August: Osage County

Oscar bait. But Academy voters were smart enough to only nominate the film in two acting categories. Whether or not they’re deserved is another story altogether.

‘August: Osage County’ stars every important actor known to mankind – Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis and that’s maybe half of the cast. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tracy Letts, the film presents us with an estranged Oklahoma family of intellectuals that gets together after the patriarch’s death and must deal with their various strained interpersonal dynamics. 

I haven’t seen the play, so I can’t offer a critical comparison between the film and the play, but I do know that the play is about three hours long. The movie version of ‘August: Osage County’ runs at 121 minutes. Mathematically, the film represents about two-thirds the runtime of its source material. This leads me to believe that a vital section has been stripped away – whatever it is that makes these characters even moderately credible in the play is gone. There was only one character that registered and non-coincidentally, this was the lone character who demonstrated any kind of decency. I’m not saying that movie worlds should only be inhabited by decent-hearted types. But, there has to some acknowledgement of their behavior, or some complexity to these (preferably layered) characters. There isn’t a rooting interest here as we listen to these loud (11 on a 10 scale), shrieky, draining arguments amongst the members of the most dysfunctional family in modern cinema.  The play’s lengthier runtime probably allowed for more richness to the characters.

Director John Wells, whose previous lone feature was ‘The Company Men’ takes the William Freidkin approach in adapting a story involving a struggle for power within the confines of a domestic space. However, Friedkin was always able to create tension with the material; Wells just turns it into an overcooked mess. 

There is a big reveal towards the end of this picture that had me shrugging my shoulders; I just didn’t care. And that is mainly because I found 90% of the characters to be completely loathsome 100% of the time. What we get is a series of well-written verbal jousts for people who do not exist, have never existed, and will never exist. There is no universality to this material; no emotional connection. What’s in abundant supply, however, is a number of showy, go-for-broke performances from a gifted ensemble. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough. QED. 

Lone Survivor


My first review of 2013 was ‘Movie 43’ – for the record, I called it the worst movie of the year and possibly the century (and hopefully the Razzie voters do too).   Imagine, then, my surprise in what is known to be the cinematic wasteland of January when I watched ‘The Lone Survivor’. I wasn’t expecting a disaster, but Peter Berg’s adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s book was better than I could have possibly hoped for. It’s a remarkably good picture – one that is inspired by true events; in particular, the 2005 Navy SEAL operation that went horrifically wrong.

The opening of ‘The Lone Survivor’ is the film’s weakest segment; it struggles a little to find its footing. We see what is essentially a SEAL recruitment video illustrating a rigorous training exercise with a less than subtle score composed by Explosion in the Sky. The score here is nearly identical to one in a pervious Peter Berg film, ‘Friday Night Lights’, also composed by Explosion in the Sky. Any positive message one derives from this recruitment segment is obliterated shortly thereafter. 

The initial phase of this (or really any) combat picture consists of cocky banter, talks about wives and girlfriends back home, and a lot of macho posturing. The operation is designed to disrupt Anti-Coalition Militia activity in northern Afghanistan through the killing of a local Taliban leader responsible for the deaths of various U.S. military personnel. A four-man team of SEALS ends up being ambushed by Taliban fighters. The book’s author, the NAVY Hospital Corpsman, was the lone survivor of this failed mission that took the lives of 19 men (a Chinook helicopter was shot down and resulted in 16 casualties). Marcus Luttrell is played by Mark Wahlberg; the remaining team members are played by Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Taylor Kitsch. The performances are excellent, particularly Mark Wahlberg – he is one of our most reliable actors working today without making a big fuss about it. His tough exterior combined with an internal vulnerability makes him the perfect conduit for a human being amidst an inhuman scenario.    

The shaky-cam effect of the action sequences only adds to the visceral intensity of the picture. Those sensitive to such bouncy camerawork may want to take a motion sickness pill beforehand. The spoiler included in the title doesn’t deplete the film of its suspense; oddly enough, it increases the level of tension as we know our worst fears are to be realized. What I took from the experience was the courage and brotherhood of these combatants. This is arguable, but I believe the mission that claimed the lives of these men was in the service of nothing. And as these men execute their mission, they aren’t discussing the philosophical or political implications of what they’re carrying out; they’re looking out for each other. On the ground, the life of their fellow brethren is all that matters.  QED.