Monday, January 20, 2014

"Philomena" review

Philomena Lee is an elderly woman who has kept a secret hidden for 50 years. When she was 18 she gave birth to a son in a convent and was eventually forced to give him away via adoption three years later. She signed a form which stated that she could never attempt to find her son, no matter the circumstances. Whether she was coerced to sign it remains uncertain although she insists that it was done on her own accord.

Now, she's pushing 70. A journalist, Martin Sixsmith, recently lost his job as a Labour government adviser and, after some hesitation, decides to take on Philomena Lee's story. Together, they will attempt to find her son in a journey that leads them from Ireland to Washington DC and back to Ireland.

The strength of "Philomena" lies entirely on the fact that this is based on a true story. There really was a Philomena Lee and she really was forced to give up her son and kept that fact hidden for 50 years. Each new detail that is unveiled seems more unbelievable, but it really happened. What Philomena is forced to go through would make any sensible person feel angry, but what's remarkable about her is how she ultimately finds a way to forgive all those who have wronged her. Even when her search leads to a dead end, she's still able to find some sort of closure. "Philomena" may end on a more bittersweet note than an all-out happy ending, but that's kind of the point. For many of us, it wouldn't be a happy ending, but Philomena manages to put a positive spin on her entire journey, which makes this movie more a profound experience than you might have expected.

Judi Dench gives a wonderful performance as the title character. She plays Philomena with just the right touch, bringing a necessary layer of depth to a complicated person. Her character goes through a great deal of pain internally, but when she goes to American to find her son, she takes great joy in the trip itself. She talks very kindly to the hotel staff and treats everyone with respect. You also get the sense that she hasn't had many opportunities to go out much in her lifetime, yet here she is, finally confronting all this pain she kept hidden away with a smile on her face.

If I had a slight issue with "Philomena," it would be Steve Coogan's character, Martin Sixsmith. There does not seem to be much beyond the surface of this character. You get a few hints here and there about Martin's struggles with his faith. He grew up a Catholic but has since had a complicated relationship with God. He doesn't forgive people as easily as Philomena does and her naivete and positive approach towards life is constantly at odds with him. While some comedy is mined in their odd-couple relationship, Martin seems more and more like a downer as the film goes on.

Coogan, who co-wrote the film, seems as if he wanted to approach this material as lightly as possible, but there seems to be a weird tonal contrast between Philomena's story and the road trip comedy. They get in a couple cheap laughs thanks to Philomena's "naive old Irish lady" antics, but once you realize the inherent tragedy that's taking place in the title character's attempts to find her son, the weight of the drama is just a bit too heavy and it makes the attempts to keep things light feel a little false. Like, it's a deliberate attempt to keep things as "easy-to-swallow" as possible.

Still, for an "easy-to-swallow" light drama, the filmmakers must be applauded for not holding anything back in their views against the convent. There was some controversy involving the way the Catholic church was perceived in the film, with the New York Post's Kyle Smith insensitively belittling Philomena's story in defense of the poor, ol' Catholic church. Any good intentions the church had in taking care of these teenage mothers goes out the window when you see how they consistently turned Philomena away whenever she inquired about her son. In a religion based on forgiveness, they seem absolutely insistent in making these poor mothers suffer the consequences of their actions when they were teens. For the rest of their lives, they have to constantly wonder where their children are, and to know that Philomena's son could have reunited with his mother much sooner will leave an uncomfortable pit in your stomach. It's heartbreaking.

Director Stephen Frears does an honorable job of staying out of the way and letting the story speak for itself. He still adds some nice touches in the flashback sequences, which make you feel the weight of the story without making it overly-sentimental. In general, praise must be given to the screenwriters for keeping the story grounded in reality, never letting the story drift into melodrama.

If you were hesitant in seeing "Philomena," don't be. This really is an incredible story and it's best to go into the movie knowing as little as possible. While the movie doesn't quite have a gut punch, it still feels refreshingly bittersweet. It will remind you never to take anything for granted, never allow yourself to keep things hidden away, because you never know what you'll learn when you finally decide to confront your fears. But, "Philomena" isn't just about confrontation, it's about forgiveness. Would you be as willing to forgive at the end of this movie, like Philomena was? That's what makes this such a powerful story.

Grade: B+

Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 Oscar Nominations HERE

Best motion picture of the year
  • “American Hustle” Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison and Jonathan Gordon, Producers
  • “Captain Phillips” Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, Producers
  • “Dallas Buyers Club” Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter, Producers
  • “Gravity” Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman, Producers
  • “Her” Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze and Vincent Landay, Producers
  • “Nebraska” Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, Producers
  • “Philomena” Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan and Tracey Seaward, Producers
  • “12 Years a Slave” Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen and Anthony Katagas, Producers
  • “The Wolf of Wall Street” Nominees to be determined
Achievement in directing
  • “American Hustle” David O. Russell
  • “Gravity” Alfonso Cuarón
  • “Nebraska” Alexander Payne
  • “12 Years a Slave” Steve McQueen
  • “The Wolf of Wall Street” Martin Scorsese
Performance by an actor in a leading role
  • Christian Bale in “American Hustle”
  • Bruce Dern in “Nebraska”
  • Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street”
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave”
  • Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club”
Performance by an actress in a leading role
  • Amy Adams in “American Hustle”
  • Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine”
  • Sandra Bullock in “Gravity”
  • Judi Dench in “Philomena”
  • Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County”

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
  • Barkhad Abdi in “Captain Phillips”
  • Bradley Cooper in “American Hustle”
  • Michael Fassbender in “12 Years a Slave”
  • Jonah Hill in “The Wolf of Wall Street”
  • Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club”
Performance by an actress in a supporting role
  • Sally Hawkins in “Blue Jasmine”
  • Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle”
  • Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave”
  • Julia Roberts in “August: Osage County”
  • June Squibb in “Nebraska”
Achievement in film editing
  • “American Hustle” Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten
  • “Captain Phillips” Christopher Rouse
  • “Dallas Buyers Club” John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa
  • “Gravity” Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger
  • “12 Years a Slave” Joe Walker
Achievement in cinematography
  • “The Grandmaster” Philippe Le Sourd
  • “Gravity” Emmanuel Lubezki
  • “Inside Llewyn Davis” Bruno Delbonnel
  • “Nebraska” Phedon Papamichael
  • “Prisoners” Roger A. Deakins
Adapted screenplay
  • “Before Midnight” Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
  • “Captain Phillips” Screenplay by Billy Ray
  • “Philomena” Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
  • “12 Years a Slave” Screenplay by John Ridley
  • “The Wolf of Wall Street” Screenplay by Terence Winter
Original screenplay
  • “American Hustle” Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
  • “Blue Jasmine” Written by Woody Allen
  • “Dallas Buyers Club” Written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
  • “Her” Written by Spike Jonze
  • “Nebraska” Written by Bob Nelson
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
  • “The Book Thief” John Williams
  • “Gravity” Steven Price
  • “Her” William Butler and Owen Pallett
  • “Philomena” Alexandre Desplat
  • “Saving Mr. Banks” Thomas Newman
Achievement in production design
  • “American Hustle” Production Design: Judy Becker; Set Decoration: Heather Loeffler
  • “Gravity” Production Design: Andy Nicholson; Set Decoration: Rosie Goodwin and Joanne Woollard
  • “The Great Gatsby” Production Design: Catherine Martin; Set Decoration: Beverley Dunn
  • “Her” Production Design: K.K. Barrett; Set Decoration: Gene Serdena
  • “12 Years a Slave” Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Alice Baker
Achievement in costume design
  • “American Hustle” Michael Wilkinson
  • “The Grandmaster” William Chang Suk Ping
  • “The Great Gatsby” Catherine Martin
  • “The Invisible Woman” Michael O’Connor
  • “12 Years a Slave” Patricia Norris
Best foreign language film of the year
  • “The Broken Circle Breakdown” Belgium
  • “The Great Beauty” Italy
  • “The Hunt” Denmark
  • “The Missing Picture” Cambodia
  • “Omar” Palestine
Best animated feature film of the year
  • “The Croods” Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco and Kristine Belson
  • “Despicable Me 2” Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin and Chris Meledandri
  • “Ernest & Celestine” Benjamin Renner and Didier Brunner
  • “Frozen” Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Peter Del Vecho
  • “The Wind Rises” Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki
Best documentary feature
  • “The Act of Killing”Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen
  • “Cutie and the Boxer” Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher
  • “Dirty Wars” Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill
  • “The Square” Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer
  • “20 Feet from Stardom” Nominees to be determined
Achievement in sound editing
  • “All Is Lost” Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns
  • “Captain Phillips” Oliver Tarney
  • “Gravity” Glenn Freemantle
  • “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Brent Burge
  • “Lone Survivor” Wylie Stateman
Achievement in sound mixing
  • “Captain Phillips” Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith and Chris Munro
  • “Gravity” Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead and Chris Munro
  • “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick and Tony Johnson
  • “Inside Llewyn Davis” Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland
  • “Lone Survivor” Andy Koyama, Beau Borders and David Brownlow
Achievement in visual effects
  • “Gravity” Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould
  • “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and Eric Reynolds
  • “Iron Man 3” Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash and Dan Sudick
  • “The Lone Ranger” Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams and John Frazier
  • “Star Trek Into Darkness” Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann and Burt Dalton
Achievement in makeup and hairstyling
  • “Dallas Buyers Club” Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews
  • “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” Stephen Prouty
  • “The Lone Ranger” Joel Harlow and Gloria Pasqua-Casny
Best documentary short subject
  • “CaveDigger” Jeffrey Karoff
  • “Facing Fear” Jason Cohen
  • “Karama Has No Walls” Sara Ishaq
  • “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed
  • “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall” Edgar Barens
Best animated short film
  • “Feral” Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden
  • “Get a Horse!” Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim
  • “Mr. Hublot” Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares
  • “Possessions” Shuhei Morita
  • “Room on the Broom” Max Lang and Jan Lachauer
Best live action short film
  • “Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)” Esteban Crespo
  • “Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything)” Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras
  • “Helium” Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson
  • “Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)” Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari
  • “The Voorman Problem” Mark Gill and Baldwin Li
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
  • “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone”
    Music by Bruce Broughton; Lyric by Dennis Spiegel
  • “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2”
    Music and Lyric by Pharrell Williams
  • “Let It Go” from “Frozen”
    Music and Lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
  • “The Moon Song” from “Her”
    Music by Karen O; Lyric by Karen O and Spike Jonze
  • “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
    Music by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen; Lyric by Paul Hewson

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Lone Survivor" review

"Lone Survivor" tells the harrowing true story of Marcus Luttrell who, along with his team of Navy SEALs, was caught in a violent battle against enemy combatants in the mountains behind an Afghan village. As the title of the movie suggests, Luttrell wound up being the sole surviving member of this four-team squad and he has made it his mission to tell this story and keep the spirit of his Navy SEAL brothers alive. The strength of "Lone Survivor" is its overall unwavering emotion, which holds these SEALs to such high regard and does its best to do right by them. But, that unwavering emotion also presents a number of problems in a film that tries hard to go for realism. There are bound to be some exaggerations and the film straddles a very thin line between honorable tribute and over-glorification. And it straddles that line recklessly.

In the beginning, we are treated with a montage that shows Navy SEAL training in great detail. This footage was provided to writer/director Peter Berg by the Navy and it provides important context to what will come later. The people we are about to see have already been thoroughly battle-tested before they even hit the Middle East with many other trainees being forced to quit due to their inability to withstand the punishment. The men we see are the ones who withstood that punishment and it's important to establish this as they're about to go through the greatest test of their lives.

Moreover, the film establishes a sense of brotherhood between the four primary characters. There's the aforementioned Marcus (Mark Wahlberg), along with LT Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster). These are all based an actual people
and those are their real names. Wahlberg, Kitsch, Hirsch, and Foster all do these men great justice, doing their best to present them as individuals despite little time being spent on characterization. It's their job, above everything else, to protect each other and to never leave a man behind and we see through all their battles and rigorous training that this mentality has formed a deep bond among them all.

They are lead by LCDR Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) who sends the team on a mission called Operation Red Wings on June 28th, 2005. The goal is to capture and/or kill a notorious Taliban leader and these SEALs are sent out to the mountains to track him down. This plan gets foiled when the men are discovered by a sheep herder and two boys. What follows is my favorite scene in the film: the four SEALs have a serious moral conundrum on their hands and must decide whether to kill these people so they aren't at risk of being found, or to let them go and prevent a controversy. Lt. Murphy ultimately decides to let them go and obey the Rules of Engagement, but soon after they are found by an entire Taliban squad.

It's definitely an interesting moral dilemma that is presented, but it's unfortunately marred by the endless combat that follows. While the battle scenes are often intense and gripping, there is very little nuance and focus in these scenes. Peter Berg seems primarily interested in the wounds these SEALs collect as opposed to the staging of the battle itself. By focusing solely on the bravery and the relentless of these SEALs, we lose a sense of what the actual stakes are at any given moment and of their mindset as they continue to fight. My main issue with this is that, we already know how incredibly brave these men are, it does not need to be overstated. It gets to a point where it starts to become heavy-handed, especially during the three SEALs' death scenes.

The film is also a bit egregious with the way it depicts the rescue of Marcus Luttrell. He's taken in by an unnamed Afghani villager who helps him (for reasons given to us at the film's conclusion). In real life, Luttrell spent four days with this villager where he was taken care of before he's finally found by the rescuers. In the movie, this is where things get kind of weird. The entire sequence seems incredibly rushed. A battle (that never actually took place) erupts between the villagers and the Taliban which leads to some intense action sequences and an unbelievable fight scene involving Marcus. The film would have been just as fascinating, if not more so, if it just stuck to the facts. And it just seems unfair to the villager who risked his life and his family's life in order to save Marcus. There is so much that could have been mined and it would have given the film more of a sense of morality. As it's presented, unfortunately, we get too much "rah rah" action as opposed to a gripping story.

At the end, we never really get to learn much about the fallen Navy SEALs. So much time is spent on how these men died that we never really get to see how they live. It's amazing just what these SEALs go through and it's a testament to the training they received when they first signed up. But, they are still men. They're still human beings. They loved each other like brothers. It would have been more potent if we focused on their humanity instead of putting so much emphasis on the wounds. They aren't gods and it's disingenuous to treat them as such.

There really is an amazing and gripping story to be told here, but Peter Berg's affinity for battle wounds and military combat undermines the entire process. This is a country that has grown more divided and has become tired and weary of the wars that we've fought. These Navy SEALs were real people who had families, got married, and had children. They were sent out to do a job and were extraordinarily well-trained. What was most fascinating to me was how they interacted with each other, how they discussed strategy, how they debated intelligently about serious moral dilemmas. By the end, we are given a montage of the real men who actually died in Operation Red Wing. It's a nice, fitting tribute to these fallen soldiers, I just wish the rest of the movie stayed true to that tribute.

Marcus Luttrell is human. He has suffered serious emotional and psychological trauma since the operation took place. He has been given a service dog to help him deal with those wounds. I could never do what he did. I am not nearly as strong as him or as strong as those close to me who have fought in the military. We should celebrate these people. We should celebrate the Afghani who showcased his own humanity in saving Marcus Luttrell. But we should not be celebrating, or relishing, in the fight itself. "Lone Survivor" is still a solid and emotional tribute to these soldiers and it's definitely worth the watch, but the way it glorifies the battles that kills these soldiers, and provides the surviving ones so much trauma, is worrisome to me.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

So far, 2014 looks... ok

notable directors in parenthesis

2014 movies on my radar right now

jan - labor day (reitman)... technically labor day is a 2013 release, but it hits wide release this month

feb - lego movie (lord & miller), monuments men (clooney), robocop

mar - the grand budapest hotel (wes anderson), enemy (villeneuve), nymphomaniac (von trier)
muppets most wanted, noah (aronofsky)

apr - under the skin (glazer), transcendence

may - chef, neighbors, godzilla, x-men

june - 22 jump street

july - dawn of apes, jupiter ascending (wachowskis)

august - guardians of galaxy, sin city 2 (rodriguez), jane got a gun

october - gone girl (fincher), the interview

nov - interstellar (nolan)

dec - exodus (ridley scott)

no release date: men, women & children (reitman), the immigrant (james gray), inherent vice (pta), tusk (kevin smith), calvary (mcdonagh), any of those terrence malick movies

...and that's all that is known thus far

New year, a few changes

Ken on Cinema enters its 5th year of existence! Let's hope 2014 can be as great of a year in cinema as 2013 was. I will still review 2013 movies in full, up until February.

I have a slightly different layout now just to keep things fresh. I hope you enjoy it. I like the somewhat classic layout, keeps things streamlined.

One main change in 2014, my reviews starting from 2014 and beyond will no longer have any ratings or grades. Every three months or so, I may give a "top 5 of the year so far" or something... just to give you an idea of where I stand on things. But, as I have realized this year especially, grades are meaningless. If I write reviews for other sites, I may have to use a grade or a rating, but on here? No more. I want to emphasize the quality of the review, not just for me but for others as well. What is a B+ or an A- when it comes to movies anyway? Or an A and an A+? It just started to baffle me when I had to come up with a grade for a movie... why am I thinking in grades and ratings? What about the movie itself? I hope this will help me watch movies without ever thinking about that kind of stuff. Keeps things pure.

When I write movie reviews from 2013, I'll use grades still just to keep the symmetry going. But all 2014 movies and beyond: no grades. It's become too trivial for me now.

I wrote 48 new movie reviews in 2013. I hope it will be more in 2014, but we'll see. I would like to update the blog more, in general, but as I continue to write for other sites (The Playlist, Whatculture), it may stay at the pace it's at now. I appreciate the free reign that I have here though and I will still be writing the majority of my reviews on here overall. We'll see where things go in the future.

Happy new year!