Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

GRUDGE MATCH - AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY - THE INVISIBLE WOMAN

 

As the clock ticks down on 2013, many of you are enjoying a well deserved holiday respite which includes more than an average number of trips to the movie theater. And as usual, Hollywood is filling your big screen needs with a number of big name, highly anticipated movies for your holiday - and awards - consideration.

GRUDGE MATCH

Thank you director Peter Segal, Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Jon Bernthal and Kevin Hart for giving me a great Christmas present with GRUDGE MATCH. The fictional story of former boxers Henry "Razor" Sharp and Billy "The Kid" McDonnen, Razor and The Kid haven't spoken in 30 years. Each winning hotly contested bouts against the other with a third match set to "break the tie", on the eve of the final bout, Razor abruptly throws in the towel, announcing not only his retirement from the sport, but the cancellation of the fight. Bringing both of their boxing careers to a screeching halt, the two haven't spoken since. Over the years, The Kid has parlayed his name into an endorsement bonanza, owning a car dealership and restaurant supper club, the latter where he performs doing a puppet act. Razor has slipped into relative obscurity, going to work at a local Pittsburgh ironworks foundry. Adding to the mix is boxing promoter Dante Slate, Jr., whose father not only promoted the last two bouts between Razor and The Kid, but who embezzled the gates, leaving Razor and The Kid with empty-pockets. Unfortunately, Slate also left his son penniless.

But Dante Jr. is nothing if not industrious and with the same fast-talking charm of his father, convinces Razor and The Kid to enter the ring just once more. Hit a major payday for all three of them and answer the question once and for all, who's the better fighter.

Stallone and De Niro are perfection as Razor and The Kid, respectively. GRUDGE MATCH is as much about paying home to legends and their iconography as it is to deliver an entertaining film. Both having spent time on screen in the ring previously (Stallone as "Rocky" and De Niro as "Jake La Motta"), not to mention co-starring in "Copland", GRUDGE MATCH goes beyond the current grudge match between Razor and The Kid, poking fun at/paying homage to the good natured grudge match that began between the two actors at the Oscars in 1976 when Stallone and "Rocky" won Best Picture over De Niro and "Taxi Driver." Stallone at age 67 has never looked better and still packs a wallop. Even De Niro at age 70, who trained heavily for this role, has some moves in the ring that rival his quick glibbed dialogue.

Complete with amusing sight gags that are nods to the iconography of the two legends. For Stallone look for more than a few set-ups that harken to several of the films in the "Rocky" franchise (raw eggs and meat lockers will jump right out at you) while De Niro handily sends up nods to "Raging Bull" and "The Godfather".

But what is most impressive about this Tim Kelleher - Rodney Rothman script is how it embraces the legends that are Stallone and De Niro while finding a perfect meld with Jon Bernthal as BJ, who just now learns that The Kid is his father, and Alan Arkin as Razor's trainer Lightning Conlon, adding a slightly crustier edge to the imagery ingrained in our collective consciousness of Burgess Meredith as Rocky Balboa's trainer, Mickey. As Dante Slate, Jr., Kevin Hart is just an outright hilarious scene stealer! (And stay through the credits for some laugh-out-loud hijinks with Hart.)

For director Peter Segal, GRUDGE MATCH is a dream come true, particularly when it comes to the ultimate fight on "Grudgement Day" as he called on none other than Stallone to choreograph the fight together with Robert Sale, the film's boxing consultant who worked with Stallone on all of the "Rocky" films. Calling Stallone, "the best fight choreographer in the business", I have to agree and watching the bout between Stallone and De Niro is nothing short of magic. Thanks to cinematographer Dean Semler and his implementing 7 cameras, plus employing some HBO sports cameramen to help with the lensing, not to mention sportscaster Jim Lampley, UFC announcer Mike Goldberg and the HBO sports team commentators, the result is a beyond realistic bout with Stallone and De Niro doing all their own boxing and throwing real punches. NOTE: No stunt doubles are used in the fight sequences. It's all Stallone and De Niro.

GRUDGE MATCH pulls no punches. A trip down memory lane for many of us, a fun-filled often tongue-in-cheek nod to cinema legends, it wins every round.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

There is sage wisdom within the story of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Directed by John Wells and written by Tracy Letts based on his play of the same name, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a tour de force in acting on all counts. There is not a weak character or performance in the mix. This film should be mandatory in all acting classes for the screen. What is most attractive with the performances is that while some characters have less screen time than others, the character never suffers and each actor adds a nuance that stands out, becomes indelible and unforgettable like a child fighting for attention within the family.

The story of the dynastic Weston family, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a dark chapter within the darkness of this already fractured, mean-spirited and estranged family as the family comes together for the first time in forever to bury their patriarch Beverly Weston, a man who has disgraced the family by taking his own life. (Watching this family dynamic unfold, however, one understands why he would commit suicide.) Matriarch Violet, cancer-stricken, pill-popping, vulgar and manipulative, wields secrets and a venomous tongue like no other. Matching her barb-for-bard is eldest daughter Barbara, whose disdain for Osage County and her family is beyond palpable. As we watch the "grieving" process, more secrets, more resentment, more hatred spews forth from each and every member of the family. It's so decadent, so delicious, you can't turn away!

I bestow the greatest accolades on the performances of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. It was like watching my mother and myself on the big screen. They embodied the contentious, defiant, generational strength that comes from the mother-eldest daughter family dynamic. Each delivers a powerhouse performance that goes beyond raw emotion into the pulse of emotion. They are the heartbeat of the film, every breath that is breathed. They are the life's blood of the family.

Notable is Juliette Lewis's Karen. As the baby of the family, Lewis milks Karen's demeanor for all its worth and plays up to the "I'm the baby, gotta love me" attitude. From playing with her hair to scrunching her face in a mock scowl, she is unforgettable. Playing hand-in-hand is Dermot Mulroney who is delicious as fiancé Steve. Running at the mouth a mile a minute, he oozes the slickness of a used car salesman, yet quickly "assumes the position" when put in his place with five words from Streep's Violet. This is without a doubt one of the most versatile and strong performances of Mulroney's career.

As Barbara's estranged husband Bill, Ewan McGregor provides a confidence that doesn't waffle, especially when it comes to daughter Jean. A beautiful moment unfolds between Mcgregor and Abigail Breslin's Jean when he sweeps her into his arms, wrapping his hand around her head and neck like swaddling a newborn baby. Tender, telling.

A great tacit performance comes from Misty Upham, who originally blew us all away with her work in "Frozen River." As caregiver to Violet hired by Beverly just days before his death, Upham's Johnna is quietly respectful. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to the character, one is unfulfilled by film's end, left feeling something was missing as to Johnna's place within the film and character structure.

Margo Martindale is nothing short of amazing. It's never easy going toe-to-toe with Streep, especially with a volatile strong-willed character like Violet yet as Mattie Fae, Martindale bests Streep beat for beat. Watching Streep and Roberts and Streep and Martindale is like a perfect 30 dance on DWTS. Electrifying, sizzling and unforgettable.

Sam Shepard and Chris Cooper. Be still my heart. With few words, they can fill a book with emotion and each does that here. A standout with AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY and Letts' characterizations is that men of that generation, especially southern/midwestern men, were men of few words, who had great strength learned from enduring the bossy brassy strength of the women they were married to. They fell into the background within the marriage yet without words, were cogs in the wheels as to the family dynamic as a whole. Each is the epitome of that here. A soothing calm.

Always a huge fan of cinematographer Adriano Goldman, here is no different. Lensing is soft, yet strong, buttressed by detailed production design and set design. Making the most of the confines of the house, Goldman uses doorways and windows to his advantage, setting the tone of focus. magnificent are some of the porch scenes which are mostly lensed at an angled POV (not Dutch, but just an angled perspective) that makes the metaphoric most of the screening, sunlight and light filtration. The effect just fuels the emotion and the subtext of secrets.

Given that the play is moved to the screen, a shortcoming is that director Wells fails to take advantage of the spaciousness that affords and doesn't push the envelope to expand the visual to match the expansive emotion and performances.

The play AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY has always been a favorite of mine. The timelessness of the story, the truth of the characters, the dynamic of the family. It's rich, raw and real. And that same vibrancy carries from stage to screen with this film. So often that truth and freshness of an open wound loses something in the stage to screen translation, but here it doesn't. What is lost, however, and that's due to the need to compress time for the screen, is the short shrift that the other swirling relationships get. This is such a dense story in terms of the family relationships that you really need time for not only the story to breathe, but for the characters and their interpersonal dynamics to organically burgeon forth and also breathe. Personally, I would have liked to see the film's length expanded to allow adequate time for these other characters.

A downfall with AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY has always been, and continues to be, the fact that we pick up the story with the family dysfunctional and estranged and at film's end it still is, if not moreso. But at the end of the day, this is all about performance and there's nothing dysfunctional or unsatisfying about those.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN

I am in awe of THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. Directed by Ralph Fiennes and written by Abi Morgan based on Claire Tomalin's book, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is the story of Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan, a much younger woman who becomes mistress to the much married Dickens, in a love story for the ages. An intensely enlivened multiple character study that speaks not only to character but character within the confines of socio-politcal mores of the day, while much of the film is quiet introspection, Fiennes offsets that with the ebullient lust for love and life that he himself infuses into his performance as Dickens, making those moments more telling, more impactful, drawing one deeper into history and the heart. The attention to detail is meticulously flawless, transporting one to the day with a full sensory immersion.

I had no idea that Felicity Jones could deliver the level of emotional intensity and gravitas tinged with a touch of delicacy that she brings us as Nelly Ternan. Not only is her face luminous with Fiennes camera choreography and Rob Hardy's cinematography capturing every nuance of wonder, conviction and internal struggle of "to love or not to love a married man", but her emotional tone is equally so.

The scenes of Nelly striding ever forth on her daily walks on the beach, dressed in black, have a ghostly yet ethereal tone to them and as the story unfolds, we realize that it is as if she has been living as a ghost all these years as well as being haunted by the ghosts of her past acts. Truly a fascinating dichotomy within the story structure designed by Fiennes.

Supporting performances are not only a delight, but some truly impactful and telling, particularly by Joanna Scanlan as she makes Catherine Dickens more than a buffoonish downtrodden housewife. Eliciting a depth and internal struggle, heartbreak and eventual acquiescence to her husband's wanton ways, Scanlan turns Catherine from what could have been a buffoonish pathetic character piece to a tragic and tortured wife caught between a rock and a hard place. Catherine Dickens was as much an "invisible woman" as Nelly Ternan.

As Dickens' best friend Wilkie Collins, Tom Hollander is a perfect foil to Fiennes' Dickens, serving as a grounding, practical balance to the story. Adding to that balance - and as a wonderful tool into the minds of propriety of the day is Michelle Fairley's Caroline Graves. The scenes between Jones and Fairley are brief but indelible and telling. Equally impressive is the interestingly cold facade that Kristen Scott Thomas gives to Nelly's mother Frances. Always worried about impression, status and her craft more than the truth and her daughter's heart or life. There is a great tone that Scott Thomas lends to the performance that made me believe Frances viewed everything and everyone as chattel.

As he showed us with "Coriolanus", Fiennes is an adept and gifted story-teller, employing every element of filmmaking to spin a web of fascinating and intrigue with the story and characters before us. Showcasing the decorum of the British upper crust of the day with carefully conscribed apportionment of costume, set design, even wallpaper, he immerses us into the various social stratas without wasting precious dialogue on setting a scene. We see it all before us. We see clothing being repurposed from season to season by the acting gypsies of Nelly's family, contrasted with the silver tea services and pristine velvet tufted settees of the monied upper crust or even in Dickens' own well apportioned monied home. He allows Maria Djurkovic's production design to act as its own character, thus freeing the stage for dialogue and insight into the true story of Dickens and Nelly. Fiennes lets the story and the characters breathe.

Fiennes paces the film so well and proves once again that the unseen is often more provocative than the seen, particularly effective during a climactic seduction scene. By the time Dickens and Nelly ultimately consummate their relationship, things have built to an unbridled boil thanks to artful lensing and editing. And again, there is extensive hand-held camera work that allows us to be one with the character, so much so that at times, everything is so in sync you feel as if you are in their shoes.

Rob Hardy's cinematography is a feast for the eyes and never moreso than in capturing the striking loneliness and emotional rage of Nelly in wide shots on the beach with the ocean serving as the visual rage of what she feels inside. Interiors are warm, rich, textured with candlelight and deeper - none dirt showing - color. And then there is the heart-stopping joy of sunny yellows and blue skies, a pastoral and bucolic almost dreamlike happiness for Dickens and Nelly in France. Breathtaking.

Interesting is the lack of judgment on the characters. Where some filmmakers and screenwriters would take this opportunity to inject a manipulative societal commentary, Fiennes and Morgan do not. They stay true to the period, true to the characters, true to the heart.

For full reviews and interviews on these films and more, go to http://www.moviesharkdeblore.com.

 

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