REVIEW: “August: Osage County”

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“August: Osage County” is a hard pill to swallow. It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name and could be categorized as a dysfunctional family drama with pinches of dark comedy. It features a star-studded cast led by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and a premise that may have a lot of appeal to some audiences. But underneath all of the big acting from big stars lies a coarse and abrasive film that never knows when to pull back the reins. It ends up being a movie I could never wrap my arms around.

Tracy Letts (who also penned the play) writes the screenplay and John Wells (better known for his television work) directs the film. It’s set in Osage County, Oklahoma during a sweltering hot August. Violet (Streep) is a mean and contentious women suffering from mouth cancer and a heavy addiction to pain pills. Her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) is a calmer sort who seeks refuge in his books and liquor. One day Beverly hires a caretaker for his wife and soon after disappears.

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Distraught over her husband’s disappearance, Violet calls in her family and a parade of family dysfunction follows. First to arrive is her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper). Shortly after, Violet’s three daughters come. Barbara (Julia Roberts) is a shrill carbon copy of her mother. She’s at odds with her mom for leaving home and moving to Colorado. Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the spacy middle daughter who hasn’t been home in years. And there is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the youngest daughter and the only one who lives close to home. Each of these characters have a wheelbarrow full of flaws and baggage that all comes into play as the film moves along.

But if that assortment of maladjusted individuals wasn’t enough, we also have Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) who apparently has an eye for younger women and their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) who is bearing the fruits of their horrible parenting. Then there is Karen’s fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a phoney and moral-free Florida businessman. Oh and then there is Charles and Mattie Fae’s awkward son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) who may have a weird little secret.

It’s almost impossible to like any of these people. With the exception of the caregiver, practically every character reveals an appalling secret, spits out hateful insults, or does something vile. And the film is relentless. It bludgeons you to death with one dysfunctional family scene after another. I found it to be smothering. The story never allows any breathing room or provides any variation with its characters. And the constant barrage of bad behavior and disgraceful revelations is a bit ridiculous. It’s as if Letts wants to trump one disgraceful act or insult with another. And so on and so on…

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Again, the cast is a laundry list of big names and the performances are good. However many of the scenes are so big and the characters so loud that it can be difficult to really appreciate the performances. It’s one of those cases where the material hurts what the actors are doing. Streep is fine as the venom-tongued Violet but she is so big and brash. It’s definitely how the character is written but Streep does her share of scene chewing. Julia Roberts has been applauded for her work but it too is a loud and showy performance. Roberts is never overmatched by the character and she shows brilliance in some scenes. But the character is crassly written and some of her dialogue is so over the top. The other performances aren’t getting the same attention, but they’re generally good when the screenplay allows them to be.

I’ve heard that the stage version of “August: Osage County” is very good. Sadly I don’t think it has translated well to the big screen. This is a crude and unyielding adaptation that has a powerful and potent potential. The idea is appealing and every so often we get glimpses of what I hoped the film to be. Unfortunately I was put off by these characters, their endless dysfunction, and their profane spite. This was a tiresome watch and tough movie for me to endure. It’s a shame because with this much talent I was expecting more.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

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Excitement, intrigue, skepticism, and division. These are just some of the words that describe the reactions to Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy. Was there enough material to stretch out into three films? Was there enough character depth? I’m certain you’re familiar with all of these debates and concerns. With the tablesetting done in the first film, the attention now turns to the second installment. In many ways this is the film that will tell whether the trilogy decision was a mistake. With the first movie set around introduction, does the second film have enough meat-and-potatoes to satisfy an audience especially considering Jackson’s format of near 3 hour movies.

The short answer to that question is an emphatic yes. “The Desolation of Smaug” is another huge sprawling Middle-Earth epic loaded with special effects and ambition. Better yet, it’s actually a nice step up for the trilogy. The film carries with it a true sense of adventure and I felt a much greater sense of urgency and peril than in the first film. These were big reasons why I really liked “The Desolation of Smaug”. While the first Hobbit picture was a fun and entertaining experience, I felt it lacked the big dynamic threat or plot driving exigency. That’s certainly not the case here.

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After a strange but brief opening flashback, the story picks up right where the last film left off. Gandolf, the hobbit Bilbo, Thorin Oakenshield and his twelve fellow dwarves continue their quest to retake their home within The Lonely Mountain. Hot on their trail is the pale orc Azog and his troops. Their journey takes them through cursed forests, ancient runs, and expansive mountains. They encounter skinchangers, giant spiders, elven warriors, and of course a deadly fire-breathing dragon named Smaug. The urgency grows, the stakes get higher, and by the end we are set up for what should be a tremendous final chapter.

I have to admit I was really surprised at just how well the story moves along and how much ground is covered. I’ll admit there were a couple of points where things slowed down a tad and Jackson does buy some time while his camera pans around admiring the beautiful scenery or impressive set pieces. But as a whole these things didn’t bother me. The story is compelling and the excitement moves from one great action sequence to another. The best is an amazing barrel escape down a white rapid river as an army of orcs attack our heroes from the shores. It’s an incredible spectacle to watch.

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I think the decision to include sections from Tolkien’s “The Return of the King” appendices was a key reason this worked. Having read neither “The Hobbit” nor the “Lord of the Rings”, I can’t say how well the film melds the contents of both books. But from a cinematic standpoint the appendices do a great job of not only adding more content and weight to the story but also connecting it to the three “Lord of the Rings” films. Some have taken issue with this creative choice but for me it worked very well and it helps bring together Jackson’s massive cinematic universe. There is a clear link being formed between the two trilogies which go beyond simple references. Old favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) has an action-packed presence in this film. The true corrupting influence of the ‘one ring’ begins to surface. And there are several other cool connections that I wouldn’t dare spoil.

Once again the characters of the story are a real treat. Ian McKellen is great as always although he is given a few too many overly dramatic lines. You know the ones – the camera zooms in on his face and he utters an intense one-liner about the peril that lies ahead. Martin Freeman hits another home run as Bilbo. There is a real transformation (both good and bad) going on in the character and Freeman’s performance wonderfully captures that. But perhaps my favorite performance again comes from Richard Armitage as Thorin. This strong but emotionally driven character is tough as nails but he is constantly trying to reign in his sorrow, anger, and thirst for revenge. It’s a great character and a great performance.

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But there are also some really good new characters introduced. Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel, a headstrong elf who can certainly hold her own. Then there is Luke Evans who plays Bard, a single father who finds himself thrust into the middle of Thorin’s quest. Both have significant roles and add a lot to the picture. I also like Lee Pace’s small but intriguing part as an Elvenking from Mirkwood. And then there is Benedict Cumberbatch who voices Smaug the fearsome, treasure-hoarding dragon. There simply couldn’t have been a greater choice than Cumberbatch. Then you have the twelve other dwarves. Thankfully we do see an expanded role for a couple of them, but unfortunately the majority of them remain indistinct making empathy for them rather tough.

So let me get back to the original debate. Could “The Hobbit” story be told in two films? Probably so. Am I glad they expanded it to three by adding content from “The Lord of the Rings”? Absolutely! “The Desolation of Smaug” is a solid answer to the questions and criticisms thrown its way. The special effects are superb, the action sequences had my heart racing, the danger and imminence is there, and we spend more time with some wonderful characters. On the flip-side there are a couple of lulls and the indistinct tag-along dwarves still bug me. But those gripes do little to hurt the overall experience and Peter Jackson has me hooked for what the third installment will bring. It should be a blast.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

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One of the most talked about films of the 2013 summer movie season is undoubtedly the J.J. Abrams blockbuster-to-be “Star Trek Into Darkness”. It’s the sequel to the wildly popular 2009 semi-reboot of the beloved sci-fi franchise which won over casual movie fans and Star Trek faithfuls alike. It’s definitely no surprise that we get a sequel. The first film of this new series insured that by raking in just under $400 million. Paramount pictures is certainly expecting to exceed that with this new installment.

I’ve had a pretty rocky relationship with the first film from Abrams (you can find that review HERE). After seeing it for the first time, I left the theater with a lukewarm reaction. A second viewing confirmed some key problems I had with the movie and my overall opinion of it dropped. But in preparation for “Into Darkness” I gave the first film a third and fourth viewing. The issues I had were still there, but my overall experience was more enjoyable and I found myself more and more excited for the sequel. But that excitement came with caution. Would Abrams tone down on the popcorn movie modernizations and give us something that feels like a Star Trek movie? Also, could “Into Darkness” avoid the common sequel traps that we’ve seen over the years? Those were my biggest questions.

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One of the best things about the first movie was the amazing opening. It was pretty basic tablesetting but it was done so incredibly well and it instantly pulled the audience in. I can’t say the “Into Darkness” opening offers that same pizazz. The movie begins on an the Class M planet of Nibiru. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones (Karl Urban) are being pursued by indigenous undeveloped natives while Spock (Zachary Quinto) is lowered into an active volcano whose eruption threatens to destroy the planet. It’s a loud and bombastic sequence which comes across as a little clunky. It wasn’t terrible but it didn’t feel like a Star Trek scene and the visuals went from jaw-dropping to glaringly obvious CGI. I instantly began to worry.

Yet while I found the opening a little sluggish, as the movie progressed I noticed the important little nuggets nestled in those opening scenes which ended up playing big parts in the plot. It’s also here where we see that Kirk is still cocky and careless as evident by his numerous rule violations during the Nibiru mission. After breaking the Prime Directive and attempting to lie about it, Kirk loses his captain’s chair on the Enterprise. We also witness a series of violent terroristic events centered around a mysterious member of Starfleet known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Kirk finds himself desperate to get in the fight as Starfleet Admiral Marcus ( Peter Weller) begins the hunt to bring Harrison to justice.

“Into Darkness” still has some of the same problems as the first film. The Spock and Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) romance still feels bland and tacked on. Some of the big fight sequences feel like anything but Star Trek. And Abrams again tries to modernize things with some gags that land with a thud and a smattering of pointless profanity. But here’s the big part I’ve been anxious to get to. While these issues are there, the movie really gets its legs after the first act and the story takes off in what I found to be a brilliant direction. Fears relieved, worries extinguished!

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Abrams gets back to what makes Star Trek such a beloved property. It’s the characters, their relationships, and their interactions. It’s the Enterprise, not just as a ship but as a vital character to the story. It’s the strategizing and trial-and-error planning. Abrams gives us doses of enthralling drama without the need of big action sequences, something Star Trek is famous for. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of action and it’s truly spectacular especially during the last 20 minutes. There was a head-scratching question or two during the finale and it was a bit jarring to see one character act a certain way, but I was able to backburner that due to the tension-soaked high stakes and the stunning special effects. I was on the edge of my seat and the whole time I was thinking “This is the kind of Star Trek I can latch onto”.

It also helps when you have Cumberbatch playing such an interesting villain. Or is he a villain? He’s such an enigma and we’re trying to figure him out right along with Kirk and his crew. Cumberbatch is fantastic with his surprising physicality and deep, menacing voice. I have to admit, I wasn’t that familiar with his body of work but he certainly grabbed my attention here. I also think Chris Pine gives a better performance this time around. He seems to have a stronger grasp of his character and he’s spared some of the nonsense he had to do in the first film. Quinto is still the embodiment of Spock. Abrams knows the relationship between Kirk and Spock is principal and he gives them plenty of screen time together. It’s smart because the two provide us with some of the movie’s best scenes.

I also enjoyed seeing Karl Urban’s role expanded. He’s still there for comic relief but his character is actually treated with more respect this time. I also thought John Cho was given better material here and he nailed it. And I enjoyed seeing Bruce Greenwood return as Christopher Pike. Simon Pegg’s Scotty was also given a bigger role but for me it was a ‘take it or leave it’ performance. Alice Eve is another newcomer whose character is mainly there to serve a key plot point and to allow Abrams to show a woman in her underwear. Other than that she was pretty disposable.

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“Into Darkness” is an improvement over the first film and it sets a very interesting landscape for the films to come. There are clever and pleasing little tips of the hat to the old series scattered all through the movie. Whether it’s a specific sound only Trek fans would recognize or a particular fluffy little creature that we briefly see, I caught myself smiling at all the cool stuff I recognized. But there’s a lot more here than just nostalgia. Unlike so many sequels, this movie goes in a sharply original direction while at the same time tinkering with certain classic story arcs. This not only makes for a convincing alternate reality within the film, but it provides some top-notch science fiction entertainment.

“Into Darkness” is ‘Star Trek for the masses’ and it still hasn’t completely cured all its ailments, but it was a huge step forward in my book. I’ve talked about the solid performances, the amazing special effects, and the classic Star Trek flavor. But I could go further. I could talk about the strong score, the brilliant cinematography, the tighter script, and the near perfect editing. This film gets it right on so many levels. 15 minutes into this movie I was thinking I was in for a long, grinding ride. 15 minutes after the movie I was dying to see it again. I just love it when a movie catches me by surprise and then blows me away. Such was the case here.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS