“August: Osage County”– Family Secrets and Lies

 “August: Osage County”, the Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, has been released as an Academy-Award nominated movie starring the incomparable Meryl Streep and an affecting Julia Roberts, together with a stunning supporting cast.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTYThe story is a disquieting look at the dysfunctionality of an American family with secrets and lies that keep coming and coming, when the viewer least expects them.

“August” opens in Osage County, Oklahoma, with an alcoholic academic, Beverly (the superb Sam Shephard), who likes to quote TS Eliot, interviewing a young Native American woman as a caregiver for Violet, his drug-addicted wife, who has  cancer of the mouth.  The cancer is most likely symbolic of Violet’s combative nature and the demons who are devouring her from within.

On a blistering hot day in August, Beverly sets out on his small boat and mysteriously goes missing. Beverly’s three adult daughters return to their family home, along with their husbands or lovers and their children, together with Mattie Fae, Violet’s sister, and her husband Charlie with their son Little Charlie (a grown man.)  Secrets and lies surround Beverly’s disappearance, the major plot in “August: Osage County.”

The family’s dark past is painfully brought into the light, not only as it centers on the dying matriarch but also on the three daughters who have tried, and failed, to find loving relationships.  Mattie Fae is as complicated as Violet.  Revelations do not heal but simply damage further.  Each character chooses to hold on to their own lies rather than face reality and all its consequences. The viewer is the silent witness to the family wars.

As in other roles in which Streep inhabits an unsympathetic character (think:  “Kramer vs. Kramer,”  “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “The Iron Lady)” her understanding of each role makes you understand how each of these characters became damaged as well as draconian.  None of them are one-note stereotypes but layered, subtle, and original portrayals. Some critics disagree, but for me, I couldn’t take my eyes off of what I consider a shattering, unforgettable performance by Meryl Streep as a mother from hell. Please share whether you thought Streep overacted or got it just right.

“Mud”– Channeling “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Mud 4

With its meandering pace, Mud embodies a Southern culture known for doing things slowly, drifting along the bayou languorously like “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” John Nichols, the director and an Arkansas native, grounds his film in authenticity through superb casting (including local teenagers), location, and a script centered on a believable coming-of-age story.

From gravel to mud to the swampy river, this feature film reminded me not only of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” but also of the Mark Twain novels, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  And that is probably why I couldn’t really give it an unqualified rave review.  Despite Matthew McConaughey’s endearing performance as Mud, a rogue of undeniable charisma and talent, along with superb performances by all the other actors, the story devolved from a neatly meshed puzzle to a predictable, almost laughable ending even with the excellent acting talent of Sam Shepard as a key figure at the end of “Mud”.

McConaughey’s magnetic, enigmatic star turn  as a drifter who knows how to charm his way through almost any disaster, drives the film but is not enough to make it a winner in the current Southern and Ozark genre trending in indie films today.  Only “Winter’s Bone”, for me, has that kind of storytelling virtuosity to become a classic.  Nonetheless, “Mud” is worth seeing for the actors’ performances, particularly that of McConaughey, who owns any role involving an effortlessly charming  rogue with a hint of danger underneath.

 

“Safe House”–A Safe Bet

It seems only fair to see a dick-flick after having recommended rom-coms for Valentine’s Day.  And did I pick a winner–my husband gave it a 10, which is very rare for him.  The movie is “Safe House” and it stars and is produced by the exceptional Denzel Washington.

No ordinary action-pic–although it has ample car chases, staccato bursts of exploding bombs, violent fights with guns and knives, and impossible jumps from one rooftop to another–there are still enough surprising plot twists to keep you surprised throughout.

The story is fairly routine–I think Bruce Willis starred in a similar plot in “16 Blocks”  –an ex-CIA operative gone rogue (Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost) and a clueless “nube” as the novice CIA agent, Matt Weston   (Ryan Reynolds) who has to guard Frost in a safe house and bring him to headquarters (to report to bureaucrats played by Sam Shephard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendan Gleeson).  An extremely difficult task for Matt since Tobin is captured in South Africa, and Matt has only been assigned there for little more than one year.

Denzel Washington superbly underplays his character, allowing his face to communicate what his life as a CIA agent must have been like.  Matt doesn’t know whom to believe, but has respect for authority and for the CIA’s integrity.  This film is part “Bourne Identity” and part Frontline’s “Dark Side” fictionalized.  As the viewer you will be reminded of quite a few spy thrillers especially Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy-based film blockbusters. The cinematography is several magnitudes better than the usual special effects.  One helicopter shot of their SUV speeding down a desolate road is a work of art, a beautiful abstract print in still motion.

What did I like best about this movie?  I wouldn’t give it a 10, but a much-better-than-average 8-to-8.5. It comes down to character development–and though this is first and foremost a guy’s action-packed blockbuster, there is something for the rest of us.  What do people sacrifice in service to the government that others don’t know about and don’t care to know anything about? Furthermore, when does that well-intentioned agent say “enough is enough” in a heroic exculpatory act in the name of his or her own integrity and personal life?  (Think “Fair Game” reviewed November 28, 2010). This film tries to deal with these questions–and it is superior to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” as well as others in this genre.  A superb cast actualizes the promise of the tale. The ending sets up the audience to expect a sequel and with this first narrative, I hope there is one.