Sunday, January 26, 2014

An American in Paris

An American in Paris
Director: Vincent Minnelli
Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Nina Foch, Georges Guetary

Right off the bat, I will say that An American in Paris doesn’t hold a candle to Singin’ in the Rain.  Of course it doesn’t.  Nothing does.  And even I, an avowed fan of movie musicals, admit that An American in Paris is not even close to my favorite movie musical, nor do I think it deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar for 1951 over A Place in the Sun or especially over A Streetcar Named Desire.  And, when considering Gene Kelly musicals, it’s an absolute travesty that THIS film was recognized by the Academy when Singin’ in the Rain didn’t even garner a single nomination the following year.  Basically, An American in Paris suffers from being a pretty decent musical that, frankly, got more praise than it deserves.

But Gene Kelly.  Gene Kelly with rolled up sleeves.  Gene Kelly speaking French.  Gene Kelly cures a great number of my ills.  And it’s an MGM musical, with some pretty darn staggering set pieces.  So you know what, I still like An American in Paris.

Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) is a struggling street artist living the poor bohemian life in post-WWII Paris with friend and struggling pianist Adam (Levant).  Enter rich heiress Milo (Foch) who takes an interest in both Jerry’s art and Jerry himself, and makes an offer to Jerry to be a kept man.  Jerry’s hard up for money, and seriously considers it – after all, Milo’s not too bad.  Problem is, Jerry also just met Lise (Caron), a young ingénue who completely swept him off his feet.  But Lise isn’t exactly unattached; in fact, she’s engaged to one of Jerry’s good friends, Henri (Guetary), Jerry just doesn’t know that yet.  How on earth will this complicated entanglement of love and lovers ever possibly resolve itself?

My biggest problem with An American in Paris lies not with the fact that it garnered more awards than it probably should have, or that it indirectly lead to Singin’ in the Rain being shut out come nomination time.  No, my big problem with An American in Paris is in its story.  It’s a bit sordid, a bit seedy, and it never quite gels.  Do I need my musicals to have perfect or completely moral stories?  No, I don’t (Cabaret is pretty awesome and certainly not G-rated), but in An American in Paris, it’s as if the film cannot decide which way it wants to swing with regard to its characters.  Is Jerry a wholesome do-gooder or is he a desperate playboy?  Is Milo a cunning cougar or honestly in love?  I wind up feeling sympathy for characters that the film tells me I shouldn’t like, and I dislike the characters who are clearly meant to be the heroes.  In other films, I embrace this sort of role reversal because it was obviously intended, but in An American in Paris, this is more down to poor character development than any sort of intended moral ambiguity.  I just can’t sympathize as much as the film tells me I’m supposed to with Jerry’s plight – wealth and riches or honest love? – especially when it comes at the expense of peripheral characters who I rather like.  Even when I first watched An American in Paris when I was a wee child who absolutely adored MGM musicals, this one never sat well for me and I seldom, if ever, asked my parents to rent it again.  I liked the lovely dancing and the gorgeous setpieces, but the plot never worked the way it thinks it does.

Now, having said all of that, I still like An American in Paris, and that’s because 1) Gene Kelly 2) Gene Kelly dancing 3) incredibly colorful dance sequences 4) Gene Kelly 5) an amazing ballet finale and 6) Gene Kelly speaking French. 

Yeah, I have a thing for Gene Kelly. 

No, not a thing.  A full on, hardcore crush that has been raging for years and will continue to burn with the heat of a thousand flames for the rest of my life.  We’re talking number one or number two in my all-time crush list.  All time.  Top Two.  The man simply does things to my ovaries.  Like exploding them all over the nice wallpaper.

And man, is he on form in An American in Paris.

We first get the lovely little opening scene where he opens and closes trick contraptions in his tiny little Parisian studio apartment, indirectly showing off his keen sense of choreography and physicality.  Then we get Gene Kelly being goofy and silly with Oscar Levant.  Then we get Gene Kelly singing “I Got Rhythm” with a group of French children, and I honestly don’t think I can handle how utterly adorable he is.  Then he pulls out his classic “falling hopelessly in love” bit and I melt.  I utterly melt. 

Stop it.  Just stop it.  You're killing me.
He’s just. 

I mean. 

So handsome. 

I can’t.

Added for obvious reasons.
When Gene Kelly dances, the world stops spinning to wait until he’s done.  I am entranced, utterly fascinated, with the way he can make his body do things with what appears to be little to no effort.  He’s so smooth and despite the athleticism that he is rightly remembered for, it’s the grace he has that makes him my favorite performer from the era of movie musicals.  Yes, he does all this absolutely staggering choreography, but he makes it seem so easy.  One of my favorite parts of any Gene Kelly musical is when he dances with a partner, because it is here that his talent is most evident.  A dance partner, any dance partner, really shows me how amazing he is, because despite his best efforts to make the dance a true partnership, Kelly always manages to shine.  I can’t take my eyes off him, not for a second, and he just puts everyone he dances with to shame.  If it’s a tap dance sequence, Kelly is smoother, less stilted with his movements.  If it’s a slow dance, a romance, Kelly is more effortless.  If it’s a wild and crazy dance, Kelly commits more.  His talent was so immense, there was simply no containing it, even when he tried.  I can’t tear my eyes away from him when he dances.  This is true star quality. 

And then there’s the final ballet sequence.

I will say, right here, right now, that if movie musical ain’t yo thang, that final ballet sequence must be rather interminable to sit through.  Sixteen uninterrupted minutes of film that doesn’t speak to you in any way doesn’t sound like fun to me either.

Thing is, though, that ballet sequence IS my thing.  To me, it’s the highlight of the entire film.  It’s an extraordinary capper to a film whose story fails to completely captivate me; the extended dance sequence ends the experience on an incredible high note.

The film fantasy to end all film fantasies, the sets, costumes, and choreography are all astounding.  When it is combined with Leonard Bernstein’s incredible score, you have filmmaking that wins all around for Siobhan.  I adore how clever the different styles represent different French painters.  It’s art, plain and simple, art put to film.  (and there are worse things in life than Gene Kelly in a skin tight dance costume during the Toulouse Lautrec sequence.)  And has Technicolor ever gotten a better workout than in this sequence?  It’s simply extraordinary.  To me, it is easily the highlight of the entire film (and even those who don’t enjoy must admit that it gave Gene Kelly a chance to contemplate how to set up the amazing ballet sequence in next year’s Singin’ in the Rain).

I would never count An American in Paris amongst my favorite film musicals, but it’s not a bad musical either.  Gene Kelly is definitely on his game here, in full on ovary-‘sploding mode, and the dance sequences are fantastic.  The story is weak, but the production value is strong.  Whenever I feel the need for a Gene Kelly fix (which is pretty darn often), there are far worse options I can reach for (Summer Stock, anybody?  Which I still rather like) than An American in Paris.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10.  Because Gene Kelly reasons. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o

There is something very un-Hollywood about Steve McQueen, and god bless for that. In the hands of a typical director, 12 Years a Slave would be precisely the sort of film that I would feel morally obligated to see, appeasing a deep seated sense of American guilt. It would feel like something I had to see, vegetables that accompany my dinner, something rather difficult to swallow yet somehow knowing that it is quote-good for me-unquote. But Steve McQueen is not a typical director, and what could have been a massively heavy handed and overtly melodramatic tale of slavery in the South is instead quiet, even subtle (rarely a word used to describe slavery-slash-Civil War films), but not for a moment lacking the power and anger the subject matter demands.

Based on a true story, Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, New York, in the early 1840s.  He has a wife and two children and a very well-to-do life; that is, until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South and given the new name of Platt.  Passed around from slave auctioneer to foresting plantation to sugar plantation to a particularly brutal cotton plantation run by the brutal Master Epps (Fassbender), he learns that in order to survive, he must keep his head down and his mouth shut.  Were word to come to his new masters that he can read and write, he would certainly be killed. 

And although I often try not to discuss the ending of a film when I review it, I *will* be mentioning a bit more about the plot than normal, so fair spoiler warning.

The only other film of McQueen’s that I've seen is Shame, and that was a rare film that earned a "perfect" score of ten out of ten on its first go around. I tend not to give films perfect scores after a first viewing; perfect scores are for films that have cultivated a place in my heart, films that I have cherished for a long time. It's not that I don't think new films are good, it's more recognizing the importance of longevity. Shame, on the other hand, demanded I throw that system out the window, so resounding was its power. I mention this because it’s an exception I rarely make, and McQueen, with that film, earned my respect and then some.

I was not entirely interested in seeing 12 Years a Slave originally (even despite the immense ovary-exploding draws of Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender combined) because of aforementioned sense of "chore." Powerful, undoubtedly, but chore nonetheless. Then I saw that McQueen directed it. And then I was much more interested.

I could not reconcile in my head how a director whose only work I had seen had been a small scale character study, a work that was all about the emotionally damaged lives of two broken people, a film shot with a devotion to long, uncomfortably quiet takes, could take on a period piece about slavery.

And indeed, McQueen delivers as atypical a piece on American slavery as I could possibly imagine.  What McQueen does in this film is essentially remove any sort of trope or expectation I associate with "slavery film," while still making a film about slavery.  It’s not at all the heavy-handed morality play with swells in plot and soundtrack that are as predictable as dammit.  Thank god. And just like Shame, there are long, unbroken takes. Many dialogue sequences are shot in one take, interrupting infrequently, somehow allowing the characters to finish their thoughts. There are a myriad of slow, lingering shots of trees, of swampland, of the sky. The most memorable moment was a quiet close up on Ejiofor towards the end of the film. He speaks no words, simply turns his face towards the camera. The shot is easily thirty seconds long. Does it further the plot in an obvious way? Not in the slightest. But it's a hugely important shot, angry in its quiet, and reminding us that Solomon's life is not at peace, that everything is wrong, that although Solomon has "learned" how to survive, although we have not heard him mention his wife and children since the opening of the film, he has not for a second forgotten them. We don't need an expository scene of Solomon explaining how much he misses his former life, not when an infinitely more lyrical close up will do the trick.

Gratuitous photo of Benedict Cumberbatch.  Because reasons.

What is also refreshing in 12 Years a Slave is, similar to above, not all characters are pure good or pure evil (a very typical approach when making slavery films and war films alike). There is Master Ford the plantation owner (played by a dreamy Benedict Cumberbatch) who is clearly compassionate but seems unwilling to stick his neck out too far. There is the hard plantation contractor who unexpectedly saves Solomon from a hanging, but then doesn't cut him down, leaving him tied and bound for hours. The white man who ultimately ventures to the south to reclaim Solomon's freedom is portrayed as shady.  Yes, there are a few ancillary characters who are allowed to be one-dimensional, but nearly anyone with more than two scenes is given an unexpected depth.

The performances are top-notch.  Nominated for three acting Oscars for Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong’o as cotton plantation slave Patsey, everyone is strong.  Ejiofor carries the film with a heavy heart, Nyong’o shines playing a character full of strength and spirit who has been depressingly beaten down, but for my money, Fassbender steals every scene he’s in.  His Epps is insane in a way not often shown.  Clearly the film’s main antagonist, Epps is the “Evil Plantation Owner.”  What’s interesting is that Epps is mad, mad with brutality and sexual obsession, but only a little mad.  He’s a “believable” mad.  I can see how society would let someone like this exist, would let them get on with their lives, would even allow them to come to some prominence because they have money.  Fassbender is not off the deep end, but he’s about waist-deep and slowly wading his way over.  It’s a very good restrained evil genius.

One of the most interesting aspects of 12 Years a Slave is the theme of guilt, a theme also heavily examined in Shame. We watch Solomon make several choices in the film that are ugly choices but born of necessity. In an early instance, another black woman who has been kidnapped into slavery is sold, while her young children remain to be sold to different owners. Rather than fight to help the mother stay with her children, Solomon takes up a violin and starts playing a jaunty tune in an attempt to drown out the wails. It is this that Ejiofor portrays so painfully well, this sensation of being driven to horrible acts of compliance in order to not be killed and how it eats away at his soul. When the film hits its climax, where Solomon is finally rescued by his friends from the North, there is more of a focus on his abandonment of Patsey and the other slaves on Epps’ plantation rather than the joy or triumph at his wrong being righted.  Really, this is what makes this film so fascinating to me. There is no triumphant finale where Solomon cheerfully returns to his home. How can there be? What he has gone through has eaten at his very humanity, least of all because of the hard labor. Although the film certainly celebrates his ultimate return to freedom, it is utterly lacking in pomp. Indeed, Solomon asks for forgiveness upon his return. Forgiveness. The guilt at not always helping, at sometimes turning a blind eye, at abandoning the others on the plantation... Of course he is grateful for his newfound freedom, but this film recognizes that one man’s success is hardly a significant win for making real progress on the issue.

There is still a slight sense of “eating my vegetables” while watching 12 Years a Slave, but it is mostly kept at bay.  Smart directing choices by McQueen and standout performances from the cast turn what could have been a meat-fisted over-the-top guilt-fest melodrama into something far more potent, powerful, and inexplicably subtle.  I’m pleased that such a complex film is getting the level of attention being heaped on it during this current awards season.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Saturday, January 11, 2014


Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson

The only film of Hitchcock’s that the Oscars saw fit to recognize, Rebecca is certainly one of Hitchcock’s strongest works.  Not quite up to his true genius of the decades to come, however, and it is really such a shame that the Academy only recognized this, and not more layered and phenomenal films like Rear Window.

Joan Fontaine plays a young, timid, shy ladies’ companion vacationing with her brusque and societal leech of an employer, Mrs. Van Hopper.  While in Monaco, she meets Maxim de Winter (Olivier), a tortured widower seemingly trying to forget the drowning death of his much beloved wife, Rebecca.  The two fall in love and marry quickly, then Maxim takes her back to Manderley, his expansive estate back in England, where she soon realizes the strange hold that the first Mrs. de Winter seems to still have over both the house and all the servants, staff, and indeed, her husband.

It’s funny – this is a scary film.  Sort of.  It’s Hitchcock, to be sure, and immensely suspenseful, but in a very untraditional manner.  It’s practically a period piece, even though it was set during current times.  Manderley is such a character in the film, it makes the entire film feel as if it came from a different era.  There’s a dreamy quality that emanates from this strange estate, a feeling established in the opening shot of the film which, indeed, is revealed to be a dream sequence through a voiceover.  The house is immense, hollow, expansive, and of another era.  It’s easy to see how it could get inside your head, start playing games with you.

As if the house itself wasn’t bad enough, there’s Mrs. Danvers (Anderson), the housekeeper.  Brrr – this is not someone I’d want hovering around while I’m living in a joint!  Cold and imperious from the first, she utterly dominates everything and everyone around her.  It’s revealed that she was devoted to her first mistress, Rebecca.  It’s not difficult to extend this devotion to more of an infatuation, or even obsession.  Mrs. Danvers, with her no-nonsense bun and perfectly straight shoulders, seems just the sort of person who could easily flirt with the edge of insanity.  Anderson plays the role to the hilt as well, spewing thinly disguised insults and manipulations from her very first entrance.

The intimidating Mrs. Danvers and the cavernous Manderley play host to The Second Mrs. de Winter, Joan Fontaine’s character.  Fascinatingly, she is not given a name.  I’m certain that Mrs. Van Hopper introduces her once to Maxim de Winter at the beginning of the film, but that is the only time she’s given a name, and even then I’m not so sure.  Even IMDB lists her character as “The Second Mrs. de Winter.”  Her identity itself is tied up in being the Second Wife After Rebecca.  Once she arrives at Manderley, she is constantly haunted by the shadow of the first, indominatable mistress.  Fontaine plays her role as a baby foal trying to walk for the first time.  All breathlessness and wobbly knees, here is a woman who is very much in love with her new husband, but extraordinarily out of her element in this new environment.  She was not raised in society, nor does she does not know how to fit into society, a fact that Mrs. Danvers is all too aware of, as well as something that only prompts disgust from the staunch housekeeper. 

Fontaine’s character is simply no match for her new world.  As if the house and the creepy Mrs. Danvers weren’t enough for this poor girl (and she really is only a girl) to contend with, soon her husband starts behaving oddly as well.   Laurence Olivier – always a force of nature – is phenomenal as the brooding and mysterious Maxim de Winter.  When we meet him in Monaco, he seems more bemused by Joan Fontaine than in love with her, which makes his very sudden marriage proposal somewhat confusing.  Then, once he’s married her and brought her back to Manderley, he starts to fall into tempers, become withdrawn, or flies off the handle at the tiniest mistake.  Really, what has this poor girl gotten into?  Is Rebecca really that a strong a force that she controls the housekeeper, the house, and her husband, all from beyond the grave?  Well, it certainly seems so, but Rebecca has some tricks up her sleeve yet.

Hitchcock photographs the film brilliantly.  Reminiscent of Otto Preminger (I was forcibly reminded of Laura several times during the course of the film even though I know Rebecca came first), there is a romantic gothic sensibility to the photography here, fitting for the novelist Daphne du Maurier’s work.  We get long lingering shots of the house, showing the caverns of each room, the high ceilings, the long staircases in beautiful shimmery black and white.  The cinematography draws out the mystery, making gauzy window curtains seem as though they may contain a ghost.

There is a central mystery to Rebecca, but unraveling it here for you makes it no fun.  There is a quiet beauty, something very unostentatious about this film.  And really, it’s very creepy, but for very different reasons than any other traditional horror or suspense film.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Rapture

The Rapture
Director: Michael Tolkin
Starring: Mimi Rogers, David Duchovny, Kimberly Cullum

I’ve made it a point to avoid organized religion in my life.  I’m not averse to the concept of a higher power, but religion bothers me.  Despite these personal preferences, however, I am more than open to films that explore faith and religion, and especially how the two converge.  By partaking of art that deals with these topics, I know that I am working out some of my own questions while I watch.  I was looking forward to seeing The Rapture because I knew the basic premise – moral degenerate finds faith – and was hoping to delve into these issues yet again.  In all honesty, though, The Rapture let me down. 

Sharon (Rogers) is a telephone operator who says the same twenty odd words at her job all day long and goes trolling for sexy locals with her swinging friend at night.  She meets Randy (a mulleted pre-X-Files Duchovny), picks up a hitchhiker, and overhears her co-workers talking about some sort of religious dream involving a pearl.  Eventually, she realizes she has been living in sin and becomes essentially a born-again Christian, believing fully that the Rapture will come any day now and she will be whisked away to Heaven.  She manages to ditch her old ways and converts Randy, getting married to him and having a child, Mary (Cullum).  Things get interesting, however, when several events happen to test her faith.

My big problems with The Rapture have little to do with the fact that it’s about faith and Christianity.  I’m cool with that.  I’ll watch that story.  No, my problems with it are all about Sharon’s journey.  Sharon has two major character changes to go through, the first where she finds faith and the second where she might lose it.  I’ve seen several films that deal with either finding or losing faith, and find them fascinating… when done well.  I didn’t buy either of Sharon’s transformations, and as such, I was annoyed with this movie.

Frankly, the movie had me for about the first half hour or so.  There are signs and hints in the movie up to this point that suggest some sort of mythical, mystical, slightly cult-like faith.  Door-to-door messengers for God have an intriguing conversation with Sharon.  Sharon is fascinated with an enormous pearl tattoo on the back of one of her sexual partners.  Conversations with Randy, before their conversion, bring up issues of right and wrong and the messages of religion.  There is a feeling here of something unknown, unknowing, just beyond the grasp of human consciousness.  I am 100% in favor of this sort of mood in a film.  It’s the same mood that permeates The Last Wave, another movie indirectly about the Rapture and issues of faith, and I think The Last Wave is pretty damn good.  For the first half hour, I was excited, because The Rapture was shaping up to have this same sort of aura of mysticism and faith.  Great!  I’ll take it, I will gladly watch your movie.

But then we run into trouble.  Sharon feels these slight pulls around her, she can smell that something seems to be happening, but then BAM she wakes up one morning born-again.  She transitions too fast, far too fast, and with absolutely zero self-doubt.  I didn’t buy her conversion in the slightest.  One minute she’s having sex with David Duchovny (lucky girl) and the next she tells him to get out of the bed because the sheets are unclean and so is she and she wants her salvation and will meet her God, and in the same scene she’s quoting the Bible.  Wait… what?  This is how religious conversion works?  Just like that, in the flash of a moment, you go from zero to sixty?  Now, I cannot speak for those who do, in fact, claim to be born-again, so maybe it really does work that way, but it doesn’t work for me.  I can’t believe it for a second, and for this movie to work, you really have to believe Sharon.  What’s worse, Sharon later manages to convert Randy, but we never even see his conversion.  He goes from cynical lay-about to Christian leader in the space of a film edit.  Maybe this is my problem; I enjoy seeing people grapple with faith and religion, and that is not what I was treated to in this film.  I was expecting things The Rapture had absolutely no intention on providing me with.  Perhaps my expectations did me in, but I really cannot forgive a movie that is so much about one woman’s journey in faith for not actually SHOWING me a damn lick of that journey.

The other major problem in Sharon’s story is her facing a loss of faith in the final act of the film.  For the middle third of the film, the story has managed to convince me, somewhat against my will, that Sharon has become a God-fearing proselytizing good Christian wife and mother.  The film spends a tremendous amount of energy proving this is true.  Fine, okay, I’ll bite, despite the fact that you never really show to me how she gets there, she whole-heartedly believes in Jesus Christ and God.  Fine, if it’s necessary for the story you want to tell me, I’ll believe it.  And then, just as suddenly, she’s losing her faith and might never get it back again.  Wait, what?  REALLY?  No.  Even facing the tremendous and horrible tragedies that Sharon goes through, I cannot believe that the woman the film spent such effort getting me to buy into would suddenly become so damn obstinate in her lack of faith, especially when the unthinkable occurs and she actually gets some PROOF.  Sharon is not as obnoxious as that, except, well, she apparently IS.  I just don’t buy it for a second.  And I’m angry at the film for making these two huge shifts in character development with tremendously little to go on.  Frankly, it’s bad writing, and Mimi Rogers isn’t nearly talented enough to overcome it.

It’s really too bad.  I wanted to go along with Sharon’s journey, I really did, and the rest of the movie serves well to bolster up around her story; for example, the production design is full of silence and tension and the delicious burn of a slow build.   But it falls so spectacularly flat.  Not even Will Patton and Patrick Bauchau, veteran character actors, can save it.  Not even several truly shocking twists in the final act are enough to save it.  Heck, not even David Duchovny’s ridiculously ripped abs can save it. 

It’s so frustrating to want to like a movie, but then realize it’s going to disappoint you.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Musings on Mandela, Philomena, American Hustle, and Nebraska.

I’ve been struck with the unusual-for-me desire to get my butt to the cinemas to enjoy the pickings for 2013.  In these, the first three days of 2014, I’ve done two double-headers at my favorite cinema that shows current releases.  And, because I’m still me, I can’t simply “watch” these movies, I have to also think about and analyze them.  But four 1000-word-plus reviews is a bit too daunting, especially when my blogging skillz are a bit rusty.  So I figured I’d do a briefer review of these four flicks.

Up first:

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Director: Justin Chadwick
Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris

The utterly inevitable movie of Nelson Mandela’s life hits the big screen with brilliant casting being the best thing going for it.  As my students are wont to say, not gonna lie, the only reason I went to see it was Elba.  Idris Elba as anything is automatically worth it; the man is a force of nature, and him as Mandela seemed too good to pass up. 

The film follows a mostly straightforward biographical movie outline, starting with voiceover reminiscences to golden memories of youth, then plunging us almost immediately into young man Mandela’s difficulties and following, in a linear fashion, through the imprisonment we all knew was coming, as well as the release and election.  We also follow the life of Mandela’s second wife Winnie (Harris), who stands by her man while he’s in prison by continuing to lead the revolution movement, even to the point of becoming militant.  Director Chadwick makes an effort to humanize the mythic Mandela, showing him as a red-blooded young man who was a hound dog with the ladies and not exactly husband of the year to his first wife.

Elba does not disappoint as Mandela, filling the screen with rage, righteousness, and then powerful pacifism, and he is easily the strongest aspect of the film.  Harris is also very good as the sweet yet steely Winnie who must also weather great injustices in the family-lead fight to end apartheid.  But the performances are all I can truly recommend; the story feels too disconnected to my liking.  Years pass, peoples’ opinions fundamentally change, and we are given little to no reason for it.  The resolution of the film feels like a hasty mash-up, as if the director realized he had painted himself into a corner of racial warfare and had no idea how to get out.  Now granted, this was undoubtedly a similar situation to the feeling in South Africa at the time, but the 180 that this film pulls feels more than a little incongruous.

Worth it for the performances, but not a hearty recommendation from me.  I will add, for honesty’s sake, that biopics are really not my thing, not in the slightest, so I was predisposed to not being completely moved by this one to begin with.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

After my final statement about Mandela having a strike against it simply because it wasn’t my type of film, I will now own up and say that going in, I knew Philomena WAS my type of movie, and after seeing it, yes, most definitely, it’s my type of flick, for sure.  Objectively, though, I do believe Philomena is a stronger film (although, probably not as much stronger than Mandela as my rating will reflect).

Judi Dench plays the titular character, a silly, elderly lady who loves her salad buffets with toasty croutons, snacks on the road, and frivolous romance novels.  But Philomena’s secret of fifty years, that she gave birth to a baby boy when she was just sixteen years old at a Catholic nunnery in Ireland who was then later adopted against her will, is gnawing at her.  With the help of recently-unemployed big time journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), who needs a human interest story to set him back on track, she goes about finally trying to track down her long lost son. 

Everyone knows that Judi Dench can act circles around pretty much anyone, but what’s unusual in her performance here is how utterly ordinary and regular Philomena is.  I’m used to Judi Dench playing either someone of great esteem (a la Shakespeare in Love) or someone with something unusual about them (a la Iris).  Philomena is neither.  Yes, you can certainly argue that having a long lost son is unusual, but after seeing the film, Philomena still feels ordinary.  She’s just a fussy, aging Irish Catholic woman who colors her hair and wears old lady clothes, and Dench does her proud, giving her grace and humanity and a full range of emotions alongside all her silliness.

Maybe more surprising than Dench playing such a regular character is the fact that Steve Coogan can play a straight man (in the comedic sense, not the sexual sense).  For everything that Philomena loves about ordinary, middle-class comforts, Martin is used to the finer things.  As a former international political journalist, Martin is an Oxford-educated, BMW-driving, boutique-restaurant-frequenting perfect foil to Philomena.  Watching her get on his nerves and under his skin is half the film, but it’s an enjoyable relationship to explore, as Dench is careful to never let Philomena get too silly, just as Coogan is careful to keep Martin from being too snobby or curmudgeonly. 

Because ultimately, silly caricatures aside, this film has tremendous depth of heart.  The story that is explored, about the long lost son, is done so with as few clichés as I’ve ever seen.  When you think you know where the story is headed, it throws you an enormous curveball, one that requires both lead actors to show us new aspects of their characters, or expand tremendously on ideals that have already been established.  It’s sweet and funny but never cloying, never overly sentimental. 

To reiterate, this is very much my kind of film.  The wry British sense of humor is on full display, it touches without manhandling you, and who knew Steve Coogan could hold his own against powerhouse Dench. 

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10.

American Hustle
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence

Perhaps the buzziest of the films I’ve seen recently, American Hustle is certainly riding a wave of good press and award nominations. Without necessarily meaning this as an insult, American Hustle is the type of film meant to appeal to Academy voters.  I won’t use the term Oscar-bait due to its negative connotations, but American Hustle feels exactly the sort of edgy, flashy, seriocomic film that the Academy can feel terrifically justified in nominating.  “Look how hep we are, we’re recognizing American Hustle!” they proclaim with glee.

Overweight and balding Irving (Bale) is a con artist working out of New York who falls madly in love with Sydney (Adams), a beautiful creature who eagerly joins him in his cons.  The fact that Irving is already married to Rosalyn (Lawrence), a slightly crazy hausfrau, is a minor hiccup.  But when they are nabbed by an FBI agent (Cooper), they both agree to his terms of running a con to bring down some politicians in exchange for a reduced sentence.  But really, when politicians, the mob, the FBI, and con artists are all thrown into the mix, who’s conning who?

The style of American Hustle was probably my favorite part.  The late seventies, in all its glitzy, superficial glory, is on full display, and we have our fill of overdone hair, polyester shirts, and New Jersey accents.  Amy Adams is terrifically sexy in shirts and dresses that plunge to her navel, and Jeremy Renner as a Jersey politico happily prances around in pale blue tuxedos with frilly sleeves.  The film is dressed in golds and browns, giving the entire story an air of wistful nostalgia, as though our con artists are recounting their glory days.

The performances are, again, top notch.  Particularly delightful was Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn.  Unhinged yet manipulative all at the same time, Lawrence pulls it off and then some.  She’s definitely making a strong case for being up for the big prize for a second year in a row.

However, there’s something that never quite coalesces in American Hustle.  Like Mandela, the finale feels somehow inadequate to the tremendous build up it is given.  Is it about the con or is it about the drama of the characters at hand?  Frankly, the film waffles on this question, and ultimately, I felt there were unanswered issues on both of those sides.

I enjoyed American Hustle, but not absolutely.  It is a good film, a strong film, but it didn’t blow me away.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb

Full disclosure: I am a slavering little Alexander Payne fangirl, due in no small part to the fact that I’ve now met him twice, have his autograph, and a picture with him.  I’ve even spoken to him about his filmmaking style.  I enjoyed his films before I met him, but now?  Now I’m a devotee for life.  Given that he only makes a film once every two to three years, it was an utter no brainer for me to see his latest.  Spoiler: I loved Nebraska.  But then, frankly, I was always going to love Nebraska.

David Grant (Forte) sells speaker systems and electronics in a strip mall in Billings, Montana.  His father Woody (Dern) is an alcoholic and not altogether with it retired auto mechanic.  When Woody gets one of those magazine promo letters proclaiming that he’s won one million dollars (provided his number matches and he buys some magazine subscriptions), all he sees is the one million dollars.  Convinced he just hit it big, he becomes obsessed with the idea of getting to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his winnings, and ultimately, a harassed David agrees to take him.  On the way, they stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the tiny near-ghost town where Woody grew up.  Woody visits with his old family and friends, all the while spreading the news about his apparent good luck.

There are so many things I adore about Alexander Payne, and this film has them all.  I was amused as the credits rolled at the end, because Nebraska was precisely what I expected it to be given what I know about Payne’s filmography.  I don’t think this is a bad thing; on the contrary, I think it means that Payne knows clearly who he is as a filmmaker and can deliver his message in a vivid and consistent manner.

I have decided that Alexander Payne is in love with the American working class, but he is also determined to show them as they are, not as they think they are or wish to be.  There is so much truth in Nebraska in this regard that the number one criticism I have seen leveled at the film is that Payne is mocking the small town folk of his film.  I could not disagree more.  There are some less-than-positive characters and moments in Nebraska, but nothing ever feels as though it is played for cheap laughs.  Instead, everything feels… real.  Painfully real, but thoroughly real.  I went to college in an area not unlike those shown in Nebraska, and I visited friends’ homes who lived close by whose families behaved precisely – and I do mean PRECISELY – like the family in Nebraska.  That’s why I don’t think there is any mocking meant here; I’ve seen these scenes before, I’ve seen these places before, just never on the big screen.

Furthermore, Payne himself is from Nebraska.  He shot his first feature Election (the film that made me a fangirl of his to begin with) in Nebraska, and when I’ve heard him speak, he always spoke lovingly of the area in which he grew up.  A year ago when I last saw him, he announced this film and I could hear how excited he was to make a film about his home.  I see affection, not mocking, in Nebraska, culminating in the gently poignant yet utterly devastating finale sequence.  There is so much love in the ending of the film that, while Payne undoubtedly calls out the less than savory characters in the story, showing them for the superficial assholes they ultimately become, he also knows there are heroes in his story, and they are glorious.  Mocking?  Not in the slightest.  Loving yet careful not to romanticize?  Absolutely.

Apart from the simple characters who reek undoubtedly of truth, my favorite aspect of Payne’s work is his production design.  Or perhaps, lack of production design.  What I passionately adore about Payne is his devotion to filming on real locations, locations that haven’t been meticulously manicured.  He uses real houses, real motels, real bars, real chain restaurants, and his extras are real people.  When he does need to film on a set, more often than not, the set is modeled on an actual house or room.  There are knick knacks everywhere, dirty dishes in the sink, cracks in the driveway, leaves in the pool, and scratches on the linoleum.  It’s not that his films are dirty or dank; it’s that they’re fucking REAL.  The living room looks like a real living room, warts and all.  I’ve always noticed and responded to this in his films, and it’s what I had a chance to ask him last time I saw him.  When I mentioned this to him, that I loved that he uses real places, I remember so vividly that he smiled broadly, and responded with “I don’t understand why we need to prettify everything.”  Indeed.

While Payne plays the utter ordinariness of the world around his characters in most of the film as flat and banal, he also shoots the film occasionally with great beauty.  When the film reaches its emotional climax, suddenly the everyday locations around seem majestic.  Payne lingers on a shot of a wide open field, the sun breaking through a magnificent cloud formation.  Because truly, there is extraordinariness in the everyday.

Bruce Dern as Woody is brilliant in quietly showing us a sad old man desperately clinging to one last wish for glory.  Are we annoyed with Woody or do we pity Woody?  Well, both, sometimes at the same time.  As David discovers more about his father on this road trip, we see far more in the simple facial expressions than the curmudgeonly drunk we meet at the beginning.  Will Forte is easily an unusual casting choice, as he is known almost completely for broad comedic work, playing a caricature of a caricature.  Here, though, he carries off a decidedly downbeat performance, following in the footsteps of Jack Lemmon in The Apartment.  It’s not as brilliant a performance as Lemmon’s is, but I can see the influence, and I imagine Forte being inspired by Lemmon in this role. 

I knew what to expect from Nebraska, so when I found myself sobbing rather uncontrollably at the quiet finale of the film, I wasn’t surprised in the least.  I was happy, though; happy that Payne had delivered once again on a simple human story, relatable to the last, that kept me happily engaged throughout its entirety and then packed an inevitable punch at the end.
Arbitrary Rating: 9.5/10.  The only thing I can level against Nebraska is that the pacing isn’t always as tight as it could be, and it drags a bit in the middle.  But in terms of what I want from Alexander Payne, Payne proves that he knows how to deliver it in a mature and confident manner.  I also recognize that if Payne’s previous films haven’t floated your boat, you will undoubtedly find Nebraska incredibly grating.

Up next for Siobhan: eagerly looking forward to Her being released wider next weekend.  I might make an effort to see Inside Llewyn Davis as well.  Might try to catch Gravity when it comes to the second-run theater in town.  And of course, whenever The Grand Budapest Hotel finds its way to my local theaters, I’ll be there with bells on.  I’ll also be looking out for Blue is the Warmest Color playing any wider, and I’ve got my eyes peeled for whenever Walesa: Man of Hope plays around here.  Because I NEED to see that movie.

Frankly, it’s been rather lovely seeing some more current release films in theaters again.  I do love this time of year for current releases, when the theaters are full of films trying their hands at Oscar nominations, when small character-centric comedy dramas are the order of the day rather than big blow ‘em up action flicks. 

In terms of 1001 Movies, my job is… more under control now than it was in the fall.  I’m looking to recommit myself, in the non-sanatorium sort of way, to blogging and The Club. 

Oh, and in a personal plug, I’ll find out end of January/beginning of February if my proposal for presenting at a national conference this summer was accepted.  Personally, I think my workshop idea is pretty darn awesome, but still, wish me luck. 

OH, and my old laptop finally started crapping the bed in December, so this entire review is coming to you from my bright, shiny, brand new touch screen Asus laptop.  No optical drive, so it’s gorgeous and light and doesn’t overheat every hour and doesn’t need to be constantly plugged in (thus defeating the point of a laptop).  YAY CHRISTMAS YAY NEW TOYS!!!