Thursday, December 5, 2013

Nebraska and Philomena

            Road Trips to the Neighborhoods of Oscarville

                          Review by Ken Burke           Nebraska
An almost-destitute old man and his caring-but-somewhat-distant son go on a fool’s quest to claim a lottery prize but instead find a slightly-better-sense of family bonding.
True tale of an Irish woman and a journalist on an investigative hunt for her son, taken from her years ago under church supervision but never lost from her loving memories.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

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We’ll begin our explorations this week with the acknowledgement that you’ll likely see some of the principal actors in these films vying for the gold statuettes come Oscar time next February, although there are other worthy performances here as well that probably won’t yield such nominations simply because of already-overcrowded fields, not because of the lack of ability on the part of the stars and other film artists.  With that in mind, we’ll turn first to Nebraska (Alexander Payne), which for me is the height so far of this aging-somewhat-but-still-relatively-young-director’s career, even though that means he’s topped himself over such previously fine work as Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), The Descendants (2011), and my previous favorite of his, Sideways (2004)—the film that got me interested in the delicious taste of pinot noir and led to a delightful vacation in California’s Santa Ynez Valley where that fascinating character study was shot.  In Nebraska, though, the “fascinating” aspect of most of the characters is how empty they are, how life has drained away from them in the Great Plains areas of the Midwest and Northwest, in Nebraska and the far eastern part of Montana where the majestic Rockies might be a distant backdrop but the present reality is flat farm country, rendered in intentionally-blasé-black-and-white-cinematography that makes the situation of the film look like something almost forgotten in an old family photo album where the lack of interesting detail just makes everyone look too similar and the surroundings too ordinary to merit much attention—unless you’re searching for some specific face or event, which is what Payne does in a subtly-successful-manner here, bringing one almost-forgotten-man out of the boredom of his family inertia (the above photo shows our protagonists—Woody Grant [Bruce Dern], far left but starting to break loose from family confinement, and son David [Will Forte], far right, somewhat emerging from the shadows of Woody’s brother and wife, Ray [Rance Howard] and Martha [Mary Louise Wilson], and their dim-witted, unemployed twin sons, Cole [Devin Ratray] and Bart [Tim Driscoll], but not by much, as it will take the entire-almost-2-hour-narrative for us to fully get a grasp on Woody and David, especially with Woody holding back a lot of what we need to understand about him from some combination of Midwest reserve, the discrepancy of aging, and just plain stubbornness to say much—as part of both his family traits [except for those babbling twins] and his own decades-brewed personality—but we don’t get a lot of self-revelation about David either until events unfold, allowing us to better understand the slowly-evolving-dynamic with his crusty father).

Woody’s life has been severely compromised by his alcoholism (which he constantly denies, even as he’s reaching for another of many beers of the day—he even notes that “A beer ain’t drinkin!,” a line curiously lifted straight from newspaper-editor/town lush Dutton Peabody [Edmond O’Brien] in John Ford’s classic 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence) and his generosity to his relatives where he grew up in Nebraska before moving his family several hundred miles away to Billings, Montana.  (This aspect of his life-long-demise we don’t get until late in the story when his equally-crusty-wife, Kate [June Squibb], has a confrontation with some of those Grant kin reminding them that when Woody co-ran his auto garage with Ed Pegram [Stacy Keach—Question: Stacy, where have you been in my media awareness for all these years since I used to see you more regularly?  Answer: Ken, in a lot of TV series and movies that you haven’t watched [except, says Ken, for a few like American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998) and The Bourne Legacy (Tony Gilroy, 2012)—and a lot of acclaimed East Cost dramatic theatre that led to great reviews] he cost his own core family a lot of income by giving free repairs and gas to the larger Grant brood in a small community where there wasn’t much income to be had to begin with; Kate was also instrumental in getting Woody and their sons out of their small Nebraska hometown where there was just too much over-involvement in everyone’s lives and too much pettiness—as epitomized in a scene where we learn that there have to be separate Catholic and Lutheran cemeteries because neither will be buried in the other’s “holy ground.”)  As he’s reached an advanced age with very little to show for it (except constant cross words with Kate and aloofness from his sons, David and older brother Ross [Bob Odenkirk], due to his neglect of them as children) he suddenly thinks that his fortunes (literally) have been reversed as gets a letter from a Publishers Clearinghouse-type operation that convinces him he’s won a million dollars (even though his wife and sons know it’s just a scam to sell magazine subscriptions because the odds of the lottery numbers on his “entry” matching the mystical “winning numbers” are so astronomically high—even if there are actual winning numbers secreted away somewhere; the actual Publishers Clearinghouse has to offer televised events to prove that they actually do present prizes but even then they’ve had to settle numerous lawsuits in many states due to the false impressions given that payouts are actually in process, but I’m sure there are plenty of fly-by-night-operations such as the one shown in Nebraska where one employee with one computer in a small office does nothing but process those subscriptions bought in hopes of enhancing winning odds [I’ve bought some magazines years ago, under the same dumb misconception] with questionable hopes that there are actually some chosen numbers in existence needed for the matching payoff).  Woody’s so detached from any sort of reality that has meaning for him—not necessarily delusional, just lost in a fog of failure, old age, and alcohol, maybe early-stage dementia too but there are many other factors at play to say for sure—that he’s willing to set out on foot for the contest’s headquarters in Lincoln, NE (he no longer has a driver’s license and refuses to trust the mail with a reply so vital to his fast-evaporating future) because there’s nothing else waiting for him in his present existence, while neither Kate nor Ross will help drive him on this wild-goose-chase (instead they think he’s ready for some sort of rest home, although he’d probably rather collapse along the side of the trans-Midwest Interstates than accept that fate).

After a few attempts at hoofing it, thwarted by the police and David, the frustrated younger son calls in sick to his dead-end-job attempting to sell home-entertainment components after agreeing to drive Dad to Lincoln, much to the dismay of the other immediate family members (David is completely convinced that the contest letter is worthless, but rather than worrying about his father dying on the highway shoulder, trying to find any satisfaction in his what-else-am-I-going-to-do-job, or spending his free time in his blasé apartment yearning for his ordinary-but-still-disappointed-in-him-ex-girlfriend to move back in he makes the effort to bring some closure to Woody’s quest).  However, Woody suffers a head injury along the way (from a drunken stumble back to their motel one night) which requires them to spend some hospital time, interrupting their schedule and requiring a stop for the weekend in their old hometown of Hawthorne, NE (which, as best I can tell, is not an actual entity [there is a Hawthorne suburb in Omaha, but this certainly isn’t it], although whatever little town this is does seem to be in Nebraska, as are the other locations actual ones from Montana and South Dakota), which becomes the occasion for an impromptu family reunion (oddly enough, Kate and Ross are even willing to make the trip on the spot), but trouble soon ensues as Woody—despite David’s entreaties—starts blabbing about his winnings which soon leads to relatives wanting in on the windfall (along with a backlash from Kate that Woody’s past generosity still has the 2 of them on the wrong side of the family balance sheet with no offers to repay Woody’s past favors) and Ed essentially demanding repayment from times in the past that he covered for Woody’s drunken screw-ups.  Tensions rise, tempers flare, the Bonehead Twins steal Woody’s letter (then discard it when they realize how worthless it is—which really makes Woody’s dream look sad if these idiots quickly understand what he’s just not able, or willing, to comprehend), then it all comes to a head when Ed finds the purloined letter and mocks Woody in one of the local bars until mild-mannered-David’s finally had enough and flattens him with a well-placed punch.  With the reunion in shambles, the weekend over, and 2 of the Montana Grants ready to get out of Hawthorne, we’re left with Woody and David making the final trek to Lincoln where, indeed, none of Woody’s numbers match the magical digits, leaving him crestfallen because he wanted to end his life with something finally accomplished (well, at least since his marriage to Kate, who was quite the attraction in her younger days—possibly because when the circumstances were right she was willing to put out, as she gleefully reminds the memory of an old flame as she hikes her skirt up over his grave to reveal at last what he had so long ago sought only to lose out to Woody), as well as leave some financial benefit for Kate after he’s gone, along with David whose luck has barely surpassed his father’s, although he was trying to cut down on his increasing-drinking-habit so as to not emulate the old man (Ross didn’t figure in Woody’s rectifications too much because he already has a decent career as a Billings TV anchor, as well as Woody being aware that in terms of relative distain for their father Ross is way ahead—although he, along with Kate, did come to Dad’s defense during the atrocious Hawthorne weekend).

The publishers-contest lone employee takes pity on Woody, offering him the “consolation prize” of an “I’m a Winner” cap, but David’s gained some new-found respect for his father so he enhances Woody’s situation by trading in his well-worn car in order to buy a used-but-still-good-looking-pickup with Woody’s name on the title (Dad’s wanted a new truck for a long time) so that they can drive slowly back through Hawthorne, leaving the false impression that Woody did get the cash that isn’t going to be shared with any relative or former neighbor (which is a bit harsh concerning Ed, given that he did cover a lot for Woody’s business blunders years ago as well as already having been put in his place by David’s fist, yet this film is clearly about applauding Woody’s partially-regained-self-respect so we’ll just roll slowly toward the end with that thought just as Woody’s truck rolls through Hawthorne until they’re out of the city limits and David takes the wheel again).  It all comes down to a sort-of-happy-ending, even though no one’s financially better off than when the story started, I doubt that one brain cell’s been gained by Woody’s relatives, David’s job may be in jeopardy because he was gone so long (not that he cared for it at all but replacement work will be hard to find), and I doubt that Kate’s waiting with a warm embrace for Woody’s return; however, we do get inspiration that some at-least-semi-solutions can be found for even the harshest problems, we see that dignity is a more precious commodity than easy money (although you can’t eat dignity, but if you tried it would probably still taste better than the begrudging retractions being swallowed by the tricked residents of Hawthorne, NE), and there are always reasons for respecting everyone to some degree even if we have to dig through years of garbage to find those reasons sometimes.  We also see some Oscar-caliber-acting here, which will likely net Dern a Best Actor nomination, one long-deserved after a career of mostly supporting roles, highly effective but secondary to other characters (for me, particular standouts are his less-than-desirable-husbands in 2 decades-old-classics, The Great Gatsby [Jack Clayton, 1974] and Coming Home [Hal Ashby, 1978], in which he’s respectively outclassed by Robert Redford and Jon Voight); however, in a more-perfect-world there’d also be room for a Forte nomination as he makes a marvelous transition from SNL silliness to first-rate drama, but that’s not going to happen because he’d have to been seen in a lead role (you can make the argument that he’s really the film’s main character) which already has too many contenders this year.  It’s possible, though, that Squibb might nab a Best Supporting Actress nomination, as she makes an indelible impact on the overall success of Nebraska, but then so do director Payne and scriptwriter Bob Nelson, so we’ll just have to see how it shakes out in about a month when all of the other possible contenders have made their appearances.  With 10 slots open for Best Picture, though, I’d like to think that Nebraska would be honored with 1 of them.

Walker Evans, Sharecropper Bud Fields and His Family
at Home
, Hale County, Alabama  1935 or 1936
Another major contribution to the overall impact of Nebraska’s success is the cinematography, so maybe Phedon Papamichael has a chance in this area given how difficult it is to make a visual impact when your goal is to present mundane imagery, but that’s just what happens here (similar to the success achieved by Farm Security Administration photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and others documenting the Depression’s toll on its survivors in pictures that make their point without reliance on crafty compositions or Expressionistic lighting, just an honest depiction of what’s there in a manner that conveys depth without requiring interpretation).  Nothing looks spectacular in Nebraska, just as no one feels spectacular about much of anything that happens in this narrative (excepting Woody’s proud ride through town at the end, but even that’s tempered by the reality that he’s only created his own compelling black-and-white image—as in, he’s either seen as hopelessly lost or triumphantly rich, no matter how simplistic either assessment may be—which translates to little improvement for all concerned except for some Montana Grant family interpersonal realizations that may help them come together a bit better when they regroup) because that’s what Payne is trying to achieve: a study of an overload of flawed characters that could certainly be representative of any segment of any society but have specific grounding in the contemporary world of small-town USA where limited-option-lives can often lead to limited-thinking-understanding of those lives (not counting people who choose to rise above such pettiness, such as Hawthorne Republican newspaper editor Peg Nagy [Angela McEvan] who follows up on her professional obligation to print a story about local-sudden-“hero” Woody Grant but also genuinely cares about him, a continuance from their high-school days when she had to accept that she was no match for ready-and-willing-Kate), as I observed for years first-hand when my parents moved to a small West Texas town after my Dad’s retirement (cheap rent, yes, but also to help care for my grandmother, social-queen-bee of the territory, who, like Woody, would never have accepted assisted-living-housing although she was quite willing for my parents to move in with her after her hip gave out) where I could see the contrasting personalities of those who barely spoke (like Woody’s brothers watching TV football, hardly uttering a sound) and those who more than take up the slack for the quiet ones (as parodied on the old Carol Burnett “Mama’s Family” TV segments, but even those comic episodes simply prove that some aspects of life just force you to laugh if you’re not yet up for suicide).

I appreciated the empathetic explorations that Payne presents of the interactions of Woody’s family at a time when all of them are growing numb to their lives (Woody sees Mt. Rushmore on the way to Nebraska, then gruffly complains that it doesn’t look finished, as if the Presidents’ heads were simply not done with pushing out of their rocky background) and their pasts (Woody visits his dilapidated family homestead, remarking wearily that it’s “just a bunch of old wood and some weeds”—a likely self-description as well); Payne sends us on a journey along with the Grants—not as dramatic as the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940) but more about the inner travels than the outer ones—allowing us to experience the complexity of even simple situations, such as the worn-out-person’s disconnect from tomorrow’s sunrise, although with hopes that there will be a reason to willingly face that next dawn anyway (the same basic theme of other filmic triumphs this year, such as Gravity [Alfonso Cuarón], 12 Years a Slave [Steve McQueen], and All Is Lost [J.C. Chandor]).  “Keep hope alive!” may be getting to be a tired phrase after so many years of hearing it (most famously first from Rev. Jesse Jackson addressing the 1988 Democratic Convention), but it’s a message as timeless as the gentle plains of the Midwest, although sometimes we need a fresh perspective to find substance for that hope.  In that spirit, for my usual musical-metaphor-choice, accompanying Nebraska this week, I’m going to again acknowledge that this film has two major protagonists, each with a separate outlook on the older one’s life, so we’ll start with how Woody might see himself as the singer in Willie Nelson’s “I Gotta Get Drunk” (which seems to have first appeared on his 1970 Both Sides Now album) at watch?v=WqZDbTYtjz8, followed by David’s counter-offer for his dad to “let somebody love you before it’s too late” from The Eagles’ “Desperado” (on the 1973 album of the same name) at  By the end of Nebraska we want to believe that these 2 have found some other common tune to harmonize on, but before we get too misty-eyed again we’d better wait and see what happens after a couple of months back in Billings.

What happened to Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench) after not mere months but 50 long years prior to this story’s depictions in our other film this week still hasn’t fully been resolved for her because she was an unwed, pregnant Irish teenager sent to live in an abbey (convent) where she endured almost all of her mandatory 4 years of “penance” for her “sin” (working in one of the infamous Magdalene Laundries) only to see her young child taken away from her and sold to an American couple with no way for her to track her son later, so she just had to endure ongoing suffering far beyond even what was initially intended by the Catholic nuns who brutalized her life all those decades ago.  Stephen Frears explores this terrible real-life-situation in Philomena, producing a film that seems at mid-point to be heading toward a Hallmark Channel-tearjerker-movie of a reunion-finally-accomplished only to take us in a more unexpected direction for a much richer—although sadder—experience.  You know you’ve been warned about spoilers in these reviews so tread carefully for the rest of this if you don’t already know what happened (no extra spoiler alert for Nebraska because I didn’t tell you anything that you haven’t already seen or could easily deduce from the trailer—except for the possibility that Woody actually won the million bucks, but if you wanted that kind of sappy ending to what had gone before, then let me steer you to About Time [Richard Curtis], with a much stronger version of a loving father-and-son-relationship; comments on this one are in our November 26, 2013 posting).  Frears begins this tragic illumination on scandalous practices not only condoned but overseen by Ireland’s branch of the Catholic Church (and wait before you reply to anything negative that I might say about this venerable institution because I was raised within that faith and can personally testify to things I still find repulsive to remember—OK, I don’t mean that kind of repulsive, but they had a whole catalogue of physical-and-emotional-abuse-strategies that should merit some form of penance from many of their clergy in a manner more demanding than simple prayers and apologies) with a marvelous, long montage of scenes that depict 18-year-old Philomena’s (Sophie Kennedy Clark) love-struck-night at a local carnival in 1951 with a boy she’s just met that leads to sex (which she had no experience with, let alone an understanding of how it could lead to pregnancy, given that her mother had died long ago and her school nuns never told her anything about how human bodies work, leaving that task to any girl’s mother, available or not), her confinement in the convent of the Roscrea Abbey Sisters of the Sacred Heart through birth (with no use of pain-killers as part of her “earned suffering”) and compensation-work 7 days a week in the sweatshop-laundry along with other similar unfortunate girls, the terrible day when her young son Anthony is taken from the convent (although the mothers couldn’t spend much time with their children, the boy still knew who she was) to be sold to an adoptive American couple, and the interspersed shots of now-much-older-Philomena thinking back on her unrequited loss, even though she was able to lead a useful life as a psychiatric nurse for years, along with a marriage (her husband’s now dead) which has given her a loving daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), who never knew about her long-lost-brother until Mom finally revealed the secret on his 50th birthday as she tearfully examines the 1 photo of Anthony that a friend gave her back at the convent.

Also in those opening scenes we encounter Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, based on the actual 2009 Sixsmith book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee), British former correspondent for the BBC and advisor to Her Majesty’s government who’s been sacked for making a public statement at Princess Margaret’s (Queen Elisabeth II’s younger sister) funeral that deemed him unworthy of continued service, so he’s looking desperately for some other source of income, given that a publisher friend scoffs at his initial decision to write a book on Russian history (although in the career of the actual Sixsmith he’s written several book about various aspects of Russia).  By chance, he meets Jane at a reception, she tells him of her mother’s desire to locate her son, and soon the chase is afoot (with an editor’s financial backing), despite his initial disgust with what he terms “personal interest stories” (which he sees as intended for “vulgar, ignorant, weak-minded people”).  Once Martin accommodates himself to the nature of the assignment—and makes as many concessions as he can to collaborating with Philomena, more of a working-class-and-pop-culture-aficionado than he’d ever care to be, along with their clashes over her religion vs. his atheism (including his query about why God would provide us with sexual desire if He meant for us to stifle it most of the time)—he soon, with Jane’s help, does Internet searches (after failed attempts to get any help from the convent’s current nuns, just as Philomena had no help years ago from her disgraced family who disowned her upon her pregnancy; the current Mother Superior even brings out a copy of Philomena’s signed consent form giving up all claim to her son as an attempt to just snuff out her search on the spot), that would never have been possible for the older woman if she’d started on this quest alone, which fairly easily locate Anthony, renamed Michael when adopted by Doc and Marge Hess (who also adopted Mary [played as an adult by Mare Winningham], the convent child of Philomena’s closest friend, Sally Mitchell [Michelle Fairley]) who came to be a high-ranking-legal-consultant to the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations (information which leads to a later memory of Martin’s that he briefly met Michael in 1995 at a Republican event).  At this point, not having read much about Sixsmith’s book prior to attending the screening, I was prepared for a loving—if maudlin—meeting between the long-separated mother and son as Philomena and Martin travel to Washington, D.C. to track down Anthony/Michael.  I was sure that there would be some complications (because the film was only at about the halfway point) but that all would turn out well in the end.  Little did I anticipate what would actually transpire or how it would impact me.

For those of you who haven’t read the book or seen the film yet (I'm offering one last round of Spoiler Alerts [which don't taste nearly as good as a pint of Guinness], so here’s your last chance to bail out for now), the shock was that Philomena’s son was already dead, even before reaching the age of 50 (some may have experienced some version of shock that the investigators also turned up evidence that he was gay, but hopefully that kind of “revelation” has become old, irrelevant news, which it seemed to be to Philomena as well, who noted that even by age 3 Anthony was a “sensitive” boy so she wasn’t surprised or troubled at all about that turn of her son’s events [I’m guessing that her time in laundry-servitude also washed away some of her adherence to her church’s more inhumane doctrines, although she seems to have not given up on Catholicism as a whole, despite the hell-on-Earth that her spiritual “guardians” forced upon her life—Bias Reminder: I’m not too fond of much of my Catholic upbringing either, but, like Philomena, I’m still willing to accept that there are well-meaning, spiritually-devoted members of that clergy even though there are plenty of others who bring shame on anything to do with religion by their harsh-doctrinal-attitudes or perverted actions, but certainly Catholicism isn’t alone in its harboring of criminals within its ranks or tolerance of money-grubbing-charlatans who offer nothing of spiritual sincerity to begin with]).  Once again, I expected (it’s terrible sometimes what the constant flow of melodrama in mainstream media plots can condition you for) a last-minute-uplifting-turn-of-events that somehow they were not the right Anthony and Mary—despite all of the other evidence seeming to confirm that these were the specific children taken from Ireland in 1955—that Philomena’s son was actually alive somewhere so that the long-awaited reunion would actually take place in a heart-rending-ending with grand music swells (just the sort of thing that I didn’t want to happen in Nebraska with Woody actually winning the money and moving his whole immediate family to a chalet in the Rockies), but despite my anticipation of this grand conclusion the simple truth is that Michael is dead, Mary was willing to see Philomena and Martin (although she seemed a bit reserved and even more strangely never asked anything about her own mother, despite the close friendship that Philomena had with Sally, but maybe she was too young to remember real-Mom directly and just didn’t want to complicate her own life with information about another mother when she had spent most of her life understanding that person to be Marge Hess [I thank my wife, Nina, for noticing that bit of oddity which never occurred to me, possibly because I was preoccupied with other feelings, which I’ll explain more about later]) but it was much tougher getting to meet with Michael’s lover, Pete Olson (Peter Hermann), who put up a wall of refusal until a day when Philomena and Martin essentially barged into his house, with her begging for just a little conversation about her son who she now knew to have died of AIDS.

The final act of Philomena becomes the most revelatory and touching of all, the part that finally purged me of my more-excessive-expectations and provided some “plot” twists that would have seemed almost too coincidental to be true had they not been based on the real events in our suffering protagonist’s life.  First, we find that Michael and Pete actually made just as intensive an attempt to find Philomena as she had made in trying to locate the little boy she knew as Anthony; they had traveled to Roscrea in County Tipperary, Ireland, a few years prior (1995) to the present time of the film (2003) seeking information on who Michael’s birth mother was because he didn’t even have that information.  Horribly, the current nuns protected the past misdeeds of their predecessors by telling the men that baby Anthony/Michael had simply been abandoned at the convent by an unrepentant mother so they had no information on her, just as they had previously told Philomena and Martin that they had no records on what become of her son (a cover story partially documented by a massive loss of information in a fire; however, Martin learns it was intentionally set to hide the horrible practice of selling those illegitimate children to foreigners rather than keeping them at the convent to be reunited with their mothers once the young women’s work sentence had been completed).  Thus, Michael learned nothing about his heritage, although he and Pete came to have a negative understanding of Philomena, which turned into real hatred on Pete’s part when she finally came to call.  Then, to push the irony to the breaking point, Michael insisted that he be buried at the convent in hopes that somehow his mother would have a change of heart and find him there one day, which she did after returning to Ireland with Martin (while visiting Pete she also got to see home movies of her son, verifying the sort of images that she’d imaged in a couple of earlier scenes in the film).  Altogether, the story of this mother and child reunion proved to be much more than “a moment away” (to quote Paul Simon; link to his appropriate song coming up soon), but at least it finally happened in a restricted manner, allowing Philomena some peace of mind and Martin material for a lot more than his originally-assigned feature story (especially with its ramifications for the countless girls who suffered the burdens of their imposed-societal-guilt simply because they indulged in a natural act of attraction with little or no understanding of the consequences or means to prevent pregnancy; I know, I’ve got to stop preaching about how shameful this is—for Irish culture [which is a large part of my heritage, along with Catholicism], not for the girls who inadvertently stumbled into this horror show—but it’s hard to do as more and more revelations come out about these Magdalene Laundries and the miseries they inflicted upon young women who simply followed their passions rather than denying their own yearnings [sadly, Philomena admits to Martin that she wondered for years which was the greater sin: having the sex that led to her pregnancy or the reality that she enjoyed the sex immensely, feeling no guilt about it until the consequences came back to haunt her] while the men who participated in the impregnations [the ones much more likely to at least have access to condoms than these sheltered girls] mostly never suffered any official humiliation nor had to compensate the young women in any way for the incarceration they endured in the name of “absolution”).

Dame Judi Dench and Philomena Lee
Actually, more absolution has come from the real Philomena Lee (you can begin to get more information on her in this New York Times article by Suzanne Daley and Douglas Dalby) than was ever in play with the forced labor imposed upon young women such as her by her church, with the further scandal that this centuries-old-process (which also occurred in other countries) was known and sanctioned by the Irish government. Yet, in the film Philomena is willing to forgive old, rigid Sister Hildegarde who was there during the young woman’s incarceration but kept equally silent when she had the opportunity to help both mother and son locate each other years after they’d been separated.  Martin’s not so understanding, pressing the aged nun on the reasons for her silence, which she said in a condescending tone was to perpetuate the penance on Philomena and her ilk who refused to deny their carnal pleasures while she, Hildegarde, had made this difficult sacrifice, showing herself to be both morally unmovable and hypocritically-envious of these "sins of the flesh" that she had never tasted.  In real life, Ms. Lee also finds herself replying to critics of the film who condemn it as anti-Catholic as reported in an Irish Time article by Donald Clarke.  While it might be fair to question the film’s fictionalization of certain aspects of Philomena’s quest for her son (the main one that I’ve understood is that she didn’t accompany Sixsmith to the U.S. in the final search for Anthony/Michael), there’s certainly no rational rejection of the horrors that underlay the whole concept of the Magdalene Laundries or the emotional pain inflicted upon women like Philomena who were set up for failure by their absurd social structures, just as conservative Christian theology is continuing to impose itself on women’s bodies in the ongoing collisions over health-care access and coverage in today’s USA.  No, I never claimed to be objective on this topic, nor can I attempt to be totally unbiased about the events of this film because I’m an adopted child myself, arranged to be taken from my birth-mother right after delivery so that I would never have known anything about her until a third party surprised me while I was in graduate school (I always knew that I was adopted, just with no information on where I came from) to tell me that my real mother was unwed when I was conceived, that later she married someone other than my father and had several more children, but when I used what little I knew (with nothing about my birth-father except that a DNA test showed his ancient ancestors migrated from Africa into Southeast Asia about 40,000 years ago—other DNA tests have shown me to have a lot of Northern European ancestry, so the Irish may not be just from my adoptive parents, but also a good bit of South Asian, Middle Eastern, and a whopping 9% of Native American) to make second-hand contact with her I was turned away so as to not reveal her “sordid” past to her existing family who’d never dreamed she’d had part of a history that overlaps with someone like Philomena Lee.

Do I wish that my birth-mother were more like Philomena in wanting to make contact with me?  Certainly.  Do I understand why she’s gone the opposite direction, denying my existence to the many in her life that came after me?  I’ll never be completely resolved on this, but I’ll accept it as being what she needs to maintain stability in her life, even as it destabilizes some of mine.  Do I wish that Philomena had been able to make contact with her son, even if she met him on his deathbed?  Knowing how it feels from the perspective of the disconnected child (but certainly not abandoned, as my adoptive parents gave me all of the love they could manage, despite the battles I had with my mother over her authority demands and her later-life-political-choices, along with my after-the-fact-wishes that my father and I could have had more than the couple of honest talks that we did) I can only hope for her that she’s found some comfort in at least knowing what became of her son, even as their paths were maliciously prevented from crossing again.  Do I feel that all of this private exposé belongs in a critical review of a current film?  I don’t see how I could do an honest analysis of Philomena if I didn’t acknowledge this personal connection that may give me a more positive overall attitude to Frears’ latest work than can be justified by the filmic evidence in totality, but if that’s the case then I’ll just say that, yes, it affects me in a personal manner, it touches areas of my life that are even more intimate that what I found in Nebraska, and I don’t think it clouds my judgment that Judi Dench has every right to be considered for a Best Actress Oscar nomination, although I also have admiration for the way in which Steve Coogan presents the eventual-lightening-up of snobby Martin Sixsmith (maybe not fully award-worthy-acting but reminiscent of what I consider to be one of Tom Cruise’s best roles, the brother who does make an eventual transformation in Rain Man [Barry Levinson, 1988]), while Coogan might also merit a consideration for Best Adapted Screenplay, along with co-adapter Jeff Pope—although I never have known for sure if most of the voters in this category [not that many of the Academy’s roughly 6,000 members are scriptwriters] are really making any comparisons between the original source and the film or if they’re judging it as a fine script that only happens to be adapted—unless the process is much simpler and they’re just voting for whichever one their screenwriter pals told them to support).  While we’re waiting for the nominations picture to come into focus, though, I’ll leave you with something to shift gears from my intrusive biographical notes (but let us all hail Hunter S. Thompson in the meantime) into the closing musical metaphors, which in the case of Philomena call out for Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” (from the 1972 Paul Simon album) at, very sweetly set to pictures of various mother and child animals, followed by an acknowledgement of one of the many glorious things about Ireland (despite its sometimes sad history) with a live performance of one of Van Morrison’s best (a favorite of my very supportive wife, Nina), “Into the Mystic” (from the 1970 Moondance album) at, a performance with date unknown and some really odd foghorn sounds, as well as a marvelous instrumental break.  So, even if we don’t see ourselves as “born before the wind” like Woody and Philomena or can’t quite claim we’re “younger than the sun” like “sons” David and Anthony, I hope that we can all just appreciate the family explorations and understandings that flow through this week’s films in order to let our individual “soul and spirit fly into the mystic” until we meet again.

If you’d like to know more about Nebraska here are some suggested links: (be sure to visit the Nebraska Photo Project, upper right corner of this page) (11:13 interview with actors Will Forte and Bruce Dern at 2013 Cannes Festival where Dern won the Best Actor award) 

If you’d like to know more about Philomena here are some suggested links: (11:55 interview with actor Judi Dench at 2013 BFI London Film Festival, although actor and co-screenwriter Steve Coogan is there as well but this has been edited to only show Dench’s responses to questions; you might also want to watch the 31:14 interview with the real Philomena Lee and her daughter Jane at

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Nebraska was an interesting character study, but for me, not quite up to some of Alexander Payne's earlier work, especially the classic Sideways. I do agree SNL's Will Forte has achieved significant dramatic standing with this role. Payne's representation of Billings and Hawthorne in a gray, cold and colorless winter environment was perfect. It's not much different up there in real life when the trees are sleeping and life has left the streets.

    Philomena is certainly one of your most memorable reviews on record for all the obvious reasons. Bravo.

    I don't read detailed reviews prior to seeing a film to ensure that the story evolves in front of me, which in this case, worked to great effect. Philomena is superb and the authors and Judi Dench deserve awards for their work. For those who have not seen it, go now for an exceptional movie going experience.

    1. Hi rj, Thanks for the comments. I have great fondness for SIdeways (introduced me to pinot noir, among other positive results) but still have great admiration for Nebraska as well. Way back in graduate school I spent spring break with my roommate at his home in Omaha (left Austin about 10pm on Friday, drove straight through, got to see all of the wonderful flat land north of Dallas for hours) so I rambled around the countryside for a few days with him. You're right, it's a bleak place (he's since relocated to Houston).

      Thanks especially for your comments on Philomena, which was not the easiest film for me to write about (for those obvious reasons), but I second your recommendation for seeing it as it's really well done, not melodramatic or bitter as it could easily have been. Ken

  2. I liked your review of Nebraska. I also wrote one (though not nearly as detailed). I'm a big fan of Alexander Payne and I don't think he's really made a bad film but I think this is his weakest work. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, I did.

    I think the most powerful idea that came out of the film was that everyone, whether it seems like it or not, has a rich history and a story to tell. I think this can often be the case with our parents whose lives before we existed are a mystery to us. Knowing their stories can help us see them as fallible and because of this more human and worthy of forgiveness.