Mary Steenburgen

Back to the Future Part III (1990, Robert Zemeckis)

Apparently, all Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale needed for a Back to the Future sequel was a story. Part III, unlike the second installment, has a lot going on and it’s not all tied into the original’s storyline. Instead, Michael J. Fox finds himself in the Old West, trying to save Christopher Lloyd.

Zemeckis and Gale finally reward Lloyd for his time with a good part in this one. Fox’s story is boring–he’s up against Thomas F. Wilson again (Wilson is utterly fantastic)–but Lloyd’s romancing Mary Steenburgen while playing cowboy. There’s also a nice bit for Lloyd set after the first movie. This entry really makes it clear Zemeckis and Gale don’t know what works in these movies.

They include some more nonsense details, with Fox playing his ancestor. Lea Thompson shows up for a scene or two as Fox’s great-great-grandmother or something… it’s unclear if the filmmakers mean to imply the family tree has crossed branches. Probably not; Part III, until the awkward ending (it’s an ending to Part II, not this one), is rather genial.

The Dean Cundey photography is great and editors Harry Keramidas and Arthur Schmidt do excellent work, especially on the unbelievably tense finale. Unfortunately, Alan Silvestri’s score is either repetitive or weak. It’s a small quibble in an otherwise excellent production.

There are nice minor performances from Matt Clark and James Tolkan.

While it finishes the series, Part III does show what works in Future sequels–tight writing, inventive setting.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; screenplay by Bob Gale, based on a story by Zemeckis and Gale; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Harry Keramidas and Arthur Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Rick Carter; produced by Gale and Neil Canton; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly / Seamus McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Mary Steenburgen (Clara Clayton), Thomas F. Wilson (Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen / Biff Tannen), Lea Thompson (Maggie McFly / Lorraine McFly), Elisabeth Shue (Jennifer Parker), Matt Clark (Chester the Bartender), Richard Dysart (Barbwire Salesman), Pat Buttram (Saloon Old Timer), Harry Carey Jr. (Saloon Old Timer), Dub Taylor (Saloon Old Timer), James Tolkan (Marshal James Strickland), Marc McClure (Dave McFly), Wendie Jo Sperber (Linda McFly) and Jeffrey Weissman (George McFly).


What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993, Lasse Hallström)

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape does something very unscrupulous… it relies on the viewer’s affection for its characters to get away with being a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

In terms of narrative honesty, I mean.

Gilbert Grape is, for the majority of its run time, a lyrical character study. Yes, it takes place in a summer and not an average one, but director Hallström goes out of his way to show the extraordinary events in the film as standard in the characters’ lives. Sven Nykvist’s photography, Alan Parker and Björn Isfält’s beautiful score, it all combines to create that lyrical mood.

Then something little happens, thanks to the introduction of Juliette Lewis’s stranded tourist into the lives of locals Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio’s lives.

Then something big happens and it turns out that deus ex machina finish isn’t even necessary, not even a part of it, for Gilbert Grape to work. One has to assume writer Peter Hedges, adapting his own novel, wasn’t willing to streamline for the sake of narrative honesty.

Depp’s strong in the lead, Lewis is good as his love interest. DiCaprio, as Depp’s mentally handicapped brother, is outstanding. But Laura Harrington and Mary Kate Schellhardt are great (though underutilized) as Depp and DiCaprio’s sisters. Darlene Cates is affecting, if a little rocky.

Excellent supporting work from Crispin Glover, Kevin Tighe and Mary Steenburgen.

Regardless of the narrative subterfuge, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an excellent film. It’s often a wondrous, transcendent experience with some exquisite acting.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lasse Hallström; screenplay by Peter Hedges, based on his novel; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Andrew Mondshein; music by Alan Parker and Björn Isfält; production designer, Bernt Amadeus Capra; produced by David Matalon, Bertil Ohlsson and Meir Teper; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Johnny Depp (Gilbert Grape), Leonardo DiCaprio (Arnie Grape), Juliette Lewis (Becky), Mary Steenburgen (Betty Carver), Darlene Cates (Bonnie Grape), Laura Harrington (Amy Grape), Mary Kate Schellhardt (Ellen Grape), Kevin Tighe (Ken Carver), John C. Reilly (Tucker Van Dyke), Crispin Glover (Bobby McBurney) and Penelope Branning (Becky’s Grandma).


Step Brothers (2008, Adam McKay), the unrated version

I guess I feel bad John C. Reilly isn’t taking more… intellectual roles, but they probably don’t pay as well. He’s essentially playing his character from Boogie Nights here, only a little stupider but also a little more self-aware. He’s still great and he’s hilarious, but there is definitely something missing.

But Step Brothers is fantastic. I think I started laughing before the opening titles ended and laughed at the last joke. The wife looked at me like I had a third eyeball as I kept pausing it to wait for my laughter to end.

What’s so great about McKay and Will Ferrell’s script is the intelligence. The jokes aren’t intelligent–that I know Reilly’s running around in a 1997 Return of the Jedi t-shirt is scary, not good–but they way they’re presented, the way the film’s constructed–those are intelligent achievements.

Ferrell and Reilly are about even in the film’s emphasis–neither gets much more screen time than the other–even when one should, when Reilly’s father (Richard Jenkins) abandons him, for instance. Maybe the whole catch of the film is seeing Jenkins, this fantastic character actor, blurt out obscenity after obscenity. It is somehow magical.

The rest of the cast is fantastic–Mary Steenburgen, Kathryn Hahn, especially Adam Scott–and it’s this lowbrow masterpiece. It’s so self-aware, it can’t be anything else.

McKay shot it in Panavision, which is only useful for the opening titles, and makes it feel so… beautifully pretentious.

Pseudo-pretentious.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Adam McKay; screenplay by Will Ferrell and McKay, based on a story by Ferrell, McKay and John C. Reilly; director of photography, Oliver Wood; edited by Brent White; music by Jon Brion; production designer, Clayton Hartley; produced by Jimmy Miller and Judd Apatow; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Will Ferrell (Brennan Huff), John C. Reilly (Dale Doback), Richard Jenkins (Robert Doback), Mary Steenburgen (Nancy Huff), Adam Scott (Derek Huff) and Kathryn Hahn (Alice Huff).


In the Electric Mist (2008, Bertrand Tavernier)

In the Electric Mist is a perfect example of how not to adapt a novel into a film. The source novel is the sixth novel in a series and the film–in a seemingly bold but utterly misguided move (much of it would be incoherent if I hadn’t once read the novel)–assumes the viewer is going to be familiar with all of the previous novels. There’s absolutely no introduction to the characters who aren’t related to the mystery–the film’s reliance on implying past knowledge is actually pretty cool, because it only relies on someone listening. But there are a bunch of characters who go without any explanation. It’s a film for fans of the novel series, which hurts it.

It’s a shame, because Tommy Lee Jones has a good role here. It allows him to do his more mannered performance, but mix in a little of that pseudo-action hero thing he does. Not a lot of it, but enough someone could cut a teaser trailer with it in there. In the Electric Mist doesn’t seem to be putting itself out there as a franchise starter, but the approach to the adaptation implies otherwise. There’s nothing particularly significant about the events in this picture–Jones meets movie stars, played by Peter Sarsgaard and Kelly Macdonald, and he says he’s familiar with their work… but it’s never touched on. At no time does he seem like someone who goes to the movies a lot or sits back and watches the CW. There’s a bevy of supporting characters–John Goodman’s goateed mobster and Pruitt Taylor Vince as a cop sidekick–who don’t have any real weight. It’s impossible to imagine these characters interacting together off screen.

The film also has an incredibly silly voiceover gimmick. Jones narrates his adventure, in the past tense, simply because the film doesn’t want to have a lengthy run time. Sometimes he narrates transitions, so there don’t have to be scenes. It’s obvious and annoying.

And the mystery isn’t particularly engaging, maybe because it’s really not a mystery the way the film presents it. Jones is having hallucinations of a Civil War general advising him (these sequences are handled terribly) and they move the story more than any thought processes.

Bertrand Tavernier is a fine director. His Panavision framing–I think he went wide so it wouldn’t seem like a TV movie–is excellent. There’s some bad focusing, but otherwise the visuals are solid. Marco Beltrami’s score gets repetitive and annoying pretty quick though.

Jones is good, Goodman’s okay, Vince’s okay. Sarsgaard’s amazing–I’ve seen him before, but never turn in anything like this performance. It’s just fantastic. Macdonald’s good. Ned Beatty’s not good though, which is depressing. James Gammon’s amazing. Mary Steenburgen and Justina Machado are both good–though neither have anything to do and they really ought to. John Sayles shows up for a cameo, essaying the kind of Hollywood director who’d do a Civil War movie. He has a lot of fun.

In the Electric Mist has a bad ending. It’s already got the disadvantage of being narrated by the protagonist, but the end goes and changes the protagonist for a cute fade out. It’s an awful move.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bernard Tavernier; screenplay by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, based on a novel by James Lee Burke; director of photography, Bruno de Keyzer; edited by Larry Madaras and Roberto Silvi; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Merideth Boswell; produced by Frédéric Bourboulon and Michael Fitzgerald; released by Image Entertainment.

Starring Tommy Lee Jones (Dave Robicheaux), John Goodman (Julie ‘Baby Feet’ Balboni), Peter Sarsgaard (Elrod Sykes), Kelly Macdonald (Kelly Drummond), Mary Steenburgen (Bootsie Robicheaux), Justina Machado (Rosie Gomez), Ned Beatty (Twinky LeMoyne), James Gammon (Ben Hebert), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Lou Girard), Levon Helm (General John Bell Hood), Buddy Guy (Sam ‘Hogman’ Patin), Julio Cedillo (Cholo Manelli), Alana Locke (Alafair Robicheaux) and John Sayles (Michael Goldman).


Dead of Winter (1987, Arthur Penn)

Loathe as I am to be glib about a director like Arthur Penn, Dead of Winter comes off like a TNT Original Movie. Penn proves himself–with the exception of maybe one scene and even then it’s awkward because it’s Arthur Penn using Steadicam–almost completely inept at directing a thriller. The script’s hardly anything special and maybe a good deal of the problems come from it, but Penn fails to instill any foreboding into the film. There’s some goofy stuff in the last act (another reason it reminds me of a TV movie is how every single development in the climax is utterly predictable–like a stage play with spotlights on important objects or ideas), but the goofy stuff only hurts it a little; insignificant damage.

The opening scene is bad, poorly handled because of details the viewer isn’t supposed to know yet, but Dead of Winter recovers immediately following. Mary Steenburgen and William Russ make a good couple–though their marital status comes as a bit of a surprise later on–and they help the film find its feet. The scenes with Steenburgen as the working actress (soaps and commercials) are good. So good, I didn’t even notice Canada was standing in for New York (which might be Penn’s greatest achievement with this one). Even Roddy McDowell is good at the beginning. Later–everything with Dead of Winter is later, because of how poorly the script handles the big reveal–the script cuts McDowell’s character loose and he gets progressively hammier.

As the plot developed, I got the feeling Penn was going for a modified haunted house thriller. He doesn’t. He plays the entire thing straight and that approach is why it’s a TV movie. It’s not even a glorified TV movie, given the cast. As good as Jan Rubes is in the film as the villain, his best moments are probably off-screen; the script hints at his deviousness, but never shows it.

I really do want to give away the film’s final plunge into risibility, but it is a surprise and Dead of Winter is–kind of–worth seeing. Watching Penn fail is painful, but it’s an interesting flop.

But the biggest problem with the film is the script and its handling of Steenburgen’s character. The viewer is supposed to believe Mary Steenburgen is a complete fool. Not just a complete fool, but a complete fool of a New Yorker who somehow managed not to end up dead in a trash can during her time there. Steenburgen’s character’s so stupid, she’d have trouble opening doors. But, only when it comes to her dupability. The rest of the time it’s Mary Steenburgen and she’s with it.

The character’s guilelessness throughout the film makes the third act impossible to believe, when Dead of Winter gets around to having that third act all thrillers need to have.

It was clear from the start there was something off with the film, but it maintained a decent mediocrity–combined with Penn’s bewildering direction–until the last twenty-five minutes or so. Then it just got worse and worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Penn; written by Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone; director of photography, Jan Weincke; edited by Rick Shaine; music by Richard Einhorn; production designer, Bill Brodie; produced by John Bloomgarden and Shmuger; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Mary Steenburgen (Katie McGovern), Roddy McDowall (Mr. Murray), Jan Rubes (Dr. Joseph Lewis), William Russ (Rob Sweeney), Ken Pogue (Officer Mullavy), Wayne Robson (Officer Huntley) and Mark Malone (Roland McGovern).


Parenthood (1989, Ron Howard)

I’m trying to find a synonym for genial… excuse me a moment. I like the look of gregarious, but the definition doesn’t fit. Convivial is going to be the compromise word. Parenthood is convivial. Somehow, Howard and company manage to convince the viewer to be touched by the movie’s events, but not to give them enough thought to realize how contrived and unrealistic the situations get. It’s kind of brilliant in a way–Ganz and Mandel don’t exactly mature their humor of the early 1980s, but they add parental responsibility to it. To some degree it works. Parenthood is a pleasant, if too long and too saccharine, experience.

But it fails in some special ways. For instance, I think I remembered, while watching, Keanu Reeves’s character’s name and only because Dianne Wiest says it so many times. The rest of the characters, the names sound kind of familiar, but I could never do a lineup. It’s the Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen family or the Dianne Wiest family or the Rick Moranis. Howard cast very recognizable people. The two least recognizable main cast members–Tom Hulce and Harley Jane Kozak, are the only ones recognizable because of their characters. Even so, a lot of the acting is excellent. Wiest, Martin, Steenburgen… actually almost everyone is good. Except Hulce. Hulce is terrible. So’s Joaquin Phoenix, showing youth and a different name do not a better actor make. Hulce and Phoenix’s scenes get painful at times, taking the onus off Reeves, who isn’t good, but at least has a few solid moments. Jason Robards has some great scenes, but the movie–the problem with it–is there aren’t enough. There aren’t enough scenes with Robards and Martin together, since the movie blames Robards for all of Martin’s problems. There aren’t enough–really any, the funny grandmother (Helen Shaw is a lot of fun), gets more scenes–with Eileen Ryan. She’s mother to main cast, wife to Robards, but takes a backseat to everything. At best, she gets a few extra seconds of screen time being mortified at having an interracial grandkid. At best. There’s literally nothing for her to do in the movie, which probably speaks volumes if anyone wants to stop and listen.

Howard’s direction is only distinctive in tone–look, he’s found a way to make a very special episode of a sitcom into a two hour movie–not in composition, certainly not in direction of actors. Hulce and Phoenix strain the suspension of disbelief, particularly Hulce. Phoenix, though atrocious, at least has the excuse of playing the weakest character in the script. It’s cheap and obvious, but passable.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on a story by Ganz, Mandel and Howard; director of photography, Donald McAlpine; edited by Mike Hill and Daniel P. Hanley; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Todd Hallowell; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Gil Buckman), Dianne Wiest (Helen Buckman), Mary Steenburgen (Karen Buckman), Jason Robards (Frank Buckman), Rick Moranis (Nathan Huffner), Tom Hulce (Larry Buckman), Martha Plimpton (Julie Buckman), Keanu Reeves (Tod Higgins), Harley Jane Kozak (Susan Buckman), Joaquin Phoenix (Garry Buckman-Lampkin), Eileen Ryan (Marilyn Buckman) and Helen Shaw (Grandma).


The Dead Girl (2006, Karen Moncrieff)

I had assumed, just because of the large cast, a Nashville approach for this film. However, frighteningly, I think it might have been inspired by Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity (the film, not the short story collection). The stories are all independent, more about their central characters than about the event tying them together, in this case, a dead girl. The stories range in quality from terrible to mediocre. Even if they’re mediocre, they don’t have a decent conclusion. The most interesting part of these stories is what is going to happen next. In fact, in most cases, the only important thing is what is going to happen next and the film makes no assumptions. In some ways, it creates unsolvable cliffhangers for the characters… baiting the viewer with an ominous promise (the possible killer, the suicide attempt) then delivering on nothing.

There are five stories. The first two are traditional romances. The third is an awful, dumb thriller, which creates an impossible situation then cheats its way out with the end of the section. The fourth has the most promise but only in terms of what happens immediately after the story ends and then at some point in the future in those characters’ stories. The last story, which finally gets around to revealing the dead girl, is terrible, but not the worst. The way Karen Moncrieff ends it, syrupy, tragic sweet… is an offense to the good work a lot of her actors put in.

The most amazing performance in the film is easily James Franco, just because he not only doesn’t suck, he’s actually really good. He’s in the second story with Rose Byrne (Byrne being the whole reason I had any interest in the film in the first place). She’s good, but her role’s so simple, it’d be hard for her not to be good. Other good performances include Marcia Gay Harden, Josh Brolin, and Giovanni Ribisi. Terrible, unspeakable ones… well, just Mary Steenburgen, who plays a stereotypical role (just like everyone else in the film except maybe Brolin and Ribisi) and does a really bad job of it. Kerry Washington’s good when she’s not doing her Mexican accent. I guess her eyes emote well. Mary Beth Hurt and Nick Searcy have the dumbest roles in the film and there’s really nothing for them to do with them.

The Dead Girl offers absolutely nothing new to… anything. It’s a useless film, filled with decent and good performances. Moncrieff’s an adequate director in parts, but usually not. There’s nothing distinctive about her composition (something I realized in the first five minutes, never a good sign). I guess her dialogue’s okay, but the film’s a bunch of Oprah episodes strung together, which might be fine if there were some artistry or competence involved.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Karen Moncrieff; director of photography, Michael Grady; edited by Toby Yates; music by Adam Gorgoni; produced by Eric Karten, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Kevin Turen and Henry Winterstern; released by First Look International.

Starring Josh Brolin (Tarlow), Rose Byrne (Leah), Toni Collette (Arden), Bruce Davison (Bill), James Franco (Derek), Marcia Gay Harden (Melora), Mary Beth Hurt (Ruth), Piper Laurie (Arden’s Mother), Brittany Murphy (Krista), Giovanni Ribisi (Rudy), Nick Searcy (Carl), Mary Steenburgen (Beverly) and Kerry Washington (Rosetta).


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