The Iron Lady (B)
U.K.-U.S.: Phyllida Lloyd, 2010, The Weinstein Company
Love her or hate her -- and there were lots of strong feelings on both sides of the fence -- Margaret Thatcher remains one of the most fascinating and influential Western world leaders of the 20th century, deserving of the classy portrait and dramatization she gets in this Weinstein Company release. And I say that as part of her opposition.
A woman politician who conquered a man's world, an arch-conservative among Tories and Laborites, a disciple of the free-market economics of Friedrich von Hayek, a nationalist during the years when the sun was setting on the British Empire, an Oxford graduate whose policies infuriated stars of her own alma mater, and the daughter of a middle-class grocer, she a phenomenon and an anachronism. And an image and a character to remember: An ample lady with a prominent face made for political caricature, plus a toothy smile and a screechy voice she modified by voice coaching. Maggie Thatcher was the kind of world leader who seems too colorful, too offbeat, and too dramatically eccentric to have ever been invented as fiction. So life invented her instead.
On the other hand, Meryl Streep, the American movie star who plays/impersonates/inhabits/incarnates Thatcher in The Iron Lady, is not only one of the greatest movie actresses of the 20th and 21st centuries, an artist of confounding competence, flawless mimicry and consistent brilliance, but a smart student of life and humanity who who can vanish into her parts totally. And here she's giving what is certainly one of her most impressive performances. You look at her and you can only say one word: "Thatcher."
It's the juiciest of juicy real-life roles: one in which Streep captures the external mannerisms and speech patterns of Thatcher (superbly), gets her toothy smile, her genial imperious manner, her screechy voice, and then delves deeper inside to explore emotional undercurrents and psychological nuances. In the movie we see Thatcher as a bright young lady from Lincolnshire (played at first by Alexandra Roach), and later (Streep's turn), as a feisty educated woman on the rise, a dominating political figure, an embattled prime minister sending troops to the Falklands, castigating the Soviets (they're the ones who gave her that "Iron Lady" nickname), fighting the world, and her own Conservative Party -- and finally as a still-confident but lonely old lady (in 2009 or thereabouts) in the throes of dementia and hallucination, chatting with her dead husband Denis (played by that affable designated husband of great bio-movie ladies, Jim Broadbent) and slipping, in her mind, back to her consequential years on the world stage, her days of power, her hours of glory, the times when she was most intimidatingly, Maggie Thatcher, P.M.
Streep can get all that because she's never been intimidated herself by playing great or extraordinary ladies. Or controversial ones.
So why, then, is this movie, with its rich subject, broad canvas and magnificent lead performance, with all that high-serious, high-toned, high-quality stuff going for it, still, at times, somewhat dull and unsatisfying? It's a movie that, in the end, doesn't really move you, even though Thatcher herself was a political leader who moved people intensely all the time -- to rage or adoration and to many calibrations in between.
The movie doesn't really dramatize Thatcher's politics, or what their consequences were, or why she had them, or what she tried to achieve, except for brief symbolic pictures and jabs: like the surly protesters who keep charging her limousine and shouting in at her window, or the transcendent pre-Dancing with the Stars tableau moment when she twirls (after a fashion) across a ballroom floor with Ronald Reagan.
Indeed the movie seems to spend as much time with Streep's Thatcher in her alleged semi-dotage, summoning up visions of the past while she wanders around her dwelling, as it does with Thatcher in her Iron Lady prime. I'm not sure of the intention here -- maybe it's to elicit maximum sympathy for a figure whom the moviemakers know is divisive, maybe it's something more Dickensian -- but I would have preferred more moments of high historical drama and less of lower imagined pathos.
Luckily, the movie has Streep, still in her prime at 62, still effortlessly slipping beneath the skins of her parts, still showing us what acting is really, really all about, still turning herself wonderfully into somebody else for our edification and pleasure. Now, there's a woman -- you think as you watch her in The Iron Lady -- who could really run a country. Or at least, there's a woman who can really run a movie about a woman running a country. (Extras: "making of" documentary; featurettes on the young Margaret Thatcher.)
U.S.-U.K.: Steve McQueen, 2011, 20th Century Fox
There have always been lots of movies that show or exploit sex, but far fewer that try to explore it seriously, as a rich, meaningful subject, whether psychological or social. And there's only a handful of that few that try to portray it artistically and seriously and realistically. Among them, of course, are Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses -- and now Steve McQueen's Shame.
Shame, rated NC-17, contains copious amounts of nudity, and numerous simulations (I guess) of sexual acts. It's not really an erotic movie, though, and I'm not being coy when I say that. This film, whatever McQueen shows us, is not a turn-on, or intended as one, in the usual sexy-movie sense. While not obviously moralistic, it's quite serious about exploring the psychological and social contexts of its characters, as much as it explores their bodies. It's a story about a man intensively and obsessively involved in loveless sex, and it gets into the what and the why as well as the sexual mechanics.
Writer-director Steve McQueen also made the 2006 Hunger, a remarkable portrait of the famed Bobby Sands IRA hunger strike, also starring Shame's Michael Fassbender, as Sands. And he's made Shame a movie about something more dramatically interesting than usual: a fresco of the high-rolling life of a sex addict in high-living Manhattan, in the present day -- Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender), whose joyless pursuit of conquests and orgasms is about to hurl him off an emotional cliff.
Brason, who works in an unspecified corporate job that apparently rewards him munificently without requiring much visible work, prowls in the evening (and sometimes in the day) for sex, by himself or with companions like his nervous boss David Fisher (James Badge Dale). He's amazingly successful, without expending much visible effort -- perhaps because he looks like Michael Fassbender and doesn't have to. (Fisher expends lots, and strikes out, at least when we see him -- with Brandon effortlessly scooping up his boss' failures.).
Unencumbered by marriage or any kind of long-term relationship, Brandon pursues sex as a sport, a routine, an obsession. He seduces women (and, once, a man) almost constantly during the course of the film, but his passions, while apparently unslakable, also seem joyless and unsatisfying. I can't recall a single smile crossing Brandon's mouth, or a single joke passing his lips, or much tenderness at all, during the course of the movie. When he has one extremely attractive and plausible partner, his warm, smart and nice co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), he's unable to follow through.
It's as if Brandon has become consumed by some kind of half-insane copulation rites, trapped in a perpetual orgasm machine, a routine that has emptied out most of the rest of his life. And he pursues that nonstop pleasure with a monastic fervor, as if his pickups and hookups were part of some quasi-religious ritual flagellation ceremony. One could see all this as a figment of McQueen's overheated imagination, but the movie feels plausible if extreme, coolly told, examined, not exploitative. Shame was extensively researched by McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan. Shame's models, McQueen says, were other addiction movies like The Lost Weekend and The Man With the Golden Arm.
Like Frank Sinatra's Frankie Machine or Ray Milland's literary souse Don Birnam, Fassbender's Brandon, for all his seeming erotic success, also seems a prisoner of his own excess and addiction. He's locked into a tightly ordered, repetitive existence that leaves little or no room for human interaction or human warmth or human need.
Into that rigid, obsessive, mechanical routine, comes probably the most damaged and lost and needy woman in Brandon's life: his dysfunctional singer-actress sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Sissy pops up in his shower one night; she has no place to go, and she asks him for a bed. He's a bastard and he tells her to leave. But she stays and that's the story: the effect that his needy sister has on his self-obsessed life.
Midway though this movie, Mulligan absolutely shattered me. Sissy and Brandon and David are at one of those chi-chi little Manhattan restaurant-bars where the yuppies flock and sip and munch, and where Sissy has gotten a job singing. We've seen mostly her somewhat shallow, annoying sides, as well as the contempt her brother throws at her.
But now she goes to work, gives us her money stuff -- singing a slow lounge blues version of Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York," treating it not as the upbeat anthem that Sinatra or Liza Minnelli always made of it, but slowed down like the young Barbra Streisand slowed down "Happy Days are Here Again" -- turning it into an ironic torch song of almost unbearable, excruciating melancholy.
Shot by McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt close up in a single take (as I remember), Mulligan as Sissy truly breaks your heart with this song. At the end of the ballad, there's a tear rolling down her mean brother's cheek, and although some have dismissed that reaction shot as a moment of sentimental cliché, I though it was right.
Shame fools us. It's raunchy and raw, but in a strange, cool way, and it shows us the traps of hedonism as well as the flesh, and it puts Brandon through the wringer he deserves.
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (A-)
U.S.: Brad Bird, 2011, Paramount
If you have even a little fear of heights, there's a scene in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol that should leave you breathless. Producer-star Tom Cruise, playing the Mission: Impossible series' head impossibler, Ethan Hunt, has to sneak from one room to another in Dubai's Burj Khalifa, a skyscraper in the United Arab Emirate. That's the building that's currently the world's tallest: 160 stories or 2,723 feet high.
Deciding to do things the hard way, Ethan knocks out a window in the IMF crew's apartment, which is, oh, about 123 stories up. (Yikes!) A whole empty wall is now facing Cruise (we'll call him Cruise from now on), and he swings outside, with a climbing harness, wires and suction gloves that stick to the building's side. (Ay-yi-yi...) All Mission: Impossibled up, he goes climbing up the side of the Burj. And, because cinematographer Robert Elswit and company are very good with cameras, we seem to be able to see all the way down to the ground, or at least to the tops of those other little smidgens of skyscrapers, way, way down there. The effect of being really up there is astonishing, terrifying. (Yow! Yow! Yow!)
Anyway Cruise keeps climbing up. He has that intense, focused Tom Cruise look on his face. But since we're 123 stories up, it must be a little windy. And -- wouldn't you know it? -- his equipment starts to show some bugs. Specifically, one of the suction gloves starts to peel off the wall, and he has to throw it away. Cruise... has... to... take... off... the... glove... and... throw... it... away. While he's up there, 123 floors high. And with assassins who want to kill them still in the building. (Ay-yi-yikes!)
I'm not going to tell you the rest. You'll have to see it yourself. All I have to say more about "The Scene" -- in a movie for which Cruise is reported to have insisted on doing his own stunts -- is that if he really did do all of it, without CGI, and without a net, and without fakery of some kind, I think he deserves a special Oscar for the most totally crazy performance by a star movie actor in 2011 who has succeeded in scaring the living hell out of his audience. He has no competition.
This is the fourth of the M:I movies, which started in 1995, with the original show directed by Brian De Palma (and the next two by John Woo and J.J. Abrams, who co-produced this one). In the movie, Cruise and a thrown-together supporting crew -- tough gal Jane Carter (Paula Patton), wise cracking techno-whiz Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, a holdover from M:I3) and moody agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) -- get together on a ghost mission (they have no support, no visibility, no deniability and no help) to foil an insane nuclear terrorist who wants to blow up the world: Michael Nyqvist as Hendricks.
This was the best big-budget action movie out last year not just because it has the best action, but because the characters are interesting too: Everyone we've mentioned, plus the uncredited Tom Wilkinson as a spy boss, Lea Seydoux as a cold-blooded knockout killer, and Anil Kapoor (of Slumdog Millionaire) as a fashion plate baddie. Bird, who directed those modern animated feature gems The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille -- has a clean, clear, expert-looking filmmaking technique full of visual gusto and visual wit. His other showpiece sequences here include a terrific prison break, a bizarre gadgety break-in capped by the explosion of the Kremlin, a terrific car-chase, and a fight over a briefcase with the nuclear button, in an indoor garage, with hero and villain battling on independently rising and lowering parking spots.