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Toronto International Film Festival 2013 John Wells’s August: Osage County

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Toronto International Film Festival 2013: John Wells’s August: Osage County
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: John Wells’s August: Osage County

The process of adapting the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning August: Osage County, Tracy Letts’s vitriolic epic of familial dysfunction, poses, to borrow a phrase from one of its characters, quite a Gordian knot. With its icky revelations, not to mention the fact that nearly every character in the large ensemble is either a naïve nitwit or an aggressive asshole, the material isn’t exactly audience-friendly. Summer Stock with a score, the film gets to the meat of the play while slightly compromising its darker, murkier undertones. Instead of transcending the source material, John Wells, whose only previous feature is The Company Men, toys with packaging the material in a way that maintains the play’s themes while remaining cautious of its vituperative vigor.

Poster Lab: August: Osage County

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Poster Lab: August: Osage County
Poster Lab: August: Osage County

Since the film is so anticipated as both adaptation and buzzy ensemble piece, the poster for August: Osage County would have been an event no matter what it looked like. Directed by TV vet John Wells, who made his feature film debut with The Company Men, this dark comedy marks the first-ever onscreen pairing of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, who play Violet and Barbara Watson, the mother and daughter who lead the clan in Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale. All who know the play know the importance of the work’s vast cast, and such is the major selling point here.

Stacked high like an actorly steeple are names both established and up-and-coming: Streep, Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, (the great) Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Misty Upham, and more. It’s a very tempting mix, and despite the overly genial, all’s-well-that-end’s-well nature of the trailer, it helps to know that Letts has penned the screenplay too, and hopefully hasn’t watered his work down to Hollywoodized dysfunction (lord knows no one needs another The Family Stone). Presumably, Letts’s script also holds the promise of avoiding the trap of multi-character dramedies, which serially fail to develop individual personalities amid the crowd. It’s a grating trend that couldn’t be better visualized here, and let’s hope the packed-house symbolism reflects the film’s ability to overcome it.

DOC NYC 2012: Radioman and Shepard & Dark

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DOC NYC 2012: <em>Radioman</em> and <em>Shepard & Dark</em>
DOC NYC 2012: <em>Radioman</em> and <em>Shepard & Dark</em>

Friendship manifests itself in many different forms, and can occasionally be one-sided, and with Radioman and Shepard & Dark, DOC NYC presents two very different observations on the avenues through which individuals feel fulfilled, or alienated, by those they consider close comrades.

Radioman—née Craig Castaldo—is ready for his close-up. Presented as an amusing profile more than a compelling character study, Mary Kerr’s Radioman is the documentary equivalent of having a droll conversation with a stranger at a dive bar while refusing to acknowledge any disturbing subtext within the stories told. Despite having an apartment, the once-homeless Radioman still leads a life that’s mostly of a vagabond, spending most of his days researching “on location” movie shoots in New York City and wandering the streets in search of a film set. Consistently fascinated by the process of filmmaking, Radioman also possesses a childlike excitement for the prospect of briefly appearing as an extra. Through a combination of persistence and the appearance of an essential NYC bum, he can be found in over 100 films—even if it’s just the back of his haggard head.

Poster Lab: Killing Them Softly

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Poster Lab: <em>Killing Them Softly</em>
Poster Lab: <em>Killing Them Softly</em>

You really can’t miss the irony in the Killing Them Softly poster designs, as both of them are about as soft as a shell casing. Be it the graphic of a loaded pistol pointing in your face, or the ultra-loud placement of sans serif font atop Brad Pitt’s shotgun wielder, this ad campaign aims to hit you hard, just in case that title was at all misleading. Released to coincide with Killing Them Softly’s premiere at Cannes, where the crime drama lost the Palme d’Or to Michael Haneke’s Amour, the first poster looks a whole lot like the front of a trendy T-shirt, and not just because of the flag fabric in that sunglasses silhouette. If not for the title, one would be forgiven for thinking this was a glimpse at H&M’s fall line, its flipped stars and stripes all set to grace the rack alongside screen-prints of neon monsters. It’s a groovy design, for sure, and its adherence to just a few badass elements ably communicates the no-nonsense cool the film is clearly after. Again, it’s decidedly tough stuff, an amalgam of three very masculine bits of “USA!” iconography: the flag, the gun, and the aviator sunglasses. That the whole image calls to mind a certain bandana-rocking, great American train robber is mere gravy.

Cannes Film Festival 2012: Mud

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Cannes Film Festival 2012: <em>Mud</em>
Cannes Film Festival 2012: <em>Mud</em>

“You can call me Mud,” says Matthew McConaughey early on in Mud, the disappointingly mainstream follow-up to filmmaker Jeff Nichols’s impressive debut, Shotgun Stories, and equally solid second feature, Take Shelter. If you thought Mud’s title signified something evocative, something riverine and elemental, clearly you thought wrong. That’s just Mateo in Sling Blade mode, as the loveable outlaw on the lam, hiding out on an island while waiting for his one true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to blow into the nearby burg. The story isn’t his though; it belongs to two young’uns, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and the charmingly named Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who run across ol’ Mud one day when they’re making a pilgrimage to visit a houseboat stranded up a tree (that’s Nichols taking a bark-pulp page from Werner Herzog’s Aguirre). Guess who’s squatting in the cabin? One tousle-haired, chip-toothed, vaguely avuncular outlaw…goes by the name of Mud.

The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I
The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

“Think of a tree, how it grows round its roots. If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching toward the light.”

Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s next film, due soon in theaters, is called The Tree of Life, and coincidentally or not it is set up by the final shot of Malick’s previous film, The New World. In both the theatrical and extended cuts of that 2005 film, Malick closes with a shot at the base of a tree: gazing up the side of its mighty trunk as it stretches heavenward. It’s a quintessentially Malickian shot, both in terms of the camera’s intimacy to its subject and in the way that it presents nature with a spiritual awe, as if the tree’s branches are the flying buttresses of a grand cathedral. But the reason I mention that shot is so I can begin this discussion by acknowledging its roots. We’ve been regular contributors to The House Next Door for almost two-and-a-half years now, and, as loyal House readers know, Terrence Malick’s The New World is the seed from which this blog sprouted. What began in Janurary 2006 as Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to find enough cyber real estate in which to freely explore his passion for The New World—a rather Malickian quest, if you think about it—became something much bigger, until now here we are: writing about the filmmaker without whom this blog and thus this series might not exist.

I make that acknowledgement en route to this one: By the very nature of its origins, The House Next Door has always been something of an unofficial Terrence Malick fan club—nay, house of worship. Many of us first gathered at this site because of this subject matter. (Any immediate kinship many of us felt with Matt was inspired by a shared religious experience with The New World, not to mention the holy awakening of seeing serious criticism posted to the Web by amateur means.) I make this observation in the interest of full disclosure—less an acknowledgement of the House’s origins, which so many of its readers know already, than an indication of my awareness of it—in the hopes that by doing so I can convince the Malick nonbelievers that they are welcome here. Because, see, Malick is one of those filmmakers who seems to inspire two reactions: genuflecting reverence and head-scratching ennui. Is there room between the two? Or are total immersion and deference to Malick’s filmmaking elemental to its effect? In Part I of this discussion, we will look at Malick’s first four films, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (the theatrical cut), and what I hope we begin to uncover is why Malick’s filmmaking inspires such divergent reactions.

I am, admittedly, a singer in Malick’s choir. His films don’t move me equally, but when they do move me I’m profoundly affected. You come into this conversation having just watched most of Malick’s films for the first time. So let me ask a question that will cause the Malick agnostics to roll their eyes and the Malick believers to raise their hands to the sky like Pocahontas in The New World: Did Malick’s filmmaking inspire you with a unique sense of awe, or do you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, or something else?

Player Piano

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Player Piano
Player Piano

The following is a piece about the similarities between two Terrence Malick films, Days of Heaven and The New World. A condensed version of this piece also appears in the current issue of New York Press.

Despite its complexity and open-hearted spirit, Terrence Malick’s “The New World” became one of the most divisive studio movies in recent memory. Even some of the filmmakers’ admirers rejected it as opaque, choppy, unstructured, too sentimental in depicting its central love triangle, and too enamored with nature photography and Transcendental sentiments. To read some of the pans by critics who’d previously backed Malick, you’d have thought he’d started throwing lovely pictures and poetic narration onscreen and hoping something stuck.

Thanks to what The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman called the cult of “The New World,” critical consensus is already shifting in Malick’s favor. Film Forum’s repertory screening of Malick’s 1978 masterpiece “Days of Heaven” should push that process along. Some detractors cite “Heaven” as an honorable example of Malick’s talent and dismiss the “The New World” as a devolution. But a close viewing confirms that that “The New World” is in many ways an enlargement of “Days of Heaven” that revisits its situations, themes and filmmaking vocabulary from a fresh vantage point.