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New films: August: Osage County, Lone Survivor, The Legend of Hercules

August: Osage County
Directed by John Wells

One of the interesting outcomes of awards season “big” movies is that they often play major festivals or open earlier in Los Angeles and New York and so it’s possible to know what many others think of them before they open locally. This isn’t always a good thing and I often avoid such opinions, especially before watching a film – but I was curious about “August: Osage County” after the fact, because those opinions seem to be all over the map. So I read several reviews by people who either didn’t like the film or outright hated it, with most seeming to feel it doesn’t stay true to its stage script origins, at least in tone if not in content. But even those opinions vary, with at least one suggesting it’s too comedic and not dramatic enough and another complaining it’s too dramatic and not comedic enough. Some suggested the director, John Wells (himself a writer and even a Writers Guild President), was responsible for not accurately capturing the tone of the play – which is itself an interesting criticism as it’s also clearly possible that they’re comparing the film with staged performances which may themselves have varied or have been interpreted differently on different stages and by different actors and directors.

I find transitions from stage to screen (or vice versa) interesting as they are so very different – on the big screen, we’re often so up close and personal on a magnified scale and one criticism leveled was essentially that lines from the play dealing with how hot it is become redundant when you’re already watching perspiration run down every face. But these are also characters who have grown up in this stifling house, not only stiflingly hot but emotionally stifling, introducing it to relative newcomers – husbands and boyfriends who’ve never had the dubious displeasure of visiting this cauldron of animosity. And several other negative reviews, from people who haven’t seen the play make it clear that they simply didn’t enjoy the story and there’s no way of knowing if they might have enjoyed it on stage, and no reason to assume they would have.

I was particularly interested in these negative opinions as I did enjoy it on screen having, admittedly, never seen it on stage. But I also read a synopsis of the original version and it seems largely intact and the adaptation itself was written by the original author Tracy Letts, who won a Pulitzer Prize for this work, with the Broadway version winning the Tony Award for Best Play. So it’s hard to accuse the author of the screenplay of not understanding the original material and it’s also possible that any perceived changes may have been intentional – it’s certainly not unprecedented for artists to tinker with their work in new engagements and venues.

For the uninitiated viewer, like myself, this is simply a powerful and enjoyable romp through the level of family dysfunction that almost can’t fail to make your own family troubles seem trivial by comparison, unless perhaps you grew up a Borgia. The disappearance of their father (Sam Shepard) causes the Weston sisters (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson) to converge on the family homestead to be with their cancer-stricken mother (Meryl Streep), a homecoming two of the three of them would normally go to great lengths to avoid, with the third eager for her own chance for escape. Violet Weston (Streep) is a mother you’d go to, on a good day, for painful truths not maternal endearments and that’s without the addiction to assorted pain medications and other drugs associated with her mouth cancer – a literal foul mouth. And there are enough painful truths and tensions here to drag apart the house or the county, not just the already strained relationships.

If there’s a problem here it’s that the performances become the centerpiece rather than the material – it’s hard to forget it’s Streep and Roberts ripping up the screen as the vitriol flows – and you’re introduced to the material already knowing where the weight and the power will be yielded, in keeping with actor status and paychecks. A relatively unknown cast could have kept the stature of the roles themselves a little less certain.

In this context, the secondary characters (still impressively cast and including Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor in low key mode, and Benedict Cumberbatch – who has been all over the screen this year) are more intriguing as we’re less certain of where they might go or when they might drop bombshells of their own. Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson, as the non-Julia Roberts sisters, inhabit an odd world between the two stars and the spinning bodies around them.

But, all that said, the story and the characters still come across, loud (very loud) and clear – at least in the context of the version of the story being told on screen. And, as suggested earlier, whether that differs from a version you may have seen on stage may have as much to do with that particular stage adaptation as this screen adaptation. It’s not like comparing a film with a relatively static source like a book – a stage performance itself has already been subject to directorial adaptation and actors’ interpretations of their characters.

Like it or not, these will be, and are already, performances that will be lauded by award-granting bodies – and it’s an overall cast that is well suited to ensemble accolades. It’s also an adaptation that’s never going to change (unless there’s a different cut available later on disc) – you can’t go on another night and get a slightly different take on a line delivery as you might with a stage performance. For my part, I’m pleased with the outcome and while I can attempt to imagine other casting (or directorial) choices and how they might have altered that experience, especially my perception of the critical mass or masses within the family, I’m certainly not disappointed by what was delivered.

 

Lone Survivor
Directed by Peter Berg

“Lone Survivor” is based on actual events surrounding a 2005 mission in which four SEAL team members were tasked with eliminating a specific Taliban leader. Unlike many instances of SEAL operations in movies, this one isn’t a glowing success, as the title alone makes abundantly clear.

In that sense, it’s also a more interesting depiction than most as one can often dissect failure more easily than success. The men are certainly depicted as extremely capable and heroic, but this is a story of warfare played out in a far and distant land most Americans couldn’t locate on a map, with resources that are stretched thin and well-intended plans that can’t possibly account for every potential outcome.

Having sighted their target, the SEAL’s took cover to rest and observe, only to have a group of local herdsmen stumble upon their position. This caused a decision to need to be made to either quietly kill the non-combatants or to do the right thing, and withdraw in a manner and place likely to result in an attack by an overwhelming number of local fighters. Again, the title gives away the choice.

But this is a film that succeeds not by hiding its plot, or else it would have a different name, but rather by telling its story very effectively. The acting is solid by Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch as the four man team, and the production is well conceived and executed. As I left the screening, another member of the local press corps was exclaiming about the high quality of the sound in the film, especially in relation to the gunfire and its directional specificity – and this is a film that puts you in the middle of the action, figuratively speaking, almost relentlessly surrounded by noise and destruction. If it’s possible to get an impression of this type of incursion while sitting in a theater, this might be as successful an attempt as any.

It’s also a painful reflection of our collective complicity in causing these situations to occur, as we (or our representatives) send troops into questionable conflicts, without any willingness to carry any of the burden ourselves by raising revenues to pay for those actions. And so we sit back as wars rage for longer than the “World Wars” of the past, without the drive for funding or the realignment of resources to support them. Consequently, when the team calls for air support, the only Apache helicopter gunships within reach are somewhere else supporting somebody else. I’m not suggesting we should have engaged on a larger scale but simply noting that we can’t pretend it’s doable without sacrifice at home, without also accepting that we’re sending men and women to their inevitable deaths in service to a poorly defined and unsupported goal. Wars cost money and if every deployment came with an automatic and realistic tax increase to pay for them, we’d probably support our troops better by keeping them at home.

 

The Legend of Hercules
Directed by Renny Harlin

At the point of going to press, the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes had a single positive review out of 42 that had been uploaded – and, if anything, that seems rather high. Sitting through this mess is a Herculean task in and of itself and one ends up wishing a river or two had been diverted through the production site, washing away all trace of this prodigious pile of crap.

Critiquing the story as an adaptation is of limited value, given that the source material has been written and rewritten over time and across cultures – but suffice to say that this doesn’t seem a very accurate retelling of the consensus version of Greek mythology. This isn’t helped by stories of Hercules that mix Greek and Roman names – Hercules is often described as the son of Zeus, as he is here. But Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek Heracles, and Jupiter is the Roman name for the god equivalent to Zeus. So Hercules and Zeus in a single telling of the story is a naming mismatch from the start.

We’re told that Zeus fathered Hercules for a mortal queen angry at her husband’s avarice and lust for power, as a means to eventually unseat him. But Hercules has an older, lesser brother and both King and King-to-be would rather have Hercules out of the picture (whereas audiences would probably prefer to have the picture out of the picture). Throw in a love triangle and you have all the elements of a potentially good yarn, if told well. Except that it isn’t.

There is line delivery in “The Legend of Hercules” that elicits laughter from the audience, and not at the intended places. And while it might have had the potential to be nothing more than satisfying eye candy for action and effects lovers, the action and effects are also awful. This is a movie with 3D and digital imagery that look a decade out of place, with distinct layers of depth and, for example, a lion that makes you wish for the marginally less awful Aslan of the Narnia movies. It’s hard to decide if the stylized action looked worse at full speed or during the copious slow motion sequences – but even with the constant slowing, the film’s saving grace, if it has one, is that it’s a mercifully short 98 minutes. Perhaps the trick would be to watch it on disc at fast forward pace or to develop a drinking game around the slowed scenes, with enough consumption to result in little or no memory of having watched the film. But that’s likely even without alcohol.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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