Monday, 16 January 2017

Gun Woman (2 Stars)

"A man dies when one third of his blood is lost, but a woman can survive even if she loses two thirds of her blood. God created women superior to men".

The popular Japanese B-Movie star Asami stars in a Japanese version of Nikita. It doesn't tell the same story, but the similarities are obvious.

The Japanese yakuza boss Hamazaki has a son who is out of control. He enjoys killing women and he enjoys raping women, not always in that order. No woman is safe near him. He's an embarrassment to the family business, so Hamazaki sends his son (who's never named in the film) to America.

Before his banishment Hamazaki's son murdered the wife of a Japanese surgeon. The surgeon has dedicated the rest of his life to taking revenge. He gives up his job and follows Hamazaki's son to America, where he takes the name Mastermind. He buys a drug addict, puts her through forced rehab by chaining her to a wall, then trains her to be an assassin. Hamazaki's son is usually surrounded by bodyguards all day long. The only place he's vulnerable is during his regular visits to an exclusive club for necrophiliacs in Las Vegas. It's the ultimate necrobrothel. High-paying clients are given a dead girl to play with, always in perfect condition because she's been freshly killed by the club owners. The bodies are still warm. I sincerely hope that clubs like that don't really exist, but in this sick world we live in anything is possible.

The plan is for the ex-junkie to be put into deep paralysis and disguised as a dead woman. Her guns have been sewn into her chest. She has to rip them out and kill everyone within 22 minutes, the estimated time before she bleeds to death.

As much as I love films with beautiful, deadly women, I can't enjoy "Gun Woman". The scenes with her training were relatively enjoyable, but the last half hour was so ugly that I had difficulty watching to the end. It's all filmed for shock value: a naked woman on a rampage while blood is gushing out of her body. It's not for me. I'll do my best to forget that I ever watched it.

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Sunday, 15 January 2017

Van Helsing (5 Stars)

In my reviews I repeatedly state proudly that I judge films on the feeling they give me rather than their objective artistic merit. I staunchly defend films that serious critics consider to be trash, and I mercilessly attack films that the same critics praise. When it comes to "Van Helsing" I have a funny feeling in my stomach. I love it, I absolutely love it, but I can't avoid the feeling that it's a bad film I ought to hate. I've only watched it once before, in November 2012, and I've been reluctant to watch it again until now, despite giving it a five star rating. The last few days I've noticed that my original review has been getting a lot of hits, almost enough to put it into my top 10 most popular posts list. I don't know why. My readers are fickle. Sometimes a post can be ignored for years, and then it's suddenly noticed and everyone wants to read it. Whatever the reason for my post's popularity, it's an excuse for me to pull it off the shelf and watch it again.

So today I watched it again, trying not to like it. I was deliberately looking for faults. But guess what? I loved it yet again. After finishing the film I had to admit that I still loved it. I find everything perfect, from Hugh Jackman's 19th Century James Bond imitation to Kate Beckinsale's Transylvanian pirate queen outfit. It's a film that shouldn't work, but it does. Boo to the critics responsible for the 23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes!

However, I've found support in an unusual place. Roger Ebert loved the film almost as much as I do. Instead of writing my own plot summary I'll quote his review. Everything below the following photo of Kate Beckinsale is his words. I do this with the greatest respect, in accordance with the terms of use listed on his web site. He's the man who first inspired me to become a film critic, and I feel that my meagre posts can never reach the high standards of his film reviews. By quoting his review I am honouring his memory.

Strange that a movie so eager to entertain would forget to play "Monster Mash" over the end credits. There have been countless movies uniting two monsters ("Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man," "King Kong vs. Godzilla," etc), but "Van Helsing" convenes Frankenstein, his Monster, Count Dracula, the Wolf Man, Igor, Van Helsing the vampire hunter, assorted other werewolves, werebats and vampires, and even Mr. Hyde, who as a bonus seems to think he is the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The movie is like a Greatest Hits compilation; it's assembled like Frankenstein's Monster, from spare parts stitched together and brought to life with electricity, plus lots of computer-generated images. The plot depends on Dracula's desperate need to discover the secret of Frankenstein's Monster, because he can use it to bring his countless offspring to life. Because Dracula and his vampire brides are all dead, they cannot give birth, of course, to live children.

That they give birth at all is somewhat remarkable, although perhaps the process is unorthodox, since his dead offspring hang from a subterranean ceiling wrapped in cocoons that made me think, for some reason, of bagworms, which I spent many a summer hand-picking off the evergreens under the enthusiastic direction of my father.

Van Helsing is sometimes portrayed as young, sometimes old in the Dracula movies. Here he's a professional monster-killer with a Phantom of the Opera hat, who picks up a dedicated friar named Carl as his sidekick. His first assignment is to track down Mr. Hyde, who now lives in the Notre Dame cathedral and ventures out for murder. That job does not end as planned, so Van Helsing then moves on to the Vatican City to get instructions and and be supplied with high-tech weapons by the ecclesiastical equivalent of James Bond's Q.

Next stop: Transylvania, where the movie opened with a virtuoso b&w sequence showing a local mob waving pitchforks and torches and hounding Frankenstein's Monster into a windmill, which is set ablaze. We know, having seen the old movies, that the Monster will survive, but the mob has worked itself into such a frenzy that when Van Helsing and Carl arrive in the village, they are almost forked and burnt just on general principles. What saves them is an attack by three flying vampiresses, who like to scoop up their victims and fly off to savor their blood; Van Helsing fights them using a device that fires arrows like a machinegun.

And that leads to his meeting the beautiful Anna Valerious, who with her brother Velkan represents the last of nine generations of a family who will never find eternal rest until it vanquishes Dracula. (Conveniently, if you kill Dracula, all the vampires he created will also die). Anna is at first suspicious of Van Helsing, but soon they are partners in vengeance, and the rest of the plot (there is a whole lot of it) I will leave you to discover for yourselves.

The director, Stephen Sommers, began his career sedately, directing a very nice "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1993) and the entertaining "Jungle Book" (1994). Then Victor Frankenstein must have strapped him to the gurney and turned on the juice, because he made a U-turn into thrillers, with "Deep Rising" (1998), where a giant squid attacks a cruise ship, "The Mummy" (1999) and "The Mummy Returns" (2001). Now comes "Van Helsing," which employs the ultimate resources of CGI to create a world that is violent and hectic, bizarre and entertaining, and sometimes very beautiful.

CGI can get a little boring when it allows characters to fall hundreds of feet and somehow survive, or when they swoop at the ends of ropes as well as Spider-Man, but without Spidey's superpowers. But they can also be used to create a visual feast, and here the cinematography by Allen Daviau ("E.T.") and the production design by Allen Cameron join with Sommers' imagination for spectacular sights. The best is a masked ball in Budapest, which is part real (the musicians balancing on balls, the waiters circling on unicycles) and part fabricated in the computer. It's a remarkable scene, and will reward study on the DVD. So will the extraordinary coach chase.

I also liked the movie's recreation of Victor Frankenstein's laboratory, which has been a favourite of production designers, art directors and set decorators since time immemorial. (Mel Books' "Young Frankenstein" recycled the actual sets built for James Whale's "Bride of Frankenstein"). Here Frankenstein lives in a towering gothic castle, just down the road from Dracula, and the mechanism lifts the Monster to unimaginable heights to expose him to lightning bolts. There are also plentiful crypts, stygian passages, etc, and a library in which a painting revolves, perhaps in tribute to Brooks' revolving bookcase.

The screenplay by Sommers has humour but restrains itself; the best touches are the quiet ones, as when the friar objects to accompanying Van Helsing ("But I'm not a field man," he insists) and when the Monster somewhat unexpectedly recites the 23rd Psalm.

At the outset, we may fear Sommers is simply going for f/x overkill, but by the end, he has somehow succeeded in assembling all his monsters and plot threads into a high-voltage climax.

"Van Helsing" is silly and spectacular, and fun.

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Thursday, 12 January 2017

Tag (5 Stars)

"Run, Mitsuko, run".

"Run, Keiko, run".

"Run, Izumi, run".

Only Mitsuko can save the world, but how can she save anyone if she doesn't know who she is? The other girls in her school know some of the answers, but Mitsuko has to work out the rest for herself.

Aki knows that Mitsuko is the hero, the centre of the world, and she'll do anything she can to help Mitsuko succeed.

Sur is the most intelligent girl in the school. She knows that there are an infinite number of realities. What she doesn't realise is that all the realities are the same. Whenever Mitsuko tries to change something there are powerful forces at work that will restore the status quo.

Men! Vile, depraved, disgusting. Why should women be allowed equal rights when it's more fun to degrade them and use them as playthings?

Women are enslaved and they don't even know it. They cheer on Mitsuko and want her to win the race, but look carefully. The women at the front wave flags. Mitsuko is their hero, they want her to win. The women at the back wave big penises. They think that's the reward Mitsuko deserves. Women are encouraged to compete, and any woman who succeeds should be given to a man to be used and abused.

This is one of the best films ever made. I can watch it over and over again, and I'm never bored. Each time I watch it I pick up details that I previously missed. The sheer intensity of the film is overpowering. Sion Sono is my favourite director, and this is his best film. So far there isn't an official English release, although it's possible to find *cough* unofficial versions online. It was recently released on Blu-ray in Germany. The Germans have better taste when it comes to appreciating foreign cinema.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Seed of Chucky (4 Stars)

"Killing is an addiction, like any other drug".

This is the fifth film in the series of films about the killer doll Chucky. It was made in 2004, six years after the fourth film. They shouldn't wait so long. We need to see more of Chucky, and we need to see a lot more of his lover Tiffany.

This is the most we get to see of Tiffany in the film. Tantalising! My sister used to collect Barbie dolls when she was a child. They were silly, I made fun of them. She should have collected Tiffany dolls. I would have played with them myself.

But now let's get to the plot. At the end of "Bride of Chucky" we saw Tiffany have a baby in the Hackensack cemetery. We find out that he was discovered by an Englishman on holiday in America. He realised that the doll was alive and intelligent, so he took it back to England with him. For the last six years he's been making money by pretending to be a ventriloquist with a dummy. He calls the doll Shitface. Everyone needs a name.

While watching television little Shitface sees an interview about a film being made about the killer dolls Chucky and Tiffany. He sees that Chucky has a birthmark on his wrist that says "Made in Japan", just like himself, so he assumes that it's his father. He runs away and mails himself to Hollywood.

On arrival Shitface finds himself in a storage room with his parents, alongside other movie props, such as Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman and the Mummy. His parents are lifeless. They're animated robots used in the film, and they can only move when power is supplied. Fortunately Shitface has brought the amulet of Damballa to America with him. He reads the incantation on the amulet and it's a happy family reunion. Or maybe not so happy. Chucky renames his son Glen, but when Glen removes his trousers we see that he's not anatomically correct. Tiffany suggests that he's really a woman and should be called Glenda. (I assume my readers are film literate enough to know what famous film this is referring to).

The star of the film about the killer dolls is Jennifer Tilly. She's perfect for the role, because she has an uncanny similarity to Tiffany Ray before she was murdered. I wonder why. She's unhappy with her roles in cheap horror films and wants to become a serious actress like Julia Roberts. She wants the title role in an upcoming film about the Virgin Mary, and she's willing to seduce the director to get it. Between you and me, I think she would be the best choice for the role. She has the sweetest, most angelic voice of any woman on Earth, and her perfect voluptuous figure would make even Protestants fall on their knees and worship her.

It's not an easy life for young Glen. Or is he Glenda? He's torn between his desires to be a man and a woman. He can't choose. As a man he wants to be a good boy, but as a woman he wants to be a homicidal killer. Choices, choices! Tiffany decides to transfer her soul into the body of Jennifer Tilly. Chucky wants to transfer his soul into the body of the film director. But whose body should Glen/Glenda take? Gender is a choice, especially when you've been born as a plastic doll without a penis.

"Seed of Chucky" is a change of style from the previous films. The first film was a pure horror story. The following three films contained touches of humour which made them better, in my opinion. Not everyone agrees. I know that many fans consider the first film to be the best. "Seed of Chucky" pushes the horror/comedy slider all the way to the right. There's so much comedy that it can hardly be called a horror film. I can't imagine anyone being scared by it. Even the death scenes are comical. There are constant references to other films, such as "Scream 2", "Psycho", "Glen or Glenda" and "The Shining". I personally find that the comedy is overdone. "Seed of Chucky" doesn't share the pure brilliance of "Bride of Chucky". I wish Ronny Yu had returned as director.

Despite the overabundance of humour, it's still a very good film. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to my readers. And Tiffany is sexy, in a goth killer doll sort of way.

I have a few last remarks about the film. Tiffany spends time trying to recover from her addiction to killing. We see her reading a book on the 12 steps of recovery from addiction. There are three blunders in the book shown above.

1. The title of the step 9 chapter is bad English.

2. The text isn't about addiction, it's about stress management.

3. The second page repeats the same text that's written on the first page.

You can click on the picture to enlarge it if you want to look closer. It's sloppy.

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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Handmaiden (4 Stars)

"No woman in this world wants to be taken by force".

The film takes place in the 1930's during the Japanese occupation of Korea. At its core it's a tale of two very different women who grow together under the harshest of circumstances. Sook-hee is a young Korean woman who has been brought up as a pick pocket in a society of thieves. Hideko is a rich Japanese woman living under the control of her perverted uncle Kouzuki.

Kouzuki is actually a Korean, but ever since he married a rich Japanese woman he's taken a Japanese name and pretends to be Japanese. He owns a large collection of erotic literature in various languages. He used to hold book readings, in which his wife read books aloud to rich visitors. She committed suicide, so he now makes Hideko read the books in her place. The majority of the books involve violence against women, and as a result Hideko has developed a dislike for men. Hideko has received a large inheritance, and the uncle plans to marry her to get his hands on it.

A con man posing as a Japanese count attends the book readings. He wants the inheritance for himself. He wants to seduce Hideko and persuade her to run away and marry him, but he realises that she doesn't like men. He arranges for Sook-hee to be hired as Hideko's handmaiden, with the task of influencing Hideko to persuade her to fall for him. Of course, the count has no affection for Hideko. After marrying her he intends to have her committed to a mental asylum, so he can keep all the money for himself.

"The Handmaiden" meanders on for two and a half hours, but it's never boring. The plot twists and turns, keeping the viewer riveted to the screen. In the past I've never liked the films of Park Chan-wook, but this is a magnificent film. The film's strength probably comes from the fact that unlike his previous films he didn't write it himself. It's an adaptation of a novel by the Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Her novel is set in Victorian London, but the background is unimportant and allows the film to be easily translated into a Korean setting. The result is an astounding pschological thriller.

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Monday, 9 January 2017

Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (4½ Stars)

The first Sissi film is a relatively accurate portrayal of the life of Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, nicknamed Sissi, and her ascension to Empress of Austria at the age of 16. The second film shows the birth of her daughter a year later, but mixes in details that didn't happen until 12 years later. Now we arrive at the third film, and it's a total kuddelmuddel of events that happened during the first 15 years of her marriage. Yes, I know "kuddelmuddel" isn't an English word, but it ought to be. Even though it's German it's immediately obvious what's meant.

Because of the repeated anachronisms throughout it's difficult to say when the film is supposed to take place. The only hint we have is the age of her daughter Sophie. How old does she look to you? The actress is Helga Jesch, who played two roles in the film, but I've been unable to find details of her exact birth date. From her appearance she looks like she's three, but she speaks relatively clearly, so she may be four. It's possible that she was used for two different roles (also the daughter of Sissi's brother Ludwig) because she was able to speak at such a young age.

That would place the intended date of the film in the late 1850's, probably 1858. This deviates strongly from Sissi's real life. Sophie was born on March 5th 1855. Sissi's second daughter, Gisela, was born on July 12th 1856, so Sissi should have had two daughters in the film. Or maybe only one, because Sophie died on May 29th 1857. The film obviously wants to glamorise Sissi's life by omitting the family tragedy.

The third Sissi film, the final part of the trilogy, begins with Sissi spending time in Hungary, away from her husband, after being crowned as Queen of Hungary in the second film. When her best friend, Count Andrasy of Hungary, professes that he loves her she decides to return to Austria. Her husband meets her half way, and they spend some time together. After that tragedy strikes. Sissi becomes ill (tuberculosis) and is advised to move to a warmer climate. She spends a few months in Madeira, then Corfu, where she profits from the sea air but is barely able to leave her hotel. During this time Franz Josef's mother advises her son to start looking for a new wife. Can't she wait?

Eventually Sissi recovers after a visit from her mother. Franz Josef goes to collect his wife, but he decides that instead of taking her home directly he should visit the areas of northern Italy currently occupied by Austria. The subjects are rebellious against Austria, but he thinks Sissi can win them over. The first visit is to Milan, where the Emperor and Empress are snubbed by the nobles, who refuse to meet them. However, in a meeting after an opera performance Sissi manages to win the hearts of the common people, making the nobles wish they had met her. Then they travel to Venice, where they are also greeted rudely, but when the crowds see Sissi meet her daughter Sophie they applaud her and shout "Long live Mama".

Interwoven with the main story there are subplots about other members of Sissi's family. Her older brother Ludwig has married an actress -- scandal of scandals! -- so she has to be made a noble. She becomes the Countess of Wallersee, a new title invented for her. Sissi's older sister Helene is still single, despite a long on-off relationship with the Count of Thurn and Taxis.

Comic interlude is provided by Colonel Böckl, probably a fictional character, who has advanced in rank from film to film. His primary function is as Sissi's bodyguard, so he accompanies her on her journeys and during her illness. He's portrayed as fiercely loyal to the Empress, but quaintly inept. Wherever he goes he falls in love with a local woman, but just as it's about to get serious he's told that Sissi is moving to another country. He's heartbroken and swears he will never love again, but the first woman who smiles at him in the next country changes his mind.

Almost everything in the film really happened in Sissi's life, but as I already mentioned, the chronology has been mixed up. The illness probably refers to Sissi's travels to Madeira in 1860 and Corfu in 1861. However, she wasn't as ill as the film portrays her. She had a persistent cough which she used as an excuse to leave Vienna. She hated the life in the Austrian court, and she especially hated her mother-in-law Sophie.

The journey to Italy refers to events that happened at an earlier time. The royal couple visited Venice on November 25th 1856 and Milan on January 15th 1857, where they were received rudely, as shown in the film.

Of course, Sissi wasn't Queen of Hungary at this time. Her coronation was on June 8th 1867.

Sissi's sister Helene is single throughout the film. In real life she married the Prince of Thurn and Taxis on August 24th 1858.

In the film Sissi's brother Ludwig is supposed to have been married for two years. They actually married on May 28th 1859, so his sister Helene couldn't have been single while he was married.

The whole film series makes Sissi look like a wonderfully happy young woman swept off her feet by a loving husband who just happened to be the Emperor of Austria. She had a happy family life despite the interference of her mother-in-law. That made Sissi a household name in Germany in the 1950's. People fondly remembered the Empress from the previous Century. The truth about her was less flattering. Franz Josef was a deeply romantic man, and he complained that his wife didn't return his love. Her hatred for court life led to coldness towards her husband. She preferred to travel alone rather than be at her husband's side. The film shows her rejecting the advances of Count Andrasy, but historians are uncertain whether this is true. As Sissi grew older she became obsessed with beauty and fitness, trying desperately to retain the beauty of her youth.

The Sissi film series was cut short in 1957. A fourth film was planned, and it wouldn't have been the last. The actress Romy Schneider could have played Sissi all her life. That's what the public expected. People called her Sissi rather than use her real name. In 1959, when she was still 20, Romy Schneider left Germany and moved to France, despite not speaking a word of French. It was partly because of a relationship with the French actor Alain Delon, but the main reason was to get away from Sissi. She hated the Sissi films that the public loved so much. She considered them trash, and she wanted to be known as a serious actress. I don't find them as bad as she says, but I can understand her not wanting to be typecast.

Romy Schneider
23 September 1938 – 29 May 1982

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Sissi the Young Empress (5 Stars)

This is the second film in the Sissi trilogy. It was made in 1956, one year after the first film. "Sissi" ended with Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, nicknamed Sissi by her parents, marrying Emperor Franz Josef of Austria on April 24th 1854. "Sissi the Young Empress" begins four weeks later, with the couple living together in the royal palace in Vienna. There was no honeymoon. Franz Josef is much too busy with ruling his country to take time away from the palace. Sissi complains about being neglected, and she compensates by buying a large number of parrots.

Unlike the first film, "Sissi the Young Empress" departs from the historical facts by putting them out of chronological order. First I'll describe the plot as shown in the film.

Sissi was only 16 when she got married, so Franz Josef's mother Sophie considered her to be a child who still needed to be educated. The main subjects of her education were languages (Hungarian and Croatian) and court etiquette. She soon developed a love for Hungary, so she enjoyed learning the language, but she hated the other subjects. At the time Hungary was ruled by Austria, but there were tensions because an independence war had failed in 1948. Sissi made no secret of her love for Hungary, which gained her popularity with the Hungarian people. Franz Josef offered an amnesty to all Hungarian political prisoners, against the recommendation of his mother and his ministers. This was his own decision, but many gave the credit to Sissi.

Sissi had her first daughter on March 5th 1855, named Sophie after her grandmother. Soon after the birth the baby was taken away because Franz Josef's mother considered Sissi incapable of looking after a child at the age of 17. Sissi was so distressed that she ran away from the palace and returned to her parents in Bavaria. Franz Josef went in person to win her back. Together they travelled to Tirol. Pretending to be common people they spent a few days in a guest house in the mountains. This holiday was a replacement for the honeymoon that they had missed a year earlier. Franz Josef promised to give Sissi back her daughter when they returned to Vienna.

Back in Vienna preparations were being made for Franz Josef and Sissi to be crowned King and Queen of Hungary. Franz Josef's mother used this as an excuse to keep Sissi's daughter away, saying that Sissi would be too busy to look after a child. Sissi threatened to refuse the crown of Hungary, which would have led to another war, since the Hungarians wanted Sissi as their monarch more than Franz Josef. At the last minute the baby was returned. The film ends with Franz Josef and Sissi being crowned in Hungary. Sissi wins over the crowd by holding a speech in Hungarian.

As you can see from the above summary, two themes are interwoven: Sissi's first child and the reconciliation of Austria and Hungary. In actual fact, these events happened years apart. The amnesty for Hungarian political prisoners wasn't given in 1854, as the film portrays it, but in 1866. The film suggests that Sissi became Queen of Hungary in 1855, a few months after the birth of her daughter, but the date of her coronation was actually June 8th 1867.

There's something I forgot to mention in my review of the first Sissi film. Sissi's mother, Duchess Ludovika of Bavaria, is played by Magda Schneider. She was well known as Adolf Hitler's favourite actress, but she's also the mother of Romy Schneider, the actress who plays Sissi.

I admit that this is a girly film, but who cares? Female emotions aren't something inferior to be ashamed of. This is a true story -- almost -- but it has the magic of a fairy tale with kings and queens and emperors and empresses, a magical world where a teenage girl can wield great power. It's a world I would like to live in.

After watching "Sissi" last month I spent some time researching the lives of Franz Josef and Sissi. I've come to the conclusion that Franz Josef is an example of monarchy at its best. He was born on August 18th 1830, and he became Emperor of Austria on December 2nd 1848 after the abdication of his uncle. He reigned for 68 years until his death on November 21st 1916. He was greatly loved by his people. There was peace for the first 45 years of his reign, followed by a series of wars caused by aggression from Prussia and Russia, and finally the First World War. Nevertheless, he was a man of peace all his life. He always preferred to forgive rather than punish his enemies. If all monarchs were as good as Franz Josef we wouldn't need democracy.