Monday, 27 October 2014

The Babadook (4½ Stars)

Based on the advance reviews, this Australian horror film has taken the film industry by storm. The prestigious magazine Empire, which is a lot more stingy with its ratings than I am, awarded it five stars in its last issue. That made me sit up and take notice. The film trailer looked like a typical modern horror film, nothing out of the ordinary, and the name? "Babadook"? That sounds like a children's babbling. The name alone would have kept me away from the cinema, if not for the praise that has been heaped on the film.

After seeing the film, I wouldn't say that it's original. I don't say that as a criticism, I'm just contradicting other reviewers. A film doesn't have to be original to be good, especially not in an established genre like horror. The film reminds me of "The Shining","The Exorcist" and to a lesser extent "Candyman".

I'll say very little about the plot. Actually, very little happens, even if I were to give a full description. It's all about suspense and terror, rather than the story itself. The story is about a single mother who lives with her son, who is in his first year of school. The boy is scared of a character he's read about in a book, the Babadook.  As the film progresses the Babadook drives first the boy, then his mother to madness.

It's a difficult film to explain. All I can tell you is that you shouldn't let the silly name put you off.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Marnie (3 Stars)

A decent woman don't have need for any man.

Margaret Edgar, nicknamed Marnie, is a habitual thief. She uses her good looks to get jobs despite her lack of references. When the boss trusts her she robs the company, after which she runs away to another state and starts again with a new name and new identity. This goes well until her boss at a publishing company, Mark Rutland, discovers her theft. Instead of reporting her to the police he blackmails her into marrying him. She refuses to consummate the marriage, because she doesn't like men, but he gives her time.

This was one of Alfred Hitchcock's least successful films, although critics have praised it as a masterpiece. In many ways it's similar to "Psycho", except that in this film the mad person is a woman. As usual, I agree with the viewing public. The film is low key, and every time the expectation of violence doesn't come about it's an anti-climax. On more than one occasion we expect Mark to force himself on Marnie and rape her, but he calms himself down at the last moment. On two occasions Marnie is holding a gun and we expect her to shoot someone, but nothing happens. The explanation scene at the end drags on too long.

No, fellow critics, this isn't a masterpiece.

"Does this suit make me look fat?"

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Banquet (4½ Stars)

In America this film was released as "Legend of the Black Scorpion". While there is some mention of scorpions during the film, as the main ingredient of a powerful poison, I find the name "The Banquet" more suitable. According to the text accompanying the DVD the film is an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Hamlet", but I fail to see a connection. Maybe one of my readers can help me out.

The story takes place in 10th Century China. The Emperor's son, Prince Wu Luan, is in love with a beautiful noblewoman, Little Wan. Before they can get married the Emperor takes Little Wan as his wife and gives Qing, the daughter of his first minister Yin, to Wu Luan as wife. Rather than marry Qing, Wu Luan runs away to become a dancer and actor.

Three years later the Emperor is murdered by his brother Li, who becomes the new Emperor. Li marries Little Wan and she continues to be Empress. Wu Luan returns to the imperial court, feigning obedience to his uncle while waiting for a chance to avenge his father's death. He still loves Little Wan, but feels that it would not be right to marry a woman that he calls his mother. He reunites with Qing, who has loved him all this time. She is devoted to him, but sad because she knows that he really loves somebody else.

Emperor Li doesn't trust Wu Luan and appoints him ambassador to a distant kingdom in order to keep him far away. When Qing asks for permission to accompany him the Empress (as Little Wan is now known) becomes jealous and orders Qing to be whipped. Qing's brother decides to take revenge, but unknown to anyone the Empress is planning to kill her husband and become the sole ruler. It becomes a race against time to see who will kill who first.

The film is very melodramatic and bears all the characteristics of a tragedy. The fight scenes are very stylised, looking more like ballet than battle. Rather than the vibrant colours typical for modern Chinese films, there is a lot of black and white. Zhang Ziyi proves her skill as an actress by portraying a conflicted woman who feels a deep love, but puts her political career first.

Unfortunately, the DVD release is unsatisfactory. The picture has been cropped to full screen aspect ratio, and for most of the film the picture is blurred. I've been informed that the Blu-ray release is better.

Inception (5 Stars)

I can't believe that it's been three years since I watched this film. Why did I wait so long? It's brilliant. The action is amazing, but the mind-bending plot is so complex that you need a scorecard to keep up. Wonderful. Maybe I'll write a longer review next time I watch it. I shouldn't wait another three years.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Life of Pi (5 Stars)

This is the second film that I watched with Ian last night. It's another good choice. It's a film that expresses a deep spirituality that overwhelms me every time I watch it. Watching it again last night made it the fifth time I've watched it since I began my blog in 2010, and it's the fourth time I've watched it this year.

I remember that when the film first appeared in the cinemas a friend of mine said that she wouldn't go to see it because she thought it was silly that a boy should live with a tiger in a boat. She didn't get it. It's like the people who refuse to watch professional wrestling because they say that wrestling is fake. This isn't a random comparison. In both the "Life of Pi" and the WWE the story is more important than what happens. People who say that wrestling is fake are missing the point; they don't understand that it's irrelevant whether it's real sport or not. Did Piscine Molitor Patel, a.k.a. Pi, really spend 227 days in a boat with a man-eating tiger? To ask whether the story is true or not is missing the point.

Night Train (5 Stars)

Last night my friend Ian came round to watch a couple of films with me. He wanted to watch a mystery, and this is the film he picked. Good choice. The film starts off quite mundanely, then develops into a supernatural mystery, mixed with deliciously understated horror and black humour. It's also a psychological thriller, revealing the depths of human greed. The film ends without resolution, leaving a hook for a sequel, but I'm happy that the sequel was never made. "Night Train" is perfect in itself.

Having said that, I wish that the DVD contained deleted scenes as extras. In the final credits the cast are listed in order of appearance, and two names are listed at the end who don't appear in the film. It's good that this scene, whatever it was, was removed, because I like the film ending as it is. Nevertheless, I would like to see it.

If I were to make a list of the world's most underrated films, this would be at the top of the list. How did it slip through the cracks? Why does nobody know it? It deserves to be recognised as a classic.

The things people do for love.....

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Haunting Desires (4½ Stars)

After purchasing the censored version of "Haunting Desires" two years ago I have finally managed to find an uncensored version on Ebay. I didn't spot it earlier because it's been renamed "Tales from the Erotic Side". There's some confusion where this version came from.

As I mentioned in my last review, the official version of the film wasn't released on Fred Olen Ray's own label, Retromedia. I asked Fred about it, and he said something about having made an exclusive contract with Blockbuster for this film. He was requested to make cuts as part of his deal with Blockbuster, and he couldn't release an uncut version even if he wanted to. So where has the uncut version come from? Fred claims that it's an illegal version ripped from television. However, the uncut version was released by Third Millennium Multimedia (TMM), a reputable company that specialises in releasing films made by small independent studios. At first glance the picture and sound quality seemed identical to the official version, but when I examined closer I could see evidence of NTSC to PAL conversion. Judging by the fuzz around the text in the title screen, the new title was edited into the picture. Compare the pictures above. However, I suspect that TMM is innocent in the matter. The company was probably given the material by someone claiming to own it. It's old news now, because the DVD was mastered on January 17th 2005 and is no longer being distributed by TMM.

This is probably the best erotic film that Fred made using his pseudonym Nicholas Medina. I regret having purchased an illegal DVD, but in my defence I have to say that it was the only way I could get it. If Fred ever reaches an agreement with Blockbuster and manages to release an uncut version, I'll buy it again from him. That's a promise.

Doesn't Jay Richardson know he should never turn his back on a vampire?

Monday, 20 October 2014

Confessions of a Driving Instructor (4 Stars)

This is the third film in the "Confessions" series, and it is based on the novel with the same name. The four films tell the story of Timothy Lea, a rather clumsy young man who fails in whatever career he tries, but nevertheless has success with the ladies. It must be his long blond hair that attracts them. I admit that the reason I watched this film today is because it's the only film I have that stars Lynda Bellingham, who died yesterday, aged 66.

Our hero Timothy, played by English comedian Robin Askwith, has recently qualified as a driving instructor. As is to be expected, all the students at his new driving school are women. All his lessons end with special instructions on the back seat. Timothy manages to flirt with the enemy by dating the daughter of the owner of a rival driving school, Mary Truscott, played by the late Lynda Bellingham. After many comic capers the film ends with a car chase that Roger Moore would be proud of -- hardly surprising, because the screenwriter Christopher Wood also wrote the screenplay for "Moonraker" and "The spy who loved me".

Lynda Bellingham
31 May 1948 – 19 October 2014

Here are a few photos of Lynda and Robin from the film. Click on the pictures to enlarge them..

Robin takes Lynda for a drive.

"You want to do what? Now?"

Lynda and Robin on the back seat.

Lynda and Robin watching rugby on television.

"The game's over, you can let go now".

Annabelle (4 Stars)

I went to see this film with my friends in the Birmingham Film Club. Okay, I know the official name is "Birmingham Movies & Social Group", but as far as I'm concerned it's the Birmingham Film Club. It's a prequel to "The Conjuring", although the connections between the two films are very tenuous.

The film takes place in 1967. It's a perfect but sterile world in which everyone dresses smart and neighbours go to church together. The television broadcasts news about Charles Manson, but the evil world of religious cults is far, far away. Or so it seems.

John Form buys a doll for his pregnant wife Mia, who is an avid doll collector. She needed the doll to complete a collection. As soon as the doll was shown there were groans in the cinema audience. Anybody who buys a doll that ugly deserves whatever happens to him. Even worse, after the birth the doll is placed in her baby's room. An ugly doll like that would traumatise a child even without being possessed. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Shortly before the birth the Forms hear screaming from their next door neighbours' house. The neighbours have been killed by their daughter, Annabelle Higgins, and her boyfriend, who we later find out belong to a Satanic cult. The evil pair break into the Forms' house, but John manages to shoot them. God bless America for home defence! As Annabelle lies dying her blood drips onto the doll. In the following scenes we see that the doll is possessed by Annabelle's spirit.

The doll is also called Annabelle, but we don't find this out until later in the film. Is it a coincidence, or did the Forms have a twisted sense of humour and pick the name for her after the killing? I don't know.

I feel guilty rating the film so highly. It's a trashy film, relying on sudden jumps in music and action to scare the audience, but it does its job. It made me jump in my seat a few times. I enjoyed it, but I doubt I'll want to watch it again.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Quellen des Lebens (4 Stars)

Let me start by telling you a bit about myself. I'm a big fan of German cinema, especially films made since 1990. In my opinion Germany makes better films than any other country except for America. And even then I would only conditionally put German films in second place. The best films are made in America, because there are incredible directors like David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, but there are also a lot of bad films. In contrast, very few bad films are made in Germany, probably due to better quality control filtering out the turkeys before the first frame is shot. This means that even though the best films are American, the average quality of German films is higher.

Living in England I'm at a disadvantage. Very few German films are shown in English cinemas. DVD Rental services don't offer German films. Since I disagree with film piracy, the only way I can see them is by buying them. About twice a year I browse through the reviews on Amazon Germany looking for recommendations. I make a list of the films I want. Then I check Amazon's prices. If they are cheap enough (under 8 Euros) and there are at least five films I want (to save on postage) I make an order.

This is how I came to buy "Quellen des Lebens" (engl. "Sources of Life"), despite knowing very little about it. The first thing I did was read the text on the box, and I noticed was that it was a long film, almost three hours. After watching the first half hour the episodic nature made me wonder if it was a true story, so I paused the film and looked for film reviews online. Yes, it's not mentioned on the box, but this is an autobiographical film about the life of the film's director, Oskar Roehler. I wish I'd known that before I'd started watching, but now that I knew it I continued.

The film tells the story of Oskar's first 18 years, from 1959 to 1977. Actually, the story starts 10 years before his birth, when his grandfather returns from captivity in Russia. I'm always fascinated when someone tells his life story, because I'm currently working on my own life story, and I think that it's something that everyone should do. A friend recently told me that he wouldn't write about his own life because he thinks that it's something only celebrities should do. I disagree. I believe that everyone should leave something behind when he dies, a footprint in the sand, as I like to call it. In our information age it's possible. Maybe my friend isn't and never will be a celebrity, but that doesn't mean that nobody will read his book. One day his great-grandchildren who have never met him will discover his book and read and re-read every page spellbound.

Even Oskar Roehler isn't someone that I would call a "celebrity". He's a minor author and director with only limited fame even in Germany. He wrote his autobiography in 2011 and filmed it in 2013. That's a luxury that I don't have. My life story will never be filmed, but I'll be glad if the text version will travel around the Internet and be archived somewhere forever, waiting to be rediscovered a hundred years from now.

It would be interesting to share opinions with someone like Oskar Roehler who has written an autobiography. I'm in something of a dilemma. In what I've written so far I've included some very personal details about my ex-wife, negative things that will embarrass her when she realises that they've been made public. I feel tempted to omit them, because I still love her and want to spare her the embarrassment, but some of these things are very important, because I need to explain why I left her. Oskar puts his father in a bad light, but he was already dead at the time the book was published. For instance, Oskar says that his father had sex with his mother when he was watching as a young child. I don't know if this was illegal in Germany, but to me it's very disturbing. Would Oskar have written this in his book while his father was still alive? That's what I would like to ask him.

Jürgen Vogel as Erich Roehler (1949)

Now to the film itself. The film opens in 1949 in Steinach, Bavaria, when Oskar's grandfather Erich Roehler returns from Russian captivity. At first Erich's wife Elisabeth won't let him in, because she became a lesbian during the war and is now living with Erich's sister Marie. Finally the three of them live together, Elisabeth sleeping with Marie while Erich uses the guest room. There are also three children in the house who were born before Erich went to the eastern front. Erich founds a company that makes garden gnomes. He throws Marie out of the house. Elisabeth leaves with her, but returns a few years later for the sake of the children.

Then the focus turns to Klaus Roehler, Oskar's father and Erich's oldest son. He begins his adult life working in his father's factory, but in his mid 20's he goes back to school to get his Abitur (the German high school diploma), and then goes to university in Cologne. Klaus is an avid existentialist, and it's his wish to become an author. He dates a girl called Gisela, the daughter of a top manager at Siemens. First the relationship is casual, until he finds out that she also reads the books of Jean-Paul Sartre. He has sex with her in 1958. According to the film she was only 15 at the time, which created problems with her parents, and they sent her to Vienna to keep them apart. (According to Wikipedia she was born in 1937, so she must have been 20. Did Oskar get it wrong?) While in Vienna she discovers that she is pregnant. She wants to get an abortion, but Klaus insists that they get married as soon as possible. And Oskar is born.

Moritz Bleibtreu as Klaus Roehler (1962) with Gisela

Klaus gets a job at a radio station, while Gisela stays at home, but she is an awful mother who neglects her son. She wants to be a writer, so she locks herself in her room typing while Oskar crawls around the apartment with dirty nappies. As Oskar gets older Klaus and Gisela fight a lot, but they also have frequent sex, not caring if Oskar is standing watching. When Oskar is three Gisela meets the owner of the Rowohlt publishing house at a party and leaves Klaus to be with him.

Klaus moves to Berlin in the mid 1960's and gets involved with the Communist scene, even mixing with members of the terrorist scene. He has a string of lovers, and it remains common for Oskar to watch his father have sex. One of his lovers even invites Oskar to join in, although Klaus refuses. Oskar grows up as a delinquent, already smoking at the age of seven. His maternal grandparents take him into their home for his own safety. Unfortunately he becomes too rebellious for his grandfather to put up with him, so when he's 13 he's sent to a boarding school.

Leonard Scheicher as Oskar Roehler (1976)

The film ends with Oskar at the age of 18 making contact with his mother for the first time since she left home. She's now a successful writer of left-wing literature, and she no longer lives with the publisher. I suppose she didn't need him any more. She's a disgusting creature, boasting about how she fights Capitalism by following old rich people and robbing them. She sits getting drunk, blowing smoke in Oskar's face, and babbling on about Communist theory. She boldly states that Communists have big penises and Capitalists have small penises. As Oskar leaves, determined never to visit his mother again, her last words are that Klaus wasn't his real father. She had had sex with a Jew on a bridge in Vienna.

The story is a fascinating picture of a man's early life. It makes me want to know more. I know about Oskar Roehler's first 18 years, but what has he been doing since?

The real Oskar Roehler

P.S. In the film the names of the characters have been changed. For instance, Oskar Roehler is called Robert Freytag. I'm not sure why this has been done, but in my review I've used the real names.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

3 Musketeers (3½ Stars)

Why is it that whenever they make a film about the three musketeers the story centres around the fourth musketeer, D'Artagnan? This film is set in present day America, but it's no exception. Please note that the correct name of the film is "3 Musketeers", using a digit for the number. That should make it easy to distinguish from all the other versions that have been made over the years.

Alexandra D'Artagnan is a desk operative at the CIA who desperately wants to be reassigned to field work. She discovers a plot by a high-ranking CIA official, code-named "The Cardinal", who wants to assassinate the American president and blame it on North Korea in order to justify an American invasion of Korea. When she tries to pass on the information she is branded a traitor, and her colleagues try to kill her. Since she doesn't know who she can trust within the CIA she makes contact with an elite undercover team, the Musketeers, made up of Terry Aramis, Isaac Athos and Jeremy Porthos. Together they battle the rogue CIA agents in order to save the president's life.

The film has a lot that speaks for it. The fight scenes are very realistic, whether they're gunfights or close contact martial arts battles. The film's pace is rapid from beginning to end, with hardly a pause for breath. On the other hand, the film suffers from having a small budget. The scenes with fighter jet battles look bad due to the poor quality CGI. If they had been filmed better, with Hollywood quality, I would have rated the film higher. Overall the plot was credible, but the final scene amused me. After a film full of fist and gun fights, in the president's bunker there just happen to be two swords lying by the wall, so that D'Artagnan can fight her final battle in a sword fight. Ridiculous. But I suppose that with a film called "3 Musketeers" there just had to be swordplay eventually.

I stumbled on this film by accident. It's included on the same Blu-ray Disc as "Mercenaries", even though it isn't mentioned on the cover. That's a nice little surprise. I wish more film studios would give away free gifts like this. The only connection between the two films, apart from being made by the same studio, is that Christopher Ray, the director of "Mercenaries", is the producer of "3 Musketeers".

In the four musketeers there are two men and two women. The film doesn't have any nudity, but it does have brief scenes of sexual titillation. For instance, in one of the initial scenes Terry Aramis strips down to bra and panties before attacking her victim. The poor guy doesn't stand a chance.

"Reach for your gun".

"Wrong gun".

Mercenaries (4 Stars)

I watched this film last month, but I had to come back to it for a second take. These four girls -- Kristanna Loken, Nicole Bilderback, Zoe Bell and Vivica Fox -- are the sexiest jailbirds ever. They're all doing long sentences for violent crimes, but they're offered a free pardon if they go on a covert mission to an unnamed former Soviet republic. The head of the CIA is the equally sexy Cynthia Rothrock. The tribal chief in the country they refer to as Shithole-istan is Brigitte Nielsen, who looked good in her younger days, but is now just scary.

This is the first film I've seen directed by Christopher Ray. He has an eye for fast action and explosions that reminds me of Andy Sidaris. My only criticism is that he doesn't capitalize on the girls' sex appeal. A few brief scenes of gratuitous nudity and seductive posturing would have gone down well.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Now you see me (4 Stars)

I've been fascinated by this film for over a year, partly because of the glowing praise from my guest writer Dakota. Click here for her review. I must admit that although I enjoyed watching it for the first time today I didn't see it as the towering masterpiece she claims it is. The film, which is about a team of dazzling high-tech magicians, does have a few unexpected plot twists, but I don't see them as the result of the viewer being distracted by magic. They're just normal plot twists, like the ones that we've seen in good mystery films for decades.

The scale of the magic tricks is staggering. While standing on a stage in Las Vegas they rob a bank in Paris and give the money to the audience. How did they do it? Morgan Freeman, forever typecast as a wise adviser, explains the trick to the police. The magicians are arrested, but of course, as skilled tricksters they have left no evidence to connect themselves to the crime. The magicians have to be released, but they promise to perform even bigger tricks and encourage the police to watch them. As they boldly claim, "The closer you look, the less you'll see".

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Fourth State (4 Stars)

People aren't interested in the truth. All they care about is the future.

The English posters for this film compare it with the Jason Bourne films. False advertising. It's closer to "A most wanted man" in its plot and style. Jason Bourne is an action hero, a highly skilled secret agent. The main character in this film is a naive young journalist who blunders from one situation into another, remaining alive by luck despite his lack of common sense.

It's 2011. Paul Jensen is a German journalist who is hired by the illustrated magazine "Moscow Match" to write articles about celebrities. He speaks no Russian, but his fame in exposing the scandals of German models has got him the job. He is standing in front of a Moscow subway station when a bomb explodes, and he's arrested as a terrorist. He discovers a plot by the Russian secret service to liquidate its enemies, disguising the actions as Chechnyan terrorist attacks in order to justify tougher anti-terror laws.

This film, although fictional, could very well be true. It shows many things that people suspect about Russia but are unable to prove: the corruption and misuse of power in high places, and the brainwashing of the populace by false media stories. As long as the Russian people have food on the table they support Vladimir Putin and believe whatever lies he tells them.

'71 (4 Stars)

The title of the film refers to 1971, the year in which the story takes place. Gary Hook, a young English soldier, is sent to Belfast with his squadron. Though not explicitly stated, we're given the impression that he's inexperienced, at the beginning of his service. When a riot breaks out Gary is separated from the other soldiers. The streets of Belfast become an obscure maze as he runs for his life, dodging in and out of houses and running through alleyways, not knowing whether he's in hostile Catholic territory or friendly Protestant territory. Badly wounded and in need of help, he has no way of knowing who he can trust.

The film ably portrays the moral quagmire of Northern Ireland in the 1970's. Things weren't as black and white as outsiders liked to make out. It wasn't just a Catholic-Protestant division. The Catholic IRA was divided among itself, between the pragmatists and the radical hotheads. There were good and bad people on all sides.

As someone who lived through the 1970's, I never ceased to be amazed by the portrayal of the Northern Ireland conflict in the American media. Even though America is better educated today, false opinions still exist in many quarters. This is probably because many Americans are descended from Irish immigrants and have a biased opinion. For most Americans the matter was simple: Northern Ireland was a country conquered by England which wanted to unite with the Irish Republic, but England was violently keeping them under control. Even Ronald Reagan held a speech, criticising England, in which he said that the people of Northern Ireland should be allowed to choose their own government. What he failed to realise was that if they were given a vote the people of Northern Ireland would have voted with a large majority to remain part of the United Kingdom. It was a small minority that was using violent protests to campaign for Irish unity. Far from being an occupying force, the English soldiers were sent to Northern Ireland as a peace-keeping force to protect the lives of the majority of the population from a violent minority.

Of course, the Catholic minority had arguments to justify their cause. They commonly claimed that the Protestant majority were English settlers who had no right to decide Ireland's future and should be expelled from the country. This is partly true, but there are counter-arguments, and the issue is too complex to discuss at length here. However, in America this argument wasn't used. It was and still is a curiosity that Irish Protestants in America support Irish unity, even though the Protestants in Northern Ireland reject it. In America there is an "Irish unity" that doesn't exist in Ireland itself.

(In the above I've used the word "England", even though it might be more correct to say "Britain". This is deliberate, because Americans have difficulty distinguishing between England, Britain and the UK. It was common for critics to speak about the English occupation of Ireland).

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Summer in Orange (5 Stars)

"If you belonged to the world, it would love you. But you do not belong to the world. That is why the world hates you". (John 15:19)

"I won't stay any longer. Not for a single day. This country is so fucked up. Fucking Nazi Germany!" (Prem Bramana)

You can travel from Berlin to Bavaria to Oregon. You can stop smoking. You can become a vegetarian. You can leave everything behind, but there is one thing that you will always take with you: yourself.

Blaze Starr goes nudist (4 Stars)

This is a fascinating film. It's a product of the 1960's. Anything vaguely similar would be inconceivable today. This makes the film dated, but I don't say that as a criticism. The very fact that it's old fashioned is what makes it appealing. Watching it is like looking through a time portal into a forgotten age of naive innocence.

Blaze Starr is one of Hollywood's top actresses. Her personal life is also going well, since she's engaged to marry her agent. But she's still not happy. She can't stand being famous, because she's hounded by autograph hunters whenever she takes a stroll.

The only way she can find happiness is by joining a nudist colony. Everyone is smiling, everyone is happy, it's a perfect world.

The film's message is simple. All the world's problems can be solved by taking your clothes off and playing in the park. I agree. If Vladimir Putin stripped naked and jumped into a pool with Angela Merkel Ukraine would have peace. If all the women in the Middle East threw off their burkas and walked around naked the men would give up their silly religion and stop fighting.

Dracula Untold (5 Stars)

This film is intended to be a reboot of Universal Pictures' Dracula franchise, and if it's successful a reboot of all of their classic monsters. They've taken their time. The first Universal Pictures Dracula film was made in 1931, a retelling of Bram Stoker's novel, and their last Dracula film was made in 1945. It was the British studio Hammer that continued with Count Dracula as a character from 1958 to 1974.

The trailer for "Dracula Untold" looked spectacular, raising my hopes for this film. Earlier today I heard from a friend that there have been mixed reviews, but I resisted the temptation to check out the reviews for myself. I walked into the cinema with an open mind, and what I saw was utterly amazing. None of the cast were familiar to me, although the lead character, Luke Evans, has supposedly played minor roles in films I've already seen.

Rather than repeat Bram Stoker's story yet again, the film goes back to the early 15th Century to tell the story of Count Dracula's origin, ably interweaving verifiable historical facts with fantasy. We see Prince Vlad III of Wallachia rebelling against the Turkish empire, calling upon the powers of darkness to assist him in the struggle.

Despite the relatively short running time of 92 minutes, the film makes the impression of being an epic. The battle scenes are breath-taking, and we can feel genuine pity for Vlad as he fights to use the powers of darkness without being controlled by them. This film is a masterpiece. I can't wait to see where the sequel will take us.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

How Bruce Lee changed the world (3½ Stars)

This documentary says nothing new to anyone like myself who is a fan of Bruce Lee, but I nevertheless enjoyed watching it today. It shows how Bruce Lee's career, which was cut short by his untimely death, has had a lasting effect on the film industry and other areas.

The most obvious change brought about by Bruce Lee is to action films. His influence began when he starred as Kato in the Green Hornet television series in 1966. The style of fighting that he used was unknown to American audiences. The first three films he made in 1971 and 1972 went unnoticed until after his death due to their limited release, but his final film, "Enter the Dragon", stunned America in 1973. Chinese martial arts, usually described by the generic term kung fu, gained a foothold in American action films that they have retained ever since. Every action star, whether he has had formal kung fu training or not, hits his opponents in a way similar to Bruce Lee's punches.

Another more important change was the acceptability of Chinese stars in Hollywood. Before Bruce Lee most famous actors were white and a few were black, but there were no big stars of Chinese background. If anyone Chinese appeared in a film he played a minor role, maybe as a cook or a railway worker. It was unthinkable for a Chinese actor to play the main role in a film. Absolutely impossible. Bruce Lee changed that.

He has also had a big impact on sport. The Mixed Martial Arts used in the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a fighting style that has been adapted from the fighting style that Bruce devised, Jeet Kune Do. It is truly a "mixed" fighting style, because it combines the best elements of Judo, Taekwando, Wing Chun, Karate and western boxing.

Then there are the less obvious influences on other media. The documentary shows his influence on music and comic books in interviews with rappers and the great Stan Lee.

If Bruce Lee had not lived our modern world would be different in so many ways that we can hardly imagine it.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Broken Flowers (3½ Stars)

Don Johnston, played by Bill Murray, is an ageing gigolo whose latest girlfriend has just left him. On the day of her departure he receives an anonymous letter telling him that he has an 18-year-old son who is looking for him. He didn't know he has a son, and he wants to know who the mother is. Based on the letter's postmark he narrows it down to five of his ex-girlfriends. He sets out on a journey to visit each one of them.

Is this a good film? A bad film? I can't really say. The film is stylish and has a strong sense of purpose, and it seems to be getting somewhere, but in the end -- and I know this is a spoiler -- it gets nowhere. The women are fascinating, each one different from the one before, but apart from the first he visits, played by Sharon Stone, there's no possibility of a romance rekindling. Bill Murray's usual low key acting makes me wonder how he could have been so successful with women. Maybe they only wanted his money.

I can't criticise the film for leaving loose ends, because I know this was deliberate. But it's still unsatisfying.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Gone Girl (4 Stars)

This is a very impressive film that I almost missed. The trailer looked dull, but my friends persuaded me to go to the cinema with them. I have to admit that I was hooked from the first minutes. The story was thrilling, but it was primarily the atmosphere that gripped me.

The plot -- and I'll restrict myself to what can be seen in the trailer -- is simple. Nick Dunne's wife goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. He reports it to the police. They find blood stains and evidence of a struggle. Within a few days the police are treating Nick as the main suspect in a murder case. The media judges him, as is normal in American murder investigations, and he becomes the most hated man in America.

I don't know if my English friends picked up all of the references. The television reporter in the film, Ellen Abbott, is closely based on the famous murder reporter Nancy Grace. The casting team must have searched for a long time to find someone who looked like her. I've watched Nancy Grace for months during the Jodi Arias murder trial. Okay, in the case of Jodi Arias I agree that her judgement is right, but if I were ever wrongly accused of murder I wouldn't want her speaking about me on television. She appoints herself judge and jury, invariably deciding that the alleged killer is guilty, and she persuades the American public that the person should be executed. The other television reporter in the film, Sharon Shieber, seems to be based on Jane Velez-Mitchell, while the lawyer Tyler Perry could be any one of a dozen generic celebrity lawyers. In America, as you know, justice doesn't come cheap. It's not a matter of who's right or wrong, court cases are won by the person who can afford the best attorney.

Beetlejuice (4 Stars)

This was the third film in yesterday evening's Tim Burton session. We watched it out of order, since it was made in 1988, before the other two films. It deals with a young couple who die in a car crash. They "awake" as ghosts in their old house. At first they're happy, until new people move in. They decide to haunt the house as poltergeists to scare the new family away. This isn't quite as easy as they think. They request assistance from another ghost, Betelgeuse (pronounced Beetlejuice), who works as a bio-exorcist, casting out unwanted living people.

If I were a ghost I wouldn't want to haunt my old house. It's so boring, I'd like to go somewhere else. Maybe a different country, somewhere near the sea. Anywhere would be better than spending eternity in the Small Heath ghetto. Maybe I'd look for a college sorority house, so I can gaze at beautiful women every day. I wouldn't scare them, I would just quietly stand watching while they're in the shower.

Batman Returns (5 Stars)

This was the second film in yesterday evening's Tim Burton session. Fortunately my friends were more appreciative. I agree that it's a better film. It's as if Tim Burton was holding back in the first film, but in the sequel he allowed himself to go completely crazy. If the first film was camp, the second is super-camp. The villains are larger than life and twice as eccentric.

Michelle Pfeiffer is the sexiest Catwoman we've seen so far, on television or in film. Any man who doesn't feel a tingle when she hisses "Meow" must be dead from the waist down.

Batman (1989 version) (4 Stars)

Yesterday evening I sat with a few friends to have a Tim Burton evening. We watched three of his films in a row. I was rather surprised that I was the only one in the group who enjoyed this film. The others complained that it was too camp, and that not enough was happening. They also said it was dated. I don't agree with any of these criticisms. I've watched it a lot over the last 20 years, and I'm sure I'll watch it more often.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

To be or not to be (1983 version) (4½ Stars)

This is a remake of a film made in 1942. Not having seen the original version I can't compare them. According to what I've read, critics claim that the original was better, but the remake was more successful commercially. Critics and the public! Why can they never agree?

Frederick Bronski is one of the most famous stage actors in Poland. He writes mostly satirical plays which he performs in his small theatre in Warsaw. The year is 1939, and there are rumours of an imminent German invasion, but he doesn't take them seriously. Even when Germany invades in September he carried on with business as usual. After all, everyone needs to be entertained, whether they're Polish or German.

It's only when the Nazis evict Frederick from his theatre to use it as their Warsaw headquarters that he turns against the occupiers. He and his wife Anna join forces with the resistance. Then he is allowed to put on a performance for one night only to entertain Adolf Hitler when he visits Warsaw. Frederick devises a daring plan which involves impersonating Hitler.

This is an excellent film. It contains everything: music, action, comedy and romance. I strongly recommend it.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Control (4½ Stars)

Today was the second time I watched this film about the life of Ian Curtis. The second time round it was far more moving. I felt his pain. I compared the story with my own life. Ian married Debbie Woodruff when he was only 19. In the film he calls it a mistake, but I doubt that he ever really said it. The problem is that the film is based on a book written by his widow 15 years after his death. She never understood him. I strongly suspect that she put words into his mouth that he never spoke. I'm not saying that she was lying. I see something similar in my own life. My ex-wife says things about me which are untrue, but it's how she remembers the past. When we were together she suspected me of doing or saying things in secret, and now, years later, she's convinced herself that they really happened.

The main thing in the film that I can't take at face value is Ian's affair with Annik Honore. In recent interviews Annik has denied that she ever had an affair with Ian. I believe her. What reason would she have to lie about it, 30 years after his death? In my opinion, what happened was that Annik was a close friend and companion for Ian. He couldn't talk to Debbie, but Annik understood him. As far as Debbie was concerned there must have been a sexual relationship between them. Debbie had no understanding for her husband's real needs, which involved intellectually stimulating conversation.

The same is true of my wife. When we were married she repeatedly accused me of having a lover. She used to search my briefcase looking for telephone numbers. Just like Ian, I knew a girl that I used to talk to. She worked in a shop, and I spoke to her in the shop. I never visited her at home. I never kissed her, the most that ever happened were friendly hugs. But if you asked my wife today she would say that I was unfaithful to her for years.

I'm currently writing my life story. Actually, it's on hold. I haven't written anything for the last three months, but I intend to finish it soon. It would be interesting if my wife wrote her life story as well. I'm sure that she would describe our marriage so differently that readers would think it's a different couple. It's not just the lover yes-or-no issue, her memories of our time together are distorted in many other ways. It's tragic. She hardly knew me when we were together, and now that we've been apart for years she knows me even less.

Here are Ian and Annik. Just talking. Ironically, a lot more than talking was happening off camera. The actors Sam Riley and Alexandra Maria Lara met for the first time when making this film. They fell in love and married two years later.

Downfall (5 Stars)

I used to think that "Baader Meinhof Komplex" was the best German film ever made, but I've now gone off it for reasons stated in my recent post. So what do I now think is the best? Probably "Der Untergang", which is called "Downfall" in English speaking countries. It portrays the chaos and madness of Hitler's last two weeks in his bunker in Berlin, as seen through the eyes of his personal secretary, Traudl Junge. It isn't an anti-Hitler film or a pro-Hitler film; it merely attempts to show things as they happened, without judgement. The film's neutrality is what makes it so powerful.

The only thing I'll tell you is that Germany lost the war. If you want to know any more about the film you'll have to watch it yourself. It's one of only two films that I've ever watched twice in a row, back to back. That's how good it is.

The Equalizer (4¼ Stars)

This film is based on a 1980's television series that I can only vaguely recall. All I can remember is seeing an episode and thinking, "This isn't as good as Callan". I assume that Edward Woodward fans can make the connection.

Denzel Washington is an actor who has never made an impression on me -- I couldn't say that I either liked or disliked him -- but as soon as I saw the trailer I knew I had to watch the film. In the trailer he seemed so cool, almost like he was on a spiritual plane looking down on the things happening around him. I wasn't disppointed when I went to the cinema today. The film lived up to its promise.

Denzel Washington is Robert McCall,  a man who works in Boston in a hardware store. In his spare time he sits in a cafe reading. We're given vague information about him being an ex-soldier. He befriends Alina, an under-age Russian prostitute played by Chloe Grace Moretz. One night she's beaten up by her pimp and ends up in hospital. He visits the pimp in his office and kills him, together with his bodyguards. Unfortunately, he wasn't just a pimp, he was the head of the Russian mafia in Boston. Nikolai Itchenko, a Russian assassin, is sent from Moscow to investigate the deaths.

It's a very good film with strong action and exciting fight scenes. Maybe the pacing is a bit off. We would expect small missions to take place at the beginning to introduce the character. Instead of this the big story starts immediately, and unrelated smaller missions are scattered throughout the film.

Roll on the sequel?

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Last King of Scotland (4½ Stars)

This is the story of a fictional doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, who worked in Uganda as the personal physician of President Idi Amin. The film doesn't specify the dates, but it's easy to work them out by comparing it with the historical events that are referenced. Dr. Nicholas Garrigan entered Uganda on January 24th, 1971, and he left the country on July 2nd, 1976.

Nicholas is a young Scotsman who graduates as a doctor in 1970. Unwilling to live the dull life of a village doctor like his father, he says he will go anywhere in the world to get away from him. Anywhere except Canada. So he ends up in Uganda, on the day before Idi Amin comes to power by a military coup. At first he works in a village hospital. Then, after being overwhelmed by Idi Amin's charisma at a public rally, he accepts a position as the president's personal doctor.

At first things go well. Then he begins to see that Idi Amin is far from a benevolent leader. Evidence mounts up that Idi Amin has been murdering his political opponents. Dr. Garrigan wants to leave Uganda, but when he expresses his wish his passport is stolen to keep him in the country.

This is a very good film. Forest Whitaker's performance as Idi Amin won him an Oscar in 2007. James McAvoy's performance as the naive young doctor shouldn't be underestimated either. It's a fascinating film that accurately captures the atmosphere in Uganda in the early 1970's.