Sunday, 30 April 2017

Berlin Syndrome (3 Stars)

This is an Australian film set in Berlin. Since the main character in the film is Clare, an Australian backpacker who speaks no German, almost all of the dialogue is in English. There are only brief scenes with German dialogue.

Clare is travelling across Europe, trying to see as much as possible in a short time. She's been in Berlin for two days and plans to travel to Dresden, but she meets a high school English teacher called Andi and decides to stay the night with him. He takes her back to his apartment in a Hinterhof in former East Berlin. (See my review of "The woman behind the wall" for an explanation of what a Hinterhof is). It's a large building with many apartments, but he's the only resident.

After a night of passionate sex Clare falls asleep in Andi's arms. When she wakes up the next day he's already gone to school. She wants to leave, but the door is locked and the windows have been sealed. He comes home from work, but he refuses to let her leave. He wants her to remain with him forever. All her attempts to leave are met with violence. The imprisonment lasts for several months. At times she feels sympathy for Andi and tries to please him, at other times her only thoughts are about how to escape.

My main reason for wanting to see this film is because I loved "Lore", the previous film by the director Cate Shortland. I was disappointed. "Berlin Syndrome" contains several scenes of violence against women, not just against Clare. I don't like violence against women. It's difficult for me to watch. I sat through the film hoping for a big revenge scene in which Andi had to suffer, but it didn't come. I left the cinema feeling empty inside.

The film has been strongly praised by critics, so it may be a film that my readers enjoy, but it's not something I would want to watch again.

Joke of the Week: Kim Jong-un's Hair

Kim Jong-un has such ridiculous hair that it's difficult not to laugh when you look at him. I suspect that foreign diplomats have to bite their tongue to stop themselves laughing when they shake his hand. Doesn't he realise how stupid he looks?

My suspicion is that he does know. For him it's a fiendish test of his citizens' loyalty. He expects everyone to pretend to admire his hair. Anyone in his country who laughs at him is considered a traitor and is executed.

I'm glad I'm not a North Korean. I'd be dead already. I couldn't have kept a straight face. I would have laughed out loud every time every time I saw a news report on television or in the newspaper.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Bar (5 Stars)

"Fear shows people as they really are".

This is the best film I've seen this year. I'm afraid to say too much about it, because the film involves a mystery that I don't want to spoil for people who haven't seen it yet.

Eight people visit a café/bar in a busy street in Madrid. They're eight people who don't know one another, from completely different walks of life, the sort of mix that you'd find in any bar. There's a woman sipping a coffee before her first meeting with a man on a dating site, there's a marketing expert for a big company, there's a lingerie salesman, there's a homeless man spending his last pennies on alcohol, there's a woman addicted to slot machines, there's an alcoholic ex-policeman, and there are two others that die before we get to know them.

One of the men leaves the bar. He's shot dead by a hidden sniper. The people outside flee in panic, leaving the streets deserted. A second man goes out to help him. He's also shot.

The remaining six customers, along with the owner and her cook, don't know what's happening. They discuss the situation with one another, first rationally, then yelling at one another, blaming one another for the situation. They realise they have unseen enemies, but their worst enemies are inside the bar. They begin to kill one another in a scramble to survive.

The film starts off as a comedy, especially in the early scenes when the bar's customers make the most ridiculous assumptions about what's happening. For instance, the marketing expert is accused of being an Islamic terrorist because of his beard, however much he insists that he's Catholic. As the film progresses it becomes more serious, developing into a psychological thriller, showing how people behave under extreme pressure.

The character development is expertly done. The film starts off with a bang, showing us ten people that we don't know. As the film develops we're introduced to the eight survivors in detail. This is film making at its best.

I can't find the words to express how good the film is. It's a masterpiece. It might not be shown in many cinemas because it's only a Spanish film, so you'll have to wait for the Blu-ray release.

Devil's Advocate (4 Stars)

This is a film I've watched a few times over the years. I believe it was one of the first DVDs I ever bought, but surprisingly I haven't watched it since I started writing my blog in 2010. I'll make up for that now.

The film stars two actors that I don't rate highly. Neither Al Pacino nor Keanu Reeves particularly impresses me. Nevertheless, this is one of the few films in which Keanu Reeves is in his element. He plays a cold-hearted, emotionless lawyer. He's best in roles in which he doesn't need to show emotion. My problem with Al Pacino is that he doesn't seem genuine, his acting always makes him look like an actor rather than a real character. That works to his advantage in this film. His character is someone who's pretending to be something that he isn't.

Keanu Reeves plays Kevin Lomax, a Florida lawyer who has never lost a case. He specialises in defending clients who he knows are guilty. In our legal system everyone has the right to the best possible defence, but Kevin pushes it to the extreme. He has no conscience. He wants to succeed at all costs. This is displeasing to his mother, a devout Christian woman. His wife Mary Ann also dislikes it, but as long as her husband earns good money she accepts it.

Kevin is offered a job by John Milton (Al Pacino), the head of a multi-national company. It's not a law firm, it's a trading company, but it has shady business partners, so it hires lawyers to protect its partners from prosecution.

It's no spoiler to tell you that John Milton is really the Devil. That's obvious to the viewer from the film's name, and as if that's not enough the text on the back of the DVD case tells us that Kevin Lomax is working for the Devil. This isn't a story about a man being offered wealth in exchange for his soul. Kevin Lomax is no good man, he already gave up his soul by becoming a lawyer, and now the Devil is offering him his reward.

Al Pacino isn't quite as charismatic as Gabriel Byrne's portrayal of the Devil in "End of Days", but his performance still shines. He tries to justify himself with arguments to show that he isn't all bad, and God is the true cause of all the evil in the world. It's a perfect mixture of truth and lies that would fool most people who listen to him.

"Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He's a prankster. Think about it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does He do? I swear, for His own amusement, His own private, cosmic gag reel, He sets the rules in opposition. It's the goof of all time. Look, but don't touch. Touch, but don't taste. Taste, don't swallow. Ha ha ha! And while you're jumping from one foot to the next, what is He doing? He's laughing His sick ass off. He's a tight-ass! He's a sadist. He's an absentee landlord! Worship that? Never!"

Calling God an absentee landlord is like the pot calling the kettle black. We don't see God in the world, but where do we see the Devil? In God's absence he could do whatever he wants. He could create a false religion, verified by miracles, to lead mankind away from God. It would be so easy, so why doesn't he do it? The usual answer from the Christian churches is that the Devil doesn't need to lead people astray because they're already on the wrong path. The truth is that the Devil is an absentee enemy.

It was interesting to see Charlize Theron in this film. I'd forgotten that she was such a baby face when she started acting. She was 22 at the time "Devil's Advocate" was made, but she didn't look a day over 16. Even now, 20 years later, she's still one of the most beautiful women on the planet.

One of my friends told me that she considers this to be the scariest film she knows. I don't rate it quite that highly, but I understand what she means. The film has an intense atmosphere, laced with evil and supernatural elements. It doesn't rely on jumps the way modern horror films do, the scary scenes build up slowly and menacingly.

Watching the film today I realised that I've missed it. It's a film I need to watch again, maybe back to back with other portrayals of the Devil.

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One more thing. I thank whoever it was who ordered so many articles from Amazon in March using my links. I really appreciate it. It's no effort to you, but it makes money for me. Thank you. If all my readers did the same as you I would be rich.

Off-Topic: Internet Censorship

It's common for totalitarian regimes to censor or limit access to the Internet. The Internet is a place where everyone can express their opinions, good or bad, about religion, politics, sport or weight loss programmes. This freedom is repulsive to political leaders who think that they alone should be allowed to tell their people what to think.

Some countries, such as China, block social media sites like Facebook. That's understandable, even though I disagree with it. Some countries block foreign news sites. That's also understandable, since news sites are almost always biased. Now President Erdogan of Turkey has sunk to a new low. He has blocked Wikipedia. That is totally incomprehensible. Wikipedia prides itself on its political neutrality. Whenever there are conflicting viewpoints, such as the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Wikipedia's pages carefully present both sides of the argument.

That must be Erdogan's problem. For him there's only one side of the argument. He's right and the rest of the world is wrong. Anyone who dares remain neutral is his enemy.

Wikipedia is neutral, but I'm not. I'll give you my opinion. President Erdogan is the most evil and most despicable leader in Europe. (Turkey lies partially in Europe, partially in Asia). The only correct way to deal with him is to put a bullet in his head and hope his replacement is a better man. If not, he should be shot as well.

If Erdogan reads this, will he block my blog as well? Probably. And every other blog or news site that dares to criticise him. Then the Internet will be as empty as the newspaper he's reading.

Friday, 28 April 2017

X-Men: First Class (5 Stars)

I've read various articles that call the first X-Men film, made in 2000, to be the best super-hero film ever made. Even writers at Empire magazine subscribe to this opinion. I don't understand why anyone would say something like that. The best super-hero film is Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, made two years later in 2002. Usually I accept other opinions because I know that tastes differ, but in this case it's so obvious that "Spider-Man" is better that I want to shake the head of anyone who contradicts me.

Even among the X-Men films the first film wasn't the best. "X-Men: First Class" is a much faster paced and better crafted film. I consider it to be the best of the six X-Men films. It catches the essence of the early X-Men comics, even if it features different characters. Apart from Charles Xavier (Professor X), the only member if the original group that appears in the film is Hank McCoy, the Beast.

There's one thing that the X-Men films do better than the comics. That's the portrayal of Magneto. He was admirably portrayed by Ian McKellen in the first three X-Men films, and Michael Fassbender was even more impressive as a younger Magneto in "First Class". In the comics Magneto was aloof. He always wore a helmet, so we never saw his face. He was utterly evil. It wasn't until the 1980's, 20 years after his first appearance, that we found out his real name was Magnus. Later it was said that his name was Erik. First it was said that Magneto came from an East European gypsy background, but later he was said to be Jewish. Marvel went on to write stories to explain the discrepancies, saying that he used different pseudonyms in his youth and only pretended to be a gypsy. That was merely an attempt to fix a mess that should never have been there in the first place. In the 1980's Marvel continuity, the thing Marvel had been famous for since the early 1960's, was breaking down. Different authors wrote whatever they wanted without reading previous comics, and they contradicted one another. They made mistakes. The real Magneto, as created by Stan Lee, faded away some time in the mid-1980's and was replaced by the re-imaginings of less talented authors, despite the valiant attempts of Chris Claremont to hold continuity together.

I'm drifting away from the point I wanted to make. What I want to say is that the real Magneto was a big bad monster that we knew nothing about. The X-Men films develop his character. We know him. We sympathise with him. Even when he does wrong we see that he's trying to achieve good goals. This is the case in all six X-Men films, but never more clearly than in "First Class". This is a film that concentrates on the relationship between the two idealistic young men, Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr.

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P.S. I want to keep my readers up to date on what television series have been keeping me away from my films lately. This week I've watched the whole second season of "Teen Wolf" and the first half of the second season of "Vikings". Maybe I should write something about "Vikings". Wait and see,

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

General: When I die

Do you ever think about death? I know it's a morbid subject. Young people especially think they'll live forever, but one drunken driver could end their life tonight.

It's recommended that people should write a Will as early as possible in their lives, especially if they have large savings or property of any value. I was late. I didn't write a Will until I was in my late 40's. A lot has changed since I wrote it, so I'll have to write it again. When I wrote my last Will I lived in England, so it was easy. In England handwritten Wills are legally binding. The only problem is that the Will might be lost or deliberately destroyed by relatives who don't like what's in it, so it's advisable to deposit it with a trusted person like a solicitor. In Germany Wills are only legally valid if they've been signed by a solicitor. Nevertheless, a lot of people write Wills privately. If the relatives are decent people they'll do what the dead person wanted, but there's no legal protection from anyone who disagrees.

I haven't just written a Will, I've also designed my gravestone. If it's the last thing to remember me by I want it to be my words on my grave, not what others have to say about me. These are the exact words I want on my gravestone, apart from the date of death being changed, of course.

21.9.1955 - 30.04.2017
I have lived.
I have died.
I shall live forever.

These five lines, in this order, nothing else. I don't want any silly platitudes like "He was a loving father and grandfather". No pictures. No frame round the text. Just keep it as simple as the picture above.

I like these words because they're deliberately vague, and they can be interpreted any way a person wants to. A Christian who reads these words will smile, thinking that they stem from a deep faith. All I really want to say is that when I die I shall have no regrets. My passing into the other side will be accompanied by a shout of victory.

That's also the shape of the gravestone I want. Simple and geometric. It's a square with a semi-circle on top. As far as I know that's a standard shape available from any stonemason. I've considered elongating the square into a 3:2 or even 2:1 rectangle to make the shape more phallic, but if it's a non-standard shape it could be a lot more expensive, so that's a luxury I won't insist on.

Wherever I am when I die, I want to be buried in England, preferably in Streetly Cemetery. That's where my closest relatives are buried, and it's near where I used to live.

These are my wishes. I hope that the people who know me at the time of my death will follow them exactly.

Monday, 24 April 2017

The Founder (4½ Stars)

I'm a naive person. I've always believed that the fast food chain McDonald's was founded by Ronald McDonald. I didn't think that he really looked like a clown, but I assumed that it was his real name. "The Founder" has educated me.

In 1954 Ray Kroc, a moderately successful travelling salesman, discovered a hamburger restaurant in San Bernadino, California. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. The queue to be served was long, but it moved fast. He received his hamburger so fast after ordering it that he thought a mistake had been made. The restaurant was called McDonald's, run by the brothers Dick and Mac McDonald. They were committed to running a successful business without sacrificing quality. Their secret was speed, possible by streamlining the restaurant. Rather than offer a large menu like other restaurants, they only sold three items: a hamburger, french fries and a milkshake. These could be cooked in advance, based on the length of the queue, because they knew that everyone would order the same thing.

Ray decided to invest in the company. The brothers were happy running a single restaurant, but he saw the possibility of creating a chain of identical restaurants throughout the USA. At first he was a junior partner in the operation, required to confirm all business deals with the McDonald brothers. He grew increasingly impatient with them because they insisted on quality before profit, and the big showdown came when he wanted to replace the real ice cream in the milk shakes with powder to cut down on refrigeration costs.

Ray Kroc wasn't a nice person. He was enterprising and charismatic, but I suspect that the film glosses over his character faults. His deal to buy the company in 1961 must go down in history as one of the biggest con tricks ever. He offered the brothers $2.7 million plus 1% of the profits in perpetuity. Ray said that the 1% couldn't be included in the contract because of resistance from his financial backers, but he was a man of his word and would pay them. He wasn't a man of his word. He never paid a single cent from the profits, defrauding the brothers out of at least $100 million.

The brothers insisted that their original restaurant was exempt from the deal and would remain their property. Ray grudgingly accepted, but he didn't take his defeat lying down. Immediately afterwards he served them a legal notice that they were no longer allowed to call their restaurant McDonald's. He opened up a McDonald's directly opposite their restaurant, and within two years they went out of business. That was unnecessarily cruel.

After watching the film I decided to go to the nearest McDonald's to see if the company still has the magic. Evidently not. The first McDonald's I went to was a so-called McDonald's Café in the pedestrian zone without any seats. The benches near the café were all full, occupied by rowdy semi-drunk men, because there had been an evening football match. So I walked to the next McDonald's. There were four cash registers, but only two were manned. There were six people in the queue ahead of me. The waiting time to be served was 5 minutes 50 seconds. The time required to receive my food (shown above) was 4 minutes 43 seconds. The milk shake was the fastest. Then the fries. The longest wait was for the hamburger. The days of the 30 second hamburger are long gone.

What's the problem? I think that it's because McDonald's has departed from its initial business model as devised by the McDonald brothers: one burger, one size fries, one milk shake. Now there's a menu, with different burgers to choose from. A restaurant can't be expected to keep all the different burgers pre-cooked and wrapped, so there's a delay with the orders.

As for the quality, when Ray Kroc first visited the restaurant he told Mac McDonald it was the best hamburger he'd ever tasted. What I ate tonight wasn't bad, but it wasn't anything special either. Maybe the hamburgers sold by the original 1950's McDonald's restaurant really were something special, but the Krocburger that I ate today wasn't. Burger King's flame-grilled burgers taste better, and I've tasted even better burgers at small, privately owned restaurants.

My overall impression of the film is very positive. Michael Keaton is an incredible actor. By the end of the film I felt that I knew Ray Kroc inside out. I even liked him, despite all his faults. The film shows a typical American success story. The way they tell it is that anyone can succeed if he works hard and perseveres. That's only half the story, as the film shows. In America anyone can succeed if he works hard, perseveres and is cruel enough to trample his competitors underfoot.

TV Series: Teen Wolf

It's been four years since I watched the first season of "Teen Wolf". Today I started the second season. I'd forgotten that it's so good.

I'm seriously considering spending more time watching television series this year. I'll still go to the cinema to watch films once or twice a week, but I'll watch less films at home. That might be a problem for my regular readers who are used to new posts from me almost every day. You might think I'm getting lazy or disinterested. That's not the case. It's just that I write about every film I watch, that's a rule I've set myself, but I only write sporadically about television series. I've never written episode by episode reviews, and I don't intend to. Maybe I'll just write small posts every now and then to let my readers know what I'm watching.

The only television series that I watch as it's broadcast is "Doctor Who". I can't resist watching each episode as soon as it's posted on Iplayer. It's part of my life. I'm old enough to have seen all but nine of the 97 missing episodes, and I can still remember some of them vividly, including "Mission to the Unknown" (1965) and "The Invasion" episode 4 (1968).

There are several TV series, past and present, that I want to watch. I'll give priority to the ones that have already been cancelled. "Several" is an understatement. I just checked my list. There are 24 completed series that I want to watch, 11 ongoing series, and two series I've already watched but want to rewatch in full.

This weekend I watched the last few episodes of the first season of "Flash". I'll probably wait a few months before I watch the second season. At the moment the series at the top of my list are

  1. Teen Wolf (I'm watching the second series now)
  2. Vampire Diaries (I've only watched a few episodes, so I'll start again at the beginning)
  3. Lost (I've already watched the first three seasons)
  4. Banshee (I've watched the first season, but I'll start again at the beginning)
  5. Hannibal (I've only watched one episode so far)

That doesn't mean I'll necessarily watch them in that order. I'll decide as I go along.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (3 Stars)

This evening I felt in the mood for a teenage romcom, preferably an American high school romcom. The majority of my DVDs still haven't been unpacked after my move to Germany last year, so I decided to check out what Netflix had to offer. This film, whose title I'll shorten to "Nick and Norah", caught my attention. Michael Cera and Kat Dennings in the title roles sound like a suitable pairing.

At school Norah is teased by another girl, Triss, about not having a boyfriend. Later that night they meet in a club, and the teasing continues, so Norah decides to kiss a random boy to make it look like she has someone. Unknown to her, the boy that she kisses is Triss's ex-boyfriend Nick. It's been months since they broke up, but Nick is still obsessed with Triss. This kiss changes Triss's attitude. She enjoyed having Nick crying over her, and she wants to keep him in that state, so she dumps her boyfriend for the evening and offers herself to Nick again. Norah develops an interest in Nick, especially when she discovers that they have identical music tastes, but she's not willing to compete with Triss for his attention.

An added complication is that Norah has gone out with her friend Caroline, who has become totally drunk and needs to be driven home safely. Nick has a car and offers to drive Norah and Caroline home. But Nick is the bass guitarist in a band called the Jerk-Offs, and his fellow band members see him with Norah and think she's right for him, so they take Caroline off his hands.

The other band members are all gay, so they give Nick relationship advice. They claim to know better than straight men what girls really want. Is that true, or just a gay stereotype? I hope it's not true, because if it really is true it's tragic.

I have mixed feelings about the film. The awkward romance between Nick and Norah is touching. What bothers me is the drunk girlfriend. If she had just been a minor subplot I could have accepted it, but she's a major character in the film and we see a lot of her. Girls are really ugly when they stagger around the streets throwing up and acting stupid. This ruined the film for me.

As you can guess, the girl gets the boy in the end, as in all romcoms. Unfortunately, however much I smiled at the happy ending I wasn't satisfied with the meandering path the film took to get there.

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Saturday, 22 April 2017

Queen of Katwe (5 Stars)

Better late than never. This film was released in September 2016 in America, in October 2016 in England, but I had to wait until this week to see it in a German cinema. It's a marvellous, magical true story about the success of an underdog. The film was made by Disney studios, and in Germany it was advertised as a children's film, but that's a mislabelling. Just because a film is about a young teenager it doesn't mean it's a film for children. It's a film that can be enjoyed by people of any age.

The film tells the story of Phiona Matesi, a young woman who was born in 1996 in Katwe, a slum on the outskirts of Uganda's capital Kampala. The film begins in 2006 when she was 10. She's the second youngest of four children, and she works selling corn. School? What's that? Slum children don't go to school. Her family lives in a small hut. Her father has died of AIDS. Phiona is being prepared for her marriage in a few years time, as soon as she develops into womanhood. There are actually men already interested in her, but her mother won't allow her to be with them until she's at least 13.

Phiona decides to visit a missionary centre in the slum. It gives children a bowl of porridge, and they're taught to play either football or chess. Phiona has a natural talent for chess. In less than a year she becomes the missionary centre's chess championship. The boys are so ashamed of being beaten by a girl, but Phiona considers it natural. She thinks of chess as a girls' game because the Queen is the most powerful piece.

The film follows her life, her advances and her setbacks, up to 2012. She won a championship at a grammar school in Kampala, beating boys years older than herself. She won the African junior championship in Sudan. This is followed by an international tournament in Russia in which she finished in second place, an admirable achievement, but so disappointing to her that she almost gave up chess.

In 2010 she entered a school. According to the what-happened-next text at the end of the film she's now at university.

For me this is a wonderful film about how a girl can succeed in life, even though everything is against her. She fought her way to the top using her natural intelligence and her determination. She's only 20 today, so I suspect that the fight isn't over yet.

It's very unusual for a film to tell the life story of a person who is only 20. This made it possible for the actors and the real life characters they're portraying to be shown side by side at the beginning of the credits. Not just Phiona, also her mother, her sister and brothers, and all the other people important in her life.

Madina Nalwanga, the actress who played Phiona, was 16 at the time the film was made. Normally two different actresses would be used for playing a character from the ages of 10 to 16, but it works out well. Through careful filming, make up and camera angles Madina seems younger than her real age in the first half of the film.

Phiona in 2016 Mutesi discussing the film.

Phiona in 2013 having fun on the chessboard with the ex-world champion Gary Kasparov.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Joy Ride (4½ Stars)

My personal definition of a good film is that it's a film that I want to watch at least three times. That's very subjective, but it fits. If you check my alphabetical list of posts you'll find a few films that I've watched three or more times. That doesn't mean that they're the only good films I've watched. I didn't say a film is good if I've watched it three times, I said that I want to watch it three times. These three times might be years apart. Then you have to consider that my list of posts isn't my full viewing history, since I only started writing my blog in 2010. I wish I'd started earlier. According to my list of posts the film that I've watched the most often is "The Life of Pi" (currently seven times), but the film that I've actually watched the most often is "The Truman Show". I must have watched it at least 20, maybe 30 times. I was obsessed with the film in 2000. I taped it when it was on television, and I watched it two or three times a week for months.

Today is the third time that I've watched "Joy Ride" aka "Roadkill" since starting my blog. I believe I watched it once before then, but it might have been twice. I can't be sure. It was made in 2001, and it's one of those rare films that was popular with both the public and the critics. It was written and produced by J. J.  Abrams, which is probably the reason. His films and television series tend to have a general appeal.

An integral part of the film's plot is the use of a CB radio. Are they still in use? The film takes place in the time before the proliferation of mobile phones, but the networking feature of CB radios is something that would still be useful today.

The reason I first bought the film was that it stars my favourite actress, Leelee Sobieski, but it's so good that I would enjoy it even without her. Her appearance makes a good film even better. She's the film's highlight, and her performance outshadows that of Paul Walker and Steve Zahn.

The film was released as "Joy Ride" in America, but it was renamed "Roadkill" in England and most other countries. The reason is the difference in meaning between American and British English. In America a joy ride is driving a car for fun. In England a joy ride is a criminal activity that involves stealing a car, driving it somewhere, then dumping it.

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The Mist (5 Stars)

Although "The Mist" is a classic HOTPOP film, it's worth pointing out that the film has other sorts of horrible things, not just the ones that emerge from the mist. When horrible things appear outside the supermarket the camouflaged horrible things inside the supermarket show what they really are. Religious fanatics often use their religion as an excuse for hate, but in their everyday lives they pretend to be loving and caring. When they're put under extreme pressure there's no need to pretend any more, and their evil can be displayed to everyone.

My regular readers already know my thoughts on female supremacy. Usually I would take the side of a woman brandishing a knife to threaten a man. I make an exception in the case of religious fanatics like Mrs. Carmody, shown above. She's not using a weapon to defend herself or further women's rights; she's carrying a knife to represent a male God, and she's not even aware of what this God really wants.

Today I watched the colour version for the first time in seven years. It will probably be the last time. The black and white version is better.

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P. S. In case you forgot, HOTPOP means "HOrrible Things Pounce On People".

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Pawn Sacrifice (5 Stars)

Between 1993 and 2011 four films were made about Robert James Fischer, better known as Bobby Fischer. Two were documentaries, two were biographical films. Does that mean that everything was said that had to be said? In September 2015 I found an article about a new film being made, "Pawn Sacrifice". After my initial groaning when I saw the headline I read the article and I was curious. Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber? That's a dream team. The author called the film brilliant and claimed that it was the best film about Bobby Fischer so far. I had to see it when it was released in England in December 2015.

No luck. My local cinema, Cineworld in Birmingham, chose not to show it. In fact, no cinemas in Birmingham showed it. If I wanted to see it I would have to travel to London. I decided to wait for the Blu-ray release. Also no luck. It was released on Blu-ray in America, but not in England, and Amazon stated the release was locked to Region A. (This has since been changed to list it as Region Free).

So I waited. And waited. And waited. This month it was added to Amazon Prime in Germany, so I could finally watch it.

The film begins with Bobby Fischer as a child and ends with his victory as world chess champion in 1972. It might have been interesting to add an extra hour to continue until his death in 2008, but this would have caused problems for the film's pacing. Maybe one day someone will make a film about the latter years, 1972 to 2008.

I've always appreciated Tobey Maguire as an actor, ever since I first saw him in "Pleasantville", but this is the most astounding performance of his career. For me this will be his signature role, the role I'll always remember him for. He perfectly portrays the mood swings of a man who was seriously ill. Under normal circumstances he would have been locked up in a psychiatric ward, but the American government had other plans for him. It was the middle of the Cold War. The best chess players in the world were all Russians, proving that Russians are more intelligent than Americans and by extension that Communism is superior to democracy. Bobby Fischer, despite his paranoia, his mood swings and his narcissism, was the only American capable of beating the Russians. Bobby Fischer was America's weapon of mass destruction to be unleashed on Russia, and if weaponising him drove him further into madness, who cared? As Fischer's closest adviser, the Catholic priest Bill Lombardy, said, Fischer was in more danger if he won than if he lost.

Liev Schreiber's performance as the reigning champion, Boris Spassky, is just as remarkable. For the first half of the film he's a silent, enigmatic figure, striding around, always flanked by secret service agents and chess officials. In the second half of the film we finally get to know him. We see a warmth beneath his exterior that he's only hiding because it's expected of him. He knows that he's being weaponised by Russia, but all he wants to do is play chess and show the world that he's the best player.

The focus of the film is on Bobby Fischer's madness. He hated the Jews, and he saw Jewish conspiracies all around him. The irony is that he himself was a Jew, even though he denied it. The film hints that his problems stemmed from his relationship with his mother. She was a Polish Jewess, and the identity of his biological father was unknown. He despised her because of her frequent love affairs.

Bobby Fischer admired Adolf Hitler, not as a leader but as a Jew-killer. He was blind to the fact that he too would have been gassed in Germany. In his later years his hatred for the Jews took on ridiculous proportions. He gave a series of interviews for a Philippine radio station, which were available on his web site until his death. (After his death the recordings were discreetly removed by friends who wanted to preserve his memory). The interviews were characterised by anti-Semitic rants, however much the interviewer tried to talk about chess. In a memorable interview he talks for half an hour about his penis. He claimed that when he was at chess tournaments the Jewish players saw how big his penis was when they visited the rest room and were intimidated, because Jews all have small penises. This gave him a psychological edge when he played chess with them.

Was Bobby Fischer the best player who has ever lived? That's a tough question to answer. He was definitely the world's best player in 1972, but after the world championship he descended further into madness and disappeared from the public eye. In 1975 his world champion title was removed because he refused to defend the title, and it fell back into the hands of the Russians, who retained the title for the next 30 years (Anatoly Karpov, 1975-1985; Garry Kasparov, 1985-2000; Vladimir Kramnik, 2000-2007). Garry Kasparov, who greatly respected Fischer as a player, repeatedly offered to play him, but Fischer refused. He said that Kasparov was a poor player and was only allowed to be world champion because he was a Jew.

Bobby Fischer still has many fans today, and they say he's the best player who has ever lived. Undoubtedly, he played the most exciting chess games, especially in contrast to the playing styles of the championship matches of the 1960's and 1970's. Fischer was a tactical genius who frequently sacrificed pieces to gain an advantage.

I personally believe that the best player who has ever lived is either Gary Kasparov or the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen. Since the 1990's opening theory has become very important in chess, and Garry Kasparov is undoubtedly the greatest expert in chess openings who has ever lived. (Chess openings are a series of moves that are played automatically, almost without thinking, because they're known to be the best moves). Magnus Carlsen is probably superior to Kasparov in his chess tactics, but he doesn't quite equal Kasparov's knowledge of opening theory. Those are sweeping statements, and I'm scared of vicious replies from people who know more about chess than me.

Bobby Fischer
March 9, 1943 – January 17, 2008

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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell (3 Stars)

This film is based on a Japanese comic with the same name. Animated films based on the comic were released in 1995 and 2004. This is the first live action version of the story.

During the development of the film there was severe criticism of the choice of Scarlett Johansson as the lead actress. This is criticism that I agree with. The main character, referred to as Major Mira Killian or simply Major for most of the film, is a Japanese woman called Motoko. Why, why, why wasn't a Japanese actress picked for the role? A much better choice for the role would have been Rila Fukushima, who actually appears in the film in a minor role. Critics have accused Hollywood of white-washing, the practise of casting white actors as non-white characters. which has been done ever since "Birth of a Nation" in 1914. White-washing is a form of racism, but I don't consider the Hollywood studios acted out of racism. They picked Scarlett Johansson because she's a popular actress and they thought adding her name to the cast would make the film a hit. I don't accept that as an excuse. Whatever the reason, white-washing is despicable as a practise and should be banned.

I consider the converse act of black-washing, i.e. choosing black actors to play white characters, to be equally bad, even though less people complain about it. There's a certain level of hypocrisy in modern liberal thinking. If someone complains about Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi it's okay, but if someone complains about Idris Elba playing a Norwegian God he's called racist. So-called liberals need to look at themselves in the mirror before making one-sided complaints.

The film takes place in a fictional Japanese city in the middle of the 21st Century. Technology has advanced to the state that humans can be enhanced by having body parts replaced with synthetic alternatives. This might be a necessary medical procedure, such as receiving new eyes after being blinded. It might also be vanity, such as getting longer legs if you want to be taller. A company called Hanka Robotics takes it one step further. A human brain is placed into a completely synthetic body. After a series of experiments Motoko aka Mira Killian is the first success. Sometimes the body and the face look like a jigsaw puzzle, as in the picture above. At other times the cracks disappear and she almost looks like a real woman. Almost but not quite. She looks like a Barbie Doll with all the naughty bits removed, i.e. the breasts and the genitals are completely smooth. It must be terrible for a living, feeling woman to be neutered in this way, but this is a topic not raised in the film. If it were done to me as a man I wouldn't want to live any more.

Mira is recruited by an anti-terrorism police force. Her perfect body makes her a valuable asset in law enforcement. She's a loyal agent, until she has to track down a terrorist killing the scientists responsible for her creation. When she meets him she begins to doubt whether she's fighting on the right side of the law.

The film's biggest weakness is its setting. It takes place in a high tech world with glittery flashing lights and building sized holograms. Rather than enhance the background they're a visual annoyance, distracting from what's happening in the foreground. Just as annoying are scenes that pixellate to represent glitches in Mira's vision. With the exception of Mira herself the characters are poorly developed. The film's bad guy, Dr. Cutter, the head of Hanka Robotics, is as bland and anonymous as the company he represents.

The film makes a brave attempt to tell a good story, but in the end it fails. "Ghost in the Shell" should have remained on the pages of the comic book, where it belongs.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Es war einmal in Deutschland (4½ Stars)

The literal translation of the film's title is "Once upon a time in Germany", but the English title of the film is "Bye bye Germany". Both titles would be adequate.

The film was advertised as a comedy. When I went to see it today I was surprised that there was so little humour in it. The jokes were there, but they were subtle, nothing to make the cinema audience roar with laughter. I can understand this. It's difficult to make a comedy about a group of Jews who survived the Second World War. Maybe the English could get away with it, because the English are expected to make fun of anything, but it's a tricky subject for a film made in Germany. One false step and the film could be decried as a work of racism. As it is, the director has managed to create the film tastefully, while allowing the audience a few smiles along the way.

The film takes place in Frankfurt in 1946. The American army has set up an office to give licenses to anyone who wants to found a business. I assume that they took over this responsibility to prevent ex-Nazis becoming influential as business leaders. David Bermann, a Jew whose family had owned a large textile shop before the war, is refused a business license, even though all his Jewish friends have been granted licenses, To deal with this David arranges for a friend to register a business in which he can act as the unofficial boss.

David and his six Jewish employees make money fast selling linen imported from France. The business isn't exactly honest, but it's not illegal either. For instance, they approach the wives of men whose husbands have died in the war, claiming to have made business arrangements with the men before their deaths.

Despite the humour of their trickery, a shadow is over the men. All seven of them have suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Almost all of them have spent time in concentration camps and have stories to tell.

Then there's the question why David is mistrusted by the Americans. They accuse him of having collaborated with the Nazis. He strongly denies this. In a series of interviews with an American intelligence officer, Sara Simone, he tells her what he did to survive in the camp, but what he tells her is so ridiculous that she can't believe it. Nevertheless, Sara slowly falls for David's charm.

The film is full of so many subtle ironies, always in contrast with suffering, that it's difficult to know whether you should laugh or cry. The film is introduced from the standpoint of an unreliable narrator, who lets the audience question whether the story is true or not. Maybe this narrator is David himself, since he takes over the narration at the end of the film, but it's not clear. Whatever the case is, we can't help but love David as the silver-tongued slippery conman.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Ant-Man (5 Stars)

This is the fourth and final film in my Easter Marvel mini-marathon. Are you wondering why I'm not planning another Marvel film for tomorrow? I have a good excuse. I have a lot of other things to do tomorrow. My life doesn't retirely around films. Mostly, but not entirely.

This is a film that obviously doesn't take itself too seriously. Even though it's based on one of Marvel's oldest heroes, created by the genius of Stan Lee in 1962, Ant-Man seems like a comedy figure. How can someone become a hero by shrinking to the size of an ant? Ridiculous!

The film relies heavily on the use of CGI. Normally I would say that as a criticism, but for a film of this nature it's essential. How else could the miniature hero Scott Lang be shown rushing into action surrounded by an army of ants?

"Ant-Man" is an excellent film, despite the departure of Edgar Wright as director. I can hardly wait to see what direction the sequel will take.

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P.S. In case you didn't notice, I managed to add the extra three labels to yesterday's post. It was a bit of a hack, and if I need to re-edit the post for any reason I'll have to remove them again, but I'm happy I have them in place for now.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Avengers: Age of Ultron (4½ Stars)

I'm continuing with my Easter Marvel films session. If I watch "Age of Ultron" today and "Ant-Man" tomorrow, that means I shall have watched the 9th, 11th and 12th films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I skipped the 10th film, "Guardians of the Galaxy", but that's not a problem because it's not in the continuity of the Earth-based Marvel films. As far as I know the Guardians and the Avengers won't meet each other until "Avengers: Infinity War", the 19th film in the MCU.

After watching the film today I realised that the MCU's version of Vision has the same characteristics as his counterpart in the comics, even though he has different powers and a different origin. It seems that the MCU Vision is supposed to be a combination of the Vision and Adam Warlock. In the comics both characters are placid philosophers, but the difference is that Adam Warlock is plagued by self-doubt and guilt, emotions lacking from the Vision. The only inner torment felt by the Vision was regret that he wasn't a human, as brought to a head in Avengers #58, "Even an android can cry", considered to be one of the best comics ever written.

Yesterday I watched "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and I made a few remarks about the budding romance between Natasha Romanoff and Steve Rogers. I wondered how it would continue. Now I have my answer. It doesn't continue at all. In "Age of Ultron" her only interest is in Bruce Banner. It seems that Steve's kiss wasn't good enough to keep her interest.

I also asked whether Natasha was ever referred to as the Black Widow, and I found an answer in this film. In one of the early scenes a fellow Avenger (off-screen, but I believe it was Captain America) calls her Widow (without "Black"). That's a good enough answer.

Google has introduced an annoying new limitation. The length of a post's labels, including the spaces, isn't allowed to exceed 200 characters. I've already reviewed this film before, and I wanted to copy the labels unchanged from this post, but I got an error message. The length of the labels is 240 characters. That means I have to remove at least three actor names from my new post. I've removed Stan Lee, Josh Brolin and Stellan Skarsgard, because they have the shortest screen time in the film. That brings me down to 198 characters. I'll try to re-add them later in the posts list without going via the editor. That might work. If you see the three missing labels when you read my post you'll know that I succeeded.

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Friday, 14 April 2017

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (5 Stars)

Let's start a new tradition. I'll watch Marvel films every Easter. If I forget about it next year and watch other films I invite my readers to yell at me. Don't y'all forget now!

This is a film with fantastic action from beginning to end. Moreover, it's the first film in which Captain America acts like Captain America. He flings a shield to owerpower opponents instead of firing a gun. He takes the moral high ground whenever anyone, including Nick Fury, suggests a course of action that contradicts his feeling of justice and the American way. This is classic 1960's Captain America as written by Stan Lee.

Of course, Stan Lee has a cameo in the film. I ought to publish a gallery of his cameo appearances, but I'm sure others have already done it. I'll check out what other people have done, and I'll only make my own gallery if I think I can do something better, or at least something different. If not I'll just publish a link to whichever gallery I think is best. I won't do it any time soon. I think that the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 3 would be the best time.

At the moment I'm trying to remember if Natasha Romanoff was ever referred to as the Black Widow in any of the Marvel films. She certainly wasn't in this film. I'll have to play close attention the next time I watch the MCU films from the beginning. That would be a good idea for a film marathon. Maybe next Easter. I already own the first 12 films on Blu-ray. I might have a few more by then.

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" includes the first hints of a romance between Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff. The film starts with her suggesting girls he could ask out on a date. That's a typical strategy for a woman who doesn't want to admit she's interested in a man. Later in the film she gives him his first kiss for 70 years. That's special. Let's see if anything develops from this in the next few films.

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Thursday, 13 April 2017

Deadpool (5 Stars)

The price of the Deadpool Blu-ray has finally dropped to a price I'm willing to pay. Actually, it was an Amazon "Deal of the Day", so the price has increased again. There seems to be a conspiracy with the Marvel films. All other Blu-ray releases fall in price drastically after a year, but the Marvel Blu-rays remain high in price for two years or more. Or maybe the price is just left high because people are still buying them? Whatever the reason is, I never pay more than £6 ($7.50 or 7 Euros) for a Blu-ray disc. The only exception is when a film I want is out of print, in which case I know that the price will rise if I wait longer. There's no real rush for me to buy films. There are so many other good films for me to watch.

There was a time when people thought they knew what comic book films were like. By "people" I mean primarily those who have never been avid readers of American comic books. Good guys in fancy costumes beat up bad guys in fancy costumes. That's what they know from seeing the X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil and the Avengers. There were slight deviations with "Thor" including Lord-of-theRings-ish fantasy and "Guardians of the Galaxy" featuring Star-Wars-ish sci-fi, but the films are mostly about good guys and bad guys in costumes. You can tell them apart because the bad guys kill their enemies and the good guys don't.

Then came Deadpool. He's different. More pragmatic. He kills his enemies with his gun or his swords. That's a lot more efficient. Just think about Spider-Man. Back in July 1963 Spider-Man defeated Doctor Octopus and sent him to prison. Now it's 2017, 54 years later, and Doctor Octopus still returns once or twice a year to fight with Spider-Man. Wouldn't it have been better if Spider-Man had strangled Doc Ock to death with his webbing and spared himself 54 years of misery? He could have killed all his enemies and made New York a much safer place.

One of the guest stars in the film is Negasonic Teenage Warhead, a member of the X-Men who knows better than to kill people. If it's really better, that is. On the one hand she has Colossus lecturing her on the evils of killing people, on the other hand she has Deadpool doing whatever is necessary to get a job done. Which way will she go? We'll have to wait for the second film to find out.

Overall, "Deadpool" is a brilliant film. The inappropriate humour and the repeated breaking of the fourth wall make it so unique among Marvel films, even without the killing. I'm sure all serious film fans will want to add this Blu-ray to their collection, whether or not they wait for the prices to drop.

Here are the links:

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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The Same Sky (4 Stars)

In its promotion for American audiences "The Same Sky" is called a mini-series. In Germany the original version, "Der Gleiche Himmel", is called a three-part television film. That's not just a matter of translation, because the German language contains the word "Miniserie". It's a matter of definition. In America and most other countries films made for television have a smaller budget and usually feature less famous actors than films made for the cinema. In Germany it's different. Films made for television have big budgets and the same actors appear that we see in the big German cinema films. If you watch a German film on Blu-ray it's not possible to tell whether it was made for television or for the cinema.

By calling "Der Gleiche Himmel" a television film the makers want to emphasise that it's a big budget blockbuster, not a small budget television series. I understand that. When the film is released on Blu-ray it's possible to edit the three 90-minute instalments into a four and a half film. However, it takes more than that to make a film. A film has a plot with character arcs leading from A to B. There might be subplots, but the subplots are just there to add background information and depth to the main story. That's not the case with "Der Gleiche Himmel". There are four stories taking place in parallel in Berlin in 1974, one of them in the West and the other three in the East. The only connection is that the characters in the four stories are either related or know one another. These four stories hardly intersect, apart from being mentioned to one another by the characters in conversation.

This principle of independent stories with shared characters is typical for television soap operas. Three of the four stories are left open-ended at the end of the television film, which is also a characteristic of soap operas: story-lines never come to an end, they are just left to simmer in the background. It would be more accurate to call it a mini-soap opera.

The first story is about Lars Weber, a 25-year-old East German Stasi (secret service) agent. He's sent to West Berlin to seduce a middle-aged divorcee who works for an American military station that spies on international phone calls.

The second story is about Klara Weber, Lars' cousin and next-door neighbour, who is chosen to represent East Germany as a 200 meter swimmer in the 1976 Olympic Games. The vitamins that she's given during her training cause her to grow hair on her chest and back.

The third story is about Axel Lang, a homosexual school teacher who falls in love with an English salesman and wants to join him in the West. Axel is a teacher in the same school as Klara's father Conrad.

The fourth story is about a group of people who are building a tunnel under the Berlin Wall. Axel's ex-lover Tobias is a member of this group.

As you can see, the links between the characters are tenuous, as far as the stories are concerned. Some of the characters appear in two of the stories, but nobody appears in three of them.

All four stories are about the relationship between the East and the West, especially the two halves of Berlin. This even applies to the second story, because Klara has to win a gold medal to prove that East Germany is superior to West Germany. There's a huge wall through the middle of the city -- or rather a double wall, as the photo above shows -- but everyone sees the same sky above their heads. So why is there such enmity? It's true, some of the people in the film, such as the tunnel builders, want to be with those on the other side, but the majority see the population on the opposite side of the wall as their enemies.

This enmity came to a head on the third day of the World Cup football competition, 22nd June 1974, when the East and West teams met each other. The West German team felt confident of an easy victory against the inferior players from the East, but what happened? In the 77th minute East Germany scored the first and only goal.

The reaction in East Berlin.

The reaction in West Berlin.

Fortunately the West Germans didn't have to stay sad for too long. Despite losing this game and finishing second in the opening round they went on to win the championship.

I enjoyed watching "Der Gleiche Himmel", and I'll probably watch it again. I find films about the years of the divided Berlin fascinating. This film might not tell a consistent story, but it accurately captures the atmosphere of these years.