Baggage Claim (2013)

Baggage Claim is directed by David E. Talbert, produced by David E. Talbert, co-written by David E. Talbert and based on the novel, Baggage Claim by David E. Talbert. As such, it’s extremely easy to point fingers as who is to blame for this disaster of a romantic comedy that is neither romantic nor funny.

Paula Patton plays flight attendant Montana Moore, who is becoming exceedingly unhappy with her life. Maybe it’s the fantastic apartment she lives in. Maybe it’s her job. Maybe it’s her unnervingly squeaky voice. Maybe… just maybe, she needs a man to complete her. Sorry, we were being a bit misogynistic there. We were just playing around. Of course, she doesn’t want a man to complete her. Oh wait, no. Yeah, she does. She even says it. Several times. Even at the end when she gets her man whose surname is Wright. That drill sound you can hear is Emmeline Pankhurst spinning in her grave.

Worried that she’s’ probably going to throw herself under an ice cream van, or drown in her own tears, her friends set about using the most convoluted plan to help her meet someone. Digging through her phonebook, they crosscheck all the names of her exes against flight records and ensure that she always has a shift or a seat on that flight. As each date goes hilariously wrong (honestly, we ended up forgotting about death and everything), Montana always returns to her best friend, whose surname is Wright, for a shoulder to cry on. Wright, whose surname sounds like Right, bends over backwards for her, to the detriment of his relationship with his girlfriend. But don’t worry, she’s a cheating harpy, who is probably doing the nasty with other people because her boyfriend follows his high school crush around like a puppy dog.

Baggage Claim is awesomely offensive to anyone of any colour, gender, sex or creed. It’s the kind of shit –and we’re not using that term lightly- that should be burnt to the ground and salt thrown over the ashes so that nothing bad or good can ever grow there again. Avoid it like you would the plague.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier. Her husband, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), in Detroit. Eve lives vibrantly from day to day, surrounded by her books. Adam, a musician, is disillusioned with life, hiding away from the world and his fans. At first introductions, they don’t seem to have much in common. However, they love each other passionately and unashamedly. They also happen to be vampires. After Adam hints at ending his life, Eve rushes to his side.

Despite the potential for bloodletting and, god forbid, sparkling in the sunlight, Jim Jarmusch’s latest puts the vampirism on the back burner to a certain extent. Like Trainspotting with its cast of tweekers and junkies, the couple’s cravings are merely an extension of their characters, rather than the complete picture. After all, their thirst for the red stuff is sated through their contacts. For Adam, it’s a trip to a hospital’s bloodbank, whilst Eve gets her supplies from fellow vampire, and previously 16th century poet, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt).

When the couple meet again in Adam’s rundown house, after the initial consolation, they do what any long term couple do. They enjoy each other’s company: going for walks, hanging out and listening to music. These moments are never made any less ordinary simply because they happen solely at night. For Adam, they are part of a reluctant acceptance that there actually are reasons to get up at night. Eve, infectiously played by Swinton, coaxes and coerces him out of his shell, blaming all his misgivings on socialising with Byron and Shelley back in the day.

It’s only when Eve’s sister turns up that things become a miss. Ava, a ginger whirlwind played by Mia Wasikowska, is passion of the immortal unkempt. A party girl without restraint, she tests the couple’s endurance of the outside world; reflecting as she does, everything Adam sees wrong with modern. It’s a superb performance, which, along with The Double, buries the misgivings of Alice in Wonderland.

At its heart, Only Lovers Left Alive is more a romance than anything else. Slow burning being its top speed, the film floats by like the thoughts one has at five in the morning after being up all night. It is an exquisite slice of nuanced filmmaking with a distant yet familiar sense of love. It is further enhanced by a soundtrack of feedback and strings provided by Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL. Put simply, Jarmusch has provided us with a suitably dark present of gothic modernism that is truly haunting.

Gigli (2003)

In this romantic (?) comedy (?) from Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop), Ben Affleck plays Gigli; a mobster encouraged to kidnap the mentally challenged brother (Justin Bartha) of a federal prosecutor. Because Affleck is seemingly untrustworthy – maybe everyone thinks he’s going to sell the kid to a dealership for Pokemon money – Jennifer Lopez is hired to keep an eye on him.

There are many things wrong with this film.The dialogue reeks of being written by a 15 year old impersonating a Tarantino movie whilst Justin Bartha seems to be auditioning for the Rain Man 2. It’s a deeply offensive piece of work and we’ve seen A Serbian Film.

Ben Affleck playing an a-hole hit man? Wrong. Jennifer Lopez playing a sassy lesbian contractor? Wrong. The idea that lesbians just need the right kind of penis? Wrong. In fact, if you’re going to see one film where Ben-A converts a lesbian, make it Chasing Amy. At least everyone was vaguely likeable in that.

Gigli – the film we will always know as that film where J-Lo compares a mouth to a vagina and a penis to a sea slug.

Le Week-end (2014)

Wanting to rekindle their relationship, Nick and Meg Burrows, played by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan respectively, pack their bags for Paris to relive their honeymoon 30 years previously. Instead of reopening the gates of passion, the holiday just seems to further impound the difficulties they are having at home. Nick is a failed lecturer who allows his son to walk all over him, answering his calls and placating his every need. Constantly worried about money, Nick is the result of life beating you in an arm wrestle. Meg, meanwhile, is petrified of the Autumn years that loom over her and, wanting a clean break in life, is pursuing a new career and relationship.

Despite how it may first appear, Le Week-end is a wonderfully, bittersweet romantic film. It’s not that Meg and Nick hate each other, they’ve just reached a fork in the road and each turn off looks like a dead end. They fight and break up so many times during the first act, it feels like this clash of Meg’s caustic dominance and Nick’s simpering benevolence forms a glue that keeps them together. Anyone who has been in a long enough relationship will understand how the person you love the most can be also be the one that makes you the most angry. When Jeff Goldblum, a former student of Nick’s enters the picture, he unwittingly further exposes the insecurities the couple have with themselves and each other, leading to a bleakly funny game of dinner party confessions in the film’s closing act.

Expertly directed by Roger Mitchell (Hyde Park on Hudson), a carefully worded script by Hanif Kureish and three excellent leads, Le Week-end is a joy from beginning to end.

Before Midnight (2013)

It’s hard to discuss Before Midnight without referencing the previous films. As such, please be warned the following contains spoilers.

Before Midnight allows us to once more dip our toes into the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) who stole our hearts in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. After the events of nine years previously in Sunset, the transatlantic couple are holidaying in Greece with their two children and numerous friends. Jesse is still making waves as a writer, having written another book based on his relationship with Celine. She meanwhile has become unsure of what to do with and is planning a career change.

The wonder and charm of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is how, after the setup of Sunrise, Sunset was been like dropping in on old friends. We delighted in their company and waited eagerly for them to fill us in on what they’d been up to. Midnight has that same feeling, but it’s a more somber affair. Celine’s optimism has appeared to have been worn away, with a suggestion that she sees herself failing to live up to the Celine in Jesse’s novels. When we’re first reintroduced to Jesse, he is packing his son from his first relationship back to his ex-wife. Missing his plane in Sunset was a pleasurable mistake for Jesse, but it’s clear he worries about the effect his divorce has had on his son. These are emotionally not the same people we met all those years ago. The mistakes and worries of life that could be swept away by the follies of youth, have come home to roost.

It probably goes without saying, but Delpy and Hawke are superb. Previously we were party to Jesse and Celine exploring each other physically and mentally; laying themselves open to each other and revealing their hopes and fears. In Midnight, during Linklater’s obligatory real time conversations, they begin to chip away at each other’s defences. Frustrated with themselves, they use their intimate knowledge of each other to make a comment here or a dig there. It’s the kind of raw dialogue you can only have with someone you care, or have cared, for deeply. The bitter comfort of knowing you may win this fight, because you know the cheat codes. And the fact it hurts us to watch them act this way is a testament to what Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have achieved. We are fully committed to this relationship, even if Jesse and Celine appear not to be.

Before Midnight is a perfect example of filmmaking, with strong performances and an insightful script. Get all three films, take the evening off and wallow in cinema at it’s finest.

Diana (2013)

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) and written by Stephen Jeffreys (The Libertine), Diana tries to be a warts and all portrayal of the last two years of Princess Diana’s (Naomi Watts) life whilst simultaneously highlighting the romance between her and heart surgeon, Dr Hasnet Khan (Naveen Andrews). And in both cases it is incredibly unsuccessful.

It’s almost as if the film doesn’t even want us to like our two protagonists. Diana, starting off as a naïve woman who can’t even cook pasta, becomes a shrewd media manipulator at the drop of a hat. In the run up to her death, the film decides to make her a bitter and obsessive ex who will resort to emotional manipulation to achieve her ends. ‘I’m a princess, and I get what I want’ she says at point before allowing herself to be ravaged by Khan. Whilst we have no evidence to suggest she wasn’t all of these things, her characterization could have been more organic. Meanwhile, Khan is presented a pig-headed jazz lover who consistently spits his dummy out at every opportunity.

The Mills and Boon dialogue (‘Tell me doctor, is it true a heart can really break?’) is filled with exposition as Diana and beau hastily fill in the backstory of people the film assumes we may not have heard of. It’s sloppy writing that’s further compounded by lacklustre performances – Naomi Watt is playing a posh girl, but it is in no way Diana – and direction that can be bettered by episodes of EastEnders.

Now, we may be sticking our necks out, but the death of Diana is one of history’s defining moments and it will stay with people for a long time. However, Diana is not sure you really understand how shocking the whole thing was and handles it in a cack-handed manner as Khan is woken from his slumber by his mobile, presumably with a call telling him of Diana’s demise. Before he can answer it, he is startled by the noise of London’s phones ringing in unison; the night sky lit by hundreds of people turning on their bedroom lamps. The film feels the need to shake us and make us realize that this is history! It really happened! It’s all so bloody important! Drink it in!

A biopic of the late Princess Diana was always going to be thorny issue. Baptised into sainthood by the world’s media and its peoples, Diana struck a chord with many through her charity work and the perceived notion of her forever living under the shadow of Carmilla Parker-Bowles during her marriage to Prince Charles. There is always the danger that any dramatization of her life, even 20 years on, will smack of tastelessness.

Diana is not tasteless. Far from it. In fact, the taste of bile rises quite often and you’ll be wanting a pint of Listerine afterwards. And we say this having seen Keith Allen’s atrocious, paranoid frenzy of a documentary into the death of Diana, An Unlawful Killing.

Take This Waltz (2011)

Margot (Michelle Williams) is going to have a long, hot summer in Toronto wrestling between her good hearted but largely sexless marriage to Lou (Seth Rogen) and her desire for the obvious sexual charms of artist neighbour, Daniel (Luke Kirby) in Sarah Polley’s sophomore effort as director. Polley’s previous work was the poignant, painful, sensitive Alzheimer’s drama Away From Her which announced her as a filmmaker to watch and garnered Julie Christie a deserved Oscar nod. For her follow up Polley has stayed in her native Ontario, relocating to the hip, Portuguese Quarter in Toronto to fashion a heartfelt story about relationships and desire.

Toronto has (to EBFS’ knowledge) never looked better, Polley displays it’s charms as well as Woody Allen painted New York early in his career and with the same love Barry Levinson always shows for Baltimore. Lake Ontario, Centre Island, bistros, coffe shops, amusement arcades and winding streets are all presented positively either in golden sunshine, fresh morning light or hazy summer evening fades. Margot and Lou’s house is a case in point, rickety, red and yellow, olde worlde charm crammed with vintage furniture in every nook and cranny, it’s a romantic view of what a perfect couple’s house should be but no less desirable than the city itself as presented here. Speaking of realism, a special mention should go to the creativity displayed in the jobs assigned to the three leads. Margot writes copy (not a lot of it either) on tourist attractions, Lou is composing a cookbook on chicken and Daniel supports his irritating art habit (Just for himself, he says, as he shows Margot his work, haha) by pulling a rickshaw through the streets. Necessary conceits these may be as they allow everyone to pretty much do whatever they wish to ALL the time, they still push plausability to the limit.

Where Take This Waltz excels is in it’s script, it’s structure and it’s drama (inextricably linked, obviously). Polley has crafted the story so each scene feels utterly compelling and necessary as we find out what makes these characters tick, why Lou and Margot are married, why Margot may desire Daniel, what stops her giving in to her desire. All this without recourse to voiceover, flashbacks or overly emotive music, until the very end, more of which later. The script also keeps each character likeable enough to both keep us guessing or even wishing for the outcome of the decision Margot is eventually going to be forced to make, heavy lifting from the script indeed. The dialogue never feels forced and EBFS would be surprised if the rehearsals weren’t long and exhaustively worked on to build up the chemistry between Rogen, Williams and Kirby. The director is no slouch of an actress after all.

Michelle Williams has surely never been better than here. Perfectly cute, funny and lovable in “wife” mode for Lou, engaging in the kind of in-jokes, tomfoolery and comfort that a five year relationship brings, the sex, when it happens, is perfunctory but not unpleasant. Williams is confident enough to display enough sexuality to make Daniel’s desire for her seem to be more than just male testosterone fuelled humping and posturing. In short, she plays both The Madonna and The Whore in that, oh so difficult, grey area and plays it well. Rogen lends his usual good natured charm, ocassional mugging and annoying laugh to a tough role. Lou is in the dark for virtually the whole film and perhaps engenders the most sympathy here, his only fault being in not picking up the signals early enough. Luke Kirby plays Daniel carefully, his character being the easiest to slip into “being a bit of a shit” territory. His desire is palpable, his sexuality and confidence unquestioned. His bastard moments, such as offering a ride to Margot and ignorant Lou to their anniversary dinner, are believable since it appears love is his motive (maaayyyybbeeeee). Daniel’s standout moment is a monologue detailing, on request, exactly what he would do to Margot given the chance. The speech manages to be explicit, uncomfortable and definately erotic (EBFS ended up wanting him to do it to us a little bit) and serve as a counterpoint to the mundane sex presented in Lou and Margot’s relationship.

Take This Waltz is wonderful for one hour and forty minutes of it’s nearly two hour running time. We would willingly spend double that amount of time watching characters this well rounded involved in dramas this real in such funny, poignant, real (there’s that word again) situations. High praise indeed in a world where most films could shed a third of their running time and lose none of their dramatic weight. It’s also the first film in our memory to get away with using the term “gaylord” several times. However…..

Now on to the last 15 minutes (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT); After several points pass by where an ending felt natural, Polley chooses to show the full results of Margot’s decision to go running after Daniel. In a (technically brilliant) wildly out of place, bravura, almost montage like sequence, we are “treated” to seeing Margot and Daniel fuck (no other way to describe it) their new relationship into the ground over an unspecified period of time. Not only is this patronising as we, the audience, did not need to be told that this would happen, we knew her passion was primarily lust based, it feels preachy, as if Polley herself feels that sex is epehmeral but love lasts forever. It also serves to unravel any sympathy we may have for Daniel and even Margot as their base feelings are exposed graphically from every angle. All the great, great work the previously brilliantly balanced script did in defining believable characters acting like in real life (perfection in this kind of film) unravels for the sake of a few pithy one liners from Lou, an attempt to have her cake AND eat it by Margot (something only bad guys get briefly in dramas) and an overtly obvious peice of moralising when Sarah Silverman’s off the wagon alcoholic gets to put Margot down. When the film finally draws to a close we find Margot happy, but on her own, as if her lesson has been learnt. Aaaaaarrrggghhh, it ends as a “growing as a person” film. The death knell for proper drama. If only Polley had ended her film on the beach and, as the old adage goes, left us wanting more…..

Lolita (1962)

Obsession is a theme Kubrick has explored to some degree through all his films, sometimes it’s a sideshow and sometimes it’s pushed to the forefront. Think of Joker’s desire to kill and become a killer in Full Metal Jacket, Sterling Hayden grasping for the money in The Killing or don’t think about Nick’s inability to shake off thoughts of his wife being unfaithful in the terminally dull Eye’s Wide Shut.

James Mason and Peter Sellars should be applauded for the bravery in decisions to play such reprehensible characters. There is no wounded glory or sympathy asked for in their performances or in the way their urges are presented here. Mason plays Humbert’s carefully hidden embracing of his desires in marked contrast to Sellar’s hedonistic Quilty, a man who induges his every whim through whatever means necessary without thought or care for the consequences. Obviously hamstrung by an overly censored script they communicate their lusts through inferral and furtive glances thrown around in a mixture of guilt and yearning.

Sue Lyon has the title role and despite it’s restrictions, balances sexual maturity with childlike attitudes and innocence. Asked to perform a dual role in acting young enough to engage the viewer in the crime and yet old enough to not utterly repulse an audience perceived as prudish and a censorship board that only recently allowed the word “panties” up on screen. She handles those difficulties well and stops just short of allowing a totally sexist “she was asking for it” attitude to suffuse the mind and skew the sympathies.

As ever, it comes back to Kubrick, a perfectionist and storyteller of repute who here seems to be warming up for his next two films (2001 and Strangeove) that would define his career and in some ways, the next twenty years of commercial films. Yet to hit full stride, some of the shots and their placements appear tentative and experimental. The opening sequence of a car driving through mist and then a murder is pure Kubrick, overacting, large open spaces and the low drives of all men are all present.

In the end though, Lolita is about being obsessed with something that could potentially hurt you. A universal feeling and all the more uncomfortable for it.

As an afterthought – Adrian Lyne had another stab at the material in 1997, a man never afraid of using another ceiling fan or venetian blind to make a point, a man responsible for the even handed , balanced view of sex depicted in 9 and a 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction. Only Paul Veerhoven and Ron Howard could possibly have been worse choices.

Crazy, Stupid Love (2011)

It’s almost criminal how long it’s taking for critically acclaimed films to arrive here in Australia. Meanwhile, The Thing prequel and Paranormal Activity 3 are either out or due in a couple of days. Whilst Australia waits patiently for Drive, the nation is comforted that we can get our Ryan Gosling fix in rom-com, Crazy, Stupid Love

Crazy, Stupid Love follows several people who intercut each other’s lives though one way or another. It’s like Crash but with jokes and less of the whole racism thing. At the centre of the spaghetti junction is Steve Carrell as a put upon businessmen who finds out that his wife, Julianne Moore, has slept with Kevin Bacon and wants a divorce. Seeking solace in a trendy nightspot, Carrell meets, and is subsequently taken under the wing by, Ryan Gosling’s Lothario.  Gosling’s mission? To help Carrell locate his balls and sleep around. Whilst Carrell is learning to be sleaze, Gosling has his attentions set on Emma Stone, though are his intentions all they appear to be?

The stand out performance award goes to Gosling who is sublime as the strutting penis on legs, Jacob Palmer. With shades of Tom Cruise in Magnolia, he sees women as the enemy, something to be conquered. ‘The minute they started pole dancing for exercise,’ he barks at Carrell during a session of weight lifting ‘They lost the war’.

The resolution of his character is nothing new, but you’re happy to be taken on the journey as he slowly creates a monster in Carrell and questions his own identity as a result. His scenes with Emma Stone in the third act are also a particular highlight of mine, as they open themselves up to each other over the course of an evening.

The direction is an odd beast. It feels like a Wes Anderson movie, which contrasts with its Judd Apatow-lite script. Crazy, Stupid Love is a knowing film as well. It’s aware of the rom-com conventions, but unlike Love and Other Disasters, it doesn’t actively signpost them to annoyance. It has some wonderful comic set-pieces, Carrell bumping into a previous night stand whilst at a parent’s evening with his ex-wife is played brilliantly. The back garden party when the film’s numerous plot-lines literally crash into each other stays in the memory long after it was over.

Crazy, Stupid Love is neither ground breaking nor as intelligent as it thinks it is. And that’s about the worst thing you can say because what it is, is a solid competent comedy with a thin vein of drama that doesn’t steer it into the horrendous dramedy category (not funny enough to be a comedy, not serious to be a drama). God knows, I hate a dramedy. It is sweet natured movie about good people, even if they appear to be from the get go.

Gone With The Wind (1939)

It’s strange watching Gone with the Wind for the first time 72 years after a low key release and a smattering of independant film awards. It’s a picture that is so revered and documented that it already feels like you’ve seen it inside out even on a first viewing. It’s epic in the true sense of the word, romantic like almost no other film, beautifully shot and filled with one line zingers stars today would crawl over barb wire to deliver. It’s also a film about a regularly skewed, racially atrocious period of America’s young and bloody history.

Hollywood is naturally about ten years out of date with it’s attitudes towards liberalism (whether towards women or different ethnicities, politics or religion, censorship or freedom of speech), but it’s still difficult to watch Gone with the Wind and not think about slavery. It tries hard, the slaves we do see are well fed, happy and generally content with their lot in life (even the ones marching off to war to fight for the right to keep slaves). They’re not (offensively) stereotypical in the whole, although Prissy (played by the excellently named Butterfly McQueen) is a clear forerunner of JaJa Binks and no less annoying for it. Hattie McDaniel is all bustling good nature and old world value compassion as Mammy and was well rewarded (sort of) with an Oscar for her effort. Any bad signs of slavery are swept firmly under the carpet so as not to get in the way of our classic “love story set against the backdrop of a world gone mad!!” which even in 1939 (1929 in Hollywood remember) is high class bullshit.

Right, that’s the politics out of the way, now what about the really important stuff, the Romance. The romance is there, it oozes from the film like so much molasses. Old fashioned, broken hearted, rote in the stars romance.  Scarlett and Rhett are meant to be, it’s fate, you’d put your last dollar on them ending up in a sunset relationship as the crediits roll. Which is why the continual, will they, won’t they, should they, can they rollercoaster of their relationship still feels fresh today. It’s unconventional, laced with bitterness, loaded with baggage and stained with the present situations thay find themselves within.

What’s even less familiar to regular viewers of these old classics is the main characters themselves. They start off unsympathetic and remain so until the final frames. Scarlett starts out spoilt, heads straight for manipulative, has a few headstrong, business years before sinking back to her twisted, money grabbing, looking after number one ways.There is more than a hint of Scarlett in Cathy Ames, the chilling heart of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, written 13 years later. Rhett, on the other hand, is a veiled Byronic nightmare (dark, handsome man with a past), getting what he wants by any means necessary and rarely finding heart for the consequences. He’s louche, prone to violence (rape is insinuated), rashly jealous and carries a vulnerability andd weakness inside himself despite his smooth, confident exterior. The two performers (particularly Leigh) pick out their character’s flaws and strengths perfectly. Their skill is particularly evident between the lines, Leigh gives Scarlett a wounded disbelief that anything bad could ever be happening to someone like her whilst Gable (they don’t make them like him anymore) just about outacts hs own eyebrows (impressive) to lend Rhett an air of desperation that just about seeps through his natural charm, of which there is bucketloads.

Gone with the Wind has aged surprisingly well (think how bad Avatar will look in five years, let alone seventy). It’s sumptuous, primary colour (particularly in the ginger hair of the twins at the start) palette transmits both the extreme wealth of the plantation owners and the searing humidity of the deep south. It’s scope is staggering, encompassing the war and the rebuilding years of vast political change that follow it. Films as a rule don’t do large periods of time well, but here it’s handled perfectly simply by leaning back and letting it happen. Nothing feels rushed, plot twists feel natural and come at appropriate intervals. The war (rarely seen, like Wild Strawberries, Bergan fans) is rarely seen but is a hulking, shadowy presence in fecting every scene with a solidity and grounding in the horrors of what men will do to each other. There are moments of violence and murder but these are carefully held back to heighten their impact, which they do, sometimes shockingly so. It certainly doesn’t feel 3 hours and 44 minutes long.

In the end though, the hours fly by, allowing you to bask in a forgotten age of Hollywood, that like the era of the film itself, is so much dust and ashes, gone forever.