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Moving pictures, #2

A choice selection of yet more films watched so far this year – since my last moving pictures post, of course. I’m keeping the descriptions short, or I’d never get this post done…

Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer (UK/USA, 2014)
My first trip to the cinema this year. I remember not liking the book when I read it a decade ago, but I did like this film. The guerilla filming in Glasgow was especially effective, and Scarlett Johansson was excellent in the lead role. Very unsettling – and a lot of it is left up to the viewer to interpret. It probably requires a bit too much work on the part of the viewer to be commercially successful.

Kin-Dza-Dza, Georgiy Daneliya (USSR, 1986)
I found this for sale on a US site that specialises in Russian DVDs (see here), and it was in an edition which included English subtitles. I’d heard much about the film and always wanted to see it, so I bought a copy. It is… bonkers. But also really good. A Russian construction foreman and an Armenian music student are accidentally transported to a planet in the Kin-dza-dza galaxy, and must figure out how to get home.

Eolomea, Herrmann Tschoche (East Germany, 1972)
This was actually a rewatch – it’s one of the films in The Defa Sci-Fi Collection box set I bought a couple of years ago. A number of ships have disappeared on supply missions to space stations. Professor Maria Scholl becomes suspicious – and more so when one of the space stations falls silent. Meanwhile, rumours that a way has been found to reach fabled exoplanet Eolomea have begun to surface. I love the look and feel of this film, with its 1970s future; but it’s also something Hollywood does badly: an intelligent sf film.

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My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Werner Herzog (USA/Germany, 2009)
Sideways look at a police seige of a house where a killer has holed up with hostages. The cops had arrived at the scene to find a murdered woman… and her son then walks across the road and takes the neighbours hostage. Flashbacks show what led to the murder – and it’s the usual off-kilter Herzog stuff. This film was produced by David Lynch, and it does feel very Lynchian, with that sort of fevered supra-reality he used in several of his movies.

Byzantium, Neil Jordan (UK/Ireland, 2012)
Vampires on the run. Gemma Arterton is a young woman in early nineteenth-century England, forced into prostitution by Navy officer Jonny Lee Miller. Years later, dying of TB, she steals Miller’s map to an island that gives a person immortality – by making them a vampire. The all-male vampires aren’t happy but let her go. But when Miller gets his revenge by raping Arterton’s daughter, Aterton takes her to the island… This is all flashbacks as the film’s set in the present day, with Arterton and daughter Saoirse Ronan shacking up in Daniel Mays’ delapidated Byzantium Hotel… and opening a brothel. A polished film, but throughout it felt like one that needn’t have been made.

On the Threshold of Space, Robert D Webb (USA, 1956)
A dramatization of the work of Captain Joseph W Kittinger II, with his parachute jumps from stratospheric balloons as part of Project Manhigh. It’s played completely straight – these were important tests, and though highly dangerous they had to be done. In that respect, it’s not unlike William Holden’s Toward the Unknown (see here). I find all this sort of stuff completely fascinating, and if the film doesn’t actually have much of a story it doesn’t matter to me. Besides, I could watch Virginia Leith in anything.

Riders to the Stars, Richard Carlson (USA, 1954)
One of a trilogy of films about the Office of Scientific Investigation, which tries for scientific accuracy but falls flat on its face. OSI satellites have been blowing up once in orbit and they suspect this is due to cosmic rays. (See what I mean.) So they decide to send up a man in a rocket designed to capture a meteoroid… because meteoroids don’t blow up in space. (Um…). The OSI invites a dozen men to their headquarters, not telling them for what, tests them, and selects three – one of whom happens to be the son of the chief scientist. They build their rockets, launch them, two of them blow up, but the third – the scientist’s son, natch – captures a meteoroid… and they discover that the rock’s secret is its carbon shield! (Sigh.)

Test Pilot Pirx, Marek Piestrak (USSR/Poland, 1978)
An adaptation of a story by Stanisław Lem. Pirx has to evaluate a new type of android and is ordered to fly a mission to Saturn. One of his crew will be an android, but he isn’t told which one. It all looks a bit like a 1970s near-future thriller… and then they climb into a spacecraft and fly across the Solar System. The bit where they fly through a gap in Saturn’s rings, and it looks like an ice chasm, is silly; but the rest of it is good.

Something in the Air, Olivier Assayas (France, 2012)
Intense drama set in and around the student riots of 1968. I’ve liked a number of Assayas’ films but this was surprisingly dull.

It’s a Gift, Norman Z McLeod (USA, 1934)
WC Fields, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen one of his films before. This is the one where a relative leaves him some money and he uses it to buy property in California. I was surprised at how nasty his character was, although the slapstick bits were funny – well, as Confucius said, the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof…

To the Stars by Hard Ways (Через тернии к звёздам), Richard Viktorov (USSR, 1981)
The final purchase from that Russian DVD site. I’d seen a version of this previously, a badly-butchered English-dubbed version titled Humanoid Woman. It had never made sense. Now I’ve seen the full three-hour original, I finally understand the story. But it’s still bonkers. In the first half, a strange woman is discovered in a wrecked spaceship and goes to live with a scientist’s family. The second half covers a rescue mission to her planet to save it after rampant capitalism has brought about ecological disaster. Also features the WORST ROBOT EVAH.

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Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie, Martyn Pick (UK, 2010)
I’m not a fan of the game so I’ve no idea what possessed me to stick this on my rental list, but I did and… All-CGI with some well-known names providing the voices, and a plot stolen from every modern war film ever. The characters don’t look quite right – their shoulders are in the wrong place – and they move weirdly, and the whole thing is extremely dull and badly-paced. Avoid. Even if you’re a Warhammer 40k fan.

Between Your Legs, Manuel Gómez Pereira (Spain, 1999)
A twisty-turny thriller that aims for Hitchcock but misses and hits De Palma. Javier Bardem is a sex addict who takes up with fellow sex addict Victoria Abril, only to discover that someone has been selling tapes of private phone sex he’d been having with another woman. Abril’s husband, meanwhile, is a detective investigating the murder of a young man, and the evidence is starting to point to Bardem… You know when you get to the twist in a De Palma film and you realise it’s been done before? That. Not bad, though.

Anna Karenina, Joe Wright (UK, 2012)
This adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel is notable because it’s filmed as though it were set inside a theatre, with overt theatre sets becoming the mise en scène of shots. A nice idea in theory but it turns the film into a Sixth Form play. Also, Keira Knightley in the title role. I find her really hard to watch.

La Boulangère de Monceau, Eric Rohmer (France, 1963)
The first of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, filmed in black and white on 16mm. A young man falls in love with a woman he passes on the street every day, but when she no longer begins appearing, he hunts for her in the surrounding streets… and stumbles across a bakery where he starts buying something to eat every day. Then he and the girl in the bakery start flirting with each other, and he decides he’ll go out with her since he’s lost the other one… only for her to re-appear. It’s supposed to be a moral dilemma – which girl does he choose? – but it only works because the young man is shallow and self-centred, and the women only exist in relation to him. Later films in the series were much better.

La Carrière de Suzanne, Eric Rohmer (France, 1963)
A group of shallow twentysomethings live it up in Paris, and Suzanne is dragged into their circle. Guillaume ruthlessly exploits her, getting her to pay for things, dropping her and only returning to her when his present relationship ends… But she seems more than willing to put up it, and even gives up her job, the better to be at the group’s beck and call. The film aims for deep truth, but uses shallow characters to explore it. Not entirely sure it’s a workable technique.


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Readings & Watchings 5

Time to look in the bucket once again after another shift at the coalface of culture. You know how this works…

Books
The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie (2006), was March’s book for my 2010 Reading Challenge. I reviewed it here.

A White Bird of Kinship trilogy, Richard Cowper, which comprises The Road to Corlay (1978), A Dream of Kinship (1981) and A Tapestry of Time (1982). These are set at the turn of the fourth millennium, a thousand years after global warming resulted in great floods, and the UK is an archipelago of seven kingdoms. Technology has fallen back to roughly mediaeval level, and a militant church runs much of the UK. Peter, a travelling story-teller, takes Tom, a young piper, to York to enroll him in the Minster school, but Tom is not all he seems. If he’s not the prophesied White Bird, then he is its prophet… Some years later, Tom’s death has resulted in a new religion, Kinship. A man is found floating in the sea off the island of Quantock (what were the Quantock Hills near Taunton), and put in the care of Jane, a potter’s daughter, who is huesh (she can see the future). Meanwhile, one thousand years earlier, Dr Mike Carver is in a coma following an experiment. Somehow he’s trapped in the mind of Thomas of Norwich, the man being cared for by Jane. The Road to Corlay, as the title suggests, covers the origin of the Kinship religion. By the second book, A Dream of Kinship, it’s reasonably well-established, albeit still a minority religion and considered heretical by Christianity. It’s also morphing into Christianity – accreting the creed and ceremony of the church it’s replacing. The story is told through Tom, son of Jane and Thomas of Norwich, as he grows up and studies at the religion’s centre, Corlay on the Isle of Brittany. The Christian Church plans to safeguard its stranglehold on the Seven Kingdoms by seizing control, but Tom manages to prevent this happening in the First Kingdom. In the final book, A Tapestry of Time, the parallels between Kinship’s history and Christianity’s history have become more marked. Tom travels about Europe with his girlfriend Witchet as an itinerant musician. There’s nasty incident in the French Alps, and Tom gives up on Kinship. But events lead him back to it – but in opposition to Brother Francis, who is Kinship’s St Paul. The final section of the book is set 800 years later, as two Oxford dons in a faux-Victorian/Edwardian English society, are “helped” to uncover the original Kinship, and not the church that has grown up around it. Again, Cowper’s clearly riffing off Pauline Christianity. They’re good books these three – well-written and interesting science fiction. Perhaps it’s a little implausible that British society would culturally repeat itself after the Drowning when the icecaps melted – mediaeval in 3000 AD, Victorian 800 years later. But that’s a minor quibble – Cowper makes it work.

The Lemur, Benjamin Black (2008). Black is better known as John Banville. This is the pseudonym he uses when he’s writing thrillers. Although, to be honest, The Lemur was not exactly a thrilling read. John Glass is an ex-reporter who married into a rich family. His father-in-law asks him to write a biography, so he hires a researcher, who Glass dubs “The Lemur” as he thinks he resembles one. A couple of days later, the researcher tries to blackmail Glass, and is subsequently murdered. Glass is worried that the murderer was his father-in-law, an ex-CIA telecoms billionaire, whose riches he resents (even while being kept by them). The Lemur isn’t a murder-mystery, it’s more of a character portrait of Glass. A quick read, but not a bad one.

The Magus, John Fowles (1977), I wasn’t expecting to finish so quickly – it’s a fat book: 656 pages in my Vintage paperback edition. But Fowles is an amazingly readable writer, which is one reason why I like his fiction so much. In The Magus, Nicholas Urfe accepts a position as teacher at a boarding school on the invented Greek island of Phraxos. There, he meets Maurice Conchis, a millionaire who owns a villa on the island. Conchis involves Urfe in a series of psychological games – few of which appear to make much sense. And that’s part of the appeal of The Magus: the promise that Conchis’s “experiments” on Urfe, the situations he devises, will be explained. And yet what little explanation does eventually come – when the motive is finally revealed – it stretches credulity. Urfe is also an unsympathetic narrator: he’s crass and arrogant. Conchis is little better, full of aphorisms that don’t submit to scrutiny. If Fowles’ Mantissa was a dirty old man’s book, then The Magus is definitely a young man’s book. Fowles himself describes it in the introduction to this 1977 revised edition as a “novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent”. Which is a bit harsh. It’s not as amazing a novel as The French Lieutenant’s Woman, or as good as A Maggot, and it’s probably a book best read when young; but neither is it not a very good book.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence (1928), surprised me. Obviously, I’m aware of Lawrence’s reputation but, given that my read of another highly-regarded author from the 1920s hadn’t been entirely successful (see here), I’d expected Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be a bit of a slog. Early indications were not good. The narrative opened very much as a story told to the reader, with no effort made to disguise its nature as a work of fiction – no attempt at immersion, in other words. The dialogue didn’t help either – too! many! exclamation marks! But then – and weirdly this echoed an identical moment in Pascale Ferran’s film adaptation of the book (see here) – the story seemed to settle down, and Lawrence pulled out some lovely writing about the countryside around Wragby, the Chatterley ancestral home in Derbyshire. Then the characters of Constance and Mellors began to gain depth, proving far more complex and rounded than I’d expected from the film adaptations I’d seen. In fact, they were very much unlike their cinematic counterparts. I was also amused to see my birth town of Mansfield described as “that once-romantic, now utterly disheartening colliery town” since I can’t imagine it ever having been romantic. I was going to put this book up on readitswapit.co.uk once I’d read it, but I’m going to hang on to it instead. It’s definitely worth a reread. And I think I’ll read me some more Lawrence as well at some point.

Majestrum, Matthew Hughes (2006), is another Vanceian tale from an author who has built a career out of writing Vanceian tales. This is no bad thing. Jack Vance is a singular talent, but Hughes has come the closest of anyone to emulating him – and, on occasion, even doing better perhaps. I’ve enjoyed other Hughes novels – I reviewed one, Template, for Interzone – but I wasn’t as keen on Majestrum. Like those others of his I’ve read, it’s set in Hughes’ Archonate universe, but it focuses on Henghis Hapthorn, a “discriminator” (sort of a private investigator). He’s recruited by Lord Arfe to uncover the background of the man wooing the aristocrat’s daughter. This then proves linked to a conspiracy directed at the Archon. And it’s all to do with a past age of magic trying to subvert the current age of reason. There are some really nice touches in Majestrum, and Hughes’s prose is very much like Vance’s… but I was put off a little by the mix of sf and magic.

Films
For All Mankind, dir. Al Reinert (1989). I should really do a proper review of this for my Space Books blog (and the same for In The Shadow Of The Moon too, which I also own). In fact, I think I will. So keep an eye open there for it.

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, dir. David Fincher (2008), was one of those films remarked on more on for a technical achievement than for anything else. Mind you, it was enough to see it nominated at the 2009 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, Best Costume, Best Film Editing and Best Visual Effects. It won Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects. Because, well, that’s all that’s really remarkable about The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. In it, Brad Pitt plays the title character, who ages backwards. He’s born an old man (but baby-sized), and grows younger as he, er, ages. It’s based on a story by F Scott Fitzgerald. It’s also a “homily film”, sort of like Forrest Gump – you know, a life story in which someone learns a series of life lessons of the type which are found in fortune cookies or self-help books with asinine titles. The film looked really good, and the getting-younger-while-getting-older effect was cleverly done. Which is no doubt why it took the Oscars it did.

Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, and The Chamber Of Secrets, and The Prisoner Of Azkaban, and The Goblet Of Fire, dir. various hands (2001 – 2005). I read the first book many years ago and thought it remarkably ordinary. But I’d never seen the films. Despite the fact they’ve been on telly zillions of times. So I bagged cheap copies off eBay, and sat and watched them and… they’re not very good, are they? In those first two, the acting is definitely poor. The game of Quidditch makes no sense; nor does it feel like the sort of game that would be played at a public school. Things gets introduced into the world, with no back-story, just when they appear in the plot, which itself is nothing wildly original. Yes, the third film, Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban, is better than the preceding two, but that’s no great achievement. The fourth film isn’t bad either, and is probably the best-plotted of the four. Mind you, its plot is a straightforward quest: win the competition! Anyway, I’ve seen them now. And the DVDs will be going back onto eBay.

Summer Hours, dir. Oliver Assayas (2008), is the fifth film by Assayas I’ve seen and, I think, the best one so far. It’s a French family drama. Two brothers and a sister – one brother lives in Paris, the other in Shanghai, and the sister in New York – meet up each summer. But then their mother dies, and circumstances preclude any future annual get-togethers, so they must pack up their mother’s house and the childhood memories they have of the place. A well-acted, well-scripted ensemble piece. Recommended.

Alien Hunter, dir. Ron Krauss (2003). James spader must be a science fiction fan. How else to explain all the crap sf films he appears in? He can’t be that desperate for work. In this one, an alien object is found under the ice in Antarctica, and taken to a corporate research facility on the continent. Spader, a cryptologist who used to work for SETI, is sent to investigate. But there’s an alien creature inside the object, and it breaks out and infects everyone with an alien virus which causes death in a matter of seconds. They should have titled the film Alien Rip-Off as there’s nothing original about the story. Best avoided.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, dir. Gavin Hood (2009). So, after watching the three X-Men films, you thought you knew how Wolverine became like he is? Wrong. The title sequence to X-Men Origins: Wolverine is pretty good, showing Wolverine and his brother, Sabretooth, fighting in various wars. After an incident during the Vietnam War, the two are recruited by Colonel Stryker for his mutant task force, Team X. But Wolverine falls out with Stryker, and walks away. Some time later, his brother tracks him down, and kills his fiancée. Wolverine subsequently submits to have his skeleton coated with adamantium by Stryker, as only then will he be strong enough to kill Sabretooth. But it was all a cunning plot by Stryker in the first place… I thought the film was supposed to take place during the late 1960s / early 1970s, but you’d never have known from the production design. The film’s all a bit meh, possibly because Wolverine just isn’t an interesting enough character to carry a film on his own, and the supporting cast are pretty dull.

Top Hat, dir. Mark Sandrich (1936), is another one from one of those Top 100 Films lists – although I forget which list. Fred Astaire really was an odd-looking bloke. His head is a peculiar shape. And he had a horribly insipid singing voice. But, as was famously said, he “can dance a little”. This is arguably his best film which, to be honest, doesn’t say a great deal for his other films (and he made thirty-one). In Top Hat, Fred fancies Ginger, a friend of the wife of his producer. So he stalks her. Then she gets confused and thinks that Fred is his producer – i.e., married to her friend. The wife is not surprised that her husband is pursuing Ginger, and so the two plot to teach him a lesson. Except, of course, it’s not the producer, but Fred. The situation is well-handled and amusing, but the clomping wit leaves something to be desired. The musical numbers are everything you’d expect. Entertaining, but definitely rough around the edges.

Maroc 7, dir. Gerry O’Hara (1967), I watched for a review for VideoVista.

The Magus, dir. Guy Green (1968), I watched again after finishing the book (see above). Michael Caine has described the film as the worst he ever worked on because no one knew what it was about. Fowles wrote the screenplay himself, and he made changes to the story. Changing Alison, an Australian, into Anne, who is French, was, I imagine, necessary after Anna Karina was cast in the part. Other alterations were more substantial. The twins June and Judy (AKA Rose and Lily) have become a single person (played by Candice Bergen). Many of the games Conchis plays on Urfe have been cut – there simply wasn’t room for them, I assume – although the main ones are there. But the entire final section of the book, in which Urfe returns to the UK and tries to discover Conchis’ true identity has been completely cut. Having read the book, the film is an unsatisfactory adaptation, but it’s hard to imagine how Fowles could have adapted it anyway. Fowles appears in the film, incidentally – during the opening credits, he’s the deckhand who says, “Phraxos” to Michael Caine.

Ma Mère, dir. Christophe Honoré (2004), is another Isabelle Huppert film and is based on a 1966 novel by Georges Bataille of the same title. A young man, fresh out of Catholic school, visits his parents on Gran Canaria. His father, who he hates, dies in an accident shortly afterwards, and the young man is introduced to a life of sex and depravity – the Canary Islands night-life, in other words – by his mother. I really didn’t like this film. Thoroughly unlikeable characters doing unlikeable things, with a narcissistic self-regard which in no way makes their antics entertaining. It might make for a good novel, but it doesn’t make for a good film. Mind you, I wouldn’t have thought anyone could make an entertaining film out of Houellebecq’s Atomised, but Oskar Roehler did (see here).

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