Lets Get Lost (1988) – 10/10

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Probably the greatest music documentary (real, as opposed to spinal tap) that I’ve ever seen. Why? There’s so much of humanity laid bare here. He’s not my favourite artist but he’s bloody great. I couldn’t listen to “I get along without you very well” by anyone else, and there are versions by nina simone (possibly my all time favourite artist) and Sinatra and others. Baker is great, no mistake. He’s also a fucked up guy. He lived his life like most great artists, full of myths and lies and brilliance and bullshit. A career fuelled by outrageous talent that drove his peers mad with jealousy, and looks that gave him everything but the personality to deal with it, he managed to throw it all away, and will never be remembered with the all time jazz greats, but with the near-greats.

This documentary catches him at the end of his career, old (but not too old), wizened, but still proud, still playing. It traces him then, it shows him now. Interviews come forth, they inform the opinions we’ve gained on him just from seeing him then – he’s already fooled us. We see he’s vain, but we also see the talent, the heart, the love for his art. He looks like the young American guy made good – the Jazz Elvis. Then we’re back in the enddays, and he’s the old American guy looking back. It’s all of life, right there. The guy, up in a hotel room, drugged, confused, staring down at the trumpet in its case, glaring back up at him, his whole worth. You know, without it, he thinks he’s nothing, even if he’s giving it the big I am – we see through the terror he’s suppressing.

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What’s funny is that, performance wise, people get worse as they get older. I love Miles Davis, but his later stuff is tough to accept from the guy who made Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue, and Nina Simone was a mess in her last days, painful to listen to. Chet Baker, looking like a homeless toothless hobo, sounds just as good as he ever did, and that isn’t an insult – it’s great. What’s lovely about this film is that it gives his music a wonderful platform – I won’t say better than it deserves, because it deserves a great platform. But there’s better jazz musicians that never had this platform. The cinematography is amazing. Take a bottle of wine, and watch this, and drown in it. I have, more than once. Finally, an artist gets what they deserve in terms of a film. That he wasn’t even bothered by that point, and that it may be more than the man deserves, is a part of it, to be honest.

From a headline point of view, he helps the documentary by throwing himself out of a topfloor window and killing himself sometime soon after this film was made, but he didn’t need to do so. This wasn’t a film that relied on glamour, scandal and excitement. This film was brilliant already.

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The Weather Man (2005) – 9/10

I missed this film when it first came out, and, due to it not being particularly well reviewed, was in no rush to see it.  I have only got around to it due to having watched “The Family Man” a while ago, and remembering how much I love watching Nicolas Cage in stuff, and so added a load more to my lovefilm list.  And he doesn’t disappoint again.  In fact, I think this is one of his greatest performances.

The acting is superb throughout this film, with the one bad spot being Michael Caine’s appalling effort at an American accent.  It’s such a small attempt, he gives up trying sometimes, and when he does do it, it makes you cringe.  Other than that though, his performance is excellent, as Cage’s disappointed father.  He’s disappointed with David Spritz (Cage), as is everybody else, most of all Spritz himself.  He does 2 hours of work a day, and picks up a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year for it.  He’s a weather man, but he’s not even a meteorologist.  He hates that there is a high degree of variance, which means the predictions he makes can’t even be relied upon.  So if his predictions are unreliable, and that’s all he does, then what use is he?

His conclusions about himself aren’t happy ones, unfortunately, but what he thinks of himself is probably still nicer than what his ex-wife, played by Hope Davis, thinks of him.  They have two kids, a fat unhappy daughter and a son who has had drug problems, and is assigned a counsellor, but has the bad luck to get a dodgy pervy one who wants to take photos of him topless. 

Spritz gets a shot at getting one of the top weather jobs, on daytime US network television, which would mean relocating.  He harbours dreams of reuniting his family and starting again elsewhere, an idea not wholly embraced by his ex who plans to marry someone else.  It’s this common feeling of “if only” that this film demonstrates so well.  If only he could get this better job, then maybe everything else will fall into place.  I’m very familiar with that feeling, and even if we know it can’t possibly fix everything, or maybe even anything, the magic fix is a delusion we’re often happy to entertain, as the alternative involves lots of hard work, and possibly unending unhappiness.

Another issue Spritz is wrestling with is the gradual wasting away of his potential.  Sure, he’s doing well, but you can only take one path in life, even if it’s a meandering one.  When it’s all potential, the possibilities are endless.  When you actually go through life, no matter which choice you make, you automatically discard all other choices.  The possibilities are whittled down to one, even if you choose right.  And nobody can choose right all the time.  Eventually, all the possible you’s are whittled down to just one you.  And that’s all you’re left with.  You.

It’s a messy film, with no obvious plot lines, and mixing humour and sadness to the point you can jump from one straight into the other.  Messy, then, kind of like life.  I confess to laughing and crying (yes, how sad is that.  And I’m not prone to crying at films, it’s probably happened about three or four times ever, but Cage and Caine, sitting in a car with a song by Bob Segar playing in the background, made it happen) in this film, although there’s no doubt it’s more drama than comedy.  Billed as a comedy, this was a crazy idea by the production company.  Talk about false advertising.  You want a comedy, you would hate this, as lots of people seem to have done.  It’s the same as About Shmidt, one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen.  However, if you want a film about the human condition, and what it means to find happiness in the world, and maintain relationships with your family, filled with terrific dialogue, fantastic performances, sparkling direction, tears, laughter, and the sense that anything could happen, then it’s worth a go.  You can continually think you know how a scene is going to pan out, and you will be continually wrong.

 Steve Conrad’s intelligent script is a joy – there’s a love of language, a love of the unexpected, and a love of life.  I try and write screenplays, and this is one I’d love to have written.  Maybe I feel I loved this film so much because I didn’t have much in the way of expectation, but this is one of the best films I’ve seen for a long time.  I can’t believe the negative ratings it gets.  In a time of boring films by numbers that Hollywood puts out, in between reboots and remakes and sequels and prequels, this is something special, and I’m gutted it doesn’t get more respect for that.  This is a courageous and sparkling piece of filmmaking, that I already want to watch again.  A film that can create tears of laughter and tears of sadness, sometimes only moments apart, is an excellent film indeed.  Possibly even a great one.

The Castle (1997) – 7.5/10

This is an interesting one to review.  Lots of people won’t have heard of it – I did through recommendation.  It’s done on a nothing budget (the shoot was cut from 20 days to 11, as that was all the time they could feed everybody), featuring unknowns everywhere.  It’s an Australian comedy about a family whose home is their castle, but find it under attack from the (very) nearby airport who want to expand.  It ends up in court, as they and their few remaining neighbours (everybody needs good neighbours) stand up to corporate greed, etc, etc. 

They are a low-brow family, who gather round to hear stories from someone who’s been on a plane, and where the father can’t believe his luck at every mealtime that they are eating such culinary delights as roast chicken or some ice cream (“Whaddya call this, luv?” “Icecream.”  “Yeah, but it’s the way you do it.” “How did you do it, Mum?” “Scooped it out the punnet.”)  There are many great lines in it, although I have to say I was constantly smiling, rather than outright belly laughing, but I think that’s what the film is going for.  It’s more of a gentle humour, but a well earned one, coming as it does through affection for the family rather than the easy laughs at their stupidity.  There are plenty of good running jokes, such as the dad and one of the sons being obsessed with buying and selling things on eBay, whatever the thing happens to be.  Their first instinct on hearing the price is always the same: “Tell ‘im he’s dreamin’!”, when he clearly has absolutely no idea how much the item in question should cost (eg a pair of jousting sticks).

For all their low IQs or low ambition, they are happy with their lot, and intensely proud of each other, and brave enough to stand up for what they believe in.  They want what they have got, and believe in hard work and supporting each other, and they are never afraid to show their affection for each other.  It’s not hard to like them and to support them, and thanks to this, it’s a heartwarming film that leaves you feeling better about life than when you started.  

The laughs range between obvious and subtle, but it all rings true (if embellished to cartoonish levels).  I thoroughly enjoyed this, and it’s a better made, better written, and better acted comedy than many that come from mainstream Hollywood and cost many millions of dollars more.  What most Hollywood films lack is heart, and this has heart by the bucketload.  Think Hollywood could make this?  Tell ‘em they’re dreamin’!

Sunset Boulevard (1950) – 9/10

Write about what you know, they say. So Billy Wilder came up with a story, funded by Hollywood, absolutely smashing Hollywood to it’s rotten charred heart. What stones, as they say! Focusing on a skint scriptwriter, being chased by people wanting to reclaim his car due to lack of payments, he gets a puncture, and hides out in a garage in a mansion he happened to be driving past in Beverley Hills. Seeing that the house appears to be run down and abandoned, he has a look around, and is startled when he is called in, in a case of mistaken identity, as the owner is expecting someone to arrive to bury her dead chimpanzee. Just the sort of storyline you’d expe- wait a minute! A dead chimpanzee?! Anyway, her butler (and biggest fan) shows him in, and he sets her straight, but it turns out in their conversation, as she is throwing him out, that their paths crossing could be useful to everyone. She is a forgotten Hollywood star, reclusive and cast aside since the glory days of silent cinema, which she ruled (as indeed the actress playing her did in real life). She is working on a comeback, and has a script. She wants him to finish it. She is clearly rich, judging by her house and her demeanour, and maybe this could be his mealticket if he plays it right. The problem is, while part of him is content to soak up her money and write her dismal script out for her, he is also falling for a girl, a fellow screenwriter, and this requires a delicate balancing act. While Desmond pays well, she doesn’t like competition, oh no.

What follows is for the viewer to find out, but there is clearly murder involved, as the film starts with a body in the pool, and the film is the story of the events that lead up to the grisly resolution. Therefore, we know disaster is looming, and that helps with the noir dread that hangs over everything. Norma Desmond, the film star, is almost dead already – forgotten and faded in her mansion like Miss Haversham (referenced in the knowing voiceover of the scriptwriter as he checks the place out for the first time). The acting is great – Gloria Swanson gets a dream ticket to ham her way through everything. There is no such thing as overacting for her – she is playing the greatest overactor of them all! By the very point of her role, she can’t physically overdo it, but my God, she tries. By contrast, William Holden plays it straight as the hapless drunk, Joe Gillis. This is helped by the fact that Holden was also a hapless drunk, his boozing having pretty much thrown his promising career off the rails by the time this film came along. He doesn’t have much charisma, but that’s perfect for the role, and it’s an excellent and believable performance. Erich von Stroheim, who actually directed Swanson in her silent career, plays her stoic and devoutly loyal butler sadly and brilliantly. Nancy Olson isn’t on the same level as the rest, but her part is a pretty superficial one. She is there to represent youth and the future to contrast with Desmond’s ugly and bitter past, to provide the choice for Gillis to sweat over.

There’s lots to admire in the film – it’s shot beautifully, it’s hard hitting and intriguing storyline drags you along, and is filled with compelling performances. It was sad, but nice, to see Buster Keaton as one of Desmond’s poker buddies. The film’s focus on Desmond reminds me of what a sad fall from grace Keaton had in his own career, and how his studio shafted him at the peak of his creative powers. Living proof that the dastardly film business portrayed in the film was no fiction on Wilder’s part, making the film all the more powerful. The stars might get rich, but at what cost.

Of Gods And Men (2010) – 5.5/10

I was fully prepared to love this. I had heard only good things, and when, with the DVD at the start menu, some beautiful peaceful chanting came on, I thought “This is going to be brilliant”. Then it started. We followed some monks going about their daily business, farming, praying, healing the sick. It looked peaceful, worthwhile, satisfying.

Then it all carried on for a while longer, and I got a bit restless. We carried on following them going about their daily business, but we didn’t learn much more about them. There were several monks that I got to recognise, but I couldn’t tell them apart as characters. I never got to know much about them, except the main two – the leader and the doctor. When trouble comes on the horizon, in the form of a conflict between the military and the local muslims, and the monks have to choose whether to stay and risk death, or leave their monastary or make deals with corrupt military officials, we see the resolve in the leader, and the fear in the others, but I felt neither myself.

This is the setup of the film, based on a true story, but I didn’t get caught up in it like I thought I would. Maybe it would help if I was strongly religious. I couldn’t get behind the idea of staying – I’d have been out of there like a flash. Is the monastary itself, made of stone, more important than being alive and doing God’s work? But the Bible’s full of war and fighting over land, so I can see where they’re coming from. But it doesn’t mean I have to have sympathy for them. That kind of stubbornness, and the conflict they’re caught up in, are all part of the worst part of religion, and I just found myself kind of annoyed with all of them, with everyone in the film.

The film was also moving at such a glacial pace that I struggled to maintain what interest I did have. While it was very well acted, and a noble and worthy film (with all the inherent problems that signifies), and it was nicely shot, and I believe very authentic, it just wasn’t a tale I could get enthusiastic about. I now know more about the lifestyle of monks of that period (and i guess many others), and it confirms what I suspected. They seem to be, on the basis of this, worthy people, content and satisfied by their duties, and the life they lead is a slow one, with little frills or frivolity. Without as much interest as them in the life they have chosen to lead, this film becomes a bit of a slog. The tension of the situation they find themselves in is diffused by the fact they could have left and had nothing to do with it.

As with my problems with Eden Lake, my sympathies for the characters are greatly reduced when they find trouble for themselves that they could have so easily taken steps to avoid – even if it’s the coward’s way out. Maybe that makes me a coward. I probably am one. But in Eden Lake, I’d have taken my stuff and gone to find a more peaceful part of the lake, rather than ask the kids to turn their music down, and in Of Gods and Men, I would have cut a deal with the corrupt people and carried on living my peaceful life. Amen to that.

Two Days in Paris (2007) – 7/10

I was shocked to see Julie Delpy cheating on Ethan Hawke with another American in this film. Well, ok, what I mean is, Julie Delpy to me almost IS the character in Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, and it’s a bit of a shock to the senses to see her with someone else. It doesn’t help that the film is similar, and so is her character, although far more annoying.

Staying for two days in Paris (Peter Griffin: “Naaaah! There it is!”) on the way back from Vienna to their home in America, Delpy’s Marion, and her American boyfriend of two years, Jack (Adam Goldberg), find out a whole lot more about each other due to the fact they’re in Marion’s hometown, populated almost exclusively, to Jack’s consternation, by Marion’s ex boyfriends. He isn’t in touch with any of his exes. Marion finds this strange. Doesn’t he think enough of her to want to stay in touch, even if the relationship doesn’t work out? Ooh, that’s one of those “tricky” ones to answer “correctly” that women throw at you sometimes. She loses the moral high ground by accidentally saying that she wants to stay in touch “when we split up”. oops!

More problems abound due to the fact Jack doesn’t speak French. The paranoia is worse watching your girlfriend speak to her exes right in front of you, if you don’t know what they’re saying and think it might be, horribly, all about you, or, even worse, all about them! Marion isn’t brilliant at quelling these rising feelings of jealousy, and it’s worse when naked photos of exes can be found in her copy of the Bible. Throw in the fact Jack has to meet and greet Marion’s bizarre bohemian parents (the dad is Delpy’s real life dad, and is very good), who serve up rabbit’s head for tea, and you have a sort of hellish European Meet the Fockers experience for poor Jack.

Jack starts off deeply unsympathetic. He’s one of those neurotic Americans, worrying about allergies, always going on about their sinuses, and wanting to get taxis everywhere because they don’t trust the locals or the transport system. However, Marion, who I instantly liked because, hey, it’s the wonderful Julie Delpy – who doesn’t love her in Before Sunrise? – gets more and more annoying. Honestly, her character is infuriating! My loyalties thus changed throughout the film. I especially felt for him at parties, where he was reduced to painful conversations with whoever is taking their turn to talk English to him to keep him happy, all the time worrying about whether the guy all over Marion is an ex who may very well be declaring his undying love right in front of him.

The film has some laugh out loud moments, and the occasional point to make about romance, but I felt almost nothing for their romance. They are deeply unsuited and don’t seem to have any real connection. When it comes to whether the viewer is desperate for them to sort out their issues, and stay together, it must be because you think they’re so right together. Well, I didn’t. I thought they were awful together. Another annoying factor is Delpy’s voiceovers. This starts out quite prevalent, and then takes a bit of a back seat, but it’s back for the crux of the film – and actually takes the place of the most important conversation of the film. Incredibly, it appears they couldn’t be bothered to write the main scene of the film, and instead Delpy summarises it in general terms, while you watch what you assume is probably quite an emotional scene – it certainly looks well acted too. An incredibly odd decision that removes the last of the heart of it.

I wanted to like the film, and I did, but I think I did because the acting is good, some of the lines are good, and I love Paris, and not through the achievements of the film as a whole, or because I want the romance to succeed. I think this is as good as a romantic film that has no chemistry between the two leads can be. It’s no classic, but it is watchable. Goldberg puts in the most interesting performance – he starts off annoying, and you warm to him throughout the film. It’s certainly watchable, but if this is the sort of romance Delpy gets in the rest of her filmic output, Hawke’s got nothing to worry about until the next “Before…” outing.

Eden Lake (2008) – 6.5/10

This is a harrowing and well-shot modern British thriller/horror, where a couple spending a weekend at an abandoned quarry fall into conflict with a group of young local hoodies.  It preys on our fear of what the press like to call our “feral youth”, and is fairly unrelentingly dark and depressing.  It’s a bit of a British “Deliverance” for our age, but I’m not sure they’d put that on the poster.

Steve (Michael Fassbender) and Jenny (Kelly Reilly) are likeable enough – although you know it’s not going to go smoothly for them when we see that Steve plans to propose to Jenny and keeps taking the ring out to look at it.  His heady dreams of romance must be quashed, by the laws of all things horror.

It starts out depressingly realistic, with the couple’s relaxing on the beach ruined by a bunch of noisy kids bringing a Rottweiler and stereo to the beach.  It creates the unease that one would feel when faced with a bunch of kids that aren’t currently doing anything wrong.  Is the unease the fault of the kids, or the result of Steve and Jenny’s own prejudices? (Obviously the viewer’s prejudices are somewhat aided by having read the back of the DVD!)  Steve wants to tell them to turn the radio down, and Jenny wants to go and find another part of the lake.  The two keep their respective approaches to the problem throughout the escalating conflict, and the viewer is left to reflect on whether Jenny’s approach would have avoided the crisis that follows, or whether the kids, out of sheer boredom and bravado, would have attempted to get involved anyway.

The group of kids have their own politics – they’re not just a faceless gang of equally nasty hoodies.  The leader is the catalyst for most of what happens, and, horribly, we can see other, possibly decent kids, being dragged down to the level of thug for fear of being singled out, or being bullied themselves.  This is an interesting and intelligent take on gang violence, something more serious films focus on, but which thrillers (which often don’t have the time or inclination to highlight the gradients between outright good and outright evil) rarely do.  The leader of the gang, Brett (Jack O’Connell) rules the gang by charisma and intimidation.  If you flinch from cruelty, then you are weak and might be next to be humiliated and punished.  In one particularly harrowing scene, it’s obvious how unenthusiastic most of the gang are, as things get out of control, but they still all contribute regardless.

It’s well shot, and very well acted.  My sympathies for the characters, however, takes a real hit, when they fall into the trap that a lot of horror and thriller films fall into.  To fully go along with these films, we need the characters to act as we would in the same situation.  If they exacerbate the situation unnecessarily too many times, or fail to do something that would clearly help, then we get fed up with them, and, in my case (maybe I’m a hoodie in denial), resign them to their fate and wish the baddies would get on with it. 

***SOME SPOILERS, BUT NOT MASSIVE FILM SPOILERS***

In one example, Steve and Jenny see a load of bikes outside a house, and Steve, still smarting from a prank played on them by the kids, decides to remonstrate with the parents.  He goes to the door and, after barely a cursory knock, finding the side door open, walks into the house.  He just brazenly walks in, through the kitchen, through the living room, into the hall, occasionally saying “Hello?”  I just have no idea what his character is doing – regardless of whether the house is owned by psychos or ordinary people.  I just wouldn’t walk into someone’s house unannounced.  Absolutely mental.  Obviously it’s to create a tense scene where the homeowner returns, and Steve panics, and tries to find a way out without alerting them.  But if he feels the need to find a way out, then surely he is in the wrong, and that would have occurred to him before the homeowner returns! 

There is another scene that has a massively illogical sequence of events.  The kids have stolen their car, and Steve is challenging them to get the keys back.  A scuffle breaks out, where a knife is produced, and it ends up with Steve accidentally stabbing the dog.  They all stop fighting and stand around looking at the dog, as you do when someone’s just tried to stab you.  Steve even apologises about the dog, and looks like he’s about to cry, rather than going “WTF! You pulled a knife on me, you fucking maniac!”  The kid then gives Steve his keys back.  Erm, what?  They go, and then the kids realise they actually don’t want to give the keys back, and instead want revenge.  But hey, cliché alert, the car is STUCK IN THE MUD, and they sit there revving the engine like crazy with no effect.  And yet, just when all hope is lost, Steve does the great thing of SHOUTING and revving the engine.  The shouting demonstrates just how much harder he is pressing his foot down on the accelerator than he was earlier, and so the car suddenly works and can drive OK now, so a car previously completely stuck in the mud, is suddenly freed due to him accelerating faster than he was a minute before.

***END OF SPOILER SECTION***

These things are obvious tricks used by the filmmakers.  They want the scenarios they have envisioned as being scary, and so the characters do whatever actions are needed to make this happen; not, as should surely happen, the characters follow their instincts, and the situations appear as a natural result of that. 

For these films to work, the characters need to be extensions of ourselves.  We need to feel represented on the screen, so that when they are terrorised by locals, WE are terrorised by locals.  If we don’t feel represented, we start to resent the stupid actions of the protagonist.  This is what happens in a lot of sub-standard horror, and this is what happens here.  It’s a fatal wound that undoes most of the good work done by the rest of the film.  While the gang stay almost within the realms of believability, and it raises scenarios demonstrating how kids can go wild with bad or non-existent parenting, and encompasses many of our fears of being “not from ‘round ‘ere”, the film cannot get over the predictability of some of the set pieces, and the improbable and unbelievable straying from what any sane human would do in certain situations, merely to get to the next set piece.