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Reading diary 2019, #3

After years of resistance, I have finally succumbed – although it was, of course, more a matter of practicality than choice. I have started reading ebooks. I bought two dozen books (a mix of paperback and hardback) with me to Sweden, but the vast bulk of my collection went into storage (85 boxes!). And I’m not really sure when I’ll see them again. There’s an English Bookshop here in Uppsala – it’s well-known across Scandinavia – but books in Sweden are expensive. And until I get my ID card and a permanent address, I can’t buy books online… So: a Kindle. I’ve ended up buying ebook versions of books I already own – such as Shadow Captain and Crimes Against Humanity below – because my copy has gone into storage, but there are also books I’ve wanted to read for a while which are only available on Kindle. So it’s all working out quite well.

MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood (2013, Canada). I bought this with me in my carry-on luggage and I started it on the plane. To be honest, I’m not sure why I bothered reading it. It’s the third book of a trilogy and I didn’t much like the preceding two books, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Which is not to say that I don’t like Atwood’s fiction – Alias Grace is an excellent novel, and I’ve thought other books by her were very good indeed. But not the MaddAddam trilogy, which reads like really badly-done sf that’s striving for satire but misses every time. The surviving Gardeners from The Year of the Flood have more or less settled down, with the Crakers (a race of genetically-engineered pacifist and dimwitted herbivorous humans created by Crake) and Snowman, who was also part of the project with Oryx and Crake. The two Painballers from the previous book are still at large, and the Gardeners have no desire to fall into their clutches. But MaddAddam is mostly about Toby – and her lover, Zeb, half-brother of Adam, founder of the Gardeners, and his various adventures in the US prior to the release of the virus which killed off most of humanity. And it’s all so very, well, obvious – a dystopian neoliberal US that has been a mainstay of science fiction since cyberpunk. Atwood enlivens it with some jokey branding, but half the time the brands are embarrassingly bad, as if any marketing department on the planet would come up with such crass brands as AnooYoo, and so on. On the other hand, the sections where Toby tells the Crakers slightly mythologised stories about Zeb are quite funny. Which is another reason why I’m not especially keen humorous science fiction for a start, and yet the MaddAddam trilogy doesn’t seem to know whether it’s humorous or serious. It’s impossible to take seriously, which suggests the latter intent; but it’s not comic enough to qualify as the former. Ah well.

Shadow Captain, Alastair Reynolds (2019, UK). This is the sequel to last year’s Revenger, Reynolds’s first attempt at YA fiction. And, to be honest, other than the fact the two protagonists – one of which is the narrator – are teenage girls, it doesn’t much read like YA. The story is set in, I think, the Solar system many many millennia hence. The planets have been broken up into hundreds of thousands of worldlets, many of which have black holes at their cores to provide gravity. There have been successive waves of civilisation in the system, although no one knows what causes them to die off or be re-ignited. There are aliens present, semi-integrated into society, but apparently no FTL, so no real explanation of where they come from. And there are lots of alien artefacts – it is, in fact, the hunt for alien artefacts on uninhabited worldlets, some of which are protected by forcefields which periodically turn off, and which are know as “baubles”, which drives the plot of the trilogy. In Revenger, teenage sisters Adrana and Fura Ness joined the crew of a spaceship hunting for artefacts. They are “bone readers”, which means they can connect telepathically to hardware, still functioning, in giant alien skulls, and which are used by spaceships as a form of FTL communications. By the end of Revenger, Adrana and Fura have beaten dread pirate Bosa Sennen and taken her ships. In Shadow Captain, they need to find a way to let everyone know that Sennen is dead and the two sisters have no plans to follow in her footsteps. Unfortunately, they get involved with a gangster on a minor “wheelworld” while trying to resupply, and end up in no better a situation than when the book began. Along the way, Reynolds introduces a pair of mysteries which are likely to form the plot of the final book of the trilogy – the aforementioned waves of civilisation, and the possibility there may have been many more abortive waves; and the likely existence of some planetary object which swings into occupied space at intervals and wreaks havoc. There’s a distinctive flavour to Revenger and Shadow Captain, a sort of Dickensian steampunk aesthetic, which is appealing – although it does slip in a few places, where some technology exists without anything seemingly underpinning it. And the baubles are pretty damn cool. Reynolds has used something similar before, in Diamond Dogs, and it’s an idea that has always appealed to me (see John Morressy’s Under a Calculating Star and the movie Galaxy of Terror). The third book, currently titled Bone Silence, is due in January next year. I plan to buy a copy.

The Pyramid, William Golding (1967, UK). I’m not sure what to make of Golding. Here’s a writer who’s chiefly known for his debut novel, but went on to write a further fourteen or so books, all of which are generally highly-regarded but nowhere near as popular or well-known as his first novel, Lord of the Flies. Which, to be honest, I read at school, as probably did many UK schoolchildren. But I stumbled across three of his books in a charity shop a couple of years ago and decided to give him a go. And I was extremely impressed by the first one I read, Rites of Passage. And the second (well, third) novel by him I read was The Inheritors, which was odd, and an odd choice of subject, but very good. So I asked my mother to keep an eye open for his books in charity shops, and she found me three more, of which The Pyramid was one. And… it’s not at all what I expected, based on what I’d previously read by him. It’s set in the 1920s in a small town near “Barchester”, although if there are any other references of links to Trollope’s series they’d be lost on me as I’ve never read Trollope. The protagonist of The Pyramid, Oliver, is a young man due shortly to study chemistry at Oxford. Before he leaves, he wants to make out with the nubile receptionist from the doctor’s surgery next-door, who, it is implied, has a “reputation” (it is later revealed she is fifteen). Oliver succeeds – and it’s quite clearly rape, and described as such later, although the narrative seems to brush it off. Oliver returns home a few years later during his time at Oxford, and ends up involved in a local play, where he plays a gypsy violinist (as he plays the piano and violin) and a spear-carrier. But it all goes comically wrong. The final section is set decades later, when Oliver returns home as an old man, and learns the truth about some of inhabitants of the town he knew as a child. I’m not entirely sure what Golding is trying to say with The Pyramid. The various sections are linked by Oliver and place, and some shared characters, but otherwise seem not at all connected. The protagonist is not at all likeable, and his treatment of the teenage girl – and the narrative’s – has not aged well at all. The preoccupation with social class – the title refers to “the crystal pyramid” of social class – reads oddly to a twenty-first century reader, even a British one. To be honest, Waugh writes about class much much better than Golding does here – perhaps because the only intelligent way to write about class is as satire. In all, The Pyramid feels like a minor work, but I’ve more of his books on the TBR and I plan to read them.

The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh (1948, UK). I also asked my mother to keep an eye open for books by Evelyn Waugh – I forget why; I think I’d just watched the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, fancied reading some of his novels and found a couple in charity shops myself… Anyway, I asked her to look out for them, and the next time we met up, she gave me a carrier bag containing a dozen of them. Which was considerably more than I’d expected. Quite a few of them were tatty Penguin paperbacks from the 1950s, which I didn’t mind as these were books I planned to read and pass on. I bought four of them with me to Sweden, including The Loved One. Which is a thin novel, of no great consequence. It’s set in Hollywood during the 1940s, immediately post-war, I think. The protagonist, Dennis Barlow, is a Brit, who worked for a major studio but was let go. He now works for a pet burial service. Which is a career the rest of the British expat community think is diminishes their standing among the Angelinos. This is especially the opinion of Sir Ambrose, who works at the studio which once employed Barlow. And also lets Sir Ambrose go, by simply giving his job to a relative of a manager (this is why employment laws are a good thing). Meanwhile, Barlow has met Aimee, a beautician at Whispering Glades, an upmarket cemetery that could only ever exist in California. And maybe in Florida. Barlow woos Aimee using poetry by assorted great poets which he claims to be his own verse. But then Aimee learns where Barlow works, and she has as low an opinion of the pet burial service as Sir Ambrose. The Loved One is mildly amusing, and Whispering Glades is certainly a good satirical creation, but the Barlow and Aimee are too much the naifs and the rest of the cast are all pretty much caricatures. Still, even second-tier Waugh is pretty damn good prose.

Crimes Against Humanity, Susan R Matthews (2019, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first book back in the late 1990s (I reread it and reviewed it for SF Mistressworks a few years ago; see here). There’s been quite a gap in the novels’ publication history. The books were originally published by Avon, who dropped Matthews after the opening trilogy and two standalone novels. She was then picked up by Roc, who published a further two Under Jurisdiction novels before dropping her. The next novel in the series came out from Meisha Merlin, who went bust shortly afterwards. That was in 2006. And it wasn’t until 2016, when Baen started publishing her, starting with two omnibus editions containing the six Under Jurisdiction novels, that we started to see new entries in the series: Blood Enemies (see here), Fleet Insurgent (a collection; see here), and now Crimes Against Humanity. This novel follows on from the preceding ones – and it’s get to be quite a  complicated story arc by this point – with Kosciusko settled in Gonebeyond space, and the nine Benches deciding torture is a Bad Thing so they no longer need their military torturers. One of whom hates Kosciusko – for being slapped down in the past after abusing bond involuntaries, because Kosciusko is so much more skilled than him, and because Kosciusko’s actions have pretty much resulted in him, in all torturers, losing his job… So a wealthy capitalist, with lots of fingers in illegal pies, including in Gonebeyond space, and especially including slavery, uses the torturer in a plot to kidnap Kosciusko. It all comes to a head during a raid against the slavers and the rescue of the unsold slaves they abandoned. The plot involves infecting Kosciusko with a tailored virus. Unfortunately, it spreads to all the Dolgorukij (Kosciusko’s race). The story is told from multiple viewpoints, and Matthews does her usual where she throws the reader straight in at the deep end. The narrative has to bend itself over backwards considerably more these days to make Kosciusko a sympathetic protagonist – I mean, even back in the 1990s a torturer as a lead character was a hard sell, but these days, post-Gitmo, post-rendition, post-Bush, it would be almost impossible… Except maybe not, as there’s a shit ton of crap science fiction out there which normalises shitty US tactics like torture. Crimes Against Humanity plays it heavy on taking responsibility and the inappropriateness of forgiveness for such crimes; but it also comes down hard on slavery. Which makes the novel feel more contemporary in sensibilities and not a novel that should have seen print 20 years ago. I do like these books, and the story’s by no means finished, but I’m not sure if there any new books in the pipeline.

You Must Remember Us…, Leonard Daventry (1980, UK). I latched onto Daventry years ago when trying to put together a list of forgotten British sf authors, and found a copy of his best-known novel, A Man of Double Deed (see here), the first book of the Keyman trilogy, the second and third books of which don’t appear to have been published in paperback in the UK, only in the US, and the hardback editions were published by Robert Hale, copies of whose books are as rare as rocking-horse shit these days (apparently because most of their sales were to libraries). My copy of You Must Remember Us…, Daventry’s last novel, was published by Robert Hale, and I was extremely lucky to find a near-mint condition copy on eBay for around £20 a year or two ago. It was one of the books I brought with me to Sweden. And… it’s not very good. The earth has managed to destroy itself, and a last starship has escaped from the UK. The carefully-selected crew, however, didn’t make it to the launch site in Wales in time, so those aboard are whoever was available at the time. And they’re sort of muddling along, managing to keep everything running, for the ten-year journey to Alpha Centauri (the means propulsion is left vague). En route, they come across a deserted alien spacecraft, and four of them explore it but find nothing except a line of enigmatic symbols. The ship then vanishes. Some time later, members of the crew begin to develop extremely fast-growing, and fatal, tumours. There is only one cure: they have to transplant their brains into robot bodies. This doesn’t go down too well, and only fifteen of the crew make the change. They then sleep for twenty years. And when they wake up, they’re orbiting an Earth-like planet inhabited by a Neolithic humanoid people… who see the robot crew as gods. It’s all very British, and surprisingly old-fashioned for 1980. A Man of Double Deed had a flavour all its own, but You Must Remember Us… feels very ordinary. Brains transplanted into robot bodies is a relatively common sf trope, and has been around for a long time – ‘Helen ‘O’Loy’ from 1938, for example – and even made appearance in the execrable Legends of Dune series by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson. These days, of course, it’s not an actual transplant that’s used, more a downloading of the consciousness – the mind as software – such as in Jennifer Pelland’s very good Machine. Daventry’s novel doesn’t add anything to the trope, and I’m not really surprised it never made it into paperback and has been pretty much forgotten. I’d still like to read the rest of the Keyman trilogy, however.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 134

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Moving pictures 2019, #9

This is the last-but-one post about movies I watched in the UK, and I’m typing this in Uppsala. I’d expected to be able to blog more after my move, especially given how bad Swedish TV is – I had to watch Midsomer Murders! twice! – but getting up to speed in a new job is pretty hard work and when I get home, I end up just watching stuff on my laptop from Amazon Prime. Or reading. And I’m spending the weekends exploring the town and learning how to shop in Swedish supermarkets…

The Sea Shall Not Have Them, Lewis Gilbert (1954, UK). I think this was a lazy Sunday watch. Well, a moment of laziness in between packing boxes of books. I found it on Amazon Prime, and it’s a fairly typical film of its type and time – ie, a post-WW2 British film about the plucky British during WW2 – although it by no means paints every character as a paragon. The title is the motto of the Air Sea Rescue Services, a branch of the RAF which was responsible for rescuing the crews of aircraft downed in the seas around the UK. It later became the Search and Rescue Force, before being privatised – by the Tories, of course – in 2015. The Tories once again putting lives at risk in pursuit of profit. Scumbags. But back during WW2, it was still part of the armed forces. The film follows the crew of an ASRS fast motor launch, set to rescue the crew of a  bomber which was forced to ditch in the Channel. On board the bomber is an air commodore with secret Nazi plans detailing the successor to the V-2. So the rescue is urgent. Unfortunately, the launch’s crew are not the plucky exceptional Brits assorted folk these days would have you believe of the Greatest Generation. The newest member of the crew is next to useless and manages to set fire to the kitchen while making a cup of tea, nearly scuppering the boat. The engineer is lazy and claims to have done work he hasn’t done. The bomber crew are no better – Dirk Bogarde’s character stole a jerrycan of petrol he found at the side of the road and is afraid he will be imprisoned for it (and, yes, they’ve already found it in the boot of his car). The motor launch breaks down – thanks to the aforementioned engineer’s laziness – and the bomber crew have no way of reporting their position… but a rescue is eventually managed and all concerned return home to a hero’s welcome. Although pretty formulaic, it’s interesting how the characters are shown to be entirely ordinary and flawed. From the perspective of 70 years later, we can all too easily forget that – especially with WW2 currently being misrepresented by politicians and press for their own ends.

Clash, Mohamed Diab (2016, Egypt). Remember the Arab Spring and how it looked like the world was actually going to change for the better? Maghrebi regimes were going down  in flames, and while some nations descended into civil war, others looked like real change might happen. And perhaps real change  did occur in some cases – although not what the west wanted, and not always a step forward. Egypt, of course, had it bad, when widespread protests led to President Mubarak’s resignation and the seizure of power by the military. A new president was elected, but he included the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in his government and that led to further protests. Clash is set during those protests and takes place entirely in the back of a police Black Maria. A group of people have been arrested for suspected Muslim Brotherhood sympathies, and imprisoned in the back of a police truck. Half of them are entirely innocent and were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other half are actual members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it takes a while before they reveal it. Meanwhile, the prisoners witness the violence on the streets through the barred windows of the truck. It’s a cleverly-done film, keeping the story claustrophobic and personal, but positioning what happens in the truck as just one small, and mostly irrelevant, aspect of wider events. Given the impact of the overthrow of Mubarak, it’s no surprise it’s proven a popular subject for Egyptian cinema, and, like the US and its Vietnam War, exploring the ramifications of those events in their culture may well be part of a healing process. Um, does that mean we’ll be inundated with movies about Trump after the US finally gets rid of him? I hope not. Anyway, watch Clash. Recommended.

The Gamekeeper, Ken Loach (1980, UK). Apparently this film has been unavailable for a number of years, until being included in the pictured collection. Which is a shame, as it’s one of his better ones. It’s a lightly-plotted social drama, more of a documentary, than a narrative film, despite being based on a novel by Barry Hines (one of three adaptations of Hines’s novels by Loach, the best-known of which is Kes). The Gamekeeper is pretty much as its title indicates: events in the life of the eponymous man,  who works for one of the aristocracy. Mostly it’s about him dealing with other workers on the estate, and his son’s troubles at school. The final section of the film, the gamekeeper assists at grouse shoot (or it may have been pheasants, I’ve no interest in landed gentry brutally killing animals or birds, and no, it’s not a sport). The peer and his friends show all the condescension and arrogance you’d expect of the aristocracy, especially when the gamekeeper proves a little too loud and crude when beating. Personally, I’d sooner the birds had the guns and shot at the hooray henrys. Everything in the film is in Yorkshire dialect, and given that Hines was from Barnsley and set most of his fiction there… Several reviews online describe the aristocrat as a duke, but I don’t think there are any ducal seats in South Yorkshire, so it’s likely the family in the film are invented. Not that it matters. Loach has produced an important body of work, and if some films are better than others, that’s hardly unexpected. This was one of the good ones.

Antariksham 9000 KMPH, Sankalp Reddy (2018, India). I could describe this as a Telugu Gravity, and that would sort of be true. But it wouldn’t really get across the experience of watching it. And, to be fair, only the last act of Antariksham 9000 KMPH takes place in orbit. It’s also wrapped in a pretty standard Indian cinema romance narrative. Which is not entirely expected in a story about a satellite in a decaying orbit about to cause all manner of orbital destruction… The man responsible for said satellite resigned from the Indian Space Research Organisation after his wife was killed in a car crash. He was driving. He was also on the phone to a technician at mission control, trying to sort out a technical problem with the satellite, when he lost control of his car. Unfortunately, there’s doesn’t appear to have been much of a handover, and the satellite – lost since that incident – has reappeared and is about to cause untold damage in orbit, which would in turn cause everything to come crashing down to Earth, killing millions. And the only man who can prevent this is… the aforementioned engineer who resigned. So they have to persuade him to return to the ISRO fold. And they have to put a crewed mission together to go up into orbit to fix the satellite in situ – which is where it all gets a bit Gravity. Although this is a Telugu-language film, it’s  also an Indian one, so there are a couple of musical numbers but they’re quite restrained. The special effects in the third act are done quite well, but the plot and acting is so OTT it’s hard to tell. This is not a film you can take seriously, despite its subject. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun. But if you start watching it expecting another Gravity, you’ll be disappointed – it doesn’t even get into orbit until the third act, for one thing. But it’s free to watch on Amazon Prime, so it’s worth a go if you’ve got that.

Story of a Love Affair, Michelangelo Antonioni (1950, Italy). This was Antonioni’s first feature film, and was apparently based on The Postman Always Ring Twice. A private investigator in Milan is asked to investigate a woman by her wealthy husband. The investigator discovers the wife had before moving to Milan been involved with a man whose fiancée had died after falling down a lift-shaft. And then that man turns up in Milan, and he and the wife end up in an affair, while the investigator and husband dig deeper into the suspicious death of the fiancée. I love Antonioni’s films but I’m not so enamoured of his early work. Perhaps Il Grido (see here) show some of the signature techniques he would later use, but Story of a Love Affair come across more like an unholy cross between Italian Neorealism and US noir. And, to be honest, the French did US noir much better. True, some noir has always had that air of cinema verité, and the Neorealist elements of Story of a Love Affair enhance that aspect… but it’s all very much a drama-turned-thriller, or perhaps the reverse, and though it works well I suspect I found it disappointing because I was expecting a more, well, Antonioni-esque film. Ah well.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 937


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Moving pictures 2019, #8

Only one more of these and I’ll be up to date, but I’ll not be able to get that post done before I leave the UK. Still, I expect I’ll have plenty of time to catch up once I’m living in Sweden…

The Hills Have Eyes*, Wes Craven (1977, USA). I’m not a horror fan, especially modern horror. Too squeamish. I can watch 1970s and earlier horror because the special effects look like special effects. Once they started using CGI, they lost me as a viewer. Having said that, I wouldn’t normally have bothered with The Hills Have Eyes, although I’ve watched a number of Wes Craven movies over the years, except it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And, like a number of other US movies on that list, I can’t honestly say I understand why it’s there. It made a star of Michael Berryman, but there’s not much about the film that suggests it’s a classic. A dysfunctional family are stranded in the Nevada desert and fall prey to a family of cannibals who live in the hills (it’s never entirely explained how they managed to survive there for two generations, but never mind). The Hills Have Eyes is apparently a cult classic, which I can totally see… but that doesn’t make it either a good film or one you must see before dying. Ah well, at least I’ve crossed it off the list.

Prospect, Zeek Earl (2018, USA). A man and his teenage daughter, desperate for one last big strike, take a chance at prospecting for organic jewels on a world just before all contact with the world is lost. But it all goes horribly wrong – of course – and the father dies and the daughter is forced to ally herself with a smooth-talking criminal in order to escape the world and the brutal tribe of people trapped there. It all started quite well, with an interesting vision of interstellar travel; and then the prospecting in spacesuits in a forest because the air is poisonous, that looked quite good… But somewhere in the first half hour, the writer decided all the characters should talk like rejects from Firefly, and that stupidly mannered artificial way of speaking, like a cowboy who thinks he’s in a Jane Austen novel, got very tiring very quickly. It didn’t help that the story went a bit Mad Max, while looking like the 1980s Doctor Who gravel pit, and its early promise was pretty much pissed away. Worth a punt, but don’t expect much.

Sylvia Scarlett, George Cukor (1935, USA). This is the film that saw Katherine Hepburn labelled as “box office poison” until her career revived with The Philadelphia Story. It’s not entirely clear why contemporary audiences took against Sylvia Scarlett, or Hepburn in it. She’s just as annoying as she is in her other films, and the movie’s conceit of having her masquerade as male for much of its length is handled quite well. Co-star Cary Grant comes across as a bit of an odd fish. Everyone remembers him as the tea-bag-tanned urbane, if not louch, playboy of his later career, but in his earlier films he’s a bit of a galumph and in this one he even tries on a Cockney accent. It’s middling successful, but good enough for a US audience (mind you, Strine would make an acceptable Cockney accent to most Americans; and then there are those US films set in Eire where the cast all have Belfast accents…). Anyway, Hepburn et père flee France ahead of an embezzlement charge, and bump into grifter Grant on the ferry to the UK. And they, well, have sort of adventures around a 1930s Hollywood vision of England, where minor gentry have estates the size of the Isle of Wight and everyone drives on the right. I can see why the film was unsuccessful: it’s not very interesting. A pair of lovable rogues do lovable-roguish things. And then romance blossoms once the obvious subterfuge is seen through. But I don’t think it was so bad it should have blighted Hepburn’s career for over a decade. Meh.

A Moment of Innocence, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1996, Iran). A US film blogger I regularly read recently went on about Iranian directors doing European cinema and his surprise at such a thing proving both popular and sustainable – not just Makhmalbaf, but also Kiarostami, Farhadi, Panahi, Payami, Ghobadi… although Farhadi is probably the closest to European cinema and has made films in France – indeed, his latest is set entirely in Spain. But then Kiarostami also made movies in Italy and Japan. I’ve been watching Iranian films for over a decade now, and I certainly count it as one of the world’s best cinemas. Makhmalbaf has always been highly regarded in Iranian cinema, but his films have not been as readily available in the UK as those by Kiarostami or Farhadi (and even then it’s a bit hit and miss with Kiarostami). Hopefully, that will change with the UK release last August of Makhmalbaf’s Poetic Trilogy, containing the astonishingly good Gabbeh (and yes, yes, I’ve bought myself a copy to take to Sweden). Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll see Makhmalbaf’s back-catalogue appear in Region B Blu-rays. One of the appealing qualities of Iranian cinema is its willingness to push the boundaries of cinematic narrative. In A Moment of Innocence, a director called Makhmalbaf, who never appears on screen, is casting for a movie about when, as a seventeen year old, he stabbed a policeman at a protest. He tracks down the policeman and auditions him for that role, but then has him involved in the casting process to find an actor to play a younger him during the protest. And so you have Makhmalbaf commenting on his past, while exploring how films are made and how they represent real stories, using real people playing the parts of actors and actors playing the parts of real people. It all feels like a companion piece to Kiarostami’s Close-up (1990), made six years earlier and featuring Makhmalbalf as a major offscreen character – much as he is offscreen in this film. And, well, the reason why I thought this film is really good is the reason why I think much Iranian cinema is good: it makes smart films that flout Hollywood cinema narrative conventions. And they look bloody good too. Everyone should watch Iranian films.

Crumb*, Terry Zwigoff (1994, USA). This is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It is a biopic of US underground comic artist R. Crumb. Starring Crumb, his friends and family, admirers and fans. So its appeal is pretty much wholly linked to the interest a viewer might have in its subject. Which, for me, was pretty much zero. I admit I like some late Sixties west coast US music, and Crumb was briefly linked with it by virtue of drawing an album cover for Big Brother & the Holding Company’s 1968 album Cheap Thrills (ie, Janis Joplin’s band), but I’m mostly ignorant of Crumb’s various works. I much prefer French bandes dessinées to US underground comics, anyway. Which is no doubt why I found a biopic about one of the latter’s leading lights a bit of a bore. And I could see no reason why it should be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… although that’s hardly untypical of most of the US films on the list. If the film made a splash at its time of release, it doesn’t now. There are other more important people in comic art who deserve to have films made about them. Those films might even prove more interesting.

The Long Day Closes, Terence Davies (1992, UK). Davies is one of those directors whose films I like in theory but not in practice. If you know what I mean. He makes gorgeously-shot films with an amazing attention to detail, and yet they tell stories that are so mundane and forgettable that you wonder what you watched a day after the movie finished. It doesn’t help that many of his films depict an impoverished northern England during the middle years of last century, and very little has changed since then – or rather, communities, society as a whole, has changed a great deal since then, but the impoverishment has returned, thanks to criminal Tory austerity policies, except there’s no community to help share the burden. So Davies’s films feel like paeans to a world that never existed, even though they patently did exist. And that’s another problem: what exactly is the point of documenting them? I can understand the personal urge to document one’s own past, and though each person’s past is unique there’s often enough commonality to find an audience… But things are as bad now as they were then – and we don’t have the excuse of paying for a global war, or at least paying the US’s bill for their help in defending ourselves from a more powerful enemy during a global war (the US fucked the UK over, much more than Germany did, make no mistake about that. The US calls itself “the Land of the Free” but it doesn’t say “free” at the bottom of the invoice they issue for services needed when invaded by a foreign power… I digress. I am apparently known for it. My last manager complained of it – at least, I think he was complaining…) Anyway, I would recommend any Terence Davies film because they’re worth seeing. I don’t agree with, or even particularly enjoy, most of them, but I admire them and they’re one hundred percent worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 937


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Reading diary 2019, #2

I should do another book haul post but, well, the new books are all in boxes. And who knows when I’ll see them again… Meanwhile I’ve bought myself a Kindle and I’ve loaded it up with ebook versions of some of my recent purchases so I can actually get to read them even though they’re going straight into storage. The following half dozen books, however, were read old school, ie, paper. I’ll be taking a few paperbacks with me, of course, but space and weight is limited.

The Beekeeper of Sinjar, Dunya Mikhail (2018, Iraq). My mother lent me this and I think it was one of her friends who either recommended it or lent it to her. It is, to be honest, not usual reading material for either of us. I don’t think anyone needs to be told that ISIS, AKA Daesh, are nasty pieces of work – especially with Shemima Begum all over the UK news last month. (For the record, she’s a British citizen and has every right to return to the UK, and revoking her citizenship is disgusting, never mind illegal; but that’s the scumbag Tories for you.) The Beekeeper of Sinjar is specifically about the Daesh genocide of the Yazidis, an ethno-religious group from the region, whose monotheistic religion is distinct from the Abrahamic religions. Daesh would slaughter the men and elderly, and sell off the women at slave markets to Daesh members. A number of the Daesh described in the book were either American or Russian. The title refers to a man who still lives in the area, and helps Yazidi women escape their Daesh captors. Sometimes it’s just a matter of paying off the Daesh man holding a woman captive, other times the women have to be spirited away and smuggled across the border. The book is structured as a series of telephone conversations between US-based Mikhail and the beekeeper, during which the beekeeper often tells the stories of the women, and occasionally, men he has rescued. It’s harrowing stuff. And let’s not forget, Daesh is Blair’s and Bush’s legacy. Unfortunately, The Beekeeper of Sinjar suffers by being quite badly written. Partly it’s the nature of conversations – although the poetry excerpts add little – and the book never really gives a clear idea of what the Yazidi are (I had to look them up on Wikipedia to learn they have their own religion, for example). Certainly, the story in The Beekeeper of Sinjar needs to be told, but I think I would have preferred something more like reportage than Mikhail’s attempt to humanise events.

The Final Solution, Michael Chabon (2003, USA). I’m not entirely sure why I continue to read Chabon. I find his particular style of over-egged prose not to my taste, and as it’s as evident in The Final Solution‘s 127 pages as it is his longer works. The story is relatively simple, although it tries for cleverness – as Chabon often does – and while it doesn’t rely on an explanatory essay, like Gentleman of the Road (which, I must admit, I did enjoy; see here), the point of The Final Solution hinges on the reader realising something that’s not in the text – although the book’s title is a bloody great huge signpost. In 1944, a retired detective, who is clearly Sherlock Holmes, although he’s never named as such, is dragged into one last case to find the missing parrot belonging a mute German Jewish boy staying at a nearby vicarage. The bird’s disappearance coincides with the murder of another of the vicarage’s lodgers, and it’s surmised he was trying to steal the parrot – which has a habit of reeling off long strings of numbers in German, which many think are code – but was  himself robbed of the bird. Chabon handle his Holmes quite well, although Holmes’s irascibility often makes him more annoying than sympathetic, and his approach to the mystery make the plot anything but straightforward. Not a bad light read, but Gentleman of the Road was better.

Boneland, Alan Garner (2012, UK). This is third book in a trilogy begun with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a book I remember from my childhood as a quintessential English fantasy, completed nearly half a century after the second book, The Moon of Gomrath, was published, because Garner had grown to dislike his characters. Boneland is also not a children’s book. The protagonist is Colin, the boy from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but he has forgotten all the events of that book – in fact, he can’t remember anything that happened to him before the age of thirteen. He’s now a radio astronomer, working at Jodrell Bank, and living in a hut in a nearby wood. He’s hugely intelligent, but has problems socialising. He visits a psychotherapist, and she more or less teases him into being sociable with him. It’s a relationship that feels like to belongs in a genre novel from fifty years ago – and not a genre novel like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. There’s something of the fell of a mouthpiece character to her – certainly, she seems to carry more weight in the story than her role would indicate. Colin’s story is crosscut with that of a shaman living in the same area  thousands of years previously. Both are protecting something, although neither seem entirely sure what. Boneland is not an easy read. Even by the end, it’s not entirely clear what role each of the main trio of characters play. But the writing is really good – Garner is a master at writing about landscape – (but it’s also very talky) and though it’s only a thin novel of 149 pages, there’s a great deal in it. It probably needs a reread.

Without a Summer, Mary Robinette Kowal (2013, USA). This is the third book in Kowal’s Regency fantasy series, and while – being a huge fan of Georgette Heyer and having read a number of US Regency romances – I had thought it’d take some convincing for me to accept a US-written Regency-set novel, and a genre one to boot, but I have to admit Kowal has done an excellent job on these. She has the dialogue down to a tee, and the prose is not far behind. She manages the sensibilities well enough that a British reader can find no cause to complain, and she incorporates real world history in such a way it adds to the plot. (Although I read a couple by US writer Fiona Hall, a pseudonym of Ellen Pall, back in the 1990s that did something similar and weren’t bad.) Anyway, 1816 – not 1916, as the backcover blurb claims – did indeed suffer climate abnormalities, due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 (not to be confused with Krakatoa, East of Java, which is actually west of Java, and happened in 1883). The extended winter has meant the coldmongers – who use magic to chill things, and are all children, much like sweeps, because of the perils of their occupation – can find no work, and are being blamed for the unseasonal weather. It turns out the coldmongers are planning a march to protest their poor lot, but an unscrupulous peer intends to escalate it into a full-blown rebellion so he can unseat the current prime minister (I think; I can’t check as the book has gone into storage). Protagonist Jane, and her husband David, get dragged into the plot due to a family connection and their sympathies for the coldmongers. It ends with the pair of them held in the Tower of London for treason but, of course, they can hardly be hanged as there are two books following this one. That’s probably Without a Summer‘s chief fault – the jeopardy is meaningless, because the two leads are sure to be found innocent and restored to their former position. Still, a fun read, and I plan to get the sequels.

Mission Child, Maureen F McHugh (1998, USA). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this novel. It had neither a plot nor did it need to be science fiction. And yet it was good. Janna is a teenage girl at an “appropriate technology mission” in the far north. Although the local culture resembles Inuit, the people of the region seem to be descended from northern Europeans. A local tribe wipes out the mission, and only a handful of people escape, including Janna and her husband. They trek to to another tribe, with whom they share kinship, but are never made entirely welcome. Then the tribe that attacked the mission attacks this other tribe, and again Janna and her husband escape. But he dies during the escape, and Janna makes it alone to a coastal city, where she is put in a refugee camp. She is mistaken for a man and chooses to impersonate that gender for reasons of safety, although later she decides she is transgender. Janna, now Jan, moves to another city and links up with another tribal person who’s a bit of wideboy, full of semi-legal schemes and deals. Jan gets a job as a technician, brings over a shaman from the refugee camp, and ends up as his helper when the wideboy is murdered after dealing in something high tech he stumbled across. Jan eventually falls out with the shaman and sets off travelling. He ends up on a tropical islands, whose inhabitants are descended from a mix of Indian and Chinese settlers, where he hires out as a bodyguard. But his employer is killed in a raid (this part of the book was originally published as a short story, I believe), and so Jan takes his employer’s daughter to her grandmother on another island, and ends up settling down there. He ends up helping offworlder medics when a plague strikes the islands as he is immune to the disease thanks to a medical implant he was  given back in the first chapter. For all that the novel is about the impact of high tech offworlders on the cultures of Jan’s world, there’s no good reason I could see why the novel needed to be set on another world, or even sf. Certainly it gave McHugh free rein in envisaging cultures to make her various points, but it does all feel a bit, well, arbitrary. Which is not to say Mission Child is a bad novel. Far from it. McHugh was definitely one of US science  fiction’s more interesting writers during the 1990s (she has not published anything in long-form since 2001), and I should probably give her short fiction ago (there are two collections to date, both published this century). Mission Child is a bit of a puzzler: a book that is clearly genre, but doesn’t really need to be, but works so well as genre it seems churlish to complain it didn’t have to be genre.

Brideshead Revisited*, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK). There are many who consider this the finest novel written in English literature. I can’t agree, although it is very good. But I’m not even sure it’s Waugh’s best novel. I thought Sword of Honour better, to be honest. But then, Brideshead Revisited is not a satire, and even Waugh admits he over-wrote it in places. Which is not to say the prose is not good, because even over-written Waugh is fucking classy prose, and way more impressive and readable than, say, Chabon, who I also find over-writes. But Brideshead Revisited suffers from an odd structure, which the television series simplified (and I saw the TV series long before I read the novel), and an extended chronology that covers far more time than there are chapters. It opens with Charles Ryder in uniform during WW2 finding himself back at Brideshead, the seat of the Flyte family, old Catholic aristocracy. Back in his university days, Ryder had made friends with Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son. He had become a friend of the family, but fell out with them when they tried to control Sebastian’s drinking with a strategy he felt would make things worse. (It did.) Years later, married and with children, he bumps into Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and begins an affair with her. The two decide to marry once their individual divorces go through, but the estranged father returns to the family seat to die and everything changes. The framing narrative – Ryder in WW2 – provides only a prologue and an epilogue, and the title too, of course – but the way Ryder lives his life throughout the 1920s and 1930s but the narrative only deals with his interactions with the Flyte family… not to mention the faint smell of fawnication over the aristocracy that pervades the novel, and the fascination with Catholicism (which does, to be fair, result in one of the novels’s best comic scenes), makes it all a less likeable read than it should be. That it succeeds is totally down to Waugh’s prose, even if it is more florid than usual (although I read the later edition, in which Waugh toned it down somewhat). Some of the characters are close to caricatures – especially Ryder’s father, Anthony Blanche and Kurt – but Waugh handles his female characters surprisingly well. Brideshead Revisited is a definitely a book worth reading, but if you had to read a single Waugh novel I wouldn’t recommend it as the one to read. Having said that, I now want to watch the TV series all over again. And I’d like to see the 2008 film adaptation too.

1001 Books you Must Read Before You Die count: 134


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Moving pictures 2019, #7

Am trying hard to get these out of the way before my move. Having said that, I’ve no idea what Sweden will bring. Film-wise, that is. My Firestick will still work, and I’m taking my Blu-ray player and a selection of DVDs and Blu-rays with me, but…

The Airzone Solution?, Bill Baggs (1993, UK). This was an oddity. I found it on Amazon Prime. Apparently, during the 1990s, the BBC released some straight-to-video teleplays under the imprint BBV, including this near-future story by the bloke who voices the Daleks in Dr Who, and which starred four of the actors who had played Dr Who: Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. It’s set in the near-future, which probably means a decade ago, and in which the UK suffers such bad air pollution there are plants around the country to clean the air. Then the government gives a contract to a dodgy company – this may sound a little familiar to followers of the Brexit debacle – to build a new generation of plants. Except an activist (McCoy) discovers the new plants are actually increasing air pollution, and takes the news to documentary maker Davison. They also recruit TV weatherman Baker, because he has the platform. Turns out the company has another plan in mind, one which explains the missing bodies of activists who raided the air plants and some very suspect biological research… It was all resolutely amateur, despite the cast, with almost no effort made to present a future London. It comes as no surprise to discover the whole BBV operation was run on the cheap. Dr Who completists might want to seek this one out, but I can’t think of any other reason why it would be worth watching.

L’Amant double, François Ozon (2017, France). This is the latest from a favourite director. I say “favourite” although I find Ozon’s films a bit hit and miss. And this one was definitely miss. It’s basically Ozon does De Palma, and while he does it with more flair and better cinematography, he doesn’t overcome the, er, genre’s shortcomings. A woman in an intense relationship with her therapist spots him with another woman, only he denies it. It turns out he has a twin brother he never discusses. So the woman tracks down the brother, who is also a psychoanalyst, and ends up in a relationship with him. Then it all gets a bit tricky. It strikes me that for all the very different films Ozon has made throughout his career, they have been at heart pastiches. 8 femmes was a pastiche of Les parapluies de Cherbourg, Angel was Ozon taking off a DH Lawrence adaptation, Potiche was… I’m not sure how some of his other films fit into my theory, but what’s a theory without exceptions? And Sitcom, to be fair, was an overt spoof. Anyway, Ozon is always worth a go, no matter what he’s taking off, and if L’Amant double isn’t among his best it’s because he’s pastiching poor material.

Mission Impossible: Fallout, Christopher McQuarrie (2018, USA). This is bread and butter stuff for Cruise these days, and probably his main source of income, so providing he sticks to the formula it should be almost impossible (see what I did there?) to fuck it up. And, happily, in this instalment McQuarrie keeps the franchise on the straight and narrow. It’s like 007. European locales, lots of action, a femme fatale, a convoluted plot, and an excuse for the hero to behave more morally than everyone else. Mission Impossible: Fallout does all that. There’s a plan to spring some random villain from an earlier film in the franchise from super-secure prison – do such things even exist outside of movies? Given actual prisons these days are mostly privatised and run by for-profit companies that employ from the bottom of the labour pool. Anyway, Cruise is hired, while pretending to be someone else, to spring said nasty. Meanwhile, there are a couple of nuclear warheads floating about, which Cruise needs to take off the market because some secretive international group of anarchists – with which the aforementioned villain is associated – want to use them to blow up various centres of religion. Which is, to be honest, something I can sympathise with, given that not even Trump and Brexit combined can fuck things up as much as religion does on a daily basis. Anyway, Mission Impossible: Fallout is formula stuff, with all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed, the laws of physics routinely flaunted, and a view of geopolitics that invents a villain everyone can be happy to hate. Which is sort of risible, when you think about it, but that’s Hollywood.

Scobie Malone, Terry Ohlsson (1975, Australia). Another Amazon Prime find. This is an odd Australian thriller based on a series of detective novels by Jon Cleary and set in Sydney. The film opens with the body of a woman found in a basement area of the Sydney Opera House. Detective Scobie Malone is given the case, and discovers the woman was involved with a senior politician. While Malone goes about interviewing the various suspects, and pissing everyone off, the film also shows the victim’s life in flashback. There’s not much to distinguish this film from other 1970s cop thrillers, other than its setting, and a pair of really really horrible songs… which doesn’t make it a dull film by any means. I’m not convinced Jack Thompson was especially good in the title role, although apparently several in the Australian film industry thought he was star material. He has certainly had a long and full career, but he was never the breakout he was expected to be. And watching Scobie Malone, it’s hard to wonder why anyone thought he might become an international superstar.

Never Too Young to Rock, Dennis Abey (1976, UK). There is some weird, and embarrassing, shit available on Amazon Prime. And make no mistake Never Too Young to Rock is a national embarrassment. True, it doesn’t feature Gary Glitter, another national embarrassment, and was made after The Glitter Band had split with him, but is there any genre of music more cringe-inducing than glam rock? Er, hair metal, possibly – but that was mostly US anyway. All of which probably makes no sense until you realise that The Glitter Band feature heavily in Never Too Young to Rock, as do Mud, The Rubettes and, er, Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band (which included members of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band). At the time the film is set, popular music has been banned from television. So an eccentric bloke with a “rock detector van”, driven by Freddie Jones, travels about the country looking for the greatest rock bands for a televisual extravaganza. Quite how this ends up with Mud, The Glitter Band and The Rubettes is a mystery. They were never that big, even in 1976. And the music has not aged well. Although it has certainly aged better than the look. And much much better than the Glitter name. As 1970s UK musical oddities on film go – and the UK produced a number during the 1960s and 1970s – this is definitely bottom tier stuff.

I Vitelloni, Federico Felloni (1953, Italy). When it come to Fellini, I’ve always liked his more indulgent stuff more than his other films, and that includes the Neorealist films, which, to be fair, has never been a genre that’s appealed to me. And it’s that genre  I Vitelloni reminded me of more than anything else.  The film opens with a downpour interrupting a beauty contest, but it’s all about five twentysomething men in small town Italy, trying to survive in a country still suffering from the effects of the war. It’s much of a piece with other Italian films made during the period, and while it apparently re-invigorated Fellini’s career after an earlier flop, I didn’t find it as appealing as the aforementioned over-indulgent films like Satyricon or Casanova. One of for fans of Italian Neorealism more than fans of Fellini.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 935


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Moving pictures 2019, #6

I need to get this backlog out of the way before I start my new life. It’s not that I’ve watched loads of films over the past two months, more that I’ve not been writing blog posts as often as before. Busy packing up the DVD collection, you see…

Parineeta, Bimal Roy (1953, India). In recent years, I’ve watched quite a few Bollywood films, but I admit I do prefer the historical ones – although they’re generally poor transfers and good condition copies are almost impossible to find. Parineeta wasn’t too bad, possibly because black-and-white seems to survive better than colour. Who knows. It’s the usual boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again story, this time complicated by the fact the two leads are from closely-knit neighbouring families, but his family are the rich ones and hers the impoverished tenants. She’s much put-upon, especially by her own family, and her relationship with the male lead grows over time, despite both their families trying to arrange marriages for them with others. The film is based on a novella by a popular Bengali novelist, which likely explains the almost Austen-esque feel to the plot (ie, its origin as written fiction, rather than a straight-up commercial Bollywood movie). The acting was a cut above usual, but the music was entirely forgettable. Say what you like about 1990s and twenty-first century Bollywood films, but they generally have memorable dance numbers (even if, most of the time, that’s all you remember of the film). Parineeta was good, a mix between parallel cinema and commercial Bollywood. Worth seeing.

The Lost City of Z, James Gray (2016, USA). I really did not like this film. It felt like Embrace of the Serpent made for fox-hunting inbred Tory morons. It’s apparently a real story, about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, but based on a book about Fawcett written by an American. Which might explain some aspects of the film… Fawcett is a promising young Army officer in the first decade of the twentieth century, but he’s not from the right sort of family. So instead of a prestigious posting, he gets seconded to the Royal Geographical Society as cartographer. This results in him being part of an expedition in Brazil, where he hears rumours of a fabled city of gold. This leads him back to Brazil a number of times in an effort to find it. So this is a film with a lot of tramping through jungle, or travelling up jungle rivers. And it’s all done from the perspective of Edwardians. The end result is a film which repels while covering similar to material that of far superior films. I’m only glad I found this free on Amazon Prime.

Force of Evil*, Abraham Polonsky (1948, USA). There are many US noir films considered cinema classics, and this is one of them. I’m not so enamoured of the genre as other seem to be, and can take its so-called classics more or less as I see them. Because Force of Evil, which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is a good film, but not really a great film – and I’d expect the list to comprise great films. I have to wonder if Force of Evil made the list because of its subject: the numbers racket. As a study of how the numbers racket worked, and how established it was in everyday life, the film does an excellent job. But it does it in the guise of a noir film, with a successful lawyer to a mobster trying to save his principled older brother, who runs a small independent numbers game, from eventual mob take-over. Everything about the film is pure 1940s Hollywood noir – from the cast to the sets to the lighting to the story beats. One for fans.

A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg (2011, Germany). I’m not exactly sure what the title refers to, given this film is about the friendship between Feud and Jung, and Jung’s patient-turned-disciple Sabina Speilrein. She is brought to Jung and he attempts to cure her of her psychosis using his theories, and so discovers her intelligence and aptitude and eventually uses her as an assistant in his work. He refers her to Freud – to be fair, I had not known the two had worked together, but this film is based on real events – and she eventually qualifies as a psychoanalyst herself and returns to Russia to practice. Since Cronenberg went mainstream, there seems to be less distinguishing his movies from those made by his contemporaries. There was a definitely a singular vision to the work he did up until the turn of the century – especially in his early work, like Crimes of the Future – but A Dangerous Method could have been made by more or less anyone. Which is not to say it’s not well-made, nor that its story is uninteresting. But it’s not something that lingers, and Cronenberg fans won’t find much here to admire.

A Man Called Ove, Hannes Holm (2015, Sweden). The title of this movie, however, is plain from the first frame. Ove is a cantankerous old Swedish man who has never quite got over the death of his his wife. He is forced into retirement, even though his job is all he has, especially since his wife died six months previously. He tries to commit suicide, but is interrupted each time by his new neighbours, a woman of Iranian extraction married to a Swede. And through his friendship with that family, he reconnects with his community and discovers a new lease of life. It’s completely a feel-good movie, but it works because Ove is such a miserable bastard you actually start to feel sorry for him when he finds himself forced to go on living when his plans to end it all are repeatedly foiled. I had, to be honest, expected something humorous like The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared (see here), but this was far from absurd. It was a gentle comedy about age and friendship, and it did it all without being overbearing or simplistic. Plus, it’s Swedish. Worth seeing.

The Untamed, Amat Escalante (2016, Mexico). Sometimes you stumble across a film – this one was on the Cinema Paradiso website – and when the disc arrive you, you sit down to watch it with little or nothing in the way of expectations… And if you’re lucky the film blows you away, but more often it’s entirely forgettable. The Untamed did not precisely blow me away, but it was far from forgettable. It opens with a woman tied down in a barn, who then – willingly – has sex with a tentacled alien, which has been hiding out in the barn since it crashlanded. Meanwhile, another woman is at odds with her homophobic husband, who happens to be having an affair with one of her gay work colleagues. When the first woman introduces the second to the alien, things start to go wrong. This film reminded me a great deal of Carlos Reygadas’s work, and not just because it’s Mexican. But it had the same sort of distant documentary feel I appreciate so much in movies, albeit with perhaps Yorgos Lanthimos’s oblique approach to storytelling (not that Reygadas is exactly direct). The end result is a film which starts out weird, then turns prosaic before circling back to weird and making that opening all of a piece with the whole. It also looks gorgeous, with some excellent cinematography. Escalante is name to watch. This is the fourth film he’s directed; I think I’ll try and track down the earlier ones.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 935


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Moving pictures 2019, #5

I used to plan my viewing – well, mostly – but that seems to have gone by the board now that I’m about to up sticks. I don’t know what there’ll be available to watch for the first few weeks I’m in Sweden – I suspect I will reading more – although I will be packing my Blu-ray player in my suitcase. And, of course, a couple of a box sets…

Happy Together, Wong Kar-wai (1997, China). I’ve yet to figure out what I feel about Wong’s films. I do like his most famous film, In the Mood for Love, and its sequel 2046, although I’ve been ambivalent about other films by him I’ve seen. And that’s pretty much true of Happy Together. It’s well-made, often with quite stunning cinematography, and with a great soundtrack – the second by Wong, I seem to recall, that includes a track by Frank Zappa (‘Watermelon in Easter Hay’ in this one). The problem is that Wong’s films are really good but they haven’t quite clicked for me, and I’m somewhat surprised they haven’t done so. They’re exactly the sort of thing I should Iike and admire, and some of them I do like and some of them I do admire, and some of them it’s both. Wong should be one of those directors on my “to watch” list, and he is to some extent or I’d not have rented this film… but whenever I watch one of his movies I always feel I should like it more than I actually do. I suspect I need to give his oeuvre a more careful study.

Kagemusha, Akira Kurosawa (1980, Japan). And after Wong, another director whose oeuvre I find a bit hit and miss. I like Kurosawa’s films, I have a lot of time for them, but he made a lot of samurai movies and they do all sort of blur into one another, if not even into themselves because they’re quite long. This one is a good three hours, and not a fat lot happens during that time. A daimyo in sixteenth-century Japan has a double – the kagemusha of the title – and after being shot by a sniper during a siege of a castle, the double takes his place. And proves more effective in it than the generals eager to maintain the pretence realised. It’s all very Kurosawa, a full-on historical samurai film with epic battle-scenes, real castles and an almost-Shakespearean plot. But it’s also very long and that, for me, told against it. It really doesn’t need three hours to tell the story, and it felt more often than not that Kurosawa was more in love with his material than any viewer was likely to be. But it’s Kurosawa, and that’s not so much a brand as it is a badge of quality. Anyone watching Kagemusha is going to know what they will get. I’ts probably telling that the Kurosawa films I like best are the ones that aren’t historical samurai films. One for fans.

Salome, William Dieterle (1953, USA). As mentioned in an earlier post, my mother lent me a box set of Rita Hayworth movies, which included a couple I’d not seen before. Like this one. To be honest, I hadn’t missed anything. Salome is a typical Hollywood Biblical story, which means it’s not only wildly historically inaccurate, it probably bears little resemblance to the original Bible story. For all the US bleats about being Christian, it shows a remarkably cavalier attitude to its central religious text – except when it’s doing the exact opposite and interpreting it entirely literally, despite that being scientifically impossible, never mind displaying a complete lack of common sense. The story of Salome is not one they tend to teach in Sunday school, given it involves a head on a plate. And, to be honest, even after watching the film, I’m not entirely sure what the film was actually trying to say. Salome is a Jew brought up in Rome, who upsets caesar because a Roman one-percenter wants to marry her and so she is sent back to Jerusalem, a city she does not know. But she’s not having that, so she uses her feminine wiles to overturn caesar’s decision. And after her famous dance, which might well have had seven veils in this film but they weren’t what is normally meant by “veil”, she asks a boon and her mother jumps in and ask for John the Baptist’s head on a plate, as you do, and that’s not really what Salome wanted. It’s all very 1950s bible-story Hollywood, and even Hayworth’s presence can’t redeem it. Avoid.

Cul-de-sac, Roman Polanski (1966, UK). I know I shouldn’t be watching Polanski movies but this was free on Amazon Prime so it’s not like I’m giving money to Polanski. How difficult is it to sort his situation out? I mean, the US will rendition people and throw them in Gitmo because they think they might be terrorists, and have no evidence to prove they are, but when they do have evidence someone committed a crime he gets to lead a normal life as long as he doesn’t visit the US. Of course, Polanski, a Pole, is white. And the US is not currently bombing Poland. But who knows with Trump. Or indeed the UK, as the racist Leave voters seem particularly incensed at the number of Poles in the UK. Anyway, Cul-de-sac is an odd film. Donald Pleasance and his wife Françoise Dorléac live in an old castle on Lindisfarne, when their home is invaded by bank robbers on the run Lionel Sanders and Jack MacGowran. Sanders takes the couple hostage while he tries to contact his boss. MacGowran, who was shot during the robbery, dies of his wounds. Then friends visit Pleasance and Dorléac, and the two have to pretend to normality while Sanders acts as their new manservant. Polanski sex-crime aside, he was a was good director and some of his early works from the 1960s are really good films. Cul-de-sac is characteristically odd, but it’s well-shot, extremely atmospheric, and the cast put in good turns. While I can’t recommend it, I have to admit it’s worth seeing.

Fair Game, Mario Andreacchio (1986, Australia). Had it not been the fact this was movie was Australian, I would likely have written it off as a B-movie. Which it still is, to be honest. Three typical examples of Australian manhood harass and assault a woman who runs a wildlife sanctuary because she prevented them from kangaroo hunting. But their revenge goes awry when she proves more of a match for them. I would like to say it’s refreshing to see an Australian film in which a woman wins against a group of men, but I think that’s an unfair characterisation of Australian culture. And hardly commonplace in Hollywood or the UK film industry. The plot of Fair Game is a staple – there must be a couple of hundred Westerns which use it – in which a lone hero (female, in this case) defends the town (well, her sanctuary) against marauders bent on revenge, using a variety of tricks and traps based on what’s available. Not a great film, by any means, but worth a punt.

The Lion King*, Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff (1994, USA). Yes, I know. I’d never actually seen The Lion King before, and it’s not like I made a conscious decision to avoid it but since I don’t have kids it’s not the sort of film that crops up in my normal viewing. But it’s in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I decided to add it to my rental list and watched it when it dropped through the letter box. Some twenty-five years after it was released. And it has not aged well. Not well at all. I’ll not bother summarising the plot. The animation is good, although nothing especially stands out – although the scenes involving the hyenas do harken back to earlier Disney films. As does the final showdown between Simba and Scar. But the comedy is occasionally borderline for 2018, and the songs are completely unmemorable. Yes, even the most famous one. Life on the veldt is completely romanticised – lions are carrion eaters, after all – and even some of the landscape looked a bit suspect. The Lion King was massively successful, and was the second highest grossing film of all time in its year of release (it has since dropped to number 40), and I suppose that’s why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But, frankly, there are better Disney feature films, such as Bambi, which are more deserving of a place. The Lion King seems to me to be more  triumph of marketing than film-making – I remember the advertising at the time was relentless – and that’s no indication of quality. Well-marketed films do not belong in a list called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 934