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Knight at the Movies: August: Osage County; Wolf of Wall Street
and The Great Beauty
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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As longtime readers of this column know, there are few movie genres that I revel in more than "the woman's picture" ( or "chick flick" in modern-day terminology ). Even better is that beloved subset of this genre: the mother-daughter movie. Before we get to August: Osage County—John Wells' all-star screen adaptation of the Tracy Letts Steppenwolf-Broadway sensation that is essentially another addition to the M-D canon ( and a great one )—a quick question: How many mother-daughter pictures has Meryl Streep, who stars, appeared in before taking on this latest Grand Dame?

The answer doesn't really matter because when Streep starts chewing the scenery, the dining room table, chairs, the place mats, the service for 10, the place cards, and everything else in the room as she does here portraying Violet Weston, the drug addled Gorgon at the center of August: Osage County fans of this singular actresses' ability to command the screen are in for another galvanizing, memorable performance. What Streep does with Letts' monologues for this monstrous, complicated woman is akin to the arias that Callas must have thrilled audiences with at the height of her career. It's the primary reason to see this dysfunctional family drama, a modern-day Long Day's Journey Into Night ( with plenty of Terms of Endearment, Home for the Holidays and Used People thrown in for good measure ).

After the suicide of Violet's husband ( a typically stoic Sam Shepard ), the gathering of the clan for the funeral is, naturally enough, the perfect time for deep seated wounds to resurface and be picked over. "Thank God we can't tell the future, we'd never get out of bed," Julia Robert as Streep's most messed up daughter Barbara comments enroute to the gathering ( stating the theme of the picture as well ). Boy, is she on the money about what's in store for this train wreck of a family. Letts ( who adapted his play for the screen ) stuffs this tale—a Soap Opera Grand Guignol—with enough deep seated enmity to fuel a dozen Real Housewives reunion shows. And portraying this Addams Family are some major acting heavyweights: Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberpatch, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, the amazing Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, and Julianne Nicholson.

Everyone gets behind Streep, of course, who takes no prisoners as she handily takes apart all the other characters and relishes doing so. The other characters, one by one, fall by the wayside as the mother-daughter boxing match between Violet and Barbara winds up for its final round. Roberts does her best with the role, frowning and grimacing ( her high-wattage smile nowhere in sight ) and giving herself to the complicated role as much as she can. But, ultimately, she lacks the finesse to bring out the shading to make you really care if Barbara breaks free of Violet the witch. And, really, who would expect otherwise? What actor in Hollywood would expect to leave much of an impression when paired with Streep, done up in a teased brunette wig, swilling booze and pills, and chain-smoking in between all those acid-soaked soliloquies?

New Hollywood motto: Never act with kids, dogs or Streep—when she's in Mommie Dearest mode, that is.

At one point amidst the insane excesses displayed in The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese's darkly comedic tale of '90s Wall Street high flyer Jordan Belfort, Rob Reiner ( as Belfort's father, Max ) surveys the financially perverse goings on and exclaims, "This is obscene!" This perfectly sums up both the subject of the movie and it's bloated, three-hour running time.

Based on a true story tale of a white collar criminal, this isn't the cautionary tale that Oliver Stone's 1987 Wall Street with its ironic slogan, "Greed is good" was. No, this is yet another Scorsese gangster picture in which the irony of those words are handily stomped on. In this sordid tale of a poor Brooklyn kid who makes a killing as a penny stockbroker before moving on to greater "glory" as a megaswindler, greed really IS good and any poor sucker who hasn't figured that out is a shmuck who plays by the rules. "I want you to deal with your problems by getting rich" DiCaprio is exhorted at one point and he takes that advice to heart.

This latter-day Gatsby—with a taste for cocaine, hookers and all manner of material goods—becomes more confident the higher he climbs ( natch ) and ignores the warnings of his lawyers that the feds aren't sniffing around because they envy him or his sleazy associates. And those associates are just as arrogant and are portrayed as buffoons. ( Jonah Hill, whose character is strongly hinted at to be closeted, is not surprisingly, the most buffoonish. )

The jaw-dropping indifference to anything outside of the narcissistic pursuits of DiCaprio and company as the noose tightens is illustrated by Scorsese in his usual flashy, theatrical style ( working for the zillionth time with his brilliant editor Thelma Schoonmaker ) but the picture, which is mostly entertaining, never quite resonates like, say, Good Fellas. Some of that has to do with the subject matter which has been covered so extensively in documentaries in the last few years. But I think the larger problem here is DiCaprio whose performance, odd as this may seem given the overindulgences displayed on screen, seems rather remote. There's not much zest in his portrayal and though the character repeatedly gets up to address his troops—before, during and after his downfall—none of it ever connects with the audience.

It's just one of the many incongruities in this ultimately hollow exercise in movie excess.

Briefly noted: Fellini lives! At least, that's what you'll think after seeing The Great Beauty ( La Grande Belleza ), director Paolo Sorrentino's fantastic visual feast that truly is a modern-day La Dolce Vita.

Set in Rome, the movie focuses on Jep Gambardella ( played by Toni Servillo, familiar to audiences from Gomorrah and Il Divo ), a long time chronicler of Rome's party scene and member of same who is thrown a lavish party for his 65th birthday. Jep, who wrote a critically acclaimed novel in his 20s, reflects on his life and loves in the ensuing days as he visits many of Rome's familiar highlights.

Sorrentino's camera loves Servillo's enigmatic but expressive face and the accompanying visuals are something to luxuriate in. This is the best Italian film I've seen since 2009's I Am Love and needs to be experienced on the big screen. The film opens Friday, Jan. 10, at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.

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