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Politics at the Movies

Politics (or the lack thereof) at the Movies
By Tony Sheppard

Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

This career retrospective of Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep), is actually pretty light on retrospective. It gives us glimpses of key confrontations and her upbringing as the daughter of a small shop owner, but does little to illustrate the motivations and struggles of a lifetime in politics other than to repeatedly stress how tough it was for a woman in a male-dominated world. This might be an interesting story, in itself, if not for the fact that Thatcher was one of the most divisive politicians in history. On the one hand she’s admired by some in the same way that Reagan is, but on the other she’s hated with a passion that probably isn’t replicated in US politics – there are unpopular politicians here but few that are compared with evil incarnate.

Margaret Thatcher came to power in an economic downturn that saw drawn out battles with multiple trades unions (think of the “Billy Elliott” era of coal mining) and she was famously known for sticking to her decisions, regardless of how unpopular or difficult (“The lady is not for turning”) – a characteristic that seems to be played as a virtue. But the film only shows us events through the lens of recall, with Thatcher as an elderly woman succumbing to the early stages of dementia. Again, this could make for an interesting story about aging but not one about a loved and hated political figure. It’s also noteworthy that the longest sequence focusing on a specific period or event covers the Falkland Islands war, one of the few outcomes in her tenure that might be viewed relatively favorably by supporters and detractors alike. Hardly controversial.

Another episode is the makeover performed on Thatcher when she made her bid for party leadership – a makeover that could compete with extreme television shows. And yet it might be better appreciated simply by googling before and after photographs online.

That said, what the film does have going for it is a phenomenal performance by Streep (for which she won the Golden Globe earlier this week) – as well as some excellent aging makeup. It’s not that it’s not a good film, it’s just not what comes to mind when considering a Thatcher biography, focusing mostly on the strained relationships that accompanied the leadership position. It’s Margaret Thatcher the woman, the daughter, the wife, and the mother, not Margaret Thatcher the politician.

Shame
Directed by Steve McQueen

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) has carved out an outwardly successful life for himself in New York: He has a good job, a nice apartment, and a steady routine that allows him to indulge his sexual fetishes. This includes a stable of regular sex partners and prostitutes who know him and what he likes better than his coworkers do. But he’s not good at everything – relationships are out of reach and he seems to have a carousel’s worth of emotional baggage checked into storage. This carefully organized existence is thrown into disarray when his sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives unexpectedly.

This isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea, not least because of the full-frontal male nudity, but it’s a compellingly acted (and award-worthy) character study of siblings who share a difficult past. The sexual content, while not explicit in a “Shortbus” sense, is still very graphic in content and variety. And if my friend and I are any example, it’s a story that will lead to extended conversation in contemplation of missing details that are probably more intriguing in their absence than if they had been spelled out.

Carnage
Directed by Roman Polanski

Set in New York but filmed in France (where director Roman Polanski isn’t subject to immediate arrest), “Carnage” is a wonderful set piece, with an almost claustrophobic feel. Apart from bookend scenes, the entire story plays out in the apartment of a couple (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) who are visited by another couple (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) to discuss a violent encounter between their respective young sons.  It starts hilariously awkwardly, progresses to awkward hilarity, and ends up simply both awkward and hilarious as all of their barriers and social posturing falls apart, helped by a very special fruit cobbler and a bottle of 18 year old single malt whiskey. I’d love to see this as a stage play but the star power and acting skills here would be hard to replicate.

Haywire
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

The last thing I expected of an action film from Steven Soderbergh (“Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic”) was for it to be dull – and yet it manages to be. At times it felt almost like a parody and I ended up wondering if it was an elaborate social experiment to gauge reactions to a film that is conventional in almost every respect, with a laundry list of well known actors that, but with a relatively unknown female actor in the lead role of a disgruntled contract agent seeking revenge. She jumps, runs, kicks, shoots, and kills like a Jason Bourne clone – but the end result feels more like an old TV action pilot than a memorable movie.

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