AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY



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Pacific Rim is a big, expensive through the whazoo, blockbuster, tent pole film that was cast with second tier actors (or less), because, I suspect, after all the money was allotted for CGI (probably equal to the gross national product of all third world countries combined), there wasn’t anything left for A-listers.  August: Osage County was made on a much more modest budget, which means they could fill the cast with top of the line Academy Award nominees and winners and other actors who critics have been raving about and who are hot, hot, hot.
Well, the budget may have been less, and the actors greater, but the size of the disaster feels exactly the same.
I’m sure it all seemed like a good idea at the time, taking a critically acclaimed play (a Pulitzer Prizer at that) that was hugely successful on Broadway and fill it with plenty of Hollywood royalty to make the audience swoon.  After all, it worked for Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, didn’t it?  Hell, I’d have done it.  Who wouldn’t have?  And it stars Meryl Streep, too, for God’s sake.  Who could resist?
And it should have worked.  It has all the right ingredients.  It screams to be a memorable and searing drama of a dysfunctional family.
But to quote a friend of mine, “it’s a mess”.  And he’s right.  I mean, it’s a real mess.  And the result is A Long Day’s Journey Into Night lite.  No, it’s a bit worse than that.  It’s Long Day’s Journey… without caffeine and salt as well.  It’s about as blanded down and derivative as one can get.
Everyone who doesn’t like the movie seems to be pointing their finger at Streep herself, saying that her over the top, ham fisted performance as pill popping, vicious, Bette Davis-channeled, matriarch Violet Weston just bulldozes over everybody and everything in her path.  But I have to strongly disagree.  I’m not convinced there’s anything essentially wrong with her or her acting.  Indeed, I posit that she’s as good as she’s ever been.
I also sort of think that she’s getting bad press because she’s been so good for so long, people are desperate to take her down a peg or two—“finally, Streep gives less than a stellar performance, we can die now”.
No, I think the essential problem is not her interpretation, but the character itself. 
The screenplay, written by Tracy Letts and adapted from his own play, has this supposed force of nature at its center, but a force of nature that doesn’t seem to have a reason for acting the way she does.  She has her whole family gathered around her, everybody together for the first time in who knows how many years, but what does she want from them?  What does she want to do to them while they are there?  What is she hoping to get out of it?  I had absolutely no idea.  
In fact, I found her to be pretty forceless, full of sound and fury, but not signifying much of anything when it came down to it.
And there’s a key scene that I believe demonstrates what I’m getting at.  At the funeral lunch, Violet suddenly, out of nowhere, insists that grace be said.  But why?  What is her motivation (as they say in the biz)?  What does she hope to achieve or get out of it?  I mean, I know why Letts includes it; it’s a pretty cheap laugh.  But I had absolutely no idea why Violet asked for it, so the scene just seems so…purposeless.
And for the whole of the movie, every action of Violet’s seems constrained by this same problem.  It feels as if she’s supposed to be in the driver’s seat of the story, determining where everything is going, but she can’t find the GPS, until finally I started thinking of that theater joke when the method actor asks what his motivation is and the director says, your paycheck at the end of the week.   That she’s able to do anything with the part I think is a tribute to her ability.
The other characters also have the same issue at times.  Why they put up with this crazy person at the head of the table when they know she’s high as a kite and is acting completely irrational was something of a mystery to me.   The screen door is right there and, as the screenplay is written, now that the funeral is over, there’s nothing really keeping them there.   After all, most of them haven’t been home for years.  If they had no problem leaving before, what’s keeping them there now?  Everyone sticks around, but no one seems to have a reason to, psychologically or practically. 
So, the whole drama sort of flails around as it keeps trying to find something to hold it together, something to grab onto and focus on.  But in the end, it just feels like a series of scenes that seem to have no real logical connection, all on the same level, all waiting for Godot.
And then the whole thing stops.  It doesn’t end.  It just…stops.  In fact, in the final scene, I was fully waiting for another whole act yet to resolve everything, to bring it all together, for it all to mean something.  But no, the music comes up and the credits start and it’s all over.  With the result that I had no idea what the point of the whole thing was.
I also suspect that in making the change from stage to screen, something else may have happened to throw things off (but I have not read the play or seen it, so this is just wild inexcusable speculation).  The whole movie feels like a drama that started out as an ensemble piece that became a movie about a mother/daughter relationship, here between Violet’s oldest Barbara (played by Julia Roberts with a Mona Lisa frown) and Violet herself.
I mean, it’s Julia Roberts.  How do you not try to make the movie revolve around her in some way?  And the fact that the producers couldn’t figure out who to push for best actress and best supporting actress when it came to the Oscars (changing their minds at least once), just buttresses my opinion…in my opinion.
But since the two don’t have a relationship in the first place, never create one during the movie, and end up not having one at the end, this emphasis on these two characters seems muddled and unconvincing, and just plain puzzling.  At when it’s all over, when Barbara stops her truck and looks out at a field (a field that has no significance to anyone or anything in the story as far as I could tell), then pulls that frown upside down into a triumphant smile and takes off heading away from her childhood home, I wasn’t sure what she was triumphing over.   She’s not heading anyplace new.  She’s heading back to status quo, to the place she was before the movie started.
At the same time, there is one aspect of the movie that deserves high praise and that is the remarkable acting of Margo Martindale, as Violet’s sister Mattie Fae, and Chris Cooper, as her husband Charlie.  These two performers have a palpable chemistry that no one else in the cast seems to come within country miles of having.  The actors feel so much like they have been married for the thirty eight years their characters have, it almost brings one to tears.  And they show that deep affection coupled with built up resentment that so many couples have who have been married for that long show. 
And whenever they are on screen, there is some indication of what the movie might have been.
But part of that is because Mattie Fae has a definite reason for acting the way she does.  She holds a secret that affects a large number of people in the story, a secret concerning her son Little Charles and Violet’s daughter Ivy.  And it’s amazing how much of a difference that can make.  While Streep seems to be floundering for a character to play, Martindale and Cooper walk away with the acting honors because there is something definitely at stake for them.  And they play the hilt out of it.
Yet, at the same time, once you find out what the secret is, it’s something of a let down.  For one thing, it’s quite a cliché, a plot twist that’s been very popular these last few years on various and sundry TV series that incorporate crime and mystery stories of some sort as their basis. 
But I also have to be honest here.  When it was revealed, I know I was supposed to go, OMG, poor Ivy and Little Charles.  But I couldn’t.  I just couldn’t.  Instead, I went, so? 
Okay, for those of you who have seen the movie, I know, I know.  I’m going to hell.  I’m immoral and my opinion is just one of the signs of the coming apocalypse.  But I just didn’t care and just didn’t see the problem.   I just didn’t see what the big deal was.
Sort of how I felt about the movie, I suppose.

THE IRON LADY


Meryl Streep is absolutely brilliant (as is James Broadbent), but it’s not much of a biopic and it takes the same attitude that Paddy Chayevsky took towards Faye Dunaway’s character in Network: this is what happens when a woman tries to do a man’s job; they’re not just emotional stable enough for it.

THERE’S COMPLICATED AND THEN THERE’S COMPLICATED: Reviews of It’s Complicated and Sherlock Holmes


In It’s Complicated, the author Nancy Meyers (who also directed) constantly uses the idea of French films as a metaphor for what is happening in her story. And she’s exactly right. The pitch line for this movie, a woman has an affair with her ex-husband who left her for a younger woman years earlier, is exactly the sort of thing the French, with their “oh, so adult” sense of relationships, would do. It would star someone like Catherine Deneuve as the wife and people like Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu as the ex-husband and the new boyfriend. It’s hard to say that the French would do it better; they have their hits and misses. But for me, It’s Complicated never does quite rise to its sophisticated occasion. Everyone works very hard, especially Meryl Streep as the wife who has become the other woman. She’s constantly laughing or flailing her arms or rolling her eyes; if a line isn’t working, then her body sure is. Alec Baldwin probably gives the best line readings of the leads, he seems so relaxed, though Steve Martin has some wonderful scenes being stoned. In the end, however, it’s John Krasinski as Streep’s future son in law who has the best double takes and gets the most laughs. It’s hard to say exactly why it doesn’t work as well as one would want. It has all the right ingredients. But perhaps the clever script isn’t quite clever enough and perhaps Meyers doesn’t quite have the right Gallic touch for the material. Perhaps Streep’s friends and her children are just a bit too much of a drag. Perhaps everybody’s just trying too hard. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. I don’t know. It’s complicated.
Sherlock Holmes may on the surface be about the famous Victorian detective, but the movie, or at least the best parts of it, are about a straight married couple (Holmes and Watson) going through a divorce made all the more difficult because one is marrying someone else and the two are still in love with each other. Gee, this sounds awfully like the movie It’s Complicated. It’s not, though I would have to say that in many ways calling the plot to Sherlock Holmes complicated might be a very apt description. This was the part of the movie that didn’t really work that much for me. The evil plan put forth by Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood has something to do with destroying both houses of Parliament with the eventual idea of taking back the American colonies which have been weakened by the Civil War. His ultimate goal is world domination, but exactly how reclaiming the United States would help him do just that is somewhat unclear, and therefore just a tad on the camp side (sort of like Lex Luther wanting to cause an earthquake and have California slip back in the ocean so all his new property will be beach front—actually that makes a little more sense). It also depends not so much on cleverness on Blackwood’s part, but on such dull plot twists as his taking the easy way out and bribing some jail keepers. But no matter; Blackwood’s plan may be a tad confusing, but the love spats of Holmes and Watson (played wonderfully by Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law) are very clear indeed. Eddie Marsan (having a good couple of years) also works well as Inspector Lastrade, but Rachel McAdams doesn’t really strike the right cord as a femme fatale, though it is fun to see how shy and uncomfortable Holmes gets around women. It’s heavily directed by Guy Ritchie, which works part of the time, but at others, gets a bit in the way. The uneven script is by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg. It’s not a disaster, but not as good as it could have been.

CALL OF THE WILDS: Reviews of Where the Wild Things Are and The Fantastic Mr. Fox


Where the Wild Things Are had to grow on me. It wasn’t until about halfway through that I finally figured out what it was about: a character study of a young boy with a classic case of serotonin deprived depression. Max Records plays Max (well, wasn’t that convenient), a young boy with wild mood swings of grandiose highs and debilitating lows, all out of proportion to the circumstances surrounding him, though those circumstances (he’s new to a neighborhood; no friend; child of divorce; a sister too much older than him to find him nothing but an annoyance; his mother has a new boyfriend) do add to his problematic situation. His mother, played excellently as usual by Catherine Keener, doesn’t really understand what’s going on nor has the time to figure it out. After a particularly egregious tantrum, Max runs away, finds a boat and sails to an island of gigantic and somewhat weird puppet/animal like creatures, strongly voiced by such actors as James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker. The film began working for me when I realized that these creatures all had similar, though even deeper and more irrational, emotional problems than Max. For the first time, Max gets to see himself as other people see him. He returns home, but it’s unclear whether this adventure has really helped him. The creatures are wonderfully animated, especially the mouths, and the music and songs are heaps of fun. The main drawback may be Spike Jonze (who co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers) who directs the piece as if he were Paul Greenglass doing a Bourne film. I found myself at times trying to fill in the blanks because Jonze had a yen for using jump cuts. But by the time it was all over, I was moved.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is well…fabulous (bet you thought I was going to say “fantastic”, didn’t you; please, it would be so obvious to include that word in this review). It’s as clever and fun and quirky as Babe, which is saying quite a bit. There is one rather odd aspect to it. Fox and his friends are animals who can walk, talk, reason, etc., basically humans in animal bodies. But they feed on other animals, like chickens, geese, turkeys, etc. This is rather creepy and almost comes across as cannibalism; it’s actually borderline disturbing. Of course, if one realizes that the original story is by Roald Dahl, whose stories always did have a unique and somewhat creepy aspect to them, I suppose it shouldn’t be very surprising that this isn’t your typical everyday children’s film. The suave and debonair Fox is played by the suave and debonair George Clooney. He’s actually a character I would have little to do with in real life since he’s so incredibly vain and egocentric, running roughshod over everybody else, doing whatever he wants to do when he wants to do it and if anybody else has a problem with that, too bad (he’s also pretty rotten to his son). However, that is one of the great things about art—one can spend quality time with someone one would never have anything to do with in real life from the safety of a movie seat. His longer suffering wife is played by Meryl Streep (that makes three films in one year for both of them–aren’t they the busy little bees) with an appropriately long suffering voice. The screenplay (by director Wes Anderson and the tres droll Noah—Squid and the Whale—Baumbach) is witty, energetic and never runs out of cleverness. The direction by Wes Anderson is ever so much the same; no scene is complete with some extra bit of visual manipulation that just gives it that something…well, extra, to make it memorable. The animation is remarkable, down to the moving hairs on the characters’ face. It’s what is called sophisticated and adult; the question then is whether it will sell in the multiplex. One can only hope.

A WOMAN’S PLACE: Reviews of A Woman in Berlin and Julie & Julia


A Woman in Berlin is hardly what the previews prepare one for. The coming attractions suggest a hard hitting expose, ripped from the headlines type movie about a sordid bit of WWII history, a story that has been more or less ignored in histories of the time: the rapacious use of women when the Russians marched into Berlin at the end of the war. It’s not that it’s not about that, but in reality, this awful situation is really more the backbone of the story rather than the gist of it. For when all is said and done, this is really an old fashioned 1930’s star crossed romance. I may get in trouble for saying something as outrageously inhumane as this (of course, no one really reads this blog, so who’s going to know), but it’s the type of movie that once upon a time would have starred Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich with Adolphe Menjou, at his oily best, as the man she gives herself to in order to survive; her husband would have been played by an nonthreatening leading man like Herbert Marshall. It’s one of these new movies (like Blackbook and Flame and Citron) which is suppose to be a revisionist look at the morality of WWII where we are asked to reconsider the idea of bad guys and good guys. This is a perfectly acceptable idea, but the revisionism is a bit hunt and peck in this movie as written by the director Max Farberbock and co-writer Catharina Schuchmann. Though a couple of atrocities committed against the Russians are mentioned in passing, one would never know that six million Jews died at the hands of the German (one wants to muddy the waters, but not muddy them too much it seems). In spite of all this, there is much worth seeing here. The subject matter is important and the leading lady is German actress of the moment, Nina (Yella, Jericho) Hoss. And the fate of the star crossed lovers at the heart of it does leave one with a tear in the eye.

Julie & Julia is that movie about Julia Child and another real person that isn’t as famous. I could repeat the usual analysis of it in which people point out the story line with Julia Child (brilliantly portrayed by Meryl Streep; poor girl, she actually has to go to the Oscars again) is great, but the part with Amy Adams, a good actress stuck with a dull, uninteresting character, isn’t so much so (it’s even hard to understand, based on the excerpts read aloud in the movie, why anybody even read her blog). Instead I’ll focus on an odd through line that I found somewhat disturbing. For a movie that has two women as central characters, the movie as a whole doesn’t have much positive to say about women as a whole. In the screenplay by director Nora Ephron, there are two kinds of women. There are the friends of Julie, high powered businesswomen played at the height of soullessness in their best Faye Dunaway/Diane Christiansen manner by an assortment of actors. They’re the bane of Julie’s existence and ridiculed mercilessly by Ephron. The other kind of women, the ones that Ephron seems to approve of, are nonthreatening, never even considering doing a man’s job. For Julia, it’s to take a cooking class without the goal of becoming of chef and then writing a cook book; for Julie, it’s writing a blog about cooking and then writing books. Nice, safe womanly things to do (even in Julia’s world, the male chefs are accepting and encouraging, it’s the female who runs the cooking school herself who is the gorgon). Though on the outside this movie would seem to be an antidote to the misogynistic turn of romantic comedies like The Proposal and The Ugly Truth, once the surface is scraped away, it’s not really that much different.