Monday, 20 February 2017

Chinese Zodiac (3½ Stars)

This film is based loosely on historical events. The Summer Palace was built in Beijing in 1750. It was filled with marvellous treasures, in particular bronze statues of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. In 1860 the palace was plundered by French and British troops. The statues were too heavy to carry away, so the heads were removed and transported back to Europe. They found their way into the hands of private collectors, and over the next 150 years they were sold and resold, individually or in groups, for ever increasing sums of money. For instance, in 2009 two of the statues (or rather their separated heads) were sold for 28 million Euros. The Chinese government considers the artefacts to be stolen and demands that they be returned to China free of charge, but after this length of time there are practical problems. The original thieves are dead, and the current owners paid a lot of money to acquire the statues. Anyone who has paid millions of dollars for a work of art will be understandably reluctant to give it away for free.

So much is the truth behind the story. In the film a large company called MP is attempting to collect all 12 bronze heads with the intention of selling them for profit. They're actually more devious. They intend to create fakes of the statues and sell the fakes. The company has an underground lair with dozens of highly skilled artists faking all sorts of paintings and other items, aided by modern technologies. The owner boasts that his fakes have fooled experts and are displayed in art galleries all over the world, while he owns the originals.

The company already has eight of the heads. They hire JC, an experienced thief, to steal the remaining four. JC is played by Jackie Chan, in case you couldn't guess. This time he isn't a good guy, although he slowly develops a conscience as the film progresses. He allies himself with a Chinese activist group in Paris that wants to steal the heads to return them to China. They don't realise that when he gets them he'll give them to MP instead.

This isn't one of Jackie Chan's better films. The action sequences are too exaggerated to be credible. For instance, in one scene he jumps out of a plane with three other men and fights them in free fall before they open their parachutes. That seems so unrealistic. Skydiving is difficult anyway, but fighting in the air and still keeping control, jumping from one opponent to another to fight all three?

The best parts of the film are when Jackie fights normally, as we're used to him from his other films. There's a beautiful 15-minute fight scene half way though. If it had all been that good I would have awarded five stars.The film's first hour is boring, with too many superfluous subplots adding unnecessary confusion. If you're a Jackie Chan fan like me I'm sure you'll want to watch the film at least once, but you'll probably only want to rewatch the outstanding fight scenes, of which there aren't enough.

There are 12 film posters portraying the 12 Chinese zodiac signs. I'm including them here for reference purposes. You can click on them to enlarge them.

Overall the film reminds me in its subject matter and style of the television series "Relic Hunter", which was broadcast from 1999 to 2002. I don't mean that as a compliment. The series starred Tia Carrere, one of America's sexiest actresses, but the series managed to make her look exceedingly unsexy from week to week. The action scenes looked cheap and unrealistic. The first hour of "Chinese Zodiac" looked like an episode of "Relic Hunter". It started to pick up in the second hour, but it was too late to save the film.

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Saturday, 18 February 2017

Spy (4½ Stars)

If ever a film has screamed "Sequel" this is it. Despite a few small criticisms, which I'll go into below, it's an almost perfect comedy spy thriller. If Austin Powers was the comedy spy of the 20th Century, Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is the comedy spy of the 21st Century.

Susan Cooper has been working in a basement office of the CIA supporting field agents for ten years. After the murder of an agent while on a mission she's given her first field job. She's only supposed to observe and report back, but she rushes into action, making direct contact with Rayna Boyanov, a woman selling a nuclear bomb on the black market.

Melissa McCarthy plays a comically incompetent spy. My only complaint about the film is that other members of the CIA also make mistakes. Jude Law plays a suave super spy who accidentally shoots a captive because he sneezes. The CIA in Langley suffers from vermin in the basement. I would have found it better to see the CIA running as an efficient organisation with only Melissa making mistakes.

I love the retro film poster for "Spy". Up until the 1950's it was usual for film posters to be drawn by artists. In the 1960's this practise was slowly phased out in favour of photo collages.

Check out this photo taken at the film premiere. Miranda Hart (6'1") doesn't just tower over Melissa McCarthy (5'1") but also over Jason Statham (5'9"). The director Paul Feig, on the right, is also slightly shorter than her, only 6'0", but he seems taller in the photo. My guess is that he wore shoes with high heels because he felt intimidated.

The film briefly shows a classified CIA document about Rayna Boyanov's dating habits and sexual preferences. Here's a full transcript of the document.

Memorandum on Rayna Boyanov's Dating Habits

Ms. Boyanov has a habit of engaging in sexual congress with a number of celebrities and political figures along with a cornucopia of underworld elite. The former groups are disconcerting. Great effort must be taken to verify the complicity or lack therof of these partners in her criminal activities. With intimate access to luminaries, both men and women, one can assume that at the least she has garnered intelligence and at the worst embroiled these prominent figures in her schemes.

It is also worthy of note that many of her sexual partners suffer injuries as she is a violent and cruel lover. She regularly engages in sadistic dominatrix behavior, both dishing out pain as well as receiving it - often in an embarrassing fashion. We can presume that this not only pleases her, but provides blackmail fodder.

Agents should be directed to covertly discover as much as they can about Boyanov's past and current relationships. When necessary and feasible, agents should engage as many of her past partners as possible in an effort to determine what secrets or level of indoctrinations to which they have fallen both victim and prey.

Boyanov is reputed to be a fan of various fringe sex acts including Dirty Sanchez, Angry Pirate, Hot Lunch, Angry Dragon and her favorite - the Rusty Trombone.

If you don't know what these sexual acts are you're not alone. I had to do a web search as well. I've lived a sheltered life. Even after reading what they are I have no wish to indulge.

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Police Story: Lockdown (4 Stars)

"Police Story: Lockdown", known in some countries as "Police Story 2013", is sometimes called the sixth film in the Police Story film series, sometimes a reboot of the Police Story series. It's neither, whatever the infallible contributors to Wikipedia write. The only thing that's consistent from film to film is that Jackie Chan plays the lead role. The first four films (1985-1996) can be considered a series, because he plays the Hong Kong police officer Chan Ka-Kui. In the fifth film (2004) he plays Chan Kwok-Wing, and in this film (2013) he plays Zhong Wen. The last two films have "Police Story" in the title just to fool people into thinking they are continuations that they need to watch. That's silly. "Police Story: Lockdown" is a film that's worth watching in its own right.

Zhong Wen is a successful but under-appreciated cop. He does his job, risking his own life day by day, because it's the right thing to do. One evening when he's off duty his daughter invites him to see her at a night club called the Wu Bar. It's not the sort of place he would normally go to, but he hasn't seen her for five years. She introduces him to her boyfriend, Wu Jiang, the club's owner. Zhong doesn't trust him, and his instincts are correct. He's knocked unconscious, and when he wakes up he's tied to a chair. Zhong and 20 other hostages are being held prisoner. Wu's only demand is that an imprisoned murderer, Wei Xiaofu, should be delivered to the club.

As the night progresses it becomes obvious that the 21 hostages (including Zhong) aren't random strangers. They are all people important to Wu who were sent special invitations to gather them on this evening.

This is a taut psychological thriller, not as light-hearted as Jackie Chan's usual comedy romps. Zhong Wen has to fight for his life while trying to solve the mystery behind Wu's motives.

Jackie Chan carries the film, as is to be expected, but special mention needs to be made of Jing Tian, who plays his daughter Miao Miao. After "Great Wall" this is only the second film I've seen her in, but I find her performance very impressive. I look forward to seeing more of her.

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Thursday, 16 February 2017

Zodiac (4 Stars)

After knowing about this film for many years I finally decided to watch it today. Even so, it took me half the day to get started. As the film started I saw that it was 162 minutes long, so I stopped it and asked myself whether I really wanted to sit through a murder mystery for three hours. I went about my daily chores, I took a nap, and finally, hours later, I sat down to watch it.

All I needed to do was get over the start hurdle. After the first few minutes I was hooked.

The film is a true story about a serial killer who murdered several people in California from 1968 to 1970. He was unlike other serial killers in several respects. He didn't have a consistent modus operandi. The killings didn't resemble one another, so it was difficult to tie them together. He wrote letters to newspapers boasting about what he had done. Most unusually, he stopped killing. Supposedly, killers get a taste for blood and carry on.

How many people did he kill? Five murders were attributed to him, but in his letters he claimed to have killed twelve. The police never discovered who the other victims were.

It seems that the man, who called himself Zodiac, was more interested in fame than in the killing itself. He remained in touch with a newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, for years after his last murder. He was teasing the press (and indirectly the police), saying he was too clever to be caught. He was right. He was never caught, and the case is still open today, even though the murderer is probably dead.

The main character in the film is Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle. The film itself is based on a book he wrote claiming to have identified the killer, though there was insufficient evidence for the police to take action. Robert wasn't a reporter, even less an investigative reporter, but he was fascinated by the case and devoted his life to solving it. He continued even though it put his life at risk. He received repeated anonymous phone calls from someone who was probably the killer. Those were the old days before it was easy to trace phone calls.

The film moves slowly, ploddingly, but it's never boring. The top rate acting of the lead characters kept my interest throughout. I kept on hoping that the killer would finally be caught, right up to the end, but I was disappointed. That's the difference between real life and fiction. In real life the good guys don't always win.

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Wednesday, 15 February 2017

John Wick (4 Stars)

"You killed my dog".

I pulled this off my shelf today to watch it in preparation for seeing "John Wick 2" in the cinema next week. For a film with so little of a plot it's remarkably good.

John Wick is a retired assassin, a killer-for-hire. He decided to settle down and enjoy married life. Things didn't work out. His wife died of cancer. As a farewell gift she gave him a dog to keep him company. The son of a Russian mafia boss kills the dog when he goes to steal John's car. This sets John off on a roaring rampage of revenge. He roars, and he rampages, and he gets bloody satisfaction.

I was wondering when I watched it today how many people he kills. Online I found two web sites. One claims it's 76, the other 84. Next time I watch it I'll sit and count.

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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Moonrise Kingdom (4 Stars)

This is a film that I would never have watched under normal circumstances. Nothing about it appealed to me. However, a friend of mine gave it me as a gift last year. It's been lying on my shelf ever since, and I wasn't sure whether I would watch it or not. I'm glad I did. I'm also glad that I watched it on Valentine's Day. However, I'm still not sure I understand what I've just watched. It's a film that is somehow surreal, and I'm sure that that the director wants to give us a message, but I have no idea what it is. Maybe I should watch the Blu-ray extra features to hunt for clues.

The film takes place in 1965 on a fictional island off the coast of New England called New Penzance Island. A group of boy scouts is camping. One of the boys disappears, and it turns out that he's run away with a local girl. Both of them are 12 years old, and both are social outcasts.

The romance between Sam and Suzy is poignant and quaint, but painfully awkward. Isn't 12 too young for a couple to elope? Anything under 14 is hard for me to take seriously. Even when I was 14 I wouldn't have run away with a girl, I would just have sneaked away with her for a few kisses in private.

Eventually the couple are found. That's when the film gets really strange. Sam is an orphan, and after his escapade his foster parents don't want him back, so he's told that he'll be put in an orphanage. Due to his alleged violent tendencies he's threatened with electric shock treatment. Even though he's always been unpopular among his fellow scouts they rally behind him to protect him. One of the scoutmasters performs a marriage ceremony, although he warns the couple that the marriage might not be recognised in most American states. I could have guessed that myself.

So the couple go on the run again, this time with the assistance of the boy scout community.

I was never a member of the boy scouts, so I have to ask: are they really such a well disciplined group? The scout camps seem like paramilitary organisations.

This is a sweet film, even though I don't really understand it. The colour contrasts are typical for Wes Anderson's films, and the high quality supporting cast make the film even more enjoyable.

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Monday, 13 February 2017

Modern Times (5 Stars)

I haven't seen all of Charlie Chaplin's films, but this is the best of the films that I know. It's a politically motivated film, even though it's difficult to say exactly what he's protesting about. So much happens in 90 minutes that it's difficult to join the dots.

Charlie Chaplin plays an unnamed man living in New York at the time of the great depression. He works tightening screws on a conveyor belt which is constantly being speeded up. All his efforts bring nothing. The factory closes down and he becomes homeless. We see him going in and out of jail, being arrested for things he didn't do. If anything, he's happy to be in jail, because he has nowhere to go to when he's released.

As the depression eases up he finds work, but he's so awkward that he can never keep a job for long. He has more success in romance. He meets an orphan girl, Paulette Goddard, who is also homeless and makes money by dancing and stealing. She finds a hut for them to live in, probably abandoned company property.

Even though the film was made in 1936, well into the sound era, this isn't a pure talkie. Despite having sections with sound, such as Charlie himself singing, there are silent passages where text cards are used. It's a hybrid film, halfway between silent movies and talkies. Hollywood was fast to abandon silent films when sound became possible, but Charlie Chaplin still clung to the old ways.

It's a love story. It's a tale of survival in the modern industrial age. It's a tale of political upheaval and police brutality. More than anything else, it's a comedy. It's best not to try to understand it. Just sit and watch it and laugh.

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Sunday, 12 February 2017

Rush Hour 2 (5 Stars)

After watching "Rush Hour" with my son this morning he insisted on watching "Rush Hour 2" as well. He loves the films, just like me. He'll probably watch "Rush Hour 3" by himself after I leave. Jackie Chan is brilliant. So is Chris Tucker. It's a pity he gave up acting to become a preacher. Why does religion have to get in the way of everything? He finally came out of retirement to star in "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk", so I'm hoping we'll see a lot of him in future.

Zhang Ziyi's performance is excellent, of course. In her films she's usually a good girl, but she's even better as a bad girl.

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Twilight (4 Stars)

It's not often I watch a film at random. Almost never, in fact. I like to plan my viewing. This is one of my rare exceptions. This weekend I'm visiting my son in Obersontheim. Today I was in the bathroom taking a shower. As I was drying myself off I heard a woman's voice. I thought it was someone visiting, so I got dressed as quickly as I could. "Twilight" was running on television. It had only just started, and the woman I had heard was Annina Braunmiller doing the German language voice-over for Kristen Stewart in the opening scenes. I'd only missed the first five minutes, so I couldn't resist watching the rest of the film.

This was the first film that Annina had ever dubbed into English, a big responsibility for a young beginner, but I was amazed at the quality of her speaking. Due to the success she's been Kristen Stewart's voice in every film she's made since 2008, apart from which she's dubbed another 50 films by lesser known actresses. The two main characters in the film were dubbed by more experienced German speakers, Johannes Raspe as Robert Pattinson and Max Felder as Taylor Lautner. German dubbing always has high quality, but "Twilight" sounded so perfect that it could have been a German film.

From left to right: Max Felder as Jacob, Annina Braunmiller as Bella, Johannes Raspe as Edward Cullen. In Germany the people responsible for the dubbing aren't anonymous, they're stars in their own right. If only foreign films could be dubbed into English so professionally. Then dubbing wouldn't be despised the way it is.

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Rush Hour (5 Stars)

Sometimes I think I waste too much of my life watching bad films. Maybe I should just make a list of my favourite 1000 films and watch them in a cycle for the rest of my life. If I did that "Rush Hour" would definitely make it into the list. Okay, I admit that I might miss out on fantastic new films by sticking to what I know, but for every great film I miss there will be a dozen not-so-great films that I don't need to watch. I'm not even talking about bad films. There are films I watch which I consider to be good, but I still have no wish to watch them again. Once is enough.

Maybe I could make a compromise. If I ever make a top 1000 list I could watch films from the list alternately with new films. That could ease the disappointment that I feel when I go through a whole week watching three-star films.

Thoughts, anyone?

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Saturday, 11 February 2017

The Great Dictator (4 Stars)

I watched this film today for the first time in many, many years. I only remembered it vaguely, and from what I remembered I considered it to be Charlie Chaplin's greatest film. After watching it today I think it probably isn't his best film, but it really is very good. It has only a little of the slapstick humour that we're used to from Charlie Chaplin. It's a political satire. I don't know why Charlie Chaplin thought it necessary to change the names of the characters and the countries, since it's so obvious who is meant.

20 years after Tomainia lost the first world war a dictator has risen to power, Adomine Hynkel. He tells other countries that he wants peace while secretly preparing for war. One of the cornerstones of his policies is that he suppresses the Jews, either locking them up in work camps or forcing them to live in segregated ghettos.

Unknown to Hynkel, there's a Jewish barber who looks identical to him. The two are confused with one another, and the barber is put into a position where he can hold a speech to a massive rally.

The screenplay was first written by Charlie Chaplin in 1938, but it wasn't filmed until 1940. My only real criticism is that the parody isn't exact. There's an obvious 1-to-1 correspondence between the characters in the film and the real life characters, but a lot of the story doesn't relate to real life events.

I'll leave you with a transcript of the barber's speech.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible: Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood, for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world: millions of despairing men, women, and little children,victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

To those who can hear me, I say do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

Soldiers, don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel; who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines. You are not cattle. You are men. You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don’t hate. Only the unloved hate, the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers, don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “The Kingdom of God is within man”. Not one man nor a group of men, but in all men. In you. You, the people have the power: the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power! Let us all unite! Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security! By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie. They do not fulfil that promise. They never will.

Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness! Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

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Thursday, 9 February 2017

Cover Girl (5 Stars)

It's about time I watched this again. What a wonderful film! The world was at war, English and German cities were in ruins, but there was still light in the world, thanks to Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth. Phil Silvers also deserves a mention. He's hardly someone who would be considered a musical star, but "Cover Girl" shows that he had astounding proficiency as a tap dancer.

"Cover Girl" was made in 1944. It was obviously a film intended to promote Rita Hayworth, who was the number one pin up girl of the American armed forces during the Second World War. Nevertheless, it was Gene Kelly who was the film's real star. He was still at the beginning of his film career, but he overshadowed everyone else whenever he appeared on the screen.

Gene Kelly plays Danny McGuire, the owner  of a small musical theatre in Brooklyn. His best friend and business partner is a piano player called Genius (Phil Silvers). His lover is the star of his show, the dancer Rusty Parker (Rita Hayworth). Like all aspiring young actresses and dancers she wants to be on the cover of a big magazine. She's chosen from hundreds of applicants to be photographed for the cover of Variety magazine. This is her stepping stone to success. She's offered a job in a Broadway theatre, which she gladly accepts, despite her relationship with Danny. After an argument they break up. Rusty becomes an instant success, and people stream into the Broadway theatre to see her. Without Rusty people stay away from Danny's theatre, and he's forced to close down.

Of course, the film isn't carried only by the story. The song and dance numbers are just as important, maybe more important. The musical scenes are overwhelming, whichever one of the three main stars is dancing. This is one of Gene Kelly's lesser known films, but it's essential viewing.

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Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (5 Stars)

Many people compare this film with "Catch 22". I find it has more similarity with "Apocalypse Now", even though only 20% takes place in Iraq and the rest in America. However, the best way to understand it is to see it as a contrast to Ang Lee's previous film, "The Life of Pi". In "The Life of Pi" we see a young man travelling alone and wishing he had company. In "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" we see a young man surrounded by a crowd and wishing he were alone.

To start off, let's shorten the film's name to "Billy Lynn". That's less of a mouthful.

The film takes place on a single day, Thanksgiving 2004. Throughout the film we see flashbacks of the events in Billy Lynn's life that have led up to this day. He's a 19-year-old specialist fighting in Iraq. He was filmed running to pull his sergeant to safety, making him a national hero. Now he and his unit, nicknamed the Bravo Squad, have been touring the USA for a week from one press conference to another. The final day is a football game of the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, in which they have to present themselves to the audience at half time. After the game they're going to be flown back to Iraq.

I expected this to be an anti-war film. It isn't. It treats the whole subject of the Iraq war very neutrally, not making statements about whether it was justified or not. It's all about Billy and his reaction to the pressure of being called a hero.

Billy is practically in a daze, sleep-walking through the day. His sister is putting pressure on him to quit the armed forces by faking PTSD. There's a film producer trying to make a deal to make a film about Billy and the Bravo Squad. The owner of the Dallas Cowboys speaks to him. A billionaire oil tycoon speaks to him. Countless fans swarm around him praising him as a hero. There are aggressive security guards at the stadium who don't take the soldiers seriously. Billy is expected to stand on stage while Destiny's Child performs.

All that Billy is interested in is girls. He's still a virgin, and he doesn't want to die a virgin. He links up with a Dallas cheerleader, a dream come true for any teenage boy. Or so you would think. There's no time for more than a kiss. She talks to Billy about Christianity, which is the last thing on his mind. She promises to wait for him until he returns from Iraq, but until then she wants him to continue being a hero. More pressure.

"Billy Lynn" is an amazing film. Some people have criticised it by saying that nothing happens. Why does something need to happen? That's not what the film is about. It's all about Billy's dream-like state. It's about the irony of Iraq being Billy's home, not America. "Billy Lynn" doesn't need action, it's perfect as it is. It's the best film I've seen so far this year.

On a technical note, "Billy Lynn" is the first film ever made with a resolution of 120 frames per second. The frame rate 24 fps has been the standard for over 100 years, ever since films were first made. It wasn't until 2012 that a higher resolution film was made, "The Hobbit", with 48 fps. The two sequels were also made with this resolution in 2013 and 2014, but so far these are the only three films. Not everyone has been able to experience this advance, because very few cinemas are equipped with projectors for this resolution (for instance, only one cinema in Birmingham). Almost all cinemas showed a 24 fps version of the Hobbit films. James Cameron has promised that the sequel to "Avatar" will be filmed in 60 fps, presumably because he intended to make the technologically most advanced film ever, but he's too late; "Billy Lynn" has already set the bar higher.

Can the frame rate go any higher? Theoretically it can, but there's no point. The average human eye is capable of processing 110 frames per second, so there's no reason to film any higher. 120 fps is perfection. Every single frame of the film is a perfect screenshot, without any blur -- providing that you have a Blu-ray player capable of playing films with this resolution. Until now there aren't even Blu-ray players capable of playing films at 48 fps. It hasn't been necessary for manufacturers to invest in the technology, since only three films were ever made at that resolution.

120 frames per second is the future of cinema, but please don't hold your breath until you have it on your television screen.