Thursday, February 27, 2014


The story of the Magdalene laundries is not exactly a chapter of Irish history that anyone wants to hang on a wall. For more than 200 years, the Magdalene laundries were an asylum engineered to incarcerate young girls who were either promiscuous or prostitutes or the victims of rape. It was little more than a sweatshop in which the girls were forced into hard labor – usually doing laundry - for a certain term and were regarded like inmates. These asylums were sanctioned by the Catholic Church, operated by nuns and privately funded by the government. Many girls were guilty of nothing. Some were pregnant and had children and were only allowed to see their children for an hour a day. Even still, a child could be adopted and sent away without the mother's knowledge or consent. You should know that this is not a story out of The Dark Ages. In fact, the very last of the Magdalene Laundries closed its doors in 1996.
Don't panic, though. Stephen Frear's film Philomena is not an expose of the Magdalene laundries. That story has already been told in Peter Mullan's hard-bitten 2003 drama The Magdalene Sisters. They do, however, serve as a backdrop to the story of one person whose life was affected, for better and for worse, by her time locked away behind the walls of the laundries.
Philomena tells the story of Philomena Lee, an Irish catholic woman who spent most of her life regretting one fateful event that never left her heart. A half century ago Philomena made a mistake, the consequences of which have haunted her ever since. Back in 1951, she was a teenager. She went to a carnival. She met a boy. Things got serious. Nine months later she was living in Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea where she gave birth to a son she named Anthony. Later, she was forced to stand by helplessly as her son was adopted by an American couple. Philomena, a devout Catholic, believed that her separation from her son was penance for her sin. Yet, it is something that she has never come to terms with. Half a century later, her sad eyes are a window into painful memories and regret.
Philomena, played in a lovely performance by Judi Dench, wants to know what ever happened to her son, and finds herself in the company of an out-of-work BBC reporter named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the film) who, at first, sees the old girl's story as a sellable human interest piece. Anyone with eyes can see that she is much more than just a sound bite. She's warm-hearted, a bit naïve, with a stubborn resolve, yet she's not a standard crabby old bat. She's a cozy soul with a twee Irish accent and too often the perpetrator of TMI.
At first, Martin is purely professional, but as the deep wounds of Philomena's story unearth, he finds himself taking it personally. He is at odds with her passionate faith, because he himself is a newly-minted atheist. He labels himself confidently, but we sense that he hasn't completely rid himself of all doubts. The two are not on equal ground. Martin's mind is a flurry of intellectual cynicism. He's a college-educated journalist who seems to have a quip, an aside, and an answer for just about everything. Philomena, meanwhile, is earnest and straightforward. She sees the world in terms that are purely black and white.
The search for Philomena's son becomes an awakening for both she and Martin. Travelling from rural Ireland to England and to American, the two dig up bits and pieces about Anthony, some of which are a relief, others are painful. What she finds will not be revealed here, except to say that it is not what we expect. Little by little, bit by bit, information about her son comes to light; yet, all Philomena really wants to know is if he ever wondered about her.
What is interesting about Philomena is that this is not a hard, maudlin melodrama. Frears allows a good deal of humor, especially in regards to Philomena's awakening to the rude shocks of the modern world. She's surprisingly calm, especially in her attitude about the sexual encounter that produced her son.
Judi Dench, whose presence in a film is welcomed no matter what she's doing, gives one of her best performances as a woman whose eyes betray a weary heart. Through the years, her missing child has never left her mind or her heart, yet the experience hasn't destroyed her spirit. She is a woman devoted to God, un-embittered by her experience that keeps her mind on the task and won't allow herself to be pushed into outbursts of emotion.
The outbursts are reserved for her travelling companion. Martin reacts more or less the way we would. He's outraged by what he learns about Philomena's experience. He's a man who has slipped away from God in the cold of a brutal world (remember, he's a journalist) and he can't understand her unbending faith. You expect a film that is emotional, but you don't expect one that brings in questions of faith and the meaning of God. During one roadside rant about the meaning of God, he asks her if she really believes all that she claims, and he is stunned by her straightforward, "Yes." Philomena is a very moving film. It is touching when it needs to be, humorous when it's appropriate and comes to an ending that never feels like a manipulation. If there is one weakness it is probably that it leaves several questions unanswered. Those are difficult to discuss without spoilers, but you walk out in deep discussions over some of the issues it raises. This is a beautiful film about the chasms of time, the measure of lingering heartache and the manner in which old wound are dealt with.

Friday, February 21, 2014

All is Lost

Talk about making a huge leap forward in your filmmaking abilities; J.C. Chandor can rest easy knowing he demonstrated the directorial style of a pro in his survival film All is Lost starring Robert Redford. Debuting today at the New York Film Festival, you can tell that many critics were simply captivated by what they were witnessing on-screen. An almost 40-page script and a team of amazing technical magicians encapsulate the awe and wonder of the upcoming Lionsgate feature.
The synopsis is pretty straight forward; a man is out in sea when finds himself fighting mother nature and his own psyche to survive out in the Indian Ocean.
Writer and director J.C. Chandor assembles a man without revealing any back story that the audience can latch onto. We spend a lot of time with "Our Man" - as he's named by end credits. It's a brilliant constructed character study focusing on human behavior. There have been plenty of survival films to screen this year showing the different perspectives that human beings take when faced with their own extinction. "Captain Phillips" has Tom Hanks react when another soul threatens that life while Sandra Bullock relies on her own instinct and brains in "Gravity." Redford envelops the body of a man who is surrounded by his own thoughts. Alone in the ocean, he utilizes tools provided by his boat as well as life experience. There are no asides or soliloquies for the audience to in tune themselves with the narrative. We rely on our senses. Chandor has an admirable aesthetic for telling his stories. Unafraid to get up close and personal with our main character and to observe the angles from the boat, air, and sea, I was mesmerized nearly the entire time.
At 77, Robert Redford gives a grueling, unrelenting performance that greatly relies on his facial expressions, body language and physical stamina that belies his age, mostly because he chooses neither to talk to himself, nor does the script allow him to even think aloud. In an already illustrative career, All Is Lost ranks along Mr. Redford's best ever. Only he could've tapped into the epitome of the human spirit, to bring in some quiet dignity to the role.
Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini, dual cinematographers, gather gorgeous imagery especially those captured from beneath the ocean's surface. In our violent moments when nature shows her true aggression, the two find the pleasant bearings of Redford's dread.
As it would be expected in a film with no dialogue, the sound design becomes the forefront and star. Rain and ocean rush across the screen and speakers to place us right in the moment. A fierce intensity boils to the brim when the sound really takes off.
The film tends to be bloated a bit. At 106 minutes, a cut down to perhaps 90 might have tightened up some of the scenes and give a more clear and fluid cinematic experience. Trust that when the movie does take off, the Visual Effects team needs to be commended. It's not as simple as sitting in a life raft and watching the rain fall; in many ways, All is Lost acts as an independent action thriller with a strong narrative device, something we don't see too often. The music of Alex Ebert certainly helps and acts a strong companion piece to the sound work. All is Lost is one of the more pleasing and emotionally satisfying dramas of the year that had me at the edge of my seat. There are many that could see it as a guy just having a really bad week, or one of the few cinematic endeavors of the year that exemplifies the vulnerable parts of soul. If you're looking for a quality Oscar contender for 2013, All is Lost will offer you a delectable helping with all the trimmings.