Thursday, 31 July 2014

Violet & Daisy (4 Stars)

Violet and Daisy are a pair of teenage assassins in New York. With the exception of the opening scene that introduces the girls carrying out a typical job successfully, the whole film takes place on Daisy's 18th birthday.

Violet (Alexis Biedel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) have been working together for three years. On her 18th birthday Daisy wants to quit, because she feels like she's never had a real life. In a magazine she sees a fantastic new dress that she wants, but she's broke, so she agrees to do one last job. They have to execute someone who has stolen from their boss. In the closing credits he's called Michael, but in the film itself we never hear his name. I have to admit that it's more appropriate for him to be an anonymous unnamed character, so I'll refer to him as X.

This is the job that changes Daisy's life. It's a trauma for both of the girls, but we see things primarily through Daisy's eyes. When they arrive at the apartment they find out that X (James Gandolfini) wants them to kill him. He's suffering from cancer and would prefer a quick death. The girls find X very pleasant and develop an affection for him. They spend a whole day with him, talking and exchanging their life stories. He repeatedly asks them to get on with their job, but the more they get to know him the less they want to kill him.

More than anything, the film is a psychological drama. It could even be described as a coming-of-age story, as Daisy attempts to regain her childhood, looking up to X as a father figure. James Gandolfini plays the role in a very relaxed way, stealing the scenes with his magnificent acting. He repeats the mannerisms that he used as Tony Soprano, but he's a very different character. Saoirse Ronan also excels as the innocent little girl with a gun. If anything, the weak link is Alexis Biedel. We hear in the film that she also has father issues, but they're not put across as convincingly.

When Saoirse Ronan doesn't know what to do...

she sucks a lollipop!

The film's cinematography is noteworthy. There are so many scenes which are framed so beautifully that I feel like posting a hundred snapshots. I'll try to restrain myself and just post the best.

Alexis Biedel, beautiful assassin.

Sleeping with the enemy?

When teenage nuns deliver pizza...

don't forget the tip!

Wolverine (5 Stars)

We don't all have claws.

As always, Marvel films need time to grow on me. On first viewing I'm always critical, usually because of deviations from the comics in relation to the costumes and powers of the super-heroes. Then I need to wait a while. On second viewing I'm able to accept the film in its own right, rather than seeing it as a cheap imitation of a comic book. Today is exactly one year since I watched "Wolverine" in the cinema. Now I have the Blu-ray Disc in my hand, which I bought online for £4.99 (including postage). And today my impression was overwhelmingly positive.

So much about the film overwhelmed me today, the second time I saw the film. I love Japanese culture, past and present. I often watch Japanese films, but in none of them does the camera linger so seductively on the Japanese scenery. I can understand why. Japanese films are made for Japanese viewers who know Japan, so there's no need to emphasise the background. That's all it is, a background. For an American director making a film for (primarily) American viewers, it's all about the atmosphere, so the background becomes the foreground. The big cities, the small towns, the bullet train, the temples... it's all important. These settings make the film unique.

The story is poignant in showing Logan's way back. He begins the film as a nomad, stricken with grief after killing Jean Grey in "The Last Stand". Defending Mariko, the granddaughter of his old friend Yashida, helps him to become a hero again. Japan is the country of his rebirth.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Notorious Cleopatra (3½ Stars)

This is a rather whimsical tale of Queen Cleopatra and her relationships with the two most powerful men in the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony. Egypt was a poor country at the time, and its only value was in its corn exports. Caesar wanted to control Egypt's food, Cleopatra wanted to control Rome. Arguably, Cleopatra would have succeeded, if Caesar had not been assassinated by his enemies before she took complete control of him. He was a powerful man who had fought wars and conquered many nations, but she was a beautiful woman, and he was powerless in her arms.

I have seen several actresses playing the role of Cleopatra. The most famous of them was Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 film. Considering that Cleopatra was reputed to be the most beautiful woman who had ever lived, I'm surprised how plain the actresses are. I'm not criticising Elizabeth Taylor as an actress, but was she the most beautiful woman on Earth? Not even close. "The Notorious Cleopatra", made six years later in 1969, puts things right. Loray White, who used to be the wife of Sammy Davis Jr., is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Her beauty, her charm and her overwhelming sex appeal would have enslaved me.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Toy Box (3½ Stars)

This is a film that's screaming for a remake. It has so many good ideas in it, but it's let down by the poor production quality. It was made in 1970 when the technical possibilities didn't exist that we have today. The script should be reused for a big budget horror film.

Donna works for her uncle, who is the ultimate voyeur. He pays people to come to his castle for sex parties, so that he can watch them. Donna's boyfriend Ralph travels all over the world to find people of different races and skin colours to take part. They are extravagant parties, with role-playing scenes such as Roman gladiatorial fights, but they always end as mass orgies.

Donna and Ralph don't usually take part in the parties, but this is a special occasion. The uncle has died, and his last wish is that for his wake there should be one last orgy around his corpse. The party begins as normal, but then strange things begin to happen. Guests are murdered and decapitated. Random men and women become possessed by an unseen force and kill their sex partners. Ralph and Donna try to escape, but the doors are locked.

I have mixed feelings about the film. The combination of sex and horror works well, but the horror scenes are let down by poor special effects. Some of the ideas can only have come from a very twisted mind, such as the possessed bed sheets which rape and kill a woman. Then there's the butcher who keeps dead women on meat hooks. He unhooks a woman so that he can have sex with her decaying corpse, but while he's in the act she comes back to life as a zombie and kills him. It's all very fascinating, but it could have been done better. The film should be remade.

Off-Topic: Nicki Minaj

Singer Nicki Minaj, never a person to avoid controversy, has announced her new single, "Anaconda", with cover art that many people have called overly explicit. Why? She's not even naked. She's a beautiful, self-confident woman who has no hesitation in revealing her beauty in skimpy clothing. Nicki is a real woman with real curves. Compare her with Miley Cyrus, who has a body so flat that at first glance she looks like a boy.

Nicki originally wanted to be an actress, and she even visited an acting school before turning to music. I admit that her music is not to my taste. She sounds better than most rappers, but it's not something I would listen to at home. My interest in her is because of her looks and, more importantly, her willingness to expose herself. She has starred in one film so far, a small role in "The Other Woman", and I hope she will make many more films.

Yesterday Nicki released a second promotional photo of herself for the single, wearing the same pink bikini. I hope this means it's what she will be wearing in the music video.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Atomic Hotel Erotica (4 Stars)

As you might guess from the text on the poster above, this film is based loosely on the famous song by the Eagles, "Hotel California".

Jason and Rob (played by Frankie Dell and Ryan Driller) are software developers. They have been asked to optimise the company's search engine, and the first one to succeed will receive a sizeable bonus. This might sound ridiculous to Europeans, but it's the way business works in America. In Europe everything is about teamwork, but in America employees are encouraged to work against one another. This is why offices in America have an unpleasant atmosphere, compared to Europe. In the case of the film's fictional company, the competition imposed by the bosses is pointless; both men know that Rob is the better programmer and will solve the problem first, so it would have been much more sensible to give Jason another job. As it is, since Jason knows he can't succeed by fair means, he wants to steal Rob's work and hand it in first, pretending that it's his own solution.

Jason and Rob both have beautiful wives, as is to be expected in any film directed by Dean McKendrick. Jason has a happy relationship with his wife Elena (Sophia Bella), but Rob complains that his wife Laura (Krissy Lynn) hasn't had sex with him for six months. At first we feel sorry for Rob, but when we see him at home we realise that it's all his own fault. Laura wants to have fun with him, including going dancing and having sex, but he's always too busy working. The silly, silly man.

Rob is sent an anonymous letter offering him an all expenses paid weekend for four at a luxury hotel, the Atomic Hotel Erotica. What's that they say about things that seem too good to be true? Since the holiday is for four, he invites Jason and Elena along. At the hotel there's only one other couple, the wealthy rancher Vince (Eric Masterson) and his girlfriend Sasha (Mary Carey). The hotel is run by the creepy owner Grismer LaVey (Mike Gaglio) and the equally creepy hotel porter Wilfred (Frankie Cullen). As the viewer sees, guests are captured in photos and never allowed to leave. Is that a reference to "The Shining"?

The guests are oblivious to their impending doom and continue to work against one another. Elena seduces Rob so that she can steal his computer program from him. Laura gets over her sexual frustrations by having sex with Jason and Wilfred. Only poor Grismer, the film's evil puppet master, never gets laid. But then again, Mike Gaglio never gets a girl in any of his films. At a quick count I own 12 films that he stars in. We ought to start a petition to get him laid.

The film has great performances by Eric Masterson, Ryan Driller and Mary Carey. As a low-budget sex romp it succeeds, and I'm sure its target audience won't be disappointed.

E.T. (5 Stars)

There's no winning. It's like life. You don't win at life.

After watching "E.T." at the Brindley Place Film Festival earlier this month I felt the urge to watch it again. Watching it in the comfort of my own home, without the distractions of the cold weather, I could fully appreciate the film. It's understandable that it was the most successful film ever at the time of its release. It's a film for the whole family, from young children to their grandparents. It's a tale of childish innocence, wrecked by the pain of the parents being divorced, but healed by the arrival of a magical new friend. The science fiction aspects of the story are underplayed and fully credible. There's no reason for visitors from another planet to be aggressive conquerors. Why shouldn't they be peaceful botanists?

I bought the Blu-ray Disc on Ebay for only £3.75 (including postage). That's a bargain. I was somewhat disappointed that it only contained the 2002 edited version, not the original version, after reading that Steven Spielberg considers the original version better. It would have been good to compare. I'd read that all recent DVD releases contain both versions, but they probably omitted the original version from the Blu-ray release because it isn't available in high definition. Shame.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Man from Uncle: One spy too many (3½ Stars)

This is one of the Man from Uncle films that was made my editing two episodes into a single story. Rather than just putting together two episodes, new scenes were filmed, such as the appearance of Yvonne Craig as Maude Waverly, the niece of Uncle's boss, Alexander Waverly.

"The Man from Uncle", more correctly spelt "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", was one of the great spy series of the 1960's. It was devised as a television equivalent of the James Bond films. In fact, Ian Fleming was hired to lay out the original concept of the series. Originally the series was intended to be about one spy, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), but a guest star in some of the early episodes, the Russian agent Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), became so popular with fans that it was decided to make him a regular and give him equal billing as the series' top star.

This film, edited from the first two episodes of the second season, is about a man called Mr. Alexander -- we never find out his first name -- who sees himself as a successor to Alexander the Great. He intends to conquer the world with the help of a powerful new poison gas that he has stolen, but he believes that before he can achieve his destiny he has to break each one of the Biblical Ten Commandments. I fail to see the connection between a Greek leader and the Jewish law, but this is typical for the eccentric plots in the TV series.

A Man from Uncle film is planned for next year, directed by Guy Ritchie, and starring Henry Cavill and David Beckham. David Beckham? That sounds like a recipe for disaster. I hope Guy Ritchie knows what he's doing. Whether the film is good or bad, it should lead to a reasonably priced TV series box set being released, maybe even remastered for Blu-ray. Let's wait and see.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

General: George R. R. Martin at Comic Con 2014

George R. R. Martin is best known as the author of the "Song of Fire and Ice" fantasy novels, which have been adapted for television as "Game of Thrones". Today he was interviewed at the San Diego Comic Convention. I'm sure the whole interview will soon be made available on YouTube, but for now I watched it live and can't post a link. He mentions that reading the story of Wonder Man in Avengers #9 was the main influence on his future story-stelling. He must have been 15 when he read it in 1964. He thinks that this story should be retold in a future Avengers film.

Most significant to me was his opinion of the Marvel films so far. First he complained about Ant-Man being missing from the Avengers in the films. Then he went on to say:

"You can't go wrong if you stick with Stan Lee. That's always been my opinion on these Marvel movies. The best ones are the ones that are closest to what Stan Lee did. It's when they start to be creative, when they think they can be better than Stan Lee, mostly they can't".

Could anyone have said it better?

P.S. The video has been posted on YouTube now. Click here to listen to the interview.

The Pig Keeper's Daughter (3½ Stars)

Pigs make a lot better friends than some people I know.

The pig farmer Buck Swyner is worried that his daughter Moonbeam will never get married. After all, she's already 19. Moonbeam's best friend is a pig called Lord Hamilton. She fantasises that one day when she kisses him he will turn into a handsome prince. This never happens, but she keeps kissing him anyway. Then a young salesman arrives in town. The pig farmer thinks that this could be the right man for his daughter, but unfortunately the salesman is more interested in his wife than his daughter.

I suppose that when this film was made in 1972 it was considered outlandish and shocking. Bare breasts and sex scenes on a farm! By today's standards it all seems so innocent. The girls are very pretty, especially when they take their clothes off. The sex scenes are boring.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Guns, Girls and Gambling (3½ Stars)

John Smith (Christian Slater) has been kicked out by his girlfriend, so he drives into the desert, hoping to find luck in a casino on an Indian reservation. After losing most of his money on the slot machines, he takes part in an Elvis impersonation contest. He doesn't win, but he makes friends with the other four impersonators and sits playing poker with them all night. He falls asleep at the table, and when he wakes up the others have gone. He's beat up by casino security guards who accuse him of stealing a sacred Indian mask. They assume it was him, because it was taken by someone dressed as Elvis. John tries to find the other Elvises to clear his name, but they are being killed one by one. John is caught in the middle of a battle between Indians, cowboys, corrupt policemen and a mysterious blonde assassin who quotes Edgar Allen Poe before shooting her victims.

This is an amusing story with a multitude of plot twists. Every time you think you understand what's happening something else happens to contradict it. I didn't count the plot twists, but there were too many, right up to the final minutes. At some point the film should have settled down and told the rest of the story in a linear fashion. Some people might like this film, but it's too eccentric for me.