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.

Insomnia File No. 19: Great Expectations (dir by Alfonso Cuaron)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If you were awake at 2 in the morning last night, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 1998 film, Great Expectations.

Great Expectations is an adaptation of the famous novel by Charles Dickens, the one about the orphan who helps a fugitive, is mentored by a bitter rich woman who lives in a decaying mansion, falls in love with the beautiful but cold-hearted Estella, and then later is helped out by a mysterious benefactor.  The thing that sets this adaptation apart from other version of the novel is that the 1998 Great Expectations is set in modern-day America, as opposed to Victorian-era Great Britain.

Actually, beyond retaining certain aspects of the plot, it’s interesting how little this version of Great Expectations has to do with the original novel.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  While Charles Dickens deserves to be remembered as one of the fathers of modern literature, he could also be a terribly pedantic writer.  This adaptation only touches on the novel’s overriding concerns about class and wealth in the most simplistic of ways.  It also abandons most of the novel’s subplots and instead concentrates on the love story between Estella (Gwynneth Paltrow) and Finn (Ethan Hawke).

Oh yeah, did I mention that?  The hero of this version of Great Expectations is not named Phillip Pirrip and we never have to listen to him explain that, as a child, he was nicknamed Pip because he apparently could not speak.  Instead, Pip has been renamed Finn, short for Finnegan.  If you believe the trivia section of the imdb, Finn was apparently the name of Ethan Hawke’s dog.  And again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  One of the main reasons why so many readers automatically dislike the narrator of Great Expectations is that he is named Pip.

Anyway, in this version, Pip Finn grows up in Florida, an orphan who is raised by his blue-collar brother-in-law, Joe Gargery (Chris Cooper, giving a very Chris Cooperish performance).  The escaped convict is played by Robert De Niro and, towards the end of the film, there’s a hilarious scene where Finn and the convict meet for a second time and Finn somehow does not recognize him, despite the fact that he still pretty much looks the same and still acts exactly like Robert De Niro.  The eccentric woman who mentors the young Finn, Mrs. Havisham Dinsmoor, is played by Anne Bancroft and Bancroft, made up to look like Bette Davis in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, gives a performance of almost transcendent weirdness.  And, of course, Estella — who has been raised to seduce and then destroy men — is played by Gwynneth Paltrow and, as usual, Paltrow is a lot more believable when Estella is remote and self-centered than when she has to soften up towards the end of the film.

It’s an odd film, to be honest.  This is one of those films that you watch and you try to be cynical but it’s all so lushly shot and deliriously (and manipulatively) romantic that you can’t help but occasionally get wrapped up in its spell.  Hawke and Paltrow, both of whom are incredibly young in this movie, may not have much chemistry but they’re both so achingly beautiful that it almost doesn’t matter.

Great Expectations was the second film to be directed by Alfonso Cuaron and it’s just as visually stylish as his later films.  It’s a frequently shallow and somewhat silly film but oh my God, is it ever pretty to look at.

Great_expectations_poster

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong

Insomnia File #11: Summer Catch (dir by Mike Tollin)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Summer_catch

Whenever I look at my cable guide, I always notice that channel 834 is listed as being “MorMax.”  For some reason, I always assume that MorMax stands for Morman Max and I’m always expecting that it’s going to show movies about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.  But actually, MorMax stands for More Cinemax.

Anyway, last night, if you were having a hard time sleeping around midnight (though why anyone would ever try to go to sleep before midnight is beyond me), you could have turned on MorMax and watched the 2001 romantic comedy Summer Catch!

Though it may be hard to believe today, there was a time when Freddie Prinze, Jr. was a pretty big deal.  From 1997 to 2001, Prinze appeared in 179 movies.  Well, actually, he only appeared in 10 but since they were all aimed at teenage girls and played on cable constantly, it felt like 179.  (Seriously, there was a time when I could not get through an entire day without seeing at least a few minutes of She’s All That.)  For the most part, all of these films were pretty much the same.  Freddie Prinze, Jr. plays a kind of dumb guy who falls in love with a girl.  Prinze’s character was usually from a working class family and had at least one wacky friend.  The girl was usually from a rich family and had one bitchy friend who would be an ex-friend by the end of the movie.  There was usually at least one scene set on the beach or at a swimming pool, the better for Freddie to remove his shirt and his costar to chastely strip down to her underwear.  There was usually a falling in love montage and at least one big misunderstanding.  Freddie would always flash the same goofy smile whenever the misunderstanding was cleared up.  Even at the time that the films were being released, nobody was ever under the impression that Freddie Prinze, Jr. was a particularly good actor.  But he was likable, unthreatening, and hot in an oddly bland sort of way.

(Speaking of oddly bland, check out the titles of some of Prinze’s films: She’s All That, Down To You, Boys and Girls, Head over Heels, and, of course, Summer Catch.)

Summer Catch opens with Ryan Dunne (Freddie!) explaining that he’s just a working class kid from Massachusetts but this summer, he’s going to be playing amateur baseball in Cap Cod and hopefully, he’ll get signed to a professional contract as result.  (Freddie adopts an inconsistent “pahk ya cah by the bah” accent and its kind of endearing to see him trying so hard.)  Ryan, of course, is just a local guy who mows lawns for a living but he’s determined to succeed.  He just has to stay focused.

However, that’s going to be difficult because he’s just met Tenley Parrish (Jessica Biel).  The Parrishes own a vacation home on Cape Cod and they are so rich that they can afford to name their oldest daughter Tenley.  Soon, Tenley and Ryan are a couple but Tenley’s father wants Tenley to marry a rich boy and Ryan’s father is too busy being all surly and working class to appreciate Ryan’s dreams.

(Tenley’s father, incidentally, is played by Bruce Davison because all snobbish WASPs of a certain age are played by Bruce Davison.  Ryan’s father is played by Fred Ward because Summer Catch was made in 2001.)

Because every Freddie Prinze, Jr. movie needs a hyperactive and wacky sidekick, Ryan’s best friend on the team is a catcher named Billy Brubaker (Matthew Lillard.)  Billy is known as “Bru.”  There’s a lot of scenes of people saying stuff like “Yo, Bru,” and “Come on, Bru!”  After a while, I found myself hoping for a scene where Bru went crazy and started shouting, “My name is Billy, dammit!  BILLY!  DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!”  Instead, however, we get a subplot about how Billy can’t get any hits until he has sex with and wears the thong underwear of a local baseball fan.

Anyway, Summer Catch is an extremely predictable film.  It’s not surprising that this was one of Freddie’s final star vehicles because, other than his heroic effort to maintain a Massachusetts accent, even he seems to be bored with it all.  Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Summer Catch is that there’s next to no actual conflict in the film.  Oh sure, Ryan and Tenley have a few misunderstandings but it’s never anything serious.

If there’s an unheralded hero to Summer Catch, it’s the uncredited guy who we hear providing commentary during the games.  Seriously, I would have been so lost if not for him constantly saying stuff like, “This is Ryan Dunne’s chance to show what he can do,” and “Billy Brubaker needs to get a hit here…”  They should have made the entire movie about him and his efforts to remain up-to-date on all the players.

Because Summer Catch was a baseball film, I begged my sister Erin to watch it with me so that she could explain all the baseball stuff to me.  For the record, Erin says that the game scenes were okay (and I personally liked all of the totally gratuitous slow motion) but that the film wasn’t really a deep examination of baseball.  To be honest, I really wasn’t expecting that it would be.  I just wanted to make my sister stay up late and watch a movie with me.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye

 

 

Insomnia File #9: Born Killers (dir by Morgan J. Freeman)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Born Killers 2

If you were suffering insomnia at around 2:30 this morning, you could have turned over to ActionMax and watched the 2005 film Born Killers.

Now, probably the first thing that you noticed about this film is that the director is named Morgan J. Freeman.  That J is there for a reason.  In no way is Morgan J. Freeman the director related to Morgan Freeman the actor.  Instead, Morgan J. Freeman is a director who has done a few indie films and who will probably never live down the fact that he directed American Psycho II: All-American Girl.  According to the imdb, Freeman is also an executive producer on Teen Mom.

In other words, Morgan J. Freeman has been involved with a lot of crap.

However, Born Killers is actually a fairly good film.  It’s certainly far better than anything you would expect to see from the director of American Psycho II.

Born Killers tells the story of two brothers, John (Jake Muxworthy) and Michael (Gabriel Mann).  John and Michael are both killers.  They call other human beings “piggy banks” and they spend all of their time murdering innocent people and then robbing them.  For the wild and unpredictable Michael, it’s fun.  For the coolly calculating John, it’s strictly business.  They’re both sociopaths but, as quickly becomes apparent, Michael is the only one who is having any fun.

Through flashbacks, we discover that Michael and John never really had a chance to be anything other than what they eventually became.  From an early age, their father (Tom Sizemore, who is absolutely chilling) taught them how to kill and steal.  After their father’s violent death, John and Michael go on their own killing spree.

And everything seems to be going well for them, until John ends up shooting Michael.  Why did John kill him?  Even though John is narrating the story, he doesn’t seem to be sure.  He admits that his memory may be fooling him.  He thinks that it might have something to do with a woman named Archer (Kelli Garner), who the brothers reluctantly murdered.

With his brother now dead, John tracks down his half-sister, Gertle (Lauren German).  John hasn’t seen Gertle in years and, when he first approaches her, he pretends to be a Mormon missionary.  Gertle responds by leading him into her house and, after they have sex, she tells him that she knows that he is her half-brother.

Though John was originally planning on murdering her, he instead finds himself falling in love with her and even feeling that maybe his love for her would redeem him for all of his past crimes.  When she tries to warn him that she has issues of her own, John replies that he knows they are meant to be together.  He begs her to take a chance on him.

But Gertle, as you’ve probably guessed, has secrets of her own…

At first, I wasn’t expecting much from Born Killers.  And, for the first 30 minutes or so, it plays out like your typical serial killer road film.  I kept watching because of the performances but I didn’t think much of the story.  However, as soon as John tracks down his sister, the entire movie changes direction and it actually starts to catch you off guard.  Suddenly, you’re no longer sure just what exactly is going to happen or how it’s going to end.  During the final half of the film, Lauren German and Jake Muxworthy give such good and compelling performances that you forget about the shaky first half.  Even if the film’s ending is a little bit too twisted for its own good, it’s still an interesting journey.

All in all, Born Killers is not at all bad for a low-budget serial killer film airing on Cinemax at two in the morning!

born killers

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip