Cleaning Out The DVR: One On One (dir by Lamont Johnson)


Sometimes, I come across things on my DVR that I not only have no memory of recording but which I also cannot, for the life of me, figure out why I decided to record it in the first place.  I recorded the 1977 film One On One off of TCM on January 17th and I’m not really sure why.

It’s not that One On One is a terrible movie or anything like that.  It’s an extremely predictable film and it’s got one of those soundtracks that is extremely 70s but not cool disco-style 70s.  No, instead this film is full of the type of soft rock music that your grandmother listens to while driving to the local CVS Pharmacy.  (The majority of the songs are performed by a group called Seals and Croft and are painfully undanceable.)  But, even with that in mind, it’s not really a bad movie.  If I’m confused about why I recorded it, it’s because One on One is a movie about basketball, which is a sport that holds absolutely zero interest for me.

(My main issue with basketball has to do with the sound of all of those squeaky shoes on the court.)

But, before going any further, let’s watch a commercial:

One on One tells the story of Henry Steele (Robby Benson), a high school basketball star.  Henry is from Colorado, which this film seems to suggest is the equivalent of coming from Siberia.  When Moreland Smith (G.D. Spradlin). the renowned coach of Western University’s basketball team, offers Henry a full athletic scholarship, Henry negotiates a pretty good deal for himself.  Not only is his education going to be paid for but he also wins a guarantee that he’ll never be cut from the team and that his father will get a car.  All Henry has to do is keep his grades up but that shouldn’t be a problem.  Sure, Henry appears to be an idiot but the athletic department will set him up with a tutor and, as long as the coach is happy with him, it’s not like Henry’s actually going to have to go to class.

Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Henry picks up a hitchhiker (a very young Melanie Griffith) who promptly robs him of all of his money.  Once he arrives at the university, he discovers that Coach Smith is not going to be the surrogate father figure that he was expecting.  Instead, Coach Smith is a rather cold and ruthless taskmaster, whose main concern is winning.  When Henry, who is by far the shortest player on the team, struggles, Smith tells Henry that he needs to renounce his scholarship and return home.  When Henry refuses to do so, Smith becomes obsessed with trying to break him.

As Henry’s roommate, Tom (Cory Faucher), points out, Henry’s head is not in the game.  Instead, Henry can’t stop thinking about his tutor, Janet (Annette O’Toole).  At first, Janet assumes that Henry is just a dumb jock, largely because Henry’s a jock and he spends the first half of the movie acting really, really dumb.  Then, out of nowhere, Henry reveals that he’s not only read Moby Dick but he can quote passages from memory.  In fact, Henry even understands that Ahab was — wait for it — obsessed!  Oh my God, Janet realizes, Henry’s literate!  In fact, Janet exclaims that Henry is the first person she’s met who has actually read Moby Dick!  (Really?)  Janet and Henry fall in love but, unfortunately, Janet is already dating her psychology professor.

(The professor has got a beard that looks like it reeks of stale weed and he says stuff like, “Have you seen my sandals?,” so we know better than to take him seriously when he compares the popularity of college athletics to the rise of fascism.  When Henry accuses him of being a hippie, the professor just smirks and says something condescending.  Stupid hippie.)

Will Janet and Henry fall in love?  Will Janet dump her unattractive and unappealing boyfriend so she can date Henry?  Will Henry manage to pass his classes?  Will Henry ever get a chance to prove himself on the court?  Will … oh, why even ask these questions?  You already know what’s going to happen in this movie.  There’s really not a single unexpected moment to be found in One on One.  Everything about the film, from the coach’s ruthlessness to Henry’s transformation from idiot to savvy player, feels pre-ordained.  It’s a predictable movie but, at the same time, it’s a likable movie.  At the start of the film, Benson overplays Henry’s stupidity and O’Toole overplays Janet’s brittleness but, at the film progresses, both performers seem to relax and, by the time the end credits role, they’re actually a fairly likable couple.  Benson even gets a killer final line, one that I imagine made audiences in 1977 applaud.

That said, the film is pretty much stolen by G.D. Spradlin.  Spradlin was a former Oklahoma oilman who reinvented himself as a politician and then as a character actor.  Best known for playing Senator Pat Geary in The Godfather, Part II, Spradlin had a flair for bringing casually corrupt authority figures to life.  In One on One, Spradlin turns Coach Smith into a Mephistophelean figure, offering Henry success at the cost of his soul.  Coach Smith is arrogant, oily, casually racist, and an all-around jerk but, at the same time, it is also obvious that he knows how to lead a team to victory.  The great thing about Spradlin’s performance is to be found in not just how menacing he is but in how charismatic he is.  You never doubt that Coach Smith is both a lousy human being and an absolutely brilliant coach.  If nothing else, he’s good at his job.

As I said at the start of this review, I am not really sure why I recorded One on One but it turned out to be better than I was expecting.  It is a flawed and uneven film but worth watching for Spradlin’s intriguingly villainous turn.

 

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: Ode to Billy Joe (dir by Max Baer, Jr.)


Why, on June 3rd, did Billie Joe McAllister jump off of the Tallahatchie Bridge in Mississippi?

That was the question that was asked in Ode to Billie Joe, a 1967 country song by Bobbie Gentry.  In the song, the details were deliberately left inconclusive.  Why did Billie Joe commit suicide?  No one knows.  All they know is that he was a good worker at the sawmill and, the weekend before jumping, he was seen standing on the bridge with a teenage girl and apparently, they dropped something down into the river below.  The song suggests that the girl and the narrator are one in the same but even that is left somewhat vague.

Ode to Billie Joe was a hit when it was first released, largely because it’s story could be interpreted in so many different ways.  Why did Billie Joe kill himself?  Maybe it was because he didn’t want to be drafted.  Maybe it was because he and his girlfriend had killed their baby and tossed it off the bridge.  Maybe it was because he was hooked on Dexedrine and his doctor wasn’t available to renew his prescription.  It could be any reason that you wanted it to be.

However, in 1976, when Ode to Billie Joe was turned into a movie, ambiguity would not do.  As opposed to the song, Ode To Billy Joe had to answer the question as to why Billy Joe jumped into that river.  In the movie, 18 year-old Billy Joe (Robby Benson) works at the sawmill and spends his time courting 15 year-old Bobbie Lee Hartley (Glynnis O’Connor).  Bobbie Lee’s father (Sandy McPeak) says that she’s too young to have a “gentleman caller,” even though Bobbie Lee insists that she’s “15 going on 34 … B cup!”  Bobbie Lee warns Billy Joe that her father is liable to shoot his ears off but Billy Joe insists that he doesn’t need ears because he’s in love with her.  That’s kind of a sweet sentiment, even though I don’t think Billy Joe would look that good without ears.

(Whenever I complain about how Southerners in the movies always seem to have two first names, my sister Erin replies, “Yeah, that’s really annoying, Lisa Marie.”  So, I won’t make a big deal about it this time…)

One night, Billy Joe and his friends go out and Billy Joe ends up getting drunk.  He disappears for several days and when he shows up again, something has definitely changed.  After unsuccessfully trying to make love to Bobbie Lee, Billy Joe tells her what happened that night he got drunk.  Billy Joe had sex with a man, something that he has been raised to view as being the ultimate sin.  When Billy Joe is later pulled out of the river, the entire town wonders why he jumped off the bridge and how Bobbie Lee was involved…

Ode to Billy Joe, which aired last Tuesday on TCM, is a better-than-average film, one that I was surprised to have never come across in the past.  That doesn’t mean that it’s a perfect movie. Robby Benson, in the role of Billy Joe, gives an absolutely terrible performance.  You can tell that Benson was trying really hard to do a good job but, often, he goes totally overboard, making scenes that should be poignant feel melodramatic.  Though it probably has more to do with when the film was made than anything else, the film is also vague about Billy Joe’s sexuality.  Is Billy Joe in denial about his identity?  Is he deeply closeted or was he in such a drunken stupor that he was taken advantage of?  Ode to Billy Joe does not seem to be sure.  By committing suicide, Billy Joe joins the ranks of gay movie characters who would rather die than accept their sexuality.  Obviously, he had to jump off that bridge because that’s what the song said he did but there’s a part of me that wishes the movie had featured someone commenting that they never actually found Billy Joe’s body and then the final scene could have taken place 16 years later, with Bobbie Lee living as a hippie in San Francisco and just happening to spot Billy Joe walking down the street, hand-in-hand with his boyfriend.

Here’s what does work about the movie.  Glynnis O’Connor gives a great and empathetic performance as Bobbie Lee.  The scenes with her father and her mother (played by Joan Hotchkis) have a very poignant and wonderful realness to them.  Though I’ll always be a city girl at heart (well, okay — a suburb girl), I spent some time in the country when I was growing up.  And while I was never quite as isolated as Bobbie Lee (who lives in a house with no electricity or plumbing) and the film took place in the past, I could still relate to many of Bobbie Lee’s experiences.  The film may have been made in 1976 and set in 1952 but life in the country hasn’t changed that much.

For instance, there’s this great scene where Bobbie Lee’s father is trying to drive across the bridge.  The only problem is that there’s a bunch of drunk shitkickers on the bridge, sitting in their pickup truck and blocking his way.  It’s a very tense scene, one that I found difficult to watch because, when I was growing up in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and South Texas, I saw the exact same thing happen more times than I care to admit.  In the country, no one backs down.  Scenes like that elevated Ode To Billy Joe to being something more than just another movie based on a song.

Finally, there’s a beautiful scene towards the end of the film, between Bobbie Lee and a character played by an actor named James Best.  I won’t spoil the scene but it’s a master class in great acting.  (Best also played one of the sadistic villains in Rolling Thunder, another good 70s film about life and death in the country.)

Though I wasn’t expecting much from it, Ode to Billy Joe was a pleasant surprise.  It’s not perfect but it’s still worth watching.

Back to School Part II #6: Jeremy (dir by Arthur Barron)


Jeremy

After I finally finished working out my thoughts concerning A Clockwork Orange, I continued my back to school reviews by watching a 1973 teen romance called Jeremy.  I have to admit that it was kind of a shock going from Stanley Kubrick’s confrontational masterpiece to this rather gentle and sweet-natured film about two nice kids who fall in love.  But that’s one of the things that I love about reviewing movies.  You get to see all sorts of things.

As for Jeremy — it’s a film that tells a familiar story but it doesn’t quite go in the direction that you’re expecting.  15 year-old Jeremy (played by Robby Benson, who was apparently the Justin Bieber of his day) is a 15 year-old student at a private high school in New York City.  He’s a brilliant but painfully shy student.  He’s very serious about learning the cello, even though his teacher (Leonardo Cimino) tells him that he’s good but he’ll probably never be great.  He’s also really into horse racing, though he never bets himself.  Instead, he just likes to pick the winner and is content with the knowledge that he was right.  Jeremy is largely ignored by his parents and has only one friend but he seems to be okay with his largely solitary life.

That is, of course, until he spots Susan (Glynnis O’Connor) practicing ballet in a classroom.  Jeremy is instantly attracted to her and it’s obvious that she likes him as well but, because of his pathological shyness, Jeremy cannot bring himself to ask her out.  (In fact, he even forgets to ask her name the first time that they meet.)  It’s not until Susan compliments him on his cello playing that Jeremy is able to work up the courage to ask her out.  It’s not that Jeremy is arrogant or stand-offish or any of the other stuff that people regularly say about shy people.  It’s just that talking about his cello gives Jeremy the courage to be himself.  It’s rather sweet, actually.

Jeremy and Susan go out for three weeks and, in a tastefully handled scene, even end up making love for the first time.  However, Susan’s father has been transferred to another city and Susan is about to move away.  Even when Susan and Jeremy say that they’re in love, all of the adults ignore them.

At this point, I was expecting Susan and Jeremy to enter into a suicide pact but it didn’t happen.  That’s not the type of film that Jeremy is.  Jeremy is a very sweet but ultimately realistic film about first love and first heartbreak.

As for the two lead performers, they apparently dated for a while after making Jeremy and they both display a very real chemistry in the film.  Admittedly, there’s a few scenes where Benson goes a little bit overboard but, watching him, I could tell why he was a teen idol in the 70s.  There’s not a threatening or dangerous thing about him and when he’s insecure or sad, you just want give him a big hug.  Glynnis O’Connor brings a bit of an edge to Susan (there always seems to be a poignant sadness right under the surface when it comes to Susan) and it contrasts nicely with Benson’s performance.

In the end, it may not add up too much but it’s heartfelt and nicely done and I’m glad that I watched it.