August: Osage County (2013)

August Osage CountyReleased: January 10, 2014 (wide release). Directed by: John Wells. Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor. Runtime: 121 min.

When a film starts out with the line “Life is very long,” that’s the first hint that the drama you’re about to watch isn’t going to be the feel-good film of the year. “August: Osage County” is a bleak feature with a prominent theme of the hollow emptiness of modern mid-western life. And hollow it is! The film follows the strong-willed women of the Weston family, who return to their family home in Oklahoma because of a family crisis. This means they have to face the devil woman that raised them.

The synopsis states that there’s a family crisis, and usually, one knows that it’s likely that it’ll either be a funeral or a life-threatening disease; and since Violet (Meryl Streep) already has mouth cancer, it looks like people are going to be dressing in black and are going to pretty upset throughout. The film’s trailer isn’t so subtle about who dies, either. In case you haven’t seen the trailer, I’ll try not to spoil it. This is a film about how family tests you and how it lifts you up but can kick you down, as well. And if you have a mother like Meryl Streep’s character, it’s going to kick you down a lot.

I like films with a focus on characters, and most of these are pretty good – but since there are so many, there’s a limited amount of layers for all of them. But the performances are pretty spectacular, and one of my favourite aspects of the film. Meryl Streep is great as a devil woman named Violet with emotional issues because of all the pills she takes. She’s one of those people who criticizes everything and blames people for things that happen, and make your insecurities known which makes one feel crappy. Because she’s so domineering, and since Streep is such a powerhouse dramatic actress, I think that’s why some people consider her a Leading Actress here, even though I’m nearly convinced she has about the same screen time as Roberts. I’m thankful she’s absent for about 25 minutes of the film because the character’s personality is very irritating. Since her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) is a similar personality, one can tell their mother screwed them up pretty harshly. 

Though, while Violet is critical of everyone, Fae is mostly critical of her son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Violet has three daughters, the main one Barbara is portrayed by Julia Roberts. She’s just great as a character who’s more likeable than her mother, but a bit similar – showing the influence of parental figures. Barbara is trying hard to keep the relationship with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and her daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) intact. Violet’s other daughter is Karen (Juliette Lewis) who is a bit of a ditz, but not much smarter than her fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Violet’s most likeable daughter is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) who was the only daughter to stay close to home, which creates tension between the three daughters. Ivy is criticized greatly by her mother because she hasn’t found a man yet. The only characters who actually rarely have rude things to say to each other are Ivy, Little Charles and Mattie Fae’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper).

Everybody’s just fighting constantly and it doesn’t make the experience enjoyable. There are bursts of comedy here and there that keeps the film from being completely boring, so that’s a good aspect. It seems to me that when one thinks family drama, it’s reasonable to expect people smiling and being nice to each other, isn’t it? But that so rarely happens in this slowly-moving picture. The only scenes some might find theirselves enjoying the film is when Julia Roberts launches herself at Meryl Streep because it’s freaking awesome, and there’s a sweet song that Cumberbatch sings at one point. Along with the little bursts of comedy, that’s the only time I really liked this. Its ending is unrewarding and the film is generally depressing. It’s one of those films where you walk out of the theatre and say, “Hey, could you say something kind to me? I’ve hardly heard a nice thing for two hours.” To have that depressed feeling for these two hours is an emotionally exhausting experience.

Score50/100

Ender’s Game (2013)

Ender's GameReleased: November 1, 2013. Directed by: Gavin Hood. Starring: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld. Runtime: 114 min.

Ender is conveniently named because he is called upon to lead the war against the genocidal species the Formics after they nearly annihilated the human race in an earlier invasion. He must end it all, in a film where war tactics are prominent and intriguing. You just can’t win one battle, you have to win the war; keep \kicking the enemy, and it will send a message. It will make them never attack again.

Many of these ideas are enforced by an intense Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), a generally unlikeable but important character. Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), one who focuses on the psychological status of the young students recruited by the International, is there to balance out Graff’s intensity. At least, that’s how I see her. I am afraid if this character wasn’t present Graff would be completely intolerable. Ender (Asa Butterfield) is the perfect choice to lead this battle because he’s smart, and has a near-perfect balance of compassion and violence. That is ideal for a war leader, at least in the International’s eyes.

Ender is the third child to go through this sort-of training, after his brother and sister. His brother, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak), couldn’t get very far because he resorted too quickly to violence. His sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), made it further into the training, but couldn’t advance because she was too compassionate, which is a believable trait for a character portrayed by Breslin. (She just seems kind and genuine, if you ask me.) Her character plays a much bigger role in Ender’s development than Peter. I find it interesting in this world that the parents have to file a government request in order to produce a third child. It seems to me that this might be put in order so the population doesn’t get out of control – in case the Formics attack again and they don’t kill as many humans? That’s my theory.

I am not sure how faithful this is to Orson Scott Card’s book of the same name, but I like many aspects of the film and I think Ender is a compelling character, a smart and emotional one with strong morals. He also sees many troubles of having this pressure weighing on his shoulder, because he is relied on to be a new leader. Everyone needs a leader. These war tactics are thought-provoking, and I think that’s why I prefer the first two thirds of the film over the third act. The third act has some good moments but the actual battle is lackluster. But the visuals are good, and I enjoy the set-up of this familiar science fiction flick. It’s a movie with good action scenes, a good cast and interesting aspects, but the fact that the whole movie leads up to an unrewarding battle is disappointing.

There’s some great battle training sessions that are entertaining. It’s like an anti-gravity laser tag, and it looks like a fun sport that I’ll probably never play because I don’t like heights. Haha. Ender makes a few enemies during his training, mainly Bonzo (Moises Arias in his third film of the year) who is a little man with a big Napoleon complex. He treats everyone like crap if he gets shown up. Well, he treats everyone like crap all the time. I’m liking Arias more and more though; even in an unlikeable role. Ender makes a friend, too, in Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), but it’s never crystal clear if they’re romantically involved or just friends. One more thing: There’s a really cool video game sequence that reveals Ender’s mental state to Viola Davis’ character and it’s just beautifully animated. I think this film would make a great video game – but as a movie, it leaves a bit to be desired as an sci-fi action flick.

Score63/100