August: Osage County

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Director: John Wells.
Screenplay: Tracy Letts.
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham.

I thought we were having a funeral dinner not a cockfight“.

If you’re aware of the work and tone of play-write Tracy Letts (who also provides the screenplay here) then you’ll pretty much get the gist of this one. He was responsible for two of William Friedkin’s finest moments; the dark, psychological horror “Bug” and the intense and disturbing thriller “Killer Joe“. Now, this doesn’t quite explore the depravity of those aforementioned films but it’s no less powerful in capturing a similar claustrophobic tension.

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Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is a hard-drinking poet who has been living with his cancer stricken wife Violet (Meryl Streep) and her addiction to prescription pills and venomous outbursts for too long. When he suddenly disappears, Violet calls upon their children Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) to return home and offer some moral support. The problem is, there are no morals amongst this fractured family as past issues rear their ugly heads.

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Following on from the likes of “American Hustle and “12 Years A Slave” this is another of the years great ensembles. If the Academy Awards deemed it fit (and one day I hope they do) to hand out an award for the efforts of the whole cast then this could consider itself a serious contender. With ensembles of this kind, sometimes a story can struggle to bring depth to a particular one or two but in this case, it felt like every character had their purpose and few, if any, were left unturned. Streep heads the onslaught with as much gusto and grandstanding as she’s ever done and acts as the catalyst to the revelations of the inner turmoil amongst her family members. She says what she wants, when she wants and refuses to yield to anyone around her – despite her own serious and damaging shortcomings. Roberts, her eldest daughter, doesn’t fall too far from the apple tree though, and gives as good as she gets. Although unlikely to win the Oscar when up against such strong competition, both have been nominated and it’s understandable why they have been. It’s not just these two on show, though. There is excellent support around them; Chris Cooper is a real standout, as the uncle with a conscience, as is the oft missed Juliette Lewis as the dippy younger sibling and touching performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Julianne Nicholson as affectionate cousins. The only one that seemed out of place was Ewan McGregor as Roberts’ estranged husband. He wasn’t bad, but he struggled to get a handle on a decent American accent and it made him stand out from the crowd ever so slightly. However, the family dynamics are still plain to see and the uncomfortable interactions are played out with such fraught tension – including a 25 minute, vitriolic, dinner scene that’s one of the finest of the year.

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What with the intense acting on show and the characterisation and attention given to each of them, it can often be overlooked how sharp and blackly funny the dialogue is and how intricate Letts’ writing can be. It’s not only masterfully acted but masterfully written as well. Letts’ Pulitzer-Prize winning play has many layers and even though it sometimes comes across as slightly uneven due to director John Wells not being the most experienced in peeling those layers back, the actors certainly don’t miss their chance and sink their teeth, firmly, into them.

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There may be an overly pessimistic and downbeat tone to this dysfunctional family affair but it’s containment of black humour manages to balance the venom and spite that can so often be found in family feuds and makes for hugely enjoyable theatrics.

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Mark Walker

Trivia: Tracy Letts unsuccessfully objected against producer Harvey Weinstein’s decision in the casting of British actors for the film (Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrea Riseborough who was nearly cast as Karen) as the characters are written to be all-American, but admitted he had a change of view after seeing the film.

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60 Responses to “August: Osage County”

  1. Good review Mark. I agree about both performances and writing. Meryl just nails her roles proving that she’s the best out there. I also loved Julia Roberts because she was terrifically powerful, emotional and dynamic.

    I think AOC is this years on of the best adaptations, bearing in mind all those well written dialogues and character developments.

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    • Thanks Nika! I couldn’t agree with you more here. A few folk didn’t really take to its overall depressing tone but I loved every minute of it. The characters were very well written and even though they were unlikeable, it was still great seeing them go head-to-head.

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  2. Great review, Mark! So glad you liked it! This has been one of my favorites of 2013. Such great acting and writing.

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    • Thanks Fernando! Yeah, I really liked it. I thought it was marvellous. I normally take to stage play adaptations as I enjoy the claustrophobic tension and this certainly had that going for it.

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  3. Good review Mark. The acting is good, but that’s all it is. It’s all show, without much heart or depth put into these roles, in order to give us characters we actually care about and believe.

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    • Cheers Dan! I have to admit I went with it and did invest in that characters. They were unlikeable for sure but I still fully believed the performances and in some cases sympathised with the characters. I thought it was great, man.

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  4. Sounds good – I’ll probably watch this with the Mrs. someday : )

    Boat drinks!

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  5. I’m really looking forward to seeing this as I love the play. My only reservation with the casting was Ewan McGregor. I find him to be the weak link in most things and it seems like this is no exception. I will however, always check out a movie featuring the wonderful Margo Martindale…

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  6. Very nice review my friend. I think we talked about it already. I didn’t care for this film at all. I thought everyone was one-dimensional and the none of them appealed to me at all. I also felt Streep was chewing up a ton of scenes. Just didnt work for me in the end.

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    • Thanks bro! I understand your thoughts. We did chat earlier. I didn’t quite see it that way, though. I thought the characters had a lot to them and Streep was brilliant. She did chew some scenes for sure but I still thoroughly enjoyed her work. Oh well! We can’t always see eye to eye! 😉

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      • You’re right. But if everyone did see eye to eye there would be no need in having conversations about it.

        I think most people I’ve read did like this film. Once again I’m in the minority. That’s becoming a habit of mine isn’t it? 😉

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      • Haha! I actually like it when I find myself in the minority. It’s much more fun. I took a bashing for not liking Rush. Who cares though, right? 😉

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  7. Good review, Mark. Agreed that the cast and writing are terrific here. Also agreed that the Academy should give an ensemble award.

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    • Cheers Josh! Glad to hear we’re in agreements here my man. It would be a great award if the Academy handed out for ensembles wouldn’t it? I really want to see that happen.

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      • That’s a great idea. This would surely win. Oh, and I thought Rush was overrated, too.

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      • Yay! Another one that thought Rush wasn’t all it was cracked up to be? There are very few of us Cindy! Nice one, I don’t feel so alone now! 😉

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      • The shots in the car, all body parts performing, and the water off the wheels were cool. Eye candy galore, but I still didn’t care for it much. With Ron Howard films, it’s not the cinematography, its his scripts that are weak. Speaking of Ron, swing by, if you have time for a post about a RH film. 🙂

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      • I’m really not a Ron Howard fan. Frost/Nixon was admittedly very good but everything is always lacking.
        I noticed in my email that you have a post on Cinderella Man? I’ll swing by when I can. I’m commuting at the moment.

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      • I can understand why you don’t like him. A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man are my two favorites of his. He gets too sappy and sentimental and his scripts lack bite. But I do think he’s a solid director. I consider him my guilty pleasure. He’s an optimist and tells feel-good stories, so I like that.

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      • In fairness, I did like A beautiful mind quite a bit but that was mainly due to an outstanding Russell Crowe. The film itself still became quite cliched and schmaltzy towards the end. Typical of Howard appealing to Hollywood. Still, it was a good for the most part.

        I’ll swing by on your post today Cindy. Took a break over the weekend.

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      • Popcorn Nights Says:

        Wait a minute…Josh?! I’m sorry Josh but I’ve been calling you James for a while now. My apologies!

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      • Haha! I think everyone has made this mistake. 😉

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  8. Great review, you just put this one high up on my ‘to-watch’ list. It doesn’t really sound like the kind of movie I would normally enjoy, but man, with a cast like that it seems almost impossible to not give it a try.

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  9. Good review! I recently reviewed this myself check it out if you want! I enjoyed it, great performances and for me should be deserving of an Oscar, the humour was great and it lifted the film from some boring points at times!

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  10. That’s encouraging; I’ve read some pretty negative reviews of this. You’ve reinvigorated my desire to catch this one Mark!

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  11. Good stuff man. Been umm-ing and arr-ing over seeing this one as I’ve seen plenty of negative reviews. Might give it a whirl if I get the chance, the performances look top notch.

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  12. I need to see this one (preferably before the Academy Awards). Great post!

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  13. Nice review, Mark, and I was certainly impressed by the acting on hand as well. Julia Roberts especially impressed me, as I’m not typically a fan of hers, yet she totally sold me here.

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  14. Terrific writing again Mark, but in the interest of full disclosure, I have no interest at all in this farce. 🙂

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    • No interest you say? You’d be missing out in my humble opinion sir! This is a good flick. It’s great seeing everyone at each other’s throats.

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      • yeah I’m sure it is. and I know Meryl Streep is going to be excellent in this, so I think that’s what puts me off. I don’t want to see her turn into a nightmare. I want to continue liking her!!!!!!! 😀 (Ditto that to almost everyone involved too.) Maybe i will at some point, we’ll see.

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  15. Popcorn Nights Says:

    I must say you’ve got me intrigued about this now Mark. I have yet to see Inside Llewyn Davis, Her and Nebraska – all of which I want to try and catch at the cinema if possible – so think I’ll wait for this on DVD, but the cast list looks great and it’s good to hear they are good as a group. Sam Shepard and Chris Cooper are two of my favourite actors and their presence is the sign of a quality film more often than not. Streep is obviously always worth checking and I’ve been impressed quite a bit by Julia Roberts during the past decade or so.

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    • In all honesty Shepard isn’t in it that much but I agree, man. His presence normally signals quality and he’s right to get involved here. I’m also a fan of Cooper and despite having a supporting role, he’s really rather good. Check it out when you can.

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  16. Excellent piece of work, Mark!

    Good to great ensemble films are so hard to come by nowadays. Curious to see criminally under rated Margo Martindale (Hard luck, tough as a dollar steak Matriarch, Maggs Bennett from the second season of ‘Justified’) show off her chops. As well as Juliette Lewis and Chris Cooper.

    The film has a mysterious “The Big Chill meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” vibe that sounds intriguing and definitely worth a look!

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    • Thanks Jack. Ensembles of this caliber are rare and they seize the opportunity to get right into Tracy Letts’ writing. Many had issues with the film but I loved it. The Big Chill meets Virginia Wolfe is a perfect way to describe it. Hope you catch it soon.

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  17. Great review, Streep and Roberts seem to be getting a lot of attention for this movie.

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  18. Great review. : ) I’ll probably skip it for now as I think
    the characters would piss me off but I’ll probably watch it at some point.

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  19. Great review. Completely agree with you on the dinner scene – one of the best scenes of the year. A fantastic ensemble too.

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  20. ray brayne Says:

    I’m sure Streep was on the phone the minute after she saw the play to Harvey Weinstein to buy the rights so she could play Violet. And just as Weinstein pushed his weight around to get Streep the Oscar for the “Iron Lady”, she ‘s a lock for Oscar #4 for this. And why not? To miss this is to miss the greatest role by the greatest modern actress!
    Glad to see Sam Shepard here. After all, it was his plays that inspired Letts in the first place. Letts gets better with each effort. Be hard to top AOC. Wish I was a fly on the wall to hear him and Shepard talk. The future of American theater in the making!

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    • I’ve heard so many people give Streep some snazz for overplaying it but I’d agree with you here Ray. I thought she was outstanding and got really tore into the character. The Oscar buzz seems to be circling Blanchett at the moment though.

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  21. OMG, for some reason I thought I had commented on this, sorry Mark!! I actually liked this one quite a bit myself. Somehow reminds me of my extended family, I remember there’s one particular heated feud in my living room growing up where my uncle kept yelling at my grandma, there were like 10 or so family members gathering. So yeah, somehow I could relate, ahahaha. It’s hilarious at times, with some tender moments esp the part involving Benedict Cumberbatch! 😀

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    • Haha! No worries Ruth. These things happen. I’m guilty for missing stuff all the time.

      Yeah, I’ve had similar family confrontations so it really struck a chord with me too. I thought it was a marvellous piece of writing and acting. My only drawback was that a more experienced director wasn’t in charge, to tease out that little bit extra in terms of metaphor. Still, the cast were so damn good that I totally got caught up in it all.

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  22. Great review Mark. I’ve yet to see it, it’s incredibly pessimistic look has put me off slightly.

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    • Cheers Chris. It certainly is on the pessimistic side but it’s blacker than black humour manages to bring just enough light to the intensity of it all. It’s a great little flick.

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  23. Nice review. I was taken by Streep’s character. She was quite something.

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    • I totally agree. For some odd reason Streep took a lot of criticism for scenery chewing but I thought she great and her character was something else: a real piece of work!

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    Like

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