CIFF Review: Philomena

“Philomena” is based on a great true story, but it makes a mess of its main characters and its storytelling method.


“Philomena” screened as a part of the Chicago International Film Festival. This early review is merely an impression of the version screened.

What makes a great story? Most people think it’s just a good plot; juicy twists and surprises are all it takes. “Philomena” and the real life story behind Martin Sixsmith’s book is filled with teen pregnancies, evil nuns, gay Republicans, death, reunion, comedy and religion; it’s got it all.

But Stephen Frears’s film muddles the characters, the ideas and the storytelling style that would help make it great. It’s a mess of tones and loosely fleshed out philosophies on faith and forgiveness that keeps “Philomena” from working as either a detective thriller or as a journalistic investigation.

Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was a BBC News broadcaster forced out of a job after a scandalous quote about burying the news was wrongly attributed to him. Looking for work, he decides to take a human interest piece centered on the elderly Philomena Lee (Judi Dench).

Lee spent her teenage years living in a convent, and after accidentally becoming impregnated, the nuns made her atone for her sins by giving away her son to an American family when he was just a toddler, forbidding her to search for her son or reveal she even had one.

Sixsmith isn’t so much moved by her story or by Lee as he is intrigued that it’ll make for juicy copy. He takes Lee to Washington D.C. to search for her son, only to dig up a conspiracy surrounding how little they can discover. Continue reading “CIFF Review: Philomena”

Off the Red Carpet: Week of 11/7 – 11/14

We’re at the point where there’s going to be a big movie opening every week until the end of the year now, so get excited.

“Skyfall” has biggest Bond opening ever

“Skyfall” earned $86.7 million at the Box Office this weekend, sending it on its way to trounce even the inflation added record of the fourth Bond, “Thunderball.” It’s popular appeal as well as its just plain awesome quality has lead some to speculate the possibility of nominating Judi Dench, Javier Bardem and Roger Deakins for their respected Oscars, as well as a push for the movie itself for Best Picture. It’s a long shot, but I would be on board.

Best Animated Short shortlist revealed

Could we soon be saying, Oscar Winner Maggie Simpson? The shortlist for the Best Animated Short category was revealed last week, and it includes “The Simpsons” short “The Longest Daycare” and the lovey Disney short “Paperman.” The Pixar short film this year that screened before “Brave,” “La Luna,” was nominated and lost last year. But I can guarantee you now that the little underdog movie no one’s heard of and no one will see will almost definitely win this category. Here’s the full list: (via In Contention)

“Adam and Dog”



“The Eagleman Stag”

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

“Fresh Guacamole”

“Head over Heels”

“Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare'”



Christoph Waltz in Best Actor race

I said last week that for some reason people already want to count “Django Unchained” out of the race before anyone’s even seen it. Why no one would consider Christoph Waltz owning “Django” just like he did “Inglourious Basterds” is beyond me, but the difference this year is that he’s being pushed for the Lead Actor race now rather than supporting. Yes, it’s a crowded field, but he was just that good before, and I don’t see why he can’t be again. This also means that Leonardo DiCaprio and even Samuel L. Jackson are people to keep an eye on in the Supporting race. (via In Contention)

Image Credit: The Hollywood Reporter

The Hollywood Reporter Airs Annual Actor Roundtable

Each year The Hollywood Reporter puts together an extended interview roundtable with a collection of actors, usually Oscar hopefuls for that year. Last year they interviewed George Clooney, Viola Davis, Christopher Plummer, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, and this year they’ve interviewed Jamie Foxx, Matt Damon, Denzel Washington, Richard Gere, Alan Arkin and John Hawkes. All six are potential Oscar candidates for acting, three more likely than the others, but their discussion veered much more intellectual. They talked acting on stage, what they would do if they couldn’t act, family and whom they admired. It’s a stirring hour-long discussion between smart actors being very candid in a setting you won’t see anywhere else. (via The Hollywood Reporter)

Gurus ‘O Gold released

The Gurus ‘O Gold have been my go to barometer for Oscar predictions for the last few years. Collectively, they are probably better at anticipating the awards and forecasting changes than any one of them individually. This is their first time forecasting the major categories this year since Toronto. Things are bound to change as a few other movies set in and are seen by the public, but the universal consensus right now is unsurprisingly “Argo,” followed closely by TIFF winner “Silver Linings Playbook.” The surprise I see in the list is the inclusion of “Flight” in 10 spot and “Moonrise Kingdom” on the outs. 10 is probably a generous number for nominees anyway. Take a look at the full list if you’re like me and love charts and spreadsheets and stuff, and avoid it if you think it has the potential to suck all the fun out of the Oscars. (via Movie City News)

Will Best Picture match Screenplay?

A blogger at “Variety” observed that last year was a surprising anomaly in the trend for nominees for Best Picture and Best Original or Adapted Screenplay. The movie with the BP nod always gets the screenplay nod, with historically very few exceptions. Last year alone matched the last 10 years in terms of gaps between the two categories, and it’s worth noting that this year may go the same. “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Master,” “Amour,” “Django Unchained,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Sessions” are all questionable nominees for Best Picture, and that’s just listing the front runners in the screenplay races. (via Variety)

Ben Affleck to receive “Modern Master Award”

For a guy gunning for an Oscar for Best Director with a film set in the ‘70s, it’s got to feel good to win an award called the “Modern Master Award” at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Ben Affleck will receive the award on January 26, conveniently not long before the Oscar ceremony itself. (via The Race)

Week 5 Predictions Continue reading “Off the Red Carpet: Week of 11/7 – 11/14”


After a 50 year run, “Skyfall” is the best James Bond movie in years, if not the best ever made. It is the first that has made us ask about Bond’s past and future and the first to make us realize the game has changed but that we’d be nowhere without him.

Sam Mendes picks up the franchise after the unfortunate hiccup that was “Quantum of Solace,” a movie that made Bond into a forgettable Jason Bourne. What he brings to the table is style mixed with the silly and substance mixed with the smarm. It’s a Bond movie as ludicrous and fun as the previous but going beyond the grittily realistic norm established by “Casino Royale.”

Its magnificent opening motorcycle chase along rooftops has Bond (Daniel Craig) pursuing a man who has stolen a hard drive containing the identities of all the MI6 operatives. The two leap onto a moving train upon which Bond tears off the back end of a trolley with a bulldozer and leaps aboard, adjusting his suit ever so justly as he does. As they fight, M (Judi Dench) orders her other agent Eve (Naomi Harris) to take a risky sniper shot that hits Bond instead of the target.

Presumed dead, Bond spends the next few years off the map “enjoying death,” going through the motions of a freewheeling lifestyle with cold detachment. It’s only when a cyber terrorist attack against MI6 hits that Bond decides to return. His new target is Silva (Javier Bardem), a former computer hacker for MI6 with a vendetta against M. His presence tests whether Bond or M are both fit for duty, allowing us to finally reach these characters on an emotional level without sacrificing Craig’s biting wit or Dench’s spitfire attitude.

If there’s one thing to notice about “Skyfall,” it’s that Bond has never looked better. Director of Photography Roger Deakins, a man with nine Oscar nominations and still no victory, is possibly the best cinematographer alive today. He’s made a recent shift from film to digital, and he has taken the dark shadows and sharp colors usually found in a David Fincher movie and applied it to the classical look of 007. In one early fight scene in Shanghai, he blends space, depth and color to create a beautiful battle of silhouettes that looks as good as anything I’ve seen this year. And later when the film takes us to a deserted villa on the Scottish countryside, the unreal lighting and deep focus of Javier Bardem illuminated in front of a burning building holds up as instantly iconic. It’s a drop-dead gorgeous movie that just makes the whole experience ignite.

This blending of aesthetics matches the high psychological stakes Mendes is imposing. If “Skyfall” had forgotten to be an action movie first, the super serious talk about whether the world still needs Bond might get as tiresome as a discussion about sending Grandma to a nursing home. But screenwriter John Logan establishes a high-tech cyber scheme that still finds ways for Bond to be practically and physically intuitive. The computer hacker one step ahead of the good guys is ground well tread by other recent action movies, but never Bond. Somehow he fits in as smoothly as though he were still at the poker table.

Much has already been said about Judi Dench finally giving a hefty performance as M that befits her talents, but I’m more interested in the juicy work by Bardem. Most Bond villains have a physical disability designed to distinguish them, but Bardem makes do on his snakelike sexuality that in a delicious scene briefly tests Bond’s own. His presumed homosexuality is in its own way another mixed bag of political incorrectness, but in screen villainy terms it’s the absolute tops.

Mendes takes great pains to treat such a terrific villain with stealthy patience. The moment in which Silva is introduced is a wonderful long take that watches Bardem slowly saunter up to Bond as he tells a story about how catch rats. In wide shots, striking composition and a steady hand, Mendes provides style and flair uncommon to the gritty realism of contemporary action pictures.

“Skyfall” really is Bond reinvented. It takes the uncouth, rugged James Bond newly discovered in “Casino Royale” and molds him into a man with depth and class. “Youth does not guarantee innovation,” as Bond says in one scene to Q, and as one of the finest movies of the year, it’s clear this 50 year old franchise feels as good as new.

4 stars

Off the Red Carpet: Weeks of 10/24 – 11/7

I took a week off last week, despite there being at least one piece of gigantic movie news, perhaps not Oscar relevant, but enough to make nerds on Twitter (myself included) flip out for better or worse.

But with the election now firmly behind us, I can focus on a race with just one president running (“Lincoln”).

President Obama defeats Mitt Romney in Presidential Election

Hey! Guess what? Now funding for “Sesame Street” and PBS won’t be cut and young kids will still like the movies and art for future generations!

Disney buys Lucasfilm for $4 billion, plans to make “Star Wars Episode VII”

“Star Wars” is now coming back in 2015, and I couldn’t be more disappointed. Even if “Star Wars” has become something of a joke since the prequels and having the “Star Wars” name on your product in fact makes it worse, the “Star Wars” series, with George Lucas’s muddy fingers and all, had become bad but never boring.

For Disney, who also owns Marvel, to plan to release “Star Wars VII” in the same year as “The Avengers 2,” is to make it into another tentpole blockbuster and popcorn movie that will be instantly forgotten as soon as people walk out of the theater.

Rumors are now spilling in that Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class”) is in talks to direct, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fischer are all interested in reprising their roles, and George Lucas is supposed to still be a “consultant,” whatever that means. These are telltale signs that this is not going to be an interesting film that takes the franchise in a new direction but one that is sheer fanboy baiting. (via Collider)

21 films eligible for Best Animated Feature

The number of animated movies considered eligible each year for the Best Animated Feature Oscar dictates the number of nominees the category will have, three or five, and five will definitely be the winning number this year based on 21 films meeting the Academy’s requirements. This says to me that Disney could very well have three potential nominees this year with “Brave,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Frankenweenie.” Expect buzz for “Rise of the Guardians” and one of the Gkids (“The Secret of Kells,” “Chico and Rita”) distributed entries. (Full list via In Contention)

Box office numbers bode well for “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Flight,” “Argo”

In a big surprise, Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” trounced the weekly competition by raking in nearly $50 million on its opening weekend, double that of Robert Zemeckis’s “Flight,” a number that’s really nothing to scoff at. “Argo” also performed well in its third week by making $10 million, proving that this is a movie generating money by word of mouth that has the legs to go all the way to a Best Picture prize. Doing less well was “Cloud Atlas,” which in two weeks has only brought in $18 million of its over $100 million budget. (via Box Office Mojo)

“Hitchcock” premieres at AFI Film Fest

Film buffs are eagerly awaiting the movie “Hitchcock,” for obvious reasons, and early reviews of the movie say that although Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren provide their characters with range and depth, first time feature director Sacha Gervasi’s film is a lightweight entry that feels clunky at times and goes against the grain of what people actually know about Hitch. They also now have HBO’s “The Girl” to compare it against, which likewise received poor reviews by painting Hitchcock as little more than a peeping tom.

European Film Awards and British Independent Film Awards announce nominees

“Amour,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “The Intouchables,” and “The Imposter” are all among the nominees in two of Europe’s smaller award races, the European Film Awards and the British Independent Film Awards. The former nominated films that won’t get an American distribution this year and the latter nominated films that got American distribution last year. See the full lists here and here. (via In Contention)

Week 4 Predictions Chart

This week I’m adding in some preliminary Screenplay predictions since the rest of the field is unchanged in my mind.

Continue reading “Off the Red Carpet: Weeks of 10/24 – 11/7”

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

When John Madden assembles the cast of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” in a line as they wait at the airport, he’s only Helen Mirren away from having gathered all of British acting royalty. He’s smart then to not place them in a dopey, dreck filled romantic comedy about octogenarians living it up in India.

“Marigold Hotel” is the best kind of coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water story: one that doesn’t create a bunch of embarrassing, sitcom-y stunts and one that doesn’t turn the whole movie into a travelogue. Continue reading “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

My Week With Marilyn

Marilyn Monroe was an impossibly difficult actress to work with because she seemed so incompetent and insecure at every turn. But when she got it right, she made magic happen.

“My Week With Marilyn” makes a point of this numerous times. It adores the blonde bombshell so much that it drills her greatness into your head. And yet, Michelle Williams is so effervescent and captivating by rejuvenating Monroe’s presence that she makes lightning strike twice. Continue reading “My Week With Marilyn”

J. Edgar

J. Edgar Hoover worked tirelessly to maintain an image of power, fame and significance in the 48 years he served the FBI.

Since his death, his legacy has been tarnished, if not forgotten, with allegations he was not as pivotal to the FBI as he appeared, that he held confidential information over politicians and public figures as a form of blackmail and that he was a homosexual who occasionally wore women’s clothes.

Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” along with Leonardo DiCaprio in the eponymous role, dons an equally inflated presence and renders itself just as unmemorable. Continue reading “J. Edgar”

Jane Eyre

There is a subtle beauty to the latest adaptation of “Jane Eyre.” The cinematography is full of color and light, but often it is somewhat washed out to the point of Gothic bleakness. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film, like Charlotte Bronte’s novel or the eponymous character herself, can be plain, tragic, haunting and lovely all at once.

“Jane Eyre” is a familiar story, a classic of Victorian Era literature and adapted numerous times dating as far back as 1943 with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, but this new version is strikingly original. It hits all the right notes of cinematic style, acting poise and elegiac melodrama, and it stands out as one of the first great movies of 2011. Continue reading “Jane Eyre”