Thursday, 27 February 2014

August: Osage County

Once again, the major critics and I do not agree. They largely panned August: Osage County, noting primarily the exhausting, nuance-sacrificing melodrama involving too many characters whom we don’t care about. I understand these comments and agree that the film has numerous flaws. But I would argue that the film’s strengths far outweigh those flaws and that if you come in knowing that you are watching a two-hour film version of a three-hour play, August: Osage County is a thoroughly satisfying experience.

It is not a happy experience, to be sure, and there is very little by way of redemption, but it is nowhere near as dark as something like Happiness. Because the film is based on a play, it is full of intelligent dialogue, which I can never get enough of. True, the dialogue is often very loud and lacking in nuance, and some scenes fall flat. But for every scene that falls flat, there are three scenes featuring incredible acting and thought-provoking dialogue (some of it is even very funny).

August: Osage County tells the story of a very dysfunctional family, overseen by Violet Weston (played marvellously by Meryl Streep), whose husband commits suicide at the beginning of the film. Violet is a prescription-drug addict whose doctor acknowledges that the drugs may have caused some cognitive impairment. Sometimes she’s sharp, other times she is flying high, but always she says whatever is on her mind. Violet and her sister, Mattie Fae, had a traumatic childhood which no doubt contributed to their overbearing and spiteful personalities. Violet has three daughters, who suffer from their own problems, no doubt partially as the result of poor parenting. All of these people and their spouses, children and boyfriends show up for the funeral and things start to get ugly, with not a few secrets revealed along the way.

Despite Streep’s dominance, August: Osage County is an ensemble film, with a great cast at the top of their form (including Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others). Streep and Roberts were nominated for Academy Awards. They deserve the nominations but my previous votes were not altered by having watched this film.

I won’t argue that August: Osage County (which is directed by John Wells) is the most profound and moving film about family dynamics that I have ever seen. I suspect the play (written by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay) is better in that regard and I hope I have a chance to see it sometime. But the film offers a very good score and excellent cinematography, which a play can't do. For me, this film is far more interesting and entertaining than The Lego Movie, which the critics liked so much more. August: Osage County gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Broken Circle Breakdown

This is a film of contradictions – and as a Flemish bluegrass film, why wouldn’t it be? I loved it and was wasted by it. It is simultaneously a bit slow and intensely passionate. The central couple is intimate and supportive but they have trouble connecting when it counts. But mostly the contradictions live in the central character (played by the co-author of the original play the film is based on). 

This character, Didier, is a contemporary European atheist who comes alive most deeply in his love of spiritual American bluegrass music. When tragedy strikes (the film, which weaves back and forth in time quite effectively, begins with their daughter being treated for leukemia), Didier’s inner battle emerges in his anguish. His rant against religion (mostly fundamentalism but his critique is broad) is about as intense as you’re ever going to hear. (So don’t watch this unless you’re ok with your faith getting kicked in the head now and then.) But can you have that much passion unless you’re actually desperate to believe that the music you love is more true than you know? And what the heck are the filmmakers' trying to say in the last couple of scenes? 

This is a very impressive film – beautifully filmed, with great acting, laced through with awesome music (and I’m not normally a huge fan of bluegrass). And so I would love to recommend this film. But the last contradiction is that I can’t. I’ll give it ***+ and a mug held high, but don’t watch this unless your emotional seatbelt is fastened and you don’t mind no-holds-barred attempts to sort out a world of pain, reason, and faith.

The Lego Movie

I have noted with grave concern that for many years now Lego has steadily increased its production of violent toys, so the idea of sitting through a 100-minute commercial for Lego toys was not remotely appealing. On top of that, going to the opening-day screening of an animated blockbuster was also not my idea of a good time. But three factors made me take the plunge anyway: 1) the major critics have given The Lego Movie rave reviews; 2) I could tell this film was destined to be one of the highest grossing films of 2014; and 3) it was my only chance to watch the film before my next Media Matters deadline.

Unfortunately, most of my worst fears were realized. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film with so many mixed messages. What do you call a film that makes attempts at satirizing consumerism, the business world and even its own products and yet is obviously promoting the sale of those products with every single scene (virtually nonstop product placement)? And what do you call a film that beautifully challenges the myth of redemptive violence so prevalent in Disney animated films (and animated films in general) while feeding us an endless display of violent Lego toys in action, including multiple scenes of decapitation and of Lego people exploding or being crushed? The word ‘hypocritical’ comes to mind.

The Lego Movie tells the story of Emmet, an ordinary Lego builder who is focused on following instructions every minute of his life because he literally doesn’t have a single thought in his head. He is a lonely, unpopular and forgettable figure until one day he meets Wild Style, a woman who thinks he may be the ‘special’, someone who can save the world from the evil Lord Business, who is determined to make sure every Lego toy is permanently stuck in its perfect place. This is an opportunity for Emmet to be a superhero, joining the ranks of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and many other heroes in the film. But the prophecy says the ‘special’ is supposed to be a super-creative master builder, not the empty-headed Emmet who only knows how to follow instructions, so what went wrong? 

From this brief description, one can see how The Lego Movie is trying to convey positive messages to children, messages like: everyone is special; being creative trumps just following instructions; life isn’t about everyone doing the same perfect thing every day (diversity is good); and so on. Amid those positive messages are many gorgeously-animated fast-paced scenes full of clever, wise and very funny dialogue. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Without going into detail about how each of the positive messages in The Lego Movie has its confusing counterpart, I will simply note that for every piece of intelligent dialogue there are inane and sophomoric attempts at humour in a rather weak chaotic story (until the end). I suppose if you are aiming the film at eight-year-olds, this may be appropriate, but I found it frustrating.

But let me take you back to the opening scene, which I watched in a sold-out theatre full of eight-year-old children. In that scene, Lord Business kicks an old blind prophet (voiced by Morgan Freeman) off what amounts to a cliff, presumably to his death (or at least serious injury). The children around me laughed uproariously, as they did for a scene in which another ‘baddie’ (Bad Cop/Good Cop, brilliantly voiced by Liam Neeson) kicks a heavy metal object into the air precisely aimed to crush one of his fellow officers as he flees to avoid injury. Hearing the laughter of those around them, my own children, had they been watching as eight-year-olds, would have run out of the theatre in tears at that point. And rightfully so.

The graphic violence in The Lego Movie is, of course, plastic violence. Many will argue that I need to get a grip and understand that this is just about toys. They may also point to the ending, which shows that there are other, and better, ways of dealing with evil than violence. Taken in the context of the ending (which I cannot reveal), all that has gone before can be viewed in a new light, showing how we grow as we build our stories.

Such arguments are valid, but for me they don’t address the bottom line: Lego makes violent toys and The Lego Movie is a 100-minute ad for those violent toys (and the violence is definitely meant to entertain, not to make children cringe). While I would like to hope that children who view the film will see that violence is not the way to solve our differences, the realist in me sees children demanding that their parents buy more violent Lego toys so they can experiment playing all the violent scenes in the film.

In other words, I think it far more likely that The Lego Movie will fuel consumerism and violent play in the children who watch it than it will promote peace, justice and self-worth. But let’s try an experiment to verify this.

If you have children, you will almost certainly have to take them to see The Lego Movie because all of their friends will be watching it and telling them how wonderful it is. And you and your kids will laugh and smile and nod appreciatively at all the funny and poignant moments in the film. You will enjoy The Lego Movie because it’s a well-made joy ride and you may think it only creates problems for people who over-analyze films; people like me.

Fair enough. But do me a favour. Discuss some of this stuff with your kids after the film and observe their actions the next time they play with their Lego toys. Are they shooting each other, blowing things up, decapitating the Lego people and begging you to purchase all the different figures and sets depicted in the film? Or are they getting the message that they are special, that God wants them to be creative as God is creative and that violence is not the answer? I await your responses.
In the meantime, despite the much-appreciated ending, The Lego Movie gets **+. My mug is down.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman

If, two days ago, you had asked me who I thought was the greatest actor of this generation (i.e. born after 1950), I might have answered Jared Leto or Christian Bale or Ryan Gosling or Michael Fassbender or Ralph Fiennes or Denzel Washington or Russell Crowe or even Leonardo DiCaprio, but I think the odds are high that I would have said Philip Seymour Hoffman. 

Hoffman pretty well blew me away with every single one of his performances. If you look at every review I have written which featured a Hoffman performance, you will find that I highlighted Hoffman’s awesome acting ability, often noting that he stole films in which he was not the lead actor. In the list of top actors which I wrote for this blog four years ago, you will see that I called Hoffman “the master” (that was before he starred as “the master” in The Master) and I wrote that he should have won a handful of Oscars by then. 

He was excellent in Capote, for which he did win an Oscar, and in many other films I will not list here. My favourite Hoffman performance was in my favourite of the films in which he starred: Magnolia. He played my favourite character and was my favourite actor in that ensemble masterpiece. My favourite film in which he had a lead role was Doubt, my fourth favourite film of 2008. The most recent Hoffman film I have seen (not counting The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which I do not count as a Hoffman film, though he also did well there) is the beautiful A Late Quartet, in which he was his usual brilliant self in one of the four equal lead roles.

I cannot begin to imagine all the wonderful performances Hoffman might have given us if he had not been lost to us at such a young age. I’ve heard that he was a kind, gentle sensitive man and that I can imagine. He was a true artist and the film world has lost one of its best. Thanks, Philip; you will be missed.