Thursday, 27 November 2014

Legendary Amazons (4 Stars)

This is a Chinese war epic about the Yang clan, the same clan that is featured in "Saving General Yang". It's impossible for me to say how true either film is. I strongly suspect that "Legendary Amazons" is based on a true story, but it's been strongly altered and exaggerated to make the story more exciting.

After the death of Yang Zongbao in battle there is only one man left alive in the Yang clan is Yang Wenguang, an 18-year-old boy. Wenguang is put in charge of an army of 10,000 troops to battle against enemy forces of 100,000. The women in the family, under the leadership of Wenguang's great-grandmother Taijun, correctly surmise that enemies in the government want to use the opportunity to wipe out the Yang clan, so they decide to go into battle with the army. It soon becomes apparent that Wenguang lacks the experience to lead an army, so his mother takes his place as marshal.

The battles are marked by unusual manoeuvres that seem highly unrealistic, but this doesn't make the film any less enjoyable. They are exciting to watch. I've read other reviews that call the manoeuvres comical, but I disagree. Think of them as army versions of the exaggerated kung fu fights that we're used to in Chinese cinema.

The film has stunningly beautiful cinematography. Maybe it's too beautiful. What I mean is that in some scenes the picture is so perfectly serene that it seems unnatural. It's always clear skies and perfect weather. That's not the world that I live in.

A problem that I have with the film, though this may be a result of following a written legend too closely, is that there are too many characters in the film. There are 14 women who go into battle with Wenguang. They're introduced by name in the early scenes, but even if the names were English there would still be too many for me to remember them all. When they ride into battle wearing identical helmets it's impossible to tell them apart. I'd have to watch the film repeatedly to be able to keep track of who's who and who's doing what.

This message at the beginning of the film is the strangest disclaimer I have ever seen. The first paragraph is fairly standard, but the second paragraph is downright weird.
"The motion picture is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Viewers should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of the views and statements expressed in the motion picture".
Wow! What's that supposed to mean? How would any sane person find any advice worth following in the film?

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Raid 2 (5 Stars)

Did you hear the one about the Welsh film director who made an Indonesian movie? That sounds like a joke, but it's serious. Gareth Evans went to Indonesia and loved the country so much that he didn't just make one film, he made three. This is the third, so far. Gareth has raised the bar in action adventures. Despite making films with relatively small budgets, they look spectacular, and the action sequences are breath-taking. What will he do if he's ever given a big budget?

"The Raid 2" begins immediately after the events of "The Raid". It involves Rama, the hero from the first film, being pronounced dead, so that he can be given a new identity and do undercover work for the police. To be more accurate, it's undercover work for a single police detective called Bunawar. The rest of the police force aren't told that Rama has survived, since Bunawar believes there are too many corrupt police officers in the force, on the payroll of one of the Jakarta gangs. It's a lengthy job. Rama has to spend two years in prison so that he can join one of the gangs when he comes out.

Even though his job is to work in a gang in order to expose the corrupt police officers, he begins to respect Bangun, his new boss, and takes his side when a power struggle breaks out within the gang. This situation escalates into an all out gang war with Rama caught in the middle. The action is over the top, with fight scenes following one another with barely a pause for breath.

The film ends on a cliff-hanger with many issues still unresolved. Let's see how it continues in "The Raid 3". Where will Gareth Evans take us from here? Can he give us even more action?

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Please don't eat my mother (3 Stars)

Henry Fudd is a good Jewish boy. He's in his mid 40's, he lives with his mother and he's still a virgin. Maybe he's not quite such a good boy. He's a voyeur, who watches couples making out in cars and in the park, and sometimes he even peeks through his neighbour's bedroom window. But I guess it doesn't hurt anyone, and Mommy's still happy.

One day Henry is walking past a flower shop and discovers a talking plant. A female talking plant. He buys her, takes her home, and after realising that she's the only one who accepts him they fall in love. Henry fulfils her every desire, which is her need for more and more food. Yes, she's a carnivorous plant. She begins by eating flies, then progresses to frogs, cats and dogs. Eventually she wants to eat humans, and she is particularly attracted to Henry's big, fat mother.

The film is amusing. The special effects are primitive, even for 1973 when it was made, but they don't need to be any better for a comedy like this. My only criticism is that there are too many voyeur scenes. One or two would be sufficient, the first to offer insight into Henry's lonely life and the second for some sexual titillation in the middle of the film, but there must be at least half a dozen voyeur scenes. I wasn't counting them, but there are too many. I was impatient because I wanted to see Henry go back home to hump his plant again.

Inter-species love was never so hot.

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Banquet (5 Stars)

I know I only watched this film last month, but I had to return to it already. It's a powerful film that grows on me more every time I watch it. I realise that it might be dissatisfying for many viewers. Tragedies are no longer popular in our western culture. The film builds up towards a positive resolution, but in the end there is no happy ending. Even the final scene, which ends ambiguously, suggests that there is a hand of God that strikes down the victors before they can claim their prize.

Click here for my last review.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Imitation Game (5 Stars)

A film doesn't need action and a fast pace to be truly great. If you don't believe me, watch "The Imitation Game". To be honest, I didn't intend to see it. It's the true story of Alan Turing, the man who cracked the code of the German Enigma machine during World War Two. It hardly sounds like a thrilling adventure. But then I read reports that it's one of the top contenders to win next year's Best Film prize at the Academy Awards, so I thought I should check it out. Within the first ten minutes of the film I understood what the fuss was about. It's probably the best new film I've seen this year.

Since it's a true story about a famous person, I don't have to worry too much about spoilers, but I'll still limit myself to a brief plot outline. In the Second World War Germany used a machine to code the messages they sent to their fleets by morse code. The machine was called Enigma. One of the machines was stolen and smuggled to the England in 1939, but having the machine alone didn't help. The Enigma machine had settings which were changed every day at midnight, with 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible permutations. While other cryptologists tried to solve the encryption algorithms by hand, Alan Turing had the revolutionary idea to build a machine to crack the code. This machine can justifiably be considered to be the first computer. The text at the end of the film calls it a "Turing Machine", but this is actually a mistake. Alan Turing called his machine Christopher, named after his best friend when he was 16.

It took two years for the machine to crack the code, but there was a second level of difficulty. Nobody, not even Alan's boss, was allowed to know that he had been successful. The decrypted messages were sent to the British Secret Service, MI6, who decided which messages should be ignored and which should be passed on to the military, supposedly information leaked from other sources. The problem was that if the British acted upon all messages they encrypted the Germans would have known the Enigma code was cracked and they would have stopped using the machine.

At the end of the war Alan Turing was Britain's greatest unknown hero. His machine and all his notes were destroyed. He was forbidden to speak about what he had done during the war. He remained unknown, apart from academic publications, until 1951, when he was arrested after it was discovered he was a homosexual. Given a choice between imprisonment and chemical castration, he chose the latter. Two years later he committed suicide. It was a sad end for a great man.

After the film I had the chance to discuss the former treatment of homosexuals in England with some of my friends from the film club. Homosexuality remained a crime in England until 1967. One of my friends said that laws shouldn't be arbitrary, they should be governed by morality. Homosexuality obviously isn't immoral, so it shouldn't be illegal. I think his statement was wrong, in several ways. First of all, morality isn't an absolute. To my friend it seems obvious that homosexuality isn't immoral, but there are millions of others, even in England, who would disagree. Morals are strongly influenced by the religious community in which one grows up. If I follow a religion whose holy book says that homosexuality is evil, I shall develop a natural aversion to homosexuality and consider it immoral. Even indirectly this is the case. Even if I'm not religious, but I grow up in a place where homosexuals are made fun of, I'll have a feeling that it's wrong, which could go as far as thinking it's immoral.

Apart from this, laws aren't always a always a matter of right and wrong, they can be arbitrary. There can be other reasons to create laws. An example is taxation. It is required by law for various taxes to be paid to the government. Not paying these taxes is illegal and will lead to imprisonment or other forms of punishment. Does that mean that paying taxes is moral, and that not paying taxes is immoral? That would be a very strange application of morality. Law and morality may overlap, but they aren't identical, and it shouldn't be attempted to make them identical, even if we could agree on what's moral and what isn't.

Whether homosexuality is right or wrong is a more complex question than people on either side of the argument are willing to see. What I mean is, one camp says that it's obviously wrong, while the other camp says that it's obviously okay. The very fact that two groups should have such different views should make everyone clear that there's more to the question than they realise. Unfortunately, any attempt at dialogue is blocked by bigotry on both sides. The anti-gay camp says, "Our religion forbids it, so it's wrong, and we refuse to compromise". The pro-gay camp says, "Homosexuality doesn't hurt anyone, so it's okay, and we refuse to compromise". Both sides need to abandon their prejudices and listen to one another.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Howard the Duck (4 Stars)

This film, made in 1986, is based on the Marvel Comics character with the same name. The original comic book series was published from 1973 to 1979. When the character's creator, Steve Gerber, left Marvel under bad terms he attempted to sue Marvel for ownership of the character. After an out-of-court settlement Howard remained part of the Marvel universe.

The film is famous for being the first cinema film based on a Marvel character. However, it was a box office flop, not managing to earn back its budget, and it is often called one of the worst films ever made.

Why? What's so bad about it?

My suspicion is that the film critics just didn't get it. It's fairly successful at capturing the atmosphere of the comics. The special effects are good (for the 1980's), apart from the giant scorpions at the end of the film which look unconvincing. The acting is okay, if you consider camp to be okay. Howard himself is played as a straight character, while the comedy comes from the humans around him.

The comic book "Howard the Duck" was never intended to be a comedy. It was a satire. Steve Gerber was making fun of American society and comic books, especially his own bosses at Marvel. The comic wasn't intended for children, and neither was the film. This is made obvious at the beginning when Howard comes home from work and leers at the centrefold in the latest issue of "Playduck". Later on in the film he goes to bed with a human, but he's too nervous to go all the way. That's a shame. It would have been the first human-duck sexual encounter in the history of cinema.

The film's music is cheesy, especially the featured band, Cherry Bomb. But what do you expect, it was the 1980's! They look and sound like any bottom of the bill glam metal band of the decade.

Summing up, it's nowhere near as bad a film as people say. Not an absolute masterpiece, but still worth watching. Please leave comments with your opinion about this film, especially if you like it.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Fist of Legend (4½ Stars)

This is a remake of "Fist of Fury", which I reviewed earlier today. Sort of a remake. Although I know both films well, today is the first time I've watched them back to back, and I've only just noticed how different they are.

The main character is Chen Zhen, and just as in the original film he returns to Shanghai to find his master dead from poison. That's where the similarity ends. He doesn't even set out on a quest to take revenge, although in the end he does face the one responsible for his master's death. Let me point out all the main differences. I'll refer to the two films as Fury and Legend (without quotes) for the sake of brevity.

The main difference, which is supported by many of the minor differences that I shall show below, is in the film's attitude toward the Japanese. Legend was made in 1994, 22 years after Fury. Legend has less prejudice against the Japanese. Instead of all Japanese being evil, it shows that there are good and bad among them.

Fury takes place in 1908. Legend takes place in 1937.

In Fury Chen's absence from Shanghai is unexplained. In Legend we see Chen studying engineering in Kyoto. He can read and write Japanese. In Fury Chen presents himself as a simple, uneducated man, but that obviously isn't the case in Legend.

In Legend Chen dresses in Japanese clothes, and when he returns to Shanghai he's frequently mistaken for a Japanese man.

In Legend Chen has a Japanese girlfriend.

In Fury the cook who poisons the master is a Japanese infiltrator. In Legend the cook is a Chinese man who has taken a bribe from a Japanese general.

In Fury Chen presents Chinese fighting styles as superior to Japanese karate and all other foreign styles. In Legend he openly admits that he has assimilated the best features of karate into his style. He also frequently uses the footwork and posture of western boxing.

In Fury the teachers of the Japanese fighting schools look down on the Chinese masters as inferior. In Legend they are spiritual men who respect the Chinese masters and only fight fairly.

In Legend the man who takes over as the new master of the Jing Wu school is a flawed character. Rather than staying in the school to encourage his students he spends time in a brothel. I don't believe that there was a replacement for the dead master in Fury.

In Fury the Japanese ambassador is an evil man who wants to destroy the Chinese. In Legend the ambassador is a good man who wants peace between Japan and China. In Legend the ambassador is responsible for saving Chen's life, whereas Chen dies in Fury.

Apart from these there are many small differences, such as minor supporting characters only being present in one of the two films. For instance, there is no Russian fighter in Legend, but the Chinese general does things that we saw the Russian do in Fury.

To sum up, both films are good in their own way. But I prefer "Fist of Fury".

Fist of Fury (4¾ Stars)

We are not sick men!

This film, the second martial arts film made by Bruce Lee, takes place in Shanghai in 1908. The city has been occupied by the Japanese since 1895. The Chinese are virtually slaves in their own country, second-class citizens with no rights.

Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) returns to Shanghai after a long absence. When he goes to the Jingwu School to visit his master, he finds that his master has recently died, supposedly killed by stomach ulcers and pneumonia. He soon discovers that the real cause of death is poisoned biscuits served to him by a Japanese cook. The cook was acting under instructions from a Japanese Bushido school. The new leader of the Jingwu School advises Chen to do nothing, because there will be repercussions from the Japanese rulers, but Chen goes on a one-man crusade to take revenge.

After Bruce's relatively small part in his previous film, he takes centre stage in "Fist of Fury" from beginning to end. James Tien appears once more as a student in the school, but he only takes part in brief fight scenes.

In 1972 when the film was made anti-Japanese feelings were still high in China. There were cheers in Hong Kong cinemas when Bruce Lee spoke the now famous words, "We are not sick men".

I feel a little guilty for giving this film anything less than five stars, but I found the sound quality off-putting. According to the DVD box the film has been remastered. The picture looks reasonable, though not perfect, but the sound still hisses. The English dubbed track is cleaner than the original Cantonese, but I prefer to watch the original version with subtitles. I'm not a snob who rejects dubbing outright, but in the case of this film it was ridiculous. The person who did Bruce Lee's voice has a booming American accent which sounds completely out of place.

I feel like I should write more, but I'm suffering from a bad cold today. I feel a bit light-headed and can't concentrate on writing. I hope I'm not getting a flu.

Saving General Yang (5 Stars)

This film is based on real events that took place at the end of the 10th Century. The Chinese peoples at that time were almost as efficient in recording history as the Romans had been a thousand years previously. Compare that to the pitiful state of English history. From the 5th to the 11th Century very little is known about what happened in England. All we have is myths and legends.

General Yang Ye was sent to protect his land against Khitan invaders. He got cut off from the rest of the army, and together with a few troops he took refuge in an abandoned fort. A Buddhist monk gives his wife a scroll with a prophecy that he can be brought home, but only if all seven of his sons join the rescue mission. It's also stated in the scroll that only six of the sons will return. An 85% chance of returning home from battle is good odds, so the seven sons rushed into battle, not knowing which of them would die. Unfortunately they had misinterpreted the scroll. From what I understand the writing is ambiguous, which I need to verify with a native Chinese speaker.

This is the best Chinese war epic I have ever seen. It's much better than "Red Cliff", which is usually highly praised by film critics. It was directed by Ronny Yu. I've only seen three of his films, including this one, and I've given all three a five star rating. I need to check his older films. (The other two films I've seen are "The 51st State" and "Fearless").