Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Lust in Space (4 Stars)

New recruits Pete and Susan are training for a mission on an orbiting space station. Unknown to them, an evil organisation wants to take control of the station and convert it into a giant laser to hold the world to ransom. Pete is seduced by Sasha, a beautiful woman who tricks Pete into smuggling equipment to an undercover agent already waiting on board the space station. Can anyone discover the plot before it's too late?

This is a fun romp from Dean McKendrick. Mike Gaglio plays the straight guy, while everyone around him is only interested in sex. Well, there are also people around him interested in conquering the world, but they use sex to pass the time until they achieve their goals.

I think Dean missed an opportunity in making the film. It would have been so easy for Sasha to overpower the security agent Marty, but she didn't. The plot could have gone a different way. If you watch the film you'll see what I mean. Apart from this mistake it's one of his best films so far.

Mike Gagglio is a good teacher...

but his students don't pay attention in class.

Mary Carey does whatever she can to distract Mike...

so that she can rule the world with Sasha. Yes, please!

Let me add a little story about how I bought this DVD. Until now all of Dean McKendrick's films have been available on Amazon UK, but for some reason this was an exception, so I ordered it on Ebay from a merchant based in Australia. Unfortunately I didn't immediately notice that I hadn't changed my default mailing address after moving house in April. I contacted the merchant a couple of days later and they said it was too late to change the address, because the DVD had already been sent via a courier, and it would arrive within three weeks. The courier probably uses a slow boat from Australia to take that long, but never mind. They said that if I wasn't at home at my old address the parcel would be returned to them. Another three weeks? Ugh.

Then yesterday I was informed that the parcel had been delivered to my address last Thursday. I rang up my old landlord to ask about the parcel, and his wife answered the phone. She told me that my old house, 206 Malmesbury Road in Small Heath, was empty and they didn't go into it. I asked who had accepted the parcel, and she told me, "There are builders renovating the house. If you go there tomorrow at 11 am you can ask them".

So I went to the house this morning. I could hear someone working in the house, but I had to knock the door for a long time until someone opened it. Finally the door was opened, and I saw that the "workers" were my ex-landlord and his son. I was curious why his wife had lied to me about not entering the house, but I only asked about the parcel. My old landlord told me that nothing had come. I told him that I had been informed it had been delivered last Thursday, so he asked me what it was, and I told him it was a DVD. He said he would look for it. He searched in a trash can and pulled out a DVD. That was my DVD. I thanked him and left.

However, the DVD was no longer packaged. It was in a DVD case, still sealed, but there was no cardboard packaging with my address. The case was broken as if someone had stood on it. I rushed home and tried the DVD, and it worked perfectly, so I just put the DVD and the inlay into an empty DVD case. It still annoys me though. My landlord accepted the DVD from the courier last week, probably signing for it. He opened the parcel to see what it was. When he decided he didn't want it he crushed the DVD case and threw it in the trash. If I'd known how nasty my landlord was I would have moved earlier.

Off-Topic: How to read the Bible

After a conversation I was having with Christian friends last week I gave some thought into how to read the Bible. I'll try to give my opinions without insulting Christians. Reading the Bible, whether it's one verse or a whole passage, should be done in four steps. These steps apply for non-Christians as well as Christians.

1. Read it
2. Understand it
3. Believe it (Accept it)
4. Apply it

1. Reading

The first step sounds obvious, but it isn't. Many people who call themselves Christians don't read the Bible and just make assumptions on what it contains, based on what others tell them. In the same way, many non-Christians call the Bible rubbish without ever having read what it says. It's impossible to have discussions about the Bible without reading it first.

2. Understanding

Understanding the Bible is vital. Some parts are figurative. Some parts are poetic. However, for the most part the Bible is easy to understand. It means what it says and says what it means. It's important that everyone carries out this step for himself. If a priest, pastor or theologian has a very long, complicated explanation for a short, simple verse it's usually wrong. The obvious meaning is the right one.

3. Believing (deciding whether to believe)

The third and fourth steps could be combined into one, and sometimes the fourth step is irrelevant, but I prefer to separate them. The difference I make is that "believing" means accepting the statement as a general truth, whereas "applying" means using a statement as a guideline for my own personal life. If the reader is a non-Christian there will be many things that he doesn't accept in the Bible, but there are also many things that he can believe, or at least accept as a possible truth.

4. Applying (deciding whether to apply)

This step is relevant when the Bible gives a direct command. A Christian might accept that God, Jesus or one of the prophets said something, but then decide not to obey it, for a variety of reasons. Maybe he thinks the command is no longer relevant for today. Maybe he sees the command in a context that doesn't always apply. The step is also relevant when we read about someone doing something. The question to be asked is, should I imitate this person or not? In the case of a simple statement the step might not be relevant.

That's all very theoretical. Let's give an example.

"Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience". (1. Corinthians 10.15)

This is a very easy statement to read and understand. Eat any meat, whatever animal it comes from, and however it has been prepared. Let's skip straight to the third step. Do I believe it? I think most people would, whether they're Christian or not. But a Moslem might read this and say "No, that's a lie. It's not right to eat pork". A Buddhist might go one step further and say, "No. It's not right to eat animals". Are they right or wrong to say this? I won't judge them. It's the decision of everyone to decide whether or not to accept what the Bible says.

As for the fourth step, applying the statement, a Christian might say that he believes it's right to eat any meat, but he doesn't like the taste, so he prefers to be a vegetarian. Some Christians might refuse to eat Halal meat, because a prayer to Allah was spoken before the slaughter, consecrating the food to Allah. These are two different cases. In the first case it's solely a matter of personal preference. In the second case it's a matter of conscience, so it isn't a matter of applying the statement, he's refusing to believe it (step three).

That was a simple example. Now let's take a more controversial verse.

"Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses". (1. Timothy 5:23)

The seemingly obvious meaning has been confused by some preachers who are too biased to believe the obvious meaning. It's a common statement that the Greek word translated as "wine" means grape juice, i.e. it's a non-alcoholic drink. This is a lie that's easily refuted by linguists, and it's even apparent from other passages in the Bible that it's an alcoholic drink. For instance, at wedding feasts the guests became drunk from wine. The preachers are confusing the second and the third step. They understand the statement incorrectly to conceal the fact that they don't believe what is written. They are saying that what Paul wrote to his friend Timothy was a mistake, and it shouldn't be in the Bible.

Once a person believes that it's permissible to drink wine, the application of the verse can go in many directions. Some might say that wine should only be drunk for medicinal purposes. Others might argue about what is meant by "a little". Another matter is that at the time the Bible was written wine was the only form of alcohol, so can the statement be extended to cover any alcoholic drink available today?

Of course, the Bible is a big book and contains many statements on the matter of food and drink. Some statements even contradict one another. For instance, in Genesis 1:29 God says to Adam, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole Earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food". That statement clearly advocates a vegetarian diet. What do we do when we see contradictions like that? Do we choose not to believe it (step three)? Or do we try to contextualise it, believing it was true then, but not something to apply to ourselves today? Even within the Book of Genesis, there are differences. "Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything". (Genesis 9:3).

I hope that my brief thoughts may assist my Christian friends. Please don't dismiss what I say with statements like, "How could you possibly tell us what do do? You're not even a believer". It's irrelevant whether I believe or not. Anyone can understand the Bible, without the help of priests telling him what to think.

Das Zeugenhaus (4½ Stars)

"There is no more guilt, no more innocence, just grey and grey".

This is a remarkable film based on true events that happened in Nuremberg, Germany, from September 20th 1945 to October 1st 1946. The film's title means "house of witnesses". It was a house where the most important witnesses for the Nuremberg Trials stayed for the duration of the proceedings. The characters in the film are the real people who lived in the house, and the events that take place at the trials themselves are well documented facts, but the conversations that take place in the house itself are fictional. Fictional, but credible.

In 1945 a German duchess (called Duchess Belavar, the only fake name in the film, because she asked for her real name to be concealed) was asked by the American army to look after a guest house in which witnesses for the Nuremberg Trials would be living. They were supposedly voluntary witnesses, free to leave at any time if they wanted to, but as we find out in the course of the film most of them had reached a deal with the Americans that they would only avoid being arrested if they gave evidence in the trials. The shocking fact is that high ranking Nazis and survivors of concentration camps were placed in the same house, living and eating together for more than 12 months.

Among the guests in the house were
  • Gisela Limberger, Hermann Göring's private secretary.
  • Heinrich Hoffmann, Adolf Hitler's photographer.
  • Henriette von Schirach, the wife of the former leader of the Hitler Youth.
  • Erwin von Lahousen, a German general who had served on the eastern front.
  • Rudolf Diels, the man who founded the Gestapo.

None of these witnesses seem to be hardline Nazis. That's probably why they were allowed to be witnesses, rather than standing trial themselves. For instance, Gisela Limberger praised Hermann Göring because he was a real man, a man who was proud to be German and make his country great. Heinrich Hoffmann was Hitler's personal friend and considered Hitler to be a good man who was being misrepresented by the war's winners. Rudolf Diehls was one of the men who had supported Von Stauffenberg's plot to assassinate Hitler, but he had committed many crimes (in the eyes of America) before that time.

Most of the house's guests already knew one another. They all tried to downplay their own involvement in what had happened, and the others contradicted them. Even the concentration camp survivors accused one another. As one man said, "You couldn't survive the camps by being innocent. You had to take advantage of the other inmates to guarantee your own survival".

There are some scenes in the courtroom, but most of the film takes place in the house itself. The atmosphere is intense, performances of all the actors involved is superb.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Frivolous Lola (4 Stars)

"Nothing is true when nothing is untrue".

This was the first film that I ever saw directed by Tinto Brass. I checked it out because it starred Patrick Mower, who I hadn't seen in any films for years. I knew him from the TV series "Callan" and several films from the 1960's and 1970's, but I had no idea what he was doing more recently. I was watching a Hammer Horror film, probably one of the Dracula films, I forget which, and I spotted him as an uncredited extra, not even mentioned in IMDB. A dead body was discovered on the road, and I jumped up and shouted "That's Patrick Mower!" The face was unmistakeable to a fan like me, even though it was only visible for about two seconds. I'll look for it again next time I watch the Dracula films. They're on my list. But the point of all my rambling on in this paragraph is that after spotting him in the Hammer film I decided to look for a recent film he had made, and this was it. It was made in 1998, and it's actually the last film he ever made. In 2001 he joined the cast of the TV soap "Emmerdale" as Rodney Blackstock and he's been a regular ever since, the five episodes a week leaving him no time for anything else.

Now let's get to the film itself. The original Italian name of the film is "Monella", as in the poster above. That's Monella riding the bike. For unfathomable reasons she's been renamed Lola in the English version, both the subtitled and the dubbed version, and the film is called "Frivolous Lola". She's my kind of girl. She's beautiful, she knows it and she shows it. She's constantly flirting with all men around her, revelling in the effect she has on men. She frequently flashes her bottom, for instance when she's riding a bike, and she laughs at the men who stare at her, even if its the village priest whose hands begin to shake when he's trying to read his Bible. But despite her playful attitude she's unhappy. She's still a virgin, and she desperately wants her fiancé Tomaso, the village baker, to make love to her. But he says he wants to wait until they're married. The marriage is only one week away, but that's too long for Lola/Monella. She wants sex now!

Lola's father André (Patrick Mower) is a completely different sort of man. He takes photographs of naked women, and she discovers that during the photo sessions he has sex with his models. One of his models is her mother Zaira, but there are others. She spies on the sessions, and this greatly excites her. She decides to seduce her father, because she can't wait the whole week for Tomaso. At first he refuses -- incest is a sin in strict Catholic villages, isn't it? -- but his will power is shattered when she's naked in his arms. Luckily Zaira interrupts them before anything can happen.

And yet, the seemingly good boy Tomaso is really a hypocrite. He's having regular sex with a prostitute. That's the double moral standards of Catholic communities. Men want a good girl who will remain a virgin until marriage, but they have sex with the bad girls while they're waiting.

This is a fun film. Despite the frequent nudity it's a lot less explicit than my description makes it sound. That's Tinto Brass's style: lots of naked flesh and racy themes (such as incest), but no hard sex. It's a film worth watching by people who are open-minded.

Incidentally, how many of my readers know what mutting is? Lola's beauty provokes two local priests to commit the sin of mutting. If you don't believe it's a sin, check out the Bible. The 11th Commandment makes it clear: "Thou shalt not mutt".

Sunday, 28 June 2015

For a Few Dollars More (4½ Stars)

This was Clint Eastwood's second spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone, after "A Fistful of Dollars". In America it was marketed as the return of the man with no name. First of all, despite the identical clothing and mannerisms, Clint Eastwood seems to be playing a different character in this film. Secondly, his name was actually Manco. His name was used twice in the film, and both parts were cut out when it was shown in American cinemas. That's silly. The Blu-ray disc I have in my hand now is a restored version containing the deleted scenes, and I can verify he does have a name. He's called Manco, not Joe as in the first film.

In this film Clint Eastwood plays a bounty hunter. While hunting for a bandit called El Indio his path crosses that of another bounty hunter, Douglas Mortimer, played by Lee Van Cleef. They meet as enemies, but they make an uneasy truce with one another, splitting the reward money of $10,000. Instead of killing him straight away they decide to wait until he attempts his next bank robbery, because his whole gang will be together, meaning more reward money. As it turns out, the other 14 gang members are worth $17,000 between them. Their plan fails and they are unable to prevent El Indio's next bank robbery, but that means there's a reward of $40,000 for the return of the money, so the "few dollars more" is actually $67,000. That's a whole lot of money, even today. How much was it worth in the 19th century? The sheriff in one of the early scenes says that he needs three years to earn $2000. According to online information a sheriff today earns an average of $45,000 per year, so I calculate that the total reward money was worth about $4.5 million. Not bad for a few days work.

When the film was made in 1965 Lee Van Cleef was a highly successful actor, well known in American westerns as a villain, while Clint Eastwood was relatively unknown, so they received equal credits in the film posters. The film even opens with a scene establishing Douglas Mortimer as a character, and Manco isn't seen until 15 minutes into the film. It's interesting to see the way the two actors continued with their respective careers. For Clint Eastwood it was the second of only three spaghetti westerns, after which he returned to making films in America. This was Lee Van Cleef's first film in Italy, but it was the beginning of a new segment of his life. Over the next 20 years, almost up to his death, he made another 20 spaghetti westerns. In America he had been predominantly a villain in his westerns, but in Italian films he was usually a hero. Maybe all that he wanted was to be known as the good guy.

It's worth mentioning the appearance of Klaus Kinski in this film, despite his relatively small role as a member of El Indio's gang. He speaks very few lines, but the variations in his facial expressions from one moment to the next are fascinating. The more I see him, the more convinced I become that he's the best actor who has ever lived.

Friday, 26 June 2015

R.I.P. Patrick Macnee

Although he appeared in about 30 films, including the James Bond film "A View to a Kill" in 1985, Patrick Macnee is best known to his fans for one role: that of the secret agent John Steed, or simply Steed, in the television series "The Avengers" (1961-1969) and "The New Avengers" (1976-1977). For this reason my tribute to Patrick Macnee consists of a brief overview of his performance as John Steed.

Steed with David Keel (Ian Hendry)

During these series he had a succession of rotating partners. It might surprise some fans of "The Avengers" to hear that in the first season John Steed was the junior partner, the assistant of Dr. David Keel. Ian Hendry had recently starred in a popular television series called "Police Surgeon", and "The Avengers" was intended to cash in on this, by portraying him as a medical doctor who used his forensic skills as a government agent.

Due to the barbaric habit of reusing videotapes after they had been broadcast on television, only two out of 26 episodes still exist from the first season. Audio versions of the episodes are currently in production, in which voice actors use the original scripts.

The government agency that Dr. Keel and Steed worked for was never explicitly named. In a few episodes we saw Dr. Keel receiving instructions from an unnamed superior, but this character was only shown occasionally in the second season and disappeared completely in the following three seasons.

Steed with Martin King (Jon Rollason)

After the departure of Ian Hendry at the end of the first season the original intention was to replace Dr. Keel with another medical doctor, and Jon Rollason was selected to play the role of Dr. Martin King. Three episodes were filmed, but the television studios felt that Jon wasn't a suitable replacement. It was decided to change the direction of the series. In the first season Steed had a network of informants and assistants among the general population. In the remaining episodes of the second season Steed worked closely with two of his female assistants in solving crimes. These two women were referred to as amateurs, since they were not government agents.

Steed with Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman)

The first amateur was Dr. Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman. In the second season her trademark weapon was a gun which she concealed in her garter belt. In the third season it was more common for her to use judo in battling criminals, an easy task because Honor Blackman already practised judo. Many of her early episodes had scripts written for Ian Hendy or Jon Rollason, and she simply used their lines. Later episodes show her character becoming more feminine. Beginning in the late second season there were episodes in which she wore black leather, and this became her standard clothing in the third season.

Steed with Venus Smith (Julie Stevens)

The second amateur was Venus Smith, a nightclub singer played by Julie Stevens. Unlike Cathy Gale she wasn't a fighter. Her activities were usually undercover spying, and Steed frequently had to rescue her. Cathy Gale was the liberated woman, Venus Smith was the damsel in distress. A good mix.

In the second season Dr. Martin King appeared in three episodes, Venus Smith appeared in six episodes and Cathy Gale appeared in the remaining 17 episodes. The Martin King episodes had been filmed first, but they weren't broadcast until the middle of the season. Venus Smith's episodes were scattered evenly throughout the season. Since it was obvious that Cathy Gale was the more popular character, she was the only one to be brought back for the third season and appeared in all 26 episodes.

Steed's character began to change towards the end of the third season. He started out as a gritty detective-like spy, almost always wearing a heavy raincoat. He slowly began to adopt the bowler hat and umbrella that became his trademark appearance for the following seasons.

Steed with Emma Peel (Diana Rigg)

In the fourth season Diana Rigg joined the series as Emma Peel, usually called Mrs. Peel, the most famous out of all Steed's partners. There were hints that she worked for the government, so she didn't have the amateur status of the previous assistants. When the series was broadcast in the USA there was a voice-over during the opening credits that called her a "talented amateur", but this was a careless blunder. She was obviously intended to be a clone of Cathy Gale. Emma Peel wore leather outfits and battled with simulated karate moves, since she knew no judo. However, there were disagreements behind the scenes. Honor Blackman had enjoyed wearing leather outfits, but Diana Rigg found them unpleasant and requested a new look. In the fifth season she wore trendy tight-fitting outfits custom made for her.

The series' style changed dramatically in the fourth season, and even more in the fifth. It had started out in 1961 by presenting realistic spy thrillers. In the fourth season the stories became very camp. There were high tech gadgets, and enemy organisations were using barely credible covers for their illegal operations. In each episode people were killed in ridiculous ways. Steed usually made a whimsical remark about the deaths, while Mrs. Peel just grinned. The series was heavily criticised at the time for the way it made fun of death. In the fifth season there were repeated science fiction elements, such as killer robots and man-eating plants.

There is some disagreement about the correct numbering of the seasons from the fifth onwards. Some people say that the fifth season had 24 episodes, whereas others say that it only had 16 episodes, and the sixth season had eight episodes. If you watch the 24 episodes it's obvious that the last eight have a different style to the previous 16. They're slightly less camp. However, I'll follow the consensus of Avengers fans and refer to it as a single season. I'll merely split it into season 5a and 5b.

Steed with Tara King (Linda Thorson)

In the sixth and final season of "The Avengers" Steed's new partner was the young agent Tara King, played by Linda Thorson. It was emphasised that she had been the top graduate of a secret agent training school, so she definitely wasn't an amateur. She admired Steed because in her training he had been presented as the example of a good agent. She looked up to him as a father figure, but there were also hints of a romantic attachment, something missing from all of Steed's previous partners.

In the sixth season we met Steed's superior officer, a wheelchair-bound man called Mother. The organisation he worked for still wasn't named. He had a mobile office which kept being found in the most ridiculous places, such as the top floor of a double decker bus. The sixth season used great amounts of humour and became so camp that it seemed to be parodying itself.

Steed with Gambit (Gareth Hunt) and Purdey (Joanna Lumley)

In 1976 a Canadian company financed a relaunch of "The Avengers", which they called "The New Avengers". This was something that divided the fans. There was initial optimism at the return of Steed and their beloved series, but it soon became obvious that it was a very different program. Steed functioned as a supervisor for the new agents Gambit (Gareth Hunt) and Purdey (Joanna Lumley), giving them their missions in the same way he had received missions from Mother in the sixth season. He outranked them, but when it came to the action he seemed like a junior partner, standing back while they won the battles. The stories themselves carried on in a similar vein to the original Avengers series, camp with over-the-top action and hints of science fiction.

Yesterday Patrick Macnee passed away at the age of 93. He will be severely missed by his family, friends and fans..

Patrick Macnee
6 February 1922 – 25 June 2015

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Young Bruce Lee (4 Stars)

"Some day the whole world will want my autograph".

This is a biopic about Bruce Lee's early years, based on the memories of his younger brother Robert, who also appears at the beginning to introduce the film. The film begins with his birth in 1940, and ends in 1959 when he left Hong Kong to move to America. Chinese actor Aarif Rahman doesn't quite look like Bruce, he's too tall, but he manages to capture Bruce's mannerisms .

Bruce was born in San Francisco, but his family moved back to Hong Kong in 1941, ignoring warnings that a Japanese invasion was imminent. Due to the influence and connections of his father, a successful stage actor, Bruce entered the film business very young. He starred in his first film at the age of 1, then rapidly became a child star, and by the time he was 19 he had appeared in 20 films.

Bruce was an ambitious person who succeeded at whatever he put his mind to. Apart from his legendary fighting skills, he was also an exceptionally talented dancer. In 1958 he won the Hong Kong Cha Cha Championship, dancing with his brother Robert as his partner.

And yet Bruce never learnt how to ride a bicycle. That's strange.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

A Fistful of Dollars (4½ Stars)

I've watched this film a few times, but I couldn't remember what happened in it, however much I tried. All I could remember was the vision of Clint Eastwood as a character. Tall. Thin. A poncho. Sometimes a hat. A cigar. Always walking casually and unconcerned, however many guns were pointed at him.

Maybe that was the intention of the film. It's not about the story. It's all about the atmosphere. When the film was made in 1964 it was in stark contrast to the many American westerns that had preceded it. Fast action and fast shooting with a dash of romance, that's what American westerns were about. This Italian film directed by Sergio Leone was the opposite. It moved slowly and ponderously, as if the searing Mexican heat had slowed everyone down. Yes, there was action, and there was more blood visible than in its American equivalents, but it was short bursts of action. It was like a rattlesnake coiled in the sun, watching its prey, then suddenly biting, before settling back into its position.

Let me describe the film's plot in a few words, more for myself than for anyone else, because I might forget it again by this time next year. Clint Eastwood is an American who rides into the town of San Miguel, a Mexican town close to the border. He's warned that everyone who comes into the town either gets rich or is killed. It's a lawless town in which only two people do any legal work. There's an inn keeper and an undertaker. Everyone else is a member of one of the town's two rival gangs. Clint sees an opportunity and formally joins one of the gangs, but he plays the two against one another, earning money from both of them. In the first half of the film he seems to be totally amoral, deceiving anyone for his own profit, but in the second half he does perform some selfless acts to protect the innocents caught in the middle of the gang war.

The poster describes Clint Eastwood's character as "the man with no name", but in the film he's called Joe. It could be argued that this was a nickname given him, but I see no reason for this assumption.

"A Fistful of Dollars" is supposedly a remake of the 1961 Japanese film "Yojimbo". Sergio Leone denied this, but an injunction was taken against him preventing the film being shown outside of Italy. He finally agreed to pay Akira Kurosawa $100,000 in compensation, and the film was finally released in America in 1967.

Clint Eastwood made three films with Sergio Leone. They're referred to as the Dollars Trilogy, but even though he looked and talked the same in all three films it's not certain that it was actually meant to be the same character. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. It doesn't really matter. I can't remember what happened in the other two films either. I'll have to watch them again.

Terminator (5 Stars)

Today the original Terminator film returned to the cinema, 31 years after its first release in 1984. Supposedly the film has been re-remastered for its cinema showing. What I mean is, in 2012 a remastered version of the film was released on Blu-ray for the first time. Critics praised the release as better than all previous releases on DVD and Blu-ray, but added that it wasn't perfect. It was the best that could be done with a low-budget film from the 1980's. Now, only two years later, the film has been remastered again. What did they do? I can't say. I own the 2012 version on Blu-ray, and I was watching out for improvements in the cinema today, but I couldn't see any. The problem is that on a big screen everything looks better than it does at home. I expect that the new version will be released on Blu-ray soon. First I'll wait for the experts to compare it with previous releases. If they say it's worth it I might rebuy the film myself.

The cinema was packed today. There are so many fans of this old film who still want to see it again. Of course, the special effects don't match the quality of today's films. It was made in the days before computer graphics. The robotic Terminator in the final scene is some sort of model, as is obvious from its jerky animation. The advantage is that it was partially damaged at this point in the film, so it needed to move unevenly. The fans, including me, overlooked this weakness. The strength of the film is in its powerful story. There's a love story, there's a battle to save the human race, and there are mind-bending temporal paradoxes (which are expounded upon in the second film). "Terminator" is a film that has everything needed to make it appeal to the widest possible audience.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Dracula (1958 Version) (5 Stars)

This British film, released in America as "Horror of Dracula", is considered by many to be the best ever filming of Bram Stoker's original Dracula novel. There have certainly been a lot of them, more than 50 at the last count. That number only includes the novel adaptations, not new stories written for film only.

By the late 1950's most people considered Bela Lugosi to be the Count Dracula. This film changed everything. Christopher Lee's towering figure was so iconic that many considered him to be a more convincing representation of Dracula. Now, 50 years later, people are divided into two camps. Some prefer Bela Lugosi, some prefer Christopher Lee. I shan't take sides. Both are excellent in their own ways. All I shall say is that in the many, many representations of Dracula in films no other actor comes close to these two.

I've never read Bram Stoker's book. I ought to, one day. Every film makes its own deviations from the original story, and I don't know which film is the most accurate. Let me just state a few things that differ from other films I've seen.

In most films Jonathan Harker is an estate agent travelling to see Count Dracula to close a business deal. In the 1958 film he is an associate of Doctor Van Helsing who goes to the castle with the intention of killing Dracula, using the ruse of accepting a post as the Count's new librarian.

In most films Jonathan Harker lives in London. In the 1958 film he lives in the Austrian city Karlstadt (now part of Croatia).

The characters of Lucy and Mina have been exchanged. In most films Jonathan Harker is engaged to Lucy, and Mina is her best friend. In the 1958 film he is engaged to Mina, while Lucy is married to Mina's brother Arthur Holmwood.

In the 1958 film Jonathan Harker is turned into a vampire and staked by Doctor Van Helsing.

Doctor Van Helsing explains to Arthur Holmwood, who is a major character in the 1958 film, that it's a fallacy that Dracula can change his form into that of a bat or a wolf.

Peter Cushing has the main billing on the poster, since he was a big star at the time. This was the film that made Christopher Lee famous.

It's quite amazing to me that this film had problems with the UK censors when it was released. The scene where Dracula's bride bit Jonathan Harker's neck was considered too extreme, so it had to be removed. In the final version we see her fangs getting close to his neck, but then the camera pulls back and we see him pushing her away, so it's not clear whether he was bitten or not. The screenplay makes it clear that he was indeed bitten, and this is what was filmed, but the original footage has been lost forever.

Why isn't Jonathan looking at her teeth?

This is what happens if you're not careful.

Another problem was that when Dracula approached Lucy in her bed Lucy's facial expression looked too sexual, as if she were enjoying it. What a stupid criticism, even for the 1950's! The original footage still exists, but in the film this was replaced with a close-up of Dracula's face as he approached her.

Dracula's family crest written in bad Latin.

In England the film has been remastered and released on Blu-ray. The Blu-ray release includes a DVD disc, but it's not possible to buy the film on DVD only. This is a good step forwards. DVDs are an old technology. They can still be played by Blu-ray players, so there's no need for people to throw away their old DVD collection, but there is also no need for new films or new releases of old films to be released on DVD. It's totally unnecessary.

Mr. Holmes (4 Stars)

I can't solve everything!

This delightful film is set in 1947. Sherlock Holmes is now 93 years old. We hear that he retired in 1912 and has spent the last 35 years living on a remote farmhouse on the Sussex coast. His only companions are his housekeeper and her son, but we also hear that he's a difficult old man to look after, and his housekeepers never stay long.

At this time Sherlock Holmes has reached celebrity status, mostly due to books that his old colleague John Watson wrote about his adventures. Holmes refers to these books as penny dreadfuls, full of inaccuracies and exaggerations. For instance, he never wore a dearstalker hat or smoked a pipe. Those were Watson's inventions.

Holmes is in the process of writing his memoirs, but his failing memory is making the task difficult. Particularly puzzling is his last case, which Watson published as "Sherlock Holmes and the Lady in Grey". Holmes has read this book, but its contents unsettle him, because he doesn't think the events took place the way they're written. Holmes' greatest investigation is to uncover his own past and discover what happened to make him give up his work as a detective at the (relatively) young age of 58.

The film is moving and heart-warming. We both admire and pity Sherlock Holmes when we see how his once brilliant mind is now riddled with dementia. Ian McKellen, 17 years younger than the character he plays, gives a stunningly moving performance.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Oldboy (4 Stars)

In 1988 the Korean businessman Oh Dae-su gets drunk and is picked up by the police. After being detained for a few hours he's released with a caution. His best friend Joo-hwan picks him up from the police station. On the way home they stop at a phone booth to ring his wife to let her know where he is. Before he can get back in the car he's knocked out and kidnapped. He wakes up in something that looks like a hotel room, but the door is locked and he's not allowed to leave. Over the following days he is given food on a plate through a slit in the door. On television he sees a news report that his wife has been murdered, and because of his suspicious disappearance he is the prime suspect. The days turn into weeks, the weeks turn into months, the months turn into years. He's taken care of. His room is cleaned while he sleeps, and occasionally new clothes are laid out for him, but he never sees or speaks to anyone.

After 15 years of solitary confinement he's suddenly released. He wakes up on a rooftop. With him is a young man who intends to commit suicide. Oh Dae-su doesn't attempt to talk him out of it, he just tells him about his imprisonment. It's the first person he's been able to talk to for 15 years. In the street a stranger hands him an envelope with a large amount of money and a mobile phone. A caller tells him that he has five days to find out why he was imprisoned. If he doesn't succeed he will be killed.

I'm not a fan of Korean movies, but of all the Korean films I've seen this is the best. It's a twisted mystery thriller which becomes even more twisted as Oh Dae-su begins to discover the truth. We also see a man struggling to survive in a new world. The period from 1988 to 2003 was a time of big changes. There are new inventions, such as mobile phones and the Internet. (Mobile phones were actually invented in 1949, but due to the high cost and poor service hardly anyone owned one until the 1990's).

The large popularity of this film sparked an American remake in 2013. Purists criticised the remake for the simple reason that they always hate remakes, but I'll keep an open mind until I've seen it.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Jurassic World (3½ Stars)

This film, the fourth in the Jurassic Park franchise, broke the record for the highest ever box office for the opening weekend, grossing about $520 million. At its current rate of popularity it looks set to become the most successful film of 2015. Does it deserve it? I'll try to give my opinion, while carefully avoiding spoilers for my readers who still haven't seen the film.

The film continues from "Jurassic Park: The Lost World" (1997), the second film in the series. The events of "Jurassic Park 3" (2001) aren't relevant to the film. After John Hammond's death his dream has finally been realised to have a dinosaur theme park on the island Isla Nublar. The park has been running successfully for years. While Ingen retains control in the background, the face shown to the world is a friendly family-oriented business run by theme park manager Claire Dearing. Not content with just bringing old dinosaurs back to life, Ingen is now creating new dinosaurs, by mixing the DNA of existing dinosaurs with one another and other creatures. Their newest creation is an Indominus Rex, a creature larger than a Tyrannosaurus Rex. After all, the public will only return if they see a new attraction each year.

Claire is visited by her nephews, Zach and Gray. The Indominus Rex escapes and runs havoc. The park's Velociraptor trainer, Owen Grady, is recruited to get the situation back under control.

Steven Spielberg was absent from the creative control of "Jurassic Park 3", but his absence is even more clearly marked this time round. At least "Jurassic Park 3" imitated the Spielberg style: an action scene to start the film with a bang, followed by slow scenes that introduce the main characters one by one, slowly building up the pace until the action is packed densely for the second half of the film. "Jurassic World" makes no attempts to be a Spielberg film. It starts slowly, and then the main characters are pushed upon us too quickly for the viewer to get to know them or relate to them. For instance, the children Zach and Grey are obviously an attempt to repeat the first film's pattern of having innocent young children caught up in a catastrophe. Whereas we got to know and love John Hammond's grandchildren in "Jurassic Park", Zach and Grey are just two dorky teenagers that we don't really care about. Claire Dearing is an ambitious career woman who fails to win our sympathy. Owen Grady is thrust upon us so fast that we hardly know him when he jumps into action. None of the main characters are well developed. Ironically, the only characters we can really warm to are Vivian and Lowery, two tech workers in the control room. They're irrelevant to the story, but we can relate to the sub-plot of their romantic attraction. As for Claire and Owen, who cares if they get together or not?

The action scenes in "Jurassic World" are spoilt by poor cinematography. In most scenes the camera is too close to the action, which hides what's really happening. Compare this to the other three films, in which the camera steps back and lets us take in the dinosaur attacks. The only exception is the pterodactyl attack, which is easily the best filmed scene in "Jurassic World".

This is supposedly the first film in a new Jurassic Park trilogy. I hope the next film will learn from this film's mistakes. We need more time to introduce the characters, and there should be well-defined character arcs. And bring back Vivian and Lowery.

One last thought. I've read a lot of criticism of "Jurassic World" being scientifically inaccurate, because we now know that dinosaurs had feathers. Really? Do we know anything at all? That's just the latest scientific theory, the flavour of the month, to be smugly quoted by non-scientists who want to sound smarter than the film makers. The fact is that scientists are just making speculations based on the very sparse evidence that they have at their disposal. 10 years from now, maybe sooner, scientists will have new opinions. There's nothing wrong with that. Science is a slow plodding subject, especially where the distant past is concerned. Let's step back and let the scientists do their work while the film makers do theirs. Apart from this, even if it is true that dinosaurs had feathers, it would be a mistake to show them like that in the film. The typical cinema-goer has grown up with images of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Stegosaurus and similar creatures. If he were presented with large feathered creatures that look like turkeys he wouldn't take them seriously when they attack.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Spy (4¾ Stars)

I was disappointed with Melissa McCarthy's last film, "Tammy", but the trailers for "Spy" looked so good that I had to go to the cinema to see it. Any reservations I had were unfounded. It was one of the funniest films I've seen for a long time. People were laughing throughout the theatre. What made "Tammy" bad was that it was just 90 minutes of jokes about a fat woman. After the first 10 minutes I stopped laughing. "Spy" has fat woman jokes as well, but it has much more. This was obvious from the very first minutes. The theme song and the opening credits were a perfect imitation of the classic James Bond films from the 1960's.

Melissa McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, an overweight CIA agent who works in an office guiding the field agents and giving them technical assistance. After an agent she has a crush on, Bradley Fine (Jude Law), is killed while looking for a stolen nuclear bomb, no other agents can be sent to continue with the mission because it's revealed that the enemy knows all of the CIA agents. Someone unknown has to be sent, and Susan volunteers. She's given instructions to simply observe the enemy and not get involved, but due to her boundless enthusiasm she gets into fist and gun fights.

Jude Law is so perfect as a James Bond type spy that I'm surprised he was never offered the role. He would be better than Daniel Craig, who isn't James-Bond-ish at all. Jason Statham must have a big sense of humour, because he's making fun of himself in the action roles he's played recently, such as the Expendables and Fast & Furious films. The film has the typical James Bond exotic locations, Paris, Rome and Budapest. It has hotels and casinos. The only thing that's missing is Melissa McCarthy walking into a hotel room and finding a naked man in a shower.

The obvious question is whether it's funnier than "Man Up", which I watched last week. I would say Yes. It's not necessarily a better film. I enjoyed "Man Up" because of its subtle mix of comedy and serious themes. That's not the case with "Spy". In "Spy" it's just humour from beginning to end, with no serious message to take home. This is a film that everyone should watch.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Species (4 Stars)

At the moment I'm looking through my DVDs and picking out ones I haven't watched for a long time and want to watch again. At first it was only a few films, but my pile is gradually growing larger. "Species" is a film that I haven't seen for at least 10 years. I never watched the sequels, so I thought that it would be time to watch them as well.

Many people desribe "Species" as "Alien" with added nudity. They probably mean that as an insult, but it's not so far off. The people who say things like that as a criticism are the movie snobs who equate nudity with pornography, and even get critical when the nudity is in small doses and essential to the plot. I personally think that nudity is natural and should be used more often in non-pornographic films. Let me give a trivial example. I personally have the habit of walking around my house naked on hot days. If a film were ever made about my life it would be correct to show the actor who plays me sitting naked at home. I wonder who should play me. Maybe Jamie Foxx?

But let's get back to the film. It was made in 1995, and the events take place in the present day, i.e. in the mid-1990's. For more than 20 years the Earth has been broadcasting radio signals into space in an attempt to make contact with other intelligent life forms. Finally there are replies. The first reply is instructions on how to create a new artificial fuel source that is so revolutionary that it can solve the Earth's energy problems. The second message is a description of the DNA of an alien species, together with instructions on how to splice it with human DNA. That would have made me suspicious straight away. Didn't the scientists ever read the story about the Trojan War and the big horse? Obviously not. They inject the alien DNA into 20 human embryos. Most of them die, but one is born. It's a beautiful little girl who they call Sil. She grows into adulthood within a few days and shows supernatural strength, so the scientists panic and try to kill her, but she escapes.

Apart from having great strength, she is also very intelligent. While she wanders around Los Angeles she learns how to speak English and picks up all the other skills she needs to survive. That wouldn't be bad in itself, but she is also ravenously hungry, and she feeds on human flesh. She doesn't know who she is or what she is, but she has an instinctive desire to mate, so she looks for a man to impregnate her. Her beauty attracts men, and she soon realises that when she's nude they are unable to resist her. A team of scientists accompany a professional hitman to hunt for her and destroy her before she manages to procreate.

This is a high quality science fiction thriller with a top level cast. The story is realistic and well-filmed, with the possible exception of the final scene when Sil morphs into a lizard-like creature. She looks very similar to the creature in Alien, but the film's smaller budget lets it down, and the special effects are unrealistic.

Friday, 12 June 2015

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959 version) (4 Stars)

This is the second film that I'm watching this week featuring Christopher Lee. I picked it because I wanted to watch one of his films that I've never seen before. It's somewhat out of character for him, because he doesn't play the bad guy in it. Maybe that's a spoiler. It's a Sherlock Holmes murder investigation, and in his stories anyone could be guilty. The killer isn't revealed until the end.

This is the most famous of all the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle. According to IMDB the story has been filmed 19 times between 1914 and 2013, in languages as diverse as German, Chinese and Russian. The story has also formed the basis of episodes of television series about Sherlock Holmes, including the current series "Sherlock" and "Elementary". It's a story about an old curse that a supernatural dog kills the Lord of Baskerville Hall if he walks alone at night on the moors. After the death of Sir Charles Baskerville Sherlock Holmes is called to investigate the case. Holmes is a sceptic and doesn't believe in the supernatural, so he looks for a logical explanation, especially when attempts are made on the life of the new lord, Sir Henry Baskerville.

Sherlock Holmes is played by Peter Cushing, while Sir Henry Baskerville is played by Christopher Lee. I already knew that they teamed up in several horror films, but when I researched the matter I was surprised to find out that they made 24 films together between 1948 and 1973. I have mixed feelings about Peter Cushing. I've always admired him, but I have to admit that he wasn't a great actor. He had a very stiff wooden style. His fans might claim that he was typecast into playing roles like this, but I doubt he was capable of playing any other type of character. Nevertheless, he was the perfect actor for the stiff wooden characters that he played, whether it was Baron Frankenstein, Abraham Van Helsing or Sherlock Holmes.

That's a naive question. Why would any woman kiss a tall, dark and handsome man like Christopher Lee? Of course, Sherlock Holmes wouldn't take the obvious answer for granted. In the context of the film, Sir Henry Baskerville is a millionaire, so maybe Cecile was scheming to get her hands on his money. Or maybe she's the killer, and she was holding a dagger in her hand while they were locked in a passionate embrace.

Christopher Lee was a great man who will be sorely missed by his friends, fellow actors and film fans alike. But one thing is sure. As long as films still exist, he will never be forgotten.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Man with the Golden Gun (4½ Stars)

Following the death of Christopher Lee, which I reported earlier today, I've decided to watch a few of his films. He made so many, more than 200 films in his career that spanned from 1948 up to his death in 2015. This is the first film in my list. It's one of the James Bond films that starred Roger Moore as James Bond. In my opinion it's the best of the Roger Moore Bond films, but it seems like public opinion is against me. Maybe I'm just biased because it stars Christopher Lee? His performance lifts the film and makes it something memorable, a film that deserves to be watched and rewatched many times over.

The film is about a professional hitman, Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), who charges one million dollars for each job. He uses a custom made golden gun, and he shoots golden bullets. He's so confident of his skill that he only takes one bullet with him on each job. Apart from this he likes to have fun. He pays other hitmen to come to his house and attempt to kill him. This is more of a challenge. Scaramanga also has a great respect for James Bond, since he considers him to be the world's second best hitman; second after himself, of course.

The film borrows ideas from many other films. For instance, in the opening scene Christopher Lee emerges from the water wearing white swimming trunks looking like Ursula Andress in "Dr. No", the first James Bond film. The effect is spoilt by the camera not showing him from the front as he walks onto the beach, but there's a reason for this, obvious to all who have seen the film. The final scene in Scaramanga's fun fair looks like it comes from an episode of the Avengers TV series. The martial arts scene in a dojo is reminiscent of "Fist of Fury", and the showdown among the mirrors looks very much like the final scene from "Enter the Dragon".

Apart from that, we have the typical motifs that we know from the James Bond films. Whenever Bond walks into a woman's hotel room she's in the shower. There are the car chases, which were at their craziest during Roger Moore's time as Bond. There are sexy women with suggestive names, in this case the naked girl in the swimming pool called Choo Mi. There's the scene where the villain explains his evil plans to Bond in great detail as if they were old friends. And there's the big explosion at the end.

Someone should tell Christopher Lee that you can't impress a girl by pointing your gun in her face. However big it is.

I'll choo yu if you choo mi.

Roger Moore has kung fu kicking schoolgirls to help him out. They may be young, but they know the best place to kick a man.

Isn't it nice to catch a ball game with your enemy before you fight to the death?

Much too generous. Mr. Lee, you are the best!