Saturday, 2 May 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd (4 Stars)

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

The film poster that I've included above annoys me. I don't suffer from OCD, as far as I know, but posters like this are just wrong. Four people. Four names. Couldn't the names have been rearranged so that the names match the person below them? Not one of the names is in the right place. It couldn't be that difficult to put the names in the right order, could it?

The film is based on the novel of the same name written by Thomas Hardy in 1874. The book has been filmed four names, in 1915, 1967, 1998 and 2015 (this film). I saw the 1967 version on television years ago, but I couldn't remember it clearly enough to know the story.

Bathsheba Everdene is a young woman who inherits a farm from her uncle. She has to fight against the prejudices of the male-dominated farming community, but she proves herself tough enough to be taken seriously. After turning down two proposals of marriage from good men, the first a shepherd and the second a neighbouring farmer, she falls in love with a soldier who builds up gambling debts after their marriage. Why do women have to fall for the wrong men? I suppose it makes a good story.

I've never enjoyed the classic 18th and 19th Century dramatic love stories. I read a few when I was in school, but the content and the style alienated me. They always seemed to be about women torn between different men. Maybe this came from the repressive society of the time? What I mean is, in the 19th Century it was an awful scandal for women to have affairs, while men could get away with it. In this system of inequality women dreamt of extramarital excitement, so novels gave them something to dream about. That's my theory, anyway.

For me the film's outstanding actor is Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays the shepherd. It's difficult to describe what is so impressive about his performance. He plays a mostly quiet character, but whatever he does is so convincing. I predict a big future for him.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Austin Powers: Goldmember (4½ Stars)

In 2002 Mike Myers made the third and final film in the Austin Powers trilogy. Once more it was a big box office success. The film ratchets up Mike Myers' involvement another notch. After playing two roles in the first film and three roles in the second film, he now plays a fourth role, the title character Goldmember, in addition to Austin Powers, Dr. Evil and Fat Bastard.

Apart from the James Bond films there are references to many other films. To name but a few, there's "Foxy Brown", "Singing in the Rain" and "Saturday Night Fever". Some of the jokes are repeated from the first two films, but Mike Myers is brave enough to use mostly new ideas in the third film. He experiments with different layers of reality. We see a film within a film, in which the inner film retells the events of the outer film. This leads to amusing cameos by Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito. Supposedly Brad Pitt also appeared, but I must have blinked and missed him.

I might have given the film five stars if it hadn't been for the mole jokes which were repeated so often that they became annoying rather than funny.

I've heard rumours that now, 13 years later, a fourth Austin Powers film will be made. I hope the rumours aren't true. The trilogy came to an end so tidily, neatly tying up all the loose ends. I don't feel that there's anything left to say. I fear that a new film would flop and discredit this brilliant set of films. Let's wait and see.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Falling (4½ Stars)

To be free you must be conscious.

This film has a surreal dream-like quality. It's not terrifying enough to be a nightmare, but it's not pleasant enough to be a good dream.

The story takes place in a girls' school in the late 1960's. The location isn't specified, it could be anywhere in central England, but it was actually filmed near Oxford. Abbie and Lydia are two girls in the fifth form (ages 15 to 16). They're more than friends, there's a budding lesbian relationship between them, and they swear they'll love one another forever. This relationship is disturbed when Abbie loses her virginity on the back seat of a car with Lydia's brother Kenneth. Worse still, Abbie becomes pregnant from this single act.

Abbie considers having an abortion, but before she has a chance there are complications and she dies. Soon after the funeral an epidemic breaks out in the school. The girls in the school repeatedly faint, and some of them even have convulsions. The headmistress doesn't call a doctor because she thinks the girls are faking it, and she accuses Lydia of being the ringleader. It remains a mystery throughout the film: is the fainting a contagious illness, is it the result of witchcraft, or are the girls really faking?

Despite being written by an English author, Carol Morley, the film follows the tradition of American gothic literature. The girls spend their free time in the woods communing with nature. It would be going too far to call them pagans, but they're aware that there are greater powers at work in nature than they can understand, something in contrast to their Christian education in school.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Austin Powers: The Spy who shagged me (4¾ Stars)

"The spy who shagged me" was the second and most successful film in the Austin Powers trilogy. Despite its box office success it was judged less favourably by the critics than the first film. The main criticism is that it was less original and repeated the same jokes. I'm sorry, dear critics, you just don't get it. Sequels to comedy films always repeat the same jokes. That's what the public expects.

Nevertheless, there are some changes from the first film. They're actually logical progressions. In the first film the actor/comedian Mike Myers played two characters, Austin Powers and Dr. Evil. In this film he plays a third character, the Scotsman Fat Bastard. In this film a new enemy is introduced, the miniature clone of Dr. Evil, Mini-Me. The relationship between Dr. Evil and his son Scott is further explored.

That's not to say that the film doesn't have faults. Mustafa and Number Two both died in the first film, but they magically re-appear in this film without explanation. It's not a problem that Austin's wife Vanessa turns out to be a fembot, but it's dissatisfying that Basil Exposition says that he knew all along she wasn't human. Strange. I find the character Fat Bastard so disgusting that he almost puts me off the film. Despite all this, the faults are only enough to merit the deduction of a quarter star. It's still a very good film.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (5 Stars)

No other film shows the difference in the sense of humour between countries. In America this film was enormously successful and was one of the biggest box office hits of 1997. In England the film was also a success, but there were mixed opinions, many people saying they found the humour silly. The reception in Germany was the most extreme. Whereas the Americans were laughing throughout the film, the Germans sat in icy silence. Whenever there was something they perceived to be a joke they cautiously looked left and right to see if anyone else was laughing. In Germany the public and the critics held a consensus was that that the film was dreadful.

The differences can be explained by the type of humour. "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" is primarily a spoof of the early James Bond films, in particular the first five films in which Sean Connery played the leading role. Dr. Evil is an almost exact copy of Blofield, Random Task represents Odd Job, Alotta Fagina represents Pussy Galore, etc. These parodies automatically include making fun of England in the 1960's, which went through a cultural revolution very different to the hippy movement of America in the 1960's. That is probably what piqued the English audiences. The English are usually able to laugh at themselves, but they're sensitive when they think Americans are making fun of them. That wasn't the intention of the film, far from it, but that's what it looked like.

In the case of Germany it's slightly different. First of all, the Germans have a great love for the English, a love they don't feel for America. I don't know where this comes from, but I experienced it personally as an Englishman in Germany, and it's existed for more than a hundred years. In "Mein Kampf" Adolf Hitler described England as Germany's natural ally, and he was shocked when England declared war on Germany in 1939. For the Germans the Second World War was an unnatural affair of brothers fighting, they thought England and Germany should have been allies waging war against Russia and France. Secondly, the Germans hold the James Bond films in high reverence. The Germans considered it disrespectful to make fun of James Bond.

Shortly before the film appeared in the cinemas there was a 60-minute special shown on MTV called "The Electric Psychedelic Pussycat Swingers Club", the name of Austin Powers' favourite London nightclub in the 1960's. This programme presented Austin Powers in the style of a "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" episode. Clips from the programme are even shown during the film, including the dancing girls and Ming Tea's performance of "BBC" during the final credits. I taped the programme at the time, but I no longer have it. It was brilliant, at least as good as the first Austin Powers film, maybe even better. I've tried in vain to get a copy of it ever since. It ought to be a DVD extra, but it isn't. I'd certainly buy it if it were ever released as a standalone disc. Does anyone know if I can find it online? I've looked, believe me, I've hunted for it.

I've been told that the scenes in which Christian Slater appears as a rather stupid looking security guard have been omitted from the American version of the film. Can anyone in America please confirm this for me?

Monday, 27 April 2015

Vampire Vixens from Venus (3 Stars)

This film is very disturbing, and I don't mean it in a good way.

Three intergalactic drug dealers come to Earth to harvest a very rare drug. It's only produced when human males become sexually aroused. In order to blend in and make their job easier the aliens have bracelets which can give them any physical appearance, so they make themselves look like beautiful Earth women. The photo above shows the before and after looks. Any man that they extract the drug from isn't actually killed, but he's left in a shrivelled form which is barely recognisable as human.

So what do I find disturbing? No, it's not the cheap special effects or the stupid slap-stick humour of Detective Oakenshield, a Mr. Bean lookalike. What disturbs me is the concept of male aliens taking on female forms to seduce men. Okay, the men in the film think they're women, but for me as a 110% heterosexual voyeur looking on I feel very uncomfortable. If you're able to overlook the transgender issues, the film offers a lot of eye candy, especially J. J. North and Michelle Bauer.

Talk about false advertising. "Vampire Vixens from Venus"? First of all, they aren't vampires. Second they aren't from Venus, they're from a far distant planet. Third, they only look like vixens, they're really foxes. It's still a cool title though.

Dracula (1931 version) (5 Stars)

I've been through phases with this film. When I first saw it on television at a relatively young age I loved it. As I remember, it was often repeated as one of ITV's Friday night horror films. Then I didn't see it again until the early 2000's, more than 20 years later. By that time I had a fascination with vampires and everything vampiric, sparked off by seeing the film "Vamp", but mostly centred around my love for the novels of Anne Rice. When I watched it again after such a long time I didn't like it. Apart from seeming dated, Bela Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula seemed so macho to me that it was off-putting. Another 10 years passed. When I watch it now my impression is "Wow!" Bela Lugosi is simply perfect in his portrayal of Count Dracula. He's aloof and brooding, but with a dark charm that makes him likeable.

The film itself is amazing, from Carla Laemmle's opening words to the low-key ending (which still leaves me wondering if something else is to come). When it was made it was only a few years since the era of silent movies, and the film still has the silent movie characteristics of over-acting, especially where the facial expressions are concerned. It's a masterpiece, nothing less.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (4½ Stars)

I think I'll keep this review to an absolute minimum, because it hasn't been released in the USA yet. I don't like to give spoilers, and most of what I would like to say, both in praise and criticism of the film, would give too much away. I'll write a more complete review when I buy the film on Blu-ray.

I'll restrict myself in this review to two issues. Actually, it's only one issue, but it involves two characters, the Vision and the Scarlet Witch. In the film Wanda Maximoff isn't called the Scarlet Witch, but that's the name she uses in the Marvel comics that I know and love.

The issue is the differences between characters in the film and the comics, in particular the differences in their powers. Wanda's powers in the film bear almost no resemblance to what she can do in the comics. In the film she seems to be able to fire energy bolts, she can read minds, she can give people nightmares, and she can perform acts of telekinesis. This sounds very similar to the original powers of Jean Grey, the X-Men's Marvel Girl. In the comics her abilities were described as "hex powers", a rather erratic gift over which she had only limited control. Whenever she used a "hex" on someone it altered the laws of probability, so that something happened which was unlucky for the person and at the same time lucky for herself. In the 1990's her powers were redefined as involving "chaos magic", but I don't accept such latter day changes to the Marvel characters as canon. Back in the 1970's Wanda was taught witchcraft by Agatha Harkness, but this knowledge of the dark arts was something she could do in addition to her natural powers.

The film's Vision is also far removed from the character that we know in the comics. In the comics he is an android, created by using the body of the original Human Torch and the brain patterns of Simon Williams aka Wonder Man. In the film he's a robot created using the artificial intelligence of Tony Stark's robot butler Jarvis. (In the comics Jarvis was a real person, but that's another story altogether). In the comics the Vision has a synthetic gem on his forehead, probably part of his own body, but in the film it's the Mind Gem, one of the Infinity Gems. In the comics the Vision has the power to change his body density, but this ability is missing altogether in the film. In fact, it's not quite clear to me what powers the Vision is supposed to have in the film. I have a slinking suspicion that he will be used as a replacement for Adam Warlock, who was one of the main characters in the battle against Thanos.

I did enjoy the film, as is obvious from my rating, despite my disappointment at the redefinition of the central characters. I'm sure it will be one of the most successful films of 2015, maybe even the most successful film.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

House Arrest (3 Stars)

Grover Beindorf is 14, and his sister Stacy is 10. When they find out that their parents are planning to get divorced they lock them in the basement and tell them they have to stay there until they've made up their differences. Grover's school friends hear about it and are so impressed that they bring their own parents to Grover's house and throw them into the basement as well.

Despite being called one of the worst films ever made "House Arrest" was a success at the box office. What do critics know about films anyway? The film's target audience was young teenagers, and they liked it. That's all that matters. My interest in watching it was that it stars two of the most beautiful actresses that I know, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jennifer Tilly. Jennifer Love Hewitt was only 16 when she appeared in the film, although she is supposed to be 14 in the film as Brooke Figler, the most beautiful girl in Grover's school. Whether she looks 14 or not is a matter of opinion, but I won't deny that even as a young girl she was very attractive.

Jennifer Tilly plays the part of Brooke's mother. In the film she dresses down, deliberately not showing off her full beauty. I suppose it wouldn't have been appropriate, in the context of the film, for a mother to look more attractive than her daughter.