Film Pop: August: Osage County

Year:  2013
Director:  John Wells
Stars:  Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis

As the Oscars approach (with the main bulk of nominations being released today in fact), I recently came to the conclusion that it’s about time for me to kick into gear and get up to date with some of the films tipped for awards. The number of new releases that I actually managed to see in 2013 was pretty woeful, but between now and the 2nd of March when the 86th Academy Awards will be played out I intend to get a little more familiar with the nominees.  August:  Osage County, adapted from the award-winning play of the same name by Tracy Letts, is almost guaranteed a couple of nominations and is an outsider for a few more.

aoc1In the titular Oklahoma county, alcoholic former poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is interviewing young native American woman Johnna (Misty Upham) for the position of live-in carer for his narcotic-addicted cancer-suffering wife Violet (Streep).  When Beverly disappears, Violet summons her family for support:  sister Mattie Fae and her husband Charles (Margo Martindale & Chris Cooper respectively), and the Westons’ three daughters Barbara (Roberts), Karen (Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson).  Strong-willed Barbara arrives with husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and teenaged daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and immediately tries to wrest control of the family from her ailing, matriarchal mother, powerful despite her illness.  Often-absent Karen turns up with her latest boyfriend, sleazy Steve (Dermot Mulrooney) who soon sets about grooming 14-year-old Jean.  Youngest daughter Ivy lives locally and is single (at least as far as the rest of her family are concerned).  Beverly is shortly discovered drowned, having gone out alone on the lake in his boat.  After the funeral and the late arrival of Mattie Fae and Charles’s son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), the family proceeds to break down both emotionally and physically.  After a series of explosive confrontations and revelations Violet is gradually abandoned by her family and left broken, crying in the arms of quiet Johnna.

Happy families?
Happy families?

August: Osage County has been described as a “black comedy”, but in truth there’s very little comic about it.  It’s a very dark film, with light points few and far between.  In such a large, star-studded cast you might think that it would be hard to pick out individual performances, but this isn’t the case.  Unsurprisingly Streep steals the show as deeply afflicted Violet, and is a shoe-in for at least another Best Actress nomination (although an outsider for the win to strong favourite Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine).  Roberts, Lewis and Nicholson all play their respective parts superbly, although Roberts is of course no stranger to the “fierce, independent woman” role.  A special mention goes to Benedict Cumberbatch (who turned out to be the reason my girlfriend wanted to see this film) for a solid performance and an American accent that I’m assured by my Kentuckian other half was decent but no Okie (I paraphrase).  To be brutally honest the film doesn’t particularly stand out as anything special, but it’s worth a watch as a decent drama if you’re prepared for a depressing 2 hours and you want to see Meryl Streep do her thing.  And if it does get that elusive Best Picture nomination that’s only a bonus.

My Rating:  7/10


Film Pop: My Left Foot

Year:  1989
Director:  Jim Sheridan
Stars:  Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker, Fiona Shaw

It might seem odd, but the reason I haven’t blogged in a couple of weeks is because I’ve been away from work – this blog was in fact born out of the necessity to fill my time at work, whereas at home I spend more of my time engaging in the activities I blog about.  I’ve been spending a lot of my recent hours reading, perhaps related to the fact that my accessible DVD collection had gone a bit stale, being cut off from the master assemblage at my dad’s house several hours away by train.  A painful visit therefore was tempered by the chance to pick up a number of movies I’ve been recently keen to watch; I’ve been dying to see My Left Foot for ages, and I’m more than glad I finally got round to it.

In this debut film from Irish director Jim Sheridan, Day-Lewis excels as Christy Brown, the real-life artist born with MV5BMTY5MTU1ODY4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzkyMDUxMDE@__V1__SX640_SY720_cerebral palsy and only able to fully control his left foot.  Adapted from Brown’s autobiography of the same name, the film shows the writer’s life up until the present day, where he is about to make an appearance at a charity event. Christy Brown is born, severely disabled, into a working-class Irish family in 1932.  His parents refuse to send him away, determined to bring him up themselves, although it is not until much later that his father (Ray McAnally) truly accepts him as one of the family.  Despite the family’s poverty, Christy is eventually upgraded from a barrow to a wheelchair thanks to the secret savings of his mother (Fricker).  She then introduces him to Dr. Eileen Cole (Shaw), who helps him realise his potential while giving him hope (wrongly, according to his parents).  Christy is somewhat overwhelmed by his new-found independence, struggling with drink and low self-worth.  Following the death of his father, Christy begins to write the autobiography which he is to present.

My Left Foot is an excellent film, even if it doesn’t exactly deliver the “story about life, laughing and the occasional miracle” that the box promises.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s an uplifting and inspiring account, but it’s nowhere near as cheery and upbeat as this suggests.  Unsurprisingly the plaudits belong almost entirely to Day-Lewis, who produces a characteristically involved performance which led to his first Best Actor Oscar (and a couple of broken ribs).  Fricker also gives a performance worthy of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and the film was also nominated for Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay at the 62nd Academy Awards.  Although the performances do perhaps overshadow the film a little (I myself picked up the DVD mostly to see Day-Lewis), it’s undoubtedly a good movie on its own merit as the inspiring tale of a man’s triumph over the adversities piled on him by birth.

So overall I consider My Left Foot to be something anyone should watch, as long as you’re prepared to journey through a rather dark tunnel waiting for the inevitable light at the end.  Daniel Day-Lewis’s turn as Christy Brown is certainly not to be missed and in truth is worth the watch alone, but aside from that it’s a commendable film on its own and deserves all the awards and nominations it received.

My Rating: 8/10

Film Pop: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Year: 2011
Director: Stephen Daldry
Stars: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the Oscar-nominated tale of a young boy coping in his own peculiar way with the death of his father in the September 11th attacks. Thomas Schell (Hanks) is always setting little challenges for his nine-year-old son Oskar (Horn) in order to teach him about life. After Thomas is caught attending a meeting in the World Trade Centre on “the Worst Day”, young Oskar is thrown into personal chaos, rejecting the affections of his mother (Bullock) to go on an epic adventure he believes his father intended for him. He is soon joined in his quest by his grandmother’s mysterious mute “renter” (Oscar nominee Max von Sydow), and the two journey throughout the five boroughs of New York in a seemingly impossible search for answers. They encounter a whole host of interesting characters (most of whom share the name Black) and learn a lot about life, each other and themselves.

It’s touching in parts, but a lot of the action seems unnecessary and perhaps the two-hour plus running time is a little too much for what it is. It’s also slightly annoying that, having no idea what the film was about beforehand, from the two names at the top of the DVD case I was expecting a little more Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Instead I was made to sit through two hours of a somewhat annoying kid and this had me a little put out throughout. Nevertheless, despite the somewhat heavy subject matter the film displays an optimism in the face of adversity that can only serve to inspire even if it is a little hard to relate to some of the issues Oskar seems to struggle with.

This film marks the ninth of ten Best Picture nominees from 2011 that I’ve now seen, coming somewhere in the middle of a decidedly mediocre bunch (Midnight in Paris, the one I most wanted to see all along, has still managed to elude me and will probably let me down when the time comes). It was adapted from the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, and as usual I haven’t read this (yet) so can’t pass judgement on that side of things. The theme of “child comes to terms with loss of parent” isn’t exactly an original one, but the approach is interesting and the emotive setting will certainly reach out to some perhaps more than it did to me.

So Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a little long and a little fantastical but I’d say it’s definitely one worth watching. At its best it’s highly moving, even if these moments are buried slightly too deep in dawdling drama, and at its worst it would be harsh to call it a bad film. Despite the feeling that I was tricked into watching it, it held my attention and came close to moving my emotions, which isn’t the easiest thing for a film to do. It’s not quite something I expect to watch again any time soon, but at least I don’t regret watching it in the first place.

My Rating: 6.5/10

Film Pop: The Hurt Locker

Year: 2008
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Stars: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty

So for my first review of an Oscar Best Picture winner destiny has placed in my lap The Hurt Locker, Katherine Bigelow’s critically-acclaimed Iraqi War drama. The film depicts the endeavours of an elite bomb disposal unit, led by notorious loose cannon Sergeant First Class William James (Renner). He is appointed to the role following *SPOILERS* the death of the team’s original leader in the film’s opening scene. Over the course of the movie, featuring a few gunfights and a few bomb detonations, Sergeant James gradually wins the trust of his unit (Mackie, Geraghty et al) despite a number of disagreements between his repeated efforts to get everyone killed and their ultimate aim of not getting killed. This is where I’d usually give a brief rundown of the plot of the film, but this film was essentially devoid of plot, deciding rather to follow a simple pattern:

Squad receives tipoff regarding IED → James dons suit and goes to investigate → tense standoff with suspicious-looking Middle-Eastern man → James does something outlandish and life-endangering → James successfully defuses bomb → repeat.

It may be telling that the part of this movie I most enjoyed was the (all too brief) encounter with the British soldiers, including Ralph Fiennes’ reprisal of his role of “English Guy stuck in Desert”. Maybe a film like this doesn’t appeal to me as a Brit nearly as much as to the Americans at the Academy who I get the impression are much more connected to their military. We barely seem to care about our own troops, so why would I be interested in the slow (boring) tale of a “maverick” American bomb disposal technician? On the other hand, my American girlfriend didn’t seem to enjoy the film any more than I did. Maybe it was because the plot was boring and the cast was boring (take a bow, Jeremy Renner).

Still, somebody somewhere must have liked the film, and I don’t begrudge them that; it was certainly well-made and some of the explosion scenes are close to breath-taking (although perhaps a big screen would have pushed this up a notch). I’m sure it’s a good film for someone who likes this kind of thing, but I’m also sure (this being my second viewing to be absolutely certain) that I’m not one of these people. It’s just that seeing essentially the same scene over and over doesn’t get me all that excited, however well-shot and “tense” the scene may be.

The movie ends with James, who used to be so excited by the thrill of war, coming home and realising that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be and he’d rather be at home with his wife and young child. If he’d been willing to listen to me, I could have told him this at the beginning of the movie and saved us all a yawn-inducing two hours and six minutes.

My rating: 5/10