Philomena

November 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Directed by: Stephen Frears (“The Queen”)
Written by: Steve Coogan (“The Parole Office”) and Jeff Pope (“Essex Boys”)

It’s quite a treat to witness what an actress as highly regarded as Judi Dench can do with a lead role. There’s nothing particularly flashy Dench does on the screen that ever cries out for attention, but the transcending nature of her talent can sometimes be taken for granted. In “Philomena,” Dench, who will turn 79 early next month, proves that she is only getting better with age. Give actor/co-writer Steve Coogan all the credit in the world for complementing her performance beat for beat.

Based on the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” written by former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, “Philomena” follows the title character (Dench) who reveals a secret to her daughter that she has been keeping for 50 years. As a pregnant teenager in Ireland in 1952, Philomena was sent to a convent where she was forced to give up her newborn son for adoption. Desperate to know what became of her child, she enlists the help of Sixsmith, a writer not all that interested in telling a human-interest sob story. When he meets and listens to Philomena’s tale, however, he immediately embraces it as his next writing project and the two set out to possibly reunite with her long-lost son.

Heartbreaking, sensitive and at times very funny, “Philomena” takes us on an incredible, full-circle journey and does it without one ounce of melodrama or false emotion. Flashbacks between the days a young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) spends at the convent are nicely edited between the present-day narrative and never feel like they are being used as a simple storytelling tool. There’s content that demands attention on both ends of the spectrum and two-time Academy Award nominated director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) does a fantastic job balancing everything without losing focus on his leading lady and what she is going through during this life-changing venture.

Script-wise, it’s easy to see where an actor like Coogan was able to contribute his dry wit and subtle British humor. Every line of dialogue between Philomena and Martin rings true. Nothing is overstated or overwritten and each scene is paced perfectly as if it were a soldier marking time. Then, of course, there’s Dench, who deserves a seventh Oscar nomination (she won Best Supporting Actress for “Shakespeare in Love”) for the work she’s done here, the best since 2006’s “Notes on a Scandal.” Giving “Philomena” motivation, endearing attributes and a positive outlook on life that far too few people have today, Dench is miraculous. With “Philomena,” she has given a character many would pass by without notice extraordinary depth and resonance.

Skyfall

November 9, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench
Directed by: Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition”)
Written by: Neal Purvis (“Casino Royale”), Robert Wade (“Casino Royale”), John Logan (“Gladiator”)

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, the first James Bond movie I properly saw was 1995’s “GoldenEye,” which was also the first Bond movie featuring Pierce Brosnan as 007. Though most people are probably more fond of the classic Nintendo 64 video game based on the film than the actual movie itself, “GoldenEye” marked the beginning of the end for the 50-year-old Bond brand as the world knew it. The excesses and mediocrity of Brosnan’s subsequent turns as 007 led to the 2006 ground-floor reboot “Casino Royale,” featuring Daniel Craig as a blonder, grittier, more realistic James Bond. As the “Batman Begins” of Bond films, if you will, it lit the fuse on a new series with the fresh creative vision and streamlined storytelling that the character desperately needed.

The latest entry in the series, “Skyfall,” kicks off with one of the series’ trademark action-packed cold opens featuring Bond and fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) tracking a mercenary with a stolen hard drive containing the names of NATO secret agents through Istanbul. A rooftop motorcycle chase and a fistfight atop a moving train give way to Bond being presumed dead after plummeting from a bridge after being shot. Months later, when an expert computer hacker triggers a gas explosion that destroys the MI6 office of M (Judi Dench), 007 returns to London. A former agent named Silva (Javier Bardem) is behind the attack, Bond learns, and is intent on releasing the names of the agents and exacting his revenge on M.

Perhaps best described as “The Dark Knight” of the 007 franchise, “Skyfall” is first and foremost a great movie, not to mention one of the greatest Bond movies ever. Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) builds on the stripped-down reboot stylings of “Casino Royale” and “Quantam of Solace,” doling out more pieces of Bond’s backstory than ever before and re-introducing classic 007 staples like geeky gadget master Q (Ben Whishaw) and an ejection seat-equipped Aston-Martin. Mendes also turns in the best-looking Bond film to date, from his focus on mirrors and reflections to hand-to-hand combat shot in silhouette against the dancing neon of the Shanghai skyline. Bardem’s Silva makes a fantastic foil to Craig’s broken Bond, each of them representing a different path taken after being abandoned in the field by their surrogate mother, Dench’s world-weary M. No diamond-skinned villains or hat-hurling sidekicks here; these are complex characters treated as such, plumbing depths never before visited in any Bond adventure.

Minor stumbles in the plot annoy more than anything, such as a barely-used femme fatale (Bérénice Marlohe), the millionth “missing hard drive filled with secret identities” in a spy movie, and an unforgivably goofy computer hacking plot thread (seriously, Hollywood: we all know how computers work now…knock it off with the stupid hacker tricks and fantastical graphics), none of which are enough to keep “Skyfall” from completing its mission with excitement, style, and a surprising amount of emotional resonance.