It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Moving pictures 2017, #34

I think I might start posting DVD haul posts as well as book haul ones. Admittedly, many of the films I watch are rental DVDs, but those I can’t find at either LoveFilm or Cinema Paradiso, and are not recent releases, I generally have to hunt down, so perhaps it’s worthwhile recording that. Except, well, of the six movies below, only the first and last are from my collection. Nazar is the third of three films from the box set, and the other two have appeared in previous Moving pictures posts; while The Bad and the Beautiful is a Korean release I bought on eBay as the film is apparently not available in either the UK or the US. Go figure.

Anyway, time to start doing the bap-bap-baa bap-bap-baa bap-bap-baa from the Pearl & Dean theme tune as the main feature is about to begin…

Nazar, Mani Kaul (1991, India). After three movies by Kaul, I still have no idea what to make of him. Nazar, a later film than the other two, and apparently based on a Dostoevsky short story, as was the movie he made following this one, is, well, is pretty much Kaul channelling Godard. I like many of the Godard films I’ve seen – not that I’ve watched anywhere close to half of his total output – but he is pretty much a mixed bag. Some of his films, for me, work much better than others – and not for obviously discernible reasons: I love, for example, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, but was mostly left cold by Made in USA (I have the Criterion editions of both), and yet Godard shot both films simultaneously, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon, during the same month. However, one thing that is true of all of Godard’s films is that they bear, and sometimes demand, repeated watchings. I get that same sense from the three films in this Mani Kaul box set, but Nazar still strikes me as much more consciously Godard-esque than Uski Roti or Duvidha. And for that reason… it also seemed to me less successful. The well-off owner of an antiques shop in Mumbai marries a seventeen-year-old orphan. The film opens with her suicide, then flashes back to describe the events that may or may not have prompted the suicide. There are a lot of close-ups and pullbacks, with voiceover by the male lead Shekhar Kapur, but also some dialogue too. Much of the film consists of slowly moving shots with only music and sound effects. Kaul also does something interesting where he sits the camera in one spot, has the actors approach it, perhaps by crossing a room, and although the camera follows them it does not always pull back, and so an actor, or a part of them, fills the frame. Another Godard-esque aspect is that the dialogue sometimes feels like a series of non sequiturs. Certainly real-life conversations skip about, but the staginess of Nazar‘s dialogue, and the long silences in between, break the continuity. This box set was a good buy, and I’ll certainly watch the three films in it again, indeed I’d like to see more by Kaul… but I’m still not entirely sure what I’m watching.

Behave Yourself!, George Beck (1951, USA). My mother gave me a bunch of DVDs recently to watch, mostly classic Hollywood movies and recent UK TV mini-series. This was the first one I watched and, well, the cover art does over-sell it somewhat. There’s no Shelley Winters reclining lasciviously in lingerie in it, for one thing. According to Wikipedia, the script was written in four days, and they’ve not done a bad job given the time they took. Winters and Granger are happily married, but it’s their wedding anniversary and he’s forgotten it – until Winters drops heavy hints, at which point he does the usual and claims to have arranged a surprise… Meanwhile, two groups of villains are attempting to exchange, I think, counterfeiting plates, for cash, and are using a trained dog to do it. One group has trained the dog to lead the other group to the wanted goods. Except the dog takes a liking to Granger, screws up his attempt to buy his wife some lingerie by trashing the store, follows him home… and is immediately assumed by Winters to be the surprise present Granger had hinted at. Except now one gang of villains wants the dog back, another have figured out the dog’s role and want it for themselves, and the other gang think whoever has the dog is their contact from the first gang… The one-liners come thick and fast, there’s plentiful slapstick, and the plot manages not to collapse into a heap. But. It’s all a bit, well, corny, the characters are stereotyped, and Granger is far too smiley and amiable for his role (it was apparently written for Cary Grant). It’s an entertaining 81 minutes, but it’s no surprise it was quickly forgotten.

Grey Gardens, Albert and David Maylses (1975, USA). This movie is on one of the iterations of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, or perhaps another best of list, but it’s not on the list I’ve been using. But I watched it anyway. The title refers to a mansion in East Hampton, New York, USA, a property owned by members of the Bouvier family, relatives of Jackie Kennedy (as was). By the time the film was made, the mansion and its garden had fallen into disrepair, and the two women who lived there, the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy, both called Edith – Little Edie and Big Edie – were living in squalour. They were also quite eccentric. Grey Gardens is pretty much pure fly-on-the-wall, with some prompting by an off-screen interviewer. There’s an extensive look at the two Bouviers’ past, especially Little Edie’s career as a model and socialite in 1920s and 1930s New York. However, the problem with Grey Gardens, especially given its direct cinema approach, is that its worth depends entirely on its subjects. It handles the two women well, but I honestly don’t think they’re interesting enough in and of themselves, or because of how they’ve let the house fall into wrack and ruin, to justify the reputation this film has. Little Edie and Big Edie are not particularly interesting people. Odd, certainly. But not fascinating or admirable or important or even representational. Their only real claim to fame – because there are plenty of women, and men, who have let their homes fall into total disrepair – is the family connection to Jackie Kennedy and JFK. But, and I’m sorry I have to break the news to the US, the Kennedy family were not royalty and, more than that, actual royalty is not all that fucking interesting anyway. I suppose in some ways it’s the antithesis of the American Dream, ie, riches to rags, but in a world where, as Noam Chomsky has said, debt is little more than slavery (but hardly equivalent to it, because slavery is an abomination), and poverty is increasing massively thanks to the actions of the one-percenters, the two Edies’ downward trajectory is neither entertaining nor edifying. In other words, I don’t pity the Bouviers, I pity the people who pity the Bouviers. And that includes the Maysles.

52 Tuesdays, Sophie Hyde (2014, Australia). No idea how this one ended up on my rental list – I don’t think it’s the sort of film David Tallerman would have recommended, so perhaps I saw a trailer or something. Billie is sixteen, her parents are divorced, and her mother is now transitioning from Jane to James. Because of this, Billie goes to live with her father, and visits James every Tuesday after school. For a year. Hence, 52 Tuesdays. Unfortunately, James’s body rejects the male hormones, so his treatment stalls. Meanwhile, Billie has hooked up with Josh and Jasmine, two older kids from her school, and while the three experiment sexually, so Billie films them… leading to her sending a nude photograph of herself to Jasmine, which the school learns about and goes mental because it’s technically paedophilia as Billie is under the age of consent or something… I remember taking this out of the LoveFilm envelope, reading the précis on the DVD sleeve and thinking it didn’t sound too bad, but getting pulled into the story as I watched it… because Tilda Cobham-Hervey is really good in the role of Billie, the film iss played as a low-key drama, and it touched enough points out of the ordinary, in a nicely sensitive fashion, to give the story added interest. I’m guessing that adding it to my rental list was pure whim, but I really enjoyed 52 Tuesdays. A well-played uplifting drama about something personal, and a perfect antidote to Grey Gardens. Worth seeing.

Tropical Malady, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2004, Thailand). Weerasethakul’s name is not unknown to me, although this was the first film by him I’ve watched. I seem to recall seeing a trailer of it on another rental DVD. But it was released by Second Run, and their catalogue is generally pretty damn good. So, despite not really knowing what to expect, I had reasonably high hopes when I slid Tropical Malady into the DVD player… And it both met them and failed them. The film tells two stories. In the first, a soldier is assigned to a provincial village, falls in love with a local villager, and the two spend time together. In the second, a soldier – not necessarily the one from the first story, but played by the same actor – follows a lost villager into the jungle and meets a tiger spirit – played by the love-interest of the soldier from the first story – who haunts and taunts him. Unfortunately, the links between the two stories – despite the shared cast, despite the shared setting – aren’t strong enough, although the individual stories themselves are very good. Had it been two separate films, I’ve have thought them much better – but as a conjoined work, and this despite my own experiments in literary structure – it didn’t to me seem as if it quite hung together. Despite that, I want to watch more Weeraserthakul, and perhaps I may later have cause to re-evaluate Tropical Malady. It’s nonetheless worth seeing – I enjoyed it, but it never quite gelled for me.

The Bad and the Beautiful*, Vincente Minnelli (1952, USA). As the asterisk indicates, this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and, while Minnelli has made some classic Hollywood films, I think putting six of them on the 1001 list is over-doing it. By quite a bit. Particularly with this one. The Bad and the Beautiful opens with a person telephoning a famous director, a famous actress and a famous writer, all of whom refuse to talk to the caller. They’re then called to the office of a top Hollywood producer, who explains they have good reason to refuse to speak to the caller, ex-producer Jonathan Shields but… The film flashes back to each of the three’s history, explaining how they came to know Shields (played by Kirk Douglas) and how he shafted them, before returning to the producer’s office… It’s a clumsy-as-hell narrative structure, the characters are all archetypes, and Minnelli was never more than ordinary in his framing… but it’s a Hollywood film about Hollywood and… yawn. Seriously, this is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? It’s a clichéd melodrama, in which the prize goes to who chews the most scenery. And yet… it was nominated for six Oscars and won five of them – and still holds the record for the most Oscars for a film not nominated for Best Picture or Best Director. For the, er, record, it won Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Costume Design (Black and White), Best Adapted Screenplay… but lost Best Actor. Incidentally, awards for black and white films were dropped in 1967, and both colour and B&W films competed in the same categories thereafter. It’s possible 1952 was a bad year, Oscar-wise, to prompt so many nominations – and wins – for this ordinary melodrama… Um, I see Best Picture went to The Greatest Show on Earth, Best Director to John Ford for The Quiet Man, Best Actor to Gary Cooper for High Noon and Best Actress to Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba… So, yes, a shit year. Seriously, this film does not belong on  the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I seriously doubt Minnelli deserves so many places on it either.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 871


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Books, glorious books

My book reading has slowed somewhat this year, but it seems so has my book buying. So I’m still managing to chip away at the TBR. Which has been joined by the following books over the last couple of months…

The Escort Carrier Gambier Bay means I now have all twenty of the Anatomy of the Ships books on warships (plus one about the RMS Queen Mary). And no, I paid nowhere near the silly price currently shown on Amazon. They were originally published in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the series was expanded, and some of the earlier ones republished in new editions, in the early 2000s. The grey cover design means this is one of the original series. I missed buying This Brutal World when it first came out last year, and second-hand copies immediately started going for silly money. Happily, the publisher decided to reprint. Hostages of Ultralum is the sixteenth volume of the Valerian and Laureline series to be published in English. I wrote about it here. Several years ago, Midland Publishing (a company associated with Ian Allan, if that name means anything to you) published a series of “Secret Projects” books about military aircraft – from the US, UK, WWII Germany, Japan and, I think, France. I bought several of them, but they got increasingly harder to find. It looks as if they’ve now kicked off the series again, and, annoyingly, they’re numbering the volumes. But I actually bought Britain’s Space Shuttle because the subject interests me… and who knows, I might get a story or two out of it.

I recently pre-ordered the fourth novella of Eric Brown’s Telemass Quartet, and added Project Clio to my order, despite having sworn off buying and reading more Baxter after finding the Proxima/Ultima diptych disappointingly juvenile. Oh well. The red book in the middle is a really hard to find Lucius Shepard, The Last Time, which I found going for less than half its usual price on eBay. The slipcover is, bizarrely, made of clear plastic. Finally, Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M Banks is a book I wanted from the moment Paul Kincaid first mentioned he was writing it. I thought Banks an excellent writer, although he often disappointed me – but not enough for me to stop buying his books, all of which I have in first edition, some signed.

These two are charity shop finds. I discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s writing (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor) perversely through a film – François Ozon’s adaptation of Angel. But I could never find a copy of the book, and was never that engaged in reading her to buy the book new. Whenever I stumbled across copies of her novels in charity shops, I’d buy them and read them. I’m now considerably more of a fan of her writing, and I’m sort of wavering now about buying the rest new… Oh well. The Paperchase was just a random find. I know the author’s name from Far North, which was shortlisted for the Clarke Award and which I didn’t really like, and Strange Bodies, which seemed to be ignored by most sf awards and was actually pretty bloody good.

These three books were my only purchases at Kontur, the Swedish national convention in Uppsala (see here). I bought them from Alvarfonden, a charity that sells donated books at Swedish cons. I’m not entirely sure why I bought any of them. The Final Circle of Paradise I’d never heard of, but I’d like to read more of the Strugatsky brothers’ fiction, if only because of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (I was disappointed by Roadside Picnic when I finally got around to reading it, as everything had been translated into US idiom and that ruined it for me). I’m sure I’ve heard approving things about The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica, but I can’t remember where. Or how long ago. Alan Brennert writes middle-of-the-road well-crafted sf and fantasy stories, and I’m not really sure why I bought Her Pilgrim Soul. But I did.

I’ve been buying volumes from Newcastle Publishing Company’s Forgotten Fantasy Library when I can find them, although they’re getting harder to find. Annoyingly, the series doesn’t seem to have a consistent design, or even size. The Food of Death by Lord Dunsany is the third book in the series and the sixth I own (of twenty-four). Son of the Morning is by yet another pseudonym of Mark Barrowcliffe. The fantasies he writes under the name MD Lachlan are very good, and I’ve heard good things about this Mark Adler book too. I won it in the raffle at the last York pubmeet.

Last of all, some recent sf… Well, okay, The Chrysalids is hardly recent, but the SF Masterwork edition is new, and, astonishingly, I don’t recall ever reading Wyndham at novel length (only a collection of dreadful short stories, the cover art for which was a blurry photo of an Airfix model of a Battlestar Galactica Viper fighter). I see Penguin are still paying Amazon more than Gollancz do, as a search of the title returns the Penguin edition first and no mention of the SF Masterworks edition… I thought Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind very good (see here), so planned to buy Dreams Before the Start of Time when it was published. Which I did. Central Station seems to have won, or been nominated for, lots of awards, so it was time to see what all the fuss was about. I think I’ve read some of the stories which form it, but perhaps they’ll appeal to me more as part of a novel. Proof of Concept is s new novella from my favourite sf writer, so of course I was going to buy it. I wrote about it here. Adam Roberts was foolish enough to make a wrongheaded prediction about this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, I bet him a fiver he was wrong, he was wrong, and generously included a copy of The Thing Itself with the £5 note he sent me in payment. I’d been wanting to read it, so that proved a happy accident.


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Moving pictures 2017, #33

One from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which, to be honest, I didn’t much like, a rewatch (after many years), another strange Indian film, I finally cracked open the BBC Shakespeare Collection I bought a couple of years ago, and a pair of dramas, one made in 1970 and one set in 1970…

Buffalo 66*, Vincent Gallo (1998, USA). There are many puzzling films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is, their presence is puzzling, not the film itself, such as all the ones by Woody Allen… but you can add this one to that not-so-select group too. An indie film directed by and starring Vincent Gallo, with a feeble plot, and featuring a central character who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It’s also supposed to be set, I think, in the early 1980s, although it’s hard to tell, and the soundtrack contains some 1970s UK prog rock anyway so who knows. Gallo has just been released from prison, and goes to visit his parents. Except he’s been lying to them for years, about his incarceration, even about his relationship status. So he kidnaps Christina Ricci and demands she impersonate his invented girlfriend. Which she does, for not-actually-discernible reasons, and does it a bit too well for Gallo’s liking. The title is apparently a reference to an American Football game in 1966 or something, as if anyone outside the US either knows or gives a shit about the country’s dumb sports. I really couldn’t see why this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – there were a couple of nice-looking scenes, and I actually like 1970s UK prog rock so I  enjoyed hearing the music. But… Buffalo 66 might be an above-average example of its type, but it’s eminently forgettable and doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Duvidha, Mani Kaul (1973, India). Uski Roti (see here) was Kaul’s first film; Duvidha was his third movie. I’m not really sure what to make of them – well, the two I’ve seen so far. I have watched Bollywood, I have watched parallel cinema. I like both, but I love the films of Ritwik Ghatak. And yet Kaul is nothing like either. If anything, he’s more consciously in the tradition of European art-house cinema, but without seeming to settle on a particular style. True, this is after seeing only two of the films on this DVD, but I’ve seen a lot of European art house films, and Kaul’s pacing reminds me of Béla Tarr (although he predates him), and some of his staging reminds me of Sergei Parajanov, and his use of voice-over and dialogue feels more Russian than Indian… In other words, Kaul presents a singular vision, not just in Indian cinema, but internationally… and I’m still trying t work out how much I like it. Duvidha at least boasts a more straightforward narrative than Uski Roti – a young couple marry, and the husband heads off to a distant town for five years to make his fortune… But a ghost in a nearby banyan tree learns of the husband’s plan, and so impersonates him and returns to the wife and takes the husband’s place. It’s based on a story by Vijayadan Detha, which was in turn based on a Rajasthani folk tale. Unlike the previous film, this one is shot in colour, but I can’t tell if the slightly washed-out palette is deliberate or a consequence of the transfer. The framing, however, is obviously down entirely to Kaul, and he shows a considerable amount of inventiveness in placing his camera and framing his shots. The pacing is once again slow, and the story is told through a mixture of voice-over and looped dialogue. There’s a bleakness to the landscapes depicted, something also notable in Uski Roti, but more visible here because the film is in colour. Clearly Kaul deserves his accolades and reputation, but I think I need to watch more of his films – or the ones I have a few more times – before I can get a real handle on his work.

Blind Chance, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1987, Poland). I last watched this over a decade ago – I had a DVD copy of it, which I gave away when I bought the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema Blu-ray box sets – and sort of remembered the story when I sat down to rewatch it. You know, the plot… the guy who catches a train, and his life goes one way… but then he doesn’t catch it and his life goes another way… twice. Sort of like Sliding Doors. But Polish. And political. And not a rom com. And without that annoying John Hannah chap. It’s clearly early Kieślowski, with its television staging and heated political arguments. This impression is hardly lessened by the second of the three “alternates”, in which the protagonist fails to make the train, attacks a station official and is arrested… and so ends up in the Polish prison system and becomes a dissident. I’ve seen pretty much everything Kieślowski made – Artificial Eye released most of them on DVD around a decade or so ago – and the one I remember most fondly is No End. Having now rewatched the Three Colours trilogy, after replacing my DVD copies with Blu-rays, I approached this rewatch of Blind Chance with mixed feelings. I’d remembered the basic plot… but I’d forgotten quite dull most of it is. At the time I first watched Blind Chance, I’d not seen much Polish cinema, so the political element of the story I found fascinating. But I’ve since lots of Polish films, and I’m a little better informed on the country’s political history… It’s a bit like… I’m currently reading Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, and it sometimes seems like its reputation rests on the fact it portrayed life in the USSR as some sort of blackly comic farce… and yet that has always been my impression of the Soviet Union. It is books like Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty that are really eye-opening about the USSR. And so Blind Chance – despite its tripartite structure, it doesn’t seem to offer any particular insight, or especially interesting commentary, on the Polish regime of the 1970s and early 1980s. Wajda’s Man of Marble and Man of Iron seem, to me, to make their point with much more bite than Blind Chance, although the latter is certainly the cleverer script. I don’t know; I found this rewatch of Blind Chance somewhat disappointing, much as I had the Three Colours rewatch.

Coriolanus, Elijah Moshinsky (1984, UK). I’d been renting DVDs from this box set, but then decided to go and buy so I could watch them at my own pace… so, of course, it’s taken me 18 months to crack open the box set and start watching it. I did rewatch The Comedy of Errors before watching Coriolanus – you know, the one with Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltry playing a pair of twins, both of which have the same names (as if), leading to all sorts of mistaken identity merry japes. Coriolanus stars Alan Howard in the title role, a Roman general who reluctantly stands for consul in Rome, and wins. But that pisses off the political classes, and Coriolanus blames it all on the plebians, whom he holds in great contempt. This is not the most edifying of Shakespeare’s plays – kof kof, of the ones I’ve seen; although to be fair there’s few enough of them that qualify as “edifying”. Coriolanus is apparently a tragedy, and not a historical play, although I don’t understand the distinction as surely Roman times were considered historical even in Shakespeare’s day? I mostly remember it as a lot of standing around pontificating in front of “crowds” of a dozen or so people, several after-the-battle scenes, and lot of Coriolanus feeling sorry for himself. Meh.

Say Hello to Yesterday, Alvin Rakoff (1970, UK). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental DVD, and so stuck it on my list. Jean Simmons plays a suburban wife, who travels in to London one day on the train and comes to the attention of flighty young man Leonard Whiting. He badgers her incessantly, on the train and once she has arrived in London. Eventually, she succumbs. They end up in bed in a cheap hotel. He professes his undying love; she is more pragmatic. This is hardly a unique or insightful story, but it is an astonishingly accurate portrayal of its time. Okay, so I don’t actually remember 1970, but I do remember 1975 – and not a great deal had changed in terms of, well, the sort of things that would concern a production designer, during those five years. Everyone drives Minis, everywhere looks grubby, the whole aesthetic is just so naturally early 1970s it’s clearly unforced. Whiting is hugely annoying, but Simmons is good; but it’s the look and feel of the film where it truly scores. Though you can’t tell it from the film, it’s obvious the hotel sheets are drip-dry nylon. It’s that kind of movie. I tweeted while watching it that silver birches seem to embody the 1970s style of utopia for me. They’re there in Fahrenheit 451, and they feel almost emblematic of the sort of utopian, or comfortable, lifestyle the 1970s considered futuristic. For me, they’re a science-fictional tree.

The Commune, Thomas Vinterberg (2016, Denmark). Vinterberg’s Festen was the first film made following the Dogme 95 rules, and it’s a bona fide classic film. But he also made the bafflingly crap It’s All About Love. And the very good The Hunt. And, well, they were the only films by him I’d seen prior to watching The Commune. But I knew he was a name worth watching, so I bunged The Commune on the rental list – and I should really add a few more. In Copenhagen in 1970, a successful couple want to move into the large house in which the husband grew up, but they can’t afford the rent on their own (even though the wife works as a newsreader on television). So they invite friends of similar political leanings to share the house as a commune. They advertise to fill up the last few places. Unfortunately, the original couple’s marriage disintegrates – he’s a university lecturer and falls in love with student – and this causes problems in the house. This is not a Dogme 95 film, not judging by the lighting at least. And the plot is pretty much a lit fic staple – college professor sleeps with student, starts to question his marriage, it falls apart… except the girlfriend joins the commune, and the wife stays, and it’s all pretty obviously uncomfortable. Or helped by the rest of the commune, who are all the sort of earnestly progressive types more likely to get bogged down in trivia than actual worthwhile causes. A watchable film, better made than most, but not a great film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 870


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Reading diary, #50

Oops. I appear to have missed a number. I went straight from Reading diary, #47 to Reading diary, #49. I could have gone back and corrected the numbering, but I can’t be arsed. So this forty-ninth post is numbered fifty, and it’ll just have to carry on from there. All together now: deal with it.

The Memoirist, Neil Williamson (2017, UK). This is the fourth and final novella in NewCon Press’s new series of novella quartets (I wonder where they could have got that idea from?). These first four are straight-up sf, so I will admit to some surprise at seeing Neil Williamson’s name, since he’s not known for straight-up sf. But, thankfully, The Memoirist certainly qualifies as that, and even better, it’s a pretty damn good piece of straight-up science fiction. A ghost writer is hired to write the memoirs of the lead singer of a long-since defunct rock band that had a Moment a couple of decades previously. That Moment was at a near-legendary gig in a small club, of which no recordings or footage exists. And yet the myth of the gig overshadows what meagre impact the band itself ever had. In this world, ubiquitous “bees” provide 24/7 surveillance… but it seems that mythical gig triggered something which led to a new type of “bee”… and to say any more would give the plot twist away. I’ll admit I thought the mystery dragged out a little, but the way the plot then shifted into left-field more than made up for it. I enjoyed this, a good piece of near-future sf, almost McLeod-esque in places, with an interesting premise and an in interesting, and nicely oblique, approach to that premise (okay, it was a little Espedair Street too, but that’s hardly a complaint). Good stuff.

Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, Ismail Kadare (2000, Albania). So I went looking for novels from countries I’d not read literature from before, and came up with this one. Kadare has won several international prizes, and been mooted as a Nobel laureate a number of times. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost is his eleventh book, and his entire oeuvre – of novels, at least – appears to have been translated into English. Mark Gurabardhi is an artist in the provincial town of B—– and, well, things happen. Beginning with a bank robbery. People also tell each other stories, and each chapter is followed by a counter-chapter which expands on that story, as if it were the plot of the novel (but the counter-chapters are not a single narrative). Some sections of the novel deal with the old Albanian mountain code of Kanun, blood vendettas that go back generations, so far no one remembers what they were actually about, and how they’re in danger of kicking off again now that Hoxha’s communist regime has collapsed. Much as I enjoyed Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, it didn’t blow me away. I’m glad I read it, but I doubt I’ll read anything else by Kadare. But at least I can cross Albania off the list.

Project Clio, Stephen Baxter (2016, UK). I remember seeing this at the 2016 Eastercon in Manchester, but I own so many Baxter novels and novellas already, and had been badly disappointed by the last few I’d read, that I’d decided to give Project Clio a pass. But then recently I placed an order for the final novella of Eric Brown’s Telemass quartet and this novella sort of accidentally fell into my basket… It reads a little like Baxter had watched Danger: Diabolik, or any number of similar films, once too often, and while it’s a lot of fun it does read somewhat compressed and elided. It’s a carry-on from two earlier stories, which I have not read, even though I own the collection, Universes, in which the stories appear, which does mean Project Clio throws the reader in at the deep end since it assumes prior knowledge of the characters and set-up. There’s mention of Brutalist architecture in the novella, but I can’t work out if it’s approving, because being unapproving of Brutalist architecture would of course be unforgivable. The novella ends with a bit of a Dr-Who-style finish, which didn’t work for me. I liked the use of 1960s iconography, and the piss-takes of 1960s cultural artefacts, but the plotting did feel more like that of a television episode than an actual novella.

Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA). I’m still not entirely convinced by Robinson’s books, but they’re so beautifully written I’m prepared to forgive them much. Lila is written from the point of view of the wife of John Ames, the protagonist of Gilead and the patriarch depicted in Home. She was stolen as child, a neglected child, by a woman who calls herself Doll (and who gave Lila her name), and subsequently dragged about the Midwest looking for work. This was during the Great Depression, and anyone who has read Steinbeck, or even seen the film of The Grapes of Wrath, will have some idea of the abject poverty these people experienced. Eventually, Lila fetches up in Gilead as a young woman, and slowly, in much the same way a wild animal would, begins to explore the small town and its inhabitants. She starts working in the pastor’s garden, in return for his unprovoked acts of kindness toward her, and the two sort of drift together until he asks her to marry him and she says yes. While both Lila and Ames are drawn with an impressive amount of sensitivity – and Ames is clearly a remarkably, perhaps a little too remarkably, sensitive man for his time – and the interactions between the two are beautifully-written… but there’s that leap from friends who know very little about each other to marriage that seems somewhat ungrounded. I really do like Robinson’s prose – it’s deceptively simple – and I also really like the gentle pace of her novels, and the depth to which she explores her cast and their various interactions. But… they do also feel like they’re missing an edge, a bit of bite to temper the smoothness. The depiction of Lila’s childhood during the Great Depression is too bland to do the job. It means Robinson’s novels can feel a bit too, well, too pleasant. But still worth reading.

vN, Madeline Ashby (2012, Canada). According to my database, I bought this at the 2014 Fantasycon for £1. So it’s taken me nearly three years to get around to read it. I seem to recall it being quite well-received at its time of release, but, to be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed. The title refers to von Neuman machines, although in this novel they’re actually AI in humanoid bodies thatare faster, stronger, etc, than humans. They’ve integrated into society such that the story opens with a man, his vN wife and vN child (vN children are identical copies of their parent – created by both female and male vN; and, in fact, all vN come in a limited number of “models”, each one identical to the original vN of their line). In order for the child vN, Amy, to “grow” along a similar time-frame to a human child, her parents have been limiting her “food” intake. But when her vN grandmother, Portia, turns up to her kindergarten graduation and goes berserk, Amy eats her. And so grows almost immediately to adult size.  And goes on the run… The problem with vN is that the vN over-balanced the world-building, and Amy was a completely unconvincing character. The vN are so physically superior to human beings they made no sense unless they were non-sentient. But they’re AIs, and supposedly not dangerous because they have a “failsafe” (sort of Asimov’s Three Laws rolled up into one maguffin). Except Portia has overriden hers. And it’s likely Amy will be able override hers too. But since the entire novel is told from Amy’s POV- and she’s a very implausible five-year-old – we can only guess at what this might actually mean to society at large. If you want to read a book about robots and humans, Machine by Jennifer Pelland is much better. There’s apparently a sequel to vN, titled iD. I’ll not be bothering with it.

Blood Enemies, Susan R Matthews (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first book, An Exchange of Hostages, back in the 1990s when it was published. so I was pretty disappointed when Matthews’s original publisher, Avon Books, dropped the series after the original trilogy. It was then picked up by Roc, who published a further three novels before dropping it. A seventh novel was published four years later by Meisha Merlin, who went into administration shortly afterward. And now, eleven years later, we finally have the next book in the series, published by, of all people, Baen. Which at least explains the shit cover art. Happily, Baen are also rereleasing the earlier books in omnibus editions, which is just as well as Blood Enemies follows straight on from the previous book, 2006’s Warring States, and would be hard to follow without knowledge of the preceding books, despite Matthews’s lengthy introduction. Kosciusko had sent his freed bondsmen off into the Gonebeyond, but when he tried to follow them he found himself stuck on Safehaven. Meanwhile, Cousin Stanosz, an agent of the Malcontent (the Dolgurokij Combine’s unofficial secret service), has been investigating a series of brutal terrorist attacks on Gonebeyond colonies. He thinks Kosciusko’s brother is involved, and so impersonates Kosciusko to visit the brother in the company station he inhabits in Gonebeyond, travelling there in the bondsmen’s ship. Except Kosciusko manages to escape his house-arrest and tracks his b0ndsmen to the company station, inadvertently ruining Cousin Stanosz’s plan… This book is better-written than I remember the earlier books in the series being, and Kosciusko seems to have settled down as a character. But a lot happens in its 256 pages, and the constant referring back to events and people in the earlier books does tend to confuse in places. The Under Jurisdiction novels don’t have quite the same level of shine as they did back in the late 1990s and, while the genre has moved on in the eleven years since Warring States, although it has moved in much the same direction as the Under Jursidiction books were sort of heading… Blood Enemies still doesn’t feel much like a 2017 science ficiton novel. The world-building is strong, but it’s not the focus of the narrative. Nor are the characters’ emotions. Which does make it feel, when compared to present-day sf, as though everything in Blood Enemies is slightly off-centre. I’m not all that interested in the current sf narrative style, to be honest – world-bling and feels and word salad – but Blood Enemies reads like it’s trying to catch up rather than do its own thing. Having said that, I still intend to continue reading the series.

1001 Boks You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Moving pictures 2017, #32

Two Hollywood films in this batch, although I’m not entirely sure that label can be applied to the first US film mentioned – Noomi Rapace as the female lead! Isabelle Huppert as her mother! Although otherwise, it’s solid mid-Hollywood casting down the line – Colin Farrell, F Murray Abraham, Armand Assante… But there’s also two Indian films, although one isn’t actually Bollywood… plus another Filipino movie, and the second film I’ve seen by Lucía Puenzo. In fact, aside from the shitty animated one, it’s a pretty good collection of movies.

Uski Roti, Mani Kaul (1970, India). There are two 20-DVD box sets released by the National Film Development Corporation of India, but I’ve had trouble finding copies at reasonable prices. Meanwhile, individual films – or in this case, three films in a single case – seem to be readily available… but are almost impossible to find on Amazon because the data entry is so piss-poor. And don’t get me started on big data… Anyway, I recognised the cover design of this Mani Kaul triplet as being from NFDC, and spotting that the back-cover described the films’ genre as “offbeat/social”, I decided they were worth a punt despite having never heard of the director… Only to later discover that Wikipedia describes him as “arguably the greatest Indian director of Hindi films” and also points out he was a student of Ritwik Ghatak (a favourite director of mine). The greatest Indian director Hindi films… and yet the DVD here is the only one of his films available in the UK.  (Not entirely the UK’s fault, as most Bollywood movies available here on DVD are released by Indian labels, not UK ones.) Had I known of the Kaul-Ghatak link, I might have guessed that Uski Roti is “parallel cinema” rather than Bollywood. No singing and dancing here. In fact, the first line of dialogue isn’t spoken until ten minutes into the film. And there isn’t a great deal of dialogue anyway. Kaul seems to like static shots in which there’s very little action or movement. He also likes voice-over narration, and indirect dialogue (if there is such a term – I mean where the character is on-screen, but the dialogue is voice-over). Despite watching Uski Roti twice, I’m still not entirely clear about the plot. Roti is a type of unleavened bread, and Uski Roti appears to be about a woman who makes lunch for her husband, a driver, and then walks to the road along which he drives to hand it to him when he passes. But he spends most of his time away from the family home. The pacing is languorous at best, there are lots of carefully-framed shots, and the whole thing feels like it was consciously made to be nothing like a Bollywood film. Worth seeing.

Insiang, Lino Brocka (1976, Philippines). This was the second disc included with Manila in the Claws of Light (see here), and also stars Hilda Koronel, this time in the title role. Insiang is a young woman living with her mother in a Manila slum district. She has a boyfriend, but her mother’s boyfriend rapes her. Her mother believes her boyfriend and not her daughter, and so Insiang runs off with her boyfriend. But after having consensual sex with her, he deserts her. So Insiang returns to her mother’s boyfriend, seduces him and persuades him to enact her revenge on her boyfriend. She also tells her mother she has slept with her boyfriend… and so her mother stabs and kills him. This is definitely social drama, but not, I think, Pinoy-style. It’s played very straight, the cast are excellent, and the scenes are all shot on location. Koronel is good in the title role – hugely better, in fact, than she was in Manila Claws of Light. I think, on balance, the earlier film is the better of the two, perhaps because its story has wider scope. Insiang is quite claustrophobic – deliberately so, I imagine, in order to evoke life in the slums – but it’s also a very incestuous story, which means it has a small cast. Manila in the Claws of Light was a bigger story, and while Insiang‘s narrower focus works well for it, I don’t think it’s as good as the other film. But the DVD set is definitely worth seeing. And I heop we’ll see more films by Brocka made available.

Dead Man Down, Niels Arden Oplev (2013, USA). I found this on Amazon Prime, and I’ve no idea what possessed me to watch it. I’m by no means a Colin Farrell fan, and while the thrillers in which he appears – Euro or Hollywood – are nowhere near as bad as those in which Liam Neeson appears, they’re often thin and implausible stuff. As, er, was this one. But in Oplev it had an interesting choice of director, which led to an entirely unexpected direction for the film, and, as mentioned above, Noomi Rapace plays the female lead and Isabelle Huppert is her mother. Farrell is an enforcer for a gangster, except it seems he isn’t. He has infiltrated the gang in order to exact revenge, because they accidentally killed his young daughter, and then killed his wife and himself (but failed the latter, obvs) when the couple chose to act as witnesses against the gang. However, Rapace, who lives in a neighbouring skyscraper on the same floor as Farrell, so their windows look onto each other’s flats, saw Farrell kill a man. And she’s disfigured from a car crash caused by a drunk-driver who was only lightly sentenced and still continues to drink-drive. She wants revenge, and blackmails Farrell into committing it for her. And there’s the problem… This is a dull dull dull ganster/revenge/lone hero plot, and there a zillion films like it, pretty much all of which are bad. Oplev, however, has chosen to approach the film entirely differently, and he slows down the pace, pulls back on the glorification of violence, and puts the emotional landscapes of the characters of Farrell and Rapace front and centre. And the whole lot is filmed in a low-lit style with a limited colour palette. With a good story, this would have been a superior thriller. With the story it has, it’s a dog food gateau. Oplev could not apparently lift inferior material to something more than inferior, even with a good cast and an art-house look and feel.

The Secret Life of Pets, Chris Renaud & Yarrow Cheny (2016, USA). My finger must have slipped or something, that’s the only explanation. Okay, so Hollywood has churned out some big-budget well-regarded animated feature films over the last couple of years… but every good one there are thousands of inferior ones. And since these days it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between marketing copy and critical commentary, I had mistaken believed this might be one of the few good ones. It wasn’t it. In fact, it was really bad. With a voice cast who seem to have made careers out of sounding like much more famous actors. I can’t even remember what the film was about, something to do with some house pets and the sewers, I seem to recall, but it was just one long uninterrupted stream of clichés and hoary old potted routines. Even the stylised animation looked a bit 1990s, albeit being digital it looked cleaner and smoother than it would have done in that decade. Avoid.

Wakolda, Lucía Puenzo (2013, Argentina). I think it was a trailer on another rental DVD that persuaded me to add this to my rental list. I’d seen a film by Puenzo several years ago, XXY, but had not at that time taken note of the director’s name. It was only after watching Wakolda that I put two and two together… and on the strength of these two films, I’d like to see more by her. A family heading south to Patagonia are asked by a German immigrant if he can drive with them as the roads are dangerous. They agree. After arriving at their destination – a hotel on a lake the family plan to re-open, the German goes on his way. But he reappears a couple of days later and asks to move into the hotel. He is a doctor, and he has noticed that the young daughter is small for age, due to her premature birth, and often sickly. He offers free treatment to improve her health, but the father is sceptical. Meanwhile, a photographer working locally turns out to be a Mossad agent and she identifies the doctor as Mengele. The film is based on Puenzo’s own novel of the same title. Mengele is portrayed as something close to a sociopath, so obsessed with his medical researches that he doesn’t even consider his patients as human beings, and his acts of kindness are merely part of his strategy to get people to agree to his plans. The film is told partly in flashback voice-over narration by the young daughter, and it’s all presented as a sort of gentle drama with an undercurrent of thriller. Good film, definitely worth seeing.

Pakeezah, Kamal Amrohi (1972, India). I forget why I added this to my rental list – it’s certainly not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although it certainly belongs on it, but perhaps it was on some list of best Bollywood  movies or something. Anyway, I bunged it in the player not expecting much, I mean, a forty-five year old Bollywood film… boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again, lots of singing and dancing, and probably a terrible print as well… But, well, it was all that, but it was also bloody good. It was if the Archers – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, that is – had made a Bollywood film. Which in no way is to erase Amrohi’s achievement, which apparently took some sixteen years. But Pakeezah had that same Archers look of detailed interior sets built to resemble exteriors. And some of the photography is, despite the poor print, really quite astonishingly good. In fact, everything about the way this film was made is good. It’s set in Lucknow at the turn of century. It opens with a woman dying in childbirth, and her baby being taken by her sister, who brings the child up in her brothel, where she becomes a much fêted singer and dancer. The local nawab takes to her, and starts wooing her. While on a river trip, their boat is attacked by elephants and the dancer is thrown into the river. She is rescued by a forest ranger, and the two fall in love… There is plenty of singing and dancing in Pakeezah, but it’s classical Indian music rather than the popular musuic you might find in a more recent Bollywood film. The sets are fantastic, and the costumes are amazing… so it’s a shame the DVD transfer isn’t especially good. I’ve seen worse – the Guru Dutt ones, for example; and at least one of the recent Bollywood films I’ve seen was a really low res picture – but it’s a shame that a film that’s held in such high regard isn’t available in a better edition. Excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 869


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Moving pictures 2017, #31

I managed to cross a few films off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list this time, although two of them were US films by directors whose works I don’t especially like – and no, I don’t understand how the films made the list in the first place. This post also marks my first Singaporean film, wihch I stumbled across on eBay and which seemed intriguing enough to buy. The seller contacted me to point out the DVD was region 3, but I replied I’d bought a multi-region Blu-ray specifically because I want to watch DVDs and Blu-rays from other regions. This post has my first Jordanian film too – although I’m fairly sure this is a Jordanian film for the international market, rather than the Arabic-language market.

The Color Purple*, Steven Spielberg (1985, USA). I’m not a big Spielberg fan – in fact, I’m not a fan of his films at all, especially not of his push-button emotional content films – and that’s what The Color Purple is (despite my dislike of US spelling, it seems to fit in this case). I’ve not read the novel by Alice Walker but I fervently hope it’s not as bad as this film, which is an over-sentimental drama covering an African-American family over several decades from the 1920s onward. Whoopi Goldberg plays a poor and uneducated woman (when she’s an adult) in rural Georgia. She is married off to Danny Glover, even though he had turned up at the house intending to marry another sister. That sister runs away, and goes to “Africa” (I don’t recall the actual African nation being named) with a missionary couple. In the novel, at least according to Wikipedia’s plot synopsis, she ends up marrying the missionary husband after his wife dies; in the film, she marries a young man she meets in the “African” village in which she is living. Goldberg, meanwhile, is abused by Glover over many years, decades even. There are also some scenes at a bar, where a musical number is performed by the fallen wife of the local preacher… leading to a frankly ludicrous scene later where said fallen wife hears the choir singing and marches around a mile, singing all the while, and being heard by the congregation as she marches. I really didn’t like this film. It was manipulative to a degree I’ve not seen in a Spielberg film before, and he’s entirely about manipulating his audience. I also fail to understand why it made the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list instead of like, say, Black Girl, a Senegalese film which makes a similar point albeit much more honestly. Still, I guess there was a lot of money pumped into The Color Purple

Theeb, Naji Abu Nowar (2014, Jordan). I’ve watched a number of Arabic-language films, but they’ve mostly been ones aimed at non-Arabic audiences – not badly-acted Egyptian dramas, in other words. Even the films of Elia Sulieman, a favourite director, are not really made for a Palestinian audience, although they are very Palestinian films. Amd while I’m all too happy to watch such films, it not the same as watching a Bollywood movie, which is a movie designed to appeal to its home audience. It seems to me, though I have no proof, that Theeb, a film made in Jordan by a Jordanian/British director, is a film designed more to appeal to an international audience than a Jordanian audience. And as a big fan of non-Anglophone cinema I have no real problem with that, but as someone who dislikes the concept of “world cinema” I’m less approving. Theeb is a good film, of that there’s no doubt. It’s an excellent historical drama, set in Jordan during WWI, and a clever character study of its central character, a young boy caught up in events he does not understand. But different countries have their different populist cinemas – I’ve mentioned Nigeria’s Nollywood before, and the difficulty of finding its popular films with English subtitles – but what I fail to understand is why it is assumed populist non-Anglophone cinema cannot find an Anglophone audience and only non-Anglophone auteur films are worth releasing in English-language markets. True, the English movie market is pretty much 99% Hollywood, and they can’t even work out how to handle Spanish-speaking audiences, which is a huge part of the US population. But in the UK, we have Welsh and Cornish and the two varieties of Gaelic, and TV channels and programmes and films for each, albeit small scale. And, personally, most of my favourite directors do not make English language films, so I have to watch with subtitles. In fact, subtitles are a passport to a world of cinema and only a fool would ignore them. Subtitles are good. And so is this Theeb.

Hannah and Her Sisters*, Woody Allen (1986, USA). I really don’t understand the appeal of Woody Allen’s films, and I certainly don’t understand why he has six movies on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list, since none of them to my mind are all that good. Hannah and Her Sisters fools the viewer initially because it opens with a voice-over by Michael Caine, and no one on-screen resembles Allen. But then he appears, and it all begins to  slide downhill. Caine is married to Hannah, but fancies one of her sisters. Allen is an ex-husband of another sister, but once went on a date with yet another sister which ended badly. And, oh god, this sort of middle-class American bed-hopping drawing-room farce is tedious at best and embarrassing at worst. Allen at least manages not to entirely embarrass his viewers or his cast, but it’s a close-run thing. Caine does not do needy very well, and the film pretty much hinges on his needy desire for sister Barbara Hershey, Max von Sydow’s wife. I watched this film so I could cross it off the list. I only have one more Allen film left on the list to watch – Crimes and Misdemeanours – and then I never have to watch another Woody Allen film ever again.

Manila in the Claws of Light*, Lino Brocka (1975, Philippines). When I set out to watch all the films on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list, copies of this film were almost impossible to find. But then Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project went and restored it – yay for Scorsese – and then the BFI released it in the UK on dual format – yay for the BFI. And… it’s good, good enough to make want to watch more films by Brocka. Fortunately, as the DVD cover art indicates, there is another film bundled with Manila in the Claws of Light, Insiang. But my chances of finding any further Brocka movies is, I suspect, extremely remote. Anyway, Manila in the Claws of Light… A young man from the provinces (well, an island other than Luzon – the Philippines is an archipelago, after all) moves to Manila to track down his girlfriend, who had left earlier after being promised employment in the capital by a visiting woman promising jobs there for young women (yes, yes, it’s pretty obvious to us, but these are unsophisticated probincianos). The guy ends up working on a building site as casual labour, where he learns how they are treated, how their wages are garnished, and what life is like at the bottom of the heap. But he spends all his spare time looking for his girlfriend. And eventually finds her. Which is where, of course, things start to go wrong. The film opens in black-and-white, and the print quality is not especially good, which I thought odd for 1975… but then as the opening credits end it changes to colour and the print quality greatly improves. I’m not sure this adds anything to the film, or why Brocka chose to do it. Manila in the Claws of Light treads a fine line between melodrama and social realism, but manages not to fall off in either direction. Brocka is apparently “one of the most influential and significant Filipino filmmakers” (according to Wikipedia), and while I’ve known of Pinoy cinema for many years – there used to be a column in Gulf News’ weekly magazine dedicated to it; and one to Lollywood too – I’ll admit I didn’t take much notice of the directors’ names (although such columns tend to focus on the stars anyway), but even in my years of following “world cinema” (ugh) I’d not come across Brocka’s name before. Mostly my fault, yes, but given how so many directors from other countries are lauded in Anglophone cinema – Tarkovsky, Ray, Kiarostami, Kurosawa, Almodóvar, Tati, Fassbinder, Bergman, etc. – I’m surprised I’d not stumbled across Brocka’s name before. But then, as mentioned previously, Manila in the Claws of Light was, until this edition appeared, extremely hard to find. Perhaps the appearance of Two Films by Lino Brocka means more films by him, and other Filipino/Filipina directors, are going to be released in the Anglophone world. I hope so.

Girl Gets Girl, Sonia Sebastián (2015, Spain). I forget where I came across this – probably a trailer on another rental DVD – and decided to add it to my rental list. Bur I thoroughly enjoyed it. The film was almost like someone trying to out-Almodóvar Almodóvar himself. Ten years after running away from a wedding, Inés returns to Spain from Miami, just when her ex-girlfriend’s ten-year-old daughter is have a “first period party”. There then follows a series of mildly comic and well-written scenes in which each of the characters at the party try to get their own way. A previous girlfriend, for exmaple, turns up with a dodgy guy as her “boyfriend”. and he tries to drug her drink but the wrong woman drinks it. One of the two mothers of the young girl is desperately trying to hide her sexuality from her mother. The other mother thinks Inés still loves her, but Inés is basically just hiding from some enemies she made in Miami, And not just enenies, as one is an editor who fell in love with her and follows her to Spain to win her heart and/or get back her money. The script is witty, the characters are likeable, the plot is, despite being a but obvious in places, is clever. It’s by no means great cinema, but it is a fun film that entertains without annoying or insulting the viewer’s intelligence. Oh, and it doesn’t just pass the Bechdel Test, it comes top of the class. Worth seeing.

In the Room, Eric Khoo (2015, Singapore). As mentioned above, I stumbled across this on eBay and decided to take a punt on it (it’s not actually available on Amazon). It was a good call. The title refers to a room in the Hotel Singapura (an alternative title for the film) in which events happen over several decades. The story opens in 1942, in black-and-white, with a Brit and a Singaporean lamenting the loss of the Brit’s livelihood – a plantation – but also quite clearly about the love affair between the two men. Another story is about a madam who trains young women to be prostitutes in the early 1960s in the room, and in this sequence the production design and colour scheme is appropriate to the decade. There’s a rock band who occupy the room in the 1970s… and so on. There’s a variety of styles on display, all of which seem appropriate to the decade being depicted, but it does mean In the Room doesn’t feel like it presents a singular vision. Sometimes it feels like Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, other times it feels a bit like Almodóvar. Or maybe not. It’s not the most original plot on the planet – I can think of at least two bad films that have the same premise – and Khoo’s decision to give each sequence an appropriate flavour does tend to dilute his vision. But I still thought this was rather good, and I’m glad I took a chance on it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 867


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Moving pictures 2017, #30

Six films, four countries… and they’re all countries from which I’ve seen many films before. Some favourite directors – including one who’s becoming more of a favourite, and one whose works I don’t like as much as I used to…

Diving into the Unknown, Juan Reina (2016, Finland). I stumbled across this true story last year on the BBC website, but had forgotten a film was being made of it. So I was chuffed when I came across Diving into the Unknown, and immediately added it to my rental list. It’s intended to be a fly-on-the-wall film of a difficult cave dive. But the dive turned into tragedy, and the documentary crew continued to film those involved as they tried to come to terms with the tragedy, and what it meant to them in their pursuit of their sport. A team of Finnish technical cave divers planned to swim through a cave system in Plurdalen, Norway, which stretched some two to three kilometres but reached a depth of 130 metres, with many tight and narrow passages. At the deepest part of the dive, two of the team drowned – despite being experienced divers, and as a consequence of events not entirely explained in the film. An attempt by the authorities – aided by a team of British divers – to retrieve the bodies failed, and further entry to the caves was prohibited. So the Finns decided to illegally re-enter the caves and fetch their colleagues’ bodies. Which they did. With the original documentary crew following their every move. Their “rescue” mission was successful, and the Norwegian authorities chose not to prosecute them. The film is a combination of talking heads – the divers discussing their sport, the dive, and the tragedy – and footage from both the tragic dive and the rescue dive, with some fly-on-the-wall footage of the group preparing for each of the dives. The divers are completely normal people – mostly men, but there are some women – and not the sort of egotistical assholes you usually find in extreme sports (although, on reflection, all the documentaries I’ve seen about divers has shown them to be disconcertingly ordinary). Diving into the Unknown is the sort of story Hollywood would have a field day with (who know, there may be a fictionalisation in the works already), but the matter-of-fact presentation of the documentary I find much more effective. Definitely worth watching.

Finally, Sunday, François Truffaut (1983, France). The more Truffaut I watch, the more I like Truffaut. I’d seen Jules et Jim and Les Quatre Cent Coups many years ago, and not been all that taken with them, although I did, and still do, love Fahrenheit 451. But the Truffaut films I’ve watched since, I’ve liked a great deal, including Tirez dur le pianiste, which may actually be one of my favourite New Wave films.  Finally, Sunday, or Vivement dimanche!, was Truffaut’s last film and, as I tweeted while watching it, probably “the Truffautest film Truffaut ever Truffauted”. For a start, it’s shot in black and white, which immediately suggests Truffaut’s New Wave movies, and it is, in fact, very New Wave, in look and tone and construction. A rich man is shot while hunting, and a business associate, an estate agent, is the prime suspect. The estate agent’s secretary, played by Fanny Ardant, sets out to prove her boss’s innocence. So you have that noir link, a New Wave favourite, right there in the plot. It’s also very Hitchcockian, of course, as Truffaut was an expert on Hitch, and was instrumental in rehabilitating the director and his oeuvre. I too am a big fan of Hitchcock and own pretty much all of his movies on either DVD or Blu-ray (and I’ve also seen Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut, although I’ve not read the book). In places, it’s hard to tell what in Finally, Sunday is homage and what is pastiche, but then the lines between those two are often blurred in the New Wave (although perhaps more so in Godard’s films). I am becoming a bit of a fan of Truffaut, despite being initially cool to his films. I think Truffaut is the better director, but Godard is the better film-maker, if that makes sense. Happily, most of Truffaut’s oeuvre is available in the UK – including a pair of reasonably-priced Blu-ray collections – which is not the case for Godard.

Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino (2008, Italy). The first Sorrentino film I saw was The Consequences of Love and I thought it great – the aesthetics of a European car commercial married to a, somewhat langorous, thriller plot. And so beautifully shot. And I liked The Great Beauty too, even if it felt like Fellini on prozac – because the cinematography was once again exquisite – although to be fair, the languid pace did suit the story (or rather, it suited the character of the film’s protagonist). But Youth was a disappointment, a trite story of the over-privileged at a Swiss sanatorium, albeit still with lovely photography. But my appreciation of Sorrentino’s work was definitely on the wane. And so, Il Divo… This is an earlier work than those mentioned previously, and is a lightly fictionalised account of the career, and fall from grace, of the Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, prime minster from 1972 to 1973, 1976 to 1979 and 1989 to 1992. He was accused of corruption and ties to the Mafia, but was aquitted in court due to a lack of evidence. The film is as stylish, and as stylised, as Sorrentino’s later works, with beautifully-lit and -shot interiors, but Toni Servillo, who also played the lead in The Great Beauty, plays Andreotti with a weird lack of affect that seemed to make the man more of a caricature than a character. It was a bit like watching a political cartoon wandering through Rome’s many historical buildings. It all felt like it wasn’t taking Andreotti’s transgression expecially seriously – not an attempt to rehabilitate, but more of a trivialisation of his crimes. An odd film.

Gone to Earth, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (1950, UK). The Archers must surely be in the top ten of British directors, if not the top five, although many of their films these days are so much of their time the sheer technical brilliance involved in their making is often overlooked. My favourite of their movies remains Black Narcissus, which is such a beautifully-made piece of cinema it’s mind-blowing it was done entirely in a studio. But the Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, are best known for three other films – The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – all of which are excellent… but it does mean the rest of their oeuvre tends to get overlooked. Including this mid-career piece set in Cornwall. Although, to be fair, Gone to Earth is a bit hokey, and while there’s lots of good Archer-ish things about it, the story is somewhat over-melodramatic and perhaps even a bit bodice-ripper-ish. Jennifer Jones plays the flighty nature-loving and nubile daughter of a coffin-maker and harpist in 1890s Shropshire. She also has a pet fox. But then the local squire takes a shine to her… but she marries the new vicar instead. And then runs away to be with the squire. But the vicar wins her back, although by this point her name is mud in the community. It all comes to a head with a tragedy that was carefully telegraphed in the first act. This is not a great Archers film, although the fact it was made by them means it’s better-made than most of its contemporaries. It seems a bit chrulish to complain about the story, since most of the Archers’ films are overloaded melodramas, and part of their formula was making such melodramas play like plain dramas. Gone to Earth doesn’t manage the charisma of the aforementioned films, perhaps because it feels like a cut-price Austen story, or because the characters are just a tad too archetypal… A film worth seeing, but not a great film.

The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland (2014, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and a quick google persuaded me it might be worth watching. Which it was. It’s very slow, which I like; but I’m not sure on it being inspired by the films of Jess Franco. But then, I don’t think I’ve actually seen any films by Franco (isn’t he a bit like Tinto Brass? Deeply sexist exploitation films from the 1970s?). A young woman turns up at the house of a slightly older woman – I’m not sure where this was filmed, the cast speak English but it doesn’t look like the UK (and the two leads are Italian and Swedish, anyway) – where she is apparently taken on as a maid/housekeeper… although the mistress of the house appears very demanding, if not over-demanding. It transpires the maid is a student of the older woman, who is a lepidoptery expert. And the two are lovers. The film charts their exploration of a BDSM relationship, in which it is soon revealed that the submissive is actually controlling the mistress. It’s all filmed totally like an art film, and not at all like the soft porn its story suggests. In fact, in places it closer resembles video art than it does narrative cinema. Clearly, Strickland is a man with a singular vision, and the wherewithal to get projects with such, on the surface, salacious plots green-lit. The film certainly makes the viewer feel like they’re peeping on a private affair, which is clearly the effect Strickland was striving for (there are shots taken through keyholes, for example). It makes for an uncomfortable experience, that razor-edge between titillation and invasion of privacy the film manages to straddle quite successfully. Not everything in it works, but enough does to make it an interesting movie.

La Commune (Paris, 1871), Peter Watkins (2000, France). This, to be honest, was a bit of a slog. I’m fully in tune with Watkins’s objectives and sensibilities, but 345 minutes (5¾ hours!) is a lot of time to spend watching a pretty obvious story unfold. There’s a lot of good things in this – it’s a Watkins, so that’s a given – such as the insistence on historical verisimilitude but the presence of modern media. But it’s also a blow-by-blow account of the founding of the titular government, which ruled Paris for just over a month in 1871. The film is presented as re-enactments of events, using a very large and mostly non-professional cast, some documentary footage about the making of the film, fake news broadcasts by a contemporary (ie, 1871) television station (yes, really), and a series of historical notes given as lengthy intertitles. It comes across as a comprehensive documentary, or Open University film, about its subject, but with added commentary and, on top of that, meta-commentary about the media and the role of media in the sort of events which both created and led to the destruction of the Paris Commune. The film makes a large number of interesting, and important, points, but watching all 345 minutes of it is a real test of endurance. It’s going to take me several goes to digest it all, so I’m glad I have my own copy (albeit from a France-released box set – why is there no UK box set of Watkins’s films?).

1001 Movies To See Before You Die count: 869