Monday, 29 February 2016

Leap Year (3½ Stars)

Call me sentimental if you must. I decided to watch this film because of today's date. After all, February 29th doesn't come around very often, does it?

"Leap Year" is a double genre film. It's a romantic comedy and a road movie. It's about Anna Brady, a successful career woman in Boston, the daughter of poor Irish immigrants. She's been dating her boyfriend Jeremy, a heart surgeon, for four years, but he's showing no signs of wanting to marry her. Some men enjoy their freedom too much. He travels to Dublin for a medical conference. Anna's father tells her about an old Irish tradition that women can propose to men on February 29th in a leap year, which is only three days away. Anna jumps on a plane to Dublin.

That's where her problems begin. First the plane is forced to land in Wales due to bad weather. Rather than wait two days for the next flight she catches a ferry to Cork, but the storm is still raging and the boat is redirected to Dingle. The only solution is to enlist the help of Declan, a local public house owner who offers to drive her to Dublin. His laid back small village mentality clashes with her big city efficiency, and they argue from the start.

Looking at the map, I have no idea how the boat ended up in Dingle of all places. How did a boat from Cardiff to Cork end up in Dingle? You can click the map to enlarge it. Anna and Declan have to struggle to make their way north-eastwards towards Dublin. As they travel the scenery becomes ever more beautiful and the comedy becomes ever more bizarre. I suspect that one of the intentions of the film was to overwhelm American viewers with the quaintness of Ireland.

As a romantic comedy, the film offers no surprises. The story follows a strict formula, and you can guess from the beginning what's going to happen. That doesn't make it a bad film. Despite my relatively low rating it's a film that I'll probably watch again, every leap year.

General: Academy Awards 2016 Fashion

Last year I wrote a full fashion report about the hits and misses at the 2015 Academy Awards. This year I'll concentrate on one woman: Jenny Beavan, who received an Oscar for Best Costume Design.

A lot of fuss has been made this year about the lack of racial diversity. The Film Academy has been criticised for not nominating any black actors or directors. Several big stars, such as the massively overpaid Will Smith, boycotted the awards ceremony to show their objection. What does Will Smith want? Does he expect a quota, that at least two films with black actors or directors should be nominated in each category? He's either a fool or a hypocrite. I suspect the latter. He's just annoyed that his 2015 film, "Concussion", wasn't good enough to receive any nominations.

The problem doesn't lie with the Academy. The Academy merely decides which films are the best. It could be argued that black actors aren't given enough good roles, but I think the opposite is the case. Black actors are given too many roles in Hollywood purely because of their colour. Look at Michael Jordan in the "Fantastic Four". A black man was picked to play a blond-haired racing car fanatic, with the sole purpose of attracting black movie-goers. Apart from being miscast, his performance was abysmal. Idris Elba is a better actor, but he's still out of place playing the Norse God Heimdall in "Thor". What else does Will Smith want? Did he want the lead role in "The Revenant", just because it's his right due to his skin colour? He would have ruined the film, like he's ruined many other films in the past.

There is no problem with racism at the Academy Awards. When black actors and directors make good films they'll be recognised. They have made better films in the past, and they can do so again.

However, yesterday's Academy Awards revealed a big problem that has to be dealt with: sexism. Women who visit the awards ceremony are expected to dress a certain way. They're supposed to look beautiful and glamorous. I'm the last person to complain about women looking beautiful, but if a woman wants to look different she should be allowed to. British costume designer Jenny Beavan turned up to the awards ceremony in a leather jacket with a scarf round her neck. When she walked up to receive her Oscar for "Mad Max: Fury Road" the reaction of the audience was amazing. Some men looked shocked. Some men and women were laughing at her. Very few people were applauding.

Cate Blanchett is elegant, wearing a dress that costs more than a month's income for an average family. She has to walk slowly so that she doesn't trip over when it drags on the floor. Jenny Beavan is wearing simple clothes in which she feels comfortable. Which is better? I think that both outfits are as good as one another, but my sympathies are with Jenny.

Jenny isn't a tramp or a "bag lady", as she's been called. She's a costume designer. She understands fashion. She could probably design an even better dress for Cate, but she wouldn't wear it herself. She knows what she's doing. She's making a deliberate fashion statement.

Let's solve this problem. At next year's Academy Awards ceremony we want to see more women dressed like Jenny Beavan. Deliberately or not, she's become a champion for women's rights.

Here's a link to a video of Jenny walking to the stage. How many of the stars do you recognise who are sitting staring at her, refusing to applaud, or even sitting and laughing at her? There's no racial difference when it comes to sexism. Black men and white men are united in refusing to congratulate Jenny on her win.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Assassin (4 Stars)

This film fascinated me from the moment I first heard about it. It won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. All I knew was that the film was about a woman who worked as an assassin in the 9th Century Tang Dynasty. I expected something like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". I was wrong.

The main difference is that the action is very low key. There are fight scenes, but we don't see people die. There's a pause, then the camera turns away, and we're left to assume that the person falls over dead. There's almost no music throughout the film, giving it a very solemn atmosphere. I watched the film in the Electric, the UK's oldest cinema, which has a reputation for attracting serious film fans. The audience sat in absolute silence from beginning to end. There wasn't even the rustle of sweet papers. The audience was in awe. I was in awe. I've seldom seen such beautiful cinematography. All the outdoor scenes were perfectly framed. It's not the vividly colourful scenery that I'm used to in the films of Zhang Yimou; it's very natural scenery which looks realistic but beautiful.

Nevertheless, I had big problems with the film. I didn't understand everything that was happening. The main plot was clear to me. There is tension between the central government and the rebellious border outposts. Nie Yinniang is a highly skilled assassin who deals death blows with a short dagger that resembles a claw, but she has problems performing her job when she's sent to kill her cousin, a corrupt government official that she was once engaged to. However, various people appear in the film that I can't explain. There's an old man who performs black magic. There's a woman in a gold mask. There are rebels who like to bury visitors alive. Soldiers were battling, and I couldn't tell whose side they were on. The film is based on a story written in the 9th Century, so maybe the film would be obvious to people from China who know the story.

I need help with the film. I'm hoping that one of my Chinese readers can write a summary of the film's plot in the comments.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2 Stars)

When a film has a title like this it just has to be seen, doesn't it?

I read Jane Austen's novel "Pride and Prejudice" when I was a teenager. It's been adapted as a film several times, but I've never watched any of the film versions, so I can barely remember the story. I just recall that it was about the genteel like of the English nobility. Supposedly the plot of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" closely follows Jane Austen's novel, apart from zombies being added to the story.

The Bennet family has five daughters that the parents want to marry into good families. Any prospective suitors must be handsome, well-mannered and rich. The Bennet sisters are certainly ideal partners for any man. All five have been trained as zombie hunters. The oldest daughter, Elisabeth, was trained in China, while the other four were trained in Japan. There seems to be some prejudice against Chinese fighting arts, but this isn't fully explained.

Several men arrive in the area where the sisters live and vie for their affections. Colonel Darcy is arrogant, but a highly skilled zombie hunter. Parson Collins is a newly appointed priest. Mr. Bingley is the owner of a nearby mansion. Mr. Wickham is a soldier. The men have secrets in their past that disguise their true motives.

The film's premise is its greatest weakness. The good manners and the understated passions of the main characters slow the film's action to a crawl. If the film had departed further from the style of the original novel it would have been more exciting. Instead of this I found the film's characters annoying, especially the men. The only thing I found positive was the performance of Matt Smith as Parson Collins. His hilariously awkward mannerisms show that he has the talent to become a great comedy actor.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Mermaid (4 Stars)

I'm happy that Cineworld in Birmingham has decided to show more Chinese films. This is the fourth Chinese film in four weeks, and I hope that there will be more. The film that made the difference was "Ip Man 3". It was shown for two days at Christmas, but it was such a success that it was brought back for another two weeks in January, something I have never before seen at Cineworld. I went to see it again at the end of the second week, and the cinema was still packed, most of the viewers being young Chinese people. There's a large Chinese community in Birmingham, and now Cineworld management has woken up to the fact that they can make money by showing Chinese films. "From Vegas to Macau 3", "Monkey King 2" and "The Mermaid" followed in quick succession.

"The Mermaid" is a film directed by Stephen Chow, well known for his zany comedies like "Shaolin Soccer" and "Kung Fu Hustle". Usually he also appears as an actor in his films, but not this time.

The film's plot is serious, very serious indeed, but it's presented as a comedy with repeated slapstick scenes. Liau Xuan is a Chinese billionaire who wants to make a holiday theme park to rival Disneyworld. He buys an off shore gulf for the project, which he intends to reclaim from the sea. Fearing a reaction from conservationists if he kills fish by lowering the sea level in the gulf, he places underwater sonars to drive away the marine life. Unknown to him, the gulf is home to a tribe of merpeople. The sonars don't drive them away, it makes them sick and kills many of them. They decide to protect themselves by sending a beautiful mermaid called Shan to the surface to seduce and kill Xuan. He can't resist Shan's charms, and the plan looks like it would succeed, except for one little problem. Shan falls in love with Xuan and is unable to kill him.

This is a fantasy epic that ticks all the right boxes. Action, big budget special effects, romance and an enviromental message, all coated with ridiculous comedy.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Deadpool (5 Stars)

For months this has been touted as an R-Rated superhero movie, the American equivalent of what we call an X-rated film in England. However, in England it only has a 15 certificate, since bad language and crude jokes aren't judged as inappropriate as they are in the USA. Maybe they should have added more explicit violence and nudity to get the rating they were aiming for. Or maybe the jokes should have been even cruder. In an interview Ryan Reynolds, the leading actor, stated that a lot of racist jokes had been cut, and he said that he wasn't even allowed to tell us what they were.

For me the supposedly adult nature of the film wasn't an issue. The constant humorous banter of Deadpool reminded me of the way Spider-Man and the pre-Frank Miller Daredevil used to constantly joke when they were facing villains. Maybe their jokes weren't as crude, but the style was similar. In fact, I would say that no other film has captured the style of comic books as much as "Deadpool".

I'll refrain from summarising the film's plot in this review. I'll just point out that there are three superheroes in the film: Deadpool, Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead. Let's take them in the chronological order of their appearance in Marvel's comics.

Colossus first appeared in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 in 1975. He's a Russian mutant who has the power to transform his body into metal. It looks like steel, but as far as I can remember the exact metal wasn't specified. Despite his great strength, he was always a background character in the X-Men comics, for the following 10 years at least. The story arcs were about Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde and Rogue. I don't think the writers knew what to do with Colossus, and his character was never fleshed out.

Deadpool first appeared in New Mutants #98 in 1991. That was a comic that I didn't read on a regular basis. I can't remember when I first encountered Deadpool in a comic. I only remember that he was a villain who had been given his super powers by the same organisation that had experimented on Wolverine. He later became a superhero, or rather an anti-hero, a man who had no qualms about killing his enemies.

Negasonic Teenage Warhead first appeared in New X-Men #115 in 2001. By that time I had given up reading Marvel comics altogether, so I know nothing about her. I just know that she has a really cool name.

Stan "The Man" Lee does a brief cameo as a DJ. That's interesting. Originally he only did cameos in the films of characters that he created himself, but even since "Guardians of the Galaxy" he's been appearing in all Marvel films. Not that I'm complaining. I'm always glad to see him.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Dad's Army (2 Stars)

When this film was announced, a big budget remake of the vintage British TV series, most of my friends groaned. They said that it would be awful and sully the memory of a great British sitcom. I was more positive. I looked at the advance posters and I was impressed by the similarity between the new actors and the original cast. I defended the remake. I told my friends that they shouldn't expect anything new, just a piece of nostalgia.

I should have listened to my friends. I realised within the first 15 minutes that something was wrong, and it was easy to see what it was. The nostalgia was missing. There was a team of competent lookalikes, all of them good actors, but the spirit of the original was missing. The film is obviously pitched at people who know the original series, because none of the characters are introduced. It's assumed from the beginning that we know who's who, which was certainly the case for me.

The film would have been better if it had been bold enough to imitate the original series even more, in fact the screenwriters should have plagiarised the original, pulling scenes out of individual episodes to make people laugh. The film that I saw today didn't make me laugh.

The most positive thing in the film is Catherine Zeta-Jones as the alluring Nazi spy Rose Winters. Her sex appeal is subtle and understated. She's a splash of colour in the drab wartime coastal town, Walmington-on-Sea. The old men in the home guard are excited when they get a glimpse of her knee, and they turn to jelly when she flatters them. That's quaint. Only the women in the town can see through her wiles. However, she isn't enough to save the film. It's an all-round poor effort.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Finding Bliss (4 Stars)

After watching "Heavens Fall" three days ago, this is the second film I've watched starring Leelee Sobieski. I'm not watching them in order. Not at the moment anyway. I might put the rest of the films in order. I'll decide as I go along. Maybe I should number them, in case I decide to take the ordering seriously.

This is the 25th film starring Leelee Sobieski, made in 2009.

There, I did my duty. I've also added the number of "Heavens Fall" to the end of my post. The more I think about it, the more I want to watch the remaining films in order, though not necessarily back to back.

This is a romantic comedy that follows the standard rules of the genre.
  1. Girl meets boy.
  2. The girl doesn't like the boy, but as time goes on she grows to like him.
  3. Girl and boy go different ways. (Sometimes geographically, sometimes she returns to an ex-lover).
  4. Girl realises she can't live without the boy and returns to him.
I realise that a lot of people don't like romantic comedies, but I do, as long as they're well made. "Finding Bliss" is definitely a well-crafted film, though it's set against a sleazy background.

Jody Balaban (Leelee Sobieski) dreams of becoming a big film director. She finishes film school top of her class. She moves to Hollywood with a semi-autobiographical screenplay in her hand, hoping that after finding acceptance as a screenwriter she will be allowed to direct. It's not that easy. Hollywood is full of young people looking to make it big, and nobody even reads her screenplay.

Jody replies to a newspaper ad looking for a film editor, not realising that it's a studio that makes porn films. She decides to take the job, because she can use the studio's equipment to make her own film after hours. The porn actors from the studio appear in her film without payment because they all want to break through into serious acting.

So who is the love interest? It's the studio's director, Jeff Drake, played by Matt Davis, best known for playing the part of Alaric Saltzman in "The Vampire Diaries". He studied at the same film school as Jody. He too came to Hollywood wanting to become a big director, but he chose to make porn films because it paid the bills. Jody is disgusted with Jeff because he's totally disillusioned, saying that art is worthless but porn makes money. As the film continues the relationship moves through the four stages named above.

This is a remarkable film with excellent performances by the main actors. It's full of clich├ęs, but that's what is to be expected from romantic comedies.

They say that a picture speaks louder than a thousand words, so here are more than 12,000 words worth of screenshots of the Magnificent Leelee, all taken from the film.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Django Unchained (5 Stars)

This is the film I decided to watch on Valentine's Day. What does it have to do with this special day of the year? Absolutely nothing. I've never cared much for Valentine's Day. When I was in school I always bought a card for whoever I happened to be dating on February 14th. None of my relationships lasted from one year to the next. In fact, while I was at school the longest relationship I had with a girl was two months, and most of the relationships were much shorter.

I can't remember how many girlfriends I had before I got married. There were so many of them. I didn't do one-night stands, that wasn't my thing, but none of my steady relationships lasted long. Looking back with the wisdom of my later life, I can understand why there were so many. In my teens and early twenties I had long blond hair, so I was a pretty boy. Because I had so many girlfriends the girls in the local schools were fascinated by me. They thought I must be experienced, something special, so as soon as I was single girls were queuing up to grab me. They were so wrong. The reason that I had so many girlfriends was because as soon as a girl was with me she discovered how unpleasant I was. In my younger years I was a difficult person, to say the least. I wasn't deliberately nasty, but I was so mixed up in my head that it wasn't easy for girls to put up with me. I didn't know what I wanted. It wasn't just a prolonged puberty, I was trying to suppress desires which I considered to be wrong. It wasn't until I was 22 that I learnt to accept myself as I was.

I'm single now. That isn't for the same reasons as in my youth. Since my mid-20's I've been married twice, and I've had one relationship that was marriage-like, i.e. we were living together for a few years. When I was young it was always the girl who left me, but I was the one who walked out of all three of my more recent serious relationships against the wishes of the woman. Both of my ex-wives would still take me back. In all three cases the woman I was living with was severely flawed.

Brigitte was outwardly cold and incapable of expressing emotion.

Leslie was a slut who wanted an open relationship involving other men.

Nicola was a crack addict who loved drugs more than me.

Of course, none of them were like that when I first met them. I dated Brigitte for almost two years before we got married, and she was very romantic. Things changed very soon afterwards. She seemed to have preconceived ideas about what a marriage should be like, based on what she saw in her parents' life. She wanted a routine and stability, not passion and romance. I wanted a woman I could hold hands with and kiss on the cheek, but Brigitte didn't consider that appropriate for a married couple.

When I first met Leslie she admitted that in the past she had had wild sex, both with individuals and groups of men, but she said it was over. Maybe the reason that it was over wasn't because she didn't want it, it was because she didn't have the opportunity. When we first moved together I was out of work for a long time, almost a year. That was terrible for me, but Leslie looked after me financially. When I finally found work she quit her job to get a college degree. She enrolled at a college, but could do most of her studying at home. It wasn't until much later that I realised she wasn't studying, she'd quit after a few months because it was too tough for her. During this time she started to see other men while I was at work. I found evidence on her computer that there were 30 men in the last eight months we were together, but I suspect there were others before then. In retrospect I can see the clues, but I was too naive at the time. For instance, she sometimes asked me if I wanted to do a threesome with her and another man, but I turned it down. When I finally found out about the 30 men, including three men she was still seeing, she said she loved me and begged me to stay with her. Slut.

Nicola didn't use drugs when I first met her. She smoked cigarettes, which should have been a warning sign for me, but nothing stronger. I hate smoking, but Brigitte had smoked when we first met and gave it up for me, so I expected the same from Nicola. The problems with hard drugs started when we had been married for two years. One of Nicola's friends, Sharon, was in between accommodation and stayed with us while she was waiting to move into her new apartment. It was only for one week, but it was fatal. Sharon's boyfriend, Alexis Thomas, sold drugs. Nicola decided to try a few things, including crack and heroin. "Just trying" became an addiction within a week. Over the next two years she tried repeatedly to give up crack, but she couldn't do it. I loved her and wanted to support her, but one incident showed me it was impossible. On one evening she wanted to buy crack from Alexis. I refused to let him come into the house. Nicola was unable to walk at the time, so she couldn't go out to him. (She had jumped out of a first floor window while she was high and broken her leg). Because of this she rang the police and told them I had assaulted her. The police came and found no evidence that I had hit her, but they took me to the police station to keep the peace, as they described it. When I returned home the next day Nicola showed no remorse. She said it was my own fault that I'd been arrested because I hadn't allowed her "friend" to visit her. I was scared that the next time she accused me of assault the police might believe her, so I made her leave as soon as I found her a place in a hostel.

Maybe there are good women out there. I don't really care. I'm not looking. After suffering so much, three times over, I'm not willing to take another risk. Of the three, it's probably Brigitte who hurt me the most. I still see her occasionally, but after all this time she still doesn't know why I left her. I've told her, again and again, but it's like she has a mental block. I've told her that I left her because she didn't love me, but she doesn't believe this was the reason, and she thinks it's an excuse for something else. During the 15 years we lived together she only said the simple words "I love you" twice, on December 31st 1982 and May 9th 1983. She doesn't see that as a problem and finds it ridiculous that I remember the dates. Those were special dates for me. I'll always remember them.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Heavens Fall (3 Stars)

"Guilty or not guilty, let's get rid of them niggers".

As I've frequently mentioned in this blog, my favourite actress is Leelee Sobieski. She has talent that far surpasses any other Hollywood actresses alive today, but she's hampered by her appearance. She's too tall and not as petite as the typical Hollywood starlet. Unfortunately, she seems to be taking a break from acting to concentrate on her family. I hope she will return to making films when her children are older. For now, I've decided to watch all her films again, even the ones that I've judged badly in the past. Rather than watch them all in order -- I own 27 of her films on DVD -- I've just added them to my pile of films to re-watch, a pile which now contains 90 films. I seem to be adding films to the pile faster than I'm watching them.

I only gave "Heavens Fall" two stars when I first reviewed it. That was back in September 2010, the month I started my blog. I've rated it slightly higher this time. My problem with the film is that it's a courtroom drama, and courtrooms are very dull places. It's more difficult to make a film interesting if it's set in a courtroom than any other place on Earth. This film only partially succeeds.

"Heavens Fall" is the true story of the first appeal in the Scottsboro Boys case, one of the most famous legal battles in America in the 20th Century. On March 25th, 1931 nine young black men were accused of raping two white women on a train in Scottsboro, Alabama. All nine were found guilty and sentenced to death. There were widespread reports that the trial wasn't fair, so the American Communist Party took up their cause and asked a New York lawyer to defend them in their appeal. Even though the lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, wasn't a Communist himself, the retrial was treated as a Communist conspiracy in the South.

One of the biggest problems for the case was that black men weren't allowed to serve on juries. Samuel Leibowitz attempted unsuccessfully to get black men on the jury for the appeal. He was told that negroes aren't suitable for jury service because most of them are uneducated, and those who are educated have bad characters.

During the appeal Leibowitz exposed the one woman, Victoria Price (played by Leelee Sobieski) as an absolute liar, even in things unrelated to the case. She wasn't even able to tell the truth about her age. The other woman, Ruby Bates, retracted her testimony from the first trial, and said that neither she nor Victoria had been raped. Ruby said that she had lied in court because Victoria told her to. Nevertheless, the jury decided unanimously that the nine men were guilty. After the verdict was read the judge took the unprecedented step of refusing to accept the jury's verdict. He declared a mistrial and said there would be a new trial.

On the one hand I admire Judge Horton for acting according to his conscience. It was obvious to him that the all-white jury had ignored the evidence and found the men guilty because of their skin colour. On the other hand, aren't judges bound to accept the decision of the jury by law, whatever their personal opinions? This had repercussions for him. He was never allowed to preside over any court case again.

There were several appeals and re-trials over the next 20 years. None of the men were executed, but only one of them was pardoned after serving 40 years in prison.The other eight died in prison.

This is the 18th film starring Leelee Sobieski, made in 2006. It isn't her best role. She plays a heartless, almost inhuman person. I'm sure this is an accurate portrayal of the real Victoria Price, but she's a very unpleasant person.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Tommy (5 Stars)

I'm always very cautious about buying Blu-ray versions of films that I already own on DVD. It's something I only do with films that I consider to be my favourites. Even then it's not always worth it. For instance, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" looks identical on DVD and Blu-ray, due to the (deliberately) grainy film picture. Other films, like the original version of "Planet of the Apes", have new life breathed into them. "Tommy" falls into the latter category. When I'm deciding whether to re-buy a film that I already have I use the web site for advice. Of course, if I'm buying a film for the first time it has to be on Blu-ray. Why would anyone possibly prefer DVDs in today's day and age?

Due in part to the wonderful Blu-ray quality, I now think that "Tommy" is one of the best films ever made. Yes, it was already included in my list of 30 films to watch before you die, but now I'll push it up into my top 10. I'm not claiming that I understand everything. I've searched online for interpretations of the film, and none of them are satisfying. On the contrary, most of the reviewers seem to understand it less than me, because they see it as an adaptation of the Who's rock opera, rather than accepting that it's Ken Russell's own film using the Who's music.

Ken Russell's "Tommy" is the story of a man who became a Messiah who abandoned his religion when it spun out of control. It's impossible to interpret the film at all without seeing to parallels to Christianity, but I have the feeling that Ken Russell is trying to say something that goes further. Baptism doesn't save people. Tommy baptises his mother, and her life changes outwardly, but inside she's still the same person. This is even more the case with Tommy's step-father Frank. He becomes the leader of the new religion, but he's still a cruel, evil man.

Today was the first time that I became aware that the film ends with Tommy becoming one with his father, Captain Walker. I don't know how to interpret this. The obvious connection would be Jesus' relationship to God as his father when he walked the Earth, but I don't think that Captain Walker is godly enough to allow this comparison. Apart from this, it wouldn't fit in at this late stage of the film. It would have been more appropriate earlier in the film when Tommy was teaching his disciples, but at that time Tommy was just telling them to copy his own life. Maybe it's just Tommy embarking on a new path of spirituality, wanting to learn instead of teach. Does even the Messiah know everything?

This is a wonderful film. I'd like to watch it in a group and discuss it afterwards.

This is probably the film's most bizarre scene. A guitar-playing Frankenstein's monster marries a little girl in a traditional Christian church while the police hold back the crowds. What was Ken Russell thinking? The girl is played by Ken's daughter Victoria, who was 12 years old at the time.

From Vegas to Macau 3 (4 Stars)

What did I just see? This is probably the most insane film I've ever seen. It's not the sort of madness that you find in Japanese films such as the ones made by Sion Sono. That's madness that makes sense. "From Vegas to Macau 3" contains random elements that make no sense at all. I'll do my best to describe the film, but I fear I might have misunderstood things in the general chaos.

Ko Chun is known as the God of Gamblers. The film begins with the wedding of his only daughter. This breaks his heart, because his daughter is the only person he truly loves. (I assume his wife was killed in one of the previous films). His best friend Ken hypnotises him to believe that it's his cousine getting married instead. Now Ko is happy, but it confuses people when he talks about his cousine's marriage at the reception. Unfortunately the wedding turns into a tragedy. A walking bomb disguised as a wedding guest explodes, killing the bride and driving Ko temporarily insane.

Ko is invited to the birthday party of an arms dealer called J.C. who is suspected of being responsible for the bomb. He is in no state to go to the party, so Ken uses a universal transformer to make himself look like Ko and go to the party in his place. Casino games with stakes as high as $300 million are being played at the party. Ken is unable to gamble as skilfully as Ko, but he hypnotises everyone to see the cards and dice that he wants them to see.

We soon find out the reason for J.C. killing Ko's daughter. In the previous film J.C.'s lover Molly fell out of a plane, for which he blames Ko. Molly is being held alive in a large tank full of fluid. J.C. intends to use his party as an opportunity to kill Ko, not realising that it's really Ken.

That summary might not sound overly crazy, but there are so many random things happening. There are robots who fall in love with one another. There is kung fu fighting. There are cream pie fights. There are dinosaurs. One man has to fight eight identical clones of himself. A high security prison is attacked by a paramilitary force. Every now and then everyone stops fighting and breaks into song, as if this were a Bollywood film.

The film is confusing, but it's very good. Now I want to see the first two parts.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Skeleton Key (4 Stars)

Caroline Ellis is a young woman who takes a job as a live-in carer while trying to save enough money to go to college. She has to look after an old man who has had a stroke. He is now unable to walk or talk. Soon after she arrives Caroline realises that the old man is mentally aware and trying to communicate. She suspects that he's somehow been made an invalid by his wife.

The skeleton key in the film's title has only a small significance in the plot. I suppose that the screenwriter and director couldn't think of an original title based on the main plot elements alone, so they picked this name in desperation. The skeleton key is a key given to Caroline which opens all the door's in large house where the man and his wife live. It doesn't even make sense that she was given the key. They could just have given her a front door key and left all the inside doors unlocked, apart from the ones where she wasn't supposed to go. Caroline does go snooping. She goes into the attic and finds evidence of occult rituals. She thinks that it's voodoo -- the film takes place in Louisiana -- but she's told that it's hoodoo, an even darker form of magic.

The film is difficult for me to rate. I find it scary, but aesthetically it's not very appealing. The people and the surroundings are unattractive. This is deliberate, of course, but it isn't what I expected when I decided to watch the film. "The Skeleton Key" was a big box office success, but it was poorly rated by critics. As usual, I side with the public, not the professional film critics. Nevertheless, I feel that I need to watch it again to make a better decision.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Don't look now (5 Stars)

I've waited a long time for this film to be remastered and released on Blu-ray. Too long. All the previous versions had sound that was so distorted that it was sometimes difficult to understand the dialogue.Even the (supposedly) remastered DVD in 2006 had the same poor sound quality. Now it's finally been put right. This has been one of my favourite films, ever since I first saw it more than 30 years ago, and now I can finally enjoy it.

John Baxter is an architect who specialises in the restoration of old buildings. He leads a comfortably wealthy life with his wife Laura, which is disrupted when their daughter Christine accidentally drowns. A few years later they travel to Venice, where John has to restore an old Catholic church that has been eroded by the damp air. We don't see Venice as the beautiful city that was shown in the more recent film, "The Tourist". It's a cold, ugly city, where the waterways are menacing rather than attractive. Moreover, it's a confusing maze of alleys and bridges.

While in Venice they meet two elderly sisters from England. One of them is blind, but she has psychic gifts. She says that she can see Christine sitting with them, and she even describes the coat she was wearing when she died. Laura clings to this as a comfort after her loss. John is sceptical, suspecting that the sisters are fraudsters, but then he sees Christine running round the city, always at a distance. He chases Christine, getting lost in the maze, despite warnings from the blind sister that his life is in danger.

This is a beautiful gothic ghost story. The film editing might seem chaotic at first, with the camera angle constantly changing, and even events that happen at different times being alternated, but it adds to the allure of the film. I wouldn't say that "Don't look now" qualifies as a horror film, but it gives the viewer an uneasy feeling of dread from beginning to end.

Death Proof (5 Stars)

The pre-title scene in "Death Proof" tells us what the film is about: cars and feet. More accurately, it's about men's cars and women's feet. In the second half of the film two women (Lee and Abernathy) agree that fast cars are a replacement for male inadequacy. That may be the case, but even if it is it's not enough. In the end the women prove that they can drive cars faster and harder.

Incidentally, if you like to use films as an excuse for drinking games, here's one you can play when you watch "Death Proof". Every time you see a woman's toes drink a shot. If you're still sober by the end of the film you must have been cheating.

Julie is a radio DJ who calls herself Jungle Julie. The film doesn't give us any examples of her music, but she certainly has beautiful feet.

Kurt Russell thinks Abernathy's feet need to be examined up close. It must be fantastic being an actor. He actually gets paid for doing that?

Arlene, also known as Butterfly, puts her foot in a dangerously close position, but Kurt doesn't complain. Whatever his inadequacies, he's smart enough to know a good thing when he sees it.

In "Death Proof" Zoe Bell doesn't just play herself in name, she really is herself. In this scene it's obvious that she isn't just making a film, she's having the time of her life. It's the dream of any stuntwoman to ride the front of a high speed car. She's riding the beast.

As everyone who has seen the film knows, it's in two parts. I like the first part, but the second part, set in Lebanon, Tennessee, is one of Quentin Tarantino's greatest achievements. The conversation between the girls (especially after Zoe's arrival) is sheer brilliance. The final car chase is the best I've ever seen. My only regret is that it doesn't last longer. The longest car chase in a film is 40 minutes, in "Gone in 60 seconds". I wish Quentin Tarantino had decided to set a new record.

Zoolander 2 (4 Stars)

Normally I would groan when a sequel is made 15 years after the original film. It seems too much like an act of desperation to get people into the cinemas. However, I do have faith in Ben Stiller, especially as a director. He's someone who takes risks and gets things right. I even like "Cable Guy", which is generally considered to be his worst film. Apart from this, I read that Ben Stiller wanted to make "Zoolander 2" for years, but he didn't do it because he was waiting for a suitable script.

It seems that not many people have the same faith in Ben Stiller's judgement as me. Only four members of the Birmingham film group decided to see the film with me. Actually there were five, but one of them didn't turn up because he fell asleep on the sofa. Life is hard.

I don't think that "Zoolander 2" is quite up to the quality of the original, but it's still a very good film. When a sequel is made to a comedy film the temptation is to repeat the same jokes. See the second Austin Powers film for an example of this.This was only partially the case with "Zoolander 2". A few of the original jokes were repeated, enough to make me feel comfortable and accept it as a sequel, but most of the humour was new. Overall, the film went in a new direction. The first film was all about exposing the shallowness of the fashion industry. In the second film this subject is only mentioned in passing. Instead of this we have an epic battle between good and evil.

That's all I'll say about the plot. My recommendation to my readers is that if you enjoyed "Zoolander" you'll probably like "Zoolander 2" as well, even though it's a different film. If you didn't enjoy "Zoolander" this probably isn't a film for you, but give it a try anyway, you might like it. If you've never watched "Zoolander" I suggest that you watch it first. There are enough references to the first film to make "Zoolander 2" slightly confusing if you don't know the original.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Zoolander (4 Stars)

"I'm pretty sure there's more to life than being really, really good looking".

The fashion industry is so shallow that it's difficult not to make fun of it. Sacha Baron Cohen did it in "Bruno" (2009). But before then Ben Stiller did it just as effectively in "Zoolander" (2001).

Ben Stiller stars as Derek Zoolander, a man who has been named the Male Model of the Year four years in a row. When he fails to win the award the next year, the prize going to his rival Hansel (Owen Wilson), his world falls apart. He's vulnerable to attacks from people who want to exploit him. The fashion company executive Jacob Moogberg (Will Ferrell), better known as Mugatu, hires him to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia, who wants to abolish child labour in his country. Without child labour Mugatu's clothes can't be manufactured as cheaply and his profits will fall.

The film features cameos from a multitude of celebrities appearing as themselves. One of them is David Bowie. Rest in peace.

Another is Donald Trump, who is now campaigning to become the American president. He has gained a lot of support by populist rhetoric, aided by the current fear of terrorism by Islamic extremists. He over-generalises when he judges people, as all populists do. He also polarises opinions sharply. People love him or they hate him, there's no middle ground. Recently one of my oldest friends unfriended me on Facebook because I called Donald Trump stupid. Maybe I was wrong to use that word, I'm sure he's a highly educated man, but he has many viewpoints which I consider to be stupid. For instance, he says that in order to protect America from terror attacks no Moslems should be allowed to enter the country. Judging everyone who carries the label "Moslem" is an act of bigotry. Not all Moslems are terrorists, and more importantly, not all Moslems are Moslems. What I mean by that is that Islam is part of the racial identity of many people, for instance Pakistanis. I have many Pakistani friends who don't read the Koran or visit a mosque. They have no interest in religion at all, but they carry on calling themselves Moslems because it's what they think is expected of them. This is in contrast to British people in England who have no problem in saying they aren't Christians. Donald Trump doesn't understand this.

I first watched "Zoolander" with my friend Tamara, and I'll always associate the film with her. We were lying entwined on her sofa watching the film, but like a good film fan I didn't let myself get too distracted. We've known each other for nine years. I've always liked her, but she's temperamental and frequently turns against me, later forgetting what she was angry about. I'd do anything for her if she needed me. We still talk occasionally, but we're not as close as we used to be. I don't know if she reads my blog. In case she does, she should leave a comment on this post to tell me what she thinks of me.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Atomised (4 Stars)

This is a German film with the original title "Elementarteilchen", which means "Atomic particles". It's based on a novel with the same name written by the French author Michel Houellebecq. Since I had problems understanding the message the film wants to give I read a summary of the book. It seems to me that the novel is a deep philosophical work that talks about modern man caught in the battle between Christianity and science, frustrated because they both claim to give answers but neither succeeds. This element is completely missing from the film. The book's main characters and their lives are portrayed in a vacuum, without the book's underlying message. What remains is a family drama interlaced with black comedy.

Bruno was born in Berlin in the 1950's. His mother went to India to join a commune shortly after his birth, after which his father committed suicide, so he was adopted by his grandmother. His mother visited him once a year but showed no emotion towards him. When he was 18 his mother told him for the first time that she had another son, Michael, aged 17, who had lived with another grandmother in Berlin all this time. The two half-brothers met and became friends, united in their disdain for their mother.

20 years later Bruno and Michael have taken different paths, but they're still close friends. Bruno is married with a young child, but he's obsessed with sex, having a series of one-night stands outside of his marriage. He's chosen a career as a senior school literature teacher because he wants to be surrounded by teenage girls. Michael is still a virgin, and he is working in a research laboratory trying to find a way to reproduce human beings without sex.

Bruno suffers a mental breakdown after a 17-year-old girl in his class rejects him. His wife leaves him, he loses his job, and he spends the next few months in and out of mental institutions. Michael stands by him in his time of crisis. Then both brothers fall in love at the same time. Michael reunites with his childhood sweetheart, Annabelle, who is still single because she has always loved Michael. Bruno meets Christiane, a woman in an esoteric holiday camp who shares his obsession with sex, although they rarely have sex with one another; they prefer to watch one another having sex with other people.

Both relationships go badly. Christiane has advanced cell decay in her spinal cord, which leads to her becoming paralysed from the waist down. Annabelle becomes pregnant from her first sex with Michael, but she had previously been warned that she should never get pregnant. The baby is aborted, but there are further complications that mean her womb has to be removed, and even after this she's so weak that she could die at any time. The two brothers are both left with disabled lovers. It can't get any worse, can it? Actually it can. I've given away most of the plot, but the two brothers and their lovers sink deeper into the abyss.

The film's humour is very morbid. We're invited to laugh at sickness, death and even taboo subjects like incest. I don't mind morbid humour. I can laugh at anything. What disturbs me is that the film is inconsistent. After comedy scenes there are long portions of serious drama. Then, eventually, the jokes are packed into the film one after another. I would have enjoyed the film more if the humour had been spread more evenly.

Nevertheless, the film has its strong points. The film features some of Germany's biggest stars, and they don't let us down, making the madness and the suffering of their characters completely credible. This isn't a masterpiece, in my opinion, but it's worth watching as an example of powerful German cinema.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Donnie Darko (5 Stars)

"Every living creature on this Earth dies alone".

This is one of the best films ever made. If I were asked to name my favourite films of all time I would put this in second place, after "Lost Highway". The two films are similar as far as the underlying plot is concerned, even though there are big differences on the surface.

In my review in November last year I said I would give the Director's Cut another chance. I've watched the original version repeatedly over the last 12 years, but I only watched the director's cut once after buying it. It seemed weaker to me. Today I've finally returned to it after at least 10 years.

After watching it again today I no longer consider the director's cut inferior to the original version. It's different, but not inferior. I think that I disliked the director's cut when I first saw it because it took all the mystery away. When people saw the original version it wasn't 100% obvious what was happening. People argued about the interpretation, just as they still argue about the meaning of "Lost Highway" today. In the case of "Donnie Darko" help was offered. The DVD extra features included excerpts from Roberta Sparrow's book, "The Philosophy of Time Travel". This text explained a lot. It put a lot of arguments to rest. It could be argued that it's wrong to make a film that can only be understood after reading a book in the DVD extras, but it wasn't a problem to me.

The director's cut explains the film to the viewers within the film itself. At critical points excerpts from the book are shown on the screen. Now it's easier for everyone to understand the film. I must have found it too easy when I first saw the director's cut. That's why I disliked it.

Apart from the addition of text from Roberta Sparrow's book the changes are subtle. There are a few new scenes, but mostly the existing scenes are longer. There are frequently one or two lines of dialogue that are cut from the original theatrical version. It looks like the cuts were only made to shorten the overall running time, not to streamline the film. Adding the extra lines helps, with the sole exception of Dr. Thurman admitting that Donnie's medication is placebos. That doesn't make sense to me. Yes, I know he's not really ill when he says that he sees the giant rabbit, but he was diagnosed as mentally disturbed prior to Frank's appearance.

At some time in the near future I'll try to watch the two versions on the same day to make a better comparison.