Monday, January 16, 2012

The Iron Lady

THE IRON LADY (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011)

The Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) seen at the opening of THE IRON LADY is anything but the tough and focused politician that comes to mind at the mention of her name.  She’s introduced as a confused old woman trying to remain self-sufficient despite being regularly engaged in conversation with the hallucination of her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent).  As she goes through their possessions, she remembers her humble beginning as a grocer’s daughter to her ascent to membership in Parliament and eleven and a half years as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

THE IRON LADY is akin to a procrastinating student’s hastily written term paper about Thatcher.  It’s poorly structured, free of context, and superficial.  There’s this lady who got sick, but she did a bunch of stuff leading Great Britain and here’s some of those things.

In a serious misstep, screenwriter Abi Morgan organizes this whirlwind tour of Thatcher’s life and career around the illness in her later years.  Whatever one thinks of Thatcher’s political achievements, they are what make this story worth telling, not her failing health.  Sporadic flashbacks break up THE IRON LADY’s first half hour, which wastes time looking at her current daily life.  This section and the recurring visits to present day are in service of making her a pitiable character.  Putting her declining mental acuity in the foreground has no dramatic value other than as a cheap ploy to enhance an already sympathetic biographical portrayal.

THE IRON LADY skims over a miniseries worth of events and crises in its timeline, particularly from Thatcher’s stint as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990.  Without a foreknowledge of British politics much of it passes by as archival news footage and recreations in which Thatcher sticks to her guns and gets the results she wants.  Little effort is given to exploring what challenges she faces and how she arrives at her decisions.  (For the most part, it seems her guiding principles stem from a speech she heard her dad give long ago.)  In trying to treat the conservative leader fairly, THE IRON LADY largely avoids digging into the difficult issues or dissenting opinions.  It’s a matter of needing dramatic balance and narrative coloring rather than ideological evenness.  THE IRON LADY just assumes Thatcher is always correct and leaves it at that.       

Thatcher advances and triumphs because that’s what her biography states.  Streep delivers a fine technical performance, as is to be expected, but there’s only so much she can do with a role that’s as flimsy as a construction paper figure in an elementary school student’s diorama.  The barriers to winning a bigger role in the party and government are laid out in a scene with political strategists, yet what was presumably a defining period of time in her life is quickly smoothed over by Thatcher asserting that she must wear her pearls and taking a vocal lesson ripped from THE KING’S SPEECH.  With everything, including the most pivotal moments, rendered in shorthand, THE IRON LADY diminishes the accomplishments of the person whose story it tells and the actress working so hard to offer a well-rounded embodiment of her.

Grade: D+

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Press Release: 2011 Central Ohio Film Critics Association awards

Drive cruises to top of 10th annual Central Ohio Film Critics Association awards

(Columbus, January 5, 2012) Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was named Best Film in the Central Ohio Film Critics Association’s 10th annual awards, which recognize excellence in the film industry for 2011.  The film also won two other awards.  Winding Refn was honored for his work behind the camera with the Best Director and Breakthrough Film Artist prizes. 

Columbus-area critics recognized these screen performers: Best Actor Michael Shannon (Take Shelter); Best Actress Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene); Best Supporting Actor Christopher Plummer (Beginners); Best Supporting Actress Shailene Woodley (The Descendants); Actor of the Year Jessica Chastain for an exemplary body of work (Coriolanus, The Debt, The Help, Take Shelter, Texas Killing Fields, The Tree of Life); and the cast of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for Best Ensemble.

Other winners include: The Tree of Life’s Emmanuel Lubezki for Best Cinematography; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Steven Zaillian for Best Adapted Screenplay; Source Code’s Ben Ripley for Best Original Screenplay; Hanna’s The Chemical Brothers for Best Score; Best Documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams; Best Foreign Language Film Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux); Best Animated Film Arthur Christmas; and Margaret as Best Overlooked Film.

Founded in 2002, the Central Ohio Film Critics Association is comprised of film critics based in Columbus, Ohio and the surrounding areas. Its membership consists of more than 20 print, radio, television, and new media critics. COFCA's official website at contains links to member reviews and past award winners.

Winners were announced at a private party on January 5.

A video announcing this year’s winners and runners-up can be seen at:

Complete list of awards:

Best Film
1. Drive
2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
3. Take Shelter
4. Melancholia
5. The Descendants
6. Midnight in Paris
7. The Tree of Life
8. The Artist
9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
10. Hugo

Best Director
-Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive
-Runner-up: Lars von Trier, Melancholia

Best Actor
-Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
            -Runner-up: Ryan Gosling, Drive

Best Actress
-Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
-Runner-up: Charlize Theron, Young Adult

Best Supporting Actor
-Christopher Plummer, Beginners
-Runner-up: Albert Brooks, Drive

Best Supporting Actress
-Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
-Runner-up: Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life

Best Ensemble
-Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
-Runner-up: The Descendants

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work)
-Jessica Chastain, Coriolanus, The Debt, The Help, 
            Take Shelter, Texas Killing Fields,and The Tree of Life
-Runner-up: Ryan Gosling, Crazy, Stupid, Love., Drive, and
             The Ides of March

Breakthrough Film Artist
- Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive (for directing)
            -Runner-up: Jessica Chastain, Coriolanus, The Debt, The 
            Help, Take Shelter, Texas Killing Fields, and The Tree of 
            Life (for acting)

Best Cinematography
-Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life
-Runner-up: Manuel Alberto Claro, Melancholia

Best Adapted Screenplay
-Steven Zaillian, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
            -Runner-up: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball

Best Original Screenplay
-Ben Ripley, Source Code
-Runner-up: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Best Score
-The Chemical Brothers, Hanna
-Runner-up: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Girl with the
            Dragon Tattoo

Best Documentary
-Cave of Forgotten Dreams
-Runner-up: Project Nim

Best Foreign Language Film
-Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)
-Runner-up: The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

Best Animated Film
-Arthur Christmas
-Runner-up: Winnie the Pooh

Best Overlooked Film
-Runner-up: Beginners

COFCA offers its congratulations to the winners.

Previous Best Film winners:

2002:  Punch-Drunk Love
2003:   Lost in Translation
2004:   Million Dollar Baby
2005:   A History of Violence
2006:   Children of Men
2007:  No Country for Old Men
2008:  WALL·E
2009:  Up in the Air
2010:  Inception

For more information about the Central Ohio Film Critics
Association, please visit or e-mail

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY opens in the thick of the Cold War.  It is the early 1970s, and British intelligence, referred to as The Circus, has its upper level shaken up by a failed mission in Hungary in which one of their own is killed.  Agency head Control (John Hurt) is ushered out, as is his close colleague George Smiley (Gary Oldman).

It’s not long, though, until Smiley’s retirement is interrupted with a request to lead a secret investigation into another agent’s claim of a mole at the top of The Circus.  Could new chief Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) or his loyal men Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) be double agents for the KGB?  
While Smiley interviews accusing agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and other former Circus employees, his trusted inside man Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) acquires what he needs from headquarters and is his eyes and ears around the office.  

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY begins with a flurry of information that can be overwhelming to sort out at first, but director Tomas Alfredson encourages focus and patience as practiced by Smiley to make sense of it all.  The gloriously drab visuals, save for some splendid wallpaper and soundproofing, lay bare the difficult work of rooting out answers amid the ambiguity of the characters’ actions.  Yet the information in the frame is carefully ordered in verticals and horizontals, suggesting that while a pattern of rogue behavior may not stand out, it can be spotted with careful examination.
After all, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is concerned with the art of observation, especially when the stakes are high.  Being able to read people and relationships, catch glimpses in reflected surfaces, and pluck details from notes and audio tapes is critical to the task at hand.  Alfredson’s marvelous precision in showing how an agent might do difficult espionage work is as thrilling as any overblown James Bond setpiece.  Guillam’s plan to smuggle records out of intelligence headquarters doesn’t have him hanging off of buildings but dazzles with an elegant beauty and daring found in the simplicity with which the scheme is conceived and executed.  Whether the spies are functioning in realistic ways or not, their activities have the ring of truth to them, a quality likely indebted to the novel’s author John le Carre, which is the pen name of a former MI6 agent.

As Smiley, Oldman is the epitome of quiet cool.  He’s the studying man putting the pieces together because he can fade into the background.  He doesn’t say much, but his demeanor speaks volumes.  Peering out from his glasses, he sees and processes until the time to take action arrives.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY conveys a lot with a little.  The exceptional concluding montage, which leaps between the past and present and features devastating match cuts of tears, reveals untold riches about the characters and the secretive lives they lead in the business of intelligence gathering.  TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is low key, which is only appropriate, but it is also electrifying when it cuts through the noise to the buried truth.   

Grade: A-

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s three posthumously published Millennium novels are an international sensation and already were made into a film trilogy in his native country.  Now comes the first in a presumed American remake trilogy with THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just lost a libel case and is likely on the verge of losing his magazine when wealthy Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) approaches him with a tantalizing offer.  Vanger will pay him a tidy sum and provide damaging information about the businessman who defeated Blomkvist in court.  In return Blomkvist will come to the Vanger family’s island estate under the guise of writing their history while his real work is investigating the disappearance of Henrik’s niece Harriet nearly forty years earlier.  Vanger believes a family member killed her and is continuing to taunt him by sending pressed flowers, which Harriet used to give him on his birthday.

Meanwhile, computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who did the background check on Blomkvist, finds her well-being subject to the whims of a newly appointed guardian.   Although in her twenties, Lisbeth remains a ward of the state because of a diagnosis of mental incompetence.  She eventually teams up when Blomkvist needs a researcher and is directed to her.
Having seen the Swedish film version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, it’s somewhat difficult to approach director David Fincher’s take on the pulpy mystery without recognizing how remarkably similar the two are.  Perhaps out of allegiance to the popular source material, both films are crammed with more plot than feels necessary and seem as though they always have just one more thing to wrap up.  The central mystery struggles to sustain interest because Blomqkvist and Salander are sorting through an information dump rather than mixing it up much with the suspects in the Vanger clan.  Nevertheless, Fincher directs the dickens out of scenes involving research with computers, archival records, photographs, and personal mementos.

The story is mostly the pits in both, but Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO fixes some of its predecessor’s problems and is clearly the superior of the two.  Although slightly longer than the other, this adaptation cuts through the narrative details like a hot knife through butter.  That it plays more efficiently while taking more time indicates editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall’s skill at keeping a brisk pace.

This time around Lisbeth is more of a person, and a highly damaged one at that, than the cartoon avenger she’s positioned as in the Swedish version.  Mara plays her as a feral animal taking tentative steps toward socialization.  Taking this angle on the character makes a big difference in explaining the dubious sexual relationship that develops between Lisbeth and Mikael.  Whereas Mikael’s irresistible magnetism in the Swedish film reeks of authorial wish fulfillment, Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO shows Lisbeth initiating this contact as her attempt to crack her shell while still asserting control.  Likewise, the suffering and revenge she experiences, while still horrific, are less exploitative under Fincher’s command.

Despite these improvements, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO can’t quite transcend its junk foundation or, at least for me, the familiar beats of the other adaptation.  Applying the sheen of cinematic quality to a lurid airport novel only goes so far when the cheap thrills have lost some luster because they’ve already been had.

Grade: C+

Monday, January 02, 2012

War Horse

WAR HORSE (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

The four-legged protagonist in WAR HORSE is born as a wild thoroughbred, sold at auction to a buyer who must use him to plow fields, resold to the British army, and ultimately serves on both sides in World War I.  The horse named Joey is not intended for working the fields, but that’s what he is needed for when drunken farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), in a fit of pique, bids up the cost unreasonably high so his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) will not win the beast.

Ted’s wife Rose (Emily Watson) immediately recognizes the foolishness of such a purchase and insists that he take the horse back.  Their teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) loves the horse and pledges to train Joey to do whatever he must to help the family farm.  Since Ted refuses to back down from his reckless decision, it’s up to Albert and Joey to ready a rocky Devon field for turnips.

Boy and horse succeed when no on expects them to, but their happy time together comes to an end when Ted sells Joey to the British army at the onset of World War I. The officer promises to take good care of the horse, and a tearful Joey vows to see him again.  For Joey, this is merely the beginning of an adventure that will have him charging into battle for the British and pulling artillery for the Germans.

WAR HORSE director Steven Spielberg turns to the films of John Ford for inspiration in looking at war’s devastating and dehumanizing effects.  He adopts the swooningly earnest style in all of its broad emotional sweep, camera placement, and widescreen Technicolor cinematography.  While made with great technical proficiency, WAR HORSE is determinedly old-fashioned in how Spielberg tells the story, which is a fitting creative strategy considering that the film studies the convergence of the old and the modern.

The battle sequences are as thrillingly directed as the World War II fighting Spielberg thrust viewers into during SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and just as tragic in depicting the great loss of life.  A British charge on horseback into a German camp becomes a slaughter at the edge of the woods, where man and animal are no match for machines.  Spilling out of the trenches for combat in no man’s land is a near certain death sentence no matter which side one enters from.  The men’s lives may be more valued, but they’re protected with little more care than the horses that are literally worked to death.  None of this is as a graphic as in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Rather, it’s more in line with the standards in the 1940s and ‘50s, yet the impact in observing this wasteful sacrifice is no less powerful.

Charges of sentimentalism are lobbed freely at Spielberg.  There’s no question that the director works to yield big emotional payoffs, especially in this traditional melodramatic form.  Still, WAR HORSE’s ostensibly happy ending comes with the knowledge that the boy and the horse have witnessed many atrocities that may haunt them in the years to come just as Ted is stalked by his memories from military service.  The deep red sky hanging over the Narracott homestead and drenching everything under it in its color is a stark contrast to the blue heaven and green landscape they once knew.  Man and horse have been forced to act contrary to their nature.  Like the donkey in Robert Bresson’s AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, the beast suffers for humanity’s failings.  While Albert and Joey have survived, some stains, like the looming color above and around them, cannot be escaped.

Grade: B+

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Press release: 2011 Central Ohio Film Critics Association awards nominees

Nominees announced for the 10th annual Central Ohio Film Critics Association awards

(Columbus, January 1, 2012)

The Central Ohio Film Critics Association is pleased to announce the nominees for its 10th annual awards. Winners will be announced on the evening of January 5th.

Notes on the nominees:
-Ties in the nomination round produced more than ten nominees in the Best Film category and more than five nominees in the Best Actress and Best Ensemble categories.
-Although fifteen films are nominated for Best Film, the list will be limited to the Top 10 after final voting.

The 2011 Central Ohio Film Critics Association awards nominees are:

Best Film
-The Artist
-The Descendants
-The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
-The Ides of March
-Margin Call
-Martha Marcy May Marlene
-Midnight in Paris
-Super 8
-Take Shelter
-The Tree of Life
-Win Win

Best Director
-David Fincher, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
-Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
-Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive
-Martin Scorsese, Hugo
-Lars von Trier, Melancholia

Best Actor -George Clooney, The Descendants
-Jean Dujardin, The Artist
-Michael Fassbender, Shame
-Ryan Gosling, Drive
-Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

Best Actress
-Viola Davis, The Help
-Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
-Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
-Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
-Charlize Theron, Young Adult
-Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

Best Supporting Actor
-Albert Brooks, Drive
-John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene
-Patton Oswalt, Young Adult
-Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
-Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Best Supporting Actress
-Jessica Chastain, The Help
-Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life
-Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
-Carey Mulligan, Shame
-Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Best Ensemble
-The Descendants
-The Help
-The Ides of March
-Margin Call
-Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
-The Tree of Life

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work)
-Jessica Chastain, Coriolanus, The Debt, The Help, Take Shelter, Texas Killing Fields, and The Tree of Life
-George Clooney, The Descendants and The Ides of March
-Michael Fassbender, A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Shame, and X-Men: First Class
-Ryan Gosling, Crazy, Stupid, Love., Drive, and The Ides of March
-Brad Pitt, Happy Feet Two, Moneyball, and The Tree of Life

Breakthrough Film Artist
-Jessica Chastain, Coriolanus, The Debt, The Help, Take Shelter, Texas Killing Fields, and The Tree of Life - (for acting)
-Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene - (for directing and screenwriting)
-Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene - (for acting)
-Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive - (for directing)
-Shailene Woodley, The Descendants - (for acting)

Best Cinematography
-Manuel Alberto Claro, Melancholia
-Janusz Kaminski, War Horse
-Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life
-Robert Richardson, Hugo
-Newton Thomas Sigel, Drive

Best Adapted Screenplay
-Hossein Amini, Drive
-George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon, The Ides of March
-Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, The Descendants
-Steven Zaillian, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
-Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball

Best Original Screenplay
-Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
-Diablo Cody, Young Adult
-Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
-Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter
-Ben Ripley, Source Code

Best Score
-The Chemical Brothers, Hanna
-Alexandre Desplat, The Tree of Life
-Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
-Howard Shore, Hugo
-John Williams, War Horse

Best Documentary
-African Cats
-Cave of Forgotten Dreams
-POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
-Project Nim

Best Foreign Language Film
-13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku)
-Certified Copy (Copie conforme)
-I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda)
-Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)
-The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

Best Animated Film
-The Adventures of Tintin
-Arthur Christmas
-Kung Fu Panda 2
-Winnie the Pooh

Best Overlooked Film
-Attack the Block
-Higher Ground
-Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)

Previous Best Film winners:

2002: Punch-Drunk Love
2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Million Dollar Baby
2005: A History of Violence
2006: Children of Men
2007: No Country for Old Men
2008: WALL·E
2009: Up in the Air
2010: Inception

Ranked 2012 film list

Welcome to the third consecutive year I'm keeping a ranked list of every film I see from January 1 to December 31.  (Here are the 2010 and 2011 ranked lists.)

I use the A-F scale on the television show and for my reviews on this site.  Those will remain as "official" grades/evaluations, but I have found the 100-point scale to be a helpful way of keeping track of what I see.  Whether it's made me stingier in assessing higher grades is up for debate.

For what it's worth, 60 points equals the lowest total that still equates to a positive review.

A range=80-100, B range=60-79, C range=40-59, D range=20-39, F=0-19

Unrated means either that I felt I was too tired during the viewing (and may have dozed off) or that I did a sloppy job of record keeping and don't have a number available.

Last update: February 1, 2012 
Total features: 30 (2012 qualifiers: 12) 
Total shorts: 3

2012 Films

Haywire - 73
Contraband - 66
The Grey - 64
Players - 60

Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance - 56
Red Tails - 52
Chico & Rita - 48
Man on a Ledge - 47
One for the Money - 45

Joyful Noise - 36
Underworld: Awakening (3D) - 32

The Devil Inside - 16

Festival films (undistributed/to-be-distributed) 

Shorts (2012)

Tangled Ever After - 75

Older Films 

Beauty and the Beast (3D) (1991) - 91
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) - 82

Le Havre (2011) - 72
House of Pleasures [L'Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close)] (2011) - 68
Weekend (1967) - 67
13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku) (2010) - 66
Carnage (2011) - 66

The Artist (2011) - 59
Santo the Silver Mask vs. the Martian Invasion (Santo el Enmascarado de Plata vs 'La invasión de los marcianos') (1967) - 51
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) - 50
The Philadelphia Experiment (1984) - 46
Albert Nobbs (2011) - 44
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2011) - 43
A Dangerous Method (2011) - 43
Shame (2011) - 41

The Iron Lady (2011) - 39
The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch (Largo Winch) (2008) - 38
Creator (1985) - 37


Scrat's Continental Crack-Up: Part 2 (2011) - 57

Chevelle (2011) - unrated