Two remarkable women; two extraordinary performances

By Tom Von Malder | Apr 22, 2012
Photo by: The Weinstein Company Meryl Streep won her third Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.”

Owls Head — The Iron Lady (Weinstein/Anchor Bay, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 105 min.). From the moment we first see Meryl Streep as an aged Margaret Thatcher, waiting in line to buy milk at a neighborhood convenience store, it was clear she would be at least nominated for an Academy Award for her work as Great Britain’s first female prime minister. In fact, Streep carried home the Oscar, her third win, but, despite being nominated 17 times, only her first win since “Sophie’s Choice” about 30 years ago.

Too bad the film is not as good as the acting, which includes a fine turn by Jim Broadbent as her husband Denis Thatcher and Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd as their younger versions. The main problem with the film is its flashback-heavy format, that and dealing too much with the present and Thatcher’s conversations with her dead husband (all visualized) as she comes to grips with finally getting rid of his clothes and other possessions. While we briefly see her as a “common” grocer’s daughter and her first -- failed campaign -- for office, we really do not get enough of what Thatcher did while in power for an unprecedented three terms (11 years), other than the Falklands War. Director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan really fail to present a clear picture of Thatcher, and the film would have been better in they had taken a stand either in defense or her or against her. The center of the movie is really a marshmallow and Streep is not given good enough material to work with.

There is a good 12:20 making-of the film, which is cannibalized for three other shorts included her. The final short is on the costume design. Grade: film 2.25 stars; extras 2 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

My Week with Marilyn (Weinstein/Anchor Bay, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 99 min.). As with Meryl Streep and Margaret Thatcher, Michelle Williams inhabits the role of Marilyn Monroe in this entertaining film. It also earned Williams and Oscar nomination. The time is 1956 and Monroe has traveled to London to make a film with Sir Laurence Olivier (played wonderfully by Kenneth Branagh). The film started out as “The Sleeping Prince,” but was released as “The Prince and the Showgirl.” And while, Monroe is shown to be a very unsure actress here, her next film would be the well-received, comedy classic “Some Like It Hot.”

Olivier has to deal with all of Monroe’s unprofessionalism because he also is the film’s director. Monroe has brought along her acting coach (Zoe Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg, teacher of the Method, with her husband, Lee), which adds to the delays and annoys Olivier, who hates the Method. However, what Monroe needs is a friend -- her new husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) cannot take Monroe’s insecurity either and leaves to visit his children -- and she finds that friend in 23-year-old Colin Clark (a fine Eddie Redmayne), a wide-eyed third assistant director on the set in his first film-related job. Naturally, Colin falls for Marilyn and she sweetly leads him on with no malice and the understanding that they are just two new friends intersecting for a short time. There is one wonderful day when they play hooky and visit Windsor Castle and Eton College, where Colin went to school (as did actor Redmayne). Also in the film are Emma Watson as Colin’s date and possible girlfriend, Judi Dench as actress Dame Sybil Thorndike and Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh, the “Gone with the Wind” actress now married to Olivier.

Extras include audio commentary by director Simon Curtis and a fine, 19:07 making-of feature. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.75 stars

The Darkest Hour (Summit, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 89 min.).
The film may not totally succeed, but the filmmakers made some good choices, one being to see the alien invasion film in Moscow, a city we do not see enough of in film. The aliens themselves, are invisible, except when they interact with our planet’s energy sources. They kill by “shredding” the humans they come into contact with, basically disintegrating them and reducing them almost instantaneously into dust. Give a lot of credit to Valeri Viktorov’s production design and Timur Bekmambetov’s visual effects for making this seem at all realistic. The director is Chjris Gorak, who was the art director on “Fight Club” and “Minority Report.”

Where the film comes up short is in the acting that features four bland leads. Emile Hirsch plays Sean and Max Minghella is Ben, two young computer programmers who have created a social network for global travelers. However, their idea has been stolen by an associate, Skyler (Joel Kinnaman, who is so good in TV’s “The Killing,” but plays the mean guy too broadly here). The boys run into two American tourists (Olivia Thirlby as Natalie and Rachel Taylor as Anne) in a nightclub, just before the aliens float down from the sky in quite the light show. They also meet up with a Russian (Veronika Ozerova as Viki), who brings some initial energy to the proceedings, but then dumbs up too. And while there is some cleverness in how the remaining few humans figure out how to combat the aliens, there’s no electricity -- pardon the pun -- to the run and run again plot.

That said, the extras are fairly entertaining and include an 8:09 epilogue film that shows the continuing human resistance and may actually solve the whole invasion problem -- yes, in only eight minutes), as well as how-he-did-it audio commentary by director Gorak. Gorak points out the scene in which one of the actresses stumbled and actually broke her foot, before limping along to complete the scene. He also points out that much of the filming in Moscow was done during a 100-year heat wave. There is a 12:09 look at the visual effects and five deleted scenes (4:48) with optional commentary by Gorak. The original film was made in 3D. Grade: film 2 stars; extras 3 stars

The Divide (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 122 min.).
This is a smart, tough film, directed by Xavier Gens (“Hitman”), that actually is difficult to watch at times. It is bleak, unsparing and terrific. The film opens with the nuclear destruction of New York City. A group of nine, including a mother and daughter and two brothers plus one of their friends, manage to barricade themselves in the basement, half-finished bomb shelter created by tough building manager Mickey (Michael Biehn), who naturally takes control and does not share everything he has. Bizarrely, and unexplained, a group of armed soldiers in isolation gear storm the basement after a couple of days. One would have expected a rescue, but this definitely is not. After some resistance, the survivors are actually sealed in the basement.

That is when human nature starts to take over and, by film’s end, the viewer may wish for instant death rather than to be trapped in the scenario that unfolds. Rosanna Arquette plays the woman with the child, while Milo Ventimiglia and Ashton Holmes are the brothers, while Michael Eklund plays the friend. The other actors are Lauren German, Courtney B. Vance, Ivan Gonzalez and Abbey Thickson as the child. Think “Lord of the Flies” in a very small space and with a sadistic sexual component. The nice, subdued score by Jean-Pierre Taieb recalls Tangerine Dream towards the climax. The sole bonus feature is an interesting one, audio commentary by director Gens and actors Biehn, Eklund and Ventimiglia. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extra 3 stars

Torchwood: Miracle Day (BBC, 4 Blu-ray discs or standard DVDs, NR, 530 min.).
In the 10-episode mini-series, Great Britain’s alien-fighting Torchwood comes to America in two ways: both in plot and in being made for the Starz cable network. John Barrowman is back as Capt. Jack Harkness -- and where would Torchwood be without him -- and so is Eve Myles as former policewoman Gwen Cooper, the only other surviving member of Torchwood. Gwen has been hiding out in remote Wales with her husband Rys Williams (Kai Owen) and their infant. Only the world will not leave them alone.

On the day that pedophile and child killer Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman) is to be executed, death takes a permanent holiday. Danes survives and eventually becomes a national spokesman, but so does everybody else, including ambitious CIA Agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer), who is impaled through the heart in a car accident. At the same time as Miracle Day begins, the name Torchwood shows up on the CIA’s computer screens and then is wiped away. So, Matheson goes to England to bring back Hawkins and Cooper, while CIA analyst Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) is searching old records for Torchwood references, only to get set up to take a fall. She alerts Matheson, so the two end up joining Torchwood to solve the mystery., which may involve a big drug company. Oh yes, and with everyone else suddenly immortal, Miracle Day has the opposite effect on Harkness, who now finds himself mortal and, being that this is Starz, he gets to have a hot sex scene after a bar pickup. Things are a bit stretched out and slow to develop after the initial hour, after all this is double the length of the last Torchwood series.

Extras include audio commentaries on the first and last episodes by creator/ executor producer/co-writer Russell T. Davies and executive producer Judy Gardner; 10 minutes of character profiles; episode introductions by Davies and Barrowman; a 16-minute look at the special effects; a 30-minute look at behind the scenes; eight minutes of short deleted scenes; and a 30-minute motion comic. Grade: season and extras 3.5 stars

While the Patient Slept (1935, Warner Archive DVD, NR, 65 min.)
. Crime novelist Mignon Eberhart, known as America’s Agatha Christie, co-wrote this faithful adaptation of her popular novel of the same name. It reunites nurse Sarah Keate (Aline MacMahon) and police Detective Lt. Lance O’Leary (Guy Kibbee). Keate is called in to care for an elderly man (Walter Walker as Richard Federie) who has a stroke after reading a telegram from his disinherited son (Robert H. Barrat). Meanwhile, the whole clan has gathered, each with the intent to talking the ill man into putting them into his will. However, while the patient sleeps in his mansion on a dark and very stormy night, his other son Adolphe (also Barrat) is shot to death in the same room. Allen Jenkins plays the not-so-bright, or helpful either, Police Sgt. Jim Jackson. This release, which is entertaining as well as short, was a Clue Club Picture. The disc is manufactured on demand and available from . Grade: film 3 stars

The Case of the Black Parrot (1941, Warner Archive, NR, 60 min.)
. Not quite as successful is this murder mystery, which begins on a ship. Reporter Jim Moore (William Lundigan, who would go on to star in the “Man into Space” TV series) is trying to ask his girlfriend Sandy Vantine (Maris Wrixon) to marry him, when he learns her Uncle Paul Vantine (Charles Waldron) has a cabinet made by the legendary thief, the Black Parrot. However, just after they learn the cabinet apparently is the real deal and not a copy, an imminent-attack alarm is sounded on the ship. Look for William Hopper, who would go on to play detective Paul Drake on the “Perry Mason” TV series, as the ship’s officer who reports the false alarm. Back on land at her uncle’s home, there are a couple of mysterious murders, including her uncle -- both with what looks like snake bites. Eddie Foy Jr. plays photographer Tripod Daniels, Moore’s sidekick and Joseph Crehan plays Inspector Grady. Crehan may be a familiar face as he played President/General Ulysses S. Grant nine times. The disc is manufactured on demand and available from . Grade: film 2.5 stars

Beneath the Darkness (Image, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 96 min.).
Dennis Quaid plays a real nasty funeral director who happens to kill people in this ultimately disappointing film. Quaid has a couple of good moments as a psycho, but the film otherwise is rather lifeless. Student Travis (Tony Oller) is the witness that nobody believes, especially after he is caught sneaking into the funeral director’s house with a couple of his pals. The only extra shows a scene being filmed (2:38). Take a pass on this one. Grade: film 2 stars

Splintered (Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 85 min.).
Even more disappointing is this horror effort. Sophie (Holly Weston) is a troubled teenager who drags her friends to a farm in North Wales looking for a half-man, half-animal beast. They stumble across an abandoned orphanage and the killing starts. It’s all pretty pointless, then turns all frenetic and senseless an hour in. Then comes a long flashback to tell the why and multiple false endings. Stephen Martin Walters, who has a dual role, performed in the TV show “Skins.” The only bonuses are seven deleted scenes, two alternate endings and a making-of feature. Grade: film 1.5 stars

Ice Quake (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 90 min.).
This Syfy original was a pleasant surprise, a not-too-bad film about liquid methane underground buildup that threatens to destroy an Alaskan ski resort and more on Christmas Eve. The danger below causes ice quakes and releases of gas that kill instantly. Brendan Fehr (TV’s “Bones”) plays a military geologist, who takes his wife, son and daughter up on the ski hill to find and cut down a Christmas tree. Naturally, the kids get separated by the parents by a fault line. (My complaint with the film is all the cracks occur in the open areas, like the ski runs, so why doesn’t everybody stay closer to the trees. Also, there often is yellow behind the actors in the snow scenes on the Blu-ray disc.) The only bonus is a making-of feature. Grade: film 3 stars

Metal Shifters (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 90 min.). Another Syfy original, this film involves a Russian satellite falling out of orbit and crashing into an Idaho field near where two brothers are desperate to keep the family business afloat. They sell the satellite to a local artist who uses it in his giant sculpture, but no one realizes until it is too late that the satellite carries an alien substance that transforms steel objects into ferocious killing machines. Hoping to save the day are a local contractor (Kavan Smith of “Stargate: Atlantis” and “The 4400”) and his estranged ex-girlfriend (Nicole de Boer of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”). Also in the cast is Chris Gauthier of “Eureka” and Donnelly Rhodes of “Battlestar Galactica.”

Gwyneth Paltrow: 4-Film Collection, Nicole Kidman: 4-Film Collection and Renee Zellweger: 4-Film Collection (each Miramax/Lionsgate DVDs). Each of these three bargain-priced collections contains four films, three of which you are sure to have heard of and a fourth, more obscure one. For Paltrow, she won an Oscar for her work in “Shakespeare in Love,” playing Lady Viola opposite Joseph Fiennes’ William Shakespeare. “Emma” is a comedy based on the Jane Austen classic novel and “Bounce” had her paired with Ben Affleck. Lesser known is “View from the Top,” with Paltrow playing a small-town girl determined to become a first-class international flight attendant. The Kidman collection includes the romantic epic “Cold Mountain” with Jude Law and set after the Civil War (seven Oscar nominations), “The Others” that haunt a woman and her two young children in a secluded mansion, “Dogville” about a fugitive with a mysterious past and “Rabbit Hole,” about a husband and wife (Oscar nomination for Kidman) who find their way back to love after a devastating loss.  The Zellweger collection includes Oscar Best Picture-winner, the musical “Chicago,” the fun comedy “Bridget Jones’s Diary” with Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, another copy of “Cold Mountain” and “New in Town,” where she plays a high-powered Miami executive who relocates to Minnesota. All three are worth picking up; too bad “Cold Mountain” is in two of the collections.

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