Standing Up, Falling Down 2019 ****

Standing Up, Falling Down - UK Artwork Banner

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.

The Long Goodbye 1973 ****

the-long-goodbye-1

Robert Altman’s take on Raymond Chandler and Phillip Marlowe wasn’t a box-office hit, but it did capture a mid-70’s zeitgeist; arguably hit TV shows like The Rockford Files lift tonally from the so-laid-back-he’s horizontal presentation of the LA private eye. Purists seemed to feel that Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett had somehow defiled the memory of the writer and his creation; by 2020, when we’re used to regular reboots, re-nosing and retconning, this version of Marlowe seems to be a defiantly original fusion of the original writing and Altman’s patented fragmentation bomb. Which is a long way around the block to say that The Long Goodbye is pretty good.

Elliot Gould was the essence of an unlovely man in the 1970’s, but Altman’s M*A*S*H* helped make him a star, and he has an off-beat charisma here. Marlowe is presented in a lengthy scene organising pet-food for his cat, a scene so detailed you’d swear it got revamped in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Marlowe agrees to help out an old friend Terry Lennox (Jim Boulton) by driving him to the Mexican border, then takes a case in which missing writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) is traced to a private health-care facility. Meanwhile various parties want to locate missing money that Lennox knew about, and Marlow has to try and uncover exactly who is zoomin’ who.

Critics called The Long Goodbye plotless (it’s not) and that the central character was hopeless, and yet Marlowe seems to have a savvy grip on exactly what’s happening around him. The atmosphere of Malibu, usually glamorous, is rather seedy here, and so is the action; a startling act of violence hangs over the movie, and the finale is shocking because it’s out of character for both character and film. Never without a lit cigarette, Marlowe is presented as a man out of time, with hippies, drugs and parties all going on, but elsewhere, with Marlowe left to take the fall for all manner of bad behaviour.

There’s tonnes to enjoy in the Long Goodbye, from John William’s ingenious score, reworking the same theme as everything from a doorbell to a passing funeral band, and a brief but memorable de-clothing of future Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Vilos Zsigmond does a great job of making LA locations look striking and fresh, with Marlowe’s elevated pad was quite a find for the production team.

The Long Goodbye is a classic 1970’s film; unique, individual, downbeat and scuzzy; pretty much exactly what the subject demands. There are plenty of other Phillip Marlowe’s for purists to enjoy, but the 1973 vintage has gained in authenticity with age, and The Long Goodbye is good value for Altman and detective fans alike.

 

Nomads 1986 ****

nomads

Did you know that John McTiernan made a film before his Predator/Die Hard double-bill that made him one of Hollywood’s biggest action directors? McTiernan’s work on 1986’s Nomads prompted Arnold Schwarzenegger to give him the initial Predator gig, and blowing the dust of Nomads, it’s obvious that the Austrian muscle-man had a good eye for talent. Nomads was a disaster on release, but looks pretty good now, with muscular direction and an unconventional urban horror-story that’s hard to pigeonhole.

Nomads also marked a first lead role for Pierce Brosnan, somewhat irrationally cast here as a bearded French anthropologist Jean Charles-Pommier. Poor Pommier dies in the opening moments of Nomads, but Eileen Flax (Lesley-Anne Down), the LA hospital medic who tries to save him, starts to experience key moments from Pommier’s life in flashback form. If that sounds odd, things get stranger still as Pommier tangles with a group of leather-clad ‘nomads’ led by a wordless Adam Ant who may, or may not, be Eskimo shape-shifting spirits who want to use his house as a place of worship for a dead serial killer.

If Nomad’s already sounds completely barking, we’re not even halfway done. How about a score from Rocky’s Bill Conti? B Movie queen Mary Wonorov as Dancing Mary? Nina Foch as an estate agent? And the whole style of Nomads is truly bizarre; McTiernan is clearly working out a few moves, and the famous Rickman fall from Die Hard is road-tested here. Yet the editing looks like it was completed by Nicolas Roeg’s janitor, skipping backwards and forwards in time in a way that dislodges and unsettles.

Nomads, written by McTiernan, is more in the vein of The Hunger, Cat People or Wolfen in that it belongs to an early 80’s sub-genre of finding supernatural interlopers in a collapsing modern society. It’s a baffling, yet hugely entertaining film that works its way to a strange yet unforgettable trick-ending. I honestly didn’t know this film existed until a couple of days ago, but having seen it, I’d absolutely love to hear from anyone that’s familiar with it. Do you know Nomads? Have you seen it? I’m here with a trained team of therapists ready to hear your experiences of this astonishingly odd film…

Inside Moves 1980 ****

inside moves

One of the better Hollywood movies on the subject of disability, Richard Donner’s Inside Moves doesn’t limit its scope to physical impairment; mental illness is taken seriously too, so don’t be surprised that you’ve not heard much about it. Coming off the back of Superman, Donner was a sought-after director, and with a script by Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin adapted from Todd Walton’s novel, Inside Moves feels like an attempt to break fresh ground in terms of challenging pubic perceptions of health issues.

Taking place against a rather dingy-looking Los Angeles, Inside Moves it as much about a place as a person; Max’s bar, a run-down bar where various types congregate. David Morse is Jerry, an athlete who requires an operation if he’s ever going to pursue his basketball dream. His occasional girlfriend Louise (Diana Scarwid) turns tricks to make some money, and is often in need for Jerry to rescue her. Wings (Harold Russell) has hooks for hands, but cheer-leads a group of card-sharps who provide an abrasive commentary on what’s going on. And Roary (John Savage) is recovering from a suicide attempt, having thrown himself out of a building. Roary is adopted by the denizens of the bar, and their friendship inspires Jerry to reach new heights which test their bonds.

Russell hadn’t made a film since his Oscar-winning turn in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives, and casting the presidential advisor on issues to do with the ‘handicapped’ was a coup, yet it’s Scarwid’s Oscar-nominated turn which pulls most effectively at the heart-strings. Inside Moves doesn’t do enough to consider Louise’s plight, but the actress imbues the tired street-walker clichés with something genuine and heart-felt. Otherwise, Inside Moves does a good job in capturing a group of men who fear they’re put out to grass, and are trying to find their place in a world that ostracizes them. It’s interesting that in 1980, the place for this kind of interaction to happen was a commercial bar; there’s no self-help, drop-in centres or social work interventions here, just macho-banter and gruff philosophy.

Inside Moves is a melancholy, tough little drama that moves quickly beyond be-all-you-can-be platitudes and expands to consider the nature of alienation. Savage and Morse are both terrific here, giving the kind of powerhouse performances that the material needs; we feel that we’re watching good people battle real life crises, and while that’s not a promise that lured many to the theatres, it’s worth seeking out as a period piece that says a lot about US health-care circa 1980.

 

Commando 1985 ****

commando-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000

Do we need to talk about Commando? There seems to be an issue with this Arnold Schwarzenegger action thriller; a big hit back when I was at school, it was one of the first X or 18 certificate films I ever saw, and watching it again, it’s pretty good. Predator gave birth to a unending series of sequels and reboots, franchise, Terminator did the same, Conan The Barbarian and Total Recall have been rebooted, so why should Commando be a derelict property since, from this distance, it looks like prime real estate?

Finding roles of a larger-than –life star back in the 80’s cannot have been easy; the original script for Commando was about a peace-loving Israeli, but Mark L Lester’s film is all about war, and war is just fantastic. Cars, boats and even people explode while John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) seeks out those who have kidnapped his daughter, namely Dan Hedeya and his side-kick Bennett (Vernon Wells). In his muscle vest and chains, Bennett cuts an incongruous figure here; to steal a line, ‘the gayest man on earth might think he was over the top.’ There’s no real surprises as to how Matrix’s mission goes, but there’s are high-points. A visit to LA’s Galleria shopping mall leads to an impressive stunt where the star swings from one side of the other before dropping down onto a moving elevator. Elsewhere, Matrix hangs onto the undercarriage of a plane as it takes off, before dropping down into presumably very soft marshland.

What’s notable here apart from the slick action is the comedy, which later replaced the toughness in the star’s vehicles. “I thought you said I’d be last to die,’ complains a henchman, dangled over a canyon by our hero. ‘I lied’ replies Matrix, before dropping his enemy to a certain death. ‘What happened?’ asks Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong) as Matrix returns to their car ‘I let him go,’ replies Matrix. This is something of a double-whammy when it comes to one-liners, tailored to the star’s lack of expressiveness, one following neatly on from another as Arnie methodically makes his way through the cast-list in typically violent style.

Oddly, the best moment in Commando involves Cindy using a rocket-launcher; being a woman, she’s not au fait with the tech, and accidentally explodes a vehicle behind her when she fires it. She gets the trick right later in the film, when it counts, and no spoilers are required to say that Matrix rescues his daughter and kills the baddies in short order. Even in 2020, Commando has obvious sequel/franchise potential; it’s a known, loved IP and the star would be great as an older, wiser Matrix, possibly helping his daughter escape his shadow. With Terminator and Rambo franchises running dry, surely Commando 2020 would be worth a shot?

Marriage Story 2019 ****

story 2

It’s always concerning when people are queuing up to tell you how good a movie is; despite the roar of the critics, a 137 minute analysis of a marriage breakdown really does need some pull quotes to sell it. ‘See the star of Avengers in a custody dispute with the star of Star Wars’ doesn’t sound like it’ll put bums on seats, but then again, this is a Netflix production, so the bums don’t have to be enticed from their sofas. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film has genuine star power in the form of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as functional click-bait, and although it’s the kind of self-conscious art movie that uses to pack indie cinemas, it should find quite a few takers with a contentious he-said/she-said narrative that engages and chills at the same time.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a NYC theatre director, Nicole (Johansson) is his wife, and they have a son to take care of. Their decade-long relationship seems to be fizzling out; she’s got work in LA that expands and contracts, he’s locked into the creative lottery of Broadway and off-Broadway. Both of them get to sing a song to illustrate their theatrical backgrounds, although his rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive is far superior to her family pastiche. Indeed, Marriage Story isn’t as balanced as has been suggested; like Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, this is divorce from a man’s POV, with Nicole’s hard-nosed career aspirations making her an antagonist to Charlie’s soft-headed sentiment.

It soon becomes obvious that Charlie’s hang-dog charms have led him to infidelity, although Baumbach is more interested in the cold aftermath than the passion, and Nicole’s coldness is not without justification. But the weight of sympathetic set-pieces falls heavily in Charlie’s favour; there’s a sensational late scene involving a knife that’s so fiercely, blackly comic that it could only have come from real experience, and draws gasps and groans of empathy.

Marriage Story promises lots of shouting and angst, but the grounded, realistic expansion of Charlie and Nicole’s feud to include lawyers, families and passing strangers provides opportunities for weapons-grade acting from Driver and Johansson, neither of whom have bettered the performances they give here. Driver nails Charlie’s addiction to lost causes, and suggests a deep, lonely soul desperate to fulfil the coveted role of father. Johansson softens the bitter edge of Nicole’s desire for escape and reveals something more tender; her desire to be the best mother she can necessitates taking care of herself, and Nicole comes across far more genuine that Meryl Streep did in Kramer.

Perhaps 137 minutes is a run-time which lacks discipline, but there are long, compelling stretches of old-school drama here. And as a bonus, there’s a wealth of star-studded turns here, all highly enjoyable, from Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as expensive lawyers, to Alan Alda as a not so expensive lawyer. Marriage Story is the most mature work from Baumbach so far, a complex view of good people who find that goodness isn’t enough to immunise them against the insidious viruses of past-vanity and domestic over-reach. It’s a parable for our time; the blue skies and clear vistas of LA are contrasted with the cold and dirty feelings of the human heart, and there’s no winners here other than the audience, who should marvel at the strength of self-analysis contained in Marriage Story for years to come.

Perfect 1985 ***

perfect

A much-hyped movie that unexpectedly crashed and burned at the box office, James Bridges’ Perfect emerges on streaming circa 2019 as an unfairly maligned movie. Re-teaming Bridges with star John Travolta, after their hot Urban Cowboy collaboration, promised much. Throw in Jamie Lee Curtis, hot from Halloween and Trading Places, and what could go wrong? Particularly as Travolta gets to dance as part of the fitness-instruction theme, a hot topic for 1985.

The problem is, Travolta’s character isn’t a dancer, he’s a journalist, and for once, Perfect is a movie that seems determined to get the key issues of journalistic ethics out there. Adam Lawrence (Travolta ) is introduced working on a tricky interview for Rolling Stone with a John DeLorean-type figure; the disgraced businessman grants him an interview, and Lawrence refuses to turn over the tapes to the feds. A journalist does not have to reveal their sources, but Lawrence faces jail-time for his actions.

This is all very interesting, and well caught; the Rolling Stone offices are meticulously rebuilt for various scenes, and Travolta’s boss is played by a real Rolling Stone editor. But Perfect is better known for the other storyline, in which Lawrence infiltrates an LA fitness club looking for an expose on the rampant sexual promiscuity he imagines. Jessie (Jamie Lee Curtis) shares her story and her bed with Lawrence, but she’s got a natural suspicion of journalists after a bad experience, and their relationship is turbulent to say the least.

Perfect is a thoughtful exploration of journalistic ethics; critics focused on the propulsive dance scenes, of which there were few. Although both movies were based on magazine articles, Bridges’ film is not intended to make Travolta cool in a Saturday Night Fever Way. Instead, it’s Curtis who really resonates as a wronged woman who is keen to protect herself from a predatory press; she’s terrific in this film, and Travolta isn’t bad either. Perfect accidentally baited and switched an audience who probably just wanted to see Curtis and Travolta dance to some of the hideous music featured here, but as a time-capsule of LA circa 1985 (Carly Simon cameos, Boy George mania!), it’s a enjoyable look back at weightier preoccupations, albeit in a famously airheaded era.

King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen 2017 ****

cohen

The late Larry Cohen’s name may not mean much to your average multiplexer, but his name is synonymous with the kind of imaginative, off-the-wall and defiantly original fare that’s worth putting money down to see. Cohen was an artist and a commercial film-maker, who write every day, played the system, and won; repeatedly, over decades. Writer/director Steve Mitchell knows that the films are all elsewhere; a few tantalising clips are all that are needed, but King Cohen is a talking heads documentary and all the better for it. And what heads! JJ Abrams throws the first ball, with a story involving Cohen, a broken down car and a mutant baby doll, and it’s clear that Abrams was severely star-struck. Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, John Landis and others play tribute, but it’s Fred Williamson that steals the show with his smoothly-delivered recollections, which don’t match up exactly with Cohen’s version of events. Even hard-core cineastes and horror fans are likely to learn something new here, about Cohen’s prolific tv work, his debut feature Bone, or his habit of shooting on the fly that led him, quite literally, to J Edgar Hoover’s door. Despite mainstream success, he remained a maverick and an underground film-maker; after years of searching I finally bought my copy of God Told Me To from a pop-up street-vendor of obscure movies in NYC’s Union Square, within sight of the Chrysler building where he used the construction scaffolding to shoot action scenes for Q-The Winged Serpent. This rapid-fire doc should encourage fans and casual viewers alike to check out the canon of this unique, idiosyncratic talent.

The Omega Man 1971 ***

omega

Back in Victorian times, there were no videos, trailers or DVD’s to remind us of great films; kids read books, and the description of The Omega Man sounded amazing to this kid. A future in which only one man survives, using unlimited weapons, any vehicle he wanted, living with extraordinary means as he battled an army of vampires for the planet’s future? It came as something of a shock to finally see Boris Sagal’s sci-fi thriller and register just how 1971 it was. The casting of Charlton Heston as Neville positioned Omega Man amongst a dystopian series that included Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green, but his larger-than-life persona also engendered a certain dated political view. The term ‘white saviour’ probably wasn’t minted back then, but Heston’s love of weapons, alpha-male preening and portrayal of himself as a messianic figure sit uncomfortably with the groovy décor and Rosalind Cash’s portrayal of the last woman on earth. ‘ Are you a god?’ a child asks Neville; today’s audiences may be than less impressed, but Sagal’s film leans into such criticism. A scene where Neville sits in a cinema and watches his favourite film, Woodstock, which he sees as a comedy and enjoys in the company of his machine gun, suggests we’re meant to find his retro-conservativism amusing, but his willingness to shack up with Cash seems like racial opportunism and doesn’t strike sparks. And yet such miscalculations don’t stop The Omega Man from having a cult appeal; there’s a James Bond-ian elan about some of the short-lived bursts of action, and a haunting appeal in the narrative tropes; the deserted city, the one person who carries the plague antidote in their blood; many of the clichés of dystopian future-worlds since find an early embodiment in this reactionary, yet entertaining film.

True Romance 1992 *****

true

The late Tony Scott was something of a cinematic powerhouse, whose work was consistently underrated; a note on his Wikipedia page says that after The Hunger, he stopped reading the vitriolic reviews his film inspired. Most of these critics are long gone now, but Scott’s canon endures; hits like Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State are all better than average blockbusters, but his other works are remarkable in their consistency; Revenge, The Last Boy Scout, Man on Fire or Unstoppable would be highlights in any director’s resume, whether they appeased the public or not. His best film was a flop; 1992’s True Romance gave Scott a super-hot script, and he did it proud; Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are ideal as Clarence and Alabama, young newly-weds who scram from snowy Detroit to sunny LA after he romantically murders her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman under dreadlocks and prosthetics). All kinds of talent are shown to their best advantage here, from Bronson Pinochet’s coke-addled flunky to Brad Pitt’s avuncular stoner Floyd via James Gandolfini’s memorable thug. Scott creates the requisite tension, but also creates two vibrant, dynamic worlds for his characters to inhabit. And at the centre is one of cinema’s greatest scenes; a confrontation between Clarence’s cop father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) and mobster Cocotti (Christopher Walken). Two experienced actors with some great dialogue; Scott gets the best out of them as Cocotti’s threats raise Clifford’s awareness of his predicament. From the moment Clifford accepts his last cigarette, the dynamics of the scene change and it becomes a meditation on defiance in the face of death. Ridley Scott has given interviews regarding the family history of cancer which throw some light on his brother’s suicide; Scott’s elegiac handling of True Romance’s highpoint throws further illumination. Unfairly derided as a man who placed style over content, Tony Scott was in the deep end while most directors were just splashing in the shallows.