Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Blazing Saddles (5 Stars)

I decided to watch this film today in remembrance of Gene Wilder, who died two days ago. After "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" this is probably the film for which he is best known. Ironically, he almost didn't appear in it. Mel Brooks invited his friend Gene to play the part of Hedley Lamarr, but Gene turned it down and Harvey Korman stepped in. The role of the Waco Kid was offered to John Wayne, who turned it down because he didn't think it fitted his clean cut image. John Wayne? Wow! That would have made it a very different film. Gig Young stepped in to play the Waco Kid, but he collapsed after one day of filming, presumably as a result of alcohol withdrawal. The film was in danger of cancellation, so Gene offered to take over the role. The rest is history. Gene Wilder's Waco Kid became the coolest, most laid back gunslinger in film history.

Gene Wilder was a last minute addition to the film cast, and in the film the Waco Kid is a last minute, almost accidental addition to the law enforcement team of the town of Rock Ridge. When Bart takes over as sheriff he finds the Kid in one of the cells, presumably locked up for being drunk in the saloon. The first we see of him is hanging upside down from the bunk bed. He might be a drunk, but he's a good man, and he's still the fastest gun in the West. Bart might be the duly elected sheriff, but without the Waco Kid as his deputy he wouldn't be able to defend the town from the thugs attempting to destroy it.

The Waco Kid is so calm and relaxed throughout the whole film that Gene Wilder could be accused of under-acting. However, fans of this film know that his performance was perfect. Gene's casual, hardly-even-there approach to the role is part of what made "Blazing Saddles" a masterpiece.

Gene Wilder
June 11, 1933 – August 29, 2016

The Shallows (4 Stars)

Nancy Adams was studying medicine. When her mother died of cancer she decided that medicine is useless and she dropped out of university. She travelled alone to the beach in Mexico where her mother first found out that she was pregnant. She spent the day swimming and surfing on the giant waves.

Nancy soon realises that there's a shark in the water. It's too far to return to the beach, so she swims to a small rock jutting out of the water. As the day turns to night and the night turns to day she realises that she's trapped, unable to escape because the shark is circling her, waiting for a chance to snatch her.

This is a minimalist film with only a shred of a plot. The strength is in the film's atmosphere. Especially the final scenes in the film, as the evening high tide threatens to submerge the rock, are pure terror.

Maybe the film is scarier for me than for most people. As a child I never learnt how to swim. It wasn't for lack of trying. In junior school there were weekly swimming lessons. In senior school, when I was 11, there was also swimming once a week, mostly used for water polo, but my teacher ignored me, allowing me to hang onto the side and watch the rest of the class. That changed when I was 14. There was a new teacher who was convinced that everyone can swim. There were three boys in my class who couldn't swim, me and two others, and the teacher concentrated all his efforts on us. First one boy learnt how to swim; then the second; at the end of the school year I was the only boy in my class who still couldn't swim. In the next school year the teacher ignored me, like the previous teacher, realising that I could never swim. And then when I was in sixth form (age 16) swimming was optional, so I wasn't forced into the water any more.

Nothing happened for about 20 years. Then my children began to swim. My wife urged me to learn how to swim so that I could go to the swimming baths with them. I believe that my sons were 8 and 5 years old at the time. I was reluctant at first, but my wife could be very persuasive. I began lessons with a swimming instructor that I had to pay for. He was very patient with me. He needed to be. He was older than me, over 60, but he was a powerful swimmer. It amazed me that he could glide so fast in the water while hardly moving his arms or legs. I also thought to myself, "If that old man can swim so easily why can't I?" Eventually, after a few months of practice, I was able to swim a whole length of the swimming baths. Then two lengths. I never managed three lengths at a time, it was too exhausting, but I felt I had achieved something.

I rarely go swimming nowadays, but I know I can swim. Short distances, at least. I'm not a strong swimmer. I can swim in a swimming pool, but I could never swim in the ocean. Being in the open water like Nancy would terrify me, even without a shark. It would be suicide for me to even attempt it. Water is a foreign element to me. I don't belong there.

"The Shallows" is a good film. Maybe not perfect. I found it annoying when Nancy spent time talking to herself, because it was obvious she was only doing it to explain to the viewers what she was doing. It seemed unnatural. There must have been another way to explain things with a better script and better directing.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Shinjuku Incident (4½ Stars)

"30% is fate, the rest is battle. If you want to win you have to love to fight".

Illegal immigrants. What do we think about when we hear those words? In America it's Mexicans crawling across the border. In Germany it's boat people pretending they're refugees. In England it's Africans who throw stones at trucks as they pass through Calais. "Shinjuku Incident" presents another type of illegal immigrant. We see Chinese immigrants travelling to Japan by boat.

In the late 1990's, when this film is set, the illegal immigration from China was at a peak. Poor Chinese peasants were desperate for medicine, which was only available to townspeople. Nearby Japan seemed like a paradise, a land where everyone has enough to eat and everyone received medical treatment.

Jackie Chan plays Steelhead, a relatively successful farmer in northern China. Normally he wouldn't be interested in going to China, but when he finds out that his girlfriend Xiu Xiu has run away to Japan he joins other men from his village on the next illegal boat. The boat sinks after hitting rocks near the shore, and Steelhead swims ashore with the other survivors. Together they make their way to Tokyo. At first the immigrants do manual work, such as sorting the rubbish at refuse dumps. Illegal work, of course, so they have to run whenever the police arrive.

This isn't a typical role for Jackie Chan. He isn't a jovial good guy. He's a man who will do whatever he can to get by. Like Tony Montana in "Scarface", he discovers that his greatest chance of success is by allying himself with one of the gangs. First he makes money by selling fake phonecards. Then he steps up the ladder by shooting two rival gang bosses. He's given control over the Kabukicho district of Tokyo, a red light district which is also home to many Chinese immigrants.

In an interview on the Blu-ray Jacfkie Chan says that this is the first film in which he plays a bad guy. That's not quite true. In his very first film, "Enter the Dragon", Jackie Chan appears as one of Han's guards, which would make him a bad guy. But I know what Jackie means. This is his first major film role in which he stands on the wrong side of the law.

Child's Play (4 Stars)

This is the first in a series of so far six films about a killer doll called Chucky. At first it looked like it would be a film trilogy, the films being made in 1998, 1990 and 1991. Then two additional films were tagged on in 1998 and 2004. I watched these five films back to back a few years ago (before 2010 when I began this blog), and as far as I remember the fourth film was the best. Unlike other horror film series like "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" which grew stale and ran out of ideas as they continued, the Chucky films, as they are usually called, got better as they continued. A sixth film was made in 2013 which I still haven't seen, and a seventh film is planned for next year.

Six-year-old Andy Barclay loves the Good Guy cartoons on television. Now he wants a Good Guy action figure. It's two feet tall and it says three different sentences. All I can say is that when I was six I would never have asked my parents to buy me such a creepy looking doll. It would have given me nightmares standing on my shelf. But I suppose there's no accounting for taste.

Andy gets more than he bargained for. The doll is alive, and he tells Andy that his name is Chucky. How did it happen? A serial killer called Charles Lee Ray was on the run from the police. While holed up in a toy shop he was fatally wounded, but before he died he chanted a voodoo ritual which transferred his soul into the nearest object, a Good Guy doll. In his new body he carries on killing, partly to get revenge on those who wronged him, partly because it's just what he does. After the first few murders you don't need a reason to carry on. Or so they say. I can't verify it from experience. Chucky befriends Andy, but with an ulterior motive: he plans to transfer his soul into Andy's body, so he can start his life all over again.

Films about an unstoppable psychopathic killer are hardly original, but originality has never been essential to make a good film. "Child's Play" has acquired cult status among horror movie fans.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Suicide Squad (4 Stars)

Best. Film Poster. Ever.

Yes, I do love this poster. It's so cool, The mixture of psychedelic art and photography is just perfect. Having said that, I have to admit that the quality of the film itself doesn't live up to the artwork.

When I compare Marvel and DC on the screen, I have a fixed opinion. Marvel makes the best films, DC makes the best TV series. Usually when I say that to my friends it starts an argument. They're quick to name good and bad examples to contradict me. Of course, there are exceptions, but in general I consider myself right. Look at the absolutely brilliant films Marvel has made in recent years: for instance, the Iron Man trilogy, the Captain America films and "Guardians of the Galaxy". What has DC done that even comes close? The Superman films were poor. The Dark Knight trilogy was good, I admit, but it didn't reach the level of the Marvel films.

Then look at DC's recent TV series: to take just three examples, "Smallville", "Arrow" and "Gotham". They are all perfect in their own ways. "Daredevil" is very good, but it doesn't reach the level of "Arrow". "Jessica Jones" is disappointing, while "Agents of SHIELD" has a lot of promise but is uneven, some episodes succeeding better than others.

It's difficult for me to write about "Suicide Squad" without giving away spoilers, but I'll try to do my best. It's about a team of super villains assembled by a government agent, Amanda Waller, to tackle extreme threats to America and the rest of mankind. It's called a suicide squad because the members are expendable; they're criminals that nobody would miss if they died.

As in all team films, the problem is to introduce all the characters and still leave time for the rest of the film. "Suicide Squad" is less successful than "The Avengers" in introducing the characters before the action starts. Deadshot and Harley Quinn are presented in great detail, whereas Killer Croc and Captain Boomerang are merely background characters who seem to be tagging along for the ride. When they finally did something my reaction was, "Oh, they're still here?" Colonel Rick Flag, the army man who leads the Suicide Squad into battle, seems like a superfluous babysitter. It's not until late in the film that he starts to reveal some of his personality, but by then the audience already wishes he were dead.

An irony in the film is that the first threat that the Suicide Squad has to deal with is caused by a supernatural being, the Enchantress, that Amanda Waller wanted to use in the team. The question is, would the squad have been needed if she hadn't caused problems by creating the squad? This irony would have strengthened the film if it had been developed, but by ignoring it it seems more like a plot hole.

The film's greatest strength is Harley Quinn, as most critics have been quick to point out. Her brand of insanity makes her immediately likeable. There are already talks of a second Suicide Squad film, but rather than do that there should just be a Harley Quinn spin off. Preferably without the Joker, because this film's incarnation of the Joker, as played by Jared Leto, is the weakest on-screen version ever. He pales in comparison to Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger.

I watched the film dubbed into German, as is typical for foreign films shown in Germany. I was greatly impressed by Harley Quinn's German voice, which completely expressed the character's madness, maybe even more perfectly than the original actress, Margot Robbie. The German voice was provided by the politician Anne Helm, pictured above, who is best known from providing Anna Kendrick's voice in German films. She did an excellent job, proving that German dubbing is the best in the world.

This is a much better film than this year's "Batman vs Superman", but DC still has a long way to go to catch up with Marvel. Even the computer generated special effects in the final scenes weren't up to Marvel's standards. DC should consider giving up films and sticking to what it does best: television series.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Beach Volleyball Detectives (3½ Stars)

"There are two styles in Beach Volleyball. One is White Beach Volleyball. It's for justice. The other is Black Sand Beach. It's the dark side".

That quote should suffice to show that this isn't a film to be taken seriously. The premise of the film is that beach volleyball is an ancient fighting art which has been disguised as a sport. If you can accept that you can enjoy the film. If not, there's no point in watching it.

Haruka, Mie and Kie are three police officers in a small Japanese town. Beach volleyball is their life, whether they're at work or play. In their spare time they're on the beach playing volleyball. When they're on duty they capture criminals by throwing volleyballs at them.

One day they're called into the station and told that there's an important mission. A terrorist intends to detonate a nuclear bomb in Japan. Nobody knows who he is, but there are leads that the bomb is hidden at the international beach volleyball championship in Tokyo. Wakana, a detective from Hawaii has been assigned to lead the squad on an undercover mission. The four women enter the competition as the Japanese team.

Unfortunately the film's budget didn't stretch to hiring foreign actors. The Russian team is played by Japanese women with blonde wigs. The Indian team is played by Japanese women with dark makeup. The Chinese team is played by Japanese women with big breasts.

While investigating the plot at the beach volleyball championship the girls discover something even bigger and more evil. What can be more evil than detonating a nuclear bomb? Only one thing. There's a network of illegal beach volleyball championships in which girls have to fight to the death. This is a perversion of the noble fighting art of beach volleyball. What's more important? Saving millions of Japanese lives or protecting the integrity of beach volleyball? That's an easy question to answer. People come and go, but beach volleyball lasts forever.

For some unfathomable reason this film has an 18 certificate. Why? There's no nudity in the film. The violence is limited to throwing volleyballs. Even when the girls take a bath after their games the camera shows nothing more than heads and shoulders. You can see nothing that you don't see in the live coverage of the Olympic games.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

From Beijing with Love (3 Stars)

Stephen Chow directed this 1994 film as well as playing the lead role. Ling Ling Chat is an agent for the Chinese secret service who went into early retirement because his bosses didn't think he possessed the necessary skills for his work. He returned to his former job as a butcher, but always hoped that one day he would be called back for duty. This day finally arrives after 10 years. A dinosaur's skeleton has been delivered to the Chinese national museum. The head has been stolen by criminals to be sold to the highest bidder. Ling Ling Chat is considered to be the most suitable person to track down the ones responsible.

If Ling Ling Chat was lacking in skills 10 years ago, he's even more rusty now. He's forgotten how to use a gun. Fortunately he's spent all this time practising with his meat cleaver, so it's now a deadly weapon in his hands. A beautiful secret agent is assigned to assist him, but he doesn't suspect that she's a double agent who is waiting for a chance to kill him.

This is a rather unsubtle James Bond spoof. It's been compared with "Johnny English", but it doesn't reach the same level. In the case of "Johnny English" the humour comes from an incompetent spy succeeding against powerful enemies more by luck than by skill. In the case of "From Beijing with Love" almost everyone is incompetent, both Ling Ling Chat's friends and his enemies. This makes the film less amusing overall. It's not a bad film, but I don't enjoy it as much as Stephen Chow's other comedies like "Shaolin Soccer".

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Hole (2001 film) (4 Stars)

This is a British horror film from 2001, not to be confused with other films made with the same name. It's known for being the first major role for Keira Knightley, when she was still 15. There's also a controversy surrounding the film, which I'll deal with later.

I've known about this film for some time. It's been on my maybe-watch list for years, but today I just happened to see a copy of the film lying in a bargain bin for less than a Euro, so I grabbed it while I could.

The film begins with news reports that four missing teenagers have been found. One is alive, the other three are dead. A police psychiatrist interviews the survivor, Liz, to find out what happened. She explains that she had a crush on Mike, a boy in school, but she couldn't get him to notice her. She asked her best friend Martin to arrange some way of putting them together. Martin had the keys to a nearby nuclear fallout shelter. He offered to let them into the shelter with two other teenagers, Jeff and Frankie, where they could party in isolation for a few days. He said that he would lock them in for three days, then return to let them out. If teenage hormones didn't run wild in such an enclosed area when would they?

The trouble was that Martin didn't come back. The four teenagers ran out of food and water. When the hatch to the shelter was finally opened by an anonymous stranger only Liz was still alive.

The psychiatrist doubts that this story is true. She thinks that Liz is traumatised and unable to remember the truth. The interviews continue and the true story slowly emerges.

This is a chilling story. The film structure is experimental, but not unique. The Chinese film "Hero" also presented several false stories before telling the viewer the truth. I don't think this is an effective form of story-telling. In the case of "Hero" I initially disliked the film when I saw it in the cinema, but I grew to like it more after repeated viewing. I have mixed feelings about "The Hole". What's the point of spending half the film showing a false story, something that never happened? Nevertheless, I intend to watch it again soon.

Now to the controversy. The teenagers in the film are presumably sixth formers, which is 16 to 18 in the English school system, but Keira Knightley was still 15. There's a brief scene in the film in which she appears topless. It's interesting to see that celebrity web sites that publish nude screenshots of actresses claim that she was either 16 or 18, depending on which side of the Atlantic they're based, but none admit that she was 15. It's easy to prove they're wrong. Keira was born on March 26th 1985, and the film was released on April 20th 2001. It's obvious that the film couldn't have been filmed less than a month before its release; in fact, judging by the outdoor scenes, the acting was probably filmed in autumn 2000.

There's another matter that I didn't know about before watching the film. In one scene Frankie, Keira Knightley's character, walks into the boys' changing room in school, to talk to her boyfriend Jeff. It's a beautiful scene. She marches through to the showers, surrounded by mostly naked boys, with a majestic grin on her face. The boys all scatter, terrified of her. I love films that show a woman in control. But one unnamed boy stands out. Literally. When Keira passes him he's half erect. She carries on walking and he disappears behind her, but when she moves to the side we can see him in the background staring at her, fully erect. This adds to the realism of the scene, but I'm surprised that it was left in the film. I feel tempted to provide screenshots, since I haven't been able to find any online, but this isn't a pornographic blog, so you'll just have to take my word for it. Or better still, watch the film and you'll see it for yourself.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Stralsund - Außer Kontrolle (4 Stars)

The title of this film means "Out of control". It was made two years after "Mörderische Verfolgung", which I reviewed yesterday, but the action in the film seems to take place shortly afterwards, because the Stralsund chief of police has only recently been replaced after her injuries in the first film.

In this film a money transporter has been ambushed by a pair of criminals. One of the security guards is killed, and the other is trapped in the back of the vehicle when it's driven away. The police search in vain for the vehicle, but it's been disguised too well to be identified. The police's only hope is to find clues that will identify the criminals. Once more Nina Petersen has to solve the case, but this time she has problems. Her work is hindered by a senior police officer who pulls rank and insists on solving the case himself. When Nina realises that he's making mistakes she takes matters into her own hands.

Once more this is a gripping thriller. A theme repeated from the first film is criminals turning on one another when they're under pressure. If anything, we get to know the criminals better than the police. This is a very well written and directed film. I attribute this to Martin Eiger, who was responsible for writing and directing 28 made-for-television crime thrillers from 2003 to 2015.

Stralsund - Mörderische Verfolgung (4 Stars)

This is a German film that was made for television in 2009. The title can mean either "Deadly Pursuit" or "Deadly Persecution", and both translations are appropriate. It was originally intended as a one-off film, but it was remarkably succesful and was watched by almost six million viewers, so from 2011 to 2015 seven sequels were made. They all feature the police force in Stralsund and particularly police inspector Nina Petersen, played by Katharina Wackernagel. I'm not sure whether "inspector" is an accurate translation of her rank, because the German police have a different structure to their English and American equivalents. In German her rank is "Kommissar". She's a uniformed police officer who has a lot of responsibility in solving cases, so she seems to be more like a detective.

The plot: Michael Broder's company burnt down. When he tried to claim insurance he was wrongly accused of starting the fire himself, so he killed the person who accused him of arson. The law isn't always fair, and insurance companies are rarely fair, but murder isn't a good solution. He was arrested and sent to prison.

Six month later the Stralsund chief of police, Susanne Winkler, receives a phone call from her ex-lover Mona to meet her at an insurance company. It's the same company which dealt with Michael Broder's claim. When she arrives she finds the staff tied and gagged, and she too is overpowered by a masked man. He demands two million Euros and the release of Michael Broder.

This is an exciting thriller with twists and turns as the plot develops. It's more original than any other hostage dramas I've seen. Right up to the end it isn't obvious what will happen next. The situation can only be solved by Nina Petersen's skillful psychological ploy, managing to turn the hostage taker and his accomplices against one another.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Shaolin Girl (4 Stars)

Rin Sakurazawa comes from a small Japanese village and grew up with her grandfather, a master of Chinese kung fu. When she was nine her grandfather sent her to a Shaolin temple in China to train her kung fu skills. (I wasn't aware that Shaolin temples accept students who are women or Japanese, but I'll let it pass). She doesn't even take a break from her training when she receives news of her grandfather's death. After 10 years she returns to Japan, and she's shocked to find that the local dojo has closed. The dojo's former teacher now owns a restaurant that serves Chinese noodles. Rin tries to encourage people to learn kung fu, but nobody is interested. Only Minmin, a part time waitress in the Chinese restaurant, agrees to learn kung fu, on condition that Rin joins the university lacrosse team. Soon all the girls in the lacrosse team are learning kung fu in order to improve their lacrosse skills.

There's a subplot going on which I didn't understand. A secret organisation based in the university is attempting to make money out of exploiting the university's best athletes. Judging by the menacing music every time we see this clandestine group they must be very, very evil, but I fail to see what's so bad about a university helping athletes to succeed. Isn't that what they all do, especially in America? There are also connections between this organisation and a Japanese fighting school, which makes it even more confusing.

This isn't a film to be taken too seriously. It's light-hearted fun with over-the-top fight scenes and lacrosse games. I just wish I could have understood the motivation of the evil organisation.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Emerald Green (4 Stars)

This is the third film in the Ruby Red trilogy, following "Ruby Red" in 2013 and "Sapphire Blue" in 2014. Over the course of the three films the meek schoolgirl Gwendolyn Shepherd has developed into an action heroine. In the film's climax she returns to 1786 to battle the evil Count of Saint Germain looking like a young Emma Peel in her black leather outfit. Or maybe not so young. The three films are supposed to take place shortly after one another, but the German make up artists didn't succeed in hiding the passage of time. In 2013 the actress Maria Ehrich was 20, but she had the appearance of a 16-year-old. Now that she's 23 she looks older than 16, at least 21. Nobody would ask for her ID when she goes to a club. Gwendolyn's best friend Leslie is also 16, but the actress Jennifer Lotsi has aged even faster. There is no way I can accept her as a schoolgirl, she looks at least 25. No insult intended. 25 is a good age.

This is the first film in the series in which temporal paradoxes are dealt with. Maybe I shouldn't say that they're dealt with, they're only mentioned in passing, and we're left to scratch our heads. The Count of Saint Germain lived in the 18th Century, but his plan to rule the world can't succeed until Gwendolyn, born in 1997, has reached her 16th birthday. Gwendolyn has to fight him to stop his plan succeeding, but he actually already succeeded 200 years ago when she travelled back in time to challenge him. He became immortal, and he's now living in disguise in the 21st Century to make sure Gwendolyn doesn't stop him. But of course, he wouldn't be around to stop her if he hadn't already succeeded.

People don't understand time. It's not what you think it is. It's complicated, very complicated. People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.

The film contains the most beautiful scenes of the trilogy. Gwendolyn's real parents, who gave her up for adoption, are hiding in the Scottish Highlands in the early 20th Century, so Gwendolyn travels back to 1920 to be trained in martial arts by her father. The scenes where they are fighting on the mountains are stunning. I'm sure it's intended as a homage to Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert in the first Highlander film.

This is the only film in the trilogy that I've managed to see in the cinema. The films weren't shown in England, and I only moved to Germany last month. "Emerald Green" was released in the cinemas on July 7th, but luckily the film has been so successful that it's still being shown after six weeks. I went to an early afternoon showing, 2:45pm, at the EM Cinema in Stuttgart's city centre. The theatre was small, only seven rows with 10 seats each, and it was almost full, about 50 people. Surprisingly, I was the only man in the audience. As far as I could see, before the lights went out, there were three middle-aged women, and all the rest were teenage girls. I admit that I felt intimidated. The two girls on either side of me added to my feelings. The girl on my right, probably in her late teens, was lucky enough to have an empty seat in front of her, so she had her feet up over the seat, showing off her beautiful legs, but making me feel trapped. The girl on my left, who couldn't have been a day over 14, had her hand on the shared arm rest, so I had to withdraw away from her. She was fidgeting with her legs throughout the film, bumping her leg against mine, so I was cringing as far in the right of my seat as I could without making it look like I was trying to touch the girl on my right. It was an awkward situation, but I somehow managed to concentrate on the film. I suppose it was my own fault for going to see a teenage fantasy film in Germany. Next time I'll go later in the evening.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Song for Marion (3 Stars)

So many films are made each year. I estimate that about 500 films are made in America, 100 in England and 100 in Germany. Of course, thousands are made in other countries, but those are the three countries whose films I watch the most. How can I possibly decide what to watch? It's not just a matter of watching two films a day, which would theoretically be enough to see all 700 films from my three favourite countries. I also like to watch films more than once. And of course, many films never make it into the cinema, so I have to wait until they're released on Blu-ray.

My film choices aren't completely random, but they also aren't completely under my own control. Films shown in cinemas have a good chance of finding their way into my watch list. While I lived in England I tried to watch at least two films in the cinema each week, and now that I'm in Germany I try to watch at least one film in the cinema. Films that are already in my extensive DVD and Blu-ray collection have a good chance of getting a repeat viewing. My preferences for buying new films (preferably on Blu-ray) are based on certain factors, some positive, some negative.

1. If a film is about someone with cancer I don't watch it.

This might seem random, but I hate films about cancer. I find it so depressing as a subject. I prefer to bury my head in the sand and pretend it doesn't exist.

2. If a film stars Gemma Arterton I watch it.

There are a few other actors whose films I have to see. Apart from Gemma there's Jim Carrey and Chloe Grace Moretz. There are also a few directors on my must-watch list, including Quentin Tarantino, Sion Sono and Zhang Yimou.

I could quote other positive and negative factors in deciding which films to watch, but I'll leave it at these two. They put me in a dilemma. "Song for Marion" is a film about cancer that stars Gemma Arterton, so should I watch it or not?

As you can see, I've decided to watch "Song for Marion", albeit a few years after it was released in 2012. I have no regrets about watching it, even though I've only given it an average rating.

The film is about an old married couple, Arthur and Marion, played by Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave. They are proof that opposites attract. Marion is cheerful and full of energy. She takes part in sessions with a local amateur choir. Her husband is a grumpy old man who thinks that singing is silly. When Marion's cancer enters its final stages she spends as much time as possible singing. This confuses Arthur, but he tolerates it. After her death he becomes a total recluse, until he finally decides to try singing to see what it's all about. The choir's teacher, played by Gemma Arterton, helps him break out of his shell.

This is a wonderfully moving film with high quality performances from all of the leading actors, including Christopher Eccleston who plays Marion's son. I found the singing itself rather dull. It's not up to the standard of musicals, but that was never the intention. The cancer is depressing, but once it was out of the way the film picked up for me.

Snowpiercer (1 Star)

It's not very often that I have trouble watching a film to the end. However disappointed I might feel when watching a film I make an effort to stick it out in the hope that it will improve. "Snowpiercer" is a film that attracted me with its high profile cast: Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer and especially Ed Harris. They're all actors who I've seen turn in excellent performances in film after film, so gathering them together in one film is a recipe for success.

Or so it seems. Twice I paused the film and went to make a coffee, and felt tempted not to carry on watching.

First the plot. In the near future an attempt has been made to combat global warming. It backfired, plunging the Earth into a new ice age. The only survivors are the people travelling on a train that circles the world once a year. There are first class passengers, economy passengers and freeloaders. The latter group, presumably stowaways who jumped aboard to save their lives when the catastrophe began, live in the back of the train. At first they were given no food and had to resort to cannibalism. After a few months they were supplied with protein bars, tasteless but life-preserving, in exchange for doing menial labour on the train. After 18 years the train is still moving. One man among the freeloaders, Curtis, decides to stage a rebellion. He leads an army of rebels to challenge the train's creator, Mr. Wilford, who is rumoured to live in the very first carriage.

The train is full of superstition, orchestrated by the leaders. Mr. Wilford is revered as a God, the saviour of mankind. The train's engine is a sacred artefact.

I took some time to read customer reviews on Amazon. It seems that this is a film that divides opinions: some people love it, some people hate it, and there's no middle ground. I personally don't see how anyone can love it. It just doesn't make sense. Why should a train, of all things, be able to keep mankind's last survivors alive? Why is the exact one-year cycle necessary to travel round the world, even if the train really did travel so slowly? There are other ridiculous things that happen later in the film, which I'll keep to myself to avoid spoilers. The claustrophobia of everything happening in narrow railway carriages doesn't make the film terrifying, it just makes the action all the more ridiculous.

Despite the use of English speaking actors, this is a Korean film. Maybe that's part of the reason I don't like it. I've never enjoyed Korean films. It's difficult to say why. There's something about the style and the feeling of Korean films that disturbs me. I also have an aversion to post-apocalyptic films. "Planet of the Apes" is the only post-apocalyptic film which succeeds in showing futuristic terror. All the other films, including this one, are full of speculation about what might happen. This speculation often veers into barely credible ideas, such as people praying to television sets or dogs being trained to find women for breeding purposes.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Iron Man (4½ Stars)

"I am Iron Man".

Those four words, the last words spoken before the credits rolled in the 2008 Iron Man film, were the film's biggest surprise. They were the film's biggest shock. They weren't a shock to naive cinema goers who were new to the intricacies of the Marvel Universe. They were a shock to hardcore Marvel fans like me who've known Iron Man since he first appeared in Tales of Suspense #39 in 1963. I've read his early adventures from the 1960's countless times. I grew to know and love him when I was a child. Maybe "love" is an over-statement, because he was the least charismatic of all the early Marvel super-heroes, but I did know him. I knew his mannerisms. I knew the way he spoke. I know that he would never have spoken the words "I am Iron Man".

Why was it deemed necessary to make this drastic change to the character? It's a bigger change than placing him in a different century, 45 years later in the present day world. It's an even bigger change than relocating the country of his super-hero rebirth from China to Afghanistan. Those were logical changes. Making him reveal his secret identity at the beginning of his crime-fighting career is totally illogical.

This was the film that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, usually referred to simply as the MCU. It's a series of films that feature different characters, but are all interrelated. So far (at the time of writing this review) there have been 13 MCU films. At the moment another nine films are planned, but the exact number might still change. The films are leading up an adaptation of Jim Starlin's Infinity Gauntlet mini-series, first published in 1991. It will be a very loose adaptation, since the original comics featured the Silver Surfer and Adam Warlock battling Thanos, with assistance from the Avengers. It's unlikely that the Silver Surfer will be brought back after he was poorly developed in the second Fantastic Four film, and Adam Warlock hasn't even been hinted at in Marvel films so far.

After that it's possible that the MCU will either end or be rebooted. The actors playing the Avengers and the other super-heroes are getting older and don't want to play the characters forever. Up until now Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark is the most iconic, so it's difficult to imagine the MCU continuing without him.

Of course, the film has a cameo by the incomparable Stan Lee. If you blink you'll miss him. Tony Stark mistakes him for Hugh Hefner at a party. At least, that's what we see if we watch the extended scene which was cut from the film. In the deleted scene Tony Stark apologises for his mistake, and Stan replies, "That's okay, I get this all the time". In the version used in the completed film we only see the greeting, so it's more logical to assume that it really was Hugh Hefner being played by Stan the Man Lee.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Chappie (4½ Stars)

This is yet another brilliant film that has been unjustly savaged by the critics. Sometimes I get the impression that there's a secret conspiracy to persuade the public to stay away from good films in the cinema. The rest of the time I just think that the critics are stupid.

"Chappie" was intended to be the first film of a trilogy. The director Neill Blomcamp says he already has plot summaries for the other two films, but he doesn't yet know if he'll be able to make them. I blame the critics.

Ghostbusters [2016 version] (4½ Stars)

This is a film that was 32 years in the making. It's a remake of the 1982 Ghostbusters film, and it easily exceeds it in quality. That's not just because of the better special effects available today. It's the portrayal of four powerful women saving the world. None of the four are portrayed as sexual objects, so there can be no claims that they've been objectified as women. Three of the four are academics with a doctor title, while the fourth is a giant who would intimidate most men by her size alone. And yet the women are still sexy, all four of them. They're powerful, intelligent and independent, which is what makes them so sexy. They step into a post-patriarchal world, brandishing their phallic weapons, showing who is calling the shots.

Do men have a place in this new world? Of course. Chris Hemsworth plays their assistant, hired only because of his good looks. He's too stupid to answer the phone, but he's allowed in the office as a sex object. Men can be objectified as well.

I'll write a lot more about this film when I own it on disc. I don't want to give spoilers for a film that is still being shown in cinemas. All I'll say is that the film has more after-credits sequences than any other film I've ever seen. It even has a post-credits karaoke sequence for the audience to sing the Ghostbusters theme song. Unfortunately I was the only person singing in today's audience. Germans are far too reserved!

What also impressed me is that the audience wasn't forced to sit in boredom while waiting for the post credits scenes, which is what happens in every Marvel film. Throughout the credits things were happening either at the side or in the middle of the screen. Chris Hemsworth's dance was so amazing that I hope it'll be included as a Blu-ray extra, a clean version without the names of the cast and crew rolling over the picture.

This is a ticket to remember. It's my first cinema ticket since returning to Germany. I'm sorry the photo is so blurred. I can't figure out how to take a photo without a flash on my old mobile phone which I've just started using again after four years. I can turn the flash off as often as I want, but when I take the photo it turns itself back on. Verfluchte Technik!

Monday, 8 August 2016

Pixels (5 Stars)

I love this film. I've increased the rating to a full five stars, after only giving it four and a half in my last review. It's a film I can watch over and over again.

I'm starting to get really annoyed at not having a Blu-ray drive in my computer. It means I have to rely on images that I find on the Internet, rather than inserting my own appropriate screenshots.This will have to be put right. Soon!

Since I can't use my own screenshots, I'll restrict myself to showing the scene in which Peter Dinklage tries to chat up Serena Williams. Shouldn't he pick on someone his own size? She'll kill him!

Peter seems to be boasting about his hidden qualities. Serena isn't impressed.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Max (4½ Stars)

This is the 15th film starring Leelee Sobieski, made in 2002 when she was 18. Yes, I know I'm jumping backwards and forwards, not watching her films in order. It's the only way I'll get through them all this year. She only plays a relatively small role in this film, but it's my intention to work my way through her entire filmography.

The Max named in the film's title is Max Rothman, a wealthy Jew who lives in Munich. In 1914 he volunteered to fight in the German army, where he served until 1917. In the Battle of Ypres he lost his right arm and was discharged. Before the war he was a talented artist, but he's now unable to paint with his left arm, so he makes a living buying and selling art. Unlike the people around him he lives a life of luxury. He has a beautiful wife, but he also has a mistress, Liselore von Peltz, played by Leelee Sobieski.

In 1918 Max meets a struggling young artist called Adolf Hitler who has just returned from the war. Max recognises Hitler's talent and sells some of his paintings for low prices, telling him he can make more money if he puts more emotion into his art. At the same time Hitler is engaging in politics, making speeches in beer halls. Max is fascinated by Hitler, because they hold many views in common, such as hating the Treaty of Versailles. However, Max tells Hitler that he should concentrate on his career as an artist, because there is no future in politics.

What would have happened if Hitler had taken Max's advice? Did he have enough talent to become a great artist who would have been revered today? I don't know. People usually criticise him and say he was talentless, but I suspect they're biased against him because of the other things he did in his life.

There's also the question as to how Hitler would have continued in his personal development if he had maintained his relationship with Max. The film shows him initially being uncertain about anti-Semitism. He's pushed into it by fellow soldiers who see the Jews as being responsible for Communism. Max, of course, is far from being a Communist. If a deeper friendship had developed Hitler might have accepted that it's possible to be both Jewish and German.

As I mentioned in my review of "Never Been Kissed", Leelee Sobieski retired from acting because she said that 90% of films involve sexual stuff with other people. Of her nine films I've watched this year none of them have any sexual stuff, and this is the first film in which she kisses a man. I'm keeping count.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Mord am Höllengrund (4 Stars)

This is a typical German crime film, a detective story, a whodunnit, or whatever else you would like to call it. The Germans call it a Krimi, a simple word that sums up the genre of films in which someone is murdered and the police have to solve the case. As I've told my readers in the past, Germans are fascinated by Krimis. About half the films made in Germany each year are Krimis, usually made for television, but that doesn't mean that they're of low quality. Television movies in Germany are frequently of very high quality. Unfortunately, very few of the German Krimis are ever made available outside of Germany. My English speaking readers will have to learn German if they want to watch them. I expect that now I'm in Germany I'll be watching a lot of Krimis, so wait for my  upcoming reviews.

The film's title means "Murder at Höllengrund". Höllengrund is the name of an area in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, a mountainous region close to the border with Austria. The main character is Sabine Sonntag, an artist whose job is to make reconstructions for a local museum. Her 18-year-old son Ilya plans to take his girlfriend Cora on a trip to Italy. He has to pick her up from a cave in Höllengrund where she has spent the night. After Ilya leaves Sabine sees that he has forgotten his passport, so she drives to the cave to give it to him. She finds his car parked on the road, but he isn't at the cave. What she does find is Cora's body, barely covered in a shallow grave. She goes back to the car to wait for her son, but when she gets there his car is gone. Since she suspects that Ilya killed his girlfriend she doesn't report it to the police. But the police soon find the body, and they treat Ilya as the main suspect.

This is a thrilling murder mystery. Even though all the clues point at Ilya, it's obvious to the viewer that he isn't the killer. That would make the film too simple. When the killer was finally revealed it was a shock to me. He was skilfully disguised throughout the film, with only the slightest hints that it might have been him.

One of the things remarkable about the film is the society in the fictional small town of Aubach. There are no intact families. There are four women, including Sabine, all of whom are single mothers. The women go out on girls' nights, getting drunk without any men waiting for them at home. The men in the film are also single, and they all seem to be interested in Sabine. I'd be interested in her as well.

Sabine Sonntag is played by Katharina Wackernagel, an actress who appears in a lot of German Krimis. Usually she plays the detective, but in this case she's a (maybe not so) innocent bystander. The biggest role she has played was as the terrorist Astrid Proll in "Baader Meinhof Complex". If you're English, she's probably the best actress that you've never heard of. I'll try to watch more of her films over the next few months.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Jaws (5 Stars)

Before I sat down to write this review I checked my alphabetical list of posts to see what I wrote the last time I watched "Jaws". I was totally shocked to discover that it wasn't listed, meaning I haven't watched it for at least six years. That's hard to believe. It was one of the first films I bought on DVD. I'm sure I watched it several times, either alone or with my wife. My second wife, Nicola, loved films with sharks and crocodiles. Her favourite film was "Lake Placid", and "Jaws" wasn't far behind. There's probably a psychological reason for her fascination with giant sea creatures.

Made in 1975, this was Steven Spielberg's second film as director (or third, if you include "Duel"), and it was the film that made him famous. When students study film making they can examine any film directed by Steven Spielberg to see how it's done. The other way round, if there's a list of things needed to make a good film I'm sure that Spielberg ticks all the boxes when making a film. The mixture of suspense, action and character development is always perfect.

The shark itself is hardly seen in the film. This is partly in order to increase the suspense by keeping the enemy creature anonymous, attacking from nowhere, but it's also because of the technical limitations of the time. Computer imagery wasn't available, so a mechanical shark had to be built. If it had been shown in lengthy scenes it would have looked artificial, so the viewer only gets brief glimpses.

For me what makes the film great is the perfect blend of the three characters who team up to hunt the shark in the second half of the film. There's the veteran shark hunter who knows it all from experience. There's the young shark expert who knows everything from books. And there's the experienced police officer who hates water. They start off despising one another for their lack of experience in their respective fields, but as the hunt develops they learn how to work together. A bond of friendship and respect develops.

However often I watched my "Jaws" DVD I shan't watch it any more. I've bought the remastered Blu-ray release. It's amazing, utterly amazing. How can such an old film look so good? On the Blu-ray there's a featurette about the restoration of the film. Even with high end computer hardware and software available months of work were necessary. Sometimes three hours of work were needed to restore a single frame, only 1/24th of a second. What they have achieved is phenomenal. I don't even know who "they" are. Are they artists, film editors, computer graphics artists or something else. Whatever their job description is, "they" are wonderful. In an interview Steven Spielberg says that the film included on the Blu-ray is even more beautiful than what he created 40 years ago.

One of my current problems is that since moving to Germany I don't have a computer with a Blu-ray drive. That means that I can't add relevant screenshots to this post. I had a similar problem when I reviewed "It follows", for which I wanted to add snapshots of the sketches from the film's storyboard. I'll have to make up for this by adding sufficient screenshots in my next reviews. I'm sure I shan't wait more than six years for next time.