Mid-Day Mini ~ Steel Magnolias

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Revolving around Truvy’s Beauty Parlor in a small parish in modern-day Louisiana is the story of a close-knit circle of friends whose lives come together there

Stars: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott

Director: Herbert Ross

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Like the film adaption of A Few Good Men, the movie version of the play Steel Magnolias has ruined me for any future stage production.  Playwright Robert Harling brought his auto-biographical play to the screen with a script that took the ladies out of the beauty salon and added male characters without sacrificing any of the charm, humor, and emotion that made the theatrical work so popular.

It can be a tough chore to adapt a play for film without making it seem too stagey or confined but Harling and director Ross (The Turning Point) avoided these pitfalls with ease thanks in no small part to a slam-dunk sextet of females in leading roles.  It’s clear that the women enjoyed working together because their warmth and easy-going vibe really elevates the film from being a sappy Southern fried weepie to a memorably classic tearjerker.

I’ve seen Steel Magnolias on stage several times (even on Broadway with Delta Burke, Marsha Mason, Frances Sternhagen, and the Noxzema Girl) and the shadow of the movie always loomed large…I know it’s unfair to make comparisons but it can’t be helped with a cast of this caliber.

It’s lovely to see the journey Roberts (coming off good notices in Mystic Pizza) takes as a young Southern belle.  Earning an supporting Oscar nomination for her work here, she’d follow this up with a Best Actress nomination for Pretty Woman a year later.  She fits in well with other Oscar winners Dukakis (for Moonstruck), MacLaine (for Terms of Endearment) perfectly cast as funny biddies and Field (two time winner for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart) as her kind but overly protective mother.  They’re joined by a surprisingly effective Hannah as gawky Annelle and the still underrated Parton (Joyful Noise) as salon owner Truvy.

Though the film has several scenes throughout that may get you misty, it’s Field’s breakdown near the end of the movie that chokes me up each and every time I’ve seen it.  There’s something raw and real about the internal struggle that manifests itself in a powerful cry for answers that hits a nerve within me.  The beauty of the film, similar to Terms of Endearment, is how it injects humor in all the right places so just when the tears start to flow you find yourself laughing.

Yeah, one could describe Steel Magnolias as chick flick and it absolutely is – but more than that it’s notable for its strong performances, gorgeous score (by Georges Delerue), and sensitive direction by Ross (though it’s widely known that Ross was a real devil to work with – he hated Parton and was especially hard on Roberts).  Tearjerkers don’t always come in this easily accessible a package.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Tender Mercies

The Facts:

Synopsis: A broken-down, middle-aged country singer gets a new wife, reaches out to his long-lost daughter, and tries to put his troubled life back together.

Stars: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Ellen Barkin, Betty Buckley, Allan Hubbard

Director: Bruce Beresford

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Duvall won a much deserved Best Actor Oscar for this sparse and moving character study penned by Horton Foote (who also won an Oscar) and directed by Australian Beresford (Crimes of the Heart, Driving Miss Daisy).  Duvall plays a washed-up country singer that just sorta turns up one day in a run-down motel owned by a widow (Harper) and her son (Hubbard).  Working in exchange for a place to stay, he soon becomes involved with the two before his past as a famous but boozy country western singer eventually catches up with him.

The Texas desert isn’t that far of a stretch from the Australian Outback and Beresford capitalizes on the stark scenery to make the focus on the characters and the choices they’ve made.  The performances are top notch with Duvall the embodiment of quiet understatement which works nicely with Harper’s kind but guarded woman.  Buckley is nicely icy as Duvall’s ex-wife, a country star in her own right who belts out the Oscar nominated “Over You” and Barkin follows up a memorable debut in Diner with a brief role as Duvall’s estranged daughter. 

The tears in this film come from the gauntlet Foote asks Duvall to travel through as he goes about repairing his past misdeeds and healing old wounds.  Many of these situations are hard to correct and watching Duvall try his best to be his best makes for more than a few lump-in-your-throat scenes.  Tender Mercies was a small film that struck a nerve with audiences and critics, allowing for good word-of-mouth to drive business.  The film represents some career-high work for all involved and is a lasting testament to the power of good filmmaking with a deep emotional well.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Wolverine

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Synopsis: Wolverine makes a voyage to modern-day Japan, where he encounters an enemy from his past that will impact on his future.

Release Date:  July 26, 2013

Thoughts: After 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine failed to ignite the kind of box office that Marvel Studios and Twentieth Century Fox had hoped, plans were scrapped for future installments of similar X-Men Origin films.  But you can’t keep an appealing superhero down and of all the X-Men that have graced the screen, Hugh Jackman’s haunted hero Logan/Wolverine has always been the most appealing to me.  After the huge success of 2011’s X-Men prequel, Fox decided another go ‘round was worth it.  With gritty director James Mangold (Cop Land, Knight and Day) on board and coming off of Jackman’s Oscar nominated turn in Les Miserables, expectations are once again high for the franchise.  I didn’t mind the previous stand-alone Wolverine film but did find it a tad uninspired…so I’m curious to see where this film will take us.  It certainly looks to hit all the right notes for a successful run but if it doesn’t another X-Men prequel is on its way in 2014.

Mid-Day Mini ~ The Joy Luck Club

The Facts:

Synopsis: The life histories of four Asian women and their daughters reflect and guide each other.

Stars: Tamlyn Tomita, Rosalind Chao, Tsai Chin, France Nuyen, Lisa Lu, Ming-Na, Lauren Tom

Director: Wayne Wang

Rated: R

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  This adaptation of Amy Tan’s celebrated 1989 novel had the great fortune of falling into the right hands.  In addition to Oscar winning producer Oliver Stone and Oscar winning screenwriter Ronald Bass (who collaborated on the script with Tan), director Wang was at the helm overseeing this drama that looked into the lives of a quartet of women and their daughters.

Tan’s novel weaved together the past and the present to form a rich tapestry of insights into cultures and customs and the movie followed well in its footsteps.  I remember reading the novel before I saw the movie and finding it very cinematic in its conception.  It was a joy to see that Bass and Tan managed to skillfully bring to life eight vastly different women with divergent stories, binding them together in a fantastic package.

Though the story is solid, the acting can run the gamut…mostly in the modern day daughters of these women.  All the mothers have a noble story, some tragic, some humorous…but all with a definite impact.  Chin makes the best impression as a feisty tiger mother that expects the best from her daughter.  As the movie unfolds we see why she takes such pride in success and the sacrifices she made to provide the life her family enjoys. 

It’s a handsomely made film that only gets more rewarding with each viewing as you can focus on another storyline.  It’s also one of those tearjerkers that come from situations that we can relate to…especially for anyone (male or female) that gets that guilty pit in their stomach after responding in anger to a parent just trying to help or realizing too late you didn’t appreciate the unspoken gifts they gave you.  Brace yourself for a heartbreaking scene set in a salon and a Kleenex box emptying reunion as the film draws to a close.

Mid-Day Mini – Ice Castles

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young girl is on top of the world until a tragic accident dashes her hopes and dreams of becoming a world-class figure skater.

Stars: Lynn-Holly Johnson, Robby Benson, Colleen Dewhurst, Tom Skerritt, Jennifer Warren, David Huffman

Director: Donald Wrye

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  Oh boy, Ice Castles is a movie I avoided for the longest time because it looked like another of those 70’s romance filcks that was light on plot and heavy on schmaltz and for the most part it is.  A great deal of the 108 minute running time is devoted to overly sentimental situations involving a girl from a small town with dreams of becoming a famous figure skater.  Her coaches (Dewhurst and Warren) believe that she has what it takes but her father (Skerritt) and boyfriend (Benson) can’t get behind her to give her the support she deserves.  The film hinges on the young athlete bouncing back from an accident that sidelines her and that’s when something curious happens…it gets good.

Though star Johnson (For Your Eyes Only) tries to thwart the film with her painfully off-key line readings, Ice Castles has one of the better third acts in sudsy romance outings culminating in a final scene set to the Oscar nominated tune “Through the Eyes of Love” that had this reviewer going from dry-eyed to red-eyed in about 4 seconds.  It was then that it became clear why people consider this worthy of making a tearjerker list.  Don’t get me wrong, the bulk of the film is poorly acted and feebly constructed but the finale makes it all worth it. 

Benson was arguably the big star at the time and he receives top billing here though the film tends to rest too much on the uneven shoulders of Johnson.  It’s always nice to see Skerritt and can anyone match the rich, gravelly tones of Dewhurst?  If you can’t make it through Ice Castles, I suggest trying out Disney’s 1991 film Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken which essentially is the same story presented in a much more well-constructed package.

The Silver Bullet ~ Frances Ha

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Synopsis: A story that follows a New York woman (who doesn’t really have an apartment), apprentices for a dance company (though she’s not really a dancer), and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possible reality dwindles.

Release Date:  May 17, 2013

Thoughts: Is Frances Ha star Greta Gerwig the Parker Posey of this generation?  Gerwig has cut a nice swath for herself in the past few years with indie performances while occasionally appearing in a big-budget studio picture.  Like Posey, she’s adept at playing a range of characters without making them all feel like variations of the same shtick.  I still find that Posey is a more interesting actress overall but Gerwig is absolutely on the right path.  Reteaming with her Greenberg director Noah Baumbach (they also collaborated on the script), Frances Ha is presented as art-house indie through and through with its B&W photography and culturally observant/oblivious dialogue.  I find Baumbach and Gerwig to be hit or miss but applaud them for pushing themselves outside of the box they’ve created for themselves.

Movie Review ~ Admission

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Princeton admissions officer who is up for a major promotion takes a professional risk after she meets a college-bound alternative school kid who just might be the son she gave up years ago in a secret adoption.

Stars: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Nat Wolff, Lily Tomlin, Michael Sheen, Wallace Shawn, Gloria Reuben

Director: Paul Weitz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The ads for Admission might make you think this is a true blue comedy and with bona-fide funny stars Fey and Rudd in the mix you could be forgiven if you go into the movie with the wrong expectations.  I read several reviews that trounced the film for not having enough laughs considering the people involved and that’s not entirely fair because Admission is more of a dramedy than your typical comedy and shouldn’t be judged on the same laugh-o-meter as, say, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.  Actually, strike that…even with a smaller amount of laughs Admission has at least 70% more chuckles than that recent bomb.

Anyway, what Admission does right is allowing Fey and Rudd to bring their own flair to the film and that’s when it tends to work the best.  Though it’s about fifteen minutes too long and winds up leaving the audience a bit unfulfilled, there’s a decent amount of good material that gives the movie some heft. 

Perhaps she’s been playing Liz Lemon on TV’s 30 Rock too long or it could be that she’s ever the tiniest bit overexposed, but Fey has an uphill battle here that never really works out like it should.  She’s a Princeton admission counselor that’s as by the book as they come.  Her life is perfectly simple in its planning and assembly…that is until in the span of a few days she gets dumped by her wimp boyfriend (Sheen, looking uncomfortably rumpled) and informed by Rudd’s alternative school teacher that a prospective Princeton student may be the child she gave up for adoption 18 years prior. 

The set-up is nothing new and the skilled audience member will see what parts of Fey’s ordered life will be thrown into turmoil by her recent string of revelations long before the movie chooses to upend them.  With a film as predictable as this, it’s important to have the right type of actors in the mix to make it palatable and that’s where director Weitz (Being Flynn, In Good Company, About a Boy) scores some points.

Though Fey can’t totally shed her recognizable persona, she has a few interesting moments in early scenes as she’s interacting with potential applicants that take shape before her as she’s reading their application stats.  There’s no denying Fey has the charm and wit to make a film work but perhaps if Admission had been less scenes with her running into her ex and a few more that dealt with her own fractured relationship with her mother (a scene stealing Tomlin) a better film, and consequently performance, may have emerged.

It also doesn’t help that Rudd’s role winds up feeling extraneous in the grand scheme of things. Though there’s a misguided attempt to create chemistry between the actors I would have preferred his role to have been smaller or played by someone other than Rudd (who otherwise bounces back nicely from December’s  truly awful This is 40) to help shift the focus back onto Fey’s character.  Every time the movie diverts to show some of the problems with Rudd’s character, I longed for it to relate more to what was going on in Fey’s plotline.

In the end I wasn’t crazy about the direction the movie took, feeling that it robbed Fey’s character of some dignity and the audience from a real resolution.  There’ s a Hollywood resolution firmly in place that in hindsight probably was pre-destined, but it’s frustrating to see some very good talent working with slightly mediocre material.  Even though it’s handsomely made, put Admission on the waitlist until you can watch it in the comfort of your own home and give it your own final grade.

The Silver Bullet ~ Trance

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Synopsis: An art auctioneer who has become mixed up with a group of criminals partners with a hypnotherapist in order to recover a lost painting.

Release Date:  April 5, 2013

Thoughts: What excites me most about director Danny Boyle is his willingness to take on different genres of films and putting his own spin on it.  From sci-fi (Sunshine) to family drama (Millions), zombie mayhem (28 Days Later) to inspiring stories of survival (127 Hours) this is a director that won’t be put in a box.  His newest effort harkens back to the film that put him on the map, 1997’s Shallow Grave (it’s no coincidence that Trance and Shallow Grave share the same screenwriter).  That wickedly clever UK import was stylish without sacrificing substance and Trance looks like a similar outing.  Assembling an appealing cast doesn’t hurt either and I’ve a feeling this will be a nice way to warm up the cold weather we’ve been shoveling through in the Midwest.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Music of the Heart

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Story of a schoolteacher’s struggle to teach violin to inner-city Harlem kids.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Aidan Quinn, Gloria Estefan, Angela Bassett, Cloris Leachman

Director: Wes Craven

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  In 1999, most movie-goers who heard that Streep was starring in a new Wes Craven film might have thought she was taking the lead in a Scream sequel but they would be surprised to see that it was Craven stepping outside of his comfort zone. 

The Oscar nominated documentary Small Wonders was the inspiration for the feature length story of single mom in NYC who takes a job as a music teacher with an inner-city school.   At first her unorthodox ways and strict program don’t sit well with the students, parents, and school officials but faster than you can say To Sir, With Love she changes minds and hearts one bow string at a time. 

Though Streep (who earned her 12th Oscar nomination for the role) is excellent as always, the movie seems a bit too easy for the actress.  Now, I enjoy it when Streep colors outside the lines in films like She-Devil, Still of the Night, Death Becomes Her, etc but I just can’t help but feel there wasn’t a huge challenge in the work being done here.  Maybe it’s because the role was originally written for Madonna (don’t cry for her, Argentina…she nabbed Evita, a role Streep had wanted to play for a decade) or maybe it’s that the story is light as a feather.

Craven directs the drama with a cursory style…he had long wanted the chance to direct a serious picture and negotiated the option to helm this in exchange for a few more blood and guts films for the studio.  It’s a serviceable effort that undoubtedly got more notice because of Streep’s presence.  Bringing up the supporting roles are a surprisingly strong turn for singer Estefan and less surprising work from Quinn and Bassett as characters that only pop up to slow things down.

I’d strongly recommend the documentary this is based on (if you rent the DVD the doc is included as a valued extra) and see how the feature film compares to the real life people that made Music of the Heart possible.