golden Globes are done and the Academy Award nominees are announced. Last week I looked at the movies and listed my Top 10 Films of 2012. This week I’m looking at the performances. As I did last year, I’m going to break down the four major acting categories and list my personal Top 5 performances of 2012 from each. I’m a firm believer in ladies first so today we start with the Top Supporting Actress Performances of 2012 (according to me).

#5 – AMY ADAMS (“The Master”)

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I’m a big fan of Amy Adams and throughout her career she has shown a great range. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” she plays Peggy Dodd, the wife a philosophical sect leader. While her husband seems to be in control and it’s his flash and pizzazz that gets all of the attention, there are several scenes where Peggy looks to be pulling the strings. Adams embodies this mysterious and sometimes calculating character and she has no problem holding her own with the other heavyweight performances.

#4 – JUDI DENCH (“Skyfall”)

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We all know Judi Dench is a great actress. She is one of those performers who you know is going to deliver regardless of what she’s in. One of her most recognized roles is “M” from the James Bond films. In “Skyfall” she reprised that role but, unlike the previous Bond appearences, here she is given a lot more to do. Dench gets to flex her acting muscles as her “M” character is fleshed out a bit more. We also get to experience a better look at her relationship with Bond. Dench is fantastic and she doesn’t miss a beat.

#3 – SALLY FIELD (“Lincoln”)

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I remember when I heard Sally Field was going to play Mary Todd Lincoln a smile spread across my face. And as expected she doesn’t diappoint. This was a tough role, not just because she was playing the wife of Abraham Lincoln, but because she was sharing scenes with the great Daniel Day-Lewis. But Field is spectacular in “Lincoln” and the on screen chemistry between her and Day-Lewis is undeniable. Field uncovers the uniquenesses and complexities of her character with great craft. This was a spot-on performance and certainly worthy of praise.

#2 – CECILE DE FRANCE (“The Kid with a Bike”)

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I don’t know how many people have seen the touching French and Belgian film “The Kid with a Bike” but more people should. It’s a beautifully crafted and deeply moving film from the Dardenne brothers about a young boy unable to accept that his father has left him. The performance from de France is an absolute joy to watch and you never doubt her character’s sincerity or tenderness. It’s unfortunate that her great work has flew under the radar but I can promise that if you watch this film you’ll be blown away.

#1 – ANNE HATHAWAY (“Les Miserables”)

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I’ve been a luke warm Anne Hathaway fan for a while now. But I’m slowly growing more and more impressed with her work. My excitement reached it’s pinnacle after seeing her in “Les Miserables“. Talk about a heartfelt and devestating performance. From her physical acting to her beautiful voice, Hathaway stole the show and had me wishing her part was bigger. For me, this performance was the whole package – the voice, the expressions, the emotions. It all flows naturally out of Hathaway. I felt for her and I cried with her. This was the best supporting performance by an actress from 2012.

Day 1 is done and my favorite supporting ladies have been given their due. So which performances did I miss? What was your favorite? The guys are next. Tomorrow I’ll throw out the Top 5 Supporting Actor Performances of 2012.

“SKYFALL” – 4.5 STARS

Skyfall” may be the best James Bond movie ever. Better yet, Daniel Craig may be the best James Bond ever. Now before the Bond diehards come at me with torches and pitchforks let me make something abundantly clear. I am not the biggest Bond guy. I haven’t seen even half of the Bond movies. So I certainly don’t consider myself a Bond expert. In fact I may not even qualify as a true Bond fan by some. I’m not well versed on Bond lore, the Bond girls, or the history that has surrounded this universally loved character for the last 50 years. So I don’t live under the false assumption that I’m an expert when it comes to the James Bond franchise. But I like to think that I know a good movie when I see one and “Skyfall” is a very good movie.

My Bond apathy changed in 2006 with the release of “Casino Royal”. It introduced a grittier, more grounded Bond in the form of Daniel Craig. He wasn’t as prim and polished and a sense of reality was brought to the character that I had never seen before. It was also a fantastic movie that I thoroughly enjoy. The Bond appeal grew for me in 2008 with the lesser but equally entertaining “Quantum of Solace”. And now he’s back with “Skyfall”, a 007 film that’s every bit as good as “Casino Royale” and for my money even a bit better. Sam Mendes directs the film, the 23rd installment of the franchise. Mendes tips his hat to several of the previous 007 films and has fun with many things that Bond fans should love. But he also maintains the emotional edge to Bond that has made Daniel Craig’s run so effective for me.

The film starts with a jaw-dropping opening chase sequence that uses cars, motorcycles, trains, and cranes. It moves through market streets, on rooftops, through tunnels, and finally on a huge bridge where Bond is inadvertently shot off of a speeding train by a fellow agent at M’s command. Believed dead, Bond goes off the grid and submerges himself in a life of anonymity and alcohol. Now the movie never gives a satisfying reason as to why Bond became a closed off boozer. We get a few hints of it later but it seemed pretty drastic and off-the-wall. But we wouldn’t have a Bond movie if 007 wasn’t spoiling evil plots with his well-pressed suits and assorted gadgetry. He makes his return after MI6 is devastated by terrorist attack with M seeming to be the main target. Judi Dench returns to the role that she first played in 1995’s “GoldenEye”. This time she’s not only a terrorist’s target but she’s facing heavy political pressure concerning her handling of MI6. As with each of her other performances in the series, Dench is marvelous and here we get to see a different side of her and her relationship to 007.

The big baddie this time is none other than Javier Bardem. He plays Raoul Silva, a psycho former MI6 agent with a rather large grudge against M. Bardem is deliciously villainous and once he makes his appearance the movie’s intensity amps up. Unfortunately he doesn’t show up until well into the film. Now that’s not a knock on the first part of the movie. But I wanted more of Bardem and I couldn’t help but feel that they could have built up the character and his motivations more in the early parts of the movie. Some of the movie’s best moments feature Bardem. There is a tense first meeting between Bond and Silva that you can’t take your eyes off of. There’s also a fantastic “Silence of the Lambs” styled exchange between Silva and M that sets the table for what’s to come later in the movie. It’s one of my favorite exchanges in cinema this year.

Another new addition to the cast is Ralph Fiennes. He places an ex-military man and current government intelligence official who regulates MI6. Fiennes is rock solid, as you would expect. Albert Finney also has a fun role as an old family friend of Bond’s and Ben Whishaw steals several scenes as Q, the gadget granting quartermaster. All the performances are good and this is probably the best overall cast in a Bond movie yet. They are helped by a crisp, intelligent, and perfectly paced script that pulls absolutely everything out of these characters. And the screenplay knows how to be respectful of the franchise while also having fun with it as well. There are several good laughs but for the most part this is the same serious, no-nonsense Bond that we got in the last two films and I’m thankful for that.

There are several other things that worked incredibly well that I could mention, most notably Roger Deakins brilliant camera work, the wonderful editing by Stuart and Kate Baird, and Thomas Newman’s perfect score. But not everything worked that well. The Bond girls have become almost as popular as 007 himself. But with the exception of the unconventional M, these Bond girls are bland and for the most part forgettable. Now Naomie Harris is fine as a fellow MI6 field agent who holds her own with 007. She has some really good scenes when working in the field, but she also has a couple of almost obligatory flirt scenes with Bond that didn’t work as well for me. Then you have BĂ©rĂ©nice Marlohe who certainly looks the part but disappears almost as soon as she arrives. Also, I know Bond is a ladies man. But there are a couple of scenes featuring out-of-the-blue “romance” that are thrown in just because its expected from the character. Never mind that they clash with the tone and pacing of the story. Both are scenes that were poorly conceived and I could have done without them.

While these few flaws may keep “Skyfall” from being a perfect movie, they don’t stop it from being great movie. More importantly, the Daniel Craig era of 007 movies has won me over to the point that I’m anxiously awaiting the next installment. There has been a lot of internet buzz lately over who may be the next 007. But for my money Craig has earned the position for as long as he’s willing to take it. And as long as the studio is willing to surround him with a fine supporting cast, intelligent writers, and sharp directors, the possibilities are endless for this iconic character. One thing is for certain, I’m now officially a Bond fan and “Skyfall” only cemented that. Bring on oo7 #24!

“MY WEEK WITH MARILYN” – 2 STARS

One thing that can be said for “My Week with Marilyn” is that it’s not your run-of-the-mill biopic. The movie is based on Colin Clark’s book about the making of “The Prince and the Showgirl”, a 1957 comedy starring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. Said to have been a troubled set, “My Week with Marilyn” gives us an interesting glimpse at what it must have been like. But the movie mainly focuses on Colin Clark’s week-long relationship with Marilyn Monroe during the shoot. We spend a lot of time seeing the different sides of Marilyn through Adrian Hodges screenplay and the Oscar nominated performance of Michelle Williams. But while the film and especially Williams has received high praise, I found the movie lacking and in many ways missing the energy you would expect it to have.

The film starts with Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) leaving home in hopes of landing a job in the film industry. He ends up getting on with Laurence Olivier’s (Kenneth Branagh) new movie “The Prince and the Showgirl”. Marilyn Monroe (Williams) will be arriving to work on the picture and Colin’s first job is to find a home for her to stay in while she’s in London. Marilyn and Laurence get off on the wrong foot after she is late to the first script reading. This is a trend that continues throughout the filming of the movie and soon Laurence (who is also directing the picture) reaches his breaking point. Branagh is very good here and it’s quite obvious that he’s having a lot of fun with the role. He’s a likable character but very by-the-books when it’s time to work, something even his lovely but insecure wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormand) points out.

It’s during the stressful filming that we see Marilyn as extremely nervous and lacking any confidence in her acting abilities. In fact, she is almost always seen with her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) who actually serves more as a stabilizing mechanism to keep Marilyn from flying off the rails. Judi Dench plays Sybil Thorndike, a calm and soothing co-star who has sympathy for Marilyn and helps her build her confidence. But Marilyn doesn’t show up to the set one day and Colin is sent to check on her. A few days later Marilyn calls Colin to come over and see her. Colin is warned of Marilyn’s ways but his infatuation with her grows and grows. The relationship between the two is supposed to be unusual but I had a hard time finding any spark between them. Redmayne has the naive puppy dog thing working well but it was almost impossible to buy into their relationship.

I also thought the story, much like Colin and Marilyn’s fling, lacked any energy or vitality. I found my mind wandering during several scenes particularly when Marilyn is mumbling to Colin after taking to many pills. The movie just seems to hit an emotional flatline and I had a hard time staying interested. There were also times when Marilyn comes across as too childlike. I understand that the movie was trying to convey a type of childlike dependency in Marilyn but there were a couple of scenes where the script takes it too far.

But everything in this film comes back to the performance from Michelle Williams. She won a Golden Globe for the role but I have to say that I wasn’t as enamored with her work as most others have been. She certainly gives it everything she’s got and to be fair her biggest problem is that she’s let down by the material. But I never really felt like I was watching Marilyn Monroe. I always felt like I was watching someone play her. Now that may be expecting too much from Williams and it may be unfair. But this film hinges on the audience buying into Williams as Monroe and I only partially could.

When it comes down to it, “My Week with Marilyn” is pretty lightweight. It starts off strong but hits a rut at the midway point and spins its wheels for most of the second half of the film. Williams certainly isn’t bad here but she also isn’t Marilyn Monroe. I can see where if you buy into her performance completely, you’ll probably enjoy this film more than I did. But even with that, I would still have a hard time buying into this week-long lifeless fling. As I said at the beginning, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill biopic. But unfortunately it doesn’t use its uniqueness to create something special.

“JANE EYRE” – 4 STARS

Despite the semi-misleading trailers and studio promotions, Cary Fukunaga’s new adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s classic “Jane Eyre” isn’t a horror picture. At it’s core it’s a period love story but with just the right amount of reimagining to make it feel new and fresh. It hits all the right notes whether it be romance, humor, or mystery. And even though it’s far from being the central tone of the film, there is a bit of creepiness mainly conveyed through the dark, more Gothic setting and a couple of routine yet spooky haunted house styled scenes. The most important thing is that most of this works. It gels together to give some familiar material a slightly new and energetic appeal.

Moira Buffini’s screenplay branches out into several different directions but the centerpiece of the story is still the romance between Jane (Mia Wasikowska) and her wealthy yet mysterious employer Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). It doesn’t spend as much time developing the rags-to-riches component of Jane’s life as I would have liked instead jumping headfirst into the obvious attraction between the two leads. But once Fassbender and Wasikowska are together on-screen for the first time, I didn’t care. I was immediately drawn in.

The story is anchored by some wonderful performances, great costume and set design, and it’s moody yet captivating cinematography. Fassbender’s Rochester is sophisticated but abstruse. Even if you’re familiar with the source material, Fassbender will have you questioning his every intent and motivation. Wasikowska gives a very reserved and controlled performance that captures her character perfectly. She’s quiet and solemn early on but we also see an unfeigned spunkiness that shows itself in some of the film’s best scenes.

“Jane Eyre” isn’t an old English horror picture regardless of what the trailer may have you believe. But it does use some of those spooky elements to create a perfect environment for this story. The movie teems with bridled passion and haunting secrets. It’s heartfelt and emotional but not without those perfect moments of humor that gives the movie life. Even though it touches on it, the film underplays the class-based challenges that Jane faces and the pacing is a bit erratic in the third act. But it’s hard not to enjoy this film and to appreciate the craftsmanship and artistry that goes into making this type of picture. I really enjoyed it.