Monthly Archives: October 2014

My Year With Meryl: Julie & Julia (2009)

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Julie & Julia is one of Meryl’s most enchanting movies ever, a supremely entertaining love letter to Paris, New York, food, and love. The late great Nora Ephron wrote and directed the film, her last, with wit and affection, and assembled a terrific group of actors who fit their roles perfectly and who infuse the movie with their own unique charms. Julie & Julia opened in August 2009, soon after Meryl’s smash hit Mamma Mia and her multiple-Oscar-nominated Doubt, so one could say that she was at the true height of her career in 2009, and her masterful performance as Julia Child gave audiences yet another excuse to fall in love with her all over again.

The film is based on two non-fiction books—My Life in France, by Julia Child, and Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell—and Ephron could have chosen to make either one into its own separate film. In interviews, however, she stated that from the beginning she was only interested in making a movie that blended the Julia Child story in 1949 Paris with the Julie Powell story in 2002 New York, since the parallels between the two were so similar. Both are about women hitting a crossroads in their lives and trying to find something that fills them with joy and gives them purpose. They are also love stories that feature two doting men who truly love their wives and want to see them succeed. It’s also, of course, about the love of food!

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The first, notably better, story in the movie details a few years of Julia Child’s life in Paris, where she moved with her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) because of his government job. She considers hat-making lessons to give herself something to do with her free time, but she comes to decide food is her true passion, and she wants to become a cook. While in the beginning she struggles keeping up with the other more advanced men in her class, Julia quickly becomes adept at cooking, bring her own flavors and styles to her recipes, and she collaborates with two women to write the ultimate French cookbook for Americans, one that would change her life forever. The second story concerns a cubicle worker named Julie Powell (Amy Adams) who feels no sense of purpose in her life as she approaches turning thirty, but an idea pops into her head one day that she should try her hand at blogging. Her idea? 365 days. 524 recipes from Julia’s famous cookbook. As the year goes on, her blog explodes, and she and her husband Eric (Chris Messina) see their lives changing for the better, too. Ephron bounces back and forth between storylines every five to ten minutes typically, and finds just the right balance between the two.

Ephron had collaborated with Meryl twice before, on the superb Silkwood and the disappointing Heartburn, but both of those movies she only wrote—Mike Nichols directed them. Julie & Julia marked Meryl’s only film with Ephron that Ephron directed as well, which makes this being her swan song as a filmmaker particularly poignant. Of course it’s silly to suggest that a writer/director’s final movie has to be one of his or her better ones, but after the two unfortunate bombs Lucky Numbers, with John Travolta, and Bewitched, with Nicole Kidman, it’s a relief that Ephron’s last movie marked a return to form for the artist, who had achieved success with Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, and especially her screenplay for When Harry Met Sally, still one of the funniest and most delightful romantic comedy scripts ever written. Julie & Julia shows everything that makes Ephron wonderful—her attention to detail, her infectious sense of humor, her fantastic way with actors, and, of course, her obsession with food. And what better way to end a directing career to work with the best, Meryl Streep.

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While Meryl is a revelation in Julie & Julia, as she tends to be in at least every other film, the movie wouldn’t have worked if Meryl had been paired with the wrong actor to play her husband and lesser actors to portray Julie Powell and her husband in the modern day storyline. Thankfully, Ephron picked the very best for all four of the main roles, and even in some of the small supporting ones, too. Tucci enjoyed a terrific chemistry with Meryl in The Devil Wears Prada, but actual screen-time with her was limited in that movie. In Julie & Julia, he shares a multitude of charming scenes with her, some with cute banter, some with surprising sexuality, and all that show their great love for one another. He’s not the most obvious choice for this part, and it was Meryl herself who actually suggested him. It’s a masterstroke of casting that brings an extra special element to the movie. Adams, in her second film with Meryl in less than a year, is her typically likable self as the insecure and sometimes narcissistic blogger, and Messina is always a welcome face in any movie he’s in. Jane Lynch is a hoot as Julia’s sister, and Mary Lynn Rajskub has some funny lines as Julie’s friend Sarah.

Meryl received her sixteenth Academy Award nomination for this film, and if not for Sandra Bullock’s beloved performance in The Blind Side, she might have finally taken home her third Oscar. It seemed like every time she was nominated in the 1990s and 2000s, she came close—really close—to winning, but one other dynamite figure (Kate Winslet and Bullock particularly) managed to scoop that statue out from under her. She would finally win two years later for The Iron Lady, but her performance in Julie & Julia is one of her finest and most charming post-Adaptation, yet another example of Meryl playing a real-life figure and transforming her performance into something more than just impersonation—if the Julia Child character had been the focus of the entire movie, not just half of it, it’s likely Meryl would have won every award known to man.

Stanley Tucci as "Paul Child" and Meryl Streep as "Julia Child"

She looks the part in every way, with that curly brown hair and slightly aged look that makes her appear twenty years older than she did in Mamma Mia. Child was six-foot-two, but her shoes, as well as some clever camera angles, make the five-foot-six Meryl look much taller. She’s got that famously deep, iconic voice that has been parodied for decades, most memorably by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live (a sketch that appears in the movie), but Meryl manages to tread that fine line between goofy and realistic every time she opens her mouth. Everything about her character and performance ring true. The love she feels for her husband, her desire to have a child and her mixed feelings when she learns her sister Dorothy (Lynch) is pregnant, her adoration of cooking and excitement as she improves in her craft, and finally her desire for her long-in-the-works cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking to be published. These moments are all fascinating to watch, and Meryl makes the most of each.

Julie & Julia was the perfect movie for me to watch in this, my forty-forth week in My Year With Meryl. It was borderline creepy, in a good way, to be watching a movie about a woman who’s anxious to turn thirty, on the eve of my own thirtieth birthday, and to watch a movie about a woman who decides to blog her way through Julia Child’s cookbook one recipe at a time for a year, when I’m blogging through Meryl Streep’s filmography one movie at a time for a year. I enjoyed Julie & Julia even more than when I saw it opening weekend back in 2009, partly because I have a deeper appreciation now of Meryl’s artistry, but mostly because it spoke to me more at age thirty than at age twenty-five. This is a film about following your dreams and finding yourself and falling in love with great food one delicious meal at a time, and it works.

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My Year With Meryl: Doubt (2008)

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Has any actor or actress played two lead characters in two major films in the same year as wildly different as Donna in Mamma Mia and Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt? While Meryl often acts in more than one film in a given year, 2008 has to be considered one of her crowning achievements just in terms of showing her remarkable range. In Mamma Mia, she plays a sexy, independent woman dancing through Greece, making out with James Bond, and belting out ABBA songs. In Doubt, she plays a stern, demanding nun who hides behind a black veil and manages to scare the children at her Catholic school with merely a glimpse in the hallway. The first character is vibrant and full of life, and the second character is an internally damaged woman who thinks only the worst of others. These parts couldn’t be more different than each other, and yet Meryl commits to them so completely that both characters become fully three-dimensional, totally believable, unbelievably played by the same actress. That’s the magic of Meryl.

John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for his enchanting screenplay for 1987’s Moonstruck, adapted his Pulitzer-Prize winning play Doubt to the screen. Cherry Jones, who played the Sister Aloysius role on stage for more than a year and won the Tony award, might have seemed a likely choice to play the character on film, but Shanley didn’t direct the play, and he wanted to make a movie that stood separate from what millions of audience members had already witnessed on the stage. For example, scenes that took place in dark rooms in the theatre were shot outside in the movie, with exteriors of 1964 Bronx, New York giving the film a crucial cinematic feel. He uses dutch angles and a subtle music score to infuse in the audience a sense of dread. He also wanted powerhouse A-list actors to give his emotionally resonant story new life, both for those who had already seen the play and for those who were coming to the movie cold. With material this rich, he probably could have convinced any major actor to be in his adaptation, and thankfully, for him and for the viewer, he picked the best four actors he possibly could’ve.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an electric performance, plays Father Flynn, a priest with an actual sense of humor and joy for his students who unfortunately never refrains from rubbing the strict Principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl), the wrong way. She’s always looking for an excuse to get him to leave, and she finally finds that excuse when Sister James (Amy Adams), an innocent nun without a shade of dishonesty, tells Sister Aloysius that she suspects Flynn of spending too much time with Donald, the school’s first black student. Without a shred of real proof, Sister Aloysius immediately commits herself to the idea that Father Flynn is up to no good with this boy, and she confronts him about his alleged wrongdoing. When he doesn’t give her the answer she wants, she pursues the matter further, potentially ruining the lives of everyone around her.

Easily Meryl’s best drama since 2002’s The Hours, Doubt is an absorbing film that at one hour and forty minutes doesn’t overstay its welcome. Films based on plays can often be stuffy and long-winded, but despite most of the signature scenes running on for big chunks of time, sometimes ten to fifteen minutes a piece, the characters are so well drawn and the dialogue is at such a high level of intelligence that the scenes feel shorter than they actually are. Doubt presents the kind of unique story that allows each viewer to bring his or her own beliefs to the movie. There’s no handholding here, no easy ending to reveal to the viewer the core mystery at the heart of the film. Is Flynn guilty or not? The viewer is never explicitly told, and it’s a smart decision on behalf of Shanley because it provides fodder for debate and interpretation.

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This film features one of Meryl’s finest performances since The Bridges of Madison County, but it also that rare achievement where every major player is outstanding, always raising his or her game. Each of the four actors with significant roles received Academy Award nominations, with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman especially a joy to watch square off against Meryl in two long riveting scenes filled with tension and tears. Hoffman is perfect casting for his character because in a long and varied career he played more than a few disturbed individuals—Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead come to mind—and his slightly off-kilter quality makes guessing whether he’s guilty or innocent all the more difficult. He was one of the best actors of his generation, a true original who always took chances, and watching the two extended scenes where he goes toe-to-toe with Meryl is about as mesmerizing as movie scenes get. Adams is also a perfect choice here, genuinely innocent and trusting of those around her, but with an inner sadness when she believes that trust has been broken. And Viola Davis’s stunning one scene, where her character Mrs. Miller begs Sister Aloysius to keep the alleged transgression a secret, stuns and exhilarates. Any actress who’s able to upstage Meryl in a scene is worthy of applause, and Davis is spectacular here, in a single moment that took her career to great heights.

Doubt marked Meryl’s first major role in a feature film drama since the aforementioned The Hours, and for her performance she received a Screen Actors Guild award and her fifteenth Academy Award nomination. If Kate Winslet’s Oscar nomination in Lead Actress for The Reader had been placed in the Supporting Actress category, where it was placed at the SAG and Golden Globe Awards, Meryl would have certainly won her third Oscar for her raw, sometimes chilling performance in Doubt. This is a character we think we know everything about when we’re first introduced to her. She’s a disciplinarian, the wicked witch of the Catholic school who inflicts fear and pain on her students, especially the unfortunate ones who don’t follow the rules. She doesn’t take crap from anybody, and she’s suspicious of Father Flynn from the start. But as the film continues, the viewer starts to see cracks in her veneer, her lack of ever looking inward to see what’s made her so judgmental of others and so bitterly unhappy. When she explodes at Flynn in their second of two major scenes, she seems to be yelling less at him and more at her own frustrations in committing herself to only seeing the worst in people.

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It is not until the final scene that her character, finally having received her wish for Flynn’s removal from the school, allows her intimidating and demanding persona to crumble, when she tells Sister James that she has doubts. Her two lines at the end can be interpreted in more than one way. Does she have doubts that Flynn molested the boy? That she handled the situation correctly? That inherent goodness in humanity is on the way out? Or possibly her own faith in God? Like the core mystery of the movie, her own doubts are left for interpretation, which makes this ending both challenging and effective. It also gives Meryl one of her most memorable movie endings, probably her most emotionally draining since the last scene of Kramer Vs. Kramer.

Meryl followed up Doubt with her endearing portrayal of Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s enchanting 2009 movie Julie & Julia, which also co-starred Amy Adams. Soon after that, she starred in The Iron Lady, the film that finally, after nearly thirty years, won her an Academy Award, oddly enough beating out her Doubt co-star Viola Davis, who was nominated for The Help. Despite approaching sixty at the time of acting in Doubt, an age when most actresses have either ruined their face with plastic surgery or been relegated to one-dimensional mother roles or have abandoned acting altogether, Meryl found herself at the most exciting time of her career with one tremendous performance after another that continued to cement her status as our greatest living actress. Who else, after all, could go from a movie like Mamma Mia to a movie like Doubt and excel at both roles so significantly? Only the very best.

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My Year With Meryl: Mamma Mia (2008)

One of the great joys in watching a new Meryl movie every week is seeing her take chances not just on daring projects and unique characters, but on new genres. So many actors unfortunately get typecast in certain kinds of movies—think Hugh Grant or Cameron Diaz in romantic comedies—but Meryl continues to surprise with her genre choices. While drama is her number one genre of choice, she has not shied away from comedies, Defending Your Life, Death Becomes Her, and The Devil Wears Prada being three of her best movies ever. In addition, she has appeared in a suspense film (Still of the Night), an action movie (The River Wild), a children’s film (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), animated movies (The Ant Bully and Fantastic Mr. Box), and a western (The Homesman).

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One of the last major genres she hadn’t tackled before 2008 was the musical, which was odd given her beautiful singing voice. Meryl memorably sang in Ironweed, Death Becomes Her, and A Prairie Home Companion but had never led an all-star musical. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and Mamma Mia, based on the award-winning musical that premiered in London in 1999 and went on to be one of Broadway’s longest running hits, turned out to be the one that called her name. Meryl saw the musical in New York a few weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks and wrote a letter to the show’s producers telling them how thankful she was for their bringing much-needed happiness to theatergoers. Phyllida Lloyd, who directed the stage-show and was chosen to also direct the film version, never forgot about that letter; her first and only choice for Donna in the movie was Meryl.

It would have been understandable for Meryl to say no to this project. Not only is this the kind of lightweight entertainment she hadn’t pursued in a few years but pulling off a movie musical is difficult—for every Chicago, there’s Rent and The Producers—and singing ABBA songs, as any member in the cast can attest to, can be a challenge. But when asked, Meryl was shocked that she was even considered, and she agreed to star in the film without a moment’s hesitation. She reportedly was never allowed to sing in her house around her son and daughters, so she decided she’d get her mini-revenge by leading a movie musical. Of course, the exotic location, amazing ensemble cast, catchy songs, and simple, engaging story also had something to do with her decision.

Film Title: Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia tells of twenty-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a young woman living in Greece who is about to marry her equally young Prince Charming named Sky (Dominic Cooper). Before her big day arrives, however, she sends out three letters to her three potential dads, men her mother dated one eventful summer. They all unexpectedly show up, to Sophie’s great joy, and her mother Donna’s consternation. As the wedding ceremony draws near, Sophie questions if she wants to get married at all, and Donna wonders if she still has the capacity to fall in love again. This original story, written by Catherine Johnson for both the stage version and the film version, plays out with more than a dozen ABBA songs that fit seamlessly into the plot.

Well maybe not all seamlessly, but most. Viewed in the right frame of mind, Mamma Mia is grand entertainment from beginning to end, a movie that exists for no other reason to make the viewer smile and feel good. While at times the cinematography feels a little too phony and glossy—much of the film was shot on the Pinewood Studios soundstages—and while there are a couple musical numbers that slow down the film’s pacing—as fun as “Does Your Mother Know” is, removing it would not affect the plot in any way—for the most part this movie works. There’s one more key flaw—more on that in a moment—but overall, the film is loads of fun, with one delightful song after another (“Honey, Honey” and “Dancing Queen” are two of the best) and lots of great actors clearly having a blast on-screen and not taking the cheesy story too seriously.

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Pierce Brosnan reportedly signed onto the movie not even knowing what it was—only that it was being shot in Greece and that Meryl was the lead. At this point in her career, Meryl had the power to attract terrific actors the world over to movies she was attached to, and Mamma Mia was no different. Playing Donna’s best friends, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters were perfectly chosen, making the life-long friendships between the three women believable; Walters is especially a hoot in the most comedic role in the movie. Amanda Seyfried is luminous, and Dominic Cooper is at his most handsome and charming. Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard joined Brosnan as Sophie’s potential fathers, and all three actors brought welcome qualities to their roles, with Firth at his most confused and Skarsgard at his silliest. Brosnan is fine in his most high-profile role since he retired from the James Bond series, but the other huge flaw in the movie is his godawful singing voice, which is so bad that any emotion meant to be stirred up in the film’s sappy conclusion is tempered. While one has to give Brosnan credit for really going for it—his Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress is undeserved—it’s wise to assume he won’t be singing on-screen anytime soon.

Meryl had played such dour and reserved characters in her previous movies, like in Rendition and Lions for Lambs, and even The Devil Wears Prada to some extent, so to watch her be sexy and kid-like and totally uninhibited in Mamma Mia is a great pleasure for any Meryl fan. This was one of her most physically demanding roles since The River Wild, so much so that the then fifty-eight-year-old had to train for three weeks to get in proper shape—climbing a tall ladder while singing ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” takes a little stamina—and her exuberance really comes through, particularly in her early scenes when she’s dancing through the streets and doing cannonballs off piers. Meryl, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance, is absorbing in a central role that could have played one-note in the hands of a different actress. Despite the emphasis on entertaining musical numbers over moments of subtlety and character realizations, Meryl always finds time for genuine emotion, even when it’s just a quick look at Brosnan or a glimpse at Seyfried in the mirror.

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But the greatest thrill of all in watching Mamma Mia is to finally hear Meryl belt out not just a couple of songs, which audience members had been privileged to hear in a few of her previous movies, but multiple ones, each with its own tempo and flavor. It’s a little weird to watch Academy Award winner Meryl Streep sliding down a bannister and singing the silly but infectious “Dancing Queen,” and she’s unfortunately not given much help by Brosnan in the strained version of “S.O.S.” Her best songs are “Mamma Mia,” “Slipping Through My Fingers,” and her big, emotional showstopper, “The Winner Takes It All,” which allows her to just sing, without choreography, without any bells and whistles. If anything can prove that Meryl could record her own album and be taken seriously as a singer, it’s her goosebumps-raising rendition of “The Winner Takes It All.”

Mamma Mia opened on July 18, 2008, the same day as The Dark Knight, acting as the perfect counterprogramming to the Christopher Nolan juggernaut. Mamma Mia, while only making peanuts that weekend compared to the giant haul The Dark Knight pulled in, turned into a true blockbuster all its own, quickly besting The Devil Wears Prada’s stupendous box office take with 144 million nationwide and an astonishing 610 million worldwide. Given that Meryl doesn’t star in a Marvel movie (she did tell Jimmy Kimmel that she wouldn’t not consider being in a superhero movie), Mamma Mia will likely stand as her all-time highest grosser. And after having made four disappointing bombs in a row, this musical, her only until 2014’s Into the Woods, proved that Meryl was back on track.

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My Year With Meryl: Dark Matter (2008)

And now we’ve arrived at Meryl’s most obscure film of all. Sure, she’s made movies that didn’t connect with audiences—The House of the Spirits and Dancing at Lughnasa come to mind—and she’s made some that fell short at a dramatic level, like the lame Still of the Night and the bland Before & After. But if I had to pick the oddest title of all on Meryl’s lengthy resume, it would be Dark Matter, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2007 but wasn’t officially released in the United States until April 2008, when it played in just a handful of theaters before it quickly disappeared (the film only made $30,000 in its initial run, easily an all-time low for Meryl). This is a quiet, mostly insignificant movie that few people know about, and the die-hard Meryl fans who do will be disappointed when they discover how short of screen-time Meryl has.

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Dark Matter is loosely based on the tragic shooting that took place at the University of Iowa in 1991, when a physicist named Gang Lu, who had recently received his PhD, shot and killed three of his former professors, as well as a school administrator. In the film, Liu Xing (Ye Liu) has moved from China to attend school in Salt Lake City as a graduate student in Cosmology. Liu pursues theories about dark matter for his dissertation, which his professor Jacob Reiser (Aidan Quinn) ultimately rejects, leaving Liu lost and without purpose. His benefactor Joanna Silver (Meryl) sees potential in him early on, but also recognizes a dark side to the young man—albeit a little too late. Blair Brown, Bill Irwin, and a pre-Orange is the New Black Taylor Schilling round out the ensemble cast.

This is not a bad movie, so much as it is a confused one. The story of a Chinese student trying to find his way in the American university system is a worthwhile one, and the frustrations that Liu goes through in the first hour of the movie make for compelling viewing. The initial complements he receives from Professor Reiser, who thinks he has the potential for greatness, only add to the disappointment later when Reiser disapproves of Liu’s theories and asks him to pursue simpler, more factual territory. Director Shi-Zheng Chen, who made his debut here, and whose only other feature film to date is Disney High School Musical: China, gives the film a unique, muted physical look, and the idea of a movie that criticizes the system of higher education in this country could be fascinating with the right material.

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However, while some of these scenes work well, the movie is all over the place in terms of its narrative structure, and at only 85 minutes, it’s so short to barely have time to register for the viewer. There’s a plot involving Liu’s parents that never plays a strong enough role. There are interludes involving words like “fire” and “water” that add little to the movie’s impact. Some of the music is totally out of place, especially “This Land is Your Land” that begins the end credits, and the conclusion comes so wildly out of left field that it’s hard to get worked up about it. It’s so depressing, and mostly inexplicable, that it ruins most of what’s come before. If a film is going to end on such a downbeat note, it needs to be earned, and Dark Matter’s finale isn’t in the slightest. Ye Liu is an effective screen presence, but there is little set-up, few clues ever given throughout the narrative, to show the darkness his character is capable of.

The biggest letdown of all, though, is that despite her large presence on many of the DVD covers, Meryl has just a tiny part in this movie, one that doesn’t add much to story. The director had never made a movie before, it’s a small film with a depressing ending, and her part is mostly without interest, so it’s truly puzzling what made Meryl sign on to this project. She did get to act with her Music of the Heart co-star Quinn again, and working with a group of international actors might have peaked her interest. But, like in most of the movies she made around this time, her character is not given enough for an actress of her talent and caliber to do. She has more screen-time in this than in Rendition, and certainly in Evening, but only a couple of her scenes resonate with the viewer. Weirdly, she’s also never looked so pale and sickly in a movie since her Oscar-nominated role in Ironweed; it’s almost as if following her role in The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl wanted to shed every ounce of her vanity for her next project.

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Dark Matter actually opens on Meryl, as she performs tai chi in her backyard underneath a dark, cloudy sky. We are not formally introduced to her character for a long time after this, but if nothing else, this film provides one of the most haunting opening shots of Meryl in any of her movies. When she finally appears in a classroom scene, sporting almost no make-up and a wild curly hairdo, excitement brews as to what kind role she will play. Will she get behind Liu and help him reach his lofty goals? Will she enter a scandalous romantic relationship with him? Unfortunately little comes of their strange friendship, and only one scene toward the end can be considered memorable. Liu arrives at Joanna’s house unannounced, and when he drops to his knees and starts applying make-up first to her hand, then to her face, she stops him, the intimacy finally too much for her to bear. This is a creepy moment between the two, and the only real foreshadowing of the horrors that are to come.

After a string of disappointing supporting roles in mostly forgettable movies, Meryl finally bounced back in 2008 to the mainstream consciousness in two massive hits, one a summer blockbuster, the other an awards-friendly darling. Meryl may have lost her way for a little while, as all actors do from time to time, but following the mediocre Dark Matter, it was pure bliss for Meryl fans for many years to come.

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My Year With Meryl: Lions for Lambs (2007)

After the misfires of Evening and Rendition, Meryl’s last major release of 2007 looked to be a slam dunk with audiences and critics, and potentially bring Meryl year-end nominations in the Supporting Actress category. Lions for Lambs was a topical film at the time, a serious examination of the Iraq war that received a major wide release and an awards-friendly November opening. The film marked Robert Redford’s seventh film as director, and despite the 2000 bomb The Legend of Bagger Vance, Redford had achieved great success years earlier with Quiz Show, A River Runs Through It, and Ordinary People, which won Redford his first, and to date only, Academy Award. Lions for Lambs marked Andrew Garfield’s feature film debut, and it gave Tom Cruise—coming off a record seven blockbusters in a row that all grossed more than 100 million—his first purely dramatic role since 1999’s Magnolia. It re-teamed Redford and Meryl for the first time since Out of Africa (albeit never in the same scene), and best of all, it gave Meryl the most screen-time and juiciest character of any of her 2007 releases.

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Evening and Rendition should have worked but didn’t, and Lions for Lambs definitely should have been at the very least competent entertainment. That Lions for Lambs bores the viewer senseless just as much as the other two is inexplicable. The film is about serious issues and it’s got a variety of powerhouse actors, but while it starts strong, with nice tension developing especially between Meryl and Cruise in their early scenes, the movie peters out around the halfway mark and ultimately doesn’t go anywhere, even with its brief ninety-minute runtime. The biggest problem is that the film ultimately just becomes a series of talking heads, with little revealed about any of the characters and even less revealed that we as the audience didn’t already know about the state of the world. Redford didn’t need to make an action picture by any means, but Lions for Lambs at the time felt like too little too late, which is only made worse all these years later.

Like Rendition, which was released just three weeks prior, Lions for Lambs features multiple narratives that all deal with issues of international terrorism. Lions for Lambs specifically has three stories: one about a Republican Senator named Jasper Irving (Cruise) who gives an hour-long interview regarding the war in Afghanistan to a jaded television reporter Janine Roth (Meryl), who praised the senator years ago but now feels he might be letting her down; one about a political science professor named Stephen Malley who holds an early morning meeting with a potentially brilliant student Todd (Garfield), who rarely comes to class and never does the readings but who always has something profound to say; and one about two students-turned-soldiers Ernest (Michael Pena) and Arian (Derek Luke) who fight for their lives against Taliban forces on an Afghani ridge. The stories come together in some predictable ways, but also in ways viewers may not expect.

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Despite its problems, Lions for Lambs, as previously mentioned, maintains one’s interest throughout most of the first half. Meryl and Cruise are two actors who are just naturally interesting to watch in whatever they do on-screen, so to see them debate each other back and forth for minutes on end commands the viewer’s attention. When they start disagreeing and she asks increasingly difficult questions, his frustrated answers give the film its most harrowing moments. Cruise was actually perfect casting for this stiff of a senator, and despite the shortcomings of the screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnaham (who went on to co-write World War Z), he is particularly good as this character, never going over-the-top with his mannerisms, always selling his ideas like any good politician would. Cruise plays slimy well—Magnolia, Collateral, and Interview With the Vampire all come to mind—and he is at his slimy best here.

These scenes with Cruise and Meryl are solid, if a bit longwinded by the time their chat finally wraps up; it’s the other two storylines that bring the film down. Garfield is natural in his first big screen role as the intelligent pupil, but his scenes with Redford lack energy, and they become monotonous after awhile. If there was a worthwhile payoff regarding Todd’s future, it might have worked, but since this story doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t belong in the film. Even worse is the story with Pena and Luke. The scene in the classroom where they explain their decisions to enlist in the military is a good one, but the actual combat scenes in Afghanistan, all done at night, feel like reused footage from other movies, and they’re out of balance with all the other talking heads.

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The scenes with Cruise and Meryl work the best, and in Janine, Meryl found her most complex and engaging character of her films released in 2007. So ruthless and powerful in her previous The Devil Wears Prada and Rendition, Meryl here plays an aging journalist who feels like she can no longer make any real impact on the world. You can always see her wanting to dig in to Cruise’s character more and more as the film goes on, but she’s clearly afraid of going too personal or accusatory, and she holds back. It’s after she leaves the senator’s office and endures a bitter meeting with her editor (Kevin Dunn) when Meryl delivers her best work in the movie. She’s tired of all the bullshit and disappointed in what she’s been force-fed, and while her boss demands her to get on with the story, she has a moment of clarity that changes everything.

While Lions for Lambs marked Meryl’s third bomb in a row, one that only topped out at 15 million (about a third of what many of Cruise’s previous films made just in the opening weekends), she did get a few nice scenes to play, allowing her to create the kind of fully embodied character she didn’t get in either Evening or Rendition. While one more obscure Meryl film awaited release in early 2008, thankfully Meryl was not on the verge of appearing in a dozen more movies no one seemed to care about. Instead, she was on the verge of a career renaissance that actresses half her age could only dream about. Yes, Mamma Mia, Doubt, and a third Academy Award, were on the horizon.

LIONS FOR LAMBS © 2007 United Artists, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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