DID YOU READ

“The Iron Lady,” reviewed

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A few years ago, The Onion wrote an incredible article about Meryl Streep called “Name One Masterpiece Of Cinema That I’ve Starred In.” The commentary, written in Streep’s voice, savagely ridiculed — and astutely observed — the fact that Streep, maybe our greatest living actress, does not have the greatest filmmography. She’s appeared in a couple memorable movies — “The Deer Hunter,” “Kramer Vs. Kramer” — but not many. “Go ahead,” “Streep” writes, “try and name a classic movie I’ve starred in. Not a classic character I’ve portrayed, mind you, but an overall amazing piece of cinema. You can’t. You just can’t.” Streep’s turn as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” is another none-too-classic example.

That’s despite the fact that Streep gives another chameleonic performance, almost two chameleonic performances, in two distinct time periods: in the 1970s and 80s, as Thatcher in her prime, and in the modern day, as Thatcher in the throes of dementia, hermit-like and trapped in conversation with the ghost of her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). As usual, Streep’s work is technically remarkable. Age, build, posture, accent, hair, temperament, Streep nails them all. If you want to be awed by a performance, “The Iron Lady” is for you.

If you wanted to be awed by a movie, though, you’ll need to look elsewhere. The early scenes establish the structure: Streep as the decrepit Thatcher attempts to finally get rid of her husband’s possessions. Rummaging through her past keys flashbacks to Thatcher’s early life, falling in love with Denis and rising to power in the Conservative Party. At first the backwards glances are brief. But as the film progresses, they begin to dominate the runtime until Thatcher — and director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan — are totally lost in her memories. The increasingly frantic pacing of the flashbacks may have been Lloyd and Morgan’s way of mimicking the confusion of an aging woman’s mind, but they also kill whatever little drama there was in the film. Eventually “The Iron Lady” devolves into a SportsCenter highlight reel of a woman’s life, a series of meaningless and insubstantial scenelets whose only evident purpose is to make sure Streep has plenty of showcases for her impressive performance.

Streep is undeniably impressive throughout, and her resolve and determination through the weaker stretches of the film is positively Thatcherian. But whether she demanded it be or not, “The Iron Lady” is less of a movie than a showcase for Streep. There’s no tension here, just that big voice and brassy haircut. To use another sports metaphor, if Streep were a baseball player, she would be Barry Bonds: blessed with incredible natural gifts but seemingly more interested in personal accomplishments than team ones. Bonds holds all the home run records but he never won a World Series. Similarly, Streep’s won every accolade imaginable for her work, but the Best Picture Oscars have been few and far between (the last one came for 1985’s “Out of Africa”).

Come to think of it, what about “Game of Shadows” as her next project?

“The Iron Lady” opens in limited release on Friday. If you see it, let us know what you think in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Carol Cate Blanchett

Spirit Guide

Check Out the Spirit Awards Nominees for Best Male and Female Leads

Catch the 2016 Spirit Awards live Feb. 27th at 5P ET/2P PT on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Wilson Webb/©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

From Jason Segel’s somber character study of author David Foster Wallace, to Brie Larson’s devastating portrayal of a mother in captivity, the 2016 Spirit Awards nominees for Best Male and Female Leads represent the finest in the year of film acting. Take a look at the Best Male and Female Leads in action, presented by Jaguar.

Best Male Lead 

Christopher Abbott, James White
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Koudous Seihon, Mediterranea

Watch more Male Lead nominee videos here.

Best Female Lead 

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Rooney Mara, Carol
Bel Powley, The Diary of A Teenage Girl
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine

Watch more Female Lead nominee videos here.

“A Separation,” reviewed

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So many movies let their characters off easy. They occupy universes of absurd moral clarity; good and bad, black and white. In contrast, nothing in the fascinating new Iranian movie “A Separation” is that simple. Every decision its characters are forced to make — and they’re forced to make a lot of them — is a difficult one. It’s not even a simple film to describe. Is it a legal thriller? A family drama? A character study? It’s all of those things and more.

The moral dilemmas begin in the very first scene, when married couple Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Naadi) appear in Islamic court. Simin wants to leave the country with their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) and find a better life elsewhere. Nader prefers to stay, particularly because his father has advanced Alzheimer’s and needs constant care. So Simin asks for a divorce. Nader is willing to grant it, but he refuses to let Termeh leave as well. Who is right here? Who the hell knows.

Simin moves out and Nader is forced to hire a caretaker for his father on short notice. He winds up with Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devoutly religious woman. For Razieh, the commute to this job is too long and the pay is too low. But her husband is unemployed and owes some men money so she takes the position anyway. On her first day, Nader’s father wets himself, which forces Razieh to disrobe and clean him, a big no-no for a married Islamic woman. She wants to quit, but again, she needs the work. What should she do? Who the hell knows.

There are enough rock-and-a-hard-place choices in these early scenes to fill a month of Hollywood movies. But these early scenes are just the overture to writer/director Ashgar Farhadi‘s cinematic symphony of ethical complexity. One day, there is an accident at Nader’s home while Razieh is out. Is she to blame? Later Nader confronts Razieh and the two get into an argument. She falls and there are medical complications. Is he to blame? In a sense, the film is a modern day “Rashomon.” All these people witnessed this event, but no one can agree on exactly what happened. We were there too, and we might not agree either.

The acting is stunning, the screenplay is brilliant, and, as evidenced by the still above, Farhadi finds brilliant ways to visualize the growing rifts between all his various characters. Many later scenes take place back in Islamic court, a riveting place where there are no juries, trials sort of resemble high school debates, and the rule of law often seems to create more ambiguity, not less. Will you agree with the court’s ultimate decision? What do you think?

My advice would be to see “A Separation” as soon as you can, and with a big group of people. Just be prepared for a lot of different opinions after it’s over. Still that’s preferable to walking out of this movie with no one to talk to. That would not be easy.

“A Separation” opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday. If you see it, let us know what you think in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

“War Horse,” reviewed

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In 1997, Robert Altman executive produced an interesting but short-lived television series called “Gun.” The only recurring member of the cast was a semi-automatic handgun; each episode featured an entirely new story with entirely new actors and one new owner of that same gun. Steven Spielberg‘s “War Horse” is basically the same idea, only with a horse as the one constant instead of a gun and an Ireland-circa-WWI setting instead of modern day America. We follow a horse named Joey from birth through his childhood — do horses have childhoods? I’m not a big horse guy — to his unwitting adventures during the Great War, where he passes between owners on both sides of the conflict. The strength of any anthology depends upon the strength of the characters, and that’s the biggest problem about “War Horse.” Joey’s present for all of these stories, but he’s surprisingly uninvolved in many of them (or maybe it’s not that surprising since he’s, y’know, a horse). He’s less a protagonist than a guide through a world full of protagonists, some far more richly characterized than others.

The best of the bunch is unquestionably Joey’s first owner, an Irish boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Albert’s father, a drunken war veteran named Ted (Peter Mullan) buys Joey as an act of instinct and foolish pride; the horse catches his eye at auction and when his greedy landlord (David Thewlis) joins the bidding, Ted refuses be embarrassed. With the rent to the landlord due, Albert must train the colt to plow his family’s pitiful plot of fallow land or lose everything. There’s some real tension here, and what feels like a genuine connection between Irvine and the horses who play Joey.

Before Albert’s family’s dilemma can be fully resolved, war breaks out in Europe and Joey is sold to the army, where he’s selected as the mount of an impossibly chivalrous officer (“Thor”‘s Tom Hiddleston). In these early days of the war, the British soldiers entertain romantic notions of what the battles will be: swords flashing, horses charging in perfect regimented unison. The horrors of modern warfare with its machine guns, gases, and tanks, will quickly dissuade them of their high-minded ideals.

From Hiddleston, Joey passes hands to a pair of young German soldiers and then to a young orphan and her grandfather. Later, he’s acquired by a cruel German officer who needs horses to pull his heavy artillery and doesn’t care if they die in the effort. Each move away from Albert feels like another move away from the heart and soul of this story. In Michael Morpurgo’s original children’s book, Joey narrated the story. In the Tony Award winning stage adaptation of the book, the horses were brought to life with remarkable life-size puppets. In Spielberg’s “War Horse,” the horse is just a horse (of course, of course). All it can do is observe the people around it, some of whom are painfully dull. “War Horse” is the law of diminishing returns in action.

Spielberg’s brilliant use of camera, lighting, and production design mean the film is never boring to look at. Joey’s life darkens as the war does, and many of the latter scenes take place amidst the horror of trench warfare. These scenes feature several impressive long takes panning the hellish landscape of the battlefield and following Joey on an unsuccessful ride for freedom. From any other director, these would feel like watershed moments. But Spielberg, the director of “Saving Private Ryan,” has captured the senselessness of war before with more clarity, scope, and raw terror.

I did like one scene which is complete enough as its own unit of story and character that it could be pulled out of the film and played as its own short subject. Circumstance has led Joey to run into No Man’s Land between the German and English forces, and he’s gotten tangled in a nest of barbed wire. Two soldiers, one from each side, tentatively make their way out to free the horse. They both acknowledge that neither has any idealogical reason to kill one another, and despite their mutual distrust, they quickly learn to work together toward their common goal. Then the horse is free and only one man can own him and animosity suddenly returns. This tiny episode is a beautiful microcosm of the film’s themes: the power of an animal to remind us of our shared humanity and the futility and absurdity of war.

If only every story bore that same emotional impact. Even the grand climax, which uses John Williams’ nostalgic score like Pavlov ringing a bell for his dogs, fails to achieve its heartwarming goals (it might have something to do with the fact that Albert’s obsession with Joey borders on the absurd, if not the outright creepy). There’s both too much about this horse and not enough with him at the same time. Even though it is about an animal and not a person, “War Horse” bears all the flaws of a mediocre biopic: a sketchy and schmaltzy life story that’s so busy cramming in all the broad strokes that it doesn’t have time to fill in the more important details.

“War Horse” opens on Christmas Day. If you see it, tell us what you think. Leave a comment below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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