Monday, 30 November 2015
This is the first film in the Medina Collection. In case anyone doesn't know what that is, it's a series of 32 erotic films directed by Fred Olen Ray using the pseudonym Nicholas Medina. He's used different names during his career, including Sherman Scott, Ed Raymond and Roger Collins. Generally he uses a different name for each genre of film he makes, so that it's easy to separate his action films, family dramas, science fiction films, etc. from one another. There are a few exceptions. He had used the name Nicholas Medina sporadically in the 1990's, but from 2002 onwards he reserved it for his erotic films.
The films in the Medina Collection were made to be shown on television. They were usually shown (and probably still are) on the cable television networks Showtime and Cinemax after midnight. In the past I've called these films soft porn films, but some people, especially the actors involved, object to this description. They don't want the word "porn" to be used at all. In a wordplay on one of the channel names they like to call them Skinemax films. I'll call them erotic films for now, even though I think that "soft porn" more accurately expresses what the films are about.
What's the definition of the word "pornography"? The word is commonly used, though many people don't know what it means. First used in 1769, it meant writing about sex, i.e. it described erotic literature. With the development of new technologies it was later applied to photos or films of sexual activities, so its meaning was broadened to the depiction of sex in any media. This means that nude photos cannot be described as pornographic unless they are involved in sexual activities such as masturbation. Since pornography is about the depiction of sex, it also means that sex itself is not pornographic, it's only pornographic to display the sex act to others. In films pornography is commonly divided into "hard porn" and "soft porn". In hard porn actual sex is filmed; in soft porn the sex is faked, for instance the actors are lying on top of one another, but the camera angle disguises the fact that no penetration is taking place.
Of course, there are faked portrayals of sex in many films today, either very brief (as in "Titanic") or longer in duration (as in "Basic Instinct"). Does that make those films pornographic? Technically speaking, the sex scenes themselves are pornography, even if very little of the act can be seen. In fact, even if the sex itself is off screen and we can only hear sounds it's still pornography, because sex is being represented audibly to the audience. But whether the films are pornographic as a result depends on the morals of the person judging. Like most liberal people who live in today's western society, I would only call a film pornographic if the intention of the film is to portray sex scenes rather than to tell a story. In that respect, "Basic Instinct" isn't a pornographic film, "13 Erotic Ghosts" is a pornographic film, and "Nymphomaniac" is a borderline case. Fundamental Christians would judge differently and call "Basic Instinct" pornographic. When "Titanic" was shown in Utah it was censored because the Mormon authorities considered certain scenes too sexually explicit.
Now to the film itself. "13 Erotic Ghosts" has a slightly different style to the following films in the collection. It seems that Fred Olen Ray was still finding his style. Or maybe he was still testing the water to see what the television companies wanted from him. The sex scenes in this film are all girl-girl action. In his later films the majority of the sex scenes are boy-girl.
The film begins over 100 years ago. Baroness Lucrezia owns a castle where she runs a finishing school for young ladies. Apart from the usual education, she forces them to have sex with her. Maybe "forces" is the wrong word, they certainly don't seem to be unwilling. When lightning strikes her metal dildo everyone is killed. In the present day a team of supernatural investigators visit the castle to examine rumours that it's haunted. Jay Richardson, who plays the reporter Ted Nightingale, is the actor responsible for most of the humour.
I suspect that most of the humour comes from Jay's own personality. The dialog wasn't scripted, it was left open for the actors to improvise. Julie Strain, who plays Baroness Lucrezia, defends this style.
Actually, there is no script. This is one of those adlib, fly by the skin of your pants, make it better than it would be if somebody had written shit lines that started with the word "Look". Otherwise you have these stupid lines that say, "Look at the sunset. Can you go get me the gun? We're going to blow up the spaceship". And that's what it kinda sounds like to me if it's too written and too contrived. It's bullshit.
Tell that to Steven Spielberg!
This is the only film that Julie Strain ever made with Fred Olen Ray. I had already been a fan of hers since the early 1990's. She has a very unique appearance. She's 6'1½" tall and very busty. In her films she usually towers over the male actors, especially when wearing high heels that make her more than 6'6" tall. During the 1990's she made over 100 films, but by 2002 she was winding down towards the end of her career.
The film is also unique for featuring an appearance by Fred himself. The film is a sort of 3D film, and he appears on screen to explain how it works. There are 3D glasses in the DVD case, and he explains how to put them on. It's a different type of 3D to what we're used to in the cinema nowadays. It's a technology where the picture looks perfect without the glasses, but the 3D effects are only visible with the glasses. On my television the glasses don't make a difference, but I do see a small amount of depth if I use the glasses while watching the film on my computer. I thing the reason is that the 3D effects are only visible when sitting close to the screen.
Incidentally, I don't think Fred can count. There are only six ghosts, the Baroness and five girls.
Thank you, Amazon, for celebrating Black Friday this year. I've been wanting to buy this film ever since it was released on Blu-ray 12 months ago, but the price was too high. When it was first released it cost £19, then the price dropped to £15 after a few months, and ever since then the price has been hovering between £10 and £15. When I buy Blu-ray Discs the most I usually pay is £6, although I go as high as £8 for a film I really want. No higher than £8, that's my absolute maximum. The price has probably stayed higher because it's a best seller and there's been no need to drop the price. I've been watching Ebay for special offers, but whenever a Blu-ray was offered for auction the bidding went up to silly levels, always higher than Amazon's price. Some people are stupid.
Then came Black Friday. Amazon offered the Blu-ray version of the film for £6.99. I ordered it immediately, but didn't watch it until now because I wanted to finish watching my essential 30 films first. Incidentally, I've noticed a large number of copies of this film appearing on Ebay in the last two days. It looks like a lot of greedy people bought it just to make a profit.
Usually my first reaction when I see a Marvel film in the cinema is to attack it for its deviations from the comics, but when I watch it a second time on disc I appreciate it in its own right, despite the changes. This time I'm going in the opposite direction. Check out the pictures above of Gamora as she appears in Marvel's comics. Then look at the photo of Gamora in the film below.
I might have accepted the green bodysuit version in the film as an attempt to keep the film suitable for young viewers in America The Prude, but instead of that Gamora's costume was completely ruined. It's little more than a leather outfit, not even tight fitting.
Added to this, Zoe Saldana was a poor choice to play Gamora. She's too flat-chested. In the comics Gamora stuns men with her beauty before knocking them out with her fists. Zoe Saldana doesn't have the necessary sex appeal.
This is the real Drax, battling against the all-powerful Thanos. This is the Drax I wanted to see in the film, not just a wrestler in outer space.
30 films to watch before you die, #30
After a month of watching and (almost) reviewing the 30 films I consider to be essential for everyone who is seriously interested in films, I've finally come to the 30th film, "The Life of Pi". It's last in the list only because I've ordered the films chronologically. This is a film that deals with the largest of themes in the smallest of places. Just as we can see all of the universe in Krishna's mouth, we see the struggle between man and God in a tiny lifeboat. I use the word "struggle" deliberately. When God and man meet it's not instant agreement. There's a battle to get the upper hand, at least if the man is honest. A dishonest man agrees to everything that God tells him to do, then walks away and does whatever he wants. An honest man listens to everything God says, weighing the words carefully, then replies, "But God, are you sure?"
In my review of "King Kong" two days ago I wrote that it's important to pay attention to books shown in a film, especially if a main character is reading them. "The Life of Pi" shows Pi Patel reading three books and a comic. This amount of overkill tells us that Ang Lee had something important on his mind. The four items emphasise the film's themes of religion, rationality and isolation.
In the comic we see both the closeness and the enormous size of God. Krishna is a small boy, but when his mother looks into his mouth she sees the whole universe. Only by looking at God close up can we embrace all there is.
Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island" is an interesting book to see represented in the film. In his later life Pi would be stranded on an island, but rather than remain on it for as long as possible he would take all he could from it and leave. Pi claimed to be a follower of three religions, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, while also believing in reason. The first two religions are well developed in the film, while Islam is only mentioned in passing. Pi took what he wanted from each religion, then moved on. Both religion and reason are incomplete in themselves. They complement one another in the understanding of oneself and the universe.
Next we see Pi reading a collection of Dostoyevsky's short stories, "Notes from Underground", "White Nights" and "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man". I haven't read any of these stories, unfortunately, but I've checked brief summaries to see their relevance to the film. To differing degrees, all three stories deal with a man feeling alienated in the world, unable to cope with the mass of information presented to him, and the ways in which the man attempts to cope, either by doing good deeds or by withdrawing further into himself.
"The Stranger" by Albert Camus is probably the most famous existentialist novel ever written. While it deals with many themes, what I consider most relevant in the context of the film is that Pi is a foreigner everywhere he goes. He's an eternal outsider. He grows up in India, in an area where different cultures (French, English, Muslim, Hindu) are separated by streets in the city. Crossing the road leads you into a different world. On the boat he's surrounded by Japanese sailors. At the end of his life he's in Canada teaching Jewish mysticism at university.
Here is my complete list of my 30 films to watch before you die.
- Earth vs Flying Saucers (1956)
- Faster Pussycat Kill Kill (1965)
- The Wild Bunch (1969)
- Young Frankenstein (1974)
- Tommy (1975)
- The Man who would be king (1975)
- Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
- Apocalypse Now (1979)
- The Shining (1980)
- Terminator (1984)
- Thelma and Louise (1991)
- Basic Instinct (1992)
- Falling Down (1993)
- Jurassic Park (1993)
- Pulp Fiction (1994)
- Leon (1994)
- Mars Attacks (1996)
- Scream (1996)
- Lost Highway (1997)
- Dark City (1998)
- The Legend of 1900 (1998)
- The Matrix (1999)
- The Green Mile (1999)
- Donnie Darko (2001)
- Spider-Man (2002)
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
- The World's Fastest Indian (2005)
- King Kong (2005)
- Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
- Life of Pi (2012)
This isn't a list of my 30 favourite films. All 30 films in the list are films I greatly enjoy, but I've given priority to the films that I consider to be important. I'll probably compile a list of my favourite films in the near future, but I shan't watch them all in sequence until 2017 at least because there will be a lot of overlap with this list.
Now it's time for me to catch up with a few films that I bought on Blu-ray during the Black Friday week.
Sunday, 29 November 2015
30 films to watch before you die, #29
This is a film that I was fortunate enough to watch before it was released in the cinemas. It was at he end of 2008, between Christmas and New Year. It was already being advertised on the side of buses in Birmingham, but it wasn't due to appear in the cinemas until January 9th. The ads made it look like a comedy, so I wouldn't have gone to see it. One day I was talking to a friend. He told me that there was an absolutely fantastic film I should see called "Slumdog Millionaire". I told him I wasn't interested, but he insisted and pushed a DVD into my hand. A home-made copy.
I took it home, and when it started there was a warning message. "This DVD is intended for viewing by film critics during the awards season. It is for personal viewing only. You may not show it to your friends or family". Very interesting. Someone somewhere had leaked the DVD. Fortunately, that was two years before I started writing my blog, or I would have had to explain how I got my hands on the film.
I loved the film. It truly is a masterpiece. It's fascinating to compare it with "Steve Jobs", which I watched in the cinema earlier this month. Both films are directed by Danny Boyle, but their style is so different. "Steve Jobs" is very minimalist, whereas "Slumdog Millionaire" has a luxurious big budget feeling. Both films are excellent in their own ways.
The film tells the story of the "Who wants to be a millionaire" contestant, Jamal Malik, but it also tells the story of India from 1990 to 2006. We see the religious persecution in the 1990's. We see the gangs and the political corruption. We see the housing boom when the slums are demolished to make room for skyscrapers. We see the call centres outsourced by British companies to India.
"Slumdog Millionaire" was nominated for ten Oscars in 2009, of which it won eight, including best film. This was well deserved.
Saturday, 28 November 2015
30 films to watch before you die, #28
I've already written detailed posts about "King Kong" in the past, so I'll just point out one thing here. When you watch a film, always be on the lookout for books used as props. I don't mean in a bookcase, I mean individual books seen lying on a table or a chair, anywhere in the picture. This is a common method for a director to let the audience know what influenced him when he made a film. It's a not so subtle hint about a film's meaning. If a character is seen reading a book this makes knowing the book essential to understanding the film.
Here we see young Jimmy reading Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as the ship approaches Skull Island. The main theme of the book is the comparison of savages in the jungle with urban savages. Neither is less primitive than the other. We saw that yesterday at the annual Black Friday sales. People were rolling on the floor punching one another because they wanted a cheap flatscreen TV. Mankind hasn't evolved since leaving the jungle, has it? We're all still the same.
Here is Ann Darrow after returning to the ship's crew on Skull Island. The giant monkey, Kong, has been risking his life to save her. Now she realises that Carl Denham and the others want to capture Kong. Her shocked expression as she looks at Carl and the others say everything, especially in the context of "Heart of Darkness". She realises just how primitive the men around her are. Back in New York she's offered large sums of money to appear on stage with the chained monkey, but she refuses.
If you want to watch other films directed by Peter Jackson, I can recommend
- Braindead (1992)
- Heavenly Creatures (1994)
- The Lovely Bones (2009)
Friday, 27 November 2015
30 films to watch before you die, #27
If there's ever a film that I beg people to watch, this is it. It's a film that flopped at the box office, despite featuring Anthony Hopkins as lead actor, but everyone I know who's seen it loves it. As I've previously mentioned, after my first review in 2010 a friend of mine decided to watch it, and her reaction was, "Wow, Mike, that's my new favourite film". Those words exactly. This is a film that touches the heart of everyone who watches it.
So why wasn't it successful? I think the main disadvantage was the film's title. What did people think when they saw that a film showing in their local cinema was called "The World's Fastest Indian"? Most Americans would imagine a red-skinned warrior in a colourful headdress running through the desert. Most Europeans would imagine a dark-skinned man from India running through the jungle. Either way it's an ethnic "Forrest Gump" without the political padding. That wouldn't even appeal to me either.
The Indian referred to in the title is actually a 1920 Indian Scout motorbike, built in Springfield, Massachusetts. Even the people who discovered this fact weren't interested in the film. "Racing bikes? Running round and round in circuits? Not my thing".
Those members of the public who really took the time and effort to research what the film was about would have found out it's the true story of the New Zealander Burt Munro and his first trip to America in 1962 to attempt to break the land speed record for two-wheel vehicles. "That sounds boring. Definitely not my thing".
In interviews Anthony Hopkins says it's the best film he's ever made. That's high praise for a man with his distinguished career. So what is the film really about? The summary I gave in the last paragraph is accurate, but there's so much more to the film. It's a story of human determination. It shows how a man can succeed when everything, even his own body, is against him. From the very first minutes of the film we fall in love with the eccentric old man who lives in a bike shed surrounded by overgrown weeds. His age isn't stated in the film, but Burt Munro was born in 1899, making him 63 years old in 1962. That's not an age when normal people think about setting new speed records. Burt Munro was anything but normal.
The old-fashioned look of the remote town Invercargill, the southernmost town in New Zealand, is bizarrely quaint to European viewers like me. It seems like a different world. Most of the film is a road movie, showing Burt's trip across the USA from Los Angeles to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Admittedly, it was only 750 miles, but it was a long ordeal for Burt in his $250 car. On the way he encounters people with varying levels of strangeness, similar to David Lynch's "Wild at Heart".
It's a film for young and old. It's a film for the family to watch together. I know no other film that's so uplifting. In my first review I wrote, "When the final credits roll you will close your eyes and feel glad to be alive". A friend of mine (not the one mentioned above) read my review and accused me of exaggerating. A week later she watched the film, and she told me that she understood what I meant and totally agreed with me. I'm not exaggerating. Many films in my 30 films list are matters of taste, especially for people who don't like science fiction films. This is a film I know you will like.
I feel reluctant to recommend any films for further viewing, because none even come close, but you might want to watch other films starring Anthony Hopkins, such as
Thursday, 26 November 2015
30 films to watch before you die, #26
I need to write this down before I forget it.
This film was written by Charlie Kaufman. It was directed by Michel Gondry, but that's of lesser relevance. Films written by Charlie Kaufman have a distinctive style, whoever the director is. He enjoys a unique role in today's film culture. Most people who watch films can name the most popular actors. Serious film fans can name their favourite directors. But how many people can name screenwriters (not including the directors who write their own scripts)? I can only name one: Charlie Kaufman.
My memory is beginning to fade.
The film may have confused people when it was made. It stars Jim Carrey in the lead role, and at the time the film was released people still thought of him as a comedy actor, despite his serious roles in "The Truman Show" and "The Majestic". This led to the film being incorrectly labelled a comedy, even on the cover of the American DVD box. If anything, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is the most serious role he has ever played. The only small hint of his humorous self is the way he gets stuck in train doors in the pre-credit sequence.
It's all getting so difficult to remember. Let me name another few films written by Charlie Kaufman before it's too late:
I'm sure there was something else I wanted to say. Let me check my notes, if I can remember where I put them.
I'm sorry, I can't remember what film I was writing about.
Wednesday, 25 November 2015
This film is described on its Wikipedia page as an Australian spaghetti western revenge comedy-drama. Wow. It sounds like that was written by someone who had absolutely no idea what the film was about. Unfortunately the film itself doesn't seem to know what it's about.
The film opens with Tilly Dunnage, played by Kate Winslet, getting off the train in Dungatar, Australia, and saying "I'm back, bitches". This sets the stage for revenge, but we see very little revenge as the film progresses. Tilly was sent to Europe 20 years previously because she was accused of murdering a boy when she was 10. She claims to remember nothing about it, and she tries to find out from the townspeople what happened. She doesn't have revenge on her mind, she has investigation.
During her time in Europe she lived in London, Paris and Milan, and she was trained as a dressmaker in Paris. She earns money by making dresses for the women in Dungatar, but they still don't trust her.
The timeframe doesn't make sense to me. The film takes place in 1951, and she was 10 years old when she was sent to Europe in 1931. That means she was 18 when World War Two broke out. Was she already living in Paris in 1939, under German occupation? Even if she wasn't in Paris, she would still have suffered the effects of the war in London and Milan. It's strange that no mention of the war is made.
The film is an unusual quirky comedy. Maybe the book on which it's based makes sense. The film doesn't.
30 films to watch before you die, #25
That's a lucky coincidence. I didn't plan it this way. Today I watched the 25th film in my essential films list, "Spider-Man", made in 2002, and it has a Thanksgiving scene. This picture of Peter Parker with his Aunt May will warm the hearts of my American readers when they read my blog tomorrow before they sit down at the table to stuff themselves with turkey.
This is the best Marvel super-hero ever made. The reason is obvious. It remains close to the original stories told by Stan Lee, closer than any of the films before and after. To quote the words of the fantasy author George R. R. Martin:
"You can't go wrong if you stick with Stan Lee. That's always been my opinion on these Marvel movies. The best ones are the ones that are closest to what Stan Lee did. It's when they start to be creative, when they think they can be better than Stan Lee, mostly they can't".
Exactly. "Spider-Man" was directed by Sam Raimi, who obviously has a great love and respect for Stan Lee's comics. None of the other films have remained as close to Stan Lee's comics. The origin itself is almost exactly as it was in Amazing Fantasy #15. The only real difference is that the web shooters are organic, not mechanical. This is an improvement, in my opinion. The idea that a schoolboy can build a technical marvel like that is hard to believe. It's more logical to believe that the webs were the result of his mutation into a human spider.
In my reviews of films and television series I frequently point out examples of sloppy newspaper reports, with badly constructed text that the director assumes nobody will notice. Sam Raimi shows that it can be done right. There are several newspapers shown during the film, and the articles are all written faultlessly. Click on the picture above to read the article.
These words are the motto of Peter Parker's life as Spider-Man. They're so important that they're spoken in the film three times, once by Uncle Ben and twice by Peter himself.
The casting of the film is nothing short of miraculous. Nobody but Tobey Maguire could have been picked to play Peter Parker. The resemblance to the comic book character is uncanny. Just compare him with Andrew Garfield, who hardly looks like Peter Parker at all. Kirsten Dunst was an excellent choice to play Mary-Jane Watson, even though she wasn't a natural redhead. J. K. Simmons looks so much like Jonah Jameson that you might think the comics were drawn with him in mind.
Many other Marvel super-hero films have been made, but these are the best films I can recommend for future viewing:
Tuesday, 24 November 2015
30 films to watch before you die, #24
This film was made in 2001, and it was the first film directed by Richard Kelly. When it was released it went unnoticed, despite making a small profit at the box office. I remember walking past the UGC cinema when it was showing and seeing the poster. It was a blue-ish picture with a giant rabbit. I don't think I recognised it as a rabbit at the time, I thought it was a horned demon. This put me off going to see it. I thought it was a low budget horror film.
Within the next two years the film gained popularity when it was released on video and DVD. I was chatting online with two friends from Norway, and they both told me that "Donnie Darko" was the best film ever made. If someone tells me a film is his favourite film I'm curious, but whenever two people say the same thing I have to check it out as soon as possible. I bought the film on DVD, and it knocked me off my feet as soon as I watched it. I didn't understand it at first, I needed to watch it a few times, but the imagery and the atmosphere gripped me from the beginning. My list of my favourite films fluctuates from year to year -- I last listed my 10 favourite films in 2011 -- but "Donnie Darko" has never left the top five.
I've described the plot in previous reviews, but I'll repeat the basics here. On October 2nd 1988 Donnie is woken up by a person wearing a rabbit costume and led to a golf course. This saves Donnie's life, because in his absence an aircraft engine falls on his house. The person, who calls himself Frank, tells Donnie the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.The rest of the film shows Donnie working to save the world with guidance from Frank. Through a series of seemingly random actions carried out under Frank's instructions unstoppable events are set into motion, until Donnie learns how to create a time machine with the power of his mind. The world can't be saved without sacrifice. Frank has to die, Donnie's girlfriend Gretchen has to die, and finally Donnie himself has to sacrifice his life by going back into his house at the moment the aircraft engine fell on it.
In 2004 a Director's Cut of the film was released, containing 20 minutes of additional footage. By that time I'd watched the original version so often that I knew the events by heart, and the new changes disturbed me. It's been about 10 years since I last watched the Director's Cut. Maybe I should go back and give it another chance.
Riding the wave of the success of "Donnie Darko", Richard Kelly was given money to make new films with bigger budgets, "The Box" and "Southland Tales". "The Box" was moderately successful, but "Southland Tales" flopped abysmally, made with a $17 million budget but earning less than a million dollars at the box office. Since then he hasn't been allowed to direct any more films. He's a one-hit wonder. I can't recommend his other films, and no films have been made quite like this by other directors.
30 films to watch before you die, #23
One of the marks of a good film is that it always seems shorter than it is. "The Green Mile" runs for three hours, but when the final credits roll it seems like less than two hours have passed.
The film tells several interlocking stories in parallel. It's the story of Paul Edgecomb, a prison officer in 1935 who is living in a retirement home in 1999 at the age of 108. It's the story of John Coffey, a simple-minded prisoner on death row who has miraculous gifts. It's the story of a mouse called Mr. Jangles (or maybe Mr. Jingles, different characters in the film pronounce the name differently). It's also the stories of the prison guard Percy Wetmore and the prisoner Eduard Delacroix.
In a recent post I praised Quentin Tarantino for vividly developing the minor characters in his films. That isn't the case with the director Frank Darabont, but his style is just as good. The major characters (the ones named above) are well developed, but the supporting characters tend to fade into the background, depending on their relative importance. To take two examples, Paul's wife Bonnie appears in scenes as a loving wife, but we learn almost nothing about her except for her devotion to her husband. The prison officer Brutus Howell is in many scenes, but we learn nothing about him at all. Bonnie is in the dim light, figuratively speaking, while Brutus is totally hidden in the shadows. I can't fault this at all. By ignoring the development of the minor characters the main characters become all the more vivid.
Despite writing about this film a few times I've never described the plot. Do I have to? It's one of the films most often repeated on television. Some people might deliberately ignore it because it was written by Stephen King and they don't like horror movies. This isn't a horror film. Stephen King became famous for writing horror stories, but many of his later novels, including this one, are fantasy tales. If that's your reason for not watching it until now, please don't wait any longer.
Frank Darabont has only directed four feature films for the cinema. All four are brilliant, in different ways. Please check out the other three films: