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Watching diary 2021, #3

I’ve no idea what’s been happening to my movie watching of late. It seems a bit all over the place. Likewise, the TV series. First up, there was UK six-part TV series Apparitions, starring Martin Shaw as a Catholic priest who ends up in a personal battle with a demon bent on recruiting him for Satan. An interesting treatment of demons and the Catholic Church – and I’m no fan of religion. I tried the first season of the much-lauded Stranger Things, but didn’t like it at all. Derivative, the kids were annoying, RPGs were presented as something only twelve-year-olds played, the uncritical depiction of bullying, the fact a modern-day Mengele was experimenting away in middle America and no one seemed to have a problem with that… Not impressed. I doubt I’ll bother with seasons 2 and 3. And then there’s The Flight Attendant, about a, well, a flight attendant. Who wakes up in a Bangkok hotel room, next to the bloody corpse of the man she’d met the previous night and gone to bed with. It’s all to do with a big finance conspiracy – fucking one-percenters, they’re a blight on global society – but what lifted this series above other thriller series was the flight attendant hallucinating commentary sessions with the murder victim, and her general cluelessness. I enjoyed it.

The Message, Moustapha Akkad, (1995, Lebanon). Another film about Islam, but this one at least mentions the religion. The Prophet, of course, is not mentioned by name, nor seen on the screen. While his presence is not there, enough of Islam is there for the story to make sense. However, there’s a problem here – Muslim viewers will see what they already know, non-Muslim viewers will not see anything that provides any kind of commentary on the history or origin of Islam. True, The Message is no different to the vast number of straight-to-DVD movies churned out by the “Christian” film industry – and I’ve inadvertently seen some of them – but it at least has the integrity not to hide the fact it’s religious propaganda. I would much sooner watch The Message, a movie about Islam, than some fantasy film with “Christian values”. But, to be honest, I don’t think I benefit from either. Cinema may be a powerful medium for propaganda, as Goebbels no doubt said at least once, but it does often seem the most partisan cinema is often aimed at those who share the same values as the film-makers. There’s no changing minds here, only validating worldviews.

The Twenty Questions Murder Mystery, Paul L Stein (1950, UK). The title refers to a popular radio programme back in the day – from 1947 to 1976, apparently. And while I know of the concept, I was not aware of the radio show. The stars of that show appear in this film, in which a person writes in with a phrase for the panel to guess, only for someone to be murdered a day or two later in a fashion relating to the phrase. And that’s only the first of several murders. It’s all to do with a man who was imprisoned while serving in India during WWII, and his revenge on those who put him in prison. There simply aren’t enough clues initially to guess the murderer – plenty of red herrings, however – but then two-thirds of the way in, it’s obvious who the killer is, and it’s then annoying how slow on the uptake the cast are. This is very much a film of its time – the cast are all terribly terribly, and terribly enthusiastic and energetic, and not a little dim with it, and the use of actual real life celebrities of the day is treated like some sort of jolly jape. And if there’s a deeper message in there about the behaviour of British troops in India post-war, it’s… No, WTF am I thinking? Of course there’s no such thing. English culture is nothing if not resolutely non-self-critical. Self-deprecating, yes. Self-critical, never.

Accumulator 1, Jan Svěrák (1994, Czechia). If there is one cinematic tradition in Europe that could plausibly be from another planet, it’s Czech films. Well, maybe except for Hungarian films – or at least movies by Miklós Jancsó. Or Armenian ones – or at least movies by Sergei Parajanaov. I don’t know. Maybe the two directors were descended from Czechs… Having said that, there could be a perfectly normal and resolutely commercial domestic Czech cinema industry, whose output is considered too low-brow, too banal, and too unoriginal to be released outside the country. But I suspect none of that is true. Accumulator 1, however, is a Czech film and I have no fucking idea what it is about. I am, I hasten to add, a huge admirer of Czech cinema, which has both been technically innovative and used cinematic narratives to comment entertainingly, and not always obviously, on its various regimes. In Accumulator 1, surveyor mysteriously collapses and while in hospital meets a man who can draw energy form his surroundings. The surveyor develops this, so much so he becomes more or less the battery of the title. Meanwhile, he’s met this girl and he fancies her, but his Lothario colleague is making things difficult, and then the surveyor’s energy problems begin to affect those about him so he has to come up with some plan to dispel that energy… It all feels like a clever analogy that isn’t quite clear enough. Much of the film plays like an off-centre rom com – in other words, a Czech rom com –  but the final act is all pyrotechnics, and  all I could think of was there were Polish films that did something similar but better. Although, to be fair, Accumulator 1 was likely better than any Hollywood attempt at the same material.

Hollywood Boulevard, Allan Arkush & Joe Dante (1976, USA). And  speaking of Hollywood… When a film was made because of a bet, it’s a fair guess the film is shit. When the bet was whether the directors could make the cheapest film ever for a studio, New World Pictures, which was not exactly known for the lavishness of its budgets… Well, “shit” is perhaps over-estimating the film’s quality. Hollywood Boulevard won the bet by making extensive use of stock footage. It’s likely that’s where the bulk of its budget went. The story follows three women who, via an agent, sign on as contract players at Miracle Pictures, a studio even cheaper than New World. Except someone is killing off female Miracle Pictures stars, and basically figuring out who the villain is simply a matter of seeing who’s still standing by the start of the third act. Hollywood Boulevard is not just cheap, it aspires to being cheap. It may have won the bet, but it actually detracted from the sum of culture produced by Hollywood. If you know someone who watched this film, feel for them. Do not be them.

The Last King, Nils Gaup (2016, Norway). It’s sometimes easy to forget that pretty much every European’s nation’s history is as fucked up as that of England. Until moving to Sweden, my knowledge of Scandinavian history was pretty much non-existent, which is hardly surprising, and if I’d imagined it to be the usual run of  invaders and dynastic struggles and shifting borders, I would not have been entirely wrong, if not entirely close to the truth. In Norway, for example, in the 1200s, there was a dynastic struggle between supporters of a family from the south, the Baglers, and the incumbents, from the north, the Birkebeiners. Which at one point resulted in the Birkebeiner heir, while a baby, being spirited north to save him from death at the hands of the Baglers. The Baglers had the support of the (Roman) Church, but the Birkebeiners had history, and the general populace, behind them. There is a happy ending – the baby eventually assumed the throne and proved one of the best kings of Norway of the period. But this is is a movie, and chiefly about the Birkebeiners keeping the baby Håkon Håkonsson, later King Håkon IV, out of the hands of the nasties. Infotaining stuff, with a lot of snow and beards and faces familiar from pretty much every other Norwegian film I’ve watched. You could do much worse.

A Song is Born, Howard Hawks (1948, USA). Many directors have remade one of their own films. Hitchcock did it with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), Capra did it with Lady for a Day (1933) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961). There’s Haneke and his Funny Games (1997 and 2007), although the latter was an English-language remake… And many other directors have made English-language remakes of their non-Anglophone movies. A Song is Born is Hawks remaking Ball of Fire, in which a nightclub singer on the lam hides out in an institute where a group of professors are putting together a comprehensive encyclopaedia of music, and have been doing so for the past decade. In the original film, it’s Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck, and the sparks are visible on the screen. In A Song is Born, it’s Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo and… oh dear. Reputedly put together to cash in on the craze for jazz, the film certainly features a number of impressive performances by a lot of well-known names. But Kaye had just split from his wife and refused to sing (she was his lyricist), and was also apparently disappearing off to therapy every day – and it’s almost like he’s phoning in his performance. Mayo vamps as best she can, but she can’t match Stanwyck. The end result is a Technicolor remake that feels colourless compared to the original. One for fans.

Almost Human, Umberto Lenzi (1974, Italy). Grateful as I am to Shameless for dumping all these gialli and poliziotteschi films on Amazon Prime, I suspect I’ve heard Italian spoken more than Swedish over the last twelve months, and they do not speak Italian here. Most gialli/poliziotteschi are, of course, complete trash, but quite a few are weirdly good, even if mostly it comes down to sheer style, something the Italians do so effortlessly. But other such films are clumsily “European”, which often adds a charm all its own. They may have their faults in  plotting and story, but they there’s still something weirdly compelling about them. Almost Human, sadly, is not one of them. It’s the life of a minor criminal who finds himself committing ever more heinous crimes simply in order to stay ahead of the law. And when he’s finally caught, and released on a technicality, the cop who had pursued him kills him. Some of these Shameless releases are, as I have said worth a go. This one is entirely missable.

Come and Get It, Howard Hawks (1936, USA). Another controversial Hawks picture. Controversial chiefly because he was fired, and the film was finished and recut by William Wyler. Who then refused to have his name on it. The story is adapted from a multi-generational novel about loggers in late nineteenth-century Wisconsin. The source novel is a paean to North America’s natural resources and a criticism of their pillaging by “robber barons”. The Silver Fox turned it into a romantic triangle. Sigh. Hawks could cheapen anything, and often did, but he could also make damn a good film out of it. Unfortunately, in this case, his interpretation of the story drew the wrath of the studio, ie Samuel Goldwyn, and Hawks was sacked. Wyler was bought in to “fix” the film, but could do little to rescue it. And, other than reshooting it all from scratch, it’s hard to see how he could have rescued it. There’s some good cinematography here, but the story is trite and banal, and the larger themes implied to exist in the novel are hastily pushed to one side here as the hero of the story lusts after the daughter of an old flame but she’s already fallen in love with his son. It’s pure soap opera – and that’s soap opera at its least imaginative. One for fans.


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Watching diary 2021, #2

Eight films and eight countries. Been a while since I last managed that. Admittedly, one movie is from the US, but it’s definitely not a Hollywood film, although it is pretty recent.

As for TV series… I  worked my way through all five seasons of Black Mirror, although I’d seen the first season several years ago. The change from UK series to US was somewhat abrupt, and not helped by the opening episode of the US-produced series being a bit pants. The series had its moments, but it lost its bite when it moved to Netflix.

Then there was Bridgerton, which was… a thing. I read Heyer, so I’m familiar with the whole Regency romance thing, and seeing it on a screen was certainly something I’d looked forward to. But… the whole Quality thing is dodgy at best, and Bridgerton‘s use of a diverse cast (which was good to see) couldn’t make it palatable (and sectors of society other than the aristocracy were notable by their absence). There were also times when it felt a little bit, well, off, not something that had been written by a Brit. Plus, everything was so bright and clean, more like a picture postcard than an actual historical period. There are plenty of Regency book series Netflix could have adapted for TV, this one was not a good choice. (And it’s “duchy”, FFS, not “dukedom”.)

I also watched Proof, an Irish mini-series from 2004, in which a discredited journalist discovers evidence that the leading candidate in a general election is being funded by thousands of dodgy shell companies, each of which have donated one cent less than the minimum amount that needs to be reported. And one of the firms funding those shell companies is a local night-club run by Albanians (the villains du jour of the early 2000s) who sex-traffic young women into Dublin. The proof is on a CD-ROM, and the disk continually changes hands but not a single person thinks to copy the data on it. So the villain wins because he ends up with the CD-ROM. Rubbish.

The Dress, Alex van Warmerdam (1996, Netherlands). Black comedy from the Netherlands, a country I don’t really associate with black comedies. (Although, on reflection, haven’t pretty much all of Paul Verhoeven’s movies been black comedies?) Anyway, a print designer witnesses some racist violence outside his house while working on a fabric design. The design – large orange leaves on a blue background – is printed onto material, which is then made into summer dresses. An old woman buys one of the dresses… and everyone, including her, who comes into contact with the dress suffers, well, a bit more than just “bad luck”. As black comedies go, this is grim stuff, with not much in the way of the absurd – other than the way the dress moves from person to person – to offset the misery. A good film, but definitely not a cheerful one.

Mothra, Ishiro Honda (1961, Japan). I’m somewhat late to appreciating Honda’s films, but I seem to have timed it right as it’s only now remastered editions of his films are starting to appear. Those of his films I’d seen previously were bad transfers of US-dubbed versions, probably from video-cassettes hastilu banged out back in the 1980s. But Eureka! have done this edition of Mothra proud, including both the original Japanese audio and dubbed versions. And the film is, well, an Ishiro Honda film. Mothra is, obviously, a giant moth-like creature, which causes global havoc, including laying a giant egg – do moths lay eggs? – on the Eiffel Tower. It’s complete nonsense form start to finish, but the commitment of the cast and crew to the premise is worthy of admiration. I remember many years ago Patrick Troughton being quizzed on, I think, Pebble Mill at One about playing Doctor Who and whether he was into all that sci-fi stuff. He looked quite offended. “It’s a job,” he replied. There’s something about Honda’s films which make it seem like it’s all more than a job to those involved. Plus monsters. Which are men and women in rubber suits. Good stuff.

White Space, Ken Locsmandi (2018, USA). There are a lot of US straight-to-DVD sf movies on Amazon Prime, and I normally avoid them because, well, there’s usually a good reason they went straight to DVD. There are also a lot of sf movies that rip off the plot from Moby Dick. White Space is both of these – but actually proved slightly better than I expected. It’s not a good film, by any means. It’s the usual neoliberal corporate crypto-fascist future Americans seem to think is the only future imaginable. The characters – the crew of a “space whaling” ship – are all stereotypes, and the jeopardy is created as much by their stupidity as it is by events beyond their control. But the production design, sets and effects aren’t too bad, and it all hangs together entertainingly. I’ve seen worse, much worse.

Guardian, Helfi CH Kardit (2014, Indonesia). This was my very first Indonesian film. A teenage girl becomes the target of kidnappers but she doesn’t understand why. Nor does she understand why her mother has been teaching her martial arts and self defence since she was little. Meanwhile, a North American woman has broken out of prison, and she and three others also help defend the girl from the kidnappers… And it turns out the girl is the daughter of gang lord who has since gone legit and is about to be elected to high office. The North American woman is the girl’s mother. And the girl’s mother is her guardian. Not a bad action film, although the production values were not especially high. I suspect most of the budget went on all the cars that were destroyed during the film.

Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru, H Vinoth (2017, India). This was actually based on a true story, and covers the long-running investigation into a series of robberies and murders which took place along national highways in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh between 1995 and 2006. It takes the police a while to figure out it is a gang of lorry drivers, all of whom are from a village of bandits, but they cannot prove it. The fact the perpetrators were eventually caught pretty much comes down to the determination of a single police inspector, who spent eight years hunting down the members of the gang and gathering evidence against them. Watching this film, which is set this decade, it’s surprising how much of India still remains effectively lawless. The nature of the investigation means the film drags in places, but some of the set-pieces are well-staged, and it’s hard not to sympathise with the beleaguered police. Worth seeing.

Baby Jane, Katja Gauriloff (2019, Finland). A young woman from a small town arrives in Helsinki and hooks up with a charismatic woman some years older. The two move in together, and life seems to go well. But then they fall apart, the young woman leaves, marries and becomes more or less a regular member of Helsinki’s middle class. Then she discovers her old partner is ill and dying and… No synopsis is really going to do this film justice, although much of the marketing seems to have focused on the older woman’s death – was it assisted? and who assisted it? But that’s more or less a coda to the third act. The story is mainly about their relationship, and the young woman’s walking away from it, to her cost. A good drama.

Macadam Stories, Samuel Benchetrit (2015, France). The original French title for this Asphalte, and asphalt is a term that some people still use in English. But no one ever says “macadam”. “Tarmac”, yes; “tarmacadam”, very very rarely; “macadam”, never. And it’s not like the title is actually relevant to the film. It is, ostensibly, based on the director’s own experiences growing up in a run-down apartment block in a poor suburb of Paris. I find it doubtful a US astronaut parachuted onto the roof of his building after his spacecraft went ballistic while returning from the ISS, but perhaps that’s meant to be a metaphor or something. On the other hand, Isabelle Huppert as the alcoholic struggling actor new neighbour is, well, who wouldn’t cast Huppert as their neighbour? For all that, the film was actually entertaining, contained a few good, if very gentle, comedic set-pieces, and no one involved need walk away embarrassed. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a Huppert completist – and who isn’t? – but I’ve seen much, much worse.

Telstar, Nick Moran (2008, UK). I was not aware of record producer Joe Meek, although I’d certainly heard the song ‘Telstar’, which was the most successful song he ever produced. What I hadn’t known was that both Ritchie Blackmore and Mitch Mitchell started their career with Meek. Mitchell was a blink-and-you-miss-him appearance, but Blackmore was a regular member of Meek’s house-band, The Outlaws, which also included Chas Hodges of Chas & Dave, as well as the band that backed Screaming Lord Sutch on tour. Meek comes across as a complete nightmare to work for, and while much is made of the fact he’s gay in his biography little of that comes across in the film (and yes, I know, “family entertainment”, and homosexuality was criminalised then, and gay culture was very much underground – Polari and the handkerchief code and all that – but there’s barely a hint of it in the film). There is also little about Meek’s actual technical innovations in producing music. In fact, the whole thing is mostly a horrible boss comedy, with a tragic third act. Dear god, if you’re going to celebrate the man’s achievements, at least actually fucking show them, and not just present the bland instrumental ‘Telstar’ as the highlight of what was an influential career. For all that Telstar was educational, it did a piss-poor job on its subject. But that, unfortunately, is the English film industry for you.


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Reading diary 2021, #2

Something of a first here – some Swedish fiction. Sadly, read in English. But given how bad the appalling translation of The Millennium trilogy was, and the simple prose of Still Waters, I’m tempted to try both series of books in Swedish…

The Stars are Legion, Kameron Hurley (2017, USA). I was a big fan of Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy, but was put off her later works after failing to finish The Mirror Empire. But she continued to get good notices and this, her first novel for the newly-formed Saga imprint – as of 2017 – is explicitly science fiction. And, yes, okay, so the sf novel after this, The Light Brigade, was shortlisted for the Clarke Award last year and I had a brainfart one day and saw The Stars are Legion for 99p on Kindle and thought it was the Clarke-nominated novel… The Stars are Legion is set aboard an organic starship the size of a small planet which is part of a large fleet. It’s not clear whether they’re moving, or stopped, or where they’re going. The two protagonists have a plan which will allow them to refurbish an abandoned and dying starship which has the unique ability to leave the fleet. One of the protagonists has lost her memory – deliberately, it seems, in order to safeguard the plan. As with Hurley’s other fiction, this is brutal stuff, with a body count that can probably be measured in five figures, if not more. The world-building with all the organic technology is cleverly done. But the novel really comes into its own when Zan – that’s the one who’s lost her memory – is left for dead and dumped down a tube leading to the starship’s lower levels. She has to climb back up, passing through vast internal spaces, each with their own populations and flora and fauna, in order to reach the surface. The battles and various political machinations I found less interesting. Oh, and the book is entirely populated by women. There isn’t a single male character in it, or in, it is implied, the entire fleet. Even though I bought The Stars are Legion by accident, I enjoyed it and thought it a lot better than I’d expected. I think I’ll stay away from The Mirror Empire and its sequels, but I’m now more keen than before to read The Light Brigade.

The Millennium trilogy, Stieg Larsson (2005 – 2007, Sweden). I read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (AKA Män som hatar kvinnor) back in 2012, and I’ve seen both the Swedish adaptations of all three books, starring Noomi Rapace, and the Hollywood adaptation of the first by David Fincher, starring Rooney Mara; and even though it may jeopardise my standing in Sweden I actually prefer the Fincher film. But then, that’s part of the problem with this trilogy. The first book is an excellent thriller about the accidental uncovering of a serial killer. But as the two sequels dig into Lisbeth Salander’s past, so the entire thing begins hurdling one shark after another. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, Salander develops an interest in advanced mathematics, as you do, despite never finishing school. After six months of reading, she manages to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem using only the mathematics that had been available to Fermat. FFS. At the end of the book, she is shot in the head and buried alive by her estranged father. In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, she is in hospital, recovering from brain surgery to remove the bullet, and the only ill effect seems to be she can no longer remember her proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Sigh. The idea of a secretive department in the Swedish intelligence community which went rogue is interesting, but Salander is such an over-powered and implausible protagonist the novels don’t so much teeter on the edge of suspension of disbelief as joyfully dive into the depths of WTF. It didn’t help that the translations were terrible – I don’t mean I compared the original Swedish text to the English text and found it wanting – but they’re so clumsy and ill-written the translator did an Alan Smithee on them. It wasn’t just the lumpen prose, but also details which made it plain the translator knew very little about Sweden or its society. There was, for example, a mention of Myorna which implied it was a clothing shop, when in fact it’s a chain of charity shops. There were also a number of continuity errors – Lisbeth Salander’s height varied from 4 foot 11 inches to 124 centimetres (!). The tattoo of a wasp on the side of her neck apparently was 25 cm long, which would mean she had a neck like a giraffe. The books use Fröken throughout for Miss, but the word is pretty old-fashioned and rarely used these days. Every single red wine in all three novels is described as “robust”. Most of the frobt doors in the books open inwards, when here the reverse is true. The novels also do that thing where people entering a country have their luggage searched, which has not been in common in Europe since the 1980s (Sweden joined the EU in 1995 and the Schengen Area in 2001; the books were published 2004 – 2006, but had been written over a ten-year prior to that.). I’m reliably informed the original Swedish version are much better, but if I’m not really convinced by the story I don’t think better prose is going to make me like or admire this trilogy.

XX: A Novel, Graphic, Rian Hughes (2020, UK). I bought this mistakenly thinking it was a graphic novel, and remembering Hughes’s name from the excellent Dare from 1990, which, yes, was thirty years ago (and yes, I have a copy) and was probably not a good reason to shell out for a first edition hardback but it looked interesting… And it was not what I expected at all, it’s an actual prose novel, but it’s also really good. Jodrell Bank receives a “Signal from Space”, and after some investigation discovers it is the DNA of billions of aliens, of millions of alien races, encoded. Meanwhile, an alien spacecraft has crashed into the Moon, and the astronaut sent to investigate finds a (barely) live alien, which dumps its memories into her brain. Back on Earth, an AI start-up, whose lead programmer (of a team of two) seems to have implausibly built half the computer systems mentioned in the novel, gets involved and discovers a way to a) create AIs from memes, which represent the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries (the 20th Century one is called XX, as in the novel’s title, which, given the story, seems a strange choice of title), and b) thoroughly explore the “Grid”, which is a virtual representation of the aliens in the Signal from Space, including digging through its layers to uncover its history, and so the history of the universe. It all gets a bit cosmological, and the hacker character’s skills and experience are hardly plausible… Not to mention that the story is basically resolved through his genius and the implanted alien memories in the astronaut’s head… But I did enjoy the ride. There’s lots of typographical tricks used throughout the novel, as well as a number of “found documents”, including a mock-up of a serialised novel from an invented Golden Age sf magazine… which reminds me of a book by someone or other that did something similar… Recommended.

Exile’s End, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2020, USA). I’m a big fan of Gilman’s fiction. Her Isles of the Forsaken duology is a superior fantasy, but she has also spent a lot of time exploring her “Twenty Planets” universe – in two novels, two novellas, and several short stories. And now three novellas. A member of a believed-to-be-extinct race, the Atoka, turns up to a museum 700 years after the race were reputedly wiped out. This person wants to reclaim some of the museum’s Atoka artefacts. A small community managed to escape and survive on a distant world, and they want what belongs to them. Unfortunately, there are, as far as the museum is concerned, two problems. First, the main artefact, a painting of a young woman, has been adopted by the museum planet’s people and is central to their history of settling the planet. Second, the Atoka would periodically destroy all their possessions, and start again from scratch. It’s an argument perhaps more topical than it would have been, say, twenty years ago. While there have been repeated calls for the Elgin Marbles to be returned to Greece for several decades, for example, it’s only in the last couple of years that historical statues have been toppled by members of the general public who find them, and what they represent, offensive. The artefacts of Exile’s End are closer to the Elgin Marbles than Edward Colston’s statue, but they are all symbols of imperialism and colonialism. Gilman stacks the decks by making it plain the Atoka remnants will destroy the painting, thus manufacturing opposition to giving it back. But Gilman works through her argument carefully and clearly, and provides sufficient grounding for the position of the Atoka. Unfortunately, the Twenty Planets have only STL travel between worlds, meaning interstellar journeys separate origin and destination by decades. Which means there is a weird break in chronology in the novella, as its resolution takes place so many years later than its opening. The end is… fitting, but I do wonder if the story really needed it, and could have ended before everything arrived at the Atoka’s current home. Still, I would not be unhappy to see this on a few award shortlists next year. Gilman is under-appreciated. The novella can also be read for free here on tor.com.

Still Waters, Viveca Sten (2008, Sweden). I watched the TV adaptation of this – called Morden i Sandhamn – and bought my mother the book for Christmas, and then spotted the ebook was only 99p so I decided to give it a go myself. I couldn’t actually remember the plot of the TV episode based on this novel, although bits of it seemed familiar. But then about halfway in, I suddenly remembered who the murderer was. Oh well. But I’m fairly sure there’s an entire subplot that never made it into the TV adaptation. Sandhamn is the only village on the island of Sandön, which means “the sand island”, because it’s known for being sandy rather than rocky, as all the other islands in the Stockholm archipelago are. Thomas Andreasson is from Sandhamn, but currently works for the Stockholm police in Nacka. When a body washes ashore at Sandhamn, and the victim has no connection to the village or island, it’s initially thought to be an accident. But then the victim’s only living relative, his cousin, is murdered, and it’s starting to look like something strange is going on… The book pushes one theory of the crimes for much of its length, before more or less stumbling over the real motive, and murderer. The prose is basic at best, and I wonder how much of that is down to the translation. Annoyingly, everything has been translated from metric to Imperial (for the US market, obviously). It made for an entertaining piece of television but felt a bit slow for a novel of 448 pages. There are currently ten books in the series. If the Swedish prose is as simple as the English prose, I’m tempted to try one in its original language…

On, Adam Roberts (2001, UK). This was Roberts’s second novel, and it’s now twenty years old, which I suppose explains some aspects of it – but I really could not understand what this novel was supposed to be about or how it was meant to explore its central premise. Tighe lives on the worldwall, a seemingly infinitely tall vertical surface, on which humanity ekes out a precarious existence on “shelves” and “ledges” and “crags”. Tighe’s village lives in abject poverty. And yet there are marginally more prosperous towns nearby, one of which charges a toll to climb the ladder to reach it. Tighe’s father is prince of the village, although this title is apparently meaningless, and his grandfather is the head priest. Tighe’s parents disappear, and he is taken in by his grandfather but soon realises the man is petty and venal (as if religious leaders are never that…), and after various arguments and such, Tighe… falls off the village ledge. This is usually a death sentence. However, several miles below, Tighe lands on a partially deflated balloon belonging to a small empire occupying several ledges. Tighe is badly injured but recovers, and is pressganged as a kite-pilot in the imperial army. The empire invades a neighbouring state, which apparently guards a door through the worldwall. The invasion goes badly, the empire is defeated, and Tighe is captured and made a slave. He is purchased by a man who takes him further east, a man who repeatedly rapes one of his female slaves, and kills and eats another of his male slaves. Tighe is rescued by a mysterious man in a silver flying craft – centuries more technologically advanced than the people on the worldwall – who explains the world to him – which has been pretty obvious for more than two-thirds of the book – and plans to use Tighe, through the machinery implanted in Tighe’s brain, to return the world to its former state. It’s all complete nonsense. Roberts provides appendices explaining the set-up, but they’re so dull it’s hard to believe he expected anyone to either read them or believe them. There’s no justification for the poverty and cruelty endemic on the worldwall, and certainly none for the cannibalism and casual rape. The door through the worldwall, and the occasional theological discussions, are complete red herrings. The invasion achieves nothing except subject Tighe to jeopardy and deprivation. I’ve always found Roberts’s novels a bit hit and miss, but the general consensus on this one seems to be it’s a substantial miss. It tells a pointless story set in a horrible world, and shows all the amoral disregard for cruelty and violence of the worst grimdark.


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Watching diary 2021, #1

Back to the old style reporting on my viewing. New title for these posts, though.

Indochine, Régis Warnier (1992, France). French film about the country’s colonial past that somehow manages to ignore the fact that it was, well, colonialism. Catherine Deneuve runs a plantation in French Indochina, but things start to get difficult when the nasty Communists start attacking the “benevolent” French regime. Deneuve has a fling with a French officer, but after an unseemly demonstration at a Christmas party he’s sent to an obscure outpost. Deneuve adopts the young daughter of some Vietnamese friends, but the adopted daughter falls in with the Communists – after a fling with the French officer – and marries a Communist student. She then ends up in the indentured labour transhipment centre where the French officer has been sent… and he recognises her and shoots his superior officer to help her escape. Because the French were basically offering up the Vietnamese as slaves to the Chinese, and while he disagreed with it, he only took action when his Vietnamese girlfriend turned up as one of the slaves. I don’t think Indochine whitewashes the role of the French in Vietnam, which makes it even more surprising the film was not accompanied by controversy when it was released in 1992. On the contrary, it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Thirty years ago, this was merely food for drama to the West. Now… The treatment of the Vietnamese is horrific, and this film documents it, without seeming to realise how bad it was. Indochine is not a condemnation of the French presence in Vietnam, it’s a drama set during a period in time. That’s what’s wrong with it. The film makes it abundantly clear the French were responsible for numerous atrocities, but a lot of the blame for the troubles in the region is placed on the Communists. If only they hadn’t fought the existing regime, the narrative, goes, everything would have been peaceably handed over… and all the violence of the changeover would have been forgotten… Seriously? I can only wonder why we let such stupid people lead our nations…

Sisters, Brian De Palma (1972, USA). We all have our guilty pleasures, and I’m convinced De Palma’s is one of Hollywood’s guilty pleasures. He makes B-movie thrillers that are treated with all the seriousness of A-movie ones, if not given the same marketing budget. De Palma has gone on record as saying he’s a big Hitchcock fan, and that his career was inspired by him, and certainly Hitchcock was one of the truly great directors (and not just in Hollywood), but so many of De Palma’s films are schlocky thrillers it’s hard to decided how seriously to take him. His films are always entertaining, but always more of a guilty pleasure than outright admirable. Margot Kidder plays a pair of sisters, one of whom is homicidal, who were conjoined but then separated in a famous operation many years before, except it seems there are no sisters, there is only one, and she has two personalities. A film that is probably best remembered for the body that’s hidden in the put-you-up sofa. It feels more like Cronenberg than De Palma, but lacking the body-horror. One for fans of B-movies.

Bad Poetry Tokyo, Ansul Chauhan (2018, Japan). I watch a lot of films, and I try to spread my watching across the cinemas of as many nations as possible. I have watched many Japanese films, and am familiar with the works of many of its famous directors. But I cannot for the life of me remember what happens in this film. There is no Wikipedia page and the imdb.com plot summary is not very informative. A hostess in a Tokyo club is beaten badly, and decides to return to her home village to recuperate – and people leaving the city for the country to “solve” problems in their lives is a common theme in Japanese movies. But other than a general feeling the film was well-made, and the lead actress was good in her role… I remember very little. I should probably watch it again, and I probably will. But there gets a point where waiting any longer would delay this post past a reasonable point and only lead to a bigger backlog of “watching diary” posts. So, I think Bad Poetry Tokyo was quite good film, but I can’t swear it. I certainly intend to rewatch it.

The Sect, Michele Soavi (1991, Italy). As is clear from the DVD cover, this is a giallo and, like most gialli, the plot doesn’t make all that much sense. At least, not when you think about it. Which was probably my first mistake. Anyway, it opens with a weirdo stumbling out of the desert into an encampment of hippies, who he then brutally slaughters. Cut to present-day Germany, and a school teacher accidentally runs over an old man, who she invites home to recuperate from his minor injuries. The old man sneaks way and enters a tunnel network beneath the woman’s house, where he finds a deep well covered with a steel lid. And, well, a full description of the plot sounds completely bonkers – just check out the Wikipedia page – and yet the film isn’t all that different to other gialli. It was weirdly entertaining, even if the plot was opaque for much of its length. It felt a lot like a 1970s Euro drama in places, but then kept on doing that weird giallo thing. I’ve watched a lot of gialli the last few years, and some of them still surprise me and prove to be actually quite good, if off-the-wall, movies. Most are video nasties, but some I’d happily recommend.

Viking Destiny, David LG Hughes (2018, UK). A low-budget Viking film that actually looks more like a documentary about LARPers than it does a period drama. And stars Terence Stamp as Odin. Although he only appears for a few minutes. They probably spent most of their budget on him. And Paul Freeman. Which is not to say it’s a bad film. The opening scenes, which explain how the king’s daughter was swapped with his best friend’s son, are pretty bad. Years later, that son kills his father and seizes the throne – at the behest of Loki (Murray McArthur channelling Nicol Williams’s Merlin from Excalibur) – and blames it on the real king’s daughter. So she goes on the run. He proves to be a weak king, unsurprisingly. And his allies strip the kingdom. She meanwhile falls in with a bunch of forest pacifists. Of course, a battle between the two is inevitable – and so it goes. The fact the hero of the story is the princess is notable, and that the forest pacifists decide to fight, but the film was made on the cheap and it shows. To be fair, I’m more inclined to think better of a film that means well but fails in the execution (through lack of money, vision or talent) than a movie that boasts money, vision and talent but doesn’t mean well – and the fact the latter describes pretty much all Hollywood films is perhaps not a surprise.

Passengers, Rodrigo Garcia (2008, USA). This is not the sublimated rape fantasy where Chris Pratt condemns Jennifer Lawrence to a slow death on an interstellar spaceship because he was lonely. This Passengers is entirely different and entirely rips off The Survivor by James Herbert (which was made into an excellent film of the same title by David Hemmings and starring Robert Powell). It didn’t help that things in the story just didn’t work as shown, and the final reveal didn’t give a good enough explanation for those discrepancies. A psychologist, Anne Hathaway, is assigned to treat the survivors of a plane crash. But there is a shadowy figure stalking them and the airline insists the crash was caused by pilot error and not an exploding engine as witnessed by the survivors (hello? FAA investigation? Black box?) and Hathaway gets a wee bit too “therapeutic” with one of the survivors, Patrick Wilson… And then the survivors start to disappear one by one… Yawn. Watch The Survivor, don’t bother with this piece of crap.

Stranger from Venus, Burt Balaban (1954, UK). Classic British B-movie science fiction. A stranger appears at a remote country inn and claims to be from Venus. He’s able to demonstrate he’s not human – in one scene, he translates a newspaper article on the fly from English into a dozen different languages – which only creates bad impulses in some of those trapped in the inn with him. In other words, while some are dreaming of peaceful relations between the British Empire and Venus, others just want to steal his technology. Of course, the Venusians are too savvy for that, and the UK establishment’s greed only sours any possibility of future relations between the two planets. Science fiction has churned out thousands of these sorts of films, on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere in the world, over the last 70 years, with a pretty simple message – stop being arseholes or things will go badly. Guess what? Things are still going badly. Perhaps because for every sf film that says “stop being arseholes”, there are 100 more that say “arseholes get rich and/or powerful”. But hey, it’s only entertainment. I mean, people don’t internalise that shit, do they, just like that they don’t internalise everyday racism and everyday sexism and so on. I call bullshit. If you make art that normalises Nazi sensibilities, you’re no different to a Nazi.

Furious, Dzhanik Fayziev (2017, Russia). I’m not sure what the English title is meant to evoke – bafflement, I would have thought, rather than anger – given that the original Russian, Легенда о Коловрате, translates as Legend of Kolovrat and the movie is about… a thirteenth-century Rus knight called Kolovrat who fought the Mongol Golden Horde to revenge the destruction of his home city, Ryazan. The film mostly covers the siege of Ryazan, and it’s more Game of Throne meets sanitised current-regime-Russia history than it is serious period drama. I mean, China has its wu xia and Russia… doesn’t. Although, with this movie, and both the remake of Viy (AKA Forbidden Kingdom; WTF?) and its surely-they’re-taking-the piss-with-this-retitling-thing sequel, The Iron Mask, there does seem to be an overlap between the two nations’ cinemas. It’s a bit like MCU. Except based on actual history. Sort of. Having said all that, Furious was good entertainment for a night in front of the telly. With beer.