Movie Review ~ Philomena

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.

Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham, Peter Hermann

Director: Stephen Frears

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

ReviewPhilomena provided an interesting challenge for me.  Being a huge Judi Dench fan I was happy to see the actress back on screen in what looked to be a tearjerker drama, affording the esteemed actress another chance to shine.  On the other hand, I’ve found it very hard to warm to the other star of the film, Steve Coogan.  I’ve found his previous work to be a chore to sit through and his style of comedy unappealing.  Though I enjoyed Coogan’s very meta comedy The Trip from 2010, the horror of 2008’s Hamlet 2 still was scuffling about in my mind.

When I read more about Philomena’s true life origins and with the added involvement of celebrated director Stephen Frears, I knew that there was no keeping me back from this dramedy and I’m so happy that I went into the film as unbiased toward Coogan as I could be because he’s one of the key reasons the film winds up so damn good.

Coogan wears many hats in the film in addition to being co-star (and really, second fiddle to Dame Dench).  He co-wrote the script adaptation from Martin Sixsmith’s novel The Lost Child of Philomena Lee and he also produced the film – a lot of responsibilities but he seems to have balanced it all well.

Playing Sixsmith, a disgraced political journalist used to writing hard hitting news stories that finds himself traipsing over the UK and US with the aged Philomena to find what happened to the baby boy she was forced to give up for adoption, Coogan has strong contributes to the film but mostly just gets the hell out of Dench’s way.

Dame Dench (Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is luminous as ever as Philomena, who starts the film as broken and perhaps a bit simple but gradually finds an inner strength through forgiveness that adds a hefty fuel to the film’s fire.  I won’t spoil the secrets of what Philomena and Martin discover on their journey because once you think you know where the film is headed, it opens up another door of mystery that you didn’t even know was there.

Though the film does fall into some trappings of fitting the defined beats of a real story into the framework of a movie, it overcomes them by the grace of Dench’s nuanced and heartbreaking performance and Coogan’s strong support.  Frears, too, tends to keep things moving along at a brisk clip so that you aren’t considering how convenient many of the happenings really are.

This is one of those films that creeps up on you in ways you least expect it.  You’ll want to have some tissues handy for there are multiple moments that you’ll find you’ve got something stuck in your eye.  Dench should be assured a trip to the Oscars this year for her rich work here, a complex character that has more layers that anyone could ever have originally conceived.  It’s a brilliant performance in a well groomed film.

 

Movie Review ~ Nebraska

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk

Director: Alexander Payne

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  If one were to look at through the seven films that Alexander Payne has directed, one could conclude that the director loves a good road trip.  Four of his films (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants, and now Nebraska) deal with the central characters making some sort of journey from their home to a destination not totally familiar.  It’s through this trek that they discover new truths about themselves and the people that surround them.

You’d think that after three films this trope would get old but Payne once again demonstrates dexterity as a film craftsman that helps keep Nebraska on a focused course.  He’s not alone in his success, though, thanks to stark black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael.  Papamichael’s luscious lensing of the dense tropical locations of The Descendants is countered quite nicely with the way he turns his camera onto the vast open expanses of the Midwest.

Skilled directing and excellent cinematography aside, a movie this delicate has to have the right cast to convey its message and Payne has assembled another ensemble that works in harmony with Bob Nelson’s script to create an array of broken (and hilarious characters).

Center stage is veteran actor Bruce Dern who delivers a career high performance in an already richly celebrated resume of films from the last four decades.  He’s Woody Grant, an alcoholic of creaking bones and wispy hair that could be either drifting into senility or simply not caring what he remembers any more.  When he receives a letter in the mail from a Publishers Clearing House-like compay letting him know he’s a millionaire, he becomes fixated on getting to Nebraska to claim his prize and buy that truck he always wanted.

Much to the chagrin of his brusque wife Kate (June Squibb, About Schmidt), his stereo salesman son David (Will Forte) agrees to pack up his car and take his dad those many miles…because Woody has already tried to walk there on more than one occasion.  During the road trip there’s your typical father/son bonding but a stop in Woody’s hometown for a visit with old family, friends, and friendly enemies threatens to derail the journey altogether.

What Payne does so well is find new ways of exposing family secrets in a way that doesn’t feel trite or forced.  There’s a definite history of the Grant family in this rural rest stop where they find themselves and anyone that’s come from a small town will get a good laugh out of the way that news spreads fast amongst even the most out of touch townspeople.  The funniest moments (and Nebraska has quite a few) spring from the most mundane goings on and that’s the beauty of the discoveries Payne offers up.

Even at nearly two hours, the film doesn’t have a lot of slack moments.  You’d think that once Woody and David get off the road and basically wander around this quiet town that there’d be one or two moments where the film would lose some steam but in fact it only gets more interesting as its then that we truly learn more about Woody’s past and how his character influenced how he formed and raised his own family.

Deeply funny with a hint of a somber future, Nebraska still is one of the more entertaining films I’ve seen this year.  Curmudgeonly Dern and the irascible Squibb are sure-fire Oscar nominees but special mention should also go to Forte for stretching his dramatic chops far beyond the confines of his previous post-Saturday Night Live opportunities.  Hitch your wagon to this cross-country comedy and enjoy the ride.

Movie Review ~ Frozen

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Synopsis: Fearless optimist Anna teams up with Kristoff in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter.

Stars: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Maia Wilson, Ciarán Hinds, Edie McClurg

Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Perhaps it’s the kid that still bounces around within me, but I still get a little twinge of excitement every time a new Disney film is about to open. Though I’ve long since given up hope that the hand drawn animation of the late 80’s/early 90’s age of Disney films will ever truly make a comeback, I find myself remaining interested in what projects the studio is working on.

The latest output from the House of Mouse is a wintery musical (very) loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, refashioned as a tale of sisterly bonds and the embracing of our own individuality.  Featuring a welcome return to the musical roots of the Golden Age of the studio, Frozen boasts some very appealing tunes by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez heartily sung by a roster of Broadway actors that help to keep the movie afloat during several slow stretches.

After their royal parents are lost at sea, sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell, Hit and Run) are left to rule the Nordic land of Arendelle. The sisters rarely speak due to a childhood accident involving Elsa’s powers to turn anything she touches to ice.  With the help of some magical trolls, the royal parents and Elsa decide to keep her away from Anna, adjusting her memory so that no harm can come to Elsa or the villagers that may not understand her powers.

This separation has come at a price, though, because Anna doesn’t understand why her sister has cut her off.  That all changes when Elsa comes of age to inherit the throne and accidentally unleashes a massive winter freeze on the sunny village and hills of Arendelle.  With Elsa fleeing to a wintery castle of her own creation, Anna treks after her to bring her sister home and end the chill of a winter without end.

Bell gives Anna just the right amount of pluck and spunk, not to mention a clarion singing voice that is a nice fit to the various musical styles of the Lopez/Anderson-Lopez score.  There’s some classic Disney princess-ey whimsy going on here and Bell skips right along with it.  Whether she’s dealing with a handsome prince (Santino Fontana, also lending strong singing chops) or bumping heads while climbing a mountain with the local (and now unemployed) ice delivery man (Jonathan Groff), Bell keeps Anna in good spirits and great voice.

While Menzel brings her Broadway belt with her for the Act 1 power ballad “Let it Go”, there’s something about her voice that doesn’t match up with the character that’s been animated for her.  The booming timbre and slightly raspy tones sound great on the CD but strangely feel awkward and out of place when you see it onscreen.  It’s a disappointing wrinkle and the fault lies with the concept animation, not in Menzel’s performance.

I’m not a huge fan of Josh Gad (Thanks for Sharing, jOBS, The Internship) but I have to say that this is probably the most I’ve enjoyed him in anything so far.  As charmingly daft snowman Olaf, Gad pretty much walks away with the movie thanks to his stellar timing and easy-going approach to what could have been a much sillier role.  There’s a welcome tenderness to this particular character that gives the movie extra oomph.

While the 3D animation is, as usual, crisp and intriguing I found myself less interested in it than I have in previous efforts like Tangled.  As pleasing as the voices are and as soothing as the snowflake heavy animation is, it all feels vaguely familiar…and not as original as I wanted it to be.  On the other hand, there’s something to be said about the magic of a Disney film and how it can somehow overcome its shortcomings.  Though initially pleased but not overwhelmed by the film, I find myself humming the tunes and thinking about the characters…and that’s nice when you consider how rare animated musicals are nowadays.

A special note, Frozen is preceded by a brand new neat-o Mickey Mouse animated short that gives a nice nod to the black and white cartoon origins of Disney before breaking through (literally) to a more modern day feel.  Don’t be late…and stay through the end credits of Frozen too!

In Praise of Teasers ~ Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately. It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

I still feel that Halloween III: Season of the Witch gets a bum rap.  Look, it’s no classic and is pretty silly overall but most of the ire directed toward the film is because it doesn’t feature Michael Myers, the masked killer who stalked Jamie Lee Curtis through two previous films.  Original writer/director John Carpenter originally thought about making the Halloween series an anthology…but the audience reaction to this one and the overall popularity of Myers effectively killed that dream.

This teaser for Halloween III: Season of the Witch is pretty creepy, not giving any indication the series was about to take a step in a different direction.  Probably a good idea considering I’m not sure how many people would have gone to see it had they known in advance Michael wasn’t stopping by.  Also included at the end is the final trailer that incorporates parts of the early teaser in it as well.

Like Halloween?  Check out my reviews of the Halloween films from my 31 Days to Scare last year:
Halloween, Halloween II, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, Halloween: Resurrection

Missed my previous teaser reviews? Check out my look at Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge, Total Recall