Movie Review ~ Uncle Frank

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Accompanied by his teenage niece, a gay literature professor reluctantly returns home to attend his father’s funeral.

Stars: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Stephen Root, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Jane McNeil, Michael Perez

Director: Alan Ball

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: You know how they say that some movies you can tell were based on stage plays?  There are some movies you can also tell were based on books so I kept having to remind myself throughout Amazon Prime’s Uncle Frank that this was an original screenplay by writer/director Alan Ball and did not originate from a novel.  Ball, you may recall, was the creative force behind such family-centered dramas as the Oscar-winning American Beauty and the iconic Six Feet Under for HBO where he also adapted Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels into True Blood.  There are a number of instances throughout Uncle Frank that feel as if the hand of a novelist, rather than a filmmaker, is guiding the characters and that creates a strange awkwardness that may have worked on the page but doesn’t work as well when played out by actors.

Let’s step back for a second, though.  Ball came to write the 1970s-set Uncle Frank after learning his own father might have been gay long after he had passed away.  His father’s possible more-than-friendship with a deceased boy in the past mirrors a traumatic event in the life of Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany, Solo: A Star Wars Story) a 40ish man living in New York City with his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi).  Semi-estranged from his family, namely his father (Stephen Root, Bombshell) back in a small town in South Carolina, he’s kept his sexuality and boyfriend a secret from most of his relatives for fear of incurring their ultra-conservative judgement.  When he’s called home due to a family tragedy and Wally tags along, he has to decide whether to own up to who he is and free himself of this heavy burden or go on living a lie for the sake of the comfort of others.

The set-up has all the workings of your typical coming-to-terms drama that we’ve seen done before but the way Ball opts to switch things up is to have all of these events seen through the eyes of Frank’s young niece Beth Sophia Lillis (IT, IT: Chapter Two).  Fairly clueless to all of the nuances going on in the life of her sophisticated and respected uncle, she’s unfortunately not that interesting of a character to hang a narrator’s cap on.  When we first meet her, she’s a teenager more comfortable talking to her big-city uncle than her country cousins.  He encourages her to dream big and several years later she’s a NYU student that reconnects with Frank just as she embarks a few college “firsts”: boyfriend, drinking, etc.  Then the family needs them both to return home and they begin a road trip back and its during these hundreds of miles Beth begins to understand more of where Frank is coming from and the true depth to his relationship with Wally.

To his credit, Ball has cast Uncle Frank with an assortment of value-add Hollywood players that keep the film buoyed by their welcome presence.  In addition to Bettany, Lillis, and Macdissi, there’s Judy Greer (Halloween), a goofy hoot as Beth’s mom that has a tendency to mispronounce big words that she thinks sound fancier than they are, and Steve Zahn (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) as her average Joe dad perfectly content to be the son that doesn’t cause any trouble but happy to be noticed all the same.  The legendary Lois Smith (Lady Bird) is afforded a few nice zingers as Frank’s truth-speaking aunt and the never-not-great Margo Martindale (Mother’s Day) dependably delivers in the film’s get-out-your-hanky scene.

That’s where the trouble in Uncle Frank lies, though, that scene.  It’s a scene that feels satisfying in some way as a viewer but doesn’t feel correct in a realistic context of the location and time Ball has set his story.  This Kumbaya moment comes off as overly romanticized and false and while I appreciated it greatly and, yes, wiped away tears, when I really thought about it I knew it didn’t really make a lot of sense.  It’s things like that and how Ball insists on having Beth be the de facto filter and interpreter for the audience that keep Uncle Frank at a set distance from the viewer and never lets you get much closer.  Though it appears to be an inviting watch, ultimately it feels less personal and more of a clinical endeavor.  That’s far removed from Ball’s intention to explore his own father’s latent homosexuality that seemingly went unspoken throughout his life.

Eventually reaching its destination after a rocky journey, Uncle Frank had the cast and creatives to be a scenic tour into a slice of life family drama but winds up running out of gas.  That ghastly metaphor aside (and I do apologize profusely), there’s no harm meant in Uncle Frank and the performances by Bettany and especially Macdissi make this one worth a look.  Bettany is one of those actors that hangs by the fringe, always doing interesting work but rarely afforded opportunities like this to take center stage.  While Macdissi being Ball’s longtime partner and oft being cast in his projects may raise some eyebrows, his warm performance should cast any doubts of preferential casting aside.  The feeling lingers in my mind, however, that having Beth as the intrusive narrator proved a distraction and the film concluding with an overly tidy understanding robbed it of the deeper complexity and stronger message it could have achieved.

31 Days to Scare ~ In Dreams

The Facts:

Synopsis: A suburban housewife learns that she has psychic connections to a serial killer, and can predict this person’s motives through her dreams.

Stars: Annette Bening, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Robert Downey Jr., Paul Guilfoyle, Margo Martindale

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I wanted to say right off the bat that I’m giving In Dreams a higher score than it probably deserves…or even has rightly earned despite some good intentions. While the overall movie feels like a bit of a clunker by the time is gets to its overblown third act, leading up to it there are some interesting ideas and certainly some intriguing performances.

Based on the novel Doll’s Eyes by Bari Wood (but supposedly wildly different in plot) this one comes to us via Neil Jordan, the writer/director of The Crying Game and screenwriter Bruce Robinson (Jennifer 8). Jordan takes a page from his cult favorite The Company of Wolves and frames In Dreams as part fairy tale, part horror show. Starting strong with visuals of a town that was flooded to make way for a reservoir that’s now the dumping ground for a psychotic killer, Jordan spends the first 45 minutes slowly building the tension but loses his grip when the line between dreams and reality get too blurred.

In the same year she’d go on to receive an Oscar nomination for American Beauty, Annette Bening (Girl Most Likely) is kinda a mess as a wife and mother who discovers she has a psychic link to the person that’s been abducting little girls and leaving their bodies underwater. Bening has grown into such a dependable presence on screen, especially in these last 10 years, but In Dreams was released when she hadn’t quite found her zone yet. She’s either cool and collected, purring her lines to her befuddled husband (Aidan Quinn, Blink) and skeptical shrink (Stephen Rea who should never, ever, attempt the New Yahk accent he tries out here) or she’s totally unhinged, laugh-crying her way through Robinson and Jordan’s chuckle inducing dialogue.

Her performance isn’t even the most bizarre one on display. No, that would be Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge) as the serial killer toying with Bening and her family. With his hair dyed red and peering at us from behind green contacts, Downey Jr. nails the creepy part of his role but can’t make head or tails of what else he should be doing. This was long before Downey Jr. had his Marvel renaissance and the actor seems fairly adrift here.

There’s some decent atmosphere created, scenes shot in the town underwater and a sinister apple orchard are nice showcases for Darius Khondji’s (Magic in the Moonlight) cinematography and Bening’s visions are nicely done. There’s even an ominous staging of Snow White in the forest starring the actress playing Bening’s daughter and about a three dozen other cherubs. It all adds up to a movie that looks great and has some spooky moments but one that eventually makes absolutely no sense at all…especially a poorly thought out finale that feels like it was reshot late in the game. In reality, In Dreams is a bust but there’s so many good people involved it’s worth watching at least once.

Movie Review ~ August: Osage County

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham

Director: John Wells

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: By the time the stage version August: Osage County premiered to thunderous acclaim on Broadway in 2007, it wasn’t hard to see the possibilities of Tracy Letts’ play making the move from the Great White Way to Hollywood.  I mean, just think of the rich casting potential for the wonderfully complex and flawed characters that Letts created…it was an actor’s feast.  And when Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, Hope Springs) was announced as playing the matriarch of the Weston clan the only thing I could think was ‘Of course.’.  It made perfect sense for Streep to be attracted to such a whopper of a role and even more sense for producers George Clooney (Gravity) and Grant Heslov (Argo) to lock her in as the star on top of the twisted Christmas tree that is August: Osage County.

Over the next months as more cast members like Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Mirror, Mirror), Ewan McGregor (The Impossible, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Chris Cooper (The Company You Keep), Abigail Breslin (The Call), Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear),  Margo Martindale (…first do no harm),  Dermot Mulroney (Stoker),  and Sam Shepard (Out of the Furnace, Steel Magnolias, Mud) were announced the stakes just kept getting higher and higher and the expectations soared through the roof.  After all, with a multi-award winning cast gathered together for some good old fashioned family dysfunction there was no way this could miss, right?

Well…

I’ll say that if you’ve never seen a production of August: Osage County on stage you may like this a little bit more than I did.  Though I enjoyed the film overall based mostly on several key performances/scenes I was more underwhelmed than I thought I’d be because the film version was missing that lightening rod indefinable IT factor that made the stage version pulsate with life.  Whatever magic happened when you saw the dark secrets of this family exposed in the darkness of live theater just didn’t transfer over the same way to film.

Not to give the impression that this cast doesn’t toss themselves whole hog into trying, though.  Streep (sporting an appropriately ratty brown wig and huge sunglasses that make her look like Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) gets down and dirty with her eldest daughter played by a refreshingly earthy Roberts who wasn’t vain enough to hide her faded graying roots.  Gathered together in the days following the disappearance of the patriarch of the family (Shepard, who interestingly enough played Roberts boyfriend in The Pelican Brief), the Weston brood return to their dusty hometown toting all kinds of baggage.

While they eat, drink, and avoid being merry, pretty much every kind of family squabble breaks out and usually during a large family meal.  These dining room scenes were quite effective on stage and they work nearly as well on screen with arguments that start small erupting into knockdown, drag out fights.  Audience members that avoided recent holiday arguments with their own families will get their quota of bickering when they sit down to dine with the Westons.

Adapted by Letts from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, the author finds acceptable ways to open up the cinematic interpretation of his work that allow the characters time away from home.  That’s all well and good but part of why the stage version felt so claustrophobic was the fact that the action took place entirely in the house…so we were as trapped as the family was.  Giving the actors on screen some breathing room winds up taking air out of the tension that Letts attempts to build.

It doesn’t help things that television director John Wells is behind the camera for only his second feature film.  His direction is exceedingly pedestrian, though I can’t imagine these actors needed much help from him.  Still, one wonders what a more seasoned director (like Gus van Sant, for instance) could have done to shape the film better.

I saw the film at a screening back in October and at that time the ending wasn’t set in stone.  I know that two endings exist, one that stays closer to the stage play and another that adds a coda many feel unnecessary.  I saw the second ending and agree totally that the film didn’t need it…it’s only there to placate audiences that need resolution, lessening the overall impact of all the maladies that came before it.  From what I’m hearing the ending I saw is the one that stuck so take stock of when you think the movie should have ended and see if it aligns.

It’s likely that Streep and Roberts will be Oscar nominated for their work here and it wouldn’t be off the mark to say they’ve earned their spot in their categories.  It’s extremely doubtful they’ll win with the quality of the other actresses they’d be competing against but the work here is demonstrative of Streep’s good instincts and that Roberts is more than just America’s sweetheart.  The two make the film worth seeing and the source material itself is brilliant…if you can’t see it onstage then the film version of August: Osage County will have to do.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Heaven is for Real

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Synopsis: A small-town father must find the courage and conviction to share his son’s extraordinary, life-changing experience with the world.

Release Date:  April 16, 2014

Thoughts:  The good news here is that this isn’t a sequel to Greg Kinnear’s dreadful 1996 “comedy” Dear God.  No, Heaven is for Real looks like the kind of PG-rated schmaltz that won’t do much harm should you happen to find yourself at the theater with nothing to take your mom to.  These heavenly movies can be a bit weighty; sacrificing story and character development for the pushing of a message the filmmakers are hell-bent on getting across.  Kinnear is a likable actor but has never been someone that demands attention from audiences so it’s nice to see the more interesting Kelly Reilly (snubbed for a Best Supporting Actress last year for her work in Flight) on board as Kinnear’s wife.  Aiming to inspire, I’m interested to see if Heaven is for Real can find a balance in its lofty message without resorting to cheap tearjerker ploys.

The Silver Bullet ~ August: Osage County

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Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts: An all-star cast has been assembled for the big screen version of August: Osage County, based on the searing Pulitzer Prize winning play.  Seeing the play, I was riveted and while I’m not sure a film version can create that same immediacy there’s a wealth of strength in the material from playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts.  Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) is an interesting choice for the boozy matriarch of the troubled Weston family but knowing Streep she’s going to knock this one out of the park and wind up with another Oscar nomination or win for her troubles.  When they announced Julia Roberts (Mirror, Mirror) was to play opposite Streep some turned up their noses but our first look at Roberts in action suggests that the A-List star is readying for a powerhouse performance.  The rest of the cast is top-notch too with some spot-on casting to look forward to.  Unless something goes majorly wrong, this is a film that will factor heavily into the next Academy Awards…I can’t wait to see it.

Mid-Day Mini ~ …first do no harm

The Facts:

Synopsis: The true story of one woman’s struggle against a narrow-minded medical establishment.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Fred Ward, Seth Adkins, Allison Janney, Margo Martindale

Director: Jim Abrahams

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It was big news when Streep took leave from her cinematic playground and ventured into the boob tube with this maudlin made for television film.  Not that Streep and a solid cast don’t give it the good ‘ole college try as they work with a cookie-cutter script intent on doing them no real favors.

In the grand tradition of countless parents vs. modern medicine films like Lorenzo’s Oil, …first do no harm casts Streep as a plucky mom from the heartland that takes on the doctors and hospitals that don’t have answers to why her young epileptic son (Adkins) continues his violent seizures.   Refusing to sit back and condemn her son to a lifetime of hospital stays and prescription drugs, she goes against the advice of physicians (namely Janney’s chilly doctor written like a villain from a Batman movie) and seeks alternative treatment in this true life tale.

Ward provides nice support as Streep’s nicely supportive husband while Martindale is her usual warm presence as a family friend.  The late actors Oni Fada Lampley and Leo Burmester (The Abyss) also make strong impressions in their peripheral roles.  Director Abrahams (diverting from his spoof films Airplane! Hot Shots! and The Naked Gun) took on this project as a labor of love and makes it feel pretty lugubrious. 

The small screen was the right place for this work and maybe Streep was simply too big a star to keep the movie balanced for its humble origins.  A noble story is told but the script is so color-by-numbers that you could probably imagine the outcome before the first commercial break.  It doesn’t do any harm to give this one a look but this story has been told too often to be truly memorable.