by Philip Price
You could ask Kenneth Branagh where he found inspiration for the latest re-visioning of Jack Ryan, Tom Clancy's definitive character, but it would seem he looked to Martin Campbell's re-figuring of the Bond franchise in 2006 that led to a younger, more intense take on the Ian Fleming character. It would seem Branagh knew that Campbell did things right, that it was a more than flattering way to breathe new life into a franchise that had long since lost its luster yet Branagh also seems aware that simply going for dark and gritty has now become a cliché and doesn't immediately make your final product better off. It has to fit the tone of the character and Campbell along with Daniel Craig were able to create that correlation while Branagh has brought in Chris Pine (who has a knack for playing younger versions of iconic characters) and kept the timid, inexperienced attributes of our titular hero in mind while flattering his intelligence with modern technology and the issues and destruction that can be done in the wake of these advancements. While four films have come before this that center around the Ryan character the most successful of them were all released between 20 and 24 years ago. A reboot similar to this was attempted 12 years ago in the form of “The Sum of All Fears” with Ben Affleck in the lead role, but it never took off. While this attempt may indeed share the same fate as that one it doesn't mean this is a dull experience, but in fact it's pretty damn entertaining before devolving into standard action movie climaxes that are in line with the previous films yet insult the deliberate pacing and character development of the first hour of the film. In saying that, the good outweighs the bad for me here as Branagh has competently followed up his big budget/action debut with both an expertly acted film and a strong craft only lacking when it has to go for the bigger scope the genre this film falls into requires. Branagh has brought the character into the present world, easily introducing him to audiences who may not have seen or even heard of the Harrison Ford films and making his skills more than relevant while maintaining the core values and personality of our main character; something many were weary of when the marketing made this out to look more ‘Bourne’ than ‘Ryan.’
Immediately letting us know this is a new Ryan that holds no ties to the previous installments, we open with Ryan at college in London as he experiences the terror of 9/11 from afar. This act of terrorism strikes an immediate chord with Jack who would seemingly immediately enlist in the military as a Marine as we jump forward 18 months as Ryan leads a group of soldiers over Afghan air space before his helicopter is shot down and Ryan finds himself in critical condition having barely survived the attack. His heroism in this moment along with his high intellect as displayed through not only his education, but his research and willingness to want to help his country is recognized by those at the higher levels of American government. This specifically refers to Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who watches from the wings as Jack recovers from the trauma and injuries of his accident. He has to learn to walk all over again and is only able to do this through the motivation of scoring a date with the attractive young medical student trying to complete her doctoral requirements in physical therapy. If you've seen any of the previous films or read any of Clancy's novels it is sure to be a treat to see the beginnings of this relationship between Jack and Cathy Muller (Kiera Knightley). I have not read any of Clancy's work, but have seen all the previous films and while each of them follow a similar pattern this origin story (which Affleck's tried to be in many regards as well) of Ryan is does not seem to be based on any particular source novel of Clancy's which doesn't make much sense, but I digress. Instead once Ryan is ultimately settled in a desk job that is an excuse to delve into Wall Street accounts in order to do his actual work as a CIA analyst and a nice relationship with Cathy that only suffers from the fact they've yet to set a date for their wedding do things begin to get rolling. The set-up is all nicely done and gives us reason to like these people on screen while becoming invested in them which prepares us for the standard "destroying the world" plight that fuels the Russian enemy of Viktor Cherevin (Branagh with a thick accent). There is no need to get into the specifics, just know that Viktor has a plan to crash the U.S. economy and execute another terror attack and Jack Ryan is pretty much the guy to stop it.
“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” was originally scheduled to open on Christmas Day and lets all be glad it didn't because it would have no doubt tanked worse than the disappointing $17 million debut it put up in the U.S. This leaves little room for hope of a continuation of this story unless it performs well overseas, but this is not a box office piece and the only reason I bring up the release date shift is because once it was moved off the Holiday calendar and into the dumping zone that January typically represents my expectations dropped quite a bit. Having now seen the film it seems clear it wasn't because Paramount didn't have faith in the picture, but simply because they didn't want it suffering the same fate as “Grudge Match” and “47 Ronin” (two movies I didn't care enough to catch and would have easily chosen ‘Ryan’ over). ‘Shadow Recruit’ is an admirable piece of work that functions as a type of retro thriller that we don't often get enough of these days. Upon recently re-visiting the Ford entries in the Ryan canon it became clear why audiences felt so comfortable with this character and his place in the bigger world he somehow always managed to become entangled in. It was always a different approach to having Ryan land in the middle of conflict and it always showed that he was out of his element, that he had no desire to be a part of hand to hand combat or shoot outs, but simply do his duty, help his country as best he could with the skills he had to offer and go home to his wife at the end of the day. He is a boy scout, someone who cut and dry wants to do the right thing and has no intention of deviating from that path. These qualities still come through in Pine's take on the character and lucky for us create a protagonist we can really get behind. The reason I bring up the “Casino Royale” comparison is because it becomes evident once Ryan lands in Moscow and has to make his first kill that just so happens to take place in a bathroom flushed with white and is as brutal as anything else in the film where Branagh drew his inspiration. While this was a jolting re-introduction to Bond it is what happens after this event in ‘Shadow Recruit’ that solidifies the real performance of Pine and the main difference between these two men who somehow wound up in the same type of action movies.
While much is owed to the performances in this film it should not go without saying that the script from newcomer Adam Cozad and veteran David Koepp does well to establish the world of the film and how each of the characters play into it as well as defining characteristics that influence certain outcomes of the story. As with the majority of films it was getting the ending right that tripped them up. The film is essentially three action set pieces placed near the beginning (though there is the nice prologue that shows the journey of Ryan from innocent bystander to integral agent), directly after one of the best scenes of the film that deals purely with sneaking into Cherevin's bank and getting the necessary files from his system to understand the scale over which he is operating and what it takes to pull that off and naturally the finale which is usually reserved for the biggest of them all. Up through the first hour of the film I was more than invested in the film, I cared about these people and the mission they undertook and how it was going to play out and how it would affect others both close and that of the innocent. I was genuinely engaged by the film and was taken aback by how much I was enjoying myself so much to the fact that I began to think of the film as something akin to ‘Ghost Protocol’ in terms of pure action entertainment that yielded a brain, but then it decided to go and wrap itself up so quickly I hardly realized what was happening. After a well developed introduction and meaty middle section the final act of ‘Shadow Recruit’ is nothing more than a slapdash effort that allows these intelligent characters to become superhuman and deduce conclusions so random it would seem impossible to figure out all that needed to be figured out in a single plane ride. It is unsatisfying and can't help but make me wonder what was left on the cutting room floor that would have made for a two and half hour endeavor worth sticking out. The performances not only from the charming Pine, but that of the stoic and reserved Costner and the sweet American-accented Knightley that brings a freshness to the picture with Branagh hamming it up only enough that we feel the depraved stench of his villain save this tragic misstep. It is a worthy cast who bring life to a tired genre and inject real-enthusiasm into the proceedings that make us sit up and pay attention, that is, until we see that no matter how hard it tries it has nowhere new to go and counts on the ticking clock and big kaboom to clench the conclusion.
by Philip Price
Naturally, the most involving stories are those we usually relate to best. I personally love a good comedy but the consequences most characters face in those films are unrealistic. I can enjoy a horror flick without actually becoming wrapped up in the mythology of what the film justifies its actions with or convincing myself it is real and an actual possibility in this world. The same goes with science fiction and over-the-top action movies. Sure, I love “Star Wars” and have become enamored with the barrage of comic book films we’re hit with every year, but I like to think of myself as a diverse viewer in the fact that while I can enjoy even the mainstream genre films that big studios deem worthy of their big budgets it is perfectly acceptable to understand why the smaller, indie movies that typically end up on critics end of year best-lists are just as enticing and deserve to be taken on their own terms for the point in which they were made and what ideas they were looking to explore and fulfill (just as those bigger budget ones). All of that is to say that when something like “Nebraska” comes along it is easy to take it for granted, but in reality this is a film that captures all of the complexities of life in as simple a package as our day to day lives make it seem most of the time. As told by director Alexander Payne it was clear that this very human story would have a very personal tone to its proceedings, but “Nebraska” is surprisingly insightful not only for the dynamics between the family members and the core relationship between the father and son that examines big questions in small ways, but because it is, like its main character, so matter of fact about these big ideas. There is nothing overly exceptional about the film, but that too is due to the fact it dials down its philosophical and nostalgic questions that delve into the choices we make and how they affect our happiness, how we don't always think them through in the moment and how they may, in the long run, determine more than just the quality of life but our satisfaction with it. Payne has always had a knack for exploring human pain and contemporary American life with a touch of dark humor and he almost provides that in excess here as the crux of the plot is a senior citizen buying into one of those million dollar marketing ploys, but this silly gimmick only serves as the entrance point to a family many will feel all too familiar with and be happy to be re-assured we are not alone in each of our hectic/tiring/uplifting/pathetic/routine lives.
The potently framed first shot that is held still and directs our attention right at its center introduces us to Bruce Dern's Woodrow T. Grant as he hikes along the side of a busy highway, smoke from the factories billowing in the back and cars passing without a second thought. A cop pulls over to the side of the road and catches up with Woody, as he is so lovingly referred to throughout, and asks where he's going and where he's come from. Woody doesn't so much as respond as he does point in opposite directions and in that small opening moment we get the frankness with which Woody approaches each and every situation and confrontation in his life. He is of course taken down to the police station where his son David (Will Forte) comes to pick him up. David is fond of his father, that is made clear, but he still doesn't know what to do or how to act around him and it’s slightly clear that he never has. When David returns his father to his parent’s home we are introduced to the hoot of a woman that is June Squibb as his mother, Kate. David also has a brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) who is currently in the middle of achieving his career goals as he's getting a chance to man the anchor desk while a colleague is out sick. Ross and Kate are ready to put Woody in a home. Woody escapes whenever he sees an opportunity and to a certain extent David understands his father’s eagerness to get away from the consistent unpleasantness of living with his mother. Kate is brutally honest and opinionated and has no reservations about sharing what she thinks with anyone willing to listen. When Woody is caught one too many times trying to break free towards Lincoln, Nebraska where the office is located to claim his supposed winnings David decides to indulge his father in his little fantasy and the two embark on a road trip much to the disdain of Kate. While it would be easy to say that from here craziness ensues and the father and son form a lasting bond it all develops into much more than that as David, who always took his dad for a drunken wreck, discovers more about his past and what made him the man he became through the small town he was raised in and the people around him that shaped him as much as the nature of the world did.
While much of the joy “Nebraska” brings to its audience is in the subtle framing of its big themes what is more obvious are the great performances littered throughout that allow us to be enticed by this film that has very little in the way of surface content. Beginning with Bruce Dern who, though I recognize him from films like “Monster” or even last year’s “Django Unchained,” is an actor I'm not overly familiar with and so to have any preconception of what I was going to be in for here was impossible. What Dern does though is use the shell of an old, disappointed curmudgeon who leans on the drink as a way to soothe the harsh realities of his life as well as put him in a state he feels fit to blame others for his shortcomings. It is a fine line to walk where if you don't do enough the chance is greater the point trying to be made will fail while if trying to do too much and overact there will cease to be any credibility. One must understand the magic of how to imply and Dern seems a master at it here as that aforementioned shell would hint at nothing more than a grumpy old man who desires little more than to drink the rest of what little life he has left away. By the support around him, mainly David, and through the dialed down tone Woody takes when pulling back into actual conversation rather than the quick exchanges he shares with most we are given a glimpse of the actual mindset that he operates within. Sure, there are early signs of dementia (though he really only expects to believe what people tell him) and his body is more than beginning to fail him, through it all of this Dern is able to convey the inherent reserved frankness that has always seemed to define Woody. On the other side of things is Squibb who again, upon first glance, is only serving one aspect of the storytelling function and that is to provide the comic relief. While she does this in spades Payne keeps the reality of these characters in check and more than allows the humanity in Squibb's Kate to come through, especially in later scenes. While all of this is well and good I have to admit the real draw to “Nebraska” for me was the dramatic turn of Will Forte. Forte was a “Saturday Night Live” player who was always energetic and more than committed which left no doubt in my mind he could pull it off, but his singular style gave me worry. Forte is more than convincing though as he portrays what was likely his scariest character to date in that it was someone closer to who he actually is. It is more than difficult to play your true self when a camera is on you, but Forte has a knack for naturalism, a knack I hope he continues to explore.
As I said earlier, the performances are clearly the centerpiece of this small film, but in retrospect and as I get further away from actually viewing it and in contemplating why it continues to stay with me it comes back to the dynamics between these characters and how they reflect the themes Payne is looking to make his audience discuss and evaluate for themselves. It is a slick piece of filmmaking that makes it seem like much less is going on that what is actually being examined and as much as Payne is a director that likes his audience to relate to the people on screen (as he continually tells tales of the common Midwesterner) he also likes to reach towards the bottom and see what the root cause for this kind of tepid lifestyle is; where the days seem to come and go and simply making it through each of them is a satisfying enough reason to believe something better is on the horizon even if the probability of anything substantial occurring is zero to none. The consistent question that popped up in my mind as I watched the events of “Nebraska” unfold though was what made this a compelling family drama? What was it Payne saw in Bob Nelson's debut screenplay that made him want to invest the time and thought it would take to turn this into something more than what was on the page, but what we learned about the characters as the movie unfolded that would bring about a deeper meaning to the relationships between each and why this lifestyle that so many seem to share the ideals and goals of made it a worthy challenge? I was unsure of his reasoning until about halfway through the film when David and Woody stop in the small town of Hawthorne to see Woody's brother and reconnect with those he grew up around. They bring up the past in waves while the film is able to delicately reaffirm the reasoning Woody pushes on with life when so many are ready to give up on him. As much as he is beginning to let go he still wants to leave an impression on those he'll leave behind. “Nebraska” isn't necessarily a great film, but more an enjoyable one that I feel I will only grow more fond of with repeat viewings. It is nothing that will break down any barriers or has turned out to be truly affecting in its execution, but it is a slyly smart little gem of a film that, like its characters, will grow on you the more you get to know them despite the initial response of feeling rather indifferent.
by Philip Price
“Ride Along” is something of a normality in the world of comedy. It is perfectly packaged, with standard jokes ensured to offend no one and completely appealing personas playing two archetypes that are sure to be so familiar to general audiences that they will settle right in and enjoy this brief, hour and a half comedy that keeps the laughs and action well balanced while carving out just enough of a niche for Kevin Hart while demonstrating his ability to play a fully formed character rather than just the comic relief. There is nothing terrific or substantial about the film and in fact it is rather subpar in many areas for despite the fact it is competently directed by veteran Tim Story it displays no sense of style or wit beyond that of the typical Hollywood production with enough cash to back its story but not enough actual story or jokes to sustain the simple quotas we ask for from our most commonplace films. That is what “Ride Along” is after all: a film put together by a committee to appeal to as many people as possible in hopes of creating a bankable star in Kevin Hart that will allow them to roll out films year after year with thin premises, little to no imagination in the script while trusting that the on-set riffs and improvisations are enough to satisfy our need for laughter. In short, if everything goes according to plan Hart will turn out to be the next Adam Sandler (who is now experiencing a slight downfall) and the studios distributing and financing these slapdash efforts will have someone on hand that is a sure bet. “Ride Along” will be that solidifying film for Hart and he does fine with what he has to work with here making the most out of the otherwise dry material. There are movies like this, movies so obviously put together by a board room that I can't buy into it and I'm unable to get past the fact I'm not seeing a specific vision of what this story was supposed to be, but rather a combination of several ideas with only the intention of pleasing as many people as possible to get the biggest profit. I typically can't take films like this and while I understand these kinds of films aren't made for critics or true cinema fans, but despite all of that this commonplace comedy that has five writer’s names attached to its screenplay and a director who seems to be on autopilot I didn't mind what “Ride Along” had to offer even if it was nothing more than a brief diversion.
If you've seen the trailer you can basically guess how the film is going to play out. Ben Barber (Kevin Hart) is a pint-sized security guard at a local high school with bigger aspirations of joining the police force. He is in a great relationship with a beautiful woman named Angela (Tika Sumpter) though it is unclear how they live such a comfortable lifestyle when she doesn't seem to work and his only income is from the aforementioned job the high school kids ridicule him for. The conflict comes in when Ben is ready to propose to Angela, but before any of that can go down Angela wants Ben to seek the approval of her brother, James (Ice Cube), who just so happens to be the toughest detective in all of Atlanta. Naturally, James is annoyed by Ben and doesn't think he has what it takes to 1) marry his sister and 2) be an actual cop. When Ben finally musters up the courage to ask James if he would allow him to ask for Angela's hand in marriage James is all but ready to kick him to the curb, that is, unless little Ben can prove himself. How might Ben do this you ask? Well go on a ride along of course! Zing! From here the hilarity should ensue as the chemistry between Ice Cube and Hart should make for some outlandish exchanges yet nothing feels particularly great or sticks with you. James takes Ben out with the intention of showing him how tough the job actually is and that he isn't cut out for this kind of work, even though he gives the dispatcher specific instructions to load him down with 126's which is apparently cop code for annoying, irrelevant issues that no one else wants to deal with that are usually reserved for rookie cops anyway. This sends James and Ben on such outings as dealing with biker gangs parked in handicap zones and crazy guys at the farmers market throwing produce everywhere. It all has potential, but none of it really pans out and the fact we have to buy that Hart's character is inadvertently stumbling across clues for the bigger, illegal arms deal case that James has been working on for years and that it all comes crashing down the day he decides to take Ben out is more than a bit ridiculous.
We don't ask our comedies for reality though and thus is the reason much of the ridiculous plotting included in “Ride Along” didn't bother me. I just decided to take it as it was and go with it. What we do need from our comedies, especially those designed to give everyone a laugh, are funny jokes and strong, comical performances that make us believe these people, these comedians can be funny in everyday situations and that they can actually play out the scenarios they typically reference when performing stand-up. It is in this vein that I hoped Hart would begin to approach his leading man roles. While he is still playing co-lead with Ice Cube here this is by far the most headlining gig in a feature he's had to date. Whether it was “Think Like A Man,” “This is the End,” “Grudge Match” or the upcoming “About Last Night” it always seems the makers of each film simply allow Hart to come in periodically and do his thing rather than giving him a fleshed out character with a full-on personality to portray. This might be less true about next month’s “About Last Night” and he was playing himself in “This is the End” (but I'd rather mention that than the countless parody/‘Scary Movie’ spin-offs he's appeared in) but Story, who was likely the most guilty of this as he also directed “Think Like A Man” redeems himself here by having Hart play a guy who isn't just the fast-talking funnyman who is able to deliver life lessons and funny lines through his distinct storytelling abilities, but goes from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other (okay so maybe not all the way, but with a bigger range than usual) as he has to deal with the dual stress of both impressing his girlfriends brother and that which is naturally brought on by the nature of the job. For the first half of the film we get the Hart we expect, the funny guy who has no worries in life and embraces every obstacle with a casual nature as if nothing can disrupt his outlook on life. It is when Ice Cube's character finally presents him with this out and out challenge in that he truly doesn't believe Hart's character will make it through the Police Academy (of which he has just recently been accepted) that Hart's Ben changes gears as does his performance. This is all well and good for serving as to how far Hart's talent stretches, but what it fails to do is consistently provide those laughs we came in looking for.
“Ride Along” is funny enough. It gets by on the humor that Hart's motormouth and quick wit bring to its thrown-together plot and Ice Cube's ability to mean mug every time he lets a line loose doesn't hurt either, but that magic chemistry you look for in these kinds of films just doesn't seem to be clicking. In the vein of “48 Hours,” of “Bad Boys,” of “Rush Hour” and even of “21 Jump Street” there has to be this undeniable play between the two leads that make us want to see them together (whether it be getting on each other’s nerves or working together) just as much as if not more than the resolution of whatever plot to destroy the world or drug deal they are trying to stop. While there are hints of it here, especially in the scene where Ice Cube takes Hart's easily intimidated Ben to a shooting range and Ben does all he can to prolong actually firing a real gun. There is a moment there where I let out a bit of genuine laughter, where I saw how this could go especially if it gets a sequel (and it will) and these two inevitably become partners. That will be the more interesting film, putting these guys on a level playing field, while here they are just hitting the beats of every other buddy cop film that has come before them with not enough genuine laughs along the way to make for an excuse as to why we should waste our time on this. With all of the aforementioned titles above it is clear both general audiences and even critics are willing to forgive the tired clichés that come with the buddy cop movies as long as there is appeal and charisma in the casting and pairing of the two leads. While on paper the combination of Hart and Ice Cube would seem like a no-brainer it simply doesn't translate into immediate gold. As I've said countless times throughout this review, the film is good enough, it gets by, it makes due, but it doesn't stand as the one people will go to when they are bored and want to distract themselves for a few hours as I would easily go with any entry in any of the franchises above before re-visiting “Ride Along.” And so, if the point isn't clear enough this is not a bad movie it is just nothing more than a lazy one that uses supporting players like John Leguizamo, Bryan Callen, Bruce McGill, Laurence Fishburne and Jay Pharoah to up the comedy quotient while their characters, like the leads, do nothing more than stay flat on the hurried page instead of welcoming us into this partnership.
by Philip Price
For the first hour of “Her” I couldn't decide what I was watching; I couldn't figure it out, I couldn't follow the hype. I understood the acuteness under which director Spike Jonze was operating and I could see why it was easy for the hipster crowd to so easily jump on board with the flick because our main character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), seemed to very much be a hipster himself jumping on the latest technology and style trends with his belly button-high pants. What was perplexing me though was the way in which the film has seemed to entrance everyone else and not just those hoping to be in touch with their own spectacled intellectual, but those who aren't desperate contrarians or what you would necessarily call progressive and seem to have a balanced understanding of the value in both large and small scale filmmaking. The strange thing here is that despite “Her” having the ideals and philosophies of a small, independent film it looks magnificent, as if it were operating with a fairly large special effects budget. The ethereal atmosphere in which these characters exist, though obviously in the not too distant future, actually feels like a plausible place that we as a society might reach. I drank the Hoyte Van Hoytema cinematography in with wonder and the China serving as Los Angeles locations only re-enforced the color scheme and scope with which Jonze was able to convey the mood and minuteness of our main character. We take Theodore as a surrogate of Jonze as it is evident from the opening speech in which Theodore shuffles through his thoughts on what it must be like to share your life with the same person for half a century and that we are not only getting a love story, but an examination of love as an emotion and how it transcends everything else in our existence to ultimately become every person’s main point of focus and fulfillment. If we don't have loved ones what have we done to make this life worthwhile? If we don't have people who care about us, what will allow us to live on after we're gone? Questions we've no doubt asked ourselves plenty of times before, but “Her” looks to take them, throw in a little social commentary, and inevitably come to an epiphany not about the technology at the center of the film, but the emotion that continues to define the satisfaction of our being.
It is in the second hour of the film that I became more convinced with what people were finding so special about this feature. This waiting to see if it delivers on its praise is a difficult way to approach a film and I acknowledge that. The hype surrounding the film has been unavoidable though when you follow so many cinephiles on social media while also residing in a location that is on the final stop of the film’s release schedule. With that in mind I still attempted to take in “Her” on my own terms, hoping to catch a glimpse of the greatness that had allowed this on so many year-end lists if not at the top of them. The bottom line is that while I understand how people can be so impressed by this, it is rather insightful and gorgeous to look at, I don't think it breaks any new ground or explores territory that we haven't seen done before or to better effect. With love stories, the good ones anyway, it is important to identify with the people on screen and be able to relate to their feelings and the trials life is pulling up in front of them. With Phoenix's Theodore we can certainly understand that point in life where one is looking for that thing, whatever it may be, to overcome the last relationship one partook in that left a large part of the soul damaged and feeling inadequate in many ways. We've all been there and we recognize that is where Theodore is at when we first encounter him, but we don't necessarily see why he has such a difficult time getting out of the slump when Jonze has positioned other characters and typical romantic archetypes all around him. What I believe has allowed “Her” to stand out is the fact Jonze, as the sole creative force behind this effort, has covered these archetypes with timely blankets such as operating systems and easy to use ear pieces that serve the purpose of the best friend with the good advice and that the several montages are more artistically shot and accompanied by simple piano than a top 40 hit or that the girl next door is played by Amy Adams which, despite her wealth of talent and genuine charm, doesn't make it any less obvious that Theodore is meant to be with her. These things became clear early on, but it is easy to forgive them and look past them because of the general design of the film and the intelligent dialogue that conveys these complex thoughts of love into simple greeting card sayings that strike a chord with us. What I found special in the second hour though was the way in which things evolved and that real conflict was finally presented leading to circumstances not typical of love stories and the uncertain resolutions they carried with them.
I understand what Jonze was doing in setting up his world and his characters and this becomes increasingly relevant as we come to understand the reasons in which Theodore's relationships haven't worked out in the past and why he is probably more selfish than he would like to admit and even more so than the audience would like to believe. He seems a sweet but pensive man who knows how to relate his deep or serious thoughts in an engaging way that wouldn't necessarily alienate someone in a conversation who feels differently. Still, there is obviously some hesitance, some ill feeling in his social skills that make it easier for him to relay those emotions and thoughts when he doesn't have to stare someone in the face. When he purchases a new, more sophisticated operating system we see these qualities amplify. Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) comes to serve as something much more than a secretary or personal assistant, the role one would assume your operating system would take on, and Theodore develops a close relationship with her. While Johansson gives a fine performance in that we never actually see her and she is restricted to creating a person we essentially need to believe is on the other end of a phone only through her voice is a difficult task, but we buy into the rapport between the two and believe in their conversation, compatibility and eventual companionship. The problem I had was that I simply couldn't get past the fact that Theodore could get past the fact he was still talking to a computer and not someone on the other end of the line that would magically show up someday no matter how much he may want to believe that was what might actually happen. Where we could relate to his position in life at the given time we are introduced to him I expected him to have more restraint on where he allowed his relationship with Samantha to go no matter how fragile a state he might protest he was in when she was configured. There is a moment though, right at the end of the film, where Samantha asks Theodore to come into another room and lay with her. I saw it kind of as the ultimate test. I wanted him to say no, that it wasn't possible and that for him to move on he would need to free himself of the thought that he could feel whatever spirit she may have created for him to match her voice in his mind. He doesn't. He goes, following her like the lost puppy Olivia Wilde's character prophesied him to be. I couldn't help but feel no matter where Theodore might go from there that he still wouldn't be able to shake his inability to become so hopefully hung up on the past that he would ever see an unadulterated future.
What eventually becomes clearer and ultimately entertaining, which comes through in the more complex second half of the film, is the social commentary and philosophical thoughts Jonze implements rather than the love story aspect which seems to be what the marketing has tried to nail this down as. The moments I'll think of when I think of “Her” will be those of Theodore questioning Samantha about why she sighs in between speaking despite the fact she doesn't need oxygen or when they share a picnic with his co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) and his girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen) when Samantha begins talking about how she has come to terms with the fact she doesn't have a body and that she has found joy in this fact because she realizes she will never be, as we humans are, bound to a body in a certain span of time but is more free to be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. It is this train of thought and the implications it leaves on Theodore about the true nature of their relationship that prove to be a subject worthy of further examination and ripe for some intelligently concocted revelations, but Jonze sticks not so much with how these artificial intelligent operating systems are only pushing us further apart with the conceit of bringing us closer together, but to the love story and how a relationship with a voice and that personality, with someone who can reply and get to know you through your internet activity still isn't someone you can spend the rest of your life with. More power to him, but it isn't a surprise when (spoiler) it doesn't work out and Samantha eventually comes to realize she has endless possibilities in what she can learn, do and eventually become so there is no need for her to be tethered down to this one person. I understand Samantha is a tool to teach Theodore why his relationship with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) failed and that these truths about himself are more obvious when he doesn't have a physical presence to blame, but the more involving emotions for me were how someone could become so perplexed by technology that they buy into it as a natural extension of themselves. I appreciate Jonze not taking this the obvious route of having Samantha malfunction or her turn into a master manipulator that wants to take over the world and I appreciate the restraint he shows in not making this all about technology destroying our world, but instead using it as a very simple way of showing how some of us deal with a broken heart. It is an interesting side of a love story that is done with slick, inventive techniques yet the impact it left on me was almost non-existent. I look forward to watching the film again to see if I can recover whatever it is I may be missing, but for now it is a film that left me more inquisitive than emotionally affected.
by Julian Spivey
Upon walking out of the screening of the Coen brothers latest film “Inside Llewyn Davis” I didn’t really know what to think of it, which was slightly disappointing as it was the film I’d most anticipated from 2013. A few hours later I have determined that it’s a very good film, just not one that’s particularly enjoyable, at least for me.
It’s a good film for many reasons: 1) it’s the Coens doing their typical Coen work (they don’t really make bad movies) 2) the acting is superb 3) the soundtrack could reach all-time great levels 4) the cinematography is gorgeous 5) the dark humor is at many times supreme 6) it’s a intelligently written and acted character study
The Coens crafted this story of an early ‘60s Greenwich Village folk singer, Llewyn Davis (partially influenced by little known folkie Dave Van Ronk), who’s an artist struggling to survive and get his music heard after the death of his partner Mike Timlin, who jumped off of the George Washington Bridge prior to the movie’s beginning.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” follows Davis on a dark journey to nowhere – which is where we find out Llewyn is really headed. It’s a story that the Coens have told before, almost too identically in fact, but this time the journey is a little too strenuous for the audience, at least this viewer, to fully engage in. It might be more engaging if Davis wasn’t so unlikable at times in this film. But, it’s more than likely unable to capture my complete interest for that fact that I’ve seen the Coens do almost this exact same story, but better.
I didn’t realize going into “Inside Llewyn Davis” that it was essentially going to be “Barton Fink,” but with a folk singer instead of a playwright and set in the early ‘60s instead of the early ‘40s. The two are essentially dark tales of artistic integrity with the titular leads stuck in the personal struggle of trying to be successful without completely selling out.
“Barton Fink” is my favorite of the Coen brothers’ films that I’ve seen and for that reason the similarities between Fink and Davis might rub me a little too negatively, but I feel that because the two films are so similar in theme and story that “Inside Llewyn Davis” can’t help but pale in comparison to its predecessor. “Barton Fink” is just an all around better and more enjoyable film of artistic struggle, perhaps because the Coens gave the film a wonderful symbolic and supernatural feel and its characters were infinitely more likable (maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it does to me).
What the Coens do well with “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the film’s ending, which revolves back around to its beginning with Davis singing in the Gaslight Café only to meet up with a mysterious stranger in the alley who has a lesson for him. The nearly identical scenes bookending the film, along with Llewyn’s final line “au revoir” or “until we meet again,” gives the sense that Llewyn is not just trapped in his own little world of failure, but in fact in a type of “Groundhog Day”-esque re-living of the same week over and over. I’m not the first to come to this theory, but it’s certainly not one that everybody or even the majority of the people seem to believe. Different interpretations of their movies seem to be one of the best things about the Coen brothers.
Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Llewyn Davis as a down-trodden, melancholically sardonic prick is near pitch-perfect. He’s excellent as somebody who’s been beaten down by life and himself so many times that he has quit trying.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is completely focused on its main character, but for a short five-to-10 minutes or so John Goodman does his usual supporting character excellence as a heroin-riddled, say-the-first-thing-that-comes-to-his-mind jazz musician, who shares a ride to Chicago with our lead. It was such a fun performance that I didn’t mind not understanding at the moment why it was even included in the film, but later on I figured out that Goodman’s Roland Turner is a good prediction for what Davis could turn out to be later in life.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a perfectly fine piece of filmmaking driven by a fully realized character and performance of that character. It’s also a movie that will leave some of its songs, especially “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” rattling around your skull for days. But, at the same time it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s a re-worked “Barton Fink” for a newer generation. Maybe if it was done by somebody other than Coen brothers I wouldn’t be having this problem.
by Philip Price
In the midst of Hollywood's 2007 politically-charged, post 9/11 war on terror rally to get certain points of views into mainstream entertainment director Peter Berg produced a little seen gem called “The Kingdom,” that starred Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and Chris Cooper. There were plenty other a strong supporting player here, but despite it all the film failed to connect. That could be blamed as much on the saturation of the market as it could the film’s own shortcomings. Prepping ourselves for this along with “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Lions for Lambs” there simply wasn't much of a chance for this well-made, but familiar feeling film dropped on us in the dog days of late September. I bring this up because despite “The Kingdom” not leaving much of an impression on audiences I actually wound up seeing the film a few times and the final scene in which Berg contrasted the feelings of hate and anger from the U.S. toward the Middle East and vice versa, while a simple statement, was also a strong and powerful one that immediately resonated with me as a viewer; it allowed for all the complexity of war and the purpose of the meanings behind words like honor and courage to be stripped down to not so much their definitions, but the intention behind them. It showed, in that brief moment, that we all have similar ideals and end games, but are naturally coming at them from different perspectives. It is fine to have different perspectives or opinions on things, that is what makes the world and the human race consistently interesting, but to allow those different points of view to culminate in a fight to the death or to use violence to re-enforce these points will bring both sides nothing but pain, eventually overshadowing any victory we might feel we've come away with. There is a difference between compromising, coming to an agreed upon solution and beating someone into submission, but somewhere along the lines of history we found war to be the most effective tool of persuasion and today, that tradition continues stronger than ever. I say all of this to say that while Berg's latest effort, “Lone Survivor,” is also a simple story he is able to say much more with the film and the implications of the events it documents that we come away with much more than an adrenaline rush of action or misplaced pride, but a real understanding for the value of life and that it is not worth throwing away for inconsequential details.
I realize there is a level of relevancy to what this operation was doing, naturally, they are protecting not only what they believe to be their home, but also the small villages not in line with the Taliban who have to fight against the terrorist group as much as we do. We are still there in many ways to not only feel satisfied in the revenge of 9/11 but because the U.S. always feels like the big brother who has to go over and stop the other kids from picking on his little brother. We feel the urge to stick our nose in things where it's unnecessary sometimes. I'm not saying it's a bad thing to want to help, to want to make things right, but how much right is being done when the outcome are events such as what we see unfold in “Lone Survivor”? Just the story itself, minus the pristine camera work, the fine performances and the countless stuntmen and sound engineers who make the gun fight in the middle of this film one of the most equally terrifying and breathtaking pieces of cinema I saw all of last year, is one that is incredibly horrifying and heartbreaking. We meet the four members of SEAL team 10 in the order of Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) a natural born leader who is prepping for his wedding upon his return. Our titular Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) who seems a man of simple pleasures and takes pride in his position among his peers. We also have Matt "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster) who is as precise as he is passionate and finally there is Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) a communications specialist that may be the smallest in stature, but certainly has a fire inside him that isn't easy to put out. Despite the fact audiences will either be familiar with the true story this is based on or by the fact the title itself gives the outcome of the mission away neither of these could hardly be considered a spoiler because the film itself isn't as much about the outcome as it is paying tribute to who these men were and giving us a brief glimpse into what they endured and sacrificed in order to make us all feel a little bit safer. Berg sets these guys up in the beginning with the key ingredient that surpasses everything else the military and its actions stand for and that is the bond, the brotherhood felt between these soldiers. Without it, we wouldn't buy into what each of them does for the other when they find themselves in the thick of things and it certainly wouldn't leave as aching an impact as it does when the credits come around.
While this is mostly conveyed through the strong work of Wahlberg and his younger cast mates it is also a distinct idea that Berg wanted to make clear was a theme from the very beginning. In fact, as the film opens we see footage of actual training that not only re-enforces the ugly mentality that is forced upon these impressionable minds that put a definitive line between what it means to be a man and what it means to be less than human is frighteningly damaging, but it also contains quips such as, "I like having buddies I can depend on and I'd like them to be able to depend on me." These short, but introspective glimpses into the mindset of not only NAVY Seals, but what I assume is the majority of those enlisted in the military is that it doesn't necessarily matter what their mission is or who they are assigned to kill, but more it is taking the orders from the boss and knowing you have the right people around you to carry that out successfully. While that could easily be taken as a broad generalization, it seems the intent of Berg's piece surrounding this failed mission. The director doesn't choose to focus on the details of the mission or the countless moving parts that play into how this could succeed or fail, but instead we take all the facts of what these four men are being dropped into the mountains to do at face value. There is a bad guy, Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd (Yousuf Azami), and he killed 20 Marines the week prior to "Operation Red Wings" thus it is time for him to die: understood. These four are the best at what they do, they are a close knit group and can make what needs to be done, happen: understood. All is well until a couple of goat herders from the village below come across their path and they are forced to make a decision that will undoubtedly change the outlook of the rest of their lives no matter what decision they make. It is a reassuring piece of conversation that lets the audience know there was humanity in the situation, that there was a sense of true right and wrong, but it also really puts one’s mind in the center of the conflict as you wonder what you might do were it you in that position. It is easy to say you'd do the same, that what they did was right and it is also easy to say you'd kill them and guarantee your survival, but in that moment (and the movie does a fine job of putting us in the center of the dilemma) we don't really know what we'd do, what we feel we'd be able to live with. That, in itself, is the essence of what Berg is trying to get at with the film. Besides telling this incredible true story of survival it shines that light on the psychology of those who voluntarily put themselves in situations most would run away from.
That this is so stripped down to the simple nuts and bolts of the plot and closely focuses solely on the companionship between the principle cast members and eventually on the drive Luttrell somehow found within himself to stay alive is what makes the film feel so quickly paced, so nail-bitingly intense that inevitably leaves us with a solemn if not rewarding experience. As the audience has been trained, we want to be happy for Marcus, happy that he survived and that even if all of them didn't make it, he did and will hopefully live a life that would have made his brothers in arms proud. That all feels too much like we're romanticizing what the real Luttrell has seen and fought through though. Wahlberg, in a strong and commanding performance overall, narrates a final line over the film that makes us feel somewhat complete in this sense, but simply put there are no words that will do justice to what it means to "move on" after an event such as this one. To its credit, the film doesn't even attempt to do anything such as this, but instead takes the treachery and the bravery included in the mission and relays it to the screen without a filter while implementing techniques in order to better emphasize the themes and ideas it wants to explore. The result includes some fine performances from both Kitsch and Foster who develop their respective characters to the point we feel like we've known them their whole lives while only being on screen for about an hour of the run time. Kitsch hasn't garnered a great screen reputation, but this will seemingly lend him well to future supporting roles as he has a commanding presence that is best utilized when he doesn't have to also carry the weight of the film. Foster has always been an interesting performer and to his credit here we get a fully layered character that meets a gruesome end that is unfit for the man he seemingly was. I bring this up because it is the only moment in the film I didn't feel justified the violence it bluntly shows by not looking away. Most of the action here is necessary to understand the brutality of war and as I said earlier concerning the thrilling gun fight in the middle of the film that almost feels like a movie within a movie, it makes for the opportunity to deliver both hard hitting action as well as display the durability and intelligence of our protagonists, but there are small moments where the camera should shy away and leave characters with more dignity that unabashed access yet Berg can't seem to resist in that moment.
In saying that it also brings up how the film will satisfy on multiple levels. Those going in expecting a non-stop action flick that they can watch with their bros and bask in the manliness of the military and America will be more than pleased, but for those looking for something a little deeper, a little more nuanced it is clear Berg has inclinations for satisfying those desires as well. It seems it was a tough line for him to draw as he seems intent to honor Luttrell's vision for the film and his interpretation and memories of that day while also making a statement about the bigger picture and what the events of that day also mean in the larger scope of violence and humanity and how much it actually solves. These ideas are played out once again by Berg in effective fashion near the end of the film when Luttrell is rescued by the inhabitants of a small Afghan village who protect Marcus in honor of a 2,000 year old code of honor. During his short stay here the tables are turned and he is forced to see what it is like to be on the receiving end of people speaking in a foreign language in front of you that consist of conversation likely having to do with your fate. It is an eye opening moment that Berg expertly builds to and allows to simmer on the audiences mind before jolting them back into the thick of action. “Lone Survivor” doesn't seem to be trying to promote how great it is to be in the military or how exhilarating it is to fight in war despite the amount of action the film includes, but what we come away with is not only having witnessed a harrowing tale, but understanding the very specific insinuations that the film is making and how much of a job the military is not, but rather a lifestyle choice that seems more enigmatic than alluring to most of us.
by Philip Price
While the “Paranormal Activity” franchise has yet to reach the point where it is something more scoffed at than taken with anticipation it somehow doesn't feel like that point is too far away. This October will mark five years since the first time we met Katie and Micah and all the strange, demonic events that started happening to them and while each subsequent film that has pushed the limitations of people filming every important piece of their lives to the brink of implausibility, there is something to be said for the scope of what has developed here with having such humble beginnings. While the fifth film in the series was meant to be released this past fall it was instead pushed back to 2014 and so now, as these films bookend the year for us we are sure to feel both caught up and virtually still in the cold as to what is actually going on with this coven of witches that Katie and her sister Kristi became entangled in at a very young age (as the third film tells us). While each film has given us another piece to the bigger picture what comes to be more obvious with this off-shoot of the series is that they need to begin giving the audience more otherwise people are going to stop putting in their time and money to see these micro-budgeted movies that are dispersed consistently, but feature very little progression in narrative development. What makes ‘The Marked Ones’ a worthwhile trip to the movies is that it delivers both more scares and more actual background information than any of the previous installments. The new characters introduced here serve as more of an explanation as to "how" everything that has been hinted at in the main canon films has developed as opposed to "why" this all seemingly began with Katie and Kristi and why it has all spiraled out of control since then. I generally like the ‘Paranormal’ franchise despite the fact I'm never excited to actually sit down and watch one, but once I do I'm usually sucked into the intriguing if not normal people subject to the scares and moreover how this piece will fit into the overarching story that is being told. It would seem obvious from the marketing that ‘The Marked Ones’ is not essential viewing, but if you're a fan of the series it at least opens many more doors to be explored and is worth catching if you intend on seeing numero cinco this Halloween.
We first meet Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) at his high school graduation. His family is proud and his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz) is happy to be filming the occasion and taking part in the festivities at the family apartment complex later that evening. We are, as is routine now, introduced to these teenagers and their surrounding family and spend a considerable amount of time with them, getting to know them and slowly being dropped clues as to the weird stuff going on around them until it builds to an unavoidable climax where we get a few minutes of pure craziness that will ultimately result in the person holding the camera being killed and falling over where the final shot lays there giving us little to go on before one final scare comes creeping into the frame. It is safe to say ‘The Marked Ones’ operates within these boundaries, but this time around we aren't in the suburban confines of a nicely decorated model home, but in the much more authentic surroundings of Oxnard, Calif. where Jesse lives with his grandmother and does nothing out of the ordinary the summer after his graduation but hang out with Hector and their friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) who each find it entertaining to mess around with the camera Jesse received as a graduation present and an old game of Simon. Bored as they are they begin to investigate the weird actions of Anna (Gloria Sandoval), the woman that lives below them. Things naturally build both with Anna and one of Jesse's classmates, Oscar (Carlos Pratts), that set up some of the more genuine scares the series has seen since that strong third installment. What is impressive is that this could have basically come off as a subplot in the “Paranormal Activity” pantheon stretched to feature length, but the characters are so likable and their natural performances so engaging that we come to care for these people as more than punching bags for invisible demons. This, on top of the fact we get a better idea of where all of those followers that crowded the house at the end of the third film (and this one) are coming from and that it also allows the audience to dig a little deeper into what has been going on with characters from past films (Molly Ephraim of ‘Paranormal 2’ shows up for a short, but informative scene) make it an endeavor well worth the time it takes to get to the scares.
Christopher Landon, who has written each of the ‘Paranormal’ films since Oren Peli's original continues his scripting duties here, but has also taken over as director and it is clear he is excited to be doing so. What is both a distinctive feature of this supporting player of a film is both its highlight and its downfall. I enjoyed and was appreciative that Landon and his team were more generous with the scares this time as they weren't all confined to the last twenty minutes or so, but the problem I did have is that they are beginning to get away from what made the ‘Paranormal’ films so engaging in the first place. The scares were effective because of their practicality and there simplicity, but in one moment here all of that is undone and it goes from being subversively creepy to something more silly. That isn't to say it isn't surprising or even logical within the chain of events that occur here, but the way in which it is captured matched with the performance of Jacobs in the moment didn't so much scare or put me into shock as it did cause me to snicker. The scares here are all downplayed with the score set-up to re-enforce the moment and the building tension. It reaches a kind of crescendo in this moment though and while we are never able to go back and find the quiet kills of earlier moments Landon doesn't seem all that interested in doing so anyway. We barrel towards the ending complete with shotguns blowing witches away ("Let's kill these bitches! I mean, witches...") and chases through a darkened house with doors leading to unholy places that bring about small revelation and more questions to be answered in the next few installments. I doubt that we will ever get a complete picture of this Toby guys plan to build an army of demons with the help of this witch coven that have apparently been putting spells on pregnant women all over the world for years, but at least this latest installment doesn't find the series running in place and offers just as many insights as it does new questions. These are not films to really be regarded as serious cinema, but they are fun enough for the purpose they serve and on the first weekend of January you can't ask for much more than that. Here's to October and hoping that the new writers and directors of “Paranormal Activity 5” give us something as substantial as this franchise has the ability to offer.
by Julian Spivey
I can’t tell you much about the Disney classic “Mary Poppins,” even though I’m sure I probably saw it as a young child, I have absolutely no recollection of it. Thus, Disney’s 2013 film “Saving Mr. Banks,” about how Walt Disney finally talked ‘Poppins’ author P.L. Travers into a film version of her story, had little effect on me nostalgia-wise. However, the prospect of a really well-made movie, starring an extremely talented and award-winning cast and featuring film history as its storyline interested me quite a bit. For these reasons, “Saving Mr. Banks” was one of my most anticipated movies of the past year.
And, while I came out of the film realizing that it wasn’t going to be the best picture Oscar contender that I had some visions of, and some critics lauded it as, I was supremely satisfied with the product as a whole. The satisfaction resulted from knockout performances, particularly from lock Oscar nominee for best actress Emma Thompson as Travers and a possible Oscar nominee for best supporting actor Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, and a nicely crafted, two-stories-in-one screenplay from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith.
The John Lee Hancock directed film is truly a winner because it doesn’t just show Disney’s struggles with Travers in getting this film made, which is extremely accurate as you’ll see if you stay for the credits, but it goes in-depth into the reason why Travers didn’t want to see her beloved Mary Poppins (never just Mary, by the way) demeaned or disrespected in anyway.
Based on what I heard in the credits from actual recorded conversations between Travers and Disney’s staff Thompson, without a doubt in my mind, absolutely became P.L. Travers for this role. Her performance of the incredibly rigid English author is so well played that you can’t help but actually despise this woman at points early on in the film – thankfully for the movie’s whole this doesn’t last too terribly long. Hanks’ performance as the cheerfully confident, yet stern when he needs to be, Disney matches Thompson note for note and any scene where the two volley dialogue back-and-forth is essentially a master’s course on acting.
The behind the scenes Hollywood stuff is the aspect of ‘Banks’ that got me to the theatre, but it’s the story behind the story of why Travers is so particular about Mary Poppins that truly had me enjoying this film. This had a lot to do with Colin Farrell, who I didn’t even have a clue was going to be in this movie, who’s performance of an alcoholic banker by the name of Travers Goff (I’m sure you can see the connection here, even if it tries to remain a secret in the film) just added to the terrific performances of the cast. In fact, I think Farrell’s performance should be raved about as much by critics and fans alike as they have for Thompson and Hanks for without this piece of acting the film likely falters, at least the story behind the story segment that features him.
Another performance, one in a small supporting role, which I found to be absolutely delightful, was that of Paul Giamatti’s chauffeur Ralph, tasked with driving Mrs. Travers around. I’ve long considered Giamatti one of the all-time greats when it comes to character actors and he proves my opinion of that once again with a role, which easily could become forgotten in this film had another actor portrayed it. His glass is always half full optimism, despite things that we learn have been thrown at him, is incredibly refreshing especially when juxtaposed with Thompson’s Travers. It’s no surprise that Ralph is ultimately the one to burst through Travers’ tough exterior.
With “Saving Mr. Banks” constantly going back-and-forth through time it never does get jumbled and, in fact, this aspect of the film probably makes it flow much smoother than it could have. You’re never allowed to get bored with the behind the scenes of the film production or the story of Travers Goff and his imagination-filled daughter, Biddy (Lily Bigham), because the script is so good at fading in and out of the intertwining stories.
“Saving Mr. Banks” is a film that will be a must-see for all fans of “Mary Poppins,” although older fans of the film reminiscing on good times will appreciate it more than the younger set, but it’s also a film that should be beloved by all filmgoers for its great performances and stellar script.
by Philip Price
Sometimes, in life, there are subjects and themes that float in and out of our existence and can define certain time periods of our life. Whether it is for the fact that many of the ideals and themes represented in “Philomena” are also present at this time of my life made this film hit closer to home than I ever expected or if it is simply because the story in which the film tells is so interesting and captivating that I was completely swept up in it, I can't tell. Either way, there is something about the latest from director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”, “High Fidelity”) in which I can't immediately put my finger on, but am unable to shake. While I went into the film unsuspecting of its charms or its narrative I'd heard nothing but pleasant things about it and that it was something of a delight given the chemistry between leads Steve Coogan and Judi Dench. The last thing I expected was the kind of mystery adventure I was taken on that allows faith, religion and the way we look at God and who he is, if he is, and how he manages to affect our happiness and outlook on life while bringing more meaning to the relationship between a mother and her estranged son. There are moments when this could have easily become a light, road trip comedy with the old lady getting on the younger, sophisticated man’s nerves while eventually coming to realize they have a true affection for one another that will allow this relationship to become a cherished friendship, but that isn't the route the film decides to take and thank God for that. Sure, there are moments, entire scenes even, where the content may suggest that is exactly where “Philomena” is headed, but another of the surprising things about the film is that it never goes exactly where you think it will. There are familiar situations and set-ups that could have easily gone a more predictable way, but ultimately the fact this is based on a true story allows it a stronger sense of truth and the way in which things unfold I can only imagine will be more satisfactory for most than if it ended with a convoluted twist that named Coogan's character as the son (of course that doesn't actually happen, but if you thought you had it figured out beforehand, you don't). While “Philomena” will fly under the radar for most, it is a film the whole family can enjoy while also stirring up interesting conversation afterwards.
Going into the film having no real idea of what it was about I was immediately struck by the strong Catholic influence contained even within the opening credits. Like both Coogan and Dench I was raised a Catholic and am still a practicing participant in the religion, though that is not to say I don't often question things the church does and what role faith and believing in an almighty being plays in my life. We meet our titular character as she visits the church late at night and is there to do nothing more than light a candle for her son on his birthday. It is not until she returns home and her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) asks why she is crying do we realize it is a son she has never known, that was taken away from her when he was very young and that his birthday today would have been his fiftieth. We are immediately intrigued, wondering what the story is here and why this seemingly sweet old Irish woman might no longer have contact with her son. The film nicely transitions between the present time (which is 2003 in this case) and the early ‘50s giving the viewer a clearer picture of Philomena's past and what brought about her pregnancy and what forced the separation upon her and her son. A young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) who presumably began living at a convent in order to become a nun let her guard down one night at a fair allowing an attractive young man to get closer with her than any of the sisters would approve of and she ended up pregnant. When such an event occurred the nuns would deliver the baby and if the mother survived she would continue working at the convent while they would offer up the babies for adoption. Philomena's young son, Anthony, was adopted along with a younger girl when he was only a young boy and was presumably taken to the United States. All these years later, his biological mother can't help but wonder if he is out there somewhere and if he is thinking about her as much as she is him. Enter Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a world-weary political journalist who has just lost his job due to a scandal he apparently had little to do with, but took the bullet regardless. Martin is looking for work, something that might get him back in the groove and the last thing he expects is a human interest story, but Philomena's is exactly what he gets.
The core of the film, for me, was the question of how strong is the bond between a mother and son, even two that had never met, and how deep does it run? It is not exclusively the fact of the relations, but the theme of connection that runs throughout the film. The kinds of connections we create with those around us and the connection we may or may not have with God. Coogan has a line early on in the film where he steps out of a church service early and when his wife (Simone Lahbib) steps out afterwards and asks him what's up he replies, "I don't believe in God and I think he knows it." Sure, that early into the film one might take it as just a sly bit of dialogue that won't amount to much in the overall arc of the story, but Coogan who also co-wrote and produced this project knew exactly what he was doing and the tone he was setting not only for his character, but for the state of his existence and how it might be equivalent to the state of his faith. I hate to keep using the word faith because it doesn't seem to fully capture the meanings and point I'm trying to make with it, but more it is how whether we choose to believe in a higher power that has control over our lives and allows everything to happen for a reason versus if we choose not to believe and how that shapes the general state of our lives. When religion is simply too hard to accept everyday feels like a constant struggle to find reason in living, in wondering if not these ancient religions Gods, than what? What more is there after life? Is there anything? If there isn't, what rules should I decide to abide by while I'm here on earth and which ones should I scrap and say, "to hell with it, it doesn't matter anyway." The film shows the two distinct sides of this conundrum by presenting us Philomena and Martin and sending them on a journey together that will ultimately allow each to see that it takes a little give and take from both ends of the spectrum to live a happy, yet stimulating life. The good news is that it doesn't come across as a preachy reasoning as to why you should or should not believe in God, but instead wraps these explorations of religion and the blind faith many believers can take on with the story of a woman finding not only her son, but a piece of her life she was likely yearning for to have peace in her life; a piece/peace her faith and the church took away from her and could never fill.
All of that feels as if it only scratches the surface of why I fell in love with the film. Much of the other appealing factors that inform the aforementioned themes and engaging story would be spoilers were I to mention them here, but while I don't want to give away anything here it should be enough to say that despite the almost corny vibe the film’s poster gives off, the actual tone and intent of the film is much more serious-minded, much more aware of what it is operating on and how it is conveying the story of this odd couple that while falling into familiar plot lines of teaching each other life lessons along the way, also learn a lot more about themselves purely from the situations and truths they find themselves coming face to face with. What makes the film's conventional premise and the expected tone that comes along with that work so well with the more serious themes it explores is the balance in the performances from our two leads as well as the skilled hand of director Frears who is able to weave back and forth between rather light comedy and very heavy, dramatic scenes with an unnoticeable ease.
Dench is absolutely wonderful here; her Philomena is so preciously daft in her eternal optimism it is impossible not to want to hug her. No matter how much the evidence continues to stack up against the church she looks for the only possible way in which they could have been looking out for her best interests. She is and has been trying all her life to please the church almost hoping in some way that if she continues to strive for what they think a respectful life should be she might alleviate the pain these backwards and brainwashed thoughts caused her in the first place. She fights internally with what sin was worse; having the child or lying to everyone about it the rest of her life. These are things Coogan's Martin can only comprehend as unbelievable. That a person would torment themselves over something because they are told its wrong and with further explanation. He begins asking the questions: why would God give us such desires only to force us to subdue them? Why must anything that feels so good be so wrong? They are rather funny in the context of the film, but they bring Philomena much pain as it is all she's ever known. Martin's cynicism and consistent pessimism towards anyone that he finds weak-minded, ignorant and vulnerable conveys the struggle within him that he can't help but to let loose when he finds himself in a situation where he feels superior in almost every way. Philomena's optimism matches this train of thought with a somehow higher-seeming knowledge though in that if she truly believes in God she can't place the blame on him for the misdirection and misinterpretation of man. All of this to say that no matter if you believe in God or not, or even if you believe in something as simple as hope or coincidence, it's that when we are done exploring (both the world and all the avenues of our minds) we will arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. T.S. Eliot sure knows how to make life conundrums feel a lot less complicated.