Friday, January 10, 2014



Written by Tracy Letts based on his play
Directed by John Wells
Actors: Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham.

It is a tricky thing, adapting a stage play into a movie and making it feel real and cinematic. There have been some effective adaptations and some that feel phony and stage acted. I have not seen Tracy Lett's "August: Osage County" on stage but after seeing this film adaptation I feel like I have seen a part of it. The play won a Pulitzer Prize and it is very popular and lauded. Maybe something happened on the way to being adapted but I didn't get into this story as much as I thought I would. The movie can be hard to watch as we follow a dysfunctional family of some mean people. The play was even longer than this movie and I can't imagine that because this movie can be trying and too long.

This adaptation has a killer cast of some very great actors and a screen legend. They get to chew a lot of scenery and also get to play some larger than life,mean,vindictive people. The whole cast does an admirable job but some come off better than others. That has to do with two ends of a spectrum. Some of the characters are sane and grounded and written with subtle strokes and some are cartoonish. The problem is that in the theatre the actors can ham it up on stage but we are in movie land here. The cast is very solid but the two main roles are played by the two biggest actors and the characters come in two major categories. One of the characters came off as phony to me and the other one I really identified with and it affects the performances.

Meryl Streep plays the matriarch of the Weston family, Violet, and she is dying of mouth cancer and is also popping pills to deal with her pain, maybe too many. Julia Roberts plays one of three daughters to Violet and her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) and she knows her mother is unstable but she tries to deal with it the best she can. I love Meryl Streep, as we all do, but sometimes a role can trip her up and that is what happens here. The story here is pure Southern melodrama and some aspects of the story are over the top to me and Streep's character is over written, the only character here that is. Director John Wells, it seems to me, let Streep run wild with a juicy role and I always saw her acting. There is a difference here in performance than in two of her greatest, most subtle performances (Silkwood and Sophie's Choice). In her best performances she disappears in her roles, here I always saw her acting and that rarely ever happens with her.

Director John Wells lets Streep run away with her role and I suspect he controlled the others more because their characters were simpler and less theatrical. There needed to be more control but weirdly Wells gets the best performance of Julia Robert's career from the only character I liked and believed in. Julia Roberts gives a knockout performance here owning the screen better than Streep does. Part of that I think goes to the daughter character being the saner character and thus the most relatable one. Julia Roberts has matured here into a commanding actress of great control. I fell in love with her all over again after the excruciating "Eat,Love,Pray". I was glued to the screen whenever the movie concentrated on her character taking control, this is her best performance ever and one of the best of the year.

The movie does concentrate on this dysfunctional family and it leads to a big, extended dinner scene that could be nails on the chalkboard to some viewers. There is a lot of yelling and weird dialogue but everytime Julia Roberts spoke I actually enjoyed the scene. When Streep's Violet starts spewing hate and insulting others, I started to cringe or tune out. There are also some other great performances here and some actors come off better than others because their roles are more realistic. My favorite performances and characters here are played by Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper and Dermot Mulroney. The other characters are more stagy and phony but I loved Margo Martindale here as I always do. To me, the movie always comes back to Julia Roberts and I cherish her performance and would see this again just for her.

I suspect a lot of movie goers will hate this movie and some will just love the performances and might love Streep here. I do not hate this movie, I just didn't believe it all and maybe I would rather see it on stage. I came into this movie cold never having seen the play. The story seems familiar to me, I have probably seen this same type of Southern melodrama in other movies done much better. On a basic level I would recommend it for some of the performances but maybe a more cinematic director might have made a better movie (Director Wells is mostly a television director). We sometimes blindly want Meryl Streep to get nominated for an Oscar for this type of role and performance. I hope she doesn't get nominated because it would be a disservice to her fine career with her weirdest role to date. I hope Roberts gets some love here, I have never seen an actress control such a messy movie better than Roberts does here.



Written by Peter Berg based on the book about Marcus Luttrell written by Patrick Robinson
Directed by Peter Berg
Actors: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Yousuf Azami, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig, Jerry Ferrara.

While watching a movie about war we will never experience what the hell of combat really feels like. No movie can really put us there especially when it's a movie based on a true story of war. Hollywood has made effective battle films that get close to realistically capturing the intensity of war and it's effects. There is Oliver Stone's masterpiece "Platoon" and the over rated "Saving Private Ryan" (the first half hour battle scene is intense beyond words but the rest of the movie is pure Hollywood hokum). The newest, intense movie dealing with a fight against the Taliban, "Lone Survivor", has a middle section that is relentless and gut wrenching.

"Lone Survivor" tells the real story of Marcus Lutrell and three of his friends and fellow soldiers who made up Seal Team 10. Marcus and his brothers in arms are dispatched to try to kill and capture Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. The mission was called "Operation Red Wings" and it seemed like a mission that could be carried out by this group of brave, skilled warriors. Though a man and his two sons, locals, stumble into Marcus and his group and the soldiers decide to let them go. This is discussed among the men in detail because if they let these men go, it is possible they could tell the others where these Americans are. This is what happens leading to the middle section of the story, an hour battle and capture of Marcus.

The beginning 15 minutes of the movie and the last remaining scenes are your standard war scenes that we have seen before depicted in the same way. Though just when we have thought we have seen every type of executed battle scene in countless war movies, "Lone Survivor" gives us a fresh, gut wrenching and long, relentless one. There is minimal dialogue in this movie and that is good, too much dialogue and phony story killed "Private Ryan". The gun fight and battle are thrillingly captured by director Peter Berg. The intense middle section involves the four soldiers jumping and rolling down an endless embankment of big boulders and rocks that punish and cripple their bodies.

The gun battles are realistically and graphically bloody and not for the squeamish. The bullet wounds and wounds from rolling down a death trap of boulders that these men endure will keep you on the edge of your seat while also making you cover your eyes. Actor turned director Peter Berg (The Last Seduction) has made very good movies before but this is his best, his directing is very impressive. The acting is also very realistic and subtly great including the first great movie role for Taylor Kitsch and another great performance by Ben Foster. Mark Wahlberg is dependably great here and when Marcus is saved after being captured it leads to a very intense ending.

Wahlberg has done a capture scene like this before in my favorite war movie "Three Kings". That scene in Kings is an one of a kind masterpiece but the capture scene here is a close second. Now Mark Wahlberg has been in two intense, masterpiece scenes depicting war and capture. We now know why film makers go after Wahlberg for intense scenes like this after another solid performance here. "Lone Survivor"might not be anything special and it is hard to watch. Sometimes we get desensitized to violence in war movies but here I squirmed in my seat, wanted to cover my eyes and felt a need to be on the edge of my seat. "Lone Survivor" is intense, beautifully directed and you will definitely shed tears.