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Best of the half year, 2015

It’s that time of the year again, time to look back at the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched, and the albums I’ve listened to, and decide which five earn a place on the much-coveted best of the half-year lists. To put these lists into perspective, I have – by 20 June – bought twelve albums (all from bandcamp), watched 234 films (which does include a number of rewatches), and read 74 books (which includes half a dozen previously read books). I’ve also been documenting my reading in a series of Reading diary posts (currently at #7, with #8 to be posted shortly), and my film-watching in a series of Moving pictures posts (fifteen so far this year).

So far, 2014 has felt like quite a good year. To date I’ve read 74 books, which is a slight dip from this time last year but up on the year before. And in both years I comfortably managed to read 150 books (which is just as well as I’ve entered 150 books for my GoodReads 2015 Book Challenge). On the film front, I have as usual failed to make it to the cinema even once, so most of my movie-watching has been on DVD – and I’ve started buying Blu-rays more often now too. Most of those DVDs were rentals, which has helped so far knock sixty titles of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, not all of which, incidentally, I’m convinced belonged on the list. I’ve also spent the year so far tracking down copies of films on DVD by my favourite directors, especially Aleksandr Sokurov. I now own all but one of his DVDs, but since the only copies of it I’ve found are priced around £200 to £250 I might have to use – kof kof – “alternative” sources. Anyway, I’ve been watching a lot of films – 238 to date. Some of them I’ve watched more than once. Finally, music… which has not been as successful this year as books or films. I’ve spent most of my time listening to groups on bandcamp, and have consequently discovered a number of excellent bands – in fact, all of the ones mentioned in this post were purchased there. I’ve only been to two gigs this year – one was Sólstafir, who were excellent; the second was half a dozen bands at a gig sponsored by Femetalism. None of my favourite bands have released new albums so far this year, although one or two have releases planned later in the year.

Anyway, here are the lists, with the usual honourable mentions as well.

books
whatdoctororderedspread0What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013). Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, but his short fiction has always been more impressive than his novels. And this new collection – only his second since 1990’s The Brains of Rats – amply demonstrates why Blumlein is such a brilliant short story writer. A much undersung writer who deserves to be better known. Incidentally, Centipede Press have done a lovely job with the book.

grasshopperschildThe Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014). A new novel from a favourite author. It’s actually a YA novel set in the universe of the not-YA Bold as Love quintet. There is a fierce intelligence to Jones’s books which shines through her prose, and it’s one of the reasons I consider her the UK’s best science fiction writer currently being published – except she isn’t these days, as The Grasshopper’s Child was self-published. Seriously, that shouldn’t be happening.

raj4A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975). The final book of the Raj Quartet, and what a piece of work the quartet is. Scott is superb at handling voices, and in Barbie Batchelor has created one of fiction’s great characters – although this book belongs more to Guy Perron, a gentleman NCO keen to return to the UK now the war is over, but who comes into the orbit of the Layton family (who have been a constant presence running through all four books). I’m already looking forward to rereading the quartet.

the_leopardgThe Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I watched the film of this and that persuaded me to read the book. And I’m glad I did. There are Lawrentian elements to it, although a story which valorises the aristocracy and (mostly) presents the lower classes as venal in order to demonstrate the coming of a new world order… would not be my first choice of reading. But Tomasi di Lampedusa manages to give his fading nobles an air of tragedy as their time passes, even if the Salina family’s paternalism feels like a relic of a much earlier age.

darkoribtDark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015). Another favourite author. This novel is set in the same universe as Gilman’s excellent novellas ‘The Ice Owl’ and ‘Arkfall’, and while some elements of the novel are not entirely successful, it does make use of some heavy concepts and it handles them really well. A science fiction novel that makes you think – and we really could do with more of them these days.

Honourable mentions. A pair of polished collections – The Lady of Situations, Stephen Dedman (1999), and Adam Robots, Adam Roberts (2013), not every story in them worked, but the good ones were very good indeed. Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), which surprisingly seems to have been missed by much of sf fandom, which is a shame. A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014), a pulp detective tale with a failed Hitler as the hero shouldn’t work, but this blackly comic take on it definitely does. Touch, Claire North (2015), is perhaps not as successful as last year’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, as its fascinating premise is married to a weak plot; but never mind.

As usual, I’ve been collecting stats on my reading. And it breaks down as follows…

decade2015

I hadn’t realised I’d read so many recent books, and I’ve no idea why the 1980s is the next most popular decade – perhaps it’s due to the books I picked to review for SF Mistressworks. The one nineteenth century book was HG Wells, the two 1920s ones were DH Lawrence.

gender2015

I alternate genders when choosing fiction books to read, but I seem to have slipped up somewhere, and women writers currently outnumber men in my reading.

genre2015

It never feels like I read a lot of science fiction, but at almost half of my reading I guess I must be doing so. Mainstream is the next highest genre, but only twenty percent. To be fair, it seems the mainstream books are often more memorable than the genre ones. But at least the numbers explain the good showing by genre in my top five and honourable mentions.

films
playtimePlaytime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I’d never actually seen a Tati film until I rented Les Vacances de M Hulot last August. I enjoyed it, but something I read somewhere persuaded me to add his Playtime to my rental list. And I watched it for the first time early this year. And loved it so much, I bought a Blu-ray of it. And then I spotted that a Tati Blu-ray collection was on offer on Amazon, so I bought that too. But none of Tati’s other films blew me away as much as Playtime, although Mon Oncle comes a close second (and so makes my honourable mentions below).

elegy_voyageElegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). I’ve watched this three times since I bought it, as part of my 2015 love affair with Sokurov’s films. As the title suggests, the film is a meditation on travel, and art, with Sokurov in voiceover describing a journey he takes which ends up at a museum in, I think, a German city. Elegy of a Voyage is everything that Sokurov does so well, that makes a film a Sokurov film. Not to mention the somewhat idiosyncratic artistic choices Sokurov makes, such as using a 4:3 aspect ratio, distorting the image so it almost resembles a painting, and the use of colour filters to further distance the viewer from the picture. The beauty of Sokurov’s films is not that they bear repeated viewings, but that they require it.

dayofwrathDay Of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1943, Denmark). This year I also became a fan of Dreyer’s films – his Gertrud had been a favourite for a couple of years – but in 2015 I bought DVDs of all his available movies. And worked my way through them. The silent films are astonishingly modern – especially The Passion of Joan of Arc – but I do prefer the later films, and after Gertrud, Day Of Wrath is I think his next best – and like Gertrud, it’s about women and women’s roles in society, but this time set in 1623 and describing how a young woman saves her mother from a charge of witchcraft by marrying the local pastor. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

jodosduneJodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (2013, USA). One of the reasons I bought a Blu-ray player capable of playing multi-region Blu-rays was because I wanted to see this film – to date it has not been released in the UK. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about the unmade film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, which only exists in concept art by Chris Foss, Moebius and HR Giger… and a complete storyboard “bible” which Jodorowsky’s producers sent to a number of US studios. A fascinating look at what could have been a fascinating film.

sokurov_earlyStone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). A young man looks after the house Chekhov once lived in, and then one night a man who might be Chekhov mysteriously appears… Filmed in black and white, elliptical and, in the second half, featuring Sokurov’s trademark timelapse photography of a snowy landscape. While Elegy of a Voyage is a documentary, this is fiction, but deeply allusive fiction – which is why I woke up the morning after watching this and discovered I’d gone and ordered a pair of Chekhov books from Amazon…

Honourable mentions. Fear Eats The Soul, Effi Briest and The Marriage of Maria Braun, all by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, 1974 and 1979, Germany), and all from a DVD box set I received for Christmas, these were I felt the best three. The Big Red One, Samuel Fuller (1980, USA), I’m not a big fan of WWII films but this is a good one, and even manages to rise above what is obviously a smaller budget than most such films get. Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati (1958, France), more modernist low-key humour, which may not be as cinematically beautiful as Playtime, but comes a close second. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew White (2014, USA), another Blu-ray not available in the UK which motivated my purchase of a multi-region Blu-ray player, this documentary covers Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep in 2012. Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France), although not a Godard fan I do love some of his films, such as this one, a study of a bored housewife who works on the side as a prostitute; I’ve already bunged the Criterion DVD on my wishlist. Whispering Pages and Spiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994 and 1995, Russia), a completely opaque drama and a deeply philosophical documentary (about Russian soldiers), yet more evidence of my admiration for Sokurov’s works. Moscow does not Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov (1980, USSR), an odd drama about three women in Moscow in the 1950s and the 1970s, which makes a pleasing antidote to US “evil empire” propaganda. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Aditya Chopra (1995, India), a superior Bollywood film about UK-based NRIs and arranged marriages, with amusingly broad comedy, well-staged musical numbers and a pair of likeable leads. The Man from London, Béla Tarr (2007, Hungary), my first Tarr and probably the most plot-full of his films, and while I’m still not quite plugged into his brand of slow cinema, it’s definitely the sort of cinema that appeals to me.

As with books, I’ve been collecting stats on the films I’ve watched…

filmnation

I still seem to be watching mostly American films, but that’s likely because so many on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list are American – or, at the very least, the US ones are easier to find (ie, readily available for rental). The good showing for Russia is, of course, Sokurov – several of his films I’ve watched two or three times already this year.

films decade

A reasonable spread across the decades, although I would have expected the fifties and sixties to do better than the seventies, as I much prefer films from those earlier two decades. The first decade of this millennium doesn’t seem to have done very well either, which is odd.

albums
ghostwoodGhostwood, Navigator (2013). A US prog rock band I stumbled across on Bandcamp, and then began listening to repeatedly. In parts they remind me of Australia’s Chaos Divine, and though they describe themselves as “for fans of: Porcupine Tree”, I think I prefer this album to those by Steven Wilson’s band. There are a few bits of electronica in there somewhere, but also plenty of heavy riffing- the title tracks boasts especially good riffage. And very catchy melodies. Good stuff.

sidereusSidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013). A Spanish death metal band with a death metal / post-metal sound not unlike NahemaH’s – who were also from Spain, but have sadly disbanded after only three albums. I hope Apocynthion stay together and produce many more albums. The opening track with its insistent drumbeat is especially good.

secretyouthSecret Youth, Callisto (2015). I bought a Callisto album several years ago, and though I enjoyed their brand of heavy post-metal I never bothered with any of their subsequent albums. But then Zero Tolerance magazine streamed this, their latest, I gave it a listen, discovered it was very different to their earlier album… and liked it so much I bought it. It’s still post-metal, but the growls have been mostly replaced by clean vocals, and in places there’s almost an early Anathema-ish sound to it.

worstcaseWorst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015). This was very much a lucky discovery and while at first they reminded me quite heavily of The Old Dead Tree – who, like Synesthesia, are also from France – repeated listens proved they definitely had their own thing going. Like The Old Dead Tree, they drift between death and goth metal, but they also throw quite a bit of prog into it, and it’s a mix that works well, even if in places they sound a bit Muse-ish.

ottaÓtta, Sólstafir (2014). These Icelanders were excellent live, so I bought their last two albums (the only ones available on Bandcamp), and it’s hard to say which is the better of the two. There are a couple of cracking tracks on 2011’s Svartir Sandar, but I decided Ótta was just a little bit the better of the two, if only for the banjo-accompanied title track.

Honourable mentions. Doliu, Clouds (2014), a UK doom band, and the track ‘if these walls could speak’ is absolutely brilliant. Entransient, Entransient (2015), a US prog metal band with a bit of post-rock thrown in for good measure. Good stuff. The Malkuth Grimoire, Alkaloid (2015), a German progressive death metal supergroup, containing (ex-)members of Necrophagist, Obscura, Spawn of Possession, Aborted, Dark Fortress, God Dethroned, Blotted Science and Noneuclid, this is quality stuff, in the same area as Barren Earth but a very Germanic version. Svartir Sandar, Sólstafir (2011), see above. Half Blood, Horseback (2012), as the album’s Bandcamp page puts it, “shifts from Americana twang to fiercely evil buzzing guitars to hypnotically meditative kraut-drone”, which is as good a description as any; file alongside Ultraphallus.


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Moving pictures, #16

It seemed like a good idea to document the films I watched throughout the year, especially since I was working my way through a 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. What I hadn’t considered was how many movies I’d watch. And so have to document. Ah well. Here are more. Ones from the list indicated with an asterisk as usual.

mansfaveMan’s Favorite Sport?, Howard Hawks (1964, USA). I like Rock Hudson films, I like Technicolor films, I like screwball comedies. Throw in Howard Hawks as director, and Man’s Favorite Sport? ought to be a sure-fire winner. Sadly, it isn’t. Chiefly because it was written as a Cary Grant / Katherine Hepburn vehicle, but ended up with Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss. While both are very good in their roles, Hudson isn’t Grant and has always performed better in Hudson roles. But, by god, the Technicolor certainly makes a picture of this moving, er, picture. The comedy has its moments, the chemistry on screen does create sparks, and Hudson does his best delivering the Grant one liners… but Man’s Favorite Sport? is mostly a lovely-looking film. Hudson plays a fishing expert at Abercrombie & Fitch, who has secretly never fished in his life. And then a fishing resort – represented by Prentiss – persuades his boss to enter him in a competition for publicity purposes. When Hudson comes clean, Prentiss and resort owner’s daughter Maria Perschy have to, er, teach a man to fish. A good piece of early sixties rom com, starring a master of the form and a rising comedic actress. For all its flaws, it’s still bags of fun.

banquetThe Banquet, Xiaogang Feng (2006, China). This was apparently based on Hamlet, although you’d have to be pretty forgiving to acknowledge it. Set in China during the tenth century, a crown prince has exiled himself to a remote theatre after his father married the noblewoman the prince was in love with. But then the emperor is killed by his brother, and assassins are sent to kill the prince. They fail, but he makes his way to the imperial court anyway, where things all get a bit complicated. Like a lot of wu xia movies, The Banquet is a pretty lush production, and the story covers pretty much all the bases – there are epic sword fights, gruesome deaths, love-making with lots of gauzy veils, complicated court politics, sumptuous sets and costumes… and an ending that comes completely out of left-field. One of the better wu xia films I’ve seen recently.

the_man_in_grey_uk_dvdThe Man In Grey*, Leslie Arliss (1943, UK). Stewart Grainger and Phyllis Calvert meet up at an auction room during WWII (he’s a RAF officer, she’s a WREN), and in the process of chatting her up inadvertently bids on a box of trinkets that are all that’s left of the Rohan aristocratic family. He admits to a connection to the Rohans and is far from complimentary; she admits the last male Rohan was her brother. The film then flashes back to the Regency period, and now Phyllis Calvert is an heiress at a posh school in Bath. After leaving school, she’s introduced to the ton, where the eponymous noble, James Mason, asks for her hand in marriage – mostly for appearance’s sake. Later, she bumps into an incorrigible rake, Grainger again, and is smitten by his charms. Grainger is an actor in a company with a woman Calvert was friendly with back in her school at Bath, and she invites the woman, Margaret Lockwood, now down on her luck, into her household. So you have a situation where Mason is having an affair with Lockwood, while Calvert is secretly in love with Grainger. It’s all a bit ploddingly predictable, if you know the form, and Mason’s presence, and the year of release, suggest it’s a “quota quickie” (Mason was a Quaker and refused to fight during WWII), none of which stands against it as some of those quota quickies were actually pretty good. This one is clearly held in such high regard it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although to be honest I couldn’t see why. A watchable bit of Regency hokum, with an unneccessary contemporary (as of 1943) framing narrative, and a good turn by its leads… But it’s hard to see it as a classic.

networkNetwork*, Sidney Lumet (1976, USA). I’d assumed I’d seen this at some point in the past – the film is near enough forty years old, and it seems reasonable to assume it was on television several times during the 1980s – but if so, I’d completely forgotten everything about it… as I discovered when I started watching it. The other thing that readily became apparent was that its satire had completely lost its teeth. A corrupt and manipulative media? Driven by profit? That’s not satire, that’s reality. Turning Peter “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” Finch’s nervous-breakdown news anchor into a prophet of the modern age is a bit, well, that horse has long bolted. And it was probably leaping a fence near the horizon when this film was released. Even casting Faye Dunaway as the ratings-hungry TV executive willing to do anything for the network just plays into your standard sexist arguments about women in the workplace. Some films belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; some don’t. This is one of the latter. Um, maybe I should put together my own list…

2or3things2 or 3 Things I Know About Her*, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France). I have mixed feelings about Godard’s films. Most I’ve found a bit dull, but I absolutely adored Le Mépris. And while he’s never been afraid to experiment with the form – something I admire in directors – he was also hugely prolific. So after the disappointing Masculin Féminin (see here), I wasn’t expecting much of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. But I actually thought it really good. My second favourite Godard, so far. And I liked it enough to want to watch more of his films. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is basically a film study of Marina Vlady, who plays a bourgeois mother who also has sex for money. It follows her as she does housewife things interspersed with meetings with clients. Occasionally, she, and other members of the cast, break the fourth wall. There are also shots of building works in Paris, and some nice concrete architecture. Apparently, this was one of three films Godard made in 1967 – he’d shoot 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her in the morning and Made in USA in the afternoon. Like I said, some films belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, some don’t. This is one of  the former. I think I’ll get myself a copy of this film, on Blu-ray if I can.

joanofarcThe Passion of Joan of Arc*, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1928, France). Another director I seem to have fastened on to it is Carl Theodor Dreyer, and it’s certainly true Gertrud is a favourite film and I hold Day Of Wrath in high regard… It could be argued that The Passion of Joan of Arc is his most famous film, despite being silent and originally released in 1928. But even though nearly ninety years old it’s an astonishingly… modern film, with its reliance on close-ups and the quite brutal way it depicts Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake. In fact, even the look and feel of the film is weirdly modern. Watching the movie, it’s hard to believe it was made in 1928. Happily, eureka! have done a bang-up job on releasing it on DVD (and Blu-ray). The slipcase not only includes the disc but also a thick booklet on the film. And so it should: The Passion of Joan of Arc is an important film, and should be treated as such. It’s just a shame many other important films are not treated as well.

fatherlandFatherland, Christopher Menaul (1994, USA). Apparently Mike Nichols spent $1 million on the film rights for Robert Harris’s novel but couldn’t interest any studios in the project. So HBO made it as a TV movie instead. And although it netted Miranda Richardson a Golden Globe, it’s actually not very good. Hitler victorious is likely the most popular form of alternate history, but Harris gave his version an interesting spin – setting his story twenty years later, as celebrations for Hitler’s 75th birthday are ramping up throughout Germania, and which will culminate in an historic meeting between the Führer and US President Joe Kennedy Senior. Unfortunately, the death of a party figure starts SS Major March on an investigation which threatens to uncover the Reich’s biggest secret (hint: it’s not a secret in the real world). Rutger Hauer, a Dutchman, plays March, a German; while Miranda Richardson, a Brit, plays Charlie McGuire, an American reporter in Berlin for the festivities who gets dragged into the affair. The film was apparently made in Prague, which doesn’t stand in for Berlin especially well, and the production can’t seem to decide if it should present Germania as a German-speaking nation or, as is often the case in English-language productions, have everyone speak English so subtitles are not needed. So it does a bit of both. The plot is also thuddingly predictable, whether you know the source text or not; and Hauer is a bit too laconic to convince as a SS officer. Disappointing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 599


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Moving pictures, #15

And it’s back to movies, with the usual somewhat eclectic collection of viewing. As usual, films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list are asteriskificated.

mapstothestarsMaps to the Stars, David Cronenberg (2014, Canada). Ah, movies about people who make movies, people who make millions for very little work, who live lives of wealth and privilege and think people actually give a shit about them. And that’s pretty much Maps to the Stars, which focuses on a Hollywood family – there’s a famous TV shrink, the son is the child star of a very profitable franchise, the mother manages the son, and the daughter… Well, the story is really about the daughter, who was institutionalised elsewhere after a past arson attempt… but now she’s back in town. And being drove around by Robert Pattinson. There’s also a fading actress, who’s trying to land the lead role in a remake of her mother’s most famous film, and is having a somewhat unemotional affair with the TV shrink. Oh, and the son is trying hang onto his role after a stint in rehab and a co-star who gets all the best lines. I like metafiction because it’s about the mechanics of fiction, but films about film-making mostly seem to focus on the frankly unlikable personalities who profit from the successes of the movie industry. It’s a bit like the US equivalent of Downton Abbey. Admittedly, this is Cronenberg – and you expect something more from him than just another inward-looking Hollywood-movie-about-Hollywood, populated with a cast where it’s impossible to tell who is the more self-involved – the characters or the actors playing them. And true, Cronenberg throws in some minor weirdness to leaven the unremitting rich-people-problems, but it’s not really enough. Even claims that the film recapitulates in allegorical form the decline of Western civilisation seems like one of those feeble excuses five-year-olds are prone to come out with when found in the presence of an expensive broken vase.

jodosduneJodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich (2013, USA/France). Top of the list of films that were never made is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. It only survives in numerous pieces of concept art – although given the artists, Moebius, Chris Foss, Giger, it’s no wonder it survives – and six “bibles” produced by the French production company in order to sell the project to Hollywood studios while drumming up finance. Jodorowsky still has a copy, but it’s not known what happened to the others. Jodorowsky’s Dune is the story of the film, which reached a much further point in preproduction than I’d thought, and was only scuppered because Hollywood was unwilling to entrust it to Jodorowsky. But I’ve always believed it would have been a magnificent piece of cinema, and this documentary only reinforces that belief. Perhpas the most fascinating part of the film – and it’s a close call as the damn thing is fascinating throughout – is where it shows the impact Jodorowsky’s project had on subsequent science fiction films. It’s not just that his “team” – O’Bannon, Foss, Giger, Moebius, etc – went on to work on other films, but also that elements of his storyboard ended up in completely unrelated sf movies. Sadly, Jodorowsky’s Dune is only available as Region A Blu-ray, but it does include a Region 1 DVD – so you might as well get it anyway. Because it’s totally worth it.

ossessioneOssessione*, Luchino Visconti (1943, Italy). An early piece of Italian neorealist cinema, if not the first film labelled as such. I am not a huge fan of Italian neorealist films, although I love a number of Italian movies (especially those by Antonioni); nor is Visconti among my front rank of directors. I suspect Ossessione is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list because of its position as the first Italian neorealist film, because in most other respects it’s relatively ordinary. A tramp finds work at a provincial restaurant, has an affair with the owner’s wife, and the two of them plot to kill her husband. But he dies accidentally… but the boyfriend still ends up going down for it. It’s apparently based on Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Which I know I’ve not read, but I might have seen one of the film adaptations…

nowyouseemeNow You See Me, Louis Leterrier (2013, USA/France). The charity shop were doing a buy-one-get-one-free offer, so I went for this one although I really don’t like glossy Hollywood thrillers at all. Admittedly, the elevator pitch did sound intriguing: a group of illusionists pull off a series of bank robberies. Having now seen Now You See Me, I dislike glossy Hollywood thrillers even more. Jesse Eisenberg proves once again he has as much onscreen charisma as a dead badger, not to mention a talent for playing characters you’d swerve to run over if you saw them crossing the street. The remainder of the cast are pretty much standard for the type of film, the elevator pitch – illusionists! making the crimes! – is spoiled by the illusions clearly being the result of CGI trickery (except, of course, for those that are “explained”), and it’s all as slick and unmemorable as a cheap supermarket kagool. Avoid.

keeperThe Keeper Of Lost Causes, Mikkel Nørgaard (2013, Denmark). My mother is a fan of Alder-Olsen’s novels, and when I spotted this film adaptation of his debut in a charity shop, I decided to give it a go. It’s a Nordic crime thriller, which pretty much hits all the clichés, opening with a police raid that goes badly wrong and in which only our brooding Nordic detective escapes uninjured. But not unscathed. After a medical leave of absence, he’s given a makework job, closing cold cases in Department Q. But not apparently closing cases – he’s not supposed to solve them, just mark them as unsolved and archive them. Or something. But the first one he picks, he decides to solve. A woman disappeared on a ferry, and the death was marked down as suicide, even though the woman had shown no suicidal tendencies. Nordic detective, however, with the help of faithful sidekick of Arab extraction, is made of sufficiently stern stuff to ignore any complaints or threats from his boss, and proves the woman is still alive! In a saturation system! Built in a barn by a nutter! Apparently, checking off every Nordic crime trope wasn’t enough, the makers of this film also had to get the hyperbaric element completely wrong. I can’t speak for the books, but this film adaptation is distinctly unimpressive.

fireworksFireworks Wednesday, Asghar Farhadi (2006, Iran). Some of the best films I’ve seen over the past few years have been from Iran, and Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly is one of the best of those. So I made an effort to seek out some of his earlier films. The title of this one refers to New Year’s Day, when fireworks are let off as part of the celebrations; but it could also be seen as a reference to the internal dynamics of the family at the centre of the story. A young woman about to be wed gets a temporary job cleaning the flat of a family who had have just had it repainted but are now apparently off to Dubai for a short holiday. Except relations between husband and wife are not at their best… because she suspects him of having an affair with a divorcee who runs a beauty salon in their block of apartments. Both husband and wife enlist the young woman in their attempts to prove their suspicions – but that’s all beside the point as Fireworks Wednesday is more of a character protrait of the wife than anything else, and it’s superbly done. Farhadi may be a less formally experimental director than Kiarostami, but he is nonetheless a world-class talent. Seek out all his films and watch them.

orientalelegyOriental Elegy, Aleksandr Sokurov (1996, Russia/Japan). Unfortunately, I have yet to source a copy of this DVD (which actually comprises three films), but I did find a copy of ‘Oriental Elegy’ on Youtube with subtitles. So I downloaded it to a USB drive and watched it on my telly. The quality was… not the best. Although given that this is one of Sokurov’s “elegies”, and his propensity for post-production visual effects, that’s perhaps not so much of an issue. I would seriously like to see  – and own – a decent copy of this. It’s fairly typical for Sokurov, a meditation on life and death prompted by a traveller’s visit to a strange Japanese town, where he listens to the testimonies of various people, amd where distorted cinematography helps illustrate the words spoken by the traveller in voice over. Like most Sokurov films, I’m going to have to watch this a number of times to figure it out. Now that’s value for money…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 595


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Moving pictures, #14

Yet more films, some of which are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (asterisked). And there’s another Sokurov in there too. I’ve kept the number mentioned in this post lower than usual, perhaps in the hope I’ll write something a bit more critically insightful than I usually do. Oh well.

mockingjayThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, Francis Lawrence (2014, USA). I seem to have missed this off an earlier Moving pictures post, so I thought I’d better include it here. I have not read the books – I don’t read YA as I am not a Young Adult, but I’m happy to watch the movie adaptations… even if, 99 times out of 100, I’ll not be impressed. And so it is with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1. Jennifer Lawrence is an excellent actress – see her in Winter’s Bone to see just how good (and it’s a bloody good film too) – but she seems wasted in this series. It’s all about, well, it’s all a bit obvious. I’ve been told that the book is different because Katniss is a reluctant figurehead for the resistance to Capitol (which throughout the film is shown as the capital of Panem, and that’s not what “capitol” means). Anyway, this comes to a head when Katniss is taken to District 13, which is fighting against Capitol and… it’s about as subtle as a mackerel in the face, not to mention weirdly-paced. While Lawrence stands out, as does Donald Sutherland’s broad-brush evil president, the rest of the cast tend to fade into the background, which is a surprise given the calibre of the talent. I’ll watch the final film of this “trilogy”, but I don’t hold a high opinion of them.

steamboatbillSteamboat Bill, Jr*, Charles Reisner (1928, USA). Buster Keaton’s last film with United Artists, before he moved to MGM and later lost creative control of his films. Keaton plays the college-educated son of a paddle-steamer owner and captain, whose ship is decrepit and losing business to a rival. And it turns out that Keaton is is planning to marry the daughter of said rival. Various hijinks ensue, but it’s the extended sequence where a cyclone hits the town that really shows comic genius. Keaton’s stories do tend to overuse his underdog status and, yes, he always comes out top in the end – with much comical slapstick along the way – but it’s hard to begrudge him the formulaic construction of his films as they are quite funny – and, in parts, really funny.

predestinationPredestination, Michael & Peter Spierig (2014, Australia). There are many science fiction works crying out to be adapted for the cinema, and while Robert Heinlein’s ‘All You Zombies’ might seem like a good example, it’s difficult to see how a decent feature-length film might be made of it. But the Spierigs had a go. And they actually made quite a good fist of it. The story is basically a piece of Heinlein fluff – he never understood its popularity, and complained about it frequently in his letters, as published in Grumbles from the Grave – involving a time traveller who turns out to be both his own mother and father. The film expands this by adding in some sort of apocalyptic terrorist, and an additional character (played by Ethan Hawke, see DVD cover) to whom the narrator of the original Heinlein story tells their story. I told a friend after seeing Predestination that it wasn’t as twisty-turny as Primer (a film I like) but more twisty-turny than Looper (a film I didn’t like). But yes, I did like this one.

sokurov_earlyAn Example of Intonation, Aleksandr Sokurov (1991, Russia). If memory serves me aright, I watched this after yet another rewatch of Whispering Pages. Which I think makes the Early Masterworks Blu-ray/DVD set (as pictured) the most re-watched DVD box set I own. An Example of Intonation is basically an interview with Boris Yeltsin – and it’s one of the few documentaries Sokurov has made in which he actually appears as himself on-camera. It opens with several minutes of static footage of a snow-covered woodland, while a choral piece plays over the top. It then cuts to two figures walking along a path in a residential estate. Their footstpes are loud on the snow and ice, but their voices are muffled (I would not be surprised to learn that the Russian version is subtitled during this part of the film). The two figures are Boris Yeltsin and Sokurov. The film is a surprisingly frank portrait of the former, and astonishingly personal. Yeltsin is no matinee idol, and though his face often fills the entire frame, it’s a face which humanises a man whom the West has chosen to depict as… if not a villain, certainly one of the architects of the USSR’s fall (and perversely, while the collapse of the USSR is seen as a good thing, those who brought it about from within are seen as having failed at… something – yet more Western political hypocrisy). After the interview, Sokurov joins the family for a meal. The documentary finishes with a dashboard cam recording a journey by a limousine and police escort. It is because of artistic decisions such as this that I think Sokurov is perhaps the greatest director currently making films.

anouslaliberteÀ nous la liberté*, René Clair (1931, France). There is something both Renoir-ish and early Hollywood about the plot of this film, and something very Tati about its implementation. A pair of convicts put together a plan to escape from prison, but one of them fails to make it. The one that does, however, while on the run steals bicycle… and is subsequently mistaken for the winner of the bike race. He uses the prize money and builds up a business selling, and then manufacturing, gramophones, and so becomes a rich industrialist. At which point, the other convict is released as he’s finished his sentence. He goes to work in the gramophone factory, learns the boss is his old mucker from inside, and the two pick up their friendship. But then gangsters learn of the industrialist’s past and demand money. There’s an extended comic sequence in which they try to rob the plant, with the help and hindrance of the two ex-cons… The film ends with the pair as tramps, penniless and on the run. I must admit I wasn’t particularly taken with this for the first twenty or thirty minutes, but as the film progressed it got a lot more interesting and entertaining. There are some good jokes about assembly lines, and an amusing running joke about the woman one of the convicts fancies. A good movie, worth seeing.

robinhoddThe Adventures of Robin Hood*, Michael Curtiz (1938, USA). I’m really not sure what to make of this. It was filmed in glorious Technicolor, and I mean glorious. It looked beautiful – and some of the outfits worn by the cast, I remember one in an orange and purple tunic with purple tights, for example… But the story was complete Hollywood flim-flam, and not even remotely historical. And I don’t just mean Friar Tuck apparently knowing how to fight with a sword (an edged weapon!). Or Will Scarlet managing to keep his eye-searingly red outfit clean while living in Sherwood Forest… Having said that, the films possesses bags of classic Hollywood charm, as does Errol Flynn. The dialogue was pure cheese, and the cast mostly pure ham. But for all its faults, it’s Technicolor and it looks fantastic. I was born in Sherwood Forest – well, I was born in the town which stands in what used to be the centre of Sherwood Forest (there’s even a plaque to commemorate it), so Robin Hood has been part of my world since I was old enough to understand my surroundings. While The Adventures of Robin Hood hits the main points of the legend as it’s commonly known, it’s probably better considered a piece of Hollywood history than Nottinghamshire history. I quite fancy a copy myself – I’ll have to see if I can find one going cheap on eBay…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 594


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Wait, fantasies in space? How does that work?

It looks like this film challenge thing I’m doing with Shaun Duke is becoming a regular, er, thing. After he met my last challenge of five films which complement my Apollo Quartet – see here – he tasked me with coming up with a list of “5 science fiction films which are basically fantasies in space, but which are not Star Wars. Ugh. That are “in your opinion and by your own criteria, good movies“. I suspect this is not possible – in fact, I know it’s not – so I’m going to cheat a little and pick films that are either good within the confines of their genre, or enjoyable irrespective of their quality. Because you’re not going to get some cheesy space fantasy that stands up there with anything by Tarkovsky or Bergman or Haneke or Kaurismäki or Sokurov or… Well, you get the, er, picture.

As for “fantasies in space”… yes, well, if not Star Wars is part of the definition then it must mean dumb space operas. And I can think of many examples, but they are almost universally pretty bad. There are no doubt lots of Japanese anime examples, and some of them may even be very good, but I’m not that familiar with anime.

Anyway, after much scratching of head and rootling through my DVD collection, I came up with following five. A couple may be obvious, one or two may invoke cries of shocked disbelief, and for a few I had to take “space fantasy” to mean “complete science fiction bollocks”.

johncarterJohn Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). The obvious choice, and one that will no doubt have a few of you choking on your doughnuts. I loved this film from the moment I saw it in IMAX 3D, and I’ve watched it several times since on DVD. The production design is gorgeous, the CGI is seamless (the Tharks actually look almost real!), and the script is polished, with a structure which is far more sophisticated than the material deserved. It’s a crying shame Disney decided to sink it because it could have been the start of a bloody good franchise. But instead we’re going to get endless shit superhero movies, a vast cinematic retconning of the Star Wars universe, and increasingly dumber Star Trek sequels. Yay for tentpole sci-fi blockbuster movies…

flashFlash Gordon, Mike Hodges (1980). There’s much that cringe-worthy in this film, from the Queen soundtrack (there, I said it) to the cheesy dialogue to half the cast clearly belonging in a much superior film to completely non-entity Sam Jones in the title role. Having said that, you won’t find more sci-fic pomp and silliness in any other movie. Von Sydow, Wyngarde and Dalton plainly belong in a much better film; Topol, Muti and Blessed seem to have found their level. Melody Anderson actually makes a good Dale Arden. It is, in fact, hard to fault Flash Gordon as a piece of cheesy sf camp, but it’s a mistake to consider it anything more than that (and unlike some people, I ask more of my movies and books than they be mere entertainment).

planete_sauavageLa planète sauvage, René Laloux (1973). No film list put together by myself would be complete without at least one non-Hollywood film. While this is not usually difficult to achieve, for “fantasies in space” it’s proven something of a hurdle. I mean, only the US makes cheesy space operas. But I believe La planète sauvage qualifies because, while it initially describes an alien world in which primitive humans exist only in the wild, it soon turns weird and philosophical and all sort of wishy-washy and bonkers. The animation and production design throughout is distinctive and strange – it’s by Roland Topor – but it suits the story. Laloux’s later animated films were a bit Métal Hurlant, but La planète sauvage displays a unique vision. Definitely worth getting hold of a copy.

duneDune, David Lynch (1985). Heresy! Dune as a “fantasy in space”? I mean, I’ve always considered Dune science fiction, in space or otherwise, and I see no good reason to change that since it meets my definition of the genre. But since I also consider Star Wars science fiction, I feel this makes Dune allowable under Shaun’s somewhat baggy definition. And yes, Dune is a good film, and only fails at being a great film because the director couldn’t match his vision. But there are clues there if you watch the “television version” (which includes around an additional 45 minutes). It’s not so much the additional story that’s on the screen, and it’s certainly not the horrible prologue with its awful artwork. But the extended scenes set in the Imperial Court display an overly mannered presentation that works at the lengths shown in the television version much better than it does in the theatrical release. Plus, of course, the production design is superb. In fact, I’ll even forgive Lynch the “weirding module” and the rain at the end because everything looks so much like Dune should look. I currently own five DVD editions of Dune, so it’s probably about time I got it on Blu-ray. But which is the best Blu-ray version…?

battleBattle Beyond the Stars, Jimmy T Murakami (1980). Space operas – sorry, “fantasies in space” – don’t come cheesier than this rip-off of Star Wars. But it does possess a certain charm all its own, whether it’s because its plot is a beat-by-beat copy of The Magnificent Seven, or that the hero’s spaceship looks like a pair of breasts, or Sybil Danning’s double entendres, or the fact George Peppard was clearly pissed throughout the film, or that the entire thing looks like a series of episodes from a bad sf television series. But as low budget space operas go, it’s an enjoyable example. And Richard Thomas actually displays some impressive acting chops. The fact the script is by John Sayles also helps.

There are a number of other films I could have chosen, but it would have been stretching a point beyond breaking to describe them as “good” – such as… The Humanoid, Aldo Lado (1979), in which Richard Kiel plays the title role in an Italian Star Wars rip-off with production design that’s a weird mashup of 1970s near-future science fiction, Star Wars and Flash Gordon… Or Starcrash, Luigi Cozzi (1978), which manages to make zero sense but does include the immortal line, “Imperial battleship, halt the flow of time!”… Or Barbarella, Roger Vadim (1968), which has not aged well despite being based on a French bande dessinée… Or even Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe)… Or spaghetti sci-fi Star Pilot, Pietro Francisci (1966), which apparently inspired some elements of Star Trek…

ETA: After much thought, I’ve decided on Shaun’s challenge. Five non-English language films featuring space travel, not including Solaris. Oh, and no more than two of them from Japan.


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Moving pictures, #13

I was looking at my film-watching records – yes, I have a spreadsheet of which films I’ve watched, and when – and I noticed in 2013 I watched on average around 16 DVDs a month. Last year, that almost doubled to 30 DVDs a month. This year, I expect it will be much higher. I have yet to figure out why…

darlingDarling, John Schlesinger (1965, UK). Julie Christie plays a model in Swinging Sixties London, with a nice but dim husband at home, who has various affairs before eventually marrying an Italian count who proves mostly uninterested in her once they’ve tied the knot. The parallels with Grace Kelly’s life are left there for the the viewer to spot. Dirk Bogarde plays Christie’s manager, and he also has an affair with her. Mostly, however, the film is an acid commentary on the more affluent sectors of London society – an expensive dinner to raise money for famine victims, for example; and, oh look, things like that still happen, it’s as if the notion is irony-free, although of course Darling deliberately plays on it. The film starts a little slow, but Christie is good in her role, and things start to pick up as the career of Christie’s character does. A hippie party in Paris is quite amusing, if a little broad in its humour. I stuck the film on my rental list on a whim, and it proved to be a good call.

demoisellesLes Demoiselles de Rochefort*, Jacques Demy (1967, France). Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a much better-known, and better-regarded, film than this but, to be honest, I enjoyed this one much more. The title to refers to a pair of sisters, played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, who are looking for love in the eponymous town. A fair comes to Rochefort, one of the exhibitors at which is led by George Chakiris and Grover Dale. When their female stars abscond, they recruit Deneuve and Dorléac. Meanwhile, the sisters’ mother runs a café in the town square and pines for a lost love… who has actually returned to the town after many years and is helping Dorléac with her music (and also promises to introduce her to a famous friend of his, played by Gene Kelly). And then there’s the sailor who’s about to be demobbed, who’s friends with the sisters and their mother. Unlike The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, the dialogue is not entirely sung – which may be one reason I much preferred this film – but they do break into song pretty much every five minutes. And then there are the big dance numbers. It’s a musical, but it doesn’t really feel like one. Which may be one reason for its charm. After watching this film, yes, I’d like to see more Demy. Again.

deepseaJames Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew Wight (2014, USA). I had to order this from the US as it’s yet to be released in the UK. And on Blu-ray too – in fact, wanting this documentary is one of the reasons I purchased a multi-region Blu-ray player. Anyway, I’ve been fascinated with the bathyscaphe Trieste’s 1960 descent to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the oceans, for several years. I wrote a story set in Challenger Deep, and it was published in Where Are We Going?, an anthology from Eibonvale Press; and I used the Trieste in the third book of my Apollo Quartet, Then Will The Great Wash Deep Above. No one else had visited Challenger Deep – 7.5 miles down, where the pressure is 7 tons per square inch – since 1960s… until 2012, when film director James Cameron did it in the specially-built submersible Deepsea Challenger. This is the film of that expedition. It also includes a re-enactment of the Trieste dive. It’s a polished, well-presented documentary, and I found it fascinating. There is, it must be said, very little to be seen on the ocean floor at Challenger Deep, but Cameron and his directors make a very watchable film out of it. If there’s one downside it’s that we’ll have to put up with an Avatar 2 so that Cameron has the money to make another documentary like this…

sokurovSave and Protect, Aleksander Sokurov (1989, Russia). This was a rewatch as I first watched Save and Protect shortly after getting The Alexander Sokurov Collection box set for Christmas. I remember it being very slow and somwhat impenetrable. I have now watched it again. More than once. It’s loosely based on the life of Madame Bovary (and no, I didn’t discover the following morning I’d gone and ordered a copy of the book), but only in as much as it presents the sexual freedom of the title character as the foremost aspect of her character. What makes Save and Protect interesting, however, is Sokurov’s deliberate flouting of the fact it’s a period drama. Some of the cast wear more modern clothing, a car even makes an appearance later. This breaking from the carefully-constructed historical world in which the story is set is neither intrusive, nor does it necessarily break the suspension of disbelief the medium relies upon. In fact, it’s very similar in effect to Haneke’s breaking of the fourth wall in Funny Games. The lead role in Save and Protect – ie, Emma, although never named as such – is played by French ethno-linguist Cécile Zervoudacki, who brings a remarkable earthiness to the part (Sokurov likes using non-professional actors, mostly to good effect). According to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, “Save and Protect has never been intended as an enjoyable cinematic experience, except perhaps in the frame of masochistic self-infliction” (p 85), which I think is a bit harsh. The book does describe the film is a work of art, and perhaps it is in some respects Sokurov’s least successful movie; but to me this is only further evidence that what Sokurov is doing in cinema is both fascinating and hugely important.

spivetThe Young and Prodigious TS Spivet, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2013, France/Canada). Delicatessen remains one of my favourite films, and I’ve always rued Caro and Jeunet going their separate ways since neither has produced anything individually as good as the work they did together. Jeunet has been the more successful, of course, with a string of well-received movies, such as Amelie, A Very Long Engagement , Micmacs, and now The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet. Which is plainly a Jeunet film through and through. The title character is a young boy who’s a genius and an inventor. He lives on a farm in Montana, with an entomologist mother (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) and a taciturn cowboy father (a badly miscast Callum Keith Rennie). Young TS Spivet wins the Baird Prize, awarded by the Smithsonian Institute, for his design for a perpetual motion machine, but he had neglected to tell them his age. Nonetheless, he decides to attend the prize-giving ceremony in Washington. So he runs away from home and travels across the US and… Jeunet does whimsy with a master’s eye. But I do find it somewhat thin an ingredient on which to hang an entire movie. There’s only so much CGI-enhanced scenery you can take in, so much borderline slapstick, so many characters bent out of shape until they’re grotesques… Not a bad film for a Saturday night and a bottle of wine, but I’m glad it was a rental and not a purchase.

thiefofbagdadThe Thief of Bagdad*, Raoul Walsh (1924, USA). Douglas Fairbanks plays the title role in this Arabian Nights-style silent movie. By my calculation, he was forty when the movie was made, but he plays the title role like a teenager, with lots of gurning at the camera, throwing his arms wide, and standing with his hands on his hips, his waxed chest pushed out. It’s almost a parody of silent movie acting. And somewhat off-putting. Otherwise, the film is a classic of its time, with some clever special effects and a story which, although somewhat long, manages an enviable pace. The production design, however, is… odd. While the sets did sort of resemble an Arabic city of the Caliphate era, the various pieces of writing on the sets were gibberish, not Arabic letters at all. It seemed to me like a weird mistake to make – to go all that trouble to create a believable Arabian Nights setting, and then not bother using an actual real alphabet. Ah well.

jeuneJeune & Jolie, François Ozon (2013, France). I’m a fan of Ozon’s films, although I do find him a bit hit and miss. I loved Angel, I thought Under The Sand very good indeed, and his film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unfilmed script, Water Drops On Burning Rocks, was close to inspired. There are a few duff movies in his oeuvre, but it’s a generally excellent body of work; and he’s certainly a director whose career I follow. So I had reasonably high expectations of Jeune & Jolie, but… what a cold film. A teenage girl conspires to lose her virginity while on a family holiday, and on their return to Paris becomes an call girl, having sex with older men for money. Marine Vacth (who was twenty-two at the time of filming) plays the lead character with a quite disturbing lack of affect. When one of her clients dies in flagrante delicto, she briefly panics, tries to give him CPR, then runs away. But the police track her down – which is how her parents come to learn of her activities. Despite all this, she seems mostly unconcerned at what happened, or indeed at being caught. Not a pleasant film, though clearly it wasn’t intended to be. In some respect, it felt a bit like something from Haneke, but missing his signature oblique eye.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 591


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Moving pictures, #12

Time to catch up on films again…

carnalCarnal Knowledge, Mike Nichols (1971, USA). According to imdb.com, this is a sexual satire but I couldn’t see much that was satirical in a film that unironically treats women like objects. At one point, Jack Nicholson even gives a slide show of his girlfriends, giving a running commentary on each woman’s appearance and sexual prowess. You see Nicholson and Art Garfunkel were at college together, and they both fell in love with Candice Bergen, but Nicholson ended up marrying Ann-Margret… and years later both men treat the women in their lives like shit, and I seriously have to wonder why this is classified as entertainment. There are a lot of classic films that have never been released on DVD, there are a lot of foreign films that have never been released in English-language editions on DVD… So you have to wonder why they bothered to waste non-biodegradable plastic on crap like Carnal Knowledge.

sokurov_earlyWhispering Pages, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994, Russia). And speaking of foreign languages films not release in– ah wait, I’ve said this before about Sokurov. Whispering Pages is only available as part of a US-only release, Early Masterworks, on Blu-ray and DVD. The films opens with a distorted image of a riverside block of flats in St Petersburg, before eventually focusing on a series of pillars which distortion have rendered almost two-dimensional, and then a man sitting on some steps at the side of the river. He wanders through a series of buildings, a sort of enclosed city, on some sort of quest. I’ve watched the film three times now I’m no clearer as to what’s going on. I’m guessing it’s Limbo or Purgatory, existence as a struggle with some lesson to be learnt, but Sokurov is so allusive and the references so opaque – according to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, the film borrows from both Dostoevsky and Gogol, the works of neither of whom I’m familiar with (although I should be grateful for small mercies in that I didn’t wake up the morning after watching the film and learn I’d ordered their books from Amazon…). But all this, of course, is part of the appeal. The film defies easy understanding, and the beauty and strangeness of the cinematography – it’s weird shifts from sepia-tinted to washed out blues and greys to black and white – sucks you into a world in which there is clearly a pattern but it requires work to discern. I will be watching this again; eventually, I will figure out what it’s about.

guysanddollsGuys and Dolls*, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1955, USA). If I added up all my pet hates, I’d have a respectable zoo. Well, a small petting one. Probably full of hamsters. And maybe a goat or two. But one of my pet hates is surely that stupid formalised language like that what is used by the writer Damon Runyan in the speech of his gangster characters in the stories that he wrote. Which is what’s used in Guys and Dolls – likely because the stage show, and so the film, were both based on a pair of stories by Runyan. As it is, Sinatra seems peculiarly charisma-free, Marlon Brando is actually less annoying than usual (although not at first), and Jean Simmons provides a surprisingly common-sensical romantic lead. I didn’t think the songs especially memorable, although one or two of the set-pieces were amusingly done. I am not, it has to be admitted, a fan of musical films, and though I have watched many of them – for reasons I have yet to figure out – I thought this one middling at best.

sonataviolaSonata For Viola, Aleksandr Sokurov (1981, Russia). And here’s another film that features music, that is actually about music – or rather, a composer. I know very little about classical music, it just isn’t my thing; so the appeal here is likely to be limited. And so it proves. Sokurov puts together a documentary on Dmitri Shostakovich based on archive footage. It’s an early work, so the voice-over tends to be more factual and less philosophical than later documentaries; and while it does a good job of laying out Shostakovich’s life, and setting it in context, it’s not likely to attract viewers unless they’re interested in the topic or the director. One for the collection, without a doubt. But no, not a favourite in Sokurov’s oeuvre.

pickpocketPickpocket*, Robert Bresson (1959, France). Bresson is a highly regarded director, and several of his films appear on various lists of great or top 100 or films to see before you die lists. Which is why I’ve seen several… despite not actually taking to any of them. Such as Pickpocket. Non-professional actor Martin LaSalle plays a young man who drifts into thievery, initially for kicks but later as a means to make a living. He meets various other pickpockets and thieves, learns the tricks of the trade, has metaphysical discussions with assorted people, finds himself in a battle of wits with a police inspector… but it’s all played so flat, so affect-less, that’s it’s hard to give much of a shit. LaSalle is a cipher, the remainder of the cast are mouth-pieces, and the story’s only saving grace is its irony. But for irony to really bite, you have to care about its victims. And Bresson does a piss-poor job of making LaSalle, or indeed anyone in the film, sympathetic. He can do it for a donkey, but apparently not for a criminal. Disappointing.

shock_aweNymphomaniac, Volume I and II, Lars von Trier (2013, Denmark). I remember seeing posters for this all over Copenhagen when I was there for Christmas in 2013. And since catching a film at the cinema is an sort on-and-off family tradition over the holiday, I did briefly consider this as a possible contender… But it’s 241 minutes long in total, and I suspected it wasn’t really suitable family viewing… Both facts I can now confirm, having watched it on Blu-ray – although I saw the version bundled in the Shock & Awe von Trier box set, which is not the 325 minute director’s cut. So beware. Stellan Skarsgård finds a badly-beaten Charlotte Gainsbourg one night, takes her home and sees to her injuries. Once recovered, she explains she is a nymphomaniac and tells him her life-story – which is shown in flashback, with Stacy Martin playing the young Gainsbourg. It begins with teenage sexual games, moves onto unhealthy relationships, and finally a marriage which slowly disintegrates, in part because Martin is now visiting sadist Jamie Bell on a regular basis. Skarsgård tries to explain Gainsbourg’s stories by relating them to fly-fishing, as he later admits to having never experienced sex himself. Both parts of Nymphomaniac are pretty much typical von Trier, that unhappy mix of beautiful cinematography, keen observation of the banal, and an almost schoolboyish desire to shock. He also does that thing where a line of genuine insight is often followed by a banal cliché – because he’s at his best when he’s observing and at his worst when he fails to resist the temptation to let his story jump the rails. I still think von Trier is an important director, and the Shock & Awe box set was certainly worth purchasing… but of the von Trier films I’ve seen so far I think Antichrist is the best in this collection – it’s the most emblematic of his later work, not to mention the least misogynistic. It often feels as though von Trier considers himself the enfant terrible of cinema – and tries just a little bit too hard to live up to the label.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 589

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