Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Halloween [1978] (5 Stars)

This is a good film to end the month of October. Maybe I should even make it a tradition to watch it every year on this date. It could make up for all the years I've ignored the film and left it gathering dust on my shelf.

John Carpenter has made a lot of good films, but in my opinion he made three films of such brilliance that they deserve to be remembered forever. They were the first three films of his career: "Dark Star" (1974), "Assault on Precinct 13" (1976) and "Halloween" (1978). These films build a trilogy of low-budget minimalist masterpieces. I even included "Assault on Precinct 13" in my list of 30 films to watch before you die.

I should have watched this film before watching the new Halloween film on Monday. That would have prepared me better. I made a mistake in my review. I said that it continued from the first Halloween film, so it's effectively "Halloween 2b". That's incorrect. Michael Myers escaped at the end of this film, so he couldn't be arrested. He was badly injured (and presumed dead) at the end of "Halloween 2", which also takes place in 1978, so that's when he must have been arrested and sent to a psychiatric ward. That makes the new film "Halloween 3b".

It's amazing how saving money could make the film so powerful. John Carpenter composed a very simple melody himself because he didn't have enough money to hire a professional musician. The simple tapping on a piano, occasionally accompanied by an electric organ, is what "Halloween" has become most remembered for. The new film copies this melody in part, but it would have been better if it had used the original melody throughout.

Here are a few words about the film's plot for the 0.1% of my readers who have never seen this film. I hope the percentage will drop to 0.0% after they've read this review.

The opening scenes take place on 31st October 1963 in Haddonfield, Illinois. Six-year-old Michael Myers kills his teenage sister Judith who was trying to make out with her boyfriend when she should have been babysitting. He's arrested and sent to a psychiatric hospital. 15 years later he escapes, the day before Halloween, and he returns to his family home which has been standing empty ever since.

Dr. Sam Loomis, Michael's doctor at the hospital, understands him well enough to know he'll return to his home. He travels to Haddonfield and warns the sheriff, who doesn't believe him.

Michael sees Laurie Strode, presumably aged 17, come to the house and leave a key under the mat. Her father is a real estate agent who wants to sell the house. After this he stalks Laurie and her friends. The following day, 31st October 1978, he kills Laurie's friends while they're babysitting, leaving Laurie till last.

One thing that makes this film interesting is the hint of sexual tension. Michael kills his sister and the babysitters after seeing them naked. This isn't expounded on in the film, it's left up to the viewer's imagination. It's a common sexual dilemma for religious men. They think that sexual thoughts are evil, so when a woman sexually arouses them she has to be punished. This attitude has become socially acceptable in many parts of the world. In Iran it's required that women cover their heads because hair is sexually provocative to the frustrated men around them. If a woman uncovers her head she's punished by being whipped, or worse.

Ever since "Halloween" it's been a standard trope of slasher films that the killer has one special victim in sight that he wants to kill, but he leaves her until last. It's Sidney Prescott in "Scream" and Julie James in "I know what you did last summer". If the film has sequels the special victim survives from film to film while the dead bodies pile up around her. In the Halloween films the special victim is Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. (One of the weaknesses of the sequels was that she was missing from the cast). Why did Michael Myers pick her? There are two possible reasons. The first is that she was just unlucky that he saw her first after entering his old home. The second reason, the one I prefer, is that she was the most unsexual of all the girls he saw walking past his home. He spontaneously decided to kill the sluts who aroused him, but Laurie was to be the virginal sacrifice as his crowning achievement.

Success Rate:  + 213.4

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Tuesday, 30 October 2018

The Lobster (4 Stars)

If there's one serious message that can be learnt from this deliciously absurd film, it's that extremism breeds counter-extremism. People who oppose an extreme political movement are in danger that they'll go too far in the other direction. For instance, Fascism arose in Germany after the First World War in order to combat Communism. In modern Germany groups are being founded to protest against racism (which they wrongly call Fascism because they can't tell the difference). These so-called anti-fascist groups are more violent than the ones they're protesting against. It's not just in the heat of the moment, some people even claim that violence against "Fascists" is justified. That shows that they've become incapable of clear reasoning. Extremism breeds counter-extremism.

If I describe the "The Lobster" to you you'll think it's a comedy. It's not. It's not even a dark comedy. It's a satire. It's also a love story.

In the brave new world presented in "The Lobster" it's illegal to be single. Everyone has to have a partner. People who are unattached, whether from choice or accidentally, are sent to a hotel where they have a chance to meet a compatible partner. They have 45 days to hook up with someone. If they're still single at the end of this time they're turned into animals of their own choosing.

Colin Farrell has just been divorced after 12 years of marriage. He's sent to the hotel to find a new partner. In the event of remaining single he chooses to become a lobster. For the first half of the film he plays by the rules, trying to find a partner. In the second half he rebels against the system and joins the counter-extremists, the loners. They live wild in the woods and forbid relationships. Anyone who flirts with another person is punished harshly. Kisses are punished by bodily mutilation.

Does anything stand out in this photo of a dating night at the hotel? Everyone is dressed the same. The women all wear the same flower dresses, while the men are dressed in the same suits and ties. It's a satire of dating rituals. People desperate to find a partner at short notice just see those of the opposite sex as identical candidates, as objects, as means to an end. In order to find the right person the hotel imposes laws of compatibility. Every hotel guest has to name one defining characteristic for himself, and he can hook up with someone who has the same characteristic. One woman's characteristic is beautiful hair – difficult for a man to match – while another's is that she suffers from frequent nosebleeds.

The leader of the loners is the cold and ruthless Léa Seydoux. I use her real name because none of the characters in the film are named. They're anonymous. In the hotel they're referred to by their room numbers.

There's one exception. The dog's name is Bob. It's noticeable that his name is used a lot in the film. He wasn't always a dog. He used to be Colin Farrell's brother. Maybe his name is used so often to tell us that people can only find an identity when they leave the human race? I don't know. That's a question I'd like to ask the director.

I know practically nothing about the director, Yorgos Lanthimos. This was his first English language film after making three films in Greek. I've noticed that one of his films, "The Favourite", is scheduled to be shown at the Stuttgart Whie Nights Festival in January. I'll make sure I don't miss it.

Does the film have a happy ending? Sort of. I don't want to say too much in order to avoid spoilers, but I'll say this much: Colin Farrell discovers that he can only find true love when he doesn't play by the rules. If he's forced to find a partner he'll find the wrong one, and if he's forbidden to find a partner he won't find anyone. He has to let love take its course and come naturally to him in its own time.

Success Rate:  + 1.5

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Monday, 29 October 2018

Halloween [2018] (4 Stars)

The name of this film is puzzling. In 1978 John Carpenter made a film called "Halloween", which is hailed as the first modern slasher film. "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was made four years earlier, but I think I understand what people mean when they call "Halloween" the first. It was the first film to show a seemingly all-powerful person killing non-stop, some victims planned while others were just unlucky enough to get in the way.

After the original film seven sequels were made from 1981 to 2002. "Halloween 2" was acceptable, but there was a steady drop in quality with each passing sequel. No other director could match the sheer terror of John Carpenter's minimalist classic. In 2007 the film series was rebooted with a second film called "Halloween". That name made sense. When rebooting a film series it's customary to use the first film's name again. The reboot was popular with film-goers, but not with the critics. I haven't seen it, so I'll refrain from commenting here.

Now there's yet another film called "Halloween". Does that mean it's a second reboot? That's what the name would suggest, but it isn't. The new film is a direct sequel to the original 1978 film, ignoring all the other sequels. You can think of it as a reboot of "Halloween 2". "Halloween 2b"? Whatever it should be called, the name adds confusion when you want to order it in a store. Led Zeppelin did something similar with their albums. Their first album was untitled, as are the first albums of many bands, so it was referred to as "Led Zeppelin". The second was called "Led Zeppelin 2". The third was called "Led Zeppelin 3". Then they released an untitled fourth album, so it would have been simply "Led Zeppelin" again. Most fans call it "Led Zeppelin 4", but that wasn't the band's intention. In the same way, the new Halloween film will probably be given a fan name, something like "Halloween 2018".

The premise of the new film is simple. Michael Myers has been in prison for 40 years. The sole survivor of the 1978 massacres, Laurie Strode, has been obsessed with him all this time, expecting him to escape and threaten her again. Now he finally does escape, and he stalks her on October 31st 2018.

What's happened to Jamie Lee Curtis, the actress who plays Laurie Strode? I disliked her in the first film because she looked so unfeminine. I have no problems with a woman looking plain, but if a woman has masculine features it's a total turn off. But somehow her looks have improved over the last 40 years. Even though she's 60 years old, she's the sort of woman who would make me turn my head in the street.

In 1978 I wouldn't have given Jamie Lee Curtis a second glance...

but now I have to stop and stare. Do you see what I mean?

Laurie Strode isn't comfortable sitting back to wait for Michael Myers to come to her. She doesn't even run away, which is what any sane person would do. She stalks him, desperate to get her revenge. She reminds me of Captain Ahab in the film.

Though not up to the quality of the original – which I really ought to watch again soon – this is a very good film, better than any of the other sequels. It doesn't rely on jump scares to terrify the audience. It's a genuinely frightening film.

Addendum on 1st November 2018

After watching the first Halloween film again yesterday I realised I'd made a mistake in this review. I said that it continues from the first Halloween film, so it's effectively "Halloween 2b". That's incorrect. Michael Myers escaped at the end of the 1978 film, so he couldn't be arrested. He was badly injured (and presumed dead) at the end of "Halloween 2", which also took place in 1978, so that's when he must have been arrested and sent to a psychiatric ward. That makes the new film "Halloween 3b".

Marvel Years 05.04 - April 1965

Marvel's fanclub, the Merry Marvel Marching Society, was launched in February 1965 (cover date), but now it's ramping up. There's an advertisement for the club on the cover of every comic this month, except for Patsy Walker and Millie the Model. Was the club for boys only?

Amazing Spider-Man #23

Title: The Goblin and the Gangsters

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko

Villain: Green Goblin, various gangsters

Regulars: Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Frederick Foswell

First of all, feast your eyes on this comic's splash page. Steve Ditko was a brilliant artist. The Green Goblin's flashing lights and flying pumpkins make the scene look like a mystical fight from the pages of Doctor Strange.

The Green Goblin, last seen in Amazing Spider-Man #17, decides to carve out a crime empire for himself. He wants all of New York's criminal gangs to work for him. When they fail to submit he leads Spider-Man to them to fight against them.

Frederick Foswell is re-hired as a reporter at the Daily Bugle after being arrested as a crime boss in Amazing Spider-Man #10. He's now a reformed character, so J. Jonah Jameson is giving him another chance.

The Crazy Credits praise Stan Lee and Steve Ditko while belittling Artie Simek. Maybe Artie is only frenzied because they deliver the stories to him to be lettered too close to the deadline.

Fantastic Four #37

Title: Behold! A Distant Star

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Villain: The Skrulls

Regulars: Alicia Masters

Reed Richards and Susan Storm are preparing for their wedding, but there's one thing still troubling Susan. Her father was killed by a Skrull in Fantastic Four #32, and she wants him to stand trial. No trouble. Reed'll fix it! It's useful having a genius fiancé who can invent just about anything that's needed. He designs a space ship capable of reaching another galaxy within a few hours by flying through a space time warp. That's amazing!

When they meet the Skrulls the Thing has a chance to use his battle cry. It's clobbering time!

This is the worst insult that Artie Simek's received in the Crazy Credits so far. If Stan Lee really considers him unbearable he should consider looking for a job at DC.

The Avengers #15

Title: Now by my hand shall die a villain!

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Don Heck

Avengers: Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man, Wasp

Villain: Masters of Evil (Baron Zemo, Enchantress, Executioner, Black Knight, Melter)

Regulars: Rick Jones

Baron Zemo decides to attack the Avengers again. In addition to the current members of his Masters of Evil, Enchantress and Executioner, he frees the Black Knight and the Melter from prison. The battle ends when Zemo is crushed by falling rocks.

The front cover isn't enough. The MMMS has to be promoted in the story itself.

Tales to Astonish #66

Title: The Menace of Madam Macabre

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Bob Powell

Villain: Madam Macabre

Guests: Mandarin

Madam Macabre is a woman who has discovered a means of changing the size of objects made with a certain plastic. She attempts to team up with Giant-Man, saying that by pooling their knowledge they could rule the world. When he refuses they have to fight.

The Mandarin appears briefly in a flashback. He's the one who was responsible for Madam Macabre's education.

In the Crazy Credits everything is bright and happy. Sherigail is the pen name of the letterer Ray Holloway. He's new at Marvel, which must be why Stan Lee is still being nice to him.

Title: The Power of Doctor Banner

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko

Villain: Leader, Chameleon

Regulars: General Ross, Betty Ross, Major Talbot

The Hulk is being held behind the Iron Curtain. The Leader refrains from intervening, preferring to wait until he returns to the West. Major Glen Talbot (whose name constantly swaps from Glen to Glenn and back again) is determined to capture Bruce Banner.

The Crazy Credits tell us that everyone who worked on this story was hard, except for Artie Simek. He's a softy!

Journey into Mystery #115

Title: The Vengeance of the Thunder God

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Villain: Loki, Absorbing Man

Regulars: Odin, Jane Foster

This story continues from the previous issue. Thor travels to Asgard to free Jane Foster from Loki. The battle is interrupted by the arrival of Odin. Loki accuses Thor of illegally bringing Jane to Asgard, which the not so all-knowing Odin believes. Thor has to report to Asgard to go on trial after challenging the Absorbing Man again.

Thor displays two new powers in this story. The first is the most unexpected. He can make a person forget what has happened just by talking to him. Is that sorcery?

The other power is the ability to transmute matter by swinging his hammer fast. He uses this power to defeat the Absorbing Man by turning him into helium gas. That's a rather unsatisfying deus ex machina.

The Crazy Credits tell us that Artie Simek is being kept in a cage. Maybe that's the only way to stop him quitting his job.

Title: A Viper in our Midst

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Gods: Thor, Loki

Odin has sent a task force to hunt for the giant Ghan. Loki uses sorcery to help him escape. As a result Ghan promises to aid Loki in the future.

Tales of Suspense #64

Title: Hawkeye and the new Black Widow strike again

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Don Heck

Villain: Black Widow, Hawkeye

Regulars: Pepper Potts, Happy Hogan

Hawkeye and the Black Widow were defeated by Iron Man in Tales of Suspense #60. Black Widow was sent back to Russia for punishment, but she was spared by the Russian president himself. She was given a sexy fishnet suit, suction boots and a bracelet with a nylon line to help her to act for like a spider. Her years of training as an acrobat do the rest.

When she returns to America Hawkeye is reluctant to act against his country, but she turns on the charm, and he follows her when she tells him that it won't be treason if they only destroy Iron Man. They manage to escape after losing the battle.

The Russian leader isn't named, but he's easily recognisable as Nikita Khrushchev. Black Widow is referring to his fall from power in October 1964. This reinforces the fact that Stan Lee's stories never took place in a fictional Earth-616, they all happened in the same world where the readers live.

Stan Lee never pulled punches when he wrote about real life political figures. He wasn't afraid to say, through Black Widow's lips, that Khrushchev was evil. Modern comics are cautious not to paint the world's political landscape black and white.

The Crazy Credits treat Sam Rosen lightly this time. I wonder if it's true that the Bullpen Gang were kibitzing this story. Maybe they did. One of the strengths of the early years of Marvel was that the writers and artists all worked in the same office, instead of being spread across the country connected only by the Internet.

Title: Among us wreckers dwell

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Villain: Sando, Omar, Nazis

Guest: Agent 13

After "The Origin of Captain America" last month, this is the second story that's retold from Captain America Comics #1 (December 1940). The story is so close to the original that it would have been easier to simply reprint it.

It's the early years before America entered the Second World War. The fortune tellers Sando and Omar have a stage show in which they correctly predict that there will be accidents and explosions at American military bases. Captain America suspects a Nazi plot, and he's right. Nazi agents are sabotaging American installations, and they're using the phoney fortune tellers to tell people in advance that it's only accidents.

The government agent identified herself as Betty Ross in the 1940 comic, but here she calls herself Agent 13.

Strange Tales #131

Title: The Bouncing Ball of Doom

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Bob Powell

Villain: Mad Thinker

Regulars: Reed Richards, Susan Storm

The Mad Thinker plans to lure the Human Torch and the Thing to their deaths. He sends an invitation to the opening of a new dam. He plants an extremely resilient metal ball near the dam. At first he controls its movement, so that it attacks the Human Torch and the Thing. Then it short circuits and bounces at random, but it's just as dangerous, threatening to destroy the dam itself.

The Mad Thinker was last seen in Strange Tales #126.

It might only be a metal ball, but it's still an excuse for the Thing to yell his battle cry. It's clobbering time!

The Crazy Credits are confusing this month. Stan Lee is certainly prolific. He wrote 12 to 14 comics a month. Bob Powell is terrific. I hardly know anything about him, but his artwork for this story is impressive. Dick Ayers is specific, as all good inkers should be. If he were inaccurate in his inking he would ruin the original artwork. But Sam Rosen is hieroglyphic? What does that mean? If it means that his lettering is unintelligible, I strongly disagree.

Title: The Defeat of Doctor Strange

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko

Villain: Dormammu, Baron Mordo

This is the second part of the Doctor Strange-Dormammu-Baron Mordo epic. Doctor Strange is fleeing through the streets of Hong Kong, pursued by Mordo's human agents and Dormammu's wraiths.

The Crazy Credits paint an interesting scenario. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko have to work under the most difficult of circumstances, while Artie Simek has a pleasant work environment. And I thought he was trapped in a cage!

Daredevil #7

Title: In Mortal Combat with Sub-Mariner

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Wally Wood

Villain: Sub-Mariner

Regulars: Foggy Nelson, Karen Page

Warlord Krang, who we last saw in Fantastic Four Annual #1, pleads with Prince Namor (Sub-Mariner) to attack the surface world. Namor decides to begin by following legal channels. He looks for a lawyer in New York to handle his case, and by pure coincidence he walks into the offices of Nelson & Murdock. When they say they can't help him he deliberately lets himself be arrested after committing crimes of destruction across the city. He uses his appearance in court as an opportunity to file a counter-claim.

He has to return to his kingdom when he finds out that Warlord Krang has staged a rebellion in his absence.

Sub-Mariner defeats Daredevil in battle, but he expresses deep respect for his valiant bravery as he lies unconscious.

The Crazy Credits tell us that Stan Lee and Wally Wood are masters, while Artie Simek is a monster. He doesn't scare me!

Other comics published this month:

Modeling with Millie #38 (Stan Lee, Stan Goldberg)
Patsy Walker #120 (Stan Lee, Sol Brodsky)
Patsy and Hedy #99 (Stan Lee, Sol Brodsky)
Rawhide Kid #45 (Larry Lieber, Larry Lieber)
Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #17 (Stan Lee, Dick Ayers)

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (4½ Stars)

I don't know why Vince Vaughn wastes his time with comedy roles. This is the sort of film that he was born to make. He's quiet, aloof and brooding, and yet his warm heart shows through the cracks in his armour when we least expect it.

The title is misleading. The brawl itself doesn't take place until 90 minutes into the film, and it only lasts ten minutes. That's not a problem. The film is breath-takingly intense from the first minutes.

I don't want to say much about the film's plot. To find out more click here to read my first review. All I'll add today is that I really despised the staff at Redleaf Prison, which contains Cell Block 99. The warden himself is the worst, but they're all despicable characters. It's as if the daily work with hardened criminals has made the evil rub off on them.

"Brawl in Cell Block 99" is harsh and brutal, but Vince Vaughn is so convincing that we can't help taking his side and hoping for him to win against the overwhelming odds.

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Friday, 26 October 2018

Happy Death Day (5 Stars)

When I watched this film in the cinema last year I only gave it four stars. "Only" is a relative term, because I wholeheartedly recommend any film that I give a four star rating. In my rating system, the difference between three and four stars is a bigger chasm than the difference between four and five stars. A five star rating means that the film has a little extra something that makes it better than good. It has an essence of brilliance, something that goes above and beyond what a film should achieve.

Maybe I didn't give "Happy Death Day" the top rating last year because it lacks spiritual depth. Maybe it was because it's never explained why Theresa Gelbman, nicknamed Tree, has to repeat her birthday. Maybe it was just because I watched the film dubbed into German and missed the subtleties. Whatever the reason was, I can fully appreciate it now.

Tree is a student at Bayview University, a fictional university in a sunny environment. The film was made in New Orleans, but it could take place anywhere in America. The date is September 18th 2017, and it's Tree's birthday. After a night of heavy drinking she wakes up in the dorm room of Carter, a student she's never met before. She rushes back to her sorority house, where she's told the embarrassing details of what she did last night. In the evening she walks through a tunnel where she sees a birthday present lying for her. When she goes to inspect it she's attacked by a man in a mask. He stabs her. She's dead. The end.

Except it isn't the end. She wakes up in Carter's room again. The day's events repeat themselves. At least, they repeat themselves as long as she acts the same way. To avoid being killed she goes to a party. When she goes upstairs the killer is waiting for her, and she's killed again.

And she wakes up in Carter's room again. This time she barricades herself in her room in the evening. But the killer is waiting in her closet. Stab! She's dead again.

This carries on again and again. Whatever she does to change things the killer always finds her in the evening. It might be a different place, but he always finds her. She enlists Carter's help. She convinces him with her pre-knowledge of events that she really is reliving the day, and he gives her advice on how to escape the loop. If she finds out who the killer is, she can escape him, so she follows the possible suspects, one each day.

If you know there will be no tomorrow there are no consequences to your actions. Tree can walk naked on campus, and nobody will remember it.

Tree can even kill those she suspects of wanting to murder her. If she's wrong with her suspicions they'll come back to life when the day repeats itself.

The trouble is, there might not be an endless number of repetitions. A medical examination reveals that she doesn't restart each day with a blank slate. Her body shows evidence of internal injuries from her previous deaths. Each day she wakes up weaker.

There's an underlying character arc in the film. Tree is presented to us as someone who isn't necessarily a good person. She's stolen her friends' boyfriends, and she's currently having an affair with a married man. She's unfeeling and shallow. After repeated deaths she begins to change her ways. This is partially an attempt to avert her next death, but she's also beginning to feel remorse for her previous life style.

The Blu-ray disc contains an alternative ending for the film. When I saw it listed I was excited. I always like to see other possible endings. "Scott Pilgrim vs The World" has an alternative ending far superior to the film's official ending. If you watch it you'll see what I mean. "Joy Ride" has a few alternative endings, all of which are equally good alternatives. "Chloe" has several alternative endings, each of which says something different that adds to the film; in fact, I'd say that you need to watch every alternative ending to understand the film properly. I pity the people who only watch films on Netflix or other streaming services. They're missing out.

However, I can't say the same for Happy Death Day's alternative ending. It's awful. It changes the film in a way that removes its logical beauty. It's not worth watching. It's so bad that it shouldn't have been put on the disc.

Success Rate:  + 23.5

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