Tuesday, 30 April 2013

In Darkness (4½ Stars)

This Polish film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards. It's the true story of Leopold Socha, a Polish sewer worker, from 1943 to 1944. He lived in the city of Lwow (now called Lviv) during the German occupation. He was one of the people who profited from the German presence. He wasn't politically motivated or even a Polish patriot. He was an opportunist who used the German invasion to get rich. He sold goods for extortionate prices to Jews who lived in the Lwow ghetto.

In 1943 Germany decided to clear the ghetto by sending all the Jews to concentration camps. This gave Leopold the opportunity of a lifetime. A rich Jew, Ignacy Chiger, offered him 500 Zloty a day to hide a group of Jews in the sewers. At first Chiger tries to store 20 Jews, but Socha persuades him that it isn't possible to hide and feed more than 10 Jews without fear of them being discovered. The months pass by and Chiger runs out of money, but by that time Socha has found compassion and he continues to hide the Jews for free. They remain in the sewers until the Russians "liberate" Lwow in 1944. (Russia annexed eastern Poland including Lwow after the war, and the Jews had to flee to escape Russian persecution).

This is a dark claustrophopic film, obviously. At times it's chaotic, with people talking in a mix of German, Polish and Russian. The film has been compared with "Schindler's List", an obvious comparison, but "In Darkness" is much more dramatic. It's a lot darker and more morbid than anything Steven Spielberg has ever made. There are no real heroes, everyone is tainted.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Dust Factory (3½ Stars)

Ryan Kelley was a normal young boy who lived in a small farming community. The location isn't named, but I assume that it's intended to be Oregon, where the film was made. The whole surroundings are like in the Wizard of Oz, which I assume is deliberate. When Ryan was nine years old he witnessed his father die in an accident on a railway crossing. As a result of the trauma he became unable to speak. His mother remarries and cares for him, but speaking is impossible. His grandfather suffers from Alzheimer's and sits in his chair staring at the floor all day.

Six years later Ryan falls from a bridge and nearly drowns. After struggling out of the water he finds himself in a place that looks the same, but everything has changed. His home looks like his home, but his parents are gone, and the house has been redecorated. The only familiar person is his grandfather, who is now cured of his ailment. To his surprise Ryan finds that he can talk normally again.

The grandfather tells Ryan that they are now in a magical world between life and death. There is no night, day never ends, and normal physical laws don't apply. Ryan meets other people in this world who are in the same state that he is, in particular a teenage girl called Melanie. The centre of this world is a big top called the "Dust Factory", a circus-like establishment ruled over by a sinister person called the Ringmaster. All the residents of the world are encouraged to perform on the high trapeze. If a person jumps successfully he passes on to paradise; if he falls he returns to his old life at the point where he left it.

As a fairy tale this film is good fun. Though made for children, I could enjoy it as an adult. My personal problem with the film is that there seems to be no incentive. It's a win-win-win situation. If you jump successfully you go to paradise, which is obviously the best result. If you jump and fall you return to your home and loved ones, as if nothing has happened, which is exactly what most people in the world would want. But if you choose not to jump you remain in this wonderful world, which to me personally looks even better than the real world. If all three of these possibilities are positive, why does the Ringmaster seem so sinister?

Armin Mueller-Stahl makes the viewer feel at home as the man everyone would like as a grandfather. I feel that the writer and director wanted to make some sort of philosophical point, but even after reading other reviews I don't get it. Nevertheless, it's a happy film, enjoyable to watch. Think of it as good, wholesome family viewing, unlike a lot of the films that I write about.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Satan's Baby Doll (4 Stars)

Maybe my readers don't like films about Satan. I'll let you into a secret: neither do I. And furthermore, this film has absolutely nothing to do with Satan. Nothing at all. There seems to have been a trend for Italian films in the 1980's to be given misleading names. This trend has been continued today by releasing them on DVD with totally misleading covers. The picture above may have some value as a work of fantasy art, but nobody with red wings appears at any point in the film.

So what is the film really about? Antonio Aguilar is a wealthy man who lives in a castle with his wife Maria, his daughter Miria and his younger brother Ignazio. There is a castle servant called Isidro. Ignazio is a paraplegic, unable to use his legs or talk, though he's obviously mentally aware of what's going on around him. For this reason a nun called Sol has been hired to take care of him. These six people live in the castle, and there are frequent visits by the family doctor, Juan Suarez.

That's the cast, and now the drama. Antonio is unable to satisfy his wife, so she is sleeping with Dr. Suarez and Isidro. She also performs oral sex with Ignazio, and she is having a lesbian relationship with the nun. Sol is proud of her virginity, but she masturbates in front of Ignazio and gives him hand jobs. Antonio desires Sol, but she resists his advances. There is only one solution for his jealousy and his frustration: he murders his wife.

Maria is powerful enough to take revenge from beyond death. She takes possession of Miria's body and kills all the men in the castle one by one. At first I didn't understand why she was killing her lovers as well as her husband, but finally it was explained. She considers Sol to be her only true love and wants to live alone with her in the castle.

This is a fascinating story, so don't let the film's title put you off. The slow suspense and the ominous musical background strengthen the film. As it continues we don't know who will die next. The bright colours remind me more of Jesse Franco than any Italian film I've ever seen.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Snow White and the Huntsman (4 Stars)

This is a retelling of the story of Snow White. It isn't a film I normally would have watched, but a friend strongly recommended it, and I wasn't disappointed. It's a lot closer to the fairy tale than I expected, the action is exciting, and the special effects are impressive. I only have one fault with the film, and it's a big fault. I waited till the end, when the credits rolled, to see who was responsible for the casting. There it stood: "Casting by Lucy Bevan".

Lucy, Lucy, you should be ashamed of yourself. The film is all about beauty. "Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who is the fairest of them all?" Who in his right mind would find Kristen Stewart more attractive than Charlize Theron? Charlize is stunning, a Goddess among women, even now that she's almost 40. Despite all the hard work of the make up crew Kristen's appearance was dull. She doesn't even have average beauty, she's simply unattractive. She has buck teeth, large ears, a flat chest and narrow hips. In the fairy tale Snow White has blonde hair. Lucy Bevan did everything wrong. What was she thinking? Kristen Stewart doesn't even make up for her lack of good looks with acting skills. As an actress she is average at most. I'm sure there are at least 50, maybe 100 other actresses who would have been more suitable for the role. The best choice would have been Leelee Sobieski. Apart from being the best actress alive today, Leelee is beautiful enough to rival Charlize Theron. Anyone who has seen Leelee's performance in "Joan of Arc" will agree with me.

Raising Helen (3 Stars)

Helen Harris is a successful career woman who works as an agent in the fashion industry. She's single and happy, living a life of glamour. Everything changes when her sister Linsey is killed in a car accident, and she is appointed legal guardian of her three children. The film follows her successes and failures as an unwilling mother.

About half an hour in Helen meets a Lutheran pastor, and I realised that the rules of a romantic comedy were being applied. In many ways this film is similar to "Overboard". The main difference is that in "Overboard" the romantic comedy aspect is the main plot and the children are a subplot, while in "Raising Helen" it's the other way round.

Kate Hudson is very likeable in her role as Helen. The rest of the cast, both the adults and the children, fit in well. I was pleasantly surprised to see Kevin Kilner as Helen's brother-in-law Ed. I know him from his leading role in "Earth Final Conflict", but this is the first film I've seen him in. In my opinion he's an undiscovered actor. He should be given bigger roles.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Beast in Space (3½ Stars)

This film was made in 1980 and takes place in the far future. It seems that Italy has won the space race. The most valuable metal in the galaxy is Antalium, which is needed to make neutron bombs. An Italian spaceship is sent to conquer the planet Lorigon, a planet on which Antalium is known to be plentiful. On the way they encounter two trading ships also interested in getting hold of the Antalium. In a firefight one of the trading ships is destroyed, and the two surviving ships land on Lorigon. They find the planet under the control of a 2000-year-old computer called Rocar. This computer forces the crew of the Italian ship to have sex with one another, presumably in an attempt to repopulate the planet.

The film is amusing in itself. The story seems like a plot from a Star Trek episode. Jim Kirk wouldn't have been in a hurry to leave the planet. The DVD cover, on the other hand, is so terrible that it's unbelievable. The picture has absolutely nothing to do with the film. There is a character with hooved feet, Onolph, but he isn't a horse and he doesn't carry a spear. All the action on Lorigon takes place in a palace or in the woods, never on craggy rocks as portrayed. I wonder if the cover artist even took the trouble to watch the film before he painted the picture.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Love Goddess of the Cannibals (3½ Stars)

A group of engineers from America are in the Dominican Republic to supervise the building of a nuclear power plant. The residents of a village have been evacuated and resettled to make room for the plant. An American reporter called Sara is on the island. It's uncertain whether she is there on vacation or to report on the power plant, but she begins an affair with Vincent, one of the engineers. They meet a mysterious native woman called Papaya who invites them to a religious ceremony. Sara uncovers a plot by the displaced villagers to kill all the American engineers, using Papaya as bait. Sara has to look on in horror as Vincent falls more and more under Papaya's spell.
This is a case in which the original title is changed to make the film sound more spectacular than it really is, leading to false advertising. The original Italian title is "Papaya dei Caraibi", "Papaya of the Caribbean". The only cannibalism is performed by the voodoo priest, not by the villagers themselves. Papaya is far from a Goddess, she is being used by the villagers, in particular by her lover Raymond. And that head on the tree on the DVD cover has nothing to do with the film.

In many ways this is typical for the low budget films made in Italy in the late 70's and early 80's. Gore and nudity in varying proportions. In this film the emphasis is on the nudity, we see very little violence. The film is average in itself, but I'll give it an extra half star for Papaya's naked body. I would have fallen under her spell as well, there's no doubt about it.

Masserberg (4 Stars)

The picture above looks like the scene from a horror film. It's actually a building that was used as an eye clinic in Masserberg in East Germany, but is now in use as a hotel. A German television reporter who was once a patient has written a novel set in this clinic. It's not a true story, it's a work of fiction, but she claims that it was a way for her to deal with an unpleasant episode in her life. The novel was filmed in 2010, but it isn't yet available on DVD.

In 1984 a 17-year-old girl called Melanie Tauber is in the eye clinic, sharing a room with three old ladies. She's already been in the clinic for two years and there is no sign of improvement. On the contrary, she is in danger of going blind and the doctors still don't know the reason for her condition. A new Cuban eye surgeon, Dr. Sanchez, starts work in the hospital and the two fall in love. The doctor arranges for her to be examined by a specialist, who advises that she should be tested for syphilis. The test is positive, but she can't be treated because it's an expensive procedure and she isn't important enough to deserve a cure. Dr. Sanchez suggests that they should flee to the West in order to get treatment for her.

That sounds simple enough. Except that the doctor is already married, which he has forgotten to tell Melanie. He has also acted as an informer for the East German secret police (Stasi), and he is being threatened with prison if he refuses to give information on Melanie. Of course, there are other Stasi informers in the clinic, and one is even planted in Melanie's room.

It's a weepy love story which shows flawed characters struggling to survive in dark times. The doctor is far from perfect, but we can see that he has genuine love for Melanie, who puts her complete trust in him. Love stories are often idealised (unless they are true stories), but this is a gritty story that the viewers can relate to.

Monday, 22 April 2013

The Countess (4½ Stars)

This film has grown on me since I watched it last monrh. Click here to read my review. In that review I called Countess Bathory remote and unemotional. That was a mistake. Julie Delpy portrays her as a deeply emotional woman. All that she did she did from love. She fell in love with a man 18 years younger than herself, and she felt cursed by being too old for him. This is what drove her to the excesses for which she has become famous. She killed dozens, maybe hundreds of young girls, but she did it because of love.

We also see that Erzsebet Bathory was hated because she was a strong, intelligent woman. Men felt threatened by her, so they plotted in secret. I find the scene chilling in which Gyorgy, Dominic and Istvan sit at a table planning to arrest her as a witch. Gyorgy, the man who proposed marriage to her; Dominic, the man who shared her bed; Istvan, the only man she had ever loved. All three men conspiring against her.

This is a very human portrayal of Erzsebet Bathory. Beneath all her atrocities she is a woman we can love and sympathise with. I praise writer/director Julie Delpy for achieving this monumentous task. This is the pinnacle of her career so far, and it will be difficult for her to exceed it in the future.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Army of Saviours (3½ Stars)

I just reread my original review of this film. Read it for a description, since I have nothing to add here. Let me just comment on the ridiculous name of the English version of this film. The original title, "Among farmers", is a lot more sensible.

Miss Bala (4 Stars)

This is the first Mexican film I've ever watched. Are they all this good? I felt tempted at first to give it a higher rating, but downgraded it at the last moment due to some confusion with the plot.

Laura Guerrero is a young woman from a poor Mexican family. She thinks she can achieve fame and fortune by entering a beauty contest. Together with her friend Suzu she auditions and is allowed to take part. Suzu tells Laura that women only have a chance of winning if they sleep with the right people, so in the evening they go to a party with DEA officers. (This was my first point of confusion. I thought the DEA is an American organisation. Are the DEA officers American agents working in Mexico, or members of an equivalent Mexican organisation?) Shortly after Laura arrives there is an attack by a gang called La Estrella, and most of the officers are killed. Laura gains the attention of the gang's leader, Lino Valdez.

The next day she meets Lino again, and he forces her to work for him, parking a car containing dead bodies in front of the American embassy. She keeps trying to escape Lino, but he always catches her and makes her carry out more jobs for him. He rigs the beauty contest to make her the winner, so she can meet Mexico's leader,  General Duarte.

My questions about the plot, which maybe someone can answer for me:

Why is Laura flown in a private plane when she visits the USA (San Diego)? Is it a normal airfield or a gang controlled area?

Who is Kike? How does he find her to steal her phone?

What happens in the general's palace? Are the general and Lino working together?

The more I think about the film, the more things there are that I don't understand. Nevertheless, the atmosphere and the fast paced action made me enjoy it.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Shanghai Kiss (3½ Stars)

In my post on "Overboard" I stated the rules for a romantic comedy. This film is a slight variation of the rules, in that the boy and the girl are switched. i.e. "Boy meets girl", "The boy doesn't like the girl, but as time goes on he grows to like her", etc. As soon as you've made that switch in your head the film is predictable.

Liam is a Chinese American whose parents emigrated to America shortly before his birth. His mother died on his sixth birthday, and he despises his father because of his drunkenness. He moves to Los Angeles to make it in the film business, but he can't even get a job making commercials. On a bus he meets Adelaide, a schoolgirl who falls in love with him at first sight. He resists her advances because of her age -- he's 28, she's 16 -- but they nevertheless become friends. She refers to him as her boyfriend, but he insists that it's platonic.

Things change when his grandmother dies and he inherits her house in Shanghai. He travels to China to sell the house, but then decides to remain there. He meets a mysterious woman called Micki and falls in love with her despite the secrets she's keeping. But of course, by this point connoisseurs of romantic comedies have already realised that he must return to Adelaide eventually; that's the rules!

Hayden Panettiere shines as the jailbait schoolgirl Adelaide. Jailbait in America, at least. In England and most other countries she would be old enough. I was especially impressed by the performance of Ken Leung as Liam. I didn't remember him, but a quick check in IMDB has told me he's appeared in quite a few films that I've seen, including "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Red Dragon". I was pleased to see James Hong as Liam's father, and I was disappointed that he only had a very small role. He has appeared in over 150 films and 200 television series since 1955, but I've only noticed him once before, in his terrific performance in "The Idol". He seems destined to be a great unknown actor.

I haven't rated the film any higher because the romance itself is played down. Hayden Panettiere has too little screen time while Ken Leung is on the other side of the world. It's more interesting to watch it as a portrayal of how a young man is struggling to get back in touch with his ethnic roots. I can't really relate to the film, but I'll probably come back and watch it again a year from now.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Four Lions (4 Stars)

Sigmund Freud's theory of humour is based on the premise that A tells B something funny about C. Only a German would say something like that. British humour is often of the form A tells B something funny about A. The British, especially the English, are capable of laughing at themselves. The Germans aren't.

This film, that I already briefly reviewed here, is a typical example of British humour. At first sight it might seem like a film making fun of Moslems, but it's really a film in which the British are making fun of themselves. The Moslems in the film are all British. The non-Moslem characters in the film, such as the police officers, are just as ridiculous, though they occupy less screen time.

Four Moslems decide to win places in paradise by becoming suicide bombers at the London Marathon. We follow their preparations when they visit a training camp in Pakistan and are rejected as wreckless fools. Back in England they make bombs in their homes, using recipes found on the Internet. Bleach, saucepans, nails... and if you want to know the rest you'll have to search online for the Terrorist's Handbook, it should be easy to find.

Unfortunately, being a terrorist isn't as easy as our four (initially five) young Moslems think. Intelligence, dedication, ruthlessness and above all cool nerves are needed if you want to kill a maximum number of people in a crowded event like the London Marathon. The four heroes are lacking most of these qualities. The police have them under surveillance from the start, but they are just as incompetent and arrest the wrong people. The film is full of belly laughs and you'll enjoy it if you're British. If you aren't, well, you might not find it funny, but give it a try anyway.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Good Student (4 Stars)

Hayden Panettiere plays a cheerleader. Now where have I seen that before?

History teacher Ronald Gibb (played by Tim Daly) is a loner who lives in a trailer and watches porn films with titles like "Young, blonde and ready". He has a crush on his 17-year-old student Ally Palmer (Hayden Panettiere). After he gives her a ride home from school one evening she disappears, and he is the main suspect. He offers a $68,000 reward for her return in an attempt to prove his innocence. But even if he can escape prosecution for kidnapping his reputation is already ruined when a photo is published of him kissing Ally.

This is a minimalist low budget film, but its sparseness is fascinating in itself. It shows the hidden secrets and hypocrisy in small town Poughkeepsie. It's better than a lot of films with bigger budgets.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Boxhagener Platz (5 Stars)

Yes, I know I only gave this film four stars when I reviewed this film in February. That's easy to explain. That was the first time I had ever seen the film. After watching it a second time I can see a lot more depths. It's a very complex film. In the comments I made in my last review I only mentioned the murder mystery. There's a lot more to it. It's a very intricate picture of life in East Germany in the 1960's. We see the interaction between the secret police and the regular police force. We see political indoctrination in the schools. The post war squalor is still abundant, even 20 years later. There are many more details, too many to mention here. The accuracy of the film is amazing.

My only question is about the homosexual relationship between Holger's uncle Bodo and the postman from West Berlin. It seems unnatural that they announced their relationship so openly at the family's Christmas meal. As far as I know homosexuality was never acceptable in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) for as long as it existed, until October 1990. Even today homosexuality is considered a crime in the DDR's big brother, Russia.

Nevertheless, this is an absolutely wonderful film. On the one hand I wish it could be made available in English for viewers outside of Germany. On the other hand I have to wonder whether anyone who isn't German would be able to understand it.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Labyrinth (3 Stars)

I haven't read Kate Mosse's novel, on which this film is based, but the trailers I saw impressed me so much that I had to watch it. The structure of the film is interesting in itself. It's actually two stories, one that takes place in 1209, the other in 2011. No, not time travel. The only connection is that the main character in the 21st Century story has visions of things that happened 800 years previously.

In South France in the 13th Century there was a Christian sect called the Cathars. In contrast to traditional Christianity they believed in reincarnation. Unlike other Christian groups they were tolerant, accepting the views of others, but the Catholic Church did not return the favour. French troups are sent in the name of the Holy Inquisition to wipe out those they consider to be heretics. The central character is Alais, the king's daughter. She is a Catholic, but most of those around her are Cathars. When the Inquisitors arrive her father reveals that he is the guardian of a secret book that reveals the location of the Holy Grail. This is one of three books, and though the three guardians do not know one another's identity they are all in the same town, and all endangered by the upcoming attack.

In the 21st Century the Cathars have long been destroyed, but a new cult has emerged, the Noblesso. It is a small group of people who have dedicated their lives to finding the three books, thought to be buried somewhere in the ruins of the castle. Alice Tanner is an archaeologist digging on the site, but unknown to her she is also a direct descendant of Alais. There is a psychic link between her and Alais across the centuries.

The film's structure is also its weakness. The two stories are told side by side, jumping from the past to the present. It's difficult to relate to any of the characters. I'm sure the novel itself is good, based on its commercial success, but the characters in the film seem two-dimensional. The only exception is Claudia Gerini, who plays the leader of the Noblesso. I'd never heard of her before, but she's evidently a top Italian actress. She stands above all the others. I'm curious to see other films she's appeared in. Can anyone tell me more about her, please?

Spuren des Bösen: Sandag (4 Stars)

This is an Austrian television film made in 2010. The title translates as "Traces of Evil". It won several awards in Austria, including best film, best screenplay and best cinematography, so it's incomprehensible that it hasn't yet been released on DVD. Luckily I was able to watch it on German television yesterday evening. If you understand German you can watch it online until April 21st at this link. This is the website of a German television station. After that you'll have to wait until it's broadcast again.

Heino Ferch (one of my favorite actors) plays Dr. Richard Brock, a university lecturer for forensic psychology. He is asked to help the police solve a murder. The only witness for a 900 million Euros fraud case is killed in her apartment by a naked man. That's about $1.2 billion. Wow! When money like that is involved nobody can be trusted. In the course of the film everyone in a police safe house is executed. This is a very good film, one that I'm certain to buy on DVD if it's ever released.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

I love you, Beth Cooper (3½ Stars)

The film starts on graduation day at Buffalo Glenn High School in Washington. Denis Cooverman, who is planning to study medicine at Stanford, holds the valedictorian speech. Instead of a typical "looking back and looking forward" speech he calls on the students to find the courage to say things they have wanted to say for years but never had the courage. He calls on others to say "I'm gay", "I have an eating disorder" or "I'm a bully", and everyone knows who he is talking about. His own personal confession is to say "I love you, Beth Cooper". Beth was the leader of the cheerleading squad, and he had always thought of her as out of his league.

But then a miracle happens. Denis and his best friend Richard hold a party that evening, and Beth comes to the party with her cheerleading friends. Maybe Denis does have a chance with Beth after all, but only if he can fight off her jealous boyfriend.

The choice of the film's main actors can't be faulted. Hayden Panettiere is beautiful and self-confident, Paul Rust is awkward and geeky. I haven't seen Hayden in many films, but she seems to be type cast as a cheerleader. It's a role she plays well. I haven't noticed Paul before, but his acting impressed me. As for the film itself, it's no masterpiece, but it's enjoyable enough to be watched once. It's not the best teen comedy ever made, but it's certainly not the worst.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Ossi's Eleven (3 Stars)

"The love of money is the root of all evil" (1. Timothy 6:10)

Normally I'm fast to accept the wisdom of the Bible, but this verse has always seemed suspicious to me. There are other types of evil, such as killing someone who has slept with your wife, which have nothing to do with money. It wasn't till years later that I was informed by one of the translators of the 2003 revision of the Elberfelder Bible (the most accurate German translation, and probably more accurate than any current English translations) that the correct translation is "The love of money is a root of all evil". This sounds clumsy, both in English and German, but it makes more sense.

So if the love of money is only one root, what are the others? I was once told that 99% of all crimes are committed because of money or sex. Ah ha. Now we're getting closer. I can relate to this, even though I would replace the word "crimes" with "sins". Many things that were considered crimes in the past, such as homosexuality, are now considered normal in most countries. Going back a few centuries it used to be illegal in Europe to sleep with another man's wife. Under Islamic sharia law women can still be executed for infidelity, although the man involved isn't punished. The line between crime and sin is blurred, and it would be more accurate to call them "legal misdeeds" and "moral misdeeds". Laws and morals both change over time, though not at the same speeds. It's not illegal to sleep with another man's wife, but most people consider it to be "wrong". Other punishable crimes can result from marital infidelity, such as my example in the first paragraph. This is backed up by statistics in America. Although Americans claim that they buy guns for home defence, in 85% of cases where guns are used in the home the victim is the marriage partner or his/her lover when caught in the act. (Curiously, when a wife is unfaithful the husband usually shoots the lover, but when a husband is unfaithful the wife shoots the husband).

So now we have money and sex. What are the other causes of "evil", using the word in the widest possible terms?

Religion is a big reason for doing evil. The 9/11 attack wasn't carried out for monetary gain, it was an act of evil carried out in the name of a false religion. In past centuries Christianity committed evil in the name of God, but Islam undisputedly carries the banner of evil in today's religious world.

Politics and/or nationality are another reason for doing evil. I would like to lump them together, even though I can't think of a single word that adequately encompasses both. Politics cause evil deeds within a country, whereas nationality issues cause evil externally, such as war with a neighbouring country. Racism also falls into this category.

The Roman Catholic Church has a traditional list that it calls the "seven deadly sins", its own compilation of sins without any support from the Bible, so I won't quote them all here. I'll just mention greed and pride. They belong together as opposites. Greed is when I desire something that others have, whereas pride is a rejoicing that I have something that others don't have. I won't include greed in my list, because it's usually a consequence of another sin, such as the love of money or sex. Pride is a different case. In many cases it can be a result of other sins, but in some special cases it can stand in its own right. For instance, I can be proud of my honesty, which is arguably a "sin", though not a crime. Pride is never a crime in itself, though it is often questionable. Consider a person saying he is proud of his wife, proud that he's a man, proud of his nationality or proud of his skin colour. Any of these could lead to good, depending on the circumstances. Any of these could be considered bad, depending on the viewpoint of the person judging. I'll list pride as a cause of evil, even though it's only a potential cause.

That completes my list of causes of evil.
  1. The love of money
  2. Sex
  3. Religion
  4. Politics/Nationality
  5. Pride
How they divide in percentages is a matter of opinion. It also varies whether we mean the number of evils, or the number of victims of evils. One single act of religiously motivated evil can lead to hundreds of deaths. If I restrict myself to the number of evils I'd guess at money 70%, sex 20%, religion 5%, politics 4%, pride 1%.

Does all this have anything to do with the film I'm reviewing today? Only vaguely. The film is about a crime motivated by the love of money and sex, though we don't see the sex aspects till late in the film. The film takes place in Wolfer, a fictional town in former East Germany soon after the currency change to Euros. A local factory melts down old coins to use the metal to make sports trophies. Oswald Schneider, nicknamed Ossi (also a patronising name for people from East Germany), wants to rob coins worth 300,000 Marks ($200,000) from the factory with his friend Karl. As the plans progress more and more people are involved in the robbery, reducing the profit per person, until finally they have a gang of 11 people together, including former Stasi agents and East German rowing champions.

Though the film is intended as a comedy I didn't find it particularly funny. For me the funniest moment was when Oswald suggested they should steal a money transporter to carry the coins away.  He was asked why they shouldn't just steal a transporter full of money, because it's easier than robbing a factory and carrying out heavy bags of coins. His response was "because that's not the plan".

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Hideous Kinky (3 Stars)

This film is confusing to me. I have the feeling it's supposed to be portraying a spiritual journey, but that's not the message I take from it. All I see is a selfish woman putting herself first and letting her children suffer.

The film is a true story, based on the autobiography of Esther Freud, the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud. In the film Esther is called Lucy. That's something I can never understand. If a film tells a true story, why should the names of the real characters be changed? See my reviews of "Judgement in Berlin" and "Westflug" for an example of a particularly confusing renaming of the real people in two different filmings of the same event.

Kate Winslet plays Julia, a young woman who has left London to live in Morocco, taking her two daughters (aged 7 and 5) with her and leaving her husband behind. Her reason for being in Morocco is that London is too dull. While I don't disagree with her criticism of London, in Marrakesh she is broke and on the verge of starvation. This might be an interesting adventure for a single person, but the suffering she inflicts on her children is totally irresponsible. She expects her husband to finance her wild life, but when no money arrives she latches onto other men to support her. At the same time she considers becoming a convert to Sufism, but the Sufi leader sees through her shallowness and turns her away.

Maybe my rating of this film is unfair. The acting is good and the Moroccan scenery is beautiful. My low rating is more of a moral judgement of the main character. This is a film I'd love to discuss with others. Please leave a comment if you've seen it and let me know your thoughts.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Melancholia (4 Stars)

What do you get if you make an art house film with a big Hollywood budget? This is it. From the very few minutes where we meet the main characters overlaid with rich symphonic music by Wagner we know that we are going to be presented with something special. The film is soaked with existentialist philosophy from beginning to end.

Justine (evidently a member of a wealthy family) and Michael arrive at their family's mansion to celebrate their wedding. During the reception Justine has sex with one of the guests on the lawn and her husband leaves her. For the next few days Justine and her sister Claire sit in the mansion waiting for a rogue planet to collide with the Earth. Claire is distraught, but Justine is unconcerned that the Earth will be destroyed.

It's not really possible to say if the film is good or bad. It depends on what you expect from a film. The film is overwhelming. Nothing more, nothing less.

Monday, 8 April 2013

End of the Game (4 Stars)

This film was made in 1975 and is based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt's novel, "The judge and his hangman". The original version was 105 minutes long, but the only version available on DVD is a German release shortened to 91 minutes. The German DVD includes the original English dialog, but I'm unable to say what was removed or why. The film closely follows the book, with only a few insignificant changes. It was the first novel written by Dürrenmatt, who is better known as a playwright.

Hans Bärlach and Richard Gastmann are two young law students in Istanbul who are in love with the same woman, Nadine. While walking across a bridge in the middle of the city Richard makes a bet with Hans that it's possible to commit a murder in public and not be convicted. Hans accepts the bet, and Richard promptly pushes Nadine off the bridge to her death. The police suspect Hans of the murder, but in the absence of any definite evidence neither of them is convicted.

30 years later Hans has become a police detective, while Richard is a leading Swiss politician. Hans is still determined to bring Richard to justice, but he is also weighed down by guilt, blaming himself for Nadine's death by accepting the foolish wager. One of Hans's fellow police officers is murdered and he decides to pin the murder on Richard, even though he knows the killer was someone else.

This was the first in three novels featuring Detective Bärlach, and unfortunately the only one to have been filmed. The books (and this film) have the structure of typical detective novels, but in spirit they are the opposite, they can be called anti-detective novels. It doesn't matter how or why a criminal is caught as long as he's guilty. The novel has long philosophical discussions on the ethics of crime-fighting which have been omitted in the film.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Elvira's Haunted Hills (4½ Stars)

I don't get it, I just don't get it. I've read a lot of reviews of this film, and they're almost all negative. They range from "not as good as Elvira's first film" to "absolutely dreadful". Am I missing something? Or maybe I'm seeing something others are blind to. This is a brilliant film. I almost feel tempted to give it five stars just to provoke those who judge it badly.

This is a fantastic film. It's a perfect parody of the American horror films of the 1930's to 1950's. The humour is camp, in the style of the the 1960's Carry On films. In fact, this film seems like an imitation of "Carry on Screaming", though I'm sure the similarity is unintentional. I laughed from beginning to end, both at the trashy jokes and the parody elements.

What's the film about? Elvira plays a stripper who has done a show in Transylvania in 1851. While on her way back to Paris her carriage breaks down, and she is picked up by a handsome stranger who takes her to Castle Hellsubus. Elvira is identical to the count's wife who died 10 years earlier under mysterious circumstances. The castle's inhabitants all have secrets and are following their own agendas. Brilliant!

The Adjustment Bureau (4½ Stars)

This is a fascinating film that deals with important topics. What makes a person make decisions? Is there such a thing as free will? Or are our decisions simply the product of the stimuli that we receive? These are questions that have been discussed in the realms of religion, philosophy and even psychology for centuries.

David Norris is a New York congressman running for the Senate in 2006. He's ahead in the polls, but on the day before the election photos are leaked to the press of an immature college prank which turns the electorate against him. The election results are announced, and by chance he meets a ballet dancer before he holds his speech to wish the winner luck. She inspires him to give a moving speech which boosts his popularity and makes him certain to win the following election.

A month later David sees the woman on a bus and finds out her name is Elise. He wants to stay in touch with her, but he is kidnapped by a group of mysterious men who burn the note with her telephone number and forbid him to see her again. They tell him that it isn't his plan. The men present themselves as the "Adjustment Bureau", an organisation of supernatural beings who have been guiding the development of the human race for thousands of years. Their job is to prod important people into making the right decisions, by creating chance encounters that will keep them to a plan written by their leader, the "Chairman". It's very rare for the bureau to let itself be seen, but David is a very important person who they want to become the American President.

David immediately makes the connection and asks if they are angels and the Chairman is God. They give a vague answer that leaves both David and the viewers to make their own decision. The bureau deny that man has free will. Everything a person does is based on the stimuli he receives from the environment, and it is up to the bureau to create helpful stimuli. The bureau members themselves are not omniscient, but they carry books with the plan written by the Chairman telling them the results from every possible stimulus.

David is not happy with being told that he has to follow a plan that forbids him to see Elise again. He demands the right to have free will and acts against the plan set for him. The word "destiny" is noticeably avoided in the film, as if to suggest that there's a higher purpose than the plan itself.

I'll stop here because I've already written too much. This review contains too many spoilers. This is a good film to watch with a friend and sit discussing afterwards. It won't change the mind of anyone who already has fixed views on destiny, whether from a theist or atheist standpoint, but it will provoke those who are undecided to consider the deeper questions of life.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Voodoo Academy (2 Stars)

This film divides people. Some reviews call it the worst film ever made, while others call it brilliant. That's why I decided to watch it. Films that provoke drastically opposite opinions are usually "interesting", to say the least. Unfortunately, after watching it I tend to side with those who dislike it. It's definitely not the worst film ever made, but very little speaks in its favour. The acting quality is proficient, better than in most B films, but not outstanding. The plot has an incomprehensible logic. Let me try to describe it. Mrs. Bouvier, a wealthy young widow, wants to conquer the world by raising all of the world's dead as zombies obedient to her alone. To do this she needs to transform six male virgins into miniature living voodoo dolls. In order to find virgins she founds a fake religion and opens a bible school for men, with a charismatic but creepy priest as its only teacher.

Aren't there easier ways to find virgins? Creating a new religion is hard work. Instead of gathering men in their late teens she could have selected younger boys. Maybe there is an age limit, maybe the virgins have to be over 18, but that's never said in the film. It all seems to be an excuse for homoerotica. Mrs. Bouvier is attractive, but we never see her clearly. Apart from the opening scene she's always half hidden in the shadows. The boys, on the other hand, spend most of the film walking around the school in their underwear. They lie in their beds at night sensually writhing and stroking themselves. The film's target audience seems to be viewers who like to look at attractive young men. That's not my thing, so I can't rate the film any higher.

Amazing Spider-Man (5 Stars)

I watched this film last year in the cinema and reviewed it here. I now have the film on DVD and watched it yesterday afternoon. I was very hesitant to give it a five star rating. I felt tempted to deduct at least a quarter star. In itself this is an excellent film and worthy of five stars. The problem is that however good it is, it isn't up to the quality of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man film, which was perfect in every way. It was a lot closer to the comic book canon, especially where the origin was concerned.

To be honest, I don't understand the need to reboot the Spider-Man franchise so soon after the last three films were made. After all, "Spider-Man 3" was released in 2007, only five years before "The Amazing Spider-Man". I understand that Tobey Maguire didn't want to play the role any more, but it should still have been possible to continue with another actor. The reboot seems superfluous. Except for maybe the need to show Gwen Stacy's death, which will almost certainly happen at the end of "The Amazing Spider-Man 3".

Anyone who is unaquainted with Spider-Man in the comics will doubtlessly enjoy the new film. As a standalone piece of work it's remarkable. As a Spider-Man fan of many years my problems are with the departure from canon. Peter Parker's father was never an issue in the comics, so all the back story about him being a geneticist at Oscorp is unnecessary. Evidently the secrets of Peter's father's death will play a big role in the sequels, based on the after-credits scene.

However, my main problem is the choice of actor to play Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield is such an abysmal choice that it's embarrassing. He looks nothing like Peter Parker in the comics. A much better choice would have been Kodi Smit-McPhee. But it's too late to change things now, we have to put up with him for the next two films. The usual mistake is made that Spider-Man takes off his mask too often. It would have been unthinkable in the comics that Spider-Man would take off his mask while walking around school, just assuming that all his classmates have run away and won't see him.

But let's look at "The Amazing Spider-Man" in a vacuum and give it five stars. Watch it and enjoy it. It's exciting from start to finish. And Rhys Ifans is perfect as the Lizard. He's Mr. Cool in person. I'm looking forward to the next two films in the trilogy. And please please please, keep the mask on.

Friday, 5 April 2013

R.I.P. Roger Ebert

Yesterday, April 4th, 2013, Roger Ebert died at the age of 70. Though well known to me and other film freaks, I expect that most people have never heard of him, and those who do know his name will react to his death with a shrug. In my eyes he was the most important film critic ever. His reviews were worth reading. He could be both informative and entertaining at the same time. He was everything that I aspire to be, but can never hope to achieve.

He has been criticised by some for his film ratings being inconsistent and changing over the years. So what? That's normal. Whether or not I enjoy a film depends largely on my mood when I watch it. He has also been faulted for his ratings being subjective. As far as I'm concerned, film reviews must be subjective. A film isn't a masterpiece because the director follows a checklist that he learnt in film school, it's a masterpiece if it can touch the hearts, minds or souls of the viewers. And not all viewers are susceptible in the same way.

Roger Ebert was also responsible for co-writing the screenplays of various films with Russ Meyer, including "Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens", one of my favorite films.

Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert

For those who are interested, Roger Ebert made a list of the "Best film of the year"  from 1967 till 2012. Even though I don't agree with all of his selections, this is a good list of must-watch films, many of which are already in my DVD collection.

  • 1967: Bonnie and Clyde
  • 1968: The Battle of Algiers
  • 1969: Z
  • 1970: Five Easy Pieces
  • 1971: The Last Picture Show
  • 1972: The Godfather
  • 1973: Cries and Whispers
  • 1974: Scenes from a Marriage
  • 1975: Nashville
  • 1976: Small Change
  • 1977: 3 Women
  • 1978: An Unmarried Woman
  • 1979: Apocalypse Now
  • 1980: The Black Stallion
  • 1981: My Dinner with Andre
  • 1982: Sophie's Choice
  • 1983: The Right Stuff
  • 1984: Amadeus
  • 1985: The Color Purple
  • 1986: Platoon
  • 1987: House of Games
  • 1988: Mississippi Burning
  • 1989: Do the Right Thing
  • 1990: Goodfellas
  • 1991: JFK
  • 1992: Malcolm X
  • 1993: Schindler's List
  • 1994: Hoop Dreams
  • 1995: Leaving Las Vegas
  • 1996: Fargo
  • 1997: Eve's Bayou
  • 1998: Dark City
  • 1999: Being John Malkovich
  • 2000: Almost Famous
  • 2001: Monster's Ball
  • 2002: Minority Report
  • 2003: Monster
  • 2004: Million Dollar Baby
  • 2005: Crash
  • 2006: Pan's Labyrinth
  • 2007: Juno
  • 2008: Synecdoche, New York
  • 2009: The Hurt Locker
  • 2010: The Social Network
  • 2011: A Separation
  • 2012: Argo

Let me finish by quoting something from today's Daily Telegraph:

A good critic is more than someone who happens to have an opinion. He’s more than someone who happens to have an expert knowledge of his field. He’s a performer. A good piece of criticism isn’t a buyers’ guide. It isn’t facts and specifications and pros and cons, on the one hand, on the other hand, three out of five. It isn’t best ever, worst ever, all-time top 10. Instead it is, in itself, a form of entertainment. The critic’s opinion isn’t necessarily better than anyone else’s. But his writing should be.

Gloomy Sunday (5 Stars)

One of the problems of watching films repeatedly is that I can't always think of new things to write. I watched this film last June and wrote a long review here. It's a film that grows on me, and after watching it again today it's fast becoming one of my favorite films. Let me quote a review that I found on Amazon's web site, written by Daniel Jolley:

"Gloomy Sunday" ("Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod") is a hauntingly beautiful gem of a movie, a unique blending of romance, drama, and tragedy all compressed under the oppressive weight of history. This film lives and breathes, transporting you back to 1930's Budapest with beautiful cinematography, a fascinatingly brooding musical score, and the most human of characters. Released in 1999, I have no idea why this German-Hungarian film took so long to make its way to American audiences or why it was not rewarded with an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Those of us fortunate enough to have seen it have certainly appreciated it. Just asks the folks in Boston, who kept the film running for a record-breaking 70 weeks in 2004-2005. If you have a heart and soul, this film will touch and haunt them both for a long, long time.

The title refers to a song written by one of the characters, but the historical reference is to a song by Hungarian composer Rezso Seress which became known, especially in America, as the Hungarian Suicide Song. Supposedly, many souls took their own lives after basking in the emotional power of this melody, but there is virtually no corroboration for the stories that have grown up around it. (One should keep in mind that the era of the 1930's was a time of worldwide economic depression, in which the Nazi menace cast its foreboding shadow over Europe and eventually the entire world). In the film "Gloomy Sunday" is basically a love song, written by a pianist named Andras (Stefano Dionisi) for the absolutely captivating Ilona (Erika Marozsan). Ilona is the hostess of an elegant restaurant in which Andras finds employment as an in-house pianist. He falls for the dark-eyed beauty just as Laszlo (Joachim Krol), the restaurant owner did, and the three soon develop a strange but very close relationship. Jealousy sometimes arises, as Ilona shares herself with both men, but both Andras and Laszlo would rather share her than lose her. I should point out here that Ilona in no way comes across as a loose or in any way disrespectable woman. She's an angelic creature, a woman with whom men constantly fall in love, including a shy, awkward German youth named Hans Wieck (Ben Becker), who leaves Budapest broken-hearted but returns several years later as an important Nazi colonel.

Laszlo, Andras, and Ilona grow ever closer over these same years. Andras finds instant fame as the composer of "Gloomy Sunday", yet still struggles to understand just what his song is trying to say. When he despairs over the staggering numbers of suicidal men and women who left life serenaded by his mysteriously cursed song, Laszlo and Ilona are there to rescue him emotionally. Their mutual bond is eternal and true. All too soon, however, the trio's strangely enchanted world begins to come apart. The restaurant is still prospering and "the song" is still being played every night by popular demand, but the arrival of the Nazis in Hungary casts an increasingly foreboding shadow on the lives of these incredibly captivating characters. Fear takes on a palpable presence in their lives as Jews are rounded up and transported to concentration camps. Only Hans affords them, especially Laszlo (for he is Jewish), any kind of safety net in this oppressive and increasingly dangerous environment.

The dogs of greed, betrayal, and pure evil inevitably come to have their day, making for an emotionally jarring final half hour of this film. The subtlety with which the most painful blows strike only makes the tragedy all the more intense and instructive. That subtlety carries over to the ultimate conclusion, which could not have been presented more effectively.

I could go on and on about the unsurpassed strengths and natural beauty of this film, but words can never communicate my true passion for this film. "Gloomy Sunday" approaches cinematic perfection, in my humble opinion, and I would urge any and every person to experience its emotional power for himself.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Griff the Invisible (4 Stars)

Shy office worker by day, costumed crime fighter by night. Super-hero films are in, and this is Australia's contribution to the genre. More important than the crime fighting itself is Griff's personal development. When the film begins he thinks that it's his destiny to be a loner, sharing his secret with nobody. This changes when he meets his brother's new girlfriend who immediately sees through his super identity.

Attack Girls Swim Team vs The Undead (3½ Stars)

Sayaka is kidnapped as a young girl. She is trained to be a deadly assassin. That much follows the plot of "Nikita". The man who has kidnapped her is an expert in body modification and creating deadly viruses. While on a mission Sayaka runs away and decides to hide by going back to school. Unfortunately her kidnapper discovers her location and unleashes a virus in the school that turns both teachers and students into flesh-eating zombies. The chlorine in the swimming pool is an antidote to the virus, so only the high school swimming team remains unaffected. Armed with chainsaws and ninja swords, which just happen to be lying around in the school, they battle the forces of the undead.

This is a fun film for fans of low budget Japanese gore. The nude scenes provide added excitement.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

My Best Enemy (4½ Stars)

I last watched this film in November 2011 and reviewed it here. I labelled it as a German film, even though it was made in Austria. This wasn't a mistake, it was deliberate. Austria is part of Germany.

Yes, I know this is a controversial statement. It's something that I've been telling both Germans and Austrians for years. The first reaction from other people is that they think I'm ignorant of the geographical facts. I can assure you this isn't the case, I know where the lines are drawn on the map. Some people compare my "ignorance" with calling Canadians American. This is a totally false comparison. Austrians feel insulted if I call them German, but I insist that I am correct. My statement is based on historical facts, that have to do with the unique nature of Germany in world history.

Germany as a nation has only existed since 1871, when Bismarck united 12 kingdoms. And yet people had spoken about Germany for centuries. What was the "Germany" that had previously existed? It was the area inhabited by a people who had been united by a single language since the time of the Romans. Germania might have been divided into many kingdoms, but it had always been a cultural unit with well known boundaries. Austria had always belonged to "Germany", and for centuries Vienna was even considered the leading city of Germany. In 1871 Austria failed to join the new German state because of quarrels with Prussia, but this only incited the Austrians to think of themselves as the true Germany, unjustly separated from the rest of the country that belonged to them. This was still the case 60 years later. An Austrian called Adolf Hitler began his political career in Germany. In 1938 Bismarck's work was completed when the Austrian government voted to become part of Germany, and Germany accepted them.

Things changed after the Second World War. Austria quickly separated itself from Germany again and declared itself innocent of all war crimes. This is the ironic situation that still exists today. Germany as a nation is guilt-riddled, and even children born after the war are taught in school to accept that they share Germany's guilt in the Holocaust. Austria, however, denies all guilt, as if they were forced into Germany against their will. Jews lost their lives and their property in Germany and Austria. In Germany stolen property was returned to Jews or their relatives, but in Austria property was never returned. Returning stolen property would have been an admission of guilt, and Austria as a country pleaded innocence. The denial also involves Austrians denying that they are or ever have been German.

I said at the beginning that Austria is part of Germany. Let me rephrase that. It would be more accurate to say that Austria is Germany. That is a fact that no amount of arguing or lines drawn on a map can ever change.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

12 Winters (4 Stars)

This month I'll be watching more German films than usual. I'll either be watching new films or re-watching old favorites. After "Die Frau, die im Wald verschwand" and "Berlin 36" I'm turning my attention to "12 Winters". Though I admit it can hardly be called a classic, it's still a highly enjoyable film. It's the true story of Klaus Starck and Michael Roth, who robbed more than 30 banks from 1990 to 2001. I already wrote about it in my review last year. If you are an aspiring bank robber, there are two lessons you can learn from the film:

1. Robbing banks today is more difficult than it was in 1990.
2. You have to know when to stop.

Concerning point 1, the film shows that better security measures due to technological advances between 1990 and 2001 made the robberies more difficult. I assume that it's even more difficult today.

Concerning point 2, the film shows that the robbers should have quit while they were ahead. When they realised the police were closing in on them they decided to stop, but then they changed their minds and robbed two more banks. That was a fatal error.

I'm very impressed with Axel Prahl, who plays Klaus Starck. He's rapidly becoming one of my favourite actors.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Berlin 36 (4 Stars)

This is the true story of the German high jumper Gretel Bergmann, played by the delicious looking Karoline Herfurth, the girl on the right in the above photo. There's something undescribable about Karoline. She isn't beautiful in the conventional sense of the word, but something about her face is appealing.

Though based on true events, this story is practically unknown. Germany disguised a man as a woman to take part in the women's high jump in the 1936 Olympic Games. Dora Ratjen (called Marie Ketteler in this film) went on to set a new world record in 1939, but the record was declared invalid a few years later when her real gender was discovered.
I reviewed the film in more detail here. Incidentally, the real Gretel Bergmann is still alive. She's 99 and lives in New York.