Evil’s good

philomenaMy mother texted me last night about Steve Coogan’s appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, and expressed some excitement about the fact that Philomena Lee’s story is true.  I responded with equal excitement, mentioning that the film (seen by me, unseen by her) was the best thing I’ve seen Coogan do in a long time (or perhaps “ever” was the word I used).  She responded “Good” and left me hanging, but it reminded me that I actually wanted to write about this film.

Philomena is actually directed by Stephen Frears, but one must love the fact that the writer is getting so much of the attention.  Would he receive this attention if he weren’t already a beloved comic actor and celebrity?  Just let me have this moment before you answer.

The film follows the surprisingly accurate narrative of Philomena (Judi Dench), who meets disgraced Labour government adviser Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the latter of whom is advised to write a “human interest” story to buffer his career.  He abhors the idea until he runs into Philomena’s daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) at a cocktail party.  Jane relays the recent discovery that her mother had another child when she was a teenager.  Philomena’s father, however, sent her to Sean Ross Abbey for this “sin,” and the church snatched the child away as part of a series of real-life “forced adoptions” – that is to say, the church kidnapped and sold children to wealthy Americans.  Philomena has always thought of looking for her son, Anthony, with whom she only spent about a year before he was taken.  Martin begrudgingly agrees to write the story (despite his greater interest in writing a book on Russian history), and he meets Philomena, whose Irish Catholic sensibilities do not exactly mesh with his own atheism.  Above all, he cannot understand how she could still be religious after the nightmare she went through at the hands of the church, particularly Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford).

What follows is equal parts buddy comedy, road movie, and straight-played drama.  Philomena has concerns about what kind of person her son, renamed Michael by his adoptive parents, might have become after moving to America (the most dire of which is “What if he’s obese?”).  The good news is that he did relatively well for himself, becoming a senior official in the Reagan administration, but the bad news is that he died of AIDS in the ’90s.  With this discovery, Martin and Philomena become a bit closer, the unfairness of it all being that they must now hasten back to Ireland.  Luckily for his story, Martin took both “happy” and “sad” photos of Philomena in preparation for either outcome.  Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley), Martin’s editor, doesn’t see a problem with anything that’s happened.

Philomena, however, decides that she wants to stay in America and meet people who knew her son.  The duo begin with Michael’s colleagues, who show Philomena photos of Michael and his “friend” Pete (Peter Hermann), but Philomena insists that she has always known that Michael was a “gay homosexual.”  She and Martin visit Pete, who inexplicably threatens to have them arrested if they do not leave his property.  Philomena talks her way into his home, however, and finds out that Michael and Pete went to Ireland years ago for the very same purpose: to meet Philomena and discover Michael’s roots.  The convent, however, claimed that his mother had abandoned him and that they had lost contact with her (quite untrue, since Philomena had been visiting the convent so often that every employee knew who she was).  For Philomena, this is enough, for she’d assumed Michael had never wondered about where he came from.  They also learn that he is buried in the convent’s graveyard, where the story began, and everything comes full circle.

The tension reaches its peak during a final confrontation with the seemingly ancient Sister Hildegarde, who rolls around the convent’s private quarters, stoically waiting to die.  Martin confronts her, eager to get answers to why she would not only sell off Philomena’s child, but lie to a family for decades, adding that “If Jesus were here, he’d tip you out of that fucking wheelchair.”  But the decision of what to do is ultimately up to Philomena.  Forgiveness has never bothered me so much.

Judi Dench does not need my approval, but she inhabits the heart of this film with a full range of every possible emotion.  Coogan complements her nicely, acting as both chauffeur and lens, but Philomena herself is aware of this lens, and will not allow Martin to color the story of her family any way he wants it just for the sake of giving the public something to get riled about.  Anna Maxwell Martin plays Jane with such a confident delicateness that I was sad to see her fade into irrelevance once the adventure began, but she’s a treat when she’s on.  Hildegarde is played as a pure villain, which we must assume someone with that name and station in life could easily become, but it may have been effective to actually provide Philomena with the apology she deserves, or at the very least, to give another layer to someone who could be (and is) such an unrepentant monster.

Still waiting on an adaptation of Sixsmith’s Russian history texts.  Nope; couldn’t type that with a straight face.

Philomena (2013); written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope; based upon The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith; directed by Stephen Frears, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.




Last rat standing

The 007 film series took a step forward in the Brosnan era: despite the movies not being very good, the introduction of a female “M” (leader of MI6) was a progressive change.  This time around, we get three powerful female figures, which is all well and good until two of them die and the third becomes a secretary.  Skyfall, in spite of its strengths as an action movie and its inarguable superiority over the abysmal Quantum of Solace (Olga Kurylenko’s performance notwithstanding), is a step backwards in nearly all other ways.

The newest Bond story, not based upon any of Ian Fleming’s original material (most of which has been exhausted by the twenty-three films), follows James Bond (Daniel Craig on his third run) as he fakes his own death, retires from MI6, and becomes reinstated after a crisis calls for his expert attention.  M (played by Judi Dench for the seventh and final time) needs Bond to deal with a cyberterrorist and former MI6 agent called Silva (Javier Bardem).  Silva, though, is obsessed not with wealth, not with base destruction, not even with Bond himself, but with M and her apparent disregard for her own agents.  “Mommy,” as he refers to her, once left Silva to die after a failed operation, and instead of killing himself while captive, Silva only succeeded in melting his own jaw with cyanide, making him look a bit like Richard Kiel’s “Jaws” character from Moonraker.

Silva’s style of terrorism revolves around hokey Youtube videos linked with the message “Think on your sins.”  When Bond returns to action, the film plays like it’s the first time Bond is doing any of this stuff (which they already tried in Casino Royale, with less tedious results).  He fails all of his tests, but is allowed to go after Silva anyway, and teams with agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and the newly-appointed Q (Ben Whishaw) to – to what?  We don’t really know.  But after a few stylized fight scenes (one of which involves an enormous CG komodo dragon), Bond finds himself on Silva’s personal island, where the latter runs his operations from a single laptop and a 1980s supercomputer.  Silva tells a parable about rats (which, given its level of attention in a film of this type, must be the scripture by which the story’s metaphors, ironies, and ideologies operate until the end), after which Bond dispatches his guards and takes the villain into custody.  We get the feeling this capture was too easy, however, and soon learn that Silva’s plan was to be captured, make his escape, and kill M after a public humiliation entailing her admission of MI6’s failures.  What follows might be the most well-shot gunfight of this year’s films.  It includes not only the main players, but also Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), M’s boss, who thinks MI6 is an old fossil not worth the government paychecks it absorbs.  The film’s third act explores some Bond backstory (all invented for the film) and visits Skyfall Manor, Bond’s childhood home, where the caretaker (Albert Finney) is still watching over things.  Bond reveals to him the film’s entire plot in a nutshell: “Some people are coming to kill us.  We’re going to kill them instead.”

Throughout the film, we are told that sometimes “the old ways are best,” yet the only callbacks to the original Bond movies are brief references in the form of an Aston Martin and the old Dr. No theme song that appeared in almost all twenty-three onscreen adventures. Soon after, though, the Aston Martin is blown up, and Judi Dench is replaced by Ralph Fiennes in the role of M (a role originally inhabited by Bernard Lee and taken by men up until 1997’s Goldeneye), indicating that the best of the “old ways” is the idea of a man-centric action fantasy, not the beloved conventions of the series, and certainly not the progression the films of the 90s strove for.  The line about the “old ways” is spoken by Finney’s character as he places a combat knife in front of Bond.  This is meant to be foreshadowing (Bond, of course, will end up killing Silva with the proverbial “Chekhov’s Knife”), but to the unenlightened, I offer this tidbit: you should not realize that an event was foreshadowed until after the event happens.  If the film gives you a clue and you figure out what’s going to happen before it happens, that’s not foreshadowing; it’s just a clumsy spoiler.  Hasn’t Sam Mendes heard of the old “two weeks til retirement” trope?

Skyfall snatches a defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to its female characters.  It also contains several holes we’re expected to overlook: what is the purpose of Severine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), other than to be naked and dead?  Why include her sad backstory and only keep her alive for five minutes, with Bond later referring to her demise as a “waste of good Scotch” (not to mention that he took advantage of her after she mentioned suffering sexual assault in her youth)?  How does Silva know that Bond will go through such an arduous quest (and survive) to capture him?  If he wanted to be captured, why not simply turn himself in to MI6?  Why is Eve, who saved Bond multiple times in the film’s early scenes (including defeating an armed henchman with nothing but a high-heeled shoe) considered “not cut out” for field work?  Why doesn’t she participate in the final battle at Skyfall Manor?  The revelation that her surname is “Moneypenny” demonstrates a slight misunderstanding of the character, but since they’re seating her behind a desk until further notice, I assume we’re not supposed to care.

In the original novels and short stories, Bond was complex.  His smoking and drinking were considered vices, and he often found himself in rehab and the hospital.  His womanizing, so glorified in the films, was an unbearable sex addiction in Fleming’s stories, and he lost the women because he either failed to protect them or they got sick of his bad habits.  To its credit, Skyfall attempts to reignite some of what made Bond human, not just a super-spy, though it’s not the same stuff Fleming used.  It’s not even from the same bucket of clay.

Craig gives his best Bond performance yet (the pressure to match Bardem’s performance as Silva probably contributed to that), and Naomie Harris is gorgeous, fun, and serious in the role of Eve.  Ola Rapace appears as Patrice, a silent hitman who should have been in the film for longer (but whose duel with Bond is shot on a wonderfully atmospheric set).  Whishaw’s new, younger Q is expertly handled, reflecting the relationship Bond had with the character in the old movies, and strongly echoes Desmond Llewelyn’s voice.  While Casino Royale was the be-all-end-all attempt at adapting one of Fleming’s books, Skyfall feels like a wholehearted attempt to reboot the films.

When asked why one of my students liked this film, he replied, “It has guns and attractive females.”  Who nowadays would believe that this film series was birthed from a series of beautifully written spy novels about an emotional, conflicted, and truly heroic character?

Skyfall (2012); written by Neal Purvis and John Logan; adapted from the original James Bond character by Ian Fleming; directed by Sam Mendes; starring Daniel Craig, Naomie Harris, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem.

My Week With Marilyn

Falling in love for ninety minutes

Forget the Mayans: when there comes a generation of boys who don’t fall in love with Marilyn Monroe, that’s when you know the world is truly ending and human sensibilities deteriorating.

My Week With Marilyn is not so much a biopic about Marilyn’s life as it is a slice of Colin Clark’s (if his memoir is to be believed), and a drive-by look at the contrast between how Marilyn was regarded and treated not only in Hollywood, but overseas.  The story follows Clark (Eddie Redmayne) as he takes a chance on becoming third assistant director (a glorified errand boy) for The Prince and the Showgirl, a film which despite being unsuccessful and panned by critics propelled Marilyn and Laurence Olivier (played expertly by Kenneth Branagh) into the heights of their respective careers.  During the shoot, Marilyn is on her honeymoon with new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and being the proverbial “stranger in a strange land,” struggles with the conventions and pressures of Olivier’s world.  Clark attempts to acclimate her into British society, and the two develop what Clark thinks is a blazing romance.  But it isn’t.  We know that.  Marilyn knows that.  She is lonely, afraid, drugged up (not by choice), and sporadically ill, and Clark is the only person who is nice to her.

The film, directed by Simon Curtis, paints a fair picture of Marilyn from the beginning.  Hollywood follows her everywhere.  She is fed pills by assistants who are supposed to be taking care of her, and their only reasoning is that she’s difficult to “control.”  This animal treatment extends to every extremity of her life, from the way her entourage simultaneously parade her around and shield her from the public to the way they cage her in temporary homes with constant surveillance.  Furthermore, they refer to her sweet, jovial personality as an “act.”  But we’re fully convinced.  She doesn’t even seem to know she’s “sexy” until Olivier blurts out on set that her portrayal of Elsie Marina isn’t utilizing her “natural talents.”  These scenes, while beautiful, also hurt.  Here was a woman idealized, abused, and misunderstood by virtually everyone she came into contact with.  Her depressions were misinterpreted as entitlement, her acting methods conflated with confusion.  The phrase “no one else understands you” is spoken to Marilyn by various characters, but they, we must suspect, are farthest from understanding.

Kenneth Branagh shines as Olivier, and is allowed to be a dedicated artist and a commanding boss, but also a bit of a blowhard and a relieving presence.  His feelings about Marilyn transform completely over the course of the film, and less than a month in her presence contorts his life in vicious ways.  Branagh even quotes Shakespeare at one point – he just can’t seem to get away from it.  Also in the supporting cast are Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike; Zoë Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg, Marilyn’s overprotective acting coach who clashes with Olivier in some excellent banter-laced scenes; and Emma Watson (finally ditching Hermione) as Lucy, a young woman working in wardrobe, who begins as Clark’s love interest but turns out to be a backup plan.  Refreshingly, she seems to always be the one calling the shots in her scenes with Redmayne, even in the end.  Scott’s portrayal of Arthur Miller is exactly how you’d think Hollywood people look at writers: frustrated, bothered, weathered in the face, and perpetually grubby.  Who would have known he was about to write The Crucible?

The film’s best sequence is Clark and Marilyn’s first real day together, which begins when Clark, who has been banned from being near Marilyn, is ushered into a car by Marilyn’s bodyguard.  As he sits down, afraid, unsure, and the car begins moving, Marilyn pops out from under a blanket and claims that this is “the getaway car.”  It’s the one scene in which we bear witness to, perhaps, Marilyn’s real personality, free of her caretakers and feeling like she’s having an adventure of her own design.  The scenes that follow rival any romantic film of the year.  The drama is slightly lessened in that we know they don’t end up together, but there is a certain fascination involved: Clark, mistaking infatuation for love, forgets that he’s seven years Marilyn’s junior and that she spoke to him like a child earlier.  The shift in relationship dynamic is staggering, but Clark seems to be the only one who doesn’t see it (of course, later, he must).

The Oscar for Best Actress may already bear the scent of Michelle Williams, the spitting image of Marilyn not only in the film makeup and wig, but even more so in voice and aura.  If she wins for this film, it will be a well-deserved victory for her, but also, considering the material, a victory for Marilyn.

My Week With Marilyn (2011); written by Adrian Hodges; directed by Simon Curtis; starring Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, and Eddie Redmayne. 

Jane Eyre

Anything but plain

It has been a long time, maybe forever, since I attended a movie that drew actual gasping and sobbing from the audience.  Nothing surprises us anymore.  Maybe it’s something about the clientele of an independent theatre vs. Regal (the latter of which makes one cry because of the ticket/concession prices, not the quality of the film).  Regardless, Cary Fukunaga’s film adaptation of Jane Eyre, based upon Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Gothic novel, made that happen.

For those of you non-literary readers (a term which seems backwards and perverse in and of itself), the first thing to note about Jane Eyre is that the novel is not simply a period romance, which is how it has been adapted in about twenty-four films and TV specials.  The novel itself is a Bildungsroman story featuring elements of Gothic horror and social criticism, and is most notably one of the earliest examples of the phrase “ahead of its time”: a gorgeous work of literature featuring a self-reliant female protagonist.  Jane is highly moral, but mature and individualistic, capable of evolving on her own, never appearing as a damsel in distress, never in need of rescue.  Fukunaga remembers all of this.

The story follows Jane Eyre, of course, played in this version by the staggeringly talented Mia Wasikowska (about whom I gushed in my Alice in Wonderland piece).  Growing up in the house of her horrid aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), Jane is frequently abused, physically and mentally.  Reticence, however, is not in Jane’s vocabulary.  She educates herself, sneaking a look at books when no one is around, as well as talking (and striking) back when provoked by her cousins.  As a result, she is told that she is deceitful, and is sent off to a special girls’ school.  Fukunaga gives us these early sections of the story in the form of flashbacks, with the interest of showing us that Wasikowska plays the version of Jane with whom we’ll be spending the most time.  This shifts the linear storytelling of the novel, but in the film, it’s not terribly distracting.  It’s not terribly needed either, but there you go.  With one thing and another, Jane becomes Governess at Thornfield Manor, teaching the young ward of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), with whom she will eventually fall in love, and befriending the aging housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench).

An amazing aspect of this film is that it retains the storytelling point of view of the novel: Jane Eyre is told from Jane’s perspective.  In the film, we never get a scene without Jane.  Mia Wasikowska (and to a lesser but nearly as powerful degree, young Amelia Clarkson) carries this entire film on her shoulders.  Often, in films like these, it’s ninety percent first-person, then the filmmaker caves in because (s)he can’t figure out how to tell an important piece of exposition without cutting away from the established perspective – not here.  We’re always with Jane, and more importantly, we want to stay with her.

Michael Fassbender appears as the story’s Byronic hero, and does so with a humor that makes us love Mr. Rochester but never even approaches the fourth wall, as many period pieces feel they must.  As a friend put it, “Fassbender not playing a douchebag in a military uniform, for once?”  Yes, and it’s magical to watch.  This film’s release was limited, but I’m holding out hope that the two leads will get the recognition they deserve from these performances. Appropriately, Rochester’s apparent love interest, Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots) actually performs one of Lord Byron’s musical pieces.  Everything from the score, the architecture and the atmosphere to the social and scientific assumptions of the time period are retained.  Judi Dench, as usual, is sweet and grandmotherly, and can set the tone of an entire scene with one facial expression (one that comes to mind is the scene in which Mrs. Fairfax first sees Jane and Rochester together).  Jamie Bell also appears as Jane’s cousin (a detail left out in the film), the pious St. John Rivers, who takes Jane in after her unceremonious exeunt from Thornfield.

Fiction writer David Jauss suggests, in his essay, Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life, that we authors of fiction try to write our way into characters whose lives we know nothing about. On paper, we become different people.  In Charlotte’s time, she was writing about herself – Jane Eyre, judging from what we know, mirrors Charlotte as a person in the most striking of ways (often summed up in brusque phrases such as “a woman with a strong heart,” but take from it what you will).  If I may be so bold, I think if Charlotte had lived to see the dawn of film, or hadn’t passed away with an unborn child, she/her descendants would have been more pleased with Fukunaga’s adaptation of the story and Mia Wasikowska’s portrayal of Jane than any version of either done before.

It might be worth mentioning that in Charlotte’s time, people were still figuring things out – things like the way sound travels.  In several sections of the story, Jane hears voices, the most important of which occurs when she hears Rochester calling her name and decides to return to him.  In all our romanticizing, we forget that in this period of the world, people weren’t sure this kind of thing wasn’t possible – that you couldn’t hear someone softly calling your name from leagues away.  In this adaptation of Jane Eyre, I promise you’ll hear Charlotte’s, just a little.

Jane Eyre (2011); written by Moira Buffini, based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë; directed by Cary Fukunaga; starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench and Jamie Bell.


Show business kids makin’ movies of ’emselves…

As much as I enjoy the little featurettes on Rage, Sally Potter’s latest effort, the term “naked cinema” has yet to be defined for me – whether that is because I suddenly find myself a victim of the times and think the absence of a Wikipedia article means a term has no definition, I couldn’t say.  I’m going to venture a guess, though: it means something more than a “cheap movie.”  Rage was made with only $1 million (a phrase I still snicker at when I hear it spoken aloud – “only one million dollars”), and I assume the lion’s share  went to the actors.  If hats didn’t give me headaches, I would wear one and subsequently take it off to this stellar cast of accomplished performers for snubbing expensive jobs they surely could have taken in favor of being involved in a truly ambitious artistic project.

Potter states that “we…live in a culture that is kind of fetishizing fake confessions in the form of reality TV, confessions made for an effect, or to get famous or whatever…I tried to go back to an earlier lineage of confession, which is a kind of…lifting off, if you like, of a mask.”  This film is fully comprised of confessional interviews, supposedly filmed by a high school blogger calling him/herself Michelangelo (yes, it’s important to note that the gender is never revealed; don’t just assume it’s a male).  Michelangelo, a silent, off-stage presence, spends seven days behind the scenes at a fashion show, witnessing a murder-mystery in progress while the key players share their musings with the camera (and quite often share too much).

The colorful ensemble includes appearances by Jude Law as a drag queen named Minx; Steve Buscemi as Frank, a homeless photographer; Judi Dench as Mona, a pessimistic fashion journalist; the gorgeous Lily Cole (who has grown on me) as Lettuce Leaf, an exaggerated version of herself; Eddie Izzard as Tiny Diamonds, the owner of the fashion company; Simon Abkarian as Merlin, a master fashion designer and blowhard extraordinaire; Patrick J. Adams as Dwight Angel, a young, bigoted marketing exec who happens to be ignorant of his own racial insensitivity; David Oyelowo as Homer, a “detective” straight out of a blaxploitation film; and John Leguizamo as Jed, Tiny’s coffee-addicted bodyguard.

For a film almost completely devoid of a traceable story arc, it is impressive to find two sideplots alongside the documentary/murder-mystery (though the first is more of a “side subject”): 1) the creation of a new fragrance, simply called “M,” which leads to insight from several characters about what “M” stands for, resulting in characters “saying more than they’re saying;” and 2) Lettuce Leaf needs to “get away” from the barbarous stress of being in the studio, and asks Michelangelo if she can come home with him/her.  The final shots of the film, quite different from anything previous, are touching, gorgeous, and…shucks.  Just see it.

Rage is a film for the film enthusiast, the writer, and the minimalist.  It’s a film entirely comprised of dialogue, dismissing the importance of plot and resolution, revolving completely around characters and their immediate emotions.  It’s a murder mystery with no possible solution.  It’s a satire of the fashion industry, and more so a satire of reality TV and its dedicated viewers who gawk hopelessly as their idols, people who have done nothing and are nothing, weep and whine about silly, grandiose, arbitrary schlock, and the camera zooms in for a deliberate closeup.

Rage (2009); written and directed by Sally Potter; starring Lily Cole, Jude Law, Judi Dench and Steve Buscemi.

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