August: Osage County (R)

4 Stars

Well folks, I’m not sure what to do.

It’s funny how much I feel inclined to dilute my true feelings in this review.

I’d prefer to say, ‘this is a thumbs-up, and despite a dislikable narrative, several well-acted moments and a perfect performance from Meryl add up to a halfway-decent movie.’

But that would be lying. And I feel it’s a disservice to the reader to inaccurately portray my thoughts.

I find August Osage insufferable.

I watch movies for three reasons. 1) To enjoy a story 2) To learn or, 3) To be moved by compelling characters in complex situations. AOC accomplishes none of these goals.

The narrative is a series of arguments like this:

“I’m trying my hardest!”

“No, I’m trying my hardest! You need to try harder!”

“I’m just being honest with myself!”

“No, you’re lying to yourself. I’m the one who’s being honest!”

And the whole movie is just one melodramatic argument after another. The dialogue is painfully theatrical throughout.

On a basic level, it’s a dramatic character study.

The opening scene is mildly compelling at best, but everything falls flat after that.

Meryl’s performance is okay. That’s the most I’ll give her on this one. I know I’m supposed to say she’s wonderful, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I never once pitied nor cared for her character, and am bored and irritated every time she speaks.

Which is why I believe this must be more appealing to women.

During an early conversation, in between a smattering of selfishly sad comments, Meryl tells her daughter, “You look like a lesbian,” because of her new haircut. She’s sneaking pills (in a cutesy manner) behind the daughter’s back, and in reference to someone she says, “Oh, he smokes a lotta grass,” with a knowing grin.

Is this stuff supposed to be funny? Or edgy? It’s not, and dull as all get out.

Oh and the pills clacking against her teeth, the gulping noises and the heavy exhalations that follow, all I could think is, “Christ when will this woman shut up?”

I digress to emphasize this point. The amount of audible lip smacking, cigarette sipping, tongue clacking, gasping, scoffing, gulping, pill clattering, throat clearing, harrumphing and sighing that comes from Meryl is abominable. I don’t know what the filmmakers were thinking with all the mouth noises, but it’s unbearable.

When something is said outside of an argument, the conversations are so articulate; the character interactions unfold like a novel. And it’s cringeworthy.

For example. Early on, Julia and Ewan are driving out to Meryl’s, Roberts says (and I’m paraphrasing), “Ah, the Midwest. It’s more like a state of mind, a spiritual affliction, like the blues…” This is hokey, over the top, and overwrought with emotion and nostalgia. People don’t talk like this.

When they arrive at the house, their daughter, Abigail Breslin announces, “I’m gonna grab a smoke.” Julia turns to Ewan and says, “She gets that from you.” Okay, her character’s fourteen years old and this has been done so many times it makes me sick. It’s just typical melodramatic bullshit.

Later on, Ewan and Julia have a screaming match while retrieving chairs from a storage shed. It reeks of choreographed cliché.

Here are the sole redeeming qualities of the film.

Julia Roberts is the cream of the crop in terms of likability and acting performance here. So is Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor (albeit quite soapy), Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson and Dermot Mulroney (despite the ridiculous character he portrays).

The catfish scene’s great. Any scene where Julia drops an F-bomb is decent enough. J.R. should audition for the next female superhero. She’s badass in this.

The interaction between Abigail Breslin and Dermot Mulroney is just nonsensical and so painful.

Okay, so he blasts Livin’ La Vida Loca with strangers as passengers in his red convertible rental, passes other vehicles in an obnoxious fashion, he’s been married three times, answers his phone during the recitation of Grace at a funeral dinner, plays fast and loose about his heavy pot smoking, AND likes fourteen year old girls?

Wow. Never saw that coming.

In retrospect, I think we’re supposed to like Cooper’s character, but he humiliates Breslin over her personal beliefs. Wasn’t he the one lecturing about meanness?

What is going on with the long-winded southern-twanged monologues from old women about hardships from their youth? I think they’re sitting at that dinner table for almost a half hour.

Where did the romantic notions develop about the Southern twang? It gets extremely tiresome early on.

The momentary violence that follows the dinner scene provides the only thrill.

Holy Hell, why would I ever want to watch this?

I simply can’t conceive of the value I’m supposed to derive from this film.

It’s as if between arguments, each character is thinking about the nuances of their individual relationships. As if they’re chambering poignant, articulate arguments in self-defense.

We get it: Each character is wildly different from the rest, struggling with their own dark and complex conflicts. But why would I ever care about these horrific people? I bought in as much as I could

I’m sure this is a very good play, but as a film it comes off like a soap opera and a colossal waste of my time.

But there are people that must like this, right? Is it women? Is that where the synapses get disconnected?

Although it weaves an intricate and confusing narrative, the cast of characters is too large to keep you familiar with their various complexities in between recitations of Meryl Streep’s monologues.

I hate her character. I really mean that. That’s not a character I care anything about.

I never cared for anyone’s plight though, and never came close to crying. I felt a ping of emotion when Roberts realizes Ewan’s not coming back. But I quickly realize how little it matters in the grand scheme of things

It’s all very dark, and the conflicts add up to compelling motivations, but I don’t care. I’m watching too much melodrama, high-horsing and sadness.

I spent ten dollars (with the new OnDemand prices) just to rent this movie.

I don’t enjoy tearing it apart, but must be missing something here.

As usual, I’m less upset about being duped into paying for a dull film, than the absurd idea that this would be nominated for best picture.

I guess there’s an audience out there for this type of movie, but it’s not me or anybody with similar tastes.

I’m sorry to say I dislike August: Osage County and wouldn’t recommend it.

While it’s not devoid of intelligent content, it’s a drab and dreary picture that’s ultimately, rather unfulfilling.

Defending Your Life (PG)

10 Stars

This is a ‘snoozer.’

Technically not a ‘sleeper’ hit, pulling $16M at the box office. Which, in 1991, is a lot of money, right?

Well, it’s money, we can agree on that.

Anyway. Now twenty-three years post-theatrical release, nobody remembers its existence. It’s a shame, really. That’s why I’m coining the phrase, ‘snoozer,’ a good movie everyone seems to forget about.

Because wow, this movie holds up.

I think it’s easier to watch Defending Your Life when you know the year it’s from. Even then though, the production design is spectacular. It’s easy to discern they’re shooting on a set sometimes, but it’s strangely enchanting.

First of all, this movie’s written, directed by and starring Albert Brooks as Daniel Miller. That man’s talent is underutilized. He’s a great actor, and Defending Your Life is an all-star picture that fires on all cylinders.

From recent memory, he’s great as Paul Rudd’s father in This is 40, and he’s just spectacular in Drive. In DYF he’s playing a much less antagonistic role.

An obvious and (what some may consider) dull comparison to make is with Kafka’s The Trial. Perhaps there was some inspiration there.

The script is reminiscent of a Woody Allen movie; each line’s meticulously written so there’s humor in every beat. Everything occurs for more than one reason, and it’s all very thought provoking.

Judgment City is one of the most intelligent and detailed depictions of the afterlife you’ll ever see.

The ‘attorneys’ (although they prefer not to be thought of that way) are the best part of this film. Lee Grant as Lena Foster (the prosecutor) and Rip Torn as Bob Diamond (Miller’s defense attorney) are stupendous. They establish a captivating back-and-forth from the get-go.

Grant’s role in DYF comes in toward the tail end of a long acting career. It’s her job to be the bad guy in purgatory, and she accomplishes this in spades, but Lena’s not without subtlety or nuance.

To use his own quote, Torn’s character is, “just dynamite.” He’s the most optimistic, lovable person and I enjoy seeing the loyal friend character; someone the protagonist (and the audience) can always count on.

Meryl Streep’s excellent also; her character exemplifies ‘affability.’ It’s the quality you recognize in all genuinely good people. She’s quick to laugh and can tell when someone expects her to, and she’s easy going; unfettered by worry.

Seriously, it’s quietly a masterful performance. This is the best role I’ve seen Meryl in.

Well friends, if you haven’t seen Defending Your Life, it’s a five star comedy with compelling characters, an intelligent narrative and some very touching sequences. Despite the predictable ending, it brought a tear to this humble reviewer’s eye.

But if you’re sensitive to spoilers stop reading now.

To comment on the aforementioned character of Lena Foster, it’s worthy of note because she’s intense and accusatory but you can see her feelings deep down. She wants Miller to move on from Earthly life, but she can’t force it on him. Ultimately, she wishes him the best.

In consideration of the inherent difficulty in world building, Brooks’ exploration of the material is vast and thorough. He put a lot of work into writing this screenplay, and it shines through in certain moments in an indirect manner.

For example, Miller asks where Diamond (Rip Torn) was the day before.

“I’d tell you but you wouldn’t understand,” Diamond says.

“Don’t treat me like a moron, try me,” Miller says.

“I was trapped near the inner circle of fault.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I told you…”

There are four main trial sequences, and instead of doing the exact same thing (having Diamond vehemently defend the merits of Miller’s choices) the stand-in utilizes a different defensive method by having Miller defend himself. This offers the viewer a greater variation in scenes.

And if the only option for pay-off is explaining it as nonsensical (literally), then so be it.

Another good example is during the final trial sequence.

I think we all know what’s coming when Foster shows the clip of the night before, a scene from the lobby of Julia’s hotel. Perhaps Brooks recognized the potential for cheesiness ahead of time, and wrote the following exchange as a precautionary measure.

Foster brings up the clip and Rip Torn objects.

“I was told we’re not doing that anymore,” Diamond says.

“No one told you that,” a judge responds.

It’s hilarious, nonsensical and completely out of left field, but it works! It’s a great joke, and totally justifies the placement of the scene.

Which transitions into my sole criticism of the film. It’s a bit predictable. But that’s fine, given the unbroken flow of well-rounded moments provided along the way.

It’s illustrative of a larger truth. A well-thought out story can be efficient. The ending doesn’t have to be spectacular for us to buy in. It can be satisfactory if the ride was even more so to get there.

Defending Your Life reminds us that great screenplays can often be great enough.

There’s still one thing that baffles me:

Why isn’t it out on Blu-Ray?