An Unstill Life

An Unstill Life
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Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Philomena


UK,  2013
Running Length: 98 minutes
Cast:  Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay:  Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan

The subject matter of Philomena may lead some to believe they’re heading for a gruelling couple of hours.  This could not be further from the truth.

Dench plays the titular Philomena, a woman who survived years of servitude in a Magdalene convent after giving birth out of wedlock. Fifty years later, a chance meeting between Philomena’s daughter and newly disgraced political aide, Martin Sixsmith leads the pair on a journey to find the son Philomena lost so long ago.

Sixsmith is initially unexcited by the idea of investigating what he considers a fluff piece, but after meeting Philomena, something about her honesty and wit intrigues him.  And once he starts researching her story, he becomes more and more excited about what he finds out about the child.  The paper-chase leads them to the US where they are faced with some shocking revelations.

The joy of this film is in the way the viewer takes the journey alongside Sixsmith and Philomena.  They are a mismatched pair, he a lapsed Catholic who embraces his atheism with as much fervour as Philomena still embraces her Catholicsm.  He’s cynical and world-weary while Philomena finds such things as a breakfast buffet novel and exciting.

There are clear villains in the nuns who foil the pair at every turn.  They initially tell them that all the convent’s records were destroyed in a fire, but it soon becomes clear that what they’re hiding is far more sinister.  Babies were sold to families in the USA for large sums of money, including one sold to film star Jane Russell.  I won’t go into detail about what happened to Philomena’s son here because it would ruin the story for you, but it is both poignant and startling.

Dench gives a thoroughly natural and nuance performance as Philomena.  She’s damaged, witty, tragic and upbeat all at the same time as being an utterly radiant presence on screen.  Steve Coogan is a worthy foil too.  I’ve never liked him as an actor, but in this film I could almost warm to him.

While often desperately sad, you will not leave the theatre feeling depressed.  Philomena has enough wit and charm to undercut the heavier moments, not depriving them of their depth and meaning, but offering levity and hope for the future.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for Outsourced


USA 2006
Running Length: 110 minutes
Cast: Josh Hamilton, Ayesha Dharker, Larry Pine, Matt Smith, Asif Barasa
Director:  John Jeffcoat
Screenplay: George Wing & John Jeffcoat
Cinematography: Teodoro Maniaci

Outsourced is a sweet, light comedy about cultural differences. Todd is the Seattle based manger of a call centre selling novelty goods.  One day he is told that the entire department is being outsourced.  The good news is that Todd can keep his job.  The bad news is that he must travel to India to train his replacement and get the new call centre up to scratch.  Todd is not thrilled to be going to India, but the prospect of unemployment is even less thrilling, so he goes.

Initially Todd finds it difficult to adjust to Indian society, but with the help Puro, the man he is training, and Asha, with whom he forms an intimate relationship, he begins to acclimatise.  Asha is engaged to be married to a man she was promised to at the age of four, so there is no future in Todd’s relationship with her despite their mutual attraction.

Lighthearted, yet with enough truth below the surface to keep it from being trite, Outsourced is a feel good comedy with a conscience.  It does not ignore the impact of outsourcing and downsizing, but finds new ways and angles from which to address the issue.  

Jessa Russo's book is out today!  Make sure you check out Divide soon.  I just started it on my Kindle, and so far, it's awesome!

Isn't that gorgeous?

And the book doesn't sound bad either!

From senior class president to dejected social outcast, with just the flick of a match.
After accusations of torching her ex-boyfriend’s home are followed by the mysterious poisoning of her ex-best friend, seventeen-year-old Holland Briggs assumes her life is over. And it is. But not in the way she thinks.
As Holland learns the truth about her cursed fate—that she is descended from the Beast most have only ever heard of in fairytales—she unites with an unlikely ally, good-looking newcomer Mick Stevenson. 
Mick knows more about Holland’s twisted history than she does, and enlightening as it is to learn about, his suggestion for a cure is unsettling at best. Holland must fall in love with Mick in order to break the spell, and save their future generations from repeating her cursed fate. Having sworn off love after the betrayals of her ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend, this may be difficult to accomplish. 
Complicating things further for Holland and Mick, time runs out, and Holland’s change begins way before schedule. With Holland quickly morphing into a dangerous mythical creature, Mick struggles to save her. 
Should they fail, Holland will be lost to the beast inside her forever.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for No Country for Old Men

USA, 2007
Running Length: 129 minutes
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, Kelly McDonald
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Roger Deakins

Based on the relentlessly bleak novel by Cormac McCarthy, the latest from the Coen brothers is a definite return to form after their lackluster re-imagining of The Ladykillers.  It is a faithful adaptation yet the Coens manage to find black humour even in this harshly downbeat crime saga.

While out hunting Llewellyn Moss stumbles upon a gruesome scene.  Dead bodies, heroin and cash are strewn across the desert floor.  Foolishly Llewellyn decides to take the cash.  He knows it is foolish and that very bad men will come after him, yet does it anyway. Sure enough it is not long before he is pursued by the psychopathic Anton Chigurth.  Also watching him is local Sheriff Ed Tom who has spotted him on his return to the crime scene.

Given that this is essentially a three man game of cat and mouse, an amazing amount of carnage builds up. Those who have not read the book will be shocked and thrilled by what comes on screen, while those who have will be delighted to see the novel done such cinematic justice.  Regular Coen collaborator Roger Deakins shoots the unforgiving landscape with precise framing, making great use of the wide expanses and natural light.  Visually and aurally this film is a masterpiece and for the Coens a very welcome return to their roots.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Moonrise Kingdom

USA, 2012
Running Time: 94 minutes
Cast: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Tilda Swinton
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenplay: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
Cinematography: Robert D. Yeoman

Wes Anderson’s films are a peculiar thing.  They’re funny, yet sad; absurd, yet totally honest.  This one is no different.

Set on an island in 1965 – although it could be anywhere at any time – the film centers around two pre-adolescent children, Sam and Suzy.  Sam’s an orphan who is on the island at a Boy Scout camp, which he doesn’t particularly enjoy.  Suzy summers there with her family every year.  They met the previous summer and have been pen pals ever since, their missives full of romantic yearning and the desire to escape from under the adult thumbs oppressing them.

They run away and meet in a field.  Sam, ever practical, lumbers along under all the camping gear they could possibly need.  Suzy brings some books to read, her kitten and a portable record player.  Despite the smallness of the island, they seem to think they can find somewhere to hide from the adults who are no doubt searching for them.  They follow an old Indian trail to a cove they name Moonrise Kingdom.

While the youngsters set up camp, swim and share their first kisses, the adults and the rest of the Scouts, are tearing up the island looking for them.  Suzy’s family call the police.  Suzy’s mother has been involved in an affair with the chief, so there are some awkwardly charged moments as they interact.  The Scouts are not all that fond of Sam and arm themselves to the teeth to pursue him.

Much of what ensues is absurd and often hilarious, but none of the actors play for laughs.  In fact, it’s the deadpan nature of the performances that makes the film so funny.  No one winks at the camera or takes their role anything less than seriously, even when things around them become utterly ridiculous.

I have to mention the production design too, because it is striking and beautiful, every color and shape chosen for its overall effect.  The stylization works perfectly and makes every shot a sumptuous visual treat. 

Beautiful, witty, quirky and very sweet, I can’t recommend this one more highly.

Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for Last Days Here

USA, 2011
Running Time: 91 minutes
Cast: Bobby Liebling, Sean Pelletier
Director: Don Argott, Demian Fenton
Cinematography: Don Argott, Demian Fenton

Probably the saddest rock-doc of all time, Last Days Here tells the story of Bobby Liebling, the lead singer of a late ‘70s hard-rock band called Pentagram.  Never heard of them?  No problem.  Few have. 

Until Sean Pelletier shows up.

Pelletier is a music nerd, an obsessive collector of obscure vinyl and more obscure bands.  Pentagram’s music changed his life, and he takes it on himself to re-release all the band’s unreleased material and drag the band out of retirement for one last shot at the big time.

There are obstacles of course.  Liebling, when we first meet him, is a hopeless junkie living in his parents’ sub-basement.  He shoots smack, smokes large quantities of crack and is convinced he’s infested with parasites that he tries to gouge out of his flesh with his filthy nails. 

All too aware of how unreliable and difficult Liebling can be, most of the band’s members (and over 30 years there have been a lot…) are unwilling to commit to the project.  But Pelletier won’t give up.  He elicits promises of sobriety from Liebling and for a while, thanks to the love of a rabid fan called Hailley, it looks like Liebling may survive long enough to actually do it.

But when the relationship ends and Liebling is arrested for stalking her, Pelletier begins to wonder if resurrecting his idol is worth all the headaches.

This is a painful film to watch, but by the end, you’ll find yourself rooting for these people and their unlikely dream.  There are laughs, but the humour is pitch black and the laughter more a nervous reaction to horror than from anything funny.  I came out questioning the power music has over people and why these hideous old rockers all end up with gorgeous young girlfriends.  Clearly music has a power that can overwhelm reality.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

K is for Killer Joe


USA, 2011
Running Length: 103 minutes
Cast: Matthew McConaughy, Gina Gershon, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple
Director:  William Friedkin
Screenplay: Tracy Letts
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel

It’s odd that a film with not a single redeeming character should be so watchable.  Yet Killer Joe is a fun, barmy ride.

Chris is in trouble.  His mother stole his last two grams of coke before he could sell it and now Trigger wants his money.  Chris’s family –dopey, drunk Ansel and sex-on-legs step-mom, Sharla – can’t help.  But Chris knows his mother has a 50K life insurance policy, and the beneficiary is his little sister Dottie.

So Ansel and Chris call upon the services of Killer Joe, a Dallas police force detective who supplements his income with contract killing on the side.  But Joe wants a 25K payment upfront and Chris and Ansel won’t have any cash until after the insurance policy is cashed.  It seems like the situation is hopeless until Joe catches a glimpse of Dottie and suggests maybe she’d do as a retainer.

The most uncomfortable scenes are the ones where Chris and Ansel set up a date for Dottie and Joe.  Earlier in the film Chris expressed concern for Dottie because Sharla parades around the house butt-naked, yet he seems to have no qualms about setting her up with a man many years her senior (I think it was mentioned that Dottie was 12, but she looks more like 18, albeit a young 18….)

From here things get more twisted and more sordid by turns.  The climactic scene includes a vomit-inducing use of KFC that will no doubt have the Colonel spinning in his grave.

Matthew McConaughy gives what is probably his best performance to date as Joe, a cold-hearted killer who has the manners and decorum of a true southern gentleman.  You could see this role as the diametric opposite to the sheriff he plays in Bernie.

While I think the Coen brothers have covered the bumbling crime caper far better, I enjoyed Killer Joe.  It made me uncomfortable and it made me laugh and it made me cringe and cover my eyes.

Friday, April 11, 2014

J is for JCVD


USA, 2008
Running Length: 103 minutes
Cast: Jean Claude Van Damme, Francois Damiens, Zinedine Soualem
Director:  Mabrouk El Mechiri
Screenplay: Mabrouk El Mecheri, Frederic Benudis
Cinematography: Pierre Yves Bastard

The latest film from “the Muscles from Brussels” pokes fun at the star’s on-screen persona while humanising and making him almost likable.  Opening with a virtuoso single shot of Van Damme strolling a city street and dispatching bad guy stuntmen with ease, we then get an insight into the man behind the movies.  This JCVD has just lost his daughter in a custody battle and has returned to Brussels almost penniless.  When his card gets declined at an ATM, he goes into the bank and finds himself in the midst of a hold-up and hostage situation.

Having recognized him, the video-store clerks across the street call the cops.  But they mistakenly assume it was JCVD who is holding the hostages, not that he is among their number.  Clearly the movie star heroics he is famous for won’t work against real bullets, so Van Damme is forced to find a real world solution as the media presence outside the bank increases.

There hasn’t been a movie star willing to take a chance like this since John Malkovich parodied his own persona in Being John Malkovich, and Van Damme shows that he does actually have some acting talent.  Never again will we be able to watch Universal Soldier without thinking about this.