Friday, May 2, 2014

Films

Since our main form of entertainment during the evening is watching films on Netflix, I thought I'd say something about films for a change. Actually, I got burnt out on them, because when you watch several per week they become a blur. The fact is that in any given year there are only going to be a couple of new films that I consider to be of any value beyond simple entertainment. The better films become less memorable when crammed in between others. In some ways films were more effective when you only went out to see them a few times a year.

Two that we watched recently were Nebraska and August: Osage County. You could probably classify both of them as black comedies, though they are not as black or as imaginative as Dr. Strangelove, my all-time favorite. Nebraska is about an old drunk living in Montana who, based on junk mail he received, thinks he won a sweepstakes for a million dollars and wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick it up. To a casual observer, this would be the less interesting of the two films, because the characters are ordinary and unglamorous. However, the characters and dialogue, plain as they are, are perfect, and this may well be Bruce Dern's best acting performance ever. August: Osage County started as a play and is about a dysfunctional family living in Oklahoma. The mother is a pill addict with oral cancer and the father is an alcoholic poet. Things end badly. It reminded me a little of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which I found to have more interesting dialogue. The family dynamics are explored, but predictably, as you would expect in an American theatrical production. The only revelation of any value that I noticed was that the women were stronger than the men: Meryl Streep, in one of her better performances as the mother, and Julia Roberts, as the eldest daughter, in perhaps her best performance ever. The alcoholic father is played by Sam Shepard, whose brief appearance is good, but I have to say that his involvement in any production is a warning sign to me because of his relentless pursuit of false Americana.

Nebraska is more faithful to the way Americans think and feel, and it captures how they live in the Great Plains and Midwest without satirizing or sentimentalizing them. There is little of the distortion and condescension and none of the surrealism that one might expect in a Coen brothers film. The screenplay is unadorned and straightforward, but uncannily precise. The same cannot be said of August: Osage County, in which everything feels derivative. Overall, I didn't find that the characters added up. They were an intelligent group of people who for unknown reasons elected to live in a cultural backwater with high temperatures and no air conditioning. The men were weak and the women were strong: so what. I think the constraints that are placed on American theatrical productions significantly narrow the scope of their subject matter. I sense a formula here: family dysfunction is in; snarky dialogue is in; failed poet is in; down-home country living is out. August: Osage County, in sum, is a product contrived to suit the tastes of well-heeled urban American theatergoers.

4 comments:

  1. Snarky dialogue is indeed in. I guess I find it as amusing and witty as the next person but those 'without guile' always catch me off guard and make me want to be more like that.

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  2. Snarky dialogue can be fun, but, coming from a snarky family, it takes a high level of skill to impress me. For example, I gave up on Maureen Dowd of the New York Times years ago because she just isn't that good at it. Having lived in the Midwest for 40 years, I'd say most Midwesterners find snark racy because the're not used to hearing open criticism or witnessing disdain. So it plays well in theaters and on screen.

    Meryl Streep usually delivers a great performance, but her scripts don't always measure up, and I think that's the case here.

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  3. Movie night here and choice b/w August:OC and Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Went w Mitty, mistake I think, pretty light weight but gentle at least and I usually can't stand the overacting of Julia Roberts. Maureen Down reminds me of Ariana Huffington, both popular and successful gals but they strike me as trying too hard and this aging thing is for everyone but them. Even Gail Collins gets tiresome because everything is satirized and I keep feeling she is going to get mixed up in her facts and jibes.

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  4. I can hardly remember Walter Mitty - that used to be one of my father's favorites. Danny Kaye is pretty corny I think.

    Too cloudy for stargazing tonight. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are hidden now. I'm going to bed.

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