Tag Archives: Margaret Whitton

Ironweed (1987)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life on the streets.

It’s the 1930’s and Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson) has been living on the streets for over two decades. At one time he was a promising baseball player with a bright future, but then he accidently dropped his infant son and killed him. Dealing with the guilt and shame of it turned him into an alcoholic who roams the cold streets of Albany, New York looking for odds jobs and handouts when he can. He seeks out his lover Helen (Meryl Streep) for companionship and the two share a bottle of booze and their bitterness at the world that is ambivalent to their desperate situation.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by William Kennedy, who also wrote the screenplay and is directed by Hector Babenco who received wide claim for directing Pixote a film that dealt with homelessness in Brazil. This film is without question one of the best to tackle the lives of street people. Most films tend to treat the subject rather timidly and only analyze the topic from a distance (i.e. having a side character who is homeless, or maybe a main character who is temporarily on the streets), but this film engrosses the viewer completely into the homeless lifestyle while supplying absolutely no letup to their bleak existence. The result is a fascinating and revealing journey that shows how complex and multi-dimensional these people actually are while exposing every facet of the homeless experience including the indignities and dehumanization that they must face on a daily basis.

The casting is interesting particularly for the fact that both Nicholson and Streep had just starred together in Heartburn a year earlier playing a couple on the completely opposite side of the socio-economic scale. I commend Nicholson for tackling a challenging role that goes completely against his persona as normally he plays flamboyant types with over-the-top personalities, so it’s great seeing him take on a humble one who feels and acts like a complete miniscule to the world around him. However, the scenes where he interacts with the ghostly visions of people he has murdered in the past does not come off as successfully as it could’ve. The imagery is interesting, but the fact that he had played a character already that dealt with similar types of ghostly visions in The Shining causes the viewer to think back too much to that film and takes them out of this one.

Streep is outstanding and her constant ability to completely submerse herself into her characters and take on different accents with an amazing authenticity never ceases to amaze me. She really looks the part too by not only wearing no make-up, but having her teeth stained and darkened to effectively give off that decayed look. I’m genuinely floored at how many times most films neglect to do this. Actors portraying characters in destitute environments, or from the old west, may convey the down-and-out or rugged look physically, but their teeth still always look great when in reality they should’ve been in as bad of shape or worse as the rest of their bodies.

The supporting cast is good but they have little to do, which includes Fred Gwynne who appears briefly as a bartender. Carroll Baker though is excellent as Nicholson’s ex-wife. She was a blonde beauty that burst onto the scene in the ‘50s and was billed as the next Marilyn Monroe, but her acting ability quickly became suspect and by the ‘60s she was relegated to low budget B-movies and European productions, but in the ‘80s she made a Hollywood comeback in supporting roles and her appearance here was clearly her best performance and proves that she really could act. Margaret Whitton is also a standout as she takes part in one of the film’s few lighthearted moments as an eccentric woman who is prone to histrionic fainting spells and walking outside without any clothes.

The film though does suffer from a few too many dramatic peaks, which includes having two of Nicholson’s homeless friends die almost simultaneously, which only helps to lessen the effect by squeezing out more drama than it needs to, but overall this is a top notch effort where every scene and utterance rings true.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1987

Runtime: 2Hours 23Minutes

Rated R

Director: Hector Babenco

Studio: TriStar Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Major League (1989)

major league

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cleveland Indians become winners.

Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton) is the new owner of the Cleveland Indians and her goal is to move the team to the sunnier locale of Miami. She finds a clause in the lease stating that if the team is unable to attract 800,000 in attendance for the season then she will be able to break the contract without penalty. Her plan then is to assemble the biggest bunch of misfits that she can, so that they’ll be so bad nobody will want to watch them, but her idea backfires as the losers somehow find a way to win.

I remember seeing this movie when it was first released and being unimpressed with it as it seemed to be taking the Rocky underdog, lovable-loser theme to redundant heights and beating a tired formula that was already getting stale. It was like The Bad News Bears, but without the interesting subtext. The plot is so obvious that you know where it’s going right from the start and thus making it almost pointless to watch. Unlike Bull Durham it offers no new insights into the nuances of the game and the crude humor is only amiable at best.

However, upon second viewing I found it to be a passable time-filler and the crowd scenes during the film’s climactic game sequence were impressive. Most films, even the good ones, have a hard time recreating the kinetic atmosphere of a live game, but this film manages to hit-the-mark and made me feel like I was watching an actual contest.

The casting is also good with each actor a perfect fit for their part especially Charlie Sheen and Corbin Bernsen. I also enjoyed Chelcie Ross even though he was 46 at that time and looking a bit too old to still be playing. However, his character’s attempts to convert everyone to Christianity particularly the player that practices voodoo is amusing. I also enjoyed James Gammons as the manager as his character is refreshingly sensible and grounded and works as a much needed anchor to the silliness.

Whitton, who hasn’t appeared in a film in over 20 years, is great as the bitchy owner and is hot-looking as well. However, I couldn’t quite buy into the fact that she stubbornly continued to cheer against the team winning even after it became painfully clear that her hoped for low attendance mark would never be reached. If anything their winning would help the team’s market value and she could sell them at a nice profit and move herself to the sunny beach. With all the national cameras most likely trained on her during the playoff game why not, at least at the very end, have her begrudgingly get with the crowd and show some appreciation for what the players had accomplished.

I also got a bit of a kick out of a life-sized cardboard cutout that is created of her and a piece of its dress ripped off with each win that the team gets, but writer-director Ward chickens out on his own outrageous concept by having the figure still wearing pasties and a bikini bottom even after the dress is fully removed. The players still cheer raucously at the sight of it nonetheless, but in real-life I think there would’ve been boos as they most likely would be expecting full nudity and disappointed when it didn’t materialize.

The side story dealing with Tom Berenger’s character trying to reconcile things with his estranged wife that is played by Rene Russo is contrived and unnecessary and with the runtime being so long, especially with such a threadbare storyline, should’ve been cut out entirely. I also found it a bit annoying the way Berenger’s character barges into her apartment and her fiancée’s unannounced and without even bothering to knock. Most people lock their doors behind them once they get inside and thus making his attempts to ‘sneak-in’ unlikely anyways.

The majority of the film was shot in Milwaukee and not Cleveland making me wonder why they didn’t just use the Milwaukee Brewers as the team since their history is almost a dismal as the Indians. It’s also important to note that we are only shown what happens in the pennant and never the World Series, which is just as well as the whole thing is a bit fantastical anyways especially given the rooster’s woeful talent and having them go all the way would’ve been too much of a stretch even for a wishful thinking, feel-good movie such as this.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: April 7, 1989

Runtime: 1Hour 46Minutes

Rated R

Director: David S. Ward

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

The Secret of My Success (1987)

secret of my success

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: He has lofty ambitions.

Brantley Foster (Michael J. Fox) has just graduated from high school and wants to take a stab at the big city. He has a nice job lined up, but when he gets there he finds that they’ve become victims of a hostile corporate takeover and his position is no longer available. His mother (Elizabeth Franz) tells him about his rich Uncle Howard Prescott (Richard Jordan) who is a CEO of a major firm. Brantley meets with him and manages to get a job in the mailroom, but then comes up with a scheme where he masquerades as a company executive while romancing an attractive boss (Helen Slater) and even his uncle’s wife (Margaret Whitton).

Fox is terrific in the lead and his engaging and likable presence makes up to some degree for the film’s other numerous shortcomings. There are a few funny scenes including the one where Brantley pretends to be an orchestra conductor by using the sound of a couple making love in the next apartment as his ‘music’. The bird’s eye shot of a group of executives jogging around a track that is situated on a roof of a Manhattan skyscraper is fantastic and my favorite moment of the whole film. Brantley’s scheme though is ridiculously over-the-top with no chance of ever successfully occurring in the real world, which makes the story less entertaining since the believability factor gets thrown out to the point that it becomes a completely inane farce by the end.

The humor is also too broad and would’ve worked better had it tried instead to be more subtle. A good example of this is where Brantley gives a limo ride to Howard’s wife Vera. Initially Vera is quite cold and bitchy towards him, but then he throws her a line of how he’d feel like ‘the luckiest man in the world if he awoke each morning with a beautiful woman like her lying next to him’, which is enough to ‘melt’ her cold exterior and have her invite him back to her place where she shamelessly comes onto him and even goes skinny dipping with him in her backyard pool. Yet I’d imagine an attractive, rich woman such as herself would get lines like that thrown at her all the time by other men and how would she know that Brantley, whom she had just met, wasn’t any different than the rest of them and simply looking for a way to get her between the sheets or at her money. There is no way a woman of that age and social pedigree would foolishly let down her guard that quickly and easily especially for a line that is rather unimaginative and corny.

I realize this is supposed to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it goes overboard and too much of a good thing is never good. The so-called ‘American Dream’ is all about persevering and overcoming hardships and obstacles not like it is here where we have some wet-behind-the-ears kid who magically has all the answers while essentially cheating his way to the top in record time without even breaking a sweat and making everyone else who actually works for a living look like complete fools in the process.

A little grit and realism would’ve helped and at least given it some much needed balance, but instead it’s completely lacking, which ultimately makes it shallow, superficial and silly and not worth the time.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: April 10, 1987

Runtime: 1Hour 51Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Herbert Ross

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2), Amazon Instant Video