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.

Embracing the Melodrama Part III #1: No Down Payment (dir by Martin Ritt)


Back in 2014 and 2015, I did a series of reviews that I called Embracing the Melodrama, in which I reviewed some of the best (and worst) melodramas ever made.  All together, I reviewed 186 films as a part of Embracing the Melodrama, everything from Sunrise to Reefer Madness to The Towering Inferno to Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction.  I had so much fun doing it that I’ve decided to do it again.

No, don’t worry.  I’m not going to attempt to review 186 films this time.  Instead, for Embracing The Melodrama Part III, I am going to limit myself to reviewing 8 films.  I’ll be posting one Embracing the Melodrama review a day, from now until next Sunday.

Let’s kick things off with 1957’s No Down Payment, a film about life in … THE SUBURBS!

(cue dramatic music)

The suburbs!

Is there any place in America that’s more dramatic?  Is it any wonder that, since the early 50s, films have regularly been using the suburbs as an example of everything that’s apparently wrong with America?  Every year sees at least one major film about how terrible life is in the suburbs.  Last year, for instance, George Clooney directed a film called Suburbicon, which was regularly cited as a possible Oscar contender before it was released and everyone was reminded of the fact that George Clooney is a terrible director.  That said, I can understand why filmmakers continue to be drawn to the suburbs.  Secret affairs.  Dangerous drugs.  Duplicitous children.  Fractured families.  Barbecuing alcoholics.  Undercover occultists.  You can find them all in the suburbs!

No Down Payment opens with David (Jeffrey Hunter) and Jean Martin (Patricia Owens) driving down a California highway and looking at the billboards that dot the landscape.  Every billboard advertises a new community, inviting people to make a new and better life away from the crowded city.  David and Jean smile, amused by how blatant all of the ads are.  That’s when they see the billboard that’s advertising their new home:

Sunrise Hill Estates

A Better Place For Better Living

Soon, David and Jean are moving into their new home and meeting their new neighbors.  It turns out that most of the houses in Sunrise Hill Estates are available for “no down payment” and the majority of the residents are struggling financially.  Though David may look at all of his neighbors and say, “Looks like everybody here is living a wonderful life,” the truth is something far different.

(If David’s line sound a bit too on the nose and obvious, that’s because almost all of the dialogue in No Down Payment was too on the nose and obvious.  As a side note, “on the nose” is an extremely strange expression.)

David’s neighbors include:

Herm Kreitzer (Pat Hingle) and his wife, Betty (Barbara Rush).  Herm owns an appliance store and sits on the town council.  Herm is gruff but likable.  He’s the leader of his neighborhood and he welcomes the Martins with a backyard party.  Herm’s employee, Iko (Aki Aleong), wants to move to Sunrise Hill but no one is willing to give him a reference because he’s not white.

Troy Boone (Cameron Mitchell) and his wife, Leola (Joanne Woodward).  We know that Troy is going to be trouble because he’s played by Cameron Mitchell.  We know that we’re going to like Leola because she’s played by Joanne Woodward.  Troy’s an auto mechanic and a veteran.  He wants to be appointed the chief of police but the town is reluctant to hire him because he doesn’t have a college education.  Leola wants to have a child but Troy says that they can’t even think about that until he has a good job.

And then there’s Jerry Flagg (Tony Randall) and his wife, Isabelle (Sheree North).  Jerry is a used car salesman and he’s also a drunk.  Jerry spends most of the movie hitting on other women and embarrassing Isabelle.  Jerry has no impulse control and, as a result, he’s heavily in debt.  His only hope is that he can convince a family to buy an expensive car that they really don’t need.  When last I checked, that’s what a used car salesman is supposed to do.

The film deals with a lot of issues — prejudice, sexism, economic insecurity — that are still relevant today.  Unfortunately, the film itself is a bit slow and what was shocking in the 50s seems rather jejune today.  Watching the film, you get the feeling that, as with many films of the 50s, all of the interesting stuff is happening off-screen.  That said, the film has an interesting cast.  Jeffrey Hunter and Patricia Owens are a bit dull as the Martins but then you’ve got their neighbors!  Any film that features Cameron Mitchell glowering can’t be all bad but the best performance comes from Tony Randall, who is memorably sleazy and desperate as Jerry Flagg.  For a fun experiment, watch this film right before watching Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Tomorrow, we’ll continue to embrace the melodrama with 1961’s Common Law Wife!

Soapy Noir: A KISS BEFORE DYING (United Artists 1956)


cracked rear viewer

A KISS BEFORE DYING is part soap opera, part film noir, and 100% 50’s kitsch! Based on the best selling debut novel by Ira Levin (who went on to give us ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE STEPFORD WIVES), it’s also the debut of director Gerd Oswald (who went on to give us AGENT FOR HARM and BUNNY O’HARE !).  Lawrence Roman’s screenplay has some suspense, but his characters are all pretty dull and dumb, except for Robert Wagner’s turn as a charmingly sick sociopath.

Wagner is college student Bud Corliss, from the wrong side of the tracks, dating rich but naïve Dorie Kingship (Joanne Woodward) to get his hands on dad’s copper mine loot. And when I say naïve I’m not just whistling Dixie; this girl’s downright dense! Bud, after learning she’s pregnant, decides the best thing to do is not marry her, but bump her off. He whips up some poison…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #36: WUSA (dir by Stuart Rosenberg)


wusaI recently saw the 1970 film WUSA on Movies TV.  After I watched it, I looked Joanne Woodward up on Wikipedia specifically to see where she was born.  I was surprised to discover that she was born and raised in Georgia and that she attended college in Louisiana.

Why was I so shocked?  Because WUSA was set in New Orleans and it featured Joanne Woodward speaking in one of the most worst Southern accents that I had ever heard.  A little over an hour into the film, Woodward’s character says, “What’s all the rhubarb?”  And while “What’s all the rhu…” sounds properly Southern, the “…barb” was pronounced with the type of harshly unpleasant overemphasis on “ar” that has given away many Northern actors trying to sound Southern.  Hence, I was shocked to discover that Joanne Woodward actually was Southern.

That said, her pronunciation of the word rhubarb pretty much summed up every problem that I had with WUSA.  Actually, the real problem was that she said “rhubarb” in the first place.  It came across as being the type of thing that a Northerner who has never actually been down South would think was regularly uttered down here.  And I will admit that WUSA was made 16 years before I was born and so, it’s entirely possible that maybe — way back then — people down South regularly did use the word rhubarb.  But, for some reason, I doubt it.  I know plenty of old Southern people and I’ve never heard a single one of them say anything about rhubarb.

As for WUSA, it’s a long and slow film.  A drifter named Reinhardt (Paul Newman) drifts into New Orleans and, with the help of an old friend who is now pretending to be a priest (Laurence Harvey), Reinhardt gets a job as an announcer at a right-wing radio station.  He reads extremist editorials that he doesn’t agree with and whenever anyone challenges him, he explains that he’s just doing his job and nothing matters anyway.

Reinhardt also gets himself an apartment and spends most of his time smoking weed with long-haired musician types, the exact same people that WUSA regularly denounces as being a threat to the American way.  Living in the same complex is Geraldine (Joanne Woodward), a former prostitute who has a scar on her face and who says stuff like, “What’s all the rhubarb?”  She falls in love with Reinhardt but finds it difficult to ignore what he does for a living.

Meanwhile, Geraldine has another admirer.  Rainey (Anthony Perkins) is an idealistic and neurotic social worker who is regularly frustrated by his efforts to do good in the world.  Reinhardt makes fun of him.  The local crime boss (Moses Gunn) manipulates him.  And WUSA infuriates him.  When Rainey realizes that WUSA is a part of a plot to elect an extremist governor, Rainey dresses up like a priest and starts carrying around a rifle.

Meanwhile, Reinhardt has been assigned to serve as emcee at a huge patriotic rally.  With Geraldine watching from the audience and Rainey wandering around the rafters with his rifle, Reinhardt is finally forced to take a stand about the people that he works for.

Or maybe he isn’t.

To be honest, WUSA is such a mess of a film that, even after the end credits roll, it’s difficult to figure out whether Reinhardt took a stand or not.

Anyway, WUSA is not a lost masterpiece and I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.  The film’s too long, there’s too many scenes of characters repeating the same thing over and over again, and neither Newman nor Woodward are particularly memorable.  (You know a movie is boring when even Paul Newman seems like a dullard.)  On the plus side, Anthony Perkins gives such a good performance that I didn’t once think about the Psycho shower scene while watching him.

As boring as WUSA is, I have to admit that I’m a little bit surprised that it hasn’t been rediscovered.  Considering that it’s about a right-wing radio station, I’m surprised that there haven’t been hundreds of pretentious think pieces trying to make the connection between WUSA and Fox News.  But, honestly, even if those think pieces were out there, it probably wouldn’t do much for WUSA‘s repuation.  According to the film’s Wikipedia page, Paul Newman called it, “the most significant film I’ve ever made and the best.”  Paul Newman’s opinion aside, WUSA is pretty dire.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #31: Rachel, Rachel (dir by Paul Newman)


Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_Rachel,_RachelI recently saw the 1968 best picture nominee Rachel, Rachel on TCM and I have to say that, at first, I was rather underwhelmed by it.  Don’t get me wrong.  I thought it was well-acted.  I thought it managed to capture a lot of details of small town life.  I thought that, for a film made in 1968, it was surprisingly mature and nonjudgmental when it came to exploring feminine sexuality.  I was even more surprised to see a nearly 50 year-old movie that actually featured a sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian.  Just consider that the homophobic The Sweet Ride was released at the same time and you can see just how unusually progressive Rachel, Rachel was as far as this was concerned.

And yet, when I first watched Rachel, Rachel, it was difficult for me to connect with it.  And I really wasn’t sure why.  I mean, it is true that Rachel, Rachel is one of those films that moves at a very deliberate post but, trust me, I’ve seen and enjoyed many films that were a helluva lot slower than Rachel, Rachel.  But, for whatever reason, it took me two viewings to really appreciate Rachel, Rachel as a surprisingly sensitive character study.

The film is about Rachel (Joanne Woodward), a 35 year-old virgin who lives with her mother in a small Connecticut town.  Since the death of her stern and overbearing father, Rachel has lived with her mother.  She’s a withdrawn and meek woman who has frequent fantasies that veer between unrealistic happiness and nightmarish morbidity.  Her best friend, another unmarried teacher named Calla (Estelle Parsons), invites Rachel to a revival meeting and, for the first time in her life, Rachel actually allows herself to be openly passionate.  After the meeting, Calla suddenly kisses her.  Shocked, Rachel temporarily ends their friendship.

Even before the revival meeting, Rachel has run into Nick (James Olsen), a friend from high school who is in town to visit his family.  After getting kissed by Calla, Rachel ends up turning to Nick and losing her virginity to him.  Rachel believes that she’s in love with Nick and is soon fantasizing about their future children.  However, it’s obvious to everyone (except for Rachel) that Nick doesn’t quite feel the same way…

When I first saw Rachel, Rachel, I had a hard time relating to the character of Rachel.  I watched and, as much as I tried to be sympathetic, I still found myself wondering how anyone could possibly still be a virgin at the age of 35.  I mean, I understand that times were different and all but seriously!  I guess back then, people actually were serious about the whole “no sex before marriage” thing.  (That probably explains why people used to get married when they were 17.)  The film is full of largely silent flashbacks to Rachel’s youth and we see that she was raised in an emotionally repressed environment.  She was raised to wait for the right man to come along and, when he didn’t, Rachel eventually found herself as a 35 year-old virgin.

And, without getting too TMI here, let’s just say that I couldn’t relate to Rachel’s situation.

But, when I watched the film for a second time, I discovered that even if I don’t know what it’s like to be a 35 year-old virgin, a lot of Rachel’s experiences were, in their way, universal.  Consider the scene at the start of the film where Rachel fantasizes that everyone in town is staring at her as she walks down the sidewalk, all because her slip is showing.  Who hasn’t, at some point in their life, felt like everyone was staring at her and judging?  And, for that matter, who hasn’t had a Nick in their life?

Interestingly enough, Rachel, Rachel was the directorial debut of the iconic actor Paul Newman.  One thing that I’ve noticed about films directed by actors (especially first films) is that the actor-turned-director often seems to feel that he has to prove himself by indulging in as much showy cinematic technique as possible.  (And if you don’t understand what I mean, check out George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.)  And, as much as I hate to admit it because I’ve never read one negative word about Paul Newman, I have to admit that Newman’s direction was one of the reasons why, at first, I found myself feeling detached from the film.

While Newman tells most of Rachel’s story in an admirably straight-forward way, he also included just a few too many arty flashbacks and fantasies.  Some of the fantasies — like the one at the start of the film that I mentioned two paragraphs ago — are handled well but others are distracting and they remind the viewer that they’re watching a film.  And Rachel, Rachel is a film that works best when it’s naturalistic.  Whenever it gets too self-consciously cinematic, it takes the viewer a few minutes to get sucked back into Rachel’s story.

But, and this is the important thing, Paul Newman also gets some great work out of his actors.  Judging from some other films in which I’ve seen him, James Olson was not a particularly good actor but he was great in Rachel, Rachel.  Estelle Parsons has been an overdramatic presence in a few films and a lot of tv shows but she’s great in Rachel, Rachel.  And then there’s Joanne Woodward, who was great in a lot of films, including Rachel, Rachel.  Newman and Woodward were married when they made Rachel, Rachel and were still married when Newman died 40 years later.  Newman reportedly directed Rachel, Rachel because he wanted Woodward to have a great role.  Woodward is on-screen throughout the entire film and Newman’s love for her is obvious in every frame.

Rachel, Rachel is a flawed and imperfect film but it’s still worth catching the next time that it shows up on TCM.

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