Monday, 21 August 2017

Flag of the Week: Israel

The flag of Israel is one of the world's best known flags. The Star of David is shown within blue stripes, with thinner white stripes at the top and bottom. However, there's something I only discovered about the flag today, something that's unique, as far as I know. All other countries precisely specify the colours of their flags. Not Israel. Any shade of blue is allowed from perfect dark blue (above) to lighter blues that border on cyan (below). Variations are not just allowed, they are encouraged.

The flag's shape is a rectangle with the proportions 11:8.

I've made the background of this post light grey. That's the best way I can think of portraying flags with white borders. Initially I considered putting a thin black frame around all of the flags, but that looks ugly.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Theatre: Don Camillo and Peppone (4 Stars)

The story of Don Camillo and Peppone is well known in Italy, and it's possible that some of my readers in other European countries might know it. A series of eight books were written by the author Giovannino Guareschi and published from 1948 to 1996, some of them posthumously. Five of the books were adapted as films from 1952 to 1965. In 1980 there was a 13-part television series with new stories based on the two characters. This year a German language musical premiered in Austria. And then there's this play that was written by the German playwright Gerold Theobalt in 1999, loosely based on the first novel in the series.

Camillo and Peppone were best friends as resistance fighters in Italy during World War Two. Now that the war is over they live in the same small village, Boscaccio, but they have developed in different directions. Camillo has become a Catholic priest, while Peppone has become a Communist and is now the village's mayor. They are now enemies, although they ironically support one another's causes. Camillo admires the social justice demanded by the Communist Party, while Peppone is secretly a devoted Catholic.

Camillo is able to talk to Jesus, who spends most of his time hanging on the cross in front of the church, but occasionally goes for a walk round the village to watch what people are doing. Camillo expects Jesus to support him against Peppone, but most of the time he says that Peppone is right. Jesus is usually invisible to everyone except Camillo, but he appears to an old woman who won't stop shouting his name.

The play incorporates themes from Romeo and Juliet. The son of a Communist and the daughter of a rich land owner fall in love with one another, but their parents don't allow them to be together because the village is in the middle of a general strike. The young couple decide to kill themselves so they can at least be together in death.

It's a raucous, irreverent comedy which makes fun of both the Catholic Church and Communism. Only two things can turn best friends into enemies: religion and politics. The message of the play is simply that people can only be helped if the Catholic Church and the Communist Party unite. The two organisations have more in common than they realise. I doubt Karl Marx or the Pope would agree, but it's a thought that might be attractive to some of the people in the audience.

The play was performed as part of the annual Freilichtspiele ("open air plays") in Schwäbisch Hall. The performance took place on the 53 steps of the ancient St. Michael's Church, which was built in 1156. It was amusing to see the actors running up and down the steps. No compromises were made; the original play was adapted to make full use of the steps.

The performance was sold out. It seemed that everyone enjoyed it, despite the low temperature and cold wind. When it began at 8:30 pm the natural light was bright enough. By the end of the evening -- it finished at 10:40 pm -- floodlights were needed to show us what was happening on stage.

I very rarely watch live plays. I don't like their transitory nature. I already feel bad that this play will probably never be released on Blu-ray, and if it is it won't be on the 53 steps of Schwäbisch Hall. Maybe I should watch plays more often. If they were all this good I would.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Premium Rush (4 Stars)

This is a fast-moving action film that will keep you gasping for breath from start to finish. The chase scenes make up more than half of the film. The next time I watch it I'll let you know the exact percentage, if I don't forget. It's not car chases though. It's bicycle chases through the busy streets of Manhattan, zig-zagging through the middle of the cars.

The film's main character is Wilee, a courier for a bicycle messenger company. In the saturated streets of Manhattan the quickest way to deliver a parcel from A to B is by bicycle. Even among his fellow workers Wilee is considered to be mad. He drives a fixed gear bike with no brakes. As he says more than once during the film, "Most accidents occur when you brake, so I don't brake". I'll have to remember that advice.

Wilee picks up an envelope from an office building at 5:33 pm. He's told that it has to be delivered to the docks by 7 pm. No problem. That's what Wilee does every day. He even has time to buy a hot dog before he begins the job. But that's when the problems begin. A man approaches him and tells him his employee wasn't authorised to give him the envelope, so he wants it back. Wilee insists that a job is a job and rides away as fast as he can. The man follows him by car, attempting to kill him. Wilee decides to report the man to the police before continuing with the delivery, but he finds out that the man pursuing him is a police detective. The only thing he can do is finish the job he's been given, chased by cars and other bicycles.

This is a film that has to be seen to be believed. After watching it I thought to myself, "I like it even if the critics don't". Then I checked what critics have said, and the film is highly praised. The critics love it, but strangely the audience doesn't. It was a box office flop when it was released in 2012.

The film might be all action, but it's well told. The narrative is non-linear, with flashbacks within flashbacks. Slowly we're told what the secret behind the envelope is, and we even find out that it's no coincidence that Wilee was picked to deliver it.

There's one small quibble I have with the film. In the chase sequences the car is never far behind the bike. Is that realistic? The film's premise is that bicycles are the fastest means of transit in the city, so how can a car possibly keep up?

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Thursday, 17 August 2017

TV Series: Gotham

Last weekend the second season of "Gotham" was added to Netflix, so I was compelled to watch it immediately. I've watched the first 11 episodes in between my usual film viewing. I was fascinated by the first season, which I watched last year. The second season is even better, based on what I've seen so far. The most exciting character is Tabitha Galavan, played by Jessica Lucas, pictured above. She's supposedly based on the DC villainess the Tigress, but I fail to see any resemblance.

She first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, where she's drawn with blonde hair, blue eyes and a long skirt. Her real name is never stated in the comics, which is typical for the villains in the Golden Age of comics. They're just bad guys without a background.

I suspect that her appearance in the TV series is based on the Huntress, a villainess who first appeared in 1947.

At a much later date (1987) DC published a comic book series called Young All-Stars which took place during the Second World War. Paula Brooks was a super-heroine who called herself the Tigress. In a later issue she became a villainess and changed her name to the Huntress, presumably becoming the 1947 character. It's difficult to be certain, because DC Comics have never been known for their continuity. This year's canon is next year's apocrypha.

Whatever the case is, Jessica Lucas is delightful in the TV series. I sit up straight whenever she graces the screen, especially when she's in action. She has a viciousness that I find thrilling. She whips men for fun. She strangles men for fun. She shoots men for fun. She stabs men to death while laughing gleefully. In the first episodes of the second season she acts as the servant of her brother, but I cheered loudly when she finally turned against him. An alpha male is no match for an alpha female.

I should backtrack a bit. This article began chaotically due to my admitted crush on Jessica Lucas. Now let me tell you what the series is about. It tells the story of Bruce Wayne before he became Batman. The first season begins with his parents' death when he was 12. He's played by the 13-year-old actor, David Mazouz. Obviously, he will age fast, so the time in the series has to progress to match his physical development. I expect that each season will approximately represent one year in his life, but that isn't apparent to me yet. It's uncertain whether there was a short or a long gap between the end of the first season and the beginning of the second.

When does the series take place? It's deliberately kept vague, although there are a few contradictory clues. The police station has no computers, which would place the series back in the 1990's. There are small mobile phones, which wouldn't have been available until 2005 at least. Gotham City looks old-fashioned, but it could be dated any time from the 1960's to the 1990's. James Gordon is said to have fought in the Gulf War before becoming a policeman, which would date the series about 1995. I like to think of the mobile phones as a distraction and stick with 1995, but it's not really important. Think of it as an alternate universe where the 1990's phones weren't big and clunky.

The series' hero is James Gordon, who joins the Gotham City police force in the first episode. He holds the rank of detective, but he seems to be new in the job, probably only just having been promoted. The conflicts in his character make him appealing to the audience. He's full of naive enthusiasm. He sees that most of the other policemen are corrupt, so he's determined to do things differently. He wants to do everything by the book, but he soon finds out that if he acts within the letter of the law he will never get anything done. The only way he can put any criminal out of business is by asking for help from other criminals. In particular, he has to ally himself with a gangster called Oswald Cobblepot, a man he despises.

In the comics James Gordon is shown without a history. He's already an aged police commissioner in the first Batman story in 1937. Christopher Nolan's Batman films start earlier in his career and show his steady promotion: he's a police sergeant in "Batman Begins", a police lieutenant in "The Dark Knight" and the police commissioner in "The Dark Knight Rises".

"Gotham" also shows the ascent of  Oswald Cobblepot from a lowly lackey to the arch-villain known as the Penguin. He begins his criminal career as a young man who carriers the umbrella for the gangster Fish Mooney. He has intelligence and determination which he uses to play the city's different gangsters against one another. As already mentioned, he occasionally allies himself with James Gordon. He uses Detective Gordon as much as Detective Gordon uses him.

The Penguin first appeared as a villain in 1941, but his name Oswald Cobblepot wasn't mentioned in the comics until 1986. It took DC long enough to figure out a name for him!

James Gordon might be the hero, but the Penguin was by far my favourite character in the first season. He's evil, but he's so brilliantly portrayed by Robin Lord Taylor that it's impossible not to like him. Where has this actor been all these years?

Of course, the Penguin has been relegated to second place in the second season, because my favourite character is now Tabitha Galavan. It's not difficult to choose between a man with an umbrella and a woman with a whip.

(If you think that paragraph was just an excuse to publish another photo of Jessica Lucas, you're absolutely right!)

Another fascinating character in the series is the teenager Selina Kyle, who goes by the nickname Cat. This is the name of the villainess Catwoman, although as with all other DC villains she wasn't named until the 1980's. In the comics she carries a whip, but in the TV series we see her with a gun, which would never happen in the comics. She's known to avoid killing at all costs. From what I've read she will begin to carry a whip later in the series. Unfortunately she already wears the stupid goggles on her head which have been part of Catwoman's costume since 2000.

She first appeared as a thief in Batman #1 in 1940. At first she was disguised as an old woman. These are the first pictures we see of her without her disguise.

The story ends with a mutual attraction being expressed between Batman and Catwoman, a theme repeated for more than 50 years in comics, television series and films. In recent years Catwoman has supposedly given up crime and stands on the right side of the law, but I dislike this concept. She's much more fun as a criminal.

Even in "Gotham" there's a spark of attraction between Bruce and Selina. She's presumably the same age as he is, 13 at the most, and they flirt with one another, even though Bruce rejects her life of crime.

Catwoman was a popular character in the early Batman adventures, but she disappeared completely from 1954 to 1966. The reason was the Comics Code. It was considered harmful to children to portray women as violent. That's almost impossible to believe. Was the censorship really so sexist in the 1950's? Men are allowed to be violent in comics, but women have to be gentle?

Another fascinating character is Edward Nygma, a forensics expert at the Gotham City Police Department. Comic fans realised straight away that this is the man who will become the Riddler, one of Batman's maddest and deadliest enemies. "Gotham" portrays him as a good man, but he's suffering from schizophrenia. He has a second personality, an evil personality, which is always telling him to do bad things. He resists, but in the middle of the second season the evil personality finally takes over.

The Riddler first appeared in Detective Comics #140 in 1948. Untypically, we're told from the beginning what his real name is. Yes, his last name is Nigma in the comics, not Nygma. DC has been inconsistent over the years, so the TV series had to pick one of the variants, and it chose Nygma.

Did I already mention that "Gotham" features Jessica Lucas as the Tigress in the second season? Maybe it's the Tigress. So far, after 11 episodes, the name hasn't been used. I'll know more next week.

Other characters that we encounter in the series who re destined to become super-villains are Two-Face and Poison Ivy. There might be others that I've failed to recognise. The last Batman comics I bought were in 1978. I stopped reading them when Steve Englehart quit as author.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Banana Joe (4 Stars)

This is something new for me. It's the first film I've seen that stars Bud Spencer without his lifelong buddy Terence Hill. The big man proves that he can carry a film on his own. Nevertheless, I miss Terence. I'm so used to seeing the two of them together.

I had to watch "Banana Joe" because it was referenced a few times in the documentary I watched last weekend, "They called him Spencer". Evidently it's one of the most popular films among his fans. It's a fantastic comedy film, and the story was written by Bud himself, using his real name, Carlo Pedersoli. Does that mean he has a split personality? Ask Fred Olen Ray, the man with a thousand names.

The film was made in 1982 and takes place in Colombia. Bud plays a good-hearted, simple-minded giant called Banana Joe. That's the only name he has. He's never known his parents, he's never been to school, and he doesn't know what his real name is. He picks bananas on a small island and delivers them to the mainland to earn money to build a school. He wants the children on his island to be smarter than he is.

His plans are endangered when a large company wants to take over the banana picking on his island. Until now everything has been done informally, but now he needs a license to transport bananas to the mainland. That's difficult for a man who has no official name and no birth certificate. He has to travel to the big city, and like Tarzan he's confronted with a new world. He sees new inventions like cars and televisions for the first time.

It's a great big world in the big cities of Colombia, but Bud is a great big man. Everyone has to stop and stare at him.

Bud buys a suit so that he can fit in. It almost works.

He meets a beautiful German woman and takes her on a date, but he doesn't know how to behave. All he eats is a plate of bananas, and he can't stop staring at her legs. Poor Bud. He's never seen a white woman before.

The film is good, light-hearted fun. It's impossible not to like any of Bud Spencer's films. They're not deep and meaningful, but they make you laugh. What more do you want?

Sadly, Bud Spencer is hardly known in England. I don't understand why. He's well known throughout the world, just not in England. Most of his films are available on DVD in America. In Germany they're available on Blu-ray. Germans were always more advanced than America when it comes to technology. I can only find three of his films that have been officially released in England. If you're an English fan you have to import his films from America or Germany.

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Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Mogadishu (5 Stars)

This is a German film telling the true story of the kidnapping of the German Landshut plane on a commercial flight from Mallorca to Frankfurt in October 1977. The plane was kidnapped by four members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation who demanded the release of nine German terrorists, including Andreas Baader.

After four days the hostages were freed by the GSG-9 (Grenzschutzgruppe 9), a newly formed German anti-terrorism unit. Because of the poor performance of the police in handling the terrorist attack on the 1972 Olympic Games it was decided that a dedicated group should be created to fight terrorism. This was GSG-9's first mission, and it was widely praised as a success. When they stormed the plane the only casualties were three terrorists. One GSG-9 member and one flight attendant were lightly wounded, but none of the passengers were harmed.

The mastermind behind the plane's hijacking was Wadi Haddad, a Jordanian who lived in East Berlin. He was employed by Russia's KGB. Russia denied involvement in the operation, despite information given by double agents stating the contrary.

The day after the storming of the plane Andreas Baader and two of the other terrorists were executed in their prison cells. The official inquest claimed they had committed suicide, but who seriously believes that prisoners in solitary confinement would shoot themselves?

The film accurately portrays the claustrophobia and panic of the hostage situation. One of the female terrorists was hysterical, screaming for no apparent reason. The other woman remained calm. The two men were agitated at the thought they might have to die if their hostage demands weren't met.

The film was intended to be released on the 30th anniversary of the hijacking, but it was delayed because of production problems. This year is the 40th anniversary. The film has a lasting appeal that makes it gripping viewing today.

TV Series: Lost

Over the last week I've watched the fifth season of "Lost". After the relatively dull fourth season it's picked up the pace again. There are many more of the Wow Effects that I experienced in the second and third seasons. After each cliffhanger I couldn't wait to see the next episode. It would have been torture if I'd watched the series on television when it was first broadcast. A whole week between episodes? Impossible!

The fifth season is an explanatory season. The puzzles of the previous seasons are being resolved, one by one. Not all of them. There are enough mysteries left to keep me waiting for the sixth season. I'm not sure how much of the concept behind the series comes from J. J. Abrams himself and how much from the co-creators, in particular Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. There might be interviews I can find online that explain the creative process, but I won't read them now because I want to avoid potential spoilers. Nevertheless, I consider "Lost" to be J. J. Abrams' grand opus. However many other great films and TV series he has been responsible for, "Lost" is his legacy, it's what he'll be remembered for.

The way things are now slotting together so logically proves to me that the series was mapped out beforehand. A lot of fans claim that "Lost" changed and got weirder after the first season, but that's a mistake they made from their limited perspective. J. J. Abrams knew the direction he was going from the beginning. This is in contrast to typical drama series like "Supernatural" or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", which are planned from season to season, and nobody knows what will happen next year. The only other series I can think of that was so efficiently mapped out is "Earth: Final Conflict", which had a five-year story arc that was precisely mapped out 30 years before the first episode aired.

I intend to lay in a pause before I watch the sixth season, but not for too long. I want to know how it ends.

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Dark Tower (4 Stars)

This film is supposed to be the beginning of a new franchise that will present interlocking stories from Stephen King's books in a combination of films and television series. It's an ambitious project that's intended to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I'm not a Stephen King fan. I've read about half a dozen of his books and enjoyed them, but not enough to want to read everything he's written. I haven't read "The Dark Tower", although after watching the film this evening I feel tempted to read it.

I'm aware of some criticism from Stephen King fans about the casting of Idris Elba in the lead role as the gunslinger Roland Deschain. As someone who doesn't know the books it's not an issue for me. All I can say is that Idris Elba is one of my favourite actors, and he puts on an excellent performance in the film.

To summarise the plot: Jake Chambers, an 11-year-old boy from New York, is considered to be mentally disturbed because he draws pictures of things and beings from another world, claiming that they really exist. It's understandable that his parents should question his sanity, but they're wrong. One day two of the beings from the other world come to his apartment to kidnap him. Jake meets Roland Deschain, the last remaining hero in the other world, and joins him in a fight against a mysterious man in black.

I found the film exciting and highly entertaining. 95 minutes wasn't enough for me, it could have lasted another hour. According to the critics the film is "incomprehensible to newbies and unfaithful to fans of Stephen King's books". I fall into the first category as a newbie, but I can state that the film wasn't incomprehensible at all. It's a solid foundation for the rest of the Dark Tower franchise.

War for the Planet of the Apes (4 Stars)

I went to see this film badly prepared. I wanted to watch the previous two films first, but I didn't get round to it. I've been too busy watching the fifth season of "Lost". That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

There's a lot that happens in this film, but I'll only mention one thing. The simian flu which wiped out most of the human race has evolved. It now has a new effect on the survivors. It causes the intelligence of the humans to decrease, including taking away the ability to talk. It isn't a gradual development. Anyone who is infected is changed within a day. This is a positive development, as far as the story goes. It's making the new film series prequels to the 1968 original film, "Planet of the Apes". This was canon, and so was its sequel, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes". After that everything deteriorated fast. Making money took priority over making good films.

"War for the Palnet of the Apes" isn't intended to be the final part in a trilogy. It's simply another film in a series. A fourth film has already been planned. In an interview Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar in the films, has suggested that there will be five films, but the exact number hasn't yet been decided. Based on the box office success of the newest film there will be no financial hindrances to making more films.

On another topic: one of my readers has sent me a message telling me that she doesn't find my reviews as good as they were a year ago.

First of all, I'd like to thank her for reading my blog so regularly that she can notice differences. I wish everyone would read my blog every day for a year.

Is it true that my posts aren't as good as they used to be? I don't know. Sometimes I read one of my old posts and I think, "Wow, that was good". Other times I read an old post and feel unhappy that my comments were so superficial. My blog isn't consistent. Sometimes I have a lot to say about a film, sometimes very little. Sometimes I give a detailed description of the plot, sometimes I fly off on a tangent and write about something totally unrelated. My early reviews, 2010 to 2011, were very short. I wrote more once I got into the routine of writing, but even now I sometimes write very little.

My popular post list isn't a reflection on which posts are my best. Usually more than half of the posts concern films that I watched over the last few weeks. It encourages me that my newest posts are the most popular, because that shows me that I have regular readers who check out my new reviews. Looking at the popular post list today, six of the posts are recent posts. The other four are probably successful as a matter of luck, because the posts just happen to contain the keywords that people are searching for.

I've written 2516 posts, including this one. Some of them are better than others. That's natural. I'm no Roger Ebert and I'm no Joe Bob Briggs. They're my two favourite film reviewers. All I can say is that my reviews come from my heart. If you read my blog you'll get to know me.

Flag of the Week: Switzerland

Yesterday I got my first feedback on my flag of the week series, and it wasn't positive. A friend of mine said that she doesn't understand why I've been publishing pictures of flags, because flags are boring. That's just one opinion. I would like to hear what the rest of you think.

I like the geometric simplicity of flags. The Swiss flag has an abstract beauty. It says a lot by saying little. It's one of the world's most distinctive flags. It's a perfect square, unlike most other flags, which are rectangular. There are no fixed proportions or sizes for world flags. To take a few examples, the United Kingdom's flag is 1:2, the French flag is 2:3 and the German flag is 3:5.

Switzerland is one of the countries which is most obsessed with its flag. Americans like to have their flag on top of their buildings or on a flagpole in the garden. The Swiss scatter smaller flags throughout their houses.

I don't know what my next flag will be. I can't even say for certain that there will be a next flag. I'll just pick a few of my favourite flags for as long as the subject interests me.