The Iron Lady (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Margaret Roberts (Alexandra Roach) had always been interested in public service. Despite her accomplishments in the University of Oxford and keen interest in politics, she was never meant to be taken seriously. How could she when women were perceived to have no place in governing a country? And with a humble background while growing up, she would always be seen as a mere grocer’s daughter. Instead of wilting under the shadow of society’s expectations, the put-downs she brooked made her hungrier. After marrying Denis Thatcher (Harry Lloyd, later played by Jim Broadbent), she ran in the election and was given the title of Great Britain’s Prime Minister. Margaret Tatcher (Meryl Streep) was more than willing to prove that she earned the people’s trust in her ability to govern. Based on the screenplay by Abi Morgan, as “The Iron Lady” unfolded, I began to feel like it was experiencing an identity crisis. I was very entertained and magnetized by Streep’s dual performance: As a frail aging woman on the verge of dementia and as a no-nonsense leader who was able to make the tough decisions for what she believed was right. However, as someone who didn’t know much about Thatcher, I felt like the picture was not only a very brief synopsis, but not a very good one because there were too many gaps left unmentioned and unexplored. One example involved Tatcher’s delusions that her husband was still alive. It was never mentioned how he died and, more importantly, the picture never showed, in a meaningful way, why Denis was such an important presence in his wife’s life independent of being a husband who insisted that she got some sleep instead of working until three o’clock in the morning. In relation to Thatcher being in power, after the war between the United Kingdom and Argentina had ended, I got the impression that the economic turmoil that plagued Great Britain prior to the Falklands War magically disappeared. How did winning the war help to solve the country’s economic troubles? While it was wonderful to watch Streep’s versatility in playing an old lady who snuck out of her home to buy butter, I wish we had more scenes of her in office. When the flashback scenes were front and center, I slowly began to feel the pressure that Tatcher was under. As everyone looked to her for answers, I felt uncomfortable for her. The trips to the past were the film’s highest points because they showed why she was a great and flawed leader. Her seemingly impenetrable armor did not come without a cost. One of the most memorable sequences was Thatcher’s breakdown during a meeting. Awkward cuts ran abound, the camera jumped from one area of the room to another, both of which reflected an ineluctable lack of inner focus in Thatcher’s mind. Because she was so frustrated that the change she expected to come out of her leadership didn’t come swiftly enough, she turned to her Cabinet minister, Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head), and pointed out his mistakes and how unprepared he was during that meeting. We all knew that deep down, Howe’s shortcomings reflected her own. She was just too proud to admit it. The scene was shot with such a vibrant energy and not without a sense of humor, a reminder of how powerful “The Irony Lady,” directed by Phyllida Lloyd, could have been if it had spent more time exploring the Prime Minister’s accomplishments and failures as a leader, a mother, and an individual who just wanted to make a difference.
Fair Game (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) was a covert CIA agent who worked in the Anti-Proliferation program where she and her team gathered secret intelligence concerning possible weapons of mass destruction. She was connected internationally and she gained people’s trust even though their lives were on the line. But when a man in the government leaked her identity to the papers, with impunity, all for the sake of shallow revenge involving the article her husband (Sean Penn) wrote aimed to criticize the Bush administration, Valerie and her family’s lives were turned upside down my the media, politicians, and the people they knew back when they still had valuable anonymity. Directed by Doug Liman, “Fair Game” was an effective thriller about an injustice in America and the unnecessary betrayal Valerie had to go through just because some men wanted to remind themselves that they still had power. The acting was top-notch. Watts did a tremendous job in making Valerie sympathetic but not so much that we ended up feeling sorry for her. Instead, she controlled her character in such a way that, if we were in her shoes, we would be outraged by what was done to us, especially when all we wanted was what was best for our country. She was a smart and strong woman, fully capable of thinking on her feet, in a thankless job where they could easily deny connection to you when things went sour. I was surprised that she didn’t receive more acknowledgement for her performance here. Much of the film’s strength was the complexity she injected into Valerie. The suppressed emotions were just as vivid as the expressed. Penn was also wonderful as the husband hell-bent on finding some sort of elusive justice. Although not always making the smartest choices in which his strategy was to appear in all sorts of interviews to gain exposure, his persistence was admirable. I loved the scenes between Penn and Watts as they evaluated their marriage amidst the chaos of revealed identities and realizing that what they had romantically might be beyond repair. What’s more impressive was the picture worked even if it was based entirely on fiction. It was exciting because we cared for Valerie and her family, the enemy was invisible and powerful, and it offered no easy answer except for the fact that revealing a CIA agent’s identity, while very active in the field where other lives depended on her, was a crime. I thought “Fair Game” was brave for showing its audiences the nastiness and ugliness that happens in America just so we would have the comfortable illusion of control or prosperity. We (or most of us anyway while others remain in denial) are all the wiser of the incompetency of the Bush administration, but it isn’t any less maddening when we are reminded of the fact that we allowed charlatans to rule our country for eight years.
Red State (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A dead teen was found in the dumpster at the back of the town’s most popular gay bar. It was reported that he was wrapped in plastic from head to toe and authorities believed that it was some form of ritualistic murder. Despite these happenings, Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) accepted an online sex ad posted by an older lady (Melissa Leo) on Craigslist. As they headed to the trailer home’s bedroom, the trio lost consciousness. Their bodies were taken to a church by a group of religious zealots, led by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), to be “punished” for their sins. “Red State,” written and directed by Kevin Smith, was brutal, intense, and sometimes devoid of reason. I think it was meant to incite frustration and anger with the religious extremists’ talk of hatred toward homosexuals, how that one group of people was responsible for the world going to hell. It wasn’t easy to watch, not because of the violence, but because for at least fifteen minutes, we were forced to sit in that church and listen to Abin Cooper summoning fire and brimstone, even implying that the tsunami that ravaged Thailand in 2004 was not only an act of God in order to set an example but it was actually deserved. I was in rage, in a red state, if you will, because in the back of my mind, I knew people like them existed somewhere. I admired the writer-director’s decision to allow the story’s exposition to take up almost half of the picture’s running time. It was necessary that we understood the evil within that church before we were introduced to Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who was called to arrest the cult members for suspicion of illegally storing firearms, because we were asked to weigh between right and wrong. Sure, the adult cult members needed to be apprehended, preferably dead according to Keenan’s superiors, but there were also children and minors inside. Not all of them were innocent; they, the teens, knew that people were being taken and killed, but none of them had actually partaken in the physical act of taking and killing. However, it didn’t expunge the fact that they ignored their moral responsibility to report a crime. What didn’t work as strongly were the shootout scenes. They dragged for what seemed like an hour. I understood that governmental law and the word of God were literally at war but it eventually started to feel like an action film. Following Keenan as he searched for a kill shot was less exciting than what was happening inside the church. I preferred watching Goodman connecting with someone else, whether it be face-to-face or via cellphone. His pauses, stutters, and variation in voice implied great experience in law enforcement and I was so fascinated with what he was going to do next. His speech regarding a pair of bloodhounds toward the end was brilliantly executed and it summed up the crazy, somewhat otherworldly happenings up to that point. “Red State” defied the conventions of the horror genre. Instead of focusing on the gore to entertain, using violence as a tool, it made a statement about religion and politics: sometimes the two make no sense at all.
The Ghost Writer (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Adapted from Robert Harris’ novel, Ewan McGregor played a ghostwriter who was hired to help complete an ex-British prime minister’s (Pierce Brosnan) memoir. Suspecting that something wasn’t quite right in the former British prime minister’s stories compared to what was said by the media and those around him, The Ghost did an investigation of his own which led him to endanger his life. Directed by the controversial Roman Polanski, what I liked most about the film was the director’s ability to take material that we’ve seen before concerning the dangers of politics and inject just the right mood and pacing to create something quietly sinister. I must admit that I did not immediately understand what was going on because it felt as though the protagonist was thrusted onto an island where he had barely any idea what he was doing or why he was really there. He tried to convince himself that he was there for an assignment (with great pay) but his instincts made him question until he couldn’t bear his curiosity any longer. The characters such as the former prime minister’s lead assistant (Kim Cattrall, whom I would love to see more in serious roles), wife (Olivia Williams), and even the housekeeper made me feel uneasy so I could not help but suspect them of hiding something key that might lead to the big revelation. Another interesting layer was the question of whether The Ghost was really on an assignment involving politics, or personal revenge, or possibly both. The questions were difficult to answer and the answers were vague. But I liked the fact that the movie chose to challenge its audience by allowing us to read between the lines. Since the real answers were elusive, we couldn’t help but question whether our protagonist was truly on the right track in terms of solving the mystery or whether he was merely putting together random information and forcing himself to make sense of them. “The Ghost Writer” thrived on subtlety and often reminded me of the underrated “Breach” directed by Billy Ray. Like that film, what kept the film together was not the extended action scenes but the strong acting and constantly evolving atmosphere. Perhaps I am giving the movie too much credit but I did notice some references to noir pictures in the 1940s, the most obvious one being Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.” My only minor complaint was I hoped Polanski used Tom Wilkinson a lot more. Wilkinson managed to do so much with how little he was given and it would have been interesting to see how much more he could have turned the main character’s life upside down if he had been given more material.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I could immediately relate to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) because he saw the good in people above all else. His idealism was challenged when he was appointed by Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a friend of his father’s, to fill a recent vacancy in the United States Senate. Smith looked up to Paine but was not aware of the fact that Paine was controlled by a powerful media figure named Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Despite the rotting corruption in Congress, it seemed as though nothing could destroy Smith’s loyalty to his country and ideals. I was so happy to have seen this film on the 4th of July because it had a truly touching scene about what it meant to have freedom. I’m referring to the scene when Smith talked to his cynical secretary (Jean Arthur) about the concept of liberty being buried in books and people taking it for granted and not realizing how lucky they are to have it. I have to admit I teared up a bit because it described how I was in high school. Despite our class talking about important U.S. historical figures and how the government worked, I found it really difficult to connect with the material because it all felt too impersonal. Watching Smith running around the capital while completely enthralled with all the monuments and the history of the place, it inspired me to always look the world from a fresh perspective. Stewart and Arthur made a killer duo because despite the two being completely different in how they saw politics, they found a commonality and worked from there to establish a very strong bond. I was touched with the way Arthur eventually revealed her softer, sensitive side without losing what made me adore her character in the first place: her sharp wit, dry sense of humor and sarcasm. Some viewers say that the picture might be a bit too romantic but that’s exactly what I loved about it. While it did acknowledge that there was an ever-growing darkness in the world and sometimes the good guys might not necessarily win, the movie’s main purpose was to instill hope. I don’t think the movie would have worked as well as it did if the lead character didn’t completely wear his heart on his sleeve. I was also impressed with the way it framed corruption by means of a politician’s silence which culminated toward the end of the film. Based on the screenplay by Sidney Buchman and directed by Frank Capra, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was astute, touching and, most importantly, still relevant today. It went beyond liberalism and conservatism. Its main focus was what it meant to be a true American.
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on John Carlin’s book and directed by Clint Eastwood, “Invictus” was about Nelson Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) role in uniting South Africa despite the nation’s history of great injustice and racism. I was surprised with this movie because I thought it would be more about Mandela’s role in trying to unite the South African people by showing us the more obvious politics and bureaucracies instead of focusing on the rugby team (led by François Pienaar played by Matt Damon). While the picture made it obvious that Mandela’s intention was to unite South Africa through sports, the movie did not completely feel like Mandela’s story. While the film had very exciting scenes of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, at the same time I wanted to know more about Mandela such as why he was sent to jail, his key experiences there, and the political moves he made during his first term as president. Because I’m sure he did a lot more than what the film portrayed. Nevertheless, I thought “Invictus” had some great moments such as when Mandela explained to a particular group why they had to keep the status quo in terms of the rugby team’s flag and anthem. Freeman, as usual, rose to the occassion and I believed him as a man who, despite having been through jail for being an anti-apartheid activist, was ready to forgive, move on, and promote a multicultural society. I also very much enjoyed the scene when Freeman and Damon had their first one-on-one meeting. There was a certain understated elegance in that scene alone; I thought it was interesting how Damon’s character started off as somewhat reluctant to connect and by the end of the meeting, although he was shaken, he began to trust and respect Mandela. There were also scenes that interested me such as the picture hinting at Mandela’s strained relationship with his wife and children. I believe “Invictus” is not Eastwood’s best work because it shifted its focus from the big picture far too often than I would have liked. For a movie that was over two hours, I didn’t feel like I knew Mandela well enough because he was always on the rugby field shaking hands with the players instead of shaking hands with politicians. What kept this movie afloat were the performances from Damon and Freeman as well as the intense rugby games even though such were more like distractions from Mandela’s accomplishments. I read a review stating that the film needed to decide whether to it wanted to be a sports film or a character-driven film so he could invest his interest in either one. I felt exactly the same way.
The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
After being recently heartbroken, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) decided to go with a self-proclaimed psychic-soldier-slash-Jedi-warrior (George Clooney) to Iraq so that he could publish a mind-blowing story and prove to himself that he was not a loser. However, Wilton quickly realized that maybe the man he was with was just a charlatan and there really was no compelling story that could be written. Adapted from Jon Ronson’s book and directed by Grant Heslov, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” was certainly not as bad as people claimed it was upon its release because the satire involving American soldiers and reporters worked on some level. Given the strange material, I thought it was refreshing even though some of the jokes didn’t quite work and the story could have been more focused. For me, I’d rather watch something that takes a lot of risks even though it doesn’t work rather than watch something typical that only occasionally works. I found the scenes with McGregor and Clooney the least interesting part of the film. I wanted to know more about Clooney’s experiences in the paranormal sector of the army in its early days (during the war in Vietnam), the person he greatly looked up to (Jeff Bridges), and his rival (Kevin Spacey) who would do anything to be the best. Even though the things they did were undeniably weird such as trying to defeat the enemy with friendship, flowers and the like, I was interested in the characters because they had great conviction in what they were doing. Personally, I think what the characters tried to do were not that extraordinary because there were times in history when other countries turned to paranormal studies (like mind control and science verging on the extremes like trying to bring people back to life) to remain one step ahead of their enemies. But it’s understandable that not many people liked the film because not everyone understands satire and some of the humor was dry and deadpan. Maybe if the picture tried to connect more with the audience, the audience would have liked it more. The movie also didn’t feel like a hollistic project but a series of scenes that were quirky which didn’t add up to anything substantial. Acting-wise, I thought everyone was consistently strong, especially Clooney. Despite his character’s goofiness, somehow I believed in his wild stories and got the feeling that he was much smarter than he let on. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” was a cerebral experience more than anything and it would appeal most to those willing to read between the lines. Commentaries such as politics, war and duty were abound but they were far from obvious. Ultimately, I’m glad I gave this movie a chance.