Monday, 24 April 2017

The Founder (4½ Stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV Series: Teen Wolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (3 Stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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General: When I die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Queen of Katwe (5 Stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phiona in 2016 Mutesi discussing the film.

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

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Joy Ride (4½ Stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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The Mist (5 Stars)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Pawn Sacrifice (5 Stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby Fischer
March 9, 1943 – January 17, 2008

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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell (3 Stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 17 April 2017

Es war einmal in Deutschland (4½ Stars)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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