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Movie roundup 2020, #20

Have slowed down recently on the box-set bingeing. Chiefly from a failure to find anything interesting. Just finished Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated, and the story arc took a swerve in the second season, so no criminals dressing up as monsters only to be unmasked by those “meddling kids”, but an actual supernatural plot about an evil interdimensional being imprisoned beneath Crystal Cove. Still lots of excellent jokes, and you’ve got to love a series that throws in the Red Room from Twin Peaks, not to mention spoofing David Lynch’s Dune for the opening of the final episode…

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Jason Woliner (2020, USA). Did Borat really need a sequel? That could be said of many movies. It got one anyway. And it’s very much a movie of its time. It’s a direct attack on Trump’s mishandling – or lack of handling – of Covid-19 in the US, although it makes sure to hit several other targets along the way, such as the US’s rampant racism. And this last leads to one of the film’s best scenes, which I think went viral earlier in the year, when Borat disguises himself and raps about the “Wuhan flu” to an appreciative audience of white supremacists. On the one hand, I think this film is too much about a specific moment in time to remain great comedy; on the other, when you attack targets who are just too fucking stupid to understand why they should be the targets of satire in the first place, it sort of undermines the satire. I thought Borat Subsequent Moviefilm a better film than Grimsby, but I think its best-by date is fast approaching.

Jab Jab Phool Khile, Suraj Prakesh (1965, India). A Bollywood classic, in which the daughter of a rich industrialist rents a houseboat in Kashmir (my parents did it once, it’s a real thing), and the boat’s owner, a simple villager, falls in love with her… And the plot does the usual Bollywood thing. Her father won’t accept the villager as his daughter’s suitor, so the villager makes himself over, but then the daughter doesn’t like him as much… This was one of those Bollywood films where a lot of the outdoor scenes were shot on a soundstage, much like Hollywood used to do back in the day, and there’s a weird almost super natural appearance to some of the scenery. Good musical numbers, too. This is classic Bollywood, with all that phrase entails. Worth seeing.

Madame Bovary, Claude Chabrol (1991, France). The perfect novel, it’s said, and adapted numerous times. I really should read it (seconds after writing this I bought the ebook for 99p; I guess I’ll be reading it, after all). I’m not sure how many adaptations I’ve seen, but this one stars Isabelle Huppert, which is a definite plus, even if it’s directed by Chabrol, who I find a bit hit and miss. The pleasure comes not from seeing how Chabrol interpreted the novel, but from watching Huppert at work. The title character wants a life better than she would normally have, and maniputates the local doctor into marrying her. But this isn’t enough for her, and she has affairs with men of higher social standing, spends all her husband’s money trying to maintain the lifestyle she wants but he cannot afford, and eventually comes a cropper. It all comes out and she commits suicide to avoid the shame. It’s strong stuff and it’s easy to see why it’s resonated for so long – the original novel was published in 1857, yet, strangely, the majority of adaptations have been period dramas. Anyway, a relatively unexciting adaptation but for the presence of Huppert.

Emma, Autumn de Wilde (2020, UK). Austen has been adapted for cinema and television numerous times – even more times than Madame Bovary, probably – but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess Emma is probably her most adapted novel, not Pride and Prejudice. I’m probably wrong. Emma is a match-maker, and not a very good one, despite one success. She upsets everyone and has to be defended by local eligible bachelor, Mr Knightley, and of course they end up falling in love. It’s the least subtle of Austen’s plots, but perhaps the most subtle of her social commentaries. The problem is, Regency social commentary means very little to a twenty-first century audience. Emma has to be some form of spectacle, or it’s nothing. Happily, de Wilde has resisted that reading, and produced a film that stays faithful to the book and still manages to explain its social conventions. Unfortunately, in the process the director decided to make Regency England, well, bright. Or, rather, well-lit. The interiors of the houses in the film are so bright, it’s unnatural. They have better lighting than twenty-first century homes. It sort of spoils the attempt to produce an accurately-set Regency film. Oh well.

New Rose Hotel, Abel Ferrara (1998, USA). Gibson’s fiction has produced remarkably few cinema adaptations, which is ironic give that his career is a consequence of an attempt to promote his first novel, Neuromancer, in Hollywood so someone would make a film of it. Which they never did. And given the books he writes now, that’s probably just as well. ‘New Rose Hotel’, however, was a short story, and this film adaptation – difficult to find for many, many years – is over twenty years old. And it shows. It’s a two-hander, with Christopher Walken and Willem Defoe, and a lot of the plot is told to the viewer, and, to be honest, the plot is horribly early 1980s. It’s not just the whole cyberpunk thing – bearing zero relevance to geopolitics in the decades since the story was published – but that the plot is basically two grifters using a woman to entice a valuable employee to move to a competitor. That it’s all double- and triple-crosses doesn’t hide the fact these are 1950s sexual politics. I can’t say I’m surprised it’s taken so long for this film to surface.

Meet Him and Die, Franco Prosperi (1976, Italy). Another poliziottesco, and fairly typical of the genre. A cop goes undercover in a prison, and gains the trust of an imprisoned mob boss. They escape, and go on the run, while the mob boss tries to put together a new pipeline to import drugs into Italy. But the cop is not in it for justice, but to revenge the death of his mother, killed by one of the mob boss’s henchmen. It gets a bit tricky toward the end, when Elka Sommer is introduced as the secretary of a major player but later turns out to be the secret boss behind it all. A solid thriller but, like most poliziotteschi, it makes up for in enthusiasm, and a studied coolness, what it lacks in production values or plot rigour.

Sudden Fear, David Miller (1952, USA). A typical black and white Hollywood noir. Joan Crawford is a wealthy heiress and a successful playwright. After firing Jack Palance from the lead in her most recent Broadway play, she bumps into him on the train during her return trip to San Francisco. They fall in love, she marries him. But then an old girlfriend of Palance’s turns up, and he learns Crawford is going to leave all her money to a charitable foundation… The final unfolding of the plot on Crawford, and how it actually goes down, is cleverly done. A good example of its type – well-plotted, and Crawford is always worth watching.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, USA), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, USA), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, USA) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Steven Spielberg (2008, USA). The first film is reckoned a Hollywood classic, and the last a classic case of a franchise gone bad. Watching these films back to back, some after not seeing them for decades, I noticed several things: how much Raiders of the Last Ark was a rip-off of a Bond film, how racist was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade seemed more interested in its stars than its weak plot, and that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had no way of recovering after Indy survived an atom bomb, and being blown several miles, in a fucking fridge. There’s more, of course. Raiders of the Lost Ark, for all its plaudits, shows a contempt toward rigour and plausibility that became the Hollywood modus operandi. Bombs in space are just the latest example. When film-makers and film studios hold the intelligence of their audiences in such contempt, how can anyone admire their films? I should not have to reduce my IQ to single digits in order to enjoy a film. That’s not entertainment, that’s slavery. And in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we can see an early example of the rot setting in. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate famously killed New Hollywood, but it was the arrogance and contempt of Lucas and Spielberg that created the Hollywood we know today. They might well love movies, and film as a medium, but they certainly don’t feel the same toward their audiences. It shows.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Hall (1968, UK). Flaubert and Austen are nowhere near Shakespeare when it comes to adaptations. Strange to think he was pretty much forgotten for 200 years after his death. He certainly isn’t now. He’s almost a shibboleth of high culture. Which is complete fucking nonsense as his plays were not aimed at the intellectual and cultural elite of his day. This much we know. A Midsummer’s Night Dream is one of his better-known plays, even if its details are not so well-known. This film version is only the second cinema adaptation of the play, but was received so poorly it was only broadcast on TV in the US. To a British viewer, it’s notable chiefly for its cast. But it does do that bizarrely British thing, familiar to fans of Ken Russell (I am one), in which stately homes stand in for fantastical castles and such. That, and a touch of Peter Greenaway in parts. And, bizarrely, Peter Watkins’s Privilege. Oh, and Derek Jarman. And 1960s/1970s BBC. It’s a good example of a type of English culture which feels entirely foreign to me and which I find fascinating – classical, unconsciously amateurish, convinced of its own unmerited, er, merit, and bearing no resemblance to the culture of the UK I actually know. It’s English art, and all the purer to me because it’s not the “English” I know.

Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman (2008, USA). A man wins a valuable arts grant and decides to stage a play in which people live out their lives as if they were, well, living out their lives. So he builds a giant soundstage, and hires a bunch of actors to play people. Then he hires people to play the parts of the crew who are staging the play. Including himself, the director. And that’s only part of this somewhat unclassifiable movie. Kaufman clearly felt his premise wasn’t enough for a feature-length film – memo to Kaufman: it is – so he had to embellish it. The playwright’s marriage collapses, his wife moves to Berlin, and his daughter grows up to be a tattooed porn star. He suffers from inexplicable neurological problems. He has an affair with a woman whose house is permanently on fire. It’s like Kaufman didn’t believe in the strength of his concept. So he bolstered it with jokes. Not very funny jokes, or not very subtle metaphors. Kept as a high-concept film, this would have worked better. Kaufman gilded the lily, to the lily’s cost.

Fist of Fury, Lo Wei (1972, China). This is the film that made Bruce Lee a star although there’s little in it to justify that. He fought well, but he was a terrible actor – and that’s the biggest take-way from this film. That, and the racism of the Japanese to the Chinese. Reviews complained about the film’s anti-Japanese element, but it seems entirely justified given the time and place it was set. Lee returns to his kung fu school only to discover his beloved teacher has died. And a local Japanese school are causing problems. He beats them up, yes, all of them, which only increases tensions. It’s unlikely this film paints an accurate historical portrait of the period, but it’s probably not far off the reality. And while I recognise the film-makers wanted the audience to sympathise with Lee’s character, you’d have to be pretty heartless not to, and a complete fascist to think he was in the wrong. This is by no means a great film – the fight choreography may be good, but the acting is terrible, the sets are cheap, and the story is heavily weighted toward the Chinese. I’m not convinced it’s a classic worth seeing, but chiefly because I think the US fetishes Lee to an undeserved extent.


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Reading diary 2020, #14

There has been an entirely predictable second wave here in Uppsala. It wasn’t predictable simply because the rest of Europe is suffering a second wave, but predictable because Uppsala is a ghost town during the summer and now all the students are back. The same has happened to university cities in the UK. The majority of the new cases reported here by the Akademiska Sjukhus have been students. As a result, slightly tighter restrictions have been imposed, which means my employers have closed the office and I’m once again working from home. And it looks like that might now be until the New Year, given a recent ban by the government – and this is an actual law, not advice from Folkhälsomyndigheten (people’s health authority) – of public gatherings of more than eight people.

Personally, I prefer working in an office. It creates a better separation of work and, well, not-work. Which, understandably, means that that when I work from home, not-work suffers. Such as writing blog posts. I spend all day on the sofa doing database things, so once I sign off from the company VPN I prefer to do stuff that doesn’t require creativity – in other words, reading, or watching films. Also, spending all day on the sofa is not good for my back.

But on with the relatively recent reads…

The Dollmaker, Nina Allan (2019, UK). Of the handful of genre writers to gain attention in the UK in the past decade, Nina Allan is certainly one of the better ones. At a prose level, she’s an excellent writer, but I’ve never been quite convinced by the way she puts her stories together. They’re very clever, and they make smart use of genre conventions while, at the same time, exploring or even subverting those same conventions. But, to my mind, at times, it all feels a bit forced. Allan’s writing is driven by effect, rather than allowing effect to be a consequence of story. Which is not to say it doesn’t result in a good read. But when the two finally align, Allan will produce something really notable. For the time-being, we have only the merely good. The Dollmaker is less overtly genre than other Allan works, if not explicitly not genre. The title refers to a man of short stature who is an expert on dolls and makes them for a living. He is corresponding with a fellow doll collector currently resident in sanatorium on Bodmin Moor. He decides to visit her unannounced, despite not being entirely sure about her situation. She sends him a short story collection by a Polish writer and doll-maker she has been researching. He reads the collection as he travels south, and the stories he reads are reproduced in The Dollmaker. Which is, I think, where The Dollmaker begins to unravel. Two of the writer’s stories were previously published by Allan (in 2010 and 2012), which explicitly means there’s little or no literary ventriloquism happening here. And I think there needs to be when a writer is as centred as this one in a novel.

Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Vol 2, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). This volume includes ‘Like a Sniper Lining Up his Shot’ and ‘Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell’, both of which I already own as Fantagraphics graphic novels, so I’m somewhat mystified by the need for this book. True, they’re excellent stories… but they’d already been published. Equally annoying, Fantagraphics have now released both Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder volumes in a boxed set. So, Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Vol 2 is of limited value if you’ve been following Fantagraphic’s publication of Tardi’s works. Otherwise, it’s a good intro to his work. Well, their work, as it’s explicitly Tardi’s adaptations of Manchette’s novels. I’m not familiar with the novels, but if the stories here are any indication they’re pretty brutal. And Tardi’s art can border on gruesome in places. This is not the noir of Nouvelle Vague films. Recommended.

The Hour of the Thin Ox, Colin Greenland (1987, UK). I’ve been a fan of Greenland’s writing for many years, especially the Plenty books and Harm’s Way. He was very active throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as a critic, an editor of Interzone, and a writer, but his last published novel was Finding Helen in 2002. Which is a shame. The Hour of the Thin Ox is one of three literary fantasies, the Daybreak trilogy, he published in the 1980s. I don’t actually recall if they’re set in the same universe – I suspect yes, if only because they’re lumped together as a trilogy. Anyway, in The Hour of the Thin Ox, the heir to a wealthy merchant family in Bryland finds her fortunes so diminished she ends up joining the army to fight the empire invading the countries to the north. This is not a novel that would really pass muster in 2020. It’s well written, but there’s an uncomfortable thread of orientalism running throughout the story, with its emphasis on the Far-East-inspired Escalans and their drive to expand and assimilate other nations and cultures. The second half of the novel takes place in a jungle region, partly conquered by the Escalans, but they’re in the process of killing off its indigenes. The Brylander now leads a small guerrilla group against the Escalan invaders. And, of course, the indigenes are neither as savage nor as primitive as the Escalans insist. The story seemed like it was going somewhere with its jungle warfare plot, but other than a big set-piece, it more or less petered out. A novel that felt like it was part of a larger series and not a complete instalment, despite being well written with some effective world-building.

All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA). A Locus review by Gary K Wolfe claims this is a collection of all of Blumlein’s fiction, which is not true. If anything, it’s a collection of his less obviously genre short fiction, although most of it was actually previously published in genre venues. It does indeed contain some of the stories also in What The Doctor Ordered (2013, USA), but with four additional ones – ‘Bloom’, ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f’, ‘Success’ and ‘Choose Poison, Choose Life’, but they appeared in Interzone, F&SF and Asimov’s SF, and ‘Y(ou)r Q(ua)ntifi(e)d S(el)f’ is original to this collection. Blumlein has been a favourite writer for many years, and I’ve championed his works whenever I could, but we lost him last year to cancer, and I can only be grateful he was held in high enough regard that pretty much all of his short fiction output has been collected over the years. His novels, however, are mostly out of print, and have been for a long time. The stories in All I Ever Dreamed are not heartland sf, and one or two hew closer to dark fantasy than science fiction. The three novellas are probably the strongest works. ‘The Roberts’ is available separately from Tachyon Publications, and is typical of Blumlein’s work: dense, intense and set somewhere at the intersection of science and technology and human relationships. ‘Success’, on other hand, does not use science and technology to fix a relationship, but to comment on it. The third novel sees three women, all named for flowers, each involved with a man, for better or for worse, on a desert island. There’s almost no obvious genre content, but the way the three narratives reflect on each other is cleverly done. Blumlein was a singular talent in science fiction, and there were, and are, few genre writers of his generation who matched his level of thoughtful rigour.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924, Russia). This book was written between 1920 and 1921 but not published until 1924 – in English. The USSR authorities may have seen it as a commentary on themselves. I wonder why. To be fair, it’s hardly subtle. But this is the 1920s, and science fiction didn’t do subtle in those days. The idea of a unifying state state can hardly be said to be Zamyatin’s invention – insects beat him to it, for one thing – but certainly We influenced a number of later works, and even arguably created an entire subgenre. The problem with said subgenre, however, is that it magnifies the fears and sensibilities of the writer, without actually making any kind of cohesive argument either for or against the society described in the book. David Karp’s One is a good example: most Americans will read it as a dystopia, most Europeans with read it as a utopia. We‘s United State is a state regimented to the nth degree, to such an extent the plot is pretty much narrator D-503 discovering he has a “soul” and the changes in perspective and sensibility that wreaks on him. It’s triggered by his relationship with a woman who clearly is not a typical state drone, and even on occasion dresses up in “old-fashioned” clothing like dresses. Unfortunately, the book is all a bit over-wrought, with excessive use of ellipses, and references to “ancient times” that are clearly the time of writing, as if there were no history between the novel’s present and the 1920s. I can see how it’s a seminal and influential work, but it’s not an enjoyable read and I’d sooner stick to works without such fevered prose. Most certainly an historical document, and important in that respect, but don’t read it for pleasure.


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Movie roundup 2020, #19

I’ve continued to binge-watch Unforgettable, but I’ve no idea why. The series was cancelled after its first series, and that was probably unfair, but after the network changed their mind the producers retooled the series for the second season… which saw the two leads move to New York’s “Major Crimes Section” and investigate crimes which jumped the shark ever higher each episode. They’re no longer solving murders, they’re now chasing special forces-trained international assassins – and beating them in a fist-fight! – or ripping off the plot of Die Hard and assorted other movies. Not to mention all the bollocks about hacking and computers. And the complete disregard for actual police procedure. Each episode turned into an exercise in spotting what the makers had got completely wrong. Unforgettable clearly didn’t spend money on its scripts, or even its wardrobe, as lead Poppy Montgomery seemed to wear the same pair of Louboutins in every episode requiring her to get dressed up…

I then moved onto Vikings, which has proven slightly better, despite a tendency toward pantomime villains in its early episodes. And Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, a reboot of the series from 2010, which was bigger on self-referential humour than it was on rigour. A running joke is the villains’ avoidance of the phrase “meddling kids”. But some of the jokes are cool, and it’s neat how it deconstructs itself each episode.

Incidentally, I renamed my film posts “Movie roundup” this year because I planned to write only a few sentences about each film I watched. But I seem to have ended up writing similar-length reviews to previous years’ “Moving Pictures” posts. Oh well…

Dangerous Ishhq, Vikram Bhatt (2012, India). You know all Bollywood plots are just variations on “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back”, right? Some of the variations are frankly bonkers, but some are actually quite clever, like this one, although they may not seem like it at first. For a start, in Dangerous Ishhq it’s gender-flipped. And it’s a timeslip romance. Sort of. Sanjana is all set to start a modelling career in Paris, but decides instead to stay and marry her boyfriend, Rohan. But he’s kidnapped by masked thugs, who demand an enormous ransom. Sanjana starts experiencing flashbacks… to an earlier life, during partition in 1947. And her boyfriend back then is Rohan (with another name). With the help of clues from her flashback, and the police inspector in charge of the case, she tries to rescue her boyfriend and uncover the identity of the kidnapper. After the 1947 flashback, she experiences one set in the 1700s, in which a similar story plays out – she and her lover are separated by a third man, who kills them both. And finally, a third flashback all the way back in the fourteenth century which explains what’s going on. I really enjoyed this. The production values were good, the historical sections were interesting, and while it all felt a bit plotting by coupons, it hung together entertainingly. Critics, however, apparently hated it. Ah well.

Salt and Fire, Werner Herzog (2016, Germany). A Herzog film is a Herzog film, and if you don’t go into one having a good idea of what to expect – no matter what the story or subject matter – then why are you watching it? In Salt and Fire, three UN scientists investigating an ecological disaster in South America are kidnapped – and it turns out the kidnapper is the CEO of the consortium responsible for the disaster. He maroons the chief scientist with two near-blind Andean boys on a rock outcrop in the middle of Salar de Uyuni, a toxic salt flat. Herzog has the actors play their roles flat, and their dialogue is stilted at best – Herzog reportedly wrote the screenplay in five days; it shows – but the cinematography is as good as you would expect. The characters have a tendency to lecture each other, and some of the plot reverses are delivered as expositional dialogue, which is a bit cringe-worthy. But there’s a strangeness to the story that is typical Herzog, and its swerve off-piste in the final act results in a beautiful piece of cinema. Critics were not impressed. It’s too clumsy in its first act to be a good Herzog film, but it gets a lot better as it progresses, and finishes up in an interesting place. Worth seeing.

The Railway Children, Lionel Jeffries (1970, UK). This is a piece of my childhood. It’s a film I remember seeing as a kid, possibly more than once, although I’ve no idea where or when – Dubai Country Club, possibly? the mid-1970s? – and some parts of which I’ve not forgotten in all the years since. But much of it, apparently, I had forgotten. It’s based on a 1906 novel by E Nesbitt, in which the three children of a man arrested for treason – that was something I had bizarrely forgotten – move to film-land’s version of Yorkshire, in which Bernard Cribbins, a Lancashire man famous for playing Londoners, proves a friendly local contact. The three kids spend a lot of time watching the local railway, and it’s all very innocent – until they manage to prevent a train from derailing and are lauded as heroes. A bit different from the time I sat in a train from Manchester Airport that was delayed for 60 minutes because of kids playing on the tracks… It’s all very “chocolate box” and most Tories probably think England should be like that again, and even for Edwardian fiction this is closer to Narnia than England. The film is a piece of my childhood, and it’s a good film, but it’s an historical document and no longer relevant.

And God Created Woman, Roger Vadim (1988, USA). This is not a remake of Vadim’s 1956 French film of the same title – the only thing the two movies share is the title. The first famously launched Brigitte Bardot’s career; this 1980s movie is, well, embarrassingly 1980s. And pretty bad. Rebecca De Mornay plays a convict who escapes, is offered a lift in a passing limo, which it turns out is carrying a gubernatorial (I love that word; we don’t have it British English because we don’t have governors) candidate, who persuades Mornay to break back into prison, and he’ll speak up for her at her parole hearing. And that’s what happens: de Mornay is released, marries a local builder, has an affair with the governor, is promoted as a success in the new governor’s rehabilitation programme, screws it up, has an arrest warrant sworn out on her, but gate-crashes the governor’s ball, or something, and sings a very 1980s song and everybody lives happily ever after. I did not have a high opinion of Vadim’s films – Barbarella is a guilty pleasure – and this one did nothing to dispel that opinion. Avoid.

Eddie the Eagle, Dexter Fletcher (2016, UK). Eddie the Eagle is possibly a more accurate representation of the English character than any person, real or fictional, the gammons admire. Michael ‘Eddie’ Edwards was determined from an early age to be an Olympiad despite being unqualified to be one. The film implies he was dropped from the Winter Olympic skiing team because he was the wrong class – which is entirely plausible – but his attempts at ski jumping are… Well, he was shit at it. Happily, that was not a barrier to his Olympian dreams. He found a sympathetic trainer – this part of the film was, I believe, completely fictional – and eventually made the jumps he needed to qualify – this part was entirely factual, as was the UK’s Olympic committee’s attempts to prevent him from competing. On the one hand, I rue the rule introduced after Eddie the Eagle which prevents his like from ever competing again – the Olympics are, after all, allegedly “amateur”, but the IOC is actually even more corrupt than FIFA, which is an achievement – but on the other hand, I can understand the need to set a minimum standard for competitors. On balance, my sympathies are with Edwards. The IOC is notoriously corrupt, so I won’t take their word for anything.

Kanarie, Christiaan Olwagen (2018, South Africa). Sometimes, hunting around on Amazon Prime for non-US movies throws up some some odd films that you might never have watched otherwise. And certainly a gay coming-of-age film set in an army choir of conscripts in early 1980s South Africa is not something I’d have normally watched. I’m not entirely sure what I got from watching this one. Everything seemed so horrible. Other than the central handful, the characters were mean – and the officers were completely intolerant and racist. The music was pleasant, if somewhat more religious than I preferred. Later, the film drifted into drag… Drag is pretty much mainstream these days – it might not appear in many Hollywood blockbusters, but it has huge media conventions and touring shows, and some of the bigger stars are international celebrities. So the whole drag-as-affirmation trope never quite convinces given its current media profile.

Conquest, Lucio Fulci (1983, Italy). There were a shedload of low-budget sword & sorcery films released in the early 1980s, but this one usually gets missed off the list. Perhaps because it was directed by Fulci, who is known primarily for gialli and responsible for several “video nasties”. As a fantasy film… it’s pretty much a failure. It’s in love with its monsters, and it shows. A naif with a magic bow travels to a fog-shrouded land and falls foul of an evil masked sorceress. He’s joined by a nomadic warrior – the actual hero of the film – and the story then follows the usual beats. The plot is a staple, and the characters are equally clichéd, but some of the production design is slightly off-the-wall and that’s a little interesting. Worth seeing – for fans of Fulci, or fans of 1980s sword & sorcery movies.

La Terra Trema, Luchino Visconti (1948, Italy). One of my favourite films is Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (1973, India), and while Visconti’s La Terra Trema, The Earth Trembles, covers similar material I found it a less interesting film. Which is not to say it’s not good. It’s about the fishing families of a small Sicilian village, and it’s told in a semi-documentary style, with voice-over, although it does have a dramatic plot. Much like A River Called Titas (although that has no voice-over). But La Terra Trema is very much an Italian neorealist movie, and in terms of presentation echoes them in all respects. It’s entirely in Sicilian, which would certainly have meant something to an Italian audience, but seems almost incidental to an non-Italophone audience. The cinematography is really quite beautiful, but if Italian neorealism did one thing really well it was beautifully photograph the damage caused by WWII on Italian towns and cities. Which is a shame… up until the point when you realise the Italians were the enemy. As an example of Italian neorealism, La Terra Trema is probably a defining one. Visconti went on to make historical dramas – very good ones, it must be said – and other directors made films  closer to the Neorealist ideal. But La Terra Trema feels like it embodies more of the genre than similar films. Perhaps it’s too long, perhaps it’s not dramatic enough. But on reflection I feel I may have under-rated it. Nonetheless, worth seeing.


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Reading diary 2020, #13

I remember once upon a time I used to read good books. Something seems to have gone wrong. The Chandler wasn’t bad, and the Cho managed a fair fist of its setting, but the rest were pretty bad. True, my expectations were not high for the Jordan – I’d thought it terrible the first time I read it twenty years ago… although it did seem to be much worse than I remembered it. The Farmer – also a reread, although I’ve no memory of reading it before – was also shit.

Spook Street, Mick Herron (2017, UK). As a writer, you often wonder if it’s possible to tell a story using completely unlikeable characters. But then you grow up and realise no reader is interested in a story involving characters who repel them. Unless you’re Mick Herron. In this installment, a suicide bomber kills a bunch of teens in a shopping mall and then one of the Slough House agents is murdered, and the dead agent’s grandfather, the “Old Bastard”, an ex-MI5 bigwig, goes missing… and it’s all to do with a rogue CIA agent who set up a secret school in France to raise kids as terrorists and everyone is surprised when they turn out to be terrorists… The Slough House books do not score well on plausibility when it comes to their plots, but this one is even less believable than the ones preceding it. Herron seems keen to depict MI5 as a bunch of criminals – although he lavishes real contempt on Tory politicians – but his so-called heroes are all unlikeable incompetents. Sigh. The first book in the series is possibly worth a go, but the sequels are entirely missable.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walter Tevis (1963, USA). This is one of those rare cases where I’ve seen the film – several times – before I read the book. And the film isn’t exactly a faithful adaptation. It covers the main points, but the movie is very much about its visuals and the book is just a bog-standard early 1960s sf novel that’s actually set in the early 1960s. Which at least means mean wearing hats is plausible. The title character is Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from Anthea – implied to be Mars – who has infiltrated Earth – ie, the US – in order to save his home world. He introduces technological innovations from his planet and so makes a vast fortune, which he uses to build a spaceship. But the government are suspicious and eventually arrest him. The CIA uncover his secret, but they keep it from the FBI, who bungle their investigation and blind Newton. The point of the book is that Newton is discovered. And despite a long list of technological innovations introduced by Newton, the government still manages to fuck things up. I’m surprised this was considered a shocking perspective in 1963, especially in the US, a nation famous for its distrust of its government (to be fair, for good reason). But the idea of an alien not being an actual evil invader seems to have struck US sf fans as something, well, entirely novel. Seriously? That says more about US sf fandom than it does this book. Which is otherwise ordinary, and you would be better off watching the film as it’s more rewarding.

Lord of Chaos, Robert Jordan (1994, USA). I’d say this is where the rot sets in, but given the how the series was put together, I don’t think that’s entirely fair. This is, after all, the sixth novel of a series that was intended to be ten volumes long, but that length wasn’t decided until after the second volume… You can just imagine how the conversation went – RJ: it’s three books. Publisher: make it one. Publisher (later): it’s going really well, we’ve sold loads, how does ten books sound? RJ (Ker-ching!): Shit shit fuck fuck fuck. RJ (later): this ten book thing is not working out, can we make it a few more? Publisher (ker-ching!): no problemo. It doesn’t help that the title of this book is a title assigned to series hero Rand Al’Thor that has never been mentioned before. Because, of course, why would it? Jordan only invented it when he set out to write this installment. Meanwhile we have the rest of the cast doing exactly what they did at the end of the last book. With added recaps. Lots of fucking recaps. If, perhaps, we’d not read the preceding five books, these might be useful. But we have! Because who the fuck starts reading a fantasy series at volume six? And, if we had, Jordan explains what happened in the preceding five volumes. Several times. I seem to remember from my prior read back in the late 1990s that book seven was where things started to go downhill, but I’d thought book six, Lord of Chaos, was one of the last good ones. Only, it turns out it’s the first of the bad ones. Although, to be fair, that term is relative. I have this desire to complete the Wheel of Time, and there’s no way I’m going to do that based on my readings of the books from the 1990s. So I have to reread them all. It’s proving, entirely predictably, easier said than done. Sadly.

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia). I should have been on this like, well, like really quickly, since it is after all a fantasy set in Regency England and I’m a big fan of Georgette Heyer (and, more recently, Alice Chetwynd Ley). But I am not, to be fair, a fan of Regency fantasy. It’s not a large genre – unless you include timeslip romances – and most examples I’ve read have not been especially good, mostly because they’ve been by US authors who haven’t quite understood Regency England (at least not to the extent it convinces an experienced Heyer reader), and while I have mostly positive memories of Sorcery & Cecelia, that was a) pretty much the first Regency fantasy, b) an epistolary novel, and c) I read it a long time ago and would reread it except it’s now in storage. Anyway. Anyway. Zen Cho is not an English author, but has lived and worked in the UK for a number of years and so is to all intents and purposes an English author. If Sorcerer to the Crown falls over sometimes in terms of its Regency prose, that’s a failure of craft – Cho knows the period inside-out, that much is clear – and Regency diction can be a little convoluted at the best of times. Having said that, not everything in the plot actually adds up. Britain’s magic has been decreasing, and the witches of Bandar Jaik are partly responsible, but the decrease predates their involvement and is never explained. But Sorcerer to the Crown is more concerned about the race of its title character, the emancipated son of slaves, who takes the title of the, er, title under mysterious circumstances, and his colour of course makes him a number of enemies as well. I wanted to like this book, and I did like it – but I have caveats: the plotting needed to be more rigorous, some of it doesn’t quite add up, and the Regency prose slips on occasion. Heyer, this is not; but then its sensibilities are twenty-first-century and that’s definitely a plus over Heyer. I understand a sequel appeared last year. I would definitely read it. Oh, and apparently there are two sequels to Sorcery & Cecelia, which I didn’t know.

The Long Good-bye, Raymond Chandler (1954). I was introduced to Chandler through my father, who had a collection of his books in Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s. Chandler has always been there for me as an early writer of crime fiction, certainly more so than Dorothy L Sayers or Nicholas Blake or Margery Allingham. So my knowledge of early crime fiction is more California noir than English aristocratic sleuths. The Long Good-bye is a well-known title by Chandler, as well as a movie set in the 1970s starring Elliott Gould. I like Chandler’s fiction. I think he’s over-rated – or rather, I think his influence on the genre is greater than he deserved. But I do like his books. One of the things I like is his certitude. Chandler was certain about everything he wrote and how he wrote it. I’m amused by the fact he despised Philo Vance of SS Van Dine’s hugely successful novels, and can only imagine his ire was stoked by Vance, and by extension Van Dine, clearly being gay. Marlowe was, of course, famously a womaniser, and all of Chandler’s novels are predicated on Chandler’s relationship with a woman. Which is not, surprisingly, how The Long Good-bye opens. Marlowe makes friends with a man, and helps the man escape justice when he brutally murders his wife. But then the murderer is murdered in Mexico… But Marlowe never believed he was guilty, and never believed the account of his suicide was legit. Throw in a California millionaire (what would be a billionaire now), a literary writer who found success as a writer of historical best-sellers but despises himself and has hit the bottle big time, and the writer’s manipulative wife… This is classic Chandler, but it’s also a book that doesn’t go where you expect it to. If you have to read a Chandler novel, it’s a good one to choose. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s especially typical of the Marlowe novels. You might as well read a couple of them. You won’t regret it.

The Day of Timestop, Philip José Farmer (1960, USA). I had it in my mind Farmer was one of those off-beat sf authors of the 1960s and 1970s who never scored big but produced interesting work nonetheless. We’ve all heard of Riverworld, and despite a reread a few years ago of To Your Scattered Bodies Go not exactly impressing, the concept seems to be “high” enough to keep interest in Farmer’s works alive. Sadly, his reputation doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny. I’d previously read The Day of Timestop under the title A Woman a Day, because it was also republished by Beacon Books under that title, and I have the Beacon Books edition. Which I’ve not actually read yet – and, of course, it’s currently in storage. So, anyway, I bought the SF Gateway edition as it was cheap, but I was still robbed because this book is really bad. More than a thousand years in the future, after much of humanity was wiped out, the world has split into three main blocs – the religious Haijac Union, the Israeli Republics (because a US author has to promote Israel, even if he’s not Jewish) and I forget what the third one was. Oh, and Marcher, a neutral state in west Europe. The story takes place in the Haijac Union, specifically in Paris, where a Marcher agent has infiltrated the Haijac Union to the highest level – he’s a lamech-man, ie, beyond reproach, beyond suspicion, incorruptible, so pretty much how Tories see themselves despite all evidence to the contrary, you know, like letting kids starve over Christmas – but then Tories are scum – and while Farmer sets up his  world with economy, it makes zero sense, and the plot which follows on from it makes even less. There’s a woman who’s an alien because she has some sort of organic battery wired to her vagina (really!), but then it turns out she’s not an alien. And there are some Bantu who have been literally whitewashed – “depigmentized” (really!) – and they’re some weird sort of hippy Christians, and the initials “JC” seem to refer to half a dozen messiahs – and the title actually refers to one of them, who is supposed to return from his time-travelling on the “Day of Timestop” to trigger Rapture for everyone in the Haijac Union. Everything in this book is wrong – the ideas are complete nonsense, the sensibilities are all over the place and not in a good way, the prose is functional at best, and if the story doesn’t go where you expect it to that’s because Farmer probably didn’t know himself where he was going. A book to avoid.


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Movie roundup 2020, #18

This post’s box-set bingeing has been Morden i Sandhamn, a murder-mystery series set in the Stockholm archipelago, mostly in the village of Sandhamn on an island some 60 km due east of central Stockholm. It’s all a bit chocolate box and heavy with the clichés – they even did that one where a person drowns, and the person giving them CPR gives up, and then gets angry and thumps them on the chest… and brings them back to life – but it’s entertaining enough and a good way to improve my Swedish. Also Miss Truth, a Chinese series set in Tang Dynasty Suzhou, about a young woman who is a forensic examiner and helps an assistant minister in the Ministry of Penalties solve puzzling murders, and who also happens to be affianced to an assassin. It’s got it all: sword-fights and kung fu, cleverly worked out solutions to the murders, colourful costumes, a good-looking cast, and good production values. The subtitles can be a little… creative, however. And, finally, Unforgettable, a US series about a cop with hyperthymesia, who uses her photographic memory to solve murders for the NYPD. It’s entertaining enough, and the gimmick is well-used, but the lead character is just a little bit too good to be plausible. And, unfortunately, they introduced a “kooky” computer forensics technician in episode 11 – going for an Abby Sciuto – and she’s really annoying (she also talks complete bollocks).

I did try watching Mutant X as well, but it was fucking terrible, a knock-off X-Men that still managed to feel more like one of those bad straight-to-VHS sf movies from the late 1980s. Best avoided.

X: The Unknown, Leslie Norman (1956, UK). This is one of the films that helped established Hammer Films as a maker of horror and science fiction movies, and it’s pretty much an exemplar of the sf films they made. A platoon of soldiers are training  to use Geiger counters, in case of nuclear war, in a gravel pit of course, when they discover evidence of a radioactive creature beneath the earth. And, er, that’s pretty much the plot. Radioactive blob from underground wreaks havoc. Hammer Films didn’t get complicated – it was one of their strengths. The US lead here is Dean Jagger, because all UK films of course had to have US leads in order to appeal to the parochial US market. X: The Unknown doesn’t do anything a number of similar films, including later Hammer Films, haven’t done, but one of the advantages of the brand was you always knew pretty much what you were getting. Which was mid-twentieth-century British budget horror. And that was actually a good thing.

Who Killed Captain Alex?, Nabwana IGG (2010, Uganda). My first Ugandan film. And it was reportedly made on a budget of under $200. Unfortunately, the director – who edited the film, and added the special effects, on his cobbled-together desktop PC – wiped his hard-disk to make room for his second feature film. But then a power surge wiped that, so he had to start over again from scratch. Fortunately, DVD copies of Who Killed Captain Alex? survived. Unfortunately, they were “VJ copies”, apparently a thing in Ugandan cinema – films are accompanied by a “video jockey” or “video joker” voiceover, who comments and jokes about what’s happening on screen. Who Killed Captain Alex? is a pretty ordinary overly-violent and overly-cheap thriller about a clash between local police and the Tiger Mafia. The acting is terrible, the special effects are cheap and obvious, but the fight choreography is surprisingly good. There’s also a good musical interlude. Given the budget, and the complete absence of film-making experience in Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, Who Killed Captain Alex? is surprisingly watchable. Nabwana IGG apparently went on to make a couple of other films and I’d actually like to see them.

Where’s that Fire?, Marcel Varnel (1940, UK). Will Hay was a big comedy star in the UK from the 1920s through to the 1940s, and inspired a number of comedians I remember from my childhood years. But until watching Where’s that Fire? I don’t actually recall watching a Will Hay movie. It’s not a lack that’s ever bothered me, and after watching this film I don’t think it’s a lack I should ever be bothered about. Which is not to say it’s a bad film. It’s funny. The slapstick is cleverly done, and some of the set-pieces are hilarious. But it posits a village fire brigade with a horse-drawn appliance at a time – WWII, basically – when everywhere else had motorised decades before – see Humphrey Jennings, for example. It feels likes it’s trying too hard for comic effect. I would have preferred a film that was more of its time and not one that tried to pretend everywhere outside London was two decades behind.

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, Otto Preminger (1955, USA). Yes, that Billy Mitchell. The one who’s referred to as “the father of the US Air Force”. And even had a bomber, the B-25, named after him during WWII. Apparently, he wasn’t so well-regarded initially. After WWI, which the US entered late, as usual, and claimed all the credit, as usual, Mitchell was vocal in his desire for a US air force. Unfortunately, his superiors were not so convinced. They set him a test – to sink a battleship with bombs – and he cheated because their conditions made it impossible for him to succeed. So they demoted him, and he spent years on a letter writing campaign. Mitchell is a fascinating subject. Unfortunately, this is not a fascinating film. Gary Cooper plays Mitchell like a teenager, which is really weird, and Preminger’s direction is unobtrusive at best. I suspect Preminger made it because Mitchell continued to be a controversial figure even in the 1950s, but this is far from his best work. An uninspiring biopic.

The Diamond Mercenaries, Val Guest (1976, Ireland). This is one of those films that seems to have been made strictly as a cash investment, and if it returned anything more than a small a profit I’d be very surprised. A handful of big names can’t disguise the cheapness of the film, or the parochial nature of its story. A group of men plan to rob a profitable diamond mine in South Africa – actually, they plan to smuggle out the diamonds collected by a plant inside the mine. They’re up against security chief Telly Savalas. Peter Fonda, a security guard, is persuaded to infiltrate the robbers, but things are not what they seem. An entertaining thriller, with amusingly low production values, that thirty years ago would have been shown on a Sunday afternoon on some cable channel no one watched. And, er, still would be now.

Airplane!, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker (1980, USA). I probably don’t need to describe the plot of this film. Not that it really has one. I’d seen it before – several times – of course, but before I started recording my film-watching. A lot of it is, surprisingly, still funny. It’s aged a good deal better than I’d have expected. I mean, yes, it’s explicitly a spoof of 1970s disaster movies, and in terms of pastiching those it certainly hits its targets, and it’s still very much a late 1970s/early 1980s film, with all that period’s sensibilities, but it’s light on the sorts of those sensibilities and still entertaining viewing in 2020. Which surprised me. Not a great film, and not one that belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but good fun with a few beers on a weekend night.

Love and Other Cults, Eiji Uchida (2017, Japan). A young Japanese woman is left at a weird religious cult by her mother, but then the leader of the cult is arrested, and she floats from family to family looking for somewhere to belong and for an identity. The film is nominally told from the point of view of a schoolboy, something of an outsider himself, who meets Ai at school, and then bumps into her at various points during her life. Ai’s life goes from cult member to dutiful schoolgirl to school drop-out to Japanese counter-culture and, to be honest, I have no idea what this movie was trying to say. I enjoyed it, but it felt like it was making a point that completely opaque. The director is not a name I know, and his other films are also unknown to me.


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Movie roundup 2020, #17

Once again, I’ve been mostly binge watching TV series the last few weeks. This time it was Wire in the Blood, a UK crime series based on characters created by Val McDermid. I read a couple of her books many years ago, and thought them quite good. I also saw her interview Sara Paretsky (a favourite author) at a Harrogate Crime Festival programme item – my mother bought tickets for myself and her as my birthday present that year. It was an excellent present. Anyway, Wire in the Blood is okay, but seriously jumps the shark in the fifth season. I also watched Murder Call, an Australian police procedural from the 1990s built around detective Tessa Vance, who solves murders by putting together all of the clues subcobscuously three-quarters of the way through each episode. It was easy viewing.

I also watched Raised by Wolves, the new high-profile science fiction TV series partly produced (and directed) by Ridley Scott, and… It looks good – but that means only that a lot of money has been thrown at it. In terms of world-building and story… Oh dear. Nasty atheists versus nice Mithracists (who bizarrely quote the Bible). Pro-religious bollocks. I shall probably writing about it in more detail in another post.

Meanwhile, some movies…

No Man’s Woman, Franklin Adreon (1955, USA). Minor US noir in which the owner of a small gallery whose profitable, if not entirely ethical (or indeed legal), business is about to end, and so sets out to destroy the lives of all those around her. So, of course, someone murders her. Everyone has a motive, and none of the alibis stand up to scrutiny. But the detective figures it out, and it’s the nasty one wot dunnit. As I said, minor US noir. Interesting that it’s a female-led film – it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours – but the central character is a bit of a misogynistic stereotype.

Plot of Fear, Paolo Cavara (1976, Italy). One of those films that straddles the line between giallo and poliziottesco, which is why I end up lumping the two genres into one. A serial killer leaves illustrations from a kids’ book at the scenes of his crimes – which somehow justifies an erotic animated sequence mid-film. The victims are all members of a high society sex club, but the biggest mystery here is why anyone would care why such people are being murdered. Meanwhile, the detective in charge has sex a lot – with his girlfriend and with one of the witnesses – but doesn’t seem to make much headway in solving the crimes. Tom Skerrit makes a bizarre dubbed cameo as a senior police officer. I do like me some giallo, but it’s not a genre that’s known for its quality. I guess that makes it more of a guilty pleasure. Even so, there are occasions when you still feel like you’ve been had…

Island of Fire, Kevin Chu (1990, China). I watched this because it’s a Jackie Chan film, but it isn’t really. He plays a minor character. I’m not sure what the title refers to – the film is set in a prison, mostly, but the prison is not on an island. Or on fire. Anyway. There’s this sort of gang leader in the prison, played by Tony Leung Ka-fai (who had helped Chan in a dispute on another film and so Chan repaid him by appearing in this movies(, but he finds himself up against the warden, who has this neat little scheme going. The warden sentences inmates to death, but fakes their executions and employs them as assassins. Chinese prison wardens obviously have more power than Western ones. It’s the sort of premise that would make only sense in a Hong Kong movie. Sammo Hung plays an inmate who repeatedly tries to escape, and fails, often comically. There’s lots more going on, of course – corrupt cops, gangsters, gladiatorial fights inside the prison, etc. The film has its moments, but its link to Chan has been oversold.

Invasion, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2020, Russia). Although not marketed as such, the full title, Attraction 2: Invasion, makes it clears this is the sequel to Attraction, and the opening credits retell that earlier film’s story in an animated sequence… Even so, there’s a lot in Invasion that references Attraction, and I should probably have rewatched the first film before watching its sequel. Basically, in Attraction, an alien scoutship crashed in Moscow, and a young woman and its pilot fell in love (while the military was fighting off alien robots around them). The young woman – whose father was the general in charge of Russia’s defence against the aliens – apparently now has near-magical powers. The scoutship was from a much bigger spaceship, which has now been taken over by an EVEN MOAR BIGGA alien spaceship, and the Earth – well, Russia (but hey, makes a change from the US being the whole planet)- is under attack, and the young woman and the scoutship pilot have to find a way to call off the attack… Invasion looks good but is somewhat short on narrative logic. I suspect that’s mostly down to the fact it feels like an episode in a franchise that’s been thoroughly explored in other installments, which, other than the first film is, as far as I know, not the case.

The Magnificent Cuckold, Antonio Pietrangeli (1964, Italy). This is an Italian adaptation of a Belgian play, and while it seems like a good fit for Italian drama, it does play in parts like a transplanted story. Happily, it looks very chic, that sort of Sixties style that came so effortlessly to the Italians and which the Nouvelle Vague tried to hard to emulate, with mixed success. (Happily, the Nouvelle Vague directors were equally interested in US noir, and were much more successful in appropriating that.) A successful business man with a beautiful wife has a one-off fling and, as a result, begins to suspect his wife of being unfaithful. And he interprets everything she says and does in that light. She is, of course, entirely faithful. But his treatment of her results in her having an affair… This is a 1960s Italian movie, so along with the stylishness you have some pretty heavy everyday sexism, signalled pretty early in a scene in which the husband invites another man to ogle his wife’s legs. There are better films, by better directors, from Italy during the decade, and while this one looks good, it’s pretty disposable.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson (2012 – 2014, New Zealand). The Lord of the Rings films became a sort of family ritual. Back in 2001, we wanted to go see a film as a family on Christmas Eve. The Fellowship of the Ring had just been released, with a massive marketing campaign, and while myself and my UK-resident sister had read Tolkien, neither of my parents had. But they were willing to watch the film. The next year, The Two Towers was released at Christmas. And we went to watch it in the cinema. The year after that, it was The Return of the King. And so it became a tradition to watch a tentpole Christmas release at the cinema the day before Christmas. It wasn’t always genre – it depended on what was available. We saw The Golden Compass and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but also Avatar and Australia. Later, when we started celebrating Christmas in Denmark, we still went to the cinema – for the most recent Star Wars trilogy, the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which, even though I’m in danger of being deported for saying it, I still like more than the original Swedish version), and, er, Aquaman. Which is a somewhat long-winded way of saying I made no effort to watch the Hobbit films and, until all three appeared on Amazon Prime, was not especially bothered about missing them. In hindsight, I made the right call. The problem is the films expand so much on the book, they might as well be a different story. True, Tolkien spent decades working on his legendarium, and seeing more of it up there on the screen might well appeal to Tolkien fans… Middle-Earth is a major artistic achievement, but I’m not convinced it’s well-served by this film trilogy. It doesn’t help that parts of it come across more like a videogame than a film narrative, or that the physics of the final battle – which makes up around, er, three-quarters of the third film – is just wrong all the time. Gandalf is a powerful wizard, so why does he only fight usibg his staff? Zap the fuckers with a fireball, FFS. Orcs swing massive heavy weapons that seem to do little damage, but are felled by one blow from a puny human. It’s bobbins. It’s Hollywood’s sliding scale of power for dramatic effect, as seen in every superhero movie. Objects in the mirror may be nearer than they appear, as the saying has it, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually physically bigger than they appear. Except in fantasy and superhero films…

Killing Cars, Michael Verhoeven (1986, Germany). This is a serious contender for the most 1980s film ever. It opens with Jürgen Prochnow in shades and a white suit, driving a Porsche, being challenged to a street race by a blonde in a Jaguar. He wins the race, drives to a bar, enters the bar, which falls silent when he walks in, crosses to a table, sits down and… starts playing backgammon. Prochnow is the designer of the “worldcar”, an electric-powered speedster, so sort of like Tesla, but corporate shenanigans means the project is likely to be cancelled. Nextdoor to the factory, an anarchist commune has taken over an abandoned building, but the car company wants them out so it can flatten the building and expand. Verhoeven – no relation to the Dutch director – was big on social commentary, and he squeezes it into Killing Cars, for all that the movie is supposed to be a semi-sf corporate thriller. It’s mildly interesting, it’s just that it’s all so very eighties.

Heckle, Robbie Moffatt (2013, UK). A popular comedian – ie, he appeared on a few comedy shows – has pissed off his agent and found himself playing a small pub in Selby. Which is in North Yorkshire. But, weirdly, a few of the cast of this film had Lancashire accents, and one was doing a bad job of hiding a Scouse accent… Anyway, the comedian dies on stage and is heckled by a local woman, who works at a supermarket – actually a Premier Store, which I thought were mostly found at petrol stations, but this is deepest darkest Yorkshire, so who knows. So the woman gets up on stage and does an off-the-cuff routine that impresses the comedian enough he offers to help her apply for the local heat of a national stand-up comedy competition. This is a resolutely local low-budget film, with a no-name cast, and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. The script relies a little too much on cliché, and the acting wasn’t always one hundred percent, but the characters were relatable and the story worked. I liked it. More than I’d expected to.

Dr M, Claude Chabrol (1990, Germany). I’ve never been a big fan of Chabrol’s film but I may have to rethink that. A Story of Women I rated very highly, and if his others films weren’t always especially good they were at least somewhat out of the ordinary. And out of the ordinary certainly appeals to me. Dr M is a remake of the Fritz Lang film Dr Mabuse the Gambler from 1922, but it doesn’t use its plot. It’s set in the near future – although US critics complained the Berlin Wall still exists in the film, and while the Wall did indeed fall in 1990, albeit not until after the film was made, if Americans assumed the Wall would fall in any future they could imagine that says more about their narrow-mindedness than it does German, or European, history. Imagine thinking the Berlin Wall would not exist in the future, but not predicting 9/11… Anyway, Alan Bates plays the title character, a media mogul. There have been a spate of inexplicable suicides across Berlin and the police are baffled. The detective in charge is convinced Jennifer Beals – whose face is plastered across the city as part of a campaign for a holiday resort called, a thumpingly obvious reference, Thanatos – is involved and, lo and behold, the two of them end up in a realtionship. And in Thanatos. There’s a fascinating aesthetic on display here, very much a future we used to have, and the film’s intellectual payload is a great deal heavier than is common… but the movie never quite gels, and in the latter stages starts to fall to pieces before your very eyes. A noble failure, I think, although it was apparently several years in the making.


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Reading diary 2020, #12

Bit of a cheat this post, as two of the books are graphic novels – well, bandes dessinées. But both are from series I’ve been following. Also here is the third book of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, which I am no longer enjoying but I bought six of the damn things so I’ll work my way through them, FFS. Who knows, they might improve. Tremain I used to read when I lived in the UAE, and I decided to start reading her again a couple of years ago. Tom Toner I’ve met several times at conventions – we’ve even been on a few panels together – but I’d never read any of his fiction, and last year his debut novel was only 99p on Kindle. Whitely has been getting a lot of critical acclaim in the UK the last few years. Her career is almost textbook… for the 1990s. A decade of short stories in genre magazines, then some novellas and novels from small presses… Next step, a major imprint. While I don’t particularly like the type of genre fiction she writes, there’s no denying she has strong writing chops, and it’s heartening to see writers can still achieve success by actually following an actual career path and not being held up as the Next Best Thing because they happen to be on-message with the fad du jour.

Real Tigers, Mick Herron (2016, UK). While the first book in this series, Slow Horses, was a good, if somewhat off-beat, spy thriller, and the second, Dead Lions, occasionally came close to jumping the shark, Real Tigers hurdles that fish with abandon. Lamb’s PA, Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic, once used as a smokescreen by MI5’s biggest traitor, has been kidnapped. And it’s all because the kidnappers want access to MI5’s “grey files”, where all the nutjob stuff – UFOs, lizard Royals, Brexit’s benefits, QAnon – is recorded, and also where the current head of MI5 hid some compromising material. All this leads to a 007-like raid on an underground archive and a pitched battle between a security company’s wannabe mercenaries, actual ex-SAS kidnappers, and Jackson Lamb’s bully boys (ex-members of that MI5 department that kicks in doors, you know, just like Special Branch, except it never gets mentioned in the news because, well, Special Branch usually does it). The Herron books score well on characterisation, unfortunately all of the characters are unlikeable shits. And as the books progress, and those characters display yet more exceptional skills, then the fact they’ve been sent into the outer darkness, AKA Slough House, seems increasingly unlikely. Herron also has a really annoying writing tic, in which the prose steps back and does this hyper-observant, and yet snide, omniscient POV which speculates on what the purported observer might see. It’s over-used. I’m hoping the next book, Spook Street, will be better than this one.

The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain (2016, UK). I read several books by Tremain when I lived in Abu Dhabi, and might even have read one or two before I moved there, and found her an excellent prose stylist, perhaps more interesting at short story length than novel length. A couple of years ago, I decided to reconnect with her oeuvre. That went quite well. So it’s fortunate I didn’t pick The Gustav Sonata at that time. It’s not that it’s a bad book – on the contrary, it’s a good one. But when I look at all the admiring reviews of The Gustav Sonata, all I see is reviewers finding something in the novel that doesn’t, well, exist. The title refers to a boy who grows up in a small unimportant town in post-war Switzerland. His mother has never emotionally bonded with him, and his father lost his prestigious position as assistant police chief after helping Jews fleeing the Nazis. Gustav makes friends with a delicate and musically-talented Jewish boy whose family have recently moved to the town, an affluent family in direct contrast to the straitened circumstances now experienced by Gustav’s family. Gustav tries to provided emotional support to Anton during his piano competitions, but nerves get the better of Anton. The story then jumps back to the early years of Gustav’s parents, but since we never learn who shops his father to the authorities, there seems little point. And finally, the book leaps ahead to Gustav’s and Anton’s forties. Gustav runs a well-regarded small hotel in the town, and still burns a torch for Anton. Who is now a music teacher at a prestigious local school and has obviously never thought about Gustav in that way. Anton is offered the chance to record some piano sonatas – and in a recording studio his nervousness before audiences is irrelevant. And that’s pretty much it. Several interconnected relationships, some of which are left unrequited, some of which are temporary, but all of which have some small impact on those involved. It all felt a bit, well, inconsequential. I will admit that classical music, of whatever kind, as a motif in fiction leaves me completely cold. I know nothing about it and it does not appeal to me. And yet vast swathes of literary fiction seem to treat is as the only genre of music in existence. Where’s the literary fiction about death metal? prog? bubblegum pop? It’s either classical music or, if the author is being really edgy, punk. Disappointment.

Orbital 8: Contacts, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2019, France). This is the second book of the fourth story featuring the mixed human-Sandjarr law enforcement/troubleshooter team of Caleb and Mezoke. The Neuronomes, alien living spaceships, have been launching suicide attacks on Confederation population centres. It’s up to Mezoke and Caleb, now renegades, to uncover why… and it’s all to do with something that’s attacking the original home world of the race which turned themselves into the Neuronomes millennia previously. I like this series, chiefly because it looks good and the world-building is interesting; but the plotting leaves a little to be desired. It’s not that it’s bad, just that it’s so frantic, with a couple of panels of exposition followed by several pages of chase scenes. It makes for somewhat uneven pacing. I have no idea how many more books there’ll be in this series, but given Mezoke is lost at the end of this volume, I’m guessing at least two more…

Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Volume 1, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). While Tardi has produced a number of original bandes dessinées, he has also adapted several stories and novels by French thriller writer Jean-Patrick Manchette. He has even tried adapting a couple, but given up after a few pages. This is the first volume of two which publish those complete and incomplete adaptations. The two completes here are ‘West Coast Blues’ (which was also published as a separate volume in 2009 by Fantagraphics, and which I own) and ‘Griffu’. Both are French noir, which is to say American noir but with added existentialism. In ‘Griffu’, a private detective finds himself embroiled in a plot with developers and gangsters. There’s not much in the way of wisecracks, but everything else is there. It’s surprisingly brutal. ‘West Coast Blues’ is equally brutal. An executive finds himself the target of two hitmen through being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He manages to kill one, more by accident than design, then runs away from his family and hides out for months in the French Alps, before being tracked down by the surviving hitman. I’ve been picking up these Tardi volumes published by Fantagraphics as they appear, and they’re definitely worth collecting.

The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner (2015, UK). Titles are important when it comes to books, especially genre books, and I’m really not convinced The Promise of the Child works as a title for a space opera novel. The only clue here to the book’s contents – other than the fact it’s published by a genre imprint – is the cover art, which is sort of vaguely Banksian and does far more to position the novel than its title. And The Promise of the Child is indeed Banksian space opera… mashed up with Warhammer 40k. I’m still unsure what to make of it. There are three types of novel – single narrative, multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is clear, and multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is not clear. (There are more than three types of novel, of course.) In the distant future of The Promise of the Child – the 140th century – a few hundred thousand achieved immortality in the twenty-first century, and those that have survived the following twelve thousand years are now known as the Amaranthine. They rule several star systems and live in hollowed-out planets known as Vaulted Lands. There are also a confusing number of human derivatives, some of which serve the Amarathine, some of which are allied with the Amaranthine, and some of which are independent and somewhat hostile to the Amaranthine. The oldest living human is made emperor of the Amaranthine, but the current incumbent has descended into senility. The appearance of a mysterious figure who claims to be older than anyone else alive – and many of the oldest Amaranthine seem to sort of remember him – has upset the current succession. As has the invention of the Shell, or Soul Engine, a mysterious device which appears to bring people back from the dead. Several narratives run alongside each other, with no seeming connection between them, until the final set-piece, a giant battle. There’s a lot here that doesn’t quite add up – a plot that features too many reverses to easily follow, one narrative that goes from bucolic romance to racist violence without any grounding in the world-building, and an opening act of destruction that is never really justified by the story. I will say I didn’t see the final reveal coming at all, and it was an excellent twist, and clearly sets up the rest of the trilogy. And I did like the prose, which was much better than is typical of space opera… But I couldn’t get on with the Warhammer 40k aesthetics, the steampunk magic technology, and the massively high body-count. I doubt I will read the sequels.

Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK). Whitely is clearly a singular talent, and I’m happy her star is currently in the ascendant – not just because she is a female UK genre writer, a group that can never be too big, but also because she seems to have followed a fairly traditional career path. Short stories published in UK small press magazines. Then pro mags. Then books published by small presses. And now the big league. Except not really – Skein Island was published by Titan Books, but her next book, Greensmith, is due from a small press. Whitely certainly has writing chops, and I am all for writers who are known for their writing rather than their world-building. But the latter is not something Whitely will ever be praised for because she writes a sort of unsettling soft fantasy that relies on subtle changes to the real world. It doesn’t always work for me. I am, by temperament, a hard sf reader, and I value rigour in stories. Whitely does write rigorous stories but that rigour follows her own rules – and when those rules are revealed in the text, it works; and when they’re not, I find it less successful. Skein Island falls into the former category. The Fates – or rather, the single mythical figure on which they were based, called Moira – has been imprisoned, as a statue, and so controlled. Water filtered through her is given away in pubs as part of a game involving cubes of four colours – red , blue, green and yellow. Which refer to hero, sidekick, sage and villain. The four roles men play out in that pub game. But only when Moira is safely imprisoned. Once she is released, as she is, men start following their archetypal roles. It’s not an entirely convincing scenario, but Whitely gives it a viable history and is rigorous in its effects on society. Whitely is definitely a name to watch, and this novel made it clear why.


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Reading diary 2020, #11

My reading has been a bit all over the place of late. Not sure why. I’ve enjoyed the last few books I’ve read by North, so she’s a safe read. Herron had been recommended to me several times by various people, and the first six books were a daily deal at 99p each, so I bought them. The Roanhorse was part of the 2019 Hugo Voters Pack, and I finally got around to reading it.

The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North (2019, UK). To me, the phrase “high concept” feels like it should apply to some profound and intellectually challenging premise around which a novel or film is based, when in fact it just means you can reduce a work’s plot to a simple easily-understood sound-bite. North writes “high concept” sf novels, and yet she manages to put together complex stories based around her “sound-bite” premises. And her plots are buttressed by well-used and extensive research. Her prose has an authority few of her contemporaries can match – and that includes hard sf writers who at least have the laws of physics and known cosmology to underpin their stories. The Pursuit of William Abbey is, ostensibly, framed as a story told by a doctor to a nurse in a casualty clearance station during World War I. She had noticed his suspicious behaviour regarding a particular patient – a young officer who has lost both his legs – and after she quizzes the doctor, he tells her his story. Abbey, the doctor, was cursed during the Boer War when he failed to prevent the murder of a young black man. The murdered man’s shadow now follows him and, when the shadow is close, Abbey can read “truth” directly from a person’s mind. But should the shadow catch up with him, then someone he loves will die. The British Empire has realised the usefulness of people who can read truth from others, and Abbey is press-ganged as a spy. But the British Empire wants to control this ability, and has been experimenting – deliberately “cursing” people with shadows, then lobotomising them and turning them into “truth machines”. The young officer is the son of the man driving the programme. This is the fate they have planned for Abbey. North has taken a fantasy premise and treated it as rigorously as science fiction, but based around a plot inspired by the Great Game (as in Kim). This is good stuff. North is definitely on my list of authors whose latest books I buy.

Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner (1948, USA). There are writers whose works you admire and enjoy, there are writers whose works you enjoy, and there are writers whose works you admire. Faulkner definitely falls into the last category. His novels – and I base this only on a sample of three – are far from easy reads but the writing is absolutely amazing. They’re modernist, and I do like me some modernism, and written in long run-on sentences in great blocks of text in something close to dialect, which makes them difficult to read, but also rewarding, although they’re mostly set in the American South, with all its overt racism, and poverty… The subjects don’t interest me, but the writing is so dazzling, so precise, it overcomes that. Like many people, when I wasn’t reading genre I read contemporary fiction, including exploring back-catalogues – Anthony Burgess, for example, was still being published when I first started reading him. But I’d never really tried reading authors who were active in the first half of the twentieth-century. Perhaps I’d been exposed to some of them at school and so reading them felt like “school work”. Which is not exactly true, as I read The Cruel Sea (1951) at prep school in 1978 or 1979, but in the 1990s sort of rediscovered Nicholas Montsarrat and became a fan of his novels. DH Lawrence’s fiction I’d previously avoided partly because my father was a huge fan (I didn’t feel a need to find something, such as an author we both liked, to connect with my father; we already had a good relationship). But I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover as part of a reading challenge ten years ago, loved it, and decided to explore Lawrence’s oeuvre further… As a result, partly inspired by my father’s collection of 1960s paperbacks, which included some Lawrence, but also also Malcolm Lowry, another writer I became a big fan of, and The Sound and the Fury and Intruder in the Dust, I discovered Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury blew me away. And if the novles by him I’ve read since have not been impressive, I have still found them amazingly written. I will certainly read more Faulkner – he has consistently proven an impressive, although difficult, read. Once, I’d have spent time – and money – tracking down good condition copies of the nice 1960s Penguin editions that match the two I inherited from my father. But these days, I think I’ll just go for the ebook editions. Faulkner is definitely an historical author worth reading.

Slow Horses & Dead Lions, Mick Herron (2010/2013, UK). These have come highly recommended, and I do like me some spy-fi – I’m a big fan of Anthony Price’s Audley/Butler novels, and I also highly recommend them – but Herron is no Price, and, even worse, his schtick does not really survive prolonged exposure. A “slow horse” is a resident of Slough House, which is an off-site office of MI5 where the failures and screw-ups are sent. The idea being that MI5 cannot actually fire them for their transgressions, so instead assigns them to Slough House in the hope that the shit work and drudgery performed there will persuade them to resign. All under the leadership of Jackson Lamb, a fat slob (described repeatedly in the first book as resembling “Timothy Spall gone to seed”, but apparently played by Gary Oldman in the upcoming TV adaptation), who has enough dirt on the current MI5 leadership to do what he wants. Which, fortunately, is not much. In Slow Horses, Lamb’s team inadvertently becomes involved in a plot by right-wing nutjobs to fake an online beheading of an Asian, but it all goes horribly wrong because too many people in the intelligence community have had a hand in creating the situation and their agendas are confusing everything. In Dead Lions, the same crew become involved when it looks like an old KGB sleeper network in the UK known to Lamb has been reactivated and it might have something to do with assassinating a Russian oligarch in London for secret talks with MI5… Herron nails the topical talking-points, but he peoples his novels with a cast of the most unlikable shits this side of the Conservative Party front benches, and it’s hard to care about them. Even Jackson Lamb is such a fucking throwback, you have to wonder why Herron thought he might be considered sympathetic. I don’t want to read stories peopled by arseholes. Especially people who are actually worse than those I meet in real life or on social media or who are running the UK government. Plus, the computing in these novels is complete bollocks. The hacker character is apparently so amazing he can hack “air-gapped” networks and if he were indeed as good as advertised, MI5 would keep him even if he were a completely self-deluded incel troll… which he is. But… unlikable characters, implausible plots… not a deal breaker, especially for a science fiction reader… But when the second book follows exactly the same pattern as the first book. And the third book does too… I’m sorry. I’ve got six of the fucking things to read, I’ve read three to date, and I’ll read the other three, but I can’t in all honesty recommend any but the first.

Total Eclipse, John Brunner (1974, UK). I’ve no idea why I bought this, and even less why I read it. Call it a whim. I’ve read perhaps half a dozen novels by Brunner over the years, and while he wrote some notable sf during his time I’ve never really felt a need to read him. He is, I suppose, a sort of British Silverberg. And, like Silverberg, he produced a handful of  highly-regarded works, a great many potboilers, and a number of solid science fiction novels. Total Eclipse falls into the last category. It’s a straightforward sf mystery, its plot almost a staple of the genre: humans colonise a long-dead world but, despite all their research, cannot figure out what killed off the world’s original inhabitants. Meanwhile, the situation on Earth is deteriorating and it’s no longer certain Earth’s one and only starship will return to Draco Pavonis on its next supply run. Cue a fevered attempt to understand what killed the planet’s indigenes, driven partly by desperation and partly by the arrival of a neuro-atypical archaeologist. Eventually, of course, they find out what happened, but it’s too late to save them. This is not a cheerful book. I liked it. I thought it made a good fist of its premise. The science seemed mostly convincing to me, although actual experts – remember those? people who have actually studied shit and know what it means – might be less forgiving of some aspects of the novel. Overall, it struck me as a solid piece of seventies UK sf.

Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse (2018, USA). Roanhorse’s career has been nothing short of meteoric. Her first short story was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo, and won the former. She has written two short stories since, both for themed anthologies. Her first novel, this one, was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award. It was followed by a sequel, Storm of Locusts, a year later, then a Star Wars novel, and a middle-grade fantasy from a Disney imprint. With a career path like that, you’d expect something amazing. So it’s a surprise to discover Trail of Lightning is, well, nothing special. It’s a bog standard urban fantasy but with Navajo mythology. Yes, the latter is interesting, and it’s good to see something other than the usual suspects used for world-building. But there’s little else in the book that isn’t entirely cliché. The narrator, Maggie, kills monsters, is emotionally damaged after her relationship with her mentor, a Navajo immortal, imploded, drives a 1970s pickup truck, fetishises over her weapons, and basically gets the entire plot wrong by jumping to conclusions. The book tries to turn the tables by casting a male as the pretty sidekick, but we’ve all seen enough manga and anime to find that one familiar. The prose is a cut above average for urban fantasy, but Laurell K Hamilton was doing the damaged kick-ass female urban fantasy heroine three decades ago – and her prose wasn’t bad either. There’s not enough here to justify the heights Trail of Lightning has achieved. It’s true that Native American mythology has not appeared much in genre, but it has appeared. And there have been Native American genre writers. Less than you can count on the fingers of one hand, true. But there are other modes of fiction, and fiction that privileges Native American culture exists in those. It’s good that genre – science fiction and fantasy and horror – wants to be more diverse and more inclusive, but many cultures have their own literary traditions, and while they may not be positioned as genre, they may be close enough to genre to be of interest to genre readers should they make the effort to look for them. When it comes to Navajo culture, I will freely admit I’ve not made that effort. I suppose in that regard it makes Roanhorse’s novel a gateway book. But had I been interested, I would have made the effort. I’ve done so for other cultures whose literary tradition has interested me. Rather than agitate for people to write sf based in and around those cultures, I’ve sought out the fiction the culture has already produced (where translations exist, of course). The point I’m trying to make is that genre fiction doesn’t have to include all other modes of fiction or cultures. It needs to be relevant to its readers, yes, and so it needs to be inclusive and diverse. But it should never take the place of the literary traditions that already exist in those cultures. It should complement them.

The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man, Dave Hutchinson (2019, UK). There is a short story, ‘The Incredible Exploding Man’, which I don’t believe I’ve read, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this novel is an expansion of that short story, or at the very least is set in the same world and features some of the same characters. It’s a novel set in the US but could have only been written by a Brit, and not just because the narrator is British. Alex Dolan is a Scottish journalist, currently unemployed in the US. He is approached by a billionaire, who wants him to write a book about the his pet project, a supercollider built under a town in Iowa. It’s all a bit shifty, and various personalities seem to both hinder Dolan and make his new life more bearable. It feels a little like a pastiche of US life, albeit from a UK perspective, and it takes a good three-quarters of the novel before the plot even gets going. But it’s a fun read, the dialogue is snappy, and even if the central premise is somewhat familiar, the book is still entertaining. Basically, it’s Doctor Manhattan. They turn on the supercollider, something goes wrong, and Dolan turns into Doctor Manhattan. But there’s been a sort of plot leading up to that point, and the novel after the event is pretty much Dolan repeatedly resolving the after-effects of switching on the supercollider – or, at least, one particular after-effect. The end, however, is surprisingly abrupt. Perhaps there’s a sequel in the works – The Comeback of the Incredible Exploding Man? The Reappearance of the Incredible Exploding Man? The Return of the Return of the Incredible Exploding Man? Anyway, worth reading.


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Movie roundup 2020, #16

I have been bingeing on boxed sets recently, and not really ones I can in any way recommend. I worked my way through all five seasons of The Professionals, and it was all a bit crap but sort of fun. Then I watched three seasons of Hamish Macbeth, and I have no fucking idea what that was about. Ostensibly a murder-mystery series set in the Scottish Highlands, it was as daft as those fringe murder-mystery series the US churns out by the metre, but with added chocolate-box Scotland. Entertaining enough, but also baffling. I tried watching The Diplomat, an Australian miniseries set in the UK but gave up after ten minutes when it was clear the makers hadn’t bothered to research how the police operate in the UK. I watched one episode of Jack Taylor, a grizzled private eye in Galway, but when the second episode opened with him framed for murder in the most obvious framed-for-murder plot twist on the planet, I decided to give it a miss as I have a low threshold for clichés.

Happily, there are feature films. And I should watch more of them, instead of shit TV series.

War Requiem, Derek Jarman (1988, UK). I think it’s pretty obvious I have a somewhat eclectic taste in films, so it’s hardly a surprise I consider Jarman among the ten best directors the UK has produced. I find myself conflicted about War Requiem, chiefly because it’s a staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, using the 1963 recording as the soundtrack, and the War Requiem features nine poems by Wilfred Owen, a poet I’ve admired for many years. Interestingly, War Requiem was performed for the consecration of Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, and I attended Coventry University, whose campus is right next to the cathedral, so I know the building well. Which reminds me – and this is an entirely true story – of a winter night in the early 1990s when I was returning home after some drinks in town and I passed between the new cathedral and the old one (which is little more than a roofless shell). As I walked past the entrance to the old cathedral, I glanced inside it… and saw a naked woman with long blonde hair sitting on a white horse. Lady Godiva, of course, lived hundreds of years ago. Happily, this was no ghost – as I walked on, lights and a camera crew came into view. I never learnt what was being filmed that night, but glancing into the old Coventry Cathedral and seeing Lady Godiva on her horse is not something you forget. But, War Requiem, which opens with Laurence Olivier in a wheelchair in the garden of a sanatorium, but is mostly black box theatre. The music is not to my taste – I’m into death metal not a “mass for the dead” – and while Owen’s poems lend themselves really well to being performed, I’m still more of a reader than a listener. In other words, I like the idea of Jarman’s War Requiem more than I liked the experience of watching it.

Where is the Friend’s House?, Abbas Kiarostami (1987, Iran). Kiarostami is an easy director to admire, even if his individual works are not all that likable. Where is the Friend’s House? is one of his Koker trilogy, along with And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, all set in and around the village of Koker in northern Iran. A young boy realises he has accidentally taken his school friend’s notebook home, and his friend will be punished if he fails to complete his homework. After an abortive attempt to find his friend’s house, the boy ends up doing the homework himself, and earns his friend a commendation from the teacher. If you’ve seen a Kiarostami film before, you’ll know what to expect. It’s not one of his best – its story is too thin for a feature-length movie – and it’s hard to compare it to other, better, films by Kiarostami. On the other hand, if it didn’t exist there would be no blu-ray box set from Criterion called The Koker Trilogy, which I believe is the first appearance of this film and And Life Goes On on disc. So there’s that.

Venus in Furs, Massimo Dallamano (1969, Italy). Amazon Prime continues to recommend Shameless releases to me, and since I like some giallo, I continue to add them to my watch list. True, giallo is quite a wide genre, although mostly horror or erotic horror, and I tend to lump poliziotteschi films in with it. And, to be honest, it’s Shameless’s releases of Italian sf movies I like best, such as Footprints on the Moon or The Tenth Victim, and I’m not sure they really qualify as giallo. So perhaps I’m misusing, if not abusing, the term. Venus in Furs is straight up late-sixties erotic drama, and if it had a plot I failed to find it. It all seems over-egged, and it’s not hard to believe it’s based on a novel published in 1870 and written by the man whose name gave us the word “masochism”.

Atragon, Ishiro Honda (1963, Japan). We all know Honda’s work, and if not we can at least imagine it. He’s best-known for the original Godzilla movie, but he had a long career directing films that were, well, pretty much the same as Godzilla. Some were more overtly science-fictional than others, but they all featured monsters portrayed by men, and women, in rubber suits. Atragon refers to a submarine – that can fly and tunnel into the earth – invented and built by a submarine captain who disappeared in the last year of WWII. As is revealed when the Empress of the lost continent of Mu, which now exists at the bottom of the ocean, tries to abduct the captain’s daughter from Tokyo. It’s all complete bobbins and makes not the slightest jot of sense, but the model work is pretty cool and the film’s commentary on Japan’s war record is interesting and surprisingly honest (UK and USA, take note). I note that Honda’s film are undergoing a minor revival, with Eureka about to release several of them as limited edition Blu-rays. I am not complaining. They are good stuff.

Sputnik, Egor Abramenko (2020, Russia). I don’t understand why this movie wasn’t named Soyuz. A cosmonaut returns to Earth – aboard a Soyuz – with an unwelcome passenger, an alien parasite. Sputnik means “fellow traveller”, which is apt, but soyuz means “union” and that meaning plays to the plot, too. And, well, the film opens in an actual Soyuz spacecraft. Anyway, a cosmonaut is brought back to earth with an alien parasite and a psychiatrist is brought in to study him. She learns the military have already learnt quite a bit about the parasite, although she refuses to accept the price they paid. She decides to rescue the cosmonaut and rid him of his alien “fellow traveller”. In other words, what we have here is Alien set in 1980s USSR. Expect many reviews to refer to it as  “Alienski”. It’s a good-looking film, but it’s covering ground that has been done better – and not just by Alien.  It all feels a bit tired and predictable, despite its Soviet paint job. Meh.

Invasion of the Astro-Monster, Ishiro Honda ((1965, Japan). This was the second of three Japanese-American collaborations, all three of which were directed by Honda. It’s more overtly science-fictional than the one mentioned above, but is still very much a monster movie. A joint US-Japan mission to a mysterious “dark planet” near Jupiter (sigh) encounters an advanced civilisation, the Xiliens, currently under attack by “Monster Zero”. Earth offers the use of Godzilla and Rodan to defeat Monster Zero, but the Xiliens kidnap those monsters and then use them to demand the earth submit to their rule. I think this is the most typically Honda movie I have seen – it has everything. Like most of his movies, the story trundles along, requiring no more than normal levels of suspension of disbelief… and then falls of a cliff. That, I suppose, is part of their charm. Nonetheless, I would be happy to watch high-quality restored editions of his films.

Bill & Ted Face the Music, Dean Parisot (2020, USA). There is likely no one who said what the world really needed in these troubled times was a third Bill and Ted film thirty years after the last one. But it got one. And, though it pains me to say it, I actually enjoyed it. Another review pointed out that the characters of Bill and Ted were nice and sincere, and that we have few heroes like that in the twenty-first century. Leaving aside the fact we had few like that in the twentieth century, it is still true. Bill and Ted, even in this film, are just gosh-darned likeable. They’re dim, but they’re well-meaning. And the way they explore their own future – including not-so-nice Bills and Teds – is cleverly done. A lot has been made of their daughters, but they only get something like a third of the screen-time, which – unpopular opinion – is just as well as they come across as a pair of young female actors doing impressions of Bill and Ted. The climax of the film sees the daughters put together a band of historically important musicians, and playing a song to save all space and time. The choices for “historically important musicians” are… interesting. Jimi Hendrix. Yup, totally agree. A young Louis Armstrong. Why young? Why not later, when he was at the height of his creativity? Mozart. Right, everybody’s choice for “musical genius” – totally lazy pick. Ling Lun. Who is the legendary founder of music in China (around 300 BCE). Good that the film makes Ling Lun female. Bad that they made her just a flautist. The final member of the group is a cave woman who likes banging things and so is the best drummer ever. I mean, let’s not even go there. Good that the drummer is female, bad that it ignores the entire fucking history of playing drums. Having said that, Bill & Ted Face the Music ends with a really shit song being performed to save the universe. There’s a lot to like in the film – basically, the characters of Bill and Ted, the careful plotting, its diversity – but there’s a  lot of minor stuff here that gets a pass because it does right on some of the big stuff. It’s not that good a film, but it’s entertaining and it’s a surprisingly inoffensive sequel to the first two films.

The Kennel Murder Case, Michael Curtiz (1933, USA). William Powell played urbane sleuth Philo Vance in four films for Paramount, between 1929 and 1933, but he was one of nine actors who played the role over fifteen movies, the last of which, Philo Vance’s Secret Mission, was released in 1947. Vance seems to have been an odd character – sort of a New York version of an English aristocrat sleuth, and coded as gay. The books were best-sellers, but despised by Raymond Chandler. I might try reading one some day. Anyway, a rich capitalist and all-round nasty piece of work is found dead in his locked bedroom, seemingly of suicide. But he seems to have bashed himself across the head with a poker, and then knifed himself in the back, before shooting himself in the temple some time after he had actually died. And then man’s brother turns up dead in the hall closet. Vance solves the “how” pretty quickly – the door was locked from outside using some string and a bent pin – but everyone except those investigating the crime have a motive for seeing the man dead. So Vance plays a trick and forces the murderer to reveal themselves. The Kennel Murder Case is apparently considered the best of the Philo Vance films, which doesn’t say much for the others. I thought the Thin Man movies better, but if any more of the Vance ones pop up on Amazon Prime I’ll happily watch them.

Bleeding Steel, Leo Zhang (2017, China). I think I’ve seen around thirty of Jackie Chan’s films and this is easily the worst one I’ve watched. It’s one of those trans-Pacific near-future sf movies, like The Meg, with a Chinese and Australian cast, and a complete disregard for the laws of physics or plausibility. Jackie Chan plays an officer of the “United Nations Special Forces” who is asked to take a rogue scientist into custody, even though his young daughter, who is dying of leukaemia, has just taken a turn for the worse. While Chan battles some cyborg and his over-equipped troops, Chan’s daughter dies. But no! She doesn’t. The rogue scientist implants a mechanical heart and “bio-engineered blood” into her, and saves her life. Thirteen years later, the daughter, believing herself to be an orphan, is a student in Australia, and Chan has been keeping a surreptitious eye on her. But the murder of an author whose novels bear an uncanny resemblance to the life of Chan’s daughter kicks off a series of action sequences in which Chan fights off assorted baddies – including one fight scene on the roof of the Sydney Opera House. Chan is his usual likeable self, and most of the fight scenes are creatively choreographed, but from start to finish this is piss-poor near-future sf and in a genre which takes care over its fight choreography not even a Jackie Chan film can stand out, other than by putting him front and centre. And Bleeding Steel – and what exactly does that title fucking mean? – does that, but it’s not enough. This is a bad film but, even more shamefully, it is a bad Jackie Chan film.


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Movie roundup 2020, #15

I’ve been bingeing recently on The Professionals, a TV series I remember from my school days. I don’t have any particular memories of an opinion on the programme – violent 1970s cop show with a striking theme tune and lots of action. That’s about it. Watching it now… well, it’s very fascist, explicitly so in the opening episode. Which doesn’t, of course, stop CI5 – motto: “by any means necessary” – taking down the chief constable who has kept his Midlands city crime-free “by any means necessary”. But what stands out more than the terrible scripts – Bodie and Doyle have their Pye PF8 UHF radios with them all the time, except when the story “forgets” about them – and more than the sexist dialogue (although it’s surprisingly not racist for the time and even, on occasion, anti-racist; and equally surprisingly not homophobic, although more by omission, and one episode even features a “Gay Youth Association” treated sympathetically)… what stands out the most is how cheap it all is. A squash court standing in for the visiting room of a high security prison. A hotel room re-furnished as an executive’s office. The fact Bodie’s home is never shown, but Doyle seems to live somewhere different every episode. The Professionals is not a good series. The 1970s aesthetics are sort of fun, but the 1970s politics and sexism are not, and the scripts – particularly in the first series – are really, really bad.

But now for some movies…

Un film comme les autres / British Sounds (See You at Mao), Jean-Luc Godard (1968 / 1969, France / UK). In the late 1960s, Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, among others, formed the Dziga Vertov Group, named for the 1920s director of Man with a Movie Camera (an excellent film, and an important early director), with the aim of making Marxist films. And certainly Un film comme les autres fits that description, as it comprises a group of young people sitting around in a park (I think) discussing politics and the proletariat and revolution, interspersed with archival footage of strikes and revolutionary violence. A review on Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “the first of Jean-Luc Godard’s absurdly unwatchable films”, which is, I think, doing it a disservice, but I suspect the reviewer is American and anything anti-capitalist is guaranteed to annoy and upset Americans. They actually believe their own propaganda. Which makes British Sounds (See You at Mao) doubly amusing. It was commissioned by London Weekend Television – according to imdb.com: “With LWT (in 1968) facing growing criticism for making too many arty TV shows, something from Jean-Luc Godard was thought bound to be a winner”. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? In the event, LWT refused to screen the film Godard made. Which is, more or less, a UK take on Un film comme les autres. No doubt that US pundit would describe it as “absurdly unwatchable”, but I’m fixed in my opinion that Godard is probably the most important director to have come out of France.

Winter’s Child, Olivier Assayas (1989, France). And I would probably also label Assayas as an important French director, certainly amongst the current crop, but the two early films by him made available on The Early Films of Olivier AssayasDisorder and Winter’s Child – are poor indication of the films he would later make. They are, in fact, somewhat ordinary French movies of their time. And Winter’s Child more so than Disorder. The French film industry has made movies about the romantic triangle banal, and Winter’s Child is a case in point. A man leaves his pregnant wife to take up with another woman, but she loves someone else. So I guess that’s more of a romantic quadrilateral – but then that’s to French cinema what stories of adulterous academics are to literary fiction. Meh.

The Gardener, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2012, Iran). Until watching this film, I will admit I was barely aware of the Baha’i faith, and now, after watching, I am surprised the Baha’i faith even exists. Unlike Scientology or the Moonies, it seems to have come about as a genuine religion – a prophet, a group who followed his teachings, and were subsequently persecuted by all and sundry, and, tellingly, a creed that does not demand signing over all your wealth and influence. My contempt for Scientologists is only marginally less than that for fundamentalists of any religion, but I at least grant that fundamentalists follow actual religions. I do not know what to think about the Baha’i faith. This film, a study of a man who has adopted the religion and now cares for a Baha’i garden in Israel, seems to be chiefly notable because it’s the first time an Iranian film-maker has filmed in Israel. But as I watched The Gardener, and listened to its well-meaning interviewees – most of whom seemed to be American – it occurred to me that what I was seeing was someone documenting a movement to be nice to other people that had been couched as new religion. For whatever reason, simple human compassion is apparently impossible unless couched in religious terms. Which is absolute bollocks. If you need a god, or commandments, to tell you what is moral behaviour, then there is something seriously wrong with you. Killing people is bad, it doesn’t need an edict from a giant sky fairy to tell you that – and the Christian church can’t even decide how important that particular commandment is, as different sects number it from five to seven. Let that sink in. At best, Christianity thinks “thou shalt not murder” is the fifth worst thing you can do. Fifth! I’m not agnostic, I’m an atheist – because I am not willing to hand off my morality to an invented being. Which is all somewhat unfortunately tangential to The Gardener, which is an extremely good-looking film – Makhmalbaf has an excellent eye – and while I cannot sympathise with its subject, I can certainly appreciate how it is presented. Makhmalbaf is a director worth collecting. It is good that more of his oeuvre is becoming available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Statue, Rod Amateau (1971, UK). At some point, one imagines, all culture will be available online, if not for free then for a fee, and currently English-language culture (and I use the term “culture” loosely) has been prioritised, and even then some of the films that pop up from total obscurity for free on Amazon Prime are… unexpected. The Statue is a British comedy, written by Alec Coppel, based on an earlier play by him, and Denis Norden, who is best known in the UK for presenting It’ll be Alright on the Night for many many years. David Niven invents a new lingua franca, Unispeak, which takes the world by storm. His wife, a famous sculptor, is commissioned to sculpt a piece celebrating his achievement, to be displayed in Grosvenor Square. But the statue proves to be an 18-foot nude of Niven. And Niven is pretty sure the statue’s dangly bits are not modelled on his own. So he sets off on a mission to discover the model for the statue’s genitals. Yes, that’s right – the plot of the film is David Niven travelling around the world trying to look at men’s tackle. It’s a plot that could be resolved today simply by asking, or by creating a female sock puppet account on social media, but in 1971 it’s apparently fertile ground for 84 minutes of nudge-nudge wink-wink. I mean, I’m sort of onboard with the idea of a high profile film whose plot requires a straight man to go around looking at other men’s willies – but it all feels very schoolboyish, and not even the presence of half of Monty Python and two-thirds of the Goodies can turn a joke told to a bunch of thirteen year olds after lights-out in the dorm into an entertaining major motion picture.

The Touch, Ingmar Bergman (1971, Sweden). Bergman did a deal with the American Broadcasting Corporation to make some films for the US market, and The Touch was the first of these. It was Bergman’s first English-language film (although not entirely, as it’s set mostly in Sweden and there is a lot of Swedish dialogue, and I was surprised to find Max von Sydow’s Swedish was not as clear as I’d expected). Elliott Gould plays an American archaeologist researching a church in a village on Gotland, when he make makes friends with a local surgeon (von Sydow) and his wife (Bibi Andersson). The story of The Touch is the affair between Gould and Andersson. And it’s violent and abusive, and even though the story is told from Andersson’s perspective – it is, essentially, her story – it’s still misogynistic. Gould’s character is… well, I can see why he considered the role damaging, even though he was working with Bergman. I wanted to like this film – I generally like Bergman’s films, and if I don’t like them I at least appreciate them – and the 1970s aesthetic and Sweden and the cast… and there’s much to want to like in it… But I really found it hard to watch and very easy to dislike. Gould, at first, is not very good, still figuring out how to act under Bergman’s direction – and it stands out, because the rest of the cast have worked with Bergman numerous times before. But then Gould starts harassing Andersson, and subsequently turns abusive… and I don’t care if this is 1971 it’s still unacceptable. And for all that Andersson controls the narrative, it still seems like the same point could have been made without the abuse. The Touch is not considered a major Bergman film, and was hard to find until released in a nice dual edition by the BFI. It does his legacy few favours.

Ladies Who Do, CM Pennington-Richards (1963, UK). British comedy films from the 1950s and 1960s, unless they were made by Ealing Studios, are often forgotten, but there were some bloody good comedies made back then. Just think of The Early Bird, or indeed anything starring Norman Wisdom. Ladies Who Do has its moments, and a fine conceit underlying its story, not to mention an excellent cast, but it all feels a bit lacklustre. Peggy Mount is a char who rescues an expensive cigar from the bin of an office she cleans and gives it one of her gentlemen, Robert Morley. Who realises that the piece of paper she wrapped the cigar in is insider information. Which he uses to make £5,000 on the stock market (equivalent to about £90,000 these days). Morley and Mount come up with a plan – they form a company of cleaning ladies who hunt for inside information in the offices they clean. Meanwhile, developer Harry H Corbett is trying to demolish the slum street where Mount lives in order to build a block of flats and offices, but she blocks him at every turn. Talk about mixed messages. British – well, English – culture was good at valourising the status quo but had no idea what elements to promote as “progress”. Great Britain: consistently failing since the Romans left. A mildly entertaining comedy that seems to say that success is good, except when it profits the working class.