Thursday, January 26, 2012

Film Review - THE IRON LADY

Few genres come burdened with a heavier air of self-importance than the biopic. For they are expected to not only tell an entertaining story, but also serve as a compelling tribute to their famed subjects’ profound importance and exceptionalness. Muddying the waters further is the fact that, frankly, reality isn’t cinematic; serious artistic license and dramatic flourish is required in order to transform it into anything approaching an engrossing viewing experience. Filmmakers have to walk a tricky balancing act, dishing out equal parts invention and accuracy. And the majority fall well short of brilliance. Great entries like Raging Bull, Ed Wood, The Social Network, Malcolm X or The Coal Miner’s Daughter succeed because their protagonist's personal account arrives tightly wrapped in a richly layered narrative that cleverly tackles universally relatable themes. It’s not enough to simply tell us a person is significant. We need to be able to connect emotionally with them and derive meaning from their unique journey.

Alas, The Iron Lady, the new Meryl Streep-fronted examination of the life and times of Britain’s controversial first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, couldn’t be any less vital. A cobweb-riddled grab-bag of musty old biopic clichés, archival footage and shallow historical bullet points, the picture falls prey to the same brand of lazy, trite screenwriting and overbearing stuffiness that hobbled Clint Eastwood’s dreary J. Edgar. It’s as if the filmmakers, fearful that audiences wouldn’t grasp or respect the magnitude of Thatcher’s achievements alone, decided to overcompensate by dressing up their effort in clumsy TV-movie obviousness and forced sentiment. It’s been a while since a biopic championed its own cause harder than this one.

Set largely in the modern day, The Iron Lady presents Thatcher (Streep) as a stately, good-humoured senior citizen, whose grip on sanity is being tested by frequent hallucinations of her deceased husband Denis (Jim Broadbent, twinkling with mischievous wit). Still grieving his loss, and unable to bear moving his belongings from her bedroom closet, she finds comfort by escaping into the past, recalling key personal milestones involving their courtship, her working class youth (in which she’s played ably by Alexandra Roach) and early forays into politics, first as an Oxford student, and later as a Conservative M.P. and education secretary. As well, we witness her miraculous rise to power, and her unprecedented 11-year reign as Britain’s leader, tackling fiery issues such as the 1981 Brixton riots, the 1984 miner’s strike and – most interestingly - the Falkland Islands military conflict.

Unlike similar, superior fare such The King’s Speech or The Queen – which used a single captivating event to explore their main character – the film spreads itself way too thin by trying to cover so much terrain. At just 105 (thankfully well-paced) minutes, The Iron Lady’s script, by Abi Morgan, hops, skips and jumps hastily through Thatcher’s lifetime without ever pausing to delve deeper into any of the crucial events. Did no one realize viewers might actually be intrigued to learn why exactly this woman was able to excel as she did? Or see how her role as a wife and mother affected her role as a leader and vice versa? This final product is like Coles Notes cinema, communicating only the barest of details without any of the desired context, curiosity or dynamism.
The picture’s creaky structure does it no favours. Can we please call for a moratorium on biopics that feature actors in old-age make-up using faded photographs, videotapes and brief memory snippets to recollect their lives in nearly precise chronological order? It’s a beyond-exhausted story device that reeks of artificiality. The Iron Lady relies on this conceit so heavily, it’s kind of amazing. The lion’s share of the movie’s attempts at poignancy and truth are stuffed into hokey, bewildering sequences of Thatcher being pestered by Denis’s ghost (who often wears funny hats!) and devolving into bouts of pitiful hysteria. And since her career spanned such a lengthy period of time, and ended so mundanely, there’s no grand, moving final note to close on. So the film just sort of peters out with a series of concocted fictional moments in which she confronts her demons and achieves blissful serenity. Under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd – who previously guided Streep in 2008’s Mamma Mia! – these scenes play more like parody than honesty.

It goes without saying that Streep is, as per usual, a mesmerizing force of nature on-screen. She doesn’t imitate Thatcher. She inhabits Thatcher. And her performance is so dead-on smart, funny and authoritative that she almost single-handedly redeems the whole uneven affair. Portraying the character over four decades, the legendary actress is completely convincing every step of the way, and brings more dimension to the role than anything offered by the page. In one of her many crackerjack bits, she verbally demolishes a long-time colleague for being unprepared for a meeting, and we sense both her innate anger and stubbornness, and, conversely, her sad regret at having to behave so harshly. Streep also forms a warm union with Broadbent (who, unfortunately, is relegated mainly to popping up in the fantasy sequences). It’s too bad the film doesn’t spend more time with them in the countless flashbacks.

If only this movie wasn’t so timid and unwilling to think outside of it’s safe, unchallenging prestige picture box. With Streep giving it her all, this could – and should - have been an exciting, absorbing portrait of one of the 20th century’s most complex and contentious figures. Agree with her politics or not, Thatcher was a woman of tireless drive, fierce intelligence and vision. She deserved a movie far better than The Iron Lady, which fails on all three of those counts.

2 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Film Review - CONTRABAND

There’s not a whole lot in Contraband, the new heist thriller starring Mark Wahlberg, you haven’t seen done better elsewhere. This is another one of those B-movie plots about a former criminal being forced, through unpleasant circumstances, to abandon peaceful retirement and take on One. Last. Job. You know the type of job I’m talking about: a final convoluted journey into the seedy underworld where everything that can go wrong does so spectacularly, every pre-established rule is broken and yet, somehow, the hero manages to emerge triumphant and mislead the sinister antagonist, as well as the audience.

It’s a fun, seemingly inexhaustible, formula, and one that can very easily become repetitive and tediously predictable. However, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur has managed to imbue his Americanized remake of 2008’s little-seen Reykjavik-Rotterdam – which was helmed by Óskar Jónasson and featured Kormákur in the lead role — with just enough grungy off-beat charm to warrant its own rather slight existence. Contraband is the kind of movie you unintentionally come across on TV one night and, after a reasonably engaging two hours, find yourself reflecting on why you have no memory of it ever being in theatres.

Wahlberg treads familiar thespian terrain as Chris Farraday, a soft-spoken working class New Orleans family man with a mean right hook and a gift for smuggling. How good a smuggler is Chris? So good that other characters often feel compelled to remind him of his top-notch credentials. Like every other heist movie hero, Chris is the best there is at what he does. Unfortunately for him, his specialized services are desperately required after his ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) botches a drug operation and infuriates local crime lord Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Soon, thugs are threatening the Farradays’ safety, and Chris is tasked with transporting millions of dollars worth of counterfeit cash from Panama to U.S. shores. Aided by his recovering alcoholic right-hand man Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster), our crafty, muscular protagonist books passage on a dingy cargo ship on a perilous mission to outsmart the ever-vigilant authorities and make it home alive with merchandise in hand.

One of Kormákur’s film’s most endearing qualities is how refreshingly low-tech it is. Unlike most modern heist pictures, which typically involve high-pressure internet surfing and goofy gadgets,Contraband – like Ben Affleck’s superior The Town – wears its blue collar attitude like a badge of honour. Outside of some brief ship manifest doctoring, Chris has little use for computers, relying instead on mundane, practical methods for deceiving the powers that be. He succeeds not because he has more gear or brains than his opponents, but rather due to the fact that he’s adept at improvisation and sizing up a situation, and never underestimates the importance of dumb luck. Or grade 8 science.

The scrappy street-smart tone of the picture also inspires three wonderfully weird performances that breathe much-needed life into the conventional story. Chief among them is Ribisi as the lowly scumbag drug kingpin. Repulsively greased up, python-voiced and operating out of a pathetic ramshackle apartment complex, the actor creates a fascinating case study in terrifying incompetence. No matter how badly Farraday beats Briggs down, he just keeps picking himself up and continuing the pursuit like a possessed cockroach. Ribisi’s sole competition in the scenery-chewing department is Diego Luna, playing a deranged, agitated Panamanian gangster whose sweaty psychotic unpredictability more than makes up for his lack of physical fearsomeness. On the lower end of the crazy-scale is Ben Foster — an eminently watchable beacon of offbeat light in any movie — who doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do here, but adds impressive anguished, twitchy dimension to the ever-rattled Sebastian.

Contraband’s unremarkable script, by Aaron Guzikowski, hums along nicely when it’s tracing our hero’s journey through the movie’s criminal universe. It stumbles awkwardly, however, whenever the action shifts back home to Chris’s wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale). The actress has alarmingly little to do, beyond acting frantic and having her beautiful head slammed into walls by vicious aggressors, and the picture completely deflates once she becomes a key element in the climax (Hallelujah for conveniently loud ring tones!). A more effective film would have either excised the majority of her subplot, or brought more originality to it than hackneyed, eye-rolling “woman in peril” clichés.

It is a telling sign that this film has been released in sleepy mid-January, when studios traditionally refrain from pushing exciting A-grade fare into theatres. Neither particularly good, or bad, it’s an agreeable enough timewaster that won’t tax your patience and serves as a modestly tense and satisfying tide over until 2012’s more ambitious popcorn fare arrives. Like Wahlberg’s world-weary protagonist, Contraband gets the job done with minimal flash or flare.

3 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.