Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Final Programme (4½ Stars)

"Scientific mysticism was always a German hangup, sort of a dress rehearsal for the Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the Gods... or humanity... or both".

I have a love-hate relationship with this film. It's based on Michael Moorcock's novel, "The Final Programme", which is my favourite book. It's always difficult for a film to satisfy the fans of a book. Things are never quite the way the reader imagines them. In the case of "The Final Programme" so much of the original story has been stripped away that the end result is as thin as a skeleton. There's no Bishop Beesley, there's no astronaut's manual, and there's no nurse called Ulla. Or was her name Una?

On the other hand the film is a beautiful landscape of psychedelic chaos from beginning to end. It's directed by Robert Fuest, the director responsible for the two Dr. Phibes films, and it can be seen as his ultimate work. The intense colours emphasise the absurdity of the plot, an absurdity which is contained in the original novel. The difference is that the novel takes the time to explain the absurdity, whereas the film just throws it at us. The film is at least an hour too short to do the book justice.

The film begins with Jerry Cornelius visiting the funeral of his father Alexander in Lapland. He's approached by Dr. Smiles, a research colleague of his father, who wants to have a microfilm from his father's house. Jerry knows nothing about the microfilm, but he's intrigued, especially when he meets a mysterious woman, Miss Brunner, who also wants the microfilm. Jerry's brother Frank takes possession of the microfilm and attempts to sell it to the highest bidder, but Jerry and Miss Brunner team up to retrieve it from him.

This all takes place against the background of a Hindu prophecy that the world is about to end. Miss Brunner claims that she wants to save the world, or at least create a new one, but her motives seem selfish. Jerry doesn't know whether she's his friend or his enemy.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

It's a very tasty world.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (4 Stars)

This is a sequel to "The Abominable Dr. Phibes". It takes place three years later, in 1928. At the end of the last film Dr. Phibes lay in a machine that replaced his blood with embalming fluid, which we assumed killed him. In this film the same machine puts the blood back in his veins, bringing him back to life. That's a lot of trouble to go to. Couldn't he just have gone into hiding for three years?

1928 is a very significant year. The planets Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon will be in allignment for the first time in 2000 years. This will trigger the draining of an underground chamber in an Egyptian pyramid, opening the way to the River of Life. Whoever drinks from this river will live forever. Dr. Phibes doesn't just want this treasure for himself, he intends to use it to bring his wife Victoria back to life.

Unknown to him, another explorer, Darrus Biederbeck, is also searching for the River of Life. A few hundred years ago he discovered a small quantity in flasks, and he's been keeping himself alive by drinking it until the planetary allignment occurred. Biederbeck and Dr. Phibes engage one another in a battle of wits, each trying to get to the River first. Biederbeck has a large group of people helping him, while Dr. Phibes only has his assistant Vulnavia at his side. Dr. Phibes kills the men in Biederbeck's group one by one with cunning machines. A gun or a knife would be far too simple.

Robert Fuest returned as director, but this time he had problems with the film. He wanted Dr. Phibes to have a new assistant, but the film studios insisted on Vulnavia returning. This was rather foolish, because Vulnavia was killed in the first film. No explanation is given as to how she miraculously re-appears in the opening scene. There was also off-screen tension between Vincent Price and Robert Quarry, the actor who played Biederbeck. Robert accused Vincent Price of over-acting. That's actually true, Vincent Price always over-acted, but that's what made him so good. However, Robert Quarry said it as an insult, and the two men never got on well together.

Vulnavia plays a bigger role than in the first film. In "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" we only see her occasionally, but in "Dr. Phibes Rises Again" she assists Dr. Phibes more actively in his murders. She's frequently used as bait to lure the men into traps, although the doctor himself is always the one to carry out the murders. He enjoys killing too much to delegate it to his assistant.

I saw this film on television many, many years ago. I visited a friend, Gareth, and he was watching it with his family. I missed the first few minutes and didn't see the film's title. It amazed me, and for years I tried to find out what it was. Certain scenes haunted me for years, they were unforgettable. Those were the days before the Internet -- yes, I'm that old! -- so I couldn't do a web search to see what films Vincent Price had made. It wasn't until 2004 that I finally knew what it was and bought both Dr. Phibes films on DVD. Better late than never.

Over the years several Dr. Phibes films were planned. Full screenplays were even written, but the films were never made. That's a shame. I would have liked to see Robert Fuest and Vincent Price reunited. It's too late now. I don't think any other actor could step into Vincent Price's shoes.

The Last Witch Hunter (3½ Stars)

The premise of this film is that witches are a different race that live on Earth alongside humans. In the past witches were powerful and threatened to conquer the world, either destroying or enslaving humans, but there were elite bands of witch hunters who fought against them. After the defeat of their queen in the 13th Century the witches grew weaker and their power was diluted, presumably by intermarriage with humans. The witch hunters were disbanded, and a secret society called the Axe and Cross took its place. Witches are allowed to exist, as long as they don't harm humans. Vin Diesel is the only remaining witch hunter. He was the one who killed the witch queen in the 13th Century, but before her death she cursed him to live forever. He now lives in modern day New York, even though his missions take him all over the world.

There are many different types of films. Some are true stories, some are science fiction, some are supernatural stories, some are fantasy, etc. There are different rules in each type of film that dictate what's allowed and what isn't. In a vampire film we don't see spaceships firing at each other, in a Victorian period drama we don't see mobile phones, etc. Every film that we watch uses the first five to ten minutes to lay out, usually implicitly, what the rules are. The viewer needs to be acclimatised. He needs to know what sort of a film he's watching. That's where "The Last Witch Hunter" fails. The opening scenes are totally confusing. We see Vikings, followed by confusing special effects. This disorients the viewer. By the time we get to the present day the rug has already been pulled from under our feet.

The problems deepen as the film continues. The film relies too much on special effects. It's often difficult to see what's happening. If the film had toned down the special effects it would have been more enjoyable.

Vin Diesel's acting pleasantly surprised me. He puts on a reasonable performance as the hardened fighter. He has a tender side that he suppresses, and this inner conflict is played out in his facial expressions. On the other hand, his love interest Chloe, played by Rose Leslie, is a very weak character. It's not just her acting, she's poorly introduced to us. After seeing her in the bar scene she's just a caricature. The same is true of the bad guy, Belial. He's just a random monster, and it leaves us cold when he's destroyed. The best films make us feel sympathetic for the bad guys, and we have a twinge of pity when they're killed. There's none of this in "The Last Witch Hunter".

It's not a bad film, but it's not a good film either. It's very forgettable. The film's ending loudly hints that there will be a sequel, but please, we don't want one.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (4 Stars)

The picture I've used above, the cover of the soundtrack album for "The Abominable Dr. Phibes", has nothing to do with the film, but I've used it because it looks cool. It was common for posters and album covers in the 1970's to have irrelevant or incorrect pictures on them. These silly pictures sometimes found their way onto the cases of VHS and even DVD releases of the films. In the case of the picture above it's Dr. Phibes and his assistant Vulnavia, but they aren't in love, she just works for him. At no point in the film do they kiss one another. But you have to admit, the picture looks good, and the text on it is profoundly true.

"Love means never having to say you're ugly".

Now let's get to the film itself. In the early 20th Century Dr. Anton Phibes was one of the world's most brilliant organ players. In 1921 he had a car accident while driving with his wife. Anton was burnt to death and his wife Victoria was severely injured. Surgery was needed to save Victoria's life, but she died on the operating table. Anton and Victoria were buried side by side in the family crypt, his ashes lying next to her body. But as we see, Anton survived the crash after all. The ashes are those of his chauffeur. Nevertheless, his face has been badly damaged, and he has to wear a mask to look like a normal person.

Dr. Phibes wearing a mask.

Dr. Phibes without a mask.

The story continues in 1925. Dr. Phibes blames the medical team that treated his wife for her death. He says that they murdered her, so he wants to take revenge on the nine members of the medical team. He kills them one by one, each murder based on the plagues that God wrought on Egypt before the Exodus. If you know the Bible you'll wonder why there are ten plagues if there are only nine victims. I shan't give that away, you need to watch the film for yourself.

Vincent Price is an incredible actor. His performances in horror films, including this one, are so exaggerated and campy that he can hardly be taken seriously, and yet everything is just perfect. If he did anything else it wouldn't be him.

The film was directed by Robert Fuest. He's not a well known director, since he made less than a dozen films in his career, but he still made an impact on the film world with his distinctive style. His films always used bold colours with sharp edges, and his sets were characterised by straight lines with a minimum of curves. The characters in his films were just as bold and well-defined as the sets, easy to distinguish in their moral values. He directed several episodes of the final season of "The Avengers", which also show his typical style.

This film is considered to be a cult classic. I agree, even though I've never been able to find an accurate definition of that expression.

All Ladies Do It (3½ Stars)

"All men are really stupid pigs. They preach equality of the sexes, but none of them practise it. They're worms, all of them".

When you see a film with a title like this your first question must be, "All ladies do what?". If you've seen other films directed by Tinto Brass you can probably guess the answer. I shan't keep you in suspense any more. The answer is, all ladies cheat on their husbands.

The film is an adaptation of Mozart's opera, "Cosi fan tutte", which means "They all do it". The main difference between the opera and the film is that the opera merely deals with women being unfaithful, whereas the film also incorporates the theme of prostitution.

Diana and Paolo are a young married couple who live in Rome. Diana is very much in love with her husband, but she likes to flirt with other men, for instance by accidentally touching men standing next to her on crowded trams. She works in an elegant clothing store. She talks to one of their best customers, and she's shocked when she hears about all the expensive gifts she receives from rich men in exchange for sex. Diana talks to her colleague, who replies, "That's nothing special. I sleep with our boss to get a pay rise". So Diana turns to her sister Nadia, who says that if she loves her husband she should sleep with men for money, because her husband will profit from it.

Diana has to travel to Venice when her Aunt Emma dies. The Will is read, and she inherits a luxurious penthouse apartment overlooking the city. While in Venice Diana finds out that her aunt used to be a prostitute and became very wealthy from her work. This was for a good cause, because when she died she left all her money to a convent. Diana meets a man that she first met in Rome and is unfaithful to her husband for the first time, but she feels very guilty about it afterwards. Unable to cope, she spirals into excesses of alcohol and drugs.

Tinto Brass has an agenda. All his films carry the message that women can't be faithful, and the only way for a husband to make his wife happy is to allow her the freedom to be with other men. Is that what women want? Maybe some women, but is it what all women want? I'll let my readers decide.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (4½ Stars)

I've spelt the film's title correctly, exactly as it appears on the film's title screen. Most of the posters, and even some of the DVD releases, omit the apostrophe in the word "Daleks'". Sometimes a hyphen is added between "Daleks'" and "Invasion". Here's the title screen, in case you don't believe me.

If you're wondering who the copyright holder is, Aaru Productions was a subsidiary company of Amicus Productions, which I spoke about briefly in my post on "The people that time forgot". Amicus created a separate company for its science fiction films, but after making only two films (the two Doctor Who films) the company was dissolved and the ownership of the films was transferred to Amicus.

This film is better made than "Doctor Who and the Daleks". It looks more polished, probably as the result of having a bigger budget. It's a remake of the second Dalek adventure in the Doctor Who TV series. This time the Doctor is accompanied by his granddaughter Susan, his niece Louise, and Tom Campbell, a random policeman who walked into the Tardis while it was parked on a London street. Unlike in the TV series, the Tardis in the Doctor Who films is never locked. Anyone can walk in and out whenever he wants to. That's not a smart idea. If I invented a time machine I'd definitely keep the door locked. It would be embarrassing if someone took it off on a joy ride.

I personally prefer "Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D." to "Doctor Who and the Daleks", but it was less successful at the box office. Maybe Dalekmania was dying down? I don't know. My only real criticism is that the film seems too short. It's long enough to retell the six-episode story, but I would have appreciated some padding. What's missing is some of the iconic scenes from the TV episodes, the Daleks against the background of famous London landmarks.

In the original TV series the Robomen, humans who have been brainwashed to serve the Daleks, look genuinely terrifying. In the film they look like pizza delivery guys in fetish gear. Even more amusing is that the Daleks feed the Robomen on a diet of Smarties.

I've watched the DVD a few times, but today was the first time I noticed a distortion in the sound, a light clicking in quiet scenes. Once I'd noticed it I couldn't ignore it any more and it really annoyed me. I need to buy the remastered Blu-ray.

The People that Time Forgot (4½ Stars)

This is a sequel to "The land that time forgot", made three years later in 1977. This time I don't have to apologise for liking it. It's a much better film, mainly due to the higher quality of the actors. It was a box office success, but evidently not enough to save the company that made it, Amicus Productions. Amicus was founded in 1962 as a direct competitor to Hammer. Amicus made 27 films, of which 20 were horror films and five were science fiction. "The people that time forgot" was their last film. They went bankrupt in the same year. Amicus can't be blamed for this. The 1970's were the decade that wiped out the British film industry. Hammer was almost bankrupt after making "To the Devil a daughter" in 1976. Hammer attempted one last film, "The Lady Vanishes", in 1979, and then stopped making films altogether.

The film takes place shortly after the end of World War One, at the end of 1918. At the end of the first film Bowen Tyler threw a message in a bottle into the ocean with information on his location. The bottle was found after it floated northwards from the Antarctic. Major Ben McBride, a childhood friend of Bowen, sets up an expedition to search for him. When his team arrives they find that many of the natives speak English, because Bowen has been educating them. He spent two years with the Galu tribe, but now the Galus have been wiped out by the warlike Naga tribe and Bowen has been taken prisoner.

Patrick Wayne never became a famous actor like his father John, but he proves himself to be a very competent actor as Ben McBride. Sarah Douglas accompanies him as the photographer Charlotte Cunningham. She plays a more significant role than Sarah Penhaligon in the previous film. Patrick and Sarah bounce off one another well, as the macho man and the liberated female.

Dana Gillespie in 1977

I'll talk a bit about Dana Gillespie, who plays the part of the native girl Ajor. She made only half a dozen films from 1966 to 1978, because she concentrated on live acting. She was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Parallel to that she followed a career as a pop singer. At the end of the 1970's she decided to follow singing as a full time career, and she's now recorded over 60 albums. Yes, sixty! That's an amazing number of recordings for a person to make and still remain widely unknown. She's the follower of an Indian guru, and 14 of her albums are spiritual music performed in Sanskrit.

Dana Gillespie in 2015

As is often true in the music business, it's not just about what you know, it's about who you know. I've been a fan of Dana's music since the 1980's, so I can verify that she has talent, but she needed a helping hand to get started. At school she was David Bowie's first girlfriend. He was 16, she was 14, and he followed her around like a lovesick puppy. It didn't work out, but they remained friends. When she wanted to make an LP of her folk songs he used his influence to get her a contract.

Dana Gillespie has never married. She was open about being bisexual in the 1970's when homosexuality wasn't accepted the way it is today.

David Bowie and Dana Gillespie

In the 1970's Dana Gillespie enjoyed notoriety because of a series of sex scandals. For instance, she was linked with John Stonehouse, the Labour member of parliament who worked as a spy for the Czechoslovakian government. Her antics were frequently reported in the News of the World. I don't even know if half the stories were true, but at least it meant that there were always new photos of her being published. I knew her face before I knew her as an actress, and long before I knew her as a singer.

Dana Gillespie in 1965

Monday, 26 October 2015

The Land that Time Forgot (4 Stars)

The last two days should suffice to show my readers how erratic my film ratings are. Yesterday I watched "Sicario", which is universally regarded as a good film and is expected to be nominated for several Academy Awards, but I only gave it three stars. Today I watched "The land that time forgot", a cheesy film with below average special effects even for 1974, a film that didn't win a single award, but I've given it four stars. For me it's all about whether the film gives me a certain feeling. I often use the expression that a film "speaks to me". Some films speak to me, others don't.

The film is based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It takes place in June 1916. A German submarine sinks a civilian passenger ship crossing the Atlantic. Apart from the crew, the only survivors are the American Bowen Tyler and his English girlfriend Lisa Clayton. They see the submarine surface, so they leave their lifeboats and ambush the submarine crew when they go out for fresh air. Bowen tells the Germans to steer the submarine to America, but the German captain deceives him by travelling south. Low on fuel, the submarine drifts off course and they get lost. By accident they find a lost island called Caprona. This island is the home to dinosaurs and primitive human tribes.

The creatures can't be compared with the dinosaurs in Ray Harryhausen's films. The special effects are far inferior. In Ray Harryhausen's films the whole animal was always animated, including the face, so it was possible to see the emotions. The dinosaurs in "The land that time forgot" are rubber puppets. The eyes don't move, which makes the dinosaurs look like they're dead. The film was made with a low budget, and it shows.

On top of this, Doug McClure was never a convincing actor. His performance is hollow from beginning to end. Susan Penhaligon, who I've never seen apart from this film, is the worst. It's difficult to understand why she's in the film, apart from to offer eye candy.

And yet I've still given the film a four star rating. However many faults I see in it, I still enjoyed watching it today, and I'll probably watch it again.

Bedazzled (2000) (4½ Stars)

This 2000 film is a remake of the 1967 film with the same name starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The original was good, the remake is better.

Elliott Richards is responsible for telephone technical support in an office in San Francisco. Due to his awkward personality he has no friends. For four years he's had a crush on a colleague called Alison, who has never even noticed him. One day he's approached by a beautiful woman who says he can have Alison or anything else he wants. The woman is the Devil, and she offers him seven wishes in exchange for his soul. After some hesitation he signs a contract and the wishes begin.

The problem is that the Devil tricks Elliott by giving him what he wishes for, but mixing in things that he forgot to mention. For instance, in his first wish he asks to be married to Alison, but he forgot to specify that she should love him, so he finds her having an affair with another man. Every wish he asks for is fulfilled, but there's always a catch. He's never happy with what he gets.

I have to ask why Elliott is so obsessed with Alison. I would have fallen head over heels in love with the Devil herself. Alison is a timid little mouse, not particularly attractive, but the Devil is beautiful, sexy and evil. That's everything I want in a woman. Judge for yourself.

Frances O'Connor as Alison

Elizabeth Hurley as the Devil

If a woman like that asked me to bite her apple my reply would be, "Just one apple? I'll eat the whole tree".

The film ends with a pseudo-religious message which effectively negates the whole threat of Elliott losing his soul. Heaven and Hell are just metaphorical terms. The Devil is friends with God anyway, it's all a game the two of them are playing. Blah blah blah. So Hell isn't really a place where we'll be tortured by Elizabeth Hurley for all eternity? I'm disappointed.

Sicario (3 Stars)

As the film explains to us in the first few minutes, "sicario" is a word used in Mexico meaning "hit man". What we aren't told is who the Sicario is. For most of the film we don't see any hit man. It's only at the end of the film that we see who the hit man in the title is.

This is a film about an FBI agent who specialises in hostage situations being asked to assist the CIA in an operation against Mexican drug smugglers. She is soon shocked to find that her new colleagues act recklessly, endangering innocent bystanders in gun battles with drug cartel members. Do the ends justify the means? That's her moral dilemma.

I can appreciate the film, but I couldn't enjoy it in the cinema today. It's too dark, too violent, too realistic. The action sequences are more like a war than any level of police operation. After watching the film I tried to find a message that I could take with me, something to make the film a positive work of art, but I couldn't. Everything is negative. There is too much evil on all sides.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

A Simple Plan (4½ Stars)

After watching "The Gift" earlier today I thought I would watch another one of the films from the middle of Sam Raimi's career, between "Evil Dead" and "Spider-Man". "A Simple Plan", made in 1998, was higher rated by the critics and was even nominated for two Academy Awards, but it was a box office flop. (My personal definition of a flop is that it earns less than its budget at the box office). That's a shame. Maybe the film was too arty. It's a slow film in which very little happens, but the atmosphere is intense and overbearing.

It's the collapse of the American dream. Hank and Jacob are the two sons of a farmer in northern Minnesota. Isn't that the worst possible place to have a farm, a place where the ground is covered by ice and snow for months every year? A farm like that means hard work with very little to show for it. Hank, the younger son, is intelligent and capable of living a better life, so the farmer pays for him to go to college for four years. Hank returns home with a degree and gets a job in a grocery store. There's not much else to do in Minnesota. The cost of the college has bankrupted the farm, so the farmer kills himself. The older son Jacob is a failure in life and in love. He's never had a job, he's never kissed a girl. He just hangs out with his friend Lou, who is married but also unemployed.

One day in late December Hank, Jacob and Lou are in the woods hunting a fox that's been stealing chickens. They find a small plane covered by the snow. The pilot is dead, and there's a bag with four million dollars. Rather than report what they've found they take the money and leave the plane to be discovered when the snow melts in the spring. Hank says he'll keep the money, but not use it until they find out if anyone is looking for it. If the money is safe he'll split it with the two other men, if not he'll burn it.

So far so good. Is what they've done so evil? Technically, they're breaking the law, but is it so bad to take money from a dead man? He won't miss it. Apart from that, anyone who's carrying so much money is suspicious. He must be some sort of criminal. That's how they justify their actions. To be honest, if I found four million dollars in the woods I'd probably keep it as well. I wouldn't even feel guilty.

The problem is that there were three of them. If Hank alone had found the money he could have calmly taken it home and hidden it, not spending any of it until a few years later. The other two aren't so patient. Lou is in debt and wants a few thousand dollars to get out of trouble. Jacob wants money to buy back his father's farm. They both accuse Hank of wanting to keep all the money for himself, even though he has honest motives.

They become nervous, returning to the plane to check there are no problems. That's their first big mistake. They almost give themselves away, and they're forced to kill someone to keep their secret. From here on the situation escalates. More and more people die to prevent the money being found. The three men turn against one another in their greed. Despite promising that the secret would remain with them, Hank and Lou make the mistake of telling their wives about the money. The more people are involved, the more the simple plan becomes complicated by greed and deception.

In a way, I can understand why this film wasn't successful with the general public. It's too slow. Not much happens. Where are the big explosions and car chases? I've said it many times before, a film doesn't need an abundance of action to be good. Slow films can be good as well, if they're well made. "A Simple Plan" is a very well made film.

The Gift (2000) (5 Stars)

In my eyes this is a forgotten masterpiece. It was made in 2000 when Sam Raimi was still best known for "Evil Dead", before he hit the big time by directing "Spider-Man" (which I really ought to watch again soon, it's been too long). "The Gift" doesn't have the gore of "Evil Dead" or the action of "Spider-Man". It's a perfectly crafted super-natural drama. If anything, it's a perfect example of character development. We know and understand all the main characters and some of the minor characters. The film has an intricacy with various sub-plots bubbling beneath the surface, but it never becomes too difficult to follow.

Cate Blanchett is Annie Wilson, a single mother of three children, a year after the death of her husband in an accident at work. She makes money by laying cards to read the future.

Keanu Reeves is Donnie Barksdale, a good Christian man who hates Satanic fortune tellers and beats his wife.

Hilary Swank is Valerie Barksdale, Donnie's wife and Annie's main customer.

Giovanni Ribisi is Buddy Cole, a mentally disturbed young car mechanic whose only friend is Annie.

J. K. Simmons is absolutely amazing as Pearl Johnson, the town's sheriff. Despite his limited screen time his words and his mannerisms help us to know him inside out.

Greg Kinnear is Wayne Collins, a school teacher who's engaged to marry the mayor's daughter.

Katie Holmes is Jessica King, the mayor's daughter.

At the time "The Gift" was made Katie Holmes was still one of the main cast in the TV series "Dawson's Creek", in which she played the teenager Joey Potter. Katie was no longer a teenager, she was just blessed with looking young. "The Gift" gave her an opportunity to play an adult role, which shocked many of her fans at the time. When I lived in America I watched the first two seasons of "Dawson's Creek" on television and considered her to be the series' most talented actress. "The Gift" showed another side to her acting skills, and she has gone on to bigger success in recent years.

In "The Gift" Katie is brutally murdered. There are no eye witnesses. The only person who can help the investigations is Annie Wilson. Unfortunately, her gift doesn't mean that she can look at the cards on the table and see everything. She only has flashes of events, not enough to give the police all the answers, even if they were willing to believe her. She can't lay cards for herself, only for others, and if the person sitting opposite her is a sceptic she sees nothing.

The setting of the story in Brixton, Georgia makes the film even more appealing. The audience is caught up in the claustrophobic small town atmosphere. The church is everything, and if you're not a member you're an outcast. The church holds together. If one of its members is accused of a crime, however heinous, the rest of the congregation pulls together to protect him.

The film is perfect in so many ways. The slow plodding development of the plot is never boring. Even Keanu Reeves, who rarely impresses me as an actor, puts on an outstanding performance. If you haven't seen this film, look for it now. It's a masterpiece.

The Lobster (4 Stars)

The premise of this film is so ridiculous that it makes the film seem like one big joke. I've never sat in a cinema where the audience was laughing so loud, for the first half of the film at least. As the film progressed the laughter lessened. I went to see the film with seven other members of the Birmingham Film Group. We were unanimous about enjoying the first half of the film, but our opinions were divided on the second half.

The change in tone from the first to the second half is deliberate. This raises the question whether the film is intended to be seen as a comedy at all. Most reviewers call the film a black comedy. I prefer to call it a satire.

The film takes place in England in the near future. It has been declared illegal for people to be single. This is vigorously enforced. Anybody seen loitering in a public place by himself is challenged by the police to produce proof that he has a partner. But what happens to those who are single? They're sent to a hotel with other singles, where they have a chance to form a partnership. They have 45 days to find a partner, and if they don't succeed within this time they're transformed into an animal of their own choosing. The hero of the film is David, played by Colin Farrell, who has just been divorced from his wife after 12 years of marriage. On admission into the hotel he states that if he remains single he wishes to become a lobster.

There are those who reject the government's enforcement of partnerships. They call themselves loners. They run away from the city and hide in the woods. The loners follow the opposite path: they forbid relationships, and they severely punish those among themselves who form relationships, for instance by cutting off the lips of those who kiss. The loners are the enemies of the accepted society and have to be suppressed. The people in the hotel are given tranquilliser guns sent into the woods to hunt for loners. Captured loners are immediately turned into animals without being given a choice. Those who capture them are rewarded with an extra day before they have to find a partner.

Chatting up potential partners in the hotel is very strained. All the men wear the same suits, and all the women wear the same flower dresses. No individuality is allowed. People search for partners by looking for someone with whom they have something in common. For instance, two people with a limp, two people with a speech impediment, two people with a nosebleed.

The director Yorgos Lanthimos is making fun of different things. Obviously he's satirising mating rituals. Men and women are awkward in their attempts to make contact with one another. The preferred pairing of two likes is very much like the algorithms of online dating sites that assume people will be happiest with someone like themselves. The film is also a satire of political conflict. The government of the future has chosen the extreme policy of enforcing relationships, so the rebels decide to do the exact opposite. There's no common sense middle path.

The film has been almost universally praised by critics, including receiving three awards at the 2015 Cannes Festival. It's a fascinating film that deserves to be watched and discussed.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (4½ Stars)

"American audiences can accept Tom Cruise breaking into a highly secured vault, but Cameron Diaz doing the same thing must be presented as a campy joke" (Scott Mendelson, film critic).

When I read that quote my first impulse was to reach for my phone to hire a hit man to take out Mr. Mendelson. After my initial flush of rage I calmed down and read his words more carefully. He's not saying that he sees it that way, he's saying that the American public sees it that way. Right. If he's making a social commentary he's correct. His life is spared.

Today's society claims to be liberated, but the idea of a woman being powerful is still thought of as something ridiculous. It has to be a joke. Women have a long way to go before they're considered equal to men, even in Hollywood representations. The two Charlie's Angels films offer some help in achieving this, despite being exaggerated and campy. These aren't three women who are just sexy, they aren't three women who are just strong, they're both.

"Charlie's Angels" was one of the most successful films of 2000, earning $264 million at the box office, making it the 12th most successful film of the year. So we had to have a sequel! Strangely, "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" was considered to be a flop, so a third film was never made. The reason why I say "strangely" is obvious when you look at the statistics. "Full Throttle" earned $259 million at the box office and was the 12th most successful film of 2003. It's difficult to understand why the film studios made such a fuss. There was hardly any difference in the earnings, only 1.8% less.

Critics also rated "Full Throttle" less favourably. They made remarks like "it's like a 90-minute music video". Even if that were the case, so what? Music and action go well together.

I was fortunate enough to see this film on the big screen. Back in 2003 I rarely visited the cinema, unlike now, when I go twice a week at least. It's a film worth seeing in the cinema. The stunts and special effects are amazing. They are even more exaggerated and unbelievable than in the first film, but does that really matter? This is fantasy escapism at its best. In the opening scenes the Angels fall off the side of the Great Wall of China and are caught by a helicopter. That's not very realistic, but it looks good.

Cameron Diaz as Natalie

Drew Barrymore as Dylan

Lucy Liu as Alex

Maybe the biggest factor in the films' success is the chemistry between the three actresses. They're having fun, and it shows. I already said in my review of the first film that I didn't like the 1970's television series. After the second film (supposedly) flopped it's been a long wait, but now it's finally been announced that a new film will be made with new actresses. Only Elisabeth Banks has been cast so far. The film has been called a "reboot", but that over-used word doesn't apply. The Angels were frequently exchanged in the TV series, so having new actresses in the next film will just be a continuation, "Charlie's Angels 3". Whether it will be good or not is another question. Let's wait and see. The first two films will be difficult to beat.

One last question for my readers. If you were a bad guy, who would you rather have beat you up? Tom Cruise? Daniel Craig? Or these three girls?

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Charlie's Angels (4½ Stars)

I never liked "Charlie's Angels" as a television series. That might come as a surprise to the people who know me. I like tough girls, and I like sexy girls, and the Angels were both. I'm not sure what it was that prevented the series clicking with me. I'm old enough to have watched it when it was first broadcast in the late 1970's, and I gave it another chance when it was repeated in the early 2000's, but I still didn't like it. Maybe my problem was that I couldn't take the girls seriously. They were supposed to be tough in the series, but they weren't credible to me, unlike Diana Rigg in "The Avengers" who you just knew was tough.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the film. It was released in 2000, but I didn't see it until two years later on television. To me it was everything that the TV series wasn't. The three actresses, Lucy Liu, Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz, were awe-inspiring as they jumped and kicked their way through the movie. The action was over-the-top, even more camp than the TV series, but it was perfect for what it was: light-hearted escapism. After the first 15 minutes of the film I felt more for the three girls than I had for the original Angels in all the episodes I had watched.

I forget when I last watched this film. I just know that it was before September 2010, otherwise I would have written about it in my blog. I have too many DVDs and Blu-ray Discs. I don't have time to watch them all as often as I would like to.

Lust, Caution (3 Stars)

In 1938 six university students met in Hong Kong and put on patriotic plays to protest against Japan's invasion of China. They were young idealists that I can readily identify with. Unfortunately, wars are won with bullets, not plays. In 1941 Hong Kong was conquered by Japan in a battle that lasted less than three weeks. No more plays.

In 1942 the students meet again in Shanghai. They're now members of the resistance, assassinating key members of the Chinese puppet government put in place by the Japanese. Their worst enemy is a Chinese collaborator called Yee, the head of the secret police. He's too well guarded for the resistance to get to him. One of the students, Wang Jiazhi, becomes Yee's mistress and attempts to draw Yee into a public place where he can be attacked.

The story is well told and exquisitely filmed, as we would expect from the director Ang Lee, but the end result is unsatisfying. I found it disturbing that Wang is so weak and incapable of doing the job given to her. After all, why did she need to set up Yee to be killed by the others? Couldn't she have killed him herself when they were alone? The way Wang is portrayed in the film she's a disgrace to China and a disgrace to women in general.