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Moving pictures, #61

The USA has crept back into this post, although I think I’m currently watching on average more non-Anglophone movies than Anglophone ones. Mind you, I did recently re-organise my LoveFilm rental lists, so I now receive two non-Anglophone movies and one Anglophone movies each week.

midnight_in_parisMidnight in Paris, Woody Allen (2011, USA). I am really not a fan of Woody Allen and tend to avoid his films as much as possible. But David Tallerman spoke approvingly of this one, it was free to watch on Amazon Prime, and it didn’t actually star Allen himself… Also, the story sounded sort of interesting. Owen Wilson – who turned out to be Woody Allen in all but name – is a successful Hollyood scriptwriter holidaying in Paris with his fiancée and future in-laws. They don’t seem well matched – he to his fiancée or to his in-laws. While wandering the streets of Paris one night, an old-fashioned car stops and offers him a lift. He’s taken to a party, where he meets F Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald and Cole Porter. And from the party, they move onto a bar, where he meets Ernest Heminway… and so on, to Gertrude Stein, Pabo Picasso, Man, Ray, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali… And the next morning, he’s back in twenty-first century Paris. And so it goes: he spends his nights with the literati of 1920s Paris, falls in love with a young woman, and slowly realises his fiancée is not for him. But neither is the woman from the 1920s, as the two of them travel back to 1890s Paris and she decides to stay there. Wilson is Allen in all but appearance, and he’s one of things I find most annoying about Allen’s films. Michael Sheen plays a hugely irritating and patronising friend, and the fact fiancée Rachel McAdams likes him tells you how unsuitable she is for Wilson. Midnight in Paris is by no means a subtle film. The big names of the 1920s and 1890s who make an appearance are little more than caricatures, and the whole edifice is plainly meant to be carried by Allen Wilson. It’s entertaining enough, I guess, and the central conceit has its charm. But it hasn’t caused me to reassess my opinion of Woody Allen’s films.

kings_speechThe King’s Speech*, Tom Hooper (2010, UK). I’d managed to avoid watching this, despite the fact it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, because I really don’t want to watch films about the British royal family which don’t treat them as anything other than the historical embarrassment they are. (I have nothing against the Windsors per se, but the concept of “divine right” is primitive nonsense and the whole concept of royalty has no place in the modern world.) Anyway, The King’s Speech popped up for free on Amazon Prime, so I went for it since it was going to cost me nowt. And… it was entirely as I expected: a super-entitled seeks twonk help for his speech impediment, and ends up turning to an untrained Australian therapist with a pet theory. Which apparently works. One of the conditions of the treatment is that the therapist treats his patient as an equal and vice versa – but King George VI (as will be) seems to have real trouble with that. He hides it well, but he’s better than everyone else on the planet because’s a King Emperor. Of course. For all that, the film was pretty innocuous. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the mise en scène, and while the movie had a first-rate cast most of them looked they were going through the motions. How it ended up on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery, as it’s little more than a competent historical drama about an uninteresting topic. Meh.

classic_bergmanSo Close to Life, Ingmar Bergman (1958, Sweden). Three women are in a ward at a Swedish hospital to deliver babies. One is in a loveless marriage, another isn’t ready for a child, and the third is eagerly awaiting motherhood. Bergman keeps the story confined to the ward – and a few other rooms in the hospital – but it’s all about the three women, and their visiting partners; and fortunately Bergman’s cast have chops to spare in delivering the story. In fact, the three female leads – Eva Dahlbeck, Ingrid Thulin and Bibi Andersson – all won the Best Actress Award at Cannes that year; Bergman walked away with the Best Director Award. So despite being his first work after the critically-acclaimed The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, released the previous year and still considered among his best works (and possibly the two of the best-known films made by Bergman), So Close to Life manages not to embarrass. It has that theatrical atmosphere many of his films never quite managed to avoid, although in this case it’s heightened by the restricted sets. This sort of film-making does throw a lot of onto the cast’s shoulders, but one thing youn can say about Bergman’s films is that he was never let down by his actors. I can’t say So Close to Life was especially memorable, but it was a superior piece of intense and up-close drama, and certainly worth watching.

strangerStranger than Paradise*, Jim Jarmusch (1984, USA). I think this is the last of the Jarmusch’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which is a relief. Perhaps I saw his films in the wrong place at the wrong time, ie, not the USA in the mid-1980s. Because I don’t get the appeal at all. In this one, which in parts feels like a complete rip-off of Cassavetes, a pair of musicians play lowlifes in New York who befriend a young Hungarian woman, and later drive to Cleveland to visit her after she has moved there to be with her mother. And, er, that’s it. Oh, they drive to Florida as well. But it’s basically jazz musician John Lurie and Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson, who look confusingly alike, ad libbing at each other. The cinematography is black and white, and pleasingly clean; but I can’t see the appeal of the supposed plot, which I have seen described as both surreal and minimalist – and while I’m in no way chained to the necessity of plot (I love video installations, for a start), I think a feature film has to offer something more if it’s going to skimp on plot – and Stranger than Paradise doesn’t really. Some similar films shift their emphasis to their soundtrack, and use that to carry the film – but Stranger than Paradise didn’t. It just felt meandering, dull, its appearance on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before Yoyu Die list is baffling, and Jarmusch’s appeal still escapes me.

shop_on_high_streetThe Shop on the High Street*, Ján Kadár & Elmar Klos (1965, Slovakia). In occupied Slovakia, a man is told to take over a sewing shop owned by a senile old Jewish woman, because Jews cannot own property or businesses. But the old woman’s shop has been doing badly for years and is only kept afloat by donations. The Jewish community persuade the man to keep the shop going and they will pay him a weekly payment. So he stays on… but the old woman has got it into her head he’s her nephew and he’s only there to help her out, and he doesn’t disabuse her. But then authorities round up all the town’s Jewish population, and the man can’t decide if he should turn in the old woman… There’s nothing particularly special about The Shop on the High Street. It’s a blackly comic film was about one of WWII’s lesser known aspects, played well by its cast and well-shot by its directors. Its story, however, is one that certainly should not be forgotten – now more than ever. How long in Trump’s USA before businesses owned by Muslims are handed to “Christians”? (I use quote marks because there’s fuck-all that’s Christian about most of the stuff done by the US Christian Right.) Anyway, Second Run have an excellent eye for good films – I don’t think they’ve released a dud yet – and this is no exception. Definitely worth seeing.

cowboysLes cowboys, Thomas Bidegain (2015, France). An odd film, this. I wasn’t entirely sure how to take it, and as it progressed I found myself changing my perspective on its central premise. In the 1990s, a French family at a local country & western festival discover their teenage daughter has disappeared. They spend several days searching for her, before receiving a letter from her: she has run away with her Muslim boyfriend and plans to live in Pakistan with him. The father is convinced his daughter was kidnapped by white slavers, and spends years tracking down clues to her location. To no avail. It costs him his life in a traffic accident. The son takes over, and even ends up as a relief worker in Pakistan, where he tracks down hs sister’s husband. Except they’re not married anymore, and in a struggle, the son accidentally shoots the husband. He is caught by the police and imprisoned. The French authorities arrange for his release. He buys the release of the dead man’s wife and takes her back to France with him. She would have been killed had she remained in Pakistan, but she’s an outsider in France – indeed, she’s the subject of racial abuse during a visit to the country & western festival. The son marries her, they settle down and have a kid… and then he hears from someone who has seen his missing sister… A good film that manages to remain objective, despite its emotive content, but allows the viewer to see that the behaviour of the characters is often not acceptable, no matter what provocation. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 826


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Moving pictures, #60

Look at that! Another group of films without a single one from the US. And not a bad film in the lot, either. I’m getting better at this.

au_revoirAu revoir les enfants*, Louis Malle (1987, France). The Malle films I’ve watched so far – all of which were a result of following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – I’ve not found that impressive. Which is not to say I’d totally written him off – after all, I might well have said the same of Claude Chabrol, but then I watched A Story of Women and Le boucher, and revised my opinion – but let’s just say my expectations were not especially high when I put Au revoir les enfants into the player. Malle appears three times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but there was always a possiblity one of his films might strike my fancy, and… Au revoir les enfants did: I thought it a well-shot and well-played French movie. The story is apparently semi-autobiographical. Set at a boys’ boarding-school in 1943 in occupied France, a class tough, who wets his bed at night, wakes up and discovers one of the school’s three new pupils praying in Hebrew. The priest who runs the school is hiding Jewish children from the Germans. The two boys become friends, but then the Gestapo raid the school and take away the three boys and the priest. They were denounced by the kitchen hand, who had been fired for selling school food supplies on the black market. There’s nothing in particular about Au revoir les enfants that stands out, it’s just a well-made drama, its cast are good, and it tells a story that – in these times more than ever – needs to be told. It’s not a film that deserves to be forgotten or ignored. Recommended.

black_coalBlack Coal, Thin Ice, Diao Yinan (2014, China). Streaming is apparently not a total dead loss. I was looking for something to watch one night and spotted this on Amazon Prime: a recent Chinese thriller. So I gave it a go. It was excellent. When I lived in the UAE, I watched a lot of Hong Kong action films, especially Jackie Chan ones, on VCD (who remembers VCD?), but I watched very little, if anything, from mainland China. And then Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made wu xia commercially successful internationally, and it was followed by a raft of historical Chinese epics / wu xia movies, the bulk of which looked absolutely gorgeous. But, of course, China’s film industry produces more than just historical epics and wu xia, and in the last couple of years I’ve seen several such films – for example, I thought Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin so good, I stuck all his other films on my rental list. Black Coal, Thin Ice reminded me a little Zhangke’s film, but it also reminded me a little of a French thriller from 2000, Les rivières pourpres (The Crimson Rivers). Black Coal, Thin Ice opens with the discovery of a dismembered body at a coal plant. ID found nearby identifies the body as that of Liang, a coal worker. While apprehending a suspect, there’s a shootout and only detective Zhang and his partner Wang survive. The case is closed. The film skips ahead five years. Zhang is now a drunk, and working as a security guard. He bumps into Wang, who is still a detective, and learns that two further murders have occurred since that first one, both with the bodies dismembered. All three victims were linked to Liang’s widow Wu. Serial killer movies are nothing new, of course, and in recent years many have moved from focusing on the drama of the chase, and eventual arrest, onto the psychological effects of the investigation on those hunting the serial killer. Black Ice, Thin Ice falls firmly into the latter category, but it scores by not sensationalising its story, and by characterising Zhang as a failure from the start – it’s not the investigation which traumatises him, it was the shoot-out before they even knew they had a serial killer, when they thought they had closed the case. The cinematography is lovely, although the settings are wholly urban or industrial, and the performances low-key. Recommended.

tokyo_storyTokyo Story*, Yasujiro Ozu (1953, Japan). Watching Ozu’s films is a bit like watching a long-running family drama series, except the actors play different parts, although in broad outline their characters are the same. And it’s all set within the same generation, over a fifteen year period beginning in the early 1950s. So, in Tokyo Story, Chishu Ryu, who also plays the lead in Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, plays one half of a retired couple, with Chieko Higashiyama, who plays the mother in Early Summer (and in which Chishu Ryu plays, er, her oldest son), visit Tokyo to stay with their adult children. One of whom is a widow (she’s actually a daughter-in-law). Single women seem to feature heavily in Ozu’s films. It’s the daughter-in-law who spends the most time with the old couple. On their return to their home in Onomichi, they stop off to see another of their children in Osaka, where Higashiyama takes ill. When the two get back to Onomichi, Higashiyama’s illness worsens and she dies. The family gather for the funeral, but again it’s the widowed daughter-in-law who provides the most support. She points out she is less busy than the others as she has no family of her own, and so Ryu tells her she should remarry as soon as possible. If it’s not a familiar plot, it’s a familiar refrain. I’ve remarked before that Ozu’s films are very domestic, very inside, and the fact they’re chiefly family dramas is a reflection of this. And at the time Ozu was making films, it seems one of the issues which exercised family patriarchs was making good marriages for their daughters. True, this is a Japanese film, but it’s also more than sixty years old, and I suspect “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” is more of an explanation of its concerns than any differences in Japanese and British culture. It also possesses bags of charm, but not because – he says, trying desperately hard to think of UK and US examples – it presents a charming lifestyle, as in, say, All That Heaven Allows (extra points for shoe-horning my favourite film into the post), or any random Rock Hudson rom com from the fifties, or The Man Who Loved Redheads, or Josephine and Men… in which the lifestyle defines the characters. In Ozu’s films, the lifestyle remains essentially unchanged from film to film, and the characters are defined by their relationships (which is good, given Ozu’s penchant for using the same actors in different roles). I first watched Tokyo Story back in 2009, long before I started using the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I likely did so after seeing it praised somewhere, perhaps in Sight & Sound… At the time, I enjoyed it, but didn’t bother furhter exploring Ozu’s films. Now, however, I’m getting quite hooked on them. I don’t think I’d count Tokyo Story among my favourites by him, but it is, of course, recommended.

great_african_1Faraw! (une mère de sable), Abdoulaye Ascofaré (1997, Mali). Somewhere or other I’d come across mention of ArtMattan Productions’ DVD series Great African Films, in four volumes so far, and I immediately wanted copies. But their website design seems stuck in the 1990s, and when I emailed them to ask if they’d sell copies to a buyer in the UK I never received a reply. So I ended up purchasing a copy of their first volume – which includes Faraw! (une mère de sable), from Mali, and Harumbaya, from Burkina Faso – off someone on eBay. Annoyingly, it proved to be ex-rental, but I went back and checked the seller’s description and, yes, they did mention that, I’d just missed it. Oh well. The two discs played fine, anyway. Faraw! is set in north east Mali, a desert region, where the twentieth century has made few inroads. A mother, apparently based on Ascofaré’s mother, has trouble making ends meet – her husband is an invalid and his pension is all the income they have, her daughter is rebellious, and the two young sons are more likely to cause trouble than help. In desperation, she approaches the handful of Europeans living in the village, offering the services of herself and her daughter as cleaners. But the Europeans want more from the daughter than just washing and sweeping, so the mother turns them down in disgust. She visits an ex-suitor, and he gives her a donkey. She uses this to fetch water from a spring, and then sells the water to women in and around the village, so earning enough to feed her family. The film ends with a bizarre dream sequence, in which the title character makes a triumphant entry to the village. There’s a freshness and honesty to Faraw! you no longer see in Anglophone movies. While it was obviously made on the cheap, the cast are entirely convincing in their roles (except, perhaps, the Europeans), and Aminata Ousmane – this is apparently her only film appearance – fills the screen with a fierce maternal determination that pretty much defines the movie. It was totally worth hunting down this DVD. Recommended.

east_bucharest12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu (2006, Romania). I mentioned to a Romanian friend I’d been watching lots of films from various countries, so he said, of course you’ve watched some Romanian films… and I was a little bit embarrassed to realise I hadn’t. I immediately added a bunch to my rental list and this was the first one to arrive. I’ve certainly watched a film made in Romanian – East Germany’s Im Staub der Sterne was filmed partly in the country – but never an actual Romanian film. And the fact it proved to be 12:08 East of Bucharest was pure chance. It starts out a bit grim, following the life a drunk in the town of Vaslui, who can barely remember what he gets up to each night, and spends the following morning begging for a drink from his regular bar. Then he makes his way to a television studio to appear in a programme about the day 16 years before when a revolution overthrew Ceauşescu’s brutal regime. He was a teacher at the time, and he claims to have been present in the square when Ceauşescu fled the town hall. Except not everyone remembers it like that. And during the live celebration, people ring in and disagree with the teacher, and the other two panel members, over their claims to involvement in the revolution. So what starts out as grim turns blackly comic before becoming a weird sort of farce in which the three on the TV panel argue back against those who call into the television studio, insisting that the role they played during that year is true. The end result is a black comedy that is really quite funny, makes pointed commentary on Romania’s history, and remains very Romanian (I was unaccountably amused by the many mentions of Timişoreana beer). Recommended.

flickering_truthA Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly (2015, New Zealand). And yet another gem found on Amazon Prime. I’m not sure what possessed me to start watching it, but I’m glad I did. It documents the attempt to rescue the Afghan Film Archives in Kabul after the depradations of the Taliban. The films are in poor condition, and not all have survived – but there are some historically important documents in there. A Flickering Truth is ambivalent toward its protagonist, Ibrehim Arif, who had been imprisoned by the Mujahideen but had fled Afghanistan to settle in Germany – and there’s a suggestion throughout the film that his projects are as much selfish as they are altruistic. It’s true that he does a great deal to rescue the archive, but he also has his critics – although whether they are motivated by the fact he fled to Germany is left to the viewer’s own interpretation. It’s fascinating stuff, and the footage shown from the archives is even more fascinating. I’ve seen Osama, which gives a good indication of what life was like under the Taliban; but many people seem to have forgotten what life was like in that part of the world before Islamism rose in response to Western interference. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan… these were all secular states. – until the Cold War ended and the USA decided to try its hand at foreign affairs in the Middle East. (Which is not to ignore their previous meddling, and how successful it was…) (Nor am I absolving the UK of blame, although it tended not to fuck things up as badly as the US.) (Not that that is anything to boast about…). A Flickering Truth was excellent stuff and reminded me a little of both Kandahar and the aforementioned Osama. Recommended.

1001 Films You Must See Before you Die count: 823


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Reading diary, #39

Reading that massive Vargas Llosa tome derailed my reading timetable somewhat, and I’m currently ten books behind on my Goodreads reading challenge of 150 books read in 2016. So I’m going to have to do some intensive reading to catch up. Meanwhile…

valerian13Valerian and Laureline 13: On the Frontiers, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1988). The previous two volumes in this series saw Galaxity, the organisation for which Valerian and Laureline work, wiped out of history, and now the pair are trapped on 1980s Earth. The frontiers in the title refer to those on our planet. The story opens with Valerian helping the Soviets to determine the cause of a nuclear accident – it’s sabotage, but it’s not clear who was responsible, or why they did it. The story then abruptly shifts to a galactic space liner, and a pair of aliens who wear golden armour. There are apparently so few of the Wûûm left, that a meeting between them is exceedingly rare… and so leads to a shipboard romance. Except the male Wûûm is really a human, and he kills the woman and steals her psychic power so he can use it to kick off a nuclear war on Earth, by, for example, sabotaging nuclear power plants, and so bring about the creation of Galaxity earlier than in now-disappeared timeline. I’ve said all along the Valerian and Laureline series is superior space opera, but it’s also a clever commentary on the world at the time of publishing. It’s easy enough to deride France’s tradition of science fiction as bandes dessinée – they’re comics! – but many of them are a damn sight more intelligent than actual written-words novels published at that time in the US. I mean, seriously, do you think Larry Niven wrote more intelligent sf than Moebius?

in_valley_statuesIn the Valley of the Statues, Robert Holdstock (1982). These days, Holdstock is best known for his Mythago Wood sequence of novels, beginning with the novel of that name. But he originally started out writing science fiction – in fact, his sf novel Where Time Winds Below is still one of my favourites, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to tell him as much at a con way back in the early 1990s. The 1970s were an especially strong period in British sf. It’s mostly forgotten, or ignored, now, of course, but you had writers like DG Compton, Richard Cowper, Josephine Saxton, Keith Roberts, churning out some blinding stuff; and even into the early 1980s, with Gwyneth Jones, Robert Holdstock, Christopher Evans… But the so-called history of science fiction has wiped them all from the narrative, preferring to focus on the best-selling shit produced by US writers like Niven, Asimov, Heinlein. In the Valley of the Statues is very much a short story collection of its time, containing eight well-written and thoughtful science fiction stories, including the original ‘Mythago Wood’ novella. The considered prose would probably be thought dated in some quarters, but it’s actually better than the bulk of award-winning genre fiction being produced today. I enjoyed Mythago Wood, and its sequel Lavondyss, but when Holdstock continued working that – commercially successful – vein, fantasy’s gain was science fiction’s loss.

the_old_childThe Old Child, Jenny Erpenbeck (1999). I’ve seen this desccribed as a difficult read, and I wonder that there is such a thing. Because it’s not a quality of the book, it’s a consequence of the effort put in by the reader. Which is not to say that everyone wants to put that effort into reading, or indeed that every book deserves such an effort (either deliberately or not). The Old Child is the story of an orphan accepted into a children’s home, who is either wise beyond her years or far too innocent for her purported age. She spends much of the story as a tabula rasa, and deliberately so from her perspective, and only begins to engage with the other kids when her ability to keep silent becomes of use to them. It’s a bleak tale and told in a distant tone, which really appeals to me. It’s a way of looking at East Germany and its fate, but it’s not a point that’s belaboured or even made explicitly. Erpenbeck is a supremely clever writer, and the way she uses prose is both interesting and expertly done. I’ve made no secret of the fact I consider Erpenbeck my “discovery” of 2016. This is the third book by her I’ve read so far this year, and I have one more on the TBR which I plan to get to shortly. Then it’ll be a little harder to track down the rest of her oeuvre, as it’s only been intermittently translated from German to English. (I’m tempted to try the German, but my skill in that language is a bit rusty these days.) Anway, read Erpenbeck; she is quite brilliant.

dream_dancerDream Dancer, Janet Morris (1980). Back in the mid-1980s, I picked up a copy of Cruiser Dreams, the middle book in Morris’s Kerrion Consortium trilogy, in, I seem to remember, a junk shop in C oventry. I read it and enjoyed it enough to want to read the rest of the trilogy. Eventually, I tracked down copies of the first book, Dream Dancer, and the third, Earth Dreams. I’ve no idea where and when I found this particular book, Dream Dancer, but I apparently bought Earth Dreams at a Novacon in 2007. And yes, it’s taken me since then to get around to actually reading the trilogy. Although I’m seriously starting to doubt my memories of Cruiser Dreams as Dream Dancer is one of the worst-written books I’ve come across in a long time. I don’t think it was even edited. If it was, the editor should hang their head in shame. “Irregardless” is not a word. There are also lots of malapropisms. And the prose is so over-written most of it makes no sense. Now, I like lush prose, I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Durrell, after all; but the writing in this book is complete nonsense. Anway, a more detailed review appears on SF Mistressworks here.

dan_dare_2Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 2, Lowder, Finley-Day & Gibbons (2016). My first memory of the 2000AD Dare is a Bellardinelli centre-spread depicting Dan Dare arriving in London and being shocked at the changes while he had been frozen. But I also remember Dave Gibbon’s cleanly-drawn lines in a story in which Dare had the “Cosmic Claw”, a mystical alien weapon which had “chosen” Dare as its wielder. I’d missed much of the story of Dare’s acquisition of the Cosmic Claw, so it was good to read that in this volume, except… Well, the artwork is nice, but the stories really were shit. Hoary old crap any sf magazine editor would have bounced without a second thought. But for comics it was considered acceptable. I don’t understand this. Of course, at the time, I was a kid and I gleefully swallowed whatever crap was fed me. It’s true, I marvelled at the artwork and let the story wash over me… but I can’t do that now. I have to consider both. And the 2000AD Dan Dare stories were shit. I’m not saying the Eagle ones were any better, because many of them were also complete bollocks. But some of Hampson’s work was actually amazing – ‘Safari on Venus’, for example – whereas the 2000AD Dare was never even close to mediocre, never mind good. I bought this book out of nostalgia; by reading it I promptly set fire to said nostalgia. Be wise, readers, do not do as I have. Leave your childhood illusions as they were, let the memories comfort you in your dotage.

sleeping_embersSleeping Embers on an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock (2015). When someone names half a dozen writers, and includes both myself and another couple of writers whose fiction I like, then it stands to reason I’ll probably like the others I’d not previously read. So I bought a couple of Aliya Whiteley novellas, and read them and thought them very good (although one more so than the other – see here). And now to Anne Charnock… and I have to admit I’d not otherwise have given the book a second look given that title – and yes, I know my own stuff has long and none-too-informative titles. But I’d have missed out. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind comprises three stories, set in 2013, 2113 and 1469. The links between the three are tenuous (yes, it does remind me a bit of my own writing). In 2113, Toniah has returned to London, is living with her parthogenetic sister (they’re third-generation partho) and has taken up a position as an art history researcher at the Academy of Restitution, which seeks to promote women in history whose contributions were unfairly forgotten, and likewise reassess those of men whose reputation is undeserved (a lovely idea, we should have one of these now). Toniah begins researching the career of… Antonia Uccello, the daughter of Paolo Uccello, a fifteenth-century Italian known for having introduced perspective into Italian Renaissance painting. Although there are a small handful of women painters, it is a male career. Those women were only permitted to paint because they are nuns – and so Antonia, who is talented, must join a convent. By the twenty-second century only her name survives, and only a single painting found in a provincial museum’s archive. The third story follows Toni, a thirteen-year-old Brit, whose father is a professional copyist and whose mother died in a freak accident before the story opens. After a visit to meet a client in China, Toni is inspired to ask her friends and online acquaintances to contribute to her history homework, and so she learns of a great-uncle who died in the Great War before he could marry his betrothed. So Toni and her father go on holiday to France to visit his grave. There’s no neat resolution to the three narratives, to the novel in fact. It tells its stories and lets the reader draw their own conclusions. In some respects, it reminds me of Katie Ward’s excellent Girl Reading (and still no follow-up novel from her, which I would really love to see). I think Ward’s prose style is more to my taste than Charnock’s, which is not to say the latter is bad: it’s unadorned and straightforward, with an enviable clarity. Whoever called out Charnock has done me a favour, and I’ve already put her other two novels (one due in January next year) on my wishlist.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 128


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Moving pictures, #59

It’s not all about the US, although you’d be forgiven everything was always about the US – but there’s only one American film in this post. Two from France, however, despite my previously-stated lack of enthusiasm for much French cinema (although I do prefer it to US and UK cinema).

labyrinth_liesLabyrinth of Lies, Giulio Ricciarelli (2014, Germany). Someone mentioned this film to me, and then I promptly forgot about it until stumbling across it on Amazon Prime. It’s set in the late 1950s in Germany, and is about a federal prosecutor’s attempt to prosecute surviving SS guards at Auschwitz under state criminal law (rather than international crimes against humanity). He’s hampered by the fact that the German establishment is packed to the gills with ex-Nazis, all of whom are invested in ensuring that the crimes committed during WWII are forgotten. The German public also believe the Allied films taken when liberating Auschwitz and the other death camps were propaganda. When the prosecutor learns Mengele freely travels back to Germany to visit his family, he is horrifed. He does a deal with the Israelis for Eichmann and Mengele, but once they have Eichmann they renege. Mengele is never bought to justice. The prosecutor has the blessing of the state prosecutor-general, and battles through the resistance of his colleagues, the local police, and members of the German public. It’s all based on a true story, but the ending is not especially happy. The German government decreed that a murder committed while following orders was not murder, but accessory to murder; for a death-camp guard to be charged with murder, he would have to kill someone on his own provable initiative. Of the 6,500 surviving soldiers who served at Auschwitz, only 789 were charged, and only 750 were sentenced. Most served only a few years. Worth seeing.

deadpoolDeadpool, Tim Miller (2016, USA). I don’t why I bothered. I knew going in this would probably annoy me more than it would entertain. Admittedly, from what I’d read, it seemed quite different to your average superhero movie and a lot was made of its irreverent tone… Basically, you have Ryan Reynolds in the title role cracking jokes throughout, sometimes in dialogue, sometimes in voiceover, and sometimes breaking the fourth wall (gosh, how innovative). Reynolds is some sort of ex-special forces mercenary, who joins a programme which is supposed to give him super mutant powers. Which it does. But it also makes him really ugly. Which is unfortunate, because he’s in a relationship and he’s afraid his girlfriend will be horrified by his new appearance (hence the mask). But Reynolds wants the bloke who ran the programme because he thinks he can restore his previous good looks. Essentially, Deadpool is one big series of flashbacks. It opens with a fight on a freeway, in which Deadpool attacks a conovy, and then a series of flashbacks, and voiceovers, explain how Deadpool ended up in that situation. Every now and again, it cuts back to the fight on the freeway. Which Deadpool isn’t exactly winning, but one of his super mutant powers is the ability to heal almost immediately from any wound. I suppose if you were to judge Deadpool against other MCU movies, then it looks quite good. But that’s a really low bar. It was entertaining, in a marginally more than brainless way, but it’s once-watched-completely-forgotten.

shoot_pianistTirez sur le pianiste*, François Truffaut (1960, France). This was a rental and only watched because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. After all, much as I love Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, I’d thought The 400 Blows a bit meh, and besides I’d found the Nouvelle Vague more miss than hit… Anyway, I bunged Shoot the Pianist (I prefer the French title, tbh) into the player one Saturday night after I’d had some wine… and, well, I wasn’t really following the film and it all looked a bit, well, New Wave and black-and-white and French and full of itself. But the next morning it occurred to me I’d not given the film a fair crack, so a couple of days later I sat down and watched it again – and this time I watched it properly. And was surprised to find myself both enjoying it and appreciating Truffaut’s film-making. Charles Azanvour plays a concert pianist who lives his life behind after his wife commits suicide, and is now playing the piano in a bar. His brother appears one day, on the run from a pair of crooks, with whom he’d committed a crime. While helping out his brother, Aznavour meets one of the bar’s waitresses, the two enter into a relationship. There’s an extended flashback to Aznavour’s days as a feted concert pianist, and a third act that is almost pure noir. But I think what appeals about Tirez sur le pianiste is that for mit really brought into focus the elements of the Nouvelle Vague – the extreme close-ups, the voiceovers, the fascination with US cinema, especially noir, the free-wheeling plotting… There’s a scene where Aznavour and the waitress, Marie Dubois, are walking along a street and night-time, and he tries to take her hand, and it was like peak Nouvelle Vague – the only missing was a jazz score. Truffaut has gone up a little in my estimation, so I might stick more of his films on my rental list.

walkaboutWalkabout*, Nicolas Roeg (1971, Australia). A teenage girl and her younger brother are driven out into the Outback their father, ostensibly for a picnic, but he goes mental, then shoots himself. So, the two of them hike off into the bush, as you do, in an attempt to find help. Neither knows how to survive in the desert and both are woefully naive about a great number of things. Fortunately, they’re discovered by a Yolngu young man on his walkabout, and he helps them and shows them how to survive in the bush. They make their way to a town, where the Yolngu man dances a courtship dance for the girl, which she fails to understand. The next day, the Yolngu man is dead. It’s not stated how he died. Roeg has said he started filming without much of a plan and pretty much filmed whatever took his fancy. It worked. The camera is forever drifting about the bush, filming the various creatures which inhabit it. There’s also an artlessness and plotlessness to the trio’s wanderings, which makes of their journey something of a fairy tale. It has an entirely appropriate dream-logic to it, and though it clearly wasn’t intentional, it makes the film much better than it might have been. I’ve not seen all that much by Roeg – the two obvious ones, of course: Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth – but I think I’ll try more by him. Recommended.

screaming_manA Screaming Man, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (2010, Chad). I’ve seen two of Haroun’s early films, Abouna and Daratt, and thought them very good, so it was a no-brainer to put this on the rental list… although it took a while before I was eventually sent it. The eponymous figure is an ex-Olympic swimmer, now many years later the attendant at a hotel swimming-pool. His son is the other poll attendant. But when a new company takes over the hotel, they do the usual and start “rationalising” the staff. So the old man is demoted to gate guard, and his son remains the sole pool attendant. So the father “volunteers” his son for the army, to fight against rebel forces. They take him away and the old man gets his position back as poool attendant. Some time later, a pregnant young woman turns up and says she is the son’s wife. They take her in. The man reconsiders what he’s done, and heads off on his motorcycleand sidecar to fetch his son from the front line. He finds him badly wounded, puts him in the sidecar and heads for home. The story of a A Screaming Man seems strung on two poles: a matter-of-factness in the telling and dark humour. It’s something I noticed in Daratt, but it seems especially prevalent in this film, although it’s a more laidback affair than that earlier movie. It’s in the small scenes, like the title character dashing back and forth to open the hotel entry and exit gates as cars keep appearing. There doesn’t seem to be anything else by Haroun other than the three films I’ve named currently available, which is a shame as he’s definitely worth seeing.

limportantL’important c’est d’aimer, Andrzej Żuławski (1975, France). This was a lucky find on eBay – after all, now that I know these Mondo Vision Signature Edition DVDs of Żuławski’s films exist, how could I not want them? Of course, by the time I did learn of them, only the two most recent of the five so far released were still available – although I’d learnt of them by buying one of the deleted titles on eBay. And now the only one I’m missing it arguably Żuławski’s most famous film, Possession, but L’important c’est d’aimer, or The Most Important Thing is to Love, is perhaps Żuławski’s least batty film. Romy Schneider plays a pornographic actress whom photographer Fabio Testi falls for. So he decides to boost her career, and gets her cast in a production of Richard III. But Schneider has a husband, and as she falls for Testi, she’s conflicted between the two. As Żuławski films go, this one is almost laidback. The performances are toned down considerably more than in his other films, and while it relies a great deal on the cast’s sexuality – as all of Żuławski’s French films seem to do – there’s definitely more drama here than melodrama. Unfortunately, it does make it a deal less memorable than Żuławski’s other films. Mondo Vision, incidentally, have another impressive job on this release, and I really need to get hold of their limited edition of Possession so I’ll have the set. They’re releasing a limited edition of The Blue Note soon. It’s on my wishlist.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 822


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Winter festival come early

Yet more books. The mantlepiece, incidentally, has all sorts of bits and bobs on it and I couldn’t be arsed to clear it off for these photos. So you’ve got the landing carpet instead.

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After watching Sokurov’s Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, I fancied reading more by the author, and so picked up cheap copies of August 1914 and The First Circle on eBay. I may have shot myself in the foot with August 1914, however, as only two volumes of the Red Wheel series are available in English, out of possibly eight volumes in Russian. Accommodation Offered I also found on eBay, and bought for my Women’s Press SF collection… but I’m not entirely sure it is sf.

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Chernobyl Prayer and The Appointment I bought after a dicussion on Twitter about female Nobel laureates for literature. I’ve already read the Müller – see here. I had a copy of Labyrinths many years ago but seem to have lost it, so I bought a replacement. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind I bought because Charnock was named alongside myself and Aliya Whitely and Nina Allan and a couple of others as writers to watch in a tweet, and I’ve now forgotten who it was who said it… I thought Nocilla Dream very good – see here – so buying the sequel, Nocilla Experience, as soon as it was published in English was a no-brainer. And I’ve always found Houellebecq’s fiction interesting, hence Submission.

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I contributed to the kickstarter for The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosenkreutz, although to be honest I’ve no idea why. But it’s a handsome looking book. Erpenbeck is a new favourite writer, and her books are readily available on eBay in hardback for low prices – which is good for me, if not for her or her publisher. Anyway, The Book of Words and The Old Child are two earlier works, currently published in an omnibus, but I’d sooner have them separate. They’re very short. I’ve already read The Old Child. It’s very good.

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Finally, some sf comics. I’ve been picking up the Valerian and Laureline series as Cinebook publish them in English. On the Frontiers is volume 13, which is just over halfway through the series. You should never return to childhood favourites, because it’s usually embarrassing to discover how fucking awful they were. I’ve always loved Dan Dare, ever since being given a reprint of two of Hampson’s Dare stories back in the early 1970s. Since returning to the UK, I collected all of the Hawk Publishing reprints of the Eagle Dan Dare stories. But I also have fond memories of Dare from the pages of 2000 AD – I even have a Dan Dare annual somewhere from that time. Hence, Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 2. 2000AD’s Dare looks great – it was drawn by Dave Gibbons – but the various stories are the hoariest old sf crap imaginable. Oh well.


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Moving pictures, #58

Continuing on with the movies posts in a world in which superheroes, should they start to appear, would actually look like the good guys…

housekeepingHousekeeping, Bill Forsythe (1987, USA). I’m a big fan of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction and have all of her novels, so I was naturally interested to see how she translated to the silver screen because, er, well, I’m not sure. And the answer is, er, I’m still not sure. I enjoyed the film Housekeeping, but not as much as I enjoyed the novel. But one of the joys of Robinson’s novels is her prose, and so a cinematic adaptation has to provide an equivalent – and I don’t think that Forsyth’s Housekeeping does. But, would I have read the book having seen the film? Probably not. It’s a perfect example of how the two media interact. It’s usually said the book is better than the film, although there are a few examples where the reverse is true – Marnie, The Commitments… – and it’s certainly true for Housekeeping, even though the film is not all that bad without knowledge of the book. Christine Lahti is good as the flaky aunt who takes over the upbringing of the two girls (one of whom narrates). However, the landscape as shown in the film never quite fit my mental map from reading the book. Mostly it was too big. Now, the US is big, so I suspect the film was a better representation than what I had imagined, but it still felt weird watching it. Intellectually, I guessed I was wrong, which then felt like accusing myself of a failure of imagination… But then voicover is a poor substitute for interiority, if only because using it to the same extent feels like over-using it. Post-facto narration is one way of presenting interiority via voiceover, but it’s tricky to write in such a way that the lack of hindsight doesn’t seem odd. Mostly Housekeeping succceeds, and on reflection its charm probably carries it further than someone with knowledge of the book would expect. Worth seeing, but I much prefer the novel.

hitch_truffHitchcock / Truffaut, Kent Jones (2015, France). I’m a big fan of Hitchcock’s films – in fact, he was the first director whose movies I collected on DVD because he was the director, rather than buying DVDs based on story or stars or  genre, and I buillt up a collection of pretty much everything he had made. A recent rewatch of his two main collections, after upgrading them to Blu-ray, only confirmed by admiration of the movies. Truffaut, on the other hand… I love his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 – in fact I love the film but hate the book – but nothing else by him has ever really appealed to me. I’ve always much preferred Godard. But Truffaut was a big fan of Hitchcock and, as a writer for Cahiers du Cinema, was instrumental in rehabilitating Hitchocock as an auteur. This documentary includes footage of the original interview which led to Truffaut’s book (I really do need to get myself a copy), as well as present-day talking heads discussing Hitchcock’s oeuvre and Truffaut’s interview of Hitchcock. It’s fascinating stuff, more so because of what it reveals of Hitchcock than because of its commentary – there’s a telling moment where Hitchcock directs Truffaut during a photo shoot, and it’s clear from his comments that Hitch knows exactly what looks best. Recommended.

zero_de_conduiteZéro de conduite*, Jean Vigo (1933, France). I know Vigo from L’atalante, which I bought many years ago from, I think, a sale at HMV. It turns out he only made four films, and both L’atalante and Zéro de conduite make the 1001 Movies you Must See Before  you Die list, which I calculate at 50% of his oeuvre, and that has to be considered a pretty impressive achievement. Except… well, I didn’t think that much of Zéro de conduite. In fact, of the three films included on the disc I rented – it also included À propos de Nice and Le natation par Jean Taris – I thought À propos de Nice more interesting a movie than Zéro de conduite. Anyway, Zéro de conduite – it’s set at a boys’ school in, I suppose, the 1910s. The school is harsh and the pupils eventually rebel. None of it seems entirely real – there’s a teacher who steals food from the pupils, there’s a lack of discipline that seems more wish-fulfilment from the pupils than the teachers… and while it’s all entertaining enough, nothing seemed to really stand out. Le natation par Jean Taris was a straightforward documentary on a swimmer and his technique, and while Vigo’s film-making techniques may have been every bit as innovative as Taris’s swimming technique in 1931, all that remains now is a mildly interesting documentary on swimming which clearly prototypes techniques now commonplace. À propos de Nice, however, is much more interesting proposition. The result of a desire to make a film about Nice, Vigo was determined to avoid common narratives, and so chose to contrast the rich with the poor. The film opens with aerial shots of the city, a surprising enough thing to see on the screen in 1930, before showing the great and good wandering up and down the Corniche. It then moves to the poorer sections of the city, and the contrast is every bit as effective as Vego might have imagined. À propos de Nice did more to persuade me that Vigo was an important early director than Zéro de conduite ever did, and I suspect it rightly belongs on the 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list.

ray_1Nayak, Satyajit Ray (1966, India). The third and final film in the Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 1, and while I thought Charulata the best of the three, I’d be hard-pressed to choose whether this one or Mahanagar the next best. The “hero” of the title is a Bengali movie star, Arindam Mukherjee, who has to travel by train to Mumbai to pick up an award. Also on the train is a young editor from a women’s magazine who persuades Mukherjee to allow her to interview him. As he answers her questions, it triggers flashbacks which dramatise some of the incidents which led to his current success. Like Charulata, there are also some dream sequences – so I’m starting to wonder if this is a Ray thing – and they’re both disturbing and effectively staged. One in particular has Mukherjee drowning in a sea of money when he spots a mentor from earlier in his career – except the mentor looks like a statue. Anyway, it’s weird and yet very effective. Nayak is a character study of its protagonist, but it’s also a study of what a character study is. Mukherjee’s present-day actions are explained through flashback vignettes, which also help illustrate why he reacts as he does in later scenes. There’s a running argument throughout the film between Mukherjee and his mentor, the former sees himself as part of a new generation of actors, the latter as a defender of the old tradition. Although I’ve only seen a fraction of Ray’s oeuvre, I already have him pegged as an urban director, compared to Ghatak’s often rural settings. (But then I’ve only seen three of Ghatak’s films, and I suspect he saw himself as more of a Marxist than a defender of the rural way of life.) Certainly the three movies in this box set by Ray are urban, and it makes an interesting change to Ghatak’s films.

herzogNosferatu: Phantom der Nacht*, Werner Herzog (1979, Germany). I prefer the German title to this film, although the version of it I watched this time around was the English-language version. It’s a pretty straightforward remake of Murnau’s film, with Kinski in the Schreck role, and while he doesn’t quite manage to present the same level of menace, Herzog’s film does have some lovely cinematography and use of incidental music. Particularly in the scenes where Bruno Ganz (as Jonathan Harker) approaches Dracula’s castle, which are beautifully shot with impressively evocative background music. Whitby is transposed into Wismar, a small town on Germany’s coast on the Baltic; but the story pretty much follows Bram Stoker’s story. When you have so many cinematic adaptations of a single novel – or of that novel’s eponymous villain – then fidelity to the source text seems pretty irrelevant. By 1979, of course, Dracula had been pretty much set in the public’s mind as a saturnine but urbane aristocrat in dinner jacket and cape. Herzog’s Dracula is a welcome return to Murnau’s frankly quite odd presentration of the vampire, but in that form he at least seems to embody a real sense of menace. Having said all that, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht does seem a little, well, tame for Herzog. Nonetheless, it’s easily one of the better Dracula films made – and yes, it does belong on 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list; and yes, Murnau’s Nosferatu is also on the list, as is Dreyer’s Vampyr

stella_dallasStella Dallas*, King Vidor (1937, USA). This didn’t appear to be available on DVD in either the UK or US, and the copy I finally ended up with was a Spanish release. And it was pretty much a waste of time – the film was a potboiler, with little to recommend it and its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery to me. Barbara Stanwyck plays the title character, the daughter of a millworker, who has social ambitions. She engineers an introduction to mill manager John Boles, callously gets him to marry her on the rebound, and then uses her new-found position to explore society, much to her husband’s disapproval. But after giving birth to a girl, she sublimates all her ambition into giving her daughter the best start in life. Husband meanwhile has been transferred to New York, but mother and child stay back home, mother hanging out with unsavoury types while daughter grows up like some sort of changeling. But then husband bumps into an old flame, now widowed and with three boys, and they rekindle their relationship. Daughter goes to visit, is a great hit, and… well, you can see where this is going. It’s pure melodrama from start to finish, but has none of the subversiveness of Sirk. I’ve no idea why it was on the 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list – it may have been nominated for two Oscars, and the AFI nominated the title character as one of its 100 Heroes & Villains… But it was all a bit meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 820


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Apollo Quartet 5: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum

And so here it is, the, er, fifth installment in the Apollo Quartet. Its official title is Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum. It’s 7,000 words long, approximately, so technically a short story (which means the quartet now comprises all three legitimate lengths of fiction – short story, novella and novel). It has an introduction by Adam Roberts, author of The Thing Itself. It is – well, YDSFMV: Your Definition of SF May Vary.

Don’t forget the rest of the Apollo Quartet – that would be books one to, um, four – are currently available on Kindle and in paperback at a new low price. I am not entirely convinced Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum makes a great deal of sense without knowledge of them, although it does, I think, sort of read well enough on its own. (But you’ll miss all the jokes, damn it.)

Anyway, here it is.

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