Monday, 29 November 2010

Highlander: The films and TV series

In 1986 a film was made called "Highlander". At the time of its release it went widely unnoticed in America, but it had great success in Europe, especially Germany. After its release on video it started to win fans in America. Film critics also revisited the film and began to pour praise on it. Since then the original film has spawned four sequels, two television series, an animated series and dozens of novels based on the film and television characters. I’m going to make the effort to write a review of the whole Highlander franchise, as brief as possible so that it isn’t boring, but long enough to point out the strengths and weaknesses.

I’ll assume that the readers already know all the films and TV series, so I shan’t shy away from spoilers.

1. Highlander (1986)

The story is about an immortal called Connor MacLeod who was born in 1518 in Scotland and is still alive today in New York City. He can only die if his head is cut off. If his head is cut off by another immortal a supernatural effect called the "Quickening" happens, in which the power and the strength of the dead immortal flows into his killer. There is a rule among immortals that states "There can be only one". All immortals must fight and kill one another until only one is left, who will then receive something called the "Prize". Connor is trained by an immortal Spanish nobleman called Ramirez.

This film was intended as a standalone product. The makers had no intention for a sequel. For this reason we see Connor and Kurgan as the last two immortals battling to the death. Connor wins and receives the Prize in a divine flash of light. In the original version of the film it was stated that the Prize is being allowed to become mortal (is that really a prize?), being able to bear children (immortals are barren) and the gift of telepathy. In later editions of the film on video and DVD (director’s cuts) it isn’t expressly stated what the Prize is at the end of the film, it’s merely some sort of supernatural power.

"Highlander is certainly a classic film that will continue to be cherished and watched as the world of movie making continues to grow and change. It is a triumphant example of the art of cinema, and watching it reminds us all of why we like going to the movies in the first place" (Danel Griffin, film critic).

"The greatest action film ever made… awesome swordfights, an awesome score, and a time-bending plotline that only a philistine could dislike" (Christopher Null, film critic).

2. Highlander 2: The Quickening (1991)

Market forces demanded a sequel. The popularity of the first film meant that a sequel would be money in the bank. The problem, from a creative point of view, was that all the immortals were now dead except for Connor. There had to be a twist to bring them back to life.

"Highlander 2" explains that immortals originally came from the planet Zeist 500 years ago. The immortals are aliens who were exiled to Earth after rebelling against their government, where their essences were placed into human bodies. Luckily this means that dead immortals can be brought back to life, because their essences are still floating around after their death. Connor reverts from being an old mortal to a young immortal again. He battles the immortal Ironside, wins the Prize again, and returns to the planet Zeist to live happily ever after.

The film was, as expected, a huge box office success. However, its success was due to the popularity of the first film. Almost universally fans called the film awful. The makers reacted to this by releasing a new version of the film, completely re-edited, in which all references to the planet Zeist were removed. Although called a director’s cut, this was really a completely new film that merely used footage from the previous version. There was some pleasure among fans who considered that the whole "immortals are aliens" plotline was silly, but removing this just left the film inexplicable, with no real explanation why immortals could magically reappear after being killed.

"Highlander 2: The Quickening is the most hilariously incomprehensible movie I've seen in many a long day, a movie almost awesome in its badness. Wherever science fiction fans gather, in decades and generations to come, this film will be remembered in hushed tones as one of the immortal low points of the genre" (Roger Ebert, film critic).

3. Highlander 3: The Final Dimension (1994)

At this point everyone knew that "Highlander 2" was a catastrophe. So the easiest solution was just to assume that it never happened. A new film was made as a sequel to the first film that totally ignores the events of both versions of the second film. For instance, Connor’s wife Brenda dies in a car crash in this film, even though she died in an environmental disaster in "Highlander 2".

We find that an immortal called Kane has been trapped in a cave for 200 years. For this reason Connor received the Prize by accident when he killed Kurgan. When Kane finally escapes from the cave Connor is un-prized, he becomes an immortal again, and he has to fight Kane to win the Prize again. This film avoids the silliness of randomly reborn immortals, but the idea that the Prize was awarded in the first film by accident sat badly with Highlander fans.

"Highlander 3" was a box office flop. It seems that after the awful second film nobody wanted to give it a chance.

While there were still die-hard Highlander fans, an interesting phenomenon was developing in Highlander fan circles which can still be seen today. Since there were undisguised contradictions in the films, and even alternate versions of films, fans began to make their own personal definitions of the Highlander universe. Each Highlander fan decided for himself what had happened and denied the rest. This phenomenon was called "denialism". Many Highlander fans proudly called themselves denialists when they visited conventions, but really every fan had to be a denialist, since there was no way to reconcile the differences.

Some TV series have similar problems. The timelines in "Star Trek" have contradictions between the original series and the later series, since we repeatedly hear about space ships "a hundred years ago" (i.e. the 22nd Century) travelling to the edge of the galaxy. In "Doctor Who" the Doctor meets the Daleks for the first time in a 1963 episode, although as a Time Lord he should have already known them. Fans of these series just smile, put it down to mistakes and move on. In the case of Highlander the discrepancies are so great that they can’t be ignored. They have to be acknowledged and denied.

"Ultra-fans will rejoice in the face of the third instalment, and it's nowhere near as bad as Highlander 2, but most of you can give it a pass" (Christopher Null, film critic).

4. Highlander TV series (1992 – 1998)

The producers of this series knew they had a problem. They knew that the Highlander storyline was contradictory and fragmented. They decided to make an effort not to make it any worse. They found a way to hook the series into the films, and they took care to remain consistent within the series. The theory is that the original film happened, but there were still other immortals alive at the time, so the battle with Kurgan wasn’t the final battle and the Prize wasn’t given. The second and third films were ignored, or rather denied. This was something that Highlander fans could live with.

The TV series no longer features Connor MacLeod. The main character is Duncan MacLeod, who was born in 1592. Connor and Duncan are called cousins, but because of the time difference we can assume this is meant in a vague sense that would include second cousins, etc.

Critics vary widely in their opinions of the TV series. Fan reaction was almost universally positive, with the UK being a notable exception, where fans never warmed to the series. Germany is the country with the largest fan base, and the series is still being broadcast daily. The main problem with the series was that they had to struggle with a relatively low budget. While it couldn’t aspire to the professionalism of the films in terms of the special effects or cinematography, the stories themselves repeatedly reached artistic peaks. The series was a joint Canadian-French production, so it was demanded that half the episodes be filmed in Canada and the other half in France. This led to the regular pattern that each season would begin in Canada, and halfway through the season Duncan would relocate to his house boat in Paris.

Actually, each season really began in America. The episodes were filmed in Vancouver, but the producers carefully avoided showing well known landmarks and pretended that the setting was a north west American town, presumably Seattle. Later in the series this town was called Seacouver, presumably as a joke, but the name soon became popular among Highlander fans and became its official name.

The premise of the TV series is that immortals have existed since the beginning of time, and are still being born today. Certain people are born with the potential for immortality, but they only become immortal after experiencing a violent death. Some immortals, such as Duncan, are able to "sense" those who are able to become immortal, but most immortals can’t. Throughout the series immortality is shown to be a curse, because immortals have to watch their friends and loved ones die.

The main characters in the first season are Duncan Macleod, his mortal lover Tessa Noel, and a teenage boy called Richie Ryan. In the second half of the season an immortal called Darius is introduced, who used to be a Roman general but has since renounced violence and become a monk. Darius was originally intended to be a regular character in the series, but the actor who played him, Werner Stocker, died before the end of the first season, aged only 38.

In the last episode of the first season the Watchers are introduced, a secret organisation that has been observing the immortals and chronicling their battles for thousands of years. From the second season onwards the Watchers, in particular Joe Dawson, play an important part.

The main change in the second season is in the fourth episode, when Tessa and Richie are shot by a thief. Tessa dies, but Richie is reborn as an immortal. Duncan had already known that Richie possessed the spark of immortality, which is why he had looked after him. After he becomes immortal Duncan begins to train him to prepare him for battles against other immortals. Soon after this Duncan buys a martial arts dojo in Seacouver, which becomes the place he lives while in America, and the dojo’s trainer, Charlie DeSalvo, becomes a regular character.

During the second and third seasons we get to know two friends from Duncan’s past, Amanda Montrose and Hugh Fitzcairn. Both of them are a contrast to Duncan’s strict code of morality. Amanda is a thief, whose only aim in life is to become richer at the expense of others. Fitzcairn is a rogue who gets into problems through his womanizing and always seems to be broke. Fitzcairn’s death in the third season resulted in mass uproar among fans. The show’s producers later admitted that it had been a mistake to kill off such a popular character. Over the next three years they repeatedly brought him back in flashbacks and episodes set in the past.

Another character we meet is Methos, the oldest living immortal, who is living undercover in the headquarters of the Watchers, pretending to be a mortal. While not exactly unskilled as a fighter, he’s a pragmatist. He would rather avoid battling other immortals than risk being killed, so he uses the Watcher databases to find out where other immortals are living and stay out of their way. Methos’s charm is that despite being 4000 years old and very well educated he’s very down to Earth. If he can’t solve a problem he drinks a beer instead.

The fourth season sees a radical change in style. Whereas the first three seasons concentrated on action stories, the next two seasons frequently deal with moral dilemmas. The usual scenario is that Duncan finds himself morally compelled to kill his friends because they are doing the wrong thing. An example of this is the episode "The Valkyrie", my personal favorite episode of the entire series:

In 1944 Duncan and a fellow immortal, Ingrid Henning, fail in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Ingrid blames herself for the failure and spends the next 50 years trying to make amends by travelling round the world assassinating tyrants and dictators. Duncan meets her again when she’s planning to kill the leader of a racist group in Seacouver. Duncan tells her she has no right to appoint herself judge, jury and executioner, however evil the racist leader is. While Duncan is tortured by the burden of his choice Methos tries to lighten up the atmosphere with humour. In the end Duncan kills Ingrid to prevent her going ahead with her assassination. After this he feels depressed as he realises that by killing her he is just as guilty as she was. The final summing up:

Duncan: Ingrid asked me something before she died.
Methos: They usually do.
Duncan: She said, what was the difference between her killing them and me killing her?
Methos: Good question. Right up there with chicken and egg.
Duncan: So what are you saying? There is no answer?
Methos: No, there is an answer. But the real question is whether you’re ready for it.
(Duncan nods).
Methos: Stefanovich killed and Ingrid judged him. Wilkinson killed and Ingrid judged him. Ingrid killed and you judged her.
Duncan: So who judges me?
(There is a long pause).
Methos: Are you hungry?
(And they both walk away together).

The last episode of the fifth season was the most controversial of the whole series. Duncan beheads his friend Richie while believing him to be someone else. This brought out the denialists in full force. Even before the episode was aired it had been leaked to the Internet that Richie would die. At the time it was first broadcast I had friends that I regularly discussed Highlander with. New episodes were broadcast on Friday evening, and we sat discussing what had happened at lunchtime on Monday. After this episode I asked a colleague what she thought about Richie’s death, and she replied, "I didn’t watch the episode. I refuse to watch it. Richie is still alive". While this response might seem irrational, it’s typical among Highlander fans. If they don’t like something they deny it.

The sixth season was by far the weakest part of the TV series, for various reasons. First of all, the three-part battle between Duncan and Ahriman, which had begun in the last episode of the fifth season, was as outlandish and implausible as anything the film sequels had shown. Ahriman had supernatural powers including the ability to change his form, bring people back from the dead and change people’s bodies. (For instance, he gave Joe Dawson back the legs that he’d lost in the Vietnam War).

Second, Adrian Paul had announced that he wanted to quit his role as Duncan MacLeod to prevent himself being typecast. This was his last season, and he played smaller roles, not appearing at all in some episodes. I’m sure Adrian must be kicking himself now, because his subsequent acting career has been a complete failure.

Third, as a result of Duncan’s departure, a new Highlander TV series was planned with a female immortal, so episodes were used to "audition" female characters. This seems unnecessary, in retrospect, because eventually Amanda was chosen for the role. Nobody else was suitable.

Fourth, a very strange way was chosen to wrap up the series. The two-part series finale is a homage to "It’s a wonderful life". While Duncan is sitting brooding, as he has often done before, Fitzcairn appears to him and shows him what would have happened if he had never lived. While many critics praise the artistic qualities of the series finale, I find it silly.

5. Highlander: The Raven TV series (1998 – 1999)

In a way this could be considered Highlander season 7. The star of the series is the immortal Amanda Montrose, and she is supported by an ex-policeman, Nick Wolfe. While there is obviously an element of desire between them they never become lovers. In the final episode Nick is killed and becomes an immortal, as Amanda had known would happen all along. The series should have continued. It had a lot of promise.

6. Highlander 4: Endgame (2000)

This film continues from the television series. Duncan is surrounded by the same supporting characters as in the TV series. The main fault of the film is that a new immortal is introduced, Kate MacLeod, who we discover had been Duncan’s wife 200 years ago and is still the one he truly loves. This seems artificial, since she was never mentioned in the TV series. If Amanda had been presented as his true love the film would have been more natural.

In this film Connor MacLeod dies in a battle with Duncan. As expected, this stirred up the Highlander denialists, and soon Internet blogs worldwide were announcing that "Highlander 4" never happened.

The film was a flop at the box office. It didn’t even take in half of its budget. Film critics were unanimous in saying that the film was watchable, but nothing exceptional. Seen in the context of the TV series, it’s on a par with Duncan’s sixth season episodes, and it’s a better way of adding closure than the series finale. I enjoy "Highlander 4", despite its weaknesses.

"Highlander: Endgame possesses all of the elements of a straight-to-video action movie. Cheap special effects that look cool, weak characters that still pull heartstrings, and a bunch of actors no one really knows unless you have seen this or that obscure flick" (Travis Eddings, film critic).

7. Highlander 5: The Source (2006)

It’s difficult for me to write about this film without clenching my fists in rage. I thought the Highlander franchise had been pulled back together, but this film proved me wrong. It was intended for cinema release, but no distributors would touch it, and it eventually premiered on America’s Sci-Fi Channel. It’s arguable which is worse, "Highlander 5" or the original alien version of "Highlander 2".

In the near future mankind has plunged into chaos. Duncan MacLeod has lost the will to fight and lives as a derelict. Methos and Joe Dawson encourage him to save the world by taking part in a quest to find the source of immortality. After battling with cannibals, immortals and a supernatural monster called the Guardian Duncan succeeds and is given the Prize. How is this possible, since there are still a lot of immortals alive? We find out that the immortals had always misunderstood the rule "There can be only one". It never meant that only one immortal should survive. It meant that only one immortal may have a baby.

For my part, I deny this ever happened. I intend to meet with other denialists on holy ground, where we shall ritually burn our "Highlander 5" DVDs, and we shall be hypnotized to forget the film was ever made.

"It's bad. Cheesily bad, colossally bad, monumentally bad, bad enough to make you never want to watch another movie again bad" (Danel Griffin, film critic).

"The acting is uniformly terrible, the special effects are hideous, the sets are cheap and grubby, and the directing is uninspired. The film is an utter failure. Surely this is the final nail in the coffin lid for this film series. If it isn't, then something is truly wrong with the universe" (Keith Breese, film critic).

8. The future of Highlander?

It’s been announced that the original Highlander film will be remade. It will keep to the plot of the original, but it will be rewritten enough to make it a prequel of the TV series. I expect this means that the Prize won’t be given in the end. This is a daring venture. The first film is the only part of Highlander legacy that everyone agrees is a classic. There’s so much to live up to. There is such a large margin for failure. While I wish the producers luck, I fear that it will be another monumental disaster.

9. Note on the availability

All the Highlander films are still available in both NTSC and PAL formats, even the films that would be best forgotten. The Highlander TV series are now out of print in America, but you can still pick up copies from Amazon marketplace traders, if you hurry. If you wait too long the price will rise. The TV series were never released in the UK, but Region 2 PAL box sets have been published in Germany and are available from The German boxes include both English and German dialog and the same extras as the American box sets. The only disadvantage is that the episode titles are printed in German.

Dick (4 Stars)

The Watergate affair as told through the eyes of the two 15-year-old girls who used to walk President Nixon's dog. During their time in the White House they got to know all the top politicians and became the president's friends. After hearing a tape in which he shouted at his dog they decide to expose him and become instrumental in forcing him to resign.

I feel tempted to give half a star less because the sexiest scene in the film is ruined by being shown at the end with the credits rolling over it. If you've seen the film you know what I mean.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Better than Chocolate (3½ Stars)

Maggie (Karyn Dwyer) has dropped out of law school to work at a lesbian book store. So far her family doesn't know that she's a lesbian, but that all changes drastically when her mother and younger brother come to live with her. They arrive the day after Maggie meets her new lover Kim (Christina Cox).

The film would have been better if it had avoided all the lesbian clichés. More than anything it seems to be lesbians making fun of themselves. Or maybe that's the intention? But at least the film features the beautiful Karyn Dwyer. Christina Cox is attractive as well, but she looks better with long hair.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (5 Stars)

Please don't forget the apostrophe in the title after "Ladies". In the film Precious makes a big deal about it, and so should we.

This film is the pilot for the tv series with the same name, for which only six episodes have been made so far. It's based on the series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith about Precious Ramotswe, a young woman in Botswana, who decides to open her country's first woman-run detective agency for idealistic reasons. "I love my country Botswana, and I love Africa, and I want to do good with the time God has given me".

Unless you live in Africa the background to the stories will seem very foreign to you. Detective stories in an African village bear little resemblance to stories that take place in America or Europe. The first time I watched this film I was overwhelmed by the settings. It wasn't until the second viewing that I was able to appreciate the stories themselves. The film is growing on me. While not a comedy, the agency's secretary, Grace Makutsi, frequently makes dry comments that make me laugh aloud. "In history class we learned about a former time before computers, when typing was done on machines and the country was called Botswanaland and dinosaurs roamed the earth".

This is a heart-warming film. You will fall in love with the characters and cheer for Precious as she solves her cases. Rarely is a film so unique and so charming. After watching it you will want to see the tv series. In America the pilot film and the tv series have been released in a single box set. In the UK they have to be purchased separately.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Strangers on a Train (4 Stars)

A story of suspense as only Alfred Hitchcock could tell it. Two strangers meet on a train and discuss the possibility of each killing a person the other hates. One of them murders his designated victim without waiting for the other to agree. From a slow start the film steadily increases in pace until it reaches its dizzying climax.

Kaante (3½ Stars)

A difficult film to rate. Its main weakness is that it moves too slowly. It takes 45 minutes before anything begins to happen, and even after that it stops and starts. The film length of 160 minutes is unnecessary. It could have been improved by shortening it an hour. It seems rather absurd that in the strip club all the pole dancers are fully dressed.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Reservoir Dogs (5 Stars)

Is there anyone reading this blog who hasn't seen "Reservoir Dogs" yet? It's a film that should be compulsory viewing for everyone everywhere. It excels on so many different levels. It breaks all the conventions of film making, but it's still exciting from beginning to end. And yes, the actors are terrific. If you haven't seen "Reservoir Dogs" yet, stop reading now and come back after you've watched it. My review after the picture contains spoilers.

This was Quentin Tarantino's breakthrough film. In many ways it's still his best. It tells the story of a robbery that went wrong, a jewel heist, without ever showing the robbery itself. All we see is conversations leading up to the robbery, and then the aftermath. Almost all of the film takes place in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the empty warehouse.

It doesn't matter if you don't like gangster films. "Reservoir Dogs" isn't about gangsters, it's about people. We get to know the characters intimately. We see their strengths and their weaknesses as they crack under pressure. On a psychological level this is an astounding film.

The choice of actors is amazing. They all slot into place. I can't imagine any of them being exchanged for other actors without spoiling the action.

Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth take the centre stage as Mr. White and Mr. Orange. Both of them are world class actors. The development of a father-son relationship between them is moving, and you can feel the tears welling in your eyes when Mr. Orange confesses to Mr. White that he's betrayed him.

Michael Madsen's portrayal of the cold psycopath Mr. Blonde is chilling. When he meets Joe and interviews for the job he seems likeable, but in the warehouse we see his true nature. The bizarre mixture of dancing and torture is one of the film's images that will always be remembered.

Steve Buscemi is a contradictory character as Mr. Pink. He obviously has a lot of anger, and he's closer to cracking up than any of the others, but he's constantly pulling himself together, telling the others and himself that he's a professional.

Lawrence Tierney, who plays the boss, is really the most professional of the characters. For him it's all about business. He doesn't get involved in the joking of the rest of his crew. His son, played by Chris Penn, isn't quite as self-controlled. His shouting in the final scene is a major catalyst in the ensuing bloodbath.

This was a daring film. It could have failed. With lesser actors it would definitely have failed. It was a daring decision to leave the story's central event, the robbery, out of the film altogether. In many ways "Reservoir Dogs" is more like a theatre play than a film. Almost all the scenes could be shown on a small stage. The conversations between the gang members are more important than the action itself. While this was a relatively low budget film, costing barely more than one million dollars, the lack in funding is never apparent. This is a film that will always be remembered.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

TV Series: Blood Ties

I just watched the final episode of the second season of "Blood Ties". With a heavy heart. The episode ended on a cliffhanger, but after three years of waiting it looks doubtful there will ever be a third season. This is tragic, since it was one of the most intelligent, thoughtful tv series ever made. Despite the low budget the special effects are never silly or unrealistic. None of the actors were known to me before this series, but they all deliver solid performances.

To summarize the series: Vicki Nelson is an ex-policewoman who quits her job due to her failing eyesight. She starts a private detective agency, hoping to do easy jobs like proving husbands are being unfaithful, but a series of circumstances (which I consider to be spoilers and won't name here) lead to her specialising in supernatural cases. If there's a werewolf, ghost or demon walking the streets of Toronto, Vicki is hired to deal with it.

Vicki is aided by two men in her work. One is her ex-partner from the police force who still works as a cop. The other is a 500-year-old vampire who makes a living writing comic books. Both of them love her, and she's constantly torn between the two of them, unable to choose. This love triangle is a subplot that runs through the whole series, often as important as the supernatural threats themselves.

The series has just been released on Blu-ray, which is an indication that it still has a fan base. While "Blood Ties" follows a similar premise to "Angel", it's far superior. The storylines are darker and more menacing. This series was cancelled way too soon. Tragic.

Sorority Row (4 Stars)

A slasher film with pretty girls and glimpses of nudity that are too brief to be erotic. The story isn't original. If you've seen "I know what you did last summer" you already know the plot. But in films like this originality isn't as important as the rising body count. Turn the lights off, snuggle up with your partner on the couch, and watch the film. It will be a night to remember.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Flash Gordon (4 Stars)

Everybody thought "Barbarella" was the ultimate in camp cinema. But then Dino De Laurentiis outdid himself with "Flash Gordon". Here we see a football player saving the universe. Timothy Dalton dresses like Robin Hood and fires guns like James Bond. Ornella Muti is in a pillow fight. The scenes are colourful as a Chinese martial arts epic. This film has it all.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Paperboy (5 Stars)

Sometimes you have to ask yourselves what it takes to make a good film. Do you need a big budget, expensive locations and famous actors? This film has none of those. Filmed on a shoestring budget, "The Paperboy" is one of the best horror films ever made.

So what makes it so good? First of all, it's a well written story. Then the actors, unknown as they might be, turn in solid performances. Marc Marut is amazing in the title role. But most of all the film terrifies the viewer through its realism. It isn't a powerful killer or a supernatural monster. The killer is the innocent looking 12-year-old who lives next door. The placid scenes and the idyllic music add to the atmosphere. Everything seems normal in the small town, but what is lurking beneath the surface?

Unfortunately, this film has yet to be released on DVD in America or England. It hasn't even been released in Canada, where it was made. If you want to buy it you have to order it from Australia, if you're able to watch Region 4 PAL DVDs. Follow the link on the picture above.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Silver Bullet (4 Stars)

I like this film a lot. It's one of the Dino De Laurentiis films I've decided to watch in his memory, although I admit that I'd forgotten it was one of his films. Nobody remembers the producer, right? I remember this film most for the performance of Corey Haim, an excellent actor who died way too young. Why did he have to kill himself? Was the strain of being a star all his life too much for him? It wasn't even a spontaneous suicide, it had been planned. "Haim had used aliases to procure 553 prescription pills in the 32 days prior to his death, 'doctor-shopping' seven different doctors and using seven pharmacies to obtain the supply, which included 195 Valium, 149 Vicodin, 194 Soma and 15 Xanax." And he died broke, leaving not enough money to cover his funeral costs. What a waste!

This is a good film, though maybe not a horror film in the strict sense. Rather than concentrating on the werewolf itself, we're taken into the life of the crippled young boy played by Corey Haim and his determination to find the monster. Worth watching, and not just at Halloween.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Silence of the Lambs (4½ Stars)

It's been years since I last watched this. I'd forgotten it was so good. Anthony Hopkins is menacing throughout. And it's good to see the tragically underrated actor Charles Napier appear as a police sergeant. Jodie Foster's accent annoys me because she sounds like she's chewing gum throughout the film. Is that really how they speak in West Virginia?

Please Sir (4 Stars)

This is a film spin-off of the popular British comedy series "Please Sir", that originally ran from 1968 to 1972. While this is doubtless of the same quality as other britcoms of the 1970's, it's never become popular in America, where people usually rave about British comedy. Maybe it's because British schools are so different that Americans can't relate. Not sure.

However, I'm reviewing the film, not the tv series. The children of class 5C (ages 15-16) go on a school trip to a remote country village. While an entertaining story, I prefer to see the kids in their classrooms in London.

On another note, I admit that I had a crush on the actress Liz Gebhardt when I was in my young teens. Admittedly she wasn't as pretty as most of the girls in the class, but I found her naive innocence appealing. She was actually a lot older than me, because she was still playing a 15-year-old into her late twenties. I say "was" because she died of cancer in 1999. It's difficult to find a good photo of her. I'll make a screenshot when I review the series itself.

Liz Gebhardt
12 April 1945 – 10 August 1996

Friday, 19 November 2010

Red Dragon (4½ Stars)

A thrilling film from beginning to end. My only criticism is that having been filmed later it assumes that the viewer has already seen "Silence of the Lambs". This is another film that Dino De Laurentiis should be remembered for.

The Passion of Anna (3 Stars)

This is a difficult film to watch. It represents the peak of director Ingmar Bergman's alienation techniques. While ostensibly a drama about four characters living on the remote Swedish island Fårö, it's actually about the four actors who play the roles and the way they represent the characters. The film is interrupted by interviews with the actors about how they understand the characters they play, and we see a stark contrast. The actors are all friendly, likeable people. The characters they play are distant, unable to relate to one another, except through acts of violence. They are as remote as the island they live on.

The film ends with the main character pacing up and down, alone in the remote landscape, with Bergman saying in voiceover "This time he was called Andreas Winkelman". Implied is that in the next film he will play a different role.

What is Bergman trying to say? Most reviewers concentrate on the action in the film, such as the love affairs and the lynching of the man suspected of killing animals. I believe we should think about the metafilm instead. Bergman knows that very few of the film's viewers live in an environment like Fårö, an island with a population of only 500 people. Despite the openness of the scenery, the atmosphere is claustrophobic. Bergman is asking the viewers if they could live in such a place. Would the viewers also degenerate and become unable to reveal their emotions? Would they undergo the same metamorphosis as the actors, who are portrayed as both physically and psychologically crippled?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Vamps 2: Blood Sisters (4 Stars)

A sexy vampire thriller with an over-ambitious plot that fascinates, but could have been better. A strip club on Christmas Day, an ancient prophecy, a priest and a vampire messiah. If I had to point my finger at one weakness it would be that there are too many characters. The story would have been better with less vampire strippers, but obviously the director felt the need to show a bigger variety of naked flesh. Unnecessary. He could have given the delectable Glori-Anne Gilbert more time on screen.

The two disk set offered at Amazon includes "Vamps 1". Good value for money if you want to enjoy naked blood suckers.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Love Exposure (5 Stars)

A love story of epic proportions, this is one of the best films I've ever seen. The film runs for four hours, passing through phases of family drama, action and weirdness, but it's never boring. Genre defying, this is a film that everyone should watch.

A 17-year-old boy who is brought up in a strict Christian family learns kung fu techniques to aid him in taking upskirt photos of girls' panties. His life is turned around when he sees a lesbian schoolgirl beating up a gang of men. The only way he can be close to her is by pretending to be a woman, but matters are complicated when their parents marry and they become brother and sister. Adding to the confusion, his family is being stalked by the leader of a religious cult, who is also a cocaine dealer.

I can't begin to praise this film enough. It's hard to believe it hasn't yet been released in America after winning awards around the world. Just read a few of the reviews at IMDB to see what others have to say about it. "Love Exposure" is a stunning work of genius.

Barbarella (4½ Stars)

If Dino De Laurentiis has to be remembered for one film, let "Barbarella" be his legacy. As dated as it may seem today, especially the music, this is a beautiful film. I almost gave it 5 stars, but I had to deduct half a star for the gratuitous clothing. After the opening nude scene Barbarella's insistance on clothing later in the film seems illogical and unnecessary. Apart from the one fault, this is a classic film that will always be remembered.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Vamp (4 Stars)

This used to be one of my favourite films. When I watch it today it's difficult to understand why. It may be because I was fascinated by Grace Jones when I was younger.

In the 1980's Grace Jones's picture was everywhere. As a singer she had only moderate success, but she was the queen of scandal. Whether it was for standing at her window naked waving to photographers or for being arrested after having sex on an airplane, everyone knew her face. And her body. Her extremely dark skin and her taut muscles gave her an almost unhuman look.

In 1984 she had a small role opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Conan the Destroyer", but it wasn't till the following year when she was recognised as an actress, after starring as May Day in the James Bond film "A View to a Kill". "Vamp" was touted as the film which would make her famous as an actress.

But it didn't work. "Vamp" was the peak of her acting career. After this she faded into insignificance as an actress, although the scandals continued. She said in interviews that she had given up acting to further her singing career, but the truth was that nobody wanted her. So what went wrong?

I don't think it was Grace's fault. The inexperienced director Richard Wenk was to blame. He didn't make enough of Grace's obvious talents, namely her beauty and her deep sexy voice. The vampires in the film are ugly, and Grace was the ugliest of them all. The first time we see her she has a red wig and her skin is covered with powder to make her white. In the next scene she's her black self, but as soon as her fangs sprout her face turns into a vision of ugliness. From then on she becomes progressively uglier throughout the film, until in the final scene she looks so nasty that she's unrecognisable. And why oh why is Grace mute in the film? The only small treat we have of her voice is a dark sexy laugh.

I've given this film 4 stars anyway. Not because of Grace Jones. Her performance is forgettable. It has appeal as a teen comedy. I enjoyed watching the pledges running round looking for a stripper for a frat party. The strip club manager who dreams of opening a vampire club in Las Vegas amused me. As a vampire film "Vamp" is entertaining. As a promotional vehicle for Grace Jones it flops.

On the town (4½ Stars)

This is one of the best musicals I've ever seen. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin shine as three lovable sailors on 24 hour shore leave in New York. (I've never heard of Jules, was he famous?) And what do you do when you only have one day in a strange town? You go pick up girls! After 60 years the songs, the dances and the humour are just as fresh and enjoyable as they were in 1949. Some films don't age.

Man from Uncle: The Spy With My Face (4½ Stars)

An extended film version of one of the early Man from UNCLE episodes. The series was always good action. It's a long time since I've seen it repeated on television, but I have it in fond remembrance.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Kung Fu Zombie (4 Stars)

Kung fu kicking zombies, ghosts and vampires... a drunken wizard... grave robbers... family feuds... and a Buddhist monk saves the day! This film has it all! Considering this is a comedy, there are some incredible fight sequences.

Friday, 12 November 2010

R.I.P. Dino De Laurentiis

A truly great man passed away on November 10th 2010. For more than 60 years Dino De Laurentiis produced some of the most memorable films in cinema history. Far from being a "snob" who preferred one style of film over another, his output contains both blockbusters like "Hannibal" and low budget classics like "Army of Darkness" (which was the first DVD I ever bought). Producers rarely get the same recognition as directors. Putting it simplistically, the director is the artist with his head in the clouds while the producer deals with the practical realities of film making and has both feet on the ground.

Let me name a few of his films. Films that mean something to me. Approximately in their order of importance. Please, feel free to comment and add your own personal favorites.

1. Army of Darkness (1992)
2. Barbarella (1968)
3. Silver Bullet (1985)
4. Hannibal (2001)
5. Red Dragon (2002)
6. Flash Gordon (1980)
7. The Last Legion (2007)
8. The Serpent's Egg (1977)

At first I wanted to list more films, but then I decided only to list the ones that I have in my DVD collection. Maybe I'll rewatch some of them soon.

Frenzy (4 Stars)

One of Alfred Hitchcock's last films, and also one of those most loved by his fans. A serial killer is stalking women in London, and the police are chasing the wrong man. Unlike most of Hitchcock's films, we know from early on who the killer is. We sit in frustration as the police detective rattles off the compelling evidence pointing to the wrong man, and only the detective's wife says it can't have been him.

This film has special meaning for me, because I've long admired Jon Finch as an actor and have never understood why he's widely unknown, having to make do with minor roles in obscure films.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Phone Booth (5 Stars)

Have you ever watched a film that you think is so incredible that you have to tell others about it? Then you explain it to them... and they say it sounds boring? This is a film like that. What happens? A man is making a phone call that lasts for the whole film. I won't even try to explain why it's so good. Just give it a chance. It'll be 72 minutes of your life that you won't regret.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1½ Stars)

A vain fashion designer sits complaining about the men in her life, while oblivious to the feelings of those around her, in particular her servant Marlene. The film says things in two hours that could have been expressed in ten minutes.

General: Unreleased TV Series

There are probably a lot of tv series that haven't found their way onto DVD yet. I'll come back and comment on all of the following series when I have time.

1. Batman (1966-1968)
One of the best tv series ever! It's a crime that this still hasn't been released, despite regular broadcasts on TV throughout the world.

2. My Hero (2000-2006)
This incredible series starring Ardal O'Hanlan as the superhero Thermoman has me in stitches whenever I watch the TV repeats. For some reason only the third season has even been released on DVD. Weird.

3. Night Man (1997-1999)
An underrated series about one of the lesser known Marvel super heroes. It's easy to pick faults with some of the series' premisses, but the stories were first class!

4. 99-1 (1994-1995)
An unusual police series about an undercover cop. I believe this used to be available on videotapes.

5. Rocket Man (2006)
Difficult to describe. A series about a man who works at a Welsh chocolate factory who spends his spare time trying to build a space rocket.

6. Unhappily ever after (1995-1999)
I already wrote a review of this series here.

General: Unreleased Films

Are there any films that haven't been released yet on DVD that you're desperately waiting for? I can think of a few, including some that haven't been released in England or America, but have been released in other countries.

1. Three into two won't go (1969, Rod Steiger)
This British family drama is occasionally shown on UK television.

2. Date with a lonely girl (1971, James Caan)
A powerful psychological drama. It's been a long time since I last saw it on TV.

3. The Last Woman (1976, Gerard Depardieu & Ornella Muti)
Critics say this was Gerard's best film, so where is it?

4. The Paperboy (1994)
A brilliant low budget Canadian horror film. Only released in Greece and Australia.

5. Heart of Darkness (1993, Tim Roth & John Malkovich)
A faithful adaptation of the novel. Only released in Italy.

6. The Legend of 1900 (1998, Tim Roth)
A brilliant weepy film. The uncut 165 minute version is only released in Italy.

7. The Ogre (1996, John Malkovich)
An unusual war story about a French POW. Only released in Germany.

8. The Idol (2002, Leelee Sobieski)
A passionate drama. Only released in France and China.

9. Dangerous Liaisons (2003, Leelee Sobieski)
This novel has been filmed 10 times, including "Cruel Intentions" in 1999. This version has only been released in France.

Shame I can't make it a round 10, but that's all I can think of right now. I hope my readers can name other films.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Carry On Dick (4½ Stars)

This is the 26th film in the Carry On series. The film is about the adventures of Dick Turpin, known to his enemies as Big Dick. Dick is played by the wonderful South African actor, Sid James, whose birth name was Solomon Cohen. This was the last Carry On film he made before his death. If I had to name the actor in the Carry On team that I admire most it would be Sid James. Rest in peace.

Carry On Abroad (4 Stars)

This is the 24th film in the Carry On series. Friends and strangers from the same town go on a package holiday to a Spanish hotel that is still being built.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Wicker Man [2006 version] (4 Stars)

I've been curious about this film for a long time. I've read so many bad reviews about it. People don't say it's "so bad that it's good", just bad. It's held up as an example of a remake that is far behind the original in quality. However, I have the (dis)advantage that I've never seen the original, so I could watch it without bias. And guess what? I enjoyed it.

The opening scenes immediately drew me in with their atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. Nicolas Cage is convincing as a policeman with an agenda. He also seems to have too high an opinion of himself. He's a traffic cop who thinks of himself as a detective. On the island he tries to bluff his way through, claiming that he's on official police business, although he's only doing an ex-girlfriend a favour while he's off work sick.

It's not perfect as a film. The accident at the beginning points to a supernatural element that isn't present in the later development of the film. I don't mind a director throwing in "red herrings", but the accident doesn't make sense in the context of the film. I also fail to see why the pilot was murdered after he had obviously done what was expected of him.

I intend to go back and watch the original version. Maybe it's better. I'll let you know. But I do think that the remake is worth watching in its own right, and it's unfair to put it in the runnings for the worst film of all time.

Carry On Matron (4 Stars)

This is the 23rd film in the Carry On series. A gang of criminals plan to rob a maternity hospital. An excuse for riotous laughs.

The World's Fastest Indian (5 Stars)

If ever a film deserved more than 5 stars, this is it. Anthony Hopkins calls this the best film he's starred in, and it's doubtless one of the best films ever made.

This is the true story of the New Zealander motorcyclist Burt Munro and his first trip to the United States in 1962 to attempt to set a new land speed record. His determination to succeed when everything is against him is an inspiration to everyone. He is a hero in the truest meaning of the word. But the film isn't just made great by Anthony Hopkins' performance. The supporting characters all dazzle with their depths of personality and often their weirdness. They are like vibrant splashes of colour in an oil painting, emphasising the central motif, Burt and his bike.

Whatever your tastes are in films, you will enjoy "The World's Fastest Indian". It will make you want to laugh and cry at the same time. But most of all, when the final credits roll you will close your eyes and feel glad to be alive. This is a film that can inspire hope. If you think I'm exaggerating with my praise, check the reviews on Amazon's web site (click the picture above) and you will find words from more than 300 people who agree with me.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Carry On At Your Convenience (4½ Stars)

This is the 22nd film in the Carry On series. It deals with the relations between staff and management at a factory that makes bathroom equipment, the W. C. Boggs Lavatory Factory.

There were 29 Carry On films made between 1958 and 1978, and they're considered a major part of British film history. The humour is typically "sixties" in its nature. Britain was just breaking free of its prudishness of the past, and "naughty jokes" were becoming common. The films are well known to everyone in Britain through their constant showing on television, but they're hardly known abroad. The full list, in order, is:

1. Carry On Sergeant (1958)
2. Carry On Nurse (1959)
3. Carry On Teacher (1959)
4. Carry On Constable (1959)
5. Carry On Regardless (1961)
6. Carry On Cruising (1962)
7. Carry On Cabby (1963)
8. Carry On Jack (1963)
9. Carry On Spying (1964)
10. Carry On Cleo (1964)
11. Carry On Cowboy (1965)
12. Carry On Screaming! (1966)
13. Carry On Don't lose your Head (1966)
14. Carry On Follow that Camel (1967)
15. Carry On Doctor (1967)
16. Carry On Up the Khyber (1968)
17. Carry On Camping (1969)
18. Carry On Again Doctor (1969)
19. Carry On Up the Jungle (1970)
20. Carry On Loving (1970)
21. Carry On Henry (1971)
22. Carry On At your Convenience (1971)
23. Carry On Matron (1972)
24. Carry On Abroad (1972)
25. Carry On Girls (1973)
26. Carry On Dick (1974)
27. Carry On Behind (1975)
28. Carry On England (1976)
29. Carry On Emmannuelle (1978)

The Carry On films starred different actors in each film, but there was a hard core of actors, the "Carry On Team", who played the major roles in the films. If you ask anyone in England who the main actors were they would probably answer Sid James and Barbara Windsor, even though Barbara only played in 9 of the films. Her fame comes from being the only actress in the films to be shown fully nude, but the secenes are so brief that you have to watch them in slow motion to see anything. The main actors were:

1. Kenneth Williams (25 films) 1-6, 8-18, 20-24, 26, 27, 29
2. Joan Sims (24 films) 2-5, 10-29
3. Charles Hawtrey (23 films) 1-5, 7-24
4. Sid James (19 films) 4-7, 10, 11, 13, 15-26
5. Kenneth Connor (17 films) 1-7, 10, 19, 21, 23-29
6. Peter Butterworth (16 films) 11-18, 20, 21, 24-29
7. Hattie Jacques (14 films) 1-5, 7, 15, 17, 18, 20, 22-24, 26
8. Bernard Bresslaw (13 films) 11, 12, 15-17, 19, 20, 22-27
9. Jim Dale (10 films) 7-15, 18
10. Barbara Windsor (9 films) 9, 15, 17, 18, 21, 23-26
11. Patsy Rowlands (9 films) 18, 20-27

The most successful film at the box office was "Carry on Camping". Critics usually vote that "Carry on Cowboy" is the best film. My personal favorites are "Carry on Spying" and "Carry on Screaming".

Incidentally, the same set is used for the underground lair in "Carry on Spying" (1964) that was used as the Dalek city in "Doctor Who and the Daleks" (1965). The decorations are different, but if you watch the two films back to back you can see that the rooms are the same.

Kick-Ass (4½ Stars)

I love this film. It's a lot better than I expected after reading the reviews. I'll probably write more about it after watching it again. For now, I'll just give it my recommendation.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Carry On Loving (4½ Stars)

This film is the 20th in the Carry On series. While Carry On films are usually associated with the 1960's, this film has a very strong seventies feeling to it. The film is about a dating agency, but who really cares? Carry On films are hilarious whatever they're about.

This was the only "Carry On" film that starred Imogen Hassall, a terribly underrated B movie actress who died at the young age of 38. She's the highlight of this film.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Beware of a Holy Whore (3 Stars)

I have no idea what the title of the film has to do with the story. A film crew and cast are staying in a Spanish hotel, waiting to begin making the film "Patria o Muerte". The filming is delayed by the late arrival of the director, missing film material and in particular problems with the financing. During this time they get drunk, make love and get into fights.

The director struts about as an arrogant, drunken, woman-hater. I wonder to what extent Fassbinder was creating a caricature of himself.

Satan's Brew (1 Star)

The humour in this film is unbearable, on the level of random stupidity. The character has an uncanny similarity, in appearance and acting, to Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean. In fact, the similarity is so great that I suspect this film was the inspiration for the tv show.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Effi Briest (3 Stars)

It will probably surprise people unaquainted with German films that the story of Effi Briest has been filmed five times, in 1939, 1955, 1970, 1974 and 2009. Talk about remake madness! The film I watched today was the 1974 version, directed by the controversial German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The full title of this film is "Fontane Effi Briest oder Viele, die eine Ahnung haben von ihren Möglichkeiten und ihren Bedürfnissen und dennoch das herrschende System in ihrem Kopf akzeptieren durch ihre Taten und es somit festigen und durchaus bestätigen". This is a difficult title to understand, even for Germans, and it seems like Fassbinder, the enfant terrible of post-war German cinema, was attempting to confuse his viewers. It translates roughly as "Fontane's Effi Briest, or Many who have a feeling for their own capabilities and needs nevertheless accept the system around them in their heads and their deeds, thus strengthening and confirming the system". Not quite logical, but as I said, Fassbinder was playing mind games with his viewers.

The story tells of a 17-year-old girl who marries a baron 20 years older than herself. While he is away at war she has an affair with one of her husband's friends. The consequences of the affair aren't seen until six years later.

Fassbinder detaches the performances from all emotions. Instead of the passion we would expect, Effi seems to be floating through all the happenings without feelings, like she's a ghost looking back upon her life. The baron seeks revenge without feelings, not because he feels hurt but because it's the right thing to do. Effi's parents show no affection towards her, only doing their duty as parents. This creates a coldness throughout the film, alienating the viewers, making it impossible to feel sympathy for any of the characters. Obviously Fassbinder is more interested in telling a story of morals to educate rather than to entertain the viewers.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Love is colder than death (3½ Stars)

An interesting story. Two gangsters meet, make friends, share their lover and rob a bank together.