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Hammerle On …'Philomena,' 'Nebraska'

Robert Hammerle
December 18, 2013
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Philomena

The unforgettable Judi Dench makes “Philomena” a triumph. Based on a book written by Martin Sixsmith, played here by Steve Coogan, Dench embodies Philomena, an aging Irish woman wrestling with profound regret.

Initially, we see Philomena when she was but an Irish teenager in the early 1950s. After a brief sexual encounter with a young stranger, she becomes pregnant and is assigned to a Catholic girls school so she can quietly and silently give birth to her child.

What follows is an indescribable tale that unashamedly indicts the Roman Catholic Church. Having given birth under the nuns’ care, she is confined for four years of virtual slavery in their laundry facility as payment. Count on sobbing – repeatedly.

In the process, she is allowed to see her young son for one hour a day, eventually suffering inconsolable torment when he is adopted without her consent. It seems that the good nuns running this “House of Horrors” were literally selling young children to wealthy Americans, making a handsome profit in the name of our Lord and Savior.

Fifty years later we see Philomena join forces with Sixsmith, a struggling journalist, hoping he could help her find her lost child. He is as critical of the Catholic Church as Philomena is supportive, and the two gradually form a friendship that is inspiring. This is Coogan’s most complete role to date.
While I won’t give it away, the previews show that their journey takes them to the United States, where Philomena continues to pursue some type of contact with the child she has never forgotten. Our two comrades struggle as they both nearly lose hope.
hammerle-nebraska.jpg What transpires is a reaffirmation of the nature of human existence. Additionally, the Catholic Church is fully revealed for its brutal intolerance that mocks its religious principles.
Like Coogan’s character, I also served Mass when I was attending a Catholic grade school, and I still remember how I was taught that eating meat on

Friday was a mortal sin. In other words, if you ate a hot dog and then were killed by a car while walking home, your soul would be condemned to hell for eternity. Sweet dreams were poisoned.

Watching Philomena try to maintain her dignity while struggling to find a missing son shamefully taken from her by Catholic nuns 50 years earlier, you get to honor Dench as an actress in a profession that nears its end. Her eyesight is clearly failing, yet she embraces a character whose nightmare becomes your own.

Pope Francis should require all cardinals to watch this film when they next meet. The Church will benefit.

Nebraska

“Nebraska” is a small, black-and-white film that is beguiling beyond meaningful description. Far exceeding director Alexander Payne’s last contribution to the cinema, “The Descendants” (2011), it is at its heart a sublime story about moments that affect every American family.

Bruce Dern plays Woody King, an alcoholic slowly succumbing to the onset of dementia. Living with an emotionally exhausted wife in Billings, he is dead set on walking to Lincoln, Neb., to claim an imagined $1 million lottery prize. Dressed constantly in a plaid shirt, his head covered by his frizzy, unkempt white hair, he has largely lost any meaningful connection to life.

While Dern is fabulous, the movie belongs to June Squibb, playing his vulgar, very funny wife, Kate, who can no longer tolerate Woody’s antics. In one moment she is as mean as a snake, hoping that her husband is committed to a nursing home. The next moment she is driving her son to the edge of insanity by reliving her sexual life before she married Woody.

Woody repeatedly forces his son David, played magnificently by Will Forte, to leave his job at a music center to pull him off a highway. In desperation, David decides that the only way to help his father is to drive him to Lincoln and see the absurdity that awaits him.

What follows is a road trip as father and son spend time with each other for the first time in many years. Woody is distant and laconic, while David tries to crack through his thick exterior.
hammerle-philomena.jpg There are many incredibly amusing moments, not the least of which is when Woody runs to the nearest bar to down a beer while David gases up his car. Denying he is an alcoholic, David asks him how he can justify constantly consuming beer. Woody quickly looks at him and dismissively responds, “Beer isn’t drinking.”

Our boys eventually stop in Woody’s hometown in Nebraska, where they are joined by Kate and a houseful of distant relatives. Constant raucous interplay follows as his goofy relatives try to tap Woody’s supposed wealth.
Joining the group is Woody’s other son, played wonderfully by Bob Odenkirk. While the boys jointly feel that their father is as mad as the proverbial Hatter, they rally to his side to keep him from being exploited.

Stacy Keach also makes a strong appearance, here playing Ed Pegram, an old business partner of Woody’s who senses a financial windfall. Ed and others really don’t care about Woody personally, but only his money. When they realize Woody’s tragic mistake, they try to publicly humiliate him, resulting in his sons rallying to his side in a moment that is unforgettable.

This is a moving tale about an American family trying to come to grips with the travails involved in the aging process. The central theme of Payne’s film centers on the consequences of a simple, aging American believing what he is told.

If that is a sign of dementia, God help us all.•

__________

Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his Pennsylvania Street office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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