Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Escapees (4 Stars)

This is one of the few Jean Rollin that I hadn't yet seen. It reveals a different side of his creative genius. It isn't a horror film, it's a thriller. It's not a fast-paced thriller, of course. Nothing is ever fast-paced in his films. Interestingly, Jean Rollin considered the film a failure and never released it. He stored the tapes for 20 years and practically forgot about it. Then a television company approached him and offered him payment for the rights to 15 films. He thought he only had 14 films, but then he remembered "The Escapees" and gave it to them with his others. Then he received praise for the film, and he didn't know why, so he had to watch it again to remind himself what it was about.

Wow! He forgot this beautiful film?

The film is about two girls in a mental hospital, Michelle and Marie. We don't know how exactly old they are, we're only told that they're under 18. Michelle thinks she's not sick enough to be in the hospital, while Marie knows she's ill. Nevertheless, they run away together.

The girls meet the performers of a small carnival show at the roadside. Maurice is the owner, and he puts on open air shows with two exotic dancers from Africa. The fourth member of the show is Sophie, a pickpocket who mingles with the audience and robs men while she dances with them. Michelle and Marie are hired to serve drinks.

While performing in a coastal town the police raid the show and arrest Maurice and the dancers. Sophie, Michelle and Marie escape together and take refuge in a small bar. They plan to stow away in a ship headed for the Leeward Islands. (Yes, I had to google that as well. They're a French colony halfway between Australia and South America). But the bar's owner is a fortune teller, and when she reads their future she's too terrified to tell them what will happen.

Despite the obvious differences, this is very much a Jean Rollin film. We have the beautiful women and the surreal atmosphere. There are also scenes which are totally unreal, and yet they fit perfectly into the film. For instance, when the police arrive to arrest Michelle, she walks out of the house carrying Marie's dead body. The police don't stop her, they just step back and let her pass. They don't even follow her. That could never happen in the real world, but it's typical in the psychedelic dreamscape of Jean Rollin. Stunning!

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (2017 Version) (4 Stars)

Today I went to see the new version of "Murder on the Orient Express" in the cinema, as I announced yesterday when I reviewed the original version. The new version turned out pretty much as I expected. It looks superior to the original in its cinematography, while the story is almost the same. The new version is so similar that I have to ask what the point was in remaking the film. But I suppose that's a rhetorical question. It's all about money.

One of the few changes is that two characters in the original film have been combined into one. The Scottish soldier (Colonel Arbuthnot) and the Greek doctor (Dr. Constantine) have been merged into a Black American doctor, Dr. Arbuthnot. I'm sure there's a joke in there somewhere.

The original is a pure mystery film. The new version adds a few elements of action. I can't name all the additions because that would mean giving away spoilers. One example is that in the original the train has to halt because the rails have been covered by snow in an avalanche. In the new version the train drives into the snow and the engine is derailed. There's a new chase scene when one of the suspects attempts to leave the train. Do today's audiences need more action to be able to sit through a film? I suppose they do.

One slight change that I regret in the new version is the lack of claustrophobia. In the original all the interviews by Hercule Poirot were held inside the train. In the new version he spends more time outside the train.

My summary is simple: the new film is quite good, but unnecessary from an artistic point of view.

My Big Night (5 Stars)

Happy New Year!

What can you expect when you watch a film directed by Alex de la Iglesia? The answer is simple: anything is possible. If you sit down to watch one of his films with fixed expectations you'll be surprised, maybe even shocked. The trailer for this film is enough to scare away the most hardened of film fans. It's a variety show for New Year 2016 that makes the Eurovision Song Contest look like high culture in comparison.

But as I said, you never know what to expect from Alex de la Iglesia. The seeming shallowness of the New Year's party, which is actually being filmed in October, is merely the backdrop for conspiracies, corruption and a bizarre love story between two people who have a fetish for scars. As they aptly say, "Tattoos are fake. They're who you want to be. Scars are who you really are". It's difficult to argue with that.

Oscar's body is covered with tattoos, making him something he isn't. They proclaim him as a fan of the singer Alphonso, but he's come to the party to kill the man whose music he loves so much.

But love is real, isn't it? The lesbian sound engineers exchange passionate kisses and a quick fumble while the riot police are fighting with the demonstrators outside.

Do you know what the film's about now? No? That's okay, just watch it. The good news is that the original Spanish Blu-ray release has English subtitles.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (1974 version) (4 Stars)

Tomorrow I'm going to see the new version of "Murder on the Orient Express" in the cinema, so I thought it would be appropriate for me to watch the 1974 version first to help me make a direct comparison. I shan't say much about the plot, because I assume it's the same as the new film, and I don't want to give away any spoilers.

However, I have to ask how anyone could not already know the 1974 film. It used to be regularly shown on television, and I've seen it several times, often enough to remember the plot.

Like the new film, "Murder on the Orient Express" had an ensemble cast. It had a good selection of the biggest actors of the 1970's, just as the new film has some of the biggest actors of the 2010's.

I expect the new film to be more luxuriously set and have better cinematography than the original, but will it be a better film? I don't know. I'll leave that decision to Mark Kermode and his fellow critics. The original film received six Academy Award nominations and won one, Ingrid Bergman as best supporting actress. Let's wait and see what happens this time round.

Hercule Poirot, who was only on the train when the murder was committed by chance, was a magnificent detective. Why couldn't he have been staying in Praia da Luz on 3rd May 2007, the night when Madeleine McCann went missing? If he had interviewed the McCanns and the Tapas Seven he would have uncovered the murderer before sunrise. Where are the great detectives when we need them?

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The Bar (5 Stars)

I was lucky enough to see this film in the cinema six months ago. Germany is very civilised, as far as films go. Since moving to Germany I've seen two of Alex de la Iglesia's films in the cinema. None of his films are ever shown in English cinemas. Not one. I don't understand that. Don't the film distributors in England consider the public intelligent enough to appreciate such brilliant films?

"The Bar" begins as a mystery. Eight people are in a bar on a busy street in Madrid. One goes out and is shot by a hidden sniper. Within minutes the street is deserted. A second man goes out to check the body, and he too is shot. For the first half hour the six remaining customers and the two members of staff speculate about what's happening.

Once the mystery is solved -- no spoilers here! -- the occupants of the bar realise that they are all in danger, Instead of working together to escape they turn on one another.

The film's strength isn't in the plot, which is fairly simple. It's all about the character development. Every person in the bar is described vividly. I'm certain that everyone who watches the film will recognise himself in one of the characters.

I can't begin to describe how good the film is. Alex de la Igelsia has been one of my favourite directors for years, but this is yet another pinnacle of brilliance. If you've never watched a Spanish film this is a good place to start.

If you're wondering how to lay your hands on this film, the original Spanish release, available at, has English subtitles. The Blu-ray is also listed at

Thursday, 16 November 2017

New Fist of Fury (5 Stars)

Do you recognise the face in the picture? A very famous martial arts star? Come on, think about it. When you're told the answer it's obvious. Here's another photo that might help.

Have you got it yet? It's Jackie Chan. Wasn't he a cute boy back in 1976? This was his breakthrough film, his first leading role after playing minor roles in more than 30 films. Don't forget, he was only eight years old when he began his acting career.

This is a sequel to "Fist of Fury", in which Bruce Lee played the part of Chen Zhen, a mythical Chinese hero who fought against the Japanese while they were occupying China. Chen Zhen died at the end of "Fist of Fury", and the Chinese need a new hero. Ah Loong, played by Jackie Chan, steps into his shoes. We also meet Chen Zhen's father and sister.

The first film took place in Shanghai, but the sequel takes place in Taiwan. The Jingwu school has relocated. There are several fighting schools on the island, different styles of martial arts, but the Japanese insist that all the schools must unite into one. Most of the schools resist this demand, saying that the uniqueness of their individual styles makes an amalgamation impossible. Okimura, the leader of the Japanese fighting school -- I assume it's karate -- says that if anyone can defeat the top fighters from his school he will allow the Chinese schools to continue to exist separately.

The best Japanese fighter is Okimura's daughter, whose name isn't stated in the film. Hardly surprisingly, she's played by a Chinese actress, Cheng Siu-Siu. All the Japanese characters are played by Chinese actors. In 1976 no Japanese actor would have appeared in such an overtly anti-Japanese propaganda film. What's strange is that this was Cheng's only film. She shows amazing acting and fighting skills, so I'm curious what went wrong with her career.

The original film was 115 minutes long. In 1980 it was re-released in a shortened version, only 79 minutes long. Unfortunately I watched the shortened version today. From the little I've read it seems that the 36 minutes that were removed were parts in which Jackie Chan didn't take part. The film was streamlined to showcase him better.

Despite the shortening, I loved the film. While I was at university (1974 to 1978) I watched a lot of Chinese films. They had a gritty, unpolished edge to them. This was the case with Bruce Lee's first two films, "The Big Boss" and "Fist of Fury", and also with the many films whose names I have long forgotten. This style is so amazing that I would like to watch more classic kung fu films from the 1970's. Can anyone make me recommendations?

This film was the beginning of the push to promote Jackie Chan as the new Bruce Lee. I heard about it at the time. I saw a few Jackie Chan films in the 1970's, and I remember saying to myself at the time "That guy's good, but he's no Bruce Lee". I'm glad that this silly promotional campaign was soon forgotten, allowing Jackie to be himself with his own personal style.

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Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (3½ Stars)

This is the fourth film in the Indiana Jones series, made with a long gap after the third film. 19 years! Was it necessary to revive the film franchise? That depends on who you ask. It was money in the bank for the film studios. I suspect that there were letters and emails being sent for years begging Steven Spielberg to do it again.

Does it still have the magic of the old films? Sort of. Steven Spielberg has never made a bad film. In my eyes he's the most reliable film director who has ever lived. He knows how to make films, he follows the required steps and he makes a quality film every time. However, he never takes risks. By avoiding risks he doesn't make the truly great films like Quentin Tarantino, but if he took risks he might make the occasional bad film. We need a Steven Spielberg who's consistently good. We also need the risk-takers who occasionally create works of brilliance.

As for "Crystal Skull" itself (I prefer to abbreviate the film title), it's a fun adventure. Harrison Ford travels round the world -- this time to South America -- to prevent mystical archaeological artefacts from falling into the hands of evil empires. In the previous three films the enemies were the Nazis. In "Crystal Skull" the enemies are the Russians. When the film was made there were criticisms from Russia that Russia was demonised, as if all Russians were evil. So what? The film is set in 1957, at the height of the Cold War, and Russia was generally regarded as the world's Evil Empire.

The main representative of the Evil Empire is Irina Spalko, played admirably by Cate Blanchett. She's dressed in an unflattering grey suit, more typical of Chinese Communism than Russian Communism, but the very unsexiness of her outfit makes it bizarrely appealing. She's a caricature, much like the villains of the early James Bond films. All that's missing is a ridiculous name, but Steven Spielberg doesn't do that. That's a shame. She could have been called Irina Spankyu.

An unusual aspect in this film is that instead of dealing with only mystical artefacts there are aliens involved, making this the first Indiana Jones science fiction film. The crystal skull in the title is the real skull of a visitor from another planet.

I've decided to give the film a relatively low rating because of my personal reaction to the film. It ticked all the boxes, I couldn't find any fault with it, but while watching it I found myself getting bored. I'm used to the Spielberg style, so it seemed too smooth and too predictable to me. I doubt I'll watch it again. Maybe, maybe not.

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Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Off-Topic: Max and Moritz

Today I bought a children's book for my grandson, Oliver. "So what?" I can hear you asking. "That's nothing special". I disagree. This book has a special importance that only people in German speaking countries understand. There's nothing comparable in the English language.

I also bought this book for my children 30 years ago. In my wife's bedroom I found a tattered old copy that she read as a child. So it's a book that's been read for three generations? Not just three. It was first published in 1865, and it's been popular ever since. What's so special about this book that's made it popular for more than 150 years?

The author, Wilhelm Busch, wrote the story in a series of rhyming poems with pleasantly repetitive rhythms, adding humorous illustrations. The story of Max and Moritz is so ingrained into German culture that anyone can recognise random quotes that are mixed into conversation. It's a children's book, it's one of the first books that children read at home, but it's also read in school.

It's a very moral story, about right and wrong, though not in a strictly Christian context. Two naughty boys play tricks on grown ups, and in the end they receive a harsh punishment. By this you can see that it's not just meant to entertain children, it's also intended to teach children how to behave. Let's go through the seven chapters of the book, each of which are about a prank.

1. First Prank

The old Widow Bolte is feeding her hens bread to fatten them. The boys tie the pieces of bread together with long pieces of string. The hens swallow the bread, but the string is still hanging out of their mouths. They panic and run in circles, until the string strangles the chickens.

2. Second Prank

Widow Bolte cooks her dead chickens on the fire. The boys sit on the roof with fishing rods and pull the chickens up when they're fully cooked. The Widow sees that the chickens have disappeared and beats her dog.

3. Third Prank

The local tailor, who lives by a river, is mocked because he looks like a goat. The boys weaken the bridge in front of his house by sawing it. Then they make goat noises from the other side of the bridge. The tailor runs onto the bridge, but it breaks and he almost drowns.

4. Fourth Prank

The boys put gunpowder in their teacher's pipe. The explosion burns his hair and makes his face black.

5. Fifth Prank

The boys put bugs in their uncle's bed. He wakes up in the middle of the night when they start to crawl on his body.

6. Sixth Prank

The boys attempt to steal pretzels from a bakery, but they fall into a vat of dough. When the baker sees them he puts them in his oven and bakes them until the dough is brown. They survive the oven and escape from the dough by eating their way out.

7. Seventh Prank

The boys cut holes in grain bags. When the farmer carries the bags to the mill the grain runs out. The farmer sees the boys and puts them in a sack. He carries them to the mill and asks the miller to grind them in his machine. The remaining parts of the boys are fed to the ducks.

8. The Aftermath

When the village hears of the boys' death everyone in the village rejoices. Wow! It's one thing spanking naughty children, but is Wilhelm Busch really advocating the death penalty for naughty boys? Some people object to the book because of this, but most parents just grin about it and treat it as an exaggeration.

Some literary critics see a political message in the books. Max represents Karl Marx, Moritz represents Friedrich Engels, and the other characters represent politicians in the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848 to 1849, well known at the time, but now long forgotten except by history students. If you consider this the book's hidden meaning the death penalty is more logical. Marx and Engels caused anarchy in the well behaved German society, so they deserved to die.

For anyone interested in the book, the copyright has long expired, so it can be found online.

Click here to read the complete book in German. The pages are formatted identically to the book I bought today.

Click here to read the book with an English translation. Please note that this is a translation from German poetry into English poetry, so the emphasis is on rhythm and rhyme, not on accuracy.

If the links are broken, don't worry. Just do a web search, I'm sure you can find them somewhere else. The links to buy a hardcover copy of the beautiful book are below, but if you want to buy for yourself, not your children, it's free on Kindle.

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Sunday, 12 November 2017

Matilda (4 Stars)

This is a controversial love story about the romance between the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and the ballerina Matilda Kschessinska. "Matilda" is one possible transliteration of her name from Russian. She is more often called Mathilde or Matylda.

There were attempts to ban the film in Russia, which led to its release being delayed for months. Nicholas II has been made a saint by the Russian Orthodox church, so the church calls the portrayal of his affair with a common woman blasphemous. I don't know much about the Orthodox church and its practises, but does that mean people actually pray to this man? That's inconceivable. The Catholic church at least picks its saints on the grounds of their good character. Even disregarding his affair with Matilda, which is well documented by letters and diaries, historians call him Russia's most incompetent leader. His political and military blunders led to Russia losing its place as a world power, as well as the deaths of millions of Russian soldiers. The Russian revolution of 1917 is portrayed by idealists as fuelled by ideology, but it would never have taken place if Russia had been led by a Tsar who was popular to his people. The Russian people didn't think Nicolas II was a tyrant, they thought he was a fool.

I had a few problems watching the film that were due to my lack of knowledge of Russian history. There were many people in the film who were mentioned by their first name, but I had no idea who they were. For instance, at the beginning of the film we meet Nicholas and Andrei, who seemed to be close friends, but I didn't realise until the end of the film that they were cousins. Several of the other characters who looked to me like court officials might also have been relatives. I don't know.

Another problem for me was the film's chronology. The film ends in 1896, the year when Nicholas was crowned and married -- in the same ceremony? -- but when did the affair with Matilda begin? In the film it all seems to happen fast, so I would have guessed six months, but I read up on the subject afterwards and found that the affair lasted six years, from 1890 to 1896. Nicholas was officially engaged to Alix of Hesse in 1894, but they had been promised to one another since 1880, when they were still children. The delay in the engagement was due to objections of the Orthodox church; they weren't allowed to marry because Alix was a Protestant. As time dragged on, attempts were made to marry Alix to other princes, but she was always considered Nicholas' future wife. In 1894 she finally converted to the Orthodox church, which meant nothing could stop the marriage.

Nothing except for Nicholas' love for Matilda.

According to the film, Nicholas fell in love with Matilda at a ballet performance where Matilda had a wardrobe malfunction. Her upper garment wasn't laced correctly and came open while she was dancing, so she danced with one of her breasts bared. The film portrays this as the result of a prank by another ballerina, but do we know for certain Matilda didn't do it deliberately? I can understand this in the context of the 19th Century. There were no rock or pop stars in that day. The ballerinas were the superstars, and Matilda was the Miley Cyrus of her day. Matilda wanted a scandal. A ballet performance in front of the Russian royal family was the perfect opportunity to expose herself on stage, and she was overjoyed with the reaction. Nicholas was slobbering like a dog, and he couldn't stay away from her dressing room. She also had an effect on Andrei, but she turned him down, not giving him a second chance until after Nicholas' marriage to Alix.

Who was Matilda? The film shows the relationship as two young people in love, but I doubt it was really about romance. For Nicholas it was about lust, for Matilda it was about power. Nicholas was a man who couldn't tell the difference between love and lust. That's not so rare, is it? Matilda was a woman who wanted to use her physical beauty to become the next Tsarina of Russia. In the film the relationship ends when Nicholas decides to marry Alix, as was his duty. Is this because Nicholas rejected her, as the film suggests? I doubt it. He would gladly have kept Matilda as a mistress, but this wasn't good enough for her; she wanted a crown on her head. She went on to marry Andrei, who had also lusted for her ever since her bare breasted performance, but only after having an affair with the cousin of Nicholas' father. After losing Nicholas she wanted to marry the highest ranking person available.

The film is lavish, an excellent period piece. I definitely want to see it again, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it yet. As far as I know, it's historically accurate, but read between the lines.

High Heel Homicide (4 Stars)

I love the DVD cover, pictured above. It looks like the covers of the paperback novels that they sell in the bookstores at Stuttgart train station. The difference is that the books, the few I've read, are disappointing. The book covers have very little to do with the story. That's not the case with this new film from Dean McKendrick. We really do have a woman in high heels murdering men. Delicious!

A woman has been killing men during or immediately after sex, then leaving a letter painted on their chest in lipstick. The only thing that links the murders is that all the men are ex-policemen. The police detectives Sam and Maggie -- we never find out their last names -- investigate the case, always one step behind the killer.

I'm happy to see that police dress code doesn't require female detectives to wear a bra. I wonder if that's a disadvantage when they have to chase a criminal.

This isn't a murder mystery. The viewer sees from the beginning who the killer is. After all, we'd be disappointed if we didn't see the exciting murders being committed. It's an erotic thriller in the style of the classic thrillers of the 1980's and 1990's, but with more sex.

Dean McKendrick spent three years making erotic comedies for Retromedia. Since 2016 he's turned his attention to erotic thrillers. This is the best of his films since last year, because he's finally getting a feel for what's required of an erotic thriller. The plot needs to be more intricate than in his previous films. More than anything else, there needs to be some sort of surprise at the end, a plot twist. That's what makes this better than his previous films. My only criticism, and I know that many of my readers will disagree with me, is that there are too many sex scenes. Six sex scenes is too much for a film that runs less than 80 minutes. Four would be enough, leaving more room for plot development.

I have one last question, something that's been bugging me for years. We all know that neck snapping thing that people do in action movies to kill someone. A quick twist of the neck, and he's immediately dead. This has been done in the movies for the last 30 years. Is it really that easy? Carter Cruise just grabs Andy Long's head, twists his neck, and he's gone. If it's that easy to kill a man no woman needs to buy a gun for self defence.