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2020 – the best of the year

And what a year it’s been.

I refer, of course, to the pandemic. And Brexit. And Trump.

Admittedly, the last didn’t impact me at all. And I was sensible enough to flee the UK before Brexit.

Then there’s Covid… When you look at the low number of deaths in Asian nations, it’s clear no Western nation has handled the pandemic well. While Covid has been the most documented pandemic in history, it’s also been the most politicised. The latter is never going to result in intelligent or useful commentary, especially during a time when so many Western nations are led by populist governments and the press actively lies and misinforms in order to serve its owners’ agendas.

But enough about Covid. I’m profoundly glad I didn’t have to experience it in the UK, but I have many relatives and friends there, so there’s scant relief in that. I deliberately fled the UK because of Brexit, and I do not for one single fucking minute regret that decision. BoJo’s mishandling of Brexit – an appalling decision, in the first place – has made my situation confusing at best, and difficult at worst. Don’t forget: Brexit hasn’t just affected everyone in the UK, but also every UK citizen currently resident, or who owns property, in EU member states. Not to mention all those who operate businesses across what is now the UK-EU border. It is a criminal enterprise, and everyone associated with it belongs in prison. There is no outcome which is better than remaining a member of the EU. And if you believe otherwise, then you are a fucking idiot.

But let’s not talk about 2020… Except, well, this post is all about 2020. Specifically, the books, films and music I enjoyed most during the year. I usually do two of these a year: one in June (see here) and one in December or January. Because, well, things change. Although perhaps not that much. The numbers in square brackets below are that item’s position in my June best of the half-year.

books
1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK) [1]. Moore has spent a lot of time exploring the history of UK comics, and not just in this property, which originally set out to explore early fictional heroes. But here the commentary on UK comic history is explicit, and even though married with the Shakespeare play of the title, it still hangs impressively together and provides a coherent commentary and story. I find Moore a bit hit and miss, although I don’t doubt he’s the smartest writer currently working in comics. This book is the best he’s done for a long time. One day, I must read his prose novels. I’m told they’re difficult…

2 Still, Adam Thorpe (1995, UK) [-]. I stumbled across Thorpe’s debut, Ulverton, by accident several years ago and was impressed. I put him down as a name to look out for when I was browsing charity shops. And subsequently read a couple of books by him. But it wasn’t until reading Still I realised how singular a talent he is. The book is framed as a spoken narrative by a second-tier British film director, who nonetheless is present for many of the great cinematic moments of the twentieth century, or at least knows the names involved. It’s an impressively sustained narrative, and a clear indication that although Thorpe is not a popular writer he has a voice that will continue to impress in decades to come.

3 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK) [2]. Gwyneth Jones is a favourite writer. Joanna Russ is a favourite writer. This is almost a dream pairing. I know Jones is a sharp critic, I’ve read her criticism. But I was not so sure how she would approach Russ’s fiction. Happily, I need not have worried. Jones’s treatment of Russ’s career is factual and sympathetic. And extremely informative. Jones discusses Russ’s stories in relation to her life and career and the general shifts in science fiction occurring at the time. True, her essay on Russ in Imagination/Space does a better job on The Two of Them than this book does, but Joanna Russ is more of a career overview. Good stuff. Especially for fans of Russ.

4 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2017, Israel) [3]. Tidhar either writes alternative histories of the Jewish people, often involving Hitler, or sometimes only involving Hitler, or novels about superpowers made manifest in actual recent history. And sometimes he writes other types of science fiction. In Unholy Land, the Jews were offered land in central Africa after WWI, and accepted it. They called their country Palestina. A Jewish pulp writer based in Berlin returns to Palestina, and as he explores the country’s capital, and his past, so the history of Palestina, and the story itself, begin to unravel. It’s territory Tidhar has explored before – I’m pretty sure there’s an early short story buried in part of this novel – but Unholy Land is a much more effective treatment. His best yet.

5 The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North (2019, UK) [-]. North’s novel may sometimes wander a bit, but she shows an impressive degree of rigour in the treatment of her ideas and clearly puts a great deal of effort into her research. It pays off. Abbey is being chased by a shadow, after failing to save the life of a boy in late 19th-century Natal, and that shadow means he can now hear the truth in what people say. Unless the shadow catches him, in which case someone he loves dies. The British Empire have learnt to make use of people like Abbey, and he is co-opted into the Great Game. The premise is pure fantasy, but it’s treated like science fiction. North does an excellent job on its ramifications, and if the book tends to melodrama in places, it’s also an intelligent commentary on colonialism and imperialism.

Honourable mentions: Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK) [5], set in a post-climate change UK where migrants and refugees are indentured labour, it’s technology-driven but smells uncannily like recent political changes; All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA), excellent collection by a writer I’ve admired for many years, who sadly died in 2019; Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia), Regency fantasy that makes a good fist of its setting but perhaps leaves a few too many bits of the plot unexplained; Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK), women-only island retreat keeps one of the Greek fates in check, and so allows men the freedom to be themselves, but then the retreat is destroyed, resulting in a somewhat off-centre literary fantasy; Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord (2010, Barbados), Senegalese-inspired fantasy that may not be hugely original but has bags of charm; The Green Man’s Silence, Juliet E McKenna (2020, UK), third instalment in an urban fantasy series, and probably the best yet; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), third and sadly final episode in the adventures of the Athena Club, a group of female Victorian fictional characters, and I like the fact the books are explicitly framed as the written-up adventures of the club, including commentary on the narrative by the characters.

films
1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK) [1]. It probably says something about the sort of year 2020 has been that my pick for best film is 79 minutes of a single unchanging shot of International Klein Blue accompanied by a voiceover by Nigel Terry. But I could listen to Terry’s voice for hours. And Blue is such a perfect endpoint to Jarman’s remarkable career, an encapsulation of the life of a man who was more than just a film-maker, whose art defined an aesthetic and possibly a country’s cinema (more so than Richard fucking Curtis does). The BFI have released two Blu-ray collections containing all of Jarman’s movies. I urge you to buy both box sets. He made some remarkable films and they’re worth watching.

2 Kaili Blues, Bi Gan (2015, China) [-]. Although this film is not unlike those made by Sixth Generation directors, as far as I know Bi does not belong to that group. Yet Kaili Blues has all the hallmarks – a simple and yet very personal story, told in a a very stripped-back way. The centre of the film is a 41-minute single take, which is not only a remarkable piece of film-making, but also makes extensive use of the stunning Chinese geography in the area. It is a less overtly political film than those made by most Sixth Generation directors, but its commentary remains effective all the same. A man tries to discover the fate of his nephew, and ends up in a village where past, present and future co-exist. But not in an obvious way. A beautiful-looking film.

3 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon) [2]. A young Lebanese boy sues his parents for having him, which is merely the entry to a story of child brides, indentured labour, refugee abuse, and Western imperialism. Everything in Capernaum is true, everything in Capernaum is the consequence of the foreign policies of centre-right and right-wing Western nations, everything in Capernaum should be condemned by anyone with an ounce of humanity. I was surprised I’d not heard of this film, and I’m familiar with Labaki’s previous movies, but given its subject perhaps that’s not so surprising. Capitalism does not work, the current world order is broken. We need more films about its victims. Capernaum is a beautifully-made and important film.

4 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Fred Schepisi (1978, Australia) [-]. If Capernaum suggests that things might change for the better, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith demonstrates they won’t. It’s a heart-breaking movie, set in late nineteenth-century Australia. Which is probably all that needs to be said. Australia’s history of race relations, especially with its indigenous people, has been far from exemplary. Jimmie Blacksmith, who is half-Aboriginal, accidentally kills a white woman after his white wife is persuaded to leave him, and subsequently goes on the run. The film show cases both Australia’s landscape and its systemic racism. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith may be set at the turn of the twentieth century, but more than 100 years later it often seems little has improved.

5 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA) [4]. I loved Twin Peaks. It started out as a perfect pastiche of US daytime soap operas, before heading off into some very strange territory – which was not entirely unexpected, as I’d followed David Lynch’s career for several years. For all that, the last thing I thought the series needed was a third season, especially one made 27 years after the last season. But… it not only worked, it was brilliant. It recapitulated the strangeness of the original, it advanced the plot, it remained just as fucking strange. It also looked gorgeous. It didn’t answer any of the questions left over from the  original two seasons, but it was clearly never intended to. It was, as the UK branding makes abundantly clear, a “limited event”. I think this may be a good strategy for TV series.

Honourable mentions: Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Run Waiter, Run!, Ladislav Smoljak (1981, Czechia), amusing comedy in which a man supplements his income by posing as a waiter in various restaurants and taking diners’ money, and gets so good at he becomes a folk hero; Sami Blood, Amanda Kernell (2016, Sweden), dramatic treatment of a Sami teenage girl turning her back on her culture, and encountering prejudice and racism as she tries to fit into 1930s mainstream Swedish society; Rift, Erlingur Thoroddsen (2017, Iceland), a man goes to stay with an ex-boyfriend who is holed up in a secluded cabin, but someone has been prowling around the cabin, and then things start to get really strange; Dodsworth, William Wyler (1936, USA), classic Hollywood melodrama of the period, with a razor-sharp script. Heckle, Robbie Moffatt (2013, UK), extremely low-budget UK film, set in Selby, about a woman who shows promise as a comedian; The Gardener, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2012, Iran), beautifully-shot documentary about the Baha’i religion, especially in regards to a man who tends a Baha’i garden in Israel.

television
I’ve been doing a lot of box-set bingeing this year, so I decided to introduce this category. And, to be fair, the music category has been somewhat moribund these last few years.

Two of the series I watched this year were structured around the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. If it takes nigh on 100 years to comment on these horrible events in our popular culture, then perhaps we need to look again at our popular culture. Drama series about the Windrush scandal are not going to cut it in 2115. Get that shit out now, put it in front of as many people as possible, show them that the Tories are Nazis. Fascists shouldn’t have to storm the Capitol for people to take notice, especially when the evidence is there all along.

But, I digress. Or rant. One or the other. TV is a a more immediate medium than books or films. I suspect it’s also a more demotic medium than cinema or books, and so punches above its weight. It’s a medium that’s interrupted by what’s allegedly called news. Not if you box-set binge or stream, of course. But even so, we’re still at the point where a significant portion of the electorate have trouble accepting anything beyond the terrestrial channels… Which might not be so bad if the terrestrial channels had remained true to their charters, but they plainly have not.

1 Watchmen (2019, USA). I am perhaps in a minority in thinking the ending to the movie adaptation of Watchmen superior to the original comic book ending. And Watchmen, the TV series, was written by Damon Lindelof, best-known for Lost – which, when it wasn’t doing “backstory of the week” wasn’t all that bad, although it clearly wasn’t planned – and Prometheus, which is an appalling piece of writing. And yet, Watchmen is… seriously clever, both fitting within the world built by Moore and Gibbons and also extending it. Watchmen starts with police officers hiding their identities in order to protect themselves from Neo-nazi militias and then folds that into the universe of the graphic novel – which had much to say about fascist violence – before eventually dragging it back, as all things Watchmen-related must do, to Dr Manhattan. Smart television.

2 Lovecraft Country (2020, USA). I’d heard good things about this, but it didn’t sound like it would appeal as I’m not a fan of horror and, let’s face it, Lovecraft was a horrible fucking racist so it would take some fancy footwork to re-imagine him for a twenty-first century audience. Happily, Lovecraft Country sidesteps that problem by only referencing Lovecraft obliquely and – more controversially, for US TV at least – by basing it on black history. The end result is a mini-series that feels complete after two episodes, but still manages to keep the plot going for a further eight episodes. Nigerian/British actress Wunmi Mosaku stands out as Ruby Baptiste, and not just because her character comes across as the most rounded of them all. I didn’t expect to like Lovecraft Country, but I thought it excellent.

3 His Dark Materials (2019 – 2020, UK). An adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, which I read back in the 1990s – and the first book was adapted for the cinema back in 2007, but no sequels appeared after underwhelming US box office performance and public criticism of the movie from the Catholic Church… But I had fond memories of the books, and occasional rumours of adaptations kept me hopeful we’d see it gain eventually on big or small screen. This British TV adaptation, however, has proven really good – despite not having a $180 million budget – and the second season, which aired this year, is even better than the first.

4 Morden i Sandhamn (2010 – 2020, Sweden) This is a police drama set in a small village in the Stockholm archipelago, about 60 km east of the city centre. It’s all a bit chocolate-box, which is what I call TV designed to showcase the appeal of places, even if the stories involve murder. They are… comfortable. Sufficiently fictional not to upset prospective tourists who like the look of what they see. Like Midsomer Murders, which features murder but nothing so upsetting as brown people. Morden i Sandhamn wins hands-down on the scenery front, and it did have a tendency to reach for cliché at moments of high drama. But it had a likeable cast – that were not exemplary, it must be said – and it took some effort over its plots.

5 Murder Call (1997 – 2000, Australia). A police drama set in Sydney. It is… extraordinarily ordinary. If that makes sense. Its gimmick is that its chief detective, Tessa Vance, would subconsciously solve the case three-quarters of the way into the episode’s 45-minute slot. While the crimes the homicide squad investigated ranged from the banal to the bizarre, it was Vance’s epiphany that pretty much defined each episode. I’ve always had a soft spot for female detectives – my favourite crime writers are Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton – and I’ve always much preferred police procedural TV series which feature female leads. Murder Call was very much a product of its time, but I quite liked the fact it made its central premise seem entirely reasonable and plausible.

Honourable mentions: Star Trek: Picard (2020, USA), Patrick Stewart is dragged out of dotage for one last mission, and it’s probably the smartest bit of writing set in the Star Trek universe ever put on screen; Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010 – 2013, USA), the eleventh incarnation of the series, but the smartest yet, filled with clever references and in-jokes, including spoofs of David Lynch’s work: Beck (1997 – 2018, Sweden), definitive Swedish cop show, entertaining to see how it changed – and the genre changed – over a decade; The Mandalorian (2019 – 2020, USA), Star Wars fanfic TV series, never very convincing but it did have its moments; For All Mankind (2019, USA), alternate Space Race which, unsurprisingly, reminded me a great deal of a quartet of novellas by someone or other…


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Movie roundup 2020, #25

In 2020, I watched 380 films, of which 275 were new to me, 41 I’d seen several times before, and 58 I’d watched once previously. Most were streamed – I no longer subscribe to a DVD rental service (are they a thing in Sweden?); and I bought a grand total of nine Blu-rays (one is a box set) and two DVDs in 2020, not all of which I’ve watched yet. The movies were from 39 different countries, the top five of which by number of films were USA, UK, China, Italy and India. Ninety percent were directed by men, five percent by women, and five percent by more than one person. The most popular decade was the 2010s, followed by the 1970s and 1980s (equal), and then the 1990s.

I also binged on a number of television series – from Sweden, Australia, UK, China, USA and Canada. They were mostly either science fiction or police procedurals/murder-mysteries. I completed Stargate SG-1, Quantum Leap, Unforgettable, Wire in the Blood, and The Professionals. I can’t honestly say any of them were any good.

Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga, David Dobkin (2020, USA). I didn’t want to watch this film. I don’t think Will Ferrell’s movies are very funny, and, well, Eurovision is a difficult subject to tackle and it means so many different things to so many different people. In the UK, it’s either ignored or celebrated as an excuse for a major piss-up; in Sweden, they have a month-long television contest just to choose who will represent the country. So my expectations were not high. But I’m also a sucker for movies about bands. Ferrell plays a monomaniacal Icelander who is determined to represent his country at Eurovision. Together with his childhood friend, Rachel McAdams, as the band Fire Saga, they submit a demo song to to the Icelandic pre-selection TV show… and are randomly added to the bill after another act is disqualified. But Iceland is pinning all its hopes on a singer (played by a US Pop Idol winner or something). Fire Saga’s TV appearance is a disaster. When all the other contestants are killed when the boat they’re partying on explodes, only Fire Saga are left to represent Iceland… The humour is played completely deadpan throughout. I find Ferrell annoying at the best of times, but there were some good jokes here (and some really bad ones too, of course). The flamboyantly gay Russian contestant was good, seeing Gunvald Larsson in another role was a bit weird, the elves thing was a bit odd at first but gradually improved, and some of other acts were impressively accurate pastiches of the real thing. Overly mawkish in parts, a bit too much moralising, never really laugh-out-loud funny, but better than expected.

Toy Story 4, Josh Cooley (2019, USA). I remember the fuss when the first Toy Story film appeared. True, it was ground-breaking. But did it need a sequel, never mind three sequels? To be fair, all four films have stayed true to the characters and setting. By the time the fourth film hit the screens, the shine had surely rubbed off. The characters and set-up are just too familiar, and it just feels like it’s going through the motions. There are a couple of good jokes, but it’s all very much a formula of its own making. The animation remains impressive, but there’s nothing here that’s, well, exciting or novel. It’ll appeal to fans because it’s all very familiar, but I admit my attention wandered a bit while I was watching it. Meh.

WW84, Patty Jenkins (2020, USA). The general reaction to this sequel has been one of underwhelm. It was a bit meh, but I think a lot of the criticism has been somewhat unfair. Rather than MCU’s bombast, it offers moralising, and yet there’s an immoral act at its core. The film opens with a young Diana competing in some sort of Amazon pentathlon, which she wins, despite being half the age of the other competitors. Quick cut to a shopping mall in 1984, and Wonder Woman foils a jewellery store robbery, but asks all the witnesses to keep her intervention a secret. By day, she works in the Smithsonian, where a colleague, Kristen Wiig, uncovers an ancient artefact with special powers – it makes wishes come true. Wiig wishes she were confident and popular like Diana Prince… and slowly gains Wonder Woman’s powers. Meanwhile, an ineffective con man has also learnt of the artefact, steals it and wishes its powers on himself – so he effectively becomes the artefact. And he uses his new-found power to greatly improve his lot, while inadvertently leaving chaos behind him. (I’ve known managers like that, and they didn’t need magical powers.) Wonder Woman, of course, makes a wish too – that her long-lost love, Steve Trevor, is returned to her. Which he is – in the body of another man. Which is… What happens to the man’s original mind? Where does he go? And replacing that actor with Chris Pine, so the viewer knows the character is now Trevor hides the fact it’s another man. Also, how did a WWI pilot know how to fly a 1980s jet fighter? (The invisible plane thing is silly, but it’s part of the Wonder Woman story, so why not include it?) Like the first Wonder Woman film, WW84 starts well, sags badly in the middle, and then falls apart in the final act. But the most puzzling thing about it is the decision to set it in 1984. I don’t remember anything in the movie specifically tied to that year. And there was certainly no reference to Orwell. Which would have been weird anyway. Nostalgia? No idea. WW84 has likely been dumped on more than it deserves, chiefly because it’s about a female superhero and it was directed by a woman. But I do like the fact the DCU films are very different to the MCU ones, even if the latter are starting to look like some sort of extended Robert Downey Jr vanity project in which he repositions himself as God.

Death to 2020, Al Campbell (2020, USA). A piss-take documentary on last year, focusing mostly on Trump, his mishandling of the pandemic in the US, and the UK’s equally appalling handling of Covid. If you lived through 2020, it does seem like a satirical recap of it is… unnecessary. If anything, a piss-take generally means you have no power to change anything. And we already know that’s not true, as Trump slinks out of the White House and, we fervently hope, off to prison. We can only pray a similar fate is visited on Boris Johnson and his corrupt government, not to mention the fat cats who have profited from the Conservative Party’s corruption. There are, I admit, a couple of laugh-out-loud moments in Death to 2020, and it’s certainly a good deal more true than anything that’s been broadcast or printed by the US and UK press over the past twelve months, or, of course, anything said by either Johnson or Trump. If I thought Death to 2020 would change anything, I’d be the first to praise it. But it won’t. It will make some people feel better about their powerlessness or inaction, but it won’t change minds. In a world in which someone uses the phrase “autonomy of opinion” to justify their irrational disbelief of a verifiable fact, it’s going to take more than a satirical film to overcome the astonishing stupidity of a significant proportion of the populations of the US and the UK.

When Marnie was There, Hiromasa Yonebiyashi (2014, Japan). Studio Ghibli seems to like adapting British children’s literature. There was Diana Wynne Jones, and The Borrowers, and now When Marnie was There, adapted from a 1967 children’s novel by Joan G Robinson, whose name, I must admit, was completely unknown to me. (Wikipedia describes When Marnie was There and later novels as “Young Adult”, but no such category existed then.) A twelve-year-old girl, Anna, goes to stay with country relatives of her foster parents after suffering a bad asthma attack. While exploring the countryside, she meets a precocious girl of the same age who lives in the local manor. Whenever Anna accompanies Marnie to her home. everything appears very old-fashioned, which strangely does not seem to register with Anna. The two become friends and have several minor adventures. But all is not as it seems – although the viewer should have little trouble figuring out what’s going on. Studio Ghibli often have a problem with mawkishness, but When Marnie was There manages – just – to stay the right side of it. I’ll confess I much prefer Ghibli’s less overtly genre films, but this one had that sort of gentle English children’s fantasy I couldn’t help by find appealing. A good film.

Two Weeks in Another Town, Vincente Minnelli (1962, USA). Washed-up and dried-out actor Kirk Douglas is flown out to Rome to work on a film directed by an old friend, Edward G Robinson, a US director whose career is also on the slide. But when Douglas arrives at Cinecittà, he discovers the producer has refused the additional budget for Douglas. Determined to make a go of it, Douglas accepts a lower position supervising the looping of the dialogue. (Most Italian films had the dialogue added in post-production, and, in the case, of non-Italian cast members, their voices were provided by Italian actor.) Confusing matters is the presence of Douglas’s  ex-wife, Cyd Charisse, who is now seen about Rome on the arm of some wealthy industrialist. Things come to a head when Robinson has a heart attack and hospitalised. Douglas volunteers to direct the film, despite having no experience, but does a good job. Robinson accuses him of betrayal. Douglas goes on a bender and nearly kills himself in car crash. The film is pretty much a two-hander – Douglas and Robinson – and they play off each other well. It’s also a very late-1950s to early-1960s drama. The Roman setting gives it an edge, and reminds me a little of Godard’s Le mépris, but this is also a Minnelli film and he was always very good at putting nice pictures up on the screen. A good solid 1960s drama, with an excellent cast.

Valhalla, Fenar Ahmad (2019, Denmark). A poor smallholding in Denmark is  visited one night by Thor and Loki. To feed the family and two gods, Thor slaughters one of his giant goats, but warns the family not to break any of the animals bones… So, of course, Loki tricks the teenage boy of the house into doing just that. And when Thor reanimates the goat the next morning using Mjolnir, the goat is lame. So Thor takes the boy to be a slave in Valhalla. But the daughter hides on the cart and is not discovered until they are halfway across Bifrost. It turns out there is a legend about a “Child of Light”, and it might be the girl – because she can control Fenrir, the giant wolf, currently running wild in Asgard. The two escape Valhalla with the help of an intellectually-challenged jötunn, taken as a slave earlier. Which triggers a war between the gods and the jötnar… Given the story, this is a surprisingly small film. There are no more than half a dozen gods, and slightly more jötnar. The interiors are far from grandiose – in fact, they’re caves. It looks a bit like LARPing, but it actually works as a movie. It’s the complete antithesis of MCU’s bombastic Thor movies, and all the better for it. Worth seeing.

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, Khurram H Alavi & Ayman Jamal (2015, United Arab Emirates). Because Islam forbids representations of the Prophet Mohamed, films made about the early days of Islam have this weird hole in their centre. And this is certainly true of Bilal, which covers the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, one of the early Sahabah (disciples), who went on to become the religion’s first muezzin. Bilal was born a slave in Makkah, at a time when idolatry was the chief religion in the Arabian Peninsula. Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is hardly historically accurate – and even its opening deviates from the actual history of Bilal ibn Rahman, by showing him being taken as a slave child, rather than being born a slave. In terms of story, the film hits a series of fairly typical beats – rivalry with richest merchant’s arrogant son, taken under the wing of a wise mentor, and a powerful warrior… But then a man appears preaching equality and emancipation, and Bilal becomes one of his followers. Obviously, this is Islam. But it’s never mentioned by name, nor are any of its tenets given. The idol worshippers are painted as venal and deluded, and positioned as the enemy, leading to a war in the third act, but the good guys are a blank because they’re not categorically identified. It’s like The Lord of the Rings without the One Ring. I suspect the real history would be a lot more interesting, but it’s not a well-documented period – or rather, like another extremely popular book, the history has been compiled from a variety of sources, many of which were not writing until a generation or two after they had ended. An interesting film, although not entirely successful.


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Movie roundup 2020, #24

Just working my way through the last few films I watched last year. A very mixed bunch, from all over the world.

Mariam’s Day Off, Arshak Amirbekyan (2017, Armenia). This is apparently the second film I’ve seen by this director, and the first one was also just over an hour long. Mariam is a sex worker, who turns up to her patch one day to find it occupied by an old man. They get talking, and he reveals he has a friend who’s an artist, and would she like to model for him? There is nothing salacious in their discussion, nothing suspicious, so she agrees. And experiences an entirely different world, in which two old men in the arts enjoy each other’s company and treat Mariam with respect and courtesy. The next day, she returns to her patch, and she tells her fellow sex workers she did something different yesterday. Filmed in black and white, with a small cast, and only two locations – the sex workers’ patch, a stretch of fence outside a park; and the artist’s studio. Enjoyed it.

Inferno, Ron Howard (2016, USA). Who remembers Dan Brown, and his series of novels about a “symbologist” (sic), which were not only badly written but also managed to be badly researched? They were best-sellers, big enough in fact to justify a film series. True, the first book to hit the big time, The da Vinci Code, which was not Brown’s first novel, actually prompted the film series, and none of the sequels, or prequels, matched it in sales. But they still made films of them. And, really, it’s easy to like Tom Hanks, who plays the symbologist (sic). He’s a nice guy (and a huge space nut, which I think is great), but his involvement in these films really does make me wonder about him… I forget the plot of Inferno – it was something to do with Dante Alghieri, and I’m all up for popular culture being used as a vector for complex ideas, sort of like Sophie’s Choice. But Brown’s fiction is not that. It’s a dumbing-down of the complex ideas it robs wholesale from other sources. Which it freely mixes with complete fiction and downright distortions of history. And the films are no better. They replace Brown’s lumpen prose with polished visuals. Avoid.

The Third Wife, Ash Mayfair (2018, Vietnam). A fourteen-year-old girl is given in arranged marriage to a man with two wives in nineteenth-century Vietnam. Her status in the family depends on her providing her husband with a son. She is soon pregnant, but unfortunately gives birth to a daughter. Meanwhile, the second wife is having an affair with the son of the first wife. And when he is married off in turn, he reuses to accept his new child bride and she commits suicide. Meanwhile, the fourteen-year-old wife contemplates poisoning her daughter… I recognise this is real historical practice, but why turn it into drama? While sex trafficking and child brides still exists in some parts of the world, the former much more so than the latter, The Third Wife is an historical movie. It evokes its period impressively, at least to my untutored eye, but I’m not sure how its story maps onto the present day, and without that I don’t understand what the point of the film was. I mean, it’s not entertainment. This is no brainless popcorn action flick. It’s a commentary-free period drama.

Slave Widow, Mamoru Watanabe (1967, Japan). This is a “pink film”, which is a term used in Japanese cinema for films that contain sexual content. The title is… a pretty good summary of the plot, although the film is more of a domestic drama than anything salacious. A businessman dies unexpectedly, and it transpires his business was failing and he was massively in debt. His largest creditor offers to cover the debts if his widow will stay on in their house and sexual service the creditor when he desires. But the creditor’s eldest son, who is in training to take over the business, falls in love with the widow. It’s presented in a very mundane style, almost like Yasujiro Ozu, although without his eye for detail or elegiac quality. But the trap in which the widow is caught is laid out clearly, and she eventually takes the only way out. A  bit slow in places, and a bit obvious in others, but better than expected, or its title might suggest.

Rift, Erlingur Thoroddsen (2017, Iceland). A man receives a fraught telephone call from an ex-boyfriend who has retired to a remote cottage and, scared the ex-boyfriend might be thinking of taking life, he goes to see him. Something weird is definitely going on – a strange figure haunts the exterior of the cabin, one of the neighbours has been behaving oddly, and something peculiar happens in a nearby rift, a fissure no more than a metre or so deep, when they visit it. Any Icelandic film and your eye is mostly on the scenery, because it’s so distinctive and bizarre, and Rift scores pretty highly in that respect. But despite being a two-hander film, Rift also does a really good job of maintaining the suspense and fear throughout its 111-minute length. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, although unexpected. Worth seeing.

The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola (1974, USA). Gene Hackman plays an expert surveillance expert who slowly discovers that a conversation he recorded of a woman and her lover doesn’t mean quite what he thought it did. Much is made of the fact Hackman’s character is generally considered the best in his field, although he despises self-promotion – as demonstrated by his reactions during a local surveillance tech expo and his treatment of a rival whose reputation rests more on promotion than results. There are a few inconsistencies – Hackman’s growing paranoia is fed by his privacy in his apartment being breached, but there’s nothing in the story to justify or explain those breaches. Hackman has taken precautions, and they’re not trivial precautions. The Conversation is generally recognised to be a classic New Hollywood thriller, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s slow and takes its time to reveal its twist, but it also makes a character out of Hackman’s surveillance expert, rather than just the usual stereotype or archetype you get in most thriller films. Recommended.

Tam Cam: the Untold Story, Ngo Thanh Van (2016, Vietnam). It’s astonishing how much the early parts of this story resemble that of Cinderella, although the Vietnamese predates the French version by, I believe, several centuries. It’s also considerably more gruesome. A prince encounters a young village woman while riding back to his palace. He thinks little of it, but then the king dies, he takes the throne, is persuaded he needs to find a wife. So he invites all the unmarried women in the kingdom, high-born and low-born, to a ball. The young village woman, Tam, has two stepsisters and an evil stepmother (played by the director), and they conspire to prevent from attending. But with the help of a fairy godfather-type, well, fairy, she makes it to the ball, charms the prince, loses her shoe and so on. But then the stepmother kills Tam, and one of the stepsisters, Cam, takes her place. And tries to poison the king. But Tam reincarnates as a bird and saves the king from the poisoning attempt. Cam kills the bird and eats it. Tam reincarnates as two trees. Cam chops down the two trees and burns them. But the ashes are blown away on the wind and where they settle a golden apple tree grows. An old woman takes an apple from the tree home, and it turns into Tam. The king passes by, meets Tam, and the two are back together. Not part of the original legend, as far as I can discover, is a subplot about a demon who has disguised himself as human and acts as chancellor to the new king. He’s done a deal with a neighbouring state, so they invade and the demon gets the throne. So the king is off fighting a war, which he loses, and then his best friend turns on him and tries to kill him… Tam Cam: the Untold Story gets through a lot of story in 116 minutes, and in laces it feels more like fantasy than Vietnamese legend.


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Movie roundup 2020, #23

I polished off Lovecraft Country. So, that’s two TV series I watched in 2020 that were partly based around the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Which is when a bunch of white people, with the approval of the local authorities, attacked and maimed and killed many of the black residents of the city. If the massacre is not required teaching in US schools, it damn well should be. And yes, British schools should teach kids the UK didn’t stop paying compensation to slave owners for the loss of their slaves until 2015, FFS. Not to forget the Windrush deportations, or Theresa May’s “hostile environment”. For all the Labour Party’s antisemitism, and I have little respect these days for the Labour Party, its crimes pale in comparison to those of the Conservative Party.

I gave up on Dark Matter after a season. It started to get interesting – six crew members of a starship awake with no memories, and then discover they were a crack mercenary team, but now they’re no longer interested in a career of death and destruction. But then the series threw it all away, and went for the usual US science fiction fascist future (although the programme is Canadian). It didn’t help the crew of the Raza were allegedly the bestest evah, but seemed to be completely useless most of the time. I think the final straw was when they were all captured but only turned the tables because a member of the team they’d all thought dead turned out to be impossible to kill.  Most people would consider this shit writing, Dark Matter seemed to think it was okay. So I stopped watching.

Despite my move to Sweden two years ago, I’m still mostly consuming English-language culture. Yet most of my favourite directors are not English, nor American; nor are many of my favourite writers. But neither are they Swedish. (I like Bergman’s films a great deal, but none are really “favourites”. And, let’s face it, he’s the international art house face of Swedish cinema, when in fact there are tons more Swedish directors, many of whom never see their films released in the English-language market.) I definitely need to watch more Swedish films. I should make it a New Year’s resolution or something.

But, for the time-being, here are the usual suspects… I still have a couple more of these posts before I’ve finished documenting last year’s viewing, by the way.

Greyhound, Aaron Schneider (2020, USA). This is based on a WW2 novel by CS Forester, about the captain of a US destroyer on escort duty for an Atlantic convoy, and which I note is apparently titled, according to a near-monopolistic online retailer, “Greyhound: Discover the gripping naval thriller behind the major motion picture starring Tom Hanks”, and not The Good Shepherd, its actual real title. It’s almost as if the film came first. I’m surprised they even bothered to mention the author’s name. (To be fair, it’s not the retailer’s fault, it’s publishers doing their shit data thing again. Cue rant on marketing making data shit making search engines useless making marketing less effective.) Anyway, WW2 convoy leaves the US in 1942, led by a US destroyer, USS Keeling, captained by Tom Hanks, and heads for the UK, as part of the US’s vital – although it took them a few years to get actively involved – response to Hitler’s depredations in Europe. The UK likes to think it won WW2. This is not true. The US likes to think it won WW2. This is also not true. (They also like to think they won WW1, which is definitely not true – Germany won WW1 for the Allies, although “won” is probably the wrong word.) The USSR won WW2. Pretty comprehensively. And with the highest death toll of any nation. Which means that celebrating individual – or even group – acts of bravery from WW2 seems disingenuous at best. World War 2 was not won by individual acts of bravery. Or indeed by masterful strategies by state leaders. We are long past the time when celebrating anything about WW2 except the fact it was a victory over a fascist state that tried to commit genocide has any kind of social currency. I think the Second World War should be renamed the Global War Against Fascism, because far too many gammons and right-wingers celebrate it and use it to defend their politics when they’re the actual enemy. Greyhound, sadly, is entirely forgettable. Hanks’s character is some sort of weird Christian martinet, but for all his prayers he still has a really shit voyage across the Atlantic. The movie is a bit of a CGI-fest, which is why Dunkirk is much better, and also Dunkirk offers no commentary – but I can’t blame Greyhound for the latter as it’s more likely from the source material, a novel written less than a decade after WW2 finished, by a man who spent the entire war in the US, well away from the front lines, writing propaganda designed to encourage the Americans to get involved.

Tenet, Cristopher Nolan (2020, UK). I’ve seen it argued Nolan is not a director of films but of events. So much so, he threw his dummy out the pram when the pandemic prevented him putting on a full-on state-of-the-art cinematic premiere for Tenet. My response to Nolan’s films has been mixed – Memento was brilliant, but doesn’t survive subsequent viewings with anything like the same impact; the Batman films are just plain fascist; Inception was rubbish; Interstellar was two good films welded together into one bad one; Dunkirk, I actually love unreservedly… In Tenet, we have… a film that could be all that Nolan has been working toward and so quite genius…. Or a movie that doesn’t really work and only demonstrates all of Nolan’s faults as a film-maker. I’m not sure which. Though the film tries to disguise it, the plot is quite simple. It handles its central premise with impressive aplomb and rigour; but resorts to cliché for pretty much everything else. A CIA agent is dragged into a war between the present and the future, because the future has discovered how to make people live backward through time. And they’re attempting to destroy the world in 2020 to prevent their future world from being destroyed. No, I didn’t get that either. Grandfather Paradox-safe, this film is not. There is a maguffin, invented by some rogue genius, which when put together will wipe out the present. And a Russian oligarch who is actively trying to assemble the carefully hidden parts of that maguffin because he’s dying of cancer anyway. So you have a film in which some of the cast are moving forward in time and some are moving backward, and sometimes it’s the same people, and they’re interacting, and it all comes to a head with a big battle which incorporates a “temporal pincer movement”, and it’s not making much sense anymore because if platoon A joined at the start of the battle and moved forward in time, but platoon B joined at the end and moved backward in time, then when platoon A arrives what they see has already happened, so there goes your free will. And anyway future people would have had to travel backwards in time for hundreds of years to arrive in 2020 and drop off the tech and get the plot started, and that’s not easy as they can’t breathe the air and, wait, how did they manage to live for hundreds of years? Tenet is an impressive movie, but it is not a movie for science fiction fans, which, I suppose, is equally true of all Nolan’s other films. It will probably still win a Hugo, anyway. Because the Hugos are shit. Dunkirk is a great film, the highlight to date of Nolan’s career. Tenet, however, is perhaps the biggest production Nolan has filmed. One day, great big production will meet great big film and we will see the apotheosis of Nolan’s career. But Tenet is not it.

The H-Man, Ishiro Honda (1958, Japan). This film, disappointingly, had a single special effect, which was directly related to its eponymous monster, and was… making people dissolve. I’m reminded of one of Samuel R Delany’s comments on science fiction, and how groundbreaking was the sentence, “The door dilated”, in Robert A Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, and I’m chiefly reminded because Delany himself used the sentence, “The door deliquesced”, in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Of course, it’s not doors that deliquesce in The H-Man but human beings. It seems initially to be linked to a drugs ring, but the police investigation soon stumbles across a “dissolving monster” in the sewers, but it turns out there are several such monsters, all of whom were created by an H-bomb test. The end result is a police procedural where the villain is a blue gloop that dissolves people. It’s not one of Honda’s best because it’s light on special effects and model work. But it does feel very much like a commercial late-1950s Japanese film.

Viy 2: Journey to China, Oleg Stepchenko (2019, Russia). This film has been marketed in the UK as The Iron Mask, starring Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charles Dance. All of which is wrong. First, it’s the sequel to Viy (AKA Forbidden Kingdom) – a Russian remake of classic 1967 Soviet horror movie, Viy, which is definitely worth seeing (the original, that is) – starring Jason Flemyng, who often seemed out of his depth. Viy 2: Journey to China is the sequel to the remake, and again features Flemyng, but is a Russo-Chinese production and its chief stars are Yuri Kolokolnikov and Helen Yao. Flemyng arrives in Moscow and is promptly arrested after pointing out that Tsar Peter the Great is not the Tsar Peter the Great he had met previously. He is eventually released and allowed to set off east, accompanied by a “boy” he befriended in prison. The boy is really the lost princess of a Chinese kingdom with a dragon. But the kingdom is now ruled by a witch, who wears a mask so she resembles the lost princess, and is supported by three “magical” beings. But, as Flemyng proves, with Kolokolnikov’s help (he’s the real Peter the Great, by the way)  – and Flemyng’s English wife, who has travelled east to help him – the magic is all science, and the dragon is fake, except not everything is science, like the real dragon the princess wakens in the final magical battle with the witch for the kingdom. The end result is a fantasy that doesn’t make much sense, has a couple of neat ideas, but pretty much zero connection to either the original Viy or Forbidden Kingdom. The sections starring Chan and Schwarzenegger feel like an entirely different film, and when the movie finally does discover its story, it turns into a CGI-fest that looks like it was based on a third-hand account of a wu xia film. One to miss.

Ana, mon amour, Călin Peter Netzer (2017, Romania). A man enters into a relationship with a student – not one of his own students – and is instrumental in bolstering her self-esteem to the point where, after they’ve married and had a child, she’s the bread winner and he’s a house-husband. Their relationship is a clear progression from him being the controlling influence to her being in charge. And given that she apparently suffers from anxiety, and is in therapy for it, I suppose the role reversal is even more ironic… Unfortunately, the film was non-linear, and while the male lead’s receding hairline was helpful in tracking when in the couple’s chronology a scene took place, it wasn’t enough. The end result is sort of compelling, but also sort of confusing. As a chronological narrative, it might have worked better, but have been more banal. It felt like the non-chronological narrative didn’t work in the film’s favour, but the film’s story wasn’t strong enough to carry a chronological narrative. Disappointing.

Outerworld, Philip Cook (1987, USA). There are films you add to your Amazon Prime wishlist, possibly while drunk, which you can think of no good reason why you might have added them. And Outerworld, AKA Beyond the Rising Moon (WTF does that even mean?), a 1980s low-budget sf move from the US is… a good example. To be fair to the film-makers, they were committed to their production – this is an incredibly1980s sf film and a great number of them were made in the 1980s. An alien spaceship lands on a deserted planet, and there is a race to claim it. A cyborg assassin and some random 1980s sci-fi guy team up to get there first and claim the alien ship for their employers. This is a terrible film, but it had this weird charm – not that “so bad, it’s good” thing, just so perfectly an embodiment of cheap 1980s science fiction sensibilities and aesthetics. Its low-budget cyberpunk represents cyberpunk better than any critically-acclaimed work does. It is, I recognise, a minority view, but cyberpunk’s worst works are more emblematic of the subgenre than its best. And its best aren’t even cyberpunk, really.

The Assassins, Zhao Linshan (2012, China). Back in 200 AD, while Europe was ruled by the Roman Empire, various parts of China were fighting each other for control of, well, each other. The Assassins is set at the end of the Han dynasty, when a warlord became the de facto head of the empire. His control of the throne is repeatedly challenged. To be fair, this is an entertaining, if overblown, film, but the rabbit hole it sends you down regarding Chinese history is way more entertaining. Cao Cao, played by Chow Yun-fat, is a general who proves so successful at defending the lands of Emperor Xian, he is granted the position of vassal king. But no one believes he’s content with that title, or they think they can use him as part of their own plans to take the throne. This is cut-throat stuff. It’s a typical big-budget Chinese historical movie of the early twenty-first century… a lot of money up there on the screen, a story that flips back and forth so many times the viewer has no real idea what’s going on – but blame Chinese history for that – and some quality acting from quality actors. Good stuff.

Lethal Weapon 1 – 4, Richard Donner (1987 – 1998, USA). A couple of months ago, I worked my way through all of the Die Hard films, which I’d seen before over the years – so why not do the same for the Lethal Weapon movies? Of which there were four, rather than five. But which were released, for the initial instalments, pretty much around the same time, late 1980s to late 1990s. In its favour, the Lethal Weapon franchise went for a simple naming convention: numbers. Like Die Hard, it was a franchise structured around its central character – two, in this case, Martin Riggs, a borderline nutcase, played by Mel Gibson, and Roger Murtaugh, Danny Glover, who is weeks away from retirement. The first film was intended as a comedy, because what isn’t funny about a white nutjob repeatedly endangering a veteran black colleague? But there was real chemistry between the two leads, even though Gibson is absolutely terrible in the first film, and that, and the receipts, clearly persuaded Hollywood that sequels were worth producing. The stories are irrelevant – much like the Die Hard films – as it’s all about the relationship between the two. But, what this film series makes plain, and which has been true, if unacknowledged, of Hollywood films for decades is that the two leads create the story of the film. It is the actions of Riggs and Murtaugh that generate the plots of the Lethal Weapon movies – and if not their direct actions, at least consequences of their actions in previous films. Much like Die Hard. Until I rewatched these, I admit it had never occurred to me, but: their stories are defined by what the lead characters do wrong. The only link between the movies is a shared history of failure by the lead characters. Partly that’s because the story paradigm of the time required lead characters to experience jeopardy in order to generate drama, but in retrospect it’s hard to understand how we swallowed stories about incompetents who still managed to win out in the end. And then the incompetent end up in charge, and there’s no “win” in sight, and you start to wonder if a socially responsible media might not be a good thing…

Somersault, Cate Shortland (2004, Australia). A teenage girl seduces her mother’s new boyfriend and, afraid of how her mother will react, flees and heads for the “Australian Alps”, a place I’d not known existed. She gets a job in a shop at a petrol station, and lives in the flat that used to belong to the local motel owner’s son. She ends up up in a relationship with the guy from Avatar, who is the son of a local farmer. And it all plays like an ingenue in a closed society, with the wrong boyfriend, but what is conveniently sidelined for much of the movie is that the girl is fifteen years old. So the film is actually one long drawn-out rape. I get the point the director was trying to make, and the lead role was taken by an Australian pop star who was much older than fifteen, and she does really well in the role… but I don’t think it would have ruined the story to make the girl a few years older. This is a good film, but it treads a fine line and I’m not entirely it does so successfully.