Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013). I didn’t expect to like this movie, but it turned out to be good enough to overcome my fears. It’s a based-on-fact story of an older woman trying to find the son who was put up for adoption at an early age, and the caustic journalist who helps with her search. It’s an odd buddy movie, but then, all buddy movies strive to be just a bit different from the rest. The pairing of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan is closer to Harold and Maude than to Lethal Weapon, without the preciousness of the Ruth Gordon film. A double-bill of those two movies would be instructive: Ruth Gordon does shtick, Judi Dench acts. And Dench does it without excess … in a part with Oscar Nomination written all over it, she refuses to overact to impress voters. There is a lot going on in Philomena: religion, sex, politics, journalism. And I wouldn’t say it goes into much depth on any of those topics, other than religion, where Dench’s Philomena is a woman of faith while the Catholic institution is corrupt. Still, there’s nothing here to outrage anyone, other than apologists for the behavior of Catholic nuns in Ireland in the 1950s. 7/10. A good companion piece would be The Magdalene Sisters, which I liked a bit more than this one. My favorite Stephen Frears film, by far, is Dangerous Liaisons.
The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967). A musical which recalls an earlier period in movie history, wearing its outdated approach with pride. Often compared to Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which also starred Catherine Deneuve and featured the music of Michel Legrand. It’s been more than a decade since I saw Cherbourg, so it is perhaps unfair to say I thought it was better than Rochefort. And The Young Girls of Rochefort is quite charming on its own. Demy takes performers we know for their acting, and puts them in a song-and-dance movie. The singing isn’t much of a problem, for most of the cast is dubbed, and the syncing is effective. The dancing could be a bigger problem, but Demy solves that by keeping the non-dancers’ hoofing to a minimum. So George Chakiris and Grover Dale always seem to be dancing (and it can’t be a coincidence that some of Charikis’ dance scenes are reminiscent of West Side Story), and while Gene Kelly has a relatively small role, he gets a couple of moments to remind us he’s a real dancer. But the rest of the cast sticks to simple moves. For the most part, the unabashed romanticism squashes any misgivings. (At one point, I went to get a drink and sat with my wife for a few minutes as she watched Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The contrast between that show’s heinous crimes and the pastel loveliness of Rochefort couldn’t be greater.) For obvious reasons, Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac make a very believable pair of sisters, and French stars like Jacques Perrin and Michel Piccoli and Danielle Darrieux are wonderful. (Darrieux is also the only actor in the movie to do her own singing.) The lyrics don’t always work … in fact, they often don’t seem like lyrics at all, just dialogue that rhymes and is sung. Your mileage may vary. #392 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. The obvious companion piece would be The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013). Extremely LOUD spectacle, something like Transformers for grownups. There are some attempts to turn the movie into a philosophical treatise, and the scenes where characters just simply talk are welcomed in part because they are quiet. But the real appeal of Man of Steel comes from the special effects (did I mention how loud the movie is?), which are impressive but which overwhelm the movie. There are some nice “human” moments, and some of the actors do well (Diane Lane is a standout). The movie fiddles a bit with the standard Superman creation story, but not enough to count for someone like me, who is mostly out of that loop. If you are up for a movie with loud destruction and incomprehensible but entertaining action scenes, you’ll like this. If it bothers you that thousands of people die during those action scenes, with almost no attention paid to those deaths, then look elsewhere. 7/10. You could double-bill this with the 1978 Christopher Reeve Superman.