Sunday, 31 May 2015

Phoenix (4 Stars)

I'm always happy when a German film is shown in Birmingham. It doesn't happen often enough. When I heard that "Phoenix" was being shown at the Mac, a cinema specialising in foreign films, I was excited. I was even more excited when I found out that it stars Nina Hoss, one of my favourite actresses.

Nelly Lenz was a successful singer. She performed in London in the 1930's. In 1938 she returned to her home country, Germany. The problem was that she was considered to be a Jew. She didn't think of herself as a Jew, but in the eyes of the Nazi party anyone was a Jew who had at least one grandparent who was a practising Jew. She probably thought that marrying a German would make her a German, but it wasn't good enough. The authorities caught up with her. In 1944 she went into hiding in a boat house in Berlin, but the Gestapo found her and sent her to a concentration camp.

At the end of the war she is still alive, but her face is severely scarred from burns when the Nazis tried to destroy the camp and with it the last of the Jews. Nelly's best friend Lene, a fellow singer who had remained in London during the war, supports Nelly while she gets plastic surgery to repair her face. Together they travel to Berlin to set their affairs in order before emigrating to Palestine. Nelly says that she wants to look for her husband Johnny first. Lene warns Nelly that her husband might have been the one who betrayed her. There are hints that Lene might be in love with Nelly, although this isn't clearly stated. Nelly insists. She soon finds her husband working at a club called The Phoenix. Johnny doesn't recognise her, but he does think she bears a slight resemblance to his wife. Before Nelly can reveal who she is, Johnny tells her he wants her to impersonate his wife, because that's the only way he can get his hands on her inheritance. Nelly accepts, and she allows Johnny to buy her clothes and give her a makeover to look like his wife.

This is a very intense film, made darker by the lack of background music. Nina Hoss looks less attractive than she usually does, but this was necessary to make her look realistic as a battered refugee from a concentration camp. Once more, she delivers a stunning performance. I think I should watch a few of her films over the next few weeks.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Poltergeist (2015 version) (3 Stars)

This is a competently made horror film. It ticks all the right boxes. A terrified family in a haunted house. Ghosts that threaten primarily the children. Experienced psychic investigators who find that they're in over their heads.

For me as a film fan I have to ask the question why it was made at all. It's a remake of a film with the same name made in 1982. I have nothing against remakes in general, but in this case the story is so identical to the original film that I have to ask why it was made again. The only noticeable differences come from the film being set in a newer day, so the television set is bigger than it was 33 years ago, and there are mobile phones. The advances in computer technology have made the special effects better, but to be honest, the original film didn't look so bad either. I don't feel that the new film offers anything new, anything that truly justifies a remake.

It's not a bad film. It's a good choice for watching on a night in with your partner, cuddled up on the sofa with the lights dimmed. But for me personally, I say that a film is a good film if I think I'll want to watch it at least three times. In this case I doubt there will be a second time.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Ring (Japanese version) (4½ Stars)

Although I've already seen both versions of "The Ring", the original and the American remake, this is the first time I've watched them soon after one another. It gives me a better chance to compare them. It's also confirmed my opinion that the American version is better.

The films follow a similar plot. One is set in Japan, the other in America, so the names and places have been changed, but it's obvious who represents who. Reiko is Rachel, Ryuji is Noah, Yoichi is Aidan, etc. Some changes in detail were necessitated by the change of country. In the original film there was reference to a volcanic eruption on a Japanese island. Since there are no volcanoes anywhere near the American coast this disaster was replaced by a mysterious plague that killed all the horses on an island. One significant change which is (maybe) unnecessary is that in the original Reiko's husband has psychic ablities, but in the remake it's her son who has a psychic link to the ghost.

Most of the differences are in the story-telling. The American version explains things that were left vague in the Japanese original. For instance, if you only watch the Japanese version it's impossible to guess why the film is called "Ring" at all. It was explained in the 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki, on which the film is based, but the film chose not to reveal it. The American remake uses the information from the novel and makes everything clear. Overall, the American film makes more sense. In the original the phone only sometimes rings after a person has watched the video, in the remake the phone rings every time. That's scarier, and it's more logical.

Fans of the original claim that it's better because it has a creepier atmosphere. Maybe it does. There's little difference in atmosphere between the two. But the American remake is more logical and it tells a better story, so for me it's the better film.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Old men in new cars (5 Stars)

After the success of the Danish gangster film "In China they eat dogs" in 1999 the public cried out for a sequel. That wasn't possible, because almost everyone was killed at the end of the first film, so a prequel was made instead. If anything, the prequel is even better than the first film with its over-the-top action and dry humour. In fact, the humour is so dry that it could be British.

The film begins with Harald Blixen being released from prison after serving a sentence for armed robbery. He visits Munken, the gangster who was his mentor, and finds him on his death bed. Munken's dying wish is to see his son Ludvig, who is serving a life sentence for murder in Sweden. Harald and his associates travel to Sweden and manage to break Ludvig out of prison, but on the journey back to Denmark they can't stop him killing women.

As the film continues Harald tries to make money by robbing a bank and hijacking a plane that's transporting money. When leaving the bank the gang takes a hostage, but they make the worst possible choice. Mille is a woman planning to commit suicide, so she doesn't cooperate with her captors. She wants them to kill her. Ludvig wants to kill her, of course, but when he finds out that she's suicidal he falls in love with her and asks her to marry him.

Are all Danish gangster films this good? Probably not. I wish they were.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2 Stars)

If ever there were a film that I would describe as a candyfloss movie, this is it. In case you aren't a regular reader of my blog, let me explain what I mean. I call a film a candyfloss movie if it seems big and spectacular at first glance, but when you sit back and think about it there's nothing there. It all melts away to nothing in your mouth before you can swallow it. That's a shame in the case of this film, because it stars two of my favourite actors, Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Neither of them live up to their artistic potential.

So what's the film about? Max jumps in a car and drives from A to B. Then he turns round and drives back from B to A. Along the way he picks up some passengers and gets involved in a few fights. The end.

Sure, the fights are spectacular and the special effects are dazzling. But the end result is a film that's totally forgettable. This is a film that Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron will be embarrassed to mention when they're writing their resume.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Fast & Furious 7 (4 Stars)

I skipped a couple of films here. More than a couple. I watched "Fast & Furious" on television about ten years ago, and this is only the second film in the series I've seen. The films in a franchise like this are usually suitable for standalone viewing, but in this case I think I've lost out slightly. Supposedly "Fast & Furious 6" was split into two films, because it was decided the story was too big for one film to do it justice. In the first 15 minutes of "Fast & Furious 7" there were repeated references to things that had already happened, probably in the previous film.

I didn't watch the film when it first appeared in the cinemas six weeks ago. The hype surrounding the film, combined with having missed the previous five parts, made me stay at home. But I was aware of the praise being heaped on the film, so I was getting more and more curious, and it's already become the fourth highest grossing film ever. This week is the last week it's playing in my local cinema, Cineworld Broad Street, so I thought I would go to see it while I have a last chance.

If I understand the Fast & Furious franchise correctly, after reading a brief summary online, it's gone through a slow shift in style from the first to the seventh film. It began as a sympathetic portrayal of lawless road racers, but the emphasis has shifted to being about good guys taking down bad guys. What links the films, rather than the plots, is the reliance on breathtaking car chases. That's what impressed me today more than anything else. Was it a good story? Who cares? The action was incredible. It's all about fast cars and gunfights. That's what makes the film a joy to watch. After seeing it today I want to go back and watch the first six films. I need to catch up on what's been happening so far.

An eight instalment of the film series has already been planned. There are differing rumours whether the complete series will contain eight or ten films. However many there will be, let's hope they keep getting better.

The Age of Adaline (4 Stars)

Years, lovers and glasses of wine,
These are things that should never be counted.

Adaline Bowman is a woman who was born on January 1st, 1908. At the age of 29 she has a car accident in which her car skids into the water and she drowns. Her heart stops beating, but a lightning bolt strikes her, making it beat again, and she swims to the surface. A side effect of this occurrence is that she no longer ages. When she is in her late 40's she's noticed, and government agents try to abduct her to experiment on her. She escapes and goes undercover. For the next 60 years she lives her life 10 years at a time. Every 10 years she changes her name and moves to a different part of America to live with a false identity, just long enough for nobody to notice she's not ageing.

In 2014 she is about to move again, but just after buying a new fake passport she meets and falls in love with Ellis Jones, a rich young philanthropist. She delays her new life to spend a weekend with him. She is surprised to find out that his father is a man she dated 50 years previously. When he recognises her she claims that it was her mother that he knew, but he's suspicious and keeps asking questions.

This is a beautiful film about the tragedy of living forever. It's slightly spoilt by the attempts of a narrator to explain the scientific causes of Adaline's longevity. He even speaks about a scientific fact that "wasn't discovered until 2035". Ridiculous. Couldn't they just have said that Adaline was struck by lightning and lived forever and left it at that?

In a way the film reminds me of the Highlander TV series. It was a recurring theme that Duncan MacLeod and other immortals met old lovers after many years and had to make excuses about it being their father or grandfather. In the TV series immortality is also presented as a curse. Anyone who lives forever has to suffer the pain of watching everyone he loves grow old and die.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

In China they eat dogs (4½ Stars)

A tale of two brothers. Arvid Blixen is a loan adviser in a bank in Copenhagen. His brother Harald is a gangster who uses a restaurant as a legal front. The two live in the same city, but they haven't spoken for 10 years.

Arvid foils a bank robbery by hitting the robber over the head with a squash racket. He is celebrated in the press as a hero, but the day after the robbery the robber's girlfriend tells him that he has ruined their lives because the money was needed for artificial insemination. Arvid feels guilty about what he's done, so he enlists Harald's help in carrying out a new robbery to get money to help the couple. Then he decides to break the robber out of prison, also with Harald's help.

As a gangster film, this is incredible. The mix of crime and humour reminds me of "The Sopranos", which began shortly after the film. Harald Blixen also bears an uncanny resemblance to Tony Soprano in his appearance and mannerisms. The action is thrilling, and the humorous  scenes are never out of place.

I have two criticisms of the film. First of all, the final twist is so unexpected that it alienated me. It actually isn't a twist, it's an unexpected occurrence at the end. If you've seen the film you'll know what I mean. The other problem is the sound mixing. There is an extreme difference between the volume of the normal scenes with dialogue and the loud scenes with music and sound effects. This is a film that's impossible to listen to over headphones. If you turn the volume up loud enough to enjoy the quiet scenes you will be deafened by the music, gunshots and explosions.

The film was so successful at the box office, the biggest earning Danish film ever, that the studios decided to cash in by making a sequel. Unfortunately, all the main characters die at the end of this film -- sorry for the spoiler -- so the second film, "Old men in new cars", was made as a prequel.

In case you're wondering what the title has to do with the film, it's a statement of moral relativism. There is no absolute right or wrong. In China they eat dogs, which is considered horrific in Europe. And robbing a bank might be a good deed, depending on the motives.

The Ring 2 (American version) (4½ Stars)

This film must have been a dream opportunity for the Japanese director Hideo Nakata. In 1998 he made the original Japanese version of "The Ring", and in 1999 he made a sequel. The first film was remade in America in 2002, following the story of the original very closely. Shortly afterwards it was decided to remake the second film as well, and the American studios took the unusual step of inviting Hideo Nakata himself to direct it. He could have played it safe and made an English language clone of his film. Instead of that he commissioned a new screenplay with a completely different story. How many directors are able to look at what they've made after it's been in the cinema, then tear it up and start again?

The first film ended with an open end, which I won't describe here because it would spoil things for anyone who has never seen the films. All I'll say is that Samara remained alive, though it was never specified whether she's a ghost or some other form of supernatural spirit. Let's call her a ghost to make things easy. Rachel Keller has left Seattle to live in the small town Astoria in Oregon. She thinks she can find peace in new surroundings, but Samara has followed her and is stalking her. In the first film Samara had been striving to be remembered, but now she has the urge to find a new mother, and she has selected Rachel as a suitable subject.

The film was not as successful as the first film, but a box office profit of $100 million is still a respectable sum. The critics were less favourable than the public. They didn't like the new direction that the film went in. Interestingly, Roger Ebert was a lone voice claiming the sequel was better than the original. I don't agree with him, but I think I can understand his reasoning. The first film had a very complex plot, with the mystery only being solved one step at a time. The second film is more simple and straightforward. Which is better? Usually simple plots are the best, but I preferred the complexity of the first film. That's why I rate the second film slightly lower.

Earlier today I managed to find the box in which I packed my Japanese DVD's when I moved. I should be able to watch the Japanese Ring films soon to compare them while the American films are still fresh in my memory.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Pitch Perfect 2 (4 Stars)

Well, this was certainly a surprise. It's a sequel that's far better than the original film.The situations are similar and many of the jokes are repeated, but that's what the audience expects. The difference is that the jokes are more frequent, and the girls are more believable as characters. I couldn't remember most of the names from the first film, but it wasn't necessary to re-introduce them. I recognised their faces and their attitudes. That was enough.

At the end of the first film the Barden Bellas became America's university a cappella champions. The second film shows the team disgracing themselves in a performance before an audience that includes Barak Obama. After this they have to claw their way back to the top, and their journey culminates in the world a cappella championships in Copenhagen.

The biggest improvement over the first film is that the music is better. My foot was tapping throughout the film. This can be attributed to the contributions of two men: Mark Mothersbaugh, ex-Devo, who had overall control of the music, and Flula Borg, the German DJ who arranged Das Sound Machine's songs and also appeared as a member of the group. I'm tempted to buy the soundtrack album, that's how good it is.

The cinema audience certainly loved it. The room was almost full, apart from the front few rows. With today's screen sizes nobody ever sits in the first four rows unless they're desperate. It was a very female audience. I'd estimate that more than 90% of the audience were female. I arrived early, so I could observe the people coming in. There were a few men here and there who were obviously accompanying their girlfriends, but mostly it was groups of women. And then there was me. Whatever the critics say, this will be an enormous hit.

P. S. Don't walk out of the cinema too soon. The story continues almost all the way through the credits, including more music and jokes.

Friday, 15 May 2015

The Ring (American version) (5 Stars)

When people say that remakes of foreign films aren't as good as the original, this is the film I point at as an exception. The original Japanese version, made in 1998, was brilliant, but the 2002 American remake was even better. I'd say that it's brillianter, if the word existed. I saw the Japanese film first, and I was very impressed that Gore Verbinski, an almost unknown director, managed to surpass the original in quality. I think that what he did right was that he simply copied the original. He didn't attempt to add new plot points or remove what he didn't like. His film even has a Japanese look to it. The cinematography is dark and gloomy, with a lack of blue tones. It was a stroke of genius picking Naomi Watts for the lead role. At the time she was also widely unknown. She had impressed critics with her performance in "Mulholland Drive", but she was still unknown to the general public.

In its subject matter the film is rooted in the 1990's. The film is about a videotape. There was a crossover period in which both videotapes and DVD's existed side by side that lasted until approximately 2010, but the film is set in an age when there are only videotapes. Maybe 1995, if we really need to fix a date. The videotape is cursed. Immediately after watching it the phone rings, and the person who watched it is told that he will die exactly seven days later. A group of four teenagers watch the tape together and all die at the same time in different places. Rachel Keller, a sceptical reporter played by Naomi Watts, watches the tape as an unbeliever, but then realises that she only has a week to live, so she devotes her remaining time to solving the mystery.

What makes this film so intriguing is that it has the style of a detective mystery, rather than just being a horror film. Step by step Rachel investigates the tape, and every clue that she solves leads to other clues, continually widening the scope of the investigation.

Financially, the film was a big success, making a profit of over $200 million at the box office. It was one of the most successful horror films ever made.

I intend to re-watch the Japanese version in the next few days, but I have to look for it first. I still have too many unpacked boxes after my move last month.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Big Game (5 Stars)

I expected this film to be good, but I was unprepared for what hit me in the cinema. From the very first minutes I knew I was watching something spectacular, and by the time the film ended I was convinced this was the best new film I've seen this year. The film's cinematography, the luscious music and even the film's name on the splash screen pompously tout the film as an epic, but it lives up to the promise. In fact, the film has an unmistakable retro feeling to it, like the big budget films of the 1950's and 1960's. When trying to compare it with other films the first film that comes to mind is "Ben Hur", a very different film but with a similar feeling to it.

The film combines two stories about two different people from two different worlds. Oskari is a boy from the north of Finland who has to go alone into the woods on his 13th birthday to prove that he is capable of being a hunter. He has a lot to live up to, because his father Tapio is his community's biggest hunter and caught a bear on his 13th birthday. William Moore (Samuel L. Jackson) is the President of the United States. While on route to a G8 conference in Helsinki Air Force One is shot down by terrorists. His guards all perish in the attack, and the only person able to protect him from terrorists hunting for him is Oskari.

The clash of the two worlds functions perfectly on screen. There are scenes that seem comical to me as a big city westerner, but people from Finland probably take it for granted. When the president arrives in Finland he assumes that everyone must recognise him, but nobody does. It's Finland, who cares who the American president is? The president begins the film strutting arrogantly as the most powerful man in the world, but once he accepts that he's become the least powerful man in Finland he learns humility. Even when he talks arrogantly Samuel L. Jackson seems somehow likeable. He would make a good president, better than the one the Americans have now.

My friends who went with me to the cinema all enjoyed the film, though they weren't as exuberant as me. I think it's incredible. It's the best film I've seen for a long time.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Badges of Fury (2 Stars)

I never thought I would rate a Jet Li film so low. On the other hand, I have to point out that Jet Li isn't the main actor, even though he's given the main billing on the British and American DVD covers. Wen Zhang is the film's leading actor, and Jet Li merely appears in a few scenes.

Wang (Wen Zhang) is a young ambitious police detective in Hong Kong. Huang (Jet Li) is his older partner who is counting his days to retirement. A series of men fall to their deaths in unrelated incidents. At first it looks like they were accidents, until it's noticed that all the men were ex-boyfriends of a famous film star, Liu Jin Shui. At first Liu is the main suspect, but when it becomes apparent that she couldn't have committed the murders Wang pretends to be dating Liu in order to draw the killer into the open.

This is a comedy that relies on slapstick and situational silliness for laughs. That's not the sort of humour I like. In Jet Li's two fight scenes he seems to be imitating Jackie Chan's style of humorous fighting. He shouldn't. There's only one Jackie Chan. Jet should stick to his own style.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

TV Series: Isabel

I've just finished watching the first season of the Spanish television series "Isabel". It's a historical drama based on the life of Spain's Queen Isabel, who lived from 1451 to 1504, and reigned from 1474 to 1504. The emphasis of the series is on historical accuracy, and I can see that great pains are made to present every detail of her life, even at the expense of pacing. I appreciate this attention to detail. I come from England, so I knew almost nothing about this woman before I began to watch the series. A Spanish friend of mine recommended it to me, calling Isabel the greatest monarch who has ever reigned in Europe. That's a difficult claim for an Englishman to accept, but I put my patriotic biases aside and let myself be educated. After watching the first few episodes I read a summary of her life, and I have to say that I now agree with my Spanish friend. What Isabel did for Spain is greater than anything any other king has ever done for his country. It could also be argued that some of the things she did have benefited all of Europe, even to this day.

The first season deals with the years 1461 to 1474, i.e. from her childhood to her appointment as Queen of Castile. Castile was at that time the largest kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula. During Isabel's reign it united with the neighbouring kingdoms to become the country known as Spain. Wars were necessary to achieve this, but wherever possible Isabel preferred peaceful negotiation. She was very popular with the common people, which made the unification of Spain easy. On the other hand, she was unpopular with the noblemen who called themselves her "advisers". Castile, like most of the other European countries in the Middle Ages, had had a long succession of weak monarchs who were controlled by the noblemen. The noblemen took it upon themselves to decide who would be the next king, if there was any uncertainty about the line of succession, based on which person would give them the most favours, in riches or land ownership. The noblemen were not above poisoning the kings and other members of the royal families. Isabel put a stop to this. She took control of her country and ruled with absolute power, eliminating the corruption around her. She was a deeply religious person (Catholic) and very patriotic, wanting to serve her people more than her own personal interests. People who oppose monarchies in principle should look at Isabel as an example of a good Queen, someone who did more for her people than most democratically elected rulers.

The series has won many awards in Spain. It's very much a talkie, if you know what I mean. Most of the episodes contain long conversations between the different characters. There are a few fight scenes, but overall there is little action. Wars were taking place throughout the first season, but most of the battles took place off screen. The series has more of the character of a history lesson than a drama series. That might disturb some people, but for me it's perfect, it's just what I want to see.

The series has been released on DVD and Blu-ray in Spain, unfortunately without English subtitles. It's possible to watch the first two seasons on the web site Dramafever, a streaming video service that specialises in Korean TV series. Dramafever is only available in the USA and Canada, but if you're able to spoof your IP address it can be watched anywhere. I've subscribed as a paying member of Dramafever, so it's not in their best interests to block foreign access.

Breakfast at Tiffany's (4 Stars)

I assume all my readers know this film. It was made in 1961, but even now, 54 years later, it's still a favourite for television repeats. When it was made it was nominated for five Oscars, of which it won two. As much as I appreciate the film, I don't think it would be so successful today. There's something about it that's very dated, although I have difficulty saying exactly what it is. I'm not sure whether it's the subject matter or the way it's portrayed. It just seems very old.

Lula Mae Barns is a girl from Texas who got married to an older man when she was 13. She had two children, but then had the marriage annulled, changed her name to Holly Golightly and moved to New York. Now in her late teens she's capitalising on her beauty. She dates rich men, getting expensive gifts from them, but she's not settling down until she manages to get one of the richest men in America for herself. She says that she wants to be rich to support her brother Fred when he returns home from the army, but that's only half of the truth. Holly loves money and the lifestyle it buys.

A man called Paul moves into the apartment above hers. He's a writer who was successful in the past, but hasn't written anything for years. He is being financed by a rich woman who showers him with money and gifts, but asks for nothing in return. Holly and Paul become first friends, then lovers, but how can they get together when they're both dependent on the financial support of others?

The film is based on a book written by Truman Capote. Despite selling the rights to Paramount Studios he kept close control over the film. He accompanied the film crew to oversee the filming every day, to make sure it didn't deviate from his vision. Today he would be given the title of executive producer. Truman was very unhappy with the choice of Audrey Hepburn for the main role. He wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the part of Holly Golightly, but she turned down the role. Truman considered Audrey to be untalented and was frequently rude to her on the set, but his opinion wasn't shared by others. She was nominated for the best actress at the Academy Awards. In retrospect it's become the film that people most associate with her name.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Samurai (4 Stars)

Jakob is a young policeman in a remote part of Brandenburg, Germany. He has no private life. When he's not at work he has to care for his demented grandmother. He's still a virgin, which is public knowledge in his village, making him an object of ridicule. Local livestock has been killed, presumably by a wolf, so he hangs bags of raw meat outside his house to lure the wolf.

The wolf comes, but it's not what he expected. It's a tall blond man who wears lipstick and a white dress and carries a samurai sword. Yes, he's a wolf, whatever he looks like. He has lupine qualities and he eats raw meat. The wolf goes on a killing spree in the village, but he spares Jakob, because he sees him as one of his own kind. The wolf calls Jakob "Lonely Wolf" and wants to become his partner.

This German short film is difficult to pin down to any one genre. It mixes so many different ideas that it's surprising the end result is so cohesive. It's a surreal nightmare which surprises the viewer and keeps him guessing from one scene to the next.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Forever Enthralled (4 Stars)

This is a biographical film about Mei Lanfang, who lived from 1894 to 1961, and is generally regarded as China's greatest opera singer. He began his career at the age of 10, but the film concentrates on his life in the years 1919 to 1937.

I had great problems getting used to the film. I felt uncomfortable watching it for the first 90 minutes, after which I finally got a feel for it and enjoyed the last hour. The problem is that I know nothing about opera, and even less about Chinese opera. As my Chinese readers will verify, Mei Lanfang is a woman's name. He was born as Wan Hua, but later changed his name when he became famous for appearing on stage as a woman. That was obviously common in China at the time. On stage he dressed like a woman, moved like a woman and sang with a woman's voice. I strongly dislike female impersonators, even though the Chinese opera singers of the early 20th Century were completely different to the drag queens who perform on Birmingham's Hurst Street.

Mei married when he was young, but had problems with his wife from the beginning. She was domineering and tried to control his life. When he was going through emotional problems and felt unable to sing, his wife didn't try to comfort him, she just called him "useless". It's no surprise that he began an affair with a fellow singer, Meng Xiaodong, a woman who performed on stage as a man. That seems so ridiculous to me. Why should the men be women and the women men?

Mei Lanfang on the left, Meng Xiaodong (with false beard) on the right.

Mei Lanfang on the left, Meng Xiaodang (without beard) on the right.

Apart from revolutionising the style of Chinese opera, Mei Lanfang was the first Chinese opera singer to appear in other countries. In the 1930's the Peking Opera performed in America and all over Europe. As a reaction to the Japanese invasion of Peking in 1937 Mei announced his retirement. The Japanese wanted him to sing for propaganda purposes, to show that a leading Chinese celebrity supported the Japanese, but he refused, and he went as far as having a doctor inject him with drugs to make him incapable of performing. After the Japanese were defeated in 1945 he came out of retirement and performed until his death in 1961.

My reason for watching this film on a subject that doesn't usually interest me is that it stars Zhang Ziyi as Meng Xiaodong. She's one of the most beautiful actresses I know, but the beard doesn't suit her.

Unfriended (5 Stars)

Films like this are difficult for me to rate. Let me explain. When I give a film a rating from 1 to 5 I come to a decision by comparing it with other films of the same type. After all, I can't put a comedy, a sci-fi film and a thriller side by side and ask which one is the best. That wouldn't be fair. I have to make comparisons within the genre.

And then a film like "Unfriended" comes along that's so unlike anything that went before it that it's created a new genre. Some reviewers have called it a found footage film, but that's not the case. It's something completely new. There's no shaky camera or characters always off-screen, and rather than the footage being of a pseudo-documentary nature created in the past it's all happening in real-time before our eyes.

The film lasts 83 minutes, and it takes place between 9pm and 10:30pm. Six teenagers are chatting to one another on Skype. A seventh person enters the chat, using text only, who claims to be Laura Barns, a girl from their school who killed herself exactly one year ago. This person manages to terrify the teenagers so much that they commit suicide one by one.

What makes the film so unique isn't just that it takes place in real-time. That's been done before, for instance "Phone Booth". The film is different to anything that has gone before because it all happens on a computer screen. All we see is the screen of Blaire, one of the girls, as she uses Skype, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. This is the first film in the real-time computer screen genre. I've given it five stars because it's the best film of its type.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

TV Series: Batman

As promised, Warner Bros. has delivered the replacement discs for the faulty episodes in the Batman television series box set. They have to be praised for this. It was only five minutes in over 50 hours of remastered material, but they were swift to respond when the errors were reported. Compare this the way Paramount has treated the customers who bought the "Twin Peaks" Blu-ray box set. The errors were more extensive than with "Batman", but Paramount never offered replacement discs. Their official response was that anyone who had bought the box set should return it to the retailer, then wait for a new release. Worse still, six months have gone by and there's been no information about a new release without the errors.

The Batman TV series is incredible. It's one of the best series ever to have been shown on television. It's fascinating to watch Batman and Robin fight their way out of deadly predicaments... like being trapped inside a giant cookbook.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Anonyma (4 Stars)

How should we live?

In 1954 a book called "A woman in Berlin" was published in America, written by a German authoress who requested her identity to be kept secret. In it she detailed the events of her life in Berlin from April 20th to June 22nd 1945. The book was moderately successful. When it was published in Germany in 1959 it created a scandal, many people denying that it was true. In 2003 an updated, more detailed version of the events was published. The publisher stated that the authoress had recently died and had requested her identity to remain secret. However, in our information age it's impossible to keep secrets, and it was soon revealed that the anonymous woman was the journalist Marta Hillers, who had lived from May 26th 1911 to June 16th 2001. In 2008 the story was filmed with the lead role played by the formidable German actress Nina Hoss. In the film she has no name, she is merely The Woman.

The Woman was an international journalist who had lived in London, Paris and Moscow, but in the final years of the war she returned to Berlin. She felt it was where she belonged. It's easy for us to condemn the Germans as Nazis, but let's try to forget the decades of political propaganda and put ourselves in her place. She was a patriot who loved her country. In the film she's asked if she's a Fascist. She answers that Fascism is about carrying rods, and she doesn't do that. She supports Adolf Hitler because he's her leader. We see the same attitude in all the people around her. No one is politically motivated, they're just women and old men terrified by the advancing Russians and looking to Hitler for protection.

But the F├╝hrer doesn't protect them. In the last week of April 1945 the Russians enter Berlin and occupy the area where The Woman lives. The Russians are a drunken mob who treat the female population as spoils of war. They rape as many women as they can find, whether they're young, middle-aged or old. The women who resist rape too forcefully are shot. After The Woman has been raped a few times she decides to take her fate into her own hands. Since she can speak Russian, she goes to the Russian troops and asks to speak to their most senior officer. She meets a major called Andrej Rybkin and offers herself to him as his mistress. This gives her protection from rape for the next few weeks. Other women also find means to survive. Throughout the city apartments are used as brothels where they give Russian soldiers sex in exchange for food. The Russians are happy and call Berlin one large brothel. This doesn't give the women complete safety. Russian soldiers occasionally lose control of themselves and kill women, but the others just accept it and carry on prostituting themselves.

The scandal stirred up by the book isn't the mass rape by the Russians, but the way the women of Berlin found it easy to become prostitutes. In the film all the women have sex with Russian soldiers. The only difference is in their choice of how it happens. Either they can be brutally raped and left battered on the floor, or they can offer themselves willingly in exchange for fish and potatoes. Most of the women were married, and their husbands were away fighting in the German army. By the time their husbands came home the Americans had arrived in Berlin and the Russians had to behave themselves. The women denied having been prostitutes. That's why the book was so scandalous. It was something that nobody wanted to admit, at least not in 1959, so soon after the war. When the book was reprinted in 2003 it was different. Many old women who had lived through the period of the Russian occupation of Berlin spoke out and confirmed that the book's reports were accurate.

I decided to watch this film again because it's the 70th anniversary of the Russians conquering Berlin. The Russians consider it to be their greatest ever victory. I see it differently. The events of 1945 are something Russia should be ashamed of. There has never been such an extent of mass rape in all of history. It's estimated that in a period of six months Russian soldiers raped more than two million women. Some estimates are as high as five million, depending on how the numbers are counted. If the same woman was raped a dozen times, is that one rape or twelve? Today Russia is in a state of denial. They don't just claim the numbers are exaggerated, they say it never happened at all. It's true that soldiers from the other armies also committed rape, but it was never on such a mass scale. For instance, it's estimated that 50,000 Russian women were raped by German soldiers in a five year period.

John Wick (4½ Stars)

I'm not a fan of Keanu Reeves. I never have been, I never will be. Okay, he's made some good films, like "The Matrix" and "Devil's Advocate", but those were films that he slotted into because they suited his modus operandi. The reason I don't like him is because he never shows any emotions in his films. That's the character he needed to play in "The Matrix", and to a lesser extent in "Devil's Advocate". It's also the character he plays in "John Wick". The weakest part of the film is the introduction, in which he unconvincingly mourns for his dead wife. After that all he does is kill, kill, kill. He strongly reminded me of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator film. An unstoppable killing machine.

The plot is very simple. John Wick is a retired hit man. Shortly before her death John's wife orders a puppy for him as a final gift, a companion to keep him company when he's alone. This puppy is killed when members of the Russian Mafia break into his house. This enrages John, and he goes on a killing spree, not only taking revenge on the ones responsible for the burglary, but wiping out the whole of the Russian Mafia in New York.

I almost didn't see the film. I didn't want to see it because it stars Keanu Reeves. Fortunately one of my friends in the Birmingham Film Group persuaded me to see it, and we went to the very last showing at Cineworld. It was worth it. I was feeling tired when I went out today, but the film was so exciting that I was wide awake throughout. I've been told that a sequel is already in preparation. Bring it on!

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd (4 Stars)

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

The film poster that I've included above annoys me. I don't suffer from OCD, as far as I know, but posters like this are just wrong. Four people. Four names. Couldn't the names have been rearranged so that the names match the person below them? Not one of the names is in the right place. It couldn't be that difficult to put the names in the right order, could it?

The film is based on the novel of the same name written by Thomas Hardy in 1874. The book has been filmed four names, in 1915, 1967, 1998 and 2015 (this film). I saw the 1967 version on television years ago, but I couldn't remember it clearly enough to know the story.

Bathsheba Everdene is a young woman who inherits a farm from her uncle. She has to fight against the prejudices of the male-dominated farming community, but she proves herself tough enough to be taken seriously. After turning down two proposals of marriage from good men, the first a shepherd and the second a neighbouring farmer, she falls in love with a soldier who builds up gambling debts after their marriage. Why do women have to fall for the wrong men? I suppose it makes a good story.

I've never enjoyed the classic 18th and 19th Century dramatic love stories. I read a few when I was in school, but the content and the style alienated me. They always seemed to be about women torn between different men. Maybe this came from the repressive society of the time? What I mean is, in the 19th Century it was an awful scandal for women to have affairs, while men could get away with it. In this system of inequality women dreamt of extramarital excitement, so novels gave them something to dream about. That's my theory, anyway.

For me the film's outstanding actor is Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays the shepherd. It's difficult to describe what is so impressive about his performance. He plays a mostly quiet character, but whatever he does is so convincing. I predict a big future for him.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Austin Powers: Goldmember (4½ Stars)

In 2002 Mike Myers made the third and final film in the Austin Powers trilogy. Once more it was a big box office success. The film ratchets up Mike Myers' involvement another notch. After playing two roles in the first film and three roles in the second film, he now plays a fourth role, the title character Goldmember, in addition to Austin Powers, Dr. Evil and Fat Bastard.

Apart from the James Bond films there are references to many other films. To name but a few, there's "Foxy Brown", "Singing in the Rain" and "Saturday Night Fever". Some of the jokes are repeated from the first two films, but Mike Myers is brave enough to use mostly new ideas in the third film. He experiments with different layers of reality. We see a film within a film, in which the inner film retells the events of the outer film. This leads to amusing cameos by Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito. Supposedly Brad Pitt also appeared, but I must have blinked and missed him.

I might have given the film five stars if it hadn't been for the mole jokes which were repeated so often that they became annoying rather than funny.

I've heard rumours that now, 13 years later, a fourth Austin Powers film will be made. I hope the rumours aren't true. The trilogy came to an end so tidily, neatly tying up all the loose ends. I don't feel that there's anything left to say. I fear that a new film would flop and discredit this brilliant set of films. Let's wait and see.