Tag Archives: Mary Steenburgen

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).


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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).


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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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