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Friday, February 10, 2012

The Iron Lady (Limited Release Date: 12-30-2011)/Albert Nobbs (1-27-2012)

The Iron Lady
        How does Meryl do it? How does she keep stoking the fire to gun for big roles, keep landing them years and years after her fellow ladies of 70's cinema are no where to be found? Where is Faye Dunaway right now? Diane Keaton? Admittedly these thespians had to disadvantage of being looked to through a sexualized, and therefore fading light, but that doesn't exactly make sense of the discrepancy. It's not like Meryl is just hanging on at the moment: She is, without any form of doubt, the most respected actress of our time, nominated for an oscar on an almost annual basis as her peers disappear into the ether. Simply put, the woman has nothing left to prove, even if it has been nearly 30 years since she actually won one (having the most nominations of any actor ever has got to be some balm for that pain). The Iron Lady has an interesting game plan for utilizing such ambition: It places Streep square in the middle of one dud of a self-important, award-season bait, and waits and sees just how high the master actor can elevate it on her effort alone.

        The answer: Not that high. Sure, Streep is great in the role of Margaret Thatcher, playing her through decades of time with a fitting theatricality, splitting the difference between boisterous over-acting, and fiery intimacy. Sadly, however, no man (or actress of their generation, for that matter) is an island, and the elements that Ms. Streep shares the screen with range from passable to horrid. First and foremost, there's the fact that about half the movie is taken up with a framing devise that sees Streep, caked in old lady make-up, bumbling around her house, bickering with the imaginary ghost of her husband (Jim Broadbent). It's a tool that we saw earlier last year in the also-unsuccessful J. Edgar, but that movie lasted a whole half-hour longer, and while this extended length had the effect of making the film feel a bit aimless, we at least got a sense of the events and politics of the man's life.
        The Iron Lady is just the opposite: The narrative arch of the tale makes far more immediate sense, but the movie feels so focused on making Thatcher out to be a giant, that it neglects to explain why she is a giant. Yes, she yells things, makes Oscar-clip-ready speeches, and we see a lot of archival footage of angry Brits rioting over things that screenwriter Abi Morgan feels largely uncompelled to explain, but it all feels both rushed and undercooked. Congrats to Streep on yet another Oscar nomination, but it is the opinion of this writer that the goals of a film should be taken into account when lavishing awards of any sort upon it. The Iron Lady takes one of the most controversial figures in the history of politics, and instead of making a case for or against her ways, or even just a very humanizing portrait, the film essentially functions as a 105 minute showcase for Streep to argue her case for another Oscar. It doesn't deserve a golden man; It deserves a slap on the wrist.

Grade: D

Albert Nobbs
        By contrast to Streep, Glenn Close still must feel like she has a lot to prove. She's thus far been nominated by the Academy six times, though she has yet to wrap her fingers around one, and when you consider that her last nod previous to this year came in 1988, one has to think that her window is either closing or closed. Albert Nobbs is a passion project on which she toiled for years, finally arriving on the big screen, causing critics and fans everywhere to unite in one simple question: This is what you were fighting for? Close stars as the titular survivor, a woman disguised as a male waiter in 19th Century Ireland. She's absurdly secretive, hiding both her thoughts and her funds behind closed doors, where she constantly talks to herself, and makes endless monetary calculations. For reasons that remain unexplained through-out, Albert wants to buy and run a Tobacco shop (despite the fact that she doesn't smoke), and take a maid working at her hotel (Mia Wasikowska) as her wife (despite there never being any real indication of Albert being sexually inclined one way or the other).

        In short, Albert is just kind of creepy, her face remarkably unmoving, her courtship of Wasikowska sterile and off-putting at the hands of her considerable seniority. Even if we're just talking about it on a performance level, Close's voice won't be able to pass as a man's in any generation, and the fact that everyone on screen is fooled by something so head-spinningly obvious is another obstacle in the way of the movie's success. Janet McTeer received a Supporting Actress nomination for her work as the gender-bending kindred spirit Hubert Page, and while her work is undoubtably the best in the film, it suffers from the sense of actorly excess that hinders just about everything else on screen. Credit Close for picking out a difficult, divisive task in order to try to snag that allusive Oscar instead of just headlining yet another biopic, but the facts are the facts: Albert Nobbs is a strange movie that is cold to the touch, difficult to engage with, and even harder to genuinely enjoy.

Grade: D+

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