Monday, February 17, 2014

August: Osage County [film review]

Released theatrically in January

The last time playwright Tracy Letts adapted a screenplay from his own work, it was for 2011's Killer Joe (which I reviewed here), a disturbing film that featured one hard-to-forget scene involving (*uncomfortable cough*chicken being used as a rough sex toy. Letts' newest screenplay is for the poultry-free August: Osage County, which is based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 play and directed by John Wells of ER and The West Wing fame. Winnowed down to two hours from the rural Oklahoma-set play's running time of three-and-a-half hours, the film abounds with powerhouse performances from an impressive cast that inhabit some exceptionally dysfunctional characters exploring the film's rather unpredictable storylines.

Meryl Streep leads the way as the foul-mouthed Violet Weston, whose husband (played by an always-solid Sam Shepard) has taken his own life shortly after the film begins, thereby setting up an unexpected family reunion as the Weston clan returns home for the funeral. Streep, in a bravely unglamorous performance, plays a character ravaged by the tolls of both a painkiller addiction and mouth cancer, although the latter is a bit of a heavy-handed metaphorical touch from Letts. Violet reveals her toxic personality in August: Osage County's first scene and the character scarcely lets up her vitriol dispensation for the remainder of the movie. The congregation of her immediate and extended family under one roof (where most of the film takes place) presents Violet with ample opportunities to carve into just about everyone who crosses her path with a measured, almost predator-like approach. The nastiest venom is saved for her three daughters: Barbara (played by Julia Roberts, who really shines playing her most meaty and least likable character yet) returns with her sullen 14-year-old daughter (played by Abigail Breslin) and estranged husband (played by Ewan McGregor); the flighty Karen (played by the reliably flighty Juliette Lewis) shows up with her slimy sugar daddy fiancĂ© (played by an also typecast Dermot Mulroney); and Ivy, the middle daughter who never moved away or married (admirably played by Julianne Nicholson with an understated approach). As great as Streep and Roberts are, and as standout as the film's centrepiece scene featuring a lengthy dinner involving all of the principal actors is, it's the scene between Chris Cooper (playing Violet's brother-in-law) and Margo Martindale (playing his wife) that emerges as August: Osage County's strongest, as Cooper's character gives a stern tongue-lashing to his wife for her constant berating of their bumbling son (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and the exhausting hatefulness that is the defining trait of the Weston family. The scene is relatively brief, but packs the greatest emotional heft I've seen in a movie in recent years.

Surprisingly, August: Osage County only rates a 58 score on Metacritic, indicating that what some considered substantial performances from actors armed with sharp dialogue exploring complex characters within a fractious family dynamic, others apparently deemed bombastic scenery chewing from a cast dominated by deeply unhappy and unpleasant characters. I understand the latter viewpoint (this is not a movie that's exactly light on both showy acting performances or unsympathetic characters), but fail to agree with it. Heed my advice and spend a couple of hours with this highly dysfunctional lot.

Rating: A-

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

U2 - Invisible [song review]

Released February 2nd

U2, in typically unsubtle fashion, debuted "Invisible" during Sunday's Super Bowl game with a flashy one minute teaser commercial for the track that directed fans to iTunes to download the song for free for the next 24 hours. Every download during that period resulted in $1 being donated by Bank of America to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which is affiliated with (RED), U2 singer Bono's charity. Over $3 million was raised, surpassing Bank of America's original commitment of up to $2 million, with a million downloads coming in the first hour alone after the commercial aired. As much as I was initially quite uncomfortable with my favourite band aligning themselves with a company from an industry as crooked as the U.S. banking industry, the highly worthwhile end result of the pair's venture helps ease that discomfort. A little.

"Invisible" is not a radical departure for the band: there's the familiar electronic elements (a keyboard refrain, electronic drums, and a strobing percussive beat not dissimilar to the one from "Beautiful Day"), The Edge's power chords and chiming guitars, and a fine vocal performance conveying Bono's defiant and uplifting lyrics (inspired by the band's early days as they struggled to find their identity and stand out in the musical crowd). As fairly "safe" as the song may be for the quartet, it's still damn good and inspires strong optimism for the rest of their highly anticipated new album, which is being finished up and is slated for a late spring/early summer release. It's certainly far better than the song they released late last year for the film Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, "Ordinary Love". 

Unorthodoxly, "Invisible" is not the album's first official single, just a sneak preview of things to come (and was chosen because "it's the first one we finished", Bono jokingly told USA Today in a recent interview). In another interview with the BBC following the release of "Invisible", he also revealed that the band wanted to return to smaller venues for their next tour and interestingly questioned the accessibility of "Invisible", as well as U2's relevance today. That the biggest band on the planet doesn't appear to be feeling complacent and sounds hungry to prove that the disappointing critical and commercial reception of their last release, 2009's first-rate No Line On The Horizon, was not the beginning of U2's downward spiral also bodes well for the upcoming album. All I know is that seeing the group in full-on performance mode once again in the commercial, complete with Bono doing a cocksure strut on stage that surely must add fuel to the fire for his many haters (and makes us fans love him even more), has me mightily jacked up for U2 in 2014.

Rating: A  

(February 12th edit: I replaced the one minute "Invisible" clip/commercial with the full official video that was released yesterday)

Related Mediaboy Musings posts: my September 2009 review of U2's Toronto show on their 360 Tour, June 2010 review of U2's 360° At The Rose Bowl Blu-ray, July 2011 review of U2's Toronto show on their 360 Tour, and October 2011 review of the band's From The Sky Down documentary