Downhill 2020 ***

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Swimming against the tide is one thing, but I’ve not found many takers for my opinion of Force Majeure, critical darling and Golden Globe nominee; I hated it. A humourless, one-note, sneering portrait of an unsympathetic couple of a skiing holiday, Ruben Osland’s film struck me as a load of pretentious, self-satisfied twaddle with only cinematography to commend it.

So it’s fair to say that I wasn’t champing at the bit for an American remake, but here it comes, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and starring two comedy greats in Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Ferrell’s cinematic work is a mixed bag, for every Anchorman, there’s a Get Hard, but he’s shown signs of the dramatic chops required to make a restrained comedy drama like this work; Louis-Dreyfus is a US national treasure on the back of Seinfeld, but while her filmography is far more selective, her excellent performance in Enough Said demonstrated that she could create a complex and empathetic character on the big screen. The downside of casting these two beloved performers as unsympathetic twonks is something of a dissonance that led Downhill to slide off the piste at the box office, but it’s far from the catastrophe that many critics suggested.

Billie and Peter arrive in Austria with their two kids, and immediately get into a drama when an unexpected wave of snow engulfs the open-air seating area at their resort. Sitting on one side of the table, Billie hugs the kids until the dangers has passed, but Peter disgraces himself by grabbing his phone and stepping away; because he drops behind the camera position, we’re left to imagine how far this might be. This was something of a flaw in the original film, and isn’t resolved here; it’s not physically possible for Peter to protect his children, and the consequent judgemental ramifications feel schematic and contrived in both versions. Billie is disillusioned in her husband, humiliates him in front of their kids and his friends, and has an illicit tryst with a hunky ski-instructor. Meanwhile Peter nurses his damaged self-image with some abortive flirting, a drunken scuffle with an alpha male, and some self-pitying monologues. Neither of their plotlines could be described as feel-good, and the chipper finale doesn’t quite alleviate the sour, cynical feel of the original film.

But as an upgrade on American abroad comedy, Downhill offers some laughs that the original doesn’t, a National Lampoon’s Skiing Vacation with trash-talking sexed-up locals, toilet mishaps, and enough low-shots to offer some entertainment value. These antics punctuate the pretentions of Force Majeure, and render the story watchable; if anything, it’s an improvement that offers a little more humanity and self-deprecating soul than the self-regarding film it imitates.

 

Standing Up, Falling Down 2019 ****

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Timing in comedy is, as both comedians and audiences will attest, everything; the release of Standing Up, Falling Down in the US came at a point at which cinemas and streaming services were positively groaning with new products. The UK release in April 2020 comes at a time of drought; there’s precious few new releases and even fewer which might be attractive to a mainstream audience. So it’s pleasant to report that Matt Ratner’s debut film is an enjoyable star vehicle for old favourite Billy Crystal, as well as a nice calling card for the lesser spotted Ben Schwartz.

Schwartz has had a prominent role in Parks and Recreation, although his misguided entrepreneur never seemed to be the right fit for the sitcom; he’s a stand-up too, and on paper, Standing Up, Falling Down sounds like a straightforward passing-of-the–torch number between old and young. Rarely seen of late, Crystal is a legend in the business, a nine time Oscar host and legit movie star whose work on films like Running Scared or When Harry Met Sally demonstrated he could handle the leading man role with aplomb. So when struggling comic Scott (Schwartz) finds Marty urinating in the sink of a comedy club, we kind of feel like we know where we’re going. But Marty isn’t actually a comedian, he’s a doctor, of sorts, and gives Scott some useful advice about a skin complaint. Marty is a kind of Patch Adams character, a naturally funny guy with a large Twitter following for his gags, but family issues which make him lonely. The two become friends, and Marty encourages Scott not to give up on his dreams so easily.

There’s some funny scenes here for sure; a pot-smoking escapade that goes wrong is delightfully played by all concerned. But Peter Hoare’s screenplay has more nous than just a simple gag-fest; when Scott finally arranges his comeback gig, he’s broken-hearted that it’s his beautiful ex girlfriend that turns up, not his dermatologist pal, a lovely twist on the conventions of the be-all-you-can-be genre. Standing Up, Falling Down stays true to the hard edge of the title, and the sentiment is earned by the bitter-sweet behaviour depicted here.

There are so few comic films made today that Ratner’s film deserves some attention; in the way that Danny Collins was a serviceable late-period vehicle for Al Pacino, this is a nice chance to see that Crystal can still shine, with Schwartz supporting nicely with a self-deprecating, wry performance that shows he’s more than a one-trick pony. Something of a relief in troubled times, Standing Up, Falling Down might just have arrived at the right time to warm up an increasingly chilly room.

Signature Entertainment presents Standing Up, Falling Down in the UK on Digital HD from 30th March 2020.

Blockers 2018 ***

blockersAnother decent revival for Netflix, Kay Cannon’s Blockers is a low-brow comedy which was something of a secret success on initial cinema release; without making too many headlines, this Seth Rogen-produced romp made nearly $100 million worldwide on what looks like a fairly frugal budget. Rogen’s influence is apparent in the way the film quickly lapses into sophomoric humour, but there’s also traces of his Rabelaisian wit and deft approach to coming-of age. And what’s specifically interesting about Blockers is that it’s a sex comedy that focuses on the parents who want to stop their children having sex after their prom night; sympathies have turned upside down since the sex comedies of the 80’s (Porky’s, Ricky Business).

Leslie Mann is Lisa Decker, a mother horrified when she realises that her daughter has a pact with two other friends to lose her virginity. Lisa pals up with Mitchel (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), a comic who looks like a Mark Wahlberg that’s been left out in the rain, and who projects an ideally dishevelled persona for this kind of hi-jinks. If Superbad was about how difficult it is to cause mischief, Blockers is much more interested in the suppressive efforts of the parents than the teenagers themselves; cinema in 2018 is more about re-enforcing the status quo than challenging authority.

Blockers is carefully gender balanced, but that doesn’t stop Mann and Cena giving stand-out star performances, the best in their careers to date.  And while Rogen has been accused of falling back on cameos rather than jokes, as many comics do when the ideas run thin, the cameos from Gary Cole and Gina Gershon hit the right, dirty tone. Blockers is a easy watch, full of crude slapstick, but with it’s heart in the right place. Cannon graduates from the 30 Rock/Pitch Perfect universe with some skill here; Rogen’s trio-adventure format may be wearing thin, but Cannon deserves credit for managing to casually tap into the comedy audience that the far more accomplished Booksmart failed to capture.

Ghostbusters 1984 *****

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One should never neglect the obvious; Ivan Reitman’s 1984 comedy was the biggest of all-time on release, and feels like it’s never been away. Despite Bill Murray’s lack of enthusiasm for running the ghost-busting theme into the ground, there have been official sequels, reboots, animations, video-games and yet another revamp in the works circa 2020. The original film is a fluke, an accident of unrepeatable proportions; the right star, the right scale, the right politics, and just the right sense of humour. So much, in fact, that Ghostbusters is well worth a look for adults as well as kids.

Class seems to be the central issue here; the ghost-buster crew are introduced meddling about with psychic research at Columbia University, before Raymond Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) indicates that ‘the private sector’ would be a better home for them. Yes, there’s nothing children or family audiences enjoy more than a film that debates the merits of private vs public sector, but that’s just the tip of the agenda here. Almost everyone the ghost-busters meet are moneyed beyond belief; Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver play the residents in a well-upholstered Central Park West apartment building, and the wide-corridors and fresh decoration indicate that they’re above most earthly problems. Similarly, encounters with snooty librarians, officious doormen and dismissive politicians await Stantz, Venkman (Bill Murray) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) as they work their NYC beat; the film’s biggest laugh, at least in the unedited version, remains Murray’s ad-libbed and amusing dismissive comment about uptight jobs-worth William Atherton ‘… this man has no dick.’

Such take-downs are the real meat of Ghostbusters, which artfully positions the heroes as blue-collar workers who the crowds identify with as if they’re rock stars. Why? Because Ghostbusters is a celebration of the ordinary overcoming the extra-ordinary, with a humble, uniformed squad cutting a swathe through all manner of special-effects creatures. The explanation, that a group of Satanists previously used the Central Park West building for sacrificial rituals, is another crowd-pleaser for kids, as it the scene where Stantz is fellated by a ghost. In short, nothing in Ghostbusters suggests comedy or box-office gold; it’s success is the happiest of accidents, a triple rebound that somehow punches the ball through the hoop.

High Spirits 1988 ***

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The supernatural comedy was something of a mother lode in the 1980’s, with Ghostbusters showing that an aimiable ramshackle vehicle with decent effects could produce a huge box-office hit. But a varied series of disappointments also befell the genre, from Transylvania 6500 to The Witches of Eastwick, and Neil Jordan’s High Spirits was as prominent as any of them. Jordan reportedly has his own full cut of the movie in a cobwebbed vault, and it would be worth an airing for sure; High Sprits is a bit of a shambles, but it’s worth a watch.

The concept is familiar but timeless; an ancient Irish hotel fakes ghostly activity in the hope of attracting lucrative American tourists, but the guests (namely Police Academy and Cocoon star Steve Guttenberg plus National Lampoon’s Beverley D’Angelo) end up falling for a couple of genuine ghosts, played by Daryl Hannah and Liam Neeson. Overseeing this whole strange melange is Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole), and this distinguished thespian has the difficult job of adding gravity to a series of pratfalls with people falling out of windows, into moats and various other indignities.

Even the B-Cast here (Connie Booth, Ray McAnally, Liz Smith, Peter Gallagher, Donal McCann, Jennifer Tilly) is better than most A-casts, so maybe Jordan’s extended cut may have something more to offer. George Fenton’s score can’t repress the desire to leap into Irish-jig mode, and it’s never quite clear is the film is parodying or celebrating the Irish talent for myth making. And yet a cast like this is never boring, with the romance working better than the broad comic highlights.

High Spirits is more like the ruin of a castle than a castle itself; attempting to revive the screwball appeal of The Ghost Goes West or I Married A Witch was a nice idea which didn’t catch on. Jordan’s hot streak (Angel, Mona Lisa, The Company of Wolves) ended unceremoniously here, but maybe there could be life after death for this star-heavy whimsy after all.

What A Girl Wants 2003 ***

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‘I won’t make a scene… I’ll make a Broadway musical,’ is one of a number of strange lines in Dennie Gordon’s 2003 teen movie vehicle for Amanda Bynes. Somehow based on a 1955 play called The Reluctant Debutante, this fish-out-of-water comedy enjoyed ‘mixed’ reviews and ‘moderate’ success according to Wikipedia, but resurfaces in the streaming age as a gawp-fest for those interested in slumming acting talent and off-kilter observations about Britishness.

Lord Dashwood (Colin Firth) is a British politician who is likely to become Prime Minister, even though he’s not actually a member of the House of Commons. His surprisingly vague campaign comprises of large bill-hoardings with a picture of him smiling, with the words “Lord Dashwood’ written underneath, although a late details reveals that he’s standing for the “Constituency’ party, in case you thought he was running for the BNP. Dashwood’s campaign is thrown into disarray when his long lost daughter Daphne (Bynes) turns up on the doorstep of his palatial home, a jolt in particular for Dashwood’s fiancée (Anna Chancellor). Does Dashwood’s spin-doctor and manager Alistair Payne (2020 Oscar nominee Jonathan Pryce) know anything about where Daphne has sprung from?

What A Girl Wants takes place in the kind of Merrie England that’s familiar from rich texts like Garfield 2; A Tale of Two Kitties, where the royal family, or at least lookalikes, are everywhere, and staid, stuffy Brits just can’t wait for American teenagers to crash their parties and show them how to dance; Holly Valance’s forgotten hit Kiss Kiss gets a brief outing on a very random soundtrack here. There’s also an extended and somewhat shoe-horned-in product-placement for breakfast cereal Coco Pops which the main characters are seen consuming, enjoying, and discussing their consumption of at several junctures.

What A Girl Wants is, as the title suggests, wish–fulfilment, and not to be taken seriously or internally. Yet there’s something engaging about the clueless portraying of British politics and class-snobbery, particularly given that the original play was written by a Prime Minister’s brother ; for a film that gets so much wrong, and the New York locations must be the most fancifully pathetic in any major studio film, it’s clear that the film-makers’ hearts are in the right place, even if every single detail of the film is notably wide of the mark.

Buffalo Soldiers 2001 ****

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An awards contender for almost a week back in 2001, Buffalo Soldiers is a great little film that was completely out of step with the times. Perhaps the fresh Oscar recognition for Joaquin Phoenix will encourage an intrepid few to seek out Gregor Jordan’s subversive military comedy; it’s certainly one of the best performances of the actor’s career, with few of the mannerisms which have become synonymous with his style; he’s a straight-up leading man here, and burns the screen like a young Paul Newman.

The content is abrasive; Phoenix plays Ray Elwood, a wheeler and dealer in the spirit of Milo Minderbender in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Nothing phases him; he sells all manner of drugs to bored US troops stationed in Germany, and when a group of stoners accidentally blow up a local petrol station with their tank, two American soldiers are killed in the aftermath. Elwood snaps into action, taking possession of the valuable arms trucks the soldiers were driving, and attempting to sell them. His superior, Colonel Berman (Ed Harris) suspects nothing, but Robert E Lee (Scott Glenn) is onto him, and surprises Elwood by hiring a firing squad to demolish his beloved Mercedes car.

The above scene happens after Elwood enjoys an ecstasy-fuelled night with Lee’s daughter (Anna Paquin), a change of pace from his dalliance with Berman’s wife (Elizabeth McGovern); the boy is burning his candle at both ends. Buffalo Soldiers, based on Robert O’Connor’s 1993 book, has a progressive, yet transgressive attitude to drugs that pre-dates the rise of the Seth Rogan comedy. It also has a reckless, amoral feel that recalls the same period’s Trainspotting, with little regard for institutions or individuals alike. First screened at Toronto, Buffalo Soldiers must have been a hot prospect until the Sept 11th attack days later made it the diametrical opposite of the kind of sombre flag-waving audiences sought.

Nearly two decades later, Buffalo Soldiers is a pleasure to re-appraise. It identifies something both attractive and dangerous in rampant American entrepreneurism, and Elwood is a character for the ages with his blank-eyed lies and accomplished today-ism disguising an intense drive to subvert. The lack of content or originality in the Joker movie didn’t match the intensity of Phoenix’s performance, but if you really want to see him play a role that shocks, amuses and plays hard-ball with the trickiest of concept, don’t watch that, watch this. An opening image of muddy footprints across an American flag sets the mood, and the black comedy featured here is sharp, vicious and timeless.

Not Now Darling 1973 NA (no award)

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Without fail, the least poplar items on this blog are the assessments of withered 1970’s sexless British sex comedies; no matter how many customers show on the previous day, my readership can be reduced to a trickle by writing about some tatty, end-of-the-pier innuendo-laden sexist tat, from That’s My Funeral to The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins. What can I say in my defence? These films used to be part of the BBC’s film package when I was growing up, and were as much a part of a daily diet of cinema as Truffaut or Peckinpah. And now, viewed from the opposite end of the time-telescope, they still exert a certain power to horrify and yet amuse by their wrong-headed presumption.

Not Now, Darling was adapted by playwright Ray Cooney from his own hugely popular farce, and must have seemed like something of a sure-fire hit. Co-written by John Champman, another graduate of the august ‘Whoops Vicar, where’s my trousers?’ school of comic confusion, Not Now Darling is primarily a vehicle for the robust talents of Leslie Phillips, who went on to co-star with Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider films. Phillips plays Gilbert Bodley, a lothario-about-town who concocts a confusing scheme in which he sells a fur coat to his mistress’s husband Harry (Derren Nisbet) to make some easy cash. The story unfolds almost entirely on one stagey-set, the shop of Arnold Crouch (Cooney himself), where moll Janine (Julie Ege) is caught in various stages of undress.

Sex is an odd thing in British comedies; to be desired, certainly, but also a prospect which makes men go weak at the knees and generally collapse into some kind of moral panic. There’s more nudity in a perfume advert that 90 minutes of Not Now Darling, but there are occasional glimpses of the quick-fire verbal gags which must have wowed stage audiences. Barbara Windsor appears to double-down on the ditz, while old stagers Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert wander around the set in a reasonably spry fashion. They were pretty much the Kardashians ie celebrity couple of the 1930’s, and at least are treated with some dignity here.

As a sex-comedy, Not Now Darling is something of a farce, remarkable for it’s tameness and a dry, interior quality. A sequel, Not Now Comrade, followed in 1976, but by then, sex had found more direct routes onto the screen, and the idea of a woman hiding in a closet wearing nothing but a fur coat was no longer considered the ultimate in outre behaviour. Guilty of reflecting sexist, out-of-date tropes, films like Not Now Darling have gained in interest over the decades by becoming museum pieces of what audiences once found funny, but is now more peculiar than ha-ha.

 

Little Murders 1971 *****

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There’s a perfect little throwaway scene in Alan Arkin’s Little Murders in which Elliot Gould finds himself soaked with blood and riding the New York subway. His shocking appearance leads to a few looks and whispers, but as he heads up towards the city-streets, he passes another man, soaked with blood, whose appearance is more remarkable than his own. It’s a tiny moment, but one that lays out a firm route for Jules Feiffer’s script. This is a dog eat dog world, and what’s happening to you, however bad it may seem, is already happening to someone else.

That downbeat feel inhabits every frame of Little Murders, adapted by Feiffer from his own Broadway play. Rolling power blackouts cut the lights mid-scene, with characters barely acknowledging being thrust into darkness. Gangs roam the street, picking on the innocent and vulnerable. Into this beleaguered world, Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd) attempts to win the heart of disillusioned advertising man and photographer Alfred Chamberlain (Elliot Gould), but Alfred is already locked into a negative cycle of self-abasement. When Patsy meets Alfred, he’s allowing himself to be beaten up by a gang; the nihilism of Fight Club has roots in this kind of counter-cultural shrug. Patsy takes Alfred to meet her parents (Vincent Gardenia and Elizabeth Wilson), but it takes a senseless, violent act to snap him out of his alienated dwam…

With many of the cast reprising their stage-roles, there’s more than a touch of the theatrical here, but Feiffer’s play is still spry and admirably anti-authority in outlook. Arkin has a wild cameo as a detective who has completely lost the plot, and he also calls in a big name cameo from Donald Sutherland as a wacky minister. Reuniting Sutherland and Gould the year after Robert Altman’s MASH is something of a coup, and both men excel here, delivering crazy, true monologues that reflect Feiffer’s vision of a world gone mad.

Feiffer once drew a cartoon of a huge crowd surrounding a tiny podium, with the caption to the effect; ‘how will we tell them that the microphone isn’t working?’ How to use a mass-medium to deliver his messages was an issue that seemed to preoccupy Feiffer, and yet Little Murders, something of an obscure film, absolutely nails the author’s social commentary. With the leads all alive at the time of writing this assessement, Little Murders would be well-worth a feature-length documentary to explore the themes caught here; it’s something of a neglected classic, and would be a great subject for a streaming revival.

Erik The Viking 1989 ***

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The recent demise of both Terry Jones and Neil Innes provides an opportunity to consider one of the least beloved entries in the sub-Monty Python canon, 1989’s Erik the Viking. Although it re-unites Jones as writer/director with John Cleese, who replaced Jack Lemmon at short notice, Erik the Viking feels like a feature script developed by Jones as a Python project, but rejected by the others; Michael Palin’s diary suggests dissatisfaction with the script. Jones seems to have recast each role with name players, but unfortunately these are not like-for-like substitutions, and without the usual Python ability to work over a script to provide a variety of accomplished comic set-pieces, the results are patchy.

And yet Erik the Viking is infused with Jones’s ability to take his area of expertise (medieval history) and riff on it to comic effect, and the structure of the film is solid. Erik (Tim Robbins) is a Viking who rejects the carnal, violent excesses of his fellows warriors and seeks something higher. He sets off on a voyage that takes his crew to Valhalla and beyond, with a central stop-off on the island of Hy Brazil, ruled over by King Arnulf (Jones) where a developed spiritual philosophy means no killing is allowed. Erik and his crew are pursued by Hafdan the Black (Cleese), who has a spy in Erik’s camp in the form of Loki (Anthony Sher).

Norse legends provide some familiar set-ups, with Loki, the age of Ragnorok and the rainbow bridge all coming into play, but Jones neatly dodges clichés; the Vikings have no horns on their helmets, and Jones’s patented gift for giving medieval characters 20th century vocabulary and pre-occupations provides some laughs. The Vikings argue in petty fashion about who sits where on their boat, and one character witheringly notes ‘You don’t even believe in Asgard!’. The timing isn’t always what it should be; when you replace a comedy troupe with randoms like Eartha Kitt, Michey Rooney and John Gordon Sinclair, consistency of vision takes a nose-dive.

Erik the Viking kicks off with an unwise rape joke (involving Jim Broadbent and Jim Carter) that doesn’t sit well with the generally genial nature of the comedy; without the usual team, Jones seems to have over-reached in terms of tone and content here, and there’s a few tumble-weed moments as gags go awry. But with a few smart sequences, like how the Hy Brazilians argue philosophically but to no effect as their island sinks around them, there’s tantalising evidence of a potentially great Python film that never came to fruition. And Innes creates a splendid mock-heroic score that keeps the rather ramshackle proceedings on point.