Oscars 2014: August: Osage County

(It’s 10:30pm right now so hopefully I can finish this before midnight to keep with my one post a day goal!)

Another film down in my aim to watch all movies nominated for Oscars in the major categories before March 2nd! Today I’ll be giving you my thoughts on August: Osage County, which is nominated for Best Actress (Meryl Streep) and Best Supporting Actress (Julia Roberts). The movie is based on the Tony Award-winning play that I somehow never got around to seeing on Broadway.

Quick Synopsis– August: Osage County is the story of one week in the lives of a very dysfunctional family. Streep plays Violet, the matriarch of said family, whom everyone gathers around when her husband has gone missing, and is later found dead of suicide. Violet is a self-admitted drug addict with a vibrant rage that can turn on a dime. Roberts plays her eldest daughter, Barbara, who has been estranged from her mother for years. Throughout the days everyone spends together, tempers flare and secrets are revealed.

Thoughts– Okay, I’m really going to try to avoid major spoilers here. My gut reaction after I finished watching the movie was, “Wow, what powerful performances!” But after I let it sit for awhile the film just kind of… floated out of my mind. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy what I was seeing, and every actor on screen was at the top of their game, but for whatever reason, the film as a whole didn’t overwhelm me. I can absolutely see why it mesmerized people as a play; to be in the same room and feel the energy coming off of the actors in those roles must have been a simply intoxicating audience experience. But thought the camera something is lost, and I’m not familiar enough with the source material to exactly describe why.

Meryl Streep, who is always amazing, is of course amazing here, but what I really love about her performance is how dirty it gets. She is not afraid to crawl in through the grime of Violet’s soul and really let some demons fly. Her vocal work alone here is stunning. Like I said, she’s always great, and I expected nothing less. Julia Roberts though… I went on her IMDB page to figure out just what the last Julia Roberts movie I saw was. Negating Mirror Mirror (which everyone really should, as it was shit), the last Julia Roberts movie I saw was Oceans Twelve in 2004!!! (I also saw her in Closer that same year.) I never got around to seeing Charlie Wilson’s War, purposely avoided Valentine’s Day and Eat, Pray, Love, and forgot Larry Crowne was even a thing until I clicked on the link. It’s been 10 years since Julia Roberts has really made any kind of impression on me and, dear God, is she good. I haven’t seen Erin Brockovich in years but her performance here blows what I remember out of the water. Talk about playing in the dirt. She is disheveled, almost gargoyle-esque at one point, every emotion on display. Please, please, please. See this movie just for her, to remind you what a force she is. You will not be able to tear your eyes away from her.

The rest of the cast is also terrific, across the board, but I want to pull out three people in particular. Margo Martindale has always been a wonderful supporting actress, and she’s finally been getting the recognition she so rightfully deserves in the last few years. She is fantastic here, oscillating between ease and tension within seconds. Chris Cooper, as her husband, plays one of the only truly warm people in the entire movie, and his quiet presence is at first mistaken as weakness until later in the film when he shows how strong he can be. It wasn’t until I was writing his name right now that his rap from The Muppets even entered my mind. Finally, there is Julianne Nicholson whom, I have to admit, I only recognized from that terrible Brittany Murphy movie Little Black Book. Yikes. She plays the youngest sister, Ivy, who never left the town she grew up in and is finally deciding to stand up for the life she wants to lead. I don’t want to give anything, but the scene towards the end between her, Violet, and Barbara was probably my favorite scene in the entire movie, all thanks to those three women really forcing each other to up the stakes with every line.

(I want to give a special shout out to Benedict Cumberbatch who really isn’t given much to do, but makes quite an impression in the very few scenes he has.)

There are so many themes running through this movie that I don’t think I should really get into all of them, but I did want to discuss one that really struck out at me: becoming our mothers. Violet’s mother was a taunting, reckless woman who didn’t seem very concerned at all for her daughters’ happiness or even safety. Violet monologues about what a better life she’s given to her daughters but in the end, she is also taunting and destructive, and she doesn’t have a single healthy relationship with any of her offspring. Neither does her sister for that matter. Finally, for as much as she loathes her mother and resents her childhood, Barbara lashes out at her daughter in a way that directly parallels how her mother treats her. In the world of August: Osage County, we are fated to carry on the sins of our parents, and to have those relationships influence everything. Karen, played by Juliette Lewis, the middle daughter, is desperately seeking her mother’s approval, and so she turns a blind eye to the flaws of her fiance, determined that something will work out for her, for once in her life. It’s an interesting construct that is never played too heavy-handedly.

The writing was superb. The original playwright adapted his script and, aside from one scene where Barbara and her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) argue about the word “forsook,” it doesn’t really seem as if it was intended for the stage. Still, and I can go on and on about the performances forever, there was still something missing in the end. I guess when it comes down to it, I’m left wondering why it was adapted into a film. The direction didn’t bring anything new to the table and, as thrilled as I am to have these actors on tape, the story of this family seems meant for the immediacy of live theater. The camera does nothing except show us what is there. Compare that to 12 Years a Slave where what or how the camera chose to show you every shot directly influenced how the audience themselves felt. I was captivated by that movie; in August: Osage County, although the acting thrilled me, I simply felt like I was being kept at arm’s length.

(11:36pm: made it!)


Oscars 2014: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

“12 Years a Slave” was the first Oscar nominee I watched this awards season. Now I don’t want to make a judgment about the other films that I haven’t seen yet, but after seeing this I can’t imagine why American Hustle swept the Globes instead of this film. But I’ll get more into that after I see Hustle.

Quick Synopsis– “12 Years a Slave” is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, who was a free man living in the north with his wife and two children before he was kidnapped, brought south and sold into slavery. The film documents his time as a slave, as well as his struggle to keep believing that he will one day see freedom again as he endures countless, unbearable hardships.

Thoughts– In my opinion, this movie has all the makings of a Best Picture winner. Or at least the tropes. It’s an inspirational (1) historical (2) biopic (3) based on a book (4) about a man facing extreme suffering (5). Whew! But honestly, it’s a great film. As excruciating as it is to watch, you can’t tear your eyes away. The acting across the board is superb; the pacing is deliberate but entrancing; and the film stays with you long after you leave it.

Steve McQueen is a fearless director here. He uses every tool in his arsenal to keep the audience as close to Solomon’s suffering as possible, and it works. I felt like I didn’t breathe for the entire length of the film. Chiwetel Ejiofor is just as fearless, and every new pain seems different and deeper than the one that came before it. His relief at being freed at the end is beautiful, and I dare you not to weep. His journey is long, but his performance is never anything less than 100% committed. Michael Fassbender, playing Solomon’s seriously sociopathic second master, is terrifying and unpredictable. The tension between him and Ejiofor is fantastic and stomach-churning. Lupita Nyong’o plays the object of Fassbender’s obsession (to the ire of Sarah Paulson, his wife). Her desperate plea to Solomon is heart-wrenching. I know I’ve used way too many adjectives here, but I seriously cannot describe this film positively enough. Like I said before, I can’t imagine any film besting this one in my opinion, but it’ll be interesting to watch them try!

I’ve heard people say that it didn’t do very well at the Globes (taking home the top prize for Drama but none of the acting or directing prizes) because it’s too difficult to sit through. I call bullshit on that. Yes, it is difficult to sit through. But it’s important to sit through. Human suffering shouldn’t be easy to watch. For too long in American cinema, slavery has been a supporting character  to the Civil War or simply breezed past… It’s beyond time for a major film to deal with it in an honest, brutal way. Slavery was a major part of our country’s history and we need films like “12 Years a Slave” to spark a conversation, and to continue to help heal our country (because if you think racism is dead, get to know more people and go to more places). I know I promised no more pretension, but I can’t help it here. Everyone should watch this movie, and everyone should be talking about it.

Oscars 2014

I say it every year, but this year I am really going to make an effort to watch all of the Oscar nominated films from the top categories that I can. So far it’s not going too well, but I still have a little less than 6 weeks. Here’s what I’m planning to watch:

“12 Years a Slave” (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay)
“The Wolf of Wall Street” (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay)
“Captain Phillips” (Best Picture)
“Her” (Best Picture, Original Screenplay)
“American Hustle” (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay)
“Gravity” (Best Picture, Director, Actress)
“Dallas Buyers Club” (Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay)
“Nebraska” (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay)
“Philomena” (Best Picture, Actress, Adapted Screenplay)
“Blue Jasmine” (Best Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay)
“August Osage County” (Best Actress, Supporting Actress)
“Captain Phillips” (Best Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay)
“Before Midnight” (Best Adapted Screenplay)

I didn’t include any of the Animated Features because none of them besides “Frozen” (which I’ve already seen twice) appeal to me, and “Frozen” is pretty much a sure bet to win. “Let it Go” better win for best original song too!

I’ll update more as I accomplish these.