Annie (2014)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh

Ezekiel 11:19

 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust[consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:19-21

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Miss Hannigan again lectures & threatens Annie and her friends living under her care.        (c) 2014 Sony Pictures

 

As a child our newspaper’s Sunday Funnies was my favorite section, but I seldom read Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie.”   When the 1977 Broadway musical was adapted for the screen in 1982 and again in the 1990s, I skipped them. Now we have still another Annie film. There were two reasons I decided to take in the new version—first, I loved the little actress Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild and was curious how she would fare in a musical; and second, I was curious also how the story would play out, transferred from the Depression era to 2014 and the race of two of the main characters changed.

Many critics have panned the new film, but I thoroughly enjoyed what director Will Gluck and his co-writers Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna have come up with. Although the voice of Quvenzhané Wallis singing of “Tomorrow” would scarcely carry up to a stage theater’s balcony, she does well with the other songs, and as an actress she certainly holds her own in scenes with the rest of the excellent cast—the delightful Cameron Diaz as the stuck in the past Ms. Hannigan; Jamie Foxx as the Daddy Warbucks stand-in, billionaire Will Stacks; Rose Byrne as Stack’s loyal personal assistant, Grace; and Bobby Cannavale as the conniving business aide Guy.

In contemporary New York Annie and her friends live in a group foster home, rather than an orphanage. It is managed by Miss Hannigan who makes life rough for her charges because she is embittered by her lost chance to make it big with a singing group. Annie, still in possession of a note written on a restaurant slip by the mother who gave her up, sits on a curb opposite the restaurant on Friday nights in the hope that she will return. When she fails to show up each night, the sympathetic owner gives the waif a box of cannolis to take home. Whenever someone calls her an orphan, Annie replies, “Not an orphan. I’m a foster kid!” And of course, she cheers her despondent friends with ”Tomorrow.”

Will Stacks has grown super rich building his cell phone company and sees running for Mayor as a means to increase his wealth from contacts with government and business leaders. There is not a trace of altruism in him. The public apparently sees this, because in the polls he is way behind his opponent Harold Gray (note the tribute to the strip’s originator). Gray pulls even further ahead when Michael J. Fox endorses him.

As Stacks is walking down a street Annie bumps into him while chasing two boys tormenting a dog. She falls in front of a van, but Stacks pulls her away just in time. He goes on with no further thought of the incident, until he returns to his office and Guy points out that someone has made a video of the rescue and posted it on line where it has gone viral.

Guy, seeing this as a golden opportunity to score political points, tells Stacks that he must find the girl and spend time with her. This leads to inviting her to stay at his sumptuous penthouse, one corner of which could contain the rundown flat into which Miss Hannigan stuffs Annie and her friends. Stacks objects that he does not care for children, but Guy assures him that once the campaign is over, they can dump the girl Grace is troubled by the scheme, but goes along with it. You know, of course, how well that nefarious plan will turn out.

The film adroitly combines two genres, that of a hard-hearted adult softened up by a child (think About a Boy, Kolya, The Kid—2000 version), and that of the character transformation story (On the Waterfront, The Doctor, A Civil Case). In Annie both Miss Hannigan and Will Stacks are badly in need of improvement in their values and morals. It is a bit difficult which of them needs changing the most, although my vote goes for the foster care mom who sees the kids as just the means of obtaining monthly checks from Child Welfare while treating her charges like slaves—after all Annie has already been under her care for some time when the film begins, and the woman has remained impervious to the girl’s charms.

It is no spoiler to reveal that eventually both heels rediscover their humanity, and this inner process is movingly depicted in the song written for this film, one that I much prefer to the overdone “Tomorrow,” “Who Am I?” The music of this is haunting and goes perfectly with the words. As I recall it is Miss Hannigan who begins the song,

“Who am I, what have I become?
Do I stand for something, or for money?
Who am I, where’s my good girl gone?
You know I had a good heart once, you see.”

Then Will Stacks sings his verse, and last of all, Annie joins in. Each of them expresses their own need, the song closing with all three singing:

“ I will trust in it (8x)
But today, I’ve got to make,
The best I can of it.
‘Cause yesterday is dead and gone
And me along with it
I want to start again (spoken and sung)”

There are, of course, many other songs such as the amusing “It’s the Hard-Knock Life;” the one to which Grace and Annie sing as they dance together around Stacks’ lavish penthouse, “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here;” the Annie-Stacks duet, “I Don’t Need Anything But You,” and others, but none are as insightful and memorable as this new song.

There is more to like in the film, but in order not to make this review even longer, I just want to mention the race-blind casting. Annie and Will Stacks are African American, and Grace is white, the three of them at the end heading to form an interracial family. Looking around the audience when Will and Grace finally kiss, I saw only looks of approval on the faces of the mixed race audience. As one who can remember when African American stars such as Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were not allowed an on-screen kiss with their white costars, this film reflects some real racial progress in our nation. So, ignore the critics who have panned this family-friendly film. There is much to like in this version. I might even go back some day and watch the earlier ones…Nah, this one s good enough.

For the full lyricsgo to http://www.metrolyrics.com/who-am-i-lyrics-annie.html

This review, with a set of discussion questions, will be in the January 2015 issue of Visual Parables.

Philomena (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 13 min.  .

Our Advisories: Violence 4; Language -1; Sex/Nudity –1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

            Psalm 72.4

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.

Matthew 18:21-22

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Philomena and Martin seek clues for the fate of her lost son at the convent where 50 years earlier she had given birth to him, only to have him given up for adoption without her consent.
(c) 2013 The Weinstein Company

Director Stephen Frears, best known for his The Queen, Mrs. Henderson Presents, and Dangerous Liaisons, gives us his best film yet—and Judi Dench presents us with perhaps the best of a long string of great performances. Although overshadowed by the huge blockbusters, this film—no doubt to become a part of the Oscar buss soon—will be around and cherished long after the mega-producers have ceased counting their hundreds of millions in box office receipts. Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screenplay is based on Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a story as filled with grace and forgiveness as it is of oppression and institutional cruelty.

The film at the very beginning brings together the strands of three stories:

1. That of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) dealing with his dismissal from a post in Tony Blair’s administration, amidst charges of scandal, and his attempt to restart his career in journalism.

2. Retired nurse Philomena Lee, holding a picture of a toddler boy and, musing guiltily over the events, and, on the day of his birth, deciding to tell her daughter Jane (Michelle Fairley) her secret story of how Anthony, as she had named him, was taken from her.

3. Frequent flashbacks to the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) meeting and having a one night stand with a boy; of her father abandoning her to the cruelties of life in an Irish convent run by overly moralistic nuns who showed her no sympathy.

Jane, working as a server at a catered party, overhears one of the guests, Martin talking about his journalistic ambitions, tells him about her mother in the hope that he might help her find out what happened to her son. However, Sixsmith, a former BBC correspondent and bureau chief, has his heart set on “serious” journalism, not what he condescendingly calls “feature story” writing, so he blows her off. He would like to write a book on Russian history, but the lack of enthusiasm from those to whom he mentions the project makes him aware that this is not the way to go. Talking over with his wife Jane’s invitation, he makes an appointment at a restaurant to meet the mother and daughter.

He is upset by Philomena’s story in which the nuns, believing that she is a depraved girl, dismiss her terrible childbirth pains with, “Pain is her penance.” She and the other Magdalene girls are forced to work in the laundry to pay off their care, allowed to see their infants for just one hour a day. Then, when Anthony is three, the nuns sell him to a wealthy couple without any warning or the opportunity to say goodbye. The one bright spot in her incarceration was a young sympathetic nun who managed to take a picture of the boy and give to her on the sly. Through the years this small framed photograph had become like a holy icon, bringing Philomena a measure of comfort, even a tiny pleasure, as she takes it out and gazes at it.

Martin, backed by his editor at a newspaper, agrees to accompany her for still another visit to the convent in County Tipperary, Ireland. The two are received courteously at the convent, but are told that they do not have any further information because the old records had been destroyed in a fire. When Martin continues to push the matter, suggesting that they be allowed to talk to the older nuns to see if they remember anything, the nun curtly dismisses him so that she can talk privately with Philomena. Noticing through a window a dour old nun, he tries to enter and talk with her, but is prevented by the staff from doing so. He goes outside and comes across a graveyard. It is filled with the graves of unnamed babies, as well as of several mothers who had perished in childbirth. The nuns had not bothered to tend the graves, all of which are covered over with vines and weeds.

Discouraged, the two return to the village inn, but there in the pub Martin learns that they have been lied to by the nuns. The fire was a bonfire, the bar tender informs him, with the nuns themselves burning all of the old records. They also learn that American parents probably had adopted Anthony. Clearly the convent is not well liked by the villagers.

Deciding to go to America, Philomena experiences culture shock—you probably saw in the trailer her express her fear that Anthony might be overweight—because of the large portions of food they serve in America. Thanks to his journalistic contacts and his trusty laptop computer, he learns the truth about Anthony, who had been given a new name by his adoptive parents. There are several surprises in store for the two, as well as for viewers, so we will go no further with the story—only to say that it is a powerful one that deals with faith and forgiveness as much as with the solving of a the puzzle of a lost son’s fate.

The film reminds me a bit of Les Miserables in that it can be seen and discussed as one contrasting two ways of life—that of grace and forgiveness as opposed to one of clinging to past wrongs and refusing to forgive. Martin and Philomena both grew up in the Catholic Church, but whereas Martin now has given up his belief in God, Philomena’s faith is even deeper than when she was young. Martin refuses to forgive the church, and the nun in particular, Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford), whose cruelty so hurt his friend. Philomena, on the other hand, still goes to confession and loves the church, able even to offer the now aged but unrepentant nun forgiveness. Philomena is free from the bitterness and dour outlook on life that plague Martin.

It would be nice to be able to write that forgiveness softens all hearts, but the rigidly moral nun still believes that it was Philomena, not herself, who is guilty of mortal sin. Martin loses his cool and lashes out like an Old Testament prophet. If Philomena’s naïve faith has softened his atheism a bit, the nuns’ cruelty—their past wrongs against Philomena are added to by a new, incredibly cruel, one—quickly confirms his contempt for any and all religion, thus illustrating an old observation that the church has created more atheists than all other causes combined.

Despite the heaviness of the drama, Stephen Frear’s film is much lighter than the similarly themed Magdalene Sisters (2002). The script (co-written by actor Steve Coogen) plays on the class differences between the Oxford-educated Martin and the lower class Philomena. He quotes T.S. Elliot, whereas she goes on almost endlessly telling him the plot of a bodice-ripping novel she tries to get him to read. In fact, their status as odd-couple friends is confirmed by the ending when the last words we hear are her reciting again the plot of her favorite novel while he listens in silence.

The film also has many moments of grace that makes it a shoo-in for Visual Parables’ Top Ten Film list. One of them is when the couple are still in Washington DC at the airport, about to give up because the trail has gone cold. Reporting this to his editor back in London, the response is negative. She orders him to convince Philomena to keep up the quest. He is clearly reluctant to do so, seeing what pain she is in. He says nothing about his phone conversation. It is Philomena who decides they must go back into the city, thus relieving him greatly. Later, when she is highly troubled, his humanity is affirmed even more when he tells her that he will not write the story, quite an offer for a journalist to make!

This opportunity to see two actors at the top of their form is not to be missed!

The full review with discussion questions will be included in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables, scheduled for posting early that month. To subscribe to the publication go to the Store. A year’s subscription will gain you access not just to this issue (which has far more features in it than just film reviews and guides), but also to issues as far back as Summer 2006.