August: Osage County
January 16, 2014
Lone Survivor (** ½) R
Filmmaker Peter Berg’s adaptation of the bestselling book Lone Survivor is about what you would expect from the guy who brought us the 2012 box office underachiever Battleship. It’s credibly made and contains some truly harrowing sequences that effectively put the audience in the shoes of the film’s protagonists on multiple occasions.
On the other hand, it’s also hampered by a sense of heavy-handedness that offers little in the way of nuance or character development. This choice serves only to paint the heroes of the film in a saintly white light while making the pic’s antagonists look like exaggerated cartoon characters that wouldn’t be out of place in an animated 1950s short of the Chuck Jones variety. For all the film’s tense and exciting moments—and there are quite a few—I can’t help but think that Lone Survivor would have been more enjoyable if some attempt to humanize the characters would have been attempted. Fans of the book are likely to eat this up like candy. More discriminating filmgoers, on the other hand, may have a bone or two to pick with Berg’s filmmaking choices.
Mark Wahlberg has the lead role of Marcus Luttrell (Lutrell, in real life, is a former Navy SEAL who wrote the book Lone Survivor). Luttrell is the lone survivor of the film’s title (in the interest of spoilers, I’m assuming everyone reading this has some knowledge of the story’s outcome). In his portrayal of Luttrell it must be said that Wahlberg turns in some of his most emotionally resonant work in at least a decade and a half. I think one would probably have to go back to the heady early days of the actor’s career to even come close (think Boogie Nights). His presence lends credibility to the story that Berg is attempting to convey here and it’s a good choice for the material.
Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch & Mark Walhberg in Lone Survivor
The other actors filling the roles of Luttrell’s Navy comrades sent to assassinate a Taliban warlord—Taylor Kitsch, Ben Murphy, Emile Hirsch—do a credible job with the material that Berg gives them to work with. Unfortunately, the argument could be made that the actual servicemen deserve material that serve their memory a tad better than this cinematic version of their tale. The plot basically moves from A to B as the servicemen fatefully decide to let a few civilians live in the interests of keeping their record clean. Of course, this comes back to bite them once the Afghanis eventually turn them in to the Taliban and the men find themselves literally fighting for their lives.
I can’t help but imagine what a director like Spielberg or Brian DePalma could have done with material inherent in the Lone Survivor book, both of whom have crafted superior war films in their career. Peter Berg’s version is the kind of thing meant to please mainstream audiences, but I doubt that anyone will find little to fill their memory banks once they exit the theater.
August: Osage County (***) R
The film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ (Killer Joe, Bug; Letts wrote these plays and screenplays) Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage, County is a mostly successful stage to film translation, with one exception that has nothing to do with the play itself or the film’s star performances. August: Osage, County should please both movie audiences, with its star studded list of performers filling out the roles, and rabid fans of the play who will certainly be more than a bit curious to see how these A-list performers tackle this acclaimed material. The results in this area will more than meet expectations.
What might disappoint, however, is the air of staginess permeating the film for a good chunk of its running time. Director John Wells (The Company Men) too often lets his directorial urges take a backseat, to the film’s overall detriment. Director Mike Nichols, no stranger of stage to film adaptations (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Closer), is but one director I can think of who always managed to find a way to imbue these types of film with a cinematic feel. Someone like him would have been a much better choice for this thing. Wells is content to let the material speak for itself and it hampers the film as a result.
The plot of the film and play revolves around the Weston family. The matriarch, Violet (Meryl Streep), living in rural Oklahoma with her long-suffering husband (Sam Shepherd), suffers from cancer and pill addiction. Her life is thrown into a tailspin when her husband disappears, which requires her grown daughters to return home in order to help Violet through the current crisis. This leads to all sort of revelations which are best left to be discovered by the viewer.
The main thing to embrace here are the performances. They’re all good and it would be akin to having to pick your favorite child if one were forced to do so. It should be noted, however, that Julia Roberts, in this film, turns in some of the most potent work in her career. She even manages to outshine Meryl Streep, which is really saying something. Not that Streep isn’t good, mind you, it’s just that Roberts has such a handle on the character that she’s unstoppable. It’s also worth mentioning Juliette Lewis’ turn in the film as Roberts’ sister in the pic. It’s really good to see her being used in a film that utilizes her talents in a way that used to be commonplace for her.
August: Osage, County is fairly pleasing as a movie-going experience. For those who don’t frequent plays, it’s a good opportunity to catch up with the material and soak up some first class acting. In years to come, the film probably won’t be used as a benchmark in how to adapt plays to film, but it gets the job done.
August: Osage County opens Friday, January 17, in Hickory at the Carmike Cinemas and is already playing in Charlotte. Lone Survivor is playing in Hickory, at the Carmike, and many other area theaters.
Julia Roberts & Meryl Streep in ‘August’
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