Insomnia File #25: The Winning Season (dir by James C. Strouse)


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, last night, you were up at 11:45 then … well, you were probably like most people.  To be honest, I don’t know if The Winning Season, which aired on Cinemax last night, really counts as an insomnia file.  Being up at midnight probably doesn’t qualify as insomnia.

That said, The Winning Season is an extremely sweet and likable movie that, until I came across it last night, I had previously heard nothing about.  Even if it wasn’t directly inspired by insomnia, this was a film that I was happy to discover and I’m going to recommend that, if you haven’t seen it, you discover it too.

Of course, I guess I shouldn’t be too shocked that I loved this film because it stars Sam Rockwell.  Sam Rockwell is one of my favorite actors.  It’s not just that he’s talented and that he frequently takes risks and chooses interesting projects, though all of that is certainly true.  There’s a sincerity to Sam Rockwell’s performances.  He’s one of those actors who, when you watch him, you feel as if he’s literally opening up his heart and soul to you.  There are few actors who can make me cry quite as effectively as Sam Rockwell.  That he didn’t win an Oscar for Moon (and has, in fact, never even been nominated) remains one of the most glaring mistakes in the history of the Academy Awards.

Sam Rockwell is at the center of The Winning Season and it’s hard to imagine the film working with anyone other than him in the leading role.  Sam plays Bill, a former high school basketball star who is now a divorced alcoholic with a 16 year-old daughter that he struggles to communicate with.  Like many of Rockwell’s character, Bill is irresponsible but he means well.  Bill spends most of his time drinking and working as a busboy at a restaurant.

One night, Bill is approached by his former teammate, Terry (Rob Corddry).  Terry is now a high school principal and he has an offer for Bill.  Terry needs a new coach for the Girls’ Basketball Team.  Even though Bill doesn’t consider Girls’ Basketball to be a real sport, he accepts the position.

And you can guess what happens.  When Bill is first hired, no one takes the team seriously.  There’s only six players on the team and none of them — not even the ones played by Emma Roberts and Rooney Mara — believe that they have a chance at a winning season.  In fact, their best player breaks her ankle before the season even begins.  After a rough start, Bill and the girls bond and soon, they start to win games.

Again, it’s not surprising but it is incredibly sweet.  And, as predictable as it may be, the film still throws in a few unexpected twists.  One thing that I liked is that, even after they started to get good, the team still struggled and lost the occasional game.  They didn’t all magically become the best basketball players ever and, for that matter, Sam didn’t magically become the best coach in the world.  This is an unapologetic crowd pleaser that still keeps one foot in reality.  Everyone, in the film, fully commits to their roles.  In particular, Margo Martindale is great in the role of Bill’s assistant.  It’s always a pleasure to watch two good actors play off of each other and Martindale’s scenes with Sam Rockwell are fun to watch.

But really, the entire film belongs to Sam Rockwell.  Sam Rockwell can take the most predictable dialogue imaginable and make it sound like poetry.  About halfway through the film, Bill loses his driver’s licence and is reduced to showing up at the games on bicycle.  There’s little that is more adorable than Sam Rockwell pedaling across the screen.

The Winning Season is an incredibly sweet and likable movie.  I’m glad that I discovered it.

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
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born

Insomnia File #24: A Star is Born (dir by Frank Pierson)


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 found yourself awake and unable to sleep at 2:30 this morning, you could have always turned over to TCM and watched the 1976 film, A Star is Born. 

A Star is Born gets off to a good start by having Gary Busey give Kris Kristofferson a hit of cocaine.  As I pointed out on twitter, no movie that starts with Gary Busey offering cocaine to Kris Kristofferson can be all bad.

Anyway, Kris is playing John Norman Howard.  John Norman Howard is a big 70s rock star, which means that he has a beard and a bad case of ennui.  Despite all of the cocaine and whiskey, his career is on a downward spiral.  Part of the problem appears to be that he only sings one song and, half the time, he still can’t bring himself to remember all of the lyrics.  The song opens with John growling, “Are you a figment of my imagination or am I one of yours?” and John always ends up storming off stage before we can hear the rest of it.

Anyway, John ends up at this club in Hollywood that looks a lot like the place that Ryan Gosling opened up at the end of La La Land.  While at the club, John gets into a fight with Robert Englund (who I assume was playing a young Freddy Krueger) and totally interrupts the performance of the Oreos.

Who are the Oreos?   They’re a folk-singin’ power trio.  There’s One (Venetta Fields) and Two (Clydie King).  (According to the credits, that’s actually their names.)  And then there’s Esther Hoffman, who has a truly horrid perm and who is played by Barbra Streisand.  One and Two are black.  Esther, who stands right in the middle whenever they perform, is white.  And they’re called The Oreos!

Uhmmm, yeah…

Anyway, we really don’t learn anything about One or Two, beyond the fact that they are totally and completely devoted to Esther.  When Esther gets them fired from recording a cat food jingle, they just smile and laugh.  Sure, why not!?  After all, it’s not like struggling musicians need money or anything.  When Esther interrupts a performance to yell at John, One and Two smile and laugh.  When Esther, under John’s tutelage, becomes a big star and basically abandons the Oreos, One and Two show up at a recording session and smile and laugh.

Last night was my first time to actually see A Star is Born, though I had heard and read quite a bit about it.  Of all the versions of A Star is Born, this one made the most money at the box office but it also got the worst reviews.  Reportedly, the film’s production was a trainwreck with Barbra Streisand and then-boyfriend Jon Peters fighting with … well, everyone.

And yet, like so many cinematic trainwrecks, you simply cannot look away from it.  This version of A Star is Born gets so many things wrong that it becomes rather fascinating to watch.  Perhaps the scene that epitomizes A Star is Born comes when John refuses to perform his one song at a benefit concert and instead, brings out Esther and has her perform her songs.  First off, John’s hard rock band suddenly transforms into a Broadway orchestra and John’s audience — who presumably had paid money to hear that growling song about imagination — is overjoyed to instead have to listen to Esther’s style of lite pop/rock.  (Actually, to even call it rock is to needlessly stretch the definition of rock to its breaking point.)  Making the scene even more bizarre is that 1) John is basically exploiting a benefit concert to launch Esther’s career and 2) since the concert was being performed to support the American Indian Movement, the disembodied head of a Native American woman keeps appearing over Esther’s shoulder while she’s performing songs that have absolutely nothing to do with the cause that the concert is supposedly supporting.  It’s kind of the cinematic equivalent of that Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial.

Anyway, things get even better when John buys an empty field and, in a ten minute montage, John and Esther literally build a house.  Seriously, I’m not kidding.  At no point do we see anyone other than John and Esther working on that house and yet, within a matter of minutes, they have an adobe mansion to live in.  I had no idea it was so easy to build a house.  It makes me wonder why people waste money buying houses when they can just buy an empty field and build their own.

(Maybe they’re scared of the poltergeists.  Imagine how different this version of A Star Is Born would have been if it ended with Esther grabbing John and screaming, “YOU MOVED THE HEADSTONES BUT YOU LEFT THE BODIES, DIDN’T YOU!?  YOU LEFT THE BODIES!”)

Kris Kristofferson is well-cast as John Norman Howard but the film is pretty much centered around Barbra.  That, in itself, wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that Barbra is completely miscast.  She’s a great singer but she’s not a rock singer.  You never believe that the same people who want to hear John sing his one song would also want to hear any of Esther’s songs.  The fact that the film is basically 140 minutes of everyone insisting that Esther is the future of music only reminds us of the fact that she’s not.  Her style is throwback to the past, which is one reason why everyone’s grandmother loves Barbra Streisand.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Barbra and Kris actually had any chemistry but they really don’t.  There’s a scene where Barbra and Kris take a bath together and Barbra puts makeup on Kris’s face.  Between two people who have chemistry, that would be sexy and sweet.  Between Kris and Barbra, it’s just kind of icky and you find yourself wondering who took the time to light the hundreds of candles surrounding them.  Whenever Barbra and Kris kissed, I worried for her just because all I could think of was the stubble burn that Esther would have to deal with later.

Yet, in the end, the film makes so many mistakes that it becomes one of the most watchable movies ever made.  It may not be good but it sure is entertaining.

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
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part

Insomnia File #23: Death Do Us Part (dir by Nicholas Humphries)


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 having trouble getting to sleep around one in the morning on March 7th, you could have watched the 2012 horror film, Death Do Us Part, on Showtime.

I don’t know if it would have helped you get to sleep though.  Death Do Us Part is one of those films where the entire cast spends a lot of time screaming.  I couldn’t tell you much about who all of the characters were meant to be, as they all kind of blended together (especially the male characters), but, if need be, I could identify all of their screams.

Of course, it takes a while for the screaming to get started.  Death Do Us Part takes its time getting to the mayhem.  It tells the story of a rich girl named Kennedy (Julia Benson) who has a history of mental instability and who is marrying Ryan Harris (Peter Benson).  Kennedy enjoys posing in her wedding dress, popping pills, and nervously smiling.  Life seems to be perfect for her!  But, as often seems to happen in these movies, Ryan is also having the occasional quickie with Kennedy’s sister, Hannah (Christine Catelain).  Kennedy’s best friend, Emily (Emilie Ullerup), happens to see Hannah and Ryan doing it in the woods.  Emily gets a slightly crazy look in her eyes as she watches.

(Then again, at some point in this movie, everyone has a crazy look in their eyes.)

Kennedy, Ryan, Hannah, Emily, and a couple of guys who aren’t that important are spending the weekend in a cabin in the woods.  The cabin comes with its own pervy caretaker.  If I ever spend the weekend at a cabin in the woods, I’m going to specifically ask for a cabin that doesn’t come with a caretaker.  Judging from the movies that I’ve seen, those dudes are always bad news.

ANYWAY — it takes a while but eventually, people start dying.  In fact, once people start dying, the movie suddenly picks up the pace.  Before you know it, everyone’s running around in the woods and getting killed and screaming.  Seriously, there’s lots and lots of screaming.

Up until the last fifteen minutes, I was ready to dismiss Death Do Us Part as just another low-budget attempt at horror but I actually did like the chaos of everyone running around in the woods.  Don’t get me wrong.  The movie takes way too long to get going and the characters are so generic that you really don’t care whether they’re dead or not.  But I did appreciate the fact that, when confronted by a murderous maniac, the majority of the characters reacted the way that I would have reacted.  They started running around, screaming their heads off, and ultimately, they just made things worse.  It was a nice change from the usual movie technique of having one of the characters suddenly turn out to be a hyper competent survival machine.

There is a twist but you’ll see it coming from a mile away.  That said, the final few shots of the film were enjoyably surreal in only the way that a bloody wedding dress can be.

(Speaking of wedding dresses, I loved the one in this film.  Way to go, Kennedy!)

Anyway, I can’t really recommend Death Do Us Part because it takes too long to get going and the characters are way too generic.  But, I did like the final fourth of the film and I may have found my future wedding dress!

All in all, not a bad way to handle insomnia.

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
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina

 

Insomnia File #22: Insomnia (dir by Christopher Nolan)


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!

Last night, if you were up at 2 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the atmospheric 2002 mystery, Insomnia.

I have to admit that I’m cheating a little bit by including Insomnia in a series about obscure films that you might find on cable late at night.  While Insomnia does seem to often turn up during the early morning hours, it’s hardly an obscure film.  A remake of an acclaimed Norwegian film, it not only stars three Oscar winners (Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank) but it was directed by Christopher Nolan.  Insomnia got a lot of attention when it was first released in 2002.  But, doing an insomnia file about a movie that’s actually about insomnia was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.

I should also mention that I didn’t have insomnia last night.  I was up because I currently have a cold and I watched Insomnia in a feverish and congested haze.  And yet I couldn’t help but feel that, somehow, that was actually the ideal way to watch Insomnia.  With its ominous atmosphere and Nolan’s eye for the surreal, Insomnia plays out like a semi-lucid fever dream.

A teenage girl has been murdered in a small Alaskan fishing village.  The chief of police (played by the great character actor Paul Dooley) asks his former LAPD partner, Will Dormer (Al Pacino), to come to Alaska and help with the investigation.  Accompanying Dormer is his partner and friend, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan).

Dormer has issues that go far beyond anything happening in Alaska.  He’s burned out and he’s plagued by rumors that, in the past, he was a crooked cop.  He’s being investigated by Internal Affairs and, shortly after they arrive in Alaska, Eckhart admits that he’s been given immunity as part of a deal to testify against Dormer.  While pursuing the suspected murderer through the Alaskan fog, Dormer fires his gun.  When the fog clear, Dormer discovers that he’s killed Eckhart.  Was it an accident or did Dormer intentionally shoot  his partner?  Not even Dormer seems to know for sure.  He lies and says that the murderer shot Eckhart.

Working with a local detective (Hilary Swank), Dormer tries to solve the Alaska murder, with the knowledge that, once he does, he’ll have to return to Los Angeles and he’ll probably be indicted.  Because of the midnight sun, night never falls in Alaska and, tortured by guilt, Dormer cannot sleep.  Add to that, the murderer knows that Dormer shot Eckhart.  And now, he’s calling Dormer and cruelly taunting him.

Who is the murderer?  His name is Walter Finch.  He’s a writer and, in a stroke of brilliance, he’s played by none other than Robin Williams.  To me, Robin Williams’s screen presence always carried hints of narcissism and self-destruction.  Even in comedic roles, there was a transparent but very solid wall between Williams the audience.  When he was shouting out a thousand words a minute and rapidly switching from one character to the next, it always seemed as if it was all a technique to keep anyone from figuring out who he really was.  In Insomnia (and, that same year, in One Hour Photo), Robin Williams reveals an inner darkness that he rarely showed before or after.  Finch may possess Williams’s trademark eccentric smile and nervous voice but, underneath the surface, he’s an empty shell who views human beings as being as disposable as the characters in his paperback novels.

Christopher Nolan takes us directly into the heads of these two enemies, with shots of the desolate Alaskan landscape seeming to perfectly capture the inner desolation of two minds destroyed by guilt and paranoia.  (Neither Finch nor Dormer is capable of connecting with the world outside of his damaged psyche.)  As seen through Nolan’s lens, Alaska becomes as surreal and haunting as one of the dream landscapes from Inception.  For those of us who found both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar to be so bombastic that they verged on self-parody, Insomnia is a nice reminder that Nolan doesn’t need a pounding Han Zimmer score to make a great movie.  With Insomnia, Nolan gives us not bombast but a deceptively low-key and atmospheric journey into the heart of darkness.

Ironically, for a film about two men who cannot sleep, Insomnia will haunt your dreams.

insomnia2002poster

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
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth

Insomnia File #21: Truth (dir by James Vanderbilt)


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, last night, you found yourself awake at three in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 2015 film, Truth.

I can’t say for sure whether or not Truth would have put you to sleep.  It kept me awake, largely because I was in a state of shock that any movie could be as bad as what I was watching.  Without running the risk of hyperbole, I can say that Truth is one of the worst fucking movies that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.  It’s not just that the film is poorly scripted, inconsistently acted, and directed in the most heavy-handed way possible.  No, the problems with Truth went far beyond mere execution.  Truth is a film with an agenda, one that I kind of agree with, but it’s such a total misfire that it ends up doing more damage to its cause than good.  Truth is meant to be a defense of the much maligned mainstream media but it’s so poorly put together that it’s easy to imagine it being one of Donald Trump’s guilty pleasures.  Remember how all of us musical theater nerds used to hatewatch Smash?  I imagine that the White House staff does the same thing with Truth.

Truth is ostensibly based on a true story.  In 2004, veteran anchorman Dan Rather (played by Robert Redford) reported a story that then-President George W. Bush got preferential treatment while he was serving in the Air National Guard.  This story was considered to be especially big because 1) the Iraq War was deeply unpopular, 2) Bush was in a tight race for reelection, 3) his opponent, John F. Kerry, didn’t have much to offer beyond having served in Vietnam, and 4) questions were being raised about what Kerry actually did in Vietnam.

One of the most important pieces of evidence in Rather’s story were four memos that had been provided by a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Air National Guard, a veteran Bush-hater named Bill Burkett (played, in the film, by Stacy Keach).  Shortly after the story aired, conservative bloggers claimed that the memos were obvious forgeries.  After spending weeks defending the story and haughtily dismissing anyone who didn’t collect an eight-figure paycheck from CBS, Rather admitted on air that the authenticity of the memos could not be verified.  In the wake of the scandal, Rather’s longtime producer, Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), was fired.  Rather retired a year earlier than expected and went on to become one of those reliably dull commentators who occasionally emerges to complain about how the world hasn’t been the same since Adlai Stevenson died.  Mapes later wrote a book, which argued that 1) the memos were authentic and 2) it didn’t actually matter whether they were authentic, even though they like so totally were.

With all the current talk about fake news and whether both the media and Hollywood exist in a bubble, Truth is a film that should be especially relevant but, as previously stated, it’s so clumsy and heavy-handed that it actually does more harm than good.  About halfway through the film, there’s a hilarious scene in which literally the entire country is shown watching 60 Minutes with awe-struck expression on their face.  Children are watching.  Customers in a bar are watching.  The cooking staff in the kitchen pauses in their work to watch the report.  Heroic music rises on the soundtrack.  This scene, with all of its self-important grandeur, pretty much sums up everything that’s wrong with Truth.  It’s one thing to argue that the news media does, should, and must play an important role in American life.  It’s another thing to make your argument by constructing a fantasy world where the entire country plots their lives around watching 60 Minutes.  But that’s the way Vanderbilt directs the entire film.  He’s so high on the fumes of his good intentions that he doesn’t realize his film basically comes across like a parody of those intentions.

Especially in the second half of the film, there’s a lot of speeches about why journalism is important.  And those speeches may actually make a great point but the problem is that none of them convince us that Mary Mapes and Dan Rather didn’t get fooled by some painfully obvious forgeries.  In its laudable effort to defend journalism, Truth makes the mistake of excusing shoddy journalism. When, towards the end of the film, Mapes exclaims that the memos were only a minor part of the overall story and not necessary to prove that Bush got preferential treatment, you want someone to ask her, “If you could prove the story without them, then why did you include these unverifiable documents in the first place, especially considering that they were received from a questionable source?”  But nobody does because none of the film’s saintly characters have been written or portrayed with the nuance necessary to be able to survive a question like that.   Truth‘s problem is that it wants to have it both ways.  “It doesn’t matter that this story was based on obviously fake documents,” Truth says, “And, because Mary Mapes and Dan Rather were sent by God to tell the truth, the obviously fake documents were completely real.”

And then there’s the film’s performers.  Stacy Keach is great as Burkitt and his eccentric performance suggests the film that Truth could have been if it wasn’t so concerned with trying to portray its lead characters as saints.  But then there’s Robert Redford, whose portrayal of Dan Rather has all the nuance and personality of a wax figure.  (Redford wears suspenders.  That’s the extent of his performance.)  As Mary Mapes, Cate Blanchett is totally wasted.  She doesn’t really have a character to play, beyond her male director’s conception of what a professional woman is supposed to be like.  (She also has a traumatic back story of abuse, which the film trots out in such a klutzy manner that it’s actually incredibly insulting to real-life abuse victims.)  Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, and Elisabeth Moss all show up as members of Mapes’s team.  Quaid is playing a military man so he gets to salute in slow motion.  Grace is playing a hipster with a beard so he gets this embarrassing scene where he rants about how he’s being targeted not because of sloppy reporting but because of a corporate conspiracy.  (This was obviously meant to be a huge applause moment but, like a lot of the movie, it doesn’t explain how the progressive cause is helped by shoddy journalism.)  Moss doesn’t get to do anything, other than sit in the background.  To waste a cast of this quality is a crime.

So why did this mostly terrible film get respectful reviews?  Why did Sasha Stone and Jeff Wells insist that Truth was destined to be an Oscar contender?  Call it confirmation bias.  Truth plays to mainstream liberals (which includes the majority of film reviewers) in much the same way that God’s Not Dead 2 plays to Christians.  But just because you agree with a film’s ideology, that doesn’t make it an example of good filmmaking.  While artistic films are often political, it’s rare that political films are ever art.  If every anti-Bush film was an artistic masterpiece, we would be living in a cinematic golden age.

Here’s the thing.  We live in a time when the media is under attack and being used a convenient scapegoat for every bad thing in America. Donald Trump largely won in 2016 by portraying the media as being biased and that’s a charge that will undoubtedly be repeated many times over the next four years.  A heavy-handed mess like Truth doesn’t help anything.

truth_2015_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
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?

Insomnia File No. 20: Casual Sex? (dir by Geneviève Robert)


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 had insomnia at one in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz Comedy and watched the 1988 comedy, Casual Sex?  That’s what I just did!

I have to admit that I’m a little bit surprised that this is the first insomnia file that I’ve written since last July.  It’s not like I haven’t had insomnia between then and now.  However, I guess I’ve been busy either going on vacation, writing about horror movies, writing about the Oscars, or, of course, writing about reality TV over at the Big Brother Blog and Reality TV Chat Blog.  That said, I’ve always enjoyed writing these insomnia files and I’m happy to finally have the chance to do a new one.

I’m also happy to have the chance to write about a film called Casual Sex?, if just because I know that it will lead to the site getting a lot of hits from people doing google searches.  They probably won’t actually be looking for a movie review but a hit is a hit!

Anyway, Casual Sex? is an 80s film.  In fact, it’s such an 80s film that it probably spent the 90s recovering from an expensive coke habit.  It’s a film about two best friends who have decided that they’re tired of being single.  Stacy (Lea Thompson) is the promiscuous one, the one who has had many partners, has gotten involved in way too many needy relationships, and who is now freaking out over the spread of AIDS.  Melissa (Victoria Jackson) is the sweet but ditzy one.  Melissa has had boyfriends but she’s never had an orgasm.  When Stacy tells her about an article she read about AIDS, Melissa replies that at least now she’s “not the only one who is afraid of sex.”  Hoping to each find a permanent mate, Stacy and Melissa go to a health spa.  Stacy immediately falls madly in love with Nick (Stephen Shellen), an aspiring musician.  Melissa, meanwhile, meets the sensitive and sweet-natured Jamie (Jerry Levine), who works at the spa and gives a killer massage.  Meanwhile, an annoying guy named Vinny (Andrew Dice Clay) pursues both of them and everyone else as well.

(Vinny leers at every woman that he sees and prefers to be known as the Vin Man.  I know, I know.  It’s hard to believe that he’s still single.)

Casual Sex? actually get off to a really good start.  It opened with both Stacy and Melissa standing on an empty stage and discussing their sexual histories.  Usually, I cringe whenever a movie opens with a character standing on a blank stage and talking directly to the audience.  It usually feels like a lazy storytelling technique to me.  (Can’t figure out a natural way to let the audience know a character’s backstory?  Have them talk to directly to the audience!  It’s easy and lazy!)  But in Casual Sex?, this technique actually works.  Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson both give very natural and believable performances and the flashbacks to their previous experiences are all well-done and sometimes painfully relatable.  Despite the fact that the film was made 30 years ago, their experiences and emotions felt timeless.

After that strong opening, the rest of the film was much more uneven.  I have to admit that I had trouble telling how much of the film was meant to be satirical and how much of it was just a reflection of the time in which it was made.  For instance, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be rolling my eyes at Nick, with his feathered hair and his overdramatic style of singing, or if that was just what was considered to be hot in the 80s.  It was very confusing but, regardless of whether it was intentional or not, it was hard to take Nick seriously as anything more than a plot device.  As a result, it was difficult to care about his relationship with Stacy.  Melissa’s relationship with Jamie was far more interesting, largely because Jerry Levine was so likable in the role.

(Just in case anyone was wondering, Casual Sex? does feature a lot of sex but very little of it feels casual.  Perhaps that’s why the title ends with a question mark.  “Casual sex?” the film asks before answering, “No.”)

The film was ultimately too uneven to really be considered to be a success but I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would.  That was largely because of the performances of Lea Thompson, Victoria Jackson, and Jerry Levine.  There’s a few scenes where Vinny drops his bluster and reveals a sensitive side and Andrew Dice Clay does well with these scenes but, ultimately, it’s hard to like anyone known as The Vin Man.  I mean, he even has “Vin Man” written on the back of his jacket.  Strangely, Clay’s performance here felt like an early version of his performance in Blue Jasmine, almost as if the Vin Man eventually changed his name to Augie and ended up marrying the sister-in-law of a Ponzi scheme manager.

Casual Sex? may not be great but it’s good enough for when you’re awake at one in the morning.

casual_sex_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
  19. Great Expectations

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