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Moving pictures 2018, #47

It would appear I’m still watching Marx Brothers films, although my defence is the one below was already on my rental list and I’ve, er, not bothered to purge the list of their films. And I might as well watch the most famous ones, after all. Other than that, this post is fifty percent a UK-fest. I found a whole bunch of old British films on Amazon Prime – totally by accident, of course, because hey Amazon! Your search facility sucks donkey balls totally!

Otherwise, the usual mixed bag. Oh, and a really good Swedish film.

A Night at the Opera, Sam Wood (1935, USA). Is this film famous on its own merits or because Queen used its title for the title of one of its best-selling albums? Is there any way to find out? Hollywood has a habit of over-stating its influence, so watch an old documentary that claims the Marx Brothers were massively influential and it’s more likely to be Hollywood bullshit than anything else. All part of the marketing machine. Because, in most respects, A Night at the Opera is not much different to earlier Marx Brothers films. The brothers play similar roles, this time centred around an opera company, which Groucho is hoping to use as a vehicle to defraud the fifth Marx Brother, Margaret Dumont, out of her fortune (seriously, she’s the best thing in these films). However, the final act, in which Harpo is chased around the theatre, and uses various tricks to escape capture is among the best physical comedy the Marx Brothers have put on film (that I’ve seen). I think you have to be a fan to truly appreciate these films, but I can understand why this one is held in higher regard than most of the others.

Five Dolls for an August Moon, Mario Bava (1970, Italy). So there was a sale on the Arrow website and a whole bunch of Blu-rays were going for £7 a pop, and this one was one of them… And while I do like me some giallo, I’m a bit picky about the ones I  like and Mario Bava is hardly top of my list of giallo directors to watch even though I’ve seen several of his films… But you know how it is, finger slipped and all that, and I ended up with a copy of Five Dolls for a August Moon, which title conjures up much that sounds giallo but is not all that actually descriptive of the movie’s plot. However, it does have a great jazz rock score. Giallo films are generally quite good on soundtracks, but this is a superior example. Which, sadly, cannot be said of its plot. Five rich men meet on an island, with wives and partners, ostensibly to buy a formula from one of them, but he refuses to sell. Then people are murdered one by one. So it goes. Each of them tries to figure out who the killer is, but none of the clues add up. It’s all very 1970s, with the women in floaty pantsuits, the men in flares, suede and sideburns. Meh.

Mute, Duncan Jones (2018, UK). Gosh, this was bad. A Poundland Blade Runner married to a plot straight from some horribly regressive 1970s action movie. Women are routinely brutalised, one character is a paedophile and it’s only offensive when the plot requires it to be, and another character is taunted with being gay. Hey, Jones, it’s 2018, shit like that doesn’t fly anymore. What makes it worse is that Mute is, by all accounts, a personal project, one that Jones spent years trying to get funded. And that’s fair enough, there are many projects that take decades to get funded. But they should be revisited when the finance is in place to make sure they’re appropriate for their year of release. It would seem Mute was not. The title refers to a man who was injured as a kid and so can no longer speak. He works in a nightclub, and is very protective of one of the hostesses (I didn’t think they were in a relationship at first). Which gets him into a fight with a customer who gets a bit too friendly with her. So she’s fired. Then she disappears. He goes looking for her. There are also a pair of underground surgeons and some gangsters and a brothel and… Sigh. It’s all like something from the 1970s, and setting it in a Berlin of the near-future only underscores how anachronistic it all is. Avoid.

Passport to Pimlico, Henry Cornelius (1949, UK). This was one of the films I discovered on Amazon Prime, although the quality of the transfer was pretty bad. It’s one of the classic Ealing comedies, and while I’ve seen a number of them over the years, I seem to have missed seeing this one. Until now, that is. A treasure trove is found in Pimlico, and among all the gold is an ancient document which declares Pimlico had been given to the Duke of Burgundy centuries before. So, in order to hang onto the treasure, Pimlico declares its independence, and makes the young descendant of the Duke of Burgundy (which no longer exists, of course), their head of state. The British government isn’t happy about this state of affairs. So they put up barbed wire and try to starve out the “Burgundians”. But the rest of London thinks it’s all marvellous, and sends them food (there’s a good scene where they’re actually throwing items of food over the barbed wire). At that time, Pimlico was still pretty much a bomb-site, so you can understand why its inhabitants are reluctant to give up their treasure. Although it’s a comedy, Passport to Pimlico is a bit more barbed than just a comic story. The plucky Londoner bit is all somewhat self-congratulatory having survived the Blitz, but that’s pretty much baked into Londoners’ character, and for all the deprivations visible in Pimlico – rationing was still in place in 1949 – it doesn’t seem to prevent the food parcels. (A man with a barrow full of oranges even turns up at one point – were they available again by then?). Much as I enjoyed Passport to Pimlico, I think the other Ealing comedies I’ve seen were better.

Nineteen Eighty-four, Rudolph Cartier (1954, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime too, and it also was a poor quality transfer, but not so bad it was unwatchable. Winston Smith is played by Peter Cushing, in one of his first major roles, if not his first. Donald Pleasance appears as Symes. There are also several familiar faces in smaller parts. It pretty much follows the book. The production design, as you’d expect of 1950s BBC, is pretty much all sets, clean and unadorned when it’s in a ministry office, but like something out of Steptoe & Son when it’s a prole’s home. Given it was made only six years after the book was published, and less than a decade after the end of WWII, it’s no surprise the few outside scenes show a devastated London (but then it would be several decades before the last of the bomb damage disappeared), which, sadly, suits the story. But hey, just wait for 2084. After 66 years of Brexit. Maybe there won’t be a war, just 66 years of enforced neglect (outside the Foxconn enclaves, that is). It’s hard what to know what to make of Orwell’s classic these days, it’s like someone strafed it with a machine-gun firing irony bullets. Although it does render the central love-story a bit, well, banal. Ah well.

Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). I found this on Cinema Paradiso’s website and added it to my rental list because it sounded interesting. Three fourteen-year-old girls, Bella, Momo and Kim, are being horribly bullied at school. Bella is assaulted. The three are sent a strange seed through the post. They plant it and it grows overnight into a weird black flower. They drink some of its nectar and wake up as boys. The first time, it goes well – they’re welcomed into a pick-up game of football. No one recognises them. They’re invited to a party a few nights later – but they have to bring the beer. Of course, after that it doesn’t go so well. These things never do. Kim falls in with the local bad boy and joins him when he burgles a workshop, and of course fancies him. The girls’ transformations give them the confidence to stand up to their bullies at school, but Kim loves being male much more than Momo or Bella, and even thinks she might be trans. I had almost zero expectations when I slid this into the player – an indie Swedish/Finnish co-production, with a young and unknown cast… But I thought it excellent. The cast are very good indeed – and cleverly chosen so the male and female versions resemble each other. The friendship between the three girls is drawn really well, although some of the scenes where they stand up for themselves at school seem a bit too easy. The bullying, however, is far from subtle, and hard to take. One final point: I don’t normally mention soundtracks unless they’re a feature of the story. But one of the songs in Girls Lost – it plays a couple of times, but most noticeably during the film’s final few minutes – I thought very atmospheric. It was ‘Keep The Streets Empty For Me’ by Fever Ray. Anyway, Girls Lost: recommended. It might well make my best of the year.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 930

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Moving pictures 2018, #46

I like it when there are six movies and six different countries. And one of the movies is from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. True, one of the films below is by a director I’ve been a fan of for many years – that’s Kaurismäki – and for reasons that still escape me I’ve been working my way through the Marx brothers films… but the others were completely new to me.

Horse Feathers, Norman McLeod (1932, USA). After moaning in my last Moving pictures post that I no longer understand why I continue to watch the Marx Brothers, my excuse for Horse Feathers is that was on the same rental disc as Monkey Business… although I can think of no good excuse for, a week later, watching A Night at the Opera (although, to be fair, it is a better film than these early ones). Anyway, Horse Feathers is about… er, a college (ie, university) with a shit football (ie, American Football) team, which always loses, and the Marx Brothers con themselves into positions of power at the college and then hire pro players for their team, all so they can beat a rival college. I can’t remember any especially amusing scenes from this film, only an overriding memory of feeling sorry for Zeppo for having to play the all-American clean-cut college-boy hero. Groucho wise-cracks (often not very funny), Harpo is creepy as fuck, and Chico, embarrassingly, plays a comedy Latino but delivers the best lines. The Marx Brothers comedy has not aged as well as some of their contemporaries.

The Other Side of Hope, Aki Kaurismäki (2017, Finland). I already had everything in this new Blu-ray box set except The Other Side of Hope (and The Man Without a Past, which I’d already seen), but Kaurismäki is definitely worth upgrading from DVD. So I did. And gave my DVD Kaurismäki box sets to a friend. Anyway, The Other Side of Hope. There needs to be more books and films about refugees in Europe, because how we treat them increasingly defines us – and is certainly defining the current era. You have the racists and fascists becoming increasingly normalised in the press, and yet a recent poll claimed the UK was a more welcoming country than it was ten years ago. I suspect that poll doesn’t include the Home Office, which seems to staffed entirely by racists enacting racist policies put in place by arch-racist Theresa May. Happily, not everyone agrees with such Nazis, and people are writing novels – like Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (see here) – and making films – such as The Other Side of Hope – which address European nations’ inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. (There would, of course, be fewer refugees moving into Europe if we stopped bombing their homes.) In The Other Side of Hope, Khaled, a Syrian, enters Helsinki illegally and applies for asylum at a police station. He tells them his story (through an interpreter): he returned home from work one day to find his house destroyed by bombs, and his wife and child dead. Like many other Syrians fleeing the civil war (and British bombs), he and his sister travelled north, but he lost her in the Balkans. His application is rejected and he escapes from the facility where he’d been put. He’s found sleeping rough by a businessman who has just sold his shop and bought a neighbourhood restaurant and which he’s failing to make a go of (their attempt at re-inventing themselves as a sushi restaurant is hilarious). The restaurant owner hires Khaled and arranges for him to get a fake ID. Meanwhile, another refugee Khaled met in the facility has had word of Khaled’s sister. She’s in Lithuania. So Khaled arranges to have her smuggled to Finland. But then Khaled has a run-in with a group of neo-Nazis… The Other Side of Hope is probably the most Kaurismäki of his films. It’s both tragedy and farce, and all played completely deadpan. The restaurant owner is played by Kaurismäki regular and ex-Leningrad Cowboys member Sakari Kuosmanen, and there are few other familiar faces in there too. Khaled is played by Sherwan Haji, a Syrian actor who emigrated to Finland. An excellent film.

The Visitor, Giulio Paradiso (1979, Italy). I get these text messages every now and again, usually late at night, from David Tallerman, in which he tells me to add certain films to my rental list (I do the same to him, of course). The Visitor was one such film. It was also completely bonkers. It’s an Italian film, but set in the US with a mostly US cast, including Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, Lance Henriksen, Shelley Winters, John Huston and Sam Peckinpah. Yes, really. There is apparently an ages-long cosmic conflict between evil, Zatteen, and good, Yahweh. But Zatteen was killed on Earth centuries ago, and survives only through the descendants of children he had with human women. One of which is apparently a young girl with telekinetic abilities, which she is using to help the basketball team owned by her mother’s boyfriend win games. It’s all a bit Damien, and the Christian references are laid on thick. And like most Italian films of the 1970s, it’s all very intense, a bit like Cronenberg turn up to eleven but without the body horror. There is, for example, a scene in which they try to kill Shelley Winters by wrapping a wire around her neck and the sending her down the stairs on a stairlift. Despite all this, The Visitor isn’t especially memorable. Batshit insane, yes; and that’s probably why so little of it sticks in memory.

The Mad Masters*, Jean Rouch (1955, France). Rouch was a name unknown to me, despite having directed 109 films between 1947 and 2002. But then, none of his films appear to have ever been released in the UK, and most of them were semi-documentary – what he called “ethnofiction” – films about people and places on the African continent. The Mad Masters is a case in point: it depicts the Hauka rituals, in which participants go into trances, froth at the mouth and claim to be possessed by their colonial administrators. The film was banned in Niger, and then in other British territories in Africa of the time, including Ghana, where it was filmed. Wikipedia states that the film has also been criticised by “African” students and critics (Africa is not a country) for presenting “exotic racism”. Given that the first quarter of the film is about how very ordinary is the city of Accra and its inhabitants – although it’s likely that’s to contrast it with the later depictions of Hauka possessions. Rouch was in important figure in French cinema, and probably deserves a spot on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I don’t know that this is the film to represent his oeuvre. I’d certainly like to see more by him.

Bad Cop, Kai Jiang (2016, China). I found this on Amazon Prime – I say “found”, as if it were actually possible to look for things there and find them, which it’s not as Amazon appears to use the worst search engine on the planet and is about as effective as throwing a dart at a dartboard from several kilometres away and in a different room. So. I stumbled across it. As well as a bunch of stuff I hadn’t known was on there. Bad Cop is not a good film. A policewoman (you can also find the film as Bad Policewoman) who doesn’t take orders very well is sent undercover to a high school to discover why several of the female students have disappeared. She ends up in a relationship with the hot teacher. And the friendly fellow female student turns out to be the villain. Ho hum. Like the other Chinese films dumped on Amazon Prime I’ve seen, the subtitles were… creative. Fun, but not a very good film.

Tramontane, Vatche Boulghourjian (2016, Lebanon). I think it was trailer for this on another rental DVD that prompted me to add it to my list. Or it may have just been that it’s a Lebanese film and I’ve not seen many of them, so I stuck it on my rental list. Whatever, it was a good call. Rabih is blind and a musician in a band. The band has been invited to play in Europe (no one specifies which country or city), so Rabih goes along to the police station to apply for a passport. But they take his ID card off him because it’s fake. He clearly didn’t know, so they tell him to provide proof of his birth and they’ll let him off. But the hospital where he was allegedly born has no record of his birth. At which point his mother admits he was rescued by her brother – then a captain in the army – from a village in the south destroyed during the war. He travels to the village and learns it was never destroyed during the war, and no babies went missing. A member of his uncle’s platoon tells him he was rescued from a car crash in which his Armenian parents died by his uncle, handed to an Armenian orphanage, but then taken from that by his uncle. But the orphanage has no record of an orphan from that time. Through his uncle’s ex-fiancée, he tracks down another member of his uncle’s platoon, who tells him he was “allowed to live” after an operation on a village. At the village, he learns that a man and woman were killed in an attack and their baby disappeared, long since presumed dead. When Rabih asks if the baby could still be alive, he is told, yes, he could be but he would have another family by now and they buried the missing baby decades ago. Rabih’s uncle then presents him with a birth certificate – real, so obviously sourced from “contacts” – but documenting his fake birth as per his fake ID. Rabih has no choice but to accept it. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 930


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Moving pictures 2018, #45

Even given my usual viewing, this is a bit of an odd bunch – mostly films I stumbled across on Amazon Prime. Because good luck trying to actually find films on there, as the search function is next to fucking useless. I learnt this week there are a lot of Nollywood films available for free on Prime (I also learnt they’re mostly dreadful), so an ability to search by country of origin would be really useful…

Air Crew, Alexander Mitta (1980, Russia). There are also a number of Mosfilm and Lenfilm movies available on Prime, including Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears – and Air Crew was the first of several I added to my watchlist. It is apparently the first disaster film made in the USSR, and was clearly modelled on 1970’s Airport (and sequels). The first half of the film sets up the lives of the three main characters, the captain of an Aeroflot Tu-154 who fears he will be grounded because of his age, a Lothario co-pilot on the same plane who enters into a relationship with a member of the cabin crew only for it to be torpedoed by an ex-girlfriend, and an ex-member of the crew who now flies helicopters picking up cosmonauts after they’ve landed and is involved in a custody battle for his son with his ex-wife. The film doesn’t pick up until the Tu-154 is diverted to Bidri (a made-up town) where an earthquake has struck. Air Crew switches to model-work, and the disaster that unfolds makes Thunderbirds look amateur. A plane crashes and explodes, the earth quake causes an oil refinery to, er, explode, and a lava flow hits the airport and causes everything to, um, explode. But the Tu-154 – now with helicopter pilot on board, although I can’t remember how he ended up there – manages to take off. But part of the skin on the upper fuselage has ripped open, and there’s something obstructing one of the elevators on the T-tail… So while at 10,000 feet or something, one of the crew has to crawl out through the intake into the jet engine in the tail onto the upper fuselage to nail the rip shut. Another has to climb up inside the tail and out onto the horizontal stabilisers to clear the obstruction. Tu-154s had a cruising speed of 850 kph, by the way. It’s all completely mad and makes Airport look a bit feeble. While the second half massively overwhelms the first half of the film, it does give a good, if somewhat rosy-tinted, portrait of life in the USSR. Which, for all its deprivations and secret police and shit, was considerably less sexist and racist and Islamophobic than US society was. Not a great film, but definitely one worth seeing.

Monkey Business, Norman McLeod (1931, USA). I’m not entirely sure why I’m watching these, to be honest. I don’t think they’re that funny, and Groucho’s famous wit has been massively over-hyped. In fact, Chico is the funniest of the four, and he’s playing a racial stereotype. Harpo is just a creepy stalker, and Zeppo, who had the coolest name of the four, was lumbered with the straight-man role because he was the most normal-looking. And I can’t even tell the plots apart. In this one, the four Marx Brothers stowaway aboard a ship en route to the US. So the plot is basically a series of jokes in which each of the brothers plays on their characteristics. Groucho is cynical and witty (more the former than the latter), Harpo is creepy, Chico plays a comedy racial stereotype but often has the best lines, and Zeppo is completely wasted in the straight-man role. Margaret Dumont, the “fifth Marx Brother”, doesn’t appear in this, which is probably why it’s so unmemorable. In fact, just about the only thing I can remember is the sketch with the fish barrels, which is pretty much all anyone can remember of this film. The Marx Brothers were… seminal? I don’t think so. Hugely popular in their time? Almost certainly. Their reputation as comedic geniuses has remained mostly undiminished for nearly 90 years, although it’s probably fair to say all the successful comedy stars from that period continue to enjoy a high reputation – Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, the Keystone Kops, etc. Yes, some of those are earlier – and the Marx Brothers were basically filming their Broadway shows for their early movies – but many of them survived into the 1930s and later. And, of them all, I’d say Buster Keaton was best in the early days, and Laurel and Hardy in the later days. The Marx Brothers brand of comedy was often done better by one-offs, like Hellzapoppin (see here), or by screwball romances starring Cary Grant or Clark Gable or Katherine Hepburn or Carole Lombard or Barbara Stanwyck…

Crime or Punishment?!?, Keralino Sandorovich (2009, Japan). I have no idea what this film was about, but that was not unexpected given that it was recommended by David Tallerman. A model, who was printed upside down in an issue of a magazine, and objects violently to the mistake in the magazine’s office, is sentenced to be “police chief for a day” for a small prefecture’s police force. This apparently does happen in Japan. She finds herself investing in the role, and proves surprisingly popular with the police officers. One of whom is a serial killer, and she knows this is because he’s an ex-lover and he had tried to kill her. There’s also a salaryman who witnesses a murder but is then hit by a lorry. The film jumps about in time, – that salaryman’s death appears a few times – and the young woman in the lead role doesn’t especially stand out, which means it all seems a bit confused and a bit confusing. The film is a black comedy, but there wasn’t a great deal that was comic about it – although I guess that’s the point with black comedies. The fact it’s all over the place doesn’t help. Enjoyable, but I’ve seen much better.

The Millionaire, Sergey Chekalov (2012, Ukraine). Doing your life over again is hardly the most original story out there, especially when it’s linked to romance. Kirill is about get engaged to the daughter of an oligarch. He’s an architect and wants to make a name for himself on his own, without his future father-in-law’s help. But when he discovers that’s never going to happen, he rejects his fiancée and walks away. At the reception he’s just left, a waitress tripped over his best mate and brought the champagne fountain crashing down. Kirill got chatting to her outside. After he decides to walk away, he gives her a call and meets up with her and her best friend. He and his best mate take the two women on a date. Ten years later, Kirill is married to the waitress, with a small son, she works as a teacher, and he still has yet to have one of his designs accepted. But he’s still best mates with his, er, best mate, who is now married to his wife’s best friend. But then Kirill attends a ten-year reunion, meets up with his ex-fiancée ad rues what might have been. Cue fairy godmother. Who, by means of a fatal collision with a speeding lorry, throws him into an alternative present where he’d been married to the oligarch’s daughter for ten years. And… he’s a total shit, stuck in a loveless and childless marriage, and his best-mate is poor and alcoholic and his “wife’s” best friend is a disabled writer because she was injured in the taxi ride on that night after her friend was fired from her job as waitress at the engagement party and died… It’s all very obvious, but it’s well-played and the cast are likeable. The Russian filter made it perhaps more interesting than it would have been otherwise, but it was all very glib and superficial and proof that Russian culture can be just as shallow as American culture.

The Villainess, Jung Byung-gil (2017, South Korea). I think this is the first film I’ve seen that opens with a FPS POV. In fact I’m not sure if there are any films that make use of first person as camera, although surely there must be some, as it’s such an obvious cinema narrative trick. In the opening ten minutes or so, we see a young woman, as if she were the camera, basically slaughter her way through a crowd of gangsters. Later, we learn what prompted this murderous spree. We also discover what happened immediately afterwards – the young woman was picked up by a secretive organisation and locked away and trained in a variety of skills… Yup, it’s the plot of La femme Nikita. Pretty much blow by blow. And, like Besson’s film, The Villainess is immensely stylish. Perhaps not definingly so, as Besson’s film was, which spawned a TV series, but then South Korean cinema has been definingly stylish on its own for a couple of decades now. In comparison to other Korean films, The Villainess scores highly; in comparison to La femme Nikita, it blows it out of the water action-wise but can’t reach its level of stylishness. So it’s a sort of swings and roundabouts, half a dozen of one and six of the other, sort of thing. The Villainess is nonetheless definitely worth seeing.

L’Assassino, Elio Petri (1961, Italy). I’d expected this to be a giallo thriller about a, well, an assassin. From the title. But assassino just means killer or murderer in Italian, not necessarily a hitman. In this case, it refers to an antique dealer, played by Marcello Mastronianni, who is taken in for questioning by the police but not told why. Eventually, he – and the viewer – learns it is because his lover, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, has gone missing. And is then found murdered. As the police interrogate Mastronianni, and take him out to view the scene of the crime, so the story is interrupted by flashbacks showing the relationship between Mastroianni and his lover. There’s one great sequence where acquaintances of Mastroianni’s character talk to camera about him, and, of course, their testimony contradicts his own self-serving account of his past. Petri is better known for his film The Tenth Victim, an adaptation of Robert Sheckley’s short story, ‘The Seventh Victim’, which was subsequently novelised by, er, Sheckley. Anyway, Mastroianni is or isn’t the murderer of his lover and this film keeps its cards very close to its chest for much of its length. But that’s okay because it apes a Neorealist look, although the quality of the picture is much better and the cast are pretty much all professional. But even in 1961, Rome didn’t apparently look that much different from Rome in 1941 – in some areas at least, although part of the film takes place in newly-built suburbs and one section in an abandoned building site, for a hotel, all concrete floors and no walls. It’s an atmospheric piece, if not the piece I expected, but it works, and does actually make me want to make The Tenth Victim again.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 929


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Reading diary 2018, #13

The heat seems to have lessened a little, but we’ve still two months to go before summer is over, and even then heatwaves in October are not unheard of in these days of climate change. Having said that, two of the books below are slight cheats as they’re novellas. But then the Faulkner – famously described as a “difficult” book – I managed to knock off in three days…

Empery (Trigon Disunity 3), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1987, USA). And so we come to the third and final book of the Trigon Disunity, which also includes the first use of the word “trigon”, although the word “disunity” appears nowhere in all three books. The story opens several centuries after the events of Enigma. Earth is now the centre of the Affirmation, which includes several advanced human colonies discovered since the second book. But one political wing of the human race is determined to take war to the Mizari, the “Sterilizers” of Enigma who wiped out humanity back in the last Ice Age (which was then reseeded by a good energy alien, as also described in Enigma). When Empery focuses on the politics of Earth and the United Space Service, and the fight between those who think the Mizari no longer present a threat (their last attack was 60,000 years ago, after all) and those determined on a pre-emptive strike, it’s not bad. It’s less good, however, on the science fiction. The Mizari are the worst sort of Trek super-aliens, and the only really remarkable thing about Empery (which apparently means “absolute dominion”) is how long it drags out its story. It doesn’t at least rely on superhuman intervention by a, er, human being, as Enigma does. Nor is its “good” character a paragon as in Emprise. That the books improve as the trilogy progresses is no surprise, but the initial world-building is too big an obstacle for the story to overcome and the aliens are shit too. Best avoided.

Unpublished Stories, Frank Herbert (2016, USA). Stories generally remain unpublished for a reason, and smart writers make sure they never see the light of day, even after their death. Hergé refused to allow new Tintin adventures to be written after he died, and so the last Tintin book we have is an unfinished one. Edgar P Jacobs, on the other hand, placed no such restrictions on his Blake and Mortimer characters, and the  Edgar P Jacobs Studio has continued his series, producing, to be honest, better stories than Jacobs himself ever did. Then there’s all the controversy surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman… Frank Herbert died before completing his Dune series, leaving only cryptic notes explaining where he planned to go with the narrative after Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune. Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson used the existence of these notes as a mandate to expand Herbert’s universe, and it’s a crying fucking shame what they did to it. However, Anderson has done good in making available Herbert’s unpublished fiction. ‘Spice Planet’, an early draft of Dune, which was published in The Road to Dune, is a fascinating historical document and does Herbert’s career no harm. And I’m pretty sure the stories in Unpublished Stories, despite being generally not very good, are unlikely to affect Herbert’s reputation either. For a start, they’re pretty much all mainstream. He fancied himself as a thriller writer before turning to sf. And that’s what we have here, a collection of mainstream stories (only two are sf, and one of them appears in The Collected Stories of Frank Herbert too), some of which work and some of which don’t. The prose is no better and no worse than you’d expect for commercial fiction from the middle of last century, but nothing about the stories stands out. Which is likely why they were never published. They’re interesting historical documents, but likely of interest only to fans.

Cottingley, Alison Littlewood (2017, UK). The title of this novella, from NewCon Press’s second quartet of novellas, immediately signals what this story is about, who it is likely to feature, and what is likely to happen… Which means that when a writer uses a title that is, so to speak, a hostage to fortune, they’re going to have to work especially hard to confound expectations. Littlewood frames her story as epistolary, a series of letters between an invented character, Lawrence Fairclough, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or rather Doyle’s associate, a “Mr Gardner”. Fairclough describes how he and his granddaughter stumbled across a small group of fairies at a brook in a wood by their home. But these fairies are more like malevolent insects. When Fairclough finds the skull of one, typical fairy tricks such as souring milk and making food go off persuades his daughter to return the skull – and a fairy spits in one of her eyes, blinding it. The story, making many references to the fairies photographed by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, unfolds through several letters. We do not see Gardner’s letters and can only infer what he wrote from Fairclough’s replies. Fairclough has answers to all of Gardner’s questions – clearly he’s afraid it might be a hoax – but whatever evidence he has gathered disappears one by one (such as the skull). Cottingley suffers from the same problem as all epistolary novels: how to tell the story in a way that doesn’t read like reportage. Which means the letters don’t really read like letters. They’re too descriptive, there’s too much interiority, and they’re far too fixed on the theme of the novella. On the one hand, these quartets of novellas NewCon Press are publishing are handsome books; on the other, I’m not a fan of dark fantasy or horror, so I knew this particular quartet were unlikely to appeal to me. There’s still three to read, of course; and a fourth quartet being published even now – with novellas by Gary Gibson, Adam Roberts, Ricardo Pinto and Hal Duncan.

Body in the Woods, Sarah Lotz (2017, South Africa). I read Lotz’s The Three a few years ago on a trip to Finland for Archipelacon. It struck me as commercial light horror and I didn’t bother with the sequel (three, er, well, some guesses to what the sequel was titled). And while I enjoyed Body in the Woods, there’s nothing in it to persuade me to seek out further work by her. A woman living alone in a country cottage – her partner is working in Qatar on contract – is visited by an old friend. He has a body wrapped in plastic in the boot of his car. Years before the two had defined friendship as “helping to bury a body, no questions asked”, and he’s turned up to make good on that. After the deed is done, she begins to obsess over the identity of the victim, leading to several flashbacks explaining how the woman and man are linked, and her thoughts and fears are manifested as corruption in her garden – a nettle patch that refuses to die and expands, growing mould patches, etc. It is, like The Three, all very light horror and written in commercial and readable prose. There is one minor weirdness: occasional Americanisms which appear in the prose, even though the voice is very British (the author is British but resident in South Africa, which may explain that). I found Body in the Woods are more involving read than Cottingley, but the latter struck me as a better work.

The Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre (1975, revised 1985, USA). In a recent exchange on Twitter with Kev McVeigh, he wondered why McIntyre, a feminist sf writer and multi-award winner, was not as well known as Joanna Russ. McIntyre wrote a number of Star Trek tie-in novels, and so may have become associated with that rather than straight-up sf… Although a look at her bibliography on isfdb.org shows she wrote only 5 Trek novels (including novelizations of films II, III and IV), one SWEU novel, and, er, ten genre novels that aren’t tie-ins. The first of which was The Exile Waiting in 1975, although the version I read is the revised 1985 edition. It’s one of those sf novels which posits a world which includes slavery and children deliberately mutilated to make them more effective beggars. I really don’t understand why sf writers feels a need to populate their novels with either of these. True, these last twenty years we’ve seen technological progress increase inequality – please please please, someone make like Max Zorin and flood Silicon Valley – when you’d imagine technology would make things better for everyone equally. As someone once said – was it Bruce Sterling? – the market finds its own use for things; except it would be perhaps more accurate to say that Silicon Valley finds its own way to develop revenue streams from things that were otherwise free. (Multi-passenger Uber! Er, that’s a bus, you’ve just invented a bus. And so on.) But The Exile Waiting is 42 years old, revised 32 years ago, and what is about American sf that all roads lead to libertarian variations on the Great Depression? Mutilating kids? Seriously? Slavery? Really? It doesn’t matter that the protagonist of this novel is female and has agency, because the world in which she lives embodies the worst of US sf. At one point, she’s whipped because she sneaked her way into the palace, was caught and accused of stealing, and given no opportunity to explain herself. Anyway, a more extensive review of this should appear at some point on SF Mistressworks. I don’t think The Exile Waiting was typical of its time – in some respects, it’s an improvement on mid-seventies American sf – but in some areas it demonstrates remarkably little commentary on the tropes it uses, even in the revised edition, and even its above average prose can’t really save it.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929, USA). When my father died he left behind a collection of around a hundred Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them he had ordered directly from the publisher – I found an invoice in one – and included works by DH Lawrence (the writer he admired most), Carson McCullers, JP Donleavy, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm Lowry, Raymond Chandler, Herman Hesse, George Orwell and, among others… William Faulkner. I kept many of the books for myself – and subsequently became a big fan of Lowry’s fiction. (I had already sampled Lawrence’s fiction, and found it excellent, earlier.) There was always the possibility I’d be enormously impressed by another author from his collection, although a read of two of McCullers novels showed it wasn’t going to be her. William Faulkner, on the other hand, what little I knew of him – early twentieth century author, American, wrote mostly about the South, his novels had quite pretentious titles, I couldn’t think of anything by him that been adapted by Hollywood… Well, I’d expected The Sound and the Fury to be a bit of a chore to read, and it was only a complete inability to brain early one weekday morning that resulted in me grabbing it to read next on my commute. So I was very surprised to discover the novel hugely impressive. The casual use of racial epithets – the racism itself, especially in the third section, narrated by Jason Compton, who is racist – is hard to take, although nothing in the prose persuades me that Faulkner held those views, and in fact he develops his black characters as carefully and as well as he develops his white ones. And, of course, this is a book that was written, and set, within living memory (just) of slavery and the American Civil War. US society, especially southern US society, is hugely racist, and if the language in The Sound and the Fury is offensive it is at least a legitimate product of its time. But one of the areas that fascinates me about literature is narrative structure, and there The Sound and the Fury has plenty to recommend it. It is divided into four parts, three dated 1928 and one dated 1910, and each part subsequently sheds more light on the story. The first is told from the point of view of Benjy, who has learning disabilities, and presents his 33 years of life in an achronological almost stream-of-consciousness narrative, with time-jumps signalled by changes from italics and back again, although not with any degree of rigour. The second section is set 18 years earlier and mixes a straightforward narrative with stream of consciousness, and is perhaps the hardest to parse as its narrative is mostly peripheral to the main story. The third section, set in 1928 again, is more straightforward and, as mentioned earlier, is in the POV of the racist brother of the protagonist of the second section. The final section takes place a day later than the third, and is omniscient, but chiefly features the family’s black housekeeper. With each section, the overall story becomes clearer. It is not, it has to be said, the most exciting of stories – Banks followed a similar philosophy with his mainstream novels, albeit without the modernism, but he usually made his central secrets a little too “exciting” and a little too implausible. The Sound and the Fury is pure modernist literature, and the prose is really very very good. Though the milieu doesn’t attract me, the approach to writing strikes me as every bit as interesting as that of Lowry. Albeit in a different way. A third of the way into The Sound and the Fury I decided I needed to read more, if not all, of Faulkner’s fiction. So I’ve ordered another of his novels. From eBay. Because, of course, I want editions that match the ones I have – ie, mid-sixties Penguin paperbacks. Sigh. But Faulkner: excellent. Possibly even a new favourite writer.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Moving pictures 2018, #44

Not a single US film in this half-dozen. I’m steadily reducing the number of American films I watch, although there are still a large number of countries I’ve not seen films from.

Deewaar*, Yash Chopra (1975, India). There are only three or four Bollywood films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, while around half of the list are from Hollywood. Despite the fact the two film industries are not so different in size (Indian cinema, including Bollywood, is around a third bigger than Hollywood, and Bollywood accounts for nearly half of Indian cinema’s ticket sales). Of course, the list is aimed at English-language film-watchers, but even so there are some excellent historical Bollywood films that have been missed off, such as Kaagaz ke Phool (see here), Mughal-e-Azam (see here) or Pakeezah (see here), just to mention a few of my favourites. Anyway, Deewaar is neither an historical epic, nor the usual boy-meets-girl Bollywood story, but a family drama and thriller. The film opens with a police officer being decorated, and in his acceptance speech he tells everyone he owes everything to his mother… And then the film heads straight into flashback territory. The two sons of a trade union activist go their separate ways after their father is blackmailed into betraying his fellow workers. One son becomes a criminal, the other a police officer, and… you can guess where this is going. Deewaar apparently had an enormous impact on Bollywood, and it’s certainly a much grittier and realistic – and yes, with singing and dancing – movie than others I’ve seen. In places, this means its age tells against it, as later films have covered similar territory – and, to be fair, it’s not an uncommon story in other countries’ cinemas. I think there should be more Indian films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I can see why this one is there.

Accident, Joseph Losey (1967, UK). Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter made three films in the UK during the 1960s: The Servant (see here), The Go-Between (see here) and this one. Accident opens with a, er, car accident, from which Dirk Bogarde manages to rescue Jacqueline Sassard but Michael York is already dead. The two were on their way to visit Bogarde, who was York’s tutor at Oxford. But this is Pinter, so nothing is quite as it seems, and the female characters are never treated well – in this case, that’s Bogarde sexually assaulting Sassard after the accident. Confusing matters is Stanley Baker, another Oxford don, who has been sleeping with Sassard but, unlike York, has no plans for matrimony. The car accident is amazingly shot, not like it would be these days with OTT physical/CGI effects, shot from a number of surprising angles that really evoke the accident extremely well. It’s an arresting opening, and the film takes advantage of it, so when it starts the flashback main narrative it still has the shock of the opening sequence echoing. Which is just as well, as the story which follows is not the most exciting. It’s a cross-between a romantic triangle and a campus professor/student illicit affair story, and fuck knows what sort of shape that makes. It doesn’t help that it all takes at Oxford University, and over-entitled white men no longer play as sympathetic as they once – apparently, bafflingly – did. Bogarde plays a role he’s good at: the quiet restrained type who doe something nasty. Michael York plays, well, Michael York. As usual. Jacqueline Sassard is apparently better known in Italian cinema, and retired from acting two years after Accident when she married the head of the Lancia family (that’s cars, of course). The three Pinter/Losey films are worth seeing, but I couldn’t say which was the best of them. Probably the first.

The Spring River Flows East, Zheng Junli & Cai Chusheng (1947, China). I’m a big fan of current-day Chinese cinema, especially that of the Sixth Generation directors (and Fifth Generation too), but I also like early Chinese cinema a great deal, especially contemporary dramas from the 1940s, like Spring in a Small Town (see here) and this film, The Spring River Flows East. Which is a bit epic. 190 minutes epic. Released-in-two-parts epic. The story opens in Shanghai in 1931 and follows the fortunes of a family during the Japanese invasion. A man joins the resistance, but his wife and child are put in a refugee camp when the Japanese reach Shanghai. The man is later captured but manages to escape and heads for Chungking, which is under the control of the Kuomintang. Years pass, the man becomes a successful entrepreneur and marries another woman. The Japanese are defeated. The man returns to Shanghai. At a party, his first wife, working as a waitress, recognises him and reveals he is a bigamist. His second wife insists the first divorce him, but she finds another solution. The story is pretty much a soap opera, but played out against a backdrop of war, occupation and postwar deprivation. Obviously, the first wife is the sympathetic heroine – she’s played by Bai Yang, the foremost of China’s “Four Great Actresses” – although much is made of the fall from grace of the husband, from working-class hero to bourgeois lackey. The film isn’t as well-shot as Spring in a Small Town, which is really excellent, but what it lacks in cinematography, staging or script, The Spring River Flows East makes up for in breadth of story and scale. I can understand why it’s so highly regarded in Chinese cinema. I’d like to see it again too.

Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas (2007, Mexico). After watching this, I added all of Reygadas’s available films to my rental list – which, fortunately, appears to be all of them. This film takes place in a Mennonite community in Mexico, and the dialogue is chiefly in their language, Plautdietsch. The cast are also mostly non-professional – with the exception of Miriam Toews, a Canadian Mennonite author and actor, who plays the wife of the main character. He is having an affair with a single woman, and his wife knows about it. She confronts him, whch leads to her suffering a fatal heart attack. At the wake, the mistress kisses the wife’s body and she comes back to life. This is one of those films with long static takes and sparse dialogue. The movie opens with a gorgeous shot of the sun rising, and closes with one of it setting, and I thought the whole thing from start to finish excellent. It’s very much the sort of cinema I really like, almost faux-documentary, but with those long slow-moving takes where the very lack of action draws attention to the smallest of details. It’s the polar opposite of Hollywood action movies, with their relentless series of short-span jump-cuts, CGI-enhanced action, and so much detail on screen you’ve no idea where to look or what the fuck is actually going on. Reygadas is definitely a name I’ll be keeping an eye open for from now on.

Yellow Submarine, George Dunning (1968, UK). I think I may have seen this before, although whatever bits and pieces I remembered may well have been from watching only parts of it rather than the whole movie. And that was likely over thirty years ago, during the early 1980s or late 1970s. So when it popped up free-to-view on Amazon Prime – and there’s some surprising stuff on there, but searching on the Fire Stick TV interface is next to useless (mind you, it’s next to fucking useless on the Amazon website too) – I decided to watch it. It’s… very much of its time, and very much what you see on the DVD cover-art. Young Freddie is sent in the Yellow Submarine to recruit the Beatles to help free Pepperland from an invasion by the music-hating Blue Meanies. En route, we’re treated to a number of tracks from various Beatles albums, some well-known, some pretty much forgotten except by fans of the band. I was never much of a fan of the Beatles – I’m still not one – and of the bands popular at the time (which was, I hasten to add, years before my own time), I much preferred the Hollies. I’ve always been slightly baffled by the Beatles’ level of success, but one thing I noticed watching Yellow Submarine was how familiar so many of their songs’ melodies were. I don’t mean familiar because the songs were famous, but familiar because the melodies were simple and sounded very like many other songs. Everything felt, well, a bit re-used. Maybe that was the secret of their success. After all, Oasis were huge too, and every one of their songs sounded like it was ripped off from something else. (I still think Oasis were a scam played on the British public by a jaded music press.) Anyway, I’m glad I watched Yellow Submarine, but I doubt I’ll bother rewatching it.

Le Samouraï*, Jean-Pierre Melville (1967, France). I borrowed this from David Tallerman, as it’s not available  for rent in the UK. (There isn’t even a UK release, and the only one for sale here is the US Criterion Collection DVD.) The only film by Melville I’d seen previously was Bob le flambeur, which has, to be honest, sort of mingled together in mind with a whole bunch of noir films I’ve seen over the years, so much so I don’t really know whether something I remember from it is actually from Bob le flambeur or a film by Dassin, Carné, Tourneur or Duvivier. So Le Samouraï came as a bit of a surprise, as it reminded me of Tati’s Playtime more than anything else. I mean the colour palette, of course. And some of the staging. Not the plot. Alain Delon (I prefer Belmondo, to be honest) plays a hitman, who lives alone in a small barely-furnished apartment with a canary in a cage. He shoots the owner of a nightclub, and is witnessed in the act by the club’s singer. However, when he is pulled in by the police – among many other men – the singer insists he was not the killer. He also had an alibi for the time of the murder – his girlfriend claims he was at her place. Then the hitman finds himself the target of an assassin, but he succeeds in forcing the assassin to tell him the name of his boss. While the plot was almost pure noir, the look of the film was definitely not Nouvelle Vague. The subdued colour palette and the minimalist set design, along with several industrial locations, gave the film a flat affect which suited its story. Delon played his role mostly stone-faced, but the rest of the cast felt more like types than characters. I’d not expected much when putting the disc in the player, but I found myself liking Le Samouraï a great deal. A good film, but I’m unsure whether it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 929


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Reading diary 2018, #12

This stinking weather. It has, however, meant I’ve been reading more than usual because it’s too hot to do anything else. Which is weird, because when I lived in the UAE, where it gets way hotter than this during the summer, I used to read loads – and everywhere out there had really effective air-conditioning. Every other Thursday, I’d take taxi out to the Daly Community Library – a room in a church centre attached to the Al-Khubairat English-speaking school – and check out four books. I’d usually finish one by the end of the day. Admittedly, there wasn’t much to do there. The TV was rubbish, I didn’t have the internet at home, the selection of DVDs for sale was poor (even the ones unapproved by the Ministry of Information I used to buy under the counter)… On the other hand, my commute to work was a 500-metre walk.

The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet (2017, France). In 1980, Roland Barthes was hit by a van, and died a month later from injuries sustained in the accident. Binet supposes that Barthes was carrying a document wanted by several groups of powerful people – including the government of President Giscard d’Estaing. And some Bulgarian assassins. Who may or may not have been working for the Russians. A superintendent from the Renseignements Généraux, Bayard, is tasked with investigating the accident, and recruits a young semiologist professor, Herzog, to help him. The two discover the existence of the Logos Club, where members debate each other for advancement, and challengers lose a finger if their challenges are unsuccessful. Bayard and Herzog bounce around literary theory and semiotics, through a series of clever set-pieces and in-jokes, and it’s all to do with Roman Jakobson’s theory of language and its six functions – or, in this case, a mythical seventh one which allows the speaker to coerce the listener – which may have been in Barthes’ possession, and which politicians are keen to discover, especially French ones… Not only is The 7th Function of Language a fun and clever mystery novel, but it’s also a fascinating exploration of semiotics and the theories of Barthes, Foucault, Jakobson and others. A lot of the characters who appear are real people, and a number of the events in which Bayard and Herzog find themselves involved also happened in real history. As in his earlier HHhH (see here), Binet frequently breaks the fourth wall, although the process of writing the novel does not feature here as it does in the previous novel. I picked up a signed hardback of this book in a Waterstone’s promotion, but hadn’t planned on hanging onto the book once I’d read it. But I think I will. It’s an entertaining read and it’s made me want to read up on Barthes and Foucault and semiotics.

Moon Face, Alejandro Jodorowsky & François Boucq (2018, France). Jodorowsky seems to be on a roll. While he continues to contribute to a number of long-running properties – and in the case of the Metabarons appears to have licensed the property to others – he’s also churning out new stuff. Like Moon Face. On an island under a repressive regime, which regularly experiences tsunamis, there appears a man with somewhat undefined features, the Moon Face of the title, who can control the tidal waves. His appearance triggers a whole series of events, which eventually leads to the downfall of the island’s autocratic and arrogant rulers. At one point Moon Face prompts the rebuilding of a destroyed cathedral, and when a false messiah, tricked into appearing by a rebellious faction, destroys the cathedral Moon Face triggers a second rebuild and… Well, this isn’t an easy book to summarise. It’s thick with religious references and allusions, and while Jodorowsky pretty much always does that in his works, it’s far more in-your-face here than in other books. It doesn’t help that the villains are all a bit pantomime, which makes it all somewhat one-sided. Boucq’s artwork is lovely, however. And if Jodorowsky’s scripts feels a bit obvious in places with its religious – well, Roman Catholic – references and allusions, it doesn’t detract from the story as drawn.

Beatniks, Toby Litt (1997, UK). Litt began has career by stating that each of his novels would be titled alphabetically. so, obviously, Beatniks is his second book (but actually the fifth book by him I’ve read). He’s currently at “N”, and he started in 1996, so he’s not managing one a year. I first came across Litt with Journey into Space (2009), a generation starship novel. I seem to remember it wasn’t bad – the prose was better than most sf novels, but the science fiction itself was a bit old-fashioned. But I liked the idea of publishing books with alphabetical titles, so I kept an eye open for his books. He’s been a bit of a gadfly, as no two books have been the same. Beatniks is not atypical for UK lit fic. It’s set in Bedford, Litt’s hometown. A young woman is invited to a party, where she meets three people – two bloke and a woman – who refuse to acknowledge anything that happened after Dylan went electric. She can’t decide if they’re complete poseurs, but she fancies one of them so she tries to get them better. It all ends up with a trip to Brighton, where they learn a bit more about each other than they perhaps wanted to. It was hard to sympathise with the three “Beats” as they seemed to behave in a wilfully ridiculous manner. The narrator at least was sympathetic. But it all hung together entertainingly. A fast read, and enjoyable, and perhaps a little more memorable than some of Litt’s other books I’ve read.

The True Deceiver, Tove Jansson (1982, Finland). Jansson is of course best-known for the Moomins, but she also wrote a number of novels for adults, and in recent years they’ve been translated into English. In The True Deceiver, a young woman in a remote Finnish village – but Swedish-speaking, I think – organises her way into the life of an older woman who illustrates children’s books. Katri is something of an outsider in the village, partly due to her colouring, partly due to her independence and unwillingness to compromise that independence. She has a younger brother, who seems to have a learning disability, and works unpaid at a boat-builders. Katri persuades Anna, who lives in the “rabbit house”, named because she paints rabbits for children’s books, and who is also the richest person in the village, to allow her to help her, and then slowly takes over her affairs. She moves in, at Anna’s invitation, with her brother, but her plan is to stay on in the rabbit house after Anna has died, and provide for her brother. But Katri is scrupulously honest, and she ensures Anna is not being cheated by local merchants, especially the shop-owner. She is so honest, and so good at maths, that her advice is sought by people, even those who dislike her. There are levels of deception here, which is what the title refers to. Katri: to herself, the villagers, most of all Anna. Even Anna herself, although the victim of her deception is… herself. The prose is clean and clear, although it has a tendency to drift into a sort of story-telling mode, as if the author were directly addressing the reader. Given that the story is framed as if it were a fable, it seems appropriate, even if the contents are not especially fable-like. Worth reading.

Emprise (Trigon Disunity 1), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1985, USA). I don’t remember where and when I bought this trilogy, but I suspect it wasn’t long after they were published (these Legend editions were all published in 1988). I think it may have been at a convention, given that the third book, Empery, has “£1” pencilled inside the cover. Anyway, I’m pretty sure they went into storage when my parents returned to the Middle East in the early 1990s, and I didn’t see them again until I moved into my current address in 2004. So I’ve had them for around twenty-eight years, and they’ve sat on my book-shelves here for fourteen years before I’ve finally got around to reading them. And… Emprise was Kube-McDowell’s debut novel. And so too for the sequels, Enigma (below) and Emprey. I’ve read other novels by Kube-McDowell – The Quiet Pools (1990) and Exile (1992) – but Emprise is not very good. It opens with a history lesson, which is never a good sign. Apparently, in the 1980s a secret group of scientists discovered a way to render all fission weapons inert. And they used it. This led to a series of short wars, and a total backlash against science. Both of which we’ve managed during the past 30 years anyway, without rendering nuclear weapons useless. In a regressive US, a lone secret radio astronomer discovers a signal. From a spacecraft approaching the Earth at near light-speed. He passes the news onto a British colleague… and within a few short years, there’s an international organisation, led by the prime minister of India, set up to build a  spacecraft to meet the alien before it gets too close to the Solar system. When news of the alien breaks, it leads to a Church of the Second Coming, which believes the spacecraft contains angels. Anyway, the Earth spacecraft gets built and intercepts the alien… And its crew are human. From a colony apparently founded from Earth. By a technological civilisation which was wiped out by the last Ice Age. Publishing has changed in the thirty-plus years since Emprise was published, and debut novels these days are way ore polished than this one. A lot of the story is massively Americocentric, despitr not being set in the US. That church, for example: it becomes so powerful, it threatens to shut down the building of the spacecraft. There is no mention of any other religion. Indeed, the Indian PM’s religion is never actually named. If I had had all three books on my bookshelves, and felt slightly guilty for owning them so long without reading them, I doubt I’d have bothered with the sequels. Avoid.

Enigma (Trigon Disunity 2), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1986, USA). And avoid is not something I did, because I sort of felt I ought to complete the trilogy. Admittedly, they were fast reads – two days per book, pretty much – but they were also poor books. In this second one, the Earth has FTL ships searching for further colonies by those Ice Age Founders. And they’ve discovered a few, some now extinct. The novel is Merritt Thackeray’s story. He starts out as a student at a Government Service school, transfers to a Technical School, and ends up as a contact linguist on a survey ship. He’s an unlikable protagonist, and even Kube-McDowell’s attempts to make him sympathetic never really make him less annoying. At one colony, he disobeys orders and discovers the colony’s secret – that they were visited by the alien D’Shanna, who convinced them there was no point in existing any longer. Thackeray spends the rest of the novel hunting down the D’shanna… only to discover they’re not the villains. They’re energy beings from an alternate energy dimension, and one of them shows him the fate of the Ice Age Founders – they were wiped out by another alien race because one of the Founder’s colony ships had invaded their space. Enigma is better-written than Emprise, but not by much. However, it also introduces the trilogy’s big flaw: shit aliens. Who does energy-being aliens these days? They were a shit idea back in the days of the original Star Trek. The Trigon Disunity triogy is essentially a future history with Star Trek super-powerful aliens, and even for the 1980s it’s poor stuff. Especially for the late 1980s. New Space Opera was just starting to kick off, you had authors like Paul McAuley writing solid hard sf, not to mention the likes of CJ Cherryh, SN Lewitt or Susan Shwartz, among others…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Moving pictures 2018, #43

I’ve been a bit lazy with my choices of viewing of late. I blame the weather. Although I have an air-conditioner, it’s not very effective, and it’s often too hot in the evenings to sit and concentrate on a movie. Not that any of the below could be described as moving wallpaper… But you know what I mean.

Love Me Tonight*, Rouben Mamoulian (1932, USA). Given the power of Hollywood, it’s often easy to forget – in the Anglophone world, that is – that Hollywood was not the only place where films were being made during the medium’s first few decades. Germany had a strong film industry in the 1920s – Alfred Hitchcock learnt much of his trade there. Then there’s the UK: during the same decade, HG Wells wrote three short silent films especially for Elsa Lanchester, as I recently learnt. And France, where Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer made some of his best films; not to mention local directors such as Abel Gance or Georges Méliès. And China, which produced The Goddess (see here) and Song at Midnight in the 1930s. And the USSR… In fact, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list contains 83 films from the 1930s. Fifty-seven are from the US! France is next highest with 12, then Germany with 5, the UK with 3, and then China with 2. The remaining nations are Brazil, Spain, Japan and the USSR. But 57 from the US! Okay, so it’s easier for the US-based list makers to find early US films than early films from other nations, but that shows a piss-poor effort to track down non-US examples. One of which, Limite (see here), from Brazil, wasn’t even available at the time the list was first made, and its reputation existed mostly as hearsay (bolstered by Orson Welles declaring himself a fan after a private showing back in 1942!). All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying I cannot honestly see why Love Me Tonight made the list. It’s basically a fairy-tale recast as an early Gene Kelly musical, but with Maurice Chevalier in the lead role. You know what I mean – there’s something fairy-tale about all of Gene Kelly’s musicals, whether it’s the plots or the dream-like dance sequences or the character Kelly usually plays. Chevalier is a tailor, who is owed a great deal of money by an aristocrat (this is a recurring motif in Western European history and fiction, you’d think we’d fucking learn not to trust the nobs), so he sets off to demand what he is owed. He bumps into a princess, declares his undying love, is presented as a baron at the chateau because his debtor doesn’t want to embarrass himself… and, well, it’s a story which should end with a tumbril and not with the two lovers re-united. And I really can’t understand the appeal of Chevalier, who galumphs about like a Cary Grant cast in ‘Allo ‘Allo, and whose singing voice was nothing to, er, shout about. I have enjoyed, and even admired, some of the 1930s US films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’ve been baffled by the inclusion of most of them. This definitely falls into that latter group.

The Odyssey, Jérôme Salle (2016, France). The more sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the three actors on the cover of the DVD have the wrong names underneath. Which seems like a pretty dumb mistake to let through on the packaging. Anyway, The Odyssey is a biopic of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, as played by Lambert Wilson. I remember Cousteau from my own childhood. His films seemed to always be on television, although whether that was UK television or UAE television, I can’t remember. But I certainly remember his ship Calypso, the diving saucer, and the divers with their distinctive streamlined yellow scuba gear. I’m not young enough to remember his Conshelf underwater habitats, although I’ve read up on them in the last few years, and even have a  copy of the film made about Conshelf II, World Without Sun (see here). So Cousteau was not a figure that was unfamiliar to me, and I was aware of many of his achievements. Having said that, I knew little about his career, just the highlights really. I hadn’t known he was partly funded by the French Ministry of Petroleum, and was responsible for discovering a number of oilfields in the Middle East. Or that his business was in debt to the tune of millions of dollars during the 1980s. Unfortunately, The Odyssey wants to be about JYC’s (as his friends called him) relationship with his youngest son, Phillippe, who initially turned his back on his father and his career, but later joined him and became Cousteau’s lead cinematographer. He also died in a seaplane crash in 1979 – this is no spoiler, as the film opens with the crash. On the one hand, The Odyssey wants to be a biopic of JYC; on the other, it wants to be a father-son drama (because apparently the French think that’s what cinema should be about too); and on the other hand, you have Audrey Tatou as the put-upon wife who acts as “mother” and “shepherdess” (her nickname) to the crew of Calypso… The end-result is a film which has plenty of drama but none of the wonder of Cousteau’s own films about the oceans. The leads are good in their roles, but the focus feels too… land-bound. It comes as no surprise that Cousteau was a bad businessman, or that he was bad at picking business partners. He was a dreamer, and his films get that across much better than The Odyssey does. I enjoyed it, and I find Cousteau an interesting person, but I’d sooner watch one of JYC’s own films, if I’m honest.

The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau (2016, USA). Disney has been on a mission this century to remake all its classic animation feature films as live-action. I’ve no idea why. Earlier attempts, like 1996’s 101 Dalmations, were hardly successful. Having said that, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella from 2015 (see here) isn’t half bad, and Sleeping Beauty (see here; the greatest Disney film ever made) was not so much remade as, er, sequelised with Maleficent. But The Jungle Book is not a film you’d expect to be given the live-action treatment. Chiefly because all of its character but one are, well, talking animals. And while WC Fields may have said, “never work with animals or children”, animals can’t actually, er, talk, which pretty much fucks up the entire story of The Jungle Book. So Jon Favreau uses CGI animals. And they look very realistic. But, of course, each animal character – Baloo, Arkela, Shere Khan, Bagheera, King Louie, and so on – needs a human actor to provide their voice. And that’s where Favreau screwed it up. It’s a good cast, an excellent cast, But so hugely miscast. Idris Elbas as Shere Khan? WTF? Bill Murray as Baloo? What the actual fuck? Disney’s original The Jungle Book is a film from my childhood. I remember seeing it in the gym at the Doha English Speaking School in the early 1970s. We also had a LP of songs from Disney films, which featured the best-known song from The Jungle Book abd other films, and which we played relentlessly when we lived in Rumeilah (an area of Doha). So, on the one hand, it’s “mess with my childhood icons at your own peril”, but, on the other, some previous attempts had actually been quite good. I wish I could say The Jungle Book fell into the latter category. The CGI animals are, unsurprisingly, fantastic to look at – even if their voices are so badly chosen. And the story sticks mostly to the Disney animated film. The musical cues make use of the songs from the animated film, without actually being, well, sung. Which feels sort of half-hearted and is disappointing. King Louis is converted into a Gigantopithecus (which allegedly existed from the late Miocene to the mid-Pleistocene), which is no more plausible than the animated film’s orang-utan but does, I have to admit, look pretty cool. But, despite all that, The Jungle Book feels mostly like a showreel for CGI. It’s like an advert for the state-of-the-art. Kipling’s collection of short stories has been well and truly buried. Instead of making a “better” The Jungle Book, Favreau should have gone back to the source. Instead, he’s produced a photo-realistic version of Disney’s 1967 animated film, but taken all the fun out of it. I admit The Jungle Book is not a Disney animated film I hold in especially high regard, but it deserved a better remake than this.

Devil Girl from Mars, David MacDonald (1954, UK). There are a lot of sf B-movies available on Amazon Prime, probably because they’re all out of copyright and watchable copies have been digitised at some point somewhere. Whether they should have been is an entirely different matter. I’d argue that Devil Girl from Mars, which is British rather than American, is one that deserved being better known, even if it’s not that good a film and was roundly panned on its release. Perversely, it is its failures to abide by sf B-movie clichés which makes it interesting. It is, sort of, an Alien precursor. A group of people are trapped at a remote Scottish hotel when a flying saucer lands nearby. They are terrorised by the UFO’s crew, the so-called “Devil Girl”, and her crap-looking robot. They plot among themselves to save the Earth from the threat represented by the Devil Girl – she is, apparently, the scout for an invading force from Mars. The plot is enlivened by the trapped guests’ dynamics. One is an escaped murderer under an assumed name. Another is a scientist sceptical of UFOs. True, the story is somewhat formulaic – N’yah, the Martian, appears in the hotel, tells the trapped guests what they can and cannot do, and leaves. They then discuss what she has said. But the focus is on the characters trapped in the hotel, in response to the threat posed by N’yah, than it is in the N’yah and the threat she poses. In the end, the scientist figures out a way for N’yah’s flying saucer to be destroyed… but only by someone willing to sacrifice themselves. Which leads to, well, a competition among the men to decide who should be the one to blow up the UFO. The acting is not especially good, the special effects are risible (especially the robot), and the studio sets aren’t very convincing. N’yah’s fetish wear doesn’t much resemble what you’d expect the captain of spaceship from Mars to be wearing. This is by no means a great film, but for all its faults it’s not a bad B-movie.

By the Bluest of Seas, Boris Barnet (1936, Russia). I mentioned films from the 1930s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, sand that there was only one from the USSR – it’s Zemlya by Aleksandr Dovzhenko (see here). Which is an excellent film. But Boris Barnet also made some excellent films during the 1930s. Not just By the Bluest of Seas, but also Outskirts (see here). Not to mention Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (see here). Eisenstein does appear on the list – several times, in fact. But not Barnet. Which is a surprise. This film has been accused – by Western critics – of being propaganda, which shows a remarkable lack of self-consciousness, if not honesty, on the part of those critics, as Western, especially Hollywood, movies have been propaganda for, variously, the American Dream, capitalism or consumerism since the early days of cinema. And in these times of overt product placement and merchandising, they’re even more propaganda tools. But, of course, when it applies to capitalism, it’s not propaganda. Because propaganda is political but capitalism is not. If you think that, I suggest you go back to kindergarten as you’ve entirely missed the point of the modern fucking world. Anyway, in By the Bluest of Seas, two sailors are washed ashore a Caspian Sea island during a storm, and join the collective farm located there. Both of them are attracted to the leader of the kolkhoz – that’s her on the DVD cover – and so vie for her attentions. But, after various attempts to win her favour, including a fishing trip during which she is washed overboard and believed lost, but then washes ashore later, they learn she has a fiancé off fighting in the Pacific. It’s not the most original of stories, and its depiction of kolkhoz life probably understates the hardships, but Barnet’s cinematography is really quite good, especially the scenes set on boats during storms. And, for all that, nothing in it felt like propaganda. I could argue that not only is all cinema propaganda, but that it should be more overtly propaganda. And sf should be didactic. But I like my propaganda honest about its intentions – which is more than can be said for Hollywood’s product placement deals, etc – so that at least I can decide how to take it. If, as stated earlier, By the Bluest of Seas presents an overly rosy view of life in a kolkhoz, not to mention the benefits of such a system, then what’s the problem? By the Bluest of Seas is an extremely well-shot, if somewhat hackneyed, romantic triangle set in 1930s USSR. This film should certainly have been considered for the 1001 Movies  You Must See Before You Die list; all of Barnet’s film probably should have been.

Desert Ark, Mohamed Chouikh (1997, Algeria). I now have all four of these Great African Films DVDs. ArtMattan are continuing to release DVDs, but the fourth volume seems to be the last in this series. Their DVDs are also really hard to find – ie, expensive – on this side of the Atlantic, and their website is so 1990s you can only order on it and pay by “check”. Sigh. A big shame, because Africa – which is a continent – has a rich tradition of film-making, some African nations perhaps more than others, but pretty much all of which are hard to find in the UK. This particular volume of Great African Films also includes Daratt by Mahamat Saleh Haroun, a Chadian director, whose movies are released on DVD in the UK (and for good reason – they are excellent) The other film in this set is Desert Ark, by Algerian director Mohamed Chouikh (that’s French orthography, so in English orthography it would probably be Shwaykh). The story pits two tribes, one nominally Berber, against each other over an illicit love affair between a young man from one and a young woman from the other. On the one hand, it’s all intended to be figurative; on the other, artificial tribal affiliations aside, this is something that happens in real life and, despite the attempts of reconciliation by a local mullah, it quickly escalates to violence and outright war. Chouikh’s film is clearly meant to be cautionary, but in the twenty years since it was made the world has become much more violent and intolerant. Which means that Chouikh’s flights of fancy – casting the film as an allegory of life aboard Noah’s Ark – actually mean less than the narrative as presented. The final scenes, in which the two lovers stumble across a ship becalmed in the desert, feel like whimsy rather than the culmination of an allegorical commentary. There is, of course, nothing allegorical about a bullet. Or indeed metaphorical. If anything, bullets are items that are usually turned into metaphors. But when you have two tribes using guns to protect something as nebulous and worthless as “honour” – even worse than that, male honour as embodied in women as chattel – then you have a conflict that is never really going to be resolved until all the men involved have been re-educated as human beings. Desert Ark tells a story specific to its country of origin, but its themes are universal. It really deserves a wider release than it received.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 927