The Oscars … A Final Word on 2017

 

US-OSCARS-SHOW

All: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

The #Oscars … a final word. I always enjoy the show. A family tradition, we watched every year. We enjoyed the spectacle. We appreciated the good and the great amidst the marketing and the gamesmanship. We embraced the sense of community and the half-baked overtures at social consciousness. We lived for those odd and memorable moments that set one year apart from another. And we relished that we live in a country where this kind of goofy escapist display is celebrated.

 

89th Annual Academy Awards - Show

All in all, I liked last night’s show. And I’m grateful for the arts on all levels – from shameless commerce to high-falutin’ … glad it is ALL there for our consumption.

Other than that delightfully bizarre ending (La La Land wins … oops, sorry … give those back. Moonlight wins!), I thought this year’s Oscar telecast was a good-hearted and balanced production, and, while I am not a fan of Jimmy Kimmel, I thought he did a decent job of poking fun at the right personalities without being too invasive/obtrusive. And the whole enterprise moved as efficiently as it ever does, with a high point being the musical numbers … for once.

Here are some parting shots, culled from my social media observations of the evening …

  • Emma Stone,Ryan Gosling,Mahershala AliEmma Stone! And now she has an #Oscar … so we get a little break from the relentless charm offensive? Pretty please?
  • I know we are supposed to love Matt and Ben, but they seem like marginally interesting guys with whom I may have gone to high school.
  • Dammit. “Both Sides Now”?!? That song makes me a puddle. Perfect choice.#SaraBareilles #JoniMitchell #InMemoriam
  • “Dedicated to all the kids who sing in the rain. And all the moms who let them.” – “City of Stars” Best Song acceptance
  • Oh my! John Legend singing “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” … beautiful and elegant throwback to another era. A little Sammy Davis, a little Johnny Mathis, a little Nat King Cole. A lot of gorgeous.
  • Javier Bardem + Meryl Streep = swoon!gettyimages-645743660
  • “To save one life is to save all of humanity.” – White Helmets Oscars acceptance
  • Miracle of miracles. Seth Rogen actually made me laugh. #schuylersistersbucketlist
  • Audible – 1984, Zachary Quinto – commercial. For the win. #Orwell
  • This tour bus thing is a pretty funny bit. And Nicole, Ryan, Denzel, Jennifer, Meryl, Jeff, etc are playing along beautifully. #Gary
  • Yes. Zootopia! Most cleverly subversive film of the year. (And here comes the Moana debate again…)
  • Great ad, Cadillac. Though, it would have been better as Chevrolet. #CadillacNotTheEverymanCar … Cadillac … cars for fancy people … no, wait, for the common man … no, wait. Fancy people. Yeah. Fancy people.
  • Shirley MacLaine, still looking adorable, and still milking the reincarnation jokes…
  • US-OSCARS-SHOW“People and words and life and forgiveness. And grace.” – Viola Davis
  • “I love Lady Gaga’s grandma’s house.” – Ellen (I am not sure what the ad was for, but that line made me LOL.)
  • For the first time … in, like, ever … the music on the #Oscars is (mostly) on point. But I’d like Lin-Manuel to stop rapping. For a long time.
  • “We don’t discriminate based on country of origin here in Hollywood. We discriminate based on age and weight.” – Jimmy Kimmel
  • Words I thought I’d never type. Suicide Squad, Oscar winner.
  • John Travolta should send Warren Beatty a cookie basket. Adele Dazeem is a distant memory now. #Oscars

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89th Annual Academy Awards - ShowReel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

“Times are changing.” Or so we had hoped … Fences (2016)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Nothing says happy holidays like a little family drama, and just in time for Christmas is Fences, a cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play directed by and starring Denzel Washington. Fences focuses on the inner workings of an African-American family in Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s.

Washington plays Troy Maxson, a former baseball player from the Negro Leagues caught in a downward spiral of male menopause, uncertain whether he wants to be a devoted husband and father or a gin-drinking rounder, whether or not he wants to continually relive his glory days or shield his children from the false promise of organized athletics, whether or not he wants to be a swaggering blowhard or a wizened patriarch.

The play owes its DNA to Arthur Miller as much as Lorraine Hansberry, with a tight lens on a small, struggling family in a small, claustrophobic house in a small, insular corner of Pittsburgh. Fences fits neatly in that genre of “up against it” 1950s family drama, where the walls closing in (economically, emotionally, socially) spark tension and narrative complications.

Viola Davis is heart-wrenchingly exquisite as Troy’s long-suffering wife Rose. As the film unfolds, we learn about their courtship, the familial secrets between them, the intimate details of their daily rituals.  Davis so fully inhabits this world (and the detailed set design – truly, the Maxson home in Fences is a compact marvel of on-location perfection), striking the right balance between being a recognizable “movie star” and completely immersing herself in the mundane beauty of her character’s daily life. As a result, Troy’s eventual emotional/physical betrayal of Rose hits like a sucker punch, and Davis’ Rose doesn’t take kindly to her husband so blithely imploding her idyllic quietude.  Davis’ mid-film confrontation with Washington is well worth the ticket price alone. You remember that scene in Doubt when we all first said “Who is that?!?” as Davis’ character gave Meryl Streep the what-for over Streep’s well-intentioned meddling? Well, multiply that by 100. Someone get Davis – and the audience – a gilded box of Kleenex, stat.

Washington just can’t compete with Davis, though he does credible work as both director and actor creating presence and ambience that linger well after the final credits roll. I have long suspected that an actor cannot direct him or herself with full objectivity, and I fear that is a bit of the problem with this film. Davis and Washington won Tony awards for playing these very roles on Broadway a few years back, and Washington no doubt was confident he could effortlessly transfer his performance from one medium to the other. I think an outside perspective may have helped eliminate the trademark Denzel twinkle that runs the risk of sinking his performance with hambone indulgence. YET, Denzel is playing a character whose Achilles’ heel is self-indulgence, so it is difficult to parse what may be an actor’s trap from what is compelling characterization.

Wilson’s play, which he adapted for the screen before his death, is a meditation on mortality, racial marginalization, gender identity, socioeconomic restrictions, and the very nature of family. The “fences” in the title are ubiquitous, sometimes physical as in the fence Troy is building around his backyard, but often they are metaphorical. The characters’ true inner natures conflict with their projected personae and their deepest desires, boxing them in with unfulfilled potential. If there ever was a movie about dreams deferred, it is this one, whether it is Troy’s stunted career as a professional athlete or Rose’s desire for a peaceful nuclear family or their son Cory’s pursuit of a football scholarship which is sadly and predictably derailed by the egomania of his father.

Jovan Adepo is thoughtful and engaging if unremarkable as Cory, and Russell Hornsby leaves a more haunting impression as Lyons, Troy’s troubled son from an earlier relationship. Mykelti Williamson is playing to the cheap seats as Troy’s war-vet brother Gabe. Gabe’s closed-head injury provides a steady stream of government income to the Maxson family, and Williamson’s characterization provides a steady stream of cringe-worthy moments for the audience. The character may have worked ok as a plot device in the mid-80s when Fences was originally conceived, but today Gabe just comes off as an obvious plot device and a rather tone-deaf one at that. Stage vet Stephen McKinley Henderson (also making the transfer from the Broadway revival to the film version) is by far the strongest supporting player as Troy’s confidante and co-worker Jim Bono. Like Davis, Henderson imbues the proceedings with an authenticity and an integrity that the other players can’t quite nail. The script’s rat-a-tat interplay rolls effortlessly off Henderson’s tongue, yet he is strongest in the too-few quiet moments (I wish there had been more – this is a talky piece), conveying a world of hurt with a flick of his eyes as he listens to and observes the Maxson family deteriorate around him.

I admit that I have never seen the play Fences on stage, and I am curious how a theatrical presentation illuminates the piece’s more esoteric themes. As my mom noted after our viewing, there is a King Lear quality to Troy’s character arc – a “man without a country” vibe that Washington gets within a hair’s breadth of achieving. Monologues that are likely lightning rods of plainspoken existentialism onstage are muddled in the need to open up more cinematic vistas. The film does its work maintaining an oppressive sense of claustrophobia, but doesn’t quite reach the levels of caged ferocity I suspect the play might.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We are living in a moment where race and gender politics are more heated than ever, and people feel attacked on all sides just for being themselves. Fences comes at an interesting time, and it will be noteworthy to see how audiences embrace the film and its narrative. Throughout the first act, Viola Davis’s character often tries to get Troy to accept son Cory’s hopes and dreams of a better future by insisting that “the world has changed.” During our particular showing, that line received a vocal reaction from the incredulous and world-weary audience, a sound that hovered between a gasp and a guffaw.  I have to admit that hearing a screen character from 1956 express a sentiment that 60 years later rings so hollow gave me pause as well.

Neither playwright Wilson nor director Washington condescend to their subject matter, and Fences resists the urge to marginalize its creations by pushing them to melodramatic extremes. Rather, the film shows us our own humanity by detailing the very real life – both tragic and hopeful – occurring behind every front door on every neighborhood block. Praise be.

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Thanks to my loving and lovable parents for this early birthday surprise …

Thanks to my loving and lovable parents for this early birthday surprise!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Florence Foster Jenkins

[Image Source: WIkipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Sometimes Hollywood just makes sweet movies. Not often. Just sometimes. These are the movies that you remember from your youth, not completely great films, but kind-hearted ones where people’s common humanity is celebrated, where decency is rewarded, and where foibles are accepted and embraced, not pilloried in some sort of zero-sum football match – loving, slightly creaky movies you would have discovered at the far end of the television dial, some weekday afternoon, when you were home from school sick with the flu.

Two such movies are rolling through your local cineplexes now, quietly charming audiences in the shadow of more cynical, merchandisable fare like Suicide Squad. I happened to catch Florence Foster Jenkins and Pete’s Dragon in a double feature on a warm summer weekday afternoon, no flu required, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps surprisingly, Pete’s Dragon is the much stronger film. The original 1977 Disney film combined one-dimensional animation, even more one-dimensional performances (who thought Helen Reddy was a good idea?), and treacly songs (“Candle on the Water,” anyone? nah, I didn’t think so) into a forgettable diversion consistent with the Mouse House’s lousy Me Decade offerings (Apple Dumpling Gang … blech).

The new Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery wisely jettisons everything from the original flick, save the boy and his dog … er … dragon conceit, giving us a smart and deeply affecting parable on ecology, tolerance, and the healing power of companionship. Pete (played with a feral wariness by Oakes Fegley) is orphaned in an unidentified Pacific Northwest woods when his parents run the family station wagon off the road to avoid hitting a deer (Bambi’s revenge?). Pete is discovered by large, green, furry, canine-like dragon whom Pete quickly names Elliot, after a puppy in a beloved book Elliot Gets Lost. (I said the movie was good; I didn’t say it was subtle.)

Years pass, and Pete and Elliot carve out a pastoral existence, spending their days at play in the woods, sheltered at night in a cave filled with the discarded refuse of humanity (think The Black Stallion meets The Goonies). However, this wouldn’t be a summer movie without some narrative tension, and it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some wholesome, well-intentioned, plucky, small-town intervention narrative tension. Along comes Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, a forest ranger, instantly more believable than the thousand false notes she played as an opportunistic theme park executive in Jurassic World, fighting a losing battle against the foresting company owned by her own fiance Jack (American Horror Story‘s Wes Bentley – about as creepily cardboard as he always is). Pete’s curiosity about these Disneyfied people gets the better of him, he reveals himself, and, in a series of predictable plot points, Pete and Elliot are separated by (in order) hospital rooms, child protective services, and Jack’s skeezy, gun-loving brother Gavin (Star Trek‘s sparkling Karl Urban, who knows how to play a ridiculous cad without chewing too much scenery).

Lowery borrows liberally from the Spielberg school of mid-80s family film-making, and Spielberg himself was beholden to an encyclopedic obsession with films of his youth. One might argue that every Spielberg children’s movie seems to be trying to right any emotional damage that Old Yeller may have caused a young Steven. Lowery even wisely sets Pete’s Dragon in a pre-cell-phone late 70s/early 80s (never completely defined), when a child would see nature with wonder and not as a backdrop by which to catch the latest Pokemon Go creature.

Elliot, the dragon, is a marvel of movie design and animation, rarely exhibiting any of the jarring disconnects from reality CGI can sometimes cause – the work here is fluid and warm and fantastic and heartbreaking. Elliot never speaks and relays sensitivities the way a dog or cat might, through undulating body language and heavy sighs, sideways glances and guttural noises. Elliot is at once the film’s center and periphery, a guide and a protector yet also a victim of the cruel whims of serendipity and fate … which is pretty consistent with how humans treat any and all animals, in fact.

And that is likely Lowery’s point. Robert Redford is cast as Grace’s father Meacham, the town eccentric whose claims of meeting a dragon in the woods decades prior have fueled a host of urban legends and have alienated him from all but the town’s youngest denizens. Early in the film, Meacham foreshadows what is yet to come with the line, “If you go through life seeing just what’s in front of you, then you’re going to miss a lot.” Toward the film’s conclusion, when it’s pretty damn evident there is a dragon living in the woods, Grace asks her father to tell her what really happened all those years ago. Meacham looks at Grace (after relating how Elliot hates guns … thank you!) and says, “I looked at that dragon. And he looked at me. And we were at peace. Something changed in me that day, and I could never look at you or any other creature the same way again.” Yeah, I cried buckets.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Florence Foster Jenkins on the other hand may change the way any of us ever look at amateur singers or any other aspiring creative type again. Or not. Long before American Idol, people in this country treated singing competitions like gladiator sport. We applaud and cheer the Susan Boyles or the Kelly Clarksons who may defy our expectations with voices like angels, but we guffaw and leer at the William Hungs or Sanjaya Malakars for whom “pitchy” is the best compliment anyone can muster. We can be exceedingly cruel as a culture; the dark side of our Horatio Alger tendencies.

The film, directed in workmanlike fashion by Stephen Frears (The QueenPhilomena), is a wartime snapshot of the title character’s days and nights as a wealthy patron of the musical arts in New York City and as a woefully untalented vocalist with a shockingly tin ear. Alas, as portrayed by Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash, Into the Woods), Jenkins comes off (no pun intended) as rather one-note. Not unlike an episode of the aforementioned American Idol, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are making fun of Jenkins or celebrating her unabashed moxie. Maybe I’m a bit simplistic, but trying to have it both ways with a character who cuts a more tragic than comic figure could be mistaken for cruelty.

In fact, Florence, (spoiler alert) on her deathbed, asks her dutiful (yet dubiously motivated) husband St. Clair (portrayed with surprising nuance by Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant) if all this time everyone has been laughing at her. It’s intended to be a devastating self-realization. In fact, everyone has been laughing at her, including us. The film takes comic glee is showing how Jenkins’ simian-like vocalizations send audiences into apoplexy, so it’s a bit tough (akin to emotional whiplash) to suddenly invoke our sympathy after indulging our baser instincts.

That said, the film is a pleasant lark with more sweet than sour at its core. Like the BBC production it is, the film is a clutch of fussy mannerisms and pop-eyed reaction shots. Streep is as hammy as we’ve seen her in years, if her Julia Child from Julie and Julia had spent a long afternoon with her Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. Grant does a fine job complementing and contextualizing Streep’s performance (partly it’s the design of his role as Florence’s major domo and consigliere), and there is a lot of joy in watching him out of love, sweetness, and survival clear one hurdle after another, shielding Florence from the worst of her detractors and hangers on. In hiring a new accompanist for his tone-deaf wife, St. Clair delineates to Cosme McMoon (a pleasantly neurotic Simon Helberg, playing a soft-spoken variation on his Big Bang Theory‘s Howard Wolowitz) some of the more eccentric rules of the house: “The chairs are not for practical use. They honor those who died in them. Are you fond of sandwiches? And potato salad? We have mountains of the stuff.” Grant’s delivery, a perfect blend of pragmatism, wonder, and self-interest, should have been the tone the entire film took.

Regardless, if you are seeking solace from a summer move season filled with smart aleck mutants and half-baked sequels, frat boy comedies and nihilistic explosions, go check out the dragon  (and Robert Redford) and stay for the potato salad (and Hugh Grant).

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Bonus: If you missed this summer’s production of Xanadu, enjoy this video footage!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“My Love Will Not Let You Down.” Ricki and the Flash

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What are the odds that two movies in a row, which we’ve viewed over Labor Day weekend, are about failed and/or struggling musicians trapped in a pop-rock Ragnarok in the San Ferndando Valley?!?! Is the dusty, dingy Valley the new cinematic shorthand for a career in retrograde?

Last night, we suffered through Zac Efron suffering as pretty boy DJ with no club to call home in We Are Your Friends. And tonight in Ricki and the Flash, Meryl Streep (!) channels her inner Joan Jett as a rocker who flees her Hoosier home in pursuit of guitar god glory in the City of Angels, achieving neither top 40 success nor familial respect in the tortuous/torturous process.

Directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), Streep’s is the better film, though by a narrow margin (believe it or not – both flicks are worthwhile and an interesting double feature).

As a rock star, Streep with her bizarre hair braids and unconvincing tattoos is about as believable as I would be playing, say, Axl Rose.

As a failed rock star, whose abject heartbreak and hand-to-mouth hardscrabble anxiety are telegraphed in every blink of her limpid eyes and whose well-heeled Indianapolis-based family has given her the “Hoosier Hospitality” cold shoulder for their perceived abandonment by her decades earlier, she is pure movie gold.

In another era, the sudsy plot – with a side of Freudian mama bashing – would have been a B-movie tear-jerking barn-stormer for a Susan Hayward or a Bette Davis. A mother flies the coop on her three beatific babies and their hunky nebulously-though-fruitfully employed businessman papa (as played by Kevin Kline … who seems trapped in celluloid Indiana … wasn’t In & Out set in Greencastle of all places?). She lives in bohemian filth, playing nightly gigs at a sad-sack bar for the same half-dozen patrons, including a moony-eyed barkeep with a heart of gold. She loves/hates/loves the bassist in her band (a surprisingly charming and heartfelt Rick Springfield), and, one day, when her daughter’s husband walks out on her the way the mama had walked out on the family years prior, our heroine heads back to Indiana to set things right with her broken brood.

Oh boy.

However, Demme and Streep both acknowledge they aren’t working with the deepest narrative here, and they bring their A-game, supported by an exceptional ensemble, that also includes a luminous Audra McDonald as Kline’s second wife, a clear-eyed feminist in Yuppie dragon lady clothing. Her limited scenes with Streep crackle with the energy of two women (in life and onscreen) who have fought and lost and won an endless series of skirmishes in ‘Murica’s ongoing gender wars. I would like an entire movie of the two of them just talking … or reading the phone book … or smacking stupid dudes upside their stupid heads.

Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer acquits herself reasonably well alongside her mom. She doesn’t have Streep’s impish energy or insidious inner-life. Gummer is saddled with a lot of bed-headed moping in the movie, but her chiefest strength is in the quiet observation she brings to each scene. She has her mother’s presence but it is calibrated to silence as opposed to activity. Interesting to watch.

The film resolves its central conflicts as you might expect – a little contrived and a lot predictable. Regardless, with Streep’s deft character work and that of her cast-mates, you are so invested in these mixed-up souls onscreen that, while you know exactly what’s coming, you can’t take your eyes away from the journey.

The purest moment of unadulterated authenticity occurs early in the film’s final act when Streep stops her band in the middle of their set and appeals to the female patrons of the bar as to how crappy it can be to be a woman and a mother in this society. She rails against a world where you “miss one kid’s concert, one play and you’re an awful mother for life. Men? You can get away with anything…but not us.” This moment, in conjunction with her recent spicy turn as the Witch in Into the Woods, represents Streep’s zone – declaring hard-earned truth with passion and fury as a woman, as a parent, as a person.

At the film’s conclusion (yes, set at a wedding – shocker), Streep serenades the crowd with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” She croons …

At night I go to bed
But I just can’t sleep
I got something runnin’ around my head
Ooh that just won’t keep

In the silence I hear my heart beatin’
Time slippin’ away
I got a time bomb tickin’ deep inside of me
Girl all I want to say

I keep searchin’ for you darlin’
Searchin’ everywhere I go
And when I find you there’s gonna be just one thing that you gotta know

One thing you gotta know

My love, love, love, love, love, love, will not let you down
My love, love, love, love, love, love, will not let you down

In part, she is singing to those who’ve judged her rightly and wrongly – her children, her former husband, his new wife, the snooty wedding guests – but ultimately she is (and always should be) singing for one person: herself.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: August – Osage County

Susie Duncan Sexton

Susie Duncan Sexton

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 7 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Don Sexton

Don Sexton

Here’s a snippet from Roy’s review of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY: “Whether you have survived a combative Thanksgiving family get-together, navigated the treacherous waters of a matriarch playing ‘who’s in the will/who’s out of the will’ games, or discovered relatives colluding with perfect strangers to undermine some special accomplishment of yours, you will find something to which you can relate in this caustic, fractious, anarchic dramedy. (Hey, I’m not saying the terrible things detailed above have happened to me and mine … oh, wait, who am I kidding? Of course they have.)”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Mama’s Family redux … August: Osage County

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

No one can turn the knife quite like family. That seems to be the central premise of the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County.

Whether you have survived a combative Thanksgiving family get-together, navigated the treacherous waters of a matriarch playing “who’s in the will/who’s out of the will” games, or discovered relatives colluding with perfect strangers to undermine some special accomplishment of yours, you will find something to which you can relate in this caustic, fractious, anarchic dramedy.

(Hey, I’m not saying the terrible things detailed above have happened to me and mine … oh, wait, who am I kidding? Of course they have.)

The film is like an episode of Carol Burnett’s/Vicki Lawrence’s old sitcom Mama’s Family … if it had been co-written by Eugene O’Neill, David Mamet and Tennessee Williams … with directorial consultation by Ryan Murphy and David Fincher. The story is a bleak one with Sam Shepard, playing an alcoholic Sooner poet whose sell-by date has long expired, committing suicide and setting off a whole raft of fireworks as his drug-addled, cancer-stricken, chain-smoking widow (portrayed by Meryl Streep) tears through her assembled family of grieving ingrates and dopes.

Streep is a hoot, throwing vanity to the wind and not once making the critical error of having contempt for her spiky character Violet. She is authentic through and through, calcified by years of disappointment, betrayals, and brutality (both genuine and mythologized).

Julia Roberts as bossypants daughter Barb is Streep’s match, their scenes together crackling with sympathetic ugliness. I lost any affinity for Roberts ages ago, but it came back in spades while watching this entry in her illustrious career. She wrings comic gold from the sympathy/revulsion/love/hate she feels for her family, which also includes the very good Julianne Nicholson and the disappointingly so-so Juliette Lewis as her two sisters Ivy and Karen as well as a heartbreaking Benedict Cumberbatch as their cousin Little Charlie.

Rounding out this star-studded cast are Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale as Charlie’s parents and the three sisters’ uncle and aunt. Martindale plays Streep’s wry, equally embattled sister Mattie Fae. These two are so good and so believable, beautifully centering the proceedings which often threaten to spin off into absurd melodrama.

Less effective are Ewan McGregor as Roberts’ yuppified, simpering husband or Dermot Mulroney as Lewis’ yuppified, slime-bucket fiance. Their respective performances are phoned in and dull, lost in the nigh-operatic ACTING! cacophony generated by their fellow cast members.

Little Miss Sunshine‘s Abigail Breslin is rather pedestrian as the daughter of Roberts and McGregor, rising to the fore only once when she delivers a deeply-felt monologue about the “fear we eat” when we consume animals. Her character is a vegetarian, and the monologue, imparted to her family at the post-funeral dinner table, clearly is a metaphor for the vicious consumption her relatives do of each others’ souls. And the fact that they all behave like jackals, immediately ridiculing the young girl’s beliefs, compounds the imagery.

I haven’t seen the stage version upon which this film is based, nor have I read it, so I can’t play the pretentious “I saw it on Broadway and I know how it is supposed to be performed so the movie sucks” card. I do suspect, however, that the film struggles, as so many adaptations do, expanding upon the insular, claustrophobic, sweaty envelope that the stage experience can so brilliantly create for an audience. Do you keep these characters trapped around the dinner table, or do you have them cavorting all about Oklahoma?

Director John Wells, who has worked primarily in television, has a workmanlike approach that doesn’t do much to open up the material, but wisely he just gets the heck out of the actors’ way and lets them do their scenery-chomping thing.

I will also suggest – and this is a criticism of the script and its source material (both written by Letts) – that the third act suffers from some over-baked, soap opera twists that I found rather silly. These plot points do set up a zinger of a scene with Roberts and Streep and some ill-fated plates of catfish, but overall they left me scratching my head a bit. Ah well.

As relentlessly dark as this material is, the film is fun and mostly moves at a brisk pace. I don’t know how well the years will treat it. I suspect it won’t age well and eventually will seem like a quirky exercise in pulpy camp. However, in its moment with most of its cast at the peak of their powers, it’s worth checking out … and probably cheaper than two hours of therapy.