AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)

January 12, 2014

august Greetings again from the darkness. Tracy Letts had a very nice year in 2008. He won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for writing the play August: Osage County. Since then, he has also written the play and screenplay for Killer Joe, and been seen as an actor in the key role of a Senator in the TV show “Homeland“. This time out, he adapts his own play for director John Wells’ (The Company Men, TV’s “ER“) screen version of August: Osage County.

With an ensemble cast matched by very few movies over the years, the screen version begins with what may be its best scene. Weston family patriarch and published poet Beverly (the always great Sam Shepard) is interviewing Johnna for a position as cook and housekeeper when they are interrupted in stunning fashion by Violet (Meryl Streep), Beverly’s acid-tongued wife who is showing the effects of chemotherapy and her prescription drug addiction. This extraordinary pre-credits scene sets the stage for the entire movie, which unfortunately only approaches this high standard a couple more times.

Despite the film’s flaws, there is no denying the “train-wreck” effect of not being able to look away from this most dysfunctional family. Most of this is due to the screen presence of a steady stream of talented actors: in addition to Streep and Shephard, we get their 3 daughters played by Julia Roberts (Barbara), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy) and Juliette Lewis (Karen); Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin as Roberts’ husband and daughter; Margo Martindale (Violet’s sister), her husband Chris Cooper (Charles) and their son Benedict Cumberbatch.

As with most dysfunctional family movies, there is a dinner table scene … this one occurring after a funeral. The resentment and regret and anger on display over casseroles is staggering, especially the incisive and “truth-telling” Violet comments and the defensive replies from Barbara. As time goes on, family secrets and stories unfold culminating in a whopper near the end. This is really the polar opposite of a family support system. Unlike many movies, getting to know these people doesn’t make us like them any more.

Meryl Streep’s performance is one of the most demonstrative of her career. Some may call it over the top, but I believe it’s essential to the tone of the movie and the family interactions. Her exchanges with Julia Roberts define the monster mother and daughter in her image theme. They don’t nitpick each other, it’s more like inflicting gaping wounds. Surprisingly, Roberts mostly holds her own … though that could be that the film borders on campy much of the time. Streep’s scene comes as she recalls the most horrific childhood Christmas story you could ever want to hear.

It must be noted that Margo Martindale is the real highlight here. She has two extraordinary scenes … each very different in style and substance … and she nails them both. Without her character and talent, this film could have spun off into a major mess. The same could be said for Chris Cooper, who is really the moral center of the family. While the others seem intent on hiding from their past, he seems to make the best of his situation.

The film never really captures the conflicting environments of the claustrophobic old Weston homestead and the free wide open plains of Oklahoma. The exception is a pretty cool post-funeral scene in a hayfield where Roberts tells Streep “There’s no place to go“. The main difference between the film version and stage version is the compressed time and the decision to include all explosive scenes. There is just little breathing room here. Still, it’s one of the more entertaining and wildly dysfunctional comedy-dramas that you will see on screen, and it’s quite obvious this group of fine actors thoroughly enjoyed the ensemble experience.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you want to sit back and watch family members go at each other with much more verocity than anything at your own family events OR you just want to see some of the best actors working today (Streep, Martindale, Cooper, Cumberbatch)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t imagine sitting through a dysfunctional family dinner so soon after your own holiday family time.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VBEZrkCT8Q

 


KILLER JOE (2012)

August 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Every so often there’s a movie that just defies description and leaves me at a loss for analysis. Initially I thought maybe I could come up with a comparison, but that has proved futile. It also falls short (but does set the tone) to imagine if David Lynch, John Waters and the Coen Brothers collaborated on a film. And then it hit me that really the most likely legacy for this movie is as a midnight movie favorite. A cult film if you will. It has the twisted humor and borderline caricature characters and enough wild scenes and bizarre lines of dialogue, that I believe the midnight crowd will embrace it wholeheartedly.

 The first surprise is that it’s directed by 76 year old William Friedkin, who is best known for his 1970’s classics The Exorcist and The French Connection. He even throws in a bit of a chase scene here just to remind of us of his timeless scene from the latter. The story is from playwright Tracy Letts who won a Pulitzer for “August: Osage County” (a film version coming soon). Mr. Letts took the inspiration of the story from a real cop in Florida, moved the setting to Texas for obvious reasons and then filmed in Louisiana for economical ones.

 The next surprise is Matthew McConaughey, who has made a career of playing Him-bo’s in farcical rom-coms that seem only to exist so he can be filmed without a shirt. Here, he plays the titular Killer Joe Cooper as a fastidious, meticulous detective who runs a murder-for-hire “business on the side”. Killer Joe has a couple of rules and demands that the details be just right before he agrees to a job. But then he bends his rules when he meets Dottie (Juno Temple), the virginal sister of Chris (Emile Hirsch) and daughter of Ansel (Thomas Haden Church). She becomes the retainer when father and son can’t come up with actual money for the job.

The best way to describe these people, including and especially Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Gena Gershon), is they are the epitome of trailer-park hicks who are not merely dysfunctional as a family, but even moreso as human beings. They barely have money to get by in life, but it’s spent on beer, cigarettes, fast food and horse racing. When a small drug deal goes bad, Chris (the scheming son) comes up with the idea of killing his mother (Ansel’s ex) to collect the insurance money. A touch of Double Indemnity thrown down by the Beverly Hillbillies.

 So hustler son and simpleton dad hire Killer Joe for the job. Think of the plan from Blood Simple, and now imagine it’s carried out by the cast of Dumb and Dumber. Things go awry when Joe meets Dottie. It brings out a side of him hidden by his smooth vocal manners and starched black exterior. A side best compared to the sadistic nature of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.

No more details need be provided, just know that the story and the people are twisted and demented, and the violence and sexuality are the type that make a film tough to watch at times. That level of discomfort is assuaged by the laugh out loud moments offered by the dialogue, but merely leaves our brains desperately gasping for coherence.  Worth noting is the unique camera work is provided by veteran DP Caleb Deschanel (Zooey’s dad).

Clarence Carter’s “Strokin'” is fitting end punctuation for the film, and be warned that while I will never view canned pumpkin the same again, that pales in comparison to what Gena Gershon must now think of when someone offers her a piece of fried chicken.

watch the trailer: