Significant Songs (139)

Praise You

The DJ/ Producer Fatboy Slim started his career as Norman Cook, part of the British group, The Housemartins. They had a big hit with ‘Happy Hour’, in 1986, but split two years later. Cook went on to form Beats International, and the rest of the band formed the moderately successful ‘The Beautiful South’, around the same time.

Norman Cook endured longer, marrying TV personality Zoe Ball, in 1999, as well as carving out a career as a renowned record producer and DJ that continues to this day. He constantly changed styles, and names, until he became established as Fatboy Slim, very much part of the British musical establishment.

I didn’t care too much for him, or his music, to be honest. I mostly found him quite irritating, and had never bought any of his records. Then in late 1999, I saw a video on TV. it was for his latest release, ‘Praise You’, and was directed by film-maker Spike Jonze. It had also reached the number one spot in the UK charts, and I found I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Cook is still working as a DJ, as well as writing and producing for other artists. In 2016, he performed at the Glastonbury Festival. But this was his finest hour, as far as I am concerned.

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Just been watching…(47)

American Sniper (2014)

***This is a true story, so spoilers are already out there***

I am late to this film, obviously. I bought a used copy from Amazon for just £1, and watched it yesterday. Clint Eastwood directed this true life story of Chris Kyle, the most effective sniper in US military history. Kyle is played by Bradley Cooper, and his wife by Sienna Miller. This is a long film, so also a longer than usual review.

The film begins in the Iraq war, and immediately flashes back to the boyhood upbringing of Kyle. We see a stern yet caring father, determined to bring up his sons the right way; reflecting his values, and learning to hunt. The young Chris shows a natural talent with a rifle, but he really wants to be a rodeo star. Fast forward to Chris in his late twenties, (Cooper) touring the rodeo circuits with his younger brother, and enjoying moderate success. Then the US embassy bombings occur in 1998, and the fiercely patriotic Kyle enlists in the military, training to become a Navy Seal. Despite being one of the oldest recruits, his determination gets him through, and his skill with a rifle gets him trained to become one of the elite snipers, providing cover for troops operating in the streets below his high vantage point.

He also meets an attractive young woman in a bar (Miller) and falls for her, beginning a serious relationship which soon leads to marriage. During his wedding, the unit receive their orders to travel to the war in Iraq, and the film transfers the action there.

For me as a viewer, it is in these foreign locations where the film excels. Always convincing, with a constant feeling of threat, danger, and menace. The tension rarely lets up, even during the quiet moments, and everything from the dusty streets, to the still rooftop lairs of Kyle, are always believable in the extreme. Much of the action is seen through the magnification of his telescopic sight. We see what he sees, in real time, with decisions having to be made in a heartbeat. To fire, or not to fire? The pressure of protecting his comrades on the ground patrols, and the complications of perhaps making a ‘bad kill’, and facing the repercussions of that act. Cooper acts this stillness surprisingly well, and small facial movements show us his thought process, as he makes life and death calls every day.

Returning home to his wife and new baby son, he is a changed man. She senses the difference in him, and the distance he feels from his life back in America. He is restless, worrying about his comrades, keen to return to combat. Their relationship suffers, but endures.

Back on his second tour of duty in Iraq, he is faced with an enemy sniper, a skillful Syrian insurgent. This man is killing US soldiers at an alarming rate, and Kyle makes it his mission to try to find and stop this man. But this is not the same story as we saw in ‘Enemy At The Gates’, though the theme is similar. By now, the enemy is also aware of this effective American sniper, who has killed so many of their fighters. They put up a huge financial reward for anyone who can kill him, so now Kyle has to operate with a price on his head too.

Home on leave once again, things are not getting any better. he has a baby daughter, and a growing son. A wife who is unhappy managing alone for months on end, with children who hardly know their father. She wants Chris to come home, to stop serving in Iraq. She becomes convinced that he has a death wish, and that he won’t stop until he gets himself killed over there. But he won’t leave his comrades unprotected, and remains convinced that they have to stop the militants in Iraq, so that the war doesn’t come to the US in the long run.

So, two more tours of duty, and an eventual return home for good are covered. When overseas, Chris still hunts for the elusive enemy sniper, often getting tantalisingly close, only for the man to escape at the last moment. The cost to his own well-being is dealt with, as he constantly drifts back and forth between caring for his family, and worrying about those left behind. There is some debate about his unquestioning patriotism, and the futility of the ongoing war that sees his younger brother drawn into the conflict, as well as the loss of so many of his good friends.

The ending is done with dignity, and lack of show. It is almost the perfect ending.

So, is it good? It is very good indeed, as far as I am concerned. The action sequences are often brilliantly handled, and make for nail-biting viewing at times. But the best moments are those when we look along the rifle, through the sight with the same view as Chris. Those moments when you have to make that call; take the shot, or not. It leaves us wondering what we would do, and transports us into the heart and mind of the shooter. Taking us to a world we can only imagine, if we have never been in the military.

Eastwood got this one just right. Here’s a trailer.

Textual frustration

I was watching a drama on television recently. It was pretty good, and I was enjoying it. As the climax approached, the police officer received a text. It was briefly flashed on screen, but too small for me to see it clearly. She replied, and her colleague acted on that reply, which was also quickly shown on the screen. But I was left wondering what each had sent to the other, and why the colleague did what he did, as a response to her reply.

This is nothing new. No doubt attempting to reflect the trend of mobile phone use in society as a whole, text messages are becoming an important part of TV shows and films. Everything from dull soap-operas to mainstream blockbusters are having huge chunks of their plot played out on tiny phone screens. In some cases, the whole story-line is a series of ‘to and from’ texts, and in extreme examples, even the ending of a drama is only disclosed by way of a message sent, or received.

OK, I am old now, I admit that. But so is a huge percentage of the viewing public. We don’t all see as well as we once did, and cannot always react as quickly to a message flashed briefly on a screen. We all know that people send and receive texts, they are part of modern life. But do they have to feature so heavily in television and film drama? Countless films and dramas were made (mostly better ones too) before the portable phone was ever conceived, let alone invented. They sometimes relied on notes left at a scene, a letter received, a transcript from an interview, or court proceedings. But they were shown clearly on screen, and lingered long enough to read properly, without slowing down the action.

The BBC series ‘Sherlock’ dealt with the electronic age so well. Text messages, emails, and computer searches were all flashed up on the screen alongside the action in equal proportion. They were easy to read, and stayed around long enough to make sense of what they said. Surely this idea could be adapted to all TV drama, and most films too?

If this carries on, I will be at a loss to work out what is happening in so many programmes and films, it will hardly be worth my while bothering to watch anything. Anyone else annoyed about this?

No? Just me then…

Just been watching…(46)

The Calling (2014)

***No spoilers***

Susan Sarandon, Ellen Burstyn, and Donald Sutherland in a Canadian thriller about a serial killer in the small-town backwoods. This looks like one to watch. Or does it?

Weary police Inspector Hazel Micallef (Sarandon) runs the small force policing this snow-covered town in the middle of nowhere. She drinks too much, all the time in fact, and argues with her superiors. Her daily routine is dull, and she drives home to the house she shares with her mother, a retired judge, (Burstyn) to drink some more. Then a local old lady is found dead, in very unusual and gruesome circumstances. Hazel has to step up, and soon realises that similar murders have a connection to that of the old lady.

Bur she has a past, and her drinking problem is known to all. They won’t take her seriously at first, so she has to try to tackle a series of grisly crimes, helped only by her also weary detective colleague, and a fresh-faced new boy who has transferred from Toronto. Things begin to get even more sinister when a religious connection is revealed, and consulting the local priest, (Sutherland) Hazel soon delves deeper into the mystery.

The building blocks of a great film are all there. An unusual killer, some gory details of the crimes, and the religious mysticism that surrounds the case. Moody winter locations, and the different setting of small-town Canada. Then there is that top-notch cast, all getting on a bit, but reliable as ever. I started to forgive the familiar police story standbys of alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, extra-marital affairs, and has-been cops at odds with modern methods and their bosses. Deciding to give it a chance, I settled in for the long haul, and watched it to the end.

Despite some nice atmosphere, and that previously mentioned unusual story-line, and great cast, the film-makers settled for a mix of seen-it-all-before situations. Sutherland and Burstyn were simple set dressing, their talents not even scratched. Sarandon played her part in her familiar style, all aggression and boss-woman, with no softer side. The camera spent as much time focusing on her endless bottles of bourbon, as it did following the action. As the tension builds to the climax, it feels as if it is going the wrong way, and has missed out the good bits on the journey.

I was left wanting more of Christopher Heyerdahl, who plays the creepy killer, and wondering why someone of the stature of Ellen Burstyn was even in the film to begin with. A film to watch if you have absolutely, positively, nothing else to do. It’s not ‘Fargo’, that’s for sure. Here’s a trailer.

Just been watching…(45)

Good Kill (2014)

***No spoilers***

An American war film that looks at a very different aspect of modern warfare. Air Force drone pilots, operating lethal killer-drones over Afghanistan and other countries, from a remote base near Las Vegas. Recruited as much for their skill at playing video games, as for their ability to fly jets, these young servicemen and women sit in steel cabins, delivering death on demand at the behest of the CIA, or High Command.

Major Tom Egan has flown many combat tours, and proved his skill in the air. But now his beloved jets are in mothballs, as the Air Force concentrates on a new kind of war. The silent unseen drones, picking off targets at will, from 10,000 feet above an enemy that has no idea what is about to happen. He is unhappy, disillusioned, drinking too much. Although he can return to his modern house near the city every day after work, home to his pretty wife and two children, he misses ‘the fear’, the unexpected, and the feeling of being in control, up in his jet fighter.

He has a Mexican-American female partner; new to the job, she is also uneasy about they way the war is being fought, the disregard for civilian casualties, and the shady tasks carried out for the Security Services. The base commander is an old friend, Colonel Jack Johns. He is a realist. War is changing, and the way the Air Force operates is changing with it. He sympathises with Tom, but he knows that orders are orders, and they must be followed. As the missions increase in intensity, Tom’s home life spirals out of control, along with his drinking, and bleak moods.

This is a surprisingly powerful film, with an excellent cast. I must be going soft in my old age, as I am starting to believe that Ethan Hawke is a very good actor. He brings some light and shade to the character of Tom, and is convincing in his quiet withdrawal too. Bruce Greenwood is outstanding as the conflicted commander, Colonel Johns, and an unseen Peter Coyote gives a chilling turn as the voice of the CIA, heard only on a speakerphone. When they are operating the drones, the satellite footage is never less than authentic in feel, with real tension in every scene. The debates about the morality of what they are doing are not overblown, and those arguments countered by other characters who think that they are doing something necessary, and worthwhile.

I really liked this film, and highly recommend it. Here’s a trailer.

Word Challenge: Z

The final letter of another long challenge. Please add your favourite ‘Z’ word. Foreign language words are welcome, (with translation) and American spellings are allowed. No abbreviations though.

Zest.
Another useful word. One can have a Zest for life, or do something with Zest. And it is also the outer part of the skin of a fruit, which can be added to drinks, or food, as with Lemon Zest.

Zigzag.
Because it describes the action perfectly.

Zealots.
Originally an Ancient Hebrew sect, this word is now applied to someone with extreme beliefs in almost anything. A religious or political Zealot, a Fanatic. Very much part of modern life, sadly.

(Zorro image for Jennie)

Zorro set

Word Challenge: Y

Please add your choices for this letter. Foreign language words (with translation) are welcome, and American spellings are allowed too. No abbreviations though.

Yesteryear.
I confess to dwelling in the past too often, but make no apologies for that.

Yucky.
A near-perfect word to describe anything messy, sticky, or unpleasant. Like the stuff in the drain outside our kitchen window, which I have to drag out with my hands, when it gets blocked.

Yearning.
As in, “He was always yearning for better weather”.