A Full Christmas Movie Bag
By Skip Sheffield
We have quite a mixed movie gift bag this Christmas Day. We previously reviewed “American Hustle” (good dirty fun) and we have another financial skullduggery black comedy, “The Wolf of Wall Street” opening Dec. 25, as well as the high-minded “Mandela;" the light and funny “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and continuing in theaters, the lovely, moving “Philomena.”
First, “Philomena,” starring the impeccable Dame Judi Dench as the real-life Irish woman, Philomena Lee.
As a virgin teenaged girl, Philomena had a one-night fling with a handsome young man. In due time she discovered she was pregnant. As a good Catholic girl she went to confession. She found no compassion.
“You are the cause of this!,” the priest yells. “Your indecency!”
As was standard operating procedure in early 1950s Ireland, unwed Catholic girls were sent to a convent to bear their children. Philomena had a difficult breech birth. Her problems were blamed on her sin. Nevertheless Philomena gave birth to a healthy baby boy, but she was forced to sign away her parental rights at his birth. She was allowed to see Anthony, as she named him, only one hour a day. The rest of the time she had to work in the convent’s commercial laundry.
Nevertheless Philomena bonded with little Anthony until one day when he was around 3 the boy was taken away screaming to live with adoptive parents.
Fifty years later a journalist named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was fired from his post as a Labour Government advisor, and he was casting about as to what to do next. At a party Martin met a woman named Mary (Mare Winningham) who him told the story of Philomena and how she had been searching for her lost son for 50 years. She implored Martin to write about it.
Sixsmith was no fan of human interest stories, but he began to research, and the more he learned the more incensed he became. Sixsmith met Philomena and the end result was the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”
Star Steve Coogan helped translate a much longer story to the screen and noted British director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) was hired to direct.
Some painful truths and outrageous injustices are revealed and conveyed with compelling sincerity by Judi Dench, who is truly one of the best actresses in the world, and Coogan, who embodies righteous indignation. Regardless of your religious or political beliefs, “Philomena” will likely move you.
An Off-Color “Wolf”
On the other side of the coin is “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which marks the return of Martin Scorsese to the mean streets of Manhattan.
“Wolf” is inspired by a memoir by New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort, played by one of Scorsese’s favorite actors, Leonardo DiCaprio. The screenplay is by Terence Winter, who knows his way around gangsters with “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Sopranos.”
Jordan Belfort might have been a registered stockbroker, but at heart he was a gangster who ruthlessly swindled gullible investors with his high-flying Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm, lived like a king in the early 1990s on his ill-gotten gains, and gloating about all the suckers he fleeced. DiCaprio’s good looks and natural charm help make the character palatable and sometimes funny, but never admirable.
The real Jordan Belfort has admitted he had as his model the fictional Gordon Gekko, who declared “Greed is good!” in 1987’s “Wall Street.” Belfort wasn’t content just with greed and wealth, he wanted to numb his senses with drugs and alcohol and satiate his body with promiscuous sex.
Scorsese insisted he wanted a hard R rating, and he got it. There is a certain shock value to seeing Jonah Hill playing Belfort’s schlumpy partner-in-crime, Donnie Azoff. It comes as no surprise the reckless Belfort was eventually busted and quickly ratted his friends to reduce his sentence. Why it takes three hours to arrive at this forgone conclusion makes no sense. This is a misfire, suitable only for those looking for cheap thrills.
The Compleat “Mandela”
Turning the coin once again we find “Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom,” starring Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela, the controversial, courageous, and upon his Dec. 5, 2013 death, much-celebrated father of racially-unified South Africa.
The timing couldn’t have been better for “Mandela," which was released less than a week before Mandela died at age 95.
"Mandela" is based on his own 1994 autobiography. The project began when producer Anant Singh began interviewing Mandela while he was still in prison. The screenplay was completed 16 years later by William Nicholson and the two-and-a-quarter hour movie is directed by Justin Chadwick.
Mandela is without a doubt a heroic character, but he was no angel. The movie chronicles his tribal beginnings, his law school education, his failed first marriage, his clashes with the law as he deliberately provoked the apartheid white supremist government; his courtship with his second, activist wife Winnie (Naomie Harris); his painful 27-year prison sentence and his ultimate freedom and vindication as the first freely-elected President of South Africa.
“Love comes more naturally to the human heart,’ Mandela declares at film's end. I am inclined to believe that is how he endured and prevailed. This film is a respectful yet entertaining tribute to a larger-than-life hero.
“Walter Mitty” as Action Hero
On the distinctly light side we have “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
This is the second feature film adaptation of James Thurber’s (very) short story, which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1939. The 1947 film starred Danny Kaye as meek, henpecked dreamer Walter Mitty.
This version is directed by and stars Ben Stiller, whose Walter has morphed into an action hero in the guise of a daydreaming Manhattan staff writer in the final days of Life magazine.
The swashbuckling photojournalist Sean O’Connell has sent Walter a 35 mm negative that globe-trotting Sean feels captures the “quintessence” of Life magazine, and is perfect for the final cover. The problem is the final edition is looming, and Walter can’t find the negative.
Walter has fallen hard for fellow employee Cheryl Melhoff (Kristin Wiig) with whom he confides and who looms large in his imaginary (or are they real?) adventures as Walter races around the globe in search of elusive Sean.
Walter’s nasty boss is played by Adam Scott, who plays snotty jerk so well. His mom is played in a warmly welcome cameo by Shirley MacLaine.
Patton Oswalt is amusing as the recurring character of Todd, a solicitous eHarmony customer service representative. We won’t tell you who plays Sean, but he is well-cast in his tiny role as a fearless perfectionist visionary.
“Walter Mitty’ is slight but visually entertaining and fun.