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.

Film Review: I Shot Andy Warhol (dir by Mary Harron)


When did Andy Warhol die?

The official date of death is February 22nd, 1987.  The 58 year-old artist died in his sleep of a cardiac arrhythmia.  He was at Manhattan’s New York Hospital, recovering from gallbladder surgery.  The surgery itself had been a minor procedure and, in the days before his death, Warhol was reported to be making a good recovery.  Warhol himself was scared of doctors and had continually put off having the procedure done.

Others, however, argue that Warhol might as well have died on June 3rd, 1968.  That was the day that the world-famous pop artist was shot, at point blank range, by a woman named Valerie Solanas.  Warhol barely survived the attack, spending five hours in surgery and carrying both the mental and physical scars with him for the rest of his life.  It’s debatable whether Warhol ever physically recovered from being shot.  It’s been theorized that the reoccurring gallbladder problems that led to Warhol entering the hospital were directly the result of being shot.  If that’s the case, then Solanas murdered Andy Warhol.

But even beyond the lingering physical injuries, the shooting left Warhol mentally shaken.  The artist who, in the 60s, was famous for hosting a never-ending party at The Factory became far more reclusive and paranoid.  No longer could anyone from anywhere show up in New York and, if they were interesting enough, become a member of Warhol’s entourage.   No longer would Warhol direct films that challenged the assumption of what film had to be.  Warhol spent most of the 70s doing portrait commissions and finding new ways to make money.  (As he wrote in 1975, “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.”)

It can be argued that, with the pull of a trigger, Valerie Solanas changed the course of history and yet, she has always remained an obscure figure.  (Many would argue that she deserves to remain an obscure figure.)  After the shooting, when Solanas turned herself in, she said that she had no choice but to shoot Andy because “he had too much control over my life.”  Others theorize that Solanas was upset because Andy hadn’t helped her get her book, The SCUM Manifesto, published.  Solanas was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and, for nearly a killing an artist, she spent three years in prison.  While she was in prison, The SCUM Manifesto was finally published.  Ironically, she died in poverty and obscurity, just a few months after Warhol, as forgotten as Andy as was celebrated.

So, who was Valerie Solanas?  That’s the question that 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol attempts to answer.  Lili Taylor portrays Valerie, giving a performance that is both frightening in its intensity and empathetic in its portrayal of Valerie’s desperation to be heard as a human being and respected as an artist.  Wherever Valerie goes, she’s an outsider.  As a lesbian, she’s been rejected by conventional society.  When she appears on a local talk show, the audience boos her and the host has her thrown off the set.  As a writer, she is rejected by publishers and readers who view her work as being, as one person puts it, “too sick even for us.”  When, like many aspiring artists and lost souls, she arrives at the Factory, the members of Warhol’s entourage reject her because she’s neither beautiful nor glamorous.  Valerie is stuck in a winless situation.  It’s her intensity that makes her a memorable writer but it’s the same intensity that guarantees that almost no one will be willing to read what she writes.

Valerie has written The SCUM Manifesto.  (SCUM stands for Society of Cutting Up Men.)  Throughout the film, we see black-and-white scenes of Valerie reading from the opening of her book:

“Life” in this “society” being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of “society” being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.”

Today, of course, Valerie could just start a tumblr or maybe get a job teaching at Evergreen State.  In the 1960s, though, Valerie believes that the only way she’ll ever be heard is by getting her work to Andy Warhol.  When she first meets Andy (Jared Harris), he seems to be receptive to her but we soon see that this film’s version of Andy is receptive to almost anyone.  I Shot Andy Warhol portrays Andy as being an emotionally detached voyeur, a master of passive aggressive behavior.  Instead of personally rejecting Valerie, he lets the more bitchy members of his entourage do it for him.  In fact, at times it seems as if the reason that Warhol surrounds himself with such angry people is so he’ll never have to get angry himself.  It’s actually a rather interesting interpretation of Warhol and the Factory, though it does rely a bit too much on the clichéd image of Andy Warhol as a passive voyeur.  Whenever Jared Harris is onscreen, you never forget that you’re watching someone imitate Andy Warhol as opposed to feeling like you’re watching Warhol yourself.

(When Andy Warhol died, he was worth 220 million dollars.  That alone should be enough to debunk the image of Andy Warhol being a passive voyeur of his own life.)

I Shot Andy Warhol is a frequently fascinating film, one that is sympathetic to both Solanas’s artistic ambitions and her desperate need to be acknowledged as a writer, while also not shying away from the fact that she was a very sick and dangerous person.  At the same time, the film does leave out one very important detail of Solanas’s later life.  After she was released from prison, she still continued to stalk Andy and other members of the New York art world.  That’s an important detail that should have, at the very least, been acknowledged.

Finally, after Andy Warhol’s death, Lou Reed wrote a song called “I believe.”  The song dealt with his feelings towards Valerie Solanas and it’s reasonable to assume that Reed spoke for many of Warhol’s associates.  Here are just a few of the lyrics: ” “I believe life’s serious enough for retribution… I believe being sick is no excuse. And I believe I would’ve pulled the switch on her myself.”

Back to School #70: Lymelife (dir by Derick Martini)


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Lymelife is an odd but occasionally effective indie film from 2008.  Taking place in 1979, the film tells the story of two brothers living on Long Island.  The older brother, Jimmy Bartlett (Kieran Culkin) has recently graduated from high school and is preparing to enter the army.  (We hear that he’s going to be shipped off to fight in a war against Argentina, which is odd because, to the best of my knowledge, the U.S. has never been at war with Argentina.)  The younger brother is 15 year-old Scott (Rory Culkin), a gentle boy who loves Star Wars and who is doted on by his overprotective mother, Brenda (Jill Hennessy).  Scott’s relationship with his father, Mickey (Alec Baldwin), is far less positive with Mickey feeling that his youngest son is weak and Scott resenting the fact that Mickey is always cheating on Brenda.

As the film opens, a recent outbreak of Lyme Disease has got everyone in a panic.  Brenda, in particular, is terrified that Scott is going to get bitten by a tick and refuses to let him go outside unless every inch of his skin is covered and protected.  Causing Brenda even more panic is the fact that their neighbor, Charlie Bragg (Timothy Hutton), has contracted the disease and has lost his job as a result.  Now, he spends all of his time either outside trying to hunt deer or hiding down in his basement.  His wife (Cynthia Nixon) is forced to take a job from Mickey in order to support the family and soon, she and Mickey are having an affair.

In fact, the only person who doesn’t completely shun Charlie is Scott, though this is largely because Scott has, for years, had a crush on Charlie’s daughter, Adrianna (Emma Roberts).  Adrianna finally starts to return Scott’s affection but then Charlie discovers the truth about his wife’s job with Mickey and things … well, things do not end happily.

Lymelife is a strange film, one that at times almost plays like a parody of a typical indie film.  This is one of those films where a lot of things happen but you’re not always quite sure why they happened and ultimately, it’s hard not to feel like the film is essentially a collection of loosely related scenes, all looking for a stronger narrative.   But, with all that in mind, I still like Lymelife.  Director Derik Martini brings such an intense and humanistic touch to the film’s dangerously quirky storyline and it’s such an obviously personal film that it becomes fascinating in its own way.  Not surprisingly, both Alec Baldwin and Jill Hennessy overact in their roles (and considering that they have the most melodramatic lines, that’s not always a good thing) but, fortunately, Timothy Hutton, Emma Roberts, and the Culkin Brothers all give excellent performances.

Plus, the film’s ending is absolutely haunting, largely because of the wise use of the song Running Out Of Empty, which can be heard below.