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Reading diary 2020, #8

I was briefly tempted to review all six books on the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist, as announced in mid-June, given there’s been a tradition of commentary throughout the award’s history. Of course, there is no guarantee I’d finish reading the books by the time the winner is announced in September. Once upon a time, the Clarke Award used to generate interesting, if occasionally controversial, shortlists. While you might not have agreed with every book nominated, the shortlist generally included books otherwise unknown that were worth reading. But things seem to have slipped these last few years. Not just the presence of Sea of Rust on the shortlist in 2018, which was quite frankly hackwork… I mean, when you remember bad nominees of the past, such as Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three in 2012, it was at least a novel in conversation with the genre, and Bear is an accomplished craftsman… Some of the more recent nominees, unfortunately, can claim neither.

The Clarke commentary no longer takes place. An attempt to reinvigorate it several years ago with a shadow jury was loudly condemned by US fans who plainly didn’t understand what a shadow jury is and equally plainly hadn’t bothered to find out. Despite all claims to the contrary, fandom is not a community. Once upon a time, it was an emergent phenomenon of the stories’ existence. Now it’s just a part of the marketing machine, and, happily for the publishers, it costs them nothing. Five stars means less than one star. Giving a book five stars just makes you a fucking mug. And everything is dominated by the US, a nation which seems congenitally incapable of recognising that other countries exist and they do things differently there (yes, I know, that’s a time-based reference, not geographic one; but never mind). True, science fiction is an American mode of fiction, and the single largest market for its creations, so its dominance is hardly surprising. But us non-USians, while we may appreciate the genre output of the US – the stories, the novels, the films, the TV series – we don’t actually give a shit about what US fans think. Science fiction fandom is not one giant global family. It never has been. And it never should be. Vive la différence.

All but one of the books below were nominated for genre awards. One won. Deservedly, I must admit. ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’ was on the Nebula novella shortlist in 1966 (the award’s first shortlist), but lost to joint winners ‘He Who Shapes’ and ‘The Saliva Tree’. Space Opera was nominated for the Hugo in 2019. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein won the BSFA Award in 2020. The Last Astronaut has been nominated for the 2020 Clarke Award shortlist. And Borne was on the 2018 Clarke Award shortlist. Strandloper is non-genre, and was not, as far as I can discover, nominated for any awards. You’d expect some top-drawer reading out of that bunch of accolades. A shame, then, to find it wasn’t the case.

The Ballad of Beta-2 & Empire Star, Samuel R Delany (1965/1966, USA). I’m pretty sure I first read this on a family holiday in Paris in the early 1980s. I have a memory of buying Delany’s collection, Driftglass (the Panther/Granada paperback edition), from an English-language bookshop in Paris, chiefly because I’d taken the 1977 Sphere paperback of The Ballad of Beta-2 & Empire Star with me to read during the holiday. While both ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’ and ‘Empire Star’ had stayed with me during the nearly forty years since, ‘Empire Star’ more than ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’, it must be said, I’d never bothered to reread them. Until now. And this despite being a big fan of Delany’s fiction and non-fiction. True, some of his output is hugely dated. But some of his output is brilliant precisely because it is dated. The two novellas here have aged extremely well, and while the clever Moebius-strip narrative of ‘Empire Star’ I’d remembered pretty much accurately over the last four decades, I’d forgotten how good was ‘The Ballad of Beta-2’. An anthropology student is sent to study the eponymous song, the only original piece of art created by the Star Folk, the degenerate survivors of a convoy of generation starships, who were beaten to the rest of the galaxy by progress. The story behind the song is pretty much handed to the student on a plate, but it’s an interesting story, and not at all what the reader would have expected. ‘Empire Star’ has a simple plot: Comet Jo, a plyasil farmhand in a “simplex” asteroid-based community finds a crystallised Tritovian and is told to take it to Empire Star to deliver a message. And that’s what he does. Along the way he meets people who have previously interacted with him at different points in their lives, and learns about the Lll, the only enslaved people in the galaxy and the galaxy’s greatest builders, and the war fought over them and their emancipation. I’ve long considered ‘Empire Star’ one of my favourite novellas – I reread it early this century, I seem to remember – and on this reread, my admiration of it remains undiminished. Read both of these novellas, they’re worth it. But definitely read ‘Empire Star’.

Strandloper Alan Garner (1996, UK). This was inspired by the real life story of William Buckley, a giant of a man – between 6ft 5 inches and 6ft 7 inches, apparently – and an ex-soldier, who at the turn of the nineteenth century was transported to Australia for 14 years for carrying a bolt of cloth he maintained he had not known was stolen (British justice – the envy of the world, eh?). Shortly after arrival in what is now Australia, he learnt the penal colony was being moved to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and escaped. He was taken in by the Wathaurong People and spent thirty years living among them. The protagonist of Strandloper – also called William Buckley – is transported for “lopping” the local squire’s oaks, and sedition – the latter based on a piece of paper, a “tract”, containing passages from the Bible, chosen by the squire’s son, the semi-literate Buckley had been using to practice his writing. Buckley survives passage to Australia and, like his namesake, escapes and lives among one of the local peoples. Strandloper is a disconcerting read. There is no clear sense of time running through the narrative. The dialogue is given in local dialect, and for the first section consists mostly of local nonsense words used in songs and pagan practices. The end result is a short book, only 200 pages, which packs quite a punch. I’m reminded of Golding’s Rites of Passage, although that may simply be because they share an historical period. Yet now I think about it, both novels have an impressive immediacy, in Golding’s case generated by the use of journal entries as the narrative… and the fact Garner manages it using a (relatively) straightforward omniscient POV narrative is probably the greater achievement. Previously, I had only read Garner’s children books, and enjoyed them, and a Young Adult I found less satisfying. But Strandloper is good, and persuades me to hunt down more of his adult fiction.

Space Opera, Cathrynne M Valente (2018, USA). This was nominated for the Hugo Award in 2019. Its genesis is simple, and explained by the author in an afterword. A US genre author discovered the Eurovision Song Contest and was much taken with it. A fellow author persuaded them to use it in a science fiction novel. There are many reasons why this is a bad idea. The US does not compete in Eurovision. People in the US have no idea what Eurovision means… and it means different things to different countries. In the UK, it is considered somewhat risible, with a side-order of resentment. In Sweden, there is a month-long televised Melodifest merely to pick the song to represent the country. Valente decided to appropriate Eurovision for a US audience and base it all on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. She failed. Not only are the references a weird mishmash of UK and US that make no sense, embedding UK cultural elements in US cultural movements, but the whole thing is a litany of megaviolence and genocide from start to finish… While Eurovision was indeed created to help rebuild links between the war-torn nations of Europe after WWII, it does not celebrate the death and destruction which occurred between 1939 and 1945. Nor does it boast of the weaponry, tactics or bodycounts of the various competing nations. Valente also chose to model her prose on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I am not, I admit, a great fan of Adams’s novels, although I’ve read them and, when I was young, enjoyed them. But Adam’s books at least contained ideas and riffed off them. Valente’s does not. Adams’s jokes were carefully set up, and then left quickly behind, to crop up again when least expected. Valente belabours her jokes, sometimes with almost Fanthorpe levels of repetition. You end up skipping pages, trying to find the narrative. To be fair, I tried reading a Valente novel once before, Palimpsest, and ended up throwing it against the wall because it was so overwritten. And I admire Lawrence Durrell’s prose! I managed to finish Space Opera, but it was a slog. I can only recommend people avoid it. Especially if they’re fans of Eurovision.

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn (2019, UK). Reading this proved interesting after reading Gwyneth Jones’s Joanna Russ a couple of months ago. Chiefly because I have read many of the books written by both subjects. However, where Jones’s Joanna Russ persuaded me to reread Russ’s oeuvre, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein does not do the same for Heinlein. But for a different reason. When I read Joanna Russ, I felt as though I’d missed important points in in Russ’s fiction. When I read The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Mendlesohn’s criticism opened up his books for me in interesting ways but didn’t substantially change what I remembered of them from my own readings. Admittedly, I read the books several decades ago, but Mendlesohn’s argument didn’t strike me as sufficient grounds to track down copies of the books and reread them (I binned most of my Heinlein paperbacks years ago). Don’t get me wrong, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein is a fascinating read in its own right, and an informative study of Heinlein’s fiction. It is a worthy winner of the BSFA Award (even though one of the other nominees contains a critical essay on my Apollo Quartet…). I’m not entirely convinced by some elements of Mendlesohn’s analysis – for example, Mendlesohn fails to point out that Wyoming pretty much vanishes from the narrative of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress once she’s married (she becomes a hairdresser); I also thought the novel’s code-switching was cack-handed at best. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I read a few years ago for the first time, so it’s relatively fresh for me. Other books, as mentioned above, I read back in the 1970s and 1980s, and I think the only one I’ve subsequently reread was Stranger in a Strange Land ten years ago. And now I’m starting to persuade myself perhaps I should try rereading them… Perhaps that’s the difference between The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein and Joanna Russ. The latter inspired me to read and reread Russ more urgently than the former did for Heinlein. Nevertheless, both critical works are definitely worth reading.

The Last Astronaut, David Wellington (2019, USA). Hmm, near-future novel about a mission to an asteroid that has just entered the Solar System. But this is several decades from now and the US space programme is dead, so they have to drag an astronaut out of retirement. This sounds right up my street… There’s a follow-up to Oumuamua thirty-five years from now, but this one is considerably bigger. Unfortunately, the US doesn’t have a space programme after their Mars mission ended in tragedy. But they cobble together a mission, crewed by 1) the geek who discovered the asteroid and realised it as was decelerating, b) a young xenobiologist, c) a Space Force pilot of the X-37 drone (that’s the same one being flown now, by the way), and d) the ex-astronaut captain of the Mars mission with all her baggage. But they’re overtaken en route by a corporate mission – who describe NASA as “the enemy” – and then spend very little time analysing the asteroid before following the corporate team inside. In a tweet, I characterised this book as being “a mashup of Rendezvous with Rama and Prometheus, with none of the sense of wonder of the first and all of the baffling stupidity of the second.” To be honest, I was being generous. The central premise of The Last Astronaut is that the asteroid is a space-based life-form, whose life-cycle requires it to crash on habitable planets in order to breed. Which makes not the slightest bit of sense. How did they evolve if they required Earth-like worlds in order to reproduce? And, apparently, the asteroid creature rapidly generates interior flora in order to feed its rapacious young… except, where does it get the energy from to grow that flora? Not to mention the asteroid creature’s ability to accelerate rapidly using solar sails. This is a sf novel written by someone who has done a little bit of research but not actually applied any intelligence to their premise. It doesn’t help the prose is the sort of bland simplistic prose of techno-thrillers, the characterisation is single-note throughout, and the Mars mission commander is repeatedly labelled a murderer throughout the book despite doing the only thing possible to save the Mars mission. Wellington has tried to update his presentation by including “interview” excerpts of the main cast (although some, I think, seem to have taken place after their deaths), and adding an “excerpt from author’s foreword to the 2057 edition” by David Wellington. I read The Last Astronaut in mounting disbelief – its complete failure to present a believable near-future, its reliance on present-day tech, its pantomime corporate villains, its hokey premise, its weirdly small cast for the story it told, its complete lack of originality… How it ended up on the shortlist of a major genre award is a fucking mystery.

Borne, Jeff VanderMeer (2018, USA). I don’t get it. I read Annihilation and, okay, Ballard did it first and Ballard did it better, but I thought Annihilation quite good, and VanderMeer is one of the good guys and his Wonderbook is a damn sight more useful as a writing tool than 99% of the how-to-write books out there. But reading Borne, I’m reminded of The Book of Phoenix and the Binti novellas by Nnedi Okorafor, both of which read like they were written by a teenager, but Okorafor has a PhD in English, and if you know that much about writing fiction, why would you deliberately write something bad? And Borne – which, it must be said, has been highly praised – did not seem to me to be very good at all. There’s this post-apocalyptic city, and a five-storey flying bear, yes, really, and a woman called Rachel who finds some sort of biotech creature which grows and grows and can imitate all manner of things. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense, nor gives you any reason to continue reading. It doesn’t help that the prose is so lazily written, such as the narrator witnessing an invisible person make a gesture, or crashed helicopters having “wings crumpled”. I read Borne and I didn’t see any reason to get invested in the story. It felt like a half-a-dozen pet images on endless recycle. I thought Annihilation was good but didn’t bother with the sequels. Borne is apparently the first in a trilogy but I definitely won’t be bothering with the sequels.


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Movie roundup 2020. #10

No US films, as promised in my last Movie roundup post.

The Five Deadly Venoms, Chang Cheh (1978, China). The title refers to five masked kung fu masters, who each base their style on one of Chinese folklore’s poisonous creatures – the centipede, the snake, the scorpion, the lizard and the toad. A pupil has to figure out the identity of the masters before they join up and rob the clan of its riches. Unfortunately, the two good masters are easy to spot – although film drags out the identity of one them long past time – and the two evil ones are even more obvious. The fifth is not revealed right until the very end, and it doesn’t really come as much of a surprise. An odd film – a treasure hunt but it all takes place on three sets, and the fighting is so mannered it’s just not that exciting. I’m surprised this is considered a classic, to be honest.

The Killer, John Woo (1989, China). Whenever I see this film on best of lists, I have a feeling I’ve seen it. But I can’t actually remember the story. Nor have I recorded it on my list of films I’ve watched. And now I’ve watched it… and I still think I might have seen it before but I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s very very 1980s. Chow Yun Fat plays a hitman who’s had enough. He promises to do one last job, during which he accidentally blinds a nightclub singer while returning fire with one of his target’s goons. He feels sorry for her, and later starts seeing her romantically. She, of course, doesn’t know who he is. You can probably guess the rest.

Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate, Stanley Long (1978, UK). The third and final film in the series, with Christopher Neil still as the lead, but this time he’s a, well, a plumber’s mate. Actually, he seems to be an actual plumber, who works under contract for a plumbing company run by Stephen Lewis, you know, that bloke from On the Buses who used to say, “I’ll get you, Butler!”. Neil is asked to replace the toilet seat in a well-off woman’s house, which leads to the expected sexual shenanigans. However, it turns out her husband has just been released from prison after serving time for a gold robbery. The proceeds were never found. Neil sells the toilet-seat to a junk shop. He thinks it’s brass. It’s the gold from the robbery, of course, melted down into a toilet seat. Comedy ensues. Not great films by any means, but this was probably the best of three, perhaps because it had the most coherent plot.

Wheels on Meals, Sammo Hung (1984, China). And speaking of very 1980s films, here’s another one with Jackie Chan. He and Yuan Biao operate a food van in Barcelona. They become involved with a young woman who proves to be a pickpocket. But there are men after her, and not because of her light fingers. It turns out she’s the heir to a large fortune and the next in line wants her gone. This is easily one of the best Jackie Chan films, with an excellent car chase, and a final fight, against Benny Urquidez, which is generally considered Chan’s best.

Balgandharva, Ravi Jadhav (2011, India). In the nineteenth century in India – or perhaps only parts of India – women were banned from the stage, much as in Elizabethan England. The title refers to one such male actress who became hugely successful. Unfortunately, it went to his head and he insisted on ever bigger spectacles and eventually ended up broke. But his career greatly influenced Bollywood (although it’s Marathi cinema and not Bollywood which made this film). Not a bad film, although the actor playing the lead had a disconcerting resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio.

High Hopes, Mike Leigh (1988, UK). It’s Thatcher’s Britain and a working-class couple in Camden have to deal with his aged mother, who lives in the only council house in a gentrified street, and whose neighbours are Hooray Henries, and a self-centred social-climbing sister who’s married to a used-car salesman. The central couple, and the mother, are well-drawn, but the rest of the cast are caricatures. Still worth seeing, though.

The Bad Education Movie, Elliot Hegarty (2015, UK). Jake Whitehall plays a teacher who has never grown up, tells stories about his salad days at public school, and takes his class on inappropriate school trips. His latest plan to take them Las Vegas is scuppered by the school, and he has to take them to Cornwall instead. Where Whitehall inadvertently hooks up with the “Cornwall Liberation Army”, who then occupy a local tourist spot castle. The humour is a bit hit and miss, and a lot of it is comedy of shame with Whitehall the butt of the joke. The film has its moments, but it’s hard to really like a film that paints everyone outside London as some sort of intellectually-challenged yokel. Those sort of jokes weren’t funny in the 1970s, and they really haven’t aged well.

In Love with Alma Cogan, Tony Britten (2011, UK). Roger Lloyd-Pack plays the manager of Cromer’s pier-end theatre, which is losing money and the Council are threatening to sell off. The reason it’s losing money is because Lloyd-Pack has kept ticket prices low so the townsfolk can afford them. And it’s the low-key battle between the two that forms the plot of the film. The title refers to a tribute act hired to boost ticket sales at the theatre and, to be honest, while the I know the name Alma Cogan I have no real who she was. So I’m not really sure what this film’s intended audience was – because the story seemed quite contemporary, but anyone who remembers Alma Cogan is going to 70+…

Tracker, Ian Sharp (2011, New Zealand). Shortly after the Boer War, a Boer arrives in New Zealand, hoping to begin a new life. But then a Maori is accused of murder and goes on the run, and the Boer is asked by the local garrison commander, who knew him from the war, to track the runaway. (The Maori is innocent, of course.) The Boer, played by Ray Winstone, eventually captures the Maori, played by Temuera Morrison, and they earn each other’s respect. Some lovely landscape cinematography, solid turns by both Winstone and Morrison, and yet another story that shows the British Empire as it really was.

Five Fingers for Marseilles, Michael Matthews (2017, South Africa). Marseilles is a shanty town in South Africa. A teenager, one of a group of five friends, shoots and kills three police officers who are demanding protection money from the local stores. He runs away. Many years later, he returns, after spending time in prison, and discovers the town has grown, one of his friends is now mayor, and a mysterious gangster now runs everything. It’s all framed explicitly as a Western, although the setting bears no resemblance to the Wild West. An excellent film.


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Best of the half– fuck, what a year it’s been so far… year

2020 has certainly been a year for the history books. True, more people died in the early decades of last century, but that did result in actually intelligent people being in charge for a while. But then old habits kicked back in and the British once again mistook privilege for intelligence and the US once again mistook the possession of wealth for intelligence, and so both countries now have the worst and most inept governments in living memory.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the pandemic. I’ve spent most of this year so far cooped up indoors. And all my holidays plans – conventions in Stockholm and the Åland Islands – were cancelled; and ones later this year – in Reykjavík and Copenhagen – may also come to naught. You would think that working from home and not socialising would mean I’ve spent the last six months readings tons of books and watching shitloads of films. Sadly, no. Which has made this best of the half year both easier and harder – easier because there’s less to choose from; harder because there were no real stand-outs, just an even split between good and bad. But here goes, anyway…

books
To date, I’ve read 49 books, of which ten were rereads. Female authors accounted for 43%, and male authors for 47%. The remainder were graphic novels and non-fiction. Half were by British authors, a third by US authors, and the rest from Sweden, New Zealand, Israel, France, Belgium and Canada. The oldest book I read was first published in 1923, and the most recent was published this year. The best five books read in 2020 so far are…

1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK). From a relatively easy to understand premise – a group of “superheroes” taken from late Victorian/early Edwardian fiction – this extended series has turned increasingly metafictional as it has progressed. And every piece of British fiction sooner or later references Shakespeare. And if you’re going to do that, and you’re genre, why not go for the big one, The Tempest? (It’d be King Lear for other genres, I suspect; but A Comedy of Errors for, er, comedy.) This latest installment of The League of Gentleman doesn’t just up the metafictional states, it also functions as a history of UK comics. I can understand the motives behind this – and I’m well aware it’s something Moore has tackled many times in other properties – but certainly the breadth of British comics doesn’t seem so well-known – US comics: superhero comics … UK comics: everything from the Bash Street Kids to Dan Dare to Judge Dredd to Susan of St Bride’s to Lord Peter Flint…

2 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve been a fan of Russ’s fiction for many years, and a fan of Jones’s writing for considerably longer, and in hindsight the two have a great deal in common. The science fiction of both is intensely feminist, although in Russ’s fiction it feels more combative – but claiming that’s a consequence of its time is too easy an answer, because while Russ may have been earlier, the war is far from over, even 65 years after the publication of Russ’s first story in 1955. Jones provides an overview of Russ’s life, and then discusses her fiction, both short and long. This book does what all good books of its type should do: it makes you want to go back and revisit the subject’s works. I finished Joanna Russ wanting to reread Russ’s stories and novels. Job done.

3 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2018, Israel). Tidhar has spent a lot of time exploring alternative Israels and, sadly, history has given him plenty of plausible alternatives to explore. In Unholy Land, the Jews are offered land in Uganda by the British – which really sort of happened – and they accept the offer and call it Palestine. But Tidhar can never tell a straight alternative history, there has to be some sort of spin. In Unholy Land, a science fiction author returns to this Palestine, except he’s not from that reality, and his presence changes things. For all that this is not new territory for Tidhar, it’s good stuff. I’m also pretty sure one of the stories written by the sf author in the novel is the first sf story by Tidhar I ever read.

4 Metropolis, Philip Kerr (2019, UK). It’s not just sentimentality that earns this novel its spot in this top five  – it’s the last of the Bernie Gunther books, as Kerr died the year before it was published – but as the last book in what has been an excellent series, and one of the better entries in that series, it definitely earns a place. Yes, there is a link with Lang’s film, but it’s pretty tenuous (Gunther is interviewed by Thea von Harbou, Lang’s scriptwriter and wife, and suggests the plot which becomes M). Metropolis covers Gunther’s career in its very early years, specifically an investigation into two serial killers, one who kills prostitutes and one who kills WWI veterans, and it’s excellent stuff. If you’ve not read these books, you really should give them a go.

5 Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK). This is previously-mined territory for Charnock as Bridge 108 is set in the same universe as A Calculated Life and The Enclave. In fact, the opening chapters of the novel were previously published as The Enclave. Charnock presents a future UK suffering from both climate change and the migrant crisis, but also a world split into haves and have-nots where the distinguishing item is a brain chip allowing direct access to, well, something probably not unlike the internet – but without the trolls and fake news and shitstorm social media. Bridge 108 is a bit like Law and Order – a format I’ve used myself – as the story is carried forward from one character to the next. Science fiction which interrogates our world is becoming increasingly rare – indeed, science fiction which interrogates its own world seems on the wane – so we should value such novels when they do appear.

Honourable mentions: The Green Man’s Foe, Juliet E McKenna (2019, UK), a trunk novel rewritten as a sequel to The Green Man’s Heir, and while it’s a bit, er, bitty, it’s a fun read and a good instalment in a series that deserves to continue; The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (2017, UK), the Hitchcock connection, to be honest, is a bit of a red herring, as is the crime which opens the story, but this is a typically Robertsian exploration of political conflict between two worlds, in this case the real and the virtual, which on reflection seems particularly British; A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA), a short collection of metafictional pieces by an author who probably writes the best prose of any US genre writer currently being published; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), the third and, sadly, final, volume in the adventures of the Athena Club, a female-only group of fictional characters from Victorian literature, and, while it doesn’t celebrate the metafictions it explores, this trilogy is pleasingly metafictional; Beneath the World, a Sea, Chris Beckett (2019, UK), Ballard meets Greene in strange adventures in an alien zone in South America, which succeeds because it’s on strong on atmosphere and appropriately vague on rigour; Shardik, Richard Adams (1974, UK), after rabbits Adams turned to secondary-world fantasy, and managed something that is more literary than is common for the genre, even if it wasn’t published as genre per se, but is just as grim and bleak.

films
I bought a dozen Blu-rays with me when I moved here and I’ve still not watched them all. Admittedly, one is 17.5 hours long, so it may be a while yet before the shrinkwrap comes off that one. I’ve not watched any Swedish TV this year, but then I was never a fan of Midsomer Murders. But I have been binge-watching several sf TV series. After finishing off Stargate SG-1, I moved onto Quantum Leap. And there was a season of Space: 1999 in there somewhere as well- and that definitely didn’t match my fond memories of it. There were also some newer series, such as Watchmen, Avenue 5 and For All Mankind, of assorted quality. And then there were the films…

This year, I’ve seen 198 films, so slightly up on last year. Two-thirds were new to me. A third were from the US, slightly less than a third from the UK, and the rest from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China (including Hong Kong), Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, New Zealand, Norway, Russia (including the USSR), South Africa, South Korea and Sweden. China, India and Italy were the top three among those – that’s a lot of Jackie Chan and Shaw Bros movies, Bollywood films and gialli. The best films – and one “limited event series” – I watched in 2020 so far are…

1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I remember watching some of this back in the 1990s – I’m pretty sure I did, although I left the UK in March 1994 and it was broadcast on Channel 4 in September 1993, which would have been my only chance to see it… So perhaps I didn’t it. I certainly knew of it. And at that time I likely thought it hugely self-indulgent – 79 minutes of a single shot of International Klein Blue? But I’ve now watched it several times, and I find it an extremely moving film. Plus, I could listen to Nigel Terry’s voice for weeks.

2 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon). I’m surprised I’d not come across this film sooner. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and the name Labaki is not unknown to me. Admittedly, it’s getting harder and harder to find the sort of films I like these days. New releases on streaming services seem to dominate social media, and Amazon’s search engine is notoriously useless. And I no longer subscribe to either LoveFilm (which is defunct anyway) or Cinema Paradiso, which was one way of finding new films that might interest me… Fortunately, I stumbled across Capernaum on Amazon Prime, a film about how the West has comprehensively fucked up the Near East, as told through the story of a twelve-year-old Lebanese boy who stabs a man who buys his eleven-year-old sister as his wife (and she dies in childbirth), and the boy wants to sue his parents for having him. This is harrowing stuff, and a film that should certainly be better known.

3 In Order of Disappearance, Hans Petter Moland (2014, Norway). Skarsgård plays a taciturn Swede living in Norway who has just been made Man of the Year of his small town. Then his son is found dead of an overdose, except Skarsgård is convinced he never touched drugs. (He was actually murdered by a drug dealer.) Skarsgård investigates and works his way up the drug cartel hierarchy, killing off each person he finds, and inadvertently kicking off a gang war between the Norwegian drug dealers and a gang of Serbian drug dealers. This is the blackest of comedies and it’s perfectly pitched. The head of the Norwegian gang, a pony-tailed Vegan, is an excellent comedic character. Bizarrely, some of the characters spoke Swedish, some Danish, and the rest Norwegian. Which resulted in a somewhat weird viewing experience.

4 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Twin Peaks since it was first broadcast on British TV. The one thing I never thought it needed was a third season. And, to be honest, I’ve sort of gone off David Lynch’s movies. So expectations were mixed when I started watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series, as it was branded in the UK. And… The second season of Twin Peaks ended in a very strange place, and this third season takes that and runs with it. It’s almost impossible to summarise or make sense of the plot. Most of the original cast return, including several who had retired, but especially notable in this season was the cinematic quality of camerawork. The original two seasons of Twin Peaks were television soap opera, and both looked and felt like a – somewhat bizarre, admittedly – television soap opera. But the third season often looks and feels like a string of arthouse films. There’s that famous theme tune, and lots of familiar faces, but watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series is a bit like watching the entire oeuvre of an alternate world David Lynch.

5 Gloria, Sebastián Lelio (2013, Chile). A middle-aged divorcee decides she has spent long enough on the shelf, and begins to enjoy a social life. She meets a man of the same age, and they start seeing each other. But he’s still tied to his kids, and he can’t let them go and enjoy their relationship. Middle-aged women are not a common subject of movies – and particularly not, you would have thought, in South America – so such films should be treasured when they do appear. It helps that Gloria is so good. It’s mostly a one-hander, but Paulina García is excellent in the title role (and won a Golden Bear for it). Again, like the other two non-Anglophone movies above, this was a lucky find. I’m glad I found it.

Honourable mentions: Enter the Fat Dragon, Kenji Tanagaki & Wong Jing (2020, China), highly entertaining kung fu action/comedy that starts in Hong Kong then moves to Tokyo; Thale, Aleksander Nordaas (2012, Norway), two nobodies who clean up after deaths get more than they bargain for when they discover a hulder, a Scandinavian forest satyr, in a dead man’s bunker; Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Nabil Ayouch (2000, Morocco), a movie with an amateur cast of Moroccan kids who decide to give one of their own a fitting funeral after he dies in a senseless gang fight.

albums
No albums, I’m afraid. I’ve spent most of the last six months listening to playlists on Spotify. Some I created myself, some myself and colleagues put together, and others I found on Spotify. If I had the time, I could probably pick five best songs I’ve stumbled across in 2020, but that would be a monumental task and I don’t track the music I listen to like I do the films I watch and the books I read. But perhaps by the end of the year, I may have found some albums new to me in 2020 worthy of a top five.


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It’s quite simple…

It really is very simple, you know…

  • Black lives matter
  • Trans women are women (and trans men are men and trans nonbinary are nonbinary and so on)
  • Gammons are the real snowflakes
  • History will survive quite well without statues

I shouldn’t need to document my politics as I mention it in pretty much every film and book review I’ve written on this blog.

I may not be an especially useful ally as I haven’t been on any demonstrations or contributed to any campaigns, and these days my “activism” seems to mostly comprise arguing with ignorant gammons on Facebook and Twitter and then getting blocked by them. But since I was a teenager I’ve sought out books and films which offer a perspective different to that of my own lived experience. And I’d encourage others to do the same. Your education in these matters is on you.

Look shit up before you start getting offended. It’s the twenty-first century, you have the interwebs, you have no excuse for not doing so. Just watch out for those bots and trolls and British newspapers…


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Reading diary 2020, #7

I used to be quite disciplined about making time to read, but since I’ve been working from home I’ve been finding it harder. Some books are easier to read than others, of course, and if I limited myself to those I might perhaps get more reading done. But I like difficult books, and I find them more rewarding to read. I just need to be a bit more, well, disciplined about making time to read them…

Raising the Stones, Sheri S Tepper (1990, USA). This is the second book in the Arbai trilogy, although it might as well be a standalone as knowledge of the previous book, Grass, is not needed, and any references to it in this one barely affect your understanding of the story. I’m not entirely sure when it takes place – clues seem to suggest several thousand years after the events of Grass, although human society seems pretty much unchanged. Which is part of the problem. Tepper’s targets are plain – abundantly so – which means the societies she depicts have to hew closely to present day ones, or rather ones derived from those extant at the time of writing. And Tepper was never afraid to push something into implausibility in order to make a point. So, on the one hand, we have the peaceful agrarian settlements of Hobbs Land, who have found themselves building temples to alien gods (actually some sort of alien fungus), but since it makes them happy and productive, where’s the harm in it? Meanwhile the patriarchal sexist slave-owning violent (seriously, they couldn’t be made more worse) Voorstodders, inhabitants of a region on another planet of the system, have triggered the final stages of their plan to attain apotheosis by killing all the unbelievers. Tepper was not one for subtlety and there’s certainly an argument the sf audience is incapable of processing subtlety – just look at the current crop of genre award winners… For me, Tepper’s novel are like a brick in the face, but I’d sooner there were writers like her than the books appearing on award shortlists these days. I plan to read more Tepper. You should too.

Panic Room, Robert Goddard (2018, UK). I’ve been reading Goddard’s thrillers since stumbling across one of his books in the 1990s when I lived in Abu Dhabi. They’re easy reads, and generally quite entertaining – although there’s always something about them that never quite fits together, as if they’re 90% of a well-plotted thriller. In this one, a newly-fired high-end estate agent is hired by his lawyer ex-wife to do a valuation on a billionaire’s retreat in Cornwall. He finds evidence in the house of a panic room, but it’s sealed. This somehow catapults him into a conspiracy involving the billionaire’s theft of huge amounts of money from the US corporation which bought his company, some secret project that has been running for years out of Switzerland, and the suspicious death by drowning of a teenage boy decades before… Goddard keeps the mystery going quite entertainingly for three-quarters of the book, but his resolution spirals off into the sort of science fiction no self-respecting sf author would use. Still, it’s a Goddard novel, you should know what you’re getting when you open the book.

A Sea-Grape Tree, Rosamond Lehmann (1976, UK). I’ve been meaning to try something by Lehmann for several years as she’s one of the more prominent British women writers from the first half of the twentieth century. (She was also an anti-fascist.) I’m a big fan of the novels of Elizabeth Taylor and Olivia Manning, who were active from the 1920s through to the 1970s, and Lehmann’s career covered pretty much the same period. But she also had a twenty-year hiatus between 1953 and 1976, and A Sea-Grape Tree was her first novel after that – and by all accounts something of a change of style, despite making use of characters from earlier novels… So perhaps it wasn’t the best book to choose as an introduction to Lehmann’s works. On the other hand, it was on offer. The novel takes place among the British expat community on a Caribbean island – and I use the term “expat” deliberately. I am myself a migrant, although I grew up as an expat. To me, the difference is plain: a migrant integrates, an expat does not. In A Sea-Grape Tree, it is the 1930s and a woman has recently arrived on the island and been accepted into the expat community there. It turns out someone she knew earlier in her life – the details of which are the subject of an earlier Lehmann novel – endear her further to the local expat community. This is a novel about larger-than-life characters and their interactions within a constrained community. It feels… weirdly like it was written at the time it is set, rather than 40 years later. I’ve no idea what to make of it, given that it’s generally acknowledged to be a complete change of style for Lehmann. I suspect I’ll have to read more by her. There were a number of British women writers active in the first half of last century who also agitated for women’s rights and/or against fascism, and how many present day writers can say the same? There’s a heritage to be proud of, and to build on. We should read more of those writers. I know I plan to.

New Atlantis, Lavie Tidhar (2019, Israel). Originally published in F&SF, but then as a stand-alone by JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.. The story is set several centuries hence, after climate crash and wars have depopulated the earth. The narrator, who lives in, I think, what is currently Israel, is invited to New Atlantis, which proves to be an archipelago that was once the United Kingdom. Much of the story is a travelogue, but once she arrives in London, she’s taken to see the time-vault whose discovery prompted her journey. The story is filled with references to other sf works – including the chapter titles – but, to be honest, Tidhar has written better. For much of its length, the narrative feels like it’s treading water, holding off the reveal on what a “time-vault” actually is. Unfortunately, the path the story takes is well travelled, and while spotting Easter Eggs can be fun, it’s not enough to maintain interest. Tidhar seems to have three modes: genre piss-take, genre Easter Egg hunt, and the interface of Jewish and Nazi history. When he’s working in the first and last, he produces good material; less so the middle one.

Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK). Major déjà vu reading this, as the first section is basically the novella The Enclave, which was published in 2017 and won the BSFA Award (I seem to remember voting for it, too). Three years later, and child slavery and human trafficking is not what I want to read about in a sf novel, but then Bridge 108 abruptly flips POV to that of an undercover immigration agent and we get some actual commentary on the world being described. I understand that to write from the POV of a child slave would mean the narrative accepting the situation – but it also normalises it. Science fiction, especially US science fiction, which this is not, I hasten to add, has an extremely bad habit of normalising the worst excesses of humanity in pursuit of “drama”. It’s s complete bollocks stance. If you write a fascist story with no commentary, you’re writing exactly what a fascist would write. Your personal politics are irrelevant. Charnock presents a UK in which refugees end up living illegally in “enclaves” alongside legal residents who do not have implanted chips, but then shows these enclaves are breeding-grounds of illegality and immorality. Sadly, too many people are like those fuckwits who voted for the Tories and now clap for the NHS. Or worse, voted for Brexit and now clap for the NHS – that £350 million a week would be fucking useful now, you hypocritical morons. British – and American – politics are perhaps extreme examples, but something similar exists in science fiction: authors saying, “look at me! I’m left-wing!” and then they write the most fascist space opera you could imagine. The genre is inherently right-wing, but they take it to excess. They’re a blight on the genre, and there are far too many of them and they’re far too popular. The Sad Puppies were right that the heart of science fiction had been colonised, but were too stupid that to see that it was their stories which had done so. They looked only at the politics of the writers. Had they based their argument on the politics of the stories, perhaps they might have kept their mouths shut.

Red Moon, Kim Stanley Robinson (2018, USA). Robinson’s first book was first published in 1984, and there are many sf reviewers and voters these days who won’t read him for that reason. It’s true that Robinson writes a particular type of science fiction, but after nearly forty years he’s got pretty damn good at it. Better than some random debut author, anyway. Not every Robinson book has impressed me, although he has consistently produced work that I think speaks more to science fiction than many sf writers. Red Moon is… mostly a good sf novel. It reads, in parts, like off-cuts from the Mars trilogy. And the whole set-up does seem somewhat… accelerated for being set thirty years from now. Red Moon is definitely techno-utopian, and I’d sooner see sf like that than some jack-booted interstellar slavery space opera, which is all too sadly common these days, but that doesn’t mean I can’t criticise its vision or the points Red Moon makes. A US engineer who works for a Swiss firm delivers a qubit-entangled phone to the head of the Chinese settlement about the south pole of the Moon. Except the Chinese official dies seconds after meeting the engineer, who himself is rendered seriously ill, and he’s charged with murder by poison. It’s all about factions within the Chinese government, and partly related to the daughter of one minister who is the figurehead of a movement to seek justice for internal migrants within China. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on here, mostly to do with China’s recent history and its government; but there’s also a lot about the colonisation of the Moon – not just by the Chinese, but also the Americans and a group of techno-utopian freethinkers who run their own lunar colony (whose precepts I don’t think actually work because they rely on defined identities). I think Robinson’s timeline for the novel is somewhat unrealistic, although I can see how his story forced him into that situation. And I can disagree with the political arc of the story. I likely can’t say this enough: Red Moon is a novel about politics, and the politics in the novel are laid out for discussion. Unlike far too many sf novels where the politics is baked into the world-building, and a rejection of the politics is by definition a rejection of the entire novel. Red Moon is not the best novel Robinson has written, but is ample demonstration of why his novels are worth reading. Each new one has added something to the genre ur-conversation, whether you like them, or agree with them, or not.


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Movie roundup 2020, #9

More recent watchings. I’ve been trying to avoid consuming popular US culture for a number of years, but given the current situation in that country, I see even less reason to contribute to the bottom line of some American media conglomerate. Of course, it’s not easy in these days of international financing for movies, and a film made in a European nation, for example, may well have been financed partly by US money. I can’t do much about that. I can certainly avoid Hollywood films, and the only US film among the ones below is Darren Aronofosky’s first, which was financed by donations from family and friends. US films by non-white film-makers, of course, I will happily watch.

And speaking of historical films, I record the country of origin of the films I watch. It is, as mentioned above, not always easy. But I’ve decided to record all Hong Kong-made films as “China”, even if Hong Kong was a British colony at the time the film was made. Likewise USSR movies are documented as “Russia” unless explicitly from a Soviet republic which later gained independence – in which case, I use the republic’s current name.

Disciples of the 36th Chamber, Lau Kar Leung (1985, China). The third of the Shaolin Chamber films, although there were no doubt countless spin-offs, and even now the Chinese film industry is churning out shaolin-related action comedies. But these were the first. Hard to believe one studio, Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, pretty much defined an entire film genre. Perhaps even more than one. An over-age schoolboy, who is gifted at kung fu and entirely the opposite at schoolwork, provokes trouble once too often between Han and Manchurians and is sent to a Shaolin temple for his safety. But even there, he causes trouble. I didn’t think the story of this one as coherent as the previous two, and the protagonist’s naivete soon wore thin, especially as he never seemed to suffer its consequences. It’s a fun film – a fun trilogy! – but this is the weakest of the three.

Adventurer: Curse of the Midas Box, Jonathan Newman (2014, UK). Not sure what possessed me to watch this although it’s pretty obvious what possessed its makers to make it. They were hoping for another lucrative franchise. And this despite the failure of The Golden Compass in 2007, or the slow fizzling out of the Chronicles of Narnia movie adaptations after The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 2010. For twenty years now, Hollywood – and an equally desperate UK film industry – has been mining children’s and teenage genre properties for hit franchises, even though the YA genre has long since lost its box office shine. For this particular film, they chose GP Taylor’s Mariah Mundi series, and while I’ve never read anything by Taylor, nor have I heard anything good about his YA novels. And having now seen Adventurer: Curse of the Midas Box, I can see they deserve their reputation. Mundi is the teenage son of two important members of the Bureau of Antiquities, a Victorian government department which hunts down and safeguards magical artefacts. One of which is the Midas Box – which allegedly does exactly what it says on the, er, box – but evil grave-robber Otto Luger (named for a Nazi gun, so he must be bad) is hot on the box’s trail. He kidnaps and kills Mundi’s parents, then kidnaps Mundi and his younger brother… Throughout the entire film, Mundi is completely useless. He gets caught by the baddies and has to be rescued half a dozen times. He seems neither clever nor resourceful, and is played with all the expressiveness of a rabbit caught in headlights by Aneurin Barnard. The world-building is quite good, but the story is a derivative mishmash of YA steampunk and fantasy tropes, and the cast almost entirely stereotypes. I can understand why the film flopped.

Dogora, Ishirō Honda (1964, Japan). Honda directed a number of batshit weird sf films during the 1960s. Some of them were actually quite good. Weird. But good. This one, sadly, qualifies only for the first of those two terms. Satellites in orbit disappear after colliding with a weird protoplasmic mass. Meanwhile a diamond robbery in Tokyo goes horribly wrong  and the diamonds vanish. A police inspector, a scientist, the scientist’s nubile assistant and an undercover insurance agent (played by an ex-USMC who was stationed in Japan, decided to stay there, learnt Japanese, and had quite a successful career in Japanese movies). Anyway, like most of Honda’s movies, it’s almost complete nonsense, something to do with a weird space jellyfish which feeds on carbon, in all its forms, and which they eventually manage to kill. This is sf B-movie territory, it just happens to be Japanese rather than American.

Adventures of a Private Eye, Stanley Long (1977, UK). The second in a trilogy of British sex comedies, apparently intended to rival the much more successful novel-based Confessions series, which numbered four films, and the first of which, Confessions of a Window Cleaner, was the highest grossing British film of 1974. I have a vague memory of reading one of these sorts of novels back in the early 1980s while at school, but I seem to remember it involved competitive cycling. I also seem to remember it was terrible. Anyway, the lead is no longer Barry Evans but Christopher Neil, who is left in charge when his boss Jon Pertwee goes off on holiday. Enter the femme fatale. You can probably guess the rest. I’m not sure why I watched this film, and its predecessor, except perhaps to remind me that for all the cool iconography and design that came out of the 1970s, it was still a pretty shit decade to live through – outside toilets and nylon sheets and hotel rooms without en suite bathrooms and racist sitcoms… Thank fuck I spent most of it abroad.

Pi, Darren Aronofsky (1998, USA). I’ve seen this film mentioned numerous times, and I’ve watched most of Aronofsky’s other films, with varying degrees of enjoyment and appreciation. But, despite his reputation, he’s never been a director whose films I rush to see, or whose back-catalogue I hunt down to watch. Pi has lots of fun ideas in it, but is so resolutely experimental it often prevents enjoyment. A paranoid number theorist gets dragged into some weird plot when introduced to the Kabbalah by a Hasidic Jew, and meanwhile has to fight off the attentions of a brokerage house who want to purchase a program he wrote which seems to accurately predict stock prices. And there’s something about a 216-digit number, which is important in several mathematical fields and Judaism. The movie is filmed in stark black and white, although not as starkly as Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir, but certainly with a great deal more contrast than in commercial film-making. This is very much an art house film, with all of an art house film’s look and feel and concerns. It was clear from this movie that Aronofsky was going to have an… interesting career, and that’s certainly been the case. Worth seeing.

The Man from Hong Kong, Brian Trenchard-Smith (1975, Australia). This was apparently the first ever Australia-Hong Kong international co-production, and led to many others. So it’s a bit of a shame it’s so shit. Sammo Hung meets with an Australian contact for a drug deal at Uluru, but there are detectives on the tour bus and Hung is arrested after a bit of a chase up the side of Uluru. He won’t talk, and an inspector is sent from Hong Kong to take him back to face charges there. But the inspector – popular Shaw Brothers lead Jimmy Wang Yu – is determined to take down the Australian end of the drug pipeline, the head of which is George Lazenby. Rumour has it Wang directed part of the film as he was unhappy, and I’m guessing it was the sex scenes. Because there are a lot of them. Wang seems uncommonly successful with the ladies. Unfortunately, the fight scenes are not very good – poorly choreographed and not very inventive. Lazenby, however, gives a good showing in the final, er, showdown, even if he loses. If you like kung fu thrillers, there are plenty of better ones out there. This is, at best, a curiosity.

Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon). A twelve-year-old boy is escorted into court and declares to the judge he wants to sue his parents for being born. The film tells his story in flashback. Born in the slums of Beirut to poor parents with too many kids, he doted on his sister, who was sold at the age of eleven to a local shop owner to be his bride. He ran away, and fell in with a Somali illegal immigrant who was trying to hide the fact she had a young baby. But then she’s rounded up by the authorities. He does his best to look after the baby, but is eventually forced to arrange to have himself smuggled to Europe (Sweden). But for that he needs his papers, so he returns home. And discovers his sister died in childbirth, as did the baby. He stabs the “husband” (seriously, you cannot be a husband of an eleven-year-old girl, you’re a paedophile). He is arrested and sentenced to prison. He then learns his mother is pregnant again. This is a heart-breaking film. Everything that happens in it is not only entirely plausible, it is still happening now. Because a handful of Western nations insist on dropping bombs on Arab towns and villages. The so-called Migrant Crisis was created by Western war-mongering. Every nation involved should accept a number of refugees proportional to the number of bombs they dropped. They won’t, of course, because they’re ruled by sociopaths. The US doesn’t have a Middle East foreign policy, only a policy to keep the region so destabilised through war the Russians can’t make any gains. That’s effectively a war crime, and the country’s administration should be held accountable.  As should their lapdogs, the UK. Watch this film. It is excellent.

The Impersonator, Alfred Shaughnessy (1961, UK). I can’t decide if the title to this film is misleading or a spoiler. A USAF base somewhere in England – the cast seem to have generic put-on Northern accents, so it could be anywhere north of Leicester – decides to improve relations with the nearby town. So a sergeant is sent to a local school to offer to take the kids to see a pantomime, Mother Goose. He is attracted to the teacher and they arrange a date. But he misses the bus from the base, and she’s gone home by the time he eventually arrives at the tea-room. He stays for a bit and then, on a whim, invites the tea-room’s owner to be his date at the base dance party. She agrees. On the way home, she is murdered. He is the chief suspect. Because the victim’s young son remembers speaking to an American in the tea-room. This is actually not a bad little murder-mystery. While it’s clear the male lead is innocent, the identity of the murderer is kept cleverly hidden for much of the movie. This may be a British B-movie, but it’s not a bad one.

Prova d’orchestra, Federico Fellini (1978, Italy). Fellini was at his best when he was being indulgent. His earlier films are interesting, but his later ones are pure spectacle and amazing to watch. Prova d’orchestra (AKA Orchestra Rehearsal) is a 70-minute feature film that amply demonstrates Fellini’s humour while reigning back on the cinematic excess. Mostly. As  the title suggests, this is ostensibly a documentary about an orchestra rehearsing for a performance. But as they play so the excesses of the score come to life, and everything descends into anarchy and chaos. It’s about as pure Fellini as you can get. I’d say it was one for fans, but I think everyone should be a fan of Fellini’s films.


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Movie roundup 2020, #8

Another in the current batch of Movie round-up posts. Two more and I should be up to date with, or at least not too far behind, my actual viewing.

Love on the Run, François Truffaut (1979, France). Truffaut’s final film about Antoine Doinel, and it makes it no clearer what Truffaut was trying to achieve with these movies. Especially since this last one is partly a clip-show of scenes from the earlier movies. Featuring the many women in Doinel’s life. And that’s pretty much the plot of Love on the Run, Doinel having a string of affairs, and flashbacks showing his past affairs. He is, of course, married for much of this. Perhaps it’s a French thing, but I find Doinel thoroughly unlikable and not in the least bit charming or sympathetic. I like many of Truffaut’s films a great deal, but I really did not take to this series. I suppose I should have guessed this would be the case as I watched The 400 Blows in, I think, the 1990s, and didn’t watch another Truffaut film for over ten years. But as I explored his oeuvre so I found films I liked.

Domino, Brian De Palma (2019, Denmark). Two Danish cops in Copenhagen, played by Danish actors, but speaking in English, respond to a domestic violence call, but surprise the murderer of an immigrant grocer… who proves to have lots of explosives and weaponry stashed in his flat. The murderer kills one of the cops and escapes, but is then picked up by the CIA. The grocer was a member of ISIS, and the murderer is out for revenge on the ISIS chief who executed his father. The surviving cop goes rogue and follows the killer, now controlled by the CIA because they want the ISIS chief dead too, to Spain, where he manages to foil a bomb plot. De Palma has always been a poor man’s Hitchcock, but some of his films haven’t been too bad. This one, unfortunately, is terrible. Not content pretending the Danes all speak English, it also characterises all brown immigrants as either terrorists or killers. The evil CIA man also feels like a cliché too far. Avoid.

Tomboy, Walter Hill (2016, USA). This one of those films you’re surprised ever got made because its premise is such a bad idea. A hit man kills a playboy with a gambling debt on contract. The playboy’s sister is a self-confessed genius renegade doctor, who specialises in plastic surgery and gender reassignment. And runs an underground clinic after losing her licence for experimenting on people. Where she is found, mutilated and surrounded by her dead staff, by the police. The film is told in in flashback as the doctor is interviewed in an asylum over what happened. It transpires she located the hitman, had him kidnapped, and performed gender reassignment surgery on him. Now a woman, the hitman is trying to figure who did it to her. This such a bad take, I’m amazed no one said to any of those involved – and though the film is B-list, there are some big names in it –  that perhaps this was a film they shouldn’t make. It’s not like without the dodgy central premise it’s any great shakes as a thriller. Sigourney Weaver chews major scenery as the mad doctor. Tony Shalhoub is running on autopilot as the psychiatrist interviewing Weaver. And Michelle Rodriguez tries her best with a role that fails to convince in all its aspects. Avoid.

Enter the Fat Dragon, Kenji Tanagaki & Wong Jing (2020, China). A Hong Kong policeman interrupts a bank robbery while on the way to his wedding photographs, which causes his starlet fiancée to break off with him. And gets him demoted to the evidence locker. He puts on lots of weight. He is then tasked with taking a Japanese film-maker back to Japan. Unfortunately, the film-maker has amnesia after an accident. Equally unfortunately, he fled Tokyo after accidentally filming some Yakuza demonstrating how they’re using fresh fish to smuggle drugs. And they saw him. And the Tokyo police (according to the film) are all corrupt. Oh, and his ex-fiancée is also in Tokyo, fronting some business celebration for the semi-senile head of the selfsame Yakuza clan. As plots go, it’s pretty standard for the genre, although surprisingly anti-Japanese. However, the fight choreography is excellent. In places, it’s a mix of parkour and kung fu, and it’s all highly entertaining. The opening sequence, in which the cop fights the bank robbers inside the van they’ve stolen as their getaway vehicle, is brilliant. Watch it.

Return to the 36th Chamber, Lau Kar Leung (1980, China). The second of a loose trilogy from the Shaw Brothers. The boss of a Cantonese dye works employs some Manchurians and cuts his workforce’s wages to pay for them. The workers object, so he has them beaten up. They persuade the con-man brother of one of the dyers to impersonate a Shaolin monk to scare off the Manchurians. It doesn’t work. So the con-man tries to infiltrate the Shaolin temple, and fails. The abbot makes him re-roof the temple as penance. It takes him a year, but during that period he more or less trains as a Shaolin monk, so when he returns to his brother he uses his new-found skills to defeat the dye works owner and the Manchurians. This was pretty much what it said on the tin, but it was more entertaining than a lot of Shaw Brothers films I’ve seen. One for fans of the genre, but a good example of it.

Drunken Master, Yuen Woo-ping (1978, China). A Jackie Chan vehicle, although he’s the student and not the eponymous master. The plot is inconsequential, it’s all about the fight sequences – and they’re done really well. It even popularised a style of kung fu. A young man keeps on getting into trouble, and after being rescued by a drunkard in a restaurant, becomes his student. Meanwhile, a business rival sends a kung fu fighter to beat up the student’s father, but the student arrives in time for a climactic fight. Apparently, it was after this film that Chan began to give his movies generic titles in order not to give away the plots. Although there was a Drunken Master II (AKA The Legend of Drunken Master) and the not entirely related Drunken Master III.

Adventures of a Taxi Driver, Stanley Long (1976, UK). The first of a trilogy of British sex comedies, three words which should strike fear into the heart of any cineaste. Barry Evans, the teacher from Mind Your Language, stars as a black cab driver in London, and the film recounts his – mostly sexual – adventures. It’s pure mid-seventies British comedy, with sex scenes, with all the cringe-inducing elements that entails. Interestingly, Ingmar Bergman’s daughter, Anna, has a minor role as a stripper, and it seems her entire acting career involved British sex comedies in the seventies. Entirely missable. There were two sequels: Adventures of a Private Eye and Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate.

Swallows and Amazons, Claude Whatham (1974, UK). Watching this, it occurred to me that the worldview of the upper middle classes is pretty much constructed from works such as Swallows and Amazons, which is set in the 1930s, and that’s been pretty much true right up to the end of the twentieth century. Their whole identity is ninety years out of date. It would explain much, especially the UK’s political scene. In Swallows and Amazons, it is 1929, and a family of posh kids are on holiday in the Lake District. Their father is a RN officer on a destroyer in the Far East. Their mother allows them to use a dinghy and sail about the lake and camp on a small island in the middle of the lake. They get embroiled in a “war” with two girls who also have a dinghy, and they’re all naively patronising to everyone not of their class. The girls’ uncle lives on a houseboat and is targeted by local burglars. He thinks the kids did it, but they manage to prove otherwise, and help the uncle retrieve his property. And everyone has ice cream and plays jolly games. I was surprised to discover Ransome wrote another eleven books in the series.

Thale, Aleksander Nordaas (2012, Norway). Two guys work for a services that cleans up after dearths. They’re sent into one property, find a Cold War bunker in the garden, and in it a strange young woman with a tail who cannot speak. They investigate further and discover the man whose bunker it was experimented on the woman. Soldiers turn up, and then these weird creatures appear from the forest and kill the soldiers. The creatures are apparently hulder, which Wikipedia describes as “a seductive forest creature found in Scandinavian folklore”, although it’s not clear from the entry if there’s only one of them or an entire race. Thale was an entertainingly weird horror film, although the opening scenes are a bit grim.

Gloria, Sebastián Lelio (2013, Chile). A divorcee with grown-up children in Santiago starts going to bars to find companionship and takes up with a divorced man with grown-up children. They get on well together. But he seems to have a habit of disappearing on her, especially one of his daughters rings, which culminates with the woman throwing his mobile phone in the soup while they are staying for the weekend in a luxury hotel on the coast. He goes off and doesn’t come back. She goes off on the piss and falls asleep on the beach. When she returns to the hotel, he’s checked out and taken all her things. You don’t see many films centred on middle-aged women, and even less that treat their subjects with sympathy. Gloria not only manages both, it shows that its eponymous character, and people like her, can define their own happiness. Good film, worth seeing.


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Movie roundup 2020, #7

I’ve been trying to catch up on all the blog posts I should have written and posted over the last few weeks. I’m not sure what’s prompted this sudden burst of productivity. Perhaps it’s because the weather has turned and it’s been (mostly) sunny for the last week. Unfortunately, at this time I also have to contend with the sun rising at you-must-be-fucking-joking o’clock and setting at stupidly-late o’clock …

Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino (1992, USA). I don’t remember where and when I first saw Reservoir Dogs, but it has certainly not survived a twenty-first century rewatch. I’d thought Pulp Fiction much more racist than I remembered it, but Reservoir Dogs is much worse. Tarantino’s characters as written spend most of their time spouting racist slurs as if that’s some sort of badge of authenticity. It certainly makes them authentically racist. Most of the dialogue and the acting is over-the-top, which doesn’t play well with the stripped back locations and simple camera-work. In those respects – framing and blocking – Reservoir Dogs works well. And Tarantino clearly had the smarts to hire a good DP. But Tarantino’s films are notorious for their stories and snappy dialogue and, oh dear, that does seem to be somewhat unearned on the strength of this film. Best forgotten.

Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Mohammed Sadiq (1960, India). A classic bit of Bollywood starring Guru Dutt. Two men fall in love with the same woman. Unfortunately, this is Muslim Lucknow, and one of them is married to the woman and the other didn’t realise she’s his best friend’s wife. There’s plenty of comic scenes, courtesy of Johnnie Walker – yes, that really was his screen name, and he had a long and successful career – and Dutt proves he’s the “Orson Welles of Indian cinema” just as much as an actor as a director. This is classic Bollywood, perhaps not up there with Pakeezah or Mughal-e-Azam, but certainly one that should be on every Bollywood fan’s watch list.

Armour of God, Jackie Chan (1987, China). I’d thought in Andrzej Żuławski’s L’amour bracque I’d found the most 1980s film ever, but Armour of God runs it a close second. The former qualified because its cast robbed a bank in shoulder pads, Armour of God, however, features some concert scenes that are even more 1980s than I remember the 1980s actually being. None of which has anything to do with this plot. There’s this suit of armour that was involved in a fight between good and evil, and a guy who is trying to collect it all, and Chan and his partner are sort of hired to find the last few pieces of it in order to prevent its misuse by a bad guy. Like most Jackie Chan films, Armour of God is a string of cleverly done fight scenes, bad dialogue, cheesy romance and relentless action. It’s a formula that’s produced many entertaining Hong Kong movies, but the presence of Chan at the centre of it does give them that little bit extra.

In Order of Disappearance (AKA Kraftidioten), Hans Petter Moland (2014, Norway). I mentioned this film to my mother and she said, “It’s brilliant!” and admitted she’d even recorded it so she could watch it again. Stellan Skarsgård’s son works at the local airport and is murdered one night by gangsters who thought he’d stolen some drugs. True, he’d been helping a friend smuggle in drugs, but he’d not stolen any. He wasn’t an addict but apparently died of an overdose. Skarsgård doesn’t believe this and investigates. And works his way up the drug dealers’ chain of command, killing everyone who had a hand in his son’s death. The drug dealers think a rival Serbian gang is muscling in on their territory and inadvertently kick off a gang war. Excellent film. And slightly weird for me as Skarsgård speaks Swedish throughout, and different bits of the Danish and Norwegian were sort of intelligible. Definitely check it out.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Takashi Miike (2011, Japan). After my last post’s disappointment with Miike, he goes and remakes a Masaki Kobayashi film from 1962, which is highly regarded, and produces something that is arguably better than the original (which, admittedly, I’ve not seen). A young ronin asks permission to commit seppuku in the palace courtyard of a lord, hoping he will be turned away and given money instead – a common practice. But the lord’s head samurai calls the ronin’s bluff, and he is forced to commit suicide with a bamboo blade, having already pawned his sword. Some months later, another ronin turns up and makes the same request. Flashbacks explain that the previous ronin was his son-in-law, and he holds the lord’s samurai responsible. This was excellent – gripping, violent, excellent fights scenes, sympathetic protagonists… Everything you could want in a samurai film. Worth seeing.

Hitch-hike, Pasquale Festa Campanile (1977, Italy). The title pretty much tells you the story. And there are no doubt a dozen films with the same title and plot. A couple holidaying in some canyons on their way home pick up a hitchhiker who proves to be a violent criminal on the run. He takes them hostage and forces them to drive to Mexico. Although set in the Us, the film was actually made in Italy – but it doesn’t long to get used to American set dressing and Italian dialogue in giallo, or even well-known UK or US faces seemingly speaking fluent Italian. The star here is Franco Nero, an actual Italian, who at the height of his career was probably as good-looking as John Phillip Law. The villain, however, was played by a Z-list US actor dubbed into Italian. Meh.

The Fox and the Hound, Ted Berman, Richard Rich & Art Stevens (1981, USA). This was apparently a hand-over film for Disney, when the Nine Old Men, Disney’s original team of animators, retired and passed the torch to a new generation. Unfortunately, the two generations argued over the story for this film, resulting in something even more mawkish than usual. The story is a Disney staple – kids from opposing sides grow up together, are forced to confront their differences once grown, manage to put them aside after a dangerous situation shows their hearts are in the right place. It’s such an American lesson. And completely unsupported by US history or national character. In this case, one kid is a dog and the other is a fox. They play together as pup and cub. The dog hunts the fox once adult. Fox helps save dog and his owner from a bear. Everyone lives happily ever after. sort of. Not one of Disney’s best.

The Incoherents, Jared Barel (2019, USA). Lead singer/songwriter of an alt rock band packs into because he can’t handle the uncertainty. Twenty-five years later, he has a mid-life crisis and decides to “put the band back together”. It’s never that easy, of course. But he persuades the others to follow his dream, they get some small online interest and perform a few well-reviewed gigs. The film is good on the the difficulties in succeeding in a greatly changed industry and market. Other than the giant conglomerates, culture in the twenty-first century has once again become a cottage industry, and The Incoherents makes a good fist of showing the perils, the work required, and the limited success available that entails. Of course, there’s a big showdown at the end, but its results don’t follow the usual Hollywood formula. Not bad.

Project A I & Project A II, Jackie Chan (1983 & 1987, China). Chan plays a sergeant in the Hong Kong Maritime Police, called, of course, Jackie Chan. Or was it Kevin? Might have been both. Pirates and corrupt businesses have Hong Kong tied up. The Marine Police are disbanded after one too many fight with the regular police and subsumed into the latter. This includes Sergeant Jackie Chan. He impersonates one of the business men doing, er, business with the pirates, infiltrates their lair, and defeats him, with the help of his Marine Police friends and the regular police. The sequel wraps in mainland politics, when Chan is given command of a Hong Kong district whose previous inspector was on the take. Chan gets involved with Kuomintang agents (coincidentally female) while trying to take down a gangland boss. The first film is best-known for a twenty-metre fall by Chan from a clock tower; the second features a climactic battle at a chili-drying factory and on a giant bamboo stage. Excellent stuff.


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Movie roundup 2020, #6

It’s been a while, but it’s time I documented the films I’ve watched over the last few weeks. As usual, it’s a mixed bag.

Sukiyaki Western Django, Takashi Miike (2007, Japan). An attempt to make a samurai film framed explicitly as an arthouse Western. It… doesn’t work. It’s like the entire movie was shot through Snapchat filters. It’s distracting. And the costumes all look like they belong in a visual kei promo video. I can’t actually remember what the story was. There might not have been one. I find Miike’s movies a mixed bag at the best of times, and while there are several Japanese directors whose films I actively seek out he’s not one of them. Meh.

The Die Hard series, comprising Die Hard, John McTiernan (1988, USA), Die Hard 2, Renny Harlin (1990, USA), Die Hard with a Vengeance, John McTiernan (1995, USA), Live Free or Die Hard, Len Wiseman (2007, USA) and A Good Day to Die Hard, John Moore (2013, USA). There’s little doubt the first is a classic piece of Hollywood cinema. It’s complete hokum, of course, but so were the 1970s disaster movies which inspired it. It’s completely clichéd superficial action from start to finish. Unfortunately, the series has been on a downward slide ever since. Die Hard 2 manages to stick to the formula but presents a set of villains, and a twist, that are completely implausible – or, at least, even more implausible than the other movies. Die Hard with a Vengeance at least gets its villain right, although Jeremy Irons is no match for Alan Rickman, and the audacity of the robbery is hard to swallow – as indeed is the existence of a bank in central New York that holds most of the gold reserves of many nations. Live Free or Die Hard is just plain bad. Willis’s character is dragged out of an alcoholic stupor to help a hacker with several million dollars worth of gear prevent an ex-NSA hacker genius from stealing a backup of every piece of financial data in the US – because of course all the banks and brokers and financial institutions in the US obviously let the US government copy their data and keep a back-up. FFS. When Willis isn’t pretending to be hungover – and might very well have actually been hung-over – he’s wearing an iff-putting smirk. And the central premise is so mind-numbingly stupid it’s a miracle anyone ever signed off the film financing. A Good Day to Die Hard is just plain shit. The franchise has sunk so low it’s had to relocate to Russia. Willis’s estranged son is in a Russian prison, so Willis goes to break him out, but his imprisonment was all a cunning CIA plot to rescue an imprisoned Russian politician. Except it turns out everything is actually the opposite of what it seems, except the quality of this movie which remains resolutely shit throughout.

Viking Blood, Uri L Schwartz (2019, Denmark). An odd film, made by an American, in Denmark, with a mostly Scandinavian cast, all speaking English. A mysterious stranger appears in a Viking village, where the Christians and the Pagans are in an uneasy stand-off. The stranger claims to be a mercenary, and seems to do his best in provoking the village to war. It’s all very low-budget, the acting is generally poor, the use of slow-motion in the fight scenes only displays how badly they are choreographed, and even a last-minute twist can’t redeem the plot. Avoid.

One Day: Justice Delivered, Ashok Nanda (2019, India). A modern Bollywood take on And Then There Were None. A respected judge retires, and after his daughter’s wedding party two of the guests go missing. More people go missing. An inspector from another district is called in to investigate, and she soon discovers all of the missing people were involved in one case or other that appeared before the judge. The judge has kidnapped them and is torturing them so they will confess to their crimes. Flashbacks handily explain those crimes and what total scumbags the missing people are. For all that it was somewhat predictable, I enjoyed this.

Killer Nun, Giulio Berruti (1979, Italy). The title pretty much says it all. A giallo, with Anita Ekberg in the title role. It’s about a nun. Who kills people. In the geriatric hospital where she works. It’s all very over-wrought and intense, even for a giallo. A notorious film, apparently, but not a good one.

Miracles, Jackie Chan (1989, China). It has always amused that Jackie Chan plays characters called Jackie Chan in his movies, even if those characters are different people in each film – I mean, Jackie Chan in Miracles, set in the 1930s, can’t be the same Jackie Chan as in Armour of God, set in the 1980s… Of course, when Jackie Chan is not playing Jackie Chan, he’s playing Kevin something, and it usually depends on the distributor, or whoever does the subtitles, what his character is called. In Miracles, Chan plays a hapless innocent who unwittingly becomes the chief of a group of gangsters in 1930s Hong Kong. The gang is at war with another gang, and it all comes down to a one-on-one fight in a rope factory with the usual clever and amusing stunts. Good stuff.

Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino (1994, USA). I can remember exactly when I first saw this film. I’d graduated and was stilling looking for a job six months later. I was staying with my sister in Chiswick, and she and some of her friends had planned a trip to the cinema to see a film. There were two to choose from: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Pulp Fiction. I chose the former but was out-voted. I know which film has aged better. Not this one. It’s, well, really racist. Especially Tarantino’s character, who drops the n-word like a nerd who’s too dumb to realise crackers are fucking horrible people. Perhaps the chopped-up chronology of the narrative was innovative in 1994, although I’m pretty sure Hollywood has been playing tricks with narrative chronology since the 1940s. Other than a lot of swearing and a desperate attempt at a hip soundtrack, there’s little in Pulp Fiction that justifies the reputation it once had.

Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott (2017, UK). After a hiatus of fifteen years, the series creator returned to it with a prequel. And I was bitterly disappointed. It looked great, but relied on idiot characters and idiot plotting and retconned the entire franchise so it made no sense whatsoever. And in the sequel to that film, Scott… doubled-down on everything. The visuals are even more striking, the plot makes even less sense, and the character are even more ridiculously stupid and stereotypical. A third film is due next year, I believe. I expect the downward trajectory to continue.

Bed & Board, François Truffaut (1970, France). The fourth film of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series. He’s now working for a florist and expecting his first child. So, of course, he has an affair with a Japanese woman. It’s easy enough to appreciate the skill with which these films are put together but I have no idea what point they are trying to make.


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Penguin Classic Quartet

Several weeks ago someone posted a link on social media to a Penguin Classics cover generator. So for a while my Facebook TL was filled with Penguin Classics versions of friends’ books. So, naturally, I had to get in on the act. I posted the covers below on Facebook, as everyone else did; but for those of you who don’t use that platform, here they are… the totally not really bogus Penguin Classics editions of the, ahem, five books of the Apollo Quartet…


Adrift on the Sea of Rains


The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself


Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above


All That Outer Space Allows


Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum