Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Banquet (4½ Stars)

In America this film was released as "Legend of the Black Scorpion". While there is some mention of scorpions during the film, as the main ingredient of a powerful poison, I find the name "The Banquet" more suitable. According to the text accompanying the DVD the film is an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Hamlet", but I fail to see a connection. Maybe one of my readers can help me out.

The story takes place in 10th Century China. The Emperor's son, Prince Wu Luan, is in love with a beautiful noblewoman, Little Wan. Before they can get married the Emperor takes Little Wan as his wife and gives Qing, the daughter of his first minister Yin, to Wu Luan as wife. Rather than marry Qing, Wu Luan runs away to become a dancer and actor.

Three years later the Emperor is murdered by his brother Li, who becomes the new Emperor. Li marries Little Wan and she continues to be Empress. Wu Luan returns to the imperial court, feigning obedience to his uncle while waiting for a chance to avenge his father's death. He still loves Little Wan, but feels that it would not be right to marry a woman that he calls his mother. He reunites with Qing, who has loved him all this time. She is devoted to him, but sad because she knows that he really loves somebody else.

Emperor Li doesn't trust Wu Luan and appoints him ambassador to a distant kingdom in order to keep him far away. When Qing asks for permission to accompany him the Empress (as Little Wan is now known) becomes jealous and orders Qing to be whipped. Qing's brother decides to take revenge, but unknown to anyone the Empress is planning to kill her husband and become the sole ruler. It becomes a race against time to see who will kill who first.

The film is very melodramatic and bears all the characteristics of a tragedy. The fight scenes are very stylised, looking more like ballet than battle. Rather than the vibrant colours typical for modern Chinese films, there is a lot of black and white. Zhang Ziyi proves her skill as an actress by portraying a conflicted woman who feels a deep love, but puts her political career first.

Unfortunately, the DVD release is unsatisfactory. The picture has been cropped to full screen aspect ratio, and for most of the film the picture is blurred. I've been informed that the Blu-ray release is better.

Inception (5 Stars)

I can't believe that it's been three years since I watched this film. Why did I wait so long? It's brilliant. The action is amazing, but the mind-bending plot is so complex that you need a scorecard to keep up. Wonderful. Maybe I'll write a longer review next time I watch it. I shouldn't wait another three years.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Life of Pi (5 Stars)

This is the second film that I watched with Ian last night. It's another good choice. It's a film that expresses a deep spirituality that overwhelms me every time I watch it. Watching it again last night made it the fifth time I've watched it since I began my blog in 2010, and it's the fourth time I've watched it this year.

I remember that when the film first appeared in the cinemas a friend of mine said that she wouldn't go to see it because she thought it was silly that a boy should live with a tiger in a boat. She didn't get it. It's like the people who refuse to watch professional wrestling because they say that wrestling is fake. This isn't a random comparison. In both the "Life of Pi" and the WWE the story is more important than what happens. People who say that wrestling is fake are missing the point; they don't understand that it's irrelevant whether it's real sport or not. Did Piscine Molitor Patel, a.k.a. Pi, really spend 227 days in a boat with a man-eating tiger? To ask whether the story is true or not is missing the point.

Night Train (5 Stars)

Last night my friend Ian came round to watch a couple of films with me. He wanted to watch a mystery, and this is the film he picked. Good choice. The film starts off quite mundanely, then develops into a supernatural mystery, mixed with deliciously understated horror and black humour. It's also a psychological thriller, revealing the depths of human greed. The film ends without resolution, leaving a hook for a sequel, but I'm happy that the sequel was never made. "Night Train" is perfect in itself.

Having said that, I wish that the DVD contained deleted scenes as extras. In the final credits the cast are listed in order of appearance, and two names are listed at the end who don't appear in the film. It's good that this scene, whatever it was, was removed, because I like the film ending as it is. Nevertheless, I would like to see it.

If I were to make a list of the world's most underrated films, this would be at the top of the list. How did it slip through the cracks? Why does nobody know it? It deserves to be recognised as a classic.

The things people do for love.....

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Haunting Desires (4½ Stars)

After purchasing the censored version of "Haunting Desires" two years ago I have finally managed to find an uncensored version on Ebay. I didn't spot it earlier because it's been renamed "Tales from the Erotic Side". There's some confusion where this version came from.

As I mentioned in my last review, the official version of the film wasn't released on Fred Olen Ray's own label, Retromedia. I asked Fred about it, and he said something about having made an exclusive contract with Blockbuster for this film. He was requested to make cuts as part of his deal with Blockbuster, and he couldn't release an uncut version even if he wanted to. So where has the uncut version come from? Fred claims that it's an illegal version ripped from television. However, the uncut version was released by Third Millennium Multimedia (TMM), a reputable company that specialises in releasing films made by small independent studios. At first glance the picture and sound quality seemed identical to the official version, but when I examined closer I could see evidence of NTSC to PAL conversion. Judging by the fuzz around the text in the title screen, the new title was edited into the picture. Compare the pictures above. However, I suspect that TMM is innocent in the matter. The company was probably given the material by someone claiming to own it. It's old news now, because the DVD was mastered on January 17th 2005 and is no longer being distributed by TMM.

This is probably the best erotic film that Fred made using his pseudonym Nicholas Medina. I regret having purchased an illegal DVD, but in my defence I have to say that it was the only way I could get it. If Fred ever reaches an agreement with Blockbuster and manages to release an uncut version, I'll buy it again from him. That's a promise.

Doesn't Jay Richardson know he should never turn his back on a vampire?

Monday, 20 October 2014

Confessions of a Driving Instructor (4 Stars)

This is the third film in the "Confessions" series, and it is based on the novel with the same name. The four films tell the story of Timothy Lea, a rather clumsy young man who fails in whatever career he tries, but nevertheless has success with the ladies. It must be his long blond hair that attracts them. I admit that the reason I watched this film today is because it's the only film I have that stars Lynda Bellingham, who died yesterday, aged 66.

Our hero Timothy, played by English comedian Robin Askwith, has recently qualified as a driving instructor. As is to be expected, all the students at his new driving school are women. All his lessons end with special instructions on the back seat. Timothy manages to flirt with the enemy by dating the daughter of the owner of a rival driving school, Mary Truscott, played by the late Lynda Bellingham. After many comic capers the film ends with a car chase that Roger Moore would be proud of -- hardly surprising, because the screenwriter Christopher Wood also wrote the screenplay for "Moonraker" and "The spy who loved me".

Lynda Bellingham
31 May 1948 – 19 October 2014

Here are a few photos of Lynda and Robin from the film. Click on the pictures to enlarge them..

Robin takes Lynda for a drive.

"You want to do what? Now?"

Lynda and Robin on the back seat.

Lynda and Robin watching rugby on television.

"The game's over, you can let go now".

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Annabelle (4 Stars)

I went to see this film with my friends in the Birmingham Film Club. Okay, I know the official name is "Birmingham Movies & Social Group", but as far as I'm concerned it's the Birmingham Film Club. It's a prequel to "The Conjuring", although the connections between the two films are very tenuous.

The film takes place in 1967. It's a perfect but sterile world in which everyone dresses smart and neighbours go to church together. The television broadcasts news about Charles Manson, but the evil world of religious cults is far, far away. Or so it seems.

John Form buys a doll for his pregnant wife Mia, who is an avid doll collector. She needed the doll to complete a collection. As soon as the doll was shown there were groans in the cinema audience. Anybody who buys a doll that ugly deserves whatever happens to him. Even worse, after the birth the doll is placed in her baby's room. An ugly doll like that would traumatise a child even without being possessed. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Shortly before the birth the Forms hear screaming from their next door neighbours' house. The neighbours have been killed by their daughter, Annabelle Higgins, and her boyfriend, who we later find out belong to a Satanic cult. The evil pair break into the Forms' house, but John manages to shoot them. God bless America for home defence! As Annabelle lies dying her blood drips onto the doll. In the following scenes we see that the doll is possessed by Annabelle's spirit.

The doll is also called Annabelle, but we don't find this out until later in the film. Is it a coincidence, or did the Forms have a twisted sense of humour and pick the name for her after the killing? I don't know.

I feel guilty rating the film so highly. It's a trashy film, relying on sudden jumps in music and action to scare the audience, but it does its job. It made me jump in my seat a few times. I enjoyed it, but I doubt I'll want to watch it again.

Quellen des Lebens (4 Stars)

Let me start by telling you a bit about myself. I'm a big fan of German cinema, especially films made since 1990. In my opinion Germany makes better films than any other country except for America. And even then I would only conditionally put German films in second place. The best films are made in America, because there are incredible directors like David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, but there are also a lot of bad films. In contrast, very few bad films are made in Germany, probably due to better quality control filtering out the turkeys before the first frame is shot. This means that even though the best films are American, the average quality of German films is higher.

Living in England I'm at a disadvantage. Very few German films are shown in English cinemas. DVD Rental services don't offer German films. Since I disagree with film piracy, the only way I can see them is by buying them. About twice a year I browse through the reviews on Amazon Germany looking for recommendations. I make a list of the films I want. Then I check Amazon's prices. If they are cheap enough (under 8 Euros) and there are at least five films I want (to save on postage) I make an order.

This is how I came to buy "Quellen des Lebens" (engl. "Sources of Life"), despite knowing very little about it. The first thing I did was read the text on the box, and I noticed was that it was a long film, almost three hours. After watching the first half hour the episodic nature made me wonder if it was a true story, so I paused the film and looked for film reviews online. Yes, it's not mentioned on the box, but this is an autobiographical film about the life of the film's director, Oskar Roehler. I wish I'd known that before I'd started watching, but now that I knew it I continued.

The film tells the story of Oskar's first 18 years, from 1959 to 1977. Actually, the story starts 10 years before his birth, when his grandfather returns from captivity in Russia. I'm always fascinated when someone tells his life story, because I'm currently working on my own life story, and I think that it's something that everyone should do. A friend recently told me that he wouldn't write about his own life because he thinks that it's something only celebrities should do. I disagree. I believe that everyone should leave something behind when he dies, a footprint in the sand, as I like to call it. In our information age it's possible. Maybe my friend isn't and never will be a celebrity, but that doesn't mean that nobody will read his book. One day his great-grandchildren who have never met him will discover his book and read and re-read every page spellbound.

Even Oskar Roehler isn't someone that I would call a "celebrity". He's a minor author and director with only limited fame even in Germany. He wrote his autobiography in 2011 and filmed it in 2013. That's a luxury that I don't have. My life story will never be filmed, but I'll be glad if the text version will travel around the Internet and be archived somewhere forever, waiting to be rediscovered a hundred years from now.

It would be interesting to share opinions with someone like Oskar Roehler who has written an autobiography. I'm in something of a dilemma. In what I've written so far I've included some very personal details about my ex-wife, negative things that will embarrass her when she realises that they've been made public. I feel tempted to omit them, because I still love her and want to spare her the embarrassment, but some of these things are very important, because I need to explain why I left her. Oskar puts his father in a bad light, but he was already dead at the time the book was published. For instance, Oskar says that his father had sex with his mother when he was watching as a young child. I don't know if this was illegal in Germany, but to me it's very disturbing. Would Oskar have written this in his book while his father was still alive? That's what I would like to ask him.

Jürgen Vogel as Erich Roehler (1949)

Now to the film itself. The film opens in 1949 in Steinach, Bavaria, when Oskar's grandfather Erich Roehler returns from Russian captivity. At first Erich's wife Elisabeth won't let him in, because she became a lesbian during the war and is now living with Erich's sister Marie. Finally the three of them live together, Elisabeth sleeping with Marie while Erich uses the guest room. There are also three children in the house who were born before Erich went to the eastern front. Erich founds a company that makes garden gnomes. He throws Marie out of the house. Elisabeth leaves with her, but returns a few years later for the sake of the children.

Then the focus turns to Klaus Roehler, Oskar's father and Erich's oldest son. He begins his adult life working in his father's factory, but in his mid 20's he goes back to school to get his Abitur (the German high school diploma), and then goes to university in Cologne. Klaus is an avid existentialist, and it's his wish to become an author. He dates a girl called Gisela, the daughter of a top manager at Siemens. First the relationship is casual, until he finds out that she also reads the books of Jean-Paul Sartre. He has sex with her in 1958. According to the film she was only 15 at the time, which created problems with her parents, and they sent her to Vienna to keep them apart. (According to Wikipedia she was born in 1937, so she must have been 20. Did Oskar get it wrong?) While in Vienna she discovers that she is pregnant. She wants to get an abortion, but Klaus insists that they get married as soon as possible. And Oskar is born.

Moritz Bleibtreu as Klaus Roehler (1962) with Gisela

Klaus gets a job at a radio station, while Gisela stays at home, but she is an awful mother who neglects her son. She wants to be a writer, so she locks herself in her room typing while Oskar crawls around the apartment with dirty nappies. As Oskar gets older Klaus and Gisela fight a lot, but they also have frequent sex, not caring if Oskar is standing watching. When Oskar is three Gisela meets the owner of the Rowohlt publishing house at a party and leaves Klaus to be with him.

Klaus moves to Berlin in the mid 1960's and gets involved with the Communist scene, even mixing with members of the terrorist scene. He has a string of lovers, and it remains common for Oskar to watch his father have sex. One of his lovers even invites Oskar to join in, although Klaus refuses. Oskar grows up as a delinquent, already smoking at the age of seven. His maternal grandparents take him into their home for his own safety. Unfortunately he becomes too rebellious for his grandfather to put up with him, so when he's 13 he's sent to a boarding school.

Leonard Scheicher as Oskar Roehler (1976)

The film ends with Oskar at the age of 18 making contact with his mother for the first time since she left home. She's now a successful writer of left-wing literature, and she no longer lives with the publisher. I suppose she didn't need him any more. She's a disgusting creature, boasting about how she fights Capitalism by following old rich people and robbing them. She sits getting drunk, blowing smoke in Oskar's face, and babbling on about Communist theory. She boldly states that Communists have big penises and Capitalists have small penises. As Oskar leaves, determined never to visit his mother again, her last words are that Klaus wasn't his real father. She had had sex with a Jew on a bridge in Vienna.

The story is a fascinating picture of a man's early life. It makes me want to know more. I know about Oskar Roehler's first 18 years, but what has he been doing since?

The real Oskar Roehler

P.S. In the film the names of the characters have been changed. For instance, Oskar Roehler is called Robert Freytag. I'm not sure why this has been done, but in my review I've used the real names.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

3 Musketeers (3½ Stars)

Why is it that whenever they make a film about the three musketeers the story centres around the fourth musketeer, D'Artagnan? This film is set in present day America, but it's no exception. Please note that the correct name of the film is "3 Musketeers", using a digit for the number. That should make it easy to distinguish from all the other versions that have been made over the years.

Alexandra D'Artagnan is a desk operative at the CIA who desperately wants to be reassigned to field work. She discovers a plot by a high-ranking CIA official, code-named "The Cardinal", who wants to assassinate the American president and blame it on North Korea in order to justify an American invasion of Korea. When she tries to pass on the information she is branded a traitor, and her colleagues try to kill her. Since she doesn't know who she can trust within the CIA she makes contact with an elite undercover team, the Musketeers, made up of Terry Aramis, Isaac Athos and Jeremy Porthos. Together they battle the rogue CIA agents in order to save the president's life.

The film has a lot that speaks for it. The fight scenes are very realistic, whether they're gunfights or close contact martial arts battles. The film's pace is rapid from beginning to end, with hardly a pause for breath. On the other hand, the film suffers from having a small budget. The scenes with fighter jet battles look bad due to the poor quality CGI. If they had been filmed better, with Hollywood quality, I would have rated the film higher. Overall the plot was credible, but the final scene amused me. After a film full of fist and gun fights, in the president's bunker there just happen to be two swords lying by the wall, so that D'Artagnan can fight her final battle in a sword fight. Ridiculous. But I suppose that with a film called "3 Musketeers" there just had to be swordplay eventually.

I stumbled on this film by accident. It's included on the same Blu-ray Disc as "Mercenaries", even though it isn't mentioned on the cover. That's a nice little surprise. I wish more film studios would give away free gifts like this. The only connection between the two films, apart from being made by the same studio, is that Christopher Ray, the director of "Mercenaries", is the producer of "3 Musketeers".

In the four musketeers there are two men and two women. The film doesn't have any nudity, but it does have brief scenes of sexual titillation. For instance, in one of the initial scenes Terry Aramis strips down to bra and panties before attacking her victim. The poor guy doesn't stand a chance.

"Reach for your gun".

"Wrong gun".

Mercenaries (4 Stars)

I watched this film last month, but I had to come back to it for a second take. These four girls -- Kristanna Loken, Nicole Bilderback, Zoe Bell and Vivica Fox -- are the sexiest jailbirds ever. They're all doing long sentences for violent crimes, but they're offered a free pardon if they go on a covert mission to an unnamed former Soviet republic. The head of the CIA is the equally sexy Cynthia Rothrock. The tribal chief in the country they refer to as Shithole-istan is Brigitte Nielsen, who looked good in her younger days, but is now just scary.

This is the first film I've seen directed by Christopher Ray. He has an eye for fast action and explosions that reminds me of Andy Sidaris. My only criticism is that he doesn't capitalize on the girls' sex appeal. A few brief scenes of gratuitous nudity and seductive posturing would have gone down well.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Now you see me (4 Stars)

I've been fascinated by this film for over a year, partly because of the glowing praise from my guest writer Dakota. Click here for her review. I must admit that although I enjoyed watching it for the first time today I didn't see it as the towering masterpiece she claims it is. The film, which is about a team of dazzling high-tech magicians, does have a few unexpected plot twists, but I don't see them as the result of the viewer being distracted by magic. They're just normal plot twists, like the ones that we've seen in good mystery films for decades.

The scale of the magic tricks is staggering. While standing on a stage in Las Vegas they rob a bank in Paris and give the money to the audience. How did they do it? Morgan Freeman, forever typecast as a wise adviser, explains the trick to the police. The magicians are arrested, but of course, as skilled tricksters they have left no evidence to connect themselves to the crime. The magicians have to be released, but they promise to perform even bigger tricks and encourage the police to watch them. As they boldly claim, "The closer you look, the less you'll see".