It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Reading diary, #19

One more of these and that’ll see my entire 2015 reading documented. After I’ve posted that, I’ll do a summary “year in reading” post, you know, with pie charts and shit. I’ve already done my best of the year post (see here), even though the year had yet to finish then but everyone does it early so never mind. And I can always carry over any candidates I missed to next year’s best of, anyway…

seedlingstarsThe Seedling Stars, James Blish (1957). Back in the early 1980s, I was a big fan of Blish’s fiction – possibly because Arrow had repackaged them with Chris Foss covers – and bought and read a dozen or so. I still have them. But one I’d missed was The Seedling Stars, so I tracked down a copy on eBay a few years ago – with, of course, the Foss cover art – and stuck it on the TBR. I had a feeling I might have read it before – certainly, ‘Surface Tension’, the penultimate story in the collection wasn’t new to me, although I’m not sure where I’d previously read it. But the other two novellas and one short story didn’t ring any bells. All four are about “pantropy”, which is genetically engineering humanity for environments rather than terraforming worlds. In ‘Seeding Program’, Earth has sent an agent to infiltrate a colony on Ganymede created by the leader of the pantropy movement and whose inhabitants have all been engineered before birth to survive on the Jovian moon’s frozen surface. It’s not in the slightest bit convincing, and the plot could just have easily been translated to any random Earth location. In ‘The Thing in the Attic’, the theocratic society of the gibbon-like humans of Tellura is causing them to stagnate, but when one freethinker is exiled he and his companions trek over the mountains and discover a starship of humans who have come to see how the colony is doing. Solid nineteen-fifties science fiction, perhaps a little preachy in places, and not especially memorable. ‘Surface Tension’, however, is memorable. In this novella, tiny humans have been seeded in a series of ponds on the one small piece of land on a water world. Again, a freethinker (male, of course) persuades his fellows to build a special vehicle to explore the world “above the sky”. The sentient amoebas are a little hard to swallow (so to speak), but it’s a fun setting and Blish makes good use of it. The final story, ‘Watershed’, is very short and takes place on a starship heading for Earth. The crew are baseline humans and the passenger is an engineered human from another world. The crew are also hugely racist toward their passenger. Who points out that baseline humans are now the minority among the colonised worlds. I suspect I would have enjoyed this collection a whole lot more if I’d read it back in the early nineteen-eighties when I read all those other Blish books…

Slow_Bullets_by_Alastair_Reynolds_WSFA_CoverSlow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds (2015). I decided to hang on for the signed, numbered WSFA Press edition of this novella, rather than buy the original Tachyon Publications edition. And it’s a smart little hardback they’ve produced – except… they’ve got the ISBN wrong, and re-used one from one of their previous novellas. Argh. You would not believe how many things that screws up. The title of the novella refers to devices implanted in people which store their memories, allowing their actions during a vast war between worlds to be recorded. They’re called “slow bullets” because they’re implanted in the leg and then slowly work their way up to lodge in the chest. But the actual plot of Slow Bullets concerns Scur, who is captured and tortured by a war criminal from the other side, left for dead, but then wakes up aboard a transport carrying war criminals and other prisoners. Except something has gone wrong and it looks like everyone aboard had been left in hibernation for thousands of years… This is typical Reynolds – a universe which he perhaps might not have visited before but nonetheless feels like one of his, and a plot predicated on horrible violence which still manages to slingshot off an optimistic and redemptive ending. It is, in fact, pretty much about as Reynolds as you can get and, as a result, your mileage may vary. I enjoyed it, some bits more than others.

grass_kingThe Grass King’s Concubine, Kari Sperring (2012). I bought this after it was pointed out that I don’t read enough by fantasy by women writers by the author herself (it was a general admonishment on Twitter, not one personally directed at me, but I felt it was a fair comment). And I’m glad I did. I am not a huge fan of epic fantasies – I’ve read a fair number of them, and no longer find their tropes or stories interesting. Happily, The Grass King’s Concubine is nothing like an epic fantasy. Fantasy, yes; and a very cleverly done one. But not epic. And that’s meant as a compliment. Aude is the daughter of a rich land-owner, not old money but rich enough to be accepted into high society, but she is curious as to the source of her family’s wealth and determined not to marry and become just another trophy wife. After a couple of visits to the Brass City, the Dickensian industrial part of the city where she lives, she ends up running away with provincial officer Jehan. Aude’s search ends up with her being forcibly taken to the WorldBelow, ruled by the Grass King; and Jehan is taken there by a pair of ferrets who can take human form and act as guardians to the gate. Aude is a refreshingly forthright and active female protagonist, and there’s a welcome line of social commentary running throughout The Grass King’s Concubine. The fantasy elements are also interesting, original and well thought-out – Aude’s explorations of the Grass King’s palace are particularly well-drawn. If I had to recommend a modern fantasy novel I’d be more than happy to recommend this one. Go and get yourself a copy.

teleportation_accidentThe Teleportation Accident, Ned Beauman (2012). Having read this, I now understand why Lavie Tidhar is such a fan of the book. It addresses some of his favourite subjects. Myself… I enjoyed it, thought it amusing in parts and cleverly done overall, but I wasn’t taken with the engine which drives the plot. The title refers to a piece of stage machinery, first invented in the late eighteenth-century, which allows for the rapid, and apparently instantaneous, changing of scenery. In Weimar Berlin, Egon Loesser is trying to build a new version of that machine, but one that moves the cast around rather than the scenery. But during a test it goes wrong and dislocates both arms of the actor wearing it. Loesser is one of those horrible comic protagonists you find yourself inadvertently rooting for – he’s self-centred, fixated on his sex life (or lack thereof), and nasty to pretty much everyone he meets. It is Loesser’s lack of a girlfriend, and desire for the nubile Adele Hitler, which drives the plot, as Loesser chases her to Paris and then onto Los Angeles, at each place bumping into friends and acquaintances (some Jewish, some not) from Berlin. It all ends up with Loesser getting involved in a WWII project at a LA university to build an actual teleportation machine, which may or may not work and which may or may not have something to do with the strange murders which have been occurring on the campus. A fun read, even outright funny in places, although not particularly pleasant and often only saved by its cleverness.

critical_massCritical Mass, Sara Paretsky (2013). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since reading Guardian Angel back in the early 1990s. I’d borrowed it from my mother, and liked it so much I made an effort to read more of the VI Warshawski series… and have done ever since. Earlier this year, my mother took me to see Sara Paretsky speak (with Val McDiarmid) at the Harrogate Crime Festival. The plot of Critical Mass is a little more convoluted than most Warshawski novels, but the villains of the piece are, as usual, the rich. Vic’s friend Lotte receives a panicked phone call from the junkie daughter of a friend from Lotte’s childhood back in Vienna just before the Anschluss. Vic investigates, but the bird has flown, and all that remains is a shot-up meth lab and a dead body (male) in a nearby field. It turns out the woman’s younger brother, who is a physics whiz and works as a software engineer at a big computing firm, has also gone missing. The CEO of the company, whose father invented ferromagnetic memory, is worried he has taken one of their secret projects to a rival firm, but the clues suggest to Vic he disappeared for other reasons. There are also flashbacks to Lotte’s childhood, focusing on a young Jewish woman who is a gifted physicist but finds it hard to be taken seriously and eventually ends up as slave labour on one of the Nazis’ atom bomb projects. The story bounces around between two seemingly unrelated crimes before the two eventually, and cleverly, interlock. The only sour note is a pair of DHS agents who behave like mindless thugs rather than professional federal agents and a CEO who thinks it’s worth murdering people to safeguard the reputation of his company. But otherwise, this is a good Warshawki and worth reading – and it also sheds light on a little-known aspect of early twentieth-science and World War Two.

anecdotesAnecdotes of Destiny, Karen Blixen (1958). After watching Out of Africa, I fancied reading something by Blixen, so when I spotted this collection in a charity shop, I bought it. And since I was spending Christmas in Denmark, I thought it appropriate to take it with me and read it there. Anecdotes of Destiny has apparently been republished under the title of the most famous story in it, as Babette’s Feast and Other Stories, which I’m glad I spotted now as it’d likely confuse me later if I stumbled across the latter book. As it is, the original title does the collection a disservice as its contents are far from “anecdotes”. True, the opening story story pastiches a tale from 1001 Nights, and my heart sank a little when I read it. But ‘Babette’s Feast’ is wholly different and a great deal better. Best in the collection, however, is ‘Tempests’, about a young woman in Norway who joins a travelling theatre and then saves a ship from foundering during a storm, and it quickly became a favourite novella – and would make an excellent film too. A very good collection, overall, and I plan to read more by Blixen.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121


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Moving pictures, #40

Cracking on, so to speak… More cinematic consumption by Yours Truly.

BSG1978Battlestar Galactica (1978, USA). So this Black Friday seems to have infected the UK from the US (and to be fair it’s a better tradition than the UK’s home-brand Black Friday) and Amazon had a whole bunch of mostly uninteresting deals going, but one which caught my fancy was the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ultimate Collection on Blu-ray for £60 reduced from £160. To which I succumbed. And then the following week, they had Cyber Monday, and fuck knows what the fuck that is, but Amazon were selling a bunch of stuff cheap, among which was the original Battlestar Galactica series from 1978, plus the much-maligned Galactica 1980 sequel series, on Blu-ray for half-price at £20. So I bought it too. Foolishly. And watched it. Even more foolishly. I remember Battlestar Galactica quite fondly from the 1980s – it used to be on at 6 pm on BBC2 in Janet Street-Porter’s “yoof” spot. Much as I loved the universe of Star Wars, so I loved the universe of Battlestar Galactica. The uniforms, the spaceships, the, er, well, that was about it. Certainly not the stories. After all, who can forget the episode in which they spend an hour trying to figure out how to put out a fire on the Galactica before deciding to “let the vacuum in”? And the mangling of English in pursuit of a futuristic dialect is both annoying and embarassing – “frak” is okay, “felgercarb” is acceptable, but “chancery” is not the right word for a casino, and when a warrior goes on leave it’s not a “furlong”. Argh. I was, however, surprised by how closely the rebooted series followed the plots of the original series. Not entirely, obvs – but some of them were a lot closer than I’d remembered. The original Battlestar Galactica remains a notable piece of science fiction television, even if it was designed to totally cash in on Star Wars, and the things it did right mostly, but not always, outweigh the things it got wrong. Which is more than can be said for Galactica 1980

sensoSenso*, Luchino Visconti (1954, Italy). Visconti is a director I think well of – he has directed a number of films I admire. So I was predisposed to like Senso, despite knowing little about it. Other than the fact it was a period drama, which is not necessarily in my book a fact which might affect my opinion. And so it proved. Senso is a good period drama, but I’m not sure why it is a better period drama, other than perhaps its director’s name. Admittedly if its period is not of interest to audiences, that’s hardly the fault of the film-maker. But the whole point of period dramas is that they’re recognisable – or something about them is recognisable – to the viewer. For Senso, this is undoubtedly true of an Italian audience, much as it would be for Visconti’s excellent The Leopard… But Senso, for all its plaudits, never quite manages to evoke its time and place as a time and place sufficient to persuade audiences of its story. To be honest, I don’t recall much of the film (I write these posts a week or two after viewing the movie) and from what I do remember it struck me as mostly unsuitable romances during a period when such a thing existed and had very real social consequences. Nothing in the cinematography stood out, which I would have expected of a film by Visconti. He’s done better, and I’m surprised this one made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.

BSG1978Galactica 1980 (1980, USA). Ever watched something – several episodes of something – and then wonder why the fuck you bothered? Admittedly, Battlestar Galactica, the original 1978 TV series, is far from great television. But even fans of that are hard-pressed to say something nice about Galactica 1980. It’s not just that the project started off with a dumb premise, but also that the premise was shot down by the network after the pilot and then replaced with an even dumber premise. It’s a generation after the original Battlestar Galactica ended and its stars all have better things to do except Lorne Greene whose career must have been in the toilet as he’s back but this time with a fake beard. And there’s another villain, another nasty member of the Council, played by Richard Lynch, who also played a villain in an episode of the previous series. The “ragtag fugitive fleet” has finally reached Earth, but our world is, er, far too technologically primitive to help them fight the Cylons. But Betamax! I hear you cry. Walkmans! Sinclair ZX81s! Ford Pintos! Legwarmers! So Xavier, the councillor played by Lynch, decides to travel back in time in order to boost Earth’s technology – and the period he chooses is – yawn – Nazi Germany in the 1940s. Peenemünde, to be precise. Xavier is going to help von Braun invent the V-2. But grown-up Boxey – now called Troy because Boxey is a dumb name, even for a kid – and Barry van Dyke sidekick Dillon are sent back after Xavier – whose name is at least not pronounced ecks-avier because that’s not how you fucking pronounce it, you fucking stupid X-Men – and manage to destroy the V-2 prototype as it launches and so, er, stop V-2s from raining death and destruction on London– no, wait. That happened anyway. Anyway, they don’t change history. Xavier escapes to another time period to continue his dastardly plan. However. The network didn’t like the idea of Galactica warriors chasing Xavier through time-period-of-the-week and asked for a rethink. So we got… space scouts! A bunch of kids from Galactica are stranded on Earth, chaperoned by Troy and Dillon, who decide to disguise the kids as a scout troop. The remaining six episodes involve Troy and Dillon having adventures in USA 1980 – including a cringeworthy double episode featuring Wolfman Jack – sometimes with, sometimes without, the super-strong, high-jumping super scouts who can also turn invisible. The final episode is a flashback in which Starbuck crashlands on an alien world, finds a crashed Cylon fighter, reprogrammes one of the Cylons into a middle-American, and then becomes the father – without actual sex – with a mysterious and flighty young woman of the young genius who directed Galactica’s strategy in earlier episodes. Both, I should add, remain remarkably clean during their ordeal. And the woman wears a quite flimsy nylon dress. Even the Cylon is shiny as fuck. Battlestar Galactica is pants; Galactica 1980 is an entire underwear department. I expect the Blu-ray will prove useful at persuading unwanted guests it’s finally time to leave…

hanabiHANA-BI*, Takeshi Kitano (1997, Japan). According to Wikipedia, the title of this film should properly be in all caps. So that’s how I’ve done it. I have a lot of time for Takeshi Kitano – he has a wonderfully varied oeuvre, and some of his films are actually classics (plus if you don’t love the final musical number in his version of Zatoichi then you are clearly not human). This, however, is an early work, although apparently not early enough not to be known to display his trademark. er, trademarks. Such as gory violence. Which it contains in abundance. The film also follows an achronological narrative. Kitano plays Nishi, a police officer, whose wife has cancer. His partner is confined to a wheelchair after a shootout with a Yakuza. Nishi retires, and finds himself in debt to a Yakuza loan shark. So he masquerades as a police officer and robs a bank. The film skips back and forth in time, without clues (remember Gwyneth Paltrow’s plaster on her face in Sliding Doors?), which initially makes the film hard to follow. But it soon becomes clear and starts to grip. The moments of violence are shocking and bloody. Nishi, however, remains a cipher. A good film and a deserving entry on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I think.

henry_vHenry V*, Laurence Olivier (1944, UK). One of the joys of following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has been finding films you really enjoy and/or greatly admire that you would not otherwise have come across. Now I respect Shakespeare, and I’ve been intermittently working my way through the BBC adaptations of his plays (I really ought to buy the damn boxed set), but he’s hardly my first choice, or second , or third, choice of viewing. More so for a 1944 adaptation. By Olivier, who, for all his evident ability, has been characterised as a “luvvie”. So, unexpectedly, I found myself really liking his staging of Henry V. Not because he’s chopped it down to a suitable movie length, or because everyone acts like an actooor (including some godawful Welsh characters)… but because he chose to represent the world of his play as towns and cities are represented in mediaeval art, because he framed the play as a play, and because he staged the battles really quite effectively. It works, it works really well. From the opening pan across a model London to the Globe Theatre, its cast and audience, to the not-quite-Technicolor of its costumes and sets, to the faux mediaeval representations of places to the battle itself… it all works wonderfully well. It is Shakespeare made real. It’s not the dry play as learnt by schoolgirls and schoolboys, it’s visceral and real… and yet still a play. I had expected Henry V to be dull and firmly up its own arse, but in fact it is a great piece of cinema. It needs a proper re-issue , remastered on Blu-ray, not some afterthought “classics” DVD release.

hearts_darknessHearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse*, Fax Bahr & George Hickenlooper (1991, USA). I like Apocalypse Now, I think it’s a good film. It wears its inspiration a little too obviously on its sleeve, but it doesn’t suffer because of that. And some of the supporting cast pretty much define stereotypes of Vietnam War movies (except Dennis Hopper’s character, which is a stereotypically Dennis Hopper character). Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, however, is the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, a notoriously difficult film to make. Partly it was money – Coppola had to stump up his own cash, and it still went over-budget. Partly it was the location – the Philippines stood in for Vietnam, and despite promises by the government the borrowed military helicopters often disappeared with little or no notice to fight rebels. And partly it was Coppola not knowing what the fuck he was doing. Then there was Marlon Brando, who demanded $3 million for three weeks’ work, and who then spent days sitting around discussing his character’s motivation. What a prima donna. Seriously, that’s totally unprofessional behaviour, and I doubt his name on the credits added significantly to the movie’s takings. Coppola also spent a week filming Harvey Keitel in the lead role, before firing him and casting Martin Sheen (Sheen is very, very good, but it would have been interesting to see what Keitel was like, but sadly no footage is included). Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is an object lesson in how not to make a film – there are a few problems which are a result of the location, but the main takeaway is that Coppola didn’t know what he was doing and bit off more than he could handle. Having said all that, Apocalypse Now is a genuine piece of classic cinema, but so perhaps it was all worth it…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 696


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Moving pictures, #39

Trying to get the last of these out of the way before Christmas. It doesn’t help that I’ve been watching a couple of films a night, more on the weekend. And it’s not as though I mention every film I’ve watched in these posts – some because they’re rewatches, but mostly because they’re some rubbish I stumbled across on TV, Amazon Prime or charity shop DVD… Anyway, here’s the latest batch…

blancanievesBlancanieves, Pablo Berger (2012, Spain). Back in 2011, The Artist was released, a silent film produced in France, which went on to win a raft of awards. This was a bit of a blow to the makers of Blancanieves, who had decided to make a silent black-and-white film several years before but didn’t make it into production soon enough to beat The Artist to release. To be fair, The Artist is a very good film, but you have to wonder how many of its awards were a result of the novelty of a silent B&W film in the 21st century. But then we have Blancanieves, also a silent B&W 21st century film, against which to compare it. And, sadly, Blancanieves does not compare too favourably. It’s good, but it’s doubtful it would have beaten The Artist to any awards. Not in Blancanieves‘ favour is that it’s about bull fighting, a sport (and I use the term loosely) that only the Spanish seem to think is not barbaric. The plot is apparently based on ‘Snow White’, albeit transplanted to Spain and, er, matadors. It’s certainly a nice-looking film, and it works quite well as silent and B&W. And, but for inevitable comparisons to the Oscar-winning The Artist, it would likely count as a good film. But comparisons are inevitable, and it loses out to them. All the same, worth seeing.

destryDestry Rides Again*, George Marshall (1939, USA). If there’s one story which appears again and again in Western films, it’s the lone hero who cleans up a town under the corrupt thumb of the local cattle baron. Given the bad name cattle barons have in Western literature – which is the nearest the US gets to a native mythos (native to its colonisers, that is) – it’s surprising unfettered capitalism is still seen as admirable. Maybe everyone is just waiting around for the lawman to turn up and clean up the town… although I wouldn’t go looking to that gallery of clowns the GOP is currently fielding as they’re so deep in the cattle barons’ pockets they’ve forgotten what daylight looks like… Ahem. Anyway, wild west town is dominated by criminal sorts, led by owner of the local saloon, at which Marlene Dietrich performs nightly. Villain has been cheating people at cards in order to get their land, and now owns the route needed by ranchers on their drives – and he’s going to charge them a fee per head to cross his land. When this leads to the sheriff’s murder, the corrupt mayor gives the tin star to the town drunk… who promptly sends off for Jimmy Stewart. In the past, the drunk had been deputy to Jimmy’s dad, the original Destry, a much respected lawman, and the drunk hopes the son has followed in the father’s footsteps… Except, it seems, he hasn’t. He doesn’t wear a gun. He lets the villains make fun of him. He even upholds the eviction of a homesteader who had lost the title to his land in a crooked card game. But, of course, Destry is playing a long game, and it all comes right in the end. Of course. This is a Hollywood western, after all. Even Dietrich, the saloon singer and accomplice of the saloon owner, proves to have a heart of gold. The best of the film, however, is when the women of the town, the wives and girlfriends, decide to intervene in the big fight between the forces of law and the villain’s henchman, and march straight in with various blunt instruments and proceed to hammer the shit out of the bad guys. That’s not something that normally appears in the mythos. And, perhaps, given more focus in the narrative, it might have made something special of Destry Rides Again. As it is, it’s a good western – though more for its breaking from the template than its slavish following of it – but there are a number of good westerns on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, compared to the vast number of ordinary and just plain bad westerns that Hollywood made. Worth seeing.

spring_small_townSpring in a Small Town*, Mu Fei (1948, China). This is generally reckoned to be one of the greatest Chinese films ever made – which is quite an encomium given the size of Chinese-language cinema (yes, I know “Chinese” is a language family, not a language, but you know what I mean – the film is actually in Mandarin). A classic piece of cinema it certainly is, not only because of its age. It is also a really good film, a film I watched on rental DVD but would like to pick up my own copy so I can rewatch it. A woman’s life post-WWII is interrupted when a suitor prior to her marriage arrives in town. The film takes its time telling its story, but that actually works to its advantage because it allows for a nuanced presentation of the various relationships – wife and her husband, wife and old boyfriend, wife’s younger sister and the old boyfriend… To be fair, there’s not a great deal of subtlety in who the characters are intended to represent – the husband, for example, spends his time pining for the past and complaining about his various illnesses. And the wife is the heart of the film, and whose heart is torn. I really need to be get my own copy of this. Incidentally, the film was remade in 1993 by Zhuangzhuang Tian. I’ve not seen the remake, but I’m definitely intrigued…

defiantThe Defiant Ones*, Stanley Kramer (1958, USA). It is horrible to think this film may well owe its position on the 1001 Mosvies You Must See Before You Die list because back in 1958 it was considered transgressive, perhaps even shocking. Because it’s about two cons who escape a chain gang while chained to each other. One is Tony Curtis, the other is Sidney Poitier. A white man chained to a black man. Curtis coasts, as well he might given his role, but Poitier is good (both were nominated for Oscars, but neither won – the award went to David Niven for Separate Tables). The two struggle through the swamps before stumbling into a company town, where they are captured and about to be lynched. But one of the residents argues against such vigilante “justice” and later helps them escape. They come across a boy, who takes them home to his mother, who has been abandoned by her husband. And she uses race to drive a wedge between the two, because she needs a man to look after her. There is not much, it must be admitted, in this film to like. The central premise should not be shocking or transgressive, and the responses of others to the two main characters throughout the film is deeply racist. True, the movies does comment – is itself a commentary – on those racist attitudes, but showing such things without actively presenting consequences seems to me a waste of time. Because, you know, there are people out there stupid enough not to see something bad in what they’re watching. All together, probably a film not worthy of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.

bike_thievesBicycle Thieves*, Vittorio De Sica (1948, Italy). I do like Italian Neorealist films, and this is considered an important work in the genre – an important work in Italian cinema, in fact – but I have to admit I didn’t much enjoy watching it. Chiefly because of its plot. An out-of-work man in post-WWII Rome is offered a job putting up posters, but he needs a bicycle to get the job. So his wife pawns the family heirloom linen to raise the money. But on his first day on the job, the man’s bike is stolen. And he spends the rest of the day trying to find it and its thief. Without success. Grinding poverty is a problem, but it is a structural problem in society. Certainly it’s fertile ground for drama, but such stories always to me imply that such conditions are either normal, inevitable or inescapable – and I disagree with all three conclusions. True, Italy after WWII was not in the best of places economically – but neither was the UK and it managed to create the NHS. The US, of course, was in a much better place – it profited from WWII – and it still treats its citizens like shit. Worse, certain of its citizens kill other ones if they try improve things for those who are not well off. All of which, however, has nothing to do with Bicycle Thieves. As mentioned previously, I like Italian Neorealist cinema, but I didn’t enjoy this particular example. Worth seeing, definitely, and certainly it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but that’s as far as it goes.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 692


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Awards time again

This is not a post listing what 2015 works of mine are eligible for genre awards. I disagree with the practice, I think it badly distorts the award-space, and it’s bending the entire field out of shape thanks to the stupid wrangling over who and what each of the awards actually represent. I’ve refused to post lists of my eligible works in the past, and I see even less of a reason to start doing it now.

However, I do vote in awards – well, one of them: the British Science Fiction Association Award. And I’ve been doing so for over twenty years. This year, there’s been a change to the process. Voters have until 31 December to nominate four works in each of the categories – novel, short fiction, non-fiction and art – in order to make up a long list. During January, voters will get to nominate four works from that long list to generate the short lists. Which will be voted on, and awarded, at the Eastercon in Manchester on the weekend of 25 to 28 March 2016.

Eligible works must have been published during 2015. Novels must have been published in the UK – unless they’re ebook only, in which case country of publication is irrelevant. There are no geographical restrictions on short fiction, non-fiction or art.

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According to my records, I have read only nine genre novels published during 2015. One of them I would like to nominate – Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit – but it has yet to be published in the UK and so is ineligible. Of course, there’s no reason why I can’t nominate a book I’ve not read – I have until the end of January to read it, after all.

One novel I suspect will appear on a lot of ballots is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. It’s certainly been one of 2015’s high-profile releases. And Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the genre’s best authors. The book has received a great deal of praise. But. It didn’t work for me. For all the work he put into designing the ecology of his generation starship, the characters were completely flat and, despite the interesting commentary on narratology in the AI narrative, it all read to me like Californians in Spaaace. However, there was another generation starship novel published during 2015, by an author better known for writing epic fantasy: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. While the narrative set aboard the spaceship was a little too trad to me, the spider-based civilisation which forms the core of the novel’s story was fascinating and brilliantly done. Children of Time will be taking one of my slots.

Then there’s Ancillary Mercy, the final novel in the Imperial Radch trilogy. I found this disappointing. I liked the first book, Ancillary Justice, very much – but it seems that was pretty much a prologue to the actual plot. Which, as resolved in Ancillary Mercy, was unsatisfyingly small-scale. There was also far too much talking about each character’s emotional state, to the extent it often overwhelmed the narrative. I won’t be nominating it.

David Mitchell’s Slade House was Mitchell being clever, which he does well, but was pretty slight – not to mention deploying a few too many horror clichés, or indeed being structured such that one entire section was pure exposition. Ilka Tampke’s Skin had much to recommend it, particularly its depiction of Roman Britain, but although not marketed as YA it read like it had been put together following YA story patterns – to its detriment. The less said about Christopher Fowler’s The Sand Men, the better. Claire North’s Touch was based on an appealing premise – so appealing, in fact, it seems to have spontaneously appeared half a dozen times in the past couple of years; something in the water? – but its weak plot scuppered it. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was much, much better.

Among the 2015 books on my TBR are Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels, the final book in Alastair Reynold’s Poseidon’s Children trilogy, Poseidon’s Wake, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight, and Chris Beckett’s Mother of Eden. I also plan to keep an eye on the recommendations of several other people, and if anything they mention takes my fancy then I’ll read it. For this first round of the BSFA Award at least, it’s worth putting in a speculative vote – ie, for a book you’ve not read but think might be award-worthy – rather than letting the vote go to waste.

As for short fiction… Every year, it gets to this time of year and I realise I’ve not been reading the short fiction published in various places, so I go and skim-read all the various magazines until I find something which takes my fancy. This year, however, I have at least one dead cert: A Day in Deep Freeze by Lisa Shapter, a novella published by Aqueduct Press. That will be getting one of my slots. There’s also a David Herter story on tor.com, ‘Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978‘, and I’m a big fan of Herter’s fiction. But we’ll see what comes of my high-speed trawl through 2015’s genre fiction over the next week or so…

I have two candidates for non-fiction – My Fair Ladies by Julie Wosk, a study of “female androids, robots and other artificial Eves”; and Adam Roberts’s Rave and Let Die, if only because I don’t want him to give up his genre criticism. Jonathan McClamont has written some excellent ‘Future Interrupted’ columns in Interzone during the year. Likewise Nina Allan and her ‘Time Pieces’ column. And there was an extended conversation back in July across the blogosphere, about science fiction and criticism and the history of science fiction, prompted by an article by Renay published by Strange Horizons, ‘Communities: Weight of History‘… which then led to ‘The Weight of History‘ by Nina Allan… which then intersected with Jonathan McCalmont’s ‘What Price Your Critical Agency?‘ and resulted in Maureen Kincaid Speller’s ‘{and then} a writing life beyond reviews‘. In a genre space in which corporate marketing and support network advocacy is bending fandom out of shape, this is an important sequence of articles, and some, if not all, deserve nominations.

Finally, there’s art… another category I tend to look for suitable nominees at the last minute. One of my nominations will go to Kay Sales for the cover art to All That Outer Space Allows, not only because it’s a lovely piece of design but because I think the cover designs for all four books (the second editions of the first two, plus three and four) are striking and worthy of an award. Interzone has continued to publish some excellent interior illustrations for its stories. I particularly liked Richard Wagner’s illustration for ‘The Worshipful Company of Milliners’ by Tendai Huchu and Vincent Sammy’s illustration for ‘Songbird’ by Fadzlishah Johanabas, both in #257. I’ve had a quick look at my bookshelves, and online, for cover art from genre books published in 2015… and failed to find any which particularly stood out. Except, perhaps, the cover art to Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction, which is by Luis Lasahido. But I shall continue to look, in the hope I find enough candidates for my ballot before the end of the year.


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Moving pictures, #38

There’s probably another two or three of these posts to come before the year is out. I’ve yet to decide if I’ll carry on with them next year – I might choose to just write about a single film in a post, as I’ve done in previous years. We’ll see. Of course, there’s still a good 300+ films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But meanwhile…

sleep_bSleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959, USA). There was a trailer for this on a rental DVD, I seem to remember, and something about it persuaded me it would be worth watching. I might well have seen the film as a child, but I have no memory of it. A Blu-ray copy appeared in Amazon’s Black Friday sales, so I bought it. And… it’s probably one of the most Technicolor movies I’ve ever watched, second only to The Adventures Of Robin Hood. So, of course, I loved that about it. I also liked that the songs weren’t intrusive – the cast didn’t break into singing per se, the songs sort of grew out of the background music. And the style of the animation is that sort of stylised 1950s, er, style which I find much more appealing than the normal Disney style. So, despite the over-done Disney DVD cover, Sleeping Beauty is actually a gorgeous piece of animation. But, interestingly, it’s an odd take on the story, because it’s told through the viewpoints of three meddling middle-aged women, the good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. They hide Princess Aurora from bad witch Maleficent, although, of course, fairy tale curses have a way of coming true… But that sleeping bit, it’s only like part of the final act, it’s the shape of Aurora’s life which is the backbone of the film. And it works really well. As does Maleficient’s actually quite scary transformation into a dragon when she tries to prevent Prince Philip from reaching the sleeping Aurora. Without watching all the other Disney animated features films, and going only on what I remember of them, I think I can safely say Sleeping Beauty is the best of them. Although I would like to watch The Jungle Book again…

nightofthecomet-bdNight of the Comet, Thom Eberhardt (1984, USA). I suspect this may be the most eighties film made during the eighties. I remember first seeing it in the mid-eighties on television – it was introduced by either Jonathan Ross or Alex Cox, as part of a cult film series, I forget which; but I’ve always fancied a copy of it… and then late last year Arrow released a dual-format edition. So I bought it. And… it’s pretty much how I remembered it and, as I mentioned earlier, so very eighties. It’s not just the soundtrack – little of which was actually familiar to me even though I remember much of the decade, although the songs did sound very much of the time. Nor the clothing. But I seem to remember Valley Girls appearing in several cult films at the time – the other one that springs to mind is Julien Temple’s Earth Girls are Easy – and the two main characters of this, played by Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, are pretty much perfect casting. There’s a sequence in the film which more or less defines it for me – and certainly proved the most memorable – and yet has nothing to do with zombies. (Oh yes, the plot is: a comet flies close to Earth, all those who did not spend the night in something with steel walls turned into dust… or a zombie.) Anyway, the two girls decide that since they’re now apparently the only inhabitants of Los Angeles they can do what they like… which includes trying out everything which takes their fancy in a department store – all to, of course, the strains of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Fun’. Anyway, the pair have their ups and downs, their moments of jeopardy, being rescued and as well as rescuing others – they’re good strong female leads… and it’s a shame films like Night of the Comet are not bettered remembered. Worth getting hold of.

early_cinemaThe Great Train Robbery*, Edison Manufacturing Company (1903, USA). To be honest, I don’t remember much about this – it was one of about twenty or so films on a DVD collection of early cinema, Primitives and Pioneers – a mixture of US, French and British movies, all of which were identified by the company which made them rather than the person who directed them. Some of them were quite good – ‘Explosion of a Motor Car’ by the Hepworth Manufacturing Company was pretty good, if surprisingly, and comically, gruesome. Some of the others were mere fragments. However, one thing which did stand out – and I suppose The Great Train Robbery is as good an example as any – was the desire by the film-makers to tell stories using this new medium. So rather than documenting the world around them, they staged little vignettes and scenarios. A train being robbed, a woman’s baby being stolen from its pram, even the use of fantasy (hand-coloured too) in some of the early French films. In fact, while there’s little to say about the movie which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, the actual collection itself is totally worth watching.

blueBlue is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kechiche (2013, France). There was apparently some fuss when this won the Palme d’or at Cannes, although I was not aware of that until after I watched it. But having now read some of the criticisms of the film, I can understand what the critics meant. The film is based on a well-regarded French bande dessinée about a young woman’s sexual awakening and subsequent lesbian relationship with a blue-haired artist. And, of course, the homophobia she experiences – from family as well as school friends. Much has been made of the sex scenes in this film, and it’s certainly true they play far too… straight to be convincing. It’s hard to explain, and I’m no real position to judge the veracity (although plenty who are have said what I am about to), but they don’t ring true, in the same sort of way that sexual encounters in pornographic films don’t ring true as real sex. The two leads, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, are excellent, but the whole films still feels like a mistreatment of its source material and the lifestyle on which its source material – Julie Maroh’s 2010 Le bleu est une couleur chaude – is based. I can understand why the film has proven controversial, and I can’t help but agree with those who find fault with it. I’ve seen it now, but, you know, it wouldn’t have bothered me if I never had… and I can’t really recommend it to anyone.

happyHappy People, Werner Herzog & Dmitry Vasyukov (2010, Germany). The subtitle of this film, “A Year in the Taiga”, pretty much tells you all you need to know about this documentary. Assuming, of course, you know what “taiga” means. I admit it, I think Herzog is a genius, and while not all of his films are great, he’s never made a dull film. And that’s as true of Happy People as it is of any film he’s made, even if it’s just a documentary about the inhabitants of Bakhta, a small village in the middle of Siberia, which can only be reached by air or river (and the latter only during the summer when the river isn’t frozen solid). It’s a hard life that Herzog and Vasyukov document, but appealingly simple. True, the values and attitudes of the village’s residents are equally simple, but they seem to suit the lifestyle. There is, for example, one moment where one of the native Ket people accidentally burns down his house because he’d been drunk and left a cigarette burning. But he and his mother are more concerned about the loss of their home’s fetishes than anything else. There’s a sad overtone to much of the proceedings inasmuch as the Ket’s traditional lifestlye has been overwritten by the USSR, but the film’s title is no lie and all those involved seem to be inspiringly happy despite the hardship of their lives. Another charity shop find that’ll be a keeper, I think.

purpleThe Purple Rose of Cairo*, Woody Allen (1985, USA). I am not a fan of Woody Allen’s films. Actually, I can’t stand them. But this one was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I sort of had to watch it. (He has several – and far too many – films on the list.) From what I knew of the film, I guessed it would be less irritating than most of his oeuvre – he’s not in it, for a start. And the central premise sounded quite good: a character from a film steps out of a cinema screen and runs away with a lonely woman, only for the actor who plays the character to come searching for the pair. That description, however, proved somewhat incomplete. The woman, played by Mia Farrow, is a battered spouse. And she goes to the cinema to escape her husband as much as she does to watch movies. On the plus side, the idea of a character stepping out of a film, leaving the remainder of the movie’s cast to figure out how to proceed, is handled well and proves mildly amusing. The fish-out-of-water romance by the film character and Farrow is less amusing and trades a little on cliché. And when the actual actor turns up and proves to be self-centred and career-minded, well, that is an actual cliché. My opinion of Allen’s films remains completely unchanged having seen The Purple Rose of Cairo, and I still don’t understand why so many of his movies are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 688


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2015, the best of the year

On balance, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for me. Things improved in $dayjob, goodish things happened in my little corner of genre, and I read a number of excellent books and watched lots of excellent films. Music-wise, it was both successful and not so successful: I discovered some more new bands on Bandcamp, and this year we went VIP for Bloodstock and it really was worth the extra money; but I saw fewer bands live than in previous years, and none of my favourite ones toured the UK – and if they did, it was only in the big cities, like London, Birmingham or Glasgow. But, like I said, some excellent books and films – so much so, I had trouble picking my top five in each. But I did finally manage it.

Oh, and I got a new cat. Oscar. He’s two years old, and I’d forgotten how much of a pain young cats can be.

books
A strange year of reading, on reflection, and I’m not entirely sure why. I read some books as research for All That Outer Space Allows (which was published this year), I read some other non-fiction books (on space and aircraft and submersibles, mostly), I read some sf novels for SF Mistressworks and some more recent genre works… And I decided to widen my reading to include more classic literature. While I like to think of myself primarily as a science fiction fan, of late I’ve found it hard to generate much enthusiasm for recent sf. In part, that’s due to the way fandom is changing as a result of social media and online promotion, but also because a lot of current sf seems to me more interested in style rather than content. I like sf ideas and sense of wonder, but I also like good writing, sophisticated themes and a willingness to experiment with form and structure. While some works which meet those criteria were indeed published in 2015, those I came across didn’t feel especially progressive. Which is why you’ll notice a few notable titles missing from my top five below (and I have only one, in fact, that was actually published in 2015).

loving1 Loving, Henry Green (1945).
An author new to me in 2015, and despite being about a subject – life belowstairs in the Irish country house of an English nob during WWII – that doesn’t interest me in the slightest, Green’s writing was wonderful and his narrative technique amazing. I will be reading more by him – hell, I plan to read everything he ever wrote.

wolves2 Wolves, Simon Ings (2014).
There was some small fuss when this appeared in early 2014, but by the time awards came around it had been forgotten. Which was a shame. And I wished I’d read it in time to nominate it last year – because this is plainly one of the best sf novels of 2014. The focus of his novel tends to drift a little as the story progresses, but Ings has still managed to produce one of the smartest works of sf – if not the smartest work of sf – of the last few years.

grasshopperschild3 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014).
A new Gwyneth Jones novel is cause for celebration, even if it’s a YA addendum to the non-YA Bold as Love quintet. But there’s a reason Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and they’re all evident in this short novel. On the one hand, this is a smart YA novel and I’m no fan of YA fiction; on the other, it’s Gwyneth Jones and her Bold as Love world. But it’s also self-published, so it needs to be on as many best-of lists as possible so that Jones keeps on writing. (And why was it self-published? Do the major UK genre imprints not want to publish new work by the country’s best sf writer?)

darkoribt4 Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015).
I’ve been saying for years that Gilman is a name to watch, and she has at last been given the opportunity to demonstrate it to a wider audience. (She amply demonstrated it with her fantasy diptych from ChiZine Publications back in 2011/2012, but genre commentators can only apparently see what appears from major imprints – which is, if you’ll forgive me, fucking short-sighted). Anyway, Dark Orbit deservedly received a lot of positive reviews, and though to me it didn’t quite feel like Gilman firing on all cylinders, it showed great promise. More from her, please.

bone_clocks5 The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014).
Friends have been singing the praises of Mitchell for years, but I’ve never really understood why. I mean, I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and I thought it was clever… but it did seem a little over-praised. But The Bone Clocks is the novel that all the praise had led me to believe Cloud Atlas was. It’s his most insightful yet – and also his most genre.

Honourable mentions: a few titles got bumped from best of the half-year top five, although they were excellent books and probably didn’t deserve to be demoted – namely, The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958), a classic of Italian twentieth-century literature (a bloody good film too); A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975), the final book of the Raj Quartet and as beautifully written as the other three; and What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013), wich showcases why he remains one of my favourite genre short story writers. Also read and noteworthy were: Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), a literate mystery based on an interestingly odd premise; Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962), my first by him and, though perhaps overly prissy, excellent; One Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011), a bawdy, and multiply-nested retelling of some of its title’s stories; Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1981), her beautifully-written debut novel; and Galactic Suburbia, Lisa Yaszek (2008), used for research and a fascinating read.

films
I went all-out on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list in 2015. So much so, in fact, that I signed up with a second DVD rental service, Cinema Paradiso, because they had some films from the list that weren’t available on Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. And I bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick too, which gave me access to even more movies. Meanwhile, I purged my DVD collection of all the superhero films (why did I buy them in the first place?) and the shit sf movies (why did I buy them in the first place?), not to mention lots of other films I’d bought over the years. My collection is now looking very different, much more of cineaste’s collection (even though I say so myself), with lots of works by Sokurov, Dreyer, Murnau and Benning – and from earlier years, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Haneke, among many others.

The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die challenge has been… interesting. It introduced me to the works of James Benning. I’ve also seen a lot of not very good films that really didn’t belong on the list (mostly from Hollywood, it has to be said). And I’ve seen a lot of early cinema, most of which proved quite interesting. Only one of the five films in my top five was not a “discovery” from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

playtime1 Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967)
How could this not be my number one choice? It certainly was halfway back in June, and it remains so now at the end of the year. I loved its Brutalist production design, its situational humour, its wit… it is a work of cinematic genius. I’d watched a rental DVD but I loved it so much I bought a Blu-ray copy for myself… and then bought a boxed set of Blu-rays of Tati’s entire oeuvre. A film that went straight into my personal top ten best films of all time.

deseret2 Deseret, James Benning (1995)
Ever loved a film so much you went out and bought every DVD you could find by that director? Oh wait, I did that for Tati. But I also did it for Benning. Fortunately, Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have been releasing Benning’s films on DVDs the last couple of years, so there were a few for me to get. And yet… Deseret is static shots of Utah landscape, and later cityscape, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1895 to the present day. It is cinema as art installation. And I loved it. I am now a huge Benning fan. And I have all of the DVDs that Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have released. And am eagerly awaiting more.

shepitko3 Wings, Larisa Shepitko (1966)
Shepitko’s Ascent is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the only copy of it I could find was a Criterion double with Wings. I bought it. I watched Ascent. It was good. But then I watched Wings. And it was so much better. A female fighter pilot of the Great Patriotic War, and Hero of the Soviet Union, is now the principal of a school. It’s an artful juxtaposition, more so because the protagonist is female. And it was Shepitko’s debut film. War films, like Ascent, strike me as too easy as choices for assorted lists, but the social drama versus war of Wings is much more interesting. This film should have been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d also like to see more by Shepitko.

elegy_voyage4 Elegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001)
Come on, you didn’t expect me not to have a Sokurov film on this list, did you? I’m being nice by not putting five on it. Well, okay, five maybe could have made it, but one was a rewatch from previous years and so didn’t count. But four could have done. (Yes, the other three are in my honourable mentions below.) Elegy of a Voyage is one of Sokurov’s documentaries, but it’s more of a meditation than an informational film, in which Sokurov muses on journeys and art, particularly ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Bruegel.

cleo5 Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda (1962). I have found the Nouvelle Vague to be something of a mixed bag – in fact, I’ve found the oeuvres of Nouvelle Vague directors to be something of a mixed bag. But the only Varda I’d seen prior to Cleo from 5 to 7 was a documentary from 2000. Cleo from 5 to 7 may have covered similar ground to some of Godard’s 1960s films, but it does it so much better. Loved it.

Honourable mentions: two films were dropped from my best of the half year list, one a Sokurov, one a documentary: Jodorowskys Dune (2013) is a fascinating look at a major sf film that never happened, but still left its fingerprints all over sf cinema; Stone (1992) is a typically enigmatic drama from Sokurov… but I could just as easily mention Whispering Pages (1994; which he knocked together after his financing fell apart, but it still manages to hit all those Sokurovian notes), or Spiritual Voices (1995; a documentary about Russian soldiers on the Afghanistan border whose first 40 minutes are a static shot of a Siberian wood). But there’s also Tati’s Mon oncle (1958), nearly as good as Playtime; James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (2014), an excellent documentary on his visit to Challenger Deep, only the third person to do so; American Dreams (lost and found) (1984), another Benning piece with an unconventional narrative; Salt of the Earth, Herbert J Biberman (1954), an astonishing piece of social realism drama that deserves to be better known; Sleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959), easily the best of the Disney feature films. Day Of Wrath (1943) was another excellent film from Dreyer, Effi Briest (1974) was I thought the best of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I watched, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) was a Jean-Luc Godard that I was surprised to find I liked very much.

albums
I spent much of the year further exploring Bandcamp, and so stumbled across yet more excellent music. I did not, however, see much music live this year – Sólstafir were excellent back in February, Voices and Winterfylleth were very good in September, and highlights of this year’s Bloodstock included Ne Obliviscaris, Sumer, Opeth and Agalloch.

1 Sidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013)
Spanish progressive death metal, not unlike NahemaH (also Spanish, and a favourite band… although they disbanded last year). It seems a little unfair to describe a group’s sound by how much like another band’s it is, but metal these days is such a wide and diverse genre labels are often next to useless. Apocynthion play prgressive metal with clean and growl vocals, some death metal song structures, sound effects and samples, a heavy post-metal influence and a great deal of technical ability.

panopticon2 Autumn Eternal, Panopticon (2015)
Panopticon’s Kentucky from 2013, with its mix of black metal and bluegrass, is an astonishing album… but I picked it for my best of last year. Their new album (I say “their” but it’s a one-man show) mixes folky acoustic parts with intense black metal, and it works really well.

3 Ghostwood, Navigator (2013)
This is polished progressive rock with a little bit of djent thrown into the mix, with solid riffs and some catchy hooks. They described themselves as “for fans of Porcupine Tree”, although I think this album is better than most of that band’s albums.

grorr4 Anthill, Grorr (2012)
A relatively recent discovery this one, Grorr play progressive death metal, but more like Gojira than, say, Opeth. There’s all sorts in here – bagpipes, sitar, various types of drums. It’s a wonderfully varied album, but still coherent.

5 An Act of Name Giving, Butterfly Trajectory (2015)
Anothe rrecent discovery. Butterfly Trajectory also play progressive death metal – there seems to be a common theme to this top five… They’re from Poland, and while their sound is quite Opeth-ish, they’re a good deal better than fellow countrymen Gwynbleidd who play similar material. Butterfly Trajectory seem to like their progressive bits a tad more than their death metal bits, which works really well.

Honourable mentions: Worst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015), French progessive death metal with plenty of other musical styles thrown in, excellent stuff; Kyrr, Kontinuum (2015), Icelandic post-metal, a little more commercial than fellow countrymen Sólstafir… whose Ótta (2015) and Svartir Sandar (2011) are excellent heavy post-metal albums; Cold and the Silence, Martriden (2015), yet more shredding from excellent medlodic death metal group, who seem to have gone a bit funkily progressive with this new album, and it works really well; and finally, RAMA, RAMA (2015), which is a weird mix of doom, stoner, psychedelic and desert rock all in a three-song EP.


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Moving pictures, #37

Only 315 movies to go and I’m done with the list. Unfortunately, not every film on it seems to be actually available – and the list does evolve – so it’s not like finishing it is, well, a death sentence. I should have a go at putting together my own, I suppose – although, to be fair, 1001 movies is a lot of movies – since I can think of a couple of dozen films which belong on the list much more than some of the Hollywood crap which actually does appear on it. (Quick plug here for my list 101 Films for a cineaste, and I really ought to do a part two and part three…)

odd_man_outOdd Man Out*, Carol Reed (1947, UK). This was an odd one (no pun intended). It was probably a Quota Quickie – it starred James Mason, who made his career in Quota Quickies during WWII (he was a conscientious objector as he was a Quaker) and is black-and-white. It is also about the IRA. Of course, the organisation is never named, and even the city in which the film takes place remains nameless (although a bus appears at one point with “Falls Road” on its sign). Mason plays the leader of a cell, who has been ordered to rob a mill. The robbery goes wrong, and the men are forced to hide out. Mason is shot and separated from the others, and tries to head back his girlfriend’s house, where he had been hiding for the past six months. In pretty much all respects, Odd Man Out is a straightforward noir film – except for the political angle. It makes for an odd disconnect. While the cast are presented as criminals, and they perform criminal acts, as is fairly common in noir, the fact they’re IRA gives their actions added weight. To be fair, the film doesn’t belabour the point, and while it makes much of its setting, Belfast, the sectarian angle is played down, probably wisely. Apparently Odd Man Out received a BAFTA for Best British Film in its year of release. On balance, it probably deserves to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

ikuruIkiru*, Akira Kurosawa (1952, Japan). Ask anyone who knows very little abut Japanese cinema to name a Japanese director, and Kurosawa will probably be the most popular answer (so don’t go picking it on Pointless). I have over the years watched a number of Kurosawa’s films and, perversely, still like his Russian one best. I hadn’t really expected to like Ikiru, an early work, especially given the plot summary. A minor bureacrat, Watanabe, is given 12 months to live after being diagnosed with bowel cancer. Impressed by the enthusiasm of his department’s sole female member, a young woman, he starts spending time with her. But she resigns from the ministry, and soon after tires of his company. She tells Watanabe he needs to find a hobby. He decides to take a petition to convert an urban rubbish tip into a playground, and push it through all the government departments and get all the backing and signatures it needs, to make it happen. There’s a quite horrible scene at his funeral during which the local deputy mayor takes full credit for the playground, totally downplaying Watanabe’s contribution. A good film.

high_sierraHigh Sierra*, Raoul Walsh (1941, USA). I started watching this and wondered if I’d accidentally stuck a film on my rental list I’d already watched earlier in the year… but no, that earlier film was The Treasure of Sierra Madre which, like High Sierra, stars Humphrey Bogart, is in black-and-white, but otherwise bears no resemblance to it at all. On the other hand, I could have been confusing it with Angels with Dirty Faces, which stars the Humph as a bent lawyer, but I suspect it’s just all these noir films are beginning to blur together a bit… In this one, the Humph plays an ex-con who leads a robbery on a resort hotel. Though they plan it to the smallest detail, it all goes horribly wrong. Ida Lupino is good as the femme fatale. She had a fascinating career, incidentally – a Brit who moved to Hollywood, played in a number of noir films, before becoming one of Hollywood’s first female directors. (And Hedy Lamarr, a contemporary, held a patent for the maths used by torpedo guidance systems. Just compare those two with the current crop of Hollwood actresses…). The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die could do with having some noir trimmed from it.

black_narcussisBlack Narcissus*, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (1946, UK). I’ve been a fan of the Archers for many years, and thought I had seen Black Narcissus years before – at least, I’m pretty sure I had – but I stuck on my rental list for a rewatch as it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And… yes, it’s the film I thought it was, and it’s also very much not the film I thought it was. It is deeply problematical – Jean Simmons in blackface as a young Indian woman; the whole colonialist attitude to the locals – but it is also a gorgeous-looking film, which is especially surprising as it was filmed entirely in a studio (even the model of the mountain-top monastery looks gorgeous). I recently rewatched the Archer’s The Red Shoes, but didn’t enjoy it as much as I had on previous viewings – and I expected much the same for Black Narcissus, a film I could admire, with very much an Archers’ look and feel, but something of a Sunday afternoon movie and soon forgotten… Except I actually really did find myself liking it. It’s pure melodrama, it’s colonialist melodrama, it is, as I’ve said, deeply problematical… but there’s also a faint whiff of knowingness to it, and a definite series of hints that its viewpoint is skewed (the local British agent, for example, is very much sceptical view of his role). It all adds up to something considerably more than a Sunday afternoon movie, and I wouldn’t mind watching it again…

shrinkingmanThe Incredible Shrinking Man*, Jack Arnold (1957, USA). I was taken to task for not liking this film much by a friend on FB. But I really couldn’t get excited about it. Not only does it have that B-movie moralistic voice-over, in which the whole film is presented as an object lesson because no one involved in making the film had enough confidence in the audience to get the point of it all, but the special effects may have been shocking in 1957 but seemed relatively humdrum in 2015. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a B-movie and nothing more, and its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is either an acknowledgement that some B-movies have transcended their origins, or a completely mystery. I acknowledge the former, but incline to the latter in this case. The moralistic posturing in The Incredible Shrinking Man actually spoiled it for me, whereas I suspect a reliance on the pure visceral thrill of a tiny little man fighting a GIANT SPIDER might have given the film more authority in its central premise. Despite it s appearance on the list, this is a B-movie, it looked like a B-movie, it played like a B-movie, and its presence on the list is not enough for it to magically transcend its B-movie origins.

hitchcock2Torn Curtain, Alfred Hitchcock (1966, USA). Among the first DVDs I bought when the format appeared was a pair of Alfred Hitchcock collections. I replaced both of these with Blu-ray editions during a recent Amazon Prime Day, and have been slowly working my way through them – rewatches all, of course. I’ve not bothered mentioning them in these Moving pictures posts because they’re films I first saw decades ago, and have rewatched several times since. But I thought it worth writing about Torn Curtain for a number of reasons. It’s considered minor Hitchcock despite its high-powered stars (who were apparently forced on Hitch by the studio), but it’s also an odd film even within Hitch’s oeuvre. It’s set mostly in Europe – I was dead chuffed, for example, on my first visit to Copenhagen when I spotted the Hotel’d’Angleterre, which appears in this film – and it is a surprisingly European film for a major Hollywood player. Paul Newman is a US scientist who fakes a defection to the East so he can steal some formulae from an East German rocket scientist; Julie Andrews plays his wife, who inadvertently gets herself involved in the whole plot. I had forgotten how wonderfully Technicolor Torn Curtain is, and how surprisingly unpretentious it is. The fight scene between the Stasi agent and Paul Newman, which takes place in total silence, I pastiched in one of my novels I liked it so much. The pair’s trip across East Germany to a contact who will smuggle them into the West is resolutely ordinary, with weird moments of humour interrupting the jeopardy. I actually liked the film a lot more than I had done afterprevious viewings. And yes, it was totally worth replacing my DVD copies with Blu-ray ones.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 686