Sam Shepard

January 11, 2014

August: Osage County

FAMILY
Of all the films being discussed during award season, August: Osage County seems to be the one being forgotten.  It has the award recognition somewhat, but it is hard to hear anything about it over the publicity noise of films like Wolf Of Wall Street, American Hustle, and Gravity.  And this is a film with Meryl Streep and Julia f@%king Roberts!  Two of the most iconic female actresses I’ve watched in my lifetime.  What was it about this film that keeps it flying under the radar?  Then I thought about the subject matter.  It isn’t as captivating as a sexy scheme set up by quirky con artists in the 70s.  It isn’t as outrageous as a cocaine fueled crook living to excess in the 80s and 90s.  It definitely isn’t as thrilling as watching a woman struggling to survive in an endless abyss in the present.  It is merely about FAMILY.  All the love and hate and insane dysfunction of FAMILY.  It isn’t a two hour long dose of good ol’ escapism.  It shines a light on an all too familiar life that most would try and have tried to escape from.  
Don’t get me wrong.  This is not a fun for the whole FAMILY film.  August: Osage County is the film adaptation of writer Tracy Letts’ play of the same name.  It centers around a small town FAMILY reuniting after the sudden disappearance of the FAMILY‘s patriarch.  And the fact that this film was a play will not come as a shock once you watch it.  At the end of several scenes, you’ll catch yourself waiting for the curtain the drop and the applause to start before you realize you’re still sitting in a cineplex.  I made a critique of the aforementioned Wolf Of Wall Street in my review a few weeks back.  That critique was that the film seemed more like a collection of amazing scenes instead of a well structured story.  Yet, I wasn’t sure if that was entirely a bad thing for me.  August: Osage County made me start to feel the same way.  But that way of storytelling works fine for a novel or a play.  That is what’s tricky to me about adaptations.  Do you want them to stick with the same format the novel or play or television show had at the expense of structure?  Or do you want to mold it into something more film friendly?  I personally don’t know.  It changes for me on a case to case basis.  I do know I loved both Wolf Of Wall Street and August: Osage County because of the TREMENDOUS scenes and TREMENDOUS performances in them.  I just feel that their previous roots show a little too much for me to call them perfect “film” adaptations.

I’ve been watching John Wells work for a majority of my life.   Shows like ER and Southland and now Shameless really show how the man can make real people just feel real on screen.  How he can create dramatic tension through stillness and subtlety instead of jarringly acrobatic camera moves or set ups.  One might assume that his visual technique for this film was just a “point the camera and walk away” style because of the actors he had it his disposal.  However, there is a slick sense of simplicity and sneakiness in how he shoots these scenes, puts you in that house, and puts you in those moments.  For a film like this, it is all about creating an environment where actors can flourish and bring their characters to life.

Who are the actors at his disposal?  Holy crap!  Well, I’ve already mentioned the two cinema Godzillas of Meryl Streep and Julie Roberts.  And trust me, it is their film to own.  But the top notch performances here are ubiquitous.  Yeah…I said ubiquitous.  It means “everywhere”.  I looked it up because I wanted to find a word that could properly illustrate how great everyone is in this film.  I haven’t seen Roberts this strong and fearless since Closer.  And Streep literally roars reminders at you that she is the best actress walking the planet.  But then you have Chris Cooper chewing scenery throughout the film, with Margo Martindale chewing it up right alongside him.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Juliette Lewis show up out of nowhere and devour every line they have.  Abigail Breslin knocks one out of the park for kicks.  Ewan McGegor and Dermot Mulroney slides in great showings too.  Hell, Sam Shepard gets one scene and delivers some of the film’s best lines in that time.  It is practically a smorgasbord of acting on display.  Though, I wanted to single out Julianne Nicholson’s performance because it may be the one overlooked the most.  She isn’t the biggest name in the cast but she holds her own with everyone.  Before you know it, Nicholson will be the one you feel for the most and the one who will pull your heartstrings the hardest.

August: Osage County is not only deserving of its praise, but deserving of more attention.  It might be better suited as a play than a film.  However, there is no doubt that the writing, directing, and acting are still good enough for you to enjoy the hell out of it.  Sit down with your FAMILY…if you dare…watch it…hope to God that your FAMILY isn’t as crazy as theirs…then tell me I’m wrong.  

  

December 22, 2013

Out Of The Furnace

PERFORMANCES

Perhaps it is because I’m a black man born and raised in a city environment that the world of the country gangster interests me so much.  Their world is an entirely different world than the one I’m used to, and it’s just a short ways up the highway.  I watched The Dukes Of Hazzard religiously as a kid…before I realized that them Duke boys were driving ’round with a big “Go F%*k Yourself Black People” flag on their car.  It is no secret that Justified is my favorite show on television. (SCREW YOU GOLDEN GLOBE COMMITTEE)  Even Roadhouse tickles the hell out of me.  Especially the absurdity of that final scene.  So, Out Of The Furnace seemed like a film set directly in my entertainment wheelhouse.  Unfortunately, the film has an overly simple and predictable plot that merely serves as a platform for its real asset.  The thoroughly stellar PERFORMANCES.

Out Of The Furnace comes from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper.  Crazy Heart also ended up being a film with an unremarkable plot but extremely remarkable and Oscar winning PERFORMANCES.  Furnace is about the chaos that happens after two brothers get mixed up with a psychotic mountain man gangster.  That’s it.  Okay, there are some other secondary facets to the story.  This includes a regretable accident, an awkward love triangle, and a combat veteran’s hardship.  However, hardly anything happens that you will not see coming or have not seen before.  Because the premise is this simple and familiar, the moments that connect the important plot elements feels like overly long and extraneous padding.  You could easily cut forty minutes from this barely two hour film and still not miss a thing.  A very unfortunate problem, seeing as those padded moments have some of the film’s better acted scenes.  This makes me think they were kept in, not because the story needed it, but because of how good the actors were in it.  You never want to have a film where great PERFORMANCES are playing defense with your story.

Scott Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi are real artists when it comes to framing and light.  I think Cooper could make a terrific western if he wanted to.  The western genre is centered on confrontation, tension and the anticipation of violence.  That is maybe what he was trying to do here.  A modern day western.  If that is the case then the pacing of the film makes sense.  However, there are still some elements that don’t serve the build up of confrontation.  Though, Cooper should be credited for once again getting what he got from his actors in this film.

People still forget how great of an actor Christian Bale is.  Even after his recent Oscar win for The Fighter.  In The Fighter, Bale played a larger than life character that required his usual body transformation.  It was a character that gave him many things to do and many things to play with.  His character Russell Baze is precisely the opposite of Dicky Ward.  Russell is more subdued and still.  Most of Bale’s PERFORMANCE is internalized.  And yet, the PERFORMANCE is tremendous.  A scene with him and Zoe Saldana on a bridge is probably some of the finest acting you’ll see this year.  Yeah, Zoe Saldana is in this.  She isn’t in it for a long time, but long enough to give a strong PERFORMANCE.  Bale’s brother Rodney is played by the Affleck brother who can act.   (You’re an awesome director Ben, but Casey can act circles around you)  Again, the dynamic between the two brothers is nothing new.  However, Casey and Bale elevate the relationship in every scene they share.  You would never think Casey could display an intensity that rivals the always intense Bale, but he does.  And speaking of intense, the real standout of this movie is Woody Harrelson.  From the first scene, you know that Harrelson is going to steal this film.  He is tough, funny, and scary as hell.  He is such a great character, I wish there was a little more time dedicated to him.  His inevitable showdown with Bale struck me as a bit anticlimactic.   Cooper might have meant to keep his character Harlan Degroat (What a great name) simple and vague.  However, I would have appreciated a little more time with the character and see the behind the scenes of how he ran his organization.

I’ve focused on the main stars, which really short changes the fine work done by the supporting cast.  From Forest Whitaker, to Willam Dafoe, to Sam Shepard.  Every actor brought their A game.  Sadly, the story surrounding them is simply just a B-.  Grab your rifle…and your boxing tape…don’t let Woody Harrelson serve you a hotdog…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.

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