Friday, February 28, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "August: Osage County," or, Who Says There Aren't Any Juicy Roles For Women of a Certain Age? -- Part 2

[One minor spoiler -- happens early in the film.]

This movie gets a  thumb-up, which, in light of what I'm about to write, makes me wonder about my critical faculties.   That thumb is shaking -- I must need more magnesium.   There's a lot wrong with this show.  But I sat and watched it all the way through and I wasn't bored and I was interested to see what was going to happen next and I don't recall looking at my watch.  So if you ask me if you should go see it, I'd say sure, it was kind of interesting.  And it had lots of good actresses and actors in it, and I put them in that order advisedly.

There's a big cast here, and there are almost no minor characters.  Lots of relationships to keep track of and if I started I'd be giving too much of it away.  The basics can't be considered spoilers:  Famous poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) and wife Violet (Meryl Streep) live out on the Oklahoma plain.  He's a boozer; she has mouth cancer and is addicted to prescription drugs.  He leaves one day and commits suicide.  Their three daughters Barb (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and  Karen (Juliette Lewis) and their men (Ewan MacGregor and Dermot Mulroney) assemble at the house, along with Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) and their son, the sisters' cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).

They have quite a time.  Revelations, you know.  I will refrain from sharing them, in case you want to download it someday.

But there are some things you should know.

This Movie Has Been Misleadingly Marketed as a Comedy.  Even the trailers are edited to make it look like "Terms of Endearment."  It is nothing of the sort.  It is about as bleak a movie as you can imagine.  From the sere Oklahoma landscape to the unceasing unpleasantness with which these characters interact with one another, there's scarcely a chuckle in it.

It's an Adaptation of a Stage Play, and Man, Does It Show.  In fact, I was not aware that this was originally a play.  Which is embarrassing, since it won the Pulitzer.  It was written by Tracy Letts.  (He's also an actor -- he plays Andrew Lockhart in Season 3 of "Homeland.")  There's a lot of speech-giving in this movie; a lot of theatrical declaiming -- the scenes look like they're being played on a stage; as I say, I thought that before I knew it was adapted from a stage show.  The Memsahib had exactly the same impression -- it doesn't look like a movie.

Hold the Catharsis.  Not only is it not a comedy in the ha-ha sense, it's also not a comedy in the classic sense of having a non-tragic ending.  No one improves in this movie; other than those revelations I mentioned, no one seems to have learned anything emotionally.  These are all damaged souls and there is no healing, nothing the viewer takes away that makes the viewer a more learned person.  Other than maybe to watch the booze. .

What's With All These Solvent Poets?  This is the second movie I've seen in the last little while -- the other was "Say Anything" (Dreyfuss/Gandolfini), reviewed a post or two ago -- where a poet is portrayed as financially successful based solely on publishing poetry.  In this case, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is the blessed scribbler.  I'm here to tell you that not a single poet supports a house of that size and apparently some land, a wife that needs a lot of medical attention and meds, and three girls to have raised, on nothing but publishing poetry.  Oh, you may be able to exist on a rudimentary level as an archetypal starving artist, but the emphasis there is on the starving part.  Most working poets teach, speak, hold workshops, and the like.  The alcoholic Bev does none of these things.

Bad Guys.  The mom and sisters are bad enough, but the men in this movie -- the departed Beverly aside -- discredit the gender.  Weak, ignorant, faithless, fibbers.  To themselves and to their women.  I wonder how Letts thinks the species has survived.  If you believe this movie, the joys of love and sex and family can't possibly be worth the relentless misery.

There Is One Noble Character.  I won't spoil it by telling you who it is, but even that sympathetic portrayal is ultimately patronizing.

God Forgive Me.  God Forgive Me.   In considering the performance of Ms. Meryl Streep, one word cuts through the haze of the typical superlatives she is usually owed -- hammy.  Her rants and staggering about may be suited to the stage, where exaggeration of voice and gesture is called for to get the message past the footlights, but on film it's oppressive.  (She did not play it onstage; Deanna Dunagan originated it at Steppenwolf in Chicago and on Broadway, where she was succeeded by Estelle Parsons and Phylicia Rashad -- yes, the Cosby mom.)   Here she is exhausting her considerable bag of actorly tricks -- and they're great tricks, don't misunderstand me, like DeNiro's, who does the same things in the too-many roles he takes that are unworthy of his gifts -- in an effort to overcome the speechy script.

There is one scene in particular, one of those stagy ones, where she greets a police officer, a young man who used to date the Julia Roberts character.  Violet stumbles about uncertainly, mumbling and ranting in an extended monologue, and the other characters just stand there and watch her act.  OK, she's a seriously ill woman with various addictions and not at all a good Mommy, but the eye-rolling and mood shifts and lacerating speechifying in those claustrophobic sets simply overwhelms the narrative.  No Oscar for her this year.

So why the (tepid) recommendation?  I thought Julia Roberts was quite good in a very nonglamorous (and overwritten) role, and Sam Shepard is one of those actors who grabs the screen even in bad movies and won't let it go.  Julianne Nicholson underplayed quite attractively.   Maybe I was just waiting for it to get better, or for the Big Moment when something was affirmed, where the scales fell from these sad persons' eyes, but the truth of the matter is that, even after all of the foregoing, I was engaged.  Maybe it was the star power of all those stars and I'm a sucker.  Hey, it's up for some Academy Awards.  Someone must have thought it was really good.

And I'll always give the benefit of the doubt to any movie with a title containing a colon.

*      *      *

Thursday, February 27, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "Philomena" or Who Says There Aren't Any Juicy Roles for Women of a Certain Age? -- Part 1

The first time I ever saw Dame Judi Dench she was naked.

Or nearly so.  She appeared as a concupiscent Titainia, Queen of the Fairies, opposite Ian Richardson as King Oberon, in Peter Hall's shimmering, perfect 1968 film adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."    Now that was a movie.  Believe I first saw it in Alvin Kernan's Shakespeare course when I was a sophomore at Yale.

But today I am here to discuss her fine work in the first of our thumbs'-up films, "Philomena."  Her co-star, Steve Coogan, co-wrote and co-produced the film.  Dame Judi plays Philomena Lee, who enlists former Labour Government advisor Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) to assist in finding an illegitimate son, Anthony to whom she gave birth at a convent.  The nuns of the convent permitted his adoption -- for a handsome fee, it is suggested -- to a couple who had come in to adopt a little girl but ended up taking Anthony, the little girl's best friend, as well.

The movie is the story of their search, what they find, and, of course, there's the "getting to know you" angle between the buttoned-down and cynical Martin and the hopeful and spunky Philomena.  I won't say any more than that.  Needless to say, Martin finds something, and it is really all quite genuinely moving.

There has been some talk that the movie is anti-Catholic.  Mmm, not sure about that.  To be absolutely certain, those nuns of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Roscrea, county Tipperary, Ireland, oh, they do not come across well at all.  In addition to selling kids out from under their unfortunate unwed mothers, they are terrible liars.  I have read that that Order says no, it didn't happen that way, and we're not going to settle it in this review.  At least one crucial scene was fabricated.  But yeah, you don't have a real good feeling about dogma when the movie is over.

But "Philomena" is not about whether the worldly punishment of sexual immorality is good or bad.  It is about the great undiminished love of a mother for her boy across the years and miles and choices.

Some minor misgivings:

Coogan's performance is understated almost to the point of invisibility.  He goes through the film with a faintly uncomfortable look on his face, perplexed by Philomena.  Never really snaps out of it, even as matters approach their climax.  While there's plainly supposed to be some kind of cathartic connection of this unlikely pair as the truth gradually emerges, it is not reflected in Coogan's performance.

Dench is one of those iconic actors who can barely be criticized ever about anything (although see next review).  And there's no fault to be found here, either.  The problem is that the film isn't quite sure who she is.  Sometimes she's a dotty, oblivious consumer of tacky romance novels; the next she's speaking knowledgeably about the range of contemporary sexual preferences.  Sometimes she's helpless, lost without Martin; other times she shows him up with her determination and spunk.  Not a dreadful fault -- just makes the thing seem just a little less than serious.

But, then and now -- what a Dame.

*  *  *