(On Cable TV, June 2019) For an actor that was once so vital to American cinema, it’s surprising to realize after the fact that Paul Newman essentially retired in the nineties, with a total of five films during that decade: At the exception of Road to Perdition, his twenty-first century career was low-key—voice acting, TV movies, smaller roles, this kind of thing. So, it’s a bit of a surprise to discover Nobody’s Fool as one of his parting lead roles, a small-town character-driven drama focused entirely on his character. Newman’s filmography is not the only one being enhanced by Nobody’s Fool—he plays opposite a cross-generational ensemble cast that includes a prime-era Bruce Willis, one of Jessica Tandy’s last roles, as well as turns for Melanie Griffith (who hilariously flashes her breasts to Newman’s character) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as a policeman, no less). Willis, in particular, is almost a revelation for those who have grown used to his increasingly detached screen persona—here he is playing a now-unfamiliar character—loose, funny and engaged. Still, the show belongs to Newman: In a revealing contrast to his earlier, sullen roles, the bad boy of Hud and The Prize and Cool Hand Luke has mellowed into an elderly actor playing an elderly man who has found contentment in a simple life. It does complement the small-town charm of the film, albeit one tempered by a depressing snowy atmosphere and the very down-to-earth portrait of flawed characters. There’s more nudity than you’d think from a “small-town intimate drama.” Still, Nobody’s Fool remains a bit more interesting than expected—and not just as a lesser-known title on multiple filmographies.
(On Cable TV, April 2019) There’s a very different kind of rhythm to Fried Green Tomatoes that makes it remarkable. A mixture of southern atmosphere, women’s in-group language, not-so-tall tales spun with homely wisdom, and a few good actresses getting a chance to show what they can do. There’s a surprisingly dark bite to the stories being told here, with abuse, divorce, child death, righteous murder and even cannibalism being on the menu. But the way the script is structured and the film is directed by Jon Avnet make it all interesting to follow as we hop back and forth across four decades of history in an attempt to understand a character. Kathy Bates turns in a good performance as a woman rediscovering life thanks to another free-spirited friend—but this is really Jessica Tandy’s movie. Fried Green Tomatoes is a bit long at more than two hours and a quarter, but it’s not difficult to watch, and the southern atmosphere is often a delight.
(Second Viewing, On TV, March 2019) I must have seen *batteries not included as a teenager in the early 1990s, and remembered a strange mix between special effects work and unabashed sentimentality. As it turns out, that’s not too far away from an impression left by a second middle-aged look at the film, as the film blends then-top-notch special effects work with a script that wears its heart on its sleeve at multiple levels. The premise focuses on an old building in the middle of an area cleared for high-rise development. As you’d expect, the villains are real estate developers doing their best to force the tenants to move out. It just so happens that alien creatures then enter the picture, nesting on top of the building and helping with minor repairs and good actions throughout the building. The rest goes on from there, with no one really being surprised at how it ends. Director Matthew Robbins keeps a good balance between special effects showcases (some of them still quite effective) and more humanistic moments. The film is built on a nice unity of place, to the point where it feels off-putting when the action eventually leaves the apartment block. It’s sentimental for sure, but it’s difficult to dislike a film so optimistic—although the “baby alien” creature is pushing things. For cinephiles, what’s perhaps most remarkable about *batteries not included is the number of known names from different eras assembled for the occasion: It’s one of the last recognizable roles for veteran actor Hume Cronyn, a decent performance from his wife Jessica Tandy, a rather young Elizabeth Pena, and a screenwriting debut for Brad Bird. Predictable but not bad, *batteries not included still works as a film for the entire family.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, January 2019) I remember seeing Cocoon as a kid, but considering the film’s themes of aging it’s very different to see it as a middle-aged adult. (There’s one shot in the film, in which “human skins” are discarded and thrown to the floor by the alien characters, that seriously freaked me out when I was younger.) Efficiently directed by Ron Howard, this is a clever blend of SF, romance and comedy as retirement-aged characters discover alien eggs and the rejuvenating effects of the pool in which they’re stored. Of course, the aliens are there for a reason and their minders have good reason to be concerned. The script cleanly moves between one mode to the other, gradually making its way to a sentimental action-driven finale. There’s a tremendous amount of irony and foreshadowing in Cocoon’s early lines, showing the craft in the script. This probably remains the best film in which Steve Gutenberg ever starred, although his acting simply can’t reassure up to the impressive elderly ensemble cast assembled in between Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy and others. Now that the baby boomers are taking over retirement homes, I expect the film to undergo a modest rediscovery as its themes of eternal youth directly addresses them. For younger viewers, Cocoon can occasionally be a meditation on growing old (and what people would do if there was an alternative), although it doesn’t forget to leaven the meditation with genre elements and comedy.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) In retrospect, it seems almost amazing that such a restrained piece of social-issue cinema as Driving Miss Daisy would go on to win the Best Picture academy award. It is, after all, nothing much more than the story of a growing friendship between an elderly Jewish lady and her black chauffeur, spanning years from the fifties to the seventies. Arguably more about aging than race relations, Driving Miss Daisy is a surprisingly quiet movie. No big speeches, a few soft-spoken disagreements, unusually generous pacing (which is to say: slow) and plenty of character moments. Jessica Tandy won an Oscar for her role as the lady who learns better, while Morgan Freeman broke through the mainstream with his performance. While the result hasn’t aged very well (it’s curiously well-mannered), it’s still not a bad film by any means. Still, most will see it either as Oscar completionists or fans of Morgan Freeman.