Monday, 29 September 2014

The Darjeeling Limited (3½ Stars)

Three brothers (Adrian Brody, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman) reunite after their father's death to take a spiritual trip across India.

Bill Murray missed the train.

The brothers lose their luggage on the way home.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (5 Stars)

In my last review of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" I wrote that "the mix of action, drama, romance and beautiful cinematography makes it an all time classic". That's true, but I forgot something. The film also has a deep spirituality. It's not a dogmatic spirituality. In the opening scene Li Mu Bai arrives after spending a period of deep meditation in the Wudang temple and speaks these words:
"During my meditation I came to a place of deep silence. I was surrounded by light. Time and space disappeared. I felt I had come to a place my master had never told me about".
He denies that this was enlightenment, and continues:
"I didn't feel the bliss one should feel when enlightened. Instead, I was surrounded by an endless sorrow".
Why was this? We're given a clue, though I wouldn't be bold enough to call it a definitive answer, shortly before his death. Shu Lien encourages Li Mu Bai to meditate with his last breath, but he refuses. He claims he has wasted all his life, and instead of this he uses his last breath to tell Shu Lien that he loves her.

Does this mean that love is more important than meditation? That's a tough question to give a one-word answer to. A tough question for those of us who think spiritually, that is. For a shallow person the answer is an easy Yes. Maybe the shallow ones are right. Even a fool can sometimes make the right decision. I prefer to leave the question unanswered. In the context of the film, I see the answer elsewhere. Li Mu Bai's problem was that he meditated for the wrong reasons. Amongst other reasons, a person should meditate to find himself. Li Mu Bai meditated to escape the truth about himself that he already knew. He had known that he loved Shu Lien for many years, and he used meditation as a means to flee from this love. It could even be argued that the place he reached in his deep meditation really was enlightenment. It was revealed to him, in that perfect place, that he had nothing. This was the reason for his sorrow.

Later in the film Li Mu Bai says:
"The things we touch have no permanence. My master would say: there is nothing we can hold onto in this world. Only by letting go can we truly possess what is real".
This sounds true. But in the last moments of his life Li Mu Bai rejects the teaching of his master. He clings to Shu Lien as tightly as he can, refusing to let go.

Was this a mistake? I don't know. I'm at a position in my life where I accept nothing and question everything. The older I become, the less I know. This might sound like my life is empty, but that isn't a bad thing. Remember that only an empty glass can be filled.

One question that I asked myself after watching the film today is if spiritual enlightenment, as an inner experience, has any value at all. In the film Jade Fox denies this. She says, "Happiness is the most important thing in life, isn't it?" She is the film's most evil person, a murderess, but does she have a point?

I can relate to the words written by King Solomon of Israel, the wisest person on Earth during his lifetime, and probably one of the wisest men who has ever lived.
"The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. Then I thought in my heart, the fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise? The wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die!" (Ecclesiastes 2:14-16)
Solomon's words are dangerously close to existentialism, a philosophy that I reject completely. The Book of Ecclesiastes holds a unique place in the Bible. Whereas the rest of the Bible purports to be the Word of God, this book is the word of a man thinking by himself, a man who only believes what he sees with his own eyes. That's probably the reason why it's so often quoted by people who don't believe in the Bible. The Book of Ecclesiastes is more accessible to non-believers.

Whether or not wisdom is worth while, it's a one-way path. A person who is on the path of wisdom might reject the teachings he's learnt, but he can't forget them. A fool can become wise, but a wise man can't become a fool; the most he can do is act like a fool.

When I was younger the words of Todd Rundgren inspired me. Amongst other things he sang, "A long, long road is behind me now. It's too late to be afraid of the choice that I have made". He was right. For me, like Todd, there is no going back.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Bronson (4 Stars)

After watching this film today for the third time the main impression I got was the quality of Tom Hardy's acting. Sheer brilliance, especially when compared with his other films such as "Locke" and "Inception". For me the true mark of an actor's quality is that he's virtually unrecognisable from one film to the next. Judging by this criterion, Tom Cruise fails miserably, while Tom Hardy finishes top of his class.

Click here for a more detailed review.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Maps to the Stars (3¾ Stars)

After seeing this film in the cinema I found it difficult to review. I cheated by checking reviews written by other people, but I don't like their reviews either. I think the problem is that the film has different stories which are interlocked by sharing the same people, but actually have little to do with one another. It's the same scenario that we have in "Magnolia", except that P. T. Anderson makes a big deal of stories happening in parallel while David Cronenberg just lets them happen.

Let me attempt a partial synopsis of the film. Spoiler-free, of course. Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a psychotherapist who has become a millionaire through television appearances, self-help books and treating the Hollywood stars. His unconventional counselling techniques involve talking to the actresses -- he only has female clients? -- while massaging them. But there are several dark secrets in his life. His wife is his sister. His 13-year-old son Benjie, the star of "Bad Babysitter", has just spent four years in drug rehab. His 18-year-old daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) was sent to a mental asylum as a child after starting a fire, and he refuses to let her contact his family.

Agatha returns to Hollywood with the intention of marrying her brother. After all, she's only following the example set my her parents. She returns using a false name to avoid suspicion. At the airport she meets and grows attached to Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a young man who is working as a limo driver while trying to make it as a screenwriter. She becomes the personal assistant of Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress and one of Dr. Weiss's patients, who is desperate to star in a film remake in which she would play the same role that her now deceased mother played 30 years earlier.

The film is a savaging attack on the Hollywood film community and the people who populate it. The teen stars that Benjie mixes with are the ugliest of all. They've entered an adult world, and they've adopted its conventions to survive. They talk bad about others behind their backs and fight their way to the top by trampling on their peers. The adults too are heartless. When the son of Havana's friend Azita (Jayne Heitmeyer) dies, Havana pretends to be sympathetic, but she's really pleased because Azita is no longer able to star in a film role that Havana wanted.

I don't think my synopsis does the film justice, even though it's better than anything else I've read so far. I've omitted many things that are going on, but it should give you a rough impression. It's a film worth seeing more than once. It confused me on first viewing, but there's a good chance I'll rate it higher next time I see it.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

A Most Wanted Man (4 Stars)

Ever since this film was announced a friend of mine who is a big John le Carré fan was telling me that I really must watch it. And then another friend who's an Anton Corbijn fan told me I should watch it. But I didn't need the encouragement of either of them. The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in the leading role, so I would have gone to see it whoever had written or directed it.

I have never read any of John le Carré's books, but I know a little about him. He is a British author who writes books about espionage. He had the advantage of working for the British intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, which gave him insight into the way espionage works. This film is very different to spy thrillers such as the James Bond films. We don't have spectacular car chases and agents leaping from helicopters while firing their guns at people on the ground. This is a very sober story of the way secret agents really live and work. It's not all excitement being a spy, it's about investigation, paperwork and negotiations with the police and other agencies. Being a spy is a 9 to 5 job, and this film gives an insight into the job for anyone who is considering it as a career.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, the head of a small counter-terrorism unit based in Hamburg. A Chechnyan terrorist who is being sought by the Russian authorities enters Germany illegally. The German police want to arrest him immediately, but Bachmann persuades them to let him remain free, under observation, so that he can be used to gain evidence that a Moslem philanthropist, Dr. Faisal Abdullah, is secretly financing Al Qaeda.

Apart from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Willem Dafoe, who plays a banker, the film contains the top German actors Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss. The singer Herbert Grönemeyer has a small part in the film, as well as composing the film's music.

It's interesting that this is the second film I've seen in the cinema in two weeks which includes an excerpt from "The Mussolini", a 1981 hit by DAF. In "A Most Wanted Man" it's being played in a club, in "The Guest" we hear Anna Petersen listening to it in her room. DAF. are a group who achieved great success in Germany, but are hardly known in other countries. It would be good to revive interest in them.

Click here for the music video of "The Mussolini".

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Legend of Bruce Lee (4½ Stars)

This film about Bruce Lee's life was made in 2010. Despite being a big fan of Bruce Lee I waited until today to watch it. The reason is that the reviews I read were so bad that I didn't think it would be worth watching. Today I finally gave in and watched it. And I'm confused. Why are the reviews so bad? Weren't the reviewers watching the same film?

This film is a perfect companion to "Young Bruce Lee", also known as "Bruce Lee, My Brother". "Young Bruce Lee" deals with his early life, from his birth to his emigration to America in 1959. "The Legend of Bruce Lee" begins in 1964 and continues up till his death in 1973, although there are flashbacks to his final years in Hong Kong.

The actor who plays Bruce Lee, Danny Chan (called by his Chinese name Chan Kwok Kwan in the poster above) is amazing. In all the films I've seen about Bruce Lee I've never seen an actor who matches Bruce's appearance so exactly. Apart from that, he's an excellent martial artist in his own right, not just an athlete mimicking fighting moves for the camera.

The film follows Bruce's determination to devise a new fighting style which combines the best elements of other styles. He came to America as an expert in Wing Chun, which he considered to be the best, but he thought it could be improved. He meets with masters of Ju Jitsu, Filipino Boxing and Taekwondo to learn from them and incorporate their best moves into his new style, which he called Jeet Kune Do.

My main criticism of the film is the awful music that breaks in at random moments. There are cheesy choruses of women singing lines such as "Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee, we adore you". It's so bad that it's embarrassing. Another mistake is that everyone in the film speaks Chinese, even people in America who evidently aren't Chinese, such as hospital surgeons and television producers.

I have a theory about this film. I've tried to find information online that verifies it, but I've had no success. In 2008-2009 there was a Chinese television series about Bruce Lee, also called "The Legend of Bruce Lee". It was made up of 50 episodes, each lasting 45 minutes. The actors in the series are the same ones who appear in the film. My theory is that the film is an abridged version of the series, a sort of "Best of the Legend of Bruce Lee", just the best three hours out of the 37 hours that the series lasted. Since the series has never been released with English subtitles, could any of my Chinese readers find this out for me please?

Incidentally, check out the newspaper report about Bruce Lee's successes that was shown in the film. Obviously, the word "miraculous" is spelt wrong. But check out the text of the article below the headline. (Click on the photo to enlarge it). It has nothing to do with Bruce Lee or any other fighters. The article is about hockey and basketball. And then there's the date, Friday, March 16th, 1971. This day was a Tuesday. Sloppy.

Added on September 27th

After doing some more research I've found confirmation that the film really is a collection of highlights from the television series, not original material.

I've also been reading reviews about the film, and now I understand the criticisms. The problem is that it claims to be a biopic about Bruce Lee, but it contains things that simply aren't true. For instance:

  1. There was nobody called Hoffman at the 1964 karate championship.
  2. Yellow-Skin (real name Wong Jackman) never broke Bruce Lee's spine in a private match.
  3. Bruce Lee did not collapse while filming "Enter the Dragon".
  4. The evil Japanese nemesis Yamamoto did not exist.
  5. Bruce Lee never became the US karate champion.

These are all significant things. I'm thankful to other reviewers for pointing them out. So it isn't a biopic about the real Bruce Lee, it's just a fantasy story that is loosely based on his life. I still enjoy the film, as a film, but as a documentary of his life it's a total failure. But then again, "failure" is the wrong word, because I doubt it was intended to present the real Bruce Lee, any more than Robin Hood films are intended to show the real historical character as he was. The problem in Bruce Lee's case is that he's a recent hero, so we're forced to compare the stories with the well-documented truth.

Killing them softly (3½ Stars)

America's not a country. It's just a business. So fucking pay me!

This is a dark crime drama against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential elections. Nobody that we see is a good person, and we end up hating them all.

A semi-retired gangster hires two small-time crooks to rob an illegal poker game being run by mobsters. One of them talks too much when he's high on drugs, so Jackie Cogan, a professional hit man, is hired to kill them. "Killing them softly" refers to his method of killing. He explains that when you kill someone face to face it's a messy business. The victim pleads and begs, he pisses himself, and his blood splashes all over the killer. Jackie prefers to kill his victims softly, as he calls it. He shoots them from a distance, so they don't know who the killer is, and if the assassination runs smoothly they're dead before they even know it. That's a nice way to die.

It's doubtlessly a good film, with first rate performances from all the actors. The problem is simply that all the characters are without redeeming qualities. When I watch a film I want to take the part of one of the protagonists. I want him to succeed. In this film I had nobody I could relate to. I hated the crooks, I hated the hit man, I hated the mob bosses, I hated everyone.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Hummingbird (4 Stars)

This is the first film that was directed by Steven Knight, the screenwriter/director from my home town of Birmingham, who was also responsible for "Locke". It was renamed "Redemption" in the USA, but this name is totally wrong. As Steven Knight points out in the interview on the disc, "Joey is a character who feels he can't be forgiven, he doesn't deserve to be forgiven, and he isn't looking for forgiveness". If anything the American title should have been "No Redemption".

Joey Smith, codename Hummingbird, was a British soldier serving in Afghanistan. His squad of six soldiers was ambushed, and he was the only survivor. He reacted with an Eye For an Eye principle: "They killed five of ours, I'll kill five of theirs". Since he didn't know who had attacked his squad, he captured and executed five civilians at random. This resulted in him being sent home, where he was put into a mental hospital to be treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At some point he decided that he was mentally well again, but he didn't want to show it. The trouble was that as soon as he was deemed healthy he would have to face a court martial. So he bided his time until he had an opportunity to escape, and he went underground on the streets of London.

Joey's appearance and his way of life change. His hair grows long, he wears dirty clothes, he lives in a cardboard box on the streets, and he spends any money he gets from begging on alcohol.Drinking is a deliberate choice for him. When he's sober he does the only thing that he's good at, i.e. he fights and he kills. That's what he's been trained to do. When he's drunk he's docile and harmless.

One day in February he falls through the skylight into an apartment that will be empty until October while the owner, a successful artist, is working in New York. First he steals money, which he uses to buy more alcohol. Then he makes a large donation to the nun who runs the soup kitchen where he used to eat. She begs him to make a change in his life, so he sobers up. He changes his name to Joey Jones, and he gets a job at a Chinese restaurant. After being seen in a fight by his boss, who is also a local gangster, he is offered work as a driver and debt collector. Once more he's able to do what he's good at: fighting and killing. He begins to have romantic feelings for the nun, but a relationship isn't possible because she is, after all, a nun.

The nun wants him to stop being a gangster. Can he change? He already changed once for her, and the change made him a worse person. Is there any solution, apart from returning to the bottle?

Steven Knight says in his interview that when he did research on the homeless community in London he found out that about 10% of the homeless people are ex-soldiers. That's not what I saw when I was homeless. When I was homeless, in Birmingham, I found that about 50% of the homeless people were ex-soldiers. This is disgraceful. There should be follow up to prevent this happening to soldiers when they leave the army. It's not just a matter of them not having money. They're given an army pension, and most leave the army when they're still young enough to start a new career. It's more of a mental problem. After spending years living in barracks or tents with other soldiers they feel so lonely when they return to a so-called normal life. Sleeping alone in a room is strange. They feel more comfortable living on the streets where they can be close to others.

It's also difficult for an ex-soldier to carry out a normal job. In the army everything is about discipline. He's told what to do, and he obeys his orders to the letter. Creativity and initiative are not expected of him. All this changes in real jobs in the real world.

And then there's the killing. As I've been told by several people, some of them friends of mine, killing changes everything. It's true that soldiers are trained to kill because it's just a job, but nothing can protect a soldier from the emotional scar when he kills a person for the first time. If he carries on killing, each time he pulls the trigger it gets a bit easier. But when he leaves the army the day will come when he sits down and counts the people he has killed, and the nightmares begin.

In my opinion England's soldiers are our biggest heroes. They are the ones who put their lives at risk and abandon personal comfort to protect the rest of us. They are the ones who protect me. My father was in the Royal Air Force during World War Two, doing what he could to fight the evil forces who killed Jews. History repeats itself. Today's English soldiers are also sent abroad to fight people who are enemies of the Jews. But what happens when they come home? My father only served for four years, and he never saw active combat, so he returned home unscathed. My friend Brian Farmer returned home after 22 years in the army, and he was an emotional wreck, unable to do a normal day's work. 19 years later he was murdered in his own apartment by people he called his friends. The killers were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment, but were they the only guilty ones? Those who neglected to look after him when he was alone and helpless in England share the guilt. Where were the doctors, the social workers and the army psychiatrists who could have helped him?

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Killer Inside Me (3¾ Stars)

This is a twisted, though somehow fascinating drama, set in a small town in Texas in the 1950's. It was difficult for me to rate. I can appreciate the film's quality on so many levels, such as the atmosphere, the plot and the acting. On the other hand there are scenes that disgusted me so much that I wanted to turn it off. I could have given the film any rating between 1 and 4 stars, depending on my mood.

Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) is the deputy sheriff in Central City, Texas. Despite the grand sound of its name, Central City is actually only a small town in which everyone knows everyone. The only justification for its name is that it really is in the middle of Texas. Lou has a beautiful girlfriend, a school teacher called Amy (Kate Hudson), with whom he has a torrid sado-masochistic relationship, but she isn't enough for him. When he's asked by the town's biggest employer, the owner of a construction company, to run a prostitute (Jessica Alba) out of town who has had an affair with the employer's son, Lou begins an affair with her. Another sado-masochistic affair. Lou likes to hit women, and they enjoy it.

I personally have been involved in the S&M scene, on various levels, since I was at university. This isn't the place to describe my past in detail, but I do have fixed ideas on the subject which are rejected by many others in the scene, although I am convinced that I am right. I know that there are people, both men and women, who experience a certain amount of sexual pleasure out of being dominated, even if the domination involves being hurt. There are both men and women who act as dominants, either acting gently as loving dominants, or acting harshly as cruel dominants. In either case, especially the latter, it's the official party line of the S&M scene that whatever happens must be consensual. It's usual that in S&M relationships the submissive person has a "safe word" which he/she can use when he wants the dominant person to stop what he's doing. This has led to the commonly stated misconception that the submissive is really the one who is in control.

Based on my experience I am strongly of the opinion that men are ill-suited as dominants. Dominant men are unable to stop when they're sexually aroused and often go too far. A problem with men, both dominant and submissive, is that they consider the domination to be foreplay for sexual intercourse, whereas women can enjoy domination without sex. This means that domination by a man can frequently lead to rape. It's also my experience that dominant men tend to be below average intelligence, which further complicates the issue.

I don't know if Lou Ford is based on any real person, but to me he's a typical dominant male. Women submit to him, so he hurts them, but he's unable to stop, and the domination turns into abuse. In this film he kills the women that he's involved with, and then he's forced to kill men to hide what he's done. He's a disgusting creature.

Please leave comments if you agree or disagree with what I've written. Maybe I can go into the subject in more detail.