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Moving pictures, #26

I need to get my cable telly sorted out. I have a nice large flatscreen TV set, but no HD channels – so everything looks blobby, and even with my piss-poor eyesight it’s off-putting. As a result, I’ve been mostly watching DVDs and Blu-rays. Sometimes as many as three or four a day on the weekends. Such as the following:

36th_shaolinThe 36th Chamber of Shaolin*, Chia-Liang Liu (1978, Hong Kong). Most movies are, of course, commercial endeavours. That’s why we have the concept of “box office”. The amount of money a film makes is taken as an indicator of its success – and, by foolish people, of its quality. And yet, commercially successful works can prove to be lasting art, even if not designed to be. Of course, there are directors – and this applies to all creatives – who can convince themselves their crass banal commercial output is real art, but their films usually go straight to DVD. Which is a long-winded way of saying that a Shaolin kung fu film is an unlikely entry to find on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, given that it was likely banged out quickly to capitalise on a particular movie craze. (We are after all talking about a film produced by a company who made 1000 films between 1958 and 1997.) And yet, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is not only considered a classic of the kung fu genre but, by virtue of being on the list, a classic of cinema – perhaps because it’s so exemplary of its genre. A young man decides to seek vengeance after his friends and family are killed by Manchu soldiers, so he enrolls in a Shaolin temple and works his way up the 35 levels of kung fu. I had expected this to be a bit dull – I’m not a fan of martial arts films – perhaps a bit like A Touch Of Zen; but it actually proved a lot of fun. Perhaps it’s the structure, the young man working his way up each of the 35 levels, often failing comically at first on each level. Worth seeing.

decline_americanThe Decline Of The American Empire*, Denys Arcand (1986, Canada). Four couples arrange a dinner party. The men make the food at one of the homes while the women visit the gym. They talk. You know when people joke that literary fiction is all about white middle class people and their disintegrating marriages? This is the cinematic equivalent. And it’s very dull. I’ve no idea why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it doesn’t do anything interesting or innovative, and while it has the odd moment of wit (and what film doesn’t? Um, best not answer that…) it offers no new insights – on a topic that is probably the most documented in Western literature and cinema, the white middle class marriage. Not worth seeing.

floating_weedsFloating Weeds*, Yasujiru Ozu (1959, Japan). The only other Ozu I’ve seen is Tokyo Story and that was back in 2009. I’m aware of his stature in Japanese cinema, but while I’ve watched a number of classic Japanese films I’ve not made any real effort to explore the country’s cinematic history. I know people who rate Ozu very highly, but on the strength of that previous film I wasn’t entirely sure why. Floating Weeds, on the other hand… It’s good; actually, it’s very good. It’s a little problematic – the central male character is violent towards women on several occasions, and it’s very unpleasant to watch. But the cinematography is wonderful to look at, and the relationships between the characters are handled with intelligence and nuance. Having said that, the pacing is somewhat on the leisurely side and the plot is perhaps overly stuffed. The film is set in 1958 at a seaside town. A travelling theatre troupe arrives, and it turns out the troupe’s star is the father of the young man who works in the post office and whose mother runs a local tea shop/bar. The lead actress of the troupe, who is in a relationship with the star, is afraid she’s losing him, so she pays another actress to seduce the son… Then it transpires the troupe is out of money and will have to disband, and certain relationships all start to implode quite messily. I think I might watch some more Ozu after seeing this one – and not just that one film of his on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve yet to see…

cityofgodCity of God*, Fernando Meireilles & Kátia Lund (2002, Brazil). A charity shop find. The film is set in the Rio de Janeiro favela of the title, and is apparently based on real events. The film’s narrator is on the edge of violence between rival drug dealers in City of God, and the movie is presented as a series of stories told by him about the various major players, and often jumps back and forth chronologically – in fact, the film opens with the scene which starts the final sequence of the plot. The bulk of the cast were apparently non-professionals, trained up by the directors, as they felt that would give the film a more authentic feel. And it does. I’m guessing the casual violence is also authentic – and it’s horrible and disturbing to watch, such as, for example when there are things like a young boy walking into a brothel and shooting everyone he sees. That young boy, named as “Little Dice” in the subtitles, grows up to be one of the two main drug dealers in the favela, and he only leaves his rival alone because his best friend, Benny, is friends with him. But when Benny is shot and killed, all-out war erupts. And it’s war with young men and boys as the fighters, using all manner of firearms. City of God is one of those films which makes you wonder why governments around the world insist on criminalising drugs. It’s almost as if they didn’t want to win the “War on Drugs”… The film span off a television series, City Of Men, which was itself adapted for cinema. The non-professional cast, incidentally, couldn’t return to their old lives in the favelas after filming, and so were given help to improve their situation. Which is about the only heart-warming thing about the whole film.

woman_dunesWoman of The Dunes*, Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964, Japan). Teshigahara is a director new to me, as is Kobo Abe, the author from whose novel this film was adapted (and it’s not the only Abe novel Teshigahara adapted). But on the strength of Woman of The Dunes I’ll definitely be trying more Teshigahara movies and perhaps even having a go at reading one of Abe’s novels. In this film, a high school teacher on holiday is indulging in his hobby, collecting and categorising seaside insects. He falls asleep in the sun and misses the last bus home, but some men from the nearby village offer him a bed for the night. This proves to be in a house in a pit in the sand dunes, a pit that can only be accessed by rope ladder. And the following morning, he learns he is to be kept a prisoner there with the house’s occupant, a young woman. The pair are, in effect, sacrifices to the sand. As long as they remain in the house in the pit, shovelling at the sand, it won’t engulf the village – and it’s implied there are other pits too. The teacher, of course, tries to escape, but none of his attempts succeed. Eventually he resigns himself to his situation, and the film ends with a shot of a missing persons report dated seven years later. Good film, definitely worth seeing.

firemansballThe Fireman’s Ball*, Miloš Forman (1967, Czech Republic). Forman and screenwriters Ican Passer and Jarosalv Papoušek visited the town of Vrchlabí in order to work on the script of their new film, and while there attended a real fireman’s ball and were so amused by its piss-poor organisation that they decided to base a film on it. There’s a sort of black humour common to East and Central Europe – I’ve seen it mostly in Polish films, probably because I’ve seen more films of the region from that country – and The Fireman’s Ball is a beautifully-judged example. It’s not just the constant bickering and fatalism, but the way things always play out for the worse. The firemen have arranged a raffle for the ball, but as the film progresses the prizes go missing one by one. They arrange an impromptu beauty contest so the winner can present a gift to the retired chairman of the fire brigade, but the contestants all refuse to participate when called up onto the stage. An old man’s house bursts into flames, but all the firemen manage to rescue his some of his furniture. The film’s start was somewhat unprepossessing, so I wasn’t expecting much. But once the ball was in full swing, it definitely picked up and I really enjoyed it.

war_gameThe War Game*, Peter Watkins (1965, UK). From the perspective of twenty-five years later, the Cold War may seem like a weird period of global insanity, but it certainly felt very real at the time. US/USSR posturing inspired countless plots for books and films and television, and while the threat of World War III never seemed all that likely – the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, for example, and the West responded by, er, boycotting the Moscow Olympics – the consequences of nuclear armageddon were all too often publicised. In films such as The War Game, Threads and The Day After. The third of those is pretty terrible, a piece of meretricious and melodramatic US tosh, marketed on its supposed accuracy but more closely resembling a soap opera. Threads is especially effective, although its low budget does tell against it. And it might well be said the same is true of The War Game. Unlike the other two, The War Game is framed as a documentary describing life after a nuclear strike on the UK. And it’s very effective. So much so, in fact, that the BBC refused to broadcast despite commissioning it and it wasn’t shown on British television until 1985 – despite winning the Oscar for best documentary in 1966. After watching this, I decided to buy a copy, but the BFI one shown is deleted. So I ended up buying a collection of Watkins films released in France. So that should make for some cheerful viewing… Definitely worth seeing, nonetheless.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 640


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The rain in Spain falls mainly on the Moon

Next month sees the publication in Spain of the second volume in the Nova Fantástica series of anthologies edited by Mariano Villarreal. This volume is titled A la deriva en el Mar de las Lluvias y otros relatos, and the linguistically talented among you will have spotted that the title translates as Adrift on the Sea of Rains and Other Stories. My novella, translated by Diego de los Santos, is only one among several award winners and nominees in a star-studded table of contents. Just looking at it makes me come over all unnecessary:

1 ‘La señora astronauta de Marte’ (The Lady Astronaut of Mars), Mary Robinette Kowal
2 ‘Algoritmos para el amor’ (The Algorithms for Love), Ken Liu
3 ‘Frigonovia’ (Bridesicle), Will McIntosh
4 ‘Regreso a casa’ (The Homecoming), Mike Resnick
5 ‘La verdad de los hechos, la verdad del corazón’ (The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling), Ted Chiang
6 ‘Si fueras un dinosario, amor mío’ (If You Were a Dinosaur, my love), Rachel Swirsky
7 ‘La Amaryllis’ (Amaryllis), Carrie Vaughn
8 ‘A la deriva en el mar de las Lluvias’ (Adrift on the Sea of Rains), Ian Sales

aladerivaenmarlluvias-ok

More details (in Spanish) can be found here, and the anthology can be pre-ordered on Amazon (Spain here and US here). Of course, Adrift on the Sea of Rains is still available in English – as are the other three books of the Apollo Quartet: The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above and All That Outer Space Allows (the titles link to Amazon, but you can also buy them from the Whippleshield Books website here).


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Moving pictures, #25

I should really get into the habit of reading a book in the evening. The TBR is shrinking far too slowly, and the DVD collection is growing far too quickly. And, sadly, not every film I’ve watched was worth the hour or two it took to sit through it. This is hardly a surprise, however. As some of the films described below might attest.

tabuTabu: A Story of the South Seas*, FW Murnau (1931, USA). I’m a big fan of Murnau’s Nosferatu, and I’ve been picking up copies of his other films – in the excellent Masters of Cinema series by eureka! – on DVD. Tabu: A Story of the South Seas was Murnau’s last film (he died a week before its opening) and, despite the year, it’s a silent film. The film apparently had a troubled gestation. Murnau joined forces with Robert J Flaherty, who had experience filming in Tahiti. Neithr could raise sufficient capital, so Murnau financed the bulk of the movie himself. In order to save money, Murnau trained locals as crew. He also rewrote the script, which caused problems with Flaherty – and their relationship subsequently worsened to the point where Flaherty no longer co-directed. The movie makes a point of its cast also being native to the region – an opening intertitle states that “only native-born South Sea islanders appear in this picture with a few half-castes and Chinese”, although the second half of the film is set at a French colony and features some French characters. A young woman of Bora Bora is is declared sacred to the gods, which somewhat upsets her boyfriend as she is now “tabu” (er, taboo). So they escape and settle at a nearby French colony. But, of course, the course of true love never runs smooth, not even in the South Seas. And so it proves here. There’s some remarkable photography, and I can only imagine its impact back in the 1930s when the nearest most movie-goers would get to Polynesia is a poster in a shipping office in their nearest port city. Worth seeing.

moontrapMoontrap, Robert Dyke (1989, USA). I have no idea why I put this on my rental list, but as soon as the film started and I saw it starred Walter Koenig, I knew I’d made a mistake. And Koenig’s hair looked almost real, so the film was a good deal older than I’d thought (that DVD cover makes it look a good deal more recent). There’s some nonsense about ancient astronauts, and one of their derelict spaceships drifts into Earth orbit, and a base on the Moon that was abandoned, as the DVD cover says, 14,000 years ago. But it all ends up as a really crap robot-type thing wreaking havoc in a secret base, and Koenig on the Moon – featuring scenes with model work more obvious even than Michael Bentine’s Potty Time – where he re-awakens a nubile ancient astronaut… leading to a later scene of lunar hanky-panky in an inflatable tent. This is a shit film, the sort of movie that its cast refuse to put on their cv’s, even Bruce Campbell who is a major cult actor. Except perhaps not the director, who probably still thinks it’s really good. He is very wrong.

souffleLe souffle au cœur*, Louis Malle (1971, France). Malle is, I think, another one of those French directors, like Bresson, whose movies don’t really work for me. Others, such as Varda, Godard or Truffaut, I like some of their films but not others; and yet other French directors – Ozon, Rohmer, for example – I like pretty much everything of theirs I’ve seen. Anyway, Le souffle au cœur – better known among Anglophone film-watchers, perhaps, as Murmur of the Heart – is about a fifteen-year-old boy who, while at a sanatorium recovering from a bout of scarlet fever, has sex with his mother. The film is set during the 1950s, although there’s a very 1970s look and feel to it. The movie is apparently notable for its jazz score, but not being a jazz fan the thing that stood out for me was the juvenile objectification of women – which is, unfortunately, something all too common to commercial art of the 1970s and earlier. While the aforementioned fifteen-year-old is the film’s protagonist, and hence point-of-view, there’s no nuance to it – and, in fact, at the sanatorium a pair of teenage girls are presented as little more than targets to be conquered. Disappointing.

faster_pussycatFaster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!*, Russ Meyer (1965, USA). Back in the 1980s, I remember staying at my aunt and uncle’s and watching Jonathan Ross’s The Incredibly Strange Film Show, an episode of which featured Russ Meyer. In the, er, decades since, I’ve seen Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which was pretty crap; and I can’t honestly say I’d ever bother watching any of his other films, but Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is – bafflingly – on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list so I dutifully added it to my rental list. Much is made of the fact the film features three women as its protagonists, and they are indeed strong murderous women, especially the leader, the scenery-chewing Tura Satana. Three exotic dancers in fast cars head out into the Californian desert, challenge a young man to a race, beat him to death afterwards, then descend on a nearby farm whose owner apparently has lots of money hidden somewhere… where things start to go wrong. The film is shot in black and white, with a mostly unprofessional cast, and whatever energy it possesses is likely a result of financial constraints than artistic agenda. It’s mildly amusing… and somewhat scary that this film stands out because of its gender roles – because, to be honest, stuff like that should not be remarkable.

ninotchkaNinotchka*, Ernst Lubitsch (1939, USA). “Garbo laughs!” At least so the posters for this movie claimed; and there she is, laughing, on the DVD cover – as if she had never laughed in a film before ever. But I suppose a film about wealthy White Russian aristocrats versus dour Red Russians, even if the latter are mostly comedic, probably didn’t make for an appealing tagline in pre-WWII USA. I know this movie better as its 1957 musical remake starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, Silk Stockings, but other than the latter being filmed in colour, and featuring some singing and dancing, there’s not a fat lot of difference between the two. (Garbo’s Russian accent is, perhaps, a teensy-weensy bit less crap than Charisse’s.) Three Soviets head to Paris to sell off some jewellery for much-needed state cash, but the White Russian original owner of the baubles has other plans. When the title character is sent to learn what happened to the bumbling three, it gets all romantic and the icy Soviet envoy thaws. Meh.

mortdecaiMortdecai, David Koepp (2015, UK). This is apparently based on a series of books by Kyril Bonfiglioli, originally published in the 1970s. I’m told the books are good. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the movie. You know when you watch something and even though it’s set in the present day (ie, the second decade of the twenty-first century) everything in its seems weirdly old-fashioned – like that Paddington film, for instance. And like this one. I suspect it would have felt old-fashioned if it had been made in the 1970s. Depp plays the title character, a louche art dealer who’s a little too fond of bending the law. One of his previous swindles comes back to bite him, and the plot of the film is basically him running around trying to run a con to save his own skin and his weird rockstar stately home. There are a couple of funny set-pieces, but Depp plays his role like Mortdecai is a grotesque and the whole 2015 mise en scène just doesn’t suit the story at all. You could try watching it pissed but I suspect it would be no better. In fact, it’s so meh I can’t even be arsed to try reading the books…

last_picture_showThe Last Picture Show*, Peter Bogdanovich (1971, USA). This is one of those films which launched a number of careers, not just director Bogdanovich’s, but also Cybill Shepherd and Jeff Bridges; and apparently had loads of Oscar nominations (but only two wins – for best supporting actress and best supporting actor). There must be something about the set-up which appeals to audiences but I can’t see it myself. Small US town, lives going nowhere, it’s been covered so many times in US films and books it’s gone beyond banal. I can’t even honestly day that Bogdanovich brings anything new to the cliché. There are a handful of small touches which work quite, most notably some of the character arcs, and the narrative flow through the film is smooth and builds well to the conclusion. I suppose there’s a point to be made in that I found this mostly dull but I love All That Heaven Allows, which is also set in small town USA during the 1950s. And both are, in their own way, tragedies. But Sirk’s film charts a downward trajectory, whereas Bogdanovich’s starts low and continues at that level before sinking even deeper. I also love Sirk’s Technicolor cinematography. The two films, to my mind, don’t really compare.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 634


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Moving pictures, #24

I’m now receiving five rental DVDs a week – so with that, cable television, my own (expanding) DVD/Blu-ray collection, and a Fire TV Stick, I’m making pretty good headway through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Not sure what happens when I finish it, however. Not sure I want to know. I don’t, of course, write about every film I’ve seen, chiefly because some of them are rubbish and not worth mentioning. Which doesn’t mean all of the films I do write about are good.

muriels_weddingMuriel’s Wedding*, PJ Hogan (1994, Australia). I can remember when everyone was talking about this film, but I never actually got to see it myself at that time. But now I have. And, well… it’s amusing, I suppose – although a corrupt small-town businessman and his feckless offspring are hardly the most edifying of subjects. Toni Collette is good in the title role, but I could never work out if she was supposed to be stupid or malicious. Both, I suspect. In many respects, the film reminded me of an ABC television series from the 1990s, SeaChange, which I really liked (it’s never been broadcast in the UK, I saw it on Dubai’s Channel 33). It too was set in a small seaside town and featured a casst of Australian working-class grotesques. Co-star Rachel Griffiths also reminded me a lot of Juliette Lewis, particularly from Natural Born Killers, which I’d watched a couple of weeks ago – it made for an odd viewing experiencing. An entertaining comedy, but I’m not sure it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But I am glad I finally got to see it.

imitation_gameThe Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum (2014, USA). Alan Turing’s contribution to computer science and code-breaking during World War II is pretty well-known. His contribution to wartime espionage, however, isn’t. Which is probably because he made zero contribution to wartime espionage. Which is not what this awful film would have you believe. Remember U-571? A glossy Hollywood WWII movie about the quest to capture a German Enigma machine and code books so that allies could decipher enemy communications? Remember how U-571 claimed the first Enigma machine was captured by the hardy crew of a US submarine… and so pissed off an entire nation because it was British sailors who’d captured the first Enigma machine before the USA even entered the war. The Imitation Game, despite its British setting and British cast, is a US film. And plays the same stupid games with historical fact. According to The Imitation Game, Turing not only single-handedly cracked the Enigma code but also managed to unmask the Soviet spy at Bletchley Park. It’s all nonsense, of course, and the Wikipedia post on the film has a sizeable section on the accuracy (well, lack thereof) of the movie. As for Benidorm Cucumbersandwich, he’s a bit one-note, isn’t he; and it’s getting a trifle monotonous. A film best avoided.

the_signalThe Signal, William Eubank (2014, USA). I love how science fiction is open to enigmatic stories, and I love how cinema as a medium is also suited to such stories… I mean, most of Sokurov’s films are bafflingly opaque, but I still love them. And in written science fiction, I prefer genre as far away from pulpish action/adventure as it can get. You’d think The Signal would be right up my alley, in my bailiwick, etc, etc. So it’s a shame I found The Signal so dull. I certainly believe it’s possible to put an interesting spin on familiar tropes, and this film tries desperately hard to do that. But it never quite comes off. Three MIT students track a hacker to a remote location, where they experience a close encounter. They’re then captured and held in a secret underground research facility, but manage to escape. Only to learn things are not what they thought they were. I suppose those three MIT students are the first turn-off – stories which rely on exceptional protagonists are never going to appeal to me because I am no longer a teenager. But there are some nice ideas in The Signal, it’s just that they’re married to a plot that’s far too… Hollywood, and that works against it. Disappointing.

idiotsThe Idiots, Lars von Trier (1998, Denmark). The more films by von Trier I watch, the more of a fan I’m becoming. I like the fact he pushes hard against what cinema is, he uses it to tell stories that most would either shy away from (perhaps for good reason) or for which cinema would not seem a suitable medium. I think The Idiots falls into the former category, because it’s a pretty tasteless plot. A group of relatively well-off adults spend their time acting as if they are mentally disabled in public. They’re not doing it to prove a point, or to make clear a social injustice. Their motives are mostly selfish, and their behaviour mostly designed to be offensive and shocking. The film has, understandably, proven controversial. I think it – accidentally – makes a few valid points, though I suspect von Trier was inspired more by shock value than social policy. Having said that, a lot has changed since 1998 in regard to care, and there are films like Elling which present an entirely different picture. Von Trier is building up an enviable oeuvre, and I suspect he will be one of a handful of present-day directors still to appear on critics’ lists of best films fifty years from now.

mother_indiaMother India*, Mehboob Khan, (1952, India). There’s melodrama and then there’s meloDRAMA. This definitely falls into the latter category. The title makes it clear that the central role – Radha, played by Nargis – is a stand-in for the nation itself, although apparently the title was also chosen as a direct rebuttal to Ketherine Mayo’s 1927 anti-Indian polemic, also titled Mother India. When Radha marries, her mother borrows money from the local moneylender, who takes advantage of her illiteracy by taking three-quarters of their crop each year as interest – so they can never pay it back (just like those payday loan companies who advertise on television then). This effectively consigns Radha and her new husband to poverty, a situation which only worsens when he loses both his arms after a heavy boulder crushes them. And then her houses burns to the ground. And her eldest son grows up to be a total prat and joins a group of bandits. It’s like a soap opera but with everything dialled up to eleven. Highly entertaining, it has to be said; but it’s not Ritwik Ghatak or Satyajit Ray, and it’s not as fun and fluffy as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (all of which I recommend).

iamafugitiveI am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang*, Mervyn LeRoy (1932, USA). I honestly couldn’t work out if this was a satire of capitalism and the American Dream, or an attempt to show both in a positive and aspirational light. A young man returns to the US after WWI but is dissatisfied with his return to his pre-war job, dreaming of success in engineering. So he leaves and travels the country, taking up unskilled labour jobs to pay his way. Until, that is, he is inadvertently caught up in a bank robbery, arrested and sentenced to ten years on a chain gang. But he manages to escape after a couple of years, makes his way to Chicago, when he begins working in construction and subsequently works his way up to running his own highly successful business. But then his past is revealed, and hs lawyer suggests he owns up to his criminal past and hope that his present position as a pillar of the community will persuade them to reduce his sentence to time served. But they don’t. And he ends up back on the chain gang. For a 1932 film, this was surprisingly modern. Black and white, yes; and the staging was very much of its time, not that far advanced from silent movie days; but the message (a dirty word, I know) of the film very much resonates with the present day. A good film, and it probably does deserve to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

angel_faceAngel Face, Otto Preminger (1952, USA). I have yet to work out if Preminger was primarily a director-for-hire or an auteur since his oeuvre is pretty varied. He made some classic noir films, including Angel Face, but also movies like Carmen Jones and Bonjour Tristesse and The Cardinal. I’ll admit I’ve liked most of his films I’ve seen so far, even the slightly odd ones like Bunny Lake Is Missing or Rosebud, but I still think of him primarily as a director of noir films. In this one, Robert Mitchum, who never seems quite like he fits in, plays an ambulance driver who responds to a gas poisoning at a wealthy writer’s mansion, later ends up in a relationship with the writer’s daughter (Jean Simmons), is employed as her chauffeur… but she murders her parents, he tries to get out of the relationship and it all goes a bit pear-shaped. Throughout the film, Mitchum looks like a man out of his comfort zone, and while that might suit some roles it doesn’t quite apply here. Simmons is good, completely bonkers and totally plausible with it. The problems inherent in the affluent Hollywood set versus working-class probably needed to be highlighted, especially when you consider most noir films involve working class characters. Angel Face had its moments, but it’s neither Preminger’s best nor his best noir film. Still worth seeing, though.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 629


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Reading diary, #13

More books read. Not as many as I’d like. Especially when I see the size of the TBR…

bone_clocksThe Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014). According to my records, I read Cloud Atlas back in April 2009, likely as a result of recommendations by friends and acquaintances. I thought the novel good, but it didn’t quite gel for me. I then worked my way through Mitchell’s oeuvre – number9dream, Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – over the following three years. Last year, The Bone Clocks was published… Initial noises were good, but then a few dissenting voices appeared… What was clear, however, was that it was structured as a series of linked novellas and that it moved deeper into genre territory as it progressed. I was, I admit, expecting a novel not unlike Cloud Atlas, one that had many impressive pieces but together left me feeling a little disappointed. Happily, this wasn’t the case at all. True, you wait for a book about conspiracies of body-hopping immortals and three come along at once – there are elements of The Bone Clocks that are reminiscent of Claire North’s Touch and of Marcel Theoux’s Strange Bodies – although for secret wars masterminded by hidden groups, you might as well go all the way back to EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Arisians and Eddorians. The Bone Clocks follows Holly Sykes from her teen years in southern England, when she runs away from home, through to a post-apocalyptic Ireland some thirty years from now. Along the way, other voices occasionally take over the narrative, such as egocentric author Crispin Hershey (based on Martin Amis?), a well-handled pastiche although it reminds me of Charles Palliser’s brilliant piss-take of Jeffrey Archer in Betrayals; and even one of the immortals, who is, at that time, occupying the body of a black Canadian psychologist. The two factions at war are the Horologists, who are serial reincarnators and seem to have arisen naturally among humans; and the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar, who are able to “decant” souls in order to extend their own lives. Holly becomes inadvertently involved with these two groups, partly because one of the immortals reincarnates in her younger brother, partly because the Horologists prevent her from being groomed to be “decanted”, and partly because she has a brief fling with Hugo Lamb, who is recruited by the Anchorites. Holly is a great character and Mitchell handles her brilliantly. Some of the other elements I found less successful – the Anchorites reminded me a little of the baddies in the bande dessinée L’Histoire secrète by Jean-Pierre Pécau (both have chief villains with no eyes); and the post-apocalypse scenario hewed somewhat too closely to the common template. Much has also been made of those characters which have appeared in other Mitchell novels and stories, but this is hardly unique nor does it add much to this novel. Nonetheless, a very good book, and I’m looking forward to reading Slade House.

The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril (1960). This is another book I bought at Archipelacon in Finland. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here. To be honest, the cover art is probably the best thing about it.

the_echoThe Echo, James Smythe (2014). Twenty years after the disastrous mission to interstellar space described in The Explorer, a pair of Swedish twins organise a second mission. This flight’s purpose is to investigate the “anomaly”, a “blackness of space” thought to be the cause of the loss of the previous mission. This new spacecraft, Lära, however, is not as “Hollywood” as the previous one, it’s smaller and much more compactly designed (although it still has room between the outer hull and the walls of the inner chambers for a member of the crew to hide). One of the twins, Mira, is leader of the expedition aboard the spacecraft, the other twin, Tomas, remains on Earth at mission control. The Echo is told entirely from Mira’s point of view, and this is stuff Smythe does really well. I’m still not convinced by his spacecraft (it’s unlikely, for example the twins would have had to invent a thruster system as all present-day spacecraft have used reaction control systems for close manoeuvring for decades) – or indeed some of the science in the book – but there’s an increasing level of creepiness as the novel progresses and that’s where the novel shines. It’s not just the anomaly itself – the title of the book pretty much signals what the crew of the Lära find when they arrive at it – but Mira himself and his thoughts and relationship with his twin brother, and the way he deals with the deaths of Lära’s crew. I think I could have done with a little more verisimilitude, something that nailed down the tech and science, but that’s a personal preference (and, to be fair, no one is selling The Echo on its scientific credentials, unlike the not-as-scientifically-correct-as-advertised The Martian (and that’s a completely unfair comparison anyway, because Smythe is a very good writer and Weir is a shit writer)). The Explorer and The Echo form the first half of the Anomaly Quartet, and I’m very much intrigued to see what the next two books will do.

orbital6Orbital 6: Resistance, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2015). Cinebook have been publishing bandes dessinée in English-language editions now for a decade, and while a number of their titles have in the past appeared intermittently in English – Valérian et Laureline, Lucky Luke, the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, Yoko Tsuno – there are now extended runs of these comics in English published by Cinebook. The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, for example, currently stands at twenty of twenty-three volumes, Valerian and Laureline at nine of twenty-two… Orbital, however, is one of the several series published by Cinebook which had previously never seen publication in English. It’s a space opera, in which Earth has joined a federation of planets but xenophobic feeling runs high, and Earth is likely to either secede, revolt or just harbour terrorists. There are, of course, a number of alien factions, all with their own agenda. Orbital follows the careers of a diplomatic troubleshooting team comprising a human and a sandjarr (the alien race which defeated Earth). By this sixth volume in the series, everything’s got a bit pear-shaped, and the human member of the pair has developed weird powers and… The artwork is good, the story works, and the background interesting. As a novel this wouldn’t be bad, as a bande dessinée it’s pretty good.

1001nightsOne Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011). Everybody knows about the Alf Layla wa Layla, how a king would marry a young woman each day and then have her executed the following morning, until Scheherazade asks to marry him and then spends the night telling stories but ending on a cliff-hanger – so he keeps her alive to find out how the story ends. Most people probably also know some of the 1001 Nights’ more popular stories, such as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I actually have a copy of the Penguin Classic edition of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, although I’ve yet to read it. I am, however, a fan of Al-Shaykh’s novels, ever since reading Only in London back in 2002. I believe Al-Shaykh’s version of the One Thousand and One Nights – and it’s only the first few stories of the first volume – started life as a play, but happily it doesn’t read like a play. One thing I hadn’t known until I read this book was how… bawdy the stories are. And how inter-nested. While Scheherazade opens the book, the story she tells contains characters who tell stories which contain characters who tell stories… I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. There are that many levels of framing narratives it can get a little confusing, but the individual tales are amusing and well-told. Recommended.

twentytrillionleaguesTwenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, Adam Roberts (2014). Roberts is a very clever man, and a thoroughly nice chap. But for some reason I’ve never quite connected with his novels. The closest I’ve managed to date was Jack Glass, although I did really like the first half of Yellow Blue Tibia – but, I hasten to add, I’ve not read every novel he’s written, and I still have a few on the TBR. However, I do admire and enjoy his short fiction. Unfortunately, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is a novel. A very nicely illustrated novel, too. In 1958, France’s first nuclear-powered submarine, Le Plongeur, is on its sea trials when something goes wrong during a dive, and the submarine continues to descend… to an impossible depth, tens of thousands of kilometres. The meagre crew aboard speculate on their predicament, there are small mutinies, and many mysteries. I very much liked this story – I have in fact written something similar myself in short story form – but felt Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea was marred by too many things that were just plain wrong. Not only does the novel claim nine thousand metres is “nearly a full kilometre”, or that titanium is stronger than steel, or that no part of the sea-bed is deeper than 10,000 metres (Challenger Deep is nearly 11,000 metres, as recorded by a 1951 survey), but a French naval officer would have known of the Trieste, given that the French Navy bought August Piccard’s earlier bathyscaphe FNRS-2 in 1950 (and operated it under the name FNRS-3, even setting a new depth record of 4,050 metres in 1954)… Besides all that, the novel repeatedly confuses metres and kilometres. Le Plongeur sinks at one metre a second, so attaining a depth of 90,000 km in three days is impossible. Ninety thousand metres, yes. But not ninety thousand kilometres. But not only does the prose repeatedly refer to this figure, it also compares it to the diameter of the Earth. There are other small details, like a hatch that open inwards, and so the pressure of the water would be continually acting to force it open; or an airlock on the keel of the submarine; or even a nuclear reactor directly driving the propeller (that’s not how nuclear-powered submarines work – the reactor generates heat, which powers a turbine, which turns the propellor shaft). These slips (also, a character briefly possessing two left hands), which should have been picked up by an editor, aside, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is a typical Roberts piece. There’s a reason Le Plongeur is where it is, and even a sort of scientific explanation for the presence of so much water. There are some odd bits, like carnivorous fish which don’t appear to have an ecosystem to support them, before the submarine and its remaining crew reach their (unbeknownst to most of them) planned destination and the, er, whole point of the book. Given the novel’s title, the identity of the person they meet there should come as no surprise. The reason for the journey relies on a somewhat stretched scientific analogy, but it’s easy enough to swallow. In fact, for a tall tale, and it is very much a tall tale, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is very easy to swallow. Perhaps it feels a bit over-long in places, but the cast of (mostly) grotesques are amusing and well-written, and the final pay-off is worth the long descent. Oh, and the illustrations, by Mahendra Singh, are very good.

in_conquest_bornIn Conquest Born, CS Friedman (1986). I bought this recently to review as it was on the SF Mistressworks list but we had yet to write about it. Mid-eighties space opera, I thought, should be okay. Seems to be well-regarded. But I do wonder how many of its unchallenged assumptions are still acceptable in the twenty-first century. A review will appear on SF Mistressworks soon.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116


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Is that the book you really meant to write?

So that’s A Conflict of Orders, the sequel to A Prospect of War and the second book of my space opera trilogy, handed over to the publisher. Now I’ve got to make a start on the third book. And I’d say I’ve got carte blanche, literally, except I haven’t really, because there’s a plot laid out in the first two books and there’s all that foreshadowing I’ve done and the hints and clues I’ve dropped… But I’ve still got plenty of room to manoeuvre, and after writing the Apollo Quartet I’m going to take every damn inch available. Not just because I can but because I want to.

When I started writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I was trying to capture what it actually felt like to be wearing an Apollo era spacesuit on the Moon. It would be an act of imagination, of course – I’m not an astronaut, I’ve never been to the Moon, I’ve never worn a A7LB. But I’d read plenty of astronaut autobiographies and books about spacesuits and NASA technical documentation from the Apollo flights. And it struck me a Cormac McCarthy-like prose style would be good for evoking the desolation of the lunar surface. So I wrote my novella about a group of astronauts in an Apollo programme which had continued into the 1980s, and who were now stranded at a Moon base after the Earth had destroyed itself during a nuclear war.

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I made certain artistic decisions that were, well, not the way you were “supposed” to do things. A long glossary. Astronauts that spoke like real astronauts, with no concessions made to the reader. No quote marks around the dialogue. I had no idea what sort of reception Adrift on the Sea of Rains would receive, but I was dead set on it being exactly the way I wanted it to be…

The rest, as they say, is history.

However, I’d foolishly decided to make my novella the first of a quartet. The Apollo Quartet. It had a nice ring to it. I went through a number of story ideas before eventually settling on what became the second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself – and then ditching the original structure after a comment in a review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains – none of which is especially relevant, as the point of this post is… writing sequels.

There are several different types of sequel. The most obvious is the one which continues the story begun in the preceding volume. Some of these can stand-alone, but many read like one humongous book split into several smaller volumes. Other types of sequel may be set in the same universe, and feature exactly the same cast, but follow a different plot – and those various plots may themselves contribute to a greater story arc (or simply fill in more details about the series’ world or protagonist). Some sequels share only a setting, but may reference the events of earlier books in the series.

Of course, a sequel doesn’t have to follow the story or protagonist or setting, the link might be more tenuous. Theme, for example. It might even be extra-textual. As it is in the Apollo Quartet. Although Adrift on the Sea of Rains has no real closure, the story would not be continued in the next novella, it would never be continued. The only link would be that provided by the quartet’s title: the Apollo programme. That’s about as extra-textual as you can get: imagined variations on a real-world space programme.

As for the second book’s story… The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of doing exactly the opposite of what was expected. People had said Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary rather than science fiction, so I’d write The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to appeal more to a reader of science fiction (but I gave it a literary title because why not). The narrative would be a puzzle, one that no character in the story could solve, and I wasn’t going to explain it either. All the clues would be there, but the reader would have to put it all together themselves. That would likely piss some people off, but that was the plan. Especially since I wasn’t even going to put the main plot front and centre but hide it behind the two narratives. The idea was to write exactly what admirers of the first book weren’t expecting or, from their comments, didn’t especially want.

So I did.

Some liked it more than the first book, some didn’t.

But then I had to do something completely different for the third book.

If Adrift on the Sea of Rains was more literary than sf, and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself was more sf than literary, then book three would be… neither. The Apollo Quartet was based on alternate takes on the Apollo programme, but I’d make this third novella pure alternate history. The Mercury 13 provided the perfect opportunity to do so. But I also wanted to write about the bathyscaphe Trieste, and while I had the perfect story for it – the recovery of a spy satellite film canister – there was no obvious link, or indeed any link, to the Apollo programme. However, since part of the philosophy behind the Apollo Quartet was making the reader do the work, it occurred to me I didn’t need to explicitly document the link. A few hints, and let the reader figure it out. I’d done that in The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, it’s just that in this novella one narrative was not a consequence of the other, because the consequences took place outside the story.

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This became Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (the most Lowry-esque title of the entire quartet).

Right from the moment I’d decided Adrift on the Sea of Rains would be the first book of the Apollo Quartet I knew what the final book would be about: the wife of a real-life Apollo astronaut who wrote science fiction. Because I wanted to juxtapose the invented space travel of her imaginary worlds with the real space travel of his. I also liked the idea of ending a trio of alternate Apollo histories with the real Apollo programme. In other words, this fourth novella wouldn’t even be science fiction.

Except, I went and spoiled things. First, I decided to make it a novel, rather than a novella. I’d originally planned to have two narratives – one would be the protagonist’s real life, the other would be one of her stories. But that felt too much like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. When I started writing the novel, I decided to namecheck only women science fiction writers, but it occurred to me I could make more of a point by setting my story in a world in which science fiction was a women’s genre. And from that point, I was just throwing stuff in to make reading the novel as rich an experience as possible – not just the names of real-world women sf authors, but also references to well-known sf stories. I put the protagonist’s story in the centre of the novel and used the first half to show the inspiration for it and the second half to reflect its plot. Not to mention hints back to the earlier books of the quartet…

This was All That Outer Space Allows.

So none of the books of the Apollo Quartet are actual sequels according to the commonly-understood meaning of the term. And I approached each one with the intention of surprising, and possibly annoying, those who had admired the previous book. It seems to have worked. And it worked for me too as a way of finding my way into the stories of the quartet. Sometimes, as a writer, you need that. It’s easy enough when the plot of book 1 follows through into books 2 and 3 and 4, all you’re doing then is delaying the resolution – and, since you don’t want those sequels to be pure padding, complicating the resolution. You’re basically lay the groundwork for closure.

But closure is a commercial fiction thing, like transparent prose and sympathetic protagonists. And that’s particuarly true of genre fiction. Readers expect everything to be neatly resolved by the time they reach the last page. The Good King is back on the throne and the Dark Lord defeated. The alien invasion has been rebuffed and it was all because they needed our water. The drop-out hacker has found the secret at the heart of the evil corporation and revealed it to the world, which is rightly appalled (but nothing actually changes, of course).

Thing is, stories don’t actually need to end neatly. They don’t even need to end. And good books are those where it feels as though the universe continues to exist even after you’ve turned the last page. You can have giant novels split into multiple parts of publication, you can have a series where the same cast in the same setting experience different stories… or you can play around with the concept of “sequel”, much as you can play around with narrative and its various constituents. And doing that’s a lot more fun than putting the same old group of people through yet another lot of jeopardy, all in the name of drama.

But what about the space opera, you ask. That’s one enormous novel split into three, or at least that’s what the blurb implies. True, each book doesn’t really stand alone, and they need to be read in order. But even within the constraints imposed by a single story told over three books, I like to think I’ve bent the sequel template a little out of shape. Because a common complaint levelled at the second books of trilogies is that they do little more than move the cast into position for the big showdown in book three. I wanted to avoid that in A Conflict of Orders. So I changed the story. I stuck to the overall plot: evil duke conspires to take the imperial throne, ingenu from the sticks leads the opposition. But instead of continuing the story from the good guys’ point of view, I decided to give equal narrative space to the bad guys. And then I flipped the conspiracy on its head.

Structurally, A Conflict of Orders rings a few small changes. Since A Prospect of War was about putting a force together to combat the Serpent’s forces, clearly a big battle was in the offing. In epic fantasy, this is usually left until the very end, when the forces of good and evil line up against each other and everybody throws everything they’ve got against each other… And somehow or other the good guys manage to win the day. But there was no way I was going to drag the preparations for the final battle out over book two and half of book three. So I made it the centre-piece of A Conflict of Orders. And I described using short chapters, so I had lots of viewpoints of the action. And then, once the battle was over, I moved the plot into second-gear. The Admiral and her forces have won the day, and now it’s all a matter of cleaning up. Except there’s more going on than originally appeared to be the case… And that’s what book three, A Want of Reason, will resolve.

So, in terms of sequels, the space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, doesn’t follow the typical pattern of a linear plot split over three volumes. In point of fact, there are three nested stories going on, and each volume resolves one of them. It’ll likely do my credibility no good, but this structure was partly inspired by EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. Now they’re not very good books – Smith’s, that is – and the writing in them is mostly embarrassing. I’d also question their historical importance. But one thing they did really well was escalate jeopardy. No sooner had Kimball Kinnison defeated one villainous conspiracy then it was revealed there was a higher level of villains who had been controlling it. (To be fair, this structure was somewhat spoiled by the series being published in book form in internal chronology order, which revealed the over-arching struggle between the Arisians and the Eddorians right at the start.)

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I’m not about to reveal the plot of A Want of Reason, and not just because it has yet to be written and even I don’t know how it will probably go. I’m thinking I might have a go at introducing Marxism into space opera, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve already thrown away the plan I’d had in the back of my mind when I wrote A Conflict of Orders (for the record, it was an historical narrative thread, set 1000 years in the past, which would explain the trilogy’s underlying conspiracy). Having said all that, A Conflict of Orders very much ends, as A Prospect of War did, with the various narrative threads poised to make the jump to the next level. Casimir Ormuz and the Admiral have raised their forces, and they’re about the meet the Serpent’s army and navy in battle… And more than that, I probably shouldn’t say…

You’ll just have to read the book to find out.


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Moving pictures, #23

Still trying to get up to date on these…

femmeUne femme mariée, Jean-Luc Godard (1964, France). I have a theory about Godard. So far I’ve seen about half a dozen of his films. Two of them I loved, the rest I didn’t much care for. The two I loved were both shot in colour – Le Mépris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her – the rest were black and white. So it seems I only like Godard’s colour films. Obviously I need to watch more to determine the truth of this theory, but Une femme mariée is black and white and I didn’t really like it. The married woman of the title is having an affair, and the film opens with her and her lover in bed. Then she leaves him, fetches her young son from school and meets her husband at the airport. He has a colleague with him. They head to the couple’s apartment, where they eat dinner. The colleague leaves, husband and wife then run around a lot and come close to domestic violence (it didn’t much look like a “play-fight”, as Wikipedia has it). And then… This is one of those films where the cast act naturally and it’s all about the dialogue. And like many Godard films, it’s all over the place, and the plot often seems like little more than a vehicle which allows the cast to pontificate on various topics that seem to have little or no bearing on the actual story (which is, I suppose, just as true of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, but in that film everything around the “lecturettes” worked much better and seemed much more interesting). Une femme mariée seems to be generally rated as one of Godard’s best, but I wonder how much of that is trading on its title character.

42ndstreet42nd Street*, Lloyd Bacon (1933, USA). I found this in a charity shop. It’s one of several Busby Berkeley films on the 1001 Movies list, many of which aren’t that easy to find in the UK. Busby Berkeley… a camera placed above the stage and looking down as large numbers of dancers make patterns not unlike those you’d find in a kaleidoscope. Then they wrap a plot around it. In this case, it’s a progenitor of Chorus Line and films of that ilk. I tweeted a line from this, “It’s going to be the toughest five weeks you’ll live through”, and asked people to guess the movie, expecting them to pick Platoon or Full Metal Jacket – which one or two did. No one guessed a 1930s film about putting on a Busby Berkley musical. Which is all beside the point. Ginger Rogers in an early role plays one of the female leads, the plot is fairly standard for the type, the final numbers are the usual over-the-top Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, and it’s easy to see why such films were popular back in the day… and you have to wonder why something similar isn’t equally successful today. Or perhaps that’s just me.

coherenceCoherence, James Ward Byrkit (2013, USA). Some films should hold your interest because they have an intriguing genesis, or a really fascinating idea at their core. And certainly the elevator pitch for Coherence sounded to me like something which would appeal. Unfortunately the end result never quite manages to pull it all together. It’s one of those films where the low or non-existent budget becomes a strength rather than a weakness – it was filmed mostly in the director’s own house. There’s a dinner party, and during it a comet passes over and things turn strange… Strange as in superposition, multiple instances of the same events – which means dinner guests from other alternate universe versions of the dinner party getting mixed up and crossing into alternate universes. So much so that keeping up with who is really who, and from where, becomes near impossible. The cast are generally good, but it’s one of those films where everyone talks over one another, and while real life is certainly like that it does get annoying very quickly in a movie (which is by definition artificial, and it’s the ones which make a virtue of it I tend to prefer), and anyway it sort of worked against what was quite a clever central conceit. The premise demanded a domestic story, but the idea needed to be progressed much faster than it was – the longer you take to develop an idea, the thinner it seems, whether it deserves it or not. Coherence managed to dissipate its drama when it really had more than enough to make a very good film.

broken_blossomsBroken Blossoms*, DW Griffth (1919, USA). This film is also known as The Yellow Man and the Girl, which probably tells you all you need to know about it. Some of Griffith’s other films have been accused of racism, and while Broken Blossoms‘ lead is played by a white man in Chinese make-up, the film was deliberately written to push tolerance during a period of heavy anti-Chinese prejudice. A Buddhist monk leaves China for London, where he finds it hard to promote Buddha’s peaceful philosophy to London’s huddled masses. Especially Lillian Gish, the abused daughter of a boxer. The monk rescue her after she’s been badly beaten by her father, and the two fall in love. But it is not to be. It’s pretty much Romeo and Juliet, even down to the ending, but set among the slums of London, and with Romeo as a Buddhist monk (which, I suppose, in the England of the time makes him no more welcome a suitor than a Montague to a Capulet). Griffith has a number of films on the 1001 Movies list, and while he was undoubtedly a pioneer of the medium, I can’t see what this particular film did to merit inclusion. Maybe it’s just because it’s an historical document…

dark_planetDark Planet, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2009, Russia). The real name of this film is Обитаемый остров, or The Inhabited Island – which is the name of the Strugatskys novel from which it was adapted. Why a random English-language distributor decided to randomly re-title it with the entirely random title Dark Planet is beyond me (mind you, we did better than the French, as it was titled Battlestar Rebellion in France). Because it deserves better. Which is not to say it’s perfect. Bondarchuk – yes, son of the actor – has made plenty of well-received films – I thought his 9th Company wasn’t bad, for example – and while Dark Planet certainly entertains throughout its length, it does feel a little like too much of it ended up on the cutting-room floor, and it’s more notable for the story it could have been, and which is plainly obvious, than for the story it is. A young man of Earth, played by the improbably good-looking (and, according to Bondarchuk, totally untalented) Vasiliy Stepanov, crashlands on a world on which the entire population are held in thrall by towers which broadcast brainwashing signals. You can see how it would have made sense in the novel, although it doesn’t really in the film. The plot is a little haphazard, but the final battle scene is done quite well. It’s a film that feels more like a series of missed opportunities than a coherent narrative – I’m reminded of The Crimson Rivers (Les Rivières Pourpres), in which the film-makers decided to leave some important exposition on the cutting-room floor because it slowed the pace of the narrative… resulting in a film that made a weird and inexplicable leap in its third act. Anyway, Dark Planet: worth a second look, though I’d prefer an edition more in keeping with the film-makers’ intentions than the one I watched. (After I wrote the above, I discovered the original Russian release consists of two parts of 100 minutes and 115 minutes. This UK release is an edited down version of 118 minutes. Why?)

leni_riefenstahlOlympia 1, Fest der Völker*, Leni Riefenstahl (1938, Germany). Riefenstahl, tame director of the Nazis, is a name I certainly know, but I’d never had any real desire to watch her movies. But she’s on the 1001 Movies list, more than once in fact, and her films are not available for rental, so I ended up buying a box set which included the two Olympia films, Triumph of the Will and a pair of other propaganda pieces. So I’m probably now on a list somewhere. Anyway, I watched Triumph of the Will several weeks ago but didn’t think it worth mentioning it here because, well, it’s a film about Nazis and Hitler and while it may have been state of the art in the 1930s, and still holds up reasonably well today, it’s probably only of real interest to historians. Olympia 1, Fest der Völker, however, is a more interesting film because it actually presages the way we watch sports on television, if not lays the actual groundwork for sports broadcasting. It is, as the title states, a film of the 1936 Olympics. So there’s lots of people in quaintly-long shorts competing in various athletic events, with occasional shots away to the wholesome German crowd or Hitler. Of all the events, I found the high jump the most interesting because it predates the Fosbury Flop, meaning the techniques on diplay looked odd and mostly inefficient. There is a second part, Fest der Schönheit, which I have yet to watch.

whosafraidWho’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?*, Mike Nichols (1966, USA). I’d always thought I’d seen this, and had it in my head it was some fluffy rom com much like those Rock Hudson films I love so much. It’s not, of course. It’s a very intense, and really quite mean, three-hour play by Edward Albee cut down to a two-hour cinema outing by Mke Nichols – his first film, in fact. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play a married couple at a small town college. She’s the dean’s daughter, he’s a professor of history whose boat has long since sailed. And now they just snipe at each other. A young couple join the faculty (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) and are invited to dinner by Taylor and Burton. They all get very pissed. Certain truths are aired. There is a lot of very uncomfortable dialogue. And… ho hum. There’s some good stuff in here, some really sharp dialogue – but I’m not convinced Taylor and Burton overcome their Hollywood profiles sufficiently to do the characters justice. Segal is pretty good, though. The film is also long – and it’s shorter than the play. It drags quite a bit in places. Having said that, watching Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? didn’t make me interested in Albee’s work, although this appears to be the only play of his that made it onto the silver screen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 625