It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Reading diary 2018, #19

After last month’s all-female roster, only one woman writer this time. I’m currently also 12 books ahead of my Goodreads reading challenge of 140 books in 2018, and will probably meet the target before the end of November.

Ghost Frequencies, Gary Gibson (2018, UK). This is the first of the fourth set of NewCon Press novellas, and the second quartet to have an overall title, which is “Strange Tales”. It’s as apt a description as any. The story of Ghost Frequencies is hardly new – I’m pretty sure even Dr Who has covered it – although Gibson has given it a nice twist. But, I think, mostly, the good thing about Ghost Frequencies is that it all adds up. The story neatly folds back onto itself and it all makes sense. Which is not something you can normally say of ghost stories. A project to use quantum entanglement to send messages instantly between a lab in the UK, sited in an old haunted manor house, and California, has yet to show meaningful results and is about to be closed down. Then a team of parapsychologists turn up to investigate the manor’s alleged ghost. And weird things start to happen, witnessed by the quantum project’s lead researcher. And it’s all linked to the ghost and the murder of a young woman decades before and the owner of the manor house and backer of the quantum project, a billionaire who grew up there… And it all slots together, in a way that is actually rational. It’s a neat take on the ghost story and satisfies my science fiction brain. Gibson doesn’t usually write short fiction, but this is a well-plotted and nicely-written novella, so perhaps he should try it more often.

The Lake Boy, Adam Roberts (2018, UK). The NewCon Press novellas are not numbered but I think this was the second one published from this quartet. In one respect, this novella was a first for me. About halfway in, I was very surprised to discover myself as a character. A Mr Sales makes an appearance, and then a disappearance. But I hadn’t been killed off, as I initially thought, just abducted by aliens and then returned. However, Roberts introduces the character as “Mr Sales from Leeds”, which is close but I’m actually from the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire (or, as Dr Who recently named it, the Peoples’ Republic of South Yorkshire). That aside, The Lake Boy is an accomplished pastiche of nineteenth-century fiction which reminds me, more than anything else, of John Fowles’s A Maggot, which is, yes, I know, set in the eighteenth-century. But it’s that whole thing about telling a science fiction story from the POV of people who don’t understand that it’s science. It’s livened up a bit with the protagonist’s Sinful Past and her Unnatural Desires. I normally find Roberts’s fiction somewhat hit-and-miss – some I bounce off, some I really like – and this one definitely fell into the latter category. Worth reading.

Ancestral Machines, Michael Cobley (2016, UK). Mike is a friend of many years – I believe we first met at the first convention I ever attended, Mexicon 3 in Nottingham in 1989. So, on the one hand, that’s a long enough friendship to survive a negative review; but on the other, it feels somewhat off to tell a mate he’s written a bad book. In fact, most people I know won’t review books by friends – but, seriously, your friendship must be pretty fragile if it can’t survive someone’s opinion over a piece of fiction, FFS. Which is by no means a cunning lead-in to saying that Ancestral Machines is a bad book. Mike can write – he’s especially good at writing descriptive prose, which is unusual in genre writers – but Ancestral Machines definitely suffers from too much Banks and not enough Cobley. I mean, it was obvious from the first book of the Humanity’s Fire trilogy, Seeds of Earth, that Mike was ploughing a Banks furrow, but he made it enough of his own it didn’t matter. Unfortunately, Ancestral Machines reads like he tried a bit too hard. The book opens with two AIs, very much like Minds, discussing what will become the plot. Then you have the crew of a tramp spaceship, who are either the most inept or the unluckiest ever, because everything they do fails. They get dragged into the story when their ship is stolen. There’s a BDO in the form of an artificial planetary system of two hundred worlds, which can travel between galaxies and whose inhabitants are in thrall to a handful of evil alien overlords called Gun-Lords, who are actually sentient alien weapons who have taken over host bodies. The whole BDO is set up as the arena for brutal wargames, often with death tolls in the millions, and a league table of the victors. The AIs and the freighter crew end up involved with an attempted rebellion against the Gun-Lords, who are set to steal lots of worlds to put in their BDO. It’s all a bit of madcap dash from one set-piece to the next, and the plot seems to teeter on the edge of falling over for much of the book’s length. The banter didn’t always work for me, and the characters seemed a tad generic, but there’s some good space opera invention, and if the ending is a bit pat, it’s not an easy one. I’d sooner space operas didn’t feel the need for mega-bodycounts, but at least in Ancestral Machines the evil bastards get their just desserts.

The Quantum Magician, Derek Künsken (2018, Canada). I read this for review in Interzone (I wasn’t quick enough to get the new Anthony Burgess book, sadly). Given the title and plot, comparisons with Rajaniemi are inevitable – and The Quantum Magician, even though I didn’t really take to The Quantum Thief, doesn’t come off quite so well. The protagonist, Belisarius Arjona, is a homo quanta, a member of a genetically-engineered race who can disable their subjective consciousness in order to not collapse wave functions. And other superhuman stuff. Sigh. Arjona, however, grew disillusioned with the scientific research station where his people live, and became a con man. And now he’s been approached by members of the Sub-Saharan Union, who have invented a fantastic new stardrive and want to get their fleet through the stable wormhole controlled by the Puppet Federation to their home planetary systems. The puppets, like Arjona, were genetically-engineered, but as a slave race neurochemically fixed to worship a race of “Numen”. But they overthrew their masters and now keep those few who survive as captive gods. Arjona comes up with a complex plan which involves a member from each of the genetically-engineered human races but basically ends up as full-on frontal assault on the fortress guarding the wormhole entrance. As far as I know, I’ve never read anything by Künsken previously, but something about the puppets definitely tickled my sense of déjà vu – although I can’t work out where from. There’s some good stuff in The Quantum Magician, particularly in the worldbuilding, but the con which forms the plot isn’t really a con as such – this is no science fiction Ocean’s 11, for all that it wants to be – and the resolution is a bit of a letdown. Anyway, full review to appear in Interzone soon.

Moonwalker, Charlie & Dotty Duke (1990, USA). I went through a phase about ten years ago of buying signed autobiographies by astronauts. I’d read them, and other books about space exploration, and review them on a blog, A Space About Books About Space, where I last posted a review in May 2013. That’s more or less where the Apollo Quartet came from. I’m still interested in the subject, although I’m no longer so zealous about buying the books. And I still have a number of them to read. Like this one, Moonwalker, by the LMP for Apollo 16. You expect certain things from astronaut autobiographies, such as how something they invented proved vital to the programme, or iconic to the US Space Race. But not from Duke. He loved every minute of it, and says so repeatedly. He also admits it pretty much destroyed his marriage. That is until some years after he left NASA when his wife joined some weird Christian sect and the two discovered God. Moonwalker is at least cheerfully honest. You have the opening section where Duke describes his early career, and admits he was a bit of a screw-up. Then there are the NASA years, when he was clearly having a ball, culminating in Apollo 16’s time on the Moon. And then you have his post-NASA career as, first, an unsuccessful mall developer and then as a Coors distributor… before finding God. When people claim to pray to God and he responds, I call bullshit. If you think you are hearing from God, then you are delusional. Both Dotty and Charlie Duke claim to do so in Moonwalker. They leave their decision-making to God – well, Jesus, as apparently their particular brand of Christian weirdness means accepting Jesus as the Son of God (and why the fuck do I keep on using init caps on this nonsense?) – anyway, they basically leave things to fate and when it pans out the way they’d hoped, OMG, IT’S JESUS! HE’S REAL! OMG! Gordo Cooper’s autobiography Leap of Faith was spoiled by his insistence that UFOs were real, and the same is true here: Moonwalker would be a more interesting book if the Dukes had not chosen to document their religious conversion. But on Apollo 16 alone, it’s a quite good read.

Such Good Friends, Lois Gould (1970, USA). This was the result of some drunk eBaying after watching the adaption of the novel by Otto Preminger, which isn’t, to be honest, a very good film. But reading up about the story on Wikipedia persuaded me it might be worth a punt, and I found a copy for a couple of quid – a tatty hardback – on eBay from one of those big secondhand clearance sellers and, well, bought it. And it is indeed much better than the film. The Wikipedia entry describes it as “stream-of-consciousness” but it really isn’t. It’s very much fixed in the POV of its protagonist, Julie Messinger, whose husband – NY magazine art director and illustrator of a best-selling children’s book – is in a coma after an adverse reaction to the anaesthetic used in his operation to remove a mole. As friends and colleagues gather to donate blood and comfort Julie, so she slowly learns of her husband’s constant philandering. And each medical intervention in the comatose man’s condition only makes his situation worse. The film plays the story as a black comedy, stressing the incompetence of the doctors and hospital – in fact, in the movie, the coma is caused by a surgeon nicking an artery during surgery. But in the book, the doctors do their best – if only because it will reflect well on them. For all the book wasn’t exactly an intentional purchase, so to speak, it was a pretty good read. There’s not much information on Gould on Wikipedia, but if I stumble across one of her other novels I might well give it a go.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Moving pictures 2018, #61

And another eclectic – or should that be catholic?-  half-dozen films, albeit not so geographically varied as half of them are from China…

Y Tu Mamá También, Alfonso Cuarón (2001, Mexico). I’ve known of this film for years, and that it was highly regarded, but until I came to watch it I hadn’t realised it was by Cuarón, or that he made it after some of his better-known films. Or indeed that Cuarón was Mexican. I had thought he was Spanish. Anyway, Y Tu Mamá También is one of those back-to-basics film projects successful directors make every now and again, and which occasionally end up as the best film in their oeuvre. Which doesn’t seem to be entirely true of Cuarón, although this is certainly one of his better pieces of work. Two teenagers agree to take a young woman to a beach they invented… a day or two drive south of Mexico City. Each have their reasons for making the road trip– and that’s what this is, a road trip movie. The young woman has just left her husband after learning he is having an affair. The two teenagers have the hots for her… and it turns out there is more at stake than initially seems. Surprisingly, it turns out the made-up beach actually exists, and the three spend an idyllic few days camping there. But the woman has cancer and not long to live, and when they decide to return to the city, she remains behind with a local family. I was under the impression this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but it’s not, or at least not the 2013 version, which is the one I’m using. It probably deserves to be on the list. I think it was this film which made Gael García Bernal an international star.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Henry King (1952, USA). The story from which this was adapted is generally considered to be one of Ernest Hemingway’s best. I am not, I must admit, much of a Hemingway fan – or much of a fan of the many film adaptations made of his fiction. Even so, he was ill-served by this one. Gregory Peck plays a writer who is dying of a gangrenous wound while on safari. There are a couple of flashbacks explaining how he injured himself, but much of the story is in the extended flashbacks which detail the writer’s career. How he started out feeling sorry for himself, lived off his wife – Ava Gardner – in a poor quarter of Paris, became successful but then Gardner becomes an alcoholic after a miscarriage and leaves him. He takes up with a countess, but she dumps him when she realises he still loves Gardner. So he heads off to Spain to find her, gets embroiled in the Spanish Civil War, finds Gardner driving an ambulance on the front mere moments before she’s killed by an enemy shell… Back in Paris, he meets the woman he’s on safari with. Apparently, in the story he dies, but Hollywood went for the happy ending and he’s rescued in time. I can understand why people consider this one of Hemingway’s best stories – it has all his favourite things in it, well, except for bull-fighting, I don’t remember any bull-fighting but Peck spends time in Spain so maybe there was. Missable.

Under the Shadow, Babak Anvari (2016, UK). A horror film made by an Iranian director with an Iranian cast who speak Farsi and which is set in Tehran… but turns out to be a UK production filmed in Jordan? Such is the nature of twenty-first century film financing. None of which should be taken as a criticism of Under the Shadow as a film qua film. It is enormously effective. I’m a big fan of Iranian cinema and happy to slot this one in it, for all that it didn’t even get within shouting distance of the country. The story is relatively simple – a married couple with a young daughter find their flat haunted by a djinn, but the husband, who is sent away to serve on the front, is sceptical of his wife’s complaints. Once he’s away things gets worse, and it’s a battle between the woman and the evil spirit that seems to have occupied their building. For much of its length, Under the Shadow is like a domestic Iranian drama by Kiarostami or Farhadi, which is high praise indeed. But then it shifts into a horror register, and while the scares are relatively tame by current standards they’re effective – and I for one appreciate scares that are just that, scares, not gruesome dismemberings or something. Definitely worth seeing.

To My Wife, Wang Xiaolie (2012, China). So, for a variety of reasons, mainly involving an upgrade that actually made an app almost entirely useless, but such is the way of techbros and their reading too much into bad science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s (seriously, as fans of the genre we have a lot to fucking answer for), but anyway the film I’d planned to watch was unavailable. And I found myself unwilling to watch another episode of one of the many box sets my mother has lent me, so I went hunting on Amazon Prime. And found this. A solid Chinese drama that doesn’t even have a complete IMDB entry. It opens with two men about to be executed on, er, the seashore. It’s all to do with a woman and the last days of the Qing Dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China in 1912. The scene cuts to a young woman in a sports car on an empty road, she turns a corner out of sight, and we hear her crash. Now she’s in the past, in the years leading up to 1912, with a patron who supports the Qing dynasty and a brother and a fiancé who both support the end of the empire but in different ways. There are scenes of her after the car crash, now in a coma… But the she wakes and is discharged, and her husband is identical to the man who plays the admiral representing imperial forces in the scenes set in the past. And it all seems relatively straightforward, if somewhat confusing, with the past being a coma dream of the woman in the present, based on a testament from the time she had been reading… Except the film ends with the opening scene of  the executions, but the camera pulls back to reveal it’s for a film being made by the woman’s husband and starring herself. It’s an interesting historical story, but the ham-fisted attempt to make it a time-slip romance – a well-established sub-genre in written romance fiction – actually makes it a more interesting film. As far as I can determine, given it has no real IMDB entry, and there’s almost no information about it available on the English-language internet, this is not a tentpole Chinese release, and either a straight to DVD or streaming-only movie. But I thought it quite good. The cast were good, the historical scenes convincing, and if the time-slip element was a little confusing it can’t be faulted for trying. Better than expected.

Detective Chinatown, Chen Sicheng (2015, China). And after watching the above, I stumbled on this – which at least has a Wikipedia entry – and since I was in the mood for Chinese cinema, and coincidentally eating Chinese food – although that later proved less than successful but we won’t go into that – and the thing about Chinese films is not so much that they’re Chinese but that they can have a Chinese approach to well-established film genres… And so their take on them can be just as entertaining as the film’s actual story. Here we have the “reluctant buddies” movie, with an incompetent cop teamed up with a brilliant assistant to solve a crime and, for added shits and giggles, the detective is trying to solve the crime of which he has himself been accused. It’s hardly a new story, it’s pretty much a universal one in fact. In this instance, failed police academy candidate and nerd Qin Feng has been sent to visit his successful uncle Tang Ren, a top detective in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Except Tang is nothing of the sort, but a low-life who works for a corrupt police sergeant. Except now he’s number one suspect for the murder of a member of a gold robbery gang. And the gold is still missing. So while Tang’s incompetent police sergeant is competing with a go-getter rival to solve the crime, Tang needs to clear his name and only geeky nephew Qin can do it. The film doesn’t know whether it’s a comedy or a thriller, which means the thriller elements are quite good but the comedy aspects feel forced. Which is a shame because Tang, played by Wang Biaoqang, is a good comedic character – so much so, the film often feels like a vehicle for him, which it isn’t. The final twist is unexpected but doesn’t substantially alter what’s gone before. If Detective Chinatown had been made in Hollywood, it would probably be typical Hollywood product, but the fact it’s Chinese and set in Bangkok, and its plot plays on elements of Chinese culture and society, makes it much more interesting than typical Hollywood product. There was a sequel titled, obviously, Detective Chinatown 2, this time set in New York.

Blind Mountain, Li Yang (1999, China). And yet another Chinese film, but a much more serious movie than the one above. Li is often lumped in with the Sixth Generation directors, but he doesn’t include himself in the group. Certainly, the topic, and approach to filming, of Blind Mountain has elements in common with some Sixth Generation directors’ movies. It covers a serious problem in China: the kidnap of women and their sale to remote villages as wives for single men. Huang Lu is offered a job in the north of China, which she accepts as her family has debts. But when she reaches a small village in the Qin Mountains, she is held captive and told by a man she is now married to his son. When she tries to run away, they beat her and then chain her leg to the bed. Her “husband” rapes her. She tries to escape several times, but each time is caught and beaten. One time, she even makes it as far as the nearest town, but is dragged off the bus to the city by her “husband” and no one intervenes, not even the police – because it is domestic. Eventually, she gets a message out and the police arrive. But even they prove mostly powerless against the ranked villagers… With the exception of Huang, the cast are non-professionals, in fact many are villagers from the villages in the area where the film was made. There are also two version to the movie – the international release, and the Chinese government-approved version which has a much “happier” ending. (I saw the former.) There is a great deal of astonishing scenery in China – including urban scenery – and Fifth and Sixth Generation directors make excellent use of it. As does Li here. The copy I saw wasn’t a great transfer, but the landscape cinematography was stunningly beautiful in places. The performances, despite being a mostly amateur cast, are strong, and the story is certainly one that needs to be told. Blind Mountain is the second in a loose trilogy. I’ve not seen the first, Blind Shaft, but I now plan to. And the third film, Blind Way, was supposed to be released last year but doesn’t appear to have made it to sell-through or streaming yet. Li Yang is definitely a director whose career is worth following.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #60

It’s been a while now, but I’m at the stage where I’m not so much wondering why films appear on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list as I am watching films and wondering why they do not appear on it. One of the films below is from the list, and I’m not entirely sure why it made the grade – early Chinese cinema, and for the 1930s a good piece of drama, but it’s basically just a retread of The Phantom of the Opera. Bambi, on the other hand, was a surprise – not the over-sentimental Disney blockbuster I expected, but an animated film with some lovely design work in it…

The Debut, Gleb Panfilov (1970, Russia). I started watching this film thinking it was a more recent piece of work than it was. The Amazon Prime blurb suggested it was some sort of Russian art house black and white film, and while it was certainly black and white and Russian, it was actually nearly fifty years old and a mainstream USSR release. None of which makes it likely to be a bad film. Which it certainly wasn’t. Panfilov made a bunch of films, and usually cast his wife, Inna Churikova, in the lead. This is one of them. She plays an amateur actress who is cast as Joan of Arc in a professional production filming in her town. It’s her dream role. She is also in a relationship with a married man. I like Soviet films – they may present a somewhat rose-tinted view of life in the country, but I expect they’re a damn sight closer to the reality than anything Hollywood has produced set in the USSR, or indeed the USA. I especially like the fact that equality – both gender and race – seems pretty much baked into Soviet society. Yes, Churikova is seeing a married man, but in terms of her acting career she’s not expected to accept less pay even though she’s playing the title role. It’s hard not to consider Western society a step backwards in some respects. As a movie, The Debut (AKA Начало AKA Nachalo AKA The Beginning) has its moments and Churikova is generally good in the title role. It feels like a solid film of its type, with nothing that stands out. I’d watch more by Panfilov, and The Debut is definitely worth a punt if you’re interested in Soviet cinema.

The Man with the Iron Heart, Cédric Jimenez (2017, France). The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is certainly one of the more dramatic stories of WWII which might be considered worthy of film adaptation, especially since it comprises plucky underdogs killing an evil Nazi monster (and how long before that is considered offensive by the right-wing commentariat?). But of all the books to use as a source for the story, Lauren Binet’s HHhH is the last one I’d have chosen. Chiefly because it’s about Binet researching his subject – ie, Operation Anthropoid – and the impact of his project, and what he discovers, on his life. It’s an excellent book, neither fiction nor autobiography but something of both. Which is all very good, as Binet is an excellent writer. But the film adaptation turns it into, basically, a biopic of Heydrich. And we do not need biopics of evil Nazi monsters. When a film is about the assassination of a high-ranking Nazi officer, then the assassins are the heroes. The Man with the Iron Heart either does not understand that or has chosen to ignore it – and neither position is defensible. To be fair, the film covers the major elements of the assassination. But it also spends far too long establishing Heydrich as a sympathetic character. We’re told he’s a monster, and we witness some of his monstrosities, but the film is invested in him as the protagonist to the extent it feels like we’re supposed to be upset when he’s attacked and dies. Disappointing. Read the book, it’s way better.

The Arch, Tang Shu Shuen (1968, China). I found this on Amazon Prime. There’s a shitload of really quite good stuff hidden away on Amazon Prime… but, of course, most viewers are only interested in the Hollywood crap. The Arch is an early Hong Kong historical drama and is generally recognised to be one of the first Hong Kong “art house” films. Fifty years later, it’s hard to determine what might back then have been considered art house, especially with Hong Kong cinema, which during the 1960s was dominated by rom coms and wuxia films made by the Shaw Brothers (at least to Western observers). And while the time it was made is important when considering a film, from half a century away The Arch doesn’t seem substantially different to other art house movies of its time. But Hong Kong had no such tradition then, nor any female directors (Tang also graduated in film studies from the University of California), and it may well be that Tang’s gender is a major reason why The Arch exists. This is a good thing, of course. The film is set in a small village during the 1900s. The chief pillar of the community is a widow, who is so revered an arch in her honour has been erected on the lane leading into the village. But then a troop of soldiers arrive and the widow finds herself drawn to the troop’s captain… The Arch is also in Mandarin, not Cantonese, which is another difference to commercial Hong King cinema of the 1960s. Tang made only four feature films – The Arch was her first – but she definitely seems like a director whose oeuvre is worth exploring.

A Jester’s Tale, Karel Zeman (1964, Czechia). I know of Zeman from his excellent adaptation of the adventures of the Baron Munchausen, which has a singularly Czechian mix of live action and animation, in a way that is so obviously an inspiration for Anglophone animators like Terry Gilliam (who does cheerfully cite Zeman as an influence). Anyway, Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (see here) was great, but I forget why I added his A Jester’s Tale to my rental list. But I’m glad I did. In fact, I like both films so much I think there should be a collection of Zeman’s movies. He made only six features films, plus a whole bunch of shorts, so he’s an excellent candidate. I’d certainly buy it. A Jester’s Tale is based on the work of seventeenth-century Swiss engraver Matthäus Merian and is about two warring nations, and the principality located between them, during the Thirty Years’ War. A peasant masquerades as a duke, his girlfriend as a jester, and they’re accompanied by a man-at-arms. After stealing a coach full of silver and gold, they find themselves in the principality’s castle. But every time the wind changes direction – shown graphically by a face in the clouds blowing – the principality swaps allegiance… and the “duke” is either a prisoner or a welcome guest. There’s lots of clever animation, plenty of broad comedy, and a clever use of matte paintings to create the sets. I found A Jester’s Tale a more entertaining film than The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, although both have similar plots (A Jester’s Tale was made after The Fabulous Baron Munchausen). I now want to see the rest of Zeman’s films.

Song at Midnight*, Ma-Xu Weibang (1937, China). This film is pretty much a Chinese version of The Phantom of the Opera. I had a ripped copy for a while (it’s public domain, don’t worry), and then a copy appeared on Amazon Prime… and it was close call as to which had the most… creative subtitles. I have seen nearly a hundred Chinese films and the quality of the subtitles varies immensely. I can’t actually vouch for the quality of the translations as I don’t speak either Mandarin, Cantonese, or any other Chinese language. But I can certainly vouch for the quality of the English used in the subtitles and “The fish can make a wave” and “You are the water in the pond, and I am that duckweed aquatically” don’t, er, make much sense. But then interpreting the subtitles is part of the experiencing of watching non-Anglophone movies (although it’s more fun when you do understand the language being spoken and can spot the differences). Anyway… the Chinese film industry is huge, and has been around since the medium’s early days. Certainly the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list should include some early Chinese classics – and it does – but I’m not convinced this warmed-over take on The Phantom of the Opera is a good candidate, especially since the earlier adaptation by Rupert Julian is so good. There must have been other films that could have been chosen – although many early Chinese films may have been lost. Neither copy of Song at Midnight I had access to was especially good, and I have to wonder if a remastered copy might have led to me being more impressed. But if you want to see an early Chinese film, then The Goddess (see here) or Spring in a Small Town (see here) are much better examples.

Bambi, David Hand (1942, USA). I have a very clear memory of seeing The Jungle Book for the first time on a screen in the main hall of the Doha English Speaking School, which would make it somewhere between 1972 and 1973. I can also remember bits and pieces of Pinocchio and 101 Dalmations from my childhood. But, while I’ve convinced myself I must have seen Bambi at some point while I was a child, I can’t call up any corroborating memories. And having now actually seen the film, none of it, I must admit, seemed especially familiar. I suspect I knew of it, and that was it. But I have now seen it… and it was not at all what I was expecting. Or rather, my expectations were quite low and the film exceeded them. I shouldn’t have to describe the story, but… Bambi is a deer, the “prince of the forest”, hunters turn up, his mother dies, he grows up, there’s a forest fire, then more hunters, but all the animals live happily ever after… Which sort of implies the message of the film is that it’s okay to kill animals. After all the hunting and forest fires, the film ends with a repeat of the opening scene – except Bambi is the father and not the newborn – as if the film is trying to point out that Nature carries on. Kill all the deer, but more will be born. Yet for much of its length, Bambi feels like a paean to the simplicity and noble savagery of the animal world and its right to be left undisturbed by humankind. Okay, so the animals are characterised as, first, American kids, and then as American teenagers – but that’s the nature of Disney films and they’ve even characterised alien creatures as American kids… And yet… I’d put Bambi in the top five Disney film for beautiful animation and design. I’d still rate Sleeping Beauty top, and Cinderella second, but it would be a toss-up between Bambi and 101 Dalmations for third place. Bambi doesn’t have 101 Dalmations‘ charm but it does have these abrupt shifts to almost abstract art – which was one of the things Disney used to do back in the day and which really did add to the movie. When the forest fire takes hold, the art on screen is really quite striking, not in an especially realistic way, but it looks lovely. It’s not much – the use of silhouettes, an abstract representation of the threat… But it’s hugely effective. It’s when animation turns into animated art. When Bambi is at its most, well, mainstream it’s less appealing, although the character design is excellent and the animation has that clarity of line I wish Disney had not later dropped…  I was surprised, as mentioned earlier, to discover after watching Bambi that I’d rate it in the top five of the Disney animated films I’ve so far seen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #59

Another mixed bunch from all over the world, and only one from the US. And from a mix of decades too.

Germany Year Zero, Roberto Rossellini (1948, Italy). I may have mentioned before how I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealism, and Rossellini is a big name in that movement – this is the sixth film by him I’ve seen – but I have to admit Germany Year Zero took me by surprise. He has four films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You list, but this is not one of them. But to my mind it deserves a place more than any of the others. Obviously, it’s set in Germany, not in Italy, and its cast are German and speak that language. Even though it’s an Italian Neorealist film. A twelve-year-old boy in Berlin shortly after the Allied victory and occupation gets involved with some very dodgy people. The only way for his family to survive is selling stuff on the black market (it’s implied the daughter has taken up with GIs). The boy bumps into his old teacher, who asks him – in a scene that shows the teacher is a total paedophile – to sell a record of a speech by Hitler to some American soldiers. But it’s not enough. The boy’s ill father is admitted to hospital but is discharged a few days later. The teacher, who is clearly still a Nazi, says the weak must be sacrificed for the good of the strong, and so the boy poisons his father. No one realises the cause of the death, but the boy is dejected. The movie was filmed on location, on the streets of what was left of Berlin. Until you watch films like Germany Year Zero, it never quite sinks in how destructive WWII was. True, cities on both sides, and in many countries, were destroyed. Well, except for the US, that is. But popular culture has taught us to remember only the combatants, and we conveniently forget that more Germans died of starvation and illness after the fighting had finished than were killed by Allied bullets. Or indeed that WWI was not won by the armies on the Front but by an uprising by the socialist sailors of the Imperial German Navy. Germany Year Zero deserves a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, much more so than the four films by Rossellini that are on the list.

The Day of the Triffids, Steve Sekely (1962, UK). I have the book, although it was only recently given to me; and despite being British and a sf fan, I managed to reach half a century without actually reading a novel by John Wyndham. Which is a peculiar omission, given his position in British genre fiction. (I read a Wyndham collection back in the 1980s and was unimpressed.) But then, Brits don’t really need to read Wyndham, as they sort of absorb the plots of his books through a sort of cultural osmosis. Whether they’ve actually watched the film adaptations or not. The Day of the Triffids has been adapted three times, and this is the first of them. It’s since been followed by two TV series, in 1981 and 2009. This film stars Howard Keel, who manages to not look like Howard Keel but sound just like him, as a merchant seaman in hospital for eye treatment following an undisclosed accident. As a result, he misses the meteorite shower which blinds almost the entire population of the planet. Um, I’m starting to realise why I’ve never bothered reading Wyndham… Anyway, Keele releases himself from hospital and discovers London in chaos – including a scene which features the most feeble train wreck ever committed to celluloid. He rescues a young orphan girl, and the two head out of London. Where they find refuge at a girls’ school. Not knowing the book, I’ve no idea how well the film adapts it, although the Wikipedia article does point out some discrepancies, such as the origin of the Triffids. The film has its moments, although it never looks more than cheap and Keele sort of lumbers through his part. I have the book now, in the SF Masterworks edition, so I guess I’ll be reading it at some point. I doubt I’ll bother rewatching the film, however.

Che Guevara As You’ve Never Seen Him Before, Manuel Pérez (2004, Cuba). This is the final film from the Viva Cuba collection, which I see is now going on Amazon for £149.90. I’m glad I bought it when I did. Despite the title this is a straight-up documentary about Che Guevara, using a lot of archive footage, archive photographs, interviews with those who knew him (some of which are from older programmes), and Che’s own words from his letters and journals. There’s also a voiceover which narrates Guevara’s life. Like  most of my generation, I know of Che Guevara, and that he was involved in the Cuban Revolution, although he was not Cuban himself. I had always thought he was Bolivian, but he was actually Argentinean. He died in Bolivia, captured and executed by CIA-backed Bolivian troops. I also knew of Guevara’s motorbike ride, if only from seeing mention of the film adaptation of The Motorcycle Diaries. I had not realised how much Guevara accomplished, both before joining the Cuban revolutionary forces, and after when he was made a member of the Cuban republic’s government. He had always felt like a tragic figure, a revolutionary who died young (aged 39), and whose image had since become iconic. But he was a great deal more than that – a doctor of medicine, a military theorist, a diplomat, a government minister, and he wrote a number of books and journals. He not only left a mark on the world, he left a considerable legacy, and it’s a shame he’s likely known to most people these days as little more than a stylised face on a T-shirt or poster.

Uzumasa Limelight, Ken Ochiai (2014, Japan). This was recommended by David Tallerman, so I put it on my rental list and… it was an excellent call. The title refers to an area in Kyoto where a large film studio was located. For decades the studio churned out television series, including a samurai drama that ran for so long the lead actor’s son took over his role. The studio employed dozens of actors in (mostly) non-speaking parts. Like Trek redshirts, they were there to fight the hero and be killed. And some of those bit-part actors have been doing that since the series started. When the studio decides to cancel the samurai series, one such actor, in his seventies but still spry, finds himself being cast less and less often. He ends up performing as a samurai in the studio’s attached theme park. Meanwhile, a young extra persuades the old actor to train her in stage-fighting. The studio decides to launch a new samurai drama, but they cast some sort of comic idol in the lead and he turns the whole thing into a joke. And when his co-star falls out with him and leaves, the young extra, who had been her stunt double, takes over the role, and becomes a big star. Although the old actor is very much the centre of the film, this is really an ensemble piece, and it doesn’t put a foot wrong. The comedian star of the new samurai series is a horrible piece of work, and while the film makes you want the old actor to become a star he’s really not star material. An excellent film.

Twilight, Robert Benton (1998, USA). It had been a long day and I didn’t fancy watching anything too taxing, so when I found this on Amazon Prime, it seemed like a good candidate. And so it was: a gentle thriller, with a cast that seemed to be mostly in their sixties or seventies… but it turned out to be the usual Hollywood thriller about film-making type of bollocks. But mildly entertaining with it. Paul Newman (73 at the time the film was released) works for Hollywood couple Susan Sarandon (52) and Gene Hackman (68). He’s an ex-cop and an ex-PI. When Hackman asks him to deliver money to a blackmailer, it uncovers a decades-old crime – the disappearance of Sarandon’s original Hollywood star husband – and the clumsy “cleaning up” of it all by fixer James Garner (70). Also in there is ex-lover police lieutenant Stockard Channing (54), and a very young Reese Witherspoon as the daughter. There’s a dumb joke about Newman supposedly having been emasculated when shot “rescuing” Witherspoon from her boyfriend, which really shouldn’t have made the final cut. Hackman’s character is all over the place, changing tone and register from one scene to the next. Sarandon is the femme fatale but isn’t in the film enough to justify the role. Newman more or less shuffles through his part, and although he has the screen presence his eyes have always looked vacant to me. The ending comes as no real surprise, and the only real mystery is why the police never managed to solve the original crime. Okay, for a wet Sunday afternoon, I guess, but that’s about it.

The Color Out of Space, Huan Vu (2010, Germany). As the title indicates, this was adapted from a HP Lovecraft story. I’ve read the story, it’s one of his better ones, and certainly one of his more memorable ones (many of them have a tendency blur into one other). The action is shifted to Germany, where the film was made. The protagonist is searching for his father, who disappeared while on active duty in the region after WWII. The rest of the plot more or less follows that of the story, although the discoverers of the farm affected by the “colour” are GIs on patrol. The acting is variable at best, and the US accents by the German cast are from convincing. The film is shot in black-and-white, but it only really works when the “colour” makes its appearance, although admittedly the effect used is done quite well. But it all feels very amateur and rough, and though the changes to the story might actually improve the plot a little, the film is probably only of interest to Lovecraft completists.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 932


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Moving pictures 2018, #58

The usual mixed bunch. I don’t write about every film I watch as not all of them are worth writing about.

Bus 174, José Padilha (2002, Brazil). I wasn’t sure whether this was a dramatisation of real events, like United 193, or some sort of high-octane South American thriller, but I remembered seeing it on one list or another, so I bunged it on my rental list. It turned out to be a documentary. With actual footage shot live during the event it depicts. Which is: a young man who grew up as a member of a street gang hijacks a city bus in Rio de Janeiro and holds its passengers hostage. The police, and a hell of a lot of press, turn up. The police are ill-trained and ill-prepared. Even BOPE, Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, the Brazilian equivalent to SWAT, doesn’t even have much of a clue what to do. The hijacker lets some of the passengers, but keeps about half a dozen. Eventually, after four hours, he makes a break for freedom, with a gun to the head of one of the hostages. The police move in and bungle it. The hostage dies. The police take the hijacker, and he does on the way to the police station. The film consists of press footage from the hijack, interspersed with talking heads of the people involved. It also covers the background of the hijacker, and social problems which resulted in someone like him. It also explains how badly trained the police are, and repeated points out how and why they failed – in fact, one of the talking heads is the police officer who was in charge, and is generally considered to be the only one who did anything right. Good stuff.

The Incredibles 2, Brad Bird (2018, USA). The Incredibles remains a high-water mark in animated film-making, and more for its story-telling than its technical animation. If you know what I mean. Technically, it was brilliant, but it was state of the art in 2004 and fourteen year later that bar has moved. But story-telling is not so tied to advances in technology, more narrative expectations by audiences… and they are much more easily managed. Sadly, that’s where The Incredibles 2 fails. It looks great. And its story feels like an advance on that of the original… but as others have pointed out some of the genders politics in this new film are a step backward. Superheroes have been outlawed, but the Parrs/Incredibles from trying to prevent the Underminer rob a bank. Unfortunately, the extensive collateral damage from their intervention results in the government shutting down the programme keeping superheroes fed and housed… Which is where a telecoms billionaire appears and professes to want to change the public perception of superheroes and make them legal again. And to do that he plans to relaunch Helen Parr as Elastigirl. Which leaves Bob Parr as a house husband. And he completely fails at it. Meanwhile, Elastigirl is running around trying to catch the Screenslaver, a mysterious villain who uses hypnotic images on screens to control people. As I think others have said, The Incredibles showed a family with superpowers struggling to cope with real life, but this sequel tries to make humour out of gender role reversal when that schtick stopped being funny last century. The mystery part of the plot – ie, the Screenslaver’s identity – is no brain teaser, and some of the action set-pieces are a bit OTT. About the best bit of humour is the baby developing its many and varied superpowers. And yet The Incredibles 2 is still better than a lot of other films Hollywood has released this year. If it fails to live up to the high reputation of its series, and it doesn’t place every foot as firmly as it could have done, but it’s still a very entertaining movie.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, Éric Rohmer (2007, France). I’ve been working my way through Rohmer’s oeuvre as I do sort of enjoy his style of subtle personal drama. Unfortunately, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is an historical drama, and the French are really bad at those. I mean, Jacques Rivette got away with it, but only because he did it so much his own way it became something entirely different. But when you look at Robert Bresson and his Lancelot du Lac (see here) which looks like a bunch of LARPers let loose in a forest… And The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is no more convincing. It’s a bunch of attractive French twentysomethings floating about a castle in loose smocks. The story is based on the seventeenth-century novel by Honoré d’Urfé, which at 5399 pages I doubt I’ll ever read. Or indeed ever meet anyone who has ever read it (not even Adam Roberts has read it, I’d bet). And after seeing this film, I’m less likely to read it. Astrea and Celadon were shepherds in fifth-century France, who famously fell in love. Distilling a novel of “forty stories”, as Wikipedia describes the book, into a 109-minute film is going miss out a lot of material, although the novel is famously digressive. Rohmer’s film most likely covers only the basic romantic plot of Astrea and Celadon: she spurns him after believing some lies told by a rival, he throws himself into a river but is rescued by nymphs, he disguises himself as a woman in order to be close to Astrea in order to win her back… It’s supposed to be set in the “time of the Druids”, although more like the period as imagined by an unsupervised student drama society than an actual evocation of any real historical period. And I get that it needs to look floaty and clichéd because it’s trying to represent pure courtly love, pure “romance” of the kind that gave most European languages – but not English – their word for book-length fiction. I should also point out that French cinema does perfectly good nineteenth-century historical dramas, has made many excellent ones in fact, but I’ve yet to see anything set earlier from France that impressed. (I’ll no doubt think of half a dozen examples the moment this post goes live… Oh well.)

Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, Sooraj Barjatya (1994, India). Many years ago I was in a taxi in Abu Dhabi and the driver had the radio turned to a local Urdu station, and I heard a track from a Bollywood film and it was brilliant. It went through about a dozen different genres in ten minutes, including reggae and metal. A friend later identified the song for me, but I never managed to get hold of a copy of the film or the OST. But I stumbled across Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! on eBay and something about the title reminded me of that track from years before… even if, having now watched it, the song I remember doesn’t appear in it. I’m not entirely sure about the plot as, like most Bollywood films, it was complicated by broken romances, love triangles and mistaken identities. Sort of. Two well-off families arrange a marriage between eldest son and daughter, but the other son and daughter, accompanying their respective siblings, spend so much time in each other’s company, they too fall in love. The wedding goes ahead, and then there’s a baby. The married sister discovers her sister loves her brother-in-law and vows to arrange their marriage. Before she can do anything she falls down the stairs and dies of a head injury. The parents decide to have the surviving sister marry the widower in order to bring up the baby. Happily, the pet dog reveals who really loves who, and the two lovers are reunited. Plus songs and dancing, of course. Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! was predicted to be a flop because it was so unabashedly a rom com, but proved to be a box office hit, and the highest-grossing Bollywood film of the 1990s. It also won five awards. At 199 minutes, it’s long even for Bollywood, and Salman Khan’s relentless gurning does get a bit wearying after a while. But the whole thing is just so, well, happy – er, tragedy on the stairs aside – that’s it hard not to like it. If you wanted a good intro to Bollywood movies, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! would do the trick.

Three Evenings, Arshak Amirbekyan (2010, Armenia). There is good stuff to be found on Amazon Prime, as I think I have said before, but you need to hunt for it. Three Evenings is a short film – only 64 minutes – but it is purely Armenian, which is not something that can be said of, say, The Colour of Pomegranates… It is also set in the 1960s, although this is not immediately apparent. A man returns home and there is a woman waiting outside his apartment building. She explains that she had followed her husband to the building because she believes he is having an affair with one of its residents. The man can neither confirm nor deny her husband’s activities. She invites herself in for coffee and the two begin chatting. They have a pleasant time. After several visits, the woman explains that she had followed her husband to the building, seen the man and decided she wanted to now him better. So her visits have been in the nature of a seduction. Much of the action takes place in the man’s flat, and what little that doesn’t occurs at the entrance to the apartment building. This is very much a two-hander, but the two leads are believable in their roles, and even the woman’s revelation manes to both surprise and yet follow naturally on from what has happened before. And it’s all very nicely shot. A good film.

Umbracle, Pere Portabella (1974, Spain). The more films from this box set of twenty-two films by Portabella I watch, the more I realise that purchasing it was a good move – and the box set will no doubt become more scarce and more expensive – but I’m not entirely convinced that every film Portabella made was watchable, I’m a big fan of avant garde cinema – or rather, a big supporter of such cinema… because I believe that cinematic narratives need to be experimented with and upon if the medium is going to progress. And the history of cinema has, happily, shown that that is indeed what happens. This does not mean James Benning is ever going to make a Hollywood film, but what avant garde cinema makes eventually feeds into commercial cinema. Which puts Portabella in a strange place, as his cinema – or at least this film – is itself derived from commercial cinema. Like Vampir Cuadecuc, Umbracle uses footage shot by Portabella during an actual commercial film shoot. It stars Christopher Lee, from Vampir Cuadecuc, but in scenes staged especially for Umbracle. Including Lee reciting, from memory, Poe’s ‘The Raven’. The Wikipedia article on the film makes little sense, which is hardly surprising as the film itself makes little sense. It is a movie made during Franco’s regime and is a commentary on that regime without falling foul of its censorship laws. Yet it is also put together partly from footage from a foreign film which has nothing to do with Spain or Franco. Other films I’ve watched by Portabella in this box set are explicitly declamatory – either people talking about film-making during Franco’s regime, or stagings of play that directly comment on his regime. I suppose it’s a cliché to suggest the more… elliptical forms of various artforms tend to prosper under repressive regimes, as well as the underground ones – and I’m a fan of avant garde cinema and science fiction, both artforms that have in the past commented on repressive regimes from the inside. Unfortunately, science fiction is now a resolutely commercial genre and no one gives a shit about any commentary it might make any more. Oh well. At least there’s still weird avant garde films that no one will ever watch…

1001 Movies you Muse See Before You Die count: 932


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Moving pictures 2018, #57

I had thought two of the films in this post – the first two – were on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but apparently not. At least, not the version of the list I’m using. I suppose there’s an argument that both deserve places, although Aśoka principally because it was widely released in the west (it did not perform especially well in India, although it was critically acclaimed).

Aśoka, Santosh Sivan (2001, India). Bollywood likes historical epics as much as it likes rom coms, and while the latter generally earn the biggest box office receipts, the former usually do quite well critically. Aśoka did indeed earn critical plaudits, but it only performed “moderately” at the Indian box office. Although that’s becoming increasingly untenable as a barometer of success. Bollywood films might judge their success on theatre receipts because there’s not much of a tradition of sell-through in the country. But in the US, where you have both sell-through, international receipts, and streaming, to judge a movie’s success purely on how well it plays in Peoria, so to speak, is remarkably parochial. But then the US has always been good at parochial. Anyway, Aśoka covers the career of the title character, played by Shah Rukh Khan, an emperor of the Maurya Dynasty (321 BCE to 187 BCE). I don’t know how closely these films follow the lives of the historical figures they depict – not too far from reality, I’d imagine, as audiences and critics tend to mock films that try to present complete bollocks as actual history, you know, like Trump. Having said that, these historical Bollywood epics do usually follow a similar plot: hero is cheated of throne (or unsuitable sibling is heir), is sent away to live the life of a common man, has adventures, falls in love, helps the female lead regain her rightful place, returns in triumph to his homeland and seizes the throne after a massive battle. Aśoka didn’t boast the OTT CGI of Baahubali, and the final battle was clearly made using physical effects (and a close-in camera to hide the lack of a cast of thousands), but it’s clear where Baahubali took its story beats from. I enjoyed Aśoka, even if Shah Rukh Khan was not at his best. According to the Wikipedia entry on the film, a BBC film reviewer described Aśoka as having “elements of both Gandhi and Braveheart, which is a pretty racist thing to say. Bah.

A Man for All Seasons, Fred Zinnemann (1966, UK). The man in question is Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England from 1529 to 1532, who took over from Cardinal Wolsey but resigned when he refused to back Henry VIII’s formation of the Church of England. While More felt the primacy of the pope should not be challenged – they had funny ideas in those days about Jesus actually founding the Roman Catholic Church or something – he was also scrupulous not to say anything which might be deemed treasonous. But he did refuse to sign Henry VIII’s new Oath of Supremacy as it calls Henry VIII supreme head of the Church of England. It proves a waste of time as an up-and-coming courtier perjures himself and claims More said the king could not be head of the church. It’s enough to have More sentenced to execution. The courtier, incidentally, goes on to become Lord Chancellor from 1547 to 1552. Paul Scofield had played More both on the West End and Broadway, and won an Oscar for his movie portrayal. Although adapted from a play, the film manages to not be, well, stagey, with a good use of outdoor filming. The period setting disguises the occasional portentousness of the dialogue, although the real locations such as Hampton Court Palace are nice to see and add authenticity. When all’s said and done, A Man for All Seasons is a quality British period drama, and that’s something the British usually do well – it just isn’t usually financed by Hollywood.

The Big Short, Adam McKay (2015, USA). This is based on a non-fiction book of the same title, but where the book features real people the film, weirdly, puts invented people in their place. The events the film depicts, however, are all completely true. The Big Short recounts how a small group of people foresaw the 2008 financial crisis, and used their foresight to profit big time. Along the way, the film explains just how criminal the US banking sector was, and no doubt still is, and how it brought about the crisis. Christian Bale, who has managed to become more annoying with each new film I see him in, plays the only person who is not renamed in the film, Michael Burry, an ex-doctor hedge fund manager, who is introduced listening to Mastodon’s ‘Blood and Thunder’ at full blast in his office, while dressed in shorts, T-shirt and bare feet. It’s clear he lies somewhere on the autism spectrum, which may be why he spots that the mortgages underpinning mortgage-backed securities are far from cast-iron, and certainly don’t deserve the triple-A credit rating they’ve been given. And the situation will only worsen when the interest rates rise… So he decides to bet on the securities failing, using credit default swaps… The Big Short uses a variety of unlikely celebs, appearing as themselves, to explain some of the financial concepts, including Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie. Burry is not the only person to spot the problem with mortgage-backed securities, but all he does is invest in their failure (which brings him into conflict with his hedge fund customers, although his funds eventually end up $2.69 billion in profit), but it is Mark Baum (actually Steve Eisman), another hedge fun manager, who investigates… and discovers that: mortgage brokers are underwriting mortgages for home-owners they know will default because the brokers can sell the mortgages onto Wall Street banks, credit rating agencies giving everything triple-A rating because otherwise banks will go to their competitors, and the nature of credit default swaps means that $1 billion worth of swaps can be spun out of a $50 million mortgage-backed security. The whole thing was a house of cards built on corrupt practices. And yet no one went to prison. Worse, the US government bailed out the banks. It’s likely true the consequences of allowing them to fail were too catastrophic, but crimes were committed and the perpetrators went scot-free – worse, they pocketed billions of dollars. It will happen again, as long as the banks are not properly regulated. Of course, post-Brexit the UK won’t have much of an economy to crash, but that’s hardly cause for celebration. I suspect The Big Short focuses more on the personalities and simplifies the actual financial aspects – but it is Hollywood, after all. And when you look at the cast attached… But a film worth seeing, for what it shows more than how it says it.

Happy End, Michael Haneke (2017, France). A new film from Haneke is a cause for celebration. He’s one of the most interesting directors currently working in feature films, and yet… Okay, I wasn’t that taken with Amour. And my first thought on watching Happy End was, well, Godard. But I rewatched it – and Haneke’s films certainly bear, if not demand, rewatching, chiefly because they are considerably more subtle than much of the output of the artform… Happy End is about a family based in Calais who run a construction company. An accident at one of their sites throws the family’s internal flaws into stark relief. The head of the family, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is suffering from dementia. Company head, and de facto family head, played by Isabelle Huppert, is about to be married to a UK lawyer, played by Toby Jones. And brother Matthieu Kassovitz has returned to the family fold, with his teenage daughter in tow. Meanwhile, Huppert’s oldest son is playing up, and trying to embarrass the family and the company, for reasons that seem more political than personal. Haneke presents the story through a variety of media, spoofing everything from phone-shot videos to chat sessions on the screen. As is typical for Haneke film, everything stumbles along… and then abruptly changes after some shocking event. It comes late in this film, and it’s more a release of what has clearly been held back for much of the movie’s length. I’m not entirely sure what point Haneke is making here. For much of the film, it seems to be about how dysfunctional families with money are – but that’s so banal, it’s not worth documenting. But toward the end, Haneke drags in a group of refugees, and nails their stories to that of the central family… and it feels like Happy End wants to be a story about how Europe is treating refugees – much like Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope (see here) or Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (see here) – but it fails to present any argument as definitive as those. I like that Happy End has that innovative approach to narrative that Godard does so well, that Haneke himself has done so well in past films… but I’m not convinced the point Happy End makes is actually worth the time spent making it. There is a good point to made in its story, but Haneke has chosen not to make it. Happy End is, I think, a better film than Amour. But it still feels a bit weak sauce for Haneke.

Long Way North, Rémi Chayé (2015, France). This was one of those happy finds you have every now and again on streaming platforms. I’d just got back from Fantasycon in Chester, after a typical nightmare train journey, and I didn’t want anything too taxing to watch. An animated film seemed like it might fit the bill. And it did. The stylised art worked well for the period it depicted, mid- to late eighteenth-century, and the locations, which was chiefly the Arctic. Sasha is a member of the Russian aristocracy. Her grandfather disappeared years before on a trip to discover the Northwest Passage. A new favourite of the tsar plans to undo the grandfather’s legacy, and curtail the political ambitions of Sasha’s family, so Sasha runs away to find him. At a northern port – Murmansk? – she trades her expensive earrings for a berth on a ship heading into the Arctic Circle – but the man she paid is not the captain, but the first mate (and the captain’s younger brother). She’s ripped off. The owner of a local tavern takes pity on her and offers her a job, and over a month or so Sasha learns that her privilege gets her nowhere and how to work hard. And so she gets that berth on the ship, on the promise of salvage of her grandfather’s ship, and they head north… It ends happily, of course it ends happily. Although given the length of time the grandfather has been missing, not that happily. But this is a nice piece of animation, classily done, and if it feels a bit clichéd in parts it looks good while it’s doing it.

Le plaisir, Max Ophüls (1952, France). After complaining in a prior Moving pictures post I wasn’t much of a fan of mid-twentieth century French cinema, I go and watch a movie by Ophüls from 1952, who I have indeed previously seen films by, and whose films I have seen I actually quite like. Having said that, I wasn’t expecting much of Le plaisir, a collection of three unrelated stories by Guy de Maupassant – and explicitly so, as the opening of each is narrated and the prose is of the sort you would find in written fiction. The first story, ‘Le Masque’, originally published in 1889, takes place at a dance palace, where a fashionable young man dances enthusiastically but somewhat stiffly with some of the dancers, but then keels over. A doctor is called, and he discovers the young man is wearing a mask and he is in fact quite old. They take him home, and the man’s wife explains that her husband tries to recapture his lost looks and youth by visiting the dance palace in the guise of a younger man. The second story is one of those characteristically French stories in which a group of sex workers are treated as if they were no more than somewhat excitable young women, when they accompany their madam to the confirmation of the daughter of the madam’s brother. The brother, a cobbler in a provincial village, is refreshingly accepting of his sister’s career, and of those she brings with her. The rest of the village treat the women as if they were simply ordinary visitors – “ladies from the city”. It is only because of those who have knowledge of the ladies true nature that evens began to unravel. They are sex-workers and accepted because no one realises they are sex-workers. But that’s an argument for changing the perception, and it’s surprising to see such an argument in a 1952 film; and done so well. The final story sees an artist fall in love with his model, but they quarrel so much they split. But when she tries to rekindle their relationship, and he refuses, she jumps from a window… And their relationship is strengthened because she is now in a wheelchair. Which is a message in the 21st century Ophüls – or even de Maupassant – probably did not intend back then. The final scene has the artist pushing his girlfriend in a wheelchair along the beach…. Which is not quite so amusing as it might have been in 1952. Of all the French directors of the first half of last century I have more time for Ophüls than the others… and I really did like Le plaisir. Despite the fact it was a piece of pure commercial cinema. Some of the cinematography is gorgeous, and the sets Ophüls built to tell his stories are part of the film’s charm. I liked this film a lot. and it makes me wonder if Ophüls’s films are not worth a second look.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 932


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Reading diary 2018, #18

I really need to get SF Mistressworks back up and running. I posted some reviews earlier this year, after a twelve month hiatus, and I’ve read plenty of eligible books – including two below – since I last posted a review there. It would be a shame to let it all lapse. Especially since I keep on seeing articles by people which more or less claim women writing science fiction is a recent phenomenon. Sigh.

And entirely coincidentally to the above, the half-dozen books here are all by women writers. I decided to knock off the Scott trilogy in quick succession, instead of one per month as originally planned; and, well, I’d been meaning to read the Gentle for years – I bought it when it was published… fifteen years ago! I have books I bought decades ago and have yet to read. I really ought to get that sorted.

Silence in Solitude, Melissa Scott (1986, USA). This is the second book of the trilogy following Silence Leigh, a pilot, and now mage, in a universe in which magic is used to travel FTL between worlds. Silence has been accepted as a candidate for training by the mages, despite the fact no woman has ever displayed, or been seen or acknowledged to display, any ability as a mage previously. But the hegemon is still after her because she broke his geas, and the Rose Worlders, guardians of the road to Earth, are also after her because she nearly broke past the siege engines they use to blockade the route to Earth. While researching routes to Earth – entirely ex-curricula and without permission – at the mages’ college, Silence discovers a reference to an ancient book of interstellar navigation, the portolan. And the only person likely to have a copy of this ancient text is the satrap of Inarime, who is fortunately a friend of Silence’s teacher, the mage Isambard. And, happily, the satrap does prove to own a portolan. Unhappily, there is a price for it. The hegemon has the satrap’s daughter in the Palace of Women, a strongly-guarded seraglio on the Hegemony’s capital planet. Silence must free the daughter in order to win the portolan. And that’s what this novel is about. Silence infiltrating the Palace of Women. Silence discovering what life is like in the Palace of Women. Silence plotting to escape the Palace of Women with the satrap’s daughter. It’s all good stuff. It goes without saying that Silence succeeds, with help from the daughter, although it’s a close-run thing. But then… Silence in Solitude jumps the shark. As part of the escape plan, the satrap’s fleet attacks the capital world as a diversion. But they run into the hegemon’s fleet and battle is joined. And the satrap’s side is losing. Until Silence does some magic stuff and re-tunes her ship’s keel so it sends out a note that destroys all the hegemon’s ships. And so the satrap becomes the new hegemon, and Silence is a heroine. The sections set in the Women’s Palace are good, as is the bit where Silence is taught magery… but her two husbands, Chase Mago and Balthasar, are still only sketched in, and even Isambard seems more like a stereotype than an actual character. But the satrap’s daughter, Aili, is quite good, the plot mostly romps along, and the background is pretty interesting. So far, this is proving to be a fun trilogy.

Irma Voth, Miriam Toews (2011, Canada). I bought this because it was inspired by Carlos Reygadas’s Stellet Licht (see here), which is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico. Toews plays a wife whose husband is having an affair with a younger woman. Toews used the experience of working on the film as a plot for a novel about a young woman who is hired to translate Mennonite Plattdeutsch for a critically-acclaimed Mexican director who is making a film in the Mennonite community. The title character and narrator of Irma Voth has been thrown out of her home after marrying a young Mexican man, and is living in a neighbouring house owned by her father. The film crew live in a third house owned by the father. Irma has a younger sister who still lives with their father, but wants to leave. The movie gets made, although it’s a somewhat chaotic production, and Irma and her sister end up running away to a nearby city. They live rough for a while, but then Irma gets a job as housemaid at a B&B, and the two settle down to a life free from their family and community. However, the real draw of Irma Voth is the prose, which is written in first person, without speech marks. This is the proper way to do a first-person narrative. It’s all about the world-view, it’s about filtering events through the narrator’s personality; and not the cheap and easy story-telling far too many first-person narratives prove to be. The movie described in Irma Voth doesn’t actually map onto Stellet Licht – and I would hope Toews’s director is not a true depiction of Reygadas. I will be watching more films by Reygadas, and I will be reading more books by Toews.

The Empress of Earth, Melissa Scott (1987 USA).  And so we come to the third and final book of the Silence Leigh trilogy, and, well, the journey here was at least a lot of fun, but this is a disappointing end to the trilogy. Silence and her friends finally reach Earth, and Scott decides to riff off UFO mythology and treat their arrival like some sort of close encounter. But they, er, crash-land without discovery, and then must discover what is going on and why Earth has been blockaded by the Rose Worlds – which is never actually really explained. When Silence does a bit of magic, she’s hailed as “the empress of Earth”, although where the legend came from or what it means is all a bit of a mystery. It all feels somewhat over-familiar, which the previous two books did not, and the resolution is massively rushed. The plan to free Earth is discussed on page 315, and it’s all over, as is the book, by page 346. It’s as if there were a fourth book waiting, but Scott chose not, or was not contracted, to write it. Of course, it’s not the first time something like this has happened in science fiction. It’s a commercial genre, after all. And there have been plenty of sf writers happy to churn out yet another episode as long as an editor was willing to buy it. EC Tubb managed 31 books of the Dumarest saga before Donald A Wollheim died and his daughter chose not to continue the series. An unsatisfactory conclusion to the series was published by a small press in 1992 (in French; in 1997 in English). I don’t know that something like this happened with the Silence Leigh – or Roads to Heaven – series, although I understand this book has been extensively rewritten for its present Kindle publication. Which is annoying. Although I can understand why Scott took the opportunity to rewrite it. A disappointing end to what had been an interesting trilogy.

1610: Sundial in a Grave, Mary Gentle (2003, UK). As mentioned above, I bought this book fifteen years ago. And it has sat unread on my bookshelves ever since. Despite the fact I’m a big fan of Gentle’s fiction. But. She writes such big novels. 1610: Sundial in a Grave is 594pp! And my copy is the hardback edition. It must weigh about ten kilos. (Slight exaggeration.) I am a big fan of brevity (see the Apollo Quartet…), but I also recognise the appeal of longer works. And with Gentle you know you’re certainly getting your money’s worth. Her research is incredible. 1610: Sundial in a Grave is, like Ash: A Secret History, a series of nested narratives, with the innermost one providing the bulk of the contents. An “introduction” describes how the author (unnamed, but surely Gentle herself) was as a child a big fan of a particular (invented) Dumas-esque book, and was surprised to learn it was based on real historical figures. There then follows a fragment of a document by Robert Fludd, a Jacobean occult philosopher and mathematician (like the earlier Dr John Dee), which is described as one of several documents found with the memoirs of Rochefort. And it is Rochefort’s memoirs which form the main narrative of 1610: Sundial in a Grave. The disgraced son of the retired Marshal of France, Rochefort is responsible for the assassination of Henri IV, at the instigation of Henri’s wife Marie de Medici, although he had been blackmailed into it and had planned for it to fail as his master, the Duc de Sully, wanted… But Rochefort ends up fleeing France, knowing there are plenty of people who want his head. Including hothead duellist Dariole, who had been challenging Rochefort for months. All of which leads to Rochefort on a Normandy beach fighting Dariole, rescuing Saburo, the sole survivor of a Japanese mission to King James I, taking ship to England with both, becoming embroiled in the plot by Robert Fludd to assassinate James I, foiling that plot, and… It’s all about the mathematics invented by Bruno Giordano – a real historical figure who appears in, and inspired, Gentle’s White Crow novels – which is capable of predicting the future, especially a comet due to obliterate life on Earth in the twenty-first century (yes, please). As well as numerous events before that cataclysm. Rochefort and Dariole are great characters, not that much different from White Crow and Casaubon (and yes, Dariole’s secret was pretty obvious right from the start) inasmuch as they’re both almost too good to be true. There’s a unexpected strain of BDSM throughout the novel – the relationship between Rochefort and Dariole is predicated on it – but if anything it adds depth to their interactions. The historical detail is, unsurprisingly, hugely convincing. Gentle does historical filth and smells extremely well. At 594pp, 1610: Sundial in a Grave is not a short book, but it doesn’t feel like it overstays its welcome. Surprisingly, the book ends on a happy note, although there’s a cunning slingshot inasmuch as it suggests an origin, and a purpose, for the Rosicrucians, which ties into the whole occult mathematics mythos. I thought the book excellent, and I’m only sorry I didn’t read it sooner. And I really do need to read two other books by Gentle I own which I’ve yet to read.

Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand (2012, USA). This is the second of a trilogy, preceded by Generation Loss and followed by Hard Light. I’ve not read the first – the paperback is already out of print in the UK. Available Dark does refer to the events of Generation Loss, but it’s not necessary to have read it. Briefly, in the first book cult photographer Cassie Neary was involved in the murder of another photographer, close enough that she’d be behind bars if her true role were known. At least, that’s how Available Dark presents the events of Generation Loss. Neary has been in an artistic slump for years and is best known for a single book published years earlier. Neary specialises in photographs of dead people – the story throws around names like Joel-Peter Witkin and WeeGee – and it’s because of that she’s offered a job by a shady Norwegian character. He wants her to go to Helsinki to view a series of six photos by a famous Finnish fashion photographer. The Finnish photographer was once also into death photography, and the series depicts victims in bizarre murders. Coincidentally, Neary has received a mysterious message from a past lover she had thought long dead. And he’s in Reykjavík. After telling the Norwegian the photos are worth buying, Neary heads to Iceland to track down her old boyfriend. Then the Finnish photographer and his assistant are brutally murdered, and it’s all to do with the Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, grim Icelandic troll-like figures who were used to scare children, Nordic black metal in the 1990s, the member of one of those bands called Galdur who now lives out in the Icelandic wilderness, his band’s only, and incredibly rare,  album, and events in Oslo back in the 1990s at the aforementioned Norwegian’s metal club. And, of course, the series of six photographs. An ignorant puff on the back of the book confuses black metal and death metal – they’re different genres – but Hand has a good, er, handle on the music. Neary, however, is a little too good to be true, a little too much of the sort of unkillable drug addict hard case you’d find in an urban fantasy rather than a realistic crime novel. The Reykjavík of 2012 also apparently bears little resemblance to the Reykjavík I visited in 2016, or even in 2018 (though, to be fair, I saw a number of changes between my two visits). Available Dark started out well enough, a slightly off-kilter thriller about death photography and Norwegian black metal, but the character of Neary sort of ruined it. She was too good to be true, too tough to be realistic. And it all hung on a series of murders from the 1990s that seemed unlikely to have gone undetected. I’ve always preferred novels about female detectives to those about male ones, but Available Dark, while structured like a crime novel, felt more like an urban fantasy.

Author’s Choice Monthly 14: Legacy of Fire, Nina Kiriki Hoffman (1990, USA). I know Hoffman’s name, but I don’t think I’d read anything by her before reading this, except perhaps a story in an anthology – although none spring to mind. Which is a shame, as the contents of this short collection are actually pretty damned good. Hoffman’s approach to fiction is probably epitomised by ‘Savage Breasts’, in which a woman sends off for an exerciser after seeing an ad for “Charlotte Atlas”, but her new-found bustiness proves her undoing when her breasts demonstrate they have a life of their own. This is one of the most, er, savagely feminist stories I’ve ever read, and I’m surprised it didn’t appear in Sisters of the Revolution (although, weirdly, it was reprinted in an anthology of comic fantasy, Smart Dragons, Foolish Elves, edited by Alan Dean Foster and Martin H Greenberg, which looks best avoided). The other stories in Author’s Choice Monthly 14: Legacy of Fire don’t match ‘Savage Breasts’, but they’re well-written, with a slightly-sideways approach so they sit somewhere between mainstream and genre. The title story, for example, has a stranger visit a very small town in middle America, and offer an enigmatic choice to the narrator, who happens to be a person of short stature. That’s the only story that isn’t about women, although the a woman joins the narrator is accepting the stranger’s challenge. I think perhaps I should try some more Hoffman.