Jim Broadbent and Meryl Streep in The Iron LadyTHE IRON LADY

It's hardly a newsflash that over the past several years - well, forever, really - Meryl Streep has treated us to a run of extraordinary performances, and her Margaret Thatcher in the screen biography The Iron Lady is one of the most extraordinary of them all. Yet the vexing question regarding Streep's indelible work of late isn't "How does she keep doing it?" It's "How does she keep doing it with so little help from her directors?"

You might easily be knocked out by the actress' transformation during Thatcher's years in parliament and as the newly elected British prime minister, because Streep, as usual, gets the externals almost stunningly right: the accent, the vocal cadences, the physicality, the eyes that pop with impassioned self-righteousness and ideological zealotry. Those scenes are nothing, however, compared with Streep's channeling of Thatcher during the early stages of dementia; with the aid of some rather jaw-dropping aging makeup, this miraculous performer gives what might be the definitive cinematic portrait of an intensely intelligent senior at war with failing mental health. (The sequence in which Thatcher quietly dresses down her physician - arguing for her sanity while the truth is heartbreakingly apparent to both of them - makes you want to sob and applaud.) Clearly, a performance this inspired doesn't happen in a vacuum, and director Phyllida Lloyd is to be commended for giving Streep the breathing room required to deliver such a rich, nuanced, thrillingly entertaining portrayal.

It's nearly everything else that Lloyd manages to muck up. Working from Abi Morgan's dishearteningly blithe, greatest-hits screenplay, The Iron Lady's helmer seems colossally uninterested in the complexities behind Thatcher's rise to power and professional tenure and the heated social climate of her day; generic sexism leads to generic approval leads to generic street riots. (We actually learn more about Thatcher's political career in one 30-second TV-news voice-over here than in the whole of the movie's dialogue.) And sadly, the experience is tarnished further by Morgan's unfortunate decision to have the elder Thatcher engage in frequent, imagined conversations with her late husband Denis, whose momentum-stalling appearances might've been touching if Lloyd hadn't directed Jim Broadbent to be so insufferably adorable. Vacillating between traditional bio-pic blandness and overstaged hysteria, and with the film's every subtle moment and nicely low-key portrayal (including Olivia Colman's as the Thatchers' daughter Carol) matched by obvious, arm-twisting ones, Lloyd is unable to find a consistent tone, and I came to resent the movie for not coming close to the greatness of its lead. Thankfully, unlike with the achingly forced whimsy of Lloyd's Mamma Mia!, The Iron Lady isn't at all damaging to Streep. But it might be time for her to take a breather from star vehicles that are barely recommendable beyond their star, before Streep's unofficial moniker is switched from America's Greatest Living Actress to America's Greatest Living Actress in Movies Fundamentally Unworthy of Her.


Mark Wahlberg in ContrabandCONTRABAND

To derive much pleasure from the action thriller Contraband, it's best to enter with low expectations - which, given the movie's January release, forgettable title, and poster image of a typically grim-faced Mark Wahlberg holding a gun, probably shouldn't be a problem. Yet in a happy surprise, director Baltasar Kormákur's Cajun-cooked outing is a more-than-fair amount of disreputable fun. With family loyalties forcing Wahlberg's reformed smuggler to carry out the heist of millions in counterfeit bills, there's little here you haven't seen in dozens of films just like it; everything from the shoot-outs to the "shocking" character reversals to the increasing victimization of Wahlberg's wife (a miscast but appealing Kate Beckinsale) feels like a hand-me-down from decades of scuzzy B movies. (Giovanni Ribisi, playing a heavily tattooed creep with a nasal New Orleans squawk, and squeezing his facial muscles to resemble Brando's Don Corleone with that orange rind in his mouth, appears to be going for B-movie immortality here. He fails.) Still, Kormákur stages Contraband's numerous getaways and close calls with vitality and visual wit, and Wahlberg - in a refreshing change from his recent action-stud portrayals - appears to be having an absolute blast. Not long after re-entering his life of crime, Wahlberg's thief is told by an ally that he looks ecstatic about the crime he's supposedly committing against his will. "Is it that obvious?" replies Wahlberg with a 100-kilowatt grin. Yes, Mark, it is. Thank you.


John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet in CarnageCARNAGE

Adapted from playwright Yasmina Reza's vicious verbal comedy God of Carnage, director Roman Polanski's Carnage concerns the breakdown in civility that occurs when two affluent Manhattan couples meet to discuss a violent altercation between their young sons, and if you're not a big fan of the play - or of plays in general - you're likely going to loathe it. Lasting a real-time 75 minutes and set almost entirely in a high-end apartment that Polanski films for maximum claustrophobia and oppressiveness, the movie's stage roots are blatantly apparent, and most of Reza's hyper-intellectual, intentionally over-explicit dialogue has been left intact; it's easy to imagine viewers watching the film and thinking, if not actually shouting, "Oh, come on! People don't talk like that!" No, they don't. Nor do most people talk with the exquisite, high-comic precision of Carnage's Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly, who give performances of such risky, devastatingly hysterical theatricality here that I laughed 'til I cried. I'd always thought of God of Carnage as a sitcom version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and enjoyed it as such. Under Polanski's supremely skilled and controlled direction, however, the movie is actually a sitcom version of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, with characters desperate to escape their hellish surroundings, and each other, yet finding themselves hilariously unable to. (The apartment's hallway even features its own Cerberus in the form of an unseen, frequently barking dog.) Yet while the situation is tortuous for its characters, watching Polanski's performers enact their gradual, spectacularly funny deteriorations from pained politeness to full-throttle hatred is invigorating in the extreme; I could've watched Foster tighten her neck muscles, or Winslet hurl clipped insults, or Waltz sneer with hardly veiled condescension, or Reilly ramble on about cobbler for hours on end with no complaint whatsoever. Aside from its ability to attract the sort of cast that could never be gathered together on a stage, there probably isn't much reason for a film adaptation of Carnage to exist. Now that there is one, I can't fathom there being a better one.


Dolly Parton, Keke Palmer, and Queen Latifah in Joyful NoiseJOYFUL NOISE

Imagine The Blind Side redesigned as a super-sized episode of Glee. That's Joyful Noise, writer/director Todd Graff's inspirational musical dramedy about a Southern gospel choir seeking a national championship, and the family struggles of the choir's warring ringleaders. Have you run screaming yet? If so, it's hard to blame you; the movie is shamelessly trite, manipulative, and pandering. It's also, every once in a while, an example of how little that matters when a movie's musical numbers are filled with so much legitimate exhilaration and spirit. You can hate Joyful Noise for all sorts of perfectly valid reasons. But when Queen Latifah delivers a deeply soulful rendition of "Fix Me Jesus," or Dolly Parton (despite now resembling something that should've been operated by Wayland Flowers) performs a tender duet with Kris Kristofferson, or Keke Palmer shakes the rafters with her glorious wailing, for a few brief moments, you don't want to be anywhere else. Sing it, sisters!

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