Tag: mary steenburgen

Song One

Song One (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Franny (Anne Hathaway), who is working on her Ph.D. in Anthropology overseas, receives news that her singer-songwriter brother, Henry (Ben Rosenfield), had been involved in an accident. He is in a coma and there is a possibility that he may never regain consciousness. Guilt-ridden from their last fight and feeling helpless about the situation, Franny retraces Henry’s steps using his notebook which is full of lyrics, thoughts, and favorite places to visit.

The problem with “Song One,” written and directed by Kate Barker-Froyland, is its tonal inertness. Ninety minutes is composed of taking turns between a woman looking sadly at her comatose brother and live performances by James Forester (Johnny Flynn), an artist that Henry admires greatly. The picture does not go anywhere for a long time and halfway through one cannot help but wonder two things: who is the audience and what is the point of telling this story because it offers nothing special.

Hathaway almost singlehandedly saves the film. Even though her character is somewhat one-dimensional, I enjoyed her commitment. The pixie haircut works to her advantage because her features are all the more salient—particularly helpful during close-ups in which she is required to summon and express every minute emotion of confusion, rage, regret, and helplessness. There are moments when she does not speak a word and yet I was engaged. I wondered what the character is thinking or feeling, whether the smile drawn on her face is genuine or a convincing front. I felt the strength of Franny.

Less intriguing is the romance that develops between James and Franny. It is predictable from a mile a way that the two will eventually fall for one another. The material takes a long time to get to that destination and when we get there, it comes across anticlimactic. The picture might have been stronger if the romantic angle had been excised altogether and focused on the family that is barely standing on its feet.

Worth exploring further is the relationship between Franny and her mother (Mary Steenburgen). When the two are in the same shot, there is tension; the silence is almost deafening because we understand that they need to talk about what is on their minds. We grow suspicious as to when and where the eruption will take place.

Generally, the songs in “Song One” are hit-or-miss. Although the various performances that Franny comes across during her lamentation do have obvious talent in them, the songs, collectively, reflect that of the picture: tonally flat, almost always sad, unpolished, quirky. These are not all negative qualities but we grow to expect these traits eventually and so a passive experience is created.

Dirty Girl

Dirty Girl (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Danielle (Juno Temple) is known as the school tramp who cares about her grades as much as she cares about offending her peers. When she sarcastically asks about the pull-out method to her very old-fashioned sex ed teacher (Jonathan Slavin), off to the principal’s office she goes. Seeing that she is unrepentant, Principal Mulray (Gary Grubbs) puts her to a remedial class, a place for so-called misfits and social rejects, where she can, hopefully, learn a lesson in terms of reeling it in so people will cease to think of her as a streetwalker. Mrs. Hatcher (Deborah Theaker) pairs the blonde with Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), a gay teen with a bit of extra weight, to work on a project that involves a bag of flour named Joan.

Written and directed by Abe Sylvia, “Dirty Girl” is chuckle-inducing in parts but the story lacks cohesion. It starts off poking fun of high school stereotypes, becomes a road movie backed with great ‘80s tunes on the radio, and eventually goes on to deal with serious issues like parental neglect, physical abuse, and homophobia—all of which are touched upon just before the halfway point.

While I remained optimistic toward Sylvia’s enthusiasm in tackling his many—sometimes wild—ideas, the film needs to slow down, return to basics, and focus on some of the similarities between Danielle and Clarke before taking off on a road trip. It is clear that Clarke wants to escape from his homophobic parents (Dwight Yoakam, Mary Steenburgen) while Danielle wants to meet her biological father (Tim McGraw) in California. But what makes them such a formidable duo that we are able to root for them despite their worst disagreements? Because they come from terrible backgrounds? That is not good enough.

Danielle and Clarke hang out like most friends, typical as they come, but it takes a special kind of friendship for two people to decide to go on a road trip when the stakes are very high. If the trip goes nowhere, it means Clarke is either going to remain seeing a doctor so he can be “cured” of his homosexuality or, to his father’s insistence, he is going to be shipped off to military school in order to be “straightened” out. For Danielle, she will either end up in the streets or become a Mormon because her mother, Sue Ann (Milla Jovovich), hopes to marry Ray (William H. Macy), who very much lives and breathes Mormonism.

The film’s approach to make us laugh is forced and it comes with a price. Scenes of characters dancing salaciously do not take the film very far. In fact, it is cheapened. When something amusing happens, it is almost always coupled with some sad revelation or event. The script fails to provide a natural path from one extreme emotion to another, so when tears well up in the characters’ eyes and their voices begin to shake, the emotions being portrayed feel disingenuous. I felt the material almost begging me to care even if it has yet to provide a good reason for us to invest a little more.

Most of the images speak for themselves but, for example, I wanted Clarke to express what he thinks when his dad’s fists decide to do the talking. And why not allow the father to speak to his son about his frustration, resentment, and feelings of inadequacies for ending up with a gay son? Let him sound like a bigot. Let us hate what he stood for. That way, at least we have an idea where he is coming from. That is much more interesting than just watching someone perform redundant—and unsexy—stripper poses.


Elf (2003)
★★ / ★★★★

A baby orphan snuck into Santa Claus’s bag of presents and ended up in the North Pole. The baby was named Buddy and raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and whole-heartedly embraced by the elfin community and strange creatures that lived there. But when Buddy became an adult (now played by Will Ferrell), he became more of a nuisance to the elves due to his size so he traveled to New York City to find his biological father (James Caan). The movie started off with promise because it was creative with its joke about a man who was so out of his element but was blind to the fact. Even more amusing were Buddy’s scenes with people in utter disbelief that he actually believed in Santa Claus with fervor to spare. Ferrell did a wonderful job playing a wide-eyed boy stuck in an adult man’s body. The slapstick comedy worked because kids like to put themselves in physically uncomfortable situations. However, the film failed to reach an emotional peak and establish a resonance like the best movies that took place around Christmas. While Ferrell’s interactions with Caan were amusing, I didn’t feel a genuine connection between the father and the son. When the son hugged with enthusiasm, the father reluctantly put his arm around his son to pat him on the back. There was no real growth between them. Too much of film’s running time was dedicated to the biological father’s challenges at work (which did not add up to much) instead of focusing on the problems at home (Mary Steenburgen as the very accepting wife was a joy to watch). I wish there were more scenes between Buddy and a salesgirl who loved to sing named Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). Farrell and Deschanel may not have chemistry (the film unwisely pushed their relationship to a romantic direction), but watching their friendship grow put a big smile on my face. Jovie always looked sad (which was ironic because I’m assuming her name came from the word “jovial”) and did not like to put herself in potentially embarrassing situations. Buddy was all about attracting all kinds of attention. Nevertheless, they got along swimmingly. While the majority of the film was about Buddy’s attempt of reconnection with the human world, the last twenty minutes was more about people believing in Santa Claus. I was left confused and I thought it was completely unnecessary. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that typing up dramatic loose ends was riskier than generating more pedestrian laughs. I thought the last few scenes were a desperate attempt to cover up weak storytelling. Directed by Jon Favreau, “Elf” had its share of funny and silly moments but its story needed a lot of work. Maybe the elves should have worked on the script so it could have had a bit of magic.

Four Christmases

Four Christmases (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

“Four Christmases,” directed by Seth Gordon, was about a couple (Reese Witherspoon, Vince Vaughn) who decided to go to Fiji for Christmas instead of visiting their relatives. Unfortunately, due to the weather, their flight was cancelled so they chose to visit their four divorced parents (Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Jon Voight). I loved how this picture started because the lead characters were happy with where they were in life; they weren’t constrained by marriage and people’s expectations about what people in a relationship should do or be. I thought it was a smart way to start because the couple was very modern and it was easy for me to relate with them. However, as the two visited their families, the couple’s way of life was challenged by traditions such as getting married and having kids. And what’s worse, they started buying into the ideas. I was surprised (not in a good way) because I thought the couple was so much stronger in their stance of not having to have children (even though I don’t necessarily agree with it) and getting married. As the picture went on, the more I became annoyed because its modern feel became traditional and it really was not necessary at all. Instead of standing out from other Christmas-themed movies, it started blending in with them and I was left unimpressed. I liked the movie best when it was just Witherspoon and Vaughn talking to each other whether they were in a bar, their home, in a family’s bathroom, or in a car. They had such a great chemistry because their characters were different from each other and, as actors, they had a perfect sense of comedic timing. They were able to talk to each other in a rapid-fire way and I enjoyed that feeling of constantly having to catch up to them instead of being bored. What could have been a good movie set in a Christmas backdrop became convoluted with slapstick, annoying and condescending characters, and unnecessary sidequests (such as the painfully unfunny trip to the church). It would have been so much more refreshing if Vaughn and Witherspoon simply jumped from one home to the next and convinced the audiences why the two of them never wanted to spend the holidays with their families without all the marriage-and-having-kids-will-make-you-happier-as-a-couple lesson. Maybe it was trying too hard to be liked. I wished that the rest of the material was as intelligent and successful as the characters we met during the first twenty minutes.

The Proposal

The Proposal (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

I was very pleased with this romantic comedy because it more than satisfied my somewhat high expectations. I didn’t think Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds would have any sort of chemistry if they were to star in a movie together but that was quickly proven wrong after I saw the trailer for “The Proposal” for the first time. Bullock plays the dragon-lady editor in a publishing company who pretty much everyone hates and/or fears. Reynolds plays her charming, dryly comedic and sarcastic assistant. When Bullock was called in by her superiors and told her that she was going to be deported back to Canada due to her expired visa (and therefore lose her job), Reynolds came in at a perfect time with just the right words for his boss to think of the idea that they should get married. In return for her citizenship, he would get a promotion and everyone was going to end up happily ever after. But that was before they actually started to genuinely feel something for each other. What I loved about this film was its ability to completely embrace the conventions of the romantic comedy genre that involves two completely different types of people who dislike each other, yet at the same have that certain charm to make the movie feel fresh. Without Bullock’s cold persona (which I found to be completely different from her usual “cheery-hyper” girl roles like in “Two Weeks Notice” and “Miss Congeniality”) with just a drop of humanity and Reynolds’ perfect timing of certain facial expressions and intonations in his voice, this probably would have been just another forgettable sweet movie without any sort of edge to keep me engaged. I also enjoyed the supporting characters such as Betty White, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, and Oscar Nuñez as Reynolds’ grandmother, mother, father and the town guy who seems to be everywhere, respectively. Directed by Anne Fletcher (“27 Dresses,” “Step Up”), “The Proposal” is surprisingly sensitive during its more serious scenes but there’s enough comedy, from light chuckles to hysterical laughters, for it to be completely believable. It also features several stand-out scenes that I couldn’t help but think of on the car ride home. I can only hope that Bullock and Reynolds would star in the same movie sooner. Their funny bickering/jesting scenes are well worth the admission ticket.