Thursday, 29 January 2015

2046 (3 Stars)

Everyone who goes to 2046 has the same intention, they want to recapture lost memories, because in 2046 nothing ever changes. But we don't know if that is true or not, because nobody has ever come back.

"2046" is a sequel to "In the mood for love". After spending a few years in Singapore, Chow Mo-Wan returns to Hong Kong in 1966. Just as in the first film he has twisted relationships with women. He moves into room 2047 in a hotel. Room 2046 is empty for a few months, but through the thin walls he hears the hotel owner's daughter, Wang Jing Wen, using the room to practise Japanese. She has a Japanese lover, but she isn't allowed to marry him because her father hates the Japanese. The lover, who we never see, has now returned to Japan, and they stay in contact by mail. The father doesn't allow her to receive letters from him, so Chow acts as an intermediary, receiving the letters and passing them on to her. Chow falls in love with Wang, even though she has no feelings for him. Eventually Wang has a mental breakdown and goes into a mental hospital.

After this a young prostitute, Bai Ling, moves into Room 2046. They have a torrid sexual relationship. Bai falls in love with Chow, but he feels nothing for her and wants to pay for her services. As a compromise she accepts 10 Hong Kong Dollars as a special reduced rate, the equivalent of less than one US dollar. Bai even gives up working as a prostitute to devote herself to Chow, but he cold-heartedly turns her away. He only loves Wang.

At this time he begins to write a story called "2046". 2046 is both a year and a place. The characters in the book are based on the people he knows. The film shows scenes from this futuristic world played by the same actors as the real world. Chow is the only traveller on a train leaving 2046, a journey that will last many years, maybe forever. To keep him company there is a pleasure android that looks like Wang. In the story Chow has sex with Wang, which never happened in the real world. But just as in the real world, she doesn't love him, even though Chow imagines himself to be Japanese in the story.

This is a sad, sad film. What makes it all the more tragic is that Chow can't even be happy in his fantasies. I have to ask, what's the point of a fantasy if it's just as depressing as real life?

On the other hand, any man who falls asleep when he's on the back seat of a car with Zhang Ziyi deserves to be miserable. No wonder she looks annoyed!

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A Most Violent Year (4 Stars)

It's difficult to write anything about this film without giving away spoilers. I'll try to go no further than hint at what happens, but in case this is too much for my readers who still want to see this film in the cinema, stop reading now.

Still with me? Then let's get started.

Abel Morales runs a business selling heating oil. His wife is the daughter of a New York gangster, but he is determined to do everything legally, even though he has competitors who are dubious, to say the least. He's about to seal a deal, expanding his business, but at the same time his trucks are being stolen on the open streets, and the New York district attorney is investigating his company for fraud.

The film trailer is very misleading. It gives the impression that the film's story lasts a year, but it actually all takes place over a period of four weeks in January. It looks like another case of the trailer being made by someone who knew nothing about the film. Is there an industry that makes trailers? That must be an easy way to make money.

The film is slow, much slower than the trailer suggests, but never boring. Frequently during the film we have the impression that the constant pressure will make Abel resort to crime, but he always manages to restrain himself. I couldn't help getting the impression that the fraud investigations are only taking place because the district attorney is crooked, possibly being bribed by one of Abel's competitors, but this is never explicitly stated.

Before I went into the film last night one of the staff told me it's not a very good film because there isn't much violence. That's not a problem for me. I enjoyed it.

Spider-Man XXX 2 (3½ Stars)

Nick Fury has sent Spider-Man and Jessica Jones to Las Vegas to prevent an attack by AIM on SHIELD's Cosmic Cube research facility. By coincidence, Betty Brant is also in the city to investigate the magician Mysterio's alleged link to the Kingpin.

This was one of the last films that Axel Braun made for Vivid Entertainment. He must have known he was leaving soon, because he crammed as many characters into the film as he could, knowing he wouldn't have another chance. Old characters and new. I was particularly excited to see Daredevil in his original black and yellow costume, even though his appearance was a random element that had nothing to do with the plot. Jessica Jones was unknown to me, because she didn't appear in Marvel comics until 2001. I vaguely remember Arachne as a minor character from the 1980's, but she became more significant in stories 20 years later.

My main criticism of the film is that too much was going on. If Axel had kept the plot simpler it would have been more enjoyable. The best scenes were the ones with Mysterio. I wonder if the official Marvel films will be this faithful to his appearance in the comics.

Betty Brant finds Mysterio irresistible. There must be something special about kissing a man with a glass bowl on his head.

Is it my imagination, or does Mysterio's bowl shine brighter as he gets excited? But you have to admit that if Betty Brant had been this sexy in the comics Peter Parker would never have been interested in Mary-Jane Watson.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Fearless (5 Stars)

Only weak people will show their power through violence.

I first saw "Fearless" four years ago, but today is the first time I've had a chance to see the Director's Cut. If you haven't seen the film yet, this is the only version you should consider watching. It's 40 minutes longer, and the additional scenes add greatly to the film's atmosphere. "Director's Cut" is a very vague expression anyway, meaning something different every time. In this case the Director's Cut is the original version as created by the magnificent director Ronny Yu. The studios told him that 140 minutes was too long, so he had to go back and make cuts. Many Director's Cuts are just the original film, padded out by adding deleted scenes that weren't good enough to be included in the first place. The Director's Cut of "Fearless" is perfect, nothing is out of place, it's what we should have seen in the cinemas in the first place.

Interestingly, Michelle Yeoh's scenes were completely removed from the theatrical version. Why? Her beautiful, elegant performances lift the quality of any film. It's not just a matter of her being a good actress. Whether she plays a modern or an ancient character, she has a dignity about her persona, a radiance that makes people respect her.

"Fearless" was advertised as Jet Li's last martial arts epic. I'm not sure what was meant by that. Does it mean that he would no longer fight in his films, or that he would no longer star in historical films? Maybe the answer to this question can be found in obscure Chinese interviews. It could be that he feels he's too old to fight. Tell that to Jackie Chan.

The film is the true story of Huo Yuanjia, from 1900 to 1910, taking place at the end of the Qing Dynasty in Tianjin and Shanghai. He begins his life determined to be the fighting champion of Tianjin at all costs. After the murder of his mother and daughter he goes into exile and spends seven years working in the rice fields, leading him to reassess his life. He returns to Tianjin as a more spiritual man.

One thing that stands out is the balanced portrayal of the Japanese. As in "Fist of Legend", not all Japanese are bad. The Japanese ambassador is evil, but the Japanese karate champion is an honourable man. This might sound obvious to most of my readers, but they should remember that anti-Japanese propaganda is usual in Chinese films, especially when the story takes place in the first half of the 20th Century.

Suburban Mayhem (3 Stars)

I checked out this film on the recommendation of a friend. He's a big fan of Australian cinema, which is something I know almost nothing about. I asked him for recommendations, and this was the first film he named.

Well, as you can guess by my rating I wasn't exactly overwhelmed. I wouldn't say it's a bad film, and it has won a few awards, but it has nothing to say to me. It's about Katrina, a self-centred young woman, a single mother who lives with her father. Maybe that's what puts me off. I have nothing against self-centred young women, but when they give their social life priority over their children I draw the line. Katrina is sexy and gives first-class blow jobs, a skill that makes her able to manipulate men. Every time she wants to party she leaves her daughter Bailee with a boyfriend and disappears for days on end. It's not that she doesn't love her daughter, it's just that her party life comes first.

The only man that Katrina really loves is her brother Danny. No, it's nothing sexual, but for Katrina the men in her life are objects to be used; Danny is the only man she can take seriously. When Danny is given a life sentence for murder she resorts to desperate measures to get him out of prison.

I was surprised to see Mia Wasikowska in a small role as a friend Katrina makes in a beauty parlour. She was the only familiar face I recognised. This was the first film she made when she was 16.

Do you hate telemarketers as much as me? The so-called cold callers? I don't see how anybody could possibly like them. While I was watching the film the phone rang three times. Every time it was an offensive caller. One of them was a recorded message about PPI, which ended with the words, "If you do not want to receive this reminder again, press 9". So I pressed 9, even though I know it won't make any difference. I pressed 9 the last time I got the message.

One of the callers, who sounded from his accent like he isn't even located in England, started his call with the words, "I have a quick question for you that will only take up 20 seconds of your time". Fine. Then he started reading off some standard legal disclaimer, something like, "This phone call is being recorded and may be used for training purposes, etc". When he finished I told him, "Your 20 seconds are up", and I hung up. I don't know what he wanted, and I don't want to know. I'm sure he'll call again. The cold callers never give up.

What's the best way to deal with them? I don't know. They've been bothering me for years. A few months ago I decided to be rude. For a couple of weeks I kept telling them to fuck off and slammed the phone down. In itself it's a good idea. If I'm rude to the caller he'll feel bad, which will make him hesitate before his next call, maybe even have a bathroom break, sparing other people. If everyone did it he would feel so bad about his job that he'd quit and go work somewhere else. The trouble with this method is that I'm a polite person by nature, someone who never swears. After saying rude words I feel uncomfortable about myself, like I've dirtied myself.

Maybe I should just hang up without saying anything. I've tried that in the past, but sometimes they think it was a mistake and ring back immediately. It's not any good just politely saying that I'm not interested. I did that for years, and it doesn't help. I need to let them know that I'm not just not interested in their product, I also find their call offensive. Maybe I should tell them something like, "Look, you're probably a nice person, but you have a really shitty job. I'm sure you can do better for yourself". I haven't tried that yet. Tomorrow.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Triangle (5 Stars)

Is Melissa George running away from herself or trying to find herself? When she tries to do something new she ends up repeating the things she has done many times before.

One of the bad things about being a member of a film club is that I'm frequently asked awkward questions. The most awkward question is "What sort of films do you like?" For someone with tastes as varied as mine it's a difficult question to answer, and however often the question is posed it doesn't get any easier.

Maybe if I want to tell people what sort of films I like most I should point at "Triangle". It's a film that says something new to me every time I watch it. I like films with nuances, with hidden secrets that don't become obvious until the fifth or sixth time I watch them. In that respect "Triangle" is a perfect film. It's not a horror film, whatever is written on the posters, but it is very dark and unsettling. In fact, the film's dark nature is even more obvious because of the bright sunny pictures for most of the film.

"Triangle" is a film worth watching and discussing. Maybe I'll show it one one of my Saturday night film evenings.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Ex Machina (4½ Stars)

I don't usually read reviews of a film before I go to see it in the cinema. In this case I made an exception, because a review's catchy title caught my eye: "Foxcatcher for nerds". I shan't explain why, because it would give away too many spoilers for both films, but it's a perfect summary. "Foxcatcher" and "Ex Machina" have similar plots and end in a similar way. The main difference for me is that I found "Foxcatcher" dull, whereas "Ex Machina" was fascinating and exciting from the first minute.

Caleb Smith is a 26-year-old programmer for the company that makes the world's leading search engine. He wins a competition that entitles him to stay a week in the remote house of the company owner, Nathan Bateman. When he arrives he finds out that it isn't a vacation, he has a job to do. His boss, who insists on being called by his first name, has built a machine with Artificial Intelligence. In a variation of the Turing Test, Caleb has to talk to the machine for a week, knowing it is a machine, and then decide if he can treat it like a human. The machine, called Ava, has the voice and face of a woman, and even has the personality of a woman. Caleb is at first uneasy when Ava begins to flirt with him, but as the week progresses he accepts it. How far is he willing to let it go? He's aware that Nathan is always watching him with Ava. Is Nathan an all-seeing God or a creepy voyeur?

The film is slow-moving, but never boring. I was always excited to see what would happen next. The excellent acting by the three main characters makes the film even more entralling. Oscar Isaac (Nathan) is unsettlingly cold, Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb) is young and naive, and Alicia Vikander (Ava) has a child-life innocence. In some of the early scenes people in the cinema were laughing, but it wasn't because of any humour. It was the awkward laughter that people do when they feel uncomfortable in a situation and want to cover up their embarrassment. The film touched me, and it evidently touched the others in the cinema. A film that deals with similar issues, though from a different angle, is "Her". It would be interesting to watch them back to back.

Purple Butterfly (2 Stars)

Cynthia is Chinese, Itami is Japanese. They fall in love when they go to school together in Manchuria in 1928. After school they're separated when Itami has to go back to Japan to do military service. They meet again five years later in Shanghai. Cynthia works for the Chinese resistance, while Itami is head of the Japanese secret service in Shanghai.

In itself, that setting could have made a first class film, especially with a world class actress like Zhang Ziyi playing the role of Cynthia. But the film fails miserably. The problem is that the director, Lou Ye, attempted to be artistic, but missed the mark. The film's dialogue is kept to a minimum, which adds to the atmosphere, but it also makes it unclear who people are and why they're doing things. Added to this, the film is non-linear, jumping forwards and backwards in time. Some of the events are repeated from different characters' point of view, which worked in "Jackie Brown", but only adds to the confusion in "Purple Butterfly". In the final scene (chronologically) we see Cynthia and Itami dying in one another's arms, which seems like the film's end. Instead of that a 10-minute scene follows in which Cynthia is having sex with the resistance leader a few years earlier, after which the two walk through the streets of Shanghai heading towards a job at the railway station, which ended in a shoot-out that we saw in the first half hour of the film. During the rest of the film there had been no hints of an affair between Cynthia and the resistance leader, so this was totally out of place. I sat afterwards wondering what the director was trying to say. Confusing.

In case you think that it's only me who doesn't understand the film, this is what Amazon's reviewer Robert Horton has to say:

Zhang Ziyi looks as beautiful as ever in Purple Butterfly, a film that takes her out of the martial-arts world of "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers". She plays a member of Purple Butterfly, an underground resistance group fighting against the Japanese aggression in early 1930's China. The movie's central dilemma comes when her ex-lover, a Japanese agent, returns to Shanghai and is earmarked for assassination by Purple Butterfly. This compelling-sounding set-up is frustratingly unfulfilled, as director Ye Lou opts for an opaque brand of storytelling, in which chronology is jumbled and drama short-circuited. The film looks gorgeous, but it is close to impossible to understand what is going on at any given moment. If handsome images and dreamlike editing are enough, the movie might work for a very select group of patient viewers and Zhang Ziyi fanatics.

I'm a Zhang Ziyi fanatic, but I'm sorry, it didn't work for me.

Friday, 23 January 2015

How I live now (3 Stars)

Daisy is a 15-year-old girl who lives in New York. She goes to spend her summer holidays with her aunt in England. Shortly after arriving her aunt flies to Geneva on business, just for the weekend, but she doesn't return because a terrorist group explodes a nuclear bomb in London. The American embassy offers to evacuate Daisy, but she doesn't leave because she has fallen in love with her cousin Edmond. Martial law is declared, and the children are sent to do forced labour on a farm.

For me, this is a strange and unnecessarily controversial film. Even though the scene isn't very explicit, many viewers must be disturbed by seeing a 15-year-old girl have sex with her cousin. That's awkward on so many different levels. It could easily have been omitted or played down. If Edmond had been a neighbour, not a relative, it would have been better. Other aspects of the film are more appealing, such as the way we see that when the army takes over they are just as bad as the "terrorists".

The film has received generally favourable reviews. I can't agree with them. I find it mediocre.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Kajaki (4 Stars)

This is a true film about the events of September 6th 2006. A squad of British soldiers is stationed on a hill overlooking the Kajaki Dam in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Their mission is to protect the dam, because they have received intelligence reports that the Taliban intends to destroy it. When they see Taliban militia blocking the road and extorting money from civilians who wish to pass, they send a few soldiers down the hill to remove the roadblock. Halfway down the hill a soldier steps on a Russian mine and loses his leg. Other soldiers are sent to rescue him, but they soon realise that they're standing in the middle of a minefield. The mines are well hidden under the sand after 20 years of lying on the hillside. Despite their best efforts to be cautious they're picked off one by one by the mines as they attempt to return to safety.

The film was made with the assistance of one of the surviving soldiers. It's realistic, gritty and unglamorous. Rather than the Taliban, they are being killed by an anonymous unseen enemy, the Russians who were long gone after abandoning Afghanistan in 1989. It's not a pretty film, but that's not the intention. War is ugly.

It was interesting to read in the texts at the end of the film that the majority of the soldiers shown in the film were still in the British army in 2014, when the film was made. Whatever setbacks they experienced on that ominous day they were willing to continue fighting for their country. They are real heroes.