Friday, 16 March 2018

The Neon Demon (4 Stars)

Jesse is a 16-year-old girl who moves from Georgia to Los Angeles to become a model. On arriving she meets a photographer called Dean who takes her first photos. She uses these pictures to present herself to a modelling agent, who immediately recognises she has talent.

The modelling business is hard and merciless. As Jesse quickly rises to the top the other models ask her who she's been sleeping with to get so far. They don't believe that it's possible to become a top model without sleeping around. Jesse is naive and hardly believes what's happening to her. She's like a deer caught in the headlights, as her new best friend Ruby tells her. Ruby says that she's a makeup artist, but she doesn't admit that she does makeup for corpses to prepare them for burial.

The lights are bright, the music is loud, and Jesse's virginal innocence prevents her from seeing the dangers of the new world she's entered.

The Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has a psychedelic style which is unique today. He has more similarity with 1970's directors like Robert Fuest. There's a distinct similarity with the colour contrasts of Stanley Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange". The clash between the superficial beauty and the depths of the horror beneath the surface is staggering. After watching "Neon Demon" you have to rub your eyes and ask yourself if you really saw what just happened. This isn't a film for everyone, but it's a film for viewers who like to be shocked.

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Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Homesman (4 Star)

This is the second time I've watched this film. It's difficult for me to give a clear judgement. It starts off perfectly. We see a strong, independent woman. She's willing and able to do things the men around her are too weak and too lazy to do. In the harsh environment of Nebraska in the mid 1850's she could ride and shoot better than anyone else.

If the film had continued like this I wouldn't have hesitated to give it a five star rating. But then she fell apart. She experienced one small setback, and she gave up. What was the author of the novel that formed the basis for the film trying to say? "Women can achieve a lot, but they can only go so far before men have to take over"?

Nevertheless, the film has a lot in its favour. The stark beauty of the environment stands out even more in contrast to the poverty of the town's inhabitants. This is an honest portrayal of life in the frontier towns, less glamorous that what's shown in traditional westerns.

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Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Eugenie (1970) (3 Stars)

This is a loose adaptation of Marquis de Sade's "Philosophy in the Bedroom", filmed by Jess Franco in 1970. Curiously, he adapted the same story again in 1980. It would be interesting to compare the two films.

Eugenie is the 15-year-old daughter of a rich businessman who lives in Spain. Her father is having an affair with a Spanish noblewoman, Marianne de Saint-Ange. Marianne tells him that beautiful woman always come with a high price. When he asks her why a woman as wealthy as her needs more money she says that she doesn't want his money, she wants his daughter. The man gives his daughter permission to stay on Marianne's private island for a week during her school holidays.

Marianne and her brother Mirval live together in an incestuous relationship. They're also members of a secret society that practises extreme sado-masochistic practises. How extreme? They believe that the ultimate in sexual pleasure can only be reached at the moment of death. The elegant gentleman Dolmancé, played by Christopher Lee, is the leader of the society. He presides over wild orgies that frequently end with women being killed.

Marianne's intention is to educate, corrupt and destroy Eugenie. On the first evening Eugenie loses her virginity when she's raped by Mirval. On the second evening she's whipped and tortured by members of the society. On the third evening she's encouraged to commit murder.

The film left me shell-shocked. It's so lacking in morality, it's as if it takes place in a world where morals don't exist. Why was a film like this made? What inspired Marquis de Sade to write the book? It's as if the author and the film director wanted to shock the public just for the sake of it.

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Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Der Hauptmann (4½ Stars)

Robert Schwentke is a German director, born in Stuttgart, who has had some success in Hollywood with the films "RED", "Insurgent" and "Allegiant". Now he has returned to his roots by making a film in German, "Der Hauptmann" ("The Captain"). It's a work of love for him. He presented the film in Stuttgart today, and he told the audience that it's a film he's wanted to make for 10 years. When he first wanted to make it he didn't know if he could find financing for the project, and he didn't feel that he had the technical competence. After 10 years of education in the harsh world of the Hollywood film industry he finally felt able to make the film, together with his fellow Stuttgarter Frieder Schlaich as producer.

The film tells the true story of how 19-year-old Willi Herold became a notorious war criminal in the final weeks of World War Two. With the exception of the opening scene, which Robert Schwentke invented to make the character sympathetic to the audience, the story is told as accurately as possible, based on written accounts and eye witness reports. As Schwentke said, it's a story that nobody could have made up. It all sounds too absurd to be true.

The film takes place in north Germany in April 1945, behind the front lines in the battle between the Germans and the English. The area is full of German deserters, and even the faithful few soldiers who are separated from their units are accused of deserting. Willi Herold, a deserter himself, finds an abandoned car containing the uniform of an air force captain. He puts on the uniform, and he recruits random soldiers that he finds roaming in the area. He drives with them to a German prison camp, claiming to have been sent by Hitler to examine morale on the front. The prisoners are all German soldiers, mostly deserters, some of them guilty of other crimes like theft or rape. They're being held until they can be put on trial. Willi Herold claims the responsibility for creating order. He says that it's wrong for German criminals to enjoy better comfort than soldiers fighting on the front line, so he orders their execution.

After the camp is destroyed in an air raid Herold and his troops drive to the closest town. He finds that signs have been put up welcoming the English, so his first act is to execute the mayor. He sets up his headquarters in the town's hotel, where he puts everyone on trial who he considers unpatriotic. He called it a "Schnellgericht", a "fast court". People were brought before him and the charges were stated. If he considered them guilty they were shot and dragged out of the courtroom dead.

The main question I asked myself while watching the film was "Why did he do it?" This was the first question asked by an audience member after the film. Robert Schwentke said that he deliberately left this question unanswered. It was a time of mass confusion, and normal men did evil things. He wants the audience to ask themselves what they would have done in Willi Herold's place.

For myself, and I emphasises that this is only a personal interpretation, I see parallels with "Taxi Driver". Willi Herold wasn't a bad man in himself. He was a youngster who wanted to fight for his country, but it was too much for him. When the enemy came he fled for his life. That's what I would have done as well. That left him on the wrong side of the law. He was a criminal. That was an existential problem for him. He wanted to do good. The military uniform he found gave him an opportunity to put things right. He denied his past and claimed to be a good German soldier. He punished those who had done what he himself was guilty of. He crossed the line, doing evil in order to redeem himself.

This is a chilling war film. It's cold. It's brutal. It's realistic. It's like no World War Two film I've seen before.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Red Sparrow (4 Stars)

This is another example of a film that I saw in the cinema that wasn't what I expected. Maybe it was the trailer that led me astray, maybe it was the lead actress's background. I expected "Red Sparrow" to be an action thriller like "Atomic Blonde", but it was closer to "A Most Wanted Man".

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a successful Russian ballerina. After an accident on stage she's unable to continue with her career, and she's worried that she will no longer be able to support her sick mother. Her uncle Ivan  Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts) suggests that she join the Russian secret service. She is trained as a "Sparrow", an organisation of young, sexy agents who are trained to seduce enemy agents. Despite being rebellious during her training, she's sent on a mission to seduce an American CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), in Budapest. Russia knows that Nash is receiving information from a mole in the Russian government, and they want her to find out the name of the mole.

The mission doesn't run as smoothly as planned. The CIA knows that Dominika is a Russian agent and attempts to recruit her. She's torn between the two sides, since she doesn't fully trust either spy agency. All she's interested in is looking after herself and her mother.

There are only a few action sequences in the film. It's fascinating to see the way spy business is carried out as a matter of routine.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Dracula's Fiancée (3 Stars)

An infant girl is laid on the steps of a convent in Paris, the Order of the White Virgin. That sounds innocent enough in itself. It's something poor unmarried mothers have been doing for centuries, putting their children into God's hands. But this child is different. As she grows older she exerts an influence over the nuns of the order. They all live to serve her, preparing her for the day she will marry someone they know only as "the Master". It's as if this young woman, whom they call Isabelle, is the White Virgin that their order was created to serve.

Of course, the film's title gives away who the Master is. Dracula has been living in a parallel universe for years. He can only return to our world after marrying his designated bride, Isabelle. It's a rather complex ceremony which you won't find in any other vampire books or films. First three nuns have to be sacrificed. Then Isabelle has to be tied to a wooden beam in the water while the tide is coming in. A grandfather clock is placed on the beach which is the doorway for Dracula to enter our world and take his bride. Does that make sense to you? If not, you should be watching "The Little Mermaid" instead.

Despite the best efforts of an aged vampire hunter to stop the ceremony, Dracula arrives to take his bride, and they all live happily ever after.

This is the last vampire film made by Jean Rollin, five years after "Two Orphan Vampires". It's his most ambitious film, showing that he had more money at his disposal. There's an orchestral score, and there are dozens of extras, things missing from his previous films. For me as a fan of his whole body of work I don't find it necessary. One thing does disturb me, though. Large parts of the film take place at night. Darkness isn't Jean Rollin's style. His films thrive by the use of daylight and bright colours.

This film is currently out of print, but I've been informed that a remastered Blu-ray release is planned later this year. Even though I consider this to be Jean Rollin's weakest vampire film, I still feel tempted to buy it.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Flu

Nothing is as bad as the flu.
Torture would be nice compared to this.

The other day I noticed that Arnold wasn't looking so good,
And the more I thought about it I realised I didn't feel so good myself,
So I went and got the thermometer
And I took my temperature,
Arnold doesn't like thermometers.
I couldn't believe it,
It was a hundred and five,
So we dragged ourselves to the doctor.
The doctor said we had something called Shanghai A,
It was awful.
And although it was a couple of weeks ago
I remember it as though it were yesterday.

I start to shiver
And then I sweat,
The room is spinning
and my bed is wet.
My head hurts so much
I can't think,
My lungs hurt so much
I can't breathe.

What is as bad as the flu? -- Nothing!
What would be nice compared to this? -- Torture!

We start to shiver
And then we sweat,
The room is spinning
and our bed is wet.

My head hurts so much
I can't think,
My lungs hurt so much
I can't breathe.

Drink lots of herb tea
and chicken soup,
Bundle your neck up,
Wear a hat.

These are a few things you can do,
Don't take a chance or you'll get the flu.

I haven't been writing many reviews in the last few days. I've decided to explain why not with a song by Karen Mantler. I haven't even been watching films at home. My head hurts too much to concentrate. I just spend all day in bed.

Before you say "Everyone gets the flu", let me tell you that this isn't a normal flu for me. It's the worst flu I've had in 28 years. It's easy for me to remember. In the late 1980's I often had severe flus that knocked me off my feet. My doctor told me that it was caused by my tonsils. He said my tonsils were "sucking germs into my body", but he didn't want to recommend my tonsils being removed, because he said that removing tonsils at older ages can cause complications. Eventually I became so sick in early 1990 that he said there was no alternative.

In May 1990 I had my tonsils removed. There were no complications. But this changed my life completely. Until then I was getting the flu five or six times a year for two weeks each. Now I hardly got the flu at all. Maybe twice a year, and it never lasted more than a day. I didn't go to the doctor or take medication, I just spent one day in bed and I was healthy again. I used to joke about my one-day-flus. That lasted for more than 20 years. I'd never been so healthy.

The last few years I've had a flu twice that lasted for three days. That might not seem bad, but for me it was awful. Still, three days in bed was bearable.

Now I've had my first real flu since 1990. It's been dragging on for almost three weeks. I kept thinking it was getting better, but after a good day I relapsed again. The last four days have been the worst. I've even decided to take flu medicine, which I haven't done for 28 years. It's awful.

I haven't watched any films at home for the last six days, but I've listened to this song by Karen Mantler. More than once. You can find it on YouTube, but her music is brilliant, so I advise you buy this CD, the second CD in the Arnold Trilogy.

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