Tuesday, January 7, 2014

August: Osage County

At the end of each year it has become the fashion for movie critics to list their top ten best movies of the year, and to also rate their top ten worst films of the year. It says something about August: Osage County, that the film has probably made it on to as many best lists as it has on to lists of the worst films.

I think I can understand why. This is not a film that you can ‘enjoy’ in the accepted sense of the word. Watching the dysfunctional family at the centre of August: Osage County, implode in spectacular fashion is not fun – even though the film is classed as a comedy/drama. As family secrets are painfully revealed during the course of the film, characters are sucked deeper and deeper in a mire of their own making.

Meryl Streep heads an ensemble cast that also features Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch and several others in this film adaptation of the Tracy Letts Pulitzer Prize winning stage show. Letts also wrote the screenplay for the movie.

A digression. Many years ago, when I was fantasizing about being a writer, I used to buy a magazine for aspiring writers called appropriately enough, The Writer. Of the hundreds of articles I read in the magazine over a period of several years, only one has stuck in my mind, and of that article only the general theme remains with me. The article was headed, Where’s The Magic? The author of that piece, whose name of course I’ve long forgotten, suggested that every piece of writing had to have at least one moment of ‘magic’ in it. Not the abracadabra kind of magic, but the kind that would make a scene, or piece of dialogue, or action sequence really jump off the page. It was, and still remains great advice that can be applied across a wide range of artistic and creative endeavours.

August: Osage County, has magic by the truck load. And most of it is delivered by Meryl Streep. There are moments in the film when you watch Streep in action and you say to yourself, “There goes the Oscar for Best Actress again!”

A brief synopsis (minus spoilers) courtesy of Wikipedia follows:

Sisters Barbara, Karen, and Ivy Weston (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson) are called back home when their father, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), goes missing. They have kept their distance from their mother Violet (Meryl Streep) because she has become addicted to pills and loaded up on prescriptions after getting mouth cancer. The entire family gather for an awkward dinner, led by the high and brutally honest Violet. Barbara, the favourite daughter, hunts down all of Violet's pills and gets rid of them in an attempt to force her to sober up. Eventually, we learn of the sisters' back-stories…

The pivotal dinner scene is about to get underway
We also earn much about the lives of the other characters, and it is during these revealing moments that the real action takes place and the magic happens. As we have come to expect, Meryl Street is on top of her game as the matriarch who wields such profound power and influence over her brood, and other extended family members. Julia Roberts has never been better as the only person who seems able to push back against her mother’s “truth telling” and controlling behaviour.

Not all the members of this large cast get a chance to shine in the film. Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, and Benedict Cumberbach have small but important roles, but are overshadowed by the numerous female performances. In fact, the females in August: Osage County, pretty much steal the show.

By the way, is Tracy Letts working some type of ‘in joke’ on us here? While most people would consider Tracy to be a female name, Letts is a male writer, and I find it interesting that one of the male characters in the film also sports what many would consider to be a ‘female’ name, Beverly. I can find no reason to prove Letts is trying to slip one past us, but the thought has occurred to me. But I digress, again.

August: Osage County, was (mostly) filmed in Bartlesville and Pawhuska, Oklahoma, and the backdrops utilizing wide open plains and small town locations, add to the sense of isolation and alienation the characters in the film are experiencing.

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the trailer for the movie.

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