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

Jack The Giant Slayer (2013)

Jack The Giant Slayer (2013)

Fairy tales are magical things. They fill a child with a sense of wonder about what could or could not be. Well, that’s the case for the majority of children. For others, they’re a terrifying reminder that ghouls, goblins and trolls are very real and are lurking around every corner. I can’t quite recall which side of the fence I fell on though. I was more preoccupied with the fear of Vigor from Ghostbusters II coming to abduct me than I was about some giant or hobgoblin. Vigor comes out of paintings like a pre-20th Century Samara from The Ring. Now that’s chilling. But I digress… fairy tales are a great source of inspiration for Hollywood, whether they’re ancient Bavarian tales, or stories scribbled on the back of a beer coaster in 2011. But who doesn’t love a twist on the original story? Something fresh to entertain adults and children alike. Enter Jack The Giant Slayer. The words in the title will be familiar, the contents less so.

Jack The Giant Slayer (2013)

It’d be fair to say that the words “Jack” and “Giant” should conjure up images of beans, castles in the sky and a thieving kid called Jack. It’s a story that’s been told and re-told since the early 19th Century, so it wouldn’t surprise me if you did know it. But strip out the notion that Jack is a thieving git who steals shiny objects like a magpie from the giant’s house before killing him and getting away with it. Shake it all up a bit. Add in an army of giants and a quest to save a princess and you have Jack The Giant Slayer.

Yes, this is a new take on the classic story, starring Nicholas Hoult as Jack. Last time we saw Hoult was in Warm Bodies, where he played a shuffling corpse capable of human emotions. If you remember, we weren’t overly fond of it owing to The Phage‘s affection for zombiekind. Well now he plays Jack – an extremely poor lad that lives with his uncle, owing to the untimely passing of his mother and father. Jack’s quested with selling some goods in town to repair their ailing house, but through being in the wrong/right place at the wrong/right time, he ends up with some beans… beans that will alter the path of his life and the whole Kingdom of Cloister. A Princess is in peril and there’s a whole army of giants up in the sky who can’t wait for some tasty human flesh.

Giant slaying... pretty funny business!

Giant slaying… pretty funny business!

Actually, now I come to think of it, there are probably some good parallels to be drawn between a zombie film and a giant film. Both bloody love human flesh and both seemingly feature Nicholas Hoult. However, Jack The Giant Slayer comes off as a far more well-rounded film than Warm Bodies and it thankfully lets Hoult flex his acting chops to a decent enough degree. I also feel that merit needs to be given to Eleanor Tomlinson as Princess Isabelle. She just “suited” the role well. But this is undoubtedly Hoult‘s movie.

However, that’s not to say that the film is a classic. The crux of the problem with this film is its inherent reliance on CGI giants. I like to think that CGI has come on dramatically in recent years. We’ve almost been spoiled in the past year with beautiful mo-cap performances from Andy Serkis as Gollum in The Hobbit and Mark Ruffalo in Avengers Assemble. Obviously, massive credit goes to their respective animation teams, but the performances are also sublime.

Jack The Giant Slayer (2013)

OK, you may be thinking “well that’s all well and good – they’re only a single character at a time and aren’t as complex as an army of giants”. Well good sir / ma’am, I point you towards the utterly fantastic Troll Hunter. The best Norwegian film I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen at least one). As Hollywood has far deeper pockets than a group of Norwegians, why didn’t the giants look as utterly mind-blowing as those in Troll Hunter? That would automatically bump the film’s rating up.

But the shortcomings aren’t just in the visuals, but in the plotting. However, I don’t want to get too bogged down in there. Look at the title of the film. Think about the story it’s based on. Is it therefore made for you? Really? You’re going to judge it with your 18 year old (Oh you’re older than that? You don’t look it. You must work out.) mind? The initial story is simple, and so is this film. It’s a rescue story, with a smattering of romance and breaking down class constraints. Plus a load of giants and a castle. If you’re willing to switch off and accept the film for what it is, then you’ll enjoy this a lot more than you would otherwise. However, if you’re going in expecting something to rival Tolkien’s recent resurgence at the box office, or something as gritty as Game of Thrones, you’re going to be disappointed.

Finally… can I just draw everyone’s attention to the giants’ accents here? Why are us Brits always seen as the massive, evil giants? Sure, we got a bit carried away with Colonisation over a hundred years ago, but we’ve not done that much to spite the world since then… have we? Well, it makes a change from being portrayed as impoverished (Les Misérables) or as rage-fuelled zombies (28 Days Later) I guess…

Jack The Giant Slayer is a nice twist on the classic tale. It also has a lot more of a moral core than the original story too, so it’s definitely suitable for the youngsters. What about the rest of us? So long as you’re willing to suspend your need for a complex narrative then you’ll have a good time. It’s a popcorn flick, nothing more, nothing less. Judge this book by its fairy tale cover.

I think this version of proceedings would be better suited as a children’s bed time story than the version about the thieving, murdering kid. Kids need morals. What of my own morals? Well, I daren’t touch paintings any more lest they protrude and envelop me into them. Now that’s morals for you. Who’d have thought Dan Akyroyd and Bill Murray could be so influential? And you Vigor… terror of my dreams… you too…

Phage Factor:

3 Star

The Impossible (2013)

The Impossible (2013)

Sometimes I think that all of this exposure to disaster-themed movies should make us all pretty prepared for the inevitable catastrophic event that will affect our lives: the zombie apocalypse. We’ve seen survivors flee from rage-fuelled fiends in 28 Days Later, people battle the world’s most rapidly changing climate in The Day After Tomorrow and even survive a hulking great asteroid hitting the Earth in Deep Impact. Hell, all Elijah Wood needed in that last one was a bike! He could outrun the oncoming tidal wave. In short: disaster epics are nothing new. What is a bit more novel is the use of the 2004 tsunami that devastated South East Asia – enter The Impossible.

The Impossible is based on the true story of a family that was in the wrong place at the wrong time on 26th December 2004. Here the family are portrayed by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as husband and wife Henry and Maria, and Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast as Lucas, Thomas and Simon: their three children. Ultimately, the tsunami tears the family in two, separating Henry and Maria beginning them on a desperate quest to find their children and each other in the tsunami-ravaged coastal areas of Thailand. And what a story it is.

The Impossible (2013)

Before I get drawn into the plot and acting, what really must be talked about first is the cinematography and shooting of the tsunami scenes. Quite frankly it’s amazing how these guys pulled this off. You never get the feeling that this is the work of camera trickery or some elaborate staging – it just feels real. This is especially noticeable when the camera shoots from high above so you can see the wave ripping through the hotels and houses like a red hot knife through butter. It’s truly astounding.

But what really struck me about the movie was how emotional it was. The Phage is never one to let his emotions get the better of him at the movies – he’s cold and remorseless. Well, he has been ever since he cried when Jenny died in Forrest Gump when he was a lot younger. That was a sad moment! But since then? A heart like stone. Having said all that, I’m not afraid to say that The Impossible really stirred up those emotions. I defy anyone to not feel touched by some of the scenes in this film. I don’t have little Phagelings running around, so I’m not even a parent – therefore the emotional damage has got to be exacerbated for any parents  watching this film too.

Look out for this scene... it's a heartbreaker.

Look out for this scene… it’s a heartbreaker.

What brought up these emotions? Sheer acting talent. Naomi Watts is acting her chops off in this film – you really feel her desperation and also wince with every one of her injuries as she struggles to track down some sense of normality. An utterly convincing performance that surely has to be in with a nod in this week’s Oscars nominations. However, credit also has to go to Ewan McGregor here too. The scene that really tore my heart to pieces was one of him managing to make telephone contact with a relative back home. His delivery of the ensuing speech could not be more emotional and evocative. It really feels as if both McGregor and Watts had tapped into the events of the day and really translated those emotions for the camera. Furthermore, at the opening of the film I was ready to dismiss all of the child actors as “caricatures” and “not Pierce Gagnon“, but even they really came into their own as the film progressed. Although Tom Holland is arguably given the bigger slice of camera time as the eldest brother Lucas, all three really round out the picture well and capture the innocence, sadness and anger that comes with separation.

I should hope that it’s quite obvious from the fact that it’s based on a true story that someone at least survives the tsunami. After all, who would tell the story if the entire family was wiped out? No-one. Having said that, finding out exactly who survives and how they manage this is truly enthralling. I must confess that I approached this film with some trepidation because I couldn’t see how a film about separation could sustain my interest over its two hour run time. All of these feelings soon disappeared by the time the wave hit; owing in no small part to the performances on screen and the riveting story. As I’ve said countless times before, it’s sometimes the true stories that seem even more unbelievable than those cooked up by banks of writers in Los Angeles.

The Impossible (2013)

Sure, the story’s been tweaked a little by director Juan Antonio Bayona to give it that on-screen flare and drama, but at its core you can’t help but buy into the fear and trauma of these individuals. And although some of the third act scenes feel slightly too forced and almost cartoon-esque with its near-encounters (you’ll see what I mean), the film is testament to some fantastic film making and really capturing the story of those that were part of this natural disaster and also delivering a story that can never be told by so many others that were taken by it.

The Impossible is an emotionally devastating piece of film making that should be applauded for its technical prowess, as well as its performances. All five of the actors portraying the family really captured the sheer desperation and angst that must have been felt by those that were there on that day. I’m not normally one to buy into films that are so flagrantly emotional, but The Impossible really hit all the right notes and truly is a life affirming film – it’s not just a clichéd expression used on posters.

So although my years of training for the end of the world has been delivered by years of exposure to Hollywood and its tales of doom, I don’t know how I’d actually fare if the time ever came. Except for zombies of course… I always have Zombieland to teach me how to survive that particular conclusion. The solution? Double tap the ghoul, remember that zombies can’t climb and just go and hang out with Bill Murray for a bit. Maybe try and convince him to take that role in Ghostbusters III too.

Phage Factor:

4.5 Stars