Sunday, 30 November 2014

House of Flying Daggers (5 Stars)

When a good man loves a woman he wants to serve her. When a bad man loves a woman he wants to possess her.

After the big success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" at the 2001 Academy Awards, unprecedented for a foreign language film, the moneymakers in the back rooms were anxious to cash in on the Chinese film trend. They needed to find the next big thing. It took them a while, but finally they stumbled on the director Zhang Yimou. It must have been difficult for those guys, because they're not real film fans. They just sit and look at spreadsheets of box office takings, and when a number stands out they jump up and shout, "I've found a good film".

"House of Flying Daggers" was the first film directed by Zhang Yimou that I saw. Despite being made two years later than "Hero", it was shown before "Hero" at my local cinema. I went to see it at the Odeon on New Street with my two daughters. As I remember, they were overwhelmed  and didn't know what to make of it. It was too different to anything they had seen before. I personally knew what to expect, and I was blown away. It's a stunning tragedy of epic proportions, with dazzling imagery underlining every nuance and every plot twist.

The film takes place in 859 AD. The Chinese Tang Dynasty is struggling to hold onto power, and a particular annoyance is a rebel group called the Flying Daggers. Leo and Jin, two local police captains, are given the job of finding and capturing the Flying Daggers' new leader. Mei, a blind girl who works in a nearby brothel, is suspected of being the daughter of the the old leader. To gain her confidence Leo first arrests her, then Jin frees her from prison. Jin pretends to be in love with Mei, and together they Mei ride north to meet the Flying Daggers.

That alone would make a good plot, but there are multiple layers of lies and deceptions which we learn during the film. As I already stated above, the film is a tragedy, and in tragedies the good guys don't win, the good guys die. It's been about five years since I last watched the film, and today it was like I was rediscovering it. It really ought to be rated among my top 10 favourite films. I need to take time to rewrite my list.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Machete Kills (5 Stars)

This week I finally bought "Machete Kills" on Blu-ray after seeing it in the cinema last year. Reading my original review reminded me that I was disappointed when I saw it. After watching it again I don't understand why. Maybe it was because I expected it to be like the first film? It's different, and I think the changes in style are justified. "Machete" was 100% grindhouse from beginning to end. "Machete Kills" is more of a James Bond spoof. It's so obvious that I don't know how I missed it the first time. I should have realised it at the latest when Miss San Antonio was presenting Machete Cortez his weapons, with dialogue that could have been spoken unchanged by James Bond and Q.

The film ends by preparing us for the sequel, or rather the third film in the trilogy, "Machete kills again in space". From what I've been told "Machete Kills" was a box office flop. That's a shame. I hope it doesn't mean the trilogy will never be completed.

"Machete Kills" is also notable for being Lady Gaga's first film role. Despite her character being seemingly killed in a car crash, it's already been announced that she will appear in the next film. Let's hope it will be made. I want to see more of her as an actress. It seems to me that in "Machete Kills" she's playing herself. I want to see if she has real acting ability. Among today's pop singers she's the one who impresses me most. She's more talented than most, nothing like the run-of-the-mill rappers being churned out by the American music industry. She also has an attitude that has made her notorious, shown by her skimpy clothing or even lack of clothing. In this respect many people compare her to Madonna, as she was in the 1980's. I'm sure that's meant as a compliment, but I disagree. When Madonna showed off her body, for instance in her 1992 photo book called "Sex", it seemed artificial. While many raved about it and many others were shocked by the contents, to me it seemed like a publicity stunt, an awkwardly deliberate attempt to shock. When Lady Gaga exposes herself it seems natural, like she's a woman who truly enjoys showing off her body.

This isn't the last you'll see of Lady Gaga.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Siren (3½ Stars)

Now that's a really sexy film poster. It's also the picture used on the DVD cover. Three pretty girls in blue bikinis, and the one in the middle is holding a knife threateningly. "Seduction is murder", it says, telling us what the sexy girl intends to do with the knife.

Unfortunately, the poster has nothing to do with the film. There are only two women in the film. Neither of them wear blue bikinis or carry a knife. My guess is that whoever designed the poster didn't have time to watch the film first.

So what is the film really about? Rachel, Ken and Marco are on holiday in Tunisia. Ken is Rachel's boyfriend, Marco is Rachel's ex-boyfriend. That's a weird setup, and Marco doesn't appear to be comfortable it. They hire a boat to sail to a small island. As they approach the island the boat gets caught on underwater rocks. While they're wondering what to do a man swims to their boat, who then collapses dead on deck. Afraid that they'll be charged with his murder, they wade to the island with his body and bury him. But then they see that a woman has been observing them. She introduces herself as Silka. She promises not to tell anyone about the dead body, and then sings a song for them.

From this point on the terror begins. The three holidaymakers have hallucinations and have difficulty holding on to reality. They find dead bodies scattered all over the island. They begin to suspect that Silka is more dangerous than she seems, but every time they challenge her she sings to them, and the hallucinations begin again.

As independent horror films go this is a reasonable offering. It's no masterpiece, but it's worth watching once.

Way of the Dragon (4 Stars)

As a Bruce Lee fan I have to sadly admit that this was his weakest film, even though it was the only film that he wrote and directed himself. I think that the problem is that he felt the need to make a film that wasn't only about fighting. He wanted to have more of a plot and more comedy. Once more, as in the case of "The Big Boss", there's a long delay before Bruce throws his first punch. This time the reason is that Bruce, as the scriptwriter, evidently wanted to spend time with character development before the fights began. It wasn't necessary. His fans go to the films to see the fights, not to chuckle at the misadventures of someone far from Hong Kong who can't speak any English.

That's another problem. The film takes place in Rome. When Bruce presented his script, couldn't someone have told him that in Rome they speak Italian, not English? This is a strange and terribly unforgivable blunder. It's not just that the wrong language is accidentally used, it's emphasised over and over again. At the airport the announcements are made in English. When Bruce goes to a restaurant the waitress speaks English with him, and he can't understand the menu because it's in English. Twice during the film he's criticised for being no help to his uncle because he can't speak English. I fear that Bruce went to his death without ever finding out that Italy has its own language.

The film is best known for the fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in the Colosseum. Personally, I find the fight overrated. It only lasts six minutes, from beginning to end, and the last two minutes isn't really fighting, it's just Chuck struggling to stand up. It could have been better choreographed, and it could have been longer. There are better fights in all three of Bruce's other films.

On a side note, who was responsible for the subtitles on this DVD release? In particular, when Bruce wants to go to the toilet, the subtitles say, "Tell me where the shitter is". That's horrible. Even in the dubbed version Bruce says, "Can you please tell me where the toilet is".

Alles muss raus (4 Stars)

"Everything must go". That's the literal translation of the film's title. It's a recent German film made for television, first broadcast in October 2014. As I've pointed out before, German television films are usually made with large budgets, so the quality is as high as films made for the cinema. This is certainly the case for this three-hour family drama. It gripped me from the first minutes, and I was unable to look away.

The film is about a fictional company, Faber, with more than 8000 drug stores throughout Germany, that went bankrupt in 2012. Supposedly fictional. Even though the names of the main characters have been changed, the similarity to the company Schlecker is so obvious that everyone knows what it's really about.

The film begins with the 70th birthday party of the company founder Max Faber. He's still in good health for his age, but he uses the occasion to appoint his daughter Kerstin as the second company director, next to himself. It sounds to everyone that she is to be his equal, but he has already told his division chiefs that they are not to give her any information about the company finances. He has a good reason for this. Following the advice of a dubious cocaine snorting investment banker he has just made a stock market loss of 200 million Euros. This is all the more shocking when we discover later in the film that the investment banker personally earned 600 million Euros from the same deal. Isn't there a law against insider trading in Germany? Nevertheless, Max took out a loan in the company's name to speculate, and now the bank wants its money back.

When Kerstin finally realises what is happening -- which is unavoidable when she sees that Faber's suppliers are refusing to deliver goods due to non-payment -- she finds a Dutch investor willing to save the company. The investor's only condition is that Max should step down and let Kerstin continue as the sole company director. Max refuses and makes it clear that he would rather close down his company than let it be taken away from him. He's an old-school company owner, which is the very reason that the investor wants to ditch him. "What's mine is mine". Despite having a nationwide company under his control he likes to walk into local branches and shout at the employees if he thinks they're doing something wrong.

Schlecker, to use the company's real name, was one of the best known store chains in Germany. I call them "drug stores", for want of a better word, but the German word "Drogerie" isn't quite the same as an American "drug store". Think of it as a supermarket that sells everything except food. I used to shop at Schlecker. It was cheap. But that was the reason for its notoriety. The cheap prices were because the store hired only women and paid them low wages, well below the usual German wage levels. The Schleckerfrauen (Schlecker women), as the press called them, couldn't complain about sexual discrimination, because there were no men to compare their wages with. The stores were under-staffed, which led to anecdotally high levels of shop-lifting, but it was all part of the company policy. It was cheaper to accept loss through shop-lifting than hire extra staff. When Schlecker went bankrupt in 2012 it was women who went onto the street protesting. They weren't paid much, but it was all they had.

The film also follows the story of a typical women affected by the bankruptcy, Janine Krause, a single woman living in poor quality accommodation in Berlin. She finds out that she's pregnant too late to have an abortion. Then she hears that she will lose her job. Just one story among thousands.

This film has already been given high critical acclaim. Don't expect an English version any time soon, but I recommend it to anyone who can speak German.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Legendary Amazons (4 Stars)

This is a Chinese war epic about the Yang clan, the same clan that is featured in "Saving General Yang". It's impossible for me to say how true either film is. I strongly suspect that "Legendary Amazons" is based on a true story, but it's been strongly altered and exaggerated to make the story more exciting.

After the death of Yang Zongbao in battle there is only one man in the Yang clan left alive, Yang Wenguang, an 18-year-old boy. Wenguang is put in charge of an army of 10,000 troops to battle against enemy forces of 100,000. The women in the family, under the leadership of Wenguang's great-grandmother Taijun, correctly surmise that enemies in the government want to use the opportunity to wipe out the Yang clan, so they decide to accompany the army into battle to protect the boy from harm. It soon becomes apparent that Wenguang lacks the experience to lead an army, so his mother takes his place as commander.

The battles are marked by unusual manoeuvres that seem highly unrealistic, but this doesn't make the film any less enjoyable. They are exciting to watch. I've read other reviews that call the manoeuvres comical, but I disagree. Think of them as army versions of the exaggerated kung fu fights that we're used to in Chinese cinema.

The film has stunningly beautiful cinematography. Maybe it's too beautiful. What I mean is that in some scenes the picture is so perfectly serene that it seems unnatural. It's always clear skies and perfect weather. That's not the world that I live in.

A problem that I have with the film, though this may be a result of following a written legend too closely, is that there are too many characters in the film. There are 14 women who go into battle with Wenguang. They're introduced by name in the early scenes, but even if the names were English there would still be too many for me to remember them all. When they ride into battle wearing identical helmets it's impossible to tell them apart. I'd have to watch the film repeatedly to be able to keep track of who's who and who's doing what.

This message at the beginning of the film is the strangest disclaimer I have ever seen. The first paragraph is fairly standard, but the second paragraph is downright weird.
"The motion picture is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Viewers should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of the views and statements expressed in the motion picture".
Wow! What's that supposed to mean? How would any sane person find advice he considers worth following in a film like this?

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Raid 2 (5 Stars)

Did you hear the one about the Welsh film director who made an Indonesian movie? That sounds like a joke, but it's serious. Gareth Evans went to Indonesia and loved the country so much that he didn't just make one film, he made three. This is the third, so far. Gareth has raised the bar in action adventures. Despite making films with relatively small budgets, they look spectacular, and the action sequences are breath-taking. What will he do if he's ever given a big budget?

"The Raid 2" begins immediately after the events of "The Raid". It involves Rama, the hero from the first film, being pronounced dead, so that he can be given a new identity and do undercover work for the police. To be more accurate, it's undercover work for a single police detective called Bunawar. The rest of the police force aren't told that Rama has survived, since Bunawar believes there are too many corrupt police officers in the force, on the payroll of one of the Jakarta gangs. It's a lengthy job. Rama has to spend two years in prison so that he can join one of the gangs when he comes out.

Even though his job is to work in a gang in order to expose the corrupt police officers, he begins to respect Bangun, his new boss, and takes his side when a power struggle breaks out within the gang. This situation escalates into an all out gang war with Rama caught in the middle. The action is over the top, with fight scenes following one another with barely a pause for breath.

The film ends on a cliff-hanger with many issues still unresolved. Let's see how it continues in "The Raid 3". Where will Gareth Evans take us from here? Can he give us even more action?

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Please don't eat my mother (3 Stars)

Henry Fudd is a good Jewish boy. He's in his mid 40's, he lives with his mother and he's still a virgin. Maybe he's not quite such a good boy. He's a voyeur, who watches couples making out in cars and in the park, and sometimes he even peeks through his neighbour's bedroom window. But I guess it doesn't hurt anyone, and Mommy's still happy.

One day Henry is walking past a flower shop and discovers a talking plant. A female talking plant. He buys her, takes her home, and after realising that she's the only one who accepts him they fall in love. Henry fulfils her every desire, which is her need for more and more food. Yes, she's a carnivorous plant. She begins by eating flies, then progresses to frogs, cats and dogs. Eventually she wants to eat humans, and she is particularly attracted to Henry's big, fat mother.

The film is amusing. The special effects are primitive, even for 1973 when it was made, but they don't need to be any better for a comedy like this. My only criticism is that there are too many voyeur scenes. One or two would be sufficient, the first to offer insight into Henry's lonely life and the second for some sexual titillation in the middle of the film, but there must be at least half a dozen voyeur scenes. I wasn't counting them, but there are too many. I was impatient because I wanted to see Henry go back home to hump his plant again.

Inter-species love was never so hot.

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Banquet (5 Stars)

I know I only watched this film last month, but I had to return to it already. It's a powerful film that grows on me more every time I watch it. I realise that it might be dissatisfying for many viewers. Tragedies are no longer popular in our western culture. The film builds up towards a positive resolution, but in the end there is no happy ending. Even the final scene, which ends ambiguously, suggests that there is a hand of God that strikes down the victors before they can claim their prize.

Click here for my last review.

The Imitation Game (5 Stars)

A film doesn't need action and a fast pace to be truly great. If you don't believe me, watch "The Imitation Game". To be honest, I didn't intend to go to see it. It's the true story of Alan Turing, the man who cracked the code of the German Enigma machine during World War Two. It hardly sounded like a thrilling adventure. But then I read reports that it's one of the top contenders to win next year's Best Film prize at the Academy Awards, so I thought I should check it out. Within the first ten minutes of the film I understood what the fuss was about. It's probably the best new film I've seen this year.

Since it's a true story about a famous person, I don't have to worry too much about spoilers, but I'll still limit myself to a brief plot outline. In the Second World War Germany used a machine to code the messages they sent to their fleets by morse code. The machine was called Enigma. One of the machines was stolen and smuggled to the England in 1939, but having the machine alone didn't help. The Enigma machine had settings which were changed every day at midnight, with 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible permutations. While other cryptologists tried to solve the encryption algorithms by hand, Alan Turing had the revolutionary idea to build a machine to crack the code. This machine can justifiably be considered to be the first computer. The text at the end of the film calls it a "Turing Machine", but this is actually a mistake. Alan Turing called his machine Christopher, named after his best friend when he was 16.

It took two years for the machine to crack the code, but there was a second level of difficulty. Nobody, not even Alan's boss, was allowed to know that he had been successful. The decrypted messages were sent to the British Secret Service, MI6, who then decided which messages should be ignored and which should be passed on to the military, claiming that the information had been leaked from other sources. The problem was that if the British acted upon all messages they encrypted the Germans would have known the Enigma code was cracked and they would have stopped using the machine.

At the end of the war Alan Turing was Britain's greatest unknown hero. His machine and all his notes were destroyed. He was forbidden to speak about what he had done during the war. He remained unknown, apart from academic publications, until 1951, when he was arrested after it was discovered he was a homosexual. Given a choice between imprisonment and chemical castration, he chose the latter. Two years later he committed suicide. It was a sad end for a great man.

After the film I had the chance to discuss the former treatment of homosexuals in England with some of my friends from the film club. Homosexuality remained a crime in England until 1967. One of my friends said that laws shouldn't be arbitrary, they should be governed by morality. Homosexuality obviously isn't immoral, so it shouldn't be illegal. I think his statement was wrong, in several ways. First of all, morality isn't an absolute. To my friend it seems obvious that homosexuality isn't immoral, but there are millions of others, even in England, who would disagree. Morals are strongly influenced by the religious community in which one grows up. If I follow a religion whose holy book says that homosexuality is evil, I shall develop a natural aversion to homosexuality and consider it immoral. Even indirectly this is the case. Even if I'm not religious, but I grow up in a place where homosexuals are made fun of, I'll have a feeling that it's wrong, which could go as far as thinking it's immoral.

Apart from this, laws aren't always a always a matter of right and wrong, they can be arbitrary. There can be other reasons to create laws. An example is taxation. It is required by law for various taxes to be paid to the government. Not paying these taxes is illegal and will lead to imprisonment or other forms of punishment. Does that mean that paying taxes is moral, and that not paying taxes is immoral? That would be a very strange application of morality. Law and morality may overlap, but they aren't identical, and it shouldn't be attempted to make them identical, even if we could agree on what's moral and what isn't.

Whether homosexuality is right or wrong is a more complex question than people on either side of the argument are willing to see. What I mean is, one camp says that it's obviously wrong, while the other camp says that it's obviously okay. The very fact that two groups should have such different views should make everyone clear that there's more to the question than they realise. Unfortunately, any attempt at dialogue is blocked by bigotry on both sides. The anti-gay camp says, "Our religion forbids it, so it's wrong, and we refuse to compromise". The pro-gay camp says, "Homosexuality doesn't hurt anyone, so it's okay, and we refuse to compromise". Both sides need to abandon their prejudices and listen to one another.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Howard the Duck (4 Stars)

This film, made in 1986, is based on the Marvel Comics character with the same name. The original comic book series was published from 1973 to 1979. When the character's creator, Steve Gerber, left Marvel under bad terms he attempted to sue Marvel for ownership of the character. After an out-of-court settlement Howard remained part of the Marvel universe.

The film is famous for being the first cinema film based on a Marvel character. However, it was a box office flop, not managing to earn back its budget, and it is often called one of the worst films ever made.

Why? What's so bad about it?

My suspicion is that the film critics just didn't get it. It's fairly successful at capturing the atmosphere of the comics. The special effects are good (for the 1980's), apart from the giant scorpions at the end of the film which look unconvincing. The acting is okay, if you consider camp to be okay. Howard himself is played as a straight character, while the comedy comes from the humans around him.

The comic book "Howard the Duck" was never intended to be a comedy. It was a satire. Steve Gerber was making fun of American society and comic books, especially his own bosses at Marvel. The comic wasn't intended for children, and neither was the film. This is made obvious at the beginning when Howard comes home from work and leers at the centrefold in the latest issue of "Playduck". Later on in the film he goes to bed with a human, but he's too nervous to go all the way. That's a shame. It would have been the first human-duck sexual encounter in the history of cinema.

The film's music is cheesy, especially the featured band, Cherry Bomb. But what do you expect, it was the 1980's! They look and sound like any bottom of the bill glam metal band of the decade.

Summing up, it's nowhere near as bad a film as people say. Not an absolute masterpiece, but still worth watching. Please leave comments with your opinion about this film, especially if you like it.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Fist of Legend (4½ Stars)

This is a remake of "Fist of Fury", which I reviewed earlier today. Sort of a remake. Although I know both films well, today is the first time I've watched them back to back, and I've only just noticed how different they are.

The main character is Chen Zhen, and just as in the original film he returns to Shanghai to find his master dead from poison. That's where the similarity ends. He doesn't even set out on a quest to take revenge, although in the end he does face the one responsible for his master's death. Let me point out all the main differences. I'll refer to the two films as Fury and Legend (without quotes) for the sake of brevity.

The main difference, which is supported by many of the minor differences that I shall show below, is in the film's attitude toward the Japanese. Legend was made in 1994, 22 years after Fury. Legend has less prejudice against the Japanese. Instead of all Japanese being evil, it shows that there are good and bad among them.

Fury takes place in 1908. Legend takes place in 1937.

In Fury Chen's absence from Shanghai is unexplained. In Legend we see Chen studying engineering in Kyoto. He can read and write Japanese. In Fury Chen presents himself as a simple, uneducated man, but that obviously isn't the case in Legend.

In Legend Chen dresses in Japanese clothes, and when he returns to Shanghai he's frequently mistaken for a Japanese man.

In Legend Chen has a Japanese girlfriend.

In Fury the cook who poisons the master is a Japanese infiltrator. In Legend the cook is a Chinese man who has taken a bribe from a Japanese general.

In Fury Chen presents Chinese fighting styles as superior to Japanese karate and all other foreign styles. In Legend he openly admits that he has assimilated the best features of karate into his style. He also frequently uses the footwork and posture of western boxing.

In Fury the teachers of the Japanese fighting schools look down on the Chinese masters as inferior. In Legend they are spiritual men who respect the Chinese masters and only fight fairly.

In Legend the man who takes over as the new master of the Jing Wu school is a flawed character. Rather than staying in the school to encourage his students he spends time in a brothel. I don't believe that there was a replacement for the dead master in Fury.

In Fury the Japanese ambassador is an evil man who wants to destroy the Chinese. In Legend the ambassador is a good man who wants peace between Japan and China. In Legend the ambassador is responsible for saving Chen's life, whereas Chen dies in Fury.

Apart from these there are many small differences, such as minor supporting characters only being present in one of the two films. For instance, there is no Russian fighter in Legend, but the Chinese general does things that we saw the Russian do in Fury.

To sum up, both films are good in their own way. But I prefer "Fist of Fury".

Fist of Fury (4¾ Stars)

We are not sick men!

This film, the second martial arts film made by Bruce Lee, takes place in Shanghai in 1908. The city has been occupied by the Japanese since 1895. The Chinese are virtually slaves in their own country, second-class citizens with no rights.

Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) returns to Shanghai after a long absence. When he goes to the Jingwu School to visit his master, he finds that his master has recently died, supposedly killed by stomach ulcers and pneumonia. He soon discovers that the real cause of death is poisoned biscuits served to him by a Japanese cook. The cook was acting under instructions from a Japanese Bushido school. The new leader of the Jingwu School advises Chen to do nothing, because there will be repercussions from the Japanese rulers, but Chen goes on a one-man crusade to take revenge.

After Bruce's relatively small part in his previous film, he takes centre stage in "Fist of Fury" from beginning to end. James Tien appears once more as a student in the school, but he only takes part in brief fight scenes.

In 1972 when the film was made anti-Japanese feelings were still high in China. There were cheers in Hong Kong cinemas when Bruce Lee spoke the now famous words, "We are not sick men".

I feel a little guilty for giving this film anything less than five stars, but I found the sound quality off-putting. According to the DVD box the film has been remastered. The picture looks reasonable, though not perfect, but the sound still hisses. The English dubbed track is cleaner than the original Cantonese, but I prefer to watch the original version with subtitles. I'm not a snob who rejects dubbing outright, but in the case of this film it was ridiculous. The person who did Bruce Lee's voice has a booming American accent which sounds completely out of place.

I feel like I should write more, but I'm suffering from a bad cold today. I feel a bit light-headed and can't concentrate on writing. I hope I'm not getting a flu.

Saving General Yang (5 Stars)

This film is based on real events that took place at the end of the 10th Century. The Chinese peoples at that time were almost as efficient in recording history as the Romans had been a thousand years previously. Compare that to the pitiful state of English history. From the 5th to the 11th Century very little is known about what happened in England. All we have is myths and legends.

General Yang Ye was sent to protect his land against Khitan invaders. He got cut off from the rest of the army, and together with a few troops he took refuge in an abandoned fort. A Buddhist monk gives his wife a scroll with a prophecy that he can be brought home, but only if all seven of his sons join the rescue mission. It's also stated in the scroll that only six of the sons will return. An 85% chance of returning home from battle is good odds, so the seven sons rushed into battle, not knowing which of them would die. Unfortunately they had misinterpreted the scroll. From what I understand the writing is ambiguous, which I need to verify with a native Chinese speaker.

This is the best Chinese war epic I have ever seen. It's much better than "Red Cliff", which is usually highly praised by film critics. It was directed by Ronny Yu. I've only seen three of his films, including this one, and I've given all three a five star rating. I need to check his older films. (The other two films I've seen are "The 51st State" and "Fearless").

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Slumdog Millionaire (5 Stars)

When somebody asks me a question, I tell them the answer.

This film is a rarity, as far as I'm concerned. It's one of the very few films to be voted Best Film at the yearly Academy Awards that I really considered to be the best film. I just browsed the list of the winning films, and the only one I agree with is "Titanic" (1997). Sure, it was often a good film that won the award, but there was always a better film that finished second or wasn't even nominated.

The film is about an 18-year-old boy who takes part in the Indian version of the television game show "Who wants to be a millionaire?" It was originally devised in England, but due to its immense popularity clones were created all over the world. I agree that it's a fascinating show, if not watched too often. I first watched it when I was in hospital in 2000 and had little else to do. At the time it was aired five days a week, Monday to Friday. After being discharged from hospital in 2001 I still watched it, but less often. Eventually I stopped. I'd watched it so often that I had grown sick of it.

In the film Jamal Malik answers all the questions right, raising suspicions that he must have been cheating. The game is halted before the last question and he's interrogated. Jamal is no genius, as he readily admits. He tells his life story to the police detective, explaining how he learnt each answer by his life experiences.

When it was voted best film there were "experts" who claimed that it had won as a result of a black man being made American president for the first time. What? Do people actually get paid for talking rubbish like that? It won the award because it was the best film.

The Drop (4¾ Stars)

This is something that's never happened to me before. I went to see "The Drop" at Cineworld with my friends from the Birmingham Film Club. It was time for the ads and trailers to start, but the screen was blank. After five minutes our intrepid leader, Mike McAuley, went out to ask the staff what was happening. He came back and told us that the cinema had forgotten to start the film. I suppose that in a multiplex cinema with 12 screens it's easy to forget one of the screens. A few minutes later a lovely young lady came in to apologise and promised that the film would be shown without any ads or trailers, so that the film wouldn't finish later than planned. After all, it was a late showing, and some of us needed to catch the last bus. All's well that ends well. Finally the film began, on time, if we assume that the ads and trailers would have lasted 20 minutes.

"The Drop" was the last film that James Gandolfini made before his death. It also stars Tom Hardy, Naomi Rapace and a pitbull called Rocco. Well, actually three pitbulls called Rocco. The puppy was supposed to be a few weeks old, but he grew too fast, so he had to be replaced twice during the filming.

The main character is Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), the barman in a bar in Brooklyn. This is one of several bars used as a drop bar, a place where illegal money is stored overnight. The bar's previous owner was Bob's cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), but although the bar still carries his name he's only an employee, since it is now owned by Chechen gangsters. Unknown to Bob, Marv has hired gangsters to rob the bar so that he can get revenge on the Chechens, who he considers to have unfairly robbed him of his property.

Bob is a quiet man, lost in his own world. He only begins to open up when he finds a small pitbull abandoned in a trash can. Bob begins to feel attached to the pitbull, and a romance also develops with Nadia (Naomi Rapace), the woman in whose trash can he finds the pitbull puppy. Unfortunately the pitbull's previous owner was a gangster who was Nadia's ex-boyfriend and now works for Marv. It's a small world.

Of all the films I've seen starring James Gandolfini, this is the one in which he gets closest to his Tony Soprano personality, even though Marv is an ex-mobster who no longer commands the respect of his peers. Tom Hardy, however, is the film's biggest star. He is by far my favourite actor. Without giving away any spoilers, I'd like to say that he's totally credible in all the changes in Bob's character during the film.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Big Boss (4½ Stars)

I remember when and where I first saw this film. That's how significant it was to me. It was 1977. I can't remember the month, but it must have been in the late summer. My friend Mick Cooksey suggested that we should go to see the film in Sutton Coldfield, and I jumped at the chance. I'd already seen a few martial arts films, some Chinese, some Japanese. At the time I couldn't tell them apart. I'd heard about Bruce Lee, and I wanted to see him. Supposedly he was the best kung fu fighter who had ever lived. Or rather he had been the best, because in 1977 he was already dead.

The film started off well, and I was greatly enjoying it. But it wasn't until the 44 minute mark, almost halfway through the film, that Bruce began to fight. From the very first punches I knew that he was a class above everyone else in fighting films. His delay was explained by the plot, that he had promised his mother he wouldn't fight while working away from home. However, as I later discovered there was another reason for the delay. At the time the film was made Bruce was still relatively unknown. The film's main actor was James Tien, and it was him who fought most of the battles. Of course, this was the film that made Bruce Lee famous, and by the time it was released in England it was Bruce's name at the top of the credits. Although when I look at the Chinese poster above I have to ask if it's really Bruce Lee leaping through the air. I wouldn't have recognised him. My guess is that originally it was James Tien, but later the picture was touched up to make it look like Bruce.

The film is a masterpiece in itself. I've only deducted half a star because the music is so awful. Particularly annoying is the melody played every time Bruce touches the pendant his mother gave him to remind him not to fight.

Wer früher stirbt, ist länger tot (4½ Stars)

I watched this film 10 days ago and hardly understood it. The problem was the Bavarian dialect. Even for fluent German speakers like myself Bavarian is a problem. I should have turned on the subtitles, but I thought I would try to understand it. A big mistake. Today I watched it again with subtitles.

It took me a while to figure out the best translation for the title, but eventually I settled on "The sooner you die, the longer you're dead". The film is a black comedy that follows the journey of Sebastian, an 11-year-old boy, from death to becoming a rock'n'roll star. It's not just a journey to stardom, it's also a spiritual journey. How can a devote Catholic boy who's torn apart by guilt find happiness? It's not easy if you live in the mountains of Bavaria.

The film opens with photos of rock stars who died before their time: Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain. Then we see Sebastian get run over by a truck as he cycles home. Miraculously he survives, but his life will never be the same again. Sebastian releases the truck's brakes so he can retrieve his bike, and the truck rolls into a wall, killing his father's rabbits. His older brother tells him that this is just the latest in a series of murders Sebastian has committed. Their mother died in childbirth, so Sebastian will be cast into Hell for killing his mother. Inspired by the Frankenstein films he tries to bring the rabbits back to life, but when he puts electricity into them they explode. From then on things only get worse. He holds his cat under water to test the statement that cats have nine lives, but the cat dies anyway. He pushes his neighbour's grandmother's bed outside to enjoy the sun, but the bed rolls down the hill and the grandmother dies. There's no way he can escape Hell.

Or maybe there is a way. Thinking logically, Sebastian decides that if he never dies he'll never be judged and go to Hell. The disc jockey in the local radio station tells him that rock stars are immortal, so Sebastian steals a guitar and begins to take lessons.

This is an incredible film that grows on me more every time I watch it. I need to watch more of Marcus Rosenmüller's films. He also directed "Summer in Orange", which is possibly my favourite film.There seems to be a pattern to his films. They both take place in Bavaria, and a child is the main actor, even though they're films made for adults.

Here's the film's theme song, performed by Gerd Baumann, who briefly appears in the film as the fictional dead rock star John Ferdinand Woodstock. It contains a few scenes from the film. I love the song, I've watched the video over and over again.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Flowers of War (4½ Stars)

Prostitutes never care about a falling nation, they sing and dance while others are dying.

This quote from the film is probably true. It doesn't matter who is in charge of a country. Men always need sex, so skilled prostitutes are never short of work. This is especially true in wartime, when the invading soldiers have been separated from their wives and children. It's true that they can resort to rape, but the willing embrace of a woman who won't fight back is preferable.

When the Japanese army invaded Nanking in 1937 they slaughtered over 300,000 people. After all, the Chinese were Untermenschen who didn't deserve to live. A group of prostitutes take refuge in a Catholic convent run by American missionaries. The priest is dead, killed by a bomb that fell in the courtyard, and the only American left is John Miller, a drunken undertaker sent to bury the priest. Initially he only cares about himself, but as the situation worsens he unites the prostitutes and the Catholic schoolgirls to fight for survival.

This is a powerful film, and it's an untypical role for Christian Bale. He's a despicable bad guy who finds himself forced to commit heroic deeds.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Mr. Turner (4 Stars)

Painting is silent poetry.

Normally I wouldn't have gone to see this film in the cinema. It's a film about a 19th Century painter, hardly a subject that interests me. If it were at least a controversial painter like Vincent Van Gogh I might have been tempted. I vaguely remember seeing pictures of William Turner's paintings, boring landscapes (though I learnt from the film that he painted the sea more than land). Boring to me at least. People who know more about art probably think differently.

But then a couple of things changed my mind. I read that "Mr. Turner" is one of the favourites to win the Best Film Oscar next year. Added to this a friend of mine told me it's the best film he's seen this year, so I had to give it a chance.

I had problems with the film from the start. Since William Turner was a relatively wealthy person, the film has the atmosphere of a costume drama. All the men wear smart suits and top hats. Then I began to dislike William Turner when I saw that he was a cheater, keeping two mistresses in different towns who knew nothing of one another. He also visited brothels, although in the one scene that we see he merely made the prostitute pose for him rather than having sex with her.

But as the film continued, snaking through the years of his life, I was won over by Timothy Spall's masterful acting. I don't think the film deserves to be voted best film at the next Academy Awards, but it certainly deserves a prize for its cinematography. The outdoor scenes are in soft colours that imitate his artwork. It's interesting to see that he was criticised for his excessive number of paintings of ships at sea. For some reason he was particularly fond of painting shipwrecks.

During his life William Turner only sold a small number of paintings. In his Will he decreed that all of his paintings should be left to the "British nation". It was his wish that everyone should be allowed to see all of his paintings on display in one place for free. Due to the sheer volume of his work -- over 19,000 paintings and sketches -- it hasn't been possible to present them in a single display, but they are in the hands of British museums and art galleries, in particular the Tate Gallery and the National Gallery.

Legend of the Fist (4½ Stars)

Chen Zhen lives!

Yes, we all know that Chen Zhen died in the original film, "Fist of Fury", made in 1972 and starring Bruce Lee as Chen Zhen. In the 1994 remake, renamed "Fist of Legend", which starred Jet Li as Chen Zhen, he is shown to survive at the end by faking his death. It would have been easy for his survival to be explained by "Legend of the Fist", made in 2010, being a continuation of the remake. Instead of this it's clear that it's a sequel of the 1972 film, and his survival is unexplained.

Why is it so important that this is a sequel to "Fist of Fury", not "Fist of Legend"? The two films, while telling the same story, have very different messages. "Fist of Fury" (1972) portrayed the Japanese as monsters who were inflicting misery on the Chinese people, while "Fist of Legend" (1994) was much more conciliatory, showing that the Japanese are not all bad. "Legend of the Fist" (2010) returns to a hardline all-Japanese-are-evil attitude. It's a feast for Chinese nationalism. I don't think this is a coincidence. It shows the ebb and flow of Chinese attitudes over a 40-year-period. I intend to watch "Fist of Fury" and "Fist of Legend" back to back later this month, so I might go into the subject in more detail.

Now to "Legend of the Fist". It begins in 1917, a few years after Chen Zhen's supposed death. Together with a group of friends he is in Europe helping defend France against Germany. His best friend, Qi Tianyuan, is killed in action. Chen Zhen adopts his friend's identity when he returns to China. In 1925 he arrives in Shanghai, a city that has been carved up into a Japanese zone, a British zone and a Chinese zone. Even in the Chinese zone Japanese soldiers swagger around like bullies, not afraid to kill anyone who speaks out against them. Chen Zhen dons a mask and becomes the Masked Avenger, a costumed hero who puts fear into the hearts of the Japanese.

If you haven't yet seen the film, don't be put off by the image of a Chinese super-hero. This isn't a fantasy story, it's very realistic in its portrayal of life on the streets in a country in the grip of anarchy. There is no reliance on wires for the fight scenes, so we don't see any supernatural floating as in films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hero". The film doesn't make any attempt to rewrite history. We all know that within a few years Japan overran all of China, so Chen Zhen's victories are only small wins for China on the way to the final defeat.

I'll probably watch more Chinese films over the next few weeks. This is a good place to start.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Life of Pi (5 Stars)

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak".

But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me".

The man asked him, "What is your name?"

"Jacob", he answered.

Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome".

Jacob said, "Please tell me your name".

But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared".

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob's hip was touched near the tendon.

(Genesis 32:22-32)

The word "Israel" means "God's fighter". For this reason the Jews proudly claim that they are the ones who fight for God. However, the word is ambiguous, since it could be an objective or a subjective genitive. The passage quoted above shows the true meaning of the word. Jacob, the father of the Jews, was called Israel because he fought against God, not for him. This has been repeated in the 4000 years since this occasion. The Jews have continually fought against God, as was seen most clearly when they crucified their Messiah. And yet they are blessed. Not because they deserve it, but because God wants to bless them.

I have just watched "The Life of Pi" for the sixth time, the fifth time this year. Every time I watch it I dig deeper into the religious imagery. It's a brilliant film that can be enjoyed on so many different levels.

Off-Topic: Norwegian Chess Pyjama Girls

The whims of my blog readers never cease to amuse me. Currently the 2014 World Chess Championship is taking place in Sochi, Russia, a rematch of last year's battle between Viswanathan (Vishy) Anand and Magnus Carlsen. Last year Vishy was the world champion and Magnus was the challenger. This year the roles are reversed. What has amused me is that of the detailed game reviews I made last year only one has been revisited by my readers, the third game, and has become so popular that it's currently in 8th place in my list of the month's most popular posts. (See the sidebar if you're reading my blog on a PC). It wasn't the best game, but it was the post in which I reported on Magnus' supporters, the now famous quartet of 16-year-old schoolgirls dubbed by the press as Norway's "Chess Pyjama Girls".

I don't have any new photos, so I'm republishing the pictures I used last year. In last year's post I made a mistake that I'll put right here. I assumed that the girls were present at the game, but they were actually posing for the photo in Veierland, Norway. Anyone who stands half naked outdoors in Norway at that time of year must be very brave indeed.

From left to right: Amalie (EN), Sandra (C), Sara (AR), Helle (LS).

Here's an interview that the girls gave on a Norwegian television show. I apologise for the stupid adverts that appear first. I've added an English translation.

TV Host: Chess fever is everywhere, and Magnus Carlsen is receiving more and more fans. We'll show a picture where four schoolgirls are cheering for Magnus in a special way. The picture has been shared on the Internet many times since it was uploaded. We have two of the girls with us on Skype,  Amalie Dehli and Sara Hansen. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea of making this picture?

Amalie: We were watching the match on NRK and wanted to show our support for Magnus. So we decided to make this picture and send it to NRK-Sjakk.

TV: What letters did you have?

Amalie: I had EN.

Sara: I had AR.

TV: Wasn't it cold?

Sara: It was a bit cold and it rained also, but it went well.

TV: Who came up with the idea of undressing and holding up the Norwegian flag?

Sara: We agreed as a group to do something and then inputs were put in action.

TV: If anyone else wants to do something similar, what kind of paint did you use?

Sara: Waterbased paint, so you can get it off again.

TV: I see. When did you get interested in chess?

Sara: When we saw it on TV on Saturday.

TV: Are you following the match? Did you watch Sunday and today?

Amalie: Yes. Now we have been really ”bitten” by chess. We also have Helle with us here.

TV: Hi Helle. What were your letters?

Helle: LS, I think.

TV: Are going to upload more tribute pictures?

Helle: Yes, if we can find some more funny ideas.

TV: Are you watching VGTV now?

Sara: Yes we are.

TV: Can you show us how it works?

Sara: Like this.

TV: So if we, who are in studio, wave at you, you can see us?

Sara: We think so.

TV: In a while, this will be on VGTV, but aren't you supposed to be in school, and not watching chess and appearing on VGTV?

Sara: We are in school, but we have taken some time off. We are so into chess. 

TV: Very good. Send your next pictures to VG-Sjakk and we'll bring them in the show. Thank you for taking time to talk to us.

Sara: Our pleasure. All the best.

Will the girls be back this year? I hope so.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Say when (3½ Stars)

If anything, I would call this film an anti-coming-of-age comedy. Keira Knightley plays the lead role as Megan, a 29-year-old woman whose life has frozen since she left school. She has the same friends. She has the same boyfriend. She still lives with her parents. Despite having a Masters degree in counselling, she works for her father, standing in the street holding up a sign advertising his tax consultancy business. She looks on in horror as her friends marry and have babies, but she's safe in her teenage bubble, until the worst possible thing happens: her boyfriend proposes to her.

Megan accepts the proposal, grudgingly, but she can't accept the consequences. She drives into the nearest city (Seattle), not knowing where she's going. She just wants to escape. At a gas station she meets a group of children waiting for someone to buy them alcohol, which she does gladly, remembering that it's what she did at their age. She makes friends with 16-year-old Annika, played by Chloe Grace Moretz. Not wanting to return home, she asks Annika if she can stay with her. She can't stay hidden for long. Annika's father, a divorced divorce lawyer -- is there a joke in there somewhere? -- is at first suspicious when he finds an older woman sleeping on the floor in his daughter's room, but he grows to like Megan, and as is to be expected in films like these, a romance develops.

The two leading actresses put on terrific performances. Chloe Grace Moretz is one of my favourite actresses, but Keira Knightley isn't eclipsed by her. If anything, Keira has the more difficult role, because she has to play a troubled teenager.

This is a story that I can relate to. Despite being a few years older than Megan, I still feel like a teenager. If it were up to me I would still hang out with teenagers, but I'm aware that the older I get the creepier it would seem. People could misconstrue my attempts to cling to my youth. I've often heard it said that "Age is just a number", but unfortunately it isn't true. A person's age dictates the way he's expected to act. Luckily I can't be forced to think like an adult. I am Dancer, and I shall be forever 16.

Incidentally, this film is called "Laggies" in the USA. What does that mean? No idea. On the other hand, the title "Say when" doesn't really mean anything either. I don't like it when a film's name is changed, but if they really must do it they should at least make it something better.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Ich bin ein Berliner (4 Stars)

All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner".

It never ceases to amaze me how much tastes can differ. Last night I was watching this film with my ex-wife. I was engrossed, hanging on every line of dialogue, relishing the ironies, even though I had seen the film more than once before. But she told me she found it boring and left the room before it was over. Amazing. How could such a beautiful film be considered boring? I admit, there is no action. No gun fights. No car chases. No space ships firing death rays into populated areas. But is that really necessary to make a film interesting?

The film takes place in 2004. It begins with the funeral of Iris Rath, the mother of Felix Rath, a petty con man living in Berlin. She was a poor woman, and all she has left him is the key to a bank safe deposit box. The box contains love letters, dated 1963, sent by President Kennedy to Agnes Rath, his mother's sister who he has never met since she died when he was young. Seeing a chance to make money, Felix, who was born in March 1964, fakes a birth certificate claiming he was the illegitimate son of  Agnes Rath, fathered by John F. Kennedy. He goes to a newspaper to sell his story, which they thoroughly investigate and conclude that it is true. The perfect con. But in their investigations, to Felix's shock, they find Agnes Rath, still alive and living under a false name. She confirms that Felix is her child, the son of President Kennedy. So the con is really true.

The story could have ended there, except Agnes made a deal with the CIA 40 years earlier, to keep her relationship with the American president secret. That's the reason she changed her name. Felix and a news reporter are threatened by mysterious men in dark suits and sunglasses. The only solution for Felix is to publicly claim that he invented the story. The problem is that the story is true, and there is too much evidence to make it look false.

Does this story sound boring? It isn't. But maybe if it's ever remade they could add a UFO hovering over the Brandenburg Gate. And an army of zombies crawling out of the sewers.....

Click here for the full transcript of President Kennedy's speech in Berlin on June 26th 1963.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Off-Topic: Nude and Proud (Keira Knightley)

Compare these two photos of Keira Knightley. On the left is the original photo. On the right is the Photoshopped version that was used for the 2004 film "King Arthur". How many differences can you spot? The lighting was changed. A flag has been added. There are warriors in the background. But the difference that annoyed Keira the most is that her breasts were enlarged. She has a very flat boyish figure, admittedly not to everyone's taste, but she is proud of her figure and doesn't want it to be changed. For this reason she has recently posed for topless photos to show that she accepts herself as she is. Congratulations, Keira! I accept you too! Please continue to show off your naked body.

Off-Topic: World Chess Championship 2014

The 2014 World Chess Championship is now underway, a return match between the reigning champion, Magnus Carlsen, aged 23, from Norway, and the former world champion, Viswanathan Anand, aged 44, from India. Last year I gave full reviews of each game on my blog. As a devoted fan of international chess I'll be following each game as it happens, but I shan't be reviewing each game. Last year my chess posts weren't received well. I understand it. A film blog isn't the correct place for a whole month of posts on chess. My regular readers are bored by chess. I might make occasional posts about exceptional games, I'll decide as I go along.

Wer früher stirbt, ist länger tot (unrated)

I watched this film 18 months ago and decided to rewatch it today. I made the foolish decision to watch it without subtitles. I speak fluent German, but the Bavarian dialect was too strong for me to understand, especially when the children were talking. If I hadn't already watched the film last year I wouldn't have known what it was about. Exploding rabbits and naked men crawling under tables? Confusing. Anyway, I know it's a good film, so I'll watch it again soon. With subtitles.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Off-Topic: A Real Birmingham Family

This article is about a current controversy in Birmingham, the town where I live. I apologise to my local readers who must be sick of hearing about it by now. I'm sure that it will be of interest to my readers in other countries, and even in other parts of England.

On September 3rd 2013 Birmingham's new central library was finally opened after years of planning. At the same time it was announced that a statue would be placed in front of it to represent the typical Birmingham family. This project, entitled "A Real Birmingham Family", began in April 2011. Families throughout Birmingham were encouraged to apply to be the models for the statue. A total of 372 families applied, and a panel of experts finally made a selection. The winning family posed for the statue, which was sculpted by the Birmingham-born artist Gillian Wearing and unveiled on October 29th 2014.

Can anyone spot anything wrong with the statue?

Anyone who doesn't know the statue's background might think that it's a lesbian family. Not so. Emma and Roma Jones are two sisters, both single mothers, who live together with their sons, Shaye and Kyan. When they were initially selected it was a four-person family, but Emma became pregnant again, as shown in the statue, and now has a second son called Isaac.

I have no problems with the artistic value of the statue itself or the skills of Gillian Wearing. I've examined the statue close up, and it is truly an attractive piece of art. My problem is with what it is supposed to represent. Is this a typical Birmingham family? Is this how Birmingham wants to portray itself to the rest of the world? There have been countless complaints about the statue in comments left on news sites that have reported on its unveiling. The public is almost unanimously against it. Some call it a disgrace, a waste of taxpayers' money, while others call for it to be destroyed. If I thought I could get away with it I'd take a sledgehammer and smash it to pieces. Unfortunately I'm not brave enough, so I'll have to wait for someone else to do the job for me.

Gillian Wearing supports the subject of the statue in her quote included on the plaque. So this is, in her eyes, an acceptable alternative type of family? Two women who sleep with men that they hardly know, too dumb to use protection, unable to work and reliant on benefits, scrounging on our welfare state to bring up their children. What will happen to their sons? They'll follow the example of their mothers by going out and getting women pregnant, then abandoning them to live as single mothers. After all, that's what a Real Birmingham Family does, isn't it? The statue praises a level of modern delinquency that we should be ashamed of rather than presenting it as normal.

Sonnenallee (4 Stars)

This is a coming-of-age comedy about a group of teenage boys in 1970's East Berlin. Think of it as a Communist block version of Porky's. The boys make inept attempts to pick up girls, hindered by the watchful eyes of the Stasi and over-zealous border guards. Their interests are in sex and drugs and rock'n'roll, but they don't have much access to any of them. After all, the newest Rolling Stones album costs three months' salary on the black market, hardly affordable for a 17-year-old boy. The drugs are home-made concoctions made up from a mixture of supermarket articles and fizzy lemonade, more likely to make you sick than high. And as for sex, the neighbourhood girls are pretty, but they have no interest in spotty young boys.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Horns (3½ Stars)

People say you should do the right thing, but sometimes there is no right thing, so you have to pick a sin you can live with.

This is a low key black comedy. It starts off the same way as "Gone Girl". Ignatius Perrish's girlfriend Merrin has been killed, and he is the main suspect, hounded by television crews and neighbours. That's where the similarity between the two films ends. In "Gone Girl" the main character is motivated by the desire to clear his name, whereas Ignatius is consumed by a desire for revenge. He wants to kill whoever has taken his girlfriend from him. His negative emotions pull him over to the dark side. Horns sprout from his head, and he begins to have a profound effect on the people around him. His friends and acquaintances reveal their evil tendencies that they usually keep hidden. It's not that they have become evil, the evil was always there, but they lose their self control and let it out. As well as that, Ignatius finds that when he suggests evil deeds to people they do them.

As Ignatius continues his investigations into his girlfriend's death his appearance becomes ever darker. Snakes accompany him wherever he goes. On the one hand he's shocked by the evil forces overwhelming him, but he's prepared to use them in his quest for revenge.

It isn't really a horror film. It's not scary. The demonic aspects of the film made me laugh. It's difficult to say whether I enjoyed it or not. It wasn't at all what I expected. I expected more horror, or at least more suspense. The film is a curiosity that I need to see again before I make my mind up. The one thing that I can say for certain is that I'm very impressed by Daniel Radcliffe's acting abilities. I expected him to disappear after the Harry Potter films, but now it looks like he'll be with us for years to come.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Die Kirche bleibt im Dorf (4½ Stars)

This film is a little gem that most of my readers will never get a chance to see. It's a German comedy film set in the fictional Swabian twin villages of Oberrieslingen and Unterrieslingen. The humour might be lost on non-Swabians. In fact, the film's dialogue can hardly be understood even by German speakers, because the Swabian accents are so strong. The DVD helps out by having subtitles in Hochdeutsch ("High German"), the official German dialect. No English subtitles, sorry.

The villagers have hated one another for hundreds of years, but they're forced to get along because they only have one church between them. Of course, they sit on opposite sides of the church on Sunday. The state of perpetual animosity is interrupted when an American millionaire arrives and offers a ridiculously high price to buy the church and take it back to America. The villagers unite to solve the mystery of why the church is so valuable. Together they uncover a mystery that has been hidden for more than 400 years.

Here's the film's theme song, sung by the original cast. In Swabian, of course.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Friendship (4½ Stars)


The amazing true story of the first Ossis in America. Well, maybe they weren't the very first, but it makes a good tag line. Tom and Veit are two teenage boys who go on a journey to the USA in early 1990, after the Berlin Wall has fallen but before reunification. When they arrive they proudly describe themselves as Communists, not realising how unpopular this will make them. And the problems begin. With hardly any money in their pockets and almost starving they hitch hike from New York to San Francisco, where they want to meet Veit's father who ran away to America 12 years earlier. All that they have to give them strength is their friendship, but even this is put to the test when they fall in love with the same girl in New Mexico.

This is an amazing film which didn't seem quite so funny the first time I watched it, but it made me laugh out loud today. It was released in the cinemas in November 2009 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall. Five years later it's just as relevant.

Pink Floyd: The Wall (5 Stars)

I can't help myself. This film touches me like no other. Within a few minutes I was sobbing my eyes out. It must be the saddest film ever made. The film is a surreal re-telling of Roger Waters' autobiography. I can relate to his descent into madness. I feel his pain, his despair, his loneliness.

Ironically, I don't understand the significance of the Wall itself. For most of the film it's portrayed as an unwanted barrier separating the main character, Pink, from the world, and yet at the end of the film the Wall is removed as a punishment. I would have considered the tearing down of the Wall to be a reward.