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.

Movie Review ~ The Good Dinosaur

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An epic journey into the world of dinosaurs where an Apatosaurus named Arlo makes an unlikely human friend.

Stars: Raymond Ochoa, Jeffery Wright, Steve Zahn, AJ Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Frances McDormand, Marcus Scribner, Jack Bright

Director: Peter Sohn

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s usually never a good sign when a release date for a movie is changed once.  It’s an even worse sign when it changes twice.  Then when you hear that nearly all of the cast was replaced, the director removed from the project, and reshoots were required you can rest assured that when (if?) the movie is actually released you’ll have the critical vultures swarming around looking to feast on the carcass of the wounded cinematic animal.

In this case, the movie in question is Disney/Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, finally seeing a release date a full two years after its intended November 2013 opening.  Those expecting a misfire from the studio limping into the holiday movie season will be in for a surprise because for the second time in 2015 Disney/Pixar have a hit on their hands.  For all of its fabled troubles on its way to theaters (including replacing the voices of John Lithgow, Judy Greer, Neil Patrick Harris, and Bill Hader) it’s clear from the final product that whatever tinkering and tailoring was done was necessary and worth the wait.

Featuring what I feel is Pixar’s best animation to date, The Good Dinosaur may lack the overall complex creativity of June’s Inside Out (which ingeniously taught children and adults how to own and celebrate their emotions) but it’s not short on memorable characters and moments.  I went in expecting something along the lines of The Land Before Time but got a lovely family feature that’s generous with humor and heart.

Positing an alternate timeline where the asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs missed the planet completely, The Good Dinosaur takes place in the present…albeit in a present where dinosaurs never went extinct and humans never became the dominant species.  This isn’t a dark vision of what might have been but a thoughtful pondering a future were these great beasts continued to thrive for millions of years, living off the rich bounty of a land uncorrupted by progress.

Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2) and Momma Ida (Frances McDormand, Promised Land) are a brontosaurus couple spending their lives farming and plowing the fields.  Opening with the hatching of their three baby dinos, from their first moments we can see what each of their personalities will be like: Buck is the tough one, Libby is the playful one, and Arlo is…well…he still doesn’t quite know where he fits in.  The runt of the litter (arriving in the biggest egg), he’s a bundle of dino nerves that’s scared of everything from a tiny bug that lands on his nose to the raggedy chickens he’s tasked with feeding.

Borrowing a page from the old-fashioned Disney canon, a tragedy occurs for Arlo followed by a separation from his home that sends him on a journey of discovery to find his way back to his family.  Following the river through the gorgeous untouched landscapes of nature, he’s joined by Spot, a human child that acts like a feral dog that Arlo has a score to settle with.  Eventually the two come to need each other as they face the harsh realities of nature and meet a number of wildlife along the way like a cross-eyed Styracosaurus (hilariously voiced by director Peter Sohn), a pack of threatening Pterodactyls, and a family of cowboy T-Rexes (headed by splendid Sam Elliott, I’ll See You In My Dreams) on a cattle drive.

The material is more adult-oriented than previous Pixar films and I appreciated that the film doesn’t make any excuses for the dramatic (and often scary) turns it takes.  Parents should know that it’s PG for a reason, some kids at my screening had a rough go with the beasts and some of the subject matter.  Arlo is constantly threatened with danger whether it be falling off rocks, plunging into water, or fending off a host of creatures that see him and Spot as their next meal.  The supporting players are perhaps the most bizarre creations from Pixar yet, with the Pterodactyls being most troublesome for this critic thanks to their crazed rants and appetite for food of any kind.

Pixar is no stranger to tapping into emotions and there are several passages of The Good Dinosaur where you may find tears welling up behind your 3D glasses.  While the 3D isn’t revelatory, it goes well with the impressive vistas and animals that pass you by.  Though I tried my hardest to hold it in, I cried a few times over the course of the film thanks to some developments that I could relate to on a personal level.  It won’t give you the Sally Field Ugly Cry Face that Inside Out and Up did, but don’t be surprised if the tears come when you aren’t expecting it.  I also laughed a lot, especially at some unexpected frivolity in the form of a trippy tangent brought on by Arlo and Spot eating spoiled fruit.

The feature goes nicely with Sanjay’s Super Team, the father-son centered short that precedes it and while most will give the Best Pixar of 2015 edge to Inside Out, there’s a case to be made for The Good Dinosaur too.  It’s perhaps less original in conception but in execution it showcases the absolute best animation that Pixar has created so far.

Movie Review ~ Dallas Buyers Club

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Loosely based on the true-life tale of Ron Woodroof, a drug taking, women loving, homophobic man who, in 1985 was diagnosed with full blown HIV/AIDS and given thirty days to live.

Synopsis: Loosely based on the true-life tale of Ron Woodroof, a drug taking, women loving, homophobic man who, in 1985 was diagnosed with full blown HIV/AIDS and given thirty days to live.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Griffin Dunne, Steve Zahn

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I remember when A Time to Kill came out in 1996 and the then relatively unknown leading man Matthew McConaughey was heralded as an actor to watch.  For a time, that proved to be true as the actor had his pick of Hollywood directors and high profile film projects to choose from.  Then, as is often the case with success, the actor with so much promise began to make some bad choices and it looked like McConaughey was destined to be yet another forgotten star that hit big and faded out with an endless stream of forgettable romantic comedies.

Then a minor miracle happened.  McConaughey seemed to realize what was happening and instead of just taking the checks and sloughing off the sideways glances of those that knew his potential, he stepped back and took stock of what kind of actor he’d become.  And he decided to change things up…which led to McConaughey hitting on a string of films over the last several years (like Bernie, Magic Mike, The Paperboy, Killer Joe, Mud) that showed the actor to be dexterous, intriguing, and willing to put his career on the line for projects he believed in.

Never more is that evident than in his career-high performance in Dallas Buyers Club.  As the rough Ron Woodroof, McConaughey doesn’t just physically transform into the man diagnosed with HIV that takes his life into his own hands, he goes deeper than he has before to produce a character that makes no apologies and still earns the affection of the audience…no small feat for playing a man that starts out so smarmy you can practically smell the cigarettes and cheap alcohol emanating from him.

After Woodroof was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, his doctors (Denis O’Hare and Jennifer Garner) aren’t able to offer much hope for a disease at a time before the government admitted it was a problem and funded research to learn more about it.  Frustrated, confused, and unwilling to admit his time is running short, Woodruff loses his good ‘ole boy friends who only thought of AIDS as a gay disease.  Woodruff’s homophobia runs rampant and keeps him from attending any support meetings to help learn more about the disease that is ravaging his body.

Doing his homework, Woodruff learns more about available medical treatments and how the popular drug AZT may not be the life saving solution everyone thinks it is.  A chance meeting with a doctor (Griffin Dunne) in Mexico gives him the idea of how to combat this disease, buying him more time off of his death sentence.  In short time, he grudgingly partners with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite also dying of AIDS who possesses the street smarts and compassion that Woodruff is lacking.  Together they form the Dallas Buyers Club, a “club” that disperses non FDA approved drugs to the HIV community that may not otherwise have access to them.

For a movie with such a somber subject, there’s great life to be had in Dallas Buyers Club.  Aside from McConaughey’s committed performance, there’s the equally impressive transformation that Leto undergoes.  Maybe even more so than McConaughey, Leto truly gets under the skin of his character…resulting in a mighty powerful and vividly drawn character.  There’s good work from Dunne and supporting players O’Hare and Steve Zahn, all seasoned character actors that know how to stay out of the way of the leading actors.  It’s only Jennifer Garner that hits a few wrong notes…I’ve always considered Garner more of a television actress that occasionally pops up in movies and her work here only confirms that.  While her effort is better than other projects, she has a way of taking a serious scene and being a tad too invested in it, which sniffs of an earnestness that doesn’t ring true.

It’s McConaughey and Leto that you should be focusing on anyway and director Jean Marc-Vallee wisely keeps them front and center for the majority of the film.  Though as audience members we can do the math and probably know how the ending will play out, there’s more than enough surprising turns in the script from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack to fill out the two hour running length.  I like that the movie didn’t allow the characters to compromise or be compromised and let them act and react as people would in real life – it’s not a movie where everyone holds hands and realizes the errors of their ways by the final reel.  There’s no Hollywood ending to be had but a real-life ending that provides a strong impact and lasting message.