Friday, 31 May 2013

Blubberella (4 Stars)

I first watched "Blubberella" six months ago and reviewed it here. At the time I decided not to rate it. The film confused me, but I found out from the DVD special features that it was a parody of "Bloodrayne 3", so I withheld my judgement. Now, watching the two films back to back, everything is clear to me. In fact, the only way to fully appreciate "Blubberella" is to watch it immediately after "Bloodrayne 3", so they really ought to be sold together. In fact, if you haven't read my review of "Bloodrayne 3", which I wrote earlier today, read it now before continuing.

The film is set in 1943. Blubberella is a dhampir, half human and half vampire. She travels to Poland to meet a Jew that she's talked to online, but when she arrives he has already been taken away to a concentration camp. She follows the train to its destination, where she meets a group of Polish resistance fighters. She teams up with them to battle the Germans, but she accidentally turns a German commander into a vampire. The doctor from the local concentration camp devises a plan to turn the German army into vampires, in addition to making Hitler immortal.

The film's plot, including much of the dialog, follows "Bloodrayne 3". The comedy is in the blatant anachronisms, such as the use of the Internet and mobile phones.  The second-in-command of the resistance group is a very obnoxious gay person, refusing to save the Jews because of their bad fashion sense. And in case you hadn't guessed by now, Blubberella is fat, so there are a lot of fat women jokes. The film breaks through the third wall by including lines such as, "There isn't a black man in this film so the whore will have to die first". The humour is racist, homophobic and misogynistic; a perfect mix!

Off-Topic: Brian Farmer Murder Update, May 31, 2013

Just over a year ago, on May 19th 2012, my friend Brian Farmer was brutally murdered in his apartment. I wrote a tribute to him a few days later. Over the last 12 months I've been growing impatient, thinking the police were doing nothing. I was wrong. Next week the trial will begin on Monday. Three people have been charged with his murder.

John Campion, 48, from Birmingham
Lisa Clarke, 40, from Birmingham
Vaughan Davies, 18, from Snareston, Leicestershire

None of these three are known to me. I just hope that the police have arrested the right people and that there is enough evidence to prove their guilt. I shall make daily updates during the trial.

Yes, I know this has nothing to do with films, but this is an important issue to me.

Bloodrayne 3: The Third Reich (4 Stars)

Uwe Boll is the worst film director of all time.

So they say. I've heard that again and again. People used to say that about Ed Wood, but just look at "Plan 9 from Outer Space" and "Glen or Glenda". Both are works of genius. People put Ed Wood down because they didn't understand him. Could it be the same with Uwe?

Uwe Boll and Ed Wood can't really be compared, neither in their filming styles nor their attitudes. Ed was very careless in his films, not taking account of things such as consistent lighting. Uwe is precise, the cinematography cannot be faulted. Ed was an idealist who wanted to create works of art, regardless of whether they would make money. Uwe is a pragmatist who wants to make films that make a profit.

I've watched several of Uwe's films in the past and given them varying ratings from medium to good, but I've only recently become aware of how much people hate him. He has been the object of an online petition to stop him making films, and the poor man has even received death threats! I've watched a series of videos and read blogs to try to understand this. It seems to me that the majority of his haters are from the gaming community, a community well known for a lack of maturity. Maybe it's a stereotype that gamers are teenage boys (or rather under-25s) who have never had a girlfriend, but stereotypes exist for a reason. Uwe Boll has made a series of films based on video games, and the gamers accuse him of not being close enough to the games. There's also criticism of sordid and over-realistic effects in his films, but various other modern directors could be accused of this. In fact, any films created by Lloyd Kaufman's Troma company have a similar style, and he doesn't receive death threats.

Uwe seems to take it all in his stride. He offered to face his five harshest critics in the ring for a boxing match in 2006. Needless to say, he won all the matches. He's evidently a tough guy. Okay, I admit that winning a fight doesn't prove a person makes good films, and I doubt being knocked out changed his critics' minds, but as a publicity stunt it was a good idea. Put up or shut up.

"Bloodrayne 3" is the third and best part in the trilogy based on the video game "Bloodrayne". I've never played the game, but I've been told that this film stays closer to the game than the previous two parts. In 1943 Rayne meets a group of resistance fighters battling the Germans in Poland. She joins forces with them, since she hates Nazis almost as much as she hates vampires. (If you remember my previous reviews, Rayne is a dhampir, half human and half vampire. She has the strengths of a vampire, but not the weaknesses such as aversion to sunlight, and she has a soul).

During a battle a German commander accidentally swallows some of Rayne's blood, turning him into a vampire. The doctor from the local concentration camp, Doktor Mangler, devises a plan to turn the German army into vampires, in addition to making Hitler immortal.

So is Uwe Boll really the worst ever film director? Based on the evidence of this film the answer is a clear No. He might not be the best, if my opinion is anything to go by, but he's certainly not the worst. I'll continue to watch and enjoy his films, whatever other people say.

Click here to read my review of "Bloodrayne".

Click here to read my review of "Bloodrayne 2: Deliverance".

Earth vs the Flying Saucers (5 Stars)

I watched this film today for the first time in many years. It's every bit as exciting as I remember it. Sure, it's dated. The repeated voiceovers give away the film's age: it was made in 1956, more than 50 years ago.

Dr. Russell Marvin is overseeing a project to send 12 unmanned satellites into Earth orbit to prepare for space exploration. While he is driving to the launch site with his wife a flying saucer swoops down over his car. As a good scientist he tries to rationalise it and denies what he's seen. This changes when he finds out that all 11 satellites launched so far have been destroyed. He is invited into a flying saucer, where he is informed that after two months the aliens will assume rule over the Earth.

The influence of this film over later films can't be overemphasised. Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks" blatantly copies imagery, but as they say, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". The flying saucers used by the Daleks in the Doctor Who television series are identical to these, externally at least. If anyone were asked to sketch a flying saucer it would look like the ones created by Ray Harryhausen for this film. His images have imprinted themselves upon our collective consciousness.

On an unrelated topic, today I started compiling a list of "30 films to watch before you die". I chose the number 30 because that way the films can be watched one a day within a month, but I'm already regretting it. My initial list contains 52 films, including "Earth vs the Flying Saucers", and it will be a hard choice deciding what to throw out. Maybe I should just give up and pick 50 films, as most similar lists do.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

General: About this blog

I'd like to remind my regular readers that this isn't a film review site, it's a film diary. You've probably noticed that I do write reviews, so what's the difference?

Because this is a diary I write about films as I watch them. If I watch a film three times I write about it three times. If I have nothing to say about a film I make a short post about it anyway. Sometimes in the case of a true story my post is about the real life events, not about the film itself. Sometimes I use a film as a springboard for a rant about something only partially related to the film itself. If a film has a special meaning to me because it reminds me of a romantic evening the first time I saw it I write about my memories of the evening.

Maybe the main difference is that I don't just want to tell my readers about films, I want to tell my readers about how films affect me. This blog is very personal. It's impossible for anyone to read it without getting to know me.

Nevertheless, I'm open to suggestions. Please leave comments if there's something you want me to write more about. I might do what you want, or I might just tell you to do it yourself. If anyone wants to write for this blog I allow "guest writers" to contribute. Ideally I would like other writers to contribute a few times a week to offer more variety. Just let me know if you would like to share your reviews here.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (4 Stars)

This is the third and final part of Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad trilogy. It should have been called "The 10th Voyage of Sinbad", because the name the film was given doesn't make sense in the slightest. Eye of the tiger? What tiger? What eye? Yes, there's a sabre-tooth tiger in one of the final scenes, but it has no more significance than any of the other monsters in the film. And if I counted right it has two eyes. I'm curious who picked the silly name of this film and why.

Sinbad travels to the land of Charak to ask permission to marry the princess. When he arrives he finds that her brother, the heir to the throne, has been turned into a monkey by a witch who wants her own son to become ruler. Sinbad takes the prince to a wizard called Melanthius to be turned human again.

Yet another actor steps into the shoes of Sinbad, and this time it's Patrick Wayne, who was fortunate enough to inherit the good looks of his father John, but not fortunate enough to inherit his acting abilities. Jane Seymour outshines him, but admittedly her damsel-in-distress role doesn't demand much acting from her. The most outstanding actor in the film is Patrick Troughton, who plays the great wizard Melanthius.

I've read that some film fans have got excited over Jane Seymour exposing her breast in this film. I missed it, I must have blinked. In my opinion it's silly to get worked up over something that might only have been in a single frame, i.e. 1/24th of a second. Who cares? It's not like she has exceptional beauty. Some people get excited when a "serious actress" exposes her flesh. I don't. If I want to see nude flesh there are much better films. Anything directed by Fred Olen Ray would be more suitable.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (4½ Stars)

This is the second film in Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad trilogy, filmed in 1973, 15 years after the first part. A new actor steps into the role of Sinbad. In the first film it was Kerwin Matthews, in this film it's John Law. Both are unknowns, even though a quick glance in IMDB has shown me that John Law has appeared in two other films in my DVD collection, "Barbarella" and "Tarzan the Ape Man". Two of the supporting characters are better known. The evil magician Koura is played by Tom Baker, well known for playing Doctor Who from 1974 to 1981. The slave girl Margiana is played by Caroline Munro, one of the sexiest British actresses of the 1960's and 1970's, who later went on to be a Bond girl in "The spy who loved me" (1977). Her face is still familiar to older people from England (including me), because she appeared in advertisements for Lamb's Navy Rum on television, in magazines and on billboards from 1969 to 1979. It could be argued that she had the best known face of the 1970's.

The plot? Sinbad discovers a golden amulet by chance while at sea. He then discovers that it is only part of a larger golden artifice, and he sets out on a mission to find all the parts. On his voyage he is accompanied by the beautiful slave girl Margiana and pursued by the evil wizard Poura. But as in all of Ray Harryhausen's films the true stars are the monsters, or "misunderstood creatures", as he preferred to call them.

There's a scene in the film where Sinbad battles with a statue of the Goddess Kali. When I was younger I was fascinated by Kali. It wasn't her religious significance, it was her appearance. Something about a naked busty woman with four arms, adorning herself with the heads of men she has killed, seemed incredibly sexy. Unfortunately she doesn't have the same sex appeal in this film. In this film the statue has six arms, which I at first considered a mistake, but on researching I've found that she originally had ten arms, but as time progressed she was portrayed with less arms, down to a minimum of four.

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (4½ Stars)

This is the first film in Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad trilogy, made way back in 1958. There are very few films that I watch that are so old. Most of the films I watch were made in 1990 or later. But this is a classic, a true masterpiece. It tells a tale of a lost age when Islam was characterised by glamorous adventurers and exotic dancing girls. What happened? How did Islam turn into the religion of hate that we know nowadays? It might not be the only reason, but one factor was the way Moslems used to party. They used to drink wine and enjoy themselves. That would be a solution today. Instead of running round the streets killing off-duty soldiers Moslems should go to the pub and drink a few pints of beer with their friends. They might even make new friends. This would further peace and understanding.

The film has nothing to do with any of the mythical seven voyages of Sinbad. It would be better to call it the eighth voyage to denote a new start. Sinbad's ship is driven by a storm onto the island Colossa. His men are attacked by a Cyclops, but a magician called Sokurah who lives on the island saves them. Sokurah leaves the island with Sinbad, but in the process he loses his magic lamp. He tricks Sinbad into returning to the island to retrieve his lamp, and fearful adventures ensue.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Dark Shadows (5 Stars)

There's no justice in the world. This film was a box office flop. I don't understand why. It was directed by Tim Burton, it stars Johnny Depp and vampires are "in". It earned $80 million at the box office, but considering that its budget was $150 million that's an enormous loss. So what went wrong? I honestly don't know. Was it the film's quality? I think not, "Dark Shadows" is a typical mix of Burton-Depp brilliance.

The film is based on the television series that holds the record for being the longest running vampire tv series ever, running for a total of 1225 episodes from 1966 to 1971. Compare that with the 144 episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". The tv series is often referred to as a soap opera, as if that would degrade it. The ctiteria for a series being a soap opera is that it is aired at least twice a week without interruption for 52 weeks a year. That would indeed qualify it as a soap opera, even though its supernatural subject matter is unusual for the genre.

Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer all claim to be big fans of the original series. As a child Johnny even wished he could be Barnabas Collins. This film fulfilled his wish at last. The story is very compact, only having 90 minutes running time, but it captures the essence of the Barnabas Collins saga. In 1760 the Collins family emigrated from England (Liverpool) to Maine, where they founded first a port and then a town that they named Collinsport. The son and heir of the family, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), has a brief affair with a maid, Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green). Unknown to him she's a witch, and when he turns away from her she curses him by making him a vampire and burying him alive.

200 years later, in 1972, his coffin is accidentally unearthed. Barnabas returns to the family mansion and finds it run down. The family matriarch, Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer) is struggling to hold onto it despite being bankrupt. Barnabas reveals the treasure hidden in the cellar and helps revive the family fishing business. But Angelique is still alive and well in Collinsport, now a successful businesswoman. She still loves Barnabas, but he spurns her once more, and she vows revenge.

The beauty of this film is the portrayal of the dysfunctional Collins family. We find out very late in the film that the younger family members, 10-year-old David (Gulliver McGrath) and 15-year-old Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), also have secrets. I'll refrain from spoilers. All I'll say is that the groundwork has been lain for a sequel. Unfortunately, after this film's poor box office performance I doubt the sequel will ever come.

TV Series: La Femme Nikita

"La Femme Nikita" is a Canadian-made television series that ran for 96 episodes from 1997 to 2001. During the first two years it was the highest rated drama series on basic cable channels in America. Despite its popularity it was never properly nurtured by the television producers. It received a cult following, leading to enormous petitions when it was announced the series would be cancelled. Eventually this led to a new series, titled simply "Nikita", which began in 2010 with different actors and is still active today after 66 episodes.

The series is based on the film "Nikita", but with strong influence from the English tv series "Callan". The first episode practically retells the film. One difference, presumably to make the leading character more sympathetic to the viewers, is that in the film Nikita was a murderer, whereas in the series she is framed for murder. Section One, the organisation that Nikita is working for, is an anti-terrorist organisation, working similarly to Section in "Callan". People are recruited against their will, and they are treated as expendable if they don't perform efficiently. Nobody ever retires from Section One, they work until they die. In the first season of "La Femme Nikita" there is no doubt that Section One is on the side of the "good guys", but as the series progresses this is put into doubt. The leaders are so ruthless in their fight against terrorism that they are willing to accept any level of collateral damage in order to succeed.

A frequently asked question is where Section One is located. In the film everything takes place in France. It's a French film, after all. In the television series it isn't so clear. Everyone speaks English, and although the series is filmed in Canada I assumed that it takes place in an unnamed town in the north of the USA. This is typical for Canadian series; they are filmed in Canada, but prominent landmarks are avoided to give the impression that the action is taking place somewhere in America. See "Highlander" as an example. This changes in the third season. In the first two episodes we are given a strong clue that Section One is in France, when we see letters showing that Michael's home address is in France. In the 16th episode of the third season we see a prominent landmark for the first time; the Eiffel Tower is visible when the agents leave the building. This is a superimposed image, of course, the episodes are still being filmed in Canada. We can deduce from this that the people in Section One are all speaking French, but through the magic of television we are hearing them in English.

When the series was first shown I didn't pay much attention to it. I saw a few random episodes in early 1997, but it didn't grip me. The reason is that I've always been fascinated by strong women, but in the series Nikita didn't seem strong. Yes, she's a trained fighter, but emotionally she's weak. She has to struggle to cope with life in Section One. The missions seemed flimsy to me, just blam blam shoot em up action that always turned out well. It wasn't until I watched a few episodes in sequence at the end of the first season that I began to understand. It's not about the missions. The missions are just a background to the real story, which is Nikita's personal development, including her love relationship with Michael. I watched the series on television throughout the second and third seasons, but that changed when I moved to England. The English broadcasts were two years behind America, so I rewatched the old episodes for a while, then lost track, and the series was complete before I knew it. After watching the film "Nikita" in 2011 I decided to rewatch the complete series on DVD. All I can say is that it's incredible. Watching it in order from the beginning shows its power. The action, the intrigue and the music. It's truly an underrated series.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Man from Uncle: How to Steal the World (3½ Stars)

This is one of the feature films made by editing together two episodes from the "Man from U.N.C.L.E." television series. As fans of the series probably know, it was intended to be a television version of the James Bond films. It succeeded in this goal. It was weekly spy action with nifty high-tech gadgets and a splash of sexy action from the main character, Napoleon Solo. Yes, I deliberately call him the main character, even though his partner Illya Kuryakin is remembered as being his equal. I don't see it this way. In the early episodes of the first series Napoleon often appeared alone, or with Illya as a minor supporting character. Due to Illya's popularity he was upgraded to equal status in the opening credits. However, if you watch the episodes you can see that he is the sidekick, only occasionally being allowed to make decisions.

The film involves a scheme by seven scientists, supposedly the seven most brilliant men on Earth. They have a plan to eliminate war by covering the world with a "docility gas" that will make everyone peaceful. A noble goal. Unfortunately, unknown to the idealistic scientists, Thrush (the evil organisation which is Uncle's nemesis) has financed their operation and plans to benefit from it by being the world's masters.

While the film isn't too bad in itself, the series was intended for weekly television episodes and should have been left as such. At some point I would like to add the "Man from Uncle" tv series to my DVD collection, but it's still too expensive. I'm hoping there will be a cheaper edition at some point in the future.

Wer früher stirbt, ist länger tot (4 Stars)

A few weeks ago I watched "Summer in Orange", which immediately became my favorite film, so I've decided to check out more films directed by Marcus Rosenmüller. He was actually born with his name spelt "Markus", but he changed it because there was already another successful German director called Markus Rosenmüller. Supposedly. The other Markus Rosenmüller also calls himself Marcus. The two men should sit down and decide that they're going to call themselves. It's weird, isn't it? Could you imagine what it would be like in America if there were a Steven Spielberg and a Stephen Spielberg?

Anyway, let's get to the film itself. It's about Sebastian, an 11-year-old boy who discovers that his mother died during his birth. He feels like he has murdered her and is scared that he will have to spend a long time in Purgatory. He thinks he can make things good by finding another wife for his father. He chooses a suitable woman, the divorced mother of a school friend, but he slips up and accidentally kills her grandmother. That means even longer in Purgatory. With the help of a local radio disc jockey he casts a spell to make his father love the woman, but the spell goes wrong and his father falls in love with the disc jockey's wife. So Sebastian makes a serious decision. The only way he can put things right is by killing the disc jockey.

Phew! It's tough being a young boy faced with so many decisions. I enjoyed the film greatly, though in my eyes it doesn't come up to the level of "Summer in Orange". It makes me want to check out more films made by Marcus Rosenmüller. Whatever his name is. IMDB lists this film as "Grave Decisions", but I don't know why because I'm not aware that it has been released outside of Germany. The literal translation of the title is "He who dies sooner is dead for longer".

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Reign Of Assassins (4½ Stars)

The original Chinese title of this film is "Swords and Rain, Rivers and Lakes". I admit that this is a mouthful, but the English title doesn't really make sense. There is no "reign" in the film, and the main characters are only indirectly assassins.

The film centres around the corpse of an Indian Buddhist monk called Bodhi. It is rumored that whoever possesses the corpse is granted supernatural powers. In the first half of the film it seems that these powers are fighting skills -- though I have a suspicion that this may be a translation error in the subtitles -- but towards the end we see that it is healing powers, such as the power to regrow lost limbs. To prevent anyone gaining such power the corpse is divided into two halves. One half is stolen from the prime minister by the Dark Stone gang, but the gang member called Drizzle (Michelle Yeoh) betrays the gang by fleeing and keeping the corpse half for herself. While on the run she meets a monk called Wisdom who takes her in and tries to turn her from her ways of evil. Only after killing him does she abandon her life of crime. She tries to live a normal life, but her former gang are searching for her, especially after they manage to retrieve the other half of the corpse.

What makes this film special is the characterisation of the outlaws. (I prefer the word "outlaw" to "assassin"). Chinese films are usually very black and white. The good guys are perfect and the bad guys are pure evil. This film attempts to show us the depths of the personalities of the Dark Stone gang. They are all very pleasant characters, and it's difficult not to like them. The leader, Wheel King, is an enigmatic teacher driven only by the desire to overcome a physical deformity. Lei Bin is a man with a passion to create the perfect noodles, always reluctant to fight, sitting and waiting until there is no other possibility. The Wizard is a man who prefers trickery to actual fighting. Even Turquoise, on the surface the most evil of the gang, is a tragic figure. She kills without mercy, but she is driven by the desire to be the most beautiful and most desired woman, flying into a rage whenever she is spurned.

The film is full of fighting scenes and romance. Other critics complain that there is not enough fighting, but I find it a good mix. The plot twist towards the end will leave you gasping. My only problem with the film is that at times there is a lot of fast dialog, meaning that the subtitle screens changed too fast for me to read them. This is my personal problem as someone who doesn't speak Chinese. Overall, this is an excellent film that I highly recommend.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Silver (1 Star)

Have you ever watched a film and felt so empty afterwards that you feel you've just wasted 90 minutes of your life?

Jun Shirogane goes to America to take part in a karate competition. She wins first place. When she returns home to Japan she finds out that her whole family has been slaughtered by a gang called the Viper's Nest. An ex-lover hires her into a secret organisation that deals with criminals "outside of the law". He promises her a chance for revenge if she carries out other missions first. For her cover she becomes a professional wrestler and adopts the name Jun Silver.

Her first mission is to retrieve the client list and photos of a dominatrix who specialises in rich and famous customers. "I have yakuza bosses among my clients. It's hard being a dominatrix". After this she is contronted by Four (yes, that's his name), an assassin hired to kill her by the Viper's Nest. Four takes his job so seriously that he protects her from anyone else who is trying to kill her.

Let's stop there. I'm a glutton for punishment. I keep returning to films directed by Takashi Miike, hoping to enjoy them, but I never do. So many people praise him that I tell myself he must be good, but I'm disappointed every time. This film does everything wrong, but the worst part is the cliffhanger ending. It looks like the studio's budget ran out before the film was finished. It ends in the middle of a gun fight, and Jun doesn't even know who is attacking her. What sort of rubbish is that? This rates as one of the worst films I've ever seen.

Mysterious Island (4 Stars)

Yet another classic Ray Harryhausen film. The film that I'm reviewing is the 1961 film version of the Jules Verne novel. As far as I know "Mysterious Island" has been filmed nine times, in 1916, 1929, 1941, 1951, 1961, 1973, 2005 and twice in 2012. Apart from this, the book was the main inspiration for the television series "Lost". I've read that a blatant hint is that a copy of the book is seen being read by someone in "Lost", but I'm still in the middle of the first season, so I can't comment any further. On a side note, it's always important to pay attention to what books film characters read on screen. It's never a random choice. The director always puts a book in a character's hand to give a message. For instance, in "Donnie Darko" Donnie's mother is seen in the garden reading Stephen King's "It". It would be interesting to see a list of books being read in films.

The film begins during the American Civil War in 1865. A small group of soldiers escape from a Confederate prison camp in Virginia by stealing a hot air balloon. They try to flee into Union territories, but a severe storm makes the balloon impossible to control, and it is swept far into the Pacific Ocean. Eventually they crash land on a volcanic island inhabited by giant creatures. These are animated with amazing precision by Ray Harryhausen. Late in the film, in the last half hour, Captain Nemo appears, who has been hiding on the island all this time. He tells them he has been working in secret, mutating creatures into giants in order to solve the world's hunger problem. But the clock is ticking. The volcano is due to erupt again, and they have to leave before they are killed.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Horrible Bosses (3½ Stars)

I thought I would take a break from the Ray Harryhausen films. Don't worry, I'll get back to them. "Horrible Bosses" has been on my to-watch list for a few months. I first noticed it when I saw a trailer for it on another DVD. That's something I do. I always watch the film trailers included on DVDs, if they're films I haven't seen yet. It's a simulated cinema experience.

According to Wikipedia, "Horrible Bosses" is the most successful black comedy of all time, having taken over $200 million at the box office, despite its humour being racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. Or maybe we should say it's because the humour is racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. Good humour is never politically correct.

The film centres on three friends, Nick, Kurt and Dale. Nick works in an office for a tyrannical boss who works him hard and denies him promotion. Kurt has worked happily for years in a company, but after his boss's death the new boss, his drug addicted son, is threatening to ruin the company. Dale works as a dental assistant and is being sexually harassed by his female boss, the dentist. They're all suffering, even Dale, so together they hatch a plot to kill their bosses. Unfortunately, murder isn't easy if you've never done it before.

For me this was a fun romp. I enjoyed it, but it had no real substance that would make me want to watch it again. Some films are only intended to be viewed once, maybe I shouldn't penalise it for that. I can recommend it to my readers who want some mindless fun. Maybe people can relate to it, because everyone hates their boss. Sometimes. On the other hand, if I ever had a boss who's a sex-crazed maneater I think I could deal with it.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (4½ Stars)

I seem to be watching Ray Harryhausen's films backwards. "Clash of the Titans" was made in 1981, "The First Men in the Moon" was made in 1964, and this film was made in 1960. It's just a coincidence, I'm picking them at random.

The film is based on the first two parts of "Gulliver's Travels", written by the Irish novelist Jonathan Swift in 1726. The three worlds are England, Lilliput and Brobdingnag. The adventures in Lilliput closely follow the novel. The introduction in England and the adventures in Brobdingnag have very little to do with Swift's novel.

The story takes place in 1699. England is at war with France, and Gulliver's patients have no money to pay for his services. He signs up as the ship's doctor on a voyage to India so that he can afford to buy a house and marry his fiancee, Gwendolyn. When they are at sea Gwendolyn is discovered stowing away below deck. After the ship passes Spain there is a storm that destroys the ship.

Gulliver is washed ashore on an island called Lilliput, where the inhabitants are very small. In the novel they are described as being about 6 inches tall, but in the film they're smaller, closer to 2 inches. At first the Lilliputians fear him, but he wins their trust by working for them. They ask him to defeat their enemy, the island of Blefescu, with whom they are at war over a dispute about how to open eggs. Gulliver tows away the whole naval fleet of Blefescu, but he refuses to kill anyone. This angers the emperor of Lilliput, so he flees in a new boat he has built himself.

Gulliver lands at another undiscovered island called Brobdingnag, on which the inhabitants are 70 feet tall. (That's the height in the novel, they seem bigger in the film). He is captured by a young girl called Glumdalclitch, who takes him to the king. Gwendolyn is waiting for him, having been stranded in Brobdingnag since the storm. The king welcomes him, but it soon becomes apparent that they are prisoners, not allowed to leave the palace. The king's physician is jealous and attempts to have Gulliver burnt, but Glumdalclitch rescues them by putting them in her basket and throwing them in the sea.

Luckily the water currents carry the basket from the South Atlantic back to England. And they live happily ever after.

I greatly enjoyed this film, even more than the book. The novel was written as a political satire, but the film is more of a critique on morals and philosophy. I can relate to Gulliver. In fact, he speaks words that could have come from my own lips. The small people around him are petty, and he tries to lift them up to his own level. The big people around him are bullies, and he has to fight to retain his individuality. For him the most important thing in his life is loving his partner, Gwendolyn, and the second most important thing is doing good to others. The novel actually doesn't have anyone called Gwendolyn, but she is a welcome addition to the film.

First Men in the Moon (4 Stars)

This is an eponymous film adaptation of a novel by H.G. Wells that was written in 1901. The novel has been filmed several times from 1919 to 2010, but this version, made in 1964, is the most famous. Why? Because it features special effects by Ray Harryhausen.

The film begins and ends in the near future, i.e. shortly after 1964, and features the first manned flight to the Moon. When the astronauts explore the surface they find a UK flag and a document dated 1899. The astronauts radio the names on the document back to the Earth. The space agency visits an old man in a nursing home who is considered mad because he claims to have walked on the Moon. From that point on the majority of the film takes place in the 19th Century as he recounts what has happened.

In 1899 a petty conman called Arnold Bedford met an eccentric scientist, Joseph Cavor, who had made a ground breaking invention. He had discovered a liquid which, when applied as paint, shields objects from the effects of gravity. The two men, together with Arnold's fiancee Kate, used a painted metal sphere to fly to the Moon. It's interesting that the sphere had no controls, mechanical or otherwise. They just looked up, saw the Moon and aimed at it. Luckily they didn't miss. The three explorers found that the Moon was inhabited by a colony of highly intelligent giant ants who lived underground, thus escaping detection from Earth telescopes. At first the explorers considered the creatures, who called themselves Selenites, to be hostile. As they got to know them they realised that they are peaceful but scared, since they knew about the warlike nature of human beings and feared a full invasion.

I enjoyed the film throughout, apart from the final five minutes which were an anti-climax. There is relatively little work done by Ray Harryhausen, none at all in the first half of the film, but what he does is excellent.

Nowadays a lot of people prefer to watch films online, legally or otherwise. It's said that this is the future of watching films. I find that a shame. It's true that DVDs take up a lot of room. I own thousands of them, and it's difficult to store them all. They're in bookcases, in boxes and lying around loose. I try to keep order, but only two days ago I flew into a panic when I couldn't find a DVD I wanted to watch. Nevertheless, look at what you get. After watching the film on my shiny silver disc I clicked on "Special Features", and what did I find? There was a 60-minute documentary on the life of Ray Harryhausen, loving narrated by Leonard Nimoy. I enjoyed this documentary more than the film itself. Apart from words by Ray himself, we see actors and directors giving their opinions of the great man. I was particularly moved by Tom Hanks telling us that "Jason and the Argonauts" is the best film ever made. People who watch this film online will miss out. Whatever else may come in the future, I plead that DVDs, Blu-rays and other hard copy versions will never be abandoned completely.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Clash of the Titans (5 Stars)

Over the next two weeks I will be rewatching some of Ray Harryhausen's films. Maybe back to back, I haven't decided yet, but not in any particular order. The film that I watched today, made in 1981, was his last film. After this he retired because he saw that the advances in computer technology were making changes to film special effects. The days of stop motion animation had ended. But what a climax this was! This film was the peak of Ray's artistic career and contains more special effects than any film he had made before.

Talking about "Clash of the Titans" as a Ray Harryhausen film makes me smile. Most people who watch films casually know the major actors. When they say something like "That's my favourite Brad Pitt film" we know they mean "That's my favourite film that Brad Pitt starred in". People who are more serious film fans know the names of directors and can see a pattern, a stylistic thread that runs through each one's films. "I'm waiting to see the next Steven Spielberg film" is a common utterance, meaning the next film directed by Steven Spielberg. But that's it. How many people can name the producer of any current film? The producer is an important person in any film, and yet he remains unknown. Apart from two minutes of fame at awards ceremonies he remains in the background. And what about the sound engineers, the cameramen, and all the other people essential to the creation of films? Only industry insiders know their names.

But with Ray Harryhausen it's different. He was unique. He wasn't an actor, and he never directed any films. And yet his name is known to film fans throughout the world. His fame eclipses the directors and actors that he worked with, even though he only created special effects. Let me prove it. Does anyone remember the name of the director of "Clash of the Titans"? Ask that in your next pub quiz. It was Desmond Davis. I can already see the blank look on the faces when they're told the answer. "Who's he?" And who played the leading role in "Clash of the Titans"? Blank faces again? It was Harry Hamlin. Maybe a few people will remember that the great Laurence Olivier played Zeus, but not many. The name of Ray Harryhausen will always be the name associated with this film.

I don't really have to say much about the plot. This is an evergreen film that is repeated on television ad nauseam. In England it seems to be shown at Easter, though I don't see the connection. It's an old Greek myth. Perseus, a son of Zeus, has to carry out great tasks before he is allowed to marry Princess Andromeda. While watching it today I was reminded of the opening words of the televison series "Hercules", which was certainly influenced by this film:

This is the story of a time long ago, a time of myth and legend, when the Earth was still young. The ancient gods were petty and cruel, and they plagued mankind with suffering and beseiged them with terrors.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Girls on top (3 Stars)

The original title of this 2001 German film is "Mädchen Mädchen", which translates literally as "Girls Girls". The English title doesn't make sense, but then again, does the German title have any meaning? Its similarity to "Sex and the City" would make me want to call it "Sex and the High School". Next time a German film is going to be released in English they should ask me first.

The film is about three 18-year-old schoolgirls who have never had an orgasm. Their plight is made more difficult by the fact that they all have sexually active parents. One has a hippy mother who has made tapes about the power of sex. One has a mother who works as a sex therapist. One has a father who is dating a model who is featured in margarine adverts. The film doesn't really reach a conclusion, it just rambles on. There's no happy ending, at least not as far as the sexual satisfaction is concerned. Together they reach the conclusion that orgasms aren't as important as people say they are. "My mother has lots of orgasms and she's not happy". Is that really the message the director wants to give us? The film starts with the three girls losing a volleyball game, and it ends with them winning a game, but the film has absolutely nothing to do with volleyball, so it's incomprehensible why the story is bookended by the games.

Director Dennis Gansel has made some very good films, such as "We are the night", "The Wave" and "Napola". In comparison, this film is an embarrassment. It's a mess. It's supposed to be a teen comedy, but it's turned out as a film about teenage angst. It's impossible to sympathise with the three girls, I can only feel pity for them.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

C(r)ook (3½ Stars)

I wonder how the name of this film is supposed to be pronounced. Is it "crook" or "cook" or even "crook cook"? The original title of the film in German is "Basta", an exclamation which means "That's enough" or "I'm finished now". But in the opening credits the word (if it can be called a word) "C(r)ook" appears on the splash screen, so even German viewers are presented with this unpronounceable fantasy word.

The film takes place in Vienna. The central characters are members of the Russian mafia, who evidently rule over the city. The film begins in an Austrian prison. Oskar Boroschnin has taken a guard hostage in an attempt to escape. He is interrupted by Maria, the prison psychologist. Maria tells Oskar that he can't leave because he has to finish his anger management classes. He says he will stay in prison if he can take her to dinner when he's released. They agree, and he returns to his cell.

Fast forward two years. Oskar has completed his sentence, and he's living with Maria. The therapy was obviously successful, because he now abhors violence and wants to leave the mafia. He is working as a cook, and he wants to publish a cookbook with recipes of typical gangster meals. His boss, the "Godfather of Vienna", tells him he can leave the mafia if he carries out one last job, the murder of his son-in-law. But due to the changes after his therapy Oskar doesn't feel able to kill anyone, so he goes to great lengths to deceive his boss.

The film takes a long time to warm up, but as it progresses it becomes exciting and sometimes even funny. Think of it as a cross between "The Sopranos" and "In China they eat dogs". Unfortunately it isn't as good as either. The film is available on DVD with English subtitles.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Deadly Maria (4 Stars)

This is a very creepy film made by Tom Tykwer in 1993. It's not a horror film, although it does have the atmosphere of horror. The film has an unsettling timeless feeling to it. Although it was probably taking place in the present (i.e. round about 1990) the apartment where most of the action takes place is full of old furniture, making it look like a setting from the 1950's.

Maria's mother died during childbirth. She grew up with her father who abused her. We see the physical abuse, and sexual abuse is hinted at. Her father keeps her as a virtual slave, a replacement for his lost wife. She has to cook and do the housework for him, and she is forced to drop out of school as soon as she is old enough. Her whole life is lived in her apartment and on the way to and from the shops. She has no friends. Her only hobby is collecting dead insects that she has killed in the apartment. She also writes letters to an imaginary friend which she posts into a hole behind a cupboard.

Shortly after she drops out of school Maria's father has a stroke and is unable to walk. She becomes her father's full time nurse. Her father arranges for Heinz, one of his friends, to marry her. She has no love for Heinz, but she marries him to please her father.

25 years later the three of them are still living together in the apartment. There have been no children, and it is a dull daily routine. Maria has to look after the two men, her father and her husband; neither of them shows any gratitude. A change comes into her life when she meets a younger man who has a life just as boring as hers. He spends all day alone in his apartment compiling a lexicon, a list of authors and books they have written.

The bad news is that this film has only been released in Germany. The good news is that the German release contains English subtitles. Click the picture above for a link.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

One Million Years B.C. (4½ Stars)

Forget what you learnt in school. This is the way the world really began. There were scattered cavemen tribes in the desert hunting for food and fighting with dinosaurs to survive. Turok is expelled from his tribe after fighting with one of the leaders. He wanders through the desert until he finds a new tribe, in particular the beautiful Loana.

This was a film made in England by Hammer studios in 1966. The main focus of the advertising campaign  was Raquel Welch, who plays the blonde cavewoman Loana. In the 1960's she was being promoted as the world's sexiest woman. (I admit it, knowing I would watch this film next was one of the reasons for my last post). I found this strange. Sure, she was attractive, but I didn't find her exceptional. There were many actresses in the 1960's who were sexier, such as Wendy Padbury, Imogen Hassall and Ingrid Pitt. Even more beautiful than those is Yutte Stensgaard, but she didn't become popular until the early 1970's. But my point is that Raquel Welch looks plain compared to any of these actresses. I admit I've only seen a few of her films, but none of them could convince me to change my mind.

Of course, I didn't watch this film today because I'm interested in getting another view of Raquel Welch. The special effects were made by Ray Harryhausen, who died on May 7th. I felt that it was appropriate to watch one of his films to remember him. Though not up to today's technical standards it's amazing how good the special effects could be created without the use of computers. I said it already, he was a giant of cinema who will never be forgotten.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Off-Topic: World's Sexiest Actresses

Men like beautiful women, and I'm no exception. So when I heard that Maxim had published the results of the 100 hottest celebrities today I had to take a look. If I had mostly agreed with the list I wouldn't have mentioned it. But what do I see? The world's hottest celebrity is Miley Cyrus? Who voted for her? Sure, she's cute, but please... the world's sexiest woman? Not even close.

Selena Gomez is in second place. That's something I can accept. She's a real beauty, with the figure of a woman and the face of a young girl. Then comes Rihanna in third place. Rihanna is a maybe, I think she needs hours of makeup to look hot, but that's what counts in polls like this: the final result as seen in music videos matters, not her natural before-breakfast look.

Fortunately, good taste does exist. Jennifer Love Hewitt is in sixth place. I'm glad she's appreciated, but I would have placed her first. Looking further down the list, Nina Dobrev only made it into 48th place. I would have put her much higher. Charlize Theron is also disappointingly low at 31st. I personally would have put Amanda Seyfried higher than 37th, but I admit that she's not everyone's taste.

So who is missing from the list? I would have placed Leelee Sobieski in the top 10, but once more, she's not everyone's taste. And please explain to me why Pam Grier isn't in the list. Sure, she might be over 60, but she's still one of the hottest women on the planet. I'm happy to see that Kristen Stewart didn't make it into the top 100. That would have been an insult.

You can check Maxim's Top 100 list at this link. This is my personal list of the world's most beautiful actresses. I might have forgotten someone, but I doubt I would make many changes. Feel free to disagree.

1. Jennifer Love Hewitt
2. Pam Grier
3. Ziyi Zhang
4. Jennifer Ellison
5. Selena Gomez
6. Leelee Sobieski
7. Nina Dobrev
8. Jennifer Tilly
9. Tyra Banks
10. Megan Fox

R.I.P. Ray Harryhausen

I only found out a few minutes ago that Ray Harryhausen died three days ago on May 7th. This may be too soon to write a tribute, I'm still sitting here with tears in my eyes. I feel that a man of such greatness has passed from this Earth that the world will never be the same. All of today's "big directors" pay homage to him and name him as influential on their work. His funeral will be a who's who of the entertainment industry. Forget Jim Morrison, Ray Harryhausen's grave will be the place of pilgrimage for decades, maybe centuries to come.

He was truly an old-school special effects man. He did with his hands what today's people do with computers. What are his most famous films? Most people would name "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Clash of the Titans". (Don't you think that the recent remake of the latter fell flat in comparison with the original?) I would add "One Million Years B.C." to that list. But it's unfair to make choices. All of his films have their merits.

There's little else I can say about this great man. Let me just quote remarks made by a few directors.

George Lucas: "Ray has been a great inspiration to us all in special visual industry. The art of his earlier films, which most of us grew up on, inspired us so much. Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars"

Peter Jackson: "The Lord of the Rings is my 'Ray Harryhausen movie'. Without his life-long love of wondrous images and storytelling it would never have been made – not by me at least".

James Cameron: "I think all of us who are practitioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are".

This is a well-known photo of Harryhausen with one of the skeletons that he made for "Jason and the Argonauts". Looking at it today it holds special symbolism. The skeleton is today's filmmaker, armed with all the weapons of modern technology, looking up helplessly at the giant who gave him life.

TV Series: Lost

Believe it or not, I only discovered this series a few weeks ago. I'd heard of it, of course. I knew that it was a phenomenon in the United States, something that made people wait with baited breath to see what would happen each week. Partly it was the hype that put me off watching it till now. If everyone says that something is great, I don't want to be one of everyone, I want to be myself. On the other hand, the subject matter didn't attract me. People shipwrecked on a desert island? Boring. Why should I watch something like that?

Then a couple of weeks ago I saw the complete series box set on offer for a very cheap price. I forget what the price was, I'll have to check, but it was low enough to be considered a dumping price. I was fascinated from the first episode onwards. I should have known that anything created by J. J. Abrams would be worth watching. The strength of the series is in the rich characters. They fit together so perfectly.

Jack Shephard, the involuntary leader grieving for the loss of his father.

Charlie, the pop singer struggling with a drug addiction.

Kate, the alleged murderess.

Sayid, the Iraqi ex-soldier.

I could name many others, but my favorite character so far is the enigmatic Mr. Locke. While the others on the island are anxious to escape he thinks of it as a miraculous place that blesses all who live on it.

So far I've only watched the first 8 episodes, so I don't know too much about it. All I can say is that it was worth waiting for. What I mean is, the tension would have been unbearable, having to wait a whole week for each new episode

I've mentioned before that DVD and Blu-ray prices are much higher in America than in England. I just took a break to check the prices, so let me give this box set as an example.

Lost Complete Box Set (DVD) in England: £48.25 -- approx $75.50
Lost Complete Box Set (DVD) in America: $212.99 

That means the American price is approximately three times as much. But now look at the Blu-ray prices:

Lost Complete Box Set (Blu-ray) in England: £45.00 -- approx $69.50
Lost Complete Box Set (Blu-ray) in America: $429.95

Please notice that in England the Blu-ray version is cheaper than DVD. The American price is more than six times as high as the English price. Poor Americans, you're being ripped off. Come and live in England. Films are cheaper and you get free health insurance.

TV Series: Ghost Whisperer

As my regular readers already know, I don't only watch films. I also watch television series, both drama and comedy. I don't watch them on television itself. I cancelled my television license two years ago. I disconnected and boxed the satellite receiver I had been using. I can still watch television programmes online. Under English law a television license is needed if I watch live television programmes on the Internet, but I don't need a license for watching recorded programmes, such as those offered by Iplayer. This way I can watch the very few current series that I like, and I can sample other series that I'm not sure about. Even so, this is the exception. The only television series I watch regularly online is "Doctor Who". I watch all other television series on DVD.

I own a large number of television series on DVD. I have two large bookcases full of box sets. If you click on the "TV Series" label on the right you'll find some of the series I watch. I don't review every series I watch. Sometimes I watch a whole season of a television programme over the course of a few days. More often I alternate the series that I watch, a few episodes at a time. This gives me more variety, and it's more of a television-ish experience.

"Ghost Whisperer" is in some ways a guilty pleasure. I wouldn't call it a great television series. If I had to make a list it wouldn't be in my top 10, and probably not even in my top 20. And yet I enjoy it. It's good light-hearted fun. Melinda Gordon is a woman who can talk to ghosts, or as she prefers to call them "earthbound spirits". These are people who have died, but remain on Earth because they have unfinished business. Sometimes it's revenge, but more often it's a last message they want to tell a loved one. Melinda helps the ghosts tell their messages or give up their plans of revenge, so that they can "pass on" by walking into the light. It seems that in the Ghost Whisperer mythology, as far as I've watched, that all the dead go to the same better place. There's no Hell awaiting us, only happiness where we reunite with those we have lost.

This superficial Weltanschauung isn't something I would take seriously, but one thing attracted me to the series in the first place: Jennifer Love Hewitt. I admit to having something of a crush on her, ever since I first saw her in "I know what you did last summer" 15 years ago. Her large breasts on a tiny body make her look delicious, and her playful grin is captivating. "Ghost Whisperer" is worth watching just to see her pretty dresses from week to week.

Having said that, the series has a strong supporting cast, in particular Jay Mohr as Professor Rick Payne and Camryn Manheim as Delia Banks, Melinda's shop assistant. In the first season the assistant was Aisha Tyler who played Andrea Moreno. Please don't get me wrong, Aisha is very beautiful, but somehow she didn't fit into the series and I was glad when they killed her off at the end of the first season. She was beautiful but boring, there was no chemistry between her and Jennifer Love Hewitt. The weakest link in the series is Jim Clancy who plays Melinda's husband Jim. Or maybe I'm just jealous.

Till now I've only watched about half of the series. (It ran for five seasons from 2005 till 2010). Maybe it will improve as it continues. But whether it does or not, I'll watch it all.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

She-Hulk XXX (3¾ Stars)

The story takes place just as fans of the 1980's Marvel comics series remember it. Jennifer Walters is a successful attorney. During preparation for a trial she's shot and receives a blood transfusion from the only person with a compatible blood group: her cousin Bruce Banner. This turns her into a green monster, but of a different type to the Hulk. The main difference is that while in green form Jennifer retains her intelligence. Her green self is actually beautiful, in a muscular way, and Jennifer acts in a sexy, self-confident way. She can control her change from one form to the other, it isn't triggered by anger.

I've been waiting for this film for a long time. Ex-WWE wrestler Chyna is perfect for the role of She-Hulk. Director Axel Braun says she was born for the role, and I agree. I expected a 5 star film, but I have a few complaints.

1. Jennifer's moral integrity is tarnished in this film, unlike in the comics. She uses her sexual wiles to gain advantage in her court cases.

2. Chyna seemed somehow bored during her sex scene with Eric Masterton. She definitely wasn't on top form for the film.

3. I was disappointed that She-Hulk's breasts remained covered throughout the film, even during her sex scenes. Anyone who knows Chyna knows that her breasts are stunning, large, heavy and well formed.

Apart from these faults, my congratulations to Axel Braun on another well made film. He understands continuity better than those responsible for the mainstream Marvel films. There were guest appearances by the Fantastic Four and Hawkeye.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Rommel (4 Stars)

This is a film based on the last seven months of the life of the German general Erwin Rommel, from March to October 1944. It isn't about his most famous years, in which he fought in North Africa, winning himself the title "Desert Fox". It's about the time he spent leading the German forces in France. This is a period in his life that I personally knew nothing about.

When Rommel was posted to France in March 1944 he was Germany's most popular general, both with the public and among his fellow soldiers. Despite losing the African campaign he was still considered by Hitler to be Germany's most successful general. An invasion of Anglo-American forces was expected in France, and Hitler considered Rommel the best man to defend France. He probably was the best man for the job. He quickly sized up the logistics of the French coast and requested 15 tank divisions. This would have meant withdrawing tanks from the eastern front, so Hitler only allocated him 3 tank divisions. Rommel knew that this wouldn't be enough to defend the coast, but he mounted defences as best as he could.

After the allied forces invaded on June 6th 1944 Rommel decided that France was lost and recommended that France should be abandoned. Hitler refused to accept this, and ordered that the Germans should fight to defend Cherbourg. The German forces were crushed, so Rommel recommended that Germany should negotiate surrender to the British on the western front. This too was rejected by Hitler as cowardice.

During this time conspirators allied with Claus von Stauffenberg approached Rommel and asked for his support. He refused to join them, saying that he would follow Hitler's orders as a faithful German, but he didn't report the conspirators. After the assassination attempt failed on July 20th 1944 Rommel was wrongly named as a conspirator, presumably because he had been named by other conspirators under torture. As a result he was offered the possibility to commit suicide and be declared a hero. The German press claimed that Rommel had died as a result of war wounds, and the truth about his suicide wasn't revealed until after the war.

Ulrich Tukur is an amazing actor who has played an assortment of characters from World War 2. Apart from playing Erwin Rommel in this film, he played the title role in "John Rabe", the reluctant SS hero Kurt Gerstein in "Amen", and the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in "Agent of Grace". Maybe I've rated this film too low. I'll decide when I watch it again.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Shortcut to Happiness (4 Stars)

Sometimes I forget how good Anthony Hopkins is as an actor. Films like this remind me. It's a sign of his brilliance that we remember his characters, not the man himself. A truly great actor can fade into the background and let his acting speak for itself.

This independent film isn't well known, despite its top level actors. Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alec Baldwin, Dan Aykroyd. Although intended for the cinemas, it has never been released in America or England. This is due to the confusing legal status of the film. The company making the film, Cutting Edge Entertainment, went bankrupt shortly after the film was completed in 2001. In 2007 Yari Film Group bought the film from the bankruptcy company. Legal wrangling has prevented it being released in English, though it's been released on DVD in other countries. I have the German version of the film, which includes the original English soundtrack.

Javez Stone (Alec Baldwin) is an unsuccessful author in New York. One evening he is approached by the Devil (Jennifer Love Hewitt) who offers him 10 years of success in exchange for his soul. The deal is sealed by sexual intercourse, which is an added bonus. This is the most beautiful Devil I've ever seen on screen. Never mind the success, I would have sold my soul for the sex alone. After five years Javez realises that success isn't making him happy, so he tries to get out of the contract. Daniel Webster (Anthony Hopkins) offers his services as a lawyer to take the Devil to court.

Overall this is a very good film. Maybe the trial itself is an anti-climax. It could have lasted an extra 15 minutes, it seemed hurried at the end. I was highly amused by the jurors, all people who had previously sold their souls to the Devil, a selection of authors and gangsters. The Devil visits Javez a few times to check up on his progress, but I wish she had stayed closer to him. My main fault with the film is that Jennifer Love Hewitt doesn't get more screen time.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Farewell, my Queen (3 Stars)

This is a French film about the chaos in the Castle of Versailles during the French revolution in July 1789, as seen through the eyes of one of Marie Antoinette's servants. It's similar to "Downfall", though a lot more civilised. The chaos is more regal.

I was asked to watch this film by a close friend. I didn't really enjoy it. I find films that take place in royal palaces somehow unpleasant. The clothing, the mannerisms, everything. I'm not saying this is a bad film, it's just not for me.

Ice Princess (4 Stars)

Casey Carlyle is an intelligent young girl in her last year of school. She has been offered a scholarship to study Physics at Harvard. This is what her mother, an English teacher, has been preparing her for all her life. That's normal, isn't it? Intelligent parents push their children because they want them to go even further than themselves. But Casey has a secret passion. She wants to be an ice skater. She trains in secret, and when it comes out in the open she defies her mother by turning down her scholarship.

This is a girly film. Typical Walt Disney fare. The target audience is pre-teen girls, but I thought I would give it a chance anyway. I enjoyed it, but I admit that I'm biased. Casey is played by Michelle Trachtenberg. She's one of the most beautiful actresses I know. She has an innocent beauty, not sexy but incredibly cute. I was fascinated by her face when she appeared in "Buffy, Vampire Slayer" at the tender age of 15, but now that she's 20 (at the time this film was made) she looks even better. Is she a good actress? Maybe not, but she's at least average. She would have been a better choice as Snow White in "Snow White and the Huntsman". If a magic mirror told me that Michelle is the fairest of them all I'd nod and agree.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Summer in Orange (5 Stars)

Incredible! This is the best film I've ever seen.

1980 in Berlin. A group of followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh decide to move to Bavaria, the small town Talbichl, to open a spiritual therapy centre. (Maybe I should mention that Bhagwan teaches that people can heal themselves by screaming). The film follows the culture clash of Prussians in Bavaria, and hippies in a strict Catholic community. It also shows how free love works in practice when human nature tends towards jealousy. Is it possible to be a vegetarian when German sausages taste so good? But more than anything this is the story of Lili, the 12-year-old daughter of a commune member who is desperate to be accepted in her new school.

The film made me laugh and cry. I'm sorry that it is only available in German, but I'm afraid that non-Germans might not "get it" anyway. Sheer brilliance!

Guru Bhagwan: His Secretary and his Bodyguard (4 Stars)

It's rare for me to review a documentary in this blog. The only one until now was "Anvil". It's not that I never watch documentaries. Only a few weeks ago I watched Trevor Macdonald's documentary about prisoners on death row in America. I didn't review it because it seemed to me like a television programme. It's a tough choice to make. What makes a documentary into a "film"? My decision is arbitrary, but the deciding factors are:

1. The documentary is in one part.

2. This one part lasts more than 70 minutes.

So, if I apply these criteria "Guru Bhagwan" is a film.

This is a subject that fascinates me. It's part of my past, when I was at at university in Berlin. In pre-unification Berlin it was common to see people in orange overalls. They were either garbage men or followers of the guru Bhagwan Shree Ragneesh. The only way to tell them apart was that Bhagwan's followers wore a necklace with his photo. A further clue was that the garbage men were mostly Turkish and male. If you saw a tiny blonde girl in orange overalls she was unlikely to be riding a garbage truck. Bhagwan's followers didn't actually have a name as a group, but they were called Bhagwans or (derogatively) Baggies. In the press the Bhagwans were referred to as a youth sect, and even though there were similarities to the Moonies (followers of Sun Myung Moon) and the Children of God (followers of Moses David) I don't think this was accurate. The Bhagwans did have communes, notably in Oregon, USA, but it wasn't compulsory to give up your normal lifestyle. It also wasn't compulsory to hand over all your money to the guru, although from my knowledge many did so. What was compulsory was that the followers were only allowed to wear orange overalls, and they had to legally change their name to a new name chosen by the guru himself. When I was studying I had a friend who was a Chemistry student, and his new name was Anand Swami Murari (Swami for short). When pressed he admitted that his previous name had been Bernhard, but he didn't like to talk about it.

Swami and I talked for hours about his beliefs. I'm sure he thought he could convert me, but my interest was on a purely intellectual level. Swami had previously been a follower of Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi (the Beatles' guru and founder of Transcendental Meditation), but he had immediately moved on after meeting Bhagwan during a vacation in India. Bhagwan's main teaching was that you should accept what you are, your being and your emotions. For instance, he said "A flower doesn't try to understand what it is to be a flower, it just is a flower". This cryptic statement might sound banal, but at the time it was a revolutionary teaching among Indian gurus. The common teaching of gurus till then had been to "discover yourself". Bhagwan taught the opposite. He told his disciples that they didn't need to find themselves, they should just be themselves. He claimed that self-enlightenment was irrelevant. He also dismissed the search for happiness. "If you feel sad you should not try to overcome your sadness, you should enjoy your sadness". He saw emotions as the core of a person's being. All emotions, including sadness, should be savoured. This might seem similar to the traditional Hindu acceptance of Karma, but it is actually a step further. A Hindu might accept being born into poverty as a result of his former life. Bhagwan taught that you should accept the feeling of hunger in your stomach, that you should "feel the hunger".

Bhagwan's most notorious teaching was that he rejected the ascetisism taught by other gurus. For him sexual desire was something positive, so he advocated free love. If a man and a woman feel lust for one another they shouldn't resist it, they should copulate and enjoy the lust. However, he rejected orgasms as a temporary high and said they should be avoided. He taught that his followers should attempt to make love without reaching orgasm, because the orgasm made the feelings of lust cease.

Bhagwan carefully avoided teaching about good and evil. For him it was all about contentment. He was of the opinion that if all men were contented, it would be an automatic result that nobody did anything to hurt others. For instance, if you feel tempted to steal something you should enjoy the feeling of greed. He said that you shouldn't actually steal it, but that isn't because stealing is bad. The reason is that if you steal you will no longer feel desire for the item. It's better to sit and enjoy the longing for it.

Now to the documentary itself. It's based on the memories of the two people closest to him, his personal secretary and his bodyguard. "Secretary" doesn't really describe the role of Sheela Silverman. She managed all his practical affairs. He withdrew and allowed her to do everything on his behalf, so it would be more accurate to call her his manager. The film shows very little of his teachings, it concentrates on the practical development of his organisation, from India to America. When I was in Berlin I only saw the positive sides of the organisation. The documentary shows the grim reality. Hugh Milne, the bodyguard, asks repeatedly "When did it start to go wrong?" He doesn't answer the question, so I'll answer it for him. The turning point was when Bhagwan moved to America in 1981. He stood at the top of the steps outside of the airplane and said "I am the Messiah that America has been waiting for". That was it. The humility was gone. He may still have been a man of wisdom, but this was the beginning of his decline.

On entering the USA the former religious movement had to become a political entity to survive, and it was Sheela who masterminded the transition. She bought a ranch for a new commune in Oregon for five million dollars, but it wasn't until they moved in that they realised it was zoned as farming land, and a maximum of six people were allowed to live on it. This was a disappointment for Bhagwan, who wanted to have a commune with 10,000 people. They solved the problem by founding a new city, which is evidently easy in America if you have 150 American citizens who sign a petition. And the city of Rajneeshpuram was founded, which rapidly grew in size. Cult members were brought from abroad by arranging marriages with US citizens. People from surrounding cities opposed them, so a stage of siege developed. Cult members were armed to defend their city. Sheela made a speech in which she said "For every one of us that you take we will take 15 of your people". The spiritual level of the commune changed. In the past Bhagwan had been a teacher. Now he told his followers that they would grow spiritually merely by looking at him, so once a day he drove round the city and waved to his followers from his Rolls Royce. Hugh left the commune in 1982. Sheela was arrested in 1985 on charges of attempted murder. In 1987 Bhagwan was expelled from America and returned to his humble roots in India.

It's sad, really. Though I would never have considered becoming a Baggie, his teachings were profound. Things collapsed so fast. The lack of humility was the seed. Bhagwan could have had a more positive effect on the world if he had remained more modest. Even after his death in 1990 he still has believers who follow his teachings. I hope they are able to accept the good and forget the bad.

This documentary was made in Switzerland, where Hugh and Sheela both live today. Although made in English, until now the film has only been released in Germany. I hope this will change soon, since it's a film worth watching everywhere, especially in America.