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

MOVIE CONFESSIONS

Well Nostra over at My Filmviews is at it again. The master blogathoner has put together a little thing called “Movie Confessions”. It’s a chance for movie fans to come clean and answer a series of questions that expose some of their cinema shortcomings as well as their past cinema vices. So I thought I should get in on the action. Nostra has asked and here are my answers:

1. Which classic movie don’t you like/can’t enjoy and why?

There are several that could easily be mentioned here – “Easy Rider”, “Toy Story 3”, “Fight Club”. But the main movie that instantly came to mind was Stanly Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”. This is a movie that’s considered monumental for the science fiction genre but I thoroughly detest it, and I’m a huge sci-fi guy! I’ve tried on three different occasions to watch it all the way through and to see what all of the hype was about but I just can’t. Kubrick’s blabbering self-indulgence didn’t work for me at all and I don’t see myself trying to watch it again. I know most consider it a great film and it’s certainly garnered it’s share of accolades, but I promise you, it’ll never make my list of favorite movies.

2. Which ten classic movies haven’t you seen yet?

Sigh. To my shame, I’ve yet to catch “Lawrence”

Gulp! This was the question that I feared the most (Nostra, how could you ask such a question?). Anyway, here it goes:

  1. Singin’ in the Rain” (Sorry, I HATE musicals)
  2. Lawrence of Arabia” (I’ve seen bits but not enough to say I’ve seen it)
  3. My Fair Lady” (Yes, another musical. I’m sorry, ok!)
  4. All the President’s Men” (This just never appealed to me. I know, no excuse.)
  5. West Side Story” (Sense a trend here?)
  6. East of Eden” (Dean’s first major role. Again, I have no excuse.)
  7. The Lion King” (I’m always slow to animated features. It’s to my shame.)
  8. Dr. Zhivago” (Incredibly popular yet I’ve never seen it.)
  9. A Streetcar Named Desire” (Another that I haven’t seen enough of to say I have.)
  10. Any of the “Harry Potter” films (It’s true…yes, it’s true.)

3. Have you ever sneaked into another movie at the cinema?

No. At least not to sit in and watch a full movie. Now I have walked into another room just to see what was happening on the screen. But I’ve never sneaked into a theater or another movie without paying. My hands are clean!

4. Which actor/actress do you think is overrated?

There are several actresses and actors that come to mind. Julia Roberts is certainly one. While she hasn’t been as big lately, she’s still considered a wonderful actress and honestly, I can’t see it. She’s a one-trick pony and so often her roles are just variations of the same performance. Jennifer Aniston is even more overrated. Sure she has the looks but at some point you have to be able to act. I think the roles she’s taking points to her serious lack of acting chops. But ahead of them both would be Angelina Jolie. Talk about someone getting roles for her looks alone (and now even her looks are long gone). She has flirted with decent performances but I’ve yet to see her do anything to warrant the attention she gets.

As far as actors go, Will Ferrell is popular and he seems to be a “love him or hate him” kinda guy. I’ve yet to see anything that earns him the praise he often gets. Worse than Ferrell is Seth Rogan. I know that since I don’t like raunchy comedies he naturally isn’t going to appeal to me, but does he really ever do anything else. Not only is he one-dimensional but I find him extremely annoying. But above all is Ashton Kutcher. Sure, I know he’s mainly reserved for TV these days but he still is a big attention-getter and people really like him. WHY? How does this guy have an acting career. I’ll never understand his popularity.

5. From which big director have you never seen any movie (and why)?

This one was really tough because I have seen films from most of the great directors. But one classic director that I have yet to see a film by is the Italian great Federico Fellini. He’s a highly accomplished and stylish film director and a winner of five Academy Awards. The sad part is that I have no good reason for not seeing any of his films, especially “8 1/2”, a movie that has been in my Netflix queue for months and months. I should have already watched some films made by this influential director.

6. Which movie do you love, but is generally hated?

Yes, I love “The Time Machine”. What of it?

One movie that comes to mind is “The Time Machine”. Now I’m not talking George Pal’s movie from 1960. I’m speaking of the 2002 film directed by Simon Wells and starring Guy Pearce. This adaptation from the H.G. Wells classic was generally panned by critics (its Rotten Tomatoes standing is an abysmal 29%) and by moviegoers alike, but I truly love the film. I whole-heartedly concede that the special effects in the second half of the film aren’t the best. But I still think Pearce was wonderful, the storytelling is strong, and it features a great score. And I still get a warm and almost misty feeling during the wonderful final scene. Yes, I know I’m one of the few, but I loved this version of “The Time Machine”.

7. Have you ever been “one of those annoying people” at the cinema?

I can honestly say no. My mom and dad began taking me to the theater at a very young age. They pretty much taught me early to be quiet, watch the movie, and not ruin it for others. That even stuck with me through my doofus teen years. And still to this day, I can’t stand people talking or being disruptive during a movie. It drives me crazy.

8. Did you ever watch a movie, which you knew in advance would be bad, just because of a specific actor/actress was in it? Which one and why?

Oh yes! I am a HUGE Humphrey Bogart fan. I have the majority of his films in my collection and there were a lot of them. I have even some of his older low-budget pictures and movies where he played only a small part. Some were, to be honest, real stinkers but I not only watched them but added them to my Bogart collection. Yes, I’ve actually watched films such as “Isle of Fury” and “The Return of Doctor X” solely due to Bogart’s participation.

9. Did you ever not watch a specific movie because it had subtitles?

 I’m not going to say I never have, but as a big fan of foreign cinema, subtitles don’t bother me at all. In fact, I would rather there be subtitles that English voice-overs which do more to take away from the film than help it. So for me, subtitles are no problem at all.

10. Are there any movies in your collection that you have had for more than five years and never watched?

Hmmm, yes I have DVDs that I own and haven’t watched but they aren’t movies that I haven’t watched. These are DVDs of movies I have seen before but have never watched my copy. I’ve seen them but may have found them on DVD really cheap or they were given to me. But I don’t think I have a single movie that I haven’t at least seen.

11. Which are the worst movies in your collection and why do you still own them?

Yep, that’s “Van Helsing”!

I mentioned some of the earlier Bogart movies that are pretty terrible but I have them because they are Bogart films. But after briefly looking at my collection there were a handful of others that stood out. Movies like “The 13th Warrior” . I’ve watched it but never again. Then there is the Kevin Sorbo “Kull” movie. I’m not sure why I even bought it. Oh, and how about “Van Helsing” . Kate Beckinsale is in it so there’s the only reason for owning it….maybe.

12. Do you have any confessions about your movie watching setup at home?

I wouldn’t say there is anything I want to confess about it, but it works good for me. I have a 55-inch HD TV, a Playstation 3 for my Blu-Ray and DVD player, and Direct-TV’s HD package. That’s really it. It’s not the greatest setup but it certainly works for me.

13. Any other confessions you want to make?

Well, I’m definitely not the emotional type but good movies have a way of getting to me. If a film packs an emotional punch that’s well done, I’m certainly vulnerable to watery eyes. It may not be the most macho thing to announce, but it’s the truth.

And there it is. My movie confessions. If you’re interested in more information about Nostra’s blogathon, head over to his blog site My Filmviews . There you can find out how to participate and read the confessions of other movie-oholics like me.