Popcorn Dinner

Learning life's lessons, one movie at a time.

August, Osage County: A Study in Discomfort

Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Julianne Nicholson bring the somber in August: Osage County. (Photo credit)

Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and Julia Roberts bring the somber in August: Osage County. (Photo credit)

This is the time of year that I am frantically trying to catch up on all of the year’s best movies. Usually right around the end of January I realize I have seen very little of note and am scrambling to fill in the blanks by Oscar time. With Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts earning Globe, SAG and Oscar nominations for their roles, August: Osage County was high on my awards-season must-see list.

From the very first tense, dimly lit scene, August: Osage County presents the audience with a picture of rural family life in middle America that is strained, bitter, and unsettling. It’s an intimate, up-close and personal, no-holds barred invitation to enter into what most of us would consider a deeply dysfunctional home. Streep plays the terminally ill, substance abusing matriarch who uses truth as a blunt weapon against her troubled daughters. Her husband’s disappearance (Sam Shepard) serves as the catalyst for a reluctant family reunion in Oklahoma’s sweltering late August heat. Enter long-suffering and bitter eldest daughter (Julia Roberts) with husband (Ewan McGregor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin); the quietly resigned “spinster” daughter who stayed close to home (Julianne Nicholson); and the free-spirit wild child (Juliette Lewis) towing her smarmy rich fiancée (Dermot Mulroney).

As if that cast of characters wasn’t enough for an uncomfortable family melodrama, my favourite performances in the movie are given by Margo Martindale (Streep’s character’s sister) and Chris Cooper as her husband. They don’t get much screen time and are somewhat overshadowed by the “meatier” roles, but demonstrate brilliant nuance and depth in every single moment. Similarly, Benedict Cumberbatch (known to many as BBC’s Sherlock) gives an understated performance of quiet desperation that is somehow both endearing and excruciating.

August: Osage County is all about the acting. There’s lots of over-the-top melodrama and heavy relational content punctuated with cruelly dark humour. The plot reminds me of a Tennessee Williams play – intense bourbon-soaked southern angst. Based on Tracey Letts’ award-winning play, the cinematic version of August: Osage County reflects its stage origins – set primarily in one location, character driven, and at times brutally intimate, like you have a front row seat to the most screwed up family dinner ever (and just want to hide under the table).

Worst. Family. Dinner. Ever. (Photo credit)

Worst. Family. Dinner. Ever. (Photo credit)

Yes, there was lots in August: Osage County itself that left me feeling uncomfortable, but I think what is on my mind long after watching the film is the audience’s reaction. I saw this movie with a friend at an early weekend matinee. The theater was about half full – a decent crowd, but not packed. As I’ve mentioned, there are some darkly funny moments in the dialogue-heavy film and I laughed out loud a number of times at moments of biting wit and sarcastic comebacks. However, there’s a point at which the exchanges and arguments turn viciously nasty. Like pull-no-punches, in-your-face cruel. And it happens in a split second – one moment sharply funny, the next line severely hurtful. Most of the audience kept laughing as the scenes got progressively more tense and hostile. What’s that about?

Of course, there’s a tendency for us as human beings to laugh when we’re uncomfortable. Who among us hasn’t cracked a joke in heightened emotional circumstances? As an attempt to diffuse the tension… as a coping strategy… as a form of emotional release… or maybe cruelty has become so normalized that we’ve come to view conflict between people as hilarious. It might go without saying, but awkwardness is funny – Ricky Gervais has made a very lucrative career banking on that one human truth. Fighting itself can even be a bit ridiculous. But usually, you can feel the moment where good-natured teasing goes a little too far, or when a well-timed barb hits just a little too close to home. I guess maybe that’s part of the discomfort of August: Osage County – it’s about the lines we cross with other people (especially family) and either not knowing or not caring that we’ve gone too far.

I can’t say the constant and, in my opinion, inappropriate laughter throughout the film interfered with my experience of watching it, but it did at one point occur to me to stand up and ask, “What’s happening here? This isn’t funny.” Maybe my fellow movie-watchers needed it to be funny to be tolerable. Maybe I’m just way too uptight. Maybe I just don’t get meanness and vicious criticism as a source of comedy (although the art of sarcasm is not lost on me, not one little bit). Maybe I should just invest in a Netflix subscription and stop going to theaters. The fact remains that August: Osage County puts on agonizing display the worst ways people treat one another. I found it uncomfortable to watch. I found it more uncomfortable to laugh.

Best Movie Wedding Scenes

Wow! I realized today it has been quite awhile since I’ve posted anything. Popcorn Dinner has been sadly neglected! But I have a good reason for being absent so long. Recently I’ve been focusing most of my time and energy on preparing for my sister’s wedding, which happened November 9th in Ontario. There was a lovely ceremony, a great party, a fabulous dress, a delicious cake, and lots of happy people. Like something out of a Nora Ephron movie. So of course in honour of my sis and her now husband I thought a Popcorn Dinner list of top 10 movie wedding moments was definitely in order. Not being a wedding enthusiast or a dressy-up girl in my normal life I was just happy that I didn’t trip and do an undignified bridesmaid face plant.

So after lengthy, deliberate consideration and deriving a complex algorithm accounting for a scene’s watchability, memorability, and cultural impact, I rejected all of those things and came up with these randomly selected favs… Pretty sure they need no further explanation.

Best Engagement Announcement: Father of the Bride (1991)

Most Intense Bridal Shower: Bridesmaids (2011)

Best Wedding Prep: Steel Magnolias (1989)

Best “Meeting the Family” Party: My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

Most Awkward Walk Down the Aisle: Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Best Officiant: The Princess Bride (1987)

Most Dramatic Ceremony Interruptus: The Graduate (1967)

*Spoiler alert. Although if you haven’t seen The Graduate, it’s unlikely you’d be reading this blog*

Most Romantic Recessional: Love Actually (2003)

Best Angry Wedding Anthem: The Wedding Singer

Best Inappropriate Toast: Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

 

Where’s Wonder Woman?

My love of Wonder Woman began with the 1970s Saturday morning cartoon, Superfriends. She wielded a magic lasso, flew around in an invisible jet, and wore some pretty kick-ass boots. I mean, what’s not to love?

When I was a kid, superheroes were often the inspiration for my annual Halloween costume and Wonder Woman was a clear, if somewhat obvious choice. If memory serves, I made several repeat performances as Batgirl and Wonder Woman on chilly October nights.

Intimidating bad guys is serious business.

Me circa 1980-something in my homemade Wonder Woman costume. Suitably warm and age appropriate, of course.

Those and Supergirl were pretty much the only gender-specific superhero options in those days. We had Christopher Reeves’ Man of Steel in the 80s and the Burton/Schumacher Batmen of the 90s, and of course both franchises have been re-reinvented more recently. With the upsurge of collective villain-fighting power represented in The Avengers, X-Men, and The Fantastic Four (and their respective spin-offs), a few more women heroes have become more mainstream: Phoenix, Rogue, Storm, Black Widow, Elektra, Invisible Woman, etc. but they still primarily fill supporting roles and/or function as love interests for their studly and emotionally distant counterparts. The live-action superhero genre is obviously Hollywood’s bread and butter – barely five years after Tobey Maguire’s reign as Spiderman ended, Andrew Garfield’s turn as the radioactive vigilante began. But if everything old is new again, it begs the question, where’s Wonder Woman? Pretty sure it might be time to revamp this:

It’s not like I’m the first to pose this question. Fans have been clamouring for an updated version of Wonder Woman and a reboot has been on the Hollywood radar for years, both for the big and small screens. Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights) donned the red boots for an NBC pilot that wasn’t picked up this season for reasons that are unclear – with a heavyweight like David E. Kelley at the helm, there seemed to be potential.

Adrianne-Palicki-Wonder-Woman

Adrianne Palicki in the now defunct Wonder Woman series. (Source)

A studio release of a Wonder Woman project seems to be mostly theoretical at this point. Several years ago Joss Whedon apparently took a stab at a script and concept which he shopped around without success. Around that same time Whedon became attached to The Avengers franchise so he likely had his hands full developing that multi-billion dollar enterprise. The Wonder Woman character is supposed to appear in the new Justice League movie coming out in sometime in the next couple of years along with Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and Aquaman. Casting for the role is still up in the air, either for Justice League or a stand-alone blockbuster, but some names that are circulating on the interwebs include Christina Hendricks, Jessica Biel, Lindsey Lohan, Megan Fox, Cobie Smulders, Kate Beckinsale, and Jennifer Love Hewitt, just to name a few.

Most of the time, when possible directors, writers, or studio heads talk about the possibility of a WW revamp, their attitude seems to be one of extreme caution – like there’s a heightened sense of pressure to get the perfect take on the character. It seems she has to be just the right amount of “feminist” – not too much – just a splash of good old-fashioned girl power. Not being a die-hard comic book fan, I’m not really familiar with all of the origin stories for the Wonder Woman character but apparently at various times she’s been conceived as an Amazonian warrior princess, secretary of the Justice League, fashion boutique saleswoman by day/crime fighter by night, an ambassador for peace and love, and a Greek goddess. All of these different versions of her story seem to throw a wrench into developing a clear concept to bring to a feature film.

While all that may contribute to hitting the brakes on the project, respect for concept has never prevented Hollywood from making a buck where there’s a buck to be made. I wonder if the real reason doesn’t lie somewhere in the (hopefully) mistaken belief that audiences simply don’t want to see a female superhero in a leading role. (See Charlie Jane Anders’ Jezebel rant for some discussion on this). But I do. And I think lots of others moviegoers I know (and many I don’t) do too.

What do you think… is there an untapped market for leading superheroines in Hollywood?

I Could Totally Be Friends With Helen Mirren…

Is there anyone cooler than Helen Mirren?

Recently, a friend of mine shared this Vanity Fair piece where Helen Mirren responds to the Proust Questionnaire. In it she responds to revealing personality questions and says lots of interesting and down-to-earth stuff. Apparently the thing she values most in her friends is “their ability to open a bottle of wine”. (I might just have a shot!)

Helen Mirren is stoically regal as The Queen. (Source)

Helen Mirren is stoically regal as The Queen. (Source)

Of course I am a great admirer of her body of work in a wide range of film roles primarily playing smart, strong, confident women. Her role as DCI Jane Tennison in the hard-nosed gritty British crime drama Prime Suspect earned her multiple BAFTA TV acting awards. And she was nominated for Supporting Actress twice (The Madness of King George, 1994; Gosford Park, 2001) before winning the Best Actress trophy in 2006 for her portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen

She also has a wonderfully dark and twisty sense of humour that reveals itself in the Red movies and her turn as the deliciously evil title character in the thriller/comedy Teaching Mrs. Tingle. Never hesitant to poke fun of herself or at Hollywood, she’s done some brilliant sketches on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, SNL, and Funny or Die. Check her out in this darkly funny spoof with Billy Crystal pitching When Harry Met Sally 2.

She’s also a favourite of mine in light, charming comedic roles (if you haven’t seen Greenfingers or Calendar Girls, you should).

Helen Mirren bares all in Calendar Girls. (Source)

Helen Mirren bares all in Calendar Girls. (Source)

Yes, Helen Mirren’s coolness could simply be attributed to her seemingly limitless gifts and talents in the professional sphere. But she is so much more. A consummate example of humility and compassion, Helen (who was “Damed” in 2003) recently donned her Queen Elizabeth persona to fulfill a dying boy’s wish. Apparently 10-year Oliver Burton wanted to meet the real Queen who was unavailable, so then it was “Queen Helen” to the rescue.

Humble and authoritative in equal measure, she is passionately outspoken about gender influences in the entertainment industry. Critical of the lack of roles for older women in Hollywood, she gives a thoughtful, genuine speech about working in the “really blokey world” of film when receiving her recent Empire Award.

I could listen to her talk all day. And how refreshing and reassuring is it that she looks so fantastic? All the more so because she resists industry pressure to surgically correct for aging. Helen Mirren is the real deal.

Yes, Dame Helen, I think we would be great friends. So if you are in the market for a bestie in small-town Nova Scotia, please ring me. It’ll be “lovely”. And I promise you there will be wine. Oh yes, there will be wine…

 

Happy Birthday to ME!

Yes, Popcorn Dinner just turned one recently. After 28 posts, 4 blog awards, and approximately 2750 views, I’m quite happy with my little experiment. I’m not sure how I’m “doing” in any objectively measurable standard of hobby blogging (if one exists), but I have my little core group of faithful followers and have settled into a fairly manageable routine of posting about once a month. I recognize that if I was more active, I would probably get more traffic, but I choose not to worry about such things. If I did, I think it would start to feel a little like work instead of the pleasant diversion from the daily grind that it affords.

As luck or fortuitous planning would have it, my actual birthday is this month as well – next week, in fact. So in honour of July being the big month-o-birthdays, I’ve pulled together a fun little list of my favourite birthday-themed movies – for when you want that birthday feeling all year long…

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

The epic saga all began on Harry’s 11th birthday, which die-hard fans will know is coming up on July 30th (you know, in case you wanted to get him something). Hagrid tracks him down and announces “You’re a wizard, Harry”. Do birthdays get more memorable than finding out your parents were murdered by an evil wizard? I don’t think so. Oh, and there’s cake.

City Slickers

A mid-life crisis birthday extravaganza! Billy Crystal is at his comedic best as Mitch Robbins who re-evaluates his life choices as he approaches his 39th birthday (I guess this means I’m due for my own crisis this year!). His buddies played by Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern present him with a birthday adventure experience: driving cattle. With Jack Palance making a suitably surly and philosophical appearance as their trail boss, hilarity ensues for the city boys riding the range.

Liar Liar

After he’s been stood up on his birthday, a young boy wishes his Dad can’t tell a lie. Jim Carrey plays the busy lawyer who struggles against the spell – complete with exaggerated facial contortions and over-the-top physical comedy. The sweet and earnest scenes where Fletcher Reede explains to his son why grown-ups have to lie mark a transition from Carrey’s wild out-of-control performances in Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber to a subtler, more skilled Carrey of The Truman Show and Man in the Moon.

13 Going On 30

In keeping with the birthday wishes coming true theme, after her 13th birthday party falls spectacularly to pieces, young Jenna Rink wishes she was “30, Flirty and Thriving” and when she wakes up, she’s her 13-year-old self in the body of Jennifer Garner. If you ask me, this seems like a pretty good deal.

Sixteen Candles

The quintessential teenage birthday movie. Thanks to John Hughes, someone forgetting your birthday will forever be known as a Molly Ringwald moment. Sam’s sweet 16 is overshadowed by her big sister’s wedding and some painful moments of teenage angst and embarrassment.

 

I want to thank all of the folks who have supported Popcorn Dinner for the past year and hope you continue to take a peek every now and again!

 

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