Sunday, 30 March 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (5 Stars)

Finally Captain America (the character) has got into his stride. This is the sort of film that the first film should have been. It makes up for the disappointments first time round.

The film takes place in the present day. Trying to fit it in with the comics continuity, it combines the origin of the Falcon (1969) with Captain America's disillusionment with authority (early 1970's) and the return of Bucky Barnes (early 2000's). In a way this is yet another case of the telescoping in Marvel films, but it's very difficult for me to regard any post-1990 Marvel stories as canon. The disintegration of the bullpen community has led to the death of continuity. Any contradictions are explained away as simply having happened in an alternative universe. That's the perfect "Get out of Jail Free" card, the only difference being that you do pass Go and you do pick up $200. But that's enough cynicism for today. Let's get back to the film itself.

We find out that ever since it was founded, SHIELD was infiltrated by Hydra. In the film mythology the two organisations were founded simultaneously shortly after the Second World War as secret agencies to further the aims of the western powers and the Third Reich respectively. (In the comics Hydra's origins are unclear, though it seems that they existed since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs. SHIELD is a modern organisation, not created until the 1960's). Nick Fury is removed from SHIELD by an assassination attempt, so that Hydra can use SHIELD's newest high tech weapons to achieve world domination. Captain America and the Black Widow team up to fight against SHIELD, aided by a young war veteran, Sam Wilson, who becomes the Falcon. Hydra's top fighter is a man called the Winter Soldier, who we find out is Captain America's old friend Bucky Barnes, who he thought had been dead since 1944. In the comics Bucky was a teenager, probably 16 at the time of his death, but in the films he's shown as a fellow soldier.

The film's action is first class. It was exciting from beginning to end, and credible within the parameters of comic book films.

In the after-credits scene we see that Hydra's boss, Baron von Strucker, has captured "the twins", Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. This will lead to a conflict of interests between the respective film studios. The characters in the Avengers films and their spin-offs belong to Walt Disney studios, but Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are the children of Magneto, a character who belongs to 20th Century Fox. I'm sure that some sort of ugly fudge will be made to solve this problem.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Strange Little Cat (2 Stars)

Karin and Simon visit their parents and sister for a dinner with family.

Do you ever feel you're missing something? Today I watched this film at the Electric Cinema as part of the 10-day Flatpack Film Festival. To my surprise, the room was almost full. A nice young man spent a few minutes introducing the film, describing it as a "horror film without horror" that contained cute children. For the next hour and a quarter we watched adults and children squeeze past themselves around tables and chairs in a narrow Berlin apartment. A shopping list was written. A washing machine was repaired. A cat scratched the doors. The film ended without resolution, apart from the sun setting.

On getting home I checked the reviews. It seems like everyone likes it. Everyone except me. Ramon Zürcher is praised for creating a work of poetry. This is obviously an intellectual film. Usually I enjoy intellectual films. But not this time.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Under the Hawthorn Tree (4½ Stars)

This film is based on a true story. In the 1970's it was usual for school classes from Chinese cities to be sent to villages for a few months to learn solidarity with the farmers. I wouldn't consider myself a Maoist, far from it, but it seems like a good idea to me. Too many city children have no idea where food comes from. Meat and eggs aren't just something that's sold in the supermarket, there are real animals further back in the production chain. From death comes life.

A young girl called Jing, probably 14 or 15, meets a young soldier called Sun while staying in a village with her class. They both come from troubled families. Jing comes from a poor family, and her father has been sent to a re-education camp as a capitalist. His crimes aren't stated in the film, but at that time anybody in China who dared contradict Chairman Mao was labelled a capitalist. Jing's well educated mother was also punished by only being allowed to do menial labour. Sun's family is rich, but his mother committed suicide four years previously and was called a capitalist after her death. That's logical, because a true socialist would never have killed herself.

The romance between the two continues in episodes over the next two years. After finishing school Jing becomes a school teacher, but she's put on probation for a year to see if she has adopted any of her father's capitalist ideas. At first the relationship is kept secret, but one day Jing's mother sees them together. Jing promises not to see Sun while her probation is running, but true lovers can't be separated and the two meet again.

This is a very innocent romance, but its naivety makes it all the more moving. During all their time together Jing and Sun never kiss. On one occasion they sleep in the same bed, fully clothed, Jing beneath the covers and Sun on top. Jing panics afterwards because she thinks it's enough to make her pregnant.

The film is beautiful but sad. I won't give away any spoilers, except to say that there's no happy end. The film has never been released in England or America, but it has been released on Blu-ray in Germany with a 12-page booklet. The Germans appreciate good films.

In case you're wondering what the hawthorn tree in the title is, it's a tree on a hill overlooking the village that Jing is sent to. Normally hawthorn tree blossoms are white, but this tree has red blossoms due to all the blood shed by the Chinese defending their village against the Japanese invaders.

The Second Coming (3 Stars)

This is a difficult film for me to rate. The acting is excellent, especially Christopher Eccleston and Mark Benton. My fault with it is the heavy philosophy laid on us by the writer, Russell T. Davies. My rating is as much my opinion on his religious views as the film itself.

Steven Baxter is a normal, everyday guy who works in a video store in Manchester. After a night out with his friends he has a divine revelation and disappears. 40 days later he's found in Yorkshire, claiming to be the Son of God. His friends think he's gone mad, but he's approached by a representative of the Catholic Church, who says that an obscure prophecy has predicted his coming. Over the next few days Steven performs a series of miracles, and everyone believes in him. Almost everyone. Steven's girlfriend Judith can't accept what he says.

Steven proclaims that Judgement Day will take place in five days. The only way to prevent it will be to write a Third Testament, a new religious book. He doesn't know who the author will be, but he says that he will recognise it when he sees it, so millions of people begin to write as fast as they can. But the Devil isn't idle. Demons possess people around him, with the intention of turning Steven's closest friends against him.

The message is clear. Friedrich Nietzsche said that God is dead. Russell T. Davies says that God isn't dead, but he ought to be. RTD (as Doctor Who fans affectionately call him) tries to offer something to fill the God-vacuum, but it's not enough to cover the negativity. That's my opinion, anyway. I welcome conversation from anyone who sees this film differently.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Engelchen (3½ Stars)

This film is a curiosity. It's a German film, made in 1968, about sexual themes, but it was made before the German film industry became sexually open. If anything, it's comparable with the American teen comedies of the 1970's and later: lots of allusions to sex, but only occasional glimpses of nudity.

The film's name means "Little angel", which is an appropriate title for a good girl from the strict Catholic town of Bamberg. Katja, the little angel, is 19 and still a virgin, so she goes on holiday to Munich for three weeks to lose her virginity. After all, if you can't lose your virginity in Munich, where can you? She moves into a dodgy commune, in which the landlord admits that the apartment doesn't belong to him. She lives with a sport reporter, a man who earns a living painting protest signs and an inventor of highly impractical devices. She throws herself at all sorts of men, but backs away in fear whenever sex is imminent.

This is an interesting snapshot of Germany in the 1960's. It gives a more accurate picture than the sex comedies which followed it in the 1970's.

The Incredible Hulk (4 Stars)

Of the actors to play the Hulk in recent years, Edward Norton was the most suitable. Eric Bana looked too tough. Mark Ruffalo looks a bit better, but he isn't quite timid enough. Only Edward Norton has the whole "puny Banner" air about him. I can imagine the Hulk remembering him and hating him.

Some people call "The Incredible Hulk" a reboot after Ang Lee's disastrous film in 2003. That isn't correct. The film doesn't re-invent the Hulk or give him a new origin. It continues where the first film left off. It just makes the Hulk look better. And the totally screwed up origin in the first film is simply forgotten.

Tim Roth is perfect as the Hulk's nemesis, the Abomination. My only regret is that the battle between the Hulk and the Abomination is too brief. The film is good, but it missed a lot of opportunities to make it better.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Red Sorghum (4½ Stars)

"Red Sorghum", released in 1987, was the first film directed by Zhang Yimou. It was also the first film role of Gong Li, who is now recognised as one of China's greatest actresses. It was a bold move to give an inexperienced actress the leading role, but it was successful.

The film, based on a true story, is narrated by an unseen man who tells the story of his grandmother, Little Nine, in the 1930's. Against her wishes her poor father arranges for her to marry a rich old man who owns a distillery that makes sorghum wine. Three days after the wedding she has an affair with a poor sedan carrier. While she is with him her husband is murdered by an unknown assailant, so Little Nine inherits the distillery. Soon after this she marries the sedan carrier, and under her leadership the wine becomes better than ever. Things go well until nine years later, when the Japanese invade and force the sorghum fields to be cut down to build a highway.

The film was obviously made with a smaller budget than Zhang Yimou's later films, but it shows the sparks of genius that would characterise his later work.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Once upon a time in the West (5 Stars)

Half an hour story and two hours of style. But the style is so good!

After making his three films with Clint Eastwood, often referred to as the Dollars Trilogy, director Sergio Leone swore he wouldn't make any more westerns. Fortunately he changed his mind. In 1968 he made "Once upon a time in the West", which is now considered to be one of the best films ever made. It's made in the format of a western, but it is very low key, as far as the violence is concerned. The big shoot outs take place in the first half hour. After that it's a cat and mouse game between the various protaganists. They have the opportunity to kill one another again and again, but they prefer to wait for the right time.

I watched this film on Blu-ray today. The remastering is amazing. I've never seen an old film be made to look so good. In the close-up shots we can see every hair on Henry Fonda's half shaven chin. I strongly advise my readers to pick the 2013 Blu-ray version if they want to buy this film.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Noriko's Dinner Table (5 Stars)

In the beginning everything was dark. Then the door of Locker #54 at Ueno Station was opened. Amaterasu emerged from her hiding place, and there was light. When the police held the baby in their arms they didn't realise who she was, so they called her Kumiko. But she knew. She knew.

This film is sometimes called a sequel to "Suicide Club", sometimes a prequel, but neither description is correct. It takes place at the same time as "Suicide Club" and tells the story from a different perspective.

Noriko and Yuka live with their father in the small town of Toyokama by the sea. Their father, Tetsuzo Shimabara, is a reporter for a local newspaper and has no time for them. Noriko, aged 17, is shy and has no friends. She spends her time chatting with strangers in an Internet chatroom. She finds she can confide in a girl called Ueno Station 54, so she runs away from home and goes to Tokio to be with her. A year later Yuka discovers the chatroom and also runs away to Tokio.

At this time the mass suicides in Tokio begin. Noriko and Yuka's parents suspect they might be dead. The mother kills herself, so Tetsuzo quits his job and goes to Tokio to search for his daughters. He can't find them because they have changed their names. He meets Ueno Station 54, whose real name is Kumiko, and discovers that she's the head of an organisation that rents families to lonely people. In typical Sion Sono style the situation escalates into scenes of madness and slaughter.

Suicide Club (5 Stars)

Although Sion Sono had been making films for 15 years, it wasn't until he directed "Suicide Club" in 2001 that he became famous. I can't comment on his earlier films because none of them are available in English, but I can tell you that his films made since 2001 have established him as Japan's greatest director. That's my opinion, and I welcome anyone who thinks otherwise to try to change my mind.

What gained the attention of film fans and film critics alike was the opening scene, in which a group of happy, giggling Japanese schoolgirls link hands and jump in front of a train. 54 of them. The scene is so surreal that the viewer has to blink and ask himself if it's really happening. There are no suicide notes, no explanations. All that is left behind by one of the girls is a sports bag containing 200 strips of skin, each four inches long, sewn together and wrapped into a roll. The skin has been taken from the bodies of 200 different people. Investigation shows that the schoolgirls had each had a strip of skin removed, but there were only 54 of them, so who did the other 146 strips belong to? The same evening two nurses on night duty in a hospital jump out of a window, and one of them leaves behind a bag with another 200 strips of skin. Over the next few days there are repeated suicides all over Tokio. Some seem to be copycats, while others are part of a larger plan. The police don't know whether to treat the deaths as suicide or murder.

The film's style is a disturbing cross between David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. The images are both shocking and fascinating at the same time. This is a masterpiece.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Unhung Hero (4 Stars)

At Christmas 2011 Patrick Moote proposed to his girlfriend at a UCLA baseball game. After only a short hesitation she replied No and left the stadium. The video of 30-year-old Patrick's rejection was posted on YouTube and had 10 million views within four days. The original version of the video was censored to hide his girlfriend's face, but this is a link to the uncensored version.

This wasn't the end of Patrick's story. It was only the beginning. A few days later he asked his girlfriend why she had turned him down, and she said it was because his penis was too small. Patrick already knew that he was below average, but he didn't think it would be a problem. He decided to make a documentary about whether size matters, hoping to find vindication. He went back to his home town to interview his first lovers, and they all said they remembered his small penis. Thinking it was just the taunts of spiteful ex-girlfriends he travelled across America to get the opinions of other men and women. Some of the replies were less than helpful. For instance, a gay man that he interviewed replied, "You have a small penis? Take a knife to your throat and end it all right now".

Dale Dabone has no doubt that it's important to have a big penis.

Axel Braun says that big penises are better for films, but small penises are better for sex. Allie Haze seems to find that amusing.

Ron Jeremy says that a big penis is an advantage, but not essential.

Dr. Annie Sprinkle (ex-prostitute, ex-porn star) says that it's more important to treat the Earth as our lover.

Jonah Falcon considers his big penis a curse. He's unable to have a lasting relationship because that's all women want him for.

Still confused by all of the conflicting opinions, Patrick decided to extend the scope of the documentary. Instead of just gathering opinions about whether size matters he decided to try out penis enlargement techniques. None of the methods worked -- maybe because he was doing them all at once? -- so he travelled across Asia, to Malaysia, Korea, Taiwan and Papua New Guinea, in order to find a way to make his penis grow. He's amazed to discover that Korea is  a country obsessed with penises. There are even penis parks, i.e. public parks full of statues of penises.

Strangely, Koreans find parks like this normal.

But Korean children still find it funny when Patrick is invited to their school to talk about his small penis.

This tastes bad.

This tastes even worse.

But this is okay, it tastes like chicken. Oh wait, it is chicken!

Does this really work? Would any sane man try it?

Obviously Patrick isn't sane.

They have to check that everything is still attached.

That's my pictorial report on the documentary. But what do I think of it? On the one hand Patrick can be praised for making this documentary and effectively telling the whole world he has a small penis. On the other hand, he still has a certain shyness. During the film we see several penises, but never Patrick's. He can't overcome his reluctance to show his penis on camera, which would be appropriate, since it's the subject of the documentary. For most of the film he goes around telling people he is "a bit below average", but when he's in Malaysia we finally find out that his penis is 6.1 cm long. That's less than two and a half inches, hardly what I would call a bit below average. At the end of the film the claim is made that the average size of an erection is 4.4 inches, but that disagrees with everything I've ever read. Estimates of the average size usually vary between 6 and 6.5 inches. Patrick is trying to twist the facts in his own favour.

Does size matter? It's more important to step back and ask why we are asking that question. 20 years ago it was something that wasn't considered. It's not that we were more prude back then. The reason is the proliferation of pornography through the Internet. In particular, more teenage girls watch pornography than at any other time in history. It's estimated that over 80% of 16-year-olds have watched pornography at least once. Most teenagers watch pornography before they lose their virginity. This is where the problem lies. Pornography raises expectations by presenting an unreal form of sex. The minimum penis size for American porn stars is nine inches, so girls grow up thinking that the average size is about 10 inches. When a girl's first lover pulls out his penis and it's only six inches long her face drops and she thinks to herself, "The next one will be bigger". She might never meet anyone who lives up to the porn stars, but she can't be happy until she finds someone who at least comes close.

Pornography can be harmful to children, especially if it functions as their first sex education. I'm of the opinion that it ought to be kept away from children, but since it's impossible to do so in the Internet age we should at least educate children about pornography. They should be informed that porn stars aren't normal people, they're comparable with top athletes. The very well hung men in the porn films are about as common as the 6'10" men that we see in wrestling matches.

I still haven't answered the question. Does size matter? That depends what you mean. If it's a matter of sexual satisfaction, any man bigger than four inches will have no trouble satisfying a woman. 95% of men are between four and eight inches, so that's practically all of them. The few men who fall below that line will have problems, but they can find solutions with the help of a good partner.

But it's not just a matter of sexual satisfaction, it's a matter of taste. If a woman only likes men with large penises the answer is Yes, size matters to her, and it's useless for any man to try to talk her out of it. In the same way, many men only like women with large breasts. This makes some women feel inferior, but they shouldn't worry about it because there are many other men who either prefer small-breasted women or don't care about size.

And if you're a man you have to ask whether your own size matters to yourself. Whether you're small or large, does it matter to the extent that you feel it's what defines you? If that's the case, you have a very low opinion of yourself. The documentary has a happy ending. Patrick ends up dating Kasha, a girl that he met while making the documentary. She thinks he's strange because he's obsessed with his penis size. She loves him and doesn't care how small his penis is.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Collision Course (3¾ Stars)

In the light of current events this is a very topical film. During a series of solar flares a plane flying from Houston to Long Beach is hit by an electro-magnetic pulse that disables the plane's communication systems. The pilot is dead and the co-pilot is unconscious. An airline executive (who has no flying skills) tries to get support from passengers to land the plane safely, but they are agitated and fighting among themselves.

I have the feeling that many critics, whether professional or amateurs, give a film a bad review as soon as they see Fred Olen Ray's name on the cover. Sometimes I feel that they write without having even watched it. The acting in this film can't be faulted. Despite being a low budget film, all the actors turned in good performances. Fred's skilful directing captured the claustrophobic atmosphere of 60 sweaty people in a pilotless plane. There were enough subplots to keep the film interesting, maybe too many if anything, but hearing about the family problems helps the viewers get to know the characters.

This isn't an Oscar winning film, as I'm sure Fred himself would agree, but it's nail-biting action from start to finish. It's a good film to watch when cuddled up with your partner on the sofa on a cold evening. And in case I still haven't convinced you, it stars the beautiful Tia Carrere.

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (4½ Stars)

Wang owns a small restaurant, a noodle shop, in an isolated area in the mountains in the Gansu province of China. The date isn't stated, but my guess is that it takes place in the 17th Century. Maybe one of my Chinese readers who has seen the film could help me. Wang's wife is unhappy with her husband and wants a divorce, so that she can marry Li, one of his employees. A travelling Persian salesman sells Wang's wife an amazing new invention, a gun, the mightiest weapon in the world, together with three bullets. This is her backup plan, in case Wang doesn't agree to the divorce. Guns must be new at this time, because the Chinese army doesn't yet have them. Wang's wife (who remains unnamed in the film) has suddenly become the most dangerous person in the district.

Wang suspects his wife of infidelity, so he hires a soldier to kill her. At the same time two of Wang's employees, disgruntled at their boss being late paying their wages, decide to rob him. The people interfere in one another's plans in increasingly comical ways.

I'm on a Zhang Yimou kick at the moment. I want to watch all of his films that I haven't seen so far. This is the first of his films that I've seen which is a comedy. The humour is effective, reminiscent of 1960's British slapstick. All the other elements of Zhang's films are present, in particular the otherworldly colour coordination of every shot in every scene. The film is a remake of "Blood Simple", a 1984 film directed by the Coen Brothers. I haven't seen it, but after reading a plot summary I can see that Zhang Yimou's film follows the plot very closely. In England the film has even been released with the name "Blood Simple", just to confuse matters. The original Chinese title of the film is "A simple noodle story".

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Terminator 3 (4 Stars)

As my regular readers know, this blog isn't really a film review site, it's a film diary. That means that if I watch a film more than once I'll write about it more than once. Or at least, I will if I have anything left to say. I'll just repeat what I said in my last review that this film isn't as bad as people say. It's lacking the Cameron touch, but some of the scenes are outstanding, such as the car chase with the remote controlled police cars. This was a good film to round off the Terminator films. It's a shame they had to spoil it by making a totally unnecessary fourth film.

Monday, 17 March 2014

King Kong (5 Stars)

Today was the first time I've seen the extended version of "King Kong". The theatrical version shown in the cinemas is 187 minutes long, the extended version is 200 minutes long. The most noticeable addition is a battle against sea monsters on Skull Island. There are also other battles in the jungle that last longer in this version.

In my last review I praised the film unconditionally. Let me now tell you what I don't like about it. The jungle action on Skull Island is over-the-top, totally unrealistic in its excesses. There is no way that Carl Denham and his colleagues could have run between the legs of rampaging dinosaurs without being squashed. It's true that a couple of the minor characters are trod on, but the important cast are all spared. Just about every battle against the prehistoric monsters on the island is logically too much to survive.

Nevertheless, these small faults aren't enough to stop me considering this one of the best films ever made. It's a masterpiece.

Mamma Mia (5 Stars)

This is the musical that kicked off the recent popularity of jukebox musicals, in which the songs of a particular artist are put together in an order that tells a story. There were other musicals before it that are sometimes referred to as jukebox musicals, but I don't include them. "Buddy" was made in 1989, a biopic of the rock'n'roll musician Buddy Holly, but I don't include it because when making a film about a musician it's normal to use his songs. What makes a musical a jukebox musical for me is that the songs are unrelated to the original artists, with fleeting references at the most. An example of a typical jukebox musical is "Tonight's the night", a 2003 musical using the songs of Rod Stewart.

The musical "Mamma Mia" was written and performed in 1999, using the songs of Abba. In 2008 it was filmed as a big budget production, and I have to admit that it's overpowering. The two main things that make the film succeed are Stellan Skarsgard and Amanda Seyfried. They were already two of my favourite actors, but after seeing them in this film I'm amazed. Not that the other actors are to be overlooked. Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth are all very good in their own right.

I knew I wanted to see this film again after seeing it at the Birmingham Outdoor Film Festival last July. It was even better being able to sit and watch it in the comfort of my own home. I won't describe the plot again, I already did it last year, I'll just recommend this film to anyone who is still biased against jukebox musicals. It's a real tear jerker, and as my regular readers know I always love a film that makes me cry. Even though I have to make one small criticism: Pierce Brosnan might be a good actor, but he can't sing.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

X-Men: The Last Stand (4½ Stars)

This film, often referred to as "X-Men 3", is the third film in the X-Men trilogy. It suffers from what I call "telescoping" in Marvel films. What I mean by that is that comics are written regularly over a period of years, whereas films about super-hero characters only appear once every two or three years. There are important things in the history of a character that the screenwriter wants to present to comic book fans to make them happy. This leads to events that happened years apart in the comics taking place within a few days of one another. The events are telescoped.

The film's plot is based on two storylines in the comics. These were the Phoenix Saga in 1976 and the Dark Phoenix Saga in 1980. In the Phoenix Saga Jean Grey, who was considered dead by drowning, returned to life with greater powers. She was no longer Marvel Girl, she was Phoenix. In the Dark Phoenix Saga, one of the most critically acclaimed X-Men storylines ever, she lost control of her Phoenix powers after being manipulated by the mutant Mastermind and turned into an amoral destructive force capable of destroying billions of lives within minutes (which she actually did while flying through space in X-Men #135). In this film the two sagas are telescoped; Jean Grey becomes evil soon after becoming the Phoenix, without any external influences. She can't be corrupted by Mastermind, because he was killed in the second film.

The film shows Jean Grey's Phoenix powers as being innate, powers that Professor X recognised when he first met her. Once more this clashes with the canon of Marvel comics continuity. In the comics we find out that the Phoenix is a primary force of the universe which only temporarily occupied Jean's body, and later moved on to other hosts.

"X-Men: The Last Stand" has two main plots that are running in parallel. One is the Dark Phoenix Saga. The other is an attempt to cure all mutants on Earth by harnessing the power of the young mutant Leech, whose power is to remove the powers of other mutants. At first Magneto teams up with the X-Men to fight against the enforcement of the cure, but then turns against his allies.

One character who was treated badly in the film was the Juggernaut. In the comics he is Professor X's half-brother, and his initial appearance in X-Men #12-13 portrayed him as the most dangerous foe the X-Men had ever faced. His power is that once he is in motion he is unstoppable; while he is undoubtedly very strong, it is mystic powers that make him unstoppable, even when he is moving against people or things stronger than himself. There seems to be some confusion in the comics whether he's a mutant or not. He is given his Juggernaut powers after finding the gem of Cyttorak. In X-Men #12 Professor X's Cerbero reacts to him as if he's a mutant, but a lot of X-Men fans insist that he isn't a mutant and only has mystical powers. Whatever the case is -- and I appreciate both sides of the argument -- in the film he acts more like a comedy character, whining whenever someone manages to stop him and stupidly running the wrong way.

Overall it isn't a bad film. In itself it's very good, but it doesn't do the Dark Phoenix Saga justice. Can anyone spell "reboot"?

Grand Budapest Hotel (4 Stars)

This is a film that's worth watching for the cast alone. I don't think I've seen so many big stars in one film since "Mars Attacks". Some of the stars only have small roles, such as Tilda Swinton, who only appears for a few minutes and is barely recognisable. The main characters are Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori.

The story is interestingly nested, starting in 1985, then a flashback to 1965, where a story is told that takes place in 1932-1933. Ralph Fiennes is Gustave H., the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional country of Zubrowka. (The film was actually shot in the German town Görlitz, also used as one of the main locations for "The Book Thief"). Gustave is a casanova and has had affairs with many guests, including the old widow Madame D. When she dies he is invited to the reading of her will. In a recent addendum to the will, drafted on the day of her death, she leaves to Gustave the only item of great value that she owns, a painting called "Boy with Apple". The will's executor says that he will have to wait until the authenticity of the addendum is checked, but seeing the hostility of the family Gustave grabs the painting and runs. This leads to him being framed for murder. With the help of the hotel's lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) Gustave breaks out of prison. The two are pursued across central Europe by the family assassin J. G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe).

The film has been described as "all style and nothing else". That's unfair. The film has an interesting plot and great actors who perform the story. But I agree that it's all about the style. From beginning to end we have almost absurd colours in every scene. The whole film has an overwhelming fairy-tale atmosphere to it.

After the film I went to Scruffy Murphy's, a pub in the centre of Birmingham which is now Birmingham's only remaining rock club. I used to be a regular visitor from 2002 till 2007. I'm not sure why I stopped going. I probably just got lazy and relied on YouTube for live music. But it's not the same. Far from it. Apart from that, by going to Scruffy Murphy's I support local bands, since most of the performers are based in or near Birmingham.

There were three groups playing tonight. The opening act were Glass Bullet, a Canadian rock band. They reminded me of Green Day in their early years, before they became famous. I hope they don't read this, they might take it as an insult. Very good, medium hard rock songs. They had the traditional 4-piece rock band line up: drums, bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar/singer.

The second act was a duo called Needle Poppets. They had a difficult time winning the crowd over. They're not really the Scruffy Murphy type. It was noticeable that a lot of the fans left the concert room after Glass Bullet, heading to the main pub room upstairs, but those who remained were in for a treat. They're a duo from Birmingham, and although the texts were often dark and gloomy they were sung in a singer/songwriter style. They're a curious group.

The main act, also from Birmingham, was a punk band called Drag, short for "DRessed like A Girl". I don't know why they picked this name. The singer and guitarist were definitely real girls. They are a high energy punk group with a style reminiscent of the late 1970's. The crowd loved them, and they're obviously a band with a big future ahead of them. It was a night to remember.

Friday, 14 March 2014

X2 (4½ Stars)

"X2" is the film's official title, but it's often called "X-Men 2", as the second film in the X-Men trilogy. In fact, the name printed on my DVD cover is "X-Men 2", even though the name that appears on the film's splash screen is "X2".

The film's plot is loosely based on a Marvel graphic novel published in 1982 called "God loves, man kills". William Stryker, a military adviser to the American president, has hatched a plan to kill all mutants on Earth. He does this by tricking Professor X into harnessing the power of Cerebro as a destructive force. The only one who can prevent this is Magneto, who teams up with the X-Men to rescue the professor.

In typical Marvel X-Men film manner the characters are mixed up. The mutant Mastermind, with the ability to create large scale illusions, was a member of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in the comics. In the film he's William Stryker's son. Oh well, let's lop a half point off again, even though the film is very good if seen in a vacuum.

Strangely enough, when I watched the film today it all seemed new to me. I know that I bought the X-Men trilogy box set soon after it was released, probably in 2007, but it was like watching the film for the first time. At first I thought that I'd forgotten to watch the DVD after I bought it, but then, finally, I remembered the final scene, the last 30 seconds of the film. That's unusual for me. In most cases I can remember films clearly, even if I only saw them once 40 years ago.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

X-Men (4½ Stars)

The first film in the X-Men trilogy was the film that kicked off the whole new phase of Marvel super-hero films. Without "X-Men" there would have been no "Spider-Man", "Iron Man" or "Avengers". The film took a long time to cast. There were problems casting all the main characters. For instance, Russell Crowe was the original choice to play Wolverine, but the studio turned him down because he wanted too much money. Keanu Reeves was considered for the role, which would have made the film a certain failure. Finally a relatively unknown actor called Hugh Jackman was picked, in retrospect the perfect man for the role.

The film is centred around Wolverine and Rogue, and their arrival at Professor X's School for Gifted Children in Westchester, New York. The origins of the X-Men are skipped over. It is hinted that they have already had combat experience. While I enjoy the film overall, I've deducted half a star because of its muddling up of the chronology. No attempt is made to match the events with the comics. The cast can be considered a "Best of X-Men" line-up. I won't even try to describe all the mistakes that were made with relative ages and continuity, except for a few examples. Bobby Drake (Iceman) is shown as a junior student, although he should be the same age as Jean Grey (Marvel Girl). Scott Summers (Cyclops) should be slightly older than Jean Grey; in the first X-Men he was about 16, while she was 13.

The problem is that the X-Men existed in two main phases as a team. In the original silver era comics they had a core membership of five mutants: Cyclops, Angel, Iceman, Beast and Marvel Girl, with a few additional members later on. When the comic was revived in the bronze era there were many new members. Initially only Cyclops remained from the original team, but as time passed all the original members returned. Wolverine quickly became the fan favourite in the new team, so it was a logical choice for the film to revolve around him. Logical, but I still don't like it. I would have preferred a film that started with the original team.

Theatre: The Sistren (4 Stars)

I saw this play in the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton today. It was performed by a touring company, but they're based in Wolverhampton, so they were on their home ground.

The premise of the story is that when a woman is in a time of great distress and needs guidance a committee of three women is sent to her from the afterlife. These three women examine the circumstances, and after coming to a unanimous decision they influence the woman to make her take the right path. In the play we only see the three ghosts meeting in the woman's kitchen. They are all famous women from English history: Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), Emma Lloyd-Sproson (1867-1936) and Claudia Jones (1915-1964). The central character, the woman in need of aid, is off-screen throughout the play. We aren't given concrete information about her, but we can piece together her circumstances from the conversation of the three ghosts.

  • She is in her 30's, single without children.
  • She is black.
  • She works as a nanny looking after the two children of a working mother.
  • She is an intelligent woman who is well read in feminist literature.
  • She has been the victim of a sexual assault.

The decision she has to take is whether to speak out about the assault or remain quiet. While this might seem an easy decision for the three eminent feminists from the past to reach, they get involved in arguments with one another about differences in their own backgrounds.

Mary Wollstonecraft is often considered to be the founder of modern feminism. She campaigned for the right of girls to be educated. Interestingly, her daughter was Mary Shelley, who is now remembered as a famous author.

Emma Lloyd-Sproson was originally a member of the suffragette movement, but she later distanced herself from it because she considered it to be an organisation of middle-class women with too much time on their hands. She went on to become the first female counsellor in Wolverhampton.

Claudia Jones was born in Trinidad. She moved to America, where she became a prominent member of the American Communist Party. After being deported she moved to England, where she fought for the rights of black people. She was buried next to her hero Karl Marx in London.

The play deals with feminist issues, but is interspersed with comedy. For instance, the unseen woman is criticised for the disorder in her kitchen, leading to discussions of the dilemma of a woman having to do a full time job and still keep her house tidy. The three ghosts argue over their different political and social perspectives. For instance, Claudia is criticised by the other two for being more concerned about helping black women than women in general. Throughout the play Mary seems to be the least feminist of the three, if that's the right way to describe it.

My thoughts: I was rather surprised, after reading about the play, that it turned out to be a comedy. I laughed at the jokes, but maybe the over-abundance of humour obscured the important issues. As a person who is strongly in favour of promoting women's rights, it seemed to me that the comedy detracted from the feminist message, if indeed feminism was intended to be the central message. The political stance seemed to be just as important as feminism, as shown by the fact that on the two occasions Margaret Thatcher was mentioned it was disparagingly. Mary Wollstonecraft, the only one of the three women that I previously knew much about, came across as the weakest of the three characters, suffering from OCD. Was this deliberate? I would be interested in hearing the thoughts of the authoress, Therese Collins, who also played the part of Emma.

Summing up: a good play, but not perfect.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Little Thirteen (3 Stars)

This film paints an ugly picture of life in today's Germany. Sarah and Charly are two young girls who live in Ahrensfelde, a few miles east of Berlin. They live close enough to Berlin to be able to experience the glitter of the big city, but they live far enough away that they don't profit from its wealth. When the two Germanys were combined in 1990 the Ossis expected immediate wealth. 20 years later they're still waiting.

Sarah is 13 and Charly is 16. Both girls live with single mothers. The only way they can have fun is going to parties, getting drunk and having sex, usually one-night stands. This doesn't make them happy. Sarah complains that she wants the act of sex to last forever, because she feels so alone when the man pulls out of her. Charly gets pregnant and decides to find a man to get married to. It can't be the father of her child, because she doesn't know his name or where to find him. Sarah meets an 18-year-old boy called Lukas in an Internet chatroom. He seems to be the right one for her, but all he's interested in is having a young girl to make amateur porn films. That's the only way he has any hope of making money.

The ugliest person in the film is Sarah's mother Doreen. Rather than try to be a good mother she wants to hold onto her youth by partying with teenagers and having young boyfriends. In fact, she's so disgusting that she seems like a caricature, I can't imagine any mother being so bad. After meeting Lukas she offers Sarah an exchange: "If you let me have sex with your boyfriend I'll let you use my new vibrator".

Nothing is as glamorous as it seems. The parties start out wild and exciting, but they end with drunken teenagers staggering from room to room. The sex is little more than in-out-in-out-time-to-go-home. The film shows inner desolation.

The film has won a few awards in Germany, which speaks for its quality. Unfortunately I can't enjoy a film which shows only misery with no hope of escape. The film is available with English subtitles, but I can't recommend it to my readers. In Germany the film has been awarded a 12 certificate, rather surprising considering the amount of nudity and the sex scenes. My suspicion is that this low age rating is intended to make the film suitable for sex education, in school and at home. I can imagine a German mother watching this film with her daughter, then telling her, "That's what will happen if you act like a slut. You'll end up pregnant and alone".

Elektra (4 Stars)

When I first saw this film in the cinema I didn't like it. I was disappointed. It didn't live up to what I expected of it after seeing her first appearance as a supporting character in "Daredevil". Nevertheless, I bought the DVD soon after it was released. I still had mixed feelings about it, but I watched it a few times. I'm finally starting to warm up to it, even though I still think it could have been a lot better.

In the film Elektra is working as an assassin-for-hire. When she's sent to a remote island to kill a father and his teenage daughter she develops sympathies for them and refuses to carry out her mission. She even protects them when replacement assassins are sent in her place.

Now what are my problems with the film? Partly it's a problem with the casting of Jennifer Garner as Elektra. I didn't mind her as a supporting character in "Daredevil", but she's too weak to carry a film as the main character. This could have been balanced out with her looks, but in my opinion she just wasn't sexy enough. In the comics Elektra's costume covers her midriff completely. The costume's top was shortened in the film, with my approval, but I think it should have been a few inches shorter to expose Jennifer's well toned belly throughout the film. That would have made up for the (wrong) decision to cover her legs. Compare this cover art with the photo above.

Elektra's enemies in the film are just thrown at us, without any explanation who they are. Marvel comics fans will recognise them, of course, but they must look confusing for new fans. For instance, the actress Natassia Malthe is listed in the credits as Typhoid, but during the film itself she isn't named. Stick (Terence Stamp) is presented as Elektra's former teacher, but no more is said about him. There was no need for the rush to get the action going. The film could have been made 30 minutes longer to give us more background about the characters.

The contrast between light and dark is exaggerated in the film. I'm sure this is deliberate and meant to give a stylish impression, but I don't like it. However bright the surroundings are, the characters in the foreground are dark, like silhouettes. In close up scenes the front of the face is visible, but the hair and ears disappear into the shadows.

Elektra is a character that deserves another chance. Maybe she'll get it after the Daredevil reboot. Let's make her look sexier next time round. Sexier, more seductive and more deadly.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (4 Stars)

This is a film that doesn't really make any sense, but it's great fun anyway. It doesn't get boring however often I watch it. If you don't know it yet, give it a try.

Hero (5 Stars)

Chess, music and calligraphy. Battles can be fought in the mind, not with a sword. Sometimes a true hero is a man who knows when to stop fighting, even if the victory is within his grasp.

This is a very stylish film, a tragedy of epic proportions. The film's most beautiful battles don't actually take place, they are only words or thoughts. When I first saw it in the cinema in 2005 I felt disappointed, but after watching it again I began to appreciate its depth. (The film was made in 2002, but it wasn't shown in England until a few years later, after the success of "House of Flying Daggers").

The entirety of the film takes place in the palace of the Emperor of Qin. A nameless warrior from the kingdom of Zhao recounts stories of his battles to the Emperor. Some of the stories are true, some are false. The Emperor, recognising the lies, replies by telling what he believes really happened. Again, some of his stories are correct, while others aren't.

The cast is outstanding, some of China's best actors: Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Ziyi Zhang, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. The film is directed by Zhang Yimou. Or is it Yimou Zhang? I never know what order the names should be. I only realised recently, after watching "Curse of the Golden Flower", that I already own several films directed by him. They are all beautiful films, so I shall have to watch them again, as well as looking for his other films.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Der Turm (3¾ Stars)

The title of this film means "The Tower" in English. It's named after an area in the city of Dresden, and the main characters live in the Turmstraße, the "Tower Street". The film follows the life of a family from 1982 to 1989 in the claustrophobic atmosphere of East Germany. In the picture above we see Richard Hoffman, a surgeon, with his wife, his son and his lover. Richard does everything that's expected of him in his position: he's a member of the Socialist Party and encourages his son to follow in his footsteps, but in truth he has no interest in politics. All he wants to do is be promoted to the boss of his hospital and keep his love affair secret.

The film is based on a best-selling German novel that was published in 2008. The film has been highly praised by critics, but I couldn't relate to the story. The film is three hours long, which was at least an hour too long for me. It wasn't until the second half that I began to get interested in it.