Movie reviews: August: Osage County

August: Osage County ****

Movie reviews: August: Osage County

The ghost of Tennessee Williams casts a long shadow across August: Osage County (15A), which is set in Oklahoma but is otherwise steeped in the old traditions of the Southern Gothic melodrama. The death - possibly by his own hand - of alcoholic writer Beverley Weston (Sam Shepard) brings his far-flung family home for his funeral. The home, a beautiful antebellum antique complete with wrap-around porch, is dominated by the waspy, vicious matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep), who is addicted to painkillers and downers as a result of her mouth cancer. With her own death looming Violet is contemptuous of the social conventions, and she sets about ripping apart the facades of her daughters’ relationships with unwholesome glee. Adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play, and directed by John Wells, the movie boasts a stellar cast, as Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others, queue up to have strips torn from them by the deliciously malevolent Streep (although two of the finest performances come from the relatively unknown Julianne Nicholson and Hollywood’s forgotten man, Dermot Mulrooney). The movie does betray its stage origins with an excess of dialogue-heavy scenes in which multiple characters verbally lacerate one another, but Wells employs the Oklahoma backdrop effectively, repeatedly cutting from claustrophobic interiors to the vast vistas of the rolling prairies beyond the house. The movie belongs to Streep, who fully deserves her Oscar nomination, although she gets a good run for her money from Julia Roberts, who puts in a terrific turn as the embittered daughter who has suffered too long the lash of her mother’s tongue. The final act sags somewhat, but otherwise this is a wonderfully spiky melodrama.

Set against the backdrop of New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis (15A) follows the eponymous hero as he struggles to establish himself as a solo artist on the folk music scene. ‘Hero’ might be too strong a word for it, though: Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is something of a cad, who sleeps with Jean (Carey Mulligan), the wife of his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), even as he takes advantage of Jim’s generosity in offering him a place to stay. The proposition put forward by the Coen Brothers, the movie’s writer-directors, seems to be that it’s not necessary for a person to be a beautiful human being for them to create beautiful art; indeed, they go out of their way to ensure that the audience finds it very difficult to empathise with Llewyn. Abrasive, jealous and feckless, he spends a goodly portion of the film pursuing an escaped cat, although his motive is a selfish one, to ensure that the cat’s owners won’t turn him away when he next needs to sleep on their couch. Is the cat representative of Llewyn’s animal-spirit, that primitive, untamed aspect of his ego the artist needs to allow run free in order to pursue his life’s destiny? If the contemplation of such philosophical notions gets your blood flowing, then you’ll probably love Inside Llewyn Davis, which is as beautifully crafted a piece a cinema as we’ve come to expect from those most single-minded of auteurs, the Coens.

It’s impossible to watch Grudge Match (12A) without seeing the ghosts of Rocky and Raging Bull in the periphery of your vision, but that was probably the whole point. Heavyweight boxers Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen (Robert De Niro) are bitter rivals during the 1980s, when Razor confounds the boxing world by pulling out of what will be a decisive title-deciding bout between the pair. Now, 30 years later, the washed-up pair are brought together by fast-talking impresario Dante (Mason Mackie) for a rematch that could shape the rest of their lives — not least because it brings Sally (Kim Basinger) back into their lives again. It all sounds rather ridiculous, but the filmmakers, led by director Peter Segal, mine that seam for much of the story’s self-deprecating humour. Stallone and De Niro appear to have a lot of fun knocking sparks off one another, while Alan Arkin provides plenty of vim and vinegar as Stallone’s aging coach. It’s no knock-out, but neither is it the punch-drunk lightweight we might have expected.

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