Monday began with mainlining caffeine and hauling ass downtown for a screening of Philomena. With rave reviews out of Venice Film Festival, unheeded warnings to bring tissues, and my personal love for anything involving Steve Coogan I already knew I would be in for a treat. What I didn’t know is how personally the film would affect me.
Philomena (Judi Dench) has a secret. One she has hung onto for fifty years. Shown through flashbacks (featuring an amazing performance by relative newcomer Sophie Kennedy Clark) we glimpse a teenaged, unwed, and pregnant Philomena shamed by an Irish Catholic convent into giving up her son in what qualifies more as straight up child theft than adoption. Desperate to find her son and longing to know what he’s like, Philomena connects with a shamed and cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Martin finds himself drawn to Philomena’s story, and together they embark to uncover answers and track down her son.
Dench is fantastic and balances a girly and youthful quality with an aw shucks elderly aloofness that is irresistibly charming. While Coogan, who co-wrote the script, counters her with his trademark cynicism and wit. It makes for an interesting road buddy dynamic that reminded me of Coogan and Rob Brydon's relationship in the television series The Trip. The true story of Philomena Lee and her search for her son connected with me on a personal level as well. I happen to be adopted and while my story is not as tragic as evil nuns selling me away, I empathized with the desires, curiosities, and endless "what ifs?" that are unavoidable with the longing for unknown answers. While tackling such a heavy topic, the film is also surprisingly lighthearted with Dench and Coogan maintaining an engaging banter. Philomena is a rare film that will have you crying one moment and bent over in tears of laughter the next.
Following Philomena was a 3D screening of Alfonso Cuarón’s new space thriller Gravity. Cuarón’s Children of Men is a flawless film and a personal favorite, so my anticipation was high to see what he would bring to the table as he takes an audience into space. The good news? Gravity is truly and entirely an incredible jaw-dropping achievement of cinematic spectacle, gorgeous cinematography, mind-blowing visual effects, and 3D that I can actually stomach. The bad news? A vaguely plausible plot, characters you're invested in, and dialogue that doesn’t make you cringe? All of those dissipate rather quickly. Cuarón seems to have set out to make a technical feat and a visual beauty, and simply forgotten there needs to be more to a movie.
Gravity begins with a very solid opening sequence as astronauts Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are the sole survivors of their Hubble repair mission after hurtling satellite debris has torn into their shuttle, thrown them tumbling through space, and knocked out communications. As their situation continues to spiral into peril, and the film shifts to focus solely on Bullock it becomes increasingly apparent that Clooney was the glue holding this film together. Poor Sandy, I thought this would be her moment to shine. There’s no doubting her talent, and it would have been nice to see her receive deserved recognition instead of a charity Oscar for the ability to do a southern accent. Instead I felt like I was watching a reprisal of her role from Speed this time with a flying space bus. The blame doesn’t rest solely on Bullock though. The dialogue, most of which is spent talking to herself, seems awfully contrived and more suited for a Lifetime movie.
After scoring me a free beer (Thanks Patrick!), I heard the first notes of a guitar and made a beeline for the stage. Besides just a desire to duck out of the festival for a bit, I was excited to catch local Toronto band GROUNDERS, whose unique energy drew the crowd closer and closer to the stage. Think poppy indie rock with touches of the likes of Dirty Projectors and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Tuesday is my final day of TIFF with some of my most hotly anticipated films. David Gordon Green follows up the incredible Prince Avalanche with another southern tale in his adaptation of Larry Brown’s novel Joe. Then I’ll battle it out with the Harry Potter nerds for the premiere of John Krokidas’s first feature length film, Kill Your Darlings, with Daniel Radcliffe as beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
Nate Abernethy is a magical sprite we captured and forced to do film reviews. He somehow also wound up with a twitter account @NateAbernethy