Variety – Toronto Film Review: ‘August: Osage County’ + New production still


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There are no surprises — just lots of good, old-fashioned scenery chewing – in “August: Osage County,” director John Wells’ splendid film version of playwright Tracy Letts’ acid-tongued Broadway triumph about three generations in a large and highly dysfunctional Oklahoma family. Arriving onscreen shorn of some girth (the stage version ran more than three hours, with two intermissions) but keeping most of its scalding intensity, this two-ton prestige pic won’t win the hearts of highbrow critics or those averse to door-slamming, plate-smashing, top-of-the-lungs histrionics, but as a faithful filmed record of Letts’ play, one could have scarcely hoped for better. With deserved awards heat and a heavy marketing blitz from the Weinstein Co., this Christmas release should click with upscale adult auds who will have just survived their own heated holiday family gatherings.

Onstage, confined to a creaking, cavernous old house that seemed variously a womb, a prison and a sarcophagus for those who passed through it, “August” consciously aligned itself with a particular strain of Great American Plays set in just such environs (including multiple works by Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams). Onscreen, gently opened up to include the big skies and infinite horizons of the real Osage County (where the pic was lensed), it suggests a more barbed, astringent “Terms of Endearment” for the Prozac era, with fewer tears and far more recriminations.

Once again, we are introduced to the Weston clan by way of patriarch Beverly, a melancholic poet (played here by an excellent Sam Shepard, in a role originated by Letts’ own late father, Dennis) who quotes T.S. Eliot’s immortal maxim that “life is very long” just before taking matters into his own hands: first by mysteriously disappearing, then by turning up drowned in a local lake. The ensuing funeral serves as a de facto family reunion, the previously empty house filling to the rafters with Beverly’s three grown daughters, their significant others and assorted relations. All have come to pay their last respects. None will leave without incurring the wrath of the widow Weston, Violet (Meryl Streep), a cancer-stricken, pill-popping martinet whose idol was Liz Taylor and who could be Albee’s Martha a few decades — and many rounds of marital prizefights — on from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

From all points they converge: Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest, with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and moody teen daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) in tow; Karen (Juliette Lewis), the youngest, who shows up on the arm of her supposed fiance (Dermot Mulroney), a sleazy Florida hustler with unsavory business connections; and middle child Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), whose big secret is that she’s sweet on her first cousin “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) — a secret, it turns out, much bigger than even Ivy knows.

Whatever else one may think of “August,” in Violet, Letts (who adapted “August” for the screen) has created one of the great, showstopping female roles in recent American theater — his Mother Courage, Mama Rose and Mary Tyrone, all rolled into one — and Streep plays it to the hilt, in and out of a black fright wig (to hide the character’s chemo-stricken hair) and oversized sunglasses, cursing like a longshoreman and whittling everyone down to size. Nothing slips by her, she says repeatedly. You’d better believe it. It’s a “big” performance, but it’s just what the part calls for, since Vi is something of an actress herself, craving the attention that comes with turning a solemn family gathering into an occasion for high theater. This may be Beverly’s funeral, but it’s Vi’s chance to shine.

Shine she does, especially during the long funeral dinner at the end of Act Two that is, as it was onstage, Letts’ piece de resistance. Streep is electrifying to watch here, goosing, prodding, meting out punishment and laying family secrets bare, surprisingly gentle one moment, demonic the next. And Roberts, who hasn’t had a big, meaty part like this in years, possesses just the right hardened beauty to play an aging woman let down by life, terrified at the thought of becoming her mother.

Wells, who is best known for having produced such small-screen phenoms as “ER” and “The West Wing,” does an impressive job shooting and cutting among 10 major characters, all of whom get their chance to engage Vi in verbal tango. He isn’t a natural film director per se (his lone previous feature, 2010’s “The Company Men,” was the earnest, corporate-downsizing also-ran to “Up in the Air”), but he understands what “August” needs in order to work onscreen, how to preserve its inherent claustrophobia without rendering it completely stagebound, and the result is far more successful than any more stylized “cinematic” treatment probably would have been. (Overall, Wells’ work here recalls the American Film Theatre series of stage-to-screen adaptations from the 1970s, of which John Frankenheimer’s “The Iceman Cometh” was the major highlight.)

“August” is the third Letts play to reach the screen in a decade, following William Friedkin’s films of “Bug” and “Killer Joe.” And if, on the surface, it appears to be Letts’ straightest piece (void of surveillance implants and fellated chicken legs), just beneath it may be the most violent and perverse. It’s a panorama of unfulfilled lives in which people do the most unforgivable things to the ones they (supposedly) love, mostly in an effort to feel better about themselves. What makes Letts an original aren’t his subjects so much as the foul, logorrheic, yet oddly musical way his characters have of expressing themselves. The people in “August: Osage County” talk the way we wish we could, and sometimes do, when some long-suppressed yearning or accusation wells up inside us — torrents of words batter and bruise only to arrive at some bracing, lucid insight: “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.” Or, “It lives where everything lives, somewhere in the middle.”

If Streep and Roberts have the roman-candle roles here, the entire cast is commendable, with Letts and Wells giving even the most seemingly incidental character (like the fine Native American actress Misty Upham as Vi’s live-in caretaker) a grace note or two. Lewis is a particular hoot as the daughter hanging on to her carefree youth with all fingernails firmly dug in, while Cumberbatch is very touching as the clumsy, unemployed young man whose diminutive name is one of Letts’ few overtly symbolic touches. (Also excellent: Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as Little Charles’ parents.)

Shooting in widescreen — a practical necessity with this many characters to squeeze into a frame — Adriano Goldman (“Jane Eyre,” “The Company You Keep”) beautifully captures the hazy half-light of a house whose permanently drawn window shades are mentioned in the dialogue. Indeed, it is a place where we can never be sure whether we are traveling a long day’s journey into night, or a long night’s journey into day.

Variety

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Oscars flip-flop: Meryl Streep returns to lead, Julia Roberts drops to supporting; ‘August: Osage County’ premieres at Toronto Film Festival – Reviews


Yesterday ‘August: Osage County‘ premiered at the Toronto Film Fest. Unfortunately, Meryl Streep couldn’t attend the event due to illness. [ Tweet] Below you can check the official reviews. Also here you can go through the tweets reviewing the movie once the screening was over.

It’s official: The Weinstein Co. has switched the Oscar strategy of the top stars in “August: Osage County“. Meryl Streep will remain in the lead race, according to one of the studio’s Oscar campaigners. But here’s the shockeroo: Julia Roberts will drop to supporting,

Back in early August, the rep told Gold Derby that Streep would compete in the supporting race, but Roberts would go lead. Then last week, the rep warned me that Streep could go back up to lead based upon reactions to early screenings of a new, final cut of the film. But the rep didn’t suggest that Roberts might be shuffled too.

Now it turns out that Roberts will compete against “August: Osage County” costar Margo Martindale, who portrays an award-winning role. The star who performed her character on the Broadway stage (Rondi Reed) won Best Featured (or Supporting) Actress in a Play at the 2008 Tony Awards.

The stars who held the original stage roles played by Streep (Deanna Dunagan) and Roberts (Amy Morton) were nominated by Tony voters in the lead race. Dunagan won.

Now Streep has been advanced by Weinstein Co. as the sole “August” actress competing in the lead race at the Oscars for this reason, according to the rep, “We have to look at the Best Actress race this way: Who’s strong enough to beat Cate Blanchett? It’s Meryl.”

But Roberts may not like too much the idea of being dropped to supporting where she must compete against Oprah Winfrey (“The Butler”), who – let’s face it – probably has that Oscar in the bag already.

Goldderby

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Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep star in ‘August Osage County,’ a December movie which got an early premiere in Toronto — and some early Oscar buzz (THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY)
 

“August Osage Country” had its premiere at Toronto tonight. The movie isn’t scheduled to open until Christmas, and this version was so new the sound mix still wasn’t quite done; as it was projected, the formidable Harvey Weinstein literally hovered off to one side of the theater, like a father proudly watching his baby take its first steps.

And then baby broke into a run.

“August Osage County” is a big drama, and some of its theatrics are as overheated as the Oklahoma summer it’s set in. There’s a death in the family, an uncomfortable reunion and a lot of screaming viciousness disguised as “truth-telling”; mom is a pill addict, her three daughters have their own serious problems, and few of the men in their lives seem to be able to stand up for themselves, let alone anyone else.

So basically it’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” crossed with a little “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But with some comedy, too.

It’s all very effective, although not particularly flashy or visually innovative. That, of course, is how Weinstein prefers it. Apart from Quentin Tarantino, edgy directors have never really appealed to him; Weinstein’s filmmakers of choice are conventional, dependably tasteful and solely determined to get a whole bunch of Oscar-worthy performances on screen and in focus. (For the record, the director here is John Wells.)

Almost everyone is great, but the best of the best is Meryl Streep, as the foul-mouthed, acid-tongued patriarch. And being Streep, she makes the part even harder on herself by doing much of it behind big dark glasses, hiding an actress’ greatest tool — her eyes. It’s like Serena Williams playing a match with one hand tied behind her back, just for fun — and still acing it.

Excellent, too, is Chris Cooper as perhaps the one truly decent fellow in the whole family, Streep’s brother-in-law. And the often underestimated Juliette Lewis is a delight as the flakiest of the three sisters, still trying so desperately — and vainly — to win her mother’s affection.

As the strongest sister — the only one to really go toe-to-toe with Mom — Julia Roberts is fine. But she’s not wonderful and it’s annoying — and obvious — how the film has been tweaked to accommodate the size of her stardom. She gets long, careful closeups; worse, there’s a completely unnecessary coda which detracts from what should be (and was, in the play) the final scene, just so the film can end with her onscreen.

Of course, to be cynical, the superfluous footage does more than that: By ending on Roberts, you announce that this is her film, and this is her best-actress race. (In fact, there have been reports — albeit constantly changing and contradictory ones — that the studio may push Roberts alone for a best-actress Oscar, knocking Streep down to the supporting category.)

I hope that’s not true, not because of who has the better chance in which race — unlike studio heads, I truly don’t care — but because of what’s fair. Cooper has a supporting role, and should be nominated for such. Lewis has a supporting role, and could be nominated in that category as well (she’s been an excellent, and under-the-radar actress for years).

But this is Streep’s movie. It is about her, and she owns it from beginning to end. And no matter what category she is eventually put forward for — and which, if any, Academy members choose to select her for — she is already a winner. And an undisputed champion.

TIFF 2013: ‘August: Osage County’ becomes an early Oscar fave

It’s undeniable that, at least on paper, “August: Osage County” looks like a can’t-miss proposition. PairingTracey Letts’ Pulitizer Prize and Tony Award-winning play with an outstanding ensemble cast ranging from awards-nominated veterans to rising young stars—Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham—it’s hard to fathom the material not working. And while the choice of helmer John Wells (“The Company Men”) might not seem like the most inspired decision, all he theoretically has to do is put the camera on a tripod and let the actors do their thing. And he does. And yet, ‘Osage County’ still turns out be an exhausting, screechy drama, in which a lot of very good actors work very hard, and yet produce so little as a result.

Following the death of family patriarch and celebrated poet Beverly Weston (Shepard, in an appearance that’s just slightly more than a cameo), the entire brood returns to the titular home to rally around their mother Violet (Streep), a cancer-battling, pill-popping woman. Arriving from near and far are Violet’s daughters Barbara, Karen and Ivy (Roberts, Lewis and Nicholson); her sister Mattie Fae (Martindale), her husband Charles (Cooper) and their son “Little” Charles (Cumberbatch); as well as Barbara’s estranged husband Bill (McGregor) and their daughter Jean (Breslin) and Karen’s new fiancé Steve (Mulroney). And as major family events like births, marriages and funerals tend to unveil, there’s a lot history to discuss, catch up with and reconcile, and over the next few weeks it will all come out in mostly painful and harsh showdowns.

Violet in particular seems to have an unending reserve of bitter, acidic observations and opinions to rain down on everyone she knows, and she doesn’t waste much time in getting down to business. At a family dinner after Beverly’s funeral is when the gloves first come off, in an extended scene where nearly everyone has a sharp spear of insult or indignation hurled straight at them. The Westons are hardly the Waltons, and it soon becomes clear that is just the tip of an iceberg of meanness and cruelty. The dinner is just the first layer of an onion of secrets, regrets, revelations and accusations that are yet to come, and while we have no doubt Letts’ original material won awards and critical acclaim for good reason, the translation to the big screen leaves much to be desired.

While seeing this on stage in a series of clearly defined acts likely gives the the story a different shape, presented similarly as a film, it leaves the pacing feeling particularly slack. Letts’ work contains frequent verbal bouts, and showdowns between various characters, but the staginess of the movie—particular in scenes that get stuck in one room for minutes upon minutes on end with different people shouting at each other—can be tiring, and certainly visually lifeless. Granted, we’re not watching ‘Osage’ for camera movements and slick sequences, and though the screenplay by Letts’ himself does open things up slightly, it doesn’t do enough inside the Weston home to knock down some walls have give both these characters and the audience room to breathe.

And sure, one could justify that choice as a metaphorical one, emphasizing the claustrophobia of the entire situation, but this a film that requires performances to carry what the isn’t in the (endless) scenes of dense dialogue. But sadly, for most of the cast, yelling every line loudly is confused with conveying emotion, sarcasm and/or depth, with several zingers completely missing the mark because any shaping of the lines is erased by sheer volume. “August: Osage County” is a film of big, wild gestures, plate smashing, screaming and tears, but not nuance, and it all has the effect of leaving one deadened, not moved. None of these characters are sympathetic, nor should they be, but we aren’t given a reason to personally invest, relate or even understand the depth of betrayals and bad behavior that has stacked up over the years. These are clearly people who don’t like being together, but yet the movie doesn’t give the audience a reason to want to be with them either.

But there are some saving grace notes throughout. Streep is at her Streep-iest, given a wig to wear, and allowed to look ugly, and she takes to sneering, emotionally volatile Violet with ease. She commands the screen and many scenes like she should, but has a great foil in Roberts playing Barbara. As the eldest daughter, who has to come to grips with her family history, as well as take the unwanted role of Weston matriarch, Roberts hasn’t been this good in a while, and that’s likely due to a role that gives her a lot of substance to play with. And a special nod of recognition has to go to Cooper as Charles, who delivers one of the film’s few genuine moments, with a wonderful, poignant rebuke of his wife Mattie that lays bare the ugliness at the core of the Westons.

As directed by Wells, he seems to have been almost too hands-off when it comes to his heavyweight cast. There is little in the way of craftmanship here—even the usually-reliable composer Gustavo Santalallaprovides a rather workmanlike score—and the film could’ve used a stronger hand in guiding the transition of the play to the big screen. There is a powerful cinematic experience somewhere in “August: Osage County” waiting to get out in the sprawling two hour plus runtime, but in seemingly staying too faithful to Letts’ work, the end product winds up playing almost like a supercut of Important Acting In Big Scenes, instead of a cohesive work of dramatic weight and thematic thoughtfulness. 

Review

It’s tough to decide if August: Osage County is foremost an insightful work about the dark, twisted, occasionally humorous nature of family, or if it’s good platform to showcase big performances.  Either way, it’s an engaging picture that features memorable turns from its stellar cast, especially (and unsurprisingly) Meryl Streep, and also throws together a complicated, abrasive portrait of a shattered family that can’t put the pieces back together.  They can only break into smaller pieces, and the only thing stopping the audience from breaking down is the black comedy permeating the family affair.

Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), the patriarch of the Weston family, has died, and his funeral has brought together his estranged family.  The pill-popping matriarch Violet (Streep) is joined by her daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis), and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson); sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her husband Chris (Chris Cooper), and their son Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Also along for the demented ride are Barbara’s daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), separated husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), and Karen’s fiancée Steve (Dermot Mulroney).  The only non-related person on the premises of the Weston house in Oklahoma’s Osage County is the new maid Johnna (Misty Upham) who is presumably relieved that she’s not related to this gang of lunatics.  Over the next several days, grievances are aired, secrets are revealed, and the strained relationships become even more complicated.

The Weston clan could be referred to as a powder keg, but a powder keg can only explode once.  The reunion is predicated on death and it doesn’t get much better from there when it comes to the prevailing attitude hanging over the characters.  Violet is by far the most damaged as she’s not only lost her husband, with whom she already had a tenuous relationship, but she’s a drug addict, cancer-stricken, and is mean down to her bones.  Her children have hardly any love for her, her sister berates Charles, Chris tries to play peacemaker, and on it goes.  There are, at most, two healthy relationships in August: Osage County.  The rest are predicated on grudges, deceit, and manipulation.  Separately, each of these groups had their problems, but bringing them together only highlights their issues and then exacerbates them.

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Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay),August: Osage County edges dangerously close to a melodrama with how far it takes the characters’ lives from bad to worse.  Some reveals are absolutely unnecessary, and only exist to further show how family relations could be construed as inherently and inescapably damaging.  The Westons aren’t meant to represent all families but instead provide an amalgam of issues that some families could face.  At the very least, they provide an utterly captivating freak show.

The deeply flawed characters are an actor’s paradise, and the cast runs absolutely wild with Streep at the forefront.  The only way Streep could truly surprise audiences at this point is if she gave a bad performance.  Violet is despicable, but Streep taps into the wry, funny, sad, venomous, manipulative facets of the character.  We can see how Violet’s ugliness could drive people away and yet her perceived weakness can guilt her children into staying close.  Streep doesn’t have anything to prove, but August: Osage County is further evidence that she’s one of the greatest screen actors of all-time.

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The rest of the cast does an admirable job of keeping up and finding their place in the script even though Violet is the juiciest role.  Barbara is a co-lead, but doesn’t really get to carve out a role until the second-half of the movie.  Once there, Roberts’ performance really takes off as we see a woman who is against her mother but also disturbingly similar to her.  However, until this point, Roberts’ performance consists mostly of giving Violet plenty of hardened glares.  At least when Barbara is finally unleashed, her wrath is worth the wait.  All of the other actors get their moments, but the main event is Violet vs. Barbara.

The large performances and outsized conflict is tempered by the dark comedy laced throughout the story.  Without the humor, August: Osage County would still feature interesting characters and worthwhile subtext, but the ugliness would be too much to bear.  The jokes are where the audience can come up for air, and Letts’ script deftly weaves laughs into even the darkest, most serious scenes.  A typical scene can feature hilarious, quotable one-liners and an absolutely devastating reveal.

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This emphasis on giving the movie over to the actors isn’t just by virtue of having a great cast, but is also the natural extension of having a stage play as the source material.  Director John Wellsmakes sure the movie never feels stagey even though its stage origins are always on display.  Most of the film is comprised of long scenes that take place in a single location.  The trick for Wells is managing the details like how long to hold a shot on an actor, if he should keep the camera on the speaker or go for a reaction shot, and where to place the camera.  This sounds relatively simple, but trying to move around multiple characters in a single location is incredibly complex, especially when it comes to the film’s centerpiece—a dinner scene following Beverly’s funeral.  The direction may not be flashy, but it’s pragmatic and lets the characters and themes come through.

The difficulties the Weston clan faces shows how family trauma is like a virus that spreads not only across generations but across all family ties.  At one point, Ivy questions the very nature of family, and how we’re forced together with these people not by choice but by birth, and that they’re allowed to have so much of an impact on our lives.  Of course, with the cavalcade of difficulties permeating the Weston family, that impact is greatly amplified to an overwhelming degree.

August: Osage County is a big movie filled with big emotions from big characters played with big performances.  Subtlety is not the film’s strong suit, but the performances make the characters come alive in such a way that you feel some sympathy for each of the Weston family members even if the character has far more than their fair share of personal shortcomings.  And while difficult emotions bubble beneath the surface of the story, and later explode into chaos, we can leave the movie with a smile on our faces not only because of the dark comedy, but because as dysfunctional as our families might be, at least we’re not as bad as these nutjobs.

Review

Goldderby: Weinstein Co. may push Meryl Streep back up to lead Oscar race