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TIFF 2013: August: Osage County (2013)

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If one is to appreciate anything about this adaptation of Tracey Letts Pulitzer Prize winning play, the immensely staggering performances carried out by the entire ensemble would be a great place to start. Thankfully however, this gloomy comedic-drama directed by John Wells has decidedly more to offer than the undeniable talents of its star-studded cast. Much like its source material, this take of “August: Osage County” is teeming with family turmoil, sly humour, and plenty of heart. That being said, this cinematic adaption isn’t without its own, personal charms. Besides, there’s something you get with film that just blows live theatre out of the water. Say, for example, the stunning, not to mention real, panoramic scenery displayed, or the intended demeanour of a well-thought-out, perfectly captured shot…but that’s just my opinion. Nonetheless, Wells’ “August: Osage County” pays great reverence to its source while effectively differentiating itself from it.

PLOT:

In Oklahoma, in August, Beverly (Shepard), a poet with a drinking problem, lives with his wife Violet (Streep), who suffers from oral cancer and is addicted to prescription drugs. They have three daughters, Barbara (Roberts), Karen (Juliette), and Ivy (Nicholson). Soon after hiring help to assist with the care of Violet, Beverly disappears. This brings the entire family, their significant others, and close relatives to the house. What ensues when this group is brought together is a chaotic melee, and none are exempt.

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Wells faithful adaptation of “August: Osage County” officially launched its Oscar campaign this year at TIFF. And for the most part it was received with praise from its audiences. Granted, the tale’s natural combination of halfhearted self-loathing and perplexing family drama will come off as attention clamouring, even pathetic to some. Especially when the reward isn’t as grand or alluring. Ultimately, those not familiar with the play or those not affected by such issues will feel alienated. Therefore, the film won’t earn many new followers, but that was to be expected. What the film lacks in luring capability via story, reaction, and structure, it more than makes up for with a high-profile cast. And if the cast and their performances don’t drag you in, the tranquil, wondrous landscape alongside a hauntingly atmospheric score is sure to do the trick. However, all of “August: Osage County’s” endearing, upsetting, enthralling attributes aren’t enough to trump the immaculacy of the ensembles performances.

In a sense, “August: Osage County” is exactly what I’d expected and nothing more: darkly hilarious, melancholic, and impeccably performed. However in the same breath, sadly and ironically, my realized expectations still provided a bit of a letdown. Considering that when you’re collaborating a collection of illustrious, Oscar caliber actors, a director who certainly is no stranger to creating and capturing obscure family drama (Wells is the writer and director of possibly my favourite television program “Shameless”), and a story that’s highly relatable and has been proven to be a winner time and time again. The end result should be nothing short of scintillating. And although it surely shines blindingly on occasion, “August: Osage County” is more of a pulsating brightness. But do keep in mind that my preconceived notions about this film were still pretty steep. So even though it doesn’t knock you of your feet, it’ll definitely leave you teetering and stumbling around.

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As eye-catching and captivating as “August: Osage County” is to all the cinematic senses. The cast and their performances is the film’s only true, unarguable strongpoint. Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, and Julianne Nicholson. Wells’ A-list crowd definitely has the chops to tackle this emotional vast and mentally straining adventure. Ewan McGregor perfectly encapsulates the subtle strength of his character and intentionally falls to the backdrop. Dermot Mulroney does much of the same, except his portrayal deals a lot with frustrating and seducing the audience. Still, he can’t help but disappear alongside these acting heavyweights. Breslin is her usual quiet self. I don’t think I’ve seen a performance of her’s in which she utters more than 50 words. That being said, she does a great job absorbing the inward-dwelling habits of her character.

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Without question, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep steal the show. Although I have to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of Meryl Streep’s track record, for the majority at least. I don’t deny her talent and I feel she deserves the recognition she’s garnered thus far in her career, for the most part. In all honesty however, her performance in “August Osage County” is only the second time I’ve been blown away by one of her portrayals, the first being her performance in “Adaptation”.  Somehow, Streep completely dissolves into her character, both mentally and physically. She pulls off the accent, appearance, cold-blooded personality, and inevitable vulnerability incredibly. As for Roberts, she valiantly struts alongside Streep’s masterful performance with confidence and control. She might not disappear into the role as physically well as Streep does, but she does offer up more of a visceral performance. She portrays a stoic, ticking time-bomb astoundingly. I have high expectations that both will earn an Oscar nomination come award season.

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The very moment “August: Osage County” begins, you’re hit with the raspy, calming voice of Sam Shepard. Being the fictional husband to Streep’s character is no easy task, but Shepard does a phenomenal job exuding the patience, understanding, and heart. Benedict Cumberbatch, despite being sparsely used, amazingly bursts with such love, earnestness, and truth. The scene in which Cumberbatch’s character plays an original composition on a small, run-down keyboard to Julianne Nicholson’s character is heart-achingly effective and undeniably enchanting. Speaking of Nicholson, she does a fantastic job with Juliette Lewis and the aforementioned Julia Roberts completing this trio of sisters who have to deal with their mean-spirited, yet oddly nurturing mother. Chris Cooper continues to astound me with his kind, compassionate performance here. I found myself wishing he was my biological Father again and again.

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Disheartening, elemental, and decidedly truthful. “August: Osage County” is directed with a firm, honest hand and performed with the utmost talent and accuracy. If anything, the cast alone is worth the price of admission.

August: Osage County: 8.5 out of 10.

TIFF 2013 Announces First Batch of Films

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With a little over a month until the Toronto International Film Festival officially kicks off its 38th edition. The first batch of attending films were ceremoniously announced around 10am this morning in what is shaping up to be one of the most prolific, star-studded years in festival history!

75 films were announced Tuesday in what should become roughly 290 total, at least equalling last years output. Expect the entire Midnight Madness lineup to be released July 30, with the remaining films formally presented throughout the coming weeks. Check out the Galas here and the Special Presentations here.

The most notable from the first batch are as follows:

August: Osage County John Wells, USA, World Premiere:
August: Osage County tells the dark, hilarious and deeply touching story of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose lives have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them. Based on Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–winning 2007 play of the same name. Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Sam Shepard and Chris Cooper.

The Fifth Estate Bill Condon, USA, World Premiere:
Triggering an age of high-stakes secrecy, explosive news leaks and the trafficking of classified information, WikiLeaks forever changed the game. This dramatic thriller based on real events reveals the quest to expose the deceptions and corruptions of power that turned an Internet upstart into the 21st century’s most fiercely debated organization. The story begins as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) team up to become underground watchdogs of the privileged and powerful. On a shoestring, they create a platform that allows whistleblowers to anonymously leak covert data, shining a light on the dark recesses of government secrets and corporate crimes. Soon, they are breaking more hard news than the world’s most legendary media organizations combined. But when Assange and Berg gain access to the biggest trove of confidential intelligence documents in U.S. history, they battle each other and a defining question of modern time: what are the costs of keeping secrets in a free society — and what are the costs of exposing them? The film also stars David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie and Dan Stevens.

Kill Your Darlings John Krokidas, USA, International Premiere:
Kill Your Darlings is the true story of friendship and murder that led to the birth of an entire generation. This is the previously untold story of murder that brought together a young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and William Burroughs (Ben Foster) at Columbia University in 1944, providing the spark that would lead to their Beat Revolution. Also stars Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen, Kyra Sedgwick and John Cullum.

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Justin Chadwick, South Africa, World Premiere:
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is based on South African President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, which chronicles his early life, coming of age, education, and 27 years in prison before working to rebuild his country’s once-segregated society. Starring Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela, and Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela.

Rush Ron Howard, United Kingdom/Germany, International Premiere:
Two-time Academy Award winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon) teams up once again with two-time Academy Award–nominated writer Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) on Rush — a spectacular big-screen re-creation of the merciless 1970s rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). Also features Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara and Pierfrancesco Favino.

12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen, USA, World Premiere:
12 Years a Slave tells the incredible true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841 and finally freed in 1853. The story is a triumphant tale of one man’s courage and perseverance to reunite with his family that serves as an important historical and cultural marker in American history. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams and Alfre Woodard.

Blue Is The Warmest Color Abdellatif Kechiche, France, North American Premiere:
At 15, Adèle doesn’t question it: girls go out with boys. Her life is changed forever when she meets Emma, a young woman with blue hair, who will allow her to discover desire, to assert herself as a woman and as an adult. In front of others, Adèle grows, seeks herself, loses herself, and finds herself. Starring Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her Ned Benson, USA
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her is a two-part love story seen through the eyes of a New York couple trying to understand each other as they cope with personal hardship. The different perspectives of “Him” and “Her” result in two films with a unique look into one couple’s attempt to reclaim the life and love they once had. Starring Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Nina Arianda, Viola Davis, Bill Hader, Ciarán Hinds, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, and Jess Weixler.

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Don Jon Joseph Gordon-Levitt, USA, Canadian Premiere:
Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a strong, handsome, good old fashioned guy. His buddies call him Don Jon due to his ability to “pull” a different woman every weekend, but even the finest fling doesn’t compare to the bliss he finds alone in front of the computer watching pornography. Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) is a bright, beautiful, good old fashioned girl. Raised on romantic Hollywood movies, she’s determined to find her Prince Charming and ride off into the sunset. Wrestling with good old fashioned expectations of the opposite sex, Jon and Barbara struggle against a media culture full of false fantasies to try and find true intimacy in this unexpected comedy.

Gravity Alfonso Cuarón, USA/United Kingdom, North American Premiere:
Gravity is a heart-pounding thriller that pulls its audience into the infinite and unforgiving realm of deep space. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant medical engineer accompanied on her first shuttle mission by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney). On a seemingly routine spacewalk, disaster strikes. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalsky completely alone — tethered to nothing but each other and spiraling out into the blackness. The deafening silence tells them they have lost any link to Earth… and any chance for rescue. As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left. But their only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space.

To say that I am excited for TIFF 2013 would be a massive understatement! Can’t wait to see what other films will be joining this first wave.

Mud (2012)

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A harrowing, instant classic that, without any doubt, blossoms into legend. Mud is a charming, captivating, irresistible coming-of-age yarn that transcends and disarms. Rich with dynamic visuals, a sweet, at times cunning script, and superlative performances from its entire cast. Mud is comprised upon an endless source of infallibility and revered assets. Filmed entirely in the state of Arkansas, rooted along the Mississippi River and its tangents. Mud’s locations are a breathtaking backdrop evoking a sense of wonder and serenity. Written and directed by up-and-comer Jeff Nichols who continues his rise to fame with this, his third full length feature. The only thing more reliant than the unsurpassable portrayals and unmatched scenery throughout Mud is Nichols sturdy, visionary direction. Despite some heavy, dark subject matter and clinging to innocence for effectiveness, Mud never loses its way.

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Ellis (Sheridan) is 14 years old and lives in a houseboat on the banks of a river in Arkansas with his mother Mary Lee (Paulson) and father Senior (McKinnon). One morning, after he sneaks out past his parents, Ellis meets up with his best friend Neckbone (Lofland), who is also 14 and lives with his uncle Galen (Shannon). The boys set out to an island on the Mississippi river where Neckbone has discovered a boat stuck high in a tree, believed to have been put there by an extreme flood. Soon after climbing the tree and into the boat, they discover footprints and fresh food. Upon returning to their boat, figuring it best to leave before the inhabitant returns, they are surprised to see a rugged man fishing. The stranger, who is soon revealed to be named Mud (McConaughey), asks the boys for food in exchange for the boat in the tree. As time passes, the three become close friends and begin to trust one another. This is when Mud and the boys enter into an agreement that will change their lives forever.

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Filled with the vibrancy and uncertainty of life and youth. Nichols honest take on the struggles of growing up is both refreshing and astoundingly accurate. Managing to convey the hardships and vulnerability that comes with being young and wide-eyed. Mud places the world at your feet, just to render you helpless when you reach out to grasp it. To accomplish this feat while simultaneously leaving the viewer content and without being overly sappy is stupefying. Yet, the theme most prominent and riveting in Mud deals with the emotion that leaves us confounded and in a daze, love. Stating that regardless of age, we always succumb to the idea of love and will always stumble over and sacrifice ourselves and one another for a taste of it. Mud is undeniably one of the best films of 2013 and will undoubtedly stand the test of time.

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With a plethora of symbolism, lyricism, and dynamism, it’s easy to get caught up in the ripples of Mud and lose sight of its heart…If you can keep track of each, individual storyline strand, Mud has so much more to behold. For instance, the forests and rivers ingeniously resemble the appeasing exteriors of Mud’s characters. And like these peaceful settings and docile people, there are unforeseen dangers that lie beyond them. Just a quick note on Mud’s tranquil soundtrack which is composed by David Wingo, who also wrote the score for Nichols 2011 hit, Take Shelter. Wingo’s ability to match Nichols ideals with music is unparalleled and I’m overjoyed that the two continue to work with one another.

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Even though Mud might not be as psychologically exhausting as Take Shelter or disconcertingly ferocious as Shotgun Stories, it is certainly just as visual and rewarding. Nichols continues to grow with each release and every single outing of his sheds a little more light into his bright, limitless future. The most reassuring and remarkable trait of Nichols films is that the newest chapter is stronger than the last. Nichols effortlessly and eloquently absorbs the natural and elemental beauty of Arkansas, the surrounding terrain, and vast skyline. There is no denying that Mud’s numerous, incredible performances and original script would be useless without Nichols keen, eccentric direction.

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Finding a pair of young, close-knitted, and talented leads is imperative to Mud’s success and Nichols found them in Jacob Lofland and Tye Sheridan. Mud again reunites Nichols with Michael Shannon, who stared in both of Nichols other films, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. Now, even though his role is certainly smaller than the duo’s previous collaborations, Shannon is equally as effective. Also starring Matthew McConaughey, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Reese Witherspoon, and Sam Shepard. Mud’s ensemble easily gives one of the best collective efforts of the year.

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It is quite astonishing when an actor, let alone an ensemble breaks through the screen, allowing the viewer to discard the notion that what they’re watching is just a film, Mud has this effect. McKinnon and Paulson’s portrayal of a couple who’s marriage is on the rocks reaches a new level of believability. As they fight against the closing inevitability and try, relentlessly to keep their son stable regardless of their current circumstance causes a profound euphoria of respect to rush over the viewer. As for Shepard, who’s role is somewhat typical, is able to surpass its regularity with an unusually strong, aching performance. Witherspoon, who garners very little screen time, makes terrific use of her limited role. To be honest, I had very limited respect for Witherspoon as an actress, but after Mud, it has grown substantially.

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However memorable and powerful the supporting casts performances may be. They are simply outdone by Mud’s three leads Jacob Lofland, Tye Sheridan, and Matthew McConaughey. As McConaughey’s stock continued to rise throughout 2011 with his roles in The Lincoln Lawyer and Bernie, it slowly became apparent that there was no stopping his rapid ascension. Following up another hit in Magic Mike with Mud, McConaughey seems to have finally found his muse. McConaughey is now gearing up for another high-profile role as he is set to star alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, ready for release late in 2013. There is now, no denying McConaughey’s brilliance as he recently signed on to tackle the lead in the magnificent Christopher Nolan’s next film Interstellar, which will also feature Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway. Thankfully, there seems to be no end in sight for the once discredited Matthew McConaughey.

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Lofland and Sheridan, who were ultimately hired because of their abilities on a boat, knowledge of the area, and the time it would save not having to teach these facets to two other young leads, undoubtedly earn their spots. With a combined age that doesn’t equal some of their co-stars time of acting experience, let alone years on this planet, Lofland and Sheridan prove they’re not intimidated by underestimation. Having performed in Terrence Malick’s, The Tree of Life, Sheridan continues on his path to a fortuitous career. As for Lofland, Mud is his first full length feature, but you wouldn’t know it from his calm and confident performance. Both flourish in this highly advantageous opportunity and look to have extremely bright futures.

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With its unyielding, heavenly toxic imagery, phenomenal performances, and spot-on portrayal of love, death, and youth. It may be a bit premature, but Mud has eked its way into my top 10 all time favourite films and I don’t see it falling out anytime soon. It is a must see for anyone, cinephile or not.

Mud: 9.5 out of 10.