© 2013 Ray Wong

Based on Martin Sixsmith’s article “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” Philomena is a “human interest story” that touches on many serious themes including the taboo subjects of religion and the Catholic church. Ultimately, it’s the story of one woman’s redemption and forgiveness, and a man’s journey to rediscover himself.

Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is a high-profile journalist who has just been fired from his high-profile public job. Not knowing what to do with himself, he gets a lead on a “human interest story” that at first he thinks is beneath him. But the subject matter, and the main character of the story, Philomena, intrigues him. With a little encouragement from his editor, he decides to take on the project.

It turns out that Philomena (Judi Dench), has been keeping a secret for 50 years. As a teenager, Philomena was taken in by the sisters of Rosecrea after her parents had abandoned her. Unfortunately, Philomena “sinned” with a man and became pregnant. Eventually the convent adopted her young son Anthony to a couple and Philomena never saw Anthony again. Now she wants to find out what happened to Anthony. Martin agrees to help her find Anthony in exchange for her story.

Martin finds out that Anthony was adopted by an American couple, and their research leads him and Philomena to America. Through their journey, Martin comes to know more about Philomena and regards her as a kind but naive, ignorant simpleton. Philomena thinks of Martin as rude, snobbish and opportunistic. And yet the story of her son binds them together. Martin tracks down Anthony, who was renamed as Michael, became a lawyer and worked at the White House. But the truth about Anthony/Michael soon devastates Philomena.

Judi Dench (Skyfall) is of course amazing as Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark plays the younger version). She dominates the movie in every scene she is in. Through her, we experience the agony, guilt and shame of a mother who is the victim of her faith and circumstances. We come to care about Philomena deeply, in part because of her heart-wrenching story, but in part because of Dench’s soulful performance.

I have never been a fan of Steve Coogan (Ruby Sparks) until now. As Martin Sixsmith, Coogan exudes this seriousness of a man who is confused about his life. Certainly Coogan’s sense of humor is still evident in his characterization, but his restrained and refined performance is rather unexpected. And he more than holds his own against the sublime Judi Dench.

The supporting cast is solid. Special mention to Barbara Jefford (The Deep Blue Sea) as Sister Hildergarde, a misguided soul whom we can’t quite sure whether to hate or pity. Sean Mahon (Dark Shadows) plays Philomena’s adult son in mostly flashbacks, and Peter Herman (Trouble with the Curve) is affecting as a key person in Anthony’s life.

Co-written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (The Security Men), the script stays rather true to the article and true events, but in a cinematic format of course. The plot unfolds gradually and naturally. It also focuses on the characterization and relationship of Philomena and Sixsmith — it is as much a story about Philomena and the journalist who is doing this for his own gain. While the screenplay does falter at times with pacing problems, these flaws are minor compared to the careful characterization, the deliberate mystery, and how the relationships are developed so naturally.

The direction of Stephen Frears (The Queen) is also solid. There is calm in Frears’ direction that stabilizes the rather frazzled nature of Philomena’s and Sixsmith’s journey. Frears walks a fine line in dealing with the emotional material, often successfully avoiding the melodramatic nature of such deeply tragic stories. Specifically, Frears lets the production fall away so we can focus on the characters.

As it turns out, Philomena  is a deeply moving and interesting story about many things: motherhood, guilt, religion (i.e. the Catholic faith), ambition, reconciliation, forgiveness and redemption. More important, it is a love story. It is a story about the love between a mother and her child, the love between two complete strangers, and the love for the truth. 

Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Peter Herman, Sean Mahon
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope (based on article by Martin Sixsmith)
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, thematic materials and sexual preferences
Running Time: 98 minutes


Script - 8
Performance - 9
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 7

Total - 7.8 out of 10.0 

About Time

© 2013 Ray Wong

At first glance (and as the trailers would tell us), About Time is a romance with a time-traveling twist. In reality, it is really a love story — and not just about romantic love. It is a fable about love and life in general.

After his 21st birthday, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) gets the surprise news of his life from his father (Bill Nighy): all the men in their family have the ability to time travel. While most men in his family tended to misuse the super power (for money, for fame, etc.), Dad has found the secret, but he wants Tim to figure it out for himself. For Tim, everything has always been about love.

Tim eventually moves to London to start a new life as an adult, and he meets beautiful and kind Mary (Rachel McAdams). When he accidentally erases Mary from his life because he used his time travel to help his friend Harry (Tom Hollander), Tim time-travels again to fix his misfortune. While Tim succeeds in getting Mary back and their lives on track again, he discovers that his time traveling has consequences; and that he cannot make someone fall in love with him, and that he cannot fix all his problems. As Dad is dying from cancer, Dad delivers one last advice to Tim on the secret of happiness.

Domhnall Gleeson (Anna Karenina) is quite a chameleon as an actor. As Levin in Anna Karenina, Gleeson was handsome and rugged at the love-sick farmer. As Tim, however, Gleeson looks incredibly young (playing a 21-year-old, no less), naive and — once again — love struck. Gleeson has an ease to his performance, exuding a nervous, shy and uncertain lad who, with a little bit of practice, can achieve great things. Gleeson’s non-nonsense performance is the reason why we like Tim so much to follow his bizarre journey through time and life.

This is the second time Rachel McAdams (Passion) appears in a “time traveling” love story, and this time it is a much lighter role as the object of Tim’s affection. McAdams excels in being the sweet girl next door, and her chemistry with Gleeson is just right to pull off the relationship, which can sometimes seem a bit thin. Bill Nighy (The World’s End) is fantastic as Dad — a whimsical, humorous and yet warm and lovely family man.

The supporting cast is strong with Lydia Wilson (Never Let Me Go) as Tim’s free-sprit sister, Lindsay Duncan (Last Passenger) as Tim’s strong and resilient mother, and Tom Hollander (The Invisible Woman) as a self-absorbed, narcissistic playwright.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis (War Horse), the film definitely has a light, whimsical fable feel to it. Even the characters seem to be more quirky than usual. Curtis decides to keep the story focused on love itself (as “time traveling” stories can go in so many different directions). The result is somewhat unbelievable at first (who, while processing the ability of time traveling, would not at least try to get a better job or a tip in the stock market?) But once we suspend the disbelief, the story gains on us.

It’s not to say the plot and characters are without their conventional and trite trappings. There are some rather blatant cliches; and plot holes are all but inevitable in a story about “time traveling.”  For example, one of the rules is that one cannot travel past the birth of a child, and yet at one point, Tim and his father travel to a time before his sister was born (or any of his own children). Such inconsistency, however, does not mar the general quality of the story, which really isn’t about time traveling anyway.

In fact, time traveling becomes almost a metaphor, as Tim continues to learn and understand what life and love mean to him. I think that’s the sweetest thing about this movie — it has a very sweet, almost innocent look at life and love, and I find that rather refreshing in today’s cynical world. And that may be the film’s biggest flaw — just not cynical and bitter enough for today’s audiences. For me, it’s about time we have something so pure and fun, sometimes almost magical.

Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Richard Cordery, Tom Hollander, Margot Robbie
Director: Richard Curtis
Writers: Richard Curtis
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content
Running Time: 123 minutes


Script - 7
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 8
Production - 7

Total - 7.7 out of 10.0 

Dallas Buyers Club

© 2013 Ray Wong

Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club chronicles a Dallas man’s plight against the FDA to save his own life while trying to make a difference for a change.

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a electrician who moonlights as a rodeo cowboy in Dallas. After being sent to the hospital for a work-related incident, Ron is diagnosed with AIDS. Neither an intravenous drug user or a homosexual, he refuses to believe he’s contracted the gay plaque. But evidence eventually proves him wrong, that he does have AIDS, and according to Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare), Ron has only a month to live.

Desperate to survive, Ron at first steals the experimental drug AZT from the hospital. When that supply dries up, he ventures to Mexico to seek alternative treatments. There, he learns that AZT is poison and will eventually kill him regardless whether he has AIDS or not, and that there is a “cocktail” of unapproved drugs that actually works. Driven by greed at first, Ron smuggles the drugs back to the US to sell for profit. With the help of a transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto), Ron quickly expands his client base. The more he sells the drugs to the “homos” such as Rayon, the more he realizes how utterly ignorant and homophobic he is.

Soon, though, the FDA catches on and tries to stop Ron from doling out these drugs. They confiscate his supplies and threatens to arrest Ron for illegal drug trafficking. But Ron finds a way and starts a subscription-only program called the Dallas Buyers Club, so technically speaking he is not selling drugs — he is selling memberships. And Ron is the living proof that the drugs work! Business is brisk, and Ron begins to realize that despite his intention and narrow views, he is actually helping people while the FDA, funded by the big US pharmaceuticals, are killing people. Unwittingly, Ron takes the FDA in his crusade to make the drugs available to those in need.

Matthew McConaughey (Mud) has always been one of Hollywood’s new, prominent method actors, and for the role of Ron Woodroof, McConaughey physically transforms himself by losing so much weight that he’s almost unrecognizable as the hunky movie star. Mentally and emotionally he also transforms himself into a man who is unrefined, crude, and homophobic. Ron Woodroof is not a likable character by any stretch, but McConaughey makes it work and make us sympathize with Ron, who is a seriously flawed man but finds his purpose via a tragic personal event. McConaughey’s performance is both physically and spiritually transformative, and will likely get an Oscar nomination.

Jared Leto (Mr. Nobody) also loses significant weight and dons dresses and makeup to play transvestite Rayon. Leto matches McConaughey’s intensity and humor to give a tour-de-force performance as one of the film’s most likable and sympathetic characters. Jennifer Garner (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) has a harder job with her morally ambiguous role as Dr. Eve Saks, but she fares well. Supporting cast also includes Denis O’Hare (J. Edgar) as a corporate-friendly doctor, and Steve Zahn (Escape from Planet Earth) as a cop friend of Ron’s.

The screenplay by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack (Mirror Mirror) is heavily character-driven. The plot amounts to a series of character movements and mishaps, but the core of the story lies in the relationships between the characters, specifically between Ron and Rayon, two unlikely friends. The screenplay has the difficult job of making us like Ron Woodroof, but through a series of careful character development and the lead actor’s heartfelt performance, they’ve succeeded in telling this difficult story about a difficult man. Borten and Wallack also manage to avoid much melodrama and over-the-top theatrics, so the story feels grounded, if somewhat “boring” by today’s Hollywood standards.

Jean-Marc Vallee (The Young Victoria) directs the movie with a near-documentary style that also helps ground the film. His no-thrill camerawork and location shots give the story a needed reality. Vallee also doesn’t let the story apologize for the characters, and the production reflects that philosophy by revealing some harder truths. It’s not always pleasant, but that’s precisely the point. These are not always-pleasant characters in pleasant situations, but Vallee handles the production with a gritty sense of purpose. The result, though, does tend to undermine the production value as the film feels, at times, unpolished. But I credit that more to the style of the storytelling than Vallee’s directorial skills.

Dallas Buyers Club is a small film with an intimate cast of characters but big themes — government corruption, big corporate profits, the blurry lines of morality. Because of a nuanced script and stellar performances by the actors, the movie works. Don’t expect anything life-changing though. In many ways, this is what Oscar-baits look like.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Writers: Craig Borten, Melissa Wallack
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, strong sexual content, nudity, drug use
Running Time: 117 minutes


Script - 7
Performance - 9
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 7

Total - 7.7 out of 10.0