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Recent Movies: August: Osage County; Stranger by the Lake; Her

February 9, 2014

Recent Movies

August: Osage County

Based on the play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the film’s screenplay), an extremely dysfunctional extended family reunites in rural Oklahoma after one of its members has gone missing.

This film has an A-list cast who do a great job as an ensemble especially during a powerful dinner scene in the first half.  Among the standout performances, the great Meryl Streep shines yet again as a crazy matriarch addicted to prescription pills.  Whether we in the audience detest her or pity her, few others could do so well in such a difficult role.

Streep and Julia Roberts have been given most of the credit and attention during this awards season but there is another performance that was equally deserving: that of Chris Cooper.  He’s quite good as one of the few characters that has common sense and decency.  His best scenes include one where he shows compassion to a very troubled character and another where he rightly tears a strip off someone who deserves it.

Years ago, I saw a great stage production of the play.  While the movie is loyal to the story, it might be one of those situations where the screen doesn’t work as well as the stage.  In the screen version, the many shockers and downers seemed a bit much while they seemed perfect on the stage.

I wanted to like this film a lot.  It was based on a great play.  It has a stellar cast and that rarity in the film world – many great roles for actresses.  But despite my desire, I could like this movie only so much.

Rating (out of four stars):   * * 1/2

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Stranger by the Lake

A lake in southern France and its beach and nearby woods are inhabited by gay male naturists.  Franck, a handsome young man, is new to the scene and very infatuated by the equally handsome Michel.  Their connection has mixed vibes though, as Michel might be more dangerous than he seems.

The film carries a universal message that is expressed in other stories:  the peril that youthful passion and desire can overwhelm one’s basic instincts of safety and integrity.  This inner conflict can be equally felt in the audience thanks mainly to the astute directing of Alain Guiraudie.

There is a common and fair complaint that only female actors are used in movies for scenes of full frontal nudity and same-sex love scenes.  “Stranger by the Lake” smashes this barrier to smithereens.  The French culture and its film-making community can be credited for such boldness.

The passion is played out in steamy love scenes while the more cautious mentality is expressed through a couple of interesting middle-aged characters. 

One is an ordinary looking man who is new to the gay scene.  He’s very much a loner but he has a pleasant friendship with Franck.  Their conversations are among the high points of the film

The other interesting character is a police inspector who is drawn to the area due to a tragedy that may have involved foul play.  In a moving scene, he passes a very concerned judgment of the people who hang out by the lake – a judgment which is pleasantly surprising.

Every scene in the film takes place at or near the lake.  Guiraudie makes brilliant use of sound and photography to create a serene yet sinister atmosphere.  The sound of the wind is mesmerizing.  It’s almost as though the nature of the region is a character itself.  And with a shocking ending that is quietly frightening and very ambiguous, “Stranger by the Lake” is a superb start to the movies released in 2014.

Rating:   * * * 1/2

Outstanding Achievement:    Directing by Alain Guiraudie

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Her

In the near future in Los Angeles, this science-fiction film follows the life of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix).  He tries to heal his loneliness by connecting with an Operating System (OS) software device (voiced by Scarlett Johannson).  The OS is set up to evolve and grow like a human including all the insecurities.

The director/writer of “Her” is Spike Jonze who did a great job directing  “Being John Malkovich” over ten years ago.  His creative spirit pays off again in “Her” which has a bizarre universe but still seems to follow its own unusual logic while making the audience care for its characters.

Phoenix does a superb job and deserved more of the accolades that are dished out at this time of year.  In his many close-ups, he is great in conveying loneliness, confusion, sadness, and grief for a failed relationship. 

While Johansson also does a fine job in a voice performance, there are other smaller roles that are also well played:  Amy Adams as a platonic friend;  Olivia Wilde as a blind date with similar insecurities;  and a hilarious voice cameo by Kristen Wiig in a phone-sex scene.

There are scenes of other individuals walking around communicating with their OSes.  They resemble the many people today who seem more alive connecting with someone from a distance on an electronic device than doing so in person.  Whether or not this inspired Jonze’s story, he’s made one of the best films of 2013.

Rating:   * * * 1/2

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