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Reality-based stories make for good December cinema

By TOM JOZWIK - Special to TimeOut

December 19, 2013

 
WAUKESHA - Truth may or may not be stranger than fiction, but it can be just as interesting. And it certainly can make for good cinema.  

The three movies reviewed below were all inspired by actual happenings. Reality-based, in other words; but to what extent may be anybody’s guess.  

“Saving Mr. Banks” opens Friday. “American Hustle” opened on Wednesday and “Philomena” debuted the day before Thanksgiving. For showings, visit www.marcustheaters.com.

“American Hustle”  

(Directed by David O. Russell, 138 minutes, R): “American Hustle” is engrossing  and  one of its most entertaining aspects is the background music, including 1970s hits by the Bee Gees, Chicago and more.  

Moviegoers will see a virtually bloodless and often humorous crime drama - remindful in ways of the sanguine “Goodfellas” - with excellent performances by the likes of Christian Bale and Amy Adams (who play an unhappily married couple). It’s a story grounded in the FBI’s ABSCAM sting  of the late ‘70s.  

A point made by the picture worth pondering: Law enforcement types can be as unsavory as the outlaws (politicians and otherwise) they pursue. And less concerned about the public. And less likable. (Given “J. Edgar” in 2011, “Dallas Buyers Club” earlier in 2013 and this flick, the FBI has taken its cinematic licks of late.)  

New York’s film critics have anointed “American Hustle” their film of the year. It’s a good movie, but a good movie in a year of good movies, and I wouldn’t recommend “American Hustle” over at least two or three others.  

But I’d definitely recommend it.  

Rating: 3 stars  

“Saving Mr. Banks”  

(Directed by John Lee Hancock, 120 minutes, PG-13): This movie has a lovely score, hummable - a rarity these days - even after one has left the theater.

The acting of Emma Thompson as Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers, Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Paul Giamatti as a chauffeur in Disney’s employ are also highlights.  

There are two distinct story lines (one is tempted to label them “medicine” and “spoonful of sugar”) - and this is problematic. “Saving Mr. Banks” is at once a comedy set in the 1960s, about Disney, his underlings and their troubles with Travers as they attempt to bring her creation to the big screen. The film is also a cheerless drama, circa 1906, about the author’s childhood with a mother at the end of her rope due to a father’s alcoholism. When dad (Colin Farrell) and daughter (cute as a button Annie Rose Buckley) go out for ice cream, she consumes the cone and he drinks the sauce.  

Considerably less of the flashback technique could still have sufficiently explained Travers’ surliness and hypersensitivity in middle age. More consistency in mood would’ve made this good movie better.  

I left the theater curious about what the movie left out (the long ‘06-’61 portion of Travers’ life) and wondering why the actress playing the real-life model for Mary Poppins makes no more than a cameo appearance.  

Finally, “gravitas,” “iconic” and “no problemo” just weren’t words you heard spoken in Kennedy-era America.                                               

Rating: 3 stars  

“Philomena”  

(Directed by Stephen Frears, 94 minutes, PG-13):  Based on Martin Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” this British film tells of its title character’s search for the son she gave up for adoption some 50 years earlier.  

Philomena had become pregnant as an unwed teen in Ireland and had then been sent to a home for wayward girls that might’ve come straight from the pages of Charles Dickens. The nuns who ran the place required that the young mothers sign away parental rights. The sisters subsequently formalized the transfer process via business arrangements with would-be moms and dads, many of them well-heeled Americans.  

Not enough can be said in praise of the acting of Dame Judi Dench as “Phil” and Steve Coogan (also co-writer of the screenplay) as Sixsmith. Out of work, and out of favor in some quarters, after tenures as a BBC journalist and a political spokesperson, Sixsmith accepts an invitation to write about Phil’s search. He is, in fact, able to streamline the search through research proficiency and tricks of the journalistic trade.  

“I’ve thought of him every day,” Phil tells Sixsmith of her Anthony, adopted away as a toddler. Phil is a marvelous character - a simple woman, yet one with a deep, enduring faith and a remarkable capacity for kindness (even to members of the order the often deadpan Sixsmith derides as “the Sisters of Little Mercy”).  

Is the unlikely team of sweet old lady and jaundiced sophisticate writer successful in its quest? The answer has to be yes and no.  

As for the movie, it’s an unqualified success. All the way.  

Rating: 3 1/2 stars