Marriage Story 2019 ****

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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 a 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 ***

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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 ****

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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 ***

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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 *****

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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.

The Entity 1982 ***

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Quite a sensation in the early 80’s, Sidney J Furie’s The Entity is a brutal account of a woman being regularly assaulted by paranormal forces, and makes a virtue of being based on true events, the well documented case of Doris Bither. Renamed Carla Moran, this woman is played with remarkable candour by Barbara Hershey in this adaptation of Frank De Felitta’s novel, with Ron Silver as the doctor she turns to for help. Furie doesn’t play the gothic card at all, with drab LA settings adding a strange verisimilitude and building to a truly weird climax where a duplicate of Moran’s house is built on a sound-stage, with the intention of freezing the demon when it appears. The special effects of the demonic attacks are still impressive, even if the whole entertainment value of the film is problematic. Of course, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino were front-row fans of the film, and it’s become a cult item since. Hershey locates a sympathetic core in Moran, and the gradual feeling that all the men in her life are in some way exploiting her is persuasive. The vestiges of an incest subplot only serve to confuse issues, but The Entity is worth a look for genre fans because of the high-seriousness and the mistrust of the male scientific figures involved. If nothing else, now almost certainly is a better time to consider The Entity’s merits than when Scottish television somehow selected this as their festive Christmas Day movie in the mid 1980’s.

https://trakt.tv/movies/the-entity-1982

Destroyer 2018 ***

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Karyn Kusama’s tough crime flick was hailed as an awards –front runner by dint of Nicole Kidman’s dramatic change of appearance for the title role of Erin Bell, an LA cop who goes deep undercover in an attempt to bust a bank-robbing gang. Awards-voters aren’t known for their appreciation of noir, and Destroyer fell by the wayside in terms of attention and box-office. Kidman, seen enjoying good health in the flashback scenes, looks haggard and exhausted in the modern-day storyline of Destroyer as she shakes-down various low-lives to get to the source of some dyed-bank notes which connect her to a disastrous heist. Toby Kebbell makes an impression as the gang’s leader Silas, and the big action scene has a real punch. The script isn’t always convincing, and the plot-holes work do against Destroyer, but as a terse thriller in the vein of Michael Mann, Destroyer has a lot to offer the discerning noir fan.