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Reading diary, #29

I had a couple of introductory paragraphs to this reading diary, about how at school I was often called names because of my choice in books… But I decided not to use it. Mostly because I’ve been sitting on this post for over a week as it contains negative reviews of two of the books on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist. I’ve seen other commentary on the two books, and I appear to be in a minority with my views. And we all know these days that reviews are expected to be little more than warmed-over marketing copy.

As for the Clarke shortlist itself, I’ve now read five of the six books. One of them deserves to win, two of them I suppose a case could be made for their presence (although I wouldn’t do it), and two should never have made the cut. By all accounts, the book I’ve yet to read is no better. But then every year there’s been one or two books on the shortlist whose presence is baffling. This year, it feels like a somewhat shapeless shortlist, more like fannish selections than the picks of literary judges. That may be an unintended consequence of the huge number of submitted books (ie, judges’ choices spread wider, more compromises needed to pick the final six), but that’s just speculation. The Clarke Award shortlist for 2016 is what it is. And sadly, given recent complaints in various quarters about a lack of critical commentary on the award, it’s not a shortlist that especially invites critical commentary.

But on with the books…

vernon_god_littleVernon God Little*, DBC Pierre (2003). You know those comic novels which are supposed to be funny but aren’t, and where the narrator’s voice is supposed to be funny but isn’t… well, this is one of them. There has been a tragedy in the Texas town of Martirio. Vernon’s best friend, Jesus, has gunned down several of his schoolmates, and Vernon is still under suspicion as an accomplice. (He’s innocent, but no one particularly cares – Jesus is dead, and Vernon makes a good scapegoat). This is one of those novels where the entire cast are white trailer trash, and that’s sufficient to present them as comedy characters. Ignorance may be fertile soil for comedy, but there’s a right way to handle it and a wrong way. There’s a meanness to the characterisations in Vernon God Little which makes for unpleasant reading. It doesn’t help that Vernon is a thoroughly unlikeable narrator, nor in fact that none of the characters in the book are at all likeable – most, in fact, are closer to caricature than character. How this book won the Booker Prize is a mystery; how it was picked for the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list is an even bigger mystery. One to avoid.

nowhere_huntThe Nowhere Hunt, Jo Clayton (1981). This is the sixth book in Clayton’s nine-book Diadem series, which also spun off a pair of trilogies about one of its minor characters. Although the series started out as peplum space opera (I’m determined to use that phrase, now that I’ve coined it), it soon drifted into standard 1970s space opera, a sort of Dumarest Saga with a female Dumarest – albeit with lots of special snowflake superpowers. Clayton seemed to have dialled back the violence and abuse as well by book four, but unfortunately this one sees a return to it. I reviewed The Nowhere Hunt on SF Mistressworks – see here.

valerian_11Valerian and Laureline 11: The Ghosts of Inverloch, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1983, translated 2016). I had always thought the Valérian agent spatio-temporel series comprised individual stories, but it seems there is a story-arc slowly beginning to appear. It’s not just that the previous two volumes, Métro Châtelet, Destination Cassiopeia and Brooklyn Station, Terminus Cosmos, formed a two-part story, nor that The Ghosts of Inverloch is also the first of a two-parter (with the yet-to-be-published-by-Cinebook The Wrath of Hypsis), but the story in The Ghosts of Inverloch does refer to the preceding two-parter and even to the first book in the series, The City of Shifting Waters. As it is the plot of The Ghosts of Inverloch is a bit on the thin side – Laureline is already in residence at the eponymous Scottish castle, but Valerian must first capture a Glapum’tian from the planet Glapum’t, which he manages to do within a couple of pages. He then heads – through time and space – to Inverloch Castle. Others are also making their way to the castle, including the head of the Spatio-Temporal Service, Valerian and Laureline’s boss… The reason why, unfortunately, is left to the following volume. Despite their episodic nature, the Valerian and Laureline series is superior space opera. And Luc Besson is making a film based based on it. I can’t wait.

women_in_liveWomen in Love*, DH Lawrence (1920). This is a sequel of sorts to The Rainbow, inasmuch as it continues the story of Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen from that novel. Wikipedia claims the two books were planned as one big novel but split by the publisher, but the introduction to my edition of Women in Love contradicts this – in Lawrence’s own words. He was driven out of London in late 1915 by The Rainbow obscenity trial, a libel suit and his vocal opposition to the Great War (which made him a lot of enemies in London society), and settled in poverty in Cornwall. After recovering from illness, he started work on Women in Love“a sequel to The Rainbow, though quite unlike it”. Certainly, the two books are not big on rigour, and Women in Love might be better considered an entirely new novel whose leads share their names, and some background details, with the Brangwens of The Rainbow. Lawrence apparently wrote it very quickly, but it took four years before it saw print. Gudrun is an artist, returned to the family’s Nottinghamshire home village after a few bohemian years in London. Ursula is a teacher in a local school. She is attracted to school inspector Birkin (a stand-in for Lawrence himself), while Gudrun takes up with Gerald Crich, son of the local coal-mining magnate. The novel charts the two couples’ relationships through a series of (mostly) tragic incidents. You don’t read Lawrence for the plots, which is just as well as he tends to meander. And his characters usually read like they’re dialled up to eleven (so many! exclamation marks! It seems somewhat excessive to a modern reader). But there’s also lots of philosophising and discussions of Lawrence’s often bonkers ideas on art and life. Birkin especially is fond of lecturing the other characters, often at great length. And, of course, there’s Lawrence’s lovely descriptive prose. Women in Love is a… meatier novel than Sons and Lovers or The White Peacock; but it’s also a novel that disappointingly seems to treat the working-class like noble savages (and especially disappointingly so after Sons and Lovers). With its cast of minor gentry, teachers and artists, Women in Love is very middle-class, almost as if Lawrence’s years in London turned him into a social climber (and Birkin suggests as much in Women in Love). I have that absolutely enormous three-volume biography of DH Lawrence on my bookshelves. One of these days I’ll have to read it.

way_down_darkWay Down Dark, JP Smythe (2015). I am not in the slightest bit interested in YA – although I do like Smythe’s non-YA novels, and think they’re very good – but Way Down Dark was shortlisted for the Clarke Award this year, so I picked up a copy and read it and… I’m frankly mystified why it was shortlisted. It may well be better-written than the average YA, but it’s just one long litany of death and violence in a science-fictional setting which doesn’t hold up to a moment’s scrutiny. For a book to be on a major genre award shortlist, I expect more than just a nice turn of phrase. I’ve seen some of the commentary about Way Down Dark, and I am I admit not in the slightest bit familiar with the YA market… So perhaps it’s a YA thing that the background doesn’t make sense. It’s supposed to be a generation ship, but turns out to be a prison. In orbit. So where does the gravity come from? Not acceleration, since it’s not moving. And the decks are made of grating, so where is the artificial gravity hidden? There are “over ninety” of these open decks, and people live in cubicles they’ve made from salvaged sheets of metal and curtains. Chan, the protagonist, tells us that her mother moved them from higher up the stack to halfway down because it was nice and warm – yet the very bottom of the stack is apparently not too hot to live in. Because that’s where the Lows, who are straight out of Mad Max Central Casting, live. Then there’s the Pit, which is the floor of the well around which the decks are arranged. It’s a festering pool of dead bodies and rubbish…because people throw bodies and garbage there. As you would. The book doesn’t say how long the ship/prison has been occupied, but at least three generations are mentioned in the book, and since no one seems to remember they’re actually prisoners that suggests at least a century. In the centre of the Pit, under the rotting flesh and blood and trash, is a secret entrance to the guards’ quarters. Ignoring the fact that no sane person would go wading into a stinking soup of decomposing corpses, or even put their head under it, masked or not… there’s also the fact that initially the entrance would not have been hidden, and could not have been intended to be hidden, as who would design a prison with the expectation that inmates would throw bodies down into the Pit? The ship/prison is also called Australia… I hope there’s an explanation in a later book to explain the name (Way Down Dark is very much incomplete and the first part of a trilogy), but even so, in light of the book’s setting there’s a lot of… baggage there. This is, I believe, the third time a YA novel has made the shortlist – the other two were Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness in 2011 and The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter in 2008. Tellingly, only one of the three is by an actual YA author. Personally, I don’t think YA should be considered by the Clarke Award, and there’s nothing in this novel to cause me to reconsider that.

underwater_manUnderwater Man, Joe MacInnis (1974). MacInnis has been involved in diving medicine for a number of decades – first with Ed Link and his various projects, then in other places. He was part of the US Navy’s SEALAB III project, and was the first scientist to dive beneath the North Pole. This book describes eleven of MacInnis’s most memorable underwater adventures from 1963 to 1972, including the stuff with Link and the Arctic dives. MacInnis may be an excellent doctor, and an accomplished diver, but his writing is… somewhat, er, florid. Here’s a sample, about the bends:

“It is in the shallow regions that decompression sickness is most likely. We are both aware of its fierce displays. I have seen destructive pain-shells fire through proud young bodies. I recall an old friend who had succumbed to the dark winds of vertigo. A ruthless bubble lodged near his brain. He was in such distress that he threw up. I remembered the hard grey stillness locked in my gut as we nursed him slowly back from the cliff edge of shock.” (p 76)

It makes for an odd read. Fascinating stuff nonetheless, and MacInnis is an important figure in the field – he’s still going, his last book was published in 2012 (although I only have his 2004 book, Breathing Underwater, as well as Underwater Man).

book_phoenixThe Book of Phoenix, Nnedi Okorafor (2015). And from a shortlisted book written for teenagers to one that reads as though it were written by a teenager. Okorafor seems to be having a Moment this year: ‘Binti’ was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and BSFA Awards, and won the Nebula; and The Book of Phoenix is on the Clarke Award shortlist. This novel is apparently a prequel to 2010’s Who Fears Death, which I’ve not read – and I don’t think I’ll be bothering to do so, either. The protagonist of The Book of Phoenix is a genetically engineered “SpeciMen” (a particularly ugly coinage). Although only two years old, she has the body and mind of a forty-year-old African woman. We’re told she was called Phoenix after the city in Arizona, but the book then later says her mother gave her the name – so it’s a massive coincidence that her genetically-engineered superpower is the ability to combust and then be reborn from her ashes. Oh, and she can fly – she has wings. And later she can “slip”, which is sort of teleporting in time and space. And she can generate heat inside her body too. She starts the book as a prisoner in Tower 7, a LifeGen facility in a post-climate-crash New York. She escapes by destroying the building, and flies to Ghana. A year later, LifeGen tracks her down and, in the process of capturing her, kill her lover. They take her to a Tower in the Caribbean and… The plot of The Book of Phoenix is basically this happened and then that happened and then this happened, with no discernible structure or rigour to it. Early on, Phoenix releases an alien kept captive in Tower 7, and mentions in passing there are colonies on Mars. Both are mentioned only once more in the novel, also in passing, near the end. Ideas are just picked up by the author for world-building when needed, then put down and forgotten. As far as I know, The Book of Phoenix is not being marketed as YA, although it seems to exhibit many of the hallmarks – a heroine with super special powers that have no grounding in either story or world or science or logic, world-building with no rigour and very little sense, and a plot that jumps from one unconnected incident to the next. Would I have thought The Book of Phoenix a better book if it had been badged as YA? Unlikely – though it would have at least “explained” some elements of it. I’ve discussed Okorafor’s novel with other people, and I seem to be alone in finding it unimpressive. So it goes.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 124

Finally, I think I’ll start including a breakdown of my reading by gender in my reading diary posts, so here’s the first – 57 books read up to 22 May this year:

gender

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Moving pictures, #26

MOAR MOVIES…

saragossaThe Saragossa Manuscript*, Wojciech Has (1965, Poland). Imagine the Arabian Nights set in eighteenth-century Spain but with a Polish cast speaking Polish throughout, and you might get some of the flavour of The Saragossa Manuscript. The film is based on an actual book, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, allegedly by Count Jan Potocki, originally published in 1805, although the book was added to in later years, bits were lost, and even the complete contents are not entirely certain. A plot summary would take up a lot of bandwidth, chiefly because it consists of stories nested within stories nested within stories, to such an extent it’s no longer clear which is the framing narrative. Mostly it’s based on the adventures of a Spanish nobleman in the eighteenth century, as written down in the aforementioned manuscript, which is discovered by a pair of officers from opposite sides in Zaragoza during the Napoleonic Wars. The first half of the film seems to consist of the hero of the story, an ancestor of one of the officers, being enchanted by ghosts and then waking up under a set of gallows; but in the second half, the stories become even more inter-nested, and the film begins to get much more interesting. So much so that by the end of it, I quite fancied having a copy of it. Wikipedia claims “multiple viewings of the film are recommended in order to comprehend the plot”, although I didn’t find it that hard to follow (once, that is, I’d realised it aped the Arabian Nights’ structure), but I’d still like to watch it again. Recommended.

first_manFirst Man into Space, Robert Day (1959, UK). I have no idea why I put this on my rental list – I’m guessing it’s because of the title. I’m not sure I’d describe it as “Best of British” as the cover claims, given that it’s set in the US, was filmed partly in the US, and features a mostly US cast hardly makes it especially British. But it was produced by a UK company and filmed by a British director. An astronaut pilots a rocket-plane into space, encounters some weird cosmic storm, and crashes back on Earth transformed into a monster… and promptly goes on a rampage. It’s fairly typical B-movie nonsense of the period, of course, although interesting inasmuch as the rocket-plane was the very real X-1, and stock footage of X-1 flights was used (at least for the in-atmosphere bits). True, the cockpit as depicted in the film bore no resemblance to the real X-1’s, and the X-1 never reached Mach 2.5 or flew out of the atmosphere (it wasn’t until the X-15 that either of those happened – and it held speed and altitude records for decades). I think the actual last flight of the X-1 captured on film was an appearance in Josef von Sternberg’s Jet Pilot from 1957 as a Soviet “parasite fighter”, and actually flown by Chuck Yeager for the production. Filming for Jet Pilot took place between 1949 and 1953, but the film wasn’t released until four years later.

dancerDancer in the Dark, Lars von Trier (2000, Denmark). This was a “lucky” charity shop find, and I say “lucky” because I’m still not sure if von Trier is a genius or a complete charlatan. And I’m no nearer knowing after watching this… although I am starting to incline toward to the former. Dancer in the Dark is an unholy mix of made-for-TV true-crime drama and late twentieth-century music video. It’s a musical, but its star is Björk, which means every musical number (and she’s in them all) bears more resemblance to her music than it does musical film or theatre of the time. Now, I still consider Björks’s Post from 1995 a classic pop album – although I no longer own a copy (whereas Chapterhouse’s Blood Music, from 1993, I still own and think is the best shoegazer album ever made). Anyway, Dancer in the Dark… Björk plays a Czech emigré to the US who works in a factory. She is steadily losing her sight, but is saving up her wages to pay for an operation so her son will not suffer the same fate (plots like this DO NOT WORK in the UK, because we have the NHS – THIS IS A GOOD THING, DO NOT KILL THE NHS). Anyway, her boss finds out, she loses her job, she kills her landlord (at his request) and, wouldn’t you know it, she’s arrested and charged with his murder. Then there’s a court case, which owes more to The Thin Blue Line than it does Law & Order. The supporting cast is surprisingly high-powered – and in one notable scene, Björj plays against Catherine Deneuve in a prison visiting booth… and though Björk isn’t actually acting she somehow or other manages to hold her own against Deneuve. Unfortunately, that’s not true of every scene she’s in, and her gauche artlessness often works against the others’ much more polished performances. Still, von Trier is not a director who follows the rules, and you watch his film for that reason as much as for any other. [2]

once_chinaOnce Upon a Time in China*, Tsui Hark (1991, China). Well, there’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and even Once Upon a Time in Mumbai… not to mention many other variations, or the fact that Once Upon a Time in China is actually a series of films, comprising Once Upon a Time in ChinaOnce Upon a Time in China IIOnce Upon a Time in China IIIOnce Upon a Time in China IVOnce Upon a Time in China V, Once Upon a Time in China VI and Once Upon a Time in China and America. I think I’ve seen that last one too. I was, perhaps unfairly, expecting something like Hero or even Hark’s later Seven Swords. But Once Upon a Time in China felt very small-scale, more like those Hong Kong films I used to watch on VCD back in the 1990s. Jet Li plays a martial arts instructor and apothecary who finds himself caught in the middle of a fight between the local milita and a criminal gang, while Americans are trying to move into the country, looking for slave cheap labour to use back home. Some of the fight scenes are cleverly done, particularly the final one in the godown, with the combatants on huge ladders. Of the twenty Chinese films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, I’ve now I’ve seen around half. One or two I loved, but most, like this one, seemed little better than those VCDs I used to watch. Oh well.

descendantsThe Descendants, Alexander Payne (2011, USA). This is not actually on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but it’s on the combined list given on listchallenge.com, so it must have appeared on an earlier, or later, edition of the list. I’m baffled as to why. Clooney plays a laid-back Hawaiian lawyer whose wife is in a coma aftet a boating accident. According to the terms of her living will, it’s time to turn off her life-support, so he gathers in their two daughters (and the older one’s dim-witted boyfriend). Also at stake is a large parcel of land on the island – Oahu, I think – which the family wants to sell for a huge amount to a developer. Clooney is not against the sale, but when he learns his wife was having an affair it sort of complicates matters. And… they put this on one of the iterations of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before Die list? Seriously? It’s a not very interesting family drama about a bunch of unlikeable characters – Clooney is not very good at playing unlikeable, obviously, but he’s so passive in this he’s not very sympathetic. Not worth seeing.

101_dalmatians101 Dalmatians, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wolfgang Reitherman (1961, USA). I’m not sure why I’ve been watching so many Disney films recently. Some are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I found myself admiring a couple of them enough to buy copies for myself… but several have also appeared on Amazon Prime and so I thought I might as well give them a go. I suspect I saw 101 Dalmatians way back in the 1970s when I was a kid, but I have no memory of doing so (much as I didn’t for The Rescuers – see here), and it’s impossible to tell if what I do know of the film is from having seen it or just simply picked up from more than five decades of commentary on it. Anyway, I spent a Sunday afternoon watching 101 Dalmatians… and was surprised to find it a considerably more charming film than I’d expected. I hadn’t known it was set in the UK, although I should have guessed since I sort of knew that Dodie Smith was a British author. And, of course, a lot of successful Disney properties of the 1960s were based on UK books and set in the UK. Rod Taylor (an Australian) was an odd choice for Pongo, the male lead, but he was good in it. Cruella De Vil was somewhat OTT and, while the rest of the cast were standard Disney types, the dogs were good and surprisingly not annoying. And the art was good too. Better than I had expected.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 769


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Moving pictures, #25

I catch up… then I get behind. But I’m staying reasonably on top of these posts for now… possibly because I’ve been rewatching Battlestar Galactica so I’ve not been watching movies all the time.

le_trouLe trou*, Jacques Becker (1960, France). As I was watching this, I kept on thinking I was watching a Robert Bresson film, because it could just as easily have made by him – in many ways, Le trou reminds me a lot of A Man Escaped, at least more than just “man escapes from French prison”. Which is pretty much the plot. A group of prisoners in a cell dig a hole in the floor, which leads them into the prison’s cellars. From there, they find their way into the sewers… except the sewer tunnel is blocked, so they must dig around the concrete plug blocking it. The story is based on a real prison escape and, in fact, one of the original escapees plays himself in the film (well, sort of, the names are all changed, although I’m not sure why). There’s a matter of factness to Becker’s direction, despite which the film remains too… personal, too readily creates a narrative from its cast’s back-stories… to come across as a documentary. It makes for an odd disconnect. True, Le trou can be watched as a work of fiction and, in fact, that’s probably the easiest way to watch it, and the way most people are likely to watch it. (I can’t remember if the film opens with text explaining it’s a dramatisation of real events.) It’s the opposite, I suppose, of the 1980s penchant for dramatising documentaries, making something with a fictional format of them.

city_girlCity Girl, FW Murnau (1930, USA). It’s the age-old story: farmer’s son goes to the big city to sell the corn harvest, meets a young woman, falls in love, marries her, doesn’t get the expected price for the corn, goes back home with new bride, but farmer is not happy – at the reduced price for the corn or the new wife. Things get worse. But then they realise the errors of their ways, and everyone lives happily ever after. While the cinematography and direction are up to Murnau’s usual standard, where this film really scores is in depicting life on a US farm in the late 1920s. The harvesting scenes are especially fascinating, because the technology used is sort of halfway between how you imagine it was done in the nineteenth century or earlier and how it’s done now. I do like Murnau’s films – they’re straightforward, the characters are well-drawn, if somewhat broadly so, and for their time they’re cutting-edge, which makes them interesting as historical documents. Murnau is also a good example of those German directors who crossed over to Hollywood and, you would like to think, caused Hollywood to up its game and produce serious films instead of endless variations on the Keystone Cops. It’s not as if Murnau was on his own – Lang, Lubitsch, Wilder, von Stroheim, Sirk, even Hitchcock, who cut his teeth in the German film industry. Not all of them stayed, of course. Lang’s last films were made in Germany (well, India – but they were German films), and von Stroheim retired to France. City Girl is by no means Murnau’s best – that would have to be Nosferatu or Tabu – but it’s still worth seeing. [dual]

faithThrough a Glass Darkly*, Ingmar Bergman (1961, Sweden). Two couples – father, son, daughter and son-in-law – are holidaying on Fårö, a Swedish island in the Baltic (which Bergman loved so much, he ended up moving there). Father is a novelist and has just returned from working abroad. Daughter has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but refuses treatment. Son-in-law is a doctor and is having trouble persuading father of the severity of his wife’s condition. And son is not happy about his father’s absences. If films were books, then Bergman’s movies would be literary fiction. And watching one of his films is like reading a polished literary short story, the sort that fifty years later is studied in schools. Even the stark black and white cinematography of Through a Glass Darkly feels like a deliberate choice to create a precise atmosphere, much as a writer crafts sentences. Bergman’s use of ensemble acting and a stable of actors only heightens the likeness: three of the actors in Through a Glass Darkly – von Sydow, Andersson and Björnstrand – were all part of Bergman’s stock company at some point in their careers. [0]

lauraLaura*, Otto Preminger (1944, USA). I had high hopes for this famous noir film – not just because of the genre or director, but also because it starred Gene Tierney, who appeared in several classic noir films. But… the film opens after Laura’s murder, with a detective trying to find out who the killer is. He interviews Laura’s patron, an effete newspaper columnist, and Laura’s boyfriend, a louche playboy. The detective learns so much about Laura that he begins to obsess over her… so he’s somewhat flabbergasted when he falls asleep in her apartment and she walks through the door. Turns out it wasn’t Laura who was killed, but one of her models (the body’s face had been destroyed by a shotgun blast, but since it happened Laura’s apartment they assumed it was her). Preminger directed some killer noir films, and Tierney was the epitome of a 1940s Hollywood femme fatale – no matter the role, she seemed to take into herself all the baggage associated with the character. I suspect this was due to the fact she wasn’t actually a very good actress. She had screen presence, certainly; but she never seemed especially convincing – not that it was a requirement at the time, cf Ava Gardner’s career – and the same is true in Laura. Tierney is more of a centre around which the story revolves, in which position she does quite a good job. But Laura the character is about as convincing as a unicorn, and the story of the film is not much better. Had I been putting together the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list myself, I would have chosen a different Preminger noir film – Whirlpool, perhaps, or Fallen Angel. Not this lacklustre affair.

love+one+another+coverLove One Another, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1922, Germany). What an odd film. I say that having seen – and even liking – any number of odd films. I am, I admit, a fan of Dreyer’s films, and the more of his films I watch, and the more times I watch each of them, the more my admiration grows – but, let’s face it, most probably know of him only from his three Danish films of the 1940s, Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud. But they’re products of the end of his career, and his earlier stuff is also very good (to be fair, The Passion of Joan of Arc is also pretty well known) but even so, the BFI aside, Dreyer’s entire oeuvre is not that readily available. He bounced around in his early years – working in Denmark, Norway and Germany… and it is the last country where this film was made. It’s based on a novel – Elsker hverandre by Aage Madelung from 1918 – and is set in Russia in the late nineteenth century.  The central character is a Jewish girl who experiences anti-semitism on a daily basis but falls in love with a Gentile, Sasha. When news of the affair surfaces, she is expelled from school and flees to St Petersburg to stay with her brother, who converted to Christianity. She becomes involved with underground revolutionaries and, against the backdrop of the Tsar’s pogroms against the Jews, she manages to get back together with Sasha, and they join the Jew fleeing Russia. Although set in Russia, Love One Another was filmed entirely in Germany. It is, in its way, as important an historical record as Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World, even though it’s fictional. (Apparently, some of the extras in the films were actual survivors of the Jewish pogroms in Tsarist Russia.) Worth seeing. [0]

manf_westMan of the West*, Anthony Mann (1958, USA). I can’t help comparing this film with Shane, released five years earlier, and not to Man of the West‘s advantage. Gary Cooper plays a retired outlaw who, en route to Fort Worth by train to find a teacher for his small town’s new school, finds himself caught up with the outlaw gang to which he once belonged. He has a saloon singer and a con artist in tow, and tries to protect the two from the outlaws (led by his uncle), but only manages by reluctantly agreeing to help them rob a bank in Lassoo. But when he gets to Lassoo, it’s a ghost town and the bank has long since closed. Cue shoot-out. To be honest, Cooper makes a more convincing cowboy than Ladd did in Shane, and even though it’s been a dozen years since he hung up his black hat, at 57 he was probably a little too old for the part. But that’s a minor niggle. The photography is not as impressivas in Stevens’s film, but the story is at least not quite so… melodramatic. It feels like a Western from a later period. After watching Shane on rental DVD, I bought myself a copy of the Master of Cinema edition Blu-ray. I don’t think I’ll be doing the same for Man of the West, although a Masters of Cinema edition has been released.

phantom_libertyThe Phantom of Liberty, Luis Buñuel (1970, France). I rented this to test if my Theory of Godard could be applied to Buñuel, even though it had already failed several times. I have this theory, you see, that Godard’s films in colour are better than those in black and white – at least, the Godard fims I’ve seen which I like have all been in colour. But that’s not strictly true for Buñuel – I liked The Exterminating Angel a lot (black and white), but not Tristana or Belle du jour so much (both colour). I did like Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (colour)… but did that mean I’d like The Phantom of Liberty… especially since it’s considered amongst his most surreal films (or rather, most experimental plot-wise)? The easy answer is… yes, I liked it; and no, it seems the theory only really applies to Godard. The Phantom of Liberty does not have a plot, it’s just a series of vignettes linked by characters, none of which are actually resolved. Some feel like failed comedy sketches – the Carmelite monks who play poker using holy relics as chips, Michael Lonsdale throwing an impromptu room party and then his wife dresses up in her dominatrix outfit and whips him on the arse, the dinner party where the guests sit on toilets at the table and shit but go to a private room to eat; others are not remotely comedic, such as the sniper in the Tour Montparnasse, or the police chief who gets a phone call from his dead sister. They are all, however, mostly surreal – like the emu that wanders through a man’s bedroom as he tries to sleep. On balance, I think The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie the better film, but I did enjoy The Phantom of Liberty, and I plan to watch more of Buñuel’s films.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 768


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Moving pictures, #24

Onward with the movie posts…

christinaQueen Christina*, Rouben Mamoulian (1933, USA). You know that thing about “Garbo laughs” and they used it as the tagline for Ninotchka, which was released six years after this one, but Garbo, who plays the title role in Queen Christina, does quite a good impression of laughter on a couple of occasions in this film. The title character is a real historical figure, queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654, and she did indeed abdicate and convert to Roman Catholicism. But not, as the film would have it, for love. In the film, she’s out hunting one day when she comes across the Spanish envoy, whose carriage is stuck in a snow drift. She gives his servants advice on how to extricate the coach. Since she dresses as a man, the envoy mistakes her for one. And does the same later, when they meet at a nearby inn. Queen Christina, who is now actively pretending to be male, has taken the last room. The envoy demands “he” vacate it. They end up sharing and the queen reveals her gender – but not her identity. She saves that little surprise for when the envoy is officially introduced to her at the royal palace. The real Queen Christina was raised as a boy and was in a long-term lesbian relationship. She’d also been fascinated with the Roman Catholic Church from a young age. But when has Hollywood ever let history get in the way of a good story? Or their marketing, for that matter. I’m not entirely sure why this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I didn’t see anything that was technicially or cinematically ahead of its time, and though it was enormously successful and popular in 1933, it doesn’t seem like anything particularly special these days.

fantastic4Fantastic Four, Josh Trank (2015, USA). Given the success of the MCU films, it can hardly be a surprise that Hollywood is rebooting every superhero franchise it can in a desperate effort to keep the rights and find a moneyspinner. Spider-Man is about to see its fourth incarnation, and here’s the Fantastic Four, another iconic Marvel property, on its third incarnation (although the first was never actually released). Like the Spider-Man reboot, they’ve rolled back the ages of the heroes to high school, because twentysomething heroes were apparently fine for twentieth-century kids but in the twenty-first century it’s got to be totally about the kids. And if that wasn’t enough of a change, this film has completely rewritten the Fantastic Four’s origin story. True, the original, er, origin story – four rich twentysomethings build a rocket, go into space, get bombarded by cosmic rays and develop superpowers – was pretty daft, but try naming an origin story that isn’t completely ridiculous. In this new version, Reed Richards spends years developing a teleportation machine, is then recruited by the Baxter Foundation, and with the help of studly Latverian genius Victor von Doom, builds a full-scale model… except it’s not a teleporter, it’s a portal to another dimension. And it’s on a drunken trip there that the four get their fantastic powers… and Doom is left behind and turns into a metal man with awesome mental powers. The military weaponizes the four – except for Richards, who goes on the run. But eventually he is brought into the fold. This is a completely charmless affair, with a charisma-free cast. And where previously the Fantastic Four spent most of their time saving the world, here they’re just “military assets”, tools of US imperialism – and while superheroes are often just as destructive as the supervillains they fight, that change in mission is just downright offensive. Marvel adopts manifest destiny. If superheroes had always seemed a little fascist before, with this film they’ve openly embraced it. Happily, Fantastic Four tanked at the box office. Avoid.

antonio_mortesAntonio das Mortes, Glauber Rocha (1969, Brazil). This is the third of Rocha’s Anotonio das Mortes trilogy (its origin title is actually O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerriro, “The Dragon of Evil against the Saint Warrior”), following on from Black God, White Devil (see here) and Entranced Earth (see here). Unlike the preceding film, this one is set in Brazil and not an invented country. The north-east of the country was once controlled by bandits called cangaceiros, the greatest of whom was Lampião, who died in 1938. But a new cangaceiro has appeared, accompanied by a young woman believed to be a saint, and a host of peasants. The blind coronel, the landowner of the town of Jardim de Piranhas, sends for Antonio das Mortes to kill the cangaceiro. Antonio fatally wounds the cangaceiro in a duel, but then suffers a change of heart and demands the coronel hand out his food reserves to the poor. The coronel refuses and orders Antonio killed… Antonio das Mortes is the only film of the three in colour, and Mr Bongo have done another slipshod job on it – the print is far from perfect, and the many folk songs on the soundtrack have French translations of their lyrics burned in. It’s also a less declamatory film than Entranced Earth, although not by much – the cangaceiro, for example, introduces himself by speaking in rhyme to the camera. And even much of Antonio’s dialogue is self-reflective. A lot of the violence is staged almost like a dance, which works well with the local folk songs on the soundtrack. The landscape appears much stranger in colour than it does in black and white, with some effective landscape photography that demonstrates just how huge and featurless is the region. I’ll admit I bought these films while under the influence after watching Entranced Earth, but I don’t regret the purchase. Not only are they very political films – the coronel in Antonio das Mortes is portrayed as over-entitled and completely lacking in compassion, and the stories of all three films centre on the common people fighting the ruling classes – but the tactic of playing the political elements flat and affectless and the cultural elements full of sound and colour is especially effective. Not to mention the over-the-top and hammed up violence. These films are very much folk-tales, but they’re colourful and political folk-tales. And I really like movies like that. Recommended. It’s a shame more of Rocha’s films aren’t available on DVD. [0]

femme_publiqueLa femme publique, Andrzej Żuławski (1984, France). I am, I admit, slightly puzzled by Żuławski’s success. After fleeing Poland in the early 1980s, the only place he could go and still make films was France. It’s unlikely he’d have fitted in to the film traditions of any other country. Because his films really are quite strange. Even La femme publique, which is an adaption of an autobiography by Dominique Garnier, in which she describes her arrival in Paris and attempt to break into cinema acting, and her subsequent domination by the director who hires her. In most hands, this would be enough for a story, but Żuławski, with Garnier’s help, decided to add in a subplot about plot to assassinate a Lithuanian archbishop… The end result is an intense drama that might or might not be a somewhat bonkers thriller, which manages not to lose sight of its story. Valérie Kaprisky plays the young actress who, despite having no experience, is cast by enfant terrible Czech director Francis Huster in his adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Demons. Through Huster, Kaprisky meets fellow Czech emigré Lambert Wilson, whose wife has recently disappeared (and proves to have been murdered). Kaprisky is convinced Wilson is the murderer, so she pretends to be his wife (his grasp on reality is shaky to begin with, and visibly deteriorates). Huster meanwhile seems to be involved in some sort of plot to brainwash Wilson into assassinating the archbishop. It sort of makes sense when laid out so baldly, but this is a Żuławski movie so the reality is somewhat different. The performances are intense to a degree that’s rarely seen in Hollywood films, and the story’s focus on the psychology of the major characters is also something not often seen in plot-driven Hollywood movies (never mind Hollywood’s mindless adherence to various screenwriting techniques, such as the three-act structure, McKee’s Story or Snyder’s Save the Cat!). I don’t know that I’d call La femme publique Żuławski’s best film as I still like Na srebrnym globie a lot – but it’s certainly the best-presented film on DVD. This Mondo Vision Signature edition comes in a fancy box, with a soundtrack CD, publicity photos and a booklet. Recommended. [1]

khartoumKhartoum, Basil Dearden (1966, UK). Remember when they used to open films with ten minutes of music, so you had time to buy your ice cream from the usher down at the front, and then they’d have an intermission so you could buy another ice cream or a box of Treets Poppets… or was that just in the UK? As the title of this film no doubt makes clear, it’s about the siege of Khartoum in 1884, when the forces of the Mahdi tried to capture the city from General Gordon, who’d been sent there by the British to evacuate the British and Egyptian population before the Mahdi attacked. The film is a typical historical epic of the period – not just that ten-minute entr’acte and a ten-minute intermission, but also a cast of thousands and big names playing the major roles no matter how inappropriately cast. I mean, Charlton Heston as Gordon is one thing (although apparently it was meant to be Burt Lancaster), and he at least attempts a British accent (albeit not very well); but Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi is just blackface. Khartoum was apparently filmed in Egypt and makes much of its locations – this is big-screen entertainment, and it makes sure you get what you paid for. And yet… it’s all a bit bland and unexciting – despite the battle scenes. Gordon was, by all accounts, an odd bloke – a drunkard, possibly queer, but also a gifted leader and tactician. He actually sounds quite interesting. He was lionised following his death in Khartoum, and it wasn’t until several decades later that his actions, or indeed his character, were questioned. Khartoum is pretty much the dictionary definition of a Sunday afternoon film – at least it was a decade or two ago – and that’s about its level. As history, it’s perhaps a little more reliable than the typical Hollywood movie; and as entertainment it’s very much of its time.

fires_were_startedFires Were Started*, Humphrey Jennings (1943, UK). This is the only Jennings film on the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die list, despite him being called one of Britain’s greatest film-makers. And he made thirty-two films, although most were documentary shorts. The BFI DVD case shown here contains five films, all from 1941 or 1943. Fires Were Started is about a London fire brigade, beginning with a new arrival to the watch, and following the watch members as they go about their duties. Although some of the film is reconstruction, and filmed at Pinewood Studios, it all looks very real (the fires, I think, are real fires – certainly the cast were actual firemen and not actors). I do remember that the firemen had their own bar and drank beer… until called out by an alarm. The technology also seemed surprisingly crude, especially when compared to the military technology of the time. But Jennings had a really good eye, and was especially effective at making his subjects seem likeable and sympathetic. The new member of the watch, for example, is university-educated, whereas the the current members are all working-class… but Jennings shows how accomodating both are toward each other and how well they work together. Fires Were Started is one of three collections of Jennings film released by the BFI. I quite fancy getting all three – um, maybe I should just wait until I’ve had some wine and do as I did for Glauber Rocha…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 764


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Moving pictures, #23

Another mixed bag, country-wise, this time. Four were rentals, two I bought. Two are also sequels. And one is silent, while another has only a music soundtrack.

storm_over_asiaStorm over Asia*, Vsevelod Pudovkin (1928, Russia). Although cinema was in its infancy back before “talkies”, what a lot of people seem to forget – or don’t know – is that a lot of the cinematography of that time is often astonishingly good. Anyone who has seen Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc can’t fail to be impressed by the beauty of the Dreyer’s imagery. Storm over Asia, an early Russian film, is not one that was known to me – Eisenstein, yes; even Aelita, yes; but not this one… Which is a shame as it’s quite an amazing piece of work. It’s set in Mongolia in 1918. A Mongolian trapper is ripped off by a European trader, and runs to the hills after fighting the trader. He becomes a Soviet partisan, fighting against the British occupiers. They catch him and shoot him, but then discover he is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Fortunately, he’s still alive, so they patch him up and plan to use him as a ruler under their control. Of course, he turns on them. Hang on, I hear you saying, the British never invaded Mongolia; yes, they invaded lots of places over the centuries, but Mongolia wasn’t one of them. But this is a Russian film, and they were hardly likely to paint themselves as the villains (plus, the British had the advantage of being “capitalists”, which the villains of any Soviet film had to be, of course). Definitely worth seeing.

45_years45 Years, Andrew Haigh (2015, UK). It’ll be interesting to see how this film does on sell-through. Hollywood, indeed most Anglophone cinema, seems locked into chasing that young male demographic, as if they’re the only people who go to the cinema. But when you make films aimed at one group, you can’t be surprised when other groups stay away. But then I suspect older viewers are more likely to watch a new movie on sell-through than they are in the cinema. But are they going to bother doing that for shitty tentpole blockbusters like the MCU films? And are they going to spend money on all the merchandising crap, which isn’t there to sell the fillm as much as it is to convince fans that’s okay really to like such rubbish since the property is so ubiquitous they can’t be considered weird for liking it… Which at least can’t be said of 45 Years, which is about a married couple, and the title refers to the time they’ve been married. But a few days before a planned celebration of the event, the husband receives news that the body of an ex-girlfriend, who fell into a crevasse in a glacier back in the 1960s, has just been discovered… While this all happened before he married, he hasn’t been completely honest about what happened with his wife. This is a nice, understated piece, well-played by a high-powered cast. It’s already garnered a fistful of award nominations and wins, and deservedly so.

qatsiNaqoyqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (2002, USA). This is the third of the Qatsi trilogy, made some twenty years after the previous two films, Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi. Ironically, it’s the one that’s dated the most. That’s chiefly because at the time it was made CGI was not as high-quality as it is now, and it shows. Not just in the resolution or range of colours of the computer-generated graphics, but also in the imagination on display. Those earlier two films were pure cinematography – of places and people, with no special effects. And they remain as effective today as they did when they were shot. Also to Naqoyqatsi‘s disadvantage is its subject: technology and war. There’s a big emphasis on computer code, modelling and simulations, and virtual reality, which would have felt cyberpunk… if only the film had been released a decade earlier. While the concerns, and subjects, of the first two remain true to this day, much of the technology celebrated, and reviled, in Naqoyqatsi no longer exists. In parts, Naqoyqatsi reminded me of David Blair’s Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees from 1991 (I have a signed copy of the film on VHS somewhere), and in other parts of its two predecessors. I’m glad I picked up the set and so now have all three films… but going for the Blu-rays was probably a bit much. [A]

look_of_silenceThe Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer (2014, Denmark). This is the follow-up to Oppenheimer’s earlier The Act of Killing, and covers pretty much the same topic: the Indonesian slaughter of “communists” during the mid-1960s after the military seized control. The conceit here is that the brother of a man who disappeared during those murders visits some of the killers as an optician examining their eyesight, and quizzing them about it while he does so. There’s a telling remark made to camera by one of the men who committed those murders, “Thanks to the Americans for teaching us to hate communists”. The fact that most of those killed weren’t actually communists is apparently irrelevant. The US made it plain that communists were legitimate targets, and it’s not like anyone was going to look too closely when the so-called authorities labelled someone a communist. After all, the US had done exactly the same itself back in the days of HUAC, albeit without the machetes and assault rifles and death toll. Later in The Look of Silence, there’s a clip from US network news show from the 1960s, and it pretty much approves of the death and mutilation of the so-called communists. It goes without saying that the events discussed in this film are horrible; and that it’s enraging the perpetrators not only survived, but prospered and continue to do so. It’s heartbreaking that one survivor’s only way to live with it is to consider it all past and gone, life has moved on. Because clearly justice has not prevailed. And it’s unlikely to ever do so. It would be all too easy to blame it entirely on the Indonesians, except that would not be strictly true. The West creates these situations and should take responsibility for them – except that would mean admitting they’d done wrong, that the corporations are no longer under control, or that capitalism doesn’t actually work.

evangelion_2Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance, Hideaki Anno (2009, Japan). It would not be untrue to describe the plot of the Evangelion series as: giant alien creatures called Angels invade Earth (individually) and are fought off by giant cyborg creatures piloted by high school kids. Because, of course, there’s so much more than just that going on in there – that would be the Hollywood version. The Angels are these bizarre creatures, looking partly like something drawn by Moebius and partly like some nightmare doll. In Evangelion 2.22, there is now a squad of Evangelions, and the pilot of one is possibly the most irritating American character ever to appear in a film (which is quite an achievement). In fact, the existence of the squad means Evangelion 2.22 is a more action-packed film than Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone, although like the first it’s parsimonious with the details of its setting, leaving much of the world-building a mystery. For example, it’s only on a visit to an aquatic research centre that the film explains that the seas really are red, and why. It’s a movie that requires several watchings – although that may simply because I have yet to learn the Way Of Watching Anime. One thing worth noting, however, is Evangelion 2.22‘s frankly bizarre score, which at times sounds like 1970s jazz/rock fusion – and seems weirdly anachronistic but is actually pretty good. Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray, and I’ll be picking up a copy. The final film was due for theatrical release in late 2015 but has been delayed. I can wait. [ABC]

thunderThunder on the Hill, Douglas Sirk (1951, USA). My favourite film was directed by Sirk, and the handful of melodramas he made between 1953 and 1959, such as Magnificient Obsession, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life, I rate very highly. But he also made a lot of quite frankly ordinary thrillers and dramas for Hollywood throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Thunder on the Hill is one of these. Shot in black and white and set in, of all places, Norfolk, it sees a group of people descend on a convent during a fierce storm. One of these is a convicted murderer, with rescort, on her way to prison, except, of course, she’s really innocent. However, the victim’s doctor – the murderer’s brother – is now doctor at the convent. Guess what happens. Claudette Colbert plays the lead and doesn’t make much of an effort toward a British accent; neither, for that matter, does Ann Blyth. Most of the supporting staff are actually British – so you get that odd disconnect where some of the cast clearly can’t be the characters they play because they have the wrong accents. This is pretty ordinary and forgettable stuff, and you’d be much better off watching one of Sirk’s melodramas.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 762


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Triple-stacked

I’ve now got into the habit of dumping books at charity shops, or giving them away to friends, once I’ve read them, unless I have a specific reason for wanting to keeping them – such as, they’re part of a series I’m collecting; or, they were really difficult to find… Back in the day, it was: buy a book, read it, keep it. But space is finite and the desire for books is not. Some of the books below will be staying once they’ve been read, some will not. So it goes.

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I bought the first couple of volumes of both these series a few years ago, and even bought the first volumes of The Technopriests in French… but for some reason, the series were never fully translated into English… until these omnibus editions appeared. Which I bought. I wrote here about The Metabarons; I have yet to tackle The Technopriests.

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These two I bought to accompany a rewatch of Battlestar Galactica (I bought the ultimate edition on Blu-ray for a very cheap price on one of Amazon’s Prime Days). The Final Five I wrote about here – it’s confusing and not very good. Battlestar Galactica Vault I expected to be like the Alien Vault published a few years ago – lots of background info and concept designs… But it’s not. It’s just a straightforward history of the show, albeit well-illustrated.

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Some charity shop finds – except for The Princess and Other Stories, which I bought on eBay and which joins the other DH Lawrence Penguin paperbacks in that series I have. I hadn’t known Aleister Crowley wrote fiction, so I bought The Simon Iff Stories and Other Works to see what they were like. Sokurov references Gogol quite a lot in his films, so I picked up The Collected Works of Nikolai Gogol so I could follow them. And whenever I see a Crime Masterwork I’ve not read, even if they’re a bit tatty, I buy them – hence The Hollow Man – although I’ve been a bit slow about reading the half-dozen I’ve found so far.

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Even more charity shop finds, but more recent books this time. Satin Island was shortlisted for the Booker, Station Eleven won the Clarke. I’ve already read Elizabeth is Missing – I wrote about it here. I still can’t remember who recommended it to me and why.

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Underwater Man is the second of two Joe MacInnis books I bought (see here for the other), but it took a bit longer to arrive as the seller was in Canada. La Mordida is another scholarly edition of a Lowry work – it’s a draft of an unpublished novel Lowry wrote about a trip to Mexico in 1945.


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Moving pictures, #22

Only one American film this time, and yes, that’s two Bollywood films. Which I can blame on the vagaries of the DVD rental services. Not that I didn’t enjoy them – in fact, the Guru Dutt was really good.

robot_overlordsRobot Overlords, Jon Wright (2014, UK). Robots have conquered Earth, although they insist it’s only tempoerary while they learn everything there is learnt about humanity. Meanwhile, everyone has an implant fitted in their neck and is nofined to their home – except for a volunteer force, who collaborate with the robots. Robot Overlords centres on a young boy whose RAF father went missing shortly after the invasion. Meanwhile, local volunteer force leader Ben Kingsley has designs on his mother, Gillian Anderson. But then the kids accidentally discover how to disable their implants… and that gets them involved with the local black market (although what they’re trading is a mystery, as no one appears to work anymore), as well as bringing them to the attention of the robots. Who, it turns out, in a completely non-surprise turn, have no intention of going and leaving Earth to carry on as before. The boy’s brother discovers he has a mysterious ability to control the robots, which sort of comes from nowhere. They find the father, hiding out with others in a tine mine, and there’s a Spitfire – WTF – which they use to dogfight the robots. Despite being a polished production, Robot Overlords is a story that probably seemed much better on paper than it actually is. The film only took £4,000 on its opening weekend and, distribution aside, it’s not hard to see why: it’s not very good.

milanoMilano Calibro 9, Fernando Di Leo (1972, Italy). This is a pretty ordinary Italian thriller, except it has a great soundtrack – partly provided by Italian prog rock group Osanna. And it’s obvious right from the opening credits. A gangster is released from prison after serving three years. Everyone thinks he stole $300,000 from his old mob boss, the American (bizarrely renamed the Mikado in a dubbed version). He tries to convince them he doesn’t have themoney and he plans to go straight – but the police don’t belive him, the American doesn’t believe him, his over-acting nutjob ex-partner Rocco doesn’t believe him, and his girlfriend doesn’t believe him. Meanwhile, Rocco and the American are cleaning house by having couriers they suspect of theft actually pick up parcel bombs. And there’s a friend of the gangster who’s a hitman, and the American’s suspicion descend on him… which totally backfires. A pretty solid Italian thriller, very seventies, and with a great soundtrack. Worth seeing.

bridesheadBrideshead Revisited (1981, UK). Even now thirty-five years later, Brideshead Revisited is still remembeed as a notable British televisual event. It was a first in many respects, and proved far more successful than its makers had ever expected. Looking back on it from the twenty-first century. it’s not especially easy to understand why it proved such a landmark. Television has changed so much in the decades in between. Of course, a lot of the appeal rests on the source material, and Brideshead Revisited is generally reckoned to be Evelyn Waugh’s best work – and Waugh was a highly-regarded novelist for much of the twentieth century. The adaptation makes a good fist of presenting the time during which it’s set – it opens during WWII, then leaps back to the late 1920s, and the Oxbridge days of Charles Rider (Jeremy Irons) and Lord Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews), before continuing on through the 1930s. Waugh was a horrible snob, and desperate to be accepted by the upper classes – and that’s pretty much what drives Brideshead Revisited. Which makes it even more surprising a hit. There’s that baffling British love of tales of upper class life from the early decades of the twentieth century, of course. But Brideshead Revisited did have a top-notch cast; and Waugh’s novel handled some weighty themes, which made it more or less intact into the adaptation. Having said all that, the Marchmains, indeed much of the cast, are pretty hard to care about. Waugh’s longing to be seen as an equal by people like the Marchmains is plain throughout, and that only makes the whole even less easy to like.  And yet… I did equite enjoy it. I just thought it was about a horrible bunch of people, and I was pretty indifferent to their fate.

hum_dil_deHum dil de chuke sanam, Sanjay Leela Bansali (1999, India). A singer travels from Italy to India because he wants to learn at the feet of a master of Indian classical music. The master’s daughter is Aishwarya Rai. The singer and Rai initially take a dislike to each other – she chiefly because he has taken her room in the, well, it’s more of a palace than a house. Over several musical numbers, they fall in love. But her parents have arranged her marriage to the unmusical lawyer Vanraj. When the two lovers are discovered canoodling, the master sends away his student. Rai is married to Vanjay, but she is not happy. Eventually, Vanraj decides to reunite Rai with her Italian lover (actually, he’s Indian, although lives in Italy and has an Italian surname). So he takes her to Italy – well, to Budapest, which plays the part of Rome, Hungarian hoardings and street signs notwithstanding. But finding the boyfriend is not so easy, and during the course of their search Rai comes to realise she actually loves Vanraj. So when they do find the elusive singer, she tells him that she came looking for him but now she wants to stay with her husband. This is a Bollywood film, so there’s lots of musical numbers – and some of them are big. Huge, like stage shows. Even for a Bollywood film, Hum dil de chuke sanam felt somewhat OTT (although, to be fair, I’m hardly an expert as I’ve only see about half a dozen). It starts slow, but it definitely builds up steam; and by the time it was all over I could understand why it had proven so successful.

it_should_happenIt Should Happen to You!, George Cukor (1954, USA). I’m not sure why added this to my rental list, probably because I’ve enjoyed some Cukor movies and I do like me some 1950s rom com… Unfortunately, this one was a bit of damp squib. Although not originally written for Judy Holliday, it felt like a vehicle for her. She plays Gladys Glover, who moved to New York to make it but has so far failed to do so. So she spends her savings on a billboard on Columbus Circle – with her name in ten-foot high letters. However, that billboard is normally taken by the Adams Soap Company for their spring promotion. They contact Holliday, but she won’t give it up. They do her a deal – six billboards scattered around New York. She becomes a household name, Adams use her as a model, and so she makes it big. Meanwhile, Jack Lemmon (in his first role), who met her in Central Park right at the beginning and then was a bit stalkery, realises he can’t compete with playboy head of Adams Soap (Peter Lawford), so bows out. But Holliday realises she really loves him. There was some good footage of 1950s New York, but Holliday seemed a bit too laconic for the part she played, and the rags-to-riches tale felt a bit too well-worn.

pyaasaPyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India). Producer, director and star Dutt plays a poet who can’t get published. He bumps into an ex-girlfriend from his school days who is now married to a big-shot publisher. The publisher hires Dutt as a servant and mostreats him, but then a beggar who dies under a train is mistaken for Dutt… and Dutt’s poetry becomes a posthumous success. His two brothers argue over the money his work now earns, and when Dutt reappears they refuse to recognise him. Eventually they see the error of their ways, but by then Dutt has had enough and walks away. I tweeted that this film “has been restored from vintage source for nostalgic appeal”, as per an on-screen notice in the opening credits. And certainly the transfer quality of the black and white print was not great (by comparison, Mother India – see here – released in the same year – was filmed in colour and a much better quality transfer). Despite all that, Pyaasa was probably the most interesting Bollywood film I’ve seen so far – in fact, I want to see more of Dutt’s movies. It wasn’t just that Dutt played a good part, but that the film seemed to address more interesting themes than your average Bollywood film, and appeared to be more of a drama than a melodrama. It still had songs and dance numbers in it, though.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 761