Tag: judi dench

Philomena


Philomena (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

A recently unemployed BBC News journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), did not at all want to write a human interest story because he thinks these tend to be about vulnerable, weak-minded, and ignorant people. But after hearing an old Irish woman’s story about having a baby as a teenager and then the nuns giving her child away, Martin takes on the assignment and agrees to aid Philomena (Judi Dench) in locating her son.

When the words “inspired by a true story” graced the black screen during the opening credits, a sinking feeling bore in my stomach. “It’s another one of those,” according to my brain, so tired of being disappointed by so many bad movies that are supposedly inspired by or based on true stories.

But “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears, is head and shoulders above many of them. It is told with class and elegance sans sensationalism or relying on sentimentality. If it had been helmed by lesser hands, given its premise, it would likely have turned into a syrupy Lifetime movie where behavior takes precedence over the inner thoughts and feelings of its main players. Dench and Coogan play their characters exactly right: as real people from which the story is inspired by.

What is left to say about the great Judi Dench? Her performance is excellent. I loved and felt privileged for being able to look at her face and feeling every bit of the character’s shame, frustration, fears, and agony. Alongside Frears’ direction, the extra seconds when the camera simply lingers on the master’s wrinkly face allows us time to absorb Philomena’s inner struggle and to try to imagine how it must be like for her to not know what has happened to her son for half a century. Dench is such an ace performer that a well-timed blink or the manner in which she exhales can have so much effect on a shot.

I have always seen Coogan as a comedian more than actor although I know the two need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is because he appears in a lot of comedic pictures. Regardless, I have always found his performances rather one-note, repetitive, and at times unrelentingly dull. Here, although the actor has funny bits, the camera does not fixate on how funny he is. In addition, I believed that Coogan is playing a character here: someone who wishes to restore his name as a journalist and yet someone who hopes to do the right thing. It helps that the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope does not beat us over the head with Sixsmith’s goals, personal and professional, as well as possible ulterior motives.

The picture is beautifully shot. Whether it be inside a small, darkly lit local pub or a very spacious airport (accompanied by a hilarious description of what happens in a romance novel that the title character is just about finished reading—my favorite scene), the movement of the camera is fluid, never drawing attention away from conversations between the reporter and his subject. Human connection is highlighted with consistency and so we are naturally drawn to the conflict that drives the drama.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

An advertisement that promises a grand and unforgettable experience in Marigold Hotel, located in Jaipur, India, lures seven British folks in their golden years to settle there, away from the financial, familial, and professional stresses of England. Once they arrive, however, the hotel proves far from first-class. Never mind its lack of customers; it does not even have its own phone line. The manager, Sonny (Dev Patel), assuages his new residents’ fears by promising that the place is in a state of transition. With proper funding, the reality will be as picture-perfect as the misleading ad.

Based on the novel by Deborah Moggach and screenplay by Ol Parker, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is lucky in several ways because although it is not particularly exciting despite its exotic locale, it is nonetheless fascinating due to the sublime performances of its seasoned actors. The most deeply affecting strand involves Graham (Tom Wilkinson) and his search for a male friend and one-time lover. The character has a somewhat frail demeanor but his determination to find an answer holds a ferocity that we wonder how he must have been like as young man.

Equally interesting to watch is Evelyn (Judi Dench), a recent widow who decides to dive into the Indian culture without knowing if she is going to sink or swim. Dench injects her character with a balance of pluck and tenderness to the point where Evelyn eventually reminded me of some of my grandmothers. There is beauty, magic, and optimism behind her need to find a distraction from the life she left behind (or the life that left her) because her quest slowly evolves into finding a purpose pregnant with meaning and self-fulfillment. By watching her reinvention, it made me feel less afraid to grow old.

The film’s younger cast leaves a lot to be desired. Just about every time Patel has lines to say, it sounds like he is auditioning for a part in a bad movie. Perhaps it is his attempt to embody an enthusiastic character, given Sonny’s youth and determination to prove to his mother that he can run the business left by his late father, but the actor’s performance is painfully one-note. There are many ways to emote fervor without extreme fluctuations in voice and body language. Thus, Sonny consistently comes across silly and so there is no dramatic gravity that accumulates during the more serious scenes involving his mother’s disapproval of his girlfriend and chosen career path.

Eventually, it has gotten so bad that each time the film jumps to Sonny’s storyline, I groaned a little bit inside—part out of frustration, the other part in preparation, because the conflict that surrounds him is like a page torn from a cheesy television show aimed toward preteens. It does not at all complement the naturalistic performances and contemplative texture of the material.

Directed by John Madden, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is quite good in showing Jaipur without dramatizing things such as its climate, grubbiness, and poverty. When the material focuses on what it means to age and the endeavor required to continue living, it soars. If only the rest held up just as strongly.

Jane Eyre


Jane Eyre (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

After Jane Eyre’s father passed away when she was a child, she was sent to live with Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), the aunt who had given up loving her because she often caused trouble. Mrs. Reed eventually sent Jane to a boarding school where her behavior was expected to be corrected. When Jane turns of age, now played by Mia Wasikowska, she works as a governess in Thornfield Hall where she meets the respected Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender). One of the reasons why people around them believe that they shouldn’t be together is money: he is rich and she is poor. Other than his attraction to her, there is another, darker reason which Mr. Rochester is willing to keep a secret no matter what.

Based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë, “Jane Eyre” surprised me in the best ways possible because it’s actually sexy, a quality I rarely expect from period films. Part of it is due to the performances. Wasikowska nicely embodies a plain beauty who can easily hide on the background. But when her character has something important to say, she has the ability to change her mannerisms in a nuanced way, whether it be brightening her eyes a little bit or just parting her lips so delicately that she gives off an air of aristocracy. It is impressive to watch her make small changes in her body language yet they are enough to make a statement and allow us to consider what she might be thinking.

Fassbender injects his character with complexity that we cannot help but be suspicious. While it is mentioned that he has a volatile personality, we are actually able to experience his fluctuating warmth and coldness. We want to like him because he is a good fit for Jane, but we approach him with reluctance because of the lingering possibility that he simply wants to use her. After all, he has no problem dangling her in front of his elegant company mostly consisting of women with vile tongues. I loved that each time Fassbender enters a scene, I never could predict how he will play his character.

When the two finally admit their feelings for each other, the cinematography comes into focus but it never overshadows the emotions. While it highlights the aspect of beauty in the way the wind rustles the leaves of trees, caresses the grass, and surfs through the characters’ detailed clothing. Meanwhile, thunderstorm and lightning can be heard and seen from afar which signals that maybe the beauty that we see is a transient, illusory thing.

There is an element of darkness despite the picture’s emotional highs so it kept me curious and cautious. The supernatural elements are deftly handed by the director. We hear ghostly whispers and voices, characters acknowledging curses and bad luck, and we even see unexplained phenomenon like chimney spewing out ash inside a mansion. However, these elements feel like a natural part of this specific story. It helps us to get into a certain mood when Jane goes about the mansion in the middle of the night holding only a candle in her hand and courage in her heart.

There are times when I felt as though the pacing of “Jane Eyre,” based on a screenplay by Moira Buffini and directed by Cary Fukunaga, is a bit rushed. I would have been happy, even if it means adding an extra thirty minutes, to have gotten to know more about Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and what she really thinks about Jane and Edward’s relationship. Furthermore, the scenes with St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) toward the end feels tacked on. What is exactly the real connection between he and Jane?

Skyfall


Skyfall (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Two MI6 agents lie dead on the floor while the third sits on a chair as he bleeds to death. The item of interest, a hard drive which contains the identities of NATO agents currently immersed in undercover work among terrorist organizations, is taken from a laptop just minutes before. M (Judi Dench) insists that James Bond (Daniel Craig) retrieve the item at all costs. A failure in Turkey means putting lives at risk as well as a justified questioning of the effectiveness of MI6’s current leadership.

“Skyfall,” written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, is a concerto of thrills and suspense in which the highly destructive action sequences balances with nuanced, smart, and playful dialogue. The film has a flair for presentation which makes its individual scenes both a sight to behold and an enveloping experience. It understands the value of range and how to utilize its techniques with efficiency.

Take the scenes set in Shanghai in which the visuals point to excess. The skyscrapers are majestic under the heavy shade of night with their lights so bright and hypnotic, it is like being dropped in the middle of downtown Las Vegas on acid, so much to see and digest while the camera teases, only giving us glimpses of its beauty. On the other hand, scenes set in a casino in Macau provide us a smaller scope without sacrificing the elegance and grandeur of the place. As it should be, each destination that 007 visits has something special and memorable for its audience so we feel excited at the thought of what it might offer in the following exotic locale.

Despite the glitz and glamour, the goals that need to be fulfilled are always clear. Once the assignment is met with success or failure, it is onto the next scene, unpredictable at times in whether the screenplay is going to increase the ante by introducing yet another drop of complexity or giving us two seconds to release the tension that has accumulated in our bodies via a well-placed joke or banter. Bond’s interactions with the brainy Q (Ben Whishaw), effeminate but dangerous Silva (Javier Bardem), and inexperienced but determined Eve (Naomie Harris) are so enjoyable, I wished their conversations are longer. By playing with our expectations, not simply focusing on making the action scenes bigger and louder, the picture jolts our brains from going on autopilot, just waiting to be entertained.

Notice that there is not one completely original action sequence and yet all of them work because it is able to draw inspiration from the game-changers and construct the stunts in a such a way that it feels fresh to this universe, from an appropriate number of beats between uncomfortable silence and utter chaos to specific shots cheeky enough to remind us that Bond remains a legend and an inspiration because he is the epitome of a debonair man in a timeless suit.

Perhaps most importantly, Sam Mendes, the director, plays upon his strengths as a filmmaker whose work is mostly rooted in intimate drama. Most interesting being that as the film slinks toward its third act, it has a feeling of something personal at stake for Bond. While he remains a cool-headed professional, the difficult, almost inescapably desperate, circumstances remind us that even though he is trained to be as tough as steel, as calculating as an apex predator, and as cold-hearted as a bullet set on a specific trajectory, there remains a humanity in him. While Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” gave us a Bond with emotional fragility, Mendes’ “Skyfall” is a fitting complement because it gives us a Bond with depth and physical vulnerability.

J. Edgar


J. Edgar (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), working as the head of General Intelligence Division at the time, observed how the Bureau of Investigation handled crime scenes and noted that a lot of changes had to made in order for the group to maximize their efficiency as both a protector of the people and, in theory, preventer of execrable crimes. When he was appointed by the Attorney General to be the Bureau’s acting director, it was his chance to make the necessary radical changes from within. “J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black, had a fascinating history in terms of its subject, his personal and professional life, but the picture only reached moments of lucidity regarding what it wanted to say about a man’s legacy. Perhaps it had something to do with the way the screenplay was structured. It wanted to cover a plethora of subjects which ranged from Hoover’s determination for the government to give the Bureau the power to make arrests and bear arms, the hunt for the communist radicals, the controversial and painstaking attempt to solve the Lindbergh kidnapping, to, and most importantly, his evolution from being a patriot to an obsessed man who couldn’t let go of being in charge, his tragic inability to separate his professional from personal life. Focus and insight came few and far between. I wish we had known more about Hoover’s relationship with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his eventual personal secretary and confidante. One of the most exciting and amusing scenes was when the two went out on a date. Hoover’s idea of romance was to show her the impressive catalogue he created for the Bureau. In order to prove to her the efficiency of his system, he asked her to time how long it took him to find a book given a specific subject and time frame. The scene had spice and humor because we don’t see many, arguably, lame dates in biopics. It made Hoover seem human for a change instead of just being a robot who strived for constant perfection, a man who wiped his hands every time he shook hands with another. Later, when Hoover and Gandy were old, their scenes lacked impact when they exchanged looks that were designed to be meaningful. It felt forceful. This was because their relationship didn’t have a proper arc. The same critique could be applied to Hoover’s relationship with his mother (Judi Dench). While Gandy was painted only as a career-striving woman, the mother was drawn as a control freak who preferred to have, in her own words, a dead son than a daffodil for a son. In real life, I imagined Annie Hoover to be a loving woman who just didn’t know how to deal with homosexuality. Otherwise, Hoover, a smart and persistent man, wouldn’t have stayed with and loved her for long. Conversely, what the picture managed to do well was the execution of Hoover’s romance with his protégé and eventual Associate Director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film captured the love between them even if they had to remain in the closet given the times and natures of their occupation. Despite their intense feelings for one another, they couldn’t express them without dancing around the issue then having to retreat. It got so bad to the point where punching each other in the face and wrestling on the ground was the only time they had an intense physical contact. Directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” needed to be more selective in terms of which aspect of its subject’s life was worth covering. Considering Hoover’s legacy was epic, to say the least, putting all the apples in one basket, even if only one of them was rotten, in this case a few, corrupted the rest.

GoldenEye


GoldenEye (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★

This is one of the strongest Bond entries because it hints at the beginning of a more serious Bond mixed with more intricate action sequences. There’s a certain sinister tone, especially in the first half where most of the espionage scenes can be found, which made me more interested in what was going on and what is eventually going to happen. This is Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as 007 and he is more than welcome to walk in the shoes of a beloved character because I believe he is as dangerous and charismatic Sean Connery. Even though he may appeal more to the modern fans of the Bond franchise, he has that classic fun factor that older fans can definitely appreciate. Brosnan is able to deliver the classic one-liners with a certain serious but undeniablly fun swagger. As for the supporting cast, I think the group is one of the most memorable: Sean Bean as Agent 006 proves to be 007’s match physically and mentally, Izabella Scorupco as Natalya Simonova is the smart and beautiful Bond girl, Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp is the femme fatale who specializes in squeezing people to death, and Judi Dench as the cold but lovable M. The story of “GoldenEye” may be a bit unbelievable at times (especially back in 1995 during the first’s release) but it’s more relevant today because of technology’s exponential advancements. All logic and credibility aside, the action sequences are mind-blowing (the tank scene alone is reason enough to watch), the style is slick, and it’s fast-paced. Directed by Martin Campbell who will direct “Casino Royale” about ten years in the future, “GoldenEye” is a must-see for all Bond fanatics and spy film enthusiasts. (And did I mention that I believe this has one of the best opening squences in Bond history? So much was accomplished during the first five minutes, followed by an astonishing opening credits with Tina Turner.)