Monday, 22 May 2017

Off-Topic: Backgammon Live


On August 14th 2015 I made a post about an online Backgammon game called Backgammon Live. It's embedded in Facebook. It has over six million registered players, and typically 100,000 people play each day. After almost two years of playing on a regular basis I think it's time to write another post to reassess the game. Click here to read my original post.

Over the last two years I've played an average of 17 games a day. A typical game lasts about five minutes, so I've been playing up to 90 minutes a day. That's so much that it practically counts as an addiction. I'm proud that I've advanced to 6th place in the leader board. I was in 12th place for months, but over the last few weeks I've slowly crept up the board.


Backgammon Live (BGL) is very addictive. The combination of the attractive boards and the pleasant repetitive music have a mind-numbing effect, making the player oblivious to the passing of time.

The game is controversial. On the Backgammon Live fan page there is more negative criticism than praise. Players claim that they've been cheated by rigged dice. They say that they're good players who would win a lot more games if the dice were fair. Let me give my opinion about this as someone who has played more than 11,000 games:

I don't believe that the dice are rigged. The luck swings both ways. Sometimes I'm very lucky, sometimes my opponent is very lucky. When I lose a game through bad luck I just shrug my shoulders and play again. It's easy to do that if you're betting sensibly as described in my original post, i.e. never play a board unless you have at least 20 times the minimum bet. You can only lose all your coins if you bet all your coins. That's why it will never happen to me.

Apart from that, I have my doubts whether the people who call themselves good players really are good players. In my experience, the standard of play in Backgammon Live is generally low. It seems to me that very few of my opponents have read books about Backgammon strategy or are members of a Backgammon club. My opponents usually fall into one of two categories: they play too safely or too riskily. I enjoy Backgammon most when I play against a truly skilled player, someone better than me. I don't mind losing a dozen games in a row if I'm playing against someone I can learn from.

I don't consider myself to be the sixth best player, even if I'm in sixth place in the leader board. The opponents that I consider better than me are all lower in the board, i.e. they have less virtual coins than me. Maybe they play less often than me, or maybe they take too many risks by playing high stake boards. If I had to judge my skills I'd put myself in the top 1% of the regular players. That means in the top 1000 of the daily 100,000 players. I don't deserve to be in 6th place. If the leader board were about playing skill alone I'd be happy to see myself in 500th place. That would be fair.


Now I'll go into some criticism I have of the game. It's all constructive criticism, not accusations of cheating. I hope the game designers will read this post and take my thoughts seriously.

1. The dice rolls

One of the reasons that other players accuse the games of being rigged is the unnatural dice rolls. The random number generator used by the game seems to be poorly programmed. There are often repetitive sequences, either the same pair of numbers being rolled or several doubles in a row. A good random number generator would generate a number from 1 to 36 to pick a combination, because a number from 1 to 6 would be more prone to repetition. Even the best random number generators are prone to repetitions, if they're based on numerical calculations alone. Typically, a random number X is generated by a formula like

X = (aX' + b) mod c

where X' is the previous random number, a and b are positive integers chosen by the programmer, and c is a positive integer that defines the highest valid number. This formula delivers a number between 0 and c-1.

When I worked as a programmer I realised that even the best selected values of a and b led to repetitions in computer games. I solved this by adding an extra variable d to the equation,

X = (aX' + b + d) mod c

where d is the time that the user needed to reply to the last input, measured in fractions of a second.

2. The bots

In theory, BGL's system of different boards with different minimum bets is perfect for matching players of similar skills against one another. There are 20 boards with minimum bets between 100 and 15,000,000 coins. When a person begins to play BGL he starts off with only a few hundred coins, so he plays the cheapest board, Royal Palace (100 coins). If he's a good player he'll win more coins and be able to play in the next board, Athens (250 coins), then Texas (500 coins), etc. He keeps on rising from board to board, until he reaches a level where the other players are too good for him. When this happens he drops down a board and stays there.

This perfect system is broken by one of BGL's features: the computer players, commonly called bots. In themselves they're a good idea. When a person enters BGL he wants to play a game of Backgammon. The game's server assigns him an opponent. The problem is that sometimes no opponent is available, so he's offered a bot as opponent. This saves him being frustrated by having to wait a long time for an opponent, but think about the consequences. Most players play in the lower boards, because they don't have many coins. The higher the board, the less players there are. This means that the higher the stakes are, the more likely you are to play a bot.

The bots aren't omnipotent super-players. They play well, but not perfectly. For that I'm thankful to BGL. It would be terrible if there were super-players waiting to take all our hard-earned coins. However, it's still unsatisfying to serious Backgammon players like myself. I've played thousands of games against bots, and I can now predict their moves. I know their weaknesses, and I can beat them in more than 75% of the games. I would rather play against humans. For this reason, despite having more than 200 million coins I play most of my games in boards with a minimum bet of 10,000 or less, so that I have a good chance of playing a human. I only go into the higher boards occasionally to score a big win against a bot and boost my coins. I like to increase my coins by at least a million every day.

How can this problem be solved? There are four alternatives:

a) Remove the bots altogether. If no opponent is available, continue searching indefinitely.
b) Remove the bots altogether. If no opponent is available, recommend selecting a lower board.
c) Offer a tick box to say whether you want to accept a bot opponents in principle.
d) If no opponent is available, ask if you want to play a bot.

3. Max Bet

When I started playing Backgammon Live in 2015 the maximum bet for each table was typically 192 times the minimum bet. This allowed for a win by Backgammon when the doubling cube is raised to 64. This rarely happens in real play, but it should at least be permissible. Last year this was restricted. The maximum bet now varies between six and ten times the minimum bet. I frequently play games where the cube is raised to eight, so this warps the game for me.

A further problem is that the maximum bet is limited by the number of coins the players have. Players are allowed to play in a board if they have enough coins to match the minimum bet. For instance, a player with 11,000 coins is allowed to play in the London board (minimum bet 10,000 coins). In this case, if I use the doubling cube the bet isn't doubled, it's only raised 10%. This totally distorts game play and doubling strategy.

The bots are also a problem, because bots always have coins between twice and four times the minimum bet.

How can this problem be solved? All of the following must be implemented:

a) Increase the maximum bet to 192 times the minimum bet (or round it up to 200 times).
b) Only allow a player into a room if he has at least 10 times the minimum bet.
c) If bots are still permitted. give them more coins.

4. Autoplay

In my original post I praised BGL's autoplay feature. If only one move was available the program automatically made that move. This was a wonderful way of speeding up the game. Now the feature has been limited; autoplay is only enabled during bearing off. I understand the reasons for the change. On the fan page there were frequent complaints from beginners who said, "The program moved for me. I wanted to do something else". Often the moves were made fast, too fast for a beginner to read the board and see that only one move was possible. Alternatively, many beginners don't know all the rules of Backgammon, for instance that if only one of the dice's numbers can be rolled it has to be the larger number.

How can this problem be solved?

Offer a tick box to say whether you want autoplay always or only during bearing off.

5. Chat

BGL's chat was never perfect. As I said in my original post, it was hampered by the timer continuing to run while typing. However, there have been recent changes that have made the chat totally unusable. It's not a change in the features, it's a bug. When I type, some characters appear randomly in capitals, while others don't appear at all. If I start to type in the chat window, then make a move, then return to the chat window, I have to start typing again at the beginning of the text, not at the end. In addition, as soon as a game is finished the chat window is blocked and isn't reactivated until the next game starts. This makes it impossible to chat to an opponent between games, which is the only time when both players can talk without worrying about the timer.

Chatting is important for two reasons. First it's a matter of etiquette. I like to wish my opponent good luck or compliment him when he wins. This is now impossible.

There's an additional reason. Sometimes I encounter a very good player and would like to play with him again. Ideally I'd type something like, "Please add me as a friend. My full name is Mike Hood". This is impossible to type with the current buggy chat system.

How can this problem be solved? All of the following must be implemented:

a) First fix the bugs.
b) Allow chat between games.
c) Add a feature to pause a game, if both players agree.

6. Tip the dealer

After each game the winner is required to "tip the dealer" by giving him 10% of the winnings. This is amusing, because Backgammon has no dealer, but I understand it. This is the game fee, the charge for playing a game. Backgammon Live is advertised as a free game, but the game's creators only make money from players voluntarily buying coins. Good players don't need to buy coins, except as a voluntary donation to the BGL team, because they can carry on winning more coins every day. Buying coins is only necessary to those incapable of winning or those too impatient to work themselves up to a high coins balance. The game fee takes back the coins that have been sold to balance BGL's running costs.

What I didn't realise when I wrote my original post is that the game fee isn't a fixed 10%. The percentage steadily rises on the higher boards. I find this unfair. If one player wins 100 coins in Royal palace and another wins 15 million coins in Hong Kong, it's the same usage of BGL's game server. If any difference were made at all, a smaller percentage should be charged for the higher boards, since BGL makes a larger overall profit. Charging even more when BGL earns more is extortionate.

How can this problem be solved?

Change the game fee to a flat 10% of the winnings.


The game is addictive. That's not meant as a criticism. All good games are addictive, especially computer games. The BGL team is sometimes accused of exploiting human weakness, making players addicted. Whatever you may think, it's the way our world works. If you watch the television or read a magazine you'll be bombarded with advertisements for things you don't really need. The people who pay for coins do it in exchange for the pleasure of being able to play more games. They get something for their money. Unfortunately, those who buy coins are the ones most likely to lose them. The daily Top Earners list could be renamed the Biggest Losers list. It only lists the players who have won the most, without taking account of how much they have lost. If you click on an entry in the list you see the current balance. In most cases the balance is far less than the winnings, often zero. What's better? Winning 400 million coins and having nothing left at the end of the day, or winning 1000 coins and having a balance of 2000 at the end of the day? Often it's the same players in the Top Earners list every day, which means they regularly buy coins. BGL needs support like that  in order to remain solvent.


If you're a Backgammon Live player, please comment on my post. If you're a Backgammon player who doesn't yet know Backgammon Live, please sign up. If you don't yet play Backgammon I recommend that you find a player who lives locally so that you can play on the board first. However enjoyable Backgammon Live may be, real Backgammon is played face to face.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

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


Kim Jong-un is celebrating his latest missile test. He thinks his generals are laughing because they're happy about his success. What he doesn't realise is that they're laughing at his silly hair.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

TV Series: You are wanted


The last two days I've watched the whole of the TV series "You are wanted". It was so gripping, I couldn't stop. I would have watched it all in one day if I hadn't eventually fallen asleep.

"You are wanted" is an Amazon original series. It's made in Germany and stars the brilliant German actor Matthias Schweighöfer, who would have become world famous years ago if not for his unpronounceable name. If I were his manager I'd be begging him to adopt a stage name. What's wrong with Matt Swift? That would be an ideal choice for American audiences.

The main character is Lukas Franke, a hotel manager in Berlin. During a conference in his hotel there's a city-wide power cut. The next day a hacker group calling itself Antipode claims responsibility for the blackout. Shockingly, Lukas is accused of being the leader of this group. His computer and his mobile phone have evidence of contact with the group, even though he claims to know nothing about it. Lukas says he's been hacked, but nobody believes him, especially not the police.

Lukas finds himself at the centre of an international conspiracy. A major terror attack is being planned in Berlin, and those responsible are framing Lukas to direct attention away from themselves. He goes on the run, hiding from the police while trying to solve the mystery. On the way he meets a mysterious woman, played by Karoline Herfurth. She says that she's innocent and is being blackmailed to work for the hackers, but can he trust her?


As I've said before, I find Karoline Herfurth stunningly beautiful. It's not the typical Hollywood beauty look, tall, blonde hair and blue eyes. She has a dark, haunting beauty. It's the sort of face that you see once and never forget.


At this time the series is still exclusive to Amazon. It can't be bought on disc, but it can be watched by subscribers to Amazon's streaming video service. It was filmed in German, but it's available for English speaking customers either dubbed or with subtitles.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Return to Montauk (4½ Stars)


"The two most important things in your life are the thing that you did and regret doing, and the thing that you didn't do and regret not doing".

That's a depressing quote, but it sets the tone for the film. It's a film about sadness and regret. There are occasional glimpses of hope, but regret is stronger than hope. Hope is the expectancy that something good might happen at some time in the future. Regret is the knowledge that something bad has already happened (alternatively that something good didn't happen), it's your own fault and nothing can be done to change it. Regret is about facts while hope is about dreams.

Max Zorn, a Skandinavian novelist who lives in Berlin, travels to New York to promote his latest novel. It's a story about a love affair he had when he lived in New York 17 years ago. He's accompanied by his wife Clara, but he feels compelled to look for Rebecca, the woman on whom the book is based. When he knew her she was a poor student, but now she's a wealthy defence lawyer. Max has been with five women over the last 17 years, but he realises now that Rebecca is the love of his life. Rebecca has had one other lover, but she still has feelings for Max. She suggests that they travel to Montauk, a place where they once spent time together.


Stellan Skarsgard and Nina Hoss are two of my favourite actors. In fact, after watching "Return to Montauk" today I have to say that Stellan is my favourite actor outright. His performance as a naive, childlike man who thinks that he can do whatever he wants is overwhelming. He knows about regrets, he repeats the quote twice, but he hopes things can be undone. Nina Hoss is pragmatic. She doesn't talk about regret, but she feels it, and she's not foolish enough to think things can be undone.

The film is based on the novel "Montauk" by Max Frisch, a book about one of his love affairs. It isn't a direct adaptation of the novel. The director Volker Schlöndorff adds to the story elements from his own life when he lived in New York in 2000, 17 years ago. Schlöndorff is telling his own story, using Max Frisch's novel as the background.

This is a deeply moving film. I couldn't help crying. Maybe not everyone will enjoy it. It's a talkie film in which very little happens. Within those parameters, it's a masterpiece.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (3 Stars)


I don't know what's happened to Guy Ritchie. The first films that he directed, "Lock, stock and two smoking barrels" (1998) and "Snatch" (2000), are two of the best films ever made. "Snatch" almost made it into my list of 30 films to watch before you die. From then on it just went downhill. One flop after another. I admit that I enjoyed his two Sherlock Holmes films, but I seem to be in the minority. Everything else he's made is unwatchable.

Now comes "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword", the first in a series of six films about the legendary British king. I had mixed feelings about going to see it in the cinema. The trailer looked strangely anachronistic, with people wearing clothes that would be acceptable today. I half expected to be disappointed, but I gave it a chance.

King Arthur is said to have ruled over part of southern Britain in the 5th or 6th Century, but it's not certain whether he ever really existed. It's possible that he's just a figure in a series of plays and poems that were written as late as the 11th Century. There are only vague historical references to a man of this name, but he may not have been a king, and even if he was a king the stories about him were certainly written at a later date. In particular, he's said to have ruled from a castle at Camelot, but this is a mythical city that wasn't invented until the 12th Century.

The 500-year period after the Romans left Britain in the 5th Century is often referred to as the Dark Ages. This time is dark from our current point of view. The Romans were diligent at keeping records. There are scrolls chronicling the population, tax income, court cases and every smallest detail of public life. We know practically everything about Britain from 77 to 400 A.D. Then the Romans left, leaving the country in the hands of squabbling warlords. As well as defending their lands against invading Vikings and Saxons, they fought against one another. Education was a low priority, and very few people outside of monasteries knew how to read and write. It was considered unnecessary to keep records. We know almost nothing about daily life, and we can't even be sure about the names of the rulers. It wasn't until the reign of King Alfred of Wessex (871 to 899) that it became common to keep records. It's a tragedy that the years from 400 to 871 have been wiped from history.

Guy Ritchie is fanciful in his telling of the story of King Arthur, inventing his own legends as he goes along. He presents Britain as a country co-inhabited by mages, beings who inherited magical powers. The mages were tolerated because they supported the kings, but after Modred attacked King Uther's castle in Camelot Uther decided to slaughter all the mages. In turn Uther's brother Vortigern, who was trained by mages and can perform smaller feats of magic, kills Uther and usurps the throne. Uther's infant son Arthur is sent away for his protection and is adopted by a prostitute in a London brothel. When he grows up he doesn't even know his own identity. The key is a magical sword called Excalibur. Only Arthur, the true king of Britain, will be able to pull this sword out of the stone where it's embedded.

This is a fantasy epic rather than a story grounded in reality. It belongs to the Swords and Sorcery genre. The film fails to excite. Charlie Hunnam lacks charisma as King Arthur. Jude Law is compelling as Vortigern, but all the other characters are forgettable.

This time I'm not in the minority in my opinion. The critics and the public agree with me that this is an unremarkable film, average at best. Based on the abysmal box office results the next five films won't be made. Let's give Guy Ritchie a chance to rediscover his magic somewhere else.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Alien: Resurrection (4 Stars)


On the face of it this is a strongly feminist film. The two lead characters are powerful women, and it easily passes the Bechdel Test. The men in the story are stupid or insignificant. Whether or not it qualifies as a feminist film decides on which level you look at. As the film progresses we find out that neither of the women is really a woman. The actresses are women, of course, so it's up to you to decide whether you're judging it by the actresses or the characters.

Ever since the first film the Alien films have been a mixture of science fiction and horror. In this fourth film the horror aspect is in the foreground. It's probably because the new director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, felt more comfortable with horror than science fiction. Whatever the reason, it isn't a bad film, but the atmosphere and the mood are far removed from the minimalist setting of "Alien".

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Saturday, 13 May 2017

Alien 3 (4 Stars)


There has always been something bugging me about the Alien films, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Now I've finally figured out what it is. There's a lack of consistency in the atmosphere caused by the swapping and changing of the director from film to film. The first four films were directed by Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet in turn. Ridley Scott and James Cameron are excellent directors, as they've proved over and over again. David Fincher was an unusual choice to direct "Alien 3", because it was his first film. I don't know why the studios were willing to take such a risk giving a young man (only 29) the responsibility for such an important film. He claims that the film didn't turn out the way he wanted because the producers didn't have enough trust in him, but that's a typical trait of beginners: blame everyone else.

Picking Jean-Pierre Jeunet for the fourth film was an even more unusual choice. He had only handled small budget movies at the time. He was thrown in at the deep end, although I have to say that the film he made showed some quality, even if it veered off in a different direction, stylistically, from the first three films.

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Friday, 12 May 2017

Rush Hour 3 (4½ Stars)


This is the film I watched tonight, but I'm feeling lazy so I shan't write anything about it. I'll just tell you what television series I've been watching for the last two weeks:

"The Vampire Diaries"

I watched the second half of the first season. This is an excellent series. Now that it's been cancelled there's no reason for me not to binge on it. Sort of binge. I get distracted so easily.

"The Benny Hill Show"

I watched a few episodes from 1985. I know the earlier episodes quite well, but I've never watched any of the 1980's episodes before now. I was disappointed. The 1960's and 1970's episodes were better. Maybe Benny's humour really was drying up as he grew older.

"Alias"

I watched a few episodes from the third season. It's a series that I find difficult to binge on. It's easier for me to watch a few episodes once a month. The stories themselves are excellent, but I can't relate to Jennifer Garner as the main character. I find her so unsexy and uncharismatic. I can relate much better to the show's bad guys, Ron Rifkin as Arvin Sloane and David Anders as Julian Sark. They are both highly talented actors and their performances are riveting.

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Barely Lethal (4 Stars)


"Mean Girls" meets "Kill Bill". It's tough for a 16-year-old assassin to be popular in high school.

"Barely Lethal" was made in 2015, so it shows what Samuel L. Jackson gets up to when he isn't wearing an eye patch.

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Shane (4 Stars)


Like many other people, after watching "Logan" in March I was curious what the western film was that was being shown on the television in the hotel. It's common for the television to be running in the background in film scenes, but this was more, because Charles Xavier talks about the film, saying that he watched it when he was a child. So what was it? "Shane", a western made in 1953. Moreover, the eulogy held by Laura at Logan's grave is a speech quoted verbatim from "Shane". This made me even more curious.

"Shane" is recognised as one of the greatest western films, but I'd never even heard of it. It's based on events that took place in Wyoming in the late 19th Century. In 1862 the Homestead Act was passed, offering free land to anyone who would work on the land to improve it. The land was given mostly to poor immigrants from continental Europe. This invoked the anger of the large cattle owners who had been using the land unofficially for decades. They didn't recognise the Homestead Act and called the homesteaders squatters. This led to the Johnson County War in 1889, in which the cattle owners hired gunmen to drive out the homesteaders.


That's the setting for the film. Small homesteads are scattered through a valley in Wyoming. The nearest town, if it can be called a town at all, consists of only three buildings: a food store and saloon in one, a hotel and a stable. The town is too small to have its own sheriff. An old cattle owner, Rufus Ryker, considers himself responsible for law and order, which means evicting the squatters from his grazing land. At first he uses cattle stampedes to ruin their farmland. When this doesn't work he resorts to other methods, such as setting their houses on fire.


Enter Shane. It's not clear if that's his first or his last name. He obviously has a past that he's trying to leave behind, but we don't find out what it is. He's just passing through the valley. After receiving a warm welcome on the homestead of Joe Starrett and his family he offers to work on the farm for a few weeks. He has considerable skill as a gunslinger, but he prefers not to carry a gun and leaves it in his room whenever he rides into town. We can assume he's lived a life of violence, but he's made a new beginning.

Joe's nine-year-old son, Joey, is fascinated by Shane. He wants to learn how to shoot, much to the dismay of his mother. Shane recommends a life of peace, but when it comes to a showdown between Ryker and the homesteaders he's prepared to protect his friends.

The film is described as a classic western. I don't think that description is appropriate. It was the first western film that portrayed violence realistically. In previous westerns violence was abstract and stylised. One gunshot and a person fell over dead. One punch and a person fell unconscious. The fights in "Shane" are realistic. There's a fistfight that lasts five minutes, unheard of in westerns at the time. Of course, "The Wild Bunch" takes violence further, but this was the first step in that direction.


An important part of the film is the relationship between Shane and Joey. This is what sets the film apart from other emotionally shallower westerns. After watching it today I can see the parallels between "Shane" and "Logan", not just in the quotes, but in the themes of the two films. "Logan" is a respectful homage to "Shane".

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Monday, 8 May 2017

Babs (5 Stars)


I'll jump straight into the controversy about this biographical film by giving it a full five star rating. It was first shown on the BBC at 8pm yesterday, less than a day ago, but the first reviews are already online. Critics are mixed in their opinions. Some find it brilliant, others poor quality. According to an article in the Daily Mail, most viewers were disappointed, complaining that it was difficult to understand. I'll wait for more representative viewer polls to come in, but I can understand the viewer response. The film probably wasn't watched by its target audience. Barbara Windsor is best known as an actress in the long running soap opera "Eastenders". The film about her life is an intellectual, well crafted drama, the opposite of the trashy stories presented in soap operas.

First a word of explanation to my readers who aren't from England. Barbara Windsor is one of the best known actresses in England. She's known for two things in her career. She appeared in nine of the 30 Carry On films from 1964 to 1974; she appeared in "Eastenders" from 1994 to 2016. The Carry On films are still frequently repeated on British television, so she's well known as a Carry On star even to the younger generation.

What did she do between 1974 and 1994? Not much. After the last Carry On film her career was in a slow decline. She was famous for what she had done, but nobody was interested in seeing her any more. All she was offered was poor paying singing and comedy shows at English holiday resorts. That's where "Babs" begins. It's 1993, the low point of her career. We see her sleeping on a wooden floor on a pier, because she can't afford a hotel room before she goes on stage. Her father appears to her as she knew him when she was young. He encourages her to look back on her life, see where she went wrong and make a new start.

The film's style has been much criticised, so I'll try to describe it as best as I can. The whole film takes place in a series of flashbacks, from 1943 to 1968. (The years are approximate, which I'll go into below). Four different actresses play Barbara at different ages (child, teenager, twenties, aged 56), as well as the real Barbara Windsor appearing. In most of the scenes two incarnations of Barbara appear together. The 56-year-old Barbara, played by the excellent actress Samantha Spiro, stands watching her younger selves. Often she's accompanied by her father, with whom she discusses or argues about the choices she made in her life.

Jaime Winstone as Barbara Windsor, posing with the Kray twins.

Samantha Spiro as Barbara Windsor.

The film shows key points in Barbara's career, but omits many others. She was born in London in 1937 as Barbara Deeks. When she was 13 she began a career as a music hall singer and dancer. When she was 15 she adopted the stage name Barbara Windsor. After a few small film roles she appeared in highly acclaimed stage productions in 1963 and 1964, winning acclaim as a serious actress. In 1964 she appeared in "Carry on Spying", after which she was typecast as a dumb blonde with a lower class London accent and lost the respect of her peers.

More important than her career is the relationship with her father. He was no saint. He lost his temper and sometimes hit his wife, but Barbara idolised him. In 1993 (and presumably still today) she expressed regret that she hadn't spent more time with him. After her parents' divorce Barbara didn't see her father for more than ten years. When she finally found him, her stepmother didn't allow her to speak to him.

The film shows her affairs with men. Some of the men. She had many more affairs not shown in the film. The 56-year-old Barbara expresses regrets for all of her affairs. She says she was young and foolish, and her father confirms that the men weren't good enough for her.

Barbara Windsor in 1967.

I greatly enjoyed the way the film has been made. It's a much better biopic than "Hattie", the story of her fellow Carry On star Hattie Jacques. My only criticism is that the dates are unclear in the film itself. Apart from the opening scene in 1993 it's never stated when things happened. All the dates that I've given above are inserted from my own background knowledge, for instance I know when "Carry on Spying" was made. Some of the other details are more difficult for me to date precisely, such as when her parents were divorced.

This must have been a very emotional film for Barbara Windsor to appear in. She officially retired from acting last year, but she has returned to make "Babs", probably the biggest film of her life. She appears briefly in scenes during the film, and at the end she performs "Sunny Side of the Street", the song she used to sing with her father.

Barbara Windsor in 2017.

Grab your coat
And get your hat,
Leave your worries on the doorstep,
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street.

Can't you hear that pitter-pat?
And that happy tune is your step,
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street.

I used to walk in the shade
With those blues on parade,
But I'm not afraid,
Cos I'm a Rover
Who crossed over.

And if I never, never had a cent
I'd be rich as Rockafella,
Gold dust at my feet
On the sunny side of the street.

Samantha Spiro, Barbara Windsor, Jaime Winstone.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

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


I know Kim Jong-un's hair was last week's joke of the week, but I had to pick him again. Nothing in the world is as ridiculous as his hair. I know it's cruel to make fun of someone because of his appearance, but in Kim's case I can't help myself.

Let me try to exercise some self control. No more posts about Kim Jong-un's hair. I'll do my best.

After.Life (3½ Stars)


I spelt the film title correctly. It's the words "After" and "Life" separated by a dot. I hate it when film titles are deliberately misspelt or written in unnatural English. That's just me though. Laugh at me if you will. In a world of grammar Nazis I'd be Adolf Hitler.

A young school teacher, Anna Taylor, is involved in a car accident. She wakes up on a table in a funeral home with a funeral director standing over her stitching her wounds. She wants to go home, but he tells her she's dead. She tells him he's mad, but he insists. He tells her he has the gift of talking to the dead, and only he can hear her talk. She has to remain with him three days while he prepares her for her funeral, making her look as beautiful as possible for being put on display before burial.

Anna is confused. She's lying in a room with other corpses. She sees the director talking to the corpses, seemingly holding conversations with them, but she can't hear their replies. Over the next three days she swings from one extreme to the other. Sometimes she tries to escape, sometimes she accepts that she's dead and remains calmly where she is.


I've never seen Liam Neeson look so creepy. I'd be terrified if I woke up and found him standing over me with that sickly smile. He's best known as an action hero, but he plays the role of the funeral director Eliot Deacon perfectly. The more pleasant he attempts to be the more terrifying he becomes. He should appear in more horror films.

Eliot is very diligent as a funeral director, treating the corpses in his care with the greatest of respect, but he does have a few strange traits. For instance, he takes Polaroid photos of each corpse before the funeral and hangs them in a gallery in his bedroom, so that he can admire the beauty of the dead.


By the time Anna is moved from the cold metal table into a comfortable coffin she's given up arguing. The viewer is kept uncertain throughout the film whether she's really dead or not.

In addition to the horror of the film there's a sick aspect of voyeurism. For much of the film Christina Ricci is naked. Her beauty is only tarnished by wounds she received in the car accident. The question the film is asking me is whether I can be sexually aroused by a corpse. Of course not, I automatically reply. Then the film continues by saying that maybe the woman isn't really dead, so I'm allowed to lust. Should I take a chance and let myself go before I know the answer? It's an eerily unsettling dilemma.


The film isn't without its faults. My main criticism is that it repeatedly relies on dreams to scare the viewer. I've never liked dreams in films, they're a cheap plot device. The viewer is told that something is happening, then suddenly it's as if the director shrieks with laughter and says, "Haha! I got you! That never happened!" That's bad.

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Friday, 5 May 2017

Blue is the warmest colour (4 Stars)


Today is the second time I've watched this film. I wrote in my first review that I felt I didn't fully understand it, and nothing has changed. On the surface it's obvious what the film is about, it's the story of a relationship, but I can't avoid the feeling that the film's leitmotifs have a deeper significance. We see repeated close ups of Adèle eating throughout the film, often with the sauce smeared on her face.


Maybe the clue lies in the film's original French title, "La Vie d'Adèle, Chapitres 1 & 2", i.e. "The Life of Adèle, Chapters 1 & 2". The film itself shows no logical division into chapters. In one of the first scenes Adèle is shown in school learning about a French novel called "La Vie de Marianne", i.e. "The Life of Marianne". I know very little about this book, except that it's a life story that was published in 11 parts. Does the film in some way refer to the first two parts of the novel? I don't know.


It's a sad film. Adèle meets an older woman. They fall in love. They live together. They split up. Adèle never finds anyone else she can love.

I'm not sure how much time passes from the beginning to the end of the film. At the beginning she's in junior high school, which would make her 15 or 16. She says she wants to become a teacher and she'll need to study for four years. In the later parts of the film she's already a teacher, which would mean she's at least 22. This is when she splits up with her girlfriend Emma. The final scene takes place three years later, so she would be at least 25.


What does Adèle do for ten years? She eats and she sleeps. The film contains many close ups of Adèle's face as she lies asleep, but even when she's awake she spends a lot of time lying in bed. It's a beautiful film, but confusing. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray disc doesn't include a director's commentary. I'll have to look elsewhere for an explanation.

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Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Bedazzled (2000) (4½ Stars)


After watching Al Pacino as the Devil in "Devil's Advocate" last month I decided to watch "Bedazzled" again. Elizabeth Hurley is much more to my taste as the Lord (or rather Lady) of Evil.

How many stars have played the Devil in films? I could easily google and find dozens of names, but for now I'll just list the ones I can name from memory. In alphabetical order:

"Angel Heart" Robert de Niro
"Bedazzled" Elizabeth Hurley
"Devil's Advocate" Al Pacino
End of Days Gabriel Byrne
"Little Nicky" Harvey Keitel
"New York Winter's Tale" Will Smith
"Shortcut to Happiness" Jennifer Love Hewitt

"Bedazzled" is a remake of a famous comedy by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, which in turn was a retelling of Goethe's "Faust", the story of a good man who sold his soul to the Devil. In the 2000 version the Devil is an incredibly sexy woman, in looks and in attitude. Love-stricken Elliot Richards sells his soul in order to win the woman of his dreams, his colleague Alison, who hasn't even noticed him after four years of working together. I honestly don't understand Elliot. After the first meeting with Elizabeth Hurley I would have fallen in love with the Devil. In one scene she even offers to spank him and he turns her down. What's wrong with him?


I would have given the film five stars if not for the silly speech at the end which relativises everything.

"Look, Elliot, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. The whole good-and-evil thing? You know, Him and me? It really comes down to you. You don't have to look very hard for Heaven and Hell. They're right here on Earth. You make the choice".

If all that were true there would have been no point in tempting Elliot to sell his soul in the first place. The scriptwriter and director didn't think it through logically.

Click here to read my original review of "Bedazzled".

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Monday, 1 May 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (5 Stars)


Usually I'm critical of Marvel films on first viewing. Not this time. I laughed and laughed and laughed. This is the most humorous Marvel film ever, even funnier than "Howard the Duck". Howard himself makes a brief cameo after somehow escaping from the Collector. Talking of cameos, Stan Lee makes his most cosmic cameo ever. The film is full of small hints of other Marvel characters that only the most obsessive Marvel fans -- like me -- would notice.

The big baddie in this film is Marvel's biggest villain, as far as size goes: Ego, the living planet. He first appeared in Thor #132 in September 1966. He was one of Stan Lee's most outlandish creations. I'm still in awe at how one man could have such a vivid imagination and create so many memorable characters in the space of a few years, characters that are still popular 50 years later.


As enemies go, Ego pushes credibility to the extreme, but Stan Lee managed to make everything seem logical within the confines of the universe he created. How do you fight an evil planet? Do you bend over and hit the ground? Even someone as strong as the Hulk would look rather silly stomping his feet trying to smash his enormous opponent.


My biggest disappointment while watching the film was the appearance of Mantis. She's one of my favourite Marvel characters, but in the film she bears little similarity to her personality in the comics. In the comics she's deeply spiritual and always refers to herself in the third person. In the film she's socially inept because she's never met anyone except Ego. I suppose a person would be rather messed up after spending years talking to a planet. I quickly overcame my disappointment as I realised that her new personality better fits into the film's comedy theme.


Mantis isn't one of Stan Lee's creations. She was invented by Steve Englehart, who wrote an amazing series of stories from Avengers 105 to 152, some of the best comics ever written. Mantis first appeared briefly in Avengers 112 in June 1973, but it wasn't until two issues later that we found out who she is. She's a skilled martial artist who can knock out opponents far stronger than herself by skillful blows to pressure points. Unfortunately we don't see her fighting skills in the film.

Mantis is unique among Marvel heroes. All other heroes were the legal property of Marvel Comics, so they could be used by any other authors in Marvel stories. Steve Englehart retained ownership of Mantis. On the one hand this meant that no other authors could write about her. On the other hand, it meant that Steve Englehart could include her in comics that he wrote for other companies, in particular DC and Image. He gave her different names in the other comics, but it was obviously the same person.


There's humour throughout the film, but most of it comes from the two characters Drax and Baby Groot. I don't know which of them is funnier. This is in contrast to Drax in the comics, where he's a humourless character obsessed with killing Thanos.


In "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2" Mantis seems to be emotionally drawn to Drax. I wonder if she will be more interested in Groot in future films. After all, in the comics she married a plant.

This is a film that everybody should see, if possible on the big screen. Some things might be confusing to anyone who hasn't seen the first film, but don't use that as an excuse for missing it. I have a warning for anyone who's not used to Marvel films: don't leave the cinema too early. Marvel films almost always have a scene after the credits, and this is no exception.