Wednesday, January 15, 2014

August: Osage County, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

   Oscar, Is That You?  Probably Not.

        Review by Ken Burke           August: Osage County
Pulitzer- and Tony-winning drama about a deeply-dysfunctional Oklahoma family with collisions and scandals to confront; not for those who fondly remember the Waltons.

                                              The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Based very loosely on famed James Thurber short story about an ordinary guy with exotic daydreams who finally tackles real adventures in order to prove his self-worth.

                                          Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Life survey of the great freedom-crusader of South Africa and its first Black President, Nelson Mandela, based on his autobiography from early activism to 1994 election.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting.  But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]

At least until the Oscars for 2013 have been awarded on Sunday, March 2, 2014 (which, in no relationship whatsoever, is also Texas Independence Day—some things you don’t forget after they’ve been drummed into you for 37 years [after which I finally escaped to California]) I’m also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2013 films made various individual critic's Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success—which you can monitor here—and any sort of critical/statuette recognition), but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little scrolling, here are the Golden Globe winners for films and TV from 2013; Oscar nominations soon to be forthcoming, probably by the time you read this review.
It’s getting clearer to me all the time that my snarky remarks about the Google gods who oversee this blog (or at least their robots and spiders; I’m not sure that any human ever sees any of my content) have resulted in a quid pro quo arrangement with the NSA to convince Hollywood studios to construct films that push into my private life so as to challenge the sacred objectivity of my internationally-beloved-reviews, so well known by my vast readership on at least 6 continents (maybe 7, depending on whether Antarctic penguins have started picking me up on their smartphones yet).  First, Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013; review in our December 5, 2013 posting) nudged me to admit my illegitimate-birth-status and the frustrating, never-to-be-resolved-search for my own birth mother, then the Liv & Ingmar documentary (Dheeraj Akolkar, 2012; review in our January 9, 2014 posting) forced me to ‘fess up about how I revere Mr. Bergman and his “Stradivarius” actor, Ms. Ullman, so much that I doubted I could be plausibly neutral in praising this reminiscence of their cinematic collaborations.  Now we have August: Osage County (John Wells), with its Oklahoma-located-but-world-class-dysfunctional-family-explosions that are so reminiscent of aspects of my own family, others I knew in Texas (not exactly Oklahoma, as any true Longhorn would tell you, but damn close enough in many respects of attitudes and activities), as well as in-law-actions that I’ve observed or heard about from my wife, Nina (whose mother may have moved from Georgia to California but apparently didn’t leave much of her Deep South upbringing behind), to once again put me into a position where writing this review is more like transcribing teeth-grinding-reunions rather than being able to professionally back off from the film’s contents, made all the more clumsy this time (as symbolized by this soft-focus-shot above of Meryl Streep, as Weston family matriarch, Violet [not “Violence,” but we’ll see as we pursue this how it might be a better name for her—given her history and attitudes—than the diminutive flower that she’s ironically linked to], which is plentifully-pixelated in its existence but less sharp in focus than usual for these publicity stills, showing well the unresolved character that she’s become as she constantly battles with both herself and her far-flung-brood, ravaged further by her own mouth cancer [an admitted snide trick from the author about Vi] and her disapproval of just about everything that anybody else chooses to do).  However,
given that August: Osage County is essentially a several-long-days-journey-into-emotional-hell (that may feel at times like the darkest of nights, even during unbearable afternoon heat) that confronts the Westons (blood and married kin), it’s best we fill out the rest of the family circle at the beginning of our explorations, so in this photo—seen from Violet’s place at the head of the table (allowing us to take on her perspective for the moment)—of one of the least-digestible-dinners you’ll ever hope to encounter, starting from the far left we have Violet’s middle daughter, Ivy Weston (Julianne Nicholson), beaten down by years of staying near home without a romantic attachment (Vi complains that Ivy’s appearance choices make her look like a lesbian—not correct, as we’ll soon learn), caring for her parents during their increasingly-debilitating years; youngest daughter, Karen Weston (Juliette Lewis), still somewhat naïve about family situations after she ran off to Florida looking to upgrade the status of her Great-Plains-upbringing by becoming a real estate agent; Karen’s new fiancé, Steve Huberbrecht (Dermot Mulroney), notably older than Karen (married 3 times before to boot) but still self-understood as vibrant with his red Mustang convertible and stash of weed; Violet’s nephew, “Little Charles” Aiken (Benedict Cumberbatch, in the most subdued role you’ll likely ever find him in), a decent-but-troubled-man (“a bit slow, bless his heart” as my bygone-relatives would say); his father, Charlie Aiken (Chris Cooper), husband of Violet’s sister and about the only voice of reason in this whole menagerie; Vi’s son-in-law, Bill Fordham (Ewan McGregor), literature-faculty-member at the University of Colorado Boulder (as best I could follow) but separated from Vi’s daughter because of an affair with one of his students (Damn horny college profs!  I speak from experience [but was always pure as fallen snow where Nina is concerned—and, no, Mae West, I never drifted.]); his daughter, Jean Fordham (Abigail Breslin), frequently exasperated with all of the intra-family-drama going on around her but still willing to indulge in a little clandestine-drama of her own with Steve one night; the eldest of Vi’s daughters, Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts), the most hostile toward her mother based on years of conflict over Vi’s disturbing-dependency on pain-killers but also suffering from an abundance of control issues of her own (as she feels obliged-yet-resentful at taking on the role of family guidance counselor), pain over the separation from Bill (whom she still loves in her independent manner—notice that she kept her family name in the marriage yet gave her husband’s name to their daughter [not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s likely another unspoken—in this narrative’s on-screen exchanges, at least—point of contention between Barb and Vi, a great traditionalist who harbors a grudge against Barb for moving away to Colorado]); and Aunt Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale), Vi’s younger sister, both protective toward and at odds with Vi, very hostile toward Little Charles, and clearly a generation removed from the values and lifestyles of her nieces.

But, important in his absence from this portrait of very-temporary-tranquility is Vi’s husband, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), poet (he’s a fan of T.S. Eliot, appropriately) and self-proclaimed-alcoholic who kills himself early in the film, setting in motion the return of the relatives not already close by and the various collisions that inevitably accompany them, with each other and/or Vi.  (In case you think his death deserved a Spoiler Alert, I’ll both gently remind you that such a warning is a standard inclusion which begins every one of these reviews and more gruffly note that Beverly’s death is clearly conveyed in just about any publicity about the film, so I don’t feel that I’ve betrayed you very much; my apologies if you disagree, or, if that’s not good enough, then I’ll just quote Vi’s opening remark to Beverly, as he’s hiring a Native American housekeeper, Johnna Monevata [Misty Upham], against Vi’s wishes, “Why don’t you go fuck a fuckin’ sow’s ass!”  We clear now?  OK, if there are no more muttered comments from the back of the room, then let's move on to the meat—or fish, to cite a later obscene-scene—of this goddamn review.)

There’s been some harsh negative reaction to this film (although with nicer language than just used by me and the Westons) from my local San Francisco-area fellow critics, lambasting it either for not conveying well enough the dark comic tone of the original theatrical work (a 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Best Original Play Tony Award winner, written by Oklahoma-native Tracy Letts, then adapted by him into this screenplay) or for being too soap-operaish, too melodramatic, with constant overacting by the film’s star-studded-cast (the larger critical community wasn’t much kinder, with a 66% average from 134 reviews in Rotten Tomatoes and an even-lower 58% from 42 of the Metacritics), the blame falling either on director Wells or the actors for misinterpreting the scenes, even if the tone may have changed from dark comedy to straight drama in Letts’ film script (which is always something hard to know with cinema given the transformations that occur after those pages are no longer the property of the writer).  Saturated with such negativity about August: Osage County before I saw it, I’ll have to admit that my initial reaction was that the circumstances were just too continually-dismal, that nothing ever seemed to go right for any of these people, with the most bathetic plot point beinglast chance to avoid the most significant Plot Spoiler of the whole filmthat not only is Ivy having a secret romance with her first cousin, Little Charles, intending to finally abandon the ongoing melodrama that is Violet’s life and run away with him to New York, but also the intra-familial crisis is even worse than it initially seems because, in fact, they’re half-siblings, the result of a long-ago-affair between Beverly and Mattie Fae.  However, as Nina was quick to point out, while this event may seem extreme, it’s actually the foundation for so much of what’s made this family so polluted and unhinged ever since, given that Vi knew about it (“Nothin’ gets past me,” she proudly reminds everyone more than once) so it fueled most of the Weston conflicts: Vi’s anger at Beverly, his shame and distancing from her, Mattie Fae’s hostility toward her son, Charlie’s growing frustration with his wife’s disrespect for “their” boy, and, likely, Vi’s meanness toward her children (helped, sadly, by Vi’s disgust with her own childhood, where her mother played a cruel-Christmas-gift-trick on her, then Mom’s various boyfriends were awful to Vi and her sister, with one of them attempting to beat Vi with a hammer until she was saved by Mattie Fae’s interference—for which Mattie Fae still bears some scars).

August: Osage County, in addition to all of its verbal recriminations, is more physically violent (see, I told you this could be a reasonable name for Streep’s character)—including Barb’s actual attack on her mother as the climax of that disastrous dinner scene, as well as slapping Jean for bad-mouthing Bill during the confrontation with their daughter over Steve’s inappropriate advances—than just the emotional “blood-letting” in the obvious comparison to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962 play by Edward Albee [winner of the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play, almost got the 1963 Pulitzer for Drama (denied because the award’s advisory board, the trustees of Columbia university, objected to the use of profanity and sexual themes]), received a 2012 50th-anniversary-production on Broadway by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, with—ironically—Tracy Letts (as George), who won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play]; 1966 film directed by Mike Nichols [screenplay by Ernest Lehman], winning Oscars for Elisabeth Taylor [Martha] as Best Actress and Sandy Dennis [Honey] as Best Supporting Actress), often cited as the example of how to better present such a terrible-intra-family-breakdown, although if you want extreme-disturbed-family-angst in an even more serious context than either … Osage County or … Virginia Woolf (still with its own disturbing humor woven in) I think an even more apt comparison might be with another Pulitzer Prize-winner (for 1978 drama, first ever given to a work premiering Off-Broadway), Sam Shepard’s extremely-disturbing Buried Child, which I’d highly recommend if you’re really ready to be dragged over barbed wire (I see that Chicago’s American Repertory Theatre is performing it right now [January 2014] with possibly other productions to emerge, so keep an eye out for it if you wish; sorry, no cinematic adaptation yet—and maybe never, given what a hard sell that would be).

Yet, even with all of … Osage County’s supposed-histrionics, I’ve seen in retrospect—after some serious consideration about what I saw on screen—that all of that seemingly-overwrought-melodrama successfully adds to the intended impact of this sad story, one that may seem extreme to those who come from more genteel backgrounds but which resonates plausibly with people I’ve known, observed, and been related to (and/or involved with/married to—first time around, not Nina).  Other film critics may want to relive the characterizations that they’ve seen on stage (a privilege I haven’t had yet and probably won’t soon, but if a production opens up in your area it would likely be well worth your time to see it) or somehow have the tone of the movie changed to be either less crisis-driven or more focused on the rescue provided by humor in situations that are painful to watch, but even if author Letts has chosen a more serious attitude here or director Wells has pushed his cast to such an interpretation, I have to admit that I find this gut-pounding-story to be horribly-possible (if not probable) in circumstances that I’ve known, the acting to be perfectly in tune with people who have been raised to manufacture and incorporate constant-over-emoting into their daily lives and interactions (I speak from very close observation on this point), and the narrative’s result—Vi being left with only Johnna to care for and about her (clearly Beverly’s intention all along, as he prepared for his suicide, just as Vi prepared for her remaining days by cleaning all of the cash out of the safety deposit box before Beverly’s drowning death was confirmed —as she claimed her husband had intended, for the welfare of her cancer-stricken-final-days rather than dispersing his holdings to their daughters as his will called for)—is an inevitable, almost-empty-sum-game after the subtraction of everyone else from Vi’s homestead.  (Karen and Steve back to Florida with her stubbornly insisting that any impropriety with 14-year-old-Jean was the girl’s fault; Bill and Jean back to Boulder with little hope of reconciliation with Barb from either of them; Ivy shell-shocked when Vi tells her the truth about Little Charles, then driving off herself, determined to still go to NY with him, despite the horror and betrayal she feels from the revelation; Charlie and Mattie Fae leaving with him gravely upset at his wife over her criticism of their son, with much greater confrontations sure to come if Ivy makes good on her departure plans, which Mattie Fae cannot abide; and Barbara, not willing to take on Ivy’s caretaker role but simply finding herself decisively-free from all that has bound her to this God-forsaken piece of prairie land).  Someday, some retro-movie-theater should show a triple-feature of this film along with Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013) and the sad lament of small-town-North-Texas-desolation, The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971), to give an understanding of mid-20th-century-and-beyond-Great Plains-historical/geographical/emotional-angst—or maybe they should just do a double-feature pairing The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940) with August: Osage County to prove that those who stayed behind in Oklahoma and weathered the Dust Bowl for the many years into our Great Recession times of today didn’t fare any better by some measures than the beat-down-Joads of times past—although the Joads' problems were mostly imposed upon them while the Westons are quite capable of creating their own meltdowns, although there might be some inter-family-connections anyway, as the Joads were from near Sallisaw, Sequoyah County, not that far from Osage County, so maybe they’re all cousins or something.  I’m sure Ivy’d be willing to do a little genealogical research to see what else might be waiting to drop from the family tree.

Nevertheless, despite my change of heart and admission that much of what I first found overdone about August: Osage County has more to do with aspects of my own past that I’d just as soon forget about than it does with failings in either the approach taken by Wells and Letts or the interpretations of these weather-beaten-Weston-characters by this stellar cast, I still see little hope of Oscar voters being more moved by this film than have been the majority of disparaging critics, even with the lead and supporting nominations offered respectively to Streep and Roberts by both the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild voters (they’ve already lost the Globes; see the link at the head of this posting).  Maybe, given the likely overlap of SAG members and the actors’ guild within the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Streep and Roberts will again be in contention—somewhat long shots they may be, given the film’s consistent fall from overall grace—but, even if they are nominated, I doubt that they’ll have much of a chance to win, nor would I be too quick to pass out the gold if they were, with Streep in competition against almost-certain-to-triumph-Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013; review in our August 16, 2013 posting) and Roberts effective in her role but paling in comparison to Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013; review in our November 14, 2013 posting)—although the Globers apparently couldn’t resist the siren-call of yet-another-award (in their Motion Picture Supporting Actress category) for Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013; review in our December 27, 2013 posting), a very strong performance but, I can only hope, not enough to sway Academy voters away from Nyong’o (I’ve tried to make my peace with Lawrence’s ability after her Best Oscar win in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook last year, but don’t push it, OK?).  Still, awards or not, August: Osage County, with its feuding relatives and oppressive-108o –heat, rings much truer to its referents than it’s generally being given credit for (or income for that matter, given that it’s made only about $8 million so far but does seem to be opening into wider release), probably because its aggressive-acting-style is being interpreted as more appropriate for 1920s German Expressionism than what contemporary-sensibilities would prefer (although if all of these characters were to be pulled back to the intentionally-restrained-contrasts presented by Cooper and Cumberbatch, who present a finely-sensitive-and-supportive-father-and-son-combination, the quiet eye of the hurricane swirling all around them—yes, I know, a tornado would be a more appropriate metaphor for Oklahoma [with all due respect to those killed, injured, or displaced by the horrible twisters that roared through that state in 2013], but I don’t know anyone who talks much about the “eye” of a tornado—then I think we’d have something far too watered-down, too “reasonable” for the needed story of the physically-and-emotionally-wandering Westons to be properly presented), with even the intense wattage of the combined-star-power in play here apparently not  enough to bring appropriate attention to this powerhouse-crash of unwilling wills.

After due-diligence-consideration (the lifeblood of glacier-speed-academia-decision-making, which I’m also terribly familiar with), I’m opting to embrace the unholy mess that some determine August: Osage County to be (and as for my fellow critics who so disparage it, well—in the spirit of the film itself—I have this sow’s ass over here … I’ll leave it to you as to what you can do with it); further, I encourage potential viewers to try it (the film, not the sow) for yourselves, but if my encouraging recommendation results in your desire for me to reimburse your ticket price just remember that my Social Security check has limits, no matter what the Tea Partiers say about runaway-socialist-government-payouts.  Then—before I go eat my fish lunch (just see the film; it’s worth it for this scene alone)—for my standard musical metaphor to accompany the review comments, in this case for August: Osage County, I’ll offer the Amazing Rhythm Aces with “Third Rate Romance” at, in “honor” of the Weston family’s less-than-fabulous-contributions to human dignity, which earn them about a collective 4 on the “our-family-history-proves-we’re-more-evolved-than-other-apes”-scale of 1 to 10 but with a higher connotation for that same number on my star scale for this film that “celebrates” their exploits (although if you’d prefer to join Vi in yet another round of Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” [from the 1977 album Slowhand] at [live, with Mark Knopfler, date unknown], please help yourself).  Now, if I can just get the Hollywood honchos to move away from stories that keep twreking their ideas in the face of my innermost psyche, calling forth these agitated, extremely verbose responses (Couldn’t we just have a normal film for a change, maybe something about some gay aliens [from Costa Rica or Mars, take your pick] who try to blend in by getting jobs in a shoe store managed by Jennifer Lawrence?), maybe I could get back to writing reviews that are more the length of short stories than Steinbeck novels.

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Speaking of short stories (Smooth transition, huh?), another current offering in the theaters, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, 2013), is based on a very famous one by James Thurbera quick read if you’d like to look into it, originally published in the March 18, 1939 issue of The New Yorker—although with massive creative license to transform what was originally about a mild-mannered-middle-aged-man daydreaming about military-and-medical-exploits to escape his humdrum life (and the constant nagging from his wife) to now being about a photographic archivist (technically, a negative assets manager, meaning he curates photo negatives not that he manages corporate-write-offs) for Life magazine—Mitty, played by Stiller—trying to impress fellow-employee Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) by finally taking actions that get him out of his head and into the field, akin to the life’s work of his famed-photographer-friend, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who’s sent Walter the negative (the Holy-Grailish #25 that propels the rest of our plot) that O’Connell wants put on the last Life print cover, but it’s somehow missing so Mitty finally summons up his courage to challenge sharks, drunks, volcanoes, and warlords from Greenland to Afghanistan in search of the missing shot.  Walter also has the impetus to find the precious #25 because his job hinges on it, as demanded by asshole-of-the-first-degree Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott, head of the neatly-trimmed-bearded-transition-team taking Life into the digital realm, firing print-based-employees—long- and short-term—capriciously as he goes).  While we have some great fantasies from Walter early on in the movie as he zones out thinking of ways to impress Cheryl (leaping, Captain-America-like, into an about-to-explode-building to rescue a dog or being interviewed by Conan O’Brien about his famous exploits) he soon finds himself in what must seem like a galaxy long ago and far away as he dodges all sorts of challenges with new-found-courageous-resources (including  wicked skateboarding—a skill he does have from childhood days before his Dad died when Walter was just 17, before Walter locked his real life up in a small, tidy apartment with a Norman Rockwell print of safer times in America on the wall—to avoid the lava eruption in Iceland; unflagging determination to hike the Himalayas in search of the missing negative; and cake-based-negotiations [home-baked by Mom Edna (Shirley MacLaine)] with the warlords that finally get him to O’Connell, only to find out that #25 was with Walter all along, in that Sean enclosed it in a wallet gift which Walter threw away in frustration but was retrieved by never-wasteful-Mom [reminds me of the Seinfeld TV episode where Jerry tosses out a faulty watch sent by his parents only to have it retrieved by Uncle Leo, causing all sorts of intra-family problems—but not nearly as bad in Manhattan, NY and Del Boca Vista, FL as those in Osage County, OK]).  Walter, after having been fired for not making a previous deadline with the “quintessence”-of-Life-image (according to O’Connell), storms into the corporate offices, delivers the missing negative (without even looking at its content), tells Hendricks what a jerk he is, and leaves, having found a sense of self that’s now worth sharing with Cheryl (fired as well) so that even though he now has enough material to make his eHarmony page worth reading he doesn’t need to dazzle anyone else but her with it.

Walter also shows excellent detective tendencies in piecing together from the images around the mysterious #25 where the elusive O’Connell had been when he took the “money”-shot (so to speak), including the inexplicable reality that one is from Edna’s apartment, with Walter learning that Sean had been there days before the adventures started inquiring about Walter’s work habits.  All of this pays off (I told you to pay attention to my Spoiler Alerts, didn’t I?  Last chance to bail out here if you want to.) when Walter and Cheryl finally see the hallowed final cover with a simple picture of Walter, sitting outside of the Time-Life Building looking at a sheet of negatives, a candid shot taken by O’Connell as capturing what really made the magazine great: not so much the fabulous images that graced its pages for decades but, instead, the unswerving love of the craft as practiced by caretakers like Walter.  (Of course this was not only not the actual final Life cover—nor is the magazine still in business in our present day as depicted in the movie, having ceased regular weekly publication in 1972, monthly in 2000—but also the movie gives us the fallacy that most of what we see represented as cover images were actually that when in fact they were real Life photos but not cover choices; you can see a nice gallery of these fakes, but the real last cover was simply for “The Year in Pictures 1972” [the monthly final, May 2000, was of a premature baby—you can find this one and numerous others for viewing or sale; as usual, no kickback to me if you decide to buy any of them], but neither were intended as such to sum up the essence of the magazine’s history, as the shot of Walter was implied to do—I’ve also got to wonder why Walter would take his work outside with him when he’s got all of the light he needs in his office to view it, but let’s not spoil the moment, shall we?)  As reconstructed by Stiller and his colleagues, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty contains the essence of Thurber’s intention, offers us some spectacular nature photography (and CGI for the volcano, I assume) truly in the spirit of Life, then wraps it all up with a romantic conclusion that serves as both an encouragement to get away from the keyboard and out into the world more often (advice of great value, especially as I’m pounding away on a rare warm winter day in northern CA writing this) and a seeming guarantee of fulfillment if you do “follow your bliss” (as mythology-scholar Joseph Campbell used to say) instead of being ground up by the social machines of duty and expectation.

Overall, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a sweet movie (not much to find in it beyond what’s covered in the trailer, however) with a useful “go make some been-there, done-that memories” message (although, remember that jumping into oceans and climbing mountains can just be understood as metaphors for something less-life-threatening if it better suits your situation), that rises above the general critical pounding it’s taken from most of us would-be-tastemakers (even lower numbers than August: Osage County; see the Tomatoes and Meta links far below), but, admittedly, it’s nothing that will particularly be remembered in coming years (except maybe as a Valentine’s Day double-feature with another sweetie also starring adorable leads [Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan], Sleepless in Seattle [Nora Ephron, 1993]) nor with this year’s Oscar nominations (despite some initial speculation, but maybe that was just from the Fox publicists), so to finish up with a musical metaphor that speaks to the well-known-aspects of this story that Stiller is trying to encourage all of us to move beyond, I’ll drop back to The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” at, from a 1971 TV performance (which doesn’t quite include the complete lineup of the group’s formative-1960s-singers—although you still get the fabulous Eddie Kendricks singing lead—but I was fortunate enough as an undergraduate to see the famous-version of the group through the University of Texas’ Cultural Entertainment Series, circa 1968 [as best my memory can retrieve such a detail today] and also saw them fairly recently at the Alameda County Fair [oh, how the mighty have fallen] with Otis Williams the only surviving member of the original Temps).  Imagination can be a lifesaver at times, as long as we don’t let it lock us into pre-adventurous-Walter-Mitty-lives, wishing and hoping rather than just doing it (note to accountant, send royalty check to Nike [note to me as accountant: buy some bookkeeping software for when the sure-to-be-arriving-big-time-blog-money starts rolling in]).

As for yet-another-adaptation-film for this week’s review that always had stronger Oscar potential than The Secret Life of Walter Mitty but will likely not connect in many of the final nominations lists either, we have the marvelously-intentioned-biography of one of the great social leaders and statesmen of the last several decades, Nelson Mandela, in Mandela: Long Road to Freedom (Justin Chadwick), based on his autobiography of almost the same name—up to 1994—adapted to the screen by William Nicholson.  Despite some very strong performances by Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Harris as his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, I just don’t see any room in the already-crowded-Oscar-nominations-lists for anything except very possibly in the Original Song category, where the U2 tune “Ordinary Love” has already picked up a Golden Globe and gives Academy voters at least one area to try and honor this sincere tribute to a great warrior for justice, even though, by government-preservation-standards, technically the rulers of South Africa in 1962 could brand him as a violent terrorist, sending him away (so they assumed) to life in prison.  What we get in this film is a condensed (but still 139 min. of screen time) life-story that takes Nelson quickly from childhood village life (born in 1918 but with focus on the tribal circumcision ceremony as he enters puberty [“Bid farewell to your childhood.”]) to early years as a lawyer in Johannesburg; carefree lifestyle as a roving bachelor that leads to marriage with Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto) in 1944; growing radicalization against the racist-based-injustices of the new, oppressive apartheid laws; distance from his family due to his increased political action (and affairs), as well as occasional arrests and short imprisonments; enhanced stature within the African National Congress because of his willing leadership; Evelyn’s departure from his life, replaced by the fiery-and-politically-determined-Winnie, with aspirations for Black freedom in South Africa to match his own; and hiding from the authorities as a result of embracing Communist-inspired-more-violent-strategies against government oppression, all of which leads us—at about the halfway point into the film—to very serious imprisonment and the 1964 trial along with his ANC-leadership-colleagues that would seemingly lock them away for good, neutering their status and abilities as opposition organizers.  Little did his cruel jailors know how determined their new charges were to not submit to the constant harassment, intimidation, and initially-brutal-treatment but to maintain their struggles over the next 27 years, until an agreement was reached with the now-internationally-pressured-White-government to not only end the prisoners’ intended-life-sentences but also work with them toward free and open elections, which would finally bring the Black majority to rule with Mandela as the country’s President.  It’s an awe-inspiring-story of a man with great principles (and plenty of personal flaws, as he always admitted) who inspired others to follow him, even when the “campaign” was simply to be issued long trousers rather than shorts in their grim Robben Island prison as a symbol of respect for their manhood rather than the diminished connotations of what was understood as children’s attire.  The story itself is uplifting in its long-but-eventually-achieved-triumph, with the film’s release aided, it would seem, by the sad coincidence of Mandela’s death on December 5, 2013, roughly matching the U.S. release of this film.

Yet, after 7 weeks in theaters it’s grossed only about $8 million, the same rough amount as August: Osage County—with the theatre count rapidly declining for the former, growing for the latter—along with a similar small amount of critical praise, despite early indications that this film would be well-received by analysts and audiences alike (in contrast, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the least-critically-supported of all 3 of my subjects this week, is on thousands more screens than these other 2, amassing about $53 million in domestic ticket sales so far, likely based on the name value of its stars even though Mandela … certainly had equal-name-recognition given the international coverage of its namesake’s death and funeral—but name-recognition hasn’t worked wonders for … Osage County either, possibly showing us that what American audiences are seeking in this still-recovering-job-market-and-era-of-governmental-gridlock-holiday-season-into-New-Year-refocus is something either fully escapist [the animated Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee) at over $317 million; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2013) at over $242 million; Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Adam McKay) at over $118 million] or wickedly encouraging of materialistic-middle-finger-waving-against-recent-hard-times-for-the-pocketbook [American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013) at over $101 million; The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) at over $78 million] rather than honoring actual political leadership or wallowing in the mud of dysfunctional families).  Some may also be put off by the attempts of a standard-length-film to pack in so much fact-based-detail as if this were more of a well-produced-PBS-history-lesson than a means of understanding how Mandela came to be and remained so respected after being incarcerated for so long—there’s even one scene where younger anti-apartheid-convicts arrive at Robben Island and dismiss their ANC elders as irrelevant old men, just as Winnie herself proves to be more radical than Nelson can abide upon his release, dressed in military fatigues and calling for a rapid replacement of the still-in-power-White-minority while he’s working to prevent all-out-civil-war, instead advocating an orderly transition of power (certainly he continued to be respected and revered during those long prison years, with international calls for his release—probably through Winnie’s work, among others, on his behalf, when she wasn’t in jail herself—but the film doesn’t give enough of an understanding of that, how this man purposely kept out of public awareness for so long could emerge to such a massive positive response, although, again, there’s only so much you can cram into 139 minutes when your subject has so rich a life to explore).

However, back during those years of Mandela’s isolated-imprisonment, Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982) managed to inspire a more-robust-audience-embrace (and pick up 8 Oscars, including 4 of the big 5 for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Original Screenplay), even while covering a similar lengthy period of Gandhi’s public life, but without seeing Gandhi again (it’s been that many years for me) I can’t fully speculate on why that film worked so well while this one has just about fallen off the radar, except that in some manner the Indian liberator was made to seem more universal, more personalized than was the South African leader when you compare the 2 equally-well-intentioned-films.  Maybe someday some other filmmaking team can finally find the magic to fully capture the awe-inspiring-grandeur of Nelson Mandela in a manner that this current mostly-ignored-attempt has failed to do.  (To round out this once-again-review-augmented-with-personal-testimony, I’ll note that my one chance to see Mandela in person was on June 30, 1990 when he and Winnie appeared at a packed rally at the Oakland [CA] Coliseum in appreciation for the city’s active involvement in the anti-apartheid-divestiture-movement, but, as fate would have it, Nina and I had scheduled our wedding for that day with some plans that couldn’t be changed, so while tens of thousands cheered “Madiba“ [as he was known to many by his Xhosa clan name, although as a child he also was called Rolihlahla, which prophetically translates as “troublemaker”] a couple dozen of us were up in the Oakland hills for an exchange of vows that have endured for the last 23 years—Nelson and Winnie were married for 38 before divorcing, having grown apart so much during their imposed separation; we intend to top that number, assuming neither of us gets locked away after the NSA reads our seditious emails—just joking, Barack).

I have the highest respect for Nelson Mandela, his life, his work, his passions (even his youthful womanizing [but only before marriage, not afterward, of course, my darling Nina]), just as I have respect for this film, but in a manner similar to actually working in some social-justice-movement giving you more satisfaction than just reading about its founder so should a biographical film take me somewhere beyond just recognition of the outstanding qualities of the individual depicted; unfortunately, for me at least, this one just didn’t quite get there, even though all involved gave excellent effort to their serious, deeply-felt-cause.  So, until that more-successful-Mandela-film-day arrives, I’ll just leave you with some musical notes, first the U2 “Ordinary Love” song from the Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom soundtrack, at, the official music video with very active visuals that also cleverly write out the lyrics for us, but also a related song (at least for me), Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies” (from the 1986 Graceland album, winner of the Album of the Year Grammy) at, performed in this clip at the 1987 African Concert at Harare, Zimbabwe, in a duet with South Africa’s marvelous star who faced her own long years of exile (in her case being denied re-entry into her homeland in retaliation for her campaign against apartheid), Mariam Makeba (the personal part—once again—is that Nina and I met at Simon’s Graceland tour in Berkeley, CA on February 28, 1987, where Simon was joined by Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and the album’s other great South African musicians); this song is about an African man named Joseph, not Nelson, but I also think of Mandela somehow when I hear it, so I’ll share its mesmerizing melody to see what it conjures up for you until we meet again when I make yet another attempt to stay more emotionally-distanced from the content of these films so as to be more concise in my ramblings (but based on the past two years of reviews and the decades of long-winded-lectures before that I wouldn’t put any money—or even a pig’s butt or a fish plate-lunch—on that proposition).

If you want to know more about August: Osage County here are some suggested links: (39:34 press conference from 2013 Toronto International Film Festival [begins with the same trailer as above] with Ewan McGregor, Abigail Brisling, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Chris Cooper, scriptwriter [and playwright] Tracy Letts, and director John Welles)

If you want to know more about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty here are some suggested links: (a much longer trailer than usual, 6:20, so the scenes involved are given a bit more context and could serve as an alternative for seeing the movie itself if you so choose to save a few bucks) (12:11 interview with producer/director/actor Ben Stiller, producer Stuart Cornfield, and actor Kristen Wiig)

If you want to know more about Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom here are some suggested links:  (← in addition to the normal trailer for the film you might also enjoy this collage of images ↓ of the actual Nelson Mandela’s life set to the music of U2 singing  “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom at (37:53 press conference from 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with director Justin Chadwick and actors Lindiwe Matshikiza, Riadd Moosa, Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto, Deon Lotz, producers Anant Singh and David Thompson, and screenwriter William Nicholson)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Hi Ken,
    JK commenting for Ben - he left this on our review of MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM -
    I agree. It is an honest film that is skirting the line, on the one hand insulting Mandela’s memory and on the other putting him up on an unattainable pedestal. A difficult task indeed. I agree in your review that it may miss out on all awards due to the high amount of competition. Especially the much grittier “12 Years a Slave”

    All the best :)

  2. Hi Ben (and Jason), Thanks for the comment. I appreciate it. Ken

  3. Thank you for the absolutely wonderful job you did on this blog.Good Job Keep it up and thank you for all of your hard work is a Telugu news portal and provides
    Telugu Movie News, Latest and Breaking News on Political News and Telugu Movie Reviews at one place

  4. Hi Ragu, I very much appreciate your supportive comments. Ken