The Films of 2020: Standing Up, Falling Down (dir by Matt Ratner)


Having failed to achieve his dream of becoming a comedy superstar in Los Angeles, 34 year-old Scott (Ben Schwartz) returns home to Long Island.  How bad are things for Scott?  Consider this:

When he left for Los Angeles, he left behind Becky (Eloise Mumford), despite thinking that he was in love with her and despite her asking him to stay.  While he was in L.A., he purposefully chose to not respond to her attempts to get in contact with him because he was determined to move on with his life.  Now, he’s back and he’s wondering what could have been.  As for Becky, she’s now an acclaimed photographer and she’s married to a surfer named Owen (John Behlman).

All of his old friends are now married and have families and don’t really have time to hang out with a 34 year-old who is still struggling with adulthood.

When Scott returns home, he moves back in with his parents.  His mother (Debra Monk) spoils him while his father (Kevin Dunn) barely says a word to him.  Scott announces that, even though he knows he needs a job, there’s no way that he’s going to go to work at his father’s lumberyard.  His father says that’s not a problem because he wasn’t planning on offering Scott a job in the first place.

Scott’s sister (Grace Gummer) is also living at home and is stuck in a less than glamorous job but she’s dating Ruis (David Castaneda), an extremely charming security guard who is loved by everyone who meets him.

And, to top it all off, Scott has developed a rash of some sort in his arm!

In fact, the only positive development in Scott’s life is that he’s made a new friend.  Marty (Billy Cyrstal) is a bit older and he’s an alcoholic but he also has the best weed and he’s full of good advice.  On top of that, Marty’s also a dermatologist and is willing to just give Scott the medicine for his arm free of charge.  Marty becomes a bit of a mentor to Scott.  Of course, Marty has demons of his own.  His first wife committed suicide and his second wife died of stomach cancer.  His own son refuses to speak to him and won’t allow him to see his grandson.  Marty’s drinking isn’t the quirky character trait that it first appears to be.  Instead, it’s what he does to deal with the pain and the guilt that he carries around with him every day.

Standing Up, Falling Down is an occasionally effective and occasionally awkward mix of comedy and drama.  As a character, Scott can occasionally be a bit hard too take.  It’s one thing to have trouble accepting the fact that you’re getting older while it’s another thing to be in your mid-thirties with the maturity level of a 13 year-old.  At times, Scott seems to be so helpless that you find yourself wondering how he survived in Los Angeles for as long as he did.  Fortunately, Ben Schwartz is an appealing actor and the film doesn’t make the mistake of trying to idealize Scott’s lack of direction.  You find yourself sincerely hoping that Scott will finally manage to get his life together, even though you know he probably won’t.

The big surprise of the film is Billy Crystal, who gives a genuinely good and complex performance as Marty.  Like Crystal, Marty is a bit of an attention hog and occasionally seems a bit too satisfied with his jokes.  However, the film also explores why someone like Marty always feels the need to be “on.”  The best moments in the film are the ones where Marty quietly considers why his life has reached the point that it has.  In the film’s quieter moments, there’s a lot of sadness in Crystal’s performance.  The scene where he unsuccessfully tries to get his son to talk to him is absolutely heart-breaking, all the more so because Cyrstal downplays the scene’s potential for sentimentality.  Right when you’re expecting schmaltz, Crystal instead holds back.  With just the slightest change in his facial expression, Crystal immediately tells us everything that’s going on inside of Marty’s head.  It’s a truly good performance.

Standing Up, Falling Down is a low-key, occasionally effective dramedy.  Not all of it works (I could have done without Scott harassing his sister’s co-worker at the pretzel place) but it has a good heart and an unexpectedly great performance from Billy Crystal.

Catching Up With The Films of 2018: Fifty Shades Freed (dir by James Foley)


“Mrs. Grey will see you now.”  (Insert your own eye roll GIF here.)

Occasionally, you see a film and, even though you know you should, you just never get around to reviewing it.  For instance, I saw Fifty Shades Freed when it was originally released in February and then I watched it again when it was released on DVD.  Both times, I thought to myself that I should write down my thoughts on the film, if for no other reason than the fact that I previously reviewed both Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker for this site.  And yet, I never did.  To be honest, it was difficult to really think of anything to say about this movie that I hadn’t said about the previous two films.

Fifty Shades Freed opens with Christian (Jamie Dornan) and Ana (Dakota Johnson) getting married and going on their honeymoon.  It’s fun!  It’s sexy!  And it’s kinda creepy because, as always, Christian has control issues and he has to have his security team following them all over the place.  Christian freaks out with Ana removes her top on the beach.  Ana gasps at the sights of handcuffs.  There’s one hot sex scene that will temporarily make you forget about the fact that Jamie Dornan doesn’t seem to be that good of an actor.  It’s everything that you’d expect from a Fifty Shades honeymoon.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon ends way too quickly and then we have to deal with the marriage.  On the plus side, marrying Christian Grey means that you get to live in a really nice house and fly around in a private jet.  On the negative side, Christian is still basically an immature douchebag and, now that’s she rich, Ana has become a lot less likable.

Christian freaks out when he discovers that Ana is still using the name “Ana Steele” in her email address.  Ana explains that she’s Ana Steele at work but then, when she meets an architect named Gia Matteo (Arielle Kebbell), Ana tells her to stop flirting with her husband and announces, “You can call me Mrs. Grey!” with all the intensity of Kelly Kapowski announcing that she’s going to prom with Zach Morris on Saved By The Bell.

The marriage continues to play out like a perfume commercial written by Sartre’s bastard child.  Fortunately, there’s a few more sex scenes that are designed to again remind us that a good body can make up for a lack of everything else.  Unfortunately, Ana gets upset when Christian tries to humiliate her for real and a pouty Christian walks out of a shower as soon as Ana steps into it.  Ana is told that she’s pregnant and Christian totally freaks out because he still has all sorts of things that he wants to do with his money.  Christian’s a douchebag but he’s got a good body and he’s like super rich.  Have I already mentioned that?

Anyway, it turns out that Ana is being stalked by her former boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson).  Fortunately, all of the stalking allows Ana and Christian to rediscover their love for each other.  There’s a kidnapping.  There’s a car chase.  There’s a lot of music and a lot of scenes of Dakota Johnson looking confused and Jamie Dornan looking blank.  It’s a Fifty Shades movie.  What else were you expecting?

The usual argument that critics tend to make with the Fifty Shades trilogy is that the movies are terrible but Dakota Johnson does the best that she can with the material.  Actually, both Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are pretty lousy in all three of these films but Ana was at least kind of a sympathetic character in the previous two films.  Unfortunately, Fifty Shades Freed sees Ana and Christian becoming a boring married couple and what little chemistry Dornan and Johnson had in the previous films completely vanishes.  As a result, Ana doesn’t seem like someone lucky enough to have fallen in love with a man who just happens to be super wealthy.  Instead, she just comes across like someone who sold her soul for a private jet.

Fifty Shades Freed is the weakest of the trilogy, done in by the fact that there’s really not much of a story to tell.  Ana and Christian get to live blissfully ever after and it’s always good to see happy mannequins.  I saw this movie with my best friend and we talked through the entire movie and I imagine that’s what we’ll do every time we rewatch it.

Film Review: Fifty Shades Darker (dir by James Foley)


The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is shaping up to be the cinematic equivalent of a twitter parody account.

That’s the conclusion that I reached today after my BFF Evelyn and I watched the second part of the trilogy, Fifty Shades Darker.  Since we had both read the book, we weren’t shocked when Fifty Shades Darker turned out to be a bad movie.  Hell, we weren’t surprised when Fifty Shades of Grey turned out to be bad, either.  Each subsequent book was worst than the one that came before it so, when the film version of Fifty Shades Freer is released next year, it should be the worst of all.

Still, nothing could have prepared us for the amount of laugh-out-loud moments and odd details that were offered up in Fifty Shades Darker.  Consider just a few:

Having broken up with Christian “I’m fifty shades of fucked up” Grey at the end of the previous film, Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson, doing penance in the hope of being sprung from Purgatory) is now working for a hip and trendy Seattle publishing company!  How do we know that it’s hip and trendy?  Well, it’s in Seattle and it’s called Seattle Independent Publishing!  (As opposed to Seattle Corporate Press.)  Her boss, Jack (Eric Hyde) leers at her in a style that basically screams, “Lifetime movie villain!”  There’s a scene in which Ana tells her editors that they should be making more of an attempt to reach readers in the “18-24 demographic” and everyone reacts as if this is the first time that they’ve ever heard about this concept.  You half expect someone to say, “18 to 24 year olds!  WHY DIDN’T WE THINK OF THAT!?”  Seriously, after seeing this, I’m going to send my resume to the Dallas Observer, along with a note that says, “18-24.  Hire me for more info.”

When Christian (poor Jamie Dornan, who I’m pretty sure was trying to blink out an S.O.S. signal at certain points in the film) and Ana first reunite, it’s to attend an art show.  Ana’s artist friend has filled an entire gallery with photos of Ana, the majority of which resemble the “sexy” photos that Darcy posted to her MyRoom page in that very special episode of Degrassi.  Christian buys all the pictures because he can’t handle the idea of anyone else having Ana on their wall.  This obsessive and controlling act is just enough to apparently make Ana reconsider her decision to dump Christian because he was being too obsessive and controlling.

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Christian eventually confesses to Ana that he’s only attracted to women who look like his mother and he punishes them because he’s angry with her.  “Oh, Christian, your Oedipal complex is so sexy,” Ana coos.  Okay, she doesn’t say that.  I said that and then Evelyn said something that I can’t repeat.  And then we laughed and laughed.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know that everyone has their issues and God knows, I’ve got a few myself.  But the minute a guy tells me that he’s only dating me because I look like his mother, that’s the minute I leave.

When Christian tells Ana about his messed up childhood, Ana responds by drawing on his chest with lipstick.  And I swear, that lipstick remains on his chest — without a smudge — for at least a few days.  Every time we would catch a glimpse of those perfect lipstick markings on Christian’s chest, Evelyn and I would start laughing.  I mean, drawing on your partner (or having your partner draw on you) can be fun but most people wash it off after a while.

(Incidentally, when the Scary Movie people get around to parodying this movie, you know that the lipstick scene is going to be recreated.)

Christian’s childhood bedroom is decorated with a poster of Vin Diesel.  When Christian is pouring out his heart, Vin Diesel is glowering in the background.  It would have been neat if the poster had suddenly come to life.  Perhaps Vin could have suddenly appeared in the bedroom and said, “Someday … BUT NOT TODAY!”

And I’m not even going to talk about the Ben Wa balls.

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Anyway, there’s really not much of a plot in Fifty Shades Darker.  Ana gets back together with Christian but says that she wants to have a “vanilla” relationship.  Christian agrees but he still keeps doing controlling stuff, like buying Ana’s company and freezing her bank account.  Ana gets mad.  Ana breaks up with him.  They get back together.  This happens a few times.  Christian tells Ana to stay away from a man.  Ana gets upset but then the man tries to rape her which feels like the film’s way of putting her in her place for doubting Christian’s instincts when it comes to men.  Kim Basinger pops up as the woman who introduced Christian to BDSM and tells Ana that Christian will never be happy in a vanilla relationship.  Ana says that vanilla is her favorite ice cream.  Here’s my thing: why can’t Ana come up with a more complimentary term than “vanilla” to describe her relationship goals?  I mean, Ana’s clever.  She came up with that whole 18-24 thing, after all.

There’s also a crazy woman (Bella Heathcote) who shows up occasionally.  We know she’s crazy because she’s dressed like someone who lives in an abandoned subway tunnel.  She occasionally grabs Ana and says, “I’m nobody!”  Hmmm….I wonder what that’s about…

(Well, don’t wonder too much.  There’s not a single mystery or question in Fifty Shades Darker that isn’t solved a scene or two after it’s raised.)

One of the redeeming things about Fifty Shades of Grey is that neither Dakota Johnson nor director Sam Taylor-Johnson seemed to be taking it all that seriously.  Dakota would pause meaningfully before delivering the worst of her dialogue, a sign that even she couldn’t believe what she was about to say.  Meanwhile, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction suggested that she found the story to be just as ludicrous and stupid as everyone else.  However, Fifty Shades Darker is directed by James Foley.  Foley is a veteran director, one who has been making films since before I was born.  He does a workmanlike job and you can almost hear him shouting, “Now, where’s my paycheck!?” during certain scenes.  Under Foley’s direction, there’s no winking at the audience.  There’s no hints of subversion.  Foley’s direction is very literal and more than a little dull.  He was hired to direct a big-budget version of a Chanel No. 5 commercial and that’s exactly what he does.

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The other big issue with Fifty Shades Darker is that Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan have very little romantic chemistry.  They both look good naked but that’s about it.  Jamie looks miserable to be there and Dakota seems to be trying to keep herself amused.  The lack of chemistry was less of a problem in Fifty Shades of Grey.  In that film, all that mattered was that Christian was rich and hot and Ana didn’t really haven’t anything better to do.  But, in Fifty Shades Darker, we’re asked to believe that they’re actually deeply in love and … no, it just doesn’t work.

Evelyn and I laughed through the entire movie.  In the past, we’ve gotten in trouble for doing this because we do have a tendency to get a little bit loud.  However, nobody in the audience seemed to mind.

Anyway, Fifty Shades Freer will be coming out next year.  Hopefully, someone will read this review and work my idea about the Vin Diesel cameo into the film.

Seriously, it would be great!

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Film Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (dir by Sam Taylor-Johnson)


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If there’s anything that’s obvious from looking over some of the reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s that only after you’ve read the book can you properly appreciate the film.

If you haven’t read the book, you’ll probably watch the film and dismiss it as being a draggy film that has some truly terrible dialogue and which features two actors who look good naked but who have absolutely no chemistry.  You might appreciate that fact that Dakota Jonson, at the very least, appears to be trying to give a good performance.  You might even acknowledge that director Sam Taylor-Johnson manages to capture a few pretty images.  You might even be happy that she resisted the temptation to cast her husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (a.k.a., the least interesting bankable actor working today), in the role of Christian Grey.  But, even with all of that, you’ll probably still probably watch the film and, even with its artfully composed and shot sex scenes, think to yourself, “That was two hours of my life that I’ll never get back.”

However, if you have read the book, then you will be capable of watching the film and understanding that, as flawed as it may be, 50 Shades of Grey probably should have been a thousand times worse.  It may seem weird to praise Sam Taylor-Johnson for managing to create a below average film but, considering her source material, below average is probably the best that could be hoped for.

Both the film and the book tell the same basic story.  Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a 21 year-old English lit major.  We know that she’s intelligent because she knows the difference between Thomas Hardy the writer and Tom Hardy the actor.  We know that she’s innocent because, the first time that she interviews Christian Grey, she wears a sweater.

As for Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), he’s a 28 year-old multibillionaire.  We are constantly assured that he’s the most interesting man in the world, despite the fact that he actually seems to be rather dull.  He likes Ana.  She likes him.  But Christian doesn’t do the relationship thing.  Instead, he explains, “I fuck.  Hard.”  (As opposed to doing so limp…)  He’s not interested in having a “vanilla” relationship with Ana.  Instead, he wants her to sign a contract in which she’ll agree to be his submissive.

That’s right — Christian claims to be into BDSM.  And, in order to prove that point, he has a red dungeon that’s full of stuff that he apparently picked up at a BDSM yard sale.  The dungeon’s red, of course.  In both the book and the film, a good deal of time is spent attempting to explain BDSM and, in both cases, you’re left with the feeling that Christian got most of his knowledge from reading Wikipedia.  In many ways, Christian comes across like someone who has never had a drink pretending to be drunk.  He tries really hard but … no.

Anyway, a lot of the film comes down to Christian trying to get Ana to sign a contract.  Ana agrees to give up her freedom.  When she asks what she gets in return, Christian replies, “Me.”  Which, if Christian was being played by Ryan Gosling or Michael Fassbender, might be an incentive.  But instead, he’s being played by Jamie Dornan who, quite frankly, looks embarrassed to be there.

Those who have read the book will be pleased to discover that Christian’s immortal line of “I’m fifty shades of fucked up!” has been included in the film.  Dornan delivers it like an actor who has given up and who can blame him?  To her credit, Dakota Johnson manages to keep a straight face.

Here’s the main problem.  Christian Grey is a stalker asshole.  He’s an obsessive control freak who is basically using the BDSM lifestyle as a way to cover up the fact that he’s a sociopath.  Though that was not author E.L. James’s intention when she wrote the book, that’s who Christian Grey ultimately turns out to be.  And that’s the way that Jamie Dornan plays the character.  It’s not that Dornan is a bad actor.  Just watch him in The Fall and you’ll see that Dornan is capable of giving a very good performance.  Instead, you just get the feeling that he looked at the 50 Shades script, saw that Christian was an impossible character to play sympathetically, and decided to give the most literal performance possible.  When you were reading the book, you could always imagine some redeeming features for Christian.  But, when you watch the movie, you’re forced to accept this very literal interpretation of the character and it quickly becomes apparent that the only reason why anyone would possible love Christian is because he’s rich.

Meanwhile, in the role of Ana, Dakota Johnson actually does a pretty good job.  Fortunately, the film jettisons Ana’s narration and we don’t have to hear any details about what her inner goddess is doing while being ordered around by Christian.  As a result, Johnson’s interpretation of Ana is far different from how the character was portrayed in the book.  Whereas the book’s Ana seems to be desperate to be loved by Christian, Johnson’s Ana often seems to be struggling to keep a straight face.  Whereas the book’s Ana took the whole contract thing very seriously, Johnson’s Ana always seems to be on the verge of rolling her eyes.  It gives the film an interesting subtext in that you never quite believe that Johnson’s Ana could be as intrigued by Christian Grey as both the book and the film insist that she is. Instead, she mostly seems to put up with him and his kinks because he buys her expensive gifts.

And, since Christian is such a jerk, you really don’t mind the possibility that Ana’s main motivation might be materialistic.

(Another great thing about Dakota Johnson is that she seems to be sincerely embarrassed whenever she has to tell anyone that her name is “Anastasia Steele.”)

Finally, a word about Sam Taylor-Johnson.  On the basis of Nowhere Boy, she’s a talented director and, as far as 50 Shades of Grey goes, I think she does the best that she could possibly do.  At the very least, she seems to realize that the film is a bit ludicrous and she wisely plays some of the book’s worst moments for subversive laughter.  Considering that 50 Shades of Grey is one of the worst books ever written (and, by that, I mean that the book’s prose is so clunky and overdone that it’s damn near unreadable), Sam Taylor-Johnson probably does deserve some credit for making a movie that’s only below average as opposed to disastrous.  At the very least, I hope that 50 Shades of Grey will not damage her career in the way that Twilight damaged the equally talented Catherine Hardwicke’s.

I forced my boyfriend to see it with my on Valentine’s and there were a lot of couples in the theater.  But, for all the talk of how 50 Shades of Grey launched a thousand fantasies, it’s not a particularly erotic film.  The sex scenes are well shot but, since Jamie and Dakota have no chemistry, they also feel very clinical and detached.  (Add to that, for a film that’s being identified as being a chick flick, the camera spent a lot more time lingering on Dakota’s naked body than on Jamie’s.)  All the sex that followed couples viewing 50 Shades on Saturday night had more to do with the romance of Valentine’s Day and the glory of being in love than with the film itself.

(That, of course, is one of the huge differences between 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Mike.)

50 Shades of Grey apparently made a lot of money this weekend and, if you’re reading this review, chances are that you’ve already seen the film.  So, I’ll just conclude by saying that the film is not as bad as most people were expecting.  It’s just not particularly any good either.  I’ll be looking forward to seeing what Dakota and Sam Taylor-Johnson do in the future but Christian Grey can just stay in his red room for all I care.

(And now that you’ve read the review, why not have some real fun and check out the Fifty Shades of Grey text generator!?  Click on refresh a few times and you’ll have an erotic best seller of your own, ready to be published and to make you rich!)