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Moving pictures 2018, #37

This is what my film watching looks like pretty much – one in six films is from the US. That’s not one in six is Anglophone, as the Israeli film is mostly in English, and One Way was entirely in English as it was set in the US. But there are two excellent Chinese films.

Zhou Yu’s Train, Sun Zhou (2002, China). A woman is on a train between Chongyang and Sanming. She is carrying a vase. A man asks her about it and she admits she made it. He insists on buying it, but she refuses. He introduces himself, he is a vet (a man collapsed earlier on the train and he denied being a doctor because a doctor of human medicine would have been preferable). The woman is on her way to visit her lover in Sanming, a poet. The film follows the woman, and her encounters with the vet and the poet, and that of another woman, played by the same actress, Gong Li. But the narrative is cut up and presented non-chronologically, which means it’s often a bit of a puzzle trying to figure out what’s going on, especially when the same actress plays the two female leads. It all looks great, and the cast are excellent. I’m reminded of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, especially In the Mood for Love and 2046, although without the arthouse cinematography, just the unadorned faux-documentary style used by Sixth Generation directors. I liked this film, but it really needed a rewatch. I’ll have to try and arrange one.

One Way, Jorge Darnell (1973, Mexico). The blurb for this film on Amazon Prime explains it is about an illegal immigrant in the US and declares it is still relevant today. In other words, the US is just as racist as it was in 1973. Probably more so. Although not as bad as the 1960s, when it practiced segregation and lynching. We’re no paragons of virtue here in the UK, but when it comes to racism the US is definitely a world-leader. And this forty-five year old film is ample proof. A farmer from Mexico moves to New York, illegally it must be said, but when someone gives me a good logical reason for secure borders then I’ll start believing “illegal immigration” is a thing. He finds himself subject to racism, but he can’t do anything because he’s there illegally. In one scene, he’s beaten up by drunk Americans at the bowling alley where he works restacking pins. In order to stay in the US, the farmer gets in deeper with criminals, as situation not helped by his desire – reciprocated – for the gangster’s girlfriend (I think she was his girlfriend). Unsurprisingly, it’s all about hiding from the authorities and so being driven into the arms of criminals, which only feeds into the myths surrounding illegal immigration in the first place. It’s like junkie culture – decriminalise drugs and there’s no reason for junkie culture to exist. Welcome immigrants, streamline them into becoming members of society and there’s nothing there for criminals. But then, there’s always the racism. That’ll remain as long as the establishment condones, and practices, it, and until there are real consequences for being a racist arsehole.

Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer*, Thorold Dickinson (1955, Israel). According to the Wikipedia page, the plot of this film “revolves around the personal stories of a number of soldiers who are on their way to defend a strategic hill overlooking the road to Jerusalem”, which is true but completely misses the point of the film. It is also Israel’s first home-produced feature film. Edward Mulhare plays an Irishman in the British occupying forces, who returns after Israel’s unilateral declaration of independence (the film says it was “sanctioned” by the UN, but that word has two meanings and the film is clearly hoping one will prevail). Anyway, Mulhare fancies a Jewish settler, and returns to help her in the fight for Israel. The problem with any film about the early days of Israel is framing their enemy. Who were they fighting? The Palestinians they had displaced? The British who had already left? That there was fighting is beyond doubt. Parts of Palestine were mandated to the Jews by the UN, the rest was won by blood. And what they were mandated was defended with blood. Let’s be fair here – the Israeli state has a right to exist, but so does the Palestinian one. And when you have two nations sharing the same territory, what do you do? China Miéville’s solution in The City & the City is obviously untenable, but neither can you privilege one group over the other as both have legitimate claims – after the fact, if not before. Making Jerusalem an international city is a step in the right direction, but hardliners will block that, and have. Wars are not going to resolve anything, especially when one side is funded by the US. But I’m not about to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem as it requires someone with bigger guns than me. As early Israeli film culture goes, this isn’t too bad – the Arabs are mostly treated fairly, as are surprisingly the British. The latter are the architect of Israel’s woes, that much is made clear, through their repressive control of the region after WWII. But they’re not demonised. The main focus seems to be on the burgeoning romance between Mulhare and Israeli lead Margalit Oved. It’s a film that deserves to be better known, even if it doesn’t fit the current narrative about Israel. It’s home-grown, it makes a good fist of its story, and any challenges it might make to the current narrative are welcome.

2036 Origin Unknown, Hasraf Dulull (2018, USA). Sometimes you can find hidden gems among independent sf films, and with the sophistication of present-day CGI they can look every bit as good as big studio sf films. But without the zillion-dollar budgets, something has to give… and it’s usually either location or cast. This film takes place almost entirely in a single room, so that it’s not that one. And while Katee Sackhoff is a good actress and reasonably well-known, I should think her price-tag is pretty modest. Plus, the entire cast of 2036 Origin Unknown is single figures. A mission to Mars crashes mysteriously on landing. Years later, Sackhoff, on her own, is running an AI-controlled follow-up robot mission to investigate that crash. They discover a huge cube covered in alien carvings. It vanishes. And reappears in Antarctica. They trick it into returning to Mars. It is apparently some sort of instantaneous interplanetary or interstellar vessel. Some point during all this, the AI – which was put in charge over Sackhoff’s objections – decides to exterminate all life on Earth. Oh, and Sackhoff’s father died in that original Mars mission, so she has an emotional stake in the investigation. Sackhoff tries gamely to carry the film, but the plot has too many ludicrous moments and slowly unravels under the weight of ambitions it can’t meet. It’s a sight more original than many other independent sf films I’ve seen, but even original ideas need to be rigorously worked through.  Meh.

Part-Time Spy, Kim Deok-su (2017, South Korea). Gang Ye-Won is 35 and has spent most of her adult life trying to get a job with the Korean civil service, occupying a wide range of positions before she finally lands a job. In a state intelligence department. But then her boss is phished for $500,000 and he tasks her, secretly, with recovering the money. But the company responsible for the fraud – a call-centre that runs a number of phishing scams – has also been infiltrated by an undercover police agent. So this is basically a buddy movie, where the buddies came together through circumstance rather than choice, and the drama comes out of their interactions. Because neither has much time for the other. Gang is an accident-prone nerd but proves to have a gift for talking punters out of their hard-earned cash, and so gets in with the senior management. The undercover police officer, Han Chae-Ah, is skilled at unarmed combat, a maverick and arrogant. But, of course, they learn to like each other and work together to bring down the evil mastermind behind the phishing scam, not to mention Gang’s inept boss who lost the money in the first place. The comedy is broad, and the fight scenes aren’t that good… but then it would be churlish complain about a female buddy movie that actually has fight scenes. Entertaining. And it makes a good point about the human cost of phishing too.

Here, Then, Mao Mao (2012, China). I seem to remembering stumbling across this one on Cinema Paradiso’s website. Certainly the director is not a name I knew, and I’ve been exploring the oeuvres of both Fifth and Sixth Generation Chinese directors. But I like modern Chinese cinema – both the commercial films and the film festival ones, although the latter much more than the former. Here, Then, Mao’s debut feature, not only does the things I like about Sixth Generation films, but also the things I like about cinema from other countries. It tells a story about a group of twentysomethings in a provincial town, using the sort of faux-documentary style, with minimal dialogue, used by Sixth Generation directors. But it also uses long, often static, takes, and equally often pulled back so that the action takes place only in a small area at the centre of the screen. There are other tricks in there too – in one scene, two young women waiting for a bus dance to music, and the camera zooms in toward one until she is staring out of the screen, suggesting she is breaking the fourth wall. Characters move in and out of focus as the dynamic changes in other scenes. It’s a polished debut, displaying a facility with cinematic language unusual in a first film. I’d like to see it again, so I guess I’m going to have to pick up a copy. I suspect it might make my top five by the end of the year, although it has stiff competition. Highly recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 922

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Moving pictures 2018, #36

Managed to knock three films off 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and they weren’t bad films either.

Genghis: The Legend of the Ten, Zolbayar Dorj & U Shagdarsuren (2012, Mongolia). I found this on Amazon Prime. Incidentally, when I refer to Amazon Prime, I mean the free movies it offers… and it’s an odd mix: straight-to-video crap, poor transfers of early twentieth-century films, occasional blockbusters available for a limited time, forgotten films from the seventies and eighties and nineties… and some very recent films from further afield, such as the Chinese and Taiwanese films mentioned in previous Moving picture posts, and like this Mongolian historical epic and the Russian comedy below. Genghis: The Legend of the Ten is the sort of nonsense title given to foreign movies for the US market. The actual title is Aravt, which is the term for the groups of ten into which the Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan’s time would organise themselves, as helpfully explained by an opening voiceover. The movie is about one such aravt, or group of ten. It is, unsurprisingly, historically accurate – as far as my limited knowledge can tell, but this is no Hollywood re-imagining of history. It’s also quite brutal. The battle scenes are well-staged, but the back-stabbing does get a bit complicated in places. It’s a polished piece of work, and if Mongolia has to mine the better-known elements of its history to make foreign currency, then they did a good job with this and I wish them the best of luck in their industry. It’s only the second Mongolian film I’ve seen – the other was Joy, and it did not live up to its title (see here) – but both are very good. A cinema to keep an eye on, so to speak.

Hold Me While I’m Naked*, George Kuchar (1966, USA). I’d not realised until I started watching this that it was a short, only 15 minutes long. Kuchar was an underground film-maker in New York and San Francisco, active from the late 1950s through until his death in 2011. He made over 200 films, including video diaries. Hold Me While I’m Naked is generally reckoned to be the best of them – certainly it was the only one to appear in the Village Voice’s Critics’ Poll of the 100 best films of the twentieth century. I’m not sure I understand the appeal. There’s a distinct Woody Allen-ish tone to the piece, not helped by Kuchar’s voiceover with its NY accent, and I loathe Woody Allen’s films. The whole thing is resolutely cheap, shot on 16 mm in real locations, with much of the “story” (and I use the term loosely) carried by Kuchar’s voiceover lament in which he complains about his two stars as they perform a steamy shower scene for him (it’s implied the scene is for another film, but it’s not of course; it only only appears in this film). As a commentary on film-making, the meta-narrative is quite effective but seems naive to modern eyes , and it’s hard to see how it could have been all that innovative in 1966 given that Modernism had been around for half a century.

Gun Crazy*, Joseph H Lewis (1950, USA). From the title and poster, I had thought this was a cowboy film, although a closer look at the poster would have clearly shown it was a gangster film. Except it isn’t that either. A boy is fascinated with guns, steals one from a store, is caught and sent to reform school. Later he joins the army. The story picks up after he’s left the army. He’s now a crack shot and, at a travelling fair, takes up a challenge to a shootout against the fair’s resident trick shooter. He wins. The fair owner offers him a job, and he teams up with the trick shooter. They also enter into a relationship (it’s her on the poster). But she’s a bad sort and persuades him to help her rob stores and banks. They go on a Bonnie and Clyde style crime spree. The film is presented all very matter-of-fact, and I especially liked the back-seat camera during the car chases – I’d not seen that used before, and I don’t recall any films using it since. For a film of its time and type, it was a superior example, but I don’t know if that’s enough to warrant a spot on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It wasn’t noir, more like a 1950s spin on a 1930s gangster movie, much like The Phenix City Story, although without the latter’s true story to fall back on. Worth seeing, but not one, I suspect, that belongs on the list.

Mind Game, Masaaki Yuasa (2004, Japan). When this dropped through the letterbox from Cinema Paradiso, I should have guessed it had been recommended by David Tallerman. Not just because it’s anime, but because it’s weird anime. And, to be honest, a week or two after I watched it, I can remember almost nothing of it. Reading the plot summary on Wikipedia doesn’t help, because all I can remember is a really unappealing style of animation, realistic and so not the exaggerated features of much anime, but sketchily drawn. I remember a section set inside a whale, and some of the film took place inside a moving vehicle, but I’m otherwise completely blank. In such cases, I normally watch the film again before writing about it in a Moving pictures post, but this was a rental and I sent it back before I could rewatch it. I wanted to get the DVDs set back before I left for Sweden, so I put them in my bag to post at the railway station… but couldn’t find a post box… or at Manchester Airport… but couldn’t find a post box… and so ended up carrying them to Sweden and back, and posting them in the post box opposite my house the day after I got home. Sigh. Not that it made any difference as I wouldn’t have been able to watch and return any new DVDs before the weekend anyway. None of which is especially relevant, and I suspect I will have to watch this film again although what I do remember of it doesn’t exactly tempt me to do so. Oh well.

The Spider’s Stratagem*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1970, Italy). When you look at non-Anglophone directors, and which particular films from their oeuvres are available on UK sell-through DVDs or Blu-rays… not including films they might have made for Anglophone studios such as, in Bertolucci’s case, Last Tango in Paris, The Sheltering Sky and The Last Emperor… especially a director as highly-regarded as Bertolucci… Well, besides the aforementioned three, there’s Before the Revolution, The Conformist and 1900, although not a couple of English-language international co-productions, Stealing Beauty and Little Buddha (both currently deleted)… And certainly not The Spider’s Stratagem, the third of four films by Bertolucci to make the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (and the other three are readily available). Why is this? If those other films have found a market, then surely this one would. These days, however, it could be some streaming service hanging on to the rights in order to attract customers. For £9.99 a month, you can have access to the exclusive library of films they’ve managed to prevent being made available on sell-through… I know of a film from 1966 that’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, but a restored version is available from a streaming service. Anyway, that’s all by the bye. In this film, a young man returns to his hometown, where his father died a hero of the resistance. But as he asks people about what they remember of his father, so he hears different stories, and eventually realises his father had bottled out of his plan to assassinate Mussolini on his visit to the town and informed on himself to the authorities. But, the son comes to realise, the town needs its hero, so he says nothing, and so is caught up in the mythology they have created around his father. There are half a dozen or so world-class Italian directors, and I’ve watched films by all of them: Bertolucci, Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Pasolini, … but I’m not sure I could call one out above the others. I love Fellini at his most self-indulgent, I’m a big fan of Pasolini, and both Visconti and De Sica made some excellent dramas… Rossellini never really worked for me, and Bertolucci I find too variable to admire that much – I loved The Sheltering Sky but Last Tango in Paris was awful. I think I’m starting to like Bertolucci’s films more, and I did like this one, but I’m not there yet.

O Lucky Man!, Edouard Parri (2017, Russia). This is not the Malcolm McDowell British film, obviously, which I have not seen and so cannot compare. It is instead a polished piece of Russian action/comedy/drama about a young man who is talked back from jumping off a bridge by a mysterious camp couple, who tell him they can give him the life he feels he deserves. Which they do. He is hired into some ill-defined high management position at a prestigious company the next day. He has a platinum credit card to use. But things start to go wrong, and when his fairy godfathers (a reference only to their role) try to fix things, it ends up worse. So when he misses an important business meeting and is fired, they arrange for him to save a woman from a pair of violent muggers and become a popular hero. Only it then turns out the woman had just ripped off a gangster and the muggers were his enforcers. And now he wants his money back. Then a British secret service agent, in an Aston Martin, turns up, and it’s a bit weird having James Bond speak Russian but there you go. I enjoyed this. It was a pretty obvious comedy, but it rang a few small changes, and I can’t say if they’re down to the Russian worldview or the scriptwriter, but it was enough to make it different. Even the spoof 007 was fun.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 921


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Reading diary 2018, #10

The reading has been a bit all over the place for the past few months – Clarke Award shortlist reading notwithstanding (see here) – and pretty much comes down to me grabbing whatever book looks like it won’t be too taxing. And that’s despite having half a dozen reading lists from which to choose… Oh well. And I really ought to start reading more classics.

Unlocking the Air, Ursula K Le Guin (1996, USA). This is a collection of Le Guin’s mainstream stories, and though it pains me to say it, I think her genre fiction is much better. Which is not to say her mainstream stories are bad, because they’re extremely well-crafted. And it’s not as though I only appreciate genre stories… because I find a lot of current genre short fiction unreadable, and I like the mainstream short fiction of Helen Simpson, Malcolm Lowry, Rose Tremain, Karen Blixen, and many others. But I didn’t much enjoy another of Le Guin’s mainstream collections, Orsinian Tales, which are linked stories set in an invented town. There is no such linkage in Unlocking the Air. The stories originally appeared in a variety of publications, from The New Yorker to Playboy to, er, Asimov’s, between 1982 and 1995. The one from Asimov’s, ‘Ether, OR’, is borderline genre. The title refers to a town in Oregon, which seems to change location at random intervals, on the coast some times, inland at others; and the story is told from the viewpoints of a number of the residents of the town. Another story is pure mainstream and recounts a daughter taking her mother to an abortion clinic. The stories are feminist, which comes as no surprise; most are told from a female point of view, although not all: ‘The Professor’s Houses’ is about a male professor and the doll house he works on ostensibly for his daughter. The collection all feels very… worthy – well-written stories making important points, but just a bit dull. Ah well.

Author’s Choice Monthly 9: Heroines, James Patrick Kelly (1990, USA). I don’t know if I’ve ever read any of Kelly’s fiction before. None of his novels, certainly. But didn’t he write some stories about toy dinosaurs or something – was that him? They were quite good, I seem to recall. But then, they might not have been by him. Anyway, the four stories (it also includes three poems) in this collection were deliberately chosen, Kelly explains in his introduction, because they have female protagonists. He points out that although there were many women writing genre fiction in the first half of last century, not all of whom disguised their gender, but almost all of whom wrote stories and novels with male protagonists. This isn’t actually true, of course, and though Kelly namechecks CL Moore as one who didn’t – he mentions ‘No Woman Born’ – there were plenty who used female protagonists. Anyway, Kelly presents these stories in honour of those writers. In ‘The Curlest Month’, a divorcée has an affair with her therapist, trying to recover from the death of her little daughter, and who seems to watch to contact her… In ‘Faith’, a single mother puts an ad in the paper and meets a man who can talk to plants. ‘Crow’ is set after some sort of apocalypse – an epidemic, IIRC – in which a young boy and girl meet a woman who plans to use an old ICBM to reach the Moon. She’s clearly deluded. Of the books in this series I’ve read so far, this is definitely one of the stronger ones. I’m not going to dash out and hunt down something else to read by Kelly, but neither will I go out of my way to avoid his fiction. Sometimes, that’s enough.

Summerland, Hannu Rajaniemi (2018, UK). With the disaster that is Brexit looming over the UK, some popular culture has been harkening back to those rose-tinted good old days when we all pulled together like in, er, World War II… Er, WTF? How exactly does WWII map onto Brexit? Anyway, the fact Brexit is bending UK culture, as well as the economy, out of shape is a given, but it seems to have manifested a bit oddly in genre fiction, Yes, I know Rajaniemi is Finnish, but he’s been a resident of the UK for a number of years, and his career has been chiefly with English-language publishers. And if he’s a Finnish writer, then Geoff Ryman is a Canadian writer, Lisa Tuttle and Pat Cadigan are both American writers, Tariq Ali is a Pakistani writer, Leila Aboulela is a Sudanese writer… Um, that’s starting to fall apart. But never mind. Anyway, with Summerland and Simon Ings’s The Smoke, we have two very strange, and not so very different, approaches to science fiction, a very British form of science fiction, in fact, that owes much more to HG Wells than it does to the US tradition. Explicitly so in Summerland, as the man who looms over the entire plot, Prime Minister Herbert Blanco West, is in fact a thinly-disguised HG Wells. The novel is being sold as a science fiction spy story, and it’s true that its central plot could have come from a Le Carré novel, but, as a spy novel, I don’t think it’s entirely satisfactory. Fortunately, the rest of it is very satisfactory indeed. The world-building is especially good, and Rajaniemi has cleverly worked out not just the technological ramifications of Summerland‘s central premise but also the social ones. I think this one will do much better than The Quantum Thief; it’s much more approachable, for a start.

Valerian and Laureline: Shingouzlooz Inc, Wilfrid Lupano & Matthieu Lauffray (2017, France). The creators of Valerian and Laureline, Mézière and Christin, ended the series in 2013 with the twenty-second volume, Memories from the Futures (see here). Then there was Luc Besson’s disappointing film adaptation. But now we apparently have the pair’s – that’s Valerian and Laureline, of course – further licensed adventures, which makes a point of attempting to be as much like the original as possible. And they pretty much succeed. Except, like the Edgar P Jacobs Studio picked up The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer from Jacobs himself, and actually starting to do a better job of it, with cleverly-plotted stories based on secret history instead of 1930s racist techno-fantasies, so this new Valerian and Laureline is much more twenty-first century than the later volumes by Mézière and Christin. For a start, the two are on a mission to apprehend a robot who is running multiple virtual tax havens in his main processor and so enabling rich people to break no end of Galaxity laws. But then the plot quickly complicates, with the Shingouz turning up having accidentally sold the Earth of three billion years ago to a voracious water pirate, Laureline having her likeness pirated and sold across the galaxy, and Valerian having to supply meat from an endangered species to a chef for a gangster’s banquet in order to… Lupano, the writer, manages to keep all his balls up in the air, and then deal neatly with them one by one. Lauffray’s art is a little more kinetic than Mézière’s but just as detailed. I like this a lot, and I hope it’s the first of a long series.

Passing for Human, Jody Scott (1977, USA). I was, when I started this, expecting something not unlike Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States, a novel I like very much (see here). However, Passing for Human is a decade older, and it reads like it. If anything, the one book it reminded me of was Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge – and it even explicitly references Vidal’s novel at one point. There’s a pair of sequels, I, Vampire and Devil-May-Care, only the first of which was published by The Women’s Press (but since the third book wasn’t even published until 2016, nearly a decade after Scott’s death, that’s hardly surprising). All three books are about Benaroya, an alien who uses a number of different bodies to infiltrate Earth, well, Los Angeles, in order to defeat an evil alien entity bent on destroying the planet. But Benaroya doesn’t have much idea intially on how to be human… There’ll be a review up on SF Mistressworks some time soon.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Moving pictures 2018, #35

A good mix, nothing too populist, but instead some good films from a number of different countries… Well, okay, maybe not all of them are that good…

Caravaggio*, Derek Jarman (1986, UK). That’s the last of the Derek Jarman box set and it’s a film I first saw many years ago – not at school, as it was released two years after I sat my A Levels, but perhaps when I was a university student. I don’t remember, I just remember the film itself… and this rewatch did not in that respect provide any surprises. There were a few scenes I had forgotten, but much of the film had remained in memory. Which I guess means something. Jarman’s use of deliberately anachronistic set dressing I’d certainly remembered, so the appearance of trucks and such in some scenes did not seem as shocking as perhaps intended. Which is not to say they did not perform their purpose – perhaps even more so, because the shock value no longer applied, I could see them for what they were. Which was elements of an idiosyncratic retelling of the life of Michelangelo da Caravaggio, which used his paintings – or those that have survived – as inspiration to document parts of his life. The  title role is played by Nigel Terry, who has never been better, but there are plenty of other familiar faces in there. Also in the cast is Sean Bean, in his first major role, as is Tilda Swinton, whom he snogs. Which was weird. The film is mostly told from Caravaggio’s death-bed, using it to jump back to incidents in his life. It works as well inasmuch as it allows for commentary. The film’s aesthetic, anachronisms and all, I thought especially effective, and I ended up liking the film more than I had expected. I bought this box set on a whim, and because I’d not seen Jubilee but some recent watches on Jarman’s films had persuaded me it might be worth a punt. And it was indeed. It’s even turned me into a sort of fan of Jarman’s films, which I wasn’t before. I’m now eagerly awaiting the Volume 2 box set.

Black Rose Mansion, Kinji Fukasaku (1969, Japan). Fukasaku, who is best known these days for his film of Battle Royale, made two films with famous Japanese female impersonator Akihiro Miwa (AKA Akihiro Maruyama) – this one and Kurotokage (see here). Having seen both, I can definitely say Kurotokage is the better of the two. Which is not to say Black Rose Mansion, AKA Kuro bara no yakata, is bad. It has its moments. Miwa plays the mysterious singer in the titular roadhouse. Not only is Ryuko’s past a mystery, but it also seems wildly inconsistent, as a series of men turn up claiming to be her lover and she refuses to admit whether she had affairs with them. It is, to be honest, all a little over the top, especially given that some of them profess their undying love by killing themselves and the deaths are presented with all the technicolor relish of B-movies. The whole thing began to pall after a while, it must be said, given that Miwa’s character remained stubbornly mute on her past and the parade of past lovers didn’t seem to prove anything. If you must watch a camp 1960s Japanese thriller, then I’d recommend Kurotokage over this one.

Okja, Bong Joon-ho (2017, South Korea). This was recommended by a number of friends, both those who watch Korean cinema and those who don’t. And having now seen it, I can understand why, as it sort of feels like a Korean film without actually being one. Although it certainly opens like a Hollywood movie. A US company has a bred a super-pig and sent super piglets around the world to be reared by indigenous farmers. Ten years later, they will be assessed and the best will win a prize. There’s a problem right there – not just the genetically-engineered pig, but the idea of using subsistence level farmers to grow it, given that the governmental and corporate world have been trying to wipe out subsistence level farmers for decades. Anyway, the one in South Korea, called Okja by the young woman who cares for it, wins and is shipped to New York for the ceremony. But an animal rights group try to prevent this, as they’re convinced the corporation’s motives are not as advertised. And it’s all the slightly off-kilter approach Boon brings to a story married to the usual Hollywood glib depiction of corporatisation and the near-future, sort of like cyberpunk with its raison d’être surgically removed so smoothly it hasn’t even noticed… It didn’t help that the titular super-pig looked more like a hippo, or that Tilda Swinton, playing the twin sisters who ran the corporation chewed the scenery more than the super-pig… It all felt like a fun movie that was trying so hard to appeal to a Hollywood market it had lost whatever charm it might have had. It looked very nice, but it was not very likeable.

Xala, Ousmane Sembène (1975, Senegal). Xala, pronounced khala, means “temporary impotence” in Wolof, and is also the title of the novel by Sembène from which this film was adapted. The film opens with a voiceover describing Senegal’s independence, with actors playing the parts of the new Senegalese government. One of these, a minister, is congratulated on his upcoming nuptials. To a woman less than half his age. And she’s his third wife. I’m sorry, I don’t give a shit what your religion is, but there’s no justification for polygamy. Women are not property. Sembène is making the same point, although he’s also setting out an allegory about independence, in which the new wife is the country’s new-found freedom. Which results in impotence – the minister can’t get it up despite the manifold attractions of his new wife. He is not only too wedded to the old ways, he prospered too well under them. Now he has control, he doesn’t know what to do with it. So to speak. I have to date seen five films by Ousmane Sembène and I think they’re all pretty damn good. It’s not that they’re polished pieces of work, because they’re not – there are no special effects, no studio sets, most of the cast are non-professional, Sembène’s lack of resource as usually there to see on the screen… But they’re so well-presented. Not just as depictions of life in Senegal – in Dakar – at the time of filming, but also as drama and as political statements. Sembène made 13 movies (four of them shorts) and wrote ten novels. I want to see all his films, and have a bash at some of his novels.

Winter Kills, William Richert (1979, USA). This film is allegedly a forgotten classic, and “forgotten” certainly applies to it as I’d never heard of it until I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime. And yet it received many positive reviews on its initial release. It also had a troubled production history, and I wonder if that has added to the film’s reputation… because as a straight-up thriller it leaves something to be desired, and as a comedy, black or otherwise, it fails dismally; although it nevertheless manages to mostly entertain. The plot is a thinly-disguised reference to the assassination of JFK. Twenty years after the death of the president, his brother is approached with evidence demonstrating the commonly-accepted narrative is wrong. So he investigates further, and follows a chain of anecdote and interview to… I’m not sure if it’s worth the spoiler. I can’t honestly see what was so good about this film it gained the label “forgotten classic”. The cast are pretty good, true, but the plot stumbles from the obvious to the inane, and its so-called humour falls flat more often than not. Its production history is actually more entertaining – look it up on Wikipedia. The version I watched was the director’s cut, which is not always the best cut. But, to be honest, it’s hard to see how any cut could make this film a classic unless there were thousands more feet of film left on the cutting-room floor. Best avoided.

Not One Less, Zhang Yimou (1999, China). More Chinese cinema, from a well-known Fifth Generation director. The teacher in a countryside village has to leave for family reasons, so a substitute teacher is sent… but she’s thirteen-years-old and hardly qualified. And it shows initially. When one of the boys runs away to the city to earn money to pay off his mother’s debts, she follows him. But he’s not where he’s supposed to be, so she tries to persuade the radio station manager to broadcast a message to him. Instead, a local TV station take up her story and interview her on air – or at least try to, as she clams up from nervousness. But the boy, who’s living on the streets, sees the broadcast, the two are united, and they’re returned to the village with money and school equipment – chalk, basically – by the TV station, who smell a better story. Everyone in the movies is a non-professional actor, and many filled roles they hold in real life. It gave the whole thing a very documentary air, something I especially like about Sixth Generation movies, and I have to wonder if this is one of their touchstone works. Zhang, from the films of his I’ve seen, has had a varied career, but Not One Less so much resembled the sort of Chinese film I really like that I couldn’t help but love it. The cast of mostly children are really good, especially the two leads, and the whole thing is both excellent commentary and excellent drama. Apparently, the Chinese authorities made Zhang change the text at the end which claims one million children drop out of school due to poverty because the real figure – three to five times that – was too embarrassing. The poverty of the schooling actually shown on the screen should be embarrassment enough. An excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 918


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Summer night city

This last weekend I visited Stockholm for the third time for my fourth Swecon (last year’s was in Uppsala). I think that now makes me a regular… at least, I’m starting to feel like one. And even though attending the convention involves flying 1400 kilometres, with a bit of planning it doesn’t really cost that much more than an average Eastercon (assuming you stay in the convention hotel for an Eastercon). Since I started attending Nordic sf cons five years ago, I’ve been keep track of the cost… and Fantastika 2018 did indeed cost me more than Kontur 2017. The flight was cheaper, but the hotel was more expensive – because the one nearest the venue, Quality Hotel Nacka, which I had stayed in previously, was fully booked. So I ended up in the Hotell Anno 1647 in Slussen, which was more expensive.

Anyway, early Friday 15 June, I catch the train to Manchester Airport. Which is in fucking chaos. The normal security check area is blocked off – for use of “fast track passengers only” – and everyone else has to use temporary facilities in the basement… So it takes nearly 40 minutes to get through. When I do finally get to the front, the security guy asks me if I’m wearing a belt. “It’s plastic,” I tell him. “Doesn’t matter. It’s not metal detectors, it’s all body scanners now, so no belts.” So I put it through the X-ray, and am directed to walk through… a metal detector. Sigh.

And then the flight is delayed. I flew Norwegian. I’ve now flown them four times and three times the flights were delayed. I doubt I’ll be using them again. Delay aside, the flight is smooth and quick. There is a massive queue at passport control at Arlanda Airport as we seem to have landed at the same time as a couple of large international flights. I catch the Arlanda Express – 280 SEK! – to the Central Station, and from there walk to Sergels Torg to meet Tobias Bodlund for lunch. We eat in the Kulturhuset. (You can’t really say “the Kulturhuset”, of course, because Kulturhuset means “the culture house”, so that would be “the” twice.. But “we ate in Kulturhuset” sounds daft in English, and “we ate in the Kulturhus” sounds odd to Swedes.)

After lunch, Tobias heads back to work and I catch the Metro to Slussen and my hotel. I check in, and then go looking for the Saltsjöbanan, which I’d been assured was now running, as it hadn’t been due to renovations at Slussen in 2016. It isn’t running. Well, it is. But only as far as Henriksdal, the stop before Slussen. So I have to catch a bus out to Sickla. There is no replacement bus service, as there was in 2016, just normal bus service. I ask a staff member, and learn there are several bus numbers which run past Sickla Bro, the stop I need. I’d bought myself a travel card, so using Stockholm’s public transport proves very easy. And Sickla Bro is only the third stop after Slussen, a ride of around ten minutes.

At the Dieselverkstaden, the venue for Fantastika 2018, I register, say hello to a few friends, then buy myself a beer in the bistro and sit down to chill out a bit after the journey. I’m reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, and have only been reading for about half an hour when a Swedish fan, Wolf von Witting, asks me about the novel, as he’d read and admired both Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day. I tell him he could have my copy of The Buried Giant when I finish it. Which I do the next day. And I give it to him. (I liked it – more at the end than I had done halfway through. Review to follow soon.)

More people begin to turn up, including Tobias, and at eight o’clock we all attend the opening ceremony, where they release the previous spirit of Swecon, and the three guests of honour – Kij Johnson, MR Carey and Ian Watson – are introduced and, immediately following, interviewed, well, it’s more of a moderated conversation.

By the time that’s finished, the “gang” is pretty much all assembled, and we sit in the Dieselverkstaden bistro, drinking beer and chatting until the bar closes. Then we move across to the Quality Hotel Nacka, and carry on until that bar closes. I catch a taxi back to my hotel in Slussen.

I should say something about Hotell Anno 1647, which is apparently named for the year it was built. Not as a hotel, obviously. As a private residence. As a result, it has no lifts, just wide spiral stone stairs between floors. I had the smallest hotel room in the world. At least it felt like it. There was room for a single bed and a narrow desk. The en suite was even smaller – you had to slot yourself under the sink to sit on the toilet. There was no air-conditioning – but with the window wide open at night, the room was cool enough, despite being June. My room also overlooked a quiet alley, so there was no noise. If the facilities were hardly “mod con”, and the decor perhaps a bit tired, the hotel did lay on a good breakfast, the staff were very friendly, and it was ideally located – within five minutes walk, you had both the Slussen Metro station and bus station, and a handful of excellent craft ale bars (more on which later).

I’m up early on the Saturday morning as I have a programme item at 10 am. Ugh. The topic is “I want to read good books!”, moderated by Sini Neuvonen, and including Jukka Halme, Oskar Källner, Jenny Bristle and myself. We’d discussed the panel on email in the weeks leading up to Fantastika – my initial list of 15 books had been rejected as too many, so I’d whittled it down to four. Oskar had put together a PowerPoint presentation of the cover art, and as they appear on the screen behind us, we discuss them. For the record, my choices were: Necessary Ill, Deb Taber; The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck; The Thing Itself, Adam Roberts; and The Smoke, Simon Ings.

I have three panels on the Saturday. The second is at three pm, “Ethics of generation ships”, moderated by Tomas Cronholm, and including Tommy Persson, Eva Holmquist, Peter Ekberg and myself. It is in the big room, Stora Scen, and seems to go well. I manage to get in a Brexit joke.

For lunch that day, myself, Tobias and his son, Eric, try the Lebanese restaurant next to the Diselverkstaden (it was an  Italian on my previous visit in 2016; I approve of the change), and so inadvertently start up a new Swecon tradition, as the first meal out I’d had with other Swecon attendees the year before in Uppsala had been at a… Lebanese restaurant. This is definitely a tradition I am happy to follow.

My final panel of the day, and of Swecon for me, is at seven o’clock, “Where is the borderline?”, moderated by Nahal Ghanbari, and featuring Linda Carey, Patrik Schylström, Flemming Rasch and myself. The discussion centres around last year’s Clarke Award winner, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I haven’t read. But I think I get away with it. The discussion is quite wide-ranging, but I have to disappoint one audience member who complains about David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, saying the author clearly knows nothing about sf. Mitchell has been a sf fan for decades, I point out, he’s even a member of the BSFA (or certainly was).

When not in panels, or wandering around the Alvarfonden collection of secondhand books (I bought six), I’m in the bistro, chatting to friends. At one point on the Saturday, I’m sitting outside the bistro, when I look up and spot an unexpected face – Tracy Berg, who I know from UK cons as she’s a member of the Glasgow Writers Circle. It turns out she’s moved to Sweden, doesn’t know anyone, and has come to the con in the hope of making friends. So, of course, I introduce her to everyone. After the bistro closes we all move across to the Quality Inn Nacka, and carry onto until it closes. Anders Holm enters into discussion with the barmaid over which beer to buy. In English. “You’re both Swedish,” I point out to them. “You should speak Swedish.”

After the bar closes, the inimitable Bellis invites a bunch of us to his room for a room party. Which lasts until about 2 am. I believe there are photos. I then catch a taxi back to Slussen. Anders also needs a lift into town, so he shares the taxi. But the hotel must have assumed we need a taxi each, because they order two, and the second taxi driver is not happy to discover he’s lost his fare. It gets quite heated at one point, and I don’t know whether to be amused or afraid.

At one point during Saturday, I was sitting outside chatting to Fia Karlsson, when she noticed her phone, which had been sitting on the table in the sun, was hot. So was mine. Red hot. It ran out of power late afternoon, and when I had it fully charged the following morning, most of the apps on it no longer worked. After an hour or so of fiddling, I got some of them working again, but I was looking at a factory reset to get it fully functional. Happily, a full Android update dropped on the Monday – I installed it on Tuesday – and that fixed everything. But, annoyingly, I didn’t have access to a lot of apps from Saturday night until Tuesday.

On the Sunday evening, after the closing ceremony, which once again features the Tolkien Society choir, we’re sat in the bistro discussing the con, and we all feel it has been the most social Swecon so far. Yet we can’t understand why. True, it’s the third time in that venue. And a group of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish fans (and a few from further afield, such as myself) who regularly attend Swecons has begun to gel… Perhaps it was that. Perhaps it was because the three GoHs are themselves very sociable. Ian Watson is a sf institution these days and needs no introduction, but Kij Johnson proves to be just as approachable and engaging. Which is not to say Mike Carey, or his partner Linda, are not. In fact, during the closing ceremony, Mike mentions it has been a long time since he’d been at a convention where people actually discussed the genre, rather than conventions that are little more than merchandising expos (the price of success, I suppose).

Sunday night is an odd night. The dead dog party takes place in the bistro, and there are plenty present. But I want to visit some Stockholm real ale bars, so Anders and I catch the bus into Slussen. I have a pint and dinner – gravad lax – in the Oliver Twist, then we have another pint in Akkurat, before heading back to Sickla. Only to discover the bar in the bistro has closed. Everyone remaining heads across to the Quality Inn Nacka, where we all manage to get another beer or two in. But I’m not working the following day, and not flying back to the UK until the evening, so I’m up for more. Anders looks online and it seems Akkurat is open until 1 am. So the two of us, plus Bellis, jump into a taxi to Slussen. Except Akkurat is closed. Bellis calls it a night. But myself and Anders make our way to Omnipollo’s Hatt, which is still open. We get chatting to a US student who is moving to Stockholm later this year to study. It’s my T-shirt – I’m wearing a Dark Tranquillity one, and several people comment on it during the night. Must wear more Swedish metal band T-shirts when in Sweden.

I check out of the hotel Monday. Tobias has invited me to his place for lunch since I’m not flying out until late afternoon. I catch the Metro out to Sundbyberg, and follows his directions to his flat. Not entirely successfully, it must be admitted. I’m also regretting not leaving my bag in a locker in the Central Station, as it’s quite a trek and it’s a warm day. However, it turns out an airport bus stops near Tobias’s apartment – and it’s less than half the price of the Arlanda Express. So that works out really well.

At Arlanda Airport, I’m queuing up for security, when I abruptly remember I have a bottle of mead in my bag. Sanna Bo Claumarch bought me two bottles (small bottles!) as part of a running joke. I drank one, but forgot to drink the other (and when I tried, it had a cork and I had no corkscrew). I dump the bottle. As it is, the metal detector goes off anyway. I’m told it’s a random check, but later I find a 20p piece buried in a trouser pocket and wonder if that set it off. The flight back to Manchester is delayed. At first by 20 minutes, but it’s an hour late by the time we take off. Just like the flight to Sweden. Norwegian clearly have a problem keeping to their schedule. At Manchester, I’m met by the taxi I ordered, and driven home. Oscar is pleased to see me. He has not destroyed his robot feeder this time. I’m glad to be home, but also glad I attended Fantastika 2018.

It was probably the best Fantastika yet, the three GoHs were excellent, I hung out with a bunch of good friends – and all in a city I like and would like to visit more often. A quick shout-out, for those I’ve not already mentioned, to Marianna Leikomaa, Hanna Hakkarainen, Johan Anglemark, Jukka Särkijävi, Cristina Macía, Saija Kyllönen, Jerri Määttä, Johan Jönsson, Barbara-Jane, Kristin Thorrud, Erik Andersson, K Lennart Jansson, Thomas Årnfelt, Lally, Gwen, and if I’ve missed anyone I sincerely apologise. There were a few faces missing, however, and I was sorry not to see them.

Next year’s Swecon was announced at Fantastika. It’s Replicon in Västerås, on the weekend of 14 June next year. I suspect I’ll be there.


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Moving pictures 2018, #34

Not a single US film in this bunch, although two are still Anglophone – British and Australian.

Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou (1990, China). Although I’m a big fan of films by Chinese Sixth Generation directors, such as Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai and Lou Ye, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in earlier generations – and I don’t just mean early classics like Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess (1934, see here) or Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948, see here). There was also – obviously – a Fifth Generation, to which Zhang Yimou belonged, and those films of his I’ve seen I’ve thought very good. He also has two entries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list: Red Sorghum (see here) and Raise the Red Lantern (not currently available on DVD). Ju Dou is Zhang’s third film (he’s better known these days for films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and The Great Wall), and had I not read in the movie’s Wikipedia entry that it was filmed in Technicolor – in 1990! – I’d not have known it from the copy I watched. So can we have a restored edition, please? Because this is an excellent film, irrespective of the motion picture process used. The title refers to a young woman, played by Zhang favourite Gong Li, who is married to a cruel dyer. The dyer’s adopted nephew returns after a weeks-long trip to discover his uncle has remarried… and he begins to obsess over Ju Dou, who is being abused by her husband. It doesn’t end well, these things never end well, especially when Ju Dou has a son, and the dyer is confined to a wheelchair after a stroke and learns the son is not his own… It was clear watching this that colour had been uppermost in Zhang’s mind, and yet the DVD transfer had made a mockery of the Technicolor, washing out many of the colours and, in some scenes, giving the whole frame a faint tint. Now I love Technicolor, especially Technicolor landscapes – the New England autumnal landscape of All That Heaven Allows, the wide open spaces of Shane – and since much of Ju Dou took place in a dye works, there was no shortage of colour. Which, sadly, wasn’t especially obvious on this transfer. A good film, but I’d like to see a restored copy.

Outskirts, Boris Barnet (1933, Russia). I forget where I came across mention of this, and having now seen it I’m surprised it’s not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. A Soviet film from 1933 that covers the period prior to the October Revolution via the lives of ordinary Russian villagers? Barnet made several early Soviet films, but only Eisenstein, Vertov and Vsevelod make the list. Which is not to say they shouldn’t. But Barnet belongs on there too. More so than some early Hollywood films anyway. It’s not just that Outskirts documents the lives of villagers in early twentieth-century Russia, which it does very effectively, but also that it is dramatically impressive too. Part of it is set at the front during WWI, or Second Patriotic War, against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And it’s the equal of any other WWI movie of the time, if not better. Barnet, by all accounts, was in the top rank of Soviet directors, but seems to be pretty much forgotten these days. Eisenstein’s oeuvre is readily available, but I can find only three of Barnet’s twenty-seven films, including this one, on DVD. A shame. On the strength of Outskirts, I’d say his films are definitely worth seeing.

The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short*, André Delvaux (1966, Belgium). Govert Miereveld is hired to replace a departing teacher at a school. He begins to obsess over a female student, played by Polish actress Beata Tyszkiewicz (dubbed into Flemish?). He leaves the school and enters the law. Some years later, he accompanies a colleague who needs to attend an autopsy of a body washed ashore in another town. They suspect the body of being a suspect in a case, but in the event it turns out to be a completely different man. At the hotel, Miereveld bumps into the student he had obsessed over, who is now a famous opera singer. She remembers him from school and is surprisingly open to his, er, overtures. He spends time with her and she admits she knew of his obsession at school. She also admits the teacher he replaced had been asked to leave because he had been in a relationship with her. And her father, who had disappeared shortly after she left school, well, his description matches that of the body in the autopsy… The first time I watched this, I liked its focus on its protagonist – including the scene which lends the films its title – but I hadn’t realised how vital to the plot that focus was. Because Miereveld is badly affected by what he learns, and the final third of the film shows the aftermath. If the film has a flaw, it’s that it’s not entirely clear for much of its length what sort of film it is. It opens as an introspective drama, turns into a thriller, and then becomes something completely different. I liked it so much on second viewing, I considered picking up a copy of the book from which it was adapted… which is, of course, almost fucking impossible to find…

Brick Lane, Sarah Gavron (2007, UK). This is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Monica Ali, set among the Bangladeshi community in London on, er, Brick Lane. I’ve not read the book, so I’ve no idea how the film differs from it. Nazneen is the wife of Chanu Ahmed, a man who seems convinced he can succeed in the UK, and is equally blind to the country’s racism – the film opens with him convinced he is about to be promoted, only to learn he has been fired. He’s keen on improving himself, and is evidently a voracious reader, but his wife is not happy, and his two kids seem to have little in common with him. Except Brick Lane is not about him, it’s about Nazneen, who has an affair with an Anglo-Bangladeshi (ie, born and bred in the UK, unlike Nazneen) who is part of a local group agitating for Muslim solidarity. And this is around the time of the 9/11 attacks. I was resident in the UAE when 9/11 happened, and working for a government-owned oil company… so the only version of events I heard was that told by Arabs who had been affected. So I can sympathise with the Bangladeshis depicted in Brick Lane and even understand the drivers which lead to the film’s more dramatic elements. White people are racist. That’s a simple fact. Sometimes it’s ameliorated by experience, sometimes by education, and sometimes by both. I like to think I fall into that last category, thanks to my years in the Gulf. But I also accept that all white people are racist, it’s merely a matter of degree and constant self-policing. And I try my best to self-police. So films like Brick Lane are important, if not the most compelling drama ever. On the one hand, Tannishtha Chatterjee is compelling in the lead role and Satish Kaushik makes her husband seem a lot more sympathetic than he deserves to be… But not much of it feels like it connects with Islam, despite an impassioned speech by Chanu Ahmed; and Nazneen’s lover, Christopher Simpson, comes across more as a paper-thin wide boy than anything else… I don’t know; maybe I was expecting more than the film was prepared to deliver, than the original novel was prepared to deliver. But it all felt a bit shallow and glib to me.

The Last Wave*, Peter Weir (1977, Australia). Richard Chamberlain is a corporate lawyer in Australia – the reason for his American accent is never explained, although his parents are introduced as his adoptive parents – who is assigned by legal aid to defend an Aboriginal man from the charge of murdering his friend. Something about the Aboriginal man Chamberlain finds striking, an inexplicable connection the two seem to have. The crime itself remains a mystery – five men in a bar, they’re thrown out for being Aboriginal, one ends up dead. The barrister assigned to the defence resents Chamberlain’s naivete – he can’t claim tribal murder for non-tribal Aboriginal people, ie, those living in the city. But Chamberlain is convinced it’s tribal murder, and through his dreams becomes swept up in the life  of his defendant, and the crime for which he was charged. There’s an obvious use of Dreamtime here, and Aboriginal beliefs, and perhaps the framing narrative is somewhat banal – it even has the “strange black man” outside the house, which was never an acceptable trope – but Weir handles the way Chamberlain gets sucked into the Aboriginal world-view quite effectively, so much so in fact that the final scene, to which the title refers, remains ambiguous. The Last Wave feels like a film with good intentions that has not aged well. It’s overlong, it’s choice of Chamberlain as the protagonist weakens its story, and its borderline positioning of Aboriginal people as “magical negros” only just manages not to be racist. The fact it has subsequently proven hard to find seems almost fitting. I’d say it was worth seeing, but only for those willing to track it down.

The Whispering Star, Sion Sono (2015, Japan). Another random film that looked interesting so I bunged it on my rental list. I suspect I may have thought it was anime and, from the title, sf anime, like 2001 Nights or Voices of a Distant Star. It’s sf, alright, but it’s not anime. It’s filmed in black and white. The director’s partner, Megumi Kagurazaka, plays an interstellar delivery person, although it’s not clear how real this is. Her spaceship resembles a house from the outside, and the opening scenes feature her repeating both a number of simple household tasks and her dialogue. It turns out she is delivering items to survivors of the Fukushima nuclear incident, played in the film by real life survivors. I don’t know if The Whispering Star was filmed in the areas abandoned as a consequence of the nuclear meltdown, but it certainly looks like it. To add to the strangeness, all the dialogue is looped, and delivered in whispered tones. Almost as if it were intended to represent telepathy. There’s no plot as such. The end result is an experimental film that overstays its welcome, and reminds me in many respects of Lukas Moodysson’s Container (there is also something container-like about Kagurazaka’s spaceship), but nonetheless makes a number of valid points about Fukushima. As a result of seeing The Whispering Star, I looked into Sono’s other films, and it looks like he has an oeuvre worth exploring…

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 918


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Moving pictures 2018, #33

Some long sought-after films here, and some random stuff that happened to catch my eye at the time. So to speak.

The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, Joseph Green (1962, USA). One of my favourite actresses of the 1950s is Virginia Leith, who made only a handful of films, and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is her last. She plays the fiancée of an arrogant surgeon who thinks he knows better than the entire medical profession. Of course. But then he’s in car crash and his girlfriend is killed, except he saves her head and keeps it alive in his lab at home. But she’s no good to him as a disembodied head, so he goes hunting for a suitable body for her, visiting a nightclub, and then an artist’s model. It’s not like the first time he’s done this, as there’s a monster he created behind a locked door in his laboratory, and his assistant lost an arm and he performed and arm transplant on him. Leith’s character, however, would sooner die, so she persuades the monster to attack her husband. Despite the schlock plot, and the B-movie sensibilities, this wasn’t as bad as I had expected. In fact, it reminded me of Sam Fuller’s films, it had that same sort of underbelly of society feel to it, although the scenes set in the lab with Leith’s head were an odd contrast. A superior B-movie.

Dykket, Tristan DeVere Cole (1989, Norway). One of my “enthusiasms” over the past few years has been deep sea diving, particularly deep sea habitats and saturation diving. But there aren’t that many films based around saturation diving, and the few that do use it in passing – Sphere, I’m looking at you – tend to get it laughably wrong. But Dykket, AKA The Dive, a Norwegian/British production, is actually about divers on a saturation dive. After four months at sea, a diving support ship with three divers aboard – one of whom is Michael Kitchen! – is due to return to port for a refit. But one of Scanoil’s (a stand-in for Norway’s Statoil) sea-bed valves nearby has been turned off by a trawler’s net. The divers are due to return by helicopter to dry land, but since it’s a “bounce dive”, ie, they won’t spend long enough on the sea-bottom at 100 metres (that’s 300 feet, approx, or 10 atmospheres) to require decompression, they decide to give it a try. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong. First, one of the divers is caught in the trawler net, then the bell gets tangled up. So they’re trapped, the ship is running out of gas, and the bell’s reserves have all but gone… The version of this I watched was unfortunately lacking subtitles, and about a third of the dialogue is in Norwegian. But I knew enough about saturation diving to follow what was going on. The underwater scenes are done well, although the incidental music throughout felt more like it belonged to a Euro soap opera than a feature film. But it wasn’t bad. I’m surprised it’s never been release on DVD, not even even in this country – given it stars Michael Kitchen.

Europa ‘51*, Roberto Rossellini (1952, Italy). Ingrid Bergman plays the wife of a wealthy man in post-war Italy. One night, during a dinner party, her young son, desperate for attention, tries to commit suicide by jumping down the apartment building’s stairwell. He ends up paralysed from the waist down. Unfortunately, he dies in hospital a few days later. Stricken by grief, Bergman gets involved with poor people, and helps them out, even taking one woman’s place in a factory for a day. But her husband objects to her activities, and has her consigned to a mental hospital, because when men don’t get what they want from their women they lock them up. The film was apparently inspired by the life of St Francis of Assisi, and Bergman certainly plays her role like a martyr. It’s an odd film, because it’s usually described as Neorealist, and for the first thirty or so minutes it doesn’t at all seem like one. But then Bergman does her ministering angel among the poor bit, many of whom are plainly non-professional actors, and it very much resembles an Italian Neorealist movie. Of the directors associated with the movement, I’ve never really been a big fan of Rossellini’s films, and there’s nothing here to persuade me otherwise, despite it being on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Sitcom, François Ozon (2000, France). Ozon’s films are readily available in the UK on DVD. Except this one. For some reason. There’s nothing in it I could see which would prohibit a sell-through release in the UK. And certainly nothing in it that is so unlike the rest of Ozon’s oeuvre it would preclude a release on that basis. The film concerns a family whose behaviour changes after the father brings home a lab rat as a pet. First, the son announces he is gay and completely changes his lifestyle. Then the daughter throws herself out of a window, is paralysed below the waist, and then begins exploring sado-masochism. The Spanish maid begins to act more like a member of the family than a paid servant, and her black husband, a sports teacher, starts sleeping with the gay son. The mother has sex with her son in order to “cure” him of his homosexuality. And the father eats the pet rat and turns into a giant rat. And, er, that’s it. I think the film is supposed to comment on the hermetic families which feature in US sitcoms, not to mention the anodyne humour and narrow-minded sensibilities. Unfortunately, the end result that comes across more like an exercise in trying to shock than any type of pointed commentary. And much of it is too silly to be taken seriously, anyway. I find Ozon a bit hit-and-miss, to be honest – I love some of his films, but others have struggled to keep my interest. This one falls in the latter camp.

The Shamer’s Daughter, Kenneth Krainz (2015, Denmark). The king of Dunark, his wife, youngest son and unborn child are found murdered. His oldest son, Nicodemus, is found drunk and covered in blood nearby. So the Master of Law calls in a shamer, a type of witch who can see everything of which a person is ashamed, but she can’t “see” evidence of Nicodemus’s, guilt. So they fetch her young daughter… who discovers that the son is innocent and his half-brother, Drakan, is the real culprit. So then Drakan seizes power, by throwing the Master of Law down a well – and no one thinks, well, if this is how he starts out, he’s not going to be a good ruler, is he? Of course not, this is fantasy. But the shamer’s daughter, and Nicodemus, manage to escape. The daughter is quickly caught, despite disguising herself as a boy. Because fantasy is all about the girls being rescued by the boys. Sigh. However, the Master of Arms begins to understand that Drakan is a bad sort, so he helps puts together a plot with Nicodemus to rescue the daughter and their mother as they’re thrown to the dragons. (despite being Danish, this film features mountains… and dragons.) The shamer’s daughter cannot get Drakan to admit his guilt – he’s not ashamed of murdering the king and his family – so she turns her gaze on the crowd, and gets them all to realise Drakan is a baddy. In the ensuing confusion, the good guys escape. Interestingly, though Nicodemus has Drakan under his sword at one point, and could end it all with one thrust, he chooses not to, and they all run away. To a nicer place, where the shamer and her daughter are reunited with the rest of their family. The world-building wasn’t bad, and the concept of shaming was a pretty good idea, but… Drakan was a pantomime villain, and it beggared belief that everyone would happily go along with his evil plans… and the title character had virtually no agency despite being the star of the story. Disappointing.

Blindfold, Philip Dunne (1966, USA). I could watch Rock Hudson in pretty much anything, but he pushes your level of tolerance sometimes. He made some outright weird stuff, and some stuff that seemed odd at the time but later turned into a classic, and some some thrillers that might have passed muster back then but really haven’t aged well. Like this one. Hudson’s performances are always watchable, and I now find him far better than Cary Grant, who seem to go from galumph to tea-bag tanned louche overnight in the mid-1950s. Hudson plays a psychiatrist who is recruited by the military to analyse a Soviet defector who refuses  to talk. He is blindfolded and taken from New York to a house in the Louisiana swamps. Then someone else turns up and convinces him the general who recruited him is a fake, and he needs to rescue the defector. But Hudson has no idea where they’re keeping the defector because blindfold. It all gets a bit confusing, and ends up with Hudson on the run, with the female lead, Claudia Cardinale, a nightclub dancer, of course, and the sister of the defector… They’re chased through the Louisiana swamps at night, and even though it’s done in a studio, it’s quite effective. But this is a pretty ordinary mid-sixties thriller, and not even its stars can do much with the material. Disappointing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 916