August: Osage County (2014)

★★

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Director: John Wells

Release Date: January 10th, 2014 (US); January 24th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts

Family reunions are often tarred with the ‘awkward’ label. And they can be, particularly if the participators share a common animosity. Or at the very least are in any way unfamiliar with each other. Both former and latter are absolutely the case here, only the stench of awkwardness is far from enough. To this family awkwardness encompasses simply the petulant appetiser before an enormous main course; a main course that presents a Sunday roast of hysterics, abrasion and arguments. The Weston family collectively exist in a pit of dysfunction. Sadly though, there’s far too much of it going on. Too much acting, too much shouting, too much loudness. In fact this film is so incredibly over the top it even reduced Sherlock to a blubbering idiot.

Welcome to Osage County. Presumably it’s August.

Upon learning about the apparent suicide of her father, Barbara (Julia Roberts) travels to her parents’ residence for the funeral and accompanying strenuous family congregation. Mother Violet (Meryl Streep) has mouth cancer, an affliction that never halts her ability to rattle out words nor does it subdue the uncontrollable pill-popping antics she vicariously partakes in. As she denounces her Native American maid’s right to refer to her own heritage, it becomes apparent that Violent isn’t a very likeable person. Perhaps she has every right to detest the world given her stricken circumstances, and if so who can hold such insignificant spiting against her? It could even be the drugs taking control and shoving each negative cell in her body to the forefront. But then her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) doesn’t exactly strike a chord of positivity either, relentlessly berating her own son for flaws overwhelmingly less vindictive than her own. And Violet’s aforementioned daughter Barbara, although at times a great deal more pleasant than mother and aunt, constantly finds herself battling against a future envisioning the same resentful tone as her elders. Only she’s already halfway there.

Therein lies one of two main problems that hampers this drama: it becomes increasingly difficult to pinpoint a character that you can actually relate to, one that you don’t feel guilty empathising with. As the saga plunges deeper and deeper into an abyss of loud shrieks and scalding off-the-cuff remarks, more and more family members are picked off by hate. It’s like a horror film, only instead of a mass-murdering antagonist the villain is a murky cloud of hostility, and instead of people perishing at the swing of a gleaming axe they choke on said whirling cloud and in turn lose any redeemability. Meryl Streep goes all out as the patriarch and is very good at being very bad, but her frenzies cast a shadow over other more genuine lower-key offerings from the likes of Julianne Nicholson and Chris Cooper, as Ivy and Charles respectively (ironically, the only sort of appealing characters on show). Yet even aside from all the noise and palaver, none of the people on screen are extensively interesting. You’d do well to connect with someone who is brash and a tad evil. At best it’s fun for a while, but by the time Streep has smoked her seventh cigarette and Roberts has blown her fourth gasket it all becomes a bit boring.

The screenplay is adapted from Tracy Letts’ critically lauded Pulitzer Prize–winning play of the same name and this provides the nucleus for significant problem number two. Everything feels quite artificial, almost agonisingly forced (tick off the proverbial stage props as you go: dinner table for ultimate congregation scene, porch for nighttime reminiscence scene). Few laughs are on offer, partly because the script can be whimsical but mainly due to the physical nature of delivery required for success. You can clearly see why the hair-raising approach works on stage, where the interaction with audiences who are part of a communally emotive atmosphere surely aids matters too. On screen though the execution is wooden meaning conversational exchanges — of which there are many — wear quickly. Having run out of relevant anecdotes, Streep and co streamline into discussing dying birds and more topics which feebly bear contrived relevance to their situation.

There’s no substance to the dialogue. Petty attempts at stirring the thought-provoking pot (or perhaps cauldron in Violet’s case) backfire as words fall on deaf ears: “Die after me, I don’t care what you do… just survive” might hold some sort of emotional resonance in a John Hughes film, but here it just sounds like terrible advice from a mother to her teenage daughter. Speaking of questionable behaviour, why do some members of the family grasp so tightly to the courtesy of grace at the dinner table, when they’ve just conducted a post-funeral fashion extravaganza? The film often appears to be trying to assure its own direction and often fails. One moment it’s a black comedy, the next a family drama, shortly thereafter a sentimental life-lesson. At one point I was certain the film blaring in view was some sort of Anchorman/Thor hybrid. Turns out Ewan McGregor just has a dodgy accent (“You’re a pain in the ass!”).

It does wave a few white flag-esque redeemable qualities in fairness. A charming soundtrack interweaves amongst the chaos, one which deviates from pleasant to sombre depending on which mode the narrative has shifted to. The extended family dinner is probably the best sequence on display, and is a very good one at that. Only here do each of the characters get to evolve their varying dynamics with other family members. It is the one time where you are absolutely certain proceedings are going to erupt at any given moment, yet the film deviously keeps you guessing and engaged for an extended period of time. The performances on the whole are excellent, if a smidgen awards-gesturing at times. Heck it even conveys the know-how to be funny on the one or two occasions laughs permeate the volatility (reasoning behind Abigail Breslin’s desire to get home is particularly apt).

August: Osage County is just about as messy as the family it thrusts on screen. Half of the characters are undesirable, whilst the other half’s presence merely equates to making up the numbers. There’s a lot of acting going on — bouts of which are very good — but sadly performances aren’t the be all and end all when it comes to engaging an audience.

Tomatoes at the ready.

Oscars 2014 — Early Predictions

On March 2nd the film industry will pay tribute to the greatest cinematic achievements of the past year. The best of the best. The cream of the crop. For the most part, anyway. The Academy Awards always generate a hefty amount of hype – with Harvey Weinstein on the prowl there’s no surprise there! – and perhaps more so this year than in the recent past given the relatively open landscape in just about all the heavy-hitting categories.

The Academy announced their nominations for each category earlier today, so let’s go through some of them and pick out a few potential winners.

I haven’t seen all of the films listed yet, which means a portion of the following bout of foreshadowing will be partly down to instinct and partly taking into consideration where the main bouts of buzz are landing. Heck, we can come back and amend stuff nearer the time… once I’ve consumed all the films. Ahem.

 

The Nominations

Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: Undecided

– What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

 

Best Actor

Christian Bale

Bruce Dern

Leonardo DiCaprio

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Matthew McConaughey

– Who will win: Chiwetel Ejiofor

– Who I want to win: Leonardo DiCaprio

– Who should’ve been nominated: Tom Hanks

 

Best Actress

Amy Adams

Cate Blanchett

Sandra Bullock

Judi Dench

Meryl Streep

– Who will win: Cate Blanchett

– Who I want to win: Cate Blanchett

– Who should’ve been nominated: Adèle Exarchopoulos

 

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi

Bradley Cooper

Michael Fassbender

Jonah Hill

Jared Leto

– Who will win: Jared Leto

– Who I want to win: Barkhad Abdi

 

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins

Jennifer Lawrence

Lupita Nyong’o

Julia Roberts

June Squibb

– Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence

– Who I want to win: Undecided

 

Best Director

David O. Russell

Alfonso Cuarón

Alexander Payne

Steve McQueen

Martin Scorsese

– Who will win: Alfonso Cuarón

– Who I want to win: David O. Russell

 

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Nebraska

– What will win: American Hustle

– What I want to win: American Hustle

– What should’ve been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: Undecided

 

Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom

– What will win: The Act of Killing

– What I want to win: The Act of Killing

– What should’ve been nominated: Blackfish

 

On an interesting side note, every year the Oscars devote a part of the ceremony to a certain theme. Last year for instance, a variety of musical numbers were unfurled on stage (remember Seth MacFarlane’s “Boob Song”?) paying tribute to film music.

This year the theme is ‘Movie Heroes’. That’s everyone from the normal person on the street, to the surgeon saving a life, to those larger-than-life superheroes we’ve come to know and love.

His film won Best Picture last year… I wonder if a certain newly appointed masked crusader will unveil his bat-wings this time around.