“Philomena”

As one of my fellow bloggers wrote ” Having a duvet day”,and now  it is time to publish a backlog of reviews before the 87th Oscar Evening arrives. A film I enjoyed last year was “Philomena”. It was based on both a true story and book, “The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith. This tale of sexual shame (which Catholics are good at) and forgiveness ( also what Catholics are good at) hits just the right religious chords of awe,tolerence and redemption.

This tale is beautifully acted by Brits Dame Judith Dench and Steve Coogan and the Scottish Sophia Kennedy Clark. Coogan playing a rather officious and haughty reporter learns the most from a journey that takes Philomena (Dench and Clark) back to the convent and the workhouse in search of a lost son. As the truth is painstakenly uncovered, our reporter has trouble controlling his righteous anger. Dench delivers her line,” Anger…it must be exhausting” with the wisdom of the ages.

A laudable depiction of partnership in final wishes being met– and just enough gentle humor to remind me of Coogan’s performance in another film “The Trip”(2010) where he wrote restaurant reviews while touring Northern England. Here, in “Philomena”,the Irish countryside is the backdrop. The money game, whether selling babies or up-dated Sunday missals every year, is the evil. A sad history re-visited and peace made with pain.

“Unbroken” and “American Sniper”

This weekend I saw two war films that were based on two soldiers’ lives. Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut in “Unbroken” and Clint Eastwood’s mispercevied “American Sniper” are analogous in that both push forward the belief systems of their soldier protagonists. For Louie Zamperini it is “forgive thy enemy”; for Chris Kyle it is “stand up and protect your tribe”. The temperament and the politics of the moviegoer may prejudice either film,but
this need not be the case. The horror of war and the poor help given as veteran soldiers re-enter civilian life is paramount to understanding either film. Neither man is legend or hero,in my eyes,only humanly flawed and now both dead to suffering and to sin.

Both Louie and Chris were church raised and often pew disciplined. Young Louie heard sermons heralding “love thy enemy”; Chris heard “protect our own”. Chris Kyle also hears his dad spout “you know your purpose” … ” Protect your brother”. Both father and son believe in ” the gift of aggression”, wolf -dog over sheep. While growing up, Louie hears the bromides of the time from Pete,his older brother.” Take it to make it.”

Jolie’s “Unbroken” begins with a ten minute spectacular opening. Gunners rotating and swirling amongst the clouds. Mixed shots of panoramic views give way to close- ups of eyes held in the gun sight. Puffs of ash stay suspended. The cinematography is splendid,gauzy and then clear. The film’s sound pales in comparison –often weak, raspy and muffled.

I had read the Laura Hillenbrand accounting of Louis Zamperini ‘s World War II survival,resilience and redemption, so there were not any surprises. Hillenbrand dedicated her book to the wounded and the lost,and Jolie holds that spirit in her film. The war experiences of 45 days on a life raft with insufficient rations and water, the sharks, and the internment in a POW camp run by a sadist are added to the sky skirmishes and South Pacific Japanese attacks. Zamperini’s marriages,alcoholism and Billy Graham’s influence are not covered in  the film “Unbroken”. His early years of dealing with prejudice and his Olympic running are. I found the back and forth chronology of the storyline to be frustrating. As soon as I was emotionally hooked, the screen would switch to a flashback. This seemed like teasing, and I think the film suffers for this. The four or five “break always” disrupted the emotional connection over and over again. The actors were still compelling and well -directed, and “the bird” especially brought the detestable Watanabe to life.

Eastwood’s movie opens with a huge tank and flashbacks to SEAL boot camp. We see lots of testosterone “feeling dangerous” vibes: darts thrown on targets painted on backs,for example. Bradley Cooper deserves his Oscar nomination. The film doesn’t. Cooper’s musculature is astounding.His neck is thick; his extra thirty pounds of sinew packs a screen frame. His Texas slur and intense eyes bring a true believer to life. We know Chris Kyle has envisioned how his first kill will go down. Later, a comrade compliments Kyle with “the marines feel invincible with you up there”. Really? One sniper,even one who can get a head shot at 2100 yards out,would not be able to hold to this legend. It is war that “puts lightening in your bones”. And lightening can blow circuits.

Kyle is a keenly observant soldier,but an unreflective man. He sees a rawly red elbow and deduces an enemy sniper. Kyle is good at picking up clues. He volunteers for four tours of duty, until his wife whines:”You can only circle the flames for so long,” and “when you are here ,you are not here.”Eastwood seems to rev -up the motors of war with “an eye for a eye” revenge theme Clint-style. A frame of the twin towers falling seems faultily to suggest that the Iraq War was about this. When a lackluster counselor asks the veteran Chris if there is anything he feels he would do differently, Chris responds with “I am only haunted by the soldiers that I did not save.” Staring a black TV screens, throwing an upper cut at the family dog,or bargeing into a nursery demanding that his baby daughter be immediately comforted by the one attending nurse, all show that Kyle doesn’t know when to quit warring. His wife’s “I need you to be human again” says a lot about what we expect of our soldiers.

There are some powerful scenes of sandstorm battles and an anti- war letter read at a graveside military funeral. There are too many flags, bugles and stamped SEAL crests on casket lids. A younger director would not have underscored patriotism like a sheriff pinning on his badge “High Noon” style. The use of a doll to replace a live child was also a mistake. In the first sequence of frames, the film did not suffer for this,but the second set of sightings was silly. Cooper did his best to shake those plastic curved fingers and the make-up crew did enhance, yet lifeless is lifeless, Mr. Director.

“Selma”

“Come to Selma” may have been a better title for this docu-drama. Martin Luther King is given import as a Noble Peace Prize recipient, and then portrayed as a political strategist intent on capitalizing on 70 million people sympathizing with marchers demanding a vote. This is how protest is done Saul Alinsky style: orchestrating a non-violent disturbance,using negotiating,demonstrating and resistance to gain needed change. The film is a primer for knocking down status quo unfairness.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act is the subject matter here,and Martin Luther King is the community organizer with a mission to create a better world.”Come to Selma” is his rallying cry.

Cinematographer Bradford Young does an absolutely glorious job of filming. The light and dark images play across the screen in headshot close-ups,and in pastels of muted meeting rooms, and pink-lighted, floating, slow-motion tumbles of little girls’ shoes and legs. But to be visually mesmerized is not the only reason to see this film. The acting under the direction of Ava Duvernay is masterclass worthy. David Ogelowo’s facial expressions let ussee the joys and the agonies of giving oneself over to a cause. Tom Wilkinson, as President Johnson, shows his impatience with “all that was on his plate” (Vietnam Nam included) without diminishing his good intentions and ultimate accomplishment.

Ava Duvernay in her womanly direction strengthens  the touching scene between Coretta Scott King and her husband,  as Cory tells Martin that she knows what he sounds like and that the crank call ( probably J.E.Hoover  instigated) was not worthy of her angst. She then asks her husband if he loves her and if he ever loved the others. Carmen Ejogo is simply exquisite. Dignity is paramount and MLK never loses it. The praying on bended knee mid-bridge and the quiet conversations with John Lewis, Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy and Malcolm X are histories videoed. The viewer goes away with missing the cadences of his speeches,but awe struck at this man slain at the young age of 39. That we all could make such a difference is what this film inspires.

“Wild”

“Wild” is full of bromides like “Find your best self and hold on to it” and “Put yourself in Beauty’s way-sunrise & sunset every day”. Yet, Jean-Marc Vallee,the Canadian director of “The Dallas Buyers Club, makes us care about Sheryl Strayed, whose memoir makes the big screen.

Reese Witherspoon is grand and brings a depth of character that is a pleasant surprise. Her sins, her fortitude, her bruises, her losses and her neglects are mostly in flashbacks as she treks 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. She registers her name on the trail’s log, often quoting Adrienne Rich, Flannery O’Conner, Emily Dickinson and many of my favs here and in her journal. Sheryl is a seeker,a feminist,who changes Joni Mitchell’s lyrics from, “Will you take me as I am?” To “will I take me as I am?” Ultimately, she needs to forgive herself and as she states: “walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was”.

And her mother, the incredible Laura Dern is worthy of an Oscar,too. In a few short scenes, we see her forty-five years from dancing with her daughter, taking knuckle punches,breathing in scents & sense to cancer and cornea donation. Bobbi Gray is lauded as noble yet her quest is to make her daughter more sophisticated than she is seems silly in its self-effacement.  Yet,I was deeply touched when Sheryl swallowed a mouthful of her mother’s ashes.

There are lots of grunts & groans from beginning to end. We learn a little about Monster bag packing and tricks like burning book pages read to lighten the load. Pruning an insane backpack plays second to pruning a history of promiscuity & heroin abuse ,and this unloading plays  as an interesting metaphor. Licking the condensation from a tent wall and meeting unseemly hikers are balanced with the kindness of strangers and the humor of the “Hobo Times” reporter.

I was disappointed in the cinematography of Yves Belanger. I was expecting more magnificent scenery of a postcard variety. The brooks were nice,but not jaw dropping. The forest take with the “Red River Valley” song missed vistas where they were needed for maximum emotional effect.I cared about Sheryl, but grieved for Bobbi and wanted her to channel that mother love ,unconditional and true, to the next generation without proxy.