It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


3 Comments

Movie roundup 2020, #4

Another gallop through the movies I’ve watched over the past couple of weeks. My viewing patterns have not changed much since I started working from home. So how I’m supposed to fit in all this stuff now being offered free while I’m self-isolating is beyond me…

November, Rainer Sarnet (2017, Estonia). Weird fantasy film set in some grim village and filmed in stark black and white. Not sure what I made of this one. It looked beautiful, for all the dirt and grime, and the weird skeleton-like figure made of pipes and things, apparently animated by magic, which the farmer used as a slave. Worth seeing.

Who Saw Her Die?, Aldo Lado (1972, Italy). George Lazenby, in his second film after he turned down Bond, a giallo set in Venice, and which has subsequently been deemed a career-best performance. To be fair, I still think OHMSS was the best Bond film, and there wasn’t much in Who Saw Her Die? that struck me as all that different to the acting in that movie. A sculptor, separated from his wife, has his young daughter visiting, but she goes missing and later turns up murdered. He rushes around, trying to figure out who the killer was, as the police are far too inept. A  good  use of the setting, but not a very original plot.

The Exception, David Leveaux (2016, UK) is based on one of those novels that rewrites twentieth-century history, specifically Nazi history, and sort of makes the Nazis a little fluffier and nicer, which is of course total bollocks. In this case, Kaiser Wilhelm was exiled to an estate in the Netherlands. A “good” Nazi (it’s hinted he was upset at the Katyn Massacre) is assigned to captain the kaiser’s bodyguard. Where he falls for one of the Dutch servants. But – shock! horror! – she’s really a British spy. Meretricious tosh. A well-made film, well played by its cast, but the sort of invidious rewriting of history that starts to make fascism “friendly”. The Allies in WWII did not just fight a country that broke a treaty, they fought a regime that attempted genocide. Remember that.

The First of the Few, Leslie Howard (1942, UK). And from the irresponsible rehabilitation of past villains to actual propaganda of the time. The titles refers to RJ Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, played by Howard, directing himself. The film covers the main points of his life – he died of cancer in 1937, before the Spitfire entered service with the RAF – and it’s all very rah rah rah, which is hardly unexpected given when it was made. I can’t say Howard ever appealed to me as leading-man material, but he had many interesting strings to his bow and it’s a shame his life was cut short. The First of the Few has some good aerial sequences, particularly of Schneider Trophy flights, and real footage of RAF pilots during the war, but the Wikipedia rabbit-hole it sends you down is more interesting than the movie itself.

Invincible, Konstantin Maksimov (2018, Russia). In July 1942, a Soviet KV-1 tank destroyed sixteen German tanks, two armoured vehicles and eight other vehicles in a battle. The surviving crew were given medals. Invincible is the story of that tank crew in that battle and, while it’s good visceral in-the-thick-of-it WWII tank action, it makes enough errors to alienate those most likely to find the film appealing. I am not a tank fan, I hasten to admit; but that is a thing, especially with the popularity of online MMORPGs like World of Tanks. In Invincible, the Soviet tanks are mostly models that didn’t appear until 1943. Likewise the German tanks. And the KV-1 tank at the centre of the film… every shot it fires at a German tank destroys that tank; every shot fired at it, however, bounces off. Disappointing.

Sholay, Ramesh Sippy (1975, India). There are many best of Bollywood movie lists out there. I suspect this film is on most of them. It is an epic Western, Bollywood-style, and it does it with all the qualities that makes Bollywood Bollywood. In abundance. A thakur, who was once a policeman, asks a warden to track down two small-time crooks he arrested years before – prompting an extended flashback sequence – because he has a task for them. It turns out they’re in prison – where the new warden seems to have modelled himself on a cross between Benny Hill and Hitler – but quickly escape. The thakur wants the crooks to capture a local dacoit, and he will pay them handsomely over and above the published reward. The rest of the film is a long drawn-out war between the two groups. And, yes, it’s epic. Worth seeing.

Fear and Desire, Stanley Kubrick (1953, USA). Kubrick’s first film, which he tried to remove from his cv. A small group of soldiers crash their plane behind enemy lines, and must make their way back, past an outpost occupied by an enemy general. The film stars Virginia Leith as a local peasant woman who is taken prisoner by the soldiers, and Kubrick interestingly makes everything generic so the two countries are unidentifiable. But this is journeyman work, and probably only of interest to Kubrick fans.

Heaven & Earth, Oliver Stone (1993, USA). I’ve a feeling I’ve seen this before, but I can’t be sure. I’m not much of a fan of Stone’s films. He’s had an interesting career, to be sure, and has been very distinctive in the stories he chooses to tell. But it’s easy to see why some succeeded more than others. Heaven & Earth was apparently a flop, and it’s not hard to understand why: for all that it meant well, it’s a dull movie. Young Vietnamese woman suffers depredations at hands of Viet Cong and US forces in Viet Nam War (no matter how true, no matter how often those deeds need to be laid at the feet of the US… American audiences will continue to turn a blind eye), eventually marries a US soldier, returns to US with him, but his life is falling apart, he gets violent and… This is not a bad film, it tells an important story. But neither of its leads have the presence to carry the story through its 140 minutes. A shame. It had something worth saying – which might not be unusual for Oliver Stone, but is for the US movie industry as a whole.

Kidnap Syndicate, Fernando Di Leo (1975, Italy). A poliziottesco, in which a gang kidnap the young son of a wealthy construction mogul, but are attacked by the lad’s best friend, so they take him as well. The construction mogul refuses to pay the ransom, so the kidnappers kill the other boy to motivate him. The dead boy’s father, a mechanic, vows revenge and tracks the kidnappers down. A solid thriller.

Wild Rose, Tom Harper (2018, UK). I tweeted while watching this that I was “watching a feel-good film set in Glasgow so of course it is as miserable as fuck”. The protagonist is a single mum fresh out of a twelve-month stint in prison who dreams of becoming a country singer. She has a good voice but a real attitude Fortunately, the woman she cleans house for takes a shine to her, and arranges for her to meet BBC DJ Bob Harris, and later throws a party to raise funds to send her to Nashville. I don’t much like country music, but I did enjoy this film – it wasn’t really as miserable as all that.


1 Comment

Soggy and stupid

Back in 1989, James Cameron released The Abyss, a movie set (mostly) aboard an oil rig some 500 metres below the surface of the Caribbean Sea. The film was a success, and several similar movies followed: DeepStar Six, Leviathan, The Rift, The Evil Below and Lords of the Deep. In the thirty years since, there have been one or two more, of varying degrees of success and quality: Sphere, Avalon: Beyond the Abyss, Dark Descent

The most recent of these to hit cinemas is Underwater by William Eubank, actually completed in 2017 but not released until this year. It’s tempting to think the delay was a consequence of the lack of originality of its plot and the complete fucking witless hash it makes of its setting… But then JJ Abrams is a successful film director, so perhaps not.

Tian Industries – despite the name, this is no trans-Pacific production – is drilling for oil in the Mariana Trench, 11,000 metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Kepler 822, the control centre for the drilling station, is located 1500 metres above the trench’s bottom. It is apparently connected to a surface facility by an elevator and umbilical shaft. Which would be, er, 9.5 km tall.

An earthquake strikes Kepler 822, causing parts of the structure to rupture. The Mariana Trench is part of a subduction system – that’s what actually created the trench – and also part of the Pacific “Rim of Fire”. According to the USGS, around 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes take place in the Rim of Fire. So building a facility there that’s not earthquake-proof would be incredibly fucking dumb.

Sadly, the dumbness does not end there.

I have written on this blog before about deep sea exploration and undersea hyperbaric environments. I have even written about the Mariana Trench and the three – to-date – visits to it. The thing to remember about the Mariana Trench is its depth – approximately 11,000 metres, or 36,000 feet, or seven miles. At that depth, the pressure is intense: nearly 1,100 atmosphere, or 7.5 to 8 tons per square inch. A facility built to operate at those depths needs to be able to withstand that enormous pressure.

Happily, human beings don’t need to survive such intense pressure. They can live and work in nice sealed habitats with internal pressures of one atmosphere. The highest recorded depth reached by a human being, incidentally – and it was simulated in an hyperbaric chamber on land – is 701 metres, or 70 atmospheres. A thousand atmospheres would turn a human being into a smear in a nanosecond. Yet that is exactly how the survivors of the quake escape from Kepler 822: they put on diving suits, take an elevator down to the sea-bottom – where the pressure is 1,100 atmospheres! – and then walk 1.5 kilometres to a drilling station. At least, that’s the plan.

Unfortunately, the plan is complicated by… a monster. Well, monsters. And they kill off the survivors one by one.

Science fiction often talks about something called “suspension of disbelief”, often “willing suspension of disbelief”. In the contract between reader, or viewer, and writer, or film-maker, the reader has chosen to accept something that is plainly either untrue or implausible. They will accept for the purposes of the fiction that the world operates according to that authorially-imposed phenomenon. A universe in which human beings can travel meaningful distances within a single lifetime is itself one of science fiction’s most fundamental tropes and entirely dependent on suspension of disbelief.

In the real world, we have Newton’s Third Law: to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That applies just as much to suspension of disbelief. So, call that reaction – appropriately, given the film under discussion – implosion of disbelief.

Implosion of disbelief occurs when a fiction is set in a world whose governing rules and laws map onto the physical rules and laws of our own world but are inconsistently applied and so break those rules and laws in ways that undermine the workings of that universe. It may well be that some of the tropes which trigger it have become cinematic convention – the starship rumbling as it crosses the screen, starfighters banking in space… Some, I suspect, might be on the way there, but should not be – like, bombs in space. FFS.

Underwater is a textbook example of implosion of disbelief. It makes a point of discussing pressure in dialogue… and then every single example of the effects of high pressure in the movie is completely wrong. When Kepler 822 implodes – and this is in the first ten minutes of the film – the viewer sees a wall of water rush down a corridor. When the USS Thresher (I have mentioned this before) sank in 2,600 metres of water, it has been calculated the two sides of the submarine’s hull met at a combined speed of 75,000 kph. That’s not a “rushing wall of water”, that’s “blink and– splat!”. FFS.

Later, Underwater‘s survivors leave Kepler 822. They put on fancy diving suits – perhaps they’re supposed to be Atmospheric Diving Suits, with 1 atmosphere inside for the comfort and safety of the diver… but the current record for an ADS is around 610 metres… and one capable of surviving 11,000 metres would look like a small tank. But they can’t be at 1 atmosphere inside Kepler 822 because they have a moon pool. Which means the air pressure inside matches the water pressure outside. Except it’s not a true moon pool, because once they’re below water, they must open a hatch… and that causes a huge increase in pressure – enough to implode one of the survivors’ diving suit. FFS.

These are, it turns out, remarkable diving suits. Capable of withstanding 8 tons per square inch, yet their helmets can be smashed open with several blows of a fire extinguisher when the wearer is running out of oxygen. Strong enough to withstand that pressure, yet weak enough to shatter after several sharp blows. FFS.

Oh, and let’s not forget the power-source for Kepler 822, which is some sort of spinning thing, and might be, from the dialogue, a nuclear reactor, although it resembles no known nuclear reactor. Happily, it threatens to explode when an impetus is needed to evacuate Kepler 822, and can be made to explode when the monsters threaten to overrun the facility. Nuclear reactors, of course, do not explode. And explosions, of course, cause pressure waves, even underwater, ones that would not only kill the pursuing monsters but also those being pursued. FFS.

It’s true not every person who watches a movie set in the depths of the ocean knows how that environment operates. The same is also true of films set in space – although the concept of vacuum is perhaps more widely understood than that of a hyperbaric environment. Both are intensely hostile; both will kill you in a heartbeat. Neither needs to be made “survivable” for good drama. Underwater‘s complete fucking misrepresentation of the hadal zone, the parts of the ocean below 6,000 metres, only makes it look like an incredibly fucking stupid film. The fact its plot is a “soggy Alien” is pretty much irrelevant. And the fact the “mother” monster is clearly modelled on Cthulhu, which leads to a shot sure to appeal to Lovecraft fans, not enough to offset the film’s other myriad faults.

It doesn’t matter that most of the cast – Kristen Stewart especially – successfully inhabit their roles, because their roles are badly written. It doesn’t matter that the film manages to cram a four-act plot into 95 minutes with impressive economy, because the plot is wholly derivative. And it doesn’t matter that the cinematography is actually good, because it is photographing something that causes implosion of disbelief.

FFS.


Leave a comment

Isolation cinema

Perhaps, at a time when it’s easy to turn to things that comfort, we should be looking outside our comfort zone. They say the sales of “bucket list” books are up. So… for films, turn off that Hollywood blockbuster. For TV, put down from that box-set you’ve binged on half a dozen times before already. Try something new.

The following films are not new to me, and one or two may not be new to many people. They are, as of the end of March 2020, my ten favourite films. (The list changes often, but this is what is is now.) The movies appeal to me for a number of different reasons, but the one thing they all have in common is that I can watch them – and have watched them – many times. I love every frame of them, in some cases with a passion that borders on mania. Those that are adapted from books, I have hunted down copies of the books and read them. Those that have been novelised, I have read the novelisation. Neither diminished the appeal of the films.

The films are…

All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA). This one should come as no surprise to people who know me. A 1950s melodrama by a master of the form, starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, and based on a novel by mother and son Edna and Harry Lee. The film looks absolutely gorgeous from start to finish, but is also a razor-sharp skewering of US social classes.

A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). Based on a novel, which is actually more of a collection, by Adwaita Mallabarman, which documents the lives of the villagers who live on the banks of the titular river, and its tributaries, and from which background Mallabarman came. Ghatak was a singular talent and made a handful of remarkable films, but this one is world-class, a harrowing tale about a man who loses his wife, as well as a perfect ethnographic documentary of a lost way of life.

Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). The amount of money spent on this is legendary – the set was so large it was dubbed “Tativille”. But every centime spent is visible there on-screen. The humour is pure Tati, although perhaps less inventive than in other films, but the commitment to the world Tati built for the movie is astonishing.

Lucía, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). Cuba has one of the great forgotten cinemas. It has produced a number of world-class movies for more than half a century, and among those films Solás is a name to be reckoned. Lucía, like many Cuban films, is an exploration of the country’s history, through the lives of three women living in three different periods. It is its treatment of its material that is especially impressive. But watch more Cuban cinema, it is excellent.

The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia). If I have a favourite director, which I do, it is Aleksandr Sokurov. He makes both documentaries and narrative films, and the rigour of his work is astonishing. He is also not afraid to experiment with cinematic techniques, and many of his films use the presentation of the story as commentary on the story. I would be hard-pressed to pick a favourite Sokurov film, but the simplicity of this one has always appealed to me.

Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy). I’m a big fan of Antonioni’s films post-L’Avventura and his new approach to cinema. But it is only in Red Desert that it really comes into its own. This is motion picture as art. It’s too long to be a video installation, but my love of this film is one of the reasons I love video installations. It is not just a new form ofe cinematic narrative, it is a new cinematic narrative language.

Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK). I was too young to see this film in the cinema when it was released, but I had already fallen in love with it because of its production design. And I still love it for that reason. It also has one of the most basic plots on the planet, and manages to present it flawlessly. If it has faults, they are a result of the state of the cinematic art in 1979. Alien kept its story simple and succeeded precisely because of that. None of its sequels have matched it.

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I’m not a huge fan of Nolan’s films. Interstellar struck me as two movies badly welded together, neither of which made much sense. Inception felt like it thought it was cleverer than it actually was. So when I first watched Dunkirk, I was surprised by how much it appealed to me. It’s totally immersive, and yet entirely plotless. It’s far too emotional to be a documentary, yet it has a documentary’s authenticity.

Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). As mentioned earlier, this list has changed many times over the years, and Dunkirk and these last two films are all recent additions, watched for the first time in 2018. In Girls LostPojkarna, The Boys, in Swedish – three teenage girls who are being bullied at school drink a potion and turn temporarily into boys of the same age. There are numerous Disney films with a similar precis, but Girls Lost certainly does not play its conceit for laughs. Despite that precis, its story feels completely believable.

War and Peace, parts 1 to 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1966, USSR). There is no good version of these four films in existence, despite its stature, its technical accomplishments, its expense, its sheer sweep and grandeur. The original 70 mm prints were left to rot, and only a 35 mm print, filmed in parallel and adapted for television broadcast, survives. Which makes watching it an odd experience, due to weird flips between dubbing and subtitling, not to mention French and German not being translated at all. But the film series truly is epic and deserves all its accolades. There is supposedly a fully-restored version from a recently-found print released by Criterion, but the only one currently available from them is a previous version.


2 Comments

Reading diary 2020, #4

I don’t need to self-isolate to read books, in fact I pretty much self-isolate every weekend anyway: a trip to my local supermarket on the Saturday, and perhaps a visit to the återvinningsrum, but other than that the front door remains locked. This is not – or has not been – necessarily a good thing: I should get out more, you know, go for a walk in the woods next to my apartment building, for instance. Instead, I read books. Such as these…

Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds (2018, UK). This is a belated follow-on to 2007’s The Prefect – now re-titled Aurora Rising – and while the story is standalone, it makes several references to the events of the previous novel. And uses pretty much the same cast. A figure pops up giving speeches suggesting the various habitats of the Glitter Band should leave the Panoply, which is the implant-driven direct democracy system the habitats have been using for a couple of centuries. Reynolds is not being very subtle here – it’s clear what he’s writing about. But, there’s this universe hanging over the story, all that world-building documented in a dozen or so other novels… The main plot seems to be people whose implants suddenly boil their brains and kill them, and the Panoply – also a police force – is desperately trying to track down the cause and so prevent further deaths. Of course, the two – Glexiteer and brain-boiling implants – are connected, but only because Reynolds apparently has so little faith in democracy he built a backdoor into the “demarchy” he invented for his novels, sothat a powerful elite can alter the outcome of certain votes (which does sort of plug into all the conspiracy theories regarding the 2016 Referendum). Anyway, the two are indeed linked, and through the aforementioned backdoor,  which all feels somewhat too convenient when the climax hits. Some nice set-pieces, but story feels like two plots bolted together and the villains are somewhat pantomime.

Journey to the Center (now re-published as Asgard’s Secret), Brian Stableford (1982, UK). I think I read this many years ago, but under its UK title, which would be, er, Journey to the Centre. DAW never published books two and three of the trilogy, although they were published in the UK. And have been subsequently rewritten and published under new titles by a US small press and the SF Gateway (as ebooks). Throughout the 1970s to 1990s, Stableford reliably produced mid-list science fiction with UK sensibilities albeit mostly for, strangely, US publishers like DAW. This book is fairly typical. An adventurer makes his living hunting through the mysterious levels of the world Asgard – which may comprises levels of shells all the way to the centre, some of which could be occupied. It’s a great conceit, and Stableford makes good use of it. I’m reminded of the Kriakta Rift from Robert Holdstock’s Where Time Winds Blow (1981, a favourite sf novel) more than I am Iain M Banks’s much later Matter (2008). The novel is a standalone, but leaves many questions about the world unanswered. Hence the sequels. Which I want to read. I suspect I will have to go for the ebook versions.

The Heiress of Linn Hagh, Karen Charlton (2012, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon, and  it was only a quid, so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a crime novel set in Regency England. I’ve always liked novels set in Regency England, such as, er, Heyer, and the occasional Signet and Zebra romance. And the late Kate Ross did write four really good crime novels set in Regency England. Anyway, I bought it, I read it. I think I have less of a problem with the setting and character than many of those reviewing it on Goodreads. The lead was a real historical character and the author admits she wrote him more like a twentieth-century detective than was likely true for the time. But that’s your “suspension of disbelief”, and I duly suspended it as required. Sadly, the book suffered from bad writing and inconsistent plotting. On the whole, I thought Charlton managed the period quite well, and her protagonists were not entirely reliant on cliché, but the poor prose discourages me from reading the rest of the series.

84K, Claire North (2018, UK). Between Jarman’s visions of a post-Thatcherite UK and North’s vision of a post-Austerity UK, I’m not sure I can either tell the difference or see much that distinguishes them. That the Tories have been systematically robbing the UK since 1979 is historical fact. How genre writers have responded to that – at least, the few that actually bothered – is a different matter. UK sf writers of the 1970s built the government’s incompetence into their worlds; later sf writers had plainly drunk too much Tory Kool-Aid (bar a few notable exceptions). But that’s an argument for another time. 84K reads like a cross between 1984 refashioned for a twenty-first century audience and a 1970s consumerism-gone-made satire. Which, sadly, makes it feel like a book out of its time. It has a point to make, and it tells its story well, but it feels mostly like the target at which it’s aimed no longer exists. North is a writer to be treasured, and if not every book she produces hits its mark, she has the virtue of actually aiming at something. I thought The Sudden Appearance of Hope much the better book, for all that 84K ought to be the more relevant book and so more impactful. I will however read more books by North because she is clearly worth it.


Leave a comment

Movie roundup 2020, #3

In the past week or so, I’ve seen lots of people and companies offering their products – books, comics, films, songs – free of charge to people who are self-isolating. While the sentiment is certainly welcome, I already have more than enough books to last me a couple of months, and I can always download more ebooks without venturing into a shop. I also have access to a couple of streaming services, not to mention a backlog of about fifty Blu-rays to watch. During the day, of course, I’m working – it’s been common practice at my employer for people to work from home quite often, and now the offices are closed and everyone is doing it…

So, I have to wonder: all this free time we supposedly now have, where is it? Mine was already filled with reading books and watching movies. Was everybody else out every evening, every weekend? (Of course, I recognise that some people are actually out of work because of the pandemic, and they have my sympathy.)

Anyway, speaking of films, here’s another roundup of the last few weeks’ viewing. I’ve now finished all ten seasons of Stargate SG-1, and I’m two-thirds of the way through Twin Peaks season 3 (and enjoying it very much). I should also note I don’t mention every movie I’ve seen, since some are just not worth mentioning and others I might have written about previously.

Room at the Top, Jack Clayton (1959, UK). This is generally reckoned to be the first kitchen sink drama, and also holds the record for the shortest on-screen time by an actor to be nominated for an Oscar – Hermione Baddeley, Best Supporting Actress, who appeared on the screen for 2 minutes and 19 seconds. Laurence Harvey plays a clerk who moves from one West Yorkshire mill town to another and a slightly better position. He sets about social climbing – and this is actual class warfare, not whatever Americans think it is, with Harvey’s working-class origins set against upper middle class arrogance (financed by the riches of a working-class man made good). The ex-RAF boyfriend is an especially horrible piece of work. Very good film.

Birds of Prey, Cathy Yan (2020, USA). I’m not a big fan of superhero films. Actually, I’m not a fan of them at all. There are perhaps two or three that are any good, and perhaps a couple more that were genuinely ground-breaking when they were released but have not stood the test of time especially well. These days it’s getting hard to tell the difference between a superhero movie and a Lego movie. Margot Robbie was good as Harley Quinn, in as much as she committed totally to it. But this sort of stuff goes stale really quickly.

My Favorite Brunette, Elliott Nugent (1947, USA). It’s good to know that pastiches of noir are pretty much as old as noir itself, although My Favorite Brunette, a Bob Hope vehicle, sends up far more than just the tropes its Chandleresque plot depends upon. There are several digs at other Hollywood properties, and even at other roles played by some of the cast. Dorothy Lamour is the femme fatale who shows up in a private detective’s office looking for help. Unfortunately, it’s not the PI behind the desk but the baby photographer, and wannabe gumshoe, from across the hall, and he’s completely useless. As he subsequently proves. The story is told in flashback by Hope as he waits for his execution in prison for murder. Better than expected.

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, Ruggero Deodato (1976, Italy). Every time I look on Amazon Prime, yet more gialli seems to have been added. Technically, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man is a poliziottesco movie – the title, which is the best thing about it, is a bit of a clue. Tarantino has apparently praised this film, but there’s very little that’s impressive about it. The movie opens with a group of black marketeers being machine-gunned to death by a gang who control smuggling. A cop who had turned a blind eye to smuggling and the like finds his scruples being abused when it comes to murder and drugs. But he’s in too deep to get out. Unfortunately, his father is an old school police sergeant with a much more fixed view of right and wrong. So the detective ends up killing his father. Meh.

Satte Pe Satta, Raj N Sippy (1982, India). There’s these seven brothers, and they live on a remote farm, there’s lots of singing and dancing, and stop me if you’ve heard this before… The oldest brother controls the other six, who behave like animals, but then he gets married – although his bride has no idea what she’s let herself in for – and her influence gradually humanises them… And then film takes a complete left turn, when the six brothers meet a wealthy paraplegic heiress and her five friends, and it turns out the heiress’s guardian is trying to murder her. And he hires a killer who is the spitting image of the oldest brother (the same actor, obvs). This can only be Bollywood. An attempt on the heiress shocks her into walking again, the killer mends his ways, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except the evil guardian.  Has to be seen to be believed.

Rulers of the City (AKA Mister Scarface), Fernando Di Leo (1976, Italy). Another poliziottesco movie. There are these two rival gangs in an Italian city, one of which is run by Jack Palance. A low-level runner in the other organisation comes up with a plan to defraud Palance out of a substantial sum, but it backfires and the two gangs go to war. Surprisingly dull, and the chirpy narrator/lead annoys more than anything else. Avoidable.

Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Freddie Francis (1965, UK). Five men occupy a compartment in a British train, when they are joined by Peter Cushing. Who then pulls out a pack of Tarot cards, and uses it as a prop in order to trigger flashforward stories detailing the horrible deaths of each of the five men. It’s all resolutely 1960s British horror, with its usual mix of familiar faces (to Brits, anyway), bad special effects, slightly off-centre takes on horror tropes, and a sort of theatrical seriousness that only UK films of the period achieved. One for fans of the genre and period – or rather, the genre during that period – which I am sort of finding myself becoming. (Oh, and this is not Hammer, but Amicus.)

Prometheus, Ridley Scott (2012, UK). I remember my excitement when this film was announced – Ridley Scott returning to the Alien franchise! Wow. Alien is one of the best science fiction films ever made, and even though each sequel was worse than the film preceding it, surely Scott could, after 33 years and a highly successful career, make something really good? But oh dear. What a load of fucking tosh. Prometheus looks great, but makes zero sense – from the incompetent sociopathic “experts” hired for the mission, to the risible scene where Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron run away from the rolling boomerang spaceship along the same line it is rolling. The universe of the Alien franchise was, much like that of Star Trek, one that sort of developed as the franchise progressed, but Prometheus, through some bad story choices, ended up not only retconning it but rendering much of it nonsensical. As a standalone film, it looks great but suffers from idiot-plotting and idiot characters; but it did far more damage to the franchise than it did to Scott’s reputation.

Stolen Kisses, François Truffaut (1968, France). It’s nine years since The 400 Blows, and lead Jean-Pierre Léaud is now a young man, fresh from a dishonourable discharge from the army – the general who gives him his papers rightly asks why he bothered to enlist in the first place – and hooking back up again with family and friends. And, er, that’s it. He ends up in a job working for a detective agency, while trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend. But he goes undercover in a shoe shop, falls for the owner’s wife, and jeopardises both his job and his relationship with his girlfriend. I like a lot of Truffaut’s films, and there’s no denying his knowledge of technique and cinematic history, but I suspect there’s something about these Antoine Doinel movies that does not translate. Still, two more to go, perhaps they will be better.

Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Nabil Ayouch (2000, Morocco). This film is on one of those 1001 movies you must see lists, although not the one I’ve been trying to complete, and I can’t remember exactly which one. However, it certainly belongs on as many as possible. It’s not an especially well-made film – the cast are mostly not professional and it shows, and the story feels like it should be guerrilla film-making but the actual production clearly is not. The story is set among the homeless boys of Casablanca. One breaks away from a gang with three impressionable friends. He plans to be a cabin boy on a dhow, and has even secured the friendship of a captain. But he’s killed in an encounter with the rest of the gang. So the three remaining boys decide to have him buried properly, as a “prince of the streets”, and as they attempt this they learn more about his life and dreams and the captain who befriended him. Good stuff.

Return to Oz, Walter Murch (1985, USA). Not being American, I have no particular attachment to Oz. There’s the film with Judy Garland and… well, that’s it. Baum apparently wrote fourteen Oz books, and the first one was adapted numerous times. I’ve not read any of them. Return to Oz, however, is a sequel to the 1939 film and unconnected to the books. It is also a completely bizarre take on the source material. The Wheelers are very 1980s – leg-warmers and roller skates! But Tik-Tok is almost prescient, and his explanation of how his brain works could have come from any twenty-first century sf novel. The use of animation for the Cowardly Lion, Tin Woodsman and Jack Pumpkinhead works much better than expected. There’s a sort of off-kilter approach to the property that actually turns the movie into something much more interesting than the various remakes of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, no matter what gimmick they threw at the camera, like disco or roller-skates. I have a weird liking for this film.

The Tenant, Roman Polanski (1976, France). I know, we shouldn’t be watching Polanski films, the man is still wanted for raping a thirteen year old girl in the US – despite Tarantino’s back-handed attempt to partly rehabilitate him – and The Tenant was the last film he made before that incident. There’s no denying he was a talented filmmaker, although his good films are a great deal better than the rest of his oeuvre. Sadly, The Tenant falls into the latter category. Polanski himself plays the title role and, for whatever reason, he decided to turn his story set in Paris and based on a French novel into some weird US parody of France by casting US actors and giving them dialogue consistent with that nationality. No wonder it was panned when it was released. Avoid.


Leave a comment

Reading diary 2020, #3

I seem to be mostly reading science fiction at the moment. Not sure why. I mean, it’s not like I think we’re in a new golden age for genre or anything – in fact, I find a lot of the high profile science fiction being published at the moment completely uninteresting. Having said that, three of the books below, all published last year, are by writers I’ve been reading for decades, and two of them are favourites writers as well.

World Engines: Destroyer, Stephen Baxter (2019, UK). Reid Malenfant, he of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, is awakened in 2469 from cold sleep after a near-fatal accident in 2019 because Emma Stoney, she of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, who disappeared on a mission to Phobos in 2005… has just sent a radio message to Earth asking for Malenfant’s help. The world of the twenty-fifth century is considerably different to the world we, the readers, know and Malenfant remembers. The great push into space was reversed after native species on Venus and Europa were almost wiped out. There are AIs on the Moon and the other planets, but none on Earth, only “algorithmic-machines” (despite repeated assertions in the text that algorithmic machines are not aware, just sophisticated computers, they’re characterised pretty much the same as the human cast). For a third of the novel, nothing happens. Malenfant mooches about what’s left of Birmingham after 500 years of progress and climate change. But then he decides to go and rescue Stoney – although, from clues in the radio message, she’s a Stoney from an alternate universe, one in which Neil Armstrong did not die of a heart attack shortly before landing on the Moon. Fortunately, it transpires Earth has a sophisticated space capability, it just never uses it. Malenfant, his mentor (a teenage girl) and an algorithmic android (Malenfant’s nurse since he was awakened) head to Mars, meet Stoney, discover a weird tunnel in Phobos which gives access to alternate realities and they end up in one in which the British Empire is triumphant in space and head off with them to the “ninth planet”… We’ve all been here before; Baxter has been here before. The whole thing reads like it was cobbled together from discarded ideas from the Manifold trilogy and Proxima duology. It’s highly readable, but there’s a lot of set-up for very little pay-off. And the continuity is terrible, with characters joining in conversations despite not being present. Baxter bangs books like this out like sausages – an atelier can’t be that far off – and this one was clearly an opportunity to use some of that Britain in Space stuff he researched and wrote many years ago… When you see Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover, you pretty much know what to expect. This is not one of his better efforts, but it’s very much on-brand.

A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA). Park has had an interesting and varied career. He debuted with a complex sf trilogy set on a world with extremely long seasons and with a somewhat meandering plot. His next novel was postcolonial science fiction, and remains one of my favourite genre novels. He then wrote a pair of Biblical fantasies, followed by a straight-up, but very literary, portal fantasy set in a Romanian empire. Although Park moves effortlessly between fantasy and science fiction, he has always worked at the literary end of both genres. But there has, in recent years, come an increasing narrative playfulness apparent in his fiction. His last novel was, among other things, about the Forgotten Realms novel he wrote under a pseudonym, the history of his family, an art installation he wrote a text for, and, in part, his writing career. A City Made of Words is more of the same. It’s a collection of short stories, most previously published, and an “interview”, and it’s more of the meta-fiction Park has been writing of late. He is one of my favourite writers, and has been for many years, and while for some that – being a favourite writer – means a consistent delivery of exactly the same stuff the reader likes, for me Park is a favourite writer because he is forever changing what he produces. The meta-fiction is not just a progression from earlier works, it’s built on earlier works and it’s extremely cleverly done. I suspect my opinion will be shared by few people but I consider Paul Park one of the best US science fiction writers currently being published.

Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve a feeling I read The Female Man back in the early 1980s, although I can’t be sure. I do remember buying a copy of The Adventures of Alyx, the Women’s Press edition, in a bookshop/stationery shop on Hamdan Street in Abu Dhabi in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t until I started up SF Mistressworks, however, that I started reading Russ’s fiction seriously, and the more I read the more I became a fan. Jones, on the other hand, I’ve been reading since the late 1980s, since when she has been one of my favourite genre writers. So that’s a double-win: a writer I  admire writing about a writer I admire. Jones does an excellent job of running through Russ’s life and career and the fiction she produced. Jones ties each piece of fiction to events in Russ’s life and to her changes in her views on feminism and science fiction – all backed up by references to letters and essays. I had always known Russ was a clever writer, and a sharp critic, but until reading this book I had not realised quite how prolific she was. I knew her fiction, but not her essays and letters and fan articles… and… Russ was a second wave feminist who eventually accepted third wave feminism (I think I’m getting this right). Jones is also a feminist, vocally so. I get the impression from this book that their different brands of feminism do not quite map onto the other, but I also get the impression that Jones very much admires Russ and her fiction. This is a book that will give you a fresh appreciation of Russ’s work. I was a Joanna Russ fan before reading it, now I am even more of one.

The Flicker Men, Ted Kosmatka (2015, USA). I’ve read several short stories by Kosmatka and was impressed by them, but none of the blurbs to his novels – three to date, of which this is the last – made them sound as if they would appeal to the same extent. But then I started reading The Flicker Men and discovered that its plot was based on the Kosmatka story I’d admired the most. Except. How to…? Okay. There was was this one story in which Feynman’s double slit experiment revealed there were some people who could not collapse the wave function and so were not sentient as such. The Flicker Men takes that premise and runs with it. First, it posits a televangelist using it to prove that foetuses have “souls”, but then it turns out there are people from an alternate reality on Earth who are trying to shut down the experiment… and the novel turns into a somewhat implausible technothriller with the hero constantly on the run. I was… disappointed. The short story is excellent, but this expansion of it reads like it was handed to Tom Clancy as a premise. Okay, Kosmatka is a better writer than Clancy – but this is definitely more like Clancy’s output than the high concept sf I was expecting. Disappointing.


1 Comment

Movie roundup 2020, #2

It’s been a while since my last post. I have no excuses. And now the world is falling apart – and if I was glad I moved to Sweden last year, I’m profoundly grateful now given all that’s going down. Still, social distancing doesn’t mean I can’t write blog posts. If anything, it should result in more opportunities to write them. And maybe even some fiction. We shall see. For now, another quick run-through of my recent viewing.

Glitterbug, Derek Jarman (1994, UK). Yet more Jarman. Often described as his final film, it’s a compilation of shorts – home movies, pretty much – shot by Jarman but put together by others for a BBC2 programme and broadcast after Jarman’s death. There’s a sort of narrative, given that the shorts document Jarman’s life and travels and friendships, especially that with Tilda Swinton, who appears in several of the films. It’s definitely one for fans, although by its very nature it could hardly not be.

Song of the South, Harve Foster & Wilfred Jackson (1946, USA). A Disney mix of animation and live-action that has almost achieved cult status for being so racist. It’s based on the Uncle Remus stories, which are not themselves racist although the presentation of them, and the black culture of the time, relied overmuch on racist stereotypes. It’s clear Disney were not making an explicitly racist film and just screwed up big time. But… the US is the world leader in racism, so it’s no surprise Disney made such a bad job despite relatively benign intentions. Given the amount of time that’s passed since the film’s release, it’s perhaps safest to view it as an historical document – it’s still racist, and still offensive, but structurally, and production-wise, it’s also very much a Disney film of its time. It’s not a bad movie per se, but I’m glad it’s a movie that’s considered offensive – because a world in which it was not considered offensive would not be a very nice world. This is not an opinion I will share on Twitter…

Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley (2019, USA). Stanley comes out of retirement for a pet-project adaptation of a favourite Lovecraft short story – and not the first time the story has been adapted. This version stars Nicolas Cage in “slightly unhinged” mode, which actually works really well with the material, but does unfortunately throw the rest of the cast into the, ahem, shade. The presentation of the alien colour – a weird violet shade – also works well. But despite all that, this is just a grade a tad higher than B-movie.

The Goldfinch, John Crowley (2019, USA). Literary bestseller from a couple of years ago from a literary sensation who has managed to publish three novels in nearly thirty years, all of which have been hugely successful. How does that work? Especially when their stories are so dull. I’m told the novel is good, but this movie has very little to recommend it. Dull New York literary stereotypes in some sort of dull New York stereotype plot kickstarted by an atrocity – an entirely implausible bombing of an art museum – that leads to a secret no one really cares about that apparently blights a number of dull New York literary stereotype lives. Literary fiction has a bad name because of films like this. Avoid.

I worked my way through the Harry Potter movies over a couple of weeks. I’ll not bother listing the titles. There’s an interesting transformation that takes place as the series progresses. Initially, it’s all Jenkinson Goes to Wizard School and jolly magical public school japes. I’m completely mystified by how popular the series – the books, that is – became. They’re not very well written, not very well constructed, and entirely ignorant in their uncritical borrowing of children’s fantasy tropes. By about the fourth film, however, it’s all turned into a bit of a generic high fantasy, with its Peasant Saviour and Dark Lord and Wise Mentor and back-story and mythos. Rowling’s completely tone-deaf approach to appropriating tropes and world-building from a variety of sources throws up a few interesting variations, and some of the characters do start to develop real pathos. But then it all turns into wannabe Star Wars, and then the bad guys are outed as complete Nazis, and you have to wonder how anyone could see the last two films, or read the final book, and not see the somewhat thumpingly obvious allegory. Sigh.

The Singing Ringing Tree, Francesco Stefani (1957, Germany). I’ve been told this movie has psychologically scarred a generation of German children, and it’s easy to understand why. I only survived unscathed thanks to the fortifying effects of a bottle of wine – not fortified wine, I hasted to add, although that might have proven more effective. The Singing Ringing Tree is a fairy tale of some sort, turned into a feature film. But, well, weird.

The Silence, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1998, Iran). A blind boy in Tajikistan is forced to support his family. His blindness has given the boy super astute hearing and he hires himself out as a musical instrument tuner. Unfortunately, whenever he hears music, he forgets whatever it is he is supposed to be doing. Makhmalbaf had always been somewhat elliptical when ti comes to plot and this film is no exception. But it looks great and tells a good story, so worth seeing.

Aliens, James Cameron (1986, USA). Many people think this is the best of the Alien films. They’re wrong. While Cameron did an amazing job of world-building, he turned the Gothic horror of the first film into just another Vietnam War movie. Thirty-five years later, a lot of the dialogue is embarrassingly bad, although the special effects, world-building and plot have stood the test of time. The whole Vietnam soldier thing just doesn’t play these days, and certainly not outside the US, even if it ever did. A polished addition to the franchise, but only looks good when its sequels are considered.

Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, Surender Reddy (2019, India). Tollywood historical epic, three hours of over-the-top resistance to East India Company depredations of Andhra Pradesh. The title character tries to unite all the feuding warlords to fight the British but even being some sort of super-duper paragon isn’t enough to win their support. There’s been a bunch of these films in recent years, although none, of course, end happily – the British weren’t kicked out until 1947, as any fule kno. Bloody entertaining films, though.

Alien 3, David Fincher (1992, USA). A famously difficult production that has few fans even today. I was surprised at how, well, good-looking a movie it was. I’d also forgotten how English too. None of the sequels are a patch on the original, but this was surprisingly better than I’d remembered.

Alien: Resurrection, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (1997). I loved the movies Jeunet made with Caro, so putting the pair of them on the next entry in the Alien franchise should have produced cinematic gold. But, oh dear… I’d remembered the film as being pretty bad, but this rewatch did not go well. The dialogue was appalling, even worse than Aliens, and Ron Perlman’s character was a walking cliché and hugely offensive. A few nice set-pieces could not rescue a plot that makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

Dishonored Lady, Robert Stevenson (1947, USA). Hedy Lamarr was great. Very clever woman, led a fascinating life. Not, it has to be said, a brilliant actress, although she’s very watchable in this star vehicle. Successful art editor under pressure from various men in her life has a breakdown, chucks it all away, downsizes, takes a new identity and becomes a painter. Hunky pathologist lives next door, romance ensues, but past returns to haunt her. They churned these out by the Swedish mile (that’s 10 km, by the way) back in the 1940s.

The Garden, Derek Jarman (1990, UK). Experimental film from one of the UK’s best experimental directors. The effects are a little crude, even for 1990, although the film was made with a small budget, and the “subjective musings” which form the bulk of the film are hardly subtle… but then Jarman was reacting to a far-from-subtle attack on gay culture. Jarman had an excellent eye and there is some stunning imagery here. It sometimes obscures the plot – but the experimental nature of the movie more or less blends it all together into something greater than the sum of its parts. Still a huge fan of Jarman’s films, which would have come as a complete surprise to twenty-year-old me.

Parasite, Bong Joon-ho (2019, South Korea). Surprising winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Picture (and other Oscars), the first non-English film to ever win it. It’s a bafflingly non-safe choice for the awards, and claiming it won because it was the best of the nominated films is to ignore the entire history of the Oscars. I liked how it made the house a character in the film, although the final act was all a bit OTT and violent, no doubt deliberately so.

The Palace, Pan Anzi (2013, China). Star-crossed lovers meets palace intrigue in Qing Dynasty China, during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1661 – 1722). Girls are taken at a young age and trained to be palace servants. Some years later, servant woman A and prince X fall in love, but prince X mistakes servant woman B for his love, but servant woman B is having an affair with prince Y, and both X and Y are involved in separate plots for the throne, so Y stitches up X and gets him thrown into prison, where A visits him, but he’s blind so he thinks it is B, but then Y makes his move but he’s backing the crown prince, who fails and so Y is imprisoned and X is released, and X discovers it’s A all along that he’s loved. It’s a fairly standard romance plot, if somewhat convoluted. Well handled with good period detail. Apparently panned by Chinese critics, though.