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Moving pictures 2019, #1

We’re a month into the new year, and I’m still having trouble coming up with something more interesting to post than reviews – if that’s the right word – of obscure, and not so obscure, films I’ve watched. But then I’ve been busy: trying to declutter prior to my move. Five thousand books and two thousand DVDs, it transpires, take a lot of sorting out…

Anyway, until all that’s out of the way, have half a dozen movies I watched in January…

Copying Beethoven, Agnieszka Holland (2006, USA). My mother lent me this one and the only reason I agreed to watch it was because it was by Agnieszka Holland, a Polish director whose few films I’ve seen I’ve thought very good. Copying Beethoven is not her only English-language movie, nor even her first. In fact, she’s made quite a few, most of them not in Hollywood, and several of them starring Ed Harris, who plays Beethoven in this one. The story is simple enough. Beethoven requires someone to produce neat copy of his manuscripts. A young woman, with ambitions of being a composer herself, despite the fact women composers are exceedingly rare at that time, manages to persuade Beethoven to take her on. And later co-composes one of his pieces, as well as composing her own. The problem is, it’s all historical nonsense. It’s a nice idea, and it’s well played by its leads, although Ed Harris does overplay his part somewhat, but it’s entirely invented and it’s supposed to be an historical film. Some of us, you know, look this shit up. And when something pretends to be historical, I want to know if it is and go visit Wikipedia. Which is where Copying Beethoven fails. Badly. It would be nice – it would be great – if it had really happened, and I like the idea of pretending as if it had happened by making a film about it. But… Maybe I’m being as bad as those arseholes who complain about female blacksmiths in fantasy novels… except the worlds in fantasy novels are entirely invented, and this purports to be real, and yet it’s a story I’d sooner was true than invented…  So let’s pretend it really was like that. History is, after all, written by the winners. And if from 2006 onward it’s accepted as actual history that Beethoven had a female amanuensis, then good, excellent in fact. Which makes this adaptation of our new history (and I’m not being sarcastic there, I hasten to add) somewhat disappointing inasmuch as  the leads are, well… Harris is OTT and Diane Kruger is a bit of a blank. The previous films I’ve seen by Holland were ensemble pieces, so perhaps she let the reduced cast in this one get the better of her.

Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou Hsiao-hsien (2007, France). The title of this film is a reference to a French short, Le ballon rouge, from 1956, in which a young boy finds are balloon, which then follows him around. And Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon opens with a young boy also finding a red balloon, but it proves to have a mind of its own, resists his please for it to follow him and goes off on its own way. The film then shifts to the boy’s mother, Juliette Binoche, who is a puppeteer, and has just employed a Chinese student in Paris as a nanny for her son. And, er, that’s it. The balloon has drifted off, and whatever purpose it played in the plot seems pretty much and over and done with ten minutes in. Bar the occasional brief appearance. Perhaps the Chinese nanny is the red balloon – except, no, that doesn’t really work either, as the film is about Binoche, her son, and the boy’s older sister, who had been living with Binoche’s divorced partner in Brussels but has moved to Paris for college. It’s all very low-key, with much of the film taking place in Binoche’s tiny apartment. The performances are very natural, as is the lighting; and the movie manages that trick Hou has down to a fine art of making the quotidian feel like it’s important, making small drama feel like it should be melodrama. I do like Hou’s films, but some of them I find more successful than others. Flight of the Red Balloon struck me as middle-tier Hou, but perhaps that’s because it’s a French family drama, set in Paris, and that’s hardly an under-subscribed genre of film…

The Predator, Shane Black (2018, USA). It’s the Decade, maybe even Century, of Reboots, I mean Spider-Man has been rebooted like thirty-five times in the past eight years, so why not reboot a piece of low-brow populist sf crap from the 1980s and hope its macho bullshit finds a new audience in Trump’s America? What could go wrong? And anyway there’s always the marketing machine to make sure it sure it earns a profit even if it is a piece of shit. And this reboot certainly is. A piece of shit, that is. It opens with the protagonist on a mission to kill some unspecified baddie in, I think, Mexico. Which is not the US, and is a separate sovereign nation. But that doesn’t matter because this is the US and the only national boundaries they recognise are their own, with or without a wall. Said protagonist witnesses a Predator spaceship crash, and steals some of the armour. Back in the US, he’s taken in for questioning because of what he saw and then dumped with a bunch of soldiers incarcerated for various offensively stereotyped mental conditions. So he breaks them out, they become his squad, and it’s all so macho and fucking American it makes you want to do that thing from The Exorcist and projectile vomit while your head spins around. I was rooting for the Predators; I wanted them to wipe out the US. Because every single US character in this film was a total shit and deserved to be ripped into pieces by an alien. The Predator also did a shitload of retconning when it came to the franchise, and not entirely to the franchise’s benefit. This is a film that has no brains, revels in its brainlessness, and proclaims its lack of brains as the epitome of American manhood. And manages some pretty offensive characterisation to boot. It can get fucked.

Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry (2003, UK). Since I was going through a phase of reading Evelyn Waugh, it made sense to watch the film adaptations of his novels. So I found a copy of Sword of Honour (see here) and… Vile Bodies, that last under the title Bright Young Things, which is the term used in Waugh’s novels for the dissipated twentysomethings of the 1930s and 1940s he writes about in Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Put Out More Flags and so on. Fry you would expect to have a feel for the material – and I say that based on his public persona and nothing else – and so it proves. Bright Young Things does  feel a bit like an early who’s who of UK thesps, as it’s full of familiar faces – including Sir John Mills in his last ever part, a non-speaking role – but as an adaptation of its source material it actually scores pretty well. Waugh doesn’t seem to adapt well – his satires become dull dramas; well, except for Brideshead Revisited, where a dull-but-clever drama is adapted as a dull-but-clever drama. But Fry clearly does not take Vile Bodies seriously and it shows. Most of the comic set-pieces from the novel are there, although not all, and some are changed and not to their benefit. But the end result is probably the most faithful adaptation of Waugh’s oeuvre I’ve so far seen. Worth seeing, but you’re better off reading the books.

The Great Wall, Zhang Yimou (2016, China). I remember the fuss when this was released. OMG whitewashing a Chinese movie! Matt Damon stealing a role from a Chinese actor! All complete bollocks. This was a Chinese film, made by Chinese film-makers with Chinese money, who just happened to cast Matt Damon in one of two roles for European characters. Having said all that, I was expecting an historical film and, er, The Great Wall is certainly not that. I think the first clue was the demon-like creature that attacked Matt Damon and his colleagues, but by the time the army of demons attacked the Great Wall of China I was pretty sure this was outright fantasy. It is, unsurprisingly, for a twenty-first century big budget Chinese film by a big-name director, a polished piece of work. The story may well be bollocks, but it makes damn sure it’s entertaining bollocks. And the film does so many things Chinese cinema does so well, and Hollywood quite frankly has no clue about, and though the story is completely risible it all hangs together with an economy of, well, action, because that’s what drives the story, and it provides as few opportunities as it can for the audience to sit back and think about it what it is watching. It’s very entertaining. Complete bollocks, but very entertaining. Sort of like a MCU film – but without the dodgy politics.

Opening Night, John Cassavetes (1977, USA). You know how you want to like a director’s films, and some of their films you even do like quite a bit and think are really very good, but you still have this overall impression that the director’s oeuvre is not one that appeals to you… And then you watch a film by them and you wonder maybe they really are your thing after all. I think I just did that. I’ve seen half a dozen films by Cassavetes, and some of them I’ve thought are really quite good. But the first few movies by him I saw poisoned by view of his oeuvre. Much as I liked Too Late Blues, I really didn’t take to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie… And yet, I loved Opening Night. It is much like his other films – thin on plot, reliant on his cast, especially the lead (usually his partner, Gina Rowland, or a friend), with dialogue that feels more improvised than scripted. Rowland plays an actress in a stage play, opposite Cassavetes himself, who has her age abruptly brought home to her when a young female fan is hit and killed by a car after a performance. It doesn’t help that the play is about a woman who is having trouble accepting that she is ageing. Rowland’s stage role and “real life” echo each other, and her response to her realisation impacts her behaviour and performance. And it’s a bravura performance from Rowland. I mean, it’s not like she hasn’t shown her chops in other Cassavetes films, but she carries this one above and beyond. Opening Night made me want to watch the other Cassavetes films I’ve seen all over again.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 933

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Moving pictures 2018, #69

Sixty-nine! Sixty-nine of these Moving pictures posts for 2018. Pretty much all of them with half a dozen movies per post. That’s a fuck of a lot of films. That’s pretty much two a night, and three on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes more. I expect my movie-watching to plummet following my imminent move northwards. Which will be a good thing, because I’ll have the time to do all the things I used to do – such as, er, write. And read more. Although I did manage 150 books read in 2018. Which is pretty respectable, and an improvement on the previous two years. But my record is still 220 books read in one year, in 2008, and I have to wonder why that year was so different…

But this post is about movies. It’s the last Moving pictures post of films watched in 2018. Which is why there are seven films instead of the usual six. In all other respects, it’s fairly typical of my movie-watching over the past twelve months: two Chinese films and a Bollywood one (in Hindi, but with no singing and dancing), a movie by a director I “discovered” last year, a piece of Hollywood Extruded Product tosh, and an off-the-wall film by a director completely unknown to me.

Aftershock, Feng Xiaogang (2010, China). This is the fifth film I’ve seen by Feng and I can’t really say there’s been anything that struck me as especially characteristic about his movies. He likes ensemble casts, but pins most of the story on only two or three of the characters, and they follow different threads which start out together, before going their separate ways, only to meet up later. At least, that’s true of Youth (see here) and Aftershock, but perhaps not of the other three movies by him I’ve seen. Anyway, the title of Aftershock is a clue to its story. In 1976, an earthquake completely levelled the town of Tangshan, killing nearly a quarter of a million people. The film follows a single family during it. The husband dies in the earthquake, and the two children are trapped. The mother is forced to choose by rescuers between the two of them. She chooses the boy – who is rescued, but his arm was crushed and he loses it. However, the girl manages to escape, but has lost her family. She is adopted by man and wife Red Army officers who were involved in the relief effort. The film then follows the two children as they grow up separately, unaware of the other. They both return to Tangshan, and see the brand-new city that sprung up in place of the one destroyed by the earthquake. Eventually, the two siblings track each other down and meet, but they have nothing in common. The depiction of the earthquake which opens the film is really well-staged, and extremely convincing. The remainder of the film is closer to Youth than other films by Feng I’ve seen. It was apparently originally released in IMAX, the first major commercial IMAX film produced outside the US, and, quite frankly, those earthquake scenes must have been scary as shit in IMAX. But even you don’t get to see it in that format, Aftershock is worth watching.

Black Snow, Xie Fei (1990, China). I like Chinese cinema. I like Second Run. The latter have published some excellent movies on DVD or Blu-ray over the last few years, including several of my favourite directors, Miklós Jancsó, from a wide spread of countries and directors. Okay, they might not have published everything Jancsó made, but I can hardly complain given I’ve discovered new favourites from movies they’ve published I might otherwise not have seen. None of which is especially relevant as I rented Black Snow because it was a Chinese film, although the director was unknown to me. A young man completes his prison sentence and returns to his home. He is determined to go straight, but has trouble making ends meet. He sells clothes on the black market, and manages to avoid falling afoul of the authorities. Even when a friend of his from prison escapes and comes to hide out at his flat, he still manages not to get dragged into crime. It’s all very realistic, with hand-held cameras and location shooting – Xie Fei is not Sixth Generation, but they use many of the techniques he displays here. I had not expected Black Snow to be as good as it proved to be. Recommended.

Accatone, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1961, Italy). This was Pasolini’s first feature film – he had first made a career for himself as a novelist, and was highly regarded as such. Which is weird because I know him first and foremost as a film-maker. I guess one of these days I’ll have to try one of his novels – assuming they’ve been translated into English. And why wouldn’t they be? He’s famous, right? Anyway, Accatone means “beggar” and is the nickname of a young man on the streets of Rome, who pimps a young woman. But then she is sent to prison and he finds himself without an income. I’m a big fan of Pasolini’s films – yes, even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom – and I love his irreverent approach to his material, especial Catholic material, and his bizarre visuals. But Accatone, whose story is apparently an amalgamation of two of his novels, is basically Italian Neorealism in all but name. And I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealism. True, Neorealism tends to use non-professional actors, and Pasolini also did in many of his films. Accatone is one for completists, I think ,and not indicative of the rest of his career. To be fair, Eureka! have done a sterling job with this dual format release, bundling Accatone with an early documentary by Pasolini, Comizi d’amore, in which Pasolini does a vox pop on sex across Italian society.

Hunter Killer, Donovan Marsh (2018, USA). I’ve no idea why I watched this. I do like submarine movies, or ones that are set beneath the sea surface, but this had big budget Extruded Hollywood Product stamped all over it, so I knew it was going to be bad. And yes, it did some things well – the CGI underwater scenes were quite effective, and the film-makers made an effort to be accurate with all the hardware… if not with the story. And for a film in which a Russian minister tries to kick off WWIII, but is foiled by a maverick USN submarine captain, it’s remarkable – and yet entirely unsurprising – that the word NATO is not mentioned even once. Anyway… Gerard Butler, a “mustang” (which I believe is the US armed forces term for an officer who started out as an enlisted), is given command of a nuclear hunter/killer sub, and unfortunately happens to be nearest when another US Navy sub goes missing in the Arctic. The viewer already knows what happened because they saw it in a prologue. A Russian sub torpedoed it. It turns out a rogue Russian minister – unfortunately, he’s the minister of defence – has kidnapped the Russian premier and is determined to kick off a war with the US. So Butler is sent in to find out what’s going on. And the US sends in a SEAL team, led by Toby Stephens, by HALO, to find out what’s going on, er, on land… And watching this you’d be forgiven for thinking either the Cold War was still going and that there were only two nations on planet Earth, which is the sort of risible crap Hollywood used to churn out to persuade the world it actually knew what it was doing as the “world’s policeman”. It was, of course, patently clear that they had no fucking clue. Now, I hasten to add, the UK would not have been any better, as we seem to have persuaded the world we know what we’re doing when we’ve been pretty much incompetent from day one. Anyway… Hunter Killer is the sort of militaristic tosh Hollywood used to produce back in the 1970s and 1980s and it’s somewhat surprising Hollywood thinks it’s relevant today. The worst enemy the US has right now is occupying the White House. Rogue Russian ministers with nuclear submarines are about as believable as alien invasions. Avoid.

Miss Violence, Alexandros Avranas (2013, Greece). I have checked and happily Amazon Prime still works in Sweden, although I suspect rights issues means I won’t have access to the same films. Which is a shame as in amongst all the crap it makes available, it throws in some little gems like this one. Comparisons with Dogtooth are inevitable, but Miss Violence actually makes sense in the end. The movie opens with Angeliki jumping from the balcony of her apartment during her eleventh birthday party. The police and social services step in help the family – grandfather, grandmother, mother, son and two surviving daughters – come to terms with their loss. But the family seems to recover suspiciously quickly. And then the film slowly reveals the family life… the ultra-controlling father, the complicit grandmother… (The mother apparently died years before.) I won’t reveal what it is that drives the plot, but when the film shows what prompted that opening suicide it comes as no real surprise – which it’s not to say it’s not shocking, just that it explains so much of what had so far in the film seemed difficult to parse. I think this film should be up there with Dogtooth, to be honest, although perhaps its clarity works against it in that comparison. Recommended.

Tumbbad, Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi & Adesh Prasad (2018, India). See my comment above re Amazon Prime. This is a Hindi film, but it contains no singing or dancing. It’s actually a horror film, which is not something Bollywood is especially known for. The title refers to a cursed village, where it always rains. But in the village is a fortress that holds a secret, which is revealed to a young man by his grandmother who has, er, grown into a tree. According to the opening credits, a god was cursed to be forgotten and imprisoned in the fortress. But adventurers from one family have learnt how to game that forgotten god – who shits gold coins when disturbed – and have so made their fortune. It’s all completely bizarre, but no more so than any Hollywood horror film. The scenes where the men of the family climb down a well into a hidden chamber like the inside of a giant stomach, feed the imprisoned god with bread effigies, and then dash out of their protective circle to grab the gold coins spilling from the god’s loincloth. Of course, as is always the way with these sorts of stories, someone gets greedy and comes a cropper. and that brings the whole bizarre enterprise to an end and seals the fate of the family. I had zero expectations when I started watching this film – other than liking Bollywood films, that is – but this was so completely unexpected, and put together so well. Recommended.

Evolution, Lucile Hadžihalilović (2015, France). And this film was also from Amazon Prime. I’m not entirely what it was about, however. There is a small boy living on an island with his mother. One day, while swimming he sees a dead boy at the bottom of the sea. His mother goes to check but tells him there was no body. Later, the boy is taken to hospital where he is operated on. He finds himself in a ward with several boys of the same age, who have had the same operation. The nurses, it transpires, are implanting some sort of creature in the boys. Which they later cut out of them, an operation the boys do not survive. But one of the nurses – they’re not entirely human, obviously – takes a shine to the original boy, and eventually helps him escape the island. The whole thing is shot in mute, almost submarine, colours, and there’s definitely an undersea theme, and a hint the nurses, and the boy’s mother, are from beneath the waves. Evolution is one of those odd Euro horror movies that rely more on the visuals than any kind of plot or, well, sense. It’s hard not to be reminded of The Lure, which I loved, but Evolution has no music in its story, and there are, well, less people in it. So, a good film, although not as good as The Lure; but worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #68

Unusually, this post includes a film that is both recent and Extruded Hollywood Product. I even saw it at the cinema! But it was Christmas, and it’s sort of a family tradition to see a film at the cinema at Christmas. And, to be honest, dumb as it was – it gloried in its dumbness, in fact – I enjoyed the film much more than I’d expected to. So there.

A Day at the Races, Sam Wood (1937, USA). And another Marx Brothers film chiefly famous these days because Queen used its title for one of their albums – and if you want to argue which of the two deserves to be better remembered… Well, Queen are still going, albeit only just, although the recent jukebox musical has probably done the surviving members’ bank accounts a world of good. And the Marx brothers… well, Zeppo was the last to die, in 1979, and the brothers’ last feature film was released thirty years before that… Obviously their films were very much of their time, and those elements of their comedy which have been picked up and re-used no longer seem fresh – which, perversely, means parts of their movies just aren’t very funny, and other parts would be funny if the jokes had not been done to death in the decades since. It doesn’t help that all their madcap escapades are generally hung on a rom com skeleton, and the latter is usually pretty weak. In this movie, a struggling sanatorium, under threat from a developer who wants to turn it into a casino, panders to a wealthy resident – Margaret Dumont, the “fifth Marx Brother” – by hiring Groucho as her personal physician. Meanwhile, the boyfriend of the sanatorium’s owner has spent all his money on a horse. Which everyone knows runs a like a donkey. Fortunately, they accidentally discover the horse jumps like a champion, so they enter him in a steeplechase, he wins a big pot, and the sanatorium is saved. These films are worth seeing once, I think, although I couldn’t honestly tell you which is the best one.

Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville (1969, France). I’ve watched a lot of French films but Melville is not really a director whose oeuvre I’ve been especially keen to explore. Some of his films are considered classics, and certainly Le Samouraï I thought very good, although more for its visuals than its somewhat derivative story. “Army of shadows” refers to the French Resistance, and that’s what the film is about: a group of resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France; and based on a novel (I think) published in 1943. The film was not well-received in France on its release, not released in the UK until a decade later, and not even released in the US until 2006. It has been re-evaluated in recent years, and it may well be because there’s no one left who lived through the events it depicts and is likely to be offended by Melville’s treatment. While they say history is written by the winners, as the generations come and go and events pass beyond living memory, so the movies which depict them become less personal and are re-assessed and then valued pretty much solely for their technical qualities. Fifty years from now, should someone make a movie which takes seriously the premise the Moon landings were faked, it could be considered a work of genius… because where is Buzz Aldrin to punch them? And so for Army of Shadows… And yet, other than its grimness, nothing much really stood out in the film. Meh.

Adela Has Not Had Her Supper Yet, Oldřich Lipský (1977, Czechia). Imagine if the Czechs had made The Little Shop of Horrors, but with stop-motion animation instead of songs. Actually, you don’t need to. Because they did. And it’s this film. Adela is a carnivorous plant, brought to life using stop-motion. And, er, that’s it. The film opens when famous US detective Nick Carter, an American pulp detective from 1886, while on a visit to Prague is caused to solve the disappearance of a dog. Which leads to a series of bizarre murders. And it’s all because of a mad scientist and his carnivorous plant. The animated sequences were all done by Jan Švankmajer, which, if you know the name, tells you everything you need to know. If you don’t know the name – why not? I stumbled across this film on Amazon Prime, and it was one of those gems which makes you grateful the platform exists. Recommended.

Aquaman, James Wan (2018, USA). It has been a tradition for many years in our family to go and see a film at the cinema together at Christmas. If I remember rightly, the first time we did it was to see the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Which would make it 2001. So we’ve been doing it for nearly two decades. This year, the only movie suitable, and showing at a convenient time, at the cinema in Lyngby, just outside Copenhagen, was Aquaman. Which, to be honest, I was not especially bothered about seeing. I had, after all, seen Justice League, and that was bloody awful. I’d also heard that Aquaman was pretty dumb. So my expectations were low. And… surprisingly… it both met them and exceeded them. It was indeed as dumb as shit. And there were plot-holes you could sail an entire continent through… A king of Atlantis who died tens of thousands of years ago leaving a clue which references a statue of a Roman emperor? WTF? Anyway, Jason Momoa, probably best known as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, plays the title role, a half-Atlantean, whose mother, Nicole Kidman, washed up onshore in Maine after fleeing an arranged royal marriage under the sea. A lighthouse keeper rescues her, they fall in love, have a baby, and then she’s recaptured by her estranged submarine husband’s soldiers… The baby grows up to be Aquaman, presented initially as a full-on, if disenchanted, superhero. And… is it worth describing the plot? Of course not. There’s a subplot featuring the villain Black Manta which serves no purpose but does give the film one of its best action sequences. There are giant sharks with laser beams on their heads ridden by Atlantean warriors. There is an entirely pointless duel between Aquaman and the chief villain. And there is a vast undersea battle with some astonishingly effective CGI. It all looks pretty damn gorgeous, but it also quite evidently has the IQ of a lump of concrete. And yet, despite the latter, it’s pretty damn entertaining. I’ll not be rushing out to buy the Blu-ray, this is true; but when I left the cinema I didn’t feel like I’d been robbed. Aquaman is so stupid and OTT and yet so clearly not taking itself very seriously, that it keeps you entertained for all of its 143 minutes. It’s not going to win any awards – well, it might get on the shortlist for the Hugo Award, which tells you all you need to know about the Hugo Award – but it’s a tentpole crowd-pleaser, and as that it succeeds better than I’d expected.

Sword of Honour (2001, UK). I read Sword of Honour over Christmas, and then watched the DVD when I returned home after the holiday. So I had the novel fresh in my mind when I put the disc of the Channel 4 TV movie adaptation in the player… And they really didn’t do a very good job, did they? The novel is a satire, but film turns it into a dull wartime drama. Daniel Craig plays Guy Crouchback, who has been living in Italy for years but returns to the UK before the outbreak of WWII in order to sign up. In the book, Crouchback’s career is a consequence of the general incompetence of the British military, enlivened with a couple of comic set-pieces, such as that surrounding Apthorpe and his “thunder-box”, which the film turns into a short pathetic incident. In fact, most of the emphases of the novel’s plot are misrepresented in the film. Crouchback’s experiences on Crete are a direct result of a military blunder, but the film presents it as a straightforward defeat. True, a novel can offer much more in the way of context than a film – or rather, it can offer more than just immediate context through visuals, which films do so much better. Of course, a lot of nuance is lost, because it can’t be telegraphed as well onscreen as it can in prose. But there’s a meaty enough plot in Sword of Honour to build a really good satire about WWII and, watching what Channel 4 actually did, it feels like they pulled every one of their punches, as if afraid to be too critical of Britain at war. Which is ironic, given that Waugh “cleaned up” his own wartime experiences when writing Crouchback’s – or rather, he made Crouchback a much more sympathetic character than Waugh’s actual career would have made him (“officer most likely to be shot by his men”, one fellow officer described Waugh). Sword of Honour, the film, follows the story of Waugh’s trilogy, later rewritten as a single novel, reasonably faithfully, but it turns a smart satire into a dull drama. Avoid.

Passion, Brian De Palma (2012, France). De Palma has a well-earned reputation as a poor man’s Hitchcock, inasmuch as he tends to direct knotty thrillers that have all the plot complexity of a Hitchcock film but never quite manage to look as good as a Hitchcock movie. I’m not entirely sure that’s fair – true, Hitchcock was one of the greatest directors Western cinema has produced, but I suspect de Palma’s reputation partly rests on the fact the films he makes are somewhat… salacious. In this one, we have Rachel McAdams as an ambitious advertising executive, more than happy to steal credit for good ideas from her underlings. Chief among whom is Noomi Rapace. Who discovers that McAdam’s lover Dirk is being blackmailed by McAdam because he has embezzled the firm. But then the lover is found dead, and Rapace appears to be the murderer. And even confesses to the crime. Except she’s been so strung out on prescription drugs since McAdams torpedoed her career that perhaps she isn’t guilty, after all… The movie’s resolution should come as no real surprise, although de Palma sets it all up very cleverly. Unfortunately, the two lead characters, played by Rapace and McAdams, indeed the entire set-up, feels really very 1980s. The only thing that’s missing is the shoulderpads. It looks good, all very twenty-first century, but the corporate world feels so old-fashioned the whole film could be mistaken for an extended episode of Dynasty featuring secondary characters. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #67

I need to get these out of the way. I have three Moving pictures posts, including this one, to finish off 2018’s viewing. Posts #68 and #69 to follow soon…

Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino (1980, USA). This film is probably best known for breaking New Hollywood and ending the US’s willingness to give carte blanche to directors and instead returning to Extruded Studio Product. Which, given the fact most of Hollywood’s best films are director films, seems a step backwards. Except Hollywood is all about profit, not about making good films. Which is not to say that Heaven’s Gate is a good film. It looks fantastic. But it is overlong, massively distorts the story it tells, and was reputedly a terrible production. Legend has it Jonathan Hurt went off and made The Elephant Man in between shoots on Heaven’s Gate. It’s easy to believe, because the whole film reeks of out-of-control personal project. The story, as it goes, is yet another take on the cattle barons versus homesteaders conflict in late nineteenth-century USA. The film opens with two friends graduating from Harvard. It then jumps forward twenty years, and one of the men is a marshal while the other represents the cattle barons. In the film, the homesteaders are all European immigrants, which was not the historical case. Nor did they kill cattle because they were starving. But Cimino is making a point beyond the history he used as inspiration, so he ups the stakes all round, and has the cattlemen respond with brutal violence. And this is in a 219 minute film, so it goes on and on and on… The fact the production was so bad, and Cimino a total prima donna – he apparently wanted the street widening for one of the towns he’d had built, and instead of moving one side out six feet he demanded both sides were moved out three feet each – well, it’s easy to see why Heaven’s Gate flopped so badly on release. It’s been reassessed since – but a lot of it still doesn’t work: the layered-on xenophobia, the excessive violence, the rambling plot, multitude of characters… If Heaven’s Gate is seen more favourably now, it’s probably because auteurs have been back in favour for a few decades and the success of sell-through, in whatever format, has opened up a market for auteur movies. Which Heaven’s Gate isn’t really. But as the last gasp of New Hollywood it’s worth seeing at least once.

Under the Silver Lake, David Robert Mitchell (2018, USA). It is possible to accurately describe a film in such a way that it sounds like it’s worth watching but the 139 minutes spent watching it could still prove a total waste of time. Which is as good a description of Under the Silver Lake as any plot summary. Slacker Andrew Garfield is having trouble paying his bills and is threatened with eviction. He spots a young woman at the apartment building’s pool and is smitten. But then she goes missing. Meanwhile, he’s intrigued by an underground comic which shares the film’s name, and which suggest there is some secret history underlying pretty much everything. After a series of encounters, Garfield bounces from one clue to the other in his hunt for the young woman, before ending up at the mansion of some mega-wealthy recluse who claims to have written every single pop song ever heard. So Garfield brutally murders him. He eventually tracks down the missing woman, and it’s all to do with secret hermetically-sealed fallout shelters beneath the Californian desert, where members of the ultra-rich seal themselves off until they die because only by doing that can they achieve immortality, or some such bollocks. Under the Silver Lake tries really hard to be Eyes Wide Shut but pretty much fails at every point. The plot didn’t seem to go anywhere, except round in ever-pointless circles. It looked pretty, though; and the cast were quite good. But definitely not worth seeing.

Blind Shaft, Li Yang (2003, China). This is the film for which Li made his name, and the first of his loose  trilogy of “Blind” films. A pair of con men work in China’s poorly-regulated, and often illegal, coal mines. They pick some more schmuck desperate for a job, and persuade him to pretend to be their brother, and the three of them will sign up at a coal mine. They then murder the third man and claim it was an accident. And the mine owners pay them off because they don’t want the authorities investigating the mine. The films opens with a murder, and then follows the two miners as they return to the city to look for a new victim. But the naive teenager they eventually persuade to join them… one of the miners likes him too much to murder him. For all that we’re told China is a communist country, and communist countries have free healthcare and education, and the booming Chinese economy has seen giant cities grew up out of nothing, not to mention vast industrial zones… but the films made by Sixth Generation directors tell a slightly different story. Sch as this one, and Li’s later Blind Mountain. People far from the shiny new cities live in poverty, and have to pay for medical treatment and education. There’s a scene in Blind Shaft, in which the two miners, flush with the spoils of their last crime, are in the city and spot a youth holding up a sign which says he has won a place at college but needs money to pay for it. The miners are so impressed he has passed the entrance exams, they give him some money. It’s a different picture to the one painted by glossy trans-Pacific blockbusters, which likely explains why they tend not to get theatrical releases (or indeed approval from the Chinese authorities in some cases). Definitely worth seeing.

Love in a Fallen City, Ann Hui (1984, China). There’s some good stuff on Amazon Prime. you just have to look for it. And it’s probably tempting to stick to the high profile stuff, even for foreign films, as the movies we see made in other countries depend on what’s made available to us – either by dubbing or subtitles – and often isn’t all that indicative of that nation’s cinema. This is certainly true of China, Western views of whose cinema have no doubt been chiefly shaped by first of all Hong Kong action movies, plus Shaw Brothers’ wu xia, then later wu xia films kicked off by the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon… Plus, of course, there are the films by Fifth Generation and Sixth Generation directors, and the entirely different aesthetic, and choice of subject matter, they bring to Chinese cinema… But there are yet other films, which were either never released in the West, or had such limited releases they were all but invisible, and for whatever reason, although I’m not going to complain, some of them seem to have been made available on Amazon Prime. This is not to say all such movies are undiscovered gems. One or two of them are actually quite good, but most are pretty unforgettable – and some of the more successful ones are actually pretty bad. Love in a Fallen City is an adaptation of a novella of the same title by Eileen Chang, originally published in 1943, set before and during the Japanese invasion of China in WWII. It’s a boy meets girl, girl is not sure about boy, boy and girl realise they truly love each other as disaster strikes sort of story. It’s all very well-meaning, but I suspect the source material makes a more interesting job of it than the film did. It’s been several weeks since I watched it, and pretty much nothing has stuck. Oh well.

The Legend of Tarzan, David Yates ( 2016, Australia). Tarzan must be up there with Sherlock Holmes as the white male fictional character who has had the most film adaptations and, like Holmes, each adaptation has brought contemporary concerns to the adaptation. Perhaps Tarzan movies have not been quite so “contemporary” as Sherlock Holmes fighting the Nazis in the 1940s, but each take on the character, even if set in its correct period, has been of its time. Which is probably a good point to document my own relationship with the character of Tarzan, which is entirely overshadowed by a Tarzan annual I read in a hotel in the mid-1970s the night before an orthodontist’s appointment. It was one of the those hotels with a bathroom shared by several rooms. And one story in the Tarzan annual affected me powerfully. That, and the pain of having a brace fitted, have burned it into my memory. Other than that, it was regular showings of the 1960s Tarzan television series (that’s the one with the chimpanzee called Cheeta) on Dubai television when I was a kid, and memories of the Johnny Weismuller movies, although I can’t remember when and where I saw them. Of course, of Edgar Rice Burrough’s properties I’ve always much preferred John Carter, and I don’t recall even reading a Tarzan novel – although one of my favourite books as a kid was Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan of the Apes (I had the Pan UK reprint paperback, which apparently doesn’t even exist on Amazon). Anyway, he’s a familiar character to me, and it’s been interesting seeing how he’s been re-interpreted over the years. The Legend of Tarzan opens with Tarzan, as Greystoke, settled in England, but asked to return to the Congo to investigate slavery there – and so becomes embroiled in a plot by the Belgian envoy to deliver Tarzan to an tribal leader in return for the fabled diamonds of Opar. It’s all very twenty-first century, with lots of CGI apes, and near-superpowered protagonists, but it makes an excellent point about the slavery. It smells quite a lot like a Victorian superhero movie, and the story beats are more from that template than the source material, but it’s certainly an improvement on the last few Tarzan movies and better than the reviews it received.

Big Shot’s Funeral, Feng Xiaogang (20011, China). Donald Sutherland plays a big name Hollywood auteur in China to remake Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. The production company has hired a Chinese cameraman to follow Sutherland and record everything he says and does as material for a “making of” documentary. Unfortunately, Sutherland’s character doesn’t seem to have much clue what he’s supposed to be making – or rather, he has an entirely different film in mind to the one the producers are expecting or that he signed up for. This often results in incomprehensible instructions to the cast and extras, which his translator translates as something more understandable. Meanwhile, Sutherland forms a friendship with his documentary cameraman, despite the cameraman’s rudimentary English. But as the shoot progresses, so Sutherland’s character becomes disenchanted with the project. He doesn’t want to make some commercial crowd-pleaser, but that’s what the producers want and that’s how the production is being steered. Before shooting is finished, the director falls into a coma. The cameraman is asked to arrange his funeral, and told to use sponsors to pay for it. Which is where it all turns into farce, as the cameraman’s friend, a businessman, gets sponsorship deals for everything. I’ve found Feng’s films a bit hit and miss, but this one was good. It went from laid-back self-deprecating humour to quite biting satire. Good.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #66

Another somewhat eclectic bunch of movies, although only one counts as Extruded Hollywood Product. Even worse, it’s Extruded Marvel Hollywood Product. But I actually enjoyed it. It came across mostly as a piss-take, which is a definite improvement over the po-faced bollocks of the Avengers films…

Venom, Ruben Fleischer (2018, USA). As is the case with 90% of the current MCU output these days, I’m coming to this with little or no knowledge of the original comic incarnation. To be honest, I had thought Venom was a Spider-Man villain, although I’ve no idea why, but Spider-Man doesn’t appear here and the story is set entirely in San Francisco and Spider-Man lives in New York city. Tom Hardy plays an internet investigative journalist who pisses off the wrong person once too often – in this case, it’s Musk-like zillionaire Riz Ahmed, who seems to have the secret of interstellar flight which no one on planet Earth in 2018, er, actually has. But, WTF, this is MCU. People with fucking superpowers. So a “space shuttle” that apparently visits an exoplanet, even though no one has apparently colonised Mars, or even spread out into the galaxy, seems completely unremarkable. Unfortunately, said mission to the exoplanet has brought back some sort of weird alien life form. Which escapes and inhabits Tom Hardy’s body. Turning him into Venom, a superhero/supervillain. Sort of. Another alien parasite inhabits Ahmed, turning him into Riot, who is just the same as Venom but, well, bad. It’s all completely risible, but the filmmakers seemed to recognise that and there’s a nice line in piss-take throughout the movie, which is to be honest the only thing that makes it watchable. Thank fuck Joss Whedon didn’t make it. It would be unwatchable. Venom is not a great film. It’s mildly amusing, Hardy puts in a performance judged to a nicety, and the banter is unexpectedly better than is typical for a MCU movie. Unfortunately, the CGI is unexpectedly worse than is typical for a MCU film. Which is the only thing that spoils an otherwise entertaining 112 minutes.

Departures, Yōjirō Takita (2008, Japan). My mother lent me this, and one of these days I’ll persuade her to watch a film by Yasujiro Ozu… But for now, she’s the one lending me Japanese films. and quite odd ones at that. (Take that, David Tallerman.) Departures is a bout a young man who leaves Tokyo when the orchestra in which he was a cellist is disbanded, and in his home town he answers a job ad and becomes someone who prepares bodies for “encoffinment”, usually in front of the family of the deceased. Apparently, this is not an actual Japanese practice – or rather, it is not a separate career, as it’s normally performed by the funeral directors. But in the film, it’s a real job. Takita makes it clear this is not a run-of-the-mill occupation, opening with the dressing of a transgender person, and in which the dressers’ sensitive treatment defuses the obvious tensions in the room. It’s people’s response to the protagonist’s choice of career which drives the film – it’s seen as a slightly shameful job, although as is always the case in such films, attitudes soon change. While not an especially memorable film, Departures struck me as a well-played drama.

Space Raiders, Howard R Cohen (1983, USA). I don’t normally bother to document crap films, even science fiction ones, but Space Raiders is one of several movies Roger Corman cobbled together out of the special-effects footage from Battle Beyond the Stars. And, to be honest, I’m sort of conflicted about how I view Battle Beyond the Stars. Actually, I’m not. I liked it for many years, but I have to admit it is actually shit. It’s The Magnificent Seven in space – and, shockingly, one of them is a woman – and it’s a cheap piece of crap, albeit with some nice model work. And it’s the latter which resurfaces in Space Raiders. Who, as the title suggest, raid a base, only to discover a stowaway aboard: the son of the base’s commander. But they take a shine to him, and while ostensibly holding him for ransom, they look after him, even saving him from a plot by the alien controller of that space opera perennial the lawless where-pirates-meet-up space station that only seems to exist in brainless space operas. Oh wait, I committed a tautology. But you know what I mean. Having said all that, even for New World Pictures Space Raiders is weak sauce. The studio famously tried to make as many feature films as it could out of its rip-off material. Space Raiders is definitely New Worlds second-tier, although for me the studio will never exceed the greatness that is Queen of Blood.

Schloss Vogelöd, FW Murnau (1921, Germany). I do like Murnau’s films, although a friend thinks them over-rated. And it wasn’t until I watched this film I though he might be right. A hunting party at the eponymous secluded schloß is kept in by constant rain. An uninvited guest turns up, uninvited because it’s believed he shot his older brother and so became sole heir of the family fortune. To make matters worse, his brother’s widow also turns up to the schloß, which sort of makes things a bit icky. Flashbacks show that the widow’s marriage wasn’t as smooth as she claims, but also casts doubt on the brother’s guilt. While the film is well-shot, and some of the close-ups are really quite astonishing in their detail, at 70 minutes the story feels stretched beyond its natural length. Had it been made 20 or 30 years later, with, you know, sound, perhaps the slower scenes – and there are plenty of them – might have been a bit more interesting. But when you have characters sitting around mouthing silently, with only the occasional revelation or plot twist, attention quickly flags. Of course, the cinema experience was entirely different back in 1921, and while I don’t believe attention spans are actually any shorter now than they used to be, film audiences in 2017 have been trained over several decades to watch movies in an entirely different way to audiences in 1921. I do like Murnau’s films, but watching them is definitely an exercise in experiencing an historical document – some more so than others…

Women, Stanley Kwan (1985, China). This is one of many Shaw Brothers films that have been dumped on Amazon Prime. It is also Chow Yun-Fat’s first starring role. And Kwan’s first go at director. Make of that what you will. Which is, er, probably not much. Cora Miao plays a newly-divorced wife who is trying to make a new life for herself and meets up at regular intervals with a group of female friends. Who occasionally bring along male friends. Mostly to treat them in a nicely subversive way, much as men would treat women. But the woman’s husband, play by Yun-Fat, is not so quick to let his wife go. Women is a film that wears its time of making firmly on its sleeve. I’ve watched a number of films that were more 1980s than this one – and it’s strange but I’ve yet to see a film not made in the 1980s, but set then, that has managed to be 1980s – which is a long-winded way of saying that Women is very 1980s. But unless you’re a fan of the 1980s, I can’t really recommend this one.

Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach (1966,UK). In British television history, this is an important work. The fact its message has been entirely ignored – if not at that time, then almost certainly this century – seems almost incidental. As does the fact the heartless government during which its story takes place is Labour. Tories are evil scum. That’s a fact. But Labour have done their best over the decades to match them. Corbyn will in all likelihood make a crap prime minister, but he’ll make a better one than any Tory. But why bother? British politics has fuck-all to do with what either party will actually do, only with some rose-tinted view of what they’re supposed to have done in the past… A young couple end up homeless because the wife becomes pregnant and the husband is injured at work. They’re forced to leave their flat because of the baby and… It all sounds like the heartless consequences of Tory social policies – and in the twenty-first century that would almost certainly be true. But, as mentioned earlier, at the time Cathy Come Home was broadcast, Harold Wilson was prime minister and Labour had been in power for two years. But then, when you compare Cathy Come Home and I, Daniel Blake… The latter film is more immediately affecting because it shows the consequences of evil policies we can see for ourselves pretty much anywhere in the UK. The earlier film might well have been the first people saw of Labour’s policies of the time but, because they couldn’t map the experiences of Cathy and her husband onto what they thought they knew of the country… Of course, some people have been quite vocal in expressing a similar disconnect with I, Daniel Blake – but they’ve all been entitled Tory wankers, like Toby Young. Cathy Come Home is considered a landmark piece of television, but it does feel like its message has been lost over the decades since it was first broadcast. I, Daniel Blake, on the other hand, is an equally important film, but it feels like its message has been lost in only a year or two, or has been wilfully ignored…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Best of the year 2018

I usually do these posts in early December, which is not exactly the end of the year. But I’ve been so busy the last few weeks, I’ve not had the chance – which means this best of the year actually represents what I read, watched and listened to in all of 2018. This is likely the best way to do it.

And what a year it was. The Big Project at work finally ended in September. I applied for a job in Sweden, was offered it, and accepted. I made five visits to Nordic countries during the twelve months: twice each to Sweden and Denmark, once to Iceland. I beat my 140 books read Goodreads challenge by ten books. I watched 547 films new to me, from 52 different countries, forty-nine of them by female directors. I didn’t do much listening to music, I have to admit and I only went to two gigs: Therion in February and Wolves in the Throne Room in June.

And then there was Brexit. Yes, we had the referendum two years ago, and 17 million people – around a third of the actual electorate, so not a majority – voted for something very very stupid and self-destructive, in response to a campaign that told outright lies and broke election law. None of which is apparently enough to consider Brexit a travesty of democracy. And just to make things even worse, the last two years have demonstrated just how useless and incompetent the UK’s current government is, and how committed they are to destroying the country’s economy and perhaps even ending the union. Their latest scam is giving a £14 million contract to a ferry company that owns no ferries and has never operated any ferries previously. The whole lot of them should be in prison. Who knows what 2019 will bring? Will the government see sense and revoke Article 50? I think it unlikely given how racist May is and how committed she is to ending freedom of movement. Her deal will likely be the one that goes into effect, and it’ll be voted through because no deal is an unthinkable alternative.

But me, I’ll be out of it. Living in another country, a civilised country. I can’t wait.

This post, however is, as the title cunningly suggests, my pick of the best books, films and albums I consumed during 2018. (Position in my Best of the half-year post is in square brackets for each book, film and album.)

books
1 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929, USA). [-] My father had a sizeable collection of Penguin paperbacks he’d bought direct from the publisher in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve no idea why he bought them, but he certainly read them. After he died, I took a couple of dozen of them for myself. Including two by Faulkner. And it’s taken me a while to get round to reading one of them… And I loved it. It tells the story of a family from three viewpoints, and from them you have to piece together exactly what happened. It’s set in the Deep South at the beginning of the twentieth century, so of course it’s very racist. But that feels like something Faulkner wrote because overt racism was endemic in that place and at that time (and still is now, to be fair), and not a sensibility of the author that has leaked through into the text. I now want to read everything Faulkner wrote.

2 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK) [1]. Being knocked off the top spot, which is where this book was in my best of the half-year, by William Faulkner is no bad thing. The Smoke is genre, and was published by a genre imprint, but it’s not a book that invites easy description. It does some things I don’t think I’ve seen genre novels do before, and it crashes together ideas that really shouldn’t work on their own, never mind side by side. It’s set in alternate mid-twentieth century, where “biophotonic rays” have radically altered the world. Animalistic homunculi created by the rays have spread throughout Europe, and a secular group of Jews turned the ray on themselves and now lead the world in technology by a century or more. The Smoke is a story about a man whose mother has been reborn as an infant in order cure her of her cancer, a treatment pioneered by his ex-girlfriend’s father… The Smoke reads like an unholy mash-up of so many things that it’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. In fact, it rises above them.

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2018, UK) [3]. This is where the top five sort of gets all Schrödinger, because this novel and the two below might well have, on any other day, been swapped out for one of the honourable mentions. But I’ve kept The Rift here, in the same spot it occupied in my best of the half year, because Allan’s two previous novels never quite gelled for me. They felt like fix-ups, but without a framing narrative or much in the way of a link between the constituent parts. But The Rift is coherent whole, from start to finish. It has an interesting plot, which it not only fails to resolve but presents several possible mutually-exclusive endings all at the same time. A woman’s sister reappears several decades after mysteriously vanishing and claims to have been living on an alien world. Is she telling the truth? Is she indeed the long-lost sister? Or was the sister murdered years before by a spree killer? Everything about the story confounds a One True Reading, which is its strength.

4 Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima (1962, Japan) [-]. I bought this on the strength of Paul Schrader’s film about Mishima, although I was aware of how Mishima had died. The novel is the first of a quartet, and details the illicit affair between the son of a wealthy family with the daughter of much less wealthy aristocratic family. They have been friends since childhood, but he grew irritated with her affections and so convinced her he could never love her. But now she has been affianced to an Imperial prince, and the two conduct an clandestine affair. The writing is crystal clear, and even though set in a culture not my own, and a history of which I know only a few small bits and pieces, Mishima makes everything comprehensible. I’ve seen historical novels set in Britain by British writers that are larded with footnotes and info-dumps. Mishima was writing for a Japanese readership, obviously, but it’s astonishing how he makes his narrative flow like water.

5 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, Mary Gentle (2003, UK) [-]. I’m a huge fan of Gentle’s fiction, and buy each of her books on publication. And it continually astonishes me she seems to go out of print almost immediately. I bought 1610: A Sundial in a Grave back in 2003. But for some reason, it sat on my bookshelves for 15 years before I finally got around to reading it. Possibly because it’s a pretty damn large hardback. And… I loved it. It’s that mix of fantasy and historical Gentle does so well, better in fact than anyone else. There’s a slight framing device, but the bulk of the story is the journal of a seventeenth-century French adventurer who has to flee France when a faked-up plot to kill Henri IV actually does just that. He ends up in a plot in England by Edward Fludd to kill James I, along with the sole survivor of a Japanese mission and a sixteen-year-old crossdressing sword prodigy he believes to be male but with whom he falls in love. It’s brilliant stuff – thick with historical detail, visceral and smelly and real. The novel’s fantasy content is also fascinating, a sort of reworking of ideas from the White Crow books, but thoroughly embedded in the history.

Honourable mentions: Irma Voth, Miriam Toews (2011, Canada), a fascinating study of a Mennonite girl, by a Mennonite writer, in a Mexican colony, inspired by the excellent film Stellet Licht, I will be reading more by Toews; Golden Hill, Francis Spufford (2016, UK), intriguing historical novel set in early New York, paints a portrait of a fascinating, if horrifying, place; If Then, Matthew de Abaitua (2015, UK) [hb], any other year and this might have made the top five, the sort of liminal sf the British do so well, historical and alternate history, not unlike Ings’s novel above; The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet (2017, France) [hb], a contrived plot but a fascinating lesson in semiotics and Roland Barthes, cleverly mixed into real history; The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (2015, UK) [hb], a book that has grown on me since I read it, an elegy on both the Matter of Britain and genre fantasy, that is a more intelligent commentary than 99% of actual genre fantasies; Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK) [2] [hb], autobiography by Green, written because he thought he might not survive WWII, but he did, a fascinating and beautifully written look at life among the privileged in 1920s Britain; Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA) [5] [hb], a semi-utopian community created around an aircraft factory in the late years of WWII and how it fell apart once the war was over, beautifully written.

films
1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska 2015, Poland) [1] No change for one of the most bizarre films I watched in 2018, and I watched a lot of bizarre films. Carnivorous mermaids in 1980s Poland. Who join a band. In a nightclub. With music. It is entirely sui generis. It also looks fantastic, the mermaids are scary as shit, and the music is pretty good – if not technically entirely 1980s. I watched a rental of this and love it so much I bought myself the Blu-ray.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK) [2] No change here either. And the fact I love this film continues to astonish me. I’m not a Nolan fan but something about this – the cinematography, the sound design, the total absence of plot… appealed to me so much, I bought myself a Blu-ray copy after watching a streamed version. Perhaps it’s because the hardware features so heavily in it and I love machines. I’m not sure. It’s one of the most immersive films I’ve ever watched. Perhaps that’s it.

3 Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden) [-] Three girls discover a magic seed that transforms them into boys, and they get to experience life as the other gender – and they’re each in a position to appreciate the advantages of being male. This film just blew me away with its treatment of its premise, and then did more by turning the stereotype – girl becomes boy becomes bad boy – into something meaningful.

4 Shirley: Visions of Reality, Gustav Deutsch (2013, Austria) [-] A film which comprises a series of vignettes in the life of the eponymous woman, all of which are inspired by, and set up to resemble, paintings by Edwin Hopper. It sounds like something that belongs in a modern art museum, and it probably should be there, but it is also a beautiful piece of cinema. There’s something about the look of the film – attributable to Hopper, of course – which makes something special of it. It also made me more appreciative of Hopper’s art.

5 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway) [3] Comparisons with Carrie are both inevitable and do this Norwegian take on the story an injustice. When something is a thousand times better than something it might resemble, why forever harp on about the resemblance? De Palma’s film is a blunt instrument compared to Trier’s, although to be fair to Trier he does push the religious angle quite heavily. But Thelma looks great, and its lead is very impressive indeed.

Honourable mentions: to be honest, I’m not sure if some of these should not have appeared in the above five – that’s the peril of choosing a top five, especially when you’ve watched so many bloody good films, or just so many bloody films… Here, Then, Mao Mao (2012, China) [-] although not associated with any “generation” of Chinese film-makers, this film exhibits all the hallmarks of the Sixth Generation: a semi-documentary feel, disaffected youth, narrative tricks… and it does it like a master of the form; Vampir Cuadec, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain) [4] I loved this experimental film so much I tracked down a 22-film collection from Spain of Portabella’s works and bought it, this particular film is a heavily-filtered re-edit of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula that turns cheap commercial horror into avant garde cinema; India Song, Marguerite Duras (1975, France) [5] my first Duras and such a remarkably different way to present a film narrative, sadly her movies aren’t available in UK editions but I would dearly love to see more; Mandabi, Ousmane Sembène (1968, Senegal) [-] I love Sembène’s films and this might be his best, the story of the hapless eponymous man who spends money he doesn’t have and chases down the paperwork he needs to cash it in, even though it’s not his, a beautifully pitched comedy; Stellet licht, Carlos Reygadas (2007, Mexico) [-] precisely the sort of film that appeals to me – slow, beautifully shot, and a slow unveiling of the plot; War and Peace, parts 1-3,  Sergei Bondarchuk (1966-1967, USSR) [-] movies as they used to make them, a cast of tens of thousands, more technical innovations than you could shake a large stick at, and the widest screen on the planet, and despite there not being a single decent 70 mm print in existence what remains is more than sufficient to show this was a remarkable piece of film-making… and I’ve not even seen the final part yet; Bambi, David Hand (1942, USA) [-] why not a Disney animated movie? I’ve been working my way through them and this is one of the best, despite the mawkishness and frankly dubious message.

albums
Frighteningly, I only bought ten albums in 2018. Music really seems to have drifted out of my life. Which is a shame as, well, I like it a lot. But I generally have a fast turnover in music and will move onto something new quite quickly. I’m not one of those people who can listen to the same album over and over again for years. But I do have my “classics”, albums I return to again and again. And that list, of course, is always evolving…

On the other hand, my album picks each year tend to be from albums published during the year as I don’t “discover” older music as much as I do books or films.

1 No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland). I liked Kontinuum’s previous album, Kyrr, especially the track ‘Breathe’, but No Need to Reason is much much better. In places, it’s a bit like mid-career Anathema, although deeper and heavier. In other places, it’s a bit post-metal, or a bit rocky, or a bit, well, heavy. It’s probably that melange of styles that appeals to me the most – all filtered, of course, through a metal sensibility.

2 Slow Motion Death Sequence, MANES (2018, Norway). Frank Zappa once wrote that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and certainly I’ve yet to find a way to explain in print why some music appeals to me and some doesn’t. I don’t, as a rule like EBM, but MANES might well be classified as that – although, to me, they come to it with a black metal sensibility because they were once a black metal band. They changed their sound, quite drastically, yet for me something of their origin remains in the mix. I’ve no idea if that’s true or exists only in my head. I do know that MANES approach to electronica, and their occasional use of heavy guitar, seems very metal to me and I like it a lot.

The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018, USA) I’ve been following Panopticon since stumbling across one of their albums which mixed bluegrass/folk and atmospheric black metal, and over the past few years I’ve seen them – well, him, as it’s a one-man band – grow increasingly sophisticated in his use of the two musical genres. And here he’s at his current best – the folk sections are excellent and fade naturally into the black metal and vice versa. I’ve been impressed by all of Panopticon’s albums, but this one was the fastest like of them all. Everyone should be listening to them.

Currents, In Vain (2018, Norway). Ten years ago, I suspect this may not have made my top five. It’s good – because In Vain are good, But their previous albums were better, and this feels less musically adventurous than them, which is perhaps why I think it less successful. It’s solid progressive black metal from someone who has made the genre their own, but nothing in Currents is as playful as tracks on earlier albums. I liked that about them. Good stuff, nonetheless; just not as good as previously.

The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018, USA). Some bands are easy to categorise, others require such detailed tagging that they might as well be in a category all their own. Entransient are sort of progressive rock, but they’re a little too heavy to be just rock, and yet their music is not intricate enough to be metal. Some might call that heavy rock. But Entransient feel like they have elements of metal in their music, even if they mostly make use of non-metal forms. One of the tracks on this album has harmonies you would never find on a metal album, and yet works really well. Entransient give the impression they aren’t trying very hard to be anything other than what they want to be. They’re just writing songs down the line they’ve chosen… But they seem to be operating in a much bigger, and more interesting, space than they might have imagined.

Hopefully, my changed circumstances in 2019 will have me watching less films, reading more books, and listening to more music. And buying less books too, of course.


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Reading diary 2018, #21

Another eclectic bunch of books read. Only one recent genre novel (and one old one). The rest are mainstream.

A Winter Book, Tove Jansson (1971, Finland). Jansson apparently came to adult fiction late. She was in her fifties before she wrote her first novel that wasn’t children’s fiction. She also wrote a number of short stories. A Winter Book is cobbled together from a previous collection – not translated into English, IIRC – and a number of uncollected stories. They’re grouped thematically, and many deal with childhood in some way. Except for the ones that are about old age. Those who have read other fiction by Jansson will know what to expect. She’s very good at describing  the world she knew – pretty much every story she wrote drew on her own life. So we have stories set in Finnish winters, and stories that take place among the islands during the summer. It’s all very smooth and effortless storytelling, although some stories are more interesting than others. And yet, the collection itself doesn’t exactly linger. I read it more than a month ago and I’d be hard-pressed to describe any of the stories in it. Perhaps it’s that smoothness. Worth reading, though I suspect fans will get more out of it than I did.

Marune: Alastor 993, Jack Vance (1975, USA). I’m not sure why I picked this one off the shelves for a reread, given that previous Vance rereads haven’t gone so well. But I had fond memories of his Alastor Cluster series, and if the books were going to go back into storage I might as well remind myself of those fond memories. And… Marune: Alastor 993 was a much better book than I’d remembered it. Or rather: I’d remembered it as middling Vance, but it was a better put-together narrative than Star King, which I’d remembered as good Vance. The plot is one Vance has used several times: the amnesiac who has to research his origin and background, and discovers that his amnesia was deliberately induced in order to improve his rivals’, or enemies’, lot. Of course, the book’s real charm lies in the bizarre society the amnesiac belongs to. And, of course, his experiences away from his people have given him a broader outlook, which allows him to think past his family’s customs and traditions, and so he takes his rightful place as head of the family and overcomes his rivals and the family’s enemies. Although his amnesia does get in the way at times… Vance wrote two other Alastor Clusters books: Trullion: Alastor 2262 and Wyst: Alastor 1716. I might give them a reread before they go into storage.

The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I’m a big fan of Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, which is easily one of the best first contact sf series ever written – and certainly contains one of the genre’s best-written villains in Elizabeth Weatherall – not to mention thinking Duchamp’s short story ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.’ is a bona fide genre classic… So any new work by her is a cause for celebration. Except, she’s not always an easy read, and not because her prose is especially hard. There are lots of things in The Waterdancer’s World to like, but I still struggled to read it. It doesn’t help that its narrative is formed from multiple journals, all from different times during the history of the world Frogmore, because some of the narratives were way more engaging than others. There are also excerpts from a “galactic encyclopedia”, which is never a good way to info dump, and in many cases the info wasn’t actually necessary. But I’m a big fan of bending and twisting forms of narrative, so I can’t begrudge Duchamp’s experimentation. Of the various narratives, the journal of Inez Gauthier, the privileged daughter of the head of Frogmore’s occupation forces, is the most interesting; but the eponymous character, who doesn’t actually appear all that often, is the most fascinating person in the novel. There’s a fierce intelligence to Duchamp’s fiction – which is surprisingly rare in science fiction, the only other examples that spring to mind are Gwyneth Jones and Samuel R Delany – but Duchamp’s fiction seems much more, well, researched than those two. In the case of The Waterdancer’s World that has the unfortunate effect of making the sf feel a bit old-fashioned – not in sensibilities, they’re thoroughly twenty-first century; but in the whole look and feel… At times, I was almost visualising sets and costumes from Out of the Unknown, a British sf TV anthology series from the 1960s. Still, it’s all good stuff. I still have Duchamp’s latest to read on the TBR.

Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh (1930, UK). My first Waugh. I hadn’t realised when I decided to work my way through Waugh’s books quite how old they were. I’d known he was writing during the 1940s and 1950s, but it seems much of his fame rests on the novels he wrote in earlier decades satirising the “bright young things” of 1930s London. I do enjoy fiction from that period, although I prefer post-war, but I have at least something to which I can compare Waugh… And the obvious candidate is Henry Green, whose fiction I like a great deal. And who Waugh himself takes a few potshots at in his novels (perhaps not in this one but certainly the one below). Waugh is generally considered one of the best novelists the UK has produced but on the strength of Vile Bodies I’d say Green was better. Vile Bodies, which is apparently a sequel to Decline and Fall (which I also have), opens with the characters crossing the Channel from France, and then getting into various upper-crust scrapes in London. One long-running joke involves the dim-witted father of the female lead, whose less-than-illustrious fiancé wants to marry her, doesn’t have enough money, so he approaches the future father-in-law several times for help. There’s also a trip to a motor race to support a race driver friend, in which an air-head aristocrat socialite finds herself taking the race driver’s place and disappearing off into the wild blue yonder out of control. It’s all very obvious and yet all very cleverly done. And well-written, if not up to Green’s standards. I’ve got most of Waugh’s oeuvre to read, thanks to my mother, and I shall work my way through them. But it’s not looking like he’ll ever become a favourite.

Sword of Honour, Evelyn Waugh (1965, UK). My second (old) Waugh – and it’s also about the Second World War (did you see what I did there?). I’d been hoping to sneak this onto my Goodreads challenge as three books, as Sword of Honour is an omnibus of Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender. Except it isn’t, as Waugh rewrote the trilogy as a single novel shortly before his death. So it goes down on the challenge as a single book. Anyway… The novel charts the war experience of Guy Crouchback, scion of an old Catholic aristocratic family now fallen on hard times. He has spent the between-war years in Italy and speaks the language fluently. But he’s a bit of a wet, and the British are so thoroughly incompetent they’re incapable of taking advantage of his language skills. The nearest he gets is serving in Croatia near the end of the war. In fact, if there’s one thing that comes across in Sword of Honour it’s how useless the British were. We like to pretend we won WWII, but we didn’t. Not really. The Soviets did. And the Americans. Initially, we just fucked up big time. That’s what Dunkirk was. A major fuck-up. And even after all that, we still had a country run by upper-class twits and it took a while for the competent middle-class to get control. Reading Sword of Honour makes Brexit seem a lot more understandable – or rather, the fucking hash our government has made of Brexit. And yet Sword of Honour was meant to be a satire. It’s based partly on Waugh’s own war experiences, although he makes a Crouchback a much more likeable protagonist than Waugh himself apparently was. Because was by all accounts he was a nasty piece of work – a total snob and arrogant and a good candidate for being shot by his own men. Waugh gives Crouchback a better, if more ironic, future in his rewrite of the trilogy, but it’s still an essentially cheerful novel for all that it takes the piss mercilessly out of the British armed forces during wartime. I thought it a great deal better than Vile Bodies, not just because its subject matter I found more interesting but because it didn’t feel so overdone. Recommended.

How to be Both, Ali Smith (2014, UK). It’s probably time to accept I just don’t get on with Smith’s novels. Admittedly, I’ve only read two, but I can’t say I enjoyed either. Which is odd, because you would think her style would appeal to me. It’s copiously-researched, often turns on little known history, is written present-tense and without speech marks for dialogue… but it’s also often – at least in those books I’ve read – pretty close to stream-of-consciousness and that’s never a style I could deal with at length. It doesn’t help that the actual plot of How to be Both is wilfully obscure. I mean, yes, I grew up on genre fiction, and it privileges plot, but I like literary fiction, and that privileges, well, any number of things but plot is rarely one of them. I’ve not had the training to be fully appreciative of Smith’s fiction, even though I’ve read any number of literary authors and appreciated what they’ve tried to achieve. I suspect this will be the last novel by Smith I’ll read. She’s just not for me.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 133