Three Rivers Film Festival: “Philomena”

The Three Rivers Film Festival gave Pittsburgh audiences the chance for an advance look at “Philomena” which has gotten Oscar buzz for Judi Dench’s title performance. This film also received First Runner Up People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and the Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival. The screenplay, based on the non-fiction book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith, was co-written by Dench’s co-star Steve Coogan who also co-produced.

Martin Sixsmith (Coogan, “The Trip”) is an ex-BBC foreign correspondent who has just been fired as director of communications for Tony Blair’s government. He hears about the story of Philomena (Dench). In 1952 she was a pregnant, unmarried teenager sent to live at an Irish convent. For her “care”, she was required to work in a laundry and was only allowed to see her son Anthony for an hour a day. When her son was three, Philomena is devastated to discover that the nuns have given him up for adoption. For fifty years, she has kept her past a secret and has not been able to find out what happened to her son. She wonders if he ever thought of her.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in "Philomena"

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in “Philomena”

Martin meets Philomena and is intrigued by her. Feeling “mildly depressed” at being sacked from his job, he pitches the idea of a story about Philomena to an editor, emphasizing tabloid-like details of the case. The editor agrees to cover expenses of the investigation. Martin and Philomena join to discover her son’s life after she lost contact with him. A visit to the original convent (with an incongruous framed photo of a Hollywood star) proves fruitless. Martin discovers that Anthony was among Irish children given up for adoption to American Catholics. After Martin unearths some clues, he and Philomena fly to Washington, DC, hoping to find Philomena’s lost son.

The well-written screenplay depicts a journey of discovery between two very different people. The diversity builds up the drama. Despite all the sadness of her life, Philomena has remained devoutly religious, reluctant to assign blame for the loss of her son. Told to believe that her pain was her penance, she remains deferential to authority. Martin is cynical and combative, referring to the “Sisters of Little Mercy”.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in "Philomena"

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in “Philomena”

The lead actors create distinctive characterizations and play well off of each other. In a more serious role than usual, Coogan successfully shows Martin’s determination and growing outrage at what had been done to Philomena. Dench gives a masterful performance of deep emotional range. She smiles with happy remembrance of a past pleasure of Philomena’s and has an enthusiastic enjoyment of travel luxuries, not part of Philomana’s daily life. Dench’s expressive face poignantly conveys Philomena’s deep anguish at the loss of her son and the uncertainty of his fate.

Director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) expertly mixes comedy with the more serious elements of Martin and Philomena’s search. Suspense builds as their investigation takes some unexpected directions. The film is continually absorbing and builds to a very moving conclusion.


Telluride 2013: “Nebraska”

At the Telluride Film Festival, before the 9AM screening of “Nebraska”, director Alexander Payne joked that his film “plays well in the morning, not exactly Bela Tarr (Hungarian director known for lengthy takes), but slow”.

Show in black and white, “Nebraska” follows Woody (Bruce Dern) who has received a form letter from a contest, announcing he’s the “winner” of a million-dollar prize. Woody is a very taciturn recovering alcoholic. Afraid to trust the mail, Woody is resolute in “claiming” his prize by travelling from his home in Montana to contest headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska. Dern who received the Best Actor Award in Cannes is superb. In a subtle, often silent performance, Dern shows Woody’s combination of determination and incomprehension. Unable to drive, Woody starts walking to Lincoln, but is stopped by a policeman.

Bruce Dern in "Nebraska"

Bruce Dern in “Nebraska”

He gets no sympathy from his continually complaining wife Kate (June Squibb). Squibb, who played Jack Nicholson’s wife in Payne’s “About Schmidt”, steals her scenes. Woody’s son David (Will Forte) decides to humor his geriatric father and, in a rather late attempt to get close to him, decides to drive Woody to Nebraska.

Payne brings quirky humor to the father-son trip. Woody once asks “Where’s my teeth?” A search ensues. David learns about his father’s past. Forte is very effective as the son who tries, often in vain, to keep things under control. The screenplay was written by Bob Nelson. Filming in black and white gives the story timelessness and emphasizes the theme of aging.

David and Woody stay with Woody’s brother and his family who live near Lincoln. They are joined there by Kate and David’s brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Woody’s other relatives stop by for a family reunion. In some very amusing scenes, all the male relatives, sitting in the same room, quietly stare ahead without saying a word to each other. David and Woody also encounter Ed (Stacy Keach) an old friend who gives David some discomforting information about Woody. Woody’s stories on being a millionaire prize winner cause old resentments to resurface, and with them, new claims on his “winnings”.

Will Forte, Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach in "Nebraska"

Will Forte, Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach in “Nebraska”

While “Nebraska” lacks the emotional depth of Payne’s “The Descendants”, it remains a very engaging and uniformly well-acted father/son road movie. Payne skillfully mixes non-professionals with the established actors. Payne said that over half of the people appearing in “Nebraska” were non-actors.

The question and answer session after he film was one of the best I’d attended at Telluride. It was moderated by director Jason Reitman (“Up In the Air”) who was in Telluride with his latest, “Labor Day”.

Bruce Dern and Alexander Payne at Telluride

Bruce Dern and Alexander Payne at Telluride

Director Alexander Payne mentioned his film’s “modest budget”. He compared the “austere” script to early Jim Jarmusch. He said that he shot in black and white because he wanted “tones rather than color.”

Speaking with deep affection for his director, Bruce Dern said “this man came into my life 18 years ago through our mutual friend Laura”. Dern’s daughter Laura starred In Payne’s first feature “Citizen Ruth (1996). Dern described Payne as “unique and unto himself…approachable…has set up teammates.” Dern said that after Payne introduced him to the film’s cinematographer, he told Dern, “Let us do our jobs.”

Alexander Payne at Telluride

Alexander Payne at Telluride

For “Nebraska”, Dern who says he “never had lot of confidence” was interested in “not to do more.”

Dern described his acting career that began in 1958 as “55 yrs of anxiety trying to get there.” He started out with director Elia Kazan at the New York Actors Studio. He said that he was often cast as part of a group. Kazan told him to “be the most interesting fifth cowboy to the right”. Dern said he did things to stand out to be noticed, saying he was “turning in Dernsies all my life”. For “Nebraska”, he wanted to be more subtle and “relax into the part” of Woody. Of making the film with Payne, he thought “I can’t let him down”.

Dern said Payne directed him with “Don’t show, let us find it”. Dern added that he never felt as “fully trusted” as with Payne, like a “partner”. He considers Payne as “tough as Mr. Hitchcock” with whom he made “Family Plot” (1976), the director’s final film. He said Payne will “push to the edge of the cliff”, but “picks you up in his arms” with an attitude of “let’s make magic”.

Dern said he has “always wanted to go to the Super Bowl, the Playoffs [of acting], hopefully now.” With the Cannes Best Actor and all of the acclaim his performance in “Nebraska” has received, he has a great shot this year.

Bruce Dern at Telluride

Bruce Dern at Telluride

Payne who was born in Omaha, Nebraska said that “people I know mattered” and that in his film named after his home state, he wanted to “show people as we know”. For him, filming in “rural Nebraska is as exotic as shooting in Hawaii”, the location of his “The Descendants”.

At an outdoor panel discussion Dern said that “The ability to act stems from the courage to be publicly private.”

He told a great story that shows the difference between the collaborative mature of Alexander Payne with Alfred Hitchcock. On the first day of shooting “Family Plot”, Dern’s co-star Karen Black raised her hand and asked “Mr. Hitchcock” if she could do another take of her scene. Dern said Hitchcock “never rehearsed behavior, he always rehearsed camera moves”. Hitchcock let Black repeat the scene, but without turning on the camera.

Telluride 2013: “Bethlehem”

“Bethlehem”, the Israeli submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, was one of the stronger films at the Telluride Film Festival. Razi (Tsahi Halevy) is an Isreali Secret Service officer who has developed a protective, almost fatherly, relationship with Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), his teenage Palestinian informant. Sanfur’s brother is a Palestinian militant wanted by Israeli authorities.

Shadi Mar'i (center) in "Bethlehem"

Shadi Mar’i (center) in “Bethlehem”

“Bethlehem” is a forceful and gripping suspense film as well as an effective character study of conflicted loyalties in the volatile Middle East.

The film is the first feature from director Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ali Waked, a Muslim. Their combined backgrounds bring an unusual insight into the different sides portrayed in the film. Adler served in army intelligence. Waked is a journalist who worked in Ramallah and Gaza. Adler said that it was difficult, but that eventually Palestinian militants from all-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and Hamas opened up, and they received information on Shabak, the Israeli secret service.

“Bethlehem” will screen at the Three Rivers Film Festival, Pittsburgh.