Meryl Streep

The Bridges of Madison County (1995, Clint Eastwood)

The Bridges of Madison County is many things, but it’s definitely an adaptation of a best-selling novel. Thanks to director Eastwood, it’s not a cheap adaptation of a best-selling novel, but it’s still an adaptation. There’s still a frame. No matter how much Eastwood deglamorizes it, no matter how well Richard LaGravenese writes most of it, there’s a lot of narrative ease ways and didactic padding. Not bad didactic padding, vague feminism in fact, but the padding is questionable.

Because here’s what Bridges of Madison County is about. Meryl Streep is an Italian woman who lives in Iowa in 1965. She’s smarter than her husband, her friends, and her neighbors. She’s intellectually ready to debate the human condition yet she has to make sure her husband’s socks are folded right. Because it’s 1965 and it’s not great. Along comes Clint Eastwood, who’s a careful “National Geographic” photographer and it turns out Streep likes the cut of his jib. And vice versa.

Thanks to Streep, Eastwood, LaGravenese, Joel Cox’s editing, Jack N. Green’s photography, and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design, it’s never sensationalized. Instead, it’s a characters study. Streep and Eastwood get to know one another and the audience gets to know them. It’s beautifully acted, it’s thoughtfully written, it’s exquisitely produced. It’s the kind of thing Fellini could have done in the States in 1965 if he’d sold out.

But it’s not a mainstream accessible thing. Yes, maybe enough flyover audiences are willing to go with adulterers not actually being demonic, but the whole thing is a strange sell. Eastwood’s not Robert Redford, Streep’s not Italian. And then Eastwood goes ahead and drains as much sensationalism out of the frame as he possibly can. Again, LaGravenese helps–he’s really good at writing scenes between two people, but he’s not great at confrontational scenes. Eastwood can compensate for it in the flashback with he and Streep. He can’t do anything about there being a mainstream inspirational denouement. Because, thanks to Streep–and, really, not movie stars Annie Corley and Victor Slezak as Streep’s kids in the frame–he’s able to get the movie done without too much damage. But it’s a rough sequence. Just because it’s not someone stunt-casted into the frame doesn’t mean it’s not narratively jarring.

Luckily, Eastwood’s got one final secret weapon to keep the film on track–the music. He and Lennie Niehaus compose this great theme for the film and Eastwood only barely teases it out through the actual film. The end credits, shots of the film’s locations relevant to the Streep and Eastwood scenes, set to the full theme? They devastate. Because some of Bridges of Madison County is Eastwood asking for a pass. He’s asking for indulgence. Give the film that indulgence, it’s got a phenomenal performance from Streep, a fairly great one from Eastwood, and some excellently paced two person scenes.

Of course, Eastwood could’ve done worse with the framing scenes as far as the filmmaking and the acting. Corley and Slezak are great. But they’re entirely pointless. Eastwood, Oppewall, and Green are entranced with the 1965 setting. There’s just no other way to start the film off and still make Streep immediately sympathetic. Eastwood hangs tough with the flashback sequence and its constraints.

The flashback–Streep and Eastwood–is a love letter. The frame is a journal. The journal’s all right… it’s got Streep, but it doesn’t have Eastwood. The third act just goes on too long, all of it in the present. There needed to be a handoff in emotional intensity but Eastwood’s not interested enough. He’s competent and present in the frame; he’s ambitious and feverish in the flashback. He and Streep’s first kiss scene is crazy good. And he works as an actor. Sometimes foolishly he runs into the part. There’s a pleasing hum to the flashback scenes, which Streep probably generates on her own, and as long as Eastwood’s performance is enough with the current, he’s sailing.

It’s enthralling. And then it has to end. To be fair to LaGravenese (and apparently uncredited executive producer Steven Spielberg), Eastwood doesn’t know how to bring it to the end either. He doesn’t want to say goodbye to this fantastic creation of Streep’s either.

Maybe the strangest thing Eastwood manages to do is so fully control the tearjerker aspect of the film. He, Niehaus, Cox, and Streep manage to turn it into a celebratory ugly cry. Sure, there’s still some sense of tragedy, but it’s in a far greater, human sense.

The Bridges of Madison County is mostly great, a tragic Frankenstein. It’s too good at being a big budget economy intellectual romance novel about human connection in the July-October set to just be an adaptation of a best-selling novel.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Robert James Waller; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Joel Cox; music by Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Eastwood and Kathleen Kennedy; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Meryl Streep (Francesca Johnson), Clint Eastwood (Robert Kincaid), Jim Haynie (Richard Johnson), Michelle Benes (Lucy Redfield), Annie Corley (Carolyn Johnson), and Victor Slezak (Michael Johnson).


Manhattan (1979, Woody Allen)

Every shot in Manhattan, whether of the cityscape, the interiors or the actors, is so carefully and beautifully composed, it’s not surprising Allen lets the cast go a little loose. Gordon Willis’s black and white photography is luminous, giving the city an otherworldly, dreamlike feel. That feeling, thanks to Allen’s composition, carries over to some of the interior scenes too. There are these occasional observations of regular human activity, but with the composition and lighting, they appear singular.

Allen also holds a lot of shots—usually of himself. Manhattan’s really his film as an actor. It starts out having room for Michael Murphy and Diane Keaton, but as the film progresses, Allen’s character takes over. His unlikely character proves to be the best protagonist, partially because Murphy and Keaton don’t give particularly good performances. Well, particularly is a little too complimentary. Murphy’s weak (and I love him, so it’s too bad) and Keaton’s mediocre. The same goes for Mariel Hemingway, who’s just a little too blasé—Allen gets away with a lot thanks to the composition and Willis’s photography, but it only covers so much.

The rest of the supporting cast is excellent—Meryl Streep is hilarious, Anne Byrne Hoffman is good. It’s too bad they’re both in the film so little.

George Gershwin arrangements are the film’s score and it usually works to great effect. Sometimes the booming music and the lush photography overwhelm, making Manhattan transcend.

Manhattan’s an impressive film, though it can’t completely overcome the acting problems.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Woody Allen; written by Allen and Marshall Brickman; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Susan E. Morse; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins; released by United Artists.

Starring Woody Allen (Isaac), Diane Keaton (Mary), Michael Murphy (Yale), Mariel Hemingway (Tracy), Meryl Streep (Jill), Anne Byrne Hoffman (Emily), Michael O’Donoghue (Dennis), Wallace Shawn (Jeremiah) and Karen Ludwig (Connie).


It’s Complicated (2009, Nancy Meyers)

It’s not difficult to come up with compliments for It’s Complicated. Alec Baldwin is very funny. Unfortunately, he’s very funny playing a slight variant on his character from “30 Rock.” Similarly, John Krasinski is very affable. Unfortunately, he too is simply playing a variation on his “Office” character. The film is from Universal (or NBC Universal) and both those television shows air on NBC. One almost has to wonder.

Without the two of them, there might be a somewhat silly but still sincere divorce romance for Meryl Streep and the ludicrously second-billed Steve Martin (if anyone ever deserved an “and” credit, it’s Martin in this film). Both of them turn in solid, nearly believable performances.

If Meyers had wanted the film to be serious, I’m not just sure she could have handled it, I’m sure she could have handled it well. Instead, It’s Complicated feels like something spun out of “The View.” Streep appearing in this film is even more absurd than her appearing in Mamma Mia! Martin’s on par, but he’s still at least acting his character, not just acting a character from his tv show. Though his–and the film’s–best moment is when he’s a wild and crazy guy.

Meyers started her career as an amazing director. It’s hard to tell if she still has those skills. Most of her composition is for home video, wasting John Toll’s cinematography. However, it’s editors Joe Hutshing and David Moritz who do the most damage overall. It’s hideously edited.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Nancy Meyers; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Joe Hutshing and David Moritz; music by Hans Zimmer and Heitor Pereira; production designer, Jon Hutman; produced by Meyers and Scott Rudin; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Meryl Streep (Jane), Steve Martin (Adam), Alec Baldwin (Jake), Lake Bell (Agness), John Krasinski (Harley), Rita Wilson (Trisha), Mary Kay Place (Joanne), Alexandra Wentworth (Diane) and Hunter Parrish (Luke).


Doubt (2008, John Patrick Shanley)

There’s a good movie somewhere in the idea of Doubt (a nun suspects a priest of molesting a child, but it’s 1964 and the patriarchy of the Church isn’t going to listen to her). The film’s full of almost detective moments (and faux-auteur Shanley pulls out some Hitchcock angles after the big reveal), but the film never embraces that nature. As a character study masquerading as a detective story, Doubt would have been fantastic. As an awkward conversation drama–Shanley opens the film in the church’s neighborhood, then never returns to this neighborhood, it’s all malarky to make a theater adaptation seem opened up for the screen–it’s a failure.

The fault lies, obviously, with Shanley. There are two major problems with his script here. First, either Philip Seymour Hoffman is a good guy priest unduly hunted by Streep or he’s a child molester. I’m sure Shanley feels the movie–ultimately–lets the viewer decide, but that position isn’t just a cop-out (Doubt is in no way a piece about the way people talk to each other so it doesn’t get any leeway for being wishy-washy), it’s also a load. The entire movie, Shanley makes ever action Hoffman takes suspicious. It’s like watching, well, Suspicion. Presumably, the viewer is supposed to wait for proof, for the climatic showdown between Streep and Hoffman where all is revealed. Here’s the problem–if Hoffman’s a pederast, if there’s even a possibility of it, why not just judge him right out. It’s not like Shanley’s just making a movie about a guy killing his wife or robbing a bank, Doubt‘s an argument to–against all the weighted evidence Shanley presents–give the pederast the benefit of the (sorry) doubt. It’s kind of an icky feeling.

The second problem is the lack of character depth. Again, I’m sure Shanley thinks it’s all about the way things play out objectively, but the characters all have hints of depth, but it’s just matte paintings. Streep could have one of her most interesting characters in this part of her career, but instead, she’s playing a mix of the Emperor from Star Wars, the Wicked Witch, Grampa Simpson and the bad lady from Sleeping Beauty. It’s amazing she turns in such a good performance, especially since Shanley wrote most of her dialogue and reactions to get laughs. Her funniest line, the one where Doubt becomes a hilariously turgid melodramatic turd, is actually not for laughs, which goes to show how aware Shanley is of his work.

Sadly, Hoffman isn’t good. His performance shows off his ability–Shanley’s even got him making voices–but the role’s faulty.

Amy Adams is actually pretty darn good, but watching her act opposite Streep and Hoffman… it’s watching a personality (Amy Adams as a naive nun) against actual craftspersons. A trailer for one of Adams’s upcoming pictures played before Doubt and the biggest difference were the vows and the outfit.

Viola Davis has one major scene and is fantastic. Streep’s quiet for most of the scene too, which allows for comparison between the two–Davis wins.

Until that absurdist, goofy last moment, Doubt isn’t terrible. Streep and Adams pull it through–and Hoffman’s fine for the first half, until he’s all of a sudden got to play a real person (something Shanley apparently refuses to write). Alice Drummond’s got a thanklessly small role and she’s awesome. Howard Shore’s music and Roger Deakins’s photography are both excellent.

So where does it go wrong? With Shanley. I’ve never seen someone more ignorant of his or her own work.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Patrick Shanley; screenplay by Shanley, based on his play; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Mark Roybal; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Viola Davis (Mrs. Miller), Joseph Foster (Donald Miller), Alice Drummond (Sister Veronica), Audrie Neenan (Sister Raymond), Susan Blommaert (Mrs. Carson), Carrie Preston (Christine Hurley) and John Costelloe (Warren Hurley).


Lions for Lambs (2007, Robert Redford)

Hopefully, Lions for Lambs will be the most topical film ever made. Hopefully. In fifteen years, hopefully it won’t make any sense. It probably will.

As a dramatic narrative, it’s pretty limp. Most of the scenes with the big three are dialogue scenes, written by someone not incompetent but without much gift for it. It’s a play from a non-playwright. As a singularly directed play, the film would make sense. As a film, it really doesn’t. It might be Redford’s direction, which suffers from bad editing (Joe Hutshing does a terrible job with the back and forth, each edit more jarring than the last), but it might also be the lack of distinction. Had Redford done something crazy–something von Trier crazy–it might have worked. Because there’s nothing to Lions for Lambs if one tells it straight. It’s three stories–professor Redford talking to a student (basically about not sitting idly by while Britney Spears passes for news), GOP senator Tom Cruise trying to sell a new Afghanistan strategy to a cable news exec–sorry, reporter–Meryl Streep, and that strategy failing two of Redford’s former students, Michael Peña and Derek Luke on the ground.

The film opens with a broad, forceful propagandist hammer. It’s the kind of thing they should have gotten Noam Chomsky to consult on… if Noam Chomsky consulted on movies and if the producers had an iota of forethought. It slowly and carefully reveals layers and inconsistencies… Army Lieutenant Colonel Peter Berg might believe calculated lies about Iran but he does care about his troops. Berg’s acting in the film, watching Peña and Luke under fire is fantastic–a performance I never thought he’d be capable of performing.

There is a lot of good acting in the film. Streep’s solid, of course. Cruise’s performance will probably go forever unnoticed, but it’s phenomenal. It should have gotten more notice–and would have if only the film had some better direction. Both Peña and Luke are good as well, with Peña turning in yet another of his character performance as lead auditions.

Redford’s pretty lame, but most of the problem is with his “acting” collaborator. Whoever casted Andrew Garfield committed almost as great a film crime as whoever kept Mark Isham’s lousy score. Garfield’s real, real, real bad. His dialogue’s bad too, but his delivery is incompetent. He couldn’t sell teen hair products.

The cast is small, there are only a handful of settings… it should have been a play. A play can be topical and still be a phenomenon. A film has to account for some of the time spent–the time spent making it, the time spent watching it. Lions for Lambs feels like screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan got pissed while watching some bullshit CNN newscast, wrote an easy ninety-minute movie (turning Peña and Luke’s story into an entire feature would have been work) and just happened to be in the right place at the right time (Cruise taking over United Artists) to get it made.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Redford; written by Matthew Michael Carnahan; director of photography, Philippe Rousselot; edited by Joe Hutshing; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Jan Roelfs; produced by Redford, Carnahan, Andrew Hauptman and Tracy Falco; released by United Artists.

Starring Robert Redford (Professor Stephen Malley), Meryl Streep (Janine Roth), Tom Cruise (Senator Jasper Irving), Michael Peña (Ernest Rodriguez), Andrew Garfield (Todd Hayes), Peter Berg (Lieutenant Colonel Falco), Kevin Dunn (ANX Editor) and Derek Luke (Arian Finch).


Mamma Mia! (2008, Phyllida Lloyd)

The first act of Mamma Mia! practically kills the entire thing. The goofy proposition of a musical set to ABBA songs engenders a lot of curiosity (one starring Meryl Streep provokes a lot more), but the first act–when it tries to be a narrative–is a disaster. The attempts at narrative and summary storytelling are atrocious. The first act would have been more successful if the movie had just started by playing the trailer to establish itself. There’s also the problem with Amanda Seyfried, who’s awful when the story centers around her. Luckily, it’s only for that first act. Later on, when Seyfried’s supporting, she’s better.

The movie starts getting entertaining–and Mamma Mia! is nothing but entertaining, the joke of it being the presence of Streep and Pierce Brosnan, both of whom are established, undeniable movie stars. It’s fun watching them have fun (I suppose Mamma Mia! is a low rent Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen as it were). Anyway, it gets entertaining when Julie Walters and Christine Baranski arrive. Once the film gets those two and Streep together, it’s a lot of fun. Baranski’s the only cast member who I’d expect to see in Mamma Mia! Watching Julie Walters in the movie is almost more disconcerting than seeing Streep in it.

I’m unfamiliar with modern musicals, so I don’t know if this “style” is the norm, but Mamma Mia! is absurd as one of the Muppet movies. It tries for humor in the same way (a line of the song leads to some amusing, literal sight gag), which is a lot different than presenting a narrative set to music. The failed first act never established itself as acknowledging its absurdity, something Seyfried’s ever-pensive performance doesn’t help.

At times with Streep and Brosnan–mostly with Streep, because Brosnan seems perfectly aware his presence in the film is silly and can’t stop grinning–there’s the implication the movie’s format is wasting its cast. Maybe Streep should have made a movie with Brosnan about middle-aged romance or one with Seyfried (well, not Seyfried, but some other young actress) about letting go of an about-to-be married daughter. But then Streep sings and brings her superior acting ability to it. Streep’s not a good singer (but better than I would have thought, ABBA songs lend themselves to enthusiasm over ability), but her performance makes it not matter. It makes the super-pop songs all of a sudden of the greatest human import. All because of Streep.

The rest of the cast is fine. Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård get the heave-ho once the focus shifts from Seyfried to Streep but it’s hard to miss them. Seeing Pierce Brosnan break out into song–he seems to be trying to turn ABBA into Irish folk songs–obscures their absence. Mamma Mia! is one of the first times it becomes clear what a good movie star Brosnan has turned into–quite a turnaround for someone who was doing direct-to-cable movies twenty years ago.

The direction–which is essentially a string of music videos strung together–is occasionally annoying, as is the digitally enhanced cinematography. But it’s a fine enough hour and forty minutes… with the last number making any problems more than worth enduring.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd; written by Catherine Johnson, based on her original musical book, originally conceived by Judy Craymer based on the songs of ABBA; director of photography, Haris Zambarloukos; edited by Lesley Walker; music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, some songs with Stig Anderson; production designer, Maria Djurkovic; produced by Craymer and Gary Goetzman; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Meryl Streep (Donna), Pierce Brosnan (Sam), Colin Firth (Harry), Stellan Skarsgård (Bill), Julie Walters (Rosie), Dominic Cooper (Sky), Amanda Seyfried (Sophie) and Christine Baranski (Tanya).


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