Meryl Streep and Leila Hatami
Oh, January at the movies. With the studios having launched Christmas blockbusters in December as well as all of their prestige awards-bait titles, now is the time for all the crap they’ve been sitting on to come out. Yep, January and February are something of a dumping ground for bad movies, an unfortunate tradition that cinemagoers have to suffer through year after year.
It all kicks off this week with a terrible horror movie (The Devil Inside) and an embarrassingly awful biopic (The Iron Lady). If you’re fortunate enough to live in a city that screens foreign films, you’ll get to see one of the best of the year in A Separation. That’s definitely a bright spot, but unfortunately most of you will only get the boot-scrape releases. On the bright side, at least people like me are out there to suffer through that garbage in your place. So, that’s something, right?
The Good: A Separation
It’s safe to say that an Iranian domestic drama probably isn’t at the top of the average moviegoer’s “must see” list. But in the case of A Separation, it should be. The film is as suspenseful as a thriller, while still as complex and layered as any drama to hit screens this year.
It’s a film about perception, class struggle, the pain of family division, and how parents can so easily turn their children into the collateral damage of their own petty disputes. That director Asghar Farhadi could pull off all of that without ever dipping into self-importance, pretension, or tedium is an impressive accomplishment indeed.
The film opens with a married couple pleading for divorce. The wife (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran and the difficult environment of their country behind while the husband (Peyman Maadi) refuses to leave so that he can care for his Alzheimer's-afflicted father. Tensions obviously arise from the divorce since there is a child caught in the middle.
Things spiral completely out of control after the father hires an impoverished woman (Sereh Bayat, whose character is a struggling mother herself) to care for his deteriorating father and she ties him to a bed one day to take care of her many errands during work hours. How Maadi’s character violently reacts lands them all in the corrupt and confusing Iranian court system with serious consequences faced by everyone involved (including Bayat’s hot-tempered husband).
What follows is both unbearably tense and deeply moving. The controversial act in question (which I don’t want to spoil) is depicted with a Rashomon-style series of disparaging points of view. As the mystery unravels, Farhadi dials up the suspense and nimbly comments on various aspects of governmental and familial strife in contemporary Iran with the precision and insight of a filmmaker hitting his peak. That he could pull off such a complex and socially conscious movie in a country known for censorship is undeniably impressive.
Though ultimately a small and low-key film, A Separation is a brilliantly crafted and unpredictable movie that should be seen and appreciated by more than the just the usual foreign film crowd. That ain’t actually going to happen since subtitles are involved, but it should.
The Bad: The Devil Inside
Hmmm, what’s this now? A found footage exorcism movie. Didn’t we just get one of those two years ago with The Last Exorcism? Yep, we did and while that movie was passably mediocre, The Devil Inside is a chore to sit through. The small bursts of characterization and storytelling found in The Last Exorcism are barely part of the program here. Buy a ticket for The Devil Inside and you’re stuck with a collection of personality-free pawns whose entire personality can be boiled down to either being a priest or possessed (or, spoiler alert, both).
The plot is anemic and dull, there purely to set up the shaky-cam scare scenes. Admittedly a few of those sequences work well, particularly the first exorcism featuring a shoulder-popping contortionist in the possessed role. But even those brief flashes of horror success are dulled by the fact that they can’t come close to matching The Exorcist or even the uninspired The Last Exorcism.
The Devil Inside is the first film to come out of Paramount’s new Paranormal Activity-funded zero-budget horror wing. While it’s nice to know that a major studio is taking an interest in horror again, if all of their productions are as dull as this, it’s going to be a wasted opportunity. Perhaps the most irritating part of the whole debacle is that the movie suddenly ends around the 80-minute mark with endless plot threads left dangling. Then a title card comes on the screen (to a series of boos) announcing that the gaps can be filled in by visiting the movie’s website. That’s right, not only is the studio trying to create an unearned Internet phenomenon, but the actual experience of watching the movie is dulled by their online marketing ambitions.
If ever there was proof that a movie was created purely as a commercial product it’s that shrewd closing credits advertisement for a website. Horror may be a bankable genre that will always bring in a crowd hoping to jump and things that go bump in the night, but please don’t insult that audience with nonsense like this. Make a moderately original horror movie (which would still be commercial due to genre familiarity) and if people like it, then you work on creating an online component. You can’t manufacture a cult success just by copying gimmicks that work before. That’s slapping the audience in the face and the people behind The Devil Inside should be embarrassed.
God willing, Paramount will try a little harder in their next low budget horror release. Even just ditching the increasingly tired faux-documentary horror conceit would be a huge step in the right direction.
The Thatcher: The Iron Lady
It was inevitable that one day Meryl Streep would play
Margaret Thatcher. After all, the controversial British Prime Minister remains
a fascinating figure decades after her time in office. Someone was going to
make a movie and no one was better to play the cold and calculated politician
than the cold, calculated, and brilliant actress.
Streep is fantastic in the movie, which should come as no surprise. She nails Thatcher’s ironically uptight and passive aggressive mannerisms as few actresses could and an Oscar nomination is guaranteed. Unfortunately, the movie surrounding Streep is pandering crap. You win some, you lose some, I suppose.
The movie-killing fault in The Iron Lady is that the filmmakers are unwilling to give The Thatch the complex, dark, and unflattering portrait she deserves. Though the fact that Thatcher rose from working class roots to become the first female leader of the political boys club of Britain is undeniably an inspiring triumph over adversity, she’s remembered today for her controversial and damning political legacy. That’s what makes her a compelling figure, yet director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan don’t even seem interested in that aspect of her life, relegating all of the most compelling aspects of Thatcher’s controversial reign to half-hearted and empty montages.
Instead, their focus is on humanizing Thatcher and presenting her as a nice lady gone bad. Most of the film is bizarrely dedicated to her bootstrap-tightening youth and the dementia-laden later years that she spends talking to the ghost of her husband (Jim Broadbent). While that material certainly has a place in a Thatcher bio, it should never have been the focus and led to a drab, boring, and almost offensively apologetic Margaret Thatcher biopic that only die-hard Thatcher fans will enjoy, if they even exist.
It’s a real shame because the fleeting moments in which Streep actually gets to portray the coldhearted Thatcher that we all know and love are quite strong. Unfortunately they fly by at a rapid pace and seem almost like afterthoughts. Watching Streep under mounds of old age makeup (which is thankfully far more convincing than the rubbery prosthetics in J. Edgar though that wasn’t exactly tough to top) chitchat with Jim Broadbent’s friendly ghost is nauseatingly manipulative and deeply daft. I’m not saying that a full on Thatcher-bashing feature should have been made (she is a human being after all), but the dull, pandering Thatcher love-in that is The Iron Lady was definitely not the right way to go.