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Knight at the Movies: Philomena; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Judi Dench plays the title role in Philomena—that of an elderly, taciturn Irish Catholic woman who confides to her daughter that, 50 years earlier, she was forced to give up for adoption a son she gave birth to while staying at a convent home for unwed mothers.

Not long after, the daughter meets Martin Sixsmith ( Steve Coogan ), a former government adviser-turned-journalist, at a party and suggests a human-interest story. Martin doesn't think much of the idea but comes onboard after meeting Philomena and hearing about her deplorable treatment at the hands of the nuns. Soon, this oddly endearing odd couple is bound for the United States, hoping to track down Philomena's son.

A predictable but welcome road picture with a bittersweet journey that will transform both characters seems the order of the day and with Dench and Cooper as our guides that's what we get. Philomena is a woman without humor who doesn't get Martin's snide retorts, adores her romance novels, and revels in the everyday travel luxuries he takes for granted ( chocolates on the pillow and the like ).

Martin can barely contain his contempt for her unsophisticated ways and doesn't lose a chance to imply as much. Philomena, in spite of her terrible ordeal, has retained her deep faith while Martin is an avowed agnostic. And so on.

Dench and Cooper could do this stuff in their sleep and keep us entertained, which they do, but it's the nuanced twists and turns in both the characters and the story that elevate the picture beyond the familiar. The melancholy tone is leavened by unexpected moments of bawdy humor and when past and present converge in the last act—which includes a surprising gay element—what has been moving becomes profound.

It's not hard to see what appealed in the material to Coogan—who not only co-stars but co-wrote the screenplay and also produced the film. Martin, with his dark humor and entrenched cynicism, is pretty much quintessential Coogan; however, as noted, there's more here than meets the eye.

Martin also gets to express the frustration and rage that the audience feels in the face of Philomena's heartbreaking history and when Coogan displays sparing moments of heart and compassion, they really resonate.

Dench is simply a marvel. After playing so many sharp-tongued characters, it's a pleasure to see her essay a part that doesn't call for her to verbally annihilate those around her every 10 seconds. This gentle woman of deep faith who has quietly suffered for the sins of others is tremendously affecting.

These life-damaged characters who watch the world with wary, sideways glances are often critically hailed but rarely make it all the way to the awards podium. ( Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs and Edith Evans in The Whisperers are but two examples. ).Perhaps Dench's work in Philomena will be the welcome exception to that.

Briefly noted: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, the "star-crossed lovers," are back for round two in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Like most sequels, this one is sprawled across a much bigger canvas and a lot more money is up on the screen.

Jennifer Lawrence—terse, contained and fiercely independent—once again holds the screen as Katniss, the young woman who bested the other contestants ( except for Peeta ) in the arena by killing them in the barbaric annual Hunger Games in the post-apocalyptic, fictional society Panem. But Panem's evil President Snow ( Donald Sutherland ), who sends his victors out on a tour of the provinces, sees that Katniss has become a lightning rod for dissent and he wants her killed. With the 75th anniversary of the games imminent, the new games master ( Phillip Seymour Hoffman ) comes up with a clever solution: an all-star version that will pit Katniss and Peeta ( Josh Hutcherson ) against other past champions.

So, after prep work by their support team ( once again played by Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz ), it's back into the ring, along with these new competitors ( who include Sam Claflin as Finnick, yet another hottie clamoring for Katniss' attention ). As the duo struggles to survive, the stage is set for the forthcoming rebellion.

I thought The Hunger Games was one of the most entertaining films of last year ( although I was disturbed by the plot's glorification of teen violence ) and I think this sequel, which Francis Lawrence helmed ( stepping in for Gary Ross ), is a thrilling continuation of the story—well worth the additional time and money lavished on it.

If I have a hope for the final two parts, it's that Katniss will become less of a figurehead, as she is here, and will jump into the fray. Lawrence is the rare female action-movie lead who carries on the fierce tradition of Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise ( while becoming a genuine role model off screen as well )—easily the best and most enduring "special effect" this movie juggernaut has to offer eager audiences.

Film notes:

—Concussion, from lesbian writer-director Stacie Passon, is a good bet to make my Top Ten LGBT Films of the year list. Robin Weigert plays the fiercely intelligent suburban half of a lesbian couple whose sexual appetites go into high gear after she suffers a head injury.

In a lesbian twist on Belle du Jour, Abby becomes an escort by day, meeting a series of female clients in her Manhattan loft and returning home to pick up the kids before school lets out. Naturally, this double life of sexual flagrancy versus the traditional afternoons of cleaning house and driving children to music lessons quickly comes crashing down. I reviewed this sexy and thought-provoking film at length and talked with Weigert in the Oct. 2 issue of WCT when it was available VOD. Now Concussion comes to the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., for a one-week run beginning Friday, Nov. 29.

—Director Joseph Losey's The Servant, a microcosmic look at the British class society and a film shot through with a homoerotic undercurrent, is celebrating its 50th anniversary and the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., is presenting a restored print of this acknowledged classic beginning Friday, Nov. 29. James Fox and Dirk Bogarde ( in a tremendous performance ) co-star as, respectively, a boorish master and super-snippy, cold-as-ice servant whose lives are inextricably linked as the servant slowly but surely gets the upper hand in the relationship.

—Here's to the holidays: The 1983 film A Christmas Story is perhaps the only modern-day holiday movie that can genuinely be dubbed a classic, and it never fails to delight. I'll be co-hosting a 30th anniversary screening of the film ( along with my sister, fellow film critic Sarah Adamson ) on Wed., Dec. 4, at Wheaton's Studio Movie Grill, 301 Rice Lake Square, at 7:30 p.m. The screening—part of a series sponsored by the Chicago Film Critics Association ( of which both myself and Sarah are members )—offers a lovely bonus: Actor Ian Petrella, who portrays little brother Randy in the film, and Caseen Gaines, author of the just published A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic, will attend, autographing books and other merchandise.

—Here's to the holidays, part two: Back in Chicago at the Music Box on Sunday, Dec. 8, at 2:15 p.m., the gay-themed Scrooge & Marley ( which I co-wrote and directed and which Windy City Times Publisher Tracy Baim executive-produced ) returns to the theater where it debuted a year ago. The screening will include a festive carol sing-a-long by the swing female a cappella trio The Merry Janes, as well as prize giveaways. Cast and crew members will be in attendance. ( See my interview with David Pevsner, who stars in the movie, online this week and in print next week. )

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