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Moving pictures 2018, #49

Another weird mix of films, most of which I stumbled across on Amazon Prime. Which really does have some astonishing stuff hidden away. Only recently I found two films on there by Pavel Lungin that I’d not seen. His Ostrov is excellent (I bought it on DVD years ago). This post is also, surprisingly one-third women. It is much harder to watch films by female directors than it is to read books by female authors, as there are far fewer women directing films.

Avalanche, Corey Allen (1978, USA). Until I found this on Amazon Prime, I’d not known Rock Hudson had appeared in a film produced by Roger Corman. True, given Hudson’s career in the decade leading up to his death – Embryo, anyone? – this probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. His wife in this film, however, was played by Mia Farrow, so perhaps New World Pictures actually spent some real money on their cast. The title pretty much describes the plot. Hudson has built a posh skiing resort in the, er, mountains, snowy mountains in the US somewhere. He invites a bunch of people to the opening, including his ex-wife, Farrow. There’s a big avalanche, everything gets buried under tons of snow, lots of people die. I think this film holds the record for the most number of characters on-screen wearing polo-neck jumpers. I have never seen so many polo-necks at once as I saw in this film. I suspect it was made to cash in on the late 1970s craze for disaster films, but even the bald use of stock footage doesn’t make it any worse than the disaster films churned out by the major studios. Entertaining enough for a lazy Sunday, more so if you find 1970s design and fashion appealing.

Wished, Dayyan Eng (2017, China). Another “stumbled across on Amazon Prime” film. I found it while looking for some Chinese films. There are a lot on there, but not really ones by Fifth or Sixth Generation directors. In fact, most seem to be low-budget-but-polished commercial rom coms, although I have found a few classics, like Song at Midnight (but it’s an awful transfer) and The Red Detachment of Women (see below). Anyway, Wished… An Earth goddess decides, for fun, to award nineteen wishes to a hapless noob, Ma Fendou, who works for his parents as an insurance salesman (mostly unsuccessful) and has just broken up with his girlfriend, Ren Shanshan. But the wishes will be chosen by the Earth goddess from those Ma has made over the years, including the ones he made as a small kid. And the first one manifests when he goes to shower, but there’s no water. And when he pours water from a jug over his head, it pours down either side of him without touching him. Because when he was little, he hated baths and wished he’d never have to have one again. Being unable to wash obviously has consequences, and as each wish manifests so Ma has to deal with its effects. The only person who seems sympathetic to his cause – beside his slobbish flatmate – is his ex-girlfriend, who’s getting married in a few days. Wished is a straight-up rom com – I read somewhere that Hollywood no longer produces these, and hasn’t done since Bridesmaids, but China is clearly still making money from them – in which Ma tries to cope with his wishes, realises he still loves Shanshan, and tries to win her back. Some of the set-pieces are excellent – in one, he spontaneously grows a mullet, because a star he idolised as a teen had one; in another, he finds himself the owner of a Transformer sportscar. Worth seeking out.

City of Tiny Lights, Pete Travis (2016, UK). “British crime thriller” are not words which would normally encourage me to watch, or in this case rent and watch, a movie. Most of the best British crime drama of the last twenty or thirty years has been television series. In the cinema, it’s all Mockney gangsters or period pieces set decades ago about nasty people who are best forgotten. Or it’s just an old film, with Jack Hawkins as a gentleman bank robber. But City of Tiny Lights was directed by Pete Travis, who directed the excellent Dredd a few years ago. So I gave it a go. And it was worth it. Riz Ahmed plays private detective in North Kensington (Trellick Tower features prominently in many establishing shots). A woman hires him to look for her missing flatmate, Natasha. Both are sexworkers. He finds Natasha’s last client, a Pakistani businessman, dead in a hotel room. Ahmed’s investigations lead to him childhood friend James Floyd, now a wealthy property developer, and the Islamic Youth League, which is under covert investigation by SO15. And somehow or other an old flame – well, a girl he fancied when they were teens – Billie Piper gets dragged into the story, along with associated back-story flashbacks. It all turns out to be a property scam, and the terrorism angle is only a bit of misdirection. As thriller films go, the plot of City of Tiny Lights is nothing special. It’s based on a novel, with the same title, by Patrick Neate, and adapted by him; but it does feel in places like the author was determined to keep some of the subplots in despite the fact there wasn’t enough room to do them justice and they actually detracted from the main plot. Ahmed is excellent in the lead role, and most of the supporting cast are pretty good – although I’ve never really understood the appeal of Billie Piper and she feels completely superfluous in this. But the film looks great, and if it’s more arthouse than noir that’s no bad thing. City of Tiny Lights wasn’t apparently well-received by critics, and I’m pretty sure my opinion of it is in a minority. But it did, for me, things that Dredd well – and Dredd‘s plot wasn’t exactly ground-breaking either – and it displayed a distinctive vision.

In Between, Maysaloun Hamoud (2016, Israel). Three young Israeli Arab women share a flat in Tel Aviv. Leila is a secular Muslim who works as a lawyer and enjoys partying at night. Salma is a Christian Arab, who DJs but holds down a series of bar-tending jobs, and is lesbian. And Nour is Muslim and religious, in her final year of a computer science degree at university, and affianced to a controlling man who is not happy with her living in Tel Aviv. The story kicks off when Nour moves in, taking the place vacated by her cousin (I can’t remember if the film explained the reason for her departure). While Nour is religious, she is tolerant of the others’ lifestyles, but her fiancé is not (but then, he’s a totally controlling arsehole, which is sadly not uncommon among men). This culminates in a sexual assault, and Nour breaks off with him. Meanwhile, Salma takes her girlfriend to meet her parents, although they do not know she is lesbian. In fact, the dinner is for Salma to meet a prospective husband. When her parents find out Salma is lesbian, they go completely batshit intolerant, and threaten to lock her up in an asylum if she doesn’t move out of her flat and back in with them, and marry a man of their choosing. So she sneaks away after they’ve gone to bed. Leila’s story is the least dramatic – she’s starting to realise she needs to slow-down, but that’s about it. She enters into a relationship with a man, but just when she’s starting to think he could be the one… she discovers him in bed with another woman. (Very few of the men in the film are especially nice, but I don’t have a problem with that – men are generally shits, especially when it comes to their treatment of women.) The film ends with the three of them reconciled to their changed circumstances – the events shown during the film have altered them, and made them closer friends. A good film, worth seeing.

The Red Detachment of Women, Jin Xie (1961, China). As mentioned above, I found this while hunting for Chinese films to watch on Amazon Prime that weren’t low-budget rom coms. It’s generally acknowledged to be a classic of Chinese cinema. The unwieldy title refers to the first women’s army formed by the communists in 1930s China. The film takes place on Hainan Island, a Kuomintang stronghold. Wu Qionghua, a housemaid for the local warlord, runs away after several failed attempts, joins the titular group, becomes its leader and helps liberate Hainan for the communists. It’s a solid piece of cinema, well-made and well-acted, but with nothing especially exciting about its cinematography or staging. Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking how Western – especially US – viewers would probably disparage the film as propaganda. And it is, it’s pure communist propaganda. But then so is the output of Hollywood. Propaganda, that is; not communist, obviously. Every Hollywood film is an advert for the so-called American Dream, every US film showcases the American lifestyle and its worship of consumer products. How is that different? Especially given many visitors to the US are now finding the country much less advanced than claimed (I was surprised on visiting Los Angeles in 2006 to see mobile phone networks advertising themselves using the claim they “dropped fewer calls” than their rivals. Dropped calls? Mobile providers haven’t done that in Europe since the 1980s.) Anyway, I would expect a communist film to extol the virtues of a communist life, just as I expect a US film to extol the virtues of a capitalist life (but let’s not forget the US has some of the least progressive employment legislation in the world, so capitalism not so good after all). Having said all that, The Red Detachment of Women is not about how wonderful life is under communism (a difficult sell, at the best of times), but about the struggle to create a communist state. Which might well apply to the struggle to create any type of state. Except, to be fair, it’s probably only a communist state that would put together a women-only army, which is a point in their favour. The Red Detachment of Women is not great cinema, but I think it is important cinema, and for that reason definitely worth seeing.

Ausma, Laila Pakalniņa (2015, Latvia). After some diligent searching on Amazon Prime, I managed to find a Latvian film. I’ve seen Estonian and Lithuanian films, but not Latvian. (I did find a recent Albanian one, but it turned out to a be a US production by Albanian immigrants.) Ausma, AKA Dawn, was Latvia’s entry for Best Foreign Film in 2016 Oscars but was not even nominated. It is… odd. Shot in black-and-white and set in the 1930s. It’s set on the eponymous collective farm and, according to Wikipedia, the plot is based on the story of Pavlik Morozov, a thirteen-year-old boy who denounced his father, the chairman of the village soviet, for selling forged documents. The father was sentenced to ten years in a labour camp and later executed. The boy was subsequently murdered by his male relatives. And while that may seem straightforward enough a story – Wikipedia points that there’s little evidence for it, despite the wealth of treatments of it, and it survives only as hearsay – that’s not exactly what I saw when I watched the film. As mentioned, it’s shot in a very crisp black-and-white, frequently from cameras placed in odd positions. The movie’s opening shot, for eamaple, is from the ground, looking up past a large snail centre-screen at a chicken. A later scene has the camera suspended vertically over the table, looking down, around which the actors are sitting. There are a lot shots like these. Young Morozov is readily identifiable, but I wasn’t entirely clear who was his father. I think it was the man the other men described as insane, and who then proved the point by pretending to gun down the rest of the soviet with a broom, before using the broom smash everything on the table. And… It all looks very, well, interesting, but I can understand why it failed to get a nomination. Parts of it looked gorgeous, some scenes were very funny (in a blackly comic sort of way), but the story seemed to jump around so much I had trouble following it. I will likely watch it again, and may well appreciated much more on a second viewing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931

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Reading diary 2018, #14

My reading has been all over the place these past few months. Sometimes I just grab the first thing I see, other times it takes me ages to pick a book to read, although these past few weeks it’s been more of the former than the latter. Having said that, I’m still ahead on my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books in 2018 – six books ahead, in fact, as I type this. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been reading more than in previous years, although there have been a few weekends when all I’ve felt up to doing – because of the heat – is just sitting down and reading. Or watching films.

Liminal, Bee Lewis (2018, UK). I reviewed this for Interzone. The back-cover blurb describes it as a “Gothic fantasia”, which basically means literary fiction that doesn’t want to be identified as genre and is too dark to be called “magical realism”. As it is, Liminal is a weird mix of fantasy au Mythago Wood and “grip-lit” à la Gone Girl. Interestingly, the main character is a disabled person – she lost a leg as a child in a car accident – and Lewis handles her well. She’s less successful with her male characters – the husband is supposed to be quite religious but that only manifests in outbursts of bizarrely misogynistic behaviour (which I guess is as good a description of religion as anything else). The genre aspects are quite good, but the thriller plot is too easily and too neatly resolved. Anyway, see my Interzone review for more.

The Trespasser, DH Lawrence (1912, UK). This was Lawrence’s second novel, published the year after The White Peacock. It was apparently based on the diaries of a friend of Lawrence, whose lover, a married man, committed suicide. It seems a bit, well, off, especially since the female lead in the novel is called Helena, which is not much different from Helen, the name of Lawrence’s friend. Helena is a young woman studying how to play the violin under Siegmund, a married man. The two enter into an affair, but the book pretty much focuses on a trip the two take together – partly by accident – to the Isle of Wight. They know that once the holiday is over they must return to their respective lives, and any affair between the two must end. On his return home, Siegmund realises his relationship with his wife and children has been forever tainted by his affair, even if they did not know of it (although his wife certainly suspected). Like the earlier novel – and some of his later ones – Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it’s describing the landscape. The dialogue, and the characters’ emotions, seem over-emphatic to modern readers, and though Lawrence had a good ear for dialogue it often jars with the over-emotional prose. I can understand why he’s no longer as popular, or as read, as he once was, but I still think he’s an important author in British literature, and it’s a shame he’s best-known these days for TV miniseries adaptations of his work.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper (1989, USA). This was a reread, although I last read it twenty-five years ago. I’m not much given to rereading, and then it’s usually of books I greatly admire. But the blurb for Grass intrigued me (or re-intrigued me), and I couldn’t remember anything of the book from my previous read (and I’m generally quite good at remembering books I’ve read). So I grabbed it one weekend, and read it on-and-off over a couple of weeks. There is a type of sf which is quite common, in which a group of explorers or settlers must figure out the strange ecology of an alien world – not always directly affecting them, sometimes it’s historical. There are plenty of examples, both short fiction and novels, from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ‘The Wind People’ (1959) to Stephen Leigh’s Dark Water’s Embrace (1998), and many both between and since. Tepper’s Grass is a good example of the type. On the eponymous world, a number of noble families live in country estates on the grassy plains, and their lives revolve around the Hunt. But this Hunt bears only a faint resemblance to the barbaric practice of chasing foxes on horseback (er, the hunters, obviously; the foxes aren’t on horseback) as practised in the UK. For a start, the hounds and mounts (but never “horses”) are native species of Grass, as are their prey, the “foxen”. All three creatures are likely intelligent – certainly the hunters are not in control during the Hunt. Meanwhile, a plague has taken hold on all the human-occupied worlds… except Grass. So Sanctity, the oppressive religion which pretty much rules all the humans, sends a family of Old Catholics as ambassadors to Grass, with the secret task of discovering if Grass is indeed immune to the plague. The Yrariers were chosen because they’re both Olympic champion horse-riders and Sanctity has heard about, but misunderstood, the Hunt on Grass. It wasn’t until I get to the end of Grass that I began to remember my previous read. And I suspect that’s because back then I also found the final section of the book over-dramatic. The puzzle presented by the hounds, mounts and foxen is interesting enough, not to mention the Arbai, and the plague, so there’s no real reason to start blowing shit up in the third act. I had definitely forgotten, however, how good Tepper’s prose could be. She famously started writing late – she was in her fifties when her first novel was published – so perhaps that explains why her writing was a cut above many of her peers. During the late 1990s, I read a whole bunch of Tepper’s novels – she was an author much-liked among the members of a sf APA I was in at the time – and if hr novels had a tendency, as I remember it, to get a little preachy at times, there was never any doubt that she was among the best the genre had to offer during that period. I really ought to read more of her stuff.

The Wind, Jay Caselberg (2017, Australia). I must admit, these novellas aren’t really convincing me that horror/dark fantasy is a genre that I’m missing out on. Fans of the genre will likely find more to like in them than I have done. It’s not as if the writing has been especially stand-out – and in this one it’s noticeably, well, not bad per se, just very, very ordinary. Gerry has just moved to Abbotsford to take over the local veterinary practice, which is mostly farm animal work rather than domestic pets. But the Dark Days are coming again, which seems to manifest as wind (as in climate, not as in farm animals alimentary processes), and an enigmatic red-haired young woman called Amanda. Like the Lotz, this is set in rural UK but doesn’t quite convince. The prose manages a good British voice, but there are odd details which don’t fit. Like the village shop, which resembles more something out of Open All Hours, or the use of “used cars” instead of “secondhand cars”. Or referring to Gerry as the “veterinary” instead of “vet” or “veterinarian”. The author is apparently an Australian living “in Europe”. They make a nice collectable set, these four novellas, with a lovely piece of cover art spread across all four books. But three novellas in and they’ve not been as memorable as the first and third series of novellas, both of which were science fiction.

The Inheritors, William Golding (1955, UK). It must be horrible to have had a distinguished career as a writer, but people only know you from your first novel. Which for Golding was Lord of the Flies; and even now 64 years after its publication, and 25 years after Golding’s death, if you asked anyone to name a novel by him they’d name his first novel. But to then follow Lord of the Flies with something as frankly weird as The Inheritors… Now, I know Golding was not that odd. I’ve read his Rites of Passage, which is brilliant, and I have The Spire on the TBR, but The Inheritors is by any yardstick an odd book. It tells of the end of the Neanderthals at the hands of the Cro-Magnons, and is told entirely from the point-of-view of the former. The main characters are a small group of Neanderthals, comprising a young male, an old male, an old woman, two young women, one of which carries a baby, and a young child. The old woman is described at one point as the young male’s mother, so it’s likely they’re all related. The old man dies – of pneumonia? – after falling into a river, and then other members of the family disappear under mysterious circumstances. The young male discovers some men have settled an island in a nearby river, but they are not men like himself – nor women, for that matter (Golding was an old school misogynist). The two survivors of the family hide out in a tree and witness the Cro-Magnons at work and play. It’s a novel in which very little happens for pages and pages, and what does happen is filtered through Golding’s idea of a Neanderthal worldview. It works because the prose is so good. There’s something about Golding’s writing that oozes authority, and I’m not entirely sure what it is. His prose is not lush, nor is it stripped back. But there’s a clarity and confidence to it that many writers would do well to emulate – especially in these days of MFAs and CWAs and creative writing courses. I can think of several recent highly-praised novels where if the author really had applied “kill your darlings”, the novel would be considerably shorter. Had Golding done the same to The Inheritors, it would be precisely the same length.

Thoreau’s Microscope, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA). I’ve been a fan of Blumlein’s fiction for many years, but he has not been especially prolific: three novels – this book claims The Roberts is a novel, but it’s really a novella – and only one collection all the way back in 1988 and another, What the Doctor Ordered, in 2013 (but also a new one, as well as this one, All I Ever Dreamed, this year). Having said that, these PM Press Outspoken Authors collections are odd beasts, as they contain a mixture of fiction and factual pieces, most of which are not that well-known. The title of this one refers to the collection’s longest-piece, an essay about Blumlein, his lung cancer, and a hike into the High Sierras with friends to name a mountain after Thoreau, and, er, Thoreau. Also included are ‘Paul and Me’, in which the narrator meets and makes friends with Paul Bunyan; ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f‘, written in the third person and almost impossible to summarise; ‘Fidelity’, which is not genre, about a Jewish couple who have twin sons and can’t decide whether to circumcise them; ‘Know How, Can Do’, about a worm given a brain graft, who gains sentience; and finally an interview with Blumlein. As an introduction to Blumlein’s short fiction, this is not a good place to start. The contents seem to have been chosen more because of their unusual nature than because they are representative of his oeuvre. Good stuff, but more for fans than casual browsers. Having said that, followers of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series will probably not be phased by the collection’s contents – and if it persuades them to try more of Blumlein’s fiction, then job done.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Moving pictures 2018, #48

Some good directors in this post, ones I should watch more films by… although I’ve seen all of Martel’s movies except her most recent, and Solás, who made twenty-four films… well, few of his are available on DVD in the UK – and I think I have all the ones that are.

The Fallen Idol, Carol Reed (1948, UK). Reed, of course, is best known for The Third Man, but he made 29 feature films, and won the Oscar for Best Director for Oliver! in 1968. The Fallen Idol is an accomplished late 1940s thriller, more so because it is told chiefly from the point of view of a young boy. Philippe is the young son of the French ambassador to London. He adores his father’s butler, played by Ralph Richardson, who tells him stories of his adventures in Africa. But when Philippe accidentally witnesses a meeting between Richardson and his mistress – identified to the boy as Richardson’s niece – and then starts spending time with them, and the news filters back to Richardson’s wife… Richardson and his wife quarrel and she falls down the stairs and dies. Philippe witnessed the start of the fight, but not the all-important part where Richardson walked away and the wife slipped and fell. Philippe’s refusal to speak ill of Richardson actually hampers the police investigation, who begin to suspect Richardson of murder. It’s all very cleverly done, but the fact the viewer sees the accident happen does make it all feel a bit like an episode of Columbo. The boy who plays Philippe is especially good, although the career promised by the film never materialised. The Fallen Idol doesn’t have the bite of other Reed films (um, well, not including Oliver!), but is a good example of a tightly-plotted well-made thriller. If only good films were ever made, it would be considered a mediocre effort; but compared against the crap that’s usually produced in any given year, it stands out as a solid piece of work. Worth seeing.

The Holy Girl, Lucrecia Martel (2004, Argentina). Martel has to date made only four feature films, and I have so far seen all but her most recent, last year’s Zama. I would put her in the top twenty-five directors working in film today. The Holy Girl, or La niña santa, is perhaps not the best of her films, but it’s certainly the one that’s most characteristically hers in terms of technique. Martel likes to film as if she were a voyeur, through doorways and windows, more fly-on-the-wall than actually staged, and in this film there is plenty of that in evidence. The story concerns an Argentine schoolgirl who, after being frottaged by a doctor staying at her mother’s hotel for a medical conference, decides it is her holy mission to save him. But all that happens in and around the interaction of the main characters – the girl, her friends, her mother, the doctors at the conference… To say any more would be a spoiler. Martel has a singular approach to drama, and while it’s tempting to compare her to Claudia Llosa (a Peruvian), it’s an unfair comparison: Martel is the more technically accomplished film-maker, but Llosa’s films just have the edge for me (though Llosa’s films are harder to find in the UK). Despite that, Martel seems to have more of a career – Llosa’s last film was 2014, and there’s no news of anything new from her – and she’s an excellent director, definitely one whose career is worth following. Recommended.

Beloved, Humberto Solás (1985, Cuba). I foolishly didn’t buy this box set of seven Cuban films when it was available, and once it was deleted the price shot up to around the £75 mark (and I see there’s a copy on Amazon going for £150 now). Fortunately, I stumbled across a much cheaper copy on eBay, and when it arrived it was still shrinkwrapped. Result. The first film I chose to watch from the set was Cecelia… but the disc labelled that proved to actually contain Beloved. And vice versa. Oops. All the others could be mixed up too, I’ve not checked. But at least the films are there.  I’m not the first to remark on the similarity between Solás’s films and Visconti’s. Both have made lush period dramas, with mostly static cameras, but with lots of close-ups and reaction shots, and the occasional painterly mid-range shot. In Beloved (AKA Amada), which is set in 1914, a woman, Amada, and her husband, live with her blind mother. He has a mistress, and is about to embark on a career in local politics (which the first scene of the film describes as extremely corrupt). Amada is in love with her cousin, and he is in love with her. But she refuses to leave her husband because she would be branded an adulteress. Meanwhile, the husband has been working on the maid to get her to persuade the mother to sell the house and other properties. As the title indicates, the film is about Amada, a prisoner in her marriage, increasingly held prisoner by the maid, who won’t let her see her mother… The dialogue is pretty intense, with characters often lecturing each other, but that’s hardly unexpected in a film adapted from an early twentieth-century novel – in this case Miguel de Carrión’s 1929 novel La esfinge (The Sphinx). It’s all pretty glum stuff, as Amada’s situation deteriorates and echoes that of the country. I suspect this film would look very nice indeed if restored, but the transfer in the box set is not brilliant. The dark areas frequently overwhelm the screen and the muted colour palette doesn’t work so well on a television screen – even if it does successfully evoke the period. Still, a good film, especially if you like period dramas.

Cecilia, Humberto Solás (1982, Cuba). An adaptation of an extremely important Cuban novel, Cecilia Valdés by Cirilo Villaverde, published in 1839, and apparently released as a six-hour TV mini-series, a four-hour domestic feature film, and a two-hour international feature film. It’s the last which appears in the Viva Cuba box set. In many ways, I mentioned above that Solás’s work reminds me of Visconti’s, and Cecilia certainly put me very much in mind of The Innocent. It’s also an historical piece, about an important part of Cuban history, but also about the role of women – and slaves, and mixed-race people – in Cuban society, at a time between the Haiti revolution and Cuban independence. I tried to think of a film that covered a similarly shameful period in UK history… and failed. There are shameful episodes aplenty in British history, but the British public is more likely to get in an uproar when a US film completely ignores the British contribution to something historically important. I suppose the same is equally true of the US, which still has plenty to be shameful about. Having said that, Hollywood has been so creative with history over the decades that most people probably think historical films aren’t necessarily true. Fake history! As the brainless orange-faced incumbent in the White House would no doubt say. On the other hand, Cecilia is adapted from a nineteenth-century novel, so some element of artistic licence is baked in. And Solás apparently took some liberties with the plot. Anyway, like Amada, this is an excellent period drama, and reportedly the most expensive film made at that time.

The Cloverfield Paradox, Julius Onah (2018, USA). I don’t know what possessed me to watch this, a crappy sf film badly shoe-horned into the Cloverfield trilogy, which is not actually a trilogy just a dumb JJ Abrams dumb marketing gimmick… but I suppose the cast – and it’s a generally good cast – might have suggested it couldn’t be as bad as most reviews claimed. Sadly, those reviews – and I find most film reviews suspiciously positive about the even shittiest output of Hollywood – were closer to the mark. The Cloverfield Paradox is a perfect example of why I have a low opinion of sf cinema. There have been only a handful of sf films made in the last 100 years which are any good, and that’s a much lower hit-rate than pretty much every other cinematic genre (except maybe the American coming-of-age movie, which has yet to produce a single good film). In The Cloverfield Paradox, an international team of astronauts are experimenting with a particle accelerator aboard a purpose-built space station. Because apparently accelerating a particle will solve the Earth’s energy crisis. Or something. Given the space station apparently has artificial gravity, you’d have thought solving that problem would probably help with the energy crisis. Unfortunately, it seems accelerating a particle actually shifts the space station into an alternate reality. (Which explains much of recent history post-CERN here on Earth.) The astronauts figure this out because they realise they are upside-down, and so they must be on the opposite side of the Sun to the Earth. WTF. Hollywood science: like science, but complete bullshit. Meanwhile, giant monsters have been appearing on Earth. Because. It’s all completely meaningless bollocks, which is a shame because it has a good cast – not just Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who was unknown to me, but also Daniel Brühl, Chris O’Dowd, Elizabeth Debicki and Ziyi Zhang. Avoid.

The Go Master, Tian Zhuangzhuang (2006, China). This is pretty much a straight-up biopic of famous Chinese Go master Wu Qingyuan, famous in Japan as Go Seigen. Born in China, Wu moves to Japan as a teenager in order to pursue a career playing Go. But when the Sino-Japanese War breaks out in the 1930s, he decides to remain. At intervals, displays text explaining the events which lead to the life-changing decisions Wu makes, but the text starts in third-person before abruptly shifting to first-person, which is a little odd. The film also makes little effort to introduce the game of Go, and after watching it I’m no clearer about how the game is played than I was before. It does make Wu’s skill – he’s reckoned the greatest twentieth-century player of the game – something you have to take on faith. Like other of Tian’s films, the cinematography is excellent, and the acting top-notch. The pace is slow, but at 104 minutes this is not a long film. I suspect it will appeal more to those who understand, or are interested in, Go. I’ve yet to be convinced by Tian’s films yet. They look gorgeous, but there never seems to be much going on in them. I’ve to date seen four, including this one, of his eleven feature films. I’d like to see more, but there are plenty of Fifth and Sixth Generation directors whose films are available in the UK, so perhaps I should work my way through those first…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931


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Moving pictures 2018, #47

It would appear I’m still watching Marx Brothers films, although my defence is the one below was already on my rental list and I’ve, er, not bothered to purge the list of their films. And I might as well watch the most famous ones, after all. Other than that, this post is fifty percent a UK-fest. I found a whole bunch of old British films on Amazon Prime – totally by accident, of course, because hey Amazon! Your search facility sucks donkey balls totally!

Otherwise, the usual mixed bag. Oh, and a really good Swedish film.

A Night at the Opera*, Sam Wood (1935, USA). Is this film famous on its own merits or because Queen used its title for the title of one of its best-selling albums? Is there any way to find out? Hollywood has a habit of over-stating its influence, so watch an old documentary that claims the Marx Brothers were massively influential and it’s more likely to be Hollywood bullshit than anything else. All part of the marketing machine. Because, in most respects, A Night at the Opera is not much different to earlier Marx Brothers films. The brothers play similar roles, this time centred around an opera company, which Groucho is hoping to use as a vehicle to defraud the fifth Marx Brother, Margaret Dumont, out of her fortune (seriously, she’s the best thing in these films). However, the final act, in which Harpo is chased around the theatre, and uses various tricks to escape capture is among the best physical comedy the Marx Brothers have put on film (that I’ve seen). I think you have to be a fan to truly appreciate these films, but I can understand why this one is held in higher regard than most of the others.

Five Dolls for an August Moon, Mario Bava (1970, Italy). So there was a sale on the Arrow website and a whole bunch of Blu-rays were going for £7 a pop, and this one was one of them… And while I do like me some giallo, I’m a bit picky about the ones I  like and Mario Bava is hardly top of my list of giallo directors to watch even though I’ve seen several of his films… But you know how it is, finger slipped and all that, and I ended up with a copy of Five Dolls for a August Moon, which title conjures up much that sounds giallo but is not all that actually descriptive of the movie’s plot. However, it does have a great jazz rock score. Giallo films are generally quite good on soundtracks, but this is a superior example. Which, sadly, cannot be said of its plot. Five rich men meet on an island, with wives and partners, ostensibly to buy a formula from one of them, but he refuses to sell. Then people are murdered one by one. So it goes. Each of them tries to figure out who the killer is, but none of the clues add up. It’s all very 1970s, with the women in floaty pantsuits, the men in flares, suede and sideburns. Meh.

Mute, Duncan Jones (2018, UK). Gosh, this was bad. A Poundland Blade Runner married to a plot straight from some horribly regressive 1970s action movie. Women are routinely brutalised, one character is a paedophile and it’s only offensive when the plot requires it to be, and another character is taunted with being gay. Hey, Jones, it’s 2018, shit like that doesn’t fly anymore. What makes it worse is that Mute is, by all accounts, a personal project, one that Jones spent years trying to get funded. And that’s fair enough, there are many projects that take decades to get funded. But they should be revisited when the finance is in place to make sure they’re appropriate for their year of release. It would seem Mute was not. The title refers to a man who was injured as a kid and so can no longer speak. He works in a nightclub, and is very protective of one of the hostesses (I didn’t think they were in a relationship at first). Which gets him into a fight with a customer who gets a bit too friendly with her. So she’s fired. Then she disappears. He goes looking for her. There are also a pair of underground surgeons and some gangsters and a brothel and… Sigh. It’s all like something from the 1970s, and setting it in a Berlin of the near-future only underscores how anachronistic it all is. Avoid.

Passport to Pimlico, Henry Cornelius (1949, UK). This was one of the films I discovered on Amazon Prime, although the quality of the transfer was pretty bad. It’s one of the classic Ealing comedies, and while I’ve seen a number of them over the years, I seem to have missed seeing this one. Until now, that is. A treasure trove is found in Pimlico, and among all the gold is an ancient document which declares Pimlico had been given to the Duke of Burgundy centuries before. So, in order to hang onto the treasure, Pimlico declares its independence, and makes the young descendant of the Duke of Burgundy (which no longer exists, of course), their head of state. The British government isn’t happy about this state of affairs. So they put up barbed wire and try to starve out the “Burgundians”. But the rest of London thinks it’s all marvellous, and sends them food (there’s a good scene where they’re actually throwing items of food over the barbed wire). At that time, Pimlico was still pretty much a bomb-site, so you can understand why its inhabitants are reluctant to give up their treasure. Although it’s a comedy, Passport to Pimlico is a bit more barbed than just a comic story. The plucky Londoner bit is all somewhat self-congratulatory having survived the Blitz, but that’s pretty much baked into Londoners’ character, and for all the deprivations visible in Pimlico – rationing was still in place in 1949 – it doesn’t seem to prevent the food parcels. (A man with a barrow full of oranges even turns up at one point – were they available again by then?). Much as I enjoyed Passport to Pimlico, I think the other Ealing comedies I’ve seen were better.

Nineteen Eighty-four, Rudolph Cartier (1954, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime too, and it also was a poor quality transfer, but not so bad it was unwatchable. Winston Smith is played by Peter Cushing, in one of his first major roles, if not his first. Donald Pleasance appears as Symes. There are also several familiar faces in smaller parts. It pretty much follows the book. The production design, as you’d expect of 1950s BBC, is pretty much all sets, clean and unadorned when it’s in a ministry office, but like something out of Steptoe & Son when it’s a prole’s home. Given it was made only six years after the book was published, and less than a decade after the end of WWII, it’s no surprise the few outside scenes show a devastated London (but then it would be several decades before the last of the bomb damage disappeared), which, sadly, suits the story. But hey, just wait for 2084. After 66 years of Brexit. Maybe there won’t be a war, just 66 years of enforced neglect (outside the Foxconn enclaves, that is). It’s hard what to know what to make of Orwell’s classic these days, it’s like someone strafed it with a machine-gun firing irony bullets. Although it does render the central love-story a bit, well, banal. Ah well.

Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). I found this on Cinema Paradiso’s website and added it to my rental list because it sounded interesting. Three fourteen-year-old girls, Bella, Momo and Kim, are being horribly bullied at school. Bella is assaulted. The three are sent a strange seed through the post. They plant it and it grows overnight into a weird black flower. They drink some of its nectar and wake up as boys. The first time, it goes well – they’re welcomed into a pick-up game of football. No one recognises them. They’re invited to a party a few nights later – but they have to bring the beer. Of course, after that it doesn’t go so well. These things never do. Kim falls in with the local bad boy and joins him when he burgles a workshop, and of course fancies him. The girls’ transformations give them the confidence to stand up to their bullies at school, but Kim loves being male much more than Momo or Bella, and even thinks she might be trans. I had almost zero expectations when I slid this into the player – an indie Swedish/Finnish co-production, with a young and unknown cast… But I thought it excellent. The cast are very good indeed – and cleverly chosen so the male and female versions resemble each other. The friendship between the three girls is drawn really well, although some of the scenes where they stand up for themselves at school seem a bit too easy. The bullying, however, is far from subtle, and hard to take. One final point: I don’t normally mention soundtracks unless they’re a feature of the story. But one of the songs in Girls Lost – it plays a couple of times, but most noticeably during the film’s final few minutes – I thought very atmospheric. It was ‘Keep The Streets Empty For Me’ by Fever Ray. Anyway, Girls Lost: recommended. It might well make my best of the year.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931


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Moving pictures 2018, #46

I like it when there are six movies and six different countries. And one of the movies is from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. True, one of the films below is by a director I’ve been a fan of for many years – that’s Kaurismäki – and for reasons that still escape me I’ve been working my way through the Marx brothers films… but the others were completely new to me.

Horse Feathers, Norman McLeod (1932, USA). After moaning in my last Moving pictures post that I no longer understand why I continue to watch the Marx Brothers, my excuse for Horse Feathers is that was on the same rental disc as Monkey Business… although I can think of no good excuse for, a week later, watching A Night at the Opera (although, to be fair, it is a better film than these early ones). Anyway, Horse Feathers is about… er, a college (ie, university) with a shit football (ie, American Football) team, which always loses, and the Marx Brothers con themselves into positions of power at the college and then hire pro players for their team, all so they can beat a rival college. I can’t remember any especially amusing scenes from this film, only an overriding memory of feeling sorry for Zeppo for having to play the all-American clean-cut college-boy hero. Groucho wise-cracks (often not very funny), Harpo is creepy as fuck, and Chico, embarrassingly, plays a comedy Latino but delivers the best lines. The Marx Brothers comedy has not aged as well as some of their contemporaries.

The Other Side of Hope, Aki Kaurismäki (2017, Finland). I already had everything in this new Blu-ray box set except The Other Side of Hope (and The Man Without a Past, which I’d already seen), but Kaurismäki is definitely worth upgrading from DVD. So I did. And gave my DVD Kaurismäki box sets to a friend. Anyway, The Other Side of Hope. There needs to be more books and films about refugees in Europe, because how we treat them increasingly defines us – and is certainly defining the current era. You have the racists and fascists becoming increasingly normalised in the press, and yet a recent poll claimed the UK was a more welcoming country than it was ten years ago. I suspect that poll doesn’t include the Home Office, which seems to staffed entirely by racists enacting racist policies put in place by arch-racist Theresa May. Happily, not everyone agrees with such Nazis, and people are writing novels – like Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (see here) – and making films – such as The Other Side of Hope – which address European nations’ inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. (There would, of course, be fewer refugees moving into Europe if we stopped bombing their homes.) In The Other Side of Hope, Khaled, a Syrian, enters Helsinki illegally and applies for asylum at a police station. He tells them his story (through an interpreter): he returned home from work one day to find his house destroyed by bombs, and his wife and child dead. Like many other Syrians fleeing the civil war (and British bombs), he and his sister travelled north, but he lost her in the Balkans. His application is rejected and he escapes from the facility where he’d been put. He’s found sleeping rough by a businessman who has just sold his shop and bought a neighbourhood restaurant and which he’s failing to make a go of (their attempt at re-inventing themselves as a sushi restaurant is hilarious). The restaurant owner hires Khaled and arranges for him to get a fake ID. Meanwhile, another refugee Khaled met in the facility has had word of Khaled’s sister. She’s in Lithuania. So Khaled arranges to have her smuggled to Finland. But then Khaled has a run-in with a group of neo-Nazis… The Other Side of Hope is probably the most Kaurismäki of his films. It’s both tragedy and farce, and all played completely deadpan. The restaurant owner is played by Kaurismäki regular and ex-Leningrad Cowboys member Sakari Kuosmanen, and there are few other familiar faces in there too. Khaled is played by Sherwan Haji, a Syrian actor who emigrated to Finland. An excellent film.

The Visitor, Giulio Paradiso (1979, Italy). I get these text messages every now and again, usually late at night, from David Tallerman, in which he tells me to add certain films to my rental list (I do the same to him, of course). The Visitor was one such film. It was also completely bonkers. It’s an Italian film, but set in the US with a mostly US cast, including Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, Lance Henriksen, Shelley Winters, John Huston and Sam Peckinpah. Yes, really. There is apparently an ages-long cosmic conflict between evil, Zatteen, and good, Yahweh. But Zatteen was killed on Earth centuries ago, and survives only through the descendants of children he had with human women. One of which is apparently a young girl with telekinetic abilities, which she is using to help the basketball team owned by her mother’s boyfriend win games. It’s all a bit Damien, and the Christian references are laid on thick. And like most Italian films of the 1970s, it’s all very intense, a bit like Cronenberg turn up to eleven but without the body horror. There is, for example, a scene in which they try to kill Shelley Winters by wrapping a wire around her neck and the sending her down the stairs on a stairlift. Despite all this, The Visitor isn’t especially memorable. Batshit insane, yes; and that’s probably why so little of it sticks in memory.

The Mad Masters*, Jean Rouch (1955, France). Rouch was a name unknown to me, despite having directed 109 films between 1947 and 2002. But then, none of his films appear to have ever been released in the UK, and most of them were semi-documentary – what he called “ethnofiction” – films about people and places on the African continent. The Mad Masters is a case in point: it depicts the Hauka rituals, in which participants go into trances, froth at the mouth and claim to be possessed by their colonial administrators. The film was banned in Niger, and then in other British territories in Africa of the time, including Ghana, where it was filmed. Wikipedia states that the film has also been criticised by “African” students and critics (Africa is not a country) for presenting “exotic racism”. Given that the first quarter of the film is about how very ordinary is the city of Accra and its inhabitants – although it’s likely that’s to contrast it with the later depictions of Hauka possessions. Rouch was in important figure in French cinema, and probably deserves a spot on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I don’t know that this is the film to represent his oeuvre. I’d certainly like to see more by him.

Bad Cop, Kai Jiang (2016, China). I found this on Amazon Prime – I say “found”, as if it were actually possible to look for things there and find them, which it’s not as Amazon appears to use the worst search engine on the planet and is about as effective as throwing a dart at a dartboard from several kilometres away and in a different room. So. I stumbled across it. As well as a bunch of stuff I hadn’t known was on there. Bad Cop is not a good film. A policewoman (you can also find the film as Bad Policewoman) who doesn’t take orders very well is sent undercover to a high school to discover why several of the female students have disappeared. She ends up in a relationship with the hot teacher. And the friendly fellow female student turns out to be the villain. Ho hum. Like the other Chinese films dumped on Amazon Prime I’ve seen, the subtitles were… creative. Fun, but not a very good film.

Tramontane, Vatche Boulghourjian (2016, Lebanon). I think it was trailer for this on another rental DVD that prompted me to add it to my list. Or it may have just been that it’s a Lebanese film and I’ve not seen many of them, so I stuck it on my rental list. Whatever, it was a good call. Rabih is blind and a musician in a band. The band has been invited to play in Europe (no one specifies which country or city), so Rabih goes along to the police station to apply for a passport. But they take his ID card off him because it’s fake. He clearly didn’t know, so they tell him to provide proof of his birth and they’ll let him off. But the hospital where he was allegedly born has no record of his birth. At which point his mother admits he was rescued by her brother – then a captain in the army – from a village in the south destroyed during the war. He travels to the village and learns it was never destroyed during the war, and no babies went missing. A member of his uncle’s platoon tells him he was rescued from a car crash in which his Armenian parents died by his uncle, handed to an Armenian orphanage, but then taken from that by his uncle. But the orphanage has no record of an orphan from that time. Through his uncle’s ex-fiancée, he tracks down another member of his uncle’s platoon, who tells him he was “allowed to live” after an operation on a village. At the village, he learns that a man and woman were killed in an attack and their baby disappeared, long since presumed dead. When Rabih asks if the baby could still be alive, he is told, yes, he could be but he would have another family by now and they buried the missing baby decades ago. Rabih’s uncle then presents him with a birth certificate – real, so obviously sourced from “contacts” – but documenting his fake birth as per his fake ID. Rabih has no choice but to accept it. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 930


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Moving pictures 2018, #45

Even given my usual viewing, this is a bit of an odd bunch – mostly films I stumbled across on Amazon Prime. Because good luck trying to actually find films on there, as the search function is next to fucking useless. I learnt this week there are a lot of Nollywood films available for free on Prime (I also learnt they’re mostly dreadful), so an ability to search by country of origin would be really useful…

Air Crew, Alexander Mitta (1980, Russia). There are also a number of Mosfilm and Lenfilm movies available on Prime, including Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears – and Air Crew was the first of several I added to my watchlist. It is apparently the first disaster film made in the USSR, and was clearly modelled on 1970’s Airport (and sequels). The first half of the film sets up the lives of the three main characters, the captain of an Aeroflot Tu-154 who fears he will be grounded because of his age, a Lothario co-pilot on the same plane who enters into a relationship with a member of the cabin crew only for it to be torpedoed by an ex-girlfriend, and an ex-member of the crew who now flies helicopters picking up cosmonauts after they’ve landed and is involved in a custody battle for his son with his ex-wife. The film doesn’t pick up until the Tu-154 is diverted to Bidri (a made-up town) where an earthquake has struck. Air Crew switches to model-work, and the disaster that unfolds makes Thunderbirds look amateur. A plane crashes and explodes, the earth quake causes an oil refinery to, er, explode, and a lava flow hits the airport and causes everything to, um, explode. But the Tu-154 – now with helicopter pilot on board, although I can’t remember how he ended up there – manages to take off. But part of the skin on the upper fuselage has ripped open, and there’s something obstructing one of the elevators on the T-tail… So while at 10,000 feet or something, one of the crew has to crawl out through the intake into the jet engine in the tail onto the upper fuselage to nail the rip shut. Another has to climb up inside the tail and out onto the horizontal stabilisers to clear the obstruction. Tu-154s had a cruising speed of 850 kph, by the way. It’s all completely mad and makes Airport look a bit feeble. While the second half massively overwhelms the first half of the film, it does give a good, if somewhat rosy-tinted, portrait of life in the USSR. Which, for all its deprivations and secret police and shit, was considerably less sexist and racist and Islamophobic than US society was. Not a great film, but definitely one worth seeing.

Monkey Business, Norman McLeod (1931, USA). I’m not entirely sure why I’m watching these, to be honest. I don’t think they’re that funny, and Groucho’s famous wit has been massively over-hyped. In fact, Chico is the funniest of the four, and he’s playing a racial stereotype. Harpo is just a creepy stalker, and Zeppo, who had the coolest name of the four, was lumbered with the straight-man role because he was the most normal-looking. And I can’t even tell the plots apart. In this one, the four Marx Brothers stowaway aboard a ship en route to the US. So the plot is basically a series of jokes in which each of the brothers plays on their characteristics. Groucho is cynical and witty (more the former than the latter), Harpo is creepy, Chico plays a comedy racial stereotype but often has the best lines, and Zeppo is completely wasted in the straight-man role. Margaret Dumont, the “fifth Marx Brother”, doesn’t appear in this, which is probably why it’s so unmemorable. In fact, just about the only thing I can remember is the sketch with the fish barrels, which is pretty much all anyone can remember of this film. The Marx Brothers were… seminal? I don’t think so. Hugely popular in their time? Almost certainly. Their reputation as comedic geniuses has remained mostly undiminished for nearly 90 years, although it’s probably fair to say all the successful comedy stars from that period continue to enjoy a high reputation – Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, the Keystone Kops, etc. Yes, some of those are earlier – and the Marx Brothers were basically filming their Broadway shows for their early movies – but many of them survived into the 1930s and later. And, of them all, I’d say Buster Keaton was best in the early days, and Laurel and Hardy in the later days. The Marx Brothers brand of comedy was often done better by one-offs, like Hellzapoppin (see here), or by screwball romances starring Cary Grant or Clark Gable or Katherine Hepburn or Carole Lombard or Barbara Stanwyck…

Crime or Punishment?!?, Keralino Sandorovich (2009, Japan). I have no idea what this film was about, but that was not unexpected given that it was recommended by David Tallerman. A model, who was printed upside down in an issue of a magazine, and objects violently to the mistake in the magazine’s office, is sentenced to be “police chief for a day” for a small prefecture’s police force. This apparently does happen in Japan. She finds herself investing in the role, and proves surprisingly popular with the police officers. One of whom is a serial killer, and she knows this is because he’s an ex-lover and he had tried to kill her. There’s also a salaryman who witnesses a murder but is then hit by a lorry. The film jumps about in time, – that salaryman’s death appears a few times – and the young woman in the lead role doesn’t especially stand out, which means it all seems a bit confused and a bit confusing. The film is a black comedy, but there wasn’t a great deal that was comic about it – although I guess that’s the point with black comedies. The fact it’s all over the place doesn’t help. Enjoyable, but I’ve seen much better.

The Millionaire, Sergey Chekalov (2012, Ukraine). Doing your life over again is hardly the most original story out there, especially when it’s linked to romance. Kirill is about get engaged to the daughter of an oligarch. He’s an architect and wants to make a name for himself on his own, without his future father-in-law’s help. But when he discovers that’s never going to happen, he rejects his fiancée and walks away. At the reception he’s just left, a waitress tripped over his best mate and brought the champagne fountain crashing down. Kirill got chatting to her outside. After he decides to walk away, he gives her a call and meets up with her and her best friend. He and his best mate take the two women on a date. Ten years later, Kirill is married to the waitress, with a small son, she works as a teacher, and he still has yet to have one of his designs accepted. But he’s still best mates with his, er, best mate, who is now married to his wife’s best friend. But then Kirill attends a ten-year reunion, meets up with his ex-fiancée ad rues what might have been. Cue fairy godmother. Who, by means of a fatal collision with a speeding lorry, throws him into an alternative present where he’d been married to the oligarch’s daughter for ten years. And… he’s a total shit, stuck in a loveless and childless marriage, and his best-mate is poor and alcoholic and his “wife’s” best friend is a disabled writer because she was injured in the taxi ride on that night after her friend was fired from her job as waitress at the engagement party and died… It’s all very obvious, but it’s well-played and the cast are likeable. The Russian filter made it perhaps more interesting than it would have been otherwise, but it was all very glib and superficial and proof that Russian culture can be just as shallow as American culture.

The Villainess, Jung Byung-gil (2017, South Korea). I think this is the first film I’ve seen that opens with a FPS POV. In fact I’m not sure if there are any films that make use of first person as camera, although surely there must be some, as it’s such an obvious cinema narrative trick. In the opening ten minutes or so, we see a young woman, as if she were the camera, basically slaughter her way through a crowd of gangsters. Later, we learn what prompted this murderous spree. We also discover what happened immediately afterwards – the young woman was picked up by a secretive organisation and locked away and trained in a variety of skills… Yup, it’s the plot of La femme Nikita. Pretty much blow by blow. And, like Besson’s film, The Villainess is immensely stylish. Perhaps not definingly so, as Besson’s film was, which spawned a TV series, but then South Korean cinema has been definingly stylish on its own for a couple of decades now. In comparison to other Korean films, The Villainess scores highly; in comparison to La femme Nikita, it blows it out of the water action-wise but can’t reach its level of stylishness. So it’s a sort of swings and roundabouts, half a dozen of one and six of the other, sort of thing. The Villainess is nonetheless definitely worth seeing.

L’Assassino, Elio Petri (1961, Italy). I’d expected this to be a giallo thriller about a, well, an assassin. From the title. But assassino just means killer or murderer in Italian, not necessarily a hitman. In this case, it refers to an antique dealer, played by Marcello Mastronianni, who is taken in for questioning by the police but not told why. Eventually, he – and the viewer – learns it is because his lover, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, has gone missing. And is then found murdered. As the police interrogate Mastronianni, and take him out to view the scene of the crime, so the story is interrupted by flashbacks showing the relationship between Mastroianni and his lover. There’s one great sequence where acquaintances of Mastroianni’s character talk to camera about him, and, of course, their testimony contradicts his own self-serving account of his past. Petri is better known for his film The Tenth Victim, an adaptation of Robert Sheckley’s short story, ‘The Seventh Victim’, which was subsequently novelised by, er, Sheckley. Anyway, Mastroianni is or isn’t the murderer of his lover and this film keeps its cards very close to its chest for much of its length. But that’s okay because it apes a Neorealist look, although the quality of the picture is much better and the cast are pretty much all professional. But even in 1961, Rome didn’t apparently look that much different from Rome in 1941 – in some areas at least, although part of the film takes place in newly-built suburbs and one section in an abandoned building site, for a hotel, all concrete floors and no walls. It’s an atmospheric piece, if not the piece I expected, but it works, and does actually make me want to make The Tenth Victim again.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 929


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Reading diary 2018, #13

The heat seems to have lessened a little, but we’ve still two months to go before summer is over, and even then heatwaves in October are not unheard of in these days of climate change. Having said that, two of the books below are slight cheats as they’re novellas. But then the Faulkner – famously described as a “difficult” book – I managed to knock off in three days…

Empery (Trigon Disunity 3), Michael P Kube-McDowell (1987, USA). And so we come to the third and final book of the Trigon Disunity, which also includes the first use of the word “trigon”, although the word “disunity” appears nowhere in all three books. The story opens several centuries after the events of Enigma. Earth is now the centre of the Affirmation, which includes several advanced human colonies discovered since the second book. But one political wing of the human race is determined to take war to the Mizari, the “Sterilizers” of Enigma who wiped out humanity back in the last Ice Age (which was then reseeded by a good energy alien, as also described in Enigma). When Empery focuses on the politics of Earth and the United Space Service, and the fight between those who think the Mizari no longer present a threat (their last attack was 60,000 years ago, after all) and those determined on a pre-emptive strike, it’s not bad. It’s less good, however, on the science fiction. The Mizari are the worst sort of Trek super-aliens, and the only really remarkable thing about Empery (which apparently means “absolute dominion”) is how long it drags out its story. It doesn’t at least rely on superhuman intervention by a, er, human being, as Enigma does. Nor is its “good” character a paragon as in Emprise. That the books improve as the trilogy progresses is no surprise, but the initial world-building is too big an obstacle for the story to overcome and the aliens are shit too. Best avoided.

Unpublished Stories, Frank Herbert (2016, USA). Stories generally remain unpublished for a reason, and smart writers make sure they never see the light of day, even after their death. Hergé refused to allow new Tintin adventures to be written after he died, and so the last Tintin book we have is an unfinished one. Edgar P Jacobs, on the other hand, placed no such restrictions on his Blake and Mortimer characters, and the  Edgar P Jacobs Studio has continued his series, producing, to be honest, better stories than Jacobs himself ever did. Then there’s all the controversy surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman… Frank Herbert died before completing his Dune series, leaving only cryptic notes explaining where he planned to go with the narrative after Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune. Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson used the existence of these notes as a mandate to expand Herbert’s universe, and it’s a crying fucking shame what they did to it. However, Anderson has done good in making available Herbert’s unpublished fiction. ‘Spice Planet’, an early draft of Dune, which was published in The Road to Dune, is a fascinating historical document and does Herbert’s career no harm. And I’m pretty sure the stories in Unpublished Stories, despite being generally not very good, are unlikely to affect Herbert’s reputation either. For a start, they’re pretty much all mainstream. He fancied himself as a thriller writer before turning to sf. And that’s what we have here, a collection of mainstream stories (only two are sf, and one of them appears in The Collected Stories of Frank Herbert too), some of which work and some of which don’t. The prose is no better and no worse than you’d expect for commercial fiction from the middle of last century, but nothing about the stories stands out. Which is likely why they were never published. They’re interesting historical documents, but likely of interest only to fans.

Cottingley, Alison Littlewood (2017, UK). The title of this novella, from NewCon Press’s second quartet of novellas, immediately signals what this story is about, who it is likely to feature, and what is likely to happen… Which means that when a writer uses a title that is, so to speak, a hostage to fortune, they’re going to have to work especially hard to confound expectations. Littlewood frames her story as epistolary, a series of letters between an invented character, Lawrence Fairclough, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or rather Doyle’s associate, a “Mr Gardner”. Fairclough describes how he and his granddaughter stumbled across a small group of fairies at a brook in a wood by their home. But these fairies are more like malevolent insects. When Fairclough finds the skull of one, typical fairy tricks such as souring milk and making food go off persuades his daughter to return the skull – and a fairy spits in one of her eyes, blinding it. The story, making many references to the fairies photographed by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, unfolds through several letters. We do not see Gardner’s letters and can only infer what he wrote from Fairclough’s replies. Fairclough has answers to all of Gardner’s questions – clearly he’s afraid it might be a hoax – but whatever evidence he has gathered disappears one by one (such as the skull). Cottingley suffers from the same problem as all epistolary novels: how to tell the story in a way that doesn’t read like reportage. Which means the letters don’t really read like letters. They’re too descriptive, there’s too much interiority, and they’re far too fixed on the theme of the novella. On the one hand, these quartets of novellas NewCon Press are publishing are handsome books; on the other, I’m not a fan of dark fantasy or horror, so I knew this particular quartet were unlikely to appeal to me. There’s still three to read, of course; and a fourth quartet being published even now – with novellas by Gary Gibson, Adam Roberts, Ricardo Pinto and Hal Duncan.

Body in the Woods, Sarah Lotz (2017, South Africa). I read Lotz’s The Three a few years ago on a trip to Finland for Archipelacon. It struck me as commercial light horror and I didn’t bother with the sequel (three, er, well, some guesses to what the sequel was titled). And while I enjoyed Body in the Woods, there’s nothing in it to persuade me to seek out further work by her. A woman living alone in a country cottage – her partner is working in Qatar on contract – is visited by an old friend. He has a body wrapped in plastic in the boot of his car. Years before the two had defined friendship as “helping to bury a body, no questions asked”, and he’s turned up to make good on that. After the deed is done, she begins to obsess over the identity of the victim, leading to several flashbacks explaining how the woman and man are linked, and her thoughts and fears are manifested as corruption in her garden – a nettle patch that refuses to die and expands, growing mould patches, etc. It is, like The Three, all very light horror and written in commercial and readable prose. There is one minor weirdness: occasional Americanisms which appear in the prose, even though the voice is very British (the author is British but resident in South Africa, which may explain that). I found Body in the Woods are more involving read than Cottingley, but the latter struck me as a better work.

The Exile Waiting, Vonda N McIntyre (1975, revised 1985, USA). In a recent exchange on Twitter with Kev McVeigh, he wondered why McIntyre, a feminist sf writer and multi-award winner, was not as well known as Joanna Russ. McIntyre wrote a number of Star Trek tie-in novels, and so may have become associated with that rather than straight-up sf… Although a look at her bibliography on isfdb.org shows she wrote only 5 Trek novels (including novelizations of films II, III and IV), one SWEU novel, and, er, ten genre novels that aren’t tie-ins. The first of which was The Exile Waiting in 1975, although the version I read is the revised 1985 edition. It’s one of those sf novels which posits a world which includes slavery and children deliberately mutilated to make them more effective beggars. I really don’t understand why sf writers feels a need to populate their novels with either of these. True, these last twenty years we’ve seen technological progress increase inequality – please please please, someone make like Max Zorin and flood Silicon Valley – when you’d imagine technology would make things better for everyone equally. As someone once said – was it Bruce Sterling? – the market finds its own use for things; except it would be perhaps more accurate to say that Silicon Valley finds its own way to develop revenue streams from things that were otherwise free. (Multi-passenger Uber! Er, that’s a bus, you’ve just invented a bus. And so on.) But The Exile Waiting is 42 years old, revised 32 years ago, and what is about American sf that all roads lead to libertarian variations on the Great Depression? Mutilating kids? Seriously? Slavery? Really? It doesn’t matter that the protagonist of this novel is female and has agency, because the world in which she lives embodies the worst of US sf. At one point, she’s whipped because she sneaked her way into the palace, was caught and accused of stealing, and given no opportunity to explain herself. Anyway, a more extensive review of this should appear at some point on SF Mistressworks. I don’t think The Exile Waiting was typical of its time – in some respects, it’s an improvement on mid-seventies American sf – but in some areas it demonstrates remarkably little commentary on the tropes it uses, even in the revised edition, and even its above average prose can’t really save it.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929, USA). When my father died he left behind a collection of around a hundred Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them he had ordered directly from the publisher – I found an invoice in one – and included works by DH Lawrence (the writer he admired most), Carson McCullers, JP Donleavy, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm Lowry, Raymond Chandler, Herman Hesse, George Orwell and, among others… William Faulkner. I kept many of the books for myself – and subsequently became a big fan of Lowry’s fiction. (I had already sampled Lawrence’s fiction, and found it excellent, earlier.) There was always the possibility I’d be enormously impressed by another author from his collection, although a read of two of McCullers novels showed it wasn’t going to be her. William Faulkner, on the other hand, what little I knew of him – early twentieth century author, American, wrote mostly about the South, his novels had quite pretentious titles, I couldn’t think of anything by him that been adapted by Hollywood… Well, I’d expected The Sound and the Fury to be a bit of a chore to read, and it was only a complete inability to brain early one weekday morning that resulted in me grabbing it to read next on my commute. So I was very surprised to discover the novel hugely impressive. The casual use of racial epithets – the racism itself, especially in the third section, narrated by Jason Compton, who is racist – is hard to take, although nothing in the prose persuades me that Faulkner held those views, and in fact he develops his black characters as carefully and as well as he develops his white ones. And, of course, this is a book that was written, and set, within living memory (just) of slavery and the American Civil War. US society, especially southern US society, is hugely racist, and if the language in The Sound and the Fury is offensive it is at least a legitimate product of its time. But one of the areas that fascinates me about literature is narrative structure, and there The Sound and the Fury has plenty to recommend it. It is divided into four parts, three dated 1928 and one dated 1910, and each part subsequently sheds more light on the story. The first is told from the point of view of Benjy, who has learning disabilities, and presents his 33 years of life in an achronological almost stream-of-consciousness narrative, with time-jumps signalled by changes from italics and back again, although not with any degree of rigour. The second section is set 18 years earlier and mixes a straightforward narrative with stream of consciousness, and is perhaps the hardest to parse as its narrative is mostly peripheral to the main story. The third section, set in 1928 again, is more straightforward and, as mentioned earlier, is in the POV of the racist brother of the protagonist of the second section. The final section takes place a day later than the third, and is omniscient, but chiefly features the family’s black housekeeper. With each section, the overall story becomes clearer. It is not, it has to be said, the most exciting of stories – Banks followed a similar philosophy with his mainstream novels, albeit without the modernism, but he usually made his central secrets a little too “exciting” and a little too implausible. The Sound and the Fury is pure modernist literature, and the prose is really very very good. Though the milieu doesn’t attract me, the approach to writing strikes me as every bit as interesting as that of Lowry. Albeit in a different way. A third of the way into The Sound and the Fury I decided I needed to read more, if not all, of Faulkner’s fiction. So I’ve ordered another of his novels. From eBay. Because, of course, I want editions that match the ones I have – ie, mid-sixties Penguin paperbacks. Sigh. But Faulkner: excellent. Possibly even a new favourite writer.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131