Monday, 8 February 2016

Zoolander 2 (4 Stars)

Normally I would groan when a sequel is made 15 years after the original film. It seems too much like an act of desperation to get people into the cinemas. However, I do have faith in Ben Stiller, especially as a director. He's someone who takes risks and gets things right. I even like "Cable Guy", which is generally considered to be his worst film. Apart from this, I read that Ben Stiller wanted to make "Zoolander 2" for years, but he didn't do it because he was waiting for a suitable script.

It seems that not many people have the same faith in Ben Stiller's judgement as me. Only four members of the Birmingham film group decided to see the film with me. Actually there were five, but one of them didn't turn up because he fell asleep on the sofa. Life is hard.

I don't think that "Zoolander 2" is quite up to the quality of the original, but it's still a very good film. When a sequel is made to a comedy film the temptation is to repeat the same jokes. See the second Austin Powers film for an example of this.This was only partially the case with "Zoolander 2". A few of the original jokes were repeated, enough to make me feel comfortable and accept it as a sequel, but most of the humour was new. Overall, the film went in a new direction. The first film was all about exposing the shallowness of the fashion industry. In the second film this subject is only mentioned in passing. Instead of this we have an epic battle between good and evil.

That's all I'll say about the plot. My recommendation to my readers is that if you enjoyed "Zoolander" you'll probably like "Zoolander 2" as well, even though it's a different film. If you didn't enjoy "Zoolander" this probably isn't a film for you, but give it a try anyway, you might like it. If you've never watched "Zoolander" I suggest that you watch it first. There are enough references to the first film to make "Zoolander 2" slightly confusing if you don't know the original.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Zoolander (4 Stars)

"I'm pretty sure there's more to life than being really, really good looking".

The fashion industry is so shallow that it's difficult not to make fun of it. Sacha Baron Cohen did it in "Bruno" (2009). But before then Ben Stiller did it just as effectively in "Zoolander" (2001).

Ben Stiller stars as Derek Zoolander, a man who has been named the Male Model of the Year four years in a row. When he fails to win the award the next year, the prize going to his rival Hansel (Owen Wilson), his world falls apart. He's vulnerable to attacks from people who want to exploit him. The fashion company executive Jacob Moogberg (Will Ferrell), better known as Mugatu, hires him to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia, who wants to abolish child labour in his country. Without child labour Mugatu's clothes can't be manufactured as cheaply and his profits will fall.

The film features cameos from a multitude of celebrities appearing as themselves. One of them is David Bowie. Rest in peace.

Another is Donald Trump, who is now campaigning to become the American president. He has gained a lot of support by populist rhetoric, aided by the current fear of terrorism by Islamic extremists. He over-generalises when he judges people, as all populists do. He also polarises opinions sharply. People love him or they hate him, there's no middle ground. Recently one of my oldest friends unfriended me on Facebook because I called Donald Trump stupid. Maybe I was wrong to use that word, I'm sure he's a highly educated man, but he has many viewpoints which I consider to be stupid. For instance, he says that in order to protect America from terror attacks no Moslems should be allowed to enter the country. Judging everyone who carries the label "Moslem" is an act of bigotry. Not all Moslems are terrorists, and more importantly, not all Moslems are Moslems. What I mean by that is that Islam is part of the racial identity of many people, for instance Pakistanis. I have many Pakistani friends who don't read the Koran or visit a mosque. They have no interest in religion at all, but they carry on calling themselves Moslems because it's what they think is expected of them. This is in contrast to British people in England who have no problem in saying they aren't Christians. Donald Trump doesn't understand this.

I first watched "Zoolander" with my friend Tamara, and I'll always associate the film with her. We were lying entwined on her sofa watching the film, but like a good film fan I didn't let myself get too distracted. We've known each other for nine years. I've always liked her, but she's temperamental and frequently turns against me, later forgetting what she was angry about. I'd do anything for her if she needed me. We still talk occasionally, but we're not as close as we used to be. I don't know if she reads my blog. In case she does, she should leave a comment on this post to tell me what she thinks of me.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Atomised (4 Stars)

This is a German film with the original title "Elementarteilchen", which means "Atomic particles". It's based on a novel with the same name written by the French author Michel Houellebecq. Since I had problems understanding the message the film wants to give I read a summary of the book. It seems to me that the novel is a deep philosophical work that talks about modern man caught in the battle between Christianity and science, frustrated because they both claim to give answers but neither succeeds. This element is completely missing from the film. The book's main characters and their lives are portrayed in a vacuum, without the book's underlying message. What remains is a family drama interlaced with black comedy.

Bruno was born in Berlin in the 1950's. His mother went to India to join a commune shortly after his birth, after which his father committed suicide, so he was adopted by his grandmother. His mother visited him once a year but showed no emotion towards him. When he was 18 his mother told him for the first time that she had another son, Michael, aged 17, who had lived with another grandmother in Berlin all this time. The two half-brothers met and became friends, united in their disdain for their mother.

20 years later Bruno and Michael have taken different paths, but they're still close friends. Bruno is married with a young child, but he's obsessed with sex, having a series of one-night stands outside of his marriage. He's chosen a career as a senior school literature teacher because he wants to be surrounded by teenage girls. Michael is still a virgin, and he is working in a research laboratory trying to find a way to reproduce human beings without sex.

Bruno suffers a mental breakdown after a 17-year-old girl in his class rejects him. His wife leaves him, he loses his job, and he spends the next few months in and out of mental institutions. Michael stands by him in his time of crisis. Then both brothers fall in love at the same time. Michael reunites with his childhood sweetheart, Annabelle, who is still single because she has always loved Michael. Bruno meets Christiane, a woman in an esoteric holiday camp who shares his obsession with sex, although they rarely have sex with one another; they prefer to watch one another having sex with other people.

Both relationships go badly. Christiane has advanced cell decay in her spinal cord, which leads to her becoming paralysed from the waist down. Annabelle becomes pregnant from her first sex with Michael, but she had previously been warned that she should never get pregnant. The baby is aborted, but there are further complications that mean her womb has to be removed, and even after this she's so weak that she could die at any time. The two brothers are both left with disabled lovers. It can't get any worse, can it? Actually it can. I've given away most of the plot, but the two brothers and their lovers sink deeper into the abyss.

The film's humour is very morbid. We're invited to laugh at sickness, death and even taboo subjects like incest. I don't mind morbid humour. I can laugh at anything. What disturbs me is that the film is inconsistent. After comedy scenes there are long portions of serious drama. Then, eventually, the jokes are packed into the film one after another. I would have enjoyed the film more if the humour had been spread more evenly.

Nevertheless, the film has its strong points. The film features some of Germany's biggest stars, and they don't let us down, making the madness and the suffering of their characters completely credible. This isn't a masterpiece, in my opinion, but it's worth watching as an example of powerful German cinema.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Donnie Darko (5 Stars)

"Every living creature on this Earth dies alone".

This is one of the best films ever made. If I were asked to name my favourite films of all time I would put this in second place, after "Lost Highway". The two films are similar as far as the underlying plot is concerned, even though there are big differences on the surface.

In my review in November last year I said I would give the Director's Cut another chance. I've watched the original version repeatedly over the last 12 years, but I only watched the director's cut once after buying it. It seemed weaker to me. Today I've finally returned to it after at least 10 years.

After watching it again today I no longer consider the director's cut inferior to the original version. It's different, but not inferior. I think that I disliked the director's cut when I first saw it because it took all the mystery away. When people saw the original version it wasn't 100% obvious what was happening. People argued about the interpretation, just as they still argue about the meaning of "Lost Highway" today. In the case of "Donnie Darko" help was offered. The DVD extra features included excerpts from Roberta Sparrow's book, "The Philosophy of Time Travel". This text explained a lot. It put a lot of arguments to rest. It could be argued that it's wrong to make a film that can only be understood after reading a book in the DVD extras, but it wasn't a problem to me.

The director's cut explains the film to the viewers within the film itself. At critical points excerpts from the book are shown on the screen. Now it's easier for everyone to understand the film. I must have found it too easy when I first saw the director's cut. That's why I disliked it.

Apart from the addition of text from Roberta Sparrow's book the changes are subtle. There are a few new scenes, but mostly the existing scenes are longer. There are frequently one or two lines of dialogue that are cut from the original theatrical version. It looks like the cuts were only made to shorten the overall running time, not to streamline the film. Adding the extra lines helps, with the sole exception of Dr. Thurman admitting that Donnie's medication is placebos. That doesn't make sense to me. Yes, I know he's not really ill when he says that he sees the giant rabbit, but he was diagnosed as mentally disturbed prior to Frank's appearance.

At some time in the near future I'll try to watch the two versions on the same day to make a better comparison.

Tracks (5 Stars)

I've said repeatedly that I want to be cautious with my ratings. Look at the monthly film magazine Empire, which also rates films from one to five stars. Unlike me, Empire rarely gives a film five stars. It's usually only one film a month, sometimes none at all. I keep telling myself that I should reserve five star ratings for truly exceptional films. Maybe there are too many films that I find truly exceptional. This is one of them. I gave it a four star rating when I saw it in the cinema in August 2013, but after watching it again on Blu-ray its brilliance overwhelmed me. If I define a five star film as a film that must be watched, "Tracks" deserves a five star rating. Everything is perfect about it. The imagery, the acting, the story, everything.

The film tells the story or Robyn Davidson, the first person to walk across Australia from the east to the west coast on foot. This is a 1700 mile trip on foot through the desert, which she accomplished in 195 days. She was accompanied by four camels, which carried her food and supplies, and her dog Diggity. When asked why she was attempting this walk, considered by most people to be suicide, she answered, "I'd like to think that an ordinary person is capable of anything". I personally would modify her statement, saying "I'd like to think that an ordinary woman is capable of anything". Robyn's walk across Australia took place in 1977, and since then her feat has never been repeated. No man has been able to follow in Robyn's footsteps. It's true that men are blessed with greater physical strength, but women have more endurance under extreme conditions like these.

Robyn met some people on the way, settlers in isolated outposts in the few habitable areas in central Australia. She accepted their food and hospitality, but never stayed more than a single night. Her walk was sponsored by National Geographic, so a photographer drove to meet her once every four weeks to take pictures and report her progress back to the magazine. He was also checking that she was still alive. For a few weeks she had to be accompanied across sacred land by a tribal elder, because women were forbidden to enter the area unless accompanied by a man. Typical! Every since time began men have been inventing religions that say women are inferior. Maybe some religions are worse than others, depending on how depraved their creators were, but they are all prejudiced against women in one way or another.

I have never been a believer in women's equality. The only way a woman can be equal to a man is by lowering herself to his level. For thousands of years men have feared the power of women and have done whatever they can to suppress them, by giving them less education and less opportunity to earn money. So-called women's liberation is only 100 years old and aims to win an equal standing for women in society. Even this goal has only partially been achieved. Women are setting their sights too low. Instead of shouting "Votes for women" the battle cry should have been "No votes for men". Only a global gynarchy can abolish all political and religious injustice and create peace on Earth.

Jurassic Park: The Lost World (5 Stars)

This was the first film I saw in the cinema after moving to America. I had never watched "Jurassic Park" before this, but I caught up by borrowing it on video from Blockbuster before I went to see the sequel. From what I remember I read about "Jurassic Park" in the newspapers while I lived in Germany, but I didn't go to see it because I thought dinosaur films are boring. I could hardly have been more wrong. "Jurassic Park" is now in my list of 30 films to watch before you die. See the list in the sidebar, and watch them all. Even watch the films again if you've already seen some of them. You won't regret it. If you watch one film a day it'll be a month to remember.

Burger King seems to have been the primary corporate sponsor for "The Lost World" in America. All of the Burger King television ads in early 1997 featured dinosaurs. I ate at Burger King often while I was in America. The price of the food was approximately the same at McDonald's and Burger King, but I preferred the taste of the hamburgers from Burger King. What I liked most at McDonald's was the milk shake and the soft ice cream. What was particularly good was that a local supermarket had vouchers for a free Big King burger on the back of their receipts. I was very short of money when I first arrived in America, so I used to walk around the car park to see if anyone had left his receipt in his shopping trolley. There were always a few, so I could go to the nearest Burger King with a handful of vouchers and eat for free.

After returning to England I didn't visit Burger King as often. Unlike America, there's a big price difference between Burger King and McDonald's. Similar food at Burger King costs two to three times as much as the equivalent at McDonald's. But the Burger King food does taste better, so I occasionally go in for a meal. It's just a shame that there aren't any vouchers for free hamburgers.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Labor Day (4½ Stars)

This is a beautiful film, despite the word "Labour" being spelt wrong in the title. When I was in Berlin studying Linguistics we were told by a professor not to be snobbish with alternate national spellings; we should accept the variations as equally valid. For years I followed the professor's advice in my naive belief that the American variations were the result of gradual change over the centuries. It's only in the last few years that I discovered that this wasn't the case. The American changes didn't happen slowly, they were the invention of one man, Noah Webster, who decided how words should be spelt in America. He was an American patriot, and he wanted American spelling to be superior to British spelling.

After publishing pamphlets with spelling recommendations for years, Noah Webster finally published "A Compendious Dictionary of the English Dictionary" in 1828. Later editions were renamed the "Merriam-Webster Dictionary". This book has done more to sabotage the English language than any other document in history. It's a work of evil by a twisted old man.

Apologists claim that Webster didn't invent his alternate spellings himself. I disagree with this. It's true that some people wrote "center" and "color" before he wrote his dictionary, but these were mistakes made by people of lesser intellect. Noah Webster stood up and told the under-educated Americans they should continue to spell words the wrong way. His anti-British sentiments led him to do damage from which the English language has never recovered.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

13 Hours (3 Stars)

This is a biographical film about the events of September 11th 2012 in Benghazi, Libya. The American compound was overrun by Islamic extremists, and the American ambassador was killed. A mile away there was a secret CIA base, hidden next to a sheep farm. Six elite soldiers from this base travelled to the compound to rescue the surviving Americans, disobeying a direct order not to get involved.

This is a full on action film from beginning to end, with only very brief pauses. The action is chaotic, but I'm sure that it's realistic. War is chaotic. The soldiers struggled in their battle, never sure who was a friend and who was an enemy.

I personally didn't like the film because of the chaos. Maybe my readers will think differently. If you like war films you should check it out.

I really hate my job (2 Stars)

"I think when you spend over 10 years doing a really terrible job you either write a film about it or you shoot yourself".

A film with a title like this sounds fascinating, doesn't it? It's worth watching for the name alone. It's something everyone can relate to.

The film is about a single day in the life of an exclusive restaurant in London, the Stella Bar. It ought to be called the Cellar Bar, because it's below ground level. It's an all-women restaurant. The boss (Madonna) employs a cook (Alice), two waitresses (Abi and Suzie) and a dishwasher (Rita). To be honest, the boss seems to be a good boss, easy to work for, but the four girls hate their job because they're forced to deal with rich people every day, making their own lives seem even more wretched. They all have dreams of getting away. Alice wants to become a writer, Abi wants to become an actress, Rita wants to go to Chile to live with a man she's met online, while Suzie is just a dreamer who talks to the rats she finds in the kitchen.

The film attempts to be a comedy, but in my eyes it fails. The dull humdrum lives of the five women only results in a dull humdrum film. A lot of trouble is taken to tell us about the women, so that we can get to know them, but none of them are pleasant enough for me to care about them.

One thing is curious to me. When Abi (Neve Campbell) takes off her clothes to hold a speech in the restaurant the customers are all horrified and leave. I don't understand that. I would have listened to the end, then clapped as loud as I could.

Neve Campbell knows how to make a big impression.

Alexandra Maria Lara looks bored.

VIP guest Danny Huston performs for the girls.

Off-Topic: Backgammon Puzzle

Here's a very simple position in Backgammon to show the correct use of the doubling cube. Let's assume the stake is $100. In this position White doubles. Should Black accept or refuse the double?

In this position there are 26 possible dice rolls for White that will win the game, and 10 that will lose. (The losing rolls are 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 1-5, 1-6, 2-1, 3-1, 4-1, 5-1, 6-1). Put another way, White has a 72.2% chance of winning, Black has a 27.8% chance of winning. Since the odds are against Black, should he refuse the double?

If Black refuses the double he will lose $100.

If Black accepts the double he has a 27.8% chance of winning $200 and a 72.2% chance of losing $200. Let's put that in a formula.

(27.8/100) * 200 (72.2/100) * 200

which is 55.6 144.4

which is   -88.8

That means that Black will only lose an average of $88.80 by accepting the double, an average profit of $11.20 over refusing it.

When your opponent offers a double you should accept it if you think you have a better than 25% chance of winning. This is easily proved by the following calculations.

26% chance:  (26/100) * 200 (74/100) * 200   =   52 – 148   =   -96   ($4 profit)
25% chance:  (25/100) * 200 (75/100) * 200   =   50 – 150   =   -100   (no change)
24% chance:  (24/100) * 200 (76/100) * 200   =   48 – 152   =   -104   ($4 loss)

In this position it's easy to calculate the odds. In most positions it isn't.

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Matrix Revolutions (5 Stars)

"Everything that has a beginning has an end. I see the end coming, I see the darkness spreading. I see death".

Isn't it amazing how prices develop, if you're only willing to be patient? When the three Matrix films were released they cost more than £15 each on DVD. Now you can buy a box set of all three films on Blu-ray for less than £10. It's not quite as cheap in America, but the price is still reasonable.

It's said that "The Matrix" was the film that persuaded people to upgrade from VCR to DVD players. Maybe that's true, although I think that people would have upgraded anyway. It was inevitable, to repeat the word so commonly used in "The Matrix Revolutions". There was such an intense leap in quality from videotapes to DVDs that nobody wanted to be left behind. Nine years later "The Dark Knight" was hyped as the film to make people want to upgrade from DVD players to Blu-ray players. That was nonsense. "The Dark Knight" was nowhere near as ground-breaking in its visual effects as "The Matrix", apart from which the quality increase from DVD to Blu-ray is more subtle. You need to have a well trained eye and a large enough television to see the improvement. I have a friend who only recently started buying films, and he only buys DVDs because they're cheaper. He doesn't understand what's better about Blu-ray. I pity him.

"The Matrix Revolutions" is the third and final part in the Matrix trilogy. It rounds the story off perfectly. Early criticisms from when the film was made 13 years ago are now fading away. I told everyone back then that it was a brilliant film, and now they're slowly catching up with me. The problem that they had accepting it was the percentage of Matrix involved. In the first film most of the film takes place inside the Matrix, in the second film only half takes place inside the Matrix, and in the third part only a few scenes take place inside the Matrix, even though they are scenes vital to the plot. All three parts of the trilogy are perfect, fitting together as they should to tell a complete story.