Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:
"AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY"
One of the smartest decisions director John Wells made in adapting Tracy Letts' 2008 Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning, darkly comic drama was filming it in the dense heat of Bartlesville in Oklahoma's parched heartland of Osage County.
Venomous, tart-tongued Violet (Meryl Streep) is the paranoid, pill-popping matriarch of the highly dysfunctional Weston family. Her harsh irascibility has made her a tough combatant, now enduring chemotherapy in a battle with mouth cancer, but that same trait has also driven away those who love her. When a sudden tragedy reunites her three grown daughters in the sprawling Weston house, the women confront not only their pasts but their futures.
There's exasperated Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest, who comes in from Colorado with her estranged college professor husband, bland Bill (Ewan McGregor), and their precocious, pot-smoking 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Middle sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has been dutifully caring for Violet and their long-suffering, alcoholic father, Beverly (Sam Shepard), but yearns to move to New York City. Flighty wild child Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the youngest, arriving with her fiance, Steve Heidebrecht (Dermot Mulroney), a sleazy Florida hustler.
Also present are Violet's secretive sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her compassionate husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their clumsy, slow-witted son, called Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), plus the loyal Native American housekeeper (Misty Upham).
Letts' complicated, cantankerous characters are richly drawn and psychologically believable, while his scalding dialogue is acerbic, clever and compelling. Problem is: it's stylized into monologues, making it far more effective on stage than on the big screen. A sense of emotional distance also emanates from John Wells' ("The Company Men") over-the-top direction, unintentionally evoking memories of "Mommy Dearest" and "Terms of Endearment."
Nevertheless, it's an acting showcase -- with Streep, Roberts and Martindale particularly powerful -- even if the tepid, yet upbeat conclusion, which differs from the play, seems forced.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "August: Osage County" is a barbed, emotional 8, filled with challenging, revelatory outbursts of recrimination and regret. Abandonment disguised as holiday fare.
Writer/director Peter Berg has created an unflinching, action-packed war film about a guerilla skirmish in June 2005 in the war in Afghanistan, as recalled by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg).
Beginning with a montage of men enduring brutal Navy SEAL training and bonding to one another, Team 10 is dispatched on Operation Red Wing, a mission to take out an isolated, high-level target: senior Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), responsible for the deaths of 20 marines the previous week.
This courageous, four-man surveillance-and-reconnaissance team includes hospital corpsman Luttrell, Lt. Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), gunner's mate Danny P. Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and sonar technician Matthew "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster).
Although they parachute into the rugged mountains of Kunar unobserved, they're soon discovered by a trio of goatherds. Immediately, the SEALs are faced with a dilemma. These Afghan civilians are unarmed but, if they're released -- in accordance with the Geneva Convention, there's good reason to believe they'll inform the Taliban. As commander, good-hearted Murphy frees them. As soon as he does, the youngest scampers down the mountain to reveal their whereabouts. Ferociously intense fighting ensues, as everything that can go wrong -- does. Their chances for survival are further lessened by their inability to contact Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana) at headquarters.
Based on Luttrell's memoir, "Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10," Peter Berg ("Battleship," "The Kingdom") respectfully explores somewhat the same territory as "Black Hawk Down," "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty" in the continuing battle against the Taliban.
The realistic performances are strong and affecting -- with relentless authenticity heightened by Kevin Scott's gritty stunt squad, Tobias A. Schliessler's gruesome cinematography, Colby Park Jr's. editing and David Brownlow's sound mixing. Most memorable among the Arab actors is Ali Suliman ("The Attack"), who plays a pivotal part, offering brief sanctuary to Luttrell.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Lone Survivor" is a low-key yet brutal, sobering 7. The sad title, itself, is a spoiler.
"PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES"
This supernatural horror/thriller has two distinctions: It's the first new release of 2014 and another installment in the highly successful, low-budget franchise. Unlike its predecessors, it's not set in a haunted house in middle-class WASPy suburbia. Instead, the story shifts into a working-class Latino apartment complex in southern California -- with an ethnically diverse cast of characters.
It begins as Jesse (Jorge Diaz), a recent Oxnard High School graduate, awakens to find an odd bite mark on his arm. Pretty soon, he's experiencing some extraordinary powers, like the ability to levitate himself and others, along with inexplicable mood swings. This mystery coincides with the sudden death of Jesse's downstairs neighbor, reclusive Anna (Gloria Sandoval), whom many suspect was part of a coven of witches performing Santeria blood rituals.
Curious, Jesse and his friend Hector (Jorge Diaz) peek into Anna's apartment after the police left, unearthing her collection of occult artifacts and documenting their discoveries with Jesse's new camera. When Hector and Jesse's sister, Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh), become increasingly concerned about Jesse's transformation and increasing inability to control his violent temper, they consult Ali (Molly Ephraim), who recognizes the telltale symptoms of demonic possession. And so it goes.
Screenwriter Christopher Landon, who contributed to earlier sequels, directs, and it's certainly a step up from the last chapter, "Paranormal Activity 4," which was truly disappointing. One of the elements introduced this time `round is the sinister use of Simon, an electronic Milton Bradley game, which begins answering yes/no questions like a Ouija board. Fittingly, in the finale, it adds to and expands the previous mythology, as a harbinger of "Paranormal Activity 5," which is scheduled for an October release.
For those who have forgotten or missed the 2009 original, the basic concept is based on "found footage," similar to "The Blair Witch Project," but focusing on various incarnations of a malevolent spirit named Toby.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" is a fright-flick 4, a spin-off that's specifically aimed at adolescent Hispanic chiller/horror fans.