Since it’s the dead of winter and many studios are in a holding mode on major new releases (as in holding on to these releases until such time as most of America can get to them—or become weary of the December releases), here are some pretty good films you may have missed—and are definitely worth catching:
Philomena, based on a true story, is not the light-hearted fluff one might think after viewing the trailer; rather it is an occasionally amusing, fairly serious look at faith and forgiveness. Philomena is an older English woman who has decided to try to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption fifty years earlier at the behest of the convent in Roscrea, Ireland (where she labored as a laundry woman, cast off by her own parents). This attracts the attention of fallen journalist Martin Sixsmith, who hopes this “human interest” tale will revive his faltering career. Their evolving relationship, amidst some surprising, even jolting developments, results in some genuinely funny moments as well as some extremely moving scenes. Judi Dench is superb as Philomena, making plausible the character’s indignation at the church and her capacity to show forgiveness; Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope) as Martin beautifully complements Philomena’s faith with his own iconoclasm laced with concern for his newfound friend.
The enjoyable Saving Mr. Banks is also based on real-life events, in this case the story of how Walt Disney, aided and abetted by the marvelous songwriting Sherman brothers, went about convincing the notoriously prickly Pamela Travers that her beloved character Mary Poppins was in good hands—even with the addition of music, Dick Van Dyke, and , heaven forbid–animation. As long as the movie sticks to the scenes of Travers (a wonderful Emma Thompson) sparring with Disney (a charming and persuasive Tom Hanks) or warming to the Shermans, as well as her driver (Paul Giammatti, underused), the movie is on solid ground. Where it goes a bit astray is in the flashbacks to Travers’ youth; while Colin Farrell does a credible job as Travers’ irresponsible, alcoholic father, these scenes take up too much time, and become a bit redundant. While the movie may not be totally factual, it is reasonably entertaining, and the last scene does reflect to a degree, Miss Travers’ ambivalence about the finished product at the time. The movie is well worth seeing—it may even tempt you to dig out your Mary Poppins soundtrack.
Alexander Payne’s dusty black-and-white road trip movie Nebraska showcases a terrific, grizzled Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, a stubborn old coot determined to claim his quite probably fictitious million-dollar sweepstakes prize (as in those Publishers Clearing House awards). He is reluctantly aided by his concerned son (a lovely portrayal by Will Forte), who offers to drive the old man from Montana to Nebraska in the hopes of getting some quality time with his distant, irascible father. Along the way, they encounter some old friends and relatives, with Woody’s perceived imminent wealth proving a catalyst to the simmering resentments a lifetime can produce. June Squibb is very funny as Woody’s long-suffering, extremely blunt wife, and Stacy Keach provides notable support as Woody’s old friend turned nemesis.
All is Lost may be somewhat lost in limited release at the cinemas, but if you can find it, it’s well worth seeing. Robert Redford holds the screen throughout (solo, sans dialogue, minus an opening voiceover and a well-placed cuss word) as a sailing man who is struck by some bad luck in the form of a shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Redford’s efforts to save himself and his boat in spite of oncoming storms, dwindling supplies, and some faulty choices, make for one compelling survival saga.