Playing Catch-Up: Autumn in New York, Griffin & Phoenix, Harry & Son, The Life of David Gale

So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past few weeks!

  • Autumn in New York
  • Released: 2000
  • Directed by Joan Chen
  • Starring Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Anthony LaPaglia, Elaine Stritch, Vera Farmiga, Sherry Stringfield, Jill Hennessy, J.K. Simmons, Sam Trammell, Mary Beth Hurt

Richard Gere is Will, a fabulously wealthy New Yorker, who has had many girlfriends but who has never been able to find the one.  He owns a restaurant and appears on the cover of New York Magazine.  He loves food because, according to him, “Food is the only beautiful thing that truly nourishes.”

Winona Ryder is Charlotte, a hat designer who is always happy and cheerful and full of life.  She’s the type who dresses up like Emily Dickinson for Christmas and recites poetry to children, though you get the feeling that, if they ever somehow met in real life, Emily would probably get annoyed with Charlotte fairly quickly.  Actually, Charlotte might soon get to meet  Emily because she has one of those rare diseases that kills you in a year while still allowing you to look healthy and beautiful.

One night, Will and Charlotte meet and, together, they solve crimes!

No, actually, they fall in love.  This is one of those films where a young woman teaches an old man how to live again but then promptly dies so it’s not like he actually has to make a huge commitment or anything.  The film does, at least, acknowledge that Will is a lot older than Charlotte but it still doesn’t make it any less weird that Charlotte would want to spend her last year on Earth dealing with a self-centered, emotionally remote man who is old enough to be her father.  (To be honest, when it was revealed that Charlotte was the daughter of a woman who Will had previously dated, I was briefly worried that Autumn in New York was going to take an even stranger turn….)

On the positive side, the films features some pretty shots of New York and there is actually a pretty nice subplot, in which Will tries to connect with the daughter (Vera Farmiga) that he never knew he had.  Maybe if Farmiga and Ryder had switched roles, Autumn in New York would have worked out better.

  • Griffin & Phoenix
  • Released: 2006
  • Directed by Ed Stone
  • Starring Dermot Mulroney, Amanda Peet, Blair Brown, and Sarah Paulson

His name is Henry Griffin (Dermot Mulroney).

Her name is Sarah Phoenix (Amanda Peet).

Because they both have highly symbolic last names, we know that they’re meant to be together.

They both have cancer.  They’ve both been given a year to live.  Of course, they don’t realize that when they first meet and fall in love.  In fact, when Phoenix comes across several books that Griffin has purchased about dealing with being terminally ill, she assumes that Griffin bought them to try to fool her into falling in love with him.  Once they realize that they only have a year to be together, Griffin and Phoenix set out to make every moment count…

It’s a sweet-natured and unabashedly sentimental movie but, unfortunately, Dermot Mulroney and Amanda Peet have little romantic chemistry and the film is never quite as successful at inspiring tears as it should be.  When Mulroney finally allows himself to get mad and deals with his anger by vandalizing a bunch of cars, it’s not a cathartic moment.  Instead, you just find yourself wondering how Mulroney could so easily get away with destroying a stranger’s windshield in broad daylight.

  • Harry & Son
  • Released: 1986
  • Directed by Paul Newman
  • Starring Paul Newman, Robby Benson, Ellen Barkin, Wilford Brimley, Judith Ivey, Ossie Davis, Morgan Freeman, Katherine Borowitz, Maury Chaykin, Joanne Woodward

Morgan Freeman makes an early film appearance in Harry & Son, though his role is a tiny one.  He plays a factory foreman named Siemanowski who, in quick order, gets angry with and then fires a new employee named Howard Keach (Robby Benson).  Howard is the son in Harry & Son and he’s such an annoying character that you’re happy when Freeman shows up and starts yelling at the little twit.  As I said, Freeman’s role is a small one.  Freeman’s only on screen for a few minutes.  But, in that time, he calls Howard an idiot and it’s hard not to feel that he has a point.

Of course, the problem is that we’re not supposed to view Howard as being an idiot.  Instead, we’re supposed to be on Howard’s side.  Howard has ambitions to be the next Ernest Hemingway.  However, his blue-collar father, Harry (Paul Newman, who also directed), demands that Howard get a job.  Maybe, like us, he realizes how silly Howard looks whenever he gets hunched over his typewriter.  (Robby Benson tries to pull off these “deep thought” facial expressions that simply have to be seen to be believed.)  There’s actually two problems with Howard.  First off, we never believe that he could possibly come up with anything worth reading.  Secondly, it’s impossible to believe that Paul Newman could ever be the father of such an annoying little creep.

Harry, of course, has problems of his own.  He’s just lost his construction job.  He’s having to deal with the fact that he’s getting older.  Fortunately, his son introduces him to a nymphomaniac (Judith Ivey).  Eventually, it all ends with moments of triumph and tragedy, as these things often do.

As always, Newman is believable as a blue-collar guy who believes in hard work and cold beer.  The film actually gets off to a good start, with Newman using a wrecking ball to take down an old building.  But then Robby Benson shows up, hunched over that typewriter, and the film just becomes unbearable.  At least Morgan Freeman’s around to yell at the annoying little jerk.

  • The Life of David Gale
  • Released: 2003
  • Directed by Alan Parker
  • Starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Rhona Mitra, Leon Rippy, Matt Craven, Jim Beaver, Melissa McCarthy

For the record, while I won’t shed any tears whenever Dzhokahr Tsarnaev is finally executed, I’m against the death penalty.  I think that once we accept the idea that the state has the right to execute people, it becomes a lot easier to accept the idea that the state has the right to do a lot of other things.  Plus, there’s always the danger of innocent people being sent to die.  The Life of David Gale also claims to be against the death penalty but it’s so obnoxious and self-righteous that I doubt it changed anyone’s mind.

David Gale (Kevin Spacey) used to the head of the philosophy department at the University of Texas.  He used to be a nationally renowned activist against the death penalty.  But then he was arrested for and convicted of the murder of another activist, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney) and now David Gale is sitting on death row himself.  With his execution approaching, journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) is convinced that Gale was framed and she finds herself racing against time to prevent Texas from executing an innocent man…

There’s a lot of things wrong with The Life of David Gale.  First off, it was made during the Bush administration, so the whole film is basically just a hate letter to the state of Texas.  Never have I heard so many inauthentic accents in one film.  Secondly, only in a truly bad movie, can someone have a name like Bitsey Bloom.  Third, the whole film ends with this big twist that makes absolutely no sense and which nearly inspired me to throw a shoe at the TV.

Of course, the main problem with the film is that we’re asked to sympathize with a character played by Kevin Spacey.  Even before Kevin Spacey was revealed to be a sleazy perv, he was never a particularly sympathetic or really even that versatile of an actor.  (Both American Beauty and House of Cards tried to disguise this fact by surrounding him with cartoonish caricatures.)  Spacey’s so snarky and condescending as Gale that, even if he is innocent of murder, it’s hard not to feel that maybe David Gale should be executed for crimes against likability.

6 Late Film Reviews: 300: Rise of Empire, About Last Night, Adult World, Jersey Boys, Ride Along, and Trust Me

Well, the year is coming to a close and I’ve got close to 50 films that I still need to review before I get around to making out my “Best of 2014” list.  (That’s not even counting the films that I still have left to see.  December is going to be a busy month.)  With that in mind, here are late reviews of 6 films that I saw earlier this year and had yet to get around to reviewing.


1) 300: Rise of an Empire (dir by Noam Munro)

Last night, I watched 300: Rise of an Empire for the second time and I still couldn’t figure out what exactly is going on for most of the film.  I know that there’s a lot of fighting and a lot of bare-chested men yelling and, whenever anyone swings a sword, they suddenly start moving in slow motion and dark blood spurts across the screen like Jackson Pollock decorating a previously blank canvas.  The style of 300 has been co-opted by so many other films that 300: Rise of an Empire feels more like an imitation than a continuation.

At the same time, I’m resisting the temptation to be too critical of 300: Rise of the Empire for two reasons.  First off, this movie wasn’t really made to appeal to me.  Instead, this is a total guy film and, much as I have every right to love Winter’s Tale, guys have every right to love their 300 movies.  Secondly, 300: Rise of an Empire features Eva Green as a warrior and she totally kicks ass.


2) About Last Night (dir by Steve Pink)

Obviously, I made a big mistake this Valentine’s Day by insisting that my boyfriend take me to see Endless Love.  (I still stand by my desire to see Winter’s Tale.)  I say this because I recently watched this year’s other big Valentine’s Day release, About Last Night, and I discovered that it’s a funny and, in its way, rather sweet romantic comedy.

About Last Night tells the story of two couples, Danny (Michael Ealy) and Debbie (Joy Bryant) and Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall).  All four of the actors have a very real chemistry, with Hart and Hall bringing the laughs and Ealy and Bryant bringing the tears.  The film itself is ultimately predictable but very likable.


3) Adult World (dir by Scott Coffey)

In Adult World, Emma Roberts plays Amy Anderson, an aspiring author and recent college graduate.  Despite her own overwhelming faith in her own abilities, Amy struggles to find a job outside of college.  She is finally reduced to working at Adult World, a small adult bookstore.  Working at the store, she befriends the far more down-to-earth Alex (Evan Peters) and eventually discovers that one of her customers is also her idol, poet Rat Billings (John Cusack).  Amy proceeds to force her way into Rat’s life, volunteering to work as his assistant and declaring herself to be his protegé.  However, it turns out that Rat is far less altruistic than Amy originally thought (and with a name like Rat, are you surprised?).

Adult World is a flawed film but I still really enjoyed it.  The story has a few problems and the film never really takes full narrative advantage of Adult World as a setting but the entire film is so well-acted that you’re willing to forgive its flaws.  Cusack gives a surprisingly playful performance while Evan Peters is adorable in a Jesse Eisenberg-type of way.  Emma Roberts shows a lot of courage, playing a character who is both infuriating and relatable.


4) Jersey Boys (dir by Clint Eastwood)

Clint Eastwood’s upcoming American Sniper has been getting so much attention as a potential Oscar contender that it’s easy to forget that, at the beginning of the year, everyone was expecting Jersey Boys to be Eastwood’s Oscar contender.  In fact, it’s easy to forget about Jersey Boys all together.  It’s just one of those films that, despite its best efforts, fails to make much of an impression.

Jersey Boys is based on one of the Broadway musicals that tourists always brag about seeing.  It tells the true story of how four kids from the “neighborhood” became the Four Seasons and recorded songs that have since gone on to appear on thousands of film soundtracks.  The period detail is a lot of fun, Christopher Walken, who has a small role as a local gangster, is always entertaining to watch, and the music sounds great but Eastwood’s direction is so old-fashioned and dramatically inert that you don’t really take much away from it.

Hopefully, American Sniper will be the work of the Eastwood who made Mystic River and not the Eastwood who did Jersey Boys.


5) Ride Along (dir by Tim Story)

School security guard Ben Barber (Kevin Hart) wants to marry Angela (Tiki Sumpter) but Angela’s tough cop brother James (Ice Cube) doesn’t approve.  In order to prove himself worth, Ben goes on a ride along with James and the results are just as generic as you might expect.  Probably the only really funny part of the film was the way that Hart delivered the line, “You’re white!  You don’t fight!” but we all saw that in the commercial so who cares?

On the plus side, Ice Cube has a lot of screen presence and is well-cast as James.  As for Kevin Hart — well, he should probably be thankful that About Last Night came out a month after Ride Along.

Trust Me

6) Trust Me (dir by Clark Gregg)

In Trust Me, Clark Gregg both directs and stars.  He plays Howard, a fast-talking but ultimately kind-hearted talent agent who mostly represents children.  After losing some of his most popular clients to rival agent Aldo (a hilariously sleazy Sam Rockwell), Howard meets Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), a 13 year-old actress.  Soon, Howard is representing Lydia and trying to land her a starring role in a major production.  Howard also finds the time to tentatively date his next door neighbor (Amanda Peet).  However, there’s more to Howard than meets the eye.  He is haunted by the death of one of his previous clients and his guilt leads him to become especially protective of Lydia.  When Howard concludes that Lydia is being sexually abused by her crude father (Paul Sparks), he attempts to protect her from both him and the Hollywood system that’s threatening to corrupt her.  It all leads to an oddly tragic conclusion…

I say “oddly tragic” because Trust Me is, in many ways, an odd film.  As a director, Gregg gets good performances from his cast but he never manages to find a consistent tone.  The film starts as a Hollywood satire and then it becomes a romantic comedy and then it turns into a legal drama before then becoming an all-0ut attack on the way the entertainment industry treats child actors and then finally, it settles on being a tragedy.  As a result, Trust Me is undeniably a bit of a mess.

And yet, it’s a compelling mess and the film itself is so heart-felt that you can’t help but forgive its flaws.  If nothing else, it proves that Clark Gregg is capable of more than just being Marvel’s Agent Coulson.

Film Review: Body Shots (dir. by Michael Cristofer)


Recently, I saw a 1999 film called Body Shots on the Fox Movie Channel.  If you look at the poster at the top of this review, you’ll see that Body Shots was apparently advertised with the boast: “There are movies that define every decade…”  That’s true.  It’s also true that, every decade, there are movies that define self-importance and pretension.  Can you guess what Body Shots defines?

Since Body Shots claims to be a film that exposes what secretly goes on in American society, I figured I would start this review by sharing a secret of my own.


I love over-the-top morality tales.  I love movies that attempt to expose 20something for being the shallow, terrible people that older people believe us to be.  Every decade sees at least a handful of these films.  Typically, they are made by male filmmakers in their 50s and they attempt to paint an accusing portrait of the foibles of youth.  These films assure the older generation that their children have all grown up to be a bunch of drug-abusing, heavy-drinking, over-sexed degenerates.  It’s a proud of tradition of American cinema and television, one that includes everything from the crazed pot smokers of Reefer Madness to The Newsroom’s Jeff Daniels announcing that my generation is the “WORST.  GENERATION.  EVER.”

Typically, dreadfully earnest filmmakers who think that they are making an important statement about the future of human society are responsible for these films.  That the filmmakers often turn out to be so totally out-of-touch and histrionic just adds to the campy charm.

Body Shots is a part of this tradition.  According to the imdb, director Michael Cristofer (who is currently appearing on Smash) was 54 years-old when he made this film about 8 decadent 20-somethings who spend a decadent night at a Los Angeles nightclub and then have to deal with the consequences in the morning.

For the first part of Body Shots, we’re introduced to the 8 main characters (4 men and 4 women, which works out nicely as far as pairing off is concerned).  While they’re all generically attractive (and, at times, interchangeable), they are also each meant to represent a different take on sexuality and relationships.


The men:

Rick (played by Sean Patrick Flannery) is a lawyer.  He doesn’t have much of a personality but he’s in the most scenes so I guess he’s supposed to be the protagonist.  Flannery is required to awkwardly deliver the line, “Hey, Penorisi, have another cocktail, why don’t you?” not once but three time.

Mike Penorisi (played by Jerry O’Connell) is a professional football player who drives a Mercedes and who spends almost the entire movie struggling to keep his hair out of his eyes.  We know he’s a jerk because Jerry O’Connell plays him and he does things like shout, “If pussy’s on the menu, I’m there!”  (Seriously, Body Shots?)

Shawn (played by Brad Rowe) is a friend of Rick’s.  He’s a nice guy and he says things like, “Sex without love equals violence.”  (And, again, seriously?  Agck!  If a guy ever said that to me, I would be out the door so quick…)

Trent (played by Ron Livingston) is Shawn’s roommate.  We’re continually told that Trent is a loser but, since he’s played by Ron Livingston, he’s also one of the only likable people in the entire film.  Trent is crude and obsessed with sex but, as opposed to everyone else in the film, he’s at least honest about it.  Unlike the rest of the cast, Livingston is intentionally funny.

The women:

Jane (played by Amanda Peet) is kind of Rick’s girlfriend.  Like Rick, she really doesn’t have much of a personality and she’s mostly distinguished by being an absolutely terrible dancer.  (Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t seem to realize just how awkward Peet looks out on the dance floor.)

Sara (played by Tara Reid) is Jane’s best friend.  She’s blonde, drinks to excess, and is open about her sex life.  So, naturally, the filmmakers go out of their way to punish her during the film’s second half.

Whitney (played by Emily Proctor, from CSI: Miami) is another blonde who drinks to excess and is open about her sex life.  In order to keep us from confusing her with Sara, the filmmakers have Whitney sodomize one of the men with a dildo.

Emma (played by Sybil Temchen) is depressed and worries that people can tell that she “hasn’t gotten laid in months” just by looking at her.

Anyway, these eight characters spend the first part of the movie getting ready to go out, going out, meeting up, hooking up, and occasionally telling us their thoughts on sex and relationships.  And by telling us, I mean that, in a technique beloved by first-time playwrights who have yet to learn anything about being subtle or allowing characters to reveal themselves organically, they literally look straight at the camera and deliver monologues about what they’re looking for in life.  I suppose this is all supposed to make us feel as if we’re getting an intimate look into the inner angst and secret loneliness of these characters but the monologues are all so awkwardly written that they just make the characters seem even more shallow than before.  Trust me, I could have happily lived my entire life without having Jerry O’Connell staring straight at me while discussing oral sex.  (“No teeth!” Jerry grins.  BLEH!)

And yet, I still enjoyed the first part of Body Shots, precisely because the characters were so shallow and the movie was so unintentionally over-the-top in its efforts to paint the Los Angeles nightlife as the equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah.  The scenes where the women were getting ready to go out for the night all had a ring of truth of them and Ron Livingston (who appeared to be the only member of the cast to understand just how silly a film Body Shots would ultimately turn out to be) was a lot of fun.

Even better, once everyone gets to the club, Michael Cristofer decides to earn his auteur credentials by tossing in every trick he can think of.  Scenes where the action is needlessly sped up follow scenes that play out in slow motion.  The camera glides through the club, focusing on all the neon while a generic beat blasts in the background.  The walls are covered with graffiti that reads, “Swim At Your Own Risk” and “No Diving” and you better believe that the camera lingers over every letter.  Meanwhile, Amanda Peet dances awkwardly while trying to give Sean Patrick Flannery a come hither look while Emily Proctor passes out shots and Jerry O’Connell keeps tossing back his hair.  And then Ron Livingston shows up, straight from a golf course and – you’ve got it! – still dressed for his game.

Seriously, it’s all so stupid and silly and over-the-top unbelievable.  And, of course, while all this going on, the characters still find the time to stare straight at the camera and tell us their feelings about bondage and whether or not true love actually exists.  Cristofer is trying so hard to say something profound and he fails so completely that it’s actually a lot of fun to watch.

Unfortunately, during the second part of the film, Body Shots falls apart.  The next morning, Sara shows up at Jane’s apartment and says that Penorisi raped her.  Penorisi is arrested and claims that the sex was consensual and that Sara was just upset because he accidentally called her “Whitney.”  We get flashbacks to both Mike and Sara’s version of the events.  While they each tell a different story, Cristofer seems to be implying that, regardless of who is telling the truth, it wouldn’t have happened if Sara had not been out drinking and flirting.

To be honest, it’s pretty fucking offensive.

If the first part of Body Shots appeared to have been made by an out-of-touch guy with good intentions, the second part is the work of a moralistic hypocrite.  What makes it even worse is that the film ends without resolving the case.  I’m sure that Cristofer would argue that the open ending was meant to make the audience think about what they had just seen but, ultimately, it feels like a cop out.  It’s almost as if Cristofer reached a point where he said, “Okay, I’m tired of making this movie.  Let’s just quit.”

And considering how the second half of the movie plays out, you can’t really blame him.  Still, the first part of Body Shots is unintentionally hilarious and a lot of fun.  Just don’t watch past the 45-minute mark.

Quickie Review: 2012 (dir. by Roland Emmerich)

[guilty pleasure]

When one sees the name Roland Emmerich attached as the director to a film on any given year one almost has to audibly groan. He’s not on the level of Uwe Boll in terms of awful films, but he does give Michael Bay a run for the title of worst blockbuster filmmaker. It’s quite a shame to see Emmerich’s films one after the other get worse and worse. This was a filmmaker who showed some talent in the scifi-action genre with such cult classics as Universal Soldier and Stargate. He would reach his apex with the popcorn-friendly and thoroughly enjoyable Will Smith alien-invasion flick, Independence Day. Since reaching those lofty heights each successive film has been more groan-inducing and worse than the previous one. For a brief moment in 2009 this would change as he finally succeeded in destroying the world that he had only hinted at with previous films such as ID4, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow. The film 2012 was released in late-2009 and, while it was universally lambasted by critics and a large portion of the public, I thought it was his most fun film since ID4.

2012 literally has the world greet it’s apocalypse according to the Mayan Calendar in the year 2012. The first forty or so minutes has Emmerich explaining the details of how the world will end in 2012 either through the film’s lead scientist (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) or through a conspiracy-theorist played with manic glee by Woody Harrelson. The bulk of this film is almost like disaster porn for film lovers who are into disaster flicks. We have earthquakes which sends the whole California coast sliding into the Pacific. Supervolcanoes erupting in what is the Yellowstone National Forest right up to mega-tsunamis that dwarf the highest mountain ranges.

The cast might be called an all-star one, but I rather think it’s more a B-list with such names as John Cusack playing a goofy everyman who must save his ex-wife and two young children right up to Danny Glover playing the lame duck of lame duck presidents (I guess Morgan Freeman was unavailable or already done with disaster films after doing Deep Impact). The performance by this cast ranged from alright to laughable, but even with the latter the sense of fun never wavered. This was a flick about the world ending and Emmerich delivered everything promised.

It’s the scenes of world devastation which made this film so enjoyable for me and has become one of my latest guilty pleasures. No matter how bad the dialogue got or how wooden some of the acting came off the sense of wonder from Emmerich destroying the world on the big-screen and on my TV made this film fun to watch. Maybe those who hated it or thought it was trash were aiming to high. I will admit that the film is trash, but in a good way that past enjoyable disaster flicks of the 70’s were fun. It took the premise serious enough, but the filmmakers involved didn’t skimp on over-the-top destruction. I mean this film’s premise means we get to see in high-definition billions of people die as the planet decides to suddenly switch things around to get a better feng shui vibe to the planet.

Scenes such as the mega-tsunamis topping over the Himalayan mountain range was awesome. But even that scene couldn’t top the super-quake which destroys Los Angeles around Cusack’s character who tries to outdrive the quake and the resulting chasms which appear to chase his limo with is family inside. Seeing Los Angeles and the bedrock it’s on upheave and slide into the Pacific was one of the best disaster porn sequences I’ve ever seen and I don’t see anything topping it in the near future.

2012 as a Roland Emmerich production already has a black mark on it because of his reputation as a filmmaker, but for once he actually made a film that was able to surpass all the glaring flaws from it’s one-note, stereotypical characters to it’s wooden dialogue. He did this by making a film with disaster scenes of such epic spectacle that one had no choice but to just sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s a bad film, but it sure was a fun ride. This is why I decided on a fan-made trailer which best exemplifies this film and not the one made by the studio.

I eagerly await the sequel I fully expect from Hollywood: 2013: Disaster Strikes Back.