Tag Archives: Julia Roberts

Choose Kind


by Hope Madden

On its surface, Wonder is about feeling like an outsider.

Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay, proving that his remarkable turn in Room was no fluke) is about to start middle school. There’s anxiety enough in that, but this will be Auggie’s first “real school,” having spent his formative education being homeschooled by his more than capable mother (Julia Roberts).

But there’s more. Auggie suffers from a congenital malady which, after dozens of surgeries, leaves him with an unusually misshapen and scarred face. This is why he prefers to wear a space helmet whenever he’s in public.

To its enormous credit, Wonder makes Auggie’s plight universal. Doesn’t everyone entering middle school desperately fear some kind of ostracism? Doesn’t every parent fear the same for their tender youngster?

How much worse will it be for Auggie? Few parents will not recognize the sincerity in his mom’s plea as she sends her son off to his first day of real school: “Please, God, let them be nice to him.”

Roberts, whose work in recent years has radically outshone everything from the first couple decades of her career, offers a strong and believable center of gravity for both the Pullman family and the film.

Director Stephen Chbosky also co-wrote this adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s popular juvenile fiction book. Chbosky waded into similarly angst-ridden waters when he directed the screen version of his own novel Perks of Being a Wallflower, but with Wonder he manages to find an emotional truthfulness missing from his previous film.

Wonder is surprisingly—almost amazingly—understated, given the content. The film avoids many a tear-jerking cliché and sidesteps sentimentality more often than you might expect.

It’s also dishonest— well-meaning, but wildly dishonest. Conflicts are easily resolved, lessons quietly learned, comeuppance generally had and loose ends carefully tied.

Wonder is about as wholesome a movie as you will see, lacking even an ounce of cynicism, which certainly makes Auggie’s ordeal easier to bear. But it’s still a cinematic cop out.

Secrets and Eyes

Secret in Their Eyes

by George Wolf

American remakes of great foreign films aren’t always a letdown (The Ring actually improved upon Ringu), but the track record is not good.

Secret in Their Eyes does little to reverse the trend.

If you haven’t seen Argentina’s El Secreto de sus ojos, the 2010 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Film, then writer/director Billy Ray’s adaptation can stand alone as a serviceable thriller with a stellar cast.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is Ray Karsten, an investigator who remains haunted by an unsolved murder from 13 years earlier, and by some lingering feelings for his former co-worker Claire (Nicole Kidman).

Just four months after 9/11, a young woman’s body was found in a dumpster, right beside a mosque suspected of harboring terrorist activity. To Karsten’s horror, the victim was the daughter of his colleague Jess (Julia Roberts), and the killer was never brought to justice.

Now, after years of pouring through mugshots each night, Karsten returns to Jess, and to Claire, with hopes of re-opening the case.

One of the many beautiful qualities of the original film was how it juggled the years and storylines intermittently but equally, poignantly layering the gritty crime drama with the wistful pangs of unrequited love. There’s more than one secret at work here, but Ray’s vision can’t view them as equals.

His cast is certainly game, especially Roberts, who digs in to Jess’s heartbreak with ferocity. She and Ejiofor make ID’ing Jess’s daughter utterly devastating and the film’s emotional high point, which shouldn’t come so early.

Ray, who’s more seasoned as a writer (Captain Phillips, The Hunger Games) than director (Shattered Glass), pushes too hard in almost all directions, from xenophobic paranoia to the obstacles coming between Karsten and Claire. His pacing feels rushed, and his attempt to re-create the original film’s eye-popping sports stadium chase fizzles out quickly.

Many of the changes Ray makes to the core story are curious but acceptable, as you wait to see how he approaches that knockout finale. Once it hits, the feeling is more like a gut punch.

Emotional resonance is replaced with lets-go-one-better excess, as if American audiences couldn’t accept any finale without a clearly drawn morality, for fear a dark beauty might follow them home.

What Ray omits from the conclusion is nearly as criminal as what he adds, and his film ultimately wears an unwelcome irony. These characters remind us more than once that “passion always wins,” and it’s passion that needs to drive them.

But just when Secret in Their Eyes needs it most, when both storylines are converging in a deserving payoff, it cops out, and a glorious passion play becomes a common exercise in obligation.




Pass the Salt…Bitch!


by George Wolf


So, how was your family get-together over the Holidays?

If secrets and dinner plates weren’t tossed about like a salad dressed with obscenities, you’ve got nothing on the Westons, the dysfunctional brood at the heart of August:  Osage County.

Screenwriter Tracy Letts adapts his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and the sublime wordplay in his dark, rich comedy is brought to life via an exceptional ensemble cast. Only tentative direction from John Wells holds the film back from its full potential.

Meryl Streep rules the roost as family matriarch Violet Weston, who..ahem…”welcomes” her children, siblings and assorted other team members back home after a family crisis.

There isn’t much time spent on niceties before the barbs start flying. Old wounds are exposed, and new secrets are uncovered as the family struggles to deal with the effect their past has on their present.

At the heart of the conflict is Barbara, the oldest Weston daughter, fully realized by Julia Roberts in, hands down, the performance of her career.

Barbara’s contempt for her mother is on hilariously full display, while bubbling underneath is the fear of becoming her mother, a fear she tries to hide through angry outbursts. Stealing a movie from Meryl Streep is no easy feat, but damned if Roberts doesn’t do it.

In fact, the film is wall to wall with fine performers, including Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, and Margo Martindale (who shows a fantastic chemistry with Streep, giving their scenes together an added air of mischief).

The problem is, director John Wells seems a bit intimidated by who, and what, he’s working with. The characters are too often on their own island, as when a soap opera cuts from a close up of one deep sigh to a completely different storyline.

These characters are under one roof for much of the movie, yet we don’t feel the cohesiveness of any shared connections, just a series of histrionics often left swinging in the venomous breeze.

It’s not the material. Letts also wrote Bug and Killer Joe, both adapted into brilliant movies by the skills of legendary director William Friedkin. Wells, a veteran TV director, doesn’t provide the nuance needed to make a successful cinematic leap.

August:  Osage County boasts all the ingredients, and is certainly entertaining, but ultimately feels like a missed opportunity for something special.