November 2013 is a rather atypical month as multiple Oscar contenders, normally appearing on the screen in January/February, have already been released in the UK. Also massive blockbusters made November as big as summer months in the box office.
Your humble Russian sampled the latest Hollywood cuisine and here is my verdict.
Philomena topped my list of November flicks, with the director Stephen Frears and the leading actress Judi Dench well worth Oscar nominations. Philomena is a story of an old woman, a retired nurse, who is looking for her son that was taken from her for adoption while she worked at a nunnery in Ireland when she was young. She waited for fifty years to tell this story to someone. This someone else turned out to be a sacked BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, played here by a British comedian Steve Coogan.
Sixsmith first reluctantly then with growing enthusiasm takes the job to work on Philomena’s story, which unravels to be both fascinating and horrifying and featuring high American politics, same sex relationship and yet another nail into coffin of the Catholic Church reputation as an institution that, when uncovered, makes Sixsmith doubt if he should publish his investigation at all.
It’s astonishing that while it seems the most unbelievable work of fiction, the film is based on the real story.
Philomena’s tragedy is a bright demonstration of how some people feel morally entitled to do horrible things to other people they view as ’sinners’.
Philomena’s life was wrecked because of nuns’ contempt and jealousy of her early motherhood. Yet, even the most despicable tangle of lies couldn’t break the bond between Philomena and her son.
Judi Dench delivers the every facet of her character in the nuanced and emotional performance.
Philomena is out now in the US cinemas too – bring along the handkerchief.
- THE BUTLER
The Butler is another film based on real events. The main character is based on Eugene Allen, a Black man who became White House’s most renowned butler. The director Lee Daniels and probably the most celebrated cast I have ever witnessed in a film, led by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, deserve a bow. If one considers this story as purely fictional, it’s as superb as The Help – he epic panorama encompassing half a century of American life and the struggle for rights of Black people.
Unfortunately, the script received multiple criticisms, as the real life story was heavily fictionalised to create a bigger emotional impact and even, as some claim, to show White American people in the worse light. Ha!
To me, the messages not the plot were important. The Butler’s relationship with his wife and son is central here. The butler, named as Cecil Gaines in the film, views his son as a dangerous rebel who could get all the family in trouble. Because of his work in the White House, Cecil knows the real attitude to Black people in the government. As times change and freedom fighter’s work shapes the society’s attitude to race issues, Cecil realises that his son was a hero, and the two reconcile.
The Butler is really a story of an ordinary man, passively, through his obedient service, making big changes in his country. It’s a somehow similar message to the one about the role of hobbits in the fate of the Middle Earth. And that is why I think that despite its fictionalisation, The Butler an important film we all can learn from.
Be brave, be persistent and have a little faith.
- THOR: THE DARK WORLD
A theme of bravery continues in another film, a major blockbuster, Thor: The Dark World. The second instalment of a popular series is more integrated into the Marvellous Universe and clearly benefited from The Avengers’ all-around success. We have Loki’s come back and Tom Hiddleston’s charismatic performance of Thor’s little naughty brother steals the show as expected. The final battle between Thor and the evil proponent of the dark matter and a photon hater, Malekith (Sheldon’s fans should smile here), is definitely both an action novelty and a comic relief, not to mention solid as ever supporting performance of Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, haphazardly flying around London’s Greenwich and the parallel worlds, making blacksmiths around the globe green with envy.
Thor’s relationship with Jane Foster is, to my pity, the dullest part of the film, yet even in this part of the script there’s an occasional clichéd joke. There are also annoying Foster’s sidekicks – her intern and the intern’s intern, slaving for free, clearly hoping to be invited to Thor/Jane wedding, which may be arranged in the third movie, unless another malicious creature lurking in the darkness would attempt to attack Asgard or the Earth. Overall, Thor 2 is a guilty pleasure, clearly made to get the Earth population accustomed to the possibility of multiple worlds and realities.
The space is an ideal setting for many more stories and Alfonso Cuaron’s unexpected hit, Gravity (WHICH IS REALLY ABOUT ZERO-GRAVITY), is the best proof of that. To summarise the plot, Sandra Bullock somehow sneaks into the American space station under a virile male alias, Ryan Stone. The views are spectacular, but Ryan is having a shit day. When the chunks of a destroyed Russian satellite populate the Earth Orbit, crushing into all the space stations on their way, Ryan gets stranded in the space and starts panicking.
Space is no red carpet, honey.
Ryan’s cheerful pal George Silverfox Matt Kowalski helps to settle down her agitation, but for the final hour she is mostly left to her own devices: losing hope, gaining hope, speaking to Greenland from above. The latter, by the way, is a subject of a short film, made by Alfonso Cuaron’s brother, Jonas, to compliment Gravity – Aningaaq
Ryan is having a shit day as I said, all of us can relate to this on Monday morning. But the important thing is not to let the fatigue and apathy to stop you from moving on. You owe this to the billions of cells that slaved for you for years to keep you in shape. Just carry on, mate.
- THE FAMILY
The idea of being pro-active, come what may, is a very American thing. In the new Luc Besson’s film The Family, an ex-Mafiosi’s family moves from New York to France under the witness protection program. Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer are absolutely brilliant in this.
There’s of course a stereotypical antagonism between the provincial French and the Yankee newcomers. The kids haven’t fallen far from the parents’ tree and promptly start terrorising the local school, obviously in self-defence. The Family is based on a lovely script; genre-wise it’s a classier version of Red and its clumsy sequel.
De Niro’s character spends his time writing a memoir to the great displeasure of his wife, his CIA patron (grumpily played by Tommy Lee Jones) and probably the mafia if they’d have found out about it. Expect broken baseball bets and tennis rackets; expect a beauty-and-a-geek sex scene in the classroom, and a lot of shooting. De Niro’s character’s efforts of anger management are probably the funniest thing in the film.
If cinema was food, then this film would be a gourmet burger – it’s quick, it’s messy and it feels so organic.
- HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
Speaking about food, the next stop is the new Hunger Games film – Catching Fire.
I have read the book, watched the film, and the verdict is that, though the second book is slightly inferior to the first, the second film is actually better than the first part.
Francis Lawrence took over the reins from Gary Ross as the film director, the acting cast remained the same with notable additions of Sam Claflin who plays the hunky Finnick Odair and Philip Seymour Hoffman, gracing the screen in the role of Plutarch Heavensbee, the new Game Maker.
All the trouble was set up for fictional the state of Panem in the first film; so Catching Fire immediately shows us the escalating antagonism between Katniss Everdeen (played by the glowing Jennifer Lawrence) and the President Snow (conjuring his best villain, Donald Sutherland).
If you narrowly avoided sure death, what would you do if you were then issued another death sentence? That’s pretty much what’s on offer for Katniss from Snow, who looks at her like a poisonous serpent that just attacked and is waiting for the prey to die.
Katniss tries to be humble and peaceful, awkwardly portrays being in love with Peetah, in order to protect her friends and family, yet after realising that nothing but her death could make things right for the Capitol, she decides to fight. Snow’s mistake is obvious – you corner them too much, they become fearless. Intimidation only works well when people have something to lose.
If the first part of the trilogy mostly dealt with the topic of how just one witty and good-hearted person could overcome the biggest evil, the second part is about the power play between the totalitarian centre and freedom fighters.
The film also criticises hedonism and the glamour culture in the scene, in which the selected Capitol public, invited to the feast, take a potion to empty their stomachs, so they could try some new food, while there are slave labour conditions and hunger in the oppressed districts.
This is surely a metaphor of the wasteful, excessive lifestyle led by many in the big Western and westernised metropolises, while the underage workers in developing countries produce the goodies for the rich countries.
Could Hunger Games inspire a new ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and similar movements against the shameless rule of the financial oligarchy? Possibly. But more importantly, the film and the book will give the young reader an important message – it is not okay to put up with oppression, even if the oppressor seems omnipotent. Katniss Everdeen could be just the right role model for our infantile, consumption-driven society.