Flashback 1990 ****

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“Wait till you see the 90’s, they’re going to make the 70’s look like the 50’s!’ says hippie Huey Walker (Dennis Hopper) in Flashback, a comedy-thriller that’s refreshing in the way it puts politics centre-stage. Walker is an Abbie Hoffman-style prankster who has been missing since he decoupled Spiro Agnew’s train as an anti-war protest; when he resurfaces in 1990, he anticipates that social norms about to get a lot stricter, and in hindsight, he was right.

Walker has a strong piece of evidence in his nemesis, FBI agent John Buckner, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Buckner wears a suit, carries a gun, and couldn’t be further from the ideals Walker espouses; ‘I wanted to be the opposite of what my parents wanted’ Bucker explains, and he’s delivered on that promise. Buckner is deputised to take Walker on a long cross-country journey by train in order to stand trial, but his captive escapes, and the two men end up going on the run together as dark forces close in on Huey.

Flashback was directed by Franco Amurri, who directed the original version of Big, and there’s a body swap element here too, even if it’s played without the magic. Walker convinces Buckner than he’s spiked his drink with acid, gets him drunk, then steals his gun and clothes; clean shaven, he becomes a fun-house mirror-image of himself, with the exact opposite in political ideals. Walker is also able to put Buckner back in contact with his own idealistic youth, via an ex girlfriend Maggie (Carol Kane) who still carries a torch for Walker and the flower-power movement. While both men seem entrenched in their own political views, they manage to reverse their instant judgements of each other and form some kind of alliance.

The plotting gets a little murky in the final act of Flashback, with the chase elements overwhelming the sharper observations of the script, although the climax is pretty sharp. Hopper, discussing the impact of Easy Rider, makes a number of post-modern jokes about his own reputation, with Born to Be Wild part of the eclectic soundtrack choices. The perennially underrated Sutherland does a great job of suggesting the spectrum of opinions possible within one man; the scene where Buckner cries to see his childhood self in a home movie is brilliantly played.

It would be untrue to suggest Flachback has a bad reputation; it’s got no reputation at all, and surfaces on Amazon Prime like a Flashback to when a populist American film might seek to create political unity. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a good –humoured and knowing film that might just find a few new converts with a fresh new print and two great stars to pull them in.

Last Christmas 2019 NA (no award)

lastLast Christmas is the big entry in the 2019 festive movie stakes; the twinkling eyes of the stars stare out from bus shelters and intrusive online ads, promising early holiday-season cheer and hoping to generate positive word of mouth, but the reality of Paul Feig’s gift-wrapped product is rather different from the simple feel-good fare that might have been anticipated. With a story and script credit, plus a central performance all from Emma Thompson, it’s a film that will attract interest by virtue of heavy marketing, but plays considerably worse with audiences than the film-makers might have hoped.

Spoilers are required here, although the much discussed ‘twist’ of Last Christmas is in the trailer and shouldn’t be much of surprise to anyone. In the words of the George Michael song ‘Last Christmas, I gave you my heart…’ Someone, somewhere, presumably Thompson thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if that meant actually donating a heart?’ because this absurdly literal reading of the song is the crux of matters here. Emelia Clarke plays Kate, a young woman working as an elf in a grotto run by Santa (Michelle Yeoh). Kate is a sexually active young woman, so, of course, there must be something wrong with her, and we get early dialogue clues that she’s been ‘sick’ and required a heart transplant, which is quite ‘sick’ in most people’s books. She’s obsessed with George Michael, and his songs play over her activities in ways that defy logic ; ‘Everything She Wants’ as she eats a burger alone on a bench, or an innocuous ice-skating practice is accompanied by Michael warbling portentously about “God not keeping score.’ It’s all a selling point, presumably. Do you miss George Michael? Then surely you’ll want to hear George Michael’s music reduced to an anonymous temp score that doesn’t fit the action at all?

Kate begins a relationship with a mysterious stranger called Tom (Henry Goulding) who may or may not be connected to her heart transplant; is he a doctor? An angel? Whatever he is, we can tell Tom is a good man because he works in a homeless shelter and doesn’t want to sleep with her. Tom is here to tell Kate how to live her life, and excuse my sarcasm here, that’s obviously what most women badly need, a man to tell them exactly how they should behave, so Kate quickly falls for him.

Tom wants Kate to live her life to the full, and that means reconciling with her Croatian mother, played by Emma Thompson because there are literally no Croatian women who could have played this role. We see Thompson watching Brexit news on television and screaming ‘It’s because they hate us’, a scene that might have had some political resonance if Thompson wasn’t so clearly a super-affluent Hampstead home-owner and hardly qualified to speak for the average Croatian. If people like Thompson ever shut up, Croatians might, one day, get the chance to speak for themselves. This kind of ethnic insensitivity is 2019’s version of blackface, an all-singing, all-stereotyped shrill caricature that is slowly being eradicated from cinema but not fast enough to save this silly yet depressing film.

It’s hard to know what to say about a film that hears ‘Last Christmas, I gave you my heart…’ and constructs a drama about heart transplants. How about Don’t Stop Believing?, a Paul Schrader drama about a religious pastor who faces a crisis of confidence? Or I Left My Heart in San Francisco, with Nicolas Cage as a hospital intern who forgets a vital organ on a trip to the Bay area? Such conceits work as jokes, and jokes only; they reduce the meaning of the song to absurdity, and that’s exactly what Last Christmas does. The rom here isn’t romantic at all, and the com is non-existent; a throwaway line about ‘lesbian pudding’ is the one single moment that raised a laugh at my screening. Similarly, there’s some beyond limp cameos from the likes of Sue Perkins, and even the great Peter Serafinowicz looks mortified as he offers up his Christmas cracker ‘elf and safety’ joke and shuffles off.

With an underwhelming musical number as a climax, Last Christmas is a blot on the resumes of all concerned; like The Holiday, it’s a festive ghost that will haunt and diminish the stars, returning every year to remind us of their desperation to grab audience’s cash from them. Clarke has noted that she won’t be reading the reviews for this one, presumably with the notion that if she doesn’t know that people hate this film, then that hatred isn’t happening. If she ever changes her mind, she should know that the audience, baited, switched and heading for the exists before the credits started to roll, were happy to escape the living nightmare that Last Christmas becomes.

The Man Who Loved Women 1983 ***

man who lovedA big studio flop back in the day, The Man Who Loved Women is a problematic film today, and there’s good reasons why Blake Edwards’ vehicle for Burt Reynolds is rarely seen or discussed. Few things date more quickly than sexual mores, and it’s arguable that Francois Truffaut’s original 1977 film was already obsolete by the time this remake occurred. Yet Reynolds and Edwards were coming off hot streaks, 10 was Edwards’ last big hit, and The Man Who Loved Women fails because of the unthinking hubris of the film’s makers.

The film opens, as no comedy ever should, with the funeral of the main character; literally hundreds of women rampage through the graveyard, attesting to the sexual prowess of LA sculptor David Fowler (Reynolds). We then flash back to see exactly what kind of love we’re talking about; Fowler loves legs, he loves bodies, he loves faces, so he’s a real lover of women, right? Well, actually, not; Fowler now seems like a real problem, a leech, a stalker, a man who has a juvenile view of life, and the film doesn’t do much to question that lifestyle. Instead, Edwards seems more intent on celebrating Fowler, with a slew of beautiful women (Taxi’s Marilu Henner, Kim Basinger as an insatiable Texan wife, Julia Andrews as a psychiatrist, Denise Crosby as his assistant) throwing themselves at his feet.

10 mixed middle-aged melancholy with Pink Panther-type sight-gags and pratfalls, but that formula wears thin here, as attempts at serious sexual commentary interspersed with laboured slapstick, notably Fowler gluing himself to a dog. Even worse, Fowler isn’t likeable when he talks about an ‘enduring appreciation for the women of the street’, in fact, he’s straight up repugnant in his comfortable chauvinism. The Man Who Loved Women is an interesting footnote for several big Hollywood talents, an over-ambitious folly that reveals the flaws in both men’s psyches; Edwards co-write this with his psychiatrist, while Reynolds seems to have acted several scenes in his own persona rather than his characters. This kind of self-analysis could have paid dividends, but a painful lack of self-awareness makes this a curiosity piece only.

 

 

Salt and Pepper 1968 ***

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Continuing with my selective Sammy Davis Junior season, this Richard Donner film was presumably enough of a hit to spawn a sequel, One More Time in 1970. There’s something of a lurch of tone between the two films, much like the one between Our Man Flint and In Like Flint; the sequels killed each franchise by toning down the expensive action and doubling down on silly comedy. Salt and Pepper plays better than One More Time, yet there’s still more than enough cultural dissonance to make it a revealing snapshot of swinging sixties mores.

Salt and Pepper are Sammy Davis Junior and Peter Lawford, two nightclub owners in London’s seedy Soho district, a ‘legitimate sewer’ says Pepper. There’s quite a few exterior shots which give a picture of the strip-joints and clubs at presumably a prosperous time for exploiting women, an establishment called The Strip-It features largely. The characters are always in trouble with the law, and the laughs start when a Chinese call-girl is murdered in the club. This sparks action, in that the boys have to find the real killer before the police pin the killing on them, but it’s also notable that there’s no sense of gravity or sadness about a woman’s death. In fact, it’s genuinely disturbing that Pepper attempts to chat up the girl, unaware that she’s dying; ‘She’s stoned,’ says Pepper. ‘Maybe god has sent us a gift?’ asks Salt with a cheeky smile. ‘No, we’ll return this package unwrapped,’ says Salt, as if passing up an opportunity to force themselves on semi-unconscious women was something unusual and sad.

Salt and Pepper has a real setting, but the behaviour captured is extreme and cartoonish, an issue which is never resolved. Comic subjects include such jovialities as police station bombings, and the japes run all the way up to government level where we see the prime minister prepare to fire nuclear weapons on Scotland for reasons too convoluted to explain. Lionel Blair stages a musical number while Jeremy Lloyd, Graham Stark and Geoffrey Lumsden wander around as Central Casting stuffy Brits. John Le Mesurier plays a villain complete with a pirate’s eye-patch, pursuing Sammy and Pete as they scoot down Carnaby Street around in a yellow mini-moke kitted out with oil slicks, machine guns and other familiar accoutrements.

Donner would go on to capture another racially charged partnership in Lethal Weapon, but judged by today’s standards, Salt and Pepper is notable as one of cinema’s most  cess-pits of toxic masculinity. It’s not just women that are treated as a non-precious commodity. ‘I was a fag here for two years,’ says Pepper of his alma mater, prompting some world-class bug-eyed mugging from Salt and the reply ‘You’re secret is safe with me.’ White, heterosexual men rule the roost, set the agenda, and everyone else is just decoration. MeToo has licenced a few sanctimonious bores, but if you want to see why such movements are absolutely necessary, Salt and Pepper captures the rancil feel of a time, leaving the worst possible taste in your mouth.

https://www.amazon.com/Salt-Pepper-Sammy-Davis/dp/B0096HLH00/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=salt+and+pepper+1968&qid=1573379365&sr=8-2

Grosse Pointe Blank 1997 ****

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Was there ever such a carefree time as 1997? No terrorism, no political unrest, even the hit-men were nice guys as evidenced by George Armitage’s fondly remembered rom-com Grosse Pointe Blank. Sure, there’s a high body count, and yes, the John Cusack’s character is a sociopath, but dress it up in day-glo colours, throw in Minnie Driver as love interest, and add a slick soundtrack and you’ve got proper feel-good fare. Why worry about the future?

Martin Black (Cusack) is a troubled man, although even his shrink (Alan Arkin) isn’t too keen to engage with his neurosis. A dedicated hit-man, Blank falls out with his handler (Dan Ackroyd) before heading back to his suburban alma mater for his high school reunion. Local DJ Debi (Driver) is till spinning records at her main-street record shop, but she’s still smarting from being stood up on prom night. Can Martin Blank recover his mojo, win back his girlfriend, and survive a return to his high school, all the while fighting off various professional assassins?

And what’s at stake here. really? Not much, other than whether Martin and Debi will get it together, but that’s the charm of Tom Jankiewicz’s script, loosely improvised by the cast. Many 1990’s films are now rendered somewhat inconsequential by their reliance on fading star-power to deliver high-concept, low-gravity fare, but Grosse Pointe Blank catches most of the cast on an upswing, and leans into the irony that’s it’s a rom-com first and the killing-sprees are mainly there for decoration. It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it, and Armitage’s film is that peculiar kind of movie confection that’s more about wish fulfilment than dealing with anything real.

In short, it’s an ideal scenario that you return to high school for a reunion, and you’ve got the coolest job by far, a warm and cozy fantasy vindicated by the cartoonish, almost bloodless approach to assassinations shown here. The Reagan years were just fading, and there was still a no-questions asked approach to what anyone did for a living; Blank cheerfully tells his fellow graduates that he’s a killer and no-one turns a hair. Cusack and Driver are at their most charming, Actions have consequences in real life, but movies offer an escape from that, and Grosse Pointe Blank looks back on a happier time when you could launch into over a dozen murders and still get the girl and walk off into the sunset with a happy tune from one of several soundtrack albums.

 

Back to School 1986 ****

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The United Kingdom is a place where, back in the 80’s, over 70 films were labelled ‘video nasties’ and deemed illegal on account of their depraved content. At the same time, Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School was not released at all, despite being the sixth most popular film of the year in the US. Without using any ‘adjusted for inflation’ rubric, Back to School would be a film bigger than Fast and Furious: Hobbs and Shaw or Aladdin in 2019. So why was Back to School impossible to see while The Beast in Heat and Gestapo’s Last Orgy were on the video-shop shelves?

The answer, of course, comes down to money; no distributor thought that Back to School would make a buck in the staid-minded UK. While is ironic, given that Alan Metter’s film, from writers including Harold Ramis, reflects on how money changes perceptions, and doesn’t suggest that financial prosperity is the most important thing. Dangerfield brings his best boggle-eyed gaze to the role of Thornton Melon, a businessman who has off-the-radar wealth, a beautiful unfaithful wife (Adrienne Barbeau) and a son who lacks gumption. ‘Remember, you’re a Melon’ Thornton tells his son (Keith Gordon), and Back to School sees father attempt to show his son how to get an education. Unfortunately, Thornton Melon only understands business and not learning, and the stage is set for a clash between commerce and education.

Any film that starts with a non-stop stream of fat jokes needs to be carefully approached, but Thornton Melon is a more complex character than might be expected. He is crude, yet he gets what he wants; you can insert your own 2019 political allusion here. He walks into a campus bookshop, puts his credit card behind the counter and announces ‘Shakespeare for all!,’ before eyeing up the cashier with the line ’I’d like to tame her Shrew!’. The screenplay places the wealthy Melon within a vaudevillian tradition of ne’er-do-wells, an oaf who thinks that Joyce is a woman, an affluent man-child who complains to art-lovers that he fears his wife has being showing other men her Klimt. He is an immigrant who lack nuance, and yet he’s less of an idiot than a holy fool who speaks an unvarnished truth in the guise of crude jokes.

Although the diving competition scene goes on a little long, there’s a variety of amusements here; a key scene involves Melon memorably reciting Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into This Good Night in the room where the final audition for Flashdance was filmed. And there’s terrific support turns from Burt Young, Ned Beatty, M Emmett Walsh and Robert Downey Jr, with long coat, ruffled shirt and multi-coloured hair looking like The Breakfast Club’s John Bender and Ferris Bueller fell into a blender.

Back to School was a funny movie in 1986, and it’s still funny now; the suggestion that money can’t buy everything seems richer with the passing years. Author Kurt Vonnegut appears as himself, hired to write an assignment about his own work (which he fails) and Danny Elfman turns up with his band Oingo Boingo as a frat house entertainment, as if any further inducement to consume this (once unavaliable) product is required.

Dolemite Is My Name 2019 ****

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Who was Rudy Ray Moore and why should be care about him in 2019? This comeback vehicle for Eddie Murphy is a superficial but undeniably entertaining Netflix-lite account of the 1970’s comic who rose from club gigs, concert records and eventually Blaxploitation cinema to become a significant cultural influence. For Murphy, who has vanished from the big-time scene for some time, playing Moore gives him a chance to get back a mojo that’s been posted missing for decades, and Dolemite Is My Name certainly provides that showcase.

Moore is introduces as an unsuccessful hustler, tying to get a foothold with a uninterested record store DJ Raj (Snoop Dogg); in a script written by the team who brought us Ed Wood (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski), the trajectory of Moore’s career is obvious from the moment he listens to a passing vagrant telling jokes, and realises that there’s nothing in his day’s media that reflects that culture. Club MC-ing comes easily to him in character as Dolemite, and making records in people’s houses propels him to a cult success. But a viewing of the comparably austere worldview contained in Billy Wilder’s 1974 film The Front Page inspires Moore to go a step further: enlisting the help of a playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) to create a movie, despite knowing almost nothing about what that might entail. The presence of funny performers like Titus Burgess and Craig Robinson has already provided a rich garnish for Murphy’s imitation of Moore, but a higher comic gear is achieved when Wesley Snipes enters as D’Urville Martin, who acts and directs alongside the inexperienced Moore, and who suffers long and hard for his art; for Snipes and Murphy, Dolemite gives them a chance to shine, and they grab it with both hands.

What’s less impressive here is that Dolemite Is My Name, directed by Craig Brewer, has little to actually say about Moore, comedy, or cinema aside from breathlessly relating a legend of financial success; Moore isn’t allowed a private life, or even a sex life, and most of his problems only occur to be resolved in the following scene. It’s the kind of approach that featured in The Wolf of Wall Street; print the legend and nothing else. The only characters not immediately in thrall to Moore are those who haven’t worked out how to make money from him; for a 2019 audience, without any real context beyond a few seconds of Wilder’s film, Moore’s routines, bravado and sexism don’t seem particularly amusing in themselves, however painstakingly brought to life.

Dolemite is My Name is the kind of rags to riches story that’s easy to relate to, and Moore’s approach to film-making makes for an entertaining film. But Brewer doesn’t actually make many points other than you can make a lot of money making blue jokes, denigrating women and acting out stereotypes. It’s easy to see why Murphy related to the idea of making this film, and there is likely to be a substantial audience who share his interest, even if the result seems to airbrush its subject to gain mainstream acceptance.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80182014?source=35