Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Divergent (4 Stars)

The film takes place in Chicago "100 years after the war". As far as the people of Chicago know they are the last remainders of civilization, but they also fear that something exists outside the city, because they have built a protective wall around the city. Mankind has been divided into five factions, depending on their abilities and functions in society: the Erudite (the intellectuals), the Dauntless (the police force), the Amity (peaceful farmers), the Candor (philosophers who value truth above all else) and the Abnegation (charitable people who look after others). The Abnegation are the city's rulers. There are many who don't belong to a faction, but they are treated as outcasts, having to live on the streets and not allowed to work. They would starve, if not for the Abnegation giving them food.

When they turn 16 children have to decide which faction they want to belong to. They are given an aptitude test as a guideline, but they can choose any faction regardless of the test results. 95% of the children choose the faction of their parents. Any who choose a different faction have to leave home to live with their new faction. Beatrice and her brother Caleb are Abnegations, but she chooses to join Dauntless while he chooses to join Erudite. The film follows Beatrice's training to enter Dauntless. There are 30 new Dauntless members, but they are told that only 10 will be accepted; the 20 who perform worst during training will be expelled and become factionless.

People reading this must be asking themselves if everyone fits neatly into one of the five categories. That's just the point of the film. In the authoritarian structure of the future everyone is expected to exactly fit his role in society. Those who don't fit in are called "divergents" and are executed. In her aptitude test Beatrice is found to have the traits of three factions, Abnegation, Erudite and Dauntless, but the tester protects her by not making the result public.

The film is based on the first of a series of books for young people by Veronica Roth. It seems to be yet another candidate for a film series intended to be a successor to the Harry Potter films. It's quite adequate for this. It has more action and moves faster than "Mortal Instruments". Let's see how the sequels pan out.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Double (4 Stars)

This film is based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel "The Double", but its adaptation is much closer to the style of Franz Kafka.

The film's main character, Simon James, works in a large impersonal office which specialises in data entry. The computers are in the style of the mid 1970's, but many other details in the film are anachronistic, so that it could take place at any time from the 1960's to today. It's a dark and gloomy world in which we never see daylight. Simon has been working in the office for seven years, but nobody has ever noticed him. He has a crush on his colleague Hannah in the photocopying department, but he is too shy to tell her. She lives in the building opposite, so he watches her every evening through a telescope.

One day a new employee joins the company, James Simon, who looks identical to Simon James. At least, he looks identical to Simon and to us, the viewers, because the two men are played by the same actor and wear identical clothing. The people in the office fail to see a resemblance. James coaches Simon in how to date Hannah, in exchange for Simon doing James' work. As soon becomes apparent, James is exploiting Simon in order to win a quick promotion. James is even begins an affair with Hannah.

This is a very unsettling film, but it has a bizarre Kafkaesque beauty. It's worth watching more than once.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Quiet Ones (3 Stars)

Sometimes people can spoil the enjoyment of a film in the cinema. When I went tonight there was a group of girls a few rows behind me who were laughing and giggling from the beginning. A man in the row behind me shouted at them a few times to be quiet. When the film was over he remarked to me that they must have thought they were in a comedy. I disagree. I doubt they were laughing at the film. It's more likely they were bored with the film and spent the 90 minutes chatting about something completely different.

In 1974 a professor at Oxford University is lecturing on the supernatural. He is a quasi-sceptic. He says that there are explanations for all supernatural phenomena, but science has not yet advanced far enough to explain everything. He invites three of his students to a remote house to examine Jane Harper, a 20-year-old girl who is seemingly haunted by a ghost. The professor denies the existence of ghosts and wants to prove that the strange occurrences around her are the results of her own negative energy. He thinks that the ghost, which Jane calls Evey, is something that Jane herself has unconsciously created. The professor, who obviously considers scientific advance more important than human life, uses physical and mental torture to provoke Jane's subconscious into action.

This is one of the new wave of Hammer Horror films, so I went to see it in the cinema with high expectations. Unfortunately I was disappointed. Of the recent Hammer films only the remakes, "Let me in" and "The Woman in Black", have been satisfactory. It seems that the company has problems finding new ideas that live up to the films they made in the 1960's and 1970's. Overall "The Quiet Ones" has little suspense and just relies on random loud noises and flying objects to scare the audience. So what do I suggest? Easy! The new films shouldn't attempt to be artistic or modern. They should copy the styles of the old Hammer Horror films. Castles, monsters and occasional gratuitous nudity set in 18th Century Germany and Transylvania. It might seem like a cheap trick to reboot the Frankenstein and Dracula franchises, but why not? The formula worked 50 years ago, so why shouldn't it work today? If done well. Both franchises are open-ended. After Baron von Frankenstein dies in one film his son can continue his work in the next film. Every time Count Dracula is killed he can be brought back to life 30 years later. The dates don't have to be explicitly stated, so there's no need for either franchise to catch up with the modern day.

Let's hope that someone who is able to make decisions reads my recommendations.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Noah (3½ Stars)

It's difficult to see what the target audience was when Darren Aronofsky decided to write and direct this film about the Biblical character Noah. He could have kept closely to the Biblical story, which would have pleased Christian fundamentalists while irritating the evolutionists, or rather the anti-creationists, as I prefer to call them. He could also have written a modern story, trying to explain Noah's adventure in the light of modern scientific theories, which would have pleased sceptics but annoyed creationists. Instead of this he wrote a fantasy epic, made up of 50% Bible and 50% his own ideas. Judging by the first reviews I've read, this middle path seems to have alienated everyone.

The trouble with filming the story of Noah is that even though it was a major event in human history, very little is said about it in the Bible. Mr. Aronofsky felt the need to add things to pad out the story and make it more dramatic. I can just about accept this as a necessity to make a good film, but in my opinion he went too far when he added things that contradicted the Biblical accounts.

I think everyone knows the story, so I won't shy away from spoilers in this review. We read about Noah in the Bible from Genesis 5:28 to Genesis 9:29. He received a prophecy from God that the world would be destroyed by a flood, so he built a giant ship, an "ark", in which he saved himself, his family and all living creatures that walked on the Earth or flew in the air.

Now let's talk about my problems with the film itself. Noah is assisted in building and defending the ark by "watchers", who are the remainder of fallen angels. Maybe they are included as a reference to Genesis 6:4, "The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown". There is a lot of theological controversy about the meaning of this verse, but the use of the same word in Numbers 13:33 shows that the Nephilim were giants. A common interpretation of the verse is that before the Flood the fallen angels ("sons of God") mated with women, and their offspring were superior in size and strength to normal pure bred humans. The "men of renown" would be the heroes of the old myths, men such as Hercules. That's a possible interpretation. The film's portrayal of the Nephilim as stone golems who had crawled out of Tolkien's imagination is highly speculative.

It is very strange that Mr. Aronofsky made Tubul-Cain a stowaway in the ark. In Jewish traditions Tubul-Cain was Noah's brother-in-law, the brother of Noah's wife Naamah. This story, though denied by many scholars, could have been used to add poignancy to the film. It could have been Noah's wife trying to save her brother, not Ham having sympathy with an enemy. But placing Tubul-Cain in the ark was just a cheap trick to add an extra battle to the end of the film.

To me it's incomprehensible why the story of Noah's sons and their wives is so mixed up. Genesis 7:13 is very clear on the subject: "On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark". It wasn't just Noah, his wife, three sons and Ham's wife, as the film portrays it. It's totally unnecessary for the film to make Ham the father of his brothers' wives, then wander off alone. In the Bible Ham had four sons after the Flood, Cush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan (Genesis 10:6), whereas Shem had five sons and Japhet had seven sons. Presumably they had daughters as well, but the Bible rarely considers women important enough to name them.

Overall, I have to praise the film for the good acting. My relatively low rating is a punishment for the inaccurate screenplay. It could have been a lot better if the story had stuck closer to the Biblical account.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

TV Series: Dawson's Creek

I recently began to watch "Dawson's Creek" again. It's a series I can keep returning to, even though I have to admit that after the first two seasons it wasn't as good. Somewhere in the third season the stories began to turn in circles and never stopped. But maybe the reason is that I could relate best to the early years when the cast was youngest. Or at least, when the characters were youngest. When the series began the four school friends were supposed to be 15, although the actors playing them were between 18 and 21.

It's the series' teen angst that fascinates me most, especially the character of Dawson Leery himself. I can relate to him. He thought about everything, he analysed everything, and he understood nothing. I miss those days. Sure, I knew a lot less than I do now, but I do miss those days of naive innocence. I just watched the episode in the second season in which it's Dawson's 16th birthday. He went to a blues club, got drunk, then went home to his birthday party and insulted everyone, including his parents. I don't remember what happened on my 16th birthday. It can't have been as memorable. I wish I could turn back the clock and be back on that day now.

My teen years were a difficult time, especially between the ages of 16 and 20. When I was 16 I had my first girlfriend. And my second. And my third. I was a late starter, but I quickly became so successful with girls that my friends envied me. Maybe it was my long blond hair? Nobody knew about the suffering I had inside. When I was 18 my mother developed a drinking problem. I tried to kill myself because I couldn't deal with what she had become. When I was 20 she left home to be with another man, and she seriously expected me to go and live with her. The poor deluded woman. I believed in eternal love. I believed in happy families. I was naive then. I wish I could be like that again.

It's ironic. Despite all the pain, I wish I could be back in those years. I wish I could be trapped in a time loop from the ages of 16 to 20. I feel like I'm 16 inside, whatever age I might look. I want to win back the carefree attitude of that age. I want the angst back. Angst? I invented it.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (5 Stars)

Finally Captain America (the character) has got into his stride. This is the sort of the film that the first film should have been. It makes up for the disappointments first time round.

The film takes place in the present day. Trying to fit it in with the comics continuity, it combines the origin of the Falcon (1969) with Captain America's disillusionment with authority (early 1970's) and the return of Bucky Barnes (early 2000's). In a way this is yet another case of the telescoping in Marvel films, but it's very difficult for me to regard any post-1990 Marvel stories as canon. The disintegration of the bullpen community has led to the death of continuity. Any contradictions are explained away as simply having happened in an alternative universe. That's the perfect "Get out of Jail Free" card, the only difference being that you do pass Go and you do pick up $200. But that's enough cynicism for today. Let's get back to the film itself.

We find out that ever since it was founded, SHIELD was infiltrated by Hydra. In the film mythology the two organisations were founded simultaneously shortly after the Second World War as secret agencies to further the aims of the western powers and the Third Reich respectively. (In the comics Hydra's origins are unclear, though it seems that they existed since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs. SHIELD is a modern organisation, not created until the 1960's). Nick Fury is removed from SHIELD by an assassination attempt, so that Hydra can use SHIELD's newest high tech weapons to achieve world domination. Captain America and the Black Widow team up to fight against SHIELD, aided by a young war veteran, Sam Wilson, who becomes the Falcon. Hydra's top fighter is a man called the Winter Soldier, who we find out is Captain America's old friend Bucky Barnes, who he thought had been dead since 1944. In the comics Bucky was a teenager, probably 16 at the time of his death, but in the films he's shown as a fellow soldier.

The film's action is first class. It was exciting from beginning to end, and credible within the parameters of comic book films.

In the after-credits scene we see that Hydra's boss, Baron von Strucker, has captured "the twins", Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. This will lead to a conflict of interests between the respective film studios. The characters in the Avengers films and their spin-offs belong to Walt Disney studios, but Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are the children of Magneto, a character who belongs to 20th Century Fox. I'm sure that some sort of ugly fudge will be made to solve this problem.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Strange Little Cat (2 Stars)

Karin and Simon visit their parents and sister for a dinner with family.

Do you ever feel you're missing something? Today I watched this film at the Electric Cinema as part of the 10-day Flatpack Film Festival. To my surprise, the room was almost full. A nice young man spent a few minutes introducing the film, describing it as a "horror film without horror" that contained cute children. For the next hour and a quarter we watched adults and children squeeze past themselves around tables and chairs in a narrow Berlin apartment. A shopping list was written. A washing machine was repaired. A cat scratched the doors. The film ended without resolution, apart from the sun setting.

On getting home I checked the reviews. It seems like everyone likes it. Everyone except me. Ramon Zürcher is praised for creating a work of poetry. This is obviously an intellectual film. Usually I enjoy intellectual films. But not this time.