Sunday, 29 April 2012

Captain America (3 Stars)

Over the last 10 years there have been some great films based on Marvel characters. The X-Men films, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Thor, Iron Man, the second Hulk film. Then there were the flops. The first Hulk film was the worst, closely followed by Elektra and the Fantastic Four films (though the second film does have some promise). "Captain America" falls into the second group. It's all over the place. It's a mess. I don't know what's worse, the poor screenplay or the dull directing by Joe Johnston.

Normally I accept changes to characters and their origins for the cinema. Films can't be exactly the same as the comics, can they? But this time they took it too far. Look at the poster above. What's wrong? Captain America is carrying a gun. No no no no no! That's just wrong.

Now let's carry on. "The first Avenger"? Hmmm, not in the comics he wasn't. He was the sixth. When the Avengers were first formed the members were Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, the Wasp and the Hulk. Captain America joined the Avengers in issue 4 of their comic.

Captain America's body was discovered by the Marvel hero (sometimes villain) the Submariner in 1964, not by a research team in 2011.

Bucky Barnes was a boy, not an adult.

Hydra is a secret organisation that has existed for over 4000 years, first formed in Egypt. During the Second World War they allied themselves with Germany, but the Red Skull was never their leader.

Steve Rogers became Captain America in 1940, not 1942. This small time difference is important, because it means that Steve Rogers became Captain America before America entered the war against Germany!

This is the first issue of "Captain America Comics", published in December 1940 (despite the March date on the cover), written by Joe Simon. Stan Lee's first ever story was published in Captain America #3. This was a controversial comic at the time. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor the American public was divided on the issue of the "war in Europe", as they called it. The large German immigrant community stood solidly behind Hitler and demanded that America enter the war to protect Germany against the English aggression. At this time the German mistreatment of the Jews was still unknown, which led to many other Americans supporting Germany, whatever their ethnic background. With this comic Joe Simon was taking a political stand. It wasn't until a year later, in December 1941, that American public opinion was unified against Germany.

In the film the Red Skull doesn't fully appreciate the power of the cosmic cube. This is correct; in the comics he underestimated its power as well. Thanos was the first to comprehend it when he used its power to make himself a God in Captain Marvel #31 (March 1974).

Click here to view the trailer. But no, I don't recommend it. It's only a film for Marvel completists who want to prepare themselves for the release of the Avengers film.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Daredevil (5 Stars)

There are some films that I keep coming back to. This is one of them. Although it was one of the most successful box office films of 2003, it seems to have faded into obscurity fast. I'm surprised how many people I talk to who haven't seen it. It doesn't seem to have become a favourite for television repeats, which is the main factor in a film remaining popular over the long term.

It was made a year after "Spider-Man" and in many ways stands in its shadows. This is a case of history repeating itself. When Marvel Comics published the first issue of "Daredevil" in 1964 the cover openly compared the new hero with Spider-Man. Despite Daredevil being an adult, presumably 30-ish, his character and mannerisms in the early comics were very similar to those of Spider-Man, a hero half his age. They were both fighters who constantly used wisecracks and jokes during their fights. Daredevil was a very jovial character in the early days when his stories were written by Stan Lee. Artist Gene Colan played a large part in writing the stories, as was typical in the early days of Marvel. In my opinion Gene Colan's artwork was the best in Marvel comics in the mid 60's.

The man behind Daredevil's mask is the blind lawyer Matt Murdock. He was blinded at the age of 12 when a barrel of radioactive waste broke open and sprayed on his eyes. This removed his eyesight, but it also sharpened his remaining four senses to superhuman levels. His hearing is so acute that he can use sounds as a radar. He has no supernatural body strength or speed, but extensive martial arts training combined with his heightened senses give him remarkable agility.

In the 1960's and 1970's Daredevil was a light-hearted Spider-Man clone. This changed in 1980 when Frank Miller took over as the comic's writer. He turned Daredevil into a darker brooding character, in many ways like Batman. This is the basis for the film. The film also adds a gothic element not present in the comics.

The film shows how Daredevil gained his powers, then fast forwards to 20 years later when he has already become a hero. Although maybe "hero" is the wrong word. He is more of an avenging demon. If anyone is lucky enough to be found innocent in court after committing a crime, Matt Murdock puts on his Daredevil costume to become the criminal's executioner. Matt meets and falls in love with Elektra Nachios, daughter of a billionaire working for New York's crime boss, the Kingpin. She's also a trained fighter in her own right. When her father tries to leave the Kingpin's employment he's murdered by a hired killer called Bullseye. Elektra blames Daredevil for his death, not realising that it's Matt Murdock. This sets the scene for multiple high action battles.

The casting is perfect. After seeing the film I can't think of anyone more suitable than Ben Affleck to play Daredevil. Jennifer Garner, though not one of my favourite actresses, slots well into the role of Elektra. Jon Favreau is just the right person to play Franklin "Foggy" Nelson. Michael Clarke Duncan is surprisingly good as the Kingpin, despite having the wrong skin colour. And Colin Farrell is more Bullseye than Bullseye. I consider this film to be the peak of his acting career.

The director's cut is superior to the theatrical version, even though it slows down the second quarter of the film. In particular, it shows how reporter Ben Urich first gets to meet Matt Murdock. In many cases "director's cuts" are just ripoffs to get fans buy more than one copy of a film; they're bloated by stuffing in deleted scenes that the director had originally had good reasons to cut out. Not in this case. The director's cut is just perfect.

Click here to view the trailer.

Shaolin Temple 2: Kids from Shaolin (4 Stars)

This was Jet Li's second film, made when he was 20. It's packaged as the second film in the Shaolin Temple trilogy, but it has nothing to do with the first film, neither in continuity nor in style. Jet Li plays a different character in this film, and unlike the first film this is a comedy. It could even be considered a children's film, since most of the actors are aged between 8 and 12.

A man who was previously a Shaolin monk rescues 8 boys from a village plundered by bandits and brings them up as his own sons, teaching them Shaolin kung fu. On the opposite side of the river there is a rich family with 9 daughters. The father is a master of Wutang sword fighting, which he teaches to his oldest daughter, but he longs for a male heir to carry on the family tradition. There are romantic attractions between members of the two families, but the Wutang father demands a price of 10 cows for each of his daughters, while the poor Shaolin family only owns three and a half cows. Yes, I told you it was a comedy.

There are long action scenes with great martial arts action, especially at the end, but most of the film plays for laughs. I couldn't stop laughing while watching the young children fight one another. This film may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed it.

The Edge (4 Stars)

Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) is a reclusive billionaire. His wife Mickey (Elle Macpherson) is a successful model. When Mickey goes on a photoshoot to Akaska with her photographer Robert Green (Alec Baldwin) her husband decides to accompany her. He has no prior experience of visiting wild places outside of cililisation, he knows about it only from books and wants to see things for himself.

While taking a plane journey to find an Indian that Green wants to use in the photos the plane crashes, leaving Morse and Green as the only survivors. The film shows their struggle for survival while being stalked by a bear. Things are complicated when Morse finds out that Green has been having an affair with his wife.

This is a difficult film for me to rate. In many ways it's a cinematic masterpiece, but it has some aspects that make it flawed.

Let's start with what I like. The scenery is breathtaking. Visually, it's one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. This stands in stark contrast to the horror of being followed by a bear which is leering nearby every time they set up camp. If I were judging the film on this alone it would deserve a straight 5 stars.

Now to the negatives: I feel the film misses out by not revealing the affair with Morse's wife much earlier in the film. Morse knows that Green "has been looking at her", but if he'd found proof towards the beginning of their fight for survival it would have given their mutual journey more of an edge. The haphazard style of the photo shoot also seems unrealistic. Green and Mickey just tag along with a group of tourists on holiday with hardly any supporting staff. I can't imagine that a high profile model would work so unprofessionally. And then there's Morse's personality, which may be judged positively by many viewers, but it irritated me. Morse is shy, he mumbles, and he has a way of talking to people without looking them in the eye. It's like he's shunning contact with people.

I'll give this film an overall rating of 4 stars, although I know that many would rate it higher. Click here to view the trailer.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (4 Stars)

The text at the beginning of the film states, in capital letters: The film you are about to see is not a sequel to "Valley of the Dolls". The reason for this bold statement is that when the film was first released viewers expected it to be a sequel. In fact, it should have been a sequel. Jacqueline Susann, author of the novel on which "Valley of the Dolls" was based, had been commissioned to write a sequel, but was now caught up in a legal case with the film studios. For this reason Russ Meyer stepped in as the director of a film with the same name as Susann's planned sequel, but the film that he had co-written with Roger Ebert had a completely different style. The only similarity was that it was also set in the Hollywood world of decadence, although even the "dolls" only play a minor role in this film. Rather than drugs it's all about the decadent world of sex and daily parties.

Kelly, Casey and Pet are the members of the Kelly Affair, an all-girl rock band. They travel to Los Angeles to meet Kelly's Aunt Susan, who has just inherited a large fortune. While there they're invited to a party at the house of a record producer called Z-Man, who Ebert claims is based on Phil Spector. Z-Man takes over the management of the band and changes their name to the Carrie Nations, after which they have a string of hit records. The film ends with a massacre when Z-Man claims to be Superwoman and kills everyone at one of his parties. On the way there are so many subplots that it's difficult to keep up. Love triangles, suicides, heavyweight boxers, Nazis, the film has it all!

But does the plot really matter? No. The colours and the psychedelic feeling of the film are all that matters. The film was made in 1970, but though the film occurrences aren't given a date it's obviously set in the mid to late 60's. Roger Ebert calls the film "a satire of Hollywood conventions, genres, situations, dialogue, characters and success formulas, heavily overlaid with such shocking violence that some critics didn't know whether the movie 'knew' it was a comedy."

The film was a box office flop when first released, but has since attained cult status. Russ Meyer's attitude towards the film changed over the years. Speaking shortly after the film had become a box office flop he said that it was his worst film ever, and it had flopped because there weren't enough naked breasts in the film. Towards the end of his life he said it was his best film. I don't understand why he made the latter remark; he made much better films. "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" is Meyer's most popular film, but I'm certain it's because it's the only one of his films ever shown on American television. If confronted with all of his films I'm sure that film fans would agree with me.

General: Proof Reading

As I've mentioned several times, I'm very pedantic about my spelling. I don't use the spell checker when writing posts because despite selecting "English (UK)" it only accepts American English spellings. I check the spelling myself, by eye. Today I found a spelling mistake in an old post from 2010 and I felt so ashamed that I decided to write this post. If any of my readers notice spelling mistakes please tell me. I won't be offended, I'll be glad. Just remember that I'm using British English spelling, so for me "travelling", "learnt" and "colour" are correct. I'm also open to criticism of my grammar or my writing style in general. Thanks.

Callan (4½ Stars)

This film, made in 1974, is a gem that is probably unknown to American viewers, and it's no longer well known in England. "Callan" was an English television series that ran from 1967 to 1972. The film I'm reviewing here is a remake of the 1967 pilot episode as an extended version.

Callan was the original unglamorous secret agent, an anti-hero who was the complete opposite of James Bond. No other television series like this has been made since, although "La Femme Nikita" was heavily influenced by it. David Callan, played by Edward Woodward, was an armed robber. He agreed to work for an organisation known only as "Section" in exchange for his criminal record being wiped clean. Section is a secret organisation that does jobs for the greater good that can't be carried out legally. For instance, as in this film, if Section knows that someone is working as an arms dealer supplying terrorists they don't gather evidence to bring him to trial, they just send an agent to kill him.

And that's Callan's job. He's a killer. Although he's acknowledged as Section's best operative, he causes problems by having a conscience. He isn't happy just turning up for work and doing his job. He wants to know if the victim really deserves to die. For this reason Callan is constantly under surveillance by Section, and he's frequently reminded that he's expendable; he can be eliminated at any time by his fellow agents if they consider him to be a liability.

Callan, as I said above, is the opposite of James Bond in every conceivable way. Instead of riches he lives in a squalid single room apartment in London. He doesn't own a car. His pay is "less than £10,000 a year", and he only remains with Section because he knows that if he tries to leave he'll be killed. Callan never gets together with women, neither for romance nor casual sex. Callan frequently breaks down and cries when an innocent bystander gets killed during a mission.

The television series ran for 44 episodes, 22 in b/w and 22 in colour. Of the b/w episodes only 12 still exist. Incidentally, in the final season of "La Femme Nikita" the influence of "Callan" is acknowledged. Edward Woodward enters the series playing the part of Nikita's father.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Go West (4½ Stars)

Whoever said that made-for-television films are inferior to real films needs to watch this masterpiece. Three hours long, and not boring for one second. Excitement from beginning to end. While the film certainly isn't intended to be a documentary it's very authentic, showing us a case that could have happened. It's a must-watch film for older Germans who are suffering from "Ostalgie" (nostalgia for the good old times in Communist Germany).

The year is 1984. Frank, Alex and Thomas are three friends in Brandenburg who have just finished school. Frank is planning a career as an actor. Thomas has been conscripted for military service. Alex has recently been judged unfit for military service due to diabetes and isn't yet sure what work he will do.

Military service usually lasts 18 months in East Germany, but when Thomas is told he will have to serve for three years he decides to flee to West Germany together with Alex. Initially Frank only intends to drive them to the border and return home, but after a confrontation with border soldiers on the way he decides to go with them. The initial plans to cross into West Berlin fail after they're discovered, and a long journey begins through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Every step of the way they're pursued by East German agents, and they have to deal with underground fighters who are just as ruthless as the authorities. To make things more complicated, Frank's father is a member of the secret police and is one of the agents pursuing the three boys.

This film is universally praised by critics in Germany for its authenticity and cinematic quality. It's a tragedy that it's never been released outside of Germany, and the German DVD edition doesn't have any subtitles at all, not even German. "Go West" is a film that ought to be made available to a wider audience.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Ip Man 2 [Guest Writer] (5 Stars)

Ip Man 2 is a 2010  Chinese/Hong Kong biographical martial arts film loosely based on the life of Ip Man, a grandmaster of the martial art Wing Chun, and a sequel to the 2008 film Ip Man. This film is directed by Wilson Yip and stars Donnie Yen, who also starred in the first film as well. Continuing after the events of Ip Man, the sequel centers on Ip's movements in Hong Kong, which is under British colonial rule in 1950. With his wife expecting their second child, Ip opens a martial arts school to teach Wing Chun. Things start slowly and even when he has students, Ip doesn't always collect tuition. Ip also runs afoul of the local guild of martial arts masters, who demand that he defeat each of them before they will let his school continue; the elder of the group, Master Hong Zhen Nan, also demands a sizable payment but Ip is defiant and refuses. Things begin to go terribly wrong when the British whose boxing champion, Twister, insults Chinese martial arts at a public demonstration and Master Hong steps forward to defend Chinese honor but is defeated and dies as result of his injuries of the fight. During a press conference where Twister denounces "Chinese boxing" and ridicules Master Hong for being too weak as the cause of his death, Ip Man steps forward to avenge Master Hong's name and the honor of Chinese martial arts with a challenge to a duel. Will he be able to conquer?

Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen do it again with this second masterpiece of work about Ip Man. I was quite honestly dubious of whether it would be able to compete with my first reaction to the first film because sequels seem to be a constant disappointment to me but I was pleasantly surprised. In this film I would even dare say that my reaction was even more intense as it had me crying in the first few minutes of the film as it tried to catch us up with the events between the first film and the second - some of it tragic and some triumphant. Again, I was on the edge of my seat and riveted from the first moment. I was expecting Bruce Lee's character to make an appearance at first but as the story continued on I realized the timeline was all wrong and was mildly disappointed but not enough to stop watching. I think one thing I liked, besides the stunts and action sequences was the consistency between the actors/actresses from the first film in the second. Often times, unfortunately, I see the same characters played by different actors from the first film and it's a constant annoyance and frustration for me. I quite honestly hate that about some movies and it can even be the downfall for some at times.

As I was reading up on Ip Man, it seriously made me want to learn the history of this film and background to it which is something that I have never wanted to do before, I came across this quote:
The filmmakers have expressed that while Ip Man was about survival, Ip Man 2 is about living. The sequel is set in Hong Kong in 1949, when the country was under British colonial rule. Screenwriter Edmond Wong stated that the film also "deals with how Hong Kong people were treated under British colonial rule, and Western attitudes concerning Chinese kung fu."
That one quote pretty much sums up things nicely. It's an overall excellent film that is in my Top 10 list of Action movies if not in my overall Top 10 Movie list! This film had me in tears and cheers (ha!) and I highly recommend it.

Ip Man [Guest Writer] (5 Stars)

Ip Man is a 2008 Hong Kong semi biographical martial arts film loosely based on the life of Yip Man (1893-1972), a grandmaster of the martial art Wing Chun and Master of Bruce Lee. The film is set in the 1930s in Foshan, a hub of southern Chinese martial arts, where various schools actively recruit disciples and compete against each other. While Ip Man - played by Donnie Yen - is seen as the most skilled in his art and highly respected, he is also unassuming and likes to keep a low profile, deciding not to accept disciples and instead spends his days training and spending time with his friends and family although he can't avoid facing the occasional challenge from a stray gang of ruffians. Soon Japan invades China and Ip Man and his family goes from being independently wealthy to living in poverty after Japanese troops seize his residence and assets for their own occupation and use. This leaves Ip Man taking any work for food. General Miura, now in charge, stages martial arts fighs between Chinese and his men with the winners receiving extra rice. When the general's attache murders a colleague of Ip's, Ip's honor demands he step forward to challenge them. At the same time, ruffians begin threatening a local cotton mill and it's up to Ip Man to protect the mill and face Miura.

I had seen this movie advertised for a few days on Netflix as I browsed for something to watch and initially dismissed it after a cursory glance of the cover but ended up coming back to it when I was in a rare moment of boredom and running out anything interesting to watch. I'm so glad that I had a chance to see this movie because it took my breath away from beginning to end. If I could give it 10 stars I would do so without a second's hesitation. I was kept on the edge of my seat throughout the entire story. I found myself literally leaning toward my computer half the time and had to remind myself that no matter how close I got, I could not jump through the screen to get a closer look. Ha!

I think it's important that I emphasize that this story is very loosely based on Yip Man and not historically accurate. The real Yip Man was never forced into poverty by hardships of the Second Sino-Japanese War and never worked as a coolie in a colliery although he did work as a policeman before the Japanese invasion and continued until several years after the war until he was driven into voluntary exile in Hong Kong. He also never had to duel with a Japanese general.

A photo of Yip Man with his Disciple Bruce Lee

Even though this was a dramatization of his life, I have to say it still drew me in nonetheless and I loved it. From what I understand, Donnie Yen went all out on his research of Yip Man and even went on to say he found the role the most emotionally and mentally difficult in his career. He even went so far as to strictly diet and train in Wing Chun and also stayed in character after filming, wearing his costume and changing his voice and movement patterns. After finding all of this out, it only made me appreciate this movie all the more for the dedication that Yen took in taking on this role and the effort he put forth in this movie. A true masterpiece in my opinion.

Chocolate [Guest Writer] (5 Stars)

The Story...

When Zin (Ammara Siripong), former girlfriend of a Thai mob boss, falls for Masashi (Hiroshi Abe), a Japanese gangster in Thailand, the boss banishes them: Masashi to Japan, and Zin, with her small daughter Zen (Jeeja Yanin - Raging Phoenix), to live next to a martial arts school. Zen is autistic, with uncanny swift reflexes. She watches the students next door and Kung Fu movies, absorbing every technique. She's now a teen, and her mother needs chemotherapy. Zin has taken in a chubby kid, Moom (Taphon Phopwandee), who watches over Zen. Moom finds a ledger listing business men who owe Zin money; he goes to them one at a time to collect in order to pay for Zin's treatment. Zen, with her martial skills, becomes his enforcer. A showdown with the boss is inevitable.

Wow. I was blown away by this story and had to watch it twice more after the first time. Jeeja Yanin also played the main role in Raging Phoenix, which I also did a review on here. I became a fan of hers after seeing that movie and when I saw this movie hosted on netflix, I had to see it and don't regret it a bit. From what I understand this movie was actually written with Jeeja in mind along with her skills. I wasn't the hugest fan of her character in the Raging Phoenix because I'm jut not a fan of spoiled characters but in this story it was the complete opposite and she did it equally as well. The plot feels like something that hasn't been done before - or at least I've yet to see something done with the same story - and it kept my attention throughout the movie. I will admit there were some slow moments where they wanted to have their dramatic moments and I'm not a fan of drama but it wasn't so bad as to make me want to skip forward. The stunts left me breathless and laughing in spots. A truly great and interesting film that I highly recommend to action and martial art movie lovers everywhere! It even had me crying at the end of the movie! I guess it's to be expected from the director of Ong Bak, another movie that I fell in love with and will be reviewing sooner or later so keep an eye out for that.

The Last Airbender [Guest Writer] (4 Stars)

The Story...

The world is divided into four kingdoms, each represented by the element they harness, and peace has lasted throughout the realms of Water, Air, Earth, and Fire under the supervision of the Avatar, a link to the spirit world and the only being capable of mastering the use of all four elements. When young Avatar Aang disappears, the Fire Nation launches an attack to eradicate all members of the Air Nomads to prevent interference in their future plans for world domination. 100 years pass and current Fire Lord Ozai continues to conquer and imprison anyone with elemental "bending" abilities in the Earth and Water Kingdoms, while siblings Katara and Sokka from a Southern Water Tribe find a mysterious boy trapped beneath the ice outside their village. Upon rescuing him, he reveals himself to be Aang, Avatar and last of the Air Nomads. Swearing to protect the Avatar, Katara and Sokka...

I hadn't planned on seeing this movie in theaters in the beginning. My brother was a fan of the original cartoon series and would constantly annoy me with stories and unwanted anecdotes so I had an initial dislike for it from the beginning and the previews at the time really annoyed me more than intrigued me with it's vagueness. I ended up seeing this in theaters with my brother and I'm partly glad I did and at the same time regretting it now that I think about it. It was a good movie overall but sometimes I wonder if it was truly worth the price of the ticket now that I can easily see it on cable television. The young actor that plays the legendary airbender was really great in his role and did the stunts well. It seemed he was the perfect match for this film and I can't imagine the producers choosing anyone else. I was annoyed that they left the story almost hanging at the end - or at least that's how it felt to me. I know they wanted to leave room for a sequel and even possibly a trilogy but I think they could've done it a bit better so that I left with some satisfaction instead of feeling at odds with the future of the journey. It didn't feel like a complete story in the end and more like a chapter. I hate stopping in the middle of a story. Ugh. Overall the story was engaging, the acting well done, stunts exciting and it's a great story for people of all ages.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice [Guest Writer] (4 Stars)

Balthazar Blake, played by Nicholas Cage, is a master sorcery stuck in modern-day Manhattan defending the city from his nemesis, Maxim Horvath, played by Alfred Molina. Of course he can't do this alone and finds David Stutler, played by Jay Baruchel, an average guy who has the hidden potential and decides to take him on as his protégé, to David's reluctance. He gives David a crash course in the art of magic and they soon work to stop Horvath and his cronies, who are trying their hardest to awaken a great evil sorceress that was sealed away centuries ago by Balthazar's love interest. Can David come up with the courage to survive his training, save the world and get the girl?

This is a fun movie that is great for all ages. It leaves you laughing quite a lot and I have become a fan of Baruchel and his comedic antics. He has a bit of a quirky wit that appeals to me and Nicholas Cage did very well in this movie as well although I do admit that it's nothing compared to some of his past films that I'm a fan of. He did a similar film - or at least one that felt similar in it's fantastical nature - with Season of the Witch. If I were to be quite honest this movie didn't wow me to the tips of my toes but it did give me the occasional laugh, especially when Baruchel had his Fantasia moment. If you're not familiar with the animated film Fantasia featuring Mickey Mouse, I'm referring to the scene where Mickey - as the Sorcerer's Apprentice (get it?) - puts a spell on a broom, which causes it to come to life and fill up a well using two buckets of water. Soon the well overflows and Mickey is unable to control the broom leading to a near-flood. The movie did a went a similar vain but of course it was modernized and they added a few extra bits here and there that really took it to a new level when Baruchel began fighting and struggling with the brooms and cleaning supplies. [laughs] That's just one of many interesting and funny scenes throughout the movie and while it has it's action scenes and serious moments it does keep things lighthearted in the end. I recommend this to everyone of all ages.

SALT [Guest Writer] (3 Stars)

Evelyn Salt is a CIA agent and highly respected by all, including her boss, Ted Winter. Out of the blue, a Russian spy walks into their offices and offers a vital piece of information: the President of Russia will be assassinated during his forthcoming visit to New York City to attend the funeral of the recently deceased U.S. Vice President. The name of the assassin: Evelyn Salt. Concerned about the safety of her husband, who she cannot contact, she goes on the run. Winter refuses to accept that she is a mole or a double agent but her actions begin to raise doubts. Just who is Evelyn Salt and what is she planning?

I was waiting in anticipation when I first saw the previews on this film and I admit that I felt a little let down when I finally got a chance to see it. The action was great and there was never a time that I was left wanting more of that but the acting and plot just didn't keep me as engaged as I thought it would in the beginning which left me feeling a little disappointed at the end. In the end, I don't have much to say on this film except that it's not a DVD I would buy but only wait for to come on cable. For those that enjoy suspense thrillers I would say to check it out because it may be up your alley and all in all it was an okay film.

A-Team [Guest Writer] (5 Stars)

Four American soldiers who are in Iraq are sent on a mission to recover plates for printing 100 dollar bills that were used to print a billion dollars. After doing the job and returning to the base their commanding officer is killed in an explosion and the plates are stolen by another operative. They would be court martialed and sent to different prisons. 6 months later, the leader, Hannibal Smith is visited by a CIA spook who tells him he knows where the man who took the plates is and wants him and his men to recover it. So he helps him escape and he breaks out the others and they go after the plates. But after doing it, they discover that the spook might not be ok. And a military intelligence officer who was involved with one of them is pursuing them.

I have to admit that I didn't know anything about the original A-Team show - I'm not a fan of Mister T. When I first saw the previews on this movie, I was immediately attracted to the high intensity action scenes and engaging and occasionally funny dialog. If the original shows were anything like this movie, then I will definitely be taking a peek at those shows one of these days when I get the time to have a good long marathon. The actors were really great in this movie and they each held their own with one another. I was already a fan of Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper so it really helped made the decision to see this movie in theaters that much easier. I was surprised at two relative unknowns - Quinton Jackson and Sharlto Copley held their own as well as they did and was certainly not left in anyone's shadow. They each added something important and essential to the storyline and plot and made it so complete. Overall this is a new favorite for me and at least in my top 15 action films!

The Tourist [Guest Writer] (4½ Stars)

Elise (Angelina Jolie) sits next to an American tourist, Frank (Johnny Depp), on a train going to Venice. She has chosen him as a decoy, making believe that he is her lover who is wanted by police. Not only will they need to evade the police, but also the mobster whose money her lover stole.

It's important to note that this is the American remake of Anthony Zimmer, a French romantic thriller film released in 2005. Before I saw this movie I had decided to do some reading up on it and found this out which led me to learning more about the original and by the time I saw The Tourist, I had already known the entire plot or at least the general gist of it all. I can honestly say that I'm not the type of person where learning the spoilers ruin the experience of the movie for me but for those that feel this way I'll be careful not to share too much. [smiles]

The movie starts out with Elise being followed by the French Police and Inspector John Acheson (Paul Bettany - Priest) who has spent years hunting Elise's lover, Alexander Pearce, who owes £744 million pounds (nearly 2 billion USD) in back taxes and is believed to have had extensive plastic surgery to change his appearance completely. Elise receives a letter from Pearce instructing her to board a train to Venice and pick out a man who resembles Pearce, and make the police believe that this decoy is Pearce himself - this decoy turns out to be an American school teacher, Frank, played by Jonny Depp. As the film progresses, we soon learn that Pearce also in trouble with a mobster whom he stole 2.3 billion from and this puts Frank into further trouble as he has to avoid Inspector Acheson and Reginald Shaw - the gangster. The movie has it's funny moments - not belly laughs but more of quiet or inward chuckles of light amusement at Frank's predicament. There is also a strong underlying plot of romance running evenly with the suspense and thriller portion of it but it feels very well interwoven into one full story. Overall I really enjoyed this film and recommend it. It may not be for everyone as there aren't any huge action sequences to draw your attention except for a few shoot outs. But I enjoyed it so I guess that says something. Ha!

Clash of the Titans [Guest Writer] (5 Stars)

Princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is the daughter of King Cepheus, who has gained a victory against the gods. The vengeful god of the underworld, Hades (Ralph Fiennes), demands that Andromeda is offered as a sacrifice or he will unleash the Kraken against Argos. A desperate King Cepheus asks demi-god Perseus (Sam Worthington) to find a way to defeat the Kraken. Perseus accepts the challenge because Hades was responsible for his family's death. He discovers that the way to kill the Kraken lies with getting the head of the gorgon Medusa.

I absolutely love movies that have to do anything with Greek Mythology and loved this movie to bits and pieces. This movie made me a huge fan of Sam Worthington and his work and it didn't hurt that it had some other favorites of mine - Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson. The story was engaging although I do admit that Sam's character annoyed me with his stubborn pride that constantly put the other supporting characters' lives in danger but I suppose that he can't help the way his character was written. The action and special effects scenes were very fantastical and really kept me on the edge of my seat and it even had a bit of romance for the ladies although it definitely wasn't a main subplot of the movie. It seems as if they had all their bases covered to appeal to the masses so kudos to them for that. This is definitely a movie I would recommend for action and fantasy lovers.

(I thought I had already done a review on this but perhaps I was wrong since I couldn't find it. If anyone else out there finds it, let me know. Sometimes I feel old and senile which is ridiculous at my age but oh well. Ha!)

Wrath of the Titans [Guest Writer] (4½ Stars)

 I have been procrastinating on putting up my reviews so I thought I would start with the latest movie that I've seen first - Wrath of the Titans.
A decade after his heroic defeat of the monstrous Kraken, Perseus - the demigod son of Zeus - is attempting to live a quieter life as a village fisherman and the sole parent to his 10-year old son, Helius. Meanwhile, a struggle for supremacy rages between the gods and the Titans. Dangerously weakened by humanity's lack of devotion, the gods are losing control of the imprisoned Titans and their ferocious leader, Kronos, father of the long-ruling brothers Zeus, Hades and Poseidon. The triumvirate had overthrown their powerful father long ago, leaving him to rot in the gloomy abyss of Tartarus, a dungeon that lies deep within the cavernous underworld. Perseus cannot ignore his true calling when Hades, along with Zeus' godly son, Ares (Edgar Ramírez), switch loyalty and make a deal with Kronos to capture Zeus. The Titans' strength grows stronger as Zeus' remaining godly powers are siphoned, and hell is unleashed on earth. Enlisting the help of the warrior Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike), Poseidon's demigod son, Argenor (Toby Kebbell), and fallen god Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), Perseus bravely embarks on a treacherous quest into the underworld to rescue Zeus, overthrow the Titans and save mankind.

I was really excited when I first saw the previews of this movie and was eagerly anticipating getting to see this in theaters. I'm very picky about the movies that I'm willing to pay to see on the big screen and with something that claimed to have such action packed scenes and awesome special effects - I just couldn't resist shelling out the $10. I'm not sure whether I was expecting this movie to surpass Clash of the Titans although I will say that I wasn't disappointed but it didn't truly blow me away either. It delivered on all of it's promises and the battles were much more elaborate than the the first film in my opinion although it almost felt too reminiscent of the first one. He had to go through his trials defeating a few foes to get to the big boss. I don't regret spending the money to see this movie and it was great to see the "Gods" have a bit more prominent role other than the occasional glimpses that CoT had. All in all it was a pretty good film and one that I would recommend to those that enjoyed the first film. Oh and I really hated his hair in this film, constantly distracted me - ugh. But that's just my personal taste. Hehe.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Angel Heart (4½ Stars)

1955. Mickey Rourke stars as Harry Angel, a small time private detective who lives and works in Harlem, New York. He specialises in domestic cases, following husbands, petty stuff in general. One day a mysterious stranger, played admirably by Robert De Niro, hires him to track down a singer; Johnny Favorite, who hasn't been seen for 12 years. Supposedly Johnny has been lying in a hospital severely wounded all this time, but it's recently become apparent that he isn't there.

Harry takes on the case, but soon realises that it isn't as straight forward as he expected. He interviews the doctor at the hospital, who confirms that Johnny had been removed from the hospital shortly after admission, but then he kills himself before giving further information. Harry travels to New Orleans to speak to Johnny's old friends, but everyone he speaks to ends up dead, and worse still, the police suspect that Harry is the murderer.

This is a stylish dark film. It has all the characteristics of film noir, but it's mixed with religious imagery, both Christian and voodoo. The film's atmosphere is as fascinating as the mystery itself.

Click here to view the trailer.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

This ain't Avatar XXX (4½ Stars)

This was the most ambitious of Axel Braun's porn parodies to date, and his first film to be made in 3D. The concept is unlike any of his other parodies to date. It can even be argued that it isn't a parody at all, more of a homage to James Cameron's "Avatar". Apart from subtle name changes (for instance the planet Pandora is renamed Panwhora) the details of the film imitate the original without mocking it. There are no attempts at comedy; on the contrary, this film adds tragic elements not present in the original.

Axel Braun's films usually fall into one of two categories. Films such as "This Ain't Star Trek XXX" retell a story already well known to fans in a new pornographic format. The others, such as "This Ain't Spider-Man XXX", tell an alternative story in the original style. "This ain't Avatar XXX" takes a different path. The film isn't standalone, it's a companion to the original. The events are threaded between those of the original film. It tells us about what happened between the scenes. It shows us the sexual encounters that James Cameron missed out. Somehow I can't help feeling that Cameron would enjoy watching this film. It then goes on to tell us what happened after the end of the original film.

The film's lavish production can't be faulted. The film doesn't suffer from the same low budget constraints as some of Axel's other films. Highly recommendable, especially if you watch it back to back with the original film.

Click here to view the trailer.

Here's a link to an AVN article that gives more details.

Paranoid Park (4 Stars)

Alex is a 16-year-old boy from Portland, Oregon. He's popular at school. He's dating the most beautiful cheerleader on the squad, 14-year-old Jennifer. But he's going through an existential crisis. The world seems so empty to him, so pointless, and he's sure there must be more to life. This is a common state of mind if you're a teenage boy or French. Not even Jennifer's wish that they should lose their virginity together offers him any excitement. The only thing that gives him any pleasure is skateboarding. I suppose that could be considered a nihilistic hobby.

After visiting a skate park called Paranoid Park he meets some other skateboarders who talk him into taking a free ride on a freight train. He accidentally kills a security guard by pushing him off  the train. He can't confide in anyone, and the secret oppresses him in his already gloomy life.

The film was a box office flop and it's easy to see why. It's so slow, and so little happens that the film could have been compressed into a 30 minute short film. More than anything the film is a showcase for the dreamy visuals of master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who is better known for his work in Chinese films. I don't know if he's the world's best cinematographer, but he's the only cinematographer I can name, which says a lot. I can see that this film is too "arty" to appeal to a wider audience, but it was appreciated by film critics and won a won a string of awards. If you want to take a chance on something different, try this.

Click here to view the trailer.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Jenseits der Mauer (4½ Stars)

Three families are connected by one 17-year-old girl, Rebecca Pramann from Leipzig.

In 1974 Ulrich and Heike Molitor attempt to leave East Germany using fake passports. Their children are hidden in a secret compartment in their car. They are arrested and sentenced as enemies of the state, but are allowed to go to West Germany without imprisonment if they agree to leave their two-year-old daughter Miriam in a children's home for adoption.

Frank and Susanne Pramann adopt Miriam and give her the new name Rebecca. Frank is a full time worker for the East German secret police, the Stasi, but keeps his job secret from even his closest friends. They never tell Rebecca that she has been adopted.

Karl-Heinz Schröder is a high-ranking member of the ruling East German Communist party, and his wife Brigitte works at the children's home where Miriam/Rebecca was left for adoption. In 1985 the Molitor family are allowed to have written contact with their daughter in exchange for passing secret plans from Ulrich's aeronautics company to the East. Brigitte answers the letters, pretending to be their daughter.

This is a fictional story, representing cases that were typical between 1961 and 1989. The East German government forced parents to give up their children for adoption before letting them leave the country. This was done under pressure by offering an alternative that would be much worse for both the parents and the children. In most cases it was planned in advance. If a couple who were "good socialist citizens" wanted to adopt a child the government would look for "bad citizens" that they could take a child away from.

Unfortunately, the reunification of Germany in 1990 did not solve the problems. It was part of the reunification contract that cases of forced adoption would not be treated as human rights violations. All adoption cases in former East Germany were classified as state secrets and the documents had to remain sealed for 50 years, starting from the date of the adoption. The facts behind the early adoptions in the 1960's have only recently been revealed, and the truth is horrifying.

Shaolin Temple (4 Stars)

This is Jet Li's first film, made when he was only 19, maybe 18. It already shows off his considerable martial arts talents. It was one of the most succesful films in Chinese history. Over 50 million people bought tickets to see the film in China alone.

Jet Li plays Cheh Yuan, a young boy who takes refuge in a Shaolin temple after escaping captivity. He becomes a monk, but his aims aren't spiritual. He wants to learn kung fu so that he can take revenge on the warlord who killed his father.

The film seems to make fun of the monks in a light-hearted way. They eat meat when they get the chance, saying that if they have Buddha in their hearts everything is holy. That's a good excuse to do anything that Buddhism forbids. They also rejoice when the king tells them that monks should be allowed to drink alcohol. Oh, and the amazing fighting style called "Drunken Stick Kung Fu"? That's so silly, and yet funny at the same time.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Adrenalin (4 Stars)

This is a 1996 German film starring pretty boy Til Schweiger. In many ways it's similar to the Oscar nominated Austrian film "Revanche" made in 2008, except that it has more action and less emotional depth.

Til Schweiger plays the role of troubled police man Stefan Renner. His wife is killed by the gangster pair Werner and Tatjana. When he corners Werner during a bank robbery he cracks under pressure and shoots Werner after he had already surrendered. Stefan loses his job and is sent to prison for three years. When he comes out Tatjana is waiting to take revenge on him.

The film is fast moving and exciting, but it has one glaring mistake. No explanation is given why the couple killed Stefan's wife. It's not usual for criminals to kill a random police man's wife. Revenge for a foiled crime? Or maybe Stefan had previously had an affair with Tatjana? Not being told is frustrating.

Til Schweiger is both loved and hated for his looks. His blond hair and blue eyes made him a pinup for young girls when he first appeared in the German soap opera "Lindenstrasse" in 1990. When he was in his 30's, as in "Adrenalin", he had a baby face. Now that he's in his 40's he has a more rugged face, but that doesn't detract from his appeal to women. On the other hand, because of his looks many people don't take him seriously. This is unfair. He's a good actor, as this film shows. Maybe not a great actor, but better than many American actors in recent films. I won't name any names unless I'm forced to.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Der Kinoerzähler (5 Stars)

Germany in the early 1930's.The film takes place in Werder on the Havel, a small town only 35 Km (22 miles) from Berlin. The main character, whose name we are not told, is a "Kinoerzähler", a word I'm not sure how to translate into English. He was the person who spoke to the audience during the showing of silent films to explain what was happening, as well as pointing out the subtleties of the film to embellish it. I'll use the word "narrator", though I'm sure there must be a more precise term, if this career ever existed in England or America. I know that some cinemas used to have a live pianist playing music to accompany films, but I'm not aware of anyone ever talking during a film. It's significant that the character's name is not given; he was unimportant, he was only there to draw attention to the films.

This film marks the end of an era. The first film with sound had been made in 1928, sound cinemas already existed in the big cities, and it was only a matter of time before the small towns caught up. The narrator was about to lose his job, despite his efforts to warn people that adding sound would destroy the beautiful artwork of cinema.

Things aren't happening in a vacuum. The National Socialists are gaining power, which is bad news for the Jewish cinema owner. The narrator buries his head in the sand, remaining unpolitical and only thinking about the beauty of films. At a meeting of the Nazi party he stands up and asks if the Nazis would return to making silent films.

"Der Kinoerzähler" also shows turning points in other areas, both on and off screen. The narrator visits the film studio Babelsberg while it is filming "Der Choral von Leuthen", the first film to be premiered in Germany after Adolf Hitler became leader in 1933. The director, Carl Froelich, was one of Germany's leading directors during the Third Reich, when the head of the German film industry was Josef Goebbels.

The Babelsberg studio opened in 1912 and is the world's oldest film studio. "Der Kinoerzähler" was the first film to be made at the studio after German reunification. This came about almost by accident. Bernhard Sinkel, the writer and director of "Der Kinoerzähler", was walking on the Ku'Damm, Berlin's main street, at 2 am, when he saw Volker Schlöndorff, the new owner of the Babelsberg Film Studio. Since they were old friends Bernhard told Volker about his film script and asked him for 500,000 Marks ($350,000) to finance the film. Volker immediately agreed and offered the use of his studios.

Today's film viewers take it for granted that American films dominate the film industry. The world's biggest and best films are made in Hollywood. But this wasn't always the case. In the first half of the 20th Century German films were the biggest and most successful. The world's highest paid directors and actors were German, and the biggest films were made in Babelsberg. This was easy to accomplish in the days of silent films, when there was no language barrier, but even after the advent of sound German films remained foremost in box office success. This began to change in the 1930's, because Germany's leading directors were Jews and had to emigrate to America. Nevertheless, even during the Third Reich German studios continued to make excellent films. It wasn't until after the Second World War that the German film industry shrank and Hollywood grew to take its place. But even today the German film industry has to be taken seriously. Despite the relatively low budgets available German films in general have a production quality superior to films made anywhere else in Europe. To take just one example, a film like "Baader Meinhof Komplex" would have been unthinkable in any other country. I'm not saying that good films aren't made in many countries, but in my opinion the overall quality of German cinema is outstanding. Which is why I watch so many German films. Wait for more reviews to come.

Ich bin ein Berliner (4 Stars)

After the second World War Germany was occupied by the four allied powers, America, England, France and Russia, and divided into four zones. Since all four countries wanted control of Germany's capital, Berlin itself was divided into four zones as well, even though Berlin was situated in the middle of the Russian occupied zone. The land to the east of the so-called Oder-Neisse line was given to Poland. East Prussia was claimed by Russia. In the west Alsace, Lorraine and Saarland were given to France. Austria, which had voted to combine itself with Germany in 1938, was made an independent country again.

In May 1949 the three western zones of Germany were combined and the Federal Republic of Germany (commonly called West Germany) was founded, an independent country although still occupied by foreign troops. In response Russia allowed the formation of the German Democratic Republic (called East Germany) in October 1949, nominally an independent country, but with its policies dictated by Russia. Since Berlin did not officially belong to the German occupation zones the American, English and French parts of Berlin did not become part of West Germany, but combined to become West Berlin. The Russian sector of Berlin, however, was combined with the Russian zone of Germany and became the capital of East Germany. Unofficially, at least. Neither the western powers nor the United Nations ever recognised Berlin as the capital of East Germany.

After 1949 travel between the two halves of Berlin was still allowed, although Russian soldiers harrassed people crossing at the more common checkpoints. This led to large numbers of East Germans entering West Berlin as a stepping stone to reach West Germany. This was stopped in 1961 when a wall was built surrounding West Berlin. The wall was built without warning, so anyone who was on the outside of the Wall when it was built was not allowed to return, even if it was a young child who had been visiting relatives or a married man who had been on a business trip. In the West this wall was called the Berlin Wall, while its official name in East Germany was the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall.

As a show of support for the people of West Berlin President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin in June 1963. He held a passionate speech which ended with the words, "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, Ich bin ein Berliner".

This was a source of great amusement to the Germans. Despite apologetics by American linguists, unfortunately propagated by serious websites such as Wikipedia, this was a monumental mistake.

Ich = I
bin = am
ein = a
Berliner = Berliner

That's what the president wanted to say. "I am a Berliner". So what's wrong? This is a matter of basic German grammer. In German, when you attribute to a person a career or nationality, including towns or districts, the indefinite article is omitted. So "I am a man" would be "Ich bin ein Mann", but "I am a soldier" is "Ich bin Soldat" and "I am an American" is "Ich bin Amerikaner". Adding the indefinite article in either of the latter cases is a mistake made commonly by foreigners living in Germany. If the president had been speaking in Stuttgart and had said "Ich bin ein Stuttgarter" it would have been treated as a slight grammatical slip.

Unfortunately the word "Berliner" has another meaning in German. It refers to a jelly doughnut. While the word "Berliner" is ambiguous in itself, meaning either a doughnut or a citizen of Berlin, adding the indefinite article in the above sentence makes it unambiguous. President Kennedy said "I am a doughnut". The president's speech would have been just as amusing if he had been speaking in Hamburg or Frankfurt.

So much for the history lesson, and this crass example of a case where a Wikipedia page gives wrong information. Now to the film, which takes place in 2005. After his mother's death Felix Rath, a petty conman living in Berlin, discovers love letters written by President Kennedy to his aunt in 1963. He uses this as a chance to claim that his aunt was his real mother and he is President Kennedy's son. When he tries to sell this story to a newspaper a journalist investigates and finds out that the story is true. Suddenly Felix is being stalked by the CIA, and he needs to falsify evidence to prove that he isn't Kennedy's son.

This is a low key comedy, full of ironies, very enjoyable, but only if you speak German. No English version is available of this film, neither dubbed nor subtitled.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Once upon a time in China 3 (4 Stars)

Wong Fei-Hung travels to Beijing to visit his father to inform him that he intends to get married. While there he learns of a plot by Russian diplomats to assassinate the governor because of his pro-Japanese stance. We hear that Russia is planning to attack Japan, which actually occurred in 1904, so this film must take place between 1895 (the date of the second film in the trilogy) and the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904.

There's some confusion about the name and status of his fiancee, since the same woman appears in all three films but is named differently. I suspect that the problem lies in the English translation being inconsistent. In the first film she is called "13th Aunt", whatever that means. In the second film she is called Aunt Yee. In this film she is called Cousin Yee.

This film has a different style to the first two films. The comedy aspect is more important. I had to laugh out loud during the fight scene at the lion dance. Everyone was dressed in large Chinese lion costumes, two people per costume. It's almost impossible to see the people, but we can hear the kung fu kicks and we see people falling over. Hilarious.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Once upon a time in China 2 (4½ Stars)

1895. China has just lost the first Sino-Japanese war. This was a turning point in history, meaning that Japan had become the strongest country in Asia after 2000 years of Chinese dominance. This is still the case today, despite Japan's loss in the Second World War. Japan had already conquered most of China before it made the mistake of attacking Pearl Harbor in an attempt to remove America from the Pacific.

In 1895 China had to give control of Taiwan to Japan. Taiwan remained under Japanese rule until 1952. This was a great blow to the pride of China, leading to chaos in the country.

This is the background to the film. In 1895 Wong Fei-Hung travels to Canton to attend a medical conference. People are protesting about the loss of Taiwan and are demanding a new war against Japan. The ruling Qin dynasty, based in the north, is blamed for the losing the war, so the southern Chinese are calling for a democratic republic to be set up. A new religious cult, the White Lotus, is not only demanding the execution of all the westerners in Canton, but also the destruction of everything western since the West is seen as evil. They even demand that Chinese children who have dared to learn English should be killed.

Wong wants to remain neutral, since his only reason for being in Canton is to study medicine, but he's soon caught up in the violence. He rescues Sun Yat-Sen (who later founded the Republic of China) and helps him to escape from the Qin forces. During his time in Canton he has several fights. The final battle with General Lan, played by Donnie Yen, must be one of the most spectacular martial arts fights ever filmed.

Incidentally, the film's theme song is sung by Jackie Chan. Yes, that Jackie Chan. I checked Wikipedia and found out that he's recorded 10 albums as well as many film theme tunes. How does this man who's made over 100 films find time for singing?

Click here to view the trailer.

I know my portrayal of Chinese history above is very brief, but I hope it's accurate. If I've made any mistakes, please write a comment to correct me.

Natural Born Killers (5 Stars)

Believe it or not, I didn't like this film when I first saw it, many years ago. I found it too chaotic.Watching it today I have to say that it's the chaos that makes it appealing. My only problem with the film is that I have difficulty understanding portions of the dialogue. My DVD edition doesn't have subtitles to help me. That's wrong. All DVDs should have subtitles. Woody Harrelson's Texas accent causes me problems when he lets himself go, and Robert Downey Jr. just talks too hectically for me to follow him in the later parts of the film.

Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis play a young couple, Mickey and Mallory, who meet and fall in love. They then go on a killing spree, for no other reason than because it's fun. Their wild lifestyle makes them famous, and when they're arrested a live interview is arranged with Mickey only a few weeks before his planned execution.

Beneath the overt brutality and violence it's a love story, and also a commentary on our modern society. It's not unusual for killers to enjoy popularity. In the 1970's Andreas Baader and his fellow terrorists were admired by more than a quarter of Germans under 30. But the twist in this story is that the two become media celebrities. Director Oliver Stone and writer Quentin Tarantino are holding up a mirror to show how shallow television audiences have become, revelling in murder. Robert Downey Jr. plays the part of Wayne Gale, the host of the tv show "American Maniacs". After showing the slaughter of many prison guards and inmates on live television during Mickey and Mallory's escape from prison he willingly poses for his own execution to be broadcast live.

A beautiful film with supernatural undertones. These are obvious in the scene in the Indian's home, but there's something else that I wouldn't have noticed if not for watching an interview with Oliver Stone. In the prison scene Mickey and Mallory are led to freedom by an inmate called Owen. But this isn't the first time he appears in the film. He appears in scenes throughout the film standing in the background watching over the two killers and keeping them safe. He's not a guardian angel, he's more of a guardian demon. This is most obvious in the opening scene where he's sitting in a diner holding a newspaper with the headline "666 Deaths". He fades away before the killing starts. In the alternate ending Owen says he has "come out of the fire". He asks if he can accompany Mickey and Mallory forever, and when they refuse he kills them. (No, that's not a spoiler, it doesn't happen in the ending used in the film).

I love Juliette Lewis as an actress, but she seems to have "disappeared" over the last 15 years. Apart from this film she had two major roles, in "Cape Fear" (1991) and "From Dusk Till Dawn" (1996). Since then she's been in a lot of films, but only minor roles. Maybe it's deliberate, because she wants to concentrate on her singing career? Whatever the reason, I miss her.

Click here to view the trailer.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Underdog (3 Stars)

A beagle quits the police force after failing in his duties as a sniffer dog. He's captured by a scientist performing illegal animal experiments. He escapes from the lab, but in the process he's soaked with chemicals that give him superpowers. He can fly, he has super strength and he can speak English. His new owner gives him a cape, and he goes into action as Superdog! Oops, I meant Underdog.

This is a difficult film to rate. I wanted to give it 3 stars, then upped it to 4 stars, then finally dropped it back to 3. On the surface it's a children's film, but it's also a parody of Superman. When the beagle puts on his cape nobody recognises him any more. Fantastic! He changes in phone booths. There's a scene which mimics Superman flying over the skyscrapers with Lois Lane. And there's the pop culture line: "Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Underdog".

Critics hate the film, but it was a huge box office success, so it must have been doing something right. Maybe I should put myself into the mind frame of a 10-year-old. The film is obviously aimed at a young audience. Did I enjoy it? Sort of. Will I watch it again? Probably not.

Click here to view the trailer.

General: Remakes

Most people groan about remakes, whether they're an old film being remade or a recent foreign film being remade in English. As I write this one of the most successful films in English cinemas is "Contraband", a remake of the 2008 Icelandic film "Reykjavík-Rotterdam". Some remakes are so bad that they're universally panned. Others are good, but they're still a subject of controversy, with fans of both versions arguing which is better. And then there are remakes which people don't realise are remakes, so they're blissfully enjoyed on their own merits. How many people know that "City of Angels" is a remake of the 1987 German film "Der Himmel über Berlin"? How many people know that "Cruel Intentions" is a remake of the 1959 French film "Les Liaisons Dangereuses", which had already been remade as "Dangerous Liasons" in 1988 and as "Valmont" in 1989?

My question to my readers is: what films would you like to be remade? I can think of a few.

1. "The Final Programme" (1973). The novel of the same name by Michael Moorcock is one of my favorite books. The film is good, but it's so far from the original that it's almost a different story. Much like Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining", which was so unlike Steven King's novel that King tried to prevent its release. A more accurate remake would be in order.

2. "Invasion of the Bee Girls" (1973). A good film that would profit from a bigger budget.

3. "Faster Pussycat Kill Kill" (1965). Ever since Quentin Tarantino dropped hints that he might remake this classic I've been praying that he will stop hesitating and get on with it. In the hands of a director of Tarantino's stature the remake could be even better than the original.

So, my faithful readers... please tell me which films you'd like to see remade, and why.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Once upon a time in China (4½ Stars)

This is the first in a film trilogy in which Jet Li portrays the Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, who lived from 1847 to 1924. Actually it was a pentalogy, but in the last two films the role was played by Man Cheuk Chiu.Wong Fei-Hung was a doctor who owned a private clinic in Foshan, South China, and he was also a skilled practitioner of martial arts, in particular the Hung Ga fighting style. He is so important in Chinese culture that over 100 films about him have been made in the last 60 years. Jackie Chan has portrayed him twice, in "Drunken Master" (1978) and "Drunken Master 2" (1994). Most notably Kwan Tak-Hing starred as Wong Fei-Hung in 77 films from 1947 to 1981. Talk about type-casting! This is incidentally the record for the number of films an actor has made playing the same character.

In cases like this it's difficult to know how much of  this film about him is true and how much is fiction. We aren't told the date of the events, but it has to be after 1886, the year his clinic was opened. My guess is that it takes place towards the end of the 19th Century. The setting is a town suffering under foreign occupation. We see that the English and the Americans have the run of the city, and mention is also made of the Portugese and the Japanese. Parts of China have been handed over to foreign powers in "unjust treaties". The local police seem to be doing the bidding of the Americans. In the film Wong wants to be a law-abiding citizen, but when he sees that the Americans take the side of gangsters he takes up a stand and battles against the stationed American troops. There are numerous sub-plots, such as the arrival of a rival martial arts artist, and Chinese workers being tricked into going to America where they become slaves working on the railroads.

Although made in 1991, this film has a distinct 1970's style. I assume that this is deliberate, as a homage to the Kwan Tak-Hing films. The fight scenes are frequent and chaotic, interspersed with humour. It's a very enjoyable film, and a stark contrast to Jet Li's other early films like "Fist of legend" (1994).

Click here to view the trailer.

Jurassic Park III (3½ Stars)

The third installment in the Jurassic Park trilogy, made in 2001. Dr. Alan Grant, who was the paleontologist in the first film, accompanies a couple on an expedition to find their son who is lost on Isla Sorna, the location of the second film.

I won't say any more about the plot. Straight to the criticism. Quite simply, this film isn't directed by Steven Spielberg, and it shows.  Spielberg passed the torch to Joe Johnston and remained as executive producer, which is a discreet way of saying he did absolutely nothing on the film.

The film does just about everything wrong. There's an action sequence at the beginning, but it falls out weak in comparison to the other two films. The film rushes into dinosaur action too fast after the arrival on the island without taking time for a build up. As the dinosaurs arrive one by one I can't help feeling that they're a "Best of Jurassic Park" selection, only included because the fans of the first two films expect them. Even the inclusion of pteranodons and spinosauri doesn't detract from this impression. And I thought that it had been established in the second film that the dinosaur breeds had divided the island into territories? In this film we see them all mixed together in the same area. The velociraptors have gained new "special powers", they can talk to one another, which they couldn't in the first two films. Worst of all, there's no real character development, the trademark of Spielberg's films. We are told who the characters are and what they want, but we don't feel who they are.

The only reason I'm giving this film more than 2 stars is because of the special effects, which are easily the equal of those in the second film, surpassing it in places. But overall the film is a flop. Instead of being a tale of human triumph over adversity it's just a 1960's dinosaur film with better special effects. If you watch the three films in short succession you get the idea that after two days of steak you've been served a hot dog.

Click here to view the trailer.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Valley of the Dolls (2 Stars)

Jacqueline Susann's 1966 novel, "Valley of the Dolls", was a worldwide success, selling more than 30 million copies. This film, made a year later, is a disaster. It tells the story of three young women who meet and become friends in New York. Anne Welles works as a secretary for a theatre agent. Neely O'Hara is a Broadway singer who breaks into cinema and becomes a major film star. Jennifer North is an unsuccessful Broadway dancer with no talent other than her breasts, which she uses to make a career in nudist films. Three very different women, but what unites them is their addiction to prescription pills, which they call "dolls".

The problem with the film is that it's disjointed. It tells three separate stories, jumping from one to the other. The film is very episodic in nature, fast forwarding years at a time. It's difficult to understand the characters as a result. Anne starts as a confused small town girl in New York, then she's a successful business woman, then she's a junkie. We don't see a progression from one stage to the next. The film is only two hours long and leaves out a lot of details which I assume are described in the book, details that would make the characters more believable.

After this failed film attempt, a television mini-series was made based on the book in 1981. Yet another television series was made in 1994 that ran for 65 episodes. I'm sure this was a better format to tell the story. And I've read that yet another television series is being planned, directed by Lee Daniels.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Initiation of Sarah (3 Stars)

I'm reviewing the 2006 version of this film. It's a remake of a 1978 horror film that fans refer to as a classic, but I've never seen it and it's no longer available on DVD. Since I'm unable to make a comparison I'll have to restrict myself to this film.

Lindsey and Sarah are twin sisters going to college. There are a row of sorority houses to choose from, all identified by three Greek letters. I wonder where this custom originated, it seems strange to me as a non-American. The two oldest sorority houses on campus, Alpha Nu Gamma and Pi Epsilon Delta, both want the two girls as pledges. As the film progresses we find out that these two sorority houses are actually two covens that have been at war for thousands of years. Lindsey pledges to Alpha Nu Gamma, while Sarah pledges to Pi Epsilon Delta, and they're no longer allowed to talk to one another.

I have to say, this hardly seems like a horror story. The supernatural elements are rarely scary. The film would have been better if not for Summer Glau who plays Lindsey. Her acting is so wooden that she is unconvincing throughout, whether she's supposed to be happy or sad. She's awful, she walks through the film like an inhuman Terminator. I would have rated the film lower than 3 stars if not for the stunning performances by the other actresses, especially Jennifer Tilly and Tessa Thompson. Jennifer Tilly is an actress I'd like to see more of. She has a smoldering sexuality in an understated way, a sexual aura that she generates as soon as she enters a scene without needing to take her clothes off.

Jurassic Park: The Lost World (5 Stars)

It's good to see that the number of readers of my blog is going up again, over 1900 pageviews per month compared with 1700 in February and March. I'm seeing a correlation between my reading figures and the number of posts I make, which is very encouraging. This means that I have a large number of regular readers who keep returning when I write something new. If the readership figures remained constant whether I post or not it would mean that my traffic relies on random visits from people who have done web searches.

This is the second film in the Jurassic Park trilogy, once again directed by Steven Spielberg. It was only four years since the first film, from 1993 to 1997, but in those four years huge leaps were made in technology. This means that the photo-perfect computer generated dinosaurs in the first film could be made even more realistic in the sequel. Where mostly single dinosaurs or small groups were shown in the first film it was now possible to show swarms of dinosaurs. If you watch the two films in a row (like I did, yesterday and today) the difference is obvious.

The plot: After the destruction of the original theme park in the first film we now find out that there's a second island containing dinosaurs that is used for breeding only. After being abandoned for four years it's discovered that the dinosaurs are thriving in the wild, so they are to be captured and brought to America (San Diego) to open a new theme park. But things don't go as smoothly as planned.

The first film copied the formula of "Jaws", but the sequel follows the structure of "King Kong". I'm referring to the 1933 version, which was accurately recreated by Peter Jackson in 2005. This leads to the ironic situation that the 2005 King Kong film seems to be copying "The Lost World", but they're actually both based on the pre-war film. The film structure is simple. A team goes to a remote island and meets monsters. They capture one big monster and bring it back to civilisation, where it runs amok.

At first I preferred "The Lost World" to "Jurassic Park". Now, after watching both films many times, I rate them equally. Apart from the improved special effects "The Lost World" has more action, more gore and is faster paced. "Jurassic Park" spends more time on character development and subplots. Both films are brilliant, but I still think that "Jurassic Park" is better material to study in film school.

Click here to view the trailer.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Jurassic Park (5 Stars)

It's difficult to pick a list of my favorite films. A few months ago I posted a top 10 list here. But the trouble is, as I said at the time, that I change my mind a lot. I omitted "Jurassic Park". After watching it again this morning I've decided that it must be in the list. It's one of the best films ever made. Not just for the special effects, which were revolutionary at the time (1993). The structure of the film, with its perfect mix of character development, suspense, human interest and action is something that should be studied in film schools. Maybe it is. This film is a testament to Steven Spielberg's brilliance. It should be taken as an example for other film makers, to show them what they're doing wrong. Within the first 15 minutes of the film I knew all the main characters intimately, their strengths and their flaws. I even had a feeling for the minor characters, what makes them tick.

Do I really have to tell you the plot? Is there anyone who hasn't seen this film at least once? Let me summarise in a few words. A scientist has found a way to bring dinosaurs back to life. He's breeding them on a small island in South America, and he intends to open a safari park with dinosaurs. Before the park can open the dinosaurs break out of the compounds and start killing people.

A simple enough plot that could have been the basis for a laughable trashy film in the hands of a lesser director. But Steven Spielberg's skills have lifted it to the level of brilliance.

In many ways this film is similar in structure to "Jaws", the monster film that first made Spielberg famous. Instead of a giant shark there are dinosaurs. Both films start with action and the killing of a random victim (the young girl swimming, the park worker). They move on to the introduction of an inept main character (the island police chief who is scared of water, the archaeologist who is scared of computers). Since this character is stuffy, we need an erratic exciting main character as a counterpart (the marine biologist, the mathematician specialising in chaos theory). Then a slow build up to a big terrifying showdown.

Click here to view the trailer.

On an unrelated topic. Today I updated to the new version of Blogger. And I hate it. It's much more awkward to move back and forth between the statistics, the blog itself, and the dashboard. In the past I rarely used the dashboard. Now I'm forced to. I guess I'll have to get used to it.

I've been pondering for a while whether I should start another blog. More of a soapbox for ranting about random topics that interest me. I still haven't decided. For now I'll stick to this blog, but if I have too many off-topic matters I want to write about I might start my second blog.