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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Subjects WIth Gravity

This post is going to link three movies that have absolutely nothing to do with one another -- Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and Philomena.  One movie is called Gravity, and the other movies are about very serious subjects, slavery in the US, and the Magdalene laundries in Ireland.  And the reason I'm doing all three in one post is that I'm not sure what to say about two of them, so I'm reaching to find a way to throw in a third movie.

Gravity:  The problem with talking about Gravity is -- well, if you're interested in the movie you've probably read lots and lots about it already, and what can I add to that.  Furthermore, it's often harder to talk about something that's really good than something you can pick at.  There isn't anything to pick at in Gravity.  I saw it in 3D, the rare movie that's worth seeing that way, on a pretty small screen in Connecticut.  Would have liked seeing it on a bigger screen, but that was how it worked out.  The movie's almost all Sandra Bullock's.  George Clooney is around for part of it, but it's mostly Sandra Bullock's movie.  And she's amazing.  Clooney is amazing.  The technical aspects of the movie are amazing.  Special technologies developed just for this movie. It's a better movie than any movie you want to compare it to.  Avatar was three hours, and All is Lost was 1:45, and this is the 1:30 that All is Lost should have been.  I will happily see this movie two more times before I see Avatar ever again!  It's a triumph from a director who doesn't get enough credit for having done the best of the Harry Potter movies, Prisoner of Azkaban. The music, the cinematography, the editing, if you can think of a technical category to judge a movie in, you have to judge this one pretty high up.  So what can I say?  I doubt there are many people who read my blog who need to be pointed in the direction of the movie if it's a movie they want to see.  I'm not a scientist, so they can quibble that Sandra Bullock's character should have snuffed the flame when she rushed past it in that once scene.  And even at that, the underlying science of the movie is generally credited as solid if not perfect.

And I'm not sure what to say about 12 Years a Slave.  I was a big fan of an earlier movie from the director, Steve McQueen; check out my review of Hunger, and go stream that sucker! I was much less a fan of his stylishly made but hollow and ultimately dull Shame.  This movie has all of the stylish sleek technique of those earlier movies put in the service of talking slavery in the US.  I'm not always in love with the cast.  Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent, giving a star-making performance many years after his star-making performance in Dirty Pretty Things.  It's hard to be black in Hollywood, and the fact that he keeps having to give start-making performances and still can't quite become a star speaks to that as well as anything.  But aside from him, less impressed.  The initial bad guys who kidnap Ejiofor's Solomon Northup into slavery are just a little too foppish for my tastes.  Brad Pitt played a key role in getting the movie made, but I'm not convinced by his role as an abolitionist.  So many actors slide in and out of small roles that the stunt casting ends up becoming a distraction for me.  I'm a movie music fan, so a quick shoutout for a very good score by Hans Zimmer.  But ultimately, the movie is so worthy and important and so talked about that I struggle to want to talk about it much.

Philomena is an interesting companion because it's a movie I want to talk about even though it presents some of the same issues as 12 Years a Slave.

It's a worthy and important subject.  For over a century, so-called "fallen" women were sent to the Magdalen institutions, most notably in Ireland where the two important movies on the subject (Philomena and The Magdalene Sisters) are set.  It was a form of slavery, overlooked and ignore, the woman kept apart from their children, forced to work long hours, not able to leave.  In some instances the illegitimate children were given and even sold off for adoption.

But unlike 12 Years a Slave or The Magdalene Sisters, Philomena approaches its worthy subject in a way that enlightens and educates while still entertaining.  In talking about 12 Years a Slave, we're supposed to admire the movie because every other movie about slavery has been some idealization like Gone With the Wind.  Is that true?  Did Roots idealize slavery?  There haven't been huge numbers of really gritty films about slavery, and in that regard I think it likely that 12 Years a Slave can become the film on the subject the way Schindler's List has become the film on the holocaust, but it's not like there hasn't been a way to know that slavery was bad until 12 Years a Slave came along.  And as a practical matter, the lighter and easier to handle Philomena is going to reach way more people than the more immersive and "worthy" exploration of the subject in The Magdalene Sisters.  As I discussed in talking about Saving Mr. Banks, the worthiest exploration of a topic can be the one nobody wants to see.

But let's get back to the "entertaining" idea.  Philomena is based on an actual story of an elderly woman (played by Judi Dench) who survived a Magdalene laundy, whose daughter encourages her to find help to find what happened to the son that was taken from her.  Help arrives in the form of a British journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, drummed out of a PR role to the Labour regime in the UK.  He somewhat reluctantly joins forces, and they go on an odd couple road trip to Washington, DC to find Philomena's son.

Through flashback, we see what happened in the Magdalene laundries.  If you see the movie, you'll know more about them than when you went in unless you're one of the relative handful of people to have seen the "serious" move on the topic ten years ago.   You'll understand the motives of the people who ran the laundries, you'll see something about how religious belief can drive people to do things that both do and don't seem very Christian in the fullness of time.

But you'll get this in the form of a very entertaining and quite delightful odd couple road trip buddy movie.  Steve Coogan, as well known for standup comedy as for acting, couldn't be more different of an actor than the classically trained Judi Dench.  He wants to write a book about Russian history, she likes to read romance novels.  He's very cynical, while she has an underlying sweetness despite what she endured in the laundries.  It's enjoyable to watch the two together.

Behind the cameras, it's a late in life triumph for Stephen Frears, who has been on and off for 30 years but has quietly put together a body of good films (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons,  Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, The Queen) that's about as good as most anyone over the past 30 years amidst a lot of other not so good films.  The film music fan likes the solid score by Alexandre Desplat, who is one of the best and most active of the newer generation of film music composers.

And to tie things up just a little, it is Frears who directed Dirty Pretty Things which was the first breakthrough starmaking performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, which takes us back into 12 Years a Slave.

I don't need to talk to you about Gravity.  I can't muster enthusiasm as much as I can dutifulness for talking to you about 12 Years a Slave.  I enjoy presenting Philomena as a move that you will see, enjoy, and be educated by.

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