Gave up law to become a screenwriter in the mid-1940s, crafting scripts for such excellent works as the classic western, "Red River" (1948), the driving social melodrama "They Live By Night" (1949) an...
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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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
Gave up law to become a screenwriter in the mid-1940s, crafting scripts for such excellent works as the classic western, "Red River" (1948), the driving social melodrama "They Live By Night" (1949) and the cynical Hollywood saga, "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952). Schnee worked primarily as a producer and production executive during the mid-1950s but eventually turned his attention back to scriptwriting.