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Recent Movies: Philomena; Nebraska; Muscle Shoals

January 23, 2014

Recent Movies

Philomena

This film is based on the life of Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), an Irishwoman living in England.  Around 2004, Lee worked with journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan) to help find her son who was forced into adoption almost fifty years before.

I believe that a movie-going year feels incomplete until I’ve seen at least one film with Judi Dench in it.  “Philomena” not only fills this quota; it provides one of Dench’s best performances.  It also happens to be one of the best films of 2013.

The acting is praiseworthy enough but an even greater strength is the story written by Coogan and Jeff Pope based on Sixsmith’s book.  There are so many shocking and fascinating twists in the search that the film proves, yet again, that truth is stranger than fiction.

It is easy to compare “Philomena” with “The Magdalene Sisters” (2002) as both films expose the extreme injustices of some Irish convents against teenage girls in the last century.  Both films are well made but “Magdalene” leaves the viewer with an unresolved rage by the end.  “Philomena” certainly raises just rage as well but its main impact is the compassion one feels for the main characters particularly in debates about rage vs. forgiveness in a shocking finale.

All the great elements of this film were placed together by the great master Stephen Frears whose best works include “My Beautiful Launderette”, “Dangerous Liaisons”, “The Grifters”, “The Queen”, and now, “Philomena”.

Rating (out 0f four stars):   * * * 1/2

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Nebraska

In a small Montana town, Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) is an heavy-drinking senior citizen whose mental lapses cause trouble in his family.  He believes he was won a landfall and is determined to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska (the state where he grew up) to pick up his prize.  The result is a road movie with skeletons coming out of various closets.

While this film has its flaws, its overall effect is one of melancholy charm.  It seems a bit long at just under two hours.  Woody’s son David (Will Forte) seems to have too much goodness.  At the opposite end, Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb), while hilarious, seems to have too much profane cruelty though she shines in a great scene where she stands up for her family when they’re under attack.

Though the characters, as written, are sometimes questionable, the acting is quite good.  It would be hard to imagine someone other than Dern in the main role.  His subtlety and quietness speak volumes.  Squibb’s curmudgeon must be seen and heard to be believed especially during a scene in the cemetery where she pays her “respects”.

The film’s greatest strength is in the directing by Alexander Payne.  With so many unspoken words and gestures (plus beautifully bleak black-and-white cinematography), it is amazing how much the past can be brought back to the surface as though it never died.  Sadly, the past can include pettiness, nastiness, and greed.

Luckily, there is also a lot of good humour to lighten the load at times.  Some scenes are quite memorable in this fine film.

Rating:   * * *

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Muscle Shoals

The subject of this documentary is the musical recording history in Muscle Shoals, Alabama – a very small town near the scenic Tennessee River.  This very unlikely location for recording some of the biggest stars of the 1960s and 1970s was believed to have a special musical energy where the recording sound was believed to be better than those in major centres like New York, London, and Los Angeles.

Some of the great artist interviewees include Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards.  There is also superb film footage of artists recording during the beginnings and heights of their careers.

Some of the best interviews are those with Rick Hall, a producer who was responsible for many of the recordings.  His most moving recollections include his tragic childhood, the conflicts and successes of his career, and the absence of racism within the recording studios despite its strong presence outside of it.

In addition to being a fine documentary, the audioplay of the recordings of the time, especially the soul music, are worth the admission price.

Rating:   * * *

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