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.

PACIFIC RIM



When Orson Welles went to Hollywood in 1940 and arrived at the studio, he called it “the biggest train set any boy ever had”.  Out of that, we got Citizen Kane.  Today, we get movies like Pacific Rim.  It’s a movie that reminds me of that joke in which you get a child an expensive toy and all he wants to do is play with the cardboard box it came in.  Because that is all Pacific Rim is.  It’s a blockbuster of a toy engulfed by cardboard characters with cardboard emotions with a cardboard set up and a cardboard plot as flimsy as that metaphor suggests. 
The basic idea is perfectly fine.  A rift between dimensions down deep in the Pacific Ocean is allowing gigantic creatures to come through and attack mankind; as is fairly obvious, this is not by accident, but at the behest of some ugly creatures who have worn out their own place of existence and need to colonize (you know, like when the Europeans came to the Americas).  To combat these creatures, gigantic robots have been built that are piloted by pairs of people who have close, though not quite psychic, relationships to each other.   Yes, that’s right.  This is basically Godzilla v. Transformers…not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.
Six years later, the bad guys are winning and the good guys are just now deciding that it might actually be a good idea not to just fight the creatures in a rock ‘em, sock ‘em manner, but to more fully investigate and actually do something about the trans-dimensional fissure itself.   And by now all the governments in the world have dropped all conflict and come together to combat a common foe, in true Susan Sontag, 1950’s sci-fi style.  But since Asia is now perhaps the major importer of American films, the final pair in the final robot in the final fight are a hero from the USA and a refugee from Japan (though in keeping with proud U.S. tradition, the American hero is played by a British actor). 
The cast is filled with a bunch of B-listers and refugees from various TV series: Charlie Hunnam; Indris Elba; Diego Klattenhoff (who wins the award for best name); Max Martini (oops, sorry, no, Max wins the award for best name); Robert Kazinsky; with Charlie Day and Burn Gorman in the roles of C3PO and R2D2, though without those tin cans’ more appealing personalities.  And c’mon, if truth be told, though many of these actors have shown talent, this is still the sort of cast you end up with when, for whatever reason, you can’t get the ones you really would have liked to have had.   Only Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi (who in true formulaic tradition, becomes Hunnam’s partner) perhaps escapes this description, though you wouldn’t know it by the performance she gives.
What’s so surprising, as well as frustrating, is that for a story that has at its center the need for deep, almost psychic bonds between people, no couple—not one—shows one whiff of chemistry between them.   This is probably because every performer is pushed over the top in their acting with performances that are robbed of the remotest sign of subtlety.  When the special secret guest star, the inevitable Ron Perlman, is eaten by one of the monsters, I turned to my friend and said, “well, we know they don’t keep kosher since they just ate a bunch of ham”. 
The screenplay is by Travis Beacham, with dialog at the level of his previous foray (“Release the Kraken!”), and by Guillermo del Toro, who also directed, in the manner of a police officer reduced to traffic cop (I don’t think we’re in Pan’s Labyrinth anymore, Toto). 
One of my most painful movie going experiences in recent memory.