Weinstein Company via Everett Collection
Forget the television commercials that try to reduce August: Osage County to either some madcap romp or some cheery family comedy. This film is dark. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, who adapted his script for this big screen version, the black humor of the play does not necessarily translate on screen. Instead, it feels like a bleak downward spiral of a family so full of bitterness and resentment, it’s on the verge of implosion.
As directed by John Wells, the film version of August: Osage County may not feel like a fun movie, but it’s a terrific study of a family on the brink. As he steers the drama to slow-burning heights, anger both repressed and unchecked coil around each other like two boa constrictors trying to consume the other. The lengthy conversations swell to epic confrontations that are a sight to behold.
The cast offer up sincere performances that take the story to another arena that’s more heartbreak than humorous. Violet (Meryl Streep) first appears on screen with short-cropped gray, scraggly hair, chain smoking while both cursing and sweet-talking her husband (Sam Shepard) in a drunken stupor as he attempts to hire service aide Johnna (Misty Upham). “Are you an injun?” Violet asks her.
Violet is an old time "casual racist." But she also has mouth cancer and a habit of abusing pain killers. She seems constantly on the edge of boiling over. She can’t seem to bear her proximity to the end while everyone else watches. Hell hath no fury like a narcissist on the edge of death.
Weinstein Company via Everett Collection
The target of much of her anger falls on, but is not limited to, her three daughters. She treats eldest Barbara (Julia Roberts) as a threatening equal (dad’s favorite), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) with passive-aggressive disdain and the youngest, Karen (Juliette Lewis), with mean, outright insignificance. It’s such a varied pallet of abuse that it would be decadent if it didn’t come off as so cruel. All actresses hold their own, feeding off Streep and the rich script, which offers up one skeleton after another in the family’s history of unresolved issues.
Streep’s work in August: Osage County could be among the best of her many great performances. She plays an unlikable, often cruel character, which is all the more reason to appreciate how she can turn the angry, abusive matriarch into a sympathetic woman. In the end, your heart will break for what she knows have been missteps in raising a family. Too egotistical a wretch to rise above her failures for a kind word, she seems to clash with her own zealous pride, which gradually unravels through the course of the film.
Wells, who comes to this film — his second feature — after directing several episodes for the Showtime dysfunctional family series Shameless, also seems inspired by the source material. He dresses up the mise-en-scene appropriately. The film’s washed out browns and yellows capture the rotting malaise of a family barreling toward disintegration. The music is moving in parts, if somewhat manipulative. This is an emotional roller-coaster of a film.
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Ultimately, as it’s based on a play, August: Osage County is about performances. Wells gives the actors plenty of room to tear into the material, even if it fails to rise to the play’s black comedy. But who cares if August: Osage County does not necessarily pull that off? It instead offers a rather twisted, morose family drama that features some of the year’s best acting turns.
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A violent and gritty film A Man Apart follows DEA agents Sean Vetter (Vin Diesel) and Demetrius Hicks (Larenz Tate) as they try to stop the drug pipeline along the US/Mexico border. After seven years of surveillance they take down Baja California cartel kingpin Memo Lucero (Geno Silva) whose ominous last words to Vetter are "You have no idea what kind of mistake you are making." Vetter doesn't take the threat to heart--until a hail of bullets kills his wife Stacy (Jacqueline Obradors) as she sleeps. Vetter discovers the man responsible for Stacy's death is Diablo who has stepped in to claim the Baja cartel. A grief-stricken Vetter enlists Hicks's help to avenge his wife's murder but his personal involvement in the case clouds his judgement--and at this point we know for certain that two things will happen. First Vetter will be pulled off the case and second he will go after his wife's killer without the department's authorization. When this ultimately happens Vetter turns to the jailed Memo for help tracking down Diablo. But just when you think you have the story all figured out it comes back at you with a twist.
A Man Apart gives Diesel a chance to play a character with more depth than um Zander Cage in XXX or Dominic Torreto in The Fast and the Furious. He definitely sinks his teeth into the role--a little too much. As Vetter Diesel shares some "tender" moments with his on-screen wife but the chemistry between the two is lukewarm and their oh-so-perfect marriage is too fairytale-like to buy. They drink red wine and dance on the beach at sunset (really). And as a widower Diesel overdoes the dazed and detached thing. In one scene Vetter beats a man to a pulp then slumps down against his car and stares vacantly into the distance a victim of his own misbehavior. But Diesel's performance lacks sincerity. Vetter's DEA partner Hicks is played by Tate (Biker Boyz) who carves out a more grounded and representational character. Tate shapes Hicks into a multifaceted character that is tough streetwise and sympathetic--minus the showboating. Worth an honorable mention is Timothy Olyphant (Dreamcatcher) in the role of Hollywood Jack an obnoxious drug supplier who runs a tanning salon. This two-faced hoodlum steals some of the film's best moments.
If there is one thing that director F. Gary Gray has mastered it is the art of making cheesy material watchable. Like Gray's last two films The Negotiator and Set It Off A Man Apart is a gritty urban drama that is entertaining if you allow yourself to be absorbed in the director's dynamic visual style. There is never a dull moment here and like a trailer it cuts from one action-packed scene to another. But if you stop to analyze what's going on or being said corny lines are likely to pop out and cause you to laugh out loud when you're not supposed to. Imagine a line such as "You alone are trying to bring down a monster. As a cop that's impossible; you must become a monster" reverberating in your head. It's enough to distract you from the film's hair-raising violence. Not all of the dialogue is laughable however and there is one scene in particular that is funny and bitingly genuine where Vetter and Hicks pump a dealer named Overdose for information. It's reminiscent of the wisecracking dialogue in Gray's 1995 directorial debut Friday.