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Review: Philomena (2013)

Catholic Guilt

Courtesy of alexandralomax.wordpress.com

Courtesy of alexandralomax.wordpress.com

Review of Philomena

By Adam Tawfik

For hundreds of years the Catholic Church has been one of the more powerful political and economic forces in the world. Their influence has significantly shaped American film history as their lobby led to the implementation of the Production Code, the first censorship regime undertaken by the major Hollywood studios from the early 1930s until the 1950s. In contrast to their insentience on the sanitation in films, the Church has been rocked with homophobia, pedophilia, and misogyny. The lid burst open only recently, but the Catholic Church’s reputation is progressively escalating to the deepest depths of hell.

Courtesy of johnpetterson.blogspot.com

Courtesy of johnpetterson.blogspot.com

One of the more prolific scandals centered around the Magdalene Sisters, a group of Irish nuns that stole the babies of unwed mothers and sold them to wealthy American families. In 1952, Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clarke and Judi Dench) was one of the victims of this human rights violation. Fifty years later after many years of mourning the loss, the kindly retired Irish nurse falls into a depression. Her daughter (Anna Maxwell Martin) who is waitressing at a fancy literary party, approaches Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a recently sacked highbrow journalist to help her mother track down her missing son.

Naturally, there has been some backlash to Philomena, a British film based off of Sixsmith’s account. New York Post film critic Kyle Smith angrily denounced it as “another hateful attack on Catholics.” Unlike Smith’s reactionary article, Philomena’s script co-authored by Coogan and Jeff Pope never attacks Catholicism, but the bureaucracy. The execution of this theme is one of the film’s strongest points.

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

It subtly but forcefully shows how the institution is crooked and underhanded and how it changes over time. In the olden days, the monastery was a barren and dark place cast in monochromatic brown and gray palettes, while most of the nuns (with the exception of one) were nasty and unempathetic to the unwed mothers. Things look more progressive in the present day: the convent looks nice and welcoming, they offer visitors tea, and there’s even an African nun. As soon as Philomena and Sixsmith begin probing, it is quickly apparent that the nuns are still devious under the friendly façade. The convent has become a commercial operation with teleshopping products for sale at a display table.

The film loses steam in its second half, after the pair discover the identity of Philomena’s lost son. I wished that the film probed more into his life and the hidden reality of unhappy family dynamic that was only briefly alluded to, to counteract Philomena’s notion of his great, privileged life that she couldn’t give him. Instead, there’s an overreliance on flashbacks that don’t advance the action. Answers from leads come too early, not leaving enough time for suspense or anything resonating. For example, when Philomena confronts Pete Olsson (Peter Hermann), the companion of her son, he’s incredulously forthcoming with a major key to the puzzle, but up to that encounter, he’s quite hush-hush and hostile.

There are certain comparisons to be drawn to another of Coogan’s films, The Trip. Trip, more characteristic of Coogan’s caustic brand of comedy, had two strengths over Philomena. Firstly, the script was sharper and dialogue had more punch, but more importantly, especially for a road film it had two rounded, three-dimensional characters.

Courtesy of totalfilm.com

Courtesy of totalfilm.com

Outside of being a sarcastic atheist and being confrontational with the nuns, Coogan has given his character very little to do and is just there for the most part. He is clearly uncomfortable at conveying the softer side of his role. It’s a huge step down from the highly comic and tragic performance he gave as the flawed protagonist in The Trip.

On the other hand, Dench deserves all the critical acclaim and awards attention. Interestingly, two of her better roles in the last seven years came from going against her grain of playing confident, sophisticated upper-crust women, and portraying working class women. Philomena is the polar opposite of the bitter, obsessive and emotionally unstable teacher in Notes on a Scandal, as she is kind, gentle, and loving. Thanks to Dench’s skilled performance, this almost-too-good-to-be-true character doesn’t feel like a romanticized idealization.

Courtesy of londoncitynights.com

Courtesy of londoncitynights.com

Dench, who has proven herself to be a deft light comedienne, handles many of her character’s corny one-liners with aplomb. The film’s highlight is when Philomena recounts the plot of a trivial romantic novel with painstaking detail, making it sound far better than it is. The childlike wonder and lack of sophistication catch us by surprise, but Dench instills this performance with great wisdom and intelligence. Her warm expression and an almost Zen-like demeanor is juxtaposed by the strong undercurrent of forlornness, grief, and resentment imprinted in her eyes. Scenes depicting Dench in quiet reflection are the film’s most endearing moments.

While the rest of the cast ably play their roles, two supporting performances stand out. Michelle Fairley takes the familiar role of the pushy, impersonal book editor and adds color by subtly satirizing her single-minded and opportunistic character. Veteran stage and screen actress Barbara Jefford is stellar in her tiny but crucial role as the older deceptive Sister Hildegarde, showing the shiftiness in her eyes and putting self-righteousness on full unpleasant display. Jefford gives the audience an inkling that she might have erred in her thinking after Philomena forgave her for her callousness.

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

As a classic film buff, I enjoyed the moment where Sixsmith cheekily mistook Jane Russell for Jayne Mansfield just to irk the nun. There’s something there that relates to a larger theme of the film about the hypocrisy of the Catholic bureaucracy. Russell, who starred in the then highly controversial The Outlaw and continued in a succession of roles that capitalized on her voluptuous bosom and hour-glass figure, managed to achieve respectability from the industry and the movie-going public because of her vocal Christian and right-wing beliefs. The busty Mansfield, in spite of showing great promise as an able and intelligent comedienne, was given more and more degrading roles in B-movies and Euro porn, and was looked down upon by the audience and film industry.

Philomena is a well-crafted film that had moments of greatness, but afterwards, I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed. By no means did I feel cheated the price of admission, yet I was expecting something a little more substantial than a sweet, unsuspecting little old lady and a cynical and unsentimental journalist forming a personal and professional friendship. Considering all the great films out this year, you might want to wait for this to come on Netflix.

Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

How to Make a Profit and Save Lives

Courtesy of ropeofsilicon.com

Courtesy of ropeofsilicon.com

By Adam Tawfik

Dallas Buyers Club has all of the elements for a Lifetime-esque treatment. The protagonist, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a homophobic white-trash drug and sex addict, who receives a shattering HIV diagnosis giving him 30 days to live. In order to fight the odds, he must stand up to the FDA and medical establishment by smuggling and using illegal drugs.  He encounters a flamboyant transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto), who becomes his business partner, and an idealistic doctor (Jennifer Garner) who initially opposes his tactics.

Under the helm of director Jean-Marc Valleé and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas resists all temptations to be pat and preachy (save for a couple of scenes, but they’re minor enough to be forgiven). Dallas instead opts for a lucid and intellectual approach to AIDS, a disease that tends to get overly politicized and emotionalized in popular discourse and films due to its characterization as a gay disease. The film widens its scope so that it’s more than about rectifying homophobia, or about homosexuality and AIDS, or simply one man fighting against the government; it illuminates all of the above.

Courtesy of showbizmonkeys.com

Courtesy of showbizmonkeys.com

The filmmakers wisely let the facts and the characters speak for themselves. The first act consists of a subtle ripple effect of Ron coming to terms with his diagnosis. Although he acts like he’s invincible on the outside, little things show us he’s frightened. As he reads articles and realizes his drug use and unprotected sex gave him AIDS he is uncharacteristically unable to participate in the orgy in his trailer. There is an almost subliminal split-second image of him looking at the calendar and a flashing of red for 30 days representing his limited life span.

Dallas also shows how AIDS victims were ostracized. First, we see in a bar scene that Ron’s friends fear that he’s infectious. When he spits on them after a fight, they freak and cleanse themselves of the evil germs. Then his community shuns him by menacingly standing over his car and not letting him come to work and shutting off his trailer with an eviction notice. This is shown with surgical precision, using concise, short scenes.

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Ron puts himself in danger by illegally taking AZT and almost dies, but we understand why he takes the risk, as doctors simply gave him 30 days to live, with no hope or medical options. They are impervious to the urgency the AIDS victims are feeling. Once Ron figures out there are more effective treatments that are illegal in the US and begins importing them from other countries, he sets up a distribution center, which he calls the Dallas Buyers Club, making them available to anyone with money by monthly subscription.

The rest of the film then centers on the legal tug-of-war between the FDA and the Dallas Buyers’ Club.  There’s an excellent monologue delivered by a Supreme Court judge where he explains that the law isn’t logical or fair when ruling against Ron’s petition to continue the buyers’ club. This is still timely, considering the healthcare crisis today.

Courtesy of gazette.com

Courtesy of gazette.com

Even as Ron’s life totally changes, the film doesn’t magically transform him into a saint. He remains a character we admire more than like. He manages a true trajectory, beginning as a disgusting, rude, uncouth rube, slowly transforming his life.  He is never a part of the gay scene and stays resentful of his forced association. But from the beginning his ethical streak is evident and grows as the film progresses.  He approaches the Dallas Buyers Club as a business and he’s always a bit of a huckster, as is his partner, Rayon, whom he enlists to get more clients, particularly the flamboyantly gay ones, with whom Ron is very uncomfortable.

He never entirely gets over his homophobia. So his final scene with Rayon is touching, because the script shows that although he cares about Rayon (even though they constantly spar), he still is squeamish and is reluctant to hug him; this rings true and feels human. He manages to see each individual as a person regardless of their sexuality.

Courtesy of eonline

Courtesy of eonline

McConaughey once again proves that he’s more than a pretty boy and gets full in to his physically demanding role. There’s considerably little of his trademark roguish charm. He gives full conviction to his unsympathetic character, adding moments of humor while never losing sight of the gravity of his situation.  He undergoes a subtle yet alarming physical transformation. In early scenes he is active and physical and as his disease progresses he becomes thin and fragile, all the while maintaining a fierce emotional spirit. This is probably his best dramatic role.

Jared Leto, returning to the big screen after a five year acting hiatus, is back in excellent form.  He delivers a confident, flamboyantly gay character; he portrays the bitchy “queen” very well.  Rayon is also the first character to stand up to Ron and force him to meaningfully consider his situation. We gradually learn it’s all a façade. Rayon has a lot of insecurities. He has been beaten down by life. As he’s in final stages of the disease we see he’s not dying with dignity. He attempts to numb his pain and sorrow with cocaine, thus speeding up his death sentence. It’s made more haunting by the last image we see of him, saying “I don’t want to die” and coughing up blood.

Courtesy of apnatimepass

Courtesy of apnatimepass

[Interesting trivia: some of the wonderful supporting Dallas cast were also featured in the marvelous 12 Years a Slave. J.D. Evermore shines as the hateful, stupid and despicable best friend who becomes the ringleader in ostracizing Ron.  Deneen Tyler, with her cigarette-inflected baritone timbre, brings the right amount of sleaze, toughness, intelligence, and sensitivity to the role of the Buyer’s Club manager. ]

The sorely underrated Griffin Dunne is almost unrecognizable as a rogue hippie doctor practicing alternative medicine in Mexico, who becomes Ron’s first ally.

Courtesy of filmequals.com

Courtesy of filmequals.com

I was most pleasantly surprised by Jennifer Garner’s character and acting. The female character in male-oriented dramas usually lacks depth and is reduced to a love object. Here, Dr. Saks is a well-defined character, and has agency occupying her own storyline. She progresses from an idealistic, but very by-the-book, doctor to one who rebels against protocol for her patients’ best interests. Garner, who’s drop-dead gorgeous in a girly way, subtly plays down her looks.  She nicely shows intelligence and inner strength, and makes the transformation of initially opposing Ron to allying with his cause believable.

The film tastefully and subtly portrays the victims’ progressive decline due to the disease and the makeup and drastic weight loss wasn’t gimmicky, allowing the characters to maintain center stage.

Yves Belanger’s cinematography has an intriguing balance of impressionistic beauty, whilst maintaining the seediness of the locations, especially in the rodeo scenes. Martin Pensa and Jean-Mark Valleé’s brisk and frenetic editing sets the stage for the film’s theme of urgently racing against the clock.