Film Reviews: Oh, The Drama, Or Life Made Larger

January 5, 2015



Labor Day / Directed by Jason Reitman / PG                                     7

August: Osage County / Directed by John Wells / 13LD                   6.5

Philomena / Directed by Stephen Frears / PGL                                  7

Midnight’s Children / Directed by Deepa Mehta / 13V                     6


Viewers like a bit of drama in their films. It helps to make the sometimes unavoidable banality of their own routines seem a little more meaningful, as the characters on screen aren’t making people laugh every 30 seconds (unrealistic) or blowing people away (numbing, eventually), but just, in their way, going about their daily lives.

In Labor Day, a single mom (Kate Winslet) and her son (Gattlin Griffith) are trying to not be too sad about the husband/father-shaped hole in their lives. Elsewhere, a man (Josh Brolin) who’s serving time for creating a wife-shaped hole in his own life is looking to re-enter society slightly ahead of the schedule the US jail system has provided.

These characters cross paths in a relatively predictable but rather satisfying way, thanks to a script that, other than an annoyingly only-in-Hollywood sequence that involves the making of an apple pie, allows the characters space to develop in a normal way – as understood by the average film fan.

Brolin and Winslet are a formidable pair of actors, able to put across just about anything on screen. Brolin’s brisk, macho persona is undercut by a concern for the welfare of others and a need to protect those weaker than himself. Winslet is brittle; worried about her son and about getting involved emotionally with someone who she has reason to be frightened of. Labor Day is a mostly effective exploitation of all these skills and a strong script – a romance that refuses to get mushy and is stronger for that.

August: Osage County is a star-heavy (deep breath: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard and Julianne Nicholson) examination of dysfunction that is occasionally breathtaking in its brutality and just as often annoying for the pettiness it exposes.

The undoubted skills of the cast has an impact on more than just the quality of the performances, which are uniformly good and, in the case of Shepard, Cooper, Martindale and Cumberbatch, excellent. All of these names above the title also affect the expectations of the film’s audience, who expect more than it might be reasonable to expect.

Unlike many similar family friction films, this one is not about redemption. It’s about revealing pain, mocking those who feel it and then twisting the knife before starting the process again.  None of the actors appear in their red carpet finery – Julia Roberts is plain; Meryl Streep is ugly on a number of levels. This stripping way of superficial distractions creates a gap that can be filled with great acting – and often is, in this case.

But the narrative does not extend far enough for great acting to be sufficient to make August: Osage County a likeable piece. Impressive? Yes, in a lot of ways. But enjoyable? No.

Far easier to find pleasure in is Philomena, which proves that coming of age has nothing to do with, well, age. The title character, played by Judi Dench, has lived for too long with the regret of not being able to stand up to a system that took her illegitimate child away from her as a young woman. Her goal, late in life, is to track down the son she was unable to care for as he grew up; to see that he is okay and perhaps connect with him, if that proves possible.

Such an undertaking, for an unsophisticated, elderly woman, comes with many challenges, and Philomena’s unlikely knight in shining armour is a cynical political journalist (Steve Coogan), forced into tracking down a “human interest story” – a term that makes him gag.

He’s under pressure to deliver in order to resurrect his journmalism career and Philomena is driven by a mother’s need to bond with her child – reason enough on either side to see a complex assignment through.

There’s both gentle humour and angst aplenty in a very well made film. Coogan holds his own against his celebrated co-star, and his screenplay has some agreeably unpredictable twists.

There not being an apostrophe where there should be in the title on the DVD cover is almost reason enough to not watch Midnight’s Children (I’ve added it), Deepa Mehta’s sprawling adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s equally expansive 1981 novel about some of the personal stories taking place as India is declared independent.

At two-and-a-half hours long, the film takes some commitment to sit through, and for a large chunk of that time, it’s worth expending your energy on. The best moments deliver – in startling clarity – the bewildering range of colour that many travellers will tell you characterises a visit to India. And the epic scope of the action – taking in generations of families with different perspectives on the history being made around them – is often fascinating.

But the length of the feature, and particularly the more fanciful metaphors used by both Rushdie and Mehta, eventually become tiresome and at some point, the question, “Does all of this need to be included?” becomes valid. A decent option if you have no other options and it’s raining outside, but otherwise something more focused might be in order.