“Philomena:” the search for a lost child Reply

“Philomena” is the story of an Irish woman who searches for the son she was forced to give up for adoption many years before. After years of fruitless inquiring, she teams up with a British journalist and learns the truth about her son and about the system that took him away.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in  "Philomena."

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in “Philomena.”

Philomena Lee was a “Magadelene,” an unmarried girl who got pregnant and was packed off to a convent to have the baby. Then she had to work in a laundry for three and a half years to pay back the nuns who ran the place. She was forced to acknowledge that the baby would be given up for adoption. Little Anthony was given to an American couple who already had three boys and were looking for a girl, but decided to take him as well because he came right up and embraced the mother. The price: a donation of a thousand Irish pounds each.

The film belongs to Judi Dench, who plays the title character as a ordinary, working-class person, a lover of snacks, brandy, and mass-market novels, but one with a steely determination to find out what happened to her son.

The journalist is Martin Sixsmith, played with understated wit by Steve Coogan, a British comedian not well known in this country. Sixsmith has just been sacked from his job as a government spokesperson and sees Philomena’s story as a way back into journalism.

The search for Anthony takes unexpected turns that Philomena accepts with more grace and sense than expected by the somewhat supercilious Sixsmith. Together they solve the mystery and arrive at closure for Philomena, not to mention a career reboot for Sixsmith.

The film is based on Philomena’s true story, as told by Sixsmith in a book. The real-life Philomena said the film is reasonably true to life, and she is thrilled to be played by Judi Dench.

The book was published during an uproar in Ireland over revelations of abuses in the long-established “Magdalene” system. Coupled with disclosures of sexual abuse by priests, the scandal rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland. The film suggests that the church today is not as rigid and authoritarian as it was fifty years ago (which hardly needs to be said). Nevertheless, the emotional climax is a confrontation, initiated by Sixsmith, between Philomena and an aging nun, Sister Hildegarde, who is just as mean and judgmental as she was in the old days — eager to cast the first stone. Naturally, Philomena’s response is far more Christian than Sister Hildegarde’s.

The film is a civilized little British production in which sex is discussed but not shown, there are no car chases, and nothing gets blown up, so it seems unlikely to get much beyond the arthouse circuit. But Dench and Coogan are worth watching, and the search for Anthony provides enough narrative momentum to keep the film going.

“Mud” – Huck Finn meets modern Southern gothic Reply

When a couple of 14-year-old Arkansas boys find a cabin cruiser fifteen feet up in a tree on an island in the Mississippi River, you can tell we’ve entered Huckleberry Finn territory, where freedom and truth are on the river, while violence and betrayal are on the land.  Just to make it clear, the title character – “Mud,” played by Matthew McConaughey —  is a superstitious man with a cross pattern in a boot heel – just like Huck Finn’s father.

Matthew McConaughey with young helpers

Matthew McConaughey with young helpers

McConaughey is on the run after having gunned down the man who beat up his sometime girlfriend, Juniper,  played by Reese Witherspoon, who is much better as a tramp than she is in her usual ingénue roles.  The police are looking for Mud, but he has little to fear from them.  His problem is with his victim’s father and brother and hirelings, who are out to kill him.

The boys who encounter him on the island are played quite brilliantly by Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone, or Nick.  Tye is the more romantic and Nick the more level-headed, and both are utterly believable as boys who have already seen too much of life and are struggling to make sense of it.

They do their best to help Mud escape the island and reconcile with Juniper, but reality intrudes and their lives are in jeopardy until a mysterious neighbor sets things right with a sniper rifle.  There is no Southern Gothic without sudden and explosive violence.

The cast is wonderful, with Joe Don Baker as the revenge-seeking patriarch and Sam Shepard as the neighborhood sharpshooter. The film belongs to McConaughey, who demonstrates that he can thoroughly inhabit a character.  But it wouldn’t be a coming-of-age film without Sheridan and Lofland, who see more of life in a few weeks than most people see in their whole lives.

The film would have benefited from some editing – Ellis’s infatuation with older girl takes up too much time – and the ending is pat, but the story is well-told and the acting is well worth watching. McConaughey has been on a tear lately to prove that he is more than a hunk and an action hero, and “Mud” serves that purpose admirably.


“Greedy Lying Bastards:” global warming agitprop Reply

“Greedy Lying Bastards” is an indignant protest against the fact that the energy industry, especially ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers, has funded organizations and campaigns that have denied the existence of global warming or minimized its impact. The producer/narrator/star, Craig Scott Rosebraugh, was known in the 1990s as a spokesperson for the eco-terrorist Earth Liberation Front, and brings his unhinged sense of environmental righteousness to this piece of agitprop.

According to Rosebraugh and some of the experts he presents, global warming is affecting our daily weather right now, leading to wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and flooding. Judging from the film, the only dissenters from this view are various charlatans and villains in the pay of the oil companies.  Naturally, George W. Bush and Justice Clarence Thomas are also key members of the cabal.

Rosebraugh spends most of his time and effort chasing every public relations ploy ever launched by the energy sector.  What he doesn’t do is attempt to provide any answer to the industry’s basic argument: that a serious attempt to reduce carbon emissions, by the degree needed actually to slow, halt or reverse the warming trend, would cripple our energy-dependent economy and slash the standard of living that modern society has come to expect.  Greenpeace might not give a hoot if this happens, but millions of other people would surely object.  To this rather obvious concern, Rosebraugh has no answer and seems oblivious to the question.

The film runs about an hour and a half but seems longer because it keeps pounding away at the same simplistic theme, making for a repititious and tedious experience.  It also asks the audience to be concerned about remote threats such as erosion in Alaska and flooding in Tuvalu. The latter consists of low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean which may be getting flooded by melting polar ice caps, or may be just sinking into the ocean, as islands are wont to do.

Alternative explanations are not allowed in Rosebraugh’s world, however. He is sort of a Michael Moore without the roguish charm, just an ideologue with a camera.  I was one of seven persons in the theater on a Sunday night, and one guy left early.  Rosebraugh’s partner is the onetime actress Daryl Hannah, who knows something about the oceans, having played a mermaid. Unlike Hannah’s movie, Rosebraugh’s is unlikely to make much of a splash.

“Les Miserables” the movie – the power of love Reply

Les Miz poster
“Les Miserables” – the book, the show, the movie – is about the redemptive power of forgiveness, love, and commitment. If you think all that stuff is just bunk, then see something else this holiday season. But if you are ready for an operatic epic with an emotional punch, then the movie “Miz” should be on your must-see list.

Well-acted and well-sung, with camera work ranging from wide-screen spectacle to close-up moments of poignancy, “Les Miz” is a tour de force in the fine art of bringing theatrical spectaculars to the screen.  Musicals are hard to film, modern operas almost impossible, but director Tom Hooper pulls it off with style.

The cast is anchored by Hugh Jackman, every inch the leading man as Jean Valjean; Russell Crowe as the relentless Inspector Javert; and Anne Hathaway as the victimized factory worker Fantine, whose slide into desperate poverty provides the story’s emotional core.


“Skyfall:” The Bond brand continues Reply

“Skyfall,” the latest entry in the long-running James Bond franchise, is less about action and suspense than about the Bond brand itself. The film serves to assure an anxious world that our hero, played by Daniel Craig, will continue to battle evildoers.

From the lengthy opening credits, enlivened by an original song by Adele, to the aging Bond’s flinty promise to return to duty, the film is mostly a series of gunfights in exotic locales punctuated by nerdy excursions into cyber security. It seems that someone has stolen a list of NATO intelligence operatives, a list the British were not supposed to have. “M,” the security chief played by Judi Dench, will go to any lengths to get it back.

Bond takes a bullet intended for his adversary in a lengthy fistfight, but movies being what they are, makes a miraculous recovery and returns to work. Dench uses him to track down the bad guy who has the list, who is clearly a turncoat with inside knowledge of MI6 and its cyber-security. A harsh judgment M made many years before comes back to haunt her.

Unable to rely on high tech, Bond reverts to the old ways, using shotguns and booby traps to battle the villains armed with automatic weapons. Fortunately he has his machine-gun-equipped Aston-Martin from the old days to even the odds somewhat.

A chief interest in a Bond film is watching the exotic locales, in this one Shanghai and Macau. (It’s amazing what a Komodo dragon can do to a bad guy without a gun.) From those high-rise, ultra-modern cities, the action shifts to London’s underground, where the subway system and Winston Churchill’s wartime bunker provide a cramped, subterranean setting for further shootouts, until the scene shifts to a bleak landscape in Scotland. It seems that Bond grew up in the boondocks.

The film is one or two shootouts too long and lacks any real tension among the main characters. Dench is getting too old for her role, and Bond’s implied romantic attraction to the agent named Eve is unconvincing.

But the franchise rolls on. The closing credits explicitly mention the 50th anniversary of the franchise, launched in 1962 with Sean Connery in the lead. Words on the screen assure us there will be another Bond film. As if there was any doubt.

“War Horse:” A Love Story Reply

When Stephen Spielberg directed “War Horse,” he set out to make an epic in the mold of  “Dr. Zhivago” or “Gone with the Wind.” Like those films,”War Horse” is a war movie that is a celebration of the power of loyalty and commitment.

Albert rides Joey, the "War Horse"
Albert rides Joey, the “War Horse”

But mostly it is a love story of the old-fashioned kind: boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy and horse find each other and ride into the sunset. The story is simple and sentimental, as you might expect from a film based on a children’s novel. “War Horse,” the book, was written by Michael Morpurgo and published in England in 1982. It was also the source of a successful play staged in London and New York.


The “Anonymous” Shakespeare: Revenge of the Ghost Reply

Note: contains spoilers (sorry!)

Was William Shakespeare the author a role played by William Shakespeare the actor? The question is posed by “Anonymous,” an earnest and occasionally entertaining historical drama directed by Roland Emmerich. The film’s answer, that the plays, poems and sonnets of Shakespeare were in fact the creation of Edward DeVere, Earl of Oxford, is a popular but utterly improbable theory embraced by those who cannot believe that a man of only modest education, and little social standing, could have created one of the pillars of the English language. “Anonymous” will persuade many conspiracy theorists but few who understand that genius does not require membership in the upper class.

Engraving of William Shakespeare

Was this man an illiterate fraudster?

The William Shakespeare depicted in the film is an actor who can read but cannot actually write — not just in the literary sense but literally: he cannot form letters on paper.  But he is money-hungry and keeps an eye out for the main chance, and he sees it when DeVere begins to stage his plays through Ben Jonson, also a notable literary figure in 16th century London.  Jonson is reluctant to lend his name, so the plays are produced without a designated author; when the enthusiastic audience cries, “Author!  Author!” Shakespeare steps forth, much to Jonson’s chagrin. Thus begins a spectacular run of successful plays which Jonson and Shakespeare obtain from DeVere, who has spent his life writing plays which he feels it would be too déclassé to produce. More…

“Drive:” Bloodbath in High Gear Reply

There are many different ways to kill a man, and some of them are demonstrated quite graphically in “Drive,” ranging from slashing with a razor to stabbing with a curtain rod. The only one that did not involve copious amounts of blood was drowning.

Ryan Gosling at the wheel in "Drive"

Ryan Gosling takes the wheel in "Drive"

Ryan Gosling plays an automobile mechanic in Los Angeles who works occasionally as a stunt driver for the movies and moonlights as a getaway driver for stickup men. He guarantees them five minutes of police evasion in a souped-up car, and then they are on their own. But then he discovers Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, who’s both lovely and lonely, and he resolves to go straight and start a new life. Their romance develops slowly since Gosling channels his inner Gary Cooper and plays the Driver (no name is ever mentioned) as the strong, silent type. He probably had little trouble learning his lines since there are so few of them.


“Contagion” Movie More Fiction than Science Reply

A review by Richard L. Lobb

The new movie “Contagion” had its Washington preview screening Tuesday night (Sept. 6). The good news is that the disease is NOT bird flu and is not spread by birds. It seems to be some sort of influenza/encephalitis that combines a pig virus with a bat virus. It is dubbed MEV-1 and and is said to have been created when “the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.”

At the very end, it turns out Gwyneth Paltrow got it from the chef who got blood and saliva on his hands from a pig that got it from the bats when the bats were disturbed by the bulldozers at the factory groundbreaking that Gwyneth Paltrow was in China to attend. Capitalism causes all kinds of problems, you see. More…