August: Osage County—Beverly Aiken, a poet, drinks too much, while his wife Violet, who’s struggling with mouth cancer, is addicted to pain pills. When the former, played by Sam Shepard, disappears one day, the latter, played by Meryl Streep, summons their daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis) as well as her sister (the superb Margo Martindale) to the family manse in rural Oklahoma.
In the wake of these harpies come various spouses, cousins, kids and significant others, played by the likes of Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney and the lately-ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch. The Aikens spend the rest of the movie, adapted by Tracey Letts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sam Shepard-esque play and directed by TV journeyman John Wells, cutting into each other with blame, ridicule and vitriolic language. Wounding family secrets are revealed, plates get broken. A Cheyenne caregiver (Misty Upham) skulks around stoically, making herself useful; she’s like an ambassador from the world of sanity.
Given its cast and pedigree, it would be tough for August: Osage County to pack no punch at all. There are effective passages of dialogue, and most of the actors get at least a scene or two to shine. Streep goes back to the “accent acting” that so often got her branded a showoff earlier in her career, but here it’s to comic effect—her low, drawn-out syllables are frighteningly funny, especially when she lifts them into a sudden tone of authority.
The whole ensemble squeezes as much grim humor as they can out of this material—it helps that the characters crack themselves and each other up a lot. They seem amused by their own awfulness. As with the 2011 film of another play by Letts, his trailer-park Grand Guignol Killer Joe, the inherent theatricality of the work is unmistakable; you may reflect that it would play stronger live. Even so, the movie is polished and almost never dull.
You may also ask yourself at times, however, how it is that you’re supposed to find the vituperation of this creepy clan enriching. Maybe we’re meant to be grateful for our families by comparison.
Lone Survivor—Mark Wahlberg plays Marcus Luttrell, one of a team of U.S. Navy Seals involved in Operation Red Wings, an ill-fated 2005 mission to locate a Taliban bigwig in a village in northeastern Afghanistan. Luttrell and three other Seals were discovered by locals and attacked by Taliban forces. A badly wounded Luttrell was eventually given shelter by an Afghan family, at great risk to themselves, and got back to safety alive.
Apparently there is some uncertainty about the accuracy of the book, by Luttrell and Patrick Robinson, from which his movie is adapted; the number of Taliban fighters these men faced is disputed. We in the audience are obviously in no position to offer judgment on this, but I can certainly say that the film, scripted and directed by the capable actor turned capable writer-director Peter Berg, is a grim, scary military actioner.
Wahlberg, who was also among the film’s producers, offers one of his more sympathetic acting turns in years. Be forewarned, though, that Berg’s battle scenes in Lone Survivor, though they leave us admiring the Seals for their bravery and endurance, and the villagers for their hospitality, are bloody, horrifying and shot through with a sense of nightmarish futility.