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!!!


  1. Great to have you back. We do miss you!
    I really want to see Pilomena when it arrives here so it was all I could do not to read you review of it.

    1. Thanks! I don't give much away besides a basic plot synopsis for Philomena, but I understand. I will say I thought it was very good, very sweet without being too much, and I recommend it.