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Column Fri Jan 10 2014

Lone Survivor, August: Osage County, The Past & The Selfish Giant

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Lone Survivor

Director Peter Berg has never shied away from films about manly men, especially when those manly men are in the military. I think he shares the same fantastical idea that Michael Bay does that if you hang around enough men in uniform, people might actually start looking at you as a tough guy. Why that is important to them, I'll never understand. And the fact that it's delusional makes it all the more curious. But in works like The Rundown, Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom, Berg has shown a real flair for staging impressive action sequences that actually make sense and aren't simply a blur of explosions, screaming and bullet fire. (Yes, I realize Friday Night Lights is a sports movie, but if you think it's any less an action film than one with soldiers, watch it again.)

With his last two films, Hancock and Battleship, Berg hasn't lost his ability to stage solid action, but he lost himself in the silly, fantastical elements of those movies, and the work has suffered as a result. But with his latest, the wildly violent Lone Survivor, Berg returns to familiar stomping grounds and the results are quite impressive, in a brutal, hard-R-rated way. The film is the story of the failed 2005 SEAL Team 10 Operation Red Wings mission to kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, told through the eyes of the mission's lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell (Berg adapted the book Luttrell co-wrote with Patrick Robinson).

Berg's personal mission seems to be to capture these harrowing and terrifying events as accurately and realistically as possible, and on that front he has succeeded. Every bullet wound, broken bone and other painful result of this miscalculated mission is on display, complete with stomach-turned sound effects and appropriate blood splatter (the makeup team was led by Howard Berger of KNB Efx, who also do "The Walking Dead," so that should tell you something). Mark Wahlberg plays Luttrell, and it's made very clear from the get-to that there is nothing particularly special about this soldier compared to the three other men who were on the mission with him. He just happened to live. Wahlberg is not playing Luttrell like some kind of super soldier or larger-than-life figure; he's just a man with military training and a bit of luck on his side.

Rounding out the group of four are Taylor Kitsch (in his best film role to date) as Michael Murphy, the always-reliable Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz, and a laser-focused Ben Foster as Matt Axelson. Of the three, it's Foster you'll remember the most. Axelson sustains a head injury after one of many tumbles the men must take down rock hillsides to escape the Taliban forces, and his begins to lose his grip on reality as a result. He dips in and out of a clear idea of what is going on in front of him, and it's an incredible thing to watch, as Foster struggles to hold it together long enough to do some damage to the enemy.

There's a secondary story involving an Afghan village near the fighting that is committed to resisting the Taliban, even if it means death for some of its people, and late in the film the fight between the Americans and the Talibans lands on its doorstep (literally). I'm sure some, or even all, of this part of the story is true, but that feels like the only part I might question the details about. A film based on a true story is not necessarily weakened when it strays from the truth, but when it feels false, it suffers. And those sections of Lone Survivor feel overly sentimental and betray the authenticity of the rest of the film. It's a minor flaw, but it's a flaw nevertheless.

To say that Lone Survivor is jingoistic is like saying the color red is red. Of course it is, and you know that full well going in. That being said, Berg's choice to open the film with what is practically a commercial for the military goes beyond unnecessary and feels like shameless propaganda. But once the story gets rolling, all such frivolities leave the room, and what we're left with is a story of four men who lock into each other with a single mind and purpose. Their survival instincts are impressive and the eye for detail in the story is impossible to deny, but the odds were against them almost from the beginning.

No matter how many films I see in a year, you never quite get used to the ones where you know most of the characters you're watching are going to die. So the real drama comes from finding how just how the hell one man survived this onslaught, and Berg maps out his route and gives us perfect pacing throughout. I wish there had been a bit more character development in the script so we could get to know and care about the men who gave their lives in this mission (a total of 19 died; I won't tell you how the other 16 died), and Berg's lays it on pretty thick when it comes to establishing his Taliban bad guys — the only thing missing are eye patches. But the script is practically obsessed with keeping things lean, mean, gritty, painful and efficient, much like the men in the story.

No one in the film offers up any opinions on this particular battle, or the war in general, and while that may be believable, I think it's important that we understand the cost and value of these lives and not just what a guy looks like getting shot to pieces. Berg picked this incident for a reason; I wish he'd given us a sense why it meant so much to him, because in doing so, he gives it a value to the audience and the film becomes less horror show and more a portrait of bravery. I'm still recommending Lone Survivor, but more because of its stunning technical achievements and acting, and less because of its bigger-picture implications. And let's be honest, if you make a film about a current war, somewhere in there is a statement about that war.

August: Osage County

For those of you who saw writer Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play either at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre or on Broadway, where it won a boatload of Tony Awards in 2008, I'm sure this simple, two-hour film version (also written by Letts), directed by John Wells (The Company Men), will seem like a lesser thing, or at least a different thing than its nearly three-hour source material. For the rest of us, I suppose your level of enjoyment of August: Osage County will depend on how much family strife and cruelty you find amusing.

The Weston clan is brought back together to Oklahoma when its patriarch, Beverly (Sam Shepard), apparently kills himself after arranging for a full-time-care person for his drug-addicted wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), who seems to be in a constant state of drifting in and out of delusional episodes, spinning wild yarns about every member of her extended family, revealing deeply held secrets and just being generally nasty. Of her three grown daughters — Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) — only Barbara is married (to Bill, played by Ewan McGregor), but is on the verge of divorce. Karen is the flighty, perpetually optimistic one who dresses a little too young for her age and dates terrible men, such as the womanizing Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who is just low enough to hit on Barbara's young daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Ivy is the one who stayed close to home, and is well on her way to being a spinster, were it not for a newfound love with an unlikely person in her life.

Also close by is Violet's sister Mattie Fae (the incomparable Margo Martindale), her sensible husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their son "Little Charles" (Benedict Cumberbach), something of a pertetual loser in all aspects of life. For two hours, we watch this family come together, fall apart, form splinter groups of power, only to watch them disintegrate as quickly as they came together. And all the while, Violet insists she knows all the secrets and parcels them out like so much candy to children, although occasionally she dumps the whole candy bowl onto the floor to watch the children scramble and fight for scraps. It's an endlessly fascinating adventure, spearheaded by Streep, who maneuvers through each scene like a hopped-up bear in a chandelier factory.

In a film with a cast this size, it very often depends on what individual audience members bring to the film to determine which character they identify with. Most will likely focus on Cooper's level-headed Charlie, who delivers an ultimatum to his wife about being kind to people late in the film that resonates so clearly that we can't help but wonder why no one said such a thing decades earlier and saved the family a whole lot of pain and suffering. Then of course, we wouldn't have the play or movie either, and those are way more fun than a story about a happy family.

A great deal of the criticism I'm hearing about the film from those who loved the play is that much of the drama has been excised, allowing the dark humor to come to the foreground, resulting in something more like an evil sitcom than a heightened gothic drama. While the film has plenty of laughs at the expense of virtually every family member, I don't agree that August: Osage County is void of hard-hitting drama either. I was especially moved by the plight of Nicholson's Ivy character, who is painted with muted, unfocused edges, as if no one in her life sees her as a complete person outside of her duties to her mother. This new relationship is poised to be the thing that finally defines her, so when it appears to be in jeopardy, her very being is in danger of crumbling to dust.

I also liked what Julia Roberts is doing here. We get a sense that when she's not around her mother, she's probably a very nice person who just happens to be dealing with a cheating husband and resentful daughter. I'm pretty certain we don't see her million-dollar smile once in this film, and it's nice to see her not relying on her old tricks to make us care about her situation. The verbal jabs she trades with Violet leave bruises, and we crave any information about what life must have been like growing up in a household with so much vitriol.

As both a complement and criticism of August: Osage County, I would have been perfectly happy existing with this family for another 30-45 minutes. It's almost a shame that we get cut off at the two-hour mark. Would I have enjoyed more drama? Sure, but what's here is still pretty manageable as a film that isn't afraid to mix the nasty and sad. The biggest problem with the film may be director Wells' lack of any real style; he doesn't shoot it as a play, no, but his lack of any real visual quality makes the whole thing feel like a made-for-TV (not even HBO quality) movie that's about getting it done as quickly as possible so the actors can get back to bigger jobs. It's a close call, and I'm still mildly recommending it, especially to those whose judgement isn't clouded by having seen the play. Faint praise, I realize, but there's enough here to appreciate — if not quite admire — to check it out.

To read my exclusive interview with August: Osage County playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts and actors Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Past

One of the best films out right now — and one of the best of 2013 (technically, although its wider release is happening now) — is the newest adult drama from writer-director Asghar Farhadi (the Oscar-winning Iranian film A Separation). Certainly a thematic follow-up to that film about a divorcing couple, The Past is set in Paris and concerns the return of Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) to see his wife Marie (The Artist's Bérénice Bejo) after four years back in his native Iran. The reason for the visit is to finalize their divorce and get some closure on their life together, which includes two children of hers from a previous marriage.

But Farhadi is a masterful storyteller who allows the details of their previous life together and what has transpired in their lives since their breakup to come of the surface gradually, as it would in life. He doesn't feel the need to spell out every detail. In the first few scenes of her picking him up at the airport, we're not even sure what their relationship is. Not surprisingly, this bit of paperwork that could have been handled via email is simply an excuse on Marie's part to allow Ahmad to see what her life has become, both good and bad. She has a new man (Tahar Rahim), and her relationship with her oldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), is fractured for unknown reasons (until they aren't so unknown, naturally). Since Ahmad and Lucie had always been close, Marie was hoping he could step in to help mend things between hem.

With each new, beautifully written and acted scene, we acquire another small piece of the total picture. Some of the revelations are small, but others border on earth-shattering. In some cases, a revelation is undone and proven not to be true. It sounds complicated but it's actually extremely straight-forward and clear. As the title would suggest, the film spend a great deal of time dealing with issues from the recent past, but it doesn't bother to confuse the situation with flashbacks. Ashgar believes in the power of words and dialogue, and allows them to be our conduit to unlocking one secret after another.

Without even realizing it for quite some time, The Past is a fantastic mystery about a terrible action and the reason behind it, and we get about three or four different accounts of said event before we discover just what the hell led to this tragedy. The acting is top notch from beginning to end, but it's Bejo (who won Best Actress at last year's Cannes Film Festival for the role) who truly stands out as a woman is not still pining for her ex-husband, but still respects his opinion and his status as a father figure. In a strange way, she is seeking his approval of this new man (who brings his own young son as part of the package) from the old one. It makes more sense than you might think, and the film is a sign from the movie gods that strong, serious films made for grown-ups can be just as smart and tricky and thrilling as the ones made for a younger demographic. For reasons I cannot comprehend, The Past did not make the short list for this year's Foreign Language Film Academy Award (it was Iran's submission), but that should in no way stop you from checking it out. This is one of those movies that simply enriches you soul for having seen it. The films opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Selfish Giant

Loosely reworked from the Oscar Wilde children's story of the same name, The Selfish Giant substitutes the giant's lush garden for a scrapyard, where two local children — Arbor and best friend Swifty (the remarkable Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas, also quite good as the "dim" one, both first-time actors) — bring collected and sometimes stolen metal to owner Kitten (Sean Gilder) for cash. The boys are looked down upon by their fellow school mates because of their social status in this UK working-class area in the Midlands, with accents so thick, the film has subtitles. But to call Arbor and Swifty's families working class doesn't quite cut it; they are flat-out poor, scrambling and scheming every day to keep the power on, food on the table, the police off their front step, and their debt just manageable enough that they don't get thrown out of their homes.

Writer-director Clio Barnard (who directed the heart-shattering 2010 documentary The Arbor) has not eased up on the sense of misery and desperation in her subjects. These are the folks who Ken Loach used to champion in film after film, and Barnard picks up the mantle quite skillfully. Besides being a scrapdealer, Kitten also has a small stable of horses, mainly for hauling carts of scrap, but he also occasionally indulges in horse-and-buggy races using one of his stronger horses. It just so happens that Swifty is a bit of a horse whisperer, and before long, Kitten has hired him for the next race, something that makes Arbor irrationally envious.

Chapman's portrayal of Arbor is like watching a starving, mangey wildcat pumped full of speed. He's a hyperactive, often violent kid whose older brother is stealing his medication to pay off his own debts, leaving Arbor a destructive force of nature anytime anyone tries so much as to change the direction he's walking, let alone behave in school or at home. He's a foul-mouthed, anti-authority 13-year-old who we still feel for because we know if his family had any money, he wouldn't be the lost cause that he'll forever be.

Their relationship with Kitten drives a wedge between the boys, and it doesn't take long before that inevitable sense of creeping dread sets in that something terrible is going to happen to someone. Not that there are any clues as to what, since it's established fairly early that about a half-dozen people or groups of people in their town would love to do the kids harm for any number of petty crimes. A side note, for fans of "Downton Abbey," keep an eye out for the recently departed O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) as Swifty's down-trodden mother, one of the few truly decent people in the film.

The Selfish Giant is a rough film to watch, but thanks to some absolutely undaunted performances and Barnard's unflinching eye for the ugliest details of this life, the resulting film comes across as a ragged and unrelenting, yet graceful piece of performance art. One could also view the film as a thesis on the link between extreme poverty and crime, but I'm guessing that wasn't the intention; nonetheless, that idea permeates every frame of this incredibly gripping little film. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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