Thursday, 21 May 2015

Old men in new cars (5 Stars)

After the success of the Danish gangster film "In China they eat dogs" in 1999 the public cried out for a sequel. That wasn't possible, because almost everyone was killed at the end of the first film, so a prequel was made instead. If anything, the prequel is even better than the first film with its over-the-top action and dry humour. In fact, the humour is so dry that it could be British.

The film begins with Harald Blixen being released from prison after serving a sentence for armed robbery. He visits Munken, the gangster who was his mentor, and finds him on his death bed. Munken's dying wish is to see his son Ludvig, who is serving a life sentence for murder in Sweden. Harald and his associates travel to Sweden and manage to break Ludvig out of prison, but on the journey back to Denmark they can't stop him killing women.

As the film continues Harald tries to make money by robbing a bank and hijacking a plane that's transporting money. When leaving the bank the gang takes a hostage, but they make the worst possible choice. Mille is a woman planning to commit suicide, so she doesn't cooperate with her captors because she wants them to kill her. Ludvig wants to kill her, of course, but when he finds out that she's suicidal he falls in love with her and asks her to marry him.

Are all Danish gangster films this good? Probably not. I wish they were.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (2 Stars)

If ever there were a film that I would describe as a candyfloss movie, this is it. In case you aren't a regular reader of my blog, let me explain what I mean. I call a film a candyfloss movie if it seems big and spectacular at first glance, but when you sit back amd think about it there's nothing there. It all melts away to nothing in your mouth before you can swallow it. That's a shame in the case of this film, because it stars two of my favourite actors, Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Neither of them live up to their artistic potential.

So what's the film about? Max jumps in a car and drives from A to B. Then he turns round and drives back from B to A. Along the way he picks up some passengers and gets involved in a few fights. The end.

Sure, the fights are spectacular and the special effects are dazzling. But the end result is a film that's totally forgettable. This is a film that Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron will be embarrassed to mention when they're writing their resume.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Fast & Furious 7 (4 Stars)

I skipped a couple of films here. More than a couple. I watched "Fast & Furious" on television about ten years ago, and this is only the second film in the series I've seen. The films in a franchise like this are usually suitable for standalone viewing, but in this case I think I've lost out slightly. Supposedly "Fast & Furious 6" was split into two films, because it was decided the story was too big for one film to do it justice. In the first 15 minutes of "Fast & Furious 7" there were repeated references to things that had already happened, probably in the previous film.

I didn't watch the film when it first appeared in the cinemas six weeks ago. The hype surrounding the film, combined with having missed the previous five parts, made me stay at home. But I was aware of the praise being heaped on the film, so I was getting more and more curious, and it's already become the fourth highest grossing film ever. This week is the last week it's playing in my local cinema, Cineworld Broad Street, so I thought I would go to see it while I have a last chance.

If I understand the Fast & Furious franchise correctly, after reading a brief summary online, it's gone through a slow shift in style from the first to the seventh film. It began as a sympathetic portrayal of lawless road racers, but the emphasis has shifted to being about good guys taking down bad guys. What links the films, rather than the plots, is the reliance on breathtaking car chase scenes. That's what impressed me today more than anything else. Was it a good story? Who cares? The action was incredible. It's all about fast cars and gunfights. That's what makes the film a joy to watch. After seeing it today I want to go back and watch the first six films. I need to catch up on what's been happening so far.

An eight instalment of the film series has already been planned. There are differing rumours whether the complete series will contain eight or ten films. However many there will be, let's hope they keep getting better.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Age of Adaline (4 Stars)

Years, lovers and glasses of wine,
These are things that should never be counted.

Adaline Bowman is a woman who was born on January 1st, 1908. At the age of 29 she has a car accident in which her car skids into the water and she drowns. Her heart stops beating, but a lightning bolt strikes her, making it beat again, and she swims to the surface. A side effect of this occurrence is that she no longer ages. When she is in her late 40's she's noticed, and government agents try to abduct her to experiment on her. She escapes and goes undercover. For the next 60 years she lives her life 10 years at a time. Every 10 years she changes her name and moves to a different part of America to live with a false identity, just long enough for nobody to notice she's not ageing.

In 2014 she is about to move again, but just after buying a new fake passport she meets and falls in love with Ellis Jones, a rich young philanthropist. She delays her new life to spend a weekend with him. She is surprised to find out that his father is a man she dated 50 years previously. When he recognises her she claims that it was her mother that he knew, but he's suspicious and keeps asking questions.

This is a beautiful film about the tragedy of living forever. It's slightly spoilt by the attempts of a narrator to explain the scientific causes of Adaline's longevity. He even speaks about a scientific fact that "wasn't discovered until 2035". Ridiculous. Couldn't they just have said that Adaline was struck by lightning and lived forever and left it at that?

In a way the film reminds me of the Highlander TV series. It was a recurring theme that Duncan MacLeod and other immortals met old lovers after many years and had to make excuses about it being their father or grandfather. In the TV series immortality is also presented as a curse. Anyone who lives forever has to suffer the pain of watching everyone he loves grow old and die.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

In China they eat dogs (4½ Stars)

A tale of two brothers. Arvid Blixen is a loan adviser in a bank in Copenhagen. His brother Harald is a gangster who uses a restaurant as a legal front. The two live in the same city, but they haven't spoken for 10 years.

Arvid foils a bank robbery by hitting the robber over the head with a squash racket. He is celebrated in the press as a hero, but the day after the robbery the robber's girlfriend tells him that he has ruined their lives because the money was needed for artificial insemination. Arvid feels guilty about what he's done, so he enlists Harald's help in carrying out a new robbery to get money to help the couple. Then he decides to break the robber out of prison, also with Harald's help.

As a gangster film, this is incredible. The mix of crime and humour reminds me of "The Sopranos", which began shortly after the film. Harald Blixen also bears an uncanny resemblance to Tony Soprano in his appearance and mannerisms. The action is thrilling, and the humorous  scenes are never out of place.

I have two criticisms of the film. First of all, the final twist is so unexpected that it alienated me. It actually isn't a twist, it's an unexpected occurrence at the end. If you've seen the film you'll know what I mean. The other problem is the sound mixing. There is an extreme difference between the volume of the normal scenes with dialogue and the loud scenes with music and sound effects. This is a film that's impossible to listen to over headphones. If you turn the volume up loud enough to enjoy the quiet scenes you will be deafened by the music, gunshots and explosions.

The film was so successful at the box office, the biggest earning Danish film ever, that the studios decided to cash in by making a sequel. Unfortunately, all the main characters die at the end of this film -- sorry for the spoiler -- so the second film, "Old men in new cars", was made as a prequel.

In case you're wondering what the title has to do with the film, it's a statement of moral relativism. There is no absolute right or wrong. In China they eat dogs, which is considered horrific in Europe. And robbing a bank might be a good deed, depending on the motives.

The Ring 2 (American version) (4½ Stars)

This film must have been a dream opportunity for the Japanese director Hideo Nakata. In 1998 he made the original Japanese version of "The Ring", and in 1999 he made a sequel. The first film was remade in America in 2002, following the story of the original very closely. Shortly afterwards it was decided to remake the second film as well, and the American studios took the unusual step of inviting Hideo Nakata himself to direct it. He could have played it safe and made an English language clone of his film. Instead of that he commissioned a new screenplay with a completely different story. How many directors are able to look at what they've made after it's been in the cinema, then tear it up and start again?

The first film ended with an open end, which I won't describe here because it would spoil things for anyone who has never seen the films. All I'll say is that Samara remained alive, though it was never specified whether she's a ghost or some other form of supernatural spirit. Let's call her a ghost to make things easy. Rachel Keller has left Seattle to live in the small town Astoria in Oregon. She thinks she can find peace in new surroundings, but Samara has followed her and is stalking her. In the first film Samara had been striving to be remembered, but now she has the urge to find a new mother, and she has selected Rachel as a suitable subject.

The film was not as successful as the first film, but a box office profit of $100 million is still a respectable sum. The critics were less favourable than the public. They didn't like the new direction that the film went in. Interestingly, Roger Ebert was a lone voice claiming the sequel was better than the original. I don't agree with him, but I think I can understand his reasoning. The first film had a very complex plot, with the mystery only being solved one step at a time. The second film is more simple and straightforward. Which is better? Usually simple plots are the best, but I preferred the complexity of the first film. That's why I rate the second film slightly lower.

Earlier today I managed to find the box in which I packed my Japanese DVD's when I moved. I should be able to watch the Japanese Ring films soon to compare them while the American films are still fresh in my memory.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Pitch Perfect 2 (4 Stars)

Well, this was certainly a surprise. It's a sequel that's far better than the original film.The situations are similar and many of the jokes are repeated, but that's what the audience expects. The difference is that the jokes are more frequent, and the girls are more believable as characters. I couldn't remember most of the names from the first film, but it wasn't necessary to re-introduce them. I recognised their faces and their attitudes. That was enough.

At the end of the first film the Barden Bellas became America's university a cappella champions. The second film shows the team disgracing themselves in a performance before an audience that includes Barak Obama. After this they have to claw their way back to the top, and their journey culminates in the world a cappella championships in Copenhagen.

The biggest improvement over the first film is that the music is better. My foot was tapping throughout the film. This can be attributed to the contributions of two men: Mark Mothersbaugh, ex-Devo, who had overall control of the music, and Flula Borg, the German DJ who arranged Das Sound Machine's songs and also appeared as a member of the group. I'm tempted to buy the soundtrack album, that's how good it is.

The cinema audience certainly loved it. The room was almost full, apart from the front few rows. With today's screen sizes nobody ever sits in the first four rows unless they're desperate. It was a very female audience. I'd estimate that more than 90% of the audience were female. I arrived early, so I could observe the people coming in. There were a few men here and there who were obviously accompanying their girlfriends, but mostly it was groups of women. And then there was me. Whatever the critics say, this will be an enormous hit.

P. S. Don't walk out of the cinema too soon. The story continues almost all the way through the credits, including more music and jokes.

Friday, 15 May 2015

The Ring (American version) (5 Stars)

When people say that remakes of foreign films aren't as good as the original, this is the film I point at as an exception. The original Japanese version, made in 1998, was brilliant, but the 2002 American remake was even better. I'd say that it's brillianter, if the word existed. I saw the Japanese film first, and I was very impressed that Gore Verbinski, an almost unknown director, managed to surpass the original in quality. I think that what he did right was that he simply copied the original. He didn't attempt to add new plot points or remove what he didn't like. His film even has a Japanese look to it. The cinematography is dark and gloomy, with a lack of blue tones. It was a stroke of genius picking Naomi Watts for the lead role. At the time she was also widely unknown. She had impressed critics with her performance in "Mulholland Drive", but she was still unknown to the general public.

In its subject matter the film is rooted in the 1990's. The film is about a videotape. There was a crossover period in which both videotapes and DVD's existed side by side that lasted until approximately 2010, but the film is set in an age when there are only videotapes. Maybe 1995, if we really need to fix a date. The videotape is cursed. Immediately after watching it the phone rings, and the person who watched it is told that he will die exactly seven days later. A group of four teenagers watch the tape together and all die at the same time in different places. Rachel Keller, a sceptical reporter played by Naomi Watts, watches the tape as an unbeliever, but then realises that she only has a week to live, so she devotes her remaining time to solving the mystery.

What makes this film so intriguing is that it has the style of a detective mystery, rather than just being a horror film. Step by step Rachel investigates the tape, and every clue that she solves leads to other clues, continually widening the scope of the investigation.

Financially, the film was a big success, making a profit of over $200 million at the box office. It was one of the most successful horror films ever made.

I intend to re-watch the Japanese version in the next few days, but I have to look for it first. I still have too many unpacked boxes after my move last month.