Tag: meryl streep

Hope Springs

Hope Springs (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Have you ever visited someone’s house, looked around their kitchen, and noticed a dishpan that seemed to have gone unwashed for weeks? The marriage between Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) is similar to that dishpan, only their relationship has gone unattended for years, so reduced to a mere convenience that they succumbed to living like college roommates who neither like nor dislike each other but somehow they must tolerate what is handed to them. Kay has grown so unhappy that she decides she wants a change, to restore intimacy in their marriage. She books a week-long vacation to Maine so that she and her husband can meet with renowned couples therapist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). Despite his wife’s desperate pleas, Arnold remains resistant to the idea.

Although “Hope Springs,” written by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Frankel, features sagging bodies and wrinkled faces on screen, it is a story that can speak to couples of every age, the requirement only having a certain level of maturity, wisdom, and autonomy to look underneath the material’s sclera. And while its messages aren’t particularly groundbreaking, one of which is that being in a rewarding relationship, even one that has endured for decades, requires constant maintenance, but the picture has enough small droplets of honesty to make this story specific to the central couple being examined.

The comedy is embedded in the drama and almost never the other way around. Instead of going for the cheap and easy laughs, like when the counselor assigns the couple to rekindle their sex life, it chooses to highlight the pain and the shame that comes with their situation. We can almost feel the characters’ regrets and asking themselves how they can possibly have allowed their marriage to come to a point where touching each other has become a chore. Kay is a true desperate housewife sans ironing flourishes while Arnold is an automaton that performs its job but doesn’t seem to have any special wants or needs.

Its principal actors allow the script to shine. A lot of performers can sit on a couch and play the part of a miserable half, but not many can make it believable. For example, small moments like Streep choosing Kay to button and unbutton her dress unconsciously while Dr. Feld eases the session from unsaid feelings to the subject of sex makes a scene all the more special. Yes, what she does with her hands communicates that she’s somewhat uncomfortable at the idea. But her eyes suggest otherwise. She wants someone to bring up the sex problem because she herself is unable to without being ignored, laughed at, dismissed as being silly by her husband.

The movie isn’t about blame but about acknowledgement and growth. It reminds us that there is unhappiness in Arnold and Kay’s marriage because they have allowed it to seep through by growing complacent. Who can blame them? It’s easy to just sit back when everything seems to be going well.

I wished the filmmakers had eliminated the soundtrack altogether. When a turning point in the relationship has occurred, it plays like a tired romantic comedy, signaling when it’s time to be sad or happy. Instead of paying attention to the images, the music is so present that it acts as a wall between the characters and the audience. Although it happens only twice, it cheapens what is supposed to be a smart and mature material.

August: Osage County

August: Osage County (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

When their father (Sam Shepard) took off without warning, a note, or a telephone call, a rarity occurs: the Weston daughters—Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis)—are all under one roof with Violet (Meryl Streep), the drug-addicted, cancer-stricken matriarch. It isn’t long until old wounds are rubbed with salt and the pain, anger, frustration are exorcised to the surface. There are good reasons why the women meet only during dire occasions. Every little thing turns conversations turn into arguments.

Based on a play and written for the screen by Tracy Letts, “August: Osage County” offers big and often entertaining performances. If you like to see emotionally self-destructive characters yelling at each other until others hurt as much as they do, then look no further. However, it is a bit of a disappointment because it feels too much like a play in that we rarely feel that these characters have inner monologues or have inner lives. Just about everything must be expressed verbally which is simply not very cinematic.

Streep is mesmerizing to watch as usual but it is Roberts that grabbed me most. I was interested in the character she plays because Barbara is so blind with rage that she fails to realize she no longer has anybody. Her daughter (Abigail Breslin) does not respect her. Her husband (Ewan McGregor) seeks emotional and physical comfort somewhere else. She is not very close with her sisters. Forget about having any relationship with her mother. At one point, I wanted to ask her directly if she was tired—tired of being alone, being so undesirable to be around, being so into her head that she neglects to see the big picture.

I wished the picture had shown more of the landscape where there is only farms, yellow grass, and mountains for miles. Being in that dark house takes a toll eventually and I began to get tired of the incessant whining and barking. When characters drive through the highway or step outside the vehicle, I imagined the scent of the wind, how it caresses the skin, and what it must feel like to walk barefoot on dried grass. Director John Wells fails to take advantage of contrast: the elegance of open space against the unpleasant quarreling in the household.

The characters confronting each other is a claustrophobic and uncomfortable experience. The dinner is one to be remembered, for better or worse, because it builds for an extended amount of time. Just when we think it has hit the highest mark, the next minute shows that the previous one is only a warm-up. While it has its share of histrionic lines, it entertains in a campy sort of way.

About halfway through, I asked myself what “August: Osage County” wishes to say—about family, the idea of unconditional love, generational gaps—but cannot come up with any. And that is a problem. Though the seeds are there, none of them are given the chance to sprout and thrive. Like many plays that have been translated onto film unsuccessfully, perhaps this one should have remained on the stage.

Evil Angels

Evil Angels (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Lindy (Meryl Streep) and Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill), along with their three children, two boys and a baby girl, decide to visit the outback and camp at Ayers Rock overnight. While enjoying a barbecue, Lindy thinks it does no harm to leave her nine-week-old daughter in their tent while the infant sleeps. When Lindy returns to the barbecue area, only a couple of feet away, they hear a baby-like noise. When the mother checks on her child, she discovers a dingo rummaging about the tent. It runs away, but the baby is nowhere to be found. What is found are blood stains all over sleeping bags. The baby is eventually found dead and the Chamberlains are thrown into a media frenzy with claims of Lindy murdering her child and Michael being an accessory.

“Evil Angels,” also known as “A Cry in the Dark,” is based on a true story supporting the idea that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Although the film follows a familiar set-up involving a tragedy, the gathering of evidence, and the eventual courtroom interrogation, it remains a highly engaging experience because the answers and emotions that the screenplay chooses to tackle are consistently given enough shades of doubt that we want to arrive at our own conclusions. Many viewers, including myself, may be aware of the court rulings and what has come to light but having knowledge about it does not lessen the experience—a testament to the skill and thought behind Robert Caswell and Fred Schepisi’s writing.

The manipulation of the media becomes a character in the film. Naturally, the media will want to cover and report what has transpired in Ayers Rock to the Australian public. But there comes a time when we wonder at which point the reporters and journalists have crossed the line. The editing is swift and to the point, so insidious and numbing that it is almost like watching a bacteriophage invading a healthy cell to make more copies of itself. The more word-of-mouth is expressed, the more ridiculous theories are created. Since ordinary people react so strongly, in one instance folks claiming that “the dingo is innocent” with an underlying emphasis on an animal’s life having more value than a person’s, the people responsible of what is shown on television and radio stations, magazines, and newspapers want to give them more. It then becomes about economy rather than searching for the truth and doing what’s right for the people who happened to have this tragedy inflicted upon them.

More interesting is the fact that Lindy and Michael are very open in sharing what they think happened prior to the disappearance of their newborn. Being a part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and faith being an important part of the couple’s identity, it seems as though they consider it their role to express their grief as a chance to help others. I do not agree with the way they deal with their situation, but the filmmakers work to make us want to understand and feel compassion for the Chamberlains even though we might deal with the same problem in a different manner.

Streep showcases her range by embodying a scalding frostiness during her character’s interviews, which fuels the public’s opinion of Lindy being a CHB, and warmth as well as sense of humor when she’s solely with family and friends. Neill is not as versatile, sometimes hitting false notes when expressing grief, but he holds his own against Streep especially during the scene when his wife, very pregnant, is roasting while Michael is freezing and wishes to turn the air conditioner off. Their argument may appear to be about the air conditioner but I reckon it’s about how angry and frustrated they are for being scrutinized in everything they do. I wish there had been more scenes like that because it serves as a reminder that the film, directed by Fred Schepisi and based on the novel by John Bryson, is a human story first and an infamous case second.

The Post

The Post (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Impeccably acted and executed with a high level of verve common to memorable historical dramas, Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” on the surface, is about the publication of the Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents that spans three decades with regards to the United States’ role in Vietnam, the resulting quicksand war, including the government’s lies and manipulation of the American people, but look a little more carefully and realize it is an exploration of the role The Washington Post, under the leadership of publisher Kay Graham, in continuing to inform Americans of the contents within the aforementioned classified documents after The New York Times was stopped by the Nixon administration from reporting any further about the leaks.

Meryl Streep plays the publisher who, over time, becomes willing to risk her company, fortune, and reputation for the sake of truth. Graham’s evolution from a woman who holds a title but not the respect that should come with it to a strong leader who leaves the room in silence once her decision is made is consistently intriguing. The veteran director ensures that the requisite rollercoaster ride of emotions that come with such a journey are not only present but that the viewers are thoroughly engaged with every turn of events.

The power of Spielberg’s control and Streep’s range, from behind and in front of the camera, respectively, are in perfect unison during an early scene where Graham is in a meeting with bankers and members of the company’s board—all of whom are white male. Questions demand the publisher’s input at times but these are always directed to the spectacled man next to her. For emphasis, Spielberg never places the camera from Graham’s side of the long table. As the subject struggles to speak up and realizes that her presence is merely a formality, decoration, the camera patiently inches toward Streep’s face for a detailed close-up. Although Streep’s face begins to dominate the screen, she is able to make us feel how small, how humiliated, Graham must feel at that moment.

Equally intriguing, in content and tone, is how the source of the leak (Matthew Ryhs) is tracked down by Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), one of the journalists for the Post. Despite a high-stakes situation, the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer establishes contrast by providing just enough room for light humor. Odenkirk does plenty with the limitations of the way the character is written. (Most of the time he is talking to someone on an office telephone or a payphone.) It helps that the performer looks like a convincing experienced journalist who is desperate to get to the contractor who acquired the highly controversial documents. I wished the character had more detail to him.

The narrative drive behind “The Post” is appealing because the story is supported by a natural ebb and flow of white-knuckle suspense and light amusement, spearheaded by leads who deliver top-notch performances. And yet not once do we forget that the themes it explores are serious and timely. It is a great reminder that we, as Americans, tend to take the First Amendment for granted.


Silkwood (1983)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mike Nichols’ “Silkwood” tells the true story of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), a woman who worked at the Kerr-McGree nuclear plant in Cimarron, Oklahoma. Eventually becoming very vocal about the company’s unsafe policies, practices, and downright illegal activities, she inevitably becomes the target of not only the higher-ups but also her co-workers who are afraid that if the truth came out, the plant would be forced to shut down, thereby losing their jobs.

I admired the picture’s willingness to abstain from a typical arc involving a whistleblower and what might inevitably happen to her. I had no idea what was going on in the first half—a compliment—because the scenes do not appear to be building up to a climax—at least not in an obvious manner. The screenplay by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen seems to be more concerned about letting the audience into the mindset of a small town and allowing us to get a feel of Karen’s life: how she feels about her job and being miles away from her children, how she relates or is unable to relate to some of her co-workers, the dynamics of her friendship with her lesbian roommate (Cher) and lover (Kurt Russell).

Pay close attention to scenes that show Karen simply being a part of her workplace. While we get to see a good chunk of her personality there, it leaves enough room for us to notice that maybe she is neglecting to take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of radiation. The cake scene which takes place in a specific work area is telling. So is an early sequence in the lunch or break room where she takes food from other people. How does she know that they are clean?

Having experience working in a lab and dealing with radiation, I tend to notice every bit of detail, from what Karen is touching to what she is doing to protect herself—and others—from the long-term effects of plutonium exposure. And yet at the same time, the film does a good job in allowing us to understand that Karen may not know that she is being careless at times. After all, radiation safety is not instinctual. It involves considering things that are not easily seen. Maybe the workers at the plant are not well-trained.

The pictures offers one of the more chilling endings I have seen in some time. It is horrific and sad, certainly, but I was impressed with its elegance. Emphasis is not on the violence but in the aftermath, the still unresolved questions. It ends with mystery without pretension. Because of this, we think about the character and her mission rather than what has, what has not, or what has possibly happened to her.

Streep is such a consummate performer that watching her in slow motion makes me smile. I loved the scene where Karen must say farewell to her boyfriend temporarily. Karen does not want to let him go and so Streep, standing next to his car (Drew is a car mechanic—the car is an obvious representation of him), allows her hand to slide off the vehicle as it drives away. Choosing to inject such a small moment that may have been easily overlooked and inspiring us to extract significance out of it separates Streep from her fellow performers.

“Silkwood” is for absolutely for those who like to observe without having to be told where to look or what to think. One example is the relationship among Karen, Drew, and Dolly. During the first half, I did not know exactly what to make of what they have. I had my suspicions and so I looked for clues. The answer becomes clear soon enough but the fact that I had to question and revise means the characters are not cardboard cutouts but real people who have real thoughts, pains, and yearnings.

Into the Woods

Into the Woods (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wish to conceive a child but their previous attempts had been unsuccessful. A witch (Meryl Streep) who lives next door reveals that this is so because she had cast a curse on the baker’s family when he was an infant and it can only be reversed if she is provided the following by the third midnight: a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a slipper as pure as gold, and a cow as white as milk. These items can be found by venturing bravely into the woods.

Based on James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s play of the same name, “Into the Woods” offers a neat concept of combining well-known fairy tales and attempting to mold an original story without the expected, well-ironed lessons and neatly tied ending. On several levels, the movie works. Once it starts, for those of us who have not seen the original musical, we wonder if and are excited as to how the screenplay will manage to weave in the various subplots together. However, let us not forget that the picture is, in its core, a musical. None of the songs are instantly memorable. Not one of them demands to be heard a second time. There is not one perfectly choreographed number powerful enough to make any sort of a cultural impact.

When the characters sing, I wanted to put my palms onto my ears and press hard. I found the songs to be so forced—many of them relying on sweeping crescendos to create a semblance of emotion. The melodies usually do not match the lyrics. The lyrics are either too wordy or there are too many syllables packed together in a meter to be considered pleasing to the eardrums. For a musical that is supposed to be very successful, I was at a loss how it had managed to reach such a status. Is it the costumes? Do key elements in the musical fail to translate on screen? In any case, evaluating the movie as is, it doesn’t work.

The material is at the top of its form when it is treated like a children’s book. Notice that in certain sections of the film, the narrator comes in, provides a bit of background or informs us what is about to transpire, and the characters are allowed to interact with one another. It may come across slightly robotic at times, but the pacing is fast and to the point. The experience is smooth—like reading one or two lines on the page, looking at the pictures, and turning onto the next page. There is a rhythm that is easy to follow and so we overlook or forgive the picture’s shortcomings.

But then the singing starts up again. Because the music is an experience to be endured, we notice little things like a handful of the performers’ voices perhaps not being too well-suited to musicals. An exception is Daniel Huttlestone who plays a dim-witted boy named Jack, assigned by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell their cow for no less than five pounds. Also during the musical numbers, observe that the woods looks like a set equipped with fake leaves, fake fog, fake shadows, fake emotions. We even grow watchful of the makeup on the actors’ faces. It shouldn’t be this way.

For what it’s worth, “Into the Woods,” directed by Rob Marshall, takes some risks that I appreciated. The interactions between Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the Wolf (Johnny Depp) have a sexual undercurrent that is certain to go over kids’ heads. Cinderella and Rapunzel’s princes (Chris Pine and Billy Bagnussen, respectively) have their highly amusing moments. And Streep, as usual, elevates the material by playing a character that is over-the-top but not exactly cartoonish. Be forewarned, however, that while the film is tolerable, its failings are distractingly conspicuous.


Heartburn (1986)
★★ / ★★★★

Rachel (Meryl Streep) and Mark (Jack Nicholson), both single and successful, meet at a wedding. Rachel, a food critic, cannot help but notice Mark’s aggressive glances every time she looks his way so she asks her friends about him. It turns out that Mark is a hot shot columnist and has a certain… reputation with the ladies. The next thing she knows, he asks her for a drink, she coyly accepts, and they are married.

“Heartburn,” based on the novel and screenplay by Nora Ephron, surprised me because even though its core is about a wilting marriage, it is very much in touch with the effervescent angle of their relationship. That is, the comedy in the details of what Mark and Rachel share which show us that, at least for a time, it makes sense that the two of them decided to get married, that they did not jump into something for the sake of consoling an itch.

I enjoyed that the couple are painted as adults taking a part in a mature relationship but they are far from perfect and their situations, from the stresses of the renovation involving the dilapidated house they purchased to the increasing annoyance and ennui they start to feel toward one another, are not always ideal. Even though it appears as though they have more money and means than most couples, the screenplay allows us to identify with them through problems that a lot of partners, married or otherwise, have gone or might go through.

Streep and Nicholson are joyous to watch because there are times when their dialogue does not come across as scripted. For instance, when the two of them eat pizza and burst in song, I felt very awkward, at least initially, then gradually got into it and found the whole thing charming and delightful. Eventually, however, the film focuses on the heartbreak Rachel experiences when it finally clicks that her husband is having an affair and he is making a fool out of her.

I found the writing one-sided—which is frustrating. Since all the scenes of the affair happens off-screen, the blow of the infidelity, at least from our perspective, is softened. While we might feel bad for Rachel, we do not feel betrayed by him. Our lack of connection to the husband is strengthened further by the screenplay not allowing us to see or experience what he feels after his wife confronted him. There is almost a sense of unfairness because we watch them get into a relationship as two people coming together but the fallout is dealt with by taking sides.

Lastly, the friendship between Rachel and Richard (Jeff Daniels) is worth delving into but the picture does not make time to establish what makes their friendship work. And so when Rachel turns to Richard for consolation during her darkest trials, we are not moved or touched by what they share.

Nevertheless, I am giving “Heartburn,” directed by Mike Nichols, a marginal recommendation because there are moments in it that do ring true. The performances are strong but is incongruent with a screenplay that lacks consistent wit and focus.