Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Spring Movie Diary: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Date: January 28, 2014
Time: 6:40 pm
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline
Company: Derrick
Food:  popcorn, meatball sub, water
Runtime:  1 hours, 45 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: Kenneth Branagh

Quick Impressions:
Traditionally, January is a dumping ground for bad movies, and the bigger they should have been, the worse they actually are.

My husband and I went to Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit hoping that it might be different, however, because I know that it was supposed to open Christmas Day.  Supposedly it was pushed not due to its own failings, but because The Wolf of Wall Street wasn’t ready in November and needed a 2013 release date to be eligible for Oscars.

Still I went in with low expectations.  Now maybe you’re asking yourself, With Chris Pine cast as the always watchable Tom Clancy hero, and Kenneth Branagh directing, how much could possibly go wrong?

That’s a good point, but my mom watched Die Hard 5 for the first time on TV the other day, and I’m afraid that was enough of a reminder that any franchise (no matter how solid) can be completely ruined with the greatest of ease.  Action movies that open in January or February should always be approached with extreme caution.  As you walk into the theater, ask yourself, Why isn’t this coming out in the summer instead?  There’s a reason.  There’s always a reason.

Fortunately, to my surprise, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was thoroughly entertaining, highly watchable.  I expected it to be decent, but I think it was a bit better than that.  I’d watch it again without hesitation (which is more than I can say for Die Hard 5).

Is it the greatest action movie ever?  No.  Is it anywhere near as good as The Hunt for Red October?  No.  Would it have been a bigger hit if it had been released at Christmas?  Probably.  Families could see this together.  It’s a little bland, I suppose, but that makes it something that almost everyone can enjoy. 

If you’re looking for a decent action movie and want to see one before spring break, Shadow Recruit is definitely the film for you.  Pounce on it now!

The Good:
If I were making a movie about shady Russian skullduggery in the post-Cold War era, I would definitely involve the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, but I guess nobody’s doing that, so there’s no point in fixating on the idea now.  I’ll just move on.

The decision to make the villain in this story Russian is interesting and unexpected.  Ultimately, I think it works to the movie’s advantage.  For one thing, the villain is motivated by revenge and can’t let go of the past.  So it makes sense that he’s Russian.  It’s quite easy to believe that in the aftermath of the Cold War, a disgruntled Russian might want to take revenge on the United States (and particularly the CIA). 

Also, I know Russian villains in contemporary movies often draw complaints—because the Cold War is over—but I think focusing on a Russian villain is kind of refreshing.  Just because something is “over” doesn’t mean it really is over, after all.  If you’re running a race against someone, and you win, your competitor doesn’t cease to exist the second you cross the finish line.  No, she's still standing there, seething, wishing she’d beaten you.

So I mean, even though our focus is elsewhere, it makes sense that there would be Russians hung up on destroying America, and that somebody working for our government would have to be focused on stopping them.  I mean, surely not everybody is working on the same thing.  (If Zero Dark Thirty is to be believed, then we just put one girl on Osama bin Laden.)  Somebody’s got to be paying attention to Russia.

I also thought the plot itself—I mean Cherevin’s plot, the financial scheme—was clever and relatively novel.  It’s not like there’s never been a movie about an international financial conspiracy, but that’s less often a plot element than some other things.

The principal cast of the movie—Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, and Kenneth Branagh—all make the most of their screen time and play reasonably likable characters.  Of the four, I think Knightley is the weakest, but she has some of the best dialogue, so it all balances out.   Don’t get me wrong, Knightley is a lovely woman and a good actress, but she always looks like she’s leaning forward trying to inhale her scene partner like she needs their aura for sustenance.  I’m not sure why (or how) she does that (or if she could stop), but that particular tendency of hers is even more pronounced than usual in this film.

Pine is particularly good as Jack Ryan.  Honestly to me, he seems a better fit for the part than anybody since Alec Baldwin.  This is a very good part for Kevin Costner, too.  (I’ve liked him much better since he started playing fatherly/role model characters rather than the supposedly irresistible heart throb.)  The best acting in the film probably comes from Kenneth Branagh.  He makes the villain conspicuously more nuanced than anyone else.  I’m not sure that’s a good thing for the overall quality of the film, but it does make Cherevin’s scenes compelling to watch.

The film’s pacing is pretty good, and I think its action scenes are superior to those in Thor (also directed by Branagh).  They’re not as claustrophobic and up in everyone’s face.  It’s much easier to see what is happening.  Nothing in the fight choreography and chase scenes is particularly unique, but it’s still very easy and enjoyable to watch.

I also think Shadow Recruit looks good—kind of pretty.  And I really liked Patrick Doyle’s score.

Best Scene:
The strongest part of the film by a long shot in every way is the sequence that begins when Jack and Cathy head out for dinner with Cherevin.  So much happens during dinner—basically the entire film up to that point comes to a head during this scene.  The movie is firing on all cylinders at this point.  Of course Jack’s antics (while far from novel for a spy movie) are very interesting to watch, but what really got my attention was the curiously intriguing dinner conversation between Cherevin and Cathy.  I don’t know why, but I really wanted to be at that table, suddenly.  I longed to jump into the conversation and respond to them.

Maybe this part works so well because Branagh enjoys the metadramatic, play-within-a-play aspect going on here, or maybe he and Keira Knightley play off each other well and have good chemistry.  I'm not sure what it is, but all four principal actors are at their best during this part of the movie, and the script seems sharper than average, too.

Best Action Sequence:
The car chase that happens just after the dinner is the most intense, suspenseful part of the film.  In fact, it’s really the only part of the movie that contains true menace.  There’s a genuine threat, and while we strongly suspect that nothing bad is actually going to happen, we are not completely sure. 

The early scene in the helicopter is quite good, too, because it catches us off guard.

Best Scene Visually:
Another part of the movie I particularly like is Ryan’s first kill.  I liked watching how he does it, his behavior afterwards, and how much things have changed when he returns to his room.  The visual contrast between the two states of the room is pronounced.

The forest where Cherevin has his “meetings” is also quite something to look at.  And it’s always interesting to have a battle in a room full of water.

The Negatives:
For me the biggest problem of the movie is that the most intricate and suspenseful action sequence is not the film’s finale.  The sequence that begins when Jack and Cathy head to the restaurant to meet Cherevin for dinner is without a doubt the best part of the entire movie.  A character (who actually matters to us and to Jack) is in peril.  In fact, until all this is resolved, Jack himself is in peril.  Every second counts.  Jack’s entire life is at stake.

It’s riveting.  We’re all on the edges of our seats waiting to see how it will end.  And then the sequence does end…the sequence, but not the movie.  Unfortunately nothing the film now has in store for us even comes close to living up to the excitement of the dinner party/break in/escape/chase around Moscow part of the movie.

Once Jack, Cathy, and the rest of his friends are out of harm’s way, the stakes just don’t feel as high.  Now granted, objectively, the stakes are insanely high when dealing with a terror plot that could take out hundreds of millions of people.  The problem is, we don’t really know any of those people.  The urgency that we feel when we see someone we know in grave danger just isn’t there for anonymous strangers.

Besides, this film is set in the past.  History alone is a massive spoiler for the audience.  All of us watching know already that the act of terror predicted in the movie did not occur.

So ultimately, the film is just incredibly anti-climactic.

Another (related) problem is that director Kenneth Branagh (whether through accident or design) gives himself the part of the most interesting character (or makes the character he plays the most interesting, depending on how you look at it).  The trouble is, he’s never quite as interesting as Branagh seems to think.  I mean, Cherevin’s a cool guy.  He’s got a lot of mystery and gravitas, and he’s also quite pitiable.  But ultimately, he’s just another bad guy who loses.  Even if in his mind, he’s acting the role of tragic hero, his enemies see the story very differently, less indulgently.  The CIA is not concerned with Cherevin’s inner turmoil, his illness, his legacy, his doom.  They just want to stop him from attacking the United States.

In a way, it’s too bad that it was Jack Ryan who introduced us to Cherevin.  In a different genre, a different movie, he might have entertained us (and influenced us) far more.  He seems like a character who is too complex for his movie. 

My husband pointed out after the movie that it (refreshingly) avoids the usual drama of spy films and presents the CIA agents as good guys who are trying to do what is right, working to help our country thrive.  (He also said that the film successfully spins a pretty strong case for letting the NSA have access to everyone’s social media.)

I agree that Shadow Recruit offers a refreshingly simplistic take on the world of espionage (kind of a throwback to a more innocent era of popcorn cinema).  But I do find it weird that while the “good guys” really do seem simply good, the “bad guys” are not simple at all and not necessarily bad. 

Chris Pine makes Ryan an immediately likable character, but even though we like him, we can see that he’s not exactly the world’s most complicated guy.  It’s okay at first because all the other characters are (pleasantly) one dimensional, too.  But then the antagonist enters the picture, seeming much more like a real human being with a multi-faceted personality and tons of messy complexity. 

I mean, they could have called the movie Jack Ryan: Shadow Puppet and nailed the level of Ryan’s complexity.  Nobody has too much substance in the set-up of this film.  They’re all a bunch of shadow puppets.  But when Cherevin shows up, he has actual substance.  It’s interesting (for viewers) but problematic (for the overall quality of the movie).

Our hero runs all over the place chasing bad guys because he knows how to use his legs, and, meanwhile, our villain weepily regards a gigantic painting of the Battle of Waterloo because he’s tormented by the metaphor he sees there.  Ryan and Cherevin, frankly, don’t even seem like they’re in the same movie, most of the time.

I liked Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit much more than I expected.  If you want to see it, don’t be deterred by its January release date.  It’s just as good as most movies of its kind released in summer.  (Do keep in mind, though, that most of those movies aren’t necessarily “good,” so much as they are fun to watch with famous casts, reasonably coherent stories, big (enough) budgets, and high production values.)  You’re probably not going to find a better mainstream, big budget popcorn flick than this in January or February, so you might as well give it a try.  It’s not perfect, but it’s perfectly fine, and at the end of January, that’s more than good enough.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Fall Movie Diary: August: Osage County

Date: January 21, 2014
Time: 6:45 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick

Food:  small mixed red and blue Icee
Runtime:  1 hour, 59 minutes
Rating: R
Director: John Wells

Quick Impressions:
Some people might find watching August: Osage County a disturbing experience, but for me it was reassuring.  For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been stressing out trying to decide whom I’d rather see win Best Supporting Actress, Jennifer Lawrence or Lupita Nyong’o.  But now I know.  Julia Roberts.  Game over.

Leaving the theater, my husband said, “I think that’s the best performance by Julia Roberts I’ve ever seen,” and I agree (basically. I mean, I agree that it’s her most Oscary performance.  Can you imagine anybody else in Pretty Woman, though?  If it had been somebody else, no one would even remember that movie now.  But iconic turns like that usually make people stars instead of winning them Oscars.)

I’ve always liked Julia Roberts.  For as long as she’s been a star, I’ve heard people complain about her lack of versatility and limited range.  I know what they mean, but I’ve always found that what she lacks in versatility, she more than makes up for in being Julia Roberts.  I mean, lots of actors have range, but how many of them are Julia Roberts?  I can only think of one. 

I remember when Mona Lisa Smile came out, some people complained that it was basically just Julia Roberts playing Julia Roberts dressed up in period clothing.  My sister and I were like, “And that’s unappealing because…?”  Who cares what she’s not.  She is Julia Roberts, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s more than enough to get you through a feature length film.

What’s great about August: Osage County is that it features Julia Roberts in a hugely sympathetic role.  Personally, I think if you have Julia Roberts in your movie, and you haven’t cast her in the most sympathetic role, you’re making a horrible mistake.  (I’m not saying that Julia Roberts is incapable of playing a villain.  My point is, if you don’t cast her as a likable, sympathetic character, you’re missing an opportunity for guaranteed success.  It would be like getting Meryl Streep interested in your film, and then making her the dialect coach instead of the star.  She could do it, I’m sure.  She’s great with accents.  But the point is, you’re an idiot.)

(By the way, Best Supporting Actress is the first category I’ll be posting in my annual Oscar write-up.  So rest assured that despite my own anxieties, there’s really no need to worry.  All five nominated women give Oscar worthy performances, so no matter what happens, it will all be okay.)

August: Osage County is the last Oscar-nominated film I have to see this year.  (What I mean is, I’ve now seen everything nominated for picture, director, or acting.)  Going in, I’d already heard a lot of things, most of them bad, that it was over-the-top, practically camp, that it was funny but hard to take seriously, that it was a disaster, that it featured great performances but didn’t work as a film, that it wasn’t as good as the stage play.

The last thing is probably true, but I can’t really comment because I haven’t read or seen the play.   Given that Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer and the film isn’t quite Best Picture quality, I would guess that the stage play works better in terms of overall cohesion.  (The performances in the film are uniformly excellent, however.) 

Honestly, I wish I saw more stage plays, but I don’t.  I have seen screenwriter Tracy Letts’s previous film Killer Joe (but again, not the play).  I liked both films.  Overall, Killer Joe was a bit better (more cohesive, more focused), but August: Osage County is hands down the one I’d rather watch again.  Nobody in Killer Joe is truly sympathetic, but in August: Osage County, despite being flawed (to say the least), the characters are still strangely likable (even Violet Weston, though in her case, the better word might be pitiable, maybe even piteous—that seems more suited to a tragic stage character).
To those saying that the film seems unrealistic and over-the-top because nobody really acts like that in real life, I say, you know the wrong people.  Trust me.  People like the Westons do exist in real life.  If nobody like that exists in your life, then count your blessings.  Violet Weston is a nasty piece of work but that in itself doesn’t make her unrealistic.  You watch her in amusement, thinking, Oh please!  That’s like no one I know!  I watch her in horror, praying, Oh please!  Don’t let that be me!

There are a lot of crazy people in this world.

The Good:
Julia Roberts gives such an authentic performance in this film.  I believed in her character one-hundred percent at all times.  In fact, she reminded me overwhelmingly of someone I know (and I mean someone specific.  I’m not alluding to a vague girl-next-door/every woman quality). 

I haven’t been paying attention to Roberts for quite a while (not intentionally.  She’s just been making fewer films, and I’ve been targeting likely Oscar nominees and summer blockbusters).  I haven’t been skipping her movies deliberately, but for whatever reason, the last thing I saw her in at the theater was Charlie Wilson’s War.

I’ve always liked her, but I went into this movie assuming that she got the Oscar nomination mainly because she’s a big star who has been out of the spotlight for a while and is now appearing in a high profile film, playing an enormous, well written part.  I never dreamed she would be so good.  Within fifteen minutes, I’d forgotten to evaluate how well Roberts was handling the part because I was so captivated by the character.  Instead of being showy, Roberts’s performance is so natural that it feels effortless, it feels real.

I liked her in Erin Brockovich, and I’m happy she won the Oscar, but this is her finest dramatic performance by such a wide margin that it’s like she never even made any other movies.  It would be like if someone competing in the high jump and acquitting himself fairly well, suddenly on one try jumped seventy-five million feet into the air.  I was genuinely surprised.  I expected her to be good, but not this good.  She’s phenomenal.  If it were up to me, I’d give her the Oscar for this (and I’m a huge fan of the other four nominated performances.  What a year!).

We keep hearing, too—over and over again from Violet, the vitriolic, drug addict matriarch—that when women get older they lose their looks.  This definitely works to the advantage of Julia Roberts because after hearing all that so often, you really can’t help noticing that she’s absolutely gorgeous.  You think, Don’t let your estranged husband’s criticism eat you up inside.  You deserve better, flaws and all.  You’re beautiful, and you’re a good person.  I mean, yeah, Barbara’s a little bossy and emotionally guarded, but clearly she’s had to be.  My husband and I agree, Barbara, you can come boss us around anytime. 

And then, of course, there’s Meryl Streep.  She always jumps seventy-five million feet into the air.  Every time.  If she were an Olympian, she wouldn’t be allowed to compete with the rest of the athletes from the nations of earth because she’s clearly out of this world.  Even when Meryl Streep is not on her game, she’s so high up there above everyone else that it’s hard to critique her accurately.  They need to make up a different award for her.  All the other actors can have the Oscars, and she can have the Meryls where each year her performances are judged solely by comparison with her previous performances.  The Academy now recognizes five to ten Best Picture nominees each year.  They need to apply similar thinking to the Best Actress category, making a flexible six spots, five to be determined by popular vote, and one to be reserved for Meryl Streep if she’s made a movie that year.

Honestly watching Streep in this role made me think fondly of watching Katharine Hepburn in A Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Lion in Winter.  When you have a performer of Streep’s caliber, a well written, character-driven stage play (full of grand, impassioned speeches and larger-than-life roles) is really the proper vehicle for showcasing that talent.  I wonder if Streep compares herself to Katharine Hepburn.  (What I mean is, I wonder if she says to herself, Katharine Hepburn won four Best Actress Oscars.  I still have time to do that.  I only need two more.  Plus I have that bonus Supporting Actress Oscar.  Streep doesn’t come across as very petty, but surely when you’re as lauded as she is, such thoughts must occasionally cross your mind.)  The bottom line is, even if this movie were completely horrible, it would still showcase Streep, and she would still get a nomination, and people would still go see it for her sake.  Look at The Iron Lady.  That’s hardly a flawless film, and yet Streep still won the Oscar!  I find myself wondering if as she gets older, Streep’s film choices will become increasingly unconventional and difficult to watch (apart from the element of her).  I mean, she’s not going to play the rapping Grandma in The Wedding Singer.  (And I mean no offense at all to the lovely and talented Ellen Albertini Dow.)  I’m just saying that Streep needs challenging, complex, meaty roles, and for older women those can be hard to find in your typical Hollywood fare.  We’ll see what happens.

I guess my point is, Meryl Streep as Violet Weston could just sit there at the dining room table (or on the porch swing, or in the back seat of the car) and talk for two hours, and that would be enough.  It would be a weird movie, but she’d still get an Oscar nomination, and people would still go.  She’s so talented, so good that her ability to pull off the performance alone justifies the film’s existence.  I mean, did Tracy Letts’s acclaimed stage play really need to be a film?  Well, yeah, because otherwise how could the movie going public have seen Meryl Streep play Violet Weston?

So now that I’ve seen the movie, I am very happy that both Streep and Roberts received Oscar nominations (though I wish there’d been a sixth slot in Actress for Emma Thompson).

The rest of the cast is really marvelous, too, particularly the women.  (For whatever reason, I found most of the male characters frustrating, but I’ll explain what I mean in greater detail later in the review.)

Margo Martindale never seems to get the recognition she deserves.  It’s great to see her in a substantial role worthy of her talents.  She’s just as good as you’d expect her to be as Aunt Mattie Fae.  She and Streep make surprisingly convincing sisters.  (That’s actually a compliment I’d pay to the entire cast and the director.  In spite of not really looking anything alike, these people do a wonderful job of totally convincing us that they’re close relatives.)  I wish Mattie Fae’s storyline got a bit more time.  (Maybe it does in the stage play.  I don’t know.)  We get this fantastic moment on the porch, this huge bombshell, and then the next thing you know, Martindale’s not even in the movie anymore.  I love the bit with the whiskey, and the moment on the porch is intense.  Basically, Martindale is great in every scene she’s in.  I only wish she were in the movie more (though I understand why that might not be practical).

Juliette Lewis is another one whose performance stunned me with its excellence.  Something about her has always rubbed me the wrong way.  She’s a very good actress and has made some great films, but I sometimes feel like I just don’t get her.  (It’s my fault as much as hers.  Even when I was a kid watching Christmas Vacation for the first time, I remember thinking, This Audrey seems weird.  Maybe it’s my fault, though.  Maybe my gaze is weird, too.)  Lewis is amazing in August: Osage County, however.  In a less competitive year, she might have gotten a Supporting Actress nod herself.  It’s the best work that I’ve ever seen her do.  The way she delivers her final line to Julia Roberts just before exiting the bedroom is perfect.  That moment impressed me and stuck with me.  She has a lovely part in this, and she’s very, very good.

Abigail Breslin is perfectly cast, too, and she acquits herself very well.  I wish we got to see more of Jean.  Like Roberts, Breslin feels effortlessly authentic in the role.  The character seems very real, recognizable.  Watching, I thought, I’ve both known and been that person, or, you know, a variation of that person.  I like Abigail Breslin and find her one of the least overrated child actresses around, so I look forward to seeing more of her work as she continues to mature.

I’m shamefully unfamiliar with Julianne Nicholson, but she’s great in this, too, playing Ivy, one of the more sympathetic (and pitiable) characters, perhaps the nicest person in the Weston family, in fact.  Again (I’m saying this about practically everyone) I wish we’d seen more of her storyline, more detail.  Her performance, however, is great.  I thought it was so good without ever being showy that I wondered if she had played the role on stage or something (but turns out, she just does mainly TV, and I foolishly haven’t been paying attention to her.)

Among the men, Chris Cooper is the clear standout.  For one thing, he actually has a huge speaking part (lots and lots of lines).  For another, he delivers those lines extremely well.  And (perhaps most importantly) he’s probably the nicest, kindest person in the entire family/movie.  In a less competitive year, he could have been a realistic contender for Best Supporting Actor.

As far as the other men go, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ewan McGregor do nice work, too, but they’re basically wasted, and it’s a pity Sam Shepard can’t stick around longer (though obviously that’s unavoidable).  Dermot Mulroney is good in his part but plays a real creep.

Besides a phenomenal cast (its greatest strength by far), the film also boasts a sharply written script (though I believe people when they say it’s not as good as the stage play because while the dialogue is insightful and exciting, the whole thing lacks a degree of cohesion).  The tragic elements of the story sometimes feel clichéd or overdone, but the comedic moments are truly brilliant.  August: Osage County is a very, very funny film, especially in its first half.

I was also impressed with the cinematography.  There’s one fantastic shot early on when Violet is complaining to her daughter Ivy while sitting at her dressing table.  Not only do we see Meryl Streeps’s face as she speaks, but we also see two alternate views of her face at all times in the dressing table mirror.  It’s like Meryl Streep in stereo.  I thought it was a nice, thoughtful touch.

Granted, the film isn’t trying to be Life of Pi or Gravity, but it still has a very strong visual sense of identity.  Violet’s hot, dark, oppressive house, and the wide, desolate plains of Oklahoma are two visually distinct, readily identifiable spaces.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Meryl Streep):
Any one of Streep’s featured scenes in this movie would be enough to earn her an Oscar nomination by itself.  I kept thinking, There’s her Oscar clip again and again so many times that I can’t even keep track of them all.

Probably the most heart-breaking (and unexpected scene) comes when she tells her daughters the story about the boots.  At this point, Violet has already revealed the depth of her extreme nastiness to her family, the audience, and everyone.  And yet it’s very hard to listen to her call to mind this childhood memory and not feel a stirring of pity for the poor woman.  She’s an odious monster, but clearly it was an odious monster who made her that way.

Another high point of Streep’s performance is her long spell of “truth telling” at the funeral dinner.

Best Scene:
How can anyone ever forget a film where Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts fight?  I don’t mean that they argue (though they certainly do).  I mean in one scene Barbara tries to take something from her mother and basically tackles her, knocks her to the ground, and eventually has to be pulled off the top of her as both of them refuse to stop lashing out and struggling.

Is this the best scene in the movie?  Maybe.  What’s really great about it is the way it’s sandwiched between two equally powerful scenes.  It doesn’t come out of nowhere, and it doesn’t feel like a cheap shock.  Violet is certainly asking for it.  In fact, just before it happens, she literally asks for it by daring someone to take away her drugs.

The way Roberts responds is just marvelous.  It doesn’t seem showy or over-the-top to me.  It seems incredibly real.  Someone (pushed to her limits) finally snaps and falls back into an old pattern (cleaning up her mother’s mess and taking charge of the family).

The “truth telling” at dinner blends seamlessly into the fight between Barbara and Violet, and that segues naturally into Barbara’s impassioned crusade to find and destroy all the pills (and emotionally destroy the doctor).

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Julia Roberts):
Just as with Streep, the entire film is a sequence of Oscar worthy moments for Roberts.  (Unlike Streep, her performance begins at its low point and gains intensity as it builds, so she is weaker at the beginning than the end.  But that’s not a flaw in the performance.  It’s the way the story is structured.)

I probably love her most when she’s tearing through the house on a quest to get rid of all the pills, but the late, showy scene where she starts screaming about fish is so full of energy and so unique to this movie that it will probably become iconic.  (When the AFI next compiles its latest list of famous movie quotes, I expect some of Roberts’s lines from this scene to make the cut.)

I was ready to give the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Roberts long before we ever got to this scene, but with this amazingly energetic flourish, she definitely seals the deal, ending the performance on an unbelievably high note.

Best Action Sequence:
As I’ve said, the Streep Vs. Roberts brawl is great, and the part with the shovel is certainly unexpected.  (I mean we’re fully expecting the stuff that brings about the use of the shovel, but the shoveling itself took me by surprise.)

What I love best, though, is the scene of a breathless Barbara chasing her desperate mother through the hayfield.  That scene really resonated with me.  For one thing, it’s slightly hilarious.  For another, it seems like some sort of absurdist, existentialist statement on life.  For another, they’re around all that straw, like they just can’t get away from “The Hollow Men.”  And then, finally, Violet’s flight reminded me of 1) Someone I know 2) Something I’ve done.  It felt very real and yet hyper-real all at once.  I loved it.

Best Scene Visually:
Streep in the dressing table mirror is fabulous, as I said, as is the image of Roberts and Streep panting among the haystacks. 

The Negatives:
This movie got under my skin from scene one when it opened with a meditation on the T.S. Eliot quote, “Life is very long.”  When Beverly Weston pointed out that Eliot wrote down that common thought, and now we must attribute that quote to T.S. Eliot, I thought, “Really?  That’s a very strange thing to say.”  I mean, Eliot believes all writers from every time period are involved in an ongoing conversation, and in his works he freely quotes snatches of famous and not so famous literature, rarely pausing to give any attribution whatsoever.  So I thought this was a strange idea to have about Eliot, and I realized that I would like to read the stage play in its entirety.

In case we didn’t get the idea from “life is very long,” Weston also tells us, “Here we go round the prickly pear,” so we know he’s talking about Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.”  I truly love the way the movie seems to be having a conversation with the poem, and pointedly ends “not with a bang but a whimper.”  However  when I got home I did a quick bit of research trying to discover what exactly Letts left out of his stage play when he adapted it to the screen, and I discovered that the play ends with Johnna saying, “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends.” 

Why on earth does the movie leave that out?  I’m very confused about that.  Since she’s the one given the book and quoted at in the beginning, it would be nice to learn that she’s taken what Bev has told her to heart.

What is the purpose of Johnna, anyway (other than to let us know that racism is among Violet’s innumerable faults)?  She doesn’t feel like a real person.  She feels like a device, only she’s not a very necessary device.  I would guess that she does more useful work (for the audience, I mean, literary work) in the stage play.

Johnna is so underdeveloped it’s ridiculous.  Misty Upham does the best she can, but she has nothing to work with. 

And Johnna’s not the only character who needs some fleshing out.  For a film that is entirely character driven (I mean, the whole plot is just an excuse to throw together a bunch of colorful characters), August: Osage County features a shocking number of underdeveloped characters.

Barbara’s estranged husband is the worst.  Ewan Macgregor does everything he can, but the character is just not interesting.  Maybe it has to be that way.  I understand that he’s there to reveal something crucial about Julia Roberts’s character, but must he have so little to offer us himself?  Like Johnna, he feels more like a plot device than a person. 

And Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Little Charles, is so incredibly frustrating.  In spite of everything, Cumberbatch actually manages to give an astonishingly strong performance.  He has nothing at all to work with.  Everything we know about Little Charles is filtered through other characters.  We never get to see him show for himself what kind of person he is.  (The little song is a step in the right direction, but that gets broken up too fast.)  As a result, there’s a fairly major subplot in this story that we’re really not given enough information to respond to adequately.

Ivy’s situation makes me want to scream.  She herself is given a fair amount of screen time, but her relationship is not.  We have no idea if she’s in a good relationship or not.  We just don’t know.  I will say, though, that I find the dilemma that she suddenly faces cliché and almost insulting.  We can see it coming from a mile away, but we think, No, surely not!  That is the one thing in the film that feels like a cheap trick.  It’s like a cliché of the tragic family stage play, taken straight out of Sophocles.  Personally, I don’t see why it’s such a problem at all, given what Ivy has already revealed about herself.  (I mean, if you’re coming from Ivy’s background, it’s not such a problem, regardless, but what she’s told us lets us know that the biggest practical problem is a non-issue.)  On the way home, I told my husband emphatically (and pretty crudely, I suppose) in the car that when you’re almost twenty, you probably shouldn’t do thing x, but when you’re almost fifty, you should just go ahead and do thing x.  He replied, “Hmm, well, that’s good to know for the future.  I guess I’m glad it’s just you and your sister, then.”  (That will actually make sense if you’ve seen the movie.)  Seriously, why is this a big deal?  Ivy wants to put thousands of miles between herself and most of the rest of her family, anyway.

I feel like August: Osage County is a great if you’re fascinated by Barbara and Vi.  It is not, however, a very cohesive, satisfying look at the rest of the family.  The other characters have to be there to flesh out the world of the mother and daughter, but the fact that the others aren’t getting adequate development is distracting and disappointing.  We learn just enough about them to make it impossible to keep them at arm’s length.  Though I have not seen the stage play, my guess would be that it gives more time to some of these much too abbreviated subplots.

As a comedy, the movie totally succeeds.  It is extremely hilarious and offers up some fresh and unexpected situations for our entertainment.  The trouble is, it stops feeling like a comedy about half way through.  Even though there are funny moments right up through the fish scene, it ultimately ends on a disquieting note of tragedy.  And—to me at least—elements of the tragedy feel too contrived.  The humor in the film is fresh and exciting, but the major dramatic complications feel stale, predictable, clichéd, and ultimately not quite satisfying.

August: Osage County is not without its flaws, but it’s immensely entertaining (if not ultimately satisfying), insightful, funny, and incomparably well-acted.  Meryl Streep, of course, is a particular standout and could potentially win her fourth Oscar for her delightful turn as the hideous-yet-piteous drug addict matriarch, Violet Weston.  (It seems far more likely that Cate Blanchett will win Best Actress this year, but it’s a long time until March 2, and Streep is always a contender.) 

For me, the real surprise of the movie is the strength of Julia Roberts's excellent performance as Violet’s oldest daughter Barbara.  If it were up to me, Roberts would win Best Supporting Actress this year.  She’s that good.  It’s the best work I’ve ever seen her do.  Granted some people could complain that she’s really the lead actress who campaigned as supporting.  But I think to a degree, you’re always the one doing the supporting if you’re acting opposite Meryl Streep who at this stage of her career is clearly the uncontested star of every movie she touches.

If you follow the Oscars, you have to go see August: Osage County.  If you don’t follow the Oscars, you still have to go see August: Osage County.  I mean, come on, do you really want to miss a movie where Julia Roberts beats up Meryl Streep?  I mean, she tackles her and wrestles her to the floor, screaming profanity at her all the while.  How often do you get a chance to see something like that up on the big screen?  You know you want to see it.  Admit it.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Penelope's Sentences

For the first time in over a year, Penelope's sentences from her reading lesson are not an ongoing story about Dinah and Pupcake.  When I asked why not, she informed me that since she's reading a science book about snakes, she thought she should keep the sentences more factual and scientific.

1.  The diameter is big if you make a big circle.  What if someone traced our Earth?  The diameter would be so, so long.  It would go through the whole middle of Earth, and then the Earth would choke and explode, and lava would go everywhere.  So watch out for that!

2.  The female snake lays a lot of eggs, and the male snake does not do much if you ask me.

3.  The mother snake keeps her eggs warm for a very long time by brooding.

4.  What if a snake went through a hoop at the circus?  How would a snake jump through a hoop?  It would have to be very powerful.

5.  What if someone were here and walked all the way to Japan?  That would be hard because Asia is very far away.

Sentence #2 really cracks me up, but as I thought about it a minute ago, I realized that the book she was reading spent an entire page explaining how the female reticulated python lays and cares for eggs, then went right onto the next snake without mentioning anything about the male.  So no wonder she thinks they don't do much.

Penelope's Birthday Cake by Grandma