Saturday, January 28, 2012

Meryl Streep, Prime Minister

Whether you liked her or didn't like her, Margaret Thatcher was an important political figure. So she rightly deserves any recognition she gets, and merits a bio-pic.

That said, watching The Iron Lady, you get the feeling that this is a film more about Meryl Streep playing Thatcher, than it is about Thatcher herself. Would the movie have been made without Streep? Who knows. But you know somewhere, a few years ago, some film producers were sitting around and came up with this brilliant high-concept idea. Thankfully, Streep delivers.

The film is told through the eyes of a late-in-life Thatcher, who is struggling with dementia and can't tell the difference between past and present. She also thinks her long-departed husband (Jim Broadbent) is still alive. Through flashbacks, we see Thatcher's rise to power, and how her firm, take-no-prisoners style of leadership did some good for England but also made few friends. Clearly, even in her old age, the price of power still weighs heavily on Thatcher.

The Iron Lady was directed, rather surprisingly, by Phyllida Lloyd, whose last film, the dreadful Mamma Mia!, gave Streep a rare chance to go slumming on screen. The Iron Lady proves that Lloyd may have a future in movies after all. (I guess that's a backhanded way of saying she acquits herself much better here.)

But as compelling as the film may be, it's hard not to be distracted by Streep. The whole time, despite a good performance, she hardly ever disappears into the role, and you're left marveling at how cool it is to see Meryl Streep play Margaret Thatcher. The film, then, comes off a something of a stunt, and it lessens the impact of the story. (I mean, Good God ... even Leonardo DiCaprio, wearing all that obvious makeup, was able to disappear into the role of J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar.)

So The Iron Lady proves not to be one of Streep's greatest films, even if she is good in it. But of course she is. Those producers knew what they were doing. I'm giving The Iron Lady a B.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

Pal Joey

In recent years, the proudly, blatantly self-important projects that Steven Spielberg has worked on (often with Tom Hanks) — ones like the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific — have been such a turnoff. They may be good, but who wants to sit through something out of a feeling close to obligation? So I'll admit, I was resistant to seeing War Horse, uncle Steve's latest prestige project, and pre-disposed to not liking it. This film, an adaptation of the Tony Award–winning play and children's novel, tells the story of boy gets horse, boy loses horse to World War I, boy enlists in army to find horse, boy and horse are reunited, and all is well. It's about as audience-friendly as can be, and with gorgeous photography, a predictably majestic score by John Williams, and decent performances, the film is a rousing one that will make you stand up and cheer.

But of course it will. That's the whole point. War Horse is so engineered to appeal to its audience, and doesn't even try to hide it. No one gives the horse any credit but the boy, who just knows he can train it to save his family's farm. And guess what? Then the horse goes from owner to owner to owner to owner, during wartime, and yet somehow, miraculously, the horse (whose name is Joey, by the way) survives. And then, when the boy and horse come together again, the music swells, your eyes begin to water, and ... well, yeah. I knew going in that I wasn't going to love this movie. War Horse is generally well made, it's a slick piece of audience pleasing entertainment, but I didn't love it like I think I was supposed to. So I'm giving the film a B.


Tuesday, January 03, 2012

2011's Movies Hit a Home Run

If you haven't noticed, I see a lot of movies. As I sit down to write this blog post, this year alone, of the ones that are considered 2011 releases, I've seen 50. Last year I saw 60, so I'm a little off my game, I guess. But there are still a few movies that have yet to open in Boston that I'm sure I'll see, and that'll push the number higher. And yes, I know it's now a couple days into 2012. That's alright. Again, we're talking 2011 releases, the ones that are eligible for Oscars and all the other awards, no matter when they're in my local theaters.

Okay, enough excuse-making. 2011 was a pretty good year for the movies. Looking back on all the ones I've seen, there were a good number of them that I gave high marks to (i.e., a B+ or better). So what follows are my 10 favorite movies of the year.

1. Moneyball
An inside-baseball movie with a high-wattage star turn from Brad Pitt, who gives it the full Redford.

2. Hugo
Martin Scorsese's latest only looks like a children's movie. In fact, it's a 3D tribute to the earliest filmmakers.

3. Martha Marcy May Marlene
A heartbreaking, creepy, intimate, and intense film about a young woman who escapes from a cult but can't truly feel free.

4. Crazy Stupid Love
A romantic dramedy about how complicated love can be, featuring a sensitive performance by Steve Carell.

5. Super 8
J.J. Abrams' homage to his childhood idol. It's the kind of movie (almost exactly) that Steven Spielberg used to make.

6. The Descendants
Alexander Payne + George Clooney = A bittersweet story about a husband who learns things aren't as perfect as they seem.

7. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
An imperfect but very cool adaptation of the worldwide best-seller, featuring a kickass performance by Rooney Mara in the title role.

8. Page One
Journalism is alive and well at the media desk at The New York Times, thanks to some dedicated, memorable reporters.

9. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen's best film in years celebrates nostalgia and Paris, and nostalgia in Paris.

10. Win Win
An underseen gem featuring some great characters, well written by Thomas McCarthy and memorably played by a cast led by Paul Giamatti.

And the worst/most overrated films of the year? Well, thankfully, I see a bomb coming and I stay away — for the most part. That said, after 50 movies, there were bound to be a few that were torture to sit through or just underwhelmed me, despite popular acclaim. I don't have 10 of them, but here, in no particular order, are my least favorite films of the year.

Larry Crowne
Tom Hanks directs himself and Julia Roberts in a painful romantic "comedy."

I think I'm the only person who found this film totally overrated. Don't hate me for it.

Cowboys & Aliens
A sci-fi action film where the creators intentionally left out the humor. Big mistake.

The Muppets
Not the movie I was hoping for. The tone was off, the songs were largely forgettable, and Kermit wasn't the guy I remember.

I just didn't get this one. A cool performance by Ryan Gosling in a film that doesn't know what it wants to be.

What were your favorites and least favorites? I'd love to know. Leave a comment below.

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Monday, January 02, 2012

Out of Control

The Cold War–era spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy tells the story of a British intelligence officer who is pulled out of (forced) retirement when it's thought that a Russian mole is embedded within the Secret Service. Who is the mole? It's one of four gentlemen who are given the code names of the film's title. That's about all I've got. Despite an excellent performance by Gary Oldman (and his oversized glasses), I just wasn't invested in this one. It's stuffy, all-too-serious, and not exactly exciting to watch. No wonder my mind wandered throughout, and I couldn't wait for the film to end. Is it fair, then, for me to give the movie any review? I don't care; I'm doing it anyway. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gets a B– from me.