August: Osage County

Can’t go home again? In “August: Osage County,” you won’t want to go home.

Taking his play to the screen, Tracy Letts’ family funeral corker blows fire with deep resentments, booze, pills, more pills, physical and emotional attack, incest, child rape attempts, and a suicide. Do not come for the entertainment. Come for drama largesse.

We open on an Oklahoma couple well entrenched in the war that is marriage. Sam Sheppard is boozer poet Beverly, who sees caring for his cruel, dying wife (Meryl Streep) as a chore that infringes his boozing. Streep’s Viv has mouth cancer, much ironic as her mouth spews non-stop hate. So ironic. Bev hires an “Injun” –- their usage -– caregiver and then vanishes, forcing Viv to call in her grown daughters (including Julia Roberts as the oldest), and each arrives swinging in a one-upper game of FUBAR. Before car engines cool, tempers flare and brimstone flies.

Look, the acting is amazing. Streep wows. Roberts fumes. Many scenes hit home, but it’s two hours of constant yelling as that Native American nurse (Misty Upham) silently looks on with flat eyes that say, “We lost our homes for these fools?,” and serves pie. Quite the stereotype throwback. The ending is weak, a cop out. Not of the play. Grade: B

- Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer

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Saving Mr. Banks

The story of Walt Disney’s struggle to make the 1964 classic “Mary Poppins” has often been told during the past 50 years. Author P.L. Travers fought Disney on every word during production and loathed the movie (the latter is outright squashed).

This cleaned-up squabble is the basis for “Saving Mr. Banks” which shows how Travers (real name Helen Goff, played by Emma Thompson) was won over by Disney’s (Tom Hanks) charm, and explores why the children’s book author was so harsh — mainly her haunting Outback youth.

This is a Disney film, though, and from the opening logos, it works to make the audience smile and cry, damn the facts. It succeed, mostly.

But “Banks” is grossly off point. Walt himself woos Travers with his own uneasy childhood tale, but it’s for naught. Yes, Walt had it hard, many do, but Travers’ parents were non-functioning adults riddled by alcoholism and mental illness that reached the act of suicide. (Worst offense: Mistaking dad’s drunken fatherly doting and kindness for actual doting and kindness.)

No talk from a nice old guy or spoonful of sugar can remedy that. Still, the happy tunes and sunny spirit are difficult to resist. Disney magic, that. B-

Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer

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“Her” is the perfect Spike Jonze film. It smashes story-telling ground with a keen eye on a misfit that takes an outlandish idea -– think mind travel in “Being John Malkovich” or Nicolas Cage twins in “Adaptation” –- and makes it instantly accessible. Now. Beautiful. Dark.

The Oscar-winning story: Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a writer for a website that provides “real” hand written letters for other couples, but he knows little about love himself. His marriage crashed, and when a date suggests a relationship, Theo bolts.

Prone to online porn and games, Theo to his mild dismay falls in love with his newest gadget, an OS that’s therapist, camera, encyclopedia, and lover all in one. She names herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and is everything Theo ever wanted in a woman: On when he needs her, off when he does not.

The idea of dating what is basically an iPhone is ridiculous, and yet not. Jonze lets us know that as Theo hides his burgeoning love until he succumbs truly, deeply to Sam’s charms. We fall and hurt with him.

Yes, “Her” is about our IM/texting-mad world and the disappearing art of and yet longing for human touch, but it also is flat-out perfection for anyone ever in or out of love, and future curious.

- Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer

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The Lego Movie

Seeing “The Lego Movie” gave me a buzzy high of nostalgia for the hundreds of hours I spent playing with the famed building blocks as a child — especially during long snow days in my hometown of Philadelphia. But a movie cannot stand on nostalgia alone. Thankfully, with endless clever wit and deft satire that filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (both of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”) make this 90-minute animated a film blast. A great token for movies in 2014.

And let’s face it, this movie could have been a shallow toy ad hawking nonsense. I’m looking at you, “Smurfs.” In a playful trick, though, our story instead spoofs mass-commercialization, all those “Matrix” knock-offs with the savior complex, and the 1999 hit itself, “Nineteen Eighty Four,” and the legendary (and outright silly) debate between those who see Legos as high-art engineering tools and young children who just want to mess about and play and not worry about rules or constriction.

Our hero is blank-slate construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt) who gets swept up in a massive adventure as “The One,” the Neo-like hero who can save Lego humanity from its destruction and the walls that separate metropolises from western towns.

The twist: Emmet really is just a guy, and a dork at that, perplexing and outright ticking off all the real “heroes” around him, Batman -– in a instant legendary vocal turn by Will Arnett, a squabbling Superman and Green Lantern (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, respectively), and a good lot of heroes from “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” and — most impressive “Star Wars,” all toys that have their own Lego worlds.

This bit could fall into toy ad here, but it doesn’t: Gandolf and Dumbledore squabble, and Billy Dee Williams (!!) as Lando still is sleazy as ever. (The Millennium Falcon bit alone is worth the price of three admissions.) All these guys could be the hero, but it’s Emmet, following the sage advice of Moses/Morpheus do-gooder prophet Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) who is finally -– finally, we get to see this –- full of, um, hot dog stuffing.

The visuals are amazing as every frame pops. Be it 3-D or 2-D. Visual gags come fast, including entire Lego play sets from my youth, and even the cast knocks their own career, none better than Liam Neeson as a two-faced bad cop with a dangerous Irish accent and a squeaky clean voice on the other side.

Inside jokes are fast as well: The Lego part numbers get a lot of play, a detail even I had forgotten about. An absolute delight and a real high mark from Warner Bros., especially after the rut of so-so CGI animated fare we have seen from normal kings of the block, Pixar and Dreamworks.

“Lego Movie” is amazing endless fun, and puts children center. Quite literally. The fourth wall shows cracks early on, and by the end it’s down, and we see fifth- and sixth-walls. It’s genius, really. And near daring for movies that tend to stick close to shiny computer work.
I’m a cynical guy. I don’t like see the stuff of my childhood recycled for quick crash. But this movie nailed *my* 11-year-old self, the one buried deep inside. A
–Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Forget “Great Gatsby” comparisons, even with the Leonardo DiCaprio connection. Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the greatest black comedy punch-in-the-face satire since “Natural Born Killers.”

Trade phones for guns, gold watches for scalps.

This crazy foaming at-the-mouth dog has been well-slammed by some critics as overlong and obnoxious, a pointless drug- and sex-smeared stain of debauchery focusing on 1990s-era Wall Street brokers who strike it rich fleecing common Americans on crap worthless investments.

People, that is the point.

Scorsese playfully crashes and flames his epic movie as often as real-life Wall Street scum bag Jordan Belfort (a never more alive DiCarpio) crashes and flames yachts and cars, snorts coke, sleeps with untold numbers of women, and rallies his team to make more money.

I cheered. This is Wall Street in America. Right now. And in 2008, and the decade before that, and so on in the past.

Scorsese, writer Terence Winter, and DiCaprio are daring us to hate this movie. Our hate is misplaced. They are revealing the strings of the soulless puppet masters who run our banks, buy our congressmen, and control our 401K futures.

More so: Our nation’s wealth and the whole stock market is the ultimate con we all buy into. Again and again. Refocus your anger.

(Check out the lunch time chat with a cameo by an actor who will pick up an Oscar this weekend, for another film. I will not spoil the fun here.)

Best character: Jonah Hill — gold! — as a fat Alfred E. Neuman geek who drives Belfort’s scam. Mad men.

- Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer

P.S. This movie stretches the limits of the “R” rating with drugs, nudity, sex, profanity, and a great deal of other stuff that may offend the sensitive. But, I implore, stick it out. Because what we see here, all acting, is but a whisper of the truth.

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Glory (1989)

“Glory” was a longtime favorite film of mine, top five. I saw it in a theater in North Carolina as a high school kid, and it literally changed my life. An eye-opener, for me, and my understanding of our nation.

It’s dropped down the list quite a bit since I saw it in that old dusty, even-then-ancient theater, being absolutely blown away by the film’s story of the first black Union regiment in the Civil War. And I still am blown away, in absolute awe of the relentless depictions of battle, and the camp scenes, and the drama of an America going through self-inflicted, suicidal hell (and we think we have it rough now, oh, what bad memories we have) to regain part of its soul…

Or maybe get a new one, depending on how you see history. Maybe the latter, more, to me.

Matthew Broderick put away his comedic Ferris to play real Union hero Robert Shaw, the young colonel tasked with leading the 54th Mass. Among his charges are Morgan Freeman as a grave digger turned spiritual guru, Andre Braugher as free man and childhood friend of Shaw’s, and — in a breakout role that left me crushed, openly crying right next to my older brother, who also just wept loud and hard — Denzel Washington as an escaped slave righteously and rightfully angry at the world. No. Angry at the United States of America.

The battle scenes are gritty, dirty and seem realistic (having participated in Civil War re-enactments myself) and the story, again, is amazing.

Director Edward Zwick (he later made the drippy, silly, over-baked — but gorgeous — “Legends of the Fall”) lays on the pomp and the heroism thick, but this still is a great, great film. An important, vital film.

The cinematography by Freddie Francis still amazes 20-plus years later. (It won the Oscar for cinematography.)

Some hate Broderick in the lead, but I think he’s perfect. Broderick is a light dramatic actor (excellent comedian), and he plays a man out of his league here who must rise to the occasion and the sheer aura of those around him. At film’s end, Broderick does that as Shaw.

This write-up is based in part on one I wrote years ago, with a few tweaks. I have not seen the film since, but look forward to the screening here at The Lyric. This story is America, folks. Imperfect and fractured. That goes for the film, too. If you have never seen it, born after its release, correct this oversight. You will be thankful. Grade: A

-Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer

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American Hustle (2013)

Director David O. Russell (”Silver Linings Playbook’) opens his great 1970s-set conman comedy/drama “American Hustle” with the tagline, “Some of this actually happened,” which means we’re in for a blast of hellacious fun. Screw the facts. Entertain us.

We open on a fat, slouching Christian Bale as he plasters a comb-over job atop his head until – in his eyes – he’s the suave lady-killer of his youth. It’s a laugh riot, a self-con from a sad sack unaware he’s done.

Bale is Irving Rosenfeld, a NYC loan shark suffocating inside a mafia-heavy squeeze alongside his con-artist partner/mistress (Amy Adams), his metal-in-the-microwave wife (Jennifer Lawrence), a loon FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) with a bad perm, and a Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) who’s far too trusting and naive.

That’s the gist. “Hustle” is too much a blast to spill more. Channeling early Scorsese with a wink-wink gleam, Russell nails the Me Decade with its big clothes, jewelry, and cars, with everyone wanting the gold ring promised to them by TV, and constantly checking their hair, even after a beat down.

The acting is bonkers good, with Louis C.K. stealing thunder as an FBI boss obsessing a childhood ice fishing story. That man amazes. Seriouysly. Man deserved a mini-Oscar. Best Bit Actor? Cameo? Oh, darn silly awards. He is amazing. A

-Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Katniss Everdeen goes “Godfather III” Michael Corleone in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

That’s the story here: One year after the Appalachian teen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her maybe platonic pal Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) survived an Orwellian government’s “Most Dangerous Game” for Youth, she’s sucked back into the blood sport for Round 2, up against fellow veterans that include Hutcherson back as the Cub Scout kid, and Sam Claflin (that awful fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” installment) as a swashbuckler stud with a secret.

Donald Sutherland as the dictator of this FUBAR USA still sparkles evil winks, knowing he’s the Actor King on set. Even Philip Seymour Hoffman as a new Game Master bows to his greatness. (I post this a mere hour after hearing about the death of Hoffman and I am devastated. What an amazing talent. He brings gravitas to this film, and his presence in the still-filming sequels is unknown.)

This sequel -– like its own source –- digs darker as Katniss finds herself a hero/pawn in a far-too-real game that has soldiers executing old men in public. Lawrence owns this film. Post “Silver Linings Playbook” Oscar win, she could phone it in. She seems the real deal. Truly.

Director Francis Lawrence — he made the gleefully entertaining “Constantine” and also the terrible “I am Legend” — may not have the heart-breaker moments that scored in the first installment of this franchise, but the final shot pumps the blood for more Games.

- Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer

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12 Years a Slave (2013)

I don’t want to know anyone who doesn’t walk out of “12 Years a Slave” a crushed soul rebuilt from the ground up by the final and finally at-last hopeful moments of this true horror tale. And it is horrifying, make no mistake, this harrowing, must-see depiction of slavery in America.

Yet Brit-born filmmaker Steve McQueen (“Shame”) is deft enough to show time and time again beautiful –- stunningly so — landscapes amid terrifyingly inhumane acts that were the start of this great (and terrible) nation.

These shots are clear: As they degrade the lives of those they see as less than themselves, the allegedly greatest of our kind –- rich, educated, and privileged beyond measure -– bring ruin to their own lives with the heinous need to control and take all treasure. This is the cruelest lesson of “Do unto others…”

And if you like southern American history clean and happy, stay out. This is the anti-“Gone with the Wind.” This is truth. Nor is it slick entertainment that falls on slavery as plot device as with “Django Unchained.”

The story: Solomon Northup was a born free African-American in 1840s New York, a musician and engineer, until he was kidnapped and sold into bondage below the Northern line into death, rape, and forced labor that should shock anyone with a hair of a soul or morality.

To survive, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor of “Children of Men”) must deny his own greatness and abilities, essentially his outright normalcy as a good family man, lest he be murdered or worse — and yes there are worse fates — by his white masters who will not see anyone of color as their equal.

Solomon does this for 12 grueling years, his longest stretch as “property” of a sadistic drunkard (Michael Fassbender) who abuses all around him, including his own wife (Sarah Paulson) who can equal her husband’s cruelty.

This is an age when a black man could be killed for learning to read or write, an act I cannot even muster in my head as a reality. But McQueen shows us many disturbing realities – including a brutal whipping that Solomon is forced to take part in – as every day life in a past American not mentioned on July 4.

To deny this reality, to insist on the “Gone With the Wind” lie, is to abandon all reason. Sadly, crazily, there are thousands of people here now who do this day in, day out.

In one bravo moment toward the end, McQueen dishes out a scene that pulls no punches: Ejiofor as Northup looks out into the sky and then directly at the audience, daring us to not just continue along with him in his harrowing story, but to never forget his suffering and that of the untold numbers of his fellow slave in an American that only called itself free.

It’s a daring fourth-wall breaking moment that is put there purposely to make you squirm in your seat. And I squirmed and buckled.

(Note: As with the civil rights drama “Butler,” a host of big names pop by for cameos, including Brad Pitt – a producer of the film. But these roles are mostly commoners, not presidents or well-known personalities, and these appearances do not stick in the crawl as, say, John Cusack does as Nixon.)

“12 Years” may not be the most entertaining movie experience of the year, that crown likely belongs to “Gravity,” but it was never meant to be such. It was made to crack open our national conscious on a subject far too often brushed aside.

It succeeds, marvelously and without mercy.

– Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer

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Captain Phillips (2013)

Great directors can re-tell history through image and sound. Paul Greengrass excels at putting viewers inside history, as if the drama is happening in real time. His 9/11 tragedy “United 93” was too intense for most filmgoers, and buckled me. “Captain Phillips” reaches as high, and then after the action ends, Greengrass lets the stench of fear and violence smother as our hero (Tom Hanks) sobs in shell shock.

You know the story: In 2009, four Somali bandit pirates took command of a U.S. cargo ship off the horn of Africa, and when their shit hijack plan went south, they jumped in a lifeboat with New Englander and freighter captain Richard Phillips (Hanks). Assured as death, the men invite the full force of the U.S Navy: Don’t mess with America.

Greengrass shows the pirates as desperate men out for money, clueless to the animal they unleashed, and Americans as trapped in first-world glory. Intense and highly claustrophobic, Greengrass captures the terrible, unknowable toll of crime -– terrorism, whatever you call it -– on body and soul.

As the pirate leader, American immigrant/citizen and film newcomer Barkhad Abdi equals Hanks’ astonishing, gripping performance. His character may be outgunned. But not the actor. An exceptional film that grips and never lets go, it will leave you speechless and immobile as the end credits run.

- Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer

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