August: Osage County (2014)

August: Osage County (2014)

I’m pretty partial to the month of August; it’s sunny, the days are long and I just generally feel that all is well with the world. Way better than the gloomy dark depths of winter where the only comfort you get outside is from an idling bus that’s parked beside you on the pavement. Good times. Woeful times. But then again, the winter is a good time to get inside to your local cinema or theatre and take in a film or play. In fact, these events are way more fun in winter… and not just for the warmth. So, this brings us to a play that’s now become a film! See… see what we did there? All a cunning link! Welcome to August: Osage County.

August: Osage County (2014)

August: Osage County tells the take of the somewhat dysfunctional Weston family as they deal with the death of their patriarch. At the core, we have Violet (Meryl Streep) a wife and mother that’s simultaneously dealing with advanced mouth cancer, a pill addiction and the death of her husband. Violet’s an astute woman, but also one that’s prone to outbursts and putting the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons. These pigeons? That’d be Violet’s daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) and sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), plus their associated spouses that include Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbach and Chris Cooper amongst their ranks. As you might have assumed, this is a very character driven movie: one that tells the tale of life, death and all the arguments that fall in between.

August: Osage County (2014)

As I alluded to in the introduction, August: Osage County once begun its life in theatreland, which is highly evident throughout the run time of the film. Some of the sets are nigh-on replicas of what you would envisage to be seen up on stage. All of this lends itself perfectly to letting the characters and acting truly shine, as this is where the strengths of the film truly lie. I mean, look at that cast! With Meryl Streep you know what you’re going to get – a solid performance. But her portrayal of Violet is captivating; she veers wildly from caring and understanding mother to outrageous, totally non-PC hellraiser. Obviously, embodying someone that’s addicted to medication and suffering from terminal cancer calls for someone with some good acting chops, and obviously, Streep is more than capable of this!

Saying that, her supporting cast is nothing to be sniffed at, particularly Julia Roberts. Now, I’ve never come to associate Roberts with spell-binding roles. This is probably my fault, as I never actively sought her out in films. Hell, she’s no Bradley Cooper (no, this isn’t me proclaiming Cooper to be the King of Acting 2014… just that The Phage has a soft spot for the guy, and we actively seek him out in EVERY role… even Long Hot American Summer (which sucked)). But here she truly shines. This doesn’t come across as “acting” but “living”. I was totally sold on her role and couldn’t help but emote with her as the film progressed.

August: Osage County (2014)

This brings me to the plotting of August: Osage County. At first, I won’t lie, I was a little confused about where the film was going to head. The first third, whilst enjoyable, wasn’t wholly engrossing. Thankfully, this was just a “scene setting” exercise. By the midway point I was sold and was captivated by proceedings. There are plot twists and then twists on the twists. I like this. No, I love this. As long time readers will know: I’m not a fan of linear film telling. I like to second guess and then second guess my second guesses. I’m not sure if that means I’m fourth, sixth, or eighth guessing myself. Regardless, the plot was excellent. This is coupled with some truly heart-warmingly funny moments peppered throughout. This isn’t a comedy film per-se, but the elements of humour are scattered throughout and work beautifully.

All in all, August: Osage County is a powerful piece of film making that’s truly driven by a superb ensemble cast. Whilst the film is slow to build and may lose some in this time period, it rewards those that are with it for the long haul. Obviously, the film is here to compete for golden statues, but as I’ve said before this year: it’s another very tough year… who knows who’ll win! But head out to see August… in winter… What lies inside is a touching film that makes you smile, makes you sad and makes you recoil in shock.

A shock that’s more commonly associated with those horrible winter days. After you’ve been hunkering near that idling bus, it pulls off and sprays you with drizzle and envelops you in a cloud of diesel fumes. I’m kind of glad they didn’t make the film November: London County… although you’d certainly get a lot of indoor scenes as it’s too gloomy to head outside. Bit more stabby too.

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

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The Butler (2013)

The Butler (2013)

You can almost detect when Oscar season is approaching. It’s not that the leaves change colour, nor is it the appearance of snow, or any media-related hype. No, you can map its arrival by the genre of films that are spewed out by Hollywood. Once the sumemr blockbusters are over, you get the tired out films that weren’t good enough throughout September… then you get the autumnal blockbusters. But then… then you get the dramas. Generally those about real life struggle. War’s quite a hot topic in recent years. But let’s not forget that this is ‘merica… and what do we want from an American film? Probably something either pro-US or heavily US-centric. So looking over the release schedule we can see a lot of movies about war (again), as well as that classic card… race, and slavery. Let’s all welcome The Butler – the first of this season’s retrospective look at black history in the US.

The Butler (2013)

The Butler, along with 12 Years A Slave, represents the tried and true offering of race-based cinema entertainment. It’s Oscar-bait and unshamedly so, one would presume. Will it get this Oscar? Well… I’m not so sure. That’s not to say that The Butler is a bad film; it’s very watchable. But you can’t help but feel a touch of deja-vu. No, not because it retells the real events that occurred in the US between 1951 and the present day in relation to Civil Rights and equality… no, it’s more because it feels like you’re watching Forrest Gump again.

Let me keep no secrets from you: Forrest Gump is a fantastic film in our eyes. Thoroughly entertaining, heart warming and funny on occasion too. All the time set against the backdrop of the big events of the 20th Century. We saw Tom Hanks meet Elvis, fight in Vietnam, help get Richard Nixon impeached and start up Bubba-Gump. Forrest Gump was a very clever film and was shot very, very well. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that The Butler was trying to recapitulate the feelings generated by that film!

The Butler (2013)

The Butler stars Forest Whitaker (see – another Forrest / Forest!) as the eponymous butler, Cecil Gaines. Brought up on a cotton plantation and shaped by his upbringing as a house servant following his father’s death, he eventually becomes hired as a butler at The White House serving President Eisenhower. Gaines stays there through the decades of black oppression that would follow and sees Presidents come and go over time. At the same time, he has to balance his home life with his wife (Oprah Winfrey) and sons. One of whom, Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes deeply politicised and works his way through most of the black power groups of 1960-1980, including the Freedom Riders and Black Panthers. This combination of Cecil and Louis’ lives fills in the bulk of what The Butler is about.

As I say, The Butler is far from a bad film. It’s really enjoyable and it’s delivered really well. This is of course due in no small part to the fantastic ensemble cast, including Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., James Marsden, John Cusack and Lenny Kravitz amongst many others. It’s a sensational casting coup and it’s always a gentle thrill to see a recognisable actor appear throughout the 2 hours of the film.

The Butler (2013)

Speaking of run time, the film never really feels bloated either. It flows well and doesn’t dwell too long in any particular era, just like Forrest Gump before it. However, where it fails to meet Forrest Gump‘s high standards is in its ability to make you simultaneously laugh and cry. The smiles are there (just not laughter), but the tears? They fail to form. Forrest Gump‘s finale has every person capable of displaying emotion in tears. You know the bit I’m on about – where Jenny passes away (not a spoiler… the film’s almost 20 years old!). The Butler fails to do this. Indeed, I found the ending particularly hard to stomach.

It all just seemed too saccharine and “go USA!” at its conclusion. For a film that had spent so long highlighting the dirty underbelly of what is essentially “modern” days USA, the end just felt too contrived and forced to give that “hell yeah, we’re a great nation” impression. I get why it was done: things coming full circle, but it felt hammy and literally had me squirming in my seat. It instantly dropped half a Phage for the ending alone. As I say: a really good film, but not without its flaws. These flaws certainly don’t lie in the casting, especially Forest Whitaker who is sublime, as always. It’s just… it’s just not Forrest Gump.

The Butler is a valiant first entry into what is sure to be a crowded pre-Oscars film season. We can wave goodbye to the popcorn marathons and engage in some more lofty sounding films. Whilst I certainly don’t feel that The Butler will pick up any Awards come February, it can stand tall as a solid film. Even if it does come a bit close to mimicking what’s gone before.

Maybe it’s telling that I keep comparing The Butler to Forrest Gump. To me, Forrest Gump feels like it came out yesterday and not 20 years ago. Time flies. But it all seems very “now”. Maybe I shouldn’t be comparing to a film that is essentially over two decades old. But then again, if it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck and swims like a duck… well, it’s probably a duck. That’s what momma woulda told y’all.

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

Movie 43 (2013)

Movie 43 (2013)

Forgive me Phagelings for I have sinned. I come here humbly seeking your forgiveness for breaking my own commandments. I read other people’s opinions before coming to form my own. I know, it’s a sin tantamount to spitting the wine back after Communion. Heinous behaviour. What’s more, all of the reviews were overwhelmingly negative. And by negative, I mean brandishing the film an abomination not suited for the realm of men. And after seeing Movie 43, I am in need of forgiveness… as is everyone else involved in bringing this bloated mess of a film to our screens.

Just look at this list for a second... Look at it.

Just look at this list for a second… Look at it.

Well, I think that sets the tone well for the rest of this review right? You’re in no way confused about where I’m taking this. Movie 43 is quite simply one of the worst films committed to celluloid. But I ignored the prophecising from other reviewers and Rotten Tomatoes. How could a film that featured such an overwhelmingly fantastic cast be doomed to fail? It was like the Lehman Brothers of the film world. You’re factoring in A-listers such as Richard Gere, Kate Winslet, Gerard Butler, Hugh Jackman, Naomi Watts… and the list goes on. And on. And on. So how can a comedy film like this turn out to be a dud? By having absolutely no laughs and nothing to get excited about.

This is my pose for the whole of the film. Yes Richard, you should be hiding away.

This is my pose for the whole of the film. Yes Richard, you should be hiding away.

Movie 43‘s very loose plot toys around with a group of kids looking for a fabricated film called Movie 43 to prank a younger brother. But as they delve into the depths of the internet they discover some very weird and odd movies that are already out there. These weird movies feature a date between Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman where Jackman has a scrotum grafted to his neck, but no-one can see it but here, and a skit about Johnny Knoxville capturing a leprechaun (Gerard Butler) for Sean William Scott to make up for sleeping with his girlfriend. I know right? Pure comedy gold. Not really.

The problem with the film is two-fold: 1) it’s not funny, and 2) it’s pure nonsense. Let’s deal with point 1 first shall we? As regular readers will know, The Phage is British. Over here in the UK we have a very dark sense of humour that most Americans can’t comprehend. Our humour is awkward, situational and sometimes grossly offensive. All of this is fine in my books – it just works and makes me laugh. However, Movie 43 takes the last part of that tripos and ratchets it up to 12. It’s so puerile and offensive that even I sat there thinking “wow… that’s crossed the line”. My line is a dot in the distance, but it still raced over there, spat on it, and jumped over. Probably making some weak fart joke as it went. The jokes were hokey and were probably best suited to a 5 second gag on some other terrible TV sketch show. The phrase that came to mind for a lot of these “pieces” was flogging a dead horse. It make its weak attempt at a joke and then drove it into the ground so much that it was nothing but dust. Horribly unfunny dust.

I felt like crying too Emma. It's OK, don't fret...

I felt like crying too Emma. It’s OK, don’t fret…

And let’s jump to number 2. I can also tolerate a nonsensical plot. I’m not averse to it. Sometimes comedies just have a ludicrously dumb plot: Dude! Where’s My Car? is self-explanatory, Freddy Got Fingered is just dumb and Dumb and Dumber is about taking a suitcase to a girl in Aspen. They don’t have to be rocket science. But the overarching “plot” was as bad as the faux-films they were watching. It just had no redemptive qualities whatsoever. OK, I tell a lie – the one time I laughed was during the credits’ outtakes. So credit to you Johnny Knoxville and Sean William Scott for breaking my icy veneer.

Then, to add insult to injury… the film just keeps going. You reach the outtakes and reflect on how you’ve just squandered 90 minutes of your life in a cinema when you could have been staring at a curbstone in the car park instead, but then it just… keeps… going. Another sketch is thrust into your retinas about some bizarre animated cat and how much it hates Elizabeth Banks. Why? What have I done to deserve this?

Yeah, I think you can keep that Oscar speech in your pocket for the foreseeable future.

Yeah, I think you can keep that Oscar speech in your pocket for the foreseeable future.

And let’s get one thing straight here: I’m not an uptight Brit. If I am, then so too is everyone else in the audience that was duped into spending their cash watching this train wreck of a film. If you think back to last year, you’ll remember our worst film of the year: Keith Lemon The Film – we even gave it our 2012 Phagee Award for being so awful. Well, Movie 43 is its American big brother. Sure, its cameos are from international film stars and it looks a hell of a lot slicker, but underneath the veneer its the same horrible, bent-out-of-shape mess of a movie…

As you can probably tell, Movie 43 isn’t our hottest pick of the year. In fact, I’d already mark it up for being the worst movie of 2013 and we’re only in February. The film will solely appeal to 12 year old boys who think jokes about periods, crap and scrotums are literally the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. No doubt it’ll become like Playboy or Penthouse and will be passed around under desks on a burnt DVD so everyone can be in on the joke. But at least Playboy or Penthouse would teach them sometime about life.

But what about the rest of us with a mental age of at least 14? Well, my simple advice would be to wait until the film’s released on DVD. Find it. Don’t buy it. And possibly slash the case so it gets returned to the warehouse to prevent someone from seeing it. Imagine it’s the tape from The Ring. You wouldn’t want anyone to suffer would you? Because then you too would be seeking forgiveness. Not for breaking commandments or for starring in one of the worst films of the decade, but for dooming someone to 90 minutes of sonic and visual abuse. In fact, give them the tape from The Ring instead. You’ll have less to feel guilty about.

Phage Factor:

0.5 Stars

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Being meta and self-referential isn’t a new tool in Hollywood. Although movies rarely “break the fourth wall” and talk to the audience, some are acutely self-aware and make reference to the trappings of film-making. In my last review I opened by talking about Tropic Thunder, which is in itself a film about making a film. You also have the Scream franchise, which became very self-referential and aware of its genre confines. Essentially: it’s not a new technique. So how does this relate to Seven Psychopaths, the follow-up to director Martin McDonagh‘s In Bruges? Read on to find out…

Writer's block... it's a bitch.

Writer’s block… it’s a bitch.

Although the plot kicks and bucks like an unbroken bronco, it can be broken down as a story that follows Marty (Colin Farrell) – a screenwriter struggling from writer’s block whilst penning his latest film: Seven Psychopaths. The only trouble with this screenplay? He’s not got any characters, or plot… or anything. Through talking with his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) he gradually expands his list. But Billy’s also a dog-knapper: he steals dogs with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) in order to collect the inevitable reward that is offered by the beleaguered owner. This works out pretty well for the pair until they pick the wrong Shih Tzu to steal… that belonging to Woody Harrelson‘s Charlie, who’s quite frankly a nasty piece of work.

Seven Psychopaths (2012)So therein lies the initial premise of the film, but I’d be doing a disservice to you guys if I said that was “it”. Marty’s journey to write his screenplay is extremely entertaining and not at all predictable. As I mentioned earlier, the plot is anything but predictable. The characters even talk about plot mechanics and how Marty should flaunt the dynamics of a typical thriller and mix it up. The real film (the one you’re watching) then follows suit and switches up. This film is very meta and constantly refers to itself in a none-too-cheesy or obvious way.

As loyal readers of the ‘Phage will know by now, I’m a sucker for a non-linear plot and something that really catches me off-guard. This film did that. In spades. Especially since I was pretty much unaware of this film coming to cinemas at all, spare a trailer that preceded last week’s viewing of Silver Linings Playbook. Although I found the initial opening 20 minutes difficult to immerse myself in (owing to some distracting patrons in my screen), I soon became engulfed in the film. If I wheel back to those trailers, they’d have you believe this is an out-and-out hoot – a real comedy. But this is dark. Really dark. It’s still comedic, but be prepared that this isn’t a light-hearted film about some dog-knappers mixing it up with the wrong people. This isn’t an Adam Sandler / Rob Schneider movie.

Now, the plot is fantastic, but what of the actors? We have here perhaps some of the best performances of the year. I know – a bold statement to make in a year of so many great films. Farrell seems much more at home in this type of role that he does in the other blockbusters he’s been in this year, and he’s allowed to use his Irish brogue, which is a plus. Whilst he’s great, the real honours need to go to Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken. Both are simply incredible in their respective roles. Sam Rockwell‘s Billy is incredibly well written and Rockwell‘s delivery is sublime. Although I’ve seen a lot of his filmography, I’ve never left a screening and felt that he was spectacular in his role. Seven Psychopaths changed all that. He’s funny, unpredictable and captivating. He’d be the runaway best supporting actor if it wasn’t for Christopher Walken, who is on sterling form. I can’t actually recall the last time I saw Walken in a role that wasn’t tongue-in-cheek and a bit camp. But here he’s engaging and incredibly powerful. A scene with him and Harrelson in a hospital is incredibly affecting. Can we have more of this in future please?

Farrell, Rockwell and Walken: the perfect storm.

Farrell, Rockwell and Walken: the perfect storm.

In case you’re unable to put 2 + 2 together, then you should be getting the impression that I really enjoyed Seven Psychopaths. After a somewhat rough opening (owing to non-film based factors) the film really got on track and constantly threw curve balls at me. I love a good twisting plot that is topped off by great acting talent. Although I’ve focused on Farrell, Rockwell and Walken, the other players here are solid. But their performances will never come close to the core three members of the cast here. It’s a very male-centric film, that much is for certain. In fact, the film within a film also mentions that detail. Whether the film is trying to be too clever for its own good is up for debate, but I felt all the meta plot mechanisms worked fluidly and in a really enjoyable way. Or maybe I’m not clever enough to realise that it’s too clever for it’s own good. Damn that’s a clever sentence.

Seven Psychopaths is a brilliant slice of film making. It’ll have its detractors who thought it was too “up itself” for its own good, but those people are probably too “up themselves” too. We’re all up something or other it would seem. How you can’t appreciate Rockwell and Walken in this film is beyond me. Both are on career-best form and this film needs to be seen for that reason alone. Come for the actors, stay for the plot.

So, you’ve had my introduction, ramblings about plot, ramblings about actors, first paragraph of sensible summary and now it’s time for the second paragraph that cleverly ties it all together, right? That’s the Film Phage way after all. That’s what we do. But I’m clearly not clever enough to flaunt my layout and the conventions of a review site. Maybe I’ll just align this paragraph to the right? Yeah, that’s edgy. That’s crazy. That’s meta. Maybe.

Phage Factor:

4.5 Stars