Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Matrix Reloaded (5 Stars)

When "The Matrix Reloaded" was released it received a lot of negative criticism. This was probably because it wasn't similar enough to "The Matrix". Whatever the reason, I'm glad that it's now been re-evaluated. Most recent reviews are more positive, praising it as a science fiction classic in its own right. It's worth watching. My only piece of advice is that you should watch it back to back with the third part, "The Matrix Revolutions". That's the way to get the greatest enjoyment from the two films, because they form a single unit.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

GoldenEye (4½ Stars)

"GoldenEye" -- I absolutely hate words with a capital letter in the middle -- is the 17th James Bond film. It was the first to star Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. It was also the first James Bond film that I saw in the cinema. As I remember, I arranged to see it with a friend who never turned up, so I went to see it by myself. It was in a German cinema, and as is usual in Germany it was dubbed into German, but I enjoyed it greatly. Of course, it wasn't the first Bond film I'd seen. I already knew most of the previous films from seeing them on television.

Pierce Brosnan was the last of the classic Bonds before the film series was rebooted with Daniel Craig. He was the fourth after Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton. Before anyone corrects me and says he was the fifth, I don't count George Lazenby because he was a Sean Connery clone. He was a new, inexperienced actor in his first ever film, and his method of playing the character was to imitate Sean Connery as closely as he could. Apart from that, he never had any dedication to the role, unlike all the other actors. He was offered a seven-film contract, but he insisted from the beginning that he would only make one film. What a fool he was! How could a young actor, only 29, at the beginning of his career, have turned down a recurring role that would have made him a millionaire and one of the world's best known actors? The highlight of his subsequent career was that he starred in seven Emmanuelle films with Sylvia Kristel.

"GoldenEye" was the second time a new direction was taken with the films. The first 14 films formed a unit, with hardly any break between Sean Connery and Roger Moore. Timothy Dalton's takeover as Bond heralded a new style, a grittier, less humorous Bond. I regret that Timothy Dalton didn't stay longer. If he'd had a chance to grow into the role he could have become the greatest Bond. Nevertheless, Pierce Brosnan was a capable replacement. This was another new beginning after the Cold War. New days had arrived. The new head of MI6 was a woman, and she told Bond to his face, "You're a sexist, misogynistic dinosaur". Pierce Bond was the Bond who had to prove that he was still relevant in the modern world, a theme that's frequently repeated in conversation in "GoldenEye".

I have to ask though: was the end of the Cold War really a factor for James Bond? The real world British secret service spent years spying on Russia and the East Block countries, but that isn't what Bond dealt with, at least not in most of his films. Bond had to deal with megalomaniac villains like Ernst Blofeld or Francisco Scaramanga who stood above East-West politics and threatened both sides. In that respect I disagree with the new M (Judi Dench) that James Bond had become a dinosaur. The rest of her criticism is valid.

One subject that James Bond fans like to argue about for hours on end is "Who's the best Bond?" Opinions vary widely on the subject, but the majority seem to say that Sean Connery was the best, Roger Moore was the worst, and the rest are in the middle. I'm surprised that so few fans respect Roger Moore. He was a magnificent actor. I think the problem is that he was so unlike Sean Connery, in his looks and mannerisms. He brought his own ideas into the character, unlike George Lazenby. What many people don't know is that Sean Connery was the second choice for the character. He was only given the role after Patrick McGoohan had turned it down. There's more of a similarity between Patrick McGoohan and Roger Moore, so I believe that if McGoohan had been the first Bond Moore would have been accepted as his replacement.

So who do I, Mike Hood aka Dansator, think the best Bond was? It's impossible for me to give a one word answer. On acting ability alone I'd rate Timothy Dalton highest, but I'd still put Sean Connery first. As the first Bond he made the role. Everyone who follows is judged by Sean Connery's high standards. Roger Moore did an excellent job following him, but he was let down by lesser quality scripts that were too over-the-top, the peak being "Moonraker". Then there's Pierce Brosnan. Somehow he captures the essence of Sean Connery's Bond without being a mere clone, so I have to put him in second place. After that comes Timothy Dalton, then Roger Moore, followed by George Lazenby and Daniel Craig. Yes, I put Daniel Craig at the bottom of the list, even though it's not customary to talk bad of the current Bond. Let's wait and see how critics review Craig's career when the next actor takes over. I don't think his tenure as Bond will be judged so favourably in hindsight. We'll see.

There's something about the James Bond films that disturbs serious film critics, but the fans love it. As my readers already know, I don't consider myself to be a serious film critic, so I'll take the side of the fans. The James Bond films all follow a strict formula, with only slight variations from film to film. There's a pre-title action sequence. After the title sequence James Bond returns to MI6, where he's given a new mission from M, who frequently criticises Bond for creating too much havoc in his previous mission. Then he receives new equipment from Q, who criticises Bond for losing equipment on his previous missions. Then he flirts with Miss Moneypenny, who criticises Bond for standing her up on previous dates.

Then comes the mission itself, which somehow involves the legendary Bond Girls. There are always at least two Bond Girls: one is on Bond's side as an ally and companion, one is on the side of the villain. Sometimes there is a third girl on Bond's side who gets killed early in the film, adding a revenge element. Somewhere during the mission there's a car chase (ever since the Roger Moore films). The mission ends with a large explosion, destroying not only the villain but also his secret lair.

I usually prefer the bad Bond Girl to the good Bond Girl. Bad girls are so much more interesting. The good girls fall helplessly into Bond's arms after offering only token resistance. The bad girls run around killing people, also attempting to kill Bond, and look sexy while they do it. An example is GoldenEye's Famke Janssen, shown above, who plays the assassin Xenia Onatopp. The film shows her having an orgasm whenever she kills someone. Cute. She's one of the new wave of bad Bond Girls. In the older films the bad girl eventually succumbs to Bond's charms.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Tag (5 Stars)

"Stay strong. Life is surreal. Don't let it change you".

I first saw "Tag" on January 4th this month. The last sentence in my review was "This is a brilliant film that you need to watch more than once". So I decided to watch it again today. I have to say that it impressed me even more on second viewing.

There's a mystery in the film. For the first hour it's impossible to figure out what's happening. Then everything is revealed. Maybe not everything, there are still a few unanswered questions, but at least we know most of the answers, including why the teachers decided to mow down the schoolgirls with machine guns. Usually when there's a mystery a film is most satisfying the first time it's watched. That's not the case with "Tag". Having seen it before and understanding the mystery the first hour amazed me even more. This is now, officially, one of my favourite films. It's in my top five at least.

"Tag" is brilliant. It's a masterpiece. I can't think of enough words to describe it.

The Big Short (4 Stars)

This is an interesting experiment. Can a good film be made about a boring subject? The answer is Yes. The film succeeds in making intricate details of the American stock market fascinating. On the other hand, I can't honestly say that I understood everything in the film. It was especially difficult for me to understand the first 20 minutes when Dr. Michael Burry persuades the banks to create bonds for him to invest in.

The film begins in 2005. Everyone trusts the housing market. "Safe as houses" is a well known slogan. Only one man, an eccentric fund manager called Michael Burry sees that the American housing market is being propped up by dodgy loans. He predicts that the whole system will come crashing down. And the following years proved him right. When everyone lost billions of dollars he and those who trusted him became very rich.

The film's main weakness is a result of it being a true story. Even though it's one single story, it's separated into different segments that run in parallel. The main four characters never meet one another. They act independently after hearing, directly or indirectly, about Michael Burry's plan.

I need to watch the film again. Maybe I'll enjoy it even more when I can better understand the financial issues involved.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Inglourious Basterds (5 Stars)

I'm beginning to think I picked the wrong Quentin Tarantino film to include in my 30 films to watch before you die. "Inglourious Basterds" is a masterpiece that only gets better with repeated viewing. What amazes me most is the first scene in the French farmhouse. This gets my vote for the best filmed scene ever. Watch it carefully to see what I mean. The quiet and the calm barely conceals the slowly developing threat. This scene is Quentin Tarantino at his best, the crowning pinnacle of his achievements as a director. It also underlines Christoph Waltz's skill as an actor. He deserved his Oscar.

As everyone who has seen the film already knows, Christoph Waltz is the film's real star, not Brad Pitt. He's a veteran actor who had been making films in Germany and Austria for 30 years, but "Inglourious Basterds" was his Hollywood breakthrough. It was long overdue.

Here's an example of Christoph Waltz's charm with the ladies. Nobody can resist him, not even Diane Kruger.

This is a newspaper shown in the film with a report about Hugo Stiglitz betraying the fatherland by murdering 13 German officers. It might not be obvious to people who don't understand German, but the text in the left column is repeated in the right column. Click on the photo to enlarge it and compare the first line of the new paragraph to see what I mean. Sloppy.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

A girl walks home alone at night (4 Stars)

This film shows a side of Iran that we don't read about in the news: prostitution, drugs and vampires.

Arash is a hard-working young man who is struggling to take care of his father, who is addicted to heroin. The father gets deep into debt, as all drug addicts do, and the pimp takes Arash's new sports car as payment. When Arash visits the pimp to make a deal to get his car back he finds the pimp dead. He's been killed by a vampire. Arash robs the pimp's money and takes his car back.

Unknown to Arash, he was seen by the vampire, an unnamed beautiful young woman. At least, she looks young. She might be thousands of years old, as old as Persia itself. In the following days she secretly observes Arash. She kills a series of men, including Arash's father, but spares Arash himself.

This is a stylish, beautiful drama that reminds me of Jean Rollin's early films. It doesn't have a well-defined plot, relying on the atmosphere and imagery. In theory the film could have been set anywhere from eastern Russia to the heart of the USA, but the director Ana Lily Amirpour chose to connect it to her own heritage. She's an Iranian who was born in England, so she chose an industrial Iranian town as the setting and picked Iranian actors for this Persian language film.

This is Ana's first feature film, made on a shoestring budget, but it's impressed the film world so much that she's been given a big budget for her second film, "The Bad Batch", which should hit cinemas later this year. She's a role model for all Iranian women: intelligent, confident and successful.

The Warrior (5 Stars)

This is a South Korean film made in 2001. At the time of its release it was the biggest budget Korean film ever. It's been released with various names, including "Musa" (a transliteration of the Korean title), "The Warrior" and "Princess of the Desert". I'll stick with "The Warrior", the title of the UK release.

The film is based on a historical event in 1375. China was divided between the Ming Dynasty and the Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan Dysnasty was fading in strength while the Ming Dynasty was growing. A team of diplomats were sent from Korea to the Ming Dynasty, but they were accused of being spies and exiled from the kingdom. They were never seen again. So much is true. "The Warrior" is a fictional tale of what happened to the team after their exile into the desert.

Ming soldiers led the diplomats and their entourage into the desert to escort them to the borders of the kingdom. On the way they were ambushed by Yuan soldiers who killed the Ming soldiers but spared the Koreans. General Choi decided to lead the diplomatic party back to Korea, but on the way they encounter a Ming princess who has been kidnapped by Yuan soldiers. They free the princess and turn back towards China, hoping to find favour with the Ming Dynasty for returning the princess. This isn't an easy task. Yuan soldiers now pursue them in an attempt to re-capture the princess.

Even though only small groups of soldiers are involved, the film has the feeling of being an epic. Great care is taken to introduce us to the Korean party, letting us know their backgrounds, their strengths and their weaknesses. The most interesting character is the princess, played by the Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi. When we first meet her she is proud and haughty. She doesn't thank the Koreans for fleeing her because she sees it as their duty, even though they aren't her people. Later on she softens when she sees innocent civilians fleeing from Yuan soldiers. Eventually she sees herself as one of the team with the Koreans.

The 5th Wave (3 Stars)

This film about an alien invasion is based on the first in a series of books by the science fiction author Rick Yancey. I've been told that the books are good. Unfortunately, the film offers nothing special. Not even the outstanding acting by Chloe Grace Moretz can rescue the film. The plot is jumbled and nonsensical, making me wonder what's so good about the books.

In the near future the Earth is visited by a giant spaceship which looks like it's a leftover prop from "Independence Day". It orbits the Earth for a few weeks without making contact. Then the attack begins in four waves.

1. An electromagnetic pulse disables all electricity on Earth.

2. Giant tidal waves destroy all coastal waves.

3. A modified bird flu kills most of mankind.

4. The human race is infiltrated by aliens controlling humans.

This is where the film starts. Cassie Sullivan is a resistance fighter. She doesn't know who to trust, because there's no way to distinguish the humans under alien control. Luckily the United States Army is still operative. They round up the civilians and take them to a camp where they'll be safe.

I can't say too much about the plot without giving away what happens. Suffice it to say that the film is a mess. I couldn't take it seriously.

Once more, Chloe Grace Moretz proves that she's an amazing actress, skilled beyond her years. She just needs to make sure she picks better films in future.

Maika Monroe looks almost unrecognisable with black hair. Click the picture to see her normal look. I'm glad that she is specialising in horror and sci-fi films, even if "The 5th Wave" isn't that impressive. She's rapidly becoming one of my favourite actresses.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Catch me if you can (4½ Stars)

This is the true story of Frank Abagnale, one of the most successful con men ever. His criminal career began when he ran away from home at the age of 15. He forged cheques worth more than four million dollars before he was 19. The film is supposedly accurate as far as his crimes are concerned, but fictionalises the relationship with his father.

The film is directed by Steven Spelberg and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale. To get the fictional aspects out of the way first, it was important to present Frank's love for his father as his motivation for his crimes. This makes his character more sympathetic to the audience than if he had been shown as a selfish cold-hearted criminal. In 1963 (when Frank was 15) his father had lost money in his business and was facing bankruptcy due to IRS payment claims. I think this is something that could only happen in America. In England (and most other western countries), if a company loses money no tax is due. In America the Inland Revenue levies taxes on a company's profits, even if the profits are subsequently lost later in the year. This leads to the absurd situation that people with no money are expected to pay high tax bills. Young Frank felt that the government was robbing his father -- which is true, if it really happened the way the film portrays it -- so he swore to steal the money back from the government and give it to his father.

When his parents divorced Frank ran away from home rather than decide which parent to live with. His first attempts to cash cheques failed, until he had the idea of pretending to be a pilot. In a pilot's uniform he had no problems cashing forged cheques, because everyone trusts a pilot. Pilots have a reputation as being something special, even more than judges or doctors. It's a mixture of the responsibility and the uniform. Last year I visited a night club and met a group of American navy pilots who were stationed in Cosford, near Wolverhampton. They were in full uniform. They told me that it wasn't compulsory for them to wear their uniforms when off duty, but they did so "because English girls go crazy about the uniforms". It was true. Girls were practically fighting to get near the pilots. Maybe I should buy myself a pilot's uniform.

Of course, it wasn't just the uniform. Frank Abagnale was a skilled forger. As well as cheques he forged certificates, enabling him to work as a doctor and a lawyer. Throughout his short but highly successful criminal career Frank was pursued by the FBI agent Carl Hanratty (played by Tom Hanks), and the two developed a respect for one another.

After his arrest in 1969 he was given short prison sentences in France and Sweden. He was then extradited to America and sentenced to 12 years in prison. This sentence was cut short when he was offered a job in the bank fraud development of the FBI, where he worked for 26 years. No criminals were a match for his skills of fraud detection.

The real Frank Abagnale.

It's been a long time since I last watched this film. Maybe 10 years. I'm not sure why I waited so long. I have a great respect for Steven Spielberg as a director, but there are only a few of his films that really grip me. His films are too smooth, too perfect. "Catch me if you can" has enough of a rough edge to make it a thrilling film. I also consider it to be Leonardo DiCaprio's second best film, second only to "Titanic".

Frank's escape from police custody when being extradited to America seems so ridiculous that it couldn't possibly be true, but I've found out that it really did happen as shown. He jumped out of a moving plane while it was taxiing on the runway at JFK Airport. He managed to break through a fence and flee across country before finally being apprehended.

The prison in France was even worse than how it's shown in the film. According to Wikipedia, "At Perpignan he was held nude in a tiny, filthy, lightless cell that he was never allowed to leave. The cell lacked toilet facilities, a mattress, or a blanket, and food and water were strictly limited". That sounds disgusting. Were things really so bad in France in 1970?

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Chess Players (4 Stars)

"Nothing but poetry and music should bring tears to a man's eyes".

I'm somewhat ashamed that I didn't watch this film until today. When I heard about Saeed Jaffrey's death on November 15th I decided to watch this film to remember him. It's one of only two films I own in which he appears. The other is "The Man who would be King". Somehow I forgot about it, and it wasn't until today that I saw the DVD lying in my bookcase waiting for me.

The film takes place in India in 1856 in the Moslem province of Oudh. Mirza and Meer, two rich noblemen, spend all day playing chess. They don't need to work, because their great-grandfathers served in the King of Oudh's army, and they were rewarded with so much wealth that they can still live on it three generations later. They both neglect their wives in order to play chess. Mirza's wife is angry and steals the chess pieces. Meer's wife is glad that her husband plays chess, because it means she can spend more time with her lover.

At the same time there is political upheaval. Oudh is the independent province left in India. Everything else has been conquered by Britain. King Wajid of Oudh is allowed to remain in power as an ally of Britain. He's a deeply religious man who prays five times a day, apart from which he has 29 wives and 400 concubines. He writes poems, songs and operas. This doesn't leave him any time to do his job as a ruler, so Britain is frustrated with the chaos in his province and decides to take it over.

Mirza and Meer hardly notice what's going on around them. All they want to do is play chess.

Saeed Jaffrey
8 January 1929 – 15 November 2015

Tomb of the Werewolf (4 Stars)

Yes, I know I only watched this film two weeks ago, but I couldn't resist watching it again. I actually intended to listen to the director's commentary by Fred Olen Ray today, but I felt in the mood to watch the film itself all over again. That means I'll have to listen to the director's commentary again next week, if I can exercise more self-control next time.

There's one thing that I forgot to mention in my last review. Paul Naschy, who is generally considered the king of Spanish horror movies, couldn't speak a single word of English. That's why he doesn't speak in the film. He just runs around growling and killing people. Why not? That's what he does best.

This is a photo of Paul Naschy playing the same role, Count Waldemar Daninsky, in "La marca del hombre lobo" (1968).

Ip Man 3 (5 Stars)

This is something that's not happened before in Cineworld. "Ip Man 3" was only shown for two days on December 24th and 25th last year. It's common for Cineworld to only show films for one or two days if they're considered to be a minority interest. What's new is that the film was so successful that they brought it back for another two weeks a month later. When I went on December 24th the cinema was packed, despite the film being shown on an awkward day. It immediately became my favourite film of 2015, and I had to see it again. When I went today I was amazed to see that the cinema was full again, apart from the front four rows where nobody wants to sit.

There's going to be trouble when this film is released in America. After the first two Ip Man films with Donnie Yen a prequel was made about Ip Man's life from the age of 13 to 16. In England it was called "The Legend is born: Ip Man", but in America the film was called "Ip Man 3". That's silly. If they really wanted to number it they should have called it "Ip Man 0", which would be the conventional way of numbering a prequel. I'm curious to see what they'll call this film in America.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Carrie [2013 version] (4½ Stars)

My first review of this film was in December 2013 after seeing it in the cinema with the Birmingham Film Club. Today I watched it again on Blu-ray. I think I said the most important things in my first review, but I'll add a few thoughts here.

When I wrote about the film two years ago I said that I couldn't decide which was better, the 1976 original version or the 2013 remake. After watching it a second time I have to say that the remake is better. As amazing as Sissy Spacek's performance was, Chloe Grace Moretz is a superior actress. Julianne Moore is madder than Piper Laurie. The pacing is better, with the film leading up to the final prom scene faster and extending it.

I make this judgement very carefully, because the original is utterly amazing. I have a certain fetish for the original. I would like to say it's better, because it's a film I've watched repeatedly with great pleasure over the years, but it simply isn't better.

I wonder which version Stephen King himself prefers. I'd like to hear his opinion.

Scream 4 (4½ Stars)

When I wrote about "Scream 3" in December I said that there should never have been a fourth instalment. I need to take that back. It's true, the first three Scream films do build a neat little trilogy, complete in itself, but there's room for a continuation. There isn't just room for a continuation, there's a need for one. "Scream 3" was released in 2000. After that the teen slasher genre fizzled out. It's true, there were a few films in the genre, such as "Valentine" in 2001, but none come close to the quality. "Scream 4" might not be quite up to the level of the first three films, but it's still the best teen slasher film made in the last 15 years.

I don't think that the Scream franchise fits the format of a television series. I've watched a few episodes, and although I enjoy the series it's not "Scream". The body count is too low. There ought to be at least two people killed every episode. The problem is that in a TV series characters are developed over the weeks, and it wouldn't be fitting to keep killing off the main characters.

We need teen slasher films. The mixture of high school angst and horror is so delicious. Maybe we can add another two films to make a second Scream trilogy. Maybe we can start a completely new franchise. This might be difficult after Wes Craven's death, but someone somewhere needs to make teen slasher films. Not just one, we need dozens of them. Who's up to the challenge?

Am I the only person who finds Courteney Cox more attractive in "Scream 4" than in the previous three films? In the original trilogy she looked plain, but look at her now. For a 47-year-old woman she's smoking hot!

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Double (4 Stars)

"The Double", a 2014 film directed by Richard Ayoade, was marketed as a comedy. Imagine there's a physically disabled teenager in your school. He walks into a shop and accidentally knocks everything off the shelf. Someone films it and posts the video on YouTube. Is that a comedy? The other children in the class will laugh when they see it, but that doesn't make it a comedy. It's an act of bullying. Now apply that example to this film. Simon James is a shy, awkward young man. Everything he does turns out wrong. Do we laugh at him? I'm sure that many people who watch him take the part of the majority and think the film is hilarious. I take Simon's side, and I feel the people laughing at me. For me the film isn't a comedy, I consider it cruelty to laugh at it.

Is that funny? Ask the classroom bullies. They'll say it's hilarious. I'm not saying that to criticise the film. It's a wonderfully deep and introspective film. Maybe my rating isn't high enough. I'm criticising the cold-hearted people who laugh at the film and call it a comedy.

A lot of fuss has been made recently over Tom Hardy playing two roles in "Legend". Film fans seem to have forgotten that Jesse Eisenberg did the same a year earlier. In "Legend" it was two people who looked physically different. In "The Double" it's two people who look and dress identically, but they talk and act differently.

Simon James is an intelligent young man, but socially inept. He does brilliant work in his office, but nobody notices because he doesn't know how to market himself. He's worked in the same company for seven years, but nobody remembers his face. He's a nobody. He could have continued with his life of anonymity for another 40 or 50 years, but fate has other plans for him. A doppelganger called James Simon enters his life with the intention to replace him. He gets a job at the same company, and he becomes everybody's friend. James sits around being lazy, but he knows how present himself and wins a promotion within a few weeks. The two men look identical, but the colleagues don't see a resemblance. James is a somebody, Simon is a nobody.

This where I can relate to Simon James. I feel like I'm a nobody. I'm intelligent and polite, but I don't stand out. If I were stupid and rude people would remember me. This was never more apparent than in my first job at Informatik-Systemtechnik GmbH in Stuttgart (now called Informatik Consulting Systems). When I began my job, fresh from university, I put my head down and worked as hard as I could. I thought that would get me noticed by my bosses. It didn't. The ones who were noticed were the ones who sang their own praises. I watched what was going on around me in amazement. I realised within a few months that my capabilities far exceeded everyone else in the company. Despite this, I saw my colleagues being promoted. I bit my tongue and carried on. Finally, after about six years, I asked my department leader, Hans Rebel, about promotion. He was surprised. He told me that he thought I was happy doing what I did. After nine years in the company I received the promotion I deserved, but on the same day a less gifted colleague, Hans Riekert, received a double promotion. I became group leader, he became a department leader. This was a slap in the face. I loved my job and wanted to stay, but on the day of my promotion I decided to look for another job.

There's a lot more I could say about the inter-personal relationships in my first company. It was the best company I ever worked at, as far as the job itself was concerned, even though I earned almost three times as much in my next company. I knew what Hans Rebel earned and when my salary exceeded his I felt like I had achieved my goal, but the pleasure was short lived. Money isn't everything. I would have been happy earning less, as long as I knew my work was being appreciated.

I wonder if any of my colleagues that I used to work with remember me. It's doubtful. I was a shadow in the dark that crossed their paths, someone they only saw out of the corner of their eye. How could I have been different? I could have worked less and talked more. I could have been rude. I could even have been crazy. I often wish I were brave enough to do crazy things. Maybe I've done a few in my life. When I was 25 I once bought a bottle of good champagne and some plastic cups and sat on the ground in Stuttgart's main pedestrian zone drinking it with my wife-to-be Brigitte Hengel and her best friend Anke Mohnhaupt. We weren't sitting on the side, leaning against a building, we were sitting in the middle with people walking around us. That was crazy. I'd guess that more strangers remember me from that one day than colleagues remember my many years at work.

With the encouragement of a good woman I might have done many more crazy things, at least in my spare time. Brigitte wasn't suitable. She enforced respectability on me. She changed drastically on the day of our marriage. Not a few years or even a few months later. It was the very first day. She had fixed ideas about how a married couple should behave, in particular how I should behave, and she enforced conformity on me. I did whatever she wanted because I loved her, but as the years went by I realised she didn't love me in return and I became more and more miserable. Eventually, after 15 years together, it was a choice between suicide and leaving her. I still don't know if I made the right decision.

Getting back to the film, there's a love interest in Simon's life, Hannah from the photocopying department, played by Mia Wasikowska. He makes excuses to see her by pretending the other photocopiers are broken. She hardly notices him. He's known in her department as the creepy guy. Awkwardness can easily be mistaken for being creepy. Of course, when James arrives everything changes. Hannah has a crush on James and goes on a date with him. James doesn't deserve her, he's seeing other women at the same time, but he's brash and self-confident, not creepy at all.

It's worth talking about the film's cinematography. It's brilliant. Every picture, every image, is framed perfectly. It's a dark world, and the background is often swallowed up by shadows. Many of the scenes are shown in a way that tell the story without words. In fact, I even felt tempted to just publish a dozen screenshots without writing anything. Maybe I'll do that next time I watch  "The Double". I'm sure there will be a next time.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Only Lovers Left Alive (4 Stars)

A problem with almost all marriages is that with time the passion fades. When a couple first meet they can't wait to rip one another's clothes off. Then they get married and they need to have sex all the time. After a while the glamour begins to disappear. They see one another at their worst moments, when they're sick or in a bad mood. As they become older their bodies are no longer as aesthetically appealing. Sex is reserved for special occasions. When it gets to that point the marriage can go one of two ways. Either they split up and find new lovers to rekindle their passion, or they decide to stay together because they love one another. The second case doesn't mean that the original passion has been rediscovered, it means that the couple have decided that there's enough positive in one another to continue without passion.

This all happens over the course of 30 or 40 years, the length of a typical marriage till death us do part. Now imagine that the married couple are vampires who have been together for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Despite the ability to stay forever young in appearance, the passion will be replaced by habit and routine.

In this film we see two vampires, Adam and Eve, played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. They love one another, that's obvious, but the passion died centuries ago. Adam lives in Detroit recording rock music anonymously. Eve lives in Tangier reading books in the many languages she has mastered. When Eve visits Adam there's a friendly hug on the doorstep, but no welcoming kiss.

Things are shaken up when Eve's younger sister Ava hears that Eve is back in America and travels from Los Angeles to visit her. Ava (played by Mia Wasikowska) has managed to preserve the spirit of a rebellious teenager. Maybe it's because she was never married? She persuades Adam and Eve to go to a club and have some fun, but Adam ends up getting angry with Ava and makes them all leave early.

When I first watched the film in the cinema I gave it a bad rating. Click here for my review. I knew at the time I might like it more if I watched it again, and that's certainly the case. I criticised it in my first review for the lack of passion. Now that I've watched it again I can see that that's the whole point of the film. The passion is gone. The director, Jim Jarmusch, didn't want to make a horror film or a film in which vampires are glamorous and sexy. He wants to show that after centuries of existence life can get boring. The end result is bleak, but somehow alluring.

Tilda Swinton as a vampire. She's never looked so sexy!

Mia Wasikowska as a vampire. Do you think she would bite me if I asked nicely?

Tom Hiddleston as a vampire. He doesn't like to show his teeth in public.

Clouds of Sils Maria (4 Stars)

Sometimes a film is too arty for its own good. "Clouds of Sils Maria" is a remarkably clever film that will fascinate movie insiders, but it only made back a fraction of its budget at the box office. Ironically, the film features Kristen Stewart's best ever acting performance, but most people will never see it. She was nominated as Best Supporting Actress at 19 smaller film festivals, of which she won eight.

The film takes place in the beautiful mountains of Switzerland. Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a woman who made her debut at 18 in a film called "Malorja Snake". It was a film about a young woman, Sigrid, who joined a company as the personal assistant of the boss, Helena. Sigrid was a manipulative young woman. A lesbian relationship ensued between the two, and when Sigrid left Helena killed herself. It's now 25 years later. Maria is a famous actress, and she's travelling to Zurich to present a lifetime award to Wilhelm Melchior, the director of "Malorja Snake", when she hears that he has died.

The awards ceremony goes ahead. A young director approaches Maria and tells her he's putting on a theatre production of "Malorja Snake", and he would like Maria to play the part of Helena. Sigrid will be played by a young American actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), famous for her wild lifestyle and Internet scandals.

Maria disagrees with the casting of Jo-Ann at first, because she considers her to be a shallow person who has only appeared in action films. When she meets her she's amazed to find out that Jo-Ann is an intelligent and polite young woman. In fact, Maria was Jo-Ann's inspiration to become an actress.

When Maria re-acquaints herself with the script she sees "Malorja Snake" in a different way. She had enjoyed it when she was playing the manipulator, but she's horrified to see herself as the manipulated woman. She sees it as a reflection of her own life. When she was 18 she was in control, now that she's 43 she's being used. This is made worse when the wife of Jo-Ann's lover, a famous playwright, attempts suicide on finding out about her husband's infidelity.

The film concentrates on the relationship between Maria Enders and her young personal assistant Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart, proving to the world that she really can act. They sit together or walk in the mountains rehearsing the lines. Maria speaks Helena's lines, while Valentine reads Sigrid's lines from a book. Maria repeatedly interrupts the rehearsing to criticise the dialogue, but Valentine defends it steadfastly. As the days go by a relationship begins between Maria and Valentine, inspired by the power of the script. Valentine becomes Sigrid.

I admit this film isn't for everyone. It's a slow film with almost no action, relying on dialogue and inter-personal relationships. This is art for the sake of art. It's beautiful. It's inspiring.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Man who fell to Earth (5 Stars)

It's not often that I watch the same film twice in quick succession. It was only nine days ago that I watched "The man who fell to Earth". Click here to read my review. Nine days ago I watched the film to remember David Bowie. Today I watched it for the sake of the film itself. I can imagine that I'll return to watch it repeatedly over the next few years.

I didn't intend to write about David Bowie himself in this review, but it's difficult not to. He's inseparable from the film. He makes it what it is. His performance is detached, shy, elusive. This is what the man himself was. In his first concert performances in 1970 Bowie was criticised for not putting on a stage show. He just stood motionless on the stage and sang. That was the real Bowie. That was how he was in himself. He was introverted. He was overwhelmed by having hundreds of people staring at him. His managers and advisers must have told him that this wasn't good for business, so after the release of "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" his image changed. He didn't just sing about Ziggy Stardust, he became Ziggy Stardust. He wore sparkly outfits and he danced on stage. He became a real rock star. If he wasn't an extrovert he could at least play the part.

David Bowie was never Ziggy Stardust. That was just acting. David Bowie was the man who fell to Earth. He was the shy awkward man who spoke little and thought a lot.

Nicolas Roeg's directing is magnificent. He has a story to tell, but he just tells it in bits and pieces, leaving large gaps for the viewer to figure out for himself. The film covers a long period of time. 30 years, maybe 40. We're not told how long it is, and it's not really relevant. We see the people in Bowie's life growing older while he stays the same, forever young. There I am again, calling him by his real name, not Thomas Newton as he's known in the film. I can't help it.

I hardly said anything about the plot in my last review, so I'll make up for it here. An alien flies to Earth in search of water for his dying world. He lands in Haneyville, New Mexico. He carries a fake British passport and a large number of gold rings, which he sells in different stores to avoid attention. Once he has enough money he presents a list of inventions to a patent lawyer in New York. He founds World Enterprises, which becomes America's largest company. He's making money to finance the building of a new space ship with which he can return to his planet.

Bowie's time on Earth doesn't leave him unscarred. He embarks on a relationship with Mary-Lou, a hotel room cleaner. She introduces him to alcohol, which he refuses at first, but as time goes by he drinks more and more to overcome the boredom. He has too much money and nothing to do, since he doesn't actually work, having delegated everything in his company to his chief employees.

Can a company grow bigger than the American government? Is it permissible? In the film it isn't. At first government officials are sent to use friendly persuasion to make World Enterprises downsize. When this fails strong-arm tactics such as murder are used. The film was made in 1976. Over the next 30 years a company called Microsoft grew to have a position of power unprecedented in American history. On paper it looks smaller than other companies like Walmart and various car manufacturers, but by positioning itself in the growing computer market Microsoft became more influential than any other company. There have been highly publicised trials against Microsoft because of its unfair business practises towards its competitors, but we don't know what else has happened behind closed doors. If Microsoft ever shrinks it will probably be due to competition from other companies like Google, or the result of risky investments.

It might surprise some people to hear that "The man who fell to Earth" was remade in 1987. If you don't believe me, here's the proof. Why? Supposedly the remake was closer to the original novel, but I haven't seen it and I don't want to. For me there's only one man who fell to Earth, and his name isn't Lewis Smith.

Room (4 Stars)

This is an emotionally moving story about a young boy who lives the first five years of his life in a single room without any contact to the outside world. He has his mother with him and a stranger who brings them food and other items. He has a television, but but he assumes that everything he sees is fiction. All that he can see of the real world is the sky through a skylight in the ceiling. He remains there until his mother tricks their captor into believing the boy is dead, so that he can be taken away.

The film is based on a novel by the Canadian author Emma Donague. She wrote it after hearing about the case of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian who kept his daughter locked up in his cellar for 24 years, where he raped her repeatedly, so that she had several children who grew up in isolation. Emma's book differs in many details, so it can't be seen as being about the Fritzl family. It's only loosely inspired by the events. Her book isn't about the captor, it's about the captives, which is reflected in the film. We only see the captor, a man referred to as Old Nick, briefly on a few occasions, and it isn't stated what his relationship is to the mother. He doesn't matter. He isn't relevant to the story.

The boy, Jack, is the focus of the story. It's about how he comes to grips with being exposed to a large new world for the first time. The film succeeds in showing his wonderment and his disorientation. He even has the desire to return to the room, because it was a less complicated place.

I wouldn't say this is an easy film to watch. It has its dark moments, both inside and outside of the room. It's a film to watch with friends or family, to be discussed together. Maybe some of my readers can share their thoughts about the film by leaving comments.