August: Osage County


The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander, Jerry Stahl, Dale Dye, Ivan Allen, Arlin Miller, J. Alan Davidson, Maria Swindell Gus. Directed by John Wells

In the dusty heat of Oklahoma in the dog days of August, tempers can flare and people can be driven to the despair of unrelenting heat and no air-conditioning. Then again, a family can duplicate those same conditions – unrelenting heat and no saving grace of air-conditioning.

Violet Weston (Streep) has cancer of the mouth that causes her intense burning pain. She pops pills like others pop Tic Tacs. She is a feisty curmudgeon who speaks her mind, even if what she has to say is unpleasant – which it often is. There are hints of racism in her and enough self-righteous judgmental pronouncements to fill up several evangelical Christian sermons.

When her husband Beverly (Shepard) disappears, her kids come running home which in at least two cases, is a place they really don’t want to come back to. Karen (Lewis) has flitted from man to man and seems to have found one that she can stick with, slick Steve Huberbrecht (Mulroney) who is going to marry her in a few months and take her on the honeymoon she always wanted – Belize. Barbara (Roberts) is shrill, angry and frustrated; her husband Bill (McGregor) is separated and carrying on with a younger woman and her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin) is withdrawing into a world of pain, pissed off at both her parents but particularly her mom.

Only Ivy (Nicholson) stayed near home and she is worn to the bone, ready to take off with her secret fella to New York City and away from Violet’s grasp. Also coming to the house are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Cooper). Mattie Fae is on the surface the adoring aunt but she treats her own son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch) like an absolute nincompoop which he just might be; he certainly is a jumpy sort. Taking care of Violet is Johnna (Upham), a Native American who watches the chaos around her without comment.

Into this volatile environment comes the revelations of family secrets that will either draw this dysfunctional group closer together or break them apart forever. The specter of abuse will rear its ugly head and the skeletons in the closet will do their ugly heads before it’s all over.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who has written Killer Joe among others), the movie gets the big screen treatment by director John Wells (known primarily for his small screen work on series like E.R. and The West Wing). Wells does an excellent job of setting the time and place – the acrid, soul-burning prairie heat of Oklahoma, the beautiful but run-down Victorian home of Beverly and Violet and the sunset vistas. He also manages to capture the claustrophobia that can happen at an awkward family dinner.

There are some tremendous performances going on here, by Roberts and Streep in particular (both of which garnered Oscar nominations) although some may find them over-the-top. These are two women, mother and daughter, who are more alike than either would care to admit and both are at the end of their ropes. The disappearance of Beverly has left them with no buffer and with neither Ivy nor Karen willing to get in between them their confrontation becomes inevitable. Both characters aren’t very likable – probably Chris Cooper’s Charlie is the only one who is – and neither one is likely to inspire you to share a meal with them, especially if fish is on the menu.

They both have a great deal repressed inside them and it boils over, leading to a family crisis of dramatic proportions. Drug abuse is part of the issue but there is also a good deal of “truth telling” which is often the refuge of those who wish to be cruel and get away with it which is pretty much where both Barbara and Violet are at. The interesting thing is that this movie really isn’t about Violet so much although Streep’s performance puts her front and center, but the movie is about Barbara – that’s one of the reasons that the controversial closing scene focuses on Barbara. Da Queen, for her part, thought that last scene unnecessary. I for one thought it brought better closure than the original ending which features Johnna consoling Violet on a staircase.

Those aren’t the only fine performances. Cooper gets some wonderful scenes in, as well as Nicholson whose drawn and beaten down demeanor belies the inner strength she possesses. Martindale’s performance is just the opposite; this wonderful character actress plays a woman who is tough and loving on the outside but wounded terribly on the inside. I also thought Cumberbatch was extraordinary as the wimpy, indecisive and overly sensitive son of Charlie and Mattie Fae. The rest of the performances were pretty much adequate.

Some of the scenes are uncomfortable, particularly as family secrets from way back begin to emerge from necessity. Violet, sometimes as malevolent as a cobra but often as vulnerable as a prairie dog caught in the gaze of a predator, rules the roost with an eye that misses nothing.

I know that not everyone shares my regard for the movie. It has often been criticized for having over-the-top performances and for violating the spirit of the original play which was a dark comedy. There are still elements of that here but this is definitely a drama. As for the performances, I think they are also by necessity over-the-top – the people being portrayed here are in the middle of a stressful family crisis who are dealing with repressed emotions that boil over. Of course they’re going to get loud. People get loud when they melt down.

At the end of the day this is the kind of movie that can be hard to watch, particularly if your own family has issues. For me the dynamics of the Weston clan are certainly far from normal but at the same time there was a certain amount of resonance. There is love but this is a family disintegrating and one wonders just how much it was the alcoholic Beverly that held them together. This is at turns fascinating and repulsive, like watching a snake swallow its prey. You learn something of nature in watching it but in doing so you learn something of yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Scintillating performances. Exceedingly well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: About as dysfunctional a family as you’re ever likely to meet. Occasionally uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of swearing including sexual references, some mature situations and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abigail Breslin had a temperature of 103 degrees when she auditioned for the role of Jean Fordham.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lone Survivor

New Releases for the Week of January 10, 2014


Inside Llewyn Davis

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS 

(CBS) Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Max Casella. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

A young folk singer trying to make it in the Greenwich Village scene in 1961 finds himself homeless with a cat that isn’t his in tow in a brutal New York City winter. The only ray of hope is an audition for a music mogul who could kickstart his career or once again shatter his dreams into a million pieces. This has been getting some pretty strong Oscar buzz.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

August: Osage County

(Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper. A trio of strong-willed women who don’t particularly get along all that well are drawn back home to the somewhat eccentric woman who raised them for a family crisis. With spouses, children and exes in tow it doesn’t take long for chaos and heartbreak – not to mention the occasional possibility for redemption – to ensue.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language including sexual references, and for drug material)

Dumbbells

(GoDigital) Brian Drolet, Hoyt Richards, Jay Mohr, Carl Reiner. A former star college athlete finds himself working as a trainer in a rundown gym. When the new owner of the gym hits upon the idea of setting a reality TV show in the gym, it is met with much resistance from the complacent staff. However, the athlete and the owner form an unlikely alliance to save the gym, change attitudes and generally kick butt.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: NR

Her

(Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Amy Adams, Rooney Mara. A hopeless romantic man, heartbroken after the demise of a long-term relationship, flounders in social awkwardness. Then he gets a new personalized operating system for his computer devices and everything changes – he falls in love with the voice and personality of his new operating system.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: R (for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity)

Hercules: The Legend Begins

(Summit) Kellan Lutz, Scott Adkins, Roxanne McKee, Johnathon Schaech. The legendary demigod, son of Zeus and a mortal woman, is betrayed by his stepfather – an evil, ambitious king – and exiled. Resolved to address this injustice, the extraordinarily strong warrior resolves to overthrow the king and takes the first steps on his road to immortality.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Swords and Sandals

Rating: PG=13 (for sequences of intense combat action and violence, and for some sensuality)

Lone Survivor

(Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana. The true story of four Navy SEALs sent out into the mountains of Afghanistan to neutralize an Al Qaeda leader only to find themselves confronted with a much larger force than their intelligence told them. Faced with an impossible moral decision, they will put their lives on the line for each other and reflect in doing so the very highest ideals of the U.S. military.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: True Life War Drama

Rating: R (for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence)  

Four-Warned: December 2013


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Every month I’m going to look at every movie on the release schedule and try to assign them a numerical value corresponding to how anxious I am to see it. The lower the number, the more I want to see it. A one means I would walk through hell and high water to see it; a four means there’s no interest whatsoever. The numbers are not arrived at scientifically but they aren’t arbitrary either.

The numbers aren’t a reflection of the artistic merit of any of these films, but merely a reflection of my willingness to go to a movie theater and see it. The top four scores will be gathered as a means of reflecting the movies I’m anticipating the most; you may use that as a guide or not.

Most of the movies will never play theatrically where you live (unless you live in either New York or Los Angeles) but many of those that won’t will be available through Video-on-Demand; check with your local cable or satellite providers to find out if any specific movie is available through that medium.

Each entry is broken down as follows:

NAME OF FILM (Studio) Genre A brief description of the plot. Release plans: Wide = Everywhere, Limited = In selected markets. RATING A brief comment

Keep in mind that release dates are extremely subject to change, even at this late date.

FOUR TO SEE
1. THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (1.0)
2. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (1.2)
3. ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES (1.3)
4. SAVING MR. BANKS (1.4)
TIE. THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (1.4)

FOUR TO SEEK OUT (FILMS NOT IN WIDE RELEASE)
1. THE LAST OF THE UNJUST (1.2)
2. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (1.3)
3. THE LAST DAYS ON MARS (1.4)
4. AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (1.6)

RATING SYSTEM: 1) Must-see, 2) Should-see, 3) Perhaps-see, 4) Don’t-see

DECEMBER 4, 2013

BREAKFAST WITH CURTIS (BOND 360/Abramorama) Genre: Comedy. The bad blood between an eccentric Bohemian household and the family next door is slowly dissolved by the making of a video. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.9 Although the trailer posted online is more of a clip, looks fairly interesting.
OUT OF THE FURNACE (Relativity) Genre: Thriller. After his brother returns home from Afghanistan and disappears, a blue collar steel worker decides to take justice into his own hands. Release Strategy: New York City/Los Angeles (opening wide December 6). RATING: 1.9 Terrific cast including Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson and Forest Whitaker.

DECEMBER 6, 2013

ADVENTURES OF THE PENGUIN KING (Cinedigm) Genre: Documentary. A penguin returns home to find a mate and start a family. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.7 Tim Allen narrates but the unfunny dialogue may make even the little ones cringe.
CRAVE (Phase 4) Genre: Thriller. The dark fantasies of a photographer explode when his relationship with a young woman goes bad. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.8 Looks a little bit on the avant garde side.
EXPECTING (Tribeca) Genre: Dramedy. When a couple trying unsuccessfully to have a baby discover the wife’s single best friend is pregnant, they insist she moves in with them for the duration – but how will their friendship survive? Release Strategy: Los Angeles only. RATING: 3.1 I like Michelle Monaghan and Radha Mitchell but this looks somewhat forced.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (CBS) Genre: Drama. A young idealistic folk singer from the Village in the 60s struggles against all odds to try to make it in the music business. Release Strategy: Limited (expands December 20). RATING: 1.3 The latest Coen Brothers opus is already being hailed as a surefire Oscar contender.
KHUMBA (Millennium) Genre: Animated Feature. The animals of the Great Karoo, having rejected a half-striped zebra from the herd, must turn to him to save them all. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.0 Kinda cute but kinda done that already.
THE LAST DAYS ON MARS (Magnet) Genre: Science Fiction. The potential of a major scientific discovery prompts a member of a manned mission of Mars to undertake a dangerous and unauthorized mission which leads to catastrophe. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.4 Very much along the lines of the original Alien.
LENNY COOKE (Shopkorn/Brigade) Genre: Documentary. He was a high school basketball player ranked ahead of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony but never played a minute in the NBA; this is his story. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.2 An American cautionary tale.
MERRY CHRISTMAS (Fern) Genre: Comedy. A group of high flying New Yorkers who have watched their fortunes tumble with the stock market spend their holidays at a more modest location complete with a disco-themed murder mystery. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 3.0 Could be interesting but never saw a trailer.
SEX ACTS (Tribeca) Genre: Drama. A young girl in a new high school tries to become popular by allowing the popular boys to have sex with her but soon finds things spiraling out of control. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 Disturbing because it is so realistic.
SWERVE (Cohen Media Group) Genre: Crime Thriller. A good Samaritan’s actions in a terrible car crash have severe repercussions when a crooked cop is involved. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.1 What looks to be a very good Aussie thriller with lots of twists, turns and betrayals.
TWICE BORN (eOne) Genre: Drama. An Italian professor and her teenage son return to Sarajevo where she met his father. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.1 Has a bit of a Nicholas Sparks vibe to it.
WHITE REINDEER (IFC) Genre: Dramedy. After the death of her husband, a pretty but shy Realtor gets involved in the swingers scene. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.8 Could be the most subversive Christmas movie ever.

DECEMBER 11, 2013

NUCLEAR NATION (First Run) Genre: Documentary. The effects of the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant following the tsunami on the residents whose homes and lives were irradiated by the event. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.8 A Japanese cautionary tale.

DECEMBER 13, 2013

AMERICAN HUSTLE (Columbia) Genre: Period Drama. In the 1970s a con artist and his seductive partner are forced to work for a manic FBI agent to take down a Jersey politician with connections to the mob. Release Strategy: Limited (opening wide December 18). RATING: 1.6 Director David O. Russell has had both his last two films nominated for Best Picture Oscars.
THE CRASH REEL (Phase 4) Genre: Documentary. The rivalry between legendary half-pipe snowboarders Shaun White and Kevin Pearce takes a different dimension when Pearce has a life-threatening accident. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.9 Saw this on HBO and thought it an inspiring documentary about a subject I’m not madly in love with.
HERE COMES THE DEVIL (Magnet) Genre: Horror. When a couple’s young kids return home after disappearing, they realize that the kids have brought something evil back with them. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.0 Unsettling and creepy; the Spanish know their horror.
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (New Line) Genre: Fantasy. Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield face the dragon Smaug.. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D). RATING: 1.0 I’m still not convinced this trilogy will be as good as The Lord of the Rings but that doesn’t mean I’m not eagerly anticipating the next installment.
HOURS (Pantelion) Genre: Thriller. When Hurricane Katrina hits a New Orleans hospital, a new father and his prematurely delivered baby are cut off from rescue. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.2 Paul Walker’s not my favorite actor but this might be the movie that changes my mind.
THE LAST OF THE UNJUST (Cohen Media Group) Genre: Documentary. Claude Lantzmann who directed the epic holocaust documentary Shoah has one more tale that he waited 40 years to tell. Release Strategy: Limited (opening wide February 7). RATING: 1.2 The story of Theresienstadt, the “model” concentration camp used in Nazi propaganda and the Jewish elder who co-operated directly with Eichmann.
SAVING MR. BANKS (Disney) Genre: Biographical Drama. Walt Disney attempts to persuade recalcitrant author P.L. Travers to allow him to film her beloved children’s book Mary Poppins. Release Strategy: Limited (opening wide December 20). RATING: 1.4 Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson have waltzed with Oscar in the past; they might do so again this year.
SOME VELVET MORNING (Tribeca) Genre: Drama. When a formerly married man tries to rekindle a romance with an old flame, her refusal leads to obsession and the unearthing of old secrets. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.8 What is it about Stanley Tucci that I’m willing to see him in just about anything?
TRAP FOR CINDERELLA (IFC Midnight) Genre: Thriller. After a woman loses her memory in the fire that killed her close friend, her attempts to regain her life takes some unexpected twists when nothing proves to be as she remembers it – not even herself. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 This might be a very intense thriller judging from the trailer.
TYLER PERRY’S A MADEA CHRISTMAS (Lionsgate) Genre: Holiday Comedy. A surprise visit to a friend’s daughter in a small town for the Holidays turns into Madea-sized chaos. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.7 I’ve never really been able to connect with the Madea series although I recognize that a lot of people do.

DECEMBER 18, 2013

ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES (Paramount) Genre: Comedy. The iconic newsman Ron Burgundy joins the first 24-hour cable news network with his news team at his back. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.3 One of the great comedies of the last decade gets a long-awaited sequel.
HER (Warner Brothers) Genre: Sci-Fi Romance. In the near future a heartbroken man falls in love with the voice of an advanced computer operating system. Release Strategy: Limited (opening wide January 10). RATING: 2.5 You can always expect the unexpected from director Spike Jonze.
THE NEW RIJKSMUSEUM (Self-Released) Genre: Documentary. The renovation of Amsterdam’s pre-eminent art museum leads to unexpected challenges, a soaring budget and a triumphant finish. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.9 One of two documentaries on the 10-year process to finish the museum.

DECEMBER 20, 2013

ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY (Factory 25) Genre: Drama. An acclaimed indie actress whose career is being stifled by middle age gets a visit from her niece who also wants to be an actress. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 3.1 Another selection from the 2013 Florida Film Festival, you can check out my review of it here.
THE PAST (Sony Classics) Genre: Drama. When an Iranian man returns to Paris to finalize his divorce with his estranged wife, his attempts to reconcile her with her teenage daughter lead to painful revelations from their time together. Release Strategy: New York City/Los Angeles. RATING: 2.0 The director of A Separation and actress Berenice Bejo from The Artist make an intriguing combination.
WALKING WITH DINOSAURS (20th Century Fox) Genre: Family. Dinosaurs will be brought to life in this big screen version of the acclaimed television show. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D). RATING: 2.2 Sort of like Disney’s Dinosaur only without the whole extinction thing.
WRONG COPS (IFC) Genre: Sci-Fi Comedy. In a future in which crime has been essentially eradicated, bored cops are what decent citizens should fear most. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.3 From the director of Rubber which I kinda thought was overrated.

DECEMBER 25, 2013

47 RONIN (Universal) Genre: Martial Arts Fantasy. A lone half-breed must lead 47 samurai, betrayed by a treacherous warlord, against deadly warriors, magical creatures and evil wizards. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D). RATING: 1.9 Looks fun but with Keanu Reeves in the lead role might take itself too seriously.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (Weinstein) Genre: Dramedy. Tragedy reunites a group of strong-willed women with the dysfunctional woman who raised them. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.6 An all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Benedict Cumberbatch make this an expected Oscar contender.
GRUDGE MATCH (Warner Brothers) Genre: Drama. Two retired boxers resurrect a long-standing grudge to stage the rubber match of their fights – three decades after their last fight. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.7 De Niro and Stallone should prove to be an interesting combination.
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (Sony Classics) Genre: Biographical Drama. Charles Dickens had a mistress for the last 13 years of his life; this is her story. Release Strategy: New York City/Los Angeles. RATING: 2.3 Ralph Fiennes, who also directed this, stars as Dickens.
JUSTIN BIEBER’S BELIEVE (Open Road) Genre: Music Documentary. Biebermania. Still alive? Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 4.0 Haven’t his 15 minutes expired yet?
LONE SURVIVOR (Universal) Genre: War. Four Navy SEALs on a mission to take out a high level al Qaeda operative are ambushed in the rugged Afghan mountains. Release Strategy: New York City/Los Angeles (opening wide January 10). RATING: 1.8 Based on an incredible true story.
THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (20th Century Fox) Genre: Adventure. A dreamer takes on an incredible adventure to impress a girl. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.4 I’m a big fan of the original James Thurber short story but I understand that this is only loosely based on it.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (Paramount) Genre: Drama. The true story of the rise and fall of an ambitious and ruthless securities broker mirrors the changing forces of Wall Street at the end of the 20th century. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.2 It’s Scorsese and di Caprio so we’re talking Oscar nominations, right?

DECEMBER 27, 2013

ONE CHANCE (Screen Media) Genre: Musical Biography. The true story of Paul Potts, a shop assistant whose incredible performances on a British singing competition show took that country by storm. Release Strategy: Limited (expanding January 10). RATING: 2.9 Think of an operatic Susan Boyle.

SCHEDULED TO BE REVIEWED HERE AS NEW RELEASES
Inside Llewyn Davis, Out of the Furnace, American Hustle, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Saving Mr. Banks, Her, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Walking with Dinosaurs, 47 Ronin, August: Osage County, Grudge Match, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Wolf of Wall Street, Lone Survivor, One Chance