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Moving pictures 2019, #34

This is it, the last Moving pictures post for 2019. Only #34, compared to #69 in 2018 and #70 for 2017. Let’s see what 2020 brings.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino (2019, USA). This is apparently Tarantino’s last film as he’s said he won’t make anymore. Many have also called it the best movie he has ever made – or at least a triumphant return to form. I’ve never been much of a fan of Tarantino or his work. He chooses excellent cinematographers, but his stories are cobbled together from strings of clichés, often with bizarre swerves in the final act. His dialogue can be good, however. Anyway, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about an ex-TV cowboy looking to restart his moribund career, which involves various parodic encounters with Hollywood archetypes. He is driven around town by his old stunt double, who now acts his chauffeur and dogsbody. Both characters are well-drawn, the only well-drawn ones in the entire film, in fact. The important element in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is that the TV cowboy lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Tate, of course, was famously murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult. And this is where Tarantino introduces his swerve: the TV cowboy foils the murder. What I don’t understand, however, is the point of the film. It’s alternate history, but alternate history introduces a change in order to explore the consequences and ramifications of that change. Tarantino doesn’t do that. His change, his “jonbar point” (a horrible coinage), is meaningless. It comes at the end of the movie – a long movie – and its trivial impact is quickly dispatched with some voice-over narration. I mean, if you’re going to do alternate history, at least do it. Here it’s just a cheap gimmick, and that detracts from what has gone before.

La Chiesa, Michele Soavi (1989, Italy). The film opens with a troop of Teutonic knights slaughtering a village and burying the bodies, not all of which were dead, in a mass grave. Supposedly because they were devil-worshippers. They then build a massive cathedral on the site. As you do. Cut to the 1980s and the cathedral is now apparently in the centre of a bustling European city. It’s the new librarian’s first day at work – and who knew cathedrals have libraries? somewhat ironic for institutions that have spent much of their existence suppressing knowledge – and down in the catacombs he meets an artist restoring the cathedral’s frescoes. Which sets in motion a chain of events that results in various mediaeval technology mechanisms sealing the cathedral and trapping all those inside it, after the librarian finds a seal in the floor in the catacombs, manages to open it, and releases all that mediaeval evil (ugh, not a phrase that trips lightly off the tongue). Which promptly causes everyone locked inside to go mad and see demons, and engage in sex or violence or both. For a piece of schlocky Italian horror from the 1980s, this was considerably better than expected. According to Wikipedia, the film had quite a convoluted genesis, and the director was keen to make something “more sophisticated” than the usual run of giallo horror. I’m not sure that he succeeded in doing that but La Chiesa is a pretty good horror movie of its time and reminded me in places of the Hammer House of Horror TV series. Worth seeing.

The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King, Mikkel Brænne Sandemose (2017, Norway). The Ash Lad is like Cinderella, but male. And stupid. Mostly. Basically, everything he touches he fucks up. But he’s also incredibly lucky, and amiable with it, so everything turns out right for him in the end. He picks things up, mostly rubbish, and hangs onto it because he doesn’t understand why people would have thrown it away. And it proves to be just what he needs to get past various obstacles thrown in his path. In the invented fantasy country of the film – I don’t think it’s supposed to be an historical representation of a real Nordic country, as it all looks a bit identikit West European high fantasy… Anyway, the kingdom is cursed: if the princess is not betrothed by her eighteenth birthday, bad things will happen. An arrogant prince from Denmark turns up to ask for her hand – the Swedes and Norwegians have an… interesting opinion of the Danish – so she runs away. Meanwhile, Ash Lad has accidentally burnt down the home he shares with his father and two brothers, and so has gone off to make his fortune in order to make good on the destruction he has wreaked. His brothers follow to keep him from harm. But he ends up rescuing them from various fantasy encounters. And also rescuing the princess. Of course. The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King looked good, although perhaps a little too CGI-dependent, and it was all very amiable and the story ran along well-established rails. The characterisation of the Danish prince was amusing. It was perhaps a bit generic, although that wasn’t helped by the version I watched being dubbed into American English rather than keeping the original Norwegian soundtrack and providing subtitles. But if you like films that straddle the line between Western European high fantasy and fairy-tale… this is way better than anything by Uwe Boll.

The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, Sergio Martino (1971, Italy). Edwege Fenech, a French-Algerian actress, made a number of giallo films, and was probably as popular a leading lady in that genre as Barbara Bouchet, if not more so. True, gialli were not known for the calibre of their acting, but certainly Fenech (and Bouchet) had more screen presence than many other giallo leading ladies of the time. Fenech plays the title role in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh – the “h” apparently added after a threatened lawsuit by a real Mrs Ward (hm, maybe I should try the same every January…) – the wife of a US diplomat in Vienna sent a series of blackmail letters by a serial killer. Wardh is afraid her ex-lover is the killer, and turns to her new lover to help her. You can guess where this is going… Well, perhaps not, as there are twists within twists. Like many giallo films, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh treads a fine line between sexploitation and female agency – although Fenech’s character triumphs here, and all the male characters are revealed as either venal or stupid. There are several dream sequences, however, each a sort of cross between soft porn and horror, which seem designed more to titillate than present Wardh as a kick-ass heroine. And a party sequence which seems like it comes straight from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Giallo is an acquired taste, although the more you’re exposed to it, the more you begin to appreciate and enjoy it. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is a stylish thriller, albeit very much of its time, and if the level of acting is not all that impressive – although Fenech is generally worth watching – and the dialogue often cringe-worthy, it’s well-framed and well-shot. A good example of its type.

Ad Astra, James Gray (2019, USA). I’ve heard so much bad press about this film, I’m tempted to like it just to be contrary. Which is sort of how I went into it. And there are things to like… but also things to dislike. But the hate the film has received seems odd given its content. It presents a convincing portrait of its world, which is not so unusual in these days of CGI – but it’s a hard sf world and it sticks to it pretty much throughout. Okay, so the lawlessness of the Moon is the usual libertarian sf bollocks but that’s hardly a blocker as people have been writing stupid shit like that since the 1940s. The opening scenes set on the space antenna are visually spectacular, although I’m not entirely sure such a structure could actually exist, you know, a tower stretching into the upper atmosphere, or perhaps hanging from orbit. But then protagonist Brad Pitt is pushed from pillar to post by Space Command when it turns out his father, who disappeared decades before during a Grand Tour, may be responsible for the “power-surge” (er, what?) which caused lots of damage in the inner Solar system. Space Command sends Pitt to the Moon, then Mars, and along the way he learns more about his father’s mission. There’s a flatness to Pitt’s character – literalised in his ability to maintain a low heartbeat even under stress – that’s echoed in the presentation of his world, a sort of distant but realistic portrayal of an inhabited Solar system a century or so hence (although I think the film is set only a few decades from now). I accept that a well-realised hard sf world will likely blind me to deficiencies in plot, but when sf cinema (Hollywood’s version of it, at least) seems to be dominated by movies that display little or no rigour in world-building and nonsensical plots (see below), I see no problem with my opinion. Ad Astra may be your usual “daddy issues” movie – although expecting Hollywood to produce anything else these days seems to be more of a fantasy than much of its output. I hate “daddy issues” films but Ad Astra worked quite well for me – perhaps because of my aforementioned blind spot – and while it’s by no means a great film, it does make me wonder at all the hate that’s been directed at it. I think it’s a better movie than that suggests.

Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, JJ Abrams (2019, USA). That’s it, the end of Star Wars. Until the next trilogy. Because I don’t see Disney giving up on such an enormous cash cow, not until they’ve absolutely milked it to death, or fucked it up so bad its fandom has turned completely toxic and the latter seems to be already happening to some degree. I’m not a Star Wars fan, or even a SWEU fan, although I have fond memories of the original trilogy and have enjoyed some of the tie-in movies. But this “final” trilogy is a poor thing indeed, especially its last installment. The whole thing reeks of bits and pieces cobbled together, inspired by visuals which actually fail willing suspension of disbelief. That last is, of course, pretty much Abrams’s career in a nutshell: he makes movies that look good but the eyeball kicks do not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. And in the case of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker neither does the plot. There’s this secret planet of a race that’s supposed to have died out – the Sith – which has a fleet of millions of star battleships, with no indication of how and where they were constructed or indeed where their crews came from. And the planet can only be reached if a person is in possession of one of two navigation maguffins – Sith wayfinders – because of course a conspiracy to control the galaxy, which has already succeeded at least once before, would only have two navigation maguffins to reach its secret home world. Which is also a profound misunderstanding of how physics or cosmology work, FFS – and proves to be pretty much meaningless anyway because everyone ends up there for the final big battle. Gah. Why bother? It’s impossible to have an intelligent conversation about Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker because the material is not actually up to it. The hand-wavy relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren that seems to ignore time and space is the only thing that works in the movie, because – and no, “love” is not some magical force that transcends space and time, and anyone who believes that should not be put in charge of a ride-on mower, never mind a billion-dollar franchise – because the presentation of their Force-linked relationship in the trilogy actually works quite consistently and fits within the universe. There are some nice set-pieces in Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, and the light sabre battle between Ren and Rey on the wreck of Death Star 2 is impressively spectacular, if over-long. But movies are more than a series of eyeball kicks – perhaps someone should tell Abrams – and Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker fails on every other movie metric. It retcons some of the incidents in The Force Awakens. Badly. Carrie Fisher’s CGI “performance” is actually distracting – she deserved to be there as much as anyone, if not more so than most of the cast, but the footage they used makes her comes across as flat and unconnected to the story. Hollywood proved its point: it can place deceased actors in movies… but it also proved the results are unsatisfactory. At present. (Star Wars is a safe laboratory to test it out because fan service. This is not a good thing.) A blow-by-blow account of the deficiencies of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker would be as long as the film itself. Unfortunately, one thing this new trilogy has revealed is that fandom is happy to find the things it wants in the films whether they exist or not. And that includes sophistication. These are commercial space opera movies, made it would seem with an eye chiefly on the visuals, “what looks good”. Whether or not anything in it a) fits in the universe, or b) makes fucking sense, is of no consequence. Writers working in the SWEU were given a bible; it seems the directors of this new trilogy should have been given one too.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942


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Best of the year 2019

I’ve been doing these best of the year posts since 2006. Which is a long time. They’ve never been the best of what was published or released during the year in question. I’ve never chased the shiny new, so there wouldn’t be enough material there for a best of and, really, how could it be a best of if there’s only a dozen items to chose from? So all those best of 2019 releases, they’re mostly bollocks. Unless the person has read/seen everything. Which I doubt. They’ll have only have read/seen the stuff they like, which just feeds into the whole online fandom tribalism thing.

Anyway, my best of… is the best among what I’ve read (books), watched (films) or listened to (albums) during the year in question. I don’t limit my consumption of culture to genre. Which does, I admit, make my best of lists something of a mixed bag.

books
It was an odd year, reading-wise. I set my reading challenge target at 140, the same as last year, but managed only 112 books. The move northwards was partly responsible, although not entirely. Several of my favourite writers published new books, but I only managed to read a couple of them – including, unfortunately, the last one we’ll ever seen from one author as he died in November. Overall, it was not a year of especially high quality reading – I read a number of enjoyable books, but none really blew me away. (Several did prove especially bad, however.) It made the year’s best of list much harder to put together than usual. Deciding to reread two series – Dune and the Wheel of Time – probably didn’t help, although I’ve only got three books into either series so far. The plan wasn’t to read the instalments back to back, but to take my time working may through the series. So it’ll be a while yet before I finish them.

1 Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’m not sure this deserves the top spot, but it’s such a close call between the top three so I gave it to Blumlein because we lost him in 2019 and I think he was a seriously under-rated author. Longer is, I think, a work that will reward revisiting and will linger, because Blumlein packed a lot into his prose – his later works were almost ridiculously dense, especially when compared to the genre works getting all the buzz throughout the year… Sadly, Blumlein doesn’t have a body of work coherent enough – and much of it is no longer in print – for it not to fade away, which is a huge shame. He was bloody good. Do yourself a favour and read one of his collections.

2 Big Cat & Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). Speaking of collections, Gwyneth Jones is a writer better-known for her novel-length works but her short fiction is just as good – if not, in some cases, actually better. But she’s no longer considered commercially viable by the major imprints, which is why this collection was published by a small press, the ever-excellent NewCon Press. That’s a crying shame. She is the best science fiction writer still currently being published the UK has produced. True, “still being published” is a bit hand-wavey as I don’t think Jones is in contract – her last novel-length work was 2008’s Spirit: or, the Princess of Bois Dormant, and her pendant to the Bold As Love Cycle, The Grasshopper’s Child, from 2015 was self-published; but she does still have short fiction published, including a novella from Tor.com in 2017. Her career is not as robust as it once was, certainly – even her Ann Halam books seem to be mostly out of print – but she has yet to retire. Big Cat & Other Stories shows she’s still on fine form. This is good stuff, none of that awful over-writing currently in fashion, just sharp prose, clever ideas worked out carefully, no flashy reskinning of tropes to hide a paucity of ideas… Well, you get the picture.

3 The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I read two Duchamp novels in 2019 – this one and 2018’s Chercher La Femme, but this one I found the better of the two. It’s a purely human story, and also very political, both of which play to Duchamp’s strengths. A colony world is suffering both economically and culturally under the yoke of its occupiers, a situation not helped by the fact the world’s upper classes are routinely educated on the occupiers’ home world and take on board its culture. It’s a much better exploration of colonialism than I’ve seen in any other genre work – colonialism is a favourite topic of twenty-first century fantasy – and Duchamp has created another great character in Inez Gauthier. Duchamp remains one of my favourite genre writers with good reason.

4 As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). I read my first Faulkner in 2018, The Sound and the Fury, and was blown away. This book had less of an explosive impact, but the prose was so good it deserves a place on this list. The idea that books could be all about the writing doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of the genre commentators I see on social media, or if it has they have very little idea of what constitutes good prose. By twenty-first century sensibilities, Faulkner could be considered problematic in some respects, given he wrote about the deeply racist South. But the two novels by him I’ve read don’t strike me – and I admit to a degree of ignorance here – as problematical in a way that doesn’t accept them as historical documents. Which is not to say I would accept historical documents that are explicitly racist or whatever. I just have yet to find it in Faulkner, and I don’t know enough about the man to know if I’m likely to find it.

5 The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (2016, UK). I tried the first two North novels several years ago and enjoyed them, but never thought of them as anything other than above average. This one strikes me as much more ambitious, and I applaud that ambition, whether or not it was entirely successful. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a book that wears its research lightly, but still demonstrates North has done her homework. Its plot has a few too many targets, but it wears its heart on its sleeve and I happen to agree with its politics. The novel tries to be more than it is, and doesn’t entirely succeed, but it shows a damn sight more literary ambition than most successful genre works.

Honourable mentions: Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK), generally acknowledged to be Waugh’s best novel, and indeed one of English fiction’s great novels and, while I’m not sure it’s the best Waugh I’ve read, it’s certainly less offensive than a lot of his oeuvre. Planetfall, Emma Newman (2015, UK), Newman’s sf novels had been recommended to me several times but I take most recommendations with a pinch of salt… I finally bit the bullet and this one proved a pleasant surprise. The Green Man’s Heir, Juliette E McKenna (2016, UK), although I’ve been sort of meaning to read one of McKenna’s novels for a number of years, it took a 99p ebook promotion for me to try, and I found myself really liking this book’s mix of urban fantasy and rural crime novel. Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK), I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions so I usually don’t bother with his stuff, but a 99p ebook promotion on this novella persuaded me to give it a go, and I found it to be an engaging and well-constructed time-travel love story/mystery.

films
If it was an odd year for books, it was a quiet one for movies. In 2018, I watched 563 films new to me. In 2019, I managed only 242. Less than half. Partly this was due to my relocation – I no longer had access to as many films (no more rental DVDs by post, no more 1-day delivery from a certain online retailer) – but it was also thanks to some box set bingeing, including five seasons of Stargate SG-1, five seasons of Andromeda, seven seasons of Futurama, three seasons of First Flights, and yet another rewatch of Twin Peaks, among other assorted TV series.

1 Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). Well, I couldn’t not give this the top spot, could I? An adaptation of a 1956 epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and set on a spaceship on a routine trip between Earth and Mars. But a meteoroid strike damages the ship and it goes off-course, with little or no hope of rescue. The film presents the ship as a cross between a shopping mall and a Baltic ferry, and its low-key presentation of a world in which people regularly travel between planets amplifies the distress as rescue proves impossible.

2 The Untamed, Amat Escalante, (2016, Mexico). When a film opens with a woman having sex with a tentacled alien, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Japanese. It’s a thing there, I believe. The Untamed then moves onto documenting a failing relationship between a young couple, in which the husband is having an affair with a man, a nurse, who makes friends with the woman who has sex with the alien… and it all sort of circles back around. Despite the presence of the alien, this is very much a film about humans and their relationships, told in a slowly-revealed almost-documentary way.

3 Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). I’d been impressed by Martel’s earlier films – she is one of several female South American directors making excellent movies – so I was keen to see Zama when it was released on DVD. It’s a more straightforward film than her other work, a straight-up historical movie set in the late eighteenth century in a remote part of Argentina. It looks absolutely gorgeous – especially on Blu-ray – and if it’s not perhaps as compelling as some of Martel’s earlier films, it’s still an excellent movie.

4 Eva, Kike Maíllo (2011,Spain). Daniel Brühl plays a robotics researcher who returns to his research after a decade away, and finds in the daughter of his old partner the perfect model for the robot he is building. Except the girl turns out to be a robot, the previous project Brühl walked away from, completed by his partner. The eponymous robot girl is the star of the movie – although Brühl and his robot butler, Max, come a close second. This is one of those films set a few years from now that still manages to look like the near-future even a decade after it was released.

5 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman (2018, USA). Everyone said this was an amazing film, but I’m not a fan of MCU and most animated films leave me cold, so I was in no great rush to see it. I mean, Marvel has been turning out cartoon versions of their comics since the year dot and they’ve all been pretty much as disposable as the paper on which the comics were printed… But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was apparently something different. And, I was surprised to discover, it was. I can’t say I was taken with either the characters or the story, but the way it was animated, its look and feel, that was astonishing. I described it here on my blog as a “game-changer”, and I think it will certainly change the way animated films look over the next few years.

Honourable mentions: War and Peace, part 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia), the final part of the most epic adaptation of Tolstoy’s, er, epic, and possible one of the most epic films of all times; am eagerly awaiting the new Criterion Collection remastered version. What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi (2014, New Zealand), Waititi’s humour had not clicked with me in his previous films, but in this one it seemed to work really well and I chuckled all the way through. Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee (1986, USA), I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much of it, but I loved the way McElwee’s life sort of took over his researches, and yet he still managed to make a fascinating documentary. Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India), a polished Kollywood thriller, which kept me guessing to the end – one of a pair of twins is a murderer, but which one? Peterloo, Mike Leigh (2018, UK), somewhat polemical retelling of an important event in English history that should be much better known than it is – local magistrates ordered the army to attack working class people at a rally to protest their lack of an MP, 18 people are known to have been killed. Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan), not, at first glance, the sort of movie that would get an honourable mention from me but, despite the usual incomprehensible plot, this CGI anime looks gorgeous, has some really interesting production design, and the characters are not quite as clichéd as usual (well, almost not). The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China), which is a not a great movie per se, but as the first international sf tentpole blockbuster from China – financing problems notwithstanding – it deserves some mention; it also looks pretty damn good, and its story is so relentless it steamrollers over any plot-holes.

music
When I left the UK, I gave six boxes of CDs to a friend to dispose of as he saw fit. I’d ripped them all, of course. Unfortunately, my old USB drive – which contained all the ripped MP3s – then decided to go on the blink. And I’d never backed it up. So I lost it all. Well, not all – I’d ripped some albums to a newer USB drive and that still works. Nonetheless, on my move to Scandinavia, I found myself without access to much of my favourite music. While the last few years had seen my listening decline, I can’t go totally without. So I did something I swore I’d never do: I bought a subscription to Spotify. Which has had the perverse consequence of me listening more to 1970s rock than my usual death metal, because those bands are better served by the platform. Ah well.

However, several of my favourite bands released new albums in 2019, and I also stumbled across several albums new to me, which received much play.

1 Deformation of Humanity, Phlebotomized (2018, Netherlands). I actually contributed to the kickstarter for this album back in 2015, but I’ve no idea what happened because I never received the CD and only learnt the album had been released because I follow the band on Facebook. But I can’t hold a grudge against them because Deformation of Humanity is a brilliant album. It’s the Phlebotomized of the 1990s, but much better-produced and with twenty years of progression built in. Album closer ‘Ataraxia II’ is a near-perfect instrumental.

2 Scars II (The Basics), Panopticon (2019, USA). One of my favourite tracks on 2018’s The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness double album was an acoustic track called ‘The Itch’ whose lyrics were a savage attack on Trump and Republicans. Scars II (The Basics) is an entire album of acoustic songs, including ‘The Itch’, although it’s the only one with that lyrical content.

3 Miami, James Gang (1974, USA). I’ve liked the James Gang’s music for a couple of decades, although I’d only ever heard the original trio, the one that included Joe Walsh. I hadn’t known Tommy Bolin, who I knew from his stint in Deep Purple, had been a member. That is until I subscribed to Spotify and started listening to the albums the James Gang recorded after Walsh’s departure. Miami has Bolin’s stamp all over it, and I really do like Bolin’s guitar-playing. This album got a lot of play.

4 In Cauda Venenum, Opeth (2019, Sweden). They’ve yet to match their high-water park of 2001’s Blackwater Park (wow, was it really that long ago?), and not everyone has been a fan of their relentless drift into 1970s prog. I didn’t mind Heritage, but Pale Communion and Sorceress felt a bit forgettable. Happily, In Cauda Venenum, originally planned as a Swedish-language album but then also recorded in an English-language version, is something of a return to form. Åkerfeldt has said in interviews he wanted to make something “bombastic” and this album certainly qualifies in parts. The pure proggy bits also seem less, well, gratuitous than in preceding albums.

5 Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs, Orphaned Land (2018, Israel). The last couple of years I’ve sort of lost track of some of my favourite bands, and only learnt of new releases more or less by accident. Orphaned Land I’ve liked for many years, and have seen them perform live three times, but I discovered Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs when I followed them on Spotify in mid-2019. They are perhaps a little more melodic than they were previously, and perhaps even a little, well, less bombastic. There are some excellent tracks here, and some guitar-playing to rival that of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, who left the band in 2014.

Honourable mentions: Garden of Storms, In Mourning (2016, Sweden), they’ve yet to deliver an album as consistently brilliant as 2012’s The Weight of Oceans, but there’s always at least one track on each album that blows you away. Illusive Golden Age, Augury (2018, Canada), it’s been a 9-year wait since Augury’s debut, but here’s more of their trademark batshit progressive death metal. Heart Like a Grave, Insomnium (2019, Finland), it all seems a bit over-polished these days, but Insomnium are still the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom. No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland), I’m not sure what you’d classify this band as other than, well, Icelandic; it’s doomy post-metal but very melodic, and even a bit like Anathema in places. The Hallowing of Heirdom, Winterfylleth (2018, UK), an acoustic album from a black metal band known for their acoustic interludes; like the Panopticon above, it works really well. Teaser, Tommy Bolin (1975, USA), I started listening to Bolin’s solo albums after liking his work in the James Gang; I find his solo stuff slightly less satisfying, perhaps because he covers a lot of musical genres and I prefer his rock songs; but this is still good stuff and it’s a tragedy he died so young.


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Moving pictures 2019, #33

Gosh, only thirty-three Moving pictures posts and less than a fortnight left in the year. Last year, I hit post #33 in early June and finished the year on post #69. Which I guess means I’ve watched a third as many films in 2019 as I did in 2018. My move to the far north is not entirely responsible, although it did result in something of a life-style change (for the better, I hasten to add). But I’ve also been watching more television series box sets than in previous years, because of, er, reasons. I don’t know; perhaps it was too easy previously to find the sort of movies I wanted to watch – I was, after all, subscribed to two postal DVD services…

The Girl on a Motorcycle, Jack Cardiff (1968, UK). I have seen many films made in the 1960s, that could only have been made during the 1960s – and some of them also starred Alain Delon or Marianne Faithfull – but The Girl on a Motorcycle must be a top contender for the most 1960s film I’ve ever seen. And, astonishingly, it’s a British film. Faithfull plays the nubile daughter of a bookshop owner in rural Alsace. She’s engaged to be married to the local school-teacher, but then Delon, whole lives over the border in Germany, walks into the bookshop. A friendship that is clearly not innocent, although apparently no one can see it, sees Faithfull and Delon doing the rumpy-pumpy, and enjoying the freedom of the roads on Delon’s motorbike. He even teaches her how to ride a motorbike. And then buys her a motorbike as a wedding present. The film opens with Faithfull leaving her husband, and riding her motorbike into Germany to visit Delon. The story is mostly told in flashback, with voiceover by Faithfull. There are several psychedelic dream sequences. And the film ends with Faithfull dying in a pretty gruesome road accident. It’s all very 1960s, and while both Faithfull and Delon both smoulder on screen, there seems to be little chemistry between them. The shots of Faithfull riding are also patently fake, which does not help, although that may not have been such a hurdle back in 1968. But the film fails chiefly, unlike French films of the period, because it feels too calculated. There’s a feeling of rejection of commercial cinematic values evident in most Nouvelle Vague movies, and while The Girl on a Motorcycle seems superficially similar to them, it doesn’t exhibit that attitude. Which, perversely, makes it feel like more of an historical document then they do. Still worth seeing, however.

The Red Monks, Gianni Martucci (1989, Italy). I had thought this was another of the many gialli made available on Amazon Prime by Shameless, but when I went looking for the DVD cover art I discovered it wasn’t. It is, of course, giallo, and if it wasn’t directed by Lucio Fulci, it might as well have been. Which is somewhat ironic, as the makers went out of their way to associate Fulci’s name with it, first by crediting him as “director of special effects”, when he had never set foot on set, and then later marketing it as a movie “by Lucio Fulci”, which was only dropped when Fulci threatened to sue… There may well be a signature style to various giallo directors’ movies, but at present I see giallo itself as more of a signature style. In other words, I could identify a giallo movie, but whether it was directed by Fulci, Miraglia, Bazzoni or Petri I’ve no idea, although I think I might be able to spot a Bava or Argento… The Red Monks seems fairly representative, and somewhat average, for gialli. A young man inherits a mysterious castle, moves in, and has various strange encounters, which seems to involve lots of expository flashbacks, none of which in total actually make much sense. One for fans of giallo only.

Eva, Kike Maíllo (2011, Spain). I should not be surprised when I see an actor performing in a language other than their native tongue, and I say that as someone who speaks several languages (to varying degrees), but my upbringing has been mostly English-language and the Anglophone world is a dismayingly monoglot one… Which is a long-winded way of saying I should not have found Daniel Brühl’s presence in this film at all remarkable. Especially since, as I discovered on looking him up on Wikipedia, he was born in Spain and his mother is Spanish. But I knew him as a German actor, with several English-language roles under his belt, so there was a moment when he began speaking Spanish, with apparently native fluency – not that I would be able to tell the difference – that caused a moment of cognitive dissonance. Which is soft of appropriate to Eva. Brühl plays a robotics researcher in a near-future Spain, who returns home several years after walking out on a project to build a robot with real emotions. He picks up where he left off, but needs a source for the emotional model he plans to create for the robot he abandoned, a robot child. He spots a young girl and recruits her. It turns out she’s the daughter of his girlfriend, who was also a robotics researcher, who married Brühl’s best friend after he left. Except, it then turns out – slight spoiler here – the young girl is in fact a successful prototype of Brühl’s original robot, except she does not know it. Eva was one of those near-future films which treats its setting with a matter-of-factness that does more to ground the story than any amount of flashy effects. And with its top-drawer cast – not just Brühl, but the actors playing Eva herself and Brühl’s robot, Max, are really good. And, it all looked really good too. I wouldn’t be surprised if this film makes my best of year list.

The New York Ripper, Lucio Fulci (1982, Italy). Apparently this is the only film by Fulci which is still censored in the UK. I am horribly squeamish, and refuse to watch any film that has at some point been described as “torture porn”, and don’t really enjoy watching modern horror films, but I didn’t have any problems with The New York Ripper. For a start, it’s a 1982 film, so the effects, while gruesome, are patently special effects. They don’t look real enough to trigger my squeam. They are, however, pretty gross and brutal. It’s the usual giallo serial killer stuff, which means a string of seemingly unrelated, but vicious murders, usually of attractive women while undressing, but the plot which knits together the murders and the investigation often doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. I mean, you look up a giallo film on Wikipedia, and it usually takes a couple of thousand words to summarise their plots. Not because they’re complicated, but because they’re not entirely logical. To be honest, I’m not sure why The New York Ripper continues to be censored. It’s pretty tame by modern horror effects standards. Its sensibilities are early 1980s and Italian, which is likely to offend twenty-first century viewers more. Fans of giallo, and Fulci, are probably the only people likely to enjoy the film, but I still think Shameless are doing a marvellous job releasing these movies on DVD (and Amazon Prime).

The Arrow, Don McBrearty (1996, Canada). The UK had the TSR.2 and Canada had the Arrow. Both were prototype high-performance military aircraft, years ahead of anything produced by the US or USSR. Both projects were cancelled after a change of government, and everything to do with the aircraft was completely destroyed. Neither project managed to stay within budget or meet the original deadlines, but then neither has any military aircraft the UK has bought from the US. In fact, after the cancellation of TSR.2, the UK government was forced to buy the General Dynamics F-111 – but had to cancel the order due to significant cost and development time overruns. The Avro Arrow was a Mach 2 interceptor, designed to meet encroaching Soviet bombers over the Arctic and shoot them down with missiles, before they could drop nuclear bombs on either Canada or the US. The requirements were ambitious, but the eventual design promised to meet them. Unfortunately, that ambition turned the Arrow into a bit of a money-pit, and by the time the project was cancelled Avro had bought so many suppliers, in order to ensure it had parts and materials it needed for the aircraft, that it was one of the largest companies in Canada. There’s little doubt the Arrow was a ground-breaking aircraft but, given the Soviets never sent a fleet of nuclear bombers over the pole to North America, in hindsight it seems it was a solution for a problem that never manifested – or at least could be avoided by other, less expensive, means. (Well, “less expensive” in financial terms, definitely not cheaper in political terms, given the US’s hegemonic drive.) The Arrow, a straight-to-TV docu-drama hits all the main points of the story, although it takes several notable liberties, such as suggesting the Canadians invented the delta-wing and area-rule, or that one Arrow escaped the scrapyard. Dan Aykroyd plays Crawford Gordon, the industrialist brought in to make the Arrow reality, like, well, like every other Aykroyd character, but the real Crawford Gordon was actually a fascinating person. As drama, The Arrow doesn’t really stand out, but it’s of interest to aviation buffs because of its subject. Incidentally, after the cancellation of the Avro Arrow, most of the engineers who had worked on it – many of whom were British – were recruited by US aviation companies and were instrumental in putting the Americans on the Moon.

Gemini Man, Ang Lee (2019, USA). I must admit I’ve never been that much of a Lee fan. He’s a name I know, but I couldn’t tell you what he brought to his movies that any other director might not have brought. He’s certainly had a go at pretty much everything – Jane Austen, wu xia, MCU, literary adaptation… well, lots of literary adaptations, pretty much all North American, from Annie Proulx to Daniel Woodrell… And now we have Gemini Man, a high-concept thriller. Which incidentally bears no resemblance to the TV series of the same name starring Ben Murphy… The twist premise of Lee’s Gemini Man, kept carefully hidden for the first third of the movie but given away on the movie poster (doh), is that star Will Smith is an assassin, the most accuratest that evah lived, but he’s getting old and wants to retire, so his masters decide to “retire” (ho ho) him using their new young super-talented assassin, who happens to be… a clone of Will Smith. So you have like a cat-and-mouse chase movie where the hunter and hunted are equally matched because they’re the same person. Sort of. There’s an impressive amount of dumb in the premise, and the fact the film was actually made gives you little confidence in the collective intelligence of Hollywood. But even stories that are bad on paper can occasionally make good films, and Lee is a relatively good pair of hands… But even he can’t make Gemini Man into more than just a tired CGI-heavy thriller. It doesn’t help that Smith (old) opens the film by shooting a man in a fast-moving train from at least a kilometre away, an astonishing if somewhat implausible feat, but then spends pretty much the rest of the movie missing everything he shoots at. Because plot. I would be surprised if there such a thing as an “Ang Lee fan”, and if there were, their lives must be a rollercoaster ride of elation and disappointment. Gemini Man is definitely the latter. Even for them.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942


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Moving pictures 2019, #32

An interesting selection of films in this post, even if I say so myself: a giallo, a contemporary German comedy that demonstrates the country has a much better approach to refugees than almost all other European nations, a US movie from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, a well-meaning but turgid biopic by a celebrated US director, and a brand-new Swedish science fiction film based on an epic poem from 1956 by a Swedish Nobel laureate. You won’t find that in an issue of Empire magazine.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Dario Argento (1972, Italy). Yet more giallo. I seem to have been on a bit of a run of giallo. Thanks to Shameless. It’s been fun, although gialli are not exactly known for making much sense. In this one, the drummer of a rock group is attacked by a stranger and accidentally stabs him to death. A mysterious man in a mask photographs the incident. But then it turns out the attacker is not dead, and he and the man in the mask blackmail the drummer. And then there’s a dream in which the drummer dreams he is being decapitated in an arena. And it’s all to do with someone who was committed to an insane asylum years before and now appears to be stalking the drummer with the intention of murdering him. But that somehow means just about every other character in the film has to be murdered first. Or something. The title refers to an image photographed from one of the victim’s retinas, which is supposed to be of the last thing they see, but which is of course complete and utter nonsense. I can’t remember what the “four flies on grey velvet” prove to be, but they’re instrumental in the drummer realising who the homicidal maniac is. Argento has made better films than this, although some of them made as little sense as this one. But, I think, is  part of the appeal. Of course, it doesn’t always gel, and I don’t think it does here. Everything in gialli is pretty much broad brushstroke, but parts of Four Flies on Grey Velvet felt cartoonish. One for fans.

Wilkommen bei den Hartmanns, Simon Verhoeven (2016, Germany). The refugee/immigration question is one that has vexed many minds these last few years, and provided the foundation for several scumbag politicians’ careers. I have a simple philosophy: I cannot begrudge people wanting to improve their lives and I’m grateful that opportunities through immigration are possible – and I say that as an immigrant myself – but I also think that when you bomb people’s homes you can’t really complain about them moving into other countries. Germany has decided to interrogate immigration through its literature, films and television – to a much greater extent, it seems, than the UK, where it’s left in the realms of racist polemic. In Wilkommen bei den Hartmanns the titular family want to do something for a local refugee centre that is under threat and are persuaded to take in Diallo, a Nigerian. Diallo is a wide-eyed innocent, wise beyond his years, and the whole thing is played as a gentle comedy that plays as much on Diallo’s perception of German character as it does on the interactions between the Hartmanns and their friends and acquaintances. The father is a surgeon who refuses to admit he is ageing, the daughter is a perpetual student in search of love, and the son is a workaholic involved in some project in Shanghai which has resulted in him neglecting his young son. Diallo, of course, brings the family back together, helps the daughter find love, and the son reconnect with his son. This is feel-good family comedy/drama, but it’s also about a topic important to Europe and it handles that subject well. worth seeing.

Slacker*, Richard Linklater (1990, USA). Whenever film-makers turn their cameras on real people, they hit a problem. Real people are boring. That’s why most films are implausible narratives. Because they make for entertaining stories. Of course, the people in Slacker are actors – but they’re not playing characters so much as they’re playing archetypes. I can understand the artistic impulse that led to Linklater turning his camera away from a structured narrative based on characters with arcs and clear motivations, but the end result is depressingly dull. I also suspect time has not been all that kind to Slacker, as the characters he trails across the screen have since turned into stereotypes and clichés, and I’m not entirely convinced they weren’t stereotypes and clichés when the film was made. I’m not sure why the film was included on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the list is US-heavy and Slacker is a good candidate for the chop so it can be replaced by a better non-Anglophone movie. But at least I can now cross it off the list.

Kundun, Martin Scorsese (1997, USA). I had not thought it possible until watching this film, and I’m still slightly boggled by the fact it was by Martin Scorsese, but how do you make a biopic of the Dalai Lama that is boring? Actually, I don’t need to know how – because Kundun is it. The film hits the main points of the life up to 19097 of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama – his reincarnation in a village near the Chinese border, the test given him to confirm his identity, his removal to Lhasa, his installation as Dalai Lama, the Chinese occupation, and the Dalai Lama’s eventual flight to India for safety. It’s all very episodic, which is hardly surprising given it’s a gallop through a person’s life from 1937 to 1959. And while the movie looks really nice, with some impressive cinematography, it wasn’t filmed on location in Tibet – for obvious reasons – and Morocco isn’t an entirely convincing stand-in. I’ve seen Kundun on some variations of the 1001 Movies list – if not that actual list in one of its yearly incarnations, then a rival list – but I don’t think it deserves a place. Scorsese has made better movies, and while Kundun tells an important story, it doesn’t tell it particularly well.

Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). A spacecraft en route to Mars on a relatively routine voyage is knocked off course and its passengers and crew attempt to adapt to a voyage that may be years longer than the weeks originally planned. The movie is based on an epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinsson, originally published in 1956, so we’re not talking about your usual source material. I’ve heard some people complain the film borrows its visual aesthetic from movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. It shows the titular spacecraft as entirely ordinary, more like a hotel/shopping mall than a spacecraft, but that’s hardly an original idea – the RMS Titanic famously shared its interior decor, for the non-steerage passengers at least, with the Hotel Adelphi in Liverpool – and if there’s any style present in the production design in Aniara then’s a sort of generic Scandinavian style, which perhaps echoes the clean lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s production design if not the Soviet modernism of Tarkovsky’s film. Aniara does, however, share a bleakness of vision with Solaris. First, the crew hide the true situation from the passengers. Then, as the ship’s systems begins to break down, so does the ship’s society. There is a brief respite when an alien object appears, and they work together to capture it, in the hope it contains fuel they can use to return to their course. There have been a couple of sf films like Aniara recently – well, maybe only Claire Denis’s High Life, and Amat Escalante’s The Untamed – art-house science fiction films that are as unlike tentpole genre movies as it s possible to be. I didn’t think High Life entirely successful, but it’s hard to tell with directors quite how immersed in genre they were prior to making the film in question. No matter. Aniara is excellent and is like to make my best of the year list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942


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Moving pictures 2019, #31

I promised to catch up on these, and I’m determined to do so. True, the only person I’m really disappointing by not doing so is myself – don’t all shout out at once, legion of fans – because it’s not as if these are actual film reviews, more general rants about stuff inspired by the film in question. Sort of. I like to think I’m providing some sort of service in as much as I cover a wide variety of films from a wide variety of nations and cinematic traditions. Far too many actual film review sites are all about the Hollywood, and even the good ones are Anglophone plus the occasional critically-acclaimed non-English-language movie. I do not consider language a barrier – although lack of subtitles certainly is (although I could perhaps struggle through unsubtitled movies in three languages other than English…). My point being: I pride myself on watching, and documenting, movies from as many nations as I can lay my hands on – with, I admit, the hope of introducing these films to a wider audience. I like non-Anglophone movies, some more than others. I watch them and I document my watching of them.

And, after all that, somewhat disappointingly, the bulk of the movies in this post are either UK or US. Ah well.

Salome’s Last Dance, Ken Russell (1988, UK). Russell is perhaps the epitome of the creator whose output you want to like but whose individual works you often find you do not like. The idea of Ken Russell is more appealing than the works of Ken Russell, so to speak. Which is not entirely fair. He made a number of films of a very distinctive style, some of which garnered the approval of the cinematic critical establishment – with, I might add, good reason. But he also made some films, of very much the same style, which seem to have been disparaged by those selfsame critics. I am not the sort of person who discounts critics. Anyone who says, “critics are like arseholes…” is, to me, someone who is basically insecure about the quality of their output. It’s that anti-expert thing. Critics generally know what they’re talking about, and it’s at least worth checking the bona fides of any critic before slagging them off (and let’s not forget the creator’s opinion of a work is likely the least useful opinion of that work). But that’s an argument for another day, and a post all its own – celebrate our critics, because everything else is thinly-disguised marketing. But to return to the movie: Salome’s Last Dance was, for me, almost archetypal Russell, which was its chief appeal. It has the meta-fictional narrative, in which Oscar Wilde’s play Salome is performed before him; it has the 1980s UK counter-cultural aesthetic (sort of a gentrified Jarman): and it possesses an enthusiasm, both in the narrative and presented by the cast, that is completely at odds with mainstream Hollywood cinema of the time. And that, I think, is something worth admiring. To those used to Hollywood aesthetics and presentation, most of whom probably know no different, it’s too far from what they know to appreciate. I like Russell’s films, I’ve seen most of them. This struck me as one of the better ones and one of the more explicitly Russell ones.

Captain Lightfoot, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA). There are a handful of films made by Sirk during the 1950s that I count among the best Hollywood has ever made – indeed, All that Heaven Allows, a Douglas Sirk movie from 1955 is my favourite film of all time. Which does sort of present a problem – because directors, especially those who worked during the days of the studio system, were not auteurs, and their output can vary widely depending on the material and resources given to them. Sirk, for example, was at his best when subverting the material he’d been given. But when Sirk was given material not open to his brand of subversion… he struggled to find some way to tell the story other the obvious. Captain Lightfoot lies somewhere in between. It is, for a start, a very much romanticised view of its events, but that was hardly uncommon for Hollywood, or indeed for certain areas of popular culture both in the UK and US. On the other hand, it was partly filmed on location in Ireland, which was not always the case in Hollywood films set outside the US. Which is not to say that its cast convince as Irish, although star Rock Hudson makes a better fist of his Irish accent than I would have expected. (That may not be entirely fair: he was a bloody good actor, one of my favourites in fact, but I have the impression he was mostly viewed as beefcake.) Still, it doesn’t need to be said that Hollywood history is mostly romanticised bollocks, and certainly the British were completely bastards when it came to Ireland, but Hollywood’s weird fascination with Ireland and its history is not conducive to good historical drama. Hudson plays a pillar of the community who is secretly a highwayman. He has the best of both worlds, until a young woman catches his eye and he falls in love. Captain Lightfoot is a surprisingly good -looking film, given its topic and setting, but Sirk was good at working with what he had, and if Captain Lightfoot doesn’t really show his talent for subversion, it certainly demonstrates that technically he was an excellent director. Not one of his best, but worth seeing nonetheless.

Awarapan, Mohit Suri (2007, India). If there’s one thing my somewhat haphazard journey through Indian cinema – Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood – has taught me it’s that not all Indian films are boy-meets-girl with item numbers. Awarapan is a case in point. It’s a remake of a Korean thriller, but set in Hong Kong. Shivam is the right-hand man of gangster and hotelier Malik, and runs one of his hotels, successfully, for him. So successfully, in fact, that it earns him the enmity of Malik’s actual son. Not that the son is a fine and upstanding son – he’s a nasty piece of work, and the movie opens with him being upbraided by Shivam for allowing Malik’s dissipated nephew to kill a prostitute in his hotel. You can see where this is going. But this is a Bollywood film, and while it may only be 133 minutes long, that’s not enough plot for a Bollywood movie, and where the hell is the romance? It is, of course, in the subplot which gets most of the screentime. Malik asks Shivam to keep an eye on his beautiful young mistress because he suspects she’s having an affair. Which she is. But when Shivam learns she was sex-trafficked and is pretty much a slave, he helps the mistress and her boyfriend escape. Which brings him into conflict with Malik. And Malik’s brother. And their sons. It’s polished stuff. Emraan Hashmi does moody really well, but doesn’t have the physical presence a Westerner would expect in the role. And the villains are a bit pantomime. But Bollywood has always been good at making use of its locations, and Awarapan does an excellent job with Hong Kong. If you like thrillers, then this is a pretty good one.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, Otto Preminger (1970, USA). I’m not sure why but I formed a desire to see all the films Preminger had made, and while many of them are definitely worth seeing – his 1940s output is superior 1940s noir – such completism often ends up being less than useful. Especially with old school Hollywood directors, particularly European ones who had careers stretching from the 1920s and earlier. While they may have brought any number of  innovative techniques to Hollywood, they tended to make a certain type of film for much of their career, before having the freedom to make movies you have to wonder why anyone would want to make… Like this one. I argued with a friend on Facebook – somewhat inconclusively, I  must admit – over Preminger’s control over his choice of projects. This was not, I hope, a friendship-destroying argument, even if we never reached agreement – but I maintain that Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was a film Preminger himself chose to make, as he had enough clout by the late 1960s to do so, and had done before. My friend maintains he was a director for hire. The final result certainly argues for the latter. Because this is not an interesting movie. Liza Minnelli plays a somewhat dimwitted but happy-go-lucky young woman whose face was badly-scarred by an acid attack by her boyfriend. She leaves the institution where she has been recuperating, and sets up house with a gay man in a wheelchair and a man with severe epilepsy. And, er, that’s pretty much it. I didn’t get this film, I didn’t get why Preminger chose to make it. It’s based on a novel, which is hardly surprising, and you have to wonder if Minnelli was a such a fan of the novel she persuaded Preminger to film it. She was on a career high after her previous film, The Sterile Cuckoo, but if that was the case, it backfired as Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was a flop. Fortunately, Minnelli’s next film was Cabaret. Preminger went on to make three more films, none of which was especially successful.

Body Puzzle, Lamberto Bava (1992, Italy). Giallo does not have an especially good reputation in the Anglophone world, possibly because some of its titles were characterised as “video nasties” in the UK. I don’t know that Body Puzzle was one of those, but it wouldn’t surprised if it was. It’s only mentioned in passing on Bava’s Wikipedia page, for a start. And it is a pretty gruesome movie. A serial killer goes on a spree, and sends a body part from each victim to a young woman. There doesn’t seem to be any link between the victims and the woman. The detective in charge of the investigation finds himself drawn to the woman  – which is pretty much a cliché in police procedurals – but eventually discovers the story behind the murders. It’s… original, but a bit silly. What most people will likely remember from this movie, however, are the gruesome murders. If Body Puzzle had been a twenty-first century film, with CGI and everything, I’d have found it unwatchable. I’m far too squeamish for torture porn. But because Body Puzzle is nearly thirty years old, and a giallo, its effects are far from state of the art. I mean, the murders are not pretty, but they look like they’re the products of special effects, and probably no different in level of sophistication to television shows of the time, albeit a lot gorier. Even for a giallo, Body Puzzle is, I think, more notorious than good. It has its moments, but it’s plain Bava was out to shock and that often gets in the way of the story and the central romantic relationship. Worth seeing at least once.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2019, #30

Wow. It’s been about three weeks since I last posted here. I could claim I’ve been busy the last couple of months – which I have – but one thing you hear about here quite a bit is vintertrötthet, winter tiredness, which no doubt explains the surprising number of energy drinks on sale in Swedish supermarkets… It’s not like it’s significantly colder here than in the UK, at least not in November – although it is somewhat darker: sunrise is about thirty minutes later, sunset is about an hour earlier. True, winter has barely begun, but the shorter day does take its toll, certainly by the time you get home after a day in the office.

I’m going to try catch up with my Moving pictures posts over the next week or so. Fortunately, I’m only four posts behind, because I’ve been mostly watching television series. (I’ve now finished Andromeda, it was a bit pants. And I’ve watched three seasons of Stargate SG-1, two seasons of True Detective, and a season of Modus.)

Anyway, on with the movies…

Fire over England, William K Howard (1937, UK). I couldn’t help thinking while watching Fire over England that it was the perfect Brexit film. It’s set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and is full of the sort of bombastic bullshit with no historical basis that is favoured by Brexiteers. Not that their bullshit about the present has any basis in fact, either. Fire over England hits all the main points of Good Queen Bess’s reign, even the invented and apocryphal ones. It’s told chiefly from the point of view of Laurence Olivier’s character, the son of Sir Richard Ingolby, an invented figure, who escapes capture when his father’s fleet is taken by the Spanish, nursed back to health on a Spanish estate, swears vengeance on the Spanish when he learns his father has been executed by them, and returns to England to urge Queen Elizabeth to fight Spain. Then there was something about a plot by traitors to kill the queen, a secret return to Spain, an encounter with the don’s nubile daughter who had nursed him back to health, and finally command of the fire ships which eventually do for the Spanish Armada. It’s all stirring stuff, and English exceptionalism from start to finish, but well-staged and well-played – hardly surprising, given its top-drawer cast – but some of us have a more nuanced view of history, and see it as more than just raw material to twist into facile justifications for present-day atrocities and political stupidities.

The Boy and the Beast, Mamoru Hosoda (2015, Japan). Sometimes, nothing in your watchlist seems to take your fancy, so you go looking for something new… which is how I found The Boy and the Beast. Anime is usually worth a go, even if, like some people I know, I’m not obsessed with it. But I have found that, while I’ve yet to take fully on board some of the form’s conventions, I’ve enjoyed many of them. So perhaps I’m learning a bit of the language – anime narrative language, that is; not Japanese. In The Boy and the Beast, Ren, a nine year old boy runs away from home when his mother dies and his absent father is not on hand. Meanwhile, in the Beast Kingdom, the current lord is about to transcend to godhood and has picked two successors. One is popular and a skilled fighter. The other, Kumatetsu, is disliked but has the potential to be a great fighter. Kumatetsu takes Ren to the Beast Kingdom and makes him his disciple, though neither really want it. And it is their relationship, and the grudging respect and love that grows between them, that drives the movie. Their relationship is also the making of both of them. Of course, that on its own would be too easy… Ren develops a “void in his heart”, because he has trouble reconnecting with his real father. And the adopted son of Kumatetsu’s rival – also a human – develops something similar, but more powerful, which threatens to destroy the Beast Kingdom. The Boy and the Beast looks similar in style to many recent internationally successful anime properties, and, it has to be said, its story runs along some well-travelled rails… But there’s a lot of heart in The Boy and the Beast, and that’s what it makes it a movie worth watching.

The Limehouse Golem, Juan Carlos Medina (2016, UK). Peter Ackroyd is not a novelist whose books are typically adapted for the cinema, in fact I think The Limehouse Golem, adapted from Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is his first. (Although apparently a movie based on The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is in development.) And, to be honest, of the Ackroyd novels I’ve read, I doubt I would have chosen it as the most likely to be adapted. I should also read more Ackroyd. The Limehouse Golem is chiefly about an investigation into a series of gruesome murders in Victorian London, which are clearly the work of a single serial killer. The title of the source novel explicitly links the story to Dan Leno, a music-hall star, but the film chooses to open the story at a Leno show and then link the victims to Leno. (I don’t recall if the book did the same.) As a Victorian police procedural, comparisons with any movie about the Jack the Ripper are inevitable… and certainly Ackroyd’s murders are more inventive, and the crimes less ultimately inexplicable. On the other hand, the identity of the killer is not hard to guess, so the final act is hardly a total surprise. Unfortunately, police procedurals are somewhat dependent on the character of the chief investigator, and The Limehouse Golem has Bill Nighy in that role. He’s a good actor, but he plays everything flat – and that simply doesn’t work in this movie. (Alan Rickman was originally cast – and I can see him being much better in the role – but he left due to ill health.) The film looks good, and makes a good fist of its story, but at times it feels like just another retread of Jack the Ripper and Nighy is not enough of a presence to lift it above that. Worth seeing, but you’re probably better off reading the novel.

The Case of the Bloody Iris, Giuliano Carnimeo (1972, Italy). Shameless have been total stars with their policy of releasing some of their catalogue free to view on Amazon Prime. True, giallo is not everyone’s cup of tea, and the genre was never known for its quality, or indeed ever about quality, but I like them and I like the fact they were at their height during the 1970s because I like 1970s aesthetics. (But not actual 1970s materials – I mean, I remember nylon sheets, and they were fucking awful.) One of the appeals of gialli is that their simplistic plots were often so mangled, you have no idea what they’re supposed to be about. In The Case of the Bloody Iris (the original Italian title literally translates as Why those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?), a young woman moves into a new apartment in London, and is subsequently stalked by a masked stranger who kills her friends and those who interact with her. The film spends the first half glorying in its gruesome murders, and the second half trailing obvious suspects in front of the viewer which never really convince. But then giallo never presented itself as a genre with any real commitment to sense, accuracy, logic, or indeed anything other than visuals. And the last is definitely something that doesn’t always travel – cf “Italian style”. In many respects, these 1970s giallo thrillers remind me of Hammer horror movies from the same decade: they’re cheaply-made, with an aesthetic very much embedded in the decade, and with stories that seem to have been put together with an eye on how they appear on screen rather than any narrative consistency. They are, I suppose, an acquired taste – but I seem to have acquired it, and Shameless have given sterling service in providing for it. If you like giallo, The Case of the Bloody Iris is, I would say, middle-tier: some good mise-en-scène in London, although that I suspect was more accident than design, plenty of less than convincing gore, and a plot that pretends to an intelligence it fails to present.

Theatre of Blood, Douglas Hickox (1973, UK). And speaking of Hammer horror films, which Theatre of Blood is not, but it seems to embody so many of the qualities that made Hammer films so much fun, particularly to a British viewer, that it might as well count as an exemplar of them. If you know what I mean. The plot is simple. Shakespearean actor Vincent Price fails to win a prestigious acting prize and commits suicide. Shortly thereafter, various critics die gruesome deaths inspired by the deaths of major characters in Shakespeare’s plays. This is not meant to be a mystery. It’s actually billed as a “horror comedy”, although it tends more to the former than the latter, and it is familiarity with its cast, the corpus of British horror films, Shakespeare, and UK cinema of the 1970s that definitely – defiantly? – informs the “comedy” aspect. I don’t pretend to know a great deal about any or all of those but… Theatre of Blood was almost a who’s who of UK B-list thespian talent of the 1970s. And seeing those familiar faces, often in unfamiliar roles, was part of the fun. The Shakespeare element is well-explained in the dialogue, but not obtrusively so. The whole thing came across as a spoof that actually played much cleverer than it was intended to be. If that makes sense. It sort of recapitulates Hammer films, without actually being one of them or partaking of them. Which is a good trick. I suspect the appeal of the movie is higher for Brit viewers, especially those who remember (some of) the 1970s, and I definitely fall into that group, but I found it all amusing and cleverly done – for that level of cleverness normally present in horror films of the period. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2019, #29

Still trying to catch up. An even more mixed bunch than usual. If that’s possible.

Tschick, Fatih Akın (2016, Germany). The title is the nickname of a new boy who joins fourteen year old Maik’s class at school. Tschick is a Russian immigrant, with less than fluent German, and what appears to be a drink problem. Maik is the class misfit – he lusts after the most popular girl in the class, but she completely ignores his existence, so much so she throws a party and invites everyone in the class except Maik. On the night of the party, Tschick turns up in a stolen Lada 4WD and the two decide to head south to Walachia to visit Tschick’s grandmother. So you have a road movie, in which the two protagonists are fourteen years old but end up in escapades little different to those experienced by older characters in similar films, except perhaps for the lack of alcohol. And it works. The book on which it’s based is a YA novel and critically acclaimed. Its author was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in 2010 and committed suicide three years later. He was 48. None of which is especially relevant, particularly since the film does not come across as YA material. This is not like The Hunger Games. The two leads are good in their roles, and their adventures are believable. Definitely worth seeing.

Circus of Horrors, Sidney Hayers (1960, UK). I have of late been sampling many mid-twentieth century British horror films. I’m not a fan of horror films, I’m far too squeamish. But old school horror I quite enjoy, if only because its effects are so obviously effects. And old British ones – especially Hammer – I also find appealing because, well, they’re so British. Circus of Horrors is not a Hammer film, although it’s much like their output of the time (which may tell you something about the success of their formula). A plastic surgeon is forced to flee after his operation on a famous actress goes wrong. He stumbles across a travelling circus in France. The owner’s daughter is badly scarred on the face, so the surgeon operates, and consequently joins the circus as part-owner, as he believes it to be a perfect cover for his continued explorations into plastic surgery. Except, when you think about it, it’s not. How can you move a sophisticated surgical suite around with a circus? It’s not like circuses are known for their cleanliness and hygiene. Anyway, everything seems to be going well, but then the circus crosses the Channel, and then someone recognises the plastic surgeon… Circus of Horrors is not really a horror film, although it does feature a circus. I’d say it was more thriller territory, unless you consider facial scars horrific – although this is a 1960s British film – but as a thriller its story is a bit, well, silly. It is in fact altogether a bit silly, but it keeps a straight face throughout and its commitment to its premise is quite impressive. I enjoyed it, but I suspect its appeal is limited.

The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China). The story is based on a novella by the first Chinese author to win the Hugo Award (Cixin Liu, in 2015 for The Three Body Problem), although it makes a number of changes. There was a big thing in US science fiction a couple of years ago for Chinese authors, and despite Chinese authors having written genre fiction for many years, and occasional novels being translated into English, although not always published by genre imprints, not to mention Chinese-made genre films from both Hong Kong and mainland China being not especially hard to find in the West for at least three or four decades, some of which were science fiction… I mean, the Chinese language science fiction world is bigger than the English language one but some people seemed to think they were doing Chinese authors a favour by giving them the red carpet treatment in the West. And this film is a perfect illustration of how dumb those people were. It’s a big budget Chinese science fiction movie designed partly to ape Western science fiction movies – and its financing was difficult at best – but even then China has been busy investing in Western genre movies like The Meg, so much so “trans-Pacific” is almost becoming a genre of its own, when it all means nothing because The Wandering Earth will be judged by most of its viewers as a science fiction movie (except for those fuckwits too dumb to watch a movie that has subtitles, of course). And, as a science fiction movie, The Wandering Earth looks amazing but doesn’t really make much sense. So, just like a Hollywood big budget sf movie, then. Scientists discover the Sun is about to turn into a red giant, which forces the nations of Earth to unite – a long-running wet dream of science fiction – and  build thousands of giant fusion engines to push Earth out of its orbit and on a trip to Alpha Centauri, 4.2 light years away (and probably not a good choice for a destination anyway but never mind). One of the engines breaks, the planet doesn’t have enough power to escape Jupiter’s gravitational pull (and it would take decades to reach Jupiter but never mind), and everyone runs around frantically try to fix shit (and it all seems weirdly manual but never mind). It’s all completely manufactured jeopardy because we’re following the rules set by the writer, whether or not they make sense, and that may well be a defining characteristic of science fiction as a genre, but as far as cinema goes at least eighty percent of the appeal lies in the visuals, and in that department The Wandering Earth scores highly. For all its production problems, this is a good-looking state of the art science fiction cinema as practiced both in the East and the West. It wouldn’t surprise me if it appears on a few genre award lists next year – and it might actually deserve nomination.

In the Shadow of the Moon, Jim Mickle (2019, USA). There is a film, a British documentary, with the same title, which is about the Apollo astronauts. This is not that film. It is, in fact, a US high concept sf thriller. In 1988, a Philadelphia cop with ambitions to become a detective becomes interested in a series of seeming accidents in which those who caused the accidents apparently had their brains turn to liquid. A mysterious young woman in a hoodie is seen in the vicinity. Similar events occur at nine-year intervals, each time investigated by the cop as he rises up the ranks. It turns out the accidents are murders, perpetrated by an assassin from the future, who is actually travelling backwards in time, so her future is the policeman’s past (this is not a spoiler). The science behind this is the usual movieland technobollocks, but the concept is handled well, and there are several twists which are well-placed and still surprising. The film seems to take a while to get where it’s going, when anyone familiar with sf will figure out what’s going on pretty quickly. True, it might seem obvious to the viewer – but that’s because the viewer knows it’s fiction and somewhat different rules apply, but if the characters are being true to their world they’re hardly going to spot that their murderer is a time traveller. You know what I mean. In the Shadow of the Moon would have benefited with a little more pace, and a faster approach to its central premise, but it was still well-handled and well-played. Worth seeing.

The Fall of the Roman Empire, Anthony Mann (1964, USA). This movie is often named as one of Hollywood’s greatest historical epics, from that time when Hollywood churned out more historical epics than you could shake a reasonably-sized, well, historian at. Although a box office flop on its release, it now enjoys a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. True, as Hollywood historical epics go, it’s as Hollywood historical, er, epic-al as you can get. It still holds the record for the largest set ever built. The most bizarre thing about watching it, however, is that Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which pretty much everyone has seen, is more or less a remake of The Fall of the Roman Empire – mostly unacknowledged – and that lends the latter a weird sense of déjà vu despite it being the earlier film. (This may not be true for people now in their seventies or above.) Anyway, both cover the same period of Roman history, ie the death of Marcus Aurelius at the hands of a cabal of plotters, and the ascension of his dissolute son Commodus, instead of his chosen heir, the general Gaius Livius. Commodus promptly goes full-on batshit crazy Roman emperor and has himself declared a god, leading to what was the first of many raids on the empire by the Goths, the last of which a century or two later eventually brought it down. They say those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, and while the UK may well have been a Roman province at one point, the history of the Roman Empire is hardly the islands’ history… but it’s tempting to point at the shit going down these days and wonder if one or two senior politicians have not got a touch of the Commodus. But, the movie… It’s very much what it says on the tin: mid-twentieth century big budget historical epic, peppered with big names and familiar faces, a glib if not irresponsible retelling of historical events, and an example of pure Hollywood spectacle that proudly displays every dollar of its massive budget onscreen. They do not, as they say, make them like that any more. And more’s the pity. The Fall of the Roman Empire is not a great film – Gladiator makes a better fist of the same material – but it is a great viewing experience. Worth seeing.

All the Colours of the Dark, Sergio Martino (1972, Italy). I do like me some giallo, and Shameless Video have done an excellent job of making them available on DVD or Blu-ray, and even on Amazon Prime. True, most of the giallo films are not very good, although the genre has thrown up the odd gem, such as Footprints on the Moon (still a favourite). The Shameless releases on Amazon Prime are mostly those films starring Edwige Fenech, who was undoubtedly watchable, but I would prefer their choice to be driven by plot rather than actress. But no matter. In All the Colours of the Dark, Fenech playsa young woman who is haunted by a stalker, and somehow finds herself joining a Satanic cult, initially to protect herself from the stalker but then it turns out he’s one of them, but what is real and what is nightmare is very much left for the viewer to decide. The film has its moments, but it does often feel like an extended episode of Hammer House of Horror – a favourite TV series from the 1980s; get the DVD collection if you can – chiefly because it was filmed in the UK. As an episode of a Hammer House of Horror-like TV series, despite its feature-film length, it succeeds quite well. It is, naturally, very seventies. Almost definingly so. Which was part of its charm. The plot spends much of its time trying to present occult happenings only to fall back on a quotidian explanation, which is not a criticism and might well be a characteristic of the genre. It works for me. The low production values, the often-poor script… these are part of giallo’s appeal, and All the Colours of the Dark has it to a notable degree. I like these films, and among them this does indeed stand out as a good one (among the admittedly few I’ve seen). Set your expectations accordingly, and you will enjoy and appreciate this movie.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941