August Osage CountyBlack Comedy is a difficult brand of humor to pull off. The line between what’s funny and sad or horrific becomes so slender many directors just fall off it. Director John Wells does not necessarily fail to channel the grim humor of August: Osage County, but the film’s occasional honest laughs just seem rather overwhelmed by the tragic relationship of the dysfunctional family at the center of the film, which sees wide release this Friday.

It’s not that this new-found tragic sensibility for Tracy Letts’ play, for which he also provided the film’s screenplay, is unfortunate. The film version winds up becoming a rather operatic journey of a family coming apart at the seams after its patriarch Bev (Sam Shepard) wanders off one day and commits suicide. He leaves behind his cantankerous wife Violet (Meryl Streep) whose bitterly left to face her own oblivion as she suffers from mouth cancer, and, boy, does she ever let loose on her three adult daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis who all hold their own against Streep).

Like any film based on a play, the best parts are the writing and acting. The entire cast seems inspired by this bleak work and all rise to the occasion. Highlights also include Margo Martindale as Violet’s not entirely innocent sister, Ewan McGregor as the over-permissive father to the daughter of Roberts’ character, Barb (Abigail Breslin).

When the film appeared in limited release, I wrote a review for Hollywood.com. Jump through the website’s logo for the full critique, which turned out being more positive than most reviews for this movie:

Hollywood.com logo

Hans Morgenstern

Here’s the trailer:

It opens in the South Florida area this Friday, Jan. 10, at most multiplexes. My Hollywood.com review also appears on Movietickets.com, where those in other parts of the U.S. can enter their zip codes to find the closest theater hosting screenings.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

the-secret-life-of-walter-mitty-poster-mountainI don’t think I realized how much I loved the new film directed by Ben Stiller, the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, until I read the final draft of my review and handed it over to Hollywood.com. It was quite a ride to that final punctuation mark of the piece.

When I first sat through the film, I was first turned off by the contrived, over-the-top fantasy sequences where our titular hero (played by Stiller) escapes when he “zones out.” It felt as though the filmmakers were going for the easy, stupid laughs many of Stiller’s films often seem to lean on. However, something really brilliant was happening here. Stiller means to offer up some of the silliest moments early in the film to transcend them with a rather grand statement on escapism.

And it’s not just escaping into fantasy land Stiller aims to satirize, it’s also escaping through technology or taking short cuts in life or even following dumb fashion trends that subvert a sense of self (look to Adam Scott‘s nefarious bully of a boss for that example). After a cute fantasy sequence where a lonely Walter, stuck in a godforsaken bar in Iceland, conjures up his work crush (a sweet, low key Kristen Wiig) to sing him David Bowie’s 1969 hit “Space Oddity” (which Walter refers to as “Major Tom”), there’s a tonal shift that adapts to Walter’s new outlook on life.

The film seems to have left critics mixed, some cite that tonal shift as a problem (see the Rotten Tomatoes rating here). But it’s actually a strength of the film, which requires that shift to stay true to the growth of the character. You can read my review for a more positive take. Jump through to Hollywood.com for the full review:

Hollywood.com logo

Hans Morgenstern

Here’s the trailer:

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty runs 114 minutes and is rated PG (I can’t recall anything offensive about it). It opens pretty much everywhere in the U.S. tomorrow, Dec. 25. My Hollywood.com review also appears on Movietickets.com, where you can enter your zip code to find the closest theater hosting screenings. Fox Searchlight hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)