Monday, 30 November 2015

13 Erotic Ghosts (4 Stars)

This is the first film in the Medina Collection. In case anyone doesn't know what that is, it's a series of 32 erotic films directed by Fred Olen Ray using the pseudonym Nicholas Medina. He's used different names during his career, including Sherman Scott, Ed Raymond and Roger Collins. Generally he uses a different name for each genre of film he makes, so that it's easy to separate his action films, family dramas, science fiction films, etc. from one another. There are a few exceptions. He had used the name Nicholas Medina sporadically in the 1990's, but from 2002 onwards he reserved it for his erotic films.

The films in the Medina Collection were made to be shown on television. They were usually shown (and probably still are) on the cable television networks Showtime and Cinemax after midnight. In the past I've called these films soft porn films, but some people, especially the actors involved, object to this description. They don't want the word "porn" to be used at all. In a wordplay on one of the channel names they like to call them Skinemax films. I'll call them erotic films for now, even though I think that "soft porn" more accurately expresses what the films are about.

What's the definition of the word "pornography"? The word is commonly used, though many people don't know what it means. First used in 1769, it meant writing about sex, i.e. it described erotic literature. With the development of new technologies it was later applied to photos or films of sexual activities, so its meaning was broadened to the depiction of sex in any media. This means that nude photos cannot be described as pornographic unless they are involved in sexual activities such as masturbation. Since pornography is about the depiction of sex, it also means that sex itself is not pornographic, it's only pornographic to display the sex act to others. In films pornography is commonly divided into "hard porn" and "soft porn". In hard porn actual sex is filmed; in soft porn the sex is faked, for instance the actors are lying on top of one another, but the camera angle disguises the fact that no penetration is taking place.

Of course, there are faked portrayals of sex in many films today, either very brief (as in "Titanic") or longer in duration (as in "Basic Instinct"). Does that make those films pornographic? Technically speaking, the sex scenes themselves are pornography, even if very little of the act can be seen. In fact, even if the sex itself is off screen and we can only hear sounds it's still pornography, because sex is being represented audibly to the audience. But whether the films are pornographic as a result depends on the morals of the person judging. Like most liberal people who live in today's western society, I would only call a film pornographic if the intention of the film is to portray sex scenes rather than to tell a story. In that respect, "Basic Instinct" isn't a pornographic film, "13 Erotic Ghosts" is a pornographic film, and "Nymphomaniac" is a borderline case. Fundamental Christians would judge differently and call "Basic Instinct" pornographic. When "Titanic" was shown in Utah it was censored because the Mormon authorities considered certain scenes too sexually explicit.

Gordon Baer

Now to the film itself. "13 Erotic Ghosts" has a slightly different style to the following films in the collection. It seems that Fred Olen Ray was still finding his style. Or maybe he was still testing the water to see what the television companies wanted from him. The sex scenes in this film are all girl-girl action. In his later films the majority of the sex scenes are boy-girl.

The film begins over 100 years ago. Baroness Lucrezia owns a castle where she runs a finishing school for young ladies. Apart from the usual education, she forces them to have sex with her. Maybe "forces" is the wrong word, they certainly don't seem to be unwilling. When lightning strikes her metal dildo everyone is killed. In the present day a team of supernatural investigators visit the castle to examine rumours that it's haunted. Jay Richardson, who plays the reporter Ted Nightingale, is the actor responsible for most of the humour.

Jay Richardson

I suspect that most of the humour comes from Jay's own personality. The dialog wasn't scripted, it was left open for the actors to improvise. Julie Strain, who plays Baroness Lucrezia, defends this style.

Actually, there is no script. This is one of those adlib, fly by the skin of your pants, make it better than it would be if somebody had written shit lines that started with the word "Look". Otherwise you have these stupid lines that say, "Look at the sunset. Can you go get me the gun? We're going to blow up the spaceship". And that's what it kinda sounds like to me if it's too written and too contrived. It's bullshit.

Tell that to Steven Spielberg!

This is the only film that Julie Strain ever made with Fred Olen Ray. I had already been a fan of hers since the early 1990's. She has a very unique appearance. She's 6'1½" tall and very busty. In her films she usually towers over the male actors, especially when wearing high heels that make her more than 6'6" tall. During the 1990's she made over 100 films, but by 2002 she was winding down towards the end of her career.

Julie Strain

The film is also unique for featuring an appearance by Fred himself. The film is a sort of 3D film, and he appears on screen to explain how it works. There are 3D glasses in the DVD case, and he explains how to put them on. It's a different type of 3D to what we're used to in the cinema nowadays. It's a technology where the picture looks perfect without the glasses, but the 3D effects are only visible with the glasses. On my television the glasses don't make a difference, but I do see a small amount of depth if I use the glasses while watching the film on my computer. I think the reason is that the 3D effects are only visible when sitting close to the screen.

Incidentally, I don't think Fred can count. There are only six ghosts, the Baroness and five girls.

Fred Olen Ray

Guardians of the Galaxy (4 Stars)

Thank you, Amazon, for celebrating Black Friday this year. I've been wanting to buy this film ever since it was released on Blu-ray 12 months ago, but the price was too high. When it was first released it cost £19, then the price dropped to £15 after a few months, and ever since then the price has been hovering between £10 and £15. When I buy Blu-ray Discs the most I usually pay is £6, although I go as high as £8 for a film I really want. No higher than £8, that's my absolute maximum. The price has probably stayed higher because it's a best seller and there's been no need to drop the price. I've been watching Ebay for special offers, but whenever a Blu-ray was offered for auction the bidding went up to silly levels, always higher than Amazon's price. Some people are stupid.

Then came Black Friday. Amazon offered the Blu-ray version of the film for £6.99. I ordered it immediately, but didn't watch it until now because I wanted to finish watching my essential 30 films first. Incidentally, I've noticed a large number of copies of this film appearing on Ebay in the last two days. It looks like a lot of greedy people bought it just to make a profit.

Usually my first reaction when I see a Marvel film in the cinema is to attack it for its deviations from the comics, but when I watch it a second time on disc I appreciate it in its own right, despite the changes. This time I'm going in the opposite direction. Check out the pictures above of Gamora as she appears in Marvel's comics. Then look at the photo of Gamora in the film below.

In the comics Gamora wears a full body fishnet suit without anything underneath. Some artists (like the one above) draw the fishnet in a darker green than her skin, giving the impression that it's a bodysuit with a fishnet pattern. As far as I can tell this was self-censorship by the comics, not a true representation of what she was wearing.

I might have accepted the green bodysuit version in the film as an attempt to keep the film suitable for young viewers in America The Prude, but instead of that Gamora's costume was completely ruined. It's little more than a leather outfit, not even tight fitting.

Added to this, Zoe Saldana was a poor choice to play Gamora. She's too flat-chested. In the comics Gamora stuns men with her beauty before knocking them out with her fists. Zoe Saldana doesn't have the necessary sex appeal.

One thing I don't like so much in the film on watching it again is the big space ship battles that look like scenes from "Star Wars". This wouldn't have been necessary if Drax the Destroyer (to give him his full name) hadn't been made so weak in the film. In the comics Drax can fly through space at speeds much faster than light, and he can fire power beams from his hands. He could take out a whole fleet of spaceships by himself. Instead of this he just sits idly around in spaceships waiting for the opportunity to get out and punch someone.

This is the real Drax, battling against the all-powerful Thanos. This is the Drax I wanted to see in the film, not just a wrestler in outer space.

The Life of Pi (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #30

After a month of watching and (almost) reviewing the 30 films I consider to be essential for everyone who is seriously interested in films, I've finally come to the 30th film, "The Life of Pi". It's last in the list only because I've ordered the films chronologically. This is a film that deals with the largest of themes in the smallest of places. Just as we can see all of the universe in Krishna's mouth, we see the struggle between man and God in a tiny lifeboat. I use the word "struggle" deliberately. When God and man meet it's not instant agreement. There's a battle to get the upper hand, at least if the man is honest. A dishonest man agrees to everything that God tells him to do, then walks away and does whatever he wants. An honest man listens to everything God says, weighing the words carefully, then replies, "But God, are you sure?"

In my review of "King Kong" two days ago I wrote that it's important to pay attention to books shown in a film, especially if a main character is reading them. "The Life of Pi" shows Pi Patel reading three books and a comic. This amount of overkill tells us that Ang Lee had something important on his mind. The four items emphasise the film's themes of religion, rationality and isolation.

In the comic we see both the closeness and the enormous size of God. Krishna is a small boy, but when his mother looks into his mouth she sees the whole universe. Only by looking at God close up can we embrace all there is.

Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island" is an interesting book to see represented in the film. In his later life Pi would be stranded on an island, but rather than remain on it for as long as possible he would take all he could from it and leave. Pi claimed to be a follower of three religions, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, while also believing in reason. The first two religions are well developed in the film, while Islam is only mentioned in passing. Pi took what he wanted from each religion, then moved on. Both religion and reason are incomplete in themselves. They complement one another in the understanding of oneself and the universe.

Next we see Pi reading a collection of Dostoyevsky's short stories, "Notes from Underground", "White Nights" and "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man". I haven't read any of these stories, unfortunately, but I've checked brief summaries to see their relevance to the film. To differing degrees, all three stories deal with a man feeling alienated in the world, unable to cope with the mass of information presented to him, and the ways in which the man attempts to cope, either by doing good deeds or by withdrawing further into himself.

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus is probably the most famous existentialist novel ever written. While it deals with many themes, what I consider most relevant in the context of the film is that Pi is a foreigner everywhere he goes. He's an eternal outsider. He grows up in India, in an area where different cultures (French, English, Muslim, Hindu) are separated by streets in the city. Crossing the road leads you into a different world. On the boat he's surrounded by Japanese sailors. At the end of his life he's in Canada teaching Jewish mysticism at university.

Here is my complete list of my 30 films to watch before you die.

  1. Earth vs Flying Saucers (1956)
  2. Faster Pussycat Kill Kill (1965)
  3. The Wild Bunch (1969)
  4. Young Frankenstein (1974)
  5. Tommy (1975)
  6. The Man who would be king (1975)
  7. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
  8. Apocalypse Now (1979)
  9. The Shining (1980)
  10. Terminator (1984)
  11. Thelma and Louise (1991)
  12. Basic Instinct (1992)
  13. Falling Down (1993)
  14. Jurassic Park (1993)
  15. Pulp Fiction (1994)
  16. Leon (1994)
  17. Mars Attacks (1996)
  18. Scream (1996)
  19. Lost Highway (1997)
  20. Dark City (1998)
  21. The Legend of 1900 (1998)
  22. The Matrix (1999)
  23. The Green Mile (1999)
  24. Donnie Darko (2001)
  25. Spider-Man (2002)
  26. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
  27. The World's Fastest Indian (2005)
  28. King Kong (2005)
  29. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
  30. Life of Pi (2012)

This isn't a list of my 30 favourite films. All 30 films in the list are films I greatly enjoy, but I've given priority to the films that I consider to be important. I'll probably compile a list of my favourite films in the near future, but I shan't watch them all in sequence until 2017 at least because there will be a lot of overlap with this list.

Now it's time for me to catch up with a few films that I bought on Blu-ray during the Black Friday week.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Slumdog Millionaire (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #29

This is a film that I was fortunate enough to watch before it was released in the cinemas. It was at he end of 2008, between Christmas and New Year. It was already being advertised on the side of buses in Birmingham, but it wasn't due to appear in the cinemas until January 9th. The ads made it look like a comedy, so I wouldn't have gone to see it. One day I was talking to a friend. He told me that there was an absolutely fantastic film I should see called "Slumdog Millionaire". I told him I wasn't interested, but he insisted and pushed a DVD into my hand. A home-made copy.

I took it home, and when it started there was a warning message. "This DVD is intended for viewing by film critics during the awards season. It is for personal viewing only. You may not show it to your friends or family". Very interesting. Someone somewhere had leaked the DVD. Fortunately, that was two years before I started writing my blog, or I would have had to explain how I got my hands on the film.

I loved the film. It truly is a masterpiece. It's fascinating to compare it with "Steve Jobs", which I watched in the cinema earlier this month. Both films are directed by Danny Boyle, but their style is so different. "Steve Jobs" is very minimalist, whereas "Slumdog Millionaire" has a luxurious big budget feeling. Both films are excellent in their own ways.

The film tells the story of the "Who wants to be a millionaire" contestant, Jamal Malik, but it also tells the story of India from 1990 to 2006. We see the religious persecution in the 1990's. We see the gangs and the political corruption. We see the housing boom when the slums are demolished to make room for skyscrapers. We see the call centres outsourced by British companies to India.

"Slumdog Millionaire" was nominated for ten Oscars in 2009, of which it won eight, including best film. That was well deserved.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

King Kong (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #28

I've already written detailed posts about "King Kong" in the past, so I'll just point out one thing here. When you watch a film, always be on the lookout for books used as props. I don't mean in a bookcase, I mean individual books seen lying on a table or a chair, anywhere in the picture. This is a common method for a director to let the audience know what influenced him when he made a film. It's a not so subtle hint about a film's meaning. If a character is seen reading a book this makes knowing the book essential to understanding the film.

Here we see young Jimmy reading Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as the ship approaches Skull Island. The main theme of the book is the comparison of savages in the jungle with urban savages. Neither is less primitive than the other. We saw that yesterday at the annual Black Friday sales. People were rolling on the floor punching one another because they wanted a cheap flatscreen TV. Mankind hasn't evolved since leaving the jungle, has it? We're all still the same.

Here is Ann Darrow after returning to the ship's crew on Skull Island. The giant monkey, Kong, has been risking his life to save her. Now she realises that Carl Denham and the others want to capture Kong. Her shocked expression as she looks at Carl and the others say everything, especially in the context of "Heart of Darkness". She realises just how primitive the men around her are. Back in New York she's offered large sums of money to appear on stage with the chained monkey, but she refuses.

If you want to watch other films directed by Peter Jackson, I can recommend
  • Braindead (1992)
  • Heavenly Creatures (1994)
  • The Lovely Bones (2009)

Friday, 27 November 2015

The World's Fastest Indian (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #27

If there's ever a film that I beg people to watch, this is it. It's a film that flopped at the box office, despite featuring Anthony Hopkins as lead actor, but everyone I know who's seen it loves it. As I've previously mentioned, after my first review in 2010 a friend of mine decided to watch it, and her reaction was, "Wow, Mike, that's my new favourite film". Those words exactly. This is a film that touches the heart of everyone who watches it.

So why wasn't it successful? I think the main disadvantage was the film's title. What did people think when they saw that a film showing in their local cinema was called "The World's Fastest Indian"? Most Americans would imagine a red-skinned warrior in a colourful headdress running through the desert. Most Europeans would imagine a dark-skinned man from India running through the jungle. Either way it's an ethnic "Forrest Gump" without the political padding. That wouldn't even appeal to me either.

The Indian referred to in the title is actually a 1920 Indian Scout motorbike, built in Springfield, Massachusetts. Even the people who discovered this fact weren't interested in the film. "Racing bikes? Running round and round in circuits? Not my thing".

Those members of the public who really took the time and effort to research what the film was about would have found out it's the true story of the New Zealander Burt Munro and his first trip to America in 1962 to attempt to break the land speed record for two-wheel vehicles. "That sounds boring. Definitely not my thing".

In interviews Anthony Hopkins says it's the best film he's ever made. That's high praise for a man with his distinguished career. So what is the film really about? The summary I gave in the last paragraph is accurate, but there's so much more to the film. It's a story of human determination. It shows how a man can succeed when everything, even his own body, is against him. From the very first minutes of the film we fall in love with the eccentric old man who lives in a bike shed surrounded by overgrown weeds. His age isn't stated in the film, but Burt Munro was born in 1899, making him 63 years old in 1962. That's not an age when normal people think about setting new speed records. Burt Munro was anything but normal.

The old-fashioned look of the remote town Invercargill, the southernmost town in New Zealand, is bizarrely quaint to European viewers like me. It seems like a different world. Most of the film is a road movie, showing Burt's trip across the USA from Los Angeles to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Admittedly, it was only 750 miles, but it was a long ordeal for Burt in his $250 car. On the way he encounters people with varying levels of strangeness, similar to David Lynch's "Wild at Heart".

It's a film for young and old. It's a film for the family to watch together. I know no other film that's so uplifting. In my first review I wrote, "When the final credits roll you will close your eyes and feel glad to be alive". A friend of mine (not the one mentioned above) read my review and accused me of exaggerating. A week later she watched the film, and she told me that she understood what I meant and totally agreed with me. I'm not exaggerating. Many films in my 30 films list are matters of taste, especially for people who don't like science fiction films. This is a film I know you will like.

I feel reluctant to recommend any films for further viewing, because none even come close, but you might want to watch other films starring Anthony Hopkins, such as

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #26

I need to write this down before I forget it.

This film was written by Charlie Kaufman. It was directed by Michel Gondry, but that's of lesser relevance. Films written by Charlie Kaufman have a distinctive style, whoever the director is. He enjoys a unique role in today's film culture. Most people who watch films can name the most popular actors. Serious film fans can name their favourite directors. But how many people can name screenwriters (not including the directors who write their own scripts)? I can only name one: Charlie Kaufman.

My memory is beginning to fade.

The film may have confused people when it was made. It stars Jim Carrey in the lead role, and at the time the film was released people still thought of him as a comedy actor, despite his serious roles in "The Truman Show" and "The Majestic". This led to the film being incorrectly labelled a comedy, even on the cover of the American DVD box. If anything, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is the most serious role he has ever played. The only small hint of his humorous self is the way he gets stuck in train doors in the pre-opening credits sequence.

It's all getting so difficult to remember. Let me name another few films written by Charlie Kaufman before it's too late:

I'm sure there was something else I wanted to say. Let me check my notes, if I can remember where I put them.

I'm sorry, I can't remember what film I was writing about.

The Dressmaker (3 Stars)

This film is described on its Wikipedia page as an Australian spaghetti western revenge comedy-drama. Wow. It sounds like that was written by someone who had absolutely no idea what the film was about. Unfortunately the film itself doesn't seem to know what it's about.

The film opens with Tilly Dunnage, played by Kate Winslet, getting off the train in Dungatar, Australia, and saying "I'm back, bitches". This sets the stage for revenge, but we see very little revenge as the film progresses. Tilly was sent to Europe 20 years previously because she was accused of murdering a boy when she was 10. She claims to remember nothing about it, and she tries to find out from the townspeople what happened. She doesn't have revenge on her mind, she has investigation.

During her time in Europe she lived in London, Paris and Milan, and she was trained as a dressmaker in Paris. She earns money by making dresses for the women in Dungatar, but they still don't trust her.

The timeframe doesn't make sense to me. The film takes place in 1951, and she was 10 years old when she was sent to Europe in 1931. That means she was 18 when World War Two broke out. Was she already living in Paris in 1939, under German occupation? Even if she wasn't in Paris, she would still have suffered the effects of the war in London and Milan. It's strange that no mention of the war is made.

The film is an unusual quirky comedy. Maybe the book on which it's based makes sense. The film doesn't.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Spider-Man (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #25

That's a lucky coincidence. I didn't plan it this way. Today I watched the 25th film in my essential films list, "Spider-Man", made in 2002, and it has a Thanksgiving scene. This picture of Peter Parker with his Aunt May will warm the hearts of my American readers when they read my blog tomorrow before they sit down at the table to stuff themselves with turkey.

This is the best Marvel super-hero ever made. The reason is obvious. It remains close to the original stories told by Stan Lee, closer than any of the films before and after. To quote the words of the fantasy author George R. R. Martin:

"You can't go wrong if you stick with Stan Lee. That's always been my opinion on these Marvel movies. The best ones are the ones that are closest to what Stan Lee did. It's when they start to be creative, when they think they can be better than Stan Lee, mostly they can't".

Exactly. "Spider-Man" was directed by Sam Raimi, who obviously has a great love and respect for Stan Lee's comics. None of the other films have remained as close to Stan Lee's comics. The origin itself is almost exactly as it was in Amazing Fantasy #15. The only real difference is that the web shooters are organic, not mechanical. This is an improvement, in my opinion. The idea that a schoolboy can build a technical marvel like that is hard to believe. It's more logical to believe that the webs were the result of his mutation into a human spider.

In my reviews of films and television series I frequently point out examples of sloppy newspaper reports, with badly constructed text that the director assumes nobody will notice. Sam Raimi shows that it can be done right. There are several newspapers shown during the film, and the articles are all written faultlessly. Click on the picture above to read the article.

These words are the motto of Peter Parker's life as Spider-Man. They're so important that they're spoken in the film three times, once by Uncle Ben and twice by Peter himself.

The casting of the film is nothing short of miraculous. Nobody but Tobey Maguire could have been picked to play Peter Parker. The resemblance to the comic book character is uncanny. Just compare him with Andrew Garfield, who hardly looks like Peter Parker at all. Kirsten Dunst was an excellent choice to play Mary-Jane Watson, even though she wasn't a natural redhead. J. K. Simmons looks so much like Jonah Jameson that you might think the comics were drawn with him in mind.

Many other Marvel super-hero films have been made, but these are the best films I can recommend for future viewing:

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Donnie Darko (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #24

This film was made in 2001, and it was the first film directed by Richard Kelly. When it was released it went unnoticed, despite making a small profit at the box office. I remember walking past the UGC cinema when it was showing and seeing the poster. It was a blue-ish picture with a giant rabbit. I don't think I recognised it as a rabbit at the time, I thought it was a horned demon. This put me off going to see it. I thought it was a low budget horror film.

Within the next two years the film gained popularity when it was released on video and DVD. I was chatting online with two friends from Norway, and they both told me that "Donnie Darko" was the best film ever made. If someone tells me a film is his favourite film I'm curious, but whenever two people say the same thing I have to check it out as soon as possible. I bought the film on DVD, and it knocked me off my feet as soon as I watched it. I didn't understand it at first, I needed to watch it a few times, but the imagery and the atmosphere gripped me from the beginning. My list of my favourite films fluctuates from year to year -- I last listed my 10 favourite films in 2011 -- but "Donnie Darko" has never left the top five.

I've described the plot in previous reviews, but I'll repeat the basics here. On October 2nd 1988 Donnie is woken up by a person wearing a rabbit costume and led to a golf course. This saves Donnie's life, because in his absence an aircraft engine falls on his house. The person, who calls himself Frank, tells Donnie the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.The rest of the film shows Donnie working to save the world with guidance from Frank. Through a series of seemingly random actions carried out under Frank's instructions unstoppable events are set into motion, until Donnie learns how to create a time machine with the power of his mind. The world can't be saved without sacrifice. Frank has to die, Donnie's girlfriend Gretchen has to die, and finally Donnie himself has to sacrifice his life by going back into his house at the moment the aircraft engine fell on it.

In 2004 a Director's Cut of the film was released, containing 20 minutes of additional footage. By that time I'd watched the original version so often that I knew the events by heart, and the new changes disturbed me. It's been about 10 years since I last watched the Director's Cut. Maybe I should go back and give it another chance.

Riding the wave of the success of "Donnie Darko", Richard Kelly was given money to make new films with bigger budgets, "The Box" and "Southland Tales". "The Box" was moderately successful, but "Southland Tales" flopped abysmally, made with a $17 million budget but earning less than a million dollars at the box office. Since then he hasn't been allowed to direct any more films. He's a one-hit wonder. I can't recommend his other films, and no films have been made quite like this by other directors.

The Green Mile (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #23

One of the marks of a good film is that it always seems shorter than it is. "The Green Mile" runs for three hours, but when the final credits roll it seems like less than two hours have passed.

The film tells several interlocking stories in parallel. It's the story of Paul Edgecomb, a prison officer in 1935 who is living in a retirement home in 1999 at the age of 108. It's the story of John Coffey, a simple-minded prisoner on death row who has miraculous gifts. It's the story of a mouse called Mr. Jangles (or maybe Mr. Jingles, different characters in the film pronounce the name differently). It's also the stories of the prison guard Percy Wetmore and the prisoner Eduard Delacroix.

In a recent post I praised Quentin Tarantino for vividly developing the minor characters in his films. That isn't the case with the director Frank Darabont, but his style is just as good. The major characters (the ones named above) are well developed, but the supporting characters tend to fade into the background, depending on their relative importance. To take two examples, Paul's wife Bonnie appears in scenes as a loving wife, but we learn almost nothing about her except for her devotion to her husband. The prison officer Brutus Howell is in many scenes, but we learn nothing about him at all. Bonnie is in the dim light, figuratively speaking, while Brutus is totally hidden in the shadows. I can't fault this at all. By ignoring the development of the minor characters the main characters become all the more vivid.

Despite writing about this film a few times I've never described the plot. Do I have to? It's one of the films most often repeated on television. Some people might deliberately ignore it because it was written by Stephen King and they don't like horror movies. This isn't a horror film. Stephen King became famous for writing horror stories, but many of his later novels, including this one, are fantasy tales. If that's your reason for not watching it until now, please don't wait any longer.

Frank Darabont has only directed four feature films for the cinema. All four are brilliant, in different ways. Please check out the other three films:

Monday, 23 November 2015

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (4 Stars)

If anyone asks me what my favourite film genre is I usually reply "horror comedy". That's the reason why I've rated this film so highly. It might not be the sort of film that my blog's readers like, but for me it has everything that makes my heart beat faster: ridiculous looking zombies, comic capers and busty women.

Three schoolboys (16-ish, I think) are the only scouts in their school. Being a scout isn't cool any more. One of them (Augie) is a dedicated scout, but the other two (Ben and Carter) are thinking of quitting, because they're worried they will never get a girl as scouts. They could be right. Everyone else in their school, male and female, makes fun of them in their silly uniforms.

The boys go into the woods to camp overnight. When their scout leader doesn't arrive they go back into the town. While they were away the town was evacuated because of a zombie outbreak, and an airstrike has been planned to destroy the town. Carter's sister has gone to a secret party, and the boys suspect that they weren't evacuated because none of the adults in the town knew about the party. With the help of Denise, a busty cocktail waitress from a strip club, the boys use their scouts' knowhow to fight their way through the town.

The film is gory, as you would expect from a zombie film, but never explicit enough to be revolting. It would be acceptable to viewers who don't like gore. The humour is often sexual, but that's what to be expected from a film with horny 16-year-old boys.

Why is it that so many zombie films have to include strippers? It must be a Beauty and the Beast thing. Unfortunately we don't see much nudity in the film. The style is similar to the American teen comedies of the 1980's, in which there were only brief glimpses of naked breasts.

Kings of the Road (4 Stars)

This is a German film made in 1976 by Wim Wenders. The original title is "Im Lauf der Zeit", which means "As time goes by". The title of the English language release was presumably changed to let people know it's a road movie.

The film was shown at the Mac cinema in Birmingham today as part of the Flatpack festival. A new digital transfer should have been shown, but the event's host apologised at the beginning that the American distributor didn't send him the film on time, so we had to watch the DVD version. At first I groaned, but I was pleasantly surprised by how good the film looked on a big screen.

"Kings of the Road" is about a man who is travelling from north to south Germany, from village to village along the western side of the Wall separating the two Germanies, repairing projection equipment in small cinemas. At the beginning he picks up a hitch-hiker who has survived a suicide attempt and then doesn't mind where he goes. As the film progresses the two men become friends.

Supposedly, only the opening scene where the two men meet one another was scripted. The rest of the film was improvised as the cast and crew drove southwards. The film production itself was one big road movie, and they never knew where they would be next. 30 hours of film was shot, which Wim Wenders compressed to three hours for the final release.

Does the film have a message? Though others might disagree with me, I wouldn't say there is a message that the director wants us to take with us from the film, but there are themes that he presents side by side. One theme is separation. The truck driver (Bruno) is a loner, living on the road without any friends. The hitch-hiker (Robert) has just left his wife, and he also has a broken relationship with his father. Then, of course, there's the separation of the two Germanies.

Another theme is the decline of cinema. The mid-1970's marked a decline in cinema attendance, in Germany and the rest of the world. We see cinemas in poor condition with poorly trained staff. The decline is also credited to the type of films being shown in cinemas. The 1970's are well known for the emergence of the so-called New German Cinema, with directors such as Rainer Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders himself. What people forget is that these directors rarely had commercial success, despite being highly praised by critics. The films most popular in Germany in the 1970's in Germany were the Bavarian erotic comedies, the pseudo sex education films (such as the Schoolgirl Report films) and the Simmel films, trashy romantic dramas. Wim Wenders openly criticises the Bavarian erotic comedies in "Kings of the Road", but I have to contradict him; they were very good films, an art form in themselves.

One other theme, which Wim Wenders deals with in more detail in his later film "Until the End of the World", is the contrast between words and pictures. Robert's father owns a small newspaper and is able to print a newspaper himself. Bruno's world revolves around the pictures on the cinema screen.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Matrix (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #22

A few days ago one of my friends complained to me, saying "Dancer, your reviews never say much about the films you watch". I could write a whole essay in reply to that complaint, but I'll try to restrain myself to a few short comments.

First of all, I object to the word "never". Sometimes I do write lengthy reviews. If you look back over my posts of the last five years you'll find that I'm very erratic. Sometimes I write a lot, sometimes a little, depending on my mood.

On the other hand, it often happens that I don't say much about a film. As I've often pointed out, this blog isn't a film review site, it's a film diary. It lists every film that I've watched since September 2010. If I watch a film five times you'll find five posts about it. That's not something that you would find on a serious film review site. The result, in my case, is that after watching a film five times I run out of things to say. I don't want to repeat an old review verbatim. What's the point of that? My latest post might just pick out one short thing I've noticed for the first time, or I might tell you that it was snowing while I watched the film.

My reviews this month are probably shorter than most, on average, That's because I'm going through my list of 30 essential films for everyone to watch, and I've watched almost all of them (28 out of 30) in the last five years. It should have been all 30, I'm ashamed of myself for missing the other two!

Apart from that, when I watch a film in the cinema I try not to give anything away. My review is usually restricted to telling the reader what a good film trailer would say. Not all trailers are good, of course. Many trailers give away the whole plot. Some trailers are works of art in themselves. I'm sure film students have written doctoral theses on the subject of film trailers. The trailer of the French film "Breathless" ("A bout de souffle") is better than the film itself. The trailer of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" is a prequel to the film. And the trailer of "The Big Sleep" shows Humphrey Bogart deciding whether or not he wants to accept a role in the film. Those three trailers are all from films that are at least 50 years old. Don't people put any effort into making artistic trailers any more?

And of course, as you noticed in my first sentence, my friend called me Dancer, identifying her as one of my old friends. Most people used to call me Dancer, it's a name I like. My new friends call me Mike. I've been through different phases with different names in my life. At school one of my teachers called me Ken, and the name stuck. At school all my friends called me Ken, which I absolutely hated. I was glad when I went to university and made new friends who called me Mike. But then I went to Berlin and introduced myself as Frank. It seemed cool at the time, but looking back now it was stupid. After that I worked as a D.J. and I called myself Eric. That was a stage name, and it didn't really stick. For years after that I was Mike, until I got my first Internet account in 1995. My screen name was Dancer, and even today, 20 years later, it's still my name in chat rooms and online forums. Sometimes I use Dansator, the Romanian word for Dancer, as a variation. That's the name of this blog.

The friends I've made since moving to Birmingham all call me Mike, but I wish they would call me Dancer. That's the name that best expresses who and what I am, even though I no longer dance as much as I used to. It expresses my attitude.

Now, true to form, I've written a whole page, almost an essay, without saying anything about "The Matrix". That's what you have to expect when you read my blog. I don't stay on topic. That's not the way I am.

"The Matrix" is a film about reality. Does what we see really exist, or is it an elaborate show put on to fool us? After watching it you will never look at the world around you the same way again. The film successfully puts a doubt in our minds. What if.....?

"The Matrix" could have existed as a standalone film. It reached a tidy conclusion and didn't need to be continued. However, two sequels were made a few years later. Both films have been criticised by fans as being not as good as the original, but I would like to defend them. While I agree that the first film is the best, I still consider the sequels to be excellent. If you check my blog you'll see that I gave them both five star ratings. They succeed in expanding the world of the Matrix, and the twist concerning the prophecy in the third film is awe-inspiring. It's worth watching all three films back to back, if you haven't already.

Apart from the sequels to "The Matrix", I can recommend these films which deal with the topic of alternate realities:

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Legend of 1900 (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #21

If I'd made my list of 30 films to watch before you die a couple of years ago I wouldn't have included this film. That's not because I didn't like it. It's a film that I've known and enjoyed for a long time. The reason for omitting it is that one of my rules is that the film should be accessible. Two years ago it was almost impossible to find this film in England or America, and what's the point in recommending a film as essential if nobody can find it? The film had only ever been released in Italy. That's still the case today, but something has changed. Last year Amazon opened a website in Italy for the first time, Due to the international nature of Amazon, Italian imports are now available on Amazon's web sites in other countries.

The film was made by the Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore. It was filmed in Italy, but in the English language, starring Tim Roth and other English-speaking actors. In my opinion this is the pinnacle of Tim Roth's career, even though he doesn't appear in the film until after an hour.

The Virginian was a cruise ship that travelled from Southampton to America (both North and South America) five times a year. In January 1900 a new born baby boy was found abandoned in the first class dining room. Danny Boodman, a boiler room worker, adopts him, and gives him the name Danny Boodman T. D. Lemon 1900, shortened to 1900. At first the captain is reluctant to allow him to stay on the ship, but Danny looks after him. When 1900 is eight years old it's discovered that he's a musical prodigy, and he joins the ship's band.

1900 remains on the ship all his life, never once setting foot on dry land. Most of the film takes place between 1927 and 1933, told through the eyes of Max Tooney, a trumpet player who becomes 1900's best friend.

How has this film managed to stay hidden for so long? Very few people have even heard of it. When I show it to my friends the reaction is always the same. They're astounded by the story, the cinematography and most of all the music.

(The picture above shows the film sold by Amazon. Only buy this version, the uncut 169 minute version. Some releases have shortened the film to 120 minutes).

I don't know any other films by Giuseppe Tornatore that I can recommend, so I'll suggest a few other films starring Tim Roth for further viewing:

Friday, 20 November 2015

Dark City (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #20

This film, made by the Australian director Alex Proyas, was a financial flop when it was released in 1998. It was filmed with a budget of $40 million, but only earned $27 million at the box office. However, it was later recognised as a cult classic, and after being released on DVD enough copies were sold to make it profitable. More than $13 million of DVD sales? That's healthy.

Visually, the film could be mistaken for film noir. It's literally a dark city, a city in which the sun never shines. There's a murder mystery, but as the film progresses it becomes less and less relevant. It's more important to find out the secret hidden in the city. The first person to discover the secret is Detective Walenski, but what he uncovers drives him mad.

The similarity between this film and "The Matrix" is unmistakable. Roger Ebert went as far as to say that "The Matrix" recycled the premise of "Dark City". Obviously the Wachowski Brothers were strongly influenced by "Dark City", but as is often said, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Alex Proyas hasn't made many films in his career, but you might want to check out

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Lost Highway (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #19

Quite simply, this is the best film I've ever seen.

That's all I want to say. If you haven't seen this film yet, forget everything else you've planned for today and watch it now. After watching it, please leave comments to let me know what you think about it. I'm hoping we can get a good discussion going.

If you enjoy the film, check out the other films directed by David Lynch, in particular

Scream (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #18

It's difficult to believe that a film that I've watched so often can still hit me hard. This is the 18th film I've watched in my 30 films month. I've watched all the films before, some more often than others. If you watch a film repeatedly you know roughly what to expect. The first 17 films held no surprises for me. "Scream" was different. It's only two months since I last watched it, but today I sat open-mouthed, like it was the first time I'd seen it. The outdoor scenes in front of the school are so well filmed, both the cinematography and the backing music. The acting talent of the young cast members is staggering. The suspense was so intense, even though I knew after repeated viewing what would happen next. This is an amazing film. Now I need to watch the other two films in the Scream trilogy, but I'll have to be patient and wait until next month. I have another 12 films on my list to watch this month.

Other notable teen slasher films are

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Mars Attacks (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #17

This must be the only film ever made that's based on a set of trading cards. Only a director as eccentric as Tim Burton would tackle such a task. The end result is at the same time ridiculous and astounding. It's a big budget B-Movie. The cast looks like a list of all of Hollywood's biggest stars in 1996, when it was made.

On paper the film looks overly complex. There are so many different characters competing for screen time -- the American president and his family, an ex-boxer and his family, a Las Vegas casino owner and his wife, an American soldier and his family, to name but a few -- but somehow the film doesn't seem cluttered. Everything fits together so well. I'm sure that if there's a beginner's class for film makers Tim Burton broke all the rules when he made this film. It's difficult to say what makes the film so good, it just is.

The flying saucers from Mars even invaded the Warner Bros. logo!

Other examples of Tim Burton's cinematic madness -- though not quite as mad as "Mars Attacks" -- are

Leon (5 Stars)

30 films to watch before you die, #16

"Leon" was made by the director Luc Besson in 1994. In America the film was renamed "The Professional" for reasons beyond my understanding. It tells the story of Mathilda, a 12-year-old girl who falls in love with Leon, an older man who just happens to be a professional hit man. After her family is murdered by corrupt police officers she asks Leon to train her so that she can take revenge.

This is a bizarre film that unsettles the viewer by not letting him know what type of film it is. It seems to be a realistic crime thriller, but the aspect of a 12-year-old girl working as a contract killer looks like something out of a comic book movie. The oriental background music seems out of place, but it adds to the surreal nature of the film.

Jean Reno and Natalie Portman have a natural chemistry which shows up in the characters they play. Mathilda is an intelligent but rebellious girl. Leon is lacking in intelligence, he can't even read, but he knows how to kill. That's all he can do, and he does it well.

This was Natalie Portman's first film, and she's now become one of Hollywood's top actresses. Nevertheless, I consider this to be her best film.

If you like this film, take a look at the following films directed by Luc Besson.