Saturday, 31 January 2015

We are the night (5 Stars)

The more evil the man, the sweeter the blood.

This is one of the best films made in Germany in recent years. In many ways it's a typical German film. Sexy young women in the dazzling glitter of Berlin, who just happen to be vampires. If you only ever watch one German film in your life, this should be the one you pick.

I noticed today for the first time that my DVD contains a dubbed English version. I listened to it for a couple of minutes. Absolutely awful! The voice actors sound like they were reading the dialogue from the script book for the first time. There was no emotion in their voices. If you can't speak German I suggest that you watch the original version with English subtitles.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963 version) (4½ Stars)

The Gods are best served by the ones who want their help least.

I don't know why I didn't watch this film in May 2013 when I watched a series of Ray Harryhausen's films after his death. In fact, I assumed that I did watch it then, but my film diary doesn't list it, so I know that I didn't. Even if nobody ever read it, my blog is important to me to remind me of what I watched and when. Back to September 2010, at least. I wish I had started my blog years earlier, at the latest in 2003 when I bought my first DVD player. I'm pretty sure that "Jason and the Argonauts" was one of the first films I bought on DVD, but I can't remember the last time I watched it. I just know that it was before September 2010.

I decided to watch the film again today after watching the new version yesterday. It's good to compare them with one another. Without criticising the new version at all, I have to admit that the original version is better. Something about it is just magical. I couldn't help feeling a tingle of excitement when the first of Ray Harryhausen's big effects happened, namely the giant statue of Talos creaking into life. Magnificent! And the skeleton battle must be one of the most thrilling battles on film ever.

The DVD that I watched today is fuzzy in parts. It was remastered for Blu-ray in 2010. Tempting. I might invest in a replacement.

My Name is Nobody (3¾ Stars)

Looking back, it seems to me we were all a bunch of romantic fools. We still believed that a good pistol and a quick showdown could solve everything.

When people talk about spaghetti westerns, the first name they think of is Clint Eastwood. He actually starred in very few westerns, and purists claim that his later westerns aren't really spaghetti westerns, although I find them very close to the genre. The dividing line is thin. For me the quintessential actor of the spaghetti western genre is Terence Hill, the tall Italian with blond hair and blue eyes. Well, Terence's mother was a German, which is the side of the family that he got his looks from. I'm not sure how many spaghetti westerns he made, probably about 20 in the 1960's and 1970's. He hasn't completely abandoned the genre, since he starred in "Doc West" as late as 2009.

While Terence's first westerns were tough and gritty, his later films incorporated increasing amounts of humour. The spaghetti western genre was beginning to parody itself. "My Name is Nobody" also contains comedy elements, but it's more of a tribute to the end of the western age, in the same way as "The Wild Bunch", which it frequently references. For instance, at an Indian cemetery we see Sam Peckinpah's grave.

The film shows the old world giving way to the new. Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda) is a 50-year-old gunfighter who wants to retire to Europe. He's tired of constantly being challenged by young men who want to prove they're faster. Nobody (Terence Hill) is a young man who admires Jack. He says that before Jack retires he should have one last gunfight, taking on 150 outlaws at once, so that he will go down in history as a legend. Jack thinks this is foolish, but Nobody keeps on encouraging him.

The chemistry between the two main characters is apparent, and it probably reflects the feelings that the two actors had for one another off-screen. What disturbs me is that Nobody is a simple-minded person, or at the very least he pretends to be simple-minded, succeeding in his schemes by luck rather than skill. Nevertheless, it's a good film that will be enjoyed by western fans. I may watch a few more of Terence Hill's films over the next few weeks.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Jason and the Argonauts (2000 version) (4 Stars)

When watching this film the obvious question is, "How does it compare with the original version?" My answer is that it compares favourably. The strength of the new version is in the story. Since the 2000 version runs for almost three hours the characters can be developed better than in the 1963 version. This applies especially to the supporting characters, the other sailors on the Argo. When it comes to the special effects, the new version might be technically better, but I have a fetish for Ray Harryhausen's stop motion animation. The skeletons that fought Jason in the original version were just perfect, and however good computer animation is it will never have the same effect on screen.

I was fascinated by Jolene Blalock's haunting beauty as the Princess Medea. Apart from this film I only remember seeing her in the TV series "Enterprise". There's something about her face that fascinates me. It's a mixture of her (artificial) long eyebrows and her (genuine) large lips.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

2046 (3 Stars)

Everyone who goes to 2046 has the same intention, they want to recapture lost memories, because in 2046 nothing ever changes. But we don't know if that is true or not, because nobody has ever come back.

"2046" is a sequel to "In the mood for love". After spending a few years in Singapore, Chow Mo-Wan returns to Hong Kong in 1966. Just as in the first film he has twisted relationships with women. He moves into room 2047 in a hotel. Room 2046 is empty for a few months, but through the thin walls he hears the hotel owner's daughter, Wang Jing Wen, using the room to practise Japanese. She has a Japanese lover, but she isn't allowed to marry him because her father hates the Japanese. The lover, who we never see, has now returned to Japan, and they stay in contact by mail. The father doesn't allow her to receive letters from him, so Chow acts as an intermediary, receiving the letters and passing them on to her. Chow falls in love with Wang, even though she has no feelings for him. Eventually Wang has a mental breakdown and goes into a mental hospital.

After this a young prostitute, Bai Ling, moves into Room 2046. They have a torrid sexual relationship. Bai falls in love with Chow, but he feels nothing for her and wants to pay for her services. As a compromise she accepts 10 Hong Kong Dollars as a special reduced rate, the equivalent of less than one US dollar. Bai even gives up working as a prostitute to devote herself to Chow, but he cold-heartedly turns her away. He only loves Wang.

At this time he begins to write a story called "2046". 2046 is both a year and a place. The characters in the book are based on the people he knows. The film shows scenes from this futuristic world played by the same actors as the real world. Chow is the only traveller on a train leaving 2046, a journey that will last many years, maybe forever. To keep him company there is a pleasure android that looks like Wang. In the story Chow has sex with Wang, which never happened in the real world. But just as in the real world, she doesn't love him, even though Chow imagines himself to be Japanese in the story.

This is a sad, sad film. What makes it all the more tragic is that Chow can't even be happy in his fantasies. I have to ask, what's the point of a fantasy if it's just as depressing as real life?

On the other hand, any man who falls asleep when he's on the back seat of a car with Zhang Ziyi deserves to be miserable. No wonder she looks annoyed!

A Most Violent Year (4 Stars)

It's difficult to write anything about this film without giving away spoilers. I'll try to go no further than hint at what happens, but in case this is too much for my readers who still want to see this film in the cinema, stop reading now.

Still with me? Then let's get started.

Abel Morales runs a business selling heating oil. His wife is the daughter of a New York gangster, but he is determined to do everything legally, even though he has competitors who are dubious, to say the least. He's about to seal a deal, expanding his business, but at the same time his trucks are being stolen on the open streets, and the New York district attorney is investigating his company for fraud.

The film trailer is very misleading. It gives the impression that the film's story lasts a year, but it actually all takes place over a period of four weeks in January. It looks like another case of the trailer being made by someone who knew nothing about the film. Is there an industry that makes trailers? That must be an easy way to make money.

The film is slow, much slower than the trailer suggests, but never boring. Frequently during the film we have the impression that the constant pressure will make Abel resort to crime, but he always manages to restrain himself. I couldn't help getting the impression that the fraud investigations are only taking place because the district attorney is crooked, possibly being bribed by one of Abel's competitors, but this is never explicitly stated.

Before I went into the film last night one of the staff told me it's not a very good film because there isn't much violence. That's not a problem for me. I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Spider-Man XXX 2 (3½ Stars)

Nick Fury has sent Spider-Man and Jessica Jones to Las Vegas to prevent an attack by AIM on SHIELD's Cosmic Cube research facility. By coincidence, Betty Brant is also in the city to investigate the magician Mysterio's alleged link to the Kingpin.

This was one of the last films that Axel Braun made for Vivid Entertainment. He must have known he was leaving soon, because he crammed as many characters into the film as he could, knowing he wouldn't have another chance. Old characters and new. I was particularly excited to see Daredevil in his original black and yellow costume, even though his appearance was a random element that had nothing to do with the plot. Jessica Jones was unknown to me, because she didn't appear in Marvel comics until 2001. I vaguely remember Arachne as a minor character from the 1980's, but she became more significant in stories 20 years later.

My main criticism of the film is that too much was going on. If Axel had kept the plot simpler it would have been more enjoyable. The best scenes were the ones with Mysterio. I wonder if the official Marvel films will be this faithful to his appearance in the comics.

Betty Brant finds Mysterio irresistible. There must be something special about kissing a man with a glass bowl on his head.

Is it my imagination, or does Mysterio's bowl shine brighter as he gets excited? But you have to admit that if Betty Brant had been this sexy in the comics Peter Parker would never have been interested in Mary-Jane Watson.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Fearless (5 Stars)

"Only weak people will show their power through violence".

I first saw "Fearless" four years ago, but today is the first time I've had a chance to see the Director's Cut. If you haven't seen the film yet, this is the only version you should consider watching. It's 40 minutes longer, and the additional scenes add greatly to the film's atmosphere. "Director's Cut" is a very vague expression anyway, meaning something different every time. In this case the Director's Cut is the original version as created by the magnificent director Ronny Yu. The studios told him that 140 minutes was too long, so he had to go back and make cuts. Many Director's Cuts are just the original film, padded out by adding deleted scenes that weren't good enough to be included in the first place. The Director's Cut of "Fearless" is perfect, nothing is out of place, it's what we should have seen in the cinemas in the first place.

Interestingly, Michelle Yeoh's scenes were completely removed from the theatrical version. Why? Her beautiful, elegant performances lift the quality of any film. It's not just a matter of her being a good actress. Whether she plays a modern or an ancient character, she has a dignity about her persona, a radiance that makes people respect her.

"Fearless" was advertised as Jet Li's last martial arts epic. I'm not sure what was meant by that. Does it mean that he would no longer fight in his films, or that he would no longer star in historical films? Maybe the answer to this question can be found in obscure Chinese interviews. It could be that he feels he's too old to fight. Tell that to Jackie Chan.

The film is the true story of Huo Yuanjia, from 1900 to 1910, taking place at the end of the Qing Dynasty in Tianjin and Shanghai. He begins his life determined to be the fighting champion of Tianjin at all costs. After the murder of his mother and daughter he goes into exile and spends seven years working in the rice fields, leading him to reassess his life. He returns to Tianjin as a more spiritual man.

One thing that stands out is the balanced portrayal of the Japanese. As in "Fist of Legend", not all Japanese are bad. The Japanese ambassador is evil, but the Japanese karate champion is an honourable man. This might sound obvious to most of my readers, but they should remember that anti-Japanese propaganda is usual in Chinese films, especially when the story takes place in the first half of the 20th Century.

Suburban Mayhem (3 Stars)

I checked out this film on the recommendation of a friend. He's a big fan of Australian cinema, which is something I know almost nothing about. I asked him for recommendations, and this was the first film he named.

Well, as you can guess by my rating I wasn't exactly overwhelmed. I wouldn't say it's a bad film, and it has won a few awards, but it has nothing to say to me. It's about Katrina, a self-centred young woman, a single mother who lives with her father. Maybe that's what puts me off. I have nothing against self-centred young women, but when they give their social life priority over their children I draw the line. Katrina is sexy and gives first-class blow jobs, a skill that makes her able to manipulate men. Every time she wants to party she leaves her daughter Bailee with a boyfriend and disappears for days on end. It's not that she doesn't love her daughter, it's just that her party life comes first.

The only man that Katrina really loves is her brother Danny. No, it's nothing sexual, but for Katrina the men in her life are objects to be used; Danny is the only man she can take seriously. When Danny is given a life sentence for murder she resorts to desperate measures to get him out of prison.

I was surprised to see Mia Wasikowska in a small role as a friend Katrina makes in a beauty parlour. She was the only familiar face I recognised. This was the first film she made when she was 16.

Do you hate telemarketers as much as me? The so-called cold callers? I don't see how anybody could possibly like them. While I was watching the film the phone rang three times. Every time it was an offensive caller. One of them was a recorded message about PPI, which ended with the words, "If you do not want to receive this reminder again, press 9". So I pressed 9, even though I know it won't make any difference. I pressed 9 the last time I got the message.

One of the callers, who sounded from his accent like he isn't even located in England, started his call with the words, "I have a quick question for you that will only take up 20 seconds of your time". Fine. Then he started reading off some standard legal disclaimer, something like, "This phone call is being recorded and may be used for training purposes, etc". When he finished I told him, "Your 20 seconds are up", and I hung up. I don't know what he wanted, and I don't want to know. I'm sure he'll call again. The cold callers never give up.

What's the best way to deal with them? I don't know. They've been bothering me for years. A few months ago I decided to be rude. For a couple of weeks I kept telling them to fuck off and slammed the phone down. In itself it's a good idea. If I'm rude to the caller he'll feel bad, which will make him hesitate before his next call, maybe even have a bathroom break, sparing other people. If everyone did it he would feel so bad about his job that he'd quit and go work somewhere else. The trouble with this method is that I'm a polite person by nature, someone who never swears. After saying rude words I feel uncomfortable about myself, like I've dirtied myself.

Maybe I should just hang up without saying anything. I've tried that in the past, but sometimes they think it was a mistake and ring back immediately. It's not any good just politely saying that I'm not interested. I did that for years, and it doesn't help. I need to let them know that I'm not just not interested in their product, I also find their call offensive. Maybe I should tell them something like, "Look, you're probably a nice person, but you have a really shitty job. I'm sure you can do better for yourself". I haven't tried that yet. Tomorrow.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Triangle (5 Stars)

Is Melissa George running away from herself or trying to find herself? When she tries to do something new she ends up repeating the things she has done many times before.

One of the bad things about being a member of a film club is that I'm frequently asked awkward questions. The most awkward question is "What sort of films do you like?" For someone with tastes as varied as mine it's a difficult question to answer, and however often the question is posed it doesn't get any easier.

Maybe if I want to tell people what sort of films I like most I should point at "Triangle". It's a film that says something new to me every time I watch it. I like films with nuances, with hidden secrets that don't become obvious until the fifth or sixth time I watch them. In that respect "Triangle" is a perfect film. It's not a horror film, whatever is written on the posters, but it is very dark and unsettling. In fact, the film's dark nature is even more obvious because of the bright sunny pictures for most of the film.

"Triangle" is a film worth watching and discussing. Maybe I'll show it on one of my Saturday night film evenings.

Ex Machina (4½ Stars)

I don't usually read reviews of a film before I go to see it in the cinema. In this case I made an exception, because a review's catchy title caught my eye: "Foxcatcher for nerds". I shan't explain why, because it would give away too many spoilers for both films, but it's a perfect summary. "Foxcatcher" and "Ex Machina" have similar plots and end in a similar way. The main difference for me is that I found "Foxcatcher" dull, whereas "Ex Machina" was fascinating and exciting from the first minute.

Caleb Smith is a 26-year-old programmer for the company that makes the world's leading search engine. He wins a competition that entitles him to stay a week in the remote house of the company owner, Nathan Bateman. When he arrives he finds out that it isn't a vacation, he has a job to do. His boss, who insists on being called by his first name, has built a machine with Artificial Intelligence. In a variation of the Turing Test, Caleb has to talk to the machine for a week, knowing it is a machine, and then decide if he can treat it like a human. The machine, called Ava, has the voice and face of a woman, and even has the personality of a woman. Caleb is at first uneasy when Ava begins to flirt with him, but as the week progresses he accepts it. How far is he willing to let it go? He's aware that Nathan is always watching him with Ava. Is Nathan an all-seeing God or a creepy voyeur?

The film is slow-moving, but never boring. I was always excited to see what would happen next. The excellent acting by the three main characters makes the film even more entralling. Oscar Isaac (Nathan) is unsettlingly cold, Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb) is young and naive, and Alicia Vikander (Ava) has a child-life innocence. In some of the early scenes people in the cinema were laughing, but it wasn't because of any humour. It was the awkward laughter that people do when they feel uncomfortable in a situation and want to cover up their embarrassment. The film touched me, and it evidently touched the others in the cinema. A film that deals with similar issues, though from a different angle, is "Her". It would be interesting to watch them back to back.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Purple Butterfly (2 Stars)

Cynthia is Chinese, Itami is Japanese. They fall in love when they go to school together in Manchuria in 1928. After school they're separated when Itami has to go back to Japan to do military service. They meet again five years later in Shanghai. Cynthia works for the Chinese resistance, while Itami is head of the Japanese secret service in Shanghai.

In itself, that setting could have made a first class film, especially with a world class actress like Zhang Ziyi playing the role of Cynthia. But the film fails miserably. The problem is that the director, Lou Ye, attempted to be artistic, but missed the mark. The film's dialogue is kept to a minimum, which adds to the atmosphere, but it also makes it unclear who people are and why they're doing things. Added to this, the film is non-linear, jumping forwards and backwards in time. Some of the events are repeated from different characters' point of view, which worked in "Jackie Brown", but only adds to the confusion in "Purple Butterfly". In the final scene (chronologically) we see Cynthia and Itami dying in one another's arms, which seems like the film's end. Instead of that a 10-minute scene follows in which Cynthia is having sex with the resistance leader a few years earlier, after which the two walk through the streets of Shanghai heading towards a job at the railway station, which ended in a shoot-out that we saw in the first half hour of the film. During the rest of the film there had been no hints of an affair between Cynthia and the resistance leader, so this was totally out of place. I sat afterwards wondering what the director was trying to say. Confusing.

In case you think that it's only me who doesn't understand the film, this is what Amazon's reviewer Robert Horton has to say:

Zhang Ziyi looks as beautiful as ever in Purple Butterfly, a film that takes her out of the martial-arts world of "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers". She plays a member of Purple Butterfly, an underground resistance group fighting against the Japanese aggression in early 1930's China. The movie's central dilemma comes when her ex-lover, a Japanese agent, returns to Shanghai and is earmarked for assassination by Purple Butterfly. This compelling-sounding set-up is frustratingly unfulfilled, as director Ye Lou opts for an opaque brand of storytelling, in which chronology is jumbled and drama short-circuited. The film looks gorgeous, but it is close to impossible to understand what is going on at any given moment. If handsome images and dreamlike editing are enough, the movie might work for a very select group of patient viewers and Zhang Ziyi fanatics.

I'm a Zhang Ziyi fanatic, but I'm sorry, it didn't work for me.

Friday, 23 January 2015

How I live now (3 Stars)

Daisy is a 15-year-old girl who lives in New York. She goes to spend her summer holidays with her aunt in England. Shortly after arriving her aunt flies to Geneva on business, just for the weekend, but she doesn't return because a terrorist group explodes a nuclear bomb in London. The American embassy offers to evacuate Daisy, but she doesn't leave because she has fallen in love with her cousin Edmond. Martial law is declared, and the children are sent to do forced labour on a farm.

For me, this is a strange and unnecessarily controversial film. Even though the scene isn't very explicit, many viewers must be disturbed by seeing a 15-year-old girl have sex with her cousin. That's awkward on so many different levels. It could easily have been omitted or played down. If Edmond had been a neighbour, not a relative, it would have been better. Other aspects of the film are more appealing, such as the way we see that when the army takes over they are just as bad as the "terrorists".

The film has received generally favourable reviews. I can't agree with them. I find it mediocre.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Kajaki (4 Stars)

This is a true film about the events of September 6th 2006. A squad of British soldiers is stationed on a hill overlooking the Kajaki Dam in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Their mission is to protect the dam, because they have received intelligence reports that the Taliban intends to destroy it. When they see Taliban militia blocking the road and extorting money from civilians who wish to pass, they send a few soldiers down the hill to remove the roadblock. Halfway down the hill a soldier steps on a Russian mine and loses his leg. Other soldiers are sent to rescue him, but they soon realise that they're standing in the middle of a minefield. The mines are well hidden under the sand after 20 years of lying on the hillside. Despite their best efforts to be cautious they're picked off one by one by the mines as they attempt to return to safety.

The film was made with the assistance of one of the surviving soldiers. It's realistic, gritty and unglamorous. Rather than the Taliban, they are being killed by an anonymous unseen enemy, the Russians who were long gone after abandoning Afghanistan in 1989. It's not a pretty film, but that's not the intention. War is ugly.

It was interesting to read in the texts at the end of the film that the majority of the soldiers shown in the film were still in the British army in 2014, when the film was made. Whatever setbacks they experienced on that ominous day they were willing to continue fighting for their country. They are real heroes.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Into the Woods (3 Stars)

Right and wrong don't matter in the woods.

This is a weird film. It's a musical fairy tale mash-up swingers party. The central characters are a baker and his wife who have been cursed to remain childless. A witch promises to lift the curse if they give her four magical items: Cinderella's slipper, Rapunzel's hair, Red Riding Hood's cape, and the cow belonging to Jack, the boy in the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk" This brings them into contact with the characters from the four fairy tales, since their stories are all taking place concurrently in the woods.

A lot of the fairy tale action occurs off screen. For instance, we don't see Cinderella at the ball, we just see her leaving and being pursued by the prince. That's just as well. It would have added an extra 60 minutes to a film that already lasts two hours. All four fairy tales are resolved with their respective happy endings, but the story of the baker and the witch continues. Then the film takes a weird turn. The prince, already married to Cinderella at this point, meets the baker's wife in the woods and has an affair with her. We only see them kissing, but obviously more happens. As a result Cinderella leaves the prince and goes to live with the baker. It's all so unsettling to see the fairy tales that children love twisted into immorality. Welcome to the 21st Century!

Johnny Depp is the film's biggest actor, but only has a small role as the wolf. That's a shame, because he's the best singer in the musical. Only Meryl Streep (the witch) comes close. On the other hand, the "wolf" is such a creepy character. Rather than a murderous predator he seems to be a leering paedophile when he meets Red Riding Hood. It made me feel very uncomfortable.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Whiplash (5 Stars)

Every now and then a film comes along that is truly miraculous. Usually the miracle is that it's totally unexpected. Even the cinema bosses didn't have faith in the film with the intriguing name "Whiplash". It wasn't given a general release in the USA, but earned rave reviews at the few cinemas where it was shown.

Empire Magazine writes, "Sum up the plot and it sounds interminable. Watch the film and it will spit you out elated, exhausted and cheering for an encore". That's the film's only problem. The plot sounds so dull that it's difficult to attract viewers in the first place. It's about a first year music student at America's top music school who's given the chance to play drums in the jazz orchestra of the school's top professor. In the film the school is called the Schaffer Conservatory, but it's obviously based on the Juilliard School, which is universally acclaimed as the world's best music school.

The professor, Terence Fletcher, is a man who ruthlessly berates the slightest mistakes of his students, more like a drill sergeant than a music teacher. He picks on the slightest weaknesses of his students (weight, sexual orientation or family background) to hurl insults at them. What seems like sadism is intended to push his students to become the best they can be, as he admits in a quiet moment, but the insults are nevertheless hurtful.

J. K. Simmons gives the performance of his career. His performance is the best I have seen by any actor in any film ever. He has been nominated as the best supporting actor for this year's Academy Awards, but regardless of how much screen time he has he's really the main actor. Everyone else, even Miles Teller as the young drummer, fades away into his shadow. "Whiplash" has been nominated in four other categories, including Best Film, and it really deserves to win. It'll be a close race. "Birdman" and "The Imitation Game" are also exceptional films, but "Whiplash" is the best of the three. None of the other nominees deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.

Before I forget... the film is named after a song performed by Don Ellis and written by Hank Levy. Click the picture below the hear the song.

Friday, 16 January 2015

In the Mood for Love (3 Stars)

This Chinese psychological thriller is overbearingly intense with its underplayed emotions. It has much of the atmosphere of film noir, without actually belonging to that genre.

In 1962 two couples move into apartments next door to one another in Hong Kong. Chow Mo-Wan is a pulp fiction author, his wife is a businesswoman with an unspecified job. Su Chan is the secretary for a shipping company, her husband works for a Japanese company. Chow's wife and Su's husband both work long overtime hours, so Chow and Su spend time together. Eventually they come to the conclusion that their spouses, who we never see in the film, are having an affair with one another. Chow and Su deal with the matter by role-playing. First Su pretends to be Chow's wife, serving him as a good Chinese wife. Then Chow pretends to be Su's husband, so that she can practise for the scene where she accuses her husband of infidelity. Then they visit a hotel room together, so that they can pretend to be one another's spouses and see what it's like to keep a secret. At no time do Chow and Su actually have an affair. It's all make-believe, because they don't want to sink to the level of their spouses.

The film teases the viewer. Again and again we think that a romance is developing between the two, but every time we're reminded that it's all a game. I admit that I was confused for the first half hour of the film. Due to the spouses not being shown I thought they might not exist, and that it might just be an elaborate fantasy being played out by Chow and Su. But then Chow's landlord said that he had seen Chow's wife on the street with another man, so it was cleared up for me.

The problems I had understanding the film are the main reason for my relatively low rating. It's possible I shall rate it higher next time I watch it.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Bikini Carwash Academy (4 Stars)

Mohammed says, "I love Fred Olen Ray's films because they have the sexiest naked girls I've ever seen. My wives were ugly in comparison. If I'd had a wife like Beverly Lynne I would have invented a much better religion".

Jay Richardson says, "Don't download Fred Olen Ray's films illegally. Mohammed buys them, and so should you".

Michelle Bauer says, "Me? Wear a burka? I'm not stupid!"

Jay and Michelle say, "Let's be friendly and tolerant and get along with one another. If we all sit and watch Fred Olen Ray's films together the world will be a better place".

Taken 3 (4 Stars)

Liam Neeson returns to the screen once more as an action hero, running around faster than actors half his age. Once more he plays the role of ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills. In this film his ex-wife Lenore is murdered, and the police treat him as the main suspect. Rather than let them arrest him for questioning he goes on the run, because he can only track down the real killer while he's free. The film turns into a cat and mouse game between Bryan and the police detective Franck Dotzler, who treats Bryan's unwillingness to give himself in as an admission of guilt.

The film has fast action, car chases and non-stop thrills. It's everything you need for an enjoyable evening at the cinema.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

4 For Texas (4 Stars)

If anyone tells you that online streaming services like Netflix will replace Blu-rays and DVDs any time soon, don't believe it. Three days ago the Swedish actress Anita Ekberg died, so I decided to watch one of her films on Netflix to remember her. But guess what? Out of the 53 films that she made during her career none are available on Netflix. Not one. That's very, very poor indeed. Netflix can only be recommended for watching the big blockbusters of the last 20 years. Anyone who has more serious tastes in films will be disappointed.

So I turned to Amazon, where I found many of her films on sale, including this one for £2.01 (just over $3). The delivery was fast. I ordered it on Sunday evening and it arrived on Tuesday. Today I got a chance to watch it. It's not a film I had seen before, so I was curious about it.

The film takes place in 1870. Three men are travelling in a stagecoach, including Zack Thomas (Frank Sinatra) and Joe Jarrett (Dean Martin). The stagecoach is attacked by bandits, who kill the driver and the third passenger. After defeating the bandits in a gunfight, Zack and Joe fight over the money that belonged to the dead passenger, $100,000. Joe takes the money. He donates $25,000 to an orphanage, then uses the rest to buy a riverboat docked off Galveston, Texas, on which he opens a casino. Zack, who also lives in Galveston, makes repeated attempts to destroy the casino. Anita Ekberg plays Zack's girlfriend, Elya Carlson. Ursula Andress plays the riverboat's former owner, Maxine Richter, who becomes romantically involved with Joe.

As much as I wanted to watch the film for Anita Ekberg's sake, I have to admit that the film's outstanding actor is Frank Sinatra. He had great talents as an actor, not just as a singer. The two women struggle to speak English with their strong foreign accents, Anita Swedish and Ursula Swiss. Dean Martin is such a poor actor that it's difficult to take him seriously. Nevertheless, Anita Ekberg is remarkable for her sex appeal, far overshadowing Ursula Andress's lesser beauty.

Frank and Anita discussing business.

Frank leans in for a closer look.

Now Frank has forgotten what they were talking about.
Anita Ekberg
29 September 1931 – 11 January 2015

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Dangerous Liaisons (4 Stars)

Opulence and decadence in 1931 Shanghai. It's all about love, death and the weather.

Stations of the Cross (5 Stars)

I went to see this film with the Birmingham Film Club at the Mac, a small independent cinema near the Edgbaston cricket ground. It's the only cinema in Birmingham that regularly shows foreign films. Unfortunately they're not all German.

It's a film that could only have been made in Germany. In America it would have been too controversial to be completed, even if it had been adapted to American Protestant fundamentalism. The film has to do with German Catholic fundamentalism, if "fundamentalism" is the correct word. The story is about a church which belongs to the Society of St. Pius X, a splinter group of the Roman Catholic Church which rejected the decisions of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. They consider themselves to be the real Catholic Church, while the mainstream Catholic Church is apostate. Although it isn't directly stated in the film, this society considers the Pope to be the Antichrist.

The film takes place over a period of two weeks in the life of Maria, a 14-year-old girl who is about to go through the sacrament of confirmation. The film is divided into 14 scenes, one representing each step of Christ's suffering, but it isn't divided into days. The cinematography is stark and beautiful in its simplicity. Each of the 14 scenes is a single take, and in all but two of the scenes (the 9th and the 14th) the camera doesn't move.

There are six children in the confirmation class, but Maria is the one who takes things the most seriously. When the priest asks questions it's always Maria who knows the answer. The priest recommends sacrifice through asceticism to all the children. For instance, he says that his greatest pleasures in life are a chocolate bar, a cup of tea and listening to a classical concert on the radio, but he thinks he can please God by giving these up.

Maria's youngest brother is four and hasn't begun to speak, maybe due to a form of autism, although the doctors aren't certain of the cause. She feels that she can cure him by sacrificing the pleasures in her life. She tries to lead a life pleasing to God, but she's tempted when she's approached by a boy in school who asks her to sing in his choir in another church. For Maria's mother this is the depth of depravity.

The two women in Maria's life are her mother and the French au pair girl Bernadette, who is only a few years older than her. The mother is a monster, a religious fanatic who is so obsessed with her beliefs system that she is blind to the fact that her daughter is suffering. The worst wrong-doers are the ones who think they are doing right. Maria feels strongly drawn to Bernadette and wants to be like her, even though she doesn't share the family's extremist views. Bernadette is the only voice of reason in the film. She believes in God, but she thinks we should enjoy the pleasures of the world.

The film is stunning. When we left the cinema we were hardly able to talk. We were so moved by what we had seen. The film presents religious extremism without judging. That's left up to the viewer. Someone who believes in a strict form of Christianity will feel sympathetic with the church and its teachings, while the majority of viewers will probably condemn the harsh legalistic system oppressing Maria.

This is a film I need to see again. It's already been released on DVD in Germany, but I'll wait to see if there will be a Blu-ray release.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Foxcatcher (2 Stars)

Sometimes I don't understand the professional film critics. Why has this film been praised so loudly? How has it managed to win various awards? I found it exceedingly dull. Admittedly, the film is based on a true story, so the pacing is dictated by real life events, but it could have been made more interesting. Compare it with "Pierrepoint", a biopic which manages to enthral the viewer from beginning to end.

Even though the events happened during my life, I knew nothing about them or the characters portrayed, and I deliberately made no attempt to inform myself before going to see the film. All I knew was that there had been complaints from Mark Schultz about the film's accuracy.

The film follows the relationship of the wrestler Mark Schultz and the millionaire wrestling fan John Du Pont from 1987 to 1988. The final scenes take place in 1996, although no date is given and they seem to follow directly from what had happened before.

In 1984 Mark Schultz won an Olympic Gold Medal for wrestling. Despite this he lived in poor conditions in the following years. In 1987 the millionaire John Du Pont offers Mark $25,000 a year and a house on his estate to train for the 1987 wrestling world championships and the next Olympic Games. At first a strong friendship develops between the two men, but the relationship turns sour and Mark begins to despise his benefactor. This leads to Mark performing poorly at the 1988 Olympic Games and being eliminated in the preliminary rounds.

Apart from brief appearances by other characters, the film is only about three people: John Du Pont, Mark Schultz and Mark's older brother Dave Schultz. While I don't doubt the capabilities of actors Steve Carell and Channing Tatum, they are very difficult to relate to on screen. Mark Schultz is a hard-nosed introvert, while John Du Pont is an obviously deranged person torn between his obsession with wrestling and his desire to be accepted by his mother. Only Dave Schultz is warm and outgoing, but he plays a small part until late in the film.

Overall, the film is very disappointing. For most of the film nothing happens, and the final scenes seem disjointed and nothing to do with the rest of the film. My rating is generous; I felt tempted to rate the film lower, but I gave it two stars out of respect to the acting performances of the three main characters.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Woman in Black: Angel of Death (3 Stars)

Before I went to see this film in the cinema two of my friends had already seen it. One said it was an awful film, the other said he loved it. After seeing the film for myself I can understand it. It's all a question of what you expect when you go to see a horror film. Do you want a good story, or do you want to be scared? The best films offer both, of course, but if a film only succeeds in one of the two categories opinions can be divided.

The film is a sequel to the 2012 film "Woman in Black", which was one of the most successful of the new series of Hammer horror films. It takes place 40 years later, in 1941, and features two school teachers accompanying a group of eight children from London to the remote countryside where they can be kept safe for the rest of the war. The place they will be staying is Eel Marsh House, the house that we saw in the first film. There are back stories about two of the group. The younger teacher, Eve Parkins, has given up her baby for adoption because she was unmarried. One of the boys, Edward, is unable to speak after the recent death of his parents.

The first hour of the film delivers what is expected from a horror film: frequent scares caused by jumps, i.e. sudden unexpected occurrences accompanied by a clash of loud music. Over-use of jumps in horror films has been criticised by film critics such as Roger Ebert, but I see nothing wrong with them. They're an effective tool in creating suspense, as long as they are used to support a good story. But that's exactly the problem we have here. In the last half hour everything gets muddled, when we see that the "woman in black" has two agendas, namely claiming Edward for herself and punishing Eve for abandoning her baby. Without giving away the end of the film, the final battle, in which the woman is defeated, confused me. I sat there asking myself how the things that happened did any good at all, and why they were considered a success.

A good film or a bad film? There will be those who love it and those who hate it. You decide.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Birdman (5 Stars)

We all know what we have when a super-hero movie is made. We see a man pretending to be a super-hero. Or more accurately, we see an actor playing the part of a super-hero who has a secret identity, so it's a man pretending to be a super-hero pretending to be a man. "Birdman" takes us a step deeper into the maze. We see a man who thinks he's a super-hero pretending to be a man who plays a super-hero who pretends he's a man. But what if he isn't a normal man after all? What if he's really a super-hero who's become schizophrenic and sees the super-hero as being a separate person? In that case Michael Keaton is playing a super-hero who thinks he's a man who used to play the part of a super-hero. Whichever way you unravel the wool there will be knots.

The plot: In the 1980's Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) made a series of films about a hero called Birdman. Now he has fallen into obscurity. He's making a comeback by writing, directing and acting in a play based on Raymond Carver's story "What we talk about when we talk about love". His troubles with the cast, which I won't go into here even though they are significant to the film's plot, are dealt with by talking to Birdman, who speaks in his head when he's alone in his dressing room.

The film's cinematography is amazing. It's a series of long takes which are glued together, so that when a new event begins it starts at the same location and camera angle where the last one ended, so the film makes the impression of being made in one giant single take. Almost the whole film. When Riggan has to go into hospital the wool breaks. There are a series of short takes, before we go back to one extended take for the rest of the film.

The film is a work of genius. I feel tempted to see it a second time while it's still in the cinema. Maybe next week, if I have time.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

CJ7 (3½ Stars)

I always associate the name of Stephen Chow with zany comedies. As is usual for all his recent films, apart from playing the main role he directed and produced "CJ7". I've never understood how a person can be an actor and director at the same time. For me it's a contradiction in terms. But it worked for Orson Welles, it worked for Ed Wood, and it works for Stephen Chow.

Ti is a poor construction worker who lives with his son Dicky in a derelict house. Ti is a good father who teaches his son that as long as you're honest it doesn't matter if you're poor. This is a good lesson, but it's not enough to stop Dicky being bullied at school.

While searching in a rubbish tip for new trainers for his son Ti finds a mysterious green object. Thinking it's a toy, he takes it come and gives it to Dicky, but it's actually an alien accidentally left behind by a space craft. Dicky gives the alien the name CJ7, based on the name of the popular toy CJ1. Dicky takes CJ7 to school for company and for help against the bullies.

The film is amusing, but I wouldn't rate it as highly as "Shaolin Soccer". Maybe it's just too childish for me to be able to relate to it.

Under the Skin (4 Stars)

Scarlett Johansson is as cold as a Scottish winter. She seduces men and destroys them, ripping their bodies out of their skin.

The film is very difficult to understand. Since it's based on a novel with the same name written by Michael Faber I decided to read a summary of the book after I had watched the film. It seems that so much was omitted from the book that all that is left in the film is a collage of random scenes. I'm sure that this was deliberate. The book is the basis for the film, but the film goes in a different direction. The film is about the imagery, rather than the plot itself. For that reason I shan't attempt to describe what happens. Stylistically, it reminds me of Nicolas Roeg's films, in particular "The Man who fell to Earth".

In the novel the main female character is called Isserley, but in the film she remains unnamed, so I'll call her Scarlett. I feel that there's a message in the film that (probably) isn't part of the original novel. The film portrays in vivid details how shallow men are. They are fascinated by Scarlett's beauty, her face and her body, but they make no attempt to discover what she is like on the inside. They aren't even interested in finding out her name. Even as they begin to sink into destruction they can't help walking towards her, led on by their lusts.

Supposedly parts of the film were made without a script. Scarlett Johansson was filmed in public places where she spoke to men while the scenes being filmed with a hidden camera. It's not always apparent which scenes were scripted and which weren't. An audio commentary would be useful, but the Blu-ray I watched today didn't include one. Maybe there will be a fuller release in the future.

The film has received praise from critics, but it failed to break even at the box office. It was probably too abstract for the popcorn-munching public. I agree that it's not an easy film to watch, but I enjoyed it and shall certainly watch it again.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Hot Fuzz (5 Stars)

I went to a New Year's Party with other members of the Birmingham Film Club last night. It was a great time. It continued into the early hours of the morning, and we ended up watching a film when most of the guests had already fallen asleep. "Hot Fuzz" was a good choice to start the year.

The new year began with a film, but the old year ended with a game of Twister. I was amazed. I always thought people had to be naked to play Twister, but it seems it's possible with clothes as well. Possible, but not as much fun.

Mike McAuley, the overlord of the film club, observes his minions. It seems that Jo has already fallen asleep.