Thursday, January 9, 2014

August Osage County

The first time we see Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) she’s drugged out (since getting diagnosed with mouth cancer and going through treatment she’s gotten hooked on a variety of pills) with skin as pale as a ghost. Her hair is short and thin like it’s about to fall out (as we later see she usually wears a wig) and she stumbles down the stairs of her Oklahoma house shouting and slurring. She then barges into her husband Beverly’s (Sam Shepard) office, while he’s interviewing the future housekeeper Johnna (Misty Upham) and proceeds to embarrass herself and them. Yelling at him and knocking books off his shelf. She’s a hot mess for sure, but a compelling one. And so begins the fascinating madness that is “August Osage County,”—directed by John Wells—a wildly entertaining and dour drama about a family in serious crisis.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay), the action and the development of the characters in “August Osage County” are driven forward by sharp, fiery dialogue Violet and the rest of her dysfunctional family viciously throw at one another. Not long after that opening scene Beverly walks out on Violet (I can’t imagine why, she’s such a pleasant person) and ends up committing suicide.

This tragic event leads to an impromptu family reunion. There’s Beverly and Violet’s three daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Then there’s Violet’s sister Mattie (a terrific Mattie Fae Akin) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper). Also, there’s Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), their adolescent daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), Karen’s fiancĂ©e Steve Dermot Mulroney) and finally Charles and Mattie’s child Charles Jr. (Benedict Cumberbatch in a small but touching role).

Each family member comes to the reunion with deeply buried secrets or grudges against other family members and to say that the movie contains a lot of feuding and bickering would be a massive understatement. Just about every conversation eventually turns into a heated back and forth; sometimes they’re funny, sometimes shocking and revealing information is offered up to the group and then picked apart like an animal carcass. Whatever’s said though, or rather yelled, I was never bored during any of it.

And while the structure of the film may appear disorganized, you can clearly see a method to the madness. Each argument starts off relatively calm and then gradually, as more bitter words are exchanged (there’s a load of f-bombs), the tension builds, like a rubber band expanding and expanding until it finally snaps. And then the argument keeps going on for another five or so minutes. No family member exits the scene mid feuding because of hurt feelings; in the Westin family an argument is carried through until the bitter end.

Most of the arguments are instigated by Violet (not surprisingly) but it’s not as if the rest of the family are angels; The Westin family is a hurricane, with Violet as the eye. She criticizes, picks and provokes, and her bigotry doesn’t help the situation either. When she isn’t outright scathing she’s sad and pathetic. At the same time, she comes off incredibly confident. Not worried about what other people say or think about her she simply says what’s on her mind and always has a comeback to an insult lobbed at her. Streep gives yet another masterful performance and even if some of the time you detest Violet, you can’t keep your eyes off her.

Although, it should be said that Roberts comes awfully close to equaling her. She’s also tough and confident, never afraid to say what she thinks about Violet or anyone else.  Out of all three of the daughters she resembles her mother the most (Ivy is shy and not as confrontational, while Karen is a bit of a ditz), not just by holding her ground with Violet but also by instigating some of the arguments and causing drama herself. The rest of the actors all do their part in the support department but “August Osage County” belongs to Roberts and Streep, both delivering Oscar worthy performances.

I realize that the constant arguing may get to be too repetitive and exhausting for some, and others may find the movie to be too sad but there’s also a raw, emotional honesty being shown on screen. The Weston family may be mean but also—most of the time-- they’re honest with each other, nothing is sugar coated, no feeling is kept internalized for long. They argue and argue because that’s the only way they know how to communicate with one another. That’s how they’ve probably done in the past and that’s how they’ll do it in the future. It’s hopeless to think that this family travesty will bring them together in a warm embracing family hug. 

Thankfully “August Osage County” never sinks into sentimentality (which, in a movie like this is very easy), the resolution doesn’t wrap up neatly and easily, which won’t go over well with certain general audience members. Even so, the movie never loses sight of itself; it proudly and loudly embraces its aggressive, turbulent ways.


Lone Survivor Review

Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” among obvious things such as brotherhood and what it means to be a Navy Seal, is about how sometimes things can go really, really bad. Even for the Navy Seals who are considered to be the elite of the elite U.S military force. Based on a true story, the movie revolves around four Seals who get trapped behind enemy lines. What begins as a standard mission for them turns into an intense (and unfortunately tragic) fight for their lives. Like any great war film, “Lone Survivor” makes sure to focus on the actions of the individual soldiers involved and their struggles instead of other things like politics, and despite the movie’s overwhelming sense of pride and appreciation directed towards the Navy Seals and the American military, Berg doesn’t make any of it look fun. Not one bit.

Admittedly the movie does get off to a rough start; real footage of Navy Seal training is shown over the opening credits and then we’re given a brief intro to the four navy seals as they’re on base preparing for their mission. There’s Marcus Luttrel (Mark Wahlberg), team leader Michael Murphy, (Taylor Kitsch) Danny Dietz, (Emile Hersch) and Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson (Ben Foster). The Seal training footage, while well intentioned, undercuts the action in the rest of the movie.  Essentially Berg is telling us right upfront: “hey it’s no easy task being a Navy Seal, so you should be grateful for them” when instead he should be letting their actions speak for themselves (which, he eventually does).

And as for the following section introducing the Seals at the base, it should have either been longer (to let us see more how they interact with one another when not on a mission) or Berg should have just gone straight into the mission and introduced them then. As it is, the first fifteen or so minutes of “Lone Survivor” feel slight and unnecessary.

However, once it gets to the actual mission, “Lone Survivor” becomes thrilling, nerve-wracking and most of all saddening.  The four-man team gets dropped deep in mountains of Afghanistan, their mission: capture and kill a notorious Taliban leader in a nearby village. By a stroke of bad (oh, so bad!) luck their cover is compromised by a group of goat herders, and to make matters worse their radio isn’t picking up a signal. The mission is compromised but the Seals keep their cool and run through their options. After much discussion and disagreement the Seals decide to do the honorable thing and let them go.

From there, all hell breaks loose and the four Seals find themselves facing off against a massive Taliban army. The bullets begin to fly, critical flesh wounds are inflicted and bones are broken. Just when they’ve temporarily shaken the advancing Taliban soldiers, more come running out of the trees and the bullets keep whizzing past. No rest. But giving up isn’t an option and so the Seals push on, running, climbing, crawling and fighting. Berg and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler shoot these combat sequences with a blunt intensity. I found myself cringing in pain when the Seals trip and sometimes throw themselves off rocky ledges as they desperately make their way down the mountain. The viewer is left uncomfortable and disoriented and by the end you find yourself stumbling out of the theater, bleeding and bruised along with these guys.

 During this section of the picture Berg (who adapted the screenplay from Luttrel’s 2007 memoir of the same name) wisely keeps the action focused and contained to these four individuals. He never cuts to the Afghani village to show the maniacal Taliban leaders plotting and scheming, or to the Seal’s loved ones back home and only occasionally does he cut to the military base to show the commanders reacting and responding to this fiasco. The movie never feels artificial and overwrought and more importantly Berg doesn’t make any of it look glorious or pleasant. But at the same time like “Zero Dark Thirty” or “The Hurt Locker,” “Lone Survivor” remains apolitical, never feeling like military propaganda but also not actively anti-war. In addition all four of the lead actors turn in convincing performances.

There’s nothing all that earth shattering and complex about “Lone Survivor,” it doesn’t rewrite the rules of the war picture, but then again the simpler these kinds of movies are the better they usually turn out to be. Berg’s movie is a straightforward, realistic and skillfully made war movie that focuses on the individual soldiers involved and their struggles. Simple, but incredibly effective. The film may get off to a rough start but once it hits its stride it never stops moving and holds you the entire time.