Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2014 Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 3): The Domination of Dench and Streep

I am not an ageist. Let's start there. But older movie-goers are a loud bunch. Whether it's because they aren't trying to please anyone anymore, or because they feel they have earned the right to do anything they damn well please, they don't bother whispering.

Once a year, my wife and I take a day off in January so we can see two movies, and we did that again. This year, our first movie was Philomena, and just as we were getting comfortable, waiting for the previews at five minutes to 11 a.m., a noisy crew rolled in. I heard them before I saw them, on the ramp coming into the theater. Three women emerged, at full volume, and began to have this three-minute conversation as they started climbing the steps to our left:

Lady #1 (loudly): Where should we sit?

Lady #2 (also loudly): Let's sit up there.

She pointed to some seats further behind us, about four rows up. The house lights were still up, but it did not seem to help them move quickly. My wife and I tried not to listen, but they would not be ignored.

Lady #3 (once they got to the seats, loudly): It is hot up here! Are you hot?

Lady #1: I am warm.

Lady #2: It's too hot.

Lady #3: Well let's sit down there then...it is hot up here!

They crossed the row to the steps to our right and started coming back down. These women were now the sole focus of our attention, a mini-drama playing out in front of us, behind us, around us. The horror of their discomfort, the simplicity of their needs, it was all so compelling. THEY JUST WANTED TO SIT DOWN.

Once they finally did, Lady #1 asked the question we all wanted answered: Why was it so hot up there?!?

Those loud ladies had made the arduous journey up to those high seats and then down again, and their destination was not what they had imagined. Theirs was a human story, a story of ascending the mountain, only to be disappointed. Why is it that those high seats can never live up to the high seats in our hearts? Why so hot, loud ladies? Why indeed.

"It is pretty hot up there," my wife said. I nodded furiously. Clearly we needed the movie to start.

Thankfully Philomena did not disappoint. Judi Dench plays Philomena, a 70-year-old Irish woman who had been placed in a convent by her father as a pregnant teenager. She had the baby, and was able to spend some time with her son as she worked off her "debt" to the convent, but her son was sold to a rich American couple, never to be seen by her again. She finally tells her adult daughter what happened years ago.

Steve Coogan, a very famous comedian in England, wrote the screenplay and played against type in the role of Martin Sixsmith, a recently-fired political spin doctor who is looking for a project, any project, now that he is out of work. Philomena's daughter makes Sixsmith aware of her mother's story, and he reluctantly agrees to help track down this long-lost son so that he can write about it for a magazine.

Despite the potential for this movie to be horrendously sad, Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity) creates a good balance. The story moves quickly and takes some interesting turns. Steve Coogan and Judi Dench do a tremendous job playing characters who develop a relationship, despite being nothing alike. Their interactions are the core of the movie.

It was simple, heartfelt, and well done. While it wasn't exactly a pick-me-up, we enjoyed it.

For our afternoon matinee, there were no palette cleansers in store for us as we saw August: Osage County, originally a play written by Tracy Letts about a complicated family in rural Oklahoma. If you want a dialogue-heavy ensemble drama, this is it. And it continues to have that live-theater feel.

There is only one actor you wouldn't recognize:
  • Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts will get a lot of attention for their performances as a dysfunctional mother and daughter.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch does a very good job of playing against type as the simple-minded cousin of this Oklahoma family.
  • Ewan McGregor is also here, playing Julia Roberts' husband, and making us wonder why there are so many British actors in a film set in small-town Oklahoma.
  • Dermot Mulroney gives us a dirtball version of his typical heartthrob role.
  • Juliette Lewis gives us a slightly smarter version of her character in The Other Girl.
  • Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Abigail Breslin, and Julianne Nicholson all do a very good job as well. Martindale is particularly good as Meryl Streep's sister.

Despite all the star power, it was the one unknown actor in the entire movie that got the best line. Misty Upham, who plays the Native American health aide recently hired to help out, smacks Dermot Mulroney with a shovel after seeing some inappropriate behavior. "He was messing with Jean, so I tuned him up."

It's a very powerful movie, and worth it for the performances alone. I don't know if I enjoyed it, but it made me wonder about the inevitability of becoming the people who raised us.

I keep hearing that Hollywood is a place that lacks roles for older women, but these two movies extend a trend: Judi Dench and Meryl Streep up for Oscars every year. It isn't completely true, but it seems like it. It's like two old boxers, in the ring once again, this time for Best Actress. Dench vs. Streep. Streep vs. Dench. Let's see how they stack up...

TALE OF THE TAPE Judi Dench Meryl Streep
Known for Almost Everything Everything
Birthdate 9-Dec-34 22-Jun-49
Height 5'1" 5'6"
Origin North Yorkshire, UK New Jersey, US
Family Widowed, 1 child Married, 4 children
Education Central School of Speech and Drama Yale School of Drama
Oscar Nominations 7 18
Oscar Wins 1 3
BAFTA Nominations 28 14
BAFTA Wins 11 2
Golden Globe Noms      11 28
Golden Globe Wins 2 8

Actually, Cate Blanchett seems to be favored for Best Actress this year for her performance in Blue Jasmine, but can the track record of Dench and Streep be considered anything less than dominant? And imagine how much more impressive it would be if American audiences had discovered Dench earlier - her first Oscar nomination came at the age of 65, the age Streep is now!

If Hollywood does indeed become a place where Dench and Streep can't get a part, I'd suggest the roles of Lady #1 and Lady #2 in what I'd like to call "The Heat Up There: A Mini-Tragedy." We'll get Downton Abbey's Maggie Smith to play Lady #3. It'll be like The Lord of the Rings crossed with The Three Stooges. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wonder why they refuse to whisper.

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