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.

Cleaning Out The DVR: Crime + Punishment in Suburbia (dir by Rob Schmidt)


(Lisa is once again trying to clean out her DVR!  She’s got about 182 films on her DVR and she needs to get them all watched by the end of this year!  Will she make it?  Not if she’s too busy writing cutesy introductions for her reviews to actually watch the movies!  She recorded Crime + Punishment in Suburbia off of Flix on February 25th!)

Oh, dammit.

I have seen some really pretentious movies before but Crime + Punishment in Suburbia is really something else.  As you might be able to guess from the title, the film is supposedly based on the Dosteyevsky novel but it takes place not only in modern times but in suburbia as well.  Oh, and it actually has next to nothing in common with Doteyevsky novel, beyond a murder and occasional religious symbolism.  And by occasional, I mean that there’s a scene where Vincent Kartheiser wears a Jesus t-shirt.

Kartheiser plays Vincent, a teenager who I think we’re supposed to think is dark and disturbed but instead he just comes across like a weird little poser.  I mean, honestly, it takes more than just wearing black clothes to be weird.  I had a closet full of black clothes when I was eighteen and it still never brought me any closer to enlightenment.  Anyway, Vincent is a classmate of Roseanne (Monica Keena) and Roseanne is dating a handsome but dumb jock named Jimmy (James DeBello).  Roseanne’s mother is named Maggie (Ellen Barkin) and Maggie has recently married an abusive drunk named Fred (Michael Ironside).

Fred is a total jerk so Maggie goes out with her best friend, Bella (Conchata Ferrell), to a bar.  It’s at the bar that she meets Chris (Jeffrey Wright), a handsome and charming bartender.  Soon, Chris and Maggie are having an affair and when Fred finds out, he rapes his stepdaughter.  Roseanne convinces Jimmy to help her murder Fred but, after the deed is done, Roseanne finds herself struggling with her conscience.

Now, of course, in Crime & Punishment, the whole point is that the murder itself was largely random and motiveless.  The rest of the book deals with the protagonist’s attempt to come to terms with not only his crime but also with the meaninglessness of it all.  In Crime + Punishment in Suburbia, Roseanne has a good reason for killing Fred.  Fred is such a monster that there’s no real confusion as to why Roseanne did what she did.  One could argue, quite convincingly, that if she didn’t kill Fred, he would have ended up killing her.  That makes the film’s later attempt at moral ambiguity feel rather hollow and empty.

The other problem with Crime + Punishment in Suburbia is that we don’t see the story through Roseanne’s eyes.  Instead, the entire movie is narrated by Vincent.  Now, Vincent Kartheiser is not a bad actor.  Anyone who has seen Mad Men knows that.  And, in this film, he occasionally gets to flash a cute smile that makes the character a little bit bearable.  But the character he plays, Vincent, is so weird and off-putting that you have no desire to spend 100 minutes listening to him portentously talk about his existence.  Considering that Monica Keena actually gives a pretty good performance as Roseanne, the decision to tell her story through Vincent’s eyes feels all the more mistaken.

The only thing more overwrought than Vincent’s narration is Rob Schmidt’s direction.  This is one of those films that uses every narrative trick in the book to tell its story.  Look at the wild camera angles!  Look at the sudden slow motion!  Look at the freeze frame!  This is one of those movies that you watch and you just want to shout, “Calm down!” at the director.

Crime + Punishment in Suburbia is one to avoid.

A Movie A Day #239: Act of Vengeance (1986, directed by John Mackenzie)


Act of Vengeance is an uncompromising look at union corruption and how it hurts the workers while benefitting the bosses.

The year is 1969 and the United Mine Workers of America is one of the biggest and most powerful labor unions in the country.  The UMWA was founded to protect the rights of miners but the current union president, Tony Boyle (Wilford Brimley), is more concerned with enriching himself and consolidating his own power.  Despised by the workers that he represents, Boyle has managed to stay in power through fixed elections and his own fearsome reputation.  When 80 West Virginia miners are killed in an accident, Boyle defends the owners.  That is the last straw for Jock Yablonski (Charlies Bronson), a lifelong miner and proud union man.  Yablonski runs against Boyle for the UMWA presidency and, when the election is stolen from him, Yablonski challenges the results.

Boyle’s solution?  Working through one of his supporters (played by Hoyt Axton), Boyle hires three assassins (Robert Schenkkan, Maury Chaykin, and a young Keanu Reeves) and orders them to kill not only Yablonski but his entire family too.

With a name like Act of Vengeance and a star like Charles Bronson, it would be understandable to assume that this is another Cannon action film where Bronson gets vengeance by blowing away the bad guys.  That’s not the case, though.  Made for HBO, Act of Vengeance is based on a true story of union corruption and murder.  There is violence but very little of it comes from Bronson.  Instead, this is a well-made docudrama about what happens when workers are betrayed by the very people who are supposed to be looking out for them.

Bronson grew up working in the mines and he never forgot the poverty of his youth.  He knew men like the men depicted in this movie and Bronson gives one of his most naturalistic performances as Yablonski.  Brimley is at his gruffest as Boyle and the performances of the actors playing the three hapless but deadly assassins also feel authentic.  Ellen Burstyn and Ellen Barkin are also well-cast as, respectively, Yablonski’s wife and the wife of the main assassin.

A Movie A Day #219: Wild Bill (1995, directed by Walter Hill)


The year is 1876 and the legendary Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Bridges) sits in a saloon in Deadwood and thinks about his life (most of which is seen in high-resolution, black-and-white flashbacks).  Hickok was a renowned lawman and a sure shot, a man whose exploits made him famous across the west.  Thanks to his friend, Buffalo Bill Cody (Keith Carradine), he even appeared on the New York stage and reenacted some of his greatest gun battles.  Now, Hickok is aging.  He is 39 years old, an old man by the standards of his profession.  Though men like Charlie Prince (John Hurt) and California Joe (James Gammon) continue to spread his legend, Hickok is going blind and spends most of his time in a haze of opium and regret.

Hickok only has one true friend in Deadwood, Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin).  He also has one true enemy, an aspiring gunslinger named Jack McCall (David Arquette).  McCall approaches Hickok and announces that he is going to kill him because of the way that Hickok treated his mother (played, in flashback, by Diane Lane).  Hickok does not do much to dissuade him.

Based on both a book and a play, Wild Bill is a talky and idiosyncratic Western from Walter Hill.  Hill is less interested in Hickok as a gunfighter than Hickok as an early celebrity.  There are gunfights but they only happen because, much like John Wayne in The Shootist, Hickok has become so famous that he cannot go anywhere without someone taking a shot at him.  Almost the entire final half of Wild Bill is set in that saloon, with Hickok and a gallery of character actors talking about the past and wondering about the future.

At times, Wild Bill gets bogged down with all the dialogue and philosophizing.  (To quote The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: “When you have to shoot, shoot.  Don’t talk.”)  Luckily, the film is saved by an intriguing cast, led by Jeff Bridges.  In many ways, his performance was Wild Bill feels like an audition for his later performance in True Grit.  David Arquette is intensely weird as the jumpy Jack McCall and Ellen Barkin brings the film’s only underwritten role, Calamity Jane, to life.  Smaller roles are played by everyone from Bruce Dern to James Remar to Marjoe Gortner.

United Artist made the mistake of trying to sell Wild Bill as being a straight western, which led to confused audiences and a resounding flop at the box office.  Ironically, years after the release of Wild Bill, Walter Hill won an Emmy for directing the first episode of HBO’s Deadwood, an episode the featured Wild Bill cast member Keith Carradine in the role of Hickok.

Worst of the Worst: Mad Dog Time (1996, directed by Larry Bishop)


Mad_dog_time_4841Remember how, in the 1990s, every aspiring indie director tried to rip off Quentin Tarantino by making a gangster film that mixed graphic violence with quirky dialogue, dark comedy, and obscure pop cultural references?  That led to a lot of terrible movies but not a single one (not even Amongst Friends) was as terrible as Mad Dog Time.

That Mad Dog Time was terrible should come as no surprise.  Most directorial debuts are.  What made Mad Dog Time unique was the sheer amount of talent that was assembled and wasted in the effort to bring this sorry movie to life.  As the son of Joey Bishop, director Larry Bishop was Hollywood royalty and was able to convince several ridiculously overqualified actors to play the thinly drawn gangsters and rouges who populated Mad Dog Time.  Much like the Rat Pack movies that his father once starred in, Larry Bishop’s debut film was full of familiar faces.  Some of them only appeared for a few seconds while others had larger roles but they were all wasted in the end.  Hopefully, everyone was served a good lunch in between filming their scenes because it is hard to see what else anyone could have gotten out of appearing in Mad Dog Time.

Mob boss Vic (Richard Dreyfuss) has just been released from a mental hospital.  With the help of his main enforcer, Mick (Jeff Goldblum), and a legendary hitman named Nick (Larry Bishop, giving not only the worst performance in the film but also the worst performance of the 1990s), Vic is going to reassert his control over the rackets.  Vic also wants to find his former mistress, Grace Everly (Diane Lane) but he doesn’t know that Grace is now with Mick and that Mick is also having an affair with Grace’s sister, Rita (Ellen Barkin).

(Grace and Rita are the Everly Sisters!  Ha ha, between that and all the rhyming names, are you laughing yet?)

Anka and Byrne

Ben London (Gabriel Byrne) has taken over Vic’s nightclub and, while singing My Way with Paul Anka, tells Vic that he should take an early retirement because he’s a paranoid schizophrenic.  Before he can deal with Ben, Vic has to kill all of his other rivals, all of whom are played by actors like Michael J. Pollard, Billy Idol, Kyle MacLachlan, Gregory Hines, and Burt Reynolds.  The bodies start to pile up but Jimmy the Undertaker (Richard Pryor, looking extremely frail in one of his final roles) is always around to make sure that everyone gets a proper burial.

And there are other cameos as well.  Joey Bishop is the owner of a mortuary.  Henry Silva is wasted as one the few gangsters to stay loyal to Vic.  Christopher Jones, who previously co-starred with Larry Bishop and Richard Pryor in Wild In The Streets before dropping out of a society, plays a hitman who pretends to be Nick Falco.  Even Rob Reiner shows up a limo driver who talks too much.

Almost every poorly paced scene in Mad Dog Time plays out the same way.  Three or more men confront each other in a room.  Hard-boiled dialogue is exchanged for an interminable length of time until someone finally gets shot.  You would think, at the very least, it would be watchable because of all the different people in the cast but none of the actors really seem to be into it.  Richard Dreyfuss and Jeff Goldblum resort to smirking through their scenes while Gabriel Byrne often appears to be drunk.  Whenever he’s in a scene, Burt Reynolds seems to be trying to hide his face and it is hard to blame him.  There were many terrible movies released in the 90s but none were as bad as Mad Dog Time.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Planet of Dinosaurs, Real Genius, Switch, Some Girls


Since I’m new here, it was suggested that I cut my teeth on one of these 4 shots from 4 films posts. Also, because I’m new, I thought I would go with 4 films that have a special place in my heart. An introduction of sorts.

Of course, that means telling a little story behind each one.

Planet of Dinosaurs (dir. by James K. Shea)

Planet of Dinosaurs (dir. by James K. Shea)

Planet of Dinosaurs (1977) is a simple one. My Mom recorded it off of TV when I was a kid and I watched it over and over and over again. It’s a classic bit of Sci-fi B-Movie making. I watched this so many times that I can even recall the commercials. There was one for some compilation of hit songs. I was so young that when Gloria by Van Morrison played I thought he was saying the word Tijuana.

Real Genius (dir. Martha Coolidge)

Real Genius (dir. Martha Coolidge)

Real Genius (1985) is just a great movie, but it especially resonated with someone like myself who always felt out of place because I was so into computers at such a young age.

Switch (dir. by Blake Edwards)

Switch (dir. by Blake Edwards)

Switch (1991) is the easiest to tell the story behind. I’m transgender. I found it on cable one night as a kid and it became one of my favorites.

Some Girls (dir. by Michael Hoffman)

Some Girls (dir. by Michael Hoffman)

Some Girls (1988) is a tough one. When I first got a TiVo I put the Wishlist feature to use in order to see all the movies by actresses such as Angelina Jolie, Julianne Moore, and Jennifer Connelly. One day this movie popped up. I’m still not sure why, but it managed to bore a hole into my heart. It can still make me sad watching it.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #123: The Cobbler (dir by Thomas McCarthy)


The_Cobler_poster

Oh, Cobbler, Cobbler — what a frustrating film you are!

There was a time when everyone was excited about seeing The Cobbler.  It was originally scheduled to come out in 2014 and, along with Men, Women, & Children, it was supposed to be part of the dramatic recreation of Adam Sandler.

After all, one of the main reason why critics like me hate to see Adam Sandler devoting his time to stuff like That’s My Boy is because, in the past, Sandler has actually proven himself to be a surprisingly good and likable dramatic actor.  Unfortunately, dramatic Sandler films never seem to make much money and, as a result, Sandler goes back to making films where he, David Spade, and Chris Rock play former high school classmates.  If only one Sandler dramedy could be a success, we tell ourselves, then he’d never feel the need to make another movie like Jack and Jill

(And yes, I realize that’s probably wishful thinking on our part.  Even if Adam Sandler somehow won an Oscar, I get the feeling he’d follow the win by starting work on Grown Ups 3….)

The Cobbler promised that not only would Sandler be playing a more low-key role than usual but he would also be directed by Thomas McCarthy, who previously directed the excellent The Visitor and Win Win.  Based on his previous films, McCarthy seemed to be the perfect filmmaker to give Adam Sandler some credibility.

And, let’s not forget, that not only would Sandler be working with Thomas McCarthy but Men, Women, & Children was being directed by Jason Reitman!  At one point, it truly appeared that 2014 was going to be the year that we saw the rebirth of Adam Sandler.

And then Men, Women, & Children came out and was a disaster, despite the fact that Sandler got fairly good reviews.  Meanwhile, rumors started to swirl that just maybe The Cobbler wasn’t as good as McCarthy’s previous film.  When The Cobbler‘s release date was pushed back to 2015 … well, we all knew what that meant.

Anyway, The Cobbler was released in a few theaters earlier this year and on VOD.  It’s now available on Netflix.  I watched it last week and it’s really not as bad as I expected it to be.  Of course, that’s not to say that it’s particularly good either.  It’s not terrible but it is disappointing.  Considering the director and the supporting cast (Dustin Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, Dan Stevens, and Melonie Diaz, who was way too good in Fruitvale Station for you not to regret how this film totally wastes her), The Cobbler should at least be interesting.  Instead, it’s just kind of bland.

However, Adam Sandler does give a pretty good performance.  In this film, he plays Max, a shy and emotionally withdrawn cobbler.  He comes from a long line of cobblers and he inherited his store from his father (Dustin Hoffman).  Years before the film begins, Max’s father mysteriously vanished.  Now, Max spends his time going to and from work and taking care of his dementia-stricken mother.  His only friend is Jimmy (Steve Buscemi), the paternal barber who works next door.

In the basement of Max’s shop, there’s an old stitching machine.  About 30 minutes into the film, Max discovers that if be puts on a pair of shoes that have been repaired using the machine, he can physically transform into whoever owns the shoes.  After experimenting with being different people, Max eventually puts on his father’s shoes.  Transforming into his father, he has dinner with his mother.

The next morning, his mother dies.  Max cannot even afford to buy her a good headstone.  However, a local criminal (played by Method Man) has dropped off his shoes to be repaired.  Perhaps, by wearing the criminal’s shoes, Max can come up with the money…

I’m probably making The Cobbler sound a lot more interesting than it actually is.  And seriously, it sounds like it should a really good and thought-provoking movie.  Unfortunately, McCarthy awkwardly tries to combine the broadly comedic elements (i.e., Sandler transforming into a variety of eccentric characters) with the dramatic (which includes not only Max’s anger at his father but a few murders as well).  The film never finds a consistent tone and, as such, it remains an interesting idea in search of a stronger narrative.  Watching the film as it wanders from scene to scene, it’s impossible not to mourn all of the missed opportunities.

But, as I said, Adam Sandler does well.  Hiding his face behind a beard and only occasionally offering up a sad smile, Sandler gives a low-key performance that is full of very genuine melancholy.  In this film, he proves that he can act when he wants to.  You just wish that the rest of The Cobbler lived up to his performance.

Unfortunately, as far as the box office is concerned, The Cobbler is the least financially successful film that Sandler has ever appeared in.  This means that plans for Grown-Ups 3 are probably already underway…

(For those keeping track of the progress of Embracing The Melodrama Part II, we are now 123 reviews down with 3 to go.)