Tuesday, 27 March 2012

TV Series: Monty Python's Flying Circus

My regular readers will probably have guessed the reason for my lack of posts this month. I've been watching television series instead of films. I don't write reviews of every series I watch, but I ought to make a few comments, just so that you know I'm still alive. Among other things I've been watching "Monty Python's Flying Circus" lately. The whole tv series, as broadcast from 1969 to 1973.

I often speak to people who claim to be Monty Python fans. Then when I ask them they say they only know the films, not the television series. Significantly, in America the Monty Python tv series has never been released on DVD as a standalone item, it's only been boxed together with the films, as if it were an extra. If you're one of the people who only knows Monty Python from the films you're missing out. True, the films are excellent (and I may review them at a future date), but the television shows are even better.

The Monty Python team was made up of six writers, who were also the primary actors in the show: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. In the fourth season John Cleese left the show. A lot of fans associate Monty Python with John Cleese, but he was actually a minor contributor. In the whole of the third season he only wrote two sketches, although he appeared as an actor throughout the season. All six people wrote sketches, but the main creative team was Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam also co-wrote a large number of sketches.

Monty Python is often considered a revolution in British comedy, but it was actually part of a continuous development which started with "The Goon Show", a radio comedy series starring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe that ran from 1951 to 1960. Spike Milligan continued this style of comedy on television in his solo series. "The Frost Report" and "At last the 1948 Show" were two other comedy series leading up to Monty Python.

It's difficult to summarise the humour of Monty Python. Obviously it's known for its silliness, but there are serious intellectual undertones. Palin and Jones were Oxford University graduates, while Cleese, Chapman and Idle were Cambridge graduates. Their sketches frequently make reference to Jean-Paul Sartre and other philosophers. A typical Monty Python episode is a series of sketches that run into one another. Although the sketches were usually on unrelated topics, there would be random intrusions by characters or situations from previous sketches.

The sketches would often use alienation techniques, reminding the viewer that he's only watching television. A character might forget his lines, and somebody else would hand him the script to remind him. Someone would turn up in a costume, then be sent away because he wasn't due till the next sketch. People from the "BBC planning committee" would walk in and order a sketch to be discontinued because it was too silly. Sometimes a show would have a fake ending, and the viewer would be fooled into believing that the news was starting. The BBC vignette would show, followed by the news credits, and on several occasions the newsreader Richard Baker would appear reading fake news reports. ("Monty Python's Flying Service" was broadcast at 8:30pm on BBC1, the main news program of the day was at 9:00pm). This doesn't work quite as effectively on DVD, but I'm sure many viewers were fooled when it was first broadcast.

While not a revolution in British comedy, "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was certainly the peak in its genre. Very few programmes carried on in this style. Spike Milligan and Marty Feldman had similar comedy shows. Probably "The Goodies" came closest to the spirit of Monty Python, while not reaching its quality. If you haven't seen the tv series yet, buy it. For an early series, starting in 1969, it's surprisingly good picture and sound quality. It compares favorably with "The Benny Hill Show", which still has some fuzzy scenes as late as 1982.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Off-Topic: Dealing with toothache

Now here's a totally random topic. It's a little something I'd like to share with my readers. We all know and all hate toothache. I suffer from it more than most, due to not taking care of my teeth in my early years. For me the turning point was when I was 20. I had a girlfriend who was an assistant in a dental practice, and she convinced me how important it was to look after my teeth. Louise Bailey was her name. I wonder if she still remembers me. But by then it was too late. My teeth were already full of fillings that have had to be replaced over the years.

But now to my tip. Almost by random I've found out that the Greek spirit Ouzo helps against toothache. Pour yourself a small glass of Ouzo, preferably chilled. 1-2 cl should be enough. Hold it in your mouth as long as you can. After that either swallow it or spit it out, it doesn't matter. The important thing is that the pain is gone, for a few hours at least. Try it.

In Germany you can buy it in any supermarket. In England Lidl sells it. Otherwise you can order it online.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Lord of the Dance (4 Stars)

It was Saint Patrick's Day yesterday, so I decided to watch an Irish film. I was undecided between "Lord of the Dance", "Angela's Ashes" and "The Brylcreem Boys". Then I went shopping and saw some young girls doing Irish dances at Asda. That made my mind up.

I watched the DVD which is a live performance of the show in Dublin in 1996. This is still available in America (click the picture above) but not in England. The dancing is as perfect as it could be. Even though I first saw the show on television -- this exact performance -- in 1997 I've never made an attempt to understand its exact meaning. It's a mixture of fairies, druids, temptation, battle with evil, death and resurrection. I'm sure I could google to find a full interpretation of the story, but I prefer not to. I just let the spectacular dancing and visual imagery wash over me.

My main criticism is about the editing of the piece. I hate the slow motion parts, especially at the beginning. If I wanted slow motion I have a button on my DVD player. As a live performance it's adequate, but the musical could have been made better in the studio with better lighting. I've been told that "Feet of Flames", a variation on the same musical, is better, but I haven't seen it.

I've heard a lot of criticism about this performance because of lead dancer Michael Flatley's ego. He works the crowd. He shouts to them. He swaggers around the stage. Does this really matter? He may be a dancer, but he has the posturing of a rock star. And I like rock stars.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

TV Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation

After a long pause I've continued watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (TNG for short). My last review was in April last year. This week I've watched the whole second season. I enjoyed the first season, but this season is even better. Let me point out all the changes that I can think of.

Several members of the crew have been replaced or reassigned. It's not always clear why.

Lieutenant Geordi La Forge was a navigator in the first season, but in this season he's become chief engineer. This is an understandable promotion. Chief O'Brien, who worked in engineering in the first season, has now been demoted to operating the transporter. What happened to him? Was he punished because he was drunk on duty?

After the death of Lieutenant Tasha Yar in the first season, Lieutenant Worf has now become the security officer. While this is undoubtably a good position for a Klingon, it's a strange change because he was communications officer in the first season. Maybe Star Fleet likes to rotate their personnel?

Doctor Pulaski takes over as ship's doctor in this season. I groaned in her first two episodes because she seemed too much of a clone of Doctor McCoy in the original series (TOS) in her dealings with Data. Luckily this was dropped in the following episodes.

The enigmatic alien Guinan has become the bartender in the previously unshown bar called Ten Forward. Whoopi Goldberg plays this role. Evidently she rang up the series producers and begged for a role. At first they said No, because they didn't have anything appropriate for a star of her fame. She said that she would do anything to be on the show, even if she were only sweeping the floor in the background. And so they created the role of bartender for her, which was perfect because she wasn't needed every week and could fit her appearances around her film schedules.

Then there are the cosmetic changes. In the first season the uniforms had been a mixture. Some women had short uniforms, as in TOS, although most had uniforms that covered their legs. Now all the women have long uniforms. That's a shame. I loved the female uniforms in TOS. On the other hand, the first season of TNG also had a few men walking around in short uniforms. To avoid claims of sexism? Now they too all wear long uniforms.

First Officer William Riker has grown a beard. No comment!

In this season Worf is used more. In the first season he'd been a background character, but now we're seeing more of what makes him tick. However, the two main characters of the series are still Riker and Data, with Captain Jean-Luc Picard coming a close third.

Incidentally... the complete DVD box set of TNG only costs £75.50 in England. What a bargain! Click the picture above for a link to buy it. On the other hand, in America it costs $311. That's almost three times as much as the price in England! I've commented before on the overpricing of DVD's in the USA. I'm just glad I live in England.

12 Winters (4 Stars)

This film is based on a true story. In 1984 the two petty criminals Mike Roth and Klaus Starck meet in prison. In 1990 they meet again on the outside. Together they devise a way to rob banks without getting caught. Every winter they rob three banks in different parts of Germany. Always banks in small villages. By making relatively small robberies at long intervals they remain "under the radar". The police don't realise it's a crime series and don't connect them. After all, in Germany there are 300 bank robberies a year, so why should these three be attributed to the same gang?

A fascinating film. The scenes with the police investigation run slowly, but that's normal. This is a true story. Outside of the movies police work is rarely exciting, it's a dull daily routine, slowly putting clues together. The scenes with the two robbers are rather touching. I grew to know them during the film, and more than that, I grew to like them. They are both very pleasant characters, and I booed when the police finally caught up with them.

The film has only been released in Germany, but it has English subtitles.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Intimate Affairs (1½ Stars)

I don't know what the background to this film is. The director is an American, and the actors are all English speaking, but it was filmed in Germany with German producers and a German film crew.

The story takes place in 1929. A rich young man invites people to his father's mansion to ask them questions about sex. You would think that with top actors like Nick Nolte, Neve Campbell, Robin Tunney and Julie Delpy it would be a great film. But no. The film is artistic, lavishly set, but dull. Almost the whole film takes place in one room. Not worth watching. Even the random sex scenes weren't enough to keep me interested.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Night Train (5 Stars)

Christmas Day on a train. The early morning hours, between 2 and 4 am. The train is travelling almost empty, with only five passengers. In one carriage we see Chloe and Pete, a young medical student (Leelee Sobieski) and a half drunk salesman (Steve Zahn). In the next there are two Japanese businessmen playing Go. And in the next there's an eccentric old woman travelling with her dog. The train conductor, Miles, is played by Danny Glover, and his junior assistant is played by Matthias Schweighöfer.

The train is boarded by a mysterious man clutching a box to his chest. He sits with Chloe and Pete for a few minutes, then commits suicide before their eyes. At first they ask the conductor to call the police, but then they see that the box contains great treasure and decide to dispose of the body and keep it for themselves. They panic when another man boards the train at the next station and tells them the box is cursed; everyone who looks into it will die before sunrise.

From then on Chloe, Pete and Miles conspire against one another. Nobody wants to share the treasure, they each want it for themselves. And then they find out that the other passengers on the train aren't random travellers. The Japanese businessmen were on the train waiting to steal the box. And the old woman wants the box. Everyone is armed and dangerous, and the passengers begin to kill one another in their greed.

The film is a genre buster. It can't be compared with any other films being made today. Although set today the train is very old-fashioned. Director Brian King says that this is meant as an homage to the films set on trains in the 40's and 50's. I'm afraid I can hardly think of any. "Murder on the Orient Express", that's all.

I can't fault any of the actors. Leelee Sobieski is perfect as the young psychopath hacking bodies into pieces. Steve Zahn is convincing as the unsuccessful salesman seeing a quick chance to get rich. Till now I've never taken much notice of Danny Glover, but he's excellent as the disillusioned old conductor, unhappy that he's done nothing with his life but too old to change things.

Click here to view the trailer.

Let's talk about Matthias Schweighöfer who plays the role of Frankie, the junior conductor. He's only 30 years old, but he's already made 40 films. Film critics in Germany heap praise on him and are comparing with Orson Welles. He started his career in Germany, but he's making more and more films in America. Like this one. It's been said that "Germany is too small for him". In other films, such as "The Red Baron" and "Valkyrie", he's played Germans. In this film the character of Frankie isn't German, he was just picked because they needed an actor who looks like a young boy. However, he has one problem standing in the way of success. How can an actor become famous with a name like Schweighöfer? He needs a new name. Maybe "Swyguffer", which is about the closest the Americans can get to pronouncing his name anyway. Or maybe something completely different. Matt Swift would be a good stage name for this young actor with a big future ahead of him. An excellent name. I hope he's reading my blog and will tell me what he thinks.

Finding Bliss (4 Stars)

What's your first impression when you see the DVD cover pictured above? If you've never heard of the film before and know nothing about it? A sleazy sex comedy? "American Pie" on steroids? You wouldn't be completely wrong on either count. And so you'd give it a miss? Stop! Look who's in the film! Any film starring Leelee Sobieski has to be of the highest quality. I watched this film on the basis of her name alone. And I wasn't disappointed.

At heart this is a chick flick set against the background of the sordid underbelly of Los Angeles. Leelee Sobieski plays Jody Balaban, a film school student with big dreams. Jody is a virgin. Almost. While at film school she has her first and only sexual encounter, which ends up as a disaster. She finishes top of her class and decides to go to Hollywood to make it big as a screenwriter. Among other things she writes a film based on her own life to tell the message that you should wait till marriage to have sex. But like so many before her she finds out that a college degree is no guarantee of success, and she ends up doing part time jobs in L.A.

Until she finally gets her break. Or so she thinks. She's offered a job as a film editor at Grind Studios, and she's too naive to realise it's a pornography company till she gets there. Though disgusted by the film content she does excellent work, and after hours she uses the studio to direct her own screenplay, using the actors who star in the porn films. In the process she falls in love with the head of the film studio, despite the fact that he tells her that all people want is sex, not love.

It's an ironic situation, a proponent of chastity working at a pornographic studio, and it leads to many comic moments. I can't help thinking that Leelee is speaking out of character when she implores others to save themselves for marriage. This is what she did in real life. She remained a virgin until she married at 26, not for religious reasons but simply because she thought it was right.

Click here to view the trailer.

Monday, 5 March 2012

We are the night (5 Stars)

German cinema is returning to its roots. The world's first vampire film was "Nosferatu", made in 1922 by Friedrich Murnau. 90 years later we have a new spin on vampire mythology by writer/director Dennis Gansel. In the world he speaks of all the vampires are female; the males have been destroyed because they were too loud and too stupid.

Berlin. Since the reunification the German capital has regained its pre-war status as the most decadent city in Europe. Lena is a petty thief on the run from the police. A young police detective called Tom tries to arrest her, but after she kicks him in the balls he falls in love with her and tries to hide her from his colleagues. Only in Berlin.....

In a nightclub Lena stumbles on a vampire coven. The three vampiresses Louise, Charlotte and Nora are living a life of luxury. "We can eat, fuck and do drugs all we want, and we never get fat, pregnant or addicted". They make her a vampire and induct her into their expensive lifestyle, stealing a Lamborghini for her to drive. Nothing but the best for these creatures of the night. But Lena has a crush on Tom. Are her loyalties with him or her fellow vampires?

This is a sexy, exciting and totally irreverent vampire story, much fresher than any vampire films made in America in the last years. A stunning performance by Karoline Herfurth whose sexy innocence is rapidly making her one of my favourite actresses.

Click here to view the trailer.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Dresden (5 Stars)

I have a difficult stand on this film. I've watched it a few times and enjoy it greatly, but film critics and fans alike think badly of it. It's been described as Romeo and Juliet meeting on the Titanic and sailing along the River Elbe to Dresden. Ouch! Although this is meant as an insult I have to admit that the film had already reminded me of "Titanic".

This is a love story set against the background of the destruction of Dresden in 1945. Robert Newman is a British bomber hiding in the cellar of a hospital in Dresden after a crash landing. He meets a nurse and they fall in love, despite the fact she's already engaged to marry a doctor. They attempt to escape together before being caught in the bombing raids of February 13th 1945.

The criticisms of the film are manifold. It's too long (3 hours). A German woman would never fall in love with a British bomber. The Nazi officers are too caricatured. I don't care. For me the film is a moving love story, showing how two people from different worlds can love each other in the middle of the most difficult circumstances. Maybe I should remove a star for the stupid voiceover at the end. "Our love did not last, because Robert's plane crashed into the north sea when he was coming to Dresden to see his baby for the first time". That could have been excused if it had been a true story, but in a work of fiction it's totally unnecessary.

Die Frau, die im Wald verschwand (4 Stars)

The film's title translates as "The woman who disappeared in the woods". It takes place in 1956 in the fictional Swabian town of Großgelden. The war is over. The hard working Swabians have done their best to forget the past. This succeeds until the mayor's wife mysteriously wanders off into the woods one day and disappears without a trace.

Bit by bit we discover the town's history. The mayor used to be a doctor treating soldiers on the front line. His wife spent the war as a prostitute serving the officers. The owner of the town's textile company is a pardoned war criminal who needs to be punished by dominatrixes to find relief for his guilt. The town's psychiatrist is a Jew, and the level of anti-semitism is still high enough to make people ashamed to admit they've been seeing him. And then a mysterious soldier returns who's been missing in action since 1944.

A unique and fascinating film about post-war Swabia. This was the second in a series of films cut short by the untimely death of director Oliver Storz in 2011. The first film was "Drei Schwestern Made in Germany", set in Swabia in 1947. It was Storz's wish to make a series of films about Swabian life, one for each decade from the 1940's to the present. I can think of no other director qualified to continue his work. R.I.P.

Veronika decides to die (3 Stars)

When I first started writing this blog in 2010 it was a very personal thing. I had no pretensions that it would be a film review site. I'm no Roger Ebert. It was simply meant to be a film diary, telling my friends what I've been watching and whether I like it. The emphasis is on the word friends. In the early days my blog was almost exclusively read by my friends. I had about 10 readers a day, and it was easy for me to figure out who they were because they talked to me about what I'd written. Now things have changed. I have 80 to 150 readers a day, and I have no idea who they are. They're complete strangers who stumble on my site when they're googling to find information about a film. I don't mind the popularity, but I'd like to get the personal touch back. I'd like to get to know my readers. I'd like this blog to be a way to make new friends. So please, become followers and leave comments. Tell me a bit about yourselves, what films you like, etc.

Now to the film. I very rarely watch films online. It's not because of the question of legality; I want to experience films in the best possible quality. "Veronika wants to die" is an exception for the simple reason that it hasn't been released on DVD. I found it on the web site http://www.watchfreemovies.ch. I don't have much experience with online film sites, but it seems to be reasonable quality. There were a few annoying popups at first. I was presented with nine links to watch the film. The first few links were broken, but I eventually found a working link.

The film stars Sarah Michelle Gellar as the successful daughter of Slovenian immigrants in New York. She has a top job at an advertising company, but she's lonely and decides to commit suicide. Sadly she wakes up from her overdose and finds herself in a mental hospital. Even worse, she's told that the suicide attempt damaged her body and she only has a few weeks left to live. The prospect of a short life shocks her into making the most of every day she has left, so the film should more accurately be called "Veronika decides to live". The film then shows how Veronika's motivation changes the lives of not just the other patients, but also of Dr. Blake, the mental home's head psychiatrist. On the surface this is a depressing film, but in truth it's a very motivating film about the beauty of life.

Click here to view the trailer.

Thor (4½ Stars)

This film was already reviewed by my guest writer Kay here. She didn't like it, I do.

I had a strange conversation yesterday. Someone said that she didn't like "Planet of the Apes", she thought it was bad. I contradicted her and said it was a great film. She seemed insulted by what I said, or maybe the way I said it. Let's get this straight: no film is objectively "good" or "bad". It's all a matter of opinion. A film might have poor quality special effects, but a great plot. Another film might have breathtaking special effects, but an illogical storyline. Which of the two is better? That's up to you to decide. An even more extreme example: a film might have been shot on a low budget with amateur actors and seem bad, but a viewer might like it because it was filmed in his town and he can say "Look, that's the house my Aunt Maude lives in". Then there are the Troma films which have have unrealistic acting deliberately for the sake of "art".

It's all about opinions. I often call a film "awful" or "fantastic", but I don't claim I'm right. If I'm contradicting your opinion, please don't think I'm saying that I'm right and you're wrong. Not even if I use strong words to put across my point. If I have an opinion I express it strongly, and not just about films, though that's a different matter. If you like something that I don't, tell me why. I doubt you'll change my mind, but we can have an enjoyable discussion.

But that's enough rambling on. Let's get back to "Thor". If I were comparing it with the original comics I'd have to give it a fail. So much of the Marvel canon has been rewritten, it's ridiculous. I have to judge the film on its own merits. Though I do regret one thing: I wish that Thor and the other characters would speak old English with "thee" and "thou" like in the comics. That would have given the film more of a Shakespearian style. Hmmm, yes, and I wish that Thor would periodically transform into the lame Donald Blake. That would add a poignancy that the film misses. And I wish that Jane Foster were a mere nurse rather than a scientist. In fact, the more I think about it, everything in the comics was better. But as a film in its own rights it stands up for itself. The God of Thunder, Thor, is exiled to Earth by his father Odin because of his arrogance and belligerence. His evil half brother Loki takes advantage of this to take over Asgard. Oops, I forgot, in the film Loki isn't Thor's half brother, he's adopted. Too many changes!

For me the film's real star is Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki. I hadn't seen him before, it looks like this is his breakthrough film. He perfectly carries off the role of an evil but likeable character. I'm curious to see how he will look in other films.

Click here to view the trailer.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Off-Topic: Angelina's Right Leg

Last Sunday was the biggest day of the film year. The Oscar awards. As expected, "The Artist" (which I haven't seen yet) won the award for Best Film. But years after people have forgotten what film won the top awards in 2012 something else will be remembered. The real star of the Film Academy awards was Angelina Jolie's right leg. She visited the awards wearing a stunning black Atelier Versace gown with a thigh high slit on the right. Normally I would have no complaints about a woman trying to look sexy, but her show-the-right-leg pose was repeated identically so often that it was obvious she had spent hours practising it in front of the mirror. Whether standing alone on the red carpet or holding hands with her husband she struck the same pose with mechanical accuracy. Maybe the first few times she achieved the desired Wow effect, but by the time she went on stage to present the Best Screenplay awards the audience started to giggle as soon as she repeated the pose. Screenwriter Jim Rash was the first person to publicly mock her when he accepted his award.

I have mixed feelings about the whole affair. Angelina Jolie used to be a very beautiful woman, but in recent years she's deteriorated by losing too much weight. Just look at her arms! I feel sorry for her that she's become a laughing stock, but she only has herself to blame. Let's hope that she can bounce back and give us some more positive memories of herself.

Grill Point (4 Stars)

The original German title of this film is "Halbe Treppe", which translates as "halfway up the steps". Or "halfway down". The main character Uwe is always shown walking down the steps, never up. The German title is better, because the halfway symbolism is a recurrent theme throughout the film.

This is a very artistic film set in Frankfurt am Oder, arguably the ugliest city in Germany. It is very gritty and urban. Nothing glamorous about it. Uwe owns an "Imbiss", a typical German fast food restaurant, selling sausages and beer. His wife Ellen works behind the perfume counter of a department store, her customers all wealthier than herself. Uwe's best friend Chris is a radio DJ in the early morning dead hours while most people are asleep. Chris's wife Katrin sits on the border checking the paperwork of trucks travelling in and out of Poland. Four people in their middle ages, halfway through life, with boring jobs and boring marriages. Then one day the unimaginable happens. Chris begins an affair with Ellen. The film tells of the changes that occur.

Actor Axel Prahl, who plays Uwe, has to be praised for his dedication to his career. He spent two weeks in Frankfurt selling sausages and beer to the locals to get a feeling for the job.

The film and the love affair are as unglamorous as the lives of the four people portrayed. It isn't about escapism. The camera is turned back at the viewer, showing you your own life while you watch the film.

I personally enjoy the film's alienation techniques. In between scenes the characters are asked by an off-screen interviewer what they think about what just happened. On the one hand this reminds the viewer that it's "just a film", but it also brings the viewer closer, telling him what's inside of the head of the characters. The interviews aren't fully outside of the film, they're inside of the film in a surreal way. For instance, an interview with Uwe is interrupted by a phone call, and Uwe tells the interviewer, "I can't talk any more now, Chris wants to see me".