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Moving pictures 2017, #45

Bit of a USA-fest this time. Not sure how that happened. Bit of a mixed bag quality-wise, however. Mars and the Pasolini I bought, but the rest were rentals.

Mars (2016, USA). This six-part mini-series for National Geographic – the National Geographic? – was apparently executive produced by Ron Howard, although I’m not entirely sure what that means he did. It depicts a serious attempt, in 2033, to set up a colony on Mars somewhere in the Valles Marineris. Six international astronauts are sent on a spacecraft funded by a consortium of private and public interests, with a base camp already set up remotely and awaiting their arrival. But their lander misses its assigned landing spot, and they have to trek across the Martian surface to the base camp. Which presents a problem, as they were supopsed to live in the lander until the camp was up and running. In fact, the Mars mission is just one long litany of disasters. None are serious enough to kill everyone, but it’s a bit like Apollo 13 every week, with something killing one or more of the colonists (a second mission arrives in episode 4, set four years after landing), or jeopardising the colony’s future. Clearly, they’re making the point that colonising Mars is a dangerous business – and judging by the Earth-set scenes, a hugely expensive business – but, like The Martian, the series is in danger of basing its entire narrative on manufactured jeopardy. Alongside this, or rather interspersed with this, is documentary footage about… SpaceX. Obviously, they provided some of the funding for the series. Elon Musk appears several times, discussing his dream of colonising Mars. The rest feels like a SpaceX infomercial. And yet… the production values are high, the Martian mission is convincing, the euro-cast are mostly good in their roles, and the end result is something which feels a good deal more plausible than The Martian. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I bought this, but it’s actually not that bad. One for those mostly interested in the topic, perhaps, but a good deal more intelligent than a certain feature film…

Suicide Squad, David Ayers (2016, USA). These are DC, right? Not Marvel. I get confused sometimes. One guy in tights looks much like another, one implausibly pneumatic woman looks much like another implausibly pneumatic woman. But the Joker is in this, and he’s from Batman, so I guess this must be DC. And, to be honest, when it came to reading comics, which I never did much as a kid, I tended to read Marvel more than DC. I still have a soft spot for the original Guardians of the Galaxy, for example (not the crappy rewritten version they made the crappy movie about). But I can’t say any DC hero, or villain, ever appealed me the same way. The Suicide Squad, a group of captured villains forced to work for a secret arm of the US government – like they need to do shit like that, when they have “security contractors” like Blackwater – includes a whole two villains I’ve heard of before, the Joker and Harlequin, and that’s only because they’re part of the Batman mythos. The rest are nobodies. And they’re all in prison. And then are taken out by the aforementioned secret government department, and sent to New York or maybe Chicago to fight the zombies created by an Ancient Egyptian sorceress or something who was, I seem to remember, one of the inmates, and who would not have been freed had they not freed them all to fight, er, her. I don’t know. Maybe that’s wrong. I zoned out during this movie because it was very dull. The cast had zero chemistry – Jared Leto’s Joker felt like a bad Halloween costume – and the plot was the usual nonsense about magical villain attacking metropolitan centre and needing to be defeated by superpowered forces. Suicide Squad does not have a good rep, and it’s easy to see why: it is not good. Watchmen is a better film; anything made by Zack Snyder is a better film (and it hurts to make that admission). This is, as Monty Python once said, one for laying down and avoiding.

Kal Ho Naa Ho, Nikhil Advani (2003, India). Bollywood has this knack – or perhaps it’s a philosophy – of turning even the most downer of stories into a film that will have the viewer smiling by the end. Kal Ho Naa Ho (the title means Tomorrow May Never Come) is a perfect example. It’s set in New York, not India. A young woman, Naina, has reached marriageable age but is not all that keen on marrying. Which is where Shahrukh Khan comes on the scene. But rather than present himself as a romantic rival for Naina, he encourages the relationship between Naina and her fellow MBA student, Rohit. And although there’s some initial confusion over who’s wooing who, it all gets sorted out with some singing and dancing, only for Khan to then reveal he’s terminally ill. I tweeted while watching this that the opening song sampled Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’, and actually made a good job of it… and was surprised whem a Finnish friend correctly identified the film. I shouldn’t have been, of course – they watch more than just Kaurismäki up there, obviously – but most of the conversations I’ve had about Bollywood have been with Indian colleagues (I’m not sure which surprises them most: that I watch, and like, Bollywood films, or that I don’t like cricket…). Kal Ho Naa Ho was a really entertaining film. Either I’ve been very lucky with my Bollywood picks so far – and that seems unlikely, given I’ve watched several historical ones as well – but I’ve enjoyed more of them than I have recent Hollywood films – which is not to say there haven’t been a couple of stinkers, because there have; but on the whole, I’ve found Bollywood films I’ve watched in general considerably less annoying than recent Hollywood ones.

Hawks and Sparrows, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1966, Italy). There was a sale on the eureka! website, and a new – and more complete! – edition of Metropolis available for pre-order, so I embiggened my order of the latter with a couple of discounted titles… including this one. It’s early Pasolini. As should have become evident throughout this year’s Moving pictures posts, I’ve turned into a bit of a fan of Pasolini’s films, and while the sheer bizarreness of the costumes and settings of movies like Arabian Nights and Medea plugs into a long-running fascination of mine. I suspect I find his earlier movies – well, except for the Antonioni-esque Theorem – only to my liking because they seem like pastiches of Italian Neorealism, a cinematic genre of which I’m not overly fond. Hawks and Sparrows is about two itinerants who wander the Italian countryside looking for work and sustenance. En route, they meet a talking crow, who tells them of two Franciscan friars who were told to preach the Gospel to the hawks and sparrows. The friars eventually learn to understand the birds, but cannot persuade them to change their ways. This is all acted out in flashback, with Nanetto Davoli, Pasolini’s partner, and famous Italian comic actor Totò, as both the itinerants and the friars. (Totò turned out to be the illegitimate son of a Neopolitan noble, and was later recognised as a legitimate heir, so his real full name is a right mouthful: Antonio Griffo Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno Porfirogenito Gagliardi De Curtis di Bisanzio. Still wonder why we need the upper classes?) Hawks and Sparrows has its moments – there are some good comic scenes, and the joke which drives the plot is not over-played. It’s not the sort of Pasolini film I really like, but it’s worth seeing nonetheless.

Glory*, Edward Zwick (1989, USA). This I had marked down as one of those “chore movies” that I have to watch because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list but don’t expect to enjoy. And yet, I did enjoy it. I thought it quite good, in fact. Matthew Broderick, who manages to look fifteen throughout the film, despite playing a character in his twenties, a real historical character, is a Yankee captain who is put in command of the 54th Regiment Massuchusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black regiment in the Union army. Although Broderick’s character takes his responsibilities seriously, everyone else seems to think it’s a bit of a joke. The POC characters in the regiment are all drawn a bit broadly, perhaps even as stereotypes, but they certainly make the point that that only difference between the 54th Regiment and any other regiment is skin colour. Given the current fuss about the Confederacy – they were fucking racist fucking slave owners, FFS, it has nothing to do with erasing history and everything to do with recognising historical crimes, because, let’s face it, and you’d have to be an evil piece of shit to say otherwise, slavery was a horrible crime and there’s no defending it. Glory I had expected to be well-meaning rather than good drama – which I don’t have a problem with, least of all with the topic it covers – but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it actually manages to make a decent fist of its story. The 54th Regiment were, ultimately, a failure, but they led the way for many more all-black regiments, most of which went on to serve with distinction during the American Civil War. Glory is a well-made film, and while that’s not enough for it, for me, to make the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it does cover an interesting incident in US history, and does it well, but, more than that, it covers a topic that should be more widely know. So, yes, I think it deserves its place on the list.

Arrival, Denis Villeneuve (2016, USA). If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s that when social media praises a science fiction film, chances are I won’t be all that impressed. The reverse doesn’t always hold true – if they hate a film, I might like it, but I’ll probably agree with their take on it (or at least agree with their opinion of it, but for slightly different reasons). Arrival, as no doubt everyone knows, proved very popular in genre fandom. It even won a Hugo Award. So I had hopes for it (especially since LoveFilm had sent it to me just before I left for Finland, so I knew I had it waiting for me when I returned from Worldcon75). The story is adapted from a Ted Chiang short story, ‘Story of Your Life’. Chiang is a far from prolific writer whose fiction many people in genre are greatly enamoured of. He famously withdrew a novella from the Hugo because he didn’t think it was good enough. He must have a warped idea of the Hugos, then… And – unpopular opinion time – I don’t think he’s actually that good. His reputation is over-stated. And ‘Story of Your Life’ is not even one of his best stories. Or one that would seem obvious adaptation material. Which undoubtedly explains why the film is so poor. Ignoring the fact Villeneuve chose to frame, and shoot, it as warmed-over Malick (not a beneficial comparision, to my mind), the whole story is based on a conceit that simply isn’t justified by the narrative. The big reveal appears to be that the flashbacks are actually flashforwards, which only works because Amy Adams’s character is so poorly drawn the audience can’t tell the difference. The iconography used for the alien alphabet is effective, but doesn’t support the mid-film bolt-from-the-blue that it is not chronologically linear. In fact, there’s nothing in the film to support that except Adams’s voiceover. Am I surprised Arrival won the Hugo? No. The Hugo voters have notoriously bad taste in movies, and will vote for any Hollywood movie that looks like it possesses more than half a brain cell. It was, to be honest, the best film on the shortlist. But it was a piss poor shortlist.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 879

 

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Reading diary, #53

Apparently, I still read science fiction – or rather, most of my reading is still science fiction. Which is odd, given my opinion of the quality of much of it. But then two of the books below were rereads and by my favourite sf writer. Make of that what you will.

White Queen, Gwyneth Jones (1991, UK). I’ve been meaning to reread this book, and its two sequels, for a long time, but in the continual chase to main a positive TBR balance (ie, reading more books than I buy) I usually don’t find time for rereads. But then I agreed to write something about Jones’s aliens for a critical work, not just because I welcomed the opportunity to write about Jones but also because it would force me to do that long-put-off reread. And so it did. And… White Queen was not only better than I’d remembered it, but also a good deal nastier than I’d remembered. True, I’m a different reader now than I was twenty-five years ago – who isn’t? – when I last read the book. I can see how some of the characterisation was of that time… but it does read differently now. The word “whore”, for example, is thrown around a lot more than you’d find in a novel of the second decade of the twenty-first century. The characterisation also seems not as I remember it – the aliens are better drawn than the humans, basically. Some time hence, a decade or two, aliens land secretly on Earth. These are the Aleutians, so called because of their original landing place. They resemble humans, but have no noses, a single gender, and bio-technology based on “wandering cells” from their own individual bodies. Johnny Guglioni is an engineer/journalist, or eejay, (one of the novel’s less impressive neologisms), who has been infected with a virus which can degrade coralin, the “living clay” on which all modern electronics are based. He becomes involved with the Aleutians through Clavel, one of the three Aleutian “captains”, in an invented African country. Braemar Wilson is a tabloid television journalist who thinks Earth cannot survive an encounter with superior aliens, and who seduces Johnny as a means of gaining access to Clavel. Then the Aleutians reveal themselves to what they think is the world government, an international conference on women’s rights taking place in Thailand… The Aleutians are one of sf’s great alien races without a doubt, thoroughly convincing with the minimum of hand-waving. And the novel has plenty of the latter, as the plot soon congregates around a FTL drive, or instantaneous transportation method, invented by eccentric engineered genius Peenemunde Buonarotti, and which features in later stories and novels set in the same universe, notably Spirit and the stories in The Buonarotti Quartet. It seems an odd hook on which to hang the narrative up to that point, although it does handily lead into Johnny’s Christ-like redemption – and I have to wonder if that was the point of it all. It was Jones’s ‘Forward Echoes’, published in an issue of Interzone in late 1990 which made me sit up and take notice of Jones’s fiction (perversely, a revised edition of the story, ‘Identifying the Object’, in a chapbook collection of the same title, doesn’t give me that same jolt), and ‘Forward Echoes’ is about the first contact with the Aleutians in an African country. White Queen is an extension of it… and yet it’s not my favourite Jones novel, which is Kairos. But rereading White Queen after so long reinforced my admiration of Jones’s prose and made me realise how very very good she is at depicting the alien (and, on reflection, that ties in quite well to the fracturing of reality which is one of the strengths of Kairos). Jones is one of my favourite writers, and still, to my mind, one of the best science fiction writers this country has produced. And being at an age when rereading old favourites  usually ends up poisoning the well of my childhood, it’s heartening– no, it’s a delight… to discover my appreciation of Jones’s writing not only remains undimmed but has probably been strengthened.

Totalitopia, John Crowley (2017, USA). A new collection by John Crowley! Time for celebration. Except, well, this is a collection of essays and columns and a couple of stories, plus an unpublished piece of fiction… although, to be fair, I’ll pretty much take any Crowley I can get. (And I wonder when the Incunabula anniversary edition of Little, Big is going to appear, it’s been going on a decade since I paid for it). There’s a review of Paul Park’s fiction, focusing on his Princess of Romania quartet and his last “novel”, All Those Vanished Engines. Much as I admire Crowley’s fiction, for me Park is the best sf novelist the US has produced – although Crowley is more than qualified to write about him. The fiction is a little too Americana for my tastes – much as I love All That Heaven Allows, fiction that evokes a similar atmosphere leaves me cold. The columns are good, and while their subjects may not necessarily appeal, they certainly act as good inspiration for pieces I want to write myself – I really must write something about why All That Heaven Allows is my favourite film, for example; I mean, I listen to death metal, I write science fiction… and my favourite film is a 1950s melodrama. Go figure.

The Power, Naomi Alderman (2016, UK). This was the first of three books I took with me to Finland to read during the trip, and during whatever downtime I might have during Worldcon75. I pretty much finished the novel before the first day of the con was done. Which I suppose is a testament to its readability. I had high hopes for The Power. At one point, it seemed a serious contender for the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist this year, and while the Shadow Clarke Jury ended up split on the book, and it never even got a look in with the actual jury, it did sound interesting enough to be worth a punt. But, oh dear. The central premise is brilliant: young girls develop the ability to generate electricity like electric eels, and the scaffolding to back it up is well-built (Alderman namechecks Peter Watts in her acknowledgements). But this is then used in service to a feeble cross between a transatantlic thriller and a BBC euro-thriller plot. There are three main narratives: a young woman in the East End of London, who witnesses her mother’s brutal murder, and ends up taking over her father’s gangster empire; the ex-athlete trophy wife of the Moldovan president, who desposes him and turns her country into women’s state; and an American orphan, who proves have the strongest power of all, and who starts up a religion with herself in the Christ role. The entire book is framed as a novelisation of “historical events” written a millennia or so later in a world in which women are the dominant gender. It’s not very subtle. I enjoyed the book, but I found it disappointing as the three narratives were such obvious ways of treating the concept, and made it all feel more like a techno-thriller than a commentary on its premise. I gave the book away after I’d finished. I hope the person I gave it to is more impressed than I was.

Retribution Falls, Chris Wooding (2009, UK). This was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award and was seen as an odd choice at the time. Having now read it, I’m even more mystified. It’s a steampunkish sf adventure story with 1970s sexual politics. And while one word in the preceding sentence qualifies it for the Clarke Award, the rest should have immediately disqualified it from the shortlist. The title refers to a semi-mythical town populated by pirates. Darian Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay, a Millennium Falcon sort of equivalent in a world where there are powered aircraft who use an invented gas, aerium, to improve their lift. So they’re sort of a cross between zeppelins and aeroplanes, but are treated like steampunk spaceships. And it’s totally unconvincing. Then you have the crew, who are the usual bunch of RPG-session misfits (or Firefly-inspired character writing, which I guess is the same thing), who get inadvertently embroiled in a plot which reaches all the way up to the highest levels of society… Yawn. The book was, according to the author, written to be fun, which is fine in and of itself. But when the only two named female characters are a) undead and b) a ruthless pirate captain who turns out to be the jilted lover of the hero… Oh, and let’s not forget his current girlfriend, who’s been sent to a convent by her upper class father… All the other female characters are whores or nuns. Well, this is not a book that should have been published in the twenty-first century, never mind shortlisted for a major genre award. Seriously, what the fuck were they thinking? It’s not even like the plot is hugely original, as the way it unfolds is pretty much obvious from page one. Retribution Falls reads like a write-up of a dudebro session of a derivative RPG game. The genre is better than that, the Clarke is way better than that. Avoid.

Around the World in Eighty Days*, Jules Verne (1873, France). I have no idea if I’ve read this before – I don’t think so, but it’s hard to tell since I’ve seen versions of the films enough times over the decades to know the story. Except, well, they’re not the story. I don’t think any of the movies I’ve seen – I can think of two, off the top of my head, one starring David Niven and the other Steve Coogan – are at all faithful to the book. Yes, Phineas Fogg accepts a challenge to travel around the world in eighty days. Yes, he thinks he’s failed, only to discover that by travelling east he has gained a day. Yes, he has adventures along the way, and even rescues a young woman who becomes his wife at the end of the book. But in the novel, he meets her in India, when he rescues her from suttee. And I don’t recall a Scotland Yard detective on Fogg’s trail for much of his travels – he believes Fogg stole £50,000 shortly before leaving London. And the final section, in which a desperate Fogg, Passepartout, Fix and Aouda race across the USA to catch a ship to Liverpool… the big set-piece is driving a train over a damaged bridge at high speed so the bridge doesn’t collapse under it. Much of the prose is larded with geography lessons, and while Verne’s didactism is one of the more charming aspects of his novels, here it seems overdone. True, I’m coming at the book more than a century later, as a member of a society considerably better-informed about world geography, and a highly-educated member of that society with an interest in other countries… So much of the exposition was superfluous as far as I was concerned. Further, Fogg’s characterisation as unemotional and po-faced hardly made him a sympathetic protagonist. Perhaps Verne intended this so the reader would indeed think Fogg was the bank robber, but it only made him feel like he had zero depth. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced, from what I remember, that the film adaptations are especially superior. The book is, I suspect, the best version of the story. Which is a bit of a shame.

North Wind, Gwyneth Jones (1994, UK). I can’t remember if White Queen was initially presented as a standalone, I can’t remember when I first read White Queen if it was sold as the first book of a trilogy – although judging by the gap between it and North Wind, I suspect not. The story of North Wind opens a century later, long after all those mentioned in White Queen have died – although the Aleutians are, of course, serial reincarnators. Everyone now knows the Aleutians arrived in a generation ship – less of a hardship for serial reincarnators, obvs – and the events of White Queen have pretty much passed into legend, especially among the Aleutians, who remember it as a significant epic, The Grief of Clavel. The opening of North Wind turns the tables on White Queen, this time having a human rescue a naive Aleutian, rather than vice versa, when a backlash against the aliens takes place, and all but Bella, the “librarian”, among the Aleutians are killed in, again, Africa. Bella – “he” to himself and other Aleutians, but “she” to humans – is rescued by human Sidney Carton (the name explicitly taken from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities). Since White Queen, Earth has been embroiled in several Gender Wars – the Women are not all women, the Men are not all men; reformers and traditionalist are mentioned throughout as better labels – and this has made things more difficult for the Aleutians, and the halfcastes, who are humans who surgically alter themselves to resemble Aleutians, and consider themselves reincarnations (of, obviously, cultural icons of Jones’s own formative years, like Jimi Hendrix, who is of course also heavily referenced in Jones’s Bold As Love novels). In North Wind, Carton’s rescue of Bella, and her/his subsequent escape from his “care”, eventually leads into a hunt for Buonarotti’s mythical FTL drive… I couldn’t honestly tell you if North Wind is better than White Queen. I suspect the distinction is irrelevant. White Queen is a more memorable narrative, but it has the advantage of kicking off the series. North Wind has a more coherent narrative – but one of the strengths of the series, novels and short stories, is that a lack of narrative coherence is a side-effect of FTL travel, or rather, the narrative deliberately obfuscates in order to evoke the experience of FTL travel. I had forgotten how good this trilogy was, so I’m grateful for being prompted into rereading them. I should reread them more often, regularly perhaps. On the other hand, I had forgotten how badly Gollancz had served these books with cover art. Jones has recently rereleased the novels herself on Kindle, and she may well have updated them. Which is really annoying, as I’m not a fan of ebooks and would much sooner read hardcopy, paperback or hardback. Next up, Phoenix Café, the original 1997 Gollancz hardback…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Moving pictures 2017, #44

Trying to maintain a varied diet of films to watch often means you find yourself watching something that doesn’t actually appeal. We all have our favourites, and we often stick to them, but I enjoy trying new things, discovering new favourites… even if you find some things you’ll know better to avoid in the future. Of the six films below, none I thought especially good. I prefer other films by Pasolini, I still have no idea what the Jancsó Kapa and Pepe films are about, and even the Herzog was far from one of his best…

The Decameron, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1971, Italy). This was the first Pasolini I ever saw. According to my records, I rented it in 2009, although I don’t recall why. It wasn’t until I watched the Pasolini segment of RoGoPaG (see here) late last year that I thought his oeuvre might be worth exploring. And then The Gospel According to St Matthew, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, appeared free to watch on Amazon Prime, and then I rented his other film on the list, Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom… And while I’ve sort of become a bit of a Pasolini fan, The Decameron is not among my favourites of his. Like his The Canterbury Tales, it’s an adaptation of some of the stories from a mediaeval story cycle, but Italian in this case rather than English. But in look and feel, it’s very similar (or rather, the other film is, as this one preceded it) and the humour is similarly scatological and earthy. So much so, in fact, that the film opens with a “tempo” in which Ninetto Davoli visits his long-lost sister (he thinks) only to be dropped into a latrine and is covered in shit, just so she can steal his money. Later, he finds himself imprisoned in the sarcophagus of a richly-dressed bishop in a cathedral. And so it goes. Another episode sees a man pretending to be deaf-mute in order to enjoy the sexual attentions of the nuns at a convent. The humour is broad, so are the points being made. And while the 14th-century source novel clearly influences the various tales, Pasolini’s own sensibilities, even back in the 1970s, are also on display. The stories are often crude, with a sense of humour even Talbot Rothwell would have shied from, but a celebration of the human condition still shines through. It’s hard to reach the end of a Pasolini film without feeling entertained or a little better about humanity in general. I don’t know that he was especially good at documenting humanity’s failings – to be honest, this box set has me totally confused as to what Pasolini was trying to achieve – but it’s difficult to finish one of his films without a smile. So props for that.

Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan (2011, USA). I’m not sure what persuaded me to add this to my rental list, but I wish I hadn’t. It was the first film I’ve seen by Lonergan, and likely to be the last. Anna Paquin plays a New York student, who one day distracts a bus driver as he’s pulling away, causing him to run a red light and run over a woman crossing the street. But Paquin is so self-centred, she has to make the accident about herself, and though she recognises she did cause the accident she doesn’t actually admit it until near the end of this over-long, overly narcissistic, very dull, three-hour film. When she learns the bus driver has not been fired, she badgers the woman’s estranged relatives into sueing the MTA for damages, insisting as one of the conditions they sack him. There is not a single likeable character in this film – even Lonergan himself, who plays Paquin’s divorced father, is needy and neurotic and snide. Jean Reno plays a South American businessman who is in a relationship with Paquin’s mother, and while he seems the most pleasant character of the lot, he’s portrayed as a bit of a simpleton, and the anti-semitic remarks that eventually see him pushed out of the family are totally manufactured. At 90 minutes, Margaret would likely have outstayed its welcome; at three hours, it was torture. Perhaps you have to be American to appreciate this film; I am not American; I thought it was awful. Avoid.

Anyádi s szúnyogok, Miklós Jancsó (2000, Hungary). I’ve still no idea what these films are about, although a theme common to both this and the first film in the series, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (see here), appears to be suicide. This film – whose title apparently translates as “Mother! The mosquitos!”, although the subtitles definitely said, “Fuck the mosquitoes!” at one point – initially appears to be set in in a train museum, with Kapa and Pepe playing train drivers or train engineers. But like the first film, the story quickly changes, and though the two main characters continue to play themselves, they’re now in different roles. There’s also a band who apear at intervals and play rock, with help of assorted pieces of defunct industrial equipment and, I seem to remember, a drill. They’re not unlike Norway’s Hurra Torpedo. And there’s another scene which is apparently set really high up on something, a statue I think, as if Jancsó were trying to prove a point by including some vertiginous scenes – although perhaps it’s only me, someone who suffers from vertigo, who would even think to mention them. There’s a review on imdb.com which is less than helpful. It says, for example, “The comedy jacket of the story gives a cool atmosphere”, and does very little to actually explain what is going on. I feel their pain – because I have no idea either. Nonetheless, I’m glad I bought these six films and I hope one day to understand them.

Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog (2011, USA). Herzog is one of the most interesting directors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and his documentaries are typically every bit as good as his feature films. But this one was a bit of a mis-step, I think. The topic is one that’s been over-subscribed in documentary films for decades, and Herzog’s straightforward yet off-kilter approach fails to make it interesting. Some of the questions he asks are a bit off-the-wall, and it’s clear the interviewees think so too, but… The subject is people on Death Row, two people, in fact, one of whom still maintains his innocence. Seriously, are there any people with more than two brain cells on this planet who need persuading that capital punishment is a bad thing? State-sanctioned murder is still murder. You can throw up as many examples of miscarriages of justice, or even bona fide monsters, but even that giant fairy in the sky so many people seem to think really exists, even he thinks it’s wrong. Into the Abyss is a series of interviews with two inmates on Death Row in Texas, and with those who know the inmates or were involved with their crimes, or their bringing to justice. But I don’t see the point of it all – granted, he’s preaching to the choir. But since the only argument that’s going to work on the pro-capital punishment crown is a nail-studded cluebat, I don’t see the point of documentaries like Into the Abyss, no mater how balanced, or how off-centre, the approach they take.

The Space Between Us, Peter Chelsom (2017, USA). The space between the two principals, the figures on the DVD cover art, is, well, space itself, ie, the space between Earth and Mars. Did you see what they did there? Clever, that. Asa Butterfield was born on Mars – his mother was the commander of the first mission to Mars, but happened to be pregnant at the time. NASA decided to keep Butterfield’s existence a secret. Sixteen years later, he is finally allowed to visit Earth. Which he thinks is great because he’s made a friend online, Britt Robertson, a spiky and clever, but good-hearted, foster kid, and because it also allows him to go looking for his father, whose identity he only knows from an old photo. Of course, NASA would sooner he stayed in seclusion at one of their facilities. But he escapes, goes and finds Robertson, and the two head across country looking for dear old dad. What is it with Hollywood films and their daddy issues? Can they please move past Misogynistic Pop Psych 101? Robertson is sparky, which is probably the new feisty; Butterfield is earnest and gauche. Gary Oldman phones in it. It’s a nice story, and they made a halfway decent fist of presenting a near-future which could send a mission to Mars and start a colony there. But it’s all too easy. Okay, I admit I watched this after seeing National Geographics miniseries Mars, but you might as well have changed Butterfield’s skin colour and you could have told pretty much the same story. Except, of course, white US audiences are more likely to sympathise with a star-crossed Martian than a star-crossed African-American. Oh, and the growing up on Mars so he has an enlarged heart is the sort of metaphor they beat out of you in the cheap writing workshops, the ones given by people better known for writing how-to books than actual books. Or screenplays, in this instance.

Secuestro Express, Jonathan Jakubowicz (2005, Venezuela). My first film from Venezuela. And despite being released in 2005, it was all a bit 1990s, to be honest. A young and well-off couple are kidnapped by three gang-bangers – this is a common thing in Caracas, it seems – who demand a ransom from the woman’s father. The young man escapes, leaving his girlfriend to the kidnappers’ mercy, but is later recaptured and killed. The father pays the ransom, the young woman is released. The film is shot in a very MTV-ish style, lots of cross-cuts, jittery cam, blurring and Dutch angles. The characters are introduced with stylised on-screen text bios. The acting is not all that good, although the female victim, played by Argentine actress Mia Maestro, is pretty good. If I’d seen this twenty years ago, I’d have been more impressed, and not just because, er, that was a decade before it was actually made.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 878


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Kiitos, Helsinki

This year’s Worldcon took place in Helsinki, from Wednesday 9 August to Sunday 13 August. It was called Worldcon75 (not the most original name, it has to be said), and the guests of honour were John-Henri Holmberg, Nalo Hopkinson, Johanna Sinisalo, Claire Wendling (although she bowed out due to illness and did not attend) and Walter Jon Williams. It was my second Worldcon – my first was Interaction, in 2005 in Glasgow. I didn’t go to Loncon 3, in, er, London in 2014, because reasons.

The trip did not start well. A couple of days before my flight, my bank rang to inform me my debit card had been copied and they were going to cancel it and send me a new one. “Oh no you’re fucking not”, I told them. I explained I was about to visit Finland and would need my card. We reached a compromise, and my card remained valid throughout my stay in Helsinki. Yes, I want my bank to protect me from fraud, I want them to make sure no one steals my money, but… this is the same bank that had previously cancelled my card because they sent a marketing letter to the wrong address and it had been returned with “not known at this address”. So, you know, precautions.

I had planned to take some copies of my books to Finland, so if anyone wanted copies I’d have some on hand to sell. And perhaps I’d buy lots of books at the con. So I decided to take a suitcase to go in the hold (I normally travel only with cabin baggage). I’d already started packing it…

… when I thought to check my ticket. And discovered I had check-in baggage for the flight to Helsinki, but not for the flight from Helsinki. Oops. I suppose I could have contacted Finnair and asked them to add check-in baggage to my flight home, but I suspect they’d have charged for the privilege. And no, I wasn’t intending to smuggle Oscar into Finland. Anyway, I put the suitcase away, and took my usual cabin baggage. And it’s just as well – I saw someone tweet the day after Worldcon75 that they’d not had check-in baggage on a ticket to Copenhagen and had been charged €200 for their suitcases.

The trip to Helsinki was uneventful: train to Manchester Airport, a ninety-minute wait until I boarded the aircraft, a Finnair 100-seater Embraer 190. There was no one I knew on the flight, although two female passengers were clearly heading to Worldcon75 as one of them was wearing a T-shirt advertising the con. After two and a half hours in the air, I landed at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, passed quickly through the electronic passport control gates – I must look a lot like my passport photo as the gate took less than a second to admit me – and then walked what felt like kilometres to find the railway station.

The train which runs from Helsinki-Vantaa to Helsinki päärautatieasema (central railway station) runs on a loop, so it’s impossible to catch the wrong train. And the train is a lovely modern one, with plenty of space, and very quiet. There are flat screens which announce each station, and display the route, in Finnish, Swedish and English. My hotel for the duration of the convention was the Sokos Vaakuna, which is sited just across the road from the central railway station. I’d picked it because of its location and because the website described it as having a “functional design”. This latter proved to be something that looked like it belonged in 1970s Soviet Russia. I loved it.

After checking in, and having a quick shower, I caught the train – the same one which ran to the airport and back – to Pasila, the first stop on the line. It took five minutes (and cost 5 euros). From the station, it was a short walk, across a dual carriageway and halfway down a block to the entrance to Messukeskus, the convention centre where Worldcon75 was taking place. Even though I had landed at 3 pm, I was at the convention for 5 pm.

After registering, I decided to look for the dealers room, but went downstairs instead of up the ramp… and immediately spotted Tony Ballantyne and Chris Beckett enjoying a coffee at the café on the downstairs concourse. So I joined them…

And that was sort of how it went for the entire con: bumping into people I knew, in between arranging to meet up with people I knew. I remember saying that if there were 6,000 people at Worldcon75, and I could lay claim to knowing perhaps ten percent of them… I’d probably still keep on bumping into the same thirty or so people.

I later met up with Tobias Bodlund, who had his young son in tow, and the three of us headed into Helsinki for food. The convention pack included a restaurant guide, and from it we picked Zetor, which served Russian/Finnish agrarian food (or so said the guide). It was also apparently owned by a member of the Leningrad Cowboys. That no doubt explained the tractors and the stuffed cow. I recognised about a quarter of the people in the restaurant, which was a bit odd. I ordered the Karelian stew, which came with gherkins. It was very good. I also love gherkins. Afterward, I went straight back to my hotel and had an early night.

Members of Worldcon75 were given a travelcard for Helsinki, which meant the 5-minute train ride from the central station to Pasila cost me nothing. I don’t know if this is standard practice at worldcons, but it should be. I had one programme item on Thursday: Secrets in science fiction and fantasy. To be honest, I’ve no idea why I was picked for it. And after meeting my fellow panellists – Jane Anne McLachlan, Jennifer Udden, Kim ten Tusscher and J Sharp – I suspect the topic was someone’s suggestion and they put together a random selection of authors and agents. Jane Anne had prepared several questions, and we spent the panel answering them. I’m not overly keen on doing panels like that as it prevents a free-flowing discussion and can seem stilted. It seemed to go okay. Although someone did fall asleep in the front row. I bumped into Adrian Tchaikovsky, who had been in the audience, and he said he enjoyed it.

I spent the rest of the day sitting outside the Terra Nova Brasserie, which was the bar attached to the Holiday Inn, which was the hotel attached to the Messukeskus. I went for lunch to a nearby Nepalese restaurant, with Barbara, Tobias and his son, and we ran into Lennart there. The food was okay. That evening I headed into Helsinki with Will, Jen and a Finnish friend of theirs, and the Mexican restaurant we had planned to eat in was closed so we ended up in an Australian burger bar, which wasn’t bad. Eating in Helsinki was really good for me – I didn’t have to worry about menus, as they all featured lactose-free dishes. In fact, most menus featured meals that clearly had dairy in them, but were made with lactose-free versions of the dairy products. I’ve found you either eat well at conventions or eat badly. I usually eat badly. At Worldcon75, I ate well.

I returned to the con and stayed until 1:30 am, chatting to friends outside the Terra Nova or hanging out in the Winter Garden, where I met Shaun Duke and Paul Weimer in person for the first time. I ‘d been reliably informed trains to the central railway station ran all night. They don’t. During the week, that is. I got to Pasila station at 1:31 am. The last train left just as I walked up the ramp to the platform. The next train wasn’t until 4:18 am. So I walked back to Messukeskus, and jumped in a taxi. It cost me €18, which was less than I’d been expecting.

On the Friday, I met up with Berit Ellingsen, and we had a coffee in the Fazer Café on the Messukeskus concourse (it was the best of the food/drink venues in the centre). We’ve known each other for several years, but it was the first time we’d met up in person. There was another person at Worldcon75 who’d I only known online and never met IRL – but Michael Martineck and I have been friends for more than 20 years. We first met in an online writing workshop back in the 1990s. I’d gone for a sandwich in Fazer Café with Will Ellwood, while I tried to figure out how get Michael and myself both in the same place at the same time… when I turned round, and saw he was two places behind me in the queue. We spent most of the afternoon sitting outside the Terra Nova.

I’d arrange to go for dinner that evening with Gillian Polack. Tobias was up for it too, so I went off to find Gillian. She was sitting outside Fazer Café, talking to… Michael. “I didn’t know you two knew each other,” I said. They’d apparently met at a programme item, my name had come up in conversation, and they realised they both knew me. So the four of us took the tram into the centre of Helsinki, for dinner at Stone’s Gastro Pub. Which was very good. At one point during the tram ride, a guy came up to us and asked if he could sit with us and listen to our conversation. We said sure. I assumed he was just some random nutter on the bus. Later, I saw him at Worldcon75 – he was an attending member of the con.

Back at Messukeskus, I stayed until 3 am, caught the train back to the central railway station (they run throughout the night on Friday and Saturday night), and crossed the road to my hotel.

My second panel of the con was at noon on the Saturday, Mighty space fleets of war. When I’d registered at the con, I’d discovered I was moderating the panel, which I hadn’t known. I checked back over the emails I’d been sent by the con’s programming team. Oops. I was the moderator. The other two panellists were Jack Campbell and Chris Gerrib. As we took our seats on the stage, Mary Robinette Kowal was gathering her stuff from the previous panel. I jokingly asked if she wanted to join our panel. And then asked if she’d moderate it. She said she was happy to moderate if we wanted her to, but we decided to muddle through ourselves. The panel went quite well, I thought. We got a bit of disagreement going – well, me versus the other two, both of whom admitted to having been USN in the past. I got a wave of applause for a crack about Brexit, and we managed to stay on topic – realistic space combat – for the entire time. I’d prepared a bunch of notes, but by fifteen minutes in, I’d used up all my points. In future, I’ll take in paper and pencil so I can jot stuff down as other members of the panel speak. After the panel, I met up with Eric Choi, a Canadian sf writer who contributed to Rocket Science back in 2012, and we had a quick chat.

Last year, when I bought my membership to Worldcon75, a friend who lived in Helsinki suggested we meet up for drinks or food. I used to work with Melody Jane about ten years ago. I left the company, she left the country. On the Saturday evening, I returned to my hotel, to meet Melody Jane. No sooner did she arrive, then the heavens opened. Thunder, lightning, the lot. Even strong winds, which caused enough damage to close one of the train lines. We waited inside the hotel for about twenty minutes, but it obviously wasn’t going to stop. So we borrowed umbrellas from the hotel reception, and walked to Farang, an Asian fusion restaurant located in the Kunsthalle Helsinki. The food was excellent, and I had a really good time. After the meal, I headed back to the Messukeskus, and stayed until 3 am. After a thirty minute wait at the station, I returned to my hotel.

I’d been getting into breakfast around 8 am each morning, at the restaurant on the Sokos Vaakuna’s top floor. But for the Sunday, I decided to miss breakfast and have a lie-in. Around lunch-time, I went looking for some modern art museums. Happily, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art was just around the corner from my hotel. Also happily, its collection features lots of video installations. I like video installations. Not all of them worked for me – one or two, the CGI was a bit crude, and they felt no better than Youtube videos. But the ones by Ed Atkins and Cécile B Evans were impressive. I also thought the one by Tuomas A Laitinen was very good. Coincidentally, it was all very science-fictional, with most of the pieces actually either based on science-fictional ideas or set in the future.

For lunch, I popped into the 24-hour supermarket in the basement of my hotel and bought myself a sandwich. After spending ten minutes puzzling out the ingredients in Swedish, I spotted it said lactose-free in both Finnish and Swedish on the front label. And then it was back to the con for last day…

… which ended with the Dead Dog Party. This is a tradition at cons: those staying for another night gather in the hotel bar and have an informal party. Because so many attendees had flown into Helsinki for Worldcon75, a lot of them – myself included – weren’t flying out until the following day. A group of us had planned to head into town for food, but that plan didn’t come together. Then we heard the Dead Dog Party was laying on a tex-mex buffet. We also heard it was packed and people were being turned away. We decided to give it a try, but unfortunately took a wrong turning and it took us three times as long to get the Sokos Pasila, where the party was taking place. So I was not in the best of moods when we arrived. And saw the queue for the bar. And the queue for food. But we joined the line for the buffet anyway. Tobias and I had just reached it – tortillas and taco meat – when it finished. We waited. The chef brought out something that looked a bit like chicken fajita. It was the “vegetarian option”. Quorn or tofu or something. It was vile. I went and asked for my money back. I also persuaded the others – Tobias, Michael and Ian McDonald – to try the bar we’d spotted opposite the hotel, the Ravintola Windsor. Ian bowed out, but we were joined by Stephen Vessels. We went there, it was quiet, we got beer, and we got food (I had kebab and chips, it was very nice).

After we’d finished our food, Michael and Stephen left. Then Tobias left, so I headed back to the Dead Dog Party. I chatted to Liam Proven for a bit, and the people he was with – one told me they’d overheard an American complain during the Closing Ceremony that the con had been “too Eurocentric”. By midnight, I was ready to head back to my hotel – the last train was at 12:30. But then I bumped into Sanna Bo Claumarch, a Danish fan, and joined her and Fia Karlsson and some young Swedish and Finnish fans, and ended up staying until 2 am. To get back to my hotel, I shared a taxi with Liam and a Finnish fan.

Will and Jenny were on the same flight as me back to Manchester, so we agreed to catch the train to the airport together. But by the time I’d checked out of my hotel, I couldn’t be bothered to hang around for another couple of hours, so I caught the train on my own, checked in, and waited in the airport for them. And for Tobias, whose flight to Stockholm was around the same time as our flight to the UK. And then, when I boarded the plane – another Finnair Embraer 190 – I discovered I was sitting next to Fran and John Dowd.

The trip to Finland finished in a nicely surreal fashion on the train from Manchester Airport, when the PA first insisted the train was heading to Manchester Airport, where it would terminate, and then repeatedly told us the next stop was Batley, despite the train going nowhere near Batley.

I had a great time at Worldcon75, met some really nice interesting people – not all of which I’ve named here, but also includes John-Henri, Daniel, Bellis, Edward, Jo Lindsay, Hal (Al), Ian W (there was a plan on the Sunday to get the four Ian writers together for a photo, but it never happened – perhaps it’s just as well as it may have caused a singularity or something), Hanna, (the) Anders, Johan, Brian, Jukka, Luke, Emil, Thomas, Christina, Jeremy, Kristin and Erik, and apologies if I’ve forgotten anyone – from a variety of countries (mostly Sweden, the UK and Finland, but also the US, Canada, France, Austria, Ireland, Australia, Poland…). True, I spent most of the four and a bit days sitting outside the Terra Nova, drinking beer and socialising with friends (in fact, the con drank the bar dry of beer several times.) As is usual for me, I went to no programme items – not even the Hugo Awards, and I couldn’t get into the Closing Ceremony – but I did wander around the dealers room a number of times. In the end, I bought a single book – a first edition of John Varley’s Titan for 10 euros (bargain!) – so I wouldn’t have needed my suitcase, after all.

Jukke Halme and his team can definitely be proud of the convention they put together. There were a few problems initially, as twice as many people had turned up as had been originally planned for, but the issues were quickly resolved. I’d certainly put Worldcon75 in my top five cons I’ve attended – and I’ve been going to science fiction conventions since 1989. And I loved Helsinki, it’s a great city. I wish I’d seen more of it, but I’d had to limit my time in Finland because dayjob. I want to go back.

And that was my worldcon.


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Expanding bookiverse

Things got a bit stressful a few weeks ago, so I coped by doing what I usually do in such situations: I buy more books. Also, there were a few authors with new books out that I wanted. So the collection has grown quite a bit this month…

I have absolute no idea why I bought Forever Amber. I recently watched the film adaptation by Otto Preminger (see here) and was not especially impressed. But when I looked up the book on Wikipedia and saw the lines, “The fifth draft of Winsor’s first manuscript of Forever Amber was accepted for publication, but the publishers edited the book down to one-fifth of its original size. The resulting novel was 972 pages long”, I was intrigued enough to look for a copy on eBay. Where I found a hardback for £2. The Unburied was a lucky find – a signed first edition for a reasonable price. I’ve been a fan of Palliser’s books for years but only recently started collecting them.

Some new books: The 7th Function of Language, The Essex Serpent and The Power (not shown) I bought in Waterstone’s a few Saturdays ago, before meeting up with friends for the Sheffield SF & Fantasy Social. I took The Power with me to Helsinki to read during the trip, and gave it away when I’d finished it. Lust was from a large online retailer. I decided it was time to read another book by Elfriede Jelinek – I read her The Piano Teacher a couple of years ago, and thought it very good.

I signed up for The Blaft Anthology Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol 3 on indiegogo back in June 2015. It only arrived last month. The rewards I signed up for included volumes 1 and 2, but reprints of Vol 1 have apparently been delayed so the publishers included Kumari Loves a  Monster as a “sorry, and please be patient”.

Xeelee: Endurance is a collection of stories originally published in 2015. This is the PS Publishing slipcased version, which was published only this year. The Massacre of Mankind, also by Baxter, is an official sequel to Wells’s The War of the Worlds. I’ve read several of Goss’s stories over the last few years, and was especially impressed by her ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’ in 2014, so much so I nominated it for the BSFA Award… but it didn’t make the shortlist. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter sounds like more of the same.

New paperbacks by authors whose books I like and admire: John Crowley’s Totalitopia is more a collection of essays than anything else, The Rift is Nina Allan’s second novel (although I didn’t bother with the updated Titan Books version of The Race), Calling Major Tom is by a friend and has been getting good reviews, and The Switch, well, I’ve been buying and reading Justina Robson’s books right from the start, after being in a writing orbiter with her back in the 1990s.

The Gulag Archipelago – it’s only volume one, although it doesn’t say so – I found in a local charity shop. Cosmic Encounter I bought on eBay – it was very cheap, but the seller was a little optimistic in their description of its condition.

And last but not least, a pair of bandes dessinée: Orphan of the Stars is the seventeenth volume of the Valerian and Laureline series (I was surprised to discover recently they’re publishing a novelisation of Luc Besson’s film adaptation; er, what?), and Fog over Tolbiac Bridge is the latest by Jacques Tardi to be published by Fantagraphics. I wrote about both of them here.


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Moving pictures 2017, #43

One of these days I should do a themed week in my movie-watching – films from one country, perhaps, or by a single director. Well, maybe, not an entire week, maybe just six movies in a row. Since I’ve just purchased a Jean-Luc Godard collection, I could do it with his films, pick half a dozen straight out of the box. Some would be rewatches, but I’ve been wanting to rewatch some of his movies anyway. It’s an idea. Meanwhile, another mixed bag…

Medea, Pier Paulo Pasolini (1969, Italy). This is what I know Pasolini for, and why I bought this box set – an historical, well, almost fantasy, film like Fellini at his most self-indulgent. I mean, given that I love Fellini’s Satyricon (see here) and Casanova (see here), it should come as no surprise that Pasolini’s Arabian Nights (see here) and Medea also press my buttons. The story – which is based loosely on the Ancient Greek character of the same name – is more or less incidental. It’s the visuals which count. And Pasolini goes full out on those – much of the movie was filmed on historical sites, such as the Göreme Open Air Museum in Turkey. It looks fantastic, and even convincingly accurate – although I suspect it bears little resemblance to actual Ancient Greek society. But Medea is one of those films where you can just bask in the wonderful mise-en-scène, and perhaps feel a little smug for consuming some Ancient Greek culture, without caring over much about the story. Maria Callas, in her only movie role, makes for a striking Medea, but to be honest it doesn’t really matter who plays who. This a film that just looks great. In fact, Arabian Nights and Medea alone would justify the purchase of the the Six Films 1968 – 1975 Blu-ray box set, but, as below indicates, Theorem is also another film in the set that presses a lot of my buttons. And, let’s face it, the other three films are no slouches either.

Up in Smoke*, Lou Adler (1978, USA). This is a film I would normally go nowhere near, but it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and so I guess I gotta watch it… It’s credited with being the first stoner comedy, which is not a genre I find appealing. Or amusing. Which was pretty much the case here. Up in Smoke is the first film appearance of dope-head comedy duo Cheech and Chong, who went on to make a further six films, seven if you include an animated feature released in 2013, twenty-eight years after their last movie. Cheech and Chong play a couple of stoner Angelinos, who meet when Chong’s car breaks down on a highway and Cheech gives him a lift in his lowrider. Chong admits he’s a drummer, and Cheech invites him to join his band. They then spend the rest of the movie driving around parts of LA on the hunt for marijuana, inadvertently managing to avoid being arrested by inept cop Stacy Keach at every turn. At one point, the pair are deported to Mexico (it’s deliberate) and offer to drive a van back to the US, not knowing that the van’s bodywork is made entirely out of marjuana. The film ends with a battle of the bands, which Cheech & Chong do not win, but by then everyone is so high from the burning van no one really cares. Including the viewer. Jack Nicholson apparently thought the film was hilarious, perhaps he was under the influence. I don’t recall a single chuckle in it. True, my sense of humour is more of the Confucian variety – as Confucius said, the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof. Slapstick, in other words. This is not slapstick. Still, at least I can now cross it off the list. I very much doubt I’ll be bothering with the six/seven sequels…

The Soft Skin, François Truffaut (1964, France). A well-known literary critic and editor catches a plane to Lisbon to give a talk at a conference. In the hotel where he’s staying, he meets a beautiful flight attendant he remembers from his flight. They ride up in the lift, but to her floor not his… and when he reaches his own room, he telephones her and apologises for not helping her with her bags and asks her for a drink. She refuses, but then rings back and accepts… And so begins an affair between the two. Some time later, the critic accepts an invite to a film festival in Reims, and takes the flight attendant, his mistress, with him. But the trip doesn’t go very well – he has difficulty getting away from the festival organisers – and on the way back to Paris they stop off at a country pension. The critic’s wife later discovers photographs of this weekend tryst, and subsequently demands a divorce…  I’m finding myself increasingly a fan of Truffaut’s films, but I also find myself having trouble getting a handle on his film-making. He doesn’t have an identifiable style – or rather, he has many. And his chameleon nature, which is never less than skilfully done, makes it hard to think of Truffaut’s films as a single body of work. The Soft Skin is a well-drawn character study of its two leads, well-shot, and with some nice observations. But it doesn’t seem of an ilk with Two English Girls or Fahrenheit 451. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me until now to appreciate Truffaut’s excellence, the fact his films seem to undermine auteur theory, despite the fact Truffaut is a Nouvelle Vague director, and in fact it’s Truffaut himself who invented the concept in his 1954 essay, ‘Une certain tendance du cinéma français’. The Soft Skin seemed like a polished French adultery movie of the 1960s, which is almost a genre itself, and so its appeal is limited to the appeal of its type. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t see that it was an explicitly Truffaut film.

TO 2001 Nights, Fumihiko Sori (2009, Japan). It’s an anime film, so guess who recommended it… Although at least this one was recommended in conversation, rather than snuck onto my rental list. And David Tallerman (for it was he, of course) did point out it looked good but was pretty naff. Which turned out to be more or less spot-on. It’s not actually a feature-length movie, but two stories from a manga series. The first, ‘Ellpitical Orbit’, has a spacecraft returning from an exoplanet colony stop off at a space station in, I think, LEO. The captain of the spacecraft is the ex-wife of the station commander, although interstellar travel now means they have aged at different rates. And then space pirates attack and… I was too busy wincing at the awful dialogue, so I’m not entirely sure how it all panned out. The second story, ‘Symbiotic Planet’ is about a colony on an exoplanet, or rather several colonies, each of which seem to recapitulate 1980s Cold War tensions. The exoplanet is notable for its fungi, and when a member of the staff is infected with the fungi, it proves beneficial rather than fatal… TO 2001 Nights looks lovely, albeit not always entirely plausible in the way media sf never really does, but its stories are a bit crap. David called it right. Worth seeing, perhaps, but eminently forgettable.

Theorem, Pier Paulo Pasolini (1968, Italy). I was expecting something much like the other Pasolini films I’d watched when I put this in the player. What I got was something that reminded me much more of Antonioni’s films. It opens with journalists interviewing workers from a factory that has just become a collective. The film then flashes back to the house of an affluent Italian family. Ninetto Davoli – a familiar face in Pasolini’s films – plays a dancing postman who heralds the arrival of Terence Stamp, an enigmatic stranger, who moves into the house, and then sleeps with each of the family members, including the maid. All of them are healed in some way after sex with Stamp. And when he leaves, they each do something their previous view of their lives had prevented them from doing – the father giving his factory to his workers, for example, as in the opening shots. It’s all very late sixties, and apart from Davolini doing his arm-flapping dancing about, much more like Antonioni than Pasolini, except… while it’s certainly enigmatic, like Antonioni, it doesn’t have his glacial pace, nor his focus on his characters – Stamp is, after all, a cipher. And I’m pretty sure Antonioni would never have included a shot of a naked man running around on the slopes of a volcano – Zabriskie Point notwithstanding. I considered Six Films 1968 – 1975 worth buying for Arabian Nights and Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom alone, but having now seen both Medea and Theorem I’m even more glad I bought it. And I really ought to watch more of Pasolini’s works.

Queen, Vikas Bahl (2014, India). I suspect people who don’t watch Bollywood films underestimate the range of movies produced by the Hindi film industry. It’s true many are boy meets girl boy loses girl boy gets girl back, with singing and dancing, but a lot of the more recent, and very successful, Bollywood films I’ve watched have been anything but that. Like Queen. The title character, Rani, is about to get married, but her fiancé dumps her two days before the wedding. So she decides to go on the honeymoon on her own, to Paris and then onto Amsterdam. In Paris, she is befriended by a Franco-Indian maid, who’s a party girl and takes Rani to various night spots, introduces to her friends and generally shows her how to have a good time and how to be an independent woman. Rani then moves onto Amsterdam, where she finds herself staying in a hostel and sharing a room with three guys, a Russian, a man from Japan, and a Frenchman. They soon become friends, and explore the city together – including a trip to visit a friend of the Parisian maid, who is a sexworker in the red light district. While there were plenty of songs in Queen, unlike in other Bollywood films I’ve seen the action didn’t stop for a dance routine. The more Bollywood films I watch, the more surprised I am that people in this country don’t watch them as often they would watch, say, French or Japanese films. True, they’re in Hindi, and rarely dubbed, although the cast do code-switch a hell of a lot, and even more so in Queen, but refusing to watch a film because it has subtitles is just wilful ignorance. (I should check my own collection one of these days, to see what percentage are non-Anglophone.) A lot of the Bollywood films I’ve watched were fun, but Queen was charming too. It was entirely carried by Kangana Ranaut in the title role, although Lisa Haydon was also good as the Franco-Indian maid. It’s rare you reach the end of a Bollywood film without feeling cheered, and Queen made you feel good about enjoying it too. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 878


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Hello Helsinki

Next week, I’ll be attending the 75th Worldcon, taking place in Helsinki, Finland. It’ll be my first visit to Helsinki, but my second to Finland – I was at Archipelacon in Mariehamn, in 2015 – see here. I’m looking forward to it. Not just visiting the city, or attending the convention, but also meeting up with friends, some of whom I’ve never actually met in IRL. I’ll be on two panels at Worldcon75:

Thursday 10 Aug @ 15:00 (101d)
The Role of Secrets in Speculative Fiction, with JA MacLachlan, Jennifer Udden, Kim ten Usscher and J Sharpe
Obviously, I can’t tell you what this one is about…

Saturday 12 Aug @ 12:00 (101a&b)
Mighty Space Fleets of War, with Jack Campbell and Chris Gerrib
The title says it all.

Other than that, I’ll be knocking about the venue, the Messukeskus, or in one of the con bars (which I think are in the Holiday Inn, the on-site hotel). Or maybe off wandering somewhere.

The last – and only – Worldcon I attended was in 2005 in Glasgow. It used a “voodoo board”, where people could pin up messages arranging meet-ups. It was not especially effective. Happily, these days we have smartphones, free wifi and social media. So I’ll be extremely disappointed if I don’t manage to catch up with the people I know who are also going.