August: Osage County

If you think your family is screwed up, go see August: Osage County. The Weston family from Oklahoma is among the most dysfunctional you will ever witness. The main source of the trouble is the family matriarch, Violet (Meryl Streep), a pill and booze addicted woman who is filled with resentment.

Violet’s daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) all have their own issues, some of which have come straight from mother. Just as Violet has had a tempestuous relationship with her husband (Sam Shepard), so has Barbara with her man Bill (Ewan McGregor).

August: Osage County should win the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Ensemble. Without listing the entire family tree, here are some of the other talented actors in the film: Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin and Durmot Mulroney.

Director John Wells and writer Tracey Letts have done an excellent job of taking a stage play to film. Only a handful of scenes have a stagey feel.

August: Osage County has been described by some as a comedy. Chris Cooper’s long-winded blessing is a classic scene and quite funny. And there are several more laughs in the movie. But, make no mistake, August: Osage County is more tragedy than comedy. The Westons are not a happy family.

Originally set for a Christmas Day 2013 release, A: OC did get the necessary runs in NYC and LA to qualify for awards season. (Expect Meryl Streep to grab an Oscar nom for Best Actress when they’re announced next week.) Don’t skip it just because it was pushed back to the movie wasteland of January. See it to witness an all-star cast delivering the goods—especially Meryl.

Jack, the Giant Slayer

Je ne sais quoi is a famous French phrase meaning “I don’t know what.” It’s used when you know something, but you can’t accurately describe it.

What’s missing from Jack, the Giant Slayer? It’s hard to say. Je ne sais quoi.

Jack, the Giant Slayer has a stellar cast, cool effects and a classic story (with some fresh tweaks). The trailers and TV spots look great. But the movie lacks that certain something—something that would make it a “must see.” Je ne sais quoi.

As it begins, JTGS looks like a family flick for all ages. A bedtime story is shared in separate scenes with a young boy and a young girl. The boy grows up to be Jack. The girl becomes princess Isabelle. Jack goes to town, meets the princess, gets the magic beans and the story takes off. In short order, so does the beanstalk.

Jack is played by Nicholas Hoult, who was tremendous as R in the recent Warm Bodies. Isabelle is played by the gorgeous Eleanor Tomlinson. Ian McShane is the king and Ewan McGregor (good guy) and Stanley Tucci (bad guy) are members of the king’s court. Eddie Marsan, who is becoming one of my favorite character actors, also has a small role.

As the story develops, so does the violence. The reasons for the PG-13 rating become obvious. The battles between the earthbound residents and the giants from the sky are epic. The film’s climax is especially well conceived. The 3-D is good, if not great. Still, there’s something needed to make this film special. Je ne sais quoi.

When you spend $185 million to make a movie, you should deliver a bit more magic to the screen than JTGS does. While the film’s accomplishments do amount to more than, pardon the expression, a hill of beans, I was expecting to be dazzled.

Jack, the Giant Slayer is a good, solid, well-made film. You will not walk out of the theater grumbling that you were ripped off. But it falls short of classic. I wish I could tell you exactly why. But I can’t quite put my finger on it. Je ne sais… oh, you know.

The Impossible

The killer tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004 is the real star of The Impossible. The tsunami horror that was frighteningly depicted in the 2010 movie Hereafter is multiplied and intensified in The Impossible. Add to that horror… the horror of not knowing whether your family members survived the ordeal.

Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor are mom and dad to three young boys on a Christmas holiday trip when the monster wave hits. After the water finally subsides, mom is severely injured. With help from one son, she makes it to a treatment center, where the medical staff tends to those who are hurt.

Meanwhile dad and the other two sons await word regarding mom and the other son. Dad sets off on a quest to learn his wife’s fate and locate her. He accepts the offer of a stranger (played by Geraldine Chaplin) to watch the younger boys while he searches for his wife and older son.  Later, he is unable to locate those two younger sons, adding to his worries.

Any parent who has ever lost a child, even for a moment, knows the pangs of fear that overtake the mind and body during those times. Any child who has ever been separated from a parent also knows the terror that each of these three children knew during this ordeal. Watts and McGregor as the parents and Tom Holland as the oldest son each are superb at bringing these emotions to the screen.

My only complaint about the film is that timeline is not exactly clear. When the narrative moves straight ahead with no sidebars or flashbacks as in The Impossible, the passage of days and nights should be more plainly delineated.

The Impossible is based on a true story. The family survives, despite injuries. But the mood at the film’s end is more melancholy than upbeat. The fact that the tsunami killed so many thousands keeps the tone somber and respectful.

The story is presented with a bit of Hollywood plot enhancement, but stays on its consistent path without being especially stylish. It is the acting and the effects that make The Impossible a compelling movie to watch.

“Haywire” =Gina WHO???=

In “Haywire,” a star is born. The film’s female lead Gina Carano is unknown to most moviegoers. She has achieved a level of fame as an MMA fighter and an “American Gladiator.” Her good looks, her adequate acting skills and her abilities as a fighter guarantee her a future in movies.

The convoluted plot is almost secondary to the constant action that surrounds the character Mallory Kane, played by Carano. Chase scenes in cars and on foot, kidnappings, shootings and hand-to-hand battles are the movie’s key elements. Director Steven Soderbergh shoots the film stylishly with a number of clever subjective camera angles. Carano/Kane’s fight scenes are the best since the last Jason Bourne movie—realistically staged and intense.

Several well-known male actors play Mallory Kane’s various allies and foes. They are Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Bill Paxton.

The action kicks off with a violent face-off between Carano and Tatum in a roadside café in upstate New York. The plot unfolds with scenes in Barcelona, Dublin, rural New Mexico and along the Pacific coastline.

A highlight of the film is the cool soundtrack by David Holmes who scored much of the music for Soderbergh’s three “Ocean’s” movies. He provides rhythmic, up tempo music that is just right for this film.

Go for the action. Go for this new female fighter. Go for the strong male cast. Go for the music. Go to unravel the plot.

“Haywire” delivers 93 minutes of solid movie entertainment. Casting an unknown as the female lead was not a haywire decision—the result makes perfect sense to me.